damalur: (me • marine)
no, use my SPACE name! ([personal profile] damalur) wrote2014-08-27 06:26 pm

crucible: down to earth

Title: Crucible 08 - Down to Earth
Characters: Shepard/Vakarian
Wordcount: 6k
Notes: Much thanks as always to the usual crew for all of their help!
Summary: "We will fight, we will sacrifice, and we will find a way."

Chapter 08
Down to Earth

Desperation clung to them like grime.


They were in the War Room. Traynor was glaring holes in the main holographic display as EDI threw up attack scenarios; Tali was beside Traynor, picking over a schematic of a Reaper state ship, looking for the weaknesses she already knew weren't there. Liara was sitting on the steps leading down to the circular console with Ashley standing over her. They were discussing something in lowered voices. Good. Ash had been the one to help Liara through Thessia, and while Shepard knew that pain hadn't healed or even dulled, Liara was keeping it together, staying focused.

Shepard thought only of their goal; every atom in her being was trained on that purpose, every waking or dreaming thought was only of how to beat the Reapers. No—Shepard didn't want to beat them. She wanted to annihilate them, she wanted to tear them apart, barehanded if necessary. She wanted to litter the empty space around Earth with Harbinger's constituent parts.

"Oh, I dunno, I always thought it'd be fun to see if I could make a real go of it as a chess player. My ELO ranking is decent, but that might be a little boring after serving here. What about you, Lieutenant Commander?"

She was hanging everything on a thread. Shepard had made a lot of gambles in her life, but this was the most desperate—the line between survival and extinction depended on Liara and the prothean blueprints Liara didn't herself entirely understand. But then, nobody understood the whole of the Crucible; they could only build the pieces, each team working on the small facet they could comprehend in isolation, and then join those pieces together. If they were lucky, the end result would be a superweapon. If they weren't...well, a massive detonation that wiped them all out might be preferable to decades or even centuries of slow indoctrination and slaughter.

It was up to Shepard to weigh the odds, to account for all the variables. The fleets were massing—

"Guess I'd like to spend some time with my sisters. After that, who knows? Maybe I'll go on an interplanetary bar crawl."

And what if it was already too late?

They would say the war was lost on Thessia. They would say the war was lost on Thessia and in the trenches of Menae, that hope had died at Earth. They would say the war was lost before it started, that it was lost on the other side of the Omega-4 relay, that it was lost at Alchera, that it was lost long before Sovereign and the Citadel. They would say it was lost at Eden Prime. They would say it was lost before memory started, before Torfan or the Skyllian Blitz, before the First Contact War, before the krogan rebellions or the advent of the rachni queens. They would say it was lost when Harbinger spoke its first words; they would say it was lost on Thessia.

"I believe I would like to contact the virtual aliens currently drifting in the Antilan System. Additionally, I would like to meet Jeff's family, and perhaps have racing stripes painted on either the Normandy or my mobile platform. What about you, Shepard?"

No. The fleets were massing, a force the size of which hadn't been seen in fifty thousand years or more. Hackett would tell her to pull it together; Anderson was counting on her. She wasn't alone.

"Skipper? Hello?"

Shepard blinked. "Ash?"

"We have been trying to catch your attention for some time, Shepard," EDI said. She wasn't physically present, but the display flickered a few times in what Shepard interpreted as an overture of concern. "Is everything all right?"

"Fine. Just thinking. Sorry, what's up?" Six hours of pouring over charts must have made her head fuzzy. Not good; their next jump would take them to Earth.

"We were...um, wondering if there's anything in particular you're planning on doing when the war is over, Commander," Traynor said. "Like taking a vacation or going back to Tuchanka or...anything, really."

"After the war?" Shepard said. There was that wall again, the block that stopped her from thinking past a terminal point. "I'm planning on celebrating our victory."

"Come on, Shepard, that's cheating," Williams said.

"Yes," said Liara, "you must have other things you'd like to do. Marry Garrus, perhaps?"

Shepard blinked again, startled. Marriage? She'd never thought of herself as the marrying type, or hadn't since she was a kid—although she'd expected to feel stifled in a committed relationship and had instead discovered that she appreciated the constancy. "If he'll have me," she finally said.

Tali and Ash snorted in unison; with the filtering effect of Tali's suit, it sounded oddly harmonious. "Please," Tali added.


"You've got to be kidding, Shepard," said Tali. "'If he'll have you?' I'm surprised he hasn't proposed already."

