Chapter 1: Rose
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.
Chapter 2: Terezi
Since his discharge, Shepard had spent most days idly browsing the extranet, watching vids… not wanting to be alone with his own thoughts, but also not wanting to leave his own apartment and definitely not wanting to interact with another person.
Today, however… he felt some strange itch in his head that compelled him to contact someone.
The word “isolation” rang through his head today, and it scared him somehow.
He thought carefully about his surviving crew. He’d hurt them all, one way or another. They’d all moved on without him. But maybe…
Long time no see. I’m sorry we lost contact after the war. I don’t know what you’ve been up to, but I’m sure you’ve been busy. If you’re ever in the neighborhood and want to meet up for lunch, though, let me know.
His finger hovered over the “send” button.
A surge of emotions welled up in his chest, and he tamped them down. They were old feelings, feelings so old they should be familiar. Unexamined, all of them. Tamped down each time, never looked at. His gut churned with fear, but fear of what? Shepard didn’t know. Shepard didn’t want to know.
The fear retreated a bit, and Shepard forced himself to send the message.
Hours later, Shepard found himself on his couch, watching some shitty vid but unable to get his brain to sit down and shut up and watch the movie quietly.
Why Kaidan? Why contact him, of all people?
Why not Kaidan?
What do I mean, ‘why not Kaidan’? Of course not Kaidan. Why not James? I was on much better terms with James last time I saw him than I ever was with Kaidan. Kaidan was kind of a judgemental prick. And he mouthed off in the field, questioned my fucking orders. Fuck Kaidan. Inviting him onto the Normandy after the coup attempt was a mistake.
I should have listened to him.
No, I shouldn’t have, I couldn’t have, Kaidan didn’t have what it took to win the war. Doesn’t matter that he was a few years older than me, he was a naïve little boy who thought we could beat the Reapers without compromising ourselves. The anti-Javik.
Look at what happened to Javik.
That was my fault, not Javik’s. I shouldn’t have told him to look at the echo shard.
Kaidan could have handled it. If humans had echo shards, Kaidan could have looked at it and remembered the dead and held himself together and not gone off and fucking killed himself.
My fault. It was all my fucking fault. Fuck, fuck, fuck!
By this point Shepard was off the couch and pacing the living room, trapped in his head. He screeched in frustration and shoved his palms against his temples as his thoughts disintegrated, no longer capable of forming words. A jumble of images and repressed emotions screamed incoherently in his brain, all his failures thrown back in his face. He could sense some tiny portion of his awareness trying to maintain order, aware that it was powerless to quell the storm but doing its thankless best to point the destruction at a safe target. It found a compromise. He grabbed a pillow from the couch and rushed to the wall, beating his head on the wall through the pillow while snarling and yelping.
After about thirty seconds of this, the beating of his head against the pillow gave way to sobs.
He collapsed into a heap at the base of the wall, clutching the pillow as his chest heaved with sobs and his eyes burned wet.
That tiny calm center in his brain spent the next half an hour or so letting him sob, then cry, then silently weep, waiting for him to wear himself out. At last it nudged him into laying down, back pressed against the wall, laying on his side with his face against the pillow.
Exhausted, Shepard fell asleep without knowing it.
He dreamed of Rannoch.
“This is Captain Kar’Danna vas Rayya! We have multiple hull breaches!”
Tali sobbed quietly.
Shepard stood nearby, utterly unable to look at her. The ship of her birth was going down. Her childhood home. There was nothing to be done. He pretended to examine the dead Reaper.
“Rayya’s drive core is offline! All ships in range, please assist! Please assist!”
There was a faint hiss as Tali removed her mask.
Shepard heard it, but the meaning didn’t register for him.
“Escape pods not responding. All hands, prepare for impact.”
“I’m sorry,” Tali said. Through the heartbreak in her voice, she sounded bewildered at this turn of events. Like she can’t understand how her best friend could have made this choice. Made it and expected her to live with the consequences.
What’s happening finally sank in, and Shepard whipped around.
Tali’s mask was off. Her arms were outstretched. Her back was to the cliff, the sea crashing below.
She was already in motion.
“Tali, no!” Shepard grunted as he dove to grab her.
He was too far away.
He had always been too far away.
In real life, he’d laid prone on the ground, danged over the cliff’s edge, and stared at his empty hand for five seconds. Ten. Gritted his teeth. Then he’d forced himself up. A geth came by. Prime unit. He'd exchanged words with it. “They made their choice,” he’d said to the prime.
