Evaluation: Haylen

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.

“Alright”.

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“No.”

“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?”

“Good.”

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?”

“Yeah.”

“How come?”

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.

“No shit.”

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?”

“Yes.”

“Not really.”

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?”

“No captain.”

“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.

Evaluation: Leon

“You seem to have settled in pretty quick, sergeant.”

Avril looked at the medic in the chair in front of her. He was sitting according to character; butt on the edge of the chair so he could slouch comfortably, forearms resting on his spread out thighs.

“Got a t’orough introduction from de doc”, he answered, “an’ quite de load of tips from de ot’er scrubs. Wasn’ dat hard gettin’ in de game.”

“Ran into any trouble?”

He rubbed the back of his neck slowly. “It be… a li’l different treatin’ soldiers on de field. I forgot how dat is. De patients at de hospital eit’er be brought in ‘cause deir officers sent dem, or dey come in by deir own.”

Avril peered at him, waiting.

“I got used to help people when dey be askin’ for it, instead of forcin’em to accept de help dey should wan’.” He spread his hand out in an apologetic gesture.

Avril couldn’t help but smirk. “That’s field work for you, sarge. Welcome back to reality.”

“Yeah, I know. Grunts don’ wan’ be mot’er hen’d, eh. I jus’ not goin’ let dem run around untreated if it not be needed, you know.”

“I don’t expect you to either.” She leaned her arm on the desk. “Anything you noticed that I should know? Morgan, for example, no aftermaths after that strangulation?”

He shook his head. “Not’in’. He was lucky dey got’im free quick enough. An’ dat dem tentacles weren’ so tight. Tiany’s arm be workin’ jus’ fine, no problem havin’er do de exercises. Regular scans on de imps showed not’in’ out of de ordinary. Apart from de usual bruises dey keep havin’ each time dey get out of bed, dey all be good.”

“And Haylen? Is it possible to say exactly what caused that reaction on UR06?”

“I talked to’im, compared de readings to what amps he used at what time, but you know. “Leon shrugged. “Even he don’ know how far he can take it wit’out dem goin’ chains.”

“Chains?” Avril wasn’t very familiar with all the nineteen lingo.

“Chain reaction.”

“I see. I’m ordering a stress test from doctor Eira before you go on shore leave. Maybe that will show something new.”

Leon nodded. “Maybe. Speakin’ of stress tests, you haven’ done any regular scan dis round. An’ I noticed your stress levels be kind of high even when de mission be no more dan a milk run. Somet’in’ you wan’ get off dat chest, captain?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Anyone complained that they don’t understand you yet?”

A sly smile spread on his face. “Only when dey don’t like what I’m tellin’em.”

Avril pursed her lips. “You worry about my grunts, and doctor Eira can worry about us officers. How does that sound?”

“Fair enough, captain.”

“If there’s nothing else, I think we’re done here.”

Before he closed the door, she took a deep breath. “I appreciate the concern though, sergeant.”

He looked back at her, nodding, then left.

Avril sighed. Two done, one to go. One more chance for her to lose her face. Next shore leave couldn’t come quick enough…

Evaluation: Tianyi

It was time to sum up the newbodies’ first round. Avril had scheduled individual meetings with each one, and had decided to start with Tianyi. Most headache with her, better get rid of it asap.

Lace had stopped by her office as she was trying to figure out how to tell Tianyi that she better start behaving, or else, without having that ‘or else’ sound ridiculous. Naturally, they had started talking about Santo. The other day they got a message from the hospital saying that he was going to be fine, but of course they knew it wasn’t going to be an easy trip back for him.

“He has to be replaced then, I guess?” Captain Lace spun their coffee mug around in their hand. Their thin hair was completely grey, while their face barely had any wrinkles. Avril knew they were younger than herself, otherwise she’d never been able to guess their age.

Avril tapped a fingertip at the desk beside her. The office was a tiny room with a computer desk at one wall and two chairs. Just like the other officers’ rooms. The lit ceiling and fake window made it feel less cramped, but Avril still hated it.

“Yeah. It’ll be months before he’s back on his… feet….” She literally facepalmed. It hadn’t even been five days. She rubbed her face. “And then he’ll have to get used to the prosthetics and all that shit. But I don’t know, they let people like Haylen back in, maybe there’s a chance for Santo too.”

“They’re doing pretty good though?” Lace asked, taking a sip of the coffee. “Your newbodies, I mean.”

‘Newbodies’ wasn’t a word Lace used in public, but they allowed themselves to be more casual when there was nobody else around than the captains.

“What can I say”, Avril said, folding her arms across her chest, “the grunts can follow orders and the scrub can put band aids on .”

Lace smirked. “You’re saying you like them?”

Avril snorted. “That would be stretching it too far.”

“And your ears? Are they still intact?

“What do you mean?”

“Tianyi, obviously.”

Avril scoffed. “Well, I’d say Haylen equals that out.”

Lace chuckled.

There was a signal from the door, and Tianyi stepped in as Avril opened it.

“Private Tianyi reporting for meeting, captain.”

Lace stood up and repaid Tianyi’s salute. “I’ll leave you to it then”, they said and left the room.

Avril raised a hand at Lace, then bid Tianyi to sit.

“Nice lamb.” The soldier smiled at a photo of a lamb on the wall as she sat down. “Is it yours?”

Unlike Lace and Ismail, Avril had no pictures of her family or friends in her office. Instead, she had a photo of a lamb she got when she was five. Her first ever. A stubborn, butt ugly lamb that she named Whacky, and slaughtered herself when it was big enough to eat.

Avril didn’t bother to small talk though.

“Opinions about your first round, private?”

“I like this ship. I like this crew. Best grub I ever had in the UAF. And the officers aren’t so bad either.” She winked at Avril.

Avril didn’t play along this time either. “You said you left your previous commendation because you didn’t get along with one of your teammates.”

“That’s right.” Tianyi sounded as carefree as usual.

“Why didn’t you get along? You never said that.”

“You didn’t ask.” She grinned.

Avril kept looking at her, sternly.

“Let’s say we had different opinions on a matter that included us both.”

“Maybe he didn’t like the way you express your own thoughts to make other people look stupid?”

Tianyi snickered. “Well he didn’t like that either, no.”

“So you don’t deny it?”

“I like to tease people, captain. It’s fun.”

“As your officer, I don’t find it amusing. At all.”

She paused. Tianyi shrugged, but didn’t say anything.

Here goes, Avril thought.

“You know they say that if you have to remind people that you’re the boss, you just prove that you’re not. So I’m taking a risk here. What you do when you bitch back or comment anything I ever say or do, it’s undermining my authority. You don’t listen, neither do you care, when I reprimand you. You don’t apologize. To keep trying, or start punishing you for real, would only prove that I have no control over you. That leaves me with only two options. One is to put you in someone else’s team and get another soldier in return. Another is to kick you from the Ignis. I would look bad either way, but it’s still better than losing whatever respect I got left from the other soldiers.”

The carefree look wasn’t quite as carefree now, but Tianyi looked more thoughtful than offended. Avril waited.

“If that’s how you feel, captain, then I can’t say much about it. I like this place, I like my teammates, I like you. But it’s not worth wringing myself inside out for, if you catch my drift.”

Avril peered at her. “You like me?”

Tianyi shrugged with a smile. “See, that’s one of your problems, cap. You don’t like being liked by your soldiers. And it works with people like Felicia or Haylen, because they don’t like it when their officers like them. But me? I’m like Keith. I want us to have fun and get along. So if none of us are going to change, then one of us has to go. I’m not going to change, so the ball’s in your hands now.”

Avril leaned back in her chair, looking at Tianyi with a frown. Tianyi looked back, calmly smiling.

“Then I’ll just conclude this by saying that you’re a good soldier, pulling your weight, filling your spot. You’re an asset to the team. You’re also a pain in the ass.” She stood up, and Tianyi followed.

“You stay for now, until I found a replacer for Santo. Then we’ll see. Dismissed.”

Tianyi actually stood at attention and saluted her before she left the office.

Avril groaned and sank back into the chair.

What the hell just happened, and how the hell was she supposed to deal with it?

Prisoners

“There’s a little riot at the UC13 prison”, captain Avril said as the soldiers were putting on their last pieces of armor in the shuttle hall. “We’re going there to help the guards regain control.”

Felicia checked her helmet, sending a not so friendly thought at whoever designed the visor. Hers kept locking itself in folded-down position when there was no faceguard up. To get the faceguard up, the visor needed to be folded up… She’d rather have a helmet with an integrated faceguard but oh no. Something about medics and first aid and yada yada.

“So far, no one’s been killed”, the captain continued, “mainly due to the guards having non-lethal weapons only. However, that may change.”

Tianyi took the helmet from Felicia without a word, yanking the visor free.

“Careful…!” Felicia mouthed, and took the helmet back before Tianyi tore it apart.

“Your lack of appreciation is disturbing”, Tianyi mumbled.

“Shock bolts by default, sponge rounds if necessary. You’re not to bring one single clip of piercing ammo or I’ll flay you.”

The captain looked at Dmitri who just walked up to them.

“Shuttle is ready. Two seats have broken sockets. I marked them with tape.”

“What the hell”, captain Avril grumbled. “Didn’t you fix a pair just the other day?”

“Yes.”

“Are these the same?”

“No. Five of them are getting worn out. I need to replace at least two completely but I don’t have the components.”

“Can’t be helped then”, she sighed. “Alright. Rashida, you pair with Morgan. The rest of you as usual. Haylen, normal barriers. That’s it. I don’t want to see any other kind of amp usage from you today. Understood?”

Haylen was adjusting the straps of his armguards and looked up at her briefly. “Yes captain.”

Felicia had a feeling he wasn’t entirely happy with this decision.

