Garrus did not return to the second docking bay straight away. Though they both knew that time was of the essence, Kaidan was grateful for it. After these frantic last hours, he needed to think. Gather his composure.
He bent over the sink and splashed cold water onto his face again. It was intended to help wake him up, to shake off the effects of stasis and battle. But as he lifted his gaze to the mirror, seeing the drawn brows, lips set into a frown and smoldering eyes, he knew its true purpose was to keep his emotions in check. He was angry about that crazed salarian kidnapping Shepard, at himself for his inability to prevent it, and Garrus for letting it happen. Yet he knew feeling this way was pointless. He had been a soldier long enough to recognize that none of them could have anticipated this would happen. All that mattered now was getting her back. Didn't make him feel any better, though.
After patting his face dry he left the small bathroom and headed for the food dispenser, still limping a little on his injured leg. The medi-gel had taken care of the pain but not the stiffness. He would just have to work through it.
Just like you have to realize that things really have changed.
Kaidan retrieved an energy drink, popped it open and downed it in a few gulps. He hadn't been entirely honest with Shepard. While he firmly believed her overall cause would be better served by returning to Alliance space as a confirmed hero, the truth was that he wanted to start over. Ever since Horizon, she had been in his thoughts constantly- so much in fact that he took it upon himself to monitor her progress from afar. It allowed him to learn of her success against the Collectors before it became public. He remembered feeling proud, elated, thankful. Shepard had proven once again she was humanity's sole hope of surviving the coming storm. But when the joy ebbed, and shame replaced it, Kaidan realized his error. He never should have turned his back on her.
With a frown, he tossed the first can and took another. Lamenting the past was futile. He was adult enough to acknowledge the repercussions of his actions. Yes, he had experienced a surge of jealousy at seeing Shepard and Garrus together, but even he could see the chemistry between them. In some strange way, he was glad that it was Garrus she turned to. Despite his opinion regarding his actions on Omega, it was obvious Kaidan could still trust Garrus. Her safety would come first in the mission.
He had just disposed of the second can when his terminal lit up. It was a message, no doubt from Anderson wondering where the hell he was. Though they had worked closely these past few months, he had not told his former captain of his intentions. Anderson had enough to worry about, especially under Udina's regime. Kaidan deactivated the terminal, both for discretion and the fact he could not properly word what exactly they were facing here. While he did not know how the salarian had survived, he could surmise how he had obtained Collector tech. He recalled the morbid laboratory with a shudder. The implications were anything but pleasant.
An overhead light shone red, indicating an intruder had neared the ship. Kaidan winced slightly as he limped for the access panel on the wall. After entering in the coded sequence that activated the ship's comm link, he heard Garrus announce himself. He spoke briskly, an edge of impatience in his tone. Kaidan could very well sympathize. He didn't like the idea of Shepard in Saleon's clutches anymore than the turian did.
The airlock doors opened, admitting Garrus. He was loaded down with enough firepower to take out a small army. "Thought you'd appreciate better weapons," he said wryly, removing an assault rifle from his back and tossing it Kaidan's way. He caught it easily, inspecting the weapon with an approving eye. This was much better than the Alliance fare he had in storage.
After strapping it to his back, he glanced over at Garrus, the words he was about to say going right out of his head. Standing there beneath the ceiling lights, his head angled down as he checked the sniper rifle in hand, Kaidan saw for the first time that Garrus' collar was damaged, and most of the right side of his face was concealed beneath a white bandage. The scarring along his cheek, mandible and beneath his eye still looked to be healing.
"What the hell happened to you?"
"So you noticed it, huh?" Garrus responded, sounding more amused than insulted. He shouldered the sniper rifle and turned. "It was supposed to be the Blue Suns' way of getting rid of me. Probably would have worked if not for Shepard. She saved my life that day, and I intend on returning the favor. So," he said, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck. "You want to keep talking about this or do you want to go?"
Impatience had entered his tone, slight but still conveying exactly how he felt. Kaidan nodded curtly and took the pilot's seat while Garrus went to store the weapons. His return occurred at the same instant Joker contacted them. "I'm sending the coordinates now," he informed them. "EDI, you got a read on them?"