In the dream, he screamed.
He gave a shout that felt like it would rip the sky in two.
The quarians were idiots. They wouldn’t fucking listen. But in the end, he’d made their choice for them. Made Tali’s choice for her. It was never their choice, it was never their fault, it was all on him, even if he couldn’t see how, couldn’t see through the maze of possibilities to find a way to save Tali and win against the Reapers.
He could smell that something had changed.
He smelled moisture and growth and decay. Rannoch was a desert. It didn’t smell like that.
He turned around and saw a giant alien tree, purple with pink leaves. High off the ground, there was some sort of treehouse built into the top of the trunk.
Dream bubble, Shepard thought to himself, the phrase unbidden.
At a loss for what else to do, he approached the tree. Circled it until he found a rope ladder. Climbed.
Shepard hadn’t climbed this far since his days in N7 training.
At last, he hauled himself up through a hole in a wooden deck. He walked around, uncertain, until he found an entrance. The door was open. He got the sense that he was expected.
He caught sight of a girl. At least, he assumed she was a girl and not an adult. An alien, some species he’d never seen before. Gray skin, rather garishly colored horns poking through the hair.
Her back was to him. He edged around the room to see what she was doing.
There were… stuffed animals in front of her. She was flipping a coin. The coin landed with a “ting” in front of her.
“But, what are you so happy about, Mr. Lemonsnout?” she said to the room.
Shepard scrunched his face in confusion. Was she talking to the stuffed animal?
“See? The coin has exonerated me,” she said again, using what Shepard presumed was Mr. Lemonsnout’s voice.
“Coin? What coin? Surely you jest, Mr. Senator. The prosecution sees no coin,” she said in her normal voice.
Well, her default voice. Shepard thought there was nothing ‘normal’ about this girl’s loud, squeaky, off-putting voice. He somehow had the impression that she was speaking in all-caps leetspeak.
She paused dramatically, took in a deep breath.
She shouted, “SHE’S BLIND, REMEMBER?”
At that, she grabbed a pre-tied noose from nearby, threw it around the stuffed animal’s neck, and tossed it out the window, cackling with glee the whole time.
Yup, the universe was falling off its hinges again.
The alien girl took a comically exaggerated sniff, then whipped around. Black t-shirt, black jeans, opaque red glasses that curved to a point. Shirt had an uppercase omega with a line under it.
“HAH! An intruder!” she shouted dramatically, grabbing her cane and revealing that it contained a rather long knife. “State your name so that I might report your demise to my fellow legislacerators!”
Shepard tilted his head in confusion, not sure if the threat was sincere, and not sure how seriously to take it if it was. He decided to put his hands up in surrender. “My name’s John Shepard. I’m… not sure where I am or what I’m doing here. Can you tell me?”
Terezi’s head flopped down to her chest theatrically, and she let out a grumble of frustration as she sheathed her cane-sword. “Jegus, you’re no fun. I thought we could do a little role-play first. Goof off for a while before the serious business starts.” She sighed. “Terezi Pyrope. You’re in my dream bubble,” she said, sweeping her hand around the room. “What you’re doing here is your choice.”
Bits and pieces of Shepard’s dream from the night before were starting to filter into his mind. Dream bubbles colliding. Rose and her tea set.
“I’m remembering some things from another dream I had,” Shepard said. “You’re dead, right?”
“Bingo. And by ‘bingo’ I mean ‘Earth bingo’. Bingo is way too lame to exist on my planet.”
“And your planet is…?”
Huh. Shepard recalled the list of universes that Rose had rattled off in the previous dream.
“Someone I met in another dream bubble mentioned Alternia plus another planet named Beforus. Any connection?”
“Ugh, those weenies. Yeah, that was the pre-scratch name for Alternia.”
Shepard cocked his head. “‘Alternia’ and ‘Beforus’. Isn’t that a little on-the-nose?”
Terezi smacked him in the leg with her cane. “Shut up,” she shouted, but she was smiling. “I didn’t name them. Guy who did had a sick sense of humor, but he’s dead now.”
Shepard grimaced at the cane thwap and shook his head. “If that’s the way you’re going to be, I’m leaving,” he said, and made for the door.
“Wait,” she said.
He stopped. Didn’t turn around, but decided to hear what she had to say.
