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.

Working on it

The training area was empty. Everybody was either asleep or at breakfast. Haylen was neither. When they came back to Ignis from UR06, he had had been allowed to put his equipment in the locker room, take a shower, and eat something. Then he had been literally sent to bed by Leon.

Ten hours of sleep. He had woken up an hour before the wake up call. Headache gone, not the least sleepy. So he put on sweatpants, t-shirt and a hoodie, twined his hair into a sloppy bun and went into the training hall before any medic could catch him and have opinions.

There wasn’t much options for amp training except the sim programs, and he couldn’t run them without booking one first. However, there was a couple of boxing bags. Definitely not made for withstanding the full force of an amped attacker, but he was only using the most basic abilities now.

He put the earbuds in and started a metal playlist, mostly to keep the surroundings world off his mind for a little while longer. Concentrating the force field around his fist, keeping up a standard barrier meanwhile, he aimed a slow punch at the boxing bag. At least slow enough to let him focus on every movement, keep the barriers steady, and keep the gauntlet firm enough to give the bag a push before his hand or the barriers hit it.

Three punches, then he let the gauntlet go, keeping the barrier up, and formed another gauntlet on his other hand. Three slow punches. Then shift. Bit more speed this time. Eventually he fell into the music’s rhythm.

A movement caught his eye, startling him. Xander. He exhaled, realizing he had been holding the barrier automatically and reinforcing the gauntlet, as if ready for more fighting. He let the amp force go, slow enough to not get dizzy, then took out the earbuds.

“I… didn’t mean to sneak up on you like that”, the TR said guiltily where he stood in the doorway, already in working uniform. He walked closer. “I was on my way to the canteen and noticed someone was here, so I thought I’d check, and…” He stopped talking, fiddling with a spinner ring on his finger, while the color of his cheeks turned one step closer to the one of his long, deep red hair. “…and I’m rambling.”

“No it’s… Jus’ didn’t hear you”, Haylen said. He put his hands in his pockets, now that he had no weapon belt to rest his thumbs on.

Xander run a hand through his hair and looked at the boxing bag, walking closer. “I got a full report of the centipede from Tianyi last night. You people really went through the wringer there.”

“Another glorious day in the TF…”

Xander smiled a little, folding his arms and leaned back at the wall bars. It was that kind of arm folding that made him come off as even less intimidating, compared to, say, the captain, who only beefed up her usual scowl when doing it.

“I heard you had quite the backlash.”

Haylen looked at the floor in front of Xander’s feet. “At least I could sleep it off.”

“Was it only upgrades to the existing implants? The T9 system, I mean?”

There was more curiosity than concern in his voice now. Haylen found that was weirdly comfortable. It took the focus off from himself as a person, making it easier to talk about it.

“Bit of both. Some software upgrades, they put in more generators, more neurolinks, some new coordination units.”

“What system did you get from start? T4?”

“I may be older than you, but not that old.” He smirked some as Xander’s cheeks started to redden again. “T7.”

“Those are really good, from what I read. Integrateable with older systems, too. A lot of the high rankers say that’s how the Gamma war was won.”

Haylen shrugged a little. “With some help from the meat sacks carryin’em around, yeah.”

“Oh yes, I suppose they contributed some”, Xander snickered. “How come there was no T8, by the way? I haven’t found any information on that, except a couple of mentionings here and there.”

“It, uh…” Haylen eyed the ceiling. He wasn’t actually sure if the people in the T9 project had told them this was classified information or only unofficially urging them to not talk about it.  Whatever. He didn’t owe them anything. “It was supposed to upgrade the T7, but… it sucked. Didn’t even connect. So they kind of picked’em out, rebuilt it an’ called it T9.”

Xander frowned. “Is that why they are so…” He paused, looking for a word.

“Fucked up?” Haylen suggested. “Don’t know really. They didn’t tell.”

“They could have started over.”

“Guess they didn’t want their investments goin’ wasted.”

“Expensive mistake.”

“Mm.”

Xander suddenly turned red again. “I… I did not mean to call you a mistake, I’m really really sorry.”

Haylen smirked. “You not be the first, eh.”

