Shepard, floating somewhere between sleep and awareness, could not decipher the loud roaring echoing all around her. But when it felt like her world turned onto its side, and she fell -hard- against the interior of the tank, awareness made a swift return. The place, wherever that may be, was under attack.
Opening her eyes, she found herself lying on her side, the glass in front of her cracked. Water seeped out, spraying the floor with mist. Beyond was a lab, much larger than the one on the ship, but no less horrifying. As for Saleon or the harvesters, there was no sign. Shepard seized the chance to escape.
She quickly wrenched the tubes from her body, wincing in pain as some came away with bits of flesh still attached. The wounds along inner thigh, abdomen and her sides screamed in protest at her sharp movements. Shepard pushed through the discomfort as she brought her legs up. Bracing her arms against the top of the tank, she began hammering the glass with her feet. The medi-gel gripped tightly to her, creating a pinching sensation, water sloshed into her nose and mouth, and her mind, already dulled from all the sedatives Saleon had given, seemed on the brink of collapse. Sleep, a tiny voice implored her. Just sleep. Shepard, recognizing it as the same one that had spoken to her during her weaker moments on Akuze, abruptly told it to be quiet. There was no giving up, not now, not ever.
Shepard gave one last effort; a single, large fracture appeared, followed by others. There was a brief moment where time stood still, then the glass gave way. Shepard was carried out on a current that tossed her to the cold floor with the force of a tidal wave. The wet, slapping sound her body made upon impact rang in her ears. For a moment she lay there, coughing up water until her eyes teared. Then, instinct honed over years in battle sent her scrambling out of sight. Wedging herself in the shadows between two flickering tanks, their occupants resembling humanoid figures made of putty, she took stock of her situation.
Most of the lab was in ruins. Computer terminals were upended, their screens blackened, cracked. Other tanks lay in piles, doors swinging open, bodies dangling on tubes like life-sized puppets. A vat in the corner had toppled as well, coating the floor in a thick, orange substance. Two collapsed operating tables pinned a drone she dimly recognized. When she understood her brows lowered, her teeth clenching against remembered agony. Aside from the automated arms inside her tank, this drone had also collected samples in Saleon's stead. The surgical knife still clasped in its hand bore traces of blood along the blade. Her blood.
Slipping from cover, she crab-walked for the fallen mech, all the while keeping an eye out for potential attackers. Once she yanked the knife free she set it in hand. Though it had been years since she wielded one, any weapon was better than none. The sharp chill in the air shook her, serving as reminder that she might want to invest in some clothes next. Yet the thought of pulling on anything over her feet, lacerated with small cuts as they were, made her grimace. She needed to tend to her injuries before she did anything else.
Her search for some medi-gel took longer than she expected. Most labs had them in plain sight. Saleon, it seemed, did not favor easy access to anesthetics. After she applied the cool gel where necessary she surveyed the cuts already present on her body. Some were still raw and irritated, as if samples had been taken the instant the skin was healed. Resigned to having more than a few new scars, Shepard tossed the empty container, took up the knife and left the tucked-away corner where she had found the station.
An active terminal caught her eye, momentarily deviating her from her want for clothes. Shepard swiftly hacked into it in the hope that it'd grant her access to the rest of the base, or even a rundown of available exits. What she found instead was an archive of messages between Saleon and someone named Brock (no doubt his contact with Eclipse), and none other than Harbinger. She scrolled through these messages, picking out dates and places. Her frown deepened. As she suspected. All corresponded to what she had been doing, and where. Only the final message made no mention of her at all, detailing instead the coordinates of the rendezvous point. She was not surprised that it had been Omega. Well, she'd have a little cleaning up to do as soon as she returned. One thing puzzled her the most. If Saleon had been tracking her too, why had he waited until after Harbinger's demise to strike?
A distant explosion brought her back to the present. Moving away from the terminal, knife hefted, she listened to the unmistakable sounds of battle in the corridor beyond. When the door opened she dropped into the shadows near an upright operating table. She remained perfectly still, waiting for the intruder- or intruders- to show.
Three harvesters entered, shuffling their way to Shepard's tank. Upon seeing it empty they began calling her name with pitiable desperation. Shepard sought the much larger knife on the table, gripping its handle in her other hand while they continued groaning. She drew a deep breath, steadied herself, and sprang into action.
