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“Have you got your assignment?”
Ryder looked up from her omni-tool. Her eyes darted to her father, narrowing slightly. “Are you talking to me?” she asked tentatively.
“Yes.” His eyes pierced her, making her feel stupid for asking.
Scott was looking at her expectantly. “Tell me where the brand spanking new Corporal is heading to?” he asked, wagging his eyebrows in her direction.
“Hey, I heard we’re getting a baby Corporal,” Sagh said as he cleaned his rifle.
“Yeah,” Tao replied, “she’s coming in about a week, I think.”
“Her? The baby corporal is a girl?” Melnik spluttered.
“What’s the problem? Is that so surprising?” Tao narrowing his eyes at the younger man. Boy, actually.
Melnik shrugged while Sagh watched the exchange. “So the girls get all the easy assignments huh?” Melnik sneered.
Tao tossed his oil covered rag at him. The cloth smacked right into his face mid-rant. Sagh and Tao roared with laughter as Melnik spat, flinging the cloth back.
“You’re here, aren’t you?” Sagh pointed out.
Melnik sulked, turning back to his dismantled rifle, his fair skin blushing with embarrassment.
Sagh cocked his head at Tao. “Do you know who she is?”
Tao shrugged. “No fucking clue. Ishida seemed impressed though.”
Sagh cocked his head, curiosity rising with his eyebrows. "The Sarge is probably more relieved that he doesn't have to deal with us anymore," he retorted.
“Maybe so,” Melnik said, “Ah damn, I hope she is a looker.”
Tao rolled his eyes. What’s wrong with him? It's like he is some sex-starved fiend. It was this kind of “locker room” talk that got his ire up. For him, it didn't bother him. he didn’t swing that way. Tao was loyal and Ryan was always a message away.
Tao looked outside. Janus was not happy today.
Janus, one of Sharring’s 60 moons, twin to Hephaestus. Both giant grey balls of matter floating around in space. Normally boring and useless until someone found signs of Prothean ruins. Janus was the ugly sister to Hephaestus. With the interesting finds happening over on Hephaestus, Janus was pretty much neglected. Despite that, the archaeologists stationed here were optimistic.
The archaeologists are always optimistic, even after years of digging.
That’s why they were here, sitting pretty in the Theseus system. A bunch of misfits guarding a bunch of Prothean archaeologists. Tao was there because he was injured while on active duty. It was the cumulative effect of his injuries that made him a little more fragile than the regular grunt but being too qualified for desk duty; he was relegated to playing bodyguard at a base that didn't really need it. The others were varying degrees of unsuitable for one reason or another and got shunted from place to place till they ended up on Janus.
Tao wasn't complaining, it was boring work mostly. But boring was good. As far as he was concerned, maintaining a garrison of eight was overkill. This was after all the ass end of nowhere. That and they were getting a brand spanking new anti-air defence system. It was the first of its kind, a mid-range system that could hit any craft in the upper atmosphere. Why the brass figured Janus was a good place as any to act as a test bed when there was nothing to shoot at, Tao had no idea.
And now we have a baby corporal coming. Melnik isn't wrong, this is an easy assignment. The brass probably want to get the kid’s feet wet before transferring her out if she had any potential.
Tao shrugged it wasn’t any of his business but he didn’t envy the kid’s placement here. It would be dull as hell, but maybe keeping up with eight other guys was adventure enough for the baby Corporal.
“The ass end of nowhere apparently,” Ryder said. “Janus, one of Sharring’s moons.”
Scott cocked his head and blinked. “Indeed, I don’t know we have a base on Janus.”
“It’s barely garrison duty, it’s more like baby-sitting duty,” she muttered. “It makes no sense why I’m posted here. I’m a fully trained biotic specialist.”
Their father cleared his throat, looking somewhat satisfied. “Every job is important, don’t disrespect your orders. It is unbecoming of you.”
Ryder took a deep breath and shook her head. Fuck, I can’t even grouse. “I’m off to see Ma,” she announced, standing up and cleared her space.