"Yes," answered a synthetic, feminine voice. Kaidan was not entirely comfortable with the idea of an AI tapping into his ship, but he recognized the benefits. It's not unlike what Shepard said about using Cerberus' resources...
"I am sending all data I have compiled about the Eternity," EDI continued. Schematics, a holographic model of the ship and other information appeared above the console. Kaidan studied it, particularly the exits.
"Look at the registry," Garrus grumbled. "Didn't even bother altering it. The arrogant bastard," he added in a low growl.
Sure enough, it was listed as owned by a Dr. R. Heart. But something else concerned Kaidan. "Look here," he pointed out, indicating the model. "It's got some pretty nasty weapons equipped."
"Probably installed by Eclipse. They wouldn't want such a valuable resource lost to them."
Kaidan shared Garrus' bitterness. "It's already got enough of a headstart on us," he remarked, his hands flying across the console. "Coordinates are locked in. Time to go."
"Good luck," Joker said and signed off.
As Kaidan disengaged the docking clamps, Garrus strode away, a data pad in hand. "Where are you going?"
"If we want any chance against that ship the guns need to be upgraded. What you have right now won't even dent their shields," he explained over his shoulder.
"Here," Kaidan said, keying in the codes that he'd normally grant Alliance certified weapons tech experts. The door to Garrus' right slid open. "They're through there. Do whatever you can." At seeing Garrus' somewhat curious look Kaidan gave a disbelieving laugh. "Did you think I'd say no? I want her back, too."
At this the turian's expression smoothed- at least, Kaidan thought so. He'd never been very good at reading their species. "Then you also won't object to either of us using whatever means necessary to succeed." With that he departed, leaving Kaidan no chance to reply.
She had no knowledge of where she was. Her thoughts were incoherent, jumbled, just like her memory. One moment she was on the bridge of the original Normandy giving a motivational speech. The next, chasing down Saren- no, Benezia, the rachni, geth, Sovereign- all the way to Peak 15/Virmire/Feros/Ilos. She had just reached the hot labs/cloning facility/colony/the archives when-
A powerful jolt threw her out of bed. Dazed, half crawling on the floor, she went straight for her gun. The Normandy was under fire. No time. Have to release the beacon. Get everyone out.
She bolted from her quarters in full gear. Fire. Screams. Panic. Liara passed her in the corridor, assisting the wounded from the med bay. Her words were muted by another explosion. Shepard gestured sharply to the escape pods. Hurry, get everyone out!
Another explosion rocked the ship. She staggered as she passed the elevator. The doors opened then, Tali, Wrex and Garrus emerging. Voices lost in the chaos. Yet time seemed to slow when she grabbed Garrus' shoulder as he slipped past. Get to an escape pod! Don't wait up!
Running, stumbling, for the beacon. The ship moved so much she could barely keep her balance. There- released. Kaidan's voice calling her name rose above the noise. What was he doing still on board? Get the hell out of here! Have to save Joker. Have to-
So cold. Hurts to breathe...tightness in chest. Limbs losing mobility, vision spotting. Getting so dark...
Bright lights, distorted voices, a woman she'd never seen before. Had seen before.
What's going on?
Suddenly all thought and memory splintered as a sharp, tearing sensation assailed her mind. Shepard wanted to fight back, but found herself unable to move, even scream. So she endured it in agonized silence. No, can't stand it. Feeling so damned weak...
"Not too much now," a voice said, the tone reminiscent of a parent admonishing a child. "She has to survive long enough for my plans."
Fighting against the current of darkness rising up to take her, Shepard was in the midst of crossing the threshold of awareness- of recognition- when something more powerful than even her will dragged her back. She had a fleeting image of a sinister smile before awareness deserted her.
Saleon was tittering with glee as he cradled the skin sample taken from the commander. It rested within a small dish, a pale sliver of flesh only a few inches long. What it represented made him ecstatic. He wanted to pick it up and drag it across his face. Savor the feel. Saleon nearly gave in to the urge when the silver band on his wrist gave three demanding beeps. The doctor, long familiar with what the sound meant, laid the sample aside. This body's usefulness had reached its end. Time for another.
