The Persephone Arc

Chapter 13 - Baby Ryder

 

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.

 

Medi-gel was a miraculous invention especially for soldiers, but there was only so much it could do. For one, it couldn’t replace lost blood. Shepard worked frantically as the soldier got more confused and less responsive.

“She is going into shock!” Shepard said.

“Elevate her feet,” Alenko barked.

Gunnery Chief Williams shifted to follow the order, but she slipped on the blood-coated floor of the shuttle and fell. Cursing, she worked quickly.

“Can’t this thing go any faster?” Shepard demanded.

There was no answer but an increased in cabin pressure as it powered through the upper atmosphere of Janus. The shuttle rocked and rattled. Luckily, the Corporal was already strapped onto a secure back board. That left the other three scrambling to find hand holds to keep from smashing their heads against the interior.

Shepard stabbed a bloody finger against the omni-tool. “Joker! Come meet us and tell Chakwas we have one trauma victim for her.”

“You broke something already, Shepard?” came the reply. “Didn’t you just recover from a broken arm or two?”

“Joker!” she shouted. “I have no fucking time for this.”

“Fine, fine,” he replied placatingly. “One shuttle pick up coming right up.”

“And tell Chakwas, we need her at the cargo bay.”

“Got it, Shep,” came the reply.

The connection terminated with a click. She looked at the startlingly pale face of the Corporal. “Hey, hey, stick with me. We’re almost back. Chakwas will stitch you right up,” she said, squeezing the Corporal’s limp hand.

Eyelids fluttering, these brown eyes couldn’t focus on anything. The Corporal’s breaths were coming rapid, shallow and alarmingly wet. As the shuttle evened out, Shepard inserted another medi-gel pack into the armour and praying it helped. In the shuttle it was next to impossible to remove the Corporal’s armour and do the usual things — applying pressure, getting her hooked up on an IV line. For all she knew, the armour was the only thing keeping the blood more in than out.

“Hang in there, soldier.”

The Corporal’s lips moved, but no sound came out. All Shepard got for an answer was a weak squeeze of her hand.


Cotton had been stuffed into her ears she was sure. Maybe Scott had played a prank on her. Everything sounded far away and strange. There weren’t sounds of shift change, no banter between Tao and Garcia. There was just the persistent beeping that was slowly driving her insane.

Ryder groaned. Shit, what’s the time? I should get ready.

She tried to open her eyes, but they weighed down like lead. As she forced them open, she found herself staring at a strange dome-shaped ceiling. This is not the barracks. Where—

Then it hit her. The memories of the downed Sinon, finding Ishida, creating the distraction, defending the control room. “I’m not supposed to be here,” she muttered.

Her limbs were anchors attached to her body. She had no strength beyond moving her eyes to take in the room. Med-bay for sure. There’s no doubt. Nowhere else would have a ceiling this white.

There was a dull ache that ran through her body. Ryder was sure it was the top grade painkillers that were keeping her from screaming in agony. It was disconcerting to be so detached from her body. Something was tickling her nostrils. It was hard, uncomfortable and delivering air in through her nose. She grunted but couldn’t summon the energy to tug at it.

With considerable effort, Ryder turned her head, but she couldn’t see much beyond. The half dome over her obscured her vision. Something rustled somewhere else in the med-bay.

“Thank you,” a lady spoke calmly.

“Just doing my part,” a more familiar voice replied.

Ryder remembered the voice. It was her hallucination. She couldn’t help the small chuckle. Imagine that, dreaming that I saw Shepard! Ha! But… I can't be still hallucinating now right? Fuck, I’ve messed up my head more than I thought.

“How’s our little last stand hero, doc?” the familiar voice asked.

“Put pressure on that,” the doctor replied.

A grunt and more rustling as a weight slid off fabric. “It’s just a pin prick. It will stop bleeding on its own.”

“Suit yourself,” came the exasperated reply. “Collapsed lung, bruised ribs, multiple lacerations and contusions. Oh, of course, massive blood loss to top it all off.”

“An impressive laundry list of injuries, even when compared to me,” came the joking reply before a sigh punctuated the still air. “But she will be fine?”

“Sara Ryder, newly minted Corporal. She is young, she will recover. Maybe a little more scarred, but this isn’t the end of her Alliance career, Shepard.”

The haze that Ryder found herself in was gone in an instant. That name sent alarm bells ringing in her head. Shepard? Fuck, that wasn’t a hallucination? Shit! How much did I fucked up? She remembered sending Shepard flying across the control room. As soon as that happened, the beeping from the monitors beside her, chirped warningly.

Footsteps approached as the bed slid outwards. Her vision wasn’t obstructed any longer. The doctor was dressed in an Alliance white and grey high collared uniform. Her short cropped hair neat as was expected of any Alliance soldier. In contrast the other person was dressed in a black tank top with a N7 logo discretely stitched into the left breast, blue Alliance BDU pants. Her red hair was roughly in a braid but stray strands of hair were sticking out every which way.

Ryder groaned in embrassement.

The doctor approached quickly thinking it was from pain. “How are you feeling? How is your pain level?”

She opened her mouth, her lips parted painfully after being stuck together for what felt like days. “Water?” she rasped hopefully.

Shepard spun around, picked up a cup and handed it to the doctor. Ice chips were pressed into her mouth and she sucked on them greedily.

“My name is Doctor Chakwas, you’re on board the Normandy,” the doctor informed. “This is Commander Shepard.”

Shepard snorted, a lopsided smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. It made the scar that ran down her left check twitch. “I think she knows.”

Ryder was glad she lost enough blood to not worry about blushing. “I do, Commander. Thank you and sorry.”

A eyebrow rose as Shepard cocked her head. “Sorry?” she asked before she remembered. “That throw? It’s fine. Actually it’s more than fine, it’s impressive. You caught me by surprise that’s all. The armour took the burnt of things.”

“The others? Did they make it?” Ryder asked, her mind finally catching up on things.

“Don’t worry about them. We’ve picked them all up. We’re en route to the Citadel. I’ll be debriefing you as soon as Chakwas here gives the green light. Rest up, Corporal.”

Ryder could only nod as the doctor swept in with her medical questions.


Shepard sighed, her hair limp and sad after her shower. She walked with her towel over her neck towards the mess. Her stomach growled, reminding her of the exciting day she had. Alenko was there, nursing a hot cup of what looked like coffee.

She grimaced, weighing the options between food and avoiding the LT. Her thoughts were in a mess and she needed time to sort them out. Between chasing Saren, racing back to the Citadel and defeating him, recovering from having the Citadel fall on her, the subsequent orders to go chasing after Geth left her no time to even process what had happened. A night, her first time and nothing happened like she expected. She grimaced, pushing the memory out of her mind.

Fuck the Geth, what about the Reapers?

She huffed a sharp breath out through her mouth and put hunger first. Alenko, no Kaidan, fuck. You fucked the man, you could bloody well call him Kaidan now. “Hey,” she said by the way of greeting.

Alenko looked up and smiled tiredly. Shepard walked food dispenser and stabbed a button at random. As the machine went to work, she asked, “Any tea left?”

He laughed. “Definitely, coffee runs the Normandy. And you’re the only tea drinker on board. There are plenty of tea bags left.”

Shepard snorted and slid into a seat with her food and freshly brewed tea. As she shovelled food into her mouth, he asked, “So the Corporal, is she going to make it?”

She nodded. “Chakwas is good at what she does. Ryder will be fine.”

“Ryder?”

“Yeah.”

“Is she related to Alec Ryder?” he asked.

Her spoon stilled as she thought about it. As she chewed, she brought up her omni-tool and checked. It didn’t take long for Sara Ryder’s service record to pop up. “What do you know, you’re right, Alenko.”

She caught his face twisting a little at his last name. Pretending she didn’t noticed, she forced a soft chuckle to cover the awkward silence that follow. “Baby Ryder is quite something. Her father is the most N7 of operatives I’ve ever met.”

“What the fuck does that even mean Skipper?” Williams asked as she joined them at the table.

“By the book, straightlaced, protocols and more protocols,” Shepard replied, “that’s what I mean.”

“I can see why that goes against your grain,” Williams laughed.

“Will you prefer I reimplemented the segregation of the officer’s mess and enlisted mess again?

“Ahh, no.”

Alenko laughed. Shepard pushed her empty bowl aside and hissed as she scaled her tongue on her hot tea. “How are our new passengers handling it?”

“The LT and I debriefed them while you’re off donating blood to our little hero. They all said the same thing. A ship crashed, the NCO in charge took a team to investigate, got most of them killed, Ryder took two soldiers who were due to be court-martialled with her and—”

“Hold up, court-martialled? Why?” Shepard interjected.

“They attempted to… well, sexually assault Ryder while under the influence,” Alenko explained, wincing.

“Fuck this shit,” Shepard said, standing suddenly. The chair scrapped. All heads in the vicinity turned to look at their commanding officer.

Noticing the many pairs of eyes on her, she sat down again. Rubbing her hand over her face, she turned to Alenko and Williams. “What are their names? Do we need to put them in the brig?”

“No, I don’t think so,” he replied. “I’ve spoken to Tao, the lance-corporal. He is the only survivor of the first party. They were following Ryder’s lead throughout. I think we can trust them to behave.”

“Fuck, what a mess this is. Williams, I want you to keep an eye on them. If you find them with a single toe out of line, throw them into the brig. I don’t care if they saved the fucking Council.”

“Got it, skipper.”

Shepard leaned back against the chair and sighed. “So what’s going to happen to them?” Alenko asked. “The base is as good as gone, men dead. Even if some civilians survived, it will take some time for the Alliance to send a clean up crew.”

“They will all be re-assigned, I suppose. I’m going to have words with Walker,” she growled.

He nodded, suddenly looking like he aged ten years. “It’s just luck isn’t it?” he asked.

“Yeah, it is.”

Fucking luck.


Ryder hated the med-bay. It was dark, it was oppressive. It was even worse than being in the hospital with her mother. The endless hum of the Normandy’s drive core was loud and driving her up the wall. With Chakwas weaning her off the good stuff, that meant the pain was keeping her up.

“Please, I’ll take the sleeper pods over the med-bay,” she begged.

Chakwas raised her eyebrows at her. Even not wearing only a thin medical gown and nothing else underneath, the experienced medical officer’s gaze made her feel vulnerable. Ryder tightened her jaw and set her shoulders, as much as she could while lying flat on her back.

Chakwas laughed and shook her head. “Ryder, you have years to go before you try that stare on me. Yours isn’t quite up to snuff.”

“I—”

She waved her hand at Ryder and said, “If you can dress yourself unaided. I’ll consider you fit to leave my tender mercies.”

Ryder grunted as she levered herself into a sitting position. The dull ache turned up a notch as she winced. Chakwas has removed the chest tube a couple of days earlier. Most of the lacerations didn’t need stitches. The good doctor even promised no scars other than a couple of silver ones once they healed for the deeper ones. The only thing bothering her were her healing ribs.

I can do this. This is nothing like the last time. What’s a couple litres of blood? It’s all been replaced anyway.

Grimacing she slipped out of the medical gown, Chakwas had left the med-bay and locked it behind her to give Ryder a semblance of privacy. The zip up hoodie presented little problem, it was the sweat pants that proved to be the challenge. By the time she was tying the drawstring, Ryder had sweat beading across her forehead as she rethought her need to get out of the med-bay.

But I can’t sit here all day till we get to the Citadel. I’ve got to check on the others. And Tao, what the fuck happened to him?

She managed a dignified shuffle to the door. It slid open just in time to hear Shepard laughing at the mess. “Hey, baby Ryder!” she greeted, waving.

Oh fuck.

“Commander,” she replied. “Thank you once again for coming for me.”

Shepard shrugged. “We don’t leave our own behind.”

Ryder noticed Shepard’s lips twisted when she said it, like the words tasted bitter on her tongue.

“Ma'am, where is the rest of my squad? I need to check on them,” she asked, gingerly making her way towards the small circle around Shepard, feeling like she didn't belong.

Of course, you don't fucking belong. She is the damn Saviour of the Citadel. Who do you think you are?

“Take care of your mini me, Shepard,” Chakwas said.

The man standing next to the Commander choked as Shepard scowled.

“And Ryder, remember to come back to me every day for a check up. And if you can bring your Lance-Corporal Tao along I'll appreciate it too,” she went on

“Yes, ma’am.” Ryder replied.

“Doctor Chakwas is fine, Chakwas is also fine. Just none of this ma’am nonsense. It's literally adding years to my face as I hear it.”

Without another word, the doctor withdrew to the med-bay.

“I don't know how she can stand to be in the damn dark room all day,” Shepard muttered under her breath.

An excited thrill ran down Ryder’s spine as Shepard echoed her thoughts. It was strange and awesome to be meeting her hero up close.

A pair of brilliant green eyes took her in. She straightened, attempting to look better than how she felt. Shepard sighed and muttered under her breath, “Mini fucking me.”

Another choked laugh came from the man. Shepard rounded on him and wagged a finger, “Don't you fucking dare repeat that, Alenko.”

Ryder glanced at the man, coiffed hair, well-built muscles, a pair of soft sepia brown eyes and a sheepish smile perched on his lips. He smiled at Shepard, his scar tugged at his mouth. He was completely at ease around her and yet awkward at the same time. She averted her eyes. This is none of my fucking business. But fuck is he attractive.

“Got it, Shepard.”

Shepard rolled her eyes. “Come on, I'll show you.”

Ryder made a valiant attempt to keep up, but the painkillers were wearing off and she wasn't due another dose till much later. Shepard glanced back and realised she had fallen behind. She sighed. “You know you can tell me to slow down?”

“Sorry, ma’am.”

“No.”

“No?” Ryder parroted back.

“No,” Shepard repeated firmly. “None of this ma’am bullshit. Commander Shepard if you must, Commander works too. Shepard though is my preferred.”

“Ok...”

“Shepard, repeat after me, Shepaaard.”

Ryder couldn't help the snort that escaped. Pain ripped through her torso as she pressed her hand against her chest.

“Shepaaard.”

She was laughing in earnest while she bent over trying to hold her insides in. “I’ve got it, Commander. I’ve really got it.”

Shepard grinned, the mirth lighting up her green eyes. “Come on, do you need help walking?” she asked.

“Only if you keep insist on making me laugh.”


Eventually, Ryder found the rest of her squad. She leaned heavily against a bulkhead. The earlier joviality with Shepard was gone, sucked out of the airlock and froze in the vacuum. Looking at Melnik, Amir and Tao, she felt only failure.

“Fuck,” she spat, tears stinging her eyes.

All those deaths for what? For fucking nothing. We didn’t even managed to keep the damn artifact from them.

Tao nudged Amir and jerked his head at Ryder. He rose and put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it. “Come on, Corporal, why don’t we sit down?”

She allowed him to guide her to the remaining empty cot laid out in the cargo bay. A hiss of pain forced the breath from her lungs, her breaths came sharp and short. Amir gritted his teeth, tears were also standing in his eyes.

Melnik sat down, effectively sandwiching Ryder between them, while Tao was lying on the cot just next to her.

“I’m sorry, fuck. I’m sorry,” Ryder whispered, her shoulders shaking as a sob ripped through her throat.