The trash went into the recycler. And the plates into the washer. Scott was busy slurping the remnants of his food as quickly as he could.
“I’m coming too,” Scott blurted.
Their father’s eyes lingered on the closed door even after they had left.
It was late morning and the skycar lines were empty. The Ryder twins piled into the first car. Ryder sighed while Scott snorted. “You know, I’m pissed with you,” he said.
She kept her eyes to the front, not looking at her older twin. “Yeah, I figured.”
“Would it kill you to visit more often?” he went on. “You know how much Ma misses you. And Pa isn’t always home.”
“Well for one thing, I was mostly on pirate patrol, I couldn’t just leave whenever I feel like it. The travel alone means I wouldn’t be able to stay long for my visits, anyway.”
“What does this mean for this visit?”
Ryder shook her head. “I have to leave tonight.”
Scott sighed, his jaw tightening. “Maybe it’s for the best. You and Pa…”
“Yeah, me and Pa. You know, I wish…” she took a shuddering breath. “I’m sorry that so much has been put on you."
Scott reached out and grabbed her hand. It was warm, it was here. Her exhale joined his as their hands tightened over each other’s. “I know. I know,” he said.
For a moment, there was no sound, just the purring of the mini mass effect drive. Scott cleared his throat and said, “Enough about that. Why don’t we talk about that shiny new chevron on your BDU? You’re making me look bad, I’m still a lowly lance-corporal. Can you leave me some room to shine?”
At that she turned to meet Scott’s eyes. “You’re doing fine. Someone is bound to figure that out eventually,” she said, punching him in the arm.
“Easy for you to say, war hero, huh?”
“What? It was just a scratch.”
“Wounded in the line of duty, saved colonists from being chipped, hailed as a war hero in Citadel space,” Scott listed off on his fingers.
“War hero?” That earned him a harder punch. “If that’s what it takes to get promoted, I think I’ll pass. I’ll doubt I’ll see any action anytime soon.”
“What about you? Are you still stationed on Earth?”
Scott shook his head as his lips pulled into a grin. “No, My transfer has been approved. Arcturus station here I come!”
The skycar shuddered as it landed on the pad. Ryder pushed the door and slid out. They walked shoulder to shoulder into Huerta Memorial Hospital.
“Sara, I’m sorry that I’m stuck in the hospital throughout your visit,” her mother said.
“No, don’t apologise,” she soothed. “I’m sorry for not visiting more often.”
“Don’t be silly,” her mother pulled Ryder into a hug.
She buried her nose into the crook of her mother’s neck and breathed in the scent. Underneath the sterile smell of the hospital, underneath the dry cotton of her gown, there was the faint scent of lavender she associated with her mother. Ryder inhaled, trying to store the memory for when she missed her mother.
“I’ll still be here when you come back to visit again,” Ma whispered into her ear. “Take care of yourself.”
“I will,” she promised.
As her mother released her from the embrace, Ryder lingered for a moment longer before pulling apart, her hand wiping the stray tear away.
After sharing a much shorter hug with Scott, she left. Their father had taken off earlier for yet another mission. There was always another mission, another job. If not that, it was holing up in his armoury turned office for this new project that seemed to consume all his time. Scott had been vague on the details. She didn’t want to know. Asking meant she cared, and she didn’t.
Sighing, she jammed herself into the only available seat, ready for the first leg of her journey to her new assignment. The guilt still rode heavy in her gut, balanced only by worry. Still, it didn’t stop Ryder from running away from it all. That much she was honest about.
Kovács sighed, running his hand through his blonde hair. Sitting inside the Mako with nothing to do was a special kind of hell. Janus’ connection to the comm buoy was sporadic at best. It was good enough for surface communications but anything beyond Janus was sketchy. With one of Janus’ frequent sand storms winding up right then, it meant shitty connections to the wider system. An awful connection meant no extranet, and that meant utter boredom.
At least these storms are just an inconvenience and not actually deadly.
