Shiner

“And there I was, flat on my back, weapon on the other end of the galaxy, and this scrapyard monster of an MT towering over me, lifting it’s ugly metal foot to crush my skull, and all I could think of was how pissed the captain would be when he got to know I ruined my third helmet.”

Most people around the table in the canteen laughed as Tianyi paused momentarily to take another mouthful of mashed potatoes. Both soldier teams were gathered, plus a couple from the Tech and Research team. Haylen was sitting at the end of the table, content with not being directly involved in the socializing.

“Lucky for me, those things aren’t exactly supersonic”, Tianyi continued, “so I managed to get my head out of the way. I’m still not sure if the sound of the bones in my shoulder breaking was nicer to hear than the sound of a helmet being shattered, but at least I think those were cheaper to fix.”

“I tell you what dem titanium pins cost, you goin’ watch you bones betteh, kin”, Leon smirked and picked up a piece of cucumber.

“You know, after that round, I’m already convinced to watch them more carefully.”

Team 1 had got some time to introduce themselves to one another more properly after the tour. Haylen knew that first impression wasn’t always true, but so far, it seemed like an alright team.

Santo was about fifteen years older than Haylen, and had been in the task force for almost as long. That meant useful experience, but probably some amount of old-habits-die-hard too. However, Santo seemed much more at ease with the new meats’ presence than the sniper, Felicia.

Tianyi had asked about the soldiers they had replaced, and Haylen could understand if they needed some time to get used to having him being their meat shield instead of the one who died. Then again, Haylen himself wasn’t exactly hugs and kisses with new people either. Maybe Felicia was the same.

Then there was Keith, “Sol’s Ward bred and raised”, and apparently the most carefree in the group, and Morgan, the lab rat, who was older and came off as more mature and more reserved. Only Leon seemed to be completely chill with Tianyi’s blunt but sort of charmful disarming manners, but a new group was always a new group. Dynamics would change.

“Why did your girlfriend call you Shiner, by the way?”

Haylen looked up from his own plate when he heard Ziva’s nickname for him, and realized Tianyi was talking to him. He had been listening with half an ear, as usual, and wasn’t prepared to take part of it himself. As usual.

“My who?” he said.

“You have a girlfriend?” asked Olena, one of the soldiers in team 2 sitting closest to the inofficial team 1 side of the table, and there was a hint of disappointment in her voice.

“No”, he said, trying to catch up in this convo.

“Aw, that’s a shame”, said Tianyi, stretching out her arms. “You’d be the cutest couple. Hey, is she into women?” She leaned forwards on her elbows. Roz, the TR with the braids who sat further away, almost visibly perked her ears.

Haylen shrugged some, impaling a tofu nugget on his fork. “Why?”

“Nothing, just scanning the ground here. I mean, she’s no poster girl but she seemed like a good bang.”

Leon shot a sly grin at her. “You so sure she’d wan’ bang you?”

“Shut up, scrubs, no one can understand a word you’re saying anyway.”

Leon chuckled.

“But anyway, is it because of your hair?” Tianyi looked at Haylen again, making a halo around her head with her hands.

“That… she not my girlfriend?” he asked, confused.

“No”, Tianyi groaned, “that she calls you Shiner.”

“Uh, had one when I first met’er…” He hoped that the stream of questions would stop soon, because his skills in normal conversation obviously left much to desire.

Tianyi blinked.

“A girlfriend?”

He tilted his head to one side, giving her a deadpan look. Suddenly it was hard to tell who was more lost in this.

“A shiner.”

She stared back.

“A what?”

Daleen, one of the the TR, had been giggling silently and now answered before he got to it.

“A shiner is a black eye”, she explained to Tianyi with a laugh.

“Never in my life have I heard a black eye being called that. I do know how to cause them though. Do you digs get combat training too?”

Haylen turned back to his food now that Daleen and Roz became targets of Tianyi’s investigations instead. He was kind of happy she hadn’t asked how he got said shiner. The seizures wasn’t exactly a secret, but he still wasn’t eager to spill it on his first day with the new team. And, on the seizure matter, he also hoped he would have a better start here than he had gotten in Praesidia.

That first week had been an outright gauntlet. A gig that seemed easy at first glance had escalated from guarding a building to being sieged by mobsters, who eventually stormed it. The gig was paying too well to be played safely, which meant no bullets saved, all amps on full throttle.