“Yes but… I mean…”

“Ey, Dots. It’s okay.”

Xander nodded. “Okay, good. Because… Yeah.”

There was a few moments of silence. Xander fiddled with his ring.

“You were goin’ have breakfast, no?” Haylen remembered.

“Yes. Yes I was.”

“I go with you then.”

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?

Beneath the ice part 1/3

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

And then there was the bluegreen frozen waterfalls of melted snow from the cliffs, in shapes that no hand could copy, icicles hanging from the edges like spearheads of titans. Those who fell victim for UR06’s unforgiving mood would at least rest in a grave worthy of a royalty.

The Ignis crew weren’t there to enjoy the view, however. There had been a cave in during an expedition to explore a system of natural tunnels in a glacier. Rescuing the trapped scientists probably wouldn’t be too big a task for the staff at the research station they were from, but the distress call had been rather ominous. One short S.O.S. and then a hushed message claiming there was something in the tunnels, then radio silence.

The shuttle had landed at the main structure (to call it a city, or even town, was to stretch it too far) where the station was located, and was preparing for the ride to the tunnels with two borrowed transport vehicles. Team 1 and team 3 were both assigned on this, plus Roz from the TR. Felicia was leaning her chin in her hand, playing with the zipper on her uniform jacket as she tried to focus more on captain Avril’s voice than the scenery outside.

”I hope everyone put on an extra pair of long johns”, captain Avril said as they reached the end of the briefing, that was taking place in the small, and only, conference room at the station. ”It’ll be cold even inside the tunnels. Our premise is that there are survivors, and that there are hostiles.”

”And snowstorms”, stated Roz dryly.

”According to weather service it’s fairly pleasant up there today”, said captain Lace with a smile. How the leader of team 3 managed to always find something positive and genuinely lift it up was beyond Felicia.

”I doubt ‘fairly pleasant’ in this place bears any kind of resemblance with the usual meaning of those words”, Roz muttered.

”I’m sure the five layers of thermo clothes and socks you managed to squeeze in that environmental suit will keep you warm enough”, Keith grinned at her.

”Friendly reminder, never stand still”, Nyree pointed out.

”So you suggest we should all skip around like a shore leave soldier on the dance floor?” asked Cory.

”Weird as it may sound”, she answered, “I prefer to watch you dance than to have to amputate your toes.”

There was some giggles around the table.

”Any questions?” captain Avril said, her stern voice revealing the growing irritation.

”Are we there yet?” asked Tianyi.

More giggles, and not so few groans were heard.

“I swear to Earth private, you ask that question on our way to the location and I’ll personally kick your teeth in.” The look on the captain’s face made even Tianyi nod silently without more comments.

Captain Avril then turned to Haylen with a critical look. ”Are you back on track, corporal?”

He looked up at her, the usual idle predator look on his face, not visibly reacting to the captain’s underlying distrust.

“Yeah.”

Yesterday’s sim training session had given him a pretty bad migraine attack, and he had still been dazed this morning as they had prepared for the mission. The extra hour of sleep on the shuttle seemed to have been needed.

The captain seemed content with his answer nevertheless. “Alright then people, gather for departure at the vehicles in fifteen.”

They all made the last preparations, putting on their outdoor suits and their armor in the narrow corridor outside. Felicia was trying to tuck her cloth mask in under the helmet in a comfortable way, as she heard Cory talk to Haylen.

“Do you ever get migraine attacks during missions?”

“Yeah.” The answer was short. Then again, they tended to be.

“That must be really awkward, considering you can barely stand up when you have one.”

Felicia glanced at Cory. He had been taking his sweet time to build up the courage to go for the biggest kid in class…

Haylen adjusted his chestguard before answering. “Usually don’t get that bad until after.”

Cory nodded. “Well, I suppose that’s convenient.” He checked his rifle, glancing at Haylen.

Haylen didn’t respond, just clicked his shoulderguards in place.

“At least it’s nice having someone else take care of your equipment every now and then”, Cory continued, hanging the rifle over his shoulder.

Haylen lifted his chin some, then looked at Cory, but the sniper was busy putting the protective goggles on his helmet.

