Light-footed

The rehab center on the Armed Forces main base in Sol’s Ward was a place most soldiers on Ignis were familiar with. Whether it was bullet wounds, burns, broken bones or NBC-injuries this was the place you were sent to recover and rebuild after hospital care.

Felicia didn’t like being fussed with during missions or while she was onboard the ship, but down here she didn’t mind being pampered and cheered at at all. It was no recreational resort, definitely not. Fixed schedules, training sessions, serious food that the staff made sure you ate whether you wanted or not, but there was also no stress, no life or death-situations making your heart go tilt as you were doing calf lifts.

Last time Felicia had to spend time here, she had been shot in her thigh and above her hip. A few centimeters to the left on the thigh, and she probably would have bled out in minutes. A few centimeters to the right, and her femur would have shattered.

At the time, she had insisted on staying onboard the Ignis since it was only muscle damage and she imagined that the training hall on the ship wasn’t a worse place to do squats on than the ones on the rehab center. After, she had been grateful that doctor Eira hadn’t given in to her pleas. The physiotherapists here at the rehab center knew their shit.

As many places at Sol’s Ward, the main base was still scarred by the Gamma wars. A whole wing of the hospital was still in ruins, even if most of the debris had been cleaned up by now. The broken remains of the walls was a bitter reminder of the cruelty of war in general, but also the Federation’s disgusting habit of making ”mistakes” about their targets in particular. Felicia could see the hypocrisy in rules of war as well as anyone, but as far as she was concerned, you didn’t need a higher degree in philosophy to understand that hospitals were a no-go when it came to bombing.

As they entered the building, Tianyi made a sound of disgust. Granted, there were soldiers who weren’t as fond of this place.

“This place smells like decay and despair”, she said, wrinkling her nose.

“You have no idea what those words even mean, do you?” Keith snorted.

They found Santo in the visitor’s area, where he was talking to another soldier who lost both her arms. He waved at them when he spotted them, said goodbye to the other soldier, and steered his wheelchair towards his team mates.

”Finally living up to your light-footed reputation, huh”, Morgan said as he gave Santo a hug.

”Oh screw you, lab rat”, Santo smiled and punched him on the shoulder.

He seemed to be in a better mood than when Felicia had that short videochat a while ago, but she could tell he wasn’t great on the whole. She looked at his legs; they all did, some making more attempts to hide it than others.

”I’m sorry for staring”, Felicia said, because she couldn’t pretend she wasn’t, ”it’s just that my brain keeps trying to repair this picture, and… wow, I’m really smooth here, ain’t I”, she groaned.

”It’s okay, I find myself staring at them too”, Santo said, and smiled again. She knew that smile; it was the one you used to not fall apart in front of your team.

”How are you feeling?” Morgan asked.

Santo took a deep breath, raising his eyebrows in exaggerated conviction.

”Well, I’m not crying over it more than once a day, so I call progress there.” He nodded. ”But I still catch myself attempting to put my feet down on the floor every time I’m getting out of bed. I need to work on that, I guess.”

”When are you getting robofeet?” Keith asked.

”Not in a while, the tissues need to heal entirely first, or it might get infected or grow too much scar tissues, and a whole list of other things that they presented to me when I woke up after first surgery and told them I was so ready for prosthetics.”

”Do you still feel your left big toe ache when it rains?” Keith peered at him.

”Oh come on”, Santo groaned, tilting his head back, ”I made a joke once and you still think it’s true…”

”But do you have phantom pains?” Keith insisted.

”Sometimes, yes.”

”…when it rains?”

Keith jumped aside as Morgan attempted to put his arm around his head to drag him away from Santo. Santo, Felicia and Tianyi laughed, but then a center employee frowned at them and asked them to keep it down a notch.

Tianyi made a face about it so only her teammates could see, then she looked at Santo.

”The commander said you’ll most likely not come back to the Ignis. You’ll prove her wrong, right?”

The rest of them went quiet. Santo smiled again, and this time there was more bitterness in it.

”I won’t come back to the Ignis. Not to my old position at least. I might have made it with one fake foot, but not with two.”

”You could retrain, become a sniper. They don’t need to be sprinters.”

