Chapter 5 - A Step Too Far


Art by Seo Kanori on Tumblr



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.


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.