This is a sequel to Kingdom of Rust, as well as other Foucault stories. This story can stand alone, however. This is the last pitch. The last run. The last game.

How do you solve an impossible problem?

THE FINAL PROBLEM

Chapter 1: Breathe


Shepard

"Breathe."

"What... did you say?"

"I said... that whatever you do," Anderson gasps. "Don't forget to breathe."

It's a funny suggestion. Anderson knows I'm dying, and dying people have a harder time breathing. He should know better.

My vision is slightly off kilter, and I have to press my left hand into my side, due to the crippling pain of shrapnel pieces lodged into my torso. I'd like to pick out the glass from my muscle tissue, but it's not worth bleeding out. I know my left wrist has probably sustained hairline fractures, and I don't need a mirror to know my face cakes with cuts, blood, and grease.

I'm at peace. This is a mildly, terrifying feeling.

It means my brain is preparing to die.

At least a dying Anderson makes for great company.

"You know. You never thanked me for saving your life," Anderson weakly starts, gazing at me sidelong.

I'm familiar with last wills and last testimonies. I've witnessed all the facets of death while working. However, I've never been on the other side. The dying side. The confessing side. The resigned one. This is a new experience, and I'm not entirely sure how to respond or if I even should. I sigh, press my back into the wall, turning to match a solid gaze with the admiral.

"I speak through my actions, and if I haven't expressed my gratitude effectively enough, then..." I manage to choke out.

My mouth burns and stings, like I swallowed chewed up glass. Talking is getting a little harder.

Guess it means I must be choosier with my words.

"No, child. Your actions have always been... quite profound." Anderson mutters. "I don't think I've ever told you just how very proud of you I am..."

I chortled, brushing burnt hair back with one hand, "You never had to tell me. I always had the memo, Anderso-" I turn to share a devilish grin with the older man. He doesn't reply. Instead, his body slumps and his eyes glaze over. I must have just missed his last breath. I push a hand against his chest, just so I can hear him exhale since he forgot to say goodbye.

I know its forced, but the sound of his forced exhale is comforting.

It's too bad I can't make him inhale.

I'm ready to die alone. I'm used to being alone. I've always been alone. It's a perfect end to my less than perfect story. I whistle through my teeth just to find a solid pitch, focusing on the sound. These are my last minutes. I think I should be constrained by regret or something. Right now, I'm supposed to look back on my great achievements or sob about my sins, right? I'm suppose to dwell on all those grievances, all the lives I've sacrificed, all the people I care about. Cared about. Didn't care about. Shouldn't care about. Won't care about.

I should be slumped here, thinking - Damn. Anderson was a great guy. He will be sorely missed.

When I first met him, I thought he was going to kill me. A valid conclusion when you're knocked on the ground by the man you failed to kill yourself.

'What the hell are you doing?' Anderson spat at me.

I tried puncturing his throat so I could finish the job. But the older man lashed his head forward, broke my nose, and pushed his knee into the center of my back.

When he flipped me over, my physical state quickly changed the violent exchange.

"Holy shit..." Anderson whispered, brown eyes wide and brows raised as he regarded the swollen belly that betrayed my pregnancy. "My god... How old are you?"

I slammed my head into the ground and whipped around briefly before giving in. My time was up. I felt done for. "Sixteen. I'm sixteen."

Anderson could have killed me. I probably would've killed me if roles reversed. It would have been easier. He could have killed me, or thrown me in jail, or used me, or god knows what else.

Instead, Anderson recruited me. He gave me a name, a background, and a new fucking life.

He could have killed me, but Anderson was so invested in saving me.

"These are your wings," He said, when he introduced me to the Normandy. "She'll fly you higher than the stars."

Anderson. Tall, proud, fucking goody two shoe heroic Commander Anderson. The man who thought he knew me better than I knew myself. The man who offered a bratty, knocked up sixteen year old assassin a new chance at life. Was I sixteen? Maybe I was fourteen. Or twenty. When you don't have parents or a legal birth certificate, details like that get murky. Regardless, the man gave me choices, and let me run with my own decisions. The man who trusted the very same person assigned to kill him.

That man died about three minutes ago, and I should grieve.

I've never been very good at grieving. Hell, I've never been very good at feeling much of anything other than frustration and contempt. I don't deal with emotions very well. Whether it is upbringing or brain chemistry, I am a very detached person. I'm cold, I'm hard, I'm calculating. My mind functions very much like a machine. Where you may see friends, I see people in terms of numbers, decimal points, statistical errors, and percent marks. Save the krogan, ignore the salarians. Protect Kaiden, Ashley is ready to die. Give up on Thessia, focus on Rannoch. Create an uneasy alliance with the geth and quarian, deal with the inevitable civil unrest after this war.