The thrown knife caught the middle harvester right in the back of the head. It gurgled noisily and fell forward. The other two spun round, eyes wide, mouths dropping open. She almost felt sorry for them, they gazed at her so stupidly. After a moment they charged. The sympathy lasted about as long as it took her to slit one's throat and drop the second by slamming the heel of her palm against its nose. The harvester's face imploded with a sickening sound. Blood gushed from the wound to coat her forearm, shoulder and left cheek. She had already moved on by the time the other two exploded, mismatched body parts raining down and hitting the floor with thick, moist sounds.
Shepard was searching the nearby storage lockers for either a gun or clothes when she heard another pair of footsteps. Bending over, her hand snapping up one of the knives from the floor, she hid behind a pair of cabinets in the corner. The newcomer's steps were slow, measured, indicating their careful approach into the lab. Whoever it was undoubtedly expected an ambush. Shepard flattened herself against the cabinet, her hand tensing on the knife as she waited. She saw the end of a pistol first, then a slender arm sheathed in yellow. Shepard's first thought was, Good, a woman. My search for clothes just ended, before she acted.
The knife plunged into the woman's forearm, forcing a sharp, pained scream from her. Shepard spun into the open, one hand gripping the merc's wrist as her other brought the knife up. The woman's hoarse cry of pain was cut short as the commander slashed her throat open. She dropped to the floor, her body going through its death throes while Shepard relieved her of her gun and spare thermal clips. She eyed the weapon with satisfaction, testing its weight in her palm. While not her own, she'd take it.
So involved in stripping the dead merc, Shepard did not realize someone else had entered until a familiar, rumbling voice drawled, "Normally I'd question why you were standing naked in the middle of a room, but, all things considered, I can appreciate the view."
Shepard, who had been in the midst of bending over, whirled round with gun pointed. Garrus stood a short distance away, leaning to the side as he was wont to do, head cocked, his assault rifle shouldered. The overhead light sank into his eyes, allowing her to see the wry amusement in them.
She lowered her gun with a disgruntled sigh. "Dammit, Garrus," she began, trying hard to sound annoyed but unable to, not when her relief and joy at seeing him was so profound. She resumed pulling on the one-piece black bodysuit, shimmying it up and past her thighs. "Don't sneak up on me like that," she groused, sliding her arms through the sleeves.
He laughed at her complaint. "If I hadn't, I'd be on the ground next to her," he countered, unapologetic as always. As she watched him stride forward, she couldn't keep up with the pretense any longer. Damn but it was good to see him.
The moment he reached her side she turned, took hold of either side of his face and brought it to her level. As soon as their foreheads touched, all the tension in her body- and his- fled. Garrus sagged against her, one hand coming to a rest at her waist, his relieved sigh reminiscent of a big cat's purr. For a time they remained that way, silently rejoicing in the other's presence.
"Shepard," he murmured huskily when she drew back. His hand crept up her side for her shoulder, as if he were about to embrace her. However, his palm brushed against one of the wounds there, causing her to flinch and shy away. The softness present in his eyes abruptly hardened. Without a word, he called up his omni-tool, his breath catching in his throat. "What the hell did that son of a bitch do to you?"
"Nothing a bullet in Saleon's head won't fix," she answered roughly, turning away to collect the yellow armored pieces. She fit them into place with swift, jerky movements, feeling his eyes on her. She had seen the smoldering anger in them; it was something she shared. Now fully dressed, she faced him again, her shoulders squared. "Status report."
Garrus wasted no time in bringing her up to speed, his transition from concerned lover to soldier as impressive as ever. As she summarized what she had learned, Garrus' expression gradually darkened. "That harvester of Saleon's is going to be difficult to take down," she finished briskly. "If we want the doctor, we'll have to go through it."
"Good," Garrus replied, locking a new thermal clip in place on his assault rifle with a swift, practiced gesture. There was a dangerous gleam in his eyes, not unlike when he finally got Harkin in a corner. Seeing it quickened her pulse. She had spent entirely too much time in that damn tank. Her body fairly craved the rush only battle could bring. It was time for some payback.
When he presented her sniper rifle and pistol, she accepted them with with a sly smile. "Time to put all that target practice to good use," she commented, sliding the rifle home on her back.
His laugh was a low rumble deep in his throat. "Shooting these mercs is definitely more satisfying."
She sent him a coy glance that promised other methods of satisfaction (to which he replied with an excited mandible twitch) before touching the communicator to her ear. It came active for the first time since her abduction, the relief that swept through her so surprising it left her momentarily dazed. It was at that instant she realized just how cut off she had been. Cursed with being the sole survivor on Akuze, she had an unconscious desire to be connected to her squad members at all times.
"Kaidan? What's your status?"
