Were I being honest with myself, I had to admit to a certain level of self-satisfaction with the current situation and, particularly, with Shepard's reaction. Having been separated from the Normandy for a few days, I'd had time to reflect on just how shit I'd been treated by the ship's commanding officer, and I'd allowed the juvenile part of my brain to take enjoyment from annoying her. Although, that was hardly my primary motivation.
Avatar Company had not been ready for this move before now. Javik himself had woken up fairly whole and in full possession of his wits, but his Remnant was another story entirely. That they had survived at all was something of a miracle, as was the fact that we had found them. The Prothean plan to put the remnant of its loyalist population into stasis had been shrouded in secrecy, which in practice meant several separate efforts all kept secret from the others for fear of indoctrination. As far as we had been able to discern from a few scattered archaeological finds, there were at least five sites around the galaxy where such projects had been established. Of those five, we knew two were compromised, one of which was the one on Eden Prime. Of the remaining three, we only had the location of two: Ilos and Therum. Ilos we already knew about, but Therum was a surprise. Even in Prothean times, the planet had apparently struggled with volcanic activity, and the local project there had thus decided to rely on the planet's plentiful geothermal energy to run its stasis facility.
However, the Prothean Empire had always relied on eezo components in their geothermal plants, and re-engineering this technology without using mass effect technology – a necessity, to avoid detection by the Reapers – had proved to be a problematic venture. For the most part, the project had gone off without a hitch, and about 50,000 Prothean engineers and soldiers had entered stasis seemingly without being discovered by the indoctrinated. About a thousand years later, the problems started. A small earthquake damaged the power plant, which in turn created a cascade effect in the volcano below it. More than half the stasis facility was lost to that volcano, and then the problems really started: The eezo in the bodies and the equipment around the base started a slowly building cascading effect on the planet's volcanic activity, which turned catastrophic on a planetary scale within a few hundred years.
Throughout all of this, the facility's VI, Perseverance, kept meticulous logs of everything, and had made efforts to save as many as he could. It succeeded in keeping a single geothermal reactor online and stable, which then remained stable for thousands of years. However, in the initial disaster he had been cut off from the pod control circuits and was powerless to both bring the Remnant out of stasis and keep their inhabitants stable. The effects of which became evident once we found the facility and extracted the around 500 Remnant that still lived.
None of them were fully sane. Few could say who they were or make any sense out of their surroundings. Most of them had lost the ability to control their memory reading abilities, and the constant impulses were driving them further into insanity. Commander Javik, who had been unearthed two years prior to finding the facility on Therum, had suggested building an isolated space station to house them so that he could work with them one-on-one. Over the past two years or so, Javik had managed to mend a couple dozen of the Remnant, who were now running the space station and helping to mend the rest, but none of them were mind healers and the Prothean capacity for such techniques was surprisingly limited given how they communicated.
Protheans can communicate telepathically quickly and over great distances, it was as natural to them as talking. However, their telepathic abilities, while impressive, lacked depth relative to the Asari. What the Asari do naturally, Prothean Mind Healers could do when assisted by technology, but that tech had been lost and the Remnant had no Mind Healers. The Remnant needed an Asari mind healer, but they needed to be Prothean to navigate and understand their minds. An impossibility... except, I realised, Shiala would eventually receive the Cipher.
So, she had been lured into a trap and... recruited. Having another insider in Benezia's organisation was a bonus, and we had considered turning her for other strategic reasons – her role in giving the Cipher to Shepard, for one – but the primary reason for her recruitment was always that she would receive the Cipher and could help Javik with his Remnant. During the brief period between the implantation procedure and her reintegration into Benezia's forces, while she was still lucid and her indoctrination suppressed, mission information about her task with the Remnant was implanted in her graybox, which allowed her to immediately catch up once the Thorian had freed her from her indoctrination.
She had worked wonders with them in very little time. The Cipher allowed Shiala to navigate the chaotic minds of the insane Remnant, help them piece themselves back together and – ultimately – heal themselves. Within just a couple of weeks, she had returned over 300 Protheans to a functioning state. They still spent most of their days in a mindshare with their kin, healing their mental surface wounds through their shared connection, but they were now enough to be counted on as a force.
