“What do we do, Corporal?” Kovács asked.
Ryder flinched at the emphasis on her rank. Fuck, I am the ranking NCO now, aren’t I? Her mouth dried up as her head started to pound. She took a deep breath, “Ishida needs our help. We can’t just leave them out there.”
Sagh nodded while Kovács’s already pale face turned whiter. Fuck, I can’t do it with just the three of us. That will mean leaving the base unmanned. That won’t do. We need more people.
“Melnik and Amir,” she blurted.
“What about them?” Sagh asked, his eyes narrowing.
Fuck, maybe it’s better if I hand over command to Sagh? I don’t even know what the hell I am doing.
“I’ll take them with me and go after Ishida’s team. Both of you hold down the fort,” she replied.
“What about the Lieutenant’s orders?” Kovács asked, worry furrowing his brow.
“Walker ordered me to check back with him in 24 hours. He didn’t say anything about not going after Ishida. And those orders were given before Ishida and his team were attacked. We have a hostile force on Janus,” Ryder pointed out, feeling the need to justify herself.
Am I doing the fucking right thing? What is the right thing to do?
She straightened and headed towards the door. “I’ll take full responsibility for this. You guys just hold down the fort. And start getting the archaeologists to somewhere secure. We don’t know what kind of forces we’re facing.”
Her foot hovered over the threshold, she turned to them. Both looked unconvinced and more than a little apprehensive. “Sagh, you have command here,” she blurted before nerves got the better of her.
As soon as Ryder was out the door, she felt much better. She was moving, she had a goal, she had a mission. A half baked plan forming in her head, she headed back towards the barracks and down the stairs to the basement. Drawing her pistol, the weight was familiar and reassuring in her hand, she entered the jail. It was a tiny one of four cells. Normally used to house drunk servicemen or the occasional civilian, this was the first time Janus’ jail was put to its actual purpose.
There were whispered conversations as she entered, but they were silenced the moment her boots thumped against the floor. “That you Tao?” Amir called out, “Isn’t it a little late for you?”
Ryder’s heart clenched at the thought of Tao lying dead in a pool of his own blood. She pushed the image to the back of her mind. Better to get it over and done with quickly.
“It’s Ryder,” she said as she neared the cells. Melnik and Amir were housed in individual cells side by side. An orange barrier separated them from her.
Amir got to his feet and bit his lip, his eyes unable to meet hers. “Look… I’m sorry for what I’ve done… I didn’t mean to… Shit, I was stupid and high on fucking drugs,” he stammered. “And it was all Melnik’s idea.”
Melnik stood and slammed his fist against the wall their cells shared. “Way to throw me under the bus, huh?” he shouted. “Blame it all on me!”
She stiffened, her eyes snapped to Melnik as she glared. He made his feelings towards her clear from day one. A slab of female flesh, a target for his unwanted attention and nothing more. It might be her fault for not doing anything about it then. But now with so much at stake, she couldn’t afford it any longer. Ryder fought back a shudder at his leer and pulled a mask over her face. She needed to know if Melnik could still be a professional after everything.
“Ishida’s team is in trouble. I need you guys to come with me to pull them out,” she said, “Can you do it?”
Amir’s eyes jerked to her. “Trouble?”
Ryder nodded curtly. “Gunfire type trouble,” she replied. “I need to know. Can you do your job? I’ll-”
“What? Go on your own?” Melnik sneered, brown eyes taunting, challenging.
Stigma against biotics had taught her to flying under the radar, not to make waves but no longer. Ryder met his gaze head on, her jaw set, her shoulders stiff. She tapped on her omni-tool. The orange barrier barring Melnik’s cell fizzled out. He cocked his head at her. Confusion made him wary. His sneer slipped off his face as he hesitated at the threshold.
“Come out, Melnik. Give me your answer, I don’t have time for this,” she spat.
With a quick pull at her core, Ryder flared. Blue licking every inch of her body as she stared him down. “I can finish the job I didn’t that day,” she stated flatly. “There is nobody to stop me now.”
