Stress test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One regular.”

“And how long since is that?”

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

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

“Probably.”

“So why didn’t he do it more often?”

“‘Cause I didn’ ask for it.”

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

“Didn’ see the point.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look at me.”

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

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

“Yeah.” His gaze seemed steady enough.

“Are you sure?”

He looked at her with a hint of irritation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doctor”, Leon interrupted her.

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

“Haylen? Are you alright?”

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

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

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

“Wan’ me get a muscle relaxer?”

“Not unless this goes on too long.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluation: Leon

“You seem to have settled in pretty quick, sergeant.”

Avril looked at the medic in the chair in front of her. He was sitting according to character; butt on the edge of the chair so he could slouch comfortably, forearms resting on his spread out thighs.

“Got a t’orough introduction from de doc”, he answered, “an’ quite de load of tips from de ot’er scrubs. Wasn’ dat hard gettin’ in de game.”

“Ran into any trouble?”

He rubbed the back of his neck slowly. “It be… a li’l different treatin’ soldiers on de field. I forgot how dat is. De patients at de hospital eit’er be brought in ‘cause deir officers sent dem, or dey come in by deir own.”

Avril peered at him, waiting.

“I got used to help people when dey be askin’ for it, instead of forcin’em to accept de help dey should wan’.” He spread his hand out in an apologetic gesture.

Avril couldn’t help but smirk. “That’s field work for you, sarge. Welcome back to reality.”

“Yeah, I know. Grunts don’ wan’ be mot’er hen’d, eh. I jus’ not goin’ let dem run around untreated if it not be needed, you know.”

“I don’t expect you to either.” She leaned her arm on the desk. “Anything you noticed that I should know? Morgan, for example, no aftermaths after that strangulation?”

He shook his head. “Not’in’. He was lucky dey got’im free quick enough. An’ dat dem tentacles weren’ so tight. Tiany’s arm be workin’ jus’ fine, no problem havin’er do de exercises. Regular scans on de imps showed not’in’ out of de ordinary. Apart from de usual bruises dey keep havin’ each time dey get out of bed, dey all be good.”

“And Haylen? Is it possible to say exactly what caused that reaction on UR06?”

“I talked to’im, compared de readings to what amps he used at what time, but you know. “Leon shrugged. “Even he don’ know how far he can take it wit’out dem goin’ chains.”

“Chains?” Avril wasn’t very familiar with all the nineteen lingo.

“Chain reaction.”

“I see. I’m ordering a stress test from doctor Eira before you go on shore leave. Maybe that will show something new.”

Leon nodded. “Maybe. Speakin’ of stress tests, you haven’ done any regular scan dis round. An’ I noticed your stress levels be kind of high even when de mission be no more dan a milk run. Somet’in’ you wan’ get off dat chest, captain?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Anyone complained that they don’t understand you yet?”

A sly smile spread on his face. “Only when dey don’t like what I’m tellin’em.”

Avril pursed her lips. “You worry about my grunts, and doctor Eira can worry about us officers. How does that sound?”

“Fair enough, captain.”

“If there’s nothing else, I think we’re done here.”

Before he closed the door, she took a deep breath. “I appreciate the concern though, sergeant.”

He looked back at her, nodding, then left.

Avril sighed. Two done, one to go. One more chance for her to lose her face. Next shore leave couldn’t come quick enough…

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 and 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 and 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 shoulderguards 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 stinged 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?

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.

“I think you can go easy with the amps 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.

Upgrades

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

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

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

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

Captain Avril pointed at the map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two TR:s nodded.

“Questions?”

Leon raised a hand in his lazy kind of way.

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

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

Leon nodded, settled with the answers.

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

“No. I would have told you that.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Soon there”, Felicia informed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Peeing then?”

“I was neither.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Helmets on, we’re doing comm check.”

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

Avril quickly went through the comm check routine.

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

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

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

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

“Touch down in one minute.”

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

“Yes captain”, they answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technically, he could too. He had the channeling paths for it. Only it was one of those potential brain-frying abilities that he’d been advised not to use.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matsuko confirmed she had heard the order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The TR:s looked at Haylen.

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

“Yeah.”

“With your amp force?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Avril walked up to Haylen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspectives make you soft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who would’ve thunk, huh.

Shiner

“And there I was, flat on my back, weapon on the other end of the galaxy, and this scrapyard monster of an MT towering over me, lifting it’s ugly metal foot to crush my skull, and all I could think of was how pissed the captain would be when he got to know I ruined my third helmet.”