“No, you don’t get to do that. You did what you could. You did what nobody thought was possible,” Tao said, his voice hard and insistent. “Look at me, Ryder.”

Tears stood in her eyes. Tao turned into nothing but a blurry blob and still she couldn’t bear to hold his gaze. She squeezed them shut, tears overflowed her eyes and streamed down her face. Her jaw clenched as her hands gripped the thin metal frame of the cot.

“It’s my fault,” Melnik blurted. “Kovács… fuck, Kovács. He should have made it. I couldn’t—”

“Shut up,” Ryder whispered.

She grabbed Melnik’s and Amir’s hands in each of her own. Her hands shook at the intensity she was gripping them. Tao shifted and placed a hand on her knee. The four of them formed a little circle as they mourned the death of their friends.

Shepard leaned against console and watched. Her jaw tightened. Without saying a word, she walked away.

Chapter 12 - Rescue

 

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.

 

“Damn,” she cursed, eyeing at the melted slag of what used to be a couple of Makos.

“Is that admiration I hear in your voice?” the Chief asked.

She laughed but couldn’t quite take her eyes off the burning mess. The Alliance logo was still vaguely visible even though it was almost completely scorched black by the burning drive core. “How did that happen?” she muttered to nobody in particular.

A gust of strong wind picked up sand, grit and rocks, obscuring the wreckage. She was starting to hate this place. Her omni-tool beeped as she received the updated blueprint of the base. She turned to her team, “Come on, we’re wasting time here.”

“You were the one gawking,” the Chief pointed out.

She glowered at the Chief for a bit. Without needing to give a command, the Chief jogged towards the blast doors, preempting her thoughts. She pressed her body against the wall, the LT took the other. She met his eyes and he gave her a nod in acknowledgement. It was reassuring to have him at her back. It’s nice not being the only biotic on the field.

This is way more interesting than patrolling the Traverse cleaning up the Geth. Cleaning… She could see the air quotes in her head.

The LT narrowed his eyes at her. She just rolled hers. The Katana shotgun was a hefty weight in her hands but it wasn’t one she was used to. Her lips curled at the pristine the silver and black finish of the shotgun.

Too fucking clean.

The Chief glanced at her and she nodded. One open-palmed slap from the Chief triggered the holo-lock to flicker from red to green. And the door cycled through its opening sequence. The Chief shifted to take position behind the LT. The doors open and she waited. They watched her. There was no sound, no movements inside. She hummed.

“Didn’t they say there are Cerberus here?” she asked.

“Are you bored already?” the LT asked, a smile in his voice.

She cocked her head at him as she shrugged. “I was promised something more exciting than a rescue mission.”

As she stepped into the facility, shotgun leading the way, an exclaim rang out from inside. “Speak of the devil, Skipper,” the Chief piped.

Bullets started raining down as she smirked. “Ahhh, the music of the battle,” she said.

“No, don’t—”

She didn’t allow the LT to finish. It was obvious what he wanted to say. She wouldn’t admit it if either of them had asked her, but she was bored.


Picking up the signal of an Alliance distress beacon was a stroke of luck. Arriving in time to see a Cerberus ship turning tail was not. She wished she could give chase, but the Alliance distress beacon took priority. They picked up a shuttle, maintaining altitude over Janos’ atmosphere, not long after. Scooping up the shuttle into their hanger wasn’t hard, in fact her pilot made sure to let her know there was no challenge at all. She sighed. Her hand twitched wishing for a moment she could strangle him before remembering she loved to keep him around too much to do that. The ship’s doctor and the LT wasted no time to triage the wounded. From what she saw nobody escaped Janus unscathed.

“Who’s in charge?” she asked.

All she got were a bunch of blank faces. Shit, these are all civilians. She scanned the group, there was one wearing Alliance armour. His helmet laid between his feet, his head bowed, dried blood coated his armour. A quick glance to his arms confirmed his rank. She stepped up to him. He didn’t register her presence. Squatting down brought her to his level, she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, are you ok?” she asked. “Are you wounded?”

He lifted his head, his brown eyes dulled with fatigue and something else. She didn’t need to be able to name it to know what it was. She had seen it so many times in her own eyes. These were eyes that had seen too much. These were eyes who knew the fragility of life. The thin line that separated life and death. It wasn’t skills or abilities that determined one’s fate, it was luck more often than not. And lady luck was a fickle bitch at the best of times.

The Private shook his head and started to raise, his hand coming up in a limp attempt of a salute. “At ease, Private,” she said, her hand pressed him back to the floor. “What happened?”

It didn’t take much to drag the entire story from him. She got the gist. An ambush killed their commanding NCO. A corporal took over, but was told to stand down and wait for instructions. She disobeyed direct orders and gone after the missing team, rescuing one. The base proper was attacked and they lost the Prothean artifact in a bid to escape.

“So where is the Corporal? I don’t remember seeing her on the shuttle,” she asked, checking her omni-tool for an updated list of the people they picked up. There was no update.

His story didn’t tally up in places, especially the beginning bits where he spoke more of the others’ involvement and not his own as if he wasn’t there. But it didn’t matter for now, her concern was for the Corporal. She needed to debrief to the Corporal and figure out what to shove up the line.

“So where is she?” she asked.

The Private licked his lips, she watched his adam’s apple bobbed as he gulped. “She told us to go while she guarded the control room,” he confessed.

She sighed, expecting it as much. “How long ago is this?”

“I don’t know,” he stammered.

“Think, Private!” she barked, “I need an answer when I’m back.”

It took all of ten minutes to don her armour, white and red strips running down her right arm. A brand new Katana shotgun and Avenger rifle holstered on her back. She was all ready to go. As she stepped out of her quarters, bumped into the LT.

He opened his mouth, obviously trying to give her his report. She raised a finger as she comm ahead to the hanger. “Get the shuttle ready.”

“What is it?” she asked turning to the LT.

“You’re going somewhere?” he asked instead.

“They left someone behind at the base,” she replied by way of explanation.

Time was of the essence. Neither of them liked the chances of the Corporal if she was left alone in a base crawling with Cerberus goons. The LT immediately went to prepare. She liked that she didn’t have to explain herself. She opened her mouth, ready to call upon the squad setup she preferred for such situations but realised they weren’t on board. They had all returned to their lives and this was an all Alliance crew again. Swallowing the sting of disappointment, she turned to the Chief, who was helping process the civilians. “Suit up, we’re going down to Janus.”

The Chief turned and regarded her. Her eyes carried the spark of anticipation despite the grim job they found themselves with. “You found us some trouble, Skipper?” she grinned.

“You know me, Chief,” she replied easily. “Trouble finds me.”

The Chief snorted and spoke to her colleague before leaving to prep. She trusted her crew but she missed the multi-species crew she had before. Pushing the thoughts out of her mind, she returned to the Private. “Details, Private. I need details,” she said.

Time alone didn’t help. He looked like he was falling apart. Her brilliant chartreuse eyes hardened. “We’re going to get her, your Corporal. You can help me get to her faster, or you can hinder. What is it going to be?”

The bite of command seemed to put steel into his spine. He straightened. Something akin to guilt crossed his eyes. Her eyes narrowed. Whatever it was she wasn’t interested to go rooting around his head for, she needed intel and nothing more.


She slung biotics left and right as she rushed the enemy. Anyone she didn’t Throw, she served them a slug via her shotgun. If she missed any, she was confident the LT and Chief would cover her back. The trio made quick work of the Cerberus soldiers. They were fresh and rested. With two biotics on the team, Cerberus was no match.

Resistance were surprisingly low, but Cerberus had already got what they came for. It seemed all they wanted was to wipe the last hold out on base and clear out. Maybe they wanted to remove all eyewitnesses but that’s a moot point when three other Alliance soldiers and a whole bunch of civilians made it off the base. She shook her head, she wasn’t here to figure out Cerberus’ weird ass motivation. She was here for the Corporal and nobody else.

Taking the left at the junction, she froze. There was a small heap of bodies and body parts outside a reinforced door. The door itself was half opened, dented in parts, scorched and blasted in others. She glanced at her omni-tool, it was the control room. Turning she caught the LT’s and Chief’s eyes. They nodded at her in turn. She took it slow. After all, bodies, blood and guts were the norm on a battlefield but not like that. It was disturbing to say the least.

At least they haven’t started to stink.

Suppressing a shudder at an old memory of the coy, sickly sweet odour of putrid flesh, she stalked towards the door. She shook her head. The imagery was at odds under the bright lights of the base. It was not the broken urban landscape of Earth. For a split second she could almost taste the burning rubber and acrid chemicals.

“Commander, are you ok?” the LT asked, concern colouring his words.

She didn’t turn, instead she straightened and rolled her shoulders. “I’m fine, it’s just quite a sight,” she explained.

The Chief grunted. “It’s carnage,” she said, her voice muffled through the helmet.

She shrugged and moved towards the door, vigilant for signs of any Cerberus soldiers. The door was cycling through its open and close sequences. Something was preventing the door was closing completely. As she neared, she realised it was a head, one that was still connected to a body. The door was slowly but surely turning the head into slurry.

Open, close. crunch. Open, close. crunch.

“Damn,” the LT muttered under his breath.

A light touch on the holo-lock disengaged the sequence. The door ground open and stayed that way. She stepped into the room to find the aftermath of an omni-grenade blast. Shrapnel stood out like quills on an enraged porcupine.

Can anyone survive this?

She moved swiftly to check for life signs, keenly missing a certain turian with a visor. It would have made things so much easier. Most of them were clad in Cerberus’ armour, she didn’t skim on checking on them. She didn’t enjoy being shot in the back very much.

“Bring her home,” the Private implored, again with that look in his eyes.

Her eyes narrowed in response but she said, “I will, we don’t leave our own behind.”

That lie tasted bitter on her tongue as she said it. Still she was in the business of selling hope as thin and tattered as this one was.

Sifting through the bodies, they were all one and the same. Death took everyone, Alliance and Cerberus made no difference. She could hear the LT and Chief going through the same process behind her. There was a body curled up in the corner. She glanced at the door. It would make a perfectly good kill zone if anyone entered the control room.

A soldier was pinned against the corner, arms still held up, protecting their face and chest. Gingerly she pulled at the arms. They were heavy and limp. As the arms sagged, there was the unmistakable Alliance emblem on the soldier’s chest. “Got her!” she shouted.

That was a mistake — that split second of distraction. When she turned back to face the soldier, she found the soldier’s brown eyes snapped open, hard and feral. Shit. The biotic Throw she had been using happily on Cerberus’ soldiers slammed into her chest as she sailed across the room.


Danger!

Someone was restraining her.

Cerberus! It must be Cerberus! Shit! They're in the control room!

Ryder used the only weapon she had left, her biotics. There was no need to hold back. Do or fucking die. Her amp buzzed and blazed. The soldier slammed into the opposite wall. Their shoulder taking the burnt of the impact. Her eyes flashed at the other two soldiers in the room. Despite the pain igniting her nerves, the weight of her limbs, the lightness in her head, Ryder’s hands searched for her rifle. One of them, the shorter one, lifted their rifle. Ryder growled and lifted hers despite it weighing a ton in her hands. She refused to go down without a fight.

It was a face off. Her rifle was wavering. The enemy’s wasn’t.

Shit.

Her eyes focused on the muzzle aimed at her. The taller one started shouting something, but Ryder couldn’t quite hear it. Her vision was tunnelling, her limbs shook as her world sounded hollow and far away.

No, no, no!

Ryder fought her body. A snarl curled her lips. Her finger curled over the trigger. The taller one was still shouting, his arms stretched out at between them. The shorter one replied but nothing made sense.

They are the enemy. They have to go.

Before her finger could completely pull on the trigger, it was yanked roughly out of her hands. The shorter one’s rifle met the same fate. She blinked, bewildered by the sudden turn of events. The one she had Pushed was getting to their feet, their arms flashed blue.

They have a biotic with them. Fuck. This is fucking it.

Ryder gritted her teeth, her last message was still blinking on her omni-tool. If this was the end, she wanted her brother to know from her, not from Walker of all people. Without hesitation, she stabbed at the send button. It was done. Ryder couldn’t help the hysterical laughter that bubbled up. The sound that came from her throat was wet, whistling and altogether worrying, if she wasn’t resigned to her fate. But she couldn’t care less, there was nothing more to fear. She had done everything she could.

Three pairs of eyes hidden behind darkened helmet visors turned and stared at her. That made her laughed harder, despite how lightheaded she was getting. Ryder grimaced as every fresh peal of laughter sent a jolt through her battered flesh. The biotic dropped the rifles on the ground and advanced towards her.

That killed the laughter abruptly. Fear seized her throat and anger made her guts tightened. Ryder bared her teeth even as she tried to forced herself into the corner. There was nowhere for her to retreat. No weapons, no biotics, nothing. The biotic pressed one hand on her shoulder, the other hand moving roughly over her shattered armour.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Ryder growled, “Finish it!”

The biotic cocked their head at her. “What are you talking about soldier?”

With two clicks, the biotic unbuckled their helmet to reveal a pair of hard agate eyes glaring at her. Bright red hair framed the chiseled planes of her face, a jagged scar ran down her left cheek. Ryder blinked. She recognised the soldier’s face, but this had to be a hallucination. There was no other reasonable explanation.

A chuckle bubbled to her lips as she hissed in pain. “This is a joke right?” Ryder said, her words slurring. “I must be dead. This is a fucked up afterlife.”

“Shut up, soldier,” her hallucination barked, “I’m trying to save your life.”

One hand fending off her feeble struggles, another shoved a medi-gel pack into her armour. Despite the relief, Ryder’s eyelids were still heavy. A weak furrow of her brow was all the resistance she could pull off.

”You’re surprisingly solid for a hallucination.” she mumbled.

Her hallucination ignored her and turned to the others. “Radio for a shuttle, make sure there is a squad on board just in case we missed any left overs.”

The green eyes and flaming hair made it clear who the soldier was, but why was she seeing the Hero, the Saviour if this wasn’t some kind of delusion of a dying mind? As much as she admired her, Ryder would prefer Scott or her mother. “I want my mother,” she whispered.

The hallucination rolled her eyes. “You all do. Come on, stay with me soldier.”

Ryder sighed, strength leaving her body as icy fingers of death crawled up her chest. She didn’t have any fight left in her.

“No, no,” the hallucination growled. “You’re not doing that. Come on, talk to me. Why do you think I’m not real?”

“You can’t be,” Ryder gasped as strong hands picked her up.

Her head lolled to the side as pressure against her chest made her groaned. Someone was carrying her over their shoulder. Why can’t they just leave me alone?

“Why?” Her voice drifted over from out of Ryder’s field of vision. “Why can’t I be real?”

She lacked the breath to answer as they started running. The pace they set hammered spikes of pain through her body at every step. “Hey, hey, hang in there,” the hallucination barked

It was an order. Ryder’s body instinctively stiffened in an attempt to follow it. “Easy, easy,” her hallucination said.

Darkness was the grasping hungry hands, always clawing, always dragging. She allowed the shadows to pull at her however they willed it. But always there was a voice, the familiar voice of a million vids she had watched calling, commanding for her attention. Ryder tried to obey but it was a losing battle. The voice sought to fend off the darkness again and again.

