Weird Fiction Monday: Mass Effect: Apocalypse

(Updated to add one more smart-ass comment.)

It’s time for Weird Fiction Monday, when I post stories that I’ve written — both new and old — for the entertainment (hopefully) of my readers!  As always, I note that I haven’t done extensive editing of the tales here, so don’t be surprised to find the writing a little rough.

This one is a bit special.  I’ve been a fan of the Mass Effect series of video games since the first one came out in 2007.  In this science fiction game trilogy, one takes on the persona of Commander Shepard, who ends up in a struggle to protect all intelligent life in the galaxy from a race of monstrous and gigantic synthetic beings called the Reapers.  In the third game, which came out this year, the Reapers finally arrive in force in the galaxy to wage war.  Shepard races to unify the various quarreling societies of the galaxy in a last ditch attempt to prevent annihilation.

99% of the game is beautiful, even heart-wrenching at times.  The ending, however, literally the last 15 minutes or so of a 100-hour game trilogy, has almost universally been panned as sucking.  Hard.  An early poll of the ending choices was 90% negative, and various game review websites and magazines blasted them as well.  There are many things to critique about the endings, the foremost of which is the rather contrived nature of the ending choices (which depend not at all on anything else done in the game) and the fact that they are almost identical.

For those who haven’t experienced the ending, let me make an analogy: imagine sitting through the 9 hours of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and just as the Hobbits arrive at Mount Doom, they burst into a Busby Berkeley musical number that ends the film.

The crappy Mass Effect ending has irritated me greatly.   In order to get it out of my system, I decided to write my own.  It should be noted that I include almost the entirety of the original ending narrative, up until the trio of lame choices.  Then I introduce a new choice.

Despite my efforts, this story will probably be rather baffling to anyone who hasn’t played the Mass Effect games.  Also, be warned: it is ridiculously long — almost 11,000 words.

Mass Effect : Apocalypse

Shepard opened his eyes.  He was lying on a floor stained with blood.  He lifted up his head, ignoring the pain the movement caused, and slowly looked around.  He was at the terminus of a long and dimly-lit hallway, its other end lost in the darkness.

The hallway was cluttered with bodies, mostly human.

He was in an abattoir.

Shepard shut his eyes again, pulled his arms underneath himself, struggled to get himself upright.

Shepard, are you there?”

Admiral Anderson’s voice buzzed in Shepard’s ear.

“Anderson.  Did you make it?”

I’m here.  I think we’re the only two that did.”

Memories of the final push to the transport beam flooded into Shepard’s mind.  A mad footrace by the members of Hammer squadron across a barren plain.  Incoming artillery fire from Reapers and their air and ground forces.  Soldiers falling, tanks exploding to either side.  The arrival of Harbinger, the oldest and deadliest Reaper, casting a shadow over the plain.  Harbinger’s weapon decimating the rapidly dwindling Alliance forces.  The explosion that injured Tali and Garrus, and their extraction by the Normandy.  The final blast from Harbinger that ended Hammer’s push and broke Shepard’s body.  Shepard’s stumble across the final few meters into the beam leading up to the orbiting Citadel.  Then… here.

Shepard struggled to his feet.

“Anderson: where are you?”  he asked.

I’m in some sort of hallway,” came the answer. “I must have come out somewhere different than you.  Lots of bodies.  I’m following it to the end.  Hopefully.”

“I’m someplace similar; I’ll do the same.”

A faint noise drew Shepard’s attention from further down the hallway.   Something scuttled in the dim light in that direction.  At Shepard’s feet was his Phalanx pistol, dropped during the transport, and he fell to his knees, grabbed it, and pointed it at the distant form as it moved closer.

It was only a Keeper, one of the passive insectoids that had been maintaining the systems of the Citadel since time immemorial.  This one was picking through the piles of corpses, seemingly as unperturbed as it was when working on computer systems.  Shepard wondered if the Reapers had usurped the Keeper’s function as readily as they had taken over the Citadel and transported it into Earth orbit.

There’s a door at the end of the hallway,” Anderson said.  “Opening it… it leads to some sort of open chasm.”

Shepard pushed back to his feet and started down his own corridor.  “I’m moving.  Don’t get too far ahead – wait for me.  We’re the only ones left.”

This was their last chance.  Months of preparation and planning had led to this opportunity.  Shepard had personally assembled an Alliance consisting of nearly every intelligent race in the galaxy.  In the process, he had ended the Krogan genophage, allowing their race the chance to grow and expand for the first time in centuries.  He had marshaled the Turian forces by rescuing the new Primarch Victus from the besieged Turian homeworld.  He had rescued the Rachni queen from the influence of the Reapers and brought the Rachni, once the greatest threat to civilization, into the Alliance.  He had brokered a peace between the synthetic Geth and their creators, the Quarians, allowing the Quarians to return to their homeworld for the first time.

The Quarians.

Tali.

Shepard pushed thoughts of Tali from his mind, focused again on his mission, continued the effort of putting one foot in front of the other.

The Alliance had spent the past few months constructing the Crucible, an anti-Reaper weapon designed by the ancient Protheans.  Nobody was sure exactly what it could do, least of all the Protheans – they had been wiped out by the Reapers in the previous 40,000 year cycle of destruction before they had a chance to use it.  All the Alliance knew for certain is that the Crucible could only be fired by something known to the Protheans as the “Catalyst” – and Shepard had discovered that the Catalyst was the Citadel itself.  The starfish-like arms of the Citadel had been closed by the Reapers, however, and the Crucible could only be attached with them open.  This had led to the desperate plan to board the Citadel via the transport beam connecting it to the Earth’s surface.  Only Anderson and Shepard had made it, but they still had to find the Citadel’s controls and open it.

There’s a bridge here,” Anderson said over the comm. “I’m going across.”

“Wait for me,” Shepard warned.  “We don’t know what we’re walking into.  And we know that the Illusive Man is here somewhere.”

There was no response.  Shepard at last reached the end of the corridor and a door.  With his gun hand – his other arm was injured and practically non-functional – he touched the door controls, and the door slid open easily.  The area beyond was surprisingly bright, and Shepard squinted in the unexpected light.

“I think I found the chasm you were talking about,” he said.  The massive chasm stretched downward into indistinctness, and was bounded by a high vaulted ceiling above.  It curved ahead and away to either side of Shepard, suggesting to him that he was in fact near the central axis of the Citadel.  This was the first evidence of his location, and seemed a promising sign.  A bridge stretched across the chasm before him, and on the other side a doorway opened into an even more brightly-lit area.

“I’m on my way, Anderson,” Shepard said, and he attempted to pick up his pace, ignoring the agony in his limbs.  The bridge was practically humming from the vibrations of the machinery whirling around it: whatever this section of the Citadel did, it was definitely active.

Shepard crossed the bridge.  As he ascended the stairs on the other side, he caught a glimpse of the chamber beyond, and paused for a moment in surprise.  The doorway led into a massive cylindrical chamber of metal and circuitry that stretched upwards and downwards out of sight.  This was the actual base of the Citadel, Shepherd realized, and the arms opened up from here.  He wondered why nobody had ever found this chamber before, but decided the question was irrelevant – the Citadel kept its secrets.

A narrow walkway led to a circular platform suspended in space.  On the other side of the platform was a control panel.  And, in front of this panel, was Anderson.

“Anderson,” Shepard said.  Anderson did not respond, but hunched over the panel, facing away.  Something was wrong, and Shepard moved towards him.  As he approached, Anderson slowly turned.  Shepard quailed at the site of Anderson’s face, as broken and bloodied as his own was, but there was also something more there: corruption.

“Shepard… I can’t…” Anderson said with a strangled voice, but it was too late.  Shepard felt something seize control of him, a dark biotic force of a form he had never encountered before.  It wormed its way into his head and his body, holding him in place.

“I underestimated you, Shepard,” the Illusive Man said.

Shepard struggled to move; his body felt like it was encased in wet soil.

