“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.
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.
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.
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!”