Ryder frowned even as she kept her eyes closed. A bunch of voices drifted over from both sides of her bed. Lockers were being opened roughly and slammed closed. There was no care taken for how loud they spoke or just bumbled around the lockers. Vaguely she wondered what time it was. She was sure it wasn’t quite dawn, whatever passed for dawn on Janus, just yet.
Ryder knew she the ranking non-commissioned officer in the barracks, but at the same time she was young. Thank fuck I'm not the youngest, otherwise I'll be getting no end of grief. Being the youngest Corporal is bad enough. Ishida made that very clear when he called her baby Corporal. She cringed at the nickname. From what she could tell, the other men had the same idea. Lead by example why don't you, Sergeant?
New base, new assignment, but it was the same old shit. Enlisting at 16 via the then brand new Alliance Biotics programme did her no favours in this department. And fuck why did she have to look so baby-faced too?
“Who is this?” a voice asked, coming from somewhere to her left.
Ryder could feel the presence bending over her. “That’s the baby,” a second voice replied.
“Really? Is she a looker?” the voice said, edging closer.
Through her closed eyes she could sense the barrack's overhead lights darkened as if someone was bending over her. This had gone too far. Ryder’s eyes snapped over to find a boy with a mop of brown hair, not quite a man probably younger than she was, peering at her. He jerked back in fright.
“Shit!” he yelled, pressing a hand against his chest. “You’re trying to scare the shit out of me?”
Ryder sighed. This is the part I hate it the most. It was the same wherever she went. Her jaw was set as she sat up. She eyed the two flanking her. They had bunks on either side of her.
Different squad, same bullshit, all the fucking time.
She swung her legs off her bed and stood. Her hands quick with a hair tie to pull her hair into a sloppy ponytail tied low. One cannot look intimidating if one has bed head.
Ignoring the one who had been hovering her in favour of the other, “What’s going on?”
“Shift change. We just got back,” the dusky skinned man replied as he moved back to his bunk to stow his gear.
Ryder glanced around at the barracks and realised it was empty save for Tao and Kovács. Both of them were still snoring away. She tapped on her omni-tool - 0600 hours. One glance out the windows, Ryder could see the swirling sands, the storm hadn’t blown itself out just yet. She barely had three hours of sleep. And that’s hot on the heels of all the bad sleep she got transferring from ship to ship trying to get from the Citadel to Janus.
“What’s your name?” The boy asked, a cheeky grin on his face, recovering from his fright. “I’m Melnik.”
Ryder regarded Melnik for a moment. His stance wide and open, the cock of his hip confident. He was assured with his charm. She raised an eyebrow at him and blinked, unsure what to make of this quick shift. Before she could formulate a response, the other interrupted. "Introductions will come later, Melnik. After Ishida has a chance to brief her.”
Ryder nodded her thanks, not quite ready to be social so early in the day and not having brush her teeth yet. She grabbed her toiletries and headed to the showers.
Ryder took herself down to the mess. Well, to call it a mess hall was a little too generous. It was merely a room with a single food dispenser. The Janus base didn't house enough soldiers to warrant an actual mess hall.
So no real food.
Ryder was utterly disappointed when faced with the single food dispenser after properly waking up. Last night, Tao just waved a hand towards the mess and pointed it out to her.
She stared at the selection. It was abysmal. Ryder tapped at her omni-tool hoping that more choices were available for her via the tool.
Nope, no such luck.
According to the information, the selections were cycled through every day. Though it ran through a grand total of three sets of selections. Ryder sighed.
Her eyes scanned through the choices, reconstituted chicken stew with rice, reconstituted scrambled eggs with bread and reconstituted garden salad with barley. Ryder frowned.
How does one reconstitute a salad?
Her eyes drifted over to the opened box of ration bars. Ryder knew how they smelt faintly of salted fish and tasted like cardboard, if she was lucky. But they were familiar and reliably bad. The stuff that came out of the food dispenser were usually a toss up. She narrowed her eyes and eventually pushed her cup into the holder. A quick jab at the screen for scrambled eggs with bread. The machine hummed as it did its magic.
