Ill-fated shore leave

<Appear at med bay 30 min before shift change.>

The message was signed doctor Eira, and was flashing at his wristband when the wake up call sounded. Haylen sent his affirmative before he even began to wonder on why she wanted to see him. It wasn’t exactly uncommon for him to be called to the med bay, right.

They should have docked at the shuttle station over UC01 during the night, and before breakfast, team 2 would sign on and officially go on duty while team 1 would resign from combat duty and prepare for shore leave. The hours between breakfast and lunch had cleaning up and storage shifting on the schedule.

As a Tyrian Tank, Haylen had gotten used to bring all equipment wherever he went, since they could never be sure they’d be picked up where they were dropped, or vice versa. The Union Task Forces, however, went on shorter missions and the ship was their permanent base. Therefore, all the armor sets, spacesuits, breathing equipment and weapons were stored onboard.
It meant that a lot of the ship space was occupied, but it was either that or have each soldier carry it all back and forth every time they left or boarded the ship.

To share equipment would have solved the storage issue partly, but that had been ruled out. Not that it wasn’t adjustable; most equipment was possible to program, calibrate or physically match each individual. Strict hygiene routines made it possible to share equipment with others as well. However, the storage requirements was justified by the decreased risk of soldiers losing items on the go, involuntarily or not.

As Haylen got out of bed and began to get dressed, the answer to why doctor Eira had called him in occurred to him. Putting your pants on shouldn’t leave you completely out of breath, and swallowing shouldn’t feel as if you had a cactus in your throat, right. Clearly, it was a kryvat surge on the rise.

The Praesidia company physician had prescripted one type of immune system affecting medicine that he said had been used successfully for years to keep relapses at bay on a lot of kryvat struck people. It had worked well for Haylen too, so far. It still meant a week or so out of action every time he had a surge, but it was bearable. Not anywhere near the hell it had been the first time after he caught it.

Only doctor Eira had told him to stop taking that medicine a couple of weeks ago, since she wanted to study the kryvat process properly in order to find a better treatment. He hadn’t argued, especially not after she pointed out the potential risk of serious infections that he, due to this particular medication, might not even notice until they killed him.

The prickling sensation in his nose, eyes, and throat quickly grew more intense as he and the rest of the team went to the canteen for breakfast. As they took care of the usual daily chores of tidying up sleeping quarters, toilets and washrooms, he could tell this surge would be extra all.

– – –

Haylen found doctor Eira at the medbay on scheduled time, lecturing Tianyi over her arm. Tianyi rolled her eyes at Haylen as she put her jacket on, which of course the doctor saw.

“You’ll thank me when you’re ninety and still can do push ups, private”, the doctor said sharply, then waved Haylen inside.

“Who says I even want to live that long, doc?” Tianyi grinned, closed the zipper and left the infirmary.

Doctor Eira sighed and went to wash her hands. “Alright, corporal, are you completely sure it’s a kryvat relapse?” She turned to him as she dried her hands with a cloth, nodding for him to sit down at the examination table.

“Yeah, pretty sure”, he said with a sniffle, reaching for one of the tissues he for once had remembered to put in his side pocket before going here.

“That’s great.” She smiled and picked up a scope. “Not that you’re ill of course, but that I got the chance to see at least the start of it first hand. Pity you can’t stay on board, or I’d have a great opportunity to study it. Now, let’s take a look at you. Take off your jacket please.”

He did as he was told. Without the jacket, he soon began to shiver. It wasn’t even noon, and he already had chills.

The doctor did an ordinary physical exam and took some samples, before presenting an inhalation mask for him.

“Now”, she began to explain, “I will prep you with nanobots via this inhalation powder and eye drops. These nanobots will attach to the membranes and send information to a receiver that I will place in your multiport. You already have implants that analyzes everything that goes on in your body and then some, but this system is dedicated to this specific task. First take a breath through your mouth only, hold your breath for five seconds, then breathe out properly and repeat but through your nose only.”

The powder had a weird taste and smell, he noticed, despite not being able to neither taste nor smell much at all at this stage. Doctor Eira applied the eye drops as well and the world got a little hazier for a while.

“And now for the receiver”, the doctor continued. She pressed an injector tool at the multiport that was integrated on his forearm, close to the crook of the arm. It was a permanent implant that most soldiers had to make medical treatment easier and safer.

“There we go.” The doctor gave his arm a quick pat and took the tool away.

Haylen started to cough and hoped that those nanobots were holding on properly. Meanwhile doctor Eira went to a cupboard and fetched a medicine package that she placed beside him on the examination table.

“Cold remedies. Use them as you please, as long as you make notes on what, when, and how much.”

“Got it.” He sniffled and put his jacket on again.

“I also want you to take notes on your symptoms. Not body temperature or pulse or anything else that your implants already keep track of, but what symptoms you experience when and how intense they are.”

She looked at him more sternly. “And when I say notes, corporal, I mean real notes. Not the ‘I feel fine’ or ‘I feel less fine’ kind of observations that you jarheads tend to come up with. I want details. Is that clear?”

“Yes doctor.” He felt less fine now.

She peered at him. “You really have to blow your nose again, don’t you?”

He lifted his chin a little. “Yeah. I really do.”

“Off with you then. And if you have to take a break from all that deck swabbing, you have my permission.”

– – –

Team 2 should have boarded half an hour or so before breakfast, but it wasn’t until the time of the shift change that they finally arrived. As the officers hadn’t appeared yet, the teams waited in the training hall where they were to gather for the shift change.

Haylen took the opportunity to sit down at the wall, leaning his head back at it; his nose was getting too stuffy to breathe through, but it was still as runny as before, so tilting his head back reduced the persisting sniffling somewhat.

“What took you so long, Simone’s oatmeal isn’t good enough for you anymore?” Keith asked Hiroshi as the scout of team 2 irritatedly tossed his backpack at the wall.

“Ask the fuckers in security control. Oh wait, they unfortunately can’t give any information on the current situation”, he added with obvious sarcasm.

“Me and Jiwe met Santo at the base hospital the other day”, Jamal, sniper of team 2, said to Roz as he closed buttons and zippers on his uniform to look proper for the line up, “and Jiwe betted five coins on him being delirious. Please say I win this bet.”

“Congratulations, you just earned five coins”, Roz replied, but she didn’t seem to find the subject as amusing as Jamal and Jiwe, the team 2 medic.

The buzz in the hall didn’t exactly help with Haylen’s growing headache, and his neck was soon protesting against the tilted back position. He leaned his forehead in his hand instead, and so the sniffling was on again.

“Hey, are you ill?” Olena looked at Haylen with concern after giving Rashida a quick hug.

“Wait, what, who’s ill?” Sheng sounded alarmed as his attention snapped to Olena and then Haylen.

Haylen just shook his head dismissively. “Kryvat surge”, he said and stood up to get more tissues from the sink at the wall, sneezing again as he did.

“Because I really don’t want to get sick this tour too”, Sheng continued and moved a few steps away.

“Calm your cogs, Sheng”, Keith said, “it’s not contagious, even to those who deserve it.”

“Maybe you should go lie down”, Olena suggested, ignoring Sheng.

Cory, who was standing nearby as well, said teasingly: “Oh you’d love to help him lie down, wouldn’t you?”

“I definitely would, and you know it”, she replied, unembarrassed, and looked at Haylen again. “But seriously, you look terrible.”

“I’ll manage,” Haylen mumbled and blew his nose.

“Maybe he’s allergic to your approaches”, Cory continued his mocking.

“Just because you can’t handle them it doesn’t mean that other people can’t, my babe.”

They were all interrupted by captain Avril’s sharp “Attention!” and they lined up in their respective teams. The captain gave Haylen one single look, then told him that he could sit down whenever he needed.

The commander was there as well, standing before them with her usual look of confidence and satisfaction. After a brief report on the last tours ups and downs, and the official hand-over between the teams had been made, she got the final word before the teams continued their various duties.

