Author's Note: This is a continuation of my other Mass Effect stories through Mass Effect 2. While I don't consider the other stories to be "required reading", they are all part of the same continuity, and so there are are elements and characters that will be carried over.
Kaidan wasn't on the flight deck when the call went out. He was downstairs, scrambling into his armor even as the Normandy heaved and bucked around him. Standard protocol- when the ship is in combat, marines were to be in full gear. As much to keep them out of the flight crew's hair as preparation for the unexpected.
It was too fast. Kaidan hadn't expected to hear what broadcast over the general comms today, or any day.
"Abandon ship! Repeat, all hands, abandon ship!"
Kaidan mouthed the words, disbelieving, as the air came alive with a piercing warning klaxon. Red lighting appeared in the floor, flowing away in neat lines to mark the way to the escape pods. His hands kept up their well-practiced task as his brain tried to catch up to the situation, pulling and locking the smooth armored skin into place. He scooped up his sidearm and helmet, then made for the narrow emergency stairwell up to the crew deck. This was not the time to get stuck in a recalcitrant elevator.
Too fast. Upstairs, the B-shift crew was still scrambling out of the sleeping quarters, roused only minutes before by the emergency call to battle stations. Now they were piling into the mess area, eyes wide and stumbling as the ship shuddered under another hit.
Protocol. Protocol was the savior in these situations, and as an officer, Kaidan was an enforcer. He barked orders at the disorganized crew, waving them toward the rows of breathing masks standing open along the wall. He was wading into the mess of them, emphasizing his orders with a shove where necessary when fire exploded from a rent in the bulkhead, sending waves of heat flooding into the room. Droplets of superheated lithium spurted out of the break, dancing across the floor like beads of glowing mercury. Kaidan ran to a bulkhead to find a fire extinguisher. He continued yelling orders to the crew as he vented the extinguisher on the fire. But something in the Normandy's system of complex heat management had failed, and it felt like spitting into the sun.
Suddenly Shepard was there. A solid form in her own armor, green against the crimson flames. She dodged past him to a panel further down the crew section bulkhead. The flames continued to shoot out of the rent.
Kaidan heard her swear as she smacked a balled fist into the display emitter. "Where's Joker?" Shepard demanded, turning to him.
"He's still up there!" Kaidan half shouted over the roar. "I had to get Onagawa to pod four and we're losing atmosphere-"
"Dammit, I'll go!" She shoved her helmet on, the neck seal closing with a click.
"I won't leave-"
"Get to your pod, Lieutenant!"
The commander's imperious finger left no room for argument, even though several crowded his head. She turned and vaulted up the stairs to the flight deck.
He could feel the pressure changing, the growing tension in his armor as it stiffened. The crew would be protected by their oxygen masks, which sealed over their faces and ears to protect the air pockets in their bodies from decompression. But the encroaching vacuum still threatened. What air was left was full of smoke and swirling ash.
Kaidan tried to tell himself that she'd been through worse- she always found a way to achieve her goal. But the ship was dying with terrifying speed. The jolts of weapon impacts didn't stop, and all around them the VIs systems tried in vain to compensate. Even he could tell that it was a losing battle. He focused on the threat to the unarmored crewmembers, all but throwing them into their pods.
The Normandy shuddered again. Terrible sounds rattled through the air. With a vicious lurch, the artificial gravity failed. Kaidan flailed an arm out and managed to catch the protruding handle beside the door of a pod as the last vestiges of the ship inertial compensation systems died.
"Shepard!" he called into his comms, squinting through the haze of heat and swirling debris. Everywhere, the shattered bones of the ship curled inward in a maw of vicious, flaming teeth.
"Sir!" someone yelled from within the pod. "With you we're at capacity!"
Kaidan bit off a harsh rebuke. A full escape pod was to close and fire, no questions. Lives were measured in brief minutes as the atmosphere burned and vented away into space.
"Hold the pod!" Shepard's breathless shout cracked through his comm pickup.
The main lights went out. Flames and a staccato of emergency lighting threw a lattice of dancing shadows around the twisted room. Across the space, figures moved in the flashing air.
A moment later, a bright orange lance of light punched through the top of the hull, trailing sparks and explosions as it traveled across the room with a ponderous, terrible purpose. In its wake, the deck plates melted and buckled. The shrieking sound of the beam pummeled the thin, leftover atmosphere, wailing through the structure of the ship and up through Kaidan's grip on the bulkhead.
