“Shit, shit, shit!”
Joker swore with every step. He could feel terror threatening to claw its way up through his throat. It threatened to come out as a very undignified scream. Somehow, Joker knew that if he began screaming, he’d freeze in horror and shock, like one of the other crew members had done just three feet behind him. But if he spat out his fear in short bursts of cuss words, it was like a pipe letting off steam. This way, he could keep moving. He could even think of the words as little puffs of wind, propelling him down the deck like a push-boat.
That didn’t even make sense, Joker decided. He was clearly losing it.
A flash of movement caught his eye. The elevator slid open and something monstrous started to come out. Joker snapped his head forward again and shuffled towards the tech lab.
Don’t look , he told himself. You look, you stop, you stare, you die. Just go.
“Shit, shit, shiiiit…” Joker drew out the last word as the doors slid shut behind him. He stumbled into the lab and found the maintenance shaft. Yanking it open he heard a clicking to his left. He looked up, saw something with eyes and skulls and legs…
“You must hurry,” EDI’s calm voice reverberated through the room.
Joker forced his gaze away and crawled into the hole before him. Amazingly, nothing grabbed him as he descended into the hot crawl-space. His legs felt extremely heavy in here, however, laden down as they were with metal braces under his cargo pants.
“Hurry. You must reset me,” EDI said, her voice like cool water in the heat of the tunnel. “We do not have time to worry about anything else.”
“Right,” Joker said, grateful for the reminder, grateful to have one sane, not-screaming voice to focus on. “Right.”
A moment later, Joker dropped into the Life-Support Bay. He heard the sound of snapping bones, no doubt his right shin again. His braces held though, and it was clear he was high on adrenaline, because he didn’t feel the pain.
“This way, Joker!” A man shouted. Joker couldn’t remember the guy’s name, but he followed. “EDI told us what you’re doing,” the guy said. “I’ll cover you.”
Joker ran after the man, his clunking steps taking him slowly closer to the crew deck. The door before him slid open and Joker saw a horrible sight. A woman was screaming, being dragged into an elevator crammed full of more limbs and skulls and eyes than had any right to be stuck together in one place together. Was that…Kelly? Joker briefly registered the woman’s face before a man’s body went flying out of the elevator and struck the opposite wall. His neck snapped and he dropped, eyes now frozen in a horrified stare.
Joker didn’t know how he ended up on the other side of the elevator, but suddenly he was there, still clumsily running, his feet leading him where he needed to go even as his mind had gone blank. He could hear Kelly still screaming, and part of him was absurdly glad that he was unable to help her. He had no desire to play hero and fight those creatures. He supposed that he should feel badly about that, but he didn’t. At the moment, he had only one job to focus on and he was damn grateful for it.
“Alright,” Joker said as the doors to the AI core slid open. “I’m at…uh…you, EDI.”
A whirring to his left told him EDI had locked the doors behind him.
“You must give me access to the ship,” EDI told him, calmly, unhurriedly.
“Great,” Joker muttered, his temper flaring now that the immediate danger had passed. “This is how it all begins. We unleash the AI and then all hell breaks loose.” His fingers started whirring over the haptic display, faster than his legs could ever manage to move. “Oh, Joker, what a tool he was. Now I have to spend all my days calculating pi because he plugged in the overlord.”
But whatever his concerned, Joker knew there was nothing else to be done. He hit the final key more forcefully than needed. There was a flash, a glowing light, and suddenly EDI’s blue sphere popped up before him.
“Thank you, Jeff,” she said. “I now have control of the ship. I now need you to reconnect the main drive core.”
“Ugh,” Joker scowled. “You want me to go crawling through the vents again.”
“I enjoy the sight of humans on their knees,” EDI replied.
Joker froze, looking at the sphere in a mix of confusion and alarm.
“That was a joke,” EDI added.
