Kendra Shepard stumbled through the guts of her ship, through human-thick braids of wires like neural links and battlefield entrails. Part of her wanted to shake and sob and be somewhere else—but part of her grimaced and carried on. That was the way it had always been.
The Normandy was gutted.
Fire skirled through tiny openings where solid bulkhead had been, letting in screams of rending metal and equalizing atmospheres. Perspiration drip fogged the inside of her helmet, blurred her vision. She slogged up the stairs to the Normandy's bridge, one arm flung out in front of her as if it was any more fire-resistant than her face. Crackling spars blocked her way.
I walked up these steps one thousand times, she thought, when they were blue and cool and were not dying—
She turned back, followed the other curving arm of the stairs, opened the fire-blackened blast door.
The hull breach was here.
She didn't even notice space gaping, blue with leaking atmosphere and ion trail, above her between the Normandy's ribs, until she was halfway across.
After the firestorm, everything was so quiet, as if the sound had been sucked out into the void along with the air. The gravity worked—as long as there was a floor to latch on to. Shepard stalked forward, her own breath crackling in her ears and beating through the eerie silence. Everything was so silent…she needed to work to keep her breath regulated, to keep from gasping in and wasting oxygen.
Eerie and eerier. Chairs torn from their moorings on the forward hall created a maze of surfaces that bumped against her helmet. Slowly, the world falling around her in battle-clarity that said I will give in later, she reached for the back of the pilot's chair.
Joker was still working. With a breath mask clamped over his face he stared at screens and tried to coax flickering red lights back to green, his face blank. She stood stilled by surprise for a moment, wondering why he wasn't doing what she would have done in his place—trying to make his way out, trying to fight against a body that wouldn't move, that trapped him so much more than the rest of the crew were. But he just kept typing.
Shepard hissed, "Let's get you out of here."
Joker Moreau was going to succeed. What other option was there, with the Normandy falling apart around his ears? He had to save her, had to work with her to win this. Status screens flashed that half the ship was breached and the other half contained fire. One escape pod left. If he sealed off the bridge, he could survive, but if he gave power to the drives and forgot about the abandoned body, they could escape the system.
Most pilots wouldn't even consider it. Joker knew that, and remembered trouncing most pilots at flight school.
He slid one screen to the side to pay attention to another, then heard Shepard speak.
He said, "Commander, I can still save the ship. Just give me some time. We can still make it."
"We've taken too much damage!"
She watched him stare at the screens with that blank combat-mode expression, watched it shift to a grimace.
He said, "I can patch life support through to the mass accelerator drive and kick us out of orbit-!"
"There isn't enough life support left! Don't throw yourself away for the ship."
"No offense, commander, but she's important." He flicked his gaze around the controls, still typing-
He sees her as alive, Shepard thought. He sees her as himself. But he's crew-"You're more important. There'll be other ships."
He blinked, taking in the flickering golden screens and the plates of shrapnel outside the viewports, looking over his shoulder at the vacuum. "No..." He began to mourn. There was pause. Then, "Help me up."
"Come on." She bent to push an arm under his and take his weight on her shoulders. They stumbled away from the chair, his voice in her ear tight with pain as she got a solid grip on his arm.
He walked slowly and laboriously, weighing her down. But her driving force was what it had always been: keep the crew together. They were a new family for her, one she had chosen—and she had a responsibility to them to keep them safe.
As Shepard stepped back into the collapsing inferno of the lower level, Joker's helmet glanced against hers and rattled her skull. Heat worked at bursting through the armor of her back in waves as she fought through the innards of the dying Normandy. If Joker said anything else, she couldn't hear it for the fire-hiss and the deep scream of straining metal, but his "Careful" echoed in her thoughts. She'd rather break his brittle bones than leave him to burn—
So she rushed forward with all her strength toward the airlock of the escape pod as a gulf filled with stars opened between it and the ship. She saw a way to succeed and took it, thinking in trajectories, in forget saving myself-
She unslung his arm from around her shoulders and pushed.
He shouted, "Commander!"