Shepard dragged her tired mind away from the possibility of using the mass relays themselves as weapons and dredged up what willingness she could muster to play along. "I'm willing to admit that it's more than stress release, but—"

"He went crazy after you died!" Tali blurted, and then recoiled a little at her own bluntness. "Sorry, I didn't mean to bring up...but you really mean you didn't see this coming?"

"Excuse me?" Shepard said.

"Tali has a point, Shepard," said Liara. "I had access to your personal correspondence from the SR-1 in my early days as an information broker, and you and Garrus wrote one another frequently—sometimes several times a day—when you were away from each other."

"That doesn't mean anything. Hell, I write a lot of letters. He was pretty damn surprised when I suggested the idea, don't go making this into some big…" Shepard shook her head.

Tali and Liara exchanged a glance, and Ashley smirked. "Of course he'd act surprised," Tali said. "He's turian. You're human. There's bound to be some residual cultural taboo there."

Shepard was aware that in her personal life, boldness often substituted for emotional acuity, but this was going too far. "Can we please talk about something else?"

The smiles and laughter died away far too quickly. That worried her; it worried her as a commander who needed her personnel at peak operational efficiency, it worried her as the soldier who understood this small group of fighters to be the vanguard of an all-or-nothing offensive, and it worried her as the woman who had come to view and value the people of the Normandy as more than friends. Tali, Liara, Joker and Karin and EDI, Williams and, yes, even Traynor: they had become something like her family.

Shepard had shied away from that word for a long time, but she was aware that the ties that existed between them were rare and precious. The contrast of taking their candle-flicker bond of trust and determination and setting it against the darkness of the Reapers was daunting; if Shepard were a woman who prayed, she would pray that what was coming wouldn't snuff them out entirely.

Sadness came over her, sudden and overwhelming. She wouldn't hesitate to send any of them to probable death, and that was maybe her worst sin of all.

They were looking to her.

Shepard crossed her arms over her chest and rocked back. "Like Traynor. Anyone notice how much time she spends on the line with Diana Allers?"

"I—that isn't—she's interesting, that's all!" Traynor sputtered.

"Specialist Traynor spends approximately twenty-seven minutes a day talking to Ms. Allers," EDI said. "On an active-duty warship, that is an unusually high figure."

"You're making those numbers up," Traynor said. "You can't possibly have data on that! ...Can you?"

"I could run a comparison analysis against how much time Commander Shepard spends talking to Officer Vakarian, if you would like." The console produced a humming noise that Shepard associated with EDI letting the crew know she was processing, and then a slew of graphs popped up on the display.

"No!" said Traynor. "No, that's really, really not necessary, EDI."

"What's this one?" Ash had braced herself against the console's rim and was leaning over to stare at one of the charts. "'Hot Beverages as Affectional Expression?'"

"This is a portion of my relationship modeling portfolio," EDI said. "I have a limited number of firsthand sources to imitate in building my relationship with Jeff, which requires me to mine as much information as possible from that source." A beat. "Those sources."

Slowly, every head in the room turned towards Shepard. Her control was good enough that she didn't squirm, but the back of her neck went hot.

"Well," said Tali, "that certainly explains why EDI and Joker flirt through terrible humor."

And, because Shepard's luck always held, right at that damn moment the hatch popped open and Garrus walked in. "Finished my consultation with the Primarch, Shepard. What'd I miss? Oh, I brought you a cup of coffee."

"So, Shepard," Tali said. "About that wedding—"


She was on Mindoir again.

Her parents' farm was three hundred hectares: wheat and corn and soybeans, peanuts, alfalfa, and clover. Shepard knew every square meter of it blindfolded or in the dark, could walk from the old prefab her dad had lived in before he built the farmhouse to the creek that separated their land from the Singhs'. In a rainstorm she had once found her way from that creek to the big barn by nothing more than the feel of the ground under her feet.

The creek was north; home stood in the southwest corner, within sight and hearing of the forest. Shepard knew the forest as well as she knew the farm. She knew if she stood at the edge of the field within the forest's shade, she could hear a scream or a gunshot from the house without straining; she knew if she shimmied up the tall tree by the creek's far bank, she could count individual corpses stacked outside the house without having to squint.

She was in the forest on Mindoir again. There was the bench she'd built with her dad, there were the nests built by the mindadee birds, here was the bee block she'd set up for a school project: she was on Mindoir again.