There was a burst of static before Kaidan responded. "Relieved to hear your voice again for starters," he said, Shepard able to hear the smile in his tone. "I just set the last charge and I'm headed your way."
"Charge?" Shepard arched a brow at Garrus.
He held up his hands. "Hey, don't look at me. It was his idea. I just happened to bring them along."
She laughed in approval. "Careful, Kaidan," she teased, all the while eyeing the turian. "Don't let Garrus rub off on you too much."
"I'll keep that in mind, ma'am," came his dry yet amused response.
Shepard again looked to Garrus, who shrugged nonchalantly. But there was that in his eyes that spoke of eagerness to see this place destroyed. "Did you see any more Eclipse mercs or Saleon?" she asked, returning to the present.
"All the ones I saw were already dead. One of the charges I set took out most of those super soldiers, too. But I didn't see Saleon or the harvesters. Better be on the lookout," Kaidan advised.
"Hmph. Saleon probably has himself holed up somewhere with them," Garrus remarked. He grinned over at Shepard. "At least he'll spare us from turning the base upside down looking for him."
"Let's be sure to express our thanks," she drawled, and Garrus chuckled. "All right, Kaidan. Be careful on your way here. I want us all to get out in one piece."
"Will do, Shepard," he said and signed off.
Now that she had access to an omni-tool, she used it to copy the files from the terminal. Garrus began rooting through storage cabinets looking for anything useful. They had added a few extra clips and medi-gel packs to their supply when Kaidan arrived. Shepard's smile of greeting faded at seeing him favoring his right leg. Before she could question what happened, his arms were around her in a quick, hard hug. When he drew back, he took in the Eclipse uniform with a single raised brow. His smile was amused, reminiscent of days of old. She found herself returning it. "The way's clear," he announced, gesturing over his shoulder. "We should set the last charges from the air."
"Hold it," Garrus said, lifting a hand when Kaidan prepared to move out. "We're not leaving until we find Saleon. Shepard has proof he was working with the Collectors. We need to take him out."
"Garrus-" Kaidan began, his brows drawing together.
"He's right," Shepard interrupted. Her business-like manner and tone brought Kaidan to attention. "This isn't a big place. He's got to be somewhere close by. For all we know, he's already sending his harvesters out to find me."
"So you know why he went after you?" Kaidan asked. Shepard nodded and proceeded to explain. When she was finished, all resistance to staying had fled his eyes. In them she saw grim determination equal to her own. "All right. We need to move fast, though. The charges are set to go off in thirty minutes."
Garrus groaned. "Now you tell us."
"I didn't waste all mine blowing holes in walls for the sake of blowing holes," Kaidan countered with a slight smile. The teasing note in his voice gained Shepard's notice, then a smile touched her lips. Whatever animosity had existed between them must have been taken care of. Confident about their ability to succeed in tracking Saleon down, she signaled for the two to follow her. Both fell into step at her back as she led the way to the far door.
The corridor was unfamiliar to Shepard, leading her to believe the lab was located on the far side of the base. Evidence of Garrus' explosives could be seen all around. Cracks lined the walls, light fixtures hung perilously from wires, the creaking groan caused by their gradual swinging following them all the way down. The acrid stench of melted metal was heavy in the air.
Shepard called up her omni-tool, accessing the base map she had downloaded from the terminal. "There's a large room through that hall," she said, indicating a doorway to their left. She tapped in another string of codes, studying the data that appeared. "Looks like there's only one way in."
"Then that means there's only one way out," Garrus supplied with a nod. "How did you want to do this? You know he'll be throwing his harvesters at us."
"That's when we throw them back. Right, Kaidan?" Shepard said, meeting his gaze. He responded by pulling an energy drink from his pack and downing it. She smiled wryly, recalling the dinner she still owed him. When their eyes met his expression indicated he recalled the same. "Fortunately for us they blow up real nice, so they won't be too much of a challenge. It's the main one that concerns me. We should keep it off balance by-"
"Shh!" Garrus suddenly said, coming to an abrupt halt. When he pulled his gun she did the same. Kaidan followed suit, positioning it offensively as he shadowed Garrus, his steps slow and even. "Hear that?"
Shepard cocked her head. Cerberus' implants had amplified her hearing far above a normal human's, enabling her to listen past the echo of the swinging light fixture and faint explosions. It took a few moments, but soon she identified movement. Her eyes shifted to meet Garrus'. She indicated the door to their far right. At his nod she took the lead, pistol at the ready. Garrus and Kaidan pressed close to her, yet still maintained enough distance to allow her to react should the need arise.
