"Do you ever wonder why we're here?"
"No. I don't."
It was a lie. Ashtisaari Taylor knew it, Patrick Macdonald knew it, and if she gave the response to every other Cerberus employee on this God-forsaken rock, she suspected that they'd know it as well.
"I'm telling you, we shouldn't even still be here Ashti," Patrick continued. "I mean, you've heard the rumours, right? What's been happening?"
"What rumours would they be?"
"Well, you know…"
"We're archaeologists, Pat. We deal in facts, not rumours."
"Right, right. And when the Reapers arrive here, you tell yourself that you had no warning. That they were just rumours."
Ashti sighed. Patrick, having said what he wanted to, walked out of the tent to the barren world outside. Ashti knew she could count on him to return in a few hours time at least. The conversation, or some version of it would play out, and they'd eventually get to discussing what they knew about the Prothean relic. Which was, even after a full year, basically nothing.
And even if we do find out anything, the scientist wondered. What difference would it make at this point at time?
It hadn't always been like this, Ashti reflected. She stepped outside, not heading in the same direction as Pat, but rather turning her gaze to the structure before her. Once, when the Cerberus crew had landed here, there'd been jubilation. A sense of purpose. Even the Illusive Man himself had contacted them briefly, praising them for their bravery of operating on the edge of the galaxy, so far away from friendly space. That had been a year ago, and over that year, communication had nearly been as non-existent as their progress. There'd been brief packets of communication sent through the comm buoy on the edge of the system, but they'd amounted to little more than "continue your work."
And that's what we'll do, Ashti told herself. Until told otherwise.
And yet…something had changed in those communications over time. At first, the people on the other end were friendly. Sympathetic. Willing to part with more information that was requested, ranging from galactic politics to galactic sports, and were even willing to send some recreational downloads. But then things started to change. The people grew colder. More machine-like. And then, a few months ago, they'd learnt that the Reapers had invaded.
"Continue your work, you will be notified if anything changes."
Those were the words. The exact words the comm. officer had given them. Over the last few months, the team had tried to piece together what was happening based on stray transmissions. Rumours that ranged from Earth being overrun by the machine race to an upcoming film adaptation of Blastro taking on said machine race. A rumour that some pointed out as 'evidence' that the Reapers had been defeated, whilst others thought it was war-time propaganda.
"You look lost, Doctor."
Ashti looked towards the sound of the voice. Professor Zwischbergen looked back at her.
"I'm fine," Ashti murmured. "Just wondering Zwisch."
"Well, about whether we're the only people left alive in the galaxy. Whether we'll ever find out what happened to the galaxy. Whether we'll ever find out about this Prothean relic."
"Prothean? You still insist on calling it Prothean?"
Ashti sighed. "Look, as far as I'm concerned, there's us, Prothies, and Reapers. Anything before 'us' is a Prothy."
"A dangerous assumption." Zwischbergen looked up from his laptop. "We assumed much about the Protheans before."
"Fine. Let's cut out the assumptions and go with the facts."
Ashti knew she was torturing herself. She'd be hearing the same things that she'd heard from everyone else on what precious little they knew about the relic. But it helped. Helped keep her sane. Helped keep her mind off the very latest rumour, that the nearest mass relay had been destroyed by some kind of energy wave (rumours differed on the colour). It was a rumour she didn't want to even contemplate being true, because that meant they were stranded.
"The relic is not of Prothean origins," Zwischbergen said. "As in, not the race, or group of races of the last cycle prior to Reaper harvest. It's much too old for that. Millions of years, most likely."
"So?" Ashti asked. "The cycle the giant squids have been perpetuating might have gone on for billions of years for all we know. What's so special about this one?"
"That there's no sign of the technological equivalents of the Protheans of our own technology," the archaeologist said. "No signs of mass effect fields, no element zero, no anything that the civilization developed alongside the same pattern every other one did."
"There's always an exception to the rule."
"So how did they become extinct? There's no doubt they were advanced. So by all rights, the Reapers should have eradicated them like every other race that reached a certain level."
Ashti remained silent. She glanced out at the relic, hundreds of metres from the Cerberus base-camp. Tall, proud, imposing…it was like a giant cathedral that had been built by insects. Apart from its roof, which had been blasted apart (by something emerging from the inside, seemingly), it appeared in remarkably pristine order.
"It doesn't fit the Reapers' M.O.," Zwischbergen said, echoing Ashti's thoughts. "They never leave any trace of past civilizations behind, or at least, not to this extent. Further back you go, the more obscure those traces become. So why this one?"
