There was something wrong with her side. The agony with each step was like a razor in her mind. Her grip on the pistol was slick, her first shots wide left as the husks came. A second hand steadied it and they fell, but she slid down to a knee before the last hit the ground. Artificial fibers bunched on the other side of her body, compensating, and she felt herself lift once more. Just a few steps. The light filled her vision but she was too tired to flinch.
Dark hues punctuated by the arcs of abused electronics sharpened and her world grew quiet. She was elsewhere. A hallway stretched before her with the echo of empty space beyond. The glow of alarms and emergency notifications pulsed in her periphery. Her face and chest ached in sharp pulses. Her helmet was gone and she couldn't remember where or why. Her comms were silent.
Shepard's artificial eyes narrowed and dilated to brighten her vision as she strode forward. She wasn't entirely certain where on the Citadel she had emerged but the schematics she pored over in preparation made it clear that she had to get to the Tower. The Crucible needed to connect to it in order to form a giant array from which to channel the station's energy, but it couldn't connect until the massive arms that made the space station invulnerable to attack when closed were re-opened. Those controls would be there as well. It shouldn't be difficult to find, provided she could make her way through the hordes of improved.
No one else from the Alliance had made it, though. She was alone, and she had how many rounds? A quick inspection of her scavenged pistol showed too few. If she encountered anything more than token resistance she'd have her hands full, especially injured. She felt like a mile of broken road. A downward glance revealed the worst of it; a penetrating wound in her lower torso and a dark glistening slick down the armor plating of her thigh. Her jaw tightened and she tried to limp quietly around the corpses at her feet, listening for any audible warning before trouble found her. No other weapons were in sight.
The stench was intense. Some of the bodies were decomposing where they lay, piled haphazardly like discarded building blocks. She was reminded of the Collector ship and paled at the realization of what must be being built from them. There were millions of souls aboard the Citadel when it leapt away to Sol and she hoped they fared better. Shepard's nose wrinkled in protest as she returned her gaze to the murky passageway before her. There was no time to waste.
Hammer was gone. Garrus could see no movement on the field in front of the Conduit and as he searched for any sign of his friend the beam disappeared, leaving a cloak of ash filled dusk settling over the battered earth. Crackling requests for reports spat into his ear with no reply until he keyed in.
"Vakarian here. The conduit is down. I repeat. The conduit is down. Enemy forces appear to have withdrawn. Did they make it?"
Did she make it?
"We've have had no confirmation. Proceed directly to Anvil and assess the disposition of friendly forces."
Garrus stared blankly at the devastation before him. Nothing moved except the few surviving members of his squad cresting the ridge beside him and the enormous slow moving Reapers in the distance. Disposition of friendly forces? Non-existent.
Garrus turned to the snipers beside him, all of them with haunted looks in their eyes, and started pulling himself together.
"Thompson, you and Riatha provide cover here. Dagorn, Vega, Whent, you are with me."
Vega's eyes were ebon pits in his rough hewn face. "She should have picked us, man," He said before choking on Spanish curses and starting down the ruined hillside with weapon at the ready.
Garrus wasn't far behind, caution warring with desperation in every step. He didn't think it would have made any difference. The vehicles were scattered like toys, giant furrows cut into the ground around and through them where Harbinger had aimed his beam. There wasn't a single inch of ground around the conduit that hadn't been torn asunder.
When Garrus heard Shepard calling an evac shuttle for Liara and Tali it was everything he could do not to abandon his post and come running. He hoped they had made it safely back to the Normandy, though he doubted the situation above was any better. The best thing he could do for his Tali right now would be to survive.
"There," he pointed, and heads turned, "Is that Anderson's ride?"
"On it." Vega growled, picking up the pace toward the overturned Mako. The decorated Alliance symbol on the side of the hood marked it as Phalanx One, but the entire side had been smashed like a tin can. The tautly muscled man brutalized the hatch when it refused to open, taking out his anger and frustration on the cold metal and hinges until he could lean inside for a look.
