14 October 2185, T'Soni Analytics Offices, Nos Astra/Illium
"They're on their way."
"Thank you, Vara." I cut the comm channel and glanced at Shepard. He nodded soberly.
I looked around at the large conference room, where I had held so many meetings of the T'Soni Analytics staff. I sat at the end of the table farthest from the door, wearing the most expensively conservative gown I owned. Shepard sat next to me on my right, almost rigid with tension, wearing his black business suit.
The door opened. Aspasia appeared, making a graceful gesture of welcome. Several humans strode into the room.
Shepard rose and stood at attention.
I very deliberately remained in my seat, doing my best to look cool and dignified. As powerful as my visitors might be, they were in my territory, and I intended to remind them of the fact.
Admiral Steven Hackett appeared first, tall and ramrod-straight, glancing around the room with steel-gray eyes. His gaze lit on me and took in my seated posture. I saw a fleeting glint of appreciation in his eyes, as he intuitively understood my gambit.
Next came Councilor David Anderson, strong and massively built, carrying himself like the career military officer he had once been. The expression on his face shocked me: a frown and a downward glance that met no one else's eyes, as if he carried a great load of fatigue and doubt.
The next three humans I knew only by reputation, although I had studied their dossiers in minute detail.
Paul McKenna: a tall, pale-skinned human male in an expensive black business suit. His round face habitually bore a gentle smile, suggesting good-natured humor, but one could see sharp alertness in his dark brown eyes. His dossier indicated many years of successful military service before he had turned his hand to civilian politics. He served as the Minister of Defense for the Systems Alliance.
Anita Goyle: an elderly human female, delicate of build but still strong and erect, her silver-white hair piled high atop her head like a crown. I knew that her small frame concealed great strength of will and personality. She had served as the first human ambassador to the Citadel, and during her years there she had actually gained the upper hand over the Council more than once. She came to Illium as the Alliance's Foreign Minister.
Amul Shastri: a small man, dark-skinned and surprisingly youthful in appearance, full of alert energy as he entered the conference room, peering about as if to measure the space in his mind. The doors closed behind him, guards from the Alliance and Aspasia's own Security department taking up positions outside.
At this point I rose and gave Mr. Shastri a polite but rather shallow bow from the waist, pressing my hands together in front of my chest with my fingers pointing upward. "Namaste, Prime Minister. Welcome to Illium."
Shastri smiled and returned the gesture, measuring his bow with minute precision to suggest a very important individual greeting his host. "Namaste, Dr. T'Soni. I see you learned something during your time in my home country."
"I very much enjoyed my visit to India, Your Excellency. Will you please make yourselves comfortable?"
The humans sorted themselves out, and all of us took our seats. I found myself facing Prime Minister Shastri down the full length of the table, McKenna and Hackett on his left, Anderson and Goyle on his right.
"Well," said Shastri with a small sigh. "We have quite a mess on our hands."
I could feel Shepard starting to bristle at my side, but he kept his temper under strict control.
Goyle leaned forward, resting her clasped hands on the table. "There appear to have been no survivors from Bahak, but both Captain Bartegan and Governor Keldanat issued reports that reached Khar'Shan before the destruction of the relay. The Batarian Hegemony knows the destruction of Aratoht was a deliberate act, and they have names to attach to it. Yours is first on the list, Mr. Shepard."
Shepard nodded silently.
"Now, we've already pointed out that you were not acting under Alliance orders, and that you were on assignment as a Council Spectre. Blame the Council, not the Alliance. It's not working. The Hegemony is shouting loud enough to be heard across the entire galaxy. War criminal is the kindest name they're calling you, and they are threatening all-out war against the Alliance if we don't act."
"It gets worse," said Anderson. "I met with the rest of the Council just before leaving for Illium. They have already voted to strip you of your Spectre status. You've been repudiated."
Shepard's eyes dropped to the tabletop, but again, he nodded in silent acquiescence.
"May I ask how the vote stood?" asked Goyle.
"Two to one." Anderson frowned. "Sparatus and Valern stood against me, of course. Tevos abstained, which I will admit surprised me."
I kept my face still, and wondered if Tevos remained concerned about the Shadow Broker.
"Fortunately, even the Council can't repudiate a Spectre's actions retroactively," Anderson continued. "You can't be held legally accountable for anything that happened in Bahak."
"That won't make any difference to the Hegemony," said Goyle. "Or any of the Terminus warlords who take their marching orders from Khar'Shan. You're a wanted man, Shepard, and there is already an enormous price on your head."
"I don't care about that," said Shepard, breaking his silence at last.
