Chapter 4
Borrowed Lives - Pierce Fulton, NVDES

Delaran Heights Hotel, it turns out, sounds a lot snazzier than it actually is. Surda Ward isn't unpleasant, per say; speaking from a perspective almost two centuries old at this point, it's got all the futuristic, curved white architecture expected from the Citadel, it has alien species milling around, holographic signs, but there's just something mundane about it. A basic looking front desk, pleasant but bored looking turian manning the terminal. A brief exchange of meetings, I give him my name, there's a brief bit of confusion as he scans my credit chit to confirm my identity, then I'm given the key up to room 231.

The same practicality applies to the room; a double bed, at least, cramped with what I can only assume is the framework for a holographic display, a couple of sliding cupboards, a desk, and then an ensuite bathroom, which I don't get to check out due to the more pertinent matter of who's standing in front of me.

"Good, you made it," the asari from back on Earth says, flashing me a smile. "Did the interview go well?"

Something about the way she just casually says that, the way it sounds so normal, immediately makes me lose my patience. "The fuck do you care?" I ask, folding my arms. "You ripped me from my home, my entire life, and that's what you say in person? Doesn't bloody matter how the interview went, because you're sending me back right now."

"I'm not, actually," she responds calmly, though there's a hint of a sigh behind it. "Maybe you should sit down."

"Why the hell not?" I remain resolutely stood up; it's a petty show of defiance, but it's about all I've got right now.

The asari gives a frustrated shake of her head. "A couple of reasons. First of all, it's not magic. I can't just click my fingers and send you back. It's something that takes time, preparation. I only worked out how to do it after a decade of study and preparation."

I shake my head frantically, finding that too difficult to accept. "A decade? No, no, I am not staying here for ten years! What the fuck am I going to do? I'm not cut out for C-Sec, and you know fine well there's going to be a Reaper invasion well before then-"

"You really should sit down," the asari mutters. "It took me ten years how to work it out, I could do it again a lot faster. Maybe in a few months." Okay, good, at least there's some hopes. I must be able to blag my way through C-Sec for that long, just stick in with the training and then get out of here as soon as she's ready. "You're going to be sticking around for a while longer than that, though. At least three or four years."

"Why? I don't understand, what the fuck do you want from me?" I can feel my voice rising, but this seems as appropriate a time for it as any. "I'm not stupid, you put me in C-Sec for a reason, put me close to Garrus for a reason. Is that what this is about?"

"See, you've got at least some natural competency for being a detective," she smirks. What I'd give to wipe it off her face, but I'd have absolutely no chance. "I saw what you know about those...games." There's obvious distaste in her voice, but she doesn't stop to reflect on it. "It's incredible, really, our whole universe, way of life, distilled into a throwaway bit of entertainment. In one universe out there, no doubt someone reflected on your own world as a bit of fiction too." Well, this confirms the theory I had about being in an entirely separate universe, something that at least isn't giving me much more anxiety at this point. Not like it's coming as an enormous shock, and the sheer magnitude of what I'm dealing with makes it to hard to find a proportional reaction.

"You're talking about...parallel universes, multiverses, whatever the term is?" I ask.

"Ah, you're familiar with them?" Her eyes light up.

"In so much as I know the names. Not got any idea how it's all supposed to work." Her eyes narrow again. "Oh, fuck off. Maybe you should've kidnapped a physicist if you wanted to talk about this kind of thing."

"You've got the general idea, at least," she sighs. "I saw what you know. Everything up until the Collector base being destroyed, in your case at least. I was hoping to see everything that happened afterwards, what the Reapers do, but we'll have to make do."

"We?" I quirk my brows, before shaking my head. "There's no 'we'. You can't just drag me in here and expect me to help with whatever this is. I'm fine fighting Reapers in the safety of my home, not in person."

"Well, you certainly won't be getting home if 'we' don't work together," she replies bluntly. "You help me, I help you." Shit. The thought of being stuck here forever is still making me want to throw up, and the asari seems to take my silence as tacit agreement. "Those games of yours, there was an element of choice, right? Like with that Collector base, you could have had your 'Shepard' give it to Cerberus."

Discussing the future with a real life asari. Surreal. "Yeah, potentially, she could've kept it. Or he."

"And that would be a terrible mistake, right? Letting it fall into Cerberus' hands?"

I pause for a second, trying to work out where she's going with this. "I mean, yes, there's an argument for that, but you could make the case for it going the other way too, couldn't you?"

She shakes her head firmly. "I disagree. I've been thinking over all the major decisions Shepard has to make, the possibilities, the outcomes. There has to be an objective, optimal series of choices, and that's where you come in. You make sure that's what happens."

I stare at her, before bursting into a short laugh. "You're not serious, right? I'm supposed to do what, tell Commander Shepard no if she makes a decision you don't like? Why the hell would a Shepard even listen to me?"

"Well, you get close to Garrus, work on the Saren case together, get recruited onto her ship. From there you can at least make sure things stay predictable, follow what happened in the games. If those games go one way, and we're living in that timeline of events, as I hypothesise, we know that it creates a scenario that's winnable, right? The problem is, because of all the choices that can be made, we don't know what version of that timeline we're in, and we can influence it towards the best series of events."

I shake my head, looking over at the door. Maybe I should just run. She's crazy, has to be. "Look, come on, be realistic. I have no military experience, and I can't...how am I supposed to keep everything on the rails like that? At best, all I can do is advise, I can't force Shepard to do anything." It's completely ludicrous. The series of events that would require, the level of expertise I'd need to develop in two years time.

