Updated 26 Nov 2014: So, this story started off as an afterthought. It's now reached well over 200k words, over 500k views, and is in the top 10 most favorited and most followed Mass Effect stories on this site. So, obviously, it's succeeded far beyond my wildest expectations. For those of you just jumping in to the story now, strap yourselves in and get ready for a wild ride. Like most roller coasters, it starts off fairly small ... then it proceeds to shoot canon in the face and run it over a few times with a Mako just to be sure. If you enjoy this story, and I sure hope you do, please consider donating to my Patreon, via a link in my profile.
Shepard wavered on her feet, breathing heavily as she tried to focus on the Catalyst's words. "So … destroy the Reapers, and xenocide my allies. Or control them, and enslave my allies. Or use funky space magic to rewrite every single strand of DNA in the universe?"
The unwavering hologram of the child-Catalyst nodded. "Which will you choose?"
Considering it, the adept started limping her way slowly towards the beam of light straight in front of her. The hologram stayed where it was; she wasn't sure if it couldn't move or just didn't care. A few steps away from the beam, she stopped, looked back over her shoulder, blocking her hand from the hologram with the bulk of her charred body, and grinned ferally. "I choose GO FUCK YOURSELF!" she shouted, and flung her biotic-wreathed hand into the beam, flinging Stasis at it.
"So bbeeeee iiiiiiiittttttttttttttt," the Catalyst said, its voice slowing drastically down until the last syllable was a bass rumble dropping to subsonic, and then the universe came to a halt. Everything was blinding light and painful piercing silence.
"Commander," came an irritated-sounding asari voice, "do you have any solid evidence to present?"
Shepard blinked as the world resolved around her, and looked up to her left. "Saren?" she said, confused and incredulous.
"You see," the not-yet-proven-renegade Spectre said dismissively. "This is just another feeble effort by a failed candidate," the turian glared pointedly at Captain Anderson, "to discredit me."
"Actually," Shepard quickly broke in, "would you put Nazara on the line? I'd like to ask it a few questions." The extra-size hologram gaped at her in shock. "Nothing major, just some minor things like how many cycles it's been around, whether its name means something or is the name of the species it harvested, that kind of thing. Oh, and say hi to Harbinger for me."
Silence ruled the Council chamber for several seconds, as the ruling members and Udina looked back and forth between Shepard and Saren, confusion and curiosity on all their faces in different proportions. Then Saren, swearing, suddenly cut the connection. "Yep. I know – that doesn't count as solid evidence. Give me two hours, and Garrus Vakarian, and you'll have it. Is that alright, Councillors?" she asked sweetly.
Sparatus cleared his throat, glancing briefly at his fellow leaders. "I don't see a problem with that. I'll send a message for him to report here -"
"No need," Shepard cut him off politely. "I know where to catch up with him, I just wanted permission from the Council first. See you in two hours." She turned around, gesturing to Ashley and Kaidan to join her, and also to Captain Anderson. "Sir, would you walk with me a ways?"
They reached the bottom of the steps before Anderson halted, one hand on Shepard's shoulder. "Commander, mind explaining what the hell that was up there?"
She took a deep breath, closed her eyes briefly, and nodded. "Yes, Captain, I do mind. I'd really like the chance to prove that I know what I'm doing, and I think my previous service under your command is sufficient for that." As all three Alliance members gaped at her in shock, she continued blithely. "I asked you to walk with me because I'd like to you relay a message to Admiral Hackett for me. There's data in the Prothean archives on Mars for a construction project. It's called the 'Crucible,' and it's something about half the size of the Citadel. The faster he starts constructing it, the better."
Captain and Commander stood staring at each other for several moments, and Anderson quickly realized that this wasn't the Jane Shepard he was used to dealing with. In a matter of mere moments, her eyes had gained years of experience and pain, and somewhere in there was a determination the Skyllian Blitz had only hinted at. "Alright, Shepard, I'll give you this chance. You've proven your abilities and your reliability before, but I hope you can trust me enough to tell me what's going on."
