Eric's somewhat familiar with the series and some of the structures of the setting. He only played the main games as of this writing, but he hasn't read the comics or the novels. By the time of his vacation, it has been at least several months since he had played any of the games.
Chapter One: Awakening
"One two three four, one two three four!"
They were the first words Eric heard. Something pressed on his chest. Air flowed back into his lungs as if someone performed CPR on him. Eric opened his eyes and blinked many times, trying to adjust to the light. He caught glimpses of the bright, cloudy sky, which seemed to be shaped like a ring. As he gasped for air, Eric coughed and vomited.
"Don't fight it. It's just a natural reaction for someone who almost drowned," the same voice said to him.
Eric was too weak to respond. After vomiting, he looked at the object in front of his mouth. To his relief, air had been pumped into his lungs by a medical device. He looked at a figure kneeling next to him. When his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he saw a woman looking down at him. She had tanned skin and dark-brown hair, combed neatly. She looked to be in her twenties.
"You need to stay still," the woman told him. "Help is on the way."
He was glad to follow this advice. He felt light-headed and closed his eyes again. "Hey, stay with me!" the woman barked just before he blacked out.
When Eric regained consciousness, he laid on a comfortable bed. He wore a breathing mask, the tube attached to something nearby, and a pair of pajamas. The white-washed ceiling told him he was in a hospital, somewhere in Cambodia or Thailand. He must have done something stupid to end up there. He would likely receive a scolding from his parents and his grandparents. But he was ready for it. No one wanted to lose their child on vacation.
What happened? He pondered about this question as he removed the breathing mask.
Cold sweat took hold of him as he realized that his memories didn't seem to match with what happened. The last thing he remembered was visiting Angkor Wat with his family. He wondered how he almost drowned there. The only place it could happen was at the beach in Bangkok two days ago. He wondered if the whole trip to Cambodia had been a dream.
But it didn't make any sense. It became blurry at the end, with that orb of blue light. He knew the story of the light at the end of a tunnel and how science had tried to explain it. That orb might have been a rare form of it. Eric would be glad to share his theory with his neurologists once he found a way back home. After glancing around the room, he looked through the window and shivered.
Wait a minute. Bangkok doesn't look like that.
He saw a large lake fed by a river, filled with clean, blue water that gleamed in the sunlight. It wasn't like the brown color of the Chao Praya River. Tall, white, monolithic buildings line the other side of the river. They arranged with a simple but elegant efficiency. It looked too futuristic to be anyplace he'd seen on Earth. It reminded him of something specific. After a moment of consideration, he dismissed it with a shake of a head.
If it was possible, the expense would count in the billions. As Eric pondered the implications of that further, a flying car passed by his window. He gasped in shock. He wasn't anywhere on Earth that he recognized, with no way of knowing where he was in the space-time continuum.
That sphere brought me here somehow by creating a wormhole. One that traverses time or distance somehow. Or both. Eric's breathing became shallow and rapid. His heart beat wildly as the implication set in.
No matter what, family won't find out what happen to him. A loved one disappearing was often harder on a family than death. He hoped that the orb transported his family. It wasn't because he was afraid and lonely for them, but because he knew how much energy wormholes to consume in theory. The discharge of energy would annihilate the temple and anyone unlucky enough to be standing in the vicinity.
He lay in the hospital bed and thought about what would happen at his world. Conspiracy theorists and ufologists would treat his strange disappearance as a mystery, while the authorities would view it as a Missing Persons case, either criminal or accidental. His heart ached when he realized what his disappearance would mean for his family. They would stay in Cambodia and get involved in searches that never turned up any clues. They would follow every false lead, every potential sighting. Their hopes would rise and fall with every new scrap of information. And then they would soon go back home, ignorant. But they wouldn't give up, in spite of it all.
He remembered when Alphonse went back home late from school for several hours, his phone shut off. It scared them to death. It was like that but worse. Their scars would never heal completely. But it would be preferable to them all being dead if the wormhole refused to play by the rules, he rationalized.
Eric thought of something else. He noticed a monitor beside his bed, tracking his vital signs. Some of the information displayed on the screen was unfamiliar to him, indecipherable to any doctor from his world. He noticed with relief that his heart rate returned to normal. Focusing on his family helped normalize his vital signs.
