"It all matters less than you think."
The Mass Effect 3 Manual (2012)
Cold water gurgled and churned, a strong and squeezing pressure constricting and undulating in an uneven rhythm. With a slow roll, a crest of violent kinetic force swept up a briny reel and hurtled it against the damp sand of the long and sun-scarred beach. A quarian, thrown by the wave, smacked against the ground, sending clumps of the wet sand scattering. Granules stuck to her damaged enviro-suit and sehni, a brown crust that refused to cease clinging.
With her remaining hand, Roahn let out a tired moan as she grasped forward, lifting her head as she dragged herself from the ocean. Sea foam lapped around her body. Droplets misted her blue visor, dribbling across the cracks that had been delivered upon her. Medi-gel had been deployed by her suit automatically, working against the worst damage to her broken bones. It was not enough—pain flared every time she took a breath. She wanted to lay her head down and rest, perhaps forever, but knew that was not to be. She had come this far, had lived this long—drowning at this point would be an insult to the progress she had made, even though it had all been for nothing at the very end.
With a limping crawl, the quarian made it a few feet from where the surf ended before exhaustion overcame her and she collapsed. Her maimed foot dragging behind her, useless, and the stump of her left arm once again empty, it felt to Roahn like she had been shattered into pieces. Her swollen ankle felt ballooned inside her boot. Her lungs felt they were scraping along the cracks in her ribs. There was a remarkable chilliness that seemed all too eager to embrace her. Freezing and in agony—the combination was not at all enticing.
There was a soft trilling noise—like a nocturnal amphibian would make—to Roahn's right. She looked down and saw Aleph's teleportation pylon, miraculously still clenched in her hand, slowly ebb its turquoise light. Its energy faded, it became inert in her grip, only a solitary blinking power icon at its base. She instinctively pocketed the useless trinket.
Wetly gasping, Roahn rolled herself over onto her back. A deep purple sky, untarnished by light pollution, glistened a tender bed of stars above her while the firelight of the rising sun across the sea turned the boundary between day and night the color of toasted caramel. At her feet, the waves desperately grasped for her body. Across the ocean, floating sheets of ice bobbed in a slight harbor. Tipping her gaze forward, the quarian could glimpse caps of white atop distant mountains. Slight inclines of green grass marked hilly borders between the peaks and the sea. Tall bluffs barricaded the sides of the beach, tendrils of dusty wind sweeping from the sheer drops to be carried off in dizzying loops over the pounding water.
Rannochian winter. A clash of climates. If she rolled back over onto her stomach, she could see… yes, right there a mile down the beach! A glimmer of sunlight reflected from glazed windows. A familiar abode.
And in her line of sight, just below her family house, Roahn spotted a limp form lying upon dry sand. A body. Red rivulets soaked into the windswept shore, creating branches that weaved together a complex map, stemming from the lifeless person and drew downward for the waves to wash away like a sickening brush.
Her heart skipped a beat. A drop of adrenaline plunged into her veins.
"Dad…" she moaned as she pushed herself up, feebly scrambling to make it over to where the human was lying.
She worked to sit Shepard up, an effort that ended up failing miserably. Roahn then dragged her father away from the pool of blood he was creating and gently laid the back of his head onto her lap. His white hair was damp and matted with the ocean and the color red. The two remained in that position on the beach, a brutal wind flowing in from the sea, chilling the both of them to the bone.
An unfocused eye peered back up at her, a bruised eyelid fluttering open and shut intermittently. Roahn tried not to look at the empty pit of her father's missing eye, his patch having been misplaced. Recognizing who he was with, Shepard's cracked lips turned upwards in a smile.
"A dream…" he whispered.
"No…" Roahn said tearfully as she shook her head, a hole inside her soul boring right through her. "No. You're awake, dad. This isn't a dream. You're with me now. You're safe. Alive."
Fighting to control her breathing, Roahn looked out and towards the horizon, soaking in the environment while puffed clouds passed lazily overhead. A final look for salvation in any form, for she did not have the power or the strength to withstand what was unquestionably inevitable, she knew.
