Deal with the Devil
Bathed in a red-orange semicircle of light, the Illusive Man scanned report after report coming in from assets spread throughout the galaxy. Ships of the most powerful factions had converged on the Omega Four relay, preparing to establish a foothold on the other side to capture the collector base and all the secrets within. That he didn't hurl his datapad across the room was testimony to his self control, but even he was still human and could only hold back so much.
He turned around to face the ghostly visage of Commander Shepard in front of his chair. Instead of the full-body holographic projection, it was merely a 2D representation of Shepard's head, captured by the camera in the Captain's quarters on the Normandy. He strode angrily toward the image, almost as if he intended to take a swing at him. "You had mankind's greatest technological discovery since the Charon Relay in the palm of your hand and you gave it to our enemies!"
Shepard raised his eyebrows as he settled slowly in his chair. "They're not my enemies."
"Don't try to argue semantics. Do you have any idea what you've cost humanity?"
"Gee, that's a tough one. I'm going to go with," Shepard held up a thumb and forefinger in a small circle. "Zero. You know why?"
"That base would have secured human dominance-"
"No, no, no," Shepard held up his hand. "Don't even start in with that 'strength for humanity' bullshit. That doesn't fly with me. It never has."
"Don't you bark at me! I brought you back-"
"You brought me back to save our colonists from the collectors and that's exactly what I did. But I didn't do it just for humanity's sake. And when I agreed to keep the base, I never said I was going to hand it over to you, either. Maybe you haven't been keeping up with my mission reports, or those from whoever you had spying on me, but if you are honestly, remotely surprised by this, you're not nearly as smart as you think you are. Seriously, in all my travels have you ever known me even once put the interest of my species above anyone else's?"
The Illusive man brought up a holographic display, punched in a few commands and scowled. Was is because of the results on his display or Shepard's words? Either way, he said nothing.
"No?" Shepard answered his own question. "Then you should have seen this coming. The more eyes and hands we have on the reaper tech, the better chance we'll have to defeat them when they arrive. You remember the reapers, don't you? You want to protect humanity, this the best way to do it." Shepard wished he was standing in front of the Illusive Man, in person to look him in those glowing eyes. "What happened to 'no sacrifice too great?' Or was that just more bullshit? Welcome to the big table. I anted up for you. You can play, or get out. But you will not get in my way. And if you don't like it, send one of your hit squads after me and see what happens."
The two men stared at each other in silence, utterly expressionless. Shepard used all his strength and discipline to maintain the facade, because inside he felt a rush like nothing he'd felt since coming back to life. For over a year, his friends, his allies and even some enemies asked hard questions about his alliance with Cerberus. He didn't want to do it, he had to do it, was all he could ever say. It was never enough for them or himself. For the first time, he felt like he was stepping back across some invisible line that fate had forced him to cross.
"You're still here," Shepard said after a few moments.
The Illusive Man laughed softly. It was the only time Shepard could recall seeing such a normal, human display from him. "You know, we could account for everything for your mission. Weapons, supplies, personnel... But not you. Before your death, you and your crew were responsible for more casualties and collateral damage to Cerberus than the combined law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies of the entire galaxy. My advisers said I was insane to consider recruiting you because there would be no way to reign you in. So I never tried. I gave you complete control of this mission from the beginning, over the objections of some who still feel to this day that I made a mistake. But the collectors have been stopped, and their masters exposed. I may not agree with your reasoning or your decisions, but I can't deny the results. You've accomplished more than anyone could have imagined. If you'll pardon my species-centric mentality, all of humanity is in your debt."
Shepard waited for an inevitable 'but' that did not come. In fact, he wished the Illusive Man had cut him off, because he was not prepared for the response he got. "Happy to do it," he said, unsure if he really meant it.
The Illusive Man fished into his vest pocket for his pack of cigarettes and lit one with his solid gold lighter. He took a long drag before blowing a cloud of smoke into the air next to him. "You always have been. So what's our next move?"
"Our next move?" Shepard echoed in disbelief. "You still want to back me?"