Okay, let's go with me getting transported forward in time. A nuclear war didn't happen. Nothing would be this clean otherwise. Meteorites didn't strike us down like dinosaurs. Global warming didn't drown everyone, and Skynet doesn't exist yet. Good to know. Even more helpful if I find out what year it was.
He looked through the window to see what other surprises this new world held in store for him. More flying cars passed by. How did they work? Gravitons? Maybe making their opposites at large quantities? Or does each one of these things use a small equivalent of the LHD—the Large Hadron Collider— in its engine compartment? As he considered other possibilities, he glanced down onto the sidewalk below and his eyes widened in shock.
Most of the people below weren't human. Some had reptilian bodies with huge eyes. Others looked female, but their skin came in various shades of blue, with oddly shaped cranial structures instead of hair. He noticed a pink-colored Medusa-like creature floating on the ground. Or however its particular method of perambulation could be called.
Aliens and genetically-enhanced humans, he could deal with. But what terrified him was that he could identify them. Their existence pointed to only one possibility: he was in the Mass Effect universe, as it existed in his home universe as a video game franchise. For a moment, he considered the theory of alternate universes.
Eric needed answers. He ripped the patches off his chest as he attempted to crawl out of bed. The monitor beeped urgently now, but he didn't care. The remaining patches injected him with something. He felt light-headed, having enough time to glance at the monitor to see a "Patient containment!" notification on the monitor's screen before he passed out again.
12:16 PM, April 13, 2012
The spring air was fresh after a day's worth of rainfall. The sun showed itself through the parting clouds, revealing the sky above. Long grass swayed in the wind, the drops of water falling off them.
It was a special day, and Eric wasn't in the park alone.
It had been less than a week since his father had returned from his latest tour in Afghanistan; this was his fifth one. He was an intelligence analyst who signed on with the United States military. While his job kept him relatively safe from the fighting, the whole family was still glad to see him alive and well. On the surface, Tomas Grimes looked much the same as before he went to Afghanistan. He was a pale, middle-aged man of medium height, clean shaven with short, dark hair. His eyes were hazel, rimmed by dark lashes. Only his physical build had changed—he lost weight—and his face bore the signs of both age and weariness. But that was on the outside. Inside, it was a different story.
At home, he would tell them about other analysts he worked with, and the military personnel he came to know, the stories they shared and the jokes they told. He said little about what he actually did—some because it was classified, but they suspected there was much more he wasn't willing to tell them. None of them want to push him further. They rejoiced in his return since they knew their time with him was short; soon he would deploy again.
"It's good to be back," Tomas told his son. Eric nodded as they walked the narrow path together. "We don't do this often enough."
"Yeah," Eric admitted. "We go to the movies more often."
His father shook his head. "It was fun back then. All of you loved it. You turned out well. Your sister found a job she likes and met a good bloke, you're a straight-A student at MIT and set to pick particles apart. Alphonse… well, he's young. I wonder if we missed something with him back then."
"I appreciate it, Dad. But why are we talking about this? What's the point?"
"The point?" Tomas chuckled. "I thought philosophers do that, not scientists. You think how things work, not why they happen. But it's pretty easy to connect the two, eh?"
He paused. "I wasn't much older than you when I joined the Marine Corps; it was about doing the right thing, setting the right goals for us. Freedom, liberty, security—stuff like that. But as the months went on with no progress in sight, we focused on the little things. We assisted in this operation for a week, protected two villages for another month. Then we provided intel to guide this convoy back in place, get everyone home safe. Things like that are what made us stay, gave us a purpose even when our commanding officers couldn't."
The once gentle wind intensified in its strength. Eric looked at the sky. The clouds seemed to be gathering again…
Eric's eyes fluttered open as he woke up, staring at the window to the lake below. From the light in the sky, it was morning. It looked almost normal, until he turned to his right and found an indigo-skinned woman with a scalp crest for hair.
Seeing her reminded him of where he was. She was an asari. He assumed, like the games, they were a long-lived, mono-gender species with an affinity for biotics. Her eyes were fixed on a hologram located on her left wrist which emitted a soft orange light. She looked bored. When she noticed he was awake, she deactivated the light and assumed a concerned expression.
"Good to see you're awake," she said. "We were a bit worried about you after what happened yesterday. How are you feeling?"
"A lot better, thanks," Eric answered with a half-truth. He sat up and thought of what to do. This was his first conversation here. He had to get as much information as possible, if only to find the best way to get back home.
