Jeff “Joker” Moreau held out a hand to the lieutenant as he came walking in to the cockpit.
“I heard you were assigned to this mission. Ready to shake this ship down?”
“Nice to see you, too, Joker,” Kaidan replied. He started to grab Joker’s hand in the rough handshake typical of the Marines, then caught himself. Shepard could handle his grip, but he knew Joker could not. The helmsman had Vrolick’s Syndrome, brittle bone disease. Though Joker had never told Kaidan this, Kaidan had heard the rumors shortly after meeting the guy. Kaidan paused awkwardly, then lightly tapped Joker on the arm by way of greeting.
“So we’re finally working together?” Kaidan asked.
“At long last,” Joker replied, seeming not to notice the lieutenant’s maneuvering. “‘Bout time, huh?”
“Heh,” Kaidan said. “I figured I’d get stuck with you eventually.”
“Gee, thanks,” Joker said. “More like me stuck with you . Hey, long as you’re up, can you re-configure that navigating station over there? Idiots were thinking I’d be jumping out of this chair or something when they separated the interfaces. I’ve been complaining all week and no one’s done a damn thing about it.”
“Sure thing,” Kaidan said. He opted not to point out that with any other helmsman, getting out of the chair occasionally would be considered a matter of routine. He knew the guy well enough to know that there were some things you just didn’t tease him about.
“So what do you think of the crew?” Joker asked as Kaidan settled himself into the chair to Joker’s right. “They all here yet?”
“Yeah, they’re all here,” Kaidan replied, trying not to think overmuch about one officer in particular. “The last one arrived over an hour ago.” Kaidan eyed Joker askance. “Wait a minute. You’ve been on this ship for over a week. You didn’t bother to go meet anyone?”
“Huh?” Joker looked up from his screen. “What? I met a few. Look, if they wanna meet me, they can come up here. If they don’t, I don’t care.” He shrugged.
“Right,” Kaidan nodded. He sensed this might be an uncomfortable line of questioning. Then again, maybe Joker really didn’t care if he was stuck up here away from the rest of the crew. Either way, Kaidan decided to change the subject.
“Been working much?” he asked.
“Every damn day,” Joker said happily. “Last mission was on a cruiser – big ol’ boat – but they pulled me almost two weeks ago to come get a handle on this baby. Took me just one day to fall in love.” He smiled and patted the armrest of his seat. “Took me about two days to get the hang of her. She’s that tricky to fly. Good thing they called me in. Anyone else would still be learning the ropes.”
Kaidan chuckled and shook his head. Joker was just as cocky as he remembered.
“So what have you been up to since tech training?” Joker asked. “Special assignments and all that?”
“Yeah,” Kaidan replied, “I…” He broke off as a shimmer of energy flickered across his consciousness. He might have likened it to seeing something out of the corner of his eye, only he didn’t see anything exactly. But he knew what it was right away. Turning to look over his shoulder, he saw her.
She was standing near the CIC, arms rigid behind her back. Before her, Navigator Presley was talking to her, gesturing wildly as he spoke. Shepard barely batted an eyelash. Damn , Kaidan thought, watching her stand so stiff and formal. She certainly was a cold one.
But then, for the briefest moment, Kaidan got the distinct impression she was watching him. Then he blinked and saw she was still looking at the navigator. Kaidan shook his head. He must have imagined it.
Kaidan frowned. This whole attraction to…no, not attraction. This *awareness * of Shepard was very strange. He had never in his life been able to sense another biotic from such a distance. His powers of observation must be getting stronger. Or Shepard was a stronger biotic than he’d ever met. Or both. Or he was watching out for her.
Best not to dwell on that last one, he thought. Kaidan turned back to the control panel to find Joker staring at him. The helmsman’s face was pinched into something like a grimace.
“What. The hell . Was that?” Joker asked, breaking the sentence down for emphasis.
“What was what?”
“Alenko, I may not be much of a people person,” Joker said, “But I know what it looks like when a guy is checking out some chick.”
“That “chick” is our commanding officer,” Kaidan informed him.
“So it was the commander you were staring at just now.”
“Ah…” Damn . He’d run headlong into that one.
“How long has it been since you had a real shore leave, man?”
