Perspectives make you soft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who would’ve thunk, huh.

First mission

“I don’t know how you did things in the Tyrian Tanks or Praesidia, but us Ignis frontliners put our barriers up from start and don’t take them down until the mission is over.” The redhaired soldier wriggled the spacesuit over his shoulders as he talked.

Nethan was the frontliner in team 2, which was the team currently on prim duty, had light red hair in a short mohawk cut, and was sporting a moustache that went straight down on both sides of his chin. He was almost one head shorter than Haylen himself, but Haylen wouldn’t be surprised if Nethan matched him weightwise. The man was built like a concrete bunker.

As they were in the locker room, changing clothes to the thermoregulating ones that was used under the spacesuits, the older soldier had given Haylen a quick run over about the combat formations and movement they used on the Ignis, and was now adding some house rules.

“Our snipers feed us info on what’s ahead, using vision and audio amps. Our scouts have cloak and stealth devices so they can get behind enemy lines, fetch things, plant stuff, you name it. Use them.”

“Got it”, Haylen said, looking at Felicia and Keith in acknowledgement.

“Questions? Thoughts?” Nethan began strapping on his body armor.

Haylen took a moment to process the info while he untied his hair to quickly braid it instead, tucking it in under his collar before zipping up the space suit. The Tyrian Tanks had never engaged combat without their force field up, and during those years it had become a reflex, like unsecuring your weapon or fastening your seat belt.

The T9 upgrades had changed things though. Energywise it wasn’t much of a problem, but the longer he kept the barriers up, the more likely he’d be out with a migraine after; not to mention that the extended ones meant the risk of neurofrying. When he was working for Praesidia, he hadn’t been using barriers at all except when necessary, which basically meant being under direct fire.

He hadn’t tried to hide this when he applied to the Ignis crew, but he had also said that upholding a simple body barrier for a few hours wasn’t going to be a problem. He hoped he wasn’t going to prove himself wrong. Not that he was going to air those thoughts now. The last thing he wanted was to give these people any reasons to doubt his abilities. If things went to hell, though… well. He’d cross that bridge when he got to it.

“No questions”, he answered eventually, and started donning his legguards.

“Good. Oh, right, another thing”, Nethan remembered, clicking his shoulderguards in place. “We don’t whirl around too much. Our prancers behind will take care of that.”

“Screw you, Nethan,” Olena chuckled at the locker next to Haylen, and Nethan grinned at her before looking at Haylen again.

“Seriously though, we’re there to take the bullets first and most, keeping the enemy busy so the other soldiers can take them out properly. It’s a rather obvious tactic, but it works.”

“Got it,” said Haylen again, adjusting his body armor. It wasn’t that much different from what he had been doing in his former teams. The main task for the Tyrian Tanks had been just that. Human tanks. Meat shields. Or more precisely, amp force barrier slash composite armor slash meat shields.

“You’ll do fine, don’t worry”, Nethan said and gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

Haylen didn’t really know how to react to that. For a starter, he wasn’t used to be touched in a friendly manner by people he hardly knew. He and Ziva had shared bed in the literal, platonic meaning quite a few times, but other than that, neither of them had physical contact willingly. Two years with the Praesidia and he had completely forgotten how to human…

Secondly, he wasn’t worried. At least he didn’t think he was. At least not about what Nethan probably thought he was worried about.

 

“Team 2, you’re going in first”, captain Avril said as the shuttle made its way towards the the space station where the distress call had come from. “Apparently, one of the workers has gone tilt, and he is armed. They have tasers and smaller handtools on these stations, so he will be able to cause lethal damage. You’re all to use shock bolts unless I say so, meaning all clips pocketed from start.”

She looked them over, making sure noone had clips loaded. The standard gun had a neurostunner mode that fired small electric clusters, aside from the regular projectile mode that could fire sponging or piercing bullets.

“It’s a zero grav station, so mind your movement. Shuttle is six o’clock, floor will be marked.”