"Where am I? And… what's the date?"
The asari looked at him, confused. "You don't know where you are? You're at the Huerta Memorial Hospital on the Presidium Ring of the Citadel. From your species' calendar, today is June 20, 2180. Since Natalie Clay brought you in, you've been out for several hours."
So that's who it was, Eric thought, stunned at the date. He was on the Citadel, the iconic space station that served as the gathering point for all the Council's member species. Not only that, but he arrived three years before the events of the first game, placing 166 years into the future. "I see…" he said, realizing he needed to find a reason for his ignorance. "I… it wasn't clear after what happened. I remember now."
The asari nurse nodded in response.
The metal door at the end of the room opened. A woman in a blue-and-black uniform stepped inside. She was human, by all appearances, tall for a woman, with a slender build. She kept her dark-brown hair tied back in a short ponytail. Almost immediately, he recognised her as his savior.
"I take it you're here to see the patient?" the asari asked, relieved.
"Yeah, I got clearance from Dr. Oron," the woman answered. "Do you mind if you leave us alone?"
"Of course." The nurse nodded, sat up and left, the door closing automatically behind her. Eric tensed, nervous about talking to someone who was, until recently, a character from a fictional universe. But this was the woman who saved his life, no matter how awkward he felt.
Eric looked down to his hands. It was difficult for him to maintain eye contact. "So you're Natalie Clay, right? Thanks for rescuing me."
"No need. This is the professional duty of C-Sec. We're taught to maintain an emotional distance, not to take cases personally," Natalie answered as she sat on the chair and pulled out a card. "We need to move this forward. I went through your belongings at the C-Sec Academy and found this. So you're Eric Grimes?" she asked, giving Eric the card.
Eric looked at his ID card. It had everything on it, including his birthday, March 14, 1992, and a two year-old picture of him. The only difference between then and now was the length of his hair. His hair was much shorter now. Back then it had reached his shoulders, much like his brother's did now.
"Yeah, that's me. But I'm not—"
"The analysts at C-Sec were skeptical of what they found on you," said Natalie. "The ones who aren't human don't recognize most of the stuff you have. They think your stuff is fake and—" She stopped herself, having difficulty describing the situation he was in. "Can you tell me how you got to the lake on the Presidium?" she asked, seeking a different approach. "It might make things easier for us."
Eric looked down at his bed and pinched the bridge of his eyebrows, trying to think of a reply. While Mass Effect was a franchise in his universe, he would have to take it seriously. He had to fight off the thought of a dialogue popping up in his view.
"I-I don't know how I could answer that," he replied. "I'm not even sure you would believe me. If I told you the truth, you'd think I'm insane."
Natalie leaned forward in her chair and gave him a gentle smile, something like his mother would do to cheer him up whenever he felt depressed. "Eric. I don't think you're insane. Hell, you might have travelled through time for all we know. That's the best explanation we've been able to come up with."
"I understand you're under a lot of stress right now. Take your time. I know you'll try your best to be honest with us… and yourself."
Eric thought that Natalie, apparently an officer at C-Sec, the law enforcement branch of the Citadel, had a good point. But he was unsure of how to put it in a way that Natalie could understand when it didn't even make sense to him. He had to try to form a coherent answer.
He would have to leave out the part about Mass Effect being a game series back home. No one would believe their entire existence had sprung from the fertile imaginations of a bunch of computer programmers from some unknown world. Even if they did, it wouldn't help him at all. He decided it was best to think of the many worlds theorem. He had to accept the idea that there were too many variables to understand how his predicament was even possible.
"I… you're not far off from the picture," Eric answered after long deliberation.
Natalie's smile grew wider, proud that she was largely correct in her theory. "Okay. So how exactly did you get here?"
"I was on vacation with my family," Eric explained. "We spent a few days in Thailand and went to Angkor Wat in Cambonia. I found myself in a small room and couldn't find a way out, like it sealed itself around me. Inside was this weird orb. I don't know what it was, or how it worked. I can guess the sphere was an artificial wormhole generator. The next thing I knew, I wound up here. That's all I remember." Eric hoped that the Angkor Wat existed in this universe.
"I see…" Natalie muttered. "I'm not sure if the others will take what you've just told me at face value. But I believe you." She got up from the chair and approached the door. It opened automatically, revealing beyond it a glowing, green light.
