At the Helm

Part 3, Chapter 8 of Valkyrie

“So this new Normandy - It’s the Valkyrie’s ride,” Joker said. “Get it? The Ride of the Valkyrie?”

Shepard raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, okay,” he said, raising his hands. “It’s bad.”

Shepard chuckled. Joker had not changed a bit. The fact he was very much the same made her feel relaxed for the first time since this whole debacle had begun. Even now, sitting there in his helmsman’s seat, he looked exactly as she remembered: scruffy beard, ratty baseball cap… Truly, she didn’t know how he had managed to break in the Cerberus cap so badly. It looked four years old, not four months old.

“And see,” he said, patting the arm of his chair. “Leather seats!”

“Glad to see you’re keeping this all in perspective, Joker,” she told him. “Evil Cerberus can be forgiven if they make the seats out of leather.”

“Well, duh,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Shifty-looking cows were meant to be turned into upholstery.”

Shepard smiled and shook her head. She had walked all over the ship in the last few hours, meeting the entire crew, seeing to the stations. She had poked her nose into every place in the ship – even the men’s restrooms, though EDI, the AI on the ship, had quickly shooed her out.

And after seeing the whole ship, she felt…conflicted. She didn’t trust Cerberus, but her initial reaction was that she did trust the crew. At least, most of them. She found them to be…decent. No, good even. The engineering crew had stood up for her after she died. She had never even known them and they’d been willing to risk a court-martial for her. Dr. Chakwas had left the Alliance to join her – Joker, too. Even the chirpy Yeoman Kelly Chambers seemed – well, misguided, but well-meaning. Shepard was having trouble reconciling this crew with the crazies who had carried out the projects she’d stopped when fighting Cerberus all those years ago.

And as she walked the ship, she also was hearing reports about what the Alliance and Council had done to her reputation after her death that troubled her. She wasn’t personally offended, just…disturbed that they would so deliberately ignore the facts. Well, hell, she thought, they had ignored the facts about Saren. But you’d think a Reaper attacking the Citadel would change things. Apparently not.

But there was still plenty to give her pause about Cerberus. First of all, the AI, though personable, had clearly told her that it was using surveillance systems in every area of the ship. Shepard realized she was being monitored at every turn. Aside from the very obvious problem of things like dressing and bathing, there was the sense that she couldn’t say or do anything that might tip her hand to Cerberus. In her life, she had always taken comfort in rare moments of privacy, being able to set aside the warrior persona and just be…herself.

But these people had brought her back to play the warrior, and she didn’t want them to see the woman inside. She was in the weaker position here, in spite of her role as commanding officer. Until she could take back her life on her own terms, she didn’t feel comfortable at all. She would have to be careful.

So feeling torn between a grudging admiration of some of the crew and uneasiness about her role here, she had finally come to the helm to speak with Joker. She had unwittingly wandered in to an argument between him and the AI. After asking the AI about its – or maybe, her self – the thing called itself a she, Shepard had turned to ask Joker about how things were going. The helmsman seemed inclined to tease, but not to talk. He had plenty to say about the leather seats and shutter controls, but avoided all discussion of the past.

“So how’s the rest of the old crew doing?” Shepard asked at last. Maybe if she was more direct, he wouldn’t be able to avoid her questions. She was, however, very conscious of the blue sphere that represented the AI’s presence in the room. Joker slanted a glance towards it as well before replying, “Ah, well, they broke up, commander. We were your crew. The Alliance just…sealed files, shut everything away. There’s not much to say.”

“I see,” Shepard nodded. She wanted to ask about Kaidan, but in front of the AI and any monitoring devices it had on, she decided not to.

“Alen…” Joker broke off. “All of the crew really missed you. I mean…” he paused again. “Hell, we fell apart without you.” He fell silent and turned away.

“Okay,” Shepard nodded. She wasn’t going to press this. “Fair enough. Set a course for the Citadel, Joker.”

“The Citadel?” Joker blinked and looked back over his shoulder at her. “Why?”

“I need to tell the Council I’m alive,” she said. When Joker looked astounded, she said, “I’m still an Alliance woman at heart. I’m going to make that as clear as I can.”

“Okaaay, commander,” Joker said, slowly. He thought about it for a moment, then added, “But you know, I don’t think…” But when he turned to look at her, Shepard had walked away.

Joker scowled as he turned back to the computer before him.

He wanted to talk to Shepard, really, he did. It was just that he had never been good at talking-type stuff before and he had gotten worse at it over the last two years. He had loosened up around the crew of the old Normandy, gotten along with Alenko, in particular. But now, after spending over a year being grounded, bored, and often drunk, he didn’t quite know what to say to the woman who had saved his life and lost her own in the process.

