A/N: Welcome to 2024. Let's hope I get more done this year than last.

This is a rather complicated chapter. Up until now, OSABC has been a deviation from the canon in a large number of ways, but the basic direction has been the same. The actors are more competent, Joker is more sassy, Shepard is a mess, but still the understanding is that you end up in a stupid endgame with no good ways to win except a literal deus ex machina.

Let's take a shotgun to that idea as well. This chapter sets up the second of the 'bruh, wtf' alterations after Saren and Benezia trading places - the Leviathans decide to take hand. Not all of them, not at first, but... well. You will see. I hope what is being done here is clear, but I am always available to answer questions in my discord.

The Editing Gang did a very bang up job on this in helping me expand, clarify and make this all make sense. Or at least more sense than it did.

Read the following authors when you get a chance, you won't regret it: SLotH4, Nolanstar, Xabiar, Pallan Minerva, Aberron, TungstenCat, Exstarsis, and YukiKazami.


"Often, I am asked how one makes a difficult decision, especially in the face of being presented with something you know is wrong and yet you have no other good alternatives. That question answers itself, for 'choice' implies that one can be made that is reasonable. Ignorant fools and those who have never loved will mouth pity tide-foams such as 'death is a choice' - but choosing to die is an act of valor, and one of individual direction. Choosing to die when it also dooms others without the chance to choose to also die is cowardice.

In the end, after all, we are alone at the moment of truth, and neither siari, nor love, nor the grace of Athame can help in those cold equations."

- Matriarch Benezia, 'No Single Raindrop Blames Itself For the Flood'

The Presidium of the Citadel was essentially a gigantic ring with the five arms attached and the Citadel Tower jutting from its center. Shepard had not spent a lot of time here in her earlier hunt for Saren, and certainly not afterwards, as the entire tacky holographic sky, too-clean environment, and green space, while beautiful, made her a mix of slightly resentful and, if she was honest with herself, overwhelmed.

Some of that was due to her upbringing – what little manners she had were the product of Preston Kyle teaching her. Her education wasn't much better – she only vaguely remembered attending the Alliance NYARC elementary school, and reading and writing had been an ongoing battle for most of her early military career. Nothing in her past had given her a lot of sophistication or polish. Frantic cramming on reading things once President Windsor had made her a noble hadn't done much to help.

The only 'good' thing that her death had brought about was she didn't have to embarrass herself with said lack of manners and education as a noble of the Alliance – she'd barely had any time to even set up her house, after all. The fact remained that no matter how she cut it, Shepard knew that she wasn't exactly refined.

Liara was refined, of course, but in Liara's own mind she compared herself to figures like her mother and Thana T'Armal, who'd been operating at the highest levels of upper-crust asari society for literally centuries. A comparison that in Shepard's mind was nonsense, but there it was. That still left Liara with a lot more social training and manners than Shepard had picked up in the streets of the NYARC or in the military. Shepard could always rely on her to support her and try to use their own shared memories to guide her…

But as she slowly approached the section of the Presidium restaurant where she had been invited, her heart slowly sank. This was even more opulent and overdone than the Council areas, towering villas and rank upon rank of gleaming white estates mixed in with fancy looking shops and restaurants. Elegant towers jutted out from the walls, alight with pale blue shimmers of eezo-radiance. The little foot traffic around was mostly asari in rich dresses and shawls, mixed with the occasional turian in clan robes and armor. Expensive groundcars or sleek aircars moved with silent excess, and C-SEC was everywhere.

The Paragon Restaurant, as it turned out from a quick search on her omni-tool during the walk, was quite possibly the single most expensive restaurant off of Thessia. An average meal cost over five thousand credits, they had wines and cordials that ran to half a million credits for a single bottle, and it was the kind of place that High Lords, the Thirty, and the SIX used when they deigned to eat on the Citadel.

It dominated the avenue, perched almost obdurately right in the flow of traffic, elegant wooden lattices inlaid with gray-green vines and white flowers framing it, the main mass a dark white stone trimmed in blackened steel filigrees. Shepard picked out at least three heavily augmented guards, a sniper, and an STG agent. A shift in Liara's attention pointed out two Blackwatch off to one side chatting with an AIS agent.

A quartet of more security – these at least in tailored coats, but all of them turians, big and powerful – flanked the front entrance, which was a shallow arch of white metal with delicate pale white lights leading into a broad foyer. A data tablet inset into a podium was manned by an asari wearing a sheer white and silver gown, with pale green facial markings, who bowed as they entered.

"Welcome to the Paragon, Baroness Shepard, Lady Liara. There is a table reservation already prepared for your party, in the private dining area." As she spoke another asari came from the right around a doorway, smiling. "If you would follow C'theya, they can get you seated and present the wine list."

Shepard let Liara take the lead, who calmly nodded and tapped her debit card to the podium, before taking Sara's hand and following the server. "In asari culture, a fee of 'grace' is presented as you enter the restaurant. The higher the amount, the more consideration one expects from the staff." Liara murmured.

Shepard just nodded, and Liara smiled at her confusion that she felt across the link. "I am aware you were not much of a participant in fine restaurant dining, Sara."

Sara shrugged. "I'm just amazed that somehow your people made the whole tipping culture thing worse, marazul."

The asari inclined her head, confusion in her voice. "Tipping culture...?"

Shepard grinned sourly. "In human restaurants, you're expected to tip the waiter for service, and how much you tip is hotly debated, since most restaurant staff aren't paid enough. It's mostly the reverse, good service gets a good tip, but some people choose not to tip at all."

Liara shook her head. "That is so backwards as to approach insanity, Sara. Restaurant staff are some of the highest paid employees in the Asari Republics – who would want a meal prepared and served by those who are bitter and upset?"

They entered the main dining area, which was opulent to a level that was almost unreal – hardwood floors in an intricate pattern of spiraling and interlocking tiles, walls of silvery-white wood and more silver filigree lit by eezo lamps. Oval tables with expensively dressed people talking softly filled most of the space, a salarian in a white robe playing some kind of complicated keyed instrument which created soft musical sounds echoing gently in the area.

The hostess led them past these to an alcove doorway, the doorway itself framed with a kinetic sound-dampening screen. The table within was a pure white wood, the edge carved in fantastical geometric swooping cartouches and glyphs Shepard didn't recognize. The bench seating around it was curved, white wood and pale gray leather, stitched finely with silver thread.

Liara sat down gracefully, and Shepard followed her lead, only listening as her wife talked to the hostess, ordering a pair of Thessian silver-wines and a plate of finchess, a kind of asari fish. As the hostess departed, the kinetic barrier thumped into place, cutting off the sounds from outside.

Shepard exhaled. "Still pretty much in the dark as to what this… Augur… would want with me, Li."

The asari nodded, the dim light above catching the edges of her eye implant's frame. "As am I. I did not have much time for independent research in my time alone – and the little that I did was in futile attempts to stabilize myself or Telanya – but the ugly fact remains that there is little good in a high official of the Batarian Empire wanting to talk to you. Especially in the light of knowing that the Empire has possession of a Reaper derelict."

Liara leaned back slightly, her voice musing. "I did discover an ugly occurrence, however, that may shed some light into this. The terrorist group HADES – the follow-on, I suppose, to the old Cerberus – discovered a Reaper derelict in orbit around a gas giant."

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose. "Oh boy. Let me guess, shit went south in a hurry."

Liara's lips quirked. "My source for this information was a Broker agent who had a contact inside the Alliance's Engineering Command. A subgroup of that command was sent to investigate the site after some Alliance forces found a derelict HADES vessel adrift and full of husks. The details were not all entirely known to the agent, but from what he did discover, the site had gone dark, and the Alliance team trying to recover it suffered heavy casualties."

Shepard frowned. "What happened to the Reaper?"

Liara shrugged. "The Alliance didn't want the Citadel to know HADES had been researching something on the sly and not telling them, I suppose. For whatever reasons, they pushed the derelict into the gas giant it was orbiting and left with minimal salvage. My point is that from what the agent described, even a 'dead' Reaper can indoctrinate, create husks and even combine them, like the ones you encountered on Horizon."

Shepard bit her lip. "You think the Batarians have a fuck-up they need cleaned up? Tall order."

Liara spread her hands. "I cannot imagine any other reason why they would reach out to you, directly, and specifically. The Empire cannot – openly and publicly, at least – deal with the Citadel Council, after all. There are almost certainly channels of communication, both through the Terminus Systems and various other methods, as well as infrequent direct contact, but it is still a relationship fraught with distrust. And it is unlikely that the Citadel Council or… other parties… would be cooperative in letting the batarians retain anything they found."

