Ryder took a deep breath. Her chest and abdomen was still a little sore, but nothing she couldn’t manage with some over the counter medication. Her orders had came through. She was supposed to get everyone, Alliance and civilians to the processing centre for debriefing. Get herself and everyone else checked out by the medical officer to verify Doctor Chakwas’ work. She snorted at that bit. If Doctor Chakwas was anything less than top notch, she would be dead already. Tao too.
Officer Pressly got a Private to hold her hand to the quarter master. She returned with a handful of brand new BDUs.
“Here,” she said, handing them out. “Our orders are in. Debriefing then reassignment.”
Melnik and Amir nodded but worry clouded their faces. “What about our court martial?”
She glanced at Tao. He was the one more experienced with such things. But the entire situation was strange enough. But I guess that’s what deaths do. Pull people together or pull them apart.
“Ishida had sent out his report days before Cerberus hit. The Alliance would have it on their system,” Tao said, pulling the new uniform out of its packaging.
“Fuck,” Amir muttered as he tossed his on the floor. “This is stupid. It was just one dumb mistake. Just one and then…”
He looked up and found Ryder staring back. She didn’t know how she feel. What they did was fucked up, under any other situation she would be pleased to see them get sent to the detention barracks and dishonourably discharged. But now, her thoughts on the entire situation was further complicated by the plain fact that without them, she wouldn’t have lived, wouldn’t be able to get Tao, much less get the mergre number of civilians out.
Amir averted his eyes. “Shit, sorry. Ryder, I…”
Melnik’s jaw tightened. He reached a hand out towards her, she took a step back to avoid it. The nightmare was still burrowing holes into her mind. “It’s my fault, Amir shouldn’t have to pay the price. I mean what we did on Janus, it must count for something.”
Her fists clenched as her pulse throbbed against her temple. She frowned. “What are you asking?”
“I mean, we did good on Janus right? Without us, we’ll all be dead. So…” His eyes pleading. “Could you just put in a good word for us?”
Ryder stiffened. Amir and Melnik were looking at her with puppy dog eyes, but they didn’t just break a vase. They fucking tried to rape her. This was not ok. Tao stood, taking care to position himself in front of Ryder.
“Amir, Melnik, take a walk. Before you say something else you’ll regret,” he said.
“But, Ryder, we had your back. I didn’t mean for all of that to happen. I was—”
Her breath hitched as she started to turn away. Her clenched jaw holding back all the confusion and hurt.
“Fuck off,” Tao growled.
The pair got the hint and walked away. It was only then Ryder felt she could breathe again. He turned and faced her. “You don’t have to do shit. What they did to you is fucked up. Nothing they did after changed that. They have to face the music for their actions.”
“Ryder,” he slowly and deliberately placed his hands on her shoulders. Her muscles tensed under his touch. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. There is a system in place. State facts. Let the Alliance handle the rest.”
Ryder’s jaw twitched. Her hand coming up to rub her face. Tao’s hands tightened, squeezing her shoulders. “This is all fucked up.”
“It is, it all is.”
“People in the cargo bay, this is your captain speaking. We will be docking at the Citadel in 15 minutes. Please make sure you don’t leave anything behind,” a voice came from the overhead speakers. “Our stewardess will be by to collect your headphones and blankets—”
“Joker!” another voice from further away the mic came on, it was unmistakably Shepard’s.
“Oh shit, the stewardess is here and is pissed. This is your Captain signing—”
The voice was cut off abruptly. Ryder sighed. “Time to be a soldier again.”
Shepard watched as the entire bunch disembarked. She was glad to have the space back again, but that meant it was back to Geth hunting, again.
“Commander,” Pressly called.
She turned to her XO. “This is the shore leave rotating schedule,” he said as he handed her the datapad.
She glanced at it. Pressly did a better job than she could, there was no real need to check his work. But she could see Alenko hovering out of the corner of her eye. Shit. I should talk to him. Avoidance is just shit for both of us. But maybe, time is all I need. Just more time spent together, who knows maybe more sex. Then, it will happen.
She glanced over at Alenko. He nodded at her, pretending to be overseeing the departure of their rescued civilians. She bit back a sigh. Fuck.
“All good, Pressly. I have to go back to the Alliance HQ for some errands. You have the ship till I get back.”
“Commander,” he said with a curt nod and left.
As soon as Pressly left, Alenko approached. “Do you think you’ll have time for some drinks?”
“Sure, I’ll catch up with you after?” she asked, her guts twisted. Shepard couldn’t quite place why it did that. Was it merely nervousness, or apprehension but of what? It was complicated and confusing. And she dealt with it like everything of this nature, she shelved it.
Shepard walked out and saw a small squad of MPs waiting. One of them, a sergeant judging from the strips on her uniform, approached baby Ryder. The three other men stood apart as words were exchanged. Eventually, baby Ryder snapped a salute and the other MPs slapped omni-cuffs on two of the three men, leaving only the lance-corporal standing.
