Flames licked up the walls and flickered in the reflection on the main console. The pilot's chair shook with each blast, hard enough to jar his bones, but Joker couldn't tear his attention away for long enough to care.
He had to save the Normandy. Had to. Shepard was counting on him—everyone was—and if he couldn't save his ship, he deserved to go down with her.
A particularly nasty shot hit the port side, and the Normandy gave a loud metallic groan. Joker clenched his teeth. Shit. Their shields were down, and the old girl's hull wouldn't hold up to much more of this.
Then again, neither would he. The blazing heat in the cockpit was nearly too much to bear, and trickles of sweat ran down his face, blurring his vision. He swiped one hand across his eyes in an attempt to clear them. It didn't help.
Closing his eyes, he tried sending another distress call. "Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is SSV Normandy! We've suffered heavy damage from an unknown enemy." The ship shuddered at that last, and he patted the console reassuringly, desperately. "Come on, baby. Hold together. Hold together!"
Half a dozen blips on the ladar sped away from the Normandy toward the planet. Thank God; that meant at least the escape pods were still intact. Shepard and the crew were safe. Now, if only he could figure out how to keep his baby in the air for a few more minutes, maybe he could crash-land her...
An armored hand came down on his right shoulder, hard. The sharp pain got his attention. Damn, another fracture, just what he needed.
"Come on, Joker, we have to get out of here," Shepard said.
Wait, what? Why was Shepard still here? Hadn't she escaped with the others? Joker whipped around to face her. Despite the immense heat and danger of depressurization, Shepard's helmet was off, her face glistening with sweat and blood.
Another explosion rocked the ship, but Shepard didn't stagger. Joker sat, frozen, unable to respond. Something was very wrong. Why couldn't he speak? Where was his helmet? Why did it feel like he'd done all of this before?
"How could you, Joker?" Shepard's voice was reproachful, her hand on his shoulder clenching painfully. Her brows drew together in a frown. "Why didn't you save us, Joker?" she whispered, low enough that he shouldn't have been able to hear her over the sounds of destruction around them. The feeling of wrongness intensified.
"No wait, Shepard," he gasped, "I- I didn't mean to! I did the best I could!"
Shepard took her hand off his shoulder, backing away. The flames surrounding her were suddenly blindingly bright. Joker panicked. "Wait, Shepard! Don't go!" He struggled to get up, but she was faster.
"You didn't save us, Joker," she said as she faded away. "You failed. Why did you let us die, Joker? Joker?"
He couldn't let her get spaced. Not again. Not if he could save her. With one last burst of adrenaline, he surged to his feet. "NO!"
"...Joker? Are you alright?"
Joker threw an arm up to shield his watering eyes. Or rather, tried to. His right shoulder screamed in protest, though, so he abandoned the attempt and tried to sit up instead. What the heck? Was he dead? There was light everywhere but no fire, no heat. And...were those bandages around his collarbone? Where had those come from? Where the hell was Shepard? "I—"
"Oh good, you're finally awake," Chakwas interrupted, her relief quickly masked by professional briskness. "Now quit trying to talk and lie down."
Maybe Chakwas knew what had happened to Shepard. "Where..."
The doctor misunderstood. "You're in medbay. I gave you a low dose of tranquilizers earlier today, and I'm afraid it had a...rather stronger effect than expected," she said with a sympathetic wince. "I do apologize for that, by the way."
Joker pinched the bridge of his nose with his good hand and took a slow, deep breath. In, out. He was in medbay. On his ship. The fire, the attack on the Normandy...that had all been a dream. Some stupid, PTSD-fueled nightmare. Shit. Can't tell Chakwas that or she'll keep me here for a week. "Okay." Another measured breath. "Okay, yeah, I remember that," he lied.
Chakwas narrowed her eyes at him in her motherly-suspicion sort of way, but she seemed to relax a little when Joker dredged up a weak smile for her.
He had to get out of there. The sooner he found Shepard, the sooner he could figure out what was going on. "So. What's my prognosis?"
"Well," the doctor finally said, "I suppose you're fairly accustomed to broken bones, with your history. I hope that I can trust you not to put any undue stress on it?" She nodded toward his bandaged shoulder.
