No, you aren't seeing double. After some thought, I've decided this story works better as a one shot, and I've added a new scene to the end to provide closure. I'm keeping the old chapters up for the benefit of those who liked them, but I regard this as the final version of the story.
The boy—the Catalyst, Matt corrected himself—watched him silently with transparent eyes, as if he were waiting. Christ, it actually meant to let him make this choice. Pain fled to be replaced by a numb horror. It was one thing to choose to sacrifice the Destiny Ascension or to destroy the Collector Base. Those had been tactical calculations of risk versus reward. This was deciding the fate of all life everywhere. No one person should ever make that call.
"If you do not choose, the battle will continue. All you love will perish. She will perish."
Miranda. No. He had already lost too many. Ash. Thane. Tali. Legion. He wouldn't lose her as well. She was all he had left. "I can still save her, right?"
"If you choose now."
No getting out of it then. He looked to his right. A few shots at the tubing were all it would take to destroy the Reapers once and for all. This war that had consumed him, that had pushed out his art and nearly pushed out Miranda, would at last be over. He would come back to her and honor his promise. They would build a life together. He would paint her as she deserved. Just a few shots…
And the destruction of all synthetic life. No more EDI. No more geth. Matt inhaled, and fire spread through his chest. "Shepard-Commander, I must go to them." To destroy the geth now, just as awareness was beginning to dawn, would be genocide. The Butcher of Torfan would be a butcher in truth. And EDI, who was falling in love for the first time and to whom Matt owed his life a thousand times over. Gone with no more effort than it took to squeeze the trigger. No, Anderson had been wrong. Destroying the Reapers was not the way.
His eyes fell on the device the Illusive Man had planned to use to control the Reapers. There was power there, if the Catalyst was right. But it was the power of a lonely god cut off from all human concern. Miranda's voice echoed in his head. "I told myself that I was doing it for humanity, but installing that chip would have allowed me to control you the way Father wanted to control me. What a bloody hypocrite I was." And domination wasn't the answer here either, was it? He was an ordinary man. The Reapers might rebel against him before he even started. Or he might go as mad with power as Henry Lawson.
"There is another way, you know."
"I know," Matt whispered. He had done his best to avoid looking at the green light when he arrived, but now it filled his vision. "Turn us all into some kind of hybrid."
"It will bring peace between synthetics and organics. We will become more like you, and organics will become more like us. Our strength will be wedded to your empathy. The cycle will come to an end. My purpose will be complete." The Catalyst's voice was sad. "My tools, my children, will be free. It is the only way to create harmony from chaos. Creator and created are too opposed. If left unchecked, all life everywhere would be destroyed. You saw it yourself on Rannoch."
"Damn you. Damn your cycles." He took a halting step forward, and a knifelike pain radiated up his leg, as if his own body was begging him to stop. "Haven't I done enough? I've been the galaxy's errand boy since I was eighteen. Now you want me to die, too?"
"All that you are will be absorbed and sent out." The Catalyst cocked its transparent head to one side. "What do you think she would do?"
"Don't bring Miranda into this," Matt ground out. But he knew what Miranda—Miranda who put her life on the line to save humanity a dozen times over, Miranda who had an idealism he could never hope to match—would do. She would sacrifice her own life and happiness rather than commit genocide. And that, in the end, was why Matt dragged himself to the edge of the platform and jumped.
Green light enveloped him. There was no pain. Indeed, there seemed to be no physical sensation at all. He had been reduced to memory and thought alone. And those memories were racing past like currents of electricity.
He sketched Miranda with quick, clean lines. No wasted effort, just like the woman herself. Miranda fidgeted in her chair. This was the first time she has sat for him, his reward for particularly wide singularity field. But he found he scarcely needed her as a model. She had been burned into his mind long ago.
The Alliance recruiter's eyes glittered with undisguised greed. "The Alliance would be willing to overlook your, ah, brush with the law in exchange for service. Ten years in prison, or ten years of service. Your choice, Mr. Shepherd."
