Corporal duty

“I’m not saying it’s wrong, I only…-”

“You just said it was!”

“No, I didn’t! Look…”

Haylen heard Cory’s and Felicia’s voices even before he went inside the shuttle hall with his gear. There was a couple of smaller room for weapon and armor maintenance, but the soldiers usually sat on the floor in the more spacey shuttle hall unless there were a lot of small parts involved. Haylen considered using that other room for half a second, but put his things down where the others were anyway.

The shuttle hall wasn’t very crowded this morning. The scouts and Morgan were in the workshop for technical equipment, taking care of and filling up their air tanks. Paavo was still locked up at the med bay, probably more to keep him from unnecessary use of his leg rather than actual medical surveillance, and Rashida’s concussion made it impossible for her to even turn her head without throwing up, and was ordered to rest in bed.

That left Matsuko and Mourad from team 3, who were quietly focusing on their own work, and Tianyi, who was engaged in Cory’s and Felicia’s discussion. As Haylen sat down, Cory briefly looked at him before he took a deep breath and continued to explain to Felicia and Tianyi.

“What I’m saying is, that in this galaxy, humankind is struggling. We have stillborn babies, babies born without arms or legs, babies born with flawed inner organs – the people is growing frail. This means we need as many people as possible to reproduce, to get more able people actually making it into adulthood, and to adapt quicker to life at least in this solar system. And, since it takes two components to make a baby, people should consider that when choosing a partner.”

“Oh, you think it’s our duty to have children?” said Tianyi, her usual cheeriness having a scrappy touch to it. She was brushing a legplate clean, but her ribcage was pretty sore from last day’s mission, and it was obvious she would need help eventually if she wanted to be done before lunch.

“I never said ‘duty’”, Cory objected, “I just think that sometimes people think too much about themselves as individuals instead of part of a society.”

“So if two people love each other”, Tianyi said, “and they happen to be two ciswomen, you think they’re being selfish?”

Cory shook his head dismissively. “I wish you people would stop putting words in my mouth.”

“But you’re not answering the question”, Felicia urged, sounding as angry as she looked, in tailor seat leaning forward with her hands on her knees.

Cory raised his eyebrows. “I don’t even know what the question is any longer.”

Before Felicia got to remind him, Tianyi interrupted.

“Then what is it that makes you so upset with this whole same-sex partner thing, is it the lack of baby making?”

Cory scoffed softly. “I’m not upset about anything, it’s you who are.” He gestured at them.

“Okay, okay”, Tianyi said, raising her hand, “what if I hooked up with, say… Halo’s girlfriend.”

Haylen silently looked up at her. She knew he found it annoying that she still insisted on calling Ziva his girlfriend, and she enjoyed every time she got to say it. She grinned, and continued.

“Let’s also say we found a couple of suitably equipped people to produce offspring with, then you would be all fine and dandy about two women having a romantic relation?”

“I would say”, Cory said, slowly as if weighing his words, “that you at least were thinking about our species’ survival.”

Felicia wasn’t satisfied though, and her voice was even sharper now.

“But what you said was that you don’t like to see non cis-hetero couples.”

“Again, I never said that…”

“You said, and I quote, ‘I think it’s sad’ when I told you about my cousin and her girlfriend!”

“If you’re quoting me, at least humor me enough not to leave any parts out”, Cory answered dryly. “I said it was sad that she didn’t even bother to try out a cismale partner.”

“How the hell is that not saying it’s wrong?”

“Because not all unnatural things are wrong.”

Felicia threw her head back in disbelief. “Oh my god, ‘unnatural’!? What are you, an old-earther?”

“That’s you having a weird relation to the word ‘unnatural’, not me.” Cory looked at his own two teammates with a smile, but only got uncommitted ones in return.

Tianyi started to talk before Felicia got the chance. “Is contraceptives a good kind of unnatural to you?”

Cory looked at her with a mildly impatient smile. “Your point being?”