Most people around the table in the canteen laughed as Tianyi paused momentarily to take another mouthful of mashed potatoes. Both soldier teams were gathered, plus a couple from the Tech and Research team. Haylen was sitting at the end of the table, content with not being directly involved in the socializing.

“Lucky for me, those things aren’t exactly supersonic”, Tianyi continued, “so I managed to get my head out of the way. I’m still not sure if the sound of the bones in my shoulder breaking was nicer to hear than the sound of a helmet being shattered, but at least I think those were cheaper to fix.”

“I tell you what dem titanium pins cost, you goin’ watch you bones betteh, kin”, Leon smirked and picked up a piece of cucumber.

“You know, after that round, I’m already convinced to watch them more carefully.”

Team 1 had got some time to introduce themselves to one another more properly after the tour. Haylen knew that first impression wasn’t always true, but so far, it seemed like an alright team.

Santo was about fifteen years older than Haylen, and had been in the task force for almost as long. That meant useful experience, but probably some amount of old-habits-die-hard too. However, Santo seemed much more at ease with the new meats’ presence than the sniper, Felicia.

Tianyi had asked about the soldiers they had replaced, and Haylen could understand if they needed some time to get used to having him being their meat shield instead of the one who died. Then again, Haylen himself wasn’t exactly hugs and kisses with new people either. Maybe Felicia was the same.

Then there was Keith, “Sol’s Ward bred and raised”, and apparently the most carefree in the group, and Morgan, the lab rat, who was older and came off as more mature and more reserved. Only Leon seemed to be completely chill with Tianyi’s blunt but sort of charmful disarming manners, but a new group was always a new group. Dynamics would change.

“Why did your girlfriend call you Shiner, by the way?”

Haylen looked up from his own plate when he heard Ziva’s nickname for him, and realized Tianyi was talking to him. He had been listening with half an ear, as usual, and wasn’t prepared to take part of it himself. As usual.

“My who?” he said.

“You have a girlfriend?” asked Olena, one of the soldiers in team 2 sitting closest to the inofficial team 1 side of the table, and there was a hint of disappointment in her voice.

“No”, he said, trying to catch up in this convo.

“Aw, that’s a shame”, said Tianyi, stretching out her arms. “You’d be the cutest couple. Hey, is she into women?” She leaned forwards on her elbows. Roz, the TR with the braids who sat further away, almost visibly perked her ears.

Haylen shrugged some, impaling a tofu nugget on his fork. “Why?”

“Nothing, just scanning the ground here. I mean, she’s no poster girl but she seemed like a good bang.”

Leon shot a sly grin at her. “You so sure she’d wan’ bang you?”

“Shut up, scrubs, no one can understand a word you’re saying anyway.”

Leon chuckled.

“But anyway, is it because of your hair?” Tianyi looked at Haylen again, making a halo around her head with her hands.

“That… she not my girlfriend?” he asked, confused.

“No”, Tianyi groaned, “that she calls you Shiner.”

“Uh, had one when I first met’er…” He hoped that the stream of questions would stop soon, because his skills in normal conversation obviously left much to desire.

Tianyi blinked.

“A girlfriend?”

He tilted his head to one side, giving her a deadpan look. Suddenly it was hard to tell who was more lost in this.

“A shiner.”

She stared back.

“A what?”

Daleen, one of the the TR, had been giggling silently and now answered before he got to it.

“A shiner is a black eye”, she explained to Tianyi with a laugh.

“Never in my life have I heard a black eye being called that. I do know how to cause them though. Do you digs get combat training too?”

Haylen turned back to his food now that Daleen and Roz became targets of Tianyi’s investigations instead. He was kind of happy she hadn’t asked how he got said shiner. The seizures wasn’t exactly a secret, but he still wasn’t eager to spill it on his first day with the new team. And, on the seizure matter, he also hoped he would have a better start here than he had gotten in Praesidia.

That first week had been an outright gauntlet. A gig that seemed easy at first glance had escalated from guarding a building to being sieged by mobsters, who eventually stormed it. The gig was paying too well to be played safely, which meant no bullets saved, all amps on full throttle.

When they finally could take a breather after the mobsters were either dead or scared away, Haylen had had a seizure and hit a bench with his face on the way down to the floor. Day after, he met Ziva for the first time. “Tyrian Tank, eh?” she had said, non-impressed only began to describe it. “You look like shit. Get your ass on the move, Shiner, we got work to do.”

His thoughts were interrupted when commander Nahid’s voice was heard over the speakers, and they all stopped what they were doing.