“Can you not be an asshole for five whole minutes Cory?” Felicia snapped.

He looked at her, his eyes owlish. “What did I do wrong, Lissy? Enlighten me.”

“First, you basically said he’s simulating. Second, you called me Lissy.” She glared back at him.

“Is that what you made out of what I said?” His eyebrows went even higher up on his forehead, and he turned to Haylen. “Look, I’m sorry if you feel that I stepped on your toes here. I was only asking, you know.”

Haylen, who had turned back to what he was doing, just nodded some and picked up his gloves and gun. Felicia grabbed the rest of her stuff too and walked after Haylen towards the vehicle hall.

– – –

The personnel transport vehicle wasn’t a comfortable one. No isolation on the walls, barely any springs left, and the seats had never had any padding. Even if it moved on continuous tracks, it was a bumpy ride. At least there were decent seatbelts to hold them in place.

The silence outside as they climbed out of the vehicles sounded differently than at UC19, but it was the same kind of vast, untouched silence that made your eardrums start making high pitched noise out of restlessness. Only the faint whisper from wind forcing snow over the ground was heard.

Haylen and the others put their crampons on, then began to walk the dug out path through the snow down to the tunnel system. The goggles shifted color with the intensity of the light, and still he thought the reflection from the snow was strong enough to irritate his eyes. The sun was strong at UC19 too, but the sand was red there, not white.

To get inside the tunnel system, they had to climb down a narrow and very slippery ice path. There was a rope attached to the ice to hold on to, but that was it. Many people had climbed this path with crampons, that was obvious, but it hadn’t done much to rough the surface up.

Down in the hole, which was honestly the best description because it couldn’t be called a cave, the light had taken a strange, but not unpleasant, green-blue tone. The shiftings in the ice let enough sunlight down to make flashlights unnecessary.

Well. Here at least. When Haylen looked into one of the four tunnel entrances, it hinted on deeper darkness further down. The tunnels were bigger than he thought, however. One and a half his own length, and wide enough for two people beside each other. It wouldn’t have been very weird if he didn’t know these tunnels were not dug out by human hands.

“Team 3 will stay here for now”, captain Avril said as the last one had made it down to the floor. Even Rashida had managed the climbing without screwing up. They all pulled the cloth masks down for now and pushed their goggles up. No snowy wind would blind them down here.

“Team 1, we’ll follow the target’s route”, captain Avril continued, and checked her watch. “We’ll report in every fifteen minute. Haylen, take point. Keith, navigate us, and give me updates on where the targets’ transponders are compared to our position. Felicia, at the ready behind Haylen. I’ll take the rear. Move out.”

Haylen held his gun ready for firing, and headed into the tunnel. As he had imagined, the tunnel got darker the deeper inside they went, but before it got too dark to see, the light slowly returned. Their steps made weird, muffled echoes down here. The resonance gave every sound a melodic ring, but ice was a soft material, and the walls it formed were thick.

It felt a little weird walking with the crampons. The spikes weren’t that long, but it still gave him a little too good a grip so he had to pull his feet up for every step. But it was that or waste even more energy to stay on your feet on the slippery floor.

There was a wariness among the team members this mission. Not knowing what you were about to meet was one thing. They were all experienced enough, and could handle a surprise or two. But after UR03 and the derailer’s attack on Felicia’s amps, it had woken up the war anxiety within most of them. Treacherous enemies were easier to handle than treacherous friends, and if the Federation had started infiltrating civil stations it would more likely they’d encounter the latter.

With short, silent instructions to Haylen, Keith led them further into the system. Every now and then, Felicia pointed out suspicious shapes and hollows, but no bodies so far, living or dead. Captain Avril sent out calls every five minute to their targets, hoping they would still have working comm devices, but she never got an answer.

They reached a wider part of the tunnel, and this time it could be called a proper cave. At the opposite end, part of the ceiling had collapsed and formed a pile of broken ice blocks and shards. As a result, the ceiling was thinner, and the cave practically had daylight.

“We reached the cave in”, captain Avril reported back. “We’re taking five, then we’ll start working on an opening.” She tried to call out to the targets again, but got no response this time either.

