No rest for the wicked

Someone was gently shaking his shoulder, and he slowly and reluctantly emerged from the sweet emptiness of sleep. The first sound he registered was the prio 1 mission alert, the soft ‘bim – bim – bim’ triggered the instincts to finish what he was doing and go get geared up, but there was no receiving end anywhere; his mind and his body seemed to have merged into a thick, grey pulp.

”Haylen?” At least he recognized Leon’s voice. ”Haylen, you awake?”

He rolled over halfway on his back, trying to blink his eyes open and focus. The pain in his head made him squint despite the dim light.

”You wit’ me, Haylen?”

He took a deep breath, trying to grasp reality and find his voice. ”…yeah.”

”We got a mission. I need to know if you be good to go or not. Can you sit up?”

Not until now memory caught up with him. The stress test. Migraine. Seizure. He was still in the med bay, where they had taken him earlier so he could sleep it all off. It could have been minutes ago, it could have been days. He hated this. Hated hated hated to wake up disoriented, without clear memories, no connection, hated it…

The mission alert signal finally hit a target in his brain, and his body responded. He pushed himself up into sitting, putting his feet down on the floor, inhaling deeply and pulling his shoulders up as his forehead began to pound.

”Haylen?” Leon’s hands were on his shoulders.

”…yeah?”

“Name, rank, number.”

He recited the lot of it. At least all that came to his tongue without much delay.

”We got a mission”, Leon said again, giving him a water bottle and told him to drink before he continued. ”Alpha Dawn group attacked anot’er research station, prio 1 mission. De UGS Terra sent deir teams dere already, but dey can’ handle it alone. You able to get ready an’ move out in a bit?”

Haylen took a few breaths, closing his mouth firmly to keep the water down. He felt nauseous, shaky, but he could tell that the headache was at least on the going-away-side and not the kill-you-soon-side.

”Yeah, I am…” He put the bottle away and rubbed his forehead. It was easier to talk if he kept his eyes closed. “Section E caused de seizure?”

“Don’ know yet, but it sure dragged more sand in. You won’ be usin’ dem on dis mission dough. Need more painkillers?”

“What’s de time?”

”2:14, you had last dose about seven hours ago, been sleepin’ since. You feelin’ sick?”

“Mm.”

“A’ight, drink more if you can, den go gear up. We be gettin’ food on de go, an’ two hours idlin’ on de shuttle.”

“Got it.”

The others were almost set and ready when Haylen entered the changing room. Felicia was adjusting her chestpiece, talking to Xander.

“You look as fresh as a fucking rosebud, what’s your secret? You got sleep enhancing implants?” She, as well as most of the others, was puffy-eyed and raspy due to being rallied after too few hours of sleep. Xander wasn’t.

The TR scratched his neck, cheeks turning slightly redder. “I never went to sleep tonight. There was a bug in the engine software I had to deal with, and when I had solved that the alarm went off.”

“Hope that door doesn’t hit you in the back during the mission then”, said Cory.

Felicia turned to Haylen as he opened his locker and asked him how he was feeling, and that was where he had to turn on his heel and get to the toilet to throw up.

“Please don’t say you’re pregnant too”, Keith said as he went back to his locker. Never too tired to joke, was he.

Felicia didn’t ask more, thankfully. However, Cory did.

“I heard the stress test didn’t go so well. Should you really go on a mission right now? You look terrible.”

“Not your call, eh…” Haylen mumbled without looking at him, trying to the legplates in place.

“I was asking out of concern, but okay.” Haylen didn’t need to see him to know his eyebrows were raised in defense.

But before he came up with an answer, Cory left the changing room. Haylen leaned his head against the cool surface of the cabinet door, wishing he could stay there forever. Morgan briefly put a hand on his shoulder, giving it an encouraging rub as he walked past.

Felicia closed her locker as Haylen got a grip of himself again and continued with the armor pieces. “Hate to say it, but he got a point. Are you sure you’re good to go?”

He lifted his chin up, then looked at her.

She held up her hands. “Okay, okay.” She grabbed her helmet and weapon, waiting for him to get finished before they went to the shuttle hall.

– – –

The research station was located on a relatively safe area on UR22, a 1.2 G moon without atmosphere and with active cryovolcanoes. The two Terra teams had suffered casualties and was on their last air reserves, and still they hadn’t been able to breach the enemy defense line. Apparently, the Alpha Dawn group had brought more robotic toys. Not the troopers this time, but the smaller MG:s, Mechanical Guards. Less firepower, less sturdy, but hard to take out in a cramped area where you couldn’t use grenades.

