Perspectives make you soft

Apparently, commander Nahid thought that dealing with a group of Alpha Dawn dimwits would count as a proper initiation rite of the new recruits. Team 3 had gone on shore leave and team 2 signed back on two days ago, which meant team 1 were in for their first prim duty. Prim duty usually meant fighting. Felicia wasn’t sure dealing with Alpha Dawn counted as fighting, especially not after the last encounter with them.

Nevertheless, she felt a little bouncy now that they were lined up in the shuttle bay, geared up and ready, while captain Avril gave them the briefing. Felicia had a lot of spare energy to release upon those makeshift mercenaries.

The first two weeks for the renewed team 1 had otherwise been low on action, mainly because the new members needed some time to get a hang of the Ignis way. In addition, Tianyi had managed to bring a cold virus onboard despite all standard precautions regarding contagion, and it had spread rather quickly among the soldiers. Not that Tianyi could be blamed, really. Infections wasn’t something you could avoid completely, and outbreaks like this happened once in awhile, usually after shift changes or longer shore leaves. Still, the unfortunate patient zero got to hear it a lot anyway.

The Ignis had taken on some simple salvage missions meanwhile, since the doctor advised against putting the unwell soldiers under unnecessary physical stress. Finding unmanned probes that had gone AWOL on moons and asteroids in the outskirt of the Beta quadrant wasn’t Felicia’s idea of fun, but since she too had come down with the Tianyi plague, she had to admit that even the only slightly more complicated searching sessions that team 2 were assigned would have been too exhausting for her in her current state.

Despite the simplicity of the missions, team 1 acted as if they were on sharp combat missions. They used standard amp force, practised tactical movement, cover fire, and so on. The exercises helped the new people settle into their new routines quicker, and slowly knit the team together before the real action would kick in.

Both teams had been sent out to one of the earth-like planets in this quadrant to help with the rather undramatic evacuation of a research station. The modules had been placed in the middle of a swamp eight months earlier, and was now slowly sinking into the soft ground.

Nethan practised target protection with Haylen as they were escorting the station staff to the shuttle area. Both were using their barriers; the lesser mosquito bites at the end of the practice, the higher the score.

Haylen, who hadn’t been worst off among the victims of the Tianyi plague, but took longest to recover and therefore wasn’t entirely back on track that day, had a migraine attack when they were on the shuttle heading back. Felicia knew that was a possible side effect of his amp usage, but she realized she hadn’t been quite prepared for how bad it would be.

She was reluctant to admit it, but she had slowly gotten used to have this towering, silent muscle bundle up front instead of the more talkative and gracile Dieter, even if she still found it hard to read him. His face was set in stone most of the time, maybe a smirk on occasion, and his eyes had this default look that carried out the silent threat to bite your throat off the moment you relaxed.

But even if he seemed absent-minded in casual conversations (well, to be honest, ‘dense’ was the first word that had slipped her mouth when she talked to Xander about it; Xander, the uncureable diplomat, was the one suggesting ‘absent-minded’), there was nothing wrong with his ability to lead the team during missions. Yet she found it hard to make an effort to actually talk to him.

Tianyi wasn’t a problem that way; she talked all the fricking time and somehow made Felicia talk about things she wasn’t planning to talk about, at least not with Tianyi. And Leon was that kind of person that you felt like having known your whole life just by saying “hello”. He was no chatterbox, but not nearly as determinedly clammed up as Haylen.

As the shuttle left UR27 behind after that evacuation mission, she had watched the frontliner as unobvious as she could. He was sitting in the seat in opposite of hers, one palm pressed against his left eye and the other arm tight around his body, face pale and moist with cold sweat, shivering with the pain and nausea, and that was when she began to fully understand how much UAF had failed their own people in the T9 project.

Felicia herself had always been complaining on the sucky calibrations on her own implants, how the damn sonar bugged out during upgrades and caused clicking sounds within hearing frequence, how tired and sore her eyes got after a whole day’s intensive use. She wasn’t alone. Almost every other imp she met had similar stories.

The difference was that she could do something about it. She could re-calibrate, she could de-bug, she could use stims and eyedrops to stay sharp for another couple of hours. Every imp had their hangover, and every imp had a way to smooth them out. And if everything else failed, they had the final resort to have them removed, anytime.

But not even the luckiest Tyrian Tanks could have their implants removed, she had picked up that much. Not without causing even more, and unknown, damage. And the integrations of the implants were apparently too complicated to be adjusted or modified in ways that toned down the side effects, which left treatment for the symptoms as the only option. If that was even doable.

Haylen had been one of the luckier, he had said so himself. But if this was considered ‘lucky’, she didn’t even want to know what had happened to the unlucky ones. No wonder the UAF had decided to put the lid on all things concerning the T9 project.

Now, as she stood here and like captain Avril grew more and more irritable with Cory’s constant questioning during the briefing, she caught herself being on the defensive about her new teammates. It surprised her. Everything she had found annoying, Haylen’s harsh silence, Tianyi’s mouth diarrhea, Leon’s slacker attitude – it wouldn’t take long until team 2 picked up on it and started to push buttons, that was for sure. And she was ready to fight anyone who had issues with it.

Who would’ve thunk, huh.

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“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.

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.