Chapter 3 - The Ride Back

 

Art by Seo Kanori on Tumblr

 

Tao glanced at his omni-tool. He turned to the sky outside. The storm had slammed into the base like a blast from a Thannix canon. Amir and Garcia were still in the showers.

And Kovács is still not back.

Tao grunted as he stood. The medi-cast took his weight well, but it was still sore if he overworked the ankle. He was worried. Tao headed out their shared sleeping quarters towards Ishida's room.

That bastard took the only private room in the place.

There was a red holo-lock on the door. Tao pressed his palm against it to announce his presence. It took just a couple of seconds for it to turn green and hissed open. “One minute,” a voice drifted over from inside.

Tao hobbled in.

"Hey buddy, that's all for today. I'll record another chapter to you tomorrow," Ishida spoke.

"Story time for your son?" Tao asked.

A black hair man dressed in the standard blue Alliance uniform got up from his desk and approached him. “Yeah, recording it. I was supposed to call him tonight but you know... the storm,” he gestured at the windows.

Tao and Ishida weren't just fellow soldiers. They had enlisted and trained together as rookies.

Ishida nodded as he got up from his desk. "It's not the same, but it's the best I can do, being stuck here," he said. "What's up?"

“Has Kovács reported in, Sergeant?”

“Come on, Tao. Do you really want me to address you by your rank instead of your name?” Ishida asked. “You know better than to call me that when we’re alone,”

Tao grinned while Ishida ran his hand through his hair before checking the time on his omni-tool. "No, to answer your question,” he replied, “but I’ve checked with the guys at the port, the shuttle left just before the storm hit. Our baby Corporal isn’t stranded somewhere out in space waiting out the storm.”

Tao snorted as he glanced out of the window meaningfully. There was nothing to see, just sand and more sand swirling around. He hummed in frustration.

Ishida chuckled. “Ever the mother hen huh?”

He glanced at the window and grunted. With a quick tap on his omni-tool, Ishida turned his window opaque. “Worry only when they are actually late. They probably left just ahead of the storm.”

Tao sighed, not looking convinced.

“With the only hard lines running between the base and port, they will be out of comms signal anyway. You know how hardy those Makos are anyway.”

“Yeah, those things never die, no matter how badly you drive one,” Tao agreed.

He couldn’t help think his desire to have a kid had sent his paternal instincts into overdrive. And this flock of wild children needed some serious tending. He had two missing chicks out there in the storm.

“But maybe if we could send-“

Ishida sighed, running her fingers through his hair. “You know sending another Mako out to look for them is not going to be a great idea.”

Tao grimaced. “Fine, fine,” he said as he sank into an empty chair.

Ishida turned back to his terminal, ignoring Tao. They were so similar at the start of their career but after boot camp, they were assigned to different posts. Look how they turned out. Tao was still a lowly lance-corporal while Ishida was a sergeant, running the show, albeit a backwater Alliance base but that was still something, right?

That’s what getting blown up in your first posting does to your career.

Tao shook his head, pushing old thoughts out of his head. It was useless to dwell on shit like this. He just wanted to last long enough to end of his current five-year stint and get out with his bonus.

And Ryan has waited long enough. With the bonus we can finally finding a nice and quiet colony and actually spend more time together.

That thought put a smile on his lips. Tao sighed.

“I’ll let you know when it’s really time to worry,” Ishida called as Tao made his way out.


The Mako was quiet. Well, quiet was a relative term. The plinks and clanks of debris hitting the Mako, even muffled through the heavy armour plates, was a near constant drone. Ryder’s eyes darted worryingly over everything within her field of vision. An odd creaking sound caught her ears. Worry spiked as she searched for the source of the noise. The soldier’s leather gloves were tightening over the rubber grip of the steering wheel over and over.

Creak…

She sighed.

Say something. The private is way too wind up. He is going to freak out if something just goes slightly wrong and jerk that damn wheel. And we’ll all go flipping in the wind.

Ryder blurted the first question that came to her mind. “What’s your name?”

Oh for fuck’s sake, that’s the best question you can think of? She groaned inwardly at herself. However, the question seemed to work. The soldier blinked and frowned a little, but his grip relaxed.

He turned and looked at her, blue eyed and blonde hair, looking so damn young. Fuck, did he just came out of boot?

“Ahh…” he said.

Did I fucking break him?

