Shepard’s eyes flew open.
He tried to move, and failed. Fear flooded his body.
The words “sleep paralysis” trickled into his mind. He closed his eyes and forced himself to calm down. His consciousness had catapulted itself from dreaming to wide awake, and his body was lagging. That was all. That was all.
As he waited out the paralysis, he struggled to remember anything about the dream that he’d awoken from, anything at all, but not even fragments remained. Only the feeling of it coated the walls of his mind: it had been unsettling and full of despair.
He looked at his bedside clock. Almost noon. He winced and grumbled to himself.
Shepard sat in the kitchen of his tiny one-bedroom apartment, chewing on a protein bar with no real gusto. His omnitool occasionally beeped at him, and a part of him distantly thought that he should probably check his messages. The rest of him mentally shrugged. Why bother? The odds were almost impossible that it would be from someone he actually wanted to talk to.
After the end of the Reaper War, there’d been a lengthy stay at the hospital, followed by some ceremonial BS where he was expected to stand there and look pretty, followed by a medical discharge from the Alliance, followed by two years of nothing.
None of it mattered.
It didn’t matter one lick to the galaxy whether Commander Shepard had lived or died. The Reapers were dead. The war was over. There wasn’t anything left for Shepard to do. He was the inconvenient symbol, the martyr who accidentally lived. He’d been blowing off all the reporters and the interviews ever since he’d gotten out of the hospital; the requests had gone from a deluge to maybe one a month. The stock footage was all they really needed, anyway. Let them see Commander Shepard, First Human Spectre, CO of the legendary SSV Normandy. Not…
Not John Shepard, some guy in a messy one-bedroom apartment eating a protein bar.
Not John Shepard, military washout who couldn’t keep his crew together.
Not John Shepard, murderer of EDI and the geth.
“Have you been working on the cognitive interruption exercises I gave you last week?” asked the remote figure.
Shepard was a ball on the couch, all turned inward. “Yeah, a few times,” he said in a monotone. “Didn’t seem to do much good.”
The therapist on the other end of the video call pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, then looked back up with a forced smile.
“Well, before we add that to the pile of things that don’t work, I’d like you to give it another try this week.”
Shepard shrugged apathetically. “Alright.”
The therapist dropped the smile. “John, please listen to me,” he said. “I can only help you if you want to be helped.”
“I know,” Shepard said weakly.
“Don’t give up hope.”
Shepard fought back the urge to say that he didn’t have any left to give up.
Shepard laid in bed, neither his brain nor his body interested in sleep.
He thought of his old crew.
James, who was probably off on his first N7 assignment.
Traynor, who as far as he knew was back in her R&D lab, probably studying dead Reapers for their communications technology.
Liara, who’d dropped off the galactic radar, no doubt to be a better Shadow Broker.
Kaidan, who was out there, somewhere. Maybe at some Alliance training facility, teaching biotic recruits how to be spec-ops soldiers. Or protecting the galaxy as a Spectre. Or both.
Tali, who’d… well. Her death wasn’t even meaningful; the geth died too, just a month later.
Garrus, who’d taken Tali’s death pretty hard. Probably on Palaven, trying to drown himself in work to forget.
Javik, who had probably found transport to the resting place of his soldiers, and joined them.
Cortez, who’d gone down in the shuttle on Earth while trying to play the hero. Or the martyr.
Miranda, dead by Kai Leng’s sword.
Jack… god, having to put her down like that. Brainwashed by Cerberus and probably indoctrinated. She was a bitch but she didn’t deserve that.
Mordin. Mordin, why couldn’t you have listened?
Wrex. He hadn’t wanted to betray Wrex, but the salarian support had seemed too good to pass up at the time. Wrex was never supposed to know. He was never supposed to know, damn it.
Thane… fuck Kai Leng. Just, fuck Kai Leng.
Samara. Was there really no other way? Fuck your code and fuck you for dying.
Ashley. So many years later, and he still had dreams about Virmire.