“Team 1, I regret to inform you that your teammate, private Santo, isn’t likely to come back to this ship as a combat soldier again.”

There were scattered disappointed sighs and frustrated curses heard among the soldiers. Losing a team member at some point, in some way or another, was unavoidable in their trade. That didn’t mean there weren’t any reactions to it.

Commander Nihad looked at the soldiers of team 1 and 3 in turns and continued: “But, thanks to your efforts, he is alive and recovering. I will do what I can to find a decent replacement for him until next tour, or you’ll have to suffice with borrowed team 2 members.”

She winked at captain Lace, who only looked at her with raised eyebrows and inclined chin.

Commander Nihad lastly looked at Tianyi, Leon and Haylen. “Recruits, you survived your first tour on the UGS Ignis. Congratulations. Well done.”

She saluted them all, and the soldiers returned the salutation. Haylen was happy he hadn’t given in to captain Avril’s offer to sit down yet.

“Alright, slackers, get a move on”, captain Avril said as the commander left the training hall. “I want to leave this piece of junk in time to catch the 12:30 shuttle this time.”

– – –

The last two hours before lunch were as bad as predicted earlier that morning. Haylen couldn’t stop sneezing and Tianyi couldn’t stop laughing at him. The cold remedies doctor Eira had provided him with took the edge of it, but that was it. His head and neck felt as stuffed with expanding sealing foam, his back ached, and everytime he moved, his pulse raced and he was out of breath in no time. He didn’t need to check his wristband to know he had a fever.

The others made sure he only had to take care of his own gear, but even if he personally had to fill in the checklist and lock everything up, they helped him carry it.

“I can do this”, he tried to protest as Morgan took the space suit box from him. This felt more and more stupid.

But Morgan pointed out that it took him twice the time to carry half the amount of equipment from changing rooms to storage, so there wasn’t really any other option than to surrender. “Besides, your lungs sound as if they’re torn apart when you cough, so consider this me saving your life in return.”

The teams had just sat down to have lunch when a prio 3 alarm went off. That meant that team 3, who were now on prim duty, had time to finish their food before they needed to gear up, but they still hurried up in case that prio level went up a notch. It wasn’t very common with alarms going off when the ship was docked, since there was usually one or two ships in the area just outside orbit, but it happened. Perhaps backup was needed somewhere.

“I bet we’ll get to know more details about the security hold up now”, Keith pointed out.

“Don’t keep your hopes up”, Hiroshi commented sourly.

As soon as team 3 had left to get ready, things calmed down in the canteen. Haylen was leaning his head in his hand, trying to force himself to eat the last on his plate. It was rather painful to swallow. It had taken him three or four more attempts to convince Sheng that he didn’t have a flu or a cold that could be passed on. Still, everytime he coughed or sneezed, the other soldier had given him wary looks.

“I got to say”, Nethan said with a teasing smile, “for a guy your size who looks like a poster boy for the Federation death squads, you have a surprisingly cute sneeze.”

Haylen rubbed his eyes with a sniffle. “Can’ all sound like crazed scale bears, eh…” he mumbled, which made Tianyi burst out in laughter.

Nethan looked at her, eyebrow raised. “Are you one to laugh? Who sound like an angry marmot?”

Tianyi began to protest, but then Felicia came back from wherever she had been.

“Hey team”, she said as she sat down, interrupting the bickering. “I just talked to Santo, and we can go to Sol’s Ward base to see him right after we land. Me and Morgan’s going, who’s with us?”

“Hell yeah”, said Keith.

“Me too”, said Tianyi, “as long as I got time to buy a candy bag for him first.”

“And roll the candies in dust first?” Morgan said.

Tianyi aimed a punch his way that he dodged mainly by leaning back. He was sitting on the other side of the table after all.

“How about you nottiners?” Felicia asked.

Haylen only shook his head and, as on cue, started to cough. If he was to visit Santo, he’d rather do it together with the rest than on his own, but contagious or not, he had learned the hard way not to do anything more than absolutely needed during a surge.

“Okay, stupid question”, Felicia noted and looked at Leon.

“I’m goin’ wit’im to Nineteen”, Leon said, and Haylen realized that he meant him.

“What, you goin’ babysit me?”

“Doc’s orders, not goin’ argue, kin.” Leon scraped his plate clean, unbothered.

“Had enough surges to know how to deal wit’em, eh.”

“Read enough journals to know you fail at times too, eh.” Leon looked at him with a sly smirk.

Haylen gave him what he hoped was a dark look. It was probably more bloodshot though.

“Ey”, Leon said and raised his hand in defence, “she wanted you in hospital care, dis be de result of me negotiatin’ for you. Dat, an’ you’ll get t’rough security easier wit’ a personal medic.”

Leon winked at him. Haylen reluctantly realized that he had a point. He hadn’t travelled with public transits during a surge in a while, but he had learned that even if he had a note on his ID with information about the kryvat, the restrictions and precautions about travellers with infections were enough to overrule any medical note if the security guards were in that mood.

– – –

There was still delays at the shuttle station, but also still no real information about what caused it. Keith’s assumption it had something to do with the alarm earlier wasn’t too far fetched though; they caught a glimpse of team 3 crossing the arrival hall further away in a hurried manner. At least it got Tianyi plenty of time to go buy candy for Santo.

Xander, who was also going on shore leave apparently, sat down next to Haylen on one of the benches in the waiting hall, careful as if he didn’t want to disturb.

“Are you going to the base after free week?” he asked, stroking an escaped strand of deep red hair behind his ear. Since he too was in a uniform, he wore his hair in a ponytail.

“Yeah”, Haylen answered, clearing his throat, “got some training, then some theoreticals to do.”

“Sounds fun.”

Hayle had to look at the TR to see if he was serious or not. Xander looked like he meant it one hundred percent.

“If you be a fan of theoreticals.”

Xander looked back puzzled, then snickered and ran a hand over his head. “I’ll be there too, there’s a couple of new systems that all TR:s are to be educated in, and, I was thinking that I might as well take the opportunity to practise my weapon skills at the same time.”

Xander paused to breath. Haylen hoped the itch in his nose would vanish.

“So I was wondering if you might have the time to give me a lesson. If you want to, of course.”

The question surprised him, but not in a bad way. “Shooting lesson, you mean?” Maybe it was a stupid question, but Haylen really didn’t felt at his brightest right now.

“Yes. I mean, I know what end to point at the target and what part to squeeze and all that, but I need some hints on the aiming and such.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll…-” Haylen interrupted himself as he felt the urge to sneeze, but all that happened eventually was that his eyes teared up and his nose began to run again. He groaned silently and pulled a tissue from his backpack, wishing that the kryvat could have the fucking decency to lay off for five full minutes.

“I’m sorry”, Xander said all of a sudden, “this honestly can wait until you feel better.”

Haylen just shrugged, flipping his schedule up on the wristband. “I’ll feel better next week, so… Pick a time.”

Xander leaned closer and looked at the schedule. He pointed. “Would this work for you?” He looked at Haylen, blinked and leaned back a little, apparently surprised how close he was. At least Haylen hoped it was that, and not him looking too repulsive right now.

“Sure”, he said, and put ‘shooting session’ on the schedule, sending an invitation to Xander before another strong itch required another tissue. “Got it?” he asked once he was done wiping his eyes and nose.

“Yes, thank you.”

Haylen looked at the wristband chart. “I’ll send you my private tag too. I mute the AF one when I’m off duty, so…”

“Oh that’s… That’s great, thank you”, Xander said, stumbling slightly on the words as he confirmed the request.

“Doesn’t mean we’re engaged or anything”, Haylen said and closed the wristband. “That was a joke, Dots”, he added as he noticed Xander’s baffled look.

Xander blinked. And, of course, blushed. “I know”, he said, trying to sound convincing, but gave an awkward little laugh.