"You had better care about it, Shepard." McKenna leaned forward, a scowl of anger clouding his gentle face. "The Alliance is not going to stand by and watch one of our best get chewed up by a bunch of bloody slavers."
Startled, Shepard and I glanced at each other.
"Ah, I detect a misunderstanding," said Shastri mildly. "Did you believe we intended some manner of tribunal?"
"I . . . had no reason to expect otherwise, Your Excellency," Shepard answered.
The Prime Minister's face became stern and rather sad. "I see. Well, let me reassure you on that point. As of two weeks ago, the Systems Alliance has begun to realign its foreign policy and military strategy, under the assumption that the Reapers pose a real threat and are likely to attack us in the very near future."
I reached to one side and clutched at one of Shepard's hands, staring at the Prime Minister with wide eyes.
"In short, Mr. Shepard, the Alliance now considers the Reaper hypothesis to be sufficiently proven, and will henceforth make policy on that basis. In the immediate case, we in this room accept your account of the events at Bahak, and have determined that you acted correctly."
Shepard remained silent for a long moment, taking a deep cleansing breath, not looking at any of the rest of us. Only his fierce grip on my hand, his knuckles white with tension, betrayed what he felt. "May I ask what has brought you to this decision?"
"There were several factors." Shastri looked down at the tabletop for a moment, his expression one of mild distaste. "I have held office for less than a year. Dr. T'Soni will remember the elections which established my coalition. She played a small part in their positive outcome."
I nodded, remembering my time on Earth.
"Once I took office, I heard a briefing regarding Admiral Hackett's efforts during the Eden Prime War, to discover the truth behind the assault on humanity and the Citadel Council. For example, the Red Team which the two of you supported. I asked why the effort had been curtailed. I did not like the answers I was given. That is one reason why Mr. McKenna is now the Minister of Defense."
"Bloody well sacked my predecessor," said McKenna, a wry smile on his face. "Good thing everyone knew the man was an utter nit, or else there would have been hell to pay in Parliament."
"Then the Collectors began their attacks on the Terminus colonies." Shastri shook his head. "That was a very bad time. All of Councilor Anderson's efforts gained us precisely no help from the Citadel. The public was not ready for another war, so soon after the last conflict. The situation forced us to move very carefully. Too many humans died because we could not act quickly or decisively enough."
Shepard remained silent, but his expression was eloquent: Damn politics.
"Then, just as we began to despair, we received a great deal of fresh intelligence regarding the Collectors . . . and their masters, the Reapers. This gave us the ammunition we needed to convince more of Parliament to act. We could mobilize our forces, defend some of the Terminus colonies, and hold the Collectors at bay." The Prime Minister smiled warmly. "We owe a great debt to the Shadow Broker, whoever he may be."
I practiced my poker face. Even so, his eyes flickered over to me for just an instant.
Clever human. He knows, or at least he suspects. Perhaps Hackett let some clue drop, where the Prime Minister could see it and understand what it meant.
How many of the galaxy's leaders are beginning to guess what has become of the Shadow Broker?
I might as well hang out a damned sign.
"Then the miracle," Shastri continued. "Your team attacked the Collectors in their home, destroying or at least scattering them. Then you returned, bearing a great treasure of additional information about our enemy. Armed with your reports, Mr. McKenna and I could finally get the Alliance military to accept the Reaper hypothesis. Ever since then, we have been preparing a major shift in strategy. We have not yet dared to inform the public, but all that we can do discreetly, we have done."
Shepard took in a deep breath, released it. "Your Excellency, I am profoundly glad to hear that."
"Is that why Admiral Hackett asked us to go to Bahak?" I asked.
Anita Goyle stirred. "Actually, that was my idea."
I cocked my head, staring at the elderly woman while I chased a trail of logical deduction. "You hoped to gather evidence that would convince even the Council."
"That's right. We knew about Kenson's expedition. Admiral Hackett informed us that she claimed to have found something vital. We couldn't send an Alliance task force to Bahak, but Normandy was perfect for the mission." Goyle shook her head ruefully. "We didn't realize the situation had gone so thoroughly sour. You have my apologies, for what they're worth."
"It was just as well you did send us," said Shepard. "Otherwise we would be buried in Reapers right now."
"Yes," said the Prime Minister. "Another weighty debt we owe to you."
"Have our records been presented to the Council?" Shepard demanded. "Did they take all the evidence into consideration before they repudiated me?"
Anderson shook his head, his face as grim as I had ever seen it. "Tevos took a copy to examine at length. I think that may be why she ended up abstaining from the final vote. Sparatus and Valern . . . they didn't even glance at it."
