Melnik twisted to see who it was. The pressure across her throat eased. Sweet air flooded her lungs.
This is it.
It's exactly what she was waiting for. Time slowed. Ryder didn’t need long, mere seconds were enough. A familiar tug towards her core. Then, she Pushed. Melnik slammed into Amir and straight into the opposite wall.
There was an audible crack as the tiles shattered. Ryder gasped for air, her hand rubbing her neck, as she stalked towards the pair. Anger, shame and everything in between flashed across her face. Fingers clenched in a death grip, muscles tensed as Ryder lifted Melnik’s head by his hair to face her. He groaned. Eyes that were moments ago stripping her had turned unfocused. Her left hand drew back in a fist. Blue flames snapped across her arm, it blazed a cold spine-chilling azure. She growled, low and dangerous.
Red. It was all she saw.
“Stop!” the voice called again.
Her head jerked as she twisted to look. Her eyes narrowed. She kept her arm coiled back, ready for a fight.
“Sagh,” Ryder snarled. “Did you put them up to it?”
“No, I did not,” he said as he approached slowly with his arms held up in a show of faith.
His eyes darted to take in the situation. Blood, bright and red under the harsh white lights ran down the wall from the point of impact. Amir and Melnik sat on the floor, eyes blinking and holding their heads between their hands. Sagh's eyes met hers and his foot steps faltered, nostrils flaring.
Can I trust him? Sagh clearly didn't like me but this... is he capable of this?
“Stand down, Corporal,” Sagh said. “It’s over.”
Ryder blinked and shook her head. The scent of blood filled her nose, hers, Melnik’s and Amir’s. Her pounding head made it impossible to think clearly, but she exhaled. With the rush of breath, she loosened her fingers. Melnik sagged to the ground with a whimper.
She grimaced, half at the pain, half at the sight of all the blood. With some effort, she withdrew her biotics. However, she couldn't relax, not totally. Her shoulders remained stiff, her hands shook from leftover adrenaline. It left her jittery. She clenched her fists to force them into stillness.
“You’re bleeding,” Sagh pointed out.
Ryder pressed her hand against her forehead and grimaced. “Nothing some medi-gel can’t fix," she said but her voice broke at the last word.
She cleared her throat forcefully and went on, "Hold them here, I am going to get Ishida.”
Ryder stood in her blood-stained shirt. Her right eye swelling to a slit, the gash on her forehead had stopped bleeding but only because she was pressing a towel against it. She must have been such a sight.
“Enter,” Ishida said, his back was still facing her.
"Daddy," a young boy's voice came from the terminal Ishida was looking at. "Must you go? Please don't go. You promised I could speak to you."
"Daddy will just be awhile. I'll call you back later, all right?"
Sniffling sounds came from the screen and Ryder felt guilty, but this couldn't wait. "Sergeant, I can wait outside," she offered.
No need to traumatise a kid.
Ryder was about to duck back out when Ishida swivelled around in his chair. "Wait-"
She could see the words dying right there in his mouth. His eyes took in the sight before him. The gentle father snapped back to the Alliance trained soldier. Ishida turned back to the terminal careful to block her from the camera’s view. "Be a good boy and listen to your mother," he said. "I'll call you tomorrow."
Despite the sobs of the boy, Ishida terminated the call. Ryder's jaw tightened. In a different time, a different place, the crying child was her. And her father was shouting at her. She blinked back the memories, focusing her attention on Ishida.
"What happened, Corporal?"
“Melnik and Amir assaulted me. Ambushed me in the showers,” Ryder stated, keeping her voice calm and professional, but she came across as curt.
Ishida’s eyes flicked between the gash, and the bruises forming at her wrists and neck. “Where are they?”
Ryder kept the report concise, giving the facts without emotions. She didn’t dare delve into it right now. Her mind hadn’t really caught up with what happened. Ishida wasted no time. A quick trip to the barracks first to secure some help. “Tao, Kovács, with me. Bring your pistols,” he barked. “Garcia, see to Ryder.”