"Miranda, things are never going to be easy for us, but I'll always want you in my life." For the smallest fraction of a moment, he could see the disbelief and joy on her face. He watched her with disbelief of his own. Didn't she know by now that he wasn't going anywhere?
Tali pivoted, graceful as a dancer, and flung herself off the cliff. Matt heard his voice scream her name as she plummeted towards the earth. The last of the quarians and one of his oldest friends was dead. He was worse than a murderer. He was traitor who had allowed genocide because he couldn't find the right words.
Miranda stood over Henry's corpse. Her face was covered in bruises, but she had never looked so beautiful. A goddess, an avenging angel meting out the justice he could not. Sanctuary would be nothing more than a memory now, thanks to her. And she had given him Cerberus.
The holographic Miranda's fingers hovered over his cheek. "Finish this, Matt, and find me."
He would break that promise. The one thing he wanted was the one thing he could not have. He would be immortalized in art the way he had once sought to immortalize others. He would be called a savior, a redeemer. In a thousand years, somebody would probably start a religion with him as God. But Miranda was lost to him.
"Is she?" The Catalyst's voice echoed around him. "I said you would be absorbed. I never said you would die. You have a chance to find her, and she has a chance to save you. Let us see if you take it."
Matt blacked out before he could ask what the hell that was supposed to mean.
Two weeks later
Mordin bustled around the Lawson Biomedical lab as if it belonged to him. Henry Lawson would have been horrified to find a salarian in charge of his lab, but Miranda was grateful. The salarians had taken heavy casualties in the Disaster, and he was one of the few people with the medical expertise to help them piece together what had happened in the aftermath and the ability to keep up with Miranda's punishing schedule.
"Have finished examining patient. Your hypothesis correct. Found nanites similar to those of indoctrinated subjects in bloodstream. Self-repair properties likely responsible for survival of suicide attempt."
Miranda tensed. The massive casualties sustained in the battle for London, the destruction of the relays, and the as-yet-unexplained flash of green light that had given everyone eyes that glowed had driven many to suicide. Those who had chosen violent means such as turning a gun on themselves had largely been successful, but those who had poisoned themselves had simply refused to die. Their bodies had repaired the damage faster than the toxins could cause it. "So, we're all indoctrinated, then?"
That would be a perfect capstone to this tragedy. Earth's population had been cut in half in just a few months. The Charon relay had been reduced to debris, stranding the allied forces in the Sol system. No one but the asari or krogan would ever see home again. Galactic civilization as they knew it was gone. Miranda would never see Oriana again. Matt and the rest of the Normandy crew were presumed lost. The Reapers had quit the field for unknown reasons, but it seemed they had won after all. Organics were destined to lose their minds.
But Mordin shook his head. "Unlikely. Nervous system altered, but changes not consistent with autopsies performed on Cerberus personnel. Endocrine system normal. Evidence of possibilities for increased strength and cognitive ability, but not indoctrination. Only preliminary guess with small sample size. Will need to run study once crisis has passed." He smiled, and it was the first real smile Miranda had seen in two weeks. "Fascinating mystery."
"Indeed." If intellectual curiosity kept Mordin upbeat, then he should indulge. The science team that had worked on the Crucible had suffered over eighty percent casualties. Brilliant minds like Mordin would be invaluable to Earth's recovery, if Earth even could recover. Miranda would be invaluable. At least that was what she told herself. It made an excellent excuse not to put a bullet in her skull. And at least now she knew not to try poison.
He peered at her. In salarians the green light was little more than pinpricks against a vast blackness. "Dark circles under eyes. Skin paler than normal. Signs of fatigue in humans. Recommend sleep, or at least cessation of work for day."
If I stop, I might have time to think. "I've got some reports from Brynn to go over first." She left before he could protest.
