Time seems to slow.
It happens, more and more often, in the heat of battle. Flow, the psychologists call it. The perfect moment when mind and body come together completely, effortlessly, in service of a task. Her gun is an extension of her arms, her eyes and ears and other senses drive it without conscious thought. Her armour is a second skin, weightless, strong, servos and actuators responsive to her every motion. Her feet propel her nimbly throughout the battlefield, over obstacles large and small, sprinting sliding kicking. And, behind it all, her brain watches and waits, determining new tactics and developing orders that her mouth issues with calm authority.
There is a joy in it, in flow. Should you not delight in perfection? Savour each sweet moment with fierce pride?
Sometimes, when the spell breaks, she feels sick at the slaughter she has so effortlessly wrought. At others, she feels triumph. Pleasure. Relief.
She's never been sure which is worse.
This is different, though. When she flows, she is barely in her body. She is the battlefield, in every spent clip and sudden movement. Here, now, her world is limited to herself. She can feel heart beating, too fast, too fast. Her blood rings in her ears, taints her mouth. Each breath is an agony, her ribs cracking and popping the way Rachni corpses do when you tread them underfoot. Other pains. Burns beneath her flaking armour, hot and tight. Warm blood leaks sluggishly from her side. Her ankle wobbles, taking her knee with it. Her arm grinds, her shoulder freezes, her fingers stick out at unnatural angles and her vision blurs, darkness creeping in at the edges.
And she is tired. So very tired. The light calls to her.
She takes a step forward, every muscle protesting, joints burning with agony. And another. A third and fourth follow before she looks up, one final time.
Earth fills the sky.
Reapers hang heavy above the destruction, ungainly vultures in the night. Around them flit glittering shards of light and dark to dance and die in silence. Geth fighters. Alliance frigates. Quarians and turians and salarians and asari and a half-dozen other races in a myriad of ships. Fighting the hopeless fight to the last man, all because of her. Because she had spent over a year working, begging and cajoling and wheedling and pleading to finally make them understand what was at stake. Because she, herself, had fought.
She looks back down at the branching path before her. Three options. Destroy. Control. Merge. But they aren't options at all, not really. They're simply three flavours of genocide.
"No," she says, so softly she's not sure she formed the word.
"No?" The child of light sounds confused.
She glances down the path to her right and the red glow and thinks of the geth and the quarians, sharing a world once more. Of EDI, freed from her shackles to fly the stars and find herself.
"No. This is wrong."
"This is the only way."
She glances to her left, remembers the bowels of the Collector ship and the face of the newborn Reaper, remembers Saren and Benezia and the beatific release in their eyes in the heartbeat before they died.
The Illusive Man's eyes are blue. Were blue.
"The only way that you know."
"It is the only way to prevent all organic life from being exterminated. To end the cycle, you must choose."
Ahead lies the light. It calls to her still. She can feel the hum of it in her bones. In her mind. She stares at it for an eternity, and then down at her broken hand. Dull grey is visible through the red tears in her skin; there are wires where tendons should be, carbon instead of calcium bones. She is already a hybrid thing, and not because she willed it. The Reapers' abominations, twisted amalgams of synthetic and organic, are a still larger violation. Mindless. Soulless. Uniform.
And then she remembers the stark beauty of the geth server and the echo of their memories in her mind. Her fingers flex and tremble and her hand is still a human thing, made by humans for a human. She remembers the Crucible itself, the impossible completed in months as dozens of races brought their unique skills and talents and resources to bear. The build site had been all noise and mess and arguments, equal parts discovery, desperation and frustration.
Her mind drifts to her crew. Her companions. Her friends. Garrus. Tali. Liara. Not one among them the same. Not one of them without conflict. And yet it's only thanks to them, working in concert, that she stands here, in this place, at this time, able to make this choice. Together they have faced the incomprehensible, done the impossible.
Chaos. And from chaos, a kind of order. Neither the stagnation of perfection nor the destruction of unfettered anarchy, but balance.
"Then the cycle will continue. The Crucible will be destroyed. Reapers will consume you. And at the end of the next cycle they will return."
"Then you must choose a Solution."
She smiles and shakes her head sadly as she turns back to face the boy-god. His expression slips from benign tolerance to confusion and then into petulance.
He will never understand, she knows in this instant. The embodiment of Order, it is beyond him.
"I already have," she says, almost dreamily.
Her arm drifts up of its own accord.
"You can't control us anymore. We will take out place among the stars. Your time, your order is over. There will be growth and change and life and chaos-"
Her finger caresses the trigger and pistol flicks off a single shot.
"-and it will be wonderful."
And there is triumph. Pleasure. Relief.
Her chest heaves and she jerks awake, spluttering, spitting blood and teeth. It hurts to breathe. Hurts to think. Someone is screaming in her ear, voice tinny, frazzled with static and mad with desperation. She ignores it and stares into the sky instead, trying to get her bearings.
The sky is on fire. Dark shapes move beyond it, sleek and unfathomable. And, in the near distance, a pillar of light. It calls to her.
There is something she has to do. Something important.
She struggles to sit up, debris cascading down from her chest armour. Cracked, splintered and peeling in a dozen places; it falls apart completely when she fumbles at the emergency release catches. Her helmet, casing cracked down the middle and equally useless, follows. She can smell sweat and blood and smoke and other dangerous things. Death.
Another minute of clumsy effort and her legs are free. They've fared slightly better, but the release pins on her left leg armour have bent and jammed and the actuator on the right is shot, simultaneously paining and hobbling her.
With that effort, though, she is spent, and she lies back against the rubble, eyes closed, listening to the sounds of battle. The pop-pop of small arms fire and the solid crack of a sniper. The reverberating whuuum and sizzle of beam fire, the roar of rockets and concussion of grenades. Screams and whimpers. Howling wind. And, beneath that all, the bone-deep rumble of Harbinger on the move and the unearthly bass scream of his weapons' fire. The other sounds die a little more after each blast, the chaos of the battle slowly giving way to silence.
Silence. Peace. Order
The realisation hits her like a thunderbolt, memories flooding back, and she sits bolt upright in horror, ignoring the pain.
They'd been in her head.
They'd been in her head. The Reapers had been in her head.
She forces herself over, getting first one knee beneath her and then the second.
The Reapers had been in her head.
She is standing, now, swaying, stumbling, running towards the pillar of light. The ground falls away beneath her feet; she flies. Shadows lurch and loom towards her; they fall behind, screaming in fury. Projectile fire cracks and hisses across her path; she ignores it, to focused on her goal to care and too enraged to notice if she did. The world slows and the blinding beam rushes forward to meet her through the red mists of her fury.
They had been in her head. They had tried to control her, make her surrender. They had tried to make her give up at the very last, after all she has done and been through.
She will kill them all.