Tianyi seemed to have full faith in her own words. It irritated Felicia, that she was acting as if Santo had broken a toenail or something. And made her envious of the neverending optimism that Tianyi possessed.

”Snipers still need to meet the same physical requirements as the others.”

”There’s a lot of requirements that aren’t met in our team though”, Tianyi shrugged.

Keith raised an eyebrow and looked at her.

”You sound like Cory now, Tia.”

Tianyi turned to him with eyes like laser pointers.

”You’re on thin ice now, buddy.”

”We’ll see, I guess”, Santo said. ”I need to actually get the prosthetics first anyway.”

Tianyi didn’t push the matter any further, which Felicia was grateful of.

They had some afternoon snacks with Santo, telling him about the Alpha Dawn’s latest shenanigans, before Felicia, Keith and Tianyi had to leave to catch their trains. Morgan had time to stay yet another while.

Felicia looked over her shoulder as the three headed to the exit, and saw Morgan shuffling his chair closer to Santo, putting an arm around his friend. Grimly she thought to herself that he at least would have the daily crying over and done with before night time.

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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.

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.

Prisoners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Are these the same?”

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The captain’s eyes narrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Almost there, captain”, Tianyi answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said stand back!”

Haylen started moving towards him.

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

“Stand! Back!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Usually works”, he said.

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

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

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

“Soon there, corporal”, she said.

“What?”

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

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

Felicia just shook her head and grinned in return.

Beneath the ice part 2/3

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A living being?” the captain asked.

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

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

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

The source of the rattling moved into sight.

“What the actual fuck…!” Tianyi breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had to try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the moment, at least.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“M-mm.”

Why was she worried?

And why the hell couldn’t he stop shaking?

Beneath the ice part 1/3

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

And then there was the 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.”

Snakes and branches part 2/3

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

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

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

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

“So they could be lying?” asked Cory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean physically?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Rashida was injured in pure daylight.”

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

“And there could be an enemy out there.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry”, he said eventually.

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s got the Union logo at least.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Keith! Bring it down!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The snakes were everywhere.

Snakes and branches part 1/3

UR03 wasn’t a big planet but had earth-like 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-existent, 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 Nihad 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 ostriches.”

“Who said anything about man-eating ostriches?”

“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 be 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 ostriches yet?” Tianyi asked Santo.

Santo scoffed, amused. “Enough about ostriches 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 UC12:s 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.

Fleshed out

“Touchdown in 90 seconds, then you’ll have 45 second before I take off again. There’s too much turbulence for me to land.”

The voice of the shuttle pilot, Dmitri, sounded in their helmets’ speakers, and the team checked their equipment one last time. They were going to UC19M3F, one of the mining districts at UC19, meaning Haylen’s and Leon’s home turf. The mine had been abandoned when the scale bears had become a too big threat for the workers to handle. There was no money to provide them with guards, and no will to find another solution for the scale bear situation. There was no law saying you couldn’t touch the wildlife at all, but there were laws dictating terms on how to interact with it.

Team 1 were to keep two of the TR:s safe from attacks while they tried to get some information about the magnitude of the mine, what kind of deposits there were and so on. All Union mines stored information online but connections usually went bad quickly if you got more than one kilometer outside the major colony cities. At some places, like this particular mine, information was usually sent to the mine office in the nearest city on data sticks on regular basis. The last update from M3F had been lost, because the vehicle had broken and the personnel killed by scale bears.

Haylen adjusted a strap on the legplates and glanced at the two TR:s. Daleen looked sick, which was perfectly normal for her. Being aboard the Ignis wasn’t much of a trouble, the ship’s smooth movements and well-balanced artificial gravity faked solid ground rather well at normal circumstances, but whenever she had to ride a shuttle, especially on a bumpy ride like this, or even the transport vehicles on the UC01, she got motion sickness.

Xander, on the other hand, didn’t seem much bothered by the bounciness on the way down to the desert planet, but nevertheless looked nervous. He was definitely skilled in his trait, hacking and deciphering and collecting data and all the other stuff he did – not to mention his ability to hold and move things with amp force – but he had pointed out that usually he did so in secure environments. This wasn’t his first mission in hostile environments, but it wasn’t exactly his hundredth either.

