“Are you going to answer me?”
Silence filled the white-walled room.
“This would be much easier if you would talk. More effective, too.”
“What? ‘We have ways of making you talk’ and all that shit? Forget this, I’m done.” The man sat up as if to rise, then grunted in pain.
“Lie down, lieutenant. We have more to talk about.”
With a grimace, the man fell onto his back once more.
“Damn it.” He scrubbed his face. “Alright,” he said, pulling his baseball cap over his face. “Wake me when my hour’s up.”
The prim woman frowned from her chair, re-crossed her legs and tried another tack.
“Flight Lieutenant Moreau -”
“Flight Lieutenant Moreau ,” she said sharply. “You have avoided your sessions here to the point that your superiors have intervened. You have acted very flippant when we talk…”
“Still wishing you’d taken me up on my offer?” Joker asked with a grin. He still didn’t take the cap off his face, but his tongue darted out to lick his lips. The woman’s frown deepened.
“And your lab results came back far above the allowed limit,” she finished.
“Aw, come on,” Joker frowned. “A drink or two off-duty doesn’t hurt anyone.”
“There’s far more in you than drink,” the woman said. Joker just shrugged. The doctor waited for a moment more, then sighed.
“Lieutenant, all indications are that you’ve suffered a great deal of trauma and are suffering from survivor’s guilt as well. If you don’t talk about this…”
“Now that’s where you’re wrong,” Joker interrupted, leaving his hat over his face. “I don’t feel guilty about what happened. I don’t feel shit about it. People died. My ship got blown to hell and it was all a goddamn mess. I don’t feel anything about any of it. It’s over and done and I can’t do anything about it.”
“Look,” Joker said, pushing back his hat and rolling onto his side. “I’ll tell you what I really need right now. Right now, I gotta shit and it’s a long way to the toilets from your office. Unless you want me to use the wastebasket or something, but I warn you, Alliance rations do a number on my stomach.”
The doctor glared again briefly before schooling her features into calm. “You’re deliberately trying to provoke me.”
“Lieutenant, your commanding officer died trying to save you…”
“And I tried to die going down with the ship like the pilot’s supposed to do. Shepard took that away from me. She screwed it all up by dying on us.”
“So you blaming the commander for what happened?” The doctor asked, her voice suspiciously neutral.
“What the fuck is this?” Joker snapped. “Judge and jury?”
“I am making no judgment,” the woman replied. “I am merely wondering whom you are judging – Shepard, or yourself?”
Snapping his hat off, Joker hauled himself to his feet.
“Fuck you,” he told her. The doctor blinked at him. Joker scowled, then slammed his hat back on his head and headed for the door.
“We’re not done here, Lieutenant,” the doctor told him.
“First,” he said, turning around as quickly as he could manage, “it’s Joker . Second, I don’t care what the brass says about me needing these sessions. I need this like I need a flight of stairs to run up and down every day. Go play Freud with someone else, lady. I’m done with this.”
“Off to the Wards again?” the woman asked, raising an eyebrow.
“The therapy’s a hell of a lot better down there,” he replied.
With that, Joker hauled himself out of the door and headed for the nearest transport station. As he hobbled along, he could feel his temper rising.
Goddamn shrink, he thought. She was hot, too. Thought I might have a chance with her. But she’s as bad as the rest of them.
Joker saw the transport station appear around a corner, about 50 meters away. Sometimes, he wished the Citadel wasn’t so big. Because now, from here to there, and all through the cab ride, and all the way from the Ward stop to the nearest bar, he was going to be thinking about this latest accusation to be thrown in his face.
Joker couldn’t decide what stung more: the veiled accusations from strangers, the “polite” disinterest of therapists and investigators, or the bitter loathing of his former friends. At least Alenko had been completely up front his disgust – Garrus, too. Their anger had been like a knife that went in to his gut and came out cleanly. But these endless evaluations were like being pricked with envenomed needles.
Step. Step. Step.
Joker tried not to think as the transport station plodded slowly closer, but he couldn’t help but remember. Damn the shrink for that.
He should have gone down with the ship, he thought, clinging to that idea as if it were his lifeline. He should have gone down with the ship. It was a fitting end for a pilot – especially one like him. He’d always known with his condition that his ship was his surrogate body. If the ship died, he died – that was the simple and inescapable truth.
But Shepard screwed that up. She came to “save” Joker, when he only wanted the chance to pull the Normandy out of the ashes. And then Shepard died – the one they needed most of all.
