Stress test

“I think I’ll let you do this, sergeant,” doctor Eira said to Leon and handed him the small scanner pads. She might reach up to Haylen’s head with her hands, but she wouldn’t be able to see what she was doing.

They were in the training hall, about to do what was called a stress test. Amplifiers of any kind needed to be scanned regularly, to make sure the system worked as intended, that the paths were undamaged, and so on. The stress test scanned the amps while in use, testing response time, torrent capacity, searching for errors and disturbances in connections and signals.

Since the scanners interacted with the implants and therefore interfered with the brain-implant communication, as well as changing energy flows, it could affect the amped person in non-pleasing ways. Naturally, commander Nahid hadn’t been thrilled to have Haylen and Tianyi go through the tests while on prim duty, but Eira hadn’t had time until now and wanted to have a proper look at the soldiers’ implants before shore leave. Tianyi had passed her test before lunch without problem. Eira expected Haylen’s to be more straining.

Elite class implants like Haylen’s default T7 ones were a tad bit more complicated than ordinary amps. Usually, the neurolinks, enhancer units in the brain and spine, and the energy emitters attached to the skeleton composed a separate system that interacted with the brain and neurological system.

The T9-upgrades were made of materials of classified origin and composition, and integrated seamlessly with the body’s own tissues. It was supposed to make them more efficient, but for doctors of lesser paygrades like herself, it was obvious that it would make it much more difficult to single out problem areas, even more so to actually do anything about it.

While Leon attached the scanner pads to the connection spots behind Haylen’s ears, Eira set up the connection between her tablet and Haylen’s wristband. The soldier was standing still and patient, absent-mindedly looking at the floor.

Eira had finally gotten the official journals with 3D pictures of Haylen’s implants and transmitter paths from the medical archives. It was more of a bird’s nest than she had expected; the schematic pictures had been more tidy. After studying them more thoroughly, she had started to see the fine pattern of it all.

Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t a job well done, even if you ruled out the discrepancy between schematics and reality. There was indications here and there that this integration had been made relying more on pure luck than actual skill.

“Did you make any implant scans at all while you were working for Praesidia?” Eira asked as she prepared the programs. She was still sour she hadn’t got any journals from that company doctor.

“One regular.”

“And how long since is that?”

Haylen had to think about that. “A year an’… three months.”

She raised her eyebrows, making a note of that. “He must’ve known it’s custom to do them every four months?”

“Probably.”

“So why didn’t he do it more often?”

“‘Cause I didn’ ask for it.”

“And why is that?” Eira tried to not sound condescending. She really did try.

“Didn’ see the point.”

Eira couldn’t help it. She went full condescending. “Surely there must be a point in getting to know if there was something wrong with your brain implants.”

“Wouldn’ gone to Praesidia if there wasn’, eh.” For the first time he looked at her properly.

Eira looked back, and sighed. “This isn’t the kind of problem that goes away if you ignore it.”

He closed his eyes briefly before turning his gaze away again, and there was no doubt this was him rolling his eyes at her without actually doing it. It annoyed her, of course, like it always annoyed her when grunts were too stubborn for their own good.

But stubbornness regarding health usually sprung from fear. There was a time for anger, and there was a time for compassion. Haylen was good at hiding it, but Eira didn’t need to see his pulse meter to know he was nervous. She could save the anger for later.

“Now, if you need a break during the test, or if you’re not feeling well, let me know. This is a stress test, not a passage rite.”

“Got it.”

“Good. You will simply activate each ability on my command, and keep it up until I say so. Leon will have the pleasure to do the sim shots when we’re testing the barriers.”

Leon held up the sim gun with a satisfied smile on his unshaven face; it did not qualify as a beard yet. “I love dis part of de job.”

Haylen looked at him, not exactly cheering him on. “Them needles you be stabbin’ us with, they not fun enough?”

“I don’ get to use guns den, kin.” Leon grinned slyly.

“That’ll be quite enough, children”, Eira said and started the scan. “Haylen, normal barrier, if you please.”