“Well, if you were banging a nice chick and the condom broke, or your pills didn’t work, and she got pregnant – would you insist on keeping the child? No options considered?”

“And with ‘option’ you mean ‘abortion’ I take it?”

“Among other things.”

“Of course I would insist on keeping the child. If I’m fine with having sex I should be fine with having a child. That’s the main purpose of it, after all.” He said the last sentence with a meaning look at Felicia.

“What?!” Tianyi burst out in pretended astonishment. “My life is a lie…!”

Matsuko and Mourad chuckled at her, but Felicia didn’t share their amusement. “So you think Malenka was selfish and irresponsible to have that abortion?”

“I’m not going to discuss Malenka’s abortion when she’s not around, Lissy”, Cory said.

“Okay okay”, Tiany intervened eagerly, “how about this: A guy rapes me, and I get pregnant. Should I keep the child?”

Cory gave her a look. “You’re being very hypothetical now.”

“And you aren’t with all this talk about preservation of the human species and all? Answer the question.”

Tianyi’s tone had gotten sharper now too. Haylen glanced at Matsuko and Mourand, but they had their eyes mostly set on their work just like himself.

“Well”, Cory said and looked at her thoughtfully, “the child can’t help that you were raped. It’s a child no matter who’s the other parent.”

“But that other parent would never ever be a real parent, never help with the kid once it was born even if he got out of prison.”

“Not every parent lives to see their children being born either.” Cory shrugged.

“Yeah but this guy isn’t someone who planned to have a family, it’s someone who’s only after some quick fun and power play.”

“I heard you the first time you said ‘rape’, Tia, and I repeat: It’s still a child, even if it came to exist because of a rape.”

“We have laws though”, Felicia pointed out. “Legally…-”

“You don’t have to lecture me on abortion laws, Felicia”, Cory interrupted.

“Hang on, let me get this clear”, Tianyi said, “you do think that if someone rapes you, and you get pregnant, you should still keep the child.”

“If there’s no threat to your health, of course.”

“Alright.” Tianyi nodded and turned back to her work. She suddenly seemed weirdly indifferent.

Cory looked from Tianyi to Felicia, who also had picked up her chore.

“I honestly don’t understand what all the fuss here is about.”

“Really, Cory?” Felicia’s voice oozed of sarcasm as she looked up at him. “You can’t understand why someone would be offended if you called them selfish and irresponsible for doing what’s best for them and their lives?”

He gave her a somewhat teasing look. “Selfish – best for themselves. I rest my case.”

Felicia slammed her palm on the floor. “You know what I mean!”

“Maybe it’s hard to face the truth?” He shrugged. “Either way, I’m entitled my opinion.”

“And the rest of us aren’t? We’re not entitled to object when you’re spilling your sucky opinions around?”

“Of course you are, I just wish you could do so with less shouting and wild interpretation of what I’m saying.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to interpret ‘make more biological babies even if you’re gay or rape victim’ in any other way than exactly that?” Felicia stared at him. “Also, how the fuck is rapist genes helping humankind here!?” She was about to continue, but Tianyi stopped her.

“Scopes, leave it”, she said, very calmly. “He’s not worth your breath.”

Cory raised his eyebrows. “Wow. Now I’m offended. It’s one thing you don’t agree with me, Tia, you don’t have to attack my person.”

“Mourad?” Tianyi said. “If Cory ever uses the nickname ‘Tia’ when talking about me again, would you please tell him not to? It’s bad enough that his mouth gets to say my official name.”

“Very mature, Tia, very mature”, Cory said.

“You can tell him yourself Tia, oh my god…” Mourad said awkwardly despite the eyeroll.

Tianyi didn’t say anything more. Felicia got on her feet, gathered her stuff and left the docking bay. When she walked past Haylen she snarled: “Thanks for the help.”

He looked up at her, but it was too late to answer.

“Is this a womb thing?” Cory asked with a sigh. “Or a gay thing perhaps?”

