How could their luck hold? It was naive to think so. Still, like a fool, Ryder clung onto hope. It was dashed like everything else that day, that long fucking day.
“Shit,” she cursed as she checked the camera feed to the shuttle hanger.
“What?” Melnik asked, breathless from all the running and hiding she had them do. “The shuttle hanger just is there.”
He shot a look at the camera. Ryder could feel him staring straight at her. She ran a shaky hand through her perspiration sleeked hair. Her usual neat and tidy ponytail now loose and messy. Her gauntlets had went the way of her helmet — on the floor. There was another detonation against the control room’s reinforced doors and she flinched.
Ryder hadn’t told them. Her time was running out as well. The turrets outside fired another volley of bullets. Cerberus was knocking at her door with grenades and they weren’t taking “go away” as an answer. No matter how reinforced the doors were, they would eventually caved.
Her left hand tightened over her pistol while her right twitched towards the Avenger rifle holstered on her back. Her remaining heat sinks and omni-grenades were all arrayed before her. There weren’t many but she would had to make do. Grimly, Ryder ripped the ration bar, she found in the drawer, open with her teeth. She needed the calories. She swallowed more than just the ration bar but her frustration and fear. Ryder glanced back at the screen and met Melnik’s eyes, though he wouldn’t be able to see it. “You’ve got company,” she said.
“What, in there?” he asked, apprehension creeping back into his voice.
“I think they have guessed our plans.”
“Shit,” Melnik cursed.
Ryder snorted and here she thought they were lucky, managing to avoid Cerberus soldiers. She hadn’t learned. It wasn’t luck, it was just another ambush. They were so damn fucking close. She gritted her teeth. Whoever was in charge had banked on them running into the ambush without a thought.
She frowned. The turrets were active but they were silent. Ryder enlarged the feed to spread across all the screens. There was no doubt about it. The turrets rotated through their field of fire but Cerberus soldiers weren’t mindful of them in the slightest.
They have hacked our fucking turrets.
“Damn it.” She slammed her fist down on her desk, ignoring the pain. “Can’t we get a break?”
“What is it?” Melnik asked, trepidation made his voice quiver.
“It’s more bad news isn’t it?” Melnik whispered.
“This day has nothing but bad news,” she growled. “They have hacked the turrets.”
All she heard was a sharp intake of breath on the other end. His breathing was harsh as he processed the news. It felt like things couldn’t get any worse but the universe just took joy in proving her wrong. “We can’t just go in like this,” Melnik gasped, “we’ll just get mowed down. “
Ryder nodded, again another gesture nobody saw. “No, you can’t. Pass the word to the others,” she said. “I need to figure this out.”
It will be a massacre if they go in.
There must be something she could do. Her eyes scanned the video feed but she saw nothing she could exploit. “No!” she growled, refusing to just roll over and die. “We’re so fucking close!”
Is there nothing? Really, nothing?
Ryder blinked. Her hands swiped through her terminal, searching for Janus base defence control panels. “If I can activate the turrets, I can fucking disable it,” she said.
Her fingers faltered when she reached the panel. The turrets controls were locked in base-wide. She couldn’t disable the turrets section by section. It was all or nothing.
The turrets outside her door barked as it fired another barrage of bullets. Ryder bit her lip. Her eyes flicked between the control room’s door and the others on the screen. She cursed at the high resolution feeds. The wide eyed fear on the archaeologists, the glint of hope in Kovács’ and Amir’s eyes and the grim and stubborn set of Tao’s jaw. Finally Melnik spoke up. “Corporal, is there anything you can do?”
They don’t need very long. The fucking doors are reinforced. It will hold.
Ryder looked at the button again. Taking a deep breath, her hand tightening further over her pistol as another barrage came from the turrets.
“Yeah, there is,” she said. “Here’s what I’ll do…”
Tao didn’t know what to make of the plan. Ryder was cagey about the details. All she told them was to get ready. There was no getting ready for him. He was in no position to help clear the shuttle hanger. The others were shedding unneeded equipment and supplies.
“Put me facing the door and a pistol in my hand,” Tao said.
Melnik nodded. Neither spoke why this was necessary. Words weren’t needed. “Is this ok?” he asked.
Tao nodded, sighing as Melnik leaned him against a crate shifted into position for this purpose. He had a clear view of the door. It’s the perfect spot to shoot at anyone coming in, it was also the perfect spot to be shot. Tao’s jaw twitched, if it came down to him, well he would rather go out taking down those assholes. Melnik looked at him. “Are you sure you can pull the trigger?” Doubt dripping from his voice.
