Author's note: I should insert the standard disclaimer about this being mostly a standalone story, but as time goes by and previous stories pile up, it becomes less true. So, the caveat; characterizations, events and contexts are based on both the games and previous stories in the series.
Prologue: Faster than Information
Joker frowned at the number floating in his display. The worst post-jump drift he'd clocked since flight school sims. Small comfort that Sergeant Hakori was no longer around to upbraid him about it, not that he'd ever cared much what the instructors thought. It was his own standards he had to live up to, and that number didn't even register.
"It is possible disruption to the launch relay caused a larger than standard arrival deviance," EDI said.
Joker eyed the blue holo. How good had she become at reading his moods? "Don't try to make me feel better, EDI. That damn asteroid spooked me and I blew the landing. Unacceptable."
"In the case of a lone ship making a mass relay jump, drift deviance in not as relevant. There is no collision risk."
"It's always relevant."
Behind him, the airlock finished its decontamination cycle. Joker swiveled his chair enough to see Commander Shepard emerge. Her armor might have had a few new dings, but otherwise she seemed unharmed by the solo mission and unforeseen two-day absence from all comms. Two days wherein the Normandy's crew had been climbing the walls with increasing worry. Garrus had been the one to say it bluntly- after fighting this long and finally defeating the Collectors, there was a sick injustice in going out and getting killed doing a solo job off the books.
Until they finally got a signal. From an asteroid. An asteroid accelerating toward a mass relay.
"Commander!" Joker greeted her as she approached. "You always make every mission an adventure, don't you? What, was the exploding volcano incident starting to seem bland?"
The scowl she shot him could have peeled paint. "EDI, give us some space please."
The blue orb winked out.
Joker peered at the AI's display cradle. "The heck?"
"We talk sometimes, in my cabin. After the Cerberus controls came off I had to explain at length why there are times we need privacy. It's a weird concept for an AI designed for military intrusion and intelligence, but we have an understanding now."
"I never got her to go away."
"You never asked nicely."
"Whatever. She's probably still listening anyway."
Shepard shrugged. "Maybe, but that's okay. I get my illusion for a few minutes." She unlocked the neck seal of her helmet and pulled it off. For a long moment, there was no sound but the soft blip of the navcom ticking off the ship's acceleration.
"Do you remember what it was like when you were a kid," she said finally, "and you did something wrong, and you had those few minutes before your parents found out?"
"Oh, sure, it usually involved a lot of screaming on my part."
"I mean the kind of something wrong that hurts someone else. It's a little like you exist outside of time... It isn't real yet. You're alone in your new reality... and you can hope, just for a moment, that no one ever joins you there."
She put her palms on the console and leaned heavily on them. "This is it, Joker. This is the step too far."
The leaden seriousness of her voice kicked the legs out of any potential joke. "What the hell happened out there?"
She sighed. "Good intentions got mixed up with the calculus of war... and then infected with indoctrination."
"The next time I hear someone tell me they're studying a Reaper artifact, but no really it's totally safe, I'm just going to shoot them."
"Better carry extra sinks. There's a crippling shortage of common sense out there."
"I had to stop them. And I'll be the one that..." she trailed off, staring out the porthole at the stars.
Joker chewed his lip. "Is it true the Reapers were inbound?"
"According to the calculations, they're there right now."
He exhaled through his teeth. "Shit."
"And this is where I lose... I just lose," she muttered.
"You were AWOL for two days, Commander, we were starting to think you weren't coming back."
"I'm not entirely sure how I did. They had me dead to rights, but they didn't finish the job for some reason."
Good question. The thought popped unbidden to mind. Indoctrination, huh? He shook his head. "Next time Hackett demands you do something alone, are you officially allowed to tell him to stuff it?"
"Did... anything get out? Of the relay?"
Joker leafed through his control panes to the external sensor logs. "We scanned a handful of ships heading for the relay when we jumped in. They must have gotten out. Hell, I would have if I'd seen that asteroid headed for it." He absently scratched his stubbled chin. "You know," he mused, "when we blew the relay we also blew the comm buoys."
"If there was anything left to send a signal."
"Shepard, we got out of there faster than light. Much, much faster. The Bahak relay is... was..." he leaned over his navcom, shifting his fingers to zoom the display, "1362 light-years from here, the nearest outpost of sentient listening ears." He leaned back. "It'll take over a thousand years for anyone to even see the fireworks."
"Faster than information."
He spread his hands. "No one actually has to know."
"Tempting," Shepard murmured.
He knew perfectly well she wouldn't take that opportunity, such as it was. A long silence stretched out. Movement on his console caught Joker's eye. In the small window showing video feed of the CIC, figures were talking and gesticulating. Taylor and Garrus.
"Those ships that jumped out ahead of us will report the asteroid," she continued, "and I won't lie to Hackett. And... I'll know."
"The Hegemony's going to flip out. It'll start a war."
"There's a much bigger war breathing down our necks."
"When has that ever stopped anyone? I mean, really?"
"Hope springs eternal..." She sighed. "No, not really."
"Tweedledum and Tweedledee are waiting to talk to you."
There was a beat of silence, and he glanced up to see Shepard regarding him with a quizzical expression. "Who?"
"What, seriously? Alice in Wonderland? The stoner caterpillar and the disappearing cat? Mercury poisoning, and... wow, you really are a colonial rube." He sniffed, rubbing his nails on the front of his uniform. "Clearly my talents are wasted here."
