Trapped. Hands pinned, legs locked. Breaths coming quick and frantic.
No. Not again!
Renewed efforts to pull, to twist, to fight. Grunts of efforts and pants of exertions to no avail.
No! I will not die here!
Pain flared. Agony lancing, piercing and stabbing. It didn’t matter. Fighting was the only option. A shadow flickered at the edges, body stiffening in response, hands yanking against restraints.
The shadow split into two, then three. They drifted closer. A chill washed over naked skin. Something glinted in the hands of one of the shadows. Something small and sharp.
Recognition and memory forced tired limbs into action once more. Flesh that was raw and abused, muscles that trembled from strain and fatigue but worst of all the mind recoiled from what was coming.
The fucking nail!
The shadow raked the sharp point across bare skin. Adrenaline and fear made goose pimples of smooth skin. It went from the foot upwards, brushing past inner thigh, between legs up to chest. The sharp point left a trail of broken skin in its wake before finally resting on hand.
There was no escape, no recourse. Teeth caught lips in preparation of what was to come. Begging wasn’t allowed, crying wasn’t permitted. There was only stiff back endurance.
The shadow flashed a razor-sharp smile. “Ready?” it asked.
No. Fucking hell no!
There was no warning, no preamble. One second of anticipation, then bright and sharp, pain drilled into nerves, flesh and bone. A scream so loud, so high, it was unrecognisable, rang out.
And she jolted upright. Her breaths came quick and fast, her heart slammed against her ribs, ready to escape forcibly. Her eyes wide and wild, darting across her room, finding only dark corners and shifting shadows.
“You’re not safe, not safe, not safe!” her mind insisted.
Her hands clenched and relaxed in turns as she tried to tell her mind to shut up. It wasn’t working.
“Pathfinder, I detect high levels of cortisol in your body, is everything all right? Do you require Dr. T’Perro?” SAM asked via their private channel.
Ryder didn’t reply. Her mind had won out. She launched herself out of bed, her hand reaching out for the pistol under her pillow. Pistol leading the way, she methodically cleared the room. Chasing shadows away with sharp eyes and a hardened stance.
“Pathfinder, do you require assistance?” SAM repeated.
It was then only then her mind relented. As her breathing calmed, Ryder said, “Stand down, SAM. Everything is fine. Just leave me alone.”
SAM silenced, her mind quieted, Ryder was starting to realise how chill she felt. She was covered in sweat. In the eye-searing brightness of the lights, she realised her hand was bleeding.
It throbbed and pulsated like it had a life of its own. Maybe it did. It refused to heal, insisted on weeping, bleeding, doing everything but heal.
Maybe I should be grateful it hadn’t got infected.
Three months and counting, it must be some kind of record. She sighed and tapped her omni-tool for the time. It was 0400 hours ship time. Feeling sticky and disgusting, she got her towel and toiletries, and headed to the showers. There was no way she was going to sleep any more. And she’d rather redress the wound on her right hand before anyone noticed and decided it was their business to comment.
Bare feet padded silently on the cool steel floor of the Tempest. The lights were on night mode. The only source of illumination was a strip of dim lights that lined strategic spots. She made sure the door between the sleeping quarters and the showers was shut before stripping. Clothes tossed into the communal hamper, laundry duty was on a rotating roster.
Thank fuck, the Pathfinder is exempted from this particular duty.
She stepped into the impractically designed showers and hit the panel. Water hit her skin, and she sighed. Ryder couldn’t help sending a baleful thought to the designer of the Tempest, specifically the one who thought two showers and one toilet was enough to accommodate a working crew of their ship’s size. Yet, another reason to avoid the morning rush hour.
Her shower had to be quick. There was no time to luxuriate under the running water. Water was a precious commodity on Eos as well as the Tempest, especially when they were running on active mission parameters. Ryder promised herself a long hot shower the next time they docked on the Nexus or Meridian. Her shower-head beeped indicating she had two minutes left. Closing her eyes, she stepped directly under the stream of water. Water ran down in rivulets, saturating her hair, washing the standard issue shampoo off. It cascaded down her back, between her breasts and passed scars new and old. Finally, she shifted and held her right hand up to the water.
Turning it palm up, the skin there was mostly smooth except for a darker raised circular scar where the nail had rammed through. Her finger traced the scar, it tingled at her touch.
The memory of a sharp pain lanced up her arm. She grunted and shook her hand to get rid of the sensation. Turning her right hand around, she looked at the back of her hand. Closing her hand into a fist, she stretched the skin taut, the wound tore a little wider. It had healed some, but it didn’t seem to heal like the other side.
