Disclaimer: I do not own Mass Effect or any other licensed material.
"Dazed and Confused"
You know what I like? Dungeons & Dragons. I like it right down to the basic idea, with someone making up an adventure and then letting it play out with characters they and their friends put time into. The dice rolls simulate the randomness of real life, and what is done and how problems are solved is heavily left up to the players. The thought of sitting around a table with friends and putting your role-playing chops to the test really hits me as having a high potential for a good time, especially after growing up on the wrong end of internet message board role-play. Every story I heard of an awesome DM leading players on an excellent quest made my own experiences with shitty moderators obsessed with smut and cyber sex seem all the more lackluster.
I'm telling you this because I actually never managed to play Dungeons & Dragons. I only ever heard stories or watched videos of others playing. In fact, I'd actually been putting together an online experience for myself and some friends before something happened to make my life extremely complicated.
What's that, you ask? Simple.
I woke up.
...Damn if it doesn't sound really stupid when I say it like that.
I never considered myself a heavy sleeper, though it's hard for me to say for certain whether or not I really was. On one hand I woke up early all the damn time. On the other hand you could literally hear the pipes shake from anywhere in the damn house. Dad's up and getting in the shower? Time to wake up, and that's assuming I didn't wake up when he walked down the hall to turn on the coffee maker, or when he got out of bed and caused the poor old mattress springs to shriek. The best it got for me was when I was able to ignore all of that, meaning that instead Mom had to duck her head in five minutes later and ask me if I wanted breakfast. Without fail I'd wake up when my bedroom door was opened.
Thus, now that I've said all of that, you'll hopefully believe me when I say that it came as a complete and total shock to me when woke up inside of a glass tube.
There were a lot of things to consider, chief among them being 'how', with 'why', 'what', and 'who' all tied for a close second. Unfortunately, seeing as the tube was filled with water and thus I couldn't clearly see anything, finding answers to these questions wasn't really on the table. I'd either have to drain the water first or straight up escape.
My brain began to tick, trying to come up with some course of action. Could I move? Ow. Stiffness was a thing, having taken up a firm residence in my limbs. I could shift, but large scale movements were going to be a problem until I got over it. Next question! Could I talk?
I could do something, though calling it talking was a stretch. Of course being underwater was its own problem. Luckily someone had deemed it wise for me to have an oxygen mask over my face. In fact…
"Hck! Hrfk hck fhck!" Ow! Ow ow ow!
That was me coughing with a breathing tube down my gullet. No wonder I couldn't talk. At least I was being taken care of though. This situation, if anything, seemed to be vaguely medical. Perhaps the 'how' and 'why' of my circumstances were related to my health. One too many Sons-of-a-Baconator probably. Stupid sexy bacon… Having said all of that though, the question of 'what' remained. What the hell was this glass cell and what was it doing to me?
Before I could get too irritated, the sound of muffled flushing found its way to my ears. I attempted to look up, expecting to see the water level coming down. Instead something bit me on the back of the neck. Ow. What the fuck?
I weakly tried to reach up and rub the affected area, but this was a fruitless gesture. My arm felt like it was made out of lead, and the amount of shoulder strain required to scratch the back of my neck turned out to be so painful that it made me dizzy.
Regardless, my instincts proved to be correct. The water level did make its way down and release my face from its aquatic bonds. Just like that, I came within seconds of being able to see through the glass tube. My hope of obtaining answers flared up, only to be dashed when my vision was obscured by a descending curtain of black. It fell with the water, obscuring my vision and leaving me in the oddly nostalgic situation of being fresh out of the water with my hair stuck covering my eyes. There were a few problems with this though, mainly the facts that my hair was brown and also that it was currently cut too short to completely fall over my eyes. This stuff was clearly black and, if the sensation of it clinging to me as the water lowered was any indication, was definitely longer than I'd ever bothered to grow it.
My first thought was that I was wearing a stupid wig. Then I gave it an affirming tug with the hand I hadn't used to try and scratch my neck.
Ow… Why does everything hurt today?
