"...the paths are open, but you have to choose."
The words rung hollow in her ears. Though there was a note of hopeful reassurance in the boy's voice, Commander Shepard found no peace in it. She stared helplessly at the massive structure before her, her chest constricting in pain. Indecision froze her limbs, and made her muscles feel even more sluggish than ever. She could feel a sense of urgency crawling up her spine, further strengthened by the throbbing pain across her torso which reminded her that her life was slowly ebbing away. She had only hours to live given the state that she was in. Could she make it? She looked blearily at the two elevated platforms on either side; both somehow symbolized destruction no matter how she looked at it. She would find no comfort in claiming that she chose either option for the sake of some moral ideal. Today, there would be none.
She could take control of the Reapers at the cost of her own life, and in doing so she could force them to stop attacking her home-world and use them for her own means. Which would be what, exactly? She wondered bitterly. More destruction? Subjugating races throughout this galaxy? No; she had heard about what the protheans had done to the other races. Absolute power is power that corrupts. She would rather not risk her humanity for such a cause that would only ultimately turn her into a monster.
She could destroy the Reapers at the cost of her life, yet again; the many implants in her body being destroyed as a consequence of her action. More than that, it would mean the destruction of the geth, and of EDI, the AI who had found humanity in the quiet confines of the pilot's deck. Her throat constricted at the thought.
"The Illusive Man ordered my creation years ago. Jeff was the one who allowed me to think for myself. But only now do I feel alive. That is your influence."
How could she even consider this option? How could she walk up that platform and shoot the damn controls? Legion gave his life so that his people could ascend and think for themselves. EDI was now struggling in some war-torn battlefield miles below, fighting for the very organics who would, could destroy her, given the chance. How could she do that? How could she betray these people?
Because they were people to her. They were friends. They weren't just tools to be built and used for an arbitrary purpose. Legion had asked if he had a soul, and Tali had answered, "Yes." Could she just callously walk up those steps now and unleash a mass genocide for the sake of saving her own race, and the other organics whom she held just as dearly?
No. A thousand times no. The geth, EDI—they were her people too.
She focused her darkening vision towards the centre, towards the huge beam of light coming from the Crucible. Synergy—rewriting their frameworks so that both the synthetics and the organics could live together as one. Still, it didn't seem right to her. If the idea of being trans-human scared the fuck out of her, she couldn't possibly expect others to simply accept the change. And what of the consequences? Would they still be human afterwards? She growled at the limitations of her own vocabulary. Why the hell wasn't there a word that encompassed all of the different organic races in the world?
Can't the organics and the synthetics coexist in peace? If the geth and the quarian...
She blinked and took a faltering step forward, feeling a jolt of frustration through her body. Damn it! It's getting harder and harder to think straight. What was I just—? She took deep shaky, breaths and placed another foot forward.
I might as well, she thought grimly, staring at the brilliant blue glow before her. Perhaps, perhaps this was for the best. There was no other choice.
Garrus came unbidden in her mind's eye. "Good bye, my friend," she murmured hoarsely as she threw her pistol aside. "Guess I'll be watching your back from above." Tears slid down her cheeks for the first time since the Reaper invasion had begun. "Take care of Liara for me."
The words brought her stumbling to the ground, and for a moment she just stayed that way, her hands and knees pressed against the metal floor, cool and void of life, of warmth, of happiness, of passion. She sobbed for all that she was worth, her chest rising and falling painfully in between shallow gasps. She sobbed, even as Liara's gift unfurled before her in her mind's eye: a vast expanse of shadow and light, of twinkling stars and far-off planets, of safety and anonymity under the serene gaze of an indifferent universe, of freedom from duty and burden... It was gratifying how she could feel so paradoxically significant and insignificant in that single, quiet moment—a mote of dust in an ever expanding galaxy, and at the same time, the most fortunate mote of dust in that vast universe. Because Liara loved her, and ultimately, that mattered.
She slammed her fist against the uncaring floor and pushed herself upward, forcing herself to continue walking towards the end of her life, and the salvation of the rest of the galaxy, even as she felt her heart break again and again, until her heart was but an infinitesimal amount; dust blown away by the cosmic winds now beating against her.
...Sometimes being the good guy sucked so fucking badly. Why couldn't she be damned selfish just this once?
She squeezed her eyes shut and saw various faces in her mind's eye. All of her crew members, her ground team, her allies and friends... "When you start rebuilding," she murmured softly, thinking of James, "I hope you dissuade the others from building me a statue. I would hate to seem vain." She chuckled at that, but sobered immediately when she remembered her promise to Miranda. "I can't even fulfill my promises anymore."
She looked at the remaining few feet she still had to cover. Smiling bitterly, she whispered the words she felt were quite appropriate, "Death closes all; but something ere the end," she paused and cleared her throat which had constricted with emotion. "Some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with gods."
