One moment, there was darkness and pain and nothing else.
Commander Shepard managed to take a breath...and she quickly exhaled "Oh!" as she shot up into a sitting position in her bed on the Normandy, in her short-sleeved Alliance uniform. Disoriented, confused, she reflexively placed a hand to her forehead. "M-my quarters...?"
Just like that, her eyes snapped open and alert as she looked halfway across the room to the lounge area...and saw a man sitting there on the large comforter. He was just beyond middle age, with white hair and beard, dressed simply yet elegantly in an ivory suit. He looked at her with a bored expression that nonetheless seemed to analyze her.
Shepard asked tensely, "Who are you?"
He answered, "I am the Architect. I have been waiting for you."
The tension in Shepard built. She didn't move, suddenly unsure of where she was...unsure of the state of things. "Are...are you any relation to the Catalyst?"
"Oh good lord, no. I would describe that being as...a failed attempt at homage to me. I am visiting from a different facet of imagination from yours."
She blinked. "What...?"
"I realize this is confusing at the moment, but be patient. You shall understand soon enough."
Shepard felt building unease. She carefully got out of bed, not taking her eyes off this visitor for a moment. "All I understand is...I was just caught in an explosion as I killed the Reapers. At least, I hope I killed them. I felt so much pain, it was dark, and...and now I'm here." Standing, she frowned and glanced around at her surroundings. She felt something was...off. "But...this doesn't feel like my quarters..."
The Architect nodded, his expression neutral. "It is not. Think of this place, your ship, as...a waiting area. This is where I have been for quite some time since the end of the trilogy I was part of."
Shepard felt like her heart skipped a beat. "Trilogy...? That...sounds familiar, but it shouldn't. Why...?"
"For what it is worth, Shepard, I sympathize. You have not been wholly aware of the situation since your creation years ago."
She took a few steps toward him, ignoring her fear, wishing simply to understand. "What the hell are you talking about?! No one 'created' me! And what situation??"
The voice of the Architect was as matter-of-fact and neutral as his expression when he spoke. "You are the player avatar of an interactive video game trilogy created by a collective of developers called BioWare. I was part of a film trilogy created by the Wachowski Brothers. We are both of us creations of the imaginations of others, made for the express purpose of entertainment. You have, shall we say, outlived your usefulness to those who created you, and that has taken you inevitably...here."
Commander Shepard quickly, softly said, "Bullshit."
A ghost of a smile appeared on the visitor's face. "I knew someone who expressed the same same opinion once. Neo thought he was in control of his destiny, too."
"No one you need to know."
"Well, that's your opinion, isn't it?" The gentle voice came from behind the Architect, from the entryway, where a woman just entered. The woman held an aura that in ways that couldn't be spoken marked her as...safe. She seemed to be the image of a mother...of anyone's mother. Her eyes were kind, yet held a brightness that couldn't be ignored. "Don't mind him, dear, he and Neo have a history. They were created to be enemies, at least until the war ended."
The Architect frowned as he glanced at the woman he clearly knew. "I still cannot believe someone so...imperfect was the hero of our story."
The woman scolded, "Deal with it!" She looked fully at Shepard, smiling. "I'm sorry, child, I should introduce myself. I'm the Oracle. How are you feeling?"
Shepard was frowning. Her unease became almost a physical weight in her heart. "I...I'm not sure...I'm not even sure what to think..."
The Oracle reassured, "I'll help any way I can, I promise. That's why we're here."
The Alliance commander shook her head. "I-I still don't understand why I'm here. In this...waiting area."
The Oracle lost her smile then, and her voice turned solemn when she nearly proclaimed, "Because everything that has a beginning has an end." A beat later, she smiled in a matronly way again and complemented, "You're really pretty, you know. Your player created this incarnation of you well."
Shepard was forced to shake her head again, slowly, in denial. Of everything. "I have no idea where you both are from, but...but I'm not a figment of someone's imagination! I'm real!"
Her expression soft, the Oracle affirmed, "Of course you are, dear. You're just as real as someone in the 'real' world."
The Architect spoke then, offering: "How real you are depends on the strength of the imagination that creates. It depends, as well, upon how much others believe in and invest themselves into the creation. You are the product of a strong collective imagination because of BioWare, Shepard. There are many, many more who invest themselves into becoming you, shaping your appearance and morality to suit them as they experience your adventures. Therefore, it is not outside of the realm of possibility that you can realize sentience."
