Medi-gel was a miraculous invention especially for soldiers, but there was only so much it could do. For one, it couldn’t replace lost blood. Shepard worked frantically as the soldier got more confused and less responsive.
“She is going into shock!” Shepard said.
“Elevate her feet,” Alenko barked.
Gunnery Chief Williams shifted to follow the order, but she slipped on the blood-coated floor of the shuttle and fell. Cursing, she worked quickly.
“Can’t this thing go any faster?” Shepard demanded.
There was no answer but an increased in cabin pressure as it powered through the upper atmosphere of Janus. The shuttle rocked and rattled. Luckily, the Corporal was already strapped onto a secure back board. That left the other three scrambling to find hand holds to keep from smashing their heads against the interior.
Shepard stabbed a bloody finger against the omni-tool. “Joker! Come meet us and tell Chakwas we have one trauma victim for her.”
“You broke something already, Shepard?” came the reply. “Didn’t you just recover from a broken arm or two?”
“Joker!” she shouted. “I have no fucking time for this.”
“Fine, fine,” he replied placatingly. “One shuttle pick up coming right up.”
“And tell Chakwas, we need her at the cargo bay.”
“Got it, Shep,” came the reply.
The connection terminated with a click. She looked at the startlingly pale face of the Corporal. “Hey, hey, stick with me. We’re almost back. Chakwas will stitch you right up,” she said, squeezing the Corporal’s limp hand.
Eyelids fluttering, these brown eyes couldn’t focus on anything. The Corporal’s breaths were coming rapid, shallow and alarmingly wet. As the shuttle evened out, Shepard inserted another medi-gel pack into the armour and praying it helped. In the shuttle it was next to impossible to remove the Corporal’s armour and do the usual things — applying pressure, getting her hooked up on an IV line. For all she knew, the armour was the only thing keeping the blood more in than out.
“Hang in there, soldier.”
The Corporal’s lips moved, but no sound came out. All Shepard got for an answer was a weak squeeze of her hand.
Cotton had been stuffed into her ears she was sure. Maybe Scott had played a prank on her. Everything sounded far away and strange. There weren’t sounds of shift change, no banter between Tao and Garcia. There was just the persistent beeping that was slowly driving her insane.
Ryder groaned. Shit, what’s the time? I should get ready.
She tried to open her eyes, but they weighed down like lead. As she forced them open, she found herself staring at a strange dome-shaped ceiling. This is not the barracks. Where—
Then it hit her. The memories of the downed Sinon, finding Ishida, creating the distraction, defending the control room. “I’m not supposed to be here,” she muttered.
Her limbs were anchors attached to her body. She had no strength beyond moving her eyes to take in the room. Med-bay for sure. There’s no doubt. Nowhere else would have a ceiling this white.
There was a dull ache that ran through her body. Ryder was sure it was the top grade painkillers that were keeping her from screaming in agony. It was disconcerting to be so detached from her body. Something was tickling her nostrils. It was hard, uncomfortable and delivering air in through her nose. She grunted but couldn’t summon the energy to tug at it.
With considerable effort, Ryder turned her head, but she couldn’t see much beyond. The half dome over her obscured her vision. Something rustled somewhere else in the med-bay.
“Thank you,” a lady spoke calmly.
“Just doing my part,” a more familiar voice replied.
Ryder remembered the voice. It was her hallucination. She couldn’t help the small chuckle. Imagine that, dreaming that I saw Shepard! Ha! But… I can't be still hallucinating now right? Fuck, I’ve messed up my head more than I thought.
“How’s our little last stand hero, doc?” the familiar voice asked.
“Put pressure on that,” the doctor replied.
A grunt and more rustling as a weight slid off fabric. “It’s just a pin prick. It will stop bleeding on its own.”
“Suit yourself,” came the exasperated reply. “Collapsed lung, bruised ribs, multiple lacerations and contusions. Oh, of course, massive blood loss to top it all off.”
“An impressive laundry list of injuries, even when compared to me,” came the joking reply before a sigh punctuated the still air. “But she will be fine?”