The door stood partially open, the malfunctioning controls sending up showers of blue sparks. Shepard pressed herself to the wall, her gun hefted. Garrus immediately took his place behind her while Kaidan stood across. Slowly, she peered into the narrow seam between the doors, glimpsing what looked like a storage room. Crates of all sorts were scattered across the floor. Shepard narrowed her gaze, listening for movement again. There was a long, drawn-out creaking sound, as if something heavy were being moved into place. What followed was a distinct thud overhead. Remembering the way Thane had used the ducts in the Dantius Towers to literally get the jump on his target, she gestured for the others to aim for the ceiling. The panel directly above them trembled as the movement increased. Shepard tensed, preparing herself for battle.
With a suddenness that actually surprised her, the panel, as well as most of the ceiling, caved in directly atop Kaidan. He barely had time to cry out before smoking rubble stole him from view. Garrus latched onto Shepard and pulled her back when she prepared to jump to Kaidan's rescue.
The instant the dust settled, she descended upon the debris, frantically tossing pieces of ceiling, pipe sections and wires out of the way. Garrus was next to her, moving just as rapidly as she. Upon glimpsing Kaidan's limp hand, she latched onto it.
"Kaidan!" she shouted. "Squeeze my hand if you can hear me!" She barely felt his fingers twitch, his response was so weak.
Determined to get him out before he suffocated, Shepard grabbed onto the sectioned pipe directly at her feet. She glimpsed Garrus' hand closing over the left side when the wall to her right abruptly burst open. Through the billowing dust she identified a tall, broad-shouldered silhouette and a single, piercing yellow eye. Her shouted command to move was lost when Garrus circled her waist with an arm and shoved her out of the way. The Collector-harvester, obviously intended to attack her, launched itself at Garrus instead, driving both back.
Shepard swiftly jumped to her feet, pulling her gun and gripping it tightly. "Garrus!"
The turian grunted as he threw the Collector-harvester against the wall. "Get Kaidan!" he cried. "I'll keep this thing busy long enough to-"
His words were cut off when the Collector-harvester drilled its head into Garrus' midsection, knocking him off balance. Draped at an awkward angle over its shoulder, he was helpless as the Collector-harvester rose to its full height, turned and lobbed him into the opposite wall. He hit so hard it actually dented. But he sprang back to his feet, meeting his enemy halfway. They grappled, hands curled around the other's so tightly Shepard saw streaks of blue and yellow blood trailing between their fingers. They remained like that for a few minutes before the Collector-harvester pushed Garrus clean through the wall. It jumped into the hole after him.
Muttering a curse, she left Garrus to distract their enemy and concentrated on freeing Kaidan. Desperation fueled her every move; she tossed, kicked, or shot debris aside so fast she barely realized how far she had progressed until she spotted Kaidan lying beneath a beam. She threw it off him and knelt down. His head lifted, his face screwing up into a grimace as she took hold of his wrists. "Talk to me," she demanded. "Kaidan!"
"...dammit!" he wheezed at last, pushing himself as much as he could to his elbows. Dust covered his dark hair so much it looked stark white. "Piece got me pretty bad...think my leg's broken."
"Just hold on," she told him. "This is going to hurt like hell."
Kaidan bowed his head in understanding. Shepard then dragged him along, wincing in sympathy when he gave a hoarse cry of pain. He managed to flip onto his side, one hand reaching toward his right leg. Shepard saw the bone poking through the rupture in his armor. Blood poured from the wound.
Taking his arm and looping it over her shoulder, she drew him upright. He groaned in pain as she led him into another room. There she set him on a crate as gently as possible before attending to his wound. He sucked in a breath. "That will have to do," she pronounced, rising to her full height. "But you're done. I need you to stay here. Got it?"
She knew Kaidan was soldier enough to know when he'd been bested. "Understood, ma'am," he said, giving her a half smile. She returned it and went to turn away when he grabbed her hand. "Be careful," he cautioned. There was a haunted look in his eyes. "I don't think I could stand to lose you again."
Shepard approached him and, taking his face between her hands, planted a quick kiss on his lips. The act was so sudden, he didn't have time to respond. When she pulled away, he stared up at her, partially in wonder, mostly in gratitude. "You won't," she assured him. Then, with gun in hand, she turned and sprinted away. Kaidan wasn't the only one worried about losing someone. As she neared the room where Garrus and the Collector-harvester were battling, she remembered how perilously close Garrus had come to dying back on Omega. She'd be damned if she let something like that happen again.
Just hold on, Garrus. I'm coming!