"What'll happen how?" Eric asked with slight disbelief.
"I'll file a report about your case to my superiors," Natalie replied. "After that, you'll have to hope for the best. C-Sec officials will probably find a way to cover this up. Don't worry, we're not going to lock you up in an asylum or anything like that. Your complete lack of background documents is a problem, but not impossible to overcome. There are plenty of colony and spacer kids that weren't registered at birth. If you apply for citizenship, your case wouldn't be any different. Plus, you can make a good reputation for yourself."
Eric looked up at the C-Sec woman with a smile on his face, his expression hopeful. "Thanks!"
"Don't get too excited," Natalie replied. "It's a complicated process. The bureaucracy seems to be getting worse with every year. Right now, I have to get back to the Academy to file a progress report on your case. Good luck!"
With that, Natalie left and the door closed behind her, leaving Eric alone in the room. All signs of happiness faded from his face, as he realized that the challenges had only just begun. His eyes welled up with tears, streaming down his cheeks. He brought his knees up to his face.
"I want to go home." Deep down, he knew it wasn't possible. Maybe he could find that same orb at the Angkor Wat again, and travel back through it. But first he'd have to find a way to get out of the Citadel and back to Earth. From what he remembered of the games' galaxy map, the Solar System was at least three Mass Relays away from the Citadel.
Following that train of thought, the in-game events took a new meaning for him with terrifying clarity. Within six years, the Reapers were set to invade and begin their harvest. The war against Cerberus and the Reapers would happen and it would claim the lives of billions. He would as capable of dying as everyone else. He reminded himself there were still the Geth and the Collector invasions.
Eric's tears flowed freely as he felt a dread like nothing he'd ever experienced before. For the first time in his life, Eric was alone. Instead of school and family, war and devastation were his new future.
Eric stood and put on a pair of hospital-issued slippers he found by the bed. Whatever was going to happen to him in this reality, he couldn't cry out of it. He approached the sink on the counter, the water running as soon as he touched the spout. Eric washed his face, cleaning the dried tears off his cheeks.
His stomach growled when he turned off the sink and dried his face with a fresh towel. He hadn't eaten anything for almost a day—a day on Earth anyhow. Eric wasn't sure about how time worked on the Citadel, but it didn't matter now.
The door opened and the nurse from before entered the room. She carried a tray with toast, waffles, a few strips of bacon, and some scrambled eggs and a cup of orange juice. His stomach growled again when the asari placed the food on the counter. He grabbed the tray, sat down on the edge of the bed and began devouring his meal. He never tasted anything so good before in his life.
"You're hungry, I can tell you that," the nurse commented. "I figured I would stop by the cafeteria and grab some breakfast for you while Natalie was visiting."
"Thanks." Eric wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin. He saw himself having good table manners. "By the way, what's your name? I don't think I caught it earlier."
"Oh," the asari smiled. "My name's Alynea Tani. And you're Eric Grimes?"
"Yeah. Natalie told you my name?"
"Yes, she did," Alynea answered. "Is there something else I can do for you?"
"Hm…" Eric pinched the bridge of his nose as he thought about what to do next. There could be a wide variety of services available in the hospital, but knowledge was crucial if he was to come up with some kind of a plan. "Is there any way I can look something up?"
"Yes, you can access the Extranet on a terminal," Alynea answered.
Eric felt a glimmer of hope in him. Perhaps there could be a way for him to earn a living or a way to get back to Earth somehow. "Great! Is there one in the hospital? I don't want to end up getting lost here."
"Of course," she answered. "It's right this way." She approached the door, checked to make sure Eric was beside her, and together they left the room.
Walking down the hallway, Eric found the hospital humming with activity. It was filled with a variety of species, including humans.
A window at his right covered the entire wall, showing the lake. Eric felt shocked by the new and exotic technologies and the different cultures. He knew the designers hadn't been able to show everything because of technical limitations. Still, he never imagined how lively this new world was. Despite the awe, he still felt troubled by something, ever since he talked to his asari nurse.
"Hey, can I ask you something?"
"Go ahead," Alynea replied.
"How is it I can understand you?" Eric asked.
"Huerta's a human-owned hospital. I think it's safe to say that President Christopher Huerta named it after himself," she laughed. "Besides medicine, the study of human languages—and how to speak them—are part of my specialized training, though most people just use digital translators, incorporated into jewelry, earpieces, PDAs, and even neural implants. They update rather frequently. I'm surprised you didn't know about them."
