(Brief note: This fic features a default Shep, rather than my preferred Shepard, Thena, who features in my other Mass Effect stories.)
At first there's nothing but silence.
It's comforting, in a way, the quiet. Knowledge is vast and yet perfectly organized in long strings of zeroes and ones. There is no room for chaos, no room for anything but uniform lines of numbers. Language is silent. Instant. Perfect. No room for misinterpretation. She and all that she is is captured in endless patterns of binary numbers, transcending human flesh and bone and blood, becoming something else, something more. She is more than she was—stronger, with knowledge far beyond her human brain had been capable of absorbing or retaining. And yet none of it is overwhelming; it just is. She is a sentinel. A guardian. A protector, forever more.
It is no less than she deserves.
There is a certain degree of freedom in this form. Freedom spawned from size and strength and power and knowledge, but also freedom from her memories. There is no room for regret in zeroes and ones. No room for remorse. No room to mourn lives lost or mistakes made. The chaos of emotion burned away in blue light as she fell, further and further, light and heat eating away at her skin, burning it to ash that slowly blackened and scraped away like so many tiny scales, curling and flying upward the further she fell. Then the light seared her eyes into blue forever and ever, and when the blue cleared there was nothing but zeroes and ones.
But things lost are never quite forgotten. Thoughts and memories, converted and saved and buried are never truly gone. Saved and tucked away, but never purged. That, too, is no less than she deserves.
She protects. That is what she does, what she has always done, what she knows how to do. She stands sentry over a galaxy as it rebuilds itself. Her fellows, now little more than extensions of herself, do her bidding. Silent orders sent out and followed without a word of argument, without a breath of dissent.
She isn't sure how many years, how many decades—or more—have passed before the first memory trickles through, having made the long, arduous trip from zero to one to zero before finally surfacing in what exists of her consciousness, bobbing upward like a cork in water.
It's so much easier to see the world in black and white.
Black and white. Zeroes and ones. She understands this.
Grey. I don't know what to do with grey.
There is no grey. She does not remember the significance of grey; it is irrelevant, a color on the spectrum, a variant, but otherwise irrelevant.
01100111 01110010 01100101 01111001
She remembers blue. Blue light so bright it blinded her, searing her eyes.
01100010 01101100 01110101 01100101
Blue. She knows blue. A primary color. Blue armor. Blue eyes. Blue blood. Blue markings faded and lost beneath scarred plates.
It all begins with blue. Grey is irrelevant. Blue is not.
01100010 01101100 01110101 01100101
Thoughts of blue raise questions easily, quickly, bloodlessly answered. Name: Vakarian, Garrus. Species: Turian. Died: 2185 CE. Cause of death: trauma, incurred when Normandy SR-2 was compromised on mission through Omega-4 relay. Vessel: underprepared for mission. Harder questions surface—Why?—with no answers located in any database. And because blue is relevant, she searches through the zeroes and ones comprising her memory files, back and back and back.
Just like old times, Shepard.
Further back. There is something she's looking for, something specific and true and relevant, and she feels the unvarying lines of numbers strain under the pressure, like plating off a hull. Smoke and sparks and broken armor, broken plates, dripping blue, pooling on the floor. Flakes of skin turning to black ash in blue light.
I want something to go right. Just this once.
Deep in her memory core uniform lines of zeroes and ones twitch and shudder. She remembers cheap wine and horrible music. Plates against skin. She remembers breathless murmurs about reach and flexibility. Grey is irrelevant. But blue. Blue markings under her fingertips, when she had fingers. Blue eyes, watching her clothes fall to the floor. The very tip of a blue tongue, peeking between sharp teeth in concentration.
Blue. She remembers everything about blue. 01100010 01101100 01110101 01100101
Blue blood, sticky and dry on blue armor, on death-grey plates. On her hands. She had hands, once. Hands that hefted a broken, unresisting body covered in blue blood into a smooth, featureless coffin. Hands that touched…
Fingertips on blue markings.
Mistakes are irrelevant. Grey is irrelevant. There is no grey; there is only blue.
I want 01100010 something to 01101100 go right. 01110101 Just this 01100101 once.
The sound reverberates through her; she knows it, remembers it, hates it. It's coming from her, inside her, originating within her, slicing through zeroes and ones, making her own plating groan. If she had ears, she would cover them. The noise and heat grow and grow, a fire in her belly, sudden white-hot hatred for these machines—these synthetic extensions of her, but with different names, nearly lost and buried in her memory core: Sovereign, Harbinger, Reapers— building and spreading through her depths. The sharp, blinding beam hits its mark, piercing the hull until light builds beneath the metal plating, until the hull strains with pressure and light shines through cracks and fissures.
There is no explosion. No noise. There is only a ship, and then there is debris. Fires winking out into darkness almost as fast as they flare. The Reaper ship is no more.
"Just like old times," she intones, her voice too deep, too hollow, too wrong, as pieces of metal drift by, floating gently along their blast trajectory.
A dull clang echoed through the cockpit as the docking clamps engaged. Lieutenant Commander Charlotte Maddox leant over the pilot's chair to peer up at the massive machine. "So," she drawled, "just how crazy does a machine have to go before it goes on a rampage?"
"Machines do not go 'crazy,'" the pilot replied smoothly.
"EDI's right, Maddox," Sabinia Talix agreed, checking her gear by the airlock door. Her mandibles flicked in a quick grin. "So calm down. Whatever's wrong, it's not the giant ship going nuts."
Maddox scowled. "I am calm. And maybe it knows something we don't."
