Part 4, Chapter 10 of Valkyrie

So, the extended cut came out. I guess that the story of Commander Shepard has come to a close so far as BioWare is concerned - so far as many fans are concerned, too. I’ve heard that a lot of people loved the EC. I’ve heard some didn’t love it, but it at least enabled them to play the game again without feeling massive amounts of despair. And regardless of what one thinks of the EC, it is pretty incredible that BioWare bothered to make it in the first place. Free DLC to keep the fans happy? For that, at least, BioWare deserves kudos.

So what did I think of the extended cut? Well, they say that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all… Or rewrite the hell out of it in fanfic. That is what they say, right?

I wrote on my blog what I thought about the EC ending, so I won’t go into it here. The extended cut did give me the definitive word from BioWare on how they feel the endings went down. And now I feel fully justified in how I plan to riff off of that for my own take on the canon. Whatever else I think of BioWare’s ending to Mass Effect, I’m grateful for the story up to that point, and most of all, I’m grateful for the wonderful accident of writing that created a hero like FemShep. She’s a gem. And now, with all due respect, I’m going to finish writing her story as I feel it should have played out.

So whether you liked the EC or not, I hope you will enjoy my twist on the canon. However, there is some ground to cover until I get to my own “extended cut,” so I’d better get back to the writing desk. As always, thank you to all my awesome readers for your support. You guys rock.

The sudden pitch in movement threw Dean sideways and his head smacked against the wall. Dean started awake just in time to see the shuttle floor rushing at him, then landed face first upon the cold metal. He lay there for a startled second, in a heap between the two banks of benches.

Ow , Dean thought, squeezing his eyes shut. Talk about your rude awakenings. He felt rather like an accordion that had been pulled out to its full length and then crumpled up all wrong. Opening his eyes, Dean saw that the shuttle floor was dirty, covered with mud tracked in by about a dozen boots. He turned his head to the side and saw several of those boots - and the feet and legs attached to them. Some of the soldiers were standing, wearily gripping the overhead supports and half-asleep on their feet. The ones sitting were fully asleep, just as he had been a moment ago. Getting to this transport had been a near thing for everyone, and all of them were exhausted. Dean figured that things would only get worse when they got to London.

A hand suddenly appeared in front of his face and Dean looked up. Admiral Anderson was sitting opposite him, his face grim, his expression somewhat withdrawn. If it hadn’t been for that extended hand, Dean might have thought the guy was just staring at him, totally unmoved by Dean’s clumsy fall.

“Uh, thanks,” Dean said, somewhat embarrassed now. He took the hand, hauled himself back up, and settled into his seat again. “I guess I…” Dean looked around the quiet shuttle and decided to keep his voice down instead of explaining himself. “Thanks,” he muttered again. Anderson just nodded, folded his arms over his chest, closed his eyes, and appeared to fall asleep. Dean leaned back against the wall, but didn’t think he’d be getting back to sleep again any time soon. He wasn’t really sure if he wanted to.

Because just as he’d been waking up, Dean had been having one of those weird kind of dreams where even though he knew that he was dreaming, he also had been aware that the dream meant something. Not that it meant something in a signs-and-omens sense, but more like it meant something in the sense that his head was trying to reason through everything that was going on around him.

Dean had been dreaming that he and Katie were walking through the Citadel together. They’d done that on occasion, back in the old days. And by “old days,” Dean of course meant about a year ago when things had actually been looking up for him. In the dream, the walls of the Citadel shifted like a kaleidoscope around them. They were walking through their favorite club one minute, and a second later, they were strolling along in the docking bays.

He and Katie were talking about something, he couldn’t remember that part now, since the dream was fading off like the horizon. But then the background had shifted and they were walking along one of the narrow paths in the Presidium that lined the reservoir.

“There,” Katie had said in the dream, pointing up. A second ago there had been nothing but sky overhead, but now they stood under a great beam that extended from one end of the ring to the other. “That’s the hospital where I wanted to work.”

Dean looked up at the building on the skybridge. It cast a shadow down around them both, making the comfortable Presidium temperature suddenly chilly.

“You could do that,” Dean said in the dream. “My work is just around the corner. It would work out perfect.” That wasn’t quite true in reality, for the Alliance Communications Network was housed in offices almost halfway around the Presidium ring from the Huerta Memorial Hospital, but in the dream, it hadn’t seemed that far away. And from a galactic point of view, it really wasn’t. But in the dream, Katie had just shaken her head, her curls bouncing slightly with the movement.