I pulled it, immediately leading me to two feelings. The first was sheepish guilt for every time I'd pulled my sister's hair. The second was absolute shock. This hair was attached to me. I'd felt the strain of it pulling at my scalp. It was real. It had to be. That, or I was on PCP and feeling things that weren't actually there. Strangely enough, given the sheer lack of logic behind my sudden changes in locale, hair length, and hair color, I considered being under the influence of the powerful drug a distinct possibility.
Pushing aside worries that I might actually be outside in the street eating my neighbor's lungs, I allowed myself to consider other things. For example, why had it hurt when I looked up? Against my better judgment, I tried the action again. Same result. Ow. This time I noticed something peculiar, that being that it was less of a bite and more of jolt. I spent a few seconds debating the wisdom of further testing before, with a click and a tingle that wriggled through every nerve in my body, whatever was back there removed itself. Not wanting to waste even a second, I tried to turn and see what it was. My breathing tube had other plans.
"Hck hrck hgrk... Grddrmnt!" Ow! The fuck is wrong with me?
I let the process of flushing the water continue. Eventually I felt the water reach my toes, at which I realized that I was supposed to be standing. Funnily enough, the instant I noticed my need to exert strength through my legs was the moment they failed me. I slumped forward, falling into a leaning position against the glass and trying everything I could not to press my breathing apparatus against it and thus also shove my breathing tube further down my throat. It was only here that I came to grips with the absurdity of the breathing tube. Why the hell did I even need one? How badly had I been hurt?
About thirty seconds passed with me in this state. I tried several times to right myself and stand up straight, but my body seemed determined to not work the way I wanted it to. Push myself up? Slide across the glass. Push myself up. Buckle to my knees. Push myself up. Fall flat on my ass. Ow. Every move lead to a breathing tube induced fit as well.
"Hck hrf… Fckn shgt!" Ow. Fuck this shit!
It was here that I attempted to remove the thing from my face. Something within me screamed, preferring that we wait for professional assistance before removing medical devices from the unholy temple that is our body. Unfortunately for that bizarre part of me, my hands were sick and tired of being useless and wanted something to get physical with.
But of course, no ignorance towards medical protocol was without its share of stinging pain.
Ow. Owww… Fuckohgodow.
The gurgling noise as I forcefully removed the malleable plastic tube from my windpipe was… less than pleasant, to say the least. I coughed for a solid minute afterward, retched a few times, maybe performed a few other bodily functions. Yes, it was horrible. Thank you for noticing. Let's move on.
At some point in the middle of all that, the glass tube finally decided that it was time for me to be free. Seeing as I hadn't been able to turn with the tube attached to me, I didn't notice until the glass rose up and away from me that it wasn't really a tube per say. It was more of a tank, really. Now that I was free to look around, I could see that behind me was a wall of technology that seemed well beyond my intelligence score. It helped that, as I'd fallen into a somewhat comfortable sitting position, it was no longer too much of a strain for me to reach up and move the stupid black hair out of my eyes, thus allowing me to see just fine.
Speaking of my body and things that were wrong with it, I was really cold. What was I wearing? Looking down, I found the answer to be 'not a goddamn thing'.
Also, WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT?!
As it turns out, the answer to my earlier question about how badly I'd been hurt was something along the lines of 'you needed a new body'. The one under my head? I'd never seen it before in my life. It was incredibly pale, slick, and featured some hardware I wasn't very familiar with. What the hell were these things on my chest? They were small and round, and… and holy fuck… Do I even want to look at my cro- Nope. That's fucked up. There's not even anything there. What the flying hell. What the flying hell with a pogo stick.
In hindsight, what I did next was bizarrely mature. I calmed down. I forced myself to spread out, letting my pasty legs flop out of the tank and onto the cold floor of the room beyond. The rest of me leaned back into the tank's rear, effectively putting me in the most relaxed sitting position I could manage without getting up and moving. I sat there and just stared at the ceiling. It was sterile gray metal, but I appreciated how easy on the eyes it was. It let my mind empty as I just sat and focused on my breathing. Apparently being on a breathing tube had made my natural breathing reflex grow weak. So maybe my calmness came from a lack of oxygen… or maybe I was on the verge of passing out. Either way, this was my way of settling down in a nervous situation.