"You know where we are?" she asked her father as she tenderly squeezed his shoulder, battling to prevent a whimper from creeping into her voice. "Do you see? It's over, dad. We're home. We're home…"
"Home," Shepard slowly repeated, as if the word had been uttered in a foreign tongue. "Home. I'd almost forgotten, Roahn. Tell… tell me, honey. Tell me… what do you see?"
The quarian was now actively struggling to stem her tears—a losing battle. She had to silence her vocabulator for a few brief moments in order for Shepard to not hear her cry.
"I see…" she sniffled. "I see… the beach where we used to walk together as a family. Remember those summers? When the sand was hot and the temperature was perfect?"
"You always wanted to be walking between us," Shepard wistfully recounted. "Hand in hand. God… you were so little."
Roahn kept looking across the landscape for things to point out.
"I see… the onosho tree right by our house. It's gotten to be gigantic. Mom always used to call me whenever I climbed too high on the branches."
"She always did worry for you. Wanted to make sure… you were safe."
"And there's… there's the mountains. Remember how beautiful they look when winter comes? It's like that right now. Covered with snow several feet thick. You took me up there once—it was so quiet, like a blanket had been thrown over the entire landscape. My feet sank right through the top layer. You were laughing. Keelah… it… it could very well have been yesterday."
Shepard closed his eyes in agreement, reminiscing of a past that had long run its course. Remembering what it was like to not have one's fear extend outward, to be fully entrenched in the moment, to have only love and family surround him, even if it was only for a fleeting time.
"I never had a home," Shepard murmured lethargically, still resting on Roahn's lap. "Not until after the war. Huh… Rannoch. Not what… I would have expected of myself as a young man. To lay down roots on the quarian homeworld. But it made sense in the end. Perfect sense. I had… your mother was there to guide me. Then you… Roahn… then you came along. It's a beautiful world… perhaps the one I always deserved. If it was good enough for your mother…"
The man was interrupted by a series of wracking coughs. Roahn held onto him in alarm, but he quickly reassured her with a simple pat on his daughter's forearm.
"I don't have long," his voice turned gravelly as he struggled to perceive his daughter in focus. "Roahn, please don't waste this chance."
But Roahn was unwilling to accept what was, in fact, a simple and obvious truth, no matter how firmly she tried to avoid it.
"No, no. I can—I can get you some help, dad. The town's not far away, I can return with a medic—"
"It's too late," Shepard gently emphasized as he struggled to peer upward, to penetrate that glass layer that separated her environment, her eternal prison, from his. "It's been too late… for a while now. I've always been doomed to a truncated life."
Roahn tried to ignore the growing red stain that was starting to slide out from underneath her father's body. It touched her leg, blotching the suit there with the remains of his life. Punished by Aleph, drained by the Monolith, the man who had endured so much had finally reached his limit. There was nothing she could do to stop it.
"Dad, please…" she mournfully mumbled as she hung her head, eyes shut in denial.
"I knew this… had been coming for a while now," he croaked as he continued to pat the quarian's arm. When she looked at him, he gave a simple nod. "Cancer. Same as your mother. Even if… all this hadn't happened… I still would not have had long. It's just… I made it to the end a little sooner than expected, it looks like."
In an instant, the man Roahn now held seemed so much smaller. So frail. The titan of war cut down by time, by disease. When she had been little, he had towered over her like a monument. And now she had him in her arms. The quarian gave a lethargic blink, squeezing a few tears out.
"You didn't try…?" she stumbled in her question.