Haylen smirked, then had to quickly turn away because this time, he actually did start sneezing.

A few minutes later, the shuttle to Nineteen finally opened for boarding, and Haylen and Leon headed for the gates. Time for his first shore leave as a soldier in a very long time. And all that free time would be wasted on him because of the damn kryvat.

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Corporal duty

“I’m not saying it’s wrong, I only…-”

“You just said it was!”

“No, I didn’t! Look…”

Haylen heard Cory’s and Felicia’s voices even before he went inside the shuttle hall with his gear. There was a couple of smaller room for weapon and armor maintenance, but the soldiers usually sat on the floor in the more spacey shuttle hall unless there were a lot of small parts involved. Haylen considered using that other room for half a second, but put his things down where the others were anyway.

The shuttle hall wasn’t very crowded this morning. The scouts and Morgan were in the workshop for technical equipment, taking care of and filling up their air tanks. Paavo was still locked up at the med bay, probably more to keep him from unnecessary use of his leg rather than actual medical surveillance, and Rashida’s concussion made it impossible for her to even turn her head without throwing up, and was ordered to rest in bed.

That left Matsuko and Mourad from team 3, who were quietly focusing on their own work, and Tianyi, who was engaged in Cory’s and Felicia’s discussion. As Haylen sat down, Cory briefly looked at him before he took a deep breath and continued to explain to Felicia and Tianyi.

“What I’m saying is, that in this galaxy, humankind is struggling. We have stillborn babies, babies born without arms or legs, babies born with flawed inner organs – the people is growing frail. This means we need as many people as possible to reproduce, to get more able people actually making it into adulthood, and to adapt quicker to life at least in this solar system. And, since it takes two components to make a baby, people should consider that when choosing a partner.”

“Oh, you think it’s our duty to have children?” said Tianyi, her usual cheeriness having a scrappy touch to it. She was brushing a legplate clean, but her ribcage was pretty sore from last day’s mission, and it was obvious she would need help eventually if she wanted to be done before lunch.

“I never said ‘duty’”, Cory objected, “I just think that sometimes people think too much about themselves as individuals instead of part of a society.”

“So if two people love each other”, Tianyi said, “and they happen to be two ciswomen, you think they’re being selfish?”

Cory shook his head dismissively. “I wish you people would stop putting words in my mouth.”

“But you’re not answering the question”, Felicia urged, sounding as angry as she looked, in tailor seat leaning forward with her hands on her knees.

Cory raised his eyebrows. “I don’t even know what the question is any longer.”

Before Felicia got to remind him, Tianyi interrupted.

“Then what is it that makes you so upset with this whole same-sex partner thing, is it the lack of baby making?”

Cory scoffed softly. “I’m not upset about anything, it’s you who are.” He gestured at them.

“Okay, okay”, Tianyi said, raising her hand, “what if I hooked up with, say… Halo’s girlfriend.”

Haylen silently looked up at her. She knew he found it annoying that she still insisted on calling Ziva his girlfriend, and she enjoyed every time she got to say it. She grinned, and continued.

“Let’s also say we found a couple of suitably equipped people to produce offspring with, then you would be all fine and dandy about two women having a romantic relation?”

“I would say”, Cory said, slowly as if weighing his words, “that you at least were thinking about our species’ survival.”

Felicia wasn’t satisfied though, and her voice was even sharper now.

“But what you said was that you don’t like to see non cis-hetero couples.”

“Again, I never said that…”

“You said, and I quote, ‘I think it’s sad’ when I told you about my cousin and her girlfriend!”

“If you’re quoting me, at least humor me enough not to leave any parts out”, Cory answered dryly. “I said it was sad that she didn’t even bother to try out a cismale partner.”

“How the hell is that not saying it’s wrong?”

“Because not all unnatural things are wrong.”

Felicia threw her head back in disbelief. “Oh my god, ‘unnatural’!? What are you, an old-earther?”

“That’s you having a weird relation to the word ‘unnatural’, not me.” Cory looked at his own two teammates with a smile, but only got uncommitted ones in return.

Tianyi started to talk before Felicia got the chance. “Is contraceptives a good kind of unnatural to you?”

Cory looked at her with a mildly impatient smile. “Your point being?”

“Well, if you were banging a nice chick and the condom broke, or your pills didn’t work, and she got pregnant – would you insist on keeping the child? No options considered?”

“And with ‘option’ you mean ‘abortion’ I take it?”

“Among other things.”

“Of course I would insist on keeping the child. If I’m fine with having sex I should be fine with having a child. That’s the main purpose of it, after all.” He said the last sentence with a meaning look at Felicia.

“What?!” Tianyi burst out in pretended astonishment. “My life is a lie…!”

Matsuko and Mourad chuckled at her, but Felicia didn’t share their amusement. “So you think Malenka was selfish and irresponsible to have that abortion?”

“I’m not going to discuss Malenka’s abortion when she’s not around, Lissy”, Cory said.

“Okay okay”, Tiany intervened eagerly, “how about this: A guy rapes me, and I get pregnant. Should I keep the child?”

Cory gave her a look. “You’re being very hypothetical now.”

“And you aren’t with all this talk about preservation of the human species and all? Answer the question.”

Tianyi’s tone had gotten sharper now too. Haylen glanced at Matsuko and Mourad, but they had their eyes mostly set on their work just like himself.

“Well”, Cory said and looked at her thoughtfully, “the child can’t help that you were raped. It’s a child no matter who’s the other parent.”

“But that other parent would never ever be a real parent, never help with the kid once it was born even if he got out of prison.”

“Not every parent lives to see their children being born either.” Cory shrugged.

“Yeah but this guy isn’t someone who planned to have a family, it’s someone who’s only after some quick fun and power play.”

“I heard you the first time you said ‘rape’, Tia, and I repeat: It’s still a child, even if it came to exist because of a rape.”

“We have laws though”, Felicia pointed out. “Legally…-”

“You don’t have to lecture me on abortion laws, Felicia”, Cory interrupted.

“Hang on, let me get this clear”, Tianyi said, “you do think that if someone rapes you, and you get pregnant, you should still keep the child.”

“If there’s no threat to your health, of course.”

“Alright.” Tianyi nodded and turned back to her work. She suddenly seemed weirdly indifferent.

Cory looked from Tianyi to Felicia, who also had picked up her chore.

“I honestly don’t understand what all the fuss here is about.”

“Really, Cory?” Felicia’s voice oozed of sarcasm as she looked up at him. “You can’t understand why someone would be offended if you called them selfish and irresponsible for doing what’s best for them and their lives?”

He gave her a somewhat teasing look. “Selfish – best for themselves. I rest my case.”

Felicia slammed her palm on the floor. “You know what I mean!”

“Maybe it’s hard to face the truth?” He shrugged. “Either way, I’m entitled my opinion.”

“And the rest of us aren’t? We’re not entitled to object when you’re spilling your sucky opinions around?”

“Of course you are, I just wish you could do so with less shouting and wild interpretation of what I’m saying.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to interpret ‘make more biological babies even if you’re gay or rape victim’ in any other way than exactly that?” Felicia stared at him. “Also, how the fuck is rapist genes helping humankind here!?” She was about to continue, but Tianyi stopped her.

“Scopes, leave it”, she said, very calmly. “He’s not worth your breath.”

Cory raised his eyebrows. “Wow. Now I’m offended. It’s one thing you don’t agree with me, Tia, you don’t have to attack my person.”

“Mourad?” Tianyi said. “If Cory ever uses the nickname ‘Tia’ when talking about me again, would you please tell him not to? It’s bad enough that his mouth gets to say my official name.”

“Very mature, Tia, very mature”, Cory said.

“You can tell him yourself Tia, oh my god…” Mourad said awkwardly despite the eyeroll.

Tianyi didn’t say anything more. Felicia got on her feet, gathered her stuff and left the docking bay. When she walked past Haylen she snarled: “Thanks for the help.”

