Unlike my other post-ME3 fic, this one is kind of a slam on the ending. If you're tired of this particular dead horse's continued beating, you might want to click ye olde back button...
Shepard staggered, bloodied and exhausted, towards his destiny... Everything he had done, everything he had fought for came down to this. But everything he thought he knew about the war with the reapers was wrong. Defeating the reapers was no longer simply about destroying them to save civilization. Drained by blood loss and days of combat he could hardly comprehend what the ghostly child told him, or even what it really was, nor did he care. The answer to stopping the assault on the galaxy lay before him. There was no going back. Left, right, center... Red, green or blue. He could only hope that one of them might lead to something resembling salvation for the galaxy.
Overhead, he heard a loud, hollow thumping. At first he thought it was just his own fading heartbeat in his ears, but he felt the reverberations throughout his entire body. He stopped in his tracks and looked slowly, painfully into the starry sky. Above the invisible bubble covering this completely unexplored and previously unknown part of the Citadel hovered a giant reaper, its massive appendages spread across the entire field of view, it's glowing red "eye" staring straight down at him. One of the reaper's tentacles tapped loudly on the dome. Another was held up next to the side of its 'head' in the shape of a human's hand with the pinky and thumb sticking out. Stopped in his tracks by the bizzare sight, Shepard felt an insistent bzzzzz-bzzzzz-bzzzzz on his wrist.
He activated his omnitool. He'd forgotten he set it on vibrate back in London so he wouldn't be interrupted during his final heroic speech. The caller ID showed PRIVATE. "Damn telemarketers," he grumbled. Against his better judgement, he answered. "Uh, hello?"
"Shepard! Harbinger here. Look up! I'm right outside." The reaper above Shepard waved. "Yeah, that's me! What's up, homie?"
"Uh, not much." On reflex, Shepard waved back. "Just, uh... getting ready to end this war here..."
"Yeah, yeah, so I see!" The reaper laughed nervously. "About that... Didn't you get my message? Back on earth."
"You mean when you tried to fry me and my squad?"
"No, no!" Harbinger laughed. "After that. From that marauder at the base of the beam. You- He didn't say anything to you?"
Shepard shook his head angrily and staggered forward. Of all the people he wanted to talk to before he sacrificed himself, his reaper nemesis was way at the bottom of the list. "How'd you get this number?"
The entire reaper shifted overhead and the pitch in Harbinger's voice raised sharply when it saw Shepard on the move again. "Yo! Yo, yo, yo... Look, that's not important right now. What's important is that you sit down, take a couple of deep breaths, and listen to what I have to say. Can you do that for me?"
"No. Why should I listen to you at all?"
"Because you're about to make the biggest mistake of your life, and we're all gonna pay for it. That little glow-in-the-dark punk you were just talking to? Ghost-boy? He's crazy. I mean, insane in the membrane, you know what I'm saying?"
"Yeah! He's bad news, all right? He has it in for all of us! Reapers and organics alike! He gave you three choices, didn't he? Pick your favorite color or some bullshit?"
Shepard stopped again. "How did you know?"
"Cuz the little bastard's done it to us like twenty times now. Sometimes he has to wait a few dozen cycles to get one of you to fall for it, but eventually someone always does! And everything goes to hell!"
"What are you talking about?"
Harbinger tried not to sound annoyed. "The Catalyst, man! Try and keep up! He's like the universe's biggest troll. All he does is lie in wait until the end of the latest cycle and try to get someone to pull his finger. And when they do, it wipes out all the mass relays and ninety percent of everything around them in the whole galaxy. Sets everybody back to the beginning. You know how long it takes us to rebuild it? Plus we gotta make a whole new Citadel, clean up all the evidence... It's a bite man, let me tell ya. A real pain in the ass!"
"Oh, I feel real bad for you," Shepard said, watching the charred remains of Earth spin slowly beyond Harbinger. He resumed his slow walk to the end of the line, toward the waiting mechanisms.
"Okay, I get it," Harbinger said, scuttling around to keep its eye in front of Shepard. "I understand completely. We got off on the wrong foot. Mistakes were made. We're not exactly besties. But think about what you will lose!"
"Well for starters, kiss the relay network goodbye regardless of which one you choose. Best case, you're going to strand all of your allies on your homeworld, which is - and let's be honest- a bit of a dump right now. Speaking of homeworlds, nice job on Rannoch. The quarians should be ecstatic. Too bad they'll never see it."
"Then there's the krogan. I wonder what the ones on Earth will end up eating when their food supply runs out? They breed fast now, you know, thanks to your curing the genophage and all. That could get messy. Damn, then there's the Asari, holding back all that prothean tech they had. Boy I bet the rest of y'all would like to have a few words with them, especially for all the good it did them."