Tao popped the heat sink and dry fired the pistol. The pistol clicked and Melnik flinched. “My finger works just fine,” he retorted, putting the heatsink back. “Leave me one omni-grenade.”
“But…” Melnik made to protest.
“Just in case,” he interrupted.
Their eyes met for a moment and Melnik looked away, as if afraid of what he saw in there. Melnik unhooked one and handed it over silently. Wincing, Tao shifted into a more comfortable position. He tapped on his omni-tool, putting a call across to Ryder.
“Baby Corporal,” Tao greeted as Ryder accepted the call.
“Tao,” she replied, sounding strangely breathless. “I think after today, I’m not a baby any more.”
“True. You good?”
“Been better,” she huffed.
“Tell me about it,” Tao snorted before sobering up. “Are you doing something stupid?”
The silence in the wake of his question was loud. “Define stupid,” she replied after a long pause.
“Don’t deflect, Ryder. Melnik had close to no details on what you’re going to do,” he retorted. “Saying trust me isn’t going to cut it for me.”
“Tao, what the hell do you want me to say? It is stupid, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Tao could hear the bark of the turrets firing on the other end of the call. “I hear you’ve got some stubborn house guests.”
“Cockroaches, the lot,” Ryder laughed. “You have a bunch too.”
“So what are you doing about it?”
A hiss of pain came through the comms then more silence. “There are about ten Cerberus fuckers waiting for them inside and the turrets have been hacked,” Ryder said.
“That’s right. It’s impossible to take the hanger this way,” Ryder went on.
“And you’re still asking them to go in?”
“Tao, do I seem that stupid?” Ryder asked pointedly.
“No, but…” Tao’s voice trailed off. “What can you do? They got the turrets.”
Ryder sighed, a sound so heavy Tao could feel the weight of it. “I’m going to disable them. I’ll unlock that door and lock yours. They can start with a volley of omni-grenades. Covering fire while they work their way in. Cerberus would be expecting the turrets to mow our guys down, and that’s when I’ll disable them. Then, well… it’s up to them. I can’t do anything from here.”
Tao’s mouth hung open. What Ryder was suggesting was tantamount to suicide. “Ryder…”
She sighed again, more shuffling sounds and the unmistakeable sound of a heat sink being loaded into a pistol. “I don’t think I’ll make the shuttle anyway,” she said, chuckling a little.
Asking her if she was sure was just a sign of disrespect. Of course she had thought it through. Ryder was nobody’s fool. She chose to do what’s good for the most number of people. And she just ended up on the other side of the line. Tao licked his lips and cleared his throat. “Hang in there, someone over at Hephaestus will pick up on the distress beacon. Then Walker has got to send back up.”
Ryder snorted, it sounded wet and thin. Tao waited as the sound faded. “I’ll not hold my breath for that,” she said. “I’m not worried about me. Once you launch you all are on a clock. THere is only so much air in the shuttle. And coming back down is probably a very bad idea.”
“Don’t remind me,” Tao growled.
Kovács waved his hand to get Tao’s attention. He jerked his head up and saw they were all ready and waiting. Melnik was speaking to one of the archaeologists, leaving the case that held the Prothean artifact with them. Before Tao could speak, Ryder said, “It’s showtime, Tao.”
“See you in a bit.” Kovács said.
Tao nodded once. “Stay safe.”
He turned his head to look directly at the security camera, sure that Ryder was looking right back at him. “Give them hell,” he said.
“I will, I will…” Ryder whispered.
It started with a bang and things were going smoothly. Ryder kept her attention split between what was going on outside the control room and what’s happening at the hanger. She had never felt more useless. The door was unlocked, the turrets down. There was nothing more she could do, other than to watch it all unfold. Amir and Melnik were pinned down by a sniper perched right on top of the shuttle they needed. Ryder could see how the doors on the shuttle was all black and singed. Cerberus didn’t waste time waiting for them to show up. She prayed that they weren’t successful in disabling the shuttle as well.
Kovács tried to flank the sniper. With Amir and Melnik providing covering fire, he just might make it. Melnik cursed as he fumbled for another heat sink. Amir popped up and fired haphazardly at the sniper. Kovács was close. He just needed to get into position.
Ryder gritted her teeth. “Patience, don’t rush this,” she muttered under her breath.
Having a multi-angle view of this fight was doing her no favours. As much coaching and help she could provide, they had to do it on their own. Ryder’s fingers twitched. How she ached to just Pull the sniper off his perch.