“I think it’s a you-thing”, Matsuko answered calmly.

“How so, Matsuko?” Cory peered at her. “Do tell.”

She shook her head without looking up. “Because you like winding people up.”

“Do I now? I can’t really help if people get wound up by my opinions, can I?”

As Matsuko kept working in silence, Cory finally looked Haylen’s way. Haylen looked back, even if he knew he was going to regret it.

“What do you think, Haylen?”

“I get the whole society thing, don’t see the point of guilt trippin’ people for not goin’ all rabbit though.”

Cory frowned, but with that little smile still on his lips. “Guilt tripping? Is that what you think I’m doing?”

“Yeah.”

Cory shifted into a position leaning more forward and looked at Haylen, not unlike a hunter zooming in on its prey.

“In what way am I guilt tripping anyone? And, while we’re at it, for what exactly?”

Haylen looked at him silently for a few moments, but Cory waited.

“You didn’t listen to Felicia an’ Tianyi while you talked to’em?”

“Of course I did. I just didn’t hear any valid argument for their stand. I got to say, it’s rather interesting to see you all so strongly convinced I’m wrong yet you can’t explain why.”

“That you don’t understand don’t mean you be given bad arguments.”

“Trick questions and insinuations hardly count as arguments.”

For a moment Haylen was tempted to bring up the fact that he personally didn’t want to have kids at all. But he had to admit that he had stepped into the same trap as Felicia and Tianyi. Whether or not Cory liked to wind people out, he had succeeded in just that. To try and give him a serious explanation would be a waste of time and energy; Cory would be more keen on winning a word feud than actually making an effort to understand.

So instead of answering, Haylen put conditioner on a cloth and began to silently work it into the now brushed clean boot. Taking sides and defending his own had been natural as well as required in the Tyrian Tanks, but ‘sides’ had gone irrelevant when he signed up for Praesidia, and ‘his own’ had narrowed down to pretty much Ziva and himself.

With the inevitable blur of legal and moral lines that came with that kind of work for that kind of company, he had found that the least frustrating solution to situations like this was to simply shut the fuck up. If he tried to argue for himself or others, it usually only made things worse.

Still, standing idle had never felt right. That added extra bitterness to the fact that while his silence came out of resignation, Tianyi’s silence was an act of aggression.

Cory smiled, pleased with the outcome, no doubt. “If you’re out of arguments, maybe you can elaborate this rabbit thing instead?”

“Can we just drop this now?” asked Matsuko and looked at Cory tiredly.

“If you don’t like the subject, then sure”, Cory answered with exaggerated indifference.

After a couple of minutes Matsuko and Mourad started to talk about something less emotion stirring. Tianyi and Cory got involved too as if nothing happened, but Haylen noticed that Tianyi didn’t answer Cory directly even once.

Tianyi caught Haylen’s eyes to give him a brief smile, either as encouragement or a thanks for the support. He didn’t really think he deserved either.

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Out of hands

One week left until shore leave. The team would have a week off, then they would all have personal schedules for a couple of weeks. Some were going back to the base at Sol’s Ward for education and practising, some were going on various guarding or patrolling duties on their home colonies. It all depended on what the colonies demanded and what the commander thought was needed.

Haylen had orders to be at the Sol’s Ward base for amp training and a crash course in modern military knowledge or something similar. He didn’t exactly look forward to any of it, especially not that second part, but he didn’t have much say in it. At least the time at Sol’s Ward would give him an opportunity to catch up with Ziva.

If she wanted to. They hadn’t talked or written to each other since Haylen left for UGS Ignis.

There was some motivation for the amp training though. The talk with the captain earlier hadn’t been very encouraging, but at least she had been honest. No promises, no smooth-overs. Simply showing him her cards. He hadn’t been thrown overboard yet. Still a chance to take control over these damn amps.

Except for the follow-up talks with captain Avril, they had all been busy with various maintenance duties the whole day. Now they were having dinner before the shooting practise. Felicia just sat down with the other team 1-members with her tray of food. She was late; the rest of them were almost done eating.

