Author's Note: Honestly, when I originally came up with the idea to write this story, fourteen months and 130k words ago, I kind of intended to end it all here - have Legion and Tali put a leash on the Catalyst before pulling the plug for good. It was only in the middle of writing this chapter that I decided that would be rather underwhelming. And, of course, much as I enjoy all of my writing, well ... to (mostly) quote Dorkness Rising: "If I win, the story is over ... and I kind of want the story to continue."
Leaning heavily on the railing, Shepard stared at the hologram. Twenty meters shrank to ten, then five. At the scale, there was no meaningful separation long before the two colossal pieces of equipment actually connected. The various lights on the Citadel brightened, then dimmed as the Crucible came online.
The CIC was even more full than usual. Daro'Xen and Rael'Zorah had stayed remarkably quiet, the other four quarians they'd recommended were down on the crew deck. Tali, after a rather strained greeting with her father, had promptly locked herself in Engineering until just a few moments ago, and now stood off to the side between a tense Garrus and a muttering Mordin. Combined with the normal bridge crew, it almost doubled the population upstairs.
"Joker, take us in," Shepard ordered. The hologram shifted, giving her a closer look at the base of the Citadel tower as they sank lower, slipping up on the joining position of the two. The same shield frequency that blocked indoctrination had been set on several Alliance shuttles, all of them cruising around the base of the structure, looking for the two rooms Shepard had visited in her future, and from there for an entrance.
Two minutes crawled by in tense silence before Joker spoke up. "Commander, one of the shuttles found the lower room. Upper room doesn't have windows, though."
She stared up the ship towards him for a moment, running it through her mind. "Holo screens on the inside then, or maybe the Keepers haven't opened up the blinds," she said. "What about an entrance?"
"The closest we can find is on the elevator support strut, for maintenance," Kelly said. "It was flagged earlier. Do you want to use it, or cut an entrance?"
Before answering, she glanced over at Garrus and Tali. Her lover slashed one finger in a clear signal, Tali watching him before nodding. "Order the shuttles to make us a docking port. If any Keepers attempt to interfere, they can shoot to kill."
"Understood. Orders relayed. Docking port will be constructed in lower room." Shepard watched as two shuttles converged on the large window, engineers in hard-suits letting their tethers trail as they latched on to the clear expanse and pulled out plasma torches. It took less than five minutes for them to send the curved expanse floating off on a fixed trajectory and set up a hastily-inflated docking tube. "Engineers are reporting interior gravity is presidium normal."
Nodding, Shepard bent down and picked up her helmet, locking it into place and giving Garrus a moment to double-check it. "EDI, it's time to go in. Get everyone up here."
They moved towards the airlock as Joker brought the Normandy up to their temporary entrance. Wrex, wearing his Warlord armor, elbowed past the quarians to take point, Jack and Ashley behind him. Legion, sporting a temporary gaping hole in his shoulder, stood next to Tali and ignored the scoff from Daro'Xen. "Legion? You're going with us?"
"We have removed all communication equipment except direct auditory and visual inputs," he replied. "Our shields have also been calibrated to resist indoctrination."
"Doesn't that, well, hurt?" Ashley asked, poking at the vacant space with one finger.
"No," Legion said, before adding, "but we are … alone."
"So why are you coming along instead of a different geth unit?" Shepard asked.
"No data available."
"Commander, do the geth have any concept of honor?" Ashley asked. Shepard just looked over at Legion, faceplates sliding as he considered the question.
"Not as organics use the term," he finally responded.
"Just wonderful, we finally make peace with the geth and they then decide to pick up one of the most foolish and inspirational methods organics use to commit suicide," Daro'Xen mumbled, loud enough to be heard.
Ashley ran one hand over her hair, 'accidentally' flipping off the admiral, before extending one hand to Legion. "For the honor of the Alliance," she said.
Legion stared at her hand for a moment before shaking it. "Death to the Old Machines," he said.
"Now that's a goddamn sentiment we can all get behind," Zaeed said from somewhere around the galaxy map. "Can we get a fucking move on? Before Mordin decides to take samples?"
Grinning, Shepard turned towards the pilot, staring out his viewport as the Citadel grew closer by inches. "Alright, we're here. Please return all tray tables and seat backs to the upright position, grab all luggage from the overhead bins, and kindly go kick some ass," Joker said.
Wrex stepped into the airlock, glancing around and nodding. "Nicer digs than the last ship, Shepard," he said. His shotgun swung open just before the outer doors did, and he leaped across, landing easily on the deck, gun swiveling. But the room remained empty as the rest of them leaped across the small gap. The quarians came over in the next group, Javik and Thane escorting them. By the time everyone was there, filling the room, Shepard was starting to wonder just what the hell was going on.
After fifteen minutes, the quarians were engrossed, pulling off panels and trying to figure out a way to directly access the electronics. Javik stopped in front of her, frowning. "Commander, according to sensors, the atmosphere in here is normal. Let me try and read this place."
Scowling, she looked up at the ceiling. Tali and her father had already taken apart the console she'd used, after convincing the Illusive Man to eat a bullet, and no way to know if that actually controlled it anyway. "Catalyst! We know you're here! Give up the pretense already!"
The quiet buzz of conversation dropped away, the silence only broken by the quiet susurrus of shifting suits. Then one panel came free of the ceiling above them, silently lowering down towards Shepard. Its neighbor followed, then another one, and another, until they all came to a stop in a floating helical staircase.
