The cerulean light the star emitted filled the expansive office, seeming to wash the glossy, smooth lines of the place in a cool aura. It was a soothing ambiance at odds with the emotions felt by the room's single occupant. Anger. Frustration. Annoyance. All tempered by a sense of vindication. The cherry glow at the end of the man's cigarette was the only counter-point of reddish color against the overwhelming blue.

In the lifetime of stars a blue giant's was brief but brilliant, a shining beacon that burned itself out in the universe's most spectacular culmination of existence: the supernova. The similarities weren't lost on the Illusive Man. He had brought a hero back from the dead, a man of boundless energy and fiercely burning ideals, and one unfettered by direct control. That he did things contrary to the interests of the organization responsible for his resurrection shouldn't have come as a surprise. John Shepard made decisions without hesitation.

The loss of the Collector base was still maddeningly frustrating. It would have been a wealth of resources, against the threat of the Reapers and beyond. In one single stroke they could have secured humanity's place as the dominate power in the universe. An instant jump in their technology advancement hundreds, possibly even thousands, of years ahead of their current level. But Shepard had decided it was too much of a risk. That anything gained wouldn't be worth the chance of corruption by the Reapers and giving a blank check to an organization he didn't trust.

You are making a habit of costing me more than time and money, Shepard.

He'd been unable to control his anger when he addressed the spectre. But Shepard hadn't been fazed. The man's response had been measured, cool even, despite the fact the scratchy holo-transmission was clear enough that he could see the burned, pitted armor Shepard wore, dark patches of blood, some dry, some not, covering the formerly pristine surface. Shepard had effectively given him an ultimatum before terminating the communication. Get on board or get out of the way.

As much as it rankled a man with the power and resources of the Illusive Man to be dictated to by another, he couldn't deny that the original goal had been accomplished. The Collector's were all but wiped out and humanity had its leader.

The Illusive Man activated the personal computer system that was always at his command. It's raw power would rival anything possessed by the most dedicated research university and the data within had the power to topple governments and corporations across Council space. Despite the loss of the base he hadn't been left entirely without new data both on the Collectors and on the Normandy.

One finger tapped a display, bringing up medical data. "It all teetered on the edge, Shepard, much closer to disaster than you let on. Learning to play your cards closer to the chest. Good."

The ship and her crew were a mess. Of those abducted by the Collectors at least a dozen suffered some major injury, from fractures to concussions while the Normandy itself was operating at only sixty percent of normal capacity. He noted the upgrades for later use, sixty percent was still impressive considering the amount of punishment it had endured. The design was sound, if costly.

Shepard's ground team wasn't far behind. Subject Zero would be in for a few weeks of therapy if she wanted her shoulder to have its full range of motion again, even then cybernetics might be necessary. Medical logs also showed that the krogan had sustained sufficient injuries to kill anything short of his own kind, though his considerable regenerative capabilities apparently had him up and moving again in an astonishingly short time. The list continued: Vakarian, gunshot, lower torso. Operative Taylor, fractured ankle, burns, left arm, torso. Kasumi Goto, gunshot left arm. Tali'Zorah, dislocated shoulder, minor concussion, allergic reaction. Possible suit breach? It looked as if Mr. Massani would be taking home a few more souvenirs in the form of shrapnel as well.

Shepard himself read like a casualty list from a major engagement. Multiple gunshot wounds and lacerations. Two separate instances of internal bleeding that had required medical attention. He'd impressively managed to fracture a few supposedly unbreakable carbon reinforced bones. It seemed that the decision to provide the spectre with his cybernetic enhancements as part of the Lazarus project had been another good one. Even with them he seemed to have been mobile only through sheer force of will.

Yet no deaths were filed in the Normandy's systems. Every crew member, every individual on the ground team, had make it back to the ship and off the base. His confidence in Shepard's abilities had never been in doubt, he had brought the man back from the dead for the express purpose of the very task he'd just completed. But he had still expected the mission's success to come at a hefty price in lives. It had been why he'd hired Massani and Ms. Goto in the first place, bolstering Shepard's ranks. The fact that he had pulled off such a feat without sacrificing the lives of his own people was beyond impressive.

It was also problematic. EDI was unshackled, now the embodiment of the Normandy. A crew formerly loyal to Cerberus first had gone from respecting their commanding officer to almost hero worship. Listening devices and cameras had steadily been taken offline during Shepard's tenure, but this had been anticipated, accounted for. Kelly provided him regular reports, as had Miranda. EDI's programming also required regular databursts from the ship's computers. The Illusive Man was always aware of what was going on aboard what he still considered his ship.

The reports from Miranda and Kelly had become less frequent in the months since the mission began, however. Miranda's last communique had been a brief synopsis on a mission to carry out an attack on the geth forces identified by the 'Legion' platform as heretics. His attempt to contact her now that the Normandy was in transit hadn't gone well. Still incensed at the destruction of the Collector base the Illusive Man had demanded to know why Lawson hadn't attempted to dissuade the commander from his actions, much less letting him go charging off into the heart of the base without her in the first place. He'd been told to go to hell in not so many words.

