Vega panted, his breath almost steaming. He hadn't figured out why the building temperature dropped so sharply at night, but it probably had something to do with salarian physiology. He was sensitive enough to notice the difference with his clothes off, though. The opening would fit him, but only stripped down to his underwear. Closing his eyes, he took a moment to picture the jeering, mocking comments his fellow officers from his last battalion would have aimed his way, all in good fun.
Opening his eyes, he gritted his teeth, lips spreading in a feral grin, and each hand grabbed a cable bracket. His feet swung up, and out the hole. Easy so far. Holding his body parallel to the floor, muscles taut, he inched closer, more of his legs vanishing through the hole. Bare feet strained for a moment as he tried to find a toehold, then his left toes brushed against a light. Squeezing his eyes closed again, he jerked his head as a drop of sweat crawled down his left eyelid. Both feet were now on the fixture, and he tensed his legs.
One eye open, he moved his hands, one at a time, to the next brackets. Getting his hips through would be not fun, but still easier than his shoulders. He hissed through his teeth as a broken piece of bolt scored a red line up his left thigh, peeling off layers of skin. His blood ran hot down his leg, soaking into his underwear. Man, am I glad I didn't wear boxers today, he thought, moving his right hand again.
His hips were through, and he had to feel for another grip for his feet, in order to keep his body moving. That felt like it took an eternity. Sure, he'd spent plenty of time in the gym, holding up his entire body weight on parallel bars, or grips. But this was a little different.
Latching onto an air vent with his toes, he curled them, ignoring the pain from the dull edge of metal, and continued moving. His gut sucked in, getting him all the way up to his nipples before he could feel the torn edges pressing against him. He hyperventilated on purpose, getting as much oxygen into his blood as he could, then exhaled as hard as possible, and shoved himself forward.
Pain blossomed in a dozen spots before his shoulders were through, and the breeze from the air circulation made him pretty sure he'd inadvertently shaved one armpit. He pushed off, letting go with his toes, and felt the brush of the wall against his head before he hit the floor. Arms and legs slapped out in textbook form, and after a second, he sat up, rubbing the back of his head.
"Any one you walk away from," he muttered to himself. Rising to his feet, he checked over the injuries he'd sustained; like he expected, all minimal, none that would impair him. His clothes were off to one side where he'd tossed them, and he pulled them on quickly, ignoring the blood soaking into the fabric. The most sturdy piece of metal he had left was with them; better than no weapon, still not the best against a krogan.
Still barefoot, he snuck down the hall. This was that first building he'd explored with Shepard, though he was on the opposite side of the building. The cleaning robot was shut down for the night, but the stupid thing wasn't even equipped with a VI; unless someone hacked it, it would start up the next morning and clean up the blood like nothing had happened.
Outside, the base was dark. With no occupants, there were no external lights, and the planet didn't have a moon of significant enough size. Once his eyes adjusted, Vega hefted his club, and started creeping across the open ground towards the other building. Possibility one was that the nutcase krogan had locked him up and forgotten about him. Possibility two was that Vega was walking into a trap.
He'd seen enough from the husks on Dekunna. They liked dragging away hostages, leaving them looking just appealing enough to get the soldiers to come to their rescue. Especially because the elcor, unlike the turians, couldn't countenance abandoning their people, regardless of the risk. Then they'd have twice the number of hostages to convert.
This one, though, didn't act like the typical Reaper stooge. For starters, he was alone. Which hopefully meant that Vega could do something to stop him.
Nothing happened when he triggered the airlock into the lab, which at best meant there was only a silent alarm. But as he slipped through the halls, no automated defenses came on, no krogan materialized out of the half-lit halls. Even the doors were unlocked.
First step was to find out what happened to Shepard and the rachni. Despite his urge to find the indoctrinated nut, Vega had to be quiet. The place was huge, and unlike the building he'd been locked in, any sound he made would echo.