And a force they were. As it turns out, some of the Prothean engineers wielded tech that gave them abilities similar to Technopaths, able to interface mentally with certain computer systems and forcibly override VI-based operating systems. It had caused something of a philosophical problem when the rather xenophobic Protheans had realised that the reason they were able to do this was because of compatibility with human neural activity patterns, the basis for most modern VI in this cycle.
More importantly, though, now that the Prothean Remnant could effectively be referred to as a legal population rather than a mere individual, they could appeal to protections under galactic law. Which meant that unpopulated and legally unclaimed worlds that once fell under Prothean control, once more could be legally claimed by them. Specifically, in this case, the planet of Ilos.
[Aaron, the Normandy has docked, and Shepard is standing by near the airlock.]
On a scale from one to ten...
[About twenty. She's pissed.]
Shepard had a tendency to turn confusion into rage. Understandable, really, considering her background, but rather frustrating to deal with. And right now she was, again understandably, rather confused.
"Are you sure you don't want me to be here for this, Sir?"
I glanced over at Shiala, looking pretty nervous in her new Technopath Corps uniform, notably adorned with a rune-like symbol above her heart. According to Javik, the symbol was a Prothean portmanteau of sorts, combining the words for "empire", "vengeance", and "broken". Or "death", I hadn't yet figured out the precise translation. Regardless, the meaning was scarcely hidden, the symbol encompassing what Javik saw as the entirety of the Remnant's purpose: to avenge a broken empire.
Considering Javik's title as the Avatar of Vengeance, this was hardly a surprising purpose.
"Of the two of us, only one has been in Shepard's mind. Once she meets with Javik, I suspect I will quickly be the only one of three who hasn't."
She bit her lower lip and gave a reluctant shrug. "Yeah I guess that might not go down with her all that well, I can't really argue with that. You going to warn her?"
"What do you think?"
The question hung in the air for a moment, the answer entirely implied. The Prothean mind-share was not something one could be sufficiently warned about, and honestly, experiencing it would be a better introduction to – and explanation of – the situation than any mere words we could offer.
Hmm. "Honestly, maybe we should warn him? From what you've told me, Shepard's mind isn't exactly...the most welcoming place."
"Sir, with all due respect to the Commander, the Avatar lived to see the end of his entire civilisation at the hands of eternal space robots."
As we entered the docking area, for all intents and purposes the lobby of Avatar Station, she nodded and turned toward the meeting room where Javik was waiting. Moving to a stop in the middle of the open room, I held my arms behind my back and straightened my posture as the airlock finished cycling and opened to allow Shepard access to the station.
God, this decon cycle is slower than the one on the Normandy...
Shepard was still struggling to process what was happening. Not that she was ever very good at processing difficult situations, a cool head she was not. Her preferred reaction to information overload had always been to try to take charge, to make things simpler, or simply to throw smarter people than her at the problem. When she couldn't, frustration was her only remaining outlet. A personality trait that had never failed to get her into trouble. But then, trouble was what she did best.
She had tried her best to throw smarter people at the problem, though she wasn't sure how helpful it would prove. With her on the station were Liara, for obvious reasons, as well as Tali, likely the smartest person on the Normandy. Shepard trusted them both with her life, but she still had some reservations about the Quarian's allegiances. After all, she did not at all trust the Messenger, and Tali was still under his employ. Over the past few days she had gotten a sense that a rift was developing between the two of them. When she confronted Tali about it, she had said that she couldn't talk about it. Which naturally got her attention.
Regardless, her perspective on the Technopath Corps was likely to come in handy. Shepard still couldn't quite wrap her mind around that organisation. Specifically, how they could possibly keep their size and technology secret from the wider galaxy. Based on what she had seen so far – largely limited to the fleet above Virmire – the organisation had to count thousands of employees, multiple shipyards, and probably entire supply colonies.
Garrus and Tali had helped her understand how they could possibly have kept all that infrastructure hidden, by simply pointing out two things: One; if they started out in a bunker system – far away from a relay – they would have at their disposal all the resources of that system, and could build without any realistic danger of being discovered, and two; their 'Slingshot project' allowed them a semi-independence of the relay system that would make it nearly impossible to pin down any sort of patterns of movement that might otherwise be indicative of such massive projects. The third factor, manpower, she had figured out on her own, and it was a fairly obvious one: They had at their disposal the entirety of the Migrant Fleet as a labour force.
