“Welcome back, Valkyrie.”
Shepard folded her arms over her chest. “Illusive Man.” She paused. “Is that really what people call you? Or do they come up with some sort of nickname? Illusive? Ill?”
“My people call me ‘Illusive Man,’ yes,” he said. The man blew out a line of cigarette smoke that looked thin and pixilated to Shepard from where she was standing in the remote comm chamber. The holograph of the Illusive Man showed her little of his features except that he appeared to be middle aged, well-dressed, and was likely to die of liver disease or lung cancer given that he was taking drags from a cigarette with one hand and holding a drink in the other.
“You have some reason for bringing me back?” she asked. “Or was this just two birthday presents at once?”
He cocked his head. “Your file didn’t say anything about you having a sarcastic streak,” he observed.
“Miranda said the same thing,” Shepard replied with a shrug.
“I would have thought that you’d be a little more pleased at being returned to life.”
“I wasn’t unhappy dead,” she said, remembering snippets of the…dream? She figured she’d never know for sure what that vision had been.
“You weren’t able to get much done when you were dead,” he replied. “And there’s work to be done now. You need to get over your personal issues with Cerberus…”
“Which ones?” she interrupted him. “The issue where you killed an admiral? The issue where you let a whole unit of marines die just so you could observe them melting in venom? The issue where you experimented on a whole colony of innocent people and turned them into husks? There were children in that colony, you bastard.”
“Some of my cells went a little…rogue,” the man told her. “Even I didn’t know all the details of what they did.”
“Bullshit,” she snapped.
The Illusive Man blew out a line of smoke. “Come now, Shepard,” he said. “I wouldn’t hold you accountable for a cruel act done by someone else in the Alliance.”
“First,” she said, “don’t call me ‘Shepard.’ Second, the Alliance doesn’t do stuff like the things Cerberus did. Third, you wouldn’t hold me accountable unless I was in command of said crazy shit. And since you *were * in command…”
“They went rogue on me, Shepard,” the man snapped. “And this isn’t about that. This is about the missing colonies.”
Shepard stopped. Okay. Now that got her attention.
“What missing colonies?” she asked suspiciously, though she guessed that she already knew.
“You found one of them yourself, I think” the Illusive Man said, blowing out a line of smoke. “Before the Normandy went down, you saw an abandoned colony out in the traverse - and you knew it wasn’t the geth.”
“My reports were classified,” she said, though she knew at once it didn’t matter. Clearly this guy knew way too much about her and all of her missions.
She remembered back to that colony, the one they had left behind just before the Normandy was attacked. The place had been vandalized and looted, almost burned to the ground. It was impossible to tell what had happened exactly, but the strangest thing was that there had been no bodies, no bloodstains, not a single trace of human carnage. It was as if whoever had attacked the place had gotten the inhabitants to politely line up and walk into a cage, then hauled them away and burned the colony afterward. The ruins had been as baffling as they had been unnerving.
“That was only a first of many,” the Illusive Man went on. “While you were unconscious, many more such attacks have occurred. The current number of missing humans is in the thousands – the tens of thousands.”
Shepard’s heart sank. * Tens of thousands?* Immediately she pictured the faces of her cousins, taken as slaves years ago and never found.
Shepard didn’t trust this man, she didn’t like his methods of recruitment and – if she stopped and thought about it – she had only been awake for a few hours after two years…dead. And yet he was already trying to get her to join his formerly-and-most-likely-presently terrorist organization.
But people were in trouble – and children and innocent people who had gone looking for a better life. If that many people had gone missing…
“Why not the Alliance?” she asked, trying to think clearly. There was something he wasn’t telling her, and letting her emotions get in the way wasn’t going to help.
The Illusive Man explained his reasoning: the Alliance didn’t believe this was really a threat. The colonies were outside of Council space. He went on and on, his reasoning seeming clear…
“Cut the crap,” she said at last. “What is it that you’re not saying?”
The man seemed to smile a little. It was hard to tell with the video-comm link.
“The Council doesn’t want to see the real threat,” he said. “But it’s the same one you faced all those years ago.”
“The Reapers,” Shepard frowned. “I knew you were going to say that. How exactly are the Reapers harvesting humans all the way from dark space?”
“We think they’re using agents. The patterns are there, buried in the data,” he told her. “It’s them alright. They’re coming, and you are the only one who can stop them.”
“So that’s why you brought me back,” she said, his reasoning making sense even as it made her feel suddenly weary. “Because I’m the only one who believes in the Reapers.”
“Not only that,” he told her. “You fought one. You killed it.”
“So you want me to do what, exactly?” she asked. “Find another one and kill it? That might prove tricky.”
“For starters, I need you to go with Miranda and Jacob. We just got word a human colony was hit. It’s called Freedom’s Progress. Go investigate it.”
“I don’t take orders from you,” she bristled at his tone.
“Then do it as a favor,” he said. For a moment, his eyes seemed to flash. Perhaps it was just a trick of the video link. “Humor me for bringing you back to life by going and investigating this colony. If you don’t find the information you are looking for, then you can walk away.”
“Oh really?” she asked, folding her arms across her chest. She didn’t believe that for a second.
“However,” he said, “I think that you will find data that will convince you that this matter needs to be dealt with, regardless of whom you have to work with to do it.”
Shepard frowned. That was what she was afraid of. Still, as long as she was working with them and not for them… She scowled. That was splitting hairs and she knew it. But she couldn’t see any way out of this at the moment. That was probably their plan all along.
“Alright,” she said, lifting her chin. “I’ll go. But you had better be a little less cryptic when we talk next.”