Or when you couldn’t use the Tyrian Tank, Haylen thought as he forced down the last of the nutritional smoothie he had sipped on during the trip. Fortunately he’d been able to keep it all down. Another painkiller and forty five minutes of sleep, and he was almost back to normal. But there was the lingering shakiness and sensitivity to sounds, his reactions were slower, and he had orders not to use anything more than normal barriers.

It could’ve been worse, of course. Much worse. Still, it would’ve been neat not to have Cory’s silent doubt as a fucking flashlight in his face every time their eyes happened to meet. It was enough with his own. Even captain Avril hadn’t commented his general status this time, who was Cory to have opinions? Then again, Leon told him that there had been enough scolding from both the captain and the commander last night, when Haylen was blissfully asleep, to last for the whole mission.

As the team had gradually shook the sleep daze off during the transport, Xander was instead starting to yawn. Leon tossed him a few stim packs to wake up his brain later when it was time to hack MG:s.

They entered atmosphere and it was time to get ready.

“The plan is to join the Terra teams at the rendezvous points” captain Avril informed them. “They need to exchange air tanks so we’ll replace them for a while. Xander will continue their attempts to shut down the MG:s before we move in. If that fails, we’ll have to shoot our way through. There is air inside the station and so far the airlock is working. As per usual, you are not to remove your breather pieces until you get permission.”

“Time to show the Terrables how to deal with Alphas”, Keith grinned.

Haylen didn’t feel like smiling. Enter Task Force Ignis, eh, with its crippled prim duty team. Short of one soldier and half a frontliner, and the remaining half of said frontliner wasn’t even allowed to use his amp force properly… Haylen sighed and put his helmet on, clicking the breather piece in place.

It took Xander a good while to break into the system that controlled the MG:s, even with the progress made by the Terra TR:s. Meanwhile, the Ignis team held the claimed positions until the Terra team got back with fresh air tubes. The air inside the station was still good, but the officers were taking no risks. The Alpha Dawn might’ve been be a young organisation, but they had also shown that they could be reckless and, well. Rather dramatic. There was a risk they’d rather vent the station and die with their enemy than surrender.

This unit seemed to be a great deal more experienced and skilled one than the previous ones the Ignis teams had encountered. When the MG:s eventually were shut down, the teams were met with heavy gunfire as they advanced into the station. An intense fight followed, from which Paavo had to pull out of after taking a rather serious hit in the leg. Tianyi and Rashida were hit badly too, but since none of them got bleeding wounds they had to carry on.

It wasn’t until the remainders of the two Terra teams returned that they could finally turn the tides. At last, there was a desperate request for cease-fire from the Alpha Dawns, and one by one they left their weapons on the ground and crawled out of hiding with their hands in the air. Five of them were dead, another twenty one wounded, leaving only three of them physically unharmed. Those three were hiding in the station’s communication central, three scared witless teenagers who had been seduced by the rebel spirit only to realize that they weren’t prepared to die for this obscure cause at all.

“It’s just sad”, Felicia pondered as they were waiting for more reinforcements to take care of the Alpha Dawn-prisoners and the station crew. “Union research is already common property, their whole agenda is nothing but sheep shit.”

She kept her voice low, glancing at the prisoners in the room. They had been placed in the station canteen and in a conference room, guarded by the Ignis and the Terra team respectively. Leon and Nyree had patched their own soldiers up first, and were now taking care of the prisoners.

“They claim the Union is keeping information from us though”, Cory pointed out. “Which isn’t untrue, there’s a whole lot of things the public never gets to know.”

“Yes, I know, but that’s just common classified stuff. Some information need to be handled with care, right? But they always sound like people don’t get to know even the most basic stuff, like what minerals can be mined from what asteroid, and things like that.”

“What I don’t understand”, Morgan said, “is that if they are connected to the Federation, which they seem to be considering the jammers on that drone we encountered, why is free information so important to them? The Federation usually praises company secrets and the freedom of protecting and selling anything you possess.”

“Hey”, said Keith with a nod in the prisoners’ direction, and they all stopped talking since it was obvious the two closest ones tried to listen in.

Haylen felt a headache build up, and took a dose of the migraine meds just in case it wasn’t an ordinary one. Then he looked at Xander who was leaning at the wall next to him, eyes staring at absolutely nothing.

“Tired, Dots?”

Xander blinked and looked at him, forcing his eyes to stay open. “I’m sorry, what did you say? I think I was asleep.”

Haylen only smirked, shaking his head. “Sit down before you drop, private.”

The TR blinked again, then nodded slowly. “That’s a good idea. Very good idea.” Xander sank down on the floor and fell asleep in less than a minute.