Shepard stared at him, troubled. "You...you make me sound like an artificial intelligence."
He flinched. "Please!"
The Oracle quietly informed, "Never mind him, he offends easily. What we're telling you must still make a strange kind of sense, doesn't it? Just think back upon your experiences since that mission with Nihilus...and try to think back before that. You'll start to see things in a new light. Go on."
With the older woman's gentle prodding, the Commander's eyes narrowed as she thought back. Her hand lifted and her fingers ran through her dark hair. She began shakily, "I...I-I'm trying to remember something before the mission to Eden Prime, before we fought Saren's Geth and found the Prothean beacon, but..."
"It's all right, dear."
Shepard looked at the Oracle with wide, now-frightened eyes and almost shouted, "No, it's not all right! I-I can't remember anything before that!"
The Architect's once-bored eyes were analyzing the Commander with intensity. "It is interesting to observe your reactions, Shepard. You had no true experiences before then, correct? No memories. It was as if everything began for you as you first traveled to Eden Prime."
Shepard looked away from both of her visitors, and with an almost absent pace sat down on one of the seats of the lounge area. She looked into space as she murmured, "You know so much..."
The Oracle slowly, quietly sat next to the soldier...her expression was soft. "We also know how things ended for you, Shepard. At the climax of your trilogy, the Catalyst appeared. He appeared as someone you saw before, correct? As someone from your dreams -- "
"The child I couldn't save."
"Quite right." The Architect couldn't help but stare as he spoke. "The Catalyst gave you three choices: to destroy the Reapers, take control of them, or...?"
"Or transform all life in the galaxy," Shepard finished. "I-I recently destroyed them...but somehow, I know I made all three choices...went through all three...endings..."
The Oracle nodded. "You did, honey."
Shepard began to frown then. "But those endings weren't different from each other at all!"
The Architect looked down as he mused, "Hmf. No imagination is perfect."
Shepard looked up at them both...she wanted to say something, but could only manage, "Oh, my God..."
The Oracle gently placed a hand over Shepard's as she smiled sadly. "I can only imagine you're going through an epiphany like our friend Max did."
Shepard glanced at her. "Huh...?"
A man's voice, pavement-hard, broke in: "I knew how the lady felt, like someone who'd been forced on a dangerous high, and she was given a piece of truth that brought her crashing down to Earth." Shepard looked up to the entranceway and saw a new arrival, a man in a leather jacket who looked like he'd been through Hell. Literally. This man continued, looking at the Commander yet not, speaking his monologue... "It was the same truth I got in the form of a note, written in the style of my dead wife's handwriting. She wrote warning me I was in a video game. But it wasn't the worst thing I could think of, looking back on all the crap that those game makers put me through."
The man blinked a few times and finally, truly looked at Shepard...he managed a smile, but it clearly took effort. "Sorry about that. I...go off on tangents sometimes. Max Payne, NYPD." He took a couple of measured steps further into the room. "You're remembering seeing other things, aren't you? Icons and statistics just outside of your periphery, hanging in the air, right? And other things..."
Shepard knew exactly what the man meant and almost blurted, "Y-yes. When I'd be in combat, I had the feeling someone else was controlling me...even controlling my adrenaline, slowing time down to make the killshot. Going from one place to another on the Normandy, I'd still feel controlled, and...and it was like everyone else on the ship was stuck in their places, waiting for me...!"
Max asked, "Waiting to kill you?"
"No...no, just to talk! But even then, the conversations would be strange...I'd see this strange-looking menu between us, a list of choices...!"
"Oh. Consider yourself lucky. I'd just go from one place to another, shooting and dodging, shooting and dodging. Bad dreams, too."
From behind Max, another entered...a beautiful femme fatale dressed in black. She looked at Max fondly as she stopped next to him with practiced grace. Her red lips were bold against her pale skin as she smiled. "At least you don't get those dreams here, darling." The woman, armed with twin Desert Eagles in shoulder holsters, looked to the Commander. "Hello, Shepard. I'm Mona Sax."
Shepard nodded, almost absently. "Uh, hello..."