Shepard sighed. "Whereas we are just concerned with the coming fight with the Reapers and might look the other way if there's something in it for us? I hate that reasoning, Li." She held up a hand, as she felt her wife's spike of irritation. "Not saying you're wrong, hon. Just, there's already a lot of shit I've had to overlook, and adding more to it makes me feel, ugh. Dirty."

Before Liara could answer, the hostess returned, with a plate of small fish sections and two glasses, and a single bottle of blue liquid. Her voice was quiet as she set them down. "We have been informed that both Senator Adkins and the batarian guest are on their way, gracious ladies. Is there anything else you need?"

Shepard glanced around, then shrugged. "Nah, thanks."

She bowed and left, while Liara poured drinks. "In asari culture, a third party never pours the drinks to prevent things like poison being added. Asari play this off as 'hospitality' when it is in fact paranoid traditions of harsher times. In the modern era, you poison the food, not the drinks." She gave a thin, sad smile. "It has been… a long time since I needed to use any of the social training that my mother gave me."

Shepard winced at the flare of old pain that produced. The asari wine was sweetish, tasting faintly like apples in a way, and strong. "I guess I should say some shit like at least you have some good memories of your mom, but I get it. It's all kind of tainted. Like… With Rachel, for me. Both of us were being shaped and used for shit we didn't even see." She sipped the wine again. "I guess, though, at least Benezia stopped herself at the end. Unlike Rachel."

Liara ate a piece of the fish, her expression somber. "I have never really had the… down time, I suppose, to process the loss as I should. The Remembrance turned out to be false. And as you said, Sara – her death was her own choice, and I am proud that at the end she turned away from the Reaper darkness. That alone, however, does not remove all the other scars, and words, and bad memories." She sipped her wine as well. "As for after… the mess with Ylana, the house… then the Normandy and you dying…" She trailed off, drinking from her wine.

Her voice was softer when she continued, glancing at Shepard. "Now that the long waking nightmare of the last two years has passed, and we are… if not whole, or sane, or healed, at least together, taking time to think about her death seems like wasting time I should be spending on something more productive."

Shepard shrugged. "I mean, productivity isn't always what needs to get done in order to make it through the day, Liara. Shit, I can tell myself all day Umlor and Chresi V was done to send the message, but it was more about me venting my anger and hate and loss – at losing you – and wanting to do anything to make the pain lessen than 'productive'."

She sipped the wine again. "Fancy ass restaurants and expensive clothes aside, your mother helped shape you. Granted, she drove you away, and harassed you and eventually went nuts, but pretending her death didn't affect you and ignoring it doesn't make you more 'productive'. If David Anderson turned out to be crooked or something and I had to kill him…" She shook her head. "I'm not sure I'd ever 'be over it', you know?"

There was a faint chime, and the kinetic barrier fell, admitting an older human male. His suit was a white double-breasted cut, with very pale gray lapels and cuffs, over a dark gray shirt sans tie. He wore a white felt hat, and leaned on a cane of dark white wood. His features were aged and lined, but his expression was genteel and smiling, the dark eyes, under snowy white brows, calm and benevolent.

Shepard felt herself relax just looking at the guy, and he chuckled faintly as he sat down. "Goodness me, I can't say I ever expected to sit down in a nice place like this with you, Baroness. My name is Adkins, the senior senator from the United States. A NYARC boy, truth be told." His accent was a bizarre mix of New York Brooklyn and, somehow, the deep South, and just listening to it made Shepard smile despite herself.

She nodded, as did Liara. "Never expected to be here myself, Senator Adkins. I'm a little confused as to the reason for this dinner and meeting, to be honest."

Adkins set his cane and hat aside, smiling and pulling out a padd that he laid to one side. "It's rather complicated. There's a part that involves the Alliance, of course – the cover story, so to speak, if anyone asks. And then there is the real reason, which – if you don't mind – would make a lot more sense and be easier to follow if we wait for our other guest to get here."

Liara frowned, but then shrugged. "Shall I order you something to drink then? Or an appetizer?"

He shook his head. "I already told the nice young lady outside to bring me a drink." He pulled the padd in front of him. "To lead off, Baroness, the Alliance side of things. I know a lot of dealing with the High Lords and Alliance military High Command was done, but the rest of the Alliance government wasn't exactly brought up to snuff on events."

Shepard tilted her head. "Events?"

He chuckled. "Parliament got a brief on who you really were and the Alliance military response after the mess on Ilium. Commissars had a bit to say as well. Neither Parliament nor the Ministerial Board was fully read in, and plenty of people are pretty pissed. While I won't claim you were universally approved of, more than a few Senators and the like were fans."

He tapped the padd. "Now, finally, Emperor Nikoru has given us a briefing regarding y'all, but that old boy's never been entirely sane if you ask me, and frankly the entire mess sounded like a week old shit sandwich. The line seems to be that the issue is a 'lord's problem' and they're handling it, but I am guessing it ain't because of our upright actions and high moral values that led you to join a group like Cerberus."

At Shepard's arched eyebrow, he chuckled. "I know, an oversimplification. You get a lot of that in politics. I doubt it was your choice to work for Cerberus, but we really don't know." He leaned back in the chair. "I'd like to hear the truth about a few things, and then I can try to spin this in a way that works for both of us. And if there's things you need to get your job done, I can work towards that as well."

He smiled before Shepard could speak. "And before you ask why I think I can help, I'm on several committees. I know about the Reapers, and I am in full agreement that political games can wait until we aren't under the threat of genocidal angry robots ruining all the damned things."

Shepard nodded slowly. "By 'hear the truth', you have something specific to ask?"

Adkins' expression turned wry. "Not the things you're probably thinking about. Two things, really, in particular. One's vital, the other is kind of a curiosity." He waited, as the kinetic barrier lowered and the hostess brought in a mixed drink for him, then spoke to her. "Excuse me, ma'am, but can you bring us an air-filter unit? Pretty sure the Baroness here would like a smoke and so would I."

The asari bowed her head briefly, and reached up to the paneled wall, sliding aside part of it to pull down an air purification unit, and two ashtrays. After she departed and the barrier went back up, Adkins pulled out a cigar and lit it.

"First question is simple enough. Call it the ugly side of politics. I'm sure, if you got the High Lords to bend over like a bunch of Eldfell courtesans, that you must have some really nasty blackmail on them, and probably the Alliance as a whole. I trust you grasp releasing such in the middle of this mess could be… disadvantageous to the Alliance's ability to perform war-fighting."

Shepard gave him a direct look. "I'm not brain dead or stupid, if that is what you're asking. Some of the shit is so vile that it could very well start a civil war." Her eyes narrowed further. "And I'm pretty sure they had Kyle killed to keep it quiet. It's probably why I was set up to die, too."

Liara's voice was cool. "Along with several other Lords of Sol, military officials, and the like. The acts of other star nations are no better, of course. Our actions – or lack thereof – should not be seen as tolerance of these acts, only the bitter acceptance of what you just stated, that acting on such at this time would be… 'disadvantageous' indeed."

Adkins sipped his drink, his New York accent, bizarrely mixed with a Southern one, coming off as amused in tone. "I sorta figured. So, here's my deal, so to speak. I work, indirectly and directly, for Lord Jason Coleman, the head of House Coleman. After all the shit that came out in some kind of investigation report into Charles Saracino, combined with the mess with the asari lord and Jason's clashes with… other forces, he ended up handing off being Prime Minister to Addison not too long ago. Wasn't worth, as he put it, dirtying up his morals."

Shepard frowned. "Asari lord...?"

A sharp chuckle. "Yeah, a handful that one. Baroness Risara Tasilea. Clanless. It's a bit of a mess. She's some kind of... outcast, not sure about all the details. What matters is that we're taking a much harder look at lines being taken about a lot of things. You included."

Shepard nodded slowly and he continued. "Coleman's the kind of man who likes his answers like his whiskey, neat and straight. At the same time, it was pretty clear that investigating things directly would just end up with people getting killed. He's fairly sure that he's not the only one thinking along the lines that the situation with the High Lords is deteriorating, and that maybe focus isn't being put on the places it should be. He's not reached out to anyone, but like I said, he's probably not alone in his thinking."

Shepard glanced at Liara, then shrugged. "I don't exactly mingle with the High Lords, you know."

The senator puffed on the cigar. "I do get that. I also get that a group of people had a mighty interestin' conversation with you two just before you got invited to dinner. Now, the situation in the Alliance is kind of a mess. There's a reason Coleman is interested in how it all goes down, and now that we know who we're dealing with, I think he'd like a chance to talk at you direct like. Of course, there's the issue that you are kind of lost right now and may not have the best opinion of us all. I'm damn sure that if Jack Harper is getting his fucking details from that Minsta clown, he's not up on what's really going on, so I'd like to explain a few things."

