Drew Karpyshyn, page 1
By Drew Karpyshyn
BALDUR’S GATE II: THRONE OF BHAAL
STAR WARS: DARTH BANE: PATH OF DESTRUCTION
STAR WARS: DARTH BANE: RULE OF TWO
STAR WARS: DARTH BANE: DYNASTY OF EVIL
MASS EFFECT: REVELATION
MASS EFFECT: ASCENSION
MASS EFFECT: RETRIBUTION
To my wife, Jennifer.
Thank you for always being there for me.
Because of you, I can follow my dreams …
and have someone to share them with.
Once again I want to express my gratitude to the entire Mass Effect team at BioWare for all their hard work. Without your tireless effort and limitless dedication, Mass Effect would not exist.
I also want to thank all the fans who’ve shown such passion for what we’ve created. Without your support, none of this would be possible.
Other Books by this Author
The Illusive Man sat in his chair, staring out the viewing window that formed the entire outer wall of his inner sanctum.
The unnamed space station he used as his base was orbiting a red giant-class M star. The semispherical edge of the burning sun filled the entire lower half of the viewing window, its brightness dominating but not completely obscuring the field of stars behind it.
The star was in the last stages of its six-billion-year life span. As the grand final act culminating its existence, it would collapse in upon itself, creating a black hole to swallow the entire system. The planets and moons it had spawned in its birth would be devoured in the inescapable gravitational pull of the dark, gaping maw left behind by its death.
The scene encapsulated everything the Illusive Man believed about the galaxy: it was beautiful, glorious and deadly. Life could spring up in the least likely of places in the most unimaginable of forms, only to be snuffed out in a blink of the cosmic eye.
He wasn’t about to let that happen to humanity.
“Viewing window off,” he said, and the wall became opaque, leaving him alone in a large, dimly lit room.
“Lights on,” he said, and illumination spilled from the ceiling.
He spun his chair around so it was facing away from the viewing window, looking out over the circular holographic pad in the center of the room he used to receive incoming calls. When activated, it would project a three-dimensional representation of whomever he was speaking to, almost making it seem as if they were standing in the room with him.
They could also see him, of course, which was why the holo-pad was located so that it looked out over the chair by the viewing window. When the window was active, the Illusive Man would be framed by whatever astronomical wonder the station happened to be orbiting at the time: a bold and powerful visual to reinforce the image he had carefully fostered over the years.
He needed a drink. Not the synthetic, alien-produced swill that bartenders across the galaxy hawked to unsuspecting humans. He wanted something real; something pure.
“Bourbon,” the Illusive Man said out loud. “Neat.”
A few seconds later a door on the far end of the room slid open and one of his assistants—a tall, gorgeous brunette—appeared, an empty glass in one hand and a bottle in the other. Her heels clacked sharply as she crossed the room’s marble floor, her long legs making short work of the distance between them despite her tight black skirt.
She didn’t smile or speak as she handed him the glass, her demeanor strictly professional. Then she held the bottle out for his approval.
Jim Beam Black, the label proclaimed, Distilled to Perfection in Kentucky.
“Three fingers,” the Illusive Man told her by way of approval.
The assistant filled the glass to just past the halfway point, then waited expectantly.
As it always did, the first taste brought him back to the simpler time of his youth. In those days he had been an ordinary man, a typical citizen of Earth’s upper class—wealthy, comfortable, naïve.
He savored the flavor, feeling a twinge of longing for those lost halcyon days: before he had founded Cerberus; before he had become the Illusive Man, the self-appointed protector of humanity; before the Alliance and their alien allies on the Citadel Council had branded him and his followers terrorists.
Before the Reapers.
Of all the enemies in the known galaxy and beyond, of all the dangers that might one day wipe humanity from existence, none could compare with the threat that lurked in the void of dark space at the galaxy’s edge. Massive, sentient starships, the Reapers were ruthless machines completely devoid of compassion and emotion. For tens of thousands of years—perhaps longer—they had watched as alien and human civilizations evolved and advanced, waiting for the perfect moment to come in and wipe out all organic life in the galaxy.
Yet despite the apocalyptic threat they posed, most people knew nothing of the Reapers. The Council had sealed all official records of the Reaper attack on the Citadel space station, covering up the evidence and denying the truth to prevent widespread panic across the galaxy. And, of course, the Alliance, lapdogs of their new alien masters, had followed along without protest.
The lie ran so deep that even those who’d helped bury the truth had convinced themselves the Reapers were nothing but a myth. They continued on with their mundane existence, too weak and too stupid to acknowledge the horrific destiny awaiting them.
But the Illusive Man had devoted his life to facing unpleasant truths.
