We'll have tomorrow. Trust me, it's true.
We'll have tomorrow. We'll get through.
Clouds will be parted, sun will shine bright.
We'll have tomorrow if we make it through tonight.
They say that when you're dying, your whole life flashes before your eyes.
Abigail Shepard wasn't sure that this was what she was seeing, falling down this glowing blue shaft... feeling her limbs dissolve, strangely painlessly, in sparkles of green light. The last thing she remembered was a triumphant smirk on the Catalyst's face; if only she could touch that smug machine, hiding behind the face of the child in her dreams...
She was so dependent on her friends, after all. More than she realized. Never before did she feel so alone that she felt so close to giving up. Caving in to the Catalyst's rigged "choice". Because at that moment, it felt like nothing mattered to her anymore – not even the galaxy she fought so hard to save.
Joker... Anderson... Liara...
People who gave her the strength to persist this far, despite all odds. Whom she would never see again now. Dying alone. The worst way to go.
Green light surging through mass relays all over the galaxy, surging through star systems far faster than regular light was. Calming the Reapers. Ceasefire. Peace. Not so eternal after all, this cycle.
The images changed, turning blurrier with every second. Shepard saw Joker frantically mashing buttons, trying to outrun the explosion – catching up with the Normandy even at FTL speeds. Followed by a sudden change of scene... to the ship lying in a jungle, damaged... the crew exiting the hatch, carelessly, as if certain it was safe to breathe there.
And the eyes...
The piercing, glowing robotic eyes.
They all slowly looked around the scenery, the entire team, stopping these unsettling eyes on her for a minute. James stepped aside, leaning on his rifle. Garrus and Tali passed by together, holding hands... Shepard could not see Tali's eyes through her mask, but they, too, seemed to glow brighter than usual. Piercing. Judging.
Ashley and Liara walked down the ramp last. Away from the other squadmates, who stood admiring the vibrant green scenery, they knelt down, letting Shepard see their eyes clearly... disturbingly reminding her of the Illusive Man's, except green rather than blue. As if intent to make her regret her choice... these four emerald lights, glowing sharp against a background rapidly going blurrier, turning the two faces into indistinct blots...
"Commander, wake up!"
Slowly, reluctantly, Shepard opened her eyes. She was still lying on the barren floor in the depths of the Citadel, next to the breathless Anderson. Everything that she remembered happening after that – the ghostly child, jumping into the beam of light, dissolving – was slowly leaving her memory, like a hazy, inconsequential dream.
She still felt badly hurt, her bloodstained limbs barely obeying her. But it felt like it barely mattered anymore. Her friends were here.
Ashley limped to the Commander in the broken, deformed remains of her heavy armor. Her right arm looked broken as well, crudely wrapped in torn cloth; she was unsteadily holding a pistol in her left hand instead. Liara, sitting on the floor nearby, touching Anderson's forehead, seemed to hold surprisingly well... in comparison. Still, her coat was torn open wide on the back, and the blue skin of her back, once so clean and smooth, was covered in scratches and deep punctures, still bleeding heavily.
"You... You're... augh..." Shepard slowly rose into sitting, groaning, feeling suspicious cracking sounds in her spine. "I thought you were dead... Left you for dead at the beam..."
Ashley smiled faintly, holstering her gun and leaning on the wall with her still-healthy arm. "Thank her." She pointed at Liara. "If not for her biotics, we'd both be crushed by rubble down there. And you had more pressing concerns than digging us out, skipper. Like a galaxy to save."
Shepard clenched her lips, looking around. "Yeah... about that..."
Liara let go of Anderson, sadly shaking her head. Shepard just clenched her fists, moving her eyes further, towards the Illusive Man's body, lying at Ashley's feet. What was left of his head was a bloody mess; it wasn't the splattered bits of his brain behind the cracked skull that disturbed her – as a veteran officer, she was used to worse sights – but the freakish web of cybernetic plates and wires molded with it. Was her own brain like this, too, under the innocently intact organic skin? It was Cerberus that rebuilt her, after all.
She frowned in disgust.
"Ash... make sure he's dead. And not like last time."
Ashley nodded and crouched. Picking a grenade off her belt, she stuffed it into a gaping wound on the Illusive Man's stomach, through a torn hole in his jacket. She walked away a safe distance, counting to ten, as Liara erected a biotic barrier in front of the three of them. The corpse exploded, covering the floor in chunks of flesh, pieces of cloth, and metal implants.