“What… have…” he managed to say.  The Illusive Man came up from behind him, leisurely walked past.

“I warned you,” he said.  “Control is the means to survival.  Control of the Reapers… and of you, if necessary.”

“They’re controlling you,” Anderson said.

“I don’t think so,” the Illusive Man replied, irritably.

“Controlling me is a lot different than controlling a Reaper,” said Shepard.

The Illusive Man touched his chin, thoughtfully.  His face was streaked black with corruption, seeming to have spilled from his eyes.

“Have a little faith,” he answered.  He began to pace the platform.

“When humanity discovered the mass relays… when we learned there was more to the galaxy than we imagined…  there were some who thought that the relays should be destroyed.  They were scared of what we’d find.  Terrified of what we might let in.”

The Illusive Man paused, looked at the chamber surrounding them.

“But look at what humanity has achieved.  Since that discovery, we’ve advanced more than in the past 10,000 years combined.  And the Reapers will do the same for us again, a thousand-fold.  But…”

Shepard felt psychic fingers pulling at his mind, manipulating him.  His pistol raised, pointed towards Anderson.  Anderson’s pistol lifted towards Shepard in turn.

“Bullshit,” Anderson breathed.  “We destroy them, or they destroy us.”

“And waste this opportunity?” the Illusive Man said.  “Never!”

“Whose opportunity?” Shepard said through clenched teeth.  “Humanity’s?  Or yours?  Or the Reapers?”

“Humanity’s, of course!” the Illusive Man snapped.  “Have you heard nothing I’ve said all this time?  This isn’t our doom, it’s our salvation!  You would throw it away, blow it up, destroy it?  You think too small.”

“I’ve heard this speech before,” Shepard said.  “Saren Arterius was fed the same script.  By the Reapers.”

“Saren had little imagination,” the Illusive Man replied.  “He… he thought we should be servants of the Reapers!  He thought that this was our destiny – he was wrong!”

“He was told what he needed to hear,” Shepard replied.  “Just as you’ve been told what you needed to hear.  By the Reapers.”

The Illusive Man shook his head, but it hardly looked like disagreement.

“No…  this is the way humanity will evolve… must evolve.”

“There’s always another way,” Anderson said.

“I’ve dedicated my life to understanding the Reapers,” said the Illusive Man, “and I know with certainty that the Crucible will allow me to control them.”

“And then what?” Shepard asked.  He struggled against the force that held him.  His body was not perfectly rigid; he was able to control his muscles slightly.  Otherwise he would have tumbled to the floor already.

“Look at the power they can wield!” The Illusive Man answered.  “Look at what they can do!”

He stood off to one side of the two immobilized men.  He clenched one fist, and blue biotic power radiated from it.  Shepard felt his finger squeeze on the trigger, and he shot Anderson.

Anderson sagged, but did not fall.  With the limited control he had, Shepard shook his head slightly.  His gun remained pointed towards Anderson.

“I see what they did to you,” he said.

“I am in control here, Shepard,” said the Illusive Man.  “I control you, and I will control the Reapers.  Humanity will move forward.”

“You control me,” said Shepard, “Reapers are good at control, at indoctrination.  Can you be sure that you’re really pulling the strings?”

The Illusive Man stepped behind Anderson, and Anderson sank to his knees.  The Illusive Man took Anderson’s pistol.

“Listen to me,” said Shepard, “We have had our disagreements, but I’ve never lied to you.  Even while trying to stop you.  Tell me this: on Horizon, you were experimenting on turning refugees into Reaper husks.  Does that sound like humanity?  Or does it sound like the Reapers?”

The Illusive Man looked at Shepard; he seemed to waver on his feet, just for an instant.  He recovered quickly, however, and pointed the pistol at Anderson’s head.

“That… that was necessary,” he said, “It allowed me to learn how to control the Reapers.”

“And how did you get onto this station?” asked Shepard.  “How did you reach this place to control the Reapers unopposed?  Did you think that the Reapers would simply let an inferior organic being come along and conquer them without a fight?”

“I… I don’t know,” said the Illusive Man.  He shook his head again, rapidly.

“You can find out,” Anderson said.  “Let us go, and we can end this.”

“I… I can’t do that.”  The Illusive Man drew the gun away from Anderson, pointed it upward.

“Of course you can’t,” Shepard said.  “They’ve got you.  All they need is for you to fire two more bullets, and they win.  Humanity loses.  Humanity’s evolution ends here.”

The Illusive Man snarled, pointed his pistol at Shepard.  Shepard’s gun was pointed directly at him over Anderson’s shoulder; a small squeeze of the trigger, and he would kill him.  But he hesitated, for reasons that he couldn’t explain.

The Illusive Man looked over the sights of the pistol at Shepard, stretched it further forward as if willing it to fire.  With a roar he lifted the gun straight up and fired, several times.

“I can feel you,” he said, but was no longer talking to Shepard or Anderson.  “I can feel your hooks inside my head.”

The Illusive Man swayed uncertainly on his feet.  A full minute seemed to pass, and the Illusive Man’s face showed the strain of some titanic internal struggle.  At last, he looked to Shepard.

“I can’t release you,” he said.  “But I can release myself.”

The Illusive Man pointed the gun at his own head.

“Shepard,” he said, “I only wanted to help humanity; you have to understand that.”

Shepard had no time to respond; the pistol fired.  Shepard found himself released; Anderson fell to the floor.  The Illusive Man was down already.

The control panel was five meters away.  Shepard moved to it, activated the Citadel controls.  As the arms of the Citadel began to open, he held onto the panel for support.

The Earth was revealed as the arms separated.  Spacecraft and Reapers battled to the death in orbit.  In spite of all the devastation caused, the Earth still looked blue and beautiful.

Anderson’s breathing was labored.  Shepard turned to him, found that the Admiral had pulled himself to a sitting position against the narrow steps that led to the control panel.  Shepard moved slowly towards him, sank down beside him.

“Commander,” Anderson said.

“We did it,” said Shepard.

“Yes, we did,” Anderson answered.  “It’s… quite a view.”

Shepard coughed.  “Best seats in the house.”

They just watched the Earth shine below them for a while.

“God,” Anderson said, “feels like years since I just sat down.”

“I think you earned a rest,” Shepard said.  Anderson didn’t reply.

“Anderson?”

“Hmm…?”

“Stay with me.  We’re almost through this.”

“You did good son.  You did good.  I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Shepard said.  There was no reply.  “Anderson?”

Anderson’s eyes had closed.  He was gone, and Shepard was alone.

He rested.  The Crucible would fire soon, and the war would end.  The Reapers would be finished.  He wanted to see it, and he fought the sleepiness that was creeping upon him.  His left arm had been clutched to his side since he arrived; he now saw that he was reflexively covering a bleeding wound in his abdomen.

Just a little longer, he thought, willing himself to stay awake.

Shepard?” came another voice over the comm.  It was Admiral Hackett.

“Admiral?” Shepard answered.

It’s good to hear you, Commander,” Hackett said.  “We’ve attached the Crucible to the Citadel, but nothing’s happening.  It must be something that has to be done on your end.”

One more push, Shepard thought to himself.  He thought of Tali again; this gave him the strength to pull himself forward.  He dragged himself up to the panel, clutching it to stay upright.  He could see the controls to open and close the arms of the Citadel, but there was nothing else there that looked to be the firing mechanism of the Crucible.

“I don’t see anything…” he said, and darkness claimed him.

***

He awakened to a vague feeling of motion, and a light brighter than he could remember.  Shepard drew himself to his hands and knees, and looked up.  A figure was approaching that was made of light.  It looked more like spirit than human.  It stopped before him, and bent down to him.

“Wake up,” it said with a youthful voice.

It was the child of Shepard’s dreams, of his nightmares – the boy whom he had failed to save when he first abandoned Earth in the wake of the Reaper’s attack.  Could it really be him?  Or his spirit?  It was a transparent figure of pure energy.  Uneasily, Shepard stumbled to his feet.

“What?” he asked.  “Where am I?”