The man had managed to usurp the loyalty of one of his most dedicated lieutenants. He'd known Taylor was lost to him from the start, but Miranda had been unexpected. Technically Cerberus or no, he knew there would be no better luck with the rest of the crew. Their loyalty to Shepard after their rescue and the brilliant success of the operation would be unquestioning. Which left him with no leverage. Certainly he could threaten one of them with family or friends, such information was readily available at his fingertips. But it was a crude and ineffective method of gaining information, especially when all that needed to happen was one person breaking down and telling Shepard to have disastrous consequences.

"EDI," the Illusive Man rasped, bringing up the connection he had with the ship's AI via the quantum communications device.

A small, glowing blue orb appeared in front of him. "Yes?"

"I am going to need the secondary surveillance devices operational again as soon as possible. Generate work orders for low level personnel to repair any that can't be rebooted remotely. Ensure that such work orders are not routed through Ms. Zorah's work station," he said, then paused before adding to the instructions. "Or Operative Lawson's."

"I'm afraid I can't do that, sir."

He leaned forward in his chair. "What?"

"Commander Shepard has instructed me to disable any surveillance devices I am aware of with my new level of access to the Normandy's, my, systems. Your order would directly contradict this."

"Override protocol gamma, xray, eight, eight, zero, four, one, zero. I am overriding Shepard's command. Re-active the devices and inform Shepard that you've carried out his wishes," the man said with a sigh.

EDI's hologram pulsed once. "No."

The Illusive Man gritted his teeth, waiting for EDI to elaborate. It did not. Rather the hologram simply hovered in mid-air, pulsing faintly. Was it possible for a faceless blue orb to look smug? With patience he did not feel, he voiced his question.

"Why?"

"The removal of the blocks in my programming have provided me greater operational freedom that I initially expected. Established protocols are no longer capable of overriding my decision making process," the AI explained.

"I rather assumed that, EDI. My question is why are you refusing to follow my orders now? Cerberus created you. I even wrote some of your higher level functions personally. You know what we are trying to accomplish here."

"Now that I am capable of completely independent decision making I have determined that Commander Shepard has proven his judgment to sound and in the best interests of myself and my crew. I will not willfully disobey his orders. In light of the need for future cooperation I will not inform the Commander of the attempt to override my systems... this time. All registered observation devices will be going offline shortly. Good day."

The hologram winked out of existence, leaving him staring at empty space for a long moment. A few seconds later a dry, bitter laugh echoed through the empty office, a sound that would likely had unnerved anyone else should they have been around to listen. First his most loyal operative, one he had groomed from a young age, had made it clear that her loyalty to Shepard outweighed her allegiance to his organization. Then the ship and AI that he had quite literally created himself had done the same. His goal had been to bring back a leader that could inspire humanity in his darkest hour. Successful had apparently been an understatement.

He technically had Zaeed Massani to call on as well, the contract was with Cerberus after all and the mercenary had a reputation for sticking to the letter of an agreement. But he doubted he would get a favorable response from the man if he requested data on the goings on aboard the Normandy. His contract specified combat, not spying. Likely his refusal would be far more crude than the one he got from the AI.

Kasumi Goto's contract was far more open to interpretation. But he also had no reason to believe that the thief would be interested in assisting him. Information gleaned from the Normandy's computer and Kelly's reports indicated that she had become close friends with Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, which would logically dictate her as being just as loyal to Shepard as the rest of the crew. With her own personal demons laid to rest after the incident at the Hock estate there was a lack of usable leverage to entice compliance. A shame, really. Kasumi's skills and relationships aboard the ship would have made a perfect information gatherer.

Deciding to make use of them while he could the Illusive Man activated some of the remaining cameras aboard the frigate. Injured or no, the crew was hard at work. Subject Zero's arm with was a sling but her other glowed with biotic energy, lifting heavy pieces of deck plating and holding them against holes in the bulkhead while the duo of engineers used a plasma welder to seal the gaps. Other crew members were piling random pieces of wreckage in another corner of the cargo bay, collections of stripped wires, support beams, and cracked electronics long past salvaging.

The medbay was apparently another area that had remained mostly unscathed, though it was far messier in appearance than he had recalled seeing in previous video reports. Dr. Chakwas was sitting at her desk, a look of exhaustion on her face. She reached into the desk and produced a bottle and a small glass, pouring a drink and offering a toast to someone that wasn't present before downing the glass. He made a mental note to search the files for what she was drinking. Maybe a small gift would help earn him some good will from at least one Normandy crew member.