“Look, I probably came on too strong,” she said. “I’ve been alone in this dream bubble for who knows how many sweeps. This is what I did for fun as a kid. I know you weird pink Earth monkeys don’t get it, but this stuff is nostalgic for me.” She waved to some chairs and sat down in one.
Shepard stared at the chair, which looked like it was made from some assemblage of giant insect larvae, woven together into a seat cushion. He made a face. It wasn’t a kind one.
“Whatever,” Terezi said. “Stand if you like.”
That sounded just enough like a challenge that Shepard gritted his teeth and sat down in the chair.
The weirdly squishy, fluid-filled chair.
It was more comfortable than he’d expected, but that was a low bar.
“You asked if I was dead,” she said. “Yes. You’re probably wondering if I’m from a doomed timeline. Yes. You’re probably slightly curious about what doomed my timeline. The guy I hate-dated in the future of another timeline went crazy and killed me and my friends. I died before I even entered the game.”
Shepard cocked his head. “The game?”
“Sgrub?” Terezi asked. “Or Sburb as you human weenies call it?”
“Never heard of it.”
“Okay, I’m going to rattle off a list of words, nod your head for each one you’ve heard of.”
“Dream bubble.” Nod.
“Furthest ring.” Nod.
“Doomed timeline.” Nod.
“Paradox space.” Head wobble.
“The medium.” Nothing.
Terezi cocked her head, a puzzled look on her face.
“Genesis frog.” Nothing. Well, a look of bewilderment, but no head nod.
“You’re not from a frog, are you?” she asked.
“Is… this some sort of translation glitch?” he asked back.
“You’re from a universe that’s not part of a genesis frog!” she shouted, suddenly sure of herself.
Shepard’s look of confusion was growing by the second. “I… what?”
“Nevermind, not important right now,” she said. “Tell me about your universe.”
Shepard tried to wrap his head around describing it.
“Uh… we have faster-than-light travel using a substance called ‘element zero’. There’s a galactic civilization composed of seven-ish major species, including humans. A race of sapient AIs called Reapers…”
“Stop. Ugh, just stop,” Terezi said. She shook her head. “My fault, I should have been more specific. I’m a Seer of Mind,” she said, like that should explain everything. “I don’t give a crap about the things you were telling me. What are the decisions you’ve made? Start with what you were dreaming about when you entered my dream bubble.”
Shepard went cold.
He stood up and walked to the door.
He stopped at the threshold. Couldn’t quite make himself leave.
“Look, it’s your choice to tell me,” she says with surprising kindness. “It has to be your choice, and that means you have to be free to walk away. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time here, it’s that the gods don’t do things by accident. Your dream bubble is parked here because you need to talk to me.”
“There was a war,” Shepard said, still looking out the door. Looking anywhere but Terezi. “Two sides. The geth wanted peace, but the quarians didn’t trust them. Wanted to wipe them out. The geth killed billions of quarians in the last war, exiled the survivors from their own homeworld, and it was all out of a misguided sense of self-preservation. But there was another war, a bigger war. I needed the biggest fleet I could find to win that war. And the geth fleet was bigger than the quarian fleet. I let the geth win. They killed every quarian this time. Total genocide. And my friend Tali was a quarian. She committed suicide. Threw herself off a cliff because I killed her people and broke her heart.”
Terezi was uncharacteristically quiet after that.
“Why did you really side with the geth?” she finally asked.
“I told you, they had the bigger fleet,” Shepard said in a defensive huff, still facing away from her at the threshold.
“I can smell your human bullshit from over here, and it stinks,” Terezi said. “You were pissed at the quarians.”
“You’re damn right I was pissed, they had their fucking heads up their asses,” Shepard snapped. “All they had to do was stop firing and the war would have been over.”
“Why didn’t they?”
“Han’Gerrel was a pompous warmongering gun-licker,” he shouted.
Terezi flashed a tiny smile, filing away Shepard’s insults for future use. “Did he have the final say?”
Shepard huffed. “None of the other admirals would stand up to him.” Shepard froze, as if struck. “None of the surviving admirals.” He closed his eyes and huffed. “And he wouldn’t listen to Tali, either, since she’d gotten herself exiled.”
Admiral Zaal’Koris was his fault. He’d been in too much of a hurry to stop the Reaper signal to mount a rescue mission.
Tali’s exile was his fault, too. He’d let his anger get the better of him in front of the admiralty board, and he’d botched Tali’s defense. He’d tried in vain to rally the crowd in Tali’s favor, but he just ended up embarrassing himself.