When they finally could take a breather after the mobsters were either dead or scared away, Haylen had had a seizure and hit a bench with his face on the way down to the floor. Day after, he met Ziva for the first time. “Tyrian Tank, eh?” she had said, non-impressed only began to describe it. “You look like shit. Get your ass on the move, Shiner, we got work to do.”

His thoughts were interrupted when commander Nahid’s voice was heard over the speakers, and they all stopped what they were doing.

“Attention on deck, this is commander Nahid. Team 1 and 2 are to gather in the shuttle bay in 45 minutes, space suits and combat gear. We have an emergency mission. This is not a drill.”

“Whoo!” cheered Tianyi. “Heard that, Halo? We’re going sharp on our first day!”

The soldiers and medics finished their food in a hurry, while the TR:s picked up their tablets to find out more about the mission.

As the soldiers and medics left the canteen, Keith leaned down to kiss Daleen as he passed by.

“Don’t die”, Daleen said after them.

Yeah no pressure, corporal, Haylen thought to himself. Don’ die, dat be all. He hoped Tianyi’s nickname wouldn’t raise expectations on him even higher.

Eyecandy

“Attention!”

Captain Avril’s voice was loud enough for the whole training hall, even if there were only seven soldiers to shout orders to in here. Haylen and the other two new meats stood at attention in one line, the four older members of team 1 in another.

The commander of the ship entered the hall, followed by the administrative officer. The middle aged woman placed herself in front of them, her dark brown eyes looked at them one by one, a satisfied smile on her lips.

“At ease, soldiers. Welcome to the UGS Ignis. I’m commander Nahid, and I’m proud to say you joined one of the best crews in the UTF. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, commander”, the recruits said in unison. Or not quite in unison. Haylen sort of chimed in a millisecond after. Praesidia employees never responded this way. They didn’t get congratulations either.

“This is sergeant Joel, my administrator.” She gestured at the officer in the wheelchair beside her, and he looked at them all with a trace of skepticism on his square face.

“I deal with your personal accounts and accesses, paychecks, contact with civilian authorities, medical journals, you name it.” Then he raised a finger warningly. “I am not, and I cannot stress that ‘not’ enough, not your personal shopper. I might be able to help you book urgent meeting on your domiciles, but I won’t order that special kind of chocolate or exclusive brand wallet for you. Other than that, I’m your man in the jungle of bureaucracy.”

Joel nodded at them, then looked at the commander as an indication he was done talking.

“Thank you, sergeant.” She looked at the recruits again. “You already met captain Avril. I will spare you the awkwardness of being officially introduced to the rest of the crew in a formal ceremony or the like. Instead you will meet them as I take you on a tour through the ship. You’ll get to know each other soon enough anyway. Are there any questions before we start?”

Tianyi held her hand up.

“Yes, private Tianyi?”

“When’s lunch?”

The commander’s lips twitched a little, amused. “In two hours from now. Do you think you will survive?”

“I can make no such promises commander, but I’ll do my best.”

Haylen wasn’t looking at Tianyi, but he could hear her grin as she talked.

“Any other questions? Preferably regarding the ship or your job.”

Leon raised his hand in his characteristically sloppy way. “I ent got stuff synced to my account yet.”

“No? Sergeant?” She turned to sergeant Joel, who was already tapping his tablet.

“On it, commander.” He looked up briefly at Leon. “Sergeant Leon, was it? I’ll send you a message when I fixed it.”

“Sweet.”

“If there’s nothing more, we’ll get started with the tour”, the commander said, and nodded at the sergeant, who barely gave her a look in return but moved towards the door, still busy with his tablet.

“This is our training hall”, the commander said, gesturing at the room in general, “where you can run simulated exercise programs with interactive targets, in a gravity range from zero to one point five, or workout in the old classic way. You’ll get more detailed instructions on safety measures and simulator management later. Prepare to spend a lot of time in here. I expect my crew to be literally fit for fight all the time, even in times with little to no real combat.”

