UPDATE 1/14/17: 4Ferelden contributed a lot to the first two chapters. I would like to give him credit for helping me and giving me ideas I wouldn't consider otherwise. I regretted that I didn't credit him soon enough. I haven't heard from him in a while and I worry about him. He was probably okay by all accounts, but I tend to worry about people I like.
UPDATE 2/6/17: I know I'm late on the update, but he emailed me not long ago. He's doing okay. Still living, still breathing as I like to say.
Chapter Two: Awakening
Eric gasped and launched himself up, his eyes shot wide open. He was laying on a comfortable bed with a breathing mask on his face, the tube attached to something nearby. The clean, white-washed ceiling and walls around him told him he was in a hospital, albeit a fancy one somewhere in Cambodia or Thailand. He must have done something stupid to end up here, and he would receive a scolding from his mother, his grandparents, and even a harsher one from his father. He wasn't looking forward to it. But he couldn't help but wonder how his parents would be able to afford such a place.
Everything was blurry, and he could make out what was on him. A tube was connected to his wrist, and there were a whole bunch of patches on his chest. Another thing he looked at was the cardiac monitor, beeping steadily as it portrayed all his vital readings, and more, some entirely unknown to him.
His vision cleared out and at first, he saw two figures in white garbs pushing the bed down a corridor, only to stop and look at him in surprise. The one to his left was indigo and the one at his right was some strange mix of gray and brown. These two people do not look human at all. The indigo woman looked human enough, except for the oddly shaped cranial structure in the form of tentacles instead of hair. The other, not so much. He looked too alien, having a thin and narrow face with large, black eyes, two cranial horns on top of his head, and a chest that curved inwards.
The monitor beeped rapidly, and the world began to spin around him. His breathing became rapid and shallow, and his heart banged wildly against his chest. He couldn't lie down and think any longer. If there was anything different, he needed to hear it now, from anybody who would answer him.
"I… I..." he uttered out. "What is…?"
The woman shushed him like how a mother would do to her child. "You're in shock. It's just a natural reaction to almost drowning," she told him, a deeply concerned look appearing on her face.
"Get off me!" he shouted. He swatted the indigo woman's hand off his arm. "Don't touch me! Please!"
He began removing his mask and ripping the medical patches off his chest as he attempted to crawl away. The cardiac monitor was beeping urgently now and flashing warnings and the strange beings called out to him, but he didn't care. Suddenly, the remaining patches injected him with something, and he started to feel light-headed. He only had enough time to glance at the monitor to see a "Patient containment!" notification on it before he passed out for the third time.
Eric found himself floating in darkness, disembodied and formless. He couldn't move like something was forcing him not to. There was a sharp ring to his ear, and a chill ran up his spine. At first, it was wetlands. He flew across the wetlands, speeding up in seconds.
The wetlands turned into a tropical forest, and Eric saw Angkor Wat. Instead of being smashed into the tower, he phased through the wall. Everything spiraled out of control. Sculptures deformed, and wall carvings became nothing but gibberish.
He couldn't help but find it all… off, impossible to be real, but the lizard part of his brain told him: Just go along for the ride!
A wave of fear crept over him as he saw a small, transparent sphere resting on a plain pillar at the center of a small, circular room. Much to his amazement, everything was intact.
He saw his siblings. His brother was entranced by the sphere, his hand hovering over it, wondering if he should touch it or not. His sister was studying the strange inscriptions on the floor and wall. Eric struggled to reach out and call out to them, but he couldn't speak. Alfonso's eyes widened in surprise as he made a run for the exit. Right as he squeezed through, the door had sealed off its own accord, crushing every bone in his body. There was a sickening snap, like breaking celery in two. There wasn't a trace of blood staining on the walls.
Alfonso's death was quick and painless, though that didn't help at all. His brother died in front of his sister, and all she could do was sob incoherently. She composed herself and climbed on the walls to escape. The pitch became so loud Eric couldn't hear anything while everything became blindingly bright.
Eric screamed, but no sound came out of his mouth.