She nodded. "Hopefully, I will be able to. Also, if you can, tell him to send at least a company of Alliance marines to Feros colony. I'll forward all the applicable details soon as I finish my errands here and get back to the Normandy." Saluting quickly, she turned and walked towards a cab.
"Commander, you mind filling us in on just what the hell is going on?" Kaidan said, jogging a few steps to catch up with her speedy departure. "I mean, if you want us following your lead and everything."
"In the car, I'll give you the short version on the way." They piled into the vehicle, programming its auto-pilot for the medical clinic in the Upper Wards. "Inside the clinic, we're going to find several hostiles holding Doctor Michel at gunpoint. Garrus will also be there, and we will help neutralize the thugs without the doc being hurt."
"Garrus?" Ashley asked skeptically. "You're already on a first name basis with a skull face?"
"Chief Williams, you really want to find more professional language," Jane responded frostily. "Once we've resolved the hostage situation, we are heading to the C-Sec academy to recruit a krogan warlord, Urdnot Wrex."
"Lemme guess," Kaidan said, "then we go rescue a quarian damsel in distress?" Shepard turned sharply to look at him, but realized quickly that he had no memories of four years of the future.
"Actually, yes. After that, we assist Wrex in taking out a local piece of scum named Fist, who's working for Saren. Then we take the evidence that the quarian damsel, Tali'Zorah vas," she caught herself, racked her brain for a moment, then continued, "nar Rayya, back to the Council."
"I bet they'll make you a Spectre then," Ashley said, and Shepard just nodded. "Then what, we go find Saren and kick his metallic butt until he gives up."
Shepard took a deep breath, watching as the car swooped in to the dock area next to the clinic. "No, then things get very, very complicated."
As the car settled, they popped the doors open, readying their weapons. "LT, I'm going to hit them with a singularity soon as I can get a good view. Ash, stick with the pistol – I don't want too many bullets out there." They opened the door, spying Garrus halfway crouched behind the wall, and the thugs threatening Doctor Michel. "Hey, ass-face!" Shepard called to them, then flung out the singularity, yanking all three of them into the air.
In moments, Garrus and Ashley had disarmed all three of them with careful rounds, leaving the thugs injured but not dead. "Thanks for the assist," Garrus started, and it took all of Shepard's willpower not to simply throw herself into his arms, reminding herself that this Garrus hadn't become Archangel, hadn't thrown himself through the Collector base right by her side, hadn't fought his way to within meters of the beam to the Citadel on Earth.
"Vakarian, you're with me." She gestured sharply towards the door as Williams collected the dropped weapons. After all, she'd better fill her bank account as big as possible now, since TIM probably wouldn't be shuffling millions of credits in her direction. "Already cleared with the Council. C'mon, let's go get that evidence on Saren."
His mandibles flared out in that position of surprise, but fell in behind her readily enough. "You know where the evidence is?"
She grinned cockily. "Kind of. I know who has it, anyway. So let's go save a damsel in distress."
They all followed her down into the C-Sec academy, where Wrex was once again being hassled by the officers. "Urdnot Wrex," she called out clearly, and the whole knot of turian officers surrounding him turned to look at her oddly. "You waiting for an engraved invitation? Let's go." She waved a hand towards the stairs towards the Lower Wards, and though confused, the krogan fell in with her anyway.
"Look, human, I don't know what you think is going on here." Wrex was already starting to bluster and threaten, so without a further word, she turned on him, stalked across the two steps separating them and slammed her forehead into his bony plate.
"I'm Commander Shepard," she said, voice filled with steel. "You're Urdnot Wrex, one of two people capable of stopping the krogan species from driving themselves into extinction, and I look forward to the day I can call you Emperor Urdnot." Ashley, Kaidan, and Garrus were all exchanging similar deer-in-the-headlights looks behind her. "Right now, the Shadow Broker contracted you to take out Fist. First, we're saving someone from Fist's goons, then we're going to bust his face in. Then you're going with me to save the whole fucking galaxy." She leaned forward enough to match glares with him. "Capiche?"