Henry had been a scientist first, a businessman second, and a father a distant third. He had wanted his office close to the labs, the better to monitor progress. Miranda had often found him haranguing the nominal project lead over some point of genetics while he was supposed to be dealing with stockholders. His assistant had had to drag him away from an attempt to increase telomerase production after Miranda had broken her arm. His office had reflected his priorities. Computers were everywhere, but the furniture was spare and built for function rather than luxury. A QEC dominated the center of the room. There had been no personal effects for Miranda to clear out when she had decided to make this the base of operation for her and the surviving former Cerberus personnel.
The one concession to his position had been the spectacular view. Perth, Sydney, and Brisbane had been devastated by the Reapers, but the resort town of Coffs Harbour had largely been left alone. The sea was the clear blue of her childhood, and white sand dotted the beaches. No smoke wafted up from a thousand fires, as it had in London. One could walk the streets here without the certainty of being mugged, raped, or murdered. That was one of Miranda's few accomplishments. The remnants of her strike team had become an impromptu police force, imposing a rough order on her childhood home. An order harshly enforced, but order nonetheless.
Brynn's message awaited her.
We've begun work on tissue samples from those who were in an intermediate husk state but not yet fully converted at the time the Reapers left the system. Prognosis for reversing the process is grim. Most are effectively dead the moment they come in contact with Dragon's Teeth. We could possibly do something with those who had been integrated, but there have been no reports of Cerberus troops in the area. Focusing on those indoctrinated, but not implanted, is our most productive course of action given our extremely limited resources. That makes the data you grabbed from Sanctuary much less useful, but with all the weird stuff going on, maybe that's a good thing.
Miranda buried her face in her hands. So much for that. She had been so sure—no, she had desperately wanted to believe—that the research she had gotten from Sanctuary would save lives. After all, without her, that would have been no Sanctuary. The astonishment in Henry's voice had been audible even in recordings. The pathetic daughter he had discarded had been useful after all. Miranda's research into a means to control Matt had provided the foundation for Sanctuary's work. There would have been no Paul Grayson, no integration process, if not for Lazarus and her desire for a control chip.
It always came back to the control chip. When she was twenty years old, she had trained an unusually powerful biotic and aspiring artist named Matthias Shepard to use his power so that Cerberus could test the L3 implant. Fifteen years later, she had brought him back from the dead. But the chip and Sanctuary tainted everything she had done, just as the madness of the last year had tainted Cerberus. Any good she or they had done had turned to ash. Henry took the blame, but she was responsible. She was the one who had been too blind to see the Illusive Man or Cerberus for what they were until it was too late. She hadn't even seen how much of her father there was in her: the brilliant genius infinitely more concerned with results than people. Matt had been her lover as well as her student all those years ago. That hadn't mattered. Cerberus had needed Commander Shepard to work with them, and Miranda would deliver that by fair means or foul. Falling in love with him again, and he with her, had been a grace neither expected nor deserved.
Neither of them had ever called it love. It would have been presumption, a jinx. But Miranda had seen it in drawings and paintings, had felt it in the way he squeezed her hand before they made the final jump through the Omega-4 relay. He had wanted her, but it was more than that. He had looked at her as if he believed she really could improve humanity. He would help her build a new world and chronicle it. He had loved her not for her looks or anything Henry had given her, but for her passion. As she had loved him for his, the way he believed the entire world could be explained in color and line.
The rest of the galaxy had fawned over the soldier who saved them all or cursed the man who had left the Council to die. But he had been Miranda's brilliant, darling boy first; and it was the boy—the man beneath the armor—that she had loved. Matt, who had drunkenly said her eyes were the color of space. Matt, who had held her quietly after Niket's death. Matt, who had taught her that supporting human advancement didn't mean supporting Cerberus. He had made her world richer, broader. With him at her side, she could have both a cause and a love.
And she had lost him. "Damn you, Matt, for promising. And damn me for believing."