“Sara Ryder, newly minted Corporal. She is young, she will recover. Maybe a little more scarred, but this isn’t the end of her Alliance career, Shepard.”
The haze that Ryder found herself in was gone in an instant. That name sent alarm bells ringing in her head. Shepard? Fuck, that wasn’t a hallucination? Shit! How much did I fucked up? She remembered sending Shepard flying across the control room. As soon as that happened, the beeping from the monitors beside her, chirped warningly.
Footsteps approached as the bed slid outwards. Her vision wasn’t obstructed any longer. The doctor was dressed in an Alliance white and grey high collared uniform. Her short cropped hair neat as was expected of any Alliance soldier. In contrast the other person was dressed in a black tank top with a N7 logo discretely stitched into the left breast, blue Alliance BDU pants. Her red hair was roughly in a braid but stray strands of hair were sticking out every which way.
Ryder groaned in embrassement.
The doctor approached quickly thinking it was from pain. “How are you feeling? How is your pain level?”
She opened her mouth, her lips parted painfully after being stuck together for what felt like days. “Water?” she rasped hopefully.
Shepard spun around, picked up a cup and handed it to the doctor. Ice chips were pressed into her mouth and she sucked on them greedily.
“My name is Doctor Chakwas, you’re on board the Normandy,” the doctor informed. “This is Commander Shepard.”
Shepard snorted, a lopsided smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. It made the scar that ran down her left check twitch. “I think she knows.”
Ryder was glad she lost enough blood to not worry about blushing. “I do, Commander. Thank you and sorry.”
A eyebrow rose as Shepard cocked her head. “Sorry?” she asked before she remembered. “That throw? It’s fine. Actually it’s more than fine, it’s impressive. You caught me by surprise that’s all. The armour took the burnt of things.”
“The others? Did they make it?” Ryder asked, her mind finally catching up on things.
“Don’t worry about them. We’ve picked them all up. We’re en route to the Citadel. I’ll be debriefing you as soon as Chakwas here gives the green light. Rest up, Corporal.”
Ryder could only nod as the doctor swept in with her medical questions.
Shepard sighed, her hair limp and sad after her shower. She walked with her towel over her neck towards the mess. Her stomach growled, reminding her of the exciting day she had. Alenko was there, nursing a hot cup of what looked like coffee.
She grimaced, weighing the options between food and avoiding the LT. Her thoughts were in a mess and she needed time to sort them out. Between chasing Saren, racing back to the Citadel and defeating him, recovering from having the Citadel fall on her, the subsequent orders to go chasing after Geth left her no time to even process what had happened. A night, her first time and nothing happened like she expected. She grimaced, pushing the memory out of her mind.
Fuck the Geth, what about the Reapers?
She huffed a sharp breath out through her mouth and put hunger first. Alenko, no Kaidan, fuck. You fucked the man, you could bloody well call him Kaidan now. “Hey,” she said by the way of greeting.
Alenko looked up and smiled tiredly. Shepard walked food dispenser and stabbed a button at random. As the machine went to work, she asked, “Any tea left?”
He laughed. “Definitely, coffee runs the Normandy. And you’re the only tea drinker on board. There are plenty of tea bags left.”
Shepard snorted and slid into a seat with her food and freshly brewed tea. As she shovelled food into her mouth, he asked, “So the Corporal, is she going to make it?”
She nodded. “Chakwas is good at what she does. Ryder will be fine.”
“Is she related to Alec Ryder?” he asked.
Her spoon stilled as she thought about it. As she chewed, she brought up her omni-tool and checked. It didn’t take long for Sara Ryder’s service record to pop up. “What do you know, you’re right, Alenko.”
She caught his face twisting a little at his last name. Pretending she didn’t noticed, she forced a soft chuckle to cover the awkward silence that follow. “Baby Ryder is quite something. Her father is the most N7 of operatives I’ve ever met.”
“What the fuck does that even mean Skipper?” Williams asked as she joined them at the table.
“By the book, straightlaced, protocols and more protocols,” Shepard replied, “that’s what I mean.”