The backlash propelled her out from the Normandy too, into space where her hands pinwheeled before her as she realized there was no longer anything to hold on to. A flak-spraying geyser of fire shot from the Normandy's flank. The escape pod's silver sides broke open; Shepard squeezed her eyes closed against the flare of light. In the next possible moment she could open her eyes, she saw Joker floating, curling away from the disemboweled escape pod.
And then the crumbling ship body began to drift away from her. She flailed at the ether, realizing in a distant this is too much for human minds sort of way that she was going to float here until her oxygen ran out, or until the gravity well took her tiny form—
She flailed, suddenly feeling cold without the fire, the Normandy husk showing her its pitted silver belly. She tried to breathe slowly, tried to regain battle-coldness, but like a dying star her mask, her soldier-self, had been burnt away to show a shell of the panic she hid-
The planet was taking her.
Seconds felt like minutes. I can do this I can make it, make a plan—
There is no plan.
Something nicked the back of her neck and kicked her head forward. There was white steaming air rushing out of her suit. Must hold it in, must keep it safe—she slapped at the tear in the suit, trying to pinch it shut, her throat tightening into burn as she tried to fight against screaming—
And stopped, frozen bent back and falling, to watch someone suffer a harsher fate.
Joker wasn't moving. Too tired or hurt or Normandy-less, he fell in the distance with a limpness like a dead thing on the battlefield, not trying any more.
White strings whipped past Shepard's face mask. Atmosphere, she thought. Isn't it beautiful. How long will it take, I wonder, for me to die?
She watched the reflections across his faceplate, wondering what his expression underneath was saying.
Her breath started to constrict, started to burn in her throat. She eked out, "I'm sorry."
His voice so loud in her ear. "Shepard!"
It didn't take a long time.
Miranda Lawson stood on a starry plane. The Illusive Man sat with one leg folded over the other, flecks of ash dashed from his cigarette burning orange like the planet behind him. He said, "Why have you contacted me? The plan should be progressing perfectly."
Miranda folded her arms, knowing exactly her plan and hoping she could express it out loud as clearly as she could in her mind. "It is progressing perfectly. But another body fell with Shepard's. The ship's pilot."
The Illusive Man waited for this to sound important.
"You told me you didn't want any neural implants," Miranda began
"Yes. It is essential that Shepard remain exactly the way she was, psychologically and physically."
"I understand that. But I was thinking. If we revived the pilot, implanted him instead—we'd have a lever against her. She's fiercely loyal to her crew. I've thought of all the expenses—we have what we need already."
He tipped his cigarette against his ash tray, looked at her with lazy, knowing eyes. "We don't want her to see us as captors, Miranda. She's human—on our side. And she is not a safe enemy to have."
"Sir, look at his file." She tossed a golden sheet of screen from her omnitool to him.
His brow furrowed.
She said, "I can make it look like a favor."
He leaned back against the black chair. "If this part of the experiment complicates things, you will be responsible for fixing the mess."
"Yes, sir. I can also tell you that Shepard will not be entirely willing to trust us. Alternative measures are necessary." She tensed. If her benefactor disapproved…
"Do your experiment, Ms. Lawson. If it hurts more than helps, I will take over your task personally."
Shivers chilled her. "Sir."
He keyed a button and she faded, the walls of the Lazarus communication suite reforming around her.
Not moving. Shepard opened her eyes into a clinical white world as still as sleep paralysis. People moved above her—a woman, face blurry, then growing clearer as she moved closer.
"She's coming around. This is too early-put her under. Hurry!" An accented voice, a woman wearing untouched white when Shepard felt that somewhere, something, must be splattered with blood. She couldn't feel her body; it was like falling asleep, like nerves disconnecting—
She raised a hand to lever herself out of the bunk, maybe to strike, but only the semblance of a hand lifted in front of her face, pale and spidery as a thing dwelling its whole life in sunless depths. It was not something to be controlled.
The voices continued, loud, as the people around her moved, but her own breathing in her ears struck her as so much more important.
The man moved in the distance, behind a forest of robot arms and IV drips.
And then Shepard didn't care enough to keep her eyes open any more. The painless, feelingless haze of sleep crawled up her face into her thoughts. The pale hand-thing dropped away.
She woke up. The white ceiling with its flaring lights was almost comfortably familiar. She felt crinkling cushions beneath her. Gingerly she sat up, and a muscle twanged in her side, pulling between her ribs. She clamped her hand over the pain, wincing, and noticed scars traced along the back of her hands, their interiors glowing like chips of fire.
