Narrow it down

Xander yawned, shifting position in his chair. The code section on the screen was without errors, as had been the case in all the sections he had gone through this far. In itself it was a good thing, of course. Only he was searching for a bug, and he had been doing it for hours without finding it.

Chief engineer Gervin knocked on the door frame and stepped in. The knocking was probably more to let Xander know he was coming in; it was the engineers’ computer room after all.

“How’s it going?” Gervin asked as he walked up to Xander, putting down a mug of tea next to him on the table.

“Oh, thank you. Well, nothing so far”, Xander answered, checking one of the programs he was running simultaneously, then took a sip of the hot tea. “I’ve narrowed it down to four sections at least. But it takes time.”

He stroked some hair behind his ear before it fell down in his face. Gervin sat down in the chair beside his, looking out at the engine hall through the thick window. Behind the control room window at the closest wall, they could see Malenka, who was on the night shift, watching the monitors.

“If you got it down to four sections, I’d say it’s been a quick work so far.”

“Malenka helped me ruling out a few sections too.” Xander continued scrolling through the lines of code on the screen, occasionally stopping to check pieces more carefully.

“You seem to know these engines almost as well as her by now. You’ve been here for how long? Six months?”

“Seven months next week.”

“Seven months? Time flies…”

Xander nodded slowly. Seven months was nothing for people like Gervin, who had years of service behind him, but for Xander it was the longest employment he’d had. “I didn’t think I’d last this long, honestly”, he admitted.

“You mean you didn’t think you’d manage?” Gervin sounded genuinely surprised. “You were a top student, weren’t you? Got hired before you even finished university.”

“Well…” Xander shifted in his seat, feeling his cheeks and ears getting warmer. “That’s what I mean. That job was on the ground. I didn’t have any experience from working on galaxy ships when I got here.”

Gervin smiled. “Normally, people who set their foot on a galaxy ship for the first time don’t have much experience from working on them.”

“Yes, I know, I just…” He trailed off.

“You’re doing fine, kid. And you don’t have to compensate for your lack of experience every time you open a digital system.”

Xander rubbed his neck, checking the programs again. “Yes, I know”, he said again, wishing the blush would go away.

It was probably the thousandth time he had a conversation like this. In a way, it made him suspect that other people thought he was excusing himself only to receive praise, but he couldn’t help it. The apologies just came out before he could stop them.

Gervin put his hands on his knees and stood up again. “I’m going to bed. Don’t sit up too late. That bug isn’t going to kill the engines if you leave it overnight.”

“I won’t, I promise”, Xander said as Gervin gave him a pat on the shoulder and left.

He had a feeling the chief engineer’s idea of ‘too late’ wasn’t as close to morning as his own, but he hated to leave a task unfinished. He had been called overachiever since pre-school, never letting something go once he got started, always striving to be the best – not only better than everybody else, but better than himself. Every time.

It was as if those results and grades and diplomas had no value in themselves. At least not if he knew that there was something he could have done better. His parents had been disappointed that he didn’t chose the military officer education, even if they hadn’t expressed it loud and clear. That he had gotten into the Armed Forces through the backdoor of science had subdued that disappointment somewhat, but he still wasn’t a real soldier in their eyes.

Not that he ever wanted to be. There were more ways to fight than guns, more ways to contribute than spilling blood. Xander wasn’t cut out to handle that kind of physical effort and stress, he had learned that as a toddler. He had been lucky to have teachers who let him develop and refine his skills in the digital area, and helped convincing his parents that this was best for him.

However, being on a galaxy ship and thus having a private’s rank in the AF, and a real soldier if only on paper, he should work on his weapon skills at least. The amps he had were supposed to compensate for his amputated hand first and most. They had been upgraded though, once he was done with the basic soldier training after being recruited by the AF. Now he could create larger and more powerful and flexible force fields, which was handy as well. He had proved that at the mine with the scale bears, when Haylen’s gun jammed.

But Xander still felt that he should know how to hit a target even when it was moving and he was under pressure. His amps hardly ever caused him any issues, but they were using energy as any other implants. They were also possible to tamper with, as the derailer at UC03 had done with Felicia.

The shooting session last night hadn’t given him much hope of a future career as a gunslinger though. He should try get some more time there to practise. Maybe ask someone to help him. Felicia and Keith were snipers of course and should know a great deal about it. Then again, maybe Xander would benefit more from training with someone who was using one-hand guns like himself. Like Morgan or Rashida. Or Haylen.

He blinked as his subconsciousness demanded his attention. Eyeing the screen over with intensified focus, he soon noted something strange in one of the code lines. With a triumphant “haha!” he started to debug the damaged section. Maybe he would be done with this closer to midnight than morning after all.

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.