Most stations without artificial gravity had markings for the ‘floor’, mainly to give people something to navigate from. They had air and pressure in them as well, but task forces were to use spacesuits anyway, in case something would happen.

“Docking in 45 seconds”, the shuttle pilot said on the comm.

“Don’t release your seat belts until we’re docked”, the captain said sharply, looking at Tianyi.

The soldier looked up at her, one buckle open. “On the Argentum, we always released moments before the-”

“I don’t care how you did it on the Argentum, you stay belted until we’re docked. Besides, your team isn’t going in first anyway.”

“Alright then, you’re the captain.” Tianyi seemed perfectly unaffected by the captain’s glare as she fastened her belt again.

“Helmets on. Help each other. I don’t want anyone having their lungs implode in case this madman decides to vent the whole station while we’re still inside.”

Haylen put his helmet on, connecting it to the air tubes, then clicked the breather piece in place over his face and locked the visor. Inhale. Air flooded through as it should. He then helped Felicia, who was sitting next to him, to check for leakage.

Tianyi and Keith seemed to have found each other from start, joking and chatting, but Santo and Felicia hadn’t said much so far. Haylen had a feeling they were watching him, to see if he would live up to his predecessor’s level, or perhaps the reputation of the Tyrian Tanks. But at least Felicia checked his helmet in return with professional care, and they both gave captain Avril a thumbs up. No actively sabotaging. Good start.

“Testing general comm”, Avril said. The comm system automatically went open channel without button pressing in close range, so people could have normal conversations even with breather helmets, but to send messages to all the crew or private ones, you had to flip a switch on your wristband.

After they all had answered her test calls in turn, there was a quiver as the shuttle connected with the station, and the airlocks hissed.

“Alright, team 2, prepare to move in. Team 1, stand by.”

They all unbuckled their seat belts, and made their way into the shuttle’s airlock. The hatch closed behind them, and they held on to the handles to not float around while they waited for clearance to enter the the station’s connecting passage. Eventually, the outer airlock hatch opened and so did the connector door.

“Go.” Captain Avril waved team 2 forth.

With Nethan up front, they made their way through the short connector while the connector door and the shuttle hatch both closed. Through the windows, they could see Talus start to hack the lock to the inner station door, using the standard lockpick device the Union Task Forces used. The door slided open. Nethan pushed himself through, the rest followed, and the door closed again.

For a while, there was silence on the comm. Then Nethan told them they had found two terrified station workers hiding in the kitchenette. The tilt had locked himself up in the control room with the remaining three, using a taser and a knifetool to keep them in check. He had also made strangle attempts on two of them. The workers weren’t sure what he wanted, if anything, or what had led to the suspected psychosis.

“Stay put. I’m sending in team 1. When they reach to you, you make your way into the control room. Be careful.”

She looked sternly at team 1. “I want no hero moves from you newbodies. You’re the backup and will let team 2 do their thing until they require your assist. Understood?”

A unison “Yes captain” from Haylen, Tianyi and Leon didn’t soften the look on her, but she seemed content with the answer at least.

“Take the opportunity to study how they work together”, she said, even if it was clear to at least Haylen that the the main reason for team 1 to join this mission at all was for the new meats to see how things were done. A tilt on a small research station like this shouldn’t take more than one team to handle. “Anyone who’s not ready? Alright then. Team 1, go.”

Haylen activated his force barrier and moved through the corridor first, and Keith opened the door for him. They met team 2 where the corridors to the different rooms connected. Nethan pointed out the direction, and went first towards the control room, followed by the rest of his group. Team 1 mimicked their movement, frontliner first, flanked by two soldiers in a row on each side.

Haylen was nervous now, he couldn’t deny it. Not about the tilt, or the possible fighting, but how the hell he would handle this Union soldier thing again.

Pretty silly, wasn’t it. Being a combatant in the Gamma wars’ most violent and gruesome years, the elite of the elite, and later on working for one of the toughest security companies in this quadrant, all of it had hardened him. He had seen so much cruelty and horrors that barely nothing could make him very upset or uneasy anymore, and he rarely shunned away from threats.