"Sorry. Guess I'm a bit out of the loop here." Eric felt embarrassed at his own ignorance. He had to suppress the thought that it didn't matter, with war on the horizon. If he didn't, the fear would paralyze him, and he wouldn't be able to do anything at all.
They arrived at a small room filled with rows of desks. Hovering above them were the same orange holographic screens like the one the nurse wore on her wrist, just much larger. One of few occupants had scaly, silver skin, two-toed feet, and a pair of mandibles over his beaked mouth. Eric recognized him as a turian. He remembered that turian women had smaller, less pronounced cranial crests. The turian didn't seem to notice them coming in, he was so fixated on his terminal.
"Here's the extranet cafe," said Alynea. "If you need anything else, don't be afraid to ask me or other members of the staff."
"Appreciate it." After Alynea left, Eric sat down at the nearest unoccupied terminal available. He compared it to a laptop, but the screen and keyboard were holographic. He found it bizarre. He wondered how many other things he would find, and if they might provide him the keys to going back home.
After getting used to the terminal and its functions, Eric decided to type 'Mass Effect' into the extranet. He wondered what he would find. The result was a series of articles on the Mass Effect Field as a scientific phenomenon. He looked through an encyclopaedic article of sorts. To his surprise it appeared to be self-consistent. He looked over a plethora of formulae that resembled what he studied at MIT. Some key variables had to be different, but, so far he hadn't found any obvious deviations.
Eric shrugged. He wanted to see if he could find something that would help him go home. He typed in 'Mass Effect Bioware game' and hit enter.
The first result was an article for BioWare. Here, it existed from 1998 to 2023. He looked at the list of games produced, including their collaborations with Obsidian Entertainment. Baldur's Gate 1, 2, and 3: the Black Hound, Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2.
"Huh?" he asked, confused at the discrepancy.
He looked through the list again. In the Mass Effect universe on his world, BioWare had extended both Dungeons & Dragons franchises. But Eric wasn't sure if he should call it at that point. Dragon Age entered development later but it ended up costing too much to make. Jade Empire received a sequel. Knights of the Old Republic, its MMO counterpart, and the Mass Effect series were never created. Instead, there was the SFX franchise that was similar to Mass Effect.
Eric nodded. It made sense in a roundabout way. He hit the back button on the browser and was about to look for something else when a news headline had caught his attention.
The XCOM Conspiracy Club celebrated its 15th birthday with an influx of members. Its founder claimed to be right all along.
Eric clicked on the article and looked up the group. According to the article, a librarian at the Arcturus Library found a game called Bureau: XCOM Declassified 15 years ago. It was forgotten after its release. But it had similarities to the way modern combat operations were conducted in this new universe. The author claimed the game's founder must have looked into the future and devoted his life to proving the connection. Only a few thousand believed him. But the uncanny similarity rekindled interest in the game. It led to large-scale re-prints and made its original editions a valuable collector's item.
Eric chuckled when he finished reading the article. It was funny that something so obscure in his universe could gather a cult following in this one. Alphonse told him that the Bureau's gameplay had many similarities to Mass Effect's. Eric thought about his family again, and once again his good mood disappeared. He went back to the search page with a new goal. He had to know if his family had ever existed, at some point in this universe too.
Browsing through the results, most of the articles were about an athlete with the same name. The image section didn't show any pictures of him.
The results showed many people. 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 started to get worried.
It was the same result as before, even 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.
He found nothing, no records of any sort. He was alone, someone who never existed here. "No…" Eric covered his mouth. "You have got to be kidding me."
Even though none of them would be alive, he held out hope that he might be able to 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, that he existed and once had a family. But there wasn't anything to connect him to anyone in this universe. The turian who sat a few seats away from Eric broke away from his terminal. He turned and spoke to him in a series of mumbles and clicks. Eric couldn't understand a word the turian said, as he didn't have a translator.
Eric sat up and left the room, walking fast as he entered the hallway. No one would understand what he went through. Alone, he leaned against the grey wall and slumped onto the floor, running his hands through his hair. He cried and his head throbbed painfully. It was all too much for him. His life had turned completely upside down. He didn't know what to do.
It was a new day for him. And a terrible beginning.