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Ryuki's team had been punished thoroughly. His final indiginity was a tour of duty at an outpost sitting three AU's from the closest source of warmth. They called it a research station. He felt it was a prison without the need for walls.
Captain Shiryu would have sworn up a swarm of curses if he weren't scattered around an alien forest light-years away. Ryuki just grumbled his acceptance of the situation. The team wasn't so magnanimous. Bary ,the least.
"Frakking hell, all of this! We stole an advanced reactor, so advanced that the Zeon forces would have ended the war if they didn't lose it. Now we're stuck on this icy rock because we called down a nuclear warhead by accident!" he yelled at the dust swept dead-lands. "You were the one who used the wrong code", someone said behind him. Another shrill screed escaped his mouth.
"No use getting angry now. We're here till they say we can leave. You can't be angry for that long without fragging someone. And if you do, I will send your ass down the deepest depths of this frozen wasteland. Understood?" Ryuki said. There mumbles ,sighs and one exceedingly loud yawn. "Good" he said.
The dropship that abandoned them had began to lift off, their last sight of civilization leaving with it. Their bags sat in a pile next to a Snow-Wolf tractor transport like a pile of garbage bags. It was Ryuki's chance to sigh.
Cold air mixed with their hot breath to leave long tendrils of mist as their Snow-Wolf labored towards the base. "What luck, no heating", someone grumbled. Ryuki tried to keep his mind focused on the sunken base to keep his mind off the slowly gnawing chill.
"This thing is moving about as fast as we were walking" Ross said. "If we go through anymore of those dunes , I cannot be held accountable for where my vomit ends up" Karin said. "Guys, save your energy" Ryuki said as he dozed off. Up and down the tractor went, the rhythm rocked like a hammock. The others continued to argue as Ryuki finally had a moment of deep sleep.
The tractor slowed to a stop. Snow banks formed around the tractor as a storm passed by overhead. The driver yelled and the crew scurried off. Wide doors slowly slid open to reveal a vast hangar and a team of harried troopers. The crew rushed towards the warm bowels of their new home before the HQ commander could greet them.
"Welcome to Recon Base Steelhelm , I suggest you salute before I welcome you to the brig" the commander said. Ryuki was first to stand to attention. "I am Colonel Tevat, the base commander", he said. Sloth-like movements from the others brought out the commanders' wrathful gaze. "Captain Shinkei Ryuki , your team was found to have acted disorderly in the field of battle and considered to have disobeyed orders. I will tell you this, you were not let off easy. Steelhelm is the the most remote installation in the known colonies. The winters here are colder than a witches teat. Be glad that you came here during the summer".
"On this base, everything is a a fight for survival. Should the installations HVAC systems malfunction, we could all freeze to death. Should you screw up out there, then you'll freeze to death too. Lots of things will get you frozen here. So its everyone's duty to get their jobs done fast and efficient. " he said.
"You will report for duty in the conference room A102 , in the sub-basement, this afternoon at 0300. Understood?", he asked rhetorically. A resonant 'Yes Sir' pleased his ears. "The staff sergeant will take you to your barracks. Until you report for duty, feel free to shower and eat.
"Man, this is going to be frakkin terrible two years. We should've just ate the bullet back then" Barry said. His morbid sensibilities led him to wistful reminiscence of a screaming shard of metal. "Barry, you're welcome to eat the bullet on your own time", Ryuki said. Led by a staff sergeant ,they trudged off to their quarters with heavy bags and their feet completely damp. Temperature shock began to set in ,the warm air mixing with their cold skin to make them sweat profusely. Some wished to go back out just to escape the sticky wet clothing.
Finally a sign of hope appeared in large black block letters. The laundry room was mercifully close to the barracks. Showers were just across from the laundry and the barracks were set up in a large T shaped corridor sitting between the two. "This barrack is currently unoccupied" the nameless sergeant said. "So make yourselves comfortable. The mess hall is down at the end of the end of the corridor and then to the right past the recreation hall". He saluted and they returned it haphazardly.
The remarkably clean room had white gleaming walls, recently washed and probably hand scrubbed. Ryuki wondered who lived here before and why they worked so hard to keep this place clean. "Well, this is refreshing" Reaper said. He usually stayed quiet, even on the Zeon hot drop mission. He wasn't so much afraid of anything, just didn't have much to say about anything. "Pick a bed ,doesn't really matter where. I don't think anyone else is going to be coming for a long time" Ryuki said. The well kept beds were decked out with crisp white sheets and fresh pillows. The bedside lockers were open to reveal almost a shining reflection. Definitely hand scrubbed, Ryuki thought. The foot lockers were immaculate, almost like vintage Terran furniture. The leather exterior was a shocking surprise. "These things are like ottomans, man. This is freaking me out" , Ross said.