Next to Haylen, Tianyi was checking her guns. The soldier seemed as excited and cheery as always about going on a mission. Two who didn’t share her happy looks were Santo and Keith in front of them. They had been arguing pretty loudly about something just before they left. Haylen hadn’t really paid attention, but he had heard Keith’s indignant “Why the hell would I roll them in dust and put them in a trash bag if I wanted to eat them?”. Seemed like a mystery to Haylen too, but he had decided not to get into it if he could avoid it.

On his other side captain Avril sat idle with her gun ready.

“No need for barriers today”, she said to the people in the shuttle. “There’s nothing of interest there for anyone but us, really. Any looters would already paid their visits. It’s the wildlife that could cause us troubles and so far, scale bears haven’t been seen carrying guns.”

Haylen was pretty sure she had him specifically in mind when she said that about the amps. Xander could put up shields for a short while like captain Avril, but Haylen was the frontliner and for him, using the barrier ability throughout the mission was mandatory. He didn’t like it when people tried to make things easy for him. Not that he would mind keeping off the barriers for once, but it made him feel kind of degraded.

The shuttle slowed down, hovering a couple of meters above the ground, wobbling in the strong wind. They unbuckled and went into the airlock, pulling up the cloth masks that would keep the sand out, and putting on their goggles. The air on UC19 was perfectly breathable; only it was usually filled with sand and dust. Felicia took place in the opening as the hatch was released, while Haylen and Tianyi made it down on the ground to secure the perimeter.

Except for Leon and Felicia, the other followed one by one, the TR:s lastly. Daleen immediately stumbled a few steps forward and threw up whatever breakfast was still in her stomach. Haylen and the other armed soldiers spread out in a half circle in front of the captain and the TR:s, while the shuttle rose up in the air again.

The wind was strong down here on the surface, the fine sand whipping their goggles. Daleen took a mouthful of water to rinse her mouth, then pulled her mask up again, and reassured them she was good to go.

They quickly moved over the open area to the shelter of the yellow cliffs further away. The mine entrance and the small module building that had served as the foreman office lay before them, half covered in sand by now. Neither Xander nor Daleen expected to find much of value since there was only one info shipment missing, but the sensors down in the mine could have picked up new things after the place was abandoned.

Xander and Daleen started to search through the module and those computers that still hadn’t been destroyed by the sand, while the soldiers spread out around the module, covering one direction each. Haylen scanned the cliffs and the open field between them and the cliffs. The sand swirling around made it hard to see any details that far away. Every now and then they saw the shuttle pass some kilometer or so away.

“There’s a pack moving your way”, Felicia called out after a while. “I took one down but it’s damn hard to take aim from up here.”

“Get ready”, said the captain.

“Movement one o’clock,” said Keith not long after, taking aim, but losing his target.

Haylen looked in the declared direction. First he couldn’t discern anything either in the clouds of dust that the wind blew up, but then he saw the shapes of big creatures.

“Try scare them away”, said captain Avril to Keith.

The soldier put the gun on his back, and took one of the grenades from his belt. “Grenade!” he warned, and lobbed the grenade over at the pack of scale bears.

The grenade went off and Haylen could see the creatures toppling over as the blast hit them, some stray whines reaching them through the whistling winds. The shadows disappeared.

“Sniper, did it work?” asked the captain.

“One is dead, and the rest are at least moving away from you”, Felicia responded. “If they don’t come back, I’d say it did.”

For a long while, nothing happened. Xander came out from the foreman’s office eventually and walked up to the captain.

“I have to go to the mine entrance to get access to the probe network underground. We thought that the main hub was in the office, but apparently they thought it was safer inside the rock.”

“Alright. Haylen, you go with Xander. We’ll keep the beasts off you.”

“Got it.”

Haylen followed Xander over to the mine entrance, where Xander opened a panel and started working on it. The captain gave orders of open comm within the group, including the shuttle people, now that they were off normal hearing range.

Soon it was clear that Keith’s grenade hadn’t been enough. Felicia warned them about the bears that had left earlier were coming back, and bringing another pack with them. From the mine entrance, Haylen couldn’t see much, but Felicia reported taking another one down, and Santo killed one as well.