Garcia grabbed his med-kit, but Ryder ignored him and followed the others out. She had to see this through.
At the showers, Garcia took the soiled towel from her and pressed a clean one into her hand. “Keep pressure on it,” he said, gesturing at her forehead.
She took it distractedly. Her eyes trained on what’s going on. Sagh was standing over the pair, his hands on his hip. Kovács’ eyes were wide, but his grip on his pistol steady as he aimed it at his friends. Amir had his head in his hands while Melnik looked somewhere between pissed and confused. Both of them sat with backs against the wall, shattered tiles lying about them. Ishida was already there, speaking to Tao. Tao nodded and quickly made his way out, pausing only to squeeze her shoulder once.
Ryder paced. Her hands clenched and unclenched as her teeth bit down on her lip. She tasted iron. For a split second, she wished Sagh didn’t stop her and she had smashed Melnik’s head open. Her breath hitched at that thought.
No, I am not a killer. I am a soldier I don’t kill without cause. I am not a freak.
“Hey, hey,” Garcia said, “why don’t you sit down?”
He dragged a chair from somewhere, his hand clamped on her wrist as he attempted to pull her to sit. Ryder flinched, her eyes hardened as she raised her fist. “Shit, shit,” he said, holding his hands up in apology. “I’m sorry. Just sit, will you?”
Ryder glanced at the offered seat warily and turned her attention back to Ishida and the others. “Come on, you can watch them from the chair anyway,” Garcia said, his gruff voice unusually gentle.
The moment she sat down, she felt drained, as if she had been running a marathon all day. Garcia was quick and perfunctory. He pulled the towel from her hand and used antiseptic wipes to clean the wound. She hissed.
“It would be less painful if you had let me looked at it before,” he grumbled, but his motions were almost tender after that.
Ryder felt the cool numbing sensation of medi-gel over her forehead. She closed her eyes and lowered her head. Tears threatened to spill as she gritted her teeth, praying they wouldn’t betray her.
The day is bad enough, I don’t need tears to show them I can’t do the job.
She could hear Garcia humming a little. “Hey, I’m going to touch you.”
“Yeah, ok,” Ryder croaked, lifting her head for him.
“It’s going to need stitches, but I think the medi-glue should work as well. We’ll see how it looks tomorrow,” he said as his fingers spread another layer over her forehead. “There, I don’t think it will even scar.”
Ryder snorted. It was the least of her worries. If Garcia thought that was her concern, she had much further to go with this bunch.
“Take them to the holding cells,” Ishida barked. “I can’t fucking believe this.”
Kovács secured their wrists in a pair of omni-cuffs each. Sagh and Kovács marched them past Ryder on their way out. She rose to her full height. Even then, she was short and small compared to Amir and Melnik. Ryder steeled herself. Garcia pressed a hand on her shoulder.
Melnik and Amir didn’t meet her eyes. Their heads hung low as they shambled their way out.
Ishida turned to her. “You’re no good to me in this state. Get some rest. I’ll need a statement from you when you’re not looking like a zombie.”
Ryder nodded. Garcia tugged at her arm. “Come on, it’s time for bed, baby Corporal.”
“Ryder,” she said. “Just call me Ryder, will you?”
“Right I will as soon as you’re not dead on your feet, baby Corporal.”
Ryder couldn’t summon the energy to get mad. She trudged back to her bed. The barracks felt very empty that night.
“So you found this among Melnik’s stuff?” Ishida asked.
Tao nodded, tossing the small bag of pills on Ishida’s desk. “Yes. And the brainless shits are going through withdrawal now. This is old earth drugs. Not quite as bad as Red Sand but it’s not much better.”
Ishida sighed. “They will definitely be charged, maybe dishonourably discharged. I don’t know what Walker will make of this.”
“It’s a shame for Amir. He is mostly a good soldier, just stupid with whom he hangs out with,” Tao said. “But he has to take responsibility for his actions. He’s an adult.”
Ishida nodded, tossing the datapad he was holding onto the table.