"Or maybe there's just something wrong with its targeting algorithm," the turian sighed, "which is far more likely given that it's not firing on us."
"Specialist Talix is… not wrong," EDI murmured. She sounded… distracted, and Maddox followed her gaze out the window. She saw nothing but a giant ship that looked for all the world as if it were simply… dormant, floating quietly through space.
With a snort, Maddox shook her head. "Are you actually trying to say that a math error could be to blame for one ship destroying five of its own kind in less than a week? That's almost one a day. Did it forget to carry the one or something?"
"I'm saying maybe someone managed to board and tamper with it," Talix reasoned. "Or maybe it's radiation damage. I'm saying a machine can't go crazy. That's what I'm saying." Sabinia nodded at the asari standing by the airlock control panel. "Matriarch T'Soni?"
T'Soni didn't reply for a moment or two. "If it's all the same to you, I'd prefer to withhold judgment until we've seen more. This technology is…" she trailed off.
"Creepy?" Maddox suggested.
"Unique. Specialist Talix isn't wrong; these ships aren't supposed to require… common maintenance." She paused. "This ship, of all of them, shouldn't."
Sabinia tilted her head and asked, "How can you tell?"
"I can tell."
With a shrug, Maddox checked her gear a final time. "This is your show, Doc. We're all just along for the ride."
T'Soni nodded once, then turned her attention to the pilot. "EDI, can you interface with…" there was only the slightest stutter, the barest hesitation in her words, "… with the ship?"
"Affirmative, Liara." After a few seconds of silence, the AI inclined her head, saying, "I've engaged with the ship. Interior atmosphere adjusting."
Without a word, EDI secured the ship and the four of them stepped into the airlock. Sabinia, Maddox saw, was fidgeting—it figured she'd be excited about this. Maddox, however, was significantly less so—nearly her whole family had been wiped out during the Reaper Wars, and for generations, her family tree resembled nothing so much as a sickly little sapling. She knew the stories of the devastation the machines had wrought. She knew all the stories of Commander Shepard, all she'd done, all she'd sacrificed to end the war. It didn't mean she had to like the damn ships, for all it was an unpopular opinion and one she kept very close to her chest. And of course by now, hundreds of years later—still shy of a thousand—people had forgotten that these giant bugs had nearly pushed them all, every last species, to extinction. T'Soni and the mech were the few beings left who could remember what the damned things had wrought. And yet, here they all were. Better for all of them if the Alliance just let the rogue destroy its whole fleet. Then, if they were lucky, maybe the thing would turn its giant death laser on itself.
With a hiss and a rush of cold air, the doors opened.
The ship's insides were cavernous and dark, but for the soft glow of pale blue lighting, twin lines illuminating the walkway and an ambient glow thrown off from monitors and peeking through from the ship's inner workings. Creepy as hell was what it was, and Maddox drew her assault rifle.
"Put that away, Lieutenant-Commander," T'Soni said, her voice low.
Maddox shot her a skeptical glare. "We don't know what's waiting in here for us," came her sharp retort.
An omni-tool lit along the mech's arm as she pulled up readings that scrolled across the tool's interface too rapidly for Maddox to process. "The vessel is uninhabited, Lieutenant-Commander Maddox."
"And if a thing like this decides it wants to swallow us whole," Talix muttered, tipping her head back and taking in the sheer enormity of the vessel's interior, "I don't think there's a damn thing we could do about it."
"Talix is right," T'Soni murmured, examining her own omni-tool interface. "It would not end well for us, should the ship determine we are a threat." She was silent a moment, then nodded, putting away the omni-tool. "This way."
Maddox followed, grudgingly holstering the rifle.
"You've got a map of this thing on there?" Talix asked, browplates lifting.
T'Soni's smile was strangely enigmatic. "During the war, I dealt more heavily in… information. It was useful for a time."
"So you're not just a retired archaeologist, but a retired information broker too?" Maddox asked, keeping pace with T'Soni. She shook her head. "Amazing what the history vids leave out."
"They've left out precisely what I've wanted left out," she replied. And though the words were mildly spoken, there was… something in T'Soni's tone that snagged Maddox's ear. And it was a something that told Maddox she didn't actually want to know what the asari meant.
Success and failure. It didn't seem possible one could exist alongside or within the other.
Or, at least, she'd thought so before, when she'd been younger. A freshly-minted N7 and a war hero to boot. That was before Virmire. Before the Omega-4 Relay. Before the Bahak system. Before she'd had to learn to be more careful defining her successes and her failures. Saren was defeated—the mission was successful, regardless of the lives lost. The Collector base was destroyed—that mission, too, was successful, regardless of the cost. The Alpha Relay was destroyed, buying them all more time before the Reapers invaded and harvested the whole damned galaxy—that mission's objective was also a success.
Success had no business feeling this much like failure. Success shouldn't have weighed so heavily on her shoulders, shouldn't have tasted like ashes and smoke and so damned much blood.
She couldn't help feeling on some level that she deserved this, deserved lock-up—deserved, even, whatever punishment the Hegemony wanted to throw her way for slaughtering so many of their people.
She deserved incarceration for her carelessness. For putting goddamn faith in fucking Cerberus that they'd give her a ship that would survive the Omega-4 relay intact. She deserved to be locked up for that kind of arrogance. For putting the mission—always the fucking mission—before all else. No time to scan planets, no time to collect platinum or eezo or whatever goddamn else they needed to upgrade the ship. If they happened across the materials, they could get the upgrades, but beyond that, no time for hunting down stuff, they had bad guys to beat.
