A better offer

None of the hired guards at the badly lit loading dock knew what cargo exchange they were overlooking. The company that held their contracts, Praesidia, never gave more information to their employees than was necessary to ensure they would do a good job. That way, no employee could slip any dubious information to System authorities, should those happen to interfer. Which wasn’t uncommon.

Praesidia officially offered guard service as a private business company. It was one of the few with permission to provide their personnel with firearms and performance amplifiers. However, even if they were still under System law, it was common knowledge that they, as well as other private companies, didn’t always stick to what their ads said they did.

Haylen’s contract with Praesidia was running out in three weeks, and he was counting the minutes until he could leave for good. A contract usually lasted six months. He had signed the first because he had nowhere else to go, determined to find something else when it expired. Those six months had become two and a half year.

He rolled his shoulders back. The worn armor with the Praesidia badges had filled its purpose more than once, in fights with hijackers, robbers and other unambiguous criminals, but that didn’t mean it was very comfortable to wear. Especially not in plus G. On the comm he heard one of his colleagues complain about the badly calibrated artificial gravity on this specific loading dock, and another mocking him for being too weak from the start.

Someone slapped him lightly on the helmet and even if he soon enough figured out it was Ziva, his first instinct was to activate his amp force barrier. She just gave him a dismissive glance as she took position beside him.

“Fuck’s sake, Ziva…”

He took his finger from the safety catch, and turned back to the loading dock. One of the workers who were carrying crates from a container further away, had stopped on the spot and was now staring up at him.

Amps were, despite some companies’ permission to actually use them, rare in the private sector and usually of the cheaper exo kind that mostly were relying electromagnetism and holograms. Haylen had highly advanced Union Armed Forces implants and endo amplifiers. His barriers were transparent, not emitting any light or color, and only caused a faint rippling effect around him. It wasn’t visible on a distance, but the worker had obviously been close enough.

Haylen looked back at the spooked worker, silently. The man blinked and hurried away with his crate. According to Ziva, Haylen had a ‘resting killer face’. Ziva’s own face was a killer face no matter its status.

“You’re as skittish as these fucking drones, Shiner,” Ziva remarked, nodding at the workers. “Scared that your new employer’s going to find out you’re here, eh?” She pronounced the words ‘new employer’ with hearty disgust.

He had been contacted by the Union Task Forces a while ago. It was the combined SWAT, rescue, and protection branch of the Union’s defense organisation, operating in space and the System colonies with both military and civil authority and purpose. They were recruiting for their galaxy fleet and, to his surprise, asked him to send in an application. After being interviewed, tested, and evaluated, he was now technically hired. The very same Union had deemed him unfit for service over three years ago, due to their own failed amp program. For some reason they had changed their mind. Haylen wasn’t going to object. It was an offer too good to refuse.

To him at least. Ziva was on the opposite side on that matter. Which was why he had delayed telling her about it until a few days ago. She had been pissed with him ever since.

“I told’em who I work for”, he mumbled.

“You told them you’re sick all the time too?”

“I’m not sick all the time.”

“Oh, so you lied to them about that kryvat thing.”

“No.” There would be no point in lying about that. Kryvat, ‘hidden’, got its name because noone really knew what it was. The symptoms were pretty obvious though, no matter the type of infection the kryvat mimicked, and they recurred every sixth to eighth week. In Haylen’s case, the symptoms weren’t worse than those of a cold or a mild flu now that he was on meds for it, but there was no way he could get away with blaming it on being prone to catch colds.

“So they knew about it and they still hired you?” Ziva shook her head. “Fucking morons. They’ll kick you out again when the medical bills skyrocket, I’m telling you.”

“You goin’ be happy then, eh.”

She leaned sideways, trying to look inside the giant container to see how much was left in there.

“The hell I will. You come crawling back here again, I swear I’ll leave for the Demon Masks.”