He looked up at her, but it was too late to answer.

“Is this a womb thing?” Cory asked with a sigh. “Or a gay thing perhaps?”

“I think it’s a you-thing”, Matsuko answered calmly.

“How so, Matsuko?” Cory peered at her. “Do tell.”

She shook her head without looking up. “Because you like winding people up.”

“Do I now? I can’t really help if people get wound up by my opinions, can I?”

As Matsuko kept working in silence, Cory finally looked Haylen’s way. Haylen looked back, even if he knew he was going to regret it.

“What do you think, Haylen?”

“I get the whole society thing, don’t see the point of guilt trippin’ people for not goin’ all rabbit though.”

Cory frowned, but with that little smile still on his lips. “Guilt tripping? Is that what you think I’m doing?”

“Yeah.”

Cory shifted into a position leaning more forward and looked at Haylen, not unlike a hunter zooming in on its prey.

“In what way am I guilt tripping anyone? And, while we’re at it, for what exactly?”

Haylen looked at him silently for a few moments, but Cory waited.

“You didn’t listen to Felicia an’ Tianyi while you talked to’em?”

“Of course I did. I just didn’t hear any valid argument for their stand. I got to say, it’s rather interesting to see you all so strongly convinced I’m wrong yet you can’t explain why.”

“That you don’t understand don’t mean you be given bad arguments.”

“Trick questions and insinuations hardly count as arguments.”

For a moment Haylen was tempted to bring up the fact that he personally didn’t want to have kids at all. But he had to admit that he had stepped into the same trap as Felicia and Tianyi. Whether or not Cory liked to wind people out, he had succeeded in just that. To try and give him a serious explanation would be a waste of time and energy; Cory would be more keen on winning a word feud than actually making an effort to understand.

So instead of answering, Haylen put conditioner on a cloth and began to silently work it into the now brushed clean boot. Taking sides and defending his own had been natural as well as required in the Tyrian Tanks, but ‘sides’ had gone irrelevant when he signed up for Praesidia, and ‘his own’ had narrowed down to pretty much Ziva and himself.

With the inevitable blur of legal and moral lines that came with that kind of work for that kind of company, he had found that the least frustrating solution to situations like this was to simply shut the fuck up. If he tried to argue for himself or others, it usually only made things worse.

Still, standing idle had never felt right. That added extra bitterness to the fact that while his silence came out of resignation, Tianyi’s silence was an act of aggression.

Cory smiled, pleased with the outcome, no doubt. “If you’re out of arguments, maybe you can elaborate this rabbit thing instead?”

“Can we just drop this now?” asked Matsuko and looked at Cory tiredly.

“If you don’t like the subject, then sure”, Cory answered with exaggerated indifference.

After a couple of minutes Matsuko and Mourad started to talk about something less emotion stirring. Tianyi and Cory got involved too as if nothing happened, but Haylen noticed that Tianyi didn’t answer Cory directly even once.

Tianyi caught Haylen’s eyes to give him a brief smile, either as encouragement or a thanks for the support. He didn’t really think he deserved either.

No rest for the wicked

Someone was gently shaking his shoulder, and he slowly and reluctantly emerged from the sweet emptiness of sleep. The first sound he registered was the prio 1 mission alert, the soft ‘bim – bim – bim’ triggered the instincts to finish what he was doing and go get geared up, but there was no receiving end anywhere; his mind and his body seemed to have merged into a thick, grey pulp.

”Haylen?” At least he recognized Leon’s voice. ”Haylen, you awake?”

He rolled over halfway on his back, trying to blink his eyes open and focus. The pain in his head made him squint despite the dim light.

”You wit’ me, Haylen?”

He took a deep breath, trying to grasp reality and find his voice. ”…yeah.”

”We got a mission. I need to know if you be good to go or not. Can you sit up?”

Not until now memory caught up with him. The stress test. Migraine. Seizure. He was still in the med bay, where they had taken him earlier so he could sleep it all off. It could have been minutes ago, it could have been days. He hated this. Hated hated hated to wake up disoriented, without clear memories, no connection, hated it…

The mission alert signal finally hit a target in his brain, and his body responded. He pushed himself up into sitting, putting his feet down on the floor, inhaling deeply and pulling his shoulders up as his forehead began to pound.

”Haylen?” Leon’s hands were on his shoulders.

”…yeah?”

“Name, rank, number.”

He recited the lot of it. At least all that came to his tongue without much delay.

”We got a mission”, Leon said again, giving him a water bottle and told him to drink before he continued. ”Alpha Dawn group attacked anot’er research station, prio 1 mission. De UGS Terra sent deir teams dere already, but dey can’ handle it alone. You able to get ready an’ move out in a bit?”

Haylen took a few breaths, closing his mouth firmly to keep the water down. He felt nauseous, shaky, but he could tell that the headache was at least on the going-away-side and not the kill-you-soon-side.

”Yeah, I am…” He put the bottle away and rubbed his forehead. It was easier to talk if he kept his eyes closed. “Section E caused de seizure?”

“Don’ know yet, but it sure dragged more sand in. You won’ be usin’ dem on dis mission dough. Need more painkillers?”

“What’s de time?”

”2:14, you had last dose about seven hours ago, been sleepin’ since. You feelin’ sick?”

“Mm.”

“A’ight, drink more if you can, den go gear up. We be gettin’ food on de go, an’ two hours idlin’ on de shuttle.”

“Got it.”

The others were almost set and ready when Haylen entered the changing room. Felicia was adjusting her chestpiece, talking to Xander.

“You look as fresh as a fucking rosebud, what’s your secret? You got sleep enhancing implants?” She, as well as most of the others, was puffy-eyed and raspy due to being rallied after too few hours of sleep. Xander wasn’t.

The TR scratched his neck, cheeks turning slightly redder. “I never went to sleep tonight. There was a bug in the engine software I had to deal with, and when I had solved that the alarm went off.”

“Hope that door doesn’t hit you in the back during the mission then”, said Cory.

Felicia turned to Haylen as he opened his locker and asked him how he was feeling, and that was where he had to turn on his heel and get to the toilet to throw up.

“Please don’t say you’re pregnant too”, Keith said as he went back to his locker. Never too tired to joke, was he.

Felicia didn’t ask more, thankfully. However, Cory did.

“I heard the stress test didn’t go so well. Should you really go on a mission right now? You look terrible.”

“Not your call, eh…” Haylen mumbled without looking at him, trying to the legplates in place.

“I was asking out of concern, but okay.” Haylen didn’t need to see him to know his eyebrows were raised in defense.

But before he came up with an answer, Cory left the changing room. Haylen leaned his head against the cool surface of the cabinet door, wishing he could stay there forever. Morgan briefly put a hand on his shoulder, giving it an encouraging rub as he walked past.

Felicia closed her locker as Haylen got a grip of himself again and continued with the armor pieces. “Hate to say it, but he got a point. Are you sure you’re good to go?”

He lifted his chin up, then looked at her.

She held up her hands. “Okay, okay.” She grabbed her helmet and weapon, waiting for him to get finished before they went to the shuttle hall.

– – –

The research station was located on a relatively safe area on UR22, a 1.2 G moon without atmosphere and with active cryovolcanoes. The two Terra teams had suffered casualties and was on their last air reserves, and still they hadn’t been able to breach the enemy defense line. Apparently, the Alpha Dawn group had brought more robotic toys. Not the troopers this time, but the smaller MG:s, Mechanical Guards. Less firepower, less sturdy, but hard to take out in a cramped area where you couldn’t use grenades.

Or when you couldn’t use the Tyrian Tank, Haylen thought as he forced down the last of the nutritional smoothie he had sipped on during the trip. Fortunately he’d been able to keep it all down. Another painkiller and forty five minutes of sleep, and he was almost back to normal. But there was the lingering shakiness and sensitivity to sounds, his reactions were slower, and he had orders not to use anything more than normal barriers.