The tableau held for several seconds before Wrex started laughing. "Damn, you've got a quad! Lead the way then. I'm with you." He glanced at Garrus' obvious C-Sec armor. "Long as I can still blow Fist's head off. That's what I'm getting paid for."
She turned around to look at the turian, and he blanched. "Normally, I'd side with Garrus. I do insist that we get a chance to interrogate him first though."
"Done." They all crowded into the elevator, which seemed more crowded with four mystified people and one overly confident future-slash-former Spectre. Down below, they trooped out of the elevator, and Shepard turned into the alleyway. "So, who are we looking for?" Wrex asked.
Coming from the other direction, a young quarian woman stopped dead at the appearance of five armed people. "Tali'Zorah vas," damnit, Shepard thought, I have to stop doing that, "sorry, nar Rayya, I'm Commander Jane Shepard of the Alliance. Would you please accompany me?"
She was already raising her omni-tool defensively, but as her companions raised their own weapons, Shepard irritably waved them all down. "How do you know who I am? And what are you doing here?"
"I'm here to stop Fist's hired goons from killing you and destroying the evidence you gathered on Saren. Then I'm taking my companions here," she gestured behind her, "shooting my way into Chora's Den, and letting Fist learn why it's an exceptionally stupid idea to betray the Shadow Broker. After that, if you're willing, I intend to bring your evidence to the Council, be made a Spectre, and include you on my totally-insane-if-I-told-you-all-the-details plan to save the entire galaxy." Grinning madly, she stepped forward, extending a hand. "What do you say? I'm pretty sure I can get you home from your Pilgramige as Tali'Zorah vas Rannoch."
They stared at each other for several more seconds, then a turian and a trio of salarians came in the door behind Wrex, saw the group of people between them and their target, and panicked. The firefight was brief and rather one-sided, as all four of them focused all of their firepower on the krogan, giving all five others free shots at three of them while Wrex used the fourth one, one of the salarians, as an impromptu melee weapon against a steel crate.
"Uh," Tali paused, obviously swallowing hard, "yeah, sure, I'm in." She stood rooted to the spot for several moments as Shepard swept past her towards the other end of the alleyway that led to Chora's Den, falling in behind the other two Alliance soldiers and next to Garrus. "Is this human completely insane?"
Wrex laughed again, filling the alleyway even as the door to the walkway in front of the club opened. "She's the best kind of crazy," he said. "She's crazy like a warlord."
As they neared the door to the club, Shepard paused, and looked at the door. Flexing her fingers, she hit the door with a Warp, then a Singularity. As the door crumbled, she strode right through her own power display, stopping inside the door as the startled mercenaries stared at her. "I'm Commander Shepard," she proclaimed loudly, "and you have two choices right now. Surrender," she glanced around, and her voice dripped with menace, "or die."
Half of them instantly took option one, throwing down their weapons and cowering in place with hands above their heads. The others opened fire, and in a second she had already vanished, leaping over the bar and opening fire with her pistol. The others, right behind her, launched their own volleys of accelerated metal and biotic powers. In under thirty seconds, all of Fist's guards who resisted had fallen, and they quickly gathered all of the weapons, dumping them into a small crate retrieved from under the bar. "Ash, Kaidan, Garrus – stay in here and keep at eye on these guys until C-Sec arrives to take the survivors into custody."
With Wrex flanking her, and Tali nervously following, they strode through the back, the two in the lead simply rabbit punching the dock workers, confiscating their pistols, and leaving them gasping on the floor before going into the back. Fist tried to activate his turrets, but Tali was quicker on the uptake, hacking one, and they just stood back as the two turrets blew each other to pieces while the turncoat cowered inches below the deadly rain.
"Fist," Shepard said, "you've been a very stupid boy." She strode up the two steps, grabbing him by the collar and, with a slight biotic assist, hurl him through the air to crash between the feet of her two friends. "First mistake, obviously, was siding with Saren." She stalked back down to him, resting one foot on his belly. "In case you didn't gather, I really don't like him. Second mistake, you tried to have Tali killed." She grinned again, and Fist knew his life was about to flash before his eyes.