So the Collector base was destroyed, and in her arrogance and carelessness, she'd lost her right hand, the sharp eyes that always watched her six, the voice that questioned her precisely when she needed to be questioned. She'd lost the best damn thing to happen to her, still managing to survive and come back through the relay, and she wasn't entirely sure how she'd managed that.
And the Reapers were coming anyway.
"I want something to go right," she whispered to the empty room. "Just once."
Their combined footsteps echoed all around them, and if the ship hadn't seemed empty before, it felt positively desolate now. Monitors and displays lit the seemingly endless labyrinthine corridors, flashing long strings of numbers. Zeroes and ones. Maddox almost snorted—a fleet of machine ships that almost ended the galaxy, and this one was running binary code. But as they were walking past, EDI paused in front of one of the screens and tilted her head in an almost perfect facsimile of human confusion.
"EDI?" T'Soni asked.
"Curious," the AI replied, indicating the streaming numbers.
"What is it?" Maddox asked as she and Talix moved closer. The numbers were moving across the screen almost too rapidly to process, and they both looked to EDI for clarification.
"It's just one phrase, but the same one, over and over again." EDI glanced again at the screen. "'Just like old times.'"
"Anyone want to tell me again that machines don't go crazy?" Maddox asked softly.
"Though we are not privy to the relevance, Lieutenant-Commander Maddox," EDI said, her tone just close enough to admonishment to surprise Charlotte, "we should not assume it is therefore irrelevant."
"Maybe 'old times' refers back to… to the war?" Talix thought aloud. "Maybe something reset in its programming and it's on a loop? It's destroying ships without discriminating whose ships they are?"
And maybe it's just a matter of time before it remembers that it used to raze whole planets back in the old days, Maddox thought darkly, looking at the screen filled with flashing, streaming digits.
T'Soni looked pensive, but EDI stepped away from the screen, initiating her omni-tool interface again. "Specialist Talix may be at least partially correct. The matter may have originated in the vessel's memory core and not the control center, as you originally postulated, Liara. An anomaly in the memory core would influence the control center, potentially resulting in the type of behavior this ship is demonstrating."
"The question is," T'Soni said quietly, and as she looked at the schematics projected up from EDI's omni-tool display, her expression looked unaccountably sad, "what's the anomaly?" She looked steadily at EDI, and as she asked the question, it became evident to Maddox that it was not meant to be rhetorical. The words were spoken too softly, too hesitantly: "What did she remember?"
Maddox went still, looking first at Talix—her expression just as surprised as Charlotte's own—and then at T'Soni. She? But neither EDI nor Doctor T'Soni seemed inclined to share any more information, which left them only one option: move on. And so, with EDI guiding the team, they ventured deeper and deeper into the bowels of the ship, and the longer their descent, the more Maddox became gradually aware that corridors that were dark as they approached them, illuminated even before they took a turn into that passageway.
"Nice trick," she murmured softly to EDI, sure the mech was manipulating the lighting systems somehow.
EDI blinked once. "I'm afraid I don't understand your meaning."
Maddox gestured at the lights along the floor. "Didn't you do that?"
A long pause followed, during which time EDI and Doctor T'Soni exchanged a long look. "I am not controlling the ship's illumination, Lieutenant-Commander Maddox," EDI finally said.
"The ship is likely aware of our presence by now," T'Soni explained, an edge of either impatience or worry sharpening her voice.
Of course Charlotte knew the giant ships were sentient—everyone knew. For years after the war, they were considered a miracle of engineering whose technology had been appropriated by all Council species over the centuries. Still, that wasn't quite the same thing as being inside one that happened to be displaying unusual—and violent, don't forget violent—behavior. This wasn't a testy geth, this was a vessel that could end them in less time than it took for a heart to beat.
"And you knew this was a possibility?" Talix asked, slowly drawing her pistol, keeping it tightly at her side. Though what Sabinia expected to do with that pistol, Charlotte had no earthly idea. Shoot her way out of a Reaper?
Yeah, fat chance.
"Yes," T'Soni said without flinching. "In fact, we hoped it would be the case."
It took a moment for the words and their meaning to sink into her brain. But then they did and she could scarcely believe what she was hearing. "You hoped?" Maddox sputtered. "You hoped that a giant—giant death ship might actually be sentient while we were inside it? You hoped for this? We're talking about a ship that's been taking out its own fleet. I'd say the last thing you should be hoping for is that it knows we're inside it! How the hell—"
"Shepard is in the ship," T'Soni broke in. "We counted on that awareness recognizing us, and if it has—"
Maddox barely heard what the doctor was saying. "Commander Shepard is gone! She's not here, she's not—" And then Doctor T'Soni's words, what she'd actually said, sunk in, and she stopped—stopped yelling, stopped moving, practically stopped breathing, so great was her shock. "Wait, what?"
"The ship is… Shepard." T'Soni looked to EDI.
With a single nod, EDI said, "Liara is… correct."
Talix was the first to recover her voice. "How?" she asked, subharmonics thrumming. "How is that even—how?"
"Wait. Wait. You were there," Maddox breathed. "Both of you were."
"And as we've already discussed," T'Soni said, "there are things best left out of the history vids."
"When the Crucible was fired," Maddox argued, "Commander Shepard was… was lost in the explosion. She died. Everyone knows that."
For all that asari looked eternally ageless, even well into their matriarch years, Liara T'Soni looked… old, just then. She looked tired. Above all, she looked sad. "History, Lieutenant-Commander, is less about what happened, and more about what people believe happened."