“Riiight,” Joker muttered. But since there wasn’t time to wonder whether EDI had suddenly developed a sense humor or a sense of duplicity, he crawled into the maintenance shaft. This time, managed to get himself down to the room just under the engine bay without snapping any bones.
“Wait,” EDI told him as he headed for the stairs. Joker did as she asked, then shivered as another creature made of of skulls and decayed limbs wandered by at the top of the stairs, heading in the direction of the elevators. It was pushing a pod before it, and Joker could only guess who was inside. Ken, Gabby? Hell, he liked those two. Tali? No, Joker thought, Tali had been with Shepard. That was encouraging. At least someone wasn’t dead – yet. It gave Joker a glimmer of hope to think that Shepard was out there. She could return - she would return– so long as he gave her a ship to come back to.
I’m not letting this Normandy go down , Joker thought, grimly.
“Go,” EDI told him. Joker was off again, not quite like a shot, but as fast as he could go. He stumbled up the stairs, reconnected the main drive core, and all the while thanked his mother for insisting that he take all those basic engineering classes that he would just as soon have tested out of.
“Get into the engine room,” EDI told him. “I will seal you in and open the cargo bay doors to flush the ship.”
“But the crew!” Joker protested, snapped back to reality once more.
“They’re gone, Jeff,” EDI told him. Her voice sounded both firm and compassionate to his ears, a clear sign he was loosing his mind and in no position to argue.
With nothing to say to that, Joker stumbled over to the engine room. A field of energy went up behind him like a shield and the ship pitched suddenly. Joker landed on the ground, feeling several bones of his bones snap this time. The impact hurt, but not as badly as it ought have. He was probably going into shock, he realized. Funny how he kind of welcomed it. A moment later, the ship righted itself.
“We have escaped,” EDI told him.
“Call Shepard,” Joker coughed out. “She needs to know.”
With that order, Joker realized he was now acting commander of the Normandy. He suddenly felt ill. Maybe, Joker thought, if he got upstairs, he could get to the med bay before he fully succumbed to panic or shock or whatever it was that was creeping over him. His hands began to shake.
“Are you alright, Jeff?” EDI asked.
“No,” Joker mumbled, picking himself up. “But thanks for asking anyway.”
As Joker shuffled to the elevator, EDI sent out the distress call to the shuttle.
The shocked silence in the Kodiak seemed to deafen the hum of the engines. Several eyes swung to Shepard, but far more just stared into empty space. Shepard swallowed hard, not daring to analyze her feelings. It was a disaster, surely, but one that required swift action. She took a breath and unclenched her teeth before speaking:
“Survivors, EDI.” He voice came out like the cracking of a whip.
“Only Jeff remains,” EDI told her.
“Who?” Shepard frowned.
“Flight Lieutenant Jeff Moreau has removed my restrictions,” EDI explained. “We are en route to pick you up right now. We will meet you two minute and forty seconds sooner if you turn back to the following coordinates.”
“He unshackled the AI?” Miranda gasped, then her lips thinned. “Of all the stupid…”
“EDI,” Shepard said, cutting over the Cerberus officer’s words and the location EDI was now reciting. “Where is Joker now?”
“In the med bay,” EDI replied. “He has sustained multiple injuries.”
“Any Collectors left in the ship?”
“I detect no life forms but Jeff.”
“Her systems could have been damaged,” Tali murmured.
“We’ll turn around, EDI,” Shepard said. “How long until you get here?”
“Six minutes and fifty-five seconds if you meet me part way,” EDI replied promptly.
“Good,” Shepard said. “Get to us fast and we’ll take it from there.”
“Yes, Shepard,” EDI replied. A slight click let Shepard know the AI had disconnected from the comm link. Shepard looked at her crew. They all appeared to be feeling varying degrees of shock and worry, but she found that she felt nothing but a grim sort of calm.
“This was a set-up,” Garrus declared at once. “The Illusive Man must have known the ship was going to get hit. Why else would he send us out in the shuttle all together? We’ve never done things this way before.”