"Liara T'Soni isn't a military specialist, and from what I saw, she got recruited. Neither is Tali." The asari shrugs. "Advising and influencing is better than nothing. It's that or we leave it up to chance, and I'm not ready to do that."

"How does dumping me in make it better than chance? I'm a walking liability, I've never even shot a gun, at least Tali and Liara had done that," I point out, before gesturing at her. "Why don't you just do it? Go to C-Sec and get yourself recruited to Shepard's team with Garrus?"

"I can't."

"That's pathetic, you can't? Why, you're too scared to go into the firing line?"

"No, I literally can't." The words come slowly, deliberately, carrying a threatening undertone beneath them as she glares at me. "You know what Vrolik's disease is. That 'Joker' character has it."

My face falls as I realise what she's talking about. Brittle bone disease. "Shit. I'm sorry, I didn't realise."

She waves it off, but I obviously touched a nerve. Even after everything she's done to me, I feel bad for just bulldozing into it like that. "It's not as bad as his, but we need someone on the front lines for this. Someone there for every decision. Anybody else we tell about this will think we're crazy, so that only leaves me one choice. You. Believe me, I wish this was possible any other way, but you're going to just have to pay a lot of attention during your C-Sec training."

"This is still a crazy idea. What if I make it worse and get someone killed when they're trying to help me?" I ask her. Part of me already realises that she isn't going to be put off from this idea, but it's worth trying. "I get what you're trying with this, really, I do. But if you want to keep things the same, maybe it's better I stay as far away as possible."

"Maybe. Or maybe we end up with a Shepard who wants to give the Collector base to Cerberus, and gets their whole crew killed. You know what's coming, and even if you can't keep every choice optimal, you can at least make sure the right people stay alive. To me, this is the best chance." I guess that's true. I know what upgrades the SR-2 needs for the crew to stay alive, how to talk Wrex down on Virmire, I can at least contribute there.

"And I guess I'm not getting home if I don't go with your opinion on this," I mutter. "You're blackmailing me."

"We could be saving the galaxy, here."

"Stop saying 'we'." I shake my head. There's no other choice here; I have to at least entertain this, or I'm trapped, forever. "If you're going to force me into this, fine, I'll do it. But you send me home as soon as my knowledge runs out."

"Seems like an entirely reasonable deal," the asari smiles. Bullshit. This isn't reasonable, at all, but I bite my tongue on it. I'm in no position to be making promises like this, but it gets her out of the room for now, and it at least keeps my avenue of escape open. Assuming I'm not dead by the time she can make good on her deal. The asari makes for the door, walking with a now rather noticeable limp. "For right now, you should rest up and focus on C-Sec. We can talk more about this later."

"Hey, wait a second," I call out to her. "I still don't understand all this. If this was your plan, why did you just dump me in the street when I woke up? Why only explain this now?"

"I wanted to create a sense of urgency and confusion, so you'd do as I told you, at least at first. Sorry." Well, she just gets nicer and nicer. "It worked, at least." Like that's some kind of consolation…

"Why were you in my universe in the first place? You said something about expecting me to be asleep when we first met," I point out to her.

That gets me a small glare, but she notably looks to the side for a split second. It's quick, but she seems notably uncomfortable. "It was night, you were supposed to be sleeping. I just meant it generally, not specifically because I expected you to be asleep. I wasn't expecting any of this either, but when I saw your memories, I knew I had to do something." I'm not sure how much of that I believe; I guess she'd have had no way of hunting me down specifically, and I'd be flattering myself to think I warranted special attention like that. Still, the whole 'had to do something' spiel feels far too altruistic for her. That said, I've got no way to call her out on it, so I just let it slide. Just as I'm about to let her go, before I realise something else.

"What's your name?"

She blinks, before giving a little chuckle. "I never did say, did I? Shai'ira. If that's all, I'll be in touch." This time I don't stop her, letting the asari show herself out, before flopping back onto the bed and running my hands through my hair as I try to work this all out.

The positive, at least, is that I have a better understanding of what I'm doing here, and what the point of this is. Even a stupid purpose is better than none at all.

The overwhelming negatives, of course, get to the forefront of my brain not long after that. Her plan is baffling in its stupidity and assumptions. I do, at least, somewhat understand her point. I don't entirely disagree that some decisions are objectively better than others, and I see what she means about making sure things roughly stick to the games; it's unlikely that the course the games were headed on was guaranteed to end in failure, but deviation could render things 'unwinnable', so to speak.

Still, that leaves me with the task of making sure that happens, which means ending up on the SR-1, making sure Shepard makes good decisions somehow, and preventing major changes to canon, whilst simultaneously being a major change to canon myself. It's an impossible situation, but I end up trapped if I don't agree to it. Ultimately, what choice do I have?

With her argument in my head now, I'm not sure I could just hide and hope Shepard defeats the Reapers, after all. What if they got Wrex killed, or Garrus, or they side with Cerberus? Can I really go somewhere else and be okay with the fact I could've done something?

It's all a moot point if I don't manage to make it through C-Sec training. Right now, that's what I've got to worry about. Keep everything together, work out this universe, stay alive. If I can last two years here, I can make a better decision then. Sighing, I roll out of the bed, and have a root around for the room service menu. Eat, sleep, and feel better in the morning.

Somehow I doubt it, but at least it's something to hope for.