He found the rachni first, huddled together in a miserable looking clump in a cage. He could tell it was sealed and pressurized, but while he could probably turn off whatever was pumping in, he couldn't read krogan or salarian to know if it was drugs or oxygen. They didn't react to his presence, even when he put a hand against the window, and no way was he getting the door open without a lot more noise.
It didn't take long to find Shepard from there. Several screens and holo displays were filled with scrolling information that made no sense to him, except the one showing heartbeat, respiration, and maybe brainwaves? Wired sensors were taped to her skin, several needles poked into her hands and arms, and a small tube fed into each nostril. What the hell is he doing to her?
Footsteps echoed through the room, and he backed away, looking around for somewhere to hide. Another table was nearby, a cloth draped over it, and he ducked behind it, hoping it would keep him concealed. After thirty seconds or so, the elderly krogan appeared, coming from somewhere opposite the direction of the rachni cage. "Had a good dream?" he said to his sleeping patient. One large hand touched her face, smooth and unmarred by worry or stress. "I hope so. Let's try memory cluster four one."
As Vega watched, Okeer entered several commands, and suddenly Shepard tensed on the bed. Only then did he realize that she'd been strapped down as well, the restraints stopping her from fully arching her back and rolling away. As he slipped out from behind the concealing fabric, moving soundlessly, the krogan hummed to himself, something slow and melancholy, watching the screens and only entering a new command once every several seconds.
Drawing himself up behind the krogan, Vega focused in drawing his breath in without a sound to betray him, tightened his hands on the metal chair leg, and swung. At the same moment he moved, Okeer whirled around, biotics already coalescing around his heavy fists. Focused on their attacks, neither gave a moment's thought to defense, and as a result both struck heavily.
Vega went flying backwards, slamming into the medical table he'd just hidden under, and toppled it over. His pained breath, and the stabbing feeling in his chest, were pretty familiar – at least one cracked rib, probably four or five. He spat blood out of his mouth, took half a second to check his teeth with his tongue, and pushed off the floor. The biotic punch hadn't punctured a lung, but man did fighting on a couple of cracked ribs suck. He lumbered forward, grabbing the tipped edge of the table with one hand, focusing through the pain as he lifted it off the floor.
Okeer still lay there, bone showing through one shin where Vega's strike had shattered the krogan's leg. His biotics were working flawlessly, and a shelf full of lab equipment toppled towards him. Vega stepped backward, interposing the table as a shield. Sensitive and expensive items shattered, coating the floor with glass and plastic shards.
With a wordless shout of anger, Vega hefted the table above his head, pouring the pain of his cracked ribs into his voice, and hurled the whole thing at the krogan. He had a brief instant where he could see the surprise on Okeer's face, then a biotic aura surrounded the table, boosting it further into the air to cause an untold amount of further damage deeper in the room. Another bolt of biotic energy barely missed Vega, shattering the monitoring equipment next to the table he'd thrown.
"Stop! You don't know what I'm trying to do," Okeer shouted, pushing backwards with his good leg, getting further away from Vega, Shepard, and the hazard-littered floor.
Snarling, Vega grabbed the toppled set of shelves, and swept part of a path clear as he picked it up. "You're taking us prisoner to experiment on Shepard," he said, and threw the shelves. Again, a biotic field knocked it aside, but the shattered scanner hurled right behind it went through, broken plastic slamming into the large krogan hump, tearing clothes and drawing blood.
The next attack came from behind him, as a cabinet door tore free, slamming into his legs from behind and sending Vega toppling to the floor. It wasn't painful, but the slivers of glass and plastic driven into his skin as he rolled around to avoid the rest of the cabinet, toppling over, would slow him down.
To Okeer's surprise, the next biotic field wasn't his. Instead it surrounded him, lifting the injured krogan weightlessly above the floor. From Vega's left, behind Shepard, two figures moved into the lighted area, flanking her bed. "Move, and I swear you'll be so full of tungsten you'll show up on scanners from orbit," Jacob said. EDI looked much more threatening, staring down the geth assault rifle she held.