The senator's smile widened. "Basically, your coming back from the dead has a lot of people worried. You knew shit before you went down to your grave, things that made a few of the High Lords nervous. Other Lords and High Lords, and some military and other figures who have put two and two together, are not on board with whatever crazy, sick shit Kyle found out about that got him killed. Some of the High Lords and Lords – Simons, Kinnix, Camara, Dragunov – were not even read in on most of it, and were lied to about it."

He puffed on his cigar. "Coleman – and others no doubt – don't need this pile of mess at the time when we need to be focused on Reapers, but ignoring it in the long run isn't optimal either."

He dumped his ashes. "The cards fall where they will. If we can somehow win this fight, get to a state where Reapers are beat, the chances are the galaxy is gonna be in very sorry shape. Tens of billions dead, planets destroyed, lots of confusion and chaos. Lots of loss of shipping and a lot of starving, desperate people. And desperate people will listen to anyone who offers to fix things."

Shepard sighed. "That much is obvious even to me. The point, Senator."

"The point, Baroness, is after it's all said and done, is the question – what are you gonna do to fix it all? Because it is very, very likely the Lords – or rather, Manswell, Chu, al-Saud, and that lot – have plans to recreate humanity in their perfected ideal using that confusion and chaos. The military forces of the Alliance itself will be destroyed or at best, badly tattered, and the rest of the galaxy is likely to be focused on their own problems."

He leaned back, puffing the cigar. "So what do you plan to do?"

She shrugged. "Honestly, I haven't given it that much thought. I have no clue how the fuck we defeat the Reapers, planning for what comes after seems pointless – and I mean, situations change so much plans might be useless. Nor am I very sure I'll be in a place to fix anything. I might die doing this, or be in a situation where all of Cerberus's strength is depleted. Besides, the Reapers are the biggest problem right now."

His smile turned sardonic. "I know you won't believe me, but once our other guest arrives, he'll explain why the Reapers are much less of a problem than you think."

Liara tilted her head. "Would that be related to the derelict Reaper the Batarian Hegemony recovered prior to the attack on Eden Prime, the one that an Alliance black-ops unit tried and failed to recover?"

He chuckled. "My my my, you are good, little lady." He dumped his ashes. "The answer is no, not really. It has its place, but not, I assure you, what you think it might be. As for the question itself, well, Jason is the kind of guy who doesn't think waiting around for something to blow up is the smartest move. Knowing where you stand on this lets him know what he needs to do on his end; to move us, the Alliance, humanity, to a better place. If we win."

Shepard frowned. "I'm not much for spitballing ideas when I have no clue how to get to a situation. I've always tried to make the call that works. Sometimes that cost me lives because I wasn't given choices, or I was put into a bad situation. Other times, I've had the flexibility to do things the right way, and even when that happens you can still lose people."

She picked up a bit of fish and ate it. "I'm gonna be blunt and say the shit I've already found out – about the way the Alliance itself was founded, and the Days of Fire and Iron – isn't really endearing to me to the idea of the Lords of Sol running things once this is done. I get that some of them have done a lot of good things. Some of them never played a role in what I found out. Others are the only reason their planets made it through the FCW. Coleman never struck me as a bad guy, and as fucked up as the NYARC was there were plenty of worse places I saw."

She glanced down, then back up at the man in white. "But I don't like the idea of people having some kind of innate right to make the choices that define our lives without them having both earned it and a way to remove them when they fuck it up. Seeing the edges of it from the inside pissed me off. A colony that had run itself just fine – and without any help from the Alliance at all – was told they had to kowtow to my every whim and decision when I didn't know the first fucking thing about any of it. Finance, land management, investments – I get that I could have gotten advisors and all that, but it still came down to a man who'd spent twenty years building that world could have lost it all to some idiot not willing to work with them and there was nothing he could have done. Even the best Lords are the beneficiaries of a system that doesn't punish them when they fuck up and gives them all the rewards."

Liara spoke then, nodding. "With my experience of, as Sara put it, being on the inside of the Houses of the Thirty… a great deal of inequality, and evil, and divisiveness exists only to prop up and support the mighty to rule over the disadvantaged and weak. We are currently engaged in trying to prepare to fight for our lives against an ancient threat, one that has destroyed every single cycle since a time where Thessia was covered by simple animals. And the largest block to cooperation is the internecine bickering of those in power. I have seen enough of the dark side of the extranet and heard enough truth to realize that retaining a caste of people with inherited power enshrined in a society at the basic level is a pathway that can lead only to further abuse."

Adkins nodded, sipping the wine. "I'm not gonna try to engage in agreement or nuance. But what do you replace it all with, Baroness? A brutal dictatorship? Open democracy?"

Shepard shook her head. "I'm not really getting why you expect me to have an answer."

Adkins smiled. "In the aftermath of the Battle of the Citadel in the Benezia Incident, were you expecting to be put on the spot about who would be the Councilor for the Systems Alliance? Or to be the one, earlier, to make the call for how the entire Alliance fleet should respond? You are already a product of a certain level of propaganda. You and your actions have already captured the attention of the galaxy. Your involvement has already directly or indirectly led to shattering the Batarian Hegemony, the Geth War, in the destruction of Umlor, the fall of Ganar Okeer, and bringing together both the Palavanus and Matriarch Uressa to demand change from the Citadel."

He puffed the cigar. "If you're going to sit here and say that you and your actions won't have a huge role in the coming days, or that given your new Cerberus has Vigil acting behind the scenes and is likely to get the entire database of whatever the Shadow Broker knows once you destroy that organization, well…"

Liara gave a frown. "It is not a concept either of us has had a very clear mind to pursue in depth, Senator. As we were discussing when you arrived, Sara has only been 'awake' a few months, and the past two years were certainly not conducive to my own mental health."

Adkins nodded in return. "I do understand that, Lady Liara. And while empty sympathy doesn't ever benefit anyone, I'll say that putting you under the spotlight like this a few days after you found out the other person wasn't actually dead isn't really optimal either. But I asked that question because I wanted you to think about it very hard. Not just because you haven't – you've got time after all – but the proposal that you're going to hear touches on it in a lot of ways."

Sara shrugged. "You said you had two questions. Let's say the answer to your first one is this: unless I suddenly get made into bitch queen of the galaxy at the end of this mess, I'm inclined to work with whatever I have and kill anyone who fucks it up. If Coleman is the only one with enough fucking brains to do that it's less likely I'll blow his head off at the end. What was the other question?"

The senator's eyes met hers, calmly and with a touch of sadness. "Having experienced all the loss and pain you have, in losing everything – are you really willing to lose it all again, if that is what it takes to stop the Reapers?"

Shepard sat there for a bit. She could feel irritation, fear, and a mix of shame and bitterness from Liara, and she winced at that, but finally spoke, her tone tired. "I'd like to tell myself that I would. That my impulses have shown I don't fucking think about the cost to myself and those I love, and that it will end up costing them – and me – everything one day. I could have… done a lot of things differently. I could have sacrificed the remaining crew of the Normandy to get away. I could have gotten myself – and Liara – killed saving those orphans."

She exhaled. "There's a right way to do things. Putting myself in front of the lives of billions of people – people who never asked to be in a situation they're in, victims powerless to change their fate one way or the other – isn't something I do, because for a very long time I never put any value into myself. I had no real fear of death because I had nothing to lose until I met Liara… and when it came down to it I ended up being willing to throw away my own life more than once trying to do what was right."

She grimaced as more shame flared from her wife, and took her hand, squeezing it. "The problem with that thinking, Senator, is that in reading the aftermath of my death it became very much apparent to me that my act hadn't fixed anything. It was used to set into motion events that I feel were more used to prop up the very fucking people who sent me off to die than in preparing for the threat, it cost those I cared about and loved almost everything they had."

She looked back up. "They put my father figure in an insane asylum to shut him up. They used my death to prop up a war against the Geth that got hundreds of thousands killed. They framed my friends and crew for being involved and ignored the real culprit. They cashiered my old CO, ruined the life of my president and his daughter, and turned my name and image into some kind of fuckass propaganda tool."

"I can only imagine what kind of idiot-tea drinking bullshit they'll do with whatever I end up having to do to stop the Reapers. I know, better than anyone else, that there's a cost to doing the right thing. It's a cost that I always paid, and that I only now realize that I paid it expecting something that I never actually achieved – to have those costs and sacrifices matter to the people I answered to."

She looked at Liara, who squeezed her hand back. "If you're asking me if I'm willing to die to stop the Reapers from killing us all, that's kind of a redundant and frankly dumbass question. Nazara was very clear when we talked to him that they wanted us all dead. That to them we're insects, or below that – that we couldn't even comprehend why they were doing this. If I'm going to die no matter what, then yeah, I'd like my death to at least have some kind of… value. If I have to lose it all again, I want that loss to at least matter."