His eyes shot wide open, blinking several times to clear his vision. He found himself back on the bed. The first thing he saw was the whitewashed ceiling, telling him he was still in a hospital. The next thing he saw was a breathing mask over his mouth. His old clothes were gone, replaced with gray, featureless scrubs.
It's a dream, he told himself. It has to be a dream.
He removed the mask to think straight. He turned around and he couldn't believe what he saw with wide eyes and a slack jaw. An indigo woman sat on a chair nearby, her bored eyes fixed on an orange light enveloping her left forearm.
One thought played on repeat in his mind as he grasped his head: This is not Mass Effect. This is just a doctor or maybe a nurse cosplaying as an asari with perfect makeup effects.
He let go of his head and looked through a window to his right. Outside, a river had filled a large lake, the blue water gleaming in the sunlight. On one side of a lake, there were a bunch of tall, white buildings, all connected and arranged with simple yet elegant efficiency. They were far too expensive for any country to maintain.
Eric gasped as he glanced at the sidewalk below. Many people were not human. Some had a lanky body structure with disproportionately huge eyes. Others were female but in various shades of blue and purple with similarly shaped cranial structures. He even noticed a pink jellyfish-like creature floating on the ground, or however its method of perambulation would be called.
As he tried to process all of this, a flying car passed by quickly in proud defiance of most engineers and physicists.
Upon noticing that he was awake, the asari deactivated the light and assumed a professionally concerned expression. "Glad to see you're awake," she said. "We were a bit worried about you after yesterday's incident. How are you feeling?"
"I don't know," he answered after taking a deep breath. "Who saved me?"
"Natalie Clay. She brought you here yesterday."
He relaxed his shoulders. This was his first conversation here, but he didn't have to do any more talking. He could just make a run for it and find a way back home. However, he can't do this from a hospital bed. He had to know as much as possible if it would help him get back home.
"So… where am I? What's the date?"
The asari gave him a strange look. "You're at the Presidium Hospital on the Citadel. According to your species' calendar, today's June 20th, 2182."
This confirmed it. Nuclear war didn't happen; nothing would be this clean otherwise. Meteorites hadn't stuck humanity down like dinosaurs. Global warming didn't drown everyone, and Skynet doesn't exist… yet. He really was in the Mass Effect universe, not on Earth but on the Citadel, the space station that served as a capital for the Council's member species.
He couldn't imagine how his family would react to him disappearing suddenly. He remembered one time when Alfonso was late home from school for several hours, his phone turned off. It wasn't easy for his brother, being the middle child of the family. A loved one missing was often harder for the family than death.
Still, he couldn't help but wonder what made that sphere bring him here. Was it a wormhole that sent him here?
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine now. Thank you." He hated that he had to lie, but it seemed convincing enough to her.
The asari nurse nodded. The metal door at the end of the room opened, and a woman in a blue-and-black uniform entered, her hair tied in a short, dark-brown ponytail. She had dark-colored eyes and bronze skin, a rounded jaw, and a sharply defined nose.
"Hi, Natalie. I take it you're here to see the patient?" the asari asked.
"Yeah," the woman answered. "Dr. Oron gave me clearance. Mind if you leave us alone for a minute?"
"Of course." The nurse sat up and left, the door closing automatically behind her. Eric tensed at having to talk to someone from a fictional universe. However, she saved his life, no matter how awkward he felt about it. He had to wonder: did she exist in the games or was she a member of the faceless masses that Shepard ignored?
Eric looked down at his bed, finding it difficult to maintain eye contact. "You're Natalie Clay, right? You're the one who rescued me?" The woman nodded. "How did you find me?"
"You were drowning in the lake. My husband and I happened to pass by before we saw you," Natalie answered.
"Thank you for saving my life."
"I'm just doing my job as a C-Sec officer," Natalie answered and sat down on a chair next to his bed. He noticed she was carrying a small, gray crate. "Let's get this moving forward. I got your stuff from HQ." The box made a quiet hissing sound when she opened it. Inside was his phone and wallet, along with a stack of plastic cards next to the phone. Without thinking, he quickly grabbed his phone and pressed the power button on the side. It didn't turn on.