"Whatever, better than using a mound of packed dirt as a desk and a tree stump as a chair", Barry said. Slowly they spread out through the room. Every other bed was taken, an unspoken agreement was made for personal space.
Unpacking was a simple exercise. After the court martial proceedings they were given thirty minutes to collect whatever items they could before being forced onto a long range cargo ship towards the dead planet Glacius. This amounted to a small assortment of underwear and socks and most of their guns. Reaper brought a long an infantry rail gun somehow. No one bothered asking why. There was nothing to shoot at anyway,other than snow drifts and ice. A change of uniform was provided , sitting neatly folded on their beds. One size fits all, unfortunately.
The mess hall was mostly empty. Soldiers were working cooking duty. A pair of them mulled about with a mop waiting for their shift to end. When they say Ryuki's squad walk through the heavy double doors, they sighed loud enough to hear from the other side of the hall.
The squad took a seat waiting for the "closed" sign to be turned over to open on the lunch counter. "Aint many people here, yeah?" Dizzy said. Normally she would have been worried about sitting with a crowd of people. Some kind of phobia she usually explained. Now, with no one in sight, it was a bit more disturbing than it was comforting to her.
"I got a bad feeling about the food" Wasp said while playing with a paper plane. Food didn't need to be much for Wasp to eat it. He would eat off the dirt if he felt like it. Doing exactly that is what got him kicked out of his previous squads.
The counter opened with only a single tray of food visible. Visibly it looked edible, though looking like a mass of grey goop. It smelled like paper mixed with glue. "What the frak is this?" Ross asked. "Mystery meat, sir" replied the impromptu chef. Ross muttered about life expectancies.
After filling up with "food" ,the squad headed to the conference room. The spacious rooms looked fitting for a war room, with a large white screen filling a stadium-style amphitheater. It looked each seat was supposed to have a computer but only network jacks belied the existence of the fabled PC's.
The commander walked in moments after Ryuki's squad entered. "On time, I see. Good. I expect you to be making up for all the bone-head deeds you have committed on the Jungle Station Zeta mission".
He took his seat at the head of the conference room. "This is a good start" he said.
The others soon began to feel the effects of eating mystery meat, making time seem to stretch out into infinity while waiting for the Colonel's orders. "The first round of business" he said coughing into his hand. "You will be integrated into a battle recon lance. A lance of Zephyrs have been brought in for your use. Now, your standing orders are to assist a research detachment. Provide support and security. This may seem strange but expect incursions by an unknown hostile force. They seem to only appear in twos but their frequency is irregular so no real pattern can be discerned from their movements".
The Colonel continued on. Ryuki stuck to the thought of unknown hostiles. They may be at the fringe of known space but to have an unidentified enemy was suspicious. "Sir" he interrupted. "When did the attacks start happening?" he asked.
"Roughly three months ago,two months after you were shipped here. The research detachment had been here six months prior. I suspect some kind of automated defense system is sending up these hostiles".
"Up, sir?" Karin asked.
"Up, as in up a dig site", the Colonel replied.
The team stayed silent for the entire briefing. Not one of them could keep the image of a dig site infested with aliens off their minds. Back at the barracks, the discussion turned strange. "Frakking aliens man" Barry and Ross said to each other. Completely unintelligible as it was but the sentiment was shared with everyone else.
Wasp spoke up."Is this a bug hunt?".
"Of course it isn't. We know something's out there. So its not a bug hunt", Ryuki replied. Of course not, he thought. Bug hunts ended with little of value happening. This definitely won't go down that easily.
"Slag, do you think the reason why there aren't too many troops here is because of those bogeys?" Karin asked.
"I don't know, the Colonel wasn't being too open about it" Ryuki replied. "Whatever, we'll be riding in Zephyrs. I even saw a Zhuk spider-tank and a Thunderhammer strider", Ryuki said. "Whatever's out there will be turned into a stain on the ice once we get through with them".
No amount of reassurances he gave could nudge from himself the subconscious image of the roiling unknown slowly devouring the world. What got into him? He's been through battlefields and war-torn asteroid belts. He's seen terrible things. But that thought, that niggling idea that he might face something that no battlefield could prepare him for, that unnerved him. There was no strategy that withstood the unknowable ,no defense against the inky darkness that enveloped foresight. He took his leave abruptly to find out as much as he could about his teams mission into the icy frontier.
Long quiet halls were interrupted by active research stations. The science labs were mostly automated,rattling with the constant movment of machines and robots. Articulated arms clanked back and forth on tracks with tools or debris softly grasped by claws and clamps. Across from the labs were small bubble portholes set into the riveted steel walls. Past the warping glass the constant swirling ice storm that griped the base in its chilled wisps. The gray clouds were low and fast against the packed ground.