But I’m so tired.

“You’re not, my grandmother can do better. Come on, open your eyes,” the voice commanded.

Ryder opened her eyes. Where is this? She was lying flat on her back on a cold and hard surface. The lights weren’t as bright as the base’s. Then whatever she was lying on started to hum and shake. She frowned. What the fuck was—

That was the end of her thought. Ryder gasped and groaned. It felt like a giant had sat on her chest. She wished she could just give in and slid into the comforting great black.

“Come on, stay with me.”

Her eyes sprang open again. She craned her neck and saw green eyes looking back at her. The hallucination smiled when their eyes met. Ryder frowned. It felt like a job well done but what did she do?

“Tell me, why am I not real?”

That question again...

“Yes, that question again.”

“Oh, I spoke that out loud,” she sighed, eyes sliding shut again.

“No, no, no.”

A hand gripped her shoulder. The slight pressure made her open her eyes again. Ryder groaned, her eyelids were getting too heavy to lift.

“Fuck,” the hallucination said, “We’re losing her. Can this shuttle go any faster?”

“I’m trying!” the reply came somewhat angrily.

Vaguely through narrow silts, Ryder glanced at her surroundings blearily. “Yeah, that’s right,” the emerald eyes and flame hair framed face came back into view. “Stay here with us.”

She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment before opening again. The hallucination was persistent, pushy and very demanding. That just pissed her off.

Hasn’t my day been long enough? Can I get a break?

“You can rest when we can you back to the ship,” the hallucination replied.

Oh, I said that out loud again.

“And that one too.”

Ryder growled in frustration. Everything was just a blurry incoherent mess. “I’m so tired,” she whined.

“Just hang on for a little bit more,” the voice coaxed. “You know you nailed me real good just now.”

“You can’t nail someone who isn’t here.”

“Again with that,” the hallucination sighed, sounding a little annoyed, hands pushing red locks, twisted into a braid, out of her face. “So tell me who do you think I am?”

“You’re Commander fucking Shepard!”

Chapter 10 - A Way Out

 
Art by SeoKanori. Check out her  Tumblr ,  website  and  Patreon .

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.

 

Tao’s head was tilted at an angle as he leant against the wall. It was too much trouble and effort to straighten his neck. There wasn’t one particular spot that hurt more than the others. He was all one large throbbing, numb mess. He couldn’t decide if this was good or bad. So he opted to ignore it.

The whispered mutterings between the three youngest and lowest ranked members of their squad was disconcerting at best. His eyes drifted over to the surviving archaeologists. There were a few missing faces. Tao sighed.

They must be cursing their luck. They got the find of Janus and now Cerberus is here.

Then it hit him. Cerberus must be here for whatever they had found. With a groan, Tao righted his neck. “Hey,” he rasped. “Where is the Prothean artifact?”

Nobody heard him. The three knuckleheads were still mumbling amongst themselves while the archaeologists sat around shellshocked and frightened. Props to Kovács for getting as many as he did.

But can the kids just pay attention to the old man?

Tao cleared his throat and tried again. “Hey!”

No response. Nobody even deigned to look in his direction and he was the dying man. This was unacceptable. His fingers reached out towards his side and he found a ration bar. With a grunt, he lifted it and tossed at them. It fell with a slap against the floor. Kovács looked up and saw the ration bar.

“Hey.”

“Tao? Do you need more medi-gel?” he asked hurrying over.

Tao wanted so much to roll his eyes but he couldn’t muster the energy to do so. Kovács knelt down beside him, blue eyes staring at the bloody patch over his undersuit. Tao groaned and pulled Kovács’ arm. They shifted up to his face. Tao could tell those baby blue eyes had seen too much that day. But he had more urgent things to attend to than to coddle them. They were all soldiers for fuck’s sake. “Are they after the artifact?” Tao croaked.

Kovács paused, his eyes turned inward as he thought about it. “I think so. Their men swept through the base obviously looking for something. There is nothing of interest here. The artifact is the only thing that makes sense.”

Melnik came over, leaving Amir to keep an eye on the door. It was the only barrier that separated them from clinging onto hope or resigning themselves to certain death. It had been quiet for a while, Tao was sure Cerberus was regrouping for another fresh round of hacking and bombardment on the door. He pulled his attention back to Kovács and Melnik. Both of them were staring at him, as if waiting for him to stand up and lead them to victory. Tao was going nowhere fast, except maybe to meet his maker. Damnit, sorry Ryan. I didn’t mean for this to happen.

“Where is it?” Tao asked instead.

Melnik glanced at Kovács. He shrugged. Tao sighed and looked at the anxious archaeologists pointedly. Melnik catching on, quickly went over to ask. Kovács remained at his side, his right hand rubbing the left over and over in a nervous tick. His eyes flickered towards and away from Tao’s face.

He could read the signs. It’s no more fun and games, playing at war. This is real, people will die. They have died. Kovács was a boy suddenly realising the realities of being a soldier. Melniks and Amir were no different.

“Where’s Sagh?” Tao asked.

It was a redundant question. The fact Sagh wasn’t here and Kovács made no mention of him made Tao think the worse had happened.

Kovács’ brow furrowed. His jaw clenched. “He decided to make a dash to the Control room.”

“When?”

“Just after we got the civilians here,” he said, gesturing at the lab. they were holed up in “He didn’t think we should wait. Sagh wasn’t sure if any of you were going to actually make it.”

Tao nodded. Under similar conditions, he would have made the same call, but they were outnumbered and outgunned. But going alone… He yanked his thoughts back and reached out towards Kovács. The boy caught his slightly trembling hand in his. “Tao,” he said, biting his lip, his hand squeezed Tao’s.

“What is it?”

Kovács scooted nearer and dropped his voice. “Do you think we should say our goodbyes?” His voice broke at the last word.

He winced and took a deep breath. Shoring up his own walls, he put on a strong face, albeit pale from blood loss. “Have faith in our baby Corporal. She had faith in them,“ he jerked his chin towards Amir and Melnik, “to get me here. And they returned the favour by having faith in her. You didn’t read her dossier like I did. She can do it. She will get access to the control room, she will turn on the turrets and the AA guns. Then we’re get our asses off Janus for good.”

It was part pep talk, part keeping Kovács from falling apart. But the words rang hollow to his ears. However, Kovács nodded, taking a shuddering breath to calm his nerves. His hands stopped fidgeting, his gaze steadier.

Tao hadn’t read Ryder’s dossier. It would have been a breach of protocol. Ishida just told him in broad strokes what she did in her previous assignments. She was a good soldier that handled being under pressure well. That’s it. She was no miracle soldier, she was no young Commander Shepard. She was just a regular grunt just like any one of them, younger than most corporals. Maybe she leant on the Ryder name and got her rank that way, maybe not. The only concrete advantage Ryder had was being a biotic. But Tao knew, even that had its limits. He had seen what those limits were first hand. He squeezed his eyes shut as the faces of his dead friends flashed before his eyes.

Melnik returned. “The artifact is secured. There is no way I’m going to let Cerberus get their filthy hands on it,” he promised.

He wasn’t thinking about keeping it from Cerberus but using it as a bargaining chip for their lives. Ryan, I promise I’ll fight like hell to come home. Then it will be done. I’m done with the Alliance.

All their omni-tools buzzed. Tao didn’t bother checking it. Amir piped up. “It’s Ryder. She got into the control room.”


Everything was deactivated and locked out as part of protocol when Ryder staggered through the reinforced doors. She was on her last legs and she knew it. Still, she had to be careful. There was no telling if there was a Cerberus soldier playing dead, waiting for her to unlock the terminal before striking. But two steps into the control room, Ryder saw Sagh. Limp, lying on his chest but his head was facing her at an impossible angle. She gritted her teeth and averted her eyes.

He had put up a big fight, blood and shrapnel peppered the walls. As much as Ryder wanted to get Sagh’s tags, lay him in a more dignified position, she had a more important job. She panted, limbs trembling, as she staggered to her customary chair. With all the power of a boneless sack of potatos, she collapsed onto it. Pain flared over her body. The medi-panel on her visor flashed red. She grunted and dismissed it with a flick of her finger. She didn’t need the panel to tell her she was in trouble. Her hands fumbled for another pack of medi-gel but found the pouch on her utility belt empty.

Fuck.

Ryder had handed her spares to Amir for Tao. She pushed herself upright, grimacing through clenched teeth. Limbs were heavy like lead as she fought her body’s protests, Ryder pulled at the drawers at her table. Her first couple of attempts just revealed datapads and more datapads. On her third try, she struck gold.

“Yes,” she sighed as she inserted the medi-gel into the dispenser and slid it shut.

Cool relief brought her a little more time. Now that she wasn’t actively bleeding out, Ryder turned her attention to the terminal. Her stomach growled, making its needs known. “Yes, yes,” she growled.

Ryder popped the buckles of her helmet. Without ceremony, she tossed the blood splattered, shattered visor specimen of a helmet onto her desk, clattering to the ground. It landed on the rounded end and rolled off the desk. Ryder ignored it. It was too damaged to give her any protection anyway. Her eyes traced the crack that ran from her visor to the back of the helmet.

No more taking concussive shots to the face anymore.

The terminal chimed and prompted for her password. The Cerberus tech who was lying dead at her feet had tried unsuccessfully to hack her terminal. “Thank fuck, our systems got an upgrade.”

Scanning her omni-tool and then inputting her password gave her access to the vital defences the base had. As she navigated the panels, smearing blood across the screen, the door shuddered as something impacted against it.

Ryder flinched, her hand tightened on the pistol she was holding in her left hand, while her right hand never stopped its work. I just need a moment longer. Please.

It took just a couple of taps and the multiple screens she had been using to monitor the base flickered to life. Her eyes picked out the one that showed her what was happening outside her door. There was no less than ten Cerberus soldiers outside. And one of them was lugging a rocket launcher.

“Shit.”

Yanking her attention back to the terminal, Ryder scanned for the panel she was looking for. “Where is it?” she hissed, rubbing her temples with her hand. Shaking her head, she squinted, vision swimming, her hands trembling.

“Yes!”

With a triumphant grin stretching the corners of her mouth, Ryder tapped on the activation button. She watched with almost perverse pleasure as turrets, silver and gleaming, unfolded themselves. There was a pair of them right outside the control room. It was almost like watching a full colour silent film of the 19th century. Soldiers clad in black, white and yellow screaming noiselessly, diving for cover. But the turrets were relentless, its aim unerring and bullets sliced through tech shields to reach the human flesh within. Half of their number were mowed down on the first pass. The second pass took half the survivors again.

Ryder smirked, grim satisfaction washed over her as blood coated the floor. Shattered armour, broken visors, holes punched into flesh and bone. She turned her attention to the AA guns. That panel was easier to locate. With a single push, a shudder and whine ran through the entire base. The giant guns mounted at the roof whirled to life. The hum was reassuring. It was like having the eyes of a hawk aimed at the sky, making it was safe for them.

The guns might not have the range to reach any ships in orbit, but any shuttle hovering in the upper atmosphere was fair game. The shuttle likewise couldn’t do inter-planetary travel. It didn’t have the power to escape Janus’ gravity well. But there in the in-between zone, the sweet spot in the upper atmosphere that it would be safe from Cerberus.

Now all they got to do is to haul ass to the shuttle and get the fuck out of here.

Ryder frowned. How long was the shuttle going to last this way? Technically as long as they had oxygen, it wouldn’t matter. But oxygen on a shuttle wasn’t infinite. Walker said 24 hours. He would do something if they failed to check in right? How long would it take for Hephaestus to figure out something was wrong?

Doubts and questions swirled in Ryder’s mind. She didn’t know if she was going into shock and she was paranoid or these were legitimate concerns. There was one more thing she could do. Her fingers swiped through the panels and she found what she was looking for - the distress beacon.

It’s a fucking long shot, but long shots are all I’ve got.

Ryder stared at the button. One push, she might be leading more lambs to slaughter. Her career was, without a doubt, over. She had disobeyed a direct order and questioned her commanding officer. Her eyes drifted to Sagh. He fought to his last breath. Squeezing her eyes shut, Ishida’s stark starring eyes and Garcia’s pale face flashed before her mind. Ryder flinched. The others had to get out of here, she didn’t want to take any more chances with them. The distress beacon would be the backup plan.

So what if Sara Ryder is nothing but a biotic freak, I will not see anymore of my squad dead. I’m the ranking NCO, they are my responsibility..

It was just a simple push. Somewhere in the base the beacon launched with a boom. She could relax now. Her work was done. Ryder slumped back against her chair. Her body had more holes than she first left this room mere hours ago.

Is it really the same day?

Her eyes drooped, pain, fatigue and blood loss convincing her to take a nap. Muscles no longer held at the ready, her grip on her pistol loosened and it clattered to the floor. Ryder couldn’t summon the strength to care. Her head lolled to one side and her eyes slipped shut.


“She did it!” Kovács exclaimed, “Our baby Corporal really did it. Tao, you are right.”

His voice high pitched, filled with relief. Tears were standing in his eyes. The archaeologists were raising their feet, eager for news. “What is going on?” one asked.

Amir tried his best to explain the situation. Tao watched on. Dare I hope? A shudder ran through his body forcing him to reconsider the tiny kindling of optimism. He had never felt colder in his life. Tao knew what that usually meant. He pushed it out of his mind, there was nothing anyone could do about it, not now anyway.

Activate turrets, checked. Activate AA guns, checked. Next up, getting to the shuttle and launching.

Tao couldn’t think of a better plan on short notice. However the next step hinged on the ability of the three able-bodied soldiers to get all the civilians calmly to the shuttle.

All hell will break loose if we face anything more than a token resistance.

Even though they heard nothing outside the lab, other than a couple of stray shots, it served as a reminder that Cerberus wasn’t about to give up. Tao licked his chapped lips. The next step in the plan was clear, but it was a tall order. The civilians were in varying states of anxiety, ranging from nailing biting worried to full on crying and panicking. Herding them was hard enough let alone doing it without intel of any kind.

We need Ryder and her eyes on the camera feed. Only she can guide us through safely.

He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. That meant one thing - Ryder wouldn’t be on the shuttle.

Is this the man I am? I’m asking her to throw her life away for me, for us.

Tao’s eyes darted between the civilians and the others. His jaw tightened. Melnik was stabbing at his omni-tool. “Ryder, Corporal Ryder, come in,” he called, his voice taking on a frantic edge.

Tao waited, worry was a boulder on his chest. Silence, there was nothing but silence on the other end. Ryder wasn’t accepting the call.

“Keep trying, we need her,” Tao said, his face grim.


There was an incessant buzzing sound. It was irritating Ryder to no end, but it wasn’t enough to make her want to open her eyes.

“Shut up,” she hissed, stubbornly keeping her eyes shut. “I’ve earned some rest.”

The buzzing was not to be deterred. She groaned as she peeled her eyes open. It was her omni-tool buzzing. Then she jerked upright hissing, her body waking up all the aches and pain. She gasped, her right side in particular was screaming. Her chest was tight, breathing hard. Ryder forced herself to take shallow breaths to keep the pain from blurring her vision.