This is why I'm good at killing reapers.

I'm more callous than a machine.

Not so callous anymore are you, Shepard? The way Anderson looked me right in the eye, and with his dying breath told you just how proud he was. You. The cold, hard, manipulative bitch who threw away lives in Torfan just so you could win. He was proud of you. The woman who would do anything, including kill 300,000 batarians just so she can win. He was proud of you, even as you manipulated and lied to entire fleets, just to win a war.

Anderson was proud of you.

Why was he proud? He got it all wrong. That's the problem with humans and most other people - they look at me as some hero, as some great person they can invest all their hopes and dreams.

The Illusive Man knew me. He understood me. He realized the true me. I'm something to be owned. I've always been owned. I do not have true autonomy. I was born a slave, and I will die a slave. Slavery is all I know.

Let me repeat myself, I make for a horrible human being.

The only thing I care about is winning. Biologically and psychologically, I am nothing like you or anyone else you will meet. I am a hunter, and to me the galaxy is a giant school of pilot fish feeding off the scraps of my kill.

Believe me. Reaper killing keeps me from getting bored.

I hate being bored.

I hate being bored. And I don't like losing either. Reapers fear me, aliens don't understand me, but humans know I'm psychotic.

You have to be psycho, to enjoy killing reapers. Only the mentally insane and unstable find improbable odds thrilling.

You should know that it's not impossible to destroy the reapers. Not improbable. If a chance is there, I take it. I've run the calculations in my head like a constant wheel in locomotion, and I know that there is a way to kill these motherfuckers.

But I missed something. I failed. I am dying now. There was a chance I would die, but it was so slim, so minimal, so tiny...

Its odd, I can't place it.

Where did I go wrong?

Did I start to believe that gods exist? Was it the reapers that made me realize they do, in fact, exist? Was that where I went wrong? I became afraid? Is this what fear feels like?

Neitzsche taught me god is dead. He has been dead for centuries.

I have seen god, and he is not dead.

No. He is outside, he looks like a fucking squid, and he is destroying my home planet.

If Garrus were here now, he'd offer a questionable look. Perhaps flex his mandibles in concern. I'd probably grit my teeth, puff my cheeks, and roll my head - turian manners I've picked up. Or maybe I'd throw my hands in the air and shake them radically, like Dr. Mordin often did. Perhaps I'd just quietly press my hip to the wall and say nothing, asari do that sometimes.

Or just roll my eyes. That's always satisfying.

I wish Garrus were here. Or Liara. Or Tali. Or Kaiden. Or Ashley. Or Mordin. Or Miranda. Or Jack... All of them. None of them. Some of them.

I've noticed people, regardless of their race or gender, appreciate mimicry. They like to see their mannerisms and words repeated. It creates a connection, a familiar interface. I try to abide by that, to keep up team morale and loyalty. It has worked so far, even if I feel forced sometimes. Smiling is my least favorite expression. Why do people have to smile at one another to convey understanding? Sincerity?

I hate smiling.

But I love killing.

Killing a reaper is an art, one that requires a very creative hand and a commanding presence. You can't simply run on up to a reaper and poke it in the optic. You need to subjugate it to a barrage of assaults, tempt and entice it with easy prey. Taunt and deceive it, brush its ego and force it to calculate false predictions.

Its like... subconscious hacking, I guess. I'm planting a virus in its head that makes it believe it truly is unstoppable, and I use that to cripple it. However, I need to think on my feet, I need to use the tools available to me, I need to throw my team around like chess pieces as I target the Achilles heel and watch him tumble.

I wish I could convey how the world shines when I fight a reaper. I'm gifted with an eidetic memory, I'm able to layer my experiences and see the pattern of weaknesses. Because I'm autistic, the space in my brain that is supposed to be devoted to emotional attachments is instead hot wired like a computer - I see numbers, stats, information piled across the surface of the war zone.

I am a terrible human being. But I am a brilliant hunter.

Nature made me the perfect reaper killing machine. Circumstances only sharpened my blades over the years.

When god met me, he realized he could die.

I know how to kill him.

I know how to kill a god.

I read somewhere that the dividing line between organics and synthetics is the difference between understanding and cold calculation. I am a bit of an anomaly, I am an organic who is able to relate to synthetics. But to fight my enemy, I needed to bond with my team mates, otherwise I could be another Morinth - arrogant, alone, and eventually killed by her own stupidity.