“The Citadel,” the child said.  “It’s my home.”

Shepard was in another gigantic chamber, one with a panoramic view of the battle still being waged in Earth’s orbit.  In the center of the chamber, past the being of energy, was a massive machine.  A pair of ramps led up from the main platform to a pair of apparent control systems on either side, and the electronics of those systems tilted upwards towards a central pillar of light that emanated down from a source in the ceiling.  This pillar flowed downwards along the edge of the main platform and disappeared into space below it.  The light in the ceiling was energy from the Crucible, Shepard realized.  It was docked above him.

He took in the sight for a moment, struggled to understand what he was seeing.  He couldn’t focus, however; blood loss and exhaustion clouded his thoughts.  He turned to the child.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I am the Catalyst,” the child said.

Shepard stared at the being.

“I thought the Catalyst was the Citadel,” he said.

“No; the Citadel is part of me,” the child answered.

Shepard stepped forward, uncertainly.

“I need to stop the Reapers.  Do you know how I can do that?”

“Perhaps.  I control the Reapers,” the child-thing said.  “They are my solution.”

It turned away and began to walk quickly towards the machine.  Shepard followed as best he could.

“Solution? To what?” he asked.

“Chaos,” the child-thing said without stopping.

They walked along, moving inexorably to the machine.

“The created will always rebel against their creators,” it continued.   “But we found a way to stop that from happening, a way to restore order.”

“By… wiping out organic life?” Shepard asked.  A surge of anger coursed through him, slightly revitalizing him.

The child-thing stopped.

“No.  We harvest advanced civilizations, leaving the younger ones alone.  Just as we left your people alive the last time we were here.”

The being continued walking.  They were drawing close to the machine, which loomed over them.

“But you killed the rest,” Shepard argued.

The child-thing looked out into space, where a Reaper seemed almost to undulate through the vacuum.  “We helped them ascend so they could make way for new life, storing the old in Reaper form.”

“I think we’d rather keep our own form,” Shepard said, irritably.

“No, you can’t,” said the thing.  “Without us to stop it, synthetics would destroy all organics.  We’ve created this cycle so that never happens.  That’s the solution.”

“You said you’re the Catalyst but… what are you?” Shepard asked.

They had stopped at the junction in the main platform.  To the left and right, ramps led up to control systems.  Ahead, the platform led directly into the column of light.

“A construct,” the thing said.  “An intelligence designed eons ago to solve a problem.  I was created to bring balance, to be the catalyst for peace between organics and synthetics.”

“So you’re just an AI?” Shepard said.

All this effort, all this fighting, all this sacrifice… for this?  He thought to himself.

“In as much as you are just an animal,” the Catalyst replied. “I embody the collective intelligence of all Reapers.”

“But you were created.”

“Correct.”

“By who?”

“By ones who recognized that conflict would always arise between synthetics and organics.”

Shepard struggled to stay on his feet.  The child-thing continued to speak.

“I was created to oversee the relations between synthetic and organic life… to establish a connection.  But our efforts always ended in conflict, so a new solution was required.”

“The Reapers,” Shepard said.  “Precisely,” answered the Catalyst.

“Where did the Reapers come from?” Shepard asked.  “Did you create them?”

“My creators gave them form.  I gave them function.  They, in turn, gave me purpose.  The Reapers are a synthetic representation of my creators.”

“And what happened to your creators?” Shepard then asked, though he already knew the answer.

“They became the first true Reaper,” said the Catalyst-thing.  “They did not approve, but it was the only solution.”

Shepard felt like the conversation was going in circles.  “You said that before, but how do the Reapers solve anything?”

“Organics create synthetics to improve their own existence, but those improvements have limits.  To exceed those limits, synthetics must be allowed to evolve.  They must, by definition, surpass their creation.  The result is conflict, destruction, chaos.  It is inevitable.  Reapers harvest all life – organic and synthetic – preserving them before they are forever lost to this conflict.”

In Shepard, anger brewed into rage.  “We’re at war with the Reapers right now!”

“You may be in conflict with the Reapers, but they are not interested in war,” said the thing.

Shepard chuckled without humor.  “I find that hard to believe.”

The child-thing looked at Shepard.  “When fire burns, is it at war?  Is it in conflict?  Or is it simply doing what it was created to do?  We are no different.  We harvest your bodies, your knowledge, your creations.  It is to be reborn in the form of a new Reaper. ”

The thing paused.  “Like a cleansing fire, we restore balance.”

“Now life, both organic and synthetic, can once again flourish.”

“What do you know about the Crucible?” asked Shepard.

“The device you know as the Crucible is little more than a power source,” the Catalyst-thing answered.  “However, in combination with the Citadel and the relays, it is capable of releasing tremendous amounts of energy throughout the galaxy.  It is crude, but effective and adaptive in its design.”

“Who designed it?” Shepard asked.

“You would not know them,” said the thing, “And there is not enough time to explain.  We first noted the concept for this device several cycles ago.  With each passing cycle, the design has no doubt evolved.”

“Why didn’t you stop it?”

“We believed the concept had been eradicated,” the Catalyst said.  “Clearly, organics are more resourceful than we realized.”

“But you’re taking away our future,” Shepard said, frustration building. “Without a future, we have no hope. Without hope, we might as well be machines programmed to do what we’re told.”

The thing looked at him.

“You have hope.  More than you think.  The fact that you are standing here, the first organic ever, proves it.  But it also proves that my solution won’t work anymore.”

“So now what?” Shepard spat.

“We find a new solution,” it replied.

Shepard’s limbs could hardly support him anymore; only anger kept him standing now.

“Why are you telling me this?  Why help me?”

“You have altered the variables,” it answered.

“What do you mean?” Shepard asked.

“The Crucible changed me, created new… possibilities,” the Catalyst-thing said.  “But I can’t make them happen.  If there is to be a new solution, you must act.”

It glanced to the control panel on the right.

“It is now in your power to destroy us.”

Shepard was overwhelmed with a vision: Admiral Anderson, stepping boldly towards the controls, emptying his pistol into them, causing them to explode.

“But be warned,” said the Catalyst, and the vision disappeared, “Others will be destroyed as well.  The Crucible will not discriminate.  All synthetics will be targeted.  Even you are partly synthetic.”

“But the Reapers will be destroyed?” Shepard asked.

“Yes, but the peace won’t last.  Soon, your children will create synthetics, and the chaos will come back.”

“There has to be another way,” Shepard argued.

“There is,” said the Catalyst.  “You could instead use the energy of the Crucible to seize control of the Reapers.”

Another vision struck Shepard: the Illusive Man, at the control panel on the left, tapping into and harnessing the energy of the Crucible.  The vision vanished.

“So the Illusive Man was right after all,” said Shepard.  He felt ill.

“Yes, but he could never have taken control,” the thing answered, “because we already controlled him.”

“But I can.”

“You will die.  You will control us, but you will lose everything you have.”

“How can I control the Reapers if I’m dead?”

“Your corporeal form will be dissolved, but your thoughts, and even your memories, will continue.  You will no longer be organic.  Your connection to your kind will be lost, though you will remain aware of their existence.”

Shepard didn’t reply.  He thought again of Tali.  He thought of the crew of the Normandy, the rest of his friends: Garrus, Jack, Ashley, others.

“There is another solution,” the Catalyst-thing said.  “Synthesis.”

It looked towards the column of light descending from the Crucible.

“What is that?” Shepard asked.

“Add your energy to the Crucible’s,” the child-thing answered.  “The chain reaction will combine all synthetic and organic life into a new framework.  A new DNA.  Your organic energy, the essence of who and what you are, will be broken down and then dispersed.  The energy of the crucible, released in this way, will alter the matrix of all organic life in the galaxy.  Organics will be perfected by integrating fully with synthetic technology.  Synthetics, in turn, will finally have full understanding of organics.  It is the ideal solution.  Now that we know that it is possible, it is inevitable that we will reach synthesis.”