And, in less than three minutes, reinforcements arrived, and it was time for the Ignis teams to leave. Haylen actually felt sorry for Xander as he had to wake him up again.

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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 specialized in sniper guns 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.

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.

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 ear buds 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 ear buds.

“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?”

Haylen gave him a look.

“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 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 2/3

The other two groups were already at the station when Haylen’s group came back. Rashida had sprained her ankle, and was now being seen to by Nyree, and mocked by Mourad. The commander and the others had put up the tent together with some of the station staff, and the reconnaissance groups relieved themselves from the field gear before sorting out their sleeping quarter.

Commander Nihad didn’t say anything about the talk she had had with the station people, and no one asked. After a dinner consisting of warmed up can food, where Felicia expressed her regret about not bringing the snake back for the grill, the commander gathered them all at the table and benches that were put up outside the tent. There was a piece of canvas as a roof over it, but even if the sky had been thick with clouds all day, there was no rain yet.

“No one left the station at the time the probes went dead, that’s what they claim”, commander Nihad said to them. She spoke in a low voice, even if the station staff were inside at the moment.

The station had spotlights to light up the ‘yard’, but there was a fireplace there as well, and the commander’s wish had come true. The fire already cast a dancing blaze around it.

“So they could be lying?” asked Cory.

“I won’t speculate in that, since it’s not our job to investigate. However, we’ll consider every option so they won’t be able to take us by surprise, otherwise we’re here to find the missing personnel first and most. Tomorrow we’ll begin searching. Scouts and snipers will use their amps, we also have some trackers to our disposal. We’ll search through possible areas around each probe, using coordination grids to be sure to cover it all. As for tonight, captain Avril has made a guard list. Anyone not on guard duty, rest and recreation.”

She looked over her crew. “You are allowed to socialize with the locals. But behave. If there aren’t any questions, you’ll find me at the campfire.” She grinned and took her foldable stool with her over to the fireplace.

Some of the station personnel came out to them a bit later, and one of them even went inside to get a bag of marshmallows after Keith complained he had forgotten to ask Simone. There was a fair amount of cheering about this, but Haylen, who was still sitting at the table closer to the station building with Felicia and Xander, taking care of their equipment or otherwise making preparations for tomorrow, noticed not all the staff was pleased by it.

A couple of them were standing in the doorway, and one of them muttered something and turned to walk inside.

“What, what’s wrong?” his colleague asked.

“Liz and Alain might be dead, and they’re eating marshmallows as if this was some kind of, of, camping trip in school? I’m sorry, I can’t really find the spirit.” He walked inside while his co-worker sighed and walked in after him.

“I can’t really blame him”, Felicia said, prying out gravel from the joints on her knee guards.

“Me neither”, Xander agreed. He was working on something data file related on his tablet. “But that’s no reason other people can’t be happy either.”

“I guess.”

Xander was sitting with his back at the fire, and light made his hair glow red. After a little while he looked at Haylen, curious. “What is it?”

Haylen blinked. Apparently he hadn’t turned his attention from Xander’s hair back to his muddy boot after all. He tilted his head a bit to the side. “Enjoyin’ the view.” He smirked, teasingly. Xander snickered silently, blushing slightly.

“Did you find out anything else about the probes?” Felicia asked Xander, with a short glance at Haylen.

Xander shook his head. “The signature doesn’t match anyone in the staff. We’re running programs to identify it now. It could be a hacker, or someone from another station. Or maybe even something planted in the code from start. The commander said we didn’t have to go any further, but… We agreed that we could at least be of as much help as possible now that we’re here anyway. I mean, I would want all the help I could get if my co-workers disappeared after checking up on equipment that had been tampered with by someone unknown.”

Felicia hummed in agreement. “I think we should’ve kept searching too.”

“You mean physically?”

“Yes.”

“It was getting dark even before we had dinner ready”, Xander pointed out.

She pointed at her eyes. “Night vision, my babe.”

“Rashida was injured in pure daylight.”

“Rashida can trip on thin air”, Felicia snorted.

“And there could be an enemy out there.”

“That’s why us grunts be here, eh.” Haylen said.

“Look, I don’t want to argue about it”, Xander said and rubbed his forehead, his hand partially hiding his face as he looked down on his tablet.

Hayeln was surprised by the sudden change of mood, even if it wasn’t surprising he had missed the signals. He looked at Felicia, but she only made a dismissive face and continued with her other knee guard. He applied repellant on his boot, trying to come up with anything to say that wouldn’t sound as a defense speech.

“I’m sorry”, he said eventually.

“No, I’m sorry”, Xander sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “This whole situation is getting under my skin, that’s all.”