It could’ve been worse, of course. Much worse. Still, it would’ve been neat not to have Cory’s silent doubt as a fucking flashlight in his face every time their eyes happened to meet. It was enough with his own. Even captain Avril hadn’t commented his general status this time, who was Cory to have opinions? Then again, Leon told him that there had been enough scolding from both the captain and the commander last night, when Haylen was blissfully asleep, to last for the whole mission.

As the team had gradually shook the sleep daze off during the transport, Xander was instead starting to yawn. Leon tossed him a few stim packs to wake up his brain later when it was time to hack MG:s.

They entered atmosphere and it was time to get ready.

“The plan is to join the Terra teams at the rendezvous points” captain Avril informed them. “They need to exchange air tanks so we’ll replace them for a while. Xander will continue their attempts to shut down the MG:s before we move in. If that fails, we’ll have to shoot our way through. There is air inside the station and so far the airlock is working. As per usual, you are not to remove your breather pieces until you get permission.”

“Time to show the Terrables how to deal with Alphas”, Keith grinned.

Haylen didn’t feel like smiling. Enter Task Force Ignis, eh, with its crippled prim duty team. Short of one soldier and half a frontliner, and the remaining half of said frontliner wasn’t even allowed to use his amp force properly… Haylen sighed and put his helmet on, clicking the breather piece in place.

It took Xander a good while to break into the system that controlled the MG:s, even with the progress made by the Terra TR:s. Meanwhile, the Ignis team held the claimed positions until the Terra team got back with fresh air tubes. The air inside the station was still good, but the officers were taking no risks. The Alpha Dawn might’ve been be a young organisation, but they had also shown that they could be reckless and, well. Rather dramatic. There was a risk they’d rather vent the station and die with their enemy than surrender.

This unit seemed to be a great deal more experienced and skilled one than the previous ones the Ignis teams had encountered. When the MG:s eventually were shut down, the teams were met with heavy gunfire as they advanced into the station. An intense fight followed, from which Paavo had to pull out of after taking a rather serious hit in the leg. Tianyi and Rashida were hit badly too, but since none of them got bleeding wounds they had to carry on.

It wasn’t until the remainders of the two Terra teams returned that they could finally turn the tides. At last, there was a desperate request for cease-fire from the Alpha Dawns, and one by one they left their weapons on the ground and crawled out of hiding with their hands in the air. Five of them were dead, another twenty one wounded, leaving only three of them physically unharmed. Those three were hiding in the station’s communication central, three scared witless teenagers who had been seduced by the rebel spirit only to realize that they weren’t prepared to die for this obscure cause at all.

“It’s just sad”, Felicia pondered as they were waiting for more reinforcements to take care of the Alpha Dawn-prisoners and the station crew. “Union research is already common property, their whole agenda is nothing but sheep shit.”

She kept her voice low, glancing at the prisoners in the room. They had been placed in the station canteen and in a conference room, guarded by the Ignis and the Terra team respectively. Leon and Nyree had patched their own soldiers up first, and were now taking care of the prisoners.

“They claim the Union is keeping information from us though”, Cory pointed out. “Which isn’t untrue, there’s a whole lot of things the public never gets to know.”

“Yes, I know, but that’s just common classified stuff. Some information need to be handled with care, right? But they always sound like people don’t get to know even the most basic stuff, like what minerals can be mined from what asteroid, and things like that.”

“What I don’t understand”, Morgan said, “is that if they are connected to the Federation, which they seem to be considering the jammers on that drone we encountered, why is free information so important to them? The Federation usually praises company secrets and the freedom of protecting and selling anything you possess.”

“Hey”, said Keith with a nod in the prisoners’ direction, and they all stopped talking since it was obvious the two closest ones tried to listen in.

Haylen felt a headache build up, and took a dose of the migraine meds just in case it wasn’t an ordinary one. Then he looked at Xander who was leaning at the wall next to him, eyes staring at absolutely nothing.

“Tired, Dots?”

Xander blinked and looked at him, forcing his eyes to stay open. “I’m sorry, what did you say? I think I was asleep.”

Haylen only smirked, shaking his head. “Sit down before you drop, private.”

The TR blinked again, then nodded slowly. “That’s a good idea. Very good idea.” Xander sank down on the floor and fell asleep in less than a minute.

And, in less than three minutes, reinforcements arrived, and it was time for the Ignis teams to leave. Haylen actually felt sorry for Xander as he had to wake him up again.

Out of hands

One week left until shore leave. The team would have a week off, then they would all have personal schedules for a couple of weeks. Some were going back to the base at Sol’s Ward for education and practising, some were going on various guarding or patrolling duties on their home colonies. It all depended on what the colonies demanded and what the commander thought was needed.

Haylen had orders to be at the Sol’s Ward base for amp training and a crash course in modern military knowledge or something similar. He didn’t exactly look forward to any of it, especially not that second part, but he didn’t have much say in it. At least the time at Sol’s Ward would give him an opportunity to catch up with Ziva.

If she wanted to. They hadn’t talked or written to each other since Haylen left for UGS Ignis.

There was some motivation for the amp training though. The talk with the captain earlier hadn’t been very encouraging, but at least she had been honest. No promises, no smooth-overs. Simply showing him her cards. He hadn’t been thrown overboard yet. Still a chance to take control over these damn amps.

Except for the follow-up talks with captain Avril, they had all been busy with various maintenance duties the whole day. Now they were having dinner before the shooting practise. Felicia just sat down with the other team 1-members with her tray of food. She was late; the rest of them were almost done eating.

“I just texted with Santo”, she said while she stuffed her mouth with fish and carrots.

“You got a connection finally?” asked Morgan and looked up at her, expectantly.

“Yeah but it took forever to send and receive”, Felicia answered, her words muffled by food.

“What did he say?” asked Keith, who was absent-mindedly touching a bruise on his face. It was barely visible since his skin was so dark, but there was still a swelling. The close combat training yesterday had been… enthusiastic. At least Tianyi’s left hook hadn’t started another war between them.

“That his legs are healing as they should and that he’s feeling alright, more or less. But I mean, he’s not able to walk for a while and he’s kind of low at the moment, I caught that much.”

“I wonder if his feet could have been saved if he had been cut loose instead of pulled out”, Cory mused from his side of the table. He always managed to place himself so he could hear what team 1 was talking about.

Haylen decided not to answer that, even if it was clear that it was directed at him and nobody else; he was the one who had freed Santo. He focused on mixing the rest of the fish with whatever gravy he had left. Simone was a good cook but even she couldn’t turn fish into anything that wasn’t fish.

Felicia inhaled in a way that meant she was going to counterattack Cory, but surprisingly enough, Morgan was the one coming to Haylen’s defense this time.

“You weren’t there Cory, there wasn’t really time to be surgical.”

“I thought you were passed out most of the time?” Cory sounded as innocent as ever.

“And I would’ve been dead if Haylen hadn’t got Santo out so Felicia could shoot the centipede.”

Cory shrugged. “If you say so.”

“They’re pretty good at integrated prosthetics these days though.” Xander said, maybe attempting to ease the tension. He sat in front of Haylen, and lifted his left hand, waving his fingers.

Haylen tilted his head a bit to the side, looking at the hand.

“Never noticed. Which… be your point, I guess.”

“Well, yes. It was.” Xander smiled awkwardly.

“How much of it?”

“It goes up to just below the elbow. I’m one of the first on UC01 born with infant mortification. They had to amputate it at once.”

“Ew”, said Tianyi, “I hate that word.”

“Mortification?” Morgan said, looking at Xander with a frown.

“Yes”, Tianyi answered even if it was obvious Morgan was talking to Xander.

“I thought all those who were missing limbs from birth simply didn’t have them, not that it was mortification”, Morgan continued.

“I said ‘ew, I hate that word’”, Tianyi said and leaned forward so she could spell it out directly to Morgan’s face. He just smiled and pushed her head away.

