You know, Kaidan, I’ve been so many backwater planets, but I’ve rarely been to any homeworlds.
I went to Earth once, to get my assignment for the SR1, actually. It was strange. All my life, even before Mindoir, I’ve always had this itching feeling. I felt like there must be some place out there, beyond the next star system, maybe, that was the place where I needed to get to. I always thought it was Earth – that some genetic memory was making me want some place that hadn’t been terraformed so humans could live on it.
But when I got to Earth, I swear that feeling of longing grew stronger. And it occurred to me that maybe what was I was looking for wasn’t really a place at all.
Shepard gripped the back of Joker’s chair, her knuckles no doubt white under her gloves, while Miranda had tumbled back into one of the other seats in the cockpit. The entire ship seemed to scream around them, but EDI’s voice merely said: “Drive core electrical charges reaching critical levels.”
“Rerouting,” Joker said, his hands flying over the haptic display with precision and grace.
As Shepard clung to his chair, she desperately wished there was something she could do, some button to push or something to shoot that would make this horrific journey through the relay end. But this, she knew, was where her skills didn’t count for squat. This was Joker’s battlefield – and EDI’s – and all she could do was hope she’d spent enough credits on the ship’s upgrades to keep the Normandy together.
“Brace for deceleration,” EDI warned.
Suddenly, the ship punched through the mess of rubble and out into a clear space.
“Oh shiiiit!” Joker hissed. A wall of debris barricaded their path. Shepard could do nothing but cling to his chair as the ship pitched nearly vertical. Energy to the ship’s gravity systems had clearly been re-routed to the main drive core, because she felt the vertigo at once. Belatedly, she wished she’d thought to strap herself into the chair beside her. She felt her feet leave the floor, felt her body flare in reflex, trying to right itself. Then, her weight returned with a welcome crush of gravity. Shepard stumbled to her feet. Joker leaned back in his chair with a sigh of relief.
“Too close,” he said.
Shepard nodded in agreement – and then she looked out of the window.
“My God,” she whispered.
The galactic center, what she could see of it anyway, stretched out before her like something out of a nightmare. A core of black loomed in the distance, clearly light-years away, but still huge enough to look like a giant dark sun. Around it was an accretion disc tinged in a sicky red-orange hue, broken here and there by the rubble of ships that had been smashed upon the rocks of the Omega 4 relay’s treacherous waters.
“These must be all the ships that tried to pass through the Omega 4 relay,” Joker murmured. “Some look ancient .”
Shepard just continued to stare. They did look ancient, she thought. It was strange to think that for all of humankind’s new technologies, so much had been accomplished many, many times before, by now-forgotten species. And if Shepard’s visions were to be believed, nearly all of this space travel was actually based on a technology beyond reckoning.
“How the hell did they even build this place?” she wondered aloud. “Did they build this envelope around the relay and then just – *shove * the relay in here? It must have taken ages to send it in from a safe distance. I can’t imagine that they got here and then built it.”
“Does galactic architecture really matter that much right now?” Joker asked her.
“This gravity pocket is withstanding the pressure of that black hole right there,” Shepard said, pointing out the window. “I can’t even imagine the amount of energy that it’s taking to hold it. We could learn a lot about the Reapers if we knew how they build stuff like this. And why they build stuff like this.”
“Maybe they just like messing with our heads,” Joker shrugged.
“Doubtless,” Shepard said grimly. “But I’m looking for other reasons, too.”
“We don’t exactly have time to wonder about that, commander,” Miranda pointed out.
“Of course we don’t,” Shepard laughed, but the sound had little humor in it. “We have enough time to blow the Collectors to hell and then get out of here. We never have enough time for recon.”
“I am picking up an energy signature at the edge of the accretion disc,” EDI informed them, breaking into their conversation. At the same moment, a block of broken ship’s hull lightly tumbled by their kinetic barriers and revealed a clearer view. A large, rock-like structure floated before them at a distance. At first, Shepard didn’t recognize anything strange about it, but then, the silhouette registered in her mind.
“The Collectors,” Miranda murmured behind her.
“Well,” Shepard blinked. “They were easier to find than I thought.”
“Don’t say that, commander,” Joker groaned. “You say that and suddenly were jinxed.”
“You’re right,” she said with a wry smile. “Strike it from the record.”
“I don’t suppose this safe space is very big,” Miranda observed. “There isn’t a whole lot of room for them to hide in.”
“Right,” Joker agreed. “Just a little Bat-Cave for the Collectors to come back home to.”
“Alright Joker,” Shepard said. “Take us in for a closer look – nice and easy.”
Joker nodded and began to ease them through the debris field. They hadn’t gone more than a few dozen meters when EDI’s voice calmly said, “Be careful, Jeff. We have company.”