She had to admit that Close's strategy of entering into a mutually beneficial partnership with the Quarians was a stroke of genius. They were reclusive, they had a significant population, the galaxy went out of their way to not pay much attention to them, and they are reputed to be highly resourceful tech geniuses. And him giving them fair wages and good labour practices meant that he had more or less single-handedly given them their greatest improvement in living standards and security since the beginning of their exile, without it coming across as a humanitarian effort. Everyone wins, it seems. Except, of course, for the Council and Close Corporation's corporate enemies, of which he supposedly had many.
"Jesus wept, how long is this damn decon cycle gonna last?"
She couldn't hide her exasperation. They had been standing around in the small airlock for several minutes, and she could not for the life of her see a good reason for it.
"It is odd," Tali chimed in, "This cycle is even longer than the standard for unclean entries to the Flotilla. Longer than any I've come across in the Technopath Corps."
[My apologies, Commander. The decontamination is more for your own security than for ours.]
What? "What are you on about, how does that make sense?"
[I believe Aaron would prefer I do not disclose this. You will understand soon.]
Caesar hadn't even finished talking before the cycle ended and the airlock door activated, opening up to reveal a suited-up Messenger on the other side. Straight posture, arms behind his back, legs slightly apart. Normally, this would simply just paint him as fully immersed in his Messenger persona again, but there was a slight twitch to his elbows which told Shepard that he was nervously fidgeting with his fingers behind his back. Her interest was piqued; nervousness was not something she had seen in him before.
"Shepard," he nodded at her, "Miss T'Soni, Tali. Good to see you again."
Her eye twitched. "Cut the crap. What's going on?"
He turned away from them and started moving down the corridor, waving them along.
"You are about to meet the Prothean Avatar of Vengeance, the highest-ranking living member of the Prothean Empire."
She scoffed, "I'll believe that when I see them. You do realise how insane this sounds, right?"
The Messenger tipped his head in a sort of shrugging acknowledgement. "Do you know what's on the planet below us, Shepard?"
"Yes. The Conduit."
"Indeed. Housed inside a facility with thousands upon thousands of Prothean stasis pods."
Beside her, Liara noticeably stiffened at that particular revelation. Hold it in, honey.
"None of them are functional, of course, but Ilos is just one of several locations around the galaxy where the Empire attempted to sleep their way into the next cycle. And... well, remember the archaeological projects I've been funding for years?"
She nodded, "Yeah, Liara keeps bringing that up."
"Indeed, and I thank her immensely for her contribution. Some of those contributions were key to uncovering two of these sites... and a few hundred still-living Protheans."
"What?!" Liara sputtered. "Impossible, I... really?! Living Proth... this is amazing! Unbelievable!"
Damn it, Liara. Stop being cute when I'm trying to be angry. She was practically bouncing along, and the sputtering didn't stop until Close came to a halt next to a door which then promptly opened. As we entered, I felt a tingling across my amp. I noticed Shiala standing across the table in the middle of the hazily lit room, but it wasn't her that I felt. It wasn't Liara either, she felt... different. In the far corner of the room stood an armoured alien, with a broad head and a build that otherwise reminded me of a Quarian. The tingling was a dead giveaway; this was a biotic of significant power.
"Commander Shepard," Shiala spoke, "Good to see you again. Allow me to introduce..."
The alien held up a three-fingered hand, and Shiala stopped mid-sentence. As the broad, sloped head turned around, four striking eyes found Shepard's, and she felt... something. Like a gentle prodding at her mind. The alien turned around fully and walked the few meters across the room to her. He – they appeared to be a male – said nothing, but quickly held out a hand. She hesitated a couple of seconds before taking it. And then her eyes rolled back into her head as the Prothean vision once more slammed to the front of her mind.
It was immediately obvious that something was happening when Shepard started spasming the moment she grabbed Javik's hand. Of course, I knew what was happening, but neither Liara nor Tali did. I was surprised by how quickly things moved after that. Surprised at the tinge of sadness I felt when Tali drew her shotgun on me, and surprised at the complete lack of hesitation when Liara flared her biotics and drew her pistol on the living Prothean in front of her. And of course, she must have known Javik was Prothean. She had seen enough artwork depicting them. Although, she had also seen some of that artwork in a certain temple on Thessia and she certainly did not recognise that as depicting Protheans...