Outlined against the hellish light, Joker's flailing form sailed toward Kaidan. He caught the brief flash of the pilot's wide, terrified eyes under the smooth breath mask. Kaidan stretched out and managed to snag a handful of Joker's fatigues. He pushed backward, twisting as he pulled the pilot into the pod's center, then wrenched around to look back out the portal. He gathered a breath to bellow Shepard's name when the pod door slammed shut in his face. His stomach plunged.
An instant later the thrusters fired, flattening Kaidan into the door with a sharp thud. His armor and helmet saved him from a broken nose, but Joker wasn't so lucky. Kaidan felt the pilot slam into his back and heard, far too intimately, the wet crunch of something breaking. A strangled shriek lanced the air.
Above the door, a red warning light was lit, next to three green ones. A moment of confusion ran through Kaidan- they were the engage lights for the pod's docking clamps, and one was reading as still locked. But they were free of the hull, tumbling.
The pod could handle the weight of an extra body, but not a multi-ton chunk of the Normandy still clinging to the locked docking clamp. Kaidan swore under his breath. Every instinct of his medical training railed against him, but there was no time to consider any other options. He grabbed a bulkhead rail and roughly hooked an arm around Joker's torso. He heard Joker bite off another yelp, breath hissing between his teeth.
The pod bucked, echoing with the bellow of the maneuvering thrusters pulsing through the hull. Without gravity to orient himself, Kaidan's sense of direction faltered as he fought to keep himself between Joker and the hard skeleton of the escape vehicle.
The lieutenant shoved himself across the open space of the pod and grabbed a protruding bulkhead. Bracing himself, he pushed the thankfully light pilot down into the last empty seat. He planted a foot on Joker's thigh to keep him down, then yanked the harness yoke down over the pilot's head.
A sick dread roiled in Kaidan's stomach as the pod shuddered around him. Years worth of emergency training rattled around in his skull, endless hours of drills clocked on the ships he had served on. He could hear the sergeant barking at him - If you are not strapped in, you are a hundred plus kilos of loose projectile! A danger to yourself and the others in the pod!
Loose projectile. As if to emphasize the point, the thrusters fired again, wrenching the bulkhead out of his grip and sending him across the pod to crash into the harnesses behind him. Incoherent shouting filled the air as he tried to re-orient himself. He swore he saw it before it arrived, through the esoteric sixth sense he took for granted most days. In a flash, a rippling wave of dark energy swept through the pod, rushing through Kaidan's body and lighting up the mutant biotic nodes of his nervous system in a cacophony of sensation.
"The hell was that?" someone yelled.
The answer didn't come out, though it flashed through Kaidan's mind. That was the Tantalus drive core exploding.
His body was on fire, coruscating in rippling blue. His nerves sang. He inhaled and focused on the red warning light across the pod. Timing the bellowing thrusters, he kicked off and shot across the intervening space back toward the door. Hand over hand, he pulled himself to the release for the locked docking clamp. He kicked it. Shouted in frustration, and kicked it again. A dull thud rang through the hull, followed by a lurch and a wrench of the thrusters. And in a rush, they stabilized.
Kaidan looped an arm through a handhold and held on, wedging himself against the bulkhead framing the door. He had only a moment to process a single thought. Shepard's armor signal in his HUD was out, but that didn't mean much- between the bulkheads, the distance, and the failure of the Normandy's central comm system, there was little chance of getting accurate feedback. It was still possible...
The pod began to vibrate, a growing rumble that resonated through the hull.
"We're hitting atmosphere!" someone shouted.
The pod was designed to handle atmospheric entry under all kinds of conditions... but whole. There was no way to know if they has succeeded in shaking the debris, or sustained any damage from the Normandy's fiery end. They could do nothing but hope that the thick heat shield underneath them was intact, along with the thrusters that would angle their decent. Kaidan closed his eyes and focused every fiber of effort into keeping his grip as the vibration increased.
"Planetary impact imminent," the disembodied voice of the flight computer informed them, eerily calm amid the chaotic trembling. "Brace for brake deployment."