Some closure for this one, at least. If not the prettiest kind.
"This really is like the old times," said Ashley. "Us three, the Citadel..." she gestured at the window, pointing at the swarm of exploding dots in the distance, above Earth. "Hackett buying us time. Let's use every second of it."
Shepard sighed, leaning over her dead mentor. "Never before have the odds been so stacked against us. Not one, but an entire fleet of Reapers... And this is no Council chamber. This is something far more gloomy. Liara, any idea where we are? Doesn't look like any part of the Citadel I know."
"I saw keepers on the way here. Dead keepers," said the asari. "This could be the station's core, where they come from... Where nobody has been before, except for... except for..."
"The Protheans!" exclaimed Shepard.
"Yes! When they took the Conduit from Ilos, to reprogram the keepers, they must have found a way here... somehow. They had to. And their bodies were never found. Oh, what wouldn't I give to find out how they lived their last days..."
"Excuse me, but how does it help us now?" asked Ashley. "The Crucible's docked but not firing. The Reapers are still out there and winning. We're cut off from everyone and don't even know what went wrong."
"Think about it!" Liara exclaimed. Her face, formerly devoid of any hope and joy, suddenly brightened. "The Citadel's arms are open. The Crucible is exposed. The Reapers could blast it off at any moment if they wanted – but they didn't. Why?"
Shepard raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me the Crucible is a trap too. Throwing away all this time and resources on a dud – or worse, something that only benefits the Reapers?"
"No, we'd know if it was the case," said Liara. "The Protheans never did anything without a reason. The Crucible has to work somehow, and docking with the Citadel is the key. If only we had the Thessian VI with us, still... it could explain. There's still something missing here... something very close..."
"Then let's look around," Shepard suggested, bluntly. "Anything suspicious. Anything even remotely Prothean. I'm not giving up just yet."
"I don't think it'll be necessary, skipper," smiled Ashley.
"What do you mean?"
"The console. Why would it be here, if the Reapers never expected anyone with hands to reach it?"
Shepard and Liara turned their eyes towards the console... and exchanged glances. Indeed, it seemed alien to the architecture of this glossy round room; too crude, too obvious, as if placed here as an afterthought.
"Well," the Commander chuckled. "Talk about missing the obvious."
The overview image of the Citadel with its arms open faded from the screen as Shepard moved her hand over the buttons, giving way for previously unseen screen panels with Prothean writing. Its meaning clear as day to her, ever since Feros.
- CRUCIBLE CONTROL
- RESTRICTED ACCESS AREA
- CONFIRM DOCKING
Shepard selected these options, with Ashley and Liara standing nearby, watching... and suddenly a green holographic image of a Prothean, blocky and distorted – like back on Thessia – appeared on top of the console.
"Scanning..." said the VI avatar, as glowing text messages and graphics on the transparent walls around started moving too fast for eyes to keep track of. "Crucible attachment confirmed. Structural integrity verified. Acknowledged presence of Cipher. User authorization granted on behalf of the Conduit Project."
"Hey, hey... Slow down there," Shepard interrupted the holo-Prothean, looking at its face. "What is your purpose, exactly? Do you control the Crucible?"
"This control module was installed by the Conduit Project as part of the effort to prepare the Citadel against future Reaper cycles. Late in development, the researchers of Ilos traced different iterations of Crucible schematics by reconstructing their evolution in time. Eventually, remote incorporation of the Citadel as the Catalyst was deemed insufficient. Direct intervention was required to properly integrate the Citadel's systems into the proposed weapon design."
"What does the Crucible actually do?" asked Shepard.
And you better give me more straight answers than that dream kid, she didn't say.
"The finalized Crucible design builds upon the Citadel's role as the master mass relay," said the VI, "to spread a wave targeting the Reapers through the relay network simultaneously, targeting all Reapers within the galaxy within range of a relay. However, the Empire failed to reach a consensus regarding the exact anti-Reaper mechanism to implement on top of the relay-powered carrier wave."
"Most favored destruction, but an indoctrinated minority was in favor of control," said Liara, remembering the words of the VI on Thessia.
"Correct. As a compromise, provisions for both options were implemented in the final blueprint and the Citadel control unit. It was judged that the exact order assigned to the Crucible would be determined at deployment time with consideration of overall situation. However – "
The VI hologram shook with static, its green hue changing into orange. An annoying, deep noise filled Shepard's ears. A familiar one... more familiar than she'd prefer.
The sound of a Reaper.