She read fear and guilt all over the arrested men’s faces. Not men, they were boys. Ryder’s face was a mask, her body was a spring coiled to snapping point. Sighing, she diverted her attention back to her work.
Ryder couldn’t put a word on how she felt as the MPs arrested Amir and Melnik. Her guts churned and she felt sick. Somehow she felt she had done something wrong. She had done everything right, but it was still her fault.
“It’s fine, we’ll take care of things from here,” the MP said, giving Ryder a reassuring squeeze on her arm.
And they marched Amir and Melnik away. Any words they needed to say had been said. Another officer came and took the civilians off her hands. She snapped her hand up in a salute and the office returned it. “Good job, Corporal,” he patted her on the shoulder and said. “You’re a credit to the uniform. Your father would be proud.”
Ryder blinked and could only nodded and accept the praise.
My father… Of course, they would find out if I was related. Will he be proud?
She couldn’t picture it. Alec Ryder smiling and telling her that. It was inconceivable. And then they were carted off to the medical office first. Scans and examinations were carried out. Everything was in order. They were separated and put into windowless rooms. Food and coffee were provided. She ate one and left the other.
Eventually three people entered. Ryder swallowed as she counted the strips and stars on their uniforms. The lowest ranked was a Commander, the highest an Admiral. What the fuck did I do? Is this where they arrest me?
She snapped to her feet, right hand snapping a salute. “At ease, solider,” the Commander said. “My name is Yeira Antar, and this is Major Vea Clarke.”
“Ma'am,” Ryder greeted, nodded at both of them, her eyes flicking over to the admiral. His short cropped hair was grey and he was sporting a neatly trimmed goatee. His eyes met hers. A pair of steel blue eyes took her in, evaluating and calculating. Ryder straightened in her seat.
Antar didn’t introduced the admiral so she bit her lip and kept her silence. Datapads were stacked onto the table. The major leaned back against her chair, while the admiral took the corner of the room. “Shall we take it from the top?”
Ryder talked and talked and talked. She had never uttered so many words back to back by herself in her life before. Her throat grew parched, her mouth dry. As distasteful as coffee was to her, she drank it just to keep herself from going completely hoarse.
Antar and Clarke took turns, each questioning her. “You were given a direct order, why didn’t you follow it?” Clarke asked, her fingers steepled before her.
“It would have been easier, safer to sit tight in the control room. Lieutenant Walker made himself very clear.” Antar pointed out.
Ryder explained. The more she talked, the surer she was her reasons were merely excuses and in the end, she had committed a grave mistake. I’m sorry, Kovács.
“What about Amir and Melnik?” Clarke pressed. “Do they have ties with Cerberus?”
“They tried to rape you. Is it premeditated? Did you provoke the attack?” Antar asked, her fingers tapped on the datapad.
Ryder’s brain was fried, her words had dried up. Eventually the pair of them had ran out of questions as well. She had been interrogated, questioned and debriefed. Even though she had been sitting all day, her wounds were hurting again, signalling she had missed the next dose. Her stomach, on the other hand, remained strangely silent despite a biotic’s appetide.
The commander glanced at the admiral, seeking permission. He nodded at them. As they left, taking their datapads along with them, Antar said, “Corporal Ryder. From everything we have heard, you have performed above and beyond the call of duty. It was through your quick action that the casualties were as low as they are. I can safely say you don’t have to worry about anything. And know that Lieutenant Walker will be under investigation.”
It was too little too late for those who didn’t make it. But Ryder felt a small vindictive thrill of satisfaction that Walker would suffer some kind of consequences for dismissing her concerns. “What about Private Amir and Melnik?” she blurted before thinking twice.
Antar glanced at Clarke. “We will take their action under your command into consideration, but it will be determined by the board.”
With that, they swept out of the room. It was then the admiral peeled himself off the wall. Ryder’s breath caught. Round two? She ran her hands over her face and tried to look somewhat more alive than she really felt.
She straightened. He waved a hand at her. “At ease, Corporal. I know the severity of the injuries you have taken in defence of the Janus base. Just relax.”
“Yes sir,” she replied, unconvinced, not quite trusting the admiral’s words. What could an admiral possibly want with her?
“Your father is Alec Ryder?” he asked.
She blinked. A small spark of confusion kindling in her chest. “Sir, I think you know the answer to the question,” she said. “What is this about?”
“Your father is a good man. He might be a little lost at the moment, pursuing certain undesirable avenues because of your mother’s condition.”
So this is about my father? What does the admiral think I can do?
She frowned, confusion was fast turning into frustration. “I can’t—”
He waved her hand, dismissing her words again. Her jaw tightened. “I’m not here about your father. I’m here for you.”
“Your squad will never be put back together. Two of them facing court martial, the rest of them killed in action. That leaves you and Lance-Corporal Tao,” he went on, glancing at his omni-tool. “Let me amend that. Lance-Corporal Tao has taken the medical discharge. This time tomorrow he will be honourably discharged on medical grounds.”
His words hit her like a sledgehammer. But she knew it. Tao had wanted out. He didn’t keep that a secret. After what happened at Janus, how could she blame him for taking the out. So she was a loose end for the Alliance.