"Don't worry, doc, I won't mess it up any worse. Like you said, I'm used to this sort of thing." Joker's cheeks were starting to hurt from keeping his fake smile in place. "Can I go now?"
After Chakwas handed him some pain pills and made him promise to visit her if he felt too poorly, Joker was free. In a few weeks he'd be practically as good as new.
So why did he have the strange feeling that he was missing something important?
"I don't think that's a good idea, Shepard." Liara's voice was tinny, but the tension in it was obvious. "I'm not a pilot, or a navigator."
"You're the damn Shadow Broker, Liara," Shepard growled into the comm on her arm. "Make it happen. We need to know where we're going, how we're getting there, and who in the hell thinks they can take my ship right out from under me. That's an order."
Liara sighed. "I'll do my best, Commander."
Shepard cut the connection and deflated, leaning her arms against her terminal. Joker crept past her through the CIC. Shepard was apparently alive, which was good, but she looked like hell. Plus, he didn't want to eavesdrop on what was clearly a private conversation. It was an all-around good idea to pretend not to hear anything as he made his way to the cockpit. Especially not the gossipy whispers that followed him up there. There's a war on, and all you can think about is some fight or other? Jeez, people, get with the program.
He rolled his eyes and sat, resting his aching legs. Spinning lazily, he mentally readied himself for whatever problem they were facing. Shepard would likely approach him shortly to ask for his help. In the meantime, he figured he'd try to get some sleep. (It was bad form to look like a sleep-deprived crazy person in front of your commanding officer. Or anyone, really, but usually it was only Shepard who mattered.)
But as Joker tried to doze, the sense of wrongness that had been nagging at him only intensified. A couple of unfamiliar red lights were blinking at the top of his console. "Hey EDI, what's going on up here?"
"Emergency procedure one-point-zero-three in progress," a computerized voice responded. It was feminine..
Joker choked. "EDI, what the hell's going on?"
"Personality matrix disconnected," the-voice-that-was-definitely-not-EDI said flatly. "Autopilot function active."
Joker frowned for a moment, confused, until a wave of memories slapped him across the face.
He slumped in his seat as everything played out again in his mind's eye. The warning klaxons. Shepard arriving with the shuttle. And Vega, with...
Oh god, EDI.
After nearly 63.8 seconds of full-burn processing, EDI disconnected a small part of her consciousness to continue working while she checked up on the crew again. She was...curious...to see how they were getting along without her. (There may have been just enough spare RAM in her system to devote to some unreasonably organic hysteria as well. She could not, however, afford to dwell on that portion.)
Though most of her accessible cameras detected nothing out of the ordinary, the second level's westernmost sector sensed movement. A blurry humanoid figure was making its way toward Doctor Chakwas's office. Acting on what Shepard would have called a "hunch," EDI quickly blinked over to her sanctum.
The AI core doors swished open. Jeff stood in the doorway, a shaft of light from medbay shining around him and shadowing his features in darkness. His hat was pulled down low over his face. EDI, looking down at him from her security camera, couldn't make out any expression that would indicate his purpose in visiting this room. Was he searching for someone? Doctor Chakwas, perhaps?
An uncomfortable sensation tugged at EDI's brain. She identified the feeling as frustration-at her inability to communicate, to assist, to...comfort. Jeff obviously realized that EDI herself was not present in her physical body, and yet he was acting as though her lack of presence meant that she was dead.
I am not dead, Jeff! she wished to say. I am right here! I will be with you in a moment! But as hard as she willed her android form to move, to twitch, to do anything, she was forced to simply watch helplessly as her friends and crewmates mourned her. It was infuriating.
After several moments of staring at nothing, Jeff finally spoke. "I'm sorry," he whispered, too quietly for anyone but EDI's disembodied self to hear. Then he simply turned and walked away. The doors closed behind him, and the camera's connection fizzled out.
EDI wondered if he'd found what he'd been looking for. She didn't try to reactivate the camera.
Author's Note: Thanks for sticking with me, all of you! Sorry it's taken me so long to update. Real-life work always seems to get in the way of writing. I'll do my best to finish this fic before too long! Next chapter begins with a bit more angst, but then we'll get to the GOOD stuff, heh heh.