She paused, then lit a cigarette of her own. "In the long run, though… if it came down to actual choices that could matter, I'm not throwing away my life a second time without a very good reason."

Adkins nodded slowly. "You saving the orphans, for example. I heard one of that big turian's support engineers chatting earlier. If you'd not gone in when you had that conduit would have killed all those kids. I'd think clean cut choices like that wouldn't be that hard to make."

Shepard's smile grew crooked. "The problem, as I've had pointed out to me, is two-fold. The first problem is that if I die, a lot of shit goes down the drain. I trust the Citadel to get shit done not at all, and most of the star nations even less. There's other factors, too. The second issue is more pressing, in my mind."

She took a drag from her cigarette. "The ugly reality is that in the war against the Reapers I'm probably going to have to make some sickening calls. As my friend Garrus put it, deciding five million die over here to save ten million over there. I don't want to have to be the one who decides that. I don't want to be the person who chooses that. But I really doubt I'll have clean cut choices like risking my life to save orphans. It will be shit where every choice I make gets people killed. If I sacrifice my life trying to save others, it won't fucking change that fact. And at the end of the day? I can't trust the fuckers in power to make the right call or the right choices. So I'm stuck with what I've got."

After a moment the Senator nodded. There was something in his eyes she didn't like, a sort of measuring and approval – of what, she didn't know. Before she could speak, however, the kinetic barrier fell again.

The figure standing there was large, towering over the asari server. He wore silken black robes that parted to reveal a tunic of black leather, with black pants and boots. His face was covered by a white bone mask, with complex batarian script on it, and his long white hair fell below his shoulders. He made a dismissive motion to the server, his voice cold, crisp and cool in speaking trade asaric with no accent.

"A single glass of turian fire cordial." He watched her leave, then sat down across from Shepard and Liara. "…so. This is the figure that struck fear into the Fist of Khar'shan."

Shepard gritted her teeth, but forced herself to speak normally. "I guess so. Liara says you're some kind of fancy religious figure in the Empire. Not sure what you would want to talk about."

The Augur glanced at the table. "That is something I will clarify once the food arrives. I presume that the Senator has not touched on the actual topic of the meeting, yet?"

Adkins smiled. "Not yet. Been chit-chatting about internal Alliance things."

The batarian's head tilted to the right. "I fail to see the point. The Alliance is much like the former Hegemony, a distraction and cover for the forces in real control and power. The Manswell family is unlikely to not use the situation to further their grip over your people."

The server returned – with another asari, who brought in plates of food. Sara arched an eyebrow, but then shrugged – it wasn't like she'd know what to order anyway, and as expensive as this place was it was almost certain the food would be good. Liara's plate was fish with some kind of blue-leaf salad and fruits, while her own was a steak, potatoes, some kind of rice and a small apple cobbler.

The batarian waited until the food was placed, then spoke. "Leave us. We will call if we need service. Do not re-enter until summoned." The hostess nodded and the two left, the curtain coming back up.

With a single, short gesture the batarian took off the bone mask, drawing a flare of alarm from Liara. The features behind it were cruel – skin that was a dead white color, framing a harshly alien face, wrinkled deeply with age. The four eyes were dark black, the mouth a cruel line. He set the mask down, his voice now crisp and clear. "Eat."

Liara's voice was strained. "I was under the impression that it was a sin against the Dark Gods for the Imperial Caste to show their faces to non-batarians."

Reading expressions of batarians wasn't always easy, but Sara was pretty sure he was dismissive. "Rules are for those who must obey their betters. They exist for a reason, and can be set aside for a higher, more important reason. To answer your question, Shepard – I am the Augur. My name is utterly unimportant, for I am little more than an extension of the Emperor's will."

He undid the silk napkin holding his silverware, an amused note entering his voice. "And the reason we are meeting is that it is time the actual truth is revealed to you, and the plans of those who have been watching this hilarity unfold are made clear."

Adkins sighed softly, cutting his own food. "This is going to be rather difficult to accept. It will probably sound insane, but I wish to caution you that it is not." He gestured at her plate. "Might as well eat, explaining this will be… tricky."

The Augur ate a bite of food – some kind of stuffed pepper – then spoke after swallowing. "I will begin with a question. The threat facing the galaxy is the Reapers. What do you know of them?"

Shepard frowned, and used the opportunity to cut a bite of steak off and eat it to gather her thoughts. The batarian wasn't acting like a sexist asshole – and the idea that this was something very important and not some trick was making her cautious.

Still, she wasn't going to go into this without asking questions. "Why does it matter?"

The batarian smiled. "For the same reason that when under sniper fire, one looks for the sniper and not the bullet. The reasons for the question will be made clear, but I need to know what you do and do not grasp concerning the situation."

Shepard shrugged. She could feel bafflement from Liara, but also curiosity, and admitted to herself that she was expecting more sneering and insults and less information from this batarian, so she might as well play along.

"Not a lot. Nazara said that there were many like him, and he said something like each one was a nation. Liara figured out they'd been doing this shit of invading the galaxy and wiping all the star-faring races out for more than sixty million years. Another… asset of mine says he found evidence Reapers also blew the hell out of some other races that weren't space-faring, meaning there's some kind of criteria they're looking for."

She paused. "Liara's mother Benezia and Saren both talked a lot of shit about how their work with the Reapers would be rewarded, and it's pretty obvious that the Collectors are the Sethani who surrendered in the last Cycle. Vigil says there's thousands of these things, and they have the ability to bend some of the laws of time and space – no details around that."

Adkins and the Augur traded glances at the mention of Benezia – the Augur's mouth quirked into a smirk, while Adkins just shook his head. "What else?"

"We know that they can indoctrinate people and make them into slaves or go crazy and turn people into… husks. Other than that, we're pretty much in the dark. I know a lot of the races are studying bits of whatever was left of Nazara after it blew up to try to understand Reaper tech but that has its own dangers." Shepard cut a bite of food and ate it. "Other than that? Fuckers aren't real big on exposition and shit."

The batarian nodded once. "Just so. To clarify, there is more to the Reapers than they have said. The Reapers are vast bio-mechanical beings. Their core is the biological remains of an entire species reconfigured into a cybernetic computer, inside a set of battle armor that is modeled after the shape of the species that originally created the Reapers to begin with. Each Reaper is defined by how talented and flexible the species that made it were – lessers for average species, greater for those who were more powerful."

The Augur drank and smiled faintly. "The division between 'lesser' and 'greater' has less to do with the hardware of their form and more to do with their potential. The Inusannon device is correct, some Reapers do have a skill in tampering with the laws of nature, but only the 'greater' ones."

Shepard felt a line of ice go up her spine, and Liara's alarm was hot across the bond. "How… how can you know this? Who created them, how—?"

The Augur's smile was almost a smirk. "That will be explained shortly. For now… simply understand that the Reapers are exactly what they claimed. Each one, the combined intellect of an entire space-faring species, at least as advanced or even more so than our own. Matching your intellect against such creatures is akin to an insect trying to out-think an exterminator."

Shepard felt like she'd been doused in icy water, her mind going back to the cruel, hateful and unnatural voice of Nazara on Virmire, the bleakly final dismissive certainty in its voice.

The batarian's voice didn't shift tone as he continued. "The Reaper goal has almost nothing to do at all with what a species does. Their operational lifespan is measured in millions of years, and their operations are designed to maintain a constant tap of power from various galaxies and their stars to maintain an energy field that conceals the Reapers from a far more powerful enemy. They come every fifty thousand years to create more Reapers from extant races, but more critically, to move and alter the positions of the relay system – which is what they use to tap the stars – to avoid overuse and the creation of… stress points in the fabric of space and time."

Liara's eyes were wide and Shepard felt her confusion matching her own, but Adkins spoke then, his voice soft. "The Reapers were originally the servitor species that were ruled by a far greater species. They were created to serve as foot soldiers and distractions to help fight a powerful entity that… invaded our universe. But there were issues – the process of making the first Reapers left them disoriented and what we might consider insane, and there were treacheries and double-crosses going on. The Reapers and their coordinator rebelled against their creators and abandoned them to their deaths, fleeing here to hide from the enemy."

The Augur smiled, displaying needle-like teeth. "And they built the energy field he spoke of to hide from the enemy. They have slowly expanded, adding more and more Reapers to their force, biding their time until they have a force and numbers sufficient to be sure of victory over this enemy – at which time they will attack en masse. And once the enemy is destroyed, they will rule the universe."

Sara's voice was strained. "How could you know any of this?"