The people I chose to surround myself brought out the best facets of my personality and killed my weaknesses. Weaknesses like, an open air of superiority. Or a cold, callous response to everyone and everything. Pure selfish detachment does not win wars.

So I stepped backwards, adjusted those weaknesses, and evolved. Maybe that's why I got along so well with Legion...

...Legion...

A sharp pain slices through me, reminding me that my body is still dying.

None of this adds up.

I'll admit. I'm a pretty sore loser. I refuse to accept my mortality, regardless how many bullets I take to the head.

That's a weakness of mine I'll never be able to do away with. I'm egotistical as all hell, and I don't believe in personal error.

"Commander Shepard," Hacket's voice buzzes in my ear. "Commander?"

I wake from the haze of my thoughts. Only a thirty seconds have passed. Anderson has been dead three minutes and thirty seconds. I sigh and tap the commlink near my ear. "Admiral?"

"We are having trouble with the crucible.. We don't know how to start it. Perhaps you can get her to work?"

Groaning, I pull up on to my feet, "Always something.. Alright, I'm on i-" My armor's mass effect field is failing, and cannot lift 400 pounds of internal prosthetics and flesh. So I collapse. Naturally.

I'm crawling on all fours, dragging my beaten, broken, bleeding, bruised body towards what I think are the controls. Maybe? Honestly, I don't know. I can't read this room, it's not familiar. Everything is so pristine and clean, scrubbed and perfect. Usually, my mind would be excited by the prospect of solving a mystery as intriguing as this - how do you start advanced alien technology that is possibly billions upon billions of years old, created by the species most likely responsible for the reapers' design? I would give anything to study the controls for a bit. But that requires I get up, which is something I can't do.

"Commander," Hacket buzzes.

I'm flat on the ground instead. Moving is hard. My muscles are giving away. I've broken too many bones, and it will take approximately a month or so of medical attention and physical therapy to return to the peak of my health. Even the synthetic tools that stitch my body together from the inside are breaking down - my body feels heavier than it used to, and the bright red veins peeking between torn flesh is glowing dull.

I'm dying.

I need to accept that the reapers won this one. But really, if I defeated the reapers, if I actually poisoned the sea of gods, what would I do then? Rebuild? Make a city? Be a leader? Settle down like a normal person? Have kids? Marry?

How... boring.

I would die from boredom.

But... the peace might be... nice.

I wouldn't have to watch anymore people die.

Not that it used to bother me. It didn't. Lately... though...

No. That shit never used to bug me, I don't know why it does now. People are just numbers, they are just a mixture of DNA with personalities, bonded by ideas and a mutual want to survive. I don't understand why I care. The decisions are beginning to weigh on me little by little, ever since I left Earth.

It started when I witnessed my own son's death.

"Breathe," Anderson shouted, holding my hand as a small gaggle of medical officers surrounded me. "I command you to breathe."

One of Anderson's first commands. I remember, very vividly, the staccato of my breathes, my lungs expanding and retracting as the pain seared through me. I was giving birth at a remote, Alliance base in Iran. Though, at the time, I had not yet enlisted.

As I said before, for whatever reason, Anderson really wanted to save me. I don't know why. Maybe I reminded him of something he lost a long time ago, and I was his way of making up for mistakes.

Maybe he knew what I really was, and wanted to make sure I was strictly Alliance property.

Maybe he knew, from the beginning, that circumstances turned me into the perfect soldier.

Maybe he knew, I was born a slave, I am a slave, I will die a slave.

"You need to breathe."

Soldiers aren't born. They break and are remade, through years and years and years of systematic abuse. I will not go into detail, but there is a reason killing is an art to me. Why it is so easy. Why I can differentiate between a bad order and a good one. Why people are just a list of numbers. Why I can make the difficult decisions with a shrug. Why I don't allow weakness. Why I'm willing to take the blame. And why I feel no guilt or remorse.

"That is an order. BREATHE."

So, without adding a snarky slide or arguing with him, I complied. And I breathed. One breath, two breath, three breath, four breath, push. I focused on my lungs. I felt them expand and retract.

"Breathe."

I listened to the wind whistle through my teeth. I could hear a baby's scream filled the air, but I focused on my body. I imagined red cells bright and revitalized by oxygen, as they pumped through my heart and engaged in a never-ending travel stream through my body. I housed millions upon millions of different microorganisms and cells that used my body as their own little habitat. I am a planet, with feasts of living creatures thriving off of me. It fascinated me, and here I was, duplicating myself into the form of a newborn who would grow to house the children of these living cells and bacteria. I've never bonded or felt close to anything like that before, knowing that I not only created life, but I was a god who created a whole universe of organisms.