“Private, what’s your name?” she repeated, pressing her advantage, checking his collar for his rank.

He cleared his throat this time. “Kovács, Istvan,” the answer came out shakily and a little higher than before.

Well, that was a better response than before. Then, his gloves creaked again. Come on, keep the conversation going. That’s not hard right? This should be fucking easy. Just simple human shit.

“My name is Ryder,” she offered.

He nodded and repeated her name to himself. “Ryder, yeah Ryder.”

She waited for the instant look of recognition, the double take, the question that inevitably came from having a well known father. Her eyes narrowed, sure it was going to come any moment now. The seconds ticked by. Nothing. She exhaled.

Now that’s refreshing.

Pleasantly surprised, she hummed. Kovács took his eyes off the road, his expression bemused and a little more relaxed than before.

In the space between seconds, Ryder spotted something dark ahead. “Watch the road!” she hissed.

But as her voice launched the words from her mouth, the Mako jerked. The movement launched them for a split second into the air, as it ran over a larger than usual crater. Without the five point harness strapping her securely against the seat, Ryder was sure she would have smashed her head against the windscreen. “Fuck,” Ryder cursed, bracing herself against the dashboard. “Just watch the road.”

Her eyes couldn’t help, but check the integrity of the windscreen again. Her heart thudded in protest of the scare. Kovács looked paler than he had before as he nodded fevertly. His gloves creaked again.

And we’re back at square one.

The Mako hummed happily along, the only one blasé about the entire situation.

Maybe shutting up is the best thing to do.

She sighed inwardly. Being a corporal was different from being a private or even a lance-corporal. She was expected to lead, to inspire, to bolster morale. Despite going through the training, having the chevron on her collar to prove that she was a corporal, Ryder didn’t feel remotely ready to do it.

She wasn’t good with talking or charismatic like Scott was. She didn’t have the years of experience or the sheer competence like her father. What she did have was her common sense and her biotics. Her jaw tightened as she pushed her doubts and apprehension aside. There were more pressing business at hand.

Minutes ticked by, but they passed like they were hours. Kovács broke the silence. “There’s the base,” he said, relief ringing clear in his voice.

Her eyes darted towards her map, their tiny little blip was indeed closer now. She could make out the road a little better, like they were finally outpacing the storm. In the distance, there was something, but it was still vague enough that she refused to celebrate yet. She kept a vigilant watch. She didn’t need a repeat of what happened earlier. That took five years off her lifespan, she was sure.

Out of the corner of her eye, Kovács turned towards her, taking his fucking eyes off the road again. His mouth split in a goofy grin as he jabbed his finger at the vague structure ahead.

There was something small, something fast whizzed directly at them. Even a pebble at the velocity that the winds were travelling would be deadly. Ryder acted. Instincts overriding everything else.

A warning. “Look out!”

Then, her hand shot out and jerked the steering wheel out of Kovács’ hands.

“Hey!” he protested, angry and confused.

As the Mako swerved to the left, their bodies slammed against the side. A loud thump was followed by the unmistakable sound of something cracking.

Fuck.

She let go of the wheel once she was sure Kovács had his attention where it belonged once more. Her eyes were focused on the spider-web lines of cracking glass radiated from the top right corner of the windscreen.

“Shit,” he cursed, also noticing it.

“Watch where you're going!” she shouted.

Ryder’s heart slammed against her chest. She had to do something. Her left hand twisted in the familiar mnemonic, drawing from her core. A sharp scent of ozone suffused the air.

She kept it tightly controlled, keeping the flashy parts of biotics under wraps. Ryder grimaced behind her helmet, her teeth set on edge. Her concentration pin-point sharp as she pulled up a barrier just over the affected area.

No need to make it too obvious.

Ryder didn’t want to take any chances especially with the windscreen, but at the same time she didn’t trust Kovács not to freak out. Most Alliance grunts weren’t trained to work alongside biotics, unless they were part of the combat squads. Kovács is green and part of a garrison force. Both things pointed towards a lack of exposure to biotics.

Fear and biogtry against biotics were commonplace and the Alliance was no different. And as far as biotics had come, there were still so many people who didn’t understand biotics, didn’t care to understand them. Thus biotics would always remained as freaks, mutants and all manner of unsavoury words to those people. Biotics were discovered in the wake of babies being born with horrible birth defects and incurable cancers. The fear, the hatred were understandable to a certain degree, but the biotics were children too. They didn’t ask for the curse they bore.