“It’s too late for that, Dean.”

“Look, I know you’re probably dead,” Dean told her in the dream. Even as he had spoken, he was aware of the strange practicality of his words. “But if you’re not dead, we can find each other. We can go back to the Citadel when this is all over. We can start again.”

Once again Katie shook her head. “Love is like growing a flower,” she said authoritatively, though Dean had no idea if she’d ever raised so much as a potted fern. “You plant the seed and sometimes something beautiful comes up. But then it fades just as quickly as it blossomed.”

In the dream, Dean had bristled at this remark. True, he tended to kill any green life that he was put in charge of. It probably had something to do with the fact that he forgot to water plants for days at a time and kept such odd hours that he usually kept the windows shut tight against any light.

“But love isn’t like a flower,” Dean had protested to the dream-Katie. “Plants wilt, but love can always make a comeback.”

“Were we ever really in love, Dean?” the dream-Katie asked him. Dean hadn’t said anything to that. Even now that he was looking back at the dream, he couldn’t figure out the answer to that question. Back then, it seemed like the answer was “yes.” But now, he really didn’t know.

“What we had on the Citadel was good,” the dream-Katie had said then, turning her face back to the hospital above them. “But all I ever wanted was to live and work here. You just fit the part of my boyfriend for a while.”

That might even be true, Dean thought miserably, reflecting on the dream. Now fully awake, he scowled, leaned back against the shuttle wall, and folded his arms over his chest.

Okay, Dean thought to himself, that was just a dream and not what Katie had really said. She had said something about not knowing who she was any more, now that all her plans for the future were gone. She had been upset over giving up a good career on the Citadel just to come back to Earth and plan a wedding and try to get a new job. Those two things had stressed her out daily and within a few short months she’d taken off for her mother’s house to “think.” Dean had guessed even then what that meant. He’d tried to persuade her not to go, but she’d been insistent. Sure enough, she only contacted him once after that, and that was to say she wasn’t coming back.

“It was never really about you, Dean,” were the last words she’d spoken to him. Dean still didn’t quite know what to make of that. Their break-up wasn’t his fault? Or their relationship had never worked and there was nothing he could do about it?

Dean knew he was terrible at remembering some things, like watering plants and where his empty coffee cup had gotten off to. But he had a damnably good memory in some respects - like remembering where critical lines of code “lived” and the ability to keep straight multiple syntax rules in his head while building a new software system. However, he wasn’t so great at reading between the lines. He had heard Katie talking about how much she missed her job in the Wards and heard her complaints that she was too chubby to fit into her mother’s wedding dress. Dean had figured this meant Katie needed help finding a new job and she needed to tell her mother that she was going to break with tradition and find her own wedding dress instead. These seemed like simple fixes to simple problems.

Yet somehow, Dean had missed the syntax of Katie , which was a lot more complicated than any code he’d worked with before. He hadn’t caught on that she was so unhappy with the life they were building together until she’d up and run out on him. So all Dean could figure was that the Citadel held some vital key to Katie’s contentment and he wasn’t enough. Katie had been enough for him, Dean thought sadly, and yet he had not been enough for her.

Dean sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. Maybe the dream-Katie was right. Maybe what people called “love” was just a good situation that lasted long enough to keep two people side-by-side. It would certainly fit with what he had seen of relationships so far: first his parents, then the come-and-go flings he’d witnessed all throughout his time in the service. For all Dean could tell, the only thing that drew people together was happenstance. And happenstance had a hell of a way of pushing people apart again.

“Approaching European Union from north-northwest,” a voice crackled above Dean’s head, drawing him out of his morose thoughts. The voice stated the coordinates of approach, causing Admiral Anderson to look up sharply and fire up his omnitool. The map he brought up was reversed from where Dean was sitting, but even so, Dean could tell that from the blinking red dots all over the holographic display that they were in big trouble again.

“All those comm units are offline?” he asked Anderson. The admiral looked up and nodded.

“We’ve been safe over the Arctic Circle,” Anderson said. “But this is going to be dicey getting into an urban center.”

The soldiers around them shifted a bit in their seats and on their feet, waking up and looking to Anderson to explain their next step.

“Where’s this bunker that we need to get to?” Dean asked.

