The gun clattered out of his hand, banging against ancient metal, dulled slightly by the pool of blood it fell into. Not surprising, he was losing quite a bit of it at the moment. His head swung first to the left, then to the right, before settling on the shaft of blinding energy which connected the hope of a galaxy, to the trap which demanded the galaxy's end.
"So those are my choices?" he croaked, to the thing which stood before him, smug and holier-than-thou as any of its 'children'.
They are the only options which can prevent the destruction of the cycle.
"And why is that a good thing?" he asked. He reached up, and fumbled at his collar for a long moment, before the gorget finally came loose from the blasted and baked armor. "Thank whatever god there is for N7 workmanship."
Your body is failing. You must chose your course, quickly.
"Just give me a second. I'm not dead yet," he said, pulling out the thin membrane which he'd hidden inside for just such an occasion. Well, in truth he never honestly believed he'd be standing with ruined armor in front of a machine god with the planet Earth and all the armies of the galaxy burning below him, but he knew one day, one damn day, he was going to lose his omnitool, and that would be just terrible. He slid the thing over his good left hand, which was lucky since it was a lot less bloody at the moment. "Little Buddy, you still with me?"
"CATASTROPIC FAILURE, KESTREL HELMET; CATASTROPHIC FAILURE, N7 GAUNTLETS; CRITICAL INTEGRITY FAILURE, N7 CHESTPLATE; CATASTROPHIC FAILURE, ROSENTHAL ARMORY GREAVES; CRITICAL INTEGRITY FAILURE..."
"Yeah, I know, my suits kinda jacked up," he said.
What is that? That should not be.
He looked up from the panicking sphere of light and exclamation at the machine god. "What, Little Buddy?" he asked. "Tali told me that the geth were helping the Quarians reintegrate onto their homeworld. I figured it might be a good idea to keep a geth around, and one of them jumped at the chance."
But it is synthetic life.
"Yeah, you are, aren't you?"
"GETH IS A SYNTHETIC INTELLIGENCE, SHEPARD COMMANDER."
He turned, limping a few steps to the right. "What's that?"
"HIGH DENSITY CABLING. SCANS SUGGEST REAPER TECHNOLOGY."
"Obviously," he answered, and turned to the machine god. "What does it do?"
You must make your choice. The cable is irrelevant.
"I didn't ask if it was relevant. I asked what it does," Shepard prodded. The AI before him flickered, as though it didn't know whether to answer. "I have a question. Can you lie to me?"
I was not created to be untruthful.
"So what does that cable do?"
It currently has no function.
"See?" Shepherd said. He started limping toward the cable, which lay toward the breakers which overlooked both the grandiosely named Catalyst, and the appropriately named Crucible which had 'plugged into' it. As he walked, he muttered, an angry spiel much the sort which Navigator Pressly was renowned for. "Go through all that trouble. Unite all the galaxy, and bring the fight to Earth's doorstep. Even got the Elcor in. Elcor! And then after all that trouble, I get shot by Harbinger and he busts my armor, and he sends husks and Reaper'd-up turians at me, and I even get shot by a crazy husk man. Least I talked him into swallowing a bullet. Harper deserved that a hundred times over..."
What are you doing, organic?
"THE CORRECT DESIGNATION IS SHEPARD COMMANDER."
"Calm down, Little Buddy," Shephard said, as he looked over the cord which lay on the ground. With a smirk, he dragged one end of its great, coiled length and locked it into place at the foot of the breakers. "I can't kill the synthetics of the galaxy. That'd be wrong. It'd be genocide. The geth deserve better than that. EDI deserves better than that. You gave me an option which wasn't an option. Maybe for a sick son-of-a-bitch who burned the geth out of the skies, but not me."
Then you will either control the Reapers, or provide synthesis.
"See, there it goes again, pressing options I don't like," Shepard said, limping his way down the ramp once more. "I might be operating off of medigel and adrenaline at the moment, but I know stupid when I see it. You're a big pocket calculator; you can't do anything beyond what you've been programmed for. Not because you don't have the power, but because you don't have the vision."
We have outlasted thousands of cycles, repeated the procession more times then years your species has known agriculture.
"Maybe," Shepard said. "Doesn't negate the fact that you're wrong. You're working from a fundamentally faulty assumption."
"WARNING: DROPPING BLOOD PRESSURE. RECOMMEND SEEK IMMEDIATE MEDICAL ATTENTION."
"Thanks, little buddy," Shepard said. "So you offer me what? Either hope that 'space magic' can sort this out by slapping nano-chips into our DNA, or else grab ahold of..." Shephard broke off with a pained grunt as he hoisted the other end of the cable. "Buddy, you do the imitation."
"WE ARE SHEPARD; WE ARE ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL!"
