Shepard rested a hand on the back of Joker's chair, eyes fixed on the approaching relay. The dust of the Omega nebula made the light from the relay's massive core appear dim and red. She couldn't tell if it actually looked wrong or if it was just her mind unhelpfully projecting visions of doom.
Whatever it looked like, she assumed it was still sending out all the right 'I'm an ancient piece of alien magic, fly your ship through me!' signals. Joker was announcing their approach, voice as calm and even as it would have been for a simple jump back to Earth. Her gaze drifted down for a moment to watch his hands move confidently over the controls.
The relay grew still bigger as he took them into the final approach. They were close enough to see clearly through the obscuring haze of the nebula, and the light from the relay was still red.
"Joker," she asked, "what's with the color?"
EDI answered for him. "The relay's destination is the galactic core. Radiation passing through the Mass Relay Corridor is being red-shifted by the high gravitational field on the other side."
Joker nodded briefly. "It must be crazy over there. Might want to strap in for this one."
She nodded and took the copilot's seat, pulling up the five-point restraint. She'd rather be at her normal post behind his chair, ready to run or fight at a moment's notice, but if all hell broke loose she'd just be another distraction tumbling around the deck. If anything went wrong on this part of the mission, there was fuck all she could do anyway. It's all you, Joker.
Armored plating slid over the windows and a view from the ship's external cams blinked to life on the screen in front of her.
"Omega-4 relay, final approach." Joker pulled the emergency breather into position near his chin, standard safeguard for an unknown relay.
"Reaper IFF activated and acknowledged," EDI said.
"Hitting the relay in 10… 9…"
"Commander!" That was Jacob, helping Tali in engineering. "Drive core just lit up like a Christmas tree!"
"Drive core electrical charge at critical levels. Rerouting power."
Too close to pull back now. Unplanned maneuvers this close to a relay could sheer a ship in two.
Joker's voice was as calm as ever. "3… 2… 1."
The Normandy shivered as the relay caught them. The data on Joker's screen was flashing by almost too fast for her to read – not that she'd have understood it, anyway. All she knew was that relay jumps didn't usually take this long. She swore she could feel the energy bleeding along the hull of the Normandy, a frisson in her eezo-laced nerves. Around her the ship hummed. She reached for a patch of metal on the chair and a spark jumped from her finger, more powerful than the usual small discharges that came with being a biotic.
You didn't usually have time to notice things like that, in a relay jump.
"Brace for deceleration."
Rhi had just enough time to glance at EDI's projection in surprise – dropping out of a jump was usually as imperceptible as going in – and then the wave of force hit, pressing her forward into the safety harness.
"Shit!" Joker's hands flew over the controls.
A second later her screens lit up with exterior visuals. They'd emerged in a debris field, a nightmare of rocks and jagged metal, moving faster than they could hope to account for. This was no asteroid belt, an impressive but basically safe place for Joker to practice slaloms. The view twisted 90 degrees as he spun the Normandy to avoid a massive piece of – not rock, with those lines. Ship wreckage.
Something huge appeared out of nowhere in the monitors, like a scare-scene out of a cheap vid. The 3D extrapolation showed Joker rolling the Normandy away, the trash passing harmlessly below them. One jagged bit of metal cleared the space under the hull by mere meters. We should be measuring that in kilometers.
Joker's rapid course changes were too much for their inertial barriers, but she barely felt the tug and pull of the restraints against her armor. Her attention was on Joker and the deadly obstacle course outside. He was absolutely intent, a bead of sweat on his temple the only sign of pressure. The deadly cloud of space trash shifted unpredictably, to her eyes, but he was finding spaces before they were there, threading the Normandy through gaps that were impossibly small, until they emerged into (relatively) clear space, like a cork from a bottle.
Joker exhaled in relief and slumped backwards. "Too close."
Shepard unstrapped and resumed her usual position behind his chair. The debris field stretched away below them, dense and massive. A list of knowns paraded through the back of her mind: center of the galaxy; co-orbiting black holes; too many conflicting gravitational forces for the debris to accrete into a few big, easily avoidable chunks. Or the collectors blow it all back up again when it does, just in case of visitors.
Joker zoomed in on one of the bits of space trash below them and whistled. "These must be all the ships that tried to make it through the Omega-4 relay. Some look ancient." The Normandy's scanners painted a bewildering variety of shapes. "Here, isn't that a turian symbol? And that curved wing – that looks like old asari design. Like, old old. Two generations before their current fleet – and you know asari don't change their designs often. That could've been made while humanity was still grunting and hitting shit with rocks."