Inhale… count to four… exhale. Inhale… count to four… exhale. You've been turned into some semi-genderless freakazoid thing and you don't know why. Inhale… count to eight… don't choke… exhale. Nothing is clear. Patience you must have, my young Padawan.
Panic? Panic wasn't in my lexicon. Inner peace and harmony were collectively my bitch. I very briefly let myself think that maybe this was just a dream, and I'd wake up in bed soon.
The only thing around to argue against me was a klaxon that had suddenly decided to activate nearby.
Honk… Honk… Honk…
"Warning: This facility has been set to self-destruct in ten minutes. Please enact evacuation protocols."
Panic? Panic was good. Some might even say it'd be healthy in a situation such as this.
My first instinct upon hearing that my current location was to be blown up was to get up and run. Part of the wall across the room had become an open doorway in time with the announcement, so I knew where to start. I reached up, my hands sloppily grasping at the edges of the tank, and attempted to pull myself into a standing position. It was only after my feet had gained purchase and my knees popped into an upright pose that I remembered the last few times I'd tried standing up. You know what that means?
A fleshy thud sounded as I spilled to the floor like a self-preservational mannequin. Ow. Getting tired of this shit. By some miraculous stretch, I managed to angle myself to where I landed on my side rather than my face. Still hurt though, and the coldness of the metal floor wasn't helping in the slightest. There was some whimpering, some sliding, some indiscriminate cursing towards every inch of this body they'd stuck me in. You know how it is…
After flopping around like a beached shark for a little longer than I should have, I eventually rolled onto my back to catch my breath again. This gave me a few seconds to crane my neck around and examine the room I was stuck in. My earlier hope of finding answers came back to me, but I probably should've done this before getting out of the tank. Doing that would've just let me be disappointed in the comfort of a sitting position instead of the cold lonesome of the floor. The room held nothing in terms of answers. There was a desk with a chair and something that might've been a computer terminal if I had a better angle to see it from. The computer might've even been helpful, but it'd also probably require me to do some civilian grade hacking, and I wasn't sure I really had time for that. Beyond these simple office effects we had a window that ran the length of the far wall, though nothing seemed to be on the other side except a hallway made of the same shitty gray metal that was currently holding me.
The fuck even is this place?
Next my eyes wandered in the direction I'd come from. There was my open tank, steaming a little as its interior had been much warmer than the exterior. It sat as one of four, third from the left, and stood out as it was the only one that was open. The other three remained closed, and all contained a vaguely familiar silhouette. Pasty white skin, black hair swirling with the slight motions of the liquid, breathing tube leading up to the mouth… but also red. There was something red clouding the area around their heads.
I could see it clearly on one of them. They were slumped forward, their face pressed against the glass. Eyes were reddened, blood flowing from their sockets. It came from their ears as well. Brain hemorrhage? What a way to go…
It took a moment of terrified gawking for me to realize that these were clones of whatever I'd become.
"Warning: This facility will self-destruct in nine minutes. Please follow the floor lights to the shuttle bay for evacuation."
With that, the primary lights dimmed slightly and allowed the tiny LEDs on the floor to show more clearly. They were switching in a pattern that suggested movement, leading my eyes out the door.
Yep. Sounds good.
No longer wanting to be in a morgue filled with people who looked like me, not to mention the whole oncoming destruction thing, I doubled my efforts in trying to escape. I suppose seeing multiple corpses that resembled me went a long way in kickstarting my adrenaline flow. My next attempt at standing found me able to gain enough balance to lurch over to the desk and hold myself up for a few seconds. Time to take stock. My legs felt like jello, I was still having to measure my breathing, my skin was still soaked in whatever they'd been keeping me in, and this room was colder than an ex-girlfriend's shoulder.
It was time to leave.
