A couple of relay jumps and hours’ worth of cruising through the backwaters of the galaxy brought us to a Reaper, as TIM had promised. Its presence made no sense at all, considering it had have floated there since the last invasion 50,000 years before, but there it was.
No one on my ship wanted to go into that thing, me least of all. I still didn’t fully believe Miranda hadn’t inserted some sort of control chip in my brain while she’d been up to her elbows in my skull. Well, so to speak. My head isn’t that big.
The idea of intentionally going inside something capable of commandeering my brain made my morning coffee try to come up for a reprise. Going in I was, however. TIM was right about our needing the IFF and, unless we happened upon another handily disabled Collector ship laying about the galaxy this was likely to be the only one available.
Naturally, I asked Garrus to come along. Outside of Joker he was the member of my crew I’d known the longest and I certainly trusted him, more than anyone, not to get me killed and to keep me from going off the deep end if I did end up indoctrinated. I invited Mordin along as well. If worse came to worst he could knock me out with some sedative and they could get me the hell out of there.
Our direct experience with indoctrination had been limited to Saren and Benezia. The former had rarely been far from Sovereign and the latter able to fight the indoctrination at least intermittently when separated from it by some distance. With any luck we could get the hell away from this one and I could break free should the worst happen. Without any luck, I could kiss my free will goodbye, though I doubted I’d be in a position to mind much at that point.
I met the other two in the shuttle bay. Everyone I saw looked shifty and nervous. Could it be that we were already feeling the effects of being so near a Reaper? I didn’t sense the same sort of mental pressure I had around Sovereign but that meant nothing. For all I knew each Reaper had its own way of indoctrinating people.
Garrus looked at least as uptight as I felt. He stood near the shuttle, clicking his claws, his mandibles held low. Only Mordin seemed unaffected by the atmosphere. He trilled along about how fascinating it would be to see the inside of such a powerful construct. The idea that he might be vulnerable to its influence seemed not to have crossed his mind. I couldn’t decide if that was confidence or simply the distraction of such an opportunity.
I’d chosen one of the ex-Alliance shuttle pilots in hopes that he would be less vulnerable than an undisciplined Cerberus lackey to the insidious Reaper influence. Mordin had brought enough sedatives for all of us, should they prove necessary, and Garrus or I could fly us back to the Normandy in a pinch.
Joker had strict instructions to send Jack, Thane, and Jacob after us should it be necessary. Miranda had far too much trust in her own superiority, much as Saren had, to risk getting her any closer to the damned thing. All it would have to do was tell her how amazing she was and she’d find herself agreeing with whatever it said, particularly if it added a dose of how unfair it was that I was in charge.
But I’m stalling because I don’t want to tell you what it was like once we were aboard the not-dead AI. I don’t even like to remember it. The short version runs like this: Garrus, Mordin, and I found lots of info from TIM’s research team, including recordings that showed that the Reaper was inserting their memories into each others’ heads just to screw with them. Then we got mobbed by husks and geth, repeatedly.
It was dark as hell once we got past the first few chambers in which the team had hung lights. Elevated walks stretched over unknowable depths and our footsteps echoed hugely around us, as though the Reaper were mostly empty shell. Stale air lay lifeless, making each breath difficult and unsatisfying. It contained enough oxygen that we didn’t have to rely on our armor’s life support in the short term but I longed for a breath of home.
Somehow I expected the thing to smell of rot and burnt oil but the only real whiffs of scent we got came from the husks and even those offered faint stimulation for our senses. Outside of the scrabbling, grunting husks and clicking squeals of the Geth discussing whatever it is that sentient robots talk about, the silence was interrupted only by the occasional drip off in the distance.
Physically, Garrus and I had a tougher time than usual because the damned ex-people swarmed up from under the walkways as we passed. Our vaunted sniper abilities were worthless. We had, however, trained extensively in hand-to-husk combat and shooting from the hip. With our knowledge that a hit to the midsection blew them in half it was more inconvenience and mess than real danger, though you couldn’t have told it from the bruises their nasty thumps left all over my body, armor or no. Mordin and I tossed husks back with biotics where we could, as well, which gave us a little breathing and shooting room.
The geth thankfully stayed on top of the catwalks and so remained vulnerable to being picked off from a distance. The fighting itself took more exertion than usual but it wouldn’t have been difficult had I been able to concentrate. The Reaper, of course, had other ideas.
It started almost immediately, this tickling, trickling sense in the back of my mind. While Sovereign had felt like fingers poking and prying this asshole Reaper acted more like a caterpillar, nibbling and crawling and nibbling some more. It was truly repulsive and I kept wanting to reach up and brush it off the back of my neck.
The Reaper waited until another wave of husks kept us busy then dug in while my attention was divided. I could feel it in there, though mostly all it seemed to accomplish was to piss me off. Mordin kept up a choppy commentary on the sensation while Garrus increasingly rolled his shoulders and shook his head. His mandibles changed position every few seconds, from high and tight to working up and down to the occasional, alarming off-kilter expression with one hanging almost loosely while the other clamped in tight.