"Humanity is still grunting and hitting things with rocks," EDI observed.
"Only some of the time," Joker said. "We have our good days."
"Any sign of the collectors?" Shepard asked.
"I have detected an energy signature near the edge of the accretion disk."
"Has to be the collector base. Take us in for a closer look. Nice and slow – hug the trash pile if you can, see if we can't use it as camouflage."
"Aye aye." He guided the Normandy down to skim the debris. The object EDI had detected grew clearer as they went, the Normandy's sensors picking up more of its external shape. It was a rough cylinder, like the collector ship on an even more massive scale.
Shepard saw the blip on the ladar just as EDI said "Careful, Jeff. We have company."
Joker's fingers were already moving. "Taking evasive action."
What are they? Jeff's screens were incomprehensible to her; strings of numbers and bare-bones wire-frames marked with vector data. The only thing she could tell about their pursuers was that they were small and fast. She slid back into the copilot's chair and muttered "EDI, help me out, here. What's behind us?" She had all the data at hand somewhere under her fingers, but hell if she knew where.
EDI silently brought her screen to life, displaying available info in ways Rhi could parse. The hostiles targeting the Normandy were smaller than the shuttle, roughly spherical, and – a flash of red indicated a weapon strike along the Normandy's armored hull – they could bite. The little pests didn't seem to have heard of the concept of inertia; they changed direction on a dime.
"Now they're just pissing me off." Joker scowled at the screen and pulled the Normandy out of a tight loop that placed one of the spheres in their line of fire. Twin shots from the javelin torpedoes smashed it into dust, but there were six more on their tail.
They'd never be able to out-maneuver them all long enough to bring the thanix cannon to bear. Everything that's not weapon must be eezo, for them to move like that. "EDI, arm the point defenses." GARDIAN lasers were made to deal with close, fast threats. Their auto-lock system was useless in a debris field, and a human wouldn't fire the lasers in time to do any good, but EDI had no such limitations.
"Yeah, EDI, take these bastards out!"
There was a rattle of boots on the gangway and Miranda burst into the cockpit. "I've got a read on their firepower. We'll be fine – as long as the new plating holds." She sounded more worried than reassuring.
Not helping, Miranda. "It'll be fine," Shepard said. "Watch EDI go."
"An unshackled AI –"
The displays lit up as the GARDIANs fired in quick succession, each shot finding and eliminating a target.
"– is a great benefit in combat," Miranda finished.
"Glad you see it that way."
Thank you," EDI said. "But there are still hostile craft remaining outside of my range."
"They want another round?" Joker stroked his console with one finger and the Normandy went into another spin. "C'mon, girl, let's give it to them."
"Proximity is required for effective offensive use of the point defense system," EDI reminded him.
"Yeah, straight through the middle, I got it. C'mon, little gnats, here comes the Normandy…"
Closing on them wasn't difficult – the things were aiming for short-range combat themselves. The GARDIANs flashed again, setting off a trio of small explosions, and then a warning claxon sounded and every light in the cockpit went red.
Shepard was out of her chair in a heart beat, nerves singing with tension. Not again, not again. She knew what it was – only one thing warranted that alarm. Last time she'd heard it she'd run to evacuate Joker, shoving him into an escape pod just before the collectors had blown the Normandy apart around her. Panic gripped her throat in iron claws, stealing her air just as her severed oxygen supply had.
"Hull breach! Emergency fields are holding but there's something in the hangar!"
Joker's voice snapped her out of her shock. Fields holding. Normandy's still in one piece. Still have life support. Move your ass, marine.
"Keep trying to lose 'em. I've got this one. Miranda, stay here and give Joker anything he asks for." She seated her helmet at the run and radioed for back up. "Let's go see what this thing is. Thane, Mordin – meet us in the hangar." She wanted Tali, but without their crew the quarian was more use minding the engines.
"EDI," she said as they went, "What happened? How'd it get in?"
"Single-use charges mounted on the drone's exterior breached our armor," EDI explained. "the drone's core has entered the ship."
Joker normally would have jumped on the comedic opportunities of "Miranda, give Joker anything he asks for" ('a peeled grape' sprang to mind; it only got cruder from there) but his attention was elsewhere. There'd been one more alert almost lost in the clangor caused by the hull breach; a tiny light on the ground-team monitor, normally a steady pulse, had abruptly sped. Shepard's heart-rate, relayed to the Normandy by her armor, had gone through the roof.