“Here,” Anderson said, pointing to a spot that was right in the center of a cluster of blinking red dots. “It’s right in the center of Greater London.”

“Figures,” one of the soldiers muttered.

“It’s going to be impossible to get this shuttle to that spot in one piece,” another soldier pointed out. “You saw how they took out shuttles in Vancouver.”

Everyone fell silent at that. They had seen that far too clearly. It was only by finding a transport hub on the edge of town that they had gotten to undamaged shuttles at all. And several other shuttles had distracted the Reapers as the admiral’s shuttle had flown away. Those other shuttles hadn’t made it very far.

“Flying into a hot zone is a big risk,” another soldier agreed.

“Yeah, especially considering we don’t know what’s hot and what isn’t,” Dean pointed out.

“Sir,” the soldier sitting to Dean’s left spoke up. Dean hadn’t realized it was a woman under all that armor until she started talking. “Permission to offer a suggestion?”

“Granted,” Anderson told her evenly.

“Well,” the woman said, looking encouraged by the admiral’s words, “according to the evacuation protocols you wrote up, an enemy like this is going to target civilian centers…”

“You actually * read* that thing?” one of the other soldiers interrupted. “It was fifty pages long.”

“I do my homework,” the woman replied, her tone steely. Dean saw that Anderson was looking at the woman with a kind of pleased surprise. “Anyhow, I was gonna say that if we just waltz into London, we’re going to get our asses handed to us. We ought to target a remote location where those big machine things aren’t paying much attention. We get intel, take it a bit slower. Maybe he can build us some comm towers or something when we get there,” the woman added, nodding at Dean. “Then we sneak in all careful like once we’ve got comms up.”

Dean was flattered by the vote of confidence, but wasn’t too sure he could pull off what this woman was talking about. He could hack existing software systems pretty readily, but that was worlds away from tinkering with hardware and building radios out of old toasters or whatever it was these people thought he could do. But before Dean could explain any of this, however, Anderson responded.

“Those are good suggestions. Your name, soldier?”

“Staff Lieutenant Griffiths, sir,” the woman replied with a salute. “Infiltration regiment, N2 sniper training.”

“You’re an N?” one of the other soldiers asked. The rest of the transport looked impressed.

“Good to have you aboard, LT,” Anderson said to her. “And I think I know just the place to land. Corporal,” he added, speaking toward the ceiling now. “There’s a British naval base on the Isle of Skye - used to be a submarine base years ago.”

“It’s showing up as a museum on the map,” the shuttle pilot replied doubtfully over the comm.

“Looks are deceiving,” Anderson replied enigmatically. “Drop us down as close as you can to the Skye Bridge and we’ll secure the area. We can see what’s left of the communications network in the UK, then figure out our approach to London from there.”

Dean brightened at the idea of landing at an actual naval base, museum or otherwise. With any luck, some of the old tech might still be workable. If not, abandoned base in the middle of nowhere sounded a lot better than landing in the middle of another hellish battlefield.

“Roger that,” the shuttle pilot replied over the comm. “ETA, ten minutes.”

“Over the sea from Skye,” Lieutenant Griffiths remarked. “And this time, we’re bringing the king back. Or admiral, I guess.” Anderson gave her a wry smile. Dean didn’t quite get what that was all about and just brought up his omnitool to look over his notes. He had a few ideas about how to get communications back online, but it was all going to depend upon what kind of tech he could salvage out of the wreckage once they landed.

“Hey, you got a plan?” Griffiths asked Dean suddenly. “What kind of tech do you need us to find for you?”

“Uh…” Dean began.

“I don’t get why everyone is in such a hurry to die,” a sullen soldier remarked from the corner. “Heading back into London is suicide.”

“And yet,” Anderson said, glaring at the man. “That’s where our mission lies.”

“Anyhow, I can’t die,” Griffiths said, resting her arm on the back of her bench. “My girlfriend would kick my ass six weeks from Sunday if I’m not on Thessia for her Janiris festival.”

Mention of the woman’s girlfriend made Dean realize that he wasn’t the only one in here with someone he’d left behind.

“Yeah, good luck with that,” the glowering soldier said from the corner. “She’s probably already dead. Or she will be pretty soon.”

“That’s enough,” Anderson said sharply before the lieutenant could reply. “Right now, we can’t worry about anything beyond the mission. I understand that all of you probably have people you’re worried about. I do, too. But we have to stay focused. Our job is to get communications back online for the entire planet. That’s no small task.”