“Mount up as soon as you’re done. You got time for questions on the way there.”

– – –

The UC13 prison was, as most Union prisons, located on the surface. There were only a couple of high security level prisons in space. Wasting resources to maintain a space prison for more lightweight criminals was simply not an option.

UC13 was a moon to UR13, and in opposite of the planet it was completely barren but on the other hand without a toxic atmosphere. It had a gravity on a little less than 1 G, and because of that, ceiling was higher than usual. They didn’t want guards to knock themselves out on it whenever they needed a quick start.

Felicia glanced at Tianyi and Keith who had as quietly as possible started some kind of toes-only jumping contest. She tried to urge them to quit before the captain saw it but they weren’t looking her way. She rolled her eyes.

The prison warden was explaining the situation meanwhile, and she seemed more angry than worried.

“They rounded up the guards in a corner in the common room, and they’re armed themselves with tasers of the guards and whatever objects they found that can be used as a weapon.”

“You don’t have any truncheons?” Captain Avril turned from the reinforced window in the door to the short corridor outside the common room, and looked at the warden. “Neurostunners?”

“Hey, captain, if I had any of that, my guards would either be even more fucked up right now, or we wouldn’t have this situation at all”. The warden gestured at the four guards behind her. “Do you need these or what?”

Captain Avril barely cast a glance at them. “No. We don’t want even more of them rounded up in there, do we?”

Felicia did her best to prevent the smile to spread on her lips. The warden opened her mouth, but decided to not yap back.

Captain Avril turned to her soldiers, and immediately locked on Keith and Tianyi. They both reacted impressively quick and stopped jumping, trying to pretend as if they had been standing still the whole time.

The captain’s eyes narrowed.

“Keith, you throw the strobe in, Haylen, you go in first. The rest of you spread out and follow. Be careful – the tasers may not pierce your suits and armor, but they can still screw things up for you. Also, they’re at least twenty even if not all are armed. We don’t want any of these fuckers to get out here. Felicia, you take position behind the inner door, do not fire unless things get hairy. Remember to switch on the neutralizers on your visors unless you’ve done it already.”

They walked into the small corridor, and the door closed behind them. In front of them was the door into the common room. As Haylen and Keith got ready, Felicia kneeled at the short wall beside the door, rifle ready.

Using her infrared, she couldn’t tell the exact number of people in there, but more than twenty, plus the five captured guards, seemed reasonable. She could hear someone shouting from inside.

“What’re they saying?” the captain asked.

“That they’re killing the guards if we go inside”, Tianyi answered.

“They don’t have the guts for that”, the captain grunted, “nor the equipments. They’re dimming light now. Go.”

Keith unlocked the door and tossed the strobe in quickly. As the lights went out in there and the strobe began to flash, they heard shouts and groans from the people inside the room. The soldiers’ visors almost seamlessly filtered the strong light out, and they quickly went inside, spreading out in front of the prisoners.

One by one, the prisoners were stunned and fell to the floor. The ones holding the guards hostage wasn’t able to see much, but they could hear the thuds from the other inmates limp bodies. It was only a matter of time before any of them would lose it.

“Get them! Get them!” one of the prisoners shouted, and several tried to tackle or grab or even hit the soldiers.

Their flailing wasn’t very efficient perhaps, but they outnumbered the soldiers. Tianyi was quick and agile enough to avoid most of the chaotic attacks, and Haylen was simply too tough to be brought down by any of their attempts. Morgan, Rashida and Keith had a harder time, barely able to use their guns as they were either grappled or pushed.

“Do any of you have visual with the guards?” the captain asked. She was crouching next to Felicia, Leon beside her in turn.

“Almost there, captain”, Tianyi answered.

“Hold it!” shouted one of the prisoners at the other end of the room. “Hold it or we’ll kill the guards!”

“Break the light, break the light!” shouted another.

The soldiers had gotten advantage again, and were reforming the line with the other two. But then one of the prisoners found the strobe and the light went from filling the whole room to pulse red from inside his hands as he ran with it to the furthest corner and managed to hide it somewhere.

That the prisoners could better see what they were up against wasn’t all bad for the soldiers, however. The sight of their raised weapons made the prisoners hesitate before attacking, meaning more of them could be stunned.

Then someone spotted the half-open door. “It’s open! Run for it!”

“Aim for the legs”, captain Avril said and readied her own gun.

Felicia was already on it. The three-round bursts that she fired hit the brave two who made a go at the door, and they fell down on the floor screaming. The sponging ammo caused shallow but incredibly painful wounds.

The four soldiers inside were slowly making their way towards the guard corner, six stunned prisoners trying to gain control over their twitching, aching bodies on the floor behind them.

“I said we’re killing them if you move any closer!” the prisoner shouted again, this time putting more authority into his voice.

“Goin’ take you longer killin’ them with tasers than us stunnin’ you”, Haylen said. “Let them go, an’ you won’ get hurt.”

“Fucking nottiner!” another prisoner yelled, “you can go to hell!” The nickname was a wordplay with nineteeners and their way to pronounce ‘nothing’.

Haylen didn’t take focus off the one in front of him though. “You dare me?”

The prisoners still standing were insecure now, with the five soldiers lined up in front of them, six of their buddies out cold further away, and two squirming at the door. Felicia zoomed in at the guards. The prisoners were using them as meat shields near the wall, pressing tasers their heads.

Technically Haylen was right. Even if they all tried to tase the guards to death, they would either have to switch targets before they were done, or they would be stunned. But they could still do harm to the guards. Tasers weren’t supposed to be used on people’s heads.

“I said stand back!”

Hayle started moving towards him.

Felicia glanced at the captain. She had her eyes set on Haylen and she was looking pissed, but Felicia assumed it was more of what she thought he would do rather than what he had done so far. She looked back at the prisoners, ready to shoot.

“Stand! Back!”

But Haylen didn’t. The prisoner activated the taser, making the guard stiffen and spasm in his grip, but Haylen ignored that and closed the distance.

“Get him!” the prisoner yelled, and the closest ones pushed their hostages aside and went for Haylen.

“Take them out!” Haylen shouted at the other three as he shot the prisoner on his right with a shock bolt. He flinched as the prisoner on his left pressed the taser at his arm, but the barriers apparently took the edge of it. The next moment he had disarmed the prisoner and given him a backhand punch in the face, sending him to the floor.

Tianyi took the advantage of her target looking wild eyed at the one Haylen was approaching, and stunned him before he got aware she was aiming at him, and she quickly shoved the released guard behind her.

The prisoner Morgan and Keith had pinned down was in more control of himself and held on to his hostage, giving the guard a quick taser burst in the shoulder. But when he saw Haylen grabbing the other prisoner’s hostage, pulling her forward and thus exposing the prisoner so he could stun him too, this last one gave up as well.

The guards that had been pushed away had gotten hold of their tasers again, and together with the five soldiers they began to round up the prisoners. The ones that had been stunned earlier was slowly pushing themselves up on their knees or butts as well.

Felicia stood up, and went inside followed by the captain. After that, it was an easy task to secure the prisoners and let the guards sort themselves out.

“The old going for the alpha trick, huh?” Felicia said to Haylen as the prisoners were taken back to their cells, one by one.

“Usually works”, he said.

“‘Usually’?” captain Avril said with a merciless look at Haylen. “You failed a few times too then?”

“Depends on what you mean with ‘fail’, eh”, he said without looking at her. “I still be alive.”

The captain snorted and went to have a word with the warden. Felicia caught the barely noticeable softening around her eyes though.

“Soon there, corporal”, she said.

“What?”

“Nevermind. Look at those two asscans.” She nodded at Tianyi and Keith who had picked up their little jumping game. “Seems they’re friends again.”

He looked at the two, then gave Felicia an odd look.

Felicia just shook her head and grinned in return.

Beneath the ice part 3/3

Captain Avril watched the two teams prepare to emerge to the surface, her weapon lowered and her mouth a thin line. Now that the battle was over, tension had turned into anger. It usually did with her, but right now it was worse than usual.

Like the rest of the soldiers, she kept looking back at the giant centipede. She didn’t know creatures like this existed. Scale bears had been hard enough to believe in before she could see them with her own two eyes, but a giant centipede that sprouted tentacles and ate people? If someone had told her about it, she would have laughed.

Yet there it was, only a few meters away. A slow moving, slow eating, mindless pile of meat. If it hadn’t been for those god damned tentacles, she wouldn’t have three soldiers incapacitated now. And if it wasn’t for three stupid scientists, they wouldn’t be here at all. Oh, and if she had gotten her way with the new recruits, she wouldn’t have to rely on an unstable nuclear charge as a frontliner either, no matter what they faced.

Sure, the mission must be considered successful. Two of the trapped scientists had been found at the end of one of the tunnels, where they had been hiding in a hollow where the creature either couldn’t find them or hadn’t been able to reach them. The last one had been devoured by the centipede, which explained the transponder signal from that tunnel earlier. That casualty wasn’t on her.

Neither had she had any fatalities on her own team. Morgan had come too rather quickly once the tentacles had been removed from his neck, but Leon had made him lie still on the ground for a while with an oxygen mask to his face. Santo had remained unconscious while they stopped the bleeding and got rid of the acidic goo on the remains of his chewed up feet. Now he was sedated, still out cold, and placed on a stretcher, but at least he was alive.

Avril had seen the scales hit critical levels on Haylen’s health chart during the fight, and Leon had been forced to give him lighter sedatives after too to get his pulse down and ease the shivers. But despite the breakdown, he had pulled his weight when it mattered.

And still she couldn’t raise any cheers and backslapping for this mission. A Pyrrhic victory against an enemy that could never have been calculated with since it officially didn’t existed.