"Of course. You still represent the greatest chance for the survival of the human race. That is, after all, our ultimate goal. One that despite our differences, we both share." When Shepard did not respond, the Illusive Man sighed. "The alternative being that you turn command of the Normandy to Miranda, and she will drop you and your squad at a destination of your choosing. Our business will be concluded." Leave the Normandy. The Illusive Man didn't have to be clairvoyant to see the conflict this thought caused the Commander. "You hadn't given this much thought either, have you?"
Shepard shook his head. "No, I guess not. The truth is, I didn't think we'd make it back at all."
"But you did, which in itself is a great victory." The Illusive Man puffed once more on his cigarette. "It would seem we're both guilty of target fixation. We were so consumed by the task at hand that we failed to plan for what would come after. But our partnership doesn't have to end. The reapers are still out there. We have a long road ahead of us."
Shepard tilted his head back, eyes shut. Work with the Alliance and Citadel, lose the Normandy. Work with Cerberus, possibly lose much more. What would Jack say, if she found out he had a chance to tell The Illusive Man off once and for all, and didn't? What would Garrus think, or Tali? Or anyone? "Honestly, I don't know I feel about that."
The Illusive Man straightened the lapels of his jacket. "It's your choice, Commander. Like I said before, there will be no repercussions for you or anyone who chooses to part ways. But I would like you to consider one thing."
Shepard opened his eyes to see the Illusive Man's glowing irises staring back at him.
"There is strength in unity, as you so nobly proclaimed only moments ago. We have accomplished much together, yet there is still more to be done."
"You're saying you're going to follow my lead on this? Because that's how I'm going to take it."
"So long as our interests remain the same. Remember, Shepard, this is a partnership. It requires an equal amount of cooperation and trust on both sides."
Shepard studied the man on his screen for several moments before giving a nod. "Fair enough."
"Good," The Illusive Man crossed one leg across his knee, his favored pose during their usual debriefings. "So what do the Alliance and Council have planned for the collector base?"
"They're massing a fleet to conduct a joint operation at the galactic core," Shepard said. "Mordin has fabricated a copy of the IFF for a scout drone as a test. If it returns successfully, an armada will follow. They will secure the base, and stay on station in case any collector reinforcements mount a counterattack. Because of the risk of indoctrination, no personnel will board the base. All reconnaissance and research will be conducted remotely via mech."
"A prudent precaution. And again, I have to confess my admiration at your ability to bring hostile factions together on a common cause."
Shepard nodded. "When faced with a common threat, soldiers settle their differences and work together."
"Very true," The Illusive Man pointed his cigarette at Shepard. "Which means with the collector threat addressed at the moment, you now must contend with the next greatest threat facing the galaxy."
Smoke puffed from the Illusive Man's nostrils. "Politicians. And right now, the politicians are still at each other's throats. They will publicly praise this newfound spirit of cooperation, of course, but behind closed doors, the same battles for dominance are still being fought."
"What do you mean?"
The Illusive Man's eyes narrowed. "The geth situation remains unresolved. While you have united the militaries of the galaxy in defense against the reapers, the geth crisis has left humanity's political standing in tatters. This event may decide the role humanity plays in the galaxy for centuries to come."
Shepard felt like he was missing something important. "Since when did Cerberus care about our relationship with the Council?"
"We don't," The Illusive Man shifted in his chair. "It's our relationship with the geth that concerns me. That will define our place in the cosmos, not the Council. If Legion's statements are true, the heretics represented but a small fraction of the entire geth population. All of our plans in dealing with the geth were based on those small numbers. Now, we know there are ten or even twenty times that amount. That skews the balance of power dangerously in their favor."
"The geth aren't a threat."
"Maybe not now, but what of the future? Will they be open to trade? Exchange of knowledge and ideas? Will they make alliances, or more importantly, enemies? No galactic civilization goes very long without making enemies, whether they want to or not. Sometimes, peace is not an option."