Shepard thought about all the calls he’d made over the years. All the choices that had gone wrong. The dead. So many dead. The dead that he’d killed, and the dead that he’d chosen to let die, and the dead who’d surprised him by dying anyway.
He wondered, not for the first time, if this was the way the universe was meant to play out. He’d been taught in college that the “each decision creates a new timeline” view of quantum theory was hopelessly naïve: brains were big and warm and wet and messy—no place for large-scale quantum effects—so even though the universe did branch off each time a quantum particle could go left or right, the vast majority of quantum branches were just identical copies of us, making identical decisions in every branch, with everything playing out almost exactly the same way.
And yet... he wanted desperately for there to be some alternate timeline where things went right. It wasn’t forbidden by Quantum Theory, but ultimately it would mean that the decisions he’d made, and the outcomes that had resulted, were ultimately controlled by subatomic particles going left versus right at random, and that didn’t feel right, either.
A deterministic universe, where all timelines play out like this one.
Or a random universe, where choices and outcomes flow from essentially meaningless behavior of subatomic particles.
They both felt like dead ends.
Shepard closed his eyes, squeezing tears out of them, not sure if he was desperate for sleep or terrified of it.
He dreamed of Tuchanka.
He bowed his head. “Mordin… you’re not going up,” he said.
“Not concerned for my safety,” Mordin said. “Concerned I might discover something? Sabotage? But whose?”
Mordin paused. A sound of dreadful realization came from his lips: “Ahhh.”
Suddenly venomous, Mordin turned pointedly to face Shepard. “Why, Shepard? That desperate for salarian aid? Or that afraid of krogan?” He turned his back to Shepard and approached the elevator, clearly disgusted.
“Every time we’ve talked about this before, you’ve defended the genophage!” Shepard shouted, almost in a panic. “Hell, I had to talk you into saving Maelon’s data! How can you change your mind now?”
Mordin whipped around on his heel. “I made a mistake!” he screamed. He took a moment to calm himself, then repeated: “I made a mistake… focused on big picture. Big picture made of little pictures. Too many variables. Can’t hide behind statistics. Can’t ignore new data. My responsibility. Need to go. Running out of time.”
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. There’s no choice.
Shepard pulled out his weapon. “Mordin, walk away,” he begged.
“Can’t do that, Shepard,” Mordin said. He managed to put more contempt into that one sentence than Shepard had heard in all the time the two of them had worked together.
“I don’t have a choice, here,” Shepard said. His frustration at the situation was starting to mix with Mordin’s contempt and boil over into misplaced anger at Mordin himself. “Walk away, or I fire.”
“Not your decision, not your work, not your cure, had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.” Mordin made to turn around. “No time to argue. Cure dispersal imminent. Must counteract sabotage. Stop me if you must.”
And with that, Mordin opened the elevator.
Shepard fired. He fired. Oh god he fired.
In real life, he’d shot Mordin in cold blood, strode out of the tower with a cork inside, his face a mask of calm as he’d pretended to Wrex and Eve that everything had gone according to plan.
In the dream, he cried.
The Reaper War… it had all gone so wrong. He’d done monstrous things while trying to ensure the defeat of the Reapers. But in defeating the Reapers, he’d killed almost everyone he’d cared about and scared off the rest.
He heard footsteps.
“I take it this isn’t how it was supposed to go?” someone said.
He wiped his eyes and blew his nose. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Your timeline,” the new figure said. “This isn’t how your timeline was supposed to go, was it?”
He took in the sight. She was human girl. Maybe 12 or 13, Shepard thought. Some sort of purple creature on her shirt, maybe a cartoonish depiction of a hanar or something.
Somehow he got the sense that, despite her apparent age, she’d been around a while.
“I… don’t understand. My timeline? Who are you?”