The buzzing started again. Ryder stabbed at her omni-tool.

“Ryder!” the voice came through.

She grunted, too breathless to speak. “Are you there? Corporal! Shit, she’s not answering. What if…”

“Fuck, Kovács. I’m not dead.”

“Sorry, ma’am. I just…” Kovács stammered.

“Ryder,” another voice cut in.

“Yeah, Melnik? You all made it ok?” she asked.

“Yes, your distraction was first class.”

Ryder snorted. Amused, that they found an understanding under such circumstances. “How’s Tao?”

“Still breathing,” Tao replied, his voice dry and wan.

“Good,” she replied, her heart finally lifting for the first time the entire day. “Hang in there, old man.”

“I’m not old, that’s Garcia,” Tao retorted instinctively, then he froze for a second. Nobody didn’t have a ready retort. Tao sighed. The sound was heavy and fraught.

She squeezed her eyes shut, she was simply spent but she asked, “What do you need me to do?”

“We need you to keep an eye on the cameras. Guide us through to the shuttle,” Melnik said.

Ryder knew what he was asking. They knew it too. It was clear in the plea. She never held any illusions of getting off Janus, at least not in that shuttle. Hope for the best, plan for the worse huh? She intended to hang on and hold out hope for a rescue. She clenched her jaw and took a deep breath. “Give me a second.”


Ryder longed for a drink of water but there was none at hand. She made do with the dregs of Ishida’s cold coffee. She grimaced at the bitter taste. It had better not be an omen for things to come. She forced herself to concentrate as her eyes scanned the screens.

In one she could see the burning wreckage of the Mako she crashed, in another she could see hints of movement right outside the control room. Ryder paid them no heed. She had a whole bunch of people to guide to safety. One chance was all she got to get this right. Ryder pulled up the blueprints on her omni-tool and glanced between it and the screens, mentally plotting the fastest route to the shuttle bay. Ryder checked and double checked the camera feed. There was no better chance. Cerberus were regrouping. The coast was clear.

Her eyes flickered to the screen showing her charges. Melnik, Amir, Kovács and Tao, along with a whole bunch of civilians were counting on her. Ryder would have cracked her knuckles if the motion didn’t send waves of agony through her body.

“Let’s get started,” she said.

“All right,” Melnik replied.

In the background, Ryder could hear the others giving commands to the civilians. “You are in charge of your group of four here. Just move fast and you will be fine. I will be covering the rear,” Kovács’ voice drifted over.

Groups of four civilians with Melnik taking the lead, followed by Amir carrying Tao and Kovács covered the rear. That was the best they could manage. Her eyes caught sight of the case that contained Prothean artifact in the hands of one of the archaeologists. That was the prize.

Whatever that is, it better be worth all the fucking deaths.

“Go! Directly north into the lab,” she barked.

Men and women moving as quickly and quietly as they could. Melnik had his rifle out, scanning for movement. She counted heads they raced past the cameras. When Kovács made it to safety, she let out the breath she didn’t know she was holding.

All right, one down, a million fucking more to go.

Consulting her blueprint and cameras once more, she said, “Take the left at the junction. There is another lab at the end, enter it.”

Melnik took off again. “I hope we can do this,” he muttered under his breath.

“We will,” Ryder replied.

Chapter 9 - Distraction and Destruction

 

Art by SeoKanori. Check out her Tumblr, website and Patreon.


 

“-yder, come in, Ryder!”

She jerked her head at Melnik. Amir kept his eyes on Tao but strained his ears to listen in. Melnik tapped on his omni-tool to connect. “This is Melnik,” he said, “we’re on our way back to base.”

“The base is compromised!” Kovács shouted, gunfire echoing in the background.

“Go, go, go!” Sagh shouted.

Screams of fear, shrieks of panic rang out. “Get the paper pushers out of there. It’s a dead end!”

Melnik glanced at Ryder. Her jaw tightened. This really couldn’t get any worse. “Barricade yourself in the control room, activate the turrets,” she barked.

“There are too many of them. We can’t get there!” Kovács shouted, another barrage of bullets made the omni-tool’s speakers blew out.

“Why-“ she took a deliberate breath, swallowing her first question. Instead, she said, “I need intel. Who is attacking? What the hell do they want?”

“How the fuck should I know?” he shouted. “A bunch of paramilitary guys just showed up and started shooting!”

“Colours! What colours are they wearing? Some kind of logo? Anything, Kovács!”

Ryder threw caution to the wind. The Mako picked up speed as she floored the pedal. Bullets whizzed through the air on the other end of the comms. How she wished she was actually there to do something. Her knuckles were white on the steering wheel. It seemed she was doomed to be helpless.

A yelp of pain came through loud and clear. “Kovács!” Melnik shouted.

There was nothing for a while but the shuffling of feet and hushed whispers of terrified civilians. Ryder waited, hoped and prayed to the gods. “Damn, they got me,” Kovács gasped.

“Slap some medi-gel on it, you will be fine,” she snapped, hoping she was right.

“Yeah, it’s just a gaze. I’ll live.”

She swallowed her sigh of relief. Her mind was already churning ahead. “Colours, Kovács.”

“Right, right. It’s a little hard to get a good look when they are firing at us,” he said breathlessly. “Yellow and black. Black diamond with yellow lines on the side.”

Ryder’s heart sank. “Cerberus,” she said, “They’re Cerberus.”

“Shit,” Amir said.

She couldn’t put it any more eloquently.


She considered the direct route. There was a certain appeal to slam the Mako into the Cerberus troops milling about. But that gave away the element of surprise.

What element of surprise if you only have one truck, and three other people? One of them grievously hurt.

She ground her teeth and considered her options. They were sitting pretty, two klicks off the base. The sun was peaking out from between the shifting sands. The winds seemed to have shifted, the storm slightly calmer than when they first left the base. But now Ryder didn’t dare risk another burst of transmission. Cerberus might have hacked into their comms and were listening in. She shifted in her seat and looked at Amir. He hadn’t really recovered his colour since she busted him out of his cell. Her eyes flicked to Tao. He was fair skinned to begin with, now he looked practically transparent. Amir said, “Tao has lost a lot of blood.”

“And medi-gel is not going to help with that,” she finished.

She turned at Melnik. “Options?”

He stared at her, his eyes wide. Suddenly he looked young, too fucking young for this. I’m too young for this shit too.

Melnik shook his head. Ryder wanted to roll her eyes. Where did all his bravado go? Was it only good enough for some “barracks humour”? Taking a deep breath, she sketched out her shitty ideas.

“Frontal assault is out. We don’t have the numbers for it. We can see how many are outside, there are sure to be more inside. The Sinon was a decoy, aimed to split our forces.”

Melnik and Amir nodded. All right, so far so good.

“Our best bet are the automated turrets and distress beacon. Activation for both are in the control room.”

Another nod. Encouraged, she went on. “The others are trapped at the dig site, so we should split up. Both of you take Tao to the others,” she said.

Melnik frowned immediately. “That’s suicide and you know it,” he blurted. “They’re under fire, what use are we to them dragging a dead man around.”

Ryder sliced the air between them with a chopping motion. Melnik’s teeth clacked together. “I will distract them. You are taking Tao because I need the Mako for a distraction. Your job, once you rendezvous with the others, is to get your ass to the shuttle.”

A shuttle meant an escape route. A shuttle meant survival. A shuttle meant an out from this nightmare.

Amir bit his lip and glanced at Melnik. He didn’t say anything, his mind turning her plans back and forth in his head. Ryder bulldozed on. “Once the distress beacon is launched, all we have to do is to wait. Hephaestus will send help. They can’t ignore that.”

Amir nodded, looking somewhat more hopeful. Melnik wasn’t convinced. “So say we somehow do all this, we’re just sitting ducks up there. What if Cerberus have a frigate up there? The shuttle has no weapons.”

“True, I don’t know if they have more forces up there. But I will be turning our anti-air defence back on. Once armed, it would recognise the shuttle as a friendly via the IFF. Theirs, well… you know how well those AA guns work,” she grinned, all teeth.

Melnik swallowed, his gaze wavering. Amir watched them. Then a groan cut through the tension. Tao! Ryder struggled to turn around in her seat.

“Knuckle heads, listen to her. Without control to the base defence it’s only a matter of time we get overwhelmed,” he gasped. “But one thing though…”

“What?” she asked, hoping Tao has a magic Alliance summoning button hidden up his ass.

“Leave me behind. I’m a dead man. You will work faster without dragging me around,” he said, his voice surprisingly steady for what he was suggesting they do.

Protests were issued from all corners, but Amir was the loudest. “I didn’t just give you all my medi-gel to let you die here! You’re coming with us whether you want to or not!”

His words cut through any objections Tao might have had. Everyone else was stunned into silence. Tao blinked at her. “Our boy has spouted wings while I wasn’t looking,” he muttered, not unhappily.


Tao grunted as Amir helped him out of the Mako. His knees buckled, unable to take his own weight. Amir’s arms strained as he hoisted Tao onto his back in a fireman’s carry. Tao’s face paled from the pressure against his torso. “Gently,” he groaned.

Amir snorted as he adjusted his grip. Melnik had his rifle out and ready. Ryder looked out at them. “You know what to do,” she said, holding both Melnik’s and Amir’s gaze in turn.

They nodded. “Give them hell, Ryder,” Melnik said. “You’re not so bad after all.”

Ryder frowned and desperately wished she could punch Melnik but she settled a good hard glare. “Do your job and I’ll do mine. Wait for the signal.”

“What is the signal?” Amir asked.

Melnik laughed. It didn’t reach his eyes. His voice was starting to take on a fatalistic tone. “When things go boom,” he said, his eyes flicking up to meet hers. They exchanged a look. Ryder didn’t know what he saw in hers but whatever he saw made him sober up. “See you on the other side,” he said, putting jokes aside.

Amir nodded earnestly. “We won’t leave without you.”

Ryder nodded. She had no intention to die on Janus. This isn’t where my story ends. I’m not fucking done. Her jaw clenched and she barked, “Go, you don’t want to be here when the explosions start.”

She sat and watched them go, keeping her shaking hands out of their sight. They were all counting on her. She had to get this done and done right. As their backs receded, her lip trembled and she clamped the teeth down hard on them. No. I am an Alliance soldier, I will do my job. Lives are counting on me.

She summoned the frayed ends of her courage and roared as loudly as she dared like a crazy person. But it made her feel a little better. Turning her thoughts to her own problems, Ryder tapped her finger on the steering wheel. She needed something flashy. Right now, she had the Mako, the standard issue number of heat sinks, omni-grenades and that’s it.

But there is the armoury… if it isn’t compromised.

Ryder squeezed her eyes shut and tried to picture the layout of the base. She traced the route she had to take in her mind. The control room and the armoury were both the most secure rooms on base. While the control room was situated smacked in the middle of the base, the armoury was underground.

She pursed her lips and hummed. Tapping her omni-tool she brought up the blueprints of the base. Her fingers traced the available alternative routes. It’s do-able.


Ryder stared at the omni-grenades in her hands and questioned her sanity. The Mako had a drive core like the Sinon, just much, much smaller. She remembered the white heat of the Sinon’s burning drive core. The Mako would burn just as hot and nicely for her little diversion. She pried the panel between the two front seats opened. The tennis ball sized drive core was humming away happily.

“Fuck it.”

Taking a deep breath, she dropped all but one of her omni-grenades into the space. The humming grew louder. Forcing herself to stop looking at it out of her peripheral vision, she focused on the target. Right outside the main blast doors, leading into the base, were three Makos. All of them marked with Cerberus’ colours. That wasn’t the important part, what was vital were the ten or so Cerberus’ soldiers hanging out next to them. As a target, they looked very appealing. Plus this was in the opposite direction from where Melnik, Amir and Tao were heading in.

Decision made, Ryder floored the pedal and the engine revved as the wheel fought to find purchase. When it did, the Mako lurched into motion. She had to time it right. Too soon, the Mako would blow up before it actually reached her target. Too late, she wouldn’t be able to get clear of the blast zone.

1000m. The Cerberus soldiers perked up at the roar of the Mako.

500m. Ryder could make out one gesturing frantically in her direction while speaking into his comms. The others were arming themselves. She grinned. It was working.

250m. Bullets started plinking against the Mako. The shield shimmered but held. That was her cue to go. She wedged Tao’s rifle onto the pedal to pin it down.

200m. Her left forearm pressed against the steering wheel with enough pressure to make sure it wouldn’t shift. In her hand was the last omni-grenade, unactivated.

100m. Her right hand threw the door open. The ground was whizzing past her at an alarming rate. Ryder gulped.

50m. The shield fizzled and died. Two seconds later, the windscreen shattered. Shards sprayed over her face and torso. If a piece of glass made it through the heavy weave between her ceramic plates, she didn’t feel it. She sank lower into the seat, taking cover from the hail of fire.

25m. This was it. She looked at the ground. The Mako was going fast. Her stomach did a flop as her eyes darted to gauge the distance. Taking a deep breath, she didn’t allow herself to hesitate. Thumbing the activation button on the omni-grenade she was holding, she tossed it in with the rest.

Ryder tossed herself out of the Mako. Curling into a ball, she pulled a Barrier over herself. The ground was close and then it was in her face. She landed with an impact that drove all air from her lungs. Despite the armour, the Barrier, it still hurt. Her ribs protested loudly at the abuse. She rolled, over sand, over rocks both big and small. Thankfully, the motion was too quick for her to register the need to throw up.

Her arms she had over her head were throw wide. Fingers dug into the ground to slow herself, but it was a futile gesture. Eventually Ryder slammed into a rock too large to roll over. Pain seared her side. She only allowed herself a moment to catch her breath before she got to her hands and knees. They trembled but held. Panting, she lifted her head to see if her plan worked.

Cerberus soldiers were trying to flee the Mako’s plow into their ranks. Some were already in their vehicles, trying to drive them out of the way. Then, her eyes caught the flash. A small spark ignited a conflagration. It consumed the Mako, cracking, splintering. Then the sound came. A deep roar as the blast ripped the Mako apart catching humans and vehicles alike. The concussive force rippled out from the epicentre. As far away as Ryder was, it crashed into her like a tidal wave. The force pushed her onto her back. There was no way she could rise even if she tried, but as quickly as the force came, it blew over.

The screams came next. They were loud, high pitched and gut wrenching. It rang out across the barren landscape. Janus didn’t care.

Ryder struggled to her feet, her side protesting, but she paid it no heed. The screams were petering out as flames burnt throats and ruined vocal cords. She clenched her jaw and started moving. She had to be gone before anyone else came to see what had happened.


A low grade frustration had been boiling in her chest since she crawled into the ducts. It was a tight fit for her in her armour. Every motion jarred her ribs. Ryder was convinced they were bruised, if not out right broken. Having de-activated her medi-gel protocol to conserve the precious resource, Ryder had to just grit and bear with it.

Slowly, she raised her left leg towards her chest to inch herself forward, then the right. Her hands reached forward, careful not to grip the surface of the duct. Quiet, careful, stealthy like a ninja.