"Sparatus called the whole package a self-serving lie. Valern agreed."
I put a hand on Shepard's forearm, to prevent him from leaping up from the table.
"How can they be so damnably arrogant?" he demanded.
"Because they're indoctrinated," Anderson snapped.
Shepard stared at him, shocked utterly speechless.
I leaned back in my chair, looking up at the ceiling. "Goddess. Of course."
Anderson nodded. "You see it, Doctor?"
"I do." I turned back to my bondmate. "Think about it, Shepard. Who built the Citadel?"
Enlightenment suddenly spread across his face. "The Reapers. The Citadel is the biggest damn Reaper artifact in the galaxy."
"Yes. In every cycle, galactic civilization establishes itself with its capital on the Citadel. That makes it easy for the Reapers to decapitate galactic government as soon as they arrive. The Protheans disabled the Citadel mass relay, and we fought Sovereign to prevent it from reactivating that trap in person. But what if there's another trap built into the Citadel, something more subtle?"
"Indoctrination," he agreed. "Not enough to turn everyone on the Citadel into mindless puppets. That would be too easy for everyone to notice, long before the Reapers launched their attack. But what if it's just enough to manipulate the thoughts of anyone who stays on the Citadel for any length of time? It lulls them into a false sense of security. They don't take any evidence of the Reapers seriously, until it's too late."
"The Reapers are powerful, but they can't be all-powerful. They must leave evidence behind in each cycle. Certainly we've discovered plenty of clues, ever since we've been motivated to look. Perhaps the Reapers designed the Citadel to help cover up any traces that they miss."
Anderson made a gesture of cautious restraint. "I don't have any solid evidence. It's not the kind of thing you can run experiments to prove. Still, I find it hard to accept that three sane, hard-headed people like that would just rationalize away overwhelming evidence. Not if they weren't being manipulated."
The Prime Minister broke in, his voice very gentle. "Never underestimate the capacity for even very rational people to delude themselves."
"Sure. But look at us, here in this room. Of all of us, Shepard and Dr. T'Soni have probably spent the least time on the Citadel, and they've fought to prove the Reaper hypothesis all along. I've spent by far the most time there, including hundreds of long days spent in the Council chambers themselves. And lately I haven't been able to trust my own instincts on this." Anderson looked down, leaning hard on his elbows on the tabletop, looking dejected. "Sometimes, in the middle of the night, after I've been fighting the rest of the Council tooth and nail all day . . . I start to have doubts. I've caught myself wondering if we made a mistake about Sovereign. Wondering if the Reapers are just a bad dream, something that will fade away in the light of day."
"I don't believe it," said Shepard. "You, of all people."
Anderson looked up at his protégé, his surrogate son. "I don't want to believe it either. But the longer I stay there, the more convinced I am that there's something wrong about that place. We can't put any faith in the Citadel. We have to place our trust closer to home."
I saw Shepard's chin lift, as if he heard distant trumpets.
"I agree," said Shastri. "We must rely upon ourselves for the time being. Perhaps when the Reapers actually appear, even the Council will no longer be able to remain in denial."
"We can hope," said Anderson. "In the meantime, Your Excellency, I think there's something I have to do."
The Prime Minister nodded sadly. "I would never ask it of you, David."
"I know. Duty is heavier than a mountain." Anderson reached into a pocket of his jacket, produced a paper envelope, and handed it down to the Prime Minister. "Here's my resignation from the Citadel Council. Effective immediately."
"Reluctantly, David, I accept." Shastri took the envelope and laid it unopened on the table in front of him. "Paul, I believe there is an opening on the Rear Admirals list. Would you see to it?"
"Right away," rumbled the Minister of Defense.
I glanced at Shepard. He still stared at Anderson, and I saw a hint of tears in his eyes.
"Sir. It's not fair."
"Life isn't fair, son." Suddenly Anderson smiled, a warm and genuine expression that lit up his face. Already he seemed to have lifted a heavy weight from his shoulders. "Don't grieve. I understand why you argued for humanity to take a seat on the Council. Why you stood up to them, and dared them to turn us down after all we had done. I understand why you recommended me for that chair. But if the war comes that we all expect, that's not where I'm going to be most useful. Let Udina have it. He's an attack dog, and his ambitions make him easy for the Alliance to control. I belong back in uniform, standing on the wall to keep the darkness at bay."
Shepard half-rose from his chair, reached across the table to grip Anderson's hand strongly for a moment.
"That brings us to you, Mr. Shepard," said the Prime Minister once everyone was seated once more.