Terezi cocked her head. “You know what you did wrong.” Not a question.
“That wasn’t my only disaster… but I think I see where I screwed up with the quarians.”
She got out of her chair and walked over to him. Stood up on her toes to reach, put her hand on his shoulder.
“Good. Now pull your head out of your own nook and start taking responsibility for your choices.”
She sucker-punched him in the gut, and he snapped awake.
Chapter 3: Davepeta
Shepard sat in his kitchen, 0300 local time, working his way through a protein bar and unable to get back to sleep.
His mind was on Rannoch. He was sure he’d dreamed of it.
The galaxy… well, they never got the whole story. The quarians had no deep ties to any of the other races. Since fleeing their homeworld so many centuries ago, they’d been spurned by all outsiders as beggars and thieves. Only those aboard the Normandy… those who’d known Tali… knew that the quarians were a fiercely proud people, to the point of pig-headedness, who could just as quickly smother you with affection as smother you with criticism, but who you could never, never accuse of not loving each other.
Diana Allers had tried to set up an interview with him after Rannoch. Shepard had kicked her off the ship for even suggesting it.
Tali’s friends aboard the Normandy. They were the only ones left to mourn the quarians.
Himself, Kaidan, Garrus, and Wrex.
Well, not Wrex, not anymore.
Some part of Shepard wondered if Wrex had known about Rannoch before he attacked Shepard in the docking bay. If some part of Wrex’s fury for Shepard was reserved for Tali’s death, and not just Shepard’s betrayal of the krogan.
But Garrus, he was alive.
And he took Tali’s death hard. Hard enough that Shepard wondered if there’d been something there, between them.
For the rest of the war, things between himself and Garrus had never been the same. Garrus had once been a trusted confidante. The only person he could admit the genophage sabotage to, the only person he could admit Mordin’s death to. He’d been Shepard’s trusted lifeline during their time working with Cerberus. But losing Tali broke something in them, in their friendship.
He needed to apologize to Garrus.
Joker too. But that was still too painful to think about.
Shepard finished his protein bar and trudged to his terminal.
I’ve been thinking about Rannoch. About Tali. About the mistakes I made that led to that point. About how I let my frustration with the quarian admirals cloud my judgement. About how I let a peacemaker die because I was in a hurry. Back during the Saren mission, Kaidan once warned me about taking shortcuts. I finally understand what he meant.
I know Tali meant a lot to you. As a friend, at least. And I know you blame me for her death. And you’re right to do it. I blame me too.
There’s nothing I can do to fix this, because the only way it could ever be fixed is for Tali to be standing right here, alive, knowing her people are alive too. There’s no absolution for a mistake like that. Even calling it a “mistake” cheapens it. “Oops, bad call.” No, it was my choice, and I made it with eyes open.
I don’t expect your forgiveness.
I don’t deserve your forgiveness.
But I am sorry. For as little as that means.
He read through the message one last time to be sure, then hit the “send” button.
He sighed and sat down on the couch and pulled up a vid.
Shepard’s omnitool beeped. For the first time in a week, he checked his messages.
Kaidan had sent a reply.
Shepard tensed. Odds were fifty-fifty that the message consisted of two words, and the second word was “you”. The thought made him sad.
You and your timing. I’m between Spectre missions right now. I’ll bite. When do you want to meet?
Kaidan had signed off with his last name. Fuck, he had a lot of damage to undo.
They’d exchanged pleasantries, kept the conversation light and neutral.
But now they were sitting down at their table. The restaurant wasn’t very busy, and Kaidan had managed to get them a corner table with some privacy.
“So, what’s this all about, Shepard?” Kaidan said. He already sounded exhausted.
Shepard almost blew him off out of habit. Pretended he had no idea where Kaidan was coming from. He bit his tongue, sighed, and looked down at the table.
“We didn’t exactly part on good terms,” Shepard said. “I guess it’s been eating away at me.”
“At you, huh?” Kaidan coldly retorted.
Shepard didn’t take the bait. “You remember those chats we used to have on the SR-1?” he asked, looking up at Kaidan. Trying to project to Kaidan what things had been like for Shepard since the end of the war. “I miss those.”
Kaidan stared at him, then nodded once. “Yeah. I’d never trusted anyone enough to talk about what I went through in BAaT. Not even my parents.”