Running towards the blue light, she tensed in her last few steps and—
—slammed against a glowing green biotic field.
"Will you hurry up, T'soni?" A most familiar voice spoke gruffly some metres away, shocking Shepard into wakefulness.
"What the hell are you doing here, Javik?" She croaked, struggling to her feet and failing miserably.
"Because I am a part of your squad, am I not?" Javik asked, crossing his arms defensively. "Besides, your Liara would not forgive me if we did not get here in time."
Behind him she could see Liara rising from a hole they had created from below.
"There's nothing you two can do," Shepard croaked, peering at Javik from her unmarked eye. She rubbed her forehead, wiping off the streak of blood sliding down her cheek and finally found her bearings. She pushed herself to her full height and looked at both of them mournfully. "This is the only way I can stop the cycle. If I jump now, I can save the galaxy. I can bring an end to this conflict between the synthetics and the organics. I can bring synergy to all."
"Says you, or the Reaper whispering in your brain?" Javik asked, matching her growing anger with his. "You know what they can do. Have you ever considered that they might just be pushing these choices on to you?" He took a step forward and waved his hands, forcing her body in a stasis bind. "We heard everything over the squad channel, Commander."
"Surely there has to be another way," Liara insisted. Shepard noticed the darkened stains on her cheeks and felt her own heart constrict in pain.
"You are not supposed to be here," cried an indignant voice from behind the two. They turned around and saw the angry static of the Catalyst's child-like form. "This choice is hers to decide—not yours."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Javik snarled. "If the choice was solely hers to make."
Liara ignored the burning rage in the Catalyst's stare and walked towards her commander. She gently lifted the woman's chin and pressed her forehead against her beloved, whispering the words that would dispel the Catalyst's power over her. "Embrace eternity."
Javik looked at the two approvingly and smirked at the Catalyst. "You cannot control us any longer, boy."
The AI sputtered. "Why isn't it working?"
"Because our loyalty to Shepard far exceeds the power of your indoctrination," Javik answered simply. "Because we believe in her. Completely. Utterly." He turned towards his two teammates and inclined his head. "Thoughts, Commander?"
"Call off your Reapers," Shepard commanded, stepping away from the biotic field that Javik had created. "Please." With the help of Liara, she was able to limp towards the Catalyst, grateful for the medi-gel the asari had administered before breaking her of the stasis bond. "You told me that the purpose of the Reapers was to ensure that the created would not rise against the creators. You told me that, perhaps, the best way to end the cycle is to combine the synthetics and the organics. You told me that this was the only way that the organics and synthetics could possibly coexist." She grimaced from the pain spreading across her stomach, but continued to walk determinedly towards him. "And I almost believed you."
"It's a good thing I came when I did," Javik grumbled. "Or you might have walked into a cleverly constructed Reaper trap."
"It isn't a trap, Javik," Shepard replied soberly. "He—the Catalyst," she amended, "really intended for this to happen. He really believed that the only way we could survive is if we combined ourselves with our synthetic brothers." Shepard turned her cool gaze towards the child. "But he's wrong."
She turned her gaze towards the Citadel's grand windows, watching the battle outside with weary eyes. "I have witnessed an end to a life-long conflict between the geth and the quarian. I have witnessed a valiant salarian die so that he could fulfill his greatest project: the abolition of the Genophage and the birth of peace between the turians and the krogans." Tears slid down her face a second time that day. "I have witnessed the beginnings of humanity," she shook her head, knowing that the word she used was not enough, "the beginnings of true sentience from one of my crew. I have seen members of all the races putting their differences aside so that they can work together. Heck, I'm surprised the batarians were even willing to work with us," she said, chuckling derisively. "And after what I did to the Bahak system...
"I get that you're a necessary evil," she continued earnestly. "If not for the Reapers, this peace would not exist. I would not have met so many people, so many different races, who are now so dear to me." She frowned. "But this has got to stop. If you want us to stop fighting, to stop endangering the galaxy with our foolishness and our war—then this has got to stop. Someone has to remember the cause of this immeasurable bloodshed. Why not us?"
"You have seen Shepard's work," Liara added, pulling her commander closer to her side. "Surely that should be enough!"
"You wanted the synthetics and organics to coexist in peace," Shepard spoke slowly, weariness making it harder to concentrate on her words. "Well, I've made it happen. What more do you want?"
"True peace," the Catalyst murmured, ducking his head, nervously twiddling his thumbs.
"True peace lies in heaven," Shepard answered resolutely. "Or wherever we go when we die. Perhaps true peace is just death, the end of all things." She lowered herself on the floor, grateful for Liara's guiding hands which supported her unquestioningly. She met his gaze unfalteringly and continued, "We live in a wretched place where sorrow, illness, death—every single horrible thing you can imagine—exists. But that's alright, because we make our own pockets of happiness in this dark, miserable galaxy. Without darkness there is no light. Without chaos there is no order. One cannot exist without the other, for how can you know what you have, if you do not know the absence of its counterpart?"