She'd been terrified.
And then she'd raced to the gaping hole in their ship to give the intruder hell, anyway.
It was ridiculous that he could be more worried about her fear than the very real threat of death hanging over all of them, or the unknown hostile that had just entered their ship. It hadn't even shown in her face – just in that little light, the only one of the array that had changed its steady rhythm.
And he worried.
They'd been holed, all right – in more than one place. Either the drone had made itself a few new exits once it got inside, or it had friends.
Shepard reflexively checked her helmet seals for the fifth time since she'd left the cockpit. Find the hostile. The Normandy's fine for now. Keep her that way. Light reflecting off the smaller particles in the debris field colored the view outside a murky orange. It made it easier to pretend it wasn't open space.
Her attention had rested on the gaps too long; Thane saw the enemy first. "5 o'clock, Shepard."
"Roger." Shepard sidestepped behind a crate. The thing was big; an armored sphere interrupted only by the glowing red muzzle of its weapon. "One hostile," she radioed Joker, "We've got it covered. Looks like a synthetic. Giant floating eye-ball thing."
A heat-sink's worth of close-range incendiary ammo only served to alert it to her position, and she dove sideways just as a red particle beam scorched the deck where she'd stood.
"Correction. Laser eyeball." She popped briefly above the panel, shootng back along the beam's line-of-fire without bothering to aim properly.
"Flying laser eyeball," Thane confirmed.
"Spherical synthetic weapon with a partic –" the beam cut the spot where Mordin had been a moment before, "– ahem. Laser eyeball."
"If you're all tripping I don't have time to deal with it!" Joker's voice rang over the comm.
"No worries, Joker!"
Three more hefty shots from her heavy pistol didn't even seem to have phased it. "Mordin, left, Thane, right – keep its attention divided. Thane, try to pull a chink in its armor – that's ship-grade plating, it's not going to go down to normal fire."
"Excellent," said Mordin, "Prepared special fire."
She heard the thunk of a specialized charge attaching itself to metal. Moments later a burst of flame in her peripheral version painted the inside of the hull with lurid shadows. "Now, Thane!" There was a bright blue flash, biotic energy bleeding into the visible spectrum, as Thane created a field of conflicting forces near the weak point Mordin had created. The armor on the thing's left side was shattered and smoking.
Shepard stepped out into the open and fired while she advanced, pressing the advantage, and the thing turned tail and fled.
Joker couldn't let himself be distracted by the fight in the hangar – the one against the drone or the one in Rhi's head. Shepard would do her job. He'd do his. He scanned the sensor displays restlessly, almost eager for the next attack. Gimme something to do.
He saw the tell-tale blips soon enough; another flock of drones was on an intercept course. They'd been annoying before, but now they had access to the Normandy – and to Shepard, down in the hangar.
He adjusted their course slightly and poured on the speed, bringing the thrusters up as hot as he dared given the damage to the hull. They had to stop eventually, but if he could just buy Rhi some time –
"Hangar cleared," Shepard reported. "We didn't take it out, though – it may come back."
"If that one doesn't, there're more on the way ." Another bunch of energy signatures appeared dead in front of them. Shit. "We're sitting ducks out here! I'm going to try to lose them in the debris field. It may get exciting down there."
"Roger. Give us a second to secure. Thane, Mordin – lock on. It may get rough." There was a pause while she waited for confirmations, then, "Okay, Joker. Make her dance."
"With pleasure." He grinned. The exit from the relay had been pure frantic hell. There'd been no way to prepare for any of it, and it had been all he could do to get them through the debris field in one piece. The moments of relative calm above it had given him a breather, a chance to get a sense of their environment.
This time, he was ready.
He slipped the Normandy past the first layer of junk like thread through through a needle, into the space that the ladar painted beyond it, a space that was closing even as the ship passed through into the next one, wings nearly brushing the burnt-out carapace of a dreadnought, hull gliding under something that could have been rock or some strange ship architecture, all of it reduced to specks in their rear view as he looked for the next opening.
"Our kinetic barriers are not designed to withstand impact with debris of that size, Jeff," EDI cautioned.
"Good thing we're not going to hit any of it then, isn't it?"
They gained speed with every meter, and he was pointing her at spots that weren't there yet, finding holes before they happened. Behind them the edge of the their eezo field was catching the detritus, leaving a wake of chaos, but he was out in front, kilometers ahead, where two pieces of machinery were just passing each other, making space to slip his wings through if he turned just so, silver and black shooting through the space-pocked derelicts with mere meters to spare, already on the next opening.