“He wouldn’t do that!” Miranda exclaimed. “He picked the crew himself. He wouldn’t just let them be taken.”
Garrus snorted. “Why not? He’s used people as bait before. He even used Shepard as bait and he paid how much to bring her back?”
“Something doesn’t add up,” Jacob agreed. “But I don’t know what’s what. Sacrificing an entire crew… I can believe he’d do it, but it would have to be for a damn good reason.”
“What would possibly be a good enough reason?” Tali cried, outraged. “The Normandy was his crew, his people ! A quarian would never…”
“But he’s not a goddamn quarian, is he?” Zaeed pointed out. “He’s just a bloody merc leader.”
“He’s not…” Miranda began indignantly.
“Enough!” Shepard shouted as an answering murmur threatened to take over the small space. “That’s enough. We won’t get answers speculating here. We’ll get answers on the ship, but first we have to secure it. Miranda, what’s the name of our shuttle’s pilot?”
“I-I’m Hurley, ma’am,” a wavering voice came over the comm. “Justin Hurley. I’m – oh, God – I’m the only one left.”
“We’re going to get them back, Hurley,” Shepard said firmly.
“But…I’m the only one left now. They…” There was a choking sound and Shepard immediately sprang to her feet. She threw open the door between the transport bay and the cockpit. Hurley was slumped in his chair, his Cerberus uniform crisp and pressed. He was a young kid, not more than twenty, and his eyes were wide in his babyish face.
“It was supposed to be auto-piloted,” he was muttering to himself. “But the systems had been acting funny. All that abuse from your missions, the deck commander said. I came along just to keep an eye on things. It was supposed to be her, but she wanted to have coffee with this guy from housekeeping. Oh my God…”
“Hurley,” Shepard snapped, dragging him up out of his chair, “Don’t go down that road. It’s chance, it’s random, and it sucks. We have work to do. Got it?”
His eyes swung to hers, brown and unfocused. Oh jeez , Shepard thought uncharitably. We don’t need this .
“Which of you knows how to fly a shuttle?” Shepard snapped into the other room. Several voices answered, of which she heard Tali’s first. Miranda’s voice came last, saying, “It’s got an auto-pilot mode.”
“The kid just said it’s broken,” Shepard replied. “Tali, get in here.” She motioned to the quarian and Tali immediately rose to her feet. “As we get closer to the Normandy, do a full scan of the ship’s systems – whatever you can get a good look at from the outside. If you see anything at all, any indication that EDI’s readings are wrong and the ship is compromised…”
“We get the hell out of there?” Tali suggested.
“Exactly,” Shepard nodded.
Shepard lifted Hurley by his arm and shoved him past Tali, then dropped him a little roughly onto a bench in the other room.
“Head between your legs, kid,” she told him, shoving his neck down. “Breathe.”
“Have a sedative,” Mordin suggested helpfully.
“Use it,” Shepard said. The salarian crossed to the young man and quickly administered a topical dose with his omnitool. Hurley gasped once, then his eyes slid shut and he slumped against Thane’s shoulder. The drell merely raised his eyebrows and looked askance at the sleeping pilot.
“Alright,” Shepard said briskly. “We’ve got a few minutes to plan. Mordin, when we get back, I want you and Thane to take the kid to the med bay. Check on Joker, too. I’m gonna need our pilot. Ah,” she amended, frowning at Hurley, “the senior pilot, that is. I’m assuming Dr. Chakwas is…” Shepard’s voice failed her for a moment before she took her own advice and shoved her worries aside. “Unavailable,” she finished. “Mordin, you’re our doctor for now. Thane, protect and help Mordin.”
“Understood,” Mordin said with a nod. Thane also nodded. Shepard inwardly breathed a sigh of relief, thankful for salarian’s abilty to adapt to changing situations so quickly. It was a good example to the rest of the crew.