There were shadows all around her. They spoke to her in the voices of the dead, and every whisper sparked against her heart like flint against stone. The sparks leapt from her and caught on the trees, and she watched as—

She watched—

She woke up—

She woke up with her pulse throbbing in her ears, a deep, frantic thrumming, and she waited until the beat of it receded. There was a song in her head; it was an old song, something her father had sung so often his family and his farmhands had known it by heart. Shepard knew the melody, but she could never remember the damn words. It came into her head at the oddest times.

She went down to the field, was how it started. Or was that how it ended? She could never remember.

Shepard rolled to her feet, pulled on her fatigues, and went to the head to splash water on her face. When she came out, still damp, she paused in front of her desk and touched the terminal. "EDI," she said.

"Is there something you need, Shepard?"

She hesitated; asking EDI to look up the song suddenly seemed frivolous. Shepard had gone years without knowing all the words, and it hardly mattered now. "How's the watch?" she asked instead.

"Are you offering to relieve me, Commander?" There was a shade of humor in EDI's voice.

"More wondering if you wanted some company."

"I believe I would like that." The amusement shifted to wonder; EDI had yet to take for granted the newfound freedom to express her own preferences. "Most of the crew is resting per your orders, Shepard. Lieutenant Commander Williams is talking with Doctor T'Soni in her office. Private Campbell is standing guard. Officer Vakarian is—"

"I'll find that one out myself, EDI, thanks."

"You are welcome."

Shepard dragged her fingers over the smooth fabricate of the desk and then up, to the plexiglass display case for her model ships. It was mostly empty space; in the very middle was a replica of the SR-1.

This was hers. Nobody could take it from her.

But she knew that wasn't true; 'home' wasn't place so much as idea, and one was just as fragile as the other. She had memories, but even memories could be taken. The reason she couldn't recall all the words to her father's song was not forgetfulness but self-defense; when the Alliance had found her on Mindoir, she'd been wandering in the middle of a field littered with bodies. She didn't remember that. She still didn't. Parts of her childhood, parts of the attack, were simply...gone. Her mind had hidden those experiences from her, and Shepard doubted she would ever be able to look beyond that shroud.

"Shepard?" EDI said.

Shepard drew back her hand. "It's nothing, EDI," she said, and then she went to walk the ship one last time.


Her mind might fail her, but she could imprint this in her bones. The first impressions were there already; blindfolded or in the dark, she could find her way from her cabin to the CIC by only the feel of the deck beneath her feet.

She passed the galaxy map and the station where, on the old Normandy, Pressly had stood to check their course. The ship's display showed all systems running green; just ahead of that holograph, someone had pulled up a countdown showing the time until they hit the fleet's staging point—three hours and running.

The forward hatch popped with its familiar hiss of air, and she passed the airlock and stood just in the umbra of the bridge proper. Joker was at his post, head propped on one arm as he flicked through displays.

"Hey, Commander." He didn't turn to face her. "How's it goin'?"

"Another day in paradise," Shepard said. "You ready for this, Joker?"

"Hell yeah, I'm ready. You think some big-ass space lobster is going to outfly me? No way that's gonna happen."

"That's what I like to hear." She came forward to stand behind his right shoulder, the same space she'd occupied on every op they'd run together since long before Sovereign.

Joker retracted the shutters to reveal the rainbow shift of FTL. The hum of the Normandy's engines was audible here, a subvocal emanation that Shepard had always considered a counterpoint to the equally invasive but far less welcome voices of the Reapers.

The song was still stuck in her head. Frankly, she was starting to feel a little pissed.

"Where's EDI?" she asked.

"Oh, you know. Here. Her body's down in the AI Core, though. She's messing with herself, can you believe that? There is so much material to work with there."

"Should I leave you and your right hand alone?"

"Aw, are you harassing me, Shepard? I think I might be proud of you."

"I'll see myself out," Shepard said, but she patted him once very lightly on the shoulder before she turned to go.

"Uh. Commander?" Joker said.


"Thanks. For everything you did for her." Shepard twisted around to look at him; he was tugging the brim of his cap lower over his face. "She's...still kind of figuring this personhood thing out, and I didn't want to, you know. Take advantage of that. Make her think I expected her to be a certain way. I'm glad she had you to answer her questions."

Shepard reached out to touch the bulkhead, knowing EDI couldn't feel it, knowing she would appreciate the gesture anyway. "It was my honor."