Really, Joker thought, how did you apologize for something like that? It was unsettling enough just to have Shepard back. She looked all the worse for wear with those scars and without any hair. If he needed a constant reminder of what he’d done to her, there it was. So even though he knew he’d screwed up big time, he just couldn’t bring himself to talk about it. It didn’t help that in the past, Alenko had made sure that Joker felt like complete shit every time the two had met. Garrus and Wrex and the rest of the crew hadn’t been much better. They had left him alone in his guilt for years.

And now, even if he could have found the words to say, he wasn’t about to say them in front of the snippy AI who was watching his every move.

So because he didn’t know how to say he was sorry, Joker resolved to keep Shepard alive. If he could helm this ship better than the last time, he’d be able to make up for the past.

And he could help in other ways, too. After all, he had sent Alenko a message just before he left on this mission. Hopefully, Joker thought, that message might start to set things right on that front as well. Though he did hope Alenko liked his women bald.

Kaidan looked at the message again, wondering what on earth it meant.

Alenko -

I know you blame me. But I’m gonna make it up to you. I can’t say more right now, in case this account is being watched. But I’ll bring her back to you.

- Joker

The address was one Kaidan hadn’t recognized. He had almost deleted the message, except that the subject line in the inbox had caught his eye:

Hey, Alenko-Dickhead. Message from Joker – read it!

Annoyed, he had opened the message, then read it about four times.

Who was Joker bringing back, exactly? Kaidan wondered. In another life, he would have assumed Joker meant the Normandy, but the ship was long gone. There was another possibility, but Kaidan really didn’t want to think about that. Kaidan sincerely hoped Joker hadn’t gone on a quest with Liara to bring back Shepard’s body. He had no desire to see that sight – now or ever.

He closed his extranet account, paid for the use of the public terminal, then stood and walked to the nearest transit station. He was already late for meeting Dean at the club. Checking his mail had taken longer than he expected. He had more mail than he expected this time, though the fact that he’d cleared up two months of message in less than two hours was a tribute to how few people he spoke to these days. To hear from someone from the old crew was especially strange.

Well, Kaidan thought, whatever Joker was up to, he didn’t want anything to do with it. At this point, he was ready to just leave his old life behind and pretend it never happened. And yet, even as Kaidan thought that, he looked out at a view of the wards from a nearby window and a host of memories came flooding back. The scene reminded him instantly of talking with Shepard at a similar vantage point. Once he had said something stupid about old vids and love, another time, they had both been a little drunk and talked about the past. The last such conversation, he had tried to convince her that they should stay apart and act as if they were nothing more than officers. The resolution to ‘take a break’ had lasted all of one week. It had been one of the longest weeks of Kaidan’s life.

Kaidan frowned as he tried to push those thoughts from his mind. He was trying to leave those memories behind, he told himself.

Too bad the memories never wanted to cooperate.

Councilor Anderson sat at his desk in his office. He frowned at his computer as he read the message once more.

[Sender classified] Confirmed that Commander Shepard is working with Cerberus. Unclear if she has been with them these past two years, or has been operating independently before now. Recommend caution when dealing with her. Motives unknown.

Anderson frowned.

Shepard working with Cerberus. So the rumors were true.

He had been hearing them for months now, whispered in corners, flowing through the ranks. It seemed that everyone had heard it, but no one knew who from – and no one had actually seen her. It was as if someone was feeding them information, he thought. And he had a feeling that Cerberus was behind that intel.

But now one of the council’s own Spectres had uncovered the same information. Shepard was alive, she was on a ship that sounded suspiciously like the old Normandy, and had been seen fueling up said ship somewhere near Omega.

For her to be that far out in the traverse, working with Cerberus… It was troubling.

Anderson had always trusted Shepard before. He had been her mentor – and she had been his chance to make up for his mistakes with the Spectres. He hadn’t made the cut, but he thought if he helped her to do so, he could provide humanity with the hero it needed – the hero that he had not quite been.

In return for his trust, Shepard had gone beyond his expectations. She had secured humanity’s survival and given humanity a place of power in the galaxy. She had put him on the Council, given him the chance to make a difference for humanity. Much as he disliked the paperwork, he was honored by her choice.

And then, after she had done all of that, she vanished. He had lost a lot of face when she was reported dead. Soon her name was drug through the dirt, her visions of the Reapers mocked in every corner. Books had been written about it, whole vids dedicated to smearing her name. And with her downfall, his own reputation took a beating.

It angered him, but Anderson had learned long ago that anger didn’t help anyone. Action did. And so, rather than sit back and wait to gather more intel, he decided to write to her. He wanted to hear from Shepard what was going on. He wasn’t one to believe anything until he had seen her for himself.

He knew Shepard’s old address. He just wondered if she’d be checking it.