Captain Lace was preparing their soldiers for leaving the tunnels, directing half of the team at the front and half at the back. They met Avril’s gaze, giving her a nod that exuded compassion. Sometimes, Lace’s calm and friendly manners got on her nerves, but right now, their figurative pat on the shoulder subdued her pissy mood a notch or two.

Avril looked around at her battered team, pressing herself at the wall to let Rex and Mourad pass. Nyree was supporting Morgan whose eyes were awfully bloodshot, and Tianyi and Felicia was ready to carry Santo. Leon did a last check on Haylen, who was able to stand up by now even if Keith was holding his arms just in case, then walked over to Santo.

“Good to go, captain”, the medic said as he flipped up Santo’s health chart on his wristband.

“Alright people, move out.”

Eager to leave this frozen hellhole and every possible inhabitant, she fell in line after Keith and Haylen.

The frontliner’s force field blades had been more efficient against the tentacles than bullets and laser cutters. There was no denying that. But in the long run, his abilities would be useless if they backlashed like this every time. If his implants didn’t insta-fried, they would be grilled slowly. Giant centipedes weren’t the only threat that demanded high level imps.

“Did you know about this thing when you headed down here?” she asked one of the saved scientists who was walking right behind her. The anger she felt about the situation, about lacking control and having no one to blame for it, was probably shining through as she spoke, despite Lace’s silent soothing earlier. She had to know though.

The woman shook her head, not looking at her. “No, we didn’t. We stumbled over the entrance by pure luck, and we were absolutely sure the tunnels were nature-made.”

She sounded weary. Wringed like a dishcloth. Her colleague hadn’t said one word, his eyes empty. They had been hiding down there for a long time, after seeing their friend be devoured by a horror story creature.

“Are there any reports of animals of this kind on this planet?”

“Not that I know of.”

Avril grunted, not pleased with the answers, but what could she do about it right now?

At the landing with the rope, it took a while to secure Santo’s stretcher with ropes attached to the vehicle, and yet some time to haul him up safely. Morgan and Haylen could climb up on their own, even if Haylen had to stop midway and lean his head against the ice wall for a while. Whether it was to keep himself from passing out or throwing up, or if it was a temporary increase of pain, he didn’t say. Not that Avril was sure he even heard her asking.

At the vehicles, Roz was doing jumping jacks to keep herself warm. She stopped as they came closer, looking at them all in general, Santo in particular, with growing unease written in her face.

“What on earth and beyond did you people run into?”

Before Avril could answer, Tianyi did as she and Felicia walked past them with the stretcher.

“A giant mutant spawn of a sheepfucking centipede that eats people alive, is what we ran into.”

“Shut the fuck up Tianyi, get Santo up on the vehicle already”, Avril snarled, once again having her anger flare up. It grew even stronger thanks to the complete lack of effect it had on the soldier.

Roz looked up at her. “I assume she is speaking the truth?”

“Unfortunately yes. You’re going down there with team 3 to examine it. We got injured to take care of before we take off for Ignis.”

“I hope you killed it properly.”

“Why would I send you into a fucking hole with a murder maggot if it was still alive?”

Avril didn’t stay to listen to possible answers. Team 1 was ready to go back, and team 3 was ready to escort the TR to the marvel of science down in those tunnels. Avril sincerely hoped it would be a last-of-its-kind marvel.

 

“A giant centipede?”

“Yes.”

“With retractable tentacles?”

“Yes.”

“That devours people alive?”

“If you’re going to repeat everything I say split up in three-word sentences, I’ll disconnect you.” Avril glared at the distorted image of commander Nahid on the screen.

She was sitting in the conference room at the station, explaining the situation to the commander together with Lace and Roz. The injured was with the medics at the local health care centre, basically a barrack like the rest of the buildings in this so called town, that happened to have some fancier medical equipment than a package of bandaids. Team 1, that had time to eat while the others was still in the tunnels, were loading gear on the shuttle while team 3 got something to eat as well.

Roz was munching on a mealbar, still wearing her thick environmental suit. At least her teeth had stopped chattering.

“I’m sorry, captain, I just having some trouble grasping this”, the commander said.

“It had no trouble grasping us, I can tell you.”

“What can you tell me about it, Roz?”

“Well”, Roz said, pausing to finish chewing. She had apparently overcome the initial disgust on the creature’s rampage on team 1 and gone full scientist mode before she came back here. “I couldn’t determine its biological class, even if it bears strong resemblance to the more… normal sized centipedes that exists here. The tunnel continued down in the ground, but naturally, we didn’t go down there.”

Roz allowed herself to pull a less professional face of ‘hell no’ to emphasize that. “It’s unlikely that it primarily feeds on human beings, considering humans aren’t a natural part of this planet, but the hunting method and the shape and function of its mouth suggest that it gets its nutrition from larger animals.”

“By luring them into ice caves?” Commander Nahid sounded sceptical.

Roz shrugged. “There might be more species living underground than we know about, it might go up to the surface to hunt, it’s possible that the tunnels are connected to the ocean and that it finds food there. We’ll have to do a serious exploration of the tunnels to know, and of course analyze the samples and wait for people here to dissect the carcass. Suffice to say, the scientists here won’t head into any tunnels again without military backup.”

Roz leaned back and took the last bite of her mealbar.

“They fucking better not”, Avril muttered.

“We’ll see about who gets to explore those tunnels later. Doctor Eira got sergeant Leon’s report, and she wants you to bring private Santo back to Ignis, instead of leaving him there to wait for next shuttle to UC01.”

“You think I would leave him in this butchery freezer anyway?” Avril snorted, glaring out the window at the snowy plains outside. The sun still stood high. It wouldn’t set in many hours.

“We’ll be ready for lift off in two hours”, said Lace to the commander, probably to save the situation from escalating more than anything else.

“Captain Avril”, said the commander, and Avril looked back at the screen. “The mission was successful. You didn’t lose anyone.”

“I lost a few pieces of Santo.”

“Yes, but he is alive. You all did a good job, considering.”

Avril slammed her palms down at the table.

“Stop speaking to me like I was a little girl whose cat died! Save that for Santo when you visit him at the hospital in Sol’s Ward after he wakes up and realizes a fucking megacentipede ate his fucking feet! Or for that day your precious Tyrian Tank has a brainfry in the middle of a fight and gets us all killed!” She stood up so hastily that the chair would have toppled over if it hadn’t been for the wall behind it.

Lace sighed, and finished up the call with the commander while Avril walked to the other side of the table, pressing her lips together to not make this worse than it already was. Roz silently rose from her seat and sneaked out into the corridor. Lace shut down the screen, then looked at Avril.

“I know, I know”, Avril groaned before they could say anything. “I’m behaving exactly like a little girl.”

“I didn’t say that”, Lace said.

“Sure you didn’t.”

“You’re letting small things get to you.

“You call this a small thing?” She stared at Lace.

“Yes. We’re leading task force teams. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, but most of the time we succeed. And most of the time we have to pay a prize for those successes. It comes with the job and it shouldn’t eat you like this.”

Avril straightened up, glowering at them, then began to gather her things. “Well isn’t it great that we got so many psychology professors in this unit.”

Lace sighed again. “I’m just -”

“I’m not going to discuss this now”, Avril interrupted. “We got to prepare for lift off.”

– – –

Felicia was glad that Tianyi already had told team 3 at least a hundred times about the fight while they were still on the station. Even if Santo was still unconscious when the shuttle took off, she wasn’t sure he’d appreciate to wake up to Tianyi’s colorful description of how the centipede feasted on his feet.

Gross as it had been, she was still weirdly excited about the fight itself. Being a soldier, killing people wasn’t something she hesitated to do if the situation called it. Nevertheless, when she shot someone it was a human. A person who had friends, family, a life.

But beasts like this one or the scale bears – that was something else. A thrill that wasn’t clouded by morals. Sure, Roz had another point of view on that matter, so had the Union; balance of the species, no killing for the sake of killing, all that. Which Felicia didn’t really argue with.

Yet finding the weak spot on a not yet mapped out target, taking it down after developing a strategy on the go, knowing that her comrades’ life depended on it… you couldn’t enjoy that fully if the target was a person.

It had left a bitter aftertaste though. First Santo and Morgan almost being lost to that creature, then she’d been absolutely positive Haylen would have a heart attack. And even though they all had survived, it was unlikely Santo would serve as a ground soldier in a task force team again, even with advanced prostheses. He would be replaced, there was no doubts about that.

Which meant new people. Which meant the captain’s mood wouldn’t get any better for a long time.

Felicia rubbed her eyes, still weary from the intensive scanning. She really needed to calibrate the implants when she went on shore leave.

She nudged Tianyi who was sitting next to her. “Did you tell them yet? About the candy?”

“I told Keith earlier, when we were loading up. I think I have tinnitus now.”

Felicia scoffed. “Suits you just fine.”

Beneath the ice part 2/3

Once again, they were closing in to the transponders, but there was still no answer to captain Avril’s calls. The strange sound appeared closer too, and it seemed as if Felicia was right about the rattling.

They reached another small cave with three tunnels leading away from it other than the one they came from. Haylen realized that the floor consisted of gravel and soil, even if the walls and ceiling was still dark ice.

“Are we on ground level, Keith?” asked the captain.

“Affirmative. These tunnels are all dead ends according to the map. Transponder signals seem to come from rightmost… and the leftmost. Seems they split up.”

The rattle was heard again, louder than before, and it seemed to have picked up speed. Felicia was scanning, frowning with concentration. Then she locked on something. Haylen took a few steps forward, standing between the group and the tunnel opening that Felicia was pointing out.

“Large shape in there, filling the whole tunnel. It’s moving this way.”

“A living being?” the captain asked.