But joining a new team in a new organisation with new routines, – that was scary? Come on. He could almost hear Ziva snort scornful at him.

Then again. He was back in the Union Armed Forces after an involuntary leave, imprinted on the one-person-island mindset that ruled the private sector, and with malfunctioning amps on top of it, without knowing if there even was any Union soldier material left in him. Maybe he had reasons to be silly nervous after all.

No hero moves, was it. Chill cap, dis new meat be goin’ low. Besides, it had been a long time since he last had been counted as a hero, right.

At the end of the corridor, Talus hacked open the lock on the door to the control room. Naturally, they couldn’t hear anything from inside, partly due to their thick helmets but also because all walls and doors were thick enough to withstand hull breaks or faulting airlocks. If something happened, each room was sealed off, providing safety for the people inside it until help arrived.

As the door opened, Haylen could see the forcefield around Nethan intensify, and the soldier moved forward, gun ready but pointing in downwards, followed by the flanking soldiers. Haylen and his team stayed where they were.

“No, no, this is not… this is not…” they heard someone say in the control room, followed by some incomprehensible rambling.

“Hey buddy”, Nethan said, calmly, and stopped himself by grabbing a handle in the middle of the room, staying in Haylen’s sight. “Put away your weapons, please. I don’t want you to hurt yourself or anyone else.”

“No no no, no, I can’t, you’re… this is not…”

“It’s alright. I know you’re not feeling great right now, but I’m here to help you.”

It was a little surprising to hear Nethan talk in this way. Sure, he had come off as a easy going person so far, but also as the veteran soldier he was, rough on the edges and with a brutal sense of humor. This empathic and friendly manners were unexpected. Haylen had been in similar situations, but he didn’t think he had been even close to Nethan’s casual approach.

“Go, please go…”

“I’ll wait right here. You put away the taser and the knife, then you can follow me to my shuttle. I’ll take you home, okay?”

“No… no, no, this is not, this is not…”

A terrified yelp was heard and the flankers of team 2 all raised their weapons, but Nethan held out a hand behind him, and put his own weapon on his back. Team 1 also braced themselves, Santo looking at Haylen for input, but Haylen held up his hand too. He watched Nethan and the other soldiers, since he still couldn’t see the tilt.

“That’s your co-worker”, said Nethan. “He hasn’t done anything wrong, I assure you. He’s trapped here too. Please let him go.”

“But this is… this is not…”

“I know. Something’s wrong here. That’s why I’ve come to take you home. You don’t have to stay here another minute. My shuttle is at the airlock. You and I can leave right now.”

They could hear the tilt’s suppressed sobbing now. Haylen tensed and readied his gun, glancing at the others to make sure they did the same. The psychotic worker would either give in or do something radical, he was fairly sure. The soldiers of team 2 slowly made their way to the sides of the room.

Eventually, they heard relieved sounds from the workers, and Nethan quickly moved forwards. Haylen signed to his team to follow and they made their way to the door.

“There, I got you.” Nethan had taken hold of the tilt, a man in his fifties with an absent look on him, weeping in a suffocated kind of way. Nethan was putting handcuffs around the man’s wrists. “I’m taking you home now. I’m sorry I have to restrain you, but you must understand it’s for both your own and other people’s safety.”

The other soldiers of team 2 were taking care of the other three workers, one of them with a small cut on her neck.

“I take it you got the situation under control?” captain Avril said on the comm.
Nethan looked over at Haylen, gesturing at him to answer that.

“Affirmative. Target’s cuffed, only minor injuries among the station workers.”

“Alright, get the tilt onboard. I’m coming in to talk to the station staff, and I’m taking the medics with me.”

So, no hero moves made. Which meant no showing off other skills then a basic barrier and his ability to do as he was told. No signs of migraine yet either. All in all, it seemed he had passed his first day on the new job. Always something.