But Shepard shook his head. "I did. Went to several doctors. Too many hospitals that I could count. Different medications, different treatments. All gave… similar diagnoses. The genes in my cells… simply had been altered too much over the years for any treatment to be effective. It all metastasized in my body at a—"
He trailed off as he now noticed that his daughter was crying. It always took him a little longer than normal to ascertain Roahn's emotions. The quarian was hanging her head, body quietly wracked by sobs. Shepard took a long look at her and his lips parted in a sigh—knowing how much this was hurting Roahn was bringing him pain as well. He struggled to lift an arm, limb wavering in the breeze. With a sniffle, Roahn noticed the effort and gently took his hand, guiding it up to the side of her helmet, to let his calloused palm feel the scratched metal where it met the cracked glass.
They stared at one another, half-blinded by tears, neither one willing to break the connection.
"You were…" Shepard spoke to Roahn breathily, "…absolutely perfect. As wonderful of a daughter as anyone could deserve."
Roahn was in danger of collapsing in hysterics. She had to shut her eyes again, the tears flowing more fiercely now.
The ghost of a smile flitted across Shepard's mouth. He stared at the dying night sky serenely.
"'Dad,'" he repeated. "People… have called me many things over many years. Yet they all… pale in comparison… to the privilege you grant me… when you call me 'dad.' I can't wait… to tell Tali all about you."
The quarian was now crying even harder, her chest aching so much as she stifled her sobs.
"It's not fair!" Roahn cried. "This… all of this… it just isn't fair! You need—you need to be here! I can't… I can't lose you too. Not you too. I don't care about anything else! I just wanted to be with you. With mom. With my family. Why? Why couldn't I have just that? Why? Why…"
Desperately, she clutched her father's hand with her own, nearly crushing it in her grip as she sought to hold onto him for as long as she could. As if the last of her strength was the one thing preventing him from slipping away.
A flock of sea birds flew by in a "V" formation, calling out to one another. Dried bushes made crackling noises as their bare branches brushed together. The lapping of the waves deposited frothy bubbles at the feet of the only people populating the beach. Shellfish were briefly uncovered as the water briefly swept away, only to be reburied as the sand filled the void.
Shepard's grasp subtly relaxed in Roahn's hand. Breathing quickly, Roahn's bright eyes widened as she beheld her father starting to lose focus again. He was lolling his head upward, his perception slipping at a rapid pace. He was fading.
"Dad?" Roahn whispered as she gave the human a gentle jostle. "Dad? No, no, dad. Stay with me. Stay with me! Dad!"
But he did not respond. He did not even seem to be listening. Rather, his eye swept upward further and further, almost as if he was staring into the overhead abyss, seeking to count the stars, wanting to know the mystery of how many worlds the galaxy held.
The roar of the waves nearly drowned out his next words.
"Tali…" he mumbled, almost drunkenly. He was seeing beyond Roahn now—a hallucination. "Tali…"
"No, dad," Roahn stumbled through her tears as she shook the man in her arm. "Dad, it's me. It's Roahn."
But her efforts were fruitless in trying to yank the man away from his phantoms, his final wraiths.
"Tali… can you see her? Isn't she amazing? Isn't she…"
Roahn felt Shepard's hand slacken completely in her grip. A simple exhalation made it past his still lips. His far-away gaze turned glassy and his head lolled against her body with a drying finality.
Commander John Shepard, the first human Spectre, the savior of the galaxy, was gone.
The morning proceeded to grow bright as the light found the quarian sobbing for long minutes over the still form of her father. She rocked back and forth, Shepard's eyes now closed, as her closed throat refused to give voice to her cries, to let the countryside consume her grief and for the sea to drown her despair with a constant drone. Roahn hugged her father's body as she became beside herself with sorrow, the chin of her helmet resting against the top of his whitened head. The pain that had manifested around her broken bones, cuts, and bruises had all been forgotten, for there was not a stab so brutal than what her heart had just suffered. Sensation fell away in a numb haze—a thick and slurring drug.
Behind the partition of her mask was a face frozen in a harrowing but silent shriek, one that distorted and stretched her features as she tried so hard to scream, but nothing would come up. Just air. Quiet, quiet air.
And so she cried. She cried for her father. She cried for herself. She cried for the memory of her mother. There was much to cry about, it seemed. Upon this stretch of sand, she was content to wallow in her solitude, to wither in the face of what the galaxy's cruelty could bestow upon her. She could cry for that as well.