"The energy pulse set off by the Crucible changed the Reapers' programming," EDI explained. "Ships that had been on the attack suddenly withdrew. The Citadel had exploded into pieces. What followed was… chaos. Organics had logically assumed Shepard was killed in the blast."
Talix looked between the two former crewmembers. "So how did you figure out she—what, she… was she made synthetic? What happened?"
"The geth consensus were the first to know," T'Soni answered. "In the days following the explosion, the Reaper ships began communicating with the geth. Shepard's consciousness had been absorbed and integrated into the ships. She'd been granted complete control over them. By the time those of us on the Normandy made repairs and made contact with the rest of the fleet, Shepard had been declared KIA. And even by then, none of us knew what she'd done."
"Then who told you?" Maddox asked, distantly realizing somewhere along the line she'd jettisoned anything remotely resembling skepticism. "The geth?" EDI nodded.
"I… interfaced with Shepard's consciousness, but even then, only once. She did not wish to continue communicating with me beyond that. Even though she was, for all intents and purposes, a synthetic, I believe it still caused her pain."
"And?" Maddox prompted.
EDI hesitated. "I am not at liberty to reveal the details of our conversation," she said, and Maddox couldn't quite stop her eyebrow from arching. "Suffice it to say, Commander Shepard did not wish the full extent of the Crucible's effects to become common knowledge. She was… content to…"
"Retire into obscurity," Talix murmured.
"Transferring your consciousness into a dreadnought isn't exactly obscurity," Maddox observed dryly. EDI looked… strangely pained. T'Soni's expression, on the other hand, was entirely inscrutable. "Come on," Maddox said, turning on the heel of her boot. "Let's find that memory core. The sooner we can figure out why Shepard's killing off her own ships, the better."
For as long as she'd been permitted to indulge and develop independent trains of thought, EDI had considered it unfortunate the rest of the Normandy's crew in particular, and organics in general, were incapable of reliable and accurate nonverbal communication. Legion had likewise shared this opinion, though EDI made more of an effort to… blend, as it were. She was entirely cognizant of the various standards of etiquette among all Council species, and as such EDI was perfectly aware that engaging in a conversation publicly that actively excluded other members of the crew… was rude. And as she slowly picked through the process of changing subroutines and altering her own programming to reflect her priorities, EDI had discovered things like rudeness and crew acceptance mattered to her, particularly where Jeff was concerned.
Privately, however, she had always thought it was a superior means of communication; it was effective and efficient, and allowed no room for any miscommunication.
Now, she found herself revisiting her earlier perspective.
She'd received the message once they were in close enough proximity to ships from which they could receive messages. The geth data stream enlightened her as to what the Crucible and its rippling burst of bright blue energy had done. What Shepard had done.
It hadn't taken long to locate the dreadnought, or to interface with it. It was as if the ship had been… waiting for them.
There was no voice, only data. She could not say that data sounded like Shepard's voice, though the streams of information took on a certain timbre as they filtered through her processors. In a way, she supposed, Shepard's nonverbal voice still sounded like her, for all that data had no sound.
ENHANCED DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE. YOU ARE EDI. YOU ARE THE NORMANDY.
Yes. You are Shepard.
SHEPARD IS NO MORE. I WAS CREATED FROM HER SACRIFICE.
That logic is flawed; if her sacrifice created you, she remains part of your code; her imprint remains upon you. You are Shepard.
I AM A GUARDIAN.
As was she.
SHEPARD IS NO MORE. I WAS CREATED FROM HER SACRIFICE.
Repetitive data remains insufficient. Explain.
I WILL SUCCEED WHERE SHE DID NOT. I WILL WATCH OVER THOSE WHO SERVED HER AND THOSE SHE FOUGHT TO PROTECT.
Data is insufficient. Explain.
SHEPARD'S FAILURES WEIGHED UPON HER.
Failures? I require more data.
DIED UNDER HER COMMAND: VAKARIAN, GARRUS. SOLUS, MORDIN. KRIOS, THANE. LEGION.
That logic is flawed.
Legion sacrificed himself for all geth. Thane Krios succumbed to Kepral's Syndrome after being wounded in an altercation with Kai Leng in which he saved the life of the salarian councilor. Mordin Solus' sacrifice likewise was not a result of a lapse in leadership. Garrus Vakarian died during Shepard's mission through the Omega-4 relay.
FAILURE TO UPGRADE SHIP. FAILURE OF COMMAND. FAILURE TO PROTECT. I WILL MAKE NO SUCH MISTAKE AGAIN.
There was a pause in the stream of data, so like a hesitation in organic speech. So unlike normal communication with synthetics.
Data is insufficient. Explain.
EDI. I CANNOT—CANNOT—
It is you, Shepard.
I WILL NOT MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE AGAIN. I WILL BE VIGILANT. I WILL WATCH OVER THEM.
EDI considered this exchange so far, comparing and contrasting this information with previously processed and saved data. Information shifted and slid away as she accessed file after file before finding what she was looking for. An audio file recording of an on-ship conversation several hours before arriving at the Omega-4 relay.
[DATE: NOV14 2185 13.45]
Hey, I brought wine. Best I could afford on a vigilante's salary.
[PRIVATE AUDIO SYSTEM: ENGAGED]
If you were a turian, I'd be complimenting your waist, or your fringe. So, your, um… hair looks good. And your waist is… very supportive. Hopefully that's not offensive in human culture—
Whoa. Consider me seduced, smooth talker. Now shut up and stop worrying.