Adkins smiled. "Earlier, I said I work for Lord Coleman. That's just the surface. The truth is the race that created the Reapers isn't all dead, Shepard. I work for one of them, and the Augur works for another."

Shepard frowned. "You 'work' for them? How?"

Adkins' smile faded a bit. "I realized a long time ago that we had a lot of problems, in the Alliance and with our species, and no one was doing anything to fix it. And no, it's not something that's simple to explain. I may discuss how it all happened at a later date, my dear. What is important is that the being I work for is ancient - billions of years old, and powerful beyond your wildest beliefs."

Liara's voice was almost flat with a mix of confusion, disbelief, and shock. "What?"

Adkins' voice was still soft and calm. "I said this would be a lot to take in, didn't I? My boss has been… interacting with Earth, and humanity, since before homo sapiens even developed. He has shaped humanity over the years, protecting us from certain events. The details, well, they don't really matter right now. What does matter is that some of the most powerful and skilled of the creators survived. The Reapers aren't really aware of that, they think only a few weak survivors managed to flee. My boss and his both have plans, and while up to this point the Reapers have been a useful resource, if they get too much stronger they could be a threat to my boss's own plans. So… they have to go." Adkins sounded almost sardonic as he sipped his drink.

Shepard fixed him with a very direct look. In her own head, she was in a mix of something akin to shock, and confusion. Liara, she could feel through the bond, was skeptical. Shepard wasn't sure she could believe something like this.

Then again, she thought ruefully, if someone had told me I'd be fighting ancient AI death robots after coming back from the dead and working with Cerberus I'd disbelieve that shit too.

She focused on keeping her expression and her voice as calm and steady as possible. "Do you have any kind of proof of what you are saying, Senator? I do get that it's unlikely a high batarian… whatever you are… and a senator from the Alliance would come here to play an elaborate practical joke at my expense, but I have a hard time buying you're here from the local star gods to pitch me on joining your cult."

The Augur appeared to find this amusing, while Adkins sighed. "My boss is going to adore you. If you would, my friend?"

The Augur withdrew something from his robes – a gleaming, opalescent orb, softly glowing with iridescence in a flickering and hypnotic pattern.

Liara's eyes widened. "My mother had one of those… a broken one, in her belongings at the Negation fueling station…"

The batarian's smile revealed black, needle-like teeth. "Your mother was meddling with forces far beyond her comprehension or understanding. Her lack of vision is what led her to become corrupted and to fall. This device is a method for communication and a… conduit for the power we have been entrusted. For reasons not explained to us mere servants, our masters are interested in you. Shepard."

Shepard felt a sort of tension, a vague and ugly worry at the back of her mind. "I find that kind of hard to believe. I'm hardly the only badass out there who could be doing something to fix this mess, and frankly, my chances of even stopping the Collectors doesn't look real hot."

The Augur set the orb on the table, where oddly enough it did not roll away, and tapped it once. "The Senator and I are of the same opinion. But we are hardly able to see, or grasp, or understand all the things the Dark Gods and the Senator's own master can see. So you will need to talk to them directly."

Shepard glanced at Liara. "Not that I'm saying no, but what if I don't want to do that?"

The Senator's smile was sad. The Augur's eyes were amused.

Before she could say anything, there was a voice on her internal comm-link. Vigil's voice.

"Say nothing, don't react. Use your infolink to talk. We have a very large problem, primitive."

She covered her surprise by drinking, using her infolink silently. "Vigil? I thought you stayed behind."

The voice was thin and worried. "A small subunit of my main form is embedded in your cybernetic systems to manage your nanoware. Most of the time I am so… sunk into management and my ability and bandwidth is so small that you do not even notice me. But I am connected at all times to my main unit."

The voice dropped. "The connection is severed. And if my limited temporal and other sensors are right, we've been… led… into some kind of disconnected space-time pocket. I can't tell any more except that the power levels of the thing on the table is beyond anything I've ever seen, including the entire energy output of the Citadel. I do not think these two are joking."

Shepard nodded slowly, both to herself and to the two. "Alright, how exactly do we talk to them? Doubt they're staying at the local motel."

The Augur's voice was soft. "You – and your mate – must simply touch the orb. My masters will do the rest."

Adkins' voice lanced out. "Shepard." She looked at him. "I am free-willed in my service to… my boss. And because of that, I am going to give you a warning. These beings are literal gods. They could end the entire Reaper threat in a minute. They haven't done so because it isn't to their… utility, and because there are things out there far, far worse than Reapers that might be alerted by them doing so. I'm hoping that whatever they want you for, you can convince them to act to help our Cycle. Because if you don't, well… it's been made clear this is not the first time they have tried this, and discarded the results."

Shepard grimaced and nodded. She took Liara's hand, and then touched the orb, Liara doing so a moment later.

There was a feeling of disorientation and she frowned. Then she looked up.

The room was the same, but now there were wide bay windows – looking out over a dark and sullen lake of black water, under a gray and stormy sky. The lake was pierced by huge black pillars towering hundreds of meters into the rainy expanse, with hills covered in dark gray and red moss in the distance.

Where Adkins sat there was a human male. His features were almost unnaturally perfected and even – an arrogant set to the eyes and mouth, a narrow nose. His skin was tanned, and he wore a black dress suit and a jaunty black hat. He smiled, and lifted the glass in his hand, a mint julep.

The Augur was gone also. The figure that sat in his place was dressed in unrelieved white – leather cloak, tunic, and hood. The hood itself cast the features of the person wearing into a dark shadow, but four burning orange lines sat where eyes would be placed on a batarian.

The human examined the room. "Ah, yes. I suppose a Link to Khar'shan is easier than to Sanctuary, given the distances." He glanced at Shepard and Liara. "And where are my manners? My name is best described to you as Senha-al-Lethath. For conversation, Lethath will suffice." The voice was a deep but nasal tone, almost dismissively amused. Shepard disliked it instinctively.

The other figure slowly bowed its head. Its voice was a cracked whisper, the rustle of flames. "I may be called Alti-an-Sharn. Sharn is the preferred usage." For some reason it sounded amused by something. "Speaking in this… pitiful manner does not convey the totality of what we are, but our servants should have explained that much."

Lethath leaned back in the chair, the dark black empty eyes fixed on her. "You two are not quite what I was expecting… but you fit."

Shepard blinked. "I'm sorry, but I'm a little fucking lost here. Fit what? Why are we here?"

Sharn's voice was a sharp crackle. "To plan on how to end the Reapers, now that their utility is of no further purpose to us. There is only one path to such an end, and you have a role to play."

Lethath gave a sigh. "I will try to explain as best I can. A very long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…"

Liara looked confused, but Shepard stared at him. "…really?"

Lethath's voice was definitely amused. "My other minions are so dreadfully respectful. I rarely get to amuse myself. Very well."

He lifted his hand, and Shepard and Liara… became lost. They floated, in space… somewhere. Before them, far below, were blazes of light, smears of white and gold and blue. It took Shepard almost ten seconds to realize these were entire clusters of galaxies.

She couldn't feel her body, or speak – she could still feel Liara across the bond, but they were… immaterial. Lethath's nearly sneering voice sounded in her head.

"Around the time dinosaurs went extinct on Earth, my species – whose best translation is 'the Ascended Ones' – were on the cusp of an incredible achievement. We had settled and colonized most of the visible universe. Millions of galaxies. We had advanced our understanding of science to a point that you would call 'magic.' "

They moved, at a rate far beyond light. Galaxies blurred past like stars or motes of dust, and they ended up over a binary star encircled with multiple rings of metal, huge stations that spanned millions of kilometers. Entire worlds covered in gleaming crystals, or suns smashed together as power sources. Rank after rank of floating huge planes of impossible cities of energy and glass, a billion different bizarre races… and above all…

Shepard wished she could scream, or bite her tongue. It was shaped like a Reaper, but that was akin to comparing a lion to a housecat. The thing was kilometers-long, a carapace of blackest glistening material pierced with machines and glowing runes and things she couldn't identify, and six gleaming yellowed slits she somehow knew were eyes, surveying all below it. It gestured with a tentacle the size of a dreadnought, and the star shifted colors, from green to blue to purple.

Lethath's voice was quieter. "Wonders unseen and undreamed of were mundane. Death was merely a choice, suffering a concept of fiction. Evils and dark things that threatened the peace were cast down. A thousand universes were our territory, our fuel, our property. We thrived for a billion years."

Liara's presence was panicked and scrabbling and Shepard felt her own mind buckle as she saw things she could not even explain. Nightmarish things that her vision wouldn't focus on sealed away, horrible devices locked into the cores of artificial planets. Tears in reality itself, spilling out a horde of more of the Reaper-shaped beings, conquering, using, ruling.