Joker cleared his throat. "Right. You can go now."

"Any other orders, Flight Lieutenant?"

"Oooh, yeah, would you mind bringing me a soda? And maybe one of those granola bars Chakwas hides in the dextro cabinet? Actually, I could really go for some of Vega's eggs—"

"Uh-huh. Good luck with that," Shepard said, and she left him there, still talking to himself and to EDI, whose attention was never far.

There were bright alarms scrolling on every screen Shepard passed, but most of her personnel were resting on the crew deck. The War Room was empty save one sentry, and Shepard stopped only to look at the QEC, quiet now. And then came the crew deck, the scratch on the memorial wall where Tali had dropped a spanner, the layered locks on Liara's office, the berth where Bakara had waited while Mordin created his miracle cure and sang his patter songs; and below that was engineering and the stealth core, the guts and garters of the ship, Adams' patient devotion and Tali's steady brilliance poured into machinery.

She finished in the armory. The shuttle bay was empty with one exception; even Cortez had abandoned his obsessive maintenance to snatch a few hours of shut-eye. The sole holdout was sitting on a low crate with disassembled rifle parts laying in neat rows at his feet. Shepard could smell gun oil the moment she stepped out of the elevator.

He cleared his throat. "Shouldn't you be in bed?"

"Hinting at something, Garrus?"

He moved over, and Shepard sat down next to him. Sometime between the Collectors and full-out invasion, he'd swapped his old M-15 for a turian-made rifle. The Phaeston was standard infantry issue among turian troops, but Garrus had tricked his out with a slick stability dampener and high-grade kinetic coils.

Shepard reached over and picked up the new ammo block he'd laid out next to the targeting compensator. A standard block was good for several thousand rounds; the slug sheared off and then propelled by mass effect fields was miniscule, but a couple of firefights could burn through those several thousand rounds pretty damn fast. Garrus passed her the assembly, and she slid the block into place and then started to rebuild the extractor around it.

Something was different about the shearing mechanism. She ended up struggling to fit it into place, and it slipped and gauged her thumb. "Dammit!"

Garrus reached over and slid the part into place one-handed. Cocky little shit.

"I could've done that," she said.

"Sure, but I thought sometime tonight would be nice."

"That's your problem, Vakarian. No patience."

"Oh, I don't know," he drawled, "I can be plenty patient under the right circumstances."

Shepard suddenly wished they had time to retire to her cabin, but no—they'd already upheld the private tradition they observed before suicide missions, and she valued this just as much; sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with him while they readied themselves was a ritual that long predated the less clothed kind of bonding, and it was in its own way just as intimate.

"I was talking with Vega earlier," he said.


"Well. More like I walked in on him praying. I'm always amazed at how many religions new arrivals have. After a couple thousand years of FTL capability, most races tend to be a little more homogenized."

"You took comparative religions in school, didn't you?"

"Two trimesters," Garrus said. "It was interesting. I don't know how much you know about traditional beliefs…"

"Not a hell of a lot," Shepard confessed. "My dad came from a devout background, but I've always taken more after my mom."

"No surprise there. Anyway, on Palaven our most widely-followed doctrine professes that there isn't really good or evil, only selfishness and selflessness."

Shepard borrowed the bottle of oil from between Garrus' feet and shook a couple of drops onto a scrap of rag. "I can see the wisdom in that," she finally said.

"I found it pretty repellant as a kid. The idea that there's no objective evil never sat well with me. Later I figured out that we were taught to equate selfishness with evil, but even that seems a little…"

"Careful there," Shepard said. "It almost sounds like you're embracing moral nuance."

He huffed, amused. "Galactic war has a way of making a person reexamine their worldview, that's for sure. I think that's why so many of your human religions appealed to me, though. Black and white, good and evil, all writ large…"


"Something like that." He picked up a brush and started to feed it down the length of the Phaeston's barrel. "Mind if I use one of my questions?"

"Garrus..." Shepard said. She cleared her throat and concentrated on wiping down the gun's stock. "You can ask me anything. You don't have to keep track."

He hummed in consideration. "That's...good to know. Call me curious—if you take after your mother, what do you believe?"

She had to work to clean the crevices on the stock's inner curve. "I don't know."

"No spirits, no afterlife?"

Shepard let the question breathe while she applied a few more drops of oil to her rag and started on the handguard. Garrus didn't press her; he knew that sometimes she needed to think, that she wasn't trying to dodge him but that sometimes her uncanny intuition faltered when it came to self-reflection.