Yellow sludge oozed out of the nozzle. She wasn't holding out much hope for taste. The machine shuddered to a halt as the final bit of sludge fell into her cup with a plop.
At least they got the colour right.
She sat down at one of the many empty tables. Her plastic spoon hovering in the air as she contemplated throwing the entire thing out. Tentatively, Ryder brought it to her nose and sniffed.
Doesn’t smell bad, but it doesn’t smell quite right either.
She plunged the spoon deep into the yellow gooey mess and lifted a small portion out.
Don’t try, don’t know.
Ryder opened her mouth and closed it around the spoon before she could chicken out. With a quick pull, the spoon came out clean. Her tongue swirled the sludge around in her mouth, not quite sure if it wanted to cringe away in horror or luxuriate in having warm food. Her jaws worked slowly, chewing though there wasn’t any real need to. Ryder hummed as her brain tried to decide if she was actually enjoying the experience.
The sludge was salty and peppery with a rich taste of eggs but over it all was a cardboard like texture. It was too firm to be properly cooked scrambled eggs. Ryder’s mouth twisted as she forced herself to swallow it.
Maybe that’s the bread part?
“Ugh, what more can I expect?” she muttered as she deliberately spooned a second mouthful in.
Ryder looked up from her omni-tool, her spoon hovering somewhere between her mouth and her cup. She had been studying the dossiers of the soldiers on base, trying to put names to faces. Voices drifted into the mess as footsteps approached. She looked up to see Melnik and his friend coming in. Cocking her head, she tried to remember the name. There was only one soldier on the base with an Indian ancestry.
Yes, this is Sagh, Lance-Corporal.
Ryder nodded to herself, satisfied. “Guys,” she greeted as they slipped into a table. "Enjoy your breakfast."
"Aww," Melnik said, pouting a little, "you're done? Come on, don't go yet."
He kicked out a chair into her way. Ryder's jaw twitched. "No, I got a briefing with the Sergeant."
Her foot pushed the chair back towards their table. With the empty cup in hand she headed towards the recycler, Ryder stiffened as she felt eyes on her. She rolled her shoulders and continued her way to the recycler. Turning around, she caught Melnik's unabashed stare.
Why am I not surprised?
Ryder elected to ignore it. Glancing at her omni-tool, she was cutting it a little close. With a fast walk, she headed towards the Sergeant's quarters.
Hopefully I won't get lost.
“Ryder,” Ishida called from his office when she entered.
“Sir,” she said, snapping off a salute.
“At ease, soldier. And dispense with those. We’re a small base and if we’re snapping salutes all day long, nothing will get done.”
Ryder nodded and stood at ease, feet shoulder-length apart, arms clasped at her back.
“So you’re taking over the supervision of the night shift and I’ll do the morning. You have Sagh, Kovács and Menik under your command," Ishida said.
Ryder's breath halted for a spilt second. Now that's a good mix of personalities there.
Melnik had been pushing against her comfort zone since the moment they met. Kovács seemed slightly distracted but ultimately good-natured. As for Sagh, Ryder don't know him well enough to say one way or another.
"You report to me at shift change, I report to Lieutenant Walker over on Hephaestus. The science people won’t bother you much,” Ishida went on.
Ryder nodded. She guessed as much. Given the information she dug up from her research on the way over. New beginnings were always hard. It was times like this when she missed her old squad. But there was no way Ryder could have stayed on, too many corporals there and not enough here. It was just the way of life in the military. Friendships for her never lasted more than the duration of her stint with the unit, if they even formed in the first place.
Ishida nodded, picking one datapad up. “Yes, here," he said, handing her the datapad. “Here are the personnel under your command. These are the patrol routes and your security access.”
Ryder took the datapad and skimmed over the contents. “Any questions?”
Shift start was still an hour away, but Ryder had much to prepare. First thing was a meal before the shift, yet another helping of reconstituted food. This time, the chicken stew. The experience was a repeat of her breakfast. Then, it was packing ration bars to last her through the shift along with a thermos of hot tea. She stared at her stash of loose leaf tea and wondered if she could actually order more. Ryder shuddered, thinking about the shipping costs.