"We're going to have to start making arrangements to drop the crew off somewhere safe."
"The heck are you talking about?" A chilly realization settled on him. "Wait, you're going in, aren't you? You're going to take the Normandy back to the Alliance."
Shepard ran her hand slowly over her head, smoothing back the sweat-damp hair. "I have to."
"Uh, no you don't?" Joker ventured.
She shrugged, throwing up her arms. "What choice do we really have? Running a full-size frigate with no support was a long shot with Liara's help, but now? The Alliance might have been content to let us chase the Collectors around out in the Terminus Systems, but they won't let this lie. We'd just be running, all the time, from people who should be allies. That's no way to live with the Reapers on our doorstep."
"We unload the crew, then what about you?"
"I go in."
"Damn it Shepard, this is Alchera all over again. You're going down with the ship."
"But this time it's a choice we both get."
Joker snorted. "Some choice. If I don't have several tons of mass drive under my ass, I'm less than useless. The Reapers will blow in and the best I'll be able to do is spit in their general direction."
"When they show up, we'll need everyone. Centcom would be bigger idiots than we ever imagined if they let you rot in a cell."
Joker raised a finger. "Hah, are we taking bets, Commander? Because I'll put good credits on the bigger idiots option."
"This time I'll be around to keep the heat off you. I'm sure they'll have a lot of questions. I'll keep them busy."
"You forget I joined Cerberus a long time before you did. Willingly. They'll skin me alive."
"I wouldn't be so sure. Did you know Anderson is an admiral now?"
"Yeah, I heard he stepped down from Councilorhood. He must have finally gotten sick of Udina's stink."
"And Hackett will owe me. This was still a personal favor for him, despite how it turned out. Two admirals have to be able to keep you out of real trouble."
"They better. I'll make a really terrible husk, Shepard. Seriously, can you imagine how pathetic I'd be? Gimpy Husk. All the other husks will make fun of me." He plastered on a shit-eating grin that did nothing to alleviate the grinding fear that lurked behind the joke. Alchera without the escape pod option was a more appealing outcome than the so-called Dragon's Teeth.
"Or you could go somewhere else. Anywhere you like, really."
He nudged the bill of his cap higher so he could peer up at her from under it.
"It had to be stated," she said with a small shrug. "The worst part about all of this is I don't even know if the delay is worth the cost."
"The batarians on that colony were dead anyway." The voice came from behind them.
Joker glanced around his chair to see Garrus coming up from the CIC.
"The Reapers weren't going to let anyone live," the turian went on. "The entire Reaper fleet in one system? They'd glass the colony. Or worse... and my bet is on worse. All we did was blow a link the chain, so now they have to walk to the next relay."
"Shepard's going to surrender us to the Alliance, Garrus."
The turian's mandibles twitched, dropping a little. He eyed Shepard sidelong for a long moment.
"Do you think you can start working on the Hierarchy, Garrus?" she said without returning his gaze. "I can provide you with a copy of all the data we got from the mission."
He shifted his weight. "I can try, but I don't know how seriously they'll take me. Renegades who leave their former postings aren't looked on fondly by the government."
"I know you. You must have connections you can tap. A way to get this information into the right hands."
"Military-level intelligence on a potential threat to the entire protectorate might... get some attention, yes. But I can't make promises."
"Try. It's all any of us can do."
Shepard rubbed at her eye. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I almost just want the Reapers to show up. Get it over with. Stop all this prevarication and start actually dealing with the problem."
"It would sure be a stupendously satisfying 'fuck you' to your critics," Joker said.
"It's the only way anyone is going to do anything. But maybe if I go in and show them all the data we collected, they'll have some real evidence to look at."
"They don't need the ship for that," Joker pointed out.
"It would be an act of good faith."
"A whole ship? Uh, yeah. Maybe even a little much."
"I'm going to need a whole hell of a lot of faith, Joker. I just made the Virmire bombing look like a light sneeze."
"What about EDI? It's not like she can leave."
"I... I don't know yet. We'll have to figure something out."
The main comms pinged. EDI reappeared. "Excuse me, Commander, but you have a high-priority communication request from Admiral Hackett.
"Look who's on the ball today of all days," Joker said. "The old goat himself."
"Couldn't have been just a little bit longer, hm?" Shepard murmured. "Just a few minutes."
"Shepard-" Garrus started.
"Forward it to my quarters." She turned on her heel and stalked away down the corridor, her armored boots loud on the deck plating.
Garrus watched her go, absently touching the scarred side of his face. "That may be the shortest amount of time I've been able to keep a promise," he muttered.
"Well, then it's a big ray of sunshine all around," Joker drawled, though he hadn't the faintest idea what the turian was talking about. "We wouldn't want anyone to be left out, now would we?"
"I should go," Garrus muttered, and walked away.
"Yeah. We're all going... nowhere fast."
"I do not understand what destination you are referring to," EDI said.
"Don't worry, that wasn't worth understanding. The humor barrel is down to the planks around here."
Joker drummed his fingers on his armrests, resisting the urge to look sidelong at the soft blue glow to his left. What would the Alliance do to EDI? To the ship? To him?
"Hey EDI, how good are you at playing dumb?"
"Is this an attempt to ascertain whether or not I was listening to your conversation with Shepard?"
That gave him a pause. "Ah... no. We're headed behind unfriendly lines, but I have an idea."