He sighed and gently put his phone back in the crate. One of his few connections to his old life was gone. He could not get the pictures he took. The sphere, his family… He couldn't do that without extracting the SD card out and finding something compatible with this universe's technology.
Natalie noticed this, her eyes dropping before she regained her professional composure. "I take it that's yours?" She handed Eric a card from the stack.
Eric looked at it and recognized it as his Massachusetts state ID card. It had everything he expected to be on it, including his signature, his ID number, his birth date (June 6th, 1997), and a picture of him taken shortly before graduation. "Yeah, that's me. But I'm not—"
"The analysts back at HQ weren't sure what to make of you," Natalie stated. "Anyone not human wouldn't recognize what these things are and—" She swallowed as she stopped herself, having trouble finding the words. "Can you tell me how you got here to the Presidium?" she asked, seeking a different approach. "It might clear things up."
Eric looked down at his bed again and pinched his brow. "I-I don't know. If I tell you the truth, you'll probably think I'm crazy!"
Natalie leaned in and let out a gentle smile, something his mother would do to cheer him up. "Eric, I don't think you're insane. Hell, you appeared out of the lake."
None of this made sense to him. He wasn't sure how to put it in a way she could understand. He had to leave the part about Mass Effect being a game series back at home. No one would believe their entire existence and surroundings came from the imaginations of hundreds of developers, writers, and artists. The best way to put it was to think about the many-worlds theorem his brother mentioned. He had to accept that there were too many variables involved in his predicament.
"I…" he answered after long deliberation. "I came from a different time, maybe even a different universe."
Natalie let out a small chuckle. "Okay. Wow, that was weird. So how exactly did you get here?"
Eric shrugged. "I was on vacation with my mom, my brother and sister, and my grandparents. We spent a few days in Bangkok in Thailand, and we crossed borders to Angkor Wat. And then I was in a small room with this weird orb thing. I couldn't get out. It got so bright I had to cover my eyes. The next thing I knew, it brought me here. That's all I can remember."
He hoped the temple existed in this universe though it might have been destroyed in a war or demolished some time ago. Still, he had to hope for the best.
He continued. "I think that orb generated a wormhole. Know what they are?"
Natalie nodded. "It's like a tunnel with two ends, a shortcut in space-time. It requires exotic material with negative density, much like a mass relay using element zero to transport ships from one point to another in almost an instant."
"That's… wow, that's amazing," Eric chuckled, playing along.
"But that orb you described… was it reflective by any chance?"
"Eh, transparent, more like. Why'd you ask?"
"If it is, it might be Prothean. But a device that transports people through time and space and multiple universes? Sounds pretty far-fetched."
"Uh, the what now?" He knew what the Protheans were, but he figured he'll continue playing along.
Natalie raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Oh, right! I've gotten ahead of myself here." She chuckled a little. "The Protheans are an ancient race 50,000 years ago that created the mass relays, spanning the entire galaxy. Then one day, they all disappeared, leaving behind relics of their civilization. We have no idea how or why they disappeared; all we know that they just did."
Eric stayed quiet. He knew the Reapers were responsible for the eradication of the Protheans. They were created by the Catalyst, an artificial intelligence built by the Leviathans in a horrifically failed attempt to address the conflicts between organic and synthetic beings. They were the ones who built the mass relays and the Citadel to purge galactic civilization over and over.
"I'm not sure how the others would take your story, but for what it's worth, I believe you." Natalie sat up with the now-closed box and approached the door. It opened of its own accord as a green light disappeared.
"So what's gonna happen next?" Eric asked with slight disbelief.
"I'll file a report about your case," Natalie answered. "After that, well… you just have to hope for the best. Don't worry, you won't be locked up in a mental institute. Your complete lack of background documents is a problem, but not an impossible one. There are hundreds of colony and spacer kids, even duct rats that were never registered at birth. If you can apply, yours wouldn't be any different. Maybe you can make a good reputation."
Eric looked up at the C-Sec woman with genuine confusion. "What's a duct rat?" It had been a while since he had played any of the games.