Haylen actually looked forward to play around in a sim again. Praesidia did have a base where the employees were supplied with equipment, lodging, medical care and so on, but only the basics were covered. It was up to one and each to stay in shape, and even if there was an outdoor training area, you couldn’t get any sim training unless you went to Sol’s Ward and paid for it. On the other hand, Praesidia had been a busy company with a tendency to take commissions that turned violent, so Haylen had never had a problem with too little combat training.

He looked around the hall, catching a glimpse of the people watching from the spectator’s seat up on one wall. The lights reflected in the glass and he didn’t try to see the faces, but he did notice someone with long, red hair turning their head away the moment after their gazes happened to meet.

Then the commander told them to follow to the next area of the ship, and the group left the audience behind to see the locker rooms.

– – –

“Xander? Have you seen the new recruits?”

“Hm?” Xander stroke a wisp of wine red hair behind his ear to get it out of his face as he looked up from his tablet at Olena, one of the soldiers of team 2 that he used to hang out more with.

Olena was looking impatiently at him, an air of eagerness around her where she was hanging on the doorpost to the common room. Like most of the soldiers on Ignis she had an athletic build and a short haircut with a minor personal twist. In her case, it meant a thin braid at the very back of the crown of her head.

“Have you seen the new recruits?” she repeated. “Have you seen the new frontliner on team 1?”

“Oh. No, I only read up on them, are-”

“You have to see the new frontliner on team 1”, Olena interrupted as she stepped in, grabbed him by the arm and dragged him with her to the simulation hall.

Commander Nahid was taking the new recruits on the usual guided tour around the ship, and up on the narrow spectator shelf above the sim area, his fellow members in the tech-and-research-team, Daleen and Roz, were watching the new recruits through the glass. Emile, one of the ship’s engineers, was there as well.

“Look”, Olena hissed at Xander and pointed.

He looked down. He recognized all the new soldiers in team 1 from the crew list cards that they all had access to. “What am I supposed to look at?”

“Oh my god, are you blind? Look at the blond! Look at him, Xander!”

Xander looked. And that exact moment the new frontliner looked up at them. At him. Xander blinked and looked away, his cheeks hot all of a sudden.

“Alright, now I have looked at him…”

“If I die in battle now I’m going to die happy”, Olena sighed. “That is the face of an angel, I tell you.”

“The kind of angel that could burn you to ashes with one look”, Daleen mused, “but yes, an angel indeed”. She retied her short pigtails. Keith used to compare her to a plump cushion with tassles, which annoyed the hell out of her since she despised tassles, but it wasn’t long enough for a ponytail yet.

“As a scientist, I regret to inform you that you are all, in fact, wrong”, Roz said, her cornrow braids swaying as she briefly turned to look at them. “The true eyecandy down there is the smaller soldier.”

Xander carefully glanced at the group below again. The soldier, named Tianyi if he recalled correctly, was telling the others something with a grin on her face and waving arms. He shook his head and snickered. “You’re all so embarrassing, you know that?”

“I’ll never be ashamed of my desires”, Olena stated, her eyes still fixed on the new frontliner.

“Here’s hoping their skills as soldiers are as good as their looks”, Emile said dryly. His black hair was as long as Daleen’s, but he usually only kept it from his face with a headband. He eyed them over, the thin bone structure in his face reinforcing his condescending look “And that the three of you can keep your pants on at least until they settled in properly.”

“I haven’t said anything!” Xander protested.

“Oh babe”, said Daleen smiled, “you didn’t have to. Your cheeks never lie.”

Of course he blushed again at that.

To comrades and contraceptives

“How can you say I’m capped, I’m barely tipsy! What the hell…”

It didn’t help. The bartender was adamant, showing her the alcometer again.

“You believe that thing? It’s ancient, it can’t tell alcohol from oxygen.” But the bartender was already busy with their next customer.

Keith stepped in before Felicia could lean over the bar and talk some real sense into the bartender, putting his hands on her shoulders and gently steered her away from the bar. He was shorter and thinner than her, and she used to be able to wrestle him down more often than not on sparring sessions, but wisely enough, she dismissed the thought. The bruisers in here wouldn’t be able to tell a friendly wrestle from actual fights.

“Come on Felicia”, Keith soothed as he navigated them through the crowded room, trying to avoid bumping into too many people. He had to raise his voice though to be heard over the loud chatter and music. “Remember the golden rule of drinking. Don’t…?”