Vega started to laugh, but stopped at the first flare of pain. "What took you so long?" Rubbing the bruise marks on the back of his own shins, he stood up, favoring his right foot until he could get the glass pulled out of it. "Where's Legion?"
Okeer started to move, and something else moved in the darkness, breaking the biotic hold and slamming him to the floor. Restraints locked around his arms, keeping them twisted behind his back. "We are present, Vega-Lieutenant." The geth looked up, keeping its weight atop the scientist. "You are injured."
"I'll live." Balancing on his left foot, he looked at the blood covering his sole. "Anyone got a spare omni? He fried mine. Nice timing, Taylor."
"It's a gift. EDI, if that krogan moves, shoot his leg off." Armored boots ground glass and plastic into powder as he strode through the mess. "Legion, what's he doing to Shepard?"
The geth traded with the feminine mech, and examined the monitors for only a second. "Okeer-Scientist is artificially stimulating the damaged portions of Shepard-Commander's brain. His equipment has a device designed to translate human brain activity into audio-visual communication. We are uncertain what is meant to be gained from this experiment."
"Immunity to indoctrination," Okeer growled.
Vega shook his head. "Hang up, he caused brain damage?"
Legion did the head-tilt thing that usually meant it was confused by organic behavior. "No. Shepard-Commander has been slowly developing a build-up of neurotransmitters, damaging receptors in her brain. Chakwas-Doctor believes this is a side-effect of her time travel."
Jacob looked at him and shrugged. "News to me."
"Me too." Shaking his head, he looked back at his foot. "Omni, please? Then some medi-gel? Definitely some cracked ribs over here."
Watching the krogan carefully, Taylor passed his shotgun over, then removed his gauntlet to unstrap his omni. "Legion, can you shut it down?"
It turned back to the monitors. "Yes." Several beeps, and a recorded warning in salarian, echoed through the room, but Shepard's tense forehead relaxed. "It will take several minutes before Shepard-Commander is safe to awaken."
"Right. He had me locked up in one of the other buildings. Why don't we return the favor?" Vega asked, using the omni's fields to pull out the slivers.
"Sounds good to me. You think he can walk on that leg?"
"I don't know. I mean, he's one loco krogan, but damn I hit him harder than I thought."
Laying on the floor, Okeer sighed. "All I was trying to do was examine her. Find out why the Reapers can't indoctrinate her." He squirmed in his restraints, and EDI fired a round into his other leg. He only turned his head far enough to glare at her. "The Lystheni didn't do as good a job as they thought. I can hear them, the Reapers. I can resist, sometimes, if I can time my actions. Right now, they're distracted."
Again, Taylor and Vega exchanged confused looks. "EDI, can you drag him without causing too much more damage to his legs?"
She considered it for several seconds, a worrying delay to Vega, before answering. "Yes."
"Fine." Taylor took back his shotgun, and motioned towards the front door. "Let's get him locked up. Then we'll deal with other issues." It took a relative eternity to get Okeer moved to the other building, to a room out of sight from Vega's former prison, and a matter of moments for Legion to copy enough geth runtimes into the cleaning bot to serve as a warning system should the krogan escape. Once they were back outside, well away, did Taylor turn to him. "Wondering what's going on?"
"Yeah. What's with EDI?" He looked around the compound. "And where's the Mako?"
"Left it a klick south, snuck through the jungle. He set off some kind of atmospheric EMP, scrambled all the communication channels." Pausing, he looked around. "Legion, you still think you can get the comms up and running?"
"Yes. That building houses a compact satellite antenna. Unless the equipment was damaged, we should be able to contact Normandy in ninety-seven minutes." The geth took two steps away before stopping. "Shepard-Commander could awaken in as little as fifteen minutes. Our knowledge of human physiology is still incomplete. We think … she should not be alone."