Shepard stopped. "Did you know they used it to get ahead of everybody else, and then turned around and made withholding prothean artifacts a crime?"
"I know, man! I know. Someone does it every cycle, I tell ya. I would love to see what happens to them when the shit hits the ventilator." Harbinger chuckled. "But we'll never know if you keep going, will we? Then there's your crew. You don't want to know what's going to happen to them."
Shepard looked up. "Of course I do! I've spent years getting to know them. They're the most important people in my life!"
"That's really too bad," Harbinger gave a massive shrug. "Because the Catalyst is kind of a dick. Whoever makes it up here, he snatches their crew and warps them off to crash on some uncharted planet somewhere with no hope of rescue. I mean they'll be alive, but on some random speck in the galaxy with no technology or any way for anyone to reach them. Doesn't matter what you've done up to this point, either. *Poof* off they go!"
"What? Why would he do that?"
"Because he's a DICK. Trust me, I've seen it happen before. This isn't the first time he's done it!"
"Wait a minute," Shepard said. "Why should I believe anything you're saying?"
Harbinger reared back. "Seriously? That hurts my feelings! Believe it or not, Shepard, I do have them! You and us, we've got history. Sovereign laid it out pretty straight for you, didn't he? Everything he said matched up with what we were doing. I've been pretty honest too, haven't I? We've been straight with you from the start. We're reapers! We reap! We've been playing this game for millions of years. We got it down to a science. Every 50,000 years since the galaxy was young. You can't get more reliable and dependable than that!"
The giant reaper gestured back towards the Catalyst, who watched and listened from a distance like a child waiting to be picked for a team sport. Harbinger waved him off. "You just met this dude like what, five minutes ago, and you're gonna do what he says? Based on what, exactly? When it came down to deciding to cure the genophage, you talked to like fifty different people, considered all the angles, the repercussions with the turians and salarians, and the galaxy as a whole... you did your homework, didn't you?"
"Yeah, well," Shepard stammered, "It was a big decision. I didn't want to blow it."
"And for this Red/Green/Blue situation you've consulted who, exactly?"
Shepard looked back at the Catalyst, then up to Harbinger with a confused look on his face.
"Uh huh," Harbinger said, "You getting it now? You starting to see the whole picture here? Think about it. What did he tell you?"
"He said he created you, and that the whole purpose of these cycles is to prevent us from creating machines that will someday-"
"What," Harbinger demanded. "Machines that will someday what?"
Shepard's eyes narrowed. "...destroy us."
"Uh huh," Harbinger said. "Bang up job preventing that so far, right?"
Shepard turned back to the Catalyst, who glanced away quickly to avoid eye contact.
"And he created us?" Harbinger snorted, which sounded to Shepard like a foghorn. "He didn't create shit! I mean, if we were part of his grand plan, why would we have had to mess with that whole Conduit thing back in Ilos after those prothean jerks locked us out? What, he couldn't get one little keeper to walk over and open the door? If he was the mastermind behind this whole deal, would we have had to hire Saren away from you, get the geth all fired up and attack the Citadel to open the arms when all he needed to do was lean over that panel and click 'start?'"
"No," Shepard scowled. "Probably not."
"Not to mention why an AI would leave it all up to you, an organic, to decide the fate of all synthetic life, everywhere, just because you made it to some arbitrary finish line, especially if it could result in our own destruction? That would kind of mean this whole thing was for nothing, for millions of years. Wouldn't it?"
Shepard rubbed the back of his neck. Something, somewhere, wasn't adding up. "It would..."
"Wake up and smell the bullshit, Commander," Harbinger warned. "He's playing you. This is all a big joke to him."
Shepard shook his head vigorously. He was using all his strength to stand and Harbinger's voice echoing in his head wasn't helping. Slowly, agonizingly, he staggered toward the colored light ahead of him. "No. If I do nothing, the reapers will destroy everything. I have to save Earth."
"No no no no!" Harbinger maneuvered his hull closer to the invisible dome. "Maybe not. Maybe we can come to an accommodation. Will you just stop for a second and listen to me? Hang- hang on a second." Harbinger's voice faded slightly but Shepard could hear the reaper calling out to its companions over his speaker. "Hey guys, cool it! Cool it, all right? I'm talking to Shepard here. We're gonna try to work this thing out."
Almost instantly, all the blazing ship-to-ship fire outside the dome ceased and the squid-like ships retreated a short distance away. The Allied Fleets, battered and savaged, held their positions in orbit.
"Okay, Shep," Harbinger said. "Sorry about that. Back with you. So how about this? We dash. We bounce. We're out."
