“I still can’t believe we all lived,” Joker said, breaking the silence.
Shepard looked out of the window. After the crash and rush of the galactic core, it felt like they were floating in quiet. The stars were cold and distant, the space cold and black as the depths of the ocean.
Beside her, Miranda asked for a list of casualties and EDI automatically recited the list of the injured and the dead. None of the ground team were among them, nor any of the ranking specialists. Shepard felt a small pang of guilt that she didn’t recognize any of the names of the people they’d lost.
“Amazing,” Miranda said when EDI had finished.
“Damn right!” Joker said happily. “We got in and out like you said we would, commander. And here I was listening to your speeches on the comm and thinking it was all morale-boosting bullshit.”
“Well, it was morale-boosting bullshit,” Garrus said with a chuckle. “But it worked.”
“Thank God,” Shepard added. “But, honestly, we got lucky. That last bit was touch and go.”
“Sounds familiar,” Garrus said, turning to her with the turian equivalent of a relieved grin. “Just like…”
“Old times?” Shepard finished for him.
“Exactly,” he nodded.
“I’m glad I wasn’t on your squad during the ‘old times,’” Miranda said. “I truly thought we were going to lose someone.”
“We did lose several members of the crew in the initial assault on the ship,” EDI reminded her. “We lost several more before the ground team could free them from the pods.”
“Yes, but no one…” Miranda caught herself. “Well. No more than that.”
“That’s still a loss,” Shepard said grimly. “And the Illusive Man cost us precious moments at the end there.”
“Think he’ll give you a straight answer about his little ‘save the base’ stunt there?” Joker asked Shepard.
“Doubtful,” Garrus muttered.
“The Illusive Man did not disconnect from the quantum entanglement communicator when Operative Lawson cut off omnitool communications with him,” EDI informed them all. “He wishes to speak to Shepard in the debriefing room.”
Every eye in the cockpit swung to the commander. Even EDI’s blue sphere seemed to rotate in her direction.
“Oh, so he’s waiting on *me * now?” Shepard said, raising an eyebrow. “That’s rich.”
“Do you want me to come with you, Shepard?” Miranda asked quickly.
“Or me?” Garrus added.
“No,” Shepard told them both, her eyes narrowing. “No. I’ve got this one.”
“Shepard.” The voice on the other end of the comm was clipped and cold. It Shepard’s mind, it seemed dipped in venom. Not surprising, since the speaker was such a snake.
“You’re making a habit of costing me time and money,” the Illusive Man said, his voice dripping with disgust.
“Sorry,” Shepard said, tapping her earpiece. “Having trouble hearing you. I’m getting a lot of bullshit on this line.”
“Shepard…” the Illusive Man began, his eyes narrowing.
“Maybe,” Shepard went on, “the comm link got screwed up when you tried to contact me with non-critical bullshit while I was in the middle of a mission .”
“When I sent you in there, Shepard…”
“When you sent me in here,” Shepard interrupted, “it was to blow that base to hell. Not to sit and chat about how we might redecorate the place.”
“We needed that base.”
“We needed to stop the Reapers. I did that.”
“You may have cost us everything!” the Illusive Man snapped. “Just think of what we’ve lost! We’ll never know how we might have used that technology.”
“Right,” Shepard said, folding her arms over her chest. “Because using Reaper technology as a weapon never backfires on us. Oh. Wait. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: There was once this organization named Cerberus…”
“Damn it, Shepard!” the Illusive Man cut in. “You’re still as blind to Cerberus’ purpose as the day I brought you back.”
“Am I?” she countered. “Tell me, did you just see the Reaper over EDI’s schematics and decide to take it as a souvenir? Or have you been planning to salvage that base all along?”
“I had no idea what we’d find there,” the Illusive Man replied quickly – too quickly by Shepard’s reckoning.
“But you must have had a suspicion,” she pressed. “And if you did, you should have discussed it with me beforehand. We could have weighed the risks and benefits of taking Collector technology. But you didn’t want to talk about it, did you? You wanted me so busy following your orders that I didn’t stop to think about where those orders would lead.”
“And you just led us straight into our graves, Shepard!” the Illusive Man returned. “Because of you , we’ve just lost our most valuable weapon in the fight against the Reapers. Without an arsenal to keep us safe, we might as well lay down and die here and now. The Charon Relay will open and it will be Earth’s doom.”
“And who’s going to keep us safe from Cerberus once you have your army of Reapers?” Shepard asked, lifting her chin into the air. “Because that was your plan, wasn’t it? If you’d just wanted to stop the Collectors, you wouldn’t be bitching at me about blowing them up. But clearly, you didn’t want me to just stop them. You wanted more.” She leveled him with a look.