“I just texted with Santo”, she said while she stuffed her mouth with fish and carrots.

“You got a connection finally?” asked Morgan and looked up at her, expectantly.

“Yeah but it took forever to send and receive”, Felicia answered, her words muffled by food.

“What did he say?” asked Keith, who was absent-mindedly touching a bruise on his face. It was barely visible since his skin was so dark, but there was still a swelling. The close combat training yesterday had been… enthusiastic. At least Tianyi’s left hook hadn’t started another war between them.

“That his legs are healing as they should and that he’s feeling alright, more or less. But I mean, he’s not able to walk for a while and he’s kind of low at the moment, I caught that much.”

“I wonder if his feet could have been saved if he had been cut loose instead of pulled out”, Cory mused from his side of the table. He always managed to place himself so he could hear what team 1 was talking about.

Haylen decided not to answer that, even if it was clear that it was directed at him and nobody else; he was the one who had freed Santo. He focused on mixing the rest of the fish with whatever gravy he had left. Simone was a good cook but even she couldn’t turn fish into anything that wasn’t fish.

Felicia inhaled in a way that meant she was going to counterattack Cory, but surprisingly enough, Morgan was the one coming to Haylen’s defense this time.

“You weren’t there Cory, there wasn’t really time to be surgical.”

“I thought you were passed out most of the time?” Cory sounded as innocent as ever.

“And I would’ve been dead if Haylen hadn’t got Santo out so Felicia could shoot the centipede.”

Cory shrugged. “If you say so.”

“They’re pretty good at integrated prosthetics these days though.” Xander said, maybe attempting to ease the tension. He sat in front of Haylen, and lifted his left hand, waving his fingers.

Haylen tilted his head a bit to the side, looking at the hand.

“Never noticed. Which… be your point, I guess.”

“Well, yes. It was.” Xander smiled awkwardly.

“How much of it?”

“It goes up to just below the elbow. I’m one of the first on UC01 born with infant mortification. They had to amputate it at once.”

“Ew”, said Tianyi, “I hate that word.”

“Mortification?” Morgan said, looking at Xander with a frown.

“Yes”, Tianyi answered even if it was obvious Morgan was talking to Xander.

“I thought all those who were missing limbs from birth simply didn’t have them, not that it was mortification”, Morgan continued.

“I said ‘ew, I hate that word’”, Tianyi said and leaned forward so she could spell it out directly to Morgan’s face. He just smiled and pushed her head away.

“That’s another syndrome”, Xander explained. “The infant mortification…-” Tianyi made a disgusted noise again. Xander paused with a little smile, then continued. “This syndrome is less common, but since people tend to find it appalling, it’s easier to just say you’re born without a hand or foot or whatever.”

“And we’re all very grateful”, said Tianyi, drinking the rest of her water.

“Can they put prosthetics on infants?” Keith asked. “Won’t you have to switch them every other month if so? And aren’t they like, really tiny?” He measured with thumb and index finger, squinting.

“I didn’t get my first until I was five, but yes. They have to be switched as you grow. And upgraded or exchanged once in a while. But this one I’m supposed to have for some years now.”

“That means you stopped growing?” asked Tianyi. “Thank the gods for that, you’re obscenely tall.”

“He got a perfect height”, Haylen said, as he checked the time. They had four minutes until shooting session started. They better get ready.

“Well you’re biased, you mutated mammoth tree”, Tianyi replied.

“Ever considered the option that you might be obscenely short?” Keith asked as he stood up with his empty tray, a mocking smile on his face.

“I’m exactly the height I was meant to have, more would be a waste of flesh”, she said, and as Haylen stood up in his full length, taking his tray too, she added: “As you can see on some other people here.”

He looked at her. She smiled widely with closed lips at him. So he just smirked a bit and went to leave his tray, giving Xander and Felicia a brief look as he walked around the table. The TR was looking another direction, blushing for some unknown reason. Felicia on the other hand had an innocent smile on her face as she gave Xander a pat on the arm and left the table as well.