Ryder watched the water tinged red as the shower panel beeped again. The water pressure eased off and stopped completely. She straightened and towelled off. As she stepped out of the shower, she tossed the wet towel into the hamper and padded to her room, naked.
She met nobody along the way. It didn’t really matter if she did anyway. Her naked form wasn’t something to be ashamed of. She put on yet another standard Initiative uniform and pulled her hair into a rough ponytail.
Her next stop was the med-bay. It was likewise dark and empty. The swirling graphics of an angara scan bathed the room in red and blue. Ryder looked at it for a moment, her eyes tracing recognisable, yet exotic shapes, before she turned away. She was pretty much familiar with the med-bay by now, namely the drawer where all the medi-gel were kept.
With a tug, the drawer came open and a shrill alarm rang out. “What the fuck?” Ryder exclaimed as she covered her ears with her hands.
It was a futile gesture. “SAM, turn off the alarm,” she instructed.
“Affirmative,” SAM said.
Two seconds later, the alarm died with a final squeak. Her ears were still ringing in its wake. The door slid open and T’Perro entered. She was rubbing her eyes blearily. It took a couple of blinks for her eyes to finally focused on Ryder.
“What the hell?” she blurted.
Lexi cleared her throat as she straightened her creased pyjamas and stood to her full height. It put her slightly taller than Ryder. “So you’re the one.”
She frowned, sticking one finger into her ear and tried to get the ringing out of her head. It wasn’t working. “What are you talking about?”
“The medi-gel supplies has been pilfered. I imagined Liam or Drack was taking them to patch themselves up just to avoid having me looking at them. I didn’t expect the Pathfinder to be the one.”
Ryder sighed. “What’s wrong with patching ourselves up? It’s just a minor wound, nothing medi-gel wouldn’t solve.”
“That’s not the point. I am the medical doctor here. If I am not aware of your various aliments and have a good record of them, how am I supposed to make medical recommendation to the best of my abilities?”
Ryder was done listening to T’Perro prattle on about protocols and paperwork. She grabbed a handful of medi-gel packs and stuffed them into her pocket. With all intention to brush past the doctor and escape, she was halted when T’Perro grabbed her arm. She stiffened, remembering the last time she was at the mercy of the ship’s doctor. It ended with her being sedated “for her own good”. That event had left a bitter taste in her mouth since.
“Ryder,” Lexi said, her grip firm around Ryder’s arm.
The Pathfinder’s eyes darted between the blue fingers wrapped around her arm and the doctor’s face. T’Perro’s hand jerked and withdrew as if burnt. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Is it your hand again?” she asked, this time her tone less lecturing, more exasperated.
Childishly, Ryder put her hand behind her back. “It’s fine.”
“It’s not and you know that,” T’Perro said, “It’s been what? Three months? More? And it is still not completely healed?”
Ryder shook her head and palmed the door. It slid open. As she crossed the threshold, T’Perro went on, “You need to stop sparring, stop training, stop with the missions if you want it to heal properly. Stealing medi-gel for it isn’t going to be the solution.”
The Pathfinder quickened her pace and escaped. She returned to her room long enough to apply medi-gel and dressed the wound before finally pulling on her favourite pair of fingerless gloves on.
They were docked at Prodromos. And Mayor Bradley had requested their aid. It was something or other about kett activity, the details were escaping her right that moment.
By the time the rest of the crew had woke up, Ryder had already got through her workout. She made sure to pay extra attention on her biotic training. That meant another shower and another change of dressing. Hidden under her glove, nobody was the wiser.
“So, Ryder,” Kosta called out, “who is being tapped for the mission later?”
Before she could reply, B'Sayle interjected, “She is going to tap Drack for sure. She never run a mission without him.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed that too,” Kosta replied. “I’m feeling more than a little neglected here, Ryder.”
She took a deep breath ready to reply when Brodie spoke up. “Don’t complain, Liam. At least you get to leave the Tempest. Unlike-"
“People!” she said, her voice carried across the cargo bay.
Silence fell in its wake. She looked at Brodie, who quickly turned back to his work. She fought an urge to roll her eyes. I need to find some fucking patience.
“Right, I’ll have to speak to Bradley to get the details, but from the request he had forwarded to us via Addison, kett activity is on the rise again. He wants us to look into things.”