Their laser cutters, and small, foldable shovels and pickaxes didn’t make the work on said opening quick and powerful, but at least they made progress.

“Take it easy, people”, the captain said as they were half way through. “There might be bodies under there, I don’t want you to cut them to pieces.”

Tianyi and Santo, who were the ones currently toiling at the frozen rubble, slowed down a bit at that.

“I can’t see any body shapes there though, captain”, said Felicia, who was also regularly scanning the roof so the rest of it wouldn’t fall down on their heads.

“Well that’s good I suppose. How’s the air?” The captain turned to Leon.

The medic flipped the meters up on his wristband, and reassured them that there was nothing to worry about air-wise. “Not even carbon dioxide be a problem, so you all doin’ a good job shuttin’ up too.”

“About fucking time they learned that”, the captain muttered.

“We’re through”, Morgan said eventually and pulled out his pickaxe. He sat back, looking at the captain.

“Felicia, Haylen, at the ready. Morgan, Keith, open it up.”

Haylen put his barriers up while Felicia kneeled and hoisted her rifle up to her shoulder.

“I see no people on the other side”, Felicia said.

When the opening was big enough, Haylen crawled through it. The tunnel on the other side was narrower than the one that led to the cave, and darker. It was sloping slightly downwards, curving enough to limit the sight to ten or so meters. He took a few steps forward to see further into the tunnel, switching on the flashlight on his helmet and gun, but the tunnel kept curving.

“Clear”, he said, and the others began to move through.

According to Keith’s tracker, they were getting closer to the transponders for a while, but then the tunnel forced them into another direction. They were also going deeper and deeper down all the time. Their flashlights were reflected back at them, or further into the ice.

“What is that sound?” Keith asked after a while.

“Hold”, said Felicia, and they all stopped while she and Tianyi listened as well.

All Haylen could hear was a soft, dull humming coming in long, irregular intervals, but if he had heard it before or not he couldn’t tell.

“An engine?” Keith suggested with a frown.

She slowly shook her head. “Can’t tell. Might be a rattle, maybe the ice makes it more buzz-like.”

Captain Avril frowned. “Keep me updated. Let’s move on.”

Snakes and branches part 3/3

Being a commander of a Union Task Force galaxy ship usually meant leading operations from the ship’s command room. Only on rare occasions commanders left the ship to join their troops on the field. Commander Nahid loved her ship, and couldn’t think of a better place to work than the command room at Ignis.

Still, she had to admit that this little field trip to UR03 was refreshing. Of course, the mission itself was a rather gloomy one – missing personnel in research areas usually meant they were dead – but Nahid didn’t let that prevent her from enjoying herself.

Sometimes people called her cold-hearted, unempathic, ignorant or nonchalant, because of this ability to not let things affect her that wasn’t her concern. To Nahid herself, that ability was crucial for doing her duty. When it came to her own crew, she engaged whole-heartedly in their well-being, but others? They had their own to worry about them. And crying saved no lives.

They had put up their portable equipment on the table outside the tent. Usually, they used the shuttle as base for command and communication during operations, but since the landing and lift-off location was a couple of kilometers away from the station, Nahid had decided it was better to have it here.

The head of the station, Biely, was sitting at the table with them, and had telling Nahid about the station and their work, but as captain Avril called Nahid on the comm, Nahid held up a hand.

Then she looked at Biely. “Do you have more than two drones in the air right now?”

Biely frowned. “No? We have three, but only two are in use. Why?”

Nahid pointed at the ID-signal. “Do you recognize that?”

“Yes, it’s ours, but that one is in our storage.”

“Let’s go and see if it’s still there, shall we?”

Biely looked worried now, but rose from the table.

On the comm, captain Avril reported that the drone somehow had tampered with Felicia’s sonar. Nahids mood shifted. If these scientists had sent up an extra drone without telling them, that was annoying. To directly interfere with her operation? That was a crime.

She looked at Biely, sternly, while answering the captain. “You are free to shoot it down if you think that is necessary.” She then turned to the TR:s. “Xander, find out who’s controlling the drone and from where. Daleen, the drone was affecting Felicia’s sonar somehow. I want you to check the other drones so they’re not doing the same.”