Last thing she remembered, she'd been dying. This was not black space.
She forced herself to stand up, legs aching as they worked. She braced one hand against the bed, and with the other felt her hair, tied up in a bun at the top of her head. A few blonde strands escaped to string out beside her ear.
Dizzy, she looked at the floor. It took a moment to get her thoughts in order, to figure out how she was supposed to react. Then she scanned the room, saw a person with a uniform identical to hers sitting up on a hospital bed across the room. It was a male, back hunched, and in a moment she realized who it was.
Her keep the crew safe, keep them alive, keep them together instinct kicked in at the same time as the voice of the woman she'd heard before crackled across an overhead comm. "Shepard. This station is under attack. There's a pistol in the locker nearby, Find your way to me—" The voice bled into static.
Of course, Shepard thought. Everyone's always under attack.
It was Joker in the next bed, rubbing his temples and looking around. "Whoa." He looked around. "What the…"
She strode over to him, ignoring the stiffness of her knees. She couldn't believe—
"Joker…!" She stared at him, tried for words. Failed.
He swung his legs out of the bed, rubbed at the back of his neck. His expression suggested he was having a similar problem knowing what to say. "What happened, Commander? I thought…" He looked up at her.
"Honestly, I don't know. We were falling…"
"The Normandy was destroyed. Yeah, I know. It was real. And I wish it wasn't, but…then what is this?"
"I don't know. But we're not safe until I figure it out."
Joker paused, digesting this. Then:
He grinned. "You've got a plan?"
Alarms were keening and there was a weapons locker in the room. "Sure I do. Let's get out of here."
He stood with roughly as much confidence as she had. Shepard moved closer, but his halting steps toward the room's door told her that he didn't want the help. She knew that, but they were about to be in a firefight. He walked awkwardly, shoulders canted. She'd protect him.
What was this room? Too tech filled to be an office, too clean for an operating theatre.
The locker next to her bed held a shield pack and a loaded pistol.
(Why'd they keep this here? Shepard wondered. It isn't a prop for a hospital set.)
But she powered it up and met Joker at the door.
He looked haggard—looked like she felt. He looked pale too, skin almost transparent, scars stretching traces across his forehead and under messily-shaved beard. No hat, she realized with something of a shock.
Last time I checked we were on our way to becoming shooting stars. How does this moment exist?
But it did. She crept out along the silver hallway, the pistol feeling small and alien in her hand. It wasn't built like she was used to; a small stencil along the barrel read 'heat sink'. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him following her.
Robotic footsteps slammed down in front of her and she crouched down, waving for wary-looking Joker to do the same behind her. She peered out to see humanoid silver mechs plodding toward her, their red eyes the size of human faces. The ratchet sound of bullets started, shook the walls. Shepard leaned out and sprayed fire back.
And so it went. They pressed on through the windowless building crawling with mechs, clean white droids that mourned their own confused demise in tinny voices.
Shepard and Joker peered around a corner to see a human soldier holding a catwalk against a crowd of mechs. A squat robot barreling along behind him turned toward Shepard's hiding place, flechettes spitting from gun-mouths on its sides.
Shepard fired, tore furrows in the rushing thing. It stumbled, crashing onto broken knees and scrambling forward. It was a tough little thing; bullets kept pinging off even as it passed her and turned around to shoot again as she whirled to face it, grimacing.
Joker, crouched down behind the half-wall, got his hands around the mech and flipped it, gifting its gunmetal underbelly to Shepard. Her next bullet tore through its iron innards as it gave a dying kick. Joker stepped back, trying to get his arms out of its way. He miss-stepped; his shoulders hit the wall and rebounded.
Shepard scooped the dead mech aside with her foot and made for him, expecting to need to change the status of her pilot from soldier to injured civilian to protect.
But he was running his hands along his arms to check for cracks, shaking his head to stretch his neck. She remembered reading that Vrolik's made men from glass.
Joker met her questioning eyes. "I'm okay." He stood and carefully looked over the barrier. The dark-skinned soldier waved them forward; more mechs swarmed into the room, billowing smoke.