"Anderson? Anyone alive in there?" he shouted, eyes darting around in short lived hope before turning to ask, "When's a med team gonna get here dammit?"
"They're on the way. How bad is it? Can he be moved for First Aid?"
"I dunno man, I can't fit in there. Maybe Riatha?"
Garrus was already nodding and checked with the other part of the team to see if there had been any encroachment. Alliance forces were pushing a bubble around Anvil, so they were relatively safe for the moment.
The asari did her best to resuscitate, but they were still trying to maintain a pulse when he was carted into a priority shuttle. The mass of people that had arrived onsite to look for other survivors paused as the Admiral was carried by. They saluted to a man.
Vega spoke quietly as the door was closed and he crossed himself. "Vaya con Dios, hermano."
When Shepard arrived at the wide lobby prefacing the tower chambers her brow furrowed with concern. She had been prepared for resistance but encountered no one living on her way through the Citadel's labyrinthian corridors. Now the emptiness of the lobby before her objective made the hair rise on the back her neck. It had to be a trap. She looked around warily, the only visible movement being from the occasional keeper picking over a pile of rubble. She knew they were simply performing their maintenance duties but couldn't quite shake the feeling they were insects scavenging over an unexpected bounty.
Her own scavenging hadn't netted her much though, and she was on the lookout for anything that might help. Most importantly, some Medi-gel would be welcome if there was a fight coming. The nanites were busy at work within her body, but she was losing fluid which sapped her attention and strength. She stopped for a moment to probe the open wound. There was a foreign object grinding against her inner hip with each step, shrapnel most likely. Removing it might not be possible and even if it were her bleeding could worsen. Choices, choices. In the end, the thousands of people dying with every minute she delayed made her decision.
Shepard did her best to staunch the flow of blood and kept moving. She was close now. The tower chamber doors hung ajar, and she peered in silently before sliding inside. The venerated hall was empty; no endless discussions or galaxy changing decisions gave weight to the atmosphere, and the only thing of note was the target panel against a far wall. Behind it were two displays. The first one was the view outside the station which teemed with all manner of moving craft and debris. The vivid flashes of laser fire, especially from the Reaper ships, combined with all too frequent explosions in the Alliance fleet was morbidly beautiful. The second was a running projection of the interior of the giant station, arms closed tight around its new Reaper child. She faltered for a moment, recognizing the style of construction so vividly that it was as if she stood amongst the alien scaffolding within the bowels of the Collector Ship once again.
Her lip curled in revulsion, the word "No" escaping her. It hadn't progressed very far, yet, she saw. It would take years to complete but if the Reapers won they would have all the time they needed. Her jaw tightened at the thought. Not if she had anything to say about it. Fifteen steps to the panel and a few moments to authorize for control, then the press of a button. Shepard looked around, but there were no nightmarish troops streaming in to finish her off.
It was damned odd.
After minutes of uneventful silence she holstered her sidearm and leaned against the console to take some weight off her injured side. While watching messages scrolling on the logs she heard and felt the deep bass of some giant mechanical process rippling through the station. Looking up at the display she saw the barest movement in the arms jolt to life. It was working. Now all she needed to do was bring up the comms.
"Hello, Shepard," came a voice from the exit. The easy way he said her name, the arrogance that dripped from it, the joy in every undertone told her all she needed to know. The Illusive Man.
She bit her lip, chagrined. It had been too easy, after all. Shepard dipped her head in frustration and chose to simply answer, "Hello there." She heard his shoes move toward her step by step on the glazed glass as she turned.
The Illusive Man had a pistol trained on her head and was moving slowly enough that she gathered he was taking the matter seriously.
She leaned back against the panel and crossed her arms casually to distract him from her injury. Her eyes scanned the room looking for others and quipped, stalling for time, "Fancy meeting you here. Then again, the 5 star accommodations must have been irresistible."