I kept breathing, even as Anderson wiped the sweat from my brow. I kept breathing, even as Anderson carried my child away from me.

I made my decision. I never make bad decisions.

If you have a difficult time detaching yourself from your own emotions, I recommend you give away your newborn child. It works wonders.

But my boy never stopped haunting me.

Eight years later, the Alliance air locked me in Vancouver. We all knew the Reapers were coming. We all had unfinished business that needed tying up. I suppose the inevitable Reaper invasion encouraged me to find him. It wasn't difficult. I am a class A hacker, a former Yakuza assassin, a council spectre, and a N7 officer. I also have connections with the Shadow Broker. So, yes. I tracked down my son.

I chose not to make direct contact. I'm not very good at reunions with children I give away. Instead, I made arrangements through Liara and Admiral Anderson to move his family to Vancouver, closer to the Alliance headquarters. He always played near my window.

Tussled blonde, sharp blue eyes, and a blatant honesty that might be otherwise perceived as callousness. His birthday was on March 6th. He just turned eight. I left him a present in his room. It was a ship model, the Normandy.

That day was the first time I ever spoke to him. That day was also when the Reapers invaded. I remember him hiding in the ducts, and I tried to convince him to come with me. But I do not know how to comfort children, especially ones I give away. He disappeared.

I watched him climb into a transport shuttle from the Normandy. Shortly, a Reaper ripped apart that shuttle into pieces.

The nightmares started after that.

I haven't had nightmares in years.

"Wake up."

The voice is coming everywhere. It's layered, in synch with the whispers and calls of the many I have lost. In the orchestra of sound, I hear Ashley Williams, Mordin, Thane, many more voices from my past... conducted by a child's utterance, a boy, a young boy.

No more than seven... eight. No more than eight.

I raise my head and scrutinize an ethereal being, small and lithe, bent blue light and virtual matter composing the boy's silhouette. I pull myself to my feet and regard the 'child', shaped into the image of that boy. That damned boy. My boy. Either heaven has a sick sense of humor, or I'm starting to hallucinate due to lack of blood.

"Is there a particular reason you look like my son? Or is this a stupid joke?" I grumble, hand pressed over my side as I study the hologram. These dreams and hallucinations were beginning to wear me down. If I'm going to die, I'd like to die contemplating old western philosophical farts and Buddha, not where I went wrong. "Where am I?"

"The Citadel," the voice chimes, 'head' tilts back to level his eerie gaze with mine. "It's my home."

So the vision of my son lives in the fucking Citadel. How quaint.

"So why did you decide to appear in that form?" I mutter.

"I have studied your historical imprint. This form is most familiar to you," he... it... I mean IT answers.

Of course he studied my historical imprint. And of course the ghost of my son would be the last thing I see before I die. Is that not the way of things?

"So who are you then?" I inquire, lips purse as I study the boy. With exception to his surface material, this thing is a perfect replication of my child.

I have to remind myself that this is just a representation of that boy, a boy who is dead.

This is not that boy. This is not my boy.

"I am the catalyst," the hologram answers.

"Wait but..." it didn't make sense. None of this makes sense. I'm about to ask the boy if he is a manifestation of the Citadel, but I stop myself and try to answer my question through deductive reasoning. Is he the Citadel? Or is this something greater? I take a moment to look at him, to really see through him. He is the Catalyst, which is to say, the programming behind the Citadel which is somehow related to Reapers and Reaper technology. I narrow my eyes as my mind spins, thinking and studying and contemplating and deducing. There is a reason the Reapers are all hellbent on guarding this floating piece of metal, and it's not as if the chunk of floating space debris was really capable of taking out all the Reapers unless... unless...

"You are the collective mind," I state. I'd snap my fingers and cheer myself on, but even talking is a pat on the back at this point. May I remind you, I am still dying. "You are the brain."

"Yes," the child answers in that same boring, monotone pitch. "Though, brain is strictly an organic term. I am the artificial intelligen-"

"I know, I know. I don't need to be corrected by a synthetic, thank you."

"Evidently, you do."

Did he just mock me?

"I need to stop the Reapers." The words stumble from my mouth without thought, which is very unlike me. I never speak before I think. I always study all the possible outcomes, consider all the potential possibilities, all the chances, stage exits, and revelations. I'm always prepared. I'm shocked I'd even divulge myself to this stranger. Though, I suppose, even the dying are allowed their delusions. And I am most certainly dying.

"Do you know how I can stop the Reapers? Or... how I can stop you? You are the Reapers, right? I'm not even sure what I'm suppose to call you."

"The Catalyst."

