'Oh, shit!' Joker took in the chaos around them as they came out of the relay.
They were in hell. It was the only word that fit, the only word that described the red cast to everything, the destruction, the lost souls. His hands worked so fast they became a blur. He felt the ship around him, felt the weight of those who hadn't made it as he wormed his way through their remains, twisting, turning, diving through. Every gap, every spare piece of space became clear in his vision, focused, everything else disappeared from view. This was what he was born for, had worked so hard for. This was his moment. Suddenly they were clear.
'To close,' he gasped as he sat back, took a deep breath and winced as his body let him know it still hurt.
'Impressive,' Garrus commented from behind him.
'That's the best you can do?' Joker scoffed.
'No, but I don't want to make your ego any bigger.' Garrus chuckled.
'Well done, Joker,' Shepard placed her hand on his shoulder.
Joker nodded, thankful that he was as good as he thought he was. He'd got them safely through the Omega 4 relay, the first human pilot to do so as far as he knew. All they had to do now was get back and he'd go down in the history books. But it wasn't over yet.
'Holy shit!' he looked out the viewport as debris floated around them. He'd managed to get them above the event horizon of most of it but there was so much. 'These must be the ships that tried to make it through the relay, some look ancient.'
'There's a lot of ships out there,' Shepard leaned over his shoulder to get a better view.
Joker pulled his thoughts back to the task at hand. The trip through the relay had been different, more powerful, faster. The Normandy had felt the strain, he'd felt it under his fingers, in his bones. He checked his readouts, began system checks, he couldn't afford to be caught unaware by any problems. The unearthly red glow around them gave him the creeps, he was sure if they could go outside it would be hot, just like hell was supposed to be. Idiot, space is cold! How anything could survive in this region of space was beyond his comprehension. The only thing that he took pleasure in was being one of the first see the centre of the galaxy up close.
'I am detecting an energy signal near the edge of the accretion disc.' EDI brought up the scans.
And there it was. The thing they'd come to find, it was ugly and uninviting. Joker knew they had to go towards it but he so badly wanted to turn around and go home. He knew it was fear, why wouldn't it be, these things had destroyed the SR-1, killed Shepard. He brushed away the thought that threatened, he couldn't let that haunt him now.
'Let's go, Joker, nice and slow.' Shepard gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze, almost as if she knew where his mind was taking him.
With a deep breath, followed by a grimace, he edged them forward. Under any other circumstances he would have found the sight beautiful, he loved the stars and the colours and sights of the galactic core were something to behold. This was the engine that kept the galaxy running, spinning slowly like a feather on the universal wind. It was also the place where they could all die. Keeping his eyes on the debris around them he slowly took them towards the dirty rock that was the Collector base.
Red dots suddenly flashed up on his screens as EDI stated the obvious. 'Careful Jeff, we have company.'
'Damn, defence drones,' he had no choice, he increased their speed, darting out of the way of energy beams that could very well cut open the hull. He'd run so many simulations, imagined so many scenarios that he didn't have to think about what he was doing. It was instinctive, he was in tune with the ship and the threats around them. His hands and eyes worked in co-ordination like they never had before.
'Taking evasive manoeuvres.' It was more to warn the crew than for himself. He darted and danced between the debris, skirting the edges of destruction as beams skimmed past them. 'Now they're pissing me off,' he cursed as his hands worked and guns fired. 'EDI, take the bastards out!'
'What the hell is going on!' Miranda stumbled onto the bridge.
'Just taking care of a few bugs,' Shepard commented dryly and Joker grinned.
He spun the ship on its axis and dropped beneath the drones that were chasing them but not before one caught the side of the hull.
'All right, they want to play, let's do this girl,' Joker grin was almost maniacal as the ship rolled, twisted and dived. He knew the crew would be getting tossed around but it was up to them to secure themselves. His job was to keep them alive.
'Hull breach detected.' EDI informed him.
'It's in the cargo bay,' he set the ship into a loop, calculating the distance between debris as the Normandy groaned around them.
'I'll take care of it,' Shepard gave his shoulder a quick squeeze. 'Grunt, Zaeed, cargo bay, now!'
Joker sensed Garrus step into the spot Shepard vacated, putting himself in front of Miranda who was trying to keep her balance by hanging on to the navigator's chair. There was no time to think about it though as he considered his options.