"Duct rat," she repeated. "They're kids that wound up on the streets. They go into vents and try to find whatever means to live. Most of 'em die horribly. A few of them were never found." She stopped herself, horrified. "I'll spare you the details."
"I can imagine how bad it sounds," Eric replied. He wanted to change the subject. It was evident from Natalie's expression on her face and her tone of voice she did not want to dwell on it. His frown turned upside down to a smile, his expression hopeful. "Anyway, thanks for listening to me."
"No problem, but don't hold your breath," Natalie replied. "It's a complicated process, and the bureaucracy seems to be getting worse with each year. I have to go back to HQ to file a progress report. Wish you luck."
With that, Natalie left the room, leaving Eric alone. All signs of joy faded from his face as he brought his knees up to his face. He wanted to go home; he wanted to cry. His eyes welled up with tears. Deep down, he knew it wouldn't be easy, let alone possible. For the first time in his life, he was alone. Instead of school and family, he would get war, death, and destruction. The in-game events took on a terrifying new meaning for him. He would be capable of dying like everyone else when the Reapers would come four years from now to begin their harvest.
Eric snuffed and rubbed his eyes. Slowly and unwillingly, he got off the bed and put on a pair of hospital-issued slippers nearby. His stomach soon growled as he stood up. By the lighting through the window, it was late in the morning.
The door opened, and the same nurse from before entered the room, carrying a tray of waffles and some scrambled eggs. By the plate was a cup of orange juice. His stomach growled again as the asari placed the food on the counter. Snatching the tray, he sat on the bad and ravenously ate through the meal. He savored the moment. He had never tasted something so good in his life. Perhaps this was on the upside of living in this universe.
"You're hungry, I can tell," the nurse remarked, almost chuckling as Eric finished the meal. "I stopped by the cafeteria and got you something to eat while Natalie was around."
Eric thanked her and wiped his mouth with the napkin. He considered himself to have good table manners. "So what's your name?"
"Oh," the asari smiled. "I'm Alynea Tani. And you're Eric Grimes?"
"Yeah. Did Natalie tell you?"
"We're friends, actually. Is there something else I could do for you?"
Eric had to think about what to do next. The hospital could have a broad range of services available, but knowledge was crucial if he had to form up a plan. He resisted asking Alynea to mind-meld with him to exchange information. She wouldn't take the revelation she was part of a fictional universe well. That and asking a stranger for consent wouldn't go so well.
"Is there somewhere I can go online?"
"Yeah. We have an Extranet cafe here," Alynea answered.
"So… like a beefed-up Internet?"
Alynea furrowed her brow. "Something like that," she answered hesitantly.
Eric's hope went up and he jolted from his bed. Maybe he could find a way to earn a living here or a way to get back to Earth. "Great! Can you take me there?"
"Sure. It's down the hallway." The asari nurse approached the door as it opened, prompting them to leave the room.
Walking down the hallway, Eric found the place humming with activity, occupied by dozens of species, including humans. To his right, as he and Alynea took a left from his room, a window that covered the entire wall showed the other side of the lake. One doctor, whom he recognized, was the same amphibian-like creature from yesterday as a salarian.
He was looking at some diagnostic tests on a holographic screen floating nearby before turning his attention away from his two colleagues to Eric.
"Hello, Eric Grimes," the salarian doctor spoke, though almost speaking at a quick pace. "Dr. Nasurn Glato Aegohr Nao Lalis Oron. But you can call me Dr. Oron for short."
"Wh-what?" Eric forgot how complex the salarian names could be. Not only were they smart, but they also loved to be thorough. He wished Alfonso was around to help him.
The doctor caught himself almost laughing and coughed, regaining his professional composure. "Ah. Allow me to explain. Our names include—in order—our homeworld, nation, city, district, clan, and then our given name at birth."
Eric blinked, shaking off the confusion. "Right, duh. Sorry." He had to hold off his chuckle as he scratched the back of his head.
"But I have to ask you something: are you okay?" The concerned tone and the expression on the salarian's face were sincere.
