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.

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.

Pushing it

It was supposed to be a milk run. Escort the seller to the location, look intimidating while she finished her business with the buyer, escort her back. Nothing they hadn’t done before. A seller of her level always had enemies, but nobody got to hire Praesidia without paying for the extra margins.

Just one last milk run. Then he was off.

Yet here he was, in a full blown firefight with the seller’s mercs, taking cover behind a crate next to Ziva while their colleague at another crate closer to the wall was trying to tend to his bleeding leg. The Praesidia crew had managed to remove the client from the scene when things started to go down the hole, but the people covering the escape had been locked in when the doors were shut.

The gun jammed, and Haylen squatted down and pressed his back against the crate to pry the stuck clip out before any of the mercenaries decided it was safe to advance. Don was firing at them on occasion, but his injured leg was apparently bad off. Ziva muttered something impatiently and fired another burst to the north end.

“How’s it going, Shiner?” Ziva asked, her voice urging him to hurry the fuck up.

“Can’t get the clip out”, he answered shortly, giving up on it. “They movin’?”

“Not yet. You up for-”

She was cut off when something exploded to their left, at the crates at the other end of the wall.

“Shit…!” Ziva hissed, staring at the smoke, looking for a sign of life, pushing her comm button. “Don?”

After a short while, they heard a click on the comm indicating that he was at least alive.

“If that was a grenade, you have to pull out, now”, their group leader, Nolan, buzzed in.

“The hell do you think we’re doing in here? Open the fucking doors, dumbass!” Ziva’s fury was crystal clear, even when she kept her voice down. None of them liked Nolan much, and the thought of him sitting on a safe distance in the transporter, tapping his tablet with fingers greasy from snacks, didn’t exactly raise the mood.

“I’m working on the doors, but there’s noone to send in to help you. We’re trying to…- Hang on.” The comm went silent again.

Haylen and Ziva looked at each other.

“Seems your little galaxy cruise won’t happen after all, Shiner.”

Haylen gave the clip a final punch, but to no use. Then a signal went off at the south end, and they saw the large doors to the storage hall begin to open. It wasn’t a long distance. But long enough to make them easy targets.

Hushed shouts were heard from the north end, quick footsteps in heavy boots tapping against the concrete floor. They didn’t have long.

“Hey pals?” they heard Don’s weak voice on the comm. “You’re not leaving me here, are you?”

Haylen thought fast. There were at least six mercs left and they were not short on ammo. He could probably take out two, maybe three mercs with a couple of leap attacks, but that would leave him drained on amp force for a while and he wouldn’t be able to keep up a barrier neither during nor after the leaps. His gun was jammed, Don could probably not use his, and Ziva had two clips left, tops. Only one option left then.

“We grab Don an’ get out. I’ll shield you”. He quickly shortened the sling to his weapon so it wouldn’t be hindering him.

“What? Fuck’s sake, Shiner, no!” Ziva snapped but took a better grip of her gun and secured her foothold. “You’re gonna fry whatever’s left of your sorry brain if you do that!”

He could understand her worry. The shield, or formally the extended barrier, was a T9 upgrade to the usual Tyrian Tanks abilities. It could withstand projectiles and energy blasts up to fifty centimeter from the user’s body, and the user should be able to uphold it at least one hour. Most of the soldiers had been able to make it work for at least ten minutes before they were forced to quit due to severe discomfort. The training was cancelled after the third soldier had dropped on the floor, screaming and spasming, after only twenty minutes sim fighting.

So yes, he could definitely understand her worry.

“You get to say ‘told you so’ then.”

“Shit…”

“Ready?” He started building up his amp force. This wasn’t going to take more than three minutes. Tops.

“I’m ready.” She held her gun up in fire position and pressed the comm. “Don, be ready to move, cover us.”

They heard the click, Haylen activated his barrier and they started to run over to the other side. Haylen extended the barriers as much as he could without losing grip completely, covering Ziva with his body and arms as she fired her gun at the mercs.

They had a short breather at the other side, but Haylen didn’t let go of the barrier, even if he already felt a dull pressure above his eye. Don had pulled himself up, and Ziva now hauled his arm over her shoulders. The sloppy bandage on his leg was soaked with blood, and the grenade had caused him burns and cuts over most of his face and upper body. Still, he held the gun by himself.

Ziva looked at Haylen. “So what’re you waiting for, eh? Get us out of here.”

He extended the barrier again. It was much harder to keep it steady now. He shoved the other two in behind him and started to walk backwards with his arms spread out, facing the north end and the mercs. He lowered his head enough to get some extra protection from the helmet but still be able to see where his attackers were, and his eyes started to ache even more.

The mercenaries first seemed surprised by the turn of actions and hesitated, exchanging some confused words, until they were forced to take cover when Ziva and Don started shooting at them. After some moments, they gathered their wits enough to fire back. Haylen’s barriers soaked the few bullets that hit, but for each hit, the ripples grew bigger and lingered longer.

They closed the distance to the door as fast as they could in this awkward movement. The sudden increase of amp energy demands made Haylen’s heart rate and breathing speed up, and he began to feel lightheaded. Shadows danced before his eyes. Only a few meters now.

One bullet pierced the extended barrier and let out a groan as it hit him in the chest, burying itself in his armor.

“Fuck, you okay?” he heard Ziva ask behind him.

“Mm”, was the only response he managed to give her. The barrier required all his focus now. Keep it together.

Almost there.

“Grenade!” shouted Ziva, and fired a shot slightly upwards.

And hit it. He should remember to get her a diploma. The grenade exploded and he turned his face away out of reflex but resisted the urge to dive into cover. Fortunately, the explosion was far enough from them not to knock them back, and close enough to the mercs to make them jump backwards. Haylen felt something hit him in the face, but ignored it.

Nolan’s voice crackled on the comm. “Transporter is waiting outside the door, eastern side. You have to hurry!”

“Gonna fucking murder that wax job when we get back to the base”, Ziva snarled and fired another shot.

The reached the door just as Don passed out. Outside, out of the line of fire, the transporter waited for them, side hatch open. Before the mercenaries inside caught up on them, Haylen and Ziva dragged Don over to the transporter and climbed up. The hatch was barely shut before the transporter took off.

“Hey, Shiner” he heard Ziva’s voice through the dense fog in his head, “you okay?”

He couldn’t answer at first, mouth wouldn’t obey him. His right arm was twitching slightly, irregularly. Above his eye, the pain was drilling it’s way into his head. He lifted his other hand, that arm too unsteady and weak, and pressed his palm to his eye and forehead.

“Might’ve fried somethin’…” he mumbled at last.

Ziva snorted, but it was the relieved kind. “Told you so.”

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.