Kaidan heard the whine of the servos, and a moment later, a massive jolt shocked through the pod, wrenching his shoulder. A throaty roar started up, pushing up the g-forces as the main braking thrusters fired. A morbid thought wandered through his mind, questioning the point of the automated warnings. They would either make it or they wouldn't- would the voice be kind enough to inform them if they were about to die?
The exhausting seconds dragged. The g-forces spiked sharply, and a heartbeat later, there was a massive, crunching jolt. Then slowly, the world settled and stopped. In the sudden quiet, Kaidan could hear the ragged panting of the crew crammed into the pod with him, stunned into silence by the shock of their survival. Gravity had returned, weaker than standard, listing off to one side of the pod's floor plane. The vehicle's frame pinged and creaked, cooling from the fiery re-entry.
A dull throb started along Kaidan's left side and arm. His nerves felt raw, sunburned from the inside. He shifted, and was punished by a sharp stab across the top of his chest and shoulder. He gritted his teeth and eased his arm out of the grip then looked around. The other crewmembers were still safely strapped in, their breathing masks in place. Joker lay limp in his harness, his head lolled forward. Laid across his lap, the pilot's left arm was bent at an unnatural angle.
Aside from himself and the pilot, four other crewmembers occupied the pod. To his immediate right, Kaidan recognized Operations Chief Carson, one of the engineers who was usually stationed at a heat-monitoring station on the flight deck.
"Carson." Kaidan said, trying to force his voice into something approaching a level calm.
The chief blinked, turning a slow, bleary-eyed focus on Kaidan.
"Log into the pod and give me a systems check. Air quality, power levels, fuel reserves, everything."
Kaidan could almost see the slow progress of the order as it negotiated the fog of the chief's shock. "Aye, sir."
With trembling hands, he called up his omni-tool interface. Beside him, Servicewoman Ortiz was looking at Kaidan with an expectant stare- it was evident she wanted something to do as well.
"Ortiz, get the comms up," Kaidan said. "Contact the other pods. I want their positions, status, and a full crew manifest ASAP."
"Aye aye." Galvanized by the task, she called up her own omni-tool display.
Satisfied, Kaidan turned and scanned the paneling around him. Every structure of the pod was dedicated to a system, with not a single square centimeter of wasted space. After a few tugs, a red-striped bulkhead relinquished an oblong case marked with the familiar decals of a medkit.
The adrenal rush was starting to wear thin, admitting more and more of the throbbing pain in his shoulder. Something in there was broken- he guessed the collar bone. Breathing through his teeth, he thumbed open the latches and surveyed the contents. A standard medkit, one of the two stashed in the pod's hull. After a moment of hesitation, he picked out a morphine ampule and fed it into the auxiliary injection port for his medical exoskeleton hidden in an unobtrusive spot on his left forearm. A few quick commands later, and he felt the pinch of one of the exoskeleton's injector on his neck.
Kaidan then loaded a few ampules of morphine into the micro-dermal injector. On his knees, he shuffled over to Joker and laid the injector on the pilot's arm. Joker twitched, but didn't regain consciousness. Kaidan checked the pilot's pulse. It seemed high, but steady. Pain and shock had gotten the better of Joker, now it was a matter of keeping an eye on him- temporarily at least, unconsciousness was probably a blessing.
The disjointed euphoria of the drug began to seep into his brain, pushing back against the throbbing pain. A voice in his head was trying to tell him that he'd overdone it, but he wasn't interested in that particular piece of logic right now. He scanned the others. Ortiz and Carson were intent on their displays, and Santiago was looking over the servicewoman's shoulder. Corporal Pascoe seemed uninjured, though his eyes were still glazed with shock. He stared across the pod, his breathing mask reflecting the amber omni-tools in distorted ribbons.
Kaidan reached back to the medkit and fished out a stabilizer cuff, then busied himself fitting it over Joker's broken arm. A few commands to the nanoweave fibers and they hardened into a protective cast. Kaidan's own wounded shoulder complained bitterly the entire time, but the distant pain, the drugs, and the focus on the job at hand kept the choking tension at bay, if only just.
"Sir," Ortiz said.
"News?" Kaidan's stomach writhed.
"Pod two and five have landed within a hundred kilometers. Reporting full capacity and only minor injuries. One and three have established high orbit."