Saleon lifted his gaze, taking in the sight of Shepard floating within the tank. He gave a short, high-pitched chuckle. "Be right back," he said, tapping the glass with a trembling finger. Laughing, he turned and headed for the operating table set before a series of tanks lining the far wall. Each one lit up as he neared, showcasing the decapitated salarian bodies he had collected. A security drone he had reprogrammed approached the middle tank, entering codes to release the lock. Saleon arranged himself on the table, wriggling in place to get more comfortable and gently placing his hands on his knees. The door across the way opened, the long shadow heralding the arrival of the very first of his darlings.
Soon it came to stand at the end of the table, watching Saleon with unblinking eyes as it fingered the long, serrated knife in hand. Saleon spread his arms, grinned and closed his eyes just as the drone injected him with a sedative. He could picture what would happen next. His darling approaching him, slowly lifting the knife. Turning it just so, allowing the light to reflect upon the blade, before the final stroke...
There was nothing gentle about Shepard's awakening this time. Her consciousness, sped along by a sharp pain originating somewhere in the back of her head, broke through the darkness with the impact of a gut punch, leaving her gasping and dazed.
The world had a blurred quality, and she blinked to clear it. When it didn't she realized she was looking through glass. No, a tank filled with water. The fact she could breathe no doubt was linked to the various tubes attached all over her body. Naked body, she amended as she lowered her gaze. The cool, tight feel of medi-gel along the inside of her left thigh drew her attention next. The flesh beneath the transparent coating looked raw.
Several shadows fell over the tank. When Shepard lifted her gaze she found herself staring at five harvesters. All stood clustered together, mismatched eyes locked on her. Seeing them this close disgusted her, even as she pitied them. To think, each had been normal once. It was just one more reason why she had to take Saleon out. How would present itself in time. She had to wait.
The harvesters turned as one at some unheard command. Shepard watched a taller, stronger-looking one enter the room. A moment was all it took for her to realize it was the same she had encountered in Omega.
It wore its hood down, allowing her to get a good look at its face. The right side of was human, while the left was covered in the leathery hide of a Collector. One eye was milky white, the other bright yellow. Its human skin was drawn taut, revealing pulsing veins on its bald head, neck and the top of its chest not covered by the robe. So. Saleon is working with them, she thought angrily. The ramifications of this was something she never thought she had to worry about again.
The harvester moved much more fluidly than the others, though it still appeared to be shuffling. When it lifted a hand she glimpsed the seeker embedded within its palm. Positioned upside down, its curled legs poking through the skin, it brought on images of insects trapped within amber deposits. She recalled the feel of that hand on her- alien, cold- and suppressed a shudder.
It moved toward a table covered with a blanket. Gripping the edge with both hands, the harvester yanked it free, the material snapping open from the violent movement. Severed body parts lay upon the table, as varied as the ones she had seen before. The others descended upon this morbid fare with the excitement of children. She watched, her upper lip curling in disgust, as each one began chopping, cutting or outright ripping parts off and tossing them onto the floor. New ones were snatched up and jammed onto bloody stumps with incredible force. A drone appeared, cauterizing wounds with a laser tool. Afterward those that were rejected were gathered and thrown into a large, unmarked vat. Tubes extending from its sides jerked as thick, orange liquid passed through. These emptied into tanks propped against the same wall she was. A hum of machinery, a low, keening groan, and the ooze began to bubble.
"Fascinating, I know," remarked a voice Shepard instantly recognized. Saleon came into her line of sight, his arms folded as he surveyed her. The stitches at brow and neck appeared recent. Green blood had dried along the incisions. "Oh, this," he said nonchalantly, touching the scar with the same regard a woman would treat an expensive necklace. "A necessary evil. Salarian bodies age rapidly no matter how much I try to improve them."
Shepard frowned. This Saleon was vastly different from the cackling madman who had captured her. There was perfect clarity in his eyes, and he no longer gestured nervously. He smiled using his whole mouth. "Come, come," he encouraged. "You can speak. I wouldn't risk drowning you, Commander. You are too important."
Fighting against the instinct that rose up, she opened her mouth and said, "Why is that?"
Saleon chuckled. "You see, I knew you'd ask me that rather than the obvious. You are a very direct human, Shepard. You don't question anything other than what's staring you in the face. There's always time for answers after the fact, am I right?" He shook his head. The movement caused fresh blood to flow from between the stitches. "I suggest you look at all facts from now on," he chided.