"Wait," Tali said, moving around them to Fist's computer on his desk. "Just in case he has a dead man switch set up, I want to download this stuff first." Shepard raised her eyebrows, but nodded and waved expansively while Wrex paced back and forth next to Fist's head, switching back and forth between his weapons – first pistol, then shotgun, then assault rifle. "Alright, done."
Before anything else could be said, Wrex slammed one giant foot down on Fist's neck, crushing it instantly, and watching dispassionately for the handful of seconds it took for the ruptured arteries to bulge out the skin and the human to die. "There we go. So what's this quest, anyway?"
Holstering her own pistol, and stepping off the smelly body in distaste, moving for the door. "Follow along to the Council chambers." They followed, and moved through the sudden crowd of C-Sec officers arresting the unharmed mercenaries, gathering up the other three on the way. Outside of Chora's Den, they piled into two aircars, flying up to the Council chambers.
Two turian officers tried to stop Wrex and Tali from walking up, before Shepard Singularitied one of them and Wrex head-butted the other one. As a group they walked up and rejoined Udina. "Where's Anderson?" she asked.
"He's still in conference with Admiral Hackett, as of ten minutes ago, at least," Udina said accessing his omni-tool. "No, he's on his way up the elevator. The Council won't be out for a few more minutes anyway." Even as he spoke, Sparatus was emerging from their private chambers, the other two several paces behind him. "I hate those slow elevators," Udina muttered under his breath, just loud enough to be heard, and Shepard nodded along with him.
For once, none of the Council made any pompous comments or disparaging remarks. In fact, they hadn't said anything yet when Shepard gestured Tali forward, seeing Anderson hurrying up the stairs from the corner of his eye, and simply said, "Listen to this."
Tali played the audio file, which was slightly longer than she had remembered. "I was under the impression that geth memory couldn't be retrieved," Valern said.
"It's difficult, but not impossible," Tali said, somewhat nervously. "I was trying to retrieve memory cores of geth to send information back to the Migrant Fleet."
"Saren isn't the real threat here," Shepard said, and everyone's eyes went to her. "This is," she raised her own omni-tool, showing the image of Nazara, aka Sovereign. "This is Nazara. Saren calls it Sovereign. It is not a geth warship, and I can prove it."
"How do you intend to prove it, and what kind of threat is one ship?" Sparatus asked, sounding doubtful.
"Have you heard of the Prothean extinction?" Shepard asked dryly. "There's not just one of these. Board the Destiny Ascension, and follow me to Mnemosyne. I'll show you one that's been crippled." The entire Council chamber was quiet enough to hear a pin drop. "One planet. Hell, bring as many ships as you feel like. After I show you that, I'll hunt down Saren. You know, before he does something truly crazy like loose the rachni on the galaxy again."
Tevos scowled down at Shepard. "Really? This dreadnought is dire enough that we should drop everything and rush out to the Traverse on your say so?"
Shepard looked up calmly at her, and mentally put down her ace card. "If you don't believe me, ask Vendetta. You know, the Prothean VI housed in the beacon inside the giant statue in the Temple of Athame on Thessia." The other two councilors turned in unison to glare at Tevos, and she couldn't hide her surprise. "So. We need to go, because I have several other things to do that are time sensitive. Or should I pull out some other highly sensitive pieces of information?" Of course, I don't have much else, she thought.
"We'll leave within the hour," Sparatus said. "I, at least, am eager to see this evidence of yours. First though, I suppose we'd better make you a Spectre before you decide to collapse galactic civilization out of spite." She could tell he was joking, though probably Valern was thinking the same thing without the humor.
She took the oath quickly, and as the Council turned back to their private chambers, she turned to Udina and Anderson. "Shepard, how –"
She held up a hand quickly. "Captain, can we discuss this on board the Normandy? I really wasn't kidding when I said I had time-sensitive things to do." Anderson and Udina exchanged glances, and reluctantly, he nodded. "Thank you."
Splitting up into numerous cars, they sped out to the C-Sec academy, taking what Shepard still considered the most annoying and time-consuming docking point in the entire Citadel. They shuffled through the airlock in groups of four, the most they could get and still have the sterilization field work, and Shepard maneuvered to get herself, Anderson, Garrus, and Tali in the first batch. "The short version then. I've done all this before."