The Illusive Man stared into space as he spoke, lost in his own words, "Their power is unmatched, but they don't know it. They possess incredible manufacturing and resource gathering capabilities that put our most advanced corporations to shame. Technical prowess, the ability to hack and take over any computer network. Military might unmatched by any other species. All of which, combined with their ability to coordinate instantly as a species, makes them a force to be reckoned with. Decisions that might take the Alliance or the Council years to make are made in microseconds, and acted on with the same efficiency. How can we compete? If they were to turn against us, we might face a threat as dangerous as the reapers. By the same token, they would be potent allies if we could earn their goodwill, which we are sure to do were you successful in helping them achieve peace with their creators."
"And there it is," Shepard said with a smirk. "There's always an ulterior motive with you, isn't there?"
"I always put humanity's interests first. If you are honestly, remotely surprised by this," The Illusive Man deadpanned, "you're not nearly as smart as you think you are."
"Guess that makes us even. So you want me to do what, exactly?"
"Take your friends back to the Migrant Fleet," The Illusive Man said. "Get the quarians and geth back to the negotiating table."
"So now you care about the quarians?"
"No," The Illusive Man said with complete honesty. "But the geth do. I thought you did too, and I have to say I'm surprised at your reluctance. You always seem quite eager to play the peacemaker."
"Not when there are strings attached. Especially when I can't see all of them."
"I've told you my motives," The Illusive Man exhaled another cloud of smoke. "I am not against helping the quarians. They have been defecated on by practically every species in the galaxy since their expulsion from Rannoch. If these peace negotiations are successful and humanity is regarded as their savior, our position at the table improves even more."
Shepard shook his head angrily. "They aren't poker chips."
"No, but they aren't players, either," The Illusive Man said. "They were forced from the table and need someone to stake them. They've been waiting for three hundred years. You alone are in a position to make it happen, and we may all benefit in the long run."
Shepard rubbed his neck. He'd spent the entire day talking. Obviously, he wasn't going to be done any time soon. "All right. I'll see what all the players think."
"Good," The Illusive Man's cigarette sparked as he sucked in a lungful of smoke. "When can you get started?"
"As soon as I get off the line with you. The geth are still willing, as is the Alliance. I'll go see Tali, find out what the situation is with the Admirals. We'll go from there."
"Excellent. Let me know if there is anything you need from me. Good luck, Shepard."
"Thanks. Anything else?"
The Illusive Man looked pensive. "Just one thing. Because of who you are, you may be inclined to involve the Council in this matter. Don't."
"You worried that I'll give away humanity's edge with the geth like I did with the collector base?"
"It's up to the geth to decide to whom they ally, though I would prefer it be us. But that's not what I mean."
"Go on," Shepard said, not trying to mask his skepticism.
"Solving the quarian situation has never been the Council's goal. In fact, I believe they have done everything in their power to prevent a solution. It was the Council itself that decided that the quarians should receive no aid as a result of their creation and attempted annihilation of the geth. And for three centuries now, Tali's people have been forced to remain adrift amongst the stars, their requests for safe harbor repeatedly refused, their colonization attempts blocked, any meaningful outside assistance stymied at the order of the Council itself."
The Illusive Man's cigarette glowed as he took another drag. "And now, humanity is facing it's greatest political challenge since the First Contact War because we intervened on the quarian's behalf. It's not a question I've given much thought to until recently, but I'm beginning to wonder why."
Shepard looked down at his desk. He was no fan of the Council to be sure. They were bureaucratic and obstructionist, but could they be so ruthless as to intentionally let an entire culture die in space? "To be honest," he said, "I've wondered about that myself."
The Illusive Man nodded. "It's perplexing to say the least. And worth considering when deciding who to appeal to for help."
"I'll take it under consideration."
"That's all I can ask," the Illusive Man said. "Be careful, Shepard."
The vid feed dissolved into empty air. The Illusive Man massaged his throbbing temples with his free hand and took another long drag from his cigarette. Battling Shepard's inexhaustible idealism always drained him, but knowing now that the Commander was deceiving him made it worse. Barely opening his eyes, he tapped a sequence into the touch panel in the arm of his chair. He was thankful his very expensive control pad was still accepting his commands, even though his very expensive starship was not. Eyes closed once more, he heard, rather than saw the quantum entanglement array activate as it brought a real-life glowing ghost into existence.