He tapped at his omni-tool. The shuttle was inbound, but it was still a little while off. “I hope the shuttle comes before the storm slams into the port,” he muttered.
Kovács yawned, stretching his legs out as far as the Mako allowed. He had spent the entire night taking advantage of the clear signal to chat with his girlfriend. The five minute lag both ways sucked, but at least he got to see his girl. Kovács folded his hands and placed them behind his head. He closed his eyes, preferring the view in his mind’s eye than the brown flat expanse that was Janus.
A series of three solid taps sounded from his side of the Mako. His eyes flew open. Kovács jerked upright, attempting to stand up but only half succeeding.
His exclamation was abruptly cut off when his head made contact against the roof of the Mako. Kovács pressed both hands over his bruised skull as his eyes squeezed shut.
Another series of three taps came again.
Kovács opened an eye to see what was making the sound. It was a blurry image of a fully armoured Alliance soldier hanging onto the exterior of the Mako. He blinked, clearing the tears from his eyes. The soldier waved their hand at him and cocked their head. They mimed opening the door. Kovács could see a duffle over the soldier's shoulder, one hand cupping their visor as they pressed their helmet against the Mako's window. He jerked backwards at the sight of an opaque helmet so close to his face. The fright helped a little to clear the fuzziness from sleep and the distracting pain of his head. Then, Kovács remembered.
Wonderful, sleeping on the fucking job. Is this going to be the calibre of people on Janus? Let’s hope this is the exception to the rule.
She glanced at the horizon. The storm was approaching and at a speed she had never seen before. Getting caught in the storm, even riding something as known for its durability as the Mako wouldn’t be pleasant. The rolling cloud of dust put new meaning to dust storms.
She turned back to the soldier that was blinking owlishly at her. With a finger, she pointed at the horizon and tried the Mako’s door again. It was locked. Frustration mounting, she rapped her knuckles on the window, pointed at the storm and mimed opening the door.
Maybe he concussed himself from that thump against the roof of the Mako. The Mako is hard after all.
The vast storm front was picking up dust, sand and debris along the way. It was sending a wall of brown fog directly towards them. Come on, wake up soldier. I don’t want to fucking die because you won’t open the damn door.
Ryder formed a gun with her fingers and pantomimed shooting the door off. That seemed to get the soldier’s attention. He peered out the windscreen at the horizon. His eyes widened as his lips flapped. She could make out a single word repeated many times over.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Kovács all but shouted as he tapped on his omni-tool, unlocking the doors.
The soldier wasted no time hopping into the Mako and slamming the door shut. Kovács thumbed the starter button and mini drive core hummed to life. The soldier threw their duffle into the back. The moment their safety belt clicked shut, Kovács stepped on the accelerator and Mako lurched into motion. The soldier turned to look at Kovács, but he couldn’t see their expression. Their helmet was opaque except for the slit of reinforced clear visor revealing a pair of brown eyes. The pair of eyes narrowed as they stabbed at the windscreen. Kovács instantly shifted his attention back to where they were going.
The storm was in full force. “Thank fuck, the barracks is weather sealed,” Tao said.
Melnik snorted. “If it wasn’t, we would have our asses flapping in the fucking wind.”
Sagh rolled his eyes as he buckled his armour on. “And you get to sit here, all nice and warm and fucking sand free while the rest of us have to work,” he said as he straightened, holstering the standard issue Avenger to his back and Predator to his hip.
“Try breaking an ankle and see how you like it,” Tao retorted, lifting his omni-cast encased leg in the air.
“I'd much rather work. Sitting around doesn't suit me. I am a man of action,” Melnik said, preening a little with his rifle.
“Come on, Private,” Sagh said, pulling his helmet on, securing it.
With a couple of snaps, their helmets sealed over their faces. Their armour all scratched and dinged, not from battle but from the elements. Janus was hard on everything, the equipment, the vehicles and most of all the people. It wore everything down, and it got everywhere. Small, deceptively innocuous, but it ground down the best in people. Slowly but surly it buffed away the edges of some, leaving them a ball of apathy. Others had their quirks sharpened, distilling the essence, good or bad, of their personality.