Movement flashed from another screen. “Get down!” she shouted.
Amir couldn’t hear her over the gunfire. A volley of bullets came from the side. In the process of providing covering fire, Amir and Melnik didn’t pay attention and got flanked themselves. The bullet shredded through Amir’s arm and shoulder. Clear cries of pain echoed through the hanger. Melnik grabbed Amir and pulled him back behind cover.
“It hurts, it fucking hurts,” Amir hissed.
Ryder clenched her jaw and said nothing. She kept her eye on screens. Cerberus wanted to drag them into a battle of attrition. It was one they couldn’t win. “Melnik, you can’t let this drag on too long. You can’t win,” she said.
“I know!” he growled, popping up to fire at the new group of enemies.
Ryder bit back her retort. It would do nobody any good to get into an argument now. She switched her attention to Amir instead. “Slap some medi-gel on it and you’ll be fine,” she barked, command ringing in her voice. “It hurts because you’re still alive.”
Amir groaned but shoved another medi-gel pack into his armour’s dispenser. Ryder could see the moment the sweet numbness hitting his body. She looked on with jealousy. Her hand tightened around the last pack of medi-gel. Got to make it last. She winced as she shifted in her seat.
The turrets outside the control room had been silent for a while now, the lack of movement outside was making her antsy. Ryder had expected Cerberus to be launching missiles at the door the moment the turrets were disabled, but there had been nothing. A quick glance at the screen showed her nobody was out there. Maybe they have re-routed the troops over to the hanger?
Ryder couldn’t trust her luck, not with the kind of day she was having. When her eyes shifted back towards the situation in the hanger, Kovács was in a tug of war with the sniper. Ryder’s clenched her fists, her biotics spilling over and flaring in response to a fight she could do nothing but watch.
“Come on, Kovács!” she yelled, urging him on.
Melnik and Amir kept the other Cerberus soldiers busy. It was down to Kovács. He tussled and grappled. It was a struggle for survival. Ryder grimaced. The sniper rained punches down on his face. His neck snapped back with a violent force. Even with the helmet protecting his face, Ryder knew he would feel that tomorrow, if they had one.
“Just hit him,” she growled.
“I’m trying,” he retorted through gritted teeth, twisting his head out of the way. “Stop backseat fighting!”
A noise of utter frustration burst from her mouth. Kovács wrapped his legs around the sniper and wrenched. The Cerberus soldier was taken by surprise and lost his footing. He took the chance and drew his pistol and emptied it into sniper’s chest. With a kick, the body slid off the roof of the shuttle. It fell with a resounding thump.
“Yes!” she exclaimed.
Kovács straightened in triumph. A boom from the other end of the hanger sliced through the air. She watched as he jerked once and fell backwards. Red splattering across the white exterior of the shuttle.
Melnik’s and Amir’s shouts joined hers. Kovács had survived, he came out on top. To strike him down in his moment of victory was just unfair. This couldn’t be! Ryder clenched her fists, fighting the urge to punch the screen.
Melnik and Amir renewed their efforts, taking risks Ryder would have screamed at them for. She understood the fury they felt. It was coursing through her veins too. Red was all she saw, but she couldn’t act on it.
Eventually. the gunfire died down. Ryder blinked. Melnik gasped, “Clear.”
Amir’s confirmation came a couple of seconds later. “Kovács?” she whispered.
Amir stepped over to the shuttle, his gait quick but as he neared he hesitated. Ryder enlarged the feed trying to see more, but Kovács had fallen into a blindspot. “Amir,” she called, unable to put her question into words.
The dusky skinned soldier wandered back into frame. His eyes searched for Melnik. Ryder gritted her teeth. She knew. She could see it in the lines of Amir’s shoulders, the set of his jaw and the tag in his hand. She buried her face in her hands.
“Fuck. Fuck this shit.”
Amir stood with his head bowed, his hand pressed against his eyes. His shoulders shook as he sank to the ground. Melnik turned away, his hands clenched tight at his side.
Ryder took a shuddering breath. “You got to get out of here,” she said.
Melnik straightened and looked at the camera for a long moment before turning to go without waiting. Amir asked, “What about you?”
The question was so innocent, so straight forward, it made her chest ached. “Amir,” she said, “I’m not going.”
His eyes widened. “No,” his protest clear and firm. “This isn’t right. The Alliance leaves nobody behind.”
“You have to,” Ryder forced the words past her lips. Her eyes glued on the screen showing her the view outside of the control room.
