Going back

The shuttle for the docks was being readied at the spaceport at Sol’s Ward, the main city on UC01. The Union Armed Forces had their headquarters here, including the military school, and shared the spaceport with the civil society. It was mostly trafficked by shuttles to space stations and colonies. The galaxy ships themselves, including the Task Forces’ ones, never landed on spaceports. Instead, most planets with cities as large as Sol’s Ward had transfer stations in orbit just outside atmosphere.

Haylen normally lived on UC19, a three hour shuttle trip away from UC01, but had arrived yesterday to get all the gear he needed as a soldier of the UTF. Casual uniform, heavy armor, light armor, weapons, sleepover kit, emergency kit, temp regulating underwear, protection masks, helmets, spacesuit… the list went on and on. Most of it was already on the shuttle; the only thing he had to do was to try everything out, then the storage unit made sure all of it was neatly packed and sent to the right ship.

It felt weird to be back in the Union uniform. Weird, and at the same sort of safe. Home, maybe. A home with flaws, but still home. He hauled his backpack up over one shoulder and followed the signs to the military arrival and departure halls.

Quite a few people were queueing for security control. When it was his turn, he flipped the holographic ID up from the wristband. His face side by side with the Union logo, his new soldier number, his rank. Corporal. It wouldn’t mean much on the Ignis, but all Elite Forces soldiers gained at least one rank after their first year of service.

“Tyrian Tank, huh”, said the guard and smiled at him while clearing him in the system. “Where did you serve?”

Haylen didn’t answer first, but looked at the ID, puzzled. Oh yeah. There it was, in the corner of the ID sheet. The Tyrian Tank mark. It was a picture of a stylized armored soldier with wings and two raised fists held together, surrounded by an aura of light beams. Every tank that made it through those first three years earned the right to carry that mark, no matter what profession they headed into afterwards. Only sentenced criminals lost that right.

Haylen didn’t know how to feel about the mark. He had completed training, he had served his years, he deserved that mark. And still, the people who now told him how valuable he was, that he should wear the Tyrian Tanks mark with pride, was the same people whose pride had screwed him up in the first place. That pride had cost him a lot.

“Gamma wars, year three and four.”

“You’re kidding me?” The guard sounded surprised. “Aren’t you too young to have served with the Tyrians during those years?”

He shrugged some, looking down the glass walled corridor leading to the boarding halls. “Signed up early.”

“Well, hope you won’t find the task forces too dull now”, she said and smiled again as she opened the passage for him.

A couple of other soldiers with the Ignis emblem on their uniforms were waiting at the shuttle gate. A short, muscular woman with styled short black hair was speaking lively to a taller, kind of scrawny man whose hair and stubble gave the impression that he didn’t care much about it growing too long. Next to them was a young man, clearly involved in the conversation since the woman was looking at him as much as the other when she spoke, but who didn’t have eye contact with any of them.

Haylen always felt awkward with new people, not knowing how to start casual conversations, but fortunately, the woman took care of that.

“Hey there, you’re a new applicant for Ignis too?” She nodded at the emblem on his uniform and waved him over as an invite to the little group. He walked up to them, letting his backpack down on the floor, as the woman continued. “Private Tianyi, ground soldier.”

“Corporal Haylen. Goin’ be a frontliner.”

“Ey, anot’ah ninteenah”, the scrawny man said with an askew grin. “Sergeant Leon, medic.”

The other man looked up briefly at Haylen. “Private Dmitri, shuttle pilot and mechanic, also weapon and armor specialist.” He seemed even more awkward around strangers than Haylen himself.

“Also, are you over two meters or not?” asked Tianyi, eyeing Haylen up and down. “This is important.”

“One ninetyseven”, he answered slightly confused by the question, literally looking down at her.

“Okay, you’re good then. See, I can’t have anyone taller two meters in my team or I won’t be able to drag your sorry asses out of combat if I have to, because then said sorry ass won’t even lift from the ground.”

He nodded hesitantly, glancing at Leon, who only chuckled. “She been like dis since we got ‘ere, ent found de stop button yet.”

“The only way to stop me is a bullet to my head, and there’s no guarantees to that either.” She turned to Haylen again. “Speaking of bullets to the head, what happened to you?”

She nodded at the taped stitches on his jaw.

“Grenade splinters.” Lucky for him, that cut and a bruise on his chest was the only remaining injuries from his last gig for Praesidia. The migraine had lasted two days, but that was it. No brain fry this time either.

“Fresh from the battlefield, I like it.” She grinned. “Did you ever do space battle?”

“Yeah.”

She peeked at the hairbun at Haylen’s neck. “How do you fit all that hair into a spacesuit and helmet?”

He wasn’t quite keeping up with her mental tempo. “I… braid it”.

“Oh, so this is casual style, got it. How long is it?”

He gestured somewhere on the middle of his upper arm.

“Bic length”, she nodded, “great length, not able to put your elbow on it when you turn in bed, but long enough to stay the hell out of your face when untied. That’s where you want to aim, shaggy” she said to Leon, “but I’d grow it a little faster if I were you. You look like an offtown cook, for crying out loud.”

Haylen stood idle and listened to the further conversation, or rather Tianyi’s monologue, absent-minded, until he heard a voice from the other end of the hall.

“Hey Shiner.”

He looked over his shoulder. Ziva stood there, looking as if she were torn between beating him up or walk away. Her shaved and tattooed head made people who walked past her to take an extra look.

“Woah, who’s that?” Tianyi asked with great interest before he even got the chance to respond to Ziva.

“Friend”, he said, and left the little group to walk up to his former team mate.

“Changed your mind?” he asked, cautiously since he wasn’t sure the joke would land well.

She scoffed. “You wish.” She looked out through the window. “Just wanted to say goodbye I guess.”

They hadn’t really done that. After the last mission she had been busy with other jobs while he was recovering.

He nodded some. “Glad you did.”

“Not gonna hug you, if you ever thought I would.”

“Goin’ miss you too”, he smirked, looking out as well. The bridge to the shuttle was being folded out.

She scoffed again. “Not half as much as I won’t miss you.”

The speakers announced their departure and urged passengers to go to the boarding halls. She turned to him and nodded impatiently at the gate. “That shuttle’s not gonna wait forever. Aren’t you getting on?”

“Take care, Ziv.”

He held up his fist. She shook her head, looking away while blinking away something in her eye, then held up hers as well, their knuckles meeting. “Go to hell, Shiner.”

She met his gaze, finally. She looked as choked up as he felt. And they both stepped back and turned around to leave in each direction before this got even more emotional.

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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.