“It’s a pointless task,” the asshole from the corner said. “Against an enemy like this, what does it matter if we can scream to each other before we all die?”

“The situation isn’t nearly that bleak,” Anderson told him sternly. “Commander Shepard is out there right now, gathering intel and an army to come liberate Earth.”

“Commander Shepard?” Dean asked in surprise. Judging from the other shocked faces in the transport, he wasn’t the only one. “Isn’t she dead?”

“I thought she went rogue,” Griffiths said from beside him.

“Turned terrorist, wasn’t it?” another put in.

“Shepard is very much on our side,” Anderson told them. “And she’s been underground, but she’s back. She’s out there right now gathering an army. She’ll be coming for us, and we need to be ready for her.”

Dean looked around, pretty astonished by the reaction this got from the other soldiers. All of them, even that grumpy one in the corner, looked impressed. Dean, however, wasn’t quite sure what to think. He’d heard on the news vids that Shepard had blown up a batarian star system because she thought it would slow down the Reapers. And from what Katie had told Dean, Dean’s buddy, Alenko, had been in love with some girl on the Normandy - Ashley something-or-other. Then Shepard went off and got the girl killed during some mission. Normally, Dean wouldn’t have much faith in someone who was willing to be that ruthless to get the job done, but against the Reapers, well, he figured ruthless might be exactly what it took to get the job done.

“So,” Griffiths said, “All we gotta do is sneak into London, get comms back online, and hold out until Shepard brings an army to save our asses?”

“Not quite that simple,” Anderson said, the ghost of a smile on his lips, “but something like that.”

“No problem,” Griffiths said. “We got this in the bag, right?” She smacked Dean in the arm, hard.

“Right,” Dean said, rubbing the sore spot she left on his shoulder. He certainly didn’t share the lieutenant’s optimism, because he had no idea what they were getting into, and if he failed to get the communications back online then…

That thought brought Dean up short. If he failed to get communications back online, it wasn’t like the Alliance would kick him off the job and bring in another expert. For all he knew, there might not be another expert left on the whole of Earth. If he failed, then every soldier here would probably die. Even that asshole in the corner didn’t deserve that.

And suddenly, Dean felt like he was waking up, not just from sleep, but from some kind of stupor he’d been in for months since Katie left. This wasn’t about a failed relationship or how he wished things might have been. This really was the end of the goddamn world. And there was no room for failure.

Shepard gasped awake with a start. Her heart was pounding, her sheets were drenched with sweat.

Rolling to one side, Shepard gripped her head with her hands. She felt like her skull was splitting in half, beginning at some spot deep inside her brain. For a second, she feared that it was the camera again, uploading from her brain to the Illusive Man. But then she realized that couldn’t be the case. EDI would be blocking any signal from the graybox so long as Shepard was on or near the Normandy. And besides, Shepard reasoned, this headache was nothing like the uploading headaches from before. Those had been a buzzing along her implant wires. This ache, however, felt much deeper, like a heavy rumbling at the center of her head.

The pain remained for a moment, then, just like that fire from her dream, it blessedly began to ease. And as the ache faded, Shepard remembered snippets of her nightmare.

A wood with no paths through it. A lost child. A hand offered too late.

She had been running, as though she had been in training again, back in the wooded places of Old Stanley Park. However, in the dream it had been twilight, not morning, and she had been wearing her armor rather than her workout gear. There had been no path to run along either, no clear way through the ferns and trees. In the dream, she had occasionally run to a spot only to turn right back around again, as though she could not help but come back again and again to the same clearing.

She had circled back, again and again, and then, unexpectedly, she had stumbled upon a little boy, playing all alone. It was the boy who had hidden from her in Vancouver - the boy she hadn’t managed to save. In the dream, he had looked at her with a blank, terrified gaze - and then burst into flame.

Well, Shepard thought grimly, looking down at her shaking hands. It didn’t take a certified shrink to figure out what that dream meant. Here she had spent forever trying to warn everyone - anyone - about the Reapers, and no one had listened. She hadn’t even managed to convince a child to listen to her. And now, she was having dreams of running helplessly through an endless forest while civilians burst into flames before her very eyes.