'Damn it!' He shook his head in frustration, he really only had one choice. 'We have to lose them in the debris field, it's gonna be rough.' He informed the crew so they were ready.
'Jeff, our kinetic barriers are not designed to withstand impact with debris that size.' EDI reminded him.
'You can't go in there,' Miranda staggered to the co-pilot's chair as he turned the ship.
'No choice, good thing we upgraded.' He watched as gaps narrowed, finding a way through, grunting in frustration as they caught the edges and the ship shuddered. 'Find some room,' he muttered.
'Watch out!' Miranda instinctively raised her hands over her head as a large piece of debris passed close enough to scrape the hull above them. Joker almost laughed at the futility of her actions. 'This is crazy! We need to get out of here.'
He was beginning to think he'd made a mistake heading into the debris but Garrus placed his talon on his shoulder and he knew the Turian was offering support for his decisions. It bolstered his confidence. Their barriers were dropping as the smallest hole yet appeared before him. This was going to be tight. If it got the drones off their tail it would be worth it.
'Reroute non critical power to barriers, EDI.' He powered through and eventually they were out the other side and no drones appeared on his screen. 'Damage report.'
He listened as EDI's rattled off her list and realised things could have been a lot worse. 'We got lucky.'
'No, we have a skilled pilot,' Garrus corrected.
'Things aren't as bad as they could have been,' Miranda commented and Joker wasn't sure if it was a backhanded compliment or not.
A red blip appeared on his screen, heading beneath them towards the hole in the ship, 'Shepard, you've got another one coming your way.' Joker knew she could handle herself but there were hull breaches in the cargo hold and he was more concerned about her reactions to that. Right now though he had repairs to organise, he settled them in a hole surrounded by large sections of debris.
'EDI, keep us steady, let's try not to attract any more attention.' He set about chasing down problems, rerouting when necessary, marking systems that might be worrisome in another fire fight. Eventually he was happy with his on the fly fixes and took back control.
'How we doing, Joker,' familiar steps came up behind him and he felt Garrus step aside.
'Okay, as long as there are no more surprises. Systems are holding, kinetic barriers are almost back to full strength. We're good to go.' He glanced up at Shepard and was relieved to see there was still colour in her face and her eyes were clear. 'You okay?'
'Yeah,' she glanced down and the corners of her mouth tilted up. 'Yeah, I'm good.' She placed her hand on his shoulder, 'let's go.'
'Aye, aye, ma'am,' Joker grinned and set them in motion.
Slowly they cleared the debris field and the Collector base came into view. As ships went the Collector vessels didn't impress Joker much. They were ugly, they looked like a large piece of rock, if he was honest they looked like a piece of shit. They were a hybrid design, organic material fused with metallic pieces to make it appear something like a ship. Nope, definitely didn't impress and even though he was curious about how they handled he was more than happy to find out from a distance.
'We need to find somewhere to land without them seeing us,' Shepard never took her eyes off the base. 'Can you get us in, Joker?'
'You doubt me?' He glanced up at her with feigned hurt and she chuckled. He focused on his console but they were already too late. 'Shit, they're sending an old friend out to greet us.' He readied himself, they weren't taking the Normandy down. Not this time.
'Let's show them what we've got,' Shepard spoke softly and the venom in her voice made him shiver, but he knew exactly how she felt.
'Firing!' This was the moment he'd been waiting for. Payback. Joker took great pleasure in bringing the guns on line and seeing the Collector ship break open. 'How do you like that, you sons of bitches!' He whooped and heard Shepard laugh behind him.
'Take them down, Joker,' this was personal now and he was eager to prove he could.
'Hang on, this is going to get wild,' he announced over the com as he shot them forward, too fast for the Collectors to get a lock on their position.
He forced the Normandy into a series of manoeuvres that any other pilot would have believed impossible. The ship groaned around them as the stresses pulled and pushed at the hull but Joker knew exactly what his ship was capable of. He rolled and dived and came up behind, perfectly positioned for a killing shot.
'Give 'em hell girl,' he fired and pulled them up and away. 'That was for the SR-1 you bastards.'
