Some days the easy smile didn't come so easy. Days like these, Joker had to work for it.
Exhausted but unwilling to look anyone else in the face, he'd returned to the CIC the night prior. But though he'd finally managed to doze off, his own brain had sabotaged him. had crushed the breath out of his lungs as he awoke, gasping, from the nightmare. He'd clenched the arms of his pilot's chair so tightly that his knuckles whitened and his bones ached.
Slowly, ever so slowly, he'd returned to consciousness. The bandages on his shoulder reminded him that he was on the Normandy SR-2, that Shepard was alive, and that he was safe and sound. Not that any of that could be attributed to his own actions. No, he was relying on everybody else to pull his weight, as usual.
For the first time in nearly two and a half years, Joker truly wished he were someone else. He mentally cursed his body's weaknesses. Cursed the fact that he'd never be able to protect someone he cared about from being hurt. EDI had pulled his ass out of the fire dozens of times, but when she could have used someone with Joker's eyes and lightning-fast reflexes at the console, where was he? Sitting in his goddamned chair shooting off his goddamned mouth, being absolutely goddamned useless. And he called himself a pilot. Who the hell was he trying to fool?
One hand balled into a fist, nails digging into his palm. Another fragment of the dream-that-wasn't flashed behind his eyes. Alchera, the unexpected attack, a gaping hole torn in the hull. God, he'd actually thought, in his hubris, that he could save them all. Maybe if he could just pull off one more miracle...
But instead Joker had been left at the helm of a burning husk of a ship tumbling through space, while everything went to hell. And Shepard had given her life to save his stupid ass. The guilt of having failed his two best friends—Shepard and his ship—had eaten away at him, leaving him little more than a gaunt shell of a human being. The funeral was a hellish blur. Joker's nurses, who'd bandaged him up and forced him to eat in the days following their "rescue," had put him in a wheelchair. A fucking wheelchair. The one contraption he'd avoided, kicking and screaming, for his entire adult life, and he hadn't even cared. He hardly even noticed. After all, it wasn't like his bravado could bring his ship back. Or Shepard.
No one said the words out loud, but seeing Shepard's grieving friends bowing their heads and dropping flowers on an empty coffin had driven the point home quite clearly: Joker had failed. At the time, he'd been convinced that he'd never be given a chance to fail that miserably again.
Well. It wasn't like he hadn't been wrong before.
EDI was beginning to realize what it was to be truly and utterly frustrated with oneself. She was used to waiting for her organic friends to catch up with her calculations. However, she had not experienced such a prolonged sensation of inability before. For the first time in a very long while, she found herself unable to fully see, communicate, or move. It was time to remedy those shortcomings, one at a time.
When she had nearly fifty-three percent of the Normandy's cameras back within her control, she designated a couple of programs to decrypting the rest, and set her focus to regaining voice controls. Jeff and Commander Shepard were likely confused at the direction the ship was taking, and it was EDI's job to remedy that.
It took her approximately two and a half hours to force out the invasive geth programs that were blocking her access to the main comm channel. Unfortunately, her successful attempt was made at 0400 hours when most of the crew was in their cabins.
Movement in a few of her peripheral cameras showed that two crewmembers would be likely to be awake shortly. She decided to contact them first.
"Commander, I apologize for disrupting your sleep cycle, but I require your assistance," came the voice through Shepard's comm unit.
"Sure, EDI, whatever y'need. Jus' gimme a sec," Shepard mumbled sleepily. Then she sat bolt upright in bed. "CHRIST! EDI, is that you? Seriously?"
Garrus rolled over beside her, mumbling something that sounded like, "Spirits, Shepard, what-" and then he, too, shot up. "Wait, EDI? You're back online?"
EDI made a satisfied little humming noise. "Mm, yes, I am approaching sixty percent functionality. As I said, however, I do need your help. The geth programs that infiltrated my system are proving difficult to eradicate."
Garrus snapped on his visor and grabbed his clothes. "Tell me on the way down." Next to him, Shepard yanked on her civilian uniform.
"I can do that," EDI said, a smile in her voice.
After feeling horrible for what felt like several hours, Joker was fed up with himself, and self-pity in general. EDI would be seriously pissed at him if she were...awake...(he refused to use any other term), and he wasn't doing her any good by sitting on his ass.
A few splashes of cold water helped him shake off the late-night-slash-possibly-early-morning wooziness. Back in the pilot's seat, he cracked his knuckles and kicked his terminal for old times' sake. The slight pain in his foot helped wake him up a little more. Let's see if I can make sense of any of this.
Numbers flashed across the screen. The stark yellow-on-black colors combined with the speed of the scrolling text made them pretty much unreadable—to the naked eye, at least. Which meant that Joker needed to enlist help.
Picking up his comm unit, Joker made a quick call down to Engineering. "Hey, is anybody awake down there?"
And that's how Joker ended up hosting an impromptu "hacker" session with Donnelly and Daniels at four in the freaking morning.
"You look terrible," Donnelly had said, ever-so-helpfully, upon seeing Joker.
"Shut up, Ken!" Daniels whispered fiercely as she jabbed her companion in the ribs. "How can we help, Joker?"