First things first... lock Liara's amp and disable their weapons.
"Guys," I raised my arms in a placating gesture, "Calm down, he's just having a chat."
Liara practically sneered at me, "What is he doing to her, Close?"
"You once explained to me that Prothean technology works by touch. What you don't know is that this is because their information technology was based around their primary means of communication, sort of a variant of an Asari meld. They exchange thoughts and memories, and read information from the biological traces they come in contact with."
Her eyes went wide, "They're melding?"
"Not quite, a meld is a much more... intimate process."
Just then, Javik broke contact with the Commander, who reeled back and immediately flared her biotics as her annihilation field activated.
Javik coughed out a single laugh. "Hmm, she's powerful, Messenger. Only our most skilled soldiers could control the warp tendrils as she does."
"What... the FUCK... was that?!"
"Merely an assessment, Commander."
Shepard's face twisted into a confused scowl, "A what?"
"An assessment. I needed to know you were worthy, of my trust and of your place. I now know that you are."
I must admit, that was a bit of a blow to my ego. The Avatar had been far less inclined to trust me when he first read me, but then he had found himself unable to properly read me as my tech was interfering with his abilities. I couldn't help but consider the similarities between his and the Commander's assessments of me. They can't see through me; therefore, they can't trust me.
At least with Javik, I had been able to build a solid foundation for trust over the past few years since he was brought out of stasis. He had joined me on several missions, after I had managed to acquire a Collector carapace and develop a set of armour from it. The Collectors, at least, were a known-of entity, and seeing one together with the mysterious and semi-mythical Messenger would raise less dangerous questions than seeing some completely unknown alien roaming around. He hadn't been particularly keen on the idea of dressing up as the Reaper perversions of his own people, but he was a highly pragmatic individual who could see the utility in this particular deception.
"Shepard?" Liara cast a sideways glance at her lover, pistol still aimed squarely at Javik's head.
The Spectre sighed and brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of her nose. "Fine. It's fine. He's an actual Prothean. He certainly matches the pictures from the vision."
"Yes, Messenger spoke to me about the imprint. It is corrupted, incomplete. If you wish, I can correct it. In its current state, it will only degenerate, and may cause harm to your mental faculties."
"The imprint, from the beacon. It is a Prothean memory, a warning. They degrade over time, but Prothean minds can compensate. Yours cannot."
Shepard narrowed her eyes and gestured to Shiala, who had moved to stand beside Javik. "She gave me the Cipher, I was under the impression that would fix it."
"Ah, yes. The Thorian Cipher. It has certainly helped to stabilise and interpret the imprint, but it cannot fix it. Remarkable species, the Thorians. In my cycle, though not in my time, they were proud members of the Empire."
"Those... things were part of the Prothean Empire?"
"Shepard?" Liara interrupted, concern in her eyes. "What are you doing?"
The Commander raised an eyebrow, "What do you mean?"
"I... I think you were just speaking Prothean with him."
Shepard frowned, and glanced over at Javik. He was smiling.
"Your Asari is correct. The effects of the Cipher on primitives always amused me. All that knowledge and understanding, and none of it is consciously available. But yes, the imprint can be fixed. I assume you are having nightmares?"
She hesitated. "...Yes."
The Prothean nodded. "An imprint, like any memory, has two components, analogous to its data and its program. Both degrade over time, but the program degrades much slower and the mind has self-repair mechanisms that can compensate. To a compatible mind, then, it doesn't much matter that the data degrades, as the program can restore it from its fragments."
Tali tilted her head a bit in a display of curiousity, "So it's like trying to get a program to run on incompatible hardware with a similarly incompatible and hacked-together emulator?"
"Precisely. Prothean information technology was largely based around memory imprinting, even their VI are commonly referred to as memories because they basically are."
Liara's eyes went wide, "Goddess! That opens up so many possibilities for new interpretations of Prothean texts..."
"Yes, reading them correctly will probably help," Javik interjected with his usual caustic condescension.
"Hmmm hang on... given how the Cipher works, and what the imprint is... this all should be creating a lot more problems for you than just the odd nightmare, Commander?"
Shepard looked like she really didn't want to have this conversation, but sighed and relented after a couple of seconds of silence and seeing Liara's now worried expression.