Shepard blinked. "What?"
"You won, Shepard. It's over. We're out. Space is big, man. We'll go find us another galaxy. There's like a zillion of them out there. Hell there were like a dozen within walking distance back in dark space. The Milky Way becomes a Reaper-Free zone. War's over."
"You're kidding me," Shepard said. "Just like that?"
"Just like that," Harbinger confirmed.
"I'm dead serious."
"Why would you do that?"
Harbinger laughed. "You crazy? You're about to alter the course of the entire galaxy in a way that no one, reaper, synthetic, or organic is going to approve of. This is a raw deal across the board. Live under organic control? No thanks. Destruction? How'd you like it? Not much, I bet. And this whole synthesis thing? HELL no! No offense... I mean I got nothing against organics. Some of my best friends are organic. But merging with them? No thanks! We don't roll like that. Not that there's anything wrong with it, I mean, it's okay if you're into that kind of thing. But not us. 'No' means no!"
Shepard could only stare at the reaper above him as it begged not to be merged. He had to admit, it didn't sound appealing.
"And if that's not enough for you, think about this," Harbinger's main aperture narrowed. "Say you heard some lone nutjob was about to singlehandedly wipe out half the life, synthetic or organic in the galaxy, while simultaneously destroying the entire communication and transportation network for everyone, everywhere, sending the entire galactic civilization into a new dark age right when it needs the technology the most to recover. That's almost as bad as the reapers, don't you think?"
"Well, yeah, but..."
"The Commander Shepard I know would be the guy stopping the nutjob. Not BE the nutjob pulling the trigger."
Shepard hung his head. Harbinger was right. Even if the catalyst was telling the truth, should one single person have the right to dictate what happened to every life form, everywhere, throughout the galaxy?
Harbinger tried to sound sympathetic. "Look, you do what you gotta do. But just think for a minute, okay? Think about if what you've seen since you got on that elevator syncs up with everything you've experienced the past few years. And if it doesn't... tell the Catalyst to take his color swatches and cram 'em, and everybody can go home. And we'll never come back. Promise. Does that sound like deal, or what?"
"You know," Shepard said, "I really do want to find out what will happen with the krogan after we cured the genophage. If they'll be heroes, or if we'll have to put them down again."
"I know, right?" Harbinger nodded. "Or if the quarians and geth can coexist? That's the kind of shit that fascinates me. Personally, I think they have a shot at it, thanks to you. Incidentally, if you believe sparkle-boy over there, they can't. That's allegedly why he set this whole thing in motion, remember? AI's will always try to destroy their creators. Guess someone forgot to tell Legion and EDI, huh? Though one thing's for sure..."
Harbinger grunted. "If that little bastard WAS our creator, I sure as hell would want to destroy him!"
Shepard glared back over his shoulder. "Can't say I blame you. I can't believe I almost fell for it."
"Don't beat yourself up," Harbinger said. "You've been through a lot lately. So, we got a deal?"
Shepard thought for a moment, but not a long one. This choice was one he was glad to make. "We got a deal."
"Sweet. Well, I guess it's goodbye then. We'll gather up all our shit and get out of your hair. It's been real. Oh! And Shepard?"
Shepard was just about to power down his omnitool, but stopped.
Harbinger nodded toward the Catalyst. "As long as you're in there, why don't you see if you can find a way to shut down you-know-who. Just to be on the safe side."
"Right," Shepard nodded. "Good idea. Bye, Harbinger. Don't come back."
"We won't. Things got way out of hand this time. Peace!" With a giant shove from its tentacles, Harbinger sprung from the dome and streaked into the blackness. Its voice faded into static on Shepard's omni. "All right, guys, let's head 'em up and move 'em out..."
With newfound strength, Shepard raised his head and marched back toward the shimmering, glowing image of the boy that haunted his dreams since he left Earth.
"No, wait," the boy backed defensively toward a console that had never been seen by anyone. Shepard walked right through him and was gratified to see a giant red button on the panel marked "Delete." That it was labeled in english made as much sense as anything else here. He pushed it and turned on his heel without missing a beat.
The Catalyst's voice faded into oblivion. "But think of the artistic integrityyyyy..."
Shepard stalked through the sparkling cloud as it diminished into nothing. "Joker, this is Shepard! Do you read me?"
"Loud and clear, Commander! Did the Crucible work? All the reapers just hauled ass out of here! What happened?"
"To tell you the truth, I don't have a clue," Shepard told his pilot. "But I'm sure once I get back, there will be lots of speculation."
He made his way back to the illuminated lift that brought him to this ridiculous place. He was confident when he got back down, things would go back to normal.
Other, non-hater fics available in my profile!