Before he made it to the shooting range, doctor Eira caught him in the corridor.

“Tomorrow, after whatever it is you lunatics do before dinner, we’ll do the stress test. Then you can rest after if you have to. Don’t show up starving, but don’t come completely full either.”

“Got it”, he said.

She peered at him. “You were hoping I had forgotten about it, weren’t you?”

He pointed the other direction. “I goin’ be late.”

“Shoo then”, she said, waving him off while walking away herself.

Another thing to not look forward too. But there was one more day left for her to forget it on, right.

Evaluation: Tianyi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And your ears? Are they still intact?

“What do you mean?”

“Tianyi, obviously.”

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

Lace chuckled.

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

“Private Tianyi reporting for meeting, captain.”

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

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

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

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

Avril didn’t bother to small talk though.

“Opinions about your first round, private?”

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t ask.” She grinned.

Avril kept looking at her, sternly.

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

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

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

“So you don’t deny it?”

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

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

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

Here goes, Avril thought.

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

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

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

Avril peered at her. “You like me?”

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

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

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

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

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

Avril groaned and sank back into the chair.

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

Prisoners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Are these the same?”

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The captain’s eyes narrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Almost there, captain”, Tianyi answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said stand back!”

Haylen started moving towards him.

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

“Stand! Back!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Usually works”, he said.

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

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

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

“Soon there, corporal”, she said.

“What?”

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

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

Felicia just shook her head and grinned in return.

Beneath the ice part 3/3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright people, move out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not that I know of.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope you killed it properly.”

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

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

– – –

“A giant centipede?”

“Yes.”

“With retractable tentacles?”

“Yes.”

“That devours people alive?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What can you tell me about it, Roz?”

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

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

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

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

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

“They fucking better not”, Avril muttered.

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

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

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

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

“I lost a few pieces of Santo.”

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

Avril slammed her palms down at the table.

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

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

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

“I didn’t say that”, Lace said.

“Sure you didn’t.”

“You’re letting small things get to you.

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

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

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

Lace sighed again. “I’m just -”

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

– – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

And team 1 would lose another friend.

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

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

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

Felicia scoffed. “Suits you just fine.”

Beneath the ice part 2/3

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A living being?” the captain asked.

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

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

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

The source of the rattling moved into sight.

“What the actual fuck…!” Tianyi breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had to try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the moment, at least.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“M-mm.”

Why was she worried?

And why the hell couldn’t he stop shaking?

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 Nihad 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 Nihad 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 Nihad 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, Nihad had decided it was better to have it here.

The head of the station, Biely, was sitting at the table with them, and had been telling Nihad about the station and their work, but as captain Avril called Nihad on the comm, she 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?”

Nihad 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. Nihads 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, Nihad 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 Nihad.

“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 Nihad 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.

Nihad 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.

Nihad 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.

Nihad 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, Nihad 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.”

Nihad 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 fortyfive 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.”

Nihad 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 quick fixes 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 been unconscious for a while, but 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.

Snakes and branches part 1/3

UR03 wasn’t a big planet but had earth-like atmosphere and biosphere, with water and carbon based lifeforms. It had been known for ages, but not until recently humans had set foot on it. For some reason there was only a few places on it that inhabited larger mammals, otherwise there were plenty of birds, reptiles, and other smaller non-mammal creatures.

There was no obvious reason that intelligent or at least sapient life in this part of the galaxy was non-existent, or that mammal populations were limited. Therefore it was standard to plant probes to collect data for some years before any people were sent down. Six years had passed since the probes on UR03 had been set out, and they had diligently fed the Union scientists with data, until it was found safe to set up research stations.

A few weeks ago, there had been a distress call from one of the stations. Three of their nearest probes had suddenly gone quiet, and two of the staff had been sent out to check them. They hadn’t come back, and every attempt to contact them had been in vain. They had two drones that were flying over the area almost constantly, but they hadn’t picked up anything either.