My first steps were weak, but I eventually settled into a hobble that got me to the door. I leaned against the frame and stuck my head out into the hallway to check for literally anyone or anything that might be around. It was only here that I realized that I hadn't seen or heard from a single person since waking up. The voice announcing my imminent doom didn't count, as it sounded synthesized in tone and modulation. Putting my ears to the air didn't reveal much either, the only thing sounding being the damn alarm.
Honk… Honk… Honk… Shit, that's obnoxious.
Luckily, with the utter lack of company, I didn't have to worry about being seen naked. I wasn't really worried about that anyway, seeing as I… well… really didn't have much to see. I just hobbled on in silence then, checking my corners just in case as I went. The floor lights made things easy enough. The only hard part was actually getting around. My body was in firm denial of its need to move, meaning that I was constantly aching and every twenty steps found me sucking air like a bloody mouth breather. Everything in me wanted to do nothing more than stop, lie down, and spend at least five minutes catching my breath.
"Warning: Eight minutes remaining until detonation."
Honk… Honk… Honk… The alarm was counting down the seconds.
Except my life was literally on a timer at the moment. I breathed a few more curses as the PA voice rattled off some protocols about procedure and order of staff. Considering that I didn't see any staff around, I ignored it and continued to follow the lights. Where the hell was everyone? Had they already evacuated? I felt like I should've seen at least one person by this point, if only because they should be checking for stragglers.
Moving on, the continued journey was… I don't want to say 'agonizing', but it really was shitty. My head was spinning. I had no answers, no explanation, not even a familiar setting to seek comfort in. Instead I was stuck as a… guh, I was short on breath and stamina, freezing to fucking death because I was in too much of a rush to look for clothes, and the place I was in was pretty goddamn certain that it was about explode and engulf me in hot nuclear death!
I passed into another hallway, this one containing another windowed room like the one I'd come out of. Still nervous about being seen, I stopped at the edge of the window and peeked in.
Regret was my initial reaction. Then it became shock and curiosity.
"...What the fuck?" I spoke. The words came out in a pained, breathy voice that definitely wasn't mine, but I spoke them nonetheless. I had no other way to react to what I saw through that window.
The room was quite similar to the one I'd woken up in, except it looked like there had been a bit more traffic within and through it at various points. There were more desks, more consoles, and eight tanks instead of four. One thing this room possessed that mine had utterly lacked, however, was people. Seven people, in fact.
Three of the eight tanks were open, the other five resembling the unopened three from mine. From what I could see, it looked like the people closest to each open tank had been security guards or something. They were dressed in jumpsuits rather than the lab coats their fellows were wearing, pegging them as different. Aside from that, it was hard to tell exactly what happened. Those remaining didn't appear to have come out of the tanks, so the most likely assumption was that whoever or whatever had been released had done the killing. The guards had no guns, but it definitely looked like shooting had occurred. Had they been overpowered and lost their guns? That'd mean...
They'd been killed… murdered, and…
I slowly looked down. Somehow I'd missed the fact that there were bloody prints leading out of the room. Some were those of boots and shoes, others of bare feet, all headed in the same direction the lights were leading me.
Shit! Where's the killer? Or is it killers? Am I going to have to go after them?
"Warning: Seven minutes remaining until detonation."
Honk… Honk… Honk…
My feet begged my body to comply and moved me away from the sight before I could look too closely at the bodies. I needed out of the place, now for more than just the reasons of cold and impending doom.
I didn't make it very far though. I froze in terror as I reached the trail of bloody footfalls. My mind raced at the very idea of going that way. What if they were still there? Would they kill me too?
"Notice: Evacuation shuttle has departed. Those remaining, please follow the floor lights to the escape pod bay for immediate evacuation."
I was dragged back into the moment by this. It was rather surprising to hear that since it implied that whoever had been here and hadn't been murdered, id est: the killers, managed to get away. I mean, it made sense. Murderer or not, the place was still primed to blow. Just… huh… Something was missing.
What if it was someone running away from the killers and they're still here with you?
"Guh…" I lurched at the thought.