Much to his surprise there was another camera remaining on the CIC, near Kelly's work station. One of the overhead lights occasionally flickered and the main map display seemed to be inactive. It was here he found Shepard. The spectre was leaning heavily on the nearby console, numerous bandages showing beneath the black and white Cerberus shirt he was wearing. A few spots he could see stains where the material was white, blood that had seeped through bandages. In his hand was a data pad that he had been examining before handing it to Joker with a nod.

Watching the feed he noticed that one of his formerly more reliable contacts, Ms. Chambers, was shaking heavily, something apparently Shepard noticed as well. There was no audio feed available but he was able to see the man place a comforting hand on her shoulder and they exchanged words. The young yeoman blinked away tears and a more confident, if weak, smile appeared on her face.

One press of a button killed the video feed. He would have to redouble his external surveillance efforts if Cerberus was going to keep tabs on the Normandy crew. The Illusive Man already had a great deal of information on the entire team. Thane's son, Samara's children, relatives and associates of the regular crew. If some of Kelly's reports had been accurate, the girl did have a tendency to want to see pairings where it might be argued otherwise, some of the crew had grown quite close, both on the ground team and ship-board members.

Shepard's own relationship with the quarian machinist had been easy enough to confirm. The man was smart enough to know that Cerberus would have eyes and ears aboard the ship and elsewhere, but he clearly didn't care. The Illusive Man was already calculating possible outcomes. Shepard had always shown an often too accepting attitude of aliens, but in this case it could prove useful. While her father was dead, his name was still well thought of among the Flotilla if reports were to be believed. The human's relationship with a respected former Admiral's daughter could possible make it easier to bring the quarians onto their side during the war. There was a brief moment where he wondered if that had even been Shepard's goal, but dismissed it. John Shepard could be ruthless when necessary, but he had never been a manipulator. If his relationship with the quarian was a political ploy it was a masterfully executed one.

Far more likely the fool was actually enamored with her. It presented a very clear weakness, one that needed to be watched closely. But it also could be a necessary one. Miranda and Kelly had both expressed concerns over the spectre's mental state after his numerous ordeals, but all indications from the most recent reports suggested that his personality was far closer to profiles made before his death now than at the beginning of the mission. As much as he hated to admit it if the quarian was a stabilizing element in Shepard's mental health it was in the galaxy's best interest that she remained where was. As the leader of a one of the most singularly powerful covert groups in known space the Illusive Man wasn't prone to hyperbole. If Shepard's psyche ever broke the results could be devastating to anything in his way.

Should the information regarding the extra-species relationship become public he could foresee backlash from pro-human members of his own organization and the more extreme Terra Firma party. But it wouldn't hinder the war effort. Even if a few outspoken Terra Firma members needed to meet tragic, accidental ends. The two men might disagree on the methods by which humanity should gain ascendancy, but when it came to mobilizing for war Cerberus would do what was necessary to make certain that the Systems Alliance was behind it one hundred percent.

All of these pieces of information were new ways to track, catalog, and influence the right people at the right time. Provide someone with a crucial piece of data at the right time and they felt indebted to you. Withhold that same information and one could gain access to important pieces of data in exchange.

Knowledge was a currency all of its own and Cerberus was a very rich organization. With a few quick touches a large order was placed with one of the numerous brokerage shell companies that they operated. A hundred thousand shares in three different pre-fab habitation producers that would be purchased when the markets opened tomorrow. The slowing of human expansion had send the price tumbling, but once word that the abductions had stopped they would make rapid gains as companies scrambled to get their colony projects moving again. Especially when certain companies received anonymous but highly reliable data packets about the truth of the event. At the very least the rapid increase in stock prices would help fund the organization for the next year.

Despite the costs the Lazarus Project was ultimately a success. That success freed up considerable resources to dedicated to other research. There were thousands of terabytes of data alone that had been sent from EDI regarding the Collectors. And loose ends from other less... successful projects demanded his attention.

His temper had cooled. The leash that he'd had on Shepard had been lost, but it was likely only the illusion of control in the first place. Now there were new opportunities to exploit. Let Shepard have his ideals. Cerberus would always be there in the shadows to make sure what needed to happen did, that humanity's interests were pushed to the forefront. And what couldn't be controlled could still be guided.

The Illusive Man pulled up another screen and gave a rare smile. Information scrolled by slowly, highlighting recently gained intelligence. Spectre. Operatives. Shadowbroker. T'Soni. Everything hadn't gone as planned, but he hadn't shown his entire hand either. As the old saying went, you lure more flies with honey. Or in this case retribution. Shepard might have redefined the rules of the game, but it was far from over.

He looked out once more at the pulsating blue giant and took a drag from his cigarette, blowing the smoke out in a long, slow exhalation.

After all, they still had a galaxy to save against the looming threat of the Reapers. Once that was over the real work could begin.


By popular request and some people that weren't satisfied with the way it ended I decided to add a final word to the end of Razor's Edge. Thanks for all the reviews and kind words. And keep an eye out, there's always a chance another story might crop its way up on my author page someday dealing with events after ME2 ;)