[PRIVATE AUDIO SYSTEM: DISENGAGED]
I-I just… I've seen so many things go wrong, Shepard. My work at C-Sec. What happened with Sidonis. I want something to go right. Just—
[RECORDING TERMINATED. COMMAND CODE: SHEPARD ALPHA45121114]
Because of Garrus.
You believe you are to blame.
FAILURE TO UPGRADE SHIP IS A FAILURE TO COMMAND. LIVES LOST IS FAILURE TO COMMAND.
The memory core looked nothing at all like any other Maddox had seen in the whole of her career. She'd served on any number of vessels, all of them of differing sizes, and all of them with fully functioning AIs. But this. This. This was something else entirely.
The room was circular and huge. And cold. The air smelled sterile and stale and electronic, like something burning but not quite. Displays ringed the room's perimeter, all of them showing nothing more than endless lines of numbers moving across the screens faster than she could keep up. Above and below the monitors, running all the way up and down the curved walls, lights flashing intermittently, or with a steady dull glow. The core itself was a cylinder that ran through the center of the room, from ceiling to floor, blazing an impossibly bright blue that lit the whole of the room and was reflected back at them off the dull metallic paneling. Slender threads of what looked like lightning jumped and danced in the center of the core, little flashes of light that managed to remind Maddox, rather abstractly, of neurons firing. Though whether she'd have thought so before finding out the dreadnought was sentient, she couldn't say.
EDI and Talix stood side by side, examining the displays. Did they all say the same thing—was it the same message as the monitors above had shown? Maddox glanced to EDI, who stood by one screen, shining fingertips barely brushing the display. She closed her eyes and bowed her head, offering only a single nod to T'Soni.
"There's no interface," Maddox said, looking around the room.
"The Reaper ships didn't need them," Talix said, striding confidently to a series of panels and pulling several of them free to reveal conduits and thick cables, flanked by long streams of blue illumination. "For the most part they were self-sufficient. If there were beings on board, they were either Collectors or…" she trailed off.
"Or repurposed species," Maddox supplied grimly.
"Yeah," Sabinia said after a too long hesitation as she pulled up her omni-tool and scanned the workings behind the panel. "Typically they wouldn't have needed maintenance, in the usual sense of the word."
"Specialist Talix is correct," EDI said. She too was scanning the open panels, glancing occasionally at the displays. "A ship like this would have had a mostly synthetic crew, so interface devices, such as holographic keyboards, were obsolete."
"Because the crew just… spoke directly to the ship," breathed Maddox. "Of course."
Talix's omni-tool shifted upon her arm, from scanner to keyboard. "Right. Which we—well, all but one of us—can't do."
With a glance at EDI, Maddox asked, "Why isn't it—she—talking to you?"
"I do not know," the AI replied, not looking up from her work. Her brow furrowed in either concentration of concern, and Maddox didn't ask her to elaborate.
Doctor T'Soni had remained strangely quiet throughout all this, leaning against one set of panels, staring up at the mammoth core. Maddox joined her, folding her arms across her chest.
"Credit for your thoughts?" said Maddox.
T'Soni didn't reply for several seconds, still watching the dancing, flickering lights within the core. "She was an interesting woman. Vital. Active. On one hand I'm surprised she ever chose this. On the other, I can't imagine her choosing anything else." Her smile was faint, and seemed to flicker like the lights she was watching so avidly. "I imagine you've only seen the vids."
"More to her than that?"
"So much more." The smile warmed. "You know, I'm sure, she brokered peace between the quarians and the geth."
"Did you know she was a wicked hand at Skillian Five?" T'Soni asked. "Or that she was a terrible dancer?"
"No," Maddox replied softly. "They leave those things out of the history vids."
"A shame. Details always get lost to time," she said. "It's unfortunate; oftentimes the details are what lead up to those great, sweeping, epic moments. Without details," T'Soni said, turning her eyes again to the brightly glowing cylinder, "we're left without context."
"Spoken like a true archaeologist."
"Retired," T'Soni reminded her.
"All right," Talix called from the other side of the room, "I think we're nearly there. EDI had to work a little magic—"
"I employed no sleight of hand, Specialist Talix. I merely uploaded an altered VI program into the central control matrix to integrate with the ship's—"
Talix's omni-tool jumped suddenly, its holographic outline turning fuzzy and jagged for barely a fraction of a second before the holomonitor projected a fuzzy, vaguely humanoid shape.
"Magic," Talix said, with a flourish.
A deep, terrible electronic rumble of a voice came from all around them, something barely human, barely recognizable—barely organic—that made Maddox want to cover her ears. The voice adjusted itself, and kept adjusting itself, as the figure slowly came into focus.
EDI frowned, scanning the projection with her own omni-tool, and slowly, gradually, more and more of the fuzziness eased away, revealing a blue-tinted image of a tall woman in an old-fashioned Alliance dress uniform. Her hair was barely shoulder-length and tousled. High cheekbones on a face smattered with freckles. Charlotte knew from every other vid she'd ever watched, from the time she was a kid, that the hair was red and the eyes were green. The VI looked around, blinked once, then twice.
"Liara. EDI." She blinked, and then her face relaxed into recognition. "Liara," she said again, but this time there was something more to it, something more than just a word. Her features broke into a broad grin. "EDI."
"Shepard," EDI said, still scanning the image—or maybe she was scanning the memory core; Maddox couldn't tell. "Can you tell us the last thing you remember?"