Even after all this time, Joker couldn’t summon up guilt over Shepard’s death – not guilt like the therapists thought he had, not guilt like his old friends thought he should have. He felt angry about the attack on the Normandy – confused, too, because the Alliance still didn’t know what had hit them. He felt a crushing sense of disappointment in himself that he hadn’t been more alert, faster at the helm, that he hadn’t kept his wits about him when arguing with Shepard, that he hadn’t realized that enemy ship was coming back for the killing blow until it was too late.
But none of that was guilt, exactly. It was frustration, anger, and disgust, but it wasn’t guilt. Because Joker had never felt that he ought to be sorry for what he had done. After all, if he’d had it to do over, he would have done exactly the same thing. He would have stayed in that cockpit, only this time, he would have jettisoned the pilot’s escape pod so that Shepard would have believed he’d already escaped. What he wanted more than anything was a chance to go back in time and pilot the Normandy just a little better. He was sure he could have saved them all. He just needed a second chance to do so.
But that was ridiculous of course. There was no second chance, so why even bother thinking about it? Joker slammed his hand down on the transport kiosk as hard as he dared, then adjusted his hat as he waited for a taxi to show up.
*Just a few minutes away from real therapy, thank God, * Joker thought desperately. No more of this introspecting like some pussy. Just gonna get smashed, and in a few weeks, they’ll give me a new posting and I can get away from this metal hell.
Joker told himself that every time he headed for the clubs. And by now, he almost believed it.
“So then I said, ‘You must really like volcanoes, commander.’ And she said, ‘I fucking hate volcanoes.’ I swear, that was the only time I ever heard Shepard…uh…swear.”
“I was present for this conversation, Mr. Moreau,” EDI informed the pilot. “I ran diagnostics for the damage to the Hammerhead for over two hours, if you remember.”
“Oh, right.” Joker said. He paused for a moment, then added. “You’re not much fun EDI, you know that?”
“I am not programmed to be fun,” EDI replied.
“Yeah, but I mean, you don’t act like…people.”
“I have simulated emotions,” EDI replied. “But primarily I am needed for a more logical capacity. And right now, I am trying to get the IFF online. Your attempts at humor are not helping our progress.”
“Oh yeah,” Joker rolled his eyes. “This is a *great * plan. Let’s put freaky alien technology into our systems without knowing what it does and let’s send the commander off the shuttle while we do it. Somehow, it reminds me of this one organization I used to hear stuff about. They used to get up to all kinds of crazy shit. What were they called again? Oh, that’s right: Cerberus.”
“Your sarcasm is not helping, Mr. Moreau. Please help me monitor the heat-dispersion systems.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Joker grumbled. “Sure thing mom.”
Joker rolled his eyes and got to work bringing up the relevant screens. He supposed it was stupid of him to keep trying to get a rise out of the ship’s AI, but he couldn’t help himself. When EDI appeared to get irritated with him, she felt more, well, human. That weirded him out a lot less than when she was simply watching him and waiting to offer her perfect calculations and logical advice.
“Is there something wrong, Mr. Moreau?” EDI asked. Joker jumped a little in his seat.
“I have asked you twice now to give me access to the crew deck diagnostics.”
“Oh,” Joker shook his head. “Right.” He made a motion in the air as if tossing the holographic screen aside. It slid to his left, then faded as EDI’s blue sphere appeared to absorb it.
“You know,” he muttered. “She’s right.”
“I beg your pardon?” EDI asked politely.
“This doesn’t feel right,” Joker said.
“What feels wrong?” EDI asked him. “Is there something wrong with the haptic display?”
“No,” Joker shook his head. “Not ‘feels’ with my fingers. Feels, like…like…” He threw his hands up in the air. “Shepard didn’t want this anymore than I wanted…”
He broke off, then looked to the empty chair to his right. None of the Cerberus crew were checking the navigation systems, so the cockpit was empty but for him and EDI’s ever-present voice.
“Alenko would have called this ship a bad copy, too,” he said at last. Before EDI could respond to that, he turned back to his own station.
“Never mind me, EDI,” he said. “Let’s just get this program scrubbed and installed before the commander gets back with her band of crazies in tow.”