Her suit’s filters and environment controls was either damaged from the tumble out of the Mako or the ducts just didn’t have enough cool air to keep her at a comfortable temperature. Ryder could feel the sweat beading all along her forehead, and soaking her back and chest. Her breath was fogging up her visor from the inside. “Fuck this shit,” she growled.

Eventually she got to a junction of sorts. Tapping on her omni-tool she pulled up the blueprints again. Her face was bathed in a wash of orange. Eyes scanning the information to make sure she was still going in the correct direction. “Almost there,” she muttered to herself and moved towards her left.

As she headed towards the grate she was looking for, her omni-tool buzzed. She had been waiting, praying and begging for it since she launched herself out the Mako. Glancing down, the message was still on the display. There was just a smiley face.

“Good job,” Ryder muttered, grinning.

As inane and stupid as the signal was, a cool wash of relief came over her. Good, they met up with Kovács. Now I’ve got to do my part.

With her bare finger tips, she pried the grate loose carefully. Cool air swept into the ducts, it cleared her fogged-up visor a little. It allowed her to peer down the corridor. She couldn’t see anyone but the clomp of military grade armour moving was hard to miss. Holding her breath, she counted. Footsteps were nearing. It didn’t take long for a soldier clad in Cerberus colours to pass right under the grate. She could hear another pair of boots somewhere beyond her field of vision.

Two, I can deal with two. Easy-peasy.

But the thudding of her heart against her chest gave lie to her words. Ryder reached backwards to grab her rifle but the duct was too narrow and her elbow connected with the side. There was a resounding bang. The noise travelled down the length of the duct. She winced and held her breath. Her heartbeat was loud in her ears. The footsteps stopped in the wake of her blunder. She shifted her hand back towards her front, aborting the disastrous idea and waited.

Footsteps thumped back towards her grate. One of the soldiers hovered just within the edge of her limited field of vision. She could make out hand signals directed at the other soldier.

It’s just two. Come on, this isn’t your first fight. You didn’t enlist to hide from one.

“Just take one more step,” Ryder begged.

The flick of a rifle’s safety catch was loud. The soldier took one step towards her and Ryder swung into action.

Pulling at her core, she increased her mass. The duct groaned at the weight, bending and buckling. Eventually it gave way. She fell, but she was ready. Her omni-blade buzzed to life. The falling duct took the soldier she couldn’t see out. The one in front of her hesitated for a moment. That was all she needed.

Ryder didn’t bother getting to her feet. Instead she rolled to her knees and surged upwards with her omni-blade extended. The blade aimed directly at the seam between thigh and groin.

A high pitched scream rang out, it didn’t clarify the gender of her enemy, but it didn’t really matter. Ryder wasted no time, she needed them to stop being noisy. Yanking at the pistol at the soldier’s hip, she fired it twice into their head at close range. Blood sprayed out the back of the helmet as the visor shattered. The soldier crumpled like a sack of sand.

She straightened and hissed, pressing a hand at her ribs. She needed to head to the armoury and get stocked up on some heat sinks and omni-grenades.

A shot rang out, taking her by surprise. Her shields shimmered and failed as pain flashed across her chest.

“Wha-“

The medical panel in her visor flashed red indicating a wound warranting immediate administering of medi-gel. Why the fuck did I de-activate the medi-gel dispenser?

She spun as if dancing, arms wide almost in a welcoming hug. Her eyes snagged on the soldier whom she thought was neutralised. The rifle’s muzzle hovered unsteadily, pointed in her direction.

“Die,” the soldier rasped as his finger tightened over the trigger.

The shot rang out, missing her by sheer luck. The pain was darkening Ryder’s vision. All she could think to do was to get away but her legs were not cooperating. If she couldn’t get away, the Cerberus soldier had to go.

Go away!

With a cry, her hand flashed outwards, blue flames running the length of her arm. Ryder Pushed the guard. There was no control, it was just a primal instinct to protect herself. The soldier was flung back, taking pieces of ducts and all. She didn’t know how much force she used, she didn’t care. The sickening crunch was loud as human met wall.

She squeezed her eyes shut, but a wave of vertigo floored her. Knees and hands slammed onto the floor. She hissed, her hands seeking, her eyes searching for the site where the pain was the worst. The searing pain was rapidly turning numb. Blood was leaking from the hole just under her rib cage. The bullet had punched through the ceramic plate there. Her hands searching an exit wound on her back but there was none.

That’s not good.

Wincing, she pressed against the hole. The slight pressure turned her vision all white. Giving up on putting pressure on the wound, her bloody hands fumbled at her omni-tool. Everything was slippery, making it hard to get to the correct panel.

Fuck, what a stupid idea. Conserve medi-gel? Get yourself killed more like.

Her swipes took on a panicked edge as she struggled to remember where the setting was.

Imagine the headlines. System Alliance Corporal too stupid to keep herself alive, fails at her mission. Everyone dies.

Ryder let out a cry of frustration. Pain, not fear at least that was what she told herself, forced tears to well up in her eyes. Her breaths got faster as more blood smeared across the display.

I refuse to die this way, it’s just too fucking embarrassing.

The moment she found the right panel and tapped on the activation button, the injector dispensed medi-gel directly into her blood stream. It flooded her body and her muscles relaxed. How she wished she could stay still and just rest. But she had work to do. With a grunt, she levered herself upright and staggered towards the armoury.

Grimly, she grabbed a duffle and started loading it up with ammunition and all manner of items that made things go boom. Ryder grimaced as she heaved the strap onto her shoulder. Hands were tight on her Avenger, spare heat sinks rattling in her utility belt.

“Next stop, the control room.”

Chapter 8 - The Sinon

 

Art by Seo Kanori

 

“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.

“Come on.”

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.

“Fan out.”

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.

“Ambush…”

“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.

“Trap?”

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.

Fuck.

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.

Chapter 7 - Mayday

 

Art by Seo Kanori

 

“What’s up?” Ryder asked as she entered the barracks.

Kovács and Sagh had left for the showers in their boxer briefs, as usual. She shuddered remembering the day she saw Garcia striding to and from the showers without anything on. But now, she was numb to the sight, knowing better than to react. Being the baby Corporal was bad enough without having to be teased about “being innocent” as well. She was after all a grown woman and she knew her body well.

“Whatever the archaeologists found is exciting enough that the Alliance High Command is telling them to ship it over to Hephaestus. And nobody is happy about that. Rumour has it it's another one of those Prothean Beacon that holds untold knowledge and shit. So they are being super careful with it,” Tao replied. “Maybe Walker will send his people to handle the transfer.”

“We can do the job,” Kovács declared. “It’s our find, why is it going to Hephaestus?”

Sagh shook his head. “It’s the science guys’ find. Not yours. You’re just the glorified security guard.”

“As are you,” the younger man retorted.

“I never profess to be anything else.” Tao and Sagh shared a laugh.

Ryder shrugged as she stowed her stuff. It didn’t really matter, everything was being decided way above her pay grade. She looked at her Avenger critically and decided it was time for some cleaning. How did the rifle ever get so dirty despite not being fired a single time? It boggled her mind. It must be the Janus sand. It gets every fucking where.

“So who is coming to get the Prothean artifact? Someone from High Command along with a military escort I assume?”

“Yup. Walker himself is the escort so you know this is big. I can’t remember the last time he came down to poor old Janus. Ishida, wants us to get things all spick and span for him.”

Ryder hummed as she started breaking down her Avenger. “So an exciting time for us either way, I guess,” she said, “just like Kovács wanted.”

Tao groaned. “Kovács doesn’t know what he is wishing for. I just want peace and quiet. I’m so close to the end.”

This wasn’t news to her, but she was still a little sad about it. It was mentioned in the passing while chatting with Garcia and the others. Tao was the one she was closest to even though she was barely on Janus. So much had happened in the mere span of months. And Tao had been steadfast by her side since the beginning.

“You’re really not re-upping again?” she asked, examining the barrel with one eye squeezed shut.

Tao belted up his pants. “Yeah, I’m taking the bonus and getting out while I still can,” he said. “It will be good to see Ryan from time to time in the flesh you know.”

Ryder nodded, keeping her hands busy with her broken down Avenger. “Yeah, I get that. Family and all that.” She cringed inwardly when her voice came out a little bitter.

He cocked his head. “What about you? You have anyone? I’ve seen you typing away on your omni-tool sometimes. Kovács told me about how you’re typing away when he picked you up from the port.”

Ryder smirked. “He assumed I was typing a report to Ishida. Did you know he fell asleep waiting for me at the port?”

Tao laughed. “He left that bit out.”

“Of course.”

Their laughter rang out, one deeper, the other higher. As they drifted back to companionable silence, Tao repeated, “Anyone special?”

She snorted. “I wish. Nobody special. Where would I find the time? Long distance is hard enough without the whole biotics business,” she said.

He frowned. “There are always asaris, they obviously won’t mind your biotics.”

Ryder slid pieces back into place before dry firing the rifle. The trigger clicked. “I don’t know. Asaris don’t really appeal to me. I mean they’re beautiful and all that, but I don’t swing that way.”

“So straight then?”

Ryder nodded and chuckled. “Straight. Sorry if we’re fighting over the same bunch of people.”

“I’m fine, I found mine,” Tao laughed as he slid the pistol into his holster and picking up his rifle. “I should get to the control room before Ishida kills me. See you later, baby Corporal.”

Ryder rolled her eyes. Her eyes fixed on what she was doing, but she waved in his direction as he left. As the door slid shut, she sighed and leaned against her chair. Someone special? Maybe someday.

“Maybe Walker will take Melnik and Amir off our hands too,” she mused as she went back to cleaning her rifle.


The barracks was dim. Sagh’s snores were a distant old school train rumbling. Kovács’ were softer but no less noisy. Ryder shifted in her bed and stared at the ceiling. For some reason, she just couldn’t sleep. I’m too hot, that must be it. She tossed her blanket aside and closed her eyes firmly. She waited for sleep to take her, but closing her eyes seemed only to amplify her other senses.

Sagh’s snores got louder if that was possible. There was a soft humming as the weather control unit kicked in. Ryder turned onto her side, her arms and legs tightening around her bolster. She forced her shoulders to relax. There was a telltale sharp hiss of air from Sagh’s side of the barracks.

Fuck.

Ryder snapped upright as she made a sound of disgust, pinching her nose with her fingers. She glared at Sagh, he was sleeping blissfully unaware of her annoyance.

Tapping her omni-tool, she winced at the orange glow flared to life. It was at least another two hours before her usual waking up time, but it was clear she wasn’t getting any more sleep. Maybe a quick biotics workout is better than trying to sleep.

Ryder made her bed as best she could in the dim light. Her feet padded across the room towards the door when her omni-tool rang out. It was loud, obnoxious and very insistent. She clamped her hand over her omni-tool but she realised it wasn’t just coming from hers, but Kovács’ and Sagh’s as well.

Ryder tapped against the interface and found a message from Ishida.

Unidentified foreign ship broke atmosphere. Shift Two report to the control room immediately.

“Damnit, Kovács,” she cursed, “couldn’t you wish for a free crate of booze?”

Ryder tapped on her omni-tool, activating the barrack’s lights. Sagh was already blearily reading his omni-tool. “Kovács!” she shouted.

He was surprisingly sleeping through the loud beeping that was going on next to his ear. Sagh looked at her, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“I don’t know but it’s nothing good. Gear up and report to Ishida. I’ll get Kovács up,” she said, striding over to his bed.

Sagh moved with an urgency unseen on regular days. Ryder turned her attention to the sleeping Private. “Kovács!” she shouted again.

Still nothing. Fuck.

Ryder shook his shoulders. Kovács groaned and buried his face into the pillows. “Kovács, we’re needed! Get the fuck up!”

Her mouth gaped open as she heard Kovács’ breathing deepened. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” she growled.

Her patience fraying, Ryder pulled at her core and blue flames engulfed Kovács. With a jerk of her hand, she yanked him off his bed. Kovács was hovering half a metre over empty space when he decided to open his eyes. “Ryder, what’s going on?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes and withdrew her biotics. Kovács fell onto the floor unceremoniously with a thump. “What the hell?” he groaned sitting up. “And what is that noise?”

“Private Kovács,” Ryder barked.

Kovács snapped to his feet reflexively now that he was semi-awake. “Get dressed now!”

“Yes ma’am!” he shouted automatically, his eyes wide in surprise, his limbs stiff in a salute.


“What the fuck took you so long?” Ishida yelled as soon as she stepped into the control room.

Ryder shot a look in Kovács’ direction but before she could opened her mouth to answer a voice burst through the speakers.

“Janus base, Janus base. This is CEX4783 Sinon, do you read?” It crackled and broke up in parts. “Janus base, please come in.”

Ishida surged to his feet and replied as calmly and clearly as possible. “This is Janus base, please state your emergency.”

The connection cut to ear splitting static. Ryder glanced at the weather monitor. A storm was due to hit soon. This explained the spotty comms. “What does the IFF say?” Ishida asked.

“Definitely not Alliance. It’s a registered transport ship out from the Citadel,” Garcia replied, information scrolling on his terminal. “Everything looks legit.”

“Kuso (糞),” Ishida cursed, “Can you track them?”

Tao looked up from his terminal. “Yes, it looks like they’re coming in for a crash landing. They have lost their drive-”

“Janus base, we are attempting a crash landing please do not shoot, repeat, please do not shoot. This is the Sinon, I repeat CEX4783 Sinon. We’re a civilian shuttle transport. Please-”

“Fuck,” Ryder gasped, the reality of the situation dawning upon her.

Ishida’s frown deepened. “I need an estimate on the crash site. They will need help when they come down.”

Come down, that’s one way to put it.

Ryder glanced at her team.

Kovács and Sagh only had their pistols. They will need their full gear and first aid supplies. Maybe Garcia should come along too? Ryder’s thoughts raced ahead of her. She turned to Ishida and said, “I’ll go check it out.”

Ishida shook his head. “I’ll go, you make sure Walker knows about this. Tao, Garcia, let’s go.”

Ryder nodded. She watched Ishida and the others left. As Tao passed her, she grabbed his arm. “Good luck.”

He nodded before running after the others. She sighed and sank into the chair. It was still warm from Ishida’s body heat. Sagh and Kovács found their seats and waited for their orders. “Get the Lieutenant on the comms.”


Ryder was pacing. Comms was down thanks to the storm hitting in full force. The sensors had confirmed that the Sinon had crashed within the projected area. “Janus base, come in,” Ishida’s voice crackled over the comms. “The storm is going to cut off communications. We are heading in to search for survivors.”

“Survivors? In that inferno? You got to be joking?” Garcia’s voice rang over Ishida’s words.

“Standby to receive any and all survivors,” Ishida instructed, ignoring Garcia’s comments.

It had been two hours since that transmission. She had manned the control station while she got Sagh to pull all emergency supplies out from storage. There had been no news. Ryder knew it was thanks to the storm, but the silence was eating at her.

This is a civilian shuttle transport. They can carry anywhere between 100 - 500 passengers. That’s more than we can handle. Did they have time to deploy life pods? Was it only crew left on board? We need a craft with space travel capabilities to sweep the area for life pods. Fuck.

