The bounds of his world were limitless. The flat, polished slate surrounded him, vanishing into the distance far beyond the limits of simulated human vision. The view was peaceful, as always, a sharp contrast to the chaotic screens wrapping around his simple metal chair. Their contents vomited orange light from the cold statistics and accumulated secrets that formed The Illusive Man's world.
The standard reports were there. Little progress. No progress. Slow and steady work. Nothing flashy, a welcome piece of news. The latest analysis of Salarian political calculations quietly updated in the corner of his eye. Dalatresses and their subordinates were depressingly predictable, but only to one who could follow their breakneck pace, and even in the last five minutes since he'd checked, the predictions had changed ever so slightly as the numbers and calculus shifted.
A red light blinked on, and he pressed a stud on his control panel. "Yes?"
"We've just gotten a download from Lawson." His aide's voice sounded incredulous.
"And?" the Illusive Man sighed. Cryptic answers were admirable. Half-answers were not.
"Sir, she forwarded quarian data along with her report."
Another sigh. "I suppose it was only a matter of time before the quarians interfered—"
"That's just it sir – the data was apparently given freely. It includes… ah, I believe you should read it yourself."
"I see it now." The report and its attachment burned orange against the slate as The Illusive Man closed out less important haptic displays. "Thank you, that will be all."
The message floated in midair, faintly lighting the surrounding black.
Unexpected. But good. Lawson and Taylor did indeed listen.
Shepard's skin tingled as the scanning matrix rose around her for the second time in less than a day. Her armor, seared by the exploding heavy mech, hung loose from her shoulders, the ill-fitting ballistic mesh utterly soaked through with sweat. Her muscles ached in every way she had ever felt before, plus some novel new sensations – until now, she'd never known how much work simply breathing was. Every inhalation was torture for a sore, atrophied diaphragm.
Combined with a rude awakening, an embarrassing knock-out, and several journeys through the perpetually unsettling mass relays in an appallingly small, unstable shuttle, the math of the equation all added up to a very uncomfortable second life, so far, all of fifteen hours into it. Lieutenant Taylor had been thoughtful enough to find a cup of coffee and an upper of the sort that had seen Shepard through the last leg of the N7 trials, but if she didn't get bunk-time soon, then someone was going to get a boot up the ass.
Who better deserved it than the man materializing in front of her eyes?
"Shepard," he said. "How are you feeling?"
She blinked. "Still alive."
"I fear I must apologize for a grave logistical error," he continued. "I had arranged for there to be a small tray of assorted fruit for your convenience upon arrival, but it appears to not have come to pass."
"Even if it had, I'm not certain I would eat it," Shepard said.
He looked almost crestfallen. "Still burdened with an over-abundance of caution?"
"Apparently the only thing I've had to eat in two years has been two or three packets of e-rations from the shuttle and a cup of bilge."
"I'll see what my people can do to fix that."
"Are we done with the pleasantries?"
He shrugged. "If you so wish. I'm sure you're ready to rest for the evening."
"Don't you want to know what I found?"
"Your thoughts are yours to share or guard as you see fit. I have the information I need, but the question is whether you have the same. My conclusions have been reached, but I will be the first to admit that they are somewhat premature."
Shepard folded her arms. "What are your conclusions?"
The Illusive Man sat back against his chair, fishing a cigarette out of his jacket. The slim coffin nail glowed in his hands when he lit it. "The collectors are working for the Reapers. I do not have any hard evidence of this, but the patterns are there for the intelligent man—or woman—to discern. Take the time to look, and I'm certain you'll see them just as quickly as I did. This campaign being run against humanity smacks of arrogance tinged with fear. We killed one of them, so understandably the Reapers would show caution and restraint, but they are first and foremost the equivalent of machine-gods to our insignificant perspective, and they know this. One fact that can be twisted in our favor."
"So what do we know about these collectors?" Shepard asked.
The Illusive Man smiled for reasons unknown, "InOps, as well as my own analysts, have recently upgraded their threat to the equivalent of minor slavers, this due to their bit traffic in live specimens from nearly every species in the galaxy. Ten humans here, twenty salarians there. They tend to emerge from the Omega 4 relay only to perform such trades. Beyond that, our greatest body of knowledge regarding the collectors resides in Veetor's recording data, an intelligence boon for which I believe you are to be thanked, though I must lament the loss of an eyewitness."
"Tali gave me a copy of his data as a favor, but no matter how much she may look up to me, there was no way in hell she or any of the other quarians were going to hand Veetor over. Why is that?"