“This isn’t about stopping the Reapers, this is about human dominance – Cerberus dominance.”
“So that’s what this is about,” the Illusive Man frowned. “You still can’t get past your distrust of Cerberus. You still think that I’m the enemy.”
“You sure as hell don’t look like much of a hero from where I’m standing.”
The Illusive Man took a drag from his cigarette and snorted smoke from his nose. He seemed ready to explode, but when he next spoke, his voice was quiet and calm.
“I should have known better with you, Shepard. You’re too emotional to see the facts even if I gave them to you. You’re too much a soldier,” he went on with a sneer, “too caught up in the field to see what we generals do.”
“You?” she snorted. “A general?”
“You’re weak without me, Shepard,” he pressed on, temper clearly fraying, “Time and again, you’ve fallen. On Horizon, you let your emotions get the better of you. And not just there. You almost lost our contract with Zaeed Massani, hell, you almost got yourself killed by Morinth just because you’re not strong-willed enough.”
Shepard winced. The words cut like the sudden lash of a whip. She frowned at the unexpected wound.
“You need my guidance,” the Illusive Man went on. “You need me .”
“The hell I do,” Shepard managed.
“You do,” he insisted. “All humanity does. Yes, I gamble with lives – I’ve gambled with yours. But I have a vantage point to see what you cannot. I save thousands of lives for every dozen that perish. That’s how things are done, Shepard. That’s how real peace is kept.”
“That’s how genocide is kept,” Shepard spat. “Don’t go painting yourself as some savior, asshole.”
“And don’t go painting yourself as some paladin. Your rules of chivalry are from a dead age. We’re in the age of the Reapers now, Shepard. It’s kill or be killed, and your idealism is our death sentence.”
“My idealism…!” Shepard dropped her arms. “My idealism can go to hell. This is about being realistic. Truly realistic, not your crazy version of realism.”
“You? Realistic?” the Illusive Man laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “Shepard, this is realism: If you try to play nice, you’re going to die.”
“Listen you,” Shepard’s eyes blazed. “ This is realism: Reaper technology could destroy us from within before the Reapers ever get here. It’s screwed us over time and time again. And even if we did manage to use that technology successfully, there’s no telling what problems it would leave for the invasion survivors. It’s simply too risky. And you know what I do with risks.”
“You’ve turned dozens of risks into weapons,” the Illusive Man countered. “Think of Legion. Think of Grunt.”
“Those guys are pocket-sized compared to the Reapers,” Shepard said. “A few bullets and they’re dealt with. An army of baby Reaperlets? Not so much.”
“So what now,” the Illusive Man asked. “You think the Alliance is going to stop the Reapers with their ships and their guns? The Turians? Their weapons are more antiquated than ours. I don’t need to remind you what happened in the Battle of the Citadel. All the council races together could barely take down one Reaper.”
“But at the time, we didn’t know what we were up against. We do now. We prepare, we plan. We fight like hell and we do it together – all the species. Not just Cerberus acting like a goddamn watchdog, when all the while, you’re the monster.”
“Is that what you’re planing?” the Illusive Man asked, standing and striding toward her. “To rally the Council? They’ve turned on you. To rally the Alliance? They still count you as killed in action.”
“I’ll think of something,” Shepard replied, standing her ground as the holograph came eye to eye with her. “And when I do, you’d better not try and stop me. Step aside or fall in line, but don’t get in my way.”
“Don’t you dare turn on me, Shepard,” the Illusive Man warned, his eyes glowing brightly blue. “I rebuilt you. I made you. I brought you back from the dead.”
“There’s one thing you’re forgetting, Illusive,” Shepard said, staring him down. “One thing that you’ve forgotten right from the start. Cerberus might have been a monster with three heads, but it also had the tail of the snake. Not too surprising that you guys are always biting yourself in the ass, huh?”
The Illusive Man’s eyes narrowed to glowing slits. “Don’t think this is the last you’ve heard from me, Shepard,” he hissed. “I will be watching you. Every day, every minute. Everywhere you go…”
“The hell you will.”
“And when you see the Reapers come down from the sky like so many scythes to cut down everyone on Earth, you’ll know that it was you who doomed us all.”
“Oh, shut up ,” Shepard shot back with a scowl. “Joker?” she said, looking up to the ceiling.
“Lose this channel.”
The Illusive Man opened his mouth to say something, his glowing eyes wide with fury and surprise. But then, just as suddenly, the holograph flicked away.
Shepard stood there for a moment in the silence. Then she turned and strode from the room, a grin on her face.