The Demon Masks was a criminal gang with big egos and bad reputation. Even employees at companies shadier than Praesidia wouldn’t sink as low as joining the Demon Masks.

“You should apply to”, he said, knowing she would never do that, still hoping she would. “They be needin’ good soldiers.”

She scoffed. “As if. Never licked Union ass, never gonna.”

“That what you think I’m goin’ do?” He couldn’t keep the irritation out of his voice.

“Look at yourself”, she snarled, keeping her voice down but not the anger. “The people that fucked you over and left you to rot, they’re begging you to come back? And you accept, just like that? That means you either just tagged along us street rats until the glossy stripes let you play with them again, or that you’re stupid for real.”

Haylen clenched his jaws. He hadn’t gone through military training in the Union Armed Forces to become a safety guard in the private sector, and definately not in a semi-mercenary company like Praesidia. He wanted to fight, but not for the sake of fighting. Ziva knew this.

He had been hand picked for Elite Forces after his first year in the Union Armed Forces, as one of the youngest soldiers ever. It was during the Gamma wars, the very reason he signed up to begin with. One year of integrating implants and all kinds of training that could have broken the most sturdy of human beings, then he did two years of service in the Gamma Quadrant as a frontliner for the Tyrian Division.

The unit became famous within the Union, infamous among enemies, thanks to these amped frontliners who destroyed anything and stopped for nothing. They were soon referred to as the Tyrian Tanks. As the truce finally was signed, the UAF launched T9, the most advanced implant program ever. If the Tyrian Tanks were heroes, the T9:ers would be legends.

Within a year, it stood clear that the T9:ers would only be legendary for being the worst military fuckup in ages.

The first months at Praesidia when he was struggling the most to find balance between amp use and side effects, Ziva had spilled a fair amount of bile over the Union’s double moral in general and in this whole T9 affair in particular. In her own brutal way, she had kept him on his feet as he adjusted to a life outside the military, outside the Union. Friendship grew, and they had had each other’s back since then. It was a friendship full of harsh words and stern silence, but it was unbreakable.

Only he was breaking it apart now, wasn’t he? She had all the reasons to feel betrayed. But that also meant he was the betrayer, and that was a role he didn’t want.

“I told you from start I wasn’t goin’ be around for long”, he reminded her.

She glared at him. “Two and a half year is a pretty fucking long time, Shiner. And it ain’t the pay that kept you from leaving, eh.”

She knew exactly what toes to step on, didn’t she.

“Was it your mom pulling strings?”

His turn to snort derisively. “As if…” His mother, commander of a UAF galaxy ship, had never done him any professional favors. And even if she would have offered, he would never accept them.

Ziva pulled a face of doubt. “I don’t know, gotta be some reason they suddenly had second opinion about someone as screwed up as you. Fucking desperate if they had to lower their standards to your level, eh.”

She wasn’t wrong. The colonization of this planetary system hadn’t exactly gone according to plan. Criminals, natural disasters, delayed shipment from Milky Way, epidemics, too few children born with too many disabilities… Focus had shifted from building a flourishing world to make its inhabitants survive in the first place. The Union were desperate for people.

A worker dropped one of the crates by accident, and the dock foreman walked past Haylen and Ziva in a hurry, shouting at the worker. Haylen and Ziva had their guns at the ready, watching the two in case a fight would break out. Crate dropping was a cheap trick for workers to acquire goods, but also a potential risk for the traders if said goods weren’t legal.

This argument turned out to be over and done with soon though, and the two guards relaxed some as the foreman left the dejected worker to clean up. Soon, the gates to the airlocks that connected with the cargo ship closed, meaning the Praesidia guards’ job here was about to end. Haylen glanced at Ziva, trying to soften her up again.

“Comm devices be a thing even in the TF. Can still keep in touch, you know.”

She spitted on the ground. “You say that now, Shiner. You’ll forget us the moment you set foot on that glossy spaceboat.”

He felt like hitting something.