The people at the fire laughed at something Tianyi said, and Felicia peered at the gathering. “I’m going to get one of those marshmallows before Keith eats them all. Are you joining?”

Haylen shook his head. “I got the 2.00 watch, goin’ sleep some before.”

She shrugged, picking up her things. “Suit yourself.”

– – –

Next morning they were heading out at first daylight, which was about two hours too early for anything, according to Keith. They moved in their ordinary teams, the captains going with them, but the TR:s were staying at the station. As did Rashida, much to her annoyance. Her foot was still not good enough for hours in rough terrain.

Since the probe Xander had been examining was the one that had been used for switching the probes off, that’s where they started their search. The station staff had reassured them that snakes here weren’t dangerous to people, but the soldiers were more wary about where they put their feet today. The tension from last afternoon was also coming back as they went further into the wilderness.

“A lot more animals around than I thought”, Felicia said quietly as they were taking a short break next to a small brook with a waist-high cliff wall that made for a decent cover. She had found a dry rock to sit on, leaning back at the cliffs with her eyes closed and amps off for a while.

So far, she found it more challenging not to lose attention because of the dullness of the surroundings, rather than the amps wearing her out. Finding birds and lizards and rodents and whatnot in every bush and behind every branch wasn’t fun in the long run unless you were a biologist, she assumed. Without these small breaks, she would have tired out even quicker.

Keith, who only had vision enhancing, agreed with her comment about the wildlife.

“Yeah, it’s kind of creepy. Those little fuckers, can’t even show up to say hello? Bet they’re up to something.”

“Hey captain, is that one of the station drones?” asked Tianyi.

Felicia opened her eyes to look up above the treetops where Tianyi was pointing. It was indeed a drone, slowly hovering over them, too high up for the others to see any details. Felicia zoomed in on it.

“It’s got the Union logo at least.”

Captain Avril flipped up a bigger map from her wristband, checking with the drone symbols. She frowned.

“Commander Nihad, this is captain Avril. We have a drone above us with an unmatched signal. Got any info on that?”

“Hang on captain, I’ll get back to you.”

The captain looked at Felicia. “Prepare for shooting it down. The rest of you, eyes on the forest for now.”

Felicia picked up her rifle, taking aim to get a feel of her target, then lowering the rifle some, waiting. The rest of the soldiers spread out, guns at the ready, searching the surrounding forest.

Suddenly, Felicia felt as if her balance organs were pushed and twisted into her head, making her lose all sense of where she was and filling her head with a rattle that made it even harder to think. She gasped, dropping her gun as she tried to get hold of something.

“Felicia? Felicia, talk to me!” The captain’s voice made it through the whirlpool in her head.

“It’s uh… it’s…” It was so hard to speak, the connection between her mouth and her brain was a bee swarm. “My sonar”, she managed to force out, feeling someone’s hands getting hold of her arms, “something’s up with my sonar, I can’t…” She moaned as the vertigo grew even stronger, grasping whoever’s arms it may be, wishing this would stop before she threw up.

“Keith! Bring it down!”

The moment the shot was heard, whatever was interfering with her sonar ceased, and she sat wide-eyed for a little while, trying to find her bearing again. In front of her, Tianyi had squatted, still holding Felicia’s arms.

“Hey Scopes, when you’re done wailing maybe you can ease up on your grip there? I have no circulation in my hands anymore.”

Felicia blinked, looking down at her own hands that were still grasping Tianyi’s arms. She slowly let go, and swallowed. “The drone, is it down?”

“Yep. It crashed somewhere that way.” Tianyi nodded towards the other end of the brook.

Captain Avril was listening to the comm, then looked at Felicia. “Are you alright?”

“Yes captain”, she answered, taking a deep breath. It had been extremely uncomfortable, but now she felt as usual again. She tried the sonar just in case. It worked just fine.

“Alright people, listen up”, the captain said, her expression grim. “That drone was supposed to be in the station storage, and whoever logged in on the probe to shut them down used this drone to do it. Xander is trying to determine from where it’s being controlled. Until further notice, we stay put. Stay alert.”

As she forwarded the message to team 3, Felicia picked up her rifle to check that nothing had happened to it when she dropped it. Then she began to scan their surroundings, waiting for orders. This was indeed kind of creepy.

Then the commander’s voice buzzed in on everyone’s comms. “Both teams, turn back to the station immediately. We have a situation.”

“Team 1, copy that”, captain Avril answered, and a similar response came from team 2. The captain looked as if she had more questions, but didn’t call on the commander again. “Alright, people, you heard the commander. We’re moving out. Haylen, take point.”