When the Alliance turned their back on the disappearing human colonies in the Terminus Systems, Cerberus had taken up their standard. They had even managed to recruit Commander Shepard—the Alliance’s greatest hero—to aid them in investigating the mystery. And what Shepard discovered had shaken the Illusive Man to his core.
The Illusive Man dismissed his assistant with a slight nod; the woman spun expertly on her heel and left him alone with his thoughts.
Taking another sip of his drink, the Illusive Man set it down on the arm of his chair. Then he reached into the inside breast pocket of his tailored jacket and removed a long, slim silver case.
With an unconscious grace gained from years of practice, he flipped open the top, slipped out a cigarette, and closed it again in one seemingly continuous motion. The case disappeared into his jacket once more, replaced in his hand by a heavy black lighter. A flick of the thumb and a quick puff on the cigarette and the lighter also vanished.
The Illusive Man took a long, slow drag, letting the nicotine fill his lungs. Tobacco had been part of Terran culture for centuries, the act of smoking a common ritual in nearly every developed nation on the globe. Sm
There were those who even had the audacity to claim that several of the salarian brands of genetically engineered leaf were superior to anything humanity had produced. The Illusive Man, however, preferred his tobacco like his whiskey—homegrown. This particular cigarette was made from crop cultivated in the vast fields sprawling across the landscape of the South American heartland, one of Earth’s few remaining agriculturally viable regions.
The traditional health risks associated with smoking were no longer a concern in the twenty-second century; advances in the fields of chemistry and medical science had eradicated diseases like emphysema and cancer. Yet there were still those who harbored a deep, fundamental hatred of this simple act. Ancient legislation passed in the mid-twenty-first century banning tobacco was still in effect within the borders of several of Earth’s nation-states. Many viewed cigarettes as morally abhorrent: a symbol of the callous and exploitive corporate indifference that caused millions of deaths in the pursuit of shareholder profit.
For the Illusive Man, however, smoking represented something else entirely. The taste curling across his tongue and down his throat, the tickle of smoke spreading through his lungs, and the warm rush of nicotine spreading through his system brought both the comfort of familiar routine and the satisfaction of physical craving: two essential elements of the human condition. Smoking was a ritual to be celebrated … especially now that humanity’s continued existence was at risk.
Smoke ’em if you got ’em, he thought, conjuring up an old line from a long-forgotten source. Because none of us is going to see tomorrow.
The Illusive Man took a few more puffs on his cigarette before stubbing it out in the ashtray built into the arm of the chair, then took another sip of his drink.
As grim as things might seem, he wasn’t about to give in to melancholy despair. He was a man who tackled problems head-on, and this one was no different.
Commander Shepard had discovered that human colonists were being abducted by the Collectors, a reclusive alien species that served the will of the Reapers without question. Though trapped in dark space, the massive starships were somehow able to exert control over their hapless minions even across millions of light-years.
Acting on the orders of their machine masters, the Collectors had been gathering humans and taking them to their homeworld in the galactic core. There the abductees were repurposed: transformed, mutated, and finally rendered down into organic sludge as part of a horrific experiment to fuel the creation of a new Reaper.
Shepard—with Cerberus’s help—had destroyed the Collector operations. But the Illusive Man knew the Reapers wouldn’t simply give up. Humanity needed to learn more about this relentless and remorseless foe in preparation for the Reapers’ inevitable return. They had to study their strengths and weaknesses, expose and exploit their vulnerabilities.
Cerberus had salvaged key pieces of technology from the remains of the Collector operation. They were already beginning to set up a facility to undertake the first carefully controlled tests of the strange alien technology. Ultimately, however, there was only one way to gain the knowledge they sought: they would have to resume the Collector experiments on real human subjects.
The Illusive Man knew full well the abhorrence of his plan. But ethics and morality had to be cast aside for the survival of the species. Instead of millions being abducted, a few carefully chosen subjects would be chosen. A handful of victims had to suffer to protect and preserve the entire human race.
The plan to replicate the Collector experiments would progress in secret, without Shepard’s knowledge or involvement. The alliance between Cerberus and humanity’s most famous hero had been uneasy at best; neither side had fully trusted the other. It was possible they might work together again in the future, but for now the Illusive Man was only willing to rely on his own top agents.
A soft overhead chime indicated an incoming message from one of those operatives.
“Viewing window on,” he said, sitting up straight in his seat and focusing his attention on the holo-pad.
The lights dimmed automatically as the wall behind him became transparent. The dying sun to his back cast an orange-red glow over the room.
“Accept,” the Illusive Man muttered, and the image of Kai Leng materialized above the holo-pad.
Like most of humanity, he was a child of a truly global culture. His Chinese heritage was clearly predominant in his dark hair and eyes, but around the jaw and nose were subtle clues pointing to some Slavic or Russian ancestry as well.