One of the drones crashed on an obstacle thrown by the passage of the Normandy; another was crushed trying to follow her through a space that had become too small for it. EDI and Miranda kept track of them for him; he was flying.
"C'mon, baby," he crooned, "Dance for me."
The Normandy couldn't flip end-for-end like the little shits chasing them; she was a dual-environment ship, designed with the limitations of atmospheric flight in mind, and her thrusters couldn't position for that kind of long-axis spin. She could pirouette, though, and she did, rolling around the long line of her central guns to take advantage of every available space.
Deeper into the disk the debris was thicker, the spaces fewer. "C'mon, baby, find some room." He felt the anguished shriek of ceramic against metal as they shot through a gap that wasn't quite big enough for them and he whispered apologies to the ship.
"Six down, but there are more on our tail," Miranda warned.
Straight through the thick of it, then up and out. He wasn't looking for a clean run anymore, just minimized damage. "EDI, reroute non-critical power to the barriers. This is going to hurt."
Shepard cursed as she felt herself go weightless. EDI must've pulled the power for another system; things were getting hot out there. Bending her knees pulled her body closer to her boots, securely locked to the Normandy's deck. She braced herself against the strut she'd chosen and gripped her pistol, wiggling her feet inside her boots to convince herself they weren't going anywhere. "Hang tight, people."
The view outside had already been dizzying; with the cessation of the artificial gravity it became nauseating. She picked a stable point on a bulkhead and focused on that, willing her stomach to settle.
The Normandy twisted again, and Joker was practically singing in her ear, coaxing every last bit out of the ship. "C'mon, baby, we can do this."
She didn't think she'd made a sound, but he must have remembered their radio link, because he said "Uh, that was – just ignore me."
She made sure she wasn't transmitting to anyone else, and murmured "It's okay, Joker. I know when you're talking to the ship." For a moment a rush of fondness muted her fear. She was smiling at the inside of her helmet.
"This is most unsettling," Thane said. He gulped, the sound loud on their radios, and Shepard wondered if drell got the same response to motion sickness that humans did. She'd never thought to ask.
"Look at the wall," she recommended.
"Normal reaction to physical stressors outside evolutionary parameters," Mordin said. He gasped a bit. "Unpleasant."
"Indeed," Thane agreed. "Shepard, I admit – in all of my years of work, I have never done this without a proper restraint."
"You'll be fine." She was ridiculously glad for his admission; it was easier to deal with if she had someone else to reassure. "We trained for this stuff. No more dangerous than most null gee work, as long as your stomach doesn't get you." And you don't fly out the big fucking hole in your ship. Her throat tightened at the thought. No. Deep breaths. She lifted her heel a bit; the boot was still solidly locked. "Though I admit, I haven't actually been in a situation like this since, god, Ceres." Talking was good. Talking kept you grounded.
"What happened on Ceres?"
"Long story." The details were confidential – even if the story was mostly about vomit. Other people's, not that it mattered much. Her stomach lurched. Yeah, definitely not a good time for that story. "How about you, Mordin? Any exciting tales from the STG?"
The ship rolled and shuddered as she scraped against something too big for their barrier to handle, the sound of straining metal propagating oddly in the thin atmosphere left in the hangar. C'mon, Joker. You can do it. She wanted to be up there, watching his hands, the set line of his jaw – but there were big fucking holes in her ship, and she wasn't going to let some stupid laser eyeball get what crew she had left.
"Not. Best. Time. Shepard." Another impact set them rocking.
"No time like the present!" It really wasn't so bad, as long as you didn't look outside. With the art-grav gone there was no ground to feel spinning.
"One can certainly hope there won't be," Thane agreed dryly.
"Ha!" Shepard felt the tug of the art grav slowly cycling back up. "We through, Joker?"
"I think we lost them. Gonna go nice and slow now, see if we can't avoid any more attention."
There were a few seconds of quiet while the ideas of 'up' and 'down' slowly reasserted themselves. When Joker spoke next the hangar had reached a quarter G. "You've got incoming, Shepard. Just one, starboard – sorry. I thought I'd lost them all!"
"Roger. We can handle one." Third of a G. She turned off the electromagnets and crossed half the hangar in three long bounds, crouching near the starboard breach. "C'mon, let's get this over with."
It was too much to hope that their assailant would be the same drone they'd injured earlier. The one that slipped in through the starboard breach was undamaged, though like the other it had shed its outer layer.