"One reports that six went over the planetary horizon, and was trying to re-establish stable orbit. If they stay up, they'll probably be back around in a few minutes. No crew manifest from six or eight yet, five and seven are just coming in."
It took all his willpower to not demand manifests right away. They would be incomplete anyway. "Okay. Carson?"
The corporal jumped. "Uh, ev- everything looks green, sir. Except one of the atmo collectors, I'm not getting any response."
"And the other one?"
"Okay, deploy it." They were overweight, so any oxygen or water vapor they could squeeze out of the atmosphere was going to be valuable. Kaidan shuffled back to the door. His armor had reserves of its own, which would help to counterbalance his consumption of resources, but not by much. Biotic appetites were to no one's benefit in survival situations.
From across the pod, Kaidan caught the gleam of Joker's eyes under his mask. He stayed motionless, but the lieutenant could see him looking around, taking in the situation. Numbers ran through Kaidan's head unbidden, calculating. Oxygen, water and rations. Long-term psychological survival tactics in the tiny, coffin-like pod. A litany of survival and necessity that blocked out everything else.
A few minutes of uneasy silence settled over the dim pod, broken only by the soft sounds of omni-tools working.
Ortiz made a soft sound. "All pods reporting in, sir. All hands accounted for except... uh..."
Kaidan's heart sank at the tone of her voice. "Who?"
Ortiz took a deep breath and began listing names. Kaidan's mouth went dry when he heard XO Pressley's name. At the mention of Servicewoman Caroline Grenado, there was a strangled noise from the far side of the pod. Pascoe stared at Ortiz, mouth working in soundless shock. A jolt of surprise traveled through Kaidan. Were he and Grenado...?
"... and... Shepard."
The world went grey. Kaidan sagged against the door, hearing the others react with gasps and scattered cursing. As frozen seconds passed, his body cried out for oxygen. He forced himself to inhale past the constriction in his throat. Someone said something. Kaidan dragged his head up, focused. Four sets of blood-shot eyes were pinned on him.
"Say again?" The words were reactive, coming from far away across years of habit.
Carson cleared his throat. "Do we have kind of ETA on a pickup? Like, at all?"
Joker grunted. All eyes turned to him. "General distress call sent," the pilot said in a toneless voice. "Got a reply ping... from relay buoy just before..."
He lapsed into silence, his face shadowed by the breathing mask.
"Which means a few days at most," Kaidan forced the words out. A response from the comm buoy meant that the distress call had been accepted and rebroadcast at priority throughout the Citadel's military network. Far too late to save the Normandy, but by now the whole Alliance would have heard the call.
"I hope whatever hit us is gone by then..."
"No way!" Pascoe snapped. "I hope it's still there, so our ships can blow it hell!"
Joker gave a soft snort. "We wouldn't stand a chance."
"Oh yeah, because you're so great." Pascoe pushed up his harness. "The hell happened? How could they sneak up on us like that?"
"It was just a routine scan," Ortiz cut in. "Asteroids aren't known for their tendency to fire ship-cutter beams!"
"Sit down, Corporal." Kaidan's voice sounded weak in his head, as if he couldn't muster enough breath.
"You forget to turn the goddamn shields on or something?" Pascoe demanded, his voice twisting with ragged desperation.
The pilot just stared at him, his eyes dull and his hands limp in his lap. Pascoe moved, arms coming up. On instinct, Kaidan threw out his right hand. He heard a sharp intake of breath from several throats as the dim interior lights warped with dark energy, coalescing with a snap around Pascoe.
Under normal circumstances, using biotics against fellow Alliance members was strictly prohibited, tantamount to using a weapon. He held field for a second, releasing it and using the shock to push the man back toward his seat. Pascoe swung a clumsy backhand at Kaidan, but the impact was dull and distant. Kaidan pushed him back again, keeping his broken bone turned away as much as he could. His skull pulsed with distant pain.
For a moment, it seemed like Pascoe would come back up swinging, but all of a sudden Santiago was there, muscling Pascoe back down. Kaidan blinked in surprise. A relative newcomer to the Normandy, Servicewoman Santiago was part of Adam's engineering crew, and so quiet and reserved that it made the lieutenant himself seem talkative.
"We're not doing this," she said. Her soft voice held a surprising undercurrent of steel.
"Goddammit..." Pascoe rasped, squirming in his seat as if he wanted to escape. But there was nowhere to go. The fight was leaving him. "It's not fair..."