Shepard’s breath hitched, almost a sob, tears suddenly pricking at his eyes, the emotion coming from out of nowhere. He nodded, fought to hold it all in, to keep his voice still. “That meant a lot to me. That trust. I’m sorry I didn’t deserve it.”
Kaidan propped his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. He sighed. “At the time you did,” he said grudgingly.
“I fucked up, Kaidan.”
Kaidan didn’t look up from his hands. “Yeah, you did,” he finally said. But there was no anger in it. Just disappointment, and the sense that Kaidan felt very, very old.
“You ever feel like… like you have this unshakeable feeling that something went wrong and you need to go back and fix it?”
“Constantly,” Kaidan said without hesitation.
“What would you change, if you could?” Shepard asked.
Kaidan sighed. “I don’t know. In all the time I’ve known you, I’ve been swept up in things beyond my control. I don’t know of any point where I could have made a difference.”
“I would have listened to you more,” Shepard admitted.
“When did you ever?” Kaidan said. He sounded worn down to nothing.
“I was listening to you back on the SR-1,” Shepard said. “We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but I respected your opinion. Respected you.”
Kaidan finally lifted his head out of the cradle of his hands. “Then what changed?” His voice was stone.
Shepard huffed. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know,” he repeated, almost a whisper. “I’m broken, Kaidan. I’ve been broken for a long time. And it got people killed.”
Kaidan didn’t say anything. Just pondered that, and put his head back in his hands.
“I guess I thought that bringing you aboard the SR-2 would magically fix that,” Shepard admitted “That we’d just pick up where we left off on the SR-1, and Horizon and Mars would just be distant memories, and we could all be a big happy family again on the Normandy.”
“And then you killed the quarians,” Kaidan said.
“And then I killed the quarians,” Shepard agreed. He sighed. “I sent a message to Garrus earlier today. Apologized for getting Tali killed. Told him he was in the right for blaming me.”
Kaidan exhaled. “It’s something,” he said.
He dreamed of Horizon.
“Sure, I remember you,” grumbled the ungrateful colonist in front of him. “You’re some type of big Alliance hero.”
Suddenly, the universe pulled hard to port, and Kaidan appeared from around a corner. “Commander Shepard. Captain of the Normandy. The first human Spectre. Savior of the Citadel. You’re in the presence of a legend, Delan. And a ghost.”
Delan grumbled some more. Shepard didn’t hear his words. All his attention was on Kaidan.
Kaidan approached him and offered a handshake. “I thought you were dead, Commander,” he finally said. “We all did.”
Shepard took the offered hand. Kaidan’s voice was controlled, but Shepard could hear the turmoil in it. At the time, Shepard hadn’t picked up on the reason.
“You don’t sound too happy to see me,” Shepard commented glibly. “Something bothering you, Kaidan?”
“Yeah, something’s bothering me,” Kaidan hissed. “I spent the past two years believing you were dead! I would have followed you anywhere, Commander. Thinking you were gone… it was like losing a limb.” Kaidan looked down, momentarily lost in his own thoughts. “Why didn’t you try to contact me?” he finally snapped. “Why didn’t you let me know you were alive?”
“Not my choice,” Shepard said, defensive hackles raising. “I spent the last two years in some kind of coma while Cerberus rebuilt me.”
Kaidan backed away in shock. “You’re with Cerberus now? Garrus, too? I can’t believe the reports were right.”
Garrus spoke up. “Reports? You mean you already knew?”
“Alliance intel thought Cerberus might be behind the missing human colonies,” Kaidan explained. Shepard had always remembered Kaidan being surprisingly calm during this part of the conversation, but now he could hear Kaidan’s fury giving way to newfound grief. “They got a tip this colony might be the next one to get hit. Anderson stonewalled me, but there were rumors that you weren’t dead. That you were working for the enemy.”
“Building the defense towers was just a cover story,” Shepard said. “The Alliance sent you here to investigate me, didn’t they?”
“I was here for Cerberus. You were just a rumor,” Kaidan said, his voice thick with resignation. Suddenly the fury was back. “I wanted to believe you were alive, but I never expected anything like this,” he snipped. “You’ve turned your back on everything we stood for!”
“Kaidan, you know me!” Shepard said. “You know I’d only do this for the right reason. You saw it yourself: the Collectors are targeting human colonies, and they’re working with the Reapers!”