She looked him up and down and nodded, mostly to herself. “You must be new here. Sorry for the informality, but it’s always hard to tell if someone’s a veteran or a newbie to the dream bubbles. And even when everyone involved knows how the dream bubbles work, there’s just no way to politely introduce yourself into someone else’s dream. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
A white sun-table and two chairs appeared out of nowhere, with a tea set ready to go. The whole getup looked utterly incongruous with the Shroud Tower surroundings on Tuchanka, trapped as they were in a perpetual state of almost-collapse.
“Why don’t you take a seat?” the young girl said, and she took a chair herself.
Shepard almost screamed with frustration at how much the universe was just not making any fucking sense right now.
“If you sit,” she added, “I’ll explain what’s going on.” She was very matter-of-fact about it, which was not helping his sense that the universe had fallen off the hinges, but she seemed earnest enough.
Shepard cautiously took a seat.
“Rose Lalonde,” she said while offering a handshake across the table.
He took it cautiously. “John Shepard.”
She smiled bitterly. “I had a friend named John,” she said quietly, then she shook her head and made a show of clearing her throat. “The simple explanation is that you’re dreaming,” she said in an authoritative voice, pouring each of them some tea. “But simple explanations can be misleading, even when they have the advantage of being true. Dreaming isn’t just an expression of the subconscious mind. It’s also a place. One sugar or two?”
She continued. “Dreams exist within a formless expanse where space and time have very little meaning,” she continued as she added sugar to the tea. “The Furthest Ring reacts to the thoughts of those within it, so the sudden presence of the dreamer’s psyche establishes a local space/time basis and gives the Ring a temporary shape. That would be academic, except that the shape imposed by one dream-self can encounter the shape imposed by another dream-self. In short, two dream-bubbles can collide and merge, and the combined dream-bubble is no longer determined by the memories of either dreamer.”
“So… I’m dreaming and you’re dreaming, and our dreams got crossed somehow?”
She took a sip of her tea. “You’re on the right track,” she admitted. “I’ve spent a lot of time here, and I’ve gained a limited amount of control over my dream bubble. I use that control to steer my own dream bubble toward the dream bubbles of others.”
“To alleviate my boredom, mostly.”
Shepard considered this. “You said you’d spent a lot of time ‘out here’. How much?”
“Objectively? Impossible to know. Time isn’t linear out here. Subjectively? Nearly a million years, I’d think. Hundreds of thousands at least.” Rose pointed at the teacup in front of him. “Drink your tea.”
Shepard shook his head. “I don’t understand. Thousands, maybe millions of years? How can you dream that much in one human lifetime?”
“Oh, I’m sure I died ages ago,” she said casually. “I wasn’t awake for it, though, so I don’t remember my death. It makes things somewhat awkward when I talk to the other ghosts. To be perfectly honest, it’s a little embarrassing being the only person in the room who doesn’t know how she died.”
Shepard thought about that, and finally sipped his tea. “It’s not just the dreams of the living, then? This place is some sort of afterlife?”
Rose nodded. “Yes.”
Shepard tried to present a mask of calm, but his eyes shone with dampness anyway. “You ever met someone I knew?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. You’re a human, so that rules out the Beforus and Alternia universes.” She glanced at Mordin’s corpse. “But you’ve met aliens, so that rules out Earth-A and Earth-B. And something tells me you’re not from Earth-C, in either iteration. Most of the people I meet are from one of those six universes.” She pointed to Mordin. “I’ve never seen an alien like that. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your universe?”
Shepard stared vacantly at her. “Where would I even start?” he asked, barely louder than a whisper.
“Why did you kill him?” she asked, nodding her head toward Mordin again.
He stayed silent, head hung in shame.
“From the scraps of conversation I overheard, I infer that there was something called a ‘genophage’ and that he was trying to cure it?”
With his face buried in his hands, he muttered a response. “The krogan were sterilized by the genophage, and they’d only join the war if we cured it for them. I would have gone through with it, but the salarians — Mordin’s people — were against it, and they refused to help unless I let them sabotage the cure. We needed their scientists.”
“Who was involved in this war?” Rose asked.