The two TR:s began to work, focused.

“Rashida, unless your foot objects too much, you’re coming with us.”

“Yes commander.” The soldier who had been sitting at the table with them, her injured foot up on the bench, grabbed her gun. She was still limping, but it seemed the sprain hadn’t been too bad after all.

They walked after Biely to the storage building. The head scientist opened the door and turned on the lights, and led them to the part where the drones were usually stored.

“It’s… not here.” She looked genuinely surprised.

“The ones controlling the drones are inside the station, are they not?”

“Yes, they are.”

“Lead the way.”

As they walked over to the station, Nahid gave Avril a quick update. With Rashida one step behind, she followed Biely into a small room where two of the staff were sitting with control tablets for the drones.

“Is anyone of you using Sting Ray?” the head scientist asked them, nervously.

“No”, one of them answered, puzzled, “only Manta Ray and Eagle Ray.”

They glanced at Rashida and Nahid.

“Who among the crew can fly them?” Nahid asked Biely.

“Well, Liz, one of the two who went missing, she could use the drones, and Wayan and Johannes.”

“Gather your crew immediately. All of them. I don’t care if they’re off duty or in the bathroom, round them up. Now.”

The head scientists hurried to carry out this task while Nahid made sure the drone operators had their drones return and land on autopilot.

Thanks to the limited size of the station, gathering the staff was quickly done. It was also not hard for Biely to see that they were missing yet another member.

“Johannes isn’t here.” Her voice was weak.

Nahid decided to call her troops back to the station. For now, finding the missing scientists was of lesser prio than preventing a possible derailer to cause even more damage.

“Any idea where he could be? Especially if he was to operate the drone?”

Biely desperately shook her head. “If you have the control pad, you can do it wherever.

Nahid looked at the gathered staff. If there were more allies to this Johannes in here, she didn’t want to give them a chance to sneak off.

“Everyone, go outside. Sit down at the wall to the right of the front door. Move.”

The station workers all looked at each other, insecure.

Nahid raised her voice. “I said move!”

She didn’t have to tell them a third time.

As Rashida made sure they all followed orders, and stayed to watch them, Nahid went back to the TR:s.

“What do you have for me?”

“The other two drones were only being used for camera searching”, Daleen said. “I found no software other than what they are supposed to have. They’ll land here soon.”

“And the misbehaving one?”

“It’s been modified, obviously”, Xander answered, “but it’s also encrypted, not to mention it’s been shot down. I’m still not able to tell where its controller is. But… this encryption is of Federation origin.”

Nahid looked at him, her eyes narrowing in distrust. “Federation encryption? On a Union research drone?”

He shrugged, almost apologetically.

“Alright. Keep up the tracking efforts. It will take team 1 half hour team to get back, another forty five minutes for team 3. I’d prefer not to engage a possible Federation spy without backup, but we can’t afford to let them get away either. Dmitri, has there been any unauthorized attempts to get inside or take control over the shuttle?”

“No commander.” Dmitri had stayed with them at the station, but was still able to keep an eye on the locked shuttle through his tablet.

“Daleen, find out who is in charge of landing and lift off. Work with them to make sure this Johannes can’t leave the surface.”

“On it, commander.”

Nahid put her hands on her back, looking over the nervous station staff, then at the small screen showing the two team’s movement through the forest. Waiting was part of her job as well. So she waited, ready to take action whenever the situation changed.

– – –

Haylen had just caught the first glimpse of the station between the trees when captain Avril put up her hand, and the soldiers stopped. They had been jogging whenever possible, moving in combat formation most of the time. Haylen had activated his barriers a little while ago. The station had no lethal weapons, at least not officially. Then again, the station drones weren’t supposed to have amp jammers either.

During the Gamma wars, the development of jammers and counter-jammers had been like a war in itself. The Federation equipped their warbots with interference devices, and the Union invented both software and physical blockers for their amped soldiers, each better than the previous.

The T9 program used top notch counter-jammers for the time being. Haylen wasn’t sure if the upgrades he had had since then was actual upgrades or only the standard quickfixes that most implants got once a year or so. Either way, it would require a lot of skills and money to produce a jammer that could get through them even today.