Minutes passed—or was it hours?—as Roahn cradled the dead body of her father all alone there on the beach. The quarian was unable to move, in shock, disbelieving the final blow that had been delivered unto her. The sun felt warm as it bathed her suit. Warm on her legs and shoulders. Warmth through her visor. Warmth on her skin—
A burning sensation upon her arm. Light… directly upon it. Roahn's eyes fluttered open. That should not be possible. The rest of her body felt warm from the sun, yes, but there was a patch on her right triceps that felt unimaginably hot. Like someone had directed a lamp right at her arm there, searing it with a focused beam.
Almost afraid at what she would find, Roahn hesitated for a moment before she finally looked down to peer upon the source of this unforeseen stimuli.
She could only gape, emotional lubricants drying on her face.
There was a tear. A rip on her suit not even three inches long upon her left arm, two inches up from her elbow. Dried blood had stemmed from a cut she had inexplicably received, trickling down her limb and suit in burgundy roots. The cut itself, a red line upon deep gray skin, had clotted some time ago, washed clean by the ocean, it looked like. The wound was shallow, not at all serious, but that was the least of Roahn's worries. What gripped her with dread was the hidden trauma that had been inflicted—the exposure of her body to the outside, with all of its germs and particulates that would overwhelm her immune system in an instant.
But this rip… where had it come from? Surely, she would have known when…
Remembering her fatigue, brow drenched with sweat, the sizzling noise of the teleporter engaging to her right, stumbling at the edge of a failed attack while on board the Morningtide. Aleph moved in after evading the quarian's slash, sword held high before he quickly gave a swipe forward, the arc passing dizzyingly close to Roahn's body. She could almost feel the heat of the blade. She jerked back instinctively, adrenaline dulling her senses, staving off little agonies while she warred, yet there remained a slight smolder. A tingle. She waved it off as a trick of her nerves, a deceiving remnant.
Then… she had felt the heat. The omni-blade had indeed sliced through the mesh of her suit, faintly grazing against her skin. Aleph had made contact with his weapon, all along. In one fell swoop, Roahn realized, the cyborg had destroyed both her and Shepard. He had ended her family, all within the span of seconds.
Her hand unconsciously went to her collar, her breathing becoming fiercer. How long had she been exposed, breathing in deadly atmospheres? But no matter how much she thought about it, the answer made no sense.
Too long. It had been too long since she had been given this wound. Whether for a second or a day, any vulnerabilities in her suit would have taken effect in an obvious fashion, the results nearly instantaneous. Then why was it she was not exhibiting symptoms? She should have been rolling on the ground by now, frothing red foam at the mouth as her lungs filled with fluid, blood vessels in her eyes ruptured, and her throat closed completely shut.
Yet, despite all the evidence, the result was completely contrarian to logic. She was, for the moment, symptom-less.
The pacing of her breathing refusing to die down, Roahn quickly punched in a diagnostic command for her suit to make an analysis. The processors embedded within the micro-fiber of the enviro-suit's cortical layers gave a result back in seconds as various sensors took simultaneous readings of her blood, her immune system, and other bodily functions. They blazed out a result for her to see on the inside of her visor, though she was still half-blinded by tears and had to blink several times in order to read it.
All diagnostics were returning with all readings firmly within their normal ranges. No infection. No adverse reaction. She was absolutely healthy.
"I don't…" Roahn's teeth chattered as her mind swam in a teetering daze as she peered at the damaged suit flap, staring at the torn skin underneath. Her voice sounded strained, raw, like her throat was cracked and blistering. "But I… I don't understand…"
Then a sudden spike, a long-lost pain, rippled through her in a surge of memory. A statement, one she had thought had been blithely uttered, only to realize its actual significance. It was the final piece of the puzzle, the one thing that she had not yet figured out, but had been assured that she would.
Aleph. Her conversation.