Her eyes watered a little as she stifled a yawn First impressions are important. And so she threw an extra helping of tea into her tea bag before pouring hot water into her thermos, steeping time be damned. Melnik and Kovács were still playing a card game. Sagh was oiling his rifle. She wasn’t really paying attention to them. Though it was 30 minutes away from shift change, Ryder started pulling on her armour.
She could feel eyes on her again. Ryder turned and found Melnik staring. Kovács was frowning at him. “Melnik!” he hissed, slapping his shoulder.
Sagh shook his head but kept his attention on his gun. Kovács frowned at Melnik's unabashed interest on their new corporal. He tossed his cards to the pile and muttered, “I give up.”
Kovács started getting ready. Ryder kept her attention on Melnik, her gaze hardening. “Something wrong?” she asked, her tone mild.
Ryder waited as she pulled her gauntlets on, they connected to the rest of the suit with a satisfying click.
“Nothing, Corporal. Just enjoying the view.”
Kovács’ mouth dropped opened in an O shape while Sagh’s looked up from his work. Ryder frowned. This was brazen. Melnik looked at her with something akin to hunger. She fought a chill crawling up her spine.
Her mouth opened and closed a few times. Words were chosen and discarded in favour for another. Melnik’s comment hung between them. Her jaw tightened and turned away. Even as her legs took her away, she was silently berating herself.
You should have said something. You should have said anything. You’re going lose the respect of the others.
She grimaced but kept walking. The moment had passed.
Ryder entered the control room for the first time. It was a moderately sized room. Multiple screens dominated the front. There were four desks with terminals lined up in two rows. Three in front and one at the back. As the NCO in charge for the shift, she got the terminal at the back.
This room was the heart and soul of the base' defences. From her terminal, Ryder would be able to turn on the AA guns, automated turrets and monitor all camera feeds on the base. It was a little like playing as an omni-present deity.
Tao handed her a datapad with a report of all the events of their shift. One glance at the report told her it was a peaceful shift. Tao clapped a hand on her shoulder and said, "Good luck, baby Corporal."
Ryder bit back a sigh at the nickname. She was settled in her seat when the others came in. All of them clad in standard Alliance issued armour as they clomped into the room, exchanging a few words with their colleagues before taking their seats.
Their duties were pretty much straightforward. Patrols ran every 30 minutes, rotated between the four of them. Anyone not on patrol get to watch the camera feed and monitor the sensors for anything out of the ordinary.
After the first 30 minutes, Ryder was more than a little bored. There was not much need for a human at the terminal if the computers were doing all the heavy lifting. She barely had to tap a button. Technically, the systems was self monitoring. Alarms would blare if it detected any abnormalities.
Sagh returned from the patrol and it was Melnik's turn. Ryder relaxed a little as soon as he left. His behaviour still gnawed at her. As she considered her options, Sagh let out a wide yawn. Ryder pressed her hand over her mouth, repressing her own. It is just sympathetic yawning. That must be it. She took a sip of her tea.
“Corporal, what’s your story?” Sagh asked.
“What about?” Ryder replied, capping her thermos and got started on her first ration bar of the shift.
“How did you end up on Janus?” Sagh clarified. “We’re all here dregs of the barrel.”
Kovács frowned. “Speak for yourself Sagh,” he said. “This is merely a rotation for me. I’ll be reassigned soon.”
Sagh laughed. “How many rotations are you on? Think that way if it helps.”
"My second. I was posted here fresh from boot," Kovács retorted. "How many are you here for anyway?"
"This is my fifth rotation. And I'll probably be here till I get my retirement papers." Sagh said as he counted off the years on his fingers. "Anyway, I'm interested in the baby Corporal, not you."
Sagh waved his hand dismissively at his much younger colleague and turned his attention to her expectantly.
“Well, I’m just following in the family tradition,” Ryder replied. There was enough truth in that statement that the words didn’t taste bitter in her mouth.
Sagh turned around in his chair to face her while Kovács kept his eyes on the monitors. “Are you related to that Ryder?” he asked, his brow furrowed, trying to remember something.
“Which Ryder?” she asked with a straight face.
If it wasn’t her family name, it was the other thing. There was no hiding either. It always came out sooner or later. Ryder didn’t intend to lie, but she preferred to push off the discovery for as long as she could.