“Why don’t they stay home in a storm like this?” the captain growled.

“Dis ent a storm…”, Haylen mumbled.

Apparently, the comm picked it up anyway, because he heard the captain snort, and from the shuttle, Leon confirmed this was only a breeze by Nineteen standards.

Keith tossed another grenade at what must be a group of the creatures, but it seemed they saw it coming this time and moved out of the way. Haylen had his gun ready and aimed, but so far he couldn’t see any scale bears himself, and only a few shots were fired by his comrades further away.

Xander picked up the pace, looking over his shoulder nervously a few times. The shadows came closer.

“TR, how’s it going?” the captain asked in a voice that implied that they’d better answer they were almost done.

Xander finished his command and took a step back. “The network is up and running.”

“Only a few more minutes then”, Daleen responded, her tone cut short due to concentration.

“Ground team to shuttle, I want an evac in three minutes, enemies on location!”

“Copy that, captain!” Dmitri’s answer buzzed through the speakers.

Haylen and Xander turned to move back to the others when Santo called out a warning. “One just passed me, it’s coming your way Haylen!”

“What the hell was that?” they heard the captain say disgustedly, but Haylen had no time to ask what she meant.

He didn’t have to either, as the creature became visible through the dust clouds. It looked like a scale bear, only turned inside out, bare skin in the fur revealing sickly looking growth of flesh, and it was moaning hoarsely rather than growling. It opened it’s jaws and ran straight towards Haylen. It took him three shots to stop it.

“If you can grab a sample, do it!” the captain told the soldiers. “Roz will want to investigate this.”

Haylen was going to ask what a “sample” actually meant, if it was a hair, a drop of blood, or a whole carcass, but then he saw another flesh bear running in full speed towards them. He pointed his gun at it but it jammed.

“Xander, on your left!” he warned the scientists. With no further stalling he put the gun away, raised his barriers and with his hands held up as a ram, lowering his head to brace himself, he flung himself directly at it. It was nowhere near the full-scale leap attack as he had used against the MT, but enough to kill a human.

The scale bears were twice his size and he had taken out one this way before. Now, the impact sent the creature tumbling several yards away, but it wasn’t dead. Haylen wasn’t sure where he had hit it, the chest or the shoulder, but clearly he had missed it’s head. The animal got back on it’s feet, and Haylen cursed silently as he prepared for another attack.

Then Xander said “I got this,” and the flesh bear was surrounded by two parallel force fields, holding it in place, leaving it’s head bare. “Can you get your gun working?”

Haylen was already on it.

“You got a gun too, Dots”, he said brushed out the sand from the inside of the gun, obviously to blame for the jamming. He had no idea where that nickname came from, it just rolled off his tongue.

“Well…” Xander said, maybe embarrassment in his voice, “I’m pretty sure this is safer. I’m better with amp force than guns.”

Haylen put his gun back together and aimed it at the creature’s head. It took only one shot this time, to his relief. They exchanged looks. Xander smiled a little, relieved, and let the force fields dissolve.

“You got more of them incoming, captain”, Felicia reported.

Haylen looked for more creatures in their immediate distance before he picked up his knife and started to cut one of the front paws off. Blood, bone marrow, fur. That should please Roz. If not, she was more than welcome to get back here for another sample herself.

The shuttle became visible and Dmitri’s voiced buzzed in their ears. “Shuttle touching down in 10 seconds, then you got 45 seconds to get onboard!”

“You got incoming on your two o’clock”, Felicia added.

“You heard them!” shouted the captain. “Keep the hostiles at bay. Daleen, finish what you’re onto, leave the rest.” Her orders were obeyed without further discussion.

As they were all safely back in the shuttle, Daleen looked at the paw that Haylen had put on the floor while fastening his seatbelt, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “Put that in a bag, would you be so kind?”

“Was thinkin’ of hangin’ it from the ceiling,” Haylen said and looked up.

Tianyi laughed. Daleen made a displeased sound.

He did as she suggested however. It was rather gross after all.

As the others started to discuss the weird-looking scale bears, he noticed Xander was looking at him.

He looked back. “What?”

The TR was caught by surprise. “Oh, nothing, just checking if you were alright, really,” he said, in a suspicious hurry.