On that desolate moon, she remembered standing in her frozen state while an uncovered Aleph raised his fingers to the sun, light melting off of his fingertips as an imperceptible vibration began to overtake his limb. The cyborg's two-toned eyes ruthlessly refused to break his gaze with the quarian, and his soft words carried a finality as he turned his palm upward.
"Consider this a gift," he had said, right before an energetic jolt, like a bolt of lightning, seemed to split Roahn at the seams.
The quarian could remember her own terrifying screams as she collapsed and writhed on the ground while her reality tore itself all apart around her. Nerves injected with fire. Skin feeling like poisonous insects crawling around underneath. The flesh of her eyes seemingly bubbling and boiling. Terrible agonies, such that she had never experienced before. The pain would soon shut itself off shortly thereafter, though it had been a sensation that had felt like it had lasted a lifetime.
"What did you do to me?" she had thickly gasped once it was all over.
"In time, you will find that out," had been his answer.
Opening her eyes, Roahn stared down at her three-fingered hand, looking upon it dumbly as a tortured calmness began to uncontrollably radiate from her body. Something within her intrinsically understood the meaning behind his words, even though she was slow to catch up.
"It can't be…" was all she could say, could think.
That pain she had felt, when Aleph had closed his hand… Roahn had thought he had been deliberately using the power of the Monolith to torture her in a sadistic display, to manipulate her implants in such a way simply to bring her agony. In a way, she was not too far off from the truth, but only that at no point were Aleph's motives in any way made out of malice.
Roahn's diagnosis test was able to fill in the blanks. A discrepancy in her immune system had been logged between this test and the last one she had undergone, which had been about a week prior. Now it was picking up a prosperous augmentation in the existence of certain proteins associated with her innate immune system. Dendritic cells, macrophages, monocytes, neutrophils, epithelial cells. Roahn's blood was swimming in these newfound proteins, all coded to the identification of common pathogen molecules and damage patterns. Common in other species… but not in quarians. So much change… all so suddenly. This was not an evolution that had been manifested from a mere adaption to an environment. This was a change foisted upon a struggling system, a massive update and reboot that had completely and irrevocably altered the cellular structure of an intricate complex.
Altered, but for the better?
It had indeed been the implants that had caused this, Roahn's eyes widened as she continued to read the findings from her diagnostic. But she had misunderstood the sensation they had brought upon her when Aleph had activated them. They had directly stimulated several of her body organs to operate at levels that had never been considered feasible in a regular quarian. Immunomodulator hormones, spurned to generation by her tissues, were altering the sensitivity of her immune system to produce cells designed to target the most basic of diseases. Alterations to her chromosomes and genes had also been documented, too! The implants had initiated a rudimentary form of gene therapy to attack the very linkages in her genetic structure that made her vulnerable to an acute allergic reaction. The list of affected chromosomes seemed endless: 3p24 chromosome, chemokine cell receptor 4, 5q25-33 chromosome, β2-Adrenergic receptor, TIM2 gene, 7q12-11 for the T-cell receptor γ chain, 20p8 chromosome, ADAM-34 gene. Each and every one a candidate for every single immunologic vulnerability in her system.
Every single potentially fatal flaw in her system had been patched.
Aleph had gifted her this, to be able to perceive the universe without a barrier of fear to stand in the way. He had wanted for her, all along, to know what it truly felt to be an equal.
With trembling fingers, Roahn reached up and depressed the catches on the underside of her mask. She did not lift the visor away just yet, with one final thought running through her head, that she was completely out of her mind for even considering what she was about to do. That thought was overridden as she slowly proceeded to slide the covering away from the slots in her helmet so that she could set it beside her. The visor slowly sunk into the damp sand, tiny particulates sparkling around its face.
Cold ocean air washed over her face. The strong smell of the sea barged into her nostrils. It burrowed into her tongue—the taste of brine and ice. A sensation so intense she began crying again. So much… it was all so much. She was no longer afraid, for her dread had melted away like morning frost under the sun's gaze. Out there, sitting on that beach with that same gaze beating down upon her head, the quarian breathed the air of Rannoch, again and again.