"It's quite the long story; I presume Miranda filled you in on the rather rocky history between our organization and the Migrant Fleet?"
"After a fashion," Shepard said. "There were plenty of embellishments that just made my head hurt more than it already does."
The Illusive Man snickered. "Good, you noticed that. Loyal though she may be, open-minded-ness was never one of Miranda's strong suits. Beyond her jingoism, though, is a significant amount of truth, at least from our point of view, which is why this olive branch was particularly unexpected."
"Like I said, Tali did it for me. Not Cerberus."
"And I applaud her for her sensibility, and will certainly thank her for that generosity. Privately, of course; it would do no good to tarnish the girl's repute with her peers any further than it already is."
"You look troubled," The Illusive Man said, pulling on his cigarette. "Penny for your thoughts?"
Her thoughts. As though they were in any semblance of coherence. It felt more like her brains had been progressively scrambled as this horrific second lease on life had unfolded, and there was something awful tugging at the back of her mind. For one damn thing, this refined gentleman with cold electric eyes was far too genial, too respectful. There was a significant cognitive dissonance between the image she had chased for three years, a slavering xenophobe hiding behind eugenics and firearms, and the suave man taking a drag on Gagarin-brand cigs, over two-hundred credits a pack the last time she'd seen them on sale, applauding his enemies for their strength of conviction and character.
Somehow Shepard couldn't shake the feeling that the moment she ceased to matter in his strategic calculus, he would order the hit on her and pour himself another glass of scotch.
"Why do you want to bring me on board? I may be a symbol, but I was a damn expensive symbol, and one which could have turned on you."
"So you are open to cooperation?"
"The jury's still out; don't push it."
He nodded respectfully. "The question of 'why' is perfectly clear. You have already proven your worth with Veetor's data. My methods are harsh, and usually they work, but yours are more effective and even required in certain situations. I don't need to tell you that the Reapers are a threat to all sentient life in the galaxy. A galactic threat demands a galactic response, the power of which you demonstrated two years ago. Due to the reputation I and my organization have accrued, I cannot hope to orchestrate such an alliance. No one would listen to my words."
"But you thought I would?"
"A gamble, to be sure. When I say it was our galaxy's best chance, that should reveal a great deal about the other options available to mankind."
Shepard smiled grimly. "It's not as if you've been giving me a choice."
"I'll admit, a captive audience is much easier to preach to." The Illusive Man's grin was just as knowing. "Nonetheless, that has not been my intention. The pace at which I've been keeping you is unsustainable, this I know. Now that Freedom's Progress has been dealt with, there are no pressing matters of concern. You may feel free to rest and recuperate on Minuteman Station in whatever fashion you see fit. In three days time, one of my other projects will come to fruition, and you will be permitted to leave the station for whatever destination you desire, but in the interim, I've instructed the crew to extend to you every courtesy due an honored guest.
"If I may be so forward as to make a suggestion," he continued. "Take this time and assess your options. I won't hide anything from you. A lot in the galaxy has changed in the two years you've been away. You won't be able to return to where you were, not easily, and even if you could, would you?"
"I do hope you're going to allow me to make that judgment for myself?"
The cigarette flared and died as he crushed it against the ashtray. "Of course; your will is your own. But don't let me keep you. I know you're tired, and I know that armor doesn't fit well. Speak to Parker at some point, and I'll make sure that's seen to."
"Thank you," Shepard said as she became aware once more of the awfulness of the Cerberus assault armor she'd hastily donned fifteen hours ago.
"One last note before you go," The Illusive Man said as the virtual reality began to flicker out of existence, "I believe someone has brought the previously promised fruit to you."
The wall in front of her was blank, but behind her, someone was noisily smacking their gums on something that sounded delicious.
"Hey Commander," Joker said, popping another plump strawberry in his mouth. "I know you like 'em and all, but why the fuck are there so many kiwi's on this platter? It's seriously freakin' me out."
Sad to say, Shepard isn't feeling up to much snark or battles of wit. Symptom of being on the go without any rest, re-toning of muscles, or food, plus that unfortunate period of being dead. This being a story narrative rather than an interactive one, we're going to spend a little bit more time on Minuteman Station with Shepard and her pals, both old and new.
Also, Tali's data had a verse from a human poem appended to it. It's a little garbled from translation, but it likely will show up in a later chapter of one of my works.
Thanks to Inverness for giving me the kick in the butt I needed to get my creative juices flowing, and as always, leave reviews, critiques, and / or fluffy things.