A faint shimmer around his body showed that the barriers were up. The data feeds began to show up on her tablet. They went through the close combat abilities while he was maintaining the normal barriers, using a simulated target.

The ram, when he formed a force field gauntlet of sorts around one or both of his hands; the blade, which he had difficulties making sharp enough to cut the target with; the hook, which was basically an angled force field that was meant for shoving or dragging.

All the results were in the yellow spectre, the hook even turning them orange, and he only kept that one up for a few seconds. Eira made a note for herself on that.

“You may shoot him now, sergeant”, she said then, and Leon checked the settings on the sim gun before firing.

The sim gun produced small energy clusters, not unlike the shock bolts on the soldiers’ real guns, to mimic a real bullet’s impact on the barriers. Leon aimed at the critical points – head, chest, belly and thighs. The impacts caused ripples in the barriers, and Haylen winced somewhat at each hit, but the barriers remained intact.

“Let go of the barriers completely for a while”, Eira instructed. “How are you feeling so far?”

The last of the barrier vanished, and Haylen took a deep breath. “Fine.”

Eira peered at him, then studied his readings. A slight raise in body temperature, blood pressure and pulse. Nothing extraordinary, but enough to make him uneasy, she could tell as much. She nodded anyway, and skimmed through the test data. He had maintained the barriers without much trouble, but she noted some kind of distortion when he deactivated them.

“We’ll have to check up on that”, she told Leon, then put up a pre-programmed course of sim targets and obstacles for the next part. “Let’s continue with the charges and discharges.” She pointed at the targets that were placed with several meters between them, one about five meters up. They were lucky to have a training hall with enough height on this ship.

“With normal barriers activated, you attack each target combining leap and a suitable close combat ability. The targets should be able to withstand full force. If not, well. That wall need a paint job anyway.”

Leon chuckled, but Haylen was more focused on the targets than on her jokes. They watched Haylen clear one target after another, not extraordinary quickly perhaps, but very thoroughly. Eira had heard how he wrecked the mechanical trooper, and it was obvious that none of it had been exaggerations.

He kept a steady pace from start, but at the end of the course he slowed down between obstacles. The data shifted between yellow and orange, and his health chart was bordering on yellow.

“Dat frown be goin’ deeper, doc”, Leon pointed out quietly.

“If he claims to be ‘fine’ after this I will rinse his mouth with soap.”

Haylen jumped down from a plateau and slammed his fist into the last target as he landed next to it. He remained on one knee after that, glancing their direction.

“Thank you”, said Eira. “Now deactivate all abilities and catch your breath before we move on to the last part.”

As Haylen straightened up and slowly let force field gauntlet and barriers go, Eira pointed out some of the numbers on her tablet to Leon. “Do you see this, sergeant? Most of the T9 reports are classified, but the project physicians has admitted that this is one of the reason these T9 upgrades are causing so much trouble. Every connector in all sections has at least 10 percent failure. It’s not much for one or a few, but on all of them? You’ll never see numbers like this on standard implants.”

She looked at Leon who was looking at the tablet too, growing a frown of his own.

“Seems like de commands be un-synced”, Leon pondered.

“Where, you mean?” She looked at the results he pointed at.

“De activatin’ signals, dey be lingerin’ on de pat’s after de deactivation commands be given.”

“Huh. I didn’t see anything like that in the journals I got. It might be good news, if it’s a later error.”

Haylen walked back to them. He looked weary, rubbing his forehead above his left eye.

“Talk to me, corporal”, she urged him calmly.

“Aches a bit”, he said, taking down his hand.

“Look at me.”

He did as he was told. She eyed him critically, trying to decide if the ‘aches a bit’ was an understatement or pure lie.

“Are you feeling good enough to continue with the extended barriers?” she asked eventually.

“Yeah.” His gaze seemed steady enough.

“Are you sure?”

He looked at her with a hint of irritation.

“Very well then, corporal”, she said. If they could get angry, they were good to go a little while longer.

It was a similar procedure as with the normal barriers, but now without any other ability useage. Eira could tell Haylen was struggling now, even without the health chart throwing yellow numbers in her face.

