This is something like a prelude to "Chessboard," and it's also meant to (attempt to) lay out just who Victor Shepard is. A few nods to "Mass Mayhem" and "Constants" here and there, but it mostly stands on its own. It's also a continuation of the "Overlord" DLC. For this canon, the events of "Overlord" took place after the suicide mission; Victor just discovered the rogue VI hybrid as an anomaly like in the N7 missions.

I was experimenting with a different style here, so I do apologize if it's very crappy for a first attempt at it.

I do not own Mass Effect. EA and BioWare do.


Coded Pieces
by Universitas

Green squares overtaking the blackness. White eyes. A bulge in the greenness for lips. Distorted, tortured cries for help.

"Please make it stop."

"It all seemed harmless."

Flashes. Restraints crushing against skin and bone. Infected machinery—its appendages, eyes, ears—cut down by gunfire. The green-black core shattering like glass. The man within, naked, crucified. "It all seemed harmless."

Flashes. The face again. "Victor Shepard."

"It's you again. What do you want now?"

"To talk. To understand. It is my purpose. Understanding."

"Understanding what?"

"You."

The feeling of falling, then the impact against metal. Blood red skies overhead, cloudless. Screaming, gunfire, explosions. Another him, younger, soaked in sweat, firing a beaten sniper rifle from a rooftop into the horde in the streets below.

"Elysium. You fought, even if you faced vast numbers and certain death doing so. Why?"

"So you're going to be dissecting my past?"

"It is my purpose. Understanding. I wish to know."

A red-armored batarian appearing on the roof, rifle aimed. The other Victor turning his head, rolling away from a hail of bullets. A flick of silver as a knife springs into his hand. Lunge. Blood gushing from the batarian's throat.

"Why?"

"All right, fine. I'll indulge you. I fought because I didn't want to die, and I thought cowering in a basement wouldn't help me. It was self-preservation, nothing more."

Defenders on the street shooting wildly. Fear in their eyes as the enemy draws closer to their positions. Some abandoning their weapons and running.

"And the people you were defending? If your survival was definite, would you have left them to die?"

"Maybe. But the Blitz taught me that before then, I was serving with the wrong mindset. I enlisted because I was angry about getting kicked out of my old gang, and I thought joining the military would get me the farthest away from them as possible."

"You wanted to distance yourself from them. Physically?"

"More than physically. I thought soldiers were the polar opposites of gang members."

Elysium's war-torn streets shifting. Walls pressing closer together, forming alleys. Aliens and humans alike melding into a handful of dirty young men and women. Cigarette boxes passing from hand to hand. Switchblades flicking in and out of sight. And another Victor, younger and thinner—weaker—among the gang members, laughing at some unheard remark.

"But you enjoyed your time with your gang."

"Because the Old Man took a liking to me. He did a lot for me when he was leading the Reds."

Bodies melting into the walls, leaving only the younger Victor and a towering man in the alley. Omni-tools on their arms. The younger Victor mimicking the Old Man's movements.

"And, well… there was O'Connor."

Another flash. A darkened room in an abandoned building. The younger Victor pushing another young man with dirty blonde hair up against a wall. Lips pressing against each other, needing more. Hands clawing at clothes, running along skin. Mouths agape in muted moans.

"Jake O'Connor. He was important to you."

"At the time, I could've said that I loved him. But now, I don't know. It's been so long, I probably… fell out of touch with those feelings. I… purged, I don't know how to say it, them after everything that happened."

The shadows in the room taking shape, a dark mass threatening to consume the other Victor whole if he did not leave the alley. O'Connor at the head, pistol pointed at the other Victor's face, spitting threats.

"You spent much time alone afterwards."

"The military life didn't leave a lot of room for a relationship. I tried starting others after O'Connor, most of them ended up as one-night stands. I finally just gave up after a while."

"But you did eventually find someone."

The shadowy mass surging out in thin sheets to the other Victor's sides, beneath his feet, and overhead, taking texture, shape, forming the snow-covered wreck of the ship lost above Alchera. The other Victor standing there, Joker pouring out everything he had kept bottled up for two years.

I care about you.

Joker, I don't regret anything. Neither should you.

"Do you love Joker?"

"Yeah, I do."

"Why?"

The captain's cabin. Joker tucked into the other Victor's body, both at peace in their sleep.

"I woke up and found out that I spent two years dead and everyone I knew changed or moved on. Joker's a constant. And he wanted to be a constant and kept a lot of guilt to himself to do that. For me, because he cared about me. Why wouldn't I?"

"Yet for some time, you did not want to admit it."

A flash to the cockpit. Joker's hand on the other Victor's arm. The pilot stammering out his confession, the other Victor cutting him off with a barely murmured response, then leaving through the airlock.

"I was… scared, I guess. It was just before the attack on the Collectors, and I thought that if I let Joker finish… let him say those words, I wouldn't be able to focus on the mission. I wouldn't be able to be the leader I was supposed to be with the words on my mind. I guess you can say I need to keep my professional and my personal lives separate."

"Like at Virmire?"

The Normandy twisting into a bulbous geth dropship. The other Victor leaning over railing. Decision: save Kaidan, save Ashley. Not a moment before the choice is made. The squad returning to the elevator, to the bomb site. Leaving Ashley to die.

"I had a choice. If I acted on personal feelings, I would've chosen Ashley. Like Kaidan told me, she had more to live for. But I acted on logic. Kaidan was the superior officer. Kaidan was the biotic, and more valuable to the Alliance for his biotic and technical skills. Ashley, in the end, was infantry. That doesn't mean I felt nothing afterwards. I grappled with her death for a while. But I still think I made the right choice. I don't let personal feelings influence my decisions."

"Because of what happened seven years ago."

The elevator stretching, expanding, Garrus and Wrex melting into the floor.

"No…"

A ship's cargo bay.

"Don't make me see it again."

Three figures in the shadows.

"I said…"

"I need to understand."

A space station. A planet.

"No!"

Names, fights, events, in maddeningly quick succession. A final "no" shattering it all like glass. The green squares receding, the white eyes fading. Blackness.

-o-o-o-

Blackness gave way to sterile green-white. Victor blinked the blurred shapes into focus: the Normandy's medical bay. He forced himself to sit up, grunting at the soreness in his back.

"Hey, Doc," he heard Joker say, "he's waking up."

Joker, Chakwas, and Miranda approached his bed. Chakwas tapped a few keys on her omnitool. "How are you feeling, Commander?"

Victor clutched at his burning forehead. "Been better. How did I get here?"

"I woke up to you staring blankly at the ceiling with glowing green eyes," Joker said. "Then you kinda screamed and passed out."

Miranda pursed her lips. "I ran some scans. The VI hybrid we detected on Aite? After you destroyed it, some fragments of its programming remained in your cybernetic implants, from when it took control of them."

"What the hell did you stick inside my head that let it hijack my dreams?"

"Omni-tool interfacing modules. They're supposed to let you access your omni-tool's functions more quickly. When we were rebuilding you, we didn't take into account that something would be strong enough to hack into your omni-tool and thus those implants."

Victor regarded her with a tired frown. "But you cleared out those fragments, right? I don't want this happening again." He didn't need viruses picking apart his past—especially when they got to… never mind. Best not to think about that.

Miranda nodded. "It took some effort and a little help from EDI…" Victor grimaced at the thought of another intelligence poking around in his head. "But we did."

"I appreciate it." He pushed himself off the bed. "With all the visions of the Protheans, I have enough crap in my head."