Hello post-traumatic nightmares, Shepard thought grimly. This wasn’t even one of the worse dreams of her life. She hadn’t torn the room apart with biotics, like she frequently did with the Prothean-beacon-induced dreams. She hadn’t felt crushed by an overwhelming sense of guilt like after Virmire or again after the Viper Nebula. And she hadn’t dislocated her shoulder fighting shadows, like she had that one time after Mindoir. So compared to some of the night terrors she’d faced in her life, that dream had been downright tame.

So why was it that she still felt shaken? She could practically feel the oppressive canopy of the dream-trees over her, their branches forking out at weird, unnatural angles, like smudges against the twilight dream-sky. Those trees had looked vaguely like hands, Shepard thought. It was as if they were attached to some giant that was hiding just under the ground, reaching up through the soil to grab unsuspecting travellers. The whole clearing had felt like a planted cage, really. And even now, her heart was racing, as if she was fighting to break free from it all.

Shepard rolled onto her back and looked up. The skylight above her head showed cold, precise pinpricks of stars in the distance, a slight blue sheen of the FTL mass effect field flickering over it. The sight was like cold water on her mind, bringing her back to reality in all its oppressive possibility.

She wasn’t trapped in a wood, scarcely able to move. The truth of the matter was much more frightening than that. She had all sorts of options open to her, but very little way of knowing which were the best for fighting back the Reapers. Every decision she made from here on out might be the difference between life and death.

Shepard lay there for a second, feeling almost paralyzed by that notion. How the hell was she supposed to go forward when a single misstep might end up spelling the end for not just herself, not just her team, but the entire galaxy?

Kaidan’s face flashed before her mind - pale under all the bruises, his eyes shut, his lips still. She had almost lost him back there on Mars, might lose him still, if things didn’t work out right. The thought left Shepard feeling strangely numb. If Kaidan died, she would have to fight on, even though she would feel like her insides had been scraped out. But if he lived, a part of her would always be frightened for him, terrified of losing him to a later battle, another fight. It was possible that they they would both somehow live through this war, but that seemed like such a long shot, Shepard could hardly imagine it.

And yet, Shepard thought, taking a deep breath, it was still possible. That was the crazy thing about war. It was entirely unpredictable and anything could happen.

Even a victory.

With that thought, the dream faded and her resolve renewed. Kaidan was still alive and so was she; Anderson was still alive, too. And the galaxy was filled with people - billions of them - who could fight back against the Reapers if they could be rallied together. And it was her job to make sure they got that chance and turned it into a future free from the Reapers.

Her mission clear once more, Shepard yanked off her sweat-damp tank top and headed straight for the shower.

A voice was calling to him, shouting his name, but Kaidan was trapped by his own armor. He was supposed to be fighting by her side, but he was crushed under his own helmet, unable to see, unable to breathe. He tried to follow that voice out of the rubble, tried to fight free from the dreams, but sleep made his body heavy, made his breathing labored. Kaidan tried to sit up, tried to wake, and then, suddenly, he heard the voice clearly, right in front of his face:

“You want to help me, get me out of this damn demo mode!”

The words didn’t make any sense to him, half in dreams as he was, but they woke Kaidan all the same. He heard the cry for help through the sound of humming machinery all around him and a strange whooshing in the distance. He fought to open his eyes, but they wouldn’t open, dry and sticky as they were. His entire body, from his eyeballs down to his toes, felt heavy, like his whole body had been emptied of innards and filled up with wet cotton stuffing. Kaidan tried to lift his head, but found that in addition to feeling heavy and dizzy, something was holding him down - something in his nose .

“Shepard?” Kaidan croaked. Or at least, he tried to say her name. It felt like that cotton stuffing had filled his mouth as well. The rancid taste plus the uncomfortable dryness left him wanting to gag. Kaidan managed to open his eyes just a crack, and for a second there, he thought he saw Shepard flicking in the air before him like a mirage. Then he heard the words:

“I have to go,” and she disappeared.

No , Kaidan thought, his mind reacting slowly, almost drunkenly. He wasn’t sure where he was, or what it was that had him pinned down. All he knew was that Shepard was in danger and he had to get to her.

Without thinking, he gathered his biotic energy. It was a pure defensive move, just gathering power to have in hand should he need it.