“We found him,” Kai Leng reported.
The Illusive Man had no need to ask who he was talking about. A top Cerberus assassin, Kai Leng had for nearly three years been on a mission to track down a single target.
“Where?” the Illusive Man wanted to know.
The corded muscles of Kai Leng’s neck momentarily tightened with revulsion as he spoke the name—a completely involuntary, but understandable, reaction. The space station represented everything Cerberus despised about alien culture: it was lawless, savage, and brutal. The reflex caused Kai Leng to turn his head, offering a glimpse of the tattoo on the back of his neck: a snake swallowing its tail.
The ouroboros was often used to symbolize eternity, but the Illusive Man knew it had a darker meaning as well: annihilation. Which was, in its own way, also eternal.
Cerberus had discovered Kai Leng a decade ago, liberating him from an Alliance prison camp. The Illusive Man had looked carefully into his past before recruiting him: a marine with N7 special forces training, he had been arrested after killing a krogan in a bar fight on the Citadel while on temporary leave.
The Alliance had come down hard on the former lieutenant, making an example of him. He was stripped of his rank and sentenced to twenty years in military prison. Kai Leng’s long list of documented confrontational and even violent behavior toward aliens had no doubt contributed to the harshness of his sentence. For the Illusive Man, however, his anti-alien leanings were proof of character. That, combined with the fact that he had managed to kill a krogan while armed with nothing more than a standard-issue service blade, had made him a perfect recruit.
In the decade since Cerberus had arranged his escape, Kai Leng had become one of the organization’s top wet-work operatives. But he was more than just a ruthless killer. He understood the need to be discreet; he knew how to plan and implement complex and delicate operations.
Now that he had found his target, the Illusive Man’s first impulse was to give the exterminate order. But then an idea came to him. He still needed subjects for the upcoming experiments; why not kill two birds with one stone?
“Bring him in,” he said. “Alive. Be sure to cover your tracks.”
“I always do,” Kai Leng replied.
Satisfied, the Illusive Man muttered, “Off,” and the holographic image of the assassin flickered once, then disappeared.
He leaned back in his chair, casually swirling the contents of the glass in his hand before downing the last of his drink in a long, satisfying gulp.
It’s been a long time coming, Grayson, he thought, his mood much more cheerful than it had been only minutes ago. But I’ll make sure the wait was worth it.
Paul Grayson knew the Illusive Man was still looking for him. It had been almost three years since he had betrayed Cerberus for the sake of his daughter, but even if thirty years had passed he knew they wouldn’t give up the hunt.
He had changed his name, of course: Paul Grayson was gone; he went by Paul Johnson now. But creating a new identity for himself was only the first line of defense; it wouldn’t hold up should any of the Illusive Man’s agents come across his credentials. And his agents were everywhere.
Since its inception, Cerberus had seeded operatives throughout nearly every branch of
The Illusive Man had never managed to secure a foothold on the enormous space station that served as the de facto capital of the Terminus Systems. Cerberus was well known for its radical pro-human agenda, making its agents extremely unpopular among the various alien warlords, gang leaders, and despots who held sway on Omega. Even if they suspected that Grayson was hiding here, it wouldn’t be easy for them to get to him.
It was something of an irony to Grayson that the skills he had learned while working for Cerberus—espionage and assassination—were proving so useful in carving out a new life for himself as a mercenary on Omega. He had been trained to kill aliens; now he was working for one.
“We’re wasting time,” Sanak grumbled, setting his sniper rifle to the side. He tugged at his combat suit as he shifted to find a more comfortable position behind the stacked crates that were concealing Grayson and him from view.
Grayson kept his own weapon trained on the ship on the far side of the loading bay. He was acutely aware of how careful his batarian partner was to not make any physical contact with him as he rummaged around.
“We wait for Liselle’s report,” he said flatly.
The batarian had turned his head to glare with all four eyes at the man crouched beside him. He blinked the uppermost pair, but the lower set remained still as stone.
“You always want to wait, human,” Sanak snarled. “It’s a sign of weakness.”
“It’s a sign of intelligence,” Grayson snapped back. “That’s why I’m in charge.”
Sanak knew only one way to deal with problems: charge into them headfirst. It made working with him difficult at times. His general dislike of humans—and Grayson’s deeply ingrained mistrust of batarians—didn’t help matters.
The two species had a checkered history. Humanity had expanded quickly after bursting onto the galactic scene, pushing the batarians out of the Skyllian Verge. The batarians had retaliated with violence, triggering a war between the two cultures—a war the batarians had lost. Now they were outcasts and pariahs in the civilized worlds of Council space—hardly ever seen, regarded with suspicion and mistrust.