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.

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.