“-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.
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.
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.
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.”