“I can see why that goes against your grain,” Williams laughed.
“Will you prefer I reimplemented the segregation of the officer’s mess and enlisted mess again?
Alenko laughed. Shepard pushed her empty bowl aside and hissed as she scaled her tongue on her hot tea. “How are our new passengers handling it?”
“The LT and I debriefed them while you’re off donating blood to our little hero. They all said the same thing. A ship crashed, the NCO in charge took a team to investigate, got most of them killed, Ryder took two soldiers who were due to be court-martialled with her and—”
“Hold up, court-martialled? Why?” Shepard interjected.
“They attempted to… well, sexually assault Ryder while under the influence,” Alenko explained, wincing.
“Fuck this shit,” Shepard said, standing suddenly. The chair scrapped. All heads in the vicinity turned to look at their commanding officer.
Noticing the many pairs of eyes on her, she sat down again. Rubbing her hand over her face, she turned to Alenko and Williams. “What are their names? Do we need to put them in the brig?”
“No, I don’t think so,” he replied. “I’ve spoken to Tao, the lance-corporal. He is the only survivor of the first party. They were following Ryder’s lead throughout. I think we can trust them to behave.”
“Fuck, what a mess this is. Williams, I want you to keep an eye on them. If you find them with a single toe out of line, throw them into the brig. I don’t care if they saved the fucking Council.”
“Got it, skipper.”
Shepard leaned back against the chair and sighed. “So what’s going to happen to them?” Alenko asked. “The base is as good as gone, men dead. Even if some civilians survived, it will take some time for the Alliance to send a clean up crew.”
“They will all be re-assigned, I suppose. I’m going to have words with Walker,” she growled.
He nodded, suddenly looking like he aged ten years. “It’s just luck isn’t it?” he asked.
“Yeah, it is.”
Ryder hated the med-bay. It was dark, it was oppressive. It was even worse than being in the hospital with her mother. The endless hum of the Normandy’s drive core was loud and driving her up the wall. With Chakwas weaning her off the good stuff, that meant the pain was keeping her up.
“Please, I’ll take the sleeper pods over the med-bay,” she begged.
Chakwas raised her eyebrows at her. Even not wearing only a thin medical gown and nothing else underneath, the experienced medical officer’s gaze made her feel vulnerable. Ryder tightened her jaw and set her shoulders, as much as she could while lying flat on her back.
Chakwas laughed and shook her head. “Ryder, you have years to go before you try that stare on me. Yours isn’t quite up to snuff.”
She waved her hand at Ryder and said, “If you can dress yourself unaided. I’ll consider you fit to leave my tender mercies.”
Ryder grunted as she levered herself into a sitting position. The dull ache turned up a notch as she winced. Chakwas has removed the chest tube a couple of days earlier. Most of the lacerations didn’t need stitches. The good doctor even promised no scars other than a couple of silver ones once they healed for the deeper ones. The only thing bothering her were her healing ribs.
I can do this. This is nothing like the last time. What’s a couple litres of blood? It’s all been replaced anyway.
Grimacing she slipped out of the medical gown, Chakwas had left the med-bay and locked it behind her to give Ryder a semblance of privacy. The zip up hoodie presented little problem, it was the sweat pants that proved to be the challenge. By the time she was tying the drawstring, Ryder had sweat beading across her forehead as she rethought her need to get out of the med-bay.
But I can’t sit here all day till we get to the Citadel. I’ve got to check on the others. And Tao, what the fuck happened to him?
She managed a dignified shuffle to the door. It slid open just in time to hear Shepard laughing at the mess. “Hey, baby Ryder!” she greeted, waving.
“Commander,” she replied. “Thank you once again for coming for me.”
Shepard shrugged. “We don’t leave our own behind.”
Ryder noticed Shepard’s lips twisted when she said it, like the words tasted bitter on her tongue.
“Ma'am, where is the rest of my squad? I need to check on them,” she asked, gingerly making her way towards the small circle around Shepard, feeling like she didn't belong.
Of course, you don't fucking belong. She is the damn Saviour of the Citadel. Who do you think you are?