None of us seemed to be succumbing to indoctrination, exactly, but we fought poorly and for once I felt in real danger of serious injury. I worried that Mordin’s scrawny little torso might get cracked right in half while he was busily analyzing the latest commotion in his brain. I never did understand where Salarians hid their internal organs in those little stick bodies, anyway, but I doubted a major abdominal injury would be good for them.
“Get out of my freaking head, you bastard!” I yelled, giving in to my frustration. That was hardly going to work but it made me feel a little better. Garrus tried to lighten the mood by pointing out that Reapers weren’t the Bastards but all I could manage is a half-hearted heh.
I realized we didn’t have a code word for the Reapers. “Fine.” I stuck out my tongue at him. “Get out of my brain, laserface!”
My substitution seemed to cheer Garrus up a bit and his mandibles straightened out for a while, which in turn took the edge off my sense of impotence. Mordin incorporated this bit of by-play into his running commentary and I wondered if he recorded full-time or if talking to himself helped him remember events better. Then another batch of cyber-ized ex-humans crawled under the railing and derailed my train of thought.
All in all it was a grind, well nigh a slog, across the sterile guts of the Reaper to where EDI assured us we would find a place to steal the IFF. When I asked why it couldn’t just hack in from any of the terminals just inside the place we’d landed its tone turned defensive. “Why can’t you shoot the geth surrounding the drive core from the front door, Shepard?”
Rhetorical question or not, I started to answer. “Because a slug can’t get from here to there and neither can I,” it interrupted me in a remarkably testy tone for a computer.
I raised my hands. “Whoa, EDI, settle down! It was just a question.” It occurred to me that an AI might be susceptible to indoctrination, as well. I’d have to ask her about that when I got back to the Normandy, presuming we managed to not die in the immediate future.
Despite the constant distraction the Reaper provided, we reached the room at last. Outside the door to the core, the IFF device sat on a sort of pedestal, a bit of mockery inspired, I didn’t doubt, by the Reapers devious mind, one that took a particularly sharp bite at my own at that moment.
Its desperation showed in its suddenly redoubled attack. We stood outside the chamber of its heart, after all. It had to know that, being so close, we would hardly turn around and go home now. I may not have been able to kick it out of my head but I could kick it somewhere.
Feeling pretty cocky, I triggered the door which obligingly slid aside. One might have expected a little more resistance than that, I thought, but then realized the door didn’t matter. A barrier blocked our way and the controls stood fifty meters distant, with a Geth working at them frantically.
I shan’t shock you with the unladylike language that erupted at that sight. Garrus laughed so hard he dropped his Widow, if that tells you anything about my inventiveness. But I kept my eye on the Geth the whole time, even as I created new ways for it to violate itself and Reaper it rode in on.
A little bundle of husks shambled toward it and it turned, neatly dispatching the lot of them. That got me curious enough to stop cursing, at least. It could see me though the barrier as well as I could see it. It nodded its flashlight head curtly, said, “Shepard Commander,” and turned back to the console.
If EDI hadn’t prepared me for the idea that AIs could have actual emotions, hide them though it might, I’d have been stunned by its show of flip unconcern. “Good day, madame,” it had seemed to say with that little nod. Had it had a hat it would have tipped it. What the hell did that mean for our forward progress or lack thereof, however?
As though it heard my thoughts, the Geth gave one last flip of its fingers and dropped the barrier. It was a timely action as husks came swarming onto the platforms in the room from all directions. The Geth quickly dropped where it stood, surrounded by blue gore, and Garrus, Mordin, and I spent more time than I liked alternating our fire between the core itself and the electro-zombie horde. The Geth must have done some damage to the housing for the core itself because it kept slamming open and shut, making our job a whole lot more irritating.
The husks kept coming in waves but the more we hammered on the core the less the Reaper paid attention to its indoctrination efforts. It gave one last, massive chomp at my defenses, giving me a blinding headache and leaving me a bit disoriented, before abandoning my head to try for some control over its body.
By then it was too late. The core’s containment failed and I felt the Reaper shriek in fury in my brain. “Grab that and let’s get the hell out of here,” I said, pointing at the Geth.
“There’s no time,” Garrus said. “We have to move fast.”
“We're not going to throw away a perfectly good Geth,” I responded reasonably. “Besides, he helped us. I want to know why.”
Garrus rolled those tiny little eyes and then stooped to grab one arm-like extension of metal and tubes. “Hey,” he called, “it’s an N7, too!”
He dodged the kick I aimed at his rear so I kicked the mech, instead, and looked forward to asking it some rather pointed questions. I grabbed the other arm and Mordin led the way as we staggered back to the shuttle. Despite its negatives, the day had turned out quite satisfactory after all. I looked forward to a delayed victory dance as the Reaper exploded and we streaked away safely.