She bit back a growl of frustration, it sucked having to be the one left behind on base. There was nothing she could do about it. The base was now her responsibility. With the new Prothean find the archaeologists had made, security was paramount. “Kovács,” she radioed. “Report.”

Sagh shifted his intent gaze and looked her. It was the third time she asked that patrol. Ryder knew there was nothing new to report, but she couldn’t help it. She needed to do something even if it was to bug Kovács during his patrol.

“Nothing to report,” Kovács replied.

“Thank you,” she muttered before tapped harder than necessary on her terminal to shut down the connection.

“You’re ok back there?” Sagh asked, “This isn’t your first rodeo right, Baby Corporal?”

Ryder huffed, the nickname wasn’t helping with her mood right now. “No it isn’t.”

But it’s the first time it’s I’m giving orders rather than carrying them out. The thought twisted her guts tighter. She rolled her shoulders, trying to force herself to relax, but she only succeeded in making herself feel worse.

Her terminal chimed. It was an alert on the weather report she had set up earlier. “There’s going to be a five minutes window coming up in seven minutes on the comms,” she said, “I need you to raise anyone on Ishida’s team.”

Sagh nodded, he turned back to his own terminal and a countdown of seven minutes was started. Ryder sighed, she had to reach the Lieutenant again. The last transmission she could barely get him on the comms before the storm cut them off.

Thank fuck, comms within the base still worked fine.

She forced herself back on her chair. Her leg had taken up tapping in lieu of pacing. Her eyes glued on Sagh’s terminal. The countdown was large enough to see from her desk. As soon as it beeped, Sagh’s fingers danced across the interface as he tried to get in contact with Ishida’s team. Ryder shook her head and concentrated on her task.

She tapped a sequence of passcodes to activate the secure comms link. “Come on, come on,” Ryder muttered under her breath, willing the computer to work faster.

There was nothing on her screen, just the Alliance logo twirling over and over again. Her ears picking up Sagh’s futile attempts to get in touch with Ishida’s team. “Ishida, come in, do you copy?” Sagh called, edges of alarm colouring his voice.

More tapping came before Sagh said, “Garcia, this is Janus base, what’s the situation on ground? Do you read me?”

Crackling came from her terminal. “Yes!” she hissed under her breath, before getting down to business. “Hephaestus base do you read? This is Corporal Ryder of Janus base. We have a civilian ship crash landing here. We request aid.”

A voice on the other end replied, “Stand by.”

Ryder’s jaw clenched. She didn’t need instructions, she needed resources. Being forced to choose between staying true to her orders or going down to the crash site to aid the victims didn’t appeal to her.

“Corporal?” This was a different voice. Ryder straightened in her seat even though the transmission was audio only. “This is Lieutenant Walker. What is the situation?”

Ryder repeated what she said before as she glanced in Sagh’s direction. She waved to get his attention. Sagh caught motion in his peripheral vision and turned to face her. He shook his head.

Fuck.

“Sir, we have lost contact with Sergeant Ishida’s team two hours ago,” she said.

Walker was silent on the other end of the line. Ryder glanced at the weather report. Their window for communications was closing. “Sir?” she said, unsure how to hurry her commanding officer up. “Sir, we will need help when the victims come in. Medical doctors, more boots on the ground to just help out. We do not have the manpower to do this properly.”

Walker made a grunt of impatience and Ryder snapped her mouth shut. “When is the next projected communication window?” he asked.

Ryder tapped on her terminal, the screen flickered. It took a couple of quick swipes to find it. Why the fuck does it matter? I need the manpower now. “In another 24 hours,” she replied, her hand rubbing the back of her neck.

“Check back with me in 24 hours. Ishida is a professional, his team are all trained soldiers. If this is just a downed ship, he will be able to sort this out with the people he got on Janus-”

“But sir, we are down two people,” Ryder retorted, fully wishing she could end the sentence with “remember” but she leashed the desire to do so.

“Ryder,” Walker huffed, “Do not over step your bounds. Await Ishida’s orders or mine. This isn’t the time to panic.”

“Lieutenant, this is a civilian shuttle transport, they can carry hundreds of passengers, maybe of them non-human. We do not have enough supplies for all of them. They will need medical attention, we do not have a doctor here on base. We only have a field medic. And there might be life pods waiting rescue out in our orbit,” Ryder pointed out almost incredulously. “The life pods won’t be able to stand up to Janus’ storms. They need to be retrieved as soon as possible. We only have shuttles. They can’t clear Janus’ gravity well to retrieve the life pods.”

Walker sighed. Ryder knew her concerns were valid but why was the Lieutenant not concerned about them. Is there something I am not seeing?

“Yes, I understand the urgency,” Walker replied but his tone was at odds with his words. All Ryder could hear was dismissal. “But we do not have the ships to mount a rescue mission right now,” he went on.

Ryder frowned. “What do you mean?” She cleared her throat realised she had went from seeking clarification from her commanding officer to questioning her orders. “Sir, we don’t orbital security of Hephaestus or Janus right now? Who is watching the skies?”

“You have your anti-air guns and that’s enough for Janus,” Walker spoke slowly as if explaining to a slow child.

They had a pair of ships that were space travel worthy to share between the bases. Everything else were shuttles capable of air travel but it didn’t have enough power to escape Janus’ or Hephaestus’ gravity well. To have the pair of spaceships unavailable was leaving a huge hole in the defence of their sector. Unless Walker meant he didn’t have the soldiers for the job but… why?

Ryder,” he barked, jerking her out of her thoughts, “I’d suggest you follow your orders. I’d expect a situation update in 24 hours.”

“But-“ Ryder didn’t even manage to protest when Walker unceremoniously terminated the comms.

She slumped back against her chair, disbelief written all over her face. Ryder turned to look at Sagh. He was still trying to raise Ishida’s team. The window was closing, the countdown was ticking down on her screen. They had a mere minute left.

“Tao, Ishida, Gracia, come in!” Sagh was shouting now.

The door hissed open, Ryder flinched. It was Kovács. “What?” he asked when he saw her staring at him. She shook her head. Taking a deep breath and she walked over to Sagh’s seat. Kovács joined her.

“Tao! Come in you asshole!” Sagh demanded before giving up, pushing away from his desk with a grunt.

Ryder picked up where he left off. “Sergeant, are you there? Garcia? Tao?”

Silence rang loud over the other end of the line. Kovács looked at both of them and Sagh shook his head. “What the-“

Then the line flared to life. “Janus, come in!” It was Ishida. “Janus!”

“This is Janus, Ishida, what the fuck is going on?”

Breaths heavy and laboured came through the other end. Gunfire peppered the background. Ryder’s heart quickened. What the fuck is going on?

“Tao’s down!” he screamed. “Garcia!”

Heavy footsteps on hard ground, grunts of exertions. More gunfire, louder this time, closer. “Bastards!” Ishida growled.

Ryder flinched. Her knuckles white, her ears straining to hear more, to do something, anything.

“Garcia, Tao’s lost. We’ve got to go. Walker-“

It went dead silent. Ryder’s eyes flicked between Sagh and Kovács. Their eyes wide, jaws open.

“What the fuck?” Kovács said, giving voice to the same thought in all their heads.

Chapter 6 - Normalcy

 

Art by Seo Kanori

 

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.

Chapter 5 - A Step Too Far

 

Art by Seo Kanori on Tumblr

 

WARNINGS FOR ATTEMPTED SEXUAL ASSAULT, CHOKING, ASSAULT

Ryder raised the Avenger to her shoulder. Taking a slow breath, she squeezed the trigger. The rifle kicked and bullets flew. The heat sink flared red and stayed that way. Ryder glanced her omni-tool, it was keeping score. That was a small cluster of holes over a batarian silhouette, tightly grouped over its head.

She nodded, satisfied. Ryder popped the heat sink and tossed it into the tray with the other spent ones. The door slid open behind her. It was Tao. She retreated to her booth. He walked in, no longer hobbling, his omni-cast removed.

“Morning,” Tao greeted, waving his hand.

Ryder concentrated on reloading her rifle. “Morning,” she replied without turning. “What are you doing up so early?”

Tao popped a heat sink into his pistol. The familiar bang of a pistol firing filled the small shooting range. Ryder shrugged and did the same.

It’s fine if nobody wanted to be friends, but they better not extend this behaviour into the shift.

It’s been a week since the revelation. Confession? Coming out? Whatever that was. And the assignment on Janus was truly living up to its name. Janus was the Roman god of of beginnings and endings. It certainly felt like both a start and an end, all on her first day of work. Ryder snorted.

Bang, bang, bang. Her aim was steady.

What kind of leader am I? Hiding out in the range and dodging Sagh and Melnik. Allowing them to use the facilities first, just to avoid some awkwardness. I’m some kind of fucking coward. Maybe Pa was right, I’m just a freak.

Bang, bang, bang. Ryder frowned. That last one had drifted a little. She corrected her stance and fired again. The rifle clicked empty as it beeped angrily, the heat sink spent.

“Garcia wants me to get some practise in,” Tao’s voice drifted over.

His voice was muffled over the ear muffs she was wearing. Ryder pulled it off. “What?” she asked.

Clink. A heat sink hitting another. “Garcia said I’m fat and lazy so he isn’t going to sign off on letting me return to active duty,” Tao sighed.

Ryder frowned and popped her head into his booth. The Chinese man turned towards her, arms on his hip, jutting his belly out at her. His chin tilted to one side as he accepted her appraising gaze. “You're fine,” she declared finally. Besides, if anything it’s your physical stamina I’d be worried about, not your aim.”

“Well…,” he grinned sheepishly. “That’s the reason why I’m hiding out here. At least I can say I’m training.”

She laughed. “So hiding from rehab by training, that’s a good one, Tao.”

He sniggered. And their laughter peeled like bells, one deeper, one higher. As it tapered off, Ryder looked at Tao and smiled. “That felt good,” she said. “Thanks.”

“Anytime, baby Corporal.”

“Ryder,” she interjected. “Just call me Ryder. No baby Corporal business, please.”

“Right, Ryder,” Tao replied with a firm nod.

She turned back to her booth, picking up the tray of spent heat sinks. Ryder was surprised to see Tao leaning against the booth when she turned around. “You know most of them are just wary because they’ve not worked with biotics before?” he said.

“And you have?” she retorted, the response came out faster than she could stop herself.

“I have, we had three in my old squad,” Tao said, his gaze turning inwards.

Ryder’s jaw tightened. “Had,” she repeated, latching on the intentional use of past tense in his phrasing. “What happened?”

“They were all killed in action.”

She swallowed, heat rising to her face. “I’m sorry, I… I didn’t mean to…”

Tao shook his head and waved her stammered apologies away. “It’s a long time ago. They were good people. Just like you, people,” he said, lifting his head to look at her in the eyes.

Ryder blinked.


Ryder looked impossibly young. Her eyes wide. The high walls of her guard pulled back a little. It was the first time Tao saw something of her real emotions since his blunder.

How old is she anyway? 18? 20? I should speak to Ishida.

If all it took was a little heart to heart, Tao didn’t mind. It's not like there is anything to do on base. It's better if everyone just got along.

He ran his hand through his unruly hair as he grinned again, not knowing anything better to do. It was his fault, opening a whole can of worms for everyone.

Sagh had gone to Ishida insisting on being transferred to the morning shift, anything just to be away from Ryder. Tao didn’t know what his problem was. And that wasn’t the main issue, Melnik was taking his cues from Sagh.

“Shit, she’s a looker, but she turns out to be a freak,” Melnik said, sitting on Ryder’s empty bunk.

Tao frowned. This wasn’t ok, but he loathed to insert himself into situations that didn’t directly concerned him. Remember Ryan, two months and you’re done. Ryder isn't here. Ignore this. This isn’t your problem.

Kovács frowned. “That’s all you’re thinking about, huh? Just a pussy to fuck? She’s the corporal for fuck’s sake,” he pointed out. “Get your stinking ass off her bed.”

Melnik jerked his chin in Kovács’ direction. “Or what? You’ll make me?”

Melnik straightened to his full height. Even at 18, one of the youngest, he was tall and had the bulk to match. Tao was under no illusions that Melnik was sent here straight out of boot camp precisely because he kept his brains in his dick. Kovács was fair skinned, he got whiter at the implied threat, scooting away from Melnik.

Sorry, Ryan.

“That’s enough,” Tao barked.

It was at that point Ryder came in. She eyed everyone suspiciously. Melnik stood in his boxers grinning at Kovács. Tao was on his feet, annoyance clear on his face. Kovács was in a state of undress. Amir and Garcia were already off on their shift. The stalemate was broken only when Sagh slammed the door of his locker shut. He stalked towards the showers.

Ryder took two steps to the side, giving Sagh enough room to pass. That left Melnik the sole troublemaker. Tao’s eyes darted between Ryder and Melnik. He doubted she would appreciate his interference. Tao slowly sat down on his bunk, his eyes still trained on Melnik.

Her eyes took in the mussed up sheets of her bed. Melnik’s grin widened. “Was that you?” she asked, her finger jabbing in the direction of her bed.

“No, it’s not,” he lied with a self-satisfied smirk on his face.

Ryder walked over to Melnik. To Tao’s eyes, the difference in height was comical. Ryder wasn’t tall even for a woman. Standing only at a mere 1.6m compared to Melnik’s 1.9m, it was David versus the Goliath.

“Really?” Ryder said, disbelief dripping from her words. She looked at her bed. “No matter. See that you keep your ass to your own bunk.”

Melnik snorted, opening his mouth to press the issue. Ryder’s eyes flashed at him. Despite the severe angle it took for her to glare at him, Melnik faltered. A flash of blue ran up Ryder’s arm. It was there and gone in a flash. Tao would questioned if he imagined it if Melnik’s mouth didn't clamp shut.

“Melnik, you don’t want to pissed me off,” she said, her voice cool and even. “I can let a lot of things go but basic courtesy and decency, no.”

Ryder closed the distance between them while Melnik backed away from her. It was amusing if the situation didn't look set to explode. She folded her arms across her chest and asked, “Melnik, do you want to get on my bad side?”

“No, man, it was just a joke,” he tried to brush it off, but there was no mistaking his haste in beating a swift retreat.

As Melnik passed Tao, he could hear an unmistakeable bite of malice in Melnik’s voice. “Fucking bitch.”

Before Tao could call him out on it, Melnik’s long legs took him out of the barracks. He turned back to find Ryder picking her mattress up and flipping it over. “Fuck,” she cursed under her breath, turning to him. “I’m sorry you saw that. It was fucking unprofessional.”

Tao just shook his head.

Since then, Ryder avoided the barracks till the others were done with the showers and meals. It was most unfortunate that her bed was right between Sagh’s and Melnik’s. Tao couldn’t help but worry for Ryder. He didn’t kid himself to think that the baby Corporal needed any looking after, but he couldn’t help his protective instincts.


“Join us,” Tao called out, waving her over.

It was a rare day that they all were able to share a meal together. The morning shift was having their dinner while the night shift was having their breakfast. The defence system’s software was being upgraded by some Alliance tech people that came directly from Arcturus station. That afforded them the time to interact.

