The air was heavy, thick with ruin.
The weight of it bore Shepard down. She tasted ash and death, the bitter tang of defeat. The commander lay still as pain clawed laboriously through her body. Her failure to activate the Crucible hung over her like a tangible cloud, seeping into her bones, a dense cloak of despair.
All the space-faring species of the galaxy were destined to become a pulpy paste, used as a twisted form of proliferation for the reapers. The synthetics would then lay in wait for another fifty thousand years, ready to continue the cycle of destruction again.
Every bit of Shepard ached. She barely had the wherewithal to think, let alone move. She was done. Defeated. The admission felt like a she'd committed a gross miscarriage of justice; yet it fit the story of Shepard's life so perfectly she couldn't summon an ounce of anger at the prospect of losing.
The Spectre had given her all, united the galaxy against overwhelming odds by maneuvering around petty squabbles, ramming through callous political plotting. Shepard had played the game, and she had won.
Despite all her efforts, it had been as though no one gave a damn that the galaxy would be torn apart so long as their agendas were met.
Her breath rattled in her chest, searing pain ripping savagely through her. She moaned, curling in on herself instinctively and setting the rest of her body alight in agony.
A soft whisper touched her ear, sounding vaguely like her name. She knew she had been alone. Both Anderson and the Illusive Man were dead, their blood staining the floor somewhere behind her.
The voice was vaguely familiar. She strained to hear, licked her lips, and tested her voice. "Li-ara?"
Shepard was wrong, she knew it as soon as the asari's name escaped her lips.
She had left Liara behind.
Blinking away tears of pain, Shepard recalled their final moments together. Vega had been pinned beneath the smoking hulk of a truck. Liara, laboring to free him, had exhausted what little biotic reserve she'd had left. Summoning the Normandy to their rescue, Shepard had helped Liara drag the injured marine to safety. She had also opened a private channel to Traynor and ordered the specialist to meet Liara in the shuttle bay, unbeknownst to the asari.
As soon as the medics claimed Vega, the commander had hastily retreated back down the ramp.
Sweating and pale, Liara stumbled half way back toward Shepard as Samantha came up behind her from the rear of the shuttle bay. Succumbing to exhaustion and falling to her knees, Liara had stretched her arms towards Shepard, her blue eyes wild with sorrow. Samantha had placed a hand on the asari's shoulder. Liara turned, collapsing forward until her face pressed into Traynor's thigh, her body convulsing. Traynor kept her eyes on Shepard, smoothing a comforting hand over Liara's crests.
A surge of bitter regret flooded her. The commander had seen Liara's agony at the way she had dismissed her for the final time, just before the asari had turned away. She could not be the kind of person Liara needed, could not give the asari what she wanted. Traynor could. The specialist comforted Liara, even as Shepard created more distance between them. The grudging respect Shepard had for Traynor intensified, pushing tendrils through the animosity, and she found herself snapping a crisp salute. A surprised look flickered across Traynor's features right before the specialist straightened to her full height, and returned it with respectful decorum.
The voice catapulted Shepard out of her reverie. She tried to lift her head and whimpered pathetically, a mewling that sounded foreign to her ears. Fingers twined in her singed, sweaty locks, a gentle pressure keeping her head still. She succumbed to the tenderness of the touch, but forced her crusty eyelids to open.
Vision blurring, Shepard concentrated as she blinked, trying desperately to clear her sight. Finally her brain and her eyes formed cohesion and a smile split the skin of her dry, aching lips.
"Aislyn!" She feebly lifted her good hand to touch her sister's cheek. Aislyn's skin was supple and soft, vibrant in a way that it had never been when they were girls. "Am I dead?"
Suddenly a deep, poignant fear struck Shepard. Tears welled and spilled, making tracks down her dirty cheeks. She desperately clutched her sister's collar, pulling the girl closer. "I'm scared."
"There is nothing to fear."
"I don't… I don't want to die."
"We all pass." Although Aislyn's tone lacked accusation, long buried guilt bubbled to the surface. Emotions Shepard had stuffed away boiled to the forefront of her mind, threatening to tear her apart.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry…"
"Hush, Muireall… you must believe my death was beyond your control. You were little more than a child yourself." Aislyn sat down, Shepard's hand dropped bonelessly to her side. Aislyn pulled her knees to her chest. "You did all you could for me then, but you are not yet done."
Shepard blinked painfully. "What do you mean?"
"The reapers are the solution to organic fallacy. The arrogance of flesh created machine." Aislyn's gaze bored into Shepard. "The created will always rebel against their creators."
"I don't—how can the reapers be a solution? They destroy all organic life!"
"No, they will harvest advanced life, leaving the more primitive forms to evolution."
Shepard shifted away from her sister, capitalizing on her revulsion to find the strength to scoot back several paces. Feeling like she was losing her mind, the commander finally began to entertain suspicions at the absurdity of her situation. "How would you know?"