"You got it, Legion. We'll head inside in a second." Taylor nodded, waiting until it vanished around the corner towards the more distant antenna. "You think it's right?"
Vega breathed out carefully, still feeling the twinge in his chest despite the medigel he'd gotten. "Yeah. At least, something's been up. Maybe you didn't notice, but the Commander's been real careful not to use her biotics the last few weeks. We've all seen the doc a bunch. But she doesn't look relieved to walk out of the med bay." One hand rubbed the stubble on his chin. "Dios Mio."
"You said it." For a moment, Taylor stared up at the stars. "Alright, let's see what we can do for Leopard while we wait for Shepard to wake up."
They walked inside together, and stopped again to stare at the destruction spread around the lab. "Think the rest of the galaxy is this messed up?" Vega asked, nudging the table he'd thrown.
"I hope not. But I bet it is." Falling silent, he led the way to the captured rachni.
Before they managed to open the rachni's prison, Shepard awoke. They didn't realize at first, since she didn't move, or say anything. She lay there, still on the bed, eyes staring into the darkness above her as she listened to them argue.
"No, vato, I'm telling you, we should shut off this thing first. Then we open those panels." Vega's voice was more amused than annoyed, but he punctuated it by thunking something.
"Right, and which one of us has firsthand experience with biotics? If you shut that off, whatever this chemical is going to keep pumping in." Something tinged with a high, musical metallic sound. "Stop that thing. Then we can pop off those panels."
Several frustrated grunts echoed through the room as they worked, before Vega swore. "What if we just pop off the panels and pull them out of the building?"
"How about a double serving of no. I don't know what that chemical is, only that it's inhibiting their biotics. If it works on me, you have to get everyone out of the place by yourself, and you're not strong enough to pick up Leopard." Jacob let out a growl, and something clattered to the floor. "Take that, you overdeveloped salarian garbage."
"Me? Weak? Have you seen these muscles?" That comment was enough for Shepard to turn her head, staring in their direction. She couldn't see all of the burly Marine, but she could see enough to tell he was posing, typical macho man poses.
Jacob laughed. "Really? That's it? Guess you don't need my help to get that tank out of that bracket."
"You've got biotics, I'm doing this all on pure muscle." Now it was Vega's turn to growl, and grunt, and something tore loose with an ear-splitting squeal. "Bam! How you like them apples?"
"Fine, so you're not completely worthless. Ready to get this panel off?" As Shepard sat up, she could see them, holding quick-forged tools fabricated out of the broken items, and they set about prying the weld-sealed bolts out. "So how many push-ups can you do without stopping?" Jacob asked, sentence breaking up between breaths.
"Pull-ups are my thing," Vega shot back. "Gotta keep the guns maintained." He ducked as the first bolt ripped out, skimming over his hair. "One down, twelve to go."
Two seconds later, the one on Jacob's side ripped out, hanging on the warped panel. "Eleven. Pull-ups don't work your legs though. Or stamina."
They reset their tools for the next pair. "That's what cardio's for. Ten klicks every day, thirty minutes."
"Swimming though. Better full-body workout. On three." Jacob counted, and they through their full combined strength against the panel, popping out the next two bolts.
"Hard to do on a ship. Unless the engineer's trying to drown you in the tanks." Vega grunted again, and she was close enough to see the veins popping out as he strained.
Looking down at her left hand, Shepard focused. Since she woke up, from whatever Okeer had done to her, she hadn't felt the pain. Was that good, or bad? She summoned a wisp of biotic power, letting it dance over her fingertips. No muscle twitching, no stabbing pains in her head and spine. Had he cured her?
Reaching out, she grabbed the panel with her biotics, every bolt ripping free simultaneously as she crumpled the two-millimeter thick steel like tinfoil. "Huh. No pain." Holding up her hand, the skull-sized metal shot into her palm as though weightless. "Cool."
"Commander?" She looked up, meeting Taylor's gaze as her biotics faded and the panel slammed to the floor. "Are you alright?"