She sighed. This wasn’t the time to ponder about the misogyny that biotics faced. As much as she didn’t want to announce the fact she was a biotic, even though a simple check of her Alliance records would reveal the truth easily enough, she wasn’t about to let them get eaten up by a sand storm.

Ryder gritted her teeth and concentrated on keeping the windscreen in one piece. Corporal or no, Alliance or no, some prejudices ran too deep.


Kovács frowned but kept his eyes trained on the road, finally learning his lesson. The faint cracking sound tugged at his attention. Out of his peripheral vision, he could see the snaking lines as the crack widened. It was expanding. Panic surged up his chest. This is not good. A strange faint blue glow covered the crack. The sound stopped. What the fuck?

“This is reinforced glass right?” Kovács blurted, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.

“Fuck, should I know!” Ryder barked their voice curt, trying to keep a tight control on something. They gestured with their hand. “Just drive!”

The bright spot on the horizon grew brighter until a sudden shift in the wind direction revealed the lights of the base. The perimeter gates was wide open and inviting. Kovács, to his credit, drove the Mako in safely. As it came to a jerky stop, he panted. Sweat drenched his brow as he took in his surroundings. He couldn’t quite believe he did it.

Ryder sagged back against their seat, their breaths coming through the helmet harsh and loud. As if they were the one actually keeping their asses out of the damn storm. Kovács snorted, noticing that pieces of the windscreen were actually falling onto the dashboard. It wasn’t just a crack it was now a fucking hole. He frowned as he picked up one of the larger pieces.

“How?” he turned towards the Corporal, but he found they had exited the Mako.

Kovács hopped out quickly to follow. “Did you see that? The windscreen, it…” His words dried up in his mouth as the Corporal took off their helmet.

Long brown hair that was bundled into a ponytail tumbled out of the helmet. Large brown eyes turned to regard him and Kovács blinked. “You’re a girl?”

She frowned, narrowing her eyes at him. “What about it, Private?” she replied, the emphasis on his rank.

Shit, shit, shit. “No ma’am, no problem, ma’am,” Kovács stammered, snapping a salute at her. “I…”

She shook her head and snorted, cutting him off. “Just show me to the barracks, Kovács.”

She rubbed her forehead, looking at him as if he was a mild irritant. It was then he realised she wasn’t dressed in the standard blue Alliance armour as his eyes drifted over her. Hers was a matte grey, black and blue. She only had a pistol strapped to her thigh, no weapons on her magnetic holsters.

A sigh pulled his attention. His eyes snapped back to hers, noting her much shorter height. Why the fuck didn’t I notice before?

“Kovács, I’m tired, it’s late. I want to get some chow, a shower and then bunk in. How does that sound?”

Kovács nodded. “Sounds great, ma’am.”

Before he could lead her anywhere, the Sergeant came in with Tao. Kovács’ gaze drifted between the two and gulped. I’m probably in big fucking trouble. She must have been writing me up on her omni-tool. He sighed and waited to be berated.

She snapped to attention and saluted. “At ease, Corporal,” Ishida said. “Welcome to Janus, I’m sorry you arrived in one of the worst storms ever.”

She offered a wan smile. “It’s fine, sir. I survived, thanks to Private Kovács.”

Ishida’s eyes flicked over to him. Kovács straightened, his hand automatically snapping a salute. “Is that so, Kovács?”

“Yes, Sergeant.” he said, “But uhh… the windscreen is broken.”

Ishida sighed. “How did you manage that? The Mako is well nigh in destructible. There is always just something with you huh, Kovács.”

Then a clear growl of an empty stomach interrupted him. All eyes turned to the new Corporal. He laughed.

“Right,” he said, turning to Tao, “Get our baby Corporal to the mess and show her around, will you?”

“Will do,” Tao replied easily.

Ishida turned back to him, hands on his hips. “Now show me what the fuck you broke, Kovács.”

Tao jerked his head towards the door that led to the rest of the base. She pulled her duffle bag over her shoulder. “Thanks for the ride, Kovács,” she said as she left.

Kovács nodded. “Yes, ma’am"

The baby Corporal sighed. “Enough with the ma’am bullshit, Kovács. My name is Ryder, use it.”