"You aren't...the only one who…honors her promises." The voice was garbled as if coming from underwater, with a synthesized quality like those of Cerberus troopers or David Archer when he was plugged into the Overlord device.
Miranda's head snapped up, but there was no one there, and it was a very strange thing for an intruder to say. She ran her fingers through her hair. She'd stooped to hearing voices. Fatigue and grief had chipped away at her sanity bit by bit. Mordin was right. She needed a rest.
"Not a hallucination. I'll prove it." A green wall of light about the size of a grown man appeared in the QEC. The light shifted and changed, shrinking and altering form as if it were a block of marble being shaped by an invisible sculptor. Miranda watched in shock and fascination as it resolved itself into the rough form of a man. Then eyes, tinged with the unnatural green light but still undeniably blue, appeared. A crooked nose, a thin mouth. Last of all was dark auburn hair, this sort she had loved stroking when she had passed. It couldn't be. It wasn't. Even Lazarus couldn't make this miracle happen.
"Hello," Matt said. "Did it work? Can you hear me?"
Miranda stared at him open-mouthed. This couldn't be happening. She had lost everything, so her mind finally broken and given her back one thing. Matt was nothing more than a beautiful, agonizing fever dream.
"I'm real, Miranda." His voice cracked as he stared at his glowing hands as if he'd never seen them before. "I've come back. The Catalyst said that…I never believed…Oh, God."
"No," Miranda rasped, her throat raw with a burning pain. "You're just an illusion." An illusion she was talking to. Damn it.
"Shit, I should've known this would happen. And me without a body to prove I'm real." The specter's brow furrowed the same way Matt's did when he was planning a painting or deciding the most effective way to flank the enemy. I really, really hope this works. Could an illusion do this?"
The terminal Miranda had been reading winked off, and an alarm sounded somewhere in the distance. Matt smirked. "Hope no one tries to break in the next 10.32 seconds. Your security systems are going absolutely nuts."
"This is insane," Miranda managed. "I'm insane."
The comm link sprang to life before Matt could say anything. "Ms. Lawson. We have a situation. The security systems went off-line for a bit. We're not exactly sure what's going on."
Miranda stared at Matt and he at her. This couldn't be real. Fate had never been kind to her. Miranda always lost what she loved, and it never came back. And yet...hope was the cruelest of all masters. "For just a little over ten seconds."
"How did you know?"
Miranda's operative training kicked in by instinct, and her voice was cool and professional. "Never mind. The situation is under control." She shut the comm link off with shaking hands.
Matt was here. Somehow the dead had returned to life once more. The world had ended, but Fate had seen fit to give her this one moment of grace. The wall of numb grief sloughed off like a scab, exposing the rawness within. Grief and elation intertwined so tightly that Miranda could no longer tell which was which. Hot tears poured down her face, for what she had lost and what she had gotten back. Miranda had neither the strength nor the will to stop them.
Matt's voice was soft and warm. "Don't cry. Please. I've come back."
"How?" Miranda whispered. Perhaps it was foolish to question, but Miranda was a scientist. All things were explainable with time. Even miracles.
Matt told her. His voice was low and rhythmic, the way it was when he tried and failed for the thousandth time to explain to her what he saw in a Caravaggio or Degas. It was an incredible story. AIs that wore the form of a child. Synthetics becoming like organics. The Reapers being set free. All life changing on a molecular level. "I'm not really sure how I came back. I guess you could say that I put myself back together. Bits of data pieced together to make a person. No body, but I can control tech. I'm not sure what you would call me."
Miranda wiped her eyes. Matt was watching her with a mixture of worry and affection. He was a human hologram, if what he said was true. A digital ghost. Half of a miracle then, bringing back the mind but not the body. But then, there was no such thing as miracles, were there? There was only the effort of talented people who refused to take no for an answer. "I'll bring you back."