“I want to believe you, Shepard,” Kaidan huffed. “But I don’t trust Cerberus. They could be using the threat of a Reaper to manipulate you. What if they’re behind it? What if they’re working for the Collectors?”
Garrus spoke up. “Damn it, Kaidan! You’re so focused on Cerberus that you’re ignoring the real threat!”
Shepard chimed in, siding against Kaidan. “You’re letting how you feel about their history get in the way of the facts.”
“Maybe,” Kaidan said, sounding unconvinced. “Or maybe you feel like you owe Cerberus because they saved you. Maybe you’re the one who’s not thinking straight.”
Shepard swallowed. He felt like the inevitable bad end of this conversation was barreling toward him like a dreadnought at FTL.
“You’ve changed,” Kaidan continued. “But I still know where my loyalties lie. I’m an Alliance soldier. Always will be. I’ve got to report back to the Citadel. They can decide if they believe your story or not.”
Shepard felt his guts twist as Kaidan turned to walk away.
“I could use someone like you in my crew, Kaidan,” Shepard said weakly. As soon as he’d started saying it, he’d known it was the wrong thing to say. But he couldn’t stop himself. Kaidan’s incoming rejection made his face burn and his chest ache. “It’ll be just like old times.”
“No it won’t,” Kaidan said coldly. “I’ll never work for Cerberus.” Kaidan’s voice softened. “Goodbye, Shepard. And be careful.”
Kaidan turned his back on Shepard and walked away for good.
In real life, Shepard had walked away, mulling the conversation over and over in his mind, twisting Kaidan’s words into something harsher than they’d truly been.
In the dream, Shepard stood there and softly wept. All that fury he heard in Kaidan’s voice, all that righteous indignation at Cerberus… none of it had been directed at Shepard himself. Only worry, and grief, and sorrow.
Kaidan hadn’t been thinking straight. But neither had Shepard.
Shepard remembered his glib words at the start of the conversation. His own ignorance of how much pain his death had caused Kaidan. How scared Kaidan had clearly been that Shepard was a Cerberus plaything.
For the first time since that conversation had happened in real life, Shepard forgave Kaidan.
Truly forgave him. Understood why Kaidan said what he said, and accepted that he needed to say it.
Shepard fell to his knees and wept.
“Well, ain’t that a fucking sad sight to see,” a voice said from behind him. Despite the words, the tone was gentle.
Shepard wasn’t even phased. The memories from his previous dreams were already there.
“Who are you?” Shepard asked sarcastically, not bothering to stand up or turn around. “Ghost of Christmas future?”
The voice laughed, a joyful tittering. “Mr. Scrooge, you’ve been very naughty,” they said suggestively, then broke into laughter again at their own joke.
Shepard finally turned his head to look, and… and was at a loss to explain what he was looking at. It wasn’t a person, so much as the primordial idea of a person… or, perhaps, two people? They had a mix of features that looked both like a human and like one of those Alternian aliens he’d met. When he took in the big picture, he had the sense of flashing, blinking, always shifting between states. And yet, every part that he examined was still. Blank. Absent. The platonic idea of a person, standing where a person should be.
Somehow, the figure had a mouth that looked like a kitty-cat face and their feet were floating about half a meter off the ground.
Yup, there it was. That sense that the universe was falling off the hinges.
Shepard clambered to his feet and stood before the being.
“What’s going on?” Shepard finally asked.
“You’re dreaming, silly.”
“Yeah, I got that,” Shepard said. “I guess this means you entered my dream bubble. Who are you? And why are you here?”
“Ooh, those are both purrfect questions,” the figure said. “My name is Davepeta, but who are any of us, really? Hard to tell when there’s an endless purrsession of timelines full of people who are almost us, but not quite. And I’m here because I’m trying to meet up with my friends, and your dream bubble was on the way. I thought I’d pounce in and purr hello.”
Shepard crossed his arms. “Go ahead. You have your own questions. Ask away.”
“What questions?” Davepeta laughed. “Hey dude, we can talk about whatever you want to talk about. I mean, you probably want to talk about that guy you’re in love with, but if you don’t wanna that’s none of my business.”
A queasy feeling settled into Shepard’s gut. “In love with him? I think you’ve got the wrong idea.”
Davepeta shrugged. “Who is he?”
“Kaidan Alenko. Lieutenant Commander in the Alliance when this memory happened.”
Davepeta chuckled. “That’s not who he is. That’s just his name and a fact about him.” They appraised Shepard, still smiling but with a hint of seriousness to it. “If you ended up in another universe where he had a different name, how would you know him when you found him?”