“Seems like it, but it’s not much warmer than its surroundings.”

“Keith, watch our escape route. The rest of you, ready for combat.”

Haylen raised his gun, waiting, his barriers still up. Felicia took position at the entrance of the escape tunnel, while Tianyi, Santo and Morgan flanked Haylen. The captain and Leon stayed inside the escape tunnel, the captain reporting back to team 3 and ordering them to prepare to move in as backup.

The source of the rattling moved into sight.

“What the actual fuck…!” Tianyi breathed.

Haylen tried to get a grasp of what he was looking at. The sound came from the row of thin, pointy legs on both sides of this… creature. It had a pale, greyish color, thin lamellae covering the worm-shaped body, and the end pointing their way had some kind of mouth, or at least an opening with thorny insides. It emerged from the tunnel in a wave-like movement, the row of legs streaming forwards, dragging the body with it, stopping for a little while, then the next wave came.

It was also big enough to fill up the whole tunnel and most of the small cave.

“Fall back! Fire at will!” shouted the captain, but even if the soldiers carried out the order quick enough, the tunnel wasn’t big enough for all of them to move into it at once.

The giant centipede had stopped for now, its mouth turned their way. Haylen and the other three opened fire, but the thing didn’t seem bothered. Suddenly, hundreds of finger thin tentacles emerged from all around its mouth, straight at them in an incredible speed. Tianyi reacted quickly enough to dive away from them, and Felicia had made it into the escape tunnel, but Haylen, Santo and Morgan was all caught by the wriggling tendrils.

Haylen fell backwards and hit his head on the ground as the tentacles that had twined themselves around his legs started to pull him towards the creature’s mouth. He still held his gun, but it was impossible to aim it since the tentacles were wrapped around both hand and gun, and they were strong as hell.

“Cut the tentacles!” the captain shouted. “We need to free them! Felicia, kill it!”

Haylen couldn’t see much of what was happening around him, partly because of the many tentacles that were whipping the air around them, but mainly because he was busy freeing himself from them. A few had began to wind around his neck, and even if his barriers still held and made it harder for the tentacles to tighten, he knew it was only a matter of time before he would have to drop them. He heard several gunshots, and the creature twitched violently at each shot.

“All soldiers, aim for the mouth!” captain Avril yelled.

Despite the concentrated gunfire at the creature’s assumed weak spot, the tendrils didn’t stop. Morgan had lost his gun but managed to reach his laser cutter and was furiously cutting off the tentacles holding him. How Santo was doing, Haylen couldn’t see. He tried to reach his own knife, but it was impossible. He started to build up his amp force. Adding up on his own muscle force and then discharge it, like with the leap attack, might tear the tentacles apart.

“Captain, request to use grenades!” Keith called out.

“Negative, too cramped, it could kill all of us. Watch your aim, Santo’s getting closer to the mouth! Team 3, status?”

Then Santo started to scream. First only curses, then it shifted into screams of intense pain. Haylen was struggling to not lose his barriers and prepare the discharge at the same time, and couldn’t afford to shift focus, but he caught a glimpse of Santo further up. The creature was slowly forcing Santo into that spiked hole of a mouth, feet first.

“We need Santo out of the way to kill it! Keep working on the tentacles!” The captain’s voice was still stern, but even she seemed tense now.

Haylen finally found some kind of balance, and let the amp force fuel his arms and legs as he lashed them out to break the tentacles.

It almost worked. The creature twitched as Haylen tore most of the tentacles holding him apart, waving its other tentacles about aimlessly for a few seconds, but the ones twined around his neck and ankle remained. It felt as if he had been slammed into a wall after that discharge, but he could reach his knife now. Always something.

Santo was still screaming and squirming in panic at the creature’s mouth, and the rest of the soldiers still trying to get a lethal hit with their guns or cut the tentacles with laser cutters, but there was little room now that the creature filled up most of the cave, and the tentacles were much tougher than the ice. Morgan wasn’t free yet, and the tendrils went for his neck now.

Trying not to cut an artery in his neck while he was at it, Haylen pried the knife in under the tentacles and carved through them. He had lost focus on his barriers after the discharge, and the remaining tentacle around his ankle was still pulling him in, with more going for it even if the creature seemed distracted by the bullets and lasers.

Then he saw a force field being raised between himself and the creature. It was a curved shield, not able to destroy anything and not a big one, but at least it kept the tentacles away from him for now.

“I can’t hold it forever, corporal”, he heard the captain’s grim voice. “Free yourself and make yourself useful.”

He slipped with the knife as he cut through the last strip and managed to stab himself in the collarbone, but he ignored that and went for the tentacle at his ankle instead. Santo’s screams ceased, he was hanging limp from the tentacles holding him while the giant centipede was slowly eating his feet, and Morgan was passing out, his face blue.

The other soldiers were shooting and cutting at the tentacles, slowly decreasing their number, but it still wasn’t possible for them to get closer to the stuck soldiers, and the tentacles weren’t destroyed quick enough.

Make yourself useful. A leap attack could work, but the only thing he could actually hit in this tight place was the centipede’s mouth. Only that would kill Santo too. And if the captain thought sacrificing Santo was the only way, she’d have given him that order already.

The extended barrier could keep the tentacles away for a little while. If he didn’t make it too thick, maybe he could form blades to cut Santo free. And if he managed to keep it moderate, maybe he wouldn’t fry anything this time either.

He had to try.

He carved through the last tendril around his ankle, and built up his amp force again. It was easier to focus now that he didn’t have to care about the tentacles and also had a clue what they were up against, but he still struggled with the barriers.

The tentacles were poking the captain’s force field, snaking around it and over the edges. He formed the spearheads around his hands, only more blade like than when he destroyed the MT. He could already tell it would be a nightmare to uphold them alongside the amp shield, let alone use them repeatedly, but what options did he have?

“Ready”, he said and captain Avril let her force field dissolve.

Immediately the tentacles moved towards him again. The extended barrier made them bounce off him, or cause them discomfort somehow, but they caused big enough ripples in it to send spikes of pain through his neurolinks.

“Boostin’ you now, Haylen”, Leon said on the comm, his calm not overly affected by the situation.

The booster kicked in immediately and Haylen felt the haze ease off a bit. He made his way over to Santo, slashing the tentacles with the force field blades as well as the sides of the creatures spiked mouth, but the latter was a good deal tougher. Hayeln focused on the tentacles, clenched his teeth so hard he wondered if they would shatter, until the unconscious soldier was more or less free from them.

For the moment, at least.

Haylen paused briefly to catch his breath. He let the blades go but kept the barrier up, spreading his arms out over Santo to prevent more tentacles from grabbing him. Not even half a minute with blades and shields simultaneously, and it was already taking it’s toll, booster or not.

A couple of the T9:ers had been able to interact physically even with their extended barriers up, but Haylen could only do that passably with normal barriers. To carry someone and uphold extended barriers was something he hadn’t even got to practise before his negative reactions to the shield disqualified him from further training. Now wasn’t the time to experiment. Not when Santo’s feet were still stuck in the creature’s mouth.

“Goin’ drop the shields when I pull ‘im out. Be ready to shoot it.”

“I’ll try put up another force field. On your word.”

He let go of his amp force, and it made his head spin momentarily. Ignoring it as best as he could, he put his arms under Santo’s, grabbed his forearms, and started to pull him backwards, barely noticing the new shield captain Avril put up.

Santo’s feet had been completely embedded in the meaty, tooth lined layers in the creature’s mouth, but there was no time to try and cut more of the mouth up. The captain’s force field would soon have to go, the tentacles were wriggling around them again, and Morgan would have permanent brain damage if they couldn’t kill the centipede within the minute.

Haylen dug his crampons into the ground and built up the amp force one more time. Using it to empower his legs with a lighter kind of discharge, he finally managed to pull Santo free from the creature’s mouth. The sudden lack of resistance made him fall down on the ground, but at least he managed to call out “Now!” to the others.

The gunfire intensified, and the creature and all its tentacles quivered and twitched as the bullets hit it in the mouth. Its legs moved, irregularly, and Haylen crawled backwards, dragging Santo with him, tentacles whipping across the air above them. He could see that Santo’s boots were missing, and where his feet should have been, there were only bloody, torn stumps.

Still half lying on the floor, one arm around Santo, he lifted his own gun and fired a few rounds too. It took two more of Felicia’s more powerful rifle bullets though before the tentacles started to sink, one by one, while the body shuddered. The teeth layers of the creature’s mouth chewed a few more times, then at last, the large centipede went still.

“Free Morgan!” he heard the captain shout, but every sound was suddenly muffled and distant, and it felt as if the ground under him tilted.

“Stop de bleedin’ on Santo, an’ check on Haylen”, Leon’s voice reached him from somewhere behind him.

Haylen felt hands on his shoulders and heard Felicia urge him to try and stand up so that people could take care of Santo. He could barely see anything, black spots and bright light was filling his field of vision, and he couldn’t help letting out a whimper as Felicia and Tianyi helped him up and the pain above his left eye shot through his head with full force.

They supported him as he sank down at the cave wall with his hands clutching his helmet, completely out of breath, shaking all over. The flashlights, the faint daylight through the ice, it all hurt his eyes.

“Where’s your migraine meds?” Felicia asked, and he tried to reach the pocket on his chest but his hand didn’t completely obey. Felicia found it though and put the nozzle in his mouth, giving him a dose of the creamy substance.

He forced himself to swallow it, then pulled up his knees and put his elbows on them so he could lean his face in his hands. Even now he couldn’t calm down, his heart speeding and every muscle trembling uncontrollably. Vaguely he noticed Felicia was checking him for injuries.