He managed to stop most of the shots fired at him or the barrier this time as well, but one breached it. The energy cluster hit him in the thigh and made him take a step backwards, but he kept the barrier up and the rift closed in a second.

Eventually, the scan was complete. Haylen was even more out of breath now than after the obstacle course, and after he had dropped the barrier Eira noticed his right hand and forearm was twitching irregularly, if very slightly.

“That was all of it, corporal”, Eira said as she ran the finishing commands on the program. “How about you lie down for a while, until we can take the scanner pads off.”

At least he showed the good judgement to do as she suggested this time, with Leon as support. “I promise you’ll get a painkiller once we’re done”, she said, glancing down at him where he lay on his back with his palms pressed to his forehead, knees pulled up. That twitching worried her. That, and the fact that his pulse still wasn’t slowing down.

“There we go”, she said as the program ended. “Sergeant, you can…-”

“Doctor”, Leon interrupted her.

She looked down, instantly cautious. Haylen’s hands were dropping, his eyes were half open but unfocused, darting irregularly. She kneeled down on his other side, her knees protesting as they tended to do.

“Haylen? Are you alright?”

Leon looked warily at Haylen as well. The soldier didn’t answer. Instead, his eyes went glassy, and he clenched his jaws together a couple of times. Eira put her tablet away the same moment the screen flashed a red frame around the basic data stream.

“He’s having a seizure. Time’s… 17:34.”

Without his face expression changing much, Haylen’s head turned to the right while his body tensed and followed, arms and legs contracting slightly as he began to tremble all over. She released straps and buttons around waist and neck on his uniform, while Leon held his head so he wouldn’t hurt himself.

“Wan’ me get a muscle relaxer?”

“Not unless this goes on too long.”

The convulsions became stronger, and soon shifted character, from being more tremble-like to be more spasm-like. His throat was more or less clammed shut, and his lips were turning blue, but before three minutes had passed, the spasms started to wear off. Eira and Leon helped turning him over on the side properly.

Eventually, stray twitchy breaths forced themselves through Haylen’s tense throat, and the color of his lips and cheeks turned back to normal as the breathing got more even.

Eira glanced at the tablet. The chart was still registering brain activity out of the normal. She looked at Haylen again, finding a clean tissue in her coat so she could wipe off the saliva mixed with blood that had trickled down from the corner of his mouth.

As the soldier slowly came to, he tried to move, whether it was to get up or turn around, but Eira and Leon held him down gently.

“Lie down for a little longer, corporal”, she said, “you had a seizure and I want you to rest for a bit.”

She wasn’t sure he heard or understood her yet. He blinked, trying to focus, trying to move again. Her hand remained on his shoulder.

“It’s alright, Haylen. Take it easy. Just lie still for now, if you’ll be so kind.”

Eira looked at Leon, who was sitting on the other side, waiting patiently. “We’ll let him sleep this off at the patient’s ward later, so I can keep an eye on him.”

She tried to make eye contact with Haylen again. “How are you feeling, corporal?”

He met her gaze, with difficulty, and swallowed. “Tired”, he mumbled.

“I guessed as much. You just had a seizure. You’re fine, but I understand you’re a little groggy now. We’ll help you to a bed, when you think you can move. Do you know what date it is?”

She had to ask twice before getting an answer. She made him give her name, rank and number as well before she decided he was conscious enough. A few more mintues of rest, then she and Leon helped him to the med bay.

Once they got Haylen to a bed, Eira gave him the promised painkillers, and he fell asleep immediately. She put his health chart up on her desk screen, while Leon made sure he hadn’t bitten himself too badly.

Eventually Eira sank down in her chair with a sigh, Leon joining her at the desk after washing his hands.

“This only confirmed what we already knew about the cause of the seizures”, she stated, “but after the analysis is done, we might find something that we can work with to actually prevent them. Like syncing the signals. If that’s even doable, considering the royal mess in his head.” She leaned back, pulling a face of displease. “Why isn’t every implants like Tianyi’s…”

Leon smiled, his hazel eyes glittering. “You an’ me’d be out of work den, doc.”