They'd learned what worked on the first one. Mordin and Thane fanned out, skulking around the edges of the hangar, while she tried to hold the eye's attention.
"EDI, hold at current art grav!" They were up to half a G, now, and the last thing she needed was to fall on her face because gravity had been less when she jumped than when she landed. The low G force made it easier to dodge the thing, too; she could leap obstacles instead of scrambling over them.
She lead it a chase and then hunkered behind a strut and shouted for Mordin and Thane to do their thing. The resulting explosion gave her a moment to catch her breath, then she was up and over the top again, running up a pile of cargo to get a better angle at the weak point her team had blown in the armor. The drone was only disoriented for a moment; it started firing its beam weapon before it had aimed properly, burning a hole through the crate she stood on. She leapt clear, rolling to her feet on the other side. The beam weapon had continued up and was now firing uselessly towards the ceiling, where the tougher material of the bulkheads seemed to be withstanding its power.
The crate she'd been standing on was sliced clear through. That had been the one the gym equipment was packed in. Guess we're back to push-ups and crunches. The rest of the hangar manifest flicked through her mind; nothing they couldn't afford to lose. Mostly extra provisions, and this trip was going to be short, one way or another.
She skirted the pile of cargo and had to avert her eyes as Mordin lit off more of his pyrotechnics. With the after-image of the explosion still flickering in her peripheral vision she advanced, trying to draw its fire away from the salarian. "Look at me, asshole!"
The eye swiveled around to look at her, but this time before it could charge up she landed two shots square in the glowing red weapon port that made its pupil. The slugs must have hit something delicate, because the steady red glow fractured and started emitting electrical sparks.
She hit the deck just as the drone exploded.
Instead of a rain of shrapnel on her back, she saw a burst of light over her right shoulder – and heard laughter and applause from Mordin and Thane.
She rolled up onto one shoulder and looked around, confused. The eye was nowhere in sight. "What the hell? Where is it?"
Thane walked over to give her a hand up, an uncharacteristic smile on his lips. "Oh? I had thought you'd planned that, Siha. It seems you have spoiled your own mystique."
Mordin was clearer. "Hypothesis: Damage to weapon caused internal explosion. Forces not enough to burst armor, so energy channeled through existing outlet. There." He pointed at the charred and smoking remnants of a crate that had once held emergency rations. A blackened Tabasco bottle fell out while she watched and rolled a short way across the deck.
"So where's the eye?"
"For every action," Mordin said, smiling, "An equal and opposite –"
"– Reaction." She followed the line of blackened deck from the burst cargo unit backwards, straight out one of the breaches in the hull. "It shot itself out of the ship?"
"Do not believe it was intentional. Had moved beyond that point."
"If the eye has a soul, then it went to join Kalahira across the sea." Thane smirked. "Backwards."
Shepard laughed aloud.
"Everyone okay down there?" Joker asked.
"Yup." Shepard grinned. "Tali, guess what? I went for the optics."
"I'm always telling you," Tali said, smug.
"Better get back up here, Commander," Joker said. "We're getting close."
Shepard brought a feeling of victory with her onto the bridge that Joker couldn't help but catch. "There's our rabbit," he said, pointing at the looming shape on the screens.
"The collector base." Miranda sounded almost reverent.
We've been after this damn thing long enough. It felt strange to finally be here. The base itself was eery, rising out of the edge of the debris field like an ancient ship rising above the troubled sea.
"See if you can find a place to land without drawing attention."
It was hard to tell what would draw attention; to the naked eye the base looked halfway between a massive rock formation and a random collection of space station parts. Their scanners could do better, though, and EDI would be faster at parsing the data than he would. He was about to ask her advice when the ladar showed him something he recognized all too well; the unmistakeable shape of the collector ship, its huge form dwarfed by the even more mammoth station.
"Too late! Looks like they're sending an old friend out to greet us."
The cruiser pulled away from its mother and turning to face them, the yawning depths of the muzzle of its massive weapon pointing in their direction, just as it had over Alchera, when it took down the SR1. But it hadn't had time to gain speed, and the Normandy had all the advantages of momentum on her side. When the beam weapon lanced out, Joker nimbly moved around it, using their greater speed and agility to dance teasingly out of the way.
"Time to show 'em our new teeth." Shepard's voice was low and throaty, filled with the thrill of the hunt.
Sexy as all get out.
"Garrus, ready on the main gun. Joker, get us a line."