Melnik’s eyes flicked between her dead serious eyes and her blue sheathed arms. It wasn’t the appraising glance of her body, this was fear, the gut-clenching kind. A weak smile plastered across his face. “Relax, it’s just a joke, Ryder.”
“That’s Corporal Ryder to you,” Ryder growled.
She wasted no time and deactivated Amir’s cell as well. “Come on, grab your gear and we’ll take the Mako out.”
I hope I don’t fucking regret this.
Ryder’s focus was singular. Her hands on the wheel, her eyes on the farthest point where there was still some semblance of visibility. That was how bad the storm was. The cacophony of sand and tiny rocks hitting against the Mako was constant. It had turned into a sort of white noise. Amir sat shotgun while Melnik sat directly behind her. Ryder shifted in her seat, the space between her shoulder blade itched for no reason at all.
“Five klicks,” Amir reported helpfully.
Ryder nodded and drove as fast as she dared. The storm wasn’t as severe as the one that hit when she arrived, but this was still a non-stop spray of shifting dust. The Mako rocked as it navigated its way down the crater. “Fuck,” Melnik cursed as the motion made him crashed into the side. “Do you know how to drive?”
Ryder took a deep breath, marshalling the tattered shreds of her nerves. “Suck it up boys, Ishida and the others are counting on us,” she said, her voice betraying none of her fear. “Try Janus base again.”
“Janus base, come in, this is Mako Two,” Amir spoke into his omni-tool.
She turned her attention back to the road, weaving her way around rocks too large to just climb over. One step at a time. This was something she could overcome. Be like the Mako. After all, it was unstoppable, crunching over almost everything in its path.
Amir’s voice disappeared into the background. There was probably no reaching the base once they were this far away. The crash site was a good ten klicks north of the base. He gave up. Melnik sighed loudly behind her. Judgement radiating from him.
Fuck, I don’t need his bullshit out here.
But all that faded as the Mako crested the lip of the crater, Ryder could see black mixing with the orange in the sky. It was smoke. And where there was smoke, there was fire.
“Shit,” Melnik muttered under his breath.
Ryder concurred, but she kept her mouth shut. Her only reaction was to floor the pedal.
Pistol in hand, she signalled to Melnik and Amir via their comms. Thank fuck, it is still working for short range bursts.
Smoke was billowing out from the downed ship. Pieces of ship littered across the barren land. The debris field stretched further than her eye could see, most of it obscured by the storm. It was all charred plastic and shattered glass, melting metal and burning eezo. White flames turning everything to slag.
The largest intact piece of the ship lay upside down before them. It was the middle section, sheared clean through. She could see the cross section of the ship, all exposed guts, sparking wiring and furniture that’s part of a civilian transport. Printed against the side of the section was white text slowly turning black from soot.
It read Sinon.
Her jaw tightened and she picked up the pace. Her respirator wasn’t quite able to filter the stench out. Ryder coughed, hearing the others doing the same. It would only going to get worse the closer they got. She could already taste the bitter ashes in her mouth.
They jogged in a loose line towards the ship. Her guts clenched tighter and tighter. Something is just off. This was a crash site. Even as hot as the ruptured drive core was burning, where were all the bodies? A ship of this size, they probably wouldn’t have enough life pods for everyone. There should be bodies strewn across the debris field.
Where are they? Are they further away?
Ryder shoved the worry to the back of her mind when she spotted something familiar. Silhouetted against the white flames and burning ship was the Mako, Ishida’s. She pushed towards it. The closer they got, the more her sense of dread intensified.
Bullet holes peppered the side of the Mako. One of the doors was left ajar. Drag marks led towards it. Boot prints were everywhere, muddying up an accurate read on the situation. But the scene just screamed one thing to her.
This was an ambush.
Ryder pulled her Avenger from the mag-holster. “Weapons free, eyes straight.”
“What? Why?” Amir asked, his voice higher than usual. His darker skin looked ashen under the blazing white light.
“They walked into an ambush,” she replied.
“Got it,” Melnik replied, his voice steady.
Ryder glanced at Amir, noticing the tremor in his hands as he held his rifle. His eyes followed her gaze down towards the safety on his weapon. It was still in the locked position. Amir winced and flicked the safety off. Ryder checked Melnik’s. It was in the right position. She nodded at them and only Melnik managed to look like he wasn’t going to puke.