“Take care of your mini me, Shepard,” Chakwas said.
The man standing next to the Commander choked as Shepard scowled.
“And Ryder, remember to come back to me every day for a check up. And if you can bring your Lance-Corporal Tao along I'll appreciate it too,” she went on
“Yes, ma’am.” Ryder replied.
“Doctor Chakwas is fine, Chakwas is also fine. Just none of this ma’am nonsense. It's literally adding years to my face as I hear it.”
Without another word, the doctor withdrew to the med-bay.
“I don't know how she can stand to be in the damn dark room all day,” Shepard muttered under her breath.
An excited thrill ran down Ryder’s spine as Shepard echoed her thoughts. It was strange and awesome to be meeting her hero up close.
A pair of brilliant green eyes took her in. She straightened, attempting to look better than how she felt. Shepard sighed and muttered under her breath, “Mini fucking me.”
Another choked laugh came from the man. Shepard rounded on him and wagged a finger, “Don't you fucking dare repeat that, Alenko.”
Ryder glanced at the man, coiffed hair, well-built muscles, a pair of soft sepia brown eyes and a sheepish smile perched on his lips. He smiled at Shepard, his scar tugged at his mouth. He was completely at ease around her and yet awkward at the same time. She averted her eyes. This is none of my fucking business. But fuck is he attractive.
“Got it, Shepard.”
Shepard rolled her eyes. “Come on, I'll show you.”
Ryder made a valiant attempt to keep up, but the painkillers were wearing off and she wasn't due another dose till much later. Shepard glanced back and realised she had fallen behind. She sighed. “You know you can tell me to slow down?”
“No?” Ryder parroted back.
“No,” Shepard repeated firmly. “None of this ma’am bullshit. Commander Shepard if you must, Commander works too. Shepard though is my preferred.”
“Shepard, repeat after me, Shepaaard.”
Ryder couldn't help the snort that escaped. Pain ripped through her torso as she pressed her hand against her chest.
She was laughing in earnest while she bent over trying to hold her insides in. “I’ve got it, Commander. I’ve really got it.”
Shepard grinned, the mirth lighting up her green eyes. “Come on, do you need help walking?” she asked.
“Only if you keep insist on making me laugh.”
Eventually, Ryder found the rest of her squad. She leaned heavily against a bulkhead. The earlier joviality with Shepard was gone, sucked out of the airlock and froze in the vacuum. Looking at Melnik, Amir and Tao, she felt only failure.
“Fuck,” she spat, tears stinging her eyes.
All those deaths for what? For fucking nothing. We didn’t even managed to keep the damn artifact from them.
Tao nudged Amir and jerked his head at Ryder. He rose and put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it. “Come on, Corporal, why don’t we sit down?”
She allowed him to guide her to the remaining empty cot laid out in the cargo bay. A hiss of pain forced the breath from her lungs, her breaths came sharp and short. Amir gritted his teeth, tears were also standing in his eyes.
Melnik sat down, effectively sandwiching Ryder between them, while Tao was lying on the cot just next to her.
“I’m sorry, fuck. I’m sorry,” Ryder whispered, her shoulders shaking as a sob ripped through her throat.
“No, you don’t get to do that. You did what you could. You did what nobody thought was possible,” Tao said, his voice hard and insistent. “Look at me, Ryder.”
Tears stood in her eyes. Tao turned into nothing but a blurry blob and still she couldn’t bear to hold his gaze. She squeezed them shut, tears overflowed her eyes and streamed down her face. Her jaw clenched as her hands gripped the thin metal frame of the cot.
“It’s my fault,” Melnik blurted. “Kovács… fuck, Kovács. He should have made it. I couldn’t—”
“Shut up,” Ryder whispered.
She grabbed Melnik’s and Amir’s hands in each of her own. Her hands shook at the intensity she was gripping them. Tao shifted and placed a hand on her knee. The four of them formed a little circle as they mourned the death of their friends.
Shepard leaned against console and watched. Her jaw tightened. Without saying a word, she walked away.