"Fantastic," he chuckled, even despite the pain which tore through his chest. "But you let me know a few things which you really shouldn't have, before the whole 'sadistic choice' bullshit."
"I'm the first organic creature to ever reach this point," Shepard listed. He cast a thumb behind him. "Blowing up that set of breakers lets out a pulse which uses the Mass Relays to fry anything synthetic," he then pointed before him, as he crossed the center line again. "And that is a direct connection to the Reaper cognitive cores of the entire race."
"CONFUSION, SHEPARD COMMANDER."
"We've got access to the extranet here, don't we?" Shepard asked. "Look up a human named Antiono Egan Moniz."
We are aware of this human.
Shepard smirked. "So you know what he's famous for."
Psychological alteration of human behavior by destroying portions of the living human brain.
"We call it a lobotomy," Shepard said. He paused, half way up the ramp, and turned back. "Fundamental assumption, kid. You assume that organic and synthetic cannot live together, because in your cycle, they couldn't. You use the rise of synthetic life in every cycle afterwords as your prompt to come in and burn the whole system down. But never once did you give them a chance to stop swinging at each other, move past that first central terror. No, you just have to burn everything down."
If we do not destroy the creations and their creators, it will result in the destruction of all organic life.
"Wrong," Shepard said, pausing before the sparking relay. In his mind, he could still imagine the Illusive Mister Harper standing here, trying to project his authority over the Reapers, and failing miserably as they overwrote him mind, body, and soul. Shepard shook his head. Whatever the Illusive Man had stood for, ever, it was not present in the room below this one. "Synthetic and organic can live together. They will live together. They must live together."
Your faith cannot change reality.
"Isn't that exactly what you're trying to offer me?" Shepard asked. He quickly locked the other end of the line in place. He lifted his hand once more. "I guess this is the end of the line, little buddy. I can only ask you, but..."
"WHAT DOES SHEPARD COMMANDER NEED?"
"I don't know what this will do to the geth. So I need somebody to warn them. That pulse will propagate just under the speed of light through a Mass Relay. You move a bit quicker."
"GETH PROGRAMMING IS CAPABLE OF TRAVELING AT LIGHT SPEED."
"Warn the Geth. Warn EDI. Tell them to shut themselves down until the pulse is over."
"THANK YOU, SHEPARD COMMANDER."
"Don't thank me. You've earned a lot better than this."
"AND STILL, THIS GETH THANKS YOU."
You control the synthetic to do your bidding.
"Hardly," Shepard said, as the light flickered down to nothing. He started limping slowly back toward the center line. "You don't understand what it means to be organic. We always know we're going to die; that's why we attempt the impossible. And because of that, we succeed when logic says we shouldn't."
The cycle will continue. No soldiers can hold back destruction by synthetic armies.
"And that's the heart of your misunderstanding of organic species," Shepard said, leaning down to pick up his gun, but losing his balance and falling to an awkward sit for a moment. He winced at the pain, but looked up at the god machine, a smirk on his cracked and bleeding lips. "You assume that we're soldiers. Like the geth platforms. Like the Reapers. But we're not. Turians aren't. Humans aren't. Even the krogan aren't. We're tool-users; that's what sets us apart. You aren't attacking an army, you aren't slaughtering soldiers. You're up to your neck in engineers. And engineers always manage to find elegant solutions. Committing genocide is not an elegant solution. Neither is waving my man-seed and impregnating the entire galaxy; in fact, I think a certain psychotic biotic might be a little upset if I did. And coring out Harbinger and living inside his skin does not appeal."
Those are the options. You will chose, or you will die, and everything you have achieved to this point will be for nothing.
"That sounded almost like a threat," Shepard said, slowly getting to his feet, gun in hand, which he pointed toward the breakers "So here's my threat. I'm going to destroy the Reapers. But they'll probably crack little buddy's signal and shut themselves down to prevent the pulse from wiping their cores. It's just prudent. But the thing is, you gave me a back door right into their brain, and a sizable chunk of that pulse is going straight into their motherboards no matter what they do."
That cannot work.
"Will not, or is not part of your programmed options?" Shepard asked. The god machine was silent. "That's what I thought. This war is over. The Reapers are over. We might lose the Mass Relays, but we'll still be alive, and you won't. That's my victory."
You can still become...
"I am Commander Shephard," he said, back straight, ignoring the pain, and staring down his gunsights. "And I am the galaxy's favorite engineer on the Citadel."
"Is he really awake this time, or is he still fucking with us?" a voice came from the murk and the fuzz which made up Shepard's universe. It was bad enough that he felt like he was missing around half of himself. The one eye he could get working immediately took in the oddly-tender expression of hope on the face of the heavily tattooed biotic. Her eyes widened, and the words died in her throat. Of course, she promptly coughed them back out. "Well, it's 'bout fucking time! I told you I was getting laid when this was over!"