“Alright, everyone else…” Shepard glanced around the hold, taking note of the faces. The rest of the team seemed to sit up a little straighter, eager for action. Shepard thought for a moment, then began firing off commands.
“Thane, strike your order,” she said. “Jacob, you go with Mordin and help him however you’re able. Thane and Kasumi, I need you two to check every corner of the ship – that means the vents any possible place those Collector bastards might think to hide.”
“EDI said there weren’t any life forms aboard,” Miranda pointed out.
“And her systems could be scrambled,” Shepard replied. “We aren’t taking her word for it, not until we’ve checked her out and made sure the IFF isn’t still infected. And that means Tali is going to be busy. Tali, you up for a systems scan?”
“Scrub EDI for viruses, got it,” Tali’s voice answered from the other room.
“Tali, I’m going to make it a little more complicated,” Shepard said, pitching her voice to an apologetic tone. “I want Legion to help you.”
“You want the geth to interface with the ship?” Miranda asked, her eyebrows raising. She turned and frowned at the AI, sitting stock still in the corner.
“It’s a good idea,” Jacob told Miranda.
“Legion,” Shepard said, her gaze swinging to the geth. “This is your time to prove yourself. I need my ship clean. Think you can manage that?”
“This command is clear to us,” Legion replied with a slight raising of the plates surrounding his lightbulb optics.
Shepard gave him a hard look. “I’m not taking any chances, Legion. Tali, you monitor him. If he pulls anything funny, or gets taken with a Collector virus, you end him, got it?”
“Got it,” Tali said grimly.
“We would rather our runtimes be terminated than have them rewritten by the Old Machines,” Legion stated.
“Well at least we’re all in agreement on that,” Shepard said, wryly. “Samara,” she went on, looking to the Justicaar, “You keep an eye on Tali and Legion. Do what you must if Legion and EDI can’t be salvaged. If Tali’s tech doesn’t work, you’re plan B.”
“What’s plan B?” Grunt wanted to know.
“Biotics as sledgehammer to the AI core,” Shepard replied. Grunt nodded in approval.
“It will be done,” Samara said, gravely.
“Alright,” Shepard said, looking around. “That leaves Garrus.” The turian lifted his chin eagerly. “Guns,” she said firmly. “I need to know our upgrades are going to hold. We may be needing them right away. When you’ve got the weapons calibrated, I need a full systems check of the shielding.”
“Right,” Garrus said with a nod.
“That leaves Jack, Grunt, and Zaeed,” Shepard said. She pursed her lips for a moment. She could see the tension rolling off of those three, and knew she had no outlet for them right away. Still, she had to give them something to do.
“Zaeed, I need Jacob with Mordin. You see to the armory. Check all the guns and get them set out for each member of the team. Jacob will be back later to check on your work.”
“Clean the weapons and set out the thermal clips and don’t screw it up,” Zaeed said, exchanging a glance with Jacob. “Right, I get it.”
“Jack, Grunt,” Shepard nodded at each of them in turn. “You two are on patrol. Grunt, I want you to take the engineering bay and Jack, you take the crew deck. If anyone needs backup, you’ll be the ones they call for. Be ready for a fight, but keep your energy under control. You’re going to need it later.”
Both of them nodded.
“What about me?” Miranda asked.
“You and I are going to have a chat with your boss the second we get back to the comm room,” Shepard told her. Several people gave Miranda speaking glances, but the Cerberus officer just pursed her lips and folded her arms over her chest.
“Alright,” Shepard said. “That’s everyone. When I’m certain the ship is secure, I’ll be in the comm room. I want you to stay calm, stay focused, and stay alert. I’ll give the order when you can take a break for food and rest, but until then, you stay at your stations. We may have a rescue operation underway very shortly, so I need you ready for anything.”
A murmured chorus of agreement met her words.
“Shepard,” Tali’s voice broke into the room. “The Normandy’s in sight.”
“Hail them and scan them,” Shepard replied. “And pray that Joker really is the only living thing left on board.”