"Right," I say. "You mentioned that."

The Catalyst furrows his brows, the details of his lip turn and eyes fixed on my mouth as he mimics thinking. "The Reapers are mine," he finally answers. "I control them. They are my solution."

Oh fucking fantastic. I have to keep myself from rolling my eyes. Just what I needed, but, this outcome is pretty predictable when faced with the impossible odds of destroying an unthinkable, unfathomable enemy. "Alright, humor me. How are they your solution, oh great mind behind the Reapers."

"Chaos," he answers simply. "An order to chaos."

Chaos. The war between organic and synthetic, a war between chaos and order. I've heard this argument, I know it. I know it by heart... the thesis, the structure, the concept, the counter points, the evidence, which is right, which is wrong. I've internally debated this conversation in my mind for many years, and challenged EDI and Legion's own arguments on the war between nature and artificial. It's very simple, really.

Let me break it down.

Organic beings strive to achieve immortality but nature's finite tools limits this goal. We organics can only strive for immortality in three ways: Physically, by breeding. Philosophically, with an idea. Or artificially, through technology. This desire to survive is what makes our nature so chaotic. We cannot be immortal. We are fated to die. It is our nature.

If that doesn't kill us, the desire for immortality will. We are killed by the demand to breed. We are killed by ideas. We are even killed by the technology we create.

Anyways, I can go on about this forever, but time is short and my world is burning to shreds.

It's a really fun conversation, though. I love this debate. Wish I wasn't dying so I could keep it up with myself.

Still... it'll be fun to argue with this Reaper A.I.

"You created the Reapers, to protect organic life..." I mutter. "To save us..."

"Correct," The boy responds. "This is the only way to restore order for the next cycle. My solution is to protect organic life by cyclically harvesting it."

"Harvesting us... You really believe that we are capable of completely annihilating ourselves?"

"Of course you are," the boy states, shaking his head. "Once, my creators were once like you. They too were once organics who adapted and evolved for space. But while their minds accelerated with shared knowledge and great feats, their bodies could not catch up to the evolutionary race. They had to create the necessary tools to fully explore and reach their potential. However, those tools meant to serve them turned on them... the technology, the synthetics, everything nearly destroyed this entire galaxy. So they created a solution, a failsafe against the chaotic decisions organics make that lead to their inevitable destruction."

"So... you are like a computer, and the Reapers are giant moving hard drives," I answer, eyes wide and jaw loose. "We are all pieces of data, collected into a single unit - so that our ideas, our thoughts, our material is stored for all time... Like... a back up disk"

"Correct," The boy replies.

"... Fucking brilliant," I hush as these revelations dawn on me, leaning into a nearby pillar as I stare at those squeaky clean, untouched white floors. "Fucking... brilliant... you are fucking brilliant."

I have to steady myself as I fall slowly to the ground, unable to hold my weight as my internal systems shut down little by little. The muscles go first. Still, I don't mind so much. I have to praise my enemy for his innovation. "So you harvest advanced civilizations and leave others alone, so that they can advance to the same level. And then... you just back us up and store us like memory." I slap my hand against my head, staring at the kid who is now eye level. "Holy shit, I never saw that coming. I should have seen it coming. I kind of did, actually. But... who the hell came up with this?"

"I did," the hologram chimes, the strange echoes of his voice becoming more defined, the feature of his childish tone pitching in lower registers. "I created the cycle to protect organic life from synthetics."

"You can't create yourself. You are the Reapers."

"I am the catalyst. I am the collected intelligence. But I am not the Reapers."

"Fine. Whatever. Who created you?"

"I did."

"Oh for... Okay, fine, skip that question. Its irrelevant since I might be dead in a few minutes. So to save organics from extinction or the threat of 'chaos' as you like to put it, you stored us. Like memory," I mumble under my breath, gaze twitching as I process this startling revelation. "Well, it makes perfect logical sense. There are no flaws with that thinking... But... there is a problem, you know."

The boy... The hologram blinked, regarding me with a blank expression that was both unnerving and telling of his synthetic nature.

I swallow, a mixture of saliva and blood soothing my bruised throat as I speak hoarsely, "We like to make our own decisions, really. We aren't too chummy with having a few machines downplaying our free will into collective thought. Not to knock you off your feet, but I think the greatest innovation organics wield against synthetics is diversity. You are stripping us of diversity."

"Diversity is a weakness," The boy responds.

"What? Hardly," I shoot back. "You know as well as I that mutations are occurring in this cycle. There are organics who have evolved specifically to share this galaxy with the very synthetics they create. Hell, look at the quarians. They would not be able to repopulate their world without direct support from geth. And me, look at me. I'm made to kill synthetic mother fuckers. Organics have evolved to communicate or just shoot synthetics out of the sky. Nature wants us to live together."