Davepeta waved that idea away. “Nah, that’s silly. That’s just another fact about him.”
He thought about Kaidan. About who Kaidan was. About what made him Kaidan.
Suddenly, the dream shifted. They were no longer standing on Horizon. They were on board the Normandy SR-1.
Kaidan stood before him. He was telling the story about BAaT training. How he tried to defend Rahna. How he killed Commander Vyrnnus by accident.
Shepard watched dream-Kaidan retell the story, watched the emotions play across his face.
Trust. Kaidan’s trust of Shepard. Kaidan was sharing something deeply personal about himself, about who he was. He was giving Shepard a gift.
Worry. Kaidan was afraid Shepard would reject him. Exposing himself, showing vulnerability to Shepard. Afraid that Shepard would take it the wrong way, cheer him for killing Vyrnnus or chide him as weak for feeling guilt afterward.
Control. Kaidan was trying to hide how much he cared about Shepard’s reaction. Trying to steel himself for rejection.
It was dizzying. He’d known it all along. Had seen the signs… noticed the signs, in fact. Noticed them enough that they were clear as daylight in his own dream-memory.
Tamped them down. Hidden them. Buried them. Ignored them.
Kaidan had loved him. At the time when Kaidan had told him this story about BAaT and Rahna, Kaidan had loved Shepard.
And the heartbreak in his chest told him that he loved Kaidan right back.
Well ain't that the saddest fucking story that ever got told.
Davepeta floated up to Shepard’s side. “See, you’ve got the hang of it! That’s a pretty good memory of him.”
Shepard agreed with the sentiment, but… “Why this memory? What makes it good?”
“Well, it tells you about something meaningful that happened to him. This was an important event in his life that shaped who he is today. Right?”
Dream-Kaidan stood still as Shepard continued to study the man’s face. “Right.”
“But it also tells you something about how he feels about it. If someone else had done the same thing in his place, they would have felt differently about what happened. You see?”
Shepard nodded. “Okay, yeah.”
“That’s what it means to be one person instead of another,” Davepeta said. “Different timelines, different choices, but it’s the same you in every timeline. And the reason it’s you and not some stranger that answers to your name is because all the different versions of you are connected through your feelings about the things that happened to you.”
Shepard thought about his choices. If different choices led to different timelines…
“What if I want to be another me?” Shepard asked. “What if I fucked up my timeline so badly that it’s time for a hard reset?”
Davepeta, for the first time in Shepard’s memory, frowned.
“I’m sorry,” they said. “It doesn’t work like that. If it’s possible for you to have made the choices that resulted in that timeline, then there’s already a version of you living in that timeline. And you don’t have the right to replace him. Or her, or them.”
Shepard considered the idea that, somewhere out there, there might be a Shepard who was somehow the same person as him, but a different gender. It… didn’t feel as ridiculous as he thought it should.
“And you really shouldn’t talk about a hard reset so casually,” Davepeta said. “Even if it’s possible for your universe, things like that always come with a big price tag.”
They considered him.
“But I’m pretty sure your universe doesn’t even have a mechanism for that. Just spending time around you, I can tell that your universe runs on different rules than Paradox Space. Which makes it really amazing that you’re here in the Furthest Ring at all! I think it’s pretty neat that we got to talk, despite coming from totally incompatible universes. I know a lot about this stuff, and even I would never have guessed that could happen.”
Shepard finally looked away from Kaidan and saw that the dream was starting to destabilize.
“I guess our time is almost up,” Shepard said.
“Yeah,” Davepeta said. “I wish you could stay longer, it gets lonely out here and it’s nice to talk to people. But I want you to keep in mind what I said about knowing your alternate selves, okay? I don’t know enough about your situation to hand you the answers, but I get the feeling that you’re walking the path of Heart right now, even if you’re going about it in a very Mind-y way.”
Shepard didn’t quite know what that meant, but he got the gist, and he smiled anyway.
Davepeta floated over to him and gave him a hug. If he’d been awake, he would have freaked out, tried to bolt away from the unsolicited touch. From a stranger, no less. But somehow, here, wrapped in dream logic, it made total sense. There was no danger. No panic.
“Take care of yourself, you emotionally repressed weirdo,” Davepeta whispered in his ear.
And, for the first time in a long time, Shepard woke up with a ghost of a smile on his lips.