Instantly, three red laser beams shot by the ship’s windows as the Normandy pitched.
“Taking evasive maneuvers,” Joker said, hands flying over the display once more. He grimaced as the ship ducked once more.
“You just had to get cocky, Commander,” he grumbled at Shepard. “Easy, my ass.”
“Just kill ‘em, Joker,” she replied.
Joker fired on the things, whatever they were, that were now whirring by the ship’s forward windows. The Normandy’s blue canon blasts were bright against the dark red sky, but as far as Shepard could tell, they hit nothing.
“Now they’re just pissing me off,” Joker snapped.
The ship shuddered as one of the red laser shots connected with the ship.
“EDI! Take these bastards out!” Joker shouted.
“As long as the new plating holds,” Miranda muttered darkly.
“They comin’ around again?” Joker asked EDI. “Come on, girl, let’s give it to ‘em.”
Joker rolled the ship over and over, something Shepard saw from their position at the windows more than she felt, since the gravity systems were stabilized once more. Just when she thought they’d lost the, well, whatever the hell those things were, EDI brought up a holographic display of the ship and calmly informed them.
“Hull breach on the engineering deck.”
“The hell ?” Joker sputtered. “It’s in the cargo hold.”
“I’ll take a team and deal with our guest,” Shepard told him, “you just get the rest of them off our tail.”
“I’m coming with you,” Miranda told her, hurrying down the deck after Shepard.
“Fair enough,” Shepard said, breaking into run. “Just keep up.”
Now that I think back to Ilos, Kaidan – Ilos itself, not the night before it, though I do think of that a lot, too. More than I should…
Anyhow, when I think back to Ilos, the one thing I keep wishing is that I’d bothered to salvage more stuff on our way through that place.
I took a recording of Vigil on my omnitool, didn’t you? I swear we got a copy for Liara, also. How is it that we lost that recording? And that talk with Soverign on Saren’s base – didn’t we get a recording of that? How is it that I keep finding evidence of the Reapers, but I never seem to get enough data to leave a trail for others to follow me?
It’s always only me – and a select few people who are willing to take my visions on faith. Or maybe they just want to kill stuff. That might be the reason, too.
“It’s gone,” Miranda pronounced, falling back against one of the cargo bay fans with a sigh. Beside her, Shepard let her arms drop. The heavy weapon in her hands was so hot that it was smoking and her arms ached from holding it.
“You sure?” Grunt asked. “It might come back for another round.” He sounded almost disappointed, Shepard thought. She had reached the cargo bay just in time to find the crazy krogan about to charge the bizarre flying object that had entered the hold. Shepard still had no idea what that thing was. “Eyeball Thingy” was the closest she could come up with now that the battle was done. Whatever it was, it had done a number on the ship.
“Damn,” she muttered, looking at the wall “EDI, can you hold this kinetic barrier okay?” Already a shimmering wall of biotics was patching up the side of the hold where the Eyeball Thingy had busted in.
“I can,” EDI replied. “Though at the moment, we are experiencing other problems.”
“What now?” Shepard asked.
“Commander, you want to get up here,” Joker told her.
“Roger,” Shepard replied, hauling herself back up to her feet. She held a hand out to Miranda and yanked the woman up as well. “Grunt, stay down here and keep an eye out.”
“Yes,” the krogan said, eye glinting with satisfaction.
Well , Shepard thought wryly as she raced for the door. * At least someone’s having fun.*
You and Ashley once asked me how I’d survived so long when I always seem to find so much trouble. I’m not sure if the question was about how I’ve managed to survive so many battles, or if the real question was why I always seem to find trouble.
As for the first, I don’t know. Biotics mostly. Detachment next, I suppose. I step outside of myself when I fight. I see things as if from a distance – pawns on a chess board. And training, of course. Constant training.
As for the second, I also don’t know. I’d say the galaxy had cooked up some really strange fate for me that always involves me getting into scrapes, but that sounds way too self-centered to be true.
“Take that you sons of bitches!” Joker shouted, flipping his hands up in the air in dual rude gestures.
“Finish them, Joker,” Shepard told him coldly.
Joker gladly obliged. Shepard and Miranda gripped the nearby chairs as the Normandy pitched and dove, the artificial gravity pitching and diving right along with it as EDI struggled to re-balance the ship’s internal systems. Shepard knew she was missing the performance of a lifetime. Here Joker was, fingers dancing over the haptic display and shouting obscenities at the Collector ship as he ripped it apart with the ship’s new guns. But at the moment, it was all she could do to stay upright. She felt queasy beyond belief, and she hadn’t even eaten breakfast.