 

Dead ship

The soldiers left the shuttle and hurried over to the crashed spaceship, their shapes blurred in the drifting rain fog, and the footprints they left in the red mud were soon hammered away by the downpour.

Felicia sat in the door opening on the shuttle, her rifle up and ready. On the seat inside Xander was waiting, fidgeting with his wristband strap. She could see his freckled face through the visor, his bright blue eyes darting over the scenery.

She looked outside again. The light on this planet was a sickly orange one, the light of an old and weak sun. There was some kind of atmosphere, and some kind of vegetation, but that was it. The water that fell from the swirly skies wasn’t drinkable, and the air was polluted with gasses that human lungs couldn’t handle. The planet had been considered for terraforming, but so far those plans were only words in a document.

“All clear” they heard Matsuko, normally the frontliner on team 3, say over the comm. Team 1 was on prim duty but due to their decimated numbers, team 3 had to fill up the spots on some missions.

Felicia shoved her butt off the shuttle floor and slid down on the ground, to let Xander pass. He climbed out from the shuttle too, and turned around to get his equipment. As always, she was surprised how tall he was when he got close; his slender frame and delicate features in addition to his unobtrusive and calm demeanor made him seem smaller to her than he was.

He hadn’t been on the Ignis for more than a few months, but despite his shyness, or perhaps thanks to it, people onboard had taken a liking for him. After Dieter’s death, he had been a great support to Felicia in particular. It may have began with her being way to drunk to consider how smart it was to spill your innermost feelings to someone you known for three weeks, but fortunately it had ended in friendship instead of a one night stand and an awkward week after.

Xander pulled out a portable yet obscenely heavy battery from the shuttle, struggling to shift hands when the weight demanded so on their way to the shipwreck. The soldiers had spread out around it, and Felicia took place close to the fuselage, her back at the disfigured and blackened metal. The rain left dirty tracks on her visor, despite the clear sight-mod.

It wasn’t likely anything would happen, but nevertheless, she kept scanning the surroundings, switching from infrared to normal, regularly using her sonar as well. Occasionally, she glanced at Xander, who was done plugging the battery into the emergency port and now was working on kicking the systems back online.

“Wow”, Xander said as the panel lit up and he got access. “This ship is older than I thought.”

“How so?”

“Well, for a starter, it runs on code that hasn’t been used in ages… “ He paused and wrote a few more commands. “And the last entry is five years old.”

“Five years? But the report said a trader had seen it crash last month?”

“Exactly.”

“It could’ve been hit by something”, she suggested, “kicking it out of orbit and making it crash. If it was stuck up there since… it was abandoned, or whatever happened.”

When saying that, she realized that they might find five year old corpses inside the ship. She was no newbody, she had been a soldier for seven years, but there was something about dead bodies that had been lying about for a while that unnerved her.

Xander informed captain Avril over the comm that the locks were open, and she soon arrived with two of the soldiers, Santo and Morgan.

“There’s something weird about this”, Xander said to the captain as Santo and Morgan started working on the hatch, that had to be opened manually. “This ship might have been in orbit for as long as five years before it crashed.”

“Five years?” said the captain with obvious disbelief. “What the hell?”

Xander shrugged and showed her the data.

“Have you found the ship log?”

“I have to use the bridge computers to do that, this panel isn’t connected to the main network.”

The captain sighed impatiently. “Well, I guess that still goes faster than finding the damned black box…”

Santo and Morgan had managed to release the hatch, and lifted the thing down on the ground.

“Alright”, said captain Avril and made sure it went on the comm as well. “I, Santo and Morgan are going inside. The rest of you stay put, eyes open. Xander, you wait for my word before you join us in there.”

Felicia raised her hand in a salute to show the captain she got it, and Xander nodded. The other soldiers confirmed the orders on the comm. Captain Avril waited for the two soldiers to climb inside before she readied her weapon and followed.

Felicia glanced at Xander, who was fidgeting again. “You look a little pale.”

He let out a short and awkward laughter. “You mean paler than usual?”