All Tao wanted was to finish his tour and get the fuck out. He gave his word to Ryan, and he intended to fulfil his promise. Sagh, Melnik and the others? He had no clue and he couldn't summon the interest to care beyond a cursory curiosity.
“See you later,” Tao said from his position on his bunk.
Melnik nodded. “We’ll put the baby Corporal through her paces tomorrow,” he said, his voice getting filtered through his helmet, making it sound unreal.
There was but a moment of peace after Melnik's and Sagh’s departure when Tao’s team, Amir and Gracia, came in from their shift. There was a decontamination process that helped keep the sand they track around the barracks down.
“Has the ankle rotted off yet?” Gracia asked as he peeled himself out of his armour.
“Not quite but it is marinating quite nicely in my own juices.”
Amir's dusky skin paled at the mention of juices. He made a face and left for the showers in his boxers, a towel over one shoulder. Gracia came over, pulling Tao’s ankle towards him roughly. His olive skin turned orange in the glow of the omni-cast. After a perfunctory check, he smacked the omni-cast with his armoured hand, Tao jerked his foot back. “What the fuck?” he yelled.
“There, see. No pain, right? It’s mostly healed. You can probably avoid a trip to the medical centre on Hephaestus,” Gracia said.
The shorter man walked to his bunk to stow his armour away.
“When can I get rid of this?” Tao asked, gesturing towards the cast.
“In a day or two. Then you get a fuck ton of physio,” Gracia said as he stripped down to his boxers.
Tao shrugged. They were glorified security guards for a Prothean dig site. And it was a minor one at that. There were just 20 archaeologists on site. Or as Garcia will call them, dirt diggers. They were mostly no trouble, maybe a little unruly after some drinks. But it didn't take much to subdue a sad drunk.
“Walker won’t care unless there is a big screwup. Anyway, he is over on Hephaestus, why would he deign to grace us with his attention?” Tao snorted.
Lieutenant Walker was indifferent with the comings and goings of the Janus base. He had left Sergeant Ishida in charge and that was the extent of his involvement. Tao shook his head, he wished he was ignorant to such things. It would have made life much easier. It was a stone in his chest knowing their base, by extension he and his squad mates, didn't even registered on his CO's mind.
“Well, Ishida will keep the show running, I mean how hard is it to just stare at the screens and let the computer do all the work,” Tao continued.
“Don’t forget about all the patrolling for non-existent threats,” Garcia pointed out. “My fucking feet hurts from all that walking.”
“You’d think you'll be used to it by now. How long have you been here? Hasn’t it been years?"
Garcia shrugged, stripping out of his armour. "This is the easiest job I have since I enlisted, boy," he said, putting emphasis on the last word.
Tao frowned, their age gap wasn’t all that much, but he didn't bother calling Garcia out on it. It wasn't worth the effort.
“I hear we have a baby coming today?” Gracia asked, now somehow completely buck naked with his towel on his shoulder, standing with his hands on his hips. "It's our first one in months."
Tao blinked. As much as he enjoyed the male form, this was a little too much right before bedtime. “Yeah, Kovács went to get the baby. They should be here soon unless the storm turned the shuttle back to Hephaestus.”
Gracia snorted. “The old baby getting the new baby?”
Tao shrugged, watching as the naked man walked towards the showers.
Ryder kept her eyes forward. The soldier kept stealing glances at her. Her helmet's HUD kept flickering, registering the motion. It was getting close to irritating. Normally Ryder would have removed her helmet the moment she got into a vehicle, but with the storm blowing in, she figured to keep it on just in case things went horribly wrong.
She fought to keep from continuously glancing behind to check on the storm. The Mako didn’t have a clear window on the rear. There was nothing she could see. Still, it didn’t assuage the itch that was developing between her shoulder blades. In a bid to distract herself, she started on a message to her mother.