"Thanks for the advice," she retorted. "I suggest-"
"Don't bother," he advised, lifting his hand as he turned away from her. He strolled past the line of tanks. "You are in no position to bargain with me. All you can do right now is listen. So I shall begin my tale with the obvious. I think it leads up to your role in all this-" he gestured to the lab with outspread arms, "-very nicely."
Great. Another theatrical personality. She'd had enough of that with Saren and Harbinger. But he was right: all she could do now was hear him out. "I'm listening."
Saleon glanced over at her. He stood just beyond a narrow column of light shining from overhead. It cast half his face in shadow, making him appear all the more sinister. "Excellent," he murmured before returning his gaze to the tank. The orange liquid continued to churn. "Officer Vakarian did indeed kill me," he began, speaking Garrus' name with a curious mixture of respect and dislike. "Contrary to popular belief, I saw no light. There was just...nothing. A void, not unlike the vastness of space. I likened my own demise to that of a star's last moments."
Theatrical and long-winded. Shepard had to wonder if the persona of a mad scientist was the same for all species. She remained silent, waiting for him to continue.
Saleon spent a few more moments watching the liquid move, then turned to face her. His eyes widened very slightly. "The first thing I remember is waking up on an operating table. I screamed." He cocked his head at her. "Did you scream at your own resurrection, Shepard?"
She frowned at the question. Her death was not something she liked to dwell on; she'd done enough of that for the first few weeks of the mission. Even remembering Kaidan hadn't helped chase the nightmares away. It wasn't until after Garrus had joined the team that they stopped. So focused on the mission, she hadn't realized it. Thinking back now, she wondered if she'd thanked him.
At her refusal to speak, Saleon gave a careless shrug. His attention once again drifted to the tank. "My assistant told me what happened, how he and his colleague came aboard the Fedele and found me. They were able to save my brain by removing the bullet, but my body was finished. My other assistant offered his for my use. Soon after the Collectors contacted me."
At this Shepard narrowed her eyes. "You made a deal with them."
"Naturally," he responded, looking at her as if he thought her believing the alternative was foolish. "My assistants saved my life but their efforts were crude at best. Keeping a whole body alive is different from a single organ. I was able to stave off the inevitable by reproducing vital organs. It worked, for the most part," he continued, leaning closer to the flashing screen on the tank, chin in hand. He made adjustments, murmuring to himself. Beyond him, more harvesters had started sorting through the new body parts under the supervision of the largest one. Every now and then it looked at Shepard, something resembling a smile touching its half-human mouth.
Saleon stood erect, placing his hands behind his back. "The Collectors wanted me to isolate certain genetic traits of all species in exchange for some of their technology. I'd receive the rest when I completed my task. However, their needs presented a very difficult problem due to my rapid deterioration." A note of excitement colored his voice now, and he smiled broadly at her. "And so, I used what technology they had given me to create my darlings," he explained, indicating his harvesters with a sweeping gesture.
She spared them a glance before looking at Saleon again. "So, that's why you made the harvesters. To do your dirty work."
"Harvester? Harvester?" Saleon repeated, aghast. He dismissed her words with an angry gesture. "An unfit moniker for what they represent," he spat. "My darlings are paving the way for true enlightenment. They would be better described as luminaries. Especially him," he added, smiling at the largest harvester.
Shepard seriously doubted that. "Why?"
The anger faded from his eyes, transforming into delight. He did not answer right away, so intent on watching the harvester approach a tank filled with orange ooze that it seemed the rest of the galaxy had faded away. It shed its robe, tossing it onto a nearby table. Light shone upon the Collector half as it climbed inside, gliding at a downward angle along its body when it turned. She glimpsed the wing on its left side twitch nervously. Her hands balled into fists. Seeing this abomination made what Saleon had been up to all the more disturbing, especially when she imagined what he had in store for her.
Sealed within, the Collector-harvester closed its eyes. The next instant the ooze began creeping over its body, sliding up its legs in an almost caressing manner. It seeped into its skin, pulsating like veins.