Cerberus’ soldiers were lining up with explosives and a missile launcher. Ryder snorted, her luck had ran out. A Cerberus engineer scurried up against the door and started hacking it. She laughed harshly. The door was reinforced with multiple layers of security and the attempt only resulted in the engineer’s omni-tool sparking out.
“No, Ryder, you have to try,” Amir all but begged.
She clenched her teeth so hard it ached. “I can’t!” she shouted. “I’ve more blood out of my body than in. I can barely breathe. I probably don’t have long, not without proper medical help. I won’t make it to the hanger. I have a fuck ton of Cerberus sitting outside of the control room. Without the AA guns, without someone holding down the fort, nobody is going to make it off Janus.”
Amir clamped his lips shut. They were pressed together, merging into a single thin line. “This is not fair,” he spat.
“It’s not, so fucking go! You owe it to Kovács, Sagh, Ishida and Garcia to fucking make it off Janus,” Ryder barked, as much as she loathed to use the names of the dead this way, she needed him to move and fast.
Amir stiffened. His hand trembled from the intensity he was cluching Kovács’ tag.
That broke the spell, Amir ran as fast as he could back to the room where Tao and the others were. Ryder wished she could re-activate the turrets but the others would be mowed down the moment she did. She kept one eye on the situation outside her door, another on how quickly the shuttle was filled.
Then the feed on her camera outside her door cut out. “Shit,” she cursed.
“What is it,” Tao asked.
“I’m lost the eyes outside my door.”
“That’s not good.”
“Tell me about it,” she sighed, rubbing her hands together, feeling cold.
She looked at the blood sleeked and red stained floor. Her breathing was getting harder as her chest constricted. She gritted her teeth and tightened her grip on her pistol. They will be safe. They will have as long as I have breath.
“Ryder,” Tao called, dragging her attention back to the hanger.
“It’s been an honour,” he said.
Ryder laughed, it was dry and bitter. “This wasn’t how I expect my day to go but yeah, make sure you see Ryan and have a kid or two,” she said.
“I will, I promise,” he whispered.
“Don’t you fucking die,” she growled, her heart wasn’t in it.
Tao grunted. “I’ll try my fucking best,” he said.
Then gunfire pierced the small bubble of peace in the shuttle. Cerberus’ reinforcements reached the shuttle hanger. Civilians were screaming as they ran towards the shuttle. Stronger ones pushed weaker ones aside. They were trampling their peers without care. One of them was carrying the artifact but the case went flying when he fell. Melnik hauled him to his feet, and pushed him towards the shuttle. He turned to run back for the artifact.
“Leave it!” Amir shouted.
As Melnik hesitated, civilians were cut down left and right by gunfire. There was no way he could get it and leave at the same time. “It’s not worth it, Melnik! Go!” she shouted. “That’s an order!”
Melnik growled in frustration, but he turned towards the shuttle. He ran, pulling along whoever he could. All semblance of an orderly retreat had gone out of the window. Melnik and the others were fleeing for their lives. Ryder’s view of Melnik was cut out as he made it safely into the shuttle. Everyone outside were dead or dying. As much as it pained Ryder to see the archaeologists crawling towards the shuttle, begging to be let in, they had to go now.
“Strap in!” Melnik called as he pushed his way into the cockpit.
Amir was shouting down the archaeologists’ pleas to wait for the others. If Tao spoke, Ryder couldn’t hear it. She bit her lip and willed them to move faster. The shuttle’s drive core powered up with a sharp whine. The roar filled the hanger. The clamps holding the shuttle was released. The shuttle hovered gently.
“Ryder,” Melnik shouted over the din of whimpering civilians.
“What the fuck you’re waiting for?” she all but shouted.
Bullets plinked against the hardened exterior ineffectively. “Shit, Ryder. Just know that I am sorry, okay?” Melnik blurted.
“Fucking hell, Melnik! Fine, apology accepted, just go!”
The roar was ear splitting and the shuttle started rattling. As Melnik took the dampeners off, it shot out of the shuttle hanger like a bat out of hell. Ryder felt a weight lifted from her chest watching as the shuttle disappeared from all her cameras.
It’s done. It’s fucking done. She slumped back against her chair.
The comms were crackling as interference from the storm increased the further it got away from the base. “Ry-, you’ve- ok,” Melnik’s voice cut in and out.
Ryder could no longer make out what he meant to say. It didn’t matter anymore. Now all that’s left was for her to hold out as long as she could. The Cerberus soldiers were leaving the hanger and she saw the Prothean artifact in the hands of one of them. She sighed.