“There was one Alec Ryder, N7 operative. He helped evacuate civilians from the Presidium when Commander Shepard was fighting the bird Spectre.”
Ryder frowned at the slur. “Saren,” she said, her tone flat.
“Yeah, Saren, that fucking bird. I knew we couldn't trust any one of them. This was bound to happen sooner or later,” Sagh said, his upper lip curling into a sneer.
Ryder eyed Sagh, he was just about the right age to have taken part in the First Contact War as a rookie. She looked away for a moment, unsure if this was where she wanted to take her stand. She exhaled, packing the information aside and replied, "Yeah, that’s my father.”
As much as she tried, the bitterness was clear in her voice. But Sagh misunderstood, he had assumed the harshness was directly at Saren. Somehow not addressing the slur made her feel complicit even if there weren't any turians around to hear it.
“Bird,” Kovács laughed, he turned to catch her eye.
Ryder’s gaze hardened and his words faltered. She shook her head and repeated, “Saren.”
“Yes, Saren,” Kovács said, his words tumbling over themselves. “I’m glad we got someone like Commander Shepard on our side.”
There was no need to elaborate who they were talking about. There was only one Shepard to all Alliance soldiers, hell all humanity.
First fucking human Spectre.
Sagh and Kovács were obviously fans and Ryder was no exception. The Commander Shepard had been Ryder's role model. The Alliance recruitment poster of Shepard taken not long after the Blitz, graced the wall of her room for years. And it still hung on wall if nobody had touched her room.
Ryder's thoughts turned towards her childhood home. A home she outgrew, and it rapidly turned into a sort of cage. It wasn't just her home, it was just being on the Citadel. She rubbed the back of her neck, fingers brushing at the nape of her neck and sighed.
“Wait, you’re his daughter?” Sagh asked. “Why are you here? Ryder’s daughter shouldn’t be sitting here with us on Janus!”
Kovács eyed her with renewed awe. Ryder shrugged. “I go where I am assigned. Janus is the place for now, I guess.”
Sagh turned and faced her. His eyes lined with crowfeet narrowed in her direction. “No, no,” he said. “Don’t think you can foist that shit on me. What did you do to get assigned here?”
Being born wrong.
Ryder didn’t voice the thought, but it burnt brightly in her mind. Her visit home seemed to have dredged up memories and emotions she thought long buried. She shook her head. “I have no idea. I got a promotion and the brass sent me off for more training back on Earth then I got reassigned.”
Sagh raised an eyebrow, totally not convinced at all. “How old are you anyway? You must be a baby.”
Kovács sniggered. Ryder bit back a sigh. Is this the way it’s going to go the entire night? But she was saved from answering when Melnik entered the control room. He tracked sand into the room. Sagh straightened and barked, “Melnik! How many times must I tell you? Decontaminate before you come in!”
“Ahh fuck,” Melnik exclaimed as he backed out of the room, presumingly towards the decon unit.
Ryder took the chance to enter the small en-suite toilet just to escape the questions. When she was done, Kovács was gone. Melnik and Sagh were back to watching the screens and the line of questioning forgotten.
Time crawled. Ryder stifled a yawn that was crawling up her throat. Shifting her sleep schedule was one of the worst thing ever, Ryder resigned herself to feeling tired at all the wrong times, at least for a while.
Melnik chuckled. “Bored already, Corporal?”
A chill ran down her spine at that. Ryder rolled her shoulders, somehow it had cramped up without having to do anything the entire shift. “How do you guys keep your vigilance up?” she asked.
Sagh snorted, “What vigilance? We’re all just glorified machine tenders. Who would attack a dig site that isn't producing anything interesting?”
“Well, we’re not exactly in the safest part of the galaxy. Sharring is literally on the edge of Alliance space,” Ryder pointed out.
Melnik laughed. “I’ve not seen any action since boot camp,” he confessed. “And I am itching for it.”
Spoken like a rookie who doesn't know what he is asking for.
“I’ve been here the longest, five years. Five long boring years,” Sagh said. "The best years of my career."