Amir took the left while Melnik took the right. She headed straight for the Mako and prayed all the dark patches on the ground weren’t blood.
“Fuck,” Ryder cursed, “Tao!”
Blood. Red, dripping and pooling. But his eyes were fluttering, he was alive! Her eyes scanned his armour as her hands worked. His chest plate was scorched and dented. His visor was cracked, but the reinforcement held. Her fingers felt fat as they searched for the control to sync his armour’s onboard computer to her omni-tool. It flashed red when she found it.
“Don’t you fucking die on me!” she growled.
Tao’s medi-gel dispenser was too damaged. So she activated it manually.
Where’s Ishida? Where’s Garcia? He should be here dealing with this. I don’t know what I am doing! This is a trap, a lure for Ishida’s team. But who? Why?
Her attention was being dragged in a million different directions.
With a push of a button, the medi-gel was injected into Tao. Almost instantly, there was a groan from him, his eyes opening fully. “Tao, what happened?” she shouted.
Despite how callous it made her feel, she needed to know. Ishida and Garcia were still out there. Tao’s mouth moved but she could hear nothing. Is his comms down too? Shit.
His hands moved to gesture in the direction of the Sinon’s wreckage urgently, wincing at every motion. She glanced over her shoulder, grimacing at the bright white flames searing an after image into her retinas. Ryder pressed her helmet against his, praying it was enough to pick up his voice.
“Ishida, Garcia, where are they?”
“Couldn’t get to me, retreated.” His hand gestured at the Sinon again.
Ryder’s jaw clenched so hard it ached. She straightened and radioed Amir. The pair had formed a perimeter around the Mako. “Watch Tao, stabilise him,” she said as she dug into her utility belt.
Amir jogged over. He gasped when he laid eyes on Tao. Shattered armour, bloodied and stretched out across the back of the Mako. “Is he still alive?” he whispered.
Ryder was saved from answering when Tao groaned. “Did you hear me, Amir?” she asked, worried he wasn’t up to the task. “Watch him, keep him alive.”
Amir turned his eyes to her. She could see the whites of his eyes, wide. “How?” he asked, his hand gesturing towards Tao. “I’m not Garcia.”
I don’t know either. But instead, she said, “Give him more medi-gel if he is in too much pain. It will help stop the bleeding,” she tossed her spares at him. “Radio Janus and let them know. Those fuckers may strike the base.”
Amir nodded. “Sir, yes, sir.”
Ryder bit her lip. He looked too scared for the job, but she wasn’t willing to put him at her back if it came down to a battle. Melnik, despite all her misgivings, didn’t look like he was already falling apart.
“Melnik, with me,” she said, jogging towards the white heat of the wreckage.
Ryder could feel the heat through her armour. Sweat trickling down her spine even through her compression suit. How she longed to pull her helmet off to get some relief. She made sure she didn’t look directly into the white flames. It would surely burn her retinas out.
How long will it keep burning? Why didn’t the fire safety measures kick in?
She glanced over her shoulder, Melnik was keeping a sharp eye on their rear. Picking up the pace, she led them skirting passed the worse of the burning section, towards the open guts of the Sinon. Despite the oppressive heat at their rear, it was dark as soon as they stepped into the dead carcass of the Sinon. Ryder activated her armour’s light mod. Twin beams of high powered lights pierced the shadowy darkness that shrouded the ship.
This section had been tipped, it laid belly up. They were walking in the ceiling of a long and straight corridor. Doors lined it at regular intervals. Crew quarters? Passenger rooms? Without power the doors would take a lot of effort to pry open. It was unlikely that Ishida or Garcia would be in any of them.
Walking on what was the ceiling of ship just deepened her sense of something was wrong. “What are we doing here? Is Ishida and Garcia here?” Melnik hissed.
“Look,” Ryder replied, also feeling the need to whisper. He traced the line of her gaze and his eyes widened. There were tracks, tracks that matched theirs. They all led inwards.
He grimaced as he traced them with his eyes deeper and deeper into the ship. “Let’s go,” Ryder said and he nodded in response.