That might be the situation soon anyway, Eira thought to herself, when captain Avril gets to know about this.

Out of hands

One week left until shoreleave. 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 absentmindedly 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, frowning.

“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.”

“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 a 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, so 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.

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.

Applicants

It had been a long week. Commander Nahid on UGS Ignis and her officers had been interviewing, testing and evaluating at least twenty applicants that had made it through the first selection. Normally, they replaced personnel one or maybe two at the time, the known changes planned for in advance, allowing the sudden changes to happen without much disturbance.

However, commander Nahid had suddenly found the Ignis crew lacking no less than four people at once. One of their shuttlers was retiring, and the medic in team 1 was leaving for medicine studies. So far everything had been planned for. But then one of the soldiers in the same team had discovered she was two months pregnant and asked to be transferred to a less combat-heavy position as soon as possible, and shortly after, team 1 lost its frontliner in battle.

Since the Ignis needed some more extensive repairs, Nahid had decided to dedicate that time to solve the personnel matter. Now, finally, the involved officers were gathered in a meeting room at the Union Armed Forces base outside Sol’s Ward, about to determine who would fill the empty spots.

“Alright people, what do you say?” Nahid turned her dark eyes towards her officers. It was about time she had her eyes fixed; squinting like this wouldn’t do in the long run.

Captain Avril, who was in charge of the soldier teams, glanced back at her. Her black, curly hair was shaved on the sides and at the back, leaving some five or so centimeter on the top to form some kind of hairstyle. Her arms was folded across her chest, the short sleeve uniform shirt revealing her dark, muscular forearms, and she looked even more unimpressed and critical than usual. Even if only one of her team’s losses had meant the death of a member, it had still put some stress on her.

“I assume you already have picked your favorites,” she stated. “How about you go first?”

Commander Nahid pouted, not very pleased by the tone. She decided to leave it for now though. Instead, she turned at the chief medic.

“Doctor?”

Doctor Eira was the shortest person in the whole crew, and one of the few with hair long enough to braid. There was a frame of small black corkscrews around her slim face as well, baby hair that annoyed the hell out of her sometimes. She flipped through the personal files on the screen integrated in the table surface with slender, brown fingers.

“I want this one”, she said and pointed at photo of a rather rugged looking man in his late thirties, hazel eyes and fair haired, with a bored expression. His name was Leon, and had been so calm and relaxed at the interview that Nahid were suspecting he was on drugs. However, during the emergency exercise he showed excellent skills and a sharp wit.

“Are you sure? My soldiers might not understand what he says,” said Avril, raising one eyebrow.

Leon had a very thick UC19 accent, that was true. Colonies tended to develop their own distinct accents, partly depending on what native language the inhabitants spoke. The UC19 drawl was considered beautiful by many, but also incomprehensible by other.

Doctor Eira smiled and voice turned poison and honey. “I doubt it matters what language my medics use, your grunts won’t listen to them anyway.”

“Maybe if your scrubs talked to my grunts instead of over their heads, they might listen better.”

Nahid exchanged looks with Eira. The doctor had picked up the hardness in Avril’s voice too. Nahid had nothing against officer banting, but something was eating Avril and Nahid wanted the chance to talk things over with her before she did irrepairable damage to her relations.

“He used to work at a small Union hospital at UC19, wasn’t it so?” Nahid asked and Eira confirmed.

“He said they threatened to give him a physician education and promote him to doctor. That’s why he applied to the fleet, to work with what he loves. Which is refreshing, because I’m honestly getting sick and tired of medics using us only as a springboard for a doctor’s career.

Nahid frowned. “I never heard you complain of any of our most recent medics?”

“There hasn’t been anything to complain about.” Eira shrugged. “They did a good job. They just lacked true interest in this kind of patients. Most of them were aiming for top surgeon jobs in the private sector.”

“You really don’t like people who wants to earn money, do you?” asked Avril.

“I really don’t like people who pretend to be interested in something only because it gives them advantages”, Eira replied. “That’s a whole different thing.”

“Alright”, Nihad said, “Leon it is. That’s the medic post settled. The new shuttler then. Gervin?”