Eric nodded again. "Uh, look, I'm sorry for my outburst yesterday."
"Don't be. It's just a reaction to almost drowning," the salarian replied. "Amazing how adaptive the human race can be…"
"Uh… look, I gotta get going." Eric pointed behind him. "Your asari friend is bringing me to an Extranet café. I don't want to keep her waiting."
The salarian nodded. "Yes, of course. Of course." He turned to meet his colleagues once more. With that over, Eric had caught up with Alynea and continued onto the cafe.
He couldn't help but feel shocked yet fascinated at the same time. His brief conversation with Dr. Oron, a salarian, and witnessing some of the technologies here gave him a different perspective on the games. He knew the game wouldn't be able to show everything because of technological limitations but playing them was nothing compared to experiencing them in the flesh. However, something bothered him since talking to Alynea and Dr. Oron.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Yeah?" Alynea replied.
"How come I understand you and Dr. Oron?" Eric asked.
She laughed. "Besides medicine, Dr. Oron and I have been trained in speaking several human languages. Many of our patients and several of our staff here are human but some people stick with digital translators."
"Digital translators? What'd you mean by that?"
"They go into things like jewelry, earpieces, PDAs, and even neural implants. To be honest, I'm surprised you asked that, of all things."
"Sorry. I guess I'm out of the loop here."
They arrived at a medium-sized, white room filled with a dozen rows of desks. On top of them were the orange screens like the one on Alynea's forearm earlier. Like the rest of the hospital, it smelled clean, and the walls were spotless and pristine. One of the few occupants here had scaly, silver skin, two-toed feet, and a pair of mandibles over his plated mouth. Eric recognized the occupant as a turian.
"Here's the extranet cafe," said Alynea. "If you need anything else, don't be afraid to ask me or any other staff member." And for that, Eric thanked her.
After Alynea had left, he sat down at the nearest unoccupied terminal available. Looking at it, he drew a blank. How would he be able to use this thing? His hands hovered over the keyboard and pressed a key. He expected not to perceive anything when he placed his fingers on the holographic keys, but it felt like a real keyboard.
He looked at the screen and found a prompt popping up on the desktop, asking for what language did the user, meaning him, speak in. Naturally, he picked 'English' after scrolling through a long list of other languages, both human and alien. With that done, he tapped on the screen, bringing up an extranet browser and typed in 'Mass Effect' on the browser's search bar. The result was a series of articles on the mass effect field as a scientific phenomenon. He looked through an encyclopedic article of sorts, and to his surprise, it appeared to be entirely self-consistent. Some key variables had to be different, but so far, he hadn't found any glaring deviations.
He shrugged. At least the rules of this universe were consistent. But right now, he had to know his family had ever existed in this universe. With a new goal in mind, he went back to the search page.
Most of the results had an athlete sharing his name. The image section didn't show any pictures of him, much to his annoyance. In fact, it shouldn't be possible. There should be some version of him somewhere, however plausible that would be.
The results showed many people, but almost all of them had Garcia as their middle name. Grimes was a common surname, and there were trillions of people in the galaxy. But he was getting worried
It was the same result as before, even after putting it in quotes.
Frustrated, he typed in Grimes family tree. He hoped anything useful would show up. Spotting a site of a database for family trees, he clicked on the link. He typed his grandfather's name into the keyword box and altered the filters to his liking.
Nothing. No records of any sort. Eric was alone, a person out of place who should have never existed here. "No…" Eric covered his mouth. "Oh no no no no. You gotta be kidding me."
Even though none of them would be alive, he hoped he might find his family's descendants. He didn't want to be alone. He wanted the closure from visiting their burial sites and validation that he was real and once had a family. But there wasn't anything to connect him with anyone in this universe.
The turian broke away from his terminal, noticing Eric freaking out as he let out a gasp. Rather than words, the words the turian spoke sounded… off, like he had a thick accent that made it impossible for Eric to understand what he was trying to say.
Eric sat up and left the room. Finding a spot in the maze of hallways where he could be by himself, he leaned against the gray wall and dropped onto the floor, breaking down into tears.
He had no idea what to do now.