“We can’t rule out human interference”, commander Nihad said at the breakfast table the morning after they headed out for UR03. In a few hours, they would take the larger shuttle down to the surface; both teams were assigned on this, plus the TR:s onboard and the commander herself. “There is a tiny possibility that this is about some rogue scientist or bounty hunter. My guess it’s only a matter of bad luck. There are still wildlife to be aware of, which I do not want you to interact with if you can avoid it.”

“Aww, no petting the cute fluffy animals?” Tianyi made a disappointed face at her smoothie.

“How do you know they’re cute and fluffy?” Santo asked, mixing his porridge with dried berries. “They could be the ones who ate those scientists.”

Haylen and Felicia exchanged looks. Haylen found it easier to put up with the two’s constant banter than her in general, but it made him irritated when it was during a briefing, even if it was one of these more casual ‘eating meetings’. He took another spoonful of oatmeal.

“Cute fluffy animals don’t eat scientists, they eat ice cream and cotton candy”, Tianyi continued, unaware of the commander’s growing impatience.

“See, my point still stands”, countered Santo. Why captain Avril didn’t cut them off, Haylen couldn’t even guess.

“Maybe the cute fluffy animals actually saved the lost scientists from your man-eating ostriches.”

“Who said anything about man-eating ostriches?”

“Excuse me”, the commander interrupted at last, “I wasn’t finished.” She looked at them both, reminding of a teacher Haylen had in school.

“Sorry commander”, both of them said, at least one of them not ashamed at all.

“The probes are located in the forest that borders on the field where the station is. It’s not very dense, but rather hilly and stony. We can’t use vehicles, so I ask everyone to walk carefully. We don’t want you to break any bones out of pure carelessness.”

“I don’t want you to break any bones out of any reason, really”, doctor Eira pointed out and glanced at the crew while sipping her coffee.

“Heard that, Rashida?” Mourad, the shortest soldier in team 3, grinned at his teammate across the table. “Don’t be such a clot.”

Rashida, who had tattoos on both side of her neck and a longer fringe on her otherwise cropped head, tossed her crumpled napkin at him.

“We’ll stay overnight, so bring your sleepover pack. The station has tents for guests.” The commander smiled broadly. “Maybe we can put up a campfire as well.”

“Oh my god, I hope Simone got marshmallows in some of her hidden kitchen storages!” said Keith and leaned back in his chair, overcome with nostalgia by the looks of it.

“Trick will be to actually convince her to give them to you”, Daleen pointed out and took a sip of her tea.

“Alright, this is impossible”, said the commander with a look of feigned frustration at captain Lace, then stood up and looked at the crew. “You’ll have another briefing before we launch for the surface. Until then, preparations as usual.”

Doctor Eira stood up too, taking her coffee mug and stopped at Haylen on her way out. “Did the cream work better than the pill?”

“Yeah.” He fiddled with the spoon.

She peered at him. “But…?”

“…it be like eatin’ engine grease”, he answered reluctantly. Why couldn’t she just settle with a ‘yes’…

Her eyes narrowed. “Trust a nineteener to know what that is like. Come get another before you leave then. I assume you’re almost out.” She patted his shoulder and left the canteen.

He noticed Felicia was looking at him. “What?”

“Do you really eat engine grease on Nineteen?”

“Fuck’s sake…” He finished his breakfast while she pulled a face at him.

– – –

Hours later, they were down on UR03. After a quick rundown of what happened from the remaining personnel at the station, the three groups headed out in each direction to find the malfunctioning probes. It would take them a couple of hours to reach them, but it was only noon and the weather was pleasant for a stroll in the woods, as Paavo, the light-skinned grunt with the missing ear in team 3, put it.

The two captains, Avril and Lace, were staying at the shuttle with Dmitri, the medics and the commander. While the teams were out, they would lead the work and set up camp, and, if necessary, form a rescue team with the commander.