Chief engineer Gervin leaned forward to find the file, scratching his hair that was as short and grey as Nihad’s own. The amount of wrinkles in his face matched hers as well, but even if they were the same height, he carried a good ten extra kilograms on his square body, and his complexion was several shades brighter.

“Well, Dmitri here seems most promising at least.” The twentyfive year old on the photo had a rather awkward expression, which mirrored his behavior on the first interview. “He knows everything there is to know about the shuttles we’re using for missions, he can literally take one apart and put it back together again. He’s been working with armor and weapon repairs at a Union ship of our class until now.”

“Was he the one with the autistic features?” asked Nahid.

“Yes. Some minor ones. Apparently he resigned from his previous job because the crew wasn’t so good at dealing with it. Flexibility during missions won’t be a problem, but at the shuttlebay and armory the rest of us will have to adapt to his systems and rules rather than the other way around. Otherwise, it’s mostly social situations that causes trouble for him, so in case we hire him, we need to avoid irony and metaphors at least in sharp situations.”

Nahid chuckled. “Maybe that will have positive effects on the whole crew.”

“I’m not the one talking about my equipment as if it was living creatures, I won’t have a problem with him”, Avril said with a meaning look at both of them.

“You just used irony. I rest my case.” Gervin was clearly not amused.

“What was the name of that flamethrower again, ‘Green Mean Dragon Machine or something?”

“Alright,” Nahid cut in before this playfight turned ugly, “it’s lunch time soon, and then you’ll all have your blood sugar levels sorted out. Avril, I want to hear your candidates as well before we quit this meeting.”

“Here’s my first”, Avril said, putting up two files on the screen and pointed on the first one, a young woman with well groomed black hair and asian features. “Tianyi, low amps for reaction, eyesight and hearing, above average results on military college, did well in the Peacekeeping Forces.”

“Oh yes”, Nahid nodded, “she served in the Gamma quadrant for a couple of years. She was injured though, taken out of service for some months. How’s her status now?” Nahid turned to Eira.

“She’s got a set of shiny titanium pins keeping her right shoulder together, and experience occasional numbness in her arm and hand, but she’s basically recovered. As long as she keeps exercising her arm correctly, it won’t affect her performance.”

“She’s got quite the jaws though”, Nahid remembered, and smiled teasingly at Avril. “Think you can handle that?”

Avril snorted. “Please”. She continued. “There’s no negative side effects from her amps, so there’s that too. It’s about time we had another imp who can work a full day without a hangover.”

Nahid nodded, no arguing about that. They had several people with amplifying implants on Ignis, and it was only Celerina, one of their technicians, and Avril herself who didn’t really experience any side effects from them.

Avril pointed at her next candidate. “As for the frontliner, this guy meets our standards.”

Nahid looked at the file and frowned, surprised. She turned to the captain. “Why not Haylen? The Tyrian Tank?”

Avril’s hands flew out in irritation and she sighed loudly. “Here we go again, I told you this would happen…”

Nahid rolled her eyes. “I want to know why you discard an elite soldier of his caliber, it’s only natural, don’t you think?”

“Were you in hibernation when Tyrian Tank project fell apart?”

“The Union wouldn’t have given him clearance to apply if he wasn’t fit for service. Hell, they practically shoved him back on the market.”

“And I can’t for my life understand why. The guy’s a wreck!”

“He’s not a wreck, stop being so dramatic”, said Nahid dismissively as she flipped up the corporal’s file.

A soldier with blond hair tied up in a ponytail or a bun looked back at them from the photo, the feline shape of his dark green eyes giving him a more predatory look than his otherwise smooth yet angular features gave off.

“You saw him in action, Avril, you can’t deny he performed extraordinary well. Besides, Eira didn’t see any reasons why he should be ruled out.”

“No critical reasons,” Eira corrected her. “He does have issues connected to his amps, but those basically occurs after excessive amp useage, not during. The migraine meds he’s using seem to work, and there is really no point in treating the seizures if they are as rare as he says. As for the kryvat-related problems”, Eira continued, her expression shifted into a more irritable one, “the meds he’s currently on are as far as I’m concerned at best useless, at worst harmful, but since I haven’t been able to get his medical journals from Praesidia, because their cockhead for a company doctor claimed ‘commercial secrets’ and whatnot, I can’t formulate a prognosis for that yet.”