Still, if this derailer had jammers that worked on a task force soldier, they might as well have those skills and those money.

Captain Avril listened to the comm call, then looked at them, speaking in a hushed tone. “They tracked the derailer to the lift-off area. We’re to surround him and catch him, alive and if possible unharmed. Questions?”

“Is he armed?” Felicia asked.

“We don’t know. It’s possible that he has firearms, but not likely. He could have improvised melee weapons. He’s to be treated like a threat anyhow.” She looked at Haylen. “You approach him first. If you can’t make him move with commands, you take him physically. Shooting him is last resort”

“Got it.”

“Alright people, let’s go.”

They headed for the lift-off area where they split up in two, and spread out along the treeline. The Ignis shuttle was standing on the concrete next to the lift-off ramp, and a bit further away was the station shuttle.

“I see him”, said Felicia on the comm. She had taken position where she could overlook the lift-off area. “He’s sitting at the control hut.”

“Haylen, on Felicia’s call”, said the captain. “The rest of you, close in, slowly.”

“I got aim on him”, Felicia said. “He looks unarmed.”

Haylen made his way towards the control hut, diagonally since the man apparently was sitting on the opposite side. He kept his barriers up, and the gun ready but pointed at the ground for now, moving around the corner.

The derailer, a light-skinned man who must be younger than Haylen himself, looked up at him. He was holding something small in his shaking hand, and he had tears in his wide open eyes.

“Stand up”, Haylen said, not raising his voice nor his gun, but not losing his ready stance either.

The man just looked back at him, and from one moment to another he turned absolutely calm, and then quickly moved his hand to put whatever he had in it in his mouth and swallowed.

Haylen shoved his gun at his back and flung himself down on his knees beside the man, grabbing the back of his neck with one hand and tried making him open his mouth with the other. The derailer tried to squirm free, pulling at Haylen’s arms, but Haylen was stronger. He gave the man a couple of quick punches on the mouth with his fist so he could pry the jaws open, then forced his fingers down the man’s throat until he threw up.

He heard captain Avril report to the commander, and saw the rest of the team run towards them in the corner of his eye. He sat back on his heels, still grasping the man’s shoulder, while taking his gun with the other hand. The man slumped back against the control hut wall, but it wasn’t long until he put his arms around his stomach with a painful moan, his face twisting in agony.

“What happened?” captain Avril demanded to know as she squatted down beside them.

“Poison”, Haylen answered.

She looked at him, then at the derailer and the vomit in front of him. “Good thinking”, she mumbled, then called for the medics.

– – –

They left UR03 early next morning, with the Federation mole, his modded drone, and two body bags. Leon and Nyree had been able to prevent the remaining poison to cause too much damage to the derailer. He had regained consciousness eventually, and was now handcuffed and put in the hindmost seat in the shuttle, staring at the floor in front of him.

Felicia wished he had been placed in the cargo section instead, preferably in a body bag too. She was repulsed by the mere sight of him. None of the soldiers were allowed to speak to the prisoner, but even the commander couldn’t prevent Felicia from glaring at him.

She and Tianyi had found the missing scientists eventually. That was the only thing the mole had told them. “I left them in the ravine south of the station.” He had lured them out, poisoned them, and dragged them to the ravine. And for what? To get some Union imps come over so he could try his toy out on them? It was disgusting.

Someone patted her thigh lightly and she reluctantly turned her head away from the derailer, and looked at Tianyi beside her.

“Don’t dwell on it, Scopes.”

“I’m not dwelling on anything.”

“Yes you are.”

“Well excuse me, but this could mean that the Federation is crawling up from their hole again. I think I got the right to dwell on that.”

“As long as you stop that sulking when we get back on Ignis. I can only handle so much grumpiness during maintenance.”

Felicia snorted.

The turbulence ceased as they left the atmosphere. A few seats away, Daleen put a sickbag to her mouth. In front of her, Haylen had fallen asleep. On her right, Keith and Santo had picked up their argument about the ‘stolen’ candy again. Tianyi nudged Felicia with her elbow, grinning.

Everything was as it used to be.

Except the branch had turned out to be a snake after all.