"Stand aside, both of you," Shepard warned, turning her head back. With Ashley standing to her right, she gently took the Lieutenant-Commander's hand and put it on her holstered pistol. "Ash... If anything suspicious happens to me, anything at all – If I start acting strangely, gun me down, without hesitation."
"But – " Ashley started, but a booming, chilling voice coming from the console drowned hers.
The orange blob of holographic squares rearranged itself, assuming the shape of a Reaper. Shepard took a step back, holding her hand on the holster on her hip. Unpleasant memories of the Alpha Relay incident flooded her mind.
Still you struggle, despite being shown the utter insignificance of your actions. Still you reject your destiny through ascension. Resist the eternal, unbreakable cycle. I am disappointed, Shepard.
"Ah, if it's not my old friend Harbinger." The Commander folded her arms, casting a condescending glance at the hologram. "I was wondering where you fit into all this."
"You know a Reaper by name?" asked Ashley, tilting her head.
Destroying relays – our gift to the organics. Wiping out whole systems. Abandoning your allies while you rush in a doomed effort to stop the inevitable. How much further are you going to compromise your values, Shepard, before you yield at last?
"Why are you even listening to it?" Ashley exploded. "There are people dying out there, for every second we waste. Just fire the Crucible already! And if it doesn't work – then we'll bring down as many of you squids as we can. Even... even by blowing up a relay or ten, if we have to."
"Ash, what am I hearing?" Shepard turned to her, seeing Ashley clench her fists. "This just isn't you."
"We didn't come all the way here to be arguing with a machine that belongs in a museum."
Tell me, Shepard, Harbinger continued, interrupting Ashley. You know that the plans for your pathetic Crucible plans are millions of years old. Why do you think they were never deployed?
"Even if I wanted to know, do you really think I would believe anything said by a Reaper?" asked Shepard. "Sovereign tried to scare me with delusions of godhood. You know how that worked out."
Your arrogance is as pointless as clinging to your dying way of life.
The Prothean hologram appeared next to the projection of Harbinger, starting another pre-recorded message.
"Option one will retarget the energy of the relays into a fine-tuned burst, targeting specific hardware combinations only found in the Reapers – or theoretically any Reaper-augmented synthetics. However, the debris from the explosions of so many Reapers would enter the atmospheres of garden worlds, rendering them uninhabitable for generations to come, and the relays would be overloaded to levels that could render a portion of them nonoperational. It was therefore decided that the Crucible was only to be used as a last resort."
"And the Protheans still failed to build it in time," Liara commented sadly. "Because of the attack on the Citadel."
You see it now, Shepard. You will be dooming billions of your people. Dooming the geth, who now carry our upgrades because of your doing. We have determined that you will yield in the face of unacceptable costs.
"But I won't," said Ashley with determination.
Shepard and Liara stared at her, in a "what are you doing?" way.
"I'll pay any cost. Even if I'm to be known as a butcher of billions... We have colonies. So does every species in the galaxy. The geth have backups. Civilization will survive, somehow – but your kind has to be stopped."
"Ash, don't you even think – " started Shepard.
"No. We've come this far. Never again is a Williams going to surrender."
A predictable response from an organic. You see now, Shepard? All you organics ever do is destroy. Destroy your own kind, destroy the worlds we have prepared for you, destroy our gifts – the mass relays. All for petty, selfish reasons. All these social constructs you cover yourself in, your fabled "morality", to hide from the inherent meaningless of your existence – all this disappears in the face of your primitive genetic programming, your basic survival instinct.
"What, you think I care for my own life?" shouted Ashley. "I'd gladly give it – "
Some organics come to view their entire community as a single organism, offering to amputate a limb to save the body, continued Harbinger. Such a perspective is not dissimilar to the hive processes within our shells – except inherently limited by your short lifespans, by the lack of perspective developed over millions of years of seeing countless organic civilizations rise and fall. It is this limited worldview that prevents you from ever truly understanding us.
Shepard covered her face with her hand, while using her other hand to intercept Ashley's wrist before she could reach the console. "Good grief, and here I hoped I wouldn't have to listen to this 'puny mortals' nonsense again."
It is this lack of data and processing capacity, the collected wisdom of ages, that makes you believe, in your folly, that you can control us – like your former ally did.
The Prothean VI switched on again. "Option two was implemented as a result of extrapolating the workings of Reaper consciousness based on the history of lesser synthetics, brought down in previous cycles. By reprogramming the Reapers, it would allow an organic agent to control the Reapers through the same process as their control over husks. This option was deemed too dangerous for the balance of power in the galaxy and for the controller's mental stability."