“Yeah? Here I thought you were checkin’ me out.” Haylen smirked at the blushing TR.

Daleen glanced at Xander, then at Haylen. Then she leaned her head against the seats head support and closed her eyes, probably trying to keep her nausea at bay.

“I’m fine,” Haylen reassured the TR, dropping the teasing. Xander smiled at him as a response. They looked at each other, maybe a moment or two too long to not be awkward, then Xander looked down on his feet and Haylen turned his gaze the other way.

Tianyi was enthusiastically describing the flesh bears for Leon and Felicia, exaggerating just a little. Leon glanced at Haylen, gesturing at his forehead in a silent question. Haylen shook his head, then leaned it back. So, he was still able to do smaller leap attacks without even the faintest whiff of pain. Maybe it was possible to raise the bar if he did it slowly.

Never have I ever

“Never have I ever… been kicked out from Sunshine.” Keith leaned back in his seat next to Daleen, grinning smugly at Felicia. Alcohol wasn’t allowed onboard, even for off duty use, but the crew used to play the ‘Never have I ever’-game anyway. Tonight they used a pack of ‘fruities’, dried fruit snacks as a replacement for the shots. Sunshine in a Bottle was one of the bigger bars in the less fancy quarters in Sol’s Ward.

Felicia peered back at Ketih, and his grin faded somewhat as she continued not taking a fruity. “Never at Sunshine, no,” she said, a smirk spreading on her face.

Haylen, however, picked up something that might have been a piece of apple once, putting it in his mouth. He hadn’t exactly been thrilled to join this game when they went off duty and Felicia asked him to, but he had nothing else to do really, and, well. Sometimes you had to practise them social skills too, right.

Xander looked at him curiously.

“How did you get into that?” he asked.

“Headbutted a Masked Dragon.”

Daleen rolled her eyes. Keith chuckled.

“Why would you headbutt a Masked Dragon?” asked Felicia, frowning.

It was a good question. In the shadier parts of society there were bound to be gangs of different sorts. The Masked Dragons were a bunch of youngsters who wore hard leather mask with steel coatings shaped as dragon faces. Well. Not masks per se; they were covering forehead and sides of the face, since most public places wouldn’t let you in if your face was covered.

Whereas some gangs like them took on contracts and worked more or less like a proper business organisation, Masked Dragons’ cause of existence was a bit more unclear.

“He was pickin’ a fight, my pals were holdin’ me back so I couldn’t punch’im.”

“You never came off as a brawler,” Keith pointed out. “Except when it comes to mech troopers.”

“I have my moments,” Haylen mumbled, tracing a crack on the table surface with his fingertip. This was the part of the game he disliked most, being open target for all kinds of questions.

“Is that how you got that scar on your forehead?” Xander asked.

Haylen looked up at him, a little surprised. It wasn’t a big scar, and close to the hairline so it wasn’t that noticeable either. “Yeah. I bled more than his nose…”

Xander smiled, but there was a glimpse of compassion in that smile too.

“Your turn, bad boy,” said Daleen, looking at him with that mix of indulgence and disappointment that only she could pull off.

He looked at the table, thinking. “Never have I ever… had sex in a science lab.”

Daleen shifted uncomfortably and Keith grinned in a way too revealing way.

“I thought we weren’t asking the sex questions just yet”, Daleen said with a sulky look at Haylen.

He looked at Felicia, who had explained the ship rules to him.

“That’s no rule, only a recommendation”, Felicia said defensively.

With a sigh, Daleen followed Keith’s example and picked up a fruity. “Traitor…”

“Why don’t you take one yourself?” Felicia asked Haylen, looking skeptically at him.

Haylen shrugged. “Haven’t had the opportunity yet.”

There was no intention behind it, his eyes simply happened to land on Xander. The TR was sitting on the direct opposite side of the table after all. Xander blushed, of course, and with an embarrassed smile looked down at the table.

Felicia snorted, shooting Haylen an amused look.

He looked back, indifferent. “Your turn.”

“Alright, here’s one safe for children’s ears”, she said with a pointed look at Daleen, who rolled her eyes again. “Never have I ever poured dishwashing detergent in the Main Square fountain.”

Not a single one left the fruities untouched.