Ryder watched as Sagh and Melnik went back and forth. Her attention on the set of monitors that they should be paying more attention to. Eventually even conversation died out. She hummed quietly, beginning to see what the main problem with this assignment was going to be. How long am I expected to be here?
Ryder tapped against the datapad, that Ishida had given her. Her eyes searched the line she had left off and started reading it for the fifth time. Just before her eyes glazed over, forcing her to start over again, the door hissed open. Tao hobbled in. He glanced about the room. “Damn, I missed Kovács.”
“What is it?” Ryder asked, approaching Tao. She relished any opportunity that broke the tedium.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Tao said, “I wanted to find out more about the damage on the Mako’s windscreen. It’s strange that it didn’t just completely shatter.”
Ryder’s heart sank. She knew there was no hiding it. This must be some kind of record. Both on the same day.
Ishida knew what she was. It was clear on her military record if anyone wanted to check. Her armour was a dead giveaway if anyone knew what to look for. Ryder’s hand twitched towards the back of her neck, hidden behind her low ponytail.
I’ll not be ashamed of who I am. I refuse to be.
“Oh, what about it?” Sagh asked as Melnik craned his neck.
“Given what data I got off our sensors, the windscreen shouldn't be able to hold up as well as it did. I got to know what Kovács did. That way we can be ready when the next storm hits,” Tao replied.
“Kovács didn’t do anything,” Ryder said.
All eyes turned to her. Tao’s eyes brightened and his bushy eyebrows shot up. “What did you do? I didn’t see any materials you used to shore up the crack. Whatever it was, it’s damn effective. I’m going to write a report and send it up the chain. I’m sure there are other bases on less than welcoming planets that need this solution.”
“I don’t think you can replicate it, at least not without someone like me on board,” she replied, dread coiling around her gut like a snake.
This must be what coming out felt out. And it’s a process that got repeated time after time after time. Ryder was seriously tired of it. She took a deep breath, “I kept a tight barrier over the crack with my biotics.”
Tao’s eyes got impossibly wider, but Ryder couldn’t read any malice in them. Melnik whistled, the odd hunger in his eyes seemed to intensify. Her eyes narrowed, aversion turning her stomach. She would have to deal with Melnik sooner or later. Her eyes shifted to Sagh. There was an anger there, so pure and concentrated. His chair rolled and hit the wall as he stood up abruptly. Ryder tensed, instinctively gathering her biotics but taking care to keep a tight grip on it.
“Fucking biotics. I knew it! That’s why you’re here. Daddy couldn’t wait to rid himself of the tainted blood,” he muttered.
Sagh wasn’t loud, but the words carried in the silence. Ryder clenched her fists. Her stint in the Alliance biotics programme was the best time of her life. It was tough, but it was also a place of acceptance. She found a place there she hadn’t found at home or at school.
But after? It was a mixed bag. You'd think biotics is one thing prized in among the military types?
She had been here so many times before, but never with such vehemency. Tao stepped forward and put himself between Sagh and herself. “Get out of here, Sagh,” he said.
Sagh’s deep brown eyes jerked towards Tao’s black ones. His lips curled before clamping down again. His dark skin flushed a deep red. “Melnik, take Sagh out now,” Tao barked.
Melnik glanced between Tao and herself. Ryder took a steady breath and nodded. Melnik didn’t need further prompting. He tugged at Sagh a couple of times before Sagh allowed himself to be dragged away.
Tao crossed the space between them and looked at her. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” she said, her voice coming out all shaky, “I’m fine.”
Ryder clamped her mouth shut lest it gave away more of her secrets. “You went completely white,” he pressed.
“I’m fine,” she repeated, this time her voice steadier.
With a giant huff of breath, she turned back towards her seat and sank into it. Tao hesitated, his eyes following her every move. Fuck, he must think I’m a complete inept useless asshole.
“Err… I didn’t intend for this to happen,” Tao started, “I’m sorry.”
With that, Ryder watched Tao beat a hasty retreat. She glanced at the time on the console and sighed long and loud into the empty room. She was barely half way through the shift. The machines just hummed along completely ignoring her.
The door slid open. A shock of blonde hair led the way, sand trailing as Kovács walked in, helmet in hand. He glanced at the empty seats and looked at her.
“What did I miss?”