Step by step, they followed. Her grip on her rifle tightened. Despite the heat, a chill ran down her spine. Her guts churned but still she stepped deeper into the guts of a dead ship.
They stopped at several four-way junctions, the tracks guided them into the bowels of the ship. Tracks gave way to signs of a gunfight. Copious amount of blood splattered the walls and floor. Ryder had expected to find a body or two by now but there was none, only more drag marks.
“Someone has cleared the bodies,” she said.
“As if this isn’t fucking creepy enough,” Melnik replied.
Ryder agreed, but she didn’t reply. Her eyes were trained on the trail, her rifle leading the way. Her sense of dread was the lump in her throat, the stone in her guts. “Amir,” she called via her omni-tool.
Static crackled on the other end. “Amir,” she hissed, fear seizing her.
It felt like anyone out of her sight would disappear like smoke. They should still be in range despite the storm. “Come on.”
“-yder, come in,” Amir came through after another burst of static.
Relief was never sweeter. “What’s the situation?”
“Tao needs proper medical attention, medi-gel can only do so much. We have to get him back to base as soon as possible.”
Ryder sighed. She had expected as much, seeing the amount of blood that coated the ground and the inside of the Mako. “What about the base? Can you get in touch with them?”
“No, comms are still down,” Amir replied.
“All right, hang in there. Tao’s counting on you,” Ryder said, “See you in a bit. Ryder, out.”
Melnik glanced at her, he heard the conversation. As much as Tao needed to get back to base, they needed to find the others. They desperately needed intel. What the fuck is going on? Who is attacking us? Isn’t this just a downed civilian transport?
They continued their cautious walk further into the Sinon. They were the only section of bright in this cavernous tunnel of dark. They took care to avoid stepping on the light fixtures, making their way over the various dips and bumps of the ceiling. It was slow going.
Then, she froze.
Melnik’s boots scuffed against the ceiling turn floor as he avoided bumping into her. “What is it?” he breathed.
She took a step to the side to show him. There was a light source coming from one branch of a junction up ahead. It couldn’t have been from the ship. This section was completely dead.
Ryder shrugged, they had to check it out, especially when a set of tracks led into the branch where the light was coming from. “Ready?” she asked.
Melnik met her eyes through the tiny slit on their helmets. He nodded and they swung into action.
Fast, precise steps towards the light, bodies pressed against the wall. The slow careful slide towards the edge. A swift transition at the bend, rifle ready, finger on trigger, biotics buzzing under her skin. A breath caught in her throat as her light caught armours of familiar Alliance colours. Still, she held herself back.
“Cover me,” she said as she headed towards the bodies.
With a nudge of her rifle, she flipped the bodies over. Heart clenching, guts sinking, it confirmed what she feared. Ishida’s glassy eyes stared right back at her. The same pair of eyes that were supposed watch his kid grow up. Ryder bit her lip hard enough she tasted blood. She moved to the next one. Garcia’s eyes were mercifully closed but on his omni-tool, the source of the light, was a picture of his kid. The kid that he was trying to reach out to and build a relationship again.
Ryder closed her eyes. holding the grief and ache close against her heart. Sighing, she sank down on one knee and unbuckled their helmets.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice just a whisper as she reached in and fished for their tags. With a quick yank, she detached one of the tags and kept it safe in her utility belt. Her dread was rapidly turning into anger.
Who killed them? Who ambushed them? What the fuck is going on?
When Ryder straightened, her face was a mask of barely contained fury. “Melnik,” she called.
His neck snapped in her direction. Questions hovered on his lips but one look at her expression told him everything he wanted to know. “Let’s get back to Amir.”
He nodded, looking subdued. The non-jokes were put aside, the constant poking and prodding stopped in the face of the realities of being a soldier of the Systems Alliance. She held his gaze. The silence of the ship was ominous. It was the deathly stillness of a tomb.
They made their way out the way they came. Their pace quicker than before. Tao’s life was hanging in the balance. Melnik had radioed Amir to let him know they were on their way back. The relief in his voice was palpable.
Tao has got to make it. He will.