Liara's eyes widened, filled with hope as she turned to Shepard. "Abigail... This is our chance. A bloodless victory..."
Your eagerness to repurpose institutions you did not create will be your undoing, T'Soni. Or should I say, Shadow Broker.
"Biting more than you can chew here, Liara." Shepard shook her head. "The Broker's resources were a necessary evil, and you did turn them around... But do this and you'll become just like Cerberus."
"I... It's not like I'll have to keep that power for long. Just making them all fly into a sun..."
"Liara, the Illusive Man thought he could do it. And he ended up indoctrinated. Made me shoot my teacher and best friend... How can you know you can do it? Or I, or anyone? I've seen how Cerberus tried to control geth... Geth, not even Reapers. You know of David Archer. He still never fully recovered. Maybe never will."
A crude, primitive interface, Harbinger broke in again. It is unlike our offer – the perfect fusion of organic and synthetic traits. The pinnacle of synthesis. Apex of evolution. It is an unfortunate setback that your foolishness prevents you from realizing what we bring you – so much that we have to resort to force.
"Yeah, right." Shepard tapped her armored foot on the ground. "Protect us feeble organics from dooming ourselves by bringing doom on us every fifty thousand years. You never notice your logic is, to put it mildly... lacking?"
We are not the architects of the cycle – we are merely its servants. The cycle is a statistical inevitability, a fact based on cold observation. You always doom yourself to extinction, either through your own wars or through the rebellion of synthetics you create. This is where we intervene. Your gardeners, your preservers, your archivists. Every species that came before you, stored in the form of our bodies, along with its history and knowledge. Knowledge that you arrogantly destroy even now, believing you are doing the galaxy a favor.
"Rubbish!" said Shepard, giving the Reaper hologram a furious glare. "I'm not the Illusive Man, overseeing the dirty work from the safety of some office. Not going to fly with me. I've been there. At the Collector base. I've seen how you 'preserve' us. I'd rather just die instead."
It is natural to fear what you do not comprehe–
Shepard slammed her fist on the console.
"You think I don't know why you've been stalling all this time? Wasting your time talking to us, instead of just firing on the Crucible? I know why. Come on. The Crucible is exposed, defenseless. Your armada is out there. Fire at it. Destroy our hope. I dare you."
Silence ensued. The hologram of Harbinger remained perfectly still. Ashley and Liara stood in place, at Shepard's sides, holding their breaths.
"See? You can't. And you know why? Because it registers as part of the Citadel. And the Citadel is your creation. You can reap it all you want, you can kill every living being on it, but you can't touch its structure. And the Crucible is now part of it. Sitting there docked to the Tower, where one of you would go to lock out the relays. You're not pulling a Sovereign on us again."
Ashley and Liara cast bemused looks at the Commander, as she continued to rant, saliva flying out of her mouth and onto the console.
"Because for all your claims of superiority, you don't understand but one thing about us. Not just organics, but even other synthetics you sneer at. We advance and progress. You were reaping us for millions, maybe billions of years. But you're still exactly the same as you started. No improvement. You Reapers are unchallenged, but this is what condemns you. I knew a salarian once, a good man... He explained it to me. You don't advance, you have no culture, no creativity. Just like your hideous creations, those Collectors and husks. You might as well be already dead. It's your thought that's limited, and this is why you only do what you're set up to do. In the end, you're just big, dumb machines."
Shepard placed her hand on the console again, wiping out the hologram of Harbinger with a single stroke over the keys. "And it's obvious to me now who closed the Citadel's arms so all you could do was move it. And even then, you still failed to stop our plans."
The image of the Citadel, like a flower with five petals, again appeared on the big screen before the three of them, spinning. A small dot departed from the central point representing the Tower, drawing a line connecting it to the Presidium ring.
"Shepard to C-Sec. Patch me to the geth fleet, Bailey."
"Commander, what are you doing?" asked Ashley, making a step towards the console.
"I'm done with these fake choices. Traps that only serve to undermine us, so much the Reapers might as well win. I'm making my own plans now."
The console's holographic projector activated again. This time, it showed a geth hologram, shaped in the image of Legion, but undamaged – the hole covered by the chunk of N7 armor replaced by an intact frame.
"Shepard-Commander," said the hologram. "The geth consensus is awaiting orders."
To be concluded.