“That’s another syndrome”, Xander explained. “The infant mortification…-” Tianyi made a disgusted noise again. Xander paused with a little smile, then continued. “This syndrome is less common, but since people tend to find it appalling, it’s easier to just say you’re born without a hand or foot or whatever.”

“And we’re all very grateful”, said Tianyi, drinking the rest of her water.

“Can they put prosthetics on infants?” Keith asked. “Won’t you have to switch them every other month if so? And aren’t they like, really tiny?” He measured with thumb and index finger, squinting.

“I didn’t get my first until I was five, but yes. They have to be switched as you grow. And upgraded or exchanged once in a while. But this one I’m supposed to have for some years now.”

“That means you stopped growing?” asked Tianyi. “Thank the gods for that, you’re obscenely tall.”

“He got a perfect height”, Haylen said, as he checked the time. They had four minutes until shooting session started. They better get ready.

“Well you’re biased, you mutated mammoth tree”, Tianyi replied.

“Ever considered the option that you might be obscenely short?” Keith asked as he stood up with his empty tray, a mocking smile on his face.

“I’m exactly the height I was meant to have, more would be a waste of flesh”, she said, and as Haylen stood up in his full length, taking his tray too, she added: “As you can see on some other people here.”

He looked at her. She smiled widely with closed lips at him. So he just smirked a bit and went to leave his tray, giving Xander and Felicia a brief look as he walked around the table. The TR was looking another direction, blushing for some unknown reason. Felicia on the other hand had an innocent smile on her face as she gave Xander a pat on the arm and left the table as well.

Before he made it to the shooting range, doctor Eira caught him in the corridor.

“Tomorrow, after whatever it is you lunatics do before dinner, we’ll do the stress test. Then you can rest after if you have to. Don’t show up starving, but don’t come completely full either.”

“Got it”, he said.

She peered at him. “You were hoping I had forgotten about it, weren’t you?”

He pointed the other direction. “I goin’ be late.”

“Shoo then”, she said, waving him off while walking away herself.

Another thing to not look forward too. But there was one more day left for her to forget it on, right.

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 blue-green 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 chest guard 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 shoulder guards 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 minutes 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, Santo, 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 flashlights 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.”

Upgrades

“We’ll land one kilometer away from their base. Unless they’re all deaf and blind they’ll know we’re coming, but at least it will be harder for them to blow up our shuttle if they’re in that mood.”

Captain Avril stood at the briefing screen in the shuttle bay. Before her were team 1 and team 3 plus two of the TR:s, standing at ease in a line. Haylen listened while watching the map on the screen.

Their target was a research station on UR27 that had been brutally taken over by a group from the Alpha Dawn. It was the fourth station in two months in this area, and unless the Union were able to stop them this time, they would plunder this station and murder its staff as they had with the other ones.

The crew was eager to get into some real action again, Haylen was no exception. Having sick days on his first week as a new meat wasn’t his idea of a good start. Even if it wasn’t technically his fault. Except that migraine, maybe. But for some reason Felicia had stopped looking at him as if either she or he was about to start a fight after that. And next kryvat surge wouldn’t hit him for another month or so. Always something.

Captain Avril pointed at the map.

“Felicia, you take position on this hill, Cory on this.”

Felicia, her distinct jaws pushed forwards as always when she was paying attention, and Cory, the slender and kind of handsome sniper of team 3, confirmed in unison.

“You will act as support in case things get hairy down there. The rest of you will follow me. We will approach the base openly because we are to offer them a chance to surrender.”

“Sounds kind of risky if you ask me,” Cory objected, “they’ll probably shoot at you at sight.”

“And how do we usually handle that, private Cory?” said the captain, looking at him with one eyebrow raised in annoyance.

“Frontliner barriers and snipers, but one of these frontliners is still rather inexperienced and…-”

“And you really had to point that out,” the captain interrupted, “and now you have.” She turned to the others. “Haylen, Matsuko, as private Cory mentioned, you’ll be up front stopping any bullets coming my way.”

Haylen gave her an affirmative nod, not giving Cory one single look.

“Keith and Morgan left flank, Santo and Tianyi right flank. I handle the talking. If they open fire, we split to side buildings. I go left. Then we’ll improvise. Our goal is to incapacitate until they surrender. No grenades, we want the equipment and databanks intact. Is that understood?”

She may or may not have directed that to Santo in particular. Either way, he gave her a sloppy salute with his hand. He loved his hand grenades. The captain turned to the two medics.

“Leon, Nyree, you stay put in the shuttle with Dmitri, following us on the monitor. And Leon, I want extra focus on Haylen. Any signs of critical stress levels and I want him out of action.”

“A’ight,” said Leon with a look at Haylen that indicated he was surprised by this order.

It was common praxis to keep tabs on stress levels on amped people, since in rare cases too much stress could cause the implants to overload. With frontliners, precautions were even higher because of the extreme tax on their neural system when using barriers, in addition to the general risk of overheating due to increased metabolism. The energy had to come from somewhere.

However, most amped soldiers were equipped with boosters, endo regulators that medics could direct manually to distribute small doses of hormones and drugs suitable for the situation. That allowed medics to keep the soldiers on their feet a little longer in emergency situations, and take the brunt of the stress if needed. Haylen had a booster too.

So. Captain Avril wasn’t bringing the back up team’s frontliner only for her own safety, but also because she didn’t trust Haylen to handle this. So much for her shutting Cory up about it earlier.

“Make sure your weapons are loaded with sponge ammo and not piercing before we shuttle up. If you use lethal rounds you’re in for court-martial. Daleen and Xander, you’re not going in until we secured the place.”

The two TR:s nodded.

“Questions?”

Leon raised a hand in his lazy kind of way.

“When you done, we be treatin’ de Alpha Dawn injured too? Or let’em rot on de spot?”

“They are to be treated like any prisoners. We’re taking them with us to Ignis, where the police will pick them up.”

Leon nodded, settled with the answers.

“Are there still civilians in there?” Cory asked.

“No. I would have told you that.”

“I just wanted to be sure, that’s all.”

Avril barely waited for him to finish. “Other questions?”

“Will there be tea and biscuits on the shuttle?” Tianyi looked expectantly at her.

Captain Avril gave Tianyi a stern look. “If you don’t have any relevant questions, keep that biscuit hole shut.” The soldier grinned happily back at her.

“Alright people, check your ammo, take a leak, gear up. We’re leaving in ten.”

– – –

Someone shook his shoulder, and Haylen blinked, trying to remember where he was.

“Soon there”, Felicia informed him.

It was a bliss, being able to fall asleep practically anywhere, but maybe it wasn’t very convenient all the time, right.

“Cory, your chart isn’t loading, are you unplugged?” Nyree, the stockily built medic of team 3, looked up at Cory from her monitor. Cory checked his wristband.

“No way it’s already out of batteries”, he frowned, “I charged it before last mission for god’s sake.”

Haylen checked his armor and weapon silently, content with idle listening for now.

“You probably drained it during that,” Matsuko suggested. Her slit-like eyes had a cocky glimpse in them, in contrast to her laid-back posture. “I mean, you were basically shitting your pants when you got cornered by that scale bear.”

Felicia exchanged a look with Keith, her dimples deepening. Keith was trying to hide his smile, but unsuccessfully. Morgan shot them a condescending look, but then turned back to Santo and Leon, who were talking about some sport game.

“I wasn’t shitting my pants,” Cory grumbled, switching the battery.

“Peeing then?”

“I was neither.”

“Well you sure did something, because you walked funnily after.”

Felicia and Keith both snorted with laughter by now. Haylen briefly looked up and caught eyes with Xander, who was sitting in front of Daleen at the other end of the row of seats. The freckled TR then looked back at the banter, less judgingly than Morgan, but not as amused as Felicia and Keith.

