Narrow it down

Xander yawned, shifting position in his chair. The code section on the screen was without errors, as had been the case in all the sections he had gone through this far. In itself it was a good thing, of course. Only he was searching for a bug, and he had been doing it for hours without finding it.

Chief engineer Gervin knocked on the door frame and stepped in. The knocking was probably more to let Xander know he was coming in; it was the engineers’ computer room after all.

“How’s it going?” Gervin asked as he walked up to Xander, putting down a mug of tea next to him on the table.

“Oh, thank you. Well, nothing so far”, Xander answered, checking one of the programs he was running simultaneously, then took a sip of the hot tea. “I’ve narrowed it down to four sections at least. But it takes time.”

He stroked some hair behind his ear before it fell down in his face. Gervin sat down in the chair beside his, looking out at the engine hall through the thick window. Behind the control room window at the closest wall, they could see Malenka, who was on the night shift, watching the monitors.

“If you got it down to four sections, I’d say it’s been a quick work so far.”

“Malenka helped me ruling out a few sections too.” Xander continued scrolling through the lines of code on the screen, occasionally stopping to check pieces more carefully.

“You seem to know these engines almost as well as her by now. You’ve been here for how long? Six months?”

“Seven months next week.”

“Seven months? Time flies…”

Xander nodded slowly. Seven months was nothing for people like Gervin, who had years of service behind him, but for Xander it was the longest employment he’d had. “I didn’t think I’d last this long, honestly”, he admitted.

“You mean you didn’t think you’d manage?” Gervin sounded genuinely surprised. “You were a top student, weren’t you? Got hired before you even finished university.”

“Well…” Xander shifted in his seat, feeling his cheeks and ears getting warmer. “That’s what I mean. That job was on the ground. I didn’t have any experience from working on galaxy ships when I got here.”

Gervin smiled. “Normally, people who set their foot on a galaxy ship for the first time don’t have much experience from working on them.”

“Yes, I know, I just…” He trailed off.

“You’re doing fine, kid. And you don’t have to compensate for your lack of experience every time you open a digital system.”

Xander rubbed his neck, checking the programs again. “Yes, I know”, he said again, wishing the blush would go away.

It was probably the thousandth time he had a conversation like this. In a way, it made him suspect that other people thought he was excusing himself only to receive praise, but he couldn’t help it. The apologies just came out before he could stop them.

Gervin put his hands on his knees and stood up again. “I’m going to bed. Don’t sit up too late. That bug isn’t going to kill the engines if you leave it overnight.”

“I won’t, I promise”, Xander said as Gervin gave him a pat on the shoulder and left.

He had a feeling the chief engineer’s idea of ‘too late’ wasn’t as close to morning as his own, but he hated to leave a task unfinished. He had been called overachiever since pre-school, never letting something go once he got started, always striving to be the best – not only better than everybody else, but better than himself. Every time.

It was as if those results and grades and diplomas had no value in themselves. At least not if he knew that there was something he could have done better. His parents had been disappointed that he didn’t chose the military officer education, even if they hadn’t expressed it loud and clear. That he had gotten into the Armed Forces through the backdoor of science had subdued that disappointment somewhat, but he still wasn’t a real soldier in their eyes.

Not that he ever wanted to be. There were more ways to fight than guns, more ways to contribute than spilling blood. Xander wasn’t cut out to handle that kind of physical effort and stress, he had learned that as a toddler. He had been lucky to have teachers who let him develop and refine his skills in the digital area, and helped convincing his parents that this was best for him.

However, being on a galaxy ship and thus having a private’s rank in the AF, and a real soldier if only on paper, he should work on his weapon skills at least. The amps he had were supposed to compensate for his amputated hand first and most. They had been upgraded though, once he was done with the basic soldier training after being recruited by the AF. Now he could create larger and more powerful and flexible force fields, which was handy as well. He had proved that at the mine with the scale bears, when Haylen’s gun jammed.