“Don’t argue with bartenders”, Felicia groaned. “Crap rule if you ask me…”

She had to admit that she was being childish, and that drinking more would only worsen it, but she wanted to get seriously drunk so badly right now. However, it was their last night of shore leave, and she really shouldn’t show up at boarding briefing on Ignis with a hangover.

Not that she hadn’t done that before. Only, the last time it happened, she had to fling herself out of the line and to nearest sink to throw up the middle of it. Captain Avril had been… rather unamused. Felicia wasn’t going to make that mistake again. At least not in the nearest future.

They got back to the booth along the wall where their teammates sat, and she slumped down on the worn seat next to Morgan.

“Felicia’s capped”, Keith told them with a cocky smile, and only Daleen had the decency to look sympathetic about it.

“Chin up, babe”, Keith said and ruffled her hair, “I’ll get you a nice noncoholic one.” He headed for the bar again.

The system with alcometers at bars wasn’t popular with everyone, but the effects were showing. Crimes in public areas connected to alcohol, like assault, sexual abuse, drunk driving, had decreased. More people turned to home-distilling, naturally, but it seemed it was worth it in the long run.

“You need to learn to appreciate your drinks”, Santo said, raising his black, straight eyebrows in noble-like haughtiness. “That way you’ll last longer.” He nodded sagely and took a delicate sip from his own glass.

Daleen giggled helplessly beside him. She was capped too, you didn’t need an alcometer to figure that out.

“I don’t drink for the taste, smartass. If I was after the taste, I’d get a soda.” Felicia folded her arms across her chest, looking out over the crowded floor.

Keith came back and placed an orange drink with a glittery stirring stick in it in front of her.

“There you go, my babe”, he said, then squeezed in between Daleen and Santo, putting his arm around Daleen’s shoulders.

She leaned in on him, smiling widely, the booze-induced flush on her cheeks contrasting to her otherwise light skintone. She was all seriousness and responsibility on duty, and usually off duty as well, but one alcodrink or two and she turned into a silly teenager.

“Has anyone heard anything about the new people we’re getting?” Morgan asked, and took a sip from his rat biter drink.

Morgan was from UC04, or the Lab as people called it. Many of the planets the Union were researching for colonisation were toxic in a lot of ways, and the people of UC04 were test subjects to implants, artificial organs and other things that would let people handle these toxins.

Over the years, the Lab rats had developed a liquid intoxicant that was practically undrinkable for other people, but that they enjoyed the same way as other people enjoyed booze. Morgan rarely found rat biters at the bars in Sol’s Ward, but tonight he had been lucky.

“The captain sent a message, didn’t you read it?” Santo asked.

“I did, but it wasn’t exactly elaborative, was it?” Morgan adjusted his pale hair. Not that it was needed, but he had a habit of doing it anyway.

Felicia still felt more antipathy than anticipation to the new soldiers. She looked sourly at her adorned drink. Then finally accepted the fact that it was the best she would get from now on, and took a sip from it. Reluctantly, she had to admit it tasted divine.

“I heard you get two amped people at least”, said Daleen.

“Yes we do”, Santo nodded and sounded very pleased with this. “We’ll top the imp list once again.”

“With great imps comes great trouble though, don’t forget that”, Keith pointed out and looked meaningly at Felicia.

“You’re just bummed I can see you two banging two rooms away”, she said stiffly.
Daleen snorted with laughter.

“You what?!” Keith squealed as if it was the first time he heard this.

“Sorry to break this to you”, Santo said with a smile, “but even us without amps can hear you doing it two rooms away.” Then he had to duck away when Keith aimed a slap at his head.

“If I had a dick I would leave the condoms on your pillows”, Keith said and leaned back, and got disgusted protests from both Daleen and Morgan. Felicia and Santo laughed.

“I hope the frontliner is a decent one at least”, Morgan said then, maybe to pull the conversation in another direction.

Felicia looked at the table, pulling in her lower lip between her teeth.

“Yeah”, Santo agreed. “And that none of them forget their contraceptives.”

“To contraceptives”, said Keith and raised his glass.

“To Dieter”, countered Morgan.

“Dieter”, Felicia joined in.

“Alright, Dieter too”, Keith conceded, and the five of them clinked their glasses against the others’ and drank to their fallen comrade.