"Shepard, wake up…"
"Shepard wake up! Talk to me damn it!"
It wasn't Harbinger. It was a female's voice, oddly familiar. He could see her face but it was hazy, like looking through stained glass. Was he back on the Cerberus operating table? He reached out a hand to touch the face of the angel before him.
"Shepard, you're awake? Can you hear me?"
Shepard's head slowly cleared, the fog lifting and his vision returning. As his conscious mind entered reality once more he felt the pain that had been blissfully denied him as his subconscious had been roaming the realm of dreams.
He sat up wincing, clutching the wound on his forehead, his fingers sensing the healing application of the medi-gel applied there. "Miri. I can hear you. What happened?"
"You were knocked unconscious during the battle, a bulkhead came loose. You've been out for several hours."
Shepard inspected his surroundings. He was in the Normandy's Med Bay.
"You were dreaming again, weren't you?" Miranda asked, worry etched across her face.
"Yes. I'm fine."
"I worry about you Shepard."
"What was this dream about? The same as usual?"
"I saw…I'm not sure exactly. Earth I think. Swallowed in flame. Miri, I…I'm being warned. It's the Prothean cipher in my head. The visions are similar to the one's I had following Eden Prime, the nightmares have that same feel to them. Only…it's not the Prothean's that are being exterminated this time…it's us."
"You think it's accurate? Like prophesy? A vision of the future?"
"I don't know… Whatever it is, it's bad. But…we have to stop it. I feel that at least to be true."
"I admire your resolve commander…" Miranda smiled, moving in close and taking up residence on Shepard's lap.
Shepard embraced her, holding her close. She was the only semblance of sanity in a fucked-up universe. The only thing that kept him from going completely mad.
"It's a burden you know. To have so many expect so much…" he confided.
"Shepard, I don't know how you've kept it together as long as you have. There's nothing wrong with moments of vulnerability. You taught me that."
"I can feel myself slipping. With each day that passes. With each new nightmare, each word from Harbinger…my mind doesn't feel like it's my own."
Miranda stroked Shepard's face, her hands lightly brushing the stubble of his face. Her fingers traced the line of his lips, stroking them softly. She cradled his chin and bought his head upwards for a passionate kiss.
"How do you feel now commander?" she teased playfully.
"Much more like myself," he smiled. "My head may not be working but at least all is well down below."
"Really? I'll need confirmation of that…"
They locked lips again, temperatures rising and hands wandering lustfully across each others bodies. Miranda moved down toward Shepard's waist…
"Commander…" Joker's voice rang out.
Miranda looked indignant. "Joker? Were you spying on us?"
"Er, no ma'am, just wondering if the commander was up and ready."
Shepard smiled, remembering a similar interruption Joker had sprung on him and Liara several years ago. He briefly felt shame at being twice cock-blocked by the wise-cracking helmsman. He'd have to remember to return the favour during the next shore leave…or the next time Joker and EDI were engaged in whatever relationship they had going on up there in the cockpit. "I'm here Joker. What's the problem?"
"No problem commander, just thought you'd want a sitrep now you've decided to wake up from that pleasant nap you were having."
"I'll be there shortly smart ass."
"Aye, aye commander. Me and EDI will get back to our game of hide and seek. Best thing is I always win, I know she's housed in the quantum bluebox."
"I am this entire ship Jeff. I cannot hide anywhere."
"So you keep reminding me…I always worry about what parts of you I'm touching…"
Shepard took a while to wash and relax. Joker had informed him that they were currently landed safe and secure at the Quarian outpost. The geth attackers had been destroyed, the Normandy escaping with minimum damage. Engineering were working hard on getting the multicore shielding operational again; within a few hours the sun of Dholen would be rising and it's radiation output would likely start cooking the crew within their own ship. Shepard was eager to get off planet before dawn. There was no guarantee that the sun wouldn't overload the ship's shields as well.
Shepard suited up and headed to the CIC.
"EDI, any news on the geth fleet?" he asked of the AI.
"Dholen's solar output interferes with sensors making an adequate scan of geth numbers impossible. However this planet is a geth stronghold Shepard. There are likely millions of geth programs running within the area with an unknown number housed aboard mobile platforms."
"So the fleet we encountered…that wasn't an invasion force?"
"I do not know. It is logical to assume that the number of mobile platforms encountered indicate an attack force. As to their intention I cannot say."
"Where is their fleet now?"
"I do not know. Our last accurate scans reveal that they touched down somewhere on the planet's dayside near the equatorial band."
"Commander," spoke Joker, "That Quarian marine, Kal'Reegar? He's waiting for you groundside. He requested you bring Tali along to your meeting."
"Very well. I'll bring Miranda along too. Joker, you're XO while we're gone."
"I'm not a leader of men, commander. I'm a follower of women but that's about it…"
Shepard stepped out of the Normandy with his crew close behind, the humidity in the air almost choking him. For a moment he was envious of the quarian enviro-suit. Reegar met them at the foot of the exit ramp, extending a hand in greeting.
"Commander, it's an honour to see you again. You too Miss Vas Normandy."
"Thank you Reegar," responded Tali.
"What's this about then Reegar? My crew almost died getting here."
"Apologies commander, but we were unaware that the geth would launch such a large scale attack."
"Why did they attack?"
"I'm not entirely certain commander, but please follow me."
Reegar led the group through the crumbling ruins and stopped at a partially concealed door leading down into a basement area of a nearby desecrated building.
"Down here please."
The group followed down several flights of stairs, until finally the narrow corridors opened out to reveal a massive room filled with equipment of every kind.
"This was an old military bomb shelter," said Reegar. "Our techs re-purposed it as a science station to monitor the activities of the Dholen star."