Shepard let her head loll back against the uncomfortable backrest. Considering how much the Illusive Man had paid for the Normandy, she thought he could have gone in for something other than pleather and hard foam to make the seats of the Kodiak shuttle. She desperately wished to drop off to sleep in truth, but since she had to keep the peace among her irritable ground team, she knew she’d have to settle for merely closing her eyes and resting. Tali sat to her right, fiddling with her omnitool and from time to time her suit. Shepard didn’t recognize the schematics, but it appeared that Tali was checking her suit’s temperature. Shepard didn’t know how warm quarians were supposed to be, but Tali seemed to be displeased with the results.
Across the shuttle, Jack was playing with a butterfly knife, quickly flipping it open and closed. The only person not annoyed by this was Zaeed. Miranda watched Jack anxiously, looking ready to explode, Garrus was shifting against the bench as if his every plate was pinching him. Even the unflappable Samara looked tense. Only Kasumi was smiling, and that was because she’d withdrawn into her graybox the moment the shuttle door had closed.
“Are we there yet?” Grunt grumbled. It wasn’t the first time he had asked this question. Shepard willed herself to keep her eyes closed and act as if she were asleep – or at least aloof. No one else answered him either.
“Battlemaster?” Grunt asked, shifting his great weight.
“Grunt,” Shepard said, not moving anything but her lips. “You have an omnitool equipped with military grade mapping software. Use it.”
“I…” Grunt started to say something, then stopped.
“Don’t know how, baby krogan?” Jack paused long enough in her knife flipping to ask him.
“I can use my ‘tool,” Grunt growled at her.
“Oooh-hoo,” Jack laughed. “Can you now? Learned how from a bunch of krogan bitches, or so I hear.”
Shepard could practically feel Grunt’s anger rising.
“Jack,” Shepard said, her tone completely flat. “Knock it off.”
“None of us want to hear about that ,” Garrus muttered in a dark undertone.
“Do you need help configuring your omnitool?” Mordin asked. When Grunt scowled at the salarian, Mordin went on cheerfully, “Understand you are a big, strong warrior. Physically a battlemaster, and all. But mentally, are child-like. Adolescent, rather,” he amended when Grunt looked ready to launch himself across the small space.
“Grunt,” Shepard said, cracking open only one eye to glare at the krogan. “Calm down.”
Grunt sat back, frowning deeply. “My omnitool is busy,” he said, defensively.
“Busy?” Miranda asked, clearly unable to contain her curiosity. “Busy doing what?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Grunt said, quickly.
“He’d downloading a video on shark attacks via the nearby extranet bouy,” Kasumi said, startling everyone. She still hadn’t taken the graybox off of her eyes and her face glowed eerily under her hood.
“How can you see his omnitool from all the way over there?” Garrus wanted to know.
Kasumi grinned and let the graybox dim. “I keep track of what everyone is doing,” she said, eyes twinkling. “And what they’re downloading,” she added. Then, for some strange reason, she turned and gave a wolfish grin to Jacob. The lieutenant blanched and quickly looked out the window.
“Alright people,” Shepard said, feeling testy and tired and admittedly rather curious about what Jacob was watching in his downtime. If his extranet browsing habits were anything like Joker’s, she had a good guess.
“We’ve battled most of the mercs in the Terminus,” Shepard said, “dropped enough geth to make the heretics hurt and we’ve faced the Collectors often enough to learn their weaknesses. Let’s not tear each other apart on a simple shopping trip to Omega.”
“We get to go shopping?” Tali looked up, her voice bright. “Really? Because I hear that in some of the less legal places in the Terminus you can get this omnitool upgrade that…”
“We have nothing more in the budget,” Miranda cut in. “Even with Shepard’s agreement on Illium, our new armor cost us quite a few credits. And that was after we used up all our credits upgrading the ship.”
“Wait. What agreement on Illium?” Garrus asked. His forehead plates drew together and his mandibles flared. “Shepard, I warned you not to sign anything…”
“I didn’t,” she said quickly, glaring at Miranda and then Kasumi to keep quiet. “Nothing binding.”
“True,” Kasumi laughed. “I’d say it was all hanging loose, really.”
“Goto,” Shepard said warningly.
“Shepard…?” Garrus looked quite worried now.
“Garrus, there are no lasting obligations on me or any of us,” Shepard said. That much was true. “Look, everyone, this is going to be a simple trip to pick up items for the Illusive Man. I know nothing more than that and that he dictated we all go. Now, I understand we’re all antsy, but you’re all warriors. Deal with the wait time and focus your energy on our mission. It’s coming up fast.”
“Yeah,” Jack muttered. “Faster than we’d all like.”