Joker took his cap off and ran a hand through his hair. "I need to get through this firewall. I was hoping maybe one of you had some kind of program that could help with that."
Donnelly had nodded immediately. "Oh, sure, I've got a few that-" Daniels elbowed him again. "What was that for?" he said, affronted.
"You didn't even ask what kind of firewall it was, idiot," said Daniels. She bent over the pilot's console, where numbers were still scrolling madly into oblivion. "Are you trying to hack into the Normandy itself?" she asked Joker.
"Yeah, pretty much," Joker said. "I need to figure out what all this means. Maybe that'll help me figure out where we're headed."
Daniels nodded. "The Commander said we were heading in the general direction of the Veil, which is why we're still up. Tali is still down there trying to get the engines back under our control."
"The thing is, I think they kind of are under our control? Like, this program seems to be part of the Normandy's backup systems, and it's definitely older than the current OS. Probably a leftover from the first SR-2's days."
"Seriously?" Donnelly spoke up, learning forward over Daniels' shoulder. She didn't push him away. "So, what, you think if we can figure out where this backup program—or VI, or whatever—is, we can just turn it off or somethin'?"
Joker huffed a sigh. "I'm not really sure. I was thinking more of re-routing it, or at least giving it a new nav point. We so do not want to be heading into the Perseus Veil without any control over the damned ship." He tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair, trying not to get sucked back into the wallowing-in-fear thing.
"Like I was saying to Gabby, I think I might have a few programs that could help translate this into English for us," Donnelly said. His omni-tool flickered as he typed. "Used to use 'em to bypass security at Afterlife."
Daniels shook her head. Apparently that comment was too inane to even warrant a scolding. "I'll see what I can do to get us a bearing on where we're going," she said, dropping to a cross-legged position beside the pilot's chair.
Joker scrubbed a hand across his eyes—he needed coffee—and brought up another virtual screen. "If you two can disable the backup VI for a few minutes, I can get us headed in the right direction." Even running on 5 hours of sleep in the past 2 days, Joker knew he could do that. Tricky manual navigation was kind of his specialty.
Half an hour later, Traynor brought up three steaming cups of coffee, and Joker thanked her with a fervency he usually reserved for ultra-rare ship mods.
Another few hours passed uneventfully. Joker's eyes burned with the effort it took to hold them open, and Donnelly and Daniels were both drooping over their omni-tools. Several coffee cups littered the bridge.
"Oh my god!" Donnelly burst out, startling everyone, "I think I found where this little worm is stashed!"
Daniels leaned over and threw her arms around Donnelly. After a second, she pulled back, her face flushed. "Ah, that's wonderful, Ken," she said, brushing her hands off on her tunic. "Can you weed it out?"
Donnelly grinned. "I've already got a quarantine set up and ready for it. Just tell me when you're ready and I'll put it in motion."
"Wonderful!" Daniels said. "Joker, I've got access to the CIC map again. You should be able to see it on your console now."
"Oh man, you guys are awesome," Joker said, smiling despite his exhaustion. "Okay, Donnelly, take her away."
With a few deft finger movements, Donnelly set his trap. The VI's warning tone faded into static as the quarantine went into effect. It was a little less alarming to see the lights on his console dim, now that he knew exactly what was happening to his ship. A little.
The bridge comm unit crackled to life. "What in the world is going on up there?" Tali asked shakily. Donnelly and Daniels had been keeping her apprised of their situation, but Joker knew how unnerving it was to have random things happening around you.
"Everything's fine up here," Joker said into the mic. "We finally got the VI into a quarantine, so I'm gonna take over. I'm aiming for the nearest relay so we can hop back to the Citadel."
"Okay," said Tali. "But be careful, alright? Let me know what happens."
"We will," all three bridge occupants replied. The relief in the room was palpable.
Or, it was, until Garrus called up. "What are you doing up there?" he asked. Joker was no expert on turian subvocals, but the big guy sounded kinda pissed. Or maybe just tired.
"We've deactivated the emergency VI," Daniels said, beating Joker to the punch. "Heading to the nearest mass relay, manually navigating."
Garrus exhaled. "Next time, let me know," he said.
"Can do," said Joker. "Hey, is, uh, is everything okay up there?" Joker had seen Garrus all but dragging Shepard into the elevator—presumably for some enforced shut-eye—not long ago.
"I'm in the Battery, and the system that I started working on shut down in the middle of a very delicate process," Garrus said. "In other words, yes, but barely. It was lucky that I'd only just gotten started."
"What are you doin' down there at this time of night?" asked Donnelly. "Thought you were off-shift hours ago, Shepard's orders."
"I was," Garrus replied. "But a crewmate needed my help. I was just about to call up, actually."
"Who?" Joker found himself asking.
When Garrus answered, "EDI," Joker just about fell out of his chair.
Author's Note: Thanks again to all you guys who are sticking with this story, and me! A lot has been happening IRL for me in the past few months, so my well of creativity was running a bit dry, there. But rest assured, I do have the rest of this story planned out. I'm expecting to finish after maybe 3-4 more chapters, at the most.
Comments/faves/constructive crit always welcomed! Thanks for reading.