“Melnik is a troublemaker since Ryder arrived. Sagh might have problems with Ryder being a biotic, but Melnik is just using it as an excuse to harass her,” Tao went on.
“She should have shut him down earlier,” Ishida said.
Tao shook his head. “Yes, she should have but her age worked against her. Nobody took her rank seriously. Not you, not me, not the others. We don’t know how she earned the rank this young,” he pointed out, sinking into the chair.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Ishida said, running his hand through his hair. “She deserves her rank, I’ve seen her service record. She just lacks the experience handling a bunch of misfits. Ryder should be in a combat unit. I’ve no idea why they sent her here. Janus is not the place for her.”
“Maybe so but she’s here and under your command.”
“Walker’s command,” Ishida retorted.
“Walker’s not here. You’re here.”
“Touché,” Ishida said, conceding the point. “This just stinks of someone pulling strings.”
Tao shrugged. It’s a moot point. Shit had already happened. Ishida taped a key on his terminal. “There, the report’s sent. Now, we wait.”
This was worse than being under scrutiny for being the baby Corporal, worse than being the biotic. Ryder sighed. This was her being a victim. She sat in the mess with a frown on her face, stirring her sludge listlessly. The swelling has gone down and her eye was no longer a silt. She sighed and poured the rest of her meal down her throat. It was time to get to work.
Both shifts were down a man and though it wasn’t her fault. Or was it? It felt like it was. Conversations died when she entered a room, eyes were on her as if waiting for the inevitable breakdown. Ryder straightened. I am stronger than this.
Tossing her emptied cup into the recycler, she headed towards the control room. On the way over, she met up with Kovács and Sagh. “Hey Corporal,” Kovács greeted, his voice tentative.
Ryder nodded, not trusting herself to be civil. She was more than a little tired of being treated like she was fragile. He was just trying to be nice. But then again that was the problem, wasn’t it? Everyone was nice, too nice. Why couldn’t they be nice before?
She quickened her pace and stepped through the doors before the guys. Ishida had left, but Tao and Garcia were still there. Ishida usually left these boring bits of administrative work to Tao anyway. “Shift change,” Ryder said, heading towards Tao.
He stood and handed her the datapad. Usually it was just a bunch of notes about who patrolled when. Ryder glanced at it. “Anything interesting?” she asked.
“The dirt diggers were excited over something they found,” Garcia supplied helpfully.
Ryder raised one eyebrow at him. “Some new artifact?” she asked, “that’s exciting.”
“Woah… so exciting,” Garcia said, his voice deadpanned. “Wake me up when we can actually have better food coming out of that stupid dispenser.”
Tao snorted. “You’re just a cranky old man.”
“Your cranky old man, Tao. Don’t forget who is doing all the patching up when you inevitably break something else,” Garcia said, levelling a finger at him.
Kovács laughed at Tao’s sour face. Even Sagh had a little smirk on his face. Maybe it’s not that bad after all.
“Hey, is it chicken stew day today?” Tao asked, changing the subject.
“Yeah, I had it just now,” Sagh replied.
“Oh good, that’s my favourite,” Tao said, smacking his lips in anticipation.
“Ahhh…” Ryder said, hiding a smile behind her hand. “I think I had the last one.”
“What?” Tao exclaimed, horror stricken. “Baby Corporal ate the last one?”
She grinned, warming up to feeling anything else but shitty. “Yeah, too bad, Tao,” she said, “And I didn’t like it anyway.”
“No! Don’t say that. What a waste of perfectly good chicken stew.”
And the rest piled on, ribbing Tao on his love of the sludge that the food dispenser provided. In the end, Garcia declared, “My shift is done. You people have fun. At least now the dirt diggers are occupied with something interesting for once. How lucky of them.”
With that, Tao and Garcia left. Ryder settled into her seat and read through the reports.
Her boots echoed in the temporary pre-fab erected over the current dig site. An omni-field was glowing orange over the site. It helped to prevent contamination and accidental activation of any Prothean devices. Most of the artifacts found were inert and pretty harmless, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
Her patrol route took her past the only room in the entire site that still had lights now. Ryder knocked and entered. "Everything is good here?" she asked.