“I had been sitting on my knees for half an hour.” Cory turned to Nyree in a demonstrative way. “Is it working now?”

“Yep, there you are. Wow. Your heart is racing. Are you upset about something?” Nyree looked at him with faked worry, but only got a snort in return.

Matsuko’s laugh drowned the other two’s. Xander and Haylen looked at each other again. Xander shook his head with a smile and a slight blush, as if trying to apologize for his comrades being so childish. Haylen only smirked a bit.

“Touch down in five minutes”, Dmitri’s voice said on the shuttle speakers.

“Helmets on, we’re doing comm check.”

They weren’t using full environmental suits now that they were landing on a planet with a non hazard atmosphere. Still, helmets and reinforced suits weren’t only for protection, but also held communicators, health scanners and other useful equipment.

Avril quickly went through the comm check routine.

“We’re entering atmosphere, prepare for turbulence.”

The captain turned to Daleen, who was looking rather pale where she sat, a folded piece of damp cloth held to her face. “Are you going to throw up?”

Daleen waved her hand dismissively and turned the cloth to put a cooler side against her skin instead. Avril didn’t press the matter further.

“Motion sickness,” Nyree explained to Leon. “Pills make her drowsy, unfortunately.”

“Touch down in one minute.”

“Alright people”, said captain Avril, “get ready. And recruits? I don’t want to see any hero acts this time either. Understood?”

“Yes captain”, they answered.

The station appeared in front of them as they came out of the scarce forest. Vegetation in this area was sort of leathery and slim, more red than green, and the trees were more crooked, pointy flagpoles with scattered sticks than, well, actual trees.

Felicia and Cory had already left the ground team to take positions on each of the spots captain Avril had pointed out for them. Haylen and Matsuko were walking at the front, guns pointed downwards, barriers up.

Guards with the Alpha Dawn crest on their caps were standing in front of the largest of the three barracks. A voice reached them from a speaker somewhere on top of the main barrack.

“Hold it right there. Put your weapons down, hands on your head.”

“I am captain Avril of UGS Ignis”, Avril shouted at the guards as she signed for the team to stop. “I’m offering you a chance to surrender. Either you let us in or give me your comm channel. I won’t stand here and yell at you.”

The answer was two shots from each guard, hitting the ground a few meters from the frontliners’ feet. Both of them raised their guns, and the captain instantly put up a force field in front of them all, but ordered them to hold their fire. The amp type used for the stand alone force field let the imp direct energized particles to form clusters in various shapes. A skilled imp could use it to shove objects around, and some could even create bent fields to hold or pull objects as well. Haylen knew Daleen and Xander could, for instance.

Technically, he could too. He had the channeling paths for at least three kinds of blunt force field ‘tools’, as every Tyrian Tank. Only it was one of those potential brain-frying abilities that he’d been advised not to use.

“Put your weapons down, hands on your head. I won’t say it again.”

“I want to talk to your boss,” captain Avril shouted again. “Give me a channel or let us in, or I will make my way in.”

The guards fired again, this time straight at them. The shots rippled the force field without going through.

“Split! Cover fire!” yelled the captain, and when Haylen and Matsuko opened fire at the guards, she let the force field down, and the two groups headed for each side barrack for cover.

They heard screams of pain from the main building, indicating that Felicia and Cory had hit their targets. Captain Avril carefully checked around the corner.

“Guards are taken inside by two other”, she said on the comm. “Snipers, report.”

“Heat sensors only pick up signals from the main building”, Felicia answered. “I count six.”

“Matsuko, regroup at the twelve o’clock wall on east side building. Stay in cover. Mind the rear.”

Matsuko confirmed she had heard the order.

“Haylen, take point, we move to main building’s nine o’clock wall. Go.”

Haylen moved around the outer corner, following the wall of the barrack, carefully had a look around the next corner, then they crossed the open area between the side barrack and the main, taking cover behind the nine o’clock wall. From there the could have visual contact with the other group, who in turn could overlook the main building.

The area was unnervingly calm. No more Alpha Dawns came out from the main building, not on the back side either. But when captain Avril started giving orders to head for the entrance, a gate opened on the building on which the other group were positioned.

With heavy clonks, a machine on two legs stepped out of the building. It had large toes spreading out for balance, and one a-can on each ‘shoulder’, a pair of opposite grappling claws and a small mobile camera for aim and direction on it’s top. It was at least four meters high.

“Where the hell did they get an MT from?” captain Avril hissed with distrust.

Haylen had recognized the Federation mechanical trooper immediately. The Federation, the main enemy force during the Gamma wars, had developed various kinds of battlebots where the Union had put their money into amping living soldiers. One of the Tyrian Tanks’ most common tasks was to deal with things like this, and out of instinct he had began to build up amp force.

“I can take it out”, he said, gaze focused on the MT.

The captain, who was scanning the area and most probably working on an alternative plan, held her hand up at him dismissively without even looking at him. “I said no hero acts. The snipers can deal with it.”

“I done it at least twenty times, I know where to strike.” Haylen talked fast, they were running out of time. “Rifles be of no use, it goin’ kill us before we even scratch it.”

The MT moved slow, but the a-can rounds meant instant death for an unshielded soldier.

The captain looked at him, mouth a thin line. Then she nodded at the mechanomonster. “Go.”

While he put his weapon on his back and took position for the leap, he heard her voice on the comm. “Stay put, all of you. Haylen’s taking out the mech.”

One of the hardest things to learn as a Tyrian Tank was the combined attacks, where the amp force had to be channeled in different ways and on different paths at once. It was a charge like the one Haylen was about to perform that had more or less ruined the neural system at a couple of his teammates some years ago, after the T9 upgrade. Haylen was risking a killer migraine once this mission was over, but it was the only way.

He ran towards the MT, it’s cannon fire fizzling at his force field, then jumped forward, putting up his fists as a ram, his amp force both boosting the leap and forming a spearhead in front of him, and he slammed into the MT’s central unit.

The MT’s casing broke and the unit was uncovered and damaged, but still functional. The machine took one step back to keep it’s balance, swinging it’s grapple claws now that the cannons couldn’t reach it’s attacker. Haylen, who had landed on his feet but nevertheless was slightly disoriented after the violent impact, got slapped in the side of his head, but the helmet took most of the hit. He avoided the other claw, and prepared another attack.

“There is movement inside, they’re coming out!” he heard Felicia’s voice on the comm, and captain Avril started to shout orders to the other soldiers.

For Haylen, there was only the MT right now. His amp force flooded around him again, and he jumped up, forming the spearhead around one arm instead of two this time; he had to take a hold of the MT’s cannon with the other hand to not lose half the attack power. He ran his fist into the central unit, the amp spearhead tearing through processors and microchips, and a few sparkles and jerking later, the MT went still, only arm twitching repeatedly, stuck in a loop of commands that didn’t get finished.

Haylen let himself down on the ground in a hurry, knowing he was a sitting duck out here if their targets decided to pick up the fight, barriers or not. He took the gun from his back again and turned around to see the first Alpha Dawns coming out from the main building whose walls were now scarred by the a-can fire, shooting in all directions as they tried to get to their own shuttle, parked on the prepared landing area some hundred meters away. Haylen took cover behind the broken MT, and aimed for the mercenaries’ legs, as captain Avril had ordered them.

It was a quick match from there. Apparently the Alpha Dawn had put all their trust in their mechanical toy, counting on the MT to wipe out the Union task force. Their chaotic attempt to flee resulted in half of them squirming on the ground, the painful wounds from the sponge rounds rendering them incapable of putting up more resistance, and convincing the rest of them it was better to surrender before getting shot rather than after.

The soldiers spread out to keep an eye on the surroundings, in case there were Alpha Dawns out in the terrain. Haylen took post beside Keith between the broken MT and the prisoners, who were rounded up in front of the main building. He took a dose the migraine medicine that doctor Eira had given him to use on missions, a thick cream in a small pump bottle. It tasted weird and left an unpleasant film on the inside of his mouth, but hopefully this one would get the job done.