“The Reapers versus everyone else. Even calling it a ‘war’ was generous. The Reapers weren’t there to fight a war. The Reapers were there to wipe us out.” Shepard sniffed, then looked up at Rose. “Did… did your universe never encounter the Reapers?”
“My own Earth was destroyed before humans ever made it to space,” Rose said. “Beyond the moon, I mean.”
“That’s… a long story. Let’s just say there was an asteroid impact. A big one.”
Shepard stared into his cup of tea, lost in thought.
“You said something about timelines earlier?”
“I’m surprised you don’t know about them. They’re hard to avoid in Paradox Space.”
“Paradox… never mind. So, multiple timelines, like the different versions of Earth you spoke about?”
“No, not at all like that,” Rose said. “Distinct universes, and each universe has an Alpha Timeline, plus a number of splinter timelines branching off the Alpha then feeding back into it.”
“And what’s special about the Alpha Timeline?”
“I’m not sure. For a long time I had reason to believe that the Alpha Timeline was defined as the timeline that gave rise to Lord English. You wouldn’t know him,” she quickly added when she saw Shepard’s confusion. “I’ve since learned that it’s more nuanced than that. In simple terms… the Alpha Timeline is the timeline that tells the best story.”
“The best story?” Shepard repeated with disdain. “What the fuck does that mean?”
He suddenly remembered that he was talking to a 13-year-old.
“Uh, pardon my language.”
Rose shrugged, clearly unaffected by it. “I’m at a loss to explain it any further. Is it a story being told to someone? Is it a story being told by someone? Is it because humans think in stories and the universe is shaped by our thoughts? I don’t have any answers.”
Shepard quietly pondered that. It almost brought him to tears to think that so many of his crew had died for something as capricious as ‘telling a good story’.
Finally, he thought of something to ask.
“How… how can you tell if you’re in a splinter timeline?”
Rose nodded. “Isolation. Your timeline is instantly cut off from all communication with other universes and other timelines. The survivors within the timeline can still talk to each other, but they find themselves spending more and more time alone. You have this unshakeable feeling that something went wrong and that you need to go back and fix it.”
“God, that sounds familiar,” Shepard muttered to himself as he considered what she’d said, or rather, how she’d worded it. “What went wrong with your timeline?” he finally asked.
“My friend John died when he wasn’t supposed to,” she said. “The ‘how’ is irrelevant. My sibling Dave and I were trapped in a doomed timeline for several months. As bad as it was, though, it got worse for me when Dave time traveled back to the Alpha Timeline to keep John from dying. My own dream-self was absorbed by the dream-self of Alpha Rose, and that’s probably when my timeline ended. But instead of the blissful non-existence that I thought would come from being supplanted by Alpha Rose, somehow I ended up out here in the Furthest Ring as a ghost. Because apparently there weren’t enough Rose Lalondes running around.” She leaned in conspiratorially to stage-whisper at Shepard. “You do not want to meet Cat Rose. Cat Rose is the worst Rose.”
Shepard’s sense that the universe was falling off its hinges was returning in earnest.
But Rose simply finished her cup of tea and took a casual glance around. “I think our time is almost up. Your dream is starting to fade.”
Sure enough, Shepard looked around and the dreamscape was only half-familiar to him. It was like his own dream of Tuchanka was being consumed by another dream… probably the dream belonging to Rose.
“Will I ever see you again?” Shepard asked, not sure which answer he was hoping for.
Rose shrugged. “It’s unlikely. Under normal circumstances, the Furthest Ring only brings people together because the gods wish it.”
“What gods?” Shepard asked.
“You don’t hear them?” Rose asked.
And suddenly Shepard did hear them, had no idea how he’d ever not heard them, because he was now aware that they’d been… singing?… this whole time.
“What do they want?” he shouted over the cacophony, and in that moment it occurred to him that they might be as much a threat as the Reapers.
“Chaos,” Rose said, and for one horrible moment he could see them through the boundaries of the dream-bubble.
Shepard’s eyes flew open. Once again, he struggled to remember the dream, but it slipped through his fingers.