My mind eventually tumbled back to what the announcement had said. The escape floor lights changed direction and began leading me the way I'd just come from.
I was not amused, having no other choice than to simply cover my eyes as I passed by the window again. Thankfully the next turn was down a completely new corridor, this one clearly labeled 'Crew Quarters' and thankfully devoid of windows. There were several doorways, two of which had signs indicating that they were restrooms. After that things got even more clear. According to the plates on the walls, these were dorms, a cafeteria, some offices, and even a lounge. All the doors were open due to the emergency, revealing every room to be empty. I couldn't resist a quick glance around through the empty hallways. What's a Crew Quarters without any crew? It'd make sense to have the escape pods nearby a place like this though. If everyone was powered down in their beds for the night and disaster struck, then escape needed to be close by.
Wait a sec.
That thought finally managed to hit me over the head with some sense. Escape pods… That was sci-fi shit. So were cold metal hallways, dead people in tanks, waking up in different bodies, self-destruct sequences, and that's sci-fi bullshit! What the unholy fuck is going on?!
"Warning: Six minutes until detonation."
"I fucking know!" I screamed at the voice. Ow! Throat!
Honk… Honk… Honk…
"Aragh! Shut up!" Fuck!
That one got me coughing, and by 'coughing' I mean 'violently and painfully firing gas out of my lungs whilst gagging'. Every convulsion of air through my body made my throat scream, my eyes sting with tears, my muscles contract, my joints shudder. I fell onto my hands and knees as bile spilled onto the floor, burning my throat and making me want to scream more. I didn't though, if only because I knew that would cause the process to repeat. I vomited in silence before falling onto my side, a sniffling, whimpering mess.
Escape could wait. I needed a fucking moment.
...Shit that stinks.
The moment ended all too quickly as I nearly gagged at the smell. This turned out to be a good thing though, as it reminded me that time was still ticking.
"Warning: Five minutes until detonation."
Honk… Honk… Blockitoutblockitoutblockitout…
Hoping that the pods were close, I forced myself to stand and returned to my hobbling. The lights led me around one last corner, and there it was. The light trails were converging on one last door here. There was just one problem. The door was open, and it had a trail of blood drips leading up to it. Just drips, like a small leak rather than a stream. They'd come from a hallway I hadn't used, ending with half of a bloody footprint at this last door's threshold.
"Ffffffuck…" I hissed under my breath as I refused to stop moving. My hobble turned into the shittiest Solid Snake impression ever, moving me forward at the most abysmal pace I'd ever proceeded with, but I didn't stop until I'd reached the door. The next several seconds were spent with a hand over my mouth, trying to keep my breath in check.
I'd been just about to look in when there was a sudden jolt of everything around me. My heart jumped into my throat as I cried out and collapsed to the floor again. I genuinely thought that had been the explosion going off.
"Notice: First escape pod has been jettisoned. Only one escape pod remaining."
That grabbed my attention. One pod remaining meant only one chance left to escape. Adrenaline centers firing again, I hurled myself up and stumbled into the room.
Alas, the announcement had been true. There were only two slots for escape pods, and only one of them was open for use. Looking through the remaining open hatch told me that this wasn't necessarily a design oversight or anything though. The pod was the size of a bus, easily capable of holding twenty people, maybe more. Looking around, I saw nobody else in the room. The blood trail led straight into the closed hatch, so it was safe to assume that whoever I'd followed in here hadn't decided to wait around.
My visual scan of the room revealed one more thing though, this being the rack of what I could only call space suits on the wall. They were colored dark gray and olive, and their thickness wasn't anywhere near what I imagined astronauts to wear. Thus I registered their presence as a further example of sci-fi bullshit. This thought made me hesitate. Then I remembered that I was naked and cold and oh my god clothes! I'd never been more glad to see sci-fi bullshit in my life.