All those deaths and they still got what they came for.
An explosion outside her door jarred her back to her reality. Ryder’s jaw clench as she fought to stand. She had preparation to make if she want to make sure this lasted as long as possible.
That was the last of her medi-gel. Sitting in a pool of her own blood was no fun but Ryder wasn’t in any condition to be picky. “I didn’t think I had any more blood left to bleed,” she chuckled.
She had abandoned her pistol for her rifle, opting for more firepower. If the small pile of foolhardy Cerberus’ soldiers at the door was any indication, she made the right choice. The door was cycling shut and bouncing back when the door encountered the bodies. She sighed. She Pushed the bodies out and the door slid shut again.
“Not bad huh,” she commented to nobody in particular.
A wave of vertigo swept over her, forcing her to close her eyes. Her chest felt like it had a strap that was slowly tightening, squeezing air from her lungs. It had been hours. Switching between her rifle and her biotics, keeping Cerberus at bay. They had cut the power, but the control room had its own separate power generator. They have tried an omni-grenade barrage but that failed when Ryder scooped it all up with her biotics and tossed them out. The resulting explosion and screams was worth that extra bit of effort.
“Now if they had a biotic, I’ll probably be fucked so many times over,” she muttered.
Opening her eyes, Ryder glanced at her omni-tool. The 24 hour countdown was still running. There was still 2 hours and 15 minutes on the clock. She eyed her dwindling supplies. It was just a couple more heat sinks left and that was it.
“No fucking matter,” she gasped as she sat up straighter, “I still have my biotics.”
Her hands were shaking too much to aim properly. It was more luck than skill if she hit anything at this rate. A shaky laugh escaped her lips as she clenched and unclenched her hands a few times to steady it. It didn’t help.
Ryder was leaning against the wall, perpendicular to the door so that nobody saw her unless they turned. And when they do. Boom. No more head.
She laughed and hissed as the motion sent stabbing pains up and down her torso and gut. She glanced at her omni-tool, an unfinished message lay blinked on it.
I’m sorry. I’ve tried my best. I didn’t mean for things to end this way. I hope I’ve made you proud.
The cursor lay blinking at the end of her last sentence. It was daring her, mocking her. Ryder’s jaw tightened.
Scott will be fine. He will be sad, but he will bounce back no problems. Pa, well… fuck him.
As her thoughts turned to her mother, all false cheer slid off her face. Ryder took a shuddering breath. Fuck, I don’t want to do this to her, but I don’t see a way out.
She looked at her shattered armour. Ceramic plates more cracked than intact, pieces were digging past her undersuit into her skin. Where it didn’t, blood dried and crusted in some parts, wet and warm in others. It stained everything. The icy fingers of death were creeping up her hands, reaching, ever reaching towards her heart. Tears pricked her eyes.
I’m not ready, I’m fucking not ready to go.
Her breaths came sharp and short as she wrestled with her fear. Her vision tunnelled as fire hot agony coursed through her nerves.
The sound of the door being forced open snapped her attention back to reality. Pain forgotten, fear cast aside. The rifle stock braced against her sore left shoulder. Ryder’s hands wavered with fatigue and blood loss. The first sign of a helmet peeking past the threshold she squeezed the trigger.
She had it down to a science. A single bullet wasn’t going to do the job. Ryder kept the trigger down unloading everything the heat sink had. The body just slump to the ground. Then she realised there was no scream of pain even as metal slugs peppered the helmet, shattering and cracking it. It belonged to a body that was already dead, a fucking decoy.
Her rifle was already beeping for the mandatory cool down period. A pair of Cerberus soldiers forced themselves into the control room, then two more behind them. Ryder gritted her teeth, her hands moving swiftly to replace the spent heat sink. Her movements already slowed by pain, were made slippery by blood. The heat sink slipped out of her grip.
Ryder watched as one of the rifle barrel levelled with her head. Desperately, she pulled at her biotics. A shimmering blue Barrier flared to life as bullets slammed into it. Her amp burnt but it didn’t stop the feral grin tugging at her lips.
This is it.
Ryder depressed the last omni-grenade and tossed it at the Cerberus soldiers. There was no way she could get out her corner and avoid getting hit. All she could do was to bring her arms up over her head and turned. A scouring heat seared across the room. She felt the blistering flames through her broken armour. Shrapnel like a million needles peppered against the wall and flesh alike. Her Barrier was shredded by the bullets, it flickered and shimmered and eventually dropped.
And Ryder screamed.