At once, Kaidan felt like someone had beaten him with a sledgehammer to the back of the head. The world exploded in stars and he barely held onto consciousness through the pain. Somewhere behind him, a furious pinging sound went off, and a sharp, hot something pricked his arm and began sliding upward, like a grasping caress. Kaidan forced his eyes open, but his brain made little sense of the overly-bright glare. He heard murmurs, heard that now-blaring alarm, heard breaths coming in ragged gasps now and realized that the breaths came from him . Kaidan lay there, staring in dizzy incomprehension when a whoosh and a movement to his right caught his eye.

“Stop, stop, stop!” A voice snapped at him. This voice was clipped, yet strangely liquid, as if someone had taken a starched university professor and dumped him into a puddle. “Don’t use your biotics!”

Kaidan blinked several times, and the face of a salarian appeared over him, frowning down at him in a way that only someone with a lower jaw made almost entirely out of cartilage could manage.

“You already used biotics, didn’t you?” the salarian said. “I can smell the eezo, so don’t deny it.” Before Kaidan could croak out an answer, the salarian brought up an omnitool and scanned Kaidan.

“Oh, for the love of Treyln,” the salarian scowled. “Why do you humans always resort to a fight-or-flight instinct? It’s like you haven’t evolved one bit. It’s amazing the Council ever allowed you off of your planet, much less into their ranks.”

“At it again, Dr. Freylock?” another voice asked. This voice was female and possessed of a distinct Earth-French accent. “You know it’s not fair to discuss politics with patients that are so heavily sedated.”

“In my experience,” the salarian replied with a sniff, “the presence of consciousness in humans does little to improve the discourse.” The red-headed woman didn’t seem to take offense at this at all, and instead came to stand by Kaidan’s bedside.

“Hello, Major Alenko,” she said, nodding to Kaidan in a friendly manner. “I’m not sure if you remember me. I’m Doctor Michel.”

Kaidan tried to say that no, he didn’t remember her, but his mouth was still so dry that it wasn’t working very well.

“I used to work with Lisa, your girlfriend.”

Kaidan blinked at that. Girlfriend? He wouldn’t call Shepard a girlfriend , exactly. Because while the Mars mission was coming back to him in bits and pieces, he seemed to remember arguing with Shepard about…

Then it hit him that Dr. Michel was talking about Lisa , whom Kaidan had entirely forgotten about. But he was spared from having to explain anything by the fact that his throat didn’t want to work at all and Dr. Michel didn’t seem to expect him to make small talk.

“You’re in Huerta Memorial Hospital,” Dr. Michel told him. “I imagine this might be a little disorienting, but you need to avoid using your biotics. Your system took quite a shock, so we’re going to put you back under for just a little bit longer…”

As she spoke, the world suddenly started fading back out of focus. Kaidan caught snippets of what she was saying, but the words “didn’t expect you to be up for another three days,” “highly invasive brain procedure,” and “need to adjust medication for the high metabolism” meant little to him.

Kaidan wouldn’t have fought off sleep if it had been just himself that he was worried about, but he was sure he had heard Shepard’s voice a moment ago. If he was in a hospital, Kaidan had to figure most of them had survived the mission, but he had to know for sure if anyone else had been injured along with him.

“Shepard,” Kaidan managed to say in a sluggish voice. “Is she…?”

“She’s fine,” Dr. Michel said, but whatever else she might have told him was cut off by the scowling salarian. “Just rest.”

“Is she here?” Kaidan asked, but Dr. Michel didn’t seem to hear him.

“Lie still,” the salarian told Kaidan. The alien’s voice sounded like it was coming from a long way off, down a corridor and echoed through several rooms. “You can go and get yourself killed later. On my watch, however, you have to get healed up, first.”

“But I’m fine,” Kaidan said, or at least he tried to. “Earth… Shepard… I have to get back in the fight. They need me.”

“They need you to get well ,” Dr. Michel told him gently, but Kaidan scarcely heard her. The painkillers seemed to close in over his head and push him back under the waters into dreams again. As he felt himself falling under, Kaidan heard the salarian say:

“Blast. We should have asked him to turn that damn VI off.”

“Somehow, I don’t think he was the one who turned it on,” Dr. Michel replied. She sounded like she was trying to hold back laughter.

Then Kaidan slipped out of consciousness and heard nothing more.

“Shepard and Alenko?” The words were accompanied by a loud snort. “You must be joking.”