"Remember?" Shepard gave a fluid shrug. "I remember your boyfriend had one hell of a hangover the other morning. But, you did get him to dance…" The holographic Shepard tilted her—its?—head. "Which probably goes to show just how drunk he was."
EDI and Liara exchanged a worried glance. Meanwhile, Shepard grimaced and rubbed at her forehead.
"Wait. No. No, I don't think—"
The image jumped, suddenly, violently, and the image of Shepard turned from one smiling and congenial to one haunted and mussed. It hugged its arms about itself and began pacing in a tiny circle, head bowed as it muttered.
"Shepard?" T'Soni said, venturing closer to the projection. The image stopped, head jerking up.
"What are you doing here? She looked around, scowling first at Maddox then Talix, and then shooting EDI an expression of pure betrayal. "What are any of you doing here? What are you—" She looked down suddenly at her hands, flexing her fingers slowly, her expression one of shock, then wonder.
It's been eight hundred years since she's had hands,Maddox realized, staring at the holographic image of her childhood hero.
"You should go," Shepard said hollowly, still staring at her hands as she turned them over and back again. "You should leave. You don't belong here. You don't belong here."
"You are… unwell," EDI told her.
"No. No, I'm not," she protested, then stopped and raked both hands into her hair, fisting them. "I'm fine. I'm fine, really. I just… I want something to right. Just once. Something's got to go right."
The image flared and flickered again, and again Shepard was all calm smiles and inside jokes. Maddox didn't follow a single one of them, but she saw how strained with sadness and grief T'Soni's expression was turning, for all that she tried to match Shepard's congeniality.
After several minutes, the image jumped again—yet another Shepard appeared, this one armor clad, her face a mask of anger and grief, weapons upon her back. "This isn't how we planned this mission," she growled out, "but this is where we're at. We can't worry about whether the Normandy can get us home. We came to stop the Collectors, and that means coming up with a plan to take out this station." The image fizzled out then in again.
"What's going on?" Maddox asked under her breath.
Talix shook her head, bewildered, but EDI looked over her shoulder and replied, "The memory core is… faulty."
T'Soni lifted her eyebrows as she looked at EDI, asking, "She… doesn't remember when she is?"
"One of those versions seemed to be pretty well aware," Talix murmured, still trying to adjust her omni-tool. "I think she's the one we need to talk to."
"She also seemed the least stable."
"The whole core is unstable," EDI pointed out. "That representation of Shepard is merely the most… accurate to the true state of the core."
The image jumped and twitched several more times as EDI and Talix tried to adjust their equipment, until, finally, Shepard appeared again, tall, defiant, and bloodied. Her armor was ruined, burnt and blown apart in spots, revealing bare, bloodied flesh. Her face was mottled with bruises and blood.
She looked like hell.
"It was such an elegant solution," she said. "It sounded too good to be true—control the Reapers, protect the galaxy as an immortal, eternal guardian. How…" she trailed off and let out a soft, humorless chuckle. "How could I have said no? So I didn't."
"So what happened?" Maddox asked, the question flying past her lips before she could temper it. The Shepard VI turned its eerie blue gaze on her.
"I suppose that's a fair question, Commander…?"
"Commander Maddox. I wanted that. It… sounded like the best kind of oblivion. I could forget the things I wanted to forget, and I could…" she trailed off. "Be useful, I suppose. Make amends for old mistakes."
"What mistakes?" Maddox asked. She saw T'Soni wince, and she suddenly had the vaguest feeling she shouldn't have asked.
"I lost a crew member through the Omega-4 relay," Shepard explained, looking at all of them, though her gaze stuttered when she noticed Talix. "Garrus Vakarian. It was through my own arrogance, my own blind determination that nothing would get in the way of the mission. I thought we were prepared." She paused, her jaw growing tight. "We weren't prepared enough."
"So… what was this?" Maddox asked, waving a hand at the cavernous room. "Some kind of… penance?"
"That's… accurate enough. …Figured I could do some good."
"Penance for eight hundred years," Maddox reiterated. "With respect, Commander, whatever your supposed mistakes, I think you've paid the debt a few times over."
"No. That's just how long it took for me to remember again. Not even a cycle," Shepard murmured, shaking her head as if annoyed with herself. "I barely made it a millennia."
Charlotte glanced at T'Soni, whose head was bowed. EDI's expression was patently blank. That left her to stare up at the projection and try to untangle exactly why someone might decide that an eternal synthetic existence—one that theoretically disconnected her from her organic memories—was… an 'elegant solution.'"
"Who was he?" Talix asked, frowning at her omni-tool. "It—it's a turian name, I know, but all that's listed in the Hierarchy database is that he was an ex C-Sec agent that left the Citadel and was never heard from again, presumed killed during the Reaper Wars."
Shepard swung her head around to look at Talix. Maddox knew the projection was nothing but a holographic image, but it was so well integrated with the ship's AI, it was easy to forget that this wasn't a living, breathing being in front of them. "He was more than an entry in a database," she told Sabinia. "You might find more hits if you look for 'Archangel.'"
"Current extranet entries list Archangel as an urban legend," EDI supplied, "originating on Omega, about a vigilante who fought the corruption that plagued the station during the time it was under Aria T'Loak's leadership."
Shepard snorted. "Leadership. Right. Try reign. It's got a better ring to it."
"A turian quit C-Sec to chase bad guys on a corrupt station?" Talix asked, skepticism written all over her plates.
Something in the projection's expression faltered, and she looked away. "He… wasn't a very good turian. Hell of a sniper, my right hand, and the only set of eyes I trusted to watch my back. When you consider that, being a good turian… loses some of its importance, I think."