The frontliner nodded and started walking, a barely noticeable ripple in the air around him indicating he had put up his barriers.

Whatever that situation at the station was about, Felicia thought to herself, it better not escalate. It had taken them hours to get this far, and even if the way back would be a straight line instead of the zig zag pattern they followed earlier, it would take its sweet time.

She kept switching between infrared, sonar and zoom. Everywhere she looked, she saw animals.

The snakes were everywhere.

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.

Never have I ever

“Never have I ever… been kicked out from Sunshine.” Keith leaned back in his seat next to Daleen, grinning smugly at Felicia. Alcohol wasn’t allowed onboard, even for off duty use, but the crew used to play the ‘Never have I ever’-game anyway. Tonight they used a pack of ‘fruities’, dried fruit snacks as a replacement for the shots. Sunshine in a Bottle was one of the bigger bars in the less fancy quarters in Sol’s Ward.

Felicia peered back at Ketih, and his grin faded somewhat as she continued not taking a fruity. “Never at Sunshine, no,” she said, a smirk spreading on her face.

Haylen, however, picked up something that might have been a piece of apple once, putting it in his mouth. He hadn’t exactly been thrilled to join this game when they went off duty and Felicia asked him to, but he had nothing else to do really, and, well. Sometimes you had to practise them social skills too, right.

Xander looked at him curiously.

“How did you get into that?” he asked.

“Headbutted a Masked Dragon.”

Daleen rolled her eyes. Keith chuckled.

“Why would you headbutt a Masked Dragon?” asked Felicia, frowning.

It was a good question. In the shadier parts of society there were bound to be gangs of different sorts. The Masked Dragons were a bunch of youngsters who wore hard leather mask with steel coatings shaped as dragon faces. Well. Not masks per se; they were covering forehead and sides of the face, since most public places wouldn’t let you in if your face was covered.

Whereas some gangs like them took on contracts and worked more or less like a proper business organisation, Masked Dragons’ cause of existence was a bit more unclear.

“He was pickin’ a fight, my pals were holdin’ me back so I couldn’t punch’im.”

“You never came off as a brawler,” Keith pointed out. “Except when it comes to mech troopers.”

“I have my moments,” Haylen mumbled, tracing a crack on the table surface with his fingertip. This was the part of the game he disliked most, being open target for all kinds of questions.

“Is that how you got that scar on your forehead?” Xander asked.

Haylen looked up at him, a little surprised. It wasn’t a big scar, and close to the hairline so it wasn’t that noticeable either. “Yeah. I bled more than his nose…”

Xander smiled, but there was a glimpse of compassion in that smile too.

“Your turn, bad boy,” said Daleen, looking at him with that mix of indulgence and disappointment that only she could pull off.

He looked at the table, thinking. “Never have I ever… had sex in a science lab.”

Daleen shifted uncomfortably and Keith grinned in a way too revealing way.

“I thought we weren’t asking the sex questions just yet”, Daleen said with a sulky look at Haylen.

He looked at Felicia, who had explained the ship rules to him.

“That’s no rule, only a recommendation”, Felicia said defensively.

With a sigh, Daleen followed Keith’s example and picked up a fruity. “Traitor…”

“Why don’t you take one yourself?” Felicia asked Haylen, looking skeptically at him.

Haylen shrugged. “Haven’t had the opportunity yet.”

There was no intention behind it, his eyes simply happened to land on Xander. The TR was sitting on the direct opposite side of the table after all. Xander blushed, of course, and with an embarrassed smile looked down at the table.

Felicia snorted, shooting Haylen an amused look.

He looked back, indifferent. “Your turn.”

“Alright, here’s one safe for children’s ears”, she said with a pointed look at Daleen, who rolled her eyes again. “Never have I ever poured dishwashing detergent in the Main Square fountain.”

Not a single one left the fruities untouched.

Upgrades

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

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

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

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

Captain Avril pointed at the map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two TR:s nodded.

“Questions?”

Leon raised a hand in his lazy kind of way.

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

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

Leon nodded, settled with the answers.

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

“No. I would have told you that.”

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

“Soon there”, Felicia informed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Peeing then?”

“I was neither.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Helmets on, we’re doing comm check.”

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

Avril quickly went through the comm check routine.

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

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

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

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

“Touch down in one minute.”

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

“Yes captain”, they answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technically, he could too. He had the channeling paths for at least three kinds of blunt force field ‘tools’, as every Tyrian Tank. Only it was one of those potential brain-frying abilities that he’d been advised not to use.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matsuko confirmed she had heard the order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The TR:s looked at Haylen.

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

“Yeah.”

“With your amp force?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Avril walked up to Haylen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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