"Your sense of humor needs some work, Commander, but all in all I am glad to see you alive. I must admit you look like you could use some medical attention."
She shrugged nonchalantly, "At least I still have skin."
The once handsome older gentleman's face was ravaged with the telltale signs of Reaver 'improvements'. He looked as much husk as human though his smile was as dazzling as ever. He glanced over Shepard's shoulder as he moved closer and seemed genuinely pleased that the arms were opening. She could take him down if he got close enough; she'd just need to keep him off-balance until an opening presented itself.
"The elaborate betrayal," she crooned sarcastically, "Let me guess, you arranged for me to get here safely just so I could open those arms for you."
"That's right," he responded, pleased, "If there's one thing I knew I could count on it was your instinct for survival. Thank you for delivering the Crucible to me, Shepard. Now, if you don't mind, I'll relieve you of that pistol."
Shepard stilled all expression on her face as he approached. Was he really going to get within arm's length? She didn't dare hope for such a stroke of luck, "How does it feel to know you are so far under the Reaper's control that you couldn't do this yourself?"
The Illusive Man's jaw tightened and he squinted down the barrel at the woman with cold blue eyes, "Don't move."
"Hey," Shepard said with a lazy smile, "I wouldn't kill me just yet. You may need me to press some more buttons for you." She raised her hands higher, giving him access to her holster.
A flash of anger slid across his face before he regained control, then he smiled coldly. "This is just a dance you can't follow the steps to, Commander," he said, reaching down to take her gun...the moment she had been waiting for.
He slipped it from its holster without resistance, and Shepard's eyes widened. She hadn't moved. Her arms remained raised, her body relaxed against the cold metal of the panel frame. Nausea and a bizarre euphoria filled her senses, and her lips parted as she gasped in shock.
It didn't make sense. What could it be? Some kind of mechanism he had left dormant within her, the loss of blood; she wildly ran through all the reasons she could think of until she was robbed of her senses entirely, her mind opening and expanding into the vastness of space. Vast...but not empty.
The Illusive Man straightened and lowered his gun, tucking hers into the back of his pants while watching her eyes unfocus and stare into the distance, "There now. If I know you, you'll adjust quickly."
There was jubilation on the deck of the Normandy and it could be heard on the comms as well, from the mouths of many. The arms of the Citadel were opening. She had done it. The dauntless, unflappable woman had managed the impossible. Admiral Hackett called for a reinforcement force to make a beeline to the tower and assist. The fleet was given orders to turn and defend the Citadel at all costs and the units sent to attack Reaper forces around the globe were told to resume normal tactical operations and regroup.
Liara's relief at the news slowed the dreadful pace of her heart and she finally began to relax under Dr. Chakwas care. Tali, on the other hand, wouldn't sit still after patching a hole in her containment suit and ingesting handfuls of pills. She swam through reports on her Omni looking for any word of Hammer...and Garrus.
The Asari had assigned Glyph to monitor all communications for news about Shepard, but she understood her friend's impatience very well. Liara and Tali had joined Shepard on the majority of her missions. Their combination of skills were deadly in all but the most violent confrontations and despite the differences in their personalities their cooperation was seamless, courtesy of relentless repetition. There was no telling who or what lurked in the halls of the Citadel after it leapt from Council Space. Despite all Shepard had survived and accomplished she was without her right and left hand and Liara worried.
As quickly as she had been taken out of the final push of the Hammer offensive Liara doubly wished to be with the commando squad Hackett sent in after her lover. Defending the woman was as natural to her as breathing after so many years; but to use a human phrase, right now she felt like a fish out of water. Her eyes turned balefully to the sonic knitter working on her thigh. Especially with a broken leg. She felt like she should get back to work; contribute somehow. The next hour would determine the course of the future for the entire galaxy and it was hard to admit that nothing she could do right this very moment could help. All she could do was watch, listen, and pray. Oh how she hated feeling helpless.