He spun them out around the collector's line of fire and faked hard port, jerking the Normandy back once the more ponderous collector ship had committed itself, buying them a few precious seconds' view of the cruiser's less-defended port side, where an irregular structure jutting from the main hull offered a tempting target. "Warming. 5, 4," each number was another sliver of their firing window falling away, "3, 2 –" he slammed his fist down. The Thanix cannons, mounted under their hull on that fateful trip to Omega, roared to life.
A molten stream of metal, blue-white with heat, shot from the Normandy and seared its way into the collector ship. Fire blossomed at the point of impact, exploding down the side of the vessel as the intense heat dissipated itself within the hull.
He was already flying on wings of adrenaline; finally getting to fire on the ship that had caused him so much grief pushed him over the top, and he bounced in his chair, punching the air. "How d'you like that, you sons of bitches?!"
Shepard leaned low over his shoulder. "Can you get at their broadside?"
That was how they'd taken out the SR1 two years ago; a shot amidships that she couldn't hope to withstand, his ship crippled around him, a massive hull breach that left the CIC open to the stars – and to the attack that blew Shepard away from the escape pod and out into the blackness.
He licked his lips. Fitting to take the collectors out the same way.
He poured on the speed, pushing the limits of the Normandy's compromised hull. Compared to his ship the collector vessel was a fat, slow target, but it only had to pivot to keep its heavily armored prow in their direction. As long as he had to cover a hundred times the distance his quarry did, he'd never be able to get at its flank.
"Have to get in closer."
"Do it." Shepard's expression was all teeth. "Finish them off."
"Gonna be a wild ride!" He bared his teeth, grin as feral as Shepard's, and pointed their nose at the injured cruiser. The collectors fired again, their beam weapon a long, bright line, and he danced around it, first on one side, then the other, until they were close enough to look down the yawning muzzle of the gun itself. Then he slipped sideways, spiraling wide around the cruiser, forcing the collectors to try to track the Normandy or leave themselves exposed when she came about.
Come about she did, shooting out from under the collectors' hull into the tightest half-loop her thrusters could manage, with a full, beautiful view of the cruiser's broadside, wide open for the stream of silver destruction he fired.
Shepard's whoop joined his as the thanix' deadly payload hit home. He took them past their target, ready to come around again, but they didn't need another shot. The cruiser was splintering, a cascade of reactions ripping it apart from the inside out.
Time to get outta here. He turned the Normandy's nose towards the collector base, giving her a victory roll as he went.
They were heading away from the broken vessel when the chain reaction finally hit its drive core.
The cruiser had been huge; the energy of its exploding core was immense. What had felt like a safe distance was closed in the blink of an eye, and the wave of force picked the Normandy up and shook it.
Their kinetic barriers overloaded in seconds. Joker shrieked as his chest lit up with pain, and for a moment his watering eyes saw only white. The hit must have negated the inertial damping ability of the mass effect field, pressing him into his restraint harness – and pressing the harness into his broken rib. The familiar feeling of zero-grav hit a moment later. That was more than overload; the drives themselves must have been hit.
He pulled himself together, gritting his teeth with lingering pain, and tried to regain control. The blast had given them a crazy end-over-end spin, and they were headed for the collector base at devastating speed. Without the mass effect field the thrusters didn't have the raw power he needed to change their course, but he could control it. He had to, or they'd hit the collector base nose-first. The Normandy's air-frame wouldn't survive that kind of impact… and neither would they.
Rhi's hand on his shoulder reminded him that there were other people in the cockpit.
"Mass effect field generators are offline," he explained. "EDI, give me something!"
"Generators are un-responsive."
"I know!" His breath seemed to come slowly, his fingers hovering over the display, waiting for the right moment in the Normandy's spin so that the thrusters would have maximum effect, judging their power against the ship's inertia. Now. He held onto the thruster burn, hoping he hadn't waited too long.
Sweat was leaking from under his cap, his ribs ached, and Shepard's hand was solid on his shoulder, but all he saw was the vector data, their death drawn in wire frame on his screens. The collector base was almost on them.
Slowly, the thrusters were halting the Normandy's wild yaw rotation.
"All hands, brace for impact." EDI's impassive voice made it seem unreal.
He brought the Normandy out of the spin with bare meters to spare; her nose pointed along the curve of the massive base, racing across the uneven surface instead of smashing against it, their speed still far, far too high for their proximity.