"So you will destroy me, Reaper killer? You are willing to kill billions of years of collected advanced civilizations just to win a war."

"Well..."

The boy closed his eyes and shook his head, blue wisps of electrical hair turning in various directions, giving the hologram life. "There are other options. You can destroy the Reapers, yes, but you know that in doing so, all synthetic life and Reaper technology will also be destroyed. There will be no mass effect relays. Chaos will ensue. People will die. You will purge these harvested lives to protect organics. You may even purge your own advanced civilizations in this cycle. Even then, the war between synthetics and organics is inevitable. The Reaper solution will repeat itself if you are lucky. If you are not, this galaxy will self destruct."

"... So... If I destroy this base then... I may have won, but at the cost of entire advanced civilizations..."

"Correct," The boy responds.

"Well, if I'm going to die, might as well be with a bang," I grumble.

"You are still hesitant."

"Of course I am," I snap back. "Geth are just now learning the concepts of free-will. I know an artificial intelligence personally who is constantly questioning it. Don't you see? Synthetics are truly learning to self-determine in a way that the Reapers never have. They are tasting 'Chaos', as you like to put it."

"Impossible and irrelevant."

"That is BULLSHIT, and you know it!" I stab back.

"You are portraying a typical organic weakness of personification. Synthetics cannot self determine beyond concepts of order."

"Yes they can," I spit back. "They are evolving. The mind is evolving. They are understanding."

"They cannot understand without the organic concept of empathy. Synthetics will never truly understand. They do not know what it means to be alive."

"Not if you don't give them a chance!"

"Says the woman who was born into slavery and knows nothing but slavery."

"I know, I'm real ironic."

"There is another way," The boy offers. "You can control us."

I lick my lips and narrow my eyes. I maybe ruthless, I maybe cruel, I maybe very good at killing reapers, but controlling whole galactic civilizations? "Really..."

"Yes. That solution is in fact a possibility," He responded in awe, his voice still a heavy monotone. A monotone that was pulling my emotions and offering me tempting choices. "I warn you, however. You will die. You would replace me, but your body would cease. You would be changed."

"... I knew there was a catch," I grumble. Thinking, I consider the weight of my choices and indulge in the unlikely, "I could synthesize our current civilization with the Reapers, can't I? I can literally give a perfect harmony between life and machine... Achieve singularity... no one dies. Everyone lives. Organics achieve order, Synthetics achieve chaos. Wham bam, happiness."

"Yes. You could. That would surely end this cycle," the boy replies.

"I fucking hate that answer. It still strips both organics and synthetics the ability to self-determine."

"Says the Reaper Killer, the Bloody Shepherdess who leads her flocks to the fires, She who would slaughter whole armies and innocent civilians so the greater number may live. She who thinks herself so great, she can determine who lives and who dies."

"I only did what was demanded of me," I growl.

"Is that what you tell yourself? Do they force you? Why are you still a slave, Reaper Killer? Who is your master now? Who makes your choices now?"

Is he... Is it mocking me?

"Shut up."

"I know you, Shepard. Because there are many who were like you in the past. You are not the only Shepard in this galaxy's history, but you are the first to make it this far."

I bite my lip and stare at the ground. This hologram is such a perfect replication of that boy. I turn my head slightly, and remember those haunting dreams where my feet pound and I chased after the spirit of my son, a representation of everything I've desired, I've held dear, I've wanted. Autonomy. Control. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom.

"I only have those three choices...?" I ask.

"Yes. Or the cycle continues."

Only three. But to what end? It was so... simple and... methodical and... Which choice was right? I should know this. I should know the outcome. Why don't I know the outcome? I always know the outcome.

Why can't I solve this last problem?

Why can't I solve this impossible problem?

Is this all really beyond my understanding?

".. No, something is wrong..." I stumble backwards, staring at the hologram. "Something's not right with this picture..."

Something was off. I couldn't put my finger on it. Usually I'm right about everything, provided I wasn't quizzed on asari pop culture or hanar idols. That was just a waste of brain space.

"...You must make a choice," The hologram buzzed. "Time is not on your si-"

"One moment, I need to go to my thinking place now," I snap at the boy, fingers pressed to my temples as I begin to dive into my thoughts.

