Think back, the days we laughed
we braved these bitter storms together
Brought to his knees he cried
but on his feet he died
Make it stop, let this end
eighteen years pushed to the ledge
It’s come to this, a weightless step
on the way down, singing…
It’s always darkest just before the dawn
so stay awake with me, let’s prove them wrong.
– “Make It Stop (September’s Children)”, Rise Against
Jeff, why do you have to leave?
It’s my job. Somebody’s got to protect the illustrious and infamous Commander Shepard, right? Who better than her trusty pilot?
But I’m scared. I don’t want you to go.
Joker stared at the interface of the Normandy without seeing it. All he could see were sprawling plains and farmland under an arching blue sky, colonial houses popping up like mushrooms between the homesteads. His father sitting hunched at the kitchen table in his houserobe and slippers, flicking his finger idly over datapad news and drinking a cup of coffee as sunlight burned fog off the dawn fields. All he could hear was the sound of the dog’s wagging tail, smacking the base of the fridge, and the quiet incessant hum of the generators.
“Tiptree Station, this is the Normandy, do you read? Over.”
“Tiptree Station, this is Normandy, does anybody read? Over.”
“They are not going to answer, Jeff.”
Joker whirled on EDI where she sat in the co-pilot’s seat staring at him, suddenly furious with her unflappable calm and not knowing why. “I know that. Don’t you think I know?”
“Because maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’re wrong, ever think of that?” he snapped back, hating the way his voice sounded. How helpless, how useless his rage was hundreds of lightyears away from its source. Earth meant almost nothing to him, wasn’t anything but a planet he had seen in school vids growing up. It was not his home. His home was burning. But it wasn’t the homeworld, it was just some agricultural hamlet in the middle of Boonfuck Nebula…so nobody cared. Or so it seemed to him.
“I’m sorry, Jeff.”
Joker sighed, rubbing both hands over his face wearily. Shepard wasn’t the only one who was having nightmares lately. For months after Shepard was spaced, Joker had been plagued with terrible dreams of the Normandy going down. They always changed – in some of the dreams, the Normandy exploded around him, causing him to shoot upright in the dark, heart pounding against his rib cage like he would burst through his chest. In other dreams, he tried over and over again to grab Shepard’s hand, but he was never close enough. He didn’t wake from these as often, they only repeated like some terrible loop in his mind as he tossed and turned, but when he woke the next morning his pillow would be damp, as if he had cried in his sleep.
Those dreams had been replaced lately by fields of fire.
“No…I’m sorry, EDI. I’m just stressed out. I shouldn’t be taking it out on you. It’s not your fault.”
“I mean—” Joker’s eyes flicked to the comm link with a sudden flash of paranoia. The last thing he needed to do was have a breakdown over the intercom. He looked back at EDI, her calm eyes. She was perfectly still, like a luminescent statue, waiting with inhuman patience for him to speak. Back when she first integrated into her body platform, those periods of stillness bothered him. Now he didn’t know how to feel. He loved so many things about her, but it was moments like this, when she sat like that – he could almost hear the whirring of gears in her mind as she looked at him in cool alien assessment, and he wondered how she could understand what he was feeling at all, outside of biological stress markers.
“Look, I know. I know, okay? But if they’re gon—dead, what is there left to fight for? I mean, great, we destroy the Reapers, awesome. Cupcakes and parades for everybody. But my home is fucking history. How can we ever win against something like this? Over seven hundred and fifty cycles before us, and not one of them stood a chance.”
There were a few beats of silence before EDI got up and stood next to him. Her hand lighted gently on his shoulder. Neither one of them spoke.
“It’s going to be all right,” EDI said, her voice soft.
Joker shook his head, slowly. “Somehow…I don’t think so. Not this time.”
“You have to have faith in Shepard.”
“Yeah, well…you haven’t seen her die.”
~ ~ ~
Gabriella Daniels checked over the propulsion systems for the fifth time, doing built-in tests on the sensors, drive core, antigravity. She was already sure that everything was running at one hundred percent, but she could never resist verifying just one more time. For her, it was the equivalent of holding your breath driving over a bridge or kissing the roof of a car running a yellow light.
Donnelly leaned up against the opposite terminal, his arms crossed over his chest, watching her with bemused impatience. “So you do realize tha definition of insanity is doin’ tha same thing o’er and o’er, expectin’ different results? Adams and the others are already at the bridge.”
“We’re about to warp right into the middle of a war zone, Kenneth,” she replied, running her finger down the scan numbers one more time, scowling in concentration. “It doesn’t hurt anything to be careful. We might not get another chance to check.”
She started to run one last functional verification. She heard Donnelly walk over, and his warm weight was suddenly behind her, his arms around her waist, his lips against the back of her neck as he spoke, sending a shiver down her back.
“All systems are green, dove. Green as grass. We better get up to the bridge before Hackett comes on-board. I’ve never met him before, I want to see.”
She waved the terminal to idle, then turned around into his arms, staring up at his face.
“If you insist.”
Donnelly took her right hand in his, then slid his left one to her waist, rocking back and forth to the undulating sound of the drive core with a soft smile. “Oooo, look, they’re playin’ our song.”
Gabriella laughed, laying her cheek against his chest as they pantomimed a dance in the quiet.
“You know, Gabs…It’s not just your legs that are spectacular. Although I have to say, they are singularly fantastic. It’s you. Everything about you.”
Daniels wrapped her arm around him, drawing him close with a mischievous grin, her interlaced fingers tightening in his, his palm warm against hers. “You’re not just saying that ’cause it’s the end of the world?”