She exhaled slowly and spread out her fingers, placing her hands on the table to show she was done.

“How’s that not a wreck?” Avril insisted.

“Wait a second, are we talking about that disease Malenka has?” Gervin asked with a frown, referring to one of their engineers. “Wouldn’t that make him outright unsuitable for soldier work?”

“She has it in her digestive system”, Eira clarified, “Haylen has it in his respiratory system. Which, I dare say, is probably more convenient for a soldier than the digestive type would be.”

“My point stands, he’ll be a liability.” Avril’s voice was firm.

“Or the greatest asset we’ll get our hands on for years”, Nahid said, confidently.

“See, this is why I wanted you to tell us your candidates first, it is obvious you don’t care about my opinion anyway,” Avril snapped.

Nahid frowned. Apparently, she had to ask after all. “What is wrong with you these days? Is Dieter’s death still bugging you?”

“Why does it have to be something wrong with me?” The captain raised her voice now. “Because I point out flaws on a candidate that if he’s hired might compromise our missions? With people dying as a result? Question is, what is wrong with you who so desperately want a fucked up experiment imp, completely ignoring the fact that he’s also been a Praesidia serf for almost three years. Is this some kind of pissing contest with commander Itzaina? Because in that case maybe you should take a moment and remember the reason behind this very unit’s existence.”

They stared at each other in angry silence for a few moments. The commander on Ignis’s sistership Aqua was an old friend of Nahid. They competed, sure, but none of them would let that obscure their judgement. Avril was going too far.

Gervin cleared his throat without saying anything. Eira tapped her finger at the table, glancing at the two.

“Initially, I was thinking the same as you, Avril,” Eira started. Avril didn’t look at her until Nahid did. “The kryvat can be tricky to keep in check. The stress it puts on the immune system of the carrier makes them vulnerable to actual infections too. And depending on when I can find a treatment that works for him, as I have with Malenka…”

Eira made a vague gesture.

“He’ll have a lot of sick days”, Gervin filled in.

“Simply put, yes. But”, she went on before Avril could interrupt, “I still believe that with the right treatment, he will be able to perform way over our standards. I’m doing a pretty good job with Malenka, am I right?”

“Yes”, Avril admitted, if reluctantly. “But even if he was a marvel of physical health, he’s willingly been a gun for hire for quite some time.”

Now who’s the one with prejudice to people who wants to earn money?” Eira’s placating tone was gone.

“He wasn’t a gun for hire”, Nahid said, feeling her patience decreasing too. “The fact that he’s been a security guard in the private sector is not a valid argument for not recruiting him.”

“Oh come on”, Avril groaned, “you know what kind of company Praesidia is. Don’t play stupid.”

“You may not believe him, but if you can’t prove he’s lying about what kind of work he did there, your arguments fall.”

The captain looked at the soldier profile, her lips a thin line.

“He’s a nineteener too”, Eira pointed out, raising her eyebrows for trustworthyness. “That means he can moonlight as a translator for Leon.”

She leaned back in her chair, winking at Avril. Gervin chuckled, but Avril only sighed, this time resignedly.

“Fine. Hire him. Don’t blame me if we die, that’s all.”

“Then that’s settled,” Nahid said, ignoring Avril’s last comment. “Now, lunch. Or my stomach will start eating itself.”

As they left the room, Nahid brooded on how to help Avril lift some of the weights off her shoulders, but realized she would have to put those plans on hold for a while. The new recruits wouldn’t be able to sign on until after next round, and the Ignis crew had a busy schedule in front of them.

She was still relieved to have gotten her will through on the frontliner matter. The Union had been forced to lower their acceptance threshold for new recruits, simply because there weren’t many to chose from. That meant some of the most fortunate Tyrian Tanks were back on the chart, and there was no way in hell Nihad would let one slip from her hands once she got hold of them.