Ill-fated shore leave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes doctor.” He felt less fine now.

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

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

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hell yeah”, said Keith.

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

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

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

“How about you nottiners?” Felicia asked.

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

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

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

“What, you goin’ babysit me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

“Sounds fun.”

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

“If you be a fan of theoreticals.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Evaluation: Tianyi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And your ears? Are they still intact?

“What do you mean?”

“Tianyi, obviously.”

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

Lace chuckled.

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

“Private Tianyi reporting for meeting, captain.”

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

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

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

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

Avril didn’t bother to small talk though.

“Opinions about your first round, private?”

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t ask.” She grinned.

Avril kept looking at her, sternly.

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

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

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

“So you don’t deny it?”

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

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

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

Here goes, Avril thought.

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

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

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

Avril peered at her. “You like me?”

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

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

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

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

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

Avril groaned and sank back into the chair.

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

Beneath the ice part 3/3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright people, move out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not that I know of.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope you killed it properly.”

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

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

– – –

“A giant centipede?”

“Yes.”

“With retractable tentacles?”

“Yes.”

“That devours people alive?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What can you tell me about it, Roz?”

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

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

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

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

Roz leaned back and took the last bite of her meal bar.

“They fucking better not”, Avril muttered.

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

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

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

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

“I lost a few pieces of Santo.”

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

Avril slammed her palms down at the table.

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

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

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

“I didn’t say that”, Lace said.

“Sure you didn’t.”

“You’re letting small things get to you.

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

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

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

Lace sighed again. “I’m just -”

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

And team 1 would lose another friend.

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

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

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

Felicia scoffed. “Suits you just fine.”

Beneath the ice part 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.”