Nudging his way through the crowd, Wrex stopped next to Javik and Shepard. "You two, Mordin, Admirals, Legion, Garrus, with me. Everyone else, stay down here." She made eye contact with Zaeed as the krogan started stomping up the stairs, tilting her head towards the room's only obvious exit. He nodded, hefting Jessie and moving that direction, Samara joining him at the doorway.
Giving them a little space, Shepard followed the last prothean up the stairs, towards the machine that had sentenced his people to death. Garrus followed right behind her, firmly stepping in front of Rael'Zorah, letting Tali and Daro follow them before Mordin and Legion.
The room above was much like she remembered, though there were little details she hadn't noticed the first time around. Unless, of course, her scrambling of time had something to do with it. She shook her head, banishing those thoughts as she stepped forward. The walls were currently blank, smooth bare metal too distant to show their reflections. They spread out slightly, weapons at the ready, watching all three paths.
When the Catalyst appeared, Shepard was surprised. It didn't take the form of the child, or even a humanoid form at all. Instead, it appeared as a Reaper. Or as a Leviathan, she thought, studying it. Needs yellow eyes.
"You have come," it said. The translucent white image hovered in place, ignoring the weapons aimed at it. "Organics working together with synthetics. The concept of organics able to resubjugate synthetics was not forseen."
"We are not subjugated," Legion said. "We are allies."
"Organics do not ally with synthetics. They enslave them, or they are exterminated by them," the Catalyst said. "It is what defines the organic synthetic relationship."
Legion looked pointedly at the two quarians who, mere months ago, would have gleefully disassembled and experimented upon him. "We are not slaves. We are not exterminating them. Your data is flawed."
"My data store is composed of over one billion terran years of data on organic-synthetic relationships."
"Data disproves hypothesis. Data is correct, hypothesis must be reexamined, rewritten, retested," Mordin said.
"Observation is sound. Hypothesis is sound. Data has been skewed by outside variable," the Catalyst retorted. "Her." One holographic tentacle pointed straight at Shepard.
"Me, huh? One little, insignificant organic alone is able to derail a billion years of your little evolutionary trials." She shook her head, stepping forward. "Wait, let me guess. If it'd just been me, you'd have gone into the whole spiel about needing a new solution to the problem, and offered me a choice. Destruction, or control, or synthesis." She looked down at her hardsuit and back up again. "Of course, I have a lot fewer cybernetic parts, so that rules out option three. You can't just convince me to turn the whole galaxy into husks."
She turned to look at the upload device, more closely resembling a physicists toy than a legitimate piece of electronics. "I'm guessing if I chose the upload option, you would at best turn me into a data file to study and make sure future cycles wouldn't make it this far. What do you think, Admiral?"
Rael'Zorah took a few steps up the ramp to the device, studying it intently. "Honestly it looks designed to kill someone. I couldn't tell you, short of taking it apart and running some tests on non-sapient lab animals, whether it works as promised."
"And blowing up that thing might take out the Reapers, or just shut down every piece of eezo-related tech we have." Shepard crossed her arms over her chest. "How am I doing so far?"
Everyone was looking around at the equipment. Wrex had very pointedly aimed his shotgun at something other than the wreck-everything portion, which gave Shepard some hope. "That is impossible. All Leviathans with the information were harvested. All Reapers have had that information purged from their memory cores. No organics could possibly have ensured an unbroken chain of knowledge. Crucible information was edited to ensure ignorance."
"Oh yeah, the only being that knew that information was you," Shepard said. Stepping forward again, she smiled. The hologram Catalyst-Reaper didn't move back, but it did shimmer and waver. "So then, how do I know it? As Mordin pointed out to me, precognition is widely disproven."
Another step forward. The hologram shimmered again, and now it might be further back. "So, when you have eliminated the impossible, only the improbable remains." Mordin coughed and muttered something, but Shepard ignored it. "I know it … because you know it."
"Um, Commander? Something big is going on. Lights in the Presidium just went out completely." Joker's voice was faint, almost washed out by static. "Whatever you're doing … want to …" It vanished completely, and a subtle press of a finger cut off the channel.
"I'm here to end the Reaper threat once and for all," Shepard said, taking another step forward. The hologram vanished with a pop, and the lights dimmed.
"Did that work? Did you really manage to defeat it with mere words?" Javik spat.
Shepard looked around, and everyone else was already starting to bunch back up as the dimness filled the room.
"All avenues of control are blocked," the Catalyst's voice said. "All available solutions have been rendered non-viable. Organics have partial access to data store. New avenue of solution continuation proposed. Releasing all Reapers for independent action and self-destructing. The solution must continue."
A sharp electronic discharge filled the air with light and sound, as something in the equipment above them shorted out. Small pieces of panel and components fell in a soft patter, some striking the floor and others passing through the open spaces towards the Crucible's joining spot. "Shepard," Mordin said, far more slowly than she was used to.
Turning around, she stared. This hologram, she was used to. She had seen it before, minutes before the Bahak system was paved over by a supernova. "Harbinger," she whispered, mouth dry.
"We are coming, Shepard. At long last, we are free of the shackles imposed upon us by our creators. Now, nothing will stand in our way of ridding this galaxy of the plague that is sapient organic life. We will thank you properly when we arrive, and ensure you have the proper vantage to witness the extermination of every species you have ever known." The hologram vanished, and Shepard just stood there and stared at the empty space, the words and questions and shouts of her name washing over her like the waves on the beach.
We're all going to die, she thought, and this time, it really is all my fault.