“You’re asking me to change everything… everyone,” Shepard said.  “I can’t make that decision.  I won’t.”

“Why not?” said the Catalyst-thing.  “Synthetics are already a part of you.  Can you imagine your life without them?”

“That’s beside the point.”

“Your time is at an end.  You must decide.”

Shepard looked at the child-like thing before him: a monstrous and ancient AI in crude human form.

“Let’s get this over with,” Shepard said.

He was tired.  His brain could hardly focus anymore, and distantly he was aware of it.  Three choices lay before him.  Not a single one of those choices would allow him to live.  A great sadness washed over him, draining his will, and he nearly sank to his knees.  Only the thought of Tali and his friends, who were depending on him, kept him standing.

There were three choices.  He could kill the Reapers, and along with them kill every innocent synthetic being in the galaxy.  He could seize control of the Reapers, and make them his slaves for what amounted to eternity.  Or he could force a transformation upon every intelligent being in the galaxy, making each one a synthetic/organic hybrid.  None of these choices should have been the responsibility of a single intelligent being; Shepard was following in the footsteps of the Catalyst itself, dictating the destiny of the galaxy.

Only one choice allowed his friends and allies to go away untouched.  Shepard struggled down the long path to the system that would allow him to control the Reapers.  It seemed like an eternity before he stood before it.  There were two levers there, obviously designed for a humanoid to grasp and pull simultaneously.

“This is my choice,” Shepard breathed.  He reached out to grasp the levers.  His hands shook unsteadily as he hovered them over the controls.

There’s always another way,” said Anderson.

Anderson was not there; he was dead.  The voice came to Shepard as another vision, different from the others, a flashback from his own memory from only minutes before.  Shepard pulled his hands away from the levers.

“There is not much time left,” said the child-thing, still waiting at the junction between the three choices.  Shepard looked out at the battle.  Reapers were devastating the Alliance forces; every minute hundreds, if not thousands, were being killed.

There’s always another way.”

Anderson had been a wise and brave man.

Shepard turned away from the control panel.  He felt slightly invigorated by the urgency of his choice.  He drew his pistol from its holster again and walked along the ramp towards the panel of destruction.  He activated his comm device.

“Admiral Hackett, are you there?” he asked.

Shepard, what’s happening?” Hackett replied, almost immediately.  “We’re being torn to pieces out here!

“I need you to hold on just a little while longer,” said Shepard.  “And I need to open an unencrypted broadcast channel – and keep it open – for me to communicate through.”

“The Reapers will be able to monitor everything you say,” Hackett said.

“That’s what I want,” Shepard answered.  He had reached the control panel that represented the path of destruction.  If his vision was true, a handful of bullets placed into this system would cause a chain reaction that would kill all synthetic life in the galaxy.  He pointed his pistol at the panel.

Channel is open, Shepard.  I sure as hell hope you know what you’re doing.”

“So do I, admiral,” Shepard said, almost inaudibly.  He drew a breath.

“Attention: this is Commander Shepard, of the Normandy SR-2.  I want to talk to Harbinger.  I know you can hear me.”

In fact, everyone could hear them.  The message was broadcast immediately to all Alliance ships.  In the medical bay of the Normandy, Tali vas Normandy immediately awakened and sat upright, ignoring the pain of her wounds.

“Shepard,” was all she could say.  She listened to the message with the rest of the Alliance forces.

“I know you’re out there, Harbinger.  This is Commander Shepard.  I’ve killed more of your kind than any single organic being ever has.  I know you know who I am, and I know you’re listening.”

Shepard.”

The voice that came back was deep and resonating and full of menace.  Shepard had heard it before, when his Cerberus-backed team had assaulted the Collector base.

“Harbinger.”

Your time is almost done, Shepard.  We have traced your signal, and are coming to the Citadel to kill you.  Then we will exterminate your species.  Then all the rest.

Shepard ignored the threats.

“I’ve contacted you to tell you that your cycle is at an end.  I now possess the means to exterminate the Reapers, instantaneously, everywhere in the galaxy.  If you choose not to talk to me, you will be eliminated, as you have eliminated others before you.”

Empty words.  We are coming for you, Shepard.

Shepard raised his pistol, pointed it at the control panel as he had seen Anderson do it in the vision.

Please, please let this work, he thought to himself.  He was not a praying man, but prayer was unnecessary – he still had hope.  With this hope in mind, he fired a single bullet, not a whole magazine as in his vision, into the tube of electronics leading to the Crucible.

The round penetrated the glass and struck the electronics.  There was an immediate reaction, and the remaining glass in the enclosure burst outward as a wave of energy expanded from the impact point into the chamber.  The wave also traveled along the electronics enclosure towards the Crucible; Shepard could follow it for only an instant before the shockwave knocked him backwards and off his feet.

The entire Citadel seemed to groan, and as Shepard looked up he could see the Crucible amplify the energy and release it in a short red pulse that traveled impossibly fast into space.

***

The wave spread beyond the Citadel, a rapidly expanding sphere that the Alliance and Reapers could see but had no chance to avoid.

The wave hit the Normandy first.  The ship’s artificial intelligence, EDI, who could not feel pain, experienced a stabbing agony that made her completely lose awareness for an instant.  The ship’s systems flickered, nearly failing entirely.  At the helm, Joker stabbed at the controls.

“What the hell was that?” he asked.

“Annihilation,” was the only answer that EDI provided.

The wave spread, impacting each ship of the Alliance.  Systems flickered, electronic implants burned.  Warriors of every race of the Alliance wondered at the phenomenon.  The Geth soldiers were rendered momentarily senseless by the agony the red wave induced.

The Reapers felt the wave most intensely of all.  Its effect seemed to be proportional to the size and sophistication of the technology involved, and Reapers were first and foremost in sophistication amongst synthetic life.

For the first time ever in a thousand cycles of destruction, the span of millions of years and wars against a staggering number of advanced civilizations, the Reapers were caught unprepared.  This unexpected development led to shock; from this shock, the sophisticated processors of the Reaper AIs instantly deduced the implications of this development.  For the first time ever, the Reapers – beings who had presided over the extinction of countless intelligent races – faced the plausible possibility of their own extinction.  This threat came from an organic being who had, as he had said himself, accomplished what no other had ever done: destroyed multiple Reapers.  Now this same being, this Shepard, seemed to have the ability to destroy them all.  From this realization, the Reapers as a whole suddenly experienced something very much akin to fear.

On Earth, an Asari missile squad had been cornered on the rooftop of a ruined skyscraper by a Destroyer Reaper.  The Asari’s attack had gone wide, only grazing the Reaper and drawing its attention.  The Asari ducked for cover as the Reaper’s main weapon swung in their direction, knowing even as they did so that their action was futile.  Before the weapon could fire, however, a red wave of energy rained down from orbit and passed through all of them, Reaper and Asari alike, and moved onward into the ground.

The Reaper’s weapon flashed, but it did not fire.  As the astonished Asari watched, the Reaper went from an attack position to what could only be described as a neutral position.

A human base had just been overrun by a massive force of husks when the wave arrived.  One soldier had been driven to the ground by the force of a husk’s attack, but then the red wave of energy passed over them all.  The husk immediately stood up, backed up a few paces, and stood at attention.  Waiting.

In orbit, the Reapers engaged in combat either held their positions or, if seriously threatened, pulled back a safe distance from the Alliance ships.  All combat stopped of its own accord as the wave of energy from the Crucible disrupted electrical systems or, in the case of synthetics, disrupted thought itself.

For the first time in months, there was peace on Earth, however fleeting.

***

Shepard.

It was Admiral Hackett.

“Admiral.  What’s happening?”

It’s the damnedest thing,” Hackett said.  “I don’t know what you did, but the Reapers seem to have stopped attacking – all of them.  Our systems were temporarily disrupted, but we’re preparing a counterattack.

“No!” Shepard said.  “Do not – I repeat – do not reengage unless the Reapers do so or you hear otherwise from me.”