Ryder took her cup of sludge over the table. On one table Tao sat with Amir and Garcia while Sagh, Melnik and Kovács were at the other table. Everyone were eating their portion of sludge with varying degrees of enjoyment. She slid into a chair and nodded a greeting to the others. As she started eating, Kovács shifted his chair closer to hers. “Hey, Corporal,” he said.

“Ryder, Kovács. Just call me Ryder, we’re off duty,” she interrupted. “I’d like to hear my name before I forget what it sounds like.”

“All right, all right, boss,” Kovács said, “So I’ve been thinking…”

“Really? Kovács you got a brain in there,” Garcia interjected.

The others laughed while Ryder choked on her food. The harder she coughed, the more tears sprang from her eyes. “Come on!” Kovács protested, “It’s not even that funny.”

He glared at Garcia while she poured water down her throat. It felt good to laugh even though she felt sorry for Kovács. She grinned at the others, suddenly finding herself meeting Sagh’s eyes. The anger there wasn’t as hot as it was a month ago. Maybe I’ve proven myself to him. Sagh looked away, his face darkening. Maybe not.

“Anyway, like I was trying to say,” Kovács persisted. “Why are you always munching away in the control room? It’s like you’re constantly eating.”

Ryder swallowed another spoonful of sludge. “Well…” She glanced over at Sagh before turning her eyes back to Kovács. “I’m a biotic. My metabolism is higher than yours.”

Kovács’ eyes widened. “That much more?”

Ryder shrugged. “3000 calories a day, more if I am on combat duty.”

Sagh’s chair scrapped against the floor as he stood. “I’m done. See you all later,” he said.

Ryder watched Sagh go. Melnik and Amir joined him quickly enough. “Sagh’s all right, you know?” Tao said.

“Yeah, I know. He follows orders. Not that I had to give any, really. You guys are already clockwork here. I’m practically redundant,” Ryder pointed out.

“Not redundant,” Garcia said, pushing his empty cup away and leaned back against the back rest. “You deal with all the dirt diggers. I don’t have to do that anymore.”

“You never needed to do that anyway, Garcia,” Tao pointed at him with his spoon.

“It’s enough that I have you deal with you, Tao,” Garcia drawled, “you’re too fucking accident prone for your own good.”

Kovács laughed. He glanced at his omni-tool and stood up abruptly. “Damn, I need to call Sylvia,” he blurted. “It’s so hard to get our timing synced up and not have a storm to come spoil it all.”

With that, the blonde hair, blue-eyed boy hurried out. Ryder stared at Kovács. “His girlfriend?” she asked as she unwrapped a ration bar, having finished the sludge.

Garcia nodded. “He’s always writing messages to her.”

“I’ve not noticed, actually,” Ryder admitted.

The olive skinned man shook his head. “You have a long way to go, Ryder.”

She wasn’t sure what he was referring to, but whatever it was she was inclined to agree with him. Tao tossed his cup and spoon into the recycler. “I need to make a call too,” he said as he excused himself.

“Wife? Husband?” Ryder asked.

“Husband.”

She hummed. “What about you?”

“Divorced. I don’t think my wife would want me to call her,” Garcia laughed, his voice a little bitter. “But…”

“Kids?” Ryder asked.

Garcia didn't answer, his quick wit and sharp tongue silent.

“Your kids will always want and crave for your attention. Don’t let their actions deceive you.”

Garcia cocked his head at her. His eyes narrowed. Ryder swallowed. Why the fuck did I say that? Why couldn’t I just leave it be?

Instead, he nodded, hearing more than she actually meant. “Maybe you’re right,” he said pensively. "I should..."

He didn't finish his sentence and left the mess hall. Ryder chewed the last bit of ration bar, looking at the empty mess hall. Her chest ached in a way she couldn't quite describe. She took a deep breath and pushed the feeling back into whatever dark corner it crawled out from. She scooped up her empty cup and stared irritably at the cup and spoon Garcia had neglected to dispose of. Rolling her eyes, she picked them up as well.


Things settled into a strange new equilibrium. Sagh maintained his standoffish manner, but it never went further than being unwilling to socialise with Ryder. She was perfectly fine to leave things as they were. After all, it didn't affect their work.

Her problem was with Melnik and his creepy ass looks and gestures.

Ryder was showering, sure that the others were done with their turn. As she exited from the stall in a worn Alliance t-shirt and shorts, she stiffened. Melnik was leaning against the wall right outside her stall. A cold flush of fear washed over her.

"What are you doing?" she asked, pissed that her voice shook a little.

His grin grew wider. Heat crawled up her neck and Ryder could feel herself blushing. She took a deep breath and glared at him. He wasn't fazed. "Do you mind?" she asked.

"Oh, sorry," he said as he slid just half a step away, forcing her to shoulder him out of the way.

Melnik leaned into the contact. "Oops," he sniggered.

"Back off. You're crossing a line you don't want to," she growled.

"What? What did I do? I just lost my balance, Corporal," Melnik sneered.

Before she could call him out, Amir walked in. Ryder was relieved that there was someone else present. But that lasted for all of a second before it died. Amir grinned. Ryder's heart sank. It was the same fucking baring of teeth Melnik was giving her.

No, one isn’t enough. Let's have two of them.

Ryder didn't relish being cornered. She wasn’t going to allow Amir to entrench himself across the exit, quickly pushing past him and left. Assholes are everywhere I go.


Ryder didn't want to think about it. She wasn't sure how to deal with it. She was the corporal, to go running to Ishida felt like defeat and at the same time, Melnik hadn't actually done anything.

Am I just overreacting?

She ran a hand through her hair, loosening her hair tie at the same time. Glancing at her left, Melnik was lying in bed and facing her. His eyes were closed, breathing steady. Ryder's jaw clenched, but she forced herself to relax. This whole thing was only giving her a headache. She crawled into bed, determined to put it out of her mind.

Tapping at her omni-tool, Ryder brought up the half written message.

“Hey Scott, how’s the new placement? I hope you've settled in well with your squad."

Ryder ground her teeth together at the thought of her own failure.

"I don’t think your job can get any more boring than mine. I’m just a glorified button pusher. Why on earth did they not put me on one of the cruisers patrolling the border? Things are the same old here. Biotic-haters are everywhere and I got a bunch of them under my command.”

She stared at the last few sentences she typed. Her finger rapped against her arm in time to the blinking cursor. Ryder sighed and she went on typing.

“But it’s nothing I can’t handle. You know me, tough as fucking nails. I hope things are well with you. Message me when you get some time.”

Reading it through once more, Ryder hit the send button and off the message went. Queued up in the uplink along with all the reports Ishida had written and the data the archaeologists had collected. Everything was ready. As soon as the storm past and the link to the comm buoys was re-established, it would start its merry journey to the other side of Alliance Space.

Ryder yawned as she stood. It’s late, well early actually, since she’s on the night shift. She needed to pee before turning in. She smacked her lips sleepily as she made her way into the empty showers. The toilet stalls were just to the side. Her boots echoed oddly in the space.

A quick tug, Ryder undid the knot on the too long draw string that came with her Alliance issued sweat pants. In a single smooth action she sat down as she pushed her pants down. As skin came in contact with the cold toilet seat, she grunted. There was no getting used to it. But as her bladder eased, she sighed. Once she was done, it was the same process in the opposite order.

Maybe I’ve overdone it with the biotics training. Her stomach rumbled quietly. She rolled her sore shoulders and stretched, but her muscles whined in protest.

There is no satisfying this monster. No. No more snacking. I should just sleep. It will sort itself out.

She waved her hand over the disposal unit activating it as her other hand fumbled at the lock on the stall door. As she turned around, all she saw was a hand headed her way. It pushed her backwards, hard. She slammed against the side of the stall. Pain exploded, sending white across her vision. The back of her leg connected with the toilet bowl, buckling her knee.

A yell was on her lips as she fought to regain her feet but another hand clamped down over her mouth. Hands pressed her against the flimsy structure of the stall, her hands swung out scratching at air. Ryder growled, twisting her head, blinking hard.

Her eyes, rage filled, found a flash of a grin, a head of brown hair, towering over her. Melnik. “Not so tough any more huh, baby Corporal?” he sneered.

“This is a stupid idea,” another voice drifted from outside. There could only be one other person on base who would back Melnik’s dumb plan, Amir.

Some warm ran down her forehead and into her eye, Ryder blinked it out of the way and let herself go limp. “That’s all the fight you got? I’m surprised. Maybe you just like a little rough play?” Melnik said, bending down towards her.

As much as Ryder wanted to respond, she couldn’t with Melnik’s hand over her mouth. How does he think this is going to play out? What does he intend to do?

Her eyes drifted to Amir. His eyes wide, pupils blown. She jerked her head up to hold Melnik’s gaze, his were the same. Fuck, they’re high out of their mind.

Melnik hauled her bodily to her feet, his knee nudged her legs apart but realised he didn’t have a third hand to rip off her pants. Ryder’s eyes darted between Amir and Melnik. Her guts clenched as adrenaline flooded her system. She breathed harder and faster as her heart slammed against her ribs. It was a familiar sensation, the fear that forced her mind into overdrive, her limbs into action. This was combat.

Ryder gathered the power at her core. Her amp warmed. Her heart screamed, "Go, go, go!" But her training and experience taught her to bid her time.

Melnik had to let go of something if he was going to do what his eyes had been promising all this time. He glanced back at Amir. “Keep an eye out, you’ll get your chance later.”

The glint in his eyes chilled Ryder to the core as he raked his eyes over her body like a piece of meat. Without warning, he slammed her head against the stall again. Ryder groaned as pain flared like a bright spark behind her eyes, stunning her. The flimsy wall shook at the impact.

In that instant, Melnik let go of her mouth and arms, he shifted to press his forearm against her throat while his free hand worked to get her pants down. Ryder squirmed and shifted but there was only so much room in the tiny stall. The room was spinning too much, leeching strength from her limbs. Heat rose to her face as the breath was literally choked out of her. Her lungs heaved as she tried to drag air in. Ryder’s vision was tunnelling. She just needed an opening, any opening.

“What the fuck are you doing?” a voice rang out.

Chapter 4 - First Day at Work

 

Art by Seo Kanori on Tumblr

 

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.

“Yes, sir.”

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?”

“No, sir.”


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.


Ryder sighed.

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?”

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.”

Chapter 2 - Hello Janus

 

Art by Seo Kanori on Tumblr

 

I’m running a giveaway on my Tumblr. Check it out if you’re interested.


“Have you got your assignment?”

Ryder looked up from her omni-tool. Her eyes darted to her father, narrowing slightly. “Are you talking to me?” she asked tentatively.

“Yes.” His eyes pierced her, making her feel stupid for asking.

Scott was looking at her expectantly. “Tell me where the brand spanking new Corporal is heading to?” he asked, wagging his eyebrows in her direction.


“Hey, I heard we’re getting a baby Corporal,” Sagh said as he cleaned his rifle.

“Yeah,” Tao replied, “she’s coming in about a week, I think.”

“Her? The baby corporal is a girl?” Melnik spluttered.

“What’s the problem? Is that so surprising?” Tao narrowing his eyes at the younger man. Boy, actually.

Melnik shrugged while Sagh watched the exchange. “So the girls get all the easy assignments huh?” Melnik sneered.

Tao tossed his oil covered rag at him. The cloth smacked right into his face mid-rant. Sagh and Tao roared with laughter as Melnik spat, flinging the cloth back.

“You’re here, aren’t you?” Sagh pointed out.

Melnik sulked, turning back to his dismantled rifle, his fair skin blushing with embarrassment.

Sagh cocked his head at Tao. “Do you know who she is?”

Tao shrugged. “No fucking clue. Ishida seemed impressed though.”

Sagh cocked his head, curiosity rising with his eyebrows. "The Sarge is probably more relieved that he doesn't have to deal with us anymore," he retorted.

“Maybe so,” Melnik said, “Ah damn, I hope she is a looker.”

Tao rolled his eyes. What’s wrong with him? It's like he is some sex-starved fiend. It was this kind of “locker room” talk that got his ire up. For him, it didn't bother him. he didn’t swing that way. Tao was loyal and Ryan was always a message away.

Tao looked outside. Janus was not happy today.

Janus, one of Sharring’s 60 moons, twin to Hephaestus. Both giant grey balls of matter floating around in space. Normally boring and useless until someone found signs of Prothean ruins. Janus was the ugly sister to Hephaestus. With the interesting finds happening over on Hephaestus, Janus was pretty much neglected. Despite that, the archaeologists stationed here were optimistic.

The archaeologists are always optimistic, even after years of digging.

That’s why they were here, sitting pretty in the Theseus system. A bunch of misfits guarding a bunch of Prothean archaeologists. Tao was there because he was injured while on active duty. It was the cumulative effect of his injuries that made him a little more fragile than the regular grunt but being too qualified for desk duty; he was relegated to playing bodyguard at a base that didn't really need it. The others were varying degrees of unsuitable for one reason or another and got shunted from place to place till they ended up on Janus.

Tao wasn't complaining, it was boring work mostly. But boring was good. As far as he was concerned, maintaining a garrison of eight was overkill. This was after all the ass end of nowhere. That and they were getting a brand spanking new anti-air defence system. It was the first of its kind, a mid-range system that could hit any craft in the upper atmosphere. Why the brass figured Janus was a good place as any to act as a test bed when there was nothing to shoot at, Tao had no idea.

And now we have a baby corporal coming. Melnik isn't wrong, this is an easy assignment. The brass probably want to get the kid’s feet wet before transferring her out if she had any potential.

Tao shrugged it wasn’t any of his business but he didn’t envy the kid’s placement here. It would be dull as hell, but maybe keeping up with eight other guys was adventure enough for the baby Corporal.


“The ass end of nowhere apparently,” Ryder said. “Janus, one of Sharring’s moons.”

Scott cocked his head and blinked. “Indeed, I don’t know we have a base on Janus.”

“It’s barely garrison duty, it’s more like baby-sitting duty,” she muttered. “It makes no sense why I’m posted here. I’m a fully trained biotic specialist.”

Their father cleared his throat, looking somewhat satisfied. “Every job is important, don’t disrespect your orders. It is unbecoming of you.”

Ryder took a deep breath and shook her head. Fuck, I can’t even grouse. “I’m off to see Ma,” she announced, standing up and cleared her space.

The trash went into the recycler. And the plates into the washer. Scott was busy slurping the remnants of his food as quickly as he could.

“I’m coming too,” Scott blurted.

Their father’s eyes lingered on the closed door even after they had left.


It was late morning and the skycar lines were empty. The Ryder twins piled into the first car. Ryder sighed while Scott snorted. “You know, I’m pissed with you,” he said.

She kept her eyes to the front, not looking at her older twin. “Yeah, I figured.”

“Would it kill you to visit more often?” he went on. “You know how much Ma misses you. And Pa isn’t always home.”

“Well for one thing, I was mostly on pirate patrol, I couldn’t just leave whenever I feel like it. The travel alone means I wouldn’t be able to stay long for my visits, anyway.”

“What does this mean for this visit?”

Ryder shook her head. “I have to leave tonight.”

Scott sighed, his jaw tightening. “Maybe it’s for the best. You and Pa…”

“Yeah, me and Pa. You know, I wish…” she took a shuddering breath. “I’m sorry that so much has been put on you."

