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.

 

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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.