There were five archaeologists in various disheveled states. One of them, he had mussed up hair and food stains down his coat, nodded at her. The others didn't even deign to look in her direction. Maybe they're just too focused on their work?
Ryder didn't wait for permission and did her circuit of the room as per regulations. Her attention was snagged by a metallic orb that was a black so deep it was as if it was a mini black hole. A couple of archaeologists were watching as machines and lights swept over the orb over and over again.
Is that it?
In all her time on Janus, this was the first time the site felt anything more than a random outpost for the Alliance. The excitement and tension was clear in the air. One of the archaeologists cleared their throat at her pointedly.
"Ahhh, sorry," she said, "I'll let you all get back to your work."
And Ryder quickly made her way out. She went on with her patrol, eventually reaching one of the corridors with windows facing the outside. Large clear windows lined the passageway. The corridor took her around the perimeter. Everything else was quiet and dead, just like the old relics they were digging up from the ground. The sky was clear that night, just a small smattering of cloud cover. It was the perfect night to call home if she wanted to.
Where’s home anyway?
Ryder sighed, shaking her head. It was times like this she felt older than she really was. She was just 20. She had been in the Alliance since she was 16. It’s not a long time but it felt like her entire life. Her thoughts inevitably strayed towards the message she received from Scott just earlier that day.
"Hey baby sister!"
Ryder rolled her eyes even though Scott wasn't around to see her reaction.
"Everything is fine over here. It’s the same old, same old. A little training, some guard duty, tons of paperwork. It's all so boring. I wish I was posted to an outpost like you. You know, I wonder if Pa pulled some strings to make sure I'll never see combat."
Ryder pursed her lips. She wouldn't put it past her father doing something like that for Scott. But it wouldn't make sense. Why would he train them like N-school recruits and not let them see combat?
"Hey, I made Corporal too. Provisional for now till I go through the training once my current cycle is up.“
She smiled. It's about time. Scott deserved it.
"Now we’re that we’re the same rank. I’ll need to hit you up on some pointers. I don’t know what to do with these privates they put under my command."
Ryder's smile faded. Scott doesn't know. She hadn't really had time to put her thoughts in order. Should I let him know? What happened had happened, did it matter if he knows or not?
Ryder's jaw clenched and reminded herself to be vigilant in her patrol and not get distracted. Still, the thoughts dogged her. It's probably better if he doesn't know. It would just cause him no end of grief. He is busy enough with his new assignment than to worry about me.
"Anyway, Pa popped by recently on some mysterious N7 mission or other. He said hi.”
Ryder snorted. She much rather think less than charitable thoughts of her father than to dwell about everything that had happened. Her father was a sore subject, but it was familiar, it was safe. These were well-worn grooves and paths in her mindscape. She knew where they led and how they wind.
"Ma is doing better with the new drug trials. The doctors are optimistic. I’ve been speaking them, I should have more information soon. I’ll keep you updated."
Ryder sighed. AEND, incurable only manageable. But the recent months had been bad. Her memory came and went, headaches were near constant. Thankfully she had consented to having a care worker check in on her daily. She remembered her mother's fainting spells. Ryder worried. But her mother was stubborn, insisting she was managing.
Guilt rose in Ryder's chest, four years away from home, and she only managed a single visit back home. It was that visit that made her realised the full extent of her mother's illness. It felt like the start of a slow decline that she had been blind to.
"Was it always this bad?" Ryder asked in one of the comm call to Scott.
Scott ran his hand through his hair, wet from his shower earlier. "You weren't around, Sara," he sighed. "It is bad. It's not been good for a while now. But you know..."
Ryder nodded. "I know. She's stubborn. Is Pa not going to talk to her?"
Scott snorted. It was a sound dismissive and tired. "He is off on yet another mission. I don't know when I can get in contact with him. But Pa's better than you, at least he has been home. Sara, you are away for so long."