From his vantage point overlooking the dying star, the Illusive Man did not even bother to turn around and address the man whose face currently flickered on the vid screen. The human councilor had his uses, the Illusive Man thought, but actually talking to the man was tiresome. He was yet another person who lacked any kind of vision. Stifling a weary sigh, the Illusive Man blew out a mouthful of cigarette smoke and turned back to the screen.

“Shepard and Alenko,” he repeated, “Were once close.” He walked back to his chair and sat down. The line of hovering vid screens lowered slightly to accommodate his movement.

“Hmph,” Udina said after a moment’s consideration. “I can believe it of Shepard. What’s astonishing is that she managed to keep quiet about it for so long. She tends to make a spectacle of herself wherever she goes. But the major?” Udina shook his head. “I would have thought him above getting mixed up with the likes of Shepard.”

“It seems he had thought better of the association as well,” the Illusive Man said. “I have reason to believe that the scales have fallen off of his eyes, as it were. Love is not so blind, it seems, that it can overlook wounded pride.”

“Love. Pride,” Udina said dismissively. “How is this relevant? I tell you that Earth is burning and the Council won’t help. And what do you do? You tell me about a pair of troublesome soldiers and their love affair. What does it matter in light of what’s happening in the galaxy right now?”

The Illusive Man took a drag from his cigarette and considered the question. Udina was right, of course. A single partnership was nothing against the force of the Reapers. After all, love was no more than a complex cocktail of hormones driving a person to mate. Friendship was slightly more complicated, but essentially was built on the same drives: to find protection within a group and raise one’s young there. Survival, not affection, was the root of all human interaction. Every partnership ever forged was mercenary in nature, the Illusive Man told himself. Though thankfully, Shepard was still too much a dreamer to see this.

“It matters,” the Illusive Man said patiently, as if he were explaining this to a child, “because Shepard *believes * it matters. Alenko is her Achilles heel, you see. We’ll use him to cripple her.”

“You do love your Greek mythology, don’t you?” Udina grumbled. More loudly, he said, “Even if this were true, I hardly see how getting at Shepard helps me . You made promises to me when I agreed to work with Cerberus, and you still haven’t delivered. Now that humanity is under attack and the Council won’t budge on the issue, I need you to give me what I asked for back then. I need the power necessary to save humanity.”

The Illusive Man cocked his head to one side. Truly, he thought with some amusement, Udina had no vision at all. “But it’s all related, don’t you see?”

“No, I don’t see,” Udina’s flickering image snapped back. “I see that our species is under attack and, as usual, we don’t have the power to push back the threat because the aliens have our hands tied. I see Shepard pushed me out of the running for councilor years ago and Anderson did nothing to advance humanity’s cause in the meantime.”

“He simply refused to work with the people who could actually get the job done,” the Illusive Man observed.

“Precisely,” Udina replied with a sniff. “Him and his principles. Which is why,” he added with a glare, “I turned to *you * all those years ago. I’ve been sending you intel, got those Argus security programs uploaded into Alliance systems…”

“You did that to spy on your associates as much as to help me,” the Illusive Man put in.

“Yes, well,” Udina admitted, “That was a rather useful side effect, I admit. But the point is, you owe me.”

The Illusive Man bristled at the words. By his reckoning, Cerberus owed Udina nothing at all. However, it would accomplish very little to wound the councilor’s pride at this point. Setting aside his own annoyance, the Illusive Man calmly said:

“As it happens, that is precisely why I am telling you about Shepard and Alenko…”

And then the Illusive Man stubbed out his spent cigarette and carefully explained his plan. Even through the flickering holograph, the Illusive Man could tell that his words struck a nerve. Udina’s eyes grew wider and wider with each word spoken, each twist and turn of the plot unfolded. The councilor didn’t say a word until the Illusive Man concluded with:

“And then,” he paused to pull out another cigarette out of his breast pocket, “Humanity takes control.”

There was a long pause on the other end of the QEC. It was convenient, the Illusive Man thought, that Udina had never questioned why Cerberus had given the human councilor a quantum entanglement unit and then contacted him so rarely. But then, Udina was arrogant enough to assume the expensive communicator was a mark of his vast importance in the galaxy, and not a promise of things to come. Even now, he was likely to accept the Illusive Man’s plans without question, seeing only the advantage to him , and not the hook on the other end of the thin thread. The Illusive Man waited patiently for the answer.

“That’s… I…” Udina sputtered. “My God.”

“That’s exactly what you want, isn’t it?”