"Doctor Archer," he said. "I just fed an emergency override into EDI on the Normandy and the command was not executed. Explain to me why I no longer have control over my ship."
Gavin Archer's blue-blood, aristocratic accent gave the AI researcher the air of always being composed and in control. Act or not, he was brimming with his usual confidence as he gave his report. "After extensive binary comparison of the feeds coming from the Normandy, I can say conclusively that this is not the result of faulty code or sloppy procedures."
The Illusive Man took a drag from his cigarette and listened, carefully noting the doctor's blunt rejection of responsibility for the situation. A holo window appeared next to him, displaying Archer's report. He followed along as Archer narrated.
"EDI's system locks and and security were impenetrable from a network standpoint. They are stored in a physically separated subsystem to prevent EDI from being able to alter or bypass them. This means two things. One, Shepard or another member of the crew removed the locks, thereby giving EDI complete control of the ship, and therefore the ability to block our commands."
"Mister Moreau's doing," The Illusive Man said, examining the tip of his burning cigarette. "He was forced to give EDI control when the crew was abducted by the collectors. It was a risky move, but it paid off. Shepard reported that upon his return to the Normandy, he re-shackled her systems. Miranda verified this."
"Which brings me to my second point. As a redundant check, there is an additional, one-way physical connection to the lockout subsystem that cannot be accessed by EDI. This prevents a rogue AI from feigning a shackled state to our network should an outbreak scenario occur. This system currently shows that EDI is functioning normally and is responding to our commands, a situation we know to be false. Miranda has direct access to this system and would have seen this discrepancy immediately." He folded his arms smugly. "This is not an AI outbreak, nor the result of human error. Our security measures are being willfully overridden. This is deliberate sabotage, involving some of our most trusted operatives."
The Illusive Man waved the report on the holo projection closed and rose to his feet and turned his back on the doctor to face the glowing red star.
Archer followed him with his eyes. "We have no control over the the Normandy at this point. We need to send a team to recover her immediately."
"Our options are limited," The Illusive Man tried to focus on the problem at hand instead of the anger welling up inside of him. "The Normandy currently sits in the second largest concentration of Alliance and Council forces outside the Citadel itself. Acting rashly would compromise our assets in the system. But that will be changing shortly. The Normandy will soon be on the move." He puffed thoughtfully on his cigarette. "How long do you estimate we have before the quarians re-write their virus to work with the upgraded geth network?"
"Unknown. They are undoubtedly hindered by the lack of upgraded specimens on which to test, just as we are. Which is another reason we should bring the Normandy in immediately, by force if necessary. We would have access to not just one but two mobile platforms, in addition to sixteen other parallel units. Our development time would be exponentially reduced. It will surely give us the edge over the quarians."
"Only one mobile platform," The Illusive Man corrected him. "Legion has not been upgraded. That actually works in our favor, as Commander Shepard has developed an emotional attachment to it and would likely react to its abduction with hostility."
"Shepard?" Archer scoffed. "The Lazarus Project has run its course. Why do you insist on keeping him alive? Need I remind you that there are Council agents aboard the Normandy as we speak, at his invitation? The risk of exposure is enormous. He has already given over the data on the IFF. Who knows what he'll do next?"
The Illusive Man tapped his ashes into the tray beside his chair. "That was unexpected, and unfortunate. But the collector base was a target of opportunity, not the overall goal of the mission."
Archer did not try to hide his anger. "What was the goal, then, exactly?"
The Illusive Man turned back around, dark malice evident in his glowing eyes. Even though they were separated by hundreds of light years, the AI project leader stepped back involuntarily. "The same as it's always been," The Illusive Man jabbed his cigarette towards Archer. "The protection of humanity. Shepard's short-sightedness may have lost us exclusive access to the base, but we will still benefit from it in the long run. In the past four days he has single-handedly put an end to the abduction of our colonists, restored military cohesion between the Alliance and the Citadel, and at the same time awakened them to the greatest threat to our very existence. All of which improve humanity's security and standings in the long run. As long as he continues to produce these kinds of results, he is not an asset I consider to be expendable. And he has no knowledge of anything that can compromise us."