"You really want to mourn Caroline in cuffs?"
Pascoe slumped, defeated.
"Lost... enough for one day," Kaidan murmured.
Whether or not the corporal understood the full implications of that statement, coming from Kaidan, was up for debate. Not for the first time, Kaidan caught himself wondering how much the crew suspected of his relationship with Shepard. They'd agreed to keep their personal business strictly off of the Normandy, but there were plenty of rumors. There were always rumors. Months on a tiny ship packed cheek-to-jowl bred them like rats. Dealing with internal politics was as much a part of military life as keeping your uniform clean.
Still, Kaidan tended to be ignorant of most of it. Gossip wasn't part of his job as an officer, so he liked to think he could remain above it. Though given Pascoe's unexpected reaction, Shepard's tactical choice of getting to know her crew took on a new meaning.
"Sir..." It was Ortiz again.
Kaidan blinked. The choking storm was climbing up his throat again, clouding his thoughts. He fastened himself to Ortiz's request.
"What is it?"
"Pod six, sir. They're losing orbit, and they want to know if they should run a burn to regain altitude, or drop in."
Kaidan inhaled slowly, his heart filling with a numbing realization. I am... in command.
Command of the Normandy.
Such as it is.
Entering the atmosphere of an unknown planet carried a whole host of risks. On the other hand, it cost precious thruster fuel to regain a proper orbit. Whatever had destroyed the Normandy could still be up there, and either way, the escape pods were defenseless. There was no ideal answer. At least on the ground, they were stable and could collect resources from the atmosphere, and a controlled drop was better than running out of fuel in space.
"Tell them to drop in. Link up with pod four and give them local telemetry."
"Aye sir." Ortiz's face was intent on the glowing display before her eyes
Kaidan sat back and powered down his amp. It hurt. Everything seemed to hurt. He desperately wanted to get away from these people, out of the tiny pod, as if he could escape the suffocating vice around his chest. But outside was only the dimming evening of a frigid planet of snow and a frozen methane atmosphere. He closed his eyes, trying to fight the claustrophobic feeling. He couldn't break down here, in front of the soldiers relying on him.
No matter how much he wanted to.
"Here comes six," Ortiz said.
Carson looked over. "Got visual?"
Everyone wanted something else to think about. Focus on the living, the next five minutes.
A minute, then another passed in tense silence. Ortiz popped a large, amber display from her tool. It was logged into the exterior camera, the image jerking as Ortiz tracked the camera around. The sky outside was raining trailing meteors of debris, picked out as bright stars on the camera's fuzzy resolution. Kaidan glanced away from those flaming scars.
The lieutenant looked back, unable to ignore the consequences of his command decision. The small black speck on the monitor slewed around the frame as Ortiz tracked its descent. Flares of the maneuvering thrusters twinkled blue along its base in a staccato sequence.
"C'mon, where's the brakes?" Carson murmured.
"Not 'till they hit-"
The speck shot out of frame. Ortiz swore quietly, sweeping the view back across the deepening sky. When the falling pod re-appeared, it had sprouted a bloom of air brakes and a blue-white jet of retro-rocket.
Ortiz and Carson cheered, and Santiago smiled as they watched the pod's stately decent through the glittering, frigid air. Except for Pascoe, who wasn't wasn't paying attention. He was hunched in his seat, arms wrapped around his knees, his dull, miserable silence a painful echo of Kaidan's own.
From across the pod, Kaidan saw Joker looking at him from under the rim of the breathing mask. The pilot mouthed a few words. The lieutenant gave a bare shake of his head and looked away, not wanting to try to decipher what Joker was saying.
Whatever it was, it would solidify everything- slice a new, harsh reality from the haze. It would make him want to demand what the hell the pilot had been thinking, make him want to get up and see just how easily the brittle man would break. He swallowed, trying to banish the feeling. Moving his damaged shoulder with care, Kaidan called up the crew list. He forced himself to pay attention only to the names glowing in healthy green. Despite the devastating attack, many of the crew had been able to escape.
Twenty-five lives in his hands.
Duty was the thick armor that he pulled around himself, hunched in the tiny space against the door of the pod. Behind that wall, safe in a fog of painkillers, he could hide from the storm of agony howling at his gates.