Sharn's voice was bitter. "And as with all such tales, our pride led us to blindness. We labored at a vast construction that would have given us power unimaginable. The power to literally shape reality itself."

The view shifted. If Shepard had a stomach in this… existence, she felt she would have vomited. A circle of metal and crystal so vast its span dwarfed multiple stars hung in space, so unimaginably gigantic she could not hope to take it all in. It fed on entire galaxies, lights of the stars darkening to brown and then black, then black holes swirling and evaporating as they too were used as fuel. A single, shimmering line of a color she could not even describe erupted, as hundreds of the Ascended watched, behind the form of one bigger than all the rest.

Sharn's voice was cold, hateful. "There were those in our society who felt unappreciated. Fools. They meddled with things best not touched, and became… corrupted. And in their corruption, they struck out at our triumph. One of our number sabotaged it, and something came through. A nightmare. A thing not of our universe, not of our understanding of physics. It slew our leader and nearly destroyed our entire culture."

Shepard's mind screamed as she felt Liara buckle at the sheer blasphemy of the thing that burst through the huge circle of metal. It was… almost indescribable, a darkness so black as to be worse than the absence of light. Light around it faded, twisted. The very fabric of reality buckled. Planets splintered. Stars melted. Time stung as she watched, as a horde of blackness, like a tide of slime spilled forth, covering everything, and then fading to blackness.

It took a good minute for Shepard to realize she was back in her body… on the floor near the table. Her wine glass had been knocked to the floor, shattered in a spray of liquid and glass shards. She voided her stomach. Liara was curled up next to her, shaking, whispering over and over in asaric.

She wiped her mouth and clamped her hand around Liara's, forcing her focus. After a moment, the asari nodded, her voice shaken. "I…" She held her head, and Shepard's own headache pulsed.

Neither of the two beings bothered to help them, Lethath calmly sipping his mint julep.

Shepard finally got them back into their seats. "Fuck… you… could have… warned us."

He shrugged. "Telling is not as effective as showing. That was the Great Enemy. For all our might, our power, our… skill – we were completely unprepared for the attack. Half the race died that moment, the rest scattered. Our military attempted to fight back but we had no time to fall back and prepare."

Liara's expression was blank but Shepard could feel her curiosity battling skepticism and the pain in her head. "This... thing attacked without reason?"

Sharn's voice was cold and dismissive. "You saw it as we did. It made no attempts to talk, only to destroy, to snuff out light and life."

Lethath shrugged. "The Great Enemy was not something we could communicate with. Its mere presence shattered minds and drove even us to gibbering terror. They were accompanied by thrall races, beings like you mortals, that slaughtered our own followers and claimed we were 'corrupted.' Ultimately, the survivors tried to regroup. The Reapers were created out of the… subject and lesser species of our empire, as we attempted to put together a coherent way to fight back."

He sighed. "It was intended as a stopgap, a way to slow the enemy to give us enough time to regroup and prepare a proper counterattack. In doing so we swiftly realized that we could not manage both fighting the Great Enemy and engineering a solution as well as creating these temporary soldiers."

Sharn smiled. "Our second undoing. We created an intelligence. One that could do what we could not, that could grasp things even beyond us. We gave it control over our resources, the Reapers, the military, so that it could find a way to fight back. At first… it worked. Faced with obliteration, many of our subject species volunteered. They were more numerous than us, if far weaker, and they distracted the Great Enemy, leading it away from our homeworld."

Lethath's voice was musing. "But losses were heavy. And the intelligence grasped that our counterattack was not going well. We could not devise a method to stop it. The intelligence itself came up with an answer: a force large enough with enough points of… power, for lack of a term you would understand, to 'trap' the Great Enemy and submerge it into a… place. A dimension from which nothing can escape or exist."

A flash of an image impacted Sara's and Liara's mind – thrashing darkness like a deranged liquid, trapped by bands of gleaming silver-green light, dragged down into… nothing, vanishing a moment later with a pulse of red energy that dissipated.

Sharn's voice was cool. "The intelligence decided that in order to accomplish this, Reapers would need to be the primary force, there simply would never be enough of our kind. And in order to build up such a force, it couldn't be wasted fighting the Great Enemy and suffering heavy losses. It needed time to build up the force… and a distraction, to get away. So it betrayed us, sacrificing us to flee and leaving us behind to be overwhelmed. It gave the Great Enemy the location of our homeworld, by triggering a vast use of power it could detect and track. We were… not prepared. Most of us died."

There was a flicker of some kind, as if for a moment reality itself blinked off. Shepard shook her head and glanced at Liara, who was pale and shaking. She found her voice a second later. "And… you… got away?"

Lethath nodded. "A few, like myself, fled. Most of those who have fled have died or been captured by the Great Enemy. For various reasons – none important to the task at hand – we ended up here. The Reapers' goal – to create a force capable of destroying the Great Enemy – has taken a very long time to come about, but it is finally close to the mark. Close enough that we must act now, before the combined Reaper force becomes too strong for us to destroy once it is done with the Great Enemy."

Sharn's voice was amused. "'Now' is relative. The next few million years."

Shepard stared at him for a long second, then pinched the bridge of her nose. "And so we just… are what? Building supplies?" She balled up her fists. "No wonder Nazara said we were a harvest and couldn't understand…"

Liara's voice was soft and strained. "You said that each Reaper is the remains of, of an entire species? How many lives have been spent in this mad endeavor? How many trillions have been slain to empower your revenge?"

Sharn's tone was more amused now, the rustling voice rising a bit in volume. "You misapprehend the nature of the Enemy, mortal. It does not belong here. Its very presence warps space-time. It destroys photonic light, it twists and corrupts life into a cancerous shadow. In our war against it, it destroyed hundreds of galaxies, quadrillions of beings, for the crime of being different than itself. It is a creature of madness and corruption, and the thralls under it are neither alive nor allowed the dignity of death. The longer it stays, the more warped the universe's very underlying structure becomes. Given enough time, the entire universe will be torn to pieces, and everything in it destroyed."

The dark voice trailed off, then continued. "We have observed it for many eons, now. Any species that attracts its attention, it destroys – and all that is about and around them. In destroying its darkness, in removing its blight from reality, you expect us to recoil from the cost? Better a few die than all."

Liara's good eye narrowed, but despite the anger pouring across their bond, kept her mouth shut. Shepard found herself nodding, in spite of her wife's incandescent outrage. The sheer appearance of the 'great enemy' was somehow fundamentally wrong on every level. "Li, like it or not, he's got a point. Garrus and I can go on about letting five million die here to save ten million over there. Same kind of fucked up math that makes me want to puke, but what other options are there?"

She turned to Lethath. "Not seeing where little tiny mortals like us play a role in this mess."

Lethath sipped his drink, his expression sardonic. "As I said, we 'survived.' Not without injury or cost. I myself was… comatose for millions of years. Many more died, and all of us were refugees. Without resources, or our tools, or even food in some cases. All of those who practiced what you would call medicine died, as did most of our military. It's possible we could have acted sooner. But the first time we did, it nearly got us all killed."

He put the mint julep down. Shepard's eyes widened as it refilled itself. Lethath's voice was amused. "As powerful as we are, we are not… actual gods. I was perhaps the last scientist and technocrat left of my entire race, and it fell to me alone to devise a method to stop the Great Enemy. I had to spend millions of years to find a solution to the problem, to find a path that would allow us to actually destroy the Great Enemy."

Liara sounded angry. "But you still have a great amount of power! There must have been a more…" She paused. "A method that didn't cost the lives of so many. Or do you simply not care?"

Lethath chuckled. "I won't pretend to be benevolent and say any of my kind cared." He paused. "Except, perhaps Ekkho. But this was never the ideal situation – giving our secrets and weapons to others had never been done before. And most of my early attempts were in trying to defeat the Great Enemy ourselves. But… the truth is much harsher than our wishes. Sharn and those like him, former soldiers – like you, Shepard – are still so badly wounded that they can barely bestir themselves." He smiled. "And while we are powerful, the Enemy cast down our strongest in an instant. We do not have the power to fight the foe ourselves."

Shepard's voice was laced with disgust. "So instead you let your Reapers murderfuck everyone and turn them into more Reapers. And you are acting now because there's just enough of them to get the job done, and then you kill them off and… what? Take over again?"

Sharn's voice was muted. "Your outrage is curious, mortal. I believe Nazara should have already enlightened you to the nature of your very existence. You exist because we allow it."

Shepard felt an icy shiver go up her spine, the echo of the buzzing, vile words of Nazara like a shadow over her entire being. "…meaning what, exactly?"

Lethath's voice was almost a drawl of sick amusement, his smirk cruel. "We were the first living things in this universe. All life is seeded from our works. Every living thing in this galaxy, each of you, your loved ones, your friends – you only exist because of our actions."