“Attention on deck, this is commander Nahid. Team 1 and 2 are to gather in the shuttle bay in 45 minutes, space suits and combat gear. We have an emergency mission. This is not a drill.”

“Whoo!” cheered Tianyi. “Heard that, Halo? We’re going sharp on our first day!”

The soldiers and medics finished their food in a hurry, while the TR:s picked up their tablets to find out more about the mission.

As the soldiers and medics left the canteen, Keith leaned down to kiss Daleen as he passed by.

“Don’t die”, Daleen said after them.

Yeah no pressure, corporal, Haylen thought to himself. Don’ die, dat be all. He hoped Tianyi’s nickname wouldn’t raise expectations on him even higher.

Eyecandy

“Attention!”

Captain Avril’s voice was loud enough for the whole training hall, even if there were only seven soldiers to shout orders to in here. Haylen and the other two new meats stood at attention in one line, the four older members of team 1 in another.

The commander of the ship entered the hall, followed by the administrative officer. The middle aged woman placed herself in front of them, her dark brown eyes looked at them one by one, a satisfied smile on her lips.

“At ease, soldiers. Welcome to the UGS Ignis. I’m commander Nahid, and I’m proud to say you joined one of the best crews in the UTF. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, commander”, the recruits said in unison. Or not quite in unison. Haylen sort of chimed in a millisecond after. Praesidia employees never responded this way. They didn’t get congratulations either.

“This is sergeant Joel, my administrator.” She gestured at the officer in the wheelchair beside her, and he looked at them all with a trace of skepticism on his square face.

“I deal with your personal accounts and accesses, paychecks, contact with civilian authorities, medical journals, you name it.” Then he raised a finger warningly. “I am not, and I cannot stress that ‘not’ enough, not your personal shopper. I might be able to help you book urgent meeting on your domiciles, but I won’t order that special kind of chocolate or exclusive brand wallet for you. Other than that, I’m your man in the jungle of bureaucracy.”

Joel nodded at them, then looked at the commander as an indication he was done talking.

“Thank you, sergeant.” She looked at the recruits again. “You already met captain Avril. I will spare you the awkwardness of being officially introduced to the rest of the crew in a formal ceremony or the like. Instead you will meet them as I take you on a tour through the ship. You’ll get to know each other soon enough anyway. Are there any questions before we start?”

Tianyi held her hand up.

“Yes, private Tianyi?”

“When’s lunch?”

The commander’s lips twitched a little, amused. “In two hours from now. Do you think you will survive?”

“I can make no such promises commander, but I’ll do my best.”

Haylen wasn’t looking at Tianyi, but he could hear her grin as she talked.

“Any other questions? Preferably regarding the ship or your job.”

Leon raised his hand in his characteristically sloppy way. “I ent got stuff synced to my account yet.”

“No? Sergeant?” She turned to sergeant Joel, who was already tapping his tablet.

“On it, commander.” He looked up briefly at Leon. “Sergeant Leon, was it? I’ll send you a message when I fixed it.”

“Sweet.”

“If there’s nothing more, we’ll get started with the tour”, the commander said, and nodded at the sergeant, who barely gave her a look in return but moved towards the door, still busy with his tablet.

“This is our training hall”, the commander said, gesturing at the room in general, “where you can run simulated exercise programs with interactive targets, in a gravity range from zero to one point five, or workout in the old classic way. You’ll get more detailed instructions on safety measures and simulator management later. Prepare to spend a lot of time in here. I expect my crew to be literally fit for fight all the time, even in times with little to no real combat.”

Haylen actually looked forward to play around in a sim again. Praesidia did have a base where the employees were supplied with equipment, lodging, medical care and so on, but only the basics were covered. It was up to one and each to stay in shape, and even if there was an outdoor training area, you couldn’t get any sim training unless you went to Sol’s Ward and paid for it. On the other hand, Praesidia had been a busy company with a tendency to take commissions that turned violent, so Haylen had never had a problem with too little combat training.

He looked around the hall, catching a glimpse of the people watching from the spectator’s seat up on one wall. The lights reflected in the glass and he didn’t try to see the faces, but he did notice someone with long, red hair turning their head away the moment after their gazes happened to meet.

Then the commander told them to follow to the next area of the ship, and the group left the audience behind to see the locker rooms.

– – –

“Xander? Have you seen the new recruits?”

“Hm?” Xander stroke a wisp of wine red hair behind his ear to get it out of his face as he looked up from his tablet at Olena, one of the soldiers of team 2 that he used to hang out more with.