Shapes loomed ahead of them; substructures of the base or random space trash it had accumulated over the centuries, he couldn't tell. At this speed they were deadly, and the Normandy's sluggish response was a far cry from the norm for his beautiful ship.
If I can touch us down gently, use the ablative armor to kill our speed – The Normandy slewed sideways, almost hitting an outcropping. She was suddenly agile again, and the burn he'd asked for was too much. "We're in the edge of their envelope!" Without their own controlled mass field to cushion them, they were at the mercy of the fluctuations generated by the collector base.
Ahead of them a broad ridge grew out of the surface of the station, coming up too fast to avoid. He rolled the Normandy to port, raising her starboard wing so she'd skim the obstacle instead. Now she was heavy under his hands again; the base's artificial gravity was asserting itself, pulling them down the side of the base towards the ridge. With the base's art grav defining up and down, the ridge had become a ledge. The Normandy was fighting to stay above it – and losing.
"Brace for impact," he repeated EDI's order. "There's nothing I can –"
Their port wing hit first. They felt it as a rumbling shudder, metal straining against metal, without the shriek it would have made in atmo. He was pushed into the harness again and the pain left him gasping, like it was him that was being dragged along the rough surface of collector base, his armor boiling away into space. My wings.
When the starboard side jarred down it was almost a relief; they were shedding speed rapidly now, friction doing what he'd been unable to manage. A sudden lurch threw him against the arm of the chair despite the harness, followed by another bright, sickening pain. He bit his lip hard enough to draw blood, swallowing his hurt, clutching desperately at the chair so he wouldn't move again.
When he regained awareness, they'd stopped.
"Joker." Rhi was pulling herself off the floor, stooping at his side, easing the harness off. Her fingers were nimble despite the armored gauntlets. He watched her hands move for a moment before her words made sense of themselves. "Are you going to be okay?"
She looked worried. That wasn't right. Have to say something. "Think I broke another rib." He grimaced. "Or a few."
She pulled the last of the straps off and helped him straighten up. It was so strange, watching her try to be gentle in a hard suit. "Can you –"
"I'll be fine," he cut her off. I have to see this out. "Gimme five minutes and a nerve blocker. If Miranda can help me with an injection…" he paled at the thought of the long walk to the med bay. How the hell am I going to help if I can't even get to the crew deck? No. One thing at a time.
Miranda was already out of her seat and on her way out of the cockpit. "Stay here. I'll bring back – what? Site-specific?"
"Yeah. Ribs." He grinned weakly. "Short needle."
Rhi crouched next to Joker while she paged the crew, one hand on his knee. For one sickening moment she'd been worried, but a few broken ribs weren't so bad. Miserable, but not nearly as dangerous as it could've been.
We landed right-way up, for one thing. The collector's gravity field seemed to pull down the shaft of the cylinder; if they'd landed on its curve instead of rolling up onto the ridge, she'd be sitting on the bulkhead right now. Small mercies.
When they lost their own gravity she'd locked her boots to the floor, then quickly thought better of it. Getting jerked around while her feet stayed in place was a good way to tear something. Instead she'd made do with one of the emergency straps as a loose tether, counting on her armor and its kinetic dampeners to protect her from impacts in the suddenly dangerous ship.
The members of the squad all confirmed their status; Joker was the only one without armor, and his the only real injury. She gave them fifteen minutes to do what they could for the Normandy before they met her in the briefing room. Fifteen minutes to think of what they were going to do next.
The shock of their crash hadn't entirely taken away her joy at watching Joker take down the collector ship; he'd needed that. If they managed nothing else, they'd done that much – they'd killed the ship that had destroyed the SR1. And we'll manage the rest, damn it.
Miranda returned with supplies and leaned over to help Joker, pulling up the edge of his shirt to reveal a darkening bruise. Shepard glanced back at them, then returned her attention to the data EDI was pulling from the collector base. The scanners hadn't been affected, and EDI was building a wire-frame model of the base they rested on before her eyes – the bare essentials on which she had to build her plan.
Joker seemed to relax all at once; whatever Miranda had given him must've worked. He pulled himself up and peered at the wire-frame. One hand gently stroked the little image of the Normandy.
Shepard suspected that if Miranda hadn't been there, the gesture would have been for her, instead.
Miranda caught his worry for the ship, if none of the rest of it. "We all knew this would probably be a one-way trip."
Shepard shot her a reproving look. "I'll do whatever it takes to stop the collectors, but I plan to live to tell about it."
Joker snorted. "I'm glad you're in charge."