“Well yes, but…” Udina shook his head. “I thought you would suggest that I assassinate Major Alenko. That would be easier, don’t you think?”

“No,” the Illusive Man said sharply. “Killers always leave trails right back to their lairs. An effective scheme allows us - allows you - to wash your hands of everything. You will get what you need, and you don’t have to fire a shot.”

Udina was quiet for a long time, then he spoke again.

“It will be a challenge to convince the Council, you know. Major Alenko is currently comatose. That’s hardly a recommendation of the man’s competence.”

The Illusive Man allowed himself a small smirk. He had managed to crack security on the Huerta Hospital terminals in order to get the diagnosis of Alenko’s injuries. It was some consolation that even though Major Alenko had survived his encounter with the Eva unit, he had been injured badly. And by the time the major made a full recovery, the time would be ripe for their plan. In some ways, the Illusive Man thought, things were almost working out better with Shepard and Alenko alive than if they had been dead.

“I’m sure you can persuade the Council,” the Illusive Man told Udina. “If they believe that honoring your request will appease humanity, they’ll do it. Better to appoint a token Spectre agent than to send expensive aid to Earth.”

Udina nodded slightly, then the nod grew more marked. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. This will work well.”

“Good,” the Illusive Man replied. “I’ll contact you when we’re ready to begin.”

“Very well,” Udina returned. “I’ll get everything in place.”

The two men exchanged a few cursory good-byes. Usually, the Illusive Man never bothered to glad hand the hired help, but with Udina, he had found it paid to be a little more civil. It was best to keep the man believing that Cerberus was just a lap dog.

Then, once the vid screen to the councilor fell dark, the Illusive Man rubbed his forehead wearily. He was getting tired, it was true. He slept rarely these days, if at all. Instead, he spent his time here, in this room, wide awake and planning the next move - always looking for the next move.

There were so many strands in the web, the Illusive Man thought, lighting up another cigarette. So many strands, and this next knot would require careful weaving. For what he had received from the Mars Archives was all that he needed to know in order to finish this scheme.

With that thought, the Illusive Man turned his attention to the thirteenth screen and unpaused the vid feed. The scene that appeared before him was that of a rocking camera, focusing unsteadily on the fallen body of a Cerberus trooper.

“Just what is it you’re accusing me of, Kaidan?” A voice from off camera asked. The tone was angry, officious, with just a hint of hurt lacing the words. The screen went dark for the briefest moment as eyelids blinked down over the camera. When the screen cleared, the view had shifted to a man standing by a railing. He was wearing an Alliance uniform, and though his face was turned away, the outline of his jaw appeared to be set in harsh lines of repressed fury.

“I’m not ‘accusing’ you of anything,” the man said without turning around. “I’m just trying to figure this all out.”

The Illusive Man watched the man carefully through the vid feed. The major was rather difficult to read, after all. His disgust with Shepard was evident; his suspicion of Cerberus was clear. The Illusive Man had heard the reports: Alenko hadn’t mourned Shepard at all. He had left her on Horizon with little more than a backward glance. There had even been rumors that he had proposed marriage to a doctor on the Citadel. The Illusive Man’s intel regarding the major’s actions was spotty at best, but he believed he had enough to piece together the picture.

For here, on the vid screen, was the man himself. Alenko’s coldness in the face of Shepard’s fire was impressive. It was a pity the man had such lofty principles. He might have made a fine ally, if Cerberus had been able to turn him. But even on the vid screen, as Shepard implored the major to listen to her, his face remained turned away, his expression unmoved.

And now , the Illusive Man thought, now comes the thrown gauntlet. As if on cue, the voice on the vid screen hardened to flint.

“I would rather die than become trapped inside of a cage in my own mind,” Shepard informed the Illusive Man and Kaidan both. “So if you really think I’ve gone rogue, Kaidan, or that I’m indoctrinated or whatever it is you think, then for God’s sake, put a gun to my head and pull the goddamn trigger.”

On the video screen, Alenko’s startled gaze swung to the camera. The Illusive Man grinned to himself and stopped the feed there.

Yes , he thought to himself. The major would never work for Cerberus directly, but that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t work for Cerberus all the same. A simple push in the right direction, a further suggestion or two, and Kaidan Alenko would fulfill his purpose just as Shepard had done. Both of them were stubborn and distrustful.

And it would be their undoing, the Illusive Man thought with a smile.