“Even the freckles are fading”, she smiled.

His complete lack of pigment other than the freckles was a frequent source of jokes among the crew, only outshined by his tendency to blush at nothing and everything.

“Not that I blame you”, she added. “This ship is getting creepier by the minute.”

“Yeah… If it has been in orbit around this planet until now, it would have showed up on some radar, don’t you think?”

“Well, if it was a Union ship it would have been tracked down and saved or at least salvaged. But if it was from some of the smaller trading companies, who knows.” Felicia shrugged. “Maybe they didn’t think it was worth going back for it. Besides, it’s a little small to be a cargo ship.”

Xander looked along the ship’s dented sides. “It could still hold valuable goods.”

“True.”

After a while, captain Avril came back to the doorway and told Xander to follow her inside.

“A heads up though. There are dead crew members all over the place, and they look freezedried. It seems to have happened before the crash, so… they are a little chipped.”

She paused, and eyed Xander critically. “You’re not going to throw up, are you private? You’re cleaning your helmet yourself if you do.”

Xander took a deep breath, glancing at Felicia. “I’ll do my best not to, captain.”

“Good.” The captain went inside again.

Felicia gave Xander a thumbs up to encourage him, and got a nervous smile in return before the technician climbed into the shipwreck.

The rain ceased while Xander was working with the ship computers, and the captain and the two soldiers searched the ship for anything of value to the Union. The sky didn’t clear however, and that smudged orange hue was making Felicia uneasy. Around them were rocks covered in alien lichen, pools of mud and murky water, here and there clusters of strange fungi. She kept switching between infrared, sonar and zoom, but there was no life here except these cold, slimy organisms.

When the dying sun began to set, and soaked the landscape in a sooty red light, Xander’s work was finally at an end. He had restored most of the ship logs, and Santo and Morgan had found the black box to bring back to Union authorities. Captain Avril had only skimmed through the most recent entries in the logs, but so far the mystery behind the crashed spaceship and the death of its crew was unsolved.

“Alright people, that’s all we can do here. Gather at the shuttle and we’ll wrap this up.”

As they were all seated in the shuttle again, connected to the air system since they couldn’t take their helmets off before sanitation, Morgan described the bodies to the others with Santo making occasional remarks.

“If you didn’t find anything that indicated a hull break, someone must have vented it from the inside”, Felicia said as they started to discuss the reasons to the ship’s unfortunate fate.

“It’s hard to accidentally vent a spaceship though”, Santo pointed out, his distinct eyebrows furrowing.

“My guess is someone grew tired of life”, Keith pondered, his dark, boyish face pulled into parody expertise. “Not to mention their crewmates, may they rest in pieces.”

“Someone could have hacked the system to kill them”, Morgan suggested as he demonstratively turned his grey eyes away from Keith and to Felicia instead.

“True.” Felicia couldn’t hide her amused smile though. She knew Morgan disapproved of Keith’s sometimes insensitive sense of humor,

“What do you think, cap?” Keith looked at the captain.

She briefly looked up from them from her datapad. “I see no point in discussing the maybe’s and what if’s until the black box has been opened”, she said, and turned her attention to the tablet again.

Santo and Keith exchanged looks, Keith in particular making a wide eyed head wiggle.

“I saw that, private”, the captain said, without looking up.

Felicia grinned at Keith who instantly put on a neutral face, and for a moment, everything felt as usual. One moment, then her gaze fell on Matsuko and the sting of loss hit her again. She looked away quickly. Matsuko was only filling up the spot, she shouldn’t have to deal with Felicia’s dejected looks.

Instead, she focused on Xander.

“You did good today, digs. No puking, no fainting.”

He smiled that awkward smile and blushed a little behind the visor. “For the record, I never fainted on a mission.”

She patted him on the knee with feigned sympathy. “Oh there will be plenty of chances, don’t worry.”

“How reassuring…”

Felicia laughed. This time, the good feeling stayed.

Applicants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doctor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eira made a vague gesture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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