Ignoring Shepard's question, seemingly unaffected by the change in the commander's demeanor, Aislyn smiled, her cheeks rosy and cherubic. "You must become part of a better solution."
She realized she was unlikely to get a reasonable response from a specter she was beginning to believe to be a figment of her imagination. Shepard wondered if the delusion of her dead sister had manifested because she was slowly succumbing to her wounds. Regardless of why Aislyn had appeared, Shepard selfishly wanted her to stay. "We had the answer to the reapers. The Catalyst. It didn't work!"
Patiently shaking her head, Aislyn stood up, proffering a hand to assist Shepard. "Please come with me. I will try to help you understand."
Warily, Shepard reached out and accepted the help. Her legs were weak and barely able to support her weight, but with her sister's help, Shepard was able to take several shaky steps. "The fuck we going?"
"Your life has been a series of choices, Muireall. In spite of the fact that you survived me, you chose to become bitter, twisted… hateful."
Shepard's stomach twisted at the candid nature of her sister's words. "Was I supposed to be all sunshine and fucking roses?"
The youngster ignored her sarcasm, the underlying pain. "Someone was even willing to look beyond your vitriol and managed to love you despite it, but you pushed her away. Made it so hard for her that she cracked and caved to the pressure. Your Liara… she loves you still and will until her dying day, but she is happier now. You managed to give her that, at least."
The sound of Liara's name, approvingly spoken in Aislyn's soft voice, caused Shepard to stumble. She managed to catch herself on her hands and knees, but her head hung down. The weight of her many failures cowed her once more. "Don't you dare talk about shit you don't understand," Shepard hissed.
Aislyn paused, squatted down in front of her, using a small, delicate hand to tilt the commander's face upward. Her beautiful green gaze bored into Shepard. "Your catalyst did not fail. There is still time to save her."
"What the fuck?"
"You are of both worlds. Part human, part machine. You are the solution." Aislyn swept her hand back, and Shepard at last noticed where they were heading. A glowing panel—the true control switches of the catalyst.
Shepard forced herself to her feet once more, staggering forward until she could clutch the edge of the panel for support. "Tell me what to do…"
"I don't know."
Letting out an acrid bark of laughter, Shepard shook her head. "Go fucking figure." She looked over the panel. There were several coloured buttons atop a small input screen. Green, red, blue. She touched each one absently as she stared at the screen. Two words glowed brightly, followed by a blinking green cursor. "Input command? What command? What the hell am I supposed to do?"
"You are what you are for a reason, Muireall. Your choices have brought you here." A crooked grin, full of mischief lit Aislyn's face. "May I suggest you do what you do best?"
Shepard narrowed her eyes. She looked around the control panel, her gaze finally coming to rest on a glowing red canister next to it that appeared like a gigantic capacitor. Thick gauge wires and tubes snaked out of it, feeding behind the panel. Shepard noticed a distinction between the tubes, each bore a colour corresponding to the buttons on the panel. If she destroyed it, she was willing to bet it would deal a serious blow to the Citadel and the reapers.
Sore lips skinning back from her teeth in a barbaric smile, Shepard shambled toward the canister. She stooped down and peered closely at it. The tubes were full of shimmering liquid and each wire sparked with brilliant colour. She could feel power radiating from it.
Aislyn's clear green eyes settled on hers. "Are you ready?"
Shepard closed her eyes. A vivid image of Liara came to the forefront of her mind. The asari smiled, startlingly beautiful blue eyes sparkling as she nodded encouragingly. Although deep down Shepard regretted her inability to be good for Liara, her steadfast refusal to be weak had fortified her for this moment. She allowed herself to find solace in the fact that her final act would be to secure a future for Liara.
When Shepard opened her eyes again, her focus was sharp. "You fucking bet."
"Give me your hand, Muireall. We'll do it together."
Aislyn's tiny hand gripped in her own, Shepard reached forward and grabbed the canister. Electricity sparked through her. Her teeth clamped shut, her muscles all tightening, making her inflexible. Her cybernetics blazed at the influx of power and her skin began to sear. At Aislyn's insistent tug, Shepard commanded her muscles to fight the rigidity and obey her one last time. With a despairing heave, Shepard ripped the canister free. A rainbow of goo splashed over her as she fell back, released from the electrical current.
A deep, terrible rumble exploded from beneath their feet. The floorboards groaned loudly before heaving violently. The commander instinctively knew that the Citadel was tearing apart at the seams. As Shepard stumbled, she squeezed Aislyn's hand, unable to do more to tell her sister that she loved her. They crashed to the floor together.
Shepard's arms protectively embraced her sister as a cataclysmic fireball engulfed them, sweeping outward in a bright sphere of red fury.
Author's Note: Thanks to Midnight Lion and WordKrush for their support. And thank you all for reading! *raps knuckles on the table* I'm out!