The AI averted his eyes. "Forgive me." He disappeared.
The three warriors tensed, waiting for the worst to happen. A few seconds of strained silence followed, making them shift uneasily, giving each other looks of befuddlement and fear. Suddenly, Admiral Hackett’s voice managed to get past the hissing static in their ear pieces. “The Reapers are retreating,” he said in a tone that suggested he was quite awestruck by what he was seeing. “I don’t know what you did, Shepard, but they’re retreating.”
“They are. And I’d like you to order your men to stand down, Admiral,” Shepard replied, relief flooding in her veins. “They might change their minds.”
“I will, Commander.” Admiral Hackett promised before the line went dead.
Shepard looked at the spot where the child, the Catalyst, once stood. Leaning against Liara’s embrace, she spoke the final words of closure for everyone. “You are forgiven.”
"I hope you forgive me for being a little selfish," a strained voice penetrated through Shepard's deep slumber, "but I would like to stay with her for a while longer."
She stirred and awoke to the sight of a dark sky glowing brightly with countless ships hovering protectively over her home-world, over her earth. She tried to move to a sitting position but Liara, her beloved asari, lightly pushed her down again, an amused smile on her face.
"How long was I asleep?" Shepard asked hoarsely and accepted a half-filled canteen with a grateful nod.
"A few hours," Liara dutifully replied. "You missed all of the excitement—like the Reapers retreating so suddenly."
Shepard blinked dumbly. "What? That's impossible. I was there. On the Citadel. I watched Anderson die."
Liara gave her commander a concerned look, "Shepard, you got hit during the run towards the transportation beam. If you hadn't thrown a biotic shield up in time, you would be dead by now. You're lucky to be alive."
"You mean I never made it to the Citadel?" Shepard asked weakly. Liara shook her head. "And you? Did you make it?"
"I was too busy running towards you at the time," Liara admitted in an apologetic tone. "Your life is more important to me."
Liara chuckled. "He was too busy driving some sense into me and dragging both of us out of harm's way." She looked at Shepard thoughtfully. "He did go to the Citadel once all the fighting had died down." She patted the woman's hand awkwardly. "I'm sorry to say this, but Admiral Anderson died fighting the Illusive Man. Javik told me."
Shepard stayed still, simply staring at Liara with wide, unseeing eyes, thoughts scrambling to gain dominance in her mind. Anderson was dead? Well, she did see him die... but apparently she wasn't there to witness the Illusive Man almost executing him. And what of the Catalyst—the child she had met in the Citadel? Was that not real? Was everything that she had just experienced so vividly all a dream? If that was the case, then why did the Reapers suddenly retreat? Had Anderson managed to do something before he died?
Behind Liara, she could see a boy carrying a stack of bandages clumsily, his attention completely focused on his task. Placing the bandages on top of a table close to hers, he turned towards her and smiled, mouthing the words, "Thank you for saving me." He disappeared in a throng of soldiers led by Ashley and James.
"You're alive, Lola!" James cheered, excitedly slinging an arm around Ashley in triumph.
"We were worried about you, Commander," Ashley added, giving James a playful push.
Shepard steeled herself, getting rid of the anxiety and surprise she had felt upon seeing the Catalyst again, so soon after he had just said his goodbye in the Citadel. "How is everyone? Are they all—?"
"We survived, Shepard," Garrus supplied, appearing behind James's left. "Everyone did. And the Reapers are heading back into dark space through the Citadel's mass relay. I don't know how you keep doing it, Shepard, but you've managed to save everyone again from another suicide mission. I'm beginning to think we're all invincible."
"Please, for the sake of my frail heart, I hope you don't try to test that theory," Shepard spoke weakly.
"I did say I was retiring."
"Good." Shepard grinned and found the tension she had carried for so long gradually leaving her body.
"Commander Shepard," EDI said, nodding respectfully. She walked towards the woman still confined to her cot and knelt down. "A friend wanted me to tell you something." She paused and gave the commander a smile of gratitude. "We remember, Shepard. You might think it was all a dream, but we remember what you did in the Citadel."
"How?" Shepard gaped at her good friend and struggled to a sitting position despite Liara's protests.
"The Catalyst communed with you through your dreams," EDI explained, cocking her head and smiling briefly. "And to all of us. The geth, the Reapers and I—we will all remember what you did today, and the words that you have said. We will remember the cause of this immeasurable bloodshed. And we will remember its end by your hands."
It would be a while before Shepard found her voice again. When she did, she pulled her synthetic friend close, burying her face against a shoulder that was surprisingly warm. "Thank you," she whispered. "I—thank you. I couldn't have done it without you guys."