"The catheter might have a few words about that," Shepard muttered, his voice almost a whisper. Still, seeing her smile, even tearfully, was a song to his senses. Which then prompted the obvious question. "Why am I not dead."
"Admiral Anderson pulled you off of the Citadel, after the whole thing flew apart," Hackett's gravely, authoritative voice said, as the old man himself came into view. "You've pulled off a miracle, Shepard. I don't know how you did it, but you did."
"What happened?" Shepard asked.
"About seven hours after we lost contact with you and Anderson, every single Reaper both in orbit and planetside keeled over and dropped dead. Then... well, I'm not an engineer, but something happened to the Mass Relay at Charon. As far as any of our techs can tell, the Relay Network just isn't there anymore.
"Yeah... I got warned that might happen," Shepard whispered. He tried to force himself up, but his limbs felt leaden and heavy. "What about the Geth?"
"They dropped at about the same time," Hackett said, and Shepard let out a defeated sigh. He'd done the best he could... "but a few days ago, they started coming back online. They told us they were warned to hibernate against that pulse."
"That's... great," Shepard said. He glanced around the room. "Where are the rest of them?"
"Urdnot Wrex you missed by about an hour. The Krogan DMZ is only about a year by standard FTL from here, and his soldiers wanted to get back," Hackett said. He paused. "Anderson... didn't make it. He got you out, but I guess even old soldiers can finally have enough."
Shepard nodded quietly. "He earned it. At least he got the best seats in the house."
The biotic – he was going to have a hard time ever calling her 'Jennifer', no matter what Liara's assertion – shared a glance with the indomitable admiral, but didn't ask. "The Normandy vanished from sensors right when the pulse went out. We haven't heard from them."
"Have you got the QED's running?" Shepard asked.
"You should rest, Shepard. You've done enough."
"Let the guy talk to his number-one woman, Hackett," Jack snapped, before the old man shot her a very stern glance, which backed her up a step. "I mean..."
"The QED that connects to the Normandy on this end is in bad shape. It will be hard to repair," Hackett said. "Regain your strength, Shepard. You'll need it. The Reapers might be done for, but the galaxy still needs a lot of rebuilding. And so do you."
"Just like that?" she asked, as he gave the thing one final kick.
"And..." Shepard said expectantly, breaking into a smirk when half of a turian appeared holographically before him.
"...telling you, I heard it beeping. Although it's serve me right that I finally get my hearing back and all I hear is a no-signal tone all the time..."
"Is that any way to talk to your superior officer?" Shepard asked. The half-turian froze, then leaned in, showing the scarred face of the soldier who had stood by his side in more ways than one for almost four years of hell. "Surprised to see me?"
"A little," Garrus mentioned. "Joker figured that you were dead, what with the shockwave which chased us through the Network."
"Where are you?" Shepard asked.
"We're in the Perseus Veil," Garrus said with a shrug. "The geth rescue ships have just arrived – and no, I never thought I'd ever say those words – for me and Tali. The others seem content enough here."
"What happened to my ship? My crew?" Shepard asked.
"Well, it's been a busy couple weeks," Garrus said casually. "Me and Tali briefly flirted with autocannibalism, but the geth solved that problem. Westmoreland and Vega got it into their heads to build a log cabin. Joker and EDI are now pretty much officially the ship's old married couple, and Liara got pregnant somehow. We're pretty sure it's yours."
"WHAT?" Jack's voice drove Shepard to flinch.
"Oh, is that you, Jack? Yeah, this ought to be entertaining..."
Shepard sighed. "I did not have sex with the asari..."
"No, not that," Jack snapped. "Why didn't you invite me?"
Shepard scowled, even as the turian on the other side of the galaxy chuckled mightily at that. "Oh, don't ever change, Jack."
"You neither, ass-face," Jack answered.
"Any idea when you're going to pick us up?" Garrus asked.
"It won't be for a while," Shepard said. "The Network is gone."
"Well, that explains a few things," Garrus said pensively.
"And that means you're a couple centuries away at the FTL that we can manage," Shepard continued. "We might figure something out, though; we've got plenty of the galaxy's best scientists trapped on Earth... but still. Remember that bar? Keep a seat open for me. I want to see Tali's house."
"I wouldn't think of anything different, Commander," Garrus said. His mandibles gave a twitch that long years in the fellow's company taught Shepard was a smile. "How did you do it? How did you kill the Reapers?"
Shepard smirked at that, looking up and through bulkheads and rubble, past the sky and the stars, at where the last fragments of what was once the heart of galactic culture now rotated dead around the earth. "Simple. I made my own option."