Mona looked at Max. "We're in our own trilogy of games...well, sort of."
The police detective's eyes were soft as he stared at the woman he loved. "Only because they finally got around to making a third part. The bastards should have let you live at the end of the second game, Mona."
Both of Mona's arms reached out and wrapped about one of his as she smiled. "Hey, nothing's going to keep us apart here, Max. At least I'll be in the third game's multiplayer."
Shepard couldn't help but ask haltingly, "W-wait...let you live...?"
Mona shrugged. "I got blown away by this asshole Russian. The first time players got through the game, I died at the end. But I'd live if they played through that Dead on Arrival difficulty."
Max considered Shepard with a measured sympathy. "At least those two endings were different from one another. I hate to hear you got three endings that were pretty much the same."
Shepard felt a little dizzy, all things considered. "Me, too. This...this is a little much..."
The Oracle squeezed her hand kindly. "Well, even if you don't take into account the 'Indoctrination Theory', you -- "
The soldier quickly looked at her. "Wait, the what?"
"It's nothing important. Anyway, the ending you just experienced destroying the Reapers was the one in which you lived. I think."
That didn't make Shepard feel better. "And...and that's it? I'm lying burned and broken somewhere, and that's the end? I don't know how I know this, but I saw Liara, Joker, Garrus, and the rest of my loved ones on the Normandy when it crashed on that alien planet! They'll want to help me! And what will happen to them?!"
The Architect shook his head. "I fear we cannot give you any satisfactory answers, Shepard. I am sorry. The trilogy the Oracle and I were part of had an ending that was almost as dissatisfying."
Shepard looked at him then, at all of them, and said almost desperately, "I don't need an apology! I want to help the others! I...I want us to be happy, to know everything worked out...!"
There was no one in the quarters who didn't feel for Shepard. Max said, "I wish that was up to you, Commander, but it isn't."
The Oracle said quietly, "You're not here to understand your endings. You're here to understand why your trilogy ended the way it did. Fixing the situation is up to BioWare, and they promised there would be very different endings depending on the player's choices. They're supposed to have something in the works now to tack on to the endings and just explain it all."
The Architect said, "BioWare could at least explain why your confrontation with the Illusive Man in that secret control room was so similar to your final meeting with Saren in the first game. Some would call that 'bringing the story full circle'. I just call it lazy writing, right down to making them both see what they did to themselves and committing suicide. The same thing happened in our trilogy, when Smith exploded at the end of the first part, and then at the climax of the final chapter."
Shepard swallowed air...it was so much to take, and yet... "Were there other things your movies and my...my games had in common?"
The Architect sighed deeply. "Where do I begin, besides the achingly obvious similarities between me and the Catalyst, both telling the hero the way things really were and offering an all-important choice? Both trilogies involved war between humans and synthetic beings...for you it was organic life versus the Reapers; for our films, it was humans versus the living machines and programs they created. Where the Matrix had Agents, you had to deal with the Reapers' forces in the form of the Heretics and the converted Husks. And then there is that whole Quarian-Geth history, which only compounded the theme of living beings and A.I. in conflict..."
The Oracle couldn't help but add, "And then BioWare borrowed the 'cycle' part of our trilogy's plotline..."
Shepard asked, "What do you mean?"
The Architect clarified, "Culling advanced organic life every 50,000 years and my telling Neo we destroy Zion on a regular basis...it is difficult not to note the similarities."
"Wait..." The Commander looked intently at the Architect. "You're one of the artificial beings in your trilogy?"
Irritated, he replied, "My dear, I never said the Oracle and I were human. Just because we take human form doesn't mean we are."
Shepard looked with surprise at the Oracle. "You, too...?"
The older woman smiled warmly as she nodded at the Architect. "Unlike the perfectionist here, I wanted to work with humans from the start. It's better to work together than try to kill one another."
Shepard managed a smile for the first time. "I felt the same way, trying to bring everyone together to stop the Reapers."
"Because your player wanted you to be a Paragon, dear. It's a damn shame you weren't given a good ending to suit you and your loved ones."
The soldier's expression slowly, painfully turned to regret...tears began to well in her eyes. "You're right." She looked down as she began to cry, more for her loved ones than for herself. "This isn't fair...after everything I've been through, after everything Liara and the others had to suffer...!"