Reegar continued to lead the group through the room, Tali stopping periodically to gaze in wonder at the array of equipment around her. Reegar, noticing her curiosity, addressed her. "Miss Vas Normandy, please feel free to assist the scientists. They need all the help they can get."
Shepard sensed that beneath her mask Tali was beaming, and she shot away like an exuberant puppy toward the nearest monitoring station.
"Commander, follow if you will. There is someone you must meet."
Reegar led Shepard and Miranda into a side room; it's sparse contents consisting of a simple stone table and two terminals. A quarian apiece sat at the computer stations, and another sat at the table. Shepard was shocked to see another human seated at the stone dais alongside his quarian counterpart.
"Commander, be seated please," gestured Reegar.
Shepard and Miranda took a seat on the uncomfortable stone that passed for an ancient quarian chair. "This is our chief science tech, Ki'Lara Vas Olleran." Reegar said, addressing the quarian sat opposite them. This is his bodyguard, Rand…"
"Fortuna." Exclaimed Shepard. "Yes, I recognise him." Shepard smiled and extended a hand in greeting. Fortuna did the same.
"Commander Shepard," Fortuna smiled. "Been a while."
"You two know each other?" enquired Miranda.
"Yes," replied Shepard. "We were at Arcturus together on the N7 training program. Last I heard he'd gone rogue. Left the Alliance. A soldier turned merc turned bounty hunter."
"Funny Shepard, I'd heard similar tales about you. I thought you were dead."
"Rumours of my death were greatly exaggerated."
"So I see. And who's your girlfriend? You sure know how to pick 'em Shep, I'll give you that."
"Another charmer I see," snickered Miranda.
"The very best ma'lady."
"So what you doing here?" asked Shepard.
"Just going where the credits take me. Right now that's this pisshole in the service of the esteemed Mr Vas Olleran."
The scientist Vas Olleran extended a three fingered hand for a greeting. "Commander, I've heard many great things."
"And as of yet I've heard nothing," Shepard responded. "I trust someone is going to fill me in on why I'm here?"
"Of course commander." said Vas Olleran. "For years now I have studied the instability of the Dholen star. I have also studied reports of your encounters with Sovereign and the Reapers, information I paid a high price for. I have investigated your findings on the Prothean extinction. The years have made me an expert on alien culture, I am well versed on alien history, specifically the history of humanity. I have gleaned information from all your top scientists throughout many early time periods."
Shepard scratched his head. "So? What does that have to do with me?"
"I shall explain commander. In the 1930's time period of your planet, a famous human scientist named Einstein proposed a model for our universe based on a cyclic event of a big bang, universal expansion, and a big crunch, after which the universe would collapse and begin anew. Einstein's hypothesis was initially discounted as it went against the 2nd law of thermodynamics. However when your scientists discovered dark energy it provided an answer to solving the problem of "thermodynamic heat death" where the universe had reached a maximum state of entropy. They adapted their theories so that in newer iterations of the cyclic model the universe followed a distinct net expansion pattern, repeating over and over, meaning no entropy would build up."
"I'm not sure I follow you…"
"Don't you see commander, this universal cycle of destruction and rebirth runs parallel to the actions of the Reapers, albeit confined to a single galaxy rather than the universe as a whole. They constantly facilitate a cycle of 50,000 year galactic extinction and rebuilding. What your scientists observed was not actually an indication of a universal constant, but a phenomenon relevant to the Milky Way. They had inadvertently stumbled upon the truth."
"What are you saying? What truth?"
"They surmised that the model of expansion and destruction they were witnessing was attributed to the build up of dark energy. They adapted their findings so that in the newest iterations of the cyclic model the build up of dark energy was so rapid it caused the universe to expand so quickly it would create a "big rip", in which all matter is torn apart."
Shepard sighed. "I'm still not entirely sure what your getting at here. I thought you said it was the Reapers who destroyed the galaxy, not some dark energy."
"This is where my research comes in. As you know, the quarians have for some time been studying the effects dark energy is having on Haestrom's star. The star is ageing when by all rights it shouldn't be. The mass effect is reducing the physical quantity of the sun's interior, destabilising the solar material. If your scientists were right it could indicate the start of a "big crunch" in which all matter in the galaxy is destroyed. We could be looking at a galactic extinction event. Even if they were wrong, we've witnessed this phenomena in other star systems. Your reports on Harbinger indicated that he could bend matter to his will, manipulate dark energy and biotics unlike anything you had seen before. If the Reapers are capable of manipulating matter in this way then they could well be behind the problems we are having with Haestrom, If they wipe out our stars and solar systems our resources vanish. Without resources our worlds and our civilizations will crumble and die. The Heretic geth were agents for the Reapers. If what I'm surmising is true it would explain the interest the geth also have in this system. Why else would they choose such an unstable system as a stronghold?"
Shepard felt sick. His visions suddenly made sense. The dreams, the images from the Eden Prime beacon…they had contained warnings of this. He'd watched as stars exploded and entire systems vanished in a heartbeat, wiped out by an expanding mass of fiery terror and death. Had the Reapers done this? "The Reapers…you think they are behind this then? How many more worlds will be affected?"
"I do not know. But I intend to find out. If the Reapers are not behind the instability of these stars, then their goal seems to be survival. Maybe they harvest the galaxy because they know that it's resources will be destroyed not by them, but by a force far greater. They would be safe in dark space. There is no solar matter there to affect them. But everything is mere speculation at this point. Commander, I ask for your help. We need to get to the heart of this mystery. If we don't I fear that one way or another we will be looking at the complete end to all life in the galaxy…"