That insurmountable obstacle… finally harnessed.
Mouth curved downward, lips parted, the tips of her teeth showing, Roahn gave a loud sob as she now looked down upon her father, watching his peaceful face where he lay upon her lap. Her tears streamed down her face rapidly, so fast her eyelids could no longer hold back the tide. She cried because she had realized her new advantage too late. Too late for her father to see. He had died staring up at his own mirrored reflection in that stupid blue glass of her visor. He had probably wanted to see her face one last time before it was over. But now he would never get that chance. Neither of them would.
He died staring back at that soulless helmet when all he had wanted was to see his daughter.
The quarian was dangerously quaking, tiny gasps struggling to make themselves heard as she shuddered with her destructive throes. The world washed away in fluid hues, an impenetrable glaze misting across her vision as her thoughts fizzled into nothingness, into obscurity.
Roahn threw her head back and gave a howling scream to the sky, eyes clenched shut so tightly that tears bubbled from the corners. She screamed and screamed and screamed, opening her mouth as wide as it would go. She wanted to crack the sky with her voice, to have it all cave in and topple down upon her, to let it all consume her with its heavy wrath so that her shattered mind would remain in pieces no longer.
Her screams echoed across the beach, over the waves, and across the ocean. They became the sound of the tide, capturing the quarian's pain and anguish in its forever churn.
Whenever a wave broke, Roahn's scream wailed back.
Ornate elevator doors pushed aside to allow the lone occupant to step from the lift. Aleph strode into the Council chambers, the light dim and oily. His armor, polished like an ancient ceremonial warrior, oozed reflected illumination at every angle. Shapes and shadows slid off of his perfectly curved helmet, a dynamic impression throwing off the bonds of stagnancy. He did not speak as he stood to let the magnificence of the place beset its monumental importance upon him. A thoughtful beat passed. He appeared satisfied.
There was an eerie quiet that presided over the room, one that would normally have been inhabited by the light chattering and murmuring of politicians and envoys. The cradle of galactic civilization, reduced to a ghastly silence. Aleph found an odd comfort in the place, relishing the wide-open area where the only emitted sounds resonated from himself.
He walked in a straight line upon the solid white marble tiles and ascended the staircases one after the other. Trees with golden leaves formed a halo of decaying vegetation at their base where they had been planted. Recessed fountains spewed faint trickles of water that were neither ostentatious nor overbearing. The sloped walls stretched high to the ceiling, allowing Aleph's footfalls to reverberate wetly. There had been a thoughtful design to this place—to emphasize an atmosphere of nurturing and organic symbiosis. A pity, Aleph reasoned, that the metaphorical construction had been manifested from a woefully naïve mindset.
Aleph paused in his gait before he lifted a foot and stepped over a body in the middle of the hall, his cloak faintly brushing the edges of the deceased's face as he traveled.
He avoided stepping in any of the dark puddles that had long dried upon the floor, continuing to evading the other bodies distributed around the room that had been the source of these discharges. There had to have been at least three dozen of them that laid upon the ground, sprawled upon the stairs, slumped on the benches. People of every race and creed, with analogous expressions of shock apparent on their faces, their last thoughts being of a single and ubiquitous panic.
Unique in life. Similar in death.
Blood had all leaked from their orifices at the exact same moment in a single stroke—brutal hemorrhages struck by an impartial hand. The blood sometimes mixed together, forming odd colors. Red. Blue. Greed. Magenta. There was a spectral beauty in it, this shared death. A scene so still it was like walking into a painting.
Aleph then made it to the final set of stairs as he walked around a hilled garden feature. His hands remained unclenched at his sides. Internally, he held no pleasure, no sense of finality. There was no revelry to be had. There were other things to consider, other prospects to concern himself with.