“Weeeell…not gonna say that dunnae factor in, but no. I should have said it a long time ago.”
“You wouldn’t rather spend your last day with an asari matriarch, the communications specialist, or a sexy robot, or—”
“Ack, Daniels, now yer just bein’ mean.” He moved his hand from her waist and tipped her chin up, looking into her eyes with solemn affection. “Nobody but you.”
She smiled up at him. “You really mean that.”
Her smile faded, and she laid her head back down against his chest. “Kenneth…are you scared?”
“A’course I’m scared. Only a fool wouldn’t be. Mandy is a powerhouse, but against these things? There’s no way for us to be sure,” he replied, his voice a rumble against her chest. “But if anybody can do this, it’s Shepard. And Joker. That boy is not called the best pilot in tha Alliance Fleet for nothing.”
“And if we don’t make it?” she whispered.
“At least we know we’re not going to get dragged away by those things again, like we would if we were going planetside with Shep and the others,” Donnelly said, his voice suddenly rough with remembrance. “No, girl, if we go down in this one, it’ll just be a boom, flash, and nothing. But if you go, I go. I won’t let you go into the dark alone, Gabby.”
“Hush, love. Be still a minute.”
Finally, Donnelly’s omni-tool beeped, breaking the silence, and he checked it. “That’s Adams. We better get moving.” He kissed her gently before breaking their embrace. “Let’s go. Don’t throw in the towel just yet. We have a lot of fight left in us still. We have a lot to fight for.”
Donnelly turned from her and started to walk to the elevators. When his back was turned, Daniels moved her hand down to the subtle swell of her belly, as if she could protect the secret there with the sheer force of her hope. She closed her eyes.
More than you know.
~ ~ ~
“Hey Esteban, you ready to go kick some serious ass?!”
James Vega was pumped. After checking his equipment one last time in preparation for the final drop, he spent a few moments shadowboxing in the cargo bay, waiting for Joker to summon all hands to the combat deck.
Cortez was doing a flight check on the Kodiak. “I wouldn’t be so excited if I were you, Vega,” he replied, hooking up a diagnostics kit with careful precision. “You saw what Earth looked like before we left. Can you imagine what it looks like now?”
James undercut an imaginary cannibal with his imaginary omni-blade, throwing in a roundhouse kick for good measure.
“Well that’s what we’re here for, yeah?” ‘Welcome to Earth.’ POW.”
Cortez dropped down onto a roller and slid under the shuttle’s chassis. “You guys just be careful, okay? I’m serious. I don’t want to have to go down there and pull your ass out of the fire.”
“Sure you wouldn’t enjoy that ese? You worry too much.”
Cortez snorted, and James saw his hand come out from beneath the shuttle to flip him the bird. “Oh, you’re funny. Such a wit. Why’d you ever become a jarhead? You should have gone into stand-up. And it’s not that I worry too much. It’s that you don’t worry at all.”
Vega walked over and went down on his hands and knees next to the shuttle, coming down to eye level with Cortez, smirking. “Let’s just put it this way, Esteban. The day you have to switch over from flying space taxis to shooting stuff is the day when I’ll get worried.”
“I’m serious, James.”
“Me too, brother.” Vega reached his hand beneath the shuttle, and Cortez clasped it tightly. “I know if you’re there to back us up, we’ll get out of there.”
“You just better be sure that when I call for extraction, all of you guys get to the LZ. No man left behind.”
~ ~ ~
Shepard stood on the CIC, gazing down at the three-dimensional galaxy map which swirled there. Reaper-controlled systems circled the Sol system in an ominous spiral. More than she could count in a minute. She stared into the hologram, feeling her eyes sting with exhaustion, aware of the eyes of the crew on her. Her expression was neutral, but it was a mask. She held a scalding cup of coffee in both hands without drinking it.
The boy stood on the CIC beside her. He was barely tall enough to see the display, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t need to.
You know you’re never going to win. None of this will matter in the end.
“Shut up,” Shepard muttered.
“Shepard,” Garrus whispered, his voice low so as not to carry across the combat deck. A warning. She heard him come up behind her and let him take the mug of coffee from her hands to set it aside, turning over her palms. They were bright red – she hadn’t even noticed the ceramic was burning her.
“Are you okay?”
You couldn’t help me. You couldn’t help Thane. You couldn’t help Mordin. You can’t help anybody.
She sucked in a deep breath, then shook her head, as if brushing off the remnants of a bad dream. She closed her eyes, counted to ten, and then opened them again. The boy was still there, staring back at her in silent accusation. She glanced pointedly in another direction, pretending to be distracted by something on the display, then turned to look at Garrus. She smiled and hoped that it didn’t look as forced as it felt.
“As okay as I can be, I guess.”
Garrus didn’t look convinced. “Shepard, I—”
Suddenly, Joker’s voice came over the intercom. “Commander, you’ve got a priority message from Hackett, requesting to come aboard.”
“Permission granted,” Shepard said. She gave Garrus a world-weary, crooked smile and clapped him on the shoulder before moving her hand to his neck, laying her palm against it briefly as she looked up at him. Normally she didn’t go in for displays of public affection – a holdover from their time with Cerberus, when acknowledging their relationship made her uncomfortable even around her own crew – but there was no point in worrying about it now.
“There’s my cue. Coming?”
And then she was gone, pushing past him, the overhead lights glinting off of her armor as she went to meet Hackett at the docking station. The salutes of the crew as she passed almost gave Garrus whiplash to watch.
Garrus was not religious, but he bowed his head for a moment before he followed her, to whatever end waited for them.
Please…help us do this.