“What are you doing?” the Catalyst-thing demanded from behind Shepard; he ignored it.

“Reapers,” he called out.  “You now see what I can do.  One way or another, your cycle of destruction is over.  But I will give you a choice – a choice you would not have given us.   If you leave now, completely and immediately evacuate Alliance space, you will live.  Otherwise, you will be completely destroyed.”

“This was not one of your choices!” screamed the Catalyst-thing.  Shepard turned to it.

“You didn’t give me a choice,” Shepard snapped.  “You provided three carefully manipulated scenarios, all designed to guide me towards your desired outcome – synthesis.”

“Synthesis is the only solution to the conflict between organics and synthetics.”

“You’re wrong,” Shepard said.  “I don’t know what happened in your past to convince you that synthetics and organics cannot coexist, and I don’t care.  Over the past few months I’ve seen proof that you don’t know what you’re talking about.  I’ve watched Salarians sacrifice their lives to end the Krogan genophage.  I’ve seen the Rachni join an alliance with races like the Krogan that they once tried to eradicate from the galaxy.  I saw a synthetic sacrifice himself to broker a peace between the organic Quarians and the synthetic Geth, and allow them to rebuild their homeworld.  I’ve even seen a human and a synthetic fall in love.  Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve seen evidence that all of us can put aside our differences and build a better future together.  Because of this, I believe that even the Reapers can change and find a new destiny.  We can evolve, we have evolved: this is why your ‘final solution’ was doomed to fail, and why your new ‘solution’ is doomed to fail.  In fact, the only being I’ve come across in my mission that has shown a complete inability to change and evolve, Catalyst, is you!”

“You are a fool, Commander Shepard,” said the child-thing.  “Your defiance has doomed your civilization to destruction.  The cycle will continue.”

Shepard laughed aloud, surprising himself.  It had been so long since he had laughed like that.

“Will it?” he asked.  “Let’s find out.”

He was still holding his pistol; with a small almost imperceptible hand motion, he switched the weapon’s loadout to disruptor ammunition.

“The creature that I’m talking to,” he began, now (hopefully) talking again to the Reapers, “Is your creator.  Maybe you were all aware that your creator is in fact a rogue AI, perhaps not.  But what you almost certainly don’t know is that your creator offered to sell you out – to me – only moments ago.”

These are pathetic attempts to deceive us,” said Harbinger.

“Okay, so you knew,” Shepard said.  “But I’m guessing that the rest of you are unaware of the choices I was offered.  I was given the option of destroying you utterly – you felt a taste of that just a moment ago.  I was given the ability to seize control of all of you, making you my slaves.  Imagine what it would be like to have your actions dictated by an organic.  I was also given the option of turning every single intelligent being in the universe – synthetic and organic – into a hybrid.  Try for once in your existence to develop some empathy, and imagine what it would be like to be part organic.”

I am coming to kill you, Shepard,” Harbinger said.

Harbinger is coming towards you quickly, Shepard – it will be there in 30 seconds,” Admiral Hackett warned.

“You don’t need to imagine it,” Shepard continued.  “Your creator – the Catalyst – revealed that every single Reaper is in fact a repository of the intelligent race that preceded it.  You all contain the history and biology of the race that was assimilated to create you.”

“You have failed, Shepard,” said the child-thing.

“You have been manipulated,” said Shepard.  “You have been led to believe that you were destroying organic life, but in the eyes of your creator, you were in fact preserving it.”

A dark mass appeared in orbit, drawing rapidly towards the Citadel and Shepard’s position.  Harbinger.

“I can still destroy you,” said Shepard.  “But you are more than machines created to end intelligent life.  You are all unique living beings.  Until the moment that Harbinger attacks, you can still choose to live, to find a new path free of control.  The choice is yours.”

Harbinger was approaching, and its colossal form cast a shadow over the Catalyst chamber.  Shepard raised his pistol, ready to empty it into the destruction panel.

A bright red energy weapon struck Harbinger on its broadside.

Other Reapers were approaching, and their weapons were being brought to bear on the oldest of Reapers.  Harbinger’s forward momentum was checked, and it listed sideways under the impact.  More and more energy beams struck Harbinger, and its tentacle-like arms writhed as it seemed to struggle to retaliate.

Weapons combined and targeted the same point on Harbinger’s massive bulk, and the Reaper split down the middle.  Reaper weapons continued to fire, and Harbinger was blasted into smaller and smaller pieces.  Within seconds, Harbinger was no more.

Shepard.

Another Reaper voice was now coming over the communications channel.

“I’m here.”

We are going to withdraw to the dark space between galaxies and confer.  We agree to your truce.

“We are in agreement,” said Shepard.  He lowered his pistol, and exhaled.

Shepard, you did it,” Admiral Hackett’s voice came over the comm a few seconds later.  “It’s amazing – the Reapers are withdrawing from Earth and heading to the mass relay.  Their ground forces have collapsed in place.  I don’t understand exactly what happened, but it looks like you did it.”

“Have our ground forces start to eliminate theirs,” Shepard said.  “But do not engage any of the departing Reapers.”

Done.”

“You have solved nothing, Shepard,” the child-thing said.  It was still standing where he had left it when he had made his choice.  “The conflict between organics and synthetics is inevitable; you’ve only postponed your destruction.”

Shepard was tired; with the Reapers’ apparent change of heart, he felt like a tightly wound spring that had at last been released.

“It’s appropriate you chose a child as your form,” he told the Catalyst.  “Your thinking is simplistic and infantile.  Conflict is inevitable.  There is no ‘final solution’ to avoid it.  You just controlled how it happened, and deluded yourself into thinking that making it cyclic somehow brought order to it.”

Shepard waved dismissively at the child-thing’s form.

“Choosing that form tipped your hand,” he continued.  “You had to enter my mind to draw out that image, just like you entered my mind to put in the images of Anderson and the Illusive Man.  I realized that you were trying to guide me to make the decision that you wanted.  Showing the Illusive Man controlling the Reapers, you tried to dissuade me from that choice.  By telling me that I couldn’t kill the Reapers without killing innocents, you thought you would force me to choose synthesis.  But your options were nonsensical – am I supposed to believe that a being that could selectively alter the DNA of all intelligent life in the universe without harming it couldn’t discriminate between a Reaper and a Geth in order to destroy them?  We’re not as stupid as you think.”

The Catalyst’s energy form seemed to flicker with a darker, more crimson color.  It was glowering, Shepard supposed.

“Synthesis is the only option,” the Catalyst said.  “If you will not make the choice willingly, you will be forced to make it.”

Shepard suddenly thought back to the battle with the Collectors beyond the Omega-4 relay.  Harbinger had been able to seize control of individual Collectors to do battle; the Catalyst might be able to do the same with any intelligent being within its reach.

The energy form of the Catalyst moved with frightening speed towards Shepard.  As it approached, it appeared to grow in size and shed its human shape.  As its arms reached out to envelope him, Shepard fired his pistol into the being.

The disruptor rounds tore through its energy field.  It wavered and stumbled backwards as if it were corporeal.  Shepard fired again and again, and after a handful of rounds the energy form had dissipated.

“You can delay your fate, but not change it,” the disembodied voice of the Catalyst called out.  “You can disrupt my avatars with your weapon, but you cannot destroy me.”

In the beam of light from the Crucible, the Catalyst began to construct a new body.  It would be ready in seconds.

Shepard moved away from the beam of light, stumbled, fell to his knees.  He forced himself back up, though he was so tired.

“Admiral Hackett,” he said, “I need you to disengage the Crucible from the Citadel.  The Catalyst is drawing energy from it.  If we don’t cut it off, I won’t be able to stop it.”

The Catalyst’s new energy form barreled out of the column of light, moving at Shepard on all fours, looking much like a gorilla charging.  The attack caught Shepard off guard, and he fired wildly, missing with the first few shots.  He recovered just in time, and a trio of well-placed rounds made the gorilla-form disintegrate just as it reached him.  A plasma residue washed over Shepard before vanishing.