"Bakara told me something once," Shepard managed. "She said that wisdom comes from pain."

"Do you think that's true?"

"I hope not," she said, and then she snorted. "Otherwise we'd all be damn wise."

He cocked his head. "If I ask you to come back to me, will you?"

Shepard cleared her throat again. "You might want to make that an order."

"Mouthing off to a superior officer? Please, Shepard, I'm the model of propriety."

"You're the model of something, all right." She was still smoothing oil into the gun's surface, and it surprised her when he reached out and took her chin between his thumb and near-finger to turn her face toward him.

"Jane," he said. "I love you. I respect you. I would follow you into hell."

Shepard's throat closed; her eloquence failed her. She reached up and put her hand on his.

"And this," he said, "all of this? It's because of you."

"It's because of Liara—"

"It's because you decided to trust a friend." He smirked. "Seems appropriate after all those times she trusted you to pull her ass out of the fire."

"Trust in me gets people killed. I don't deserve—"

"It doesn't matter what you deserve," Garrus said. "You have it anyway."

Then Shepard felt it: she'd reached this state before, going into a fight or in the midst of one, the rare moment when her anger and her focus, her deadly compassion and her anticipation and her drive, burned clean away, leaving only the most refined expression of her self—and what rested at the core of Shepard's self was pure, incandescent will.

"We're going to do this," she said. She felt bold and steady, firm on her feet, calm and confident and sure of her own lethality, bolstered by Garrus' faith.

"Damn right."

She was a professional, the only Reaper-killer there was, and she was ready to go about her business.

"We're going to do this," she said again. "We're going to win." She couldn't save Mindoir, but she could save Earth. She couldn't save Thessia, but she could save those who remained.

Garrus' jaws spread in a broad grin, and he went back to cleaning the Phaeston's barrel. "Good to see you've finally started listening to yourself. All those speeches, and now it finally kicks in."

"Garrus," she said.

"Yeah, Shepard?"

"You've changed me," she said. Garrus' head snapped up. "And you move me. And if I'm walking into hell, there's no one else I'd want watching my back."

He was staring at her with those lethal blue eyes of his, and then he opened his mouth and blurted, "We should get married."

"Yes," Shepard said.

"Uh, not—I don't mean—we haven't really talked about—wait. What?"

"Yes," she said. "When we come out of the other side of this, I agree. We should get married." She could see the clean vector of it, the sharp line of their future emerging from the tangled furor of the war. And why the hell not? "Unless you're trying to back out already, Vakarian—"

"No!" He coughed a couple of times. "No. Definitely not."

His hands started fitting rifle parts back together with a speed that would have impressed her under any other circumstances, although now it only made her smirk.

"Laugh it up, Jane," he grumbled.

"Believe me, Garrus, I will." She took the half-assembled gun from his hands and fit it back together with the stock and grip and trigger; when it was finished, she popped the extension button, raised it to her shoulder, and trained her eyes on the sights. It was heavy equipment, but sturdy and well-made, and it felt good in her hands.



"You're humming," Garrus said.


It wasn't such a bad way to die. Better than being spaced. Anderson was beside her; her job was done. And the view was…


There was a song stuck in her head.


It wasn't such a bad way to die.


Garrus was gone.


She ran through the killing fields towards that great pillar of light, and then she walked; and then she staggered, and then she crawled. There were blasts, more than one. She wasn't sure if the first or the second had killed her fire team—


The Illusive Man was dead, and Anderson was dying, but her job was done. The Crucible had docked with the Citadel. Something was wrong with her ribs; when she breathed, she could feel bone grinding.


Hell of a view, though. Funny, how even being spaced hadn't destroyed the thrill she got from a field of stars. Ash would've understood. Shepard hoped they put something nice on the LC's gravestone—a bit of poetry, or a line from a song. Shepard had known a song, once.

She went down to the field,
And her body there she laid;
She gave…

How did it end?

"Commander Shepard, come in!"

She remembered: it ended with Garrus gone. And Anderson—Anderson was gone, too. Shepard was the only one left.

Someone was calling her name. Hell of a view; Earth was hanging low overhead, a blue marble that ate up her vision.

"Shepard? Commander!"


"I—" She broke off, grunted. Her hands were tacky with blood. "What do you need me to do?"

"The Crucible's not firing."

