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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.