Haylen was grouped up with Felicia, Tianyi and Santo, assigned to bring Xander to the most southern probe. Hopefully, the TR would be able to figure out what was wrong with the probe. Of course, all three of them shutting down at the same time indicated that it might not be the probes themselves that were the problem, but they had to start somewhere.

The terrain was indeed hilly and stony. It wasn’t hard to stick to the route that their digital maps suggested, since the sparse forest allowed them to find the best way forward. However, there was a lot of reeling over smaller rocks, trying to avoid to get stuck between them, or slip on their moss-covered surfaces.

Eventually they reached the probe. This one was a standard data collector, a tall, slim, metal casing with a control panel, and antennas and sensors on the top. The soldiers positioned themselves in a square formation around the probe, while Xander logged in on the system.

“It got power at least”, he told the other groups on the comm, and the other two confirmed their probes were still running as well. “I’ll start checking the logs here.”

Xander worked with the probe, occasionally exchanging a few words with the other TR:s about his findings.

“See any of your man-eating ostriches yet?” Tianyi asked Santo.

Santo scoffed, amused. “Enough about ostriches already, what the hell…”

“I’m not the one who’s obsessed with them”, Tianyi said. “Haylen, tell him.”

Haylen glanced at them, then continued watching their surroundings. “Not goin’ there.“

“Aren’t you here to protect the weak and innocent?”

Santo eyed her up and down. “You’re pronouncing ‘butch’ and ‘source of all wicked’ wrong, Tia.”

“You’re just sour you didn’t get to bomb anyth…- Shit, that branch just moved!” She raised her gun, aiming at something further away.

“Where?” asked Haylen, raising his gun as well.

She pointed with the laser. Haylen only saw dead branches covered in moss and dead leaves. Santo lowered his own gun. “Maybe it was a snake.”

“Why do you sound so casual about that?” she asked, accusingly.

“Are you afraid of snakes?” Felicia asked.

“I have a healthy respect for them, so should you. Look, there it is!”

Now they all saw it. A grey, maybe five centimeter thick, one meter long snake that slowly started to crawl over the pile of branches. It stopped again, perfectly blending into the background.

Xander looked up as well now, standing very still. Haylen didn’t move either. Even if they’d been told the animals here usually were afraid of or uninterested in humans, it would be awkward if any of them was bitten by a venomous snake because they provoked it.

“We should catch it”, Felicia suggested. “It would be great for barbecuing at that campfire the commander promised us.”

“Eugh, you UC12:s and your weird eating habits”, Tianyi groaned.

“As if your squid munching is any better?”

The snake continued its slow, interval movement over the ground, and eventually it had disappeared into the forest.

“Well”, Santo said, “at least it wasn’t a man-eating ostrich.”

“See? Obsessed.” Tianyi looked at Haylen and gestured at Santo.

Haylen only smirked.

Xander kept browsing the logs on the probe. After a while, he mumbled something inaudible, then said on the comm: “I found something. I’m sending you the name of the log file now. For some reason, the one who logged here in disabled all three probes. But the report said that they simply stopped transmitting, right?”

“Yes”, Roz answered, “they went dead so the station sent a couple of people out to check them. Are you saying someone went out and shut them down? Without the rest of the station knowing?”

“Or without them reporting it, at least”, Daleen suggested.

“We should copy the logs and study them back at the station.”

Daleen and Roz agreed, and the commander’s voice spoke on the comm. “Sounds like a good idea. It’s getting late, and I don’t want you lot out there longer than necessary if there’s an unknown player on the field. Get what you need from the probes, then head back. Meanwhile, I’ll have a talk to the personnel here.”

The mood had suddenly shifted. Haylen realized he had started to look for human shapes between the trees instead of possible man-eating animals. Even Tianyi went quiet.

The snake was nowhere to be seen.

Fleshed out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get ready”, said the captain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it.”