Ryder heard the hurt in his voice, the accusation and the resignation. She couldn't quite bring herself to meet Scott's eyes. Eyes that were so much like her own, but filled with resentment. Shame made her skin flush. I left, I've escaped and Scott didn't. He saw the slow decline, he saw the slide into whatever this is now. I'm a coward.
She shook her head. It's not a conversation she liked to remember. Ryder promised herself that she would do better, be a better daughter and sister. Eventually, her feet took her and her swirling thoughts back to the control room, completely sure she did a shitty job patrolling. “Everything’s normal,” Ryder said as she entered.
Kovács nodded as he got ready for his patrol. He holstered his pistol and left. The machines hummed quietly in his wake. Ryder sank into her chair and sighed. She rubbed her hand over her face and rolled her shoulders, internally chiding herself for doing such a poor job.
“You do know I didn’t put them up to it, right?”
Ryder blinked. It took her a while to register that Sagh was speaking to her. She cocked her head and said, “Sorry but I missed what you said, could you repeat?”
He turned to face her. His eyes met her head on for the first time in an entire month. He was still tensed, his shoulders set and his jaw tight, but it wasn’t from anger, not any longer. Ryder watched as his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down once. “I didn’t put them up to it,” he said quietly.
The statement lay across them like a peace offering.
Ryder was angry before. It was a fire that flared bright. However, Melnik and Amir were arrested, thrown into the jail on base. One week had came and gone. The pair were still languishing in there. Lieutenant Walker had punted the problem up the chain. And now they waited. In that time, Ryder went from anger, to numbness, and finally to a weird sort of resentment. Through it all, she hadn't thought to blame Sagh.
“I know,” she replied, grateful that her voice remained steady. “It’s mine.”
Sagh flinched and frowned.
“I should have shut this down from day one,” she pointed out. “I shouldn’t have let it go on for so long.”
“No… but yeah…”
Ryder chuckled ruefully. “What will it be, yes or no?”
“I mean…,” Sagh rubbed the back of his neck.
Ryder snorted at his discomfort. “It’s fine. I know where I went wrong. And if I can do it again, I’ll be stepping on Melnik’s neck way sooner. Maybe all of this could be avoided.” She leaned back against her chair. “But are we good now?”
She straightened and looked at Sagh. There was no way she’d fuck this up with him. She should have cleared the air with Sagh a long time ago. It had festered for a whole month. Maybe I am just not cut out to be in charge of anyone but myself.
The question lingered in the air. Her eyes fixed on Sagh, her mind racing ahead, words to persuade, words to condemn, words to cajole, words to demand.
Sagh took a deep breath and met her eyes. “We’re good,” he replied.
Ryder blinked. Is it that simple? That’s it.
“I mean, I still do not like biotics in general but you… I’m good with you.”
It was way more than she had expected. She cocked her head, there was an upward tug on her lips as she considered. “That’s good enough for now,” she said. “One day, maybe I can change your mind. I don’t know what happened to make you feel this way, but maybe one day I can show you that biotics are not freaks.”
Sagh nodded and just like that everything seemed to shift back to normalcy. Ryder allowed herself a small smile.
Tao entered the control room as Ryder was chatting with Sagh and Kovács. His eyes narrowed even as a smile tugged at his mouth. Something had changed, the tension he didn't realise had been enveloping the base was gone. Things felt the same as before, before Ryder’s arrival threw everything into flux.
She was smiling, a cute little lop-sided one which he had only seen a couple of time at the shooting range. Her ponytail now tied high, her amp on display for everyone to see. Tao nodded at himself, pleased to see that the incident didn’t keep her down for long.
Being assaulted was traumatising, what’s worse was being surrounded by people she was supposed to be able to trust with her life. But really they were all strangers at best, thrown together by the brass for no good reason or fore-thought. Tao admired Ryder’s resilience, but she was the corporal and he was just the lance-corporal. He decided to keep his thoughts to himself.
“Shift change,” he called out.
Ryder handed him the datapad. “Nothing out of the ordinary. Just another boring shift.”
“What would I give for some excitement around here,” Kovács said.