“You’re bleeding on your shoulder. I’ll put a bandage on that, hang on…”

She moved his right arm down so she could reach the wound, removing shoulderguards and opening his suit at the collar. The cool air to his skin was soothing, and it took the edge of the nausea a little. It also made him tremble even more.

“How the hell did you manage to cut yourself here?” Felicia muttered but he couldn’t muster enough energy to answer her. It stinged as she wiped the wound clean, but that pain momentarily took focus from the one in his head at least. She put a compress on it and taped it on place.

“There”, she said and closed his jacket again. “How’re you feeling? Are you cold?”

“N…no”, he managed to say despite his hitching breaths, once again leaning his head in both hands. He just couldn’t stop shaking.

“I’ll tell Leon as soon as he’s done with the other two, okay?” She sounded worried.

“M-mm.”

Why was she worried?

And why the hell couldn’t he stop shaking?

Beneath the ice part 1/3

UR06 was a hostile, deadly and unreasonable planet alright, but it damn it, her south pole area was beautiful. Felicia couldn’t take her eyes from the window. The untouched snow covered the hills, glittering in the faint sunlight, drifting over the plains like silk veils in the wind, packed into sharp wave-like sculptures, almost as hard as the rocks they were growing from.

And then there was the bluegreen frozen waterfalls of melted snow from the cliffs, in shapes that no hand could copy, icicles hanging from the edges like spearheads of titans. Those who fell victim for UR06’s unforgiving mood would at least rest in a grave worthy of a royalty.

The Ignis crew weren’t there to enjoy the view, however. There had been a cave in during an expedition to explore a system of natural tunnels in a glacier. Rescuing the trapped scientists probably wouldn’t be too big a task for the staff at the research station they were from, but the distress call had been rather ominous. One short S.O.S. and then a hushed message claiming there was something in the tunnels, then radio silence.

The shuttle had landed at the main structure (to call it a city, or even town, was to stretch it too far) where the station was located, and was preparing for the ride to the tunnels with two borrowed transport vehicles. Team 1 and team 3 were both assigned on this, plus Roz from the TR. Felicia was leaning her chin in her hand, playing with the zipper on her uniform jacket as she tried to focus more on captain Avril’s voice than the scenery outside.

”I hope everyone put on an extra pair of long johns”, captain Avril said as they reached the end of the briefing, that was taking place in the small, and only, conference room at the station. ”It’ll be cold even inside the tunnels. Our premise is that there are survivors, and that there are hostiles.”

”And snowstorms”, stated Roz dryly.

”According to weather service it’s fairly pleasant up there today”, said captain Lace with a smile. How the leader of team 3 managed to always find something positive and genuinely lift it up was beyond Felicia.

”I doubt ‘fairly pleasant’ in this place bears any kind of resemblance with the usual meaning of those words”, Roz muttered.

”I’m sure the five layers of thermo clothes and socks you managed to squeeze in that environmental suit will keep you warm enough”, Keith grinned at her.

”Friendly reminder, never stand still”, Nyree pointed out.

”So you suggest we should all skip around like a shore leave soldier on the dance floor?” asked Cory.

”Weird as it may sound”, she answered, “I prefer to watch you dance than to have to amputate your toes.”

There was some giggles around the table.

”Any questions?” captain Avril said, her stern voice revealing the growing irritation.

”Are we there yet?” asked Tianyi.

More giggles, and not so few groans were heard.

“I swear to Earth private, you ask that question on our way to the location and I’ll personally kick your teeth in.” The look on the captain’s face made even Tianyi nod silently without more comments.

Captain Avril then turned to Haylen with a critical look. ”Are you back on track, corporal?”

He looked up at her, the usual idle predator look on his face, not visibly reacting to the captain’s underlying distrust.

“Yeah.”

Yesterday’s sim training session had given him a pretty bad migraine attack, and he had still been dazed this morning as they had prepared for the mission. The extra hour of sleep on the shuttle seemed to have been needed.

The captain seemed content with his answer nevertheless. “Alright then people, gather for departure at the vehicles in fifteen.”

They all made the last preparations, putting on their outdoor suits and their armor in the narrow corridor outside. Felicia was trying to tuck her cloth mask in under the helmet in a comfortable way, as she heard Cory talk to Haylen.

“Do you ever get migraine attacks during missions?”

“Yeah.” The answer was short. Then again, they tended to be.

“That must be really awkward, considering you can barely stand up when you have one.”

Felicia glanced at Cory. He had been taking his sweet time to build up the courage to go for the biggest kid in class…

Haylen adjusted his chestguard before answering. “Usually don’t get that bad until after.”

Cory nodded. “Well, I suppose that’s convenient.” He checked his rifle, glancing at Haylen.

Haylen didn’t respond, just clicked his shoulderguards in place.

“At least it’s nice having someone else take care of your equipment every now and then”, Cory continued, hanging the rifle over his shoulder.

Haylen lifted his chin some, then looked at Cory, but the sniper was busy putting the protective goggles on his helmet.

“Can you not be an asshole for five whole minutes Cory?” Felicia snapped.

He looked at her, his eyes owlish. “What did I do wrong, Lissy? Enlighten me.”

“First, you basically said he’s simulating. Second, you called me Lissy.” She glared back at him.

“Is that what you made out of what I said?” His eyebrows went even higher up on his forehead, and he turned to Haylen. “Look, I’m sorry if you feel that I stepped on your toes here. I was only asking, you know.”

Haylen, who had turned back to what he was doing, just nodded some and picked up his gloves and gun. Felicia grabbed the rest of her stuff too and walked after Haylen towards the vehicle hall.

– – –

The personnel transport vehicle wasn’t a comfortable one. No isolation on the walls, barely any springs left, and the seats had never had any padding. Even if it moved on continuous tracks, it was a bumpy ride. At least there were decent seatbelts to hold them in place.

The silence outside as they climbed out of the vehicles sounded differently than at UC19, but it was the same kind of vast, untouched silence that made your eardrums start making high pitched noise out of restlessness. Only the faint whisper from wind forcing snow over the ground was heard.

Haylen and the others put their crampons on, then began to walk the dug out path through the snow down to the tunnel system. The goggles shifted color with the intensity of the light, and still he thought the reflection from the snow was strong enough to irritate his eyes. The sun was strong at UC19 too, but the sand was red there, not white.

To get inside the tunnel system, they had to climb down a narrow and very slippery ice path. There was a rope attached to the ice to hold on to, but that was it. Many people had climbed this path with crampons, that was obvious, but it hadn’t done much to rough the surface up.

Down in the hole, which was honestly the best description because it couldn’t be called a cave, the light had taken a strange, but not unpleasant, green-blue tone. The shiftings in the ice let enough sunlight down to make flashlights unnecessary.

Well. Here at least. When Haylen looked into one of the four tunnel entrances, it hinted on deeper darkness further down. The tunnels were bigger than he thought, however. One and a half his own length, and wide enough for two people beside each other. It wouldn’t have been very weird if he didn’t know these tunnels were not dug out by human hands.

“Team 3 will stay here for now”, captain Avril said as the last one had made it down to the floor. Even Rashida had managed the climbing without screwing up. They all pulled the cloth masks down for now and pushed their goggles up. No snowy wind would blind them down here.

“Team 1, we’ll follow the target’s route”, captain Avril continued, and checked her watch. “We’ll report in every fifteen minute. Haylen, take point. Keith, navigate us, and give me updates on where the targets’ transponders are compared to our position. Felicia, at the ready behind Haylen. I’ll take the rear. Move out.”

Haylen held his gun ready for firing, and headed into the tunnel. As he had imagined, the tunnel got darker the deeper inside they went, but before it got too dark to see, the light slowly returned. Their steps made weird, muffled echoes down here. The resonance gave every sound a melodic ring, but ice was a soft material, and the walls it formed were thick.

It felt a little weird walking with the crampons. The spikes weren’t that long, but it still gave him a little too good a grip so he had to pull his feet up for every step. But it was that or waste even more energy to stay on your feet on the slippery floor.

There was a wariness among the team members this mission. Not knowing what you were about to meet was one thing. They were all experienced enough, and could handle a surprise or two. But after UR03 and the derailer’s attack on Felicia’s amps, it had woken up the war anxiety within most of them. Treacherous enemies were easier to handle than treacherous friends, and if the Federation had started infiltrating civil stations it would more likely they’d encounter the latter.

With short, silent instructions to Haylen, Keith led them further into the system. Every now and then, Felicia pointed out suspicious shapes and hollows, but no bodies so far, living or dead. Captain Avril sent out calls every five minute to their targets, hoping they would still have working comm devices, but she never got an answer.

They reached a wider part of the tunnel, and this time it could be called a proper cave. At the opposite end, part of the ceiling had collapsed and formed a pile of broken ice blocks and shards. As a result, the ceiling was thinner, and the cave practically had daylight.

“We reached the cave in”, captain Avril reported back. “We’re taking five, then we’ll start working on an opening.” She tried to call out to the targets again, but got no response this time either.

Their laser cutters, and small, foldable shovels and pickaxes didn’t make the work on said opening quick and powerful, but at least they made progress.

“Take it easy, people”, the captain said as they were half way through. “There might be bodies under there, I don’t want you to cut them to pieces.”

Tianyi and Santo, who were the ones currently toiling at the frozen rubble, slowed down a bit at that.

“I can’t see any body shapes there though, captain”, said Felicia, who was also regularly scanning the roof so the rest of it wouldn’t fall down on their heads.

“Well that’s good I suppose. How’s the air?” The captain turned to Leon.

The medic flipped the meters up on his wristband, and reassured them that there was nothing to worry about air-wise. “Not even carbon dioxide be a problem, so you all doin’ a good job shuttin’ up too.”

“About fucking time they learned that”, the captain muttered.