"I want you back in that uniform too," said McKenna. "The Alliance needs you back in that uniform, now more than ever."
"No," said Shepard.
McKenna's eyebrows leaped. "No?"
Shepard folded his arms and sat impassively.
"Damn it, Shepard, this isn't a time for grandstanding. You owe the Alliance your service."
Anderson closed his eyes and shook his head, as if in pain.
"With all due respect, sir, at this point I do not owe the Alliance a damned thing."
McKenna turned an interesting shade of deep red.
"I served the Alliance loyally and with distinction for eleven years," Shepard continued, his voice absolutely calm and implacable. "I was killed in the line of duty. At that point the Alliance owed me, sir. How did the Alliance discharge its debt?"
Slowly, he looked around the table. Only Shastri and Hackett could hold his gaze for very long.
"The Alliance did not search for me. The Alliance did not recover my remains, or arrange for my revival. After my death, the Alliance did little or nothing to carry on my work, to fight to prepare the galaxy for the Reapers. The Alliance showed no loyalty to me."
He reached out and laid a hand on my forearm.
"Someone else did all those things. She has been with me all along, almost from the very beginning. She has stayed in the fight, despite suffering and miserable tragedy. She has been willing to take risks, and she has never given up. I have the honor to call her my wife. Admirals. Ministers. This is what loyalty looks like. What argument could you possibly advance to cause me to turn my back on her?"
Goddess. Four centuries have passed . . . and I would still do almost anything to hear him say those words again.
The humans all watched us in silence, but it was the Prime Minister's eyes that caught my attention. They seemed dark and deep and very wise, and they held my gaze with mute appeal.
"Shepard," I whispered. "I think they're right."
He stared at me.
"You and Normandy could stay with me. We could continue our work together . . . but it wouldn't be the right move. Not as things stand."
"You think I should go back to the Alliance."
"Yes. Think about it. Finally one of the great powers has decided to take the Reaper threat seriously. They're willing to take decisive action to prepare. But all that will go to waste if the Alliance is forced to fight a war with the batarians. We can't afford that. Not with the Reapers at the galaxy's edge."
He looked thoughtful.
"But if you went home to Earth . . . if the Alliance made a great show of taking you into custody, putting you under investigation . . ."
"Yes," said the Prime Minister. "We could draw out the proceedings as long as necessary. The batarians would stand down for a time. We could protect you, and you could lend us your expertise as we try to prepare for what is coming."
"We probably have about six months," I observed. "That's how long it will take the Reapers to reach the primary mass relays closest to Bahak. The Kite's Nest cluster will likely be the first to fall."
"Khar'Shan," growled Shepard.
Shastri nodded. "We will use every available means to warn the batarians, of course. I do not expect it to do much good. After the Reapers finally arrive, we will all have much larger issues to deal with."
"At which point you'll be back in command, with a ship of your own," said Anderson. "That's where you belong, son."
Shepard sat in silence for a long time, considering what we had said. He turned and watched me, as if trying to burn my image into his memory.
"I'll want Normandy," he said at last.
"Bring her in with you, and we'll take good care of her," said Hackett. "We might even make a few improvements while she's in the yards."
"My crew. No charges. Amnesty for any time they spent with Cerberus. They go free if they don't want to return to the Alliance."
"Done," said the Prime Minister.
"The conditions of my . . . detention?"
"As comfortable and honorable as we can make them," said Hackett. "We can even arrange for visitors, so long as they exercise discretion."
I gave the Admiral an innocent stare. "I can be very discreet when I want to be."
"I can imagine," he said with a gleam in his eye.
Shepard sighed. "Liara. Are you sure about this?"
"No," I admitted. "What I really want is for us to go somewhere pleasant and forget about the rest of the galaxy for a while. Thirty or forty years ought to be enough."
"It doesn't look as if that's going to happen."
"No. It's not."
He hesitated for one last moment. Then he turned to the Prime Minister. "Your Excellency, I accept."
"One more thing," I interjected.
Shastri bowed his head in my direction.
"Prime Minister, I will hold the Alliance and you personally responsible for Shepard's safety and well-being. I have already lost him once. I have no intention of losing him again. I think you're aware that I have a great deal more influence now than I did three years ago. I will use that influence if I must."
"I understand you very well, Dr. T'Soni. Have no fear. Your husband is in no danger on Earth. We need him . . . and we acknowledge our debt to him, in private as I hope we will one day do in public."
I nodded in acceptance.
"Then it's done," said McKenna, satisfied. "May God have mercy on us all."
"Yes," said Shastri. "For it is certain that the Reapers will have none."