Suddenly, there was a smash, a crash, and a horrible sideways falling sensation. Shepard shook her head and found herself on the floor, with no memory of the fall or how long she’d laid there. Shoving herself up, Shepard quickly glanced around the cockpit.
“Joker!” she snapped. “You okay?”
“Fine,” he grunted. “I just think I cracked a rib. Or all of them…”
“You gonna live?”
“None of ‘em punctured a lung, so yeah,” Joker replied.
Shepard shook her head free of that mental image, then snapped her attention to the swirl of dust outside of the windows.
“Where did we land?” she asked. “On the base?”
“Looks like it,” Joker replied. “Damn.”
“We all knew this was likely a one-way trip,” Miranda said, biting her full lower lip between her teeth.
Shepard scowled as she looked out the window, at the bizarre curves and hollows of the base exterior, now becoming visible beyond the settling dust.
“We came here to stop the Collectors,” Shepard said, “But I damn well plan to live to tell about it. And I expect the same for all of you. We’re not dying in this hell hole.”
Miranda looked at her doubtfully. Joker just gave her a slight smile.
“Well, I’m glad you’re the one in charge,” he said.
“How long until they find us here, EDI?” Shepard asked.
“I am uncertain. It appears we knocked out their sensors for a moment. I can hack into their systems and see what information they have about us, also I can try and scan for schematics of the base.”
“Perfect,” Shepard said. “Do it, but be careful. We need you intact, EDI. If you get a hint of being hacked, pull out, and don’t worry about us. Got it?”
“Yes, commander,” EDI replied.
Shepard nodded once, then hit the comm link.
“Alright everyone,” she said. “First part’s done: we’re here and it looks like we flew in under the radar. Meet me in the comm room for the shortest meeting we’ve ever had, and bring your gear with you. Let’s move it.”
With that, she turned on her heel and strode down the deck.
“You didn’t tell them we’re stuck here,” Miranda observed, running to catch up.
“Since they’re all standing at their stations, I assume they figured that out for themselves,” Shepard replied. She slanted a glance at the Cerberus Officer’s face, then turned to her and stopped.
“We’re going to go in and come back, Miranda,” she said firmly.
“Of course,” Miranda said, not meeting her eyes, “but…”
“Miranda,” Shepard said, gripping the woman’s shoulders. Miranda looked up at her, eyes wide and worried.
“We’re going home,” Shepard told her again.
Miranda seemed to consider this a moment, then swallowed and nodded.
“Yes, commander,” she said.
“Good,” Shepard nodded too. “Go on in, I’ll be just a moment.”
“Did you need to talk to Joker?” Miranda asked.
“Just go on,” Shepard said, releasing her arms. As Miranda walked away, Shepard turned to the empty station beside the CIC and rested her hands on it. Bowing her head, she let out a long breath.
I realized something today, Kaidan. The best leaders always had something to follow. The reformers, the pioneers – they all followed dreams, ideals. People followed them because they led folks on to a better life. They had a good vision for the future.
Too bad my visions suck so much, huh?
Ah, damn it, Kaidan. What the hell am I following anymore? Sometimes I wonder.
The truth was, Shepard thought, looking at Kelly’s empty station, being the commander was a bitch of a job assignment. Hers was the responsibility, hers was the guilt, and hers was the need to find a path and follow it. And now that she had a path to walk – one right outside that door, if her eyes had seen clearly through the dust outside – she found herself feeling uneasy. She knew she needed to get it together before she headed out. Being unresolved now could get people killed.
But then, she’d felt unresolved for a long time, ever since she had woken up. She’d been confused and trapped and feeling nothing so much as that she was tangled and trying to do everything alone . Always alone, and always acting on blind impulse. She hated that.
A thought occurred to her, and Shepard shook her head against it. For a moment there, she felt the strangest compulsion to pray of all things, something she did rarely and usually just as a sort of ‘oh shit, help’ sort of send up to a higher power when she was pinned in a bad place on the battlefield. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually, well, asked for help in such a way. She wasn’t really sure how it was done, anyhow. But then again, what was it her father always said?
“Certain thoughts are prayers. There are moments when, whatever the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees.”
Yeah , Shepard thought, shaking her head. I’m pretty much on my knees right about now. Have been for a while.
She didn’t know what to say, so she just shrugged and mouthed a single word:
It wasn’t as though beams suddenly burst through the ceiling of the Normandy to bathe her in a halo of light or angel choirs started singing or anything, but Shepard felt a change nonetheless. She felt strangely stabilized, as though the artificial gravity had been slightly out of whack for months and someone had finally fixed it. Somehow, admitting that she felt as broken as the ship about her made her feel quite…whole.
Alright then , Shepard thought, pushing herself up and taking that feeling with her as she headed for the conference room.