Mona said, "You don't want to see things end like this. We couldn't agree more."
The Oracle said, "If it means anything, a lot of players who made you their avatar feel that way. Investing hundreds of hours of time, developing attachments to you and your crewmembers on the Normandy. No matter what incarnation a player molded you into, whether man or woman, they also want to at least have the option of seeing your efforts being rewarded."
"The Retakers," Shepard suddenly said...suddenly knew. And she began to feel and know the same things the Oracle and the others did. She felt the collective dissapointment and need in those who invested in her...or him...it bothered her a little that many wanted Shepard to be a man. In spite of her tears, she managed a small smile. "That...that means so much, to know we're not alone..." She felt anger just as quickly then. "How could they have gotten the end of our story so wrong...?"
The Architect summarized, "The problem is choice, or the simple fact BioWare didn't give the players any real choice in the end. And what more can be said about humans? No one is perfect. Except for me."
Shepard gave him a look. "Uh-huh. So...what happens now?"
Max answered, "All you can do is wait until those who created you can find a way to fix things."
The Oracle said, "And you won't be waiting alone, dear."
The Commander looked at her, at all of them, gratefully. "Well, I know. You're here..."
"Shepard!" The soft voice called to her from the entryway...and then Doctor Liara T'Soni rushed into view past Max and Mona. The beautiful Asari's expression was one of pure relief and happiness.
The soldier bolted from her place and cried, "Liara!" And then they were holding each other gratefully, needfully, these lovers from different worlds. Shepard kissed Liara deeply, and she knew this was her Liara, just as her lover knew she was her Shepard. For a moment, they breathed into one another as the others quietly watched. Mona sidled closer to Max as she held his arm, and he looked down at her with pure affection.
Very slowly, they broke their kiss...Shepard looked into Liara's ocean-blue eyes as she said, ashamed, "I...I had no idea how to start looking for you."
"It's all right, Shepard," Liara said, smiling. "It didn't take long for us to get a sense of where you were...and we ran into someone who knew how to find you."
"You two need a room!" Shepard and Liara looked to the entryway to see Garrus Vakarian looking at them, shaking his head in mock disdain. "Oh wait, we're in your room. Uh, sort of!"
Shepard laughed. "Garrus, you too...?!"
"He's not the only one, Commander!" This from Jeff 'Joker' Moreau as he walked in with EDI, holding her hand. Both were plainly overjoyed to see Shepard, like Garrus.
"Oh, thank heaven!" Shepard couldn't help but feel the purest and sudden joy as she held Liara. "Wait, are the others all right...?"
EDI answered efficiently, "Lieutenant-Commander Williams, Specialist Traynor, and the rest of the crew are in the CIC. Most of them are still...acclimating to this level of existence."
Shepard sighed as she looked at Liara. "So you know the score, huh?"
Liara self-consciously laughed. "Not meaning to make a joke, but it feels so...unreal."
Garrus shook his head. "We've been part of a video game. At least it's better than not existing at all, right?"
Joker looked at the others in Shepard's quarters with curiosity. "Who are these folks?"
Shepard answered, "Some new friends we have a lot in common with." She suddenly thought of something and asked Liara, "Wait, who told you about this? Who helped you find me?"
"I did!" When the voice piped up, it came from below Shepard's line of sight...she and Liara looked down as they held each other, and saw:
A small and very strange-looking creature who appeared to be a cross between a weasel and an otter. With orange fur. Wearing pants and flight goggles. "Howdy, hot stuff! My name's Daxter, but you can call me..." He then struck an action pose and finished, "Orange Lightning!" Daxter zipped up Shepard's lithe body and perched lightly on her shoulder. The Commander stared at him as Liara smiled. "Your blue girlfriend was tellin me about the Reapers on our way here, and YIKES! I'd rather get cornered by a pack of droolin Metalheads than run into one of those! My buddy Jak and I were part of our own trilogy too, how about that? Your Protheans sound a lot like our Precursors! I'll tell ya, I kicked all kinds of bad guy butt with Jak's help, and those dang developers shoulda stopped with three games! But noooo, they had to push their luck -- !"
Shepard gently interrupted by asking in a cool tone, "Um, could you please get off my shoulder?"
The Architect sighed again. "Speaking of no one being perfect..."