I wasted no time in heading over and pulling one off the rack. It was heavier than I'd have liked, and it had to be two sizes bigger than me, but I managed to scramble in and zip it up regardless. Oh, it's nice and warm! Hallelujah! The extra size may have even been a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to slip my new hair into it without much trouble. Seeing as said hair was starting to dry out and frizz up, not to mention I might've puked on it at some point, it was nice not to have to worry about it now that I was so close to escaping. I just had to press it down and wait… What?
There was something on the back of my neck. My brain flashed back to when I was still in the tank. I'd tried to look up and something had zapped me back there Was this it? I obviously couldn't see it, but it was definitely there, right where my neck met my back. It was plastic, I felt, and there were divots in it like an electrical outlet. Had something been plugged into me? I recalled the moment when the jolts had stopped, it being because something had pulled off or out of me and sent a ripple through my nerves. I'd promptly forgotten about it as things continued to get worse and worse for me in that moment, but now here it was again, meaning I had to ask myself a very important question.
Do I have a jack in the back of my head?
My mouth opened, but nothing came out.
Honk… Blockitout… Blockitout…
I reached back and touched it again. The thing was still there, not having moved or altered in any way.
The sound of me slapping myself in the face echoed through the room.
"Warning: Four minutes until detonation."
"The fuck am I doing?" I muttered before grabbing the suit's helmet and shoving it over my head.
There was a brief instance of further muttered cursing as I found myself plunged into darkness within the helmet's confines. I'd neglected to notice before donning the piece that it didn't have a visor, viewport, or anything else to aid in establishing a direct line of sight. Before I could tear the thing off and throw it against the wall, the room suddenly reappeared before me. Once I'd gotten over the initial surprise, I couldn't help but approve. Who needs direct line of sight when you've got live HD video streaming your surroundings right to your face? The display was easy on the eyes too, meaning that I didn't have to squint at it.
With that established, I was now suited up. This left only one thing to do. I turned to face the open hatch, the other side of which held the confined spaces of the escape pod. Instinct told me to walk towards it, as did logic, but something within me hesitated. As I moved my legs and tried to take those few steps forward, my body turned back to lead. It was as if my mind had finally taken a moment and pulled the absurdity of my situation to the forefront. I ran through everything one last time. The tank, my body, the cold, the hallways, the alarm, the murder scene, the jack, and now…
Is this even real?
It was an odd and surreal moment.
Honk… Honk… Shutupfortheloveofgodshutthefuckup…
Grimacing, I forced myself to walk forward and enter the escape pod. I crossed its threshold, sucking in a deep breath as I suddenly felt just the tiniest bit claustrophobic.
Inhale… count to four… exhale. Inhale… count to four…
The hatch slammed shut behind me with a mechanical screech, the lights in the pod going out immediately after.
Make it count to eight… son of a bitch… don't make me go to twelve…
"Notice: All remaining personnel have boarded final escape pod. Rerouting Escape Pod Two to its own power supply."
...exhale. Thank god.
A few seconds passed in the darkness.
Honk… Honk… Honk…
I knew that I'd probably imagined those, but a scream was let loose anyway. More coughing ensued.
So here it is. I've been working on this for quite a while now, and the time has finally come to post it. Strangely enough, now that we're here, I'm not sure what to say. It's a big deal to me. I haven't worked this hard on a story in ages, and I hope you all like it as much as I've liked making it.
Speaking of working on this, a huge huge HUGE shoutout to the spectacular storysmith that is Katkiller-V. He's been heavily supportive of this story from the get-go, going so far as to serve as beta. If you haven't read his Another Realm Mass Effect series, I can't recommend it enough. It served as the primary inspiration for me writing this, and I'd be glad if people thought of my story as being at least half as good as it. Here's hoping...
One last thing. If you liked this story and leave a review telling me that, it's going to make me want to keep making it. Just keep that in mind. Even if you didn't like it and have criticism to impart, leave a review and impart it. I want to learn from this. I want to hear what you thought, whether it's good or bad or somewhere in between. I want to know what you the readers think. No reviews makes me think people aren't interested, and that's the worst thing a writer can feel.
On that note, I've been The Blocked Writer, and... Shit. Does this mean I'm Unblocked now?