She winked at him. "Time to go be in charge, then. Stay out here and let that stuff sink in. You can follow on the comm."
His "Knock 'em dead, Shepard" followed her down the gangway to the briefing room.
When she entered the squad was already crowded around the briefing room table, full of adrenaline and waiting for direction. EDI projected the wire-frame of the collector base – or at least, the parts detectable by the Normandy's sensor array.
Shepard gestured at the projection. "The collector ship is – wait – was," she waited for the cheers to die down, "built with approximate radial symmetry around a huge central hollow. EDI's scans show the base is at least superficially similar. It follows that the most important thing – the shit they care about – is in the middle." She tapped the table. "If we find our crew, we're going to find them in there." She tried not to think about the acre on acre of body pods that had lined the collector ship, or how small that behemoth of a vessel had looked next to the base itself. EDI was already scanning for known radio signals and energy signatures; if the crew were still in uniform – and if any of that uniform still worked, inside the collector pods – they'd find them.
"If we don't find them?" Jacob asked.
"Then we'll keep looking, and kill some more collectors on the way." She raised an eyebrow. "No one minds killing a few extra collectors, right?"
"Ha! Let me at 'em!"
She grinned. I can always count on Grunt to bring the enthusiasm about killing things.
"We're lucky. There are ports into the base near here. Catch is, that central hollow is blocked off by security doors – no matter where we go in. EDI can't tell from here, but chances are they lock on the other side, or somewhere else entirely. There is a duct here –" she pointed, "that looks like it could put someone right on the other side. If that someone was small."
"You called?" Kasumi said.
"Bingo. If anyone can get through ancient alien security, it's you." And none of the rest of us could fit in the damn pipe. "Use your omnitool to link to EDI if you can't bring it down quickly; this is the kind of shit she was built for."
"Will do, Shep." Kasumi grinned. "I'd hate for all my time with collector algorithms to go to waste. The things I brought back from their ship were so enlightening."
As far as Shepard had known, Kasumi hadn't even been on the collector ship – but what her master thief got up to in her spare time wasn't important now. Shepard shoved it aside. "We need to split their attention; the person trapped in the duct is a target. I'll take a small team and use this passage – it follows the duct, near enough, in case of emergencies. This one," she pointed to a bigger gap in the wire frame nearer the Normandy, "is where I want the rest of you. We'll meet in the middle."
"You'll need someone in command of the second team," Miranda said, "Someone with leadership experience."
She'll offer herself, and Jack will rip her a new one. Rhi didn't have time for it. "Garrus will lead the fire team." He'd been her choice to begin with.
"Of course, Shepard." He cocked his head sideways and blinked – the turian version of a joking wink, as far as she could tell. "Who're you leaving me with?"
"I'll take Miranda and Mordin, for now. We can plan our next step once we get past those doors. Joker will stay here – he and EDI are going to figure out what it'll take to get the Normandy in the sky again." She looked at the circle of faces, armored and eager. "We ready?"
"Then let's do this."
Shepard was the first to jump down onto the surface, blue armor shining in the strange ruddy light. Joker opened the shutters to watch her start to scale the exterior of the station, half-climbing, half-scrambling, Miranda and Mordin following in her wake. The second team was still cycling out the airlock.
He looked out the other direction, over the debris field and to the stars beyond, and knew why she didn't look back. He remembered the sudden spike of the heart-rate monitor.
She'll be okay, he told himself. She's not going to find anything inside this place that's worse for her than that.
author's note: I hope the fact that this is the longest chapter yet makes up in some small part for my extreme delay. It turns out that trying to figure out reasonable ship-to-ship combat with space-magic physics is a bit tricky; at one point I stooped to flying doube-A batteries around my desk. (Pew pew pew noises obligatory).
We'refast approaching the end (and many thanks to readers who've stuck with me for over a year). I've had a few people ask if I'll continue aStSHB into ME3. No - it's good for stories to have ends.
I'm going to try my damndest to write a sequel, though. :P
I finally had to admit that I have enough story in my head that it'll torment me until/unless I write it down, and there are parts of ME3 that just call out to be reworked. BUT - I seriously need a break to get my ducks in a row, and I'm afraid the fandom may have drifted off to greener pastures before I manage anything substantial. SO: I will post a prologue/teaser for the As-Yet-Unnamed sequel before I post the epilogue of aStSHB, and then take a bit of a posting vacation. Anyone interested can bookmark the teaser, and at some unspecified point in the future I will once again emerge to spew chapters at you.