Shepard rolled to her side, dragged herself forward. When she tried to climb to her feet, her legs gave out, and she fell hard. The control panel was there, a meter away, just out of reach—

"It's got to be something on your end."

She braced her elbows on the ground, sucked in a breath, and threw herself forward. The controls were—

"Commander Shepard!"

"I don't see—I'm. Not sure how to—" Her vision was starting to fade out around the edges. The pain was immense, so massive that she swam above it, unable to comprehend all the ways her body hurt.


Hackett. She'd failed. Her vision was gone, and before the rest of her went, Shepard comprehended that she was dying.


On Mindoir they had a song:

She went down to the field,
And her body there she laid;
She gave the earth her blood and bone
That fruitful it might stay.

So break your bread, my darling heart,
But pray you don't forget:
The harvest comes at a cost, my love,
And that cost—

Everyone who remembered the song was ash.


She was rising.

She was...dreaming?

The boy from the forest, the boy from Earth, was in front of her. "Wake up," he said. He was glowing, like an angel, he was—sense sank back into her; she still floated on that tidal wave of pain—a hologram.

Not death or even a dream, then. Shepard had been dead before. It hadn't hurt like this.

Garrus was gone.

"Wake up," the boy said.

"Where...where am I?"

"The Citadel," said the boy. "This is my home."

"Who—" Her ribs scraped. She was probably bleeding internally. "Who are you?"

The boy looked at her. "I am the Catalyst. I control the Reapers; they are my solution."

Was she dreaming?

"The created," he said, "always rise up against their creators. Synthetics will always seek to destroy organics. I was designed to ensure the survival of organic life."

She had to force herself to assign meaning to his words. The control panel—she was so close. "So you slaughter us?"

"No," the boy said. "We harvest you."

(Garrus was gone, and there was a song stuck in her head.)

Population control. The Reapers managed the galaxy like a farmer managed his fields, culling in some places, encouraging growth in others; but their bounty was not grain but sentient lives. Shepard was chattel, she was one more lamb to their slaughter. Burn back the field at the advent of synthetic life, and organic races—however underdeveloped, however infantile—would continue to exist.

Shepard's secret was this: she had a star for a heart.

That star had burned itself past supernova. What remained should have been only a dense grain, a particle of sand in the void of her chest, but the fusion reaction that fueled her ignited, and she started to blaze one last time.

The Catalyst's solution was a violation that would keep them frozen, no future, past stolen: children forever. Oh, Shepard was angry. Shepard was damn well pissed.

What had it said? This is my home.

"You," Shepard said. "Who created you?"

The boy turned away. "You would not comprehend. It is sufficient to say that the ones who designed me recognized that there would always be war between synthetics and organics. Their own solutions were limited, but they understood the need for order."

Shepard stumbled after him. "Your presence here signifies that my solution is imperfect," the boy continued. "The Crucible provides us with an opportunity for revision. We have watched you, Shepard. You have come farther than any other who resisted us. It is interesting that a creature who is faithless has led others to such lengths on the basis of belief."

"No. No, you're…" She had to break off to cough; her voice scraped like glass against the inside of her throat when she spoke. "You're wrong. I have plenty of faith, I have faith my gun will fire if I take care of it—"

"A soldier's conditioning," the boy said. "Reflexive belief is a poor substitute. Still: I offer you a choice."

"A choice?"

"Yes." The boy spread its hands. There was something about its voice, something beneath… "Destroy us," the boy said. "But be warned. The Crucible will kill all synthetic life indiscriminately."


"Control us," the boy said. "Translate your consciousness into an intelligence like my own, and use the Reapers as you will."


"Join us," the boy said. "The union of synthetic and organic life is inevitable. We can bring about that change now by using the Crucible's energy to alter the basic matrix of all life."


"There are no further options."


"There are no further options."


"There are no—"

"Further options," Shepard finished. What had it said? This is my home. "Why are you telling me this? Why me?"

And then, more slowly: "Where are you from? Is this really your...nng. Your home?"

The Catalyst flared, washing out the world around it, and it answered her in Harbinger's voice. "WE HAVE OFFERED YOU AN OPPORTUNITY WE HAVE NOT OFFERED ANY OTHER"—and then the starscream faded to that high child's echo—"because even we cannot predict all outcomes. The choice is yours."

Shepard's first, wild thought was: Is this a trick? There were too many unknowns, too many black boxes, but she was on her own. She couldn't turn to Ash or Liara, couldn't ask Garrus for his perspective, and she was fading. Her legs were numb. The grinding in her chest was worse. She had minutes.