Olena was looking impatiently at him, an air of eagerness around her where she was hanging on the doorpost to the common room. Like most of the soldiers on Ignis she had an athletic build and a short haircut with a minor personal twist. In her case, it meant a thin braid at the very back of the crown of her head.

“Have you seen the new recruits?” she repeated. “Have you seen the new frontliner on team 1?”

“Oh. No, I only read up on them, are-”

“You have to see the new frontliner on team 1”, Olena interrupted as she stepped in, grabbed him by the arm and dragged him with her to the simulation hall.

Commander Nahid was taking the new recruits on the usual guided tour around the ship, and up on the narrow spectator shelf above the sim area, his fellow members in the tech-and-research-team, Daleen and Roz, were watching the new recruits through the glass. Emile, one of the ship’s engineers, was there as well.

“Look”, Olena hissed at Xander and pointed.

He looked down. He recognized all the new soldiers in team 1 from the crew list cards that they all had access to. “What am I supposed to look at?”

“Oh my god, are you blind? Look at the blond! Look at him, Xander!”

Xander looked. And that exact moment the new frontliner looked up at them. At him. Xander blinked and looked away, his cheeks hot all of a sudden.

“Alright, now I have looked at him…”

“If I die in battle now I’m going to die happy”, Olena sighed. “That is the face of an angel, I tell you.”

“The kind of angel that could burn you to ashes with one look”, Daleen mused, “but yes, an angel indeed”. She retied her short pigtails. Keith used to compare her to a plump cushion with tassles, which annoyed the hell out of her since she despised tassles, but it wasn’t long enough for a ponytail yet.

“As a scientist, I regret to inform you that you are all, in fact, wrong”, Roz said, her cornrow braids swaying as she briefly turned to look at them. “The true eyecandy down there is the smaller soldier.”

Xander carefully glanced at the group below again. The soldier, named Tianyi if he recalled correctly, was telling the others something with a grin on her face and waving arms. He shook his head and snickered. “You’re all so embarrassing, you know that?”

“I’ll never be ashamed of my desires”, Olena stated, her eyes still fixed on the new frontliner.

“Here’s hoping their skills as soldiers are as good as their looks”, Emile said dryly. His black hair was as long as Daleen’s, but he usually only kept it from his face with a headband. He eyed them over, the thin bone structure in his face reinforcing his condescending look “And that the three of you can keep your pants on at least until they settled in properly.”

“I haven’t said anything!” Xander protested.

“Oh babe”, said Daleen smiled, “you didn’t have to. Your cheeks never lie.”

Of course he blushed again at that.

Going back

The shuttle for the docks was being readied at the spaceport at Sol’s Ward, the main city on UC01. The Union Armed Forces had their headquarters here, including the military school, and shared the spaceport with the civil society. It was mostly trafficked by shuttles to space stations and colonies. The galaxy ships themselves, including the Task Forces’ ones, never landed on spaceports. Instead, most planets with cities as large as Sol’s Ward had transfer stations in orbit just outside atmosphere.

Haylen normally lived on UC19, a three hour shuttle trip away from UC01, but had arrived yesterday to get all the gear he needed as a soldier of the UTF. Casual uniform, heavy armor, light armor, weapons, sleepover kit, emergency kit, temp regulating underwear, protection masks, helmets, spacesuit… the list went on and on. Most of it was already on the shuttle; the only thing he had to do was to try everything out, then the storage unit made sure all of it was neatly packed and sent to the right ship.

It felt weird to be back in the Union uniform. Weird, and at the same sort of safe. Home, maybe. A home with flaws, but still home. He hauled his backpack up over one shoulder and followed the signs to the military arrival and departure halls.

Quite a few people were queueing for security control. When it was his turn, he flipped the holographic ID up from the wristband. His face side by side with the Union logo, his new soldier number, his rank. Corporal. It wouldn’t mean much on the Ignis, but all Elite Forces soldiers gained at least one rank after their first year of service.

“Tyrian Tank, huh”, said the guard and smiled at him while clearing him in the system. “Where did you serve?”

Haylen didn’t answer first, but looked at the ID, puzzled. Oh yeah. There it was, in the corner of the ID sheet. The Tyrian Tank mark. It was a picture of a stylized armored soldier with wings and two raised fists held together, surrounded by an aura of light beams. Every tank that made it through those first three years earned the right to carry that mark, no matter what profession they headed into afterwards. Only sentenced criminals lost that right.

Haylen didn’t know how to feel about the mark. He had completed training, he had served his years, he deserved that mark. And still, the people who now told him how valuable he was, that he should wear the Tyrian Tanks mark with pride, was the same people whose pride had screwed him up in the first place. That pride had cost him a lot.