"Yeah," she dragged the word out, "There are migraines, general trouble sleeping, and a few other things." She hesitated, clearly considering whether or not to continue. "I've also noticed I've become more irritable than usual."
Ah. Well that makes sense.
[I would suggest that if fixing the imprint will cause any sort of improvement in Shepard's behaviour, we should get it done as quickly as possible.]
"How long would it take to sort it out?"
"Hmm. A few microcycles."
"Ah, apologies. About," the Prothean hesitated as he made the conversion, "ten minutes?"
Sometimes life takes... strange turns, and Shepard's seemed like an endless series of them. The current situation was certainly no exception. She was about to relive a 50,000-year-old memory of an extinct species, on a space station that housed surviving members of said believed-to-be-extinct species, above a planet now reclaimed by that same species, and this was to happen while one member of the species was messing about in her mind for ten minutes. Yep. Just another work day.
"Let's just get this over with."
Almost before she had finished the sentence, the Javik's three-fingered Prothean hand shot up to touch her forehead. And then all hell broke loose. Again.
But this time it was different. Slowed down. Where before she had seen still images of warped bodies in a red-orange haze, now she saw scenes assembling themselves. A hallway in a broken-down facility, dead bodies everywhere, some of them recognisably husks. Insect-like Prothean husks. A three-fingered hand stretching out to turn two bodies over for comparison, one husk, one Prothean. Words streamed into her head. This one, Prothean, the Avatar of Knowledge. This one, a Corrupted, formerly a soldier of the Empire. This is what the Reapers do to our people.
She felt a deep sorrow, and a seething rage, as imagery describing the husking process ran through her mind, and she witnessed the physical transformation of proud Prothean warriors into cybernetically and biologically modified Corrupted. The Reapers are machines, and they work toward a single-minded purpose: Erase and corrupt all organic life, and then destroy all traces that they ever existed.
Then came a series of images, with names associated with them. Inusannon. Thoi'han. Arthenn. Zeioph. Cierans. Angara. Rachni. All fell to the Reapers in their own cycles. History repeats itself. That last one surprised her. Apparently the Rachni had survived more than two cycles. It was probably not by chance that they were always assumed hostile by the species they encountered. The Protheans apparently used them as biological weapons in their cycle, until they turned on them and were – unsuccessfully – eradicated. Probably Reaper influence, again.
Next... the Citadel. Where new Reapers are born from the remains of the harvested species. She saw piles of dead bodies, all of a single species, being processed by the Keepers. The scene appeared to zoom out, and the form of a Reaper was seen to take shape within the closed wards of the Citadel.
Then she saw... what, the galactic core? A space station orbiting the core, a red-glowing mass relay in a dense field of debris, some of it clearly recent but most of it ancient. And then, a star, and a gas giant with a sizeable terrestrial moon. And within the gas giant, a Reaper... hides? No, it's a dead one, locked in a stable orbit of the giant's core. I have seen this system, this planet...
Shepard could feel the memory fading, but as the visuals faded to black a voice echoed around in her head. The Reapers hide in the dark space between galaxies for 50,000 years, and then enter the galaxy for the Harvest through the control node in the mass relay network: The Citadel, an ingenious trap that has sealed the fate of countless civilisations. You must not allow their return!
She wasn't sure how long she was out, but it felt like hours. When she regained consciousness and slowly opened her eyes, she found herself looking into two beautiful blue oceans staring back at her with concern.
She couldn't help but smile. "Hey gorgeous."
The relief on her lover's face was obvious, and Liara's shoulders relaxed visibly as she brought her forehead down on hers. "Oh, thank the goddess."
Shepard cupped her chin and sent a quick pulse of reassurance across their bond. "I'm alright, Liara. How long was I out?"
"Just a few seconds, not counting the 15 minutes Javik was fooling around in there."
"Ugh, I was not 'fooling around', human." The Prothean sounded tired, and was leaning on the desk behind him. "There were a lot of intersecting memories to connect. The part about the Citadel was particularly... illuminating. You've spent a great deal of time there, but I have never seen it. I had to use your own memories to repair the degradation."
Her eyes immediately shot up in a panic. "The Citadel! Shit, we have to warn the Council right away!"
"It's a relay! It's how the Reapers arrive in the galaxy, from dark space."