"Say what now?" Garrus interrupted. "You're reliving all of these events?"
"Yep." There was a bare second of silence to let that sink in. "That's how I know about the Crucible, how I knew Tali had the evidence before I ever spoke to her, and a bunch of other things like where all of your sensitive spots are, Garrus." The particular spread of his mandible she knew indicated embarrassment, and she continued quickly before Anderson could comment on human-turian relations. "Udina's going to try and maneuver you out of the Normandy to make it mine, and while I hate that, I need this ship." Until I can steal the SR-2, anyway. "So Hackett should put you in charge of the Crucible project, especially if you pick up Conrad Verner and bring him with you."
"Saying I buy all of this," Anderson said, glancing up briefly at the digital display counting down the seconds left, "the things that destroyed the Protheans are on their way, and you know how to beat them?"
"I almost did last time, but my options at the last second weren't good enough. So, I cheated." She shrugged as the doors opened, and they hurried into the ship. "Joker, prep the ship for launch. As soon as the other party is in the airlock I want us moving!" Anderson added a simple, "That means now!" and they moved for the message room behind the CIC.
"You cheated," Tali said simply. "After what I've seen in the last hour, I actually can believe that you thwarted the laws of physics."
Grinning, Shepard sat down in a chair, waiting for everyone else to get through decontamination. Probably, Udina right now was trying not to fidget and hide behind Ashley from Wrex. "What can I say? My dad's middle name isn't Kirk for nothing." At everyone's blank looks, she sighed. "Right. Note to self, institute crew movie night ASAP."
"Shepard," Anderson started, only to get interrupted by Udina hustling through the door, followed more leisurely by Wrex, Ashley, and Kaidan, "What happens when we get there?"
She nodded, and rose from the chair to stand at the head of the room, Udina promptly stealing her seat. "Pressley, patch this through to the Destiny Ascension, and whatever other ships are accompanying it."
There were a few minutes of silence before the navigator responded. "Aye Commander, you are patched through to all seventeen ships in the task force." She blinked in surprise, mouthing Seventeen? at Anderson and receiving a shrug in response.
"Ahem. All right. To all ships receiving, this is Commander Shepard of the Normandy. We are en route to the planet Mnemosyne. I hope everyone has heard before of the planet Klendagon, specifically the Klendagon Rift, which is in a different system of the same relay cluster. The rift itself is either the remains of a giant mass accelerator, or the glancing impact from one.
"Stuck in low orbit around the planet Mnemosyne is the crippled remains of what the Protheans called a 'Reaper.' It is a two-klick long synthetic lifeform. The one in orbit has had all of its computing power, all awareness if you will, destroyed, but other functions such as gravity and barrier fields remain intact. The principal danger of the Reapers is not their destructive power – which is considerable, though we aren't in danger from this one – but the more insidious ability to mentally control organic lifeforms.
"And that one is intact. Any organic lifeform spending more than, at most, a day on board that vessel will start taking actions to support Nazara, and by extension, Saren. The Reapers exist solely to 'harvest' all species capable of interstellar flight. As you'll note, the Klendagon rift is thirty-seven million years old – so is the crippled Reaper."
Joker's voice cut in briefly on her monologue. "Approaching mass relay, Captain, Commander. Arrival in Thorne system, eta one hour." She took a second to be glad the pilot had curbed his usual sarcasm.
"I'm not entirely clear on how this indoctrination can be resisted, and I don't believe it can be cured. Therefore, I ask that no exploration of the wreckage take place at this time. While telepresence workarounds might be possible, I ask for a small amount of patience from the Council and all member races to give me a chance to find a safer way to proceed."
She tapped her omni-tool to cut off the broadcast. "Seventeen ships? Who all is with us?"
Udina cleared his throat, pulling up the information. "Two other Alliance frigates. Ten turian ships from frigate to cruiser. Four salarian explorer ships. And one Asari matriarch on her private yacht."