“You really want to go there, Joker?” Kaidan said lightly. “I mean, if the rumors about your extranet accounts are true…”
“Alright, alright,” Joker growled. “Stare at whatever ass you like, just don’t do it around me. Ugh. You people who walk with your…checking out asses and stuff.” He shuddered.
Kaidan had to laugh. He’d been caught in the act of staring at Shepard, it was true, but Joker had a way of making it all sound humorous. That was what Kaidan liked about Joker: the helmsman had the uncanny ability to turn even the most serious situation into something you could laugh about later.
Kaidan remembered how Joker had been one of the few people in training who hadn’t taken one look at him and then walked away. Kaidan had heard the whispers: If he’s got biotics, then why is he studying tech? Can’t he just blow the enemy up? But Joker had plunked himself down in the chair next to Kaidan’s that day and talked Kaidan’s ear off for the next three weeks. Kaidan supposed it was because both he and Joker knew what it was like to be something of an Alliance misfit.
“Joker,” Captain Anderson’s voice sounded on the comm. Joker jumped a little in his seat.
“It’s time to hit the Charon relay. Are all systems ready?”
“Been idling for over an hour now, sir,” Joker said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “Do we finally have enough crew members on board for you?”
Kaidan shook his head. Only a pilot as good as Joker could get away with talking like that to an officer like Anderson.
“Get us moving, Joker. You know the coordinates.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Joker said. Kaidan glanced over at him in curiosity.
“So where are we going?”
“Bah, not allowed to say,” Joker said, tapping virtual keys on the VI interface before him. The walls seemed to pitch slightly as the momentum dampeners kicked in, marking the shift between using the station’s artificial gravity and that of the ship’s. “We’ll be there soon enough.”
Kaidan paused in his configuration of the station before him and turned to gaze out of the starboard bow. The docking bay ceiling seemed far too close for one second, then they were out into the vast expanse of sky. The stars glittered coldly up above. Below, Kaidan could only see the faintest crescent outline of Earth below.
“Alright,” Joker said. “Coming up on your left is Mars, known for its ruins and not a hell of a lot else. And to your right…” Kaidan chuckled as Joker gave a running commentary of the solar system as they passed. The ship sped by Jupiter, Neptune, then picked up speed as they left the planets behind. The ship’s kinetic barriers flickered to life as they reached the termination shock. Comets and debris abounded out here, but Joker slipped through the rocky maze with an uncanny grace.
They soon reached the demoted planet of Pluto. Where its moon had once been was now something else entirely. The frozen ice of Charon had, over twenty years ago, been thawed to reveal a dormant alien machine inside. Using that incredible technology, the human race had jumped into the vast network of point-to-point mass relays that connected all the space-faring races of the galaxy. They had thus discovered that the human race was not alone in the galaxy, and soon passed beyond their own solar system and out into the unknown. To Kaidan’s eyes, the mass relay looked like a great glowing needle, pointing out to any one of many possible journeys.
“Hitting the relay in three, two, one…” Joker counted down as he directed the ship into the giant structure’s rotating hub. There was a pulse of energy, a flash of light, and then the ship was drifting in empty space once more.
“Systems, check. Navigation, check…” Joker ran down the list of functions, smugly noting that nothing was out of place. Nihilus nodded curtly and left. Kaidan turned with some surprise. He had been so distracted by watching the jump that hadn’t even noticed that Shepard and the turian Spectre had come to stand behind the pilot’s chair.
“I hate that guy,” Joker muttered to himself as Nihilus walked away.
“Nihilus gave you a compliment - so you hate him?” Kaidan asked, raising an eyebrow. As he looked at Joker, he couldn’t help but let his eyes rest on Shepard. She didn’t even glance Kaidan’s way. She was looking at the view of the stars, her expression inscrutable.
“We’re in the Exxodus Cluster, if you couldn’t tell,” Joker told him. “Twenty minutes out from Eden Prime and I have no idea what a Spectre would want with that colony. Just another reason that I don’t think…”
“Status report,” Captain Anderson’s voice barked from the comm. Joker stopped his grumbling about Nihilus to relay the systems information to Anderson. And Kaidan took the opportunity to watch Shepard from the corner of his eye. She still hadn’t moved and her face still showed no emotion. Kaidan also felt that she was controlling her biotics very closely now. They were little more than a low hum. That surprised him, for it meant she had a lot more control over her powers than he had first thought. Very few biotics could do that. It was…intriguing.