“What does that mean for me?”
“Reassignment as you can expect,” the admiral said. “In fact, pending my approval, you will be getting your new orders in a few days. After you clear your psyche evals.”
“Sir,” she said, “Where will I be reassigned? Will I be going back to my old squad?”
“No, they have a full platoon now. You have been requested by name for your new assignment. So take your grief counselling and ace that.” The admiral stood and extended a hand to her.
She took it, his skin rough and worn. It was a pair of hands that had seen action and had been on the frontlines. His grip firm and sure as she returned it. “Yes, sir.” she took a deep breath and asked, “May I ask, sir? Why are you doing this yourself? This isn’t a job for an admiral. I am nobody important regardless who my father is.”
The admiral smiled, it felt stiff as if it wasn’t something he did often. “I expect you to go far. You’re a Ryder, coming from a family of distinguished Alliance military. You’re a biotic. And your record shows leadership qualities and a willing to put others before self,” he said, listing them out on his fingers. “You will be the future generation of warriors defending humanity.”
Ryder bit her lips. It felt like she was being fed a PR line but why would an admiral do that. Who the fuck has already put in a request for me? Is Pa pulling strings? Dead-ending my career?
“In any case, report to the medical officer tomorrow. You have the rest of the day free,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” she snapped another salute.
“Hackett,” he said, half way out the door. “Steven Hackett. Give my regards to your father.”
“Thank you, Admiral Hackett.”
“That’s all, Corporal,” the doctor said, putting his datapad down.
Ryder pulled the cuff off from around her arm. It had been used to monitor her vital signs. Biotics tend to undergo a stricter evaluation than the usual grunt. After all nobody wanted an unstable biotics in an Alliance uniform. It was going to be bad PR.
“I don’t see why I can’t sign off on this. Get yourself checked out by the MO, once they give you the ok, you’re good to return to active duty,” he went on, turning around to turn off the camera aimed at her as he conducted his interview.
Ryder sighed and nodded. “Will do.”
The first day was completely burnt by the debriefing. She collapsed in her assigned bunk as soon as she escaped. She had been too exhausted to eat or shower. The second was spent going through mandatory grief counselling. It was conducted en masse. Tao was there, seated at the other end of the classroom. She yawned her way through the session. It was only the psych evaluation she needed to pass so she wasn’t keen to listen. Two hours later, they were freed.
“Tao!” she called out.
He grimaced as she approached. “Hey Ryder.”
“You’re just going to not say anything about it?”
He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “I don’t know how to say it so I’d thought it was better to be lost among the shuffle,” he confessed.
“Damnit, after what we went through. It’s just you and I left of the Janus squad. There is nobody else. I…” Ryder clamped her mouth shut. She had lost her words. Hurt, lost and angry, her hands balled into fists.
“I’m sorry. I am an asshole,” he said. “I just don’t want you to think I’ve abandoned you. I thought it would be better you think I was reassigned somewhere else.”
“Yes, I’ll feel so much better thinking that, Tao,” she spat.
For a moment, they stood outside the classroom, the other attendees walked around them like they were two stones in a stream. Ryder used to have an anchor. It was her platoon when she first enlisted. Then, it was her squad at her first assignment. The anchor shifted from squad to squad, but now she had lost it. She was untethered. Her emotions were waves pounding against the hull of her heart, its intensity frightening and confusing.
How long did I know Tao and the others? It wasn’t that long. But why?
She looked away and exhaled, trying to force her bubbling emotions down. Tao grimaced and sighed. “So what are you going to do?” she asked eventually.
“Cash out, grab Ryan, find a nice colony, have a family,” Tao replied. “I can’t go back to combat. Not after this. It has been too close. I almost made Ryan a widower. I don’t want that.”
Her eyes met his. “I get it. Just… don’t disappear on me,” she almost pleaded. “I don’t want to feel like I am the solo survivor. I’m not. You made it too.”
“I did,” Tao agreed, opening his arms.
Ryder stepped into his embrace as he tightened his arms around her chest. “It is all thanks to you that I made it. Thank you for everything, Ryder.”
Hour later, after her psyche evaluation, she reported to the MO and got her final sign off. “Get your omni-tool reactivated by tech guys and get supplies from the quartermaster. You’re free to use your time as you see fit until you get your orders.”
Finally. I should have time to pop by Ma’s for a visit. At least for a few hours before curfew.
Settling down at her bunk, she changed into an outfit as civilian like as she could manage. In the end, she settled for a simple black tank top to go with her BDU pants and boots. She lost everything on Janus and she would have to buy some new clothes and supplies before she head off on her next assignment.
As she left the Alliance barracks on the docks she activated her omni-tool. It was then the flood of frantic messages came in. Her omni-tool buzzed and beeped non-stop for at least two minutes straight. She had only to skim a couple to realise what was going on.
Message after message from Scott. Each one more hysterical than the last. The last one was just a single word “Please.” Her stomach dropped to the floor.
“Oh fuck. I forgot about the message.”