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.

 

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.

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.

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.