“We’re through”, Morgan said eventually and pulled out his pickaxe. He sat back, looking at the captain.

“Felicia, Haylen, at the ready. Morgan, Keith, open it up.”

Haylen put his barriers up while Felicia kneeled and hoisted her rifle up to her shoulder.

“I see no people on the other side”, Felicia said.

When the opening was big enough, Haylen crawled through it. The tunnel on the other side was narrower than the one that led to the cave, and darker. It was sloping slightly downwards, curving enough to limit the sight to ten or so meters. He took a few steps forward to see further into the tunnel, switching on the flashlight on his helmet and gun, but the tunnel kept curving.

“Clear”, he said, and the others began to move through.

According to Keith’s tracker, they were getting closer to the transponders for a while, but then the tunnel forced them into another direction. They were also going deeper and deeper down all the time. Their flashlights were reflected back at them, or further into the ice.

“What is that sound?” Keith asked after a while.

“Hold”, said Felicia, and they all stopped while she and Tianyi listened as well.

All Haylen could hear was a soft, dull humming coming in long, irregular intervals, but if he had heard it before or not he couldn’t tell.

“An engine?” Keith suggested with a frown.

She slowly shook her head. “Can’t tell. Might be a rattle, maybe the ice makes it more buzz-like.”

Captain Avril frowned. “Keep me updated. Let’s move on.”

Snakes and branches part 3/3

Being a commander of a Union Task Force galaxy ship usually meant leading operations from the ship’s command room. Only on rare occasions commanders left the ship to join their troops on the field. Commander Nahid loved her ship, and couldn’t think of a better place to work than the command room at Ignis.

Still, she had to admit that this little field trip to UR03 was refreshing. Of course, the mission itself was a rather gloomy one – missing personnel in research areas usually meant they were dead – but Nahid didn’t let that prevent her from enjoying herself.

Sometimes people called her cold-hearted, unempathic, ignorant or nonchalant, because of this ability to not let things affect her that wasn’t her concern. To Nahid herself, that ability was crucial for doing her duty. When it came to her own crew, she engaged whole-heartedly in their well-being, but others? They had their own to worry about them. And crying saved no lives.

They had put up their portable equipment on the table outside the tent. Usually, they used the shuttle as base for command and communication during operations, but since the landing and lift-off location was a couple of kilometers away from the station, Nahid had decided it was better to have it here.

The head of the station, Biely, was sitting at the table with them, and had telling Nahid about the station and their work, but as captain Avril called Nahid on the comm, Nahid held up a hand.

Then she looked at Biely. “Do you have more than two drones in the air right now?”

Biely frowned. “No? We have three, but only two are in use. Why?”

Nahid pointed at the ID-signal. “Do you recognize that?”

“Yes, it’s ours, but that one is in our storage.”

“Let’s go and see if it’s still there, shall we?”

Biely looked worried now, but rose from the table.

On the comm, captain Avril reported that the drone somehow had tampered with Felicia’s sonar. Nahids mood shifted. If these scientists had sent up an extra drone without telling them, that was annoying. To directly interfere with her operation? That was a crime.

She looked at Biely, sternly, while answering the captain. “You are free to shoot it down if you think that is necessary.” She then turned to the TR:s. “Xander, find out who’s controlling the drone and from where. Daleen, the drone was affecting Felicia’s sonar somehow. I want you to check the other drones so they’re not doing the same.”

The two TR:s began to work, focused.

“Rashida, unless your foot objects too much, you’re coming with us.”

“Yes commander.” The soldier who had been sitting at the table with them, her injured foot up on the bench, grabbed her gun. She was still limping, but it seemed the sprain hadn’t been too bad after all.

They walked after Biely to the storage building. The head scientist opened the door and turned on the lights, and led them to the part where the drones were usually stored.

“It’s… not here.” She looked genuinely surprised.

“The ones controlling the drones are inside the station, are they not?”

“Yes, they are.”

“Lead the way.”

As they walked over to the station, Nahid gave Avril a quick update. With Rashida one step behind, she followed Biely into a small room where two of the staff were sitting with control tablets for the drones.

“Is anyone of you using Sting Ray?” the head scientist asked them, nervously.

“No”, one of them answered, puzzled, “only Manta Ray and Eagle Ray.”

They glanced at Rashida and Nahid.

“Who among the crew can fly them?” Nahid asked Biely.

“Well, Liz, one of the two who went missing, she could use the drones, and Wayan and Johannes.”

“Gather your crew immediately. All of them. I don’t care if they’re off duty or in the bathroom, round them up. Now.”

The head scientists hurried to carry out this task while Nahid made sure the drone operators had their drones return and land on autopilot.

Thanks to the limited size of the station, gathering the staff was quickly done. It was also not hard for Biely to see that they were missing yet another member.

“Johannes isn’t here.” Her voice was weak.

Nahid decided to call her troops back to the station. For now, finding the missing scientists was of lesser prio than preventing a possible derailer to cause even more damage.

“Any idea where he could be? Especially if he was to operate the drone?”

Biely desperately shook her head. “If you have the control pad, you can do it wherever.

Nahid looked at the gathered staff. If there were more allies to this Johannes in here, she didn’t want to give them a chance to sneak off.

“Everyone, go outside. Sit down at the wall to the right of the front door. Move.”

The station workers all looked at each other, insecure.

Nahid raised her voice. “I said move!”

She didn’t have to tell them a third time.

As Rashida made sure they all followed orders, and stayed to watch them, Nahid went back to the TR:s.

“What do you have for me?”

“The other two drones were only being used for camera searching”, Daleen said. “I found no software other than what they are supposed to have. They’ll land here soon.”

“And the misbehaving one?”

“It’s been modified, obviously”, Xander answered, “but it’s also encrypted, not to mention it’s been shot down. I’m still not able to tell where its controller is. But… this encryption is of Federation origin.”

Nahid looked at him, her eyes narrowing in distrust. “Federation encryption? On a Union research drone?”

He shrugged, almost apologetically.

“Alright. Keep up the tracking efforts. It will take team 1 half hour team to get back, another forty five minutes for team 3. I’d prefer not to engage a possible Federation spy without backup, but we can’t afford to let them get away either. Dmitri, has there been any unauthorized attempts to get inside or take control over the shuttle?”

“No commander.” Dmitri had stayed with them at the station, but was still able to keep an eye on the locked shuttle through his tablet.

“Daleen, find out who is in charge of landing and lift off. Work with them to make sure this Johannes can’t leave the surface.”

“On it, commander.”

Nahid put her hands on her back, looking over the nervous station staff, then at the small screen showing the two team’s movement through the forest. Waiting was part of her job as well. So she waited, ready to take action whenever the situation changed.

– – –

Haylen had just caught the first glimpse of the station between the trees when captain Avril put up her hand, and the soldiers stopped. They had been jogging whenever possible, moving in combat formation most of the time. Haylen had activated his barriers a little while ago. The station had no lethal weapons, at least not officially. Then again, the station drones weren’t supposed to have amp jammers either.

During the Gamma wars, the development of jammers and counter-jammers had been like a war in itself. The Federation equipped their warbots with interference devices, and the Union invented both software and physical blockers for their amped soldiers, each better than the previous.

The T9 program used top notch counter-jammers for the time being. Haylen wasn’t sure if the upgrades he had had since then was actual upgrades or only the standard quickfixes that most implants got once a year or so. Either way, it would require a lot of skills and money to produce a jammer that could get through them even today.

Still, if this derailer had jammers that worked on a task force soldier, they might as well have those skills and those money.

Captain Avril listened to the comm call, then looked at them, speaking in a hushed tone. “They tracked the derailer to the lift-off area. We’re to surround him and catch him, alive and if possible unharmed. Questions?”

“Is he armed?” Felicia asked.

“We don’t know. It’s possible that he has firearms, but not likely. He could have improvised melee weapons. He’s to be treated like a threat anyhow.” She looked at Haylen. “You approach him first. If you can’t make him move with commands, you take him physically. Shooting him is last resort”

“Got it.”

“Alright people, let’s go.”

They headed for the lift-off area where they split up in two, and spread out along the treeline. The Ignis shuttle was standing on the concrete next to the lift-off ramp, and a bit further away was the station shuttle.

“I see him”, said Felicia on the comm. She had taken position where she could overlook the lift-off area. “He’s sitting at the control hut.”

“Haylen, on Felicia’s call”, said the captain. “The rest of you, close in, slowly.”

“I got aim on him”, Felicia said. “He looks unarmed.”

Haylen made his way towards the control hut, diagonally since the man apparently was sitting on the opposite side. He kept his barriers up, and the gun ready but pointed at the ground for now, moving around the corner.

The derailer, a light-skinned man who must be younger than Haylen himself, looked up at him. He was holding something small in his shaking hand, and he had tears in his wide open eyes.

“Stand up”, Haylen said, not raising his voice nor his gun, but not losing his ready stance either.

The man just looked back at him, and from one moment to another he turned absolutely calm, and then quickly moved his hand to put whatever he had in it in his mouth and swallowed.

Haylen shoved his gun at his back and flung himself down on his knees beside the man, grabbing the back of his neck with one hand and tried making him open his mouth with the other. The derailer tried to squirm free, pulling at Haylen’s arms, but Haylen was stronger. He gave the man a couple of quick punches on the mouth with his fist so he could pry the jaws open, then forced his fingers down the man’s throat until he threw up.

He heard captain Avril report to the commander, and saw the rest of the team run towards them in the corner of his eye. He sat back on his heels, still grasping the man’s shoulder, while taking his gun with the other hand. The man slumped back against the control hut wall, but it wasn’t long until he put his arms around his stomach with a painful moan, his face twisting in agony.

“What happened?” captain Avril demanded to know as she squatted down beside them.

“Poison”, Haylen answered.

