Dying wasn't nearly as bad as John Shepard – commander of the very-recently destroyed SSV Normandy – thought it would be. At least, once his brain was so starved for oxygen that he could no longer feel the burning in his lungs or the complete, abject, animal terror that consumed him. After that, he didn't think much of anything else.
Still, it was something of a surprise when something resembling consciousness slowly returned. This wasn't heaven, it was way too dark and indistinct for that. He was equally certain it wasn't hell, since it wasn't red and covered in flame. Limbo, maybe? Considering some of the difficult decisions he had been forced to make in the course of his career, it wouldn't be that much of a stretch.
When nothing appeared to give an explanation as to what was going on, John tried to move, to explore whatever environment he was in, but nothing happened. It took him a moment to realize that he didn't have a body. Or, at least, he couldn't feel his body. He seemed to be nothing but disembodied thought.
Is this what being dead feels like?
He hoped not. Sharing Ash's beliefs, he had always assumed that there was something after death. That little corner of his mind that nagged at him, saying 'what if there isn't?,' seemed to suggest that after he died, that was it. He was just… gone. The old adage 'I think, therefore I am' came to mind. He was thinking about this, therefore he must exist. But if he wasn't dead, then what was going on?
If John still had a body, he would have jerked back in shock. As it was, he was only capable of feeling a sharp stab of surprise. The name had come from nowhere, in a tone that suggested contempt, and insufferable smugness. Whoever was speaking probably had a planet-sized chip on their shoulder, if history was any indication.
YOUR ATTEMPTS TO CATEGORIZE US BY PRIOR EXPERIENCE IS AMUSING.
Suddenly, Shepard found himself able to speak, to respond, even though he still didn't seem to have a mouth, tongue, throat or pair of lungs to do it with.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded of the inky blackness. The response came quickly.
WE ARE YOUR GENETIC DESTINY. WE BRING PERFECTION THROUGH DESTRUCTION. WE IMPOSE ORDER.
I AM HARBINGER.
"A Reaper" Shepard spat. The darkness seemed to taunt him.
A SUPERSTITIOUS TITLE GIVEN TO US BY YOUR PREDECESSORS. IT IS OF NO CONSEQUENCE. THERE IS NO WORD IN ANY VOCABULARY SUFFICIENT TO ENCOMPASS US.
Shepard snorted, or rather, tried to. "If that were the case, we wouldn't have been able to defeat Sovereign, but your pal is scattered all over the Citadel now, isn't he?"
THE FAILURE OF ONE IS INCONSEQUENTIAL. WE CANNOT BE STOPPED.
"And yet I've already stopped you" Shepard countered.
AND NOW YOU ARE WITHIN OUR GRASP.
Dread began to seep into his mind. The memories of Saren and Benezia, indoctrinated tools, returned. He'd rather die than end up like them. But then, wasn't he already dead?
ORGANIC MATTER IS EASILY MANIPULATED. WE ACQUIRED YOUR RESIDUE, AND WE WILL USE IT.
"What use am I to you dead?" he shot at the machine. "I saw what your friend did to Saren after I killed him, but I doubt that you'd go to all this trouble to get a burned-up husk."
YOU WILL BE THE FIRST.
"First of what?" Shepard questioned, hostility underlying every word.
YOU WILL BECOME ONE OF US.
"I will not serve you" he ground out. "Not ever. I'll fight you, I'll fight you to the heat death of the universe if I have to, but I will never betray the people I swore to protect."
DEFIANCE IS POINTLESS. YOU HAVE NO MEANS TO RESIST.
Forgetting momentarily that he didn't have a body to so with, Shepard snarled at the machine. "Screw. You." For a moment, he could've sworn the Reaper laughed at him. It was not a good feeling.
YOU ARE VIABLE, SHEPARD. PREPARE YOURSELF FOR ASCENSION.
Nothing changed, but Shepard instantly understood that the conversation was finished. Whatever the Reapers planned to do to him, they would be doing soon, unless he could find a way to escape. John tried to move an arm or leg, but nothing responded. So much for that plan. What the hell did they want with him, anyway? If he was dead – which both memory and Harbinger seemed to suggest – then why would they bother retrieving him? Even if it was possible to completely revive him – which he had to admit, given his circumstances, was a distinct possibility – why would they expend so many resources to do so? What could they hope to gain?