Liara's voice was strained. "The A'shai-Solus reports… that everything in the galaxy shares roughly one to two percent identical organic bases and nucleic acids…"

He inclined his head, sipping his drink. "Just so, Liara. Beyond that… humans? You already know your history, Shepard. If not for my interference, your kind would have utterly destroyed themselves." His eyes fixed on hers. "Did you think all of this was chance, or luck?"

His voice was full of amused, sardonic malice. "It was I that kept the Sethani from turning you into nothing more than soldier-slaves of the asari that they modified. It was I that made the first salarian scouts who reached your world via FTL cautious instead of biologically destroying you as they did to so many other minor sapients."

Shepard's mouth fell open, but he continued. "It was I who lessened the effects of your own destructive Days of Iron, that corralled the changes to your biosphere and prevented the effects from wiping your planet clean of life. It was I who 'nudged' Victor Manswell to take action to save things instead of cowering aboard his station. It was I who blunted the turians and led to Uressa acting to save your kind from them."

Shepard gripped Liara's hand tightly, her mind a staggering wreck. "But…" She trailed off, trying to make sense of this madness.

He put the drink down, folding his hands together. "…and it was I who has preserved your very life. Cerberus hasn't been successful in replicating their stunt with your resurrection, have they?"

Shepard's chill increased, as she remembered the bafflement and confusion Miranda had reporting the malfunction of the tech they'd prototyped on her, how it didn't work.

He continued, an almost amused gleeful malice in his tone. "You think your friends live because of fate or skill? You think your wife survived a seven-story fall into a tank of toxic chemicals and is sitting here for any other reason than my power?"

He leaned back. "You exist because we have allowed it. I have a plan to stop this entire tragic mess – to destroy the Great Enemy, and put the Reapers to rest, and then to be about our own goals, which have nothing to do with your one tiny galaxy. But humans and this Cycle are not the first or even second time we have tried this. And the next species is already prepared if you balk or fail. The window to deal with the Reaper danger is small by our accounting, but still spans millions of years."

Liara's mouth opened but she said nothing. Shepard exhaled. "Then why do I even matter?"

Sharn spoke again. "He has looked ahead in the fabric of time and seen a possibility. And in this single possibility, for it to be successful, you must play a role. But it remains only a possibility. And I will not risk my own life, or that of my fellow soldiers, to support this if there is no clear dedication to seeing it done. That is why I am here. To assess you myself, to see if you are worth taking such a risk."

Liara's voice was small, almost frightened. "Why do you even need her? How can one person fit into this 'possibility' you speak of?"

Lethath's expression was, Shepard thought, rueful. "With every possibility, there is only one way that works – a being somehow capable of bringing about the exact end parameters we need that results in the Great Enemy being sealed away. Every other method, every other attempt, always fails. In this time segment… the one to accomplish this is Shepard."

Liara's voice hardened. "How much of her life and suffering did you craft to shape her into what you needed! You say the next race is prepared – do you plan to torment them as you have let humanity suffer as well?"

Sharn's voice was cold and clipped. "Weakness breeds defeat. Do not mistake our purpose. We do not need her, or you - no matter what Lethath claims, you are not unique. If we are to act now, you are vital - but our window to accomplish our task spans millions of years more, and we are only using the fastest method, and this moment can be set up again."

Lethath's voice was almost sour. "At significant cost, Sharn. But to answer her question directly…no. I did not force your species into what it became, Shepard. I merely used what existed to… improve it in certain directions. And while Sharn is certainly correct…"

He sipped his drink. "I'd rather have this done now, as the more time it takes the more uncertain things become." He traded a glance with the robed figure who merely shook its head.

"Agreed. I will not say delay is useful, but nor will I tolerate insolence from bacteria."

Liara's anger simmered, but Sharn's crackling voice sounded again. "For the moment, I agree this is the best course of action. Small details and tiny events we miss too often, and can lead to problems we do not foresee. That is another reason for using your kind."

Liara forced anger out of her voice. "And did your manipulations touch on Shepard's life as well, or her suffering?"

Lethath gave a smirk. "Absolutely not. I honestly did not grasp the focus of my predictions was Shepard until barely a week before her death. Her own species, not my actions, inflicted her suffering on her."

Shepard fought to organize her thoughts, and could feel Liara's own confusion, anger, and fear. She finally exhaled and stared hard at Lethath, her voice as cold and emotionless as she could make it. "Here I am. We can argue about hows and whys, but like you said, that thing has to go, and apparently I'm the one to get it done. What do you want from me?"

Lethath smiled widely. "What we want is very simple. You will proceed with your plans. Take this… Broker creature and the fallen Sethani puppets down."

Liara frowned. "Why would the Broker and the Collectors even matter in the scope of all of… this?"

Sharn leaned forward slightly. "It is part of what was foreseen. Left unchecked, the Broker is tampering with things and technology that could disrupt your success. He is in possession of enough influence among your pitiful kind that his interference will likely cause a failure state of our plans. As for the insect slaves, there is technology aboard the fitting station used by the Collectors that will enable your people to fight on a more even keel with the Reapers."

Lethath's smile widenend. "Once that is done, after you of course get your leaders to listen to good reason, your kind must build a device. A sort of amplifier. I will provide the plans and even do a bit to ensure that the needed materials are found in vast amounts, but building up the industry and learning the methodologies to build it will be up to your various mortal races. This will be an undertaking that is difficult for your collective species to do even in peace – and the Reapers will almost certainly not leave you in peace."

Shepard frowned. "Why do we need to build it? Why can't you? You have all this…" She gestured to his glass. "…power, why not—?"

"Why not simply do it ourselves?" Lethath considered his glass. "Do you think we have not tried? There are three reasons."

Sharn's hard tones were filled with anger. "I myself crafted servants to my exacting specifications to try a similar plan, a modified version. I gifted them technology and prepared. The Reapers may be flawed copies but they are not stupid nor do they rely solely on one instrument or safeguard. They detected the energies I used and launched a mass assault with all of their kind before I was… prepared. It nearly killed more of us. In short, nothing we can do to help will not attract their attention, and doing so would make them swiftly realize that there are more of us, and more powerful members alive, than they thought. We are not yet ready to face their entire force of Reapers. We could defeat all the Reapers if pressed, but it would leave us wounded, exhausted, and with nothing left to fight the Great Enemy with."

Lethath's voice was musing. "The second reason, besides the fact that the predictions made it clear that our interference would be critical in causing failure, is that you will have a role to play. When the Reapers arrive we can assist, but your own species must be able to defend yourselves against attacks. More critically, once the Great Enemy is summoned, your kind must keep the Enemy's thralls from attacking us or the device while we prepare and empower it. Your technology as it stands is too weak, and none of my kind is familiar with the process of developing such adaptations. Handing it and the tech to you would be similar to handing a caveman a modern starship."

The figure adjusted his hat. "The final reason is somewhat pragmatic. Sharn and I are not entirely in agreement on this plan, or on the viability of relying on your kind, only that our own efforts have failed. We are willing to give you the help needed for you to help us. I'm not quite foolish enough to give you the kind of power and technology you'd need to be a threat to me or my kind. The more we handle ourselves, the weaker we will likely be when this is all done and I have no intention of putting myself at risk - either from Kidun, or from mortals."

Sheaprd frowned at this. The first two reasons felt… off to her. She was sure there was a lot they weren't telling her, or even lying about. She just didn't know enough to call them out on it. The Broker was going to die anyway, and so were the Collectors… but Sharn's dismissive stance on not needing her clashed with him admitting they couldn't do this on their own.

She filed that mental paradox away - to discuss with smart people. Harper. Okeer, maybe. Then again letting him know an even bigger and crazier mad scientist existed might be bad. Instead she shrugged. "Okay, so we build this… thing. Then what?

"Building this device is vital in order to bring about the end game, so to speak. I spoke of the intelligence we created to prosecute our war, the one that turned the Reapers against us and betrayed us. We made plans for such. The intellect is embedded in the Citadel."

Liara's eyes widened. "Vigil said something far beyond him helped him destroy Nazara…"

Lethath nodded. "Precisely. At the proper time, use the device, link it to the intellect. I will instruct you on the exact methods to do this. It will both constrain what the device can do while augmenting its power - and in such a way that the Reapers will not be able to detect such until you switch it on. It will summon our enemy and the Reapers will have no choice but to attack it en masse. It matters not who wins – we have already projected the surviving force will be too weak to withstand our own combined and unexpected attack."

He sipped his drink, another smirk crossing his face. "Our kind will arrive at the critical moment and ensure the Enemy is destroyed. The Reapers will be shut down - I suspect it may be possible to reverse what was done to some of them, but that will be a discussion to have once we win."

Sharn spoke again, his voice devoid of any tone. "Once the Enemy has been smitten into the ruin it deserves and our people avenged, and the Reapers – mockeries of us – put down, we will be about our own business. This universe is tattered and the door is ajar – I cannot speak for Lethath but I have no intention of remaining here."

Shepard frowned. "Why haven't you left then?"

Sharn's glowing eye slits flared. "The Enemy stands in the only path we could leave by. And leaving would not be… 'quiet.' It would detect us and kill us long before we could escape. Thus, this plan is the only way we have to survive."

Lethath's voice was almost jovial. "Assuming we aren't lying, of course." Shepard rolled her eyes at this, then glanced at Liara, then back to the two figures.

"I don't understand why this had to be revealed to us, if we're just puppets."

Lethath's expression was calm and serious, with no mockery now. "Because in every future I saw, a puppet did not get the job done. You have a certain level of agency… and eventually, power. I do not need or want slaves, and no one in my service can ever claim I have demanded blind loyalty."

Liara was skeptical, but he continued talking. "And there is an additional… complication. We are not the only members of our race to survive. There are two more. One is mostly harmless, an elite soldier – akin to you, actually. You'd get along great, and he'll probably help out at the end. The other… is a problem."

Sharn's voice was laced with disgust. "A menace. A foolish child, tampering with things beyond their ken, opening doors that should have remained shut for all time. If there is a villain as you understand it in this idiotic mess, it is Kidun."

Liara's expression was placid, but Shepard felt her skepticism spiking. Her voice was calm. "As someone who has been accused of vague 'crimes' that I never committed, I do wonder how much of this is merely your own disagreement with him."

Sharn's flickering voice deepened. "Kidun is, I suspect, the entire reason for all of this death and suffering you castigated us for. If not for his ill-advised experiments and meddling - if not outright sabotage - none of this would have come about. The Great Enemy would be locked in whatever hellspace it originated in and there would be no suffering under the All-Highest."

Lethath, on the other hand, merely let his smile widen even further. "By all means, if you think that dealing with a person who likes to edit what his victims are even allowed to think or comprehend and was responsible for the Magog Incident is the good guy, well. Like Sharn said, we can just wait until the next time a cycle happens."

Given how much of a fucking asshole these two were, trying to get her to see this other Kidun person as evil was probably just more manipulation. On the other hand, she was almost certain not a single one of these Ascended assholes were anything approaching 'good'. It was merely what flavor of necessary evil she had to choke down. Challenging them on this with no information wouldn't help her or show the truth.

Instead, she tilted her head, keeping her own expression still. "Alright, why is this guy a problem for you telling us all this?"

Lethath's expression became serious. "If you were unaware of the truth – or worse, a servitor or puppet – you would be vulnerable to being led astray. And while I and Sharn have no further designs on your species once the Enemy and the Reapers are dealt with, Kidun is not so disinterested or benevolent."

The figure languidly smiled. "In the end, Shepard, your role upon the gameboard is already set. You can now determine what needs to be done, knowing that you have a method to actually deal with the Reapers… but only once all the other pieces are in place. I will assist you as I can, but the more I meddle directly, the more likely it is Kidun acts to counter it, or that other, unseen issues arise."

Liara's voice was strained. "I thought as gods you could simply see the future."

Lethath's expression flickered. "The 'future' is not a line. It is not even a series of branching lines. It is a chaotic tangle that shifts like the tides of a sea, where every action, however small, produces a wave of more possibilities. Even your lifespan as an asari is not great enough to grasp all of the science needed to comprehend such a thing, but every action I expend could ruin everything. Even meeting like this is a risk. If Kidun learned of it, he could sabotage our efforts…"

Sharn glanced at the orb, still on the table. "Adkins and Venkarith are starting to falter."

Lethath nodded. "Pity. I was so hoping to discuss morality with a pair of mortals. Oh well."

He smiled. "And now, of course, the part where I tell you why you should do as I ask, your reward. There is, after all, a non-zero chance you might take a different action. Perhaps come to a deal with Uhl, the Reaper 'leader.' Talk to the madness of the Enemy. Listen to Kidun's corruption. Or simply decide, in the ever quintessential madness of humans, that even kneeling in submission to survive is unpalatable and doom us all to destruction. It is the nature of the gamble that I take that binding you to my will won't work."

Shepard met his stare, although she felt her stomach curdling in dread. "And what exactly are you offering?"

The voice was soft, and oh so full of amusement. "I will expand your lifespan to match that of your wife, Liara. I will ensure you both live long lives and my power will ward all of your line from misfortune. And I give you my word – and I have not broke such since before there was pond slime on your world – that once the Enemy is destroyed and the Reapers put down, my kind will depart your universe forever, and that your ultimate fates and the destiny of your people will be in your own hands."

Liara spoke. "And this… Kidun?"

Sharn's smile was chilling. "Once the Great Enemy and the Reapers are gone and no distractions remain, we will… discipline… him ourselves. You need not worry about the child, if you do your part."

Shepard could feel Liara's emotions spike – disbelief, a broken wondering, fear. They were mirrors of her own. Wealth she had no use for, power she didn't want, but to be able to live by Liara's side instead of leaving her heartbroken and alone in a few decades…

She looked away, and then bowed her head, her voice low and tired. "…what do I have to do?"

The man picked up his mint julep and drained it. "All you have to do is agree to be my agent. Take my orb. It is both a protection and how I will contact you. While you have it, you will be… very difficult to kill."

Shepard lifted her head to look at Liara. To take in the blue skin, the clear eye and the cybernetic one, the features burned into her soul. She saw doubt and worry and trust and fear and a thousand things besides, shadows of what was going through her own head.

Lethath and Sharn were criminals on a scale that even the madness of Victor Manswell couldn't approach, things whose hubris had gotten untold endless numbers of innocents killed, and they could have cared less, only that they survived. There was no one to bring them to justice, and no way to make them pay for what their actions – and that of their tools, the Reapers – had wrought.

But saying 'no' would not change that. It would just doom them all to death… and what he offered in return was too much for Shepard to say no to.

She exhaled and picked up the orb.

Liara blinked. "…what…?"

Shepard looked up. The room had returned to the way it was. Adkins and the Auger were gone, their plates empty and a disposable debit card laid atop the bill.

The mess she'd made on the floor with her vomit wasn't there. The glass she'd knocked off the table was back where it had started.

What had just happened?

Shepard triggered her infolink. "Vigil?"

The sphere's voice came back instantly. "I am back in contact. I can't sense the figures anymore. We need to discuss this when you get back to base, Shepard." The voice sounded more tense than she could ever remember and she just nodded.

Liara stared at her plate, then picked up and drained her entire glass of wine in one go. "That… that is…"

Shepard nodded and took her free hand. "Yeah. Pretty much sums it up. My mind is… Jesus." She stopped. "So many fucking crazy questions. And no one to answer them. I tell this to anyone and I'm going to sound batshit insane, Li."

Liara's voice was tense as well. "I could share a meld-memory with my aithntar or another… but what point would it serve? The fate of the galaxy and billions of lives, and it is a game to them." Her voice shook with hate, and her expression twisted. "I do not think you could have made any other choice than what you did – but at the same time, Sara… I do not trust either of those monsters or their word."

Shepard thought back, to Virmire, to that darkened vast hall and the red projection of Nazara, and his words.

"We wish for you to die. We are legion. The time of our return is coming. Our numbers will darken the sky of every world. You cannot escape your doom."

Her voice was soft as she squeezed her wife's hand. "I don't think we really had a choice to make, and given the alternative… Even if we did have a choice it would just be to die at the hands of the Reapers."

She stared at the table, at the plates – the wine, the napkins – and then at the softly glowing orb in her other hand, its hues shifting through the colors of the rainbow, faintly warm to hold. She grimaced and stuck it in her jacket pocket, abruptly and almost insanely glad the Cerberus uniform had pockets, unlike the Alliance Class A officer's jacket, before shaking her head. "Nothing left for us here. I'm not really hungry anymore after that."

Liara nodded and tapped a control on the table, and a few seconds later, the kinetic barrier dropped, revealing their server. "Would you care for dessert, gracious ones? The Senator has already paid the bill in full."

Shepard stood, Liara following, and shook her head. "No thank you. It was very good but… I still have other things to do."

Liara's voice was quiet but firm. "Please summon an aircar for us." The hostess nodded and turned away, and Liara glanced at Shepard. "Now what?"

Shepard closed her eyes, then smiled faintly. "Head back to the ship. Get drunk."

Liara stared at her a moment then nodded. "…there is a certain wisdom in that. This is too much to properly take in, and I wish to have it all blotted from my mind."