He regretted that he had felt it necessary to trick Roahn'Shepard in such a fashion by constructing that facsimile of himself, but he had reasoned that there would have been no other way to see his objectives through without it. The schematics for its design had all been derived from Aleph's own make—the sole copy locked safely in his head—and he had spent a great deal of time devoting himself to making it as structurally congruous as he intended, though he had made some deliberate concessions in his work. Commanding such an intricate platform from such a distance was always going to entice the issue of input lag, but Aleph felt that such a reduction in reaction time was a sacrifice that he was more than willing to make, considering the stakes. In the end, procuring the necessary materials and finding the time to build the facsimile was an investment Aleph was only interested in making once. He held no designs on replicating his efforts going forward. The past was the past, and the future dictated his full attention.
At the end of the chamber, a thin platform jutted out above a greenhouse—a place where hopefuls came to beseech the Council. Aleph walked to the end of the platform. A holo-panel blinked forth, reacting to his presence. He looked down at it, studying the icons for a moment, before he touched a single button. A stout walkway then extended from the overhang, connecting the platform to the risers on the other side, the area where the Council usually stood. No bodies were occupying that part of the terrace—the members of the Council would most likely be found lying in their offices, but that was not what Aleph wanted to see right now.
He approached the tall window, the one that had shattered when Sovereign had first attacked the station thirty years ago. Before him stretched the five arms of the Citadel, each one dark and dead. A lifeless structure, floating in space without a purpose. No lines of skycar traffic glittered like embedded wires on a chip. No crystal glass spires of skyscrapers beamed beacons of office light.
It was just him. Alone. A singular point with only the deceased as his brethren.
Aleph was motionless, completely consumed with anticipation. Years upon years of planning. Only now were things finally coming to fruition. The maneuvering, the scheming, the manipulation. His cultivated patience had finally been rewarded. He could scarcely believe it himself, yet the proof was before his eyes.
The Tranquility had come to pass.
The moment broken, Aleph suddenly wavered and he dropped to a knee, briefly stricken by violent and brutal thrashes. He bent his back, armor creaking, as he clenched his hands tightly, almost as if he was erupting into a bellow. But the cyborg remained silent throughout, his cloak flowing around his legs. Rage and despondency, muzzled and caged. Aleph shook where he knelt like he was being stabbed over and over again. His hands unclenched and formed savage claws, grasping at nothing. A subtle plea, meant only for himself, or a lament, knowing that forgiveness would forever be out of reach.
The spasm passed and Aleph fell still. With a heavy scraping of boots, he rose back up, head slowly tilting upward, the five arms of the Citadel evenly splayed out upon his helmet. The cyborg was not intent on standing on ceremony in this place. He reached up, disconnected two thick cablings that snaked into ports around the curve of his covering before he lifted the helmet off his head entirely and let go of it. The covering crashed at his feet.
His bare faceplate exposed, his damaged and lidless eyes stared serenely out the window, past the fruitless grasp of the station and out into the cold infinite beyond. The icons that glimmered around the shield that protected his face glowed aquamarine, as did the tubes that connected from his jaw and trailed down his neck. An electric jitter passed through him, an elated feeling. What was to come would be the determinant lynchpin for the development of this galaxy, the fulcrum point that would decide the fate of trillions. All of the motifs he had in place, the underlying pattern, all had formed according to his design. Now everything would depend on the reactions from the afflicted—an urging for the civilized galaxy to face their destiny and to seize it.
The war to end the concept of war. To bring about a forever era of peace.
A Tranquil War.
As a shadow from a far-away binary cluster became blotted out by the Reaper that was descending into place, its squid-like reflection glinting off a corner of Aleph's faceplate, the cyborg lifted a hand, feeling the connection he had with the creature, tugging at its power, and grasping it between unyielding fingers. It offered no resistance, giving itself willingly to the man who had summoned it, who held its strings.
A thick wheeze of satisfied breath escaped the ventilation intakes upon Aleph's neck. His instruments for the coming conflict had been assembled. Now it was time to see how they could be countered.