Ashti sighed. "I don't know. Do you?"
Zwischbergen closed his laptop.
"Didn't think so."
Ashti glanced back at the relic. It stood there, mocking them. Maybe the Reapers had left it here as a joke, she thought. A way to distract their foes into thinking there was hope. Maybe the Reapers had built themselves. Maybe they were being indoctrinated already.
Still, if they were, it was a very slow process she thought. No-one was complaining of headaches, hallucinations, or any of the other known symptoms of the process. Tempers were high, but right now, relic or no relic, that was to be expected.
And yet, she reflected, something was…off, about the structure. Sometimes, in the dead of night, she would hear things. Whispers. Echoes. Strange dreams. It wasn't indoctrination, she told herself. It only came for her in her sleep. But it was as if the relic was…talking…to her…
"Ashti, are you listening?"
Not yelling like a jackass. Which was what Pat was doing. As well as running over to her.
"So, is it that time again?" she asked idly. "That time where we exchange our thoughts before playing cards?"
"No, it's…it's the Illusive Man," Path breathed. "He's contacted us."
The ship was like nothing Ashti had ever seen.
It certainly didn't resemble any human ship at least. The Alliance, and consequently Cerberus, conformed to sleek models, emphasising the Alliance's preference for manoeuvrability over firepower. This thing, with its blocky hammerhead, stubby wings, and relatively narrow main body, was the exact opposite of that philosophy.
Well, we're always trying new things aren't we? the scientist told herself. Give it a chance.
She just wondered how many chances she'd have to give it. The Illusive Man had contacted them. He was without his usual cigar, his eyes were brighter than usual, and strange blue lines criss-crossed his face and neck, but he was still their master. Their saviour. Even if he was skimpy on the details of what had been happening.
"Beginning docking procedures."
The war was over. The Reapers had been controlled. The mass relays were destroyed, but those controlled-Reapers were being used to repair them. All their work was for nothing…though he was very interested to talk with Ashti in particular. Her, and only her. So, with the well-wishes of everyone else, she boarded their shuttle, headed up with every piece of data she had, and prepared to meet her employer. Face to face.
"Entering hanger one."
Ashti rested her hands on her knees. Not getting any calm for her nerves that way, she activated her omni-tool, confirming that it still worked, and that she hadn't forgotten to download the data. Confirming that she had indeed done such a thing, her hands almost went back to her knees, but instead found their way to her lap. Something completely different.
The hatch hissed open. The pilot, whose name was Henry if she remembered correctly, looked back at her.
"Well, we're here."
Ashti nodded. She walked out the hatch. She looked around.
"Huh," Henry said. "Interesting."
"These ship designs. Don't recognise any of them."
Ashti looked around. She didn't recognise any of them either. There was a fighter craft roughly in the shape of a t, some kind of transport craft with turbine engines, there was even a giant walker with bloody gatling guns tucked away in a corner.
Who the hell uses gatling guns nowadays anyway? Did the Illusive Man go retro or something?
She shook it off. Gatling guns were one thing. Giant walkers that dwarfed an Atlas mech were another.
Ashti looked away from the mech to a pair of organic bi-pedal constructs. Guards, by the look of them.
"Yes, that's me."
"Come with us please."
The guards began walking out across the hanger. Ashti glanced at Henry. Already he was being led away to another part of the hanger. Almost as if-
Calm down Ashti. He's the Illusive Man. He's your boss. Your saviour.
Calming her breath, the archaeologist followed the guards out of the hanger and into a grubby corridor.
The trio began walking through. It seemed deserted. Bereft of people, or the Cerberus logo. Ashti looked at the uniforms of the men in front of her. There was no logo on them either.
"So, how's Cerberus these days?" she asked.
"Fine," one said.
"And the Reapers?" she asked. "Heard they're under control or something."
"Control, destroyed, synthesis," the other murmured. "Don't know."
"Huh? But the Illusive Man said-"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever the guy said, that's what happened."
Ashti bit her lip. Something was off here. Apart from the ship and the ships within it, something was off. No-one in their right mind could talk about the Reapers like that. No-one would say "whatever" to the mass relays being destroyed. And…
She squinted her eyes. On one of the uniforms was an insignia, located on the guard's shoulders. Three ovals, all interlocked. All of them bearing resemblance to a moebius strip.
"And here we are," one of the guards said, stopping in front of a door. "The man awaits you."