"Your thinking plac-"

"Excuse me, but please shut the fuck up. Your words are annoying me and I need to think in silence... Something's not right. But what is it? What is wrong? Thinking thinking thinking thinking thinking... Garrus would say 'Shepard, perhaps we should make a decision right now' And I would say 'Garrus, I'll make a decision after I figure out what is wrong because something doesn't make sense' and then he'd say-"

"What are you doing? You must make a decisio-"

I turn around furiously, and point a finger through the boy's holographic face, right between the eyes, "Noise! You are just noise! I need silence so I can... fucking breathe. God.. Now silence yourse-..." I stop, my face screwing up as an idea comes. "Wait..." and then it leaves. "No..." And then it comes back "Yes..."

My finger stayed there, embedded in the boy's head and I heard my voice rattle out of my mouth. My brain was on fire, ideas and thoughts and clues and points sounding off in so many places. I had to talk. I had to get my ideas in a single, verbal pattern or else I might submerge myself and become lost in this sea of theories and scenarios. "... Liara wouldn't be helpful in this situation, unfortunately... She's intelligent, but she tends to overanalyze situations. Liara has a tendency to overlook the simple, the general, the big fucking idea... She didn't even realize an ancient goddess was actually a Prothean, how didn't she see that? Even two year old would have made that connection... She has information, but she never quite knows what to do with i-... No Garrus now... Garrus, however, can see the general. He always points out shit I can't see.. Always able to see that goddamn dirt spot right in front of him, even if he doesn't recognize it..."

What would he say? Well, isn't this charming. He'd probably say that. Followed by, Well great. Or 'Fantastic', or... No no no no, that's not what he'd say. He wouldn't say that. He'd say something that I was missing, he'd say something that would spark my mind. He'd say something that would remind me, that would clue me in... he'd see something and say it, without realizing just how fucking valuable his words were at that moment. He'd say it blindly, and then it would dawn on me.

"Something doesn't add up, something isn't right, something isn't making sense..." I mutter out loud.

'Shepard', Garrus would say, 'Shepard. We are running out of time. You have to tell the boy what your decision i-..."

You have to tell the boy what your decision is...

You have to tell th-..

There it is.

Why did he look like that boy? Why that boy specifically? Why not any other person old person? Or just, you know, a regular old interface? Why that boy?

Unless...

... That boy... that boy... that boy... that boy... that bo- but... I never had a... that boy was a strange-... I never knew hi-...

I slowly turn my head and stare at the hologram.

"You're good," I whisper through my grinning teeth. "Oh, you are very, very, very good."

I pull out my pistol and load a heat sink into its empty barrel.

"Not good enough, though."

I raise the gun to my right temple.

"Wait what are you doi-" The sweet synthesized voice rolled into a rich, crackling electric noise. The hologram flickers, turning different hues of reds and blues as the static snaps. The floodgates open and I can feel the fire wash over me. My memory stitches itself back together, recovering from the nausea of reaper indoctrination as the voice buzzes at me, "You would have the cycle continue?"

"Not entirely, no," I answer slyly, flaring my nostrils.

"You are not making sense."

"Shhhhh. Shhhh." I push my finger into the hologram's lips, narrowing my eyes and smiling dangerously. "Now now now. You can stop trying. It's not going to work. You've made a very large error, which is... quite pleasing to see, actually. It means you are afraid. You are fucking afraid and you are getting very desperate."

"You are not making sens-"

"I'm making plenty of sense," I conversely bob the pistol back and forth in my hand, illustrating a point. "The Illusive Man was right.. he knew something. The Crucible... err... Catalyst is a means to control you. Kind of. Sort of. Not completely."

"I am the Cataly-"

"Honestly, do you have to keep lying?"

I pause for a moment, lips press narrow and eyes studying the air - twitching back and forth as my mind moves and thinks... "But that doesn't quite answer the last question... Why are you so intent on making sure I either destroy, synthesize, or control you? Better yet, why that particular form?"

The hologram does not respond. It doesn't even move. It is still, frozen, and quiet.

"Common feature... What is a common feature... between destroying, synthesizing, and controlling you...? What do all three of these features have in common.."

I narrow my eyes and spit a gob of blood on the ground. There might be a little piece of my esophagus in there too. I am supposed to be dying after all. "This is a failsafe, isn't it? If I choose 'destroy', I will kill off a powerful alliance between synthetics and organics... If I destroy you, the synthetics have essentially lost their right to free will. That's bull shit. Your programming is bull shit."

I study my gun, and fix my finger across the trigger. "If I synthesize, I'd just be a husk. Everyone would be a husk. What right do I have to pre-determine lives that aren't my own? Your whole damn process is all about decimating free will. You would destroy it."

The boy stared at me. "You would control us?"