The last one brought a round of disbelief. "Alright then," Shepard said, "At least they won't be able to keep this a big secret. Every make yourself at home as best you can, I suppose. Ambassador Udina, can I speak with you privately? And Tali, when I'm done with him, I'd also like to talk to you."
Everyone left the room but Udina, who remained in the chair, in the sort of pose that looked relaxed but was probably calculated to the millimeter. "What did you need, Commander?"
"Not much. Just want you to pass a message on to the Illusive Man." He started to protest and she waved it off irritably. "Shove the objections, I know you're either part of, or at the least taking money from, Cerberus. Right now, I really don't give a damn."
They stared at each other for several minutes before Udina grunted, leaning forward in the sort of threatening post that probably worked quite well on the average bureaucrat. "What is the message?"
"Tell him to hurry the fuck up and finish my SR-2. There's only one way to stop the Reapers – my way. He can either help me, or I will put him in the fucking ground." She met Udina's eyes, and he blinked first, sweat popping out on his forehead. "Oh yeah, have him get a spot ready for an AI core – I'll let him know what to use for it when the time comes. And when the time comes, Miranda Lawson will be on board as my XO."
His eyes wide, he carefully pulled a handkerchief from a pocket of his suit and wiped off his face. "Anything else? A retirement mansion on Beckenstein, perhaps?"
She shook her head. "Nope. That's it. Send in Tali, please." Clearly dismissing him, she turned around to stare at the holographic projectors while she organized her thoughts. Udina left after a moment, Tali coming in before the door had barely opened. "You seem eager for this conversation."
"You called me vas Rannoch. Which means that in whatever future you came back from, we beat the geth! I can't wait to hear how!" She sounded like a lottery winner – or, Shep reflected in good spirits, the same way she herself had after getting laid for the first time.
"Actually, there's only one way back to Rannoch," she said slowly, and could see the confusion creep up, the defensive posture the Tali she remembered had grown out of. "Negotiate for peace."
"What?" the quarian cried. "But, but, they drove us off our planet!"
"Only after you tried to exterminate them, and went through a civil war where you killed as many of your own damn people as the geth did!" She cut off her tirade, holding up her hands and taking a few deep breaths. "I've seen the geth numbers. I've seen the geth fleets. I've watched the Migrant Fleet lose half their number before I threatened Gerrel with being shot by yours truly. Only then did your people finally stop this stupid confrontation and get to go back home."
The two women stared at each other for several minutes before Tali finally sagged down into a chair, bonelessly. "How sure are you that the geth will negotiate?"
Shepard sat down next to her, reaching out and taking one three-fingered hand in her own. "Are you willing to trust me?"
A brief chuckle came out. "Do I have a choice? You know all of my darkest secrets."
Snorting, Shepard shook her head. "Tali, you don't have any dark secrets." She keyed up her omni-tool, accessing the ship's communication personally. "Rannoch is, um, this system, right?" Tali just nodded, the knowledge enough to prove the whole future-experience-thing to her.
"To the geth Consensus. This is Commander Shepard. I oppose Nazara. I oppose the Old Machines. I would like to negotiate peaceful relationships with the geth. Please begin preparations of a unique platform for interfacing with organic beings, capable of hosting one thousand one hundred eighty three programs. The heretic geth have infiltrated your Consensus on the orders of Nazara. I will broadcast again with a time and place to begin peaceful negotiations." She turned off the omni-tool.
"Why that number?" Tali asked, obviously curious.
Sighing, Shepard leaned back and closed her eyes. "I encountered a platform designed with those specifications. After I defeated Nazara, the Consensus sent it out to find me – then to find my body." She cracked open an eye and shrugged. "Long story. I named it Legion. And before Legion died, 'it' became 'him.' He sacrificed himself to make all geth as individually unique as organic sapients are."
Levering herself to her feet, she held out a hand to Tali again. "C'mon, I'll show you the engine room before we get there. Adams better hide the toolboxes for now, though, or you'll be too busy tinkering with the drive core while everyone else is looking at a mostly dead Reaper." Together, they strode from the room, into what would hopefully be a brighter future.