Kovács couldn’t help the surreptitious glances at his passenger. They had opted to tap on their omni-tool, ignoring him. Detecting a slight turn of their head in his direction, Kovács quickly flicked his eyes back on the road. They shifted their attention back to their omni-tool, and the Mako hummed along.
He shifted in his seat, he couldn’t quite get comfortable. The silence ate at him. Even though the barracks didn’t house hundreds of soldiers like back at boot camp, it wasn’t as quiet as a tomb either.
“I hear you’re going to be our new Corporal,” he said as he winced, his voice pitched higher than usual. Why the hell did I say that? Of course they're our new Corporal. Way to put your foot in your mouth.
His passenger nodded but their fingers were busy on their omni-tool.
What could they possibly be tapping their omni-tool for? With the storm on our asses, there is no way they’re accessing the extranet.
Kovács cleared his throat and went on. “You’ll like the guys. The Sarge is pretty chill. Oh, his name is Ishida. The others are great too. Sagh and Melnik those are the guys on my squad. And there’s also Amir and Garcia. Tao’s laid up in the barrack after breaking his ankle.”
Kovács glanced at his passenger. There was no way to tell if they were paying attention or just nodding along to humour him, but he was already committed. He soldiered on. “You got to get him to tell you how he broke his ankle. Garcia is our field medic, he fixed Tao right up.”
Kovács laughed nervously, filling in both ends of the conversation himself. “I’ve never heard a man scream so high, like a girl,” his voice cracked right at the end.
His passenger coughed, trying to hide a chuckle. Kovács wanted to die right then. It wasn’t bad enough he had fallen asleep while waiting for the Corporal, he made a fool of himself twice. Biting on his tongue, Kovács decided maybe silence wasn’t so bad after all.
Ryder almost choked trying to hold back her laughter as her typing faltered. The soldier was comedic gold in that unintentional manner. But she was still worried about the storm. From the data she had pulled up during her shuttle ride down to Janus, she knew the distance between the port and the base was a 30-minute trip each way
With the way the Mako was eating up the distance. They were just barely keeping their lead on the storm. But it was definitely gaining on them fast. Ryder could feel the Mako drifting sideways when sudden gusts of wind slammed into the vehicle. The soldier kept his grip firm on the steering wheel as he guided the Mako as safely and quickly as he could.
Even though it was close to sunset, it was supposed to still be light enough to see the road by. The storm was doing its best to swallow the sun. There was a constant clattering of sand flinging themselves against the exterior. It felt like the Mako had a blanket of debris wrapped around it.
Ryder stiffened. Her typing stilled. Her focus shifted from the vast expanse they were racing down to the reinforced glass windscreen. It was the most fragile barrier between them and the storm. The constant plinking sound was unsettling.
Can the windscreen take this?
The light plinks of sand and stones against glass gave way to a dull roar. She turned her head and cast an eye on the interior of the Mako. Her teeth worried at her upper lip. Tapping at her omni-tool, she hooked herself into the Mako’s computers, bringing up the view from the rear camera.
There was nothing but a dark swirling mess.
Her heart clenched. Ryder turned slightly to the soldier. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, his eyes flicking between the road and herself. “Can this thing go any faster?” she asked, praying that her armour’s voice box hid the worry.
The soldier didn’t bother answering, he stepped down on the pedal. The Mako lurched forward, going faster than before, but there was no outrunning a storm. She didn’t need to look to know sweat was beading along the soldier’s forehead.
Then the sun winked out. Fuck.
The dull roar was now a cacophony of sand, rocks, large and small clanking against the Mako. All that was visible was the mere ten metres ahead. The headlights were the only light that was beating back the chaos of the storm.
Worry was fast turning into fear. “Is this normal?”
The soldier’s jaw twitched. “Never so bad,” he gulped, his hands tightened over the steering wheel.
“Right,” she nodded, trying to steady herself.
She brought up the map, the distance between them and the base rapidly shrinking but not as fast as she wanted. Get a grip, you're the commanding NCO. Don't fucking freak out on your first day here. She took a deep breath silently inside her helmet. “You can do this, you can get us home.”
The soldier nodded.