The Illusive Man stepped beside Shepard to monitor the panel, the arms about a quarter of the way open now. He could see the Crucible on its approach, the vehicle of his destiny arriving. He leaned in close to the Spectre, not quite as tall as she was in her armored boots.
"You can lower your arms now." Once he was satisfied with what he saw on the display he turned back and gazed upon her profile with admiration, then gestured with the gun for her to get down on her knees.
The woman obediently knelt, never looking away from the door even when he put the muzzle of his pistol near her temple.
"Come back to me Shepard, you need to see this."
It was, immense; voices filled her ears and yet it was not cacophony. She could feel them all, everyone on the Citadel, and they could feel her. She was warm. Welcomed. There was purpose and every single mind was bent to it. Every species, race, every family, every group that had seemed so distinct before were now united. Her own thoughts became muddled, merging with the drive that propelled them. She needn't carry this torch anymore. They were all one, millions of them, at peace.
And yet something called her, a voice that must be obeyed. She blinked as the room took shape before her eyes again. She made out the shape of The Illusive Man's fingers snapping before her. She felt rather than saw the pulse pistol so close to her face, her instincts as sharp as her will was muddied.
"Now, I want you to lower your shields."
They dropped with the faintest odor of ozone, and he pressed the cold metal into her skin. Fear filled her chest, she couldn't recall ever being so helpless. They sat there for a moment that seemed a lifetime, The Illusive Man illustrating his point without pity; then his posture suddenly changed and the pressure on her temple was removed. He nodded, apparently satisfied.
"Did you really think I would kill you?" he shook his head in consternation, then put the pistol away and rested his hand on her hair in a fatherly fashion. "I've got way too much invested. You have been infuriating, but unfortunately for me you are still useful. Besides," he grinned rakishly, "You killed Kai Leng. Someone has to take over his tasks."
He continued to talk to her. Confidently. He had plans. As soon as the Reapers were in hand, she was to visit the medical bay for her improvements. He needed her to go speak to the Alliance and bring them in line. They would all eventually be exposed, and humanity could begin work on the greatest era in its history. The other species would serve until they were no longer necessary. He straightened and turned from her to the monitors and she could feel the pulsing lure of the groupthink tugging at the corners of her mind. She heard the proximity alarms going off, now. The Crucible was close, maneuvering to its final resting place against the tower.
It was difficult to think. The Illusive Man had been working on methods of indoctrination, and this had to be the result; but it had taken effect so quickly! This was different than what she had seen at Sanctuary. Perhaps it was some kind of biological agent. He needed no guards because he had taken control of all the residents. They were slaving and dying, building the human reaper just as the Illusive Man's masters wished. She was reminded of how the colonists of Zhu's Hope had behaved and it all clicked into place. This had to be related to the Thorian, somehow.
"And don't worry about your appearance," The Illusive Man continued, "One of the first things we will research is how to better integrate the Reaper technology into our physiology. We can't have humanity looking like monsters, as you put it. The apex of our evolution should be reflected accordingly."
What if he was right? Everything he had done so far was successful, why wouldn't this be? If he could actually control the Reapers, the danger would be over. She could rest. Her thoughts drifted to the millions of people fighting and dying that would be saved. Her crew. Liara, welcoming her home, joining with her forever in peace. Until the Asari were no longer needed. Until they...NO! Shepard tried to imagine nails on a chalkboard, the smell of rotting meat, the pain of the shrapnel in her side. The pain! She shifted where she knelt, pressing it deeper within her and swallowed a groan.
He used whatever was at hand to achieve his lofty goals until those goals were as twisted and warped as their enemy's. Just like Saren, he thought he could conceal his true purpose from the Reapers, a blade hidden in silk. And just like them, the deeds he performed to cover his intentions, to buy him time, bloodied his hands as surely as the Reapers themselves. The Illusive Man was not ready for that power, nobody in the galaxy was. Though she had done her best, he could not be convinced. There was no time. No more time for any of them.