“Gamma wars, year three and four.”

“You’re kidding me?” The guard sounded surprised. “Aren’t you too young to have served with the Tyrians during those years?”

He shrugged some, looking down the glass walled corridor leading to the boarding halls. “Signed up early.”

“Well, hope you won’t find the task forces too dull now”, she said and smiled again as she opened the passage for him.

A couple of other soldiers with the Ignis emblem on their uniforms were waiting at the shuttle gate. A short, muscular woman with styled short black hair was speaking lively to a taller, kind of scrawny man whose hair and stubble gave the impression that he didn’t care much about it growing too long. Next to them was a young man, clearly involved in the conversation since the woman was looking at him as much as the other when she spoke, but who didn’t have eye contact with any of them.

Haylen always felt awkward with new people, not knowing how to start casual conversations, but fortunately, the woman took care of that.

“Hey there, you’re a new applicant for Ignis too?” She nodded at the emblem on his uniform and waved him over as an invite to the little group. He walked up to them, letting his backpack down on the floor, as the woman continued. “Private Tianyi, ground soldier.”

“Corporal Haylen. Goin’ be a frontliner.”

“Ey, anot’ah ninteenah”, the scrawny man said with an askew grin. “Sergeant Leon, medic.”

The other man looked up briefly at Haylen. “Private Dmitri, shuttle pilot and mechanic, also weapon and armor specialist.” He seemed even more awkward around strangers than Haylen himself.

“Also, are you over two meters or not?” asked Tianyi, eyeing Haylen up and down. “This is important.”

“One ninetyseven”, he answered slightly confused by the question, literally looking down at her.

“Okay, you’re good then. See, I can’t have anyone taller two meters in my team or I won’t be able to drag your sorry asses out of combat if I have to, because then said sorry ass won’t even lift from the ground.”

He nodded hesitantly, glancing at Leon, who only chuckled. “She been like dis since we got ‘ere, ent found de stop button yet.”

“The only way to stop me is a bullet to my head, and there’s no guarantees to that either.” She turned to Haylen again. “Speaking of bullets to the head, what happened to you?”

She nodded at the taped stitches on his jaw.

“Grenade splinters.” Lucky for him, that cut and a bruise on his chest was the only remaining injuries from his last gig for Praesidia. The migraine had lasted two days, but that was it. No brain fry this time either.

“Fresh from the battlefield, I like it.” She grinned. “Did you ever do space battle?”

“Yeah.”

She peeked at the hairbun at Haylen’s neck. “How do you fit all that hair into a spacesuit and helmet?”

He wasn’t quite keeping up with her mental tempo. “I… braid it”.

“Oh, so this is casual style, got it. How long is it?”

He gestured somewhere on the middle of his upper arm.

“Bic length”, she nodded, “great length, not able to put your elbow on it when you turn in bed, but long enough to stay the hell out of your face when untied. That’s where you want to aim, shaggy” she said to Leon, “but I’d grow it a little faster if I were you. You look like an offtown cook, for crying out loud.”

Haylen stood idle and listened to the further conversation, or rather Tianyi’s monologue, absent-minded, until he heard a voice from the other end of the hall.

“Hey Shiner.”

He looked over his shoulder. Ziva stood there, looking as if she were torn between beating him up or walk away. Her shaved and tattooed head made people who walked past her to take an extra look.

“Woah, who’s that?” Tianyi asked with great interest before he even got the chance to respond to Ziva.

“Friend”, he said, and left the little group to walk up to his former team mate.

“Changed your mind?” he asked, cautiously since he wasn’t sure the joke would land well.

She scoffed. “You wish.” She looked out through the window. “Just wanted to say goodbye I guess.”

They hadn’t really done that. After the last mission she had been busy with other jobs while he was recovering.

He nodded some. “Glad you did.”

“Not gonna hug you, if you ever thought I would.”

“Goin’ miss you too”, he smirked, looking out as well. The bridge to the shuttle was being folded out.

She scoffed again. “Not half as much as I won’t miss you.”

The speakers announced their departure and urged passengers to go to the boarding halls. She turned to him and nodded impatiently at the gate. “That shuttle’s not gonna wait forever. Aren’t you getting on?”

“Take care, Ziv.”

He held up his fist. She shook her head, looking away while blinking away something in her eye, then held up hers as well, their knuckles meeting. “Go to hell, Shiner.”

She met his gaze, finally. She looked as choked up as he felt. And they both stepped back and turned around to leave in each direction before this got even more emotional.

Applicants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doctor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eira made a vague gesture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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