But Xander still felt that he should know how to hit a target even when it was moving and he was under pressure. His amps hardly ever caused him any issues, but they were using energy as any other implants. They were also possible to tamper with, as the derailer at UC03 had done with Felicia.

The shooting session last night hadn’t given him much hope of a future career as a gunslinger though. He should try get some more time there to practise. Maybe ask someone to help him. Felicia and Keith were snipers of course and should know a great deal about it. Then again, maybe Xander would benefit more from training with someone who was using one-hand guns like himself. Like Morgan or Rashida. Or Haylen.

He blinked as his subconsciousness demanded his attention. Eyeing the screen over with intensified focus, he soon noted something strange in one of the code lines. With a triumphant “haha!” he started to debug the damaged section. Maybe he would be done with this closer to midnight than morning after all.

Stress test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One regular.”

“And how long since is that?”

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

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

“Probably.”

“So why didn’t he do it more often?”

“‘Cause I didn’ ask for it.”

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

“Didn’ see the point.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look at me.”

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

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

“Yeah.” His gaze seemed steady enough.

“Are you sure?”

He looked at her with a hint of irritation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doctor”, Leon interrupted her.

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

“Haylen? Are you alright?”

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

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

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

“Wan’ me get a muscle relaxer?”

“Not unless this goes on too long.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of hands

One week left until shoreleave. 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 absentmindedly 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, frowning.

“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.”

“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 a 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, so 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: Haylen

Avril wasn’t used to feel small. With her one eightyfive, she had been matched only by Paavo, Jamal and Talus on this ship so far. Then Haylen signed on. It was silly, of course, but she had always found it weird to look up on a soldier instead of down.

“So, corporal. How do you think you’re doing so far?” She sat down after him.

He met her gaze with that delusive calm that made her think of a cat staring down a prey, its tail the only thing moving.

“Alright”.

He surely didn’t waste any words, did he…

“Care to elaborate?” She leaned her elbow on the desk.

Haylen looked aside, thinking for a few moments. “I’m keepin’ up on the whole. Added some, drew some.”

“You’re talking mostly about your amps, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll have you go through a stress test before we go on shore leave. I’m thinking it might help narrow things down.”

Haylen nodded, silently.

Avril’s eyes narrowed slightly. The stress tests were only performed when there was indications something wasn’t as it should be. They involved a great deal of discomfort, and they left you drained for hours after. Even Avril, who practically had no negative side effects from her amp usage at all, used to be sick from them. Whenever stress tests were scheduled, amped soldiers tended to express their dislike loud and clear. Noone simply nodded in silence.

“Did you go through any while you were working for Praesidia?”

“No.”

“So it’s been a while. I hope you remember how it felt.”

“Hard to forget.” Still not giving off if this made him nervous or not.

She didn’t buy this. He had barely batted an eye at anything they encountered so far. Even when suffering from the occasional backlashes he hadn’t lost his composure entirely. Either it was all an act from his side, or they had disconnected his emotions when they squeezed in all those implants.

Avril changed subject.

“What do you think of your team?”

“Good.”

She raised an eyebrow.

He tilted his head to the side a little, eyeing the wall behind her before answering. “Efficient, competent.”

It had to count as elaboration, she must admit that.

“You seem to keep to yourself a lot. Is that voluntarily?”

“Yeah.”

“How come?”

Haylen looked aside again. Avril started to wonder if he just picked a random negative or positive answer, then improvised if he had to explain it.

“Not much of a small talker, I guess.” He shrugged some.

“No shit.”

Haylen looked back at her, steadily. Avril knew he was physically able to smile. Then again, so was she. That didn’t mean they had to.

“Well, I suppose none of you think of it as problem anyway. Did you find it hard to re-adjust?”

He looked a bit puzzled. “What, to the armed forces?”

“Yes.”

“Not really.”

Avril tapped her finger against the desk. Then she asked: “Why didn’t you stay after the T9 program was shut down?”

For the first time, she noticed tension.