"They had given me one of their own. I cannot tell you what a wonderful experience it was cutting it apart to discover its secrets," Saleon began, stepping forward and angling his head up. "I had wanted my first to be salarian. A son, if you will. Unfortunately, the technology found no favor with salarian biology, or any other species' for that matter. But when I combined it with a human, and beheld the beauty of my creation, I relented. He is perfect," he cooed, placing both hands on the glass. "Every time he absorbs genetic material he grows stronger, faster, smarter. He cannot be killed."
That explained its ability to survive their first encounter. It also made the Collector-harvester much deadlier than Saleon. "Did you complete your part of the bargain?" she asked. If this bastard had anything to do with their experiments on humans, he's going to pay.
"I planned on delivering the findings discovered in the birth of my first-born, and in the others I created. The Collectors never met me at our rendezvous. Later I learned why," he replied, removing his hand from the tank. When he turned, Shepard saw his eyes sparked with anger. "They had promised me the secret to immortality, and you took it away from me!" he accused, thrusting his finger at her. Though he visibly trembled, still he managed a raspy laugh. "That's when I decided to take matters into my own hands. I knew of their interest in you. You were the perfect specimen in their eyes. I have to admit sharing that sentiment, though it's for completely different reasons. Oh, yes," he added, grinning and raking her with his gaze. The strange glow in his eyes made her acutely aware of her nudity. She didn't wish for clothing, just her gun. "To think, the secret is not lost to me."
Now he was starting to confuse her. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Saleon held up a finger, smiling as he indicated silence. He then approached a table set with various kinds of lab equipment. A sample case rested between the monitors. Inside was a dismembered Collector arm, the surface of the skin peeled away or cut in spots. Saleon took up a pair of gloves, pulling them on with dramatic flair before grasping a surgical knife. He opened the case and, knife poised, began slicing at the flesh. It gave way with a sickening, crunching sound. "Working for Eclipse gave me the funds I needed. You have already seen the result of that research. It's a shame they will eventually expire," he remarked with a chuckle. "I do not fear any counter strikes they may attempt. Very soon, I will be invinci- urgh!"
He suddenly doubled over, losing his grip on the knife. It clattered to the table with a sharp metallic clang. For some time Saleon hunched over, shoulders trembling, head bowed. When he spoke his voice was ragged. "I must do this now," he murmured. With an effort, he took up the knife and resumed his work. "I am only lucid for so long after each transplant. It becomes increasingly more...difficult to think," he explained, taking the section of Collector skin and placing it within a dish. The knife flashed once again, there was a pained grunt, and Shepard saw him add his blood to the mixture, as well as something else she couldn't identify.
Saleon bent over the table, hands resting on its surface. Shepard strained to see what he was doing. The Collector-harvester, she noticed, was also watching them. Suddenly Saleon let out a rapturous laugh. "It's working! It's working!" he exclaimed. Snatching the dish up, he whirled round and approached Shepard's tank. She stared in morbid fascination at the mass of flesh within. It writhed like a thing alive. "Do you see this?" he asked excitedly. There was a note of hysteria in his voice, and his eyes, once clear, now appeared glazed. Unfocused. "It's immortality, Commander Shepard. And you know what else?"
She eyed him warily, again wishing with all her might that she had her gun. He leaned in close, lifting one hand to cover the side of his face. His eyes slid left to right, as if searching for potential eavesdroppers. "You are going to help me cheat death yet again. Yes!" he crowed, heading back for the table. "The Collectors had sought your body for over two years, but I, Saleon, succeeded where they failed!"
Saleon's demented, choking laughter echoing in her ears, Shepard glanced down at the wound on her thigh, and at last understood. He was going to take her apart, piece by piece, use her genetic material to create a hybrid Collector/human/salarian body for himself. A myriad of emotions took hold of her at this, wildly ranging from outrage to renewed determination to escape. But, as the still-chuckling Saleon was escorted out of the lab by his 'darling', and she realized the silver instruments inside the tank with her were in fact edged with knives, a tremor of true fear coursed through her. It only intensified once the knives grazed her skin. She stiffened, preparing herself for what was to come.
Somewhere, in the part of her mind that hadn't given in to fear, her survival instinct stirred. It's not going to end like this, she vowed to herself, glaring at the doorway Saleon had vanished in. The knives sank into both legs, the first cut causing her to twitch uncomfortably. She didn't start screaming until the knives started dragging across her skin, slowly, so slowly.