Tilting her head, she considered it. "I'm not sure. I don't feel any pain from using my biotics, but I feel kind of detached. Uncaring? It's odd. I know the Reapers are still coming, but somehow I don't care right now." Blinking, she realized that Vega had stripped off his shirt, and Jacob's was plastered to his body. "You two look ready to pose for a calendar."
They looked at each other, sharing some notion that she just wasn't grasping right now. "Alright, Commander, I think you're still under the influence of something from Okeer. Let's sit outside and get some fresh air, ok?" Taylor took her arm, leading her towards the door, while Vega stepped inside the prison. She caught one last glimpse of half a tattoo, the other half vanishing at the edge of burn-scarred skin, before she was guided out of his sight.
"I can walk, you know," she complained, but didn't shake off his hand until they were outside. "Wow, this planet is pretty beautiful. You think the Reapers will still destroy it if we leave?"
"It wouldn't surprise me." They fell silent, staring up at the stars. "Do you think we can win?"
"I used do. Now I just don't know. It was easier, before I talked to the Catalyst. I thought I could shut it down, the Reapers would be dead, and I could run off with Garrus and hunt pirates in the Traverse. But now? I don't know." Her mouth hung open as her eyes traced patterns in the stars, forgetting constellations as soon as her mind put them together. "What did Okeer do to me?"
"I don't know. Once Legion gets the satellite working, we'll have Chakwas check you out." He guided her to a fairly bare spot between the buildings, holding her hand as she sat on the moss-like plant that covered the ground.
"That's good. She's the only one that's stood by me the whole way, you realize? Her, Joker, Tali and Garrus. Now Tali's left me for her people, Joker doesn't know whether to trust me, and Garrus …" She fell silent, eyes falling from the heavens to the wiry yellow-green curlicues between her feet. "I ruined him, didn't I?"
Jacob shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I don't know. I hardly talked to him before Khar'shan."
It took a few moments for him to look back at her, and discover she'd fallen asleep again, head resting on her knees and arms wrapped around herself. With a frown etched firmly on his face, he stared down at her for a few moments before headed back inside. He found Vega using a shelf as a fan, doing his best to circulate new air towards the rachni. "She's asleep again."
"This is bad. I hope it's just the residue from whatever Okeer did to her, but." Vega fell silent, and shook his head.
Jacob just nodded back. Stepping inside, he drew on his biotics, lifting one of the rachni and carrying him outside the cage. "So who else should we get for this calendar?"
The resulting laughter almost made Vega drop the shelf, as he doubled over. "Oh, oh, oh man," he managed to get out, as Jacob just stared at him. "I just had the thought, of Garrus posing nude, with like just his rifle."
Blinking, he shook his head. "What, and a caption like, 'I'll savor your heat sink,'?" Vega laughed harder at his comment, actually falling to his knees. "Joker can be in the pilot seat, 'Please don't break my heart.'"
Whimpering through his hilarity, Vega waved one hand at his face. "Zaeed saying, 'Love hurts.'"
Starting to laugh with him, Jacob looked at the rachni. "Leopard, with, 'I can make you break out in goosebumps.'"
Legion walked in, looking between them in confusion. "We do not understand. What is so funny?"
The two men looked at each other again, both laughing, but Jacob got the words out first. "We have direct input for your pleasure ports." Vega finished his fall to the floor, paralyzed with laughter.
"Vega-Lieutenant, we still do not understand. Taylor lieutenant?" After several more seconds of laughter and incoherent noises, Legion made an internal note to replay the portion of the conversation they had overheard with Joker-Pilot. That human had done more for geth understanding of organic thoughts and emotions than any other, surely he could explain.
Author's Note: Alright folks, here's the last Reloaded I've written for a bit. I'm going to attempt to write some Ascension next month for Camp NaNo, and I've already finished a story for the Mass Effect Big Bang story contest, so you'll see that in May-ish when the contest is over.