“Only job they offered was in maintenance. Ground duty.”

She peered at him. “What’s wrong with being in maintenance?”

“Nothin’. Jus’ not my kind of thing.”

“You’d rather spend your days fighting, you mean?”

“Somethin’ like that.”

She couldn’t really blame him. She also couldn’t really refrain from wrinkling her nose at his choice of occupation after the AF. “I suppose that’s why you chose Praesidia of all companies too? Because you knew that with them, there would be a lot of fighting?”

Haylen didn’t say ‘yes’ straight out, but the short cocking of the head had to count as affirmative. Avril didn’t need to have a psychology degree to understand this was a sensitive subject.

As much as she wanted to poke that further, she decided to drop it for now.

“Until next tour I will find a replacer for Santo. He’ll recover but it’s unlikely he’ll be back on this position. What we encountered on UR06…” She paused. Giving praise was tricky. To find the balance, not exaggerating, not diminishing. Telling someone off was much easier. “I can honestly say that without your skills, we would have lost two soldiers there.”

Haylen looked at her without saying anything. Waiting for the next part, probably. Which had to be spoken out as well.

“I was against recruiting you to this ship, because of what those skills might cost us. I’ve also yet to see how you hold up during a kryvat surge. From my point of view, you still haven’t proven your worth.”

He didn’t object, didn’t start defending himself, only looked back impassively.

“That said, it’s in both our interests that you find a balance”, she continued. “My job is to make sure my team performs, and that includes keeping my soldiers at their best. It’d be misconduct not to help you. That requires that you cooperate of course. That you’re honest with me and the medics. That won’t be a problem, will it?”

“No captain.”

“Good. Anything you have in mind right now? About anything at all?”

Haylen looked at the floor, thinking, but eventually shook his head. “No.”

“Well. You know where to find me. Dismissed.”

Alone again, Avril remained standing, looking at the photo of Whacky on the wall. When she was in her late teens and applied for the AF, she thought that shepherding and being in command of a military unit wasn’t so different from each other. It was all about keeping people in place, making them move in one direction, and eventually let them all do what they were meant to do.

Reality was, as always, completely different. Even sheep had personalities. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that humans had too. Or that they would be far more complicated. Yet here she was, leading troops for twelve years and counting, and still the most common question in her head was ‘how the hell am I supposed to deal with these people?’.

Whacky’s sheep eyes peered back at her. Not much help there. Avril snorted, giving the lamb a brief pat with her fingertip, then sat down to finish some reports that should’ve been handed in two days ago. Shepherds had masters too.

Evaluation: Leon

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

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

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

“Ran into any trouble?”

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

Avril peered at him, waiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chain reaction.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Fair enough, captain.”

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

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

He looked back at her, nodding, then left.

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

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.”

“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 faceguard 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.

“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 armguards 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 tasers of the guards 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. “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!”

Hayle 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 eyed 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 going 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.

Working on it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Another glorious day in the TF…”

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

“I heard you had quite the backlash.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They could have started over.”

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

“Expensive mistake.”

“Mm.”

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

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

“Yes but… I mean…”

“Ey, Dots. It’s okay.”

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

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

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

“Yes. Yes I was.”

“I go with you then.”

Snakes and branches part 1/3

UR03 wasn’t a big planet but had earthlike 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-existant, 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 Nahid 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 ostrichs.”

“Who said anything about man-eating ostrichs?”

“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’s 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 ostrichs yet?” Tianyi asked Santo.

Santo scoffed, amused. “Enough about ostrichs 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 UC12s 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.

“I think you can go easy with the amps today”, she said to the people in the shuttle. “There’s nothing of interest there for anyone but us, really. Any looters would already paid their visits. It’s the wildlife that could cause us troubles and so far, scale bears haven’t been seen carrying guns.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get ready”, said the captain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it.”

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

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

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

“Dis ent a storm…”, Haylen mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haylen was already on it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tianyi laughed. Daleen made a displeased sound.

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

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

He looked back. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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