Scott reached out and grabbed her hand. It was warm, it was here. Her exhale joined his as their hands tightened over each other’s. “I know. I know,” he said.

For a moment, there was no sound, just the purring of the mini mass effect drive. Scott cleared his throat and said, “Enough about that. Why don’t we talk about that shiny new chevron on your BDU? You’re making me look bad, I’m still a lowly lance-corporal. Can you leave me some room to shine?”

At that she turned to meet Scott’s eyes. “You’re doing fine. Someone is bound to figure that out eventually,” she said, punching him in the arm.

“Easy for you to say, war hero, huh?”

“What? It was just a scratch.”

“Wounded in the line of duty, saved colonists from being chipped, hailed as a war hero in Citadel space,” Scott listed off on his fingers.

“War hero?” That earned him a harder punch. “If that’s what it takes to get promoted, I think I’ll pass. I’ll doubt I’ll see any action anytime soon.”

“What about you? Are you still stationed on Earth?”

Scott shook his head as his lips pulled into a grin. “No, My transfer has been approved. Arcturus station here I come!”

“Congratulations!”

The skycar shuddered as it landed on the pad. Ryder pushed the door and slid out. They walked shoulder to shoulder into Huerta Memorial Hospital.


“Sara, I’m sorry that I’m stuck in the hospital throughout your visit,” her mother said.

“No, don’t apologise,” she soothed. “I’m sorry for not visiting more often.”

“Don’t be silly,” her mother pulled Ryder into a hug.

She buried her nose into the crook of her mother’s neck and breathed in the scent. Underneath the sterile smell of the hospital, underneath the dry cotton of her gown, there was the faint scent of lavender she associated with her mother. Ryder inhaled, trying to store the memory for when she missed her mother.

“I’ll still be here when you come back to visit again,” Ma whispered into her ear. “Take care of yourself.”

“I will,” she promised.

As her mother released her from the embrace, Ryder lingered for a moment longer before pulling apart, her hand wiping the stray tear away.

After sharing a much shorter hug with Scott, she left. Their father had taken off earlier for yet another mission. There was always another mission, another job. If not that, it was holing up in his armoury turned office for this new project that seemed to consume all his time. Scott had been vague on the details. She didn’t want to know. Asking meant she cared, and she didn’t.

Sighing, she jammed herself into the only available seat, ready for the first leg of her journey to her new assignment. The guilt still rode heavy in her gut, balanced only by worry. Still, it didn’t stop Ryder from running away from it all. That much she was honest about.


Kovács sighed, running his hand through his blonde hair. Sitting inside the Mako with nothing to do was a special kind of hell. Janus’ connection to the comm buoy was sporadic at best. It was good enough for surface communications but anything beyond Janus was sketchy. With one of Janus’ frequent sand storms winding up right then, it meant shitty connections to the wider system. An awful connection meant no extranet, and that meant utter boredom.

At least these storms are just an inconvenience and not actually deadly.

He tapped at his omni-tool. The shuttle was inbound, but it was still a little while off. “I hope the shuttle comes before the storm slams into the port,” he muttered.

Kovács yawned, stretching his legs out as far as the Mako allowed. He had spent the entire night taking advantage of the clear signal to chat with his girlfriend. The five minute lag both ways sucked, but at least he got to see his girl. Kovács folded his hands and placed them behind his head. He closed his eyes, preferring the view in his mind’s eye than the brown flat expanse that was Janus.

A series of three solid taps sounded from his side of the Mako. His eyes flew open. Kovács jerked upright, attempting to stand up but only half succeeding.

“What?!”

His exclamation was abruptly cut off when his head made contact against the roof of the Mako. Kovács pressed both hands over his bruised skull as his eyes squeezed shut.

Another series of three taps came again.

Kovács opened an eye to see what was making the sound. It was a blurry image of a fully armoured Alliance soldier hanging onto the exterior of the Mako. He blinked, clearing the tears from his eyes. The soldier waved their hand at him and cocked their head. They mimed opening the door. Kovács could see a duffle over the soldier's shoulder, one hand cupping their visor as they pressed their helmet against the Mako's window. He jerked backwards at the sight of an opaque helmet so close to his face. The fright helped a little to clear the fuzziness from sleep and the distracting pain of his head. Then, Kovács remembered.

“Oh, shit.”


Ryder sighed.

Wonderful, sleeping on the fucking job. Is this going to be the calibre of people on Janus? Let’s hope this is the exception to the rule.

She glanced at the horizon. The storm was approaching and at a speed she had never seen before. Getting caught in the storm, even riding something as known for its durability as the Mako wouldn’t be pleasant. The rolling cloud of dust put new meaning to dust storms.

She turned back to the soldier that was blinking owlishly at her. With a finger, she pointed at the horizon and tried the Mako’s door again. It was locked. Frustration mounting, she rapped her knuckles on the window, pointed at the storm and mimed opening the door.

Maybe he concussed himself from that thump against the roof of the Mako. The Mako is hard after all.

The vast storm front was picking up dust, sand and debris along the way. It was sending a wall of brown fog directly towards them. Come on, wake up soldier. I don’t want to fucking die because you won’t open the damn door.

Ryder formed a gun with her fingers and pantomimed shooting the door off. That seemed to get the soldier’s attention. He peered out the windscreen at the horizon. His eyes widened as his lips flapped. She could make out a single word repeated many times over.


“Shit, shit, shit,” Kovács all but shouted as he tapped on his omni-tool, unlocking the doors.

The soldier wasted no time hopping into the Mako and slamming the door shut. Kovács thumbed the starter button and mini drive core hummed to life. The soldier threw their duffle into the back. The moment their safety belt clicked shut, Kovács stepped on the accelerator and Mako lurched into motion. The soldier turned to look at Kovács, but he couldn’t see their expression. Their helmet was opaque except for the slit of reinforced clear visor revealing a pair of brown eyes. The pair of eyes narrowed as they stabbed at the windscreen. Kovács instantly shifted his attention back to where they were going.


The storm was in full force. “Thank fuck, the barracks is weather sealed,” Tao said.

Melnik snorted. “If it wasn’t, we would have our asses flapping in the fucking wind.”

Sagh rolled his eyes as he buckled his armour on. “And you get to sit here, all nice and warm and fucking sand free while the rest of us have to work,” he said as he straightened, holstering the standard issue Avenger to his back and Predator to his hip.

“Try breaking an ankle and see how you like it,” Tao retorted, lifting his omni-cast encased leg in the air.

“I'd much rather work. Sitting around doesn't suit me. I am a man of action,” Melnik said, preening a little with his rifle.

“Come on, Private,” Sagh said, pulling his helmet on, securing it.

With a couple of snaps, their helmets sealed over their faces. Their armour all scratched and dinged, not from battle but from the elements. Janus was hard on everything, the equipment, the vehicles and most of all the people. It wore everything down, and it got everywhere. Small, deceptively innocuous, but it ground down the best in people. Slowly but surly it buffed away the edges of some, leaving them a ball of apathy. Others had their quirks sharpened, distilling the essence, good or bad, of their personality.

All Tao wanted was to finish his tour and get the fuck out. He gave his word to Ryan, and he intended to fulfil his promise. Sagh, Melnik and the others? He had no clue and he couldn't summon the interest to care beyond a cursory curiosity.

“See you later,” Tao said from his position on his bunk.

Melnik nodded. “We’ll put the baby Corporal through her paces tomorrow,” he said, his voice getting filtered through his helmet, making it sound unreal.

There was but a moment of peace after Melnik's and Sagh’s departure when Tao’s team, Amir and Gracia, came in from their shift. There was a decontamination process that helped keep the sand they track around the barracks down.

“Has the ankle rotted off yet?” Gracia asked as he peeled himself out of his armour.

“Not quite but it is marinating quite nicely in my own juices.”

Amir's dusky skin paled at the mention of juices. He made a face and left for the showers in his boxers, a towel over one shoulder. Gracia came over, pulling Tao’s ankle towards him roughly. His olive skin turned orange in the glow of the omni-cast. After a perfunctory check, he smacked the omni-cast with his armoured hand, Tao jerked his foot back. “What the fuck?” he yelled.

“There, see. No pain, right? It’s mostly healed. You can probably avoid a trip to the medical centre on Hephaestus,” Gracia said.

The shorter man walked to his bunk to stow his armour away.

“When can I get rid of this?” Tao asked, gesturing towards the cast.

“In a day or two. Then you get a fuck ton of physio,” Gracia said as he stripped down to his boxers.

Tao shrugged. They were glorified security guards for a Prothean dig site. And it was a minor one at that. There were just 20 archaeologists on site. Or as Garcia will call them, dirt diggers. They were mostly no trouble, maybe a little unruly after some drinks. But it didn't take much to subdue a sad drunk.

“Walker won’t care unless there is a big screwup. Anyway, he is over on Hephaestus, why would he deign to grace us with his attention?” Tao snorted.

Lieutenant Walker was indifferent with the comings and goings of the Janus base. He had left Sergeant Ishida in charge and that was the extent of his involvement. Tao shook his head, he wished he was ignorant to such things. It would have made life much easier. It was a stone in his chest knowing their base, by extension he and his squad mates, didn't even registered on his CO's mind.

“Well, Ishida will keep the show running, I mean how hard is it to just stare at the screens and let the computer do all the work,” Tao continued.

“Don’t forget about all the patrolling for non-existent threats,” Garcia pointed out. “My fucking feet hurts from all that walking.”

“You’d think you'll be used to it by now. How long have you been here? Hasn’t it been years?"

Garcia shrugged, stripping out of his armour. "This is the easiest job I have since I enlisted, boy," he said, putting emphasis on the last word.

Tao frowned, their age gap wasn’t all that much, but he didn't bother calling Garcia out on it. It wasn't worth the effort.

“I hear we have a baby coming today?” Gracia asked, now somehow completely buck naked with his towel on his shoulder, standing with his hands on his hips. "It's our first one in months."

Tao blinked. As much as he enjoyed the male form, this was a little too much right before bedtime. “Yeah, Kovács went to get the baby. They should be here soon unless the storm turned the shuttle back to Hephaestus.”

Gracia snorted. “The old baby getting the new baby?”

Tao shrugged, watching as the naked man walked towards the showers.


Ryder kept her eyes forward. The soldier kept stealing glances at her. Her helmet's HUD kept flickering, registering the motion. It was getting close to irritating. Normally Ryder would have removed her helmet the moment she got into a vehicle, but with the storm blowing in, she figured to keep it on just in case things went horribly wrong.

She fought to keep from continuously glancing behind to check on the storm. The Mako didn’t have a clear window on the rear. There was nothing she could see. Still, it didn’t assuage the itch that was developing between her shoulder blades. In a bid to distract herself, she started on a message to her mother.


Kovács couldn’t help the surreptitious glances at his passenger. They had opted to tap on their omni-tool, ignoring him. Detecting a slight turn of their head in his direction, Kovács quickly flicked his eyes back on the road. They shifted their attention back to their omni-tool, and the Mako hummed along.

He shifted in his seat, he couldn’t quite get comfortable. The silence ate at him. Even though the barracks didn’t house hundreds of soldiers like back at boot camp, it wasn’t as quiet as a tomb either.

“I hear you’re going to be our new Corporal,” he said as he winced, his voice pitched higher than usual. Why the hell did I say that? Of course they're our new Corporal. Way to put your foot in your mouth.

His passenger nodded but their fingers were busy on their omni-tool.

What could they possibly be tapping their omni-tool for? With the storm on our asses, there is no way they’re accessing the extranet.

Kovács cleared his throat and went on. “You’ll like the guys. The Sarge is pretty chill. Oh, his name is Ishida. The others are great too. Sagh and Melnik those are the guys on my squad. And there’s also Amir and Garcia. Tao’s laid up in the barrack after breaking his ankle.”

Kovács glanced at his passenger. There was no way to tell if they were paying attention or just nodding along to humour him, but he was already committed. He soldiered on. “You got to get him to tell you how he broke his ankle. Garcia is our field medic, he fixed Tao right up.”

Kovács laughed nervously, filling in both ends of the conversation himself. “I’ve never heard a man scream so high, like a girl,” his voice cracked right at the end.

His passenger coughed, trying to hide a chuckle. Kovács wanted to die right then. It wasn’t bad enough he had fallen asleep while waiting for the Corporal, he made a fool of himself twice. Biting on his tongue, Kovács decided maybe silence wasn’t so bad after all.


Ryder almost choked trying to hold back her laughter as her typing faltered. The soldier was comedic gold in that unintentional manner. But she was still worried about the storm. From the data she had pulled up during her shuttle ride down to Janus, she knew the distance between the port and the base was a 30-minute trip each way

With the way the Mako was eating up the distance. They were just barely keeping their lead on the storm. But it was definitely gaining on them fast. Ryder could feel the Mako drifting sideways when sudden gusts of wind slammed into the vehicle. The soldier kept his grip firm on the steering wheel as he guided the Mako as safely and quickly as he could.

Even though it was close to sunset, it was supposed to still be light enough to see the road by. The storm was doing its best to swallow the sun. There was a constant clattering of sand flinging themselves against the exterior. It felt like the Mako had a blanket of debris wrapped around it.

Ryder stiffened. Her typing stilled. Her focus shifted from the vast expanse they were racing down to the reinforced glass windscreen. It was the most fragile barrier between them and the storm. The constant plinking sound was unsettling.

Can the windscreen take this?

The light plinks of sand and stones against glass gave way to a dull roar. She turned her head and cast an eye on the interior of the Mako. Her teeth worried at her upper lip. Tapping at her omni-tool, she hooked herself into the Mako’s computers, bringing up the view from the rear camera.

There was nothing but a dark swirling mess.

Her heart clenched. Ryder turned slightly to the soldier. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, his eyes flicking between the road and herself. “Can this thing go any faster?” she asked, praying that her armour’s voice box hid the worry.

The soldier didn’t bother answering, he stepped down on the pedal. The Mako lurched forward, going faster than before, but there was no outrunning a storm. She didn’t need to look to know sweat was beading along the soldier’s forehead.

Then the sun winked out. Fuck.

The dull roar was now a cacophony of sand, rocks, large and small clanking against the Mako. All that was visible was the mere ten metres ahead. The headlights were the only light that was beating back the chaos of the storm.

Worry was fast turning into fear. “Is this normal?”

The soldier’s jaw twitched. “Never so bad,” he gulped, his hands tightened over the steering wheel.

“Right,” she nodded, trying to steady herself.

She brought up the map, the distance between them and the base rapidly shrinking but not as fast as she wanted. Get a grip, you're the commanding NCO. Don't fucking freak out on your first day here. She took a deep breath silently inside her helmet. “You can do this, you can get us home.”

The soldier nodded.

Chapter 1 - Homecoming

Chapter 1 - Homecoming

Home… Home was the Citadel, home was the little apartment she spent her childhood years, home was her room she spent nights looking at her poster of Commander Shepard looking all heroic, calling on people to join up. The day she walked out for good she joined the early biotic intake programme and she had never been back except for some scattered visits.

And now she was almost home.

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