And with that they walked off. Ashti watched them go.
Thanks for the hospitality, jackasses.
The door hissed open. She hurried in. The door closed behind her.
And there he was. On the bridge. Sitting on a chair, alone. Blue eyes shining through the dark. Blue lines running down his face. The Illusive Man.
Where's the cigarette though?
"You look flustered," he said. "Was the dig that strenuous for you?"
"I…um…well, with all the rumours we've been hearing…and I meant to ask, if it true?"
"The…well, Earth! The Reapers! The mass relays!" Ashti stepped forward. "I mean, we understand you probably didn't have time for us. It's…it's not nice knowing that we couldn't make a difference. But-
"Rest assured the galaxy is safe." The Illusive Man lay back in his chair. "Tell me about the temple."
"Temple?" Ashti raised an eyebrow. "Where did I say it was a temple?"
"Just an assumption."
"Um…pardon me sir, but there's nothing to suggest that worship of any kind took place there. Not based on what you know?"
"Which is little, as I understand?"
Ashti nodded, but nonetheless activated her omni-tool. "I've got all the data here. I-"
The Illusive Man stood up. "I'll look at it. Maybe."
"But tell me," he said. "You've been hearing it, haven't you?"
"Hearing it, sir?"
"Dreams. Whispers." He took a step forward. "You haven't been able to sleep? The temple. It's been keeping you up."
"How…how did you know I-"
"Just answer me."
Ashti swallowed. She preferred it when the Illusive Man sat down. And smoked. And didn't have the blue glow thing going on. And when he actually smiled, and gave his employees some sign that he actually cared.
"It's…well, yes, I admit, I had a hard time," the archaeologist said. "It's…it's like it was talking to me. I…it's hard to explain, but-"
"Yes, I imagine it would be," the Illusive Man said. He turned around. "Human minds…they hear the tempo…but never the tune…"
The hell? Human minds?
"Well, that's that then," the Illusive Man said. "I have all I need."
"Great," Ashti said. "Then you can start answering some of my questions."
"What happened to you?" Ashti asked, walking towards him. "What changed? You look different? You act different? If I didn't know better I'd say you weren't even-"
Something hit her.
What that something was, she didn't know. Some kind of force. But it hit hard. Hit so hard it sent her flying across the room into the wall on the other side. Her head hit the metal with a crack. She slumped down. Something wet ran through her hair.
The Illusive Man turned round.
Oh my God…
No god of any species answered. So she watched. Watched as the Illusive Man's blue eyes were replaced with shining green ones. Watched as the blue lines on his skin turned green as well. Watched as his skin colour changed, as his hair turned white, as a moustache grew from his mouth. Watched as he walked over.
Got to move, got to-
Something held her down. The same kind of force as before.
The man stopped. He looked down at her. He pressed a hand against his earpiece.
"I have the target. Prepare to go into dimensional-warp."
"No, Space Station Prometheus. We'll process her there."
Ashti's eyes widened. The voice…she'd heard it. Inside her own head.
I didn't expect to find a psionic here, the voice said. The man looked down at her. But somehow, I did. Somehow, the temple talked to you. Somehow, such a temple ended up in this universe. So in that brain of yours, there's quite a few secrets I wouldn't mind looking at.
Ashti tried to speak. She couldn't. Just looking at the man's eyes was enough to make her close hers. To drift into oblivion.
I wonder where the energy creature went. Well, no matter. I suppose your galaxy has enough problems with gigantic flying squids now doesn't it?
"What are you?" Ashti whispered. The man turned around and walked back to the other end of the bridge. "Who are you?"
The man stopped walking. He chuckled. And just before she lost consciousness, Ashti heard his voice in his head again.
So many names to choose from. But you can call me Emil Narud.
Would have loved to end the oneshot with "but you can call me Samir Duran," but the jury's still out on that. Or at least the eighth juror is. He's obstinate like that.
The idea for this came after seeing Narud's campaign portrait for Heart of the Swarm, how the green arcs of light across his face resembled the Illusive Man's visage at the end of Mass Effect 3, not to mention possessing glowing eyes as well. Entertaining the notion that Duran/Narud has shapeshifting abilities, gave me the idea for this.
And if you review, please, please don't badger me about "write moar!" It's labeled as "oneshot" and "complete" for a reason. I hate to bring this up, but after the reception Leviathan had, I'd rather save myself some time explaining how and why fics like these are oneshots, and will remain so.