The medics and TR:s arrived. Leon checked on Haylen quickly to rule out any head trauma, then joined Nyree over at the injured mercs. Xander and Daleen however had stopped to have a closer, wide-eyed look at the broken MT.

“Is that a Federation mechanical trooper?” Daleen said, as distrustful as captain Avril earlier.

“It is indeed a Federation mechanical trooper”, Keith answered. He couldn’t quite hide his fascination with the construct.

“What happened to it? I thought you weren’t bringing any explosives.”

“The Tyrian Tank happened.” Keith sounded… proud?

The TR:s looked at Haylen.

“You did that?” Daleen pointed at the mech.

“Yeah.”

“With your amp force?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

“Close your mouth, cushion”, Keith grinned at her.

“I’m sorry”, she said, looking at Haylen again, “it’s just that I never really seen the effects of weaponized amp powers.”

He didn’t really know what to answer so he remained quiet. He had almost forgotten that this wasn’t really a thing outside the Elite Forces.

“It is quite impressive”, Xander agreed, looking from the MT back at Haylen. He had a pleasant voice. Which maybe was an odd thing to notice here and now.

“Don’t stand there and drool, start gathering what’s left in there.” Captain Avril looked grimly at the TR:s. Xander blushed and mumbled an apology while Daleen merely rolled her eyes, and they left the MT and the soldiers to go dig up what they could from the main building’s data cores.

Captain Avril walked up to Haylen.

“Nice stunt you pulled there. How long will it be until you’re a twitching mess on the floor?”

Haylen looked briefly at her, then continued his habitual scanning of their surroundings. “Just had meds, so I won’t be.”

“Still, you had to take meds to avoid it.”

He didn’t answer. There wasn’t much to say anyway, was there. If she wanted to provoke a reaction, she needed to put a lot more effort in it than this. He had been honest about the amp issues, they had still let him aboard. If she had problems with that, it wasn’t his to deal with.

“Anyway. According to Leon, your readings weren’t dangerously off even when you went berserk on that mech. I can see it’s a useful ability, as long as you stay upright and functional after.”

He gave her a short nod, slightly surprised by the quick change of attitude, and she went back to their prisoners.

But one victory didn’t win the war, right. In Praesidia, it was up to him to use or not use his amps to get the job done, and if he had to drop out on a gig for health reasons or whatever, they simply cut his pay and that was it. He could show up on the next one, no one would care as long as he pulled his weight.

If he failed to prove himself as a member of the Ignis crew, they wouldn’t shrug and take one day’s pay off. The Union had given him a second chance, and if he didn’t show them he was worth it, they’d kick him out of this field again. And if they did, there would be no more chances.

Perspectives make you soft

Apparently, commander Nihad thought that dealing with a group of Alpha Dawn dimwits would count as a proper initiation rite of the new recruits. Team 3 had gone on shore leave and team 2 signed back on two days ago, which meant team 1 were in for their first prim duty. Prim duty usually meant fighting. Felicia wasn’t sure dealing with Alpha Dawn counted as fighting, especially not after the last encounter with them.

Nevertheless, she felt a little bouncy now that they were lined up in the shuttle bay, geared up and ready, while captain Avril gave them the briefing. Felicia had a lot of spare energy to release upon those makeshift mercenaries.

The first two weeks for the renewed team 1 had otherwise been low on action, mainly because the new members needed some time to get a hang of the Ignis way. In addition, Tianyi had managed to bring a cold virus onboard despite all standard precautions regarding contagion, and it had spread rather quickly among the soldiers. Not that Tianyi could be blamed, really. Infections wasn’t something you could avoid completely, and outbreaks like this happened once in a while, usually after shift changes or longer shore leaves. Still, the unfortunate patient zero got to hear it a lot anyway.

The Ignis had taken on some simple salvage missions meanwhile, since the doctor advised against putting the unwell soldiers under unnecessary physical stress. Finding unmanned probes that had gone AWOL on moons and asteroids in the outskirt of the Beta quadrant wasn’t Felicia’s idea of fun, but since she too had come down with the Tianyi plague, she had to admit that even the only slightly more complicated searching sessions that team 2 were assigned would have been too exhausting for her in her current state.

Despite the simplicity of the missions, team 1 acted as if they were on sharp combat missions. They used standard amp force, practised tactical movement, cover fire, and so on. The exercises helped the new people settle into their new routines quicker, and slowly knit the team together before the real action would kick in.

Both teams had been sent out to one of the earth-like planets in this quadrant to help with the rather undramatic evacuation of a research station. The modules had been placed in the middle of a swamp eight months earlier, and was now slowly sinking into the soft ground.

Nethan practised target protection with Haylen as they were escorting the station staff to the shuttle area. Both were using their barriers; the lesser mosquito bites at the end of the practice, the higher the score.

Haylen, who hadn’t been worst off among the victims of the Tianyi plague, but took longest to recover and therefore wasn’t entirely back on track that day, had a migraine attack when they were on the shuttle heading back. Felicia knew that was a possible side effect of his amp usage, but she realized she hadn’t been quite prepared for how bad it would be.

She was reluctant to admit it, but she had slowly gotten used to have this towering, silent muscle bundle up front instead of the more talkative and gracile Dieter, even if she still found it hard to read him. His face was set in stone most of the time, maybe a smirk on occasion, and his eyes had this default look that carried out the silent threat to bite your throat off the moment you relaxed.

But even if he seemed absent-minded in casual conversations (well, to be honest, ‘dense’ was the first word that had slipped her mouth when she talked to Xander about it; Xander, the incurable diplomat, was the one suggesting ‘absent-minded’), there was nothing wrong with his ability to lead the team during missions. Yet she found it hard to make an effort to actually talk to him.

Tianyi wasn’t a problem that way; she talked all the fricking time and somehow made Felicia talk about things she wasn’t planning to talk about, at least not with Tianyi. And Leon was that kind of person that you felt like having known your whole life just by saying “hello”. He was no chatterbox, but not nearly as determinedly clammed up as Haylen.

As the shuttle left UR27 behind after that evacuation mission, she had watched the frontliner as unobvious as she could. He was sitting in the seat in opposite of hers, one palm pressed against his left eye and the other arm tight around his body, face pale and moist with cold sweat, shivering with the pain and nausea, and that was when she began to fully understand how much UAF had failed their own people in the T9 project.

Felicia herself had always been complaining on the sucky calibrations on her own implants, how the damn sonar bugged out during upgrades and caused clicking sounds within hearing frequency, how tired and sore her eyes got after a whole day’s intensive use. She wasn’t alone. Almost every other imp she met had similar stories.

The difference was that she could do something about it. She could re-calibrate, she could de-bug, she could use stims and eye drops to stay sharp for another couple of hours. Every imp had their hangover, and every imp had a way to smooth them out. And if everything else failed, they had the final resort to have them removed, anytime.

But not even the luckiest of the Tyrian Tanks could have their implants removed, she had picked up that much. Not without causing even more, and unknown, damage. And the integrations of the implants were apparently too complicated to be adjusted or modified in ways that toned down the side effects, which left treatment for the symptoms as the only option. If that was even doable.

Haylen had been one of the luckier, he had said so himself. But if this was considered ‘lucky’, she didn’t even want to know what had happened to the unlucky ones. No wonder the UAF had decided to put the lid on all things concerning the T9 project.

Now, as she stood here and like captain Avril grew more and more irritable with Cory’s constant questioning during the briefing, she caught herself being on the defensive about her new teammates. It surprised her. Everything she had found annoying, Haylen’s harsh silence, Tianyi’s mouth diarrhea, Leon’s slacker attitude – it wouldn’t take long until team 2 picked up on it and started to push buttons, that was for sure. And she was ready to fight anyone who had issues with it.

Who would’ve thunk, huh.