Her eyes scanned the assembled. Harper was looking back, her gaze critical but she had stopped making snide comments like before. Maybe the entire Eos affair had a silver lining after all. Ryder couldn’t help but rub the wound with her hand. Kosta and B'Sayle seemed more interested in bantering than understanding what needed to be done. Nyx and Ama Darav had their arms folded across their chests, patiently waiting for her instructions. Finally her eyes stopped at Drack. The old krogan gave her a nod in greeting and she returned it.
“So,” she said eventually, “Drack, Kosta, suit up. We’ll go and see Bradley and get the details. I’ll radio back if I think we need more for this particular mission.”
Without another word, Ryder went to put her armour on. In the background she could hear Kosta crowing his excitement. She let his words and the others’ response fade into white noise as she turned her combat mode on.
Ryder kept the meeting short and to the point. She didn’t need idle chit chat and catching up. But things didn’t always go the way she wanted. It didn’t take long for the word to spread that the Pathfinder was in town and pretty soon she was fielding requests after requests. It was two hours more than she could stand. It didn’t help that Kosta made small talk every single one of the colonists.
More than once, she was about to cut yet another petitioner’s plea short, she felt Drack’s hulking presence behind her. He wasn’t touching her, but she could feel a mild vibration from him. It was steadying to have him at her back. It was a new behaviour on his part, at first it irked her. She would growl, “I don’t need a babysitter!”
Drack levelled a glare at her, it was all sharp edges and hard surfaces, then it softened a fraction. “Kid, I am nobody’s babysitter. Babysitting Kesh was more than enough, you’re way worse than she was.”
They never spoke about it after that but Drack persisted in his new behaviour. It chaffed, it grated then it became normal. Ryder was standing on her own for a long time. Before Andromeda, before the being Pathfinder, before Eos. If she could admit it, she would say it was tiring. So when she felt Drack behind her, her agitation calmed a little. She rolled her shoulders in an attempt to let the meaningless pattering between the random colonist and Kosta wash over her. Finally, when Kosta was done. He looked at her, “So what’s next, Pathfinder?”
“You're done?” she asked.
His eyes darted to Drack, who shrugged at him, “Erm, yeah. Done.”
Ryder tapped on her omni-tool, “Tempest, come in.”
“Tempest, reading you loud and clear,” Jarth said, his voice coming in a little distorted from her omni-tool.
“Tell Harper, B’Sayle and Ama Darav to suit up. I’ll be sending my orders over shortly. Nyx will have command of the Tempest till I get back,” she said.
“Got it, Ryder,” he acknowledged. “Tempest out.”
While Kosta was socialising, she was formulating the plan in her head. She needed the most efficient manner to handle the requests. She would stay on Eos for as long as she needed to get the job done, but she wasn’t interested in dilly dallying. With another couple of taps, she forwarded her orders along with details given by the petitioners to Harper and the others. Harper was enough of a professional to get it done without her micromanaging.
“Let’s get to the Nomad, Harper can borrow one from Bradley,” she said. “We have a kett outpost to investigate.”
“Drack,” she called, “you take lead. Take cover here.”
Her finger jabbed the map on her omni-tool and a navpoint appeared on it. A corresponding navpoint appeared on the others’ screen as well. The krogan nodded, pulling his shotgun from the holster. The shogun cranked with a satisfying crunching sound.
“Kosta, you will go with Drack. I’ll cover both of you from the rear. Wait for my mark before engaging.”
He blinked at her. “You’re not using your biotics?”
It was true, she liked being up close and personal. The pure tunnel vision she got in close combat couldn’t be matched when she used her sniper rifle. The roar of battle drowned out everything superfluous and distracting, all memories of the nightmare pushed to the back of her mind. All she had was the enemy and the mission objective. And that was what she needed. It helped some, but it didn’t exorcise everything. For now it has to be enough, she had a job to do.
Ryder shook her head. She pulled her Black Widow from the magnetic holster and unfolded it in one smooth action. “No, I’m going back to the basics,” she said. “Now, go!”
They launched into action. She found herself a perch and settled down. It was between her, her scope and the target.
It wasn’t so much a bang but more like a whistle. The round exited the barrel in a whoosh. It sliced through the air at supersonic speed and found its target. The impact broke bone, cartilage and vessels with ease. A clean round hole in the front and a fist sized one at the back. Sludge coloured blood splattered and sprayed, marking the ground.
It was clean, it was clinical, it was text book. Ryder pulled the bolt and expelled the spent round and chambered a fresh one in a single smooth action.
Inhale. The scope narrowed her world down to a single point. She hunted for her next target. The ridge of a Chosen’s head peeked out from the edge of cover. A grin made her lips twitched.