In the end, hadn't they chosen her because she did what needed to be done?

Combining organic and synthetic life—the idea itself, of one ultimate, inflicted change—was incomprehensible. It was an utter annihilation of diversity, of self-determination, and of autonomy. Controlling the Reapers—how could anyone be trusted with that kind of power? Could she?

And there was destruction. In the end, they had chosen her because she did what needed to be done…

Was genocide her fate? Was the epitaph of 'Butcher' simply foreshadowing that failed to encompass the scale of what she was about to do?

Shepard knew herself; call it a last gift. She was anger and rage, a fountain of white-hot fury, she was the sharp edge of a knife and the whipcrack repeat of a rifle. She was justice, and justice did not rest easily with mercy.

But she was more. She was compassion, and altruism, and she was an infinitesimal reflection of what the universe was: there was love there, and light, companionship, people who would walk into hell for you, people who loved you for what you were, people who loved you because you were fractured and proud and cocky, because you couldn't dance and because you loved pulp fantasy and strange foods, hamsters and boxing and the stars.

There were people who would save you because you were theirs, because for sixteen years they had sheltered you, because on hot days they had taken you to the forest to drink ginger ale with you at the foot of the trees, because they'd showed you how to dance and because their hair was red like yours. There were people who refused to save you because they knew you could save yourself, because they respected what you could do and trusted you to know your own limits. There were people who gave their lives in the service of great causes and in the service of small causes, people who wanted to set right all their wrongs, people who knew their right to live unshackled was inalienable, and people who believed, really believed, people for whom sacrifice and honor and duty were not abstracts but the reality they lived every day.

And there were people who fell, and people who picked themselves back up, and people who didn't. There were shades of nuance, cultural discrepancies in what was right and noble and what brought dishonor and disgrace. There was cold wine and hot coffee, sharing a cup with a friend or splitting a bottle with a lover, grief and pain and triumph, home and the black, a thousand sunrises on a thousand worlds, a thousand final sunsets if she faltered now.

What do you chose, Jane Shepard? she asked herself. Are you the butcher or the candle? Do you bring the dark, or are you the watcher who keeps it at bay?

Can you be both?


She chose, and the world swung around her.

"No," she said.

The Catalyst stepped back. "You refuse?"

"No," she said. Her fingers uncurled from the pistol she held in a rictus grip; it fell to the ground, forgotten. "No," she said. "Those are not the only options."

"We do not understand—"

"You sure as hell don't," Shepard said, and her head went up. "You want to know my faith? Fine. My faith is the people of Palaven and Thessia, because you may have left their homeworlds in ruin, but they will not go quietly. My faith is in the Normandy, in my commanding officers, and in the men and women under my command. My faith is in the quarians and the geth, in my pilot, in my ship, in my weapon and my shields. My faith is duty, altruism, sacrifice, and struggle. My faith is holding this line, and let me tell you something—like hell am I going to fail here when my people fought to their very last breath."

"I believe," Shepard said, "that if we fight for each other, we've already triumphed. You think synthetics and organics can't coexist? Look again. You think organics don't wage war on organics? Look twice. You think the created will always rise up against their creators? That's a damn fallacy."

There was a song in her head—

"This isn't about organics or synthetics," she said. "It's about this: if you try to enslave and eradicate a people, they will always rise up. That's it. That's all. And I don't care if you fly the Reapers into the damn sun—we have the right to determine our fate. We have the right to live free of you."

Her leg, the bad one; gave; she'd taken a slug to that knee in the Blitz and even Cerberus hadn't put it all the way right. Probably psychosomatic. Fuck.

"This is your choice?" the Catalyst said.

Shepard choked. Spit out blood. "Yes," she said, gasping, and then, firmer: "Yes."

"...So be it," the boy said.

It walked away.

It walked away, leaving her on the ground. She couldn't stand; she couldn't breathe through the bile and the terrible comprehension that she had failed. At the end, when nothing else counted, Shepard had failed.

There were worse ways to die, but not many. If he'd lived, Garrus would have been angry with her; she'd been so sure, so certain, and that faith had amounted to nothing.

Out of the corner of one eye, she could see past the rim of the Citadel. It almost looked like one of the Reapers was firing on another, but Shepard blinked, and the vision rolled out with her pain and her heartbeat.

She saw stars—


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