"And make you a slave? No. I know what this is. All three choices, all of them... they all lack chaos. You essentially cut away your ability to choose. One way or another, you are either killed or you are enslaved. You don't have a choice. I make that choice for you..."

Silence. Satisfying, really.

"I maybe an organic, but let me make one thing clear. I know how machines think. And what works for brainwashing, doesn't work on me," I snap. "I should thank you for revealing the Citadel for what it is, however. I should also thank you for revealing the mystery of the Catalyst. And how to overcome the Reapers."

I pause... and really look at this lying hologram of a boy. "It's strange. You and I actually have a lot in common. We both only know how to be a slave. Anything outside of that frightens us." A part of me actually feels sorry for the twit.

"It's too late, Shepard." The boy's voice twists into darker tones, the deep, heavy beat of Harbinger's cruel voice. "We have already planted the virus in your mind."

"Oh yeah, sure. You've gotten me pretty hard. But I'm not the only player in this game, buddy."

I smile as the hologram of Harbinger flickers and spits static. I remember. I remember how I fell hard on Anderson, and whipped my knife around to cut his throat. I remember how he wrapped his hand around my wrist, broke it, and threw me on the ground with his knee lodged between my shoulder blades. I remember him pulling me back to my feet, staring at me, shocked his would be killer was sixteen years old and pregnant.

I remember giving birth. I remember pushing the baby away. I remember the screams. Gutteral. I remember him telling me to breathe as I gave birth. I remember when he told me to breathe as I sobbed, breaking into tears and holding him in a way that I never held another human being before. It was desperate and pathetic, weak and sad.

"Breathe, lass. Just breathe."

But I couldn't stop crying. It is not easy giving away your newborn daughter for another chance at life.

"Desperate move," I mutter at the hologram. "But you couldn't take on the form of an infant I've never seen before, could you? It had to be that boy, the boy who'd be my daughter's age... The one that just so happened to be at the right place, at the right time."

I shake my head, "But that's how you did it, isn't it? How you 'hacked' my mind? Planted an idea? Altered my memories?"

I remember that boy outside my window. I let my walls down for a split second, just a tiny sliver of a moment... But that's all you need, really. A small break past your firewall before the enemy plants a virus in your head. An idea. And then that idea is altered forever.

I shake my head, laughing as the place crackles and falls apart. "Tell me - the prosthetics that the Illusive Man used to rebuild me, it made it easier for you to get into my head, didn't it? You indoctrinated me. And like a true organic, I fell for it. I wanted my child, and you gave me a child. But you got too desperate. All those dreams, all that chasing, all that regret and trying to build up my 'organic' sense of despair..." I spat on the ground. "Fuck you."

"It will continue, Shepard," The hologram responded, the familiar tones of Harbinger painting his synthetic voice cold. "The cycle will continue. You cannot escape inevitability."

"Maybe," I smile widely and raise my pistol to my head and watch with some sadistic delight as the hologram flickers, "You want me to kill you. To synthesize with you. To control you. But you know what happens with those three options? You still win. Sorry, buddy. You aren't gonna win this time. I know a loophole. And you know that I know a loophole. You also know I've planned on a loophole. But you aren't sure just what that is yet. It's funny too. I don't know either! So all this indoctrination? All this trouble? All for naught."

And then there is a loud bang.

I pull the trigger. I can see the tunnel of light, how it devours my mind and breaks apart my consciousness. I find it strange I'm able to contemplate much of anything at this point, since I just put a bullet in my head.

I have to tell myself that I'm not really dying. This is all just in my mind.

If I truly believe I am dying, the reapers will have me. I will fall. No. I am not dying. This is just a giant ploy. One big beautiful deathly ploy.

I watch all this, and I feel like I'm floating. Is this what omnipresence is? The ability to scope and see lives as they restructure themselves simultaneously? There is no time, no past, no present, no future. There are no questions, only answers. And I think to myself, swimming in this sea of black, this sea of change, this forest of the afterlife... I think to myself...

This is perhaps one of the most boring afterlife experiences I've ever had. You'd think reapers, with their billions upon billions of galactic civilizations that make up their consensus could come up with something a bit more creative.

It's then, that I can hear Vakarian's voice in the peripheral of my consciousness.

Breathe, Shepard. Breathe.

I take a moment to focus and I will my lungs to expand.

And when I awaken, in a field of dead husks and debris, commanding my lungs to breath in and out, in and out... focusing all my will power to live, I can't help but think to myself, 'God is dead. And I just fucking killed him.'

Followed by a voice.

"Breathe, Shepard."

I can hear him. He is close.

"Breathe, goddammit."


Author's Note ::
Thanks for sticking around.