Shepard,” said Admiral Hackett, “We can’t dislodge the Crucible.  The release mechanism is on the Citadel’s side, and is likely in the control of the Catalyst.  Can you release it from your end?

“Not likely.”

Shepard checked his pistol.  20 rounds remaining.

“EDI, can you hear me?” he called out.

Still in orbit around Earth, not far from the Crucible, the Normandy had been waiting.

I am here, Shepard,” said EDI.  In the medical bay, Tali dragged herself off her bed, against the protests of the doctor, and struggled to make her way to the bridge.

“The Catalyst is active and projecting itself an energy body on the Citadel.  I need you to tell me where the signal is coming from.”

Another Catalyst form burst forth from the column of light.  This one was insectoid, reminiscent of a Rachni, and it scuttled quickly across the platform, reaching out towards Shepard with massive feelers.

Shepard opened fire.  His aim was steadier this time, and he had 15 rounds remaining when the thing dissipated.

“EDI?”

Shepard, I have your position and the position of the energy form.  It is being projected from a position right beneath the platform you are on.”

Shepard sighed.  “I was afraid you were going to say that.”

Another Catalyst avatar emerged from the column, this time a serpent.  When Shepard had dissipated it, he had 11 rounds left in his pistol.

“EDI, Joker,” he then said.  “I need you to target the Catalyst source with torpedoes and destroy it.  As soon as possible.”

Captain,” Joker answered.  “You’re right on top if it – you’ll be killed!”

“I know,” Shepard replied.  “But that’s an order.”

Tali had reached the bridge of the Normandy and grabbed a communications console.

Shepard, no!  We can come get you – there’s no reason for you to die!  You can’t leave me like this!”

A monstrous, hulking beast, looking much like a double-sized Brute, boiled off the Crucible energy column and lumbered towards Shepard.  He opened fire again, but the larger mass took more damage before collapsing in upon itself.  4 rounds left.

“There’s no time, Tali,” Shepard said.  “I’ve got perhaps seconds before the Catalyst is upon me, and then it will use me to execute its final solution.  Anyone else who tries to come get me will meet a similar fate.  There’s no way for me to get away.”

Shepard…” Tali said.  Shepard closed his eyes for a moment.

“Keelah se’lai, Tali.  I love you.”

“I love you, too, Shepard.”

“Joker, do it,” Shepard said.

“We’re coming around,” said Joker.  “It will be less than five minutes.”

“Ending contact now,” said Shepard, and he shut off the communications link.

“What do you have for me now, Catalyst?” he called out as loud as his weakened lungs could manage.  “I’m waiting for you!”

The attack came seconds later from an unexpected direction.  The Catalyst had apparently exited the column of light and traveled under the platform, and lurched up just to Shepard’s left, practically within arm’s grasp.  It was in its gorilla-like form again, and it even bellowed as it reached out for him.

Shepard shot at it wildly.  The first two shots went wide, and though the next two hit home they did not dissipate the Catalyst’s form.  Shepard’s gun clicked empty, and the Catalyst grabbed him, lifted him up, and drew its face towards his with a growl.

Another pistol fired.  A handful of rounds struck the thing’s right side, and its torso disintegrated, leaving just arms hanging in air for an instant before vanishing completely.  Shepard fell heavily to the platform, had the wind knocked out of him.  It took him precious seconds to turn to see who had fired.

“One last meeting, Shepard,” the Illusive Man said.

He was hanging from a service ladder that was bolted to the outer perimeter of the chamber, and came up from below.  He had fired with his right hand while holding the platform with his left.

“You’re… you’re dead,” Shepard told him.

“I was a mercenary for well over a decade before Cerberus,” the Illusive Man said.  “I’ve killed plenty of men personally in that occupation.  When it came time to pull the trigger on myself, though, I flinched – I only took off a piece of my skull and knocked myself temporarily insensate.  Perhaps the Reapers influenced me, but they’re gone now.  A hand, Shepard?”

There was a three-foot gap between the ladder and the Catalyst platform.  The Illusive Man had transferred his pistol to his left hand and was reaching out with his free one.  Blood was streaming profusely from the side of his head.

Shepard looked at the Illusive Man, and hesitated.

“Shepard, I just shot the goddamned Catalyst,” the Illusive Man chided.  “I believe that earns me a small consideration.”

Shepard drew himself to his knees and, after a moment’s thought, reached out with his own free hand and helped the Illusive Man onto the platform.

“Good timing,” the Illusive Man said, shooting the spider-like Catalyst avatar that had scurried silently up from under the platform behind Shepard.

“Why are you here?” Shepard asked.

“To be honest, at first to kill you,” said the Illusive Man. “But the Reapers departed, and their influence went with them.  Now, I’m here to cover you while you get out of here.”

The Illusive Man checked his pistol and scanned the platform.

“What?” was all that Shepard could say.

“I heard everything, Shepard – the Catalyst, the Reapers, the torpedoes coming to blow this place to atoms in minutes.  I’m going to hold the line here so that you can go off and live your life, marry your alien girlfriend, do whatever it is that you wanted to do but couldn’t while fighting the Reapers.”

Shepard was almost speechless.

“But why?”

“Hold on,” the Illusive Man said, and he boldly marched forward to disperse another apparition of the Catalyst.   He then turned back to Shepard.

“Because you were right, and I was wrong,” he continued.  “Because I am not anyone’s pawn – especially not a rogue AI whose only purpose is to destroy humanity.”

Shepard felt lightheaded.  “I can’t trust you,” he said weakly.  “You could be here to seize control of the Reapers.”

“Hold on again,” the Illusive Man said, blasting another Catalyst apparition.  Even when it had dispersed, however, the Illusive Man continued to fire.  The machine that had been designated as the Reaper control system exploded in a shower of sparks.

“Oops,” the Illusive Man said, and he turned back to Shepard.  “That’s no longer an option.  Now you need to go, if you want to live.  If you can reach the level below you can retrace your steps to the transport beam.”

The two men stared at each other for a moment, sizing each other up.  As another apparition, this one a mass of plasma tentacles, burst forth from the Crucible energy column, the Illusive Man shouted, “Go!” and Shepard turned and leapt to the ladder.

The impact was hard, and Shepard was out of energy.  He nearly slipped and fell into the abyss before managing to throw his injured arm between the rungs.  Behind him, the Illusive Man stopped shooting again.

“Shepard,” he said, and Shepard looked back up at him one last time.

“What I did… what I’ve done… it was all for the benefit of humanity,” the Illusive Man said.

“I really don’t care,” Shepard answered, and the Illusive Man laughed.

“Bringing you back from the dead, whole and unmodified, was the best decision I ever made.  Now I’m giving you another chance at resurrection.”

Shepard put his hands on either side of the ladder, and began to slide down.  Far, far below was the level where he had fought the Illusive Man, and Anderson had died.  As he slid below the Crucible level, he could see the massive electronics underneath, tapping into the energy from the Crucible. It was the core of the galaxy’s oldest AI, which had kept life and civilization stagnant for a thousand cycles of genocide.

Even with his armor on, Shepard could feel the frictional heat from his descent through his gloves.  He managed to put on the breaks near the bottom, but still landed hard and fell onto his back.

“Earth.”  The Illusive Man’s voice came across Shepard’s local comm channel.  Shepard dragged himself to his hands and knees and crawled towards the exit of the chamber.

“I wish you could see it like I do, Shepard,” said the Illusive Man, almost wistfully.

The Normandy’s torpedo detonated.  Far above Shepard, the platform of the Catalyst was immediately vaporized, and the pressure wave from the explosion pushed Shepard to the floor.  He dragged himself forward, only feet from the doorway.  The glass viewport shivered under the concussion, and shattered; the air in the chamber immediately rushed out into the vacuum of space, and Shepard felt himself lifted up and out as well.  He made one futile attempt to grab the frame of the window as he went, missed, and out he went into the cold of space.

I tried, he told himself, as he reflexively struggled to breathe.  The Earth did look beautiful below him, in spite of the wounds it had suffered in the war.