Exhale. Her index finger of her left hand on the trigger, her right hand supporting the rifle. The crosshairs danced, and she squeezed. It was a tiny amount of force in the grand scheme of things but it translated into so much. The butt of her sniper rifle slammed against her shoulder. The impact was familiar and welcoming. But pain flared across her right hand. The rifle shifted. The shot clipped the cover instead.
She ground her teeth as she reset, ignoring the lancing pain in her hand. She wouldn’t be caught off guard again. Putting eye to scope, she realised her target wasn’t there any longer. Instead she found Drack standing over her target, looking right at her.
Butt out, old man.
Drack and Kosta were doing a great job disrupting the kett defense, throwing them into disarray. That gave her plenty of targets to choose from. She didn’t need to give them instructions, Drack had the matter well in hand as long as Kosta followed his lead.
Pain flashed across her hand, her right one, as the rifle jerked, another round finding a home in another kett. Her teeth gritted. She glanced down. Her glove was slowly turning damp and a little red even through the layers. She sighed and paid it no mind. There was nothing she could do right then, she had a mission to complete.
“Ryder,” Drack called via the comms channel.
“All clear,” he said.
Well, that didn’t take very long. She was a little disappointed it was done so quickly but glad it was completed smoothly. Maybe we’ll find some intel that leads to more outposts.
“Got it,” she replied. “I’ll be down in a bit.”
Ryder folded her rifle and leapt off the perch she found. With a combination of her biotics and jump jets, she reached the bottom faster than Drack or Kosta could. Reaching down to the pistol strapped to her thigh, she drew it. As much as they had cleared the place, it didn’t make sense to be foolhardy about things.
Kosta and Drack were standing around at the foyer. There was a cluster of Chosen all dead right outside the door. One glance at the door told her why they were just standing around. The holo-lock was red.
“SAM,” she called.
“Yes Pathfinder,” SAM replied instantly, its artificial voice lacked the inflection of an organic species. It occasionally still sent chills down her spine.
“Can you unlock the door?”
Two humans and a krogan watched as the holo-lock cycled. It was almost the beginning of a bad joke. Ryder was grateful Kosta didn’t feel the need to fill the silence. She holstered her pistol and draw her shotgun instead. There was no telling if there were more kett inside.
The holo-lock flickered between green and red before finally settling on green. Ryder glanced at the others. They got behind cover. She pressed herself against the frame of the door. Her shotgun held in her right hand, she gave the holo-lock a solid smack to activate its opening sequence.
The unmistakable whine of an Anointed’s machine gun was all the warning she had. Ryder acted. She charged, her omni-blade extended. Blade met flesh, and the whine died, the machine gun fell from his hands. His hands pressed against his gut to stem the blood flow. She grinned and lifted her shotgun. Two booms and the kett fell dead. Drack and Kosta followed quickly. Less than two minutes later, every single kett on the outpost lay still on the ground.
Drack clapped a hand on her shoulder. “Great fight, kid,” he said as she was wiping the gore from her helmet. “You always take me to nice places.”
She grinned, a rare moment of letting her guard down in public. “Happy to serve,” she replied as she pulled the helmet off. Hair was soaked with perspiration, it plastered itself across her forehead.
Kosta’s eyes narrowed at the exchange. She stiffened as he opened his mouth. No, please. Don’t speak. It was a prayer in vain. “Ryder, good charge,” he commented a little awkwardly.
She swallowed, irritation warring with not wanting to snap at every single damn thing. Before she could open her mouth Drack pulled Kosta’s arm. “Come on, let’s check over here,” he said. “I’m sure there is something useful.”
Drack gave her a wink over his shoulder as they left to investigate. She sighed. The tension leaving her body. Eyes squeezed shut for a moment as she promised to get a bottle of ryncol for him. But that would mean I have to talk to Nyx. She groaned inwardly.
Instead, she focused her attention on the kett consoles inside. There must be something important here if the kett were defending this place. With omni-tool, Ryder started the tedious task of scanning every single damn thing that was inside.
It was mind numbing work. Though this was just an outpost, not a large one by any means, it was large still enough Ryder was getting bored with waving her arm around. Then, SAM chimed in. “Pathfinder, that console is still active.”
She approached and tapped at the screen. It was completely gibberish. Holding up her omni-tool to get an active translation of Tonaizhet to Standard. Her eyes darted across the screen as she scanned the words. A frown was slowly tightening her brow.
“SAM, we need a way to bring this data back,” she said as she fished an OSD out of one of her utility pockets. “The Nexus needs to see this.”