She looked at him, then at the derailer and the vomit in front of him. “Good thinking”, she mumbled, then called for the medics.

– – –

They left UR03 early next morning, with the Federation mole, his modded drone, and two body bags. Leon and Nyree had been able to prevent the remaining poison to cause too much damage to the derailer. He had regained consciousness eventually, and was now handcuffed and put in the hindmost seat in the shuttle, staring at the floor in front of him.

Felicia wished he had been placed in the cargo section instead, preferably in a body bag too. She was repulsed by the mere sight of him. None of the soldiers were allowed to speak to the prisoner, but even the commander couldn’t prevent Felicia from glaring at him.

She and Tianyi had found the missing scientists eventually. That was the only thing the mole had told them. “I left them in the ravine south of the station.” He had lured them out, poisoned them, and dragged them to the ravine. And for what? To get some Union imps come over so he could try his toy out on them? It was disgusting.

Someone patted her thigh lightly and she reluctantly turned her head away from the derailer, and looked at Tianyi beside her.

“Don’t dwell on it, Scopes.”

“I’m not dwelling on anything.”

“Yes you are.”

“Well excuse me, but this could mean that the Federation is crawling up from their hole again. I think I got the right to dwell on that.”

“As long as you stop that sulking when we get back on Ignis. I can only handle so much grumpiness during maintenance.”

Felicia snorted.

The turbulence ceased as they left the atmosphere. A few seats away, Daleen put a sickbag to her mouth. In front of her, Haylen had fallen asleep. On her right, Keith and Santo had picked up their argument about the ‘stolen’ candy again. Tianyi nudged Felicia with her elbow, grinning.

Everything was as it used to be.

Except the branch had turned out to be a snake after all.

Snakes and branches part 2/3

The other two groups were already at the station when Haylen’s group came back. Rashida had sprained her ankle, and was now being seen to by Nyree, and mocked by Mourad. The commander and the others had put up the tent together with some of the station staff, and the reconnaissance groups relieved themselves from the field gear before sorting out their sleeping quarter.

Commander Nahid didn’t say anything about the talk she had had with the station people, and no one asked. After a dinner consisting of warmed up can food, where Felicia expressed her regret about not bringing the snake back for the grill, the commander gathered them all at the table and benches that were put up outside the tent. There was a piece of canvas as a roof over it, but even if the sky had been thick with clouds all day, there was no rain yet.

“No one left the station at the time the probes went dead, that’s what they claim”, commander Nahid said to them. She spoke in a low voice, even if the station staff were inside at the moment.

The station had spotlights to light up the ‘yard’, but there was a fireplace there as well, and the commander’s wish had come true. The fire already cast a dancing blaze around it.

“So they could be lying?” asked Cory.

“I won’t speculate in that, since it’s not our job to investigate. However, we’ll consider every option so they won’t be able to take us by surprise, otherwise we’re here to find the missing personnel first and most. Tomorrow we’ll begin searching. Scouts and snipers will use their amps, we also have some trackers to our disposal. We’ll search through possible areas around each probe, using coordination grids to be sure to cover it all. As for tonight, captain Avril has made a guard list. Anyone not on guard duty, rest and recreation.”

She looked over her crew. “You are allowed to socialize with the locals. But behave. If there aren’t any questions, you’ll find me at the campfire.” She grinned and took her foldable stool with her over to the fireplace.

Some of the station personnel came out to them a bit later, and one of them even went inside to get a bag of marshmallows after Keith complained he had forgot to ask Simone. There was a fair amount of cheering about this, but Haylen, who was still sitting at the table closer to the station building with Felicia and Xander, taking care of their equipment or otherwise making preparations for tomorrow, noticed not all the staff was pleased by it.

A couple of them were standing in the doorway, and one of them muttered something and turned to walk inside.

“What, what’s wrong?” his colleague asked.

“Liz and Alain might be dead, and they’re eating marshmallows as if this was some kind of, of, camping trip in school? I’m sorry, I can’t really find the spirit.” He walked inside while his co-worker sighed and walked in after him.

“I can’t really blame him”, Felicia said, prying out gravel from the joints on her kneeguards.

“Me neither”, Xander agreed. He was working on something datafile related on his tablet. “But that’s no reason other people can’t be happy either.”

“I guess.”

Xander was sitting with his back at the fire, and light made his hair glow red. After a little while he looked at Haylen, curious. “What is it?”

Haylen blinked. Apparently he hadn’t turned his attention from Xander’s hair back to his muddy boot after all. He tilted his head a bit to the side. “Enjoyin’ the view.” He smirked, teasingly. Xander snickered silently, blushing slightly.

“Did you find out anything else about the probes?” Felicia asked Xander, with a quick glance at Haylen.

Xander shook his head. “The signature doesn’t match anyone in the staff. We’re running programs to identify it now. It could be a hacker, or someone from another station. Or maybe even something planted in the code from start. The commander said we didn’t have to go any further, but… We agreed that we could at least be of as much help as possible now that we’re here anyway. I mean, I would want all the help I could get if my co-workers disappeared after checking up on equipment that had been tampered with by someone unknown.”

Felicia hummed in agreement. “I think we should’ve kept searching too.”

“You mean physically?”

“Yes.”

“It was getting dark even before we had dinner ready”, Xander pointed out.

She pointed at her eyes. “Night vision, my babe.”

“Rashida was injured in pure daylight.”

“Rashida can trip on thin air”, Felicia snorted.

“And there could be an enemy out there.”

“That’s why us grunts be here, eh.” Haylen said.

“Look, I don’t want to argue about it”, Xander said and rubbed his forehead, his hand partially hiding his face as he looked down on his tablet.

Hayeln was surprised by the sudden change of mood, even if it wasn’t surprising he had missed the signals. He looked at Felicia, but she only made a dismissive face and continued with her other kneeguard. He applied repellant on his boot, trying to come up with anything to say that wouldn’t sound as a defense speech.

“I’m sorry”, he said eventually.

“No, I’m sorry”, Xander sighed and and run a hand through his hair. “This whole situation is getting under my skin, that’s all.”

The people at the fire laughed at something Tianyi said, and Felicia peered at the gathering. “I’m going to get one of those marshmallows before Keith eats them all. Are you joining?”

Haylen shook his head. “I got the 2.00 watch, goin’ sleep some before.”

She shrugged, picking up her things. “Suit yourself.”

– – –

Next morning they were heading out at first daylight, which was about two hours too early for anything, according to Keith. They moved in their ordinary teams, the captains going with them, but the TR:s were staying at the station. As did Rashida, much to her annoyance. Her foot was still not good enough for hours in rough terrain.

Since the probe Xander had been examining was the one that had been used for switching the probes off, that’s where they started their search. The station staff had reassured them that snakes here weren’t dangerous to people, but the soldiers were more wary about where they put their feet today. The tension from last afternoon was also coming back as they went further into the wilderness.

“A lot more animals around than I thought”, Felicia said quietly as they were taking a short break next to a small brook with a waist high cliff wall that made for a decent cover. She had found a dry rock to sit on, leaning back at the cliffs with her eyes closed and amps off for a while.

So far, she found it more challenging not to lose attention because of the dullness of the surroundings, rather than the amps wearing her out. Finding birds and lizards and rodents and whatnot in every bush and behind every branch wasn’t fun in the long run unless you were a biologist, she assumed. Without these small breaks, she would have tired out even quicker.

Keith, who only had vision enhancing, agreed with her comment about the wildlife.

“Yeah, it’s kind of creepy. Those little fuckers, can’t even show up to say hello? Bet they’re up to something.”

“Hey captain, is that one of the station drones?” asked Tianyi.

Felicia opened her eyes to look up above the treetops where Tianyi was pointing. It was indeed a drone, slowly hovering over them, too high up for the others to see any details. Felicia zoomed in on it.

“It’s got the Union logo at least.”

Captain Avril flipped up a bigger map from her wristband, checking with the drone symbols. She frowned.

“Commander Nahid, this is captain Avril. We have a drone above us with an unmatched signal. Got any info on that?”

“Hang on captain, I’ll get back to you.”

The captain looked at Felicia. “Prepare for shooting it down. The rest of you, eyes on the forest for now.”

Felicia picked up her rifle, taking aim to get a feel of her target, then lowering the rifle some, waiting. The rest of the soldiers spread out, guns at the ready, searching the surrounding forest.

Suddenly, Felicia felt as if her balance organs were pushed and twisted into her head, making her lose all sense of where she was and filling her head with a rattle that made it even harder to think. She gasped, dropping her gun as she tried to get hold of something.

“Felicia? Felicia, talk to me!” The captain’s voice made it through the whirlpool in her head.

“It’s uh… it’s…” It was so hard to speak, the connection between her mouth and her brain was a beeswarm. “My sonar”, she managed to force out, feeling someone’s hands getting hold of her arms, “something’s up with my sonar, I can’t…” She moaned as the vertigo grew even stronger, grasping whoever’s arms it may be, wishing this would stop before she threw up.

“Keith! Bring it down!”

The moment the shot was heard, whatever was interfering with her sonar ceased, and she sat wide-eyed for a little while, trying to find her bearing again. In front of her, Tianyi had squatted, still holding Felicia’s arms.

“Hey Scopes, when you’re done wailing maybe you can ease up on your grip there? I have no circulation in my hands anymore.”

Felicia blinked, looking down at her own hands that were still grasping Tianyi’s arms. She slowly let go, and swallowed. “The drone, is it down?”

“Yep. It crashed somewhere that way.” Tianyi nodded towards the other end of the brook.

Captain Avril was listening to the comm, then looked at Felicia. “Are you alright?”

“Yes captain”, she answered, taking a deep breath. It had been extremely uncomfortable, but now she felt as usual again. She tried the sonar just in case. It worked just fine.