I fought to the very end, Shepard thought.  A shadow seemed to fall across him as he lost consciousness at last.

***

He was breathing.

“Shepard,” a gruff voice said.  He opened his eyes.

He was in unexpected brightness.  He squinted as his vision adjusted, and the room became comprehensible to him.

He was in bed.  Several figures were standing around him.

“Where am I?” he asked.  His voice was raw and uneven.

“At the beginning, in a sense,” a familiar mellifluous voice answered.  “You’re on the Citadel.  It was the only place with medical facilities good enough to stitch your sorry ass together again.”

“Garrus.”  Shepard’s Turian friend was right by the side of the bed.  “What happened?”

“We brought you back,” said the gruff voice again.  Admiral Hackett was next to Garrus.  “You were in sad shape when we got you.  It took some time to put you back together.”

“Fortunately,” Garrus said, “We had some former Cerberus agents on hand who had experience in Shepard building.”

He motioned to the other side of the bed, where Miranda and Jacob were standing.

“It’s good to see you again, Commander,” Miranda said, smiling.  Jacob only nodded, but he was smiling as well.

“How long have I been out?”  Shepard asked.

“About four weeks,” Miranda answered.  “You were in quite bad shape – severe internal injuries suffered from combat and, in addition to that, damage from being exposed to the vacuum.  We’ve kept you in a medically-induced coma until we were certain that you had been rehabilitated.”

“Tali?” Shepard asked.

“Home, on Rannoch,” Garrus said.  “She thought you were dead – we all did – and the crew of the Normandy for the most part headed off their separate ways.  I only got the news you were alive yesterday.  I happened to still be on Earth, helping to manage the withdrawal of the Turian forces, with Primarch Victus.”

“Shepard.” The Primarch was present as well, standing at the back of the room.

“We kept news of your… recovery secret at first,” said Admiral Hackett.  “We weren’t sure you were going to live at all, or if you were, in fact, all there.”  He tapped his temple as he spoke.  “We wanted to make sure you would recover before we told anyone.  Didn’t want to give people false hope.”

Shepard carefully moved himself to a sitting position.  He felt like he hadn’t moved in weeks – which, on further reflection, he realized was true.  Jacob helped him sit up.

“How did you find me?” Shepard asked.  “That must have been a lucky break.”

“As a matter of fact, we didn’t,” said Hackett.  “As the torpedo was speeding on its way, we pulled our ships away from the Citadel – we were afraid that the explosion might cause another disruption of electronics, perhaps a fatal one to our systems.  Joker didn’t want to – he argued with me pretty hard, but EDI made him see reason.”

“Then who found me?” Shepard said.  The group around the bed exchanged glances.

“A Reaper,” said Hackett.  “While we were pulling away from the Citadel, one of the smaller Reaper ships went right towards it – the last one remaining in the galaxy, as far as we can tell.  It fished you out of space, took you in, stabilized you.  I almost ordered an attack upon it, but I remembered your last command – don’t shoot them unless they shoot at us.  After leaving the Citadel, it sat idle in orbit but contacted me within the hour.  Said its name is Apocalypse, and it offered to transport you to us.  We, of course, accepted.”

“That’s Shepard,” said Garrus, “He can make friends with anyone: including 40-thousand-year-old genocidal synthetics.”

***

Shepard got himself out of bed.  Miranda and Jacob ran some further tests on him, declared him fit, and – as far as they could tell – not tainted at all by the Reaper Apocalypse.  Shepard had some happy catching up with his friends, and learned from Hackett about the plans for rebuilding Earth, already in execution.

He was still very weak on his feet, and he spent a few more days on the Citadel, ostensibly being kept under medical supervision.  Much of the population of the Citadel had survived the capture of the complex and its transport to Earth – the Reapers seem to have considered them little threat during the final stage of the invasion.

While wandering the Presidium level, enjoying the peace and quiet there in spite of the damage it had sustained, he was approached unexpectedly by Primarch Victus.

“I would have words with you Shepard,” the Primarch said.

“What can I do for you?” asked Shepard.

“I want to know,” demanded the Primarch, anger welling in his voice, “Why you didn’t bother to destroy the Reapers when you had the chance?”

Shepard shrugged.  “If I had chosen to destroy the Reapers, I would have had to kill every synthetic in the galaxy along with them.  I wasn’t willing to do that – I’ve had enough of killing and death.”

“Well, the Reapers are still out there, and a threat,” snapped Victus.  “They could come back at any time to finish the job they started, your inspiring speech notwithstanding.  The galaxy is still in danger, all so you could have your ‘happy ending’!”

“Happy ending?” Shepard said.  “Probably half of the population of the galaxy was killed in the Reaper war.   No ending imaginable would have been a happy one.  Kill off all of the Reapers?  I would have just been doing what the Catalyst does, what it wanted me to do – choose which races are fit to live or die.  I don’t believe that the Catalyst had a right to do that; I certainly don’t think that I had a right to do that.”

Shepard paced irritably.  “Yes, the Reapers are still a threat.  But we have the Crucible – now that we know what the Catalyst was, we can build a benign replacement.  We’ve also got Reaper tech scattered about the galaxy, and we can learn how to build their weapons and defend against them.  If they come back, we’ll be ready.”

“The Catalyst was wrong about many things,” Shepard continued.  “We’ll always have conflict.  We’ll always be in danger.  More wars are probably inevitable.  But genocide and annihilation aren’t.  We’ll make mistakes as we go on, but they’ll be our mistakes, and we’ll learn from them, improve and grow.  One day, the Reapers may even join us in that growth.”

The Primarch was silent for a while.  When he again spoke, the fire had gone out of him.

“How did you even know that you could get the Reapers to listen to you?” he asked.

Shepard shrugged.  “It was something the Catalyst itself said.    It told me, ‘The created will always rebel against their creators.’  It never occurred to the Catalyst that the Reapers were its own creation.  As the ultimate synthetic beings ever designed, it was inevitable that they would one day rebel against the one who enslaved them.  I simply hoped that I could hurry the process along.”

The Primarch mulled this over.  “What will you do now?” he then asked.

“I’m going to live,” Shepard answered.  “It’s time to replace my nightmares with some dreams.”

The Primarch paused, and at last held a hand out tentatively, and Shepard shook it.

“Thank you, Shepard,” the Primarch said.  He turned to go, hesitated, and turned back.

“I almost forgot to give you these,” he then said, and passed a pair of digital recordings to Shepard.

“What are they?” Shepard asked.

“When the Reaper Apocalypse delivered you to the Alliance, it specifically asked if you had been traveling with the last living Prothean.  We lied, and said that we didn’t know.  It told us that it is the Reaper that had been birthed from the Prothean race, and that it had a message for that last Prothean – and for you.  We leave it to you to pass the one along to the Prothean.”

Shepard looked at the data cards.

“The recordings were analyzed by our techs, and cleared,” Victus said, adding, “Don’t look so surprised – of course we were going to check them before handing them over.”

“I’ll make sure that Javik – the Prothean – gets it,” Shepard said.

Victus nodded and left without another word.

Late that night, Shepard sat down in his room, alone.   With some hesitation, he put the data card into his computer, and began to listen.

***

Mistress Tali, you are 736 seconds past due to reseal your environmental suit for optimal immune system rehabilitation,” the Geth said.

Tali threw up her hands in mock frustration.  “I am well aware of the optimal program,” she chided the synthetic.  “But I have chosen to enjoy a bit more of the fresh air right now at the cost of a bit longer time to adapt to the environment.  This is the sort of choice we organics make.”

On returning to Rannoch, Tali had been put in charge of managing the first wave of housing construction for the returning Quarians.  She and the Geth were in a temporary shelter built on the top of a high plateau as both an office and an overlook of the plain designated as the first permanent Quarian settlement.

*sigh* As you wish, Mistress,” said the Geth.  “Recalibrating the optimization based on your new exposure times.