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

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

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

“Dis ent a storm…”, Haylen mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haylen was already on it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tianyi laughed. Daleen made a displeased sound.

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

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

He looked back. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

Coming clean

“The captain doesn’t like me, does she?”

Tianyi sounded casual enough about it, and Felicia wasn’t sure if she was actually after Felicia’s opinion or just making conversation. Though in Tianyi’s case, those weren’t necessarily two different things.

“Can you blame her?” Felicia countered. They were on shuttle cleaning duty this week, and were scrubbing the interior clean of whatever mud, dust and unidentified organic material that gathered since last week and that hadn’t been swept out during the daily quick clean.

“Hey, if she got a stick up her ass it’s not my job to pull it out, is it?”

“Well, you don’t exactly have to slam it up further either.”

Tianyi laughed and started to remove the pads from the seats. “I’m just trying to lighten things up, that’s all. You all looked so damn depressed on my first day here, I had to do something. I can’t stand being surrounded by onion peelers.”

“We had a good reason…” Felicia mumbled while rubbing off an oil stain, but Tianyi had good hearing even without amp power.

“But that was ages ago, Scope. I mean, I lost friends too, I know what it’s like, but you simply can’t dwell on it forever. Oooh, I think I found Santo’s lost candy.” She gestured at the seat in front of her.

Felicia peeked over her shoulder, and snickered as she saw the dirty pastilles. She continued on the oil stain. “And he blamed Keith for it.”

“Hey, give me one of those small trash bags, will you?”

Felicia handed one over, and Tianyi started to collect the candy pieces.

“What are you going to do with them?” Felicia asked curiously.

“Put them in Keith’s locker, of course.”

“You’re going to start a war, you know that?”

Tianyi grinned at her. “Yep.” She put the candy bag in her pocket and started to wipe the seats.

“Is this why you had to leave your last ship?” Felicia asked, half jokingly, half seriously.

“What, innocent practical jokes? Nah, I just didn’t get along with one of the soldiers.”

“That’s all? I mean, don’t get along with Cory or Sheng but that’s no reason to leave.”

“They aren’t in your team though.”

“I know, but still. Couldn’t you work it out?”

Tianyi didn’t answer straight away, busy trying to get another wet wipe out without half the package following. “Not really. He wasn’t going to change anyway, so why should I bother? Better for me to find a new crew to pester.” She flashed a grin at Felicia.

“You brought pestilence alright.”

“Oh come on, let that go already, would you?”

Felicia only smirked. “To be honest”, she said, picking up on Tianyi’s initial question, “the captain doesn’t like any new recruit. It takes a while, but eventually, you’ll hear her say ‘you’re not complete shit after all’ and that’s when you know you’re fully accepted.”

“Wow, I can’t wait”, Tiany said with longing in her voice, leaning against the shuttle wall. “How long does that usually take?”

“I wouldn’t know, I only heard people tell the tale about it.”

Tianyi laughed again, and brushed sand from one of the seats. “You know Scopes, I thought you were one damn stuck-up bitch when I first met you, but I’m starting to really like you.”

Felicia raised her eyebrows. “Uhm… thank you, I guess?”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to say you like me in return.”

“No no, I do”, Felicia reassured her, “only I…”

“…think that I’m one annoying pain in the ass”, Tianyi finished.

Felicia held up her hand and then pointed at Tianyi. “Your words, not mine.”

“Hey, I’m outspoken, not stupid.” Tianyi smirked at her.

“And self-aware. I give you that much.”

“You can only hear ‘shut the hell up for five minutes’ so many times before you start considering the relevance in the message.”

“The captain won’t be satisfied if you only know you’re annoying without doing anything about it though”, Felicia warned her.

“I know, I know. I’m just going to push her a little teeny-weeny bit more.” She smiled mischievously. “You’re allowed to have some fun even in the armed forces, aren’t you?” She patted her pocket with the spilled pastilles.

Felicia snickered and continued the wall scrubbing.