“Alright people, listen up”, the captain said, her expression grim. “That drone was supposed to be in the station storage, and whoever logged in on the probe to shut them down used this drone to do it. Xander is trying to determine from where it’s being controlled. Until further notice, we stay put. Stay alert.”

As she forwarded the message to team 3, Felicia picked up her rifle to check that nothing had happened to it when she dropped it. Then she began to scan their surroundings, waiting for orders. This was indeed kind of creepy.

Then the commander’s voice buzzed in on everyone’s comms. “Both teams, turn back to the station immediately. We have a situation.”

“Team 1, copy that”, captain Avril answered, and a similar response came from team 2. The captain looked as if she had more questions, but didn’t call on the commander again. “Alright, people, you heard the commander. We’re moving out. Haylen, take point.”

The frontliner nodded and started walking, a barely noticeable ripple in the air around him indicating he had put up his barriers.

Whatever that situation at the station was about, Felicia thought to herself, it better not escalate. It had taken them hours to get this far, and even if the way back would be a straight line instead of the zig zag pattern they followed earlier, it would take its sweet time.

She kept switching between infrared, sonar and zoom. Everywhere she looked, she saw animals.

The snakes were everywhere.

Snakes and branches part 1/3

UR03 wasn’t a big planet but had earthlike atmosphere and biosphere, with water and carbon based lifeforms. It had been known for ages, but not until recently humans had set foot on it. For some reason there was only a few places on it that inhabited larger mammals, otherwise there were plenty of birds, reptiles, and other smaller non-mammal creatures.

There was no obvious reason that intelligent or at least sapient life in this part of the galaxy was non-existant, or that mammal populations were limited. Therefore it was standard to plant probes to collect data for some years before any people were sent down. Six years had passed since the probes on UR03 had been set out, and they had diligently fed the Union scientists with data, until it was found safe to set up research stations.

A few weeks ago, there had been a distress call from one of the stations. Three of their nearest probes had suddenly gone quiet, and two of the staff had been sent out to check them. They hadn’t come back, and every attempt to contact them had been in vain. They had two drones that were flying over the area almost constantly, but they hadn’t picked up anything either.

“We can’t rule out human interference”, commander Nahid said at the breakfast table the morning after they headed out for UR03. In a few hours, they would take the larger shuttle down to the surface; both teams were assigned on this, plus the TR:s onboard and the commander herself. “There is a tiny possibility that this is about some rogue scientist or bounty hunter. My guess it’s only a matter of bad luck. There are still wildlife to be aware of, which I do not want you to interact with if you can avoid it.”

“Aww, no petting the cute fluffy animals?” Tianyi made a disappointed face at her smoothie.

“How do you know they’re cute and fluffy?” Santo asked, mixing his porridge with dried berries. “They could be the ones who ate those scientists.”

Haylen and Felicia exchanged looks. Haylen found it easier to put up with the two’s constant banter than her in general, but it made him irritated when it was during a briefing, even if it was one of these more casual ‘eating meetings’. He took another spoonful of oatmeal.

“Cute fluffy animals don’t eat scientists, they eat ice cream and cotton candy”, Tianyi continued, unaware of the commander’s growing impatience.

“See, my point still stands”, countered Santo. Why captain Avril didn’t cut them off, Haylen couldn’t even guess.

“Maybe the cute fluffy animals actually saved the lost scientists from your man-eating ostrichs.”

“Who said anything about man-eating ostrichs?”

“Excuse me”, the commander interrupted at last, “I wasn’t finished.” She looked at them both, reminding of a teacher Haylen had in school.

“Sorry commander”, both of them said, at least one of them not ashamed at all.

“The probes are located in the forest that borders on the field where the station is. It’s not very dense, but rather hilly and stony. We can’t use vehicles, so I ask everyone to walk carefully. We don’t want you to break any bones out of pure carelessness.”

“I don’t want you to break any bones out of any reason, really”, doctor Eira pointed out and glanced at the crew while sipping her coffee.

“Heard that, Rashida?” Mourad, the shortest soldier in team 3, grinned at his teammate across the table. “Don’t be such a clot.”

Rashida, who had tattoos on both side of her neck and a longer fringe on her otherwise cropped head, tossed her crumpled napkin at him.

“We’ll stay overnight, so bring your sleepover pack. The station has tents for guests.” The commander smiled broadly. “Maybe we can put up a campfire as well.”

“Oh my god, I hope Simone got marshmallows in some of her hidden kitchen storages!” said Keith and leaned back in his chair, overcome with nostalgia by the looks of it.

“Trick will be to actually convince her to give them to you”, Daleen pointed out and took a sip of her tea.

“Alright, this is impossible”, said the commander with a look of feigned frustration at captain Lace, then stood up and looked at the crew. “You’ll have another briefing before we launch for the surface. Until then, preparations as usual.”

Doctor Eira stood up too, taking her coffee mug and stopped at Haylen on her way out. “Did the cream work better than the pill?”

“Yeah.” He fiddled with the spoon.

She peered at him. “But…?”

“…it’s like eatin’ engine grease”, he answered reluctantly. Why couldn’t she just settle with a ‘yes’…

Her eyes narrowed. “Trust a nineteener to know what that is like. Come get another before you leave then. I assume you’re almost out.” She patted his shoulder and left the canteen.

He noticed Felicia was looking at him. “What?”

“Do you really eat engine grease on Nineteen?”

“Fuck’s sake…” He finished his breakfast while she pulled a face at him.

– – –

Hours later, they were down on UR03. After a quick rundown of what happened from the remaining personnel at the station, the three groups headed out in each direction to find the malfunctioning probes. It would take them a couple of hours to reach them, but it was only noon and the weather was pleasant for a stroll in the woods, as Paavo, the light-skinned grunt with the missing ear in team 3, put it.

The two captains, Avril and Lace, were staying at the shuttle with Dmitri, the medics and the commander. While the teams were out, they would lead the work and set up camp, and, if necessary, form a rescue team with the commander.

Haylen was grouped up with Felicia, Tianyi and Santo, assigned to bring Xander to the most southern probe. Hopefully, the TR would be able to figure out what was wrong with the probe. Of course, all three of them shutting down at the same time indicated that it might not be the probes themselves that were the problem, but they had to start somewhere.

The terrain was indeed hilly and stony. It wasn’t hard to stick to the route that their digital maps suggested, since the sparse forest allowed them to find the best way forward. However, there was a lot of reeling over smaller rocks, trying to avoid to get stuck between them, or slip on their moss covered surfaces.

Eventually they reached the probe. This one was a standard data collector, a tall, slim, metal casing with a control panel, and antennas and sensors on the top. The soldiers positioned themselves in a square formation around the probe, while Xander logged in on the system.

“It got power at least”, he told the other groups on the comm, and the other two confirmed their probes were still running as well. “I’ll start checking the logs here.”

Xander worked with the probe, occasionally exchanging a few words with the other TR:s about his findings.

“See any of your man-eating ostrichs yet?” Tianyi asked Santo.

Santo scoffed, amused. “Enough about ostrichs already, what the hell…”

“I’m not the one who’s obsessed with them”, Tianyi said. “Haylen, tell him.”

Haylen glanced at them, then continued watching their surroundings. “Not goin’ there.“

“Aren’t you here to protect the weak and innocent?”

Santo eyed her up and down. “You’re pronouncing ‘butch’ and ‘source of all wicked’ wrong, Tia.”

“You’re just sour you didn’t get to bomb anyth…- Shit, that branch just moved!” She raised her gun, aiming at something further away.

“Where?” asked Haylen, raising his gun as well.

She pointed with the laser. Haylen only saw dead branches covered in moss and dead leaves. Santo lowered his own gun. “Maybe it was a snake.”

“Why do you sound so casual about that?” she asked, accusingly.

“Are you afraid of snakes?” Felicia asked.

“I have a healthy respect for them, so should you. Look, there it is!”

Now they all saw it. A grey, maybe five centimeter thick, one meter long snake that slowly started to crawl over the pile of branches. It stopped again, perfectly blending into the background.

Xander looked up as well now, standing very still. Haylen didn’t move either. Even if they’d been told the animals here usually were afraid of or uninterested in humans, it would be awkward if any of them was bitten by a venomous snake because they provoked it.

“We should catch it”, Felicia suggested. “It would be great for barbecuing at that campfire the commander promised us.”

“Eugh, you UC12s and your weird eating habits”, Tianyi groaned.

“As if your squid munching is any better?”

The snake continued its slow, interval movement over the ground, and eventually it had disappeared into the forest.

“Well”, Santo said, “at least it wasn’t a man-eating ostrich.”

“See? Obsessed.” Tianyi looked at Haylen and gestured at Santo.

Haylen only smirked.

Xander kept browsing the logs on the probe. After a while, he mumbled something inaudible, then said on the comm: “I found something. I’m sending you the name of the log file now. For some reason, the one who logged here in disabled all three probes. But the report said that they simply stopped transmitting, right?”

“Yes”, Roz answered, “they went dead so the station sent a couple of people out to check them. Are you saying someone went out and shut them down? Without the rest of the station knowing?”

“Or without them reporting it, at least”, Daleen suggested.

“We should copy the logs and study them back at the station.”

Daleen and Roz agreed, and the commander’s voice spoke on the comm. “Sounds like a good idea. It’s getting late, and I don’t want you lot out there longer than necessary if there’s an unknown player on the field. Get what you need from the probes, then head back. Meanwhile, I’ll have a talk to the personnel here.”

The mood had suddenly shifted. Haylen realized he had started to look for human shapes between the trees instead of possible man-eating animals. Even Tianyi went quiet.

The snake was nowhere to be seen.