Joker had seen ships explode under fire but this was different, this was revenge, pure and simple. For so long he'd felt guilty, felt like he'd failed the SR-1 and her crew. Shepard had convinced him otherwise but this was his final piece of therapy. This was what he needed to truly heal. He felt Shepard's hand on his shoulder giving him a gentle squeeze and he guessed she was feeling the same. But their nemesis wasn't finished with them yet.
'Look out!' He heard Miranda yell as he saw the shockwave and debris barrelling towards them.
'Shit!' he tried to manoeuvre but all power was gone. 'Generators are off-line, EDI give me something!'
'I'm sorry, Jeff, there is nothing to give. All hands brace for impact.'
'This is gonna hurt,' he groaned but he wasn't finished yet.
He might not have main power but he still had thrusters, they were a different system. It wouldn't stop them from hitting the base but it would stop them from hitting it with a killing blow. He worked frantically, balancing out the amount of thrust with their forward momentum, slowing them enough to give him control of sorts. An upright strut lay in their path, if they hit that they would lose an engine pod and that wasn't going to happen, not on his watch. Using thrusters alone he tilted the ship, just enough to miss scraping the hull on the strut.
The distance between the ship and the base was decreasing rapidly and as much as he tried to slow them he knew it wasn't going to be enough. He retracted the engine pods to make the ship more compact and used everything he had to make it to the clear area he could see ahead. He was thrown sideways as the ship bounced across the surface of the base. The grinding of metal echoed in his ears as the ship slid and he was thankful that the Collectors ships were partly organic, it gave them a slightly softer place to crash. Not that the crash was soft, far from it, but the organic sections had fewer protruding pieces to pierce the hull. Suddenly it was quiet and still.
'Joker,' Shepard was beside him, helping him to sit up. 'You okay?'
'Yeah, think I broke a few more ribs,' he gasped as he dropped back against his chair and moaned. He took a few deep breaths and although it hurt he was confident nothing had been punctured. 'Damage report, EDI?'
'Multiple system overloads. Restoring operations will take time.'
Miranda scrambled to her feet and started pacing, 'so this is it, no going back.' There was defeat in her voice and Joker realised she'd given up. He was more convinced than ever that she really didn't know Shepard.
'You give up if you like but I have every intention of getting us home,' Shepard frowned at her before glancing at Joker.
'I'm glad you're in charge,' Joker chuckled.
'How do we stand, EDI? Have we been detected?'
'No, it is possible the Collectors did not expect anyone to reach the base.'
'Their sensors might have been knocked out, they probably don't know we're here.' Joker was already at work running diagnostics and finding out what needed to be done. 'At least that's something in our favour, no telling how long it will last though.'
'We need to move fast, Shepard,' Garrus suggested and Shepard nodded.
'Briefing room,' she watched Garrus and Miranda walk away before turning back to Joker. 'Are you sure you're okay?'
Joker spun his seat so he could face her, 'I'm fine, painkillers would be nice. Just go get the crew back, Dr Chakwas will take care of me when she returns.' He grimaced and added, 'probably in more ways than one, she loves telling me off.' Shepard laughed and he shrugged, 'what, I have to give her something to complain about.'
'I'll send Mordin up with medication,' she knelt down, took his hands in hers and looked into his eyes. 'I am glad you're here, Jeff, I couldn't have done this without you.'
'Damn right! I am the best pilot in the galaxy.' She smiled but he knew she needed more than his flippancy. 'Hey,' he stood up, trying to ignore the pain in his chest, and pulled her into his arms. 'It's not over yet, you're gonna go and kick some Collector butt, get our crew back, blow this place to hell and then we're going home.'
'You bet I am, I'm Commander Shepard, it's what I do.' She chuckled into his chest.
'Damn right,' he lifted her chin and kissed her lightly. 'Now go do what you do and motivate your team. I'd like to get out of here sometime today.'
'Yes, sir,' she gave him a mock salute and was smiling as she walked away. 'I know you're watching my butt.'
'And such a perfect butt it is,' Joker sighed and sat down. 'Okay EDI, let's get us airborne.'
A/N: Phew, part one of the suicide mission, let me know if I got it wrong. Have used some game dialogue, again because it fits and is perfect. Part two is coming, just as soon as I'm happy with it.