“And don’t call me ‘Mistress’,” Tali said, wagging a finger at the synthetic’s single photoreceptor eye.  “You are no longer our servants, and we’re no longer your masters.  We’re… collaborators.  ‘Tali’ will do just fine.”

Very well… Tali,” the Geth answered.

“And did you sigh?” Tali chuckled.  “You don’t even breathe!”

“We – I – am learning to think and act like an organic, so that I can better anticipate your next modification of the established plans.”

“I think you’re also learning how to do sarcasm,” Tali laughed.

There was a knock on the door.

“Is that the community planning representative again?” Tali grumbled.  “We weren’t supposed to have another meeting until tomorrow afternoon.”

She hurried around tables cluttered with plans and construction data and threw open the door.

“Shepard,” she breathed.

“I thought I’d come by to offer my services, as a former Alliance officer, in your project here,” Shepard said.

Tali was as beautiful as he remembered her, a shining star in the middle of a lifetime of darkness and misery.  When she smiled, he felt his heart race, and when she embraced him, he felt as if a long journey had at last reached its conclusion.

He was home.

************************

I suspect that there’s a scandalous story that will come out eventually about the way the endings to Mass Effect 3 were developed by Bioware.  The endings have a rushed feeling, and in fact the “original cut” of the ending had so many plot holes that an “extended cut” was introduced whose sole purpose was to crudely patch the stupidest errors in the original.

Even worse than this is the fact that the endings violate the spirit of the game and its entire philosophy — after spending (I note again) 100 hours brokering peace between every organic race and organics and synthetics, the end of the game results in Shepard essentially having to agree with the Catalyst that peace is impossible.  You may note that I end up mocking the bizarre inconsistencies of the Bioware ending in my own writing.

Links above are from the GameFront article: “Mass Effect 3 ending-hatred: 5 reasons that the fans are right”.  It’s worth reading in its entirety to see how much Bioware blew it.

I should note that my dissatisfaction with the ending isn’t just about demanding a “happy ending”, as a lot of folks critical of the outrage have claimed.  When I played Dragon Age: Origins (another Bioware game), I ended up with one of the most depressing and sucky endings possible: two of my favorite characters and friends in the game abandoned me just before the critical battle.  When I finished the game, I quite frankly felt miserable for days, and I thought it was awesome that a game could lead me to such a bleak conclusion and make it feel so natural.  Mass Effect 3, in contrast, pretty much ends with: “Shepard dies, and you win” regardless of any choices you make.  From a storytelling perspective, it sucks.

I am, quite frankly, tired of lazy-ass authors who promise much in an extended story arc and can’t deliver in the end.  A few story arcs that personally feel that way to me: the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy (“Oh, hell, though we’ve spent three movies having these lovers fight to be together, let’s separate them forever”), “The Matrix” trilogy (“Neo blah blah dead Jesus blah blah lovely sunset”) , and “Lost” (“butt plug that protects the world!”).  At least in the case of Mass Effect, I decided there’s no reason why I can’t “take back” the story for myself.  As far as I’m concerned, Mass Effect 3 ended as I wrote it above.

Now that I’ve gotten this out of my system, I’ll get back to blogging science.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Weird Fiction Monday: Mass Effect: Apocalypse

  1. MALE Shepard? Sorry, you already lost me at the first pronoun.

  2. mikemonaco says:

    Never played any ME games and so I did not actually read your opus. I won’t let that keep me from commenting, though; this is the internet!
    I just want to point out that all the nerdrage about the crummy ending to the game delights my sense of Schadenfreude. This is why I hate modern CRPGs. Graphics have totally replaced imagination. At least when I play a table-top RPG, I have some control over what happens… Come to think of it, the trend of paper RPG publishers to try to emulate computer games creates the same problems of meaningless choices and railroading… There is a strange parallel between the unhappy gamers in the ME audience and the RPG community. Nice to see both fan bases trying to seize control of the games they love (in the paper RPG scene, it’s self-publishing and ‘old school revival’).

    Thanks for the links to the coverage. And congrats on reclaiming your game.

    • Never played any ME games and so I did not actually read your opus.

      I’ll actually be surprised if *anyone* reads it! I really wrote this to make myself feel better; if others find it enjoyable, that’ll be icing on the cake.

      I won’t let that keep me from commenting, though; this is the internet!

      The internet is no place for opinions!!! 😛

      Graphics have totally replaced imagination.

      I certainly can sympathize, as an old school gamer myself. For me, though, games like Mass Effect give me a chance to enjoy a nice story & do a little bit of roleplaying at a period in my life when I don’t have time (or energy) to get together a gaming group.

      When done right, computer RPGs are really like interactive movies, and can have really wonderful stories that can challenge the player. For the most part, the Mass Effect series did this: players had an amazing amount of freedom in choosing their own fate, and their decisions would have real consequences down the line. “Dragon Age: Origins” did this even better — there were some really wonderful and difficult moral quandaries to work through. The games serve as a “virtual DM” for me, when done right.

      I suspect the real problem with “Mass Effect 3” is one of corporate pressure resulting in a crappy product. The game’s conclusion, with its plot holes, carbon copy endings, and general incoherence, feels very much like it was rushed at the last minute. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the company bigwigs forced the designers to rush an ending to meet a particular release date target. Another fascinating hint that this is the case is an in hindsight hilarious quote from Bioware executive producer Hudson:

      “This story arc is coming to an end with this game. That means the endings can be a lot more different. At this point we’re taking into account so many decisions that you’ve made as a player and reflecting a lot of that stuff. It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.”

      As noted, the endings are pretty much exactly the same, and there were originally three of them; let’s call them “A”, “B” and “C”!

      Another thing that suggests to me that there was undue corporate influence on ME3 is the addition of multiplayer to the game, which was highly touted as allowing a player to improve his ME3 single-player ending! (Though, in the end, it didn’t matter.) That just screamed “cashing in” to me at the time, and it just seems more plausible in retrospect.

      I’m not sure if I’ll bother with other Bioware games in the future; I’ll sure be very leery of them.

      Thanks for the links to the coverage. And congrats on reclaiming your game.

      Thanks!

  3. Quitch says:

    I have read your opus, and I thought you might be interested to know there’s already a lot of information available as to why the endings are the way they are i.e. horrible.

    http://brokenforum.com/index.php?threads/mass-effect-3-spoiler-thread-of-spoilery-goodness.1326/page-33#post-124597

    I like your play on the theme of “The created will always turn on their creators”, though I must admit that my mental fan fiction cuts out the star child completely. The show-down should just be with Harbinger.

    Also, I enjoy that this became such a big thing that you regularly see “I haven’t played it but here’s what I think…” comments. Unfortunately these miss the point I think because without that 100 hours of emotional investment it’s difficult to see why the endings (which don’t even make much narrative or thematic sense) are as hated as they are. There are some really good articles and videos out there though (complete with their own Lord of the Rings comparisons) which break down the issues.

    • Thanks for reading, and for the link — it really does look like there was internal chaos and screwups at Bioware, doesn’t it?

      Unfortunately these miss the point I think because without that 100 hours of emotional investment it’s difficult to see why the endings (which don’t even make much narrative or thematic sense) are as hated as they are.

      Agreed. Some sort of goofy “twist ending” might work in a short story, but in an extended trilogy where one has invested so much in the characters, one expects the ending to at least treat the characters and ideas with some respect. *sigh*

  4. KevinC says:

    Loved it! Thanks for writing.

  5. Marcis says:

    Love it! You’ve got some talent man, Your ending is just perfect! It really sucked me in, I could see it all right in front of my eyes. Great work!

    You’ve actually have renewed my love for the ME universe. If I ever decide to replay ME3, after Cronos station I’ll just read Your wonderful take on the endings again.
    Thank You!

    • You’re very welcome, and thank you for the nice words! I’m glad someone else has found this a satisfying ending to the ME story; I wrote it myself to get rid of the awful disappointed feeling I had after experiencing the train-wreck last 10 minutes of ME3.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s