"It all led to this," he whispered to himself, the demonic tremulation in his voice having vanished. "I took the route that was presented to me, same as everyone else took theirs. Only I could see where it led. The end. The trillions and trillions that followed mindless paths, that made blind choices, and took familiar turns, they helped lead me to this moment. They made their choices… but they were still choices. The paths they made were resistant to change. Even more so to abrupt change. They drew the shape for me without realizing that the lines could not be erased. There was no other way for me to live. There exist forces that everyone refuses to acknowledge the existence of. Sometimes these forces inhabit permanent shapes. To bring form to the formless."
Another tender sucking breath.
"They say history is written by the victors. A binary point of view. History should be written by the truth. And the authors should be the equitable virtuosos. The painter laying down his colors upon canvas to make a beautiful rendition borne from his experiences. The craftsman carving out a stone trough to last ten thousand years. Even an artificial mind giving shape to a mass relay—a technology that would shape the course of evolution for millennia. Creations that had been manifested from a simple adherence to what their makers perceived as their own truth. How will history interpret my truth? Perhaps they will think I had delivered a threat, one that I made good on. Others may think I delivered on a promise. Suppose both are what constitutes the truth. The answer, as maybe they will never realize, doesn't matter. I have only my path to follow. Those that tread in my footsteps are left to decipher my reasoning. They are welcome to try. They will try to think of me as a painter, a craftsman, or an AI. Everything happens for a reason, doesn't it? If only I had the design on becoming a painter. I might even have found delight in such intentions. To make worlds of my own imagination on the confines of a canvas, of a screen. Would my truth have found a similar form on such mediums? I would like to think so. But that was not where my path led me. Like all of us, I could not deviate."
A/N: A year and two months. Half a million words. I don't think that, when I first started writing, I would ever devote so much time to one singular story, let alone a series of my own making. From what was intended to be its own self-contained story has now morphed into... this. I blink my eyes and wonder how the hell this all happened, sometimes.
And we're still not done!
As you can probably tell, the story of Cenotaph and of Roahn is not finished. Not remotely. I know you must have a lot of questions, such as, "What happened to Cirae?", "Why did you bring a Reaper back only to not use it all that much?", "Why are you killing everyone I love, Rob?" Trust me, I know that you might be going through some confusion, and that's entirely by design. The answers to which I intend to provide all of you in Cenotaph's final installment: Mausoleum. The good news is, I've outlined 90% of that third story already and will be fixing the overall plan up in the coming weeks. The bad news? I'm probably not going to start writing it right away. Let's face it, a year and two months of regular writing is a long time, and since I'm not getting paid for any of this (sadly) I don't have that much free time to devote to this hobby. I tell you, I'm exhausted. It'll be at least a month or two before I start working on Mausoleum, to finish the conflict between Roahn and Aleph, because I've had this story in my head for too damn long. I need to put it to paper otherwise I'll go insane. Don't worry, you won't be waiting half a year for me to start writing. I won't be able to stay away for very long.
I should extend my profound thanks to all of you who read this far and have provided your thoughts towards this beast - your opinions have, and always will be, valuable to me and I'm grateful for your feedback. The Cenotaph series would not be here if it weren't for you.
One last time, I really would like to know what you thought about this last chapter, or about the story as a whole. Let me know what you felt I did right, so that I can focus on continuing that streak going forward, or what I did wrong, so that I can correct any problem areas in the future. Any and all opinions are welcome (except for flaming/trolling - those posts I either laugh at or delete). Reviews are the lifeblood of an author and, though I'll never lock a chapter behind an arbitrary number of reviews required per chapter, I want to know how my audience feels.
I'm bloating this A/N, so I'll wrap this up. Thank you all for reading Cenotaph II: Monolith and I hope you found a lot of entertainment in reading it. I'm looking forward to seeing you again when Cenotaph III: Mausoleum finally comes out. You've been a great audience, as always.
"On Your Way"
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Dead Citadel (End)
"Call Me Joker"
Joker (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)