"What?!" Liara, as usual, was utterly unable to hide her surprise. "But... we'd know! Right?"
"Can you prove this?"
"No," Javik interrupted before Shepard could answer, "But I can. With this memory restored, I can transfer the imprint to a shard, and it can be viewed like one of your... vids. Also, it hints at more proof. Shepard, the gas giant at the end? I believe your people call it Mnemosyne. That dead Reaper, along with the one on Virmire, should prove their existence beyond any rational doubt."
"Get on it. We need to..."
[Red alert! Ship signatures transiting through the relay! All hands, battle stations!]
Now what? Immediately, klaxons started blearing and the lighting turned a red-ish hue.
"Shit. Shepard, get to your ship, and get to the ground, right now."
"What's going on, Messenger?"
"Nihlus. And... friends." He turned toward Javik and pointed a finger at him. "Get your men as ready as they can be. Your dead have arrived. The Collectors are on their way."
Author's notes: I own no rights to Mass Effect.
Well, there you have it. Thought you were going to miss out on the whole Ilos-Conduit-Citadel invasion thing, didn't you? Well... maybe. We'll see next chapter. But ex-Nihlus is certainly going to give it a shot!
There's still rather a lot that of story that needs to be told before we move beyond ME1 storylines, but I want to get that out of the way over the next few chapters. There are some scenes that I have already planned in great detail (and some are already written down) that take place between ME1 and ME2, and I want to get there soon.
You might have noticed that this isn't quite the Javik from ME3. A few reasons for this decision: He has a few hundred compatriots here that he didn't there, and they've just started regaining their sanity; he's had access to mind healing himself; he's had a couple of years to settle in and get his bearings already; he's officially just started his mission to rebuild a Prothean Empire. Figure he's bound to be a bit less gruff. We'll see how he takes fighting the Collectors...
Commenting on comments!
general-joseph-dickson: Well... depends on what you mean by "ending well"? :P
stormdragon981: First time I alluded to Shepard's psychological issues, which underlie her animosity toward Close (as well as her general behavioural problems), was in chapter 8. I had these scenes, with Talitha and the aftermath, planned before I even started writing the story. The Shepard you've all seen so far is a traumatised child who has erected a shield of dislikeability and fundamental distrust of the world and everyone in it. A broken person. Now she can begin to mend :)
And, you're on to something, but no, time travel will not be involved...per se. And that's all you get :P
seabo76: Yeah, the Talitha interaction was always my favourite as well. Very powerful. I don't think I could have done it justice in covering it directly here, and I don't really think my story would have been better for it. Made more sense to me to cover the fallout of it. Figure that if you're reading this story, you're aware of Talitha and that particular conversation :)
Goldspark1: Chase? :P Yeah, that scene on the moon... I just felt like I had to do it that way. It's always been my personal silly dream to one day walk on the moon, and despite Close not being me there are aspects of his personality that are certainly reflective. So it seemed natural to have him stop and wonder.
The EDI sequence is one I had planned since before I started writing the story! And there is (obviously) more to come from that.
Yeah, I've been hinting at Shepard's... personality problem since the beginning. It's always been there, but I hadn't made it fully explicit until now. Shepard is a messed-up person! That's the point. Everything she says, thinks and does has to be seen in context of that.
ShinCore (chapter 8): There are reasons for this, which are dealt with later in the story. And there are hardly any 'good points' to find in that particular review, or in the PM conversation that followed. Is Shepard a bitch? Yes. Clearly. That's half the point of the character. But that doesn't make the line 'have fun writing about a main character that nothin' but a bitch boy that has a female constantly slapping him around' even allude to anything approaching a "good point". Frankly, it makes him sound like an incel, and fuck those guys.
Ebrius (chapter 4): Overly dramatic is what he does! (And it's certainly what Shep does!) Eh, I think I've improved a bit in my writing since the early chapters. They were, after all, the first novel-style writing I've done ever... so there is that. (My writing background is from visual media.)
Coduss (chapter 16): Well, that's a new one :P No, she isn't cheating on him. That would be... hazardous. Quarians mate for life. Their immune systems adapt to the other and all sorts of other biological effects kick in to ensure that neither party deviates. Quarian biology makes monogamy a practical requirement for survival.
V-rcingetorix, SpecterXCove, Hz: Thanks for reading and reviewing!