His smile was a brittle, frantically hopeful thing that looked as if it might break into pieces at any moment. "An ambitious undertaking, Ms. Lawson." His voice cracked. "Is that even possible?"
Miranda smiled despite herself. "A matter of time and resources. It's always a matter of time and resources." Wild, fierce joy that had no right to be there bubbled up inside her. "And I have something I didn't before."
Many years later
"And that is the Shepard myth that inspired this painting. Scholars believe it is a late addition to the cycle, tying the figure of Matthias Shepard to the development of the ability to upload and store personalities. It is an example of an…"
John let Dr. Prescott drone on as the rest the class crowded around the painting. He'd always been fascinated by tales of the Shepard, ever since he'd been a little boy on Horizon drinking in every word his grandfather said. He was older now, old enough to know that the relays had only gone dark instead of exploding. Now his concerns were more human. He wondered what the real Miranda Lawson has done. He wondered if there had indeed been a Miranda, or if she was just another construct. But whatever she was had faded into myth long ago.
And yet, some part of him wanted her to have been real, wanted this to have been real. Death was nothing now; just upload your most recent personality backup into a new shell and go on your way. Fantastic, practically speaking. But it meant grand romantic gestures like spending years resurrecting your ex-boyfriend or reforming yourself because you had promised your girlfriend that you would find her were really hard to come by. John wanted to believe that they had once been possible.
"Lovely use of line," Nick said. He brushed his hair out of his eyes. "And you can almost see her fighting the hope, can't you? And the subtle green flecks in her eyes. Lots of painters, especially the neo-Luddites, will use a neon or sickly green to represent the first transformations. But it's deep and rich here. Like pine trees."
"I guess." John shrugged. Nick had always been a little weird. Obsessed with his painting and sketching. He was on his third degree though, and had been more than generous in sharing his notes and helping John pass art appreciation. "We still on for lunch later?"
"If you don't mind Claire joining us. She finished the nanotech improvements early, and I promised I'd meet her."
"You two enjoy yourselves." And this way I don't have to explain the puddle of drool. He looked back at the painting. "You ever think these stories are strange? I mean I know a lot of cultures appropriate myths, but the Shepard stuff seems to depend entirely on who's telling the story. The asari swear up and down that Miranda sold him out to this Cerberus, regretted it, and died in his arms. The krogan say that he cured the genophage; the salarians say that he only said he did and the cure was part of the Event."
It was the Nick's turn to shrug. "Tells you more about the culture of the tale-teller than anything. I'm betting most of these stories have exactly nothing to do with the real Shepard." He cleared his throat. "Assuming there was one. I could do without the asari version, though. All that dying. Saw an operatic version of it once. Last kisses, dying declarations of love. I thought Claire was going to vomit, it was so cheesy."
"Well, most versions of the story have one or both of dying. This is the only one I know of that has a happy ending. And even then, it's just the chance for one."
"Messianic archetype. He—" Whatever Nick was going to say was interrupted by the bell. John scrambled out of his seat and didn't think any more of the Shepard.
Until he saw Nick and Claire at lunch an hour later. They were outside of a small café, talking in low voices. Nick must've said something funny, because Claire threw back her head and laughed. John stopped. Everybody knew Claire Eldfell was gorgeous; she'd made the list of Sexiest CEOs fifteen years running for a reason. But this was different. She looked older, wiser than she did in the vids, like she was in on some great cosmic joke but not allowed to tell anyone for fear of spoiling it. She kissed Nick on the lips briefly, and he smiled at her. Speaking of cheesy…
And maybe that was why the myths stopped where they did. Even if the Shepard and his Miranda got a happy ending, it would have been full of mundane, stupid moments like this one. Anticlimax after defeating the Reapers. Better for the story if they both died as dramatically as possible. Throw in the possibility of a happy ending for the romantics, but let them die as dramatically as they lived. Who wanted to hear about the Savior of the Galaxy having lunch dates?
All the same, John hoped.