I saw a few of my crew members and even Joker providing covering fire as others caught the team and hauled them aboard. I thought my heart would break as I saw my friends rushed into the waiting arms of those few we’d managed to save. Finally I was the only one left.
The first of the explosions rocked the station back from my ship as I sprinted toward the lip. Unable to check my momentum, I pushed off with all I had, windmilling my arms as though that would somehow provide me enough thrust to bridge the gap. I might as well have flapped them for all the good it did.
I could see everyone before and then above me, mouths open, time dilated so far that I could hear nothing but a hum. I stretched my hand out to Thane, intending a gesture of farewell because his slow-motion dive could never reach me. Then the universe snapped into place around me as Thane’s hand caught my wrist, Garrus holding tight to his ankles to keep him from being pulled out to join me. There must have been twenty hands helping to haul us into the ship as it banked away from the shuddering base.
The airlock door slid shut behind us and I was involved in the first group hug I’d ever endured.
The clamor was deafening as EDI struggled to run decontamination on the pile of filthy, entangled people in a space designed for three or four. Finally she seemed to give up and opened the interior door. Joker had been smart enough to work his way closest to the hull to avoid the crush of people falling into the waiting arms of those who’d been unable to fit in the airlock or assist in the fight. My shoulders were slapped, complete strangers threw their arms around me, and everyone was crying.
I finally ordered the whole group to get the hell off my bridge. We still had to clear the blast zone and get back through the relay without splattering the Normandy and all of us across a crushed derelict. I needed Joker in his seat and right now he couldn’t even get on the ship.
Through the entire tumult, I’d clung to Thane’s hand, not willing to let go of my lifeline. As people finally cleared the cramped space he came closer, his eyes filled with pain beneath the relief. He breathed heavily still and I leaned close. His chest sounded like a mako rover falling down a mountain. I could hear Dr. Chakwas around the corner, ordering people to the med bay or the mess hall in an efficient triage system that she and Mordin had planned while we’d been gone.
I threw that plan to the wind and put Thane at the front of the line. I couldn’t focus on what happened next while I worried that he might not live out the next hour. Thankfully she took one look at my face and handed her scanner to the crewman standing beside her. I nodded to Thane that he should follow the doctor. He brushed his cheek ridge against my face and whispered in my ear, “I promise.” I bit my lip, trying to rein in my emotions. I released his hand and turned to join Joker on the bridge. I had to trust him and Dr. Chakwas or none of us might make it back to Omega.
Joker spun us through the band of wreckage around the relay for a third time, fighting the buffeting of shock waves as system after system detonated on the station behind us. He was so keyed up that he seemed not to notice the odd angle at which his lower left leg was bent. I sent Dr. Chakwas a message on my omni-tool, letting her know that I’d bring Joker down as soon as we were safe. He and EDI were calculating wildly, trying to get a fix on a leap though the relay that wouldn’t bring us right into an asteroid.
I couldn’t drop the rescued colonists at lawless Omega and hope that Aria would help. I decided that we’d have to find a more stable colony and composed my report to the Council and the Alliance as I watched the relay flicker between the last of the broken ships keeping us away from it. “Cross your fingers, Commander,” Joker said as he threaded the spaces and sailed into the open space around the relay. “I’m not sure if we’ll land in clear space or with a fuel depot through our midsection.”
“I trust you, Joker,” I replied. I finally felt that I could trust my new team to act without my oversight, at least some of the time. But I crossed my fingers anyway. Once more, the disturbing color of the Omega Four relay glared at me, flared out, and threw me into the unknown. This time, I welcomed it no matter the landing.
That we’d lived this long defied every expectation Cerberus had had and now I was free of them. The lies and manipulation, being used like a blunt knife to accomplish missions I’d never have taken, all of that fell behind me. We may not have saved the thousands of people who had died on that Collector station but at least we’d prevented the defilement the Collectors had planned. EDI had the proof that I needed to show the galaxy what we faced and I could hardly wait to rub the Council’s nose in what they had so cavalierly dismissed three years earlier.
I felt a savage glee at the surge of premature hope that rose in me. Surely this would convince everyone, Asari and Turian and Human alike, to set aside the bickering for once. I shook it off and focused on the jump, holding my breath once more.
My ship and my pilot were an unstoppable team. We landed cleanly, decelerating to a drift in the black around Omega. I released my breath in a rush, accessed the intercom, and announced that we were safely back in known space again. Cheers filtered through the speaker and echoed down the near-empty bridge from the CIC. Joker locked us into orbit and sat back wearily. I bent and gave him the kiss on the cheek I’d mentally promised so many hours before.
“What was that for, Commander?”
“For being exactly what you’ve promised to be every time I’ve needed you,” I answered. “Now let’s get you to Dr. Chakwas before your tibia comes right through the skin.” Now that I knew we were safe my every thought was of Thane and I could hardly restrain myself from lifting Joker bodily and carrying him across my ship to get to the med bay faster. I motioned to another crew member, thrilled after the day of riding the empty ship across the galaxy to have one available, and we supported the pilot as he hopped gingerly to the elevator.
We emerged on the crew deck and turned the corner into bedlam, injured people chatting happily with dazed colonists who didn’t seem to know much more than their own names. Joker and I actually received three cheers, something I’d never seen outside of historical vids. I knew that I should be more gracious, that I should beam like Joker and soak in the accolades, but all I wanted was to shout, “Get out of my way!” I could bask later.
We threaded our way through the crowd at a maddening pace. The Normandy hadn’t been designed to hold forty people in the mess hall at once. I saw people handing out supplies. The colonists devoured whatever they were given. They hadn’t eaten in an unknowable time, suspended in those pods. I wondered briefly if the crew who’d had family abducted had survived and if any of the colonists were the missing loved ones. My injured team played hosts admirably, despite their obvious pain. I saw contraband liquor everywhere and Kasumi grinned at me guiltily. I gave her a smile. Let them all get stinking drunk, I thought. Every one of them deserves it.
Before I could scream in frustration at our snail’s crawl, the crowd finally parted. We stepped into the med bay and let Joker down onto the table just inside the door that Dr. Chakwas had been holding for him. In response to my questioning look she nodded toward the far end of the room. I turned, readying a light remark to mask my concern, and saw Thane. He lay unmoving in the same bed we’d shared the day before.