The DLC was here!
"Contact, a Mass Effect DLC," had been released not three days ago, completely free of charge, by Bioware and EA. The blurb promised "a thorough range of questions for Jed, in an effort both to understand his experience in the universe of Mass Effect as well as to reassure him and give him advantages that will allow him to survive." It was the last bit that made Dave especially excited - any help he could give the trapped man would be awesome, although he was curious as to what, precisely, they meant.
The DLC didn't take too long to download to his Xbox, but every second it took seemed torturous to Dave - if he had been being honest with himself (which he wasn't) he was getting far too caught up in the game he was playing, to the point where he was getting obsessed. He was enjoying the experience actually - it made the game suddenly far more interesting, to be playing with a real person, to have real life or death in his control.
Finally, the DLC finished its download. He put the Mass Effect disc in, and loaded Katarina up.
This was going to be a breakthrough in the situation with Jed, he could feel it.
Katarina Shepard hates paperwork. The Council demanded a full report after every mission, which was bad enough, but it was the annoying little things that got her, like this paperwork for Admiral Hackett.
She had led her team to Luna to deal with a rogue VI: it wasn't an overly complicated report to write, you'd think, but in reality the annoying thing was checklists, dozens of them, all YES/NO/UNKNOWN. "Justify this use of the ammunition at this point..." "Did you use any kind of ammunition that would prove a possible threat to the air tightness of the base?"
Just went to show. The military was all paperwork. The handy thing about being a Spectre is that all the Council demanded was a report in your own words on the events of the mission. Except they demanded it be at least 3,000 words long, which demanded a lot of detail that Katarina had no time for, no patience for, and unfortunately, no skill for (the most embarrassing thing in the universe was having a report actually sent back with a request to remove the grammar errors!).
She sighed, and leant back in her chair, tired and more than a little sick of this entire mission. She hasn't expected her first command for a while, Akuze or no Akuze. It was something of a shock to her system. And in the back of her mind, she was always afraid of failing the new team she had built up: the gruff but loveable Wrex, the too-eager Garrus, the hyper little ball of energy that was Tali, the redoubtable Kaidan, the dutiful Ashley, and Liara... ah, Liara. Katarina smiled. It was strange that she's found a little happiness in a mission to save the galaxy but it couldn't be helped, and it wasn't like she wanted to help it.
She sighed. No. The last thing she wanted to do was fail this little team of hers, and the feeling was a white hot knife behind her eyes, stabbing her every time she thought of failing them...
She found herself standing up, and frowned. She didn't remember standing up. She shook the feeling off. It wasn't like she had never gotten so lost in thought that she had stood, walked, listened to a song, and caught herself completely unaware of what she was doing. The feeling of being a stranger in her own body. She moved to sit back down.
She was still standing up.
She frowned, and tied to sit down again. At least, she thought she was trying to, but her body wasn't responding. I fact, now that she really paid attention, it wasn't responding to anything she told it to do. Not so much as a judder at her thought. She could move her eyes, but that was about it.
The first feeling was an odd detachment, a moment where she felt entirely out of her depth and couldn't even comprehend what was happening. That moment, unfortunately, didn't last very long, and was quickly replaced by an altogether more familiar feeling - and an altogether more unwelcome one.
What was this? Some kind of nerve toxin? It was a very effective one, that much was certain: she couldn't move anything. She tried making a noise - she couldn't open her mouth, and she couldn't even get her vocal cords to make a sound. So, total paralysis?
Wait, no, it wasn't total paralysis: she was moving. There was a definite sign that she was still physically capable of moving, it just wasn't movement she was in control of. So what - who - was controlling it? Or was it reflexive?
She quickly had the answer to that one, when of its own volition her body turned around and walked out of the door to her cabin. She couldn't even react!
It was the strangest sensation she believed she had ever experienced, and an entirely unpleasant one - it felt like she was floating along the floor, on a rollercoaster, unable to tell which way it was going or whether it was even going a way she wanted it to.
As it turned out, her destination - the destination her body was being directed to - was not far from her cabin at all. There, sat at the mess table, reading what looked like a novel, was Jed.
Shepard had come to respect the young man, even to a certain extent trust him, but this suddenly happening to her did, understandably, make her think that he was somehow behind what was happening to her now, like some kind of puppet master. In a way, though neither of them realised it, he was the reason for it. He looked up at her as she approached him.
"Commander Shepard," he said, looking perhaps a touch morose. He had looked so for days, though Shepard was unsure as to why (apart from perhaps the fact that he was further away from home than any of them, although he usually seemed able to cope with that).
Katarina didn't expect to be able to reply to him, and stood looking at him for a moment, willing him to notice that something was wrong, that she wasn't herself. But then, to her own horror, something... forced its way up her throat, pushing its way through her vocal cords. It felt like she was vomiting, but slower.
"Jed," her own voice said, perfectly calmly. She felt horrified: whatever this was that had control of her, it was using her own voice to communicate!
"What can I do for you?" Jed asked, seemingly oblivious to Katarina's mounting horror and the... the violation that was happening to her.
"Actually, I'm here to help you," Katarina's voice said. She didn't know where the words were coming from, and every effort she expended to try and halt the words was futile, not even making a change to the tone of her voice, not even straining it.
"Oh, how so?" Jed asked, leaning back in his chair.
"I have a message from outside," Katarina's voice said. She stopped trying to resist it, suddenly filled with shock. Outside? It couldn't mean... Jed had suddenly leaned forward when she said that, his interest clearly more than a little piqued.
"You have a message? How?" Jed asked, standing up like a shot. Kaidan looked over to them from his spot, but didn't walk over to them yet.
"Bioware have been working in conjunction with your family to try and create DLC to get a message to you," Katarina's voice said. The words were strange to her: they made no sense. They didn't seem to entirely sit well with Jed, either, as he frowned at her.
"So this is the actual game - there are people out there, playing this game?" he asked, tilting his head.
"This DLC is the finished result of our efforts to contact you," the thing controlling Katarina's voice said, continuing as if Jed had said nothing. "We cannot directly converse with you because any attempt to interfere with your code in game results in side effects."
"What do you mean side effects?" Jed asked, looking more than a little perturbed. "Side effects like, what, glitching?"
"We regret that we cannot answer any questions you have, since your behaviour in game is infinitely more randomised than anything else," Katarina's voice continued, the tone light and friendly - the exact opposite of how Katarina felt. "We can only ask you questions, and reassure you that everything we can do to help you is being done."
"Has it occurred to you muppets to put an Acme dimension hopper in this game?!" Jed snapped. Shepard would have frowned if she had control over her muscles, but obviously she did not. Her stomach turned slightly. The alien feeling of words forcing their way out without her mental consent making her feel like throwing up.
"Do you know how you managed to get into the game?" her voice asked instead, calmly and politely.
"Of course not," Jed said, sharply. "I'm not a quantum physicist and frankly, this is the stuff of bad fanfiction." He paused for a moment. "I've looked for ways out, but I can't figure anything out from here, I'm sorry."
"Are you healthy?" Katarina's voice asked. She would have frowned at the incongruity of the question if she had any control over her face muscles.
"My mother made you ask that one, didn't she?" Jed smirked, a tired humour lighting his eyes for a brief moment. "Yes, I'm fine."
"Do you need or wish for any special equipment?" whatever was controlling Katarina asked next.
"If you guys can give me anything that makes me feel less like a fifth wheel on this ship, I'd greatly appreciate it," Jed replied after a moment, "and maybe write in a house on the Citadel and a couple of million credits, but otherwise, I'm fine."
"Do you have any message for your family?" Katarina's voice asked next, the tone softer. Jed blinked, seemingly shocked by the question.
"I... I..." he stammered, and then he hesitated. After a long moment, he spoke. "Keep the faith. You have all my love. I won't stop trying to get back to you."
"That's all we could fit into this conversation," the thing forcing its way through Katarina's vocal cords said after a long moment, and Jed looked disappointed. "But we just want to remind you that we're all thinking of you. Your family loves you, and we won't stop trying to get you out of there."
Jed looked almost overwhelmed, his lip almost trembling. "Thanks," he said. "I'm glad to know you know I'm here."
And with that, whatever hold the thing speaking through Katarina had was gone. She immediately collapsed to the deck onto her front, stomach heaving, her limbs losing all their strength, feeling like they had turned to liquid. Kaidan ran over, and Jed crouched down next to her, turning her over.
"Commander?" he asked, leaning in, concern evident on his face. "Are you alright?"
Almost as a reflex - and as a way of taking her frustrations out, although she would never have admitted it - her fist shot out, socking him right in the jaw. He stumbled backwards, falling to the floor. The one punch had drained the strength of Shepard's forearm.
"Shepard!" Kaidan called.
"Dammit!" Jed said, getting to his feet slowly. He looked up - just in time for Kaidan to pin him to the bulkhead with his forearm.
"Stay right there," the Lieutenant growled angrily.
"Alenko!" Shepard called, getting used to her own voice again. Compared to the smooth tones of the thing that had used them, her own voice sounding hoarse and throaty. "Let him go."
Kaidan took a long moment to comply with that order, giving Jed a filthy look as he did so.
"You're lucky the Commander's here," he said, growling. Jed shot him a glare.
"That's enough Lieutenant," Shepard said, standing up shakily, a little strength returning to her limbs, albeit just barely. She looked at Jed, who was scrutinising her with some concern. "You wanna tell me what the hell just happened?"
Jed shot Alenko a look, but the Lieutenant just stood there, folding his arms. Katarina was too pissed off to tell him to move - she didn't give a damn about keeping Jed's secrets.
"That was the outside, trying to contact me," the young man said after a moment, clearly trying to word it delicately. Kaidan frowned, more than a little confused, but to Katarina's relief he didn't interrupt. "As you heard."
"Why'd they do it through me?" Shepard asked, angrily. "That was one of the most horrible things that ever happened to me!"
"What happened?" Jed asked, frowning. So he wasn't aware,
"It felt like..." Shepard paused, unsure how to describe it. "Like something else was using my body, like a puppet on a damn string."
She didn't go into too much detail, about the horror of trying to move your body but it just not working. To be honest, she didn't want to even think about it. Jed scratched his chin, clearly deep in thought. Kaidan looked at Shepard, clearly more than a little lost. She held a hand up to tell him to stow it, and thankfully he did.
"Fourth wall breaking," Jed finally said. "The interface out there won't have changed, but you perceived a difference because it broke the fourth wall in a way it normally doesn't."
"Perceived a difference?" Shepard said, frowning. "You mean there isn't an actual difference?"
"I don't think so," Jed said, slightly apologetically. "This proves if nothing else that your actions and choices are still largely subject to... well, what we discussed before," he finished lamely, throwing a look at Kaidan.
"But it never feels like that," Shepard said, perturbed. "Ever."
"Of course it doesn't," Jed said. "Because normally its in context, you're doing things you'd normally do anyway. My presence here adds something that isn't. It's probably a miracle you haven't felt this way before around me."
"That isn't reassuring," Shepard growled.
"I can't offer reassurance," Jed said sadly, shrugging his shoulders. "This was like ultra meta-fictional, though, which is why it must have felt so... alien to you. So much so that your consciousness disconnected from the control... of course, I could just be spouting Star Trek psychobabble," the young man added with a tired smile, "but since we're in the realms of science fiction, that's allowed."
"Save the bullshit," Katarina swore. "I need to know that won't happen again."
"I can't give you that reassurance, however much I want to," Jed said seriously. "We're in the damn Twilight Zone, and they don't have the perspective you and I do." He leaned forward and whispered to her, trying to keep it out of Kaidan's earshot. "To them, you're a computer generated character on a screen, not a person: they either don't see or don't care about these reactions, and I'd bet on the former."
"I'm sorry," Kaidan said, butting into the conversation, "but what the hell is going on?!"
They had both almost forgotten the Lieutenant's presence. Shepard looked at Jed, Jed at Shepard. This was going to take some explaining.
For Dave, the conversation had ended before Katarina's collapse, with a fade out to blackness, and then back to Jed and Katarina, who were precisely where they had been when he had taken her to converse with Jed. Had he known about he reaction, he might have felt less elated about getting to speak to Jed.
The DLC triggered when you went to Shepard's cabin and triggered a "press A" there - subtle, but interesting enough in its own right.
It was nice to have told Jed his family was waiting for him still - Dave liked that he'd been able to give the guy hope. Overall however, Dave was disappointed. This DLC had given Jed reassurance that people were trying to get him out, but there were no new pieces of equipment. He reasoned to himself that they were actually going to be part of Mass Effect 2, which had a different system. He certainly hoped so...
He shook his head. Ultimately, that was irrelevant to his task of getting Jed out of there. Dave had done enough side missions now, he felt. his team was prepared, and now he was ready for the big stuff, the main missions.
It was time to take on Feros.
Don't be fooled by how fast I've gotten this up, this one was a pain in the arse to write. Hope you enjoyed it. Got to admit, I'm worried I haven't brought the horror of the situation out enough.
The next couple of chapters are going to explore not only the Feros mission, but also some psychological stuff not only for Shepard and Jed, but Dave and the wider gaming community in this universe as well. I'm not intending to time skip with Katarina, but I can show what other people are doing with their Shepards...