Tears welled in her eyes as she ripped herself from the bliss that called to her with soft hands, from the rest she needed in the marrow of her bones, from the false achievement of all her dreams and back into a world of doubt, rage, and loss.
He was still talking, watching the Crucible settle in place, but his words were nothing but noise. She pulled herself to her feet quietly, the returning emotions and responsibilities settling back into place along with something...else. Surely he felt the heat of her fury. Surely. It burned her like plasma. She turned and took a single step, the omni-blade sliding out smoothly, and grabbed his right shoulder. He started, interrupted, and with a gathering of strength from every fiber in her body, she drove the blade through his lower back and up through his chest until neon orange burst out the other side. He stood up on his toes in a vain effort to escape it before going limp. Only her hand and the blade held him up now.
His eyes asked questions to which he would never get an answer. Blood spilled from his lips as he cursed her, "You fool. You've...doomed us….all."
She released him to drop bonelessly to the floor, and looked down at one of the most intelligent, calculating and manipulative men she ever met. Doubt about her choice chilled her blood, quickly followed by the weight of fatigue in her limbs. Shepard's eyes drifted from where he lay gasping his last to the disturbingly increasing circle of crimson at her feet. The shrapnel, she thought. Damn.
She applied pressure to her side while limping to the console, then queried for the code so many species had labored upon without recompense for more than a million years. The Spectre sifted through the appropriate sequences, hitting dead ends until she found it, and looked at the display expectantly after giving the appropriate credentials for activation.
She waited. Nothing happened. Her brow furrowed and she checked her work, entering the credentials again. Accepted...but still nothing. What was she doing wrong? Her mind was...fuzzy. She shook her head to clear it, every moment wasted reckoned in the lives of friends and allies. Eventually she cursed and brought up her omni, opening comms to the fleet command channel. She heard a satisfying squelch and the chatter of the combined leadership as they coordinated the defense of the Citadel.
"Command this is Shepard. Come in." she said, interrupting.
"Commander Shepard, this is Alliance Actual, what is your status?"
"The Crucible has attached and I am attempting to activate the device. There appears to be a problem. The credentials have been accepted but there is no joy." She lost focus, but gritted her teeth, "Please..advise." The room spun and the edges of her vision turned pale.
Whatever reply was returned, she didn't hear it. Thoughts that she had fainted were countered quickly by the fact that she was still alert enough to think the thought. The room had taken on a ghostly sheen, and there was some kind of low frequency noise that she guessed would have been beyond normal hearing. She was keenly trying to make out what that sound was when she noticed that the cataclysmic battle on the display was now frozen.
When something moved in the corner of her eye then, she dove for the pistol in the Illusive Man's waistband, rolling smoothly to bring it to bear on a serene looking child that she had seen before; first on Earth during the Reaper attack and every night she had dared fall asleep since. Her eyes swept the room quickly before settling back on him, his flesh ethereal. The Spectre realized she hadn't felt so much as a twinge of pain during her acrobatics and straightened, feeling foolish. It was clear to her that this wasn't real, emphasized by the fact that her surroundings were melting away into a smaller room, one she recognized.
It was her mother's kitchen. The same lighting, the same air, the same sounds. Treasured memories clamored for attention, coupling with thick regret. On the countertop where mother and daughter once made desserts grew an oddly placed but elaborate figurine of glass. It's twisted patterns filled the room up to the ceiling, but always seemed to change. They were beautiful but unrecognizable.
"What is real greatly depends on your definition," came the young voice though his lips did not move. "If you are referring to our physical location in the place you know as 'The Tower' then no, we are not real. I can assure you, however, that we are communicating. I believe you are familiar with a similar process, a consensus."
Choosing to ignore the knowledge this child had about her previous experiences for now, Shepard dropped her arms and cocked her head irritably, "One I didn't agree to, I might add. Who are you?"
"I control the Reapers. I am the Catalyst."