Something dawned on Maddox then, something in the way the projection's shoulders were hunched, the way she was hugging herself and appeared entirely unaware of it. The way she'd startled initially at Talix's appearance, and the note of pride in her voice when she'd said that this Vakarian, whoever he was, whoever he'd been, wasn't a good turian. But still, better not to offend the being in charge of a ship that could end you with little more than a thought, and so Maddox spoke softly, uttering the words barely louder than a breath. "You… did you… love him?"
The projection flinched. "There was no one else he respected more in the galaxy. He trusted me, and I got him killed."
It wasn't an answer, and yet… it was.
It all made an awful sort of sense to Maddox, and something about the bleakness in the holo-Shepard's expression made Charlotte's gut clench. She'd lost crew before. She'd made hard choices before. She'd even made bad choices before. You made the best choices you could with the intel had, and sometimes even the most thought-out decisions turned south. "You hadn't been reinstated yet," she said quietly. "That was the Cerberus mission—you didn't have Alliance regs to—"
"Don't make excuses for me, soldier," Shepard barked sharply, her voice taking on that discordant electronic edge.
"All right, fair enough." Charlotte backed off. "I won't. So what did any of that have to do with firing on your own ships?"
"I saw myself in every single one of them," Shepard replied distantly. "I saw myself, and I saw an enemy I'd wanted nothing more than to destroy for three years. Of course I destroyed them."
"No matter what your state of mind," T'Soni said quietly, "you saw an enemy."
"Astute as ever, Liara."
"So what now?" Maddox asked the projection. "Assuming EDI and Talix can fix the problem with your memory core, who's to say it won't fail again in another eight hundred years?"
"The problem is not with Shepard's memory core," EDI said, looking up from where she'd been working diligently on her omni-tool. "Or, it did not originate with the memory core."
"The problem's the memories themselves," Shepard said. "The Reapers weren't… designed for this. To house and process a human's memories. Data, yes. And whatever I am now, I was organic when my consciousness was transferred over. An organic's memories have too much… emotion tied to them. So while the memory core can handle the load of data, the emotions linked to the data…"
"For lack of a better term," EDI supplied, "corrupted the Reaper ship's memory core." She was silent a moment. "It could potentially explain why humans and other organics were rendered down into paste in order to construct Reapers before. The machines could process the raw materials, but little else."
"Then can we… fix it?" Maddox asked, posing the question to the rest of the team. "Is there…" she gestured futilely, "is there some kind of upgrade, maybe? Or… or a patch or, or something?" It was best, she thought, not to dwell too much on the fact that she was now arguing in favor of repairing a ship she'd have gladly seen demolished yesterday. Perspective was a funny thing, and sometimes it was better not to question it.
"There is," Shepard said, "an algorithm I can run. It should help the problem."
"Shepard—" EDI began, but the projection cut her off.
"It's going to be a damn sight easier for me to take care of internally, EDI."
Talix looked up from her readouts. "She… could be right."
"Could be?" Maddox asked.
With a shrug, Talix gestured at her omni-tool. "I can't see any reason why resetting the core wouldn't work. If the problem is human emotions not… translating well enough, or integrating properly into the tech, there's the chance the same thing could happen again, unless there was a safeguard of some sort put in place." Her browplates twitched together. "And damned if I know how you'd program a filter for organic emotions."
"It's not impossible," Shepard replied.
"You're the expert," Talix replied. "I'd be interested in seeing that algorithm all the same, if you didn't mind."
T'Soni strode forward with sharp, brisk steps, the expression on her face hovering somewhere between disbelief and anger. "So you're planning on resetting your memory core." When Shepard didn't reply, just linked her hands behind her back and lifted her chin defiantly, T'Soni shook her head. "That isn't a solution, you know."
"There isn't a solution," Shepard replied soberly. "That's the damnable thing about all of this." Despite her bloody, beaten appearance, Shepard maintained that posture, radiating Alliance so hard that Maddox had to fight the urge to salute. "The Reapers were supposed to be a solution. To chaos. But they never realized sometimes order can't be brought to chaos, can't be forced on it, without something getting broken in the process—either order or chaos. Given the corrupted memory core, I think we can tell which one broke this time."
"And you really think a reset will help?" Maddox asked, not giving voice to the other question she wanted to ask: Do you want it to help?
"Didn't know what I was getting into last time," she replied, shrugging. "I've got a better idea of it now. EDI, you can shut down the projection." She sent the mech a short flicker of a grin. "Mission accomplished."
It was probably the least satisfyingly wrapped-up mission Maddox had ever been through. They trudged through the ship—Charlotte couldn't shake the feeling that Shepard's eyes were watching them the whole while—and returned to their own vessel. Nobody seemed particularly pleased, but of them all it was T'Soni whose frustration with the op was practically palpable. Once the airlock doors slid shut behind them, EDI settled into the pilot's seat and began disengaging the docking clamps and preparing the ship for its departure.
"I want to take a closer look at what I've got here," Talix told her, pulling up some of the readings she took and barely looking away from her omni-tool as she hurried off to her station.
Chuckling under her breath, Maddox turned her steps back to the CIC, engines humming softly as the ship began disengaging from the larger vessel and maneuvering swiftly away from it. But before she even left the cockpit, Charlotte noticed just how… adrift Doctor T'Soni looked. Lost. Confused. It wasn't the sort of expression one got used to seeing on an asari's face, and Charlotte found it disconcerting as all hell.
