Avril wasn’t used to feel small. With her one eightyfive, she had been matched only by Paavo, Jamal and Talus on this ship so far. Then Haylen signed on. It was silly, of course, but she had always found it weird to look up on a soldier instead of down.
“So, corporal. How do you think you’re doing so far?” She sat down after him.
He met her gaze with that delusive calm that made her think of a cat staring down a prey, its tail the only thing moving.
He surely didn’t waste any words, did he…
“Care to elaborate?” She leaned her elbow on the desk.
Haylen looked aside, thinking for a few moments. “I’m keepin’ up on the whole. Added some, drew some.”
“You’re talking mostly about your amps, right?”
“I’ll have you go through a stress test before we go on shore leave. I’m thinking it might help narrow things down.”
Haylen nodded, silently.
Avril’s eyes narrowed slightly. The stress tests were only performed when there was indications something wasn’t as it should be. They involved a great deal of discomfort, and they left you drained for hours after. Even Avril, who practically had no negative side effects from her amp usage at all, used to be sick from them. Whenever stress tests were scheduled, amped soldiers tended to express their dislike loud and clear. Noone simply nodded in silence.
“Did you go through any while you were working for Praesidia?”
“So it’s been a while. I hope you remember how it felt.”
“Hard to forget.” Still not giving off if this made him nervous or not.
She didn’t buy this. He had barely batted an eye at anything they encountered so far. Even when suffering from the occasional backlashes he hadn’t lost his composure entirely. Either it was all an act from his side, or they had disconnected his emotions when they squeezed in all those implants.
Avril changed subject.
“What do you think of your team?”
She raised an eyebrow.
He tilted his head to the side a little, eyeing the wall behind her before answering. “Efficient, competent.”
It had to count as elaboration, she must admit that.
“You seem to keep to yourself a lot. Is that voluntarily?”
Haylen looked aside again. Avril started to wonder if he just picked a random negative or positive answer, then improvised if he had to explain it.
“Not much of a small talker, I guess.” He shrugged some.
Haylen looked back at her, steadily. Avril knew he was physically able to smile. Then again, so was she. That didn’t mean they had to.
“Well, I suppose none of you think of it as problem anyway. Did you find it hard to re-adjust?”
He looked a bit puzzled. “What, to the armed forces?”
Avril tapped her finger against the desk. Then she asked: “Why didn’t you stay after the T9 program was shut down?”
For the first time, she noticed tension.
“Only job they offered was in maintenance. Ground duty.”
She peered at him. “What’s wrong with being in maintenance?”
“Nothin’. Jus’ not my kind of thing.”
“You’d rather spend your days fighting, you mean?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
She couldn’t really blame him. She also couldn’t really refrain from wrinkling her nose at his choice of occupation after the AF. “I suppose that’s why you chose Praesidia of all companies too? Because you knew that with them, there would be a lot of fighting?”
Haylen didn’t say ‘yes’ straight out, but the short cocking of the head had to count as affirmative. Avril didn’t need to have a psychology degree to understand this was a sensitive subject.
As much as she wanted to poke that further, she decided to drop it for now.
“Until next tour I will find a replacer for Santo. He’ll recover but it’s unlikely he’ll be back on this position. What we encountered on UR06…” She paused. Giving praise was tricky. To find the balance, not exaggerating, not diminishing. Telling someone off was much easier. “I can honestly say that without your skills, we would have lost two soldiers there.”
Haylen looked at her without saying anything. Waiting for the next part, probably. Which had to be spoken out as well.
“I was against recruiting you to this ship, because of what those skills might cost us. I’ve also yet to see how you hold up during a kryvat surge. From my point of view, you still haven’t proven your worth.”
He didn’t object, didn’t start defending himself, only looked back impassively.
“That said, it’s in both our interests that you find a balance”, she continued. “My job is to make sure my team performs, and that includes keeping my soldiers at their best. It’d be misconduct not to help you. That requires that you cooperate of course. That you’re honest with me and the medics. That won’t be a problem, will it?”
“Good. Anything you have in mind right now? About anything at all?”
Haylen looked at the floor, thinking, but eventually shook his head. “No.”
“Well. You know where to find me. Dismissed.”
Alone again, Avril remained standing, looking at the photo of Whacky on the wall. When she was in her late teens and applied for the AF, she thought that shepherding and being in command of a military unit wasn’t so different from each other. It was all about keeping people in place, making them move in one direction, and eventually let them all do what they were meant to do.
Reality was, as always, completely different. Even sheep had personalities. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that humans had too. Or that they would be far more complicated. Yet here she was, leading troops for twelve years and counting, and still the most common question in her head was ‘how the hell am I supposed to deal with these people?’.
Whacky’s sheep eyes peered back at her. Not much help there. Avril snorted, giving the lamb a brief pat with her fingertip, then sat down to finish some reports that should’ve been handed in two days ago. Shepherds had masters too.