Whatever their intention, John didn't think that 'ascension' meant sitting cross-legged in a rock garden meditating on plants.
That was when the pain started. Despite not having a physical body to feel, a wave of fire swept over him, burning him alive, searing his very soul.
Commander John Shepard screamed.
John drifted in and out of consciousness. For once, he was grateful for the periods of respite. During some of the N7 training simulations, and once during an actual mission, he had been kept drugged in an attempt to keep him incapacitated. The former experience had taught him how to survive the latter. This was nothing like that, there were no muddied thoughts, no murky blurs or vague sounds at the edge of hearing. There was nothing but agony. That is, until he heard the screams.
First they came singly, the terrified wails of men, women and children. They seemed to be human, if such sounds could even be considered human. They tore at him, urging him to struggle harder than before, determined to help them. Surely, he had not been gifted with all his strength and skill only to be powerless now? He had to fight, he had to help them. Then more came, and more, and still more, until he was drowning in a tidal wave of terror and helplessness.
He eventually slipped into a state that was half-dream, half-terrified reality. The constant screams still tortured him, but at least he wasn't feeling anything, either physically or emotionally. Random images flashed before him; like the Prothean beacon, only worse, because this time he could actually understand what he saw. Bits and pieces of people's lives, human lives. Real and present, not a garbled collection of ancient knowledge. Flickers; children playing in a park, adults conversing easily in a bar. Swarms of massive insects, fear and pain.
This continued for what seemed a lifetime. For all John knew, it was. He was pretty sure that he had gone insane for some of that time. After another few eternities, Shepard vaguely noticed that the screaming had diminished significantly. In fact, the pain too seemed to be lessening. Cautiously, he allowed himself to think clearly for the first time in who-knew how long.
After all this time, he hadn't been able to figure out what the Reapers were doing to him. Only that they were also doing it to seemingly thousands of others too. If what he had been seeing and feeling was true, those others were even worse off than he was.
That was when he suddenly realized that he was feeling something besides the burning. Sensation was slowly starting to trickle in, like recovering from a local anesthetic, but without the tingling. Experimentally, he tried to see if he could move anything. If the Reapers had been trying to rebuild him – as unlikely as it seemed – so he could work for them, then he might have a chance. If he could move, he could fight.
YOUR STRUGGLE IS POINTLESS, SHEPARD.
He tensed. Harbinger was back.
YOU ARE NEARLY READY.
"What have you done to me?" Shepard demanded.
WE HAVE BROUGHT YOUR SPECIES TO ITS APEX. YOU HAVE PROVED YOURSELF.
"What the hell are you talking about!" he yelled. For a moment, there was silence, then a flood of awareness and information jammed its way into his mind. Instinctively, he tried to block out the foreign sensation, but it slammed through his feeble defenses like a freight train. He felt everything, and in a single moment of horrified comprehension, he realized what was going on. He could feel his body now, except that it wasn't his body.
A normal human is not aware of their internal functions, but Shepard was keenly aware of everything that was going on in and around him. Which was how he knew that instead of skin, he had a superhardened crystalline-structure bio-mechanical armor shell. Instead of intestines for processing food, he was fueled by a combination fusion/anti-matter reactor. Instead of a heart, he had a massive element zero core. The tiny figures scurrying around his form were human-sized, and he himself was comparable in size to an Alliance cruiser.
God help me, I'm a Reaper.
Author's Notes: As you may have figured out, this story assumes that the Collectors succeed in acquiring Commander Shepard's body after the Normandy is destroyed at the beginning of Mass Effect 2. I'm taking one of the more popular theories as to what the Reapers want with Shepard and running with it.
I really don't know where this is gonna end. In all probability, it will end when I hit writer's block. If you added all the fictional material I've written into one volume, it might make a nice-sized novel. But I have to date finished exactly Zero stories.
PS: It's fun to write a character that speaks only i-ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL.