Author's Note: Inspired by Gregg Landsman's "Mass Effect: Circular." However, mine is totally unfunny and oh-my-God-depressing.
Ashley Williams is religious; when she says those two words, they are not meant as something thou shalt not do. They are not taking the name of the Lord her God in vain.
They are a prayer. Equal parts horror and wonder and need for succor. Her knees buckle and she grabs for something to hold. Before she can collapse to the sterile white floor, the admiral catches her upper arm.
"Steady, Williams," David Anderson says.
Williams swallows. "I think I need to sit down, sir."
He helps her to a molded plastic chair, white, of course. "Are you going to be all right?" he asks.
"I don't… yes, yes, sir." She swallows hard.
Anderson steps to the door of the observation room. He keys it open and speaks to one of the guards who stand at attention. The man murmurs a reply. Anderson returns to sit next to Williams. "A guard is bringing you some water."
"Thank you, sir." Williams sits in the chair, knees spread and head low. Standard position for fighting nausea. "What are they doing to him?" she whispers.
"Saving his life. And what little mind he has left."
She raises her head a little, as a test. "I heard that after the Reaper Invasion, things were bad for him, but…" She blinks away tears and brushes back her long black hair. Her gaze drifts sideways to Anderson. "What happened?"
Anderson sighs and leans back in the chair. He is about to reply when the door chimes. "Enter." The marine comes in with a tray and sits it on the little white plastic table. The pitcher and cups are both white plastic. He salutes and departs. Anderson pours Williams a cup of water and tells her, "Sip it slowly." As she does so, he tries to decide where to begin. "You know how much Shepard has been through… you were there, for some of it."
Williams shakes her head. "Not enough of it." She squeezes her eyes shut tight. "Not as much as I should have been."
"Commander John Shepard is the finest man I know."
Williams gives a single, harsh laugh. "He's the finest man anybody knows," she says. "He saved the damn galaxy!" Her voice is on the rise and she fights it down. "Sir." She sips water.
"You know how the fight against Saren Arterius went. And you were there when Sheperd… died… under the guns of the Collector ship."
Williams nods. "I ran into him on Horizon, too." She straightens in her chair and leans back, then sighs. She takes a drink of water. "I was… angry. I reacted badly."
Anderson shrugs. "I don't think any of us reacted well to Cerberus reviving Shepard, or him working with them. If anyone owed Shepard an apology for that, we all did. Do." His eyes move to the wide monitor, then away, back to his dark-skinned hands. He clasps and unclasps them. "Well. I know you ran into him a few times, off and on, during the Reaper Invasion, but you weren't close to him, then. I mean…"
"No, sir." She stared into the cup. "We never really got back together, after the confrontation on Horizon."
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Williams. I don't mean to bring up unhappy memories."
"It's all right, sir. But how did all of it lead to…" She breaks off and gestures at the monitors.
Anderson takes in a deep breath and holds it for a moment. He releases it in a slow stream. Then he stands and walks to the screens. The large, main monitor displays an image from inside the care unit; the other, smaller monitors show vital signs, readouts, and a myriad of ephemeral data. He cannot begin to understand it all. He reaches up a hand and lays his palm flat against that main monitor, as if he can touch the man on the other side of the screen. "Shepard showed… issues, after Saren's attack on the Citadel. Minor, nothing we couldn't all write off. But if you really paid attention… it got worse after he was killed, but again, we could all overlook it. He had been killed and resurrected, brought back with unknown technology, so who knew what that did to him?
"By the time of the Reaper Invasion, it was getting bad, real bad, but he was always on the move, always going, always recruiting and fighting, and…" Anderson goes quiet and lowers his head. Then he raises it again, forces himself to look at the screen. "When he and I were on the Citadel, at the end, there… he was just barely holding himself together. Hell, me too. But he did it. He destroyed the Reapers. He saved the galaxy. And we thought he paid for our lives with his own.
"Until we dragged him out of that rubble on the Citadel, still alive." He shook his head. "Do you know who the Skeksians are, Williams?"
She gives it some thought, and then shakes her head. "The name sounds familiar."
"They are a race that lives on the very edge of the Terminus System, just the other side from Council space. Little guys," he says with a gesture to indicate height, "look a little like a cross between parakeets and bloodhounds. They worship Shepard. Worship him, as a god. They call him 'The Many-Splendored Madness." He sighs. "He doesn't know, he can't…" He shook his head and turned to her, let his hand drop.
"Shepard cannot remember events as they happened, anymore. It's as though he remembers not just history, but many variations of it, things that might have happened. He remembers nine slightly different versions of his life. Hell, he remembers being a woman, in some of them. He remembers the events that led up to Saren's assault on the Citadel in different ways; he remembers Alenko dying at Virmire, but he also remembers you dying there, Williams." At her sharp intake of breath, Anderson said, "He remembers different… lovers, different people being killed in different ways, he…"
Now Anderson fights tears. "My God, Williams, he remembers his own deaths. Not death: deaths. In a hundred different ways, in different places, different circumstances, and times…"
Her chest feels tight and Williams blinks away the darkness that swims in her vision. "How. What…"
"We don't know," Anderson says. "We don't know how or why. But this…" He turns back to the screen and touches it once more. "This is the only peace, the only thanks, we can offer him for his service."
On the monitor is the image of Commander John Shepard. He cannot see the certificate of promotion to admiral that hangs on the wall behind him, nor the case of medals and awards from a multitude of worlds.
Shepard hangs in a frame of metal, supported with padded straps and hangers. Wires and tubes tie him to machinery and instruments, keeping him cared for, safe, alive.
The VR array that covers his head is the finest available; not even marketed yet. The drugs keep him asleep, while the array keeps him at peace. Wired for every sense. Wired for dreams.
The kind of dreams where a galactic hero can live in peace and contentment, free of all burden and troubles.
Free of his own madness.