It seemed the halls grew longer as he walked to the commanders office. Once he saw the plaque hanging from the door, he huffed in disapproval that it was nearly on the other side of the complex. Two knocks and impatient moments later the door swung open with a dour Colonel Tevat meeting him with bloodshot eyes. "As you can tell, Sergeant , I am a bit busy. I've got to file a lot of incident reports. You would be surprised how much can go on on a place this remote", he said ,trying to garner sympathy. "About those incidents, how many of them were due to the dig site, Sir?".
The colonel stood there with a blank look. "The crew before you had to be shipped off before you came in. They spent time in the dig site. You probably noticed the almost compulsive cleaning they did to your barracks. I was surprised they did that to every barracks in that wing. These were guys who weren't above living in filth and stench", the colonel said as he leaned against the door sill. "Whatever they did there ,they never said. The research teams don't really talk business with anyone", he said.
"I want to know how many people died there,sir", Ryuki focused his question. "Classified, Sergeant. Come back to me when you're a Lieutenant again", the colonel responded. The door closed silently.
"Sir, I want your authorization to take the Zhuk out with us. I have training on gun-carriers like that one", Ryuki broke the silence. Not a word returned to him. A sigh of frustration escaped from Ryuki. Marching back to the mess hall was as unnerving as ever. He didn't think he would ever get used to the utter quiet and stillness.
"Sir we've been waiting for you for awhile. Dizzy said to wait here so you wouldn't get lost if we left" Barry said. Sense of defeat tampered Ryuki's steely demeanor. "Very funny Barry, maybe when you're frozen dead , I'll piss out your eulogy in the snow", he said.
"Damn, Ryuki. That was a bit over the top man. Sorry if I offended you" Barry replied with tray in hand as he left the table. "Sir, something on your mind?" Ross asked. "This entire thing is bad news. The team before us turned freaky after their time at the dig. Something's not right about that place. And those researchers probably won't be of much help. By the way, anyone actually seen those researchers? Where the hell are they? I only saw automated labs when I was walking through the base", Ryuki said.
"No idea sir. Im hoping we get to take the spider tanks with us though. We aren't getting all the facts so we better prepare for the worse" , Karin replied. "Im working on it" Ryuki said back quickly. "Alright guys, I'm tired as hell. I suggest everyone get some sleep. No idea if there's anything to actually do here other than working and sleeping" he said in the midst of a long yawn.
Back at the barrack there was just as little to do as was surmised. A deck of cards and a chess board were all that they scrounged up before being exiled. There were only so many ways to play poker without any money. Chess was a slow and methodical game, something that would have exacerbated the worn crew. "Guys, just go to sleep. I can see you not having fun , just give it a break. We got a mission tomorrow anyway. We're gonna be briefed early in the morning for it. So sleep".
Sleep came in fits and bursts. No one was tired enough to sleep but too tired for anything else. Night never came. Alarm clocks went off but they weren't needed, everyone had already begun to dress for the briefing. The same conference room was as they left it.
"I will keep this short. You are to patrol the perimeter of the dig site. Do not go into the site, there is currently heavy construction going on. Do not fire until you are fired upon. Do not try to interact with the dig crew. Once the perimeter is sufficiently secured, you will use the constructor bots to build an outpost there. That will be your guard post and it will be staffed 'round the clock".
A few coughs and a sneeze but not a single word rose from the team. What was there to ask that hasn't already been asked? Ryuki knew it didn't matter, no answers were forthcoming. "Finally, you will be taking the Zhuk and a detachment of auto-drones with you. Once the Zhuk is there you may transport three striders to the outpost to be used for defense".
Strange, Ryuki thought. Why so much fire power? "Sir, is the dig site nearly excavated?" he asked. "You will be providing security for the retrieval teams" , the colonel said. Quite the roundabout way to say something simple, Ryuki thought.
"Alright, head to the hangar, the quartermaster will be there to do the fittings" the colonel said.
At the hangar, a large table was prepared with all manners of weapons. "These are for emergency only. Do not use them for games to pass the time away, understood?", the captain at arms said. A meek "Yes Sir" was the response.
The Zephyrs stood in their gantry alcoves. Missiles, rockets, cannons and guns were loaded into cranes and mech-loaders. It was a satisfying sight to Ryuki. The Zhuk was readying too in its holding chamber. Even more arms were loaded, enough to topple a frontier colony. "I got a weird feeling about this" Dizzy said as they watched the robots flit around with ammunition and armor plates. "Something big is about to happen" Ross replied. "Maybe some aliens are gonna crawl out of there. Xenos, man, frakkin bugs", Reaper said.
"Don't be ridiculous. Theres over a hundred colonized planets and not a single one of them had a sentient species on it. The likelihood that we would find something out here is nearly zero. This place is a desert, a dead planet. Nothing lives here" Barry said.
"Right, Ryuki? This ain't a bug hunt thats for sure".
Ryuki wondered what the truth was.