Kaidan frowned and turned his head away. Intriguing was a distraction at best, a liability at the worst. He really didn’t need these kinds of thoughts running through his head right now. His career depended upon getting along with his commanding officers and keeping things professional and above board. Shepard was fascinating, sure, but he needed to get his interest in check. And he would do just that, starting now.
“Tell Anderson, I’m on my way,” Kaidan heard Shepard say. He looked up to see her turn and walk away. As she headed back down the crew deck towards the CIC, Kaidan realized that her jumpsuit looked just as good from the back as from the front.
What was that about getting your interest in check?
Kaidan winced and turned around just in time to see that Joker was staring at him, frowning.
“You gonna make that a habit?” the helmsman asked.
“She’s gonna toss your sorry ass across the deck, Alenko. That woman has a reputation.”
“Really?” Kaidan could not help asking. “How so?”
“I heard that the last guy who tried to get fresh with her ended up in a medbay.”
“A medbay?” Kaidan asked, doubtfully. “That sounds a little extreme.”
“Apparently the guy didn’t take no for an answer,” Joker said. “Tried to corner her when no one was around and got his ass busted by her biotics.”
“Sounds like he got what was coming to him,” Kaidan muttered. Jackasses like that made him furious. They gave all Marines a bad name. He felt oddly glad to hear that Shepard had given at least one such idiot something to think about.
“Maybe so,” Joker shrugged. “Still, Shepard is known for being deadly to people who piss her off.”
“Then I won’t piss her off,” Kaidan replied evenly. Joker snorted.
“She doesn’t seem the sort to fly off the handle at just anything,” Kaidan observed. He knew he really shouldn’t be indulging in gossip like this, but curiosity was getting the better of him.
“She’s not, from what I hear,” Joker said, twisting his head around to see her chatting up Doctor Chakwas. “I had a buddy who worked with her once. Said she’s a good officer, someone you never question. But she’s not someone you mess with. She was all cold as ice until one day, he saw her in action and damn it if she didn’t rip some slaver a new one.”
“What did she do?”
“What didn’t she do? The guy lived, apparently. Ended up in a turian jail. Bet the poor bastard probably wishes she’d killed him.”
“Hmm…” Kaidan turned his attention back to the monitor, before he started asking for even more information about the XO. Less than three hours ago, he mused, he didn’t even know who Shepard was. Now he was indulging in scuttlebutt just to find out a few scraps of information about her. This wasn’t at all like him, he thought.
But it was because she was a biotic, he told himself – and a war hero. It was curiosity, pure and simple. He just wanted to know if she’d be a good officer. As soon as he got used to working with her and things fell into a routine around the ship, he wouldn’t be so interested.
*You’ve been telling yourself a lot of bullshit today, Alenko, * he thought.
Kaidan frowned and turned his attention back to the monitor. In a few short minutes, he got it set up so that Joker could access the systems from his own VI panel.
“Thanks, buddy,” Joker said. “I could have done it myself, but I’m sorta busy.”
“Yeah right,” Kaidan snorted. “My tech has always been better than yours.”
“You’d like to think that, but I…” Joker broke off and frowned. “What the hell?”
“What?” Kaidan had stood. Now he bent over Joker’s chair as a video distress call flashed on the screen.
“Get down!” The blurry image of a marine filled the screen. The woman shoved the camera to the ground and aimed an assault rifle at the sky. Sounds of gunfire and screams echoed over the comm.
“We are taking heavy casualties!” the message scratched out. “Repeat, heavy casualties!” The image flickered between the marines and something else – some strange something that filled the screen. It looked like a ship, the way it hovered in the air, only it was like no ship Kaidan had ever seen. Just to look at it set every hair on Kaidan’s neck standing on end.
“Shit,” Joker hissed.
“Send it to the captain,” Kaidan commanded, going into superior officer mode at once. “That feed is coming from Eden Prime.”
“Yeah,” Joker said, looking a little shaken. “Yeah, you’re right.” He hit the comm button. “Captain, you’d better see this…”
As Joker fed the video to the screen in the comm room at the other side of the ship, Kaidan turned at once to go.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Joker called after him.
“Suiting up,” Kaidan called back. “If they send in a ground team, then Shepard’s going to need me.”