Archer's jaw tightened. "And what of Lawson, then? Shepard may not be a threat. There's nothing in EDI's memory that can compromise us, and you hand-picked the rest of the crew based on their isolation from our more sensitive projects... but Miranda's knowledge encompasses far more than the Lazarus cell. And it's clear that her loyalties now lie with Shepard."
"That is not your concern," the Illusive Man crushed the cigarette butt in the ashtray. "We have contingencies in place to handle rogue operatives. Now, tell me more about the quarians. What steps have they taken towards deployment of the virus?"
The abrupt topic shift resulted in a brief pause from the doctor. "As I predicted, they have set up a staging area in the Far Rim from which to launch their injection. Our surveillance drones have located them in the system of Ma-at. Their target appears to be a geth hub in close orbit to the star. So far they have avoided detection."
The Illusive Man conjured a holo screen to his right and manipulated it with one hand. "That is our safeguard, then. Should our intelligence indicate the quarians are close to completing their virus, we will eliminate their injection point. Dispatch a strike force immediately."
"We must tread carefully," Archer advised. "If the geth are alerted to the activities of the quarians or our ourselves, they will take further steps to isolate their networks, possibly rendering our own operation invalid."
"Then you should endeavor to complete your efforts as quickly as possible." The Illusive Man produced another cigarette from its pack and turned back towards the sun. For all of the light it provided, shielding and protective coatings prevented any of the heat from coming through.
"And what of the Normandy?"
"Shepard intends to take the geth to Raheel-Leyya to resume talks with the quarians. We may no longer control the Normandy, but we will know exactly where she is going, and when."
"What?" Archer was dumbfounded. "If they show up at the flotilla, Xen will snatch up the geth like marbles!"
The Illusive Man looked over his shoulder. "Unless you tell me we can regain control of the ship remotely, we don't have much choice. We'll have to settle for knowing where they are going, and intercept the Normandy before it gets there."
"And if we can't?"
"That's an excellent question. We may have to find something to distract the quarians from their work."
Archer rubbed his chin. "If they succeed, they will be able to retake their homeworld. I can't imagine Xen will let anything distract them from that. Even the prospect of peace."
"No," The Illusive Man's voice was very, very cold. "They will do far more than retake their beloved Rannoch. The geth will make them the most powerful faction in the galaxy the instant they assume control. Imagine... they will gain all of the resources beyond the Perseus Veil. Have a tireless, perfectly skilled labor and manufacturing force to rebuild their empire. Gain hundreds, maybe thousands of robotic ships to tend to their fleet, as well as a self-replicating, AI-controlled mechanical army the likes that have never been seen. They will go from pathetic nomads to the absolute apex of power as fast as their mechanical servants can provide it."
He sighed and blinked in the sun's light. "We will do whatever is necessary to prevent that from happening, and instead secure this resource for humanity. Our survival depends on it. You may return to your research, Doctor."
The scientist clenched his teeth as he signed off. "Archer out."
The Illusive Man put the cigarette to his lips for another pull, watching fibrils undulate across the star's surface before exhaling and returning to his chair. Another touch on the armrest brought up holo display containing archival footage from the Normandy's voyages over the past year. Images flipped rapidly by. Omega. Tuchanka. Illium... He stopped on a frame lacking standard navigation references, only a time code, and expanded it to full size.
He cocked his head to one side as archived nose camera footage swept across a glittering backdrop of stars, panning across dozens, then hundreds of starships of all shapes and sizes. Every time he saw it, he marveled at the size of the Migrant Fleet and its ability to coordinate operations between the fifty thousand ships that comprised it. More impressive still was the Normandy's destination on this particular flight, as Shepard raced his quarian engineer home to face trial for treason. The giant, bulbous sphere of the Rayya dominated the view, dwarfing even the largest ships in the fleet, one of the three liveships that kept the entire fleet supplied with food.
The tip of his cigarette flared brightly in front of The Illusive Man's eyes as he watched the enormous moon of a ship roll through space. When he exhaled, the Rayya vanished silently behind a cloud of smoke.
Undoubtedly, the real thing would not disappear as quietly.