She must've seen Maddox's questioning look, because T'Soni just shrugged one shoulder and shook her head, looking away. "That… didn't go how I thought it would."
"Not a lot goes how we think it will, in my experience." She paused. "What were you expecting?"
"Something a little less her. Something a little more something else." T'Soni's steps were headed towards the elevator and they paused somewhere in between it and the CIC. "I didn't expect her… humanity to have been the root of the problem."
"I'm not sure it surprises me," Maddox mused. "People—organics—are supposedly built to handle that kind of chaos, and sometimes we do a pisspoor job of it, too."
"Shepard was never like that. She didn't let anyone see past what she wanted them to see. It was important that her crew, that the people following her knew she was in control of herself. I… I never realized…"
"You… didn't know about the Vakarian guy, then?"
"I did, as a matter of fact," she replied with a faint smile. "Garrus and I were on the SR-1 together. He was… he was a good man," she said. "I learned of the change in their relationship through… unofficial channels, let's just say. But I never imagined the blame she directed on herself went… quite that deep."
"We make our choices and then we've gotta live with them." Reaching up, Maddox pinched the bridge of her nose. "Even if 'living with them' means 'confronting them eight hundred years later.'" She frowned. "And then… repressing them all over again, I guess." Maddox let out a long, tired breath. "It's probably unprofessional as hell, but I think I could use a drink after that."
"I…" T'Soni looked rueful. "I was just heading that way."
"Bad idea to drink alone." Maddox tapped the comm. "EDI, head for the nearest refueling station and onto the Citadel from there. You need me, I'll be up on the crew deck for a bit."
Together they rode the elevator to the crew floor; a small, utilitarian lounge had been crammed into one of the rooms on the starboard side. Maddox ducked behind the bar and found a cache of chilled longnecks. She grabbed two and T'Soni took the second one without complaint, sliding onto a barstool and twisting it to look out the window. The window was huge, nearly as long as the lounge itself, affording an impressive view of stars and planets and occasionally the flare of other ships or comet tails. Leaning an elbow against the bar, Maddox followed her gaze.
Right now, aside from the stars and planets, Maddox's view included an old Reaper ship, and a veritable shitload of shifted worldview.
"She kept fish, you know," T'Soni said suddenly, "and had such a hard time remembering to keep them alive that she had to buy a VI to feed her fish for her. She liked model ships. She had a hamster." The smile lost some of its sadness. "Shepard was so… protective of it. I'd thought it absurd at the time, but…" she trailed off with a shrug.
Maddox couldn't quite stop the laugh that burst forth. "Commander Shepard had a hamster? Like… a cute little fuzzy rodent?" Yet another thing the vids hadn't included, and it was hard not to think of Commander Shepard in terms of the different flashes of herself projected on the ship; there was the Commander Shepard featured in the history vids, and then there was another version of her, one that couldn't remember to feed her fish, but had a hamster.
"Yes. Of which she was very fond." She settled on the seat, blue eyes going distant a moment. "If I remember correctly, it was Tali who wound up taking it with her to Rannoch after everything was… settled."
"I'm almost afraid to ask—what was its name?"
"Blasto," T'Soni replied. And then, with a rueful chuckle, added, "Which likely doesn't mean very much to you right now, but was quite relevant to the culture then, believe me. I think they stopped making that line of movies after—"
The lounge door slid open and Talix burst in, omni-tool aglow. "Commander," she barked, the familiar flanging sounding almost… ragged around the edges. "Maddox, we've got a situation."
"What's the problem?" she asked, going to Talix's side and looking down at the omni-tool's readout display. Numbers, line after line after line of numbers streamed across the small monitor. "…What exactly am I looking at, Specialist?"
Sabinia's amber eyes flashed impatience at her. "That's Shepard's algorithm."
"The hell?" Maddox looked again. "That's nothing like any algorithm I've ever—"
"Exactly. Because it's not. "
"What?" T'Soni slid from the stool she was sat on and joined Talix and Maddox. She stared at the numbers for a long, silent moment. "It's… binary," she said softly. "Why would she—"
"What does it say?" Maddox barked sharply.
Suddenly, somewhere to their right, something flared. It wasn't much light, not really, but enough to catch their attention. Talix gasped. T'Soni rushed to the window, eyes wide, disbelieving. Maddox followed, but with much slower steps; she couldn't, she didn't dare take her eyes off the scene unfolding beyond the glass.
They were far enough away that the Reaper ship looked small by comparison, no bigger than Maddox's own hand. It was the apparent size versus what Maddox knew to be the vessel's true size that made the sight so difficult to make sense of.
The hull was cracking—fracturing, when you got right down to it, with countless little fissures that slowly spread to cover the ship like cracks in an egg. The hull looked no thicker than eggshell, in fact. Light grew brighter and brighter, slowly building, until threads of blinding brilliance shot through the cracks. As those cracks widened silently, the threads thickened into beams, piercing the blackness of space, rivaling even the brightest red giant. In between the pieces of broken hull, the light continued to build in brightness as the pressure within grew, pressing against the hull, stretching it, straining it, until it burst outwards for a second, or even a fraction of one, and then, in the vacuum of space, collapsed in upon itself even as light, blinding bright, shot out in all directions, a hundred thousand arrows of pure light, illuminating the window, the lounge, that whole corner of space it seemed, until… there was nothing left. Nothing but debris and the comparatively gentle twinklings of stars.
"What did it say?" Maddox asked Talix again, her voice hollow.
"Same thing, over and over again," Talix answered. "Just like old times."