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    "This is Horus to Strike Team: Roanoke, Horus to Strike: Roanoke. You guys still picking us up down there?"

    Hovering just in front of her nose, Margot's new, yet comfortingly familiar HUD sparked to life in bubblegum pink.

    "That's a negative, Chewie," she said brightly. Even speaking normally, her voice seemed to fill the small compartment of the shuttle, though the three other people there with her would have been more than used to it by now. At just five feet tall, Margot was the smallest of their already small team, and fully believed she had both the lung capacity, and the life calling to make up for it.

    "Coms systems have crashed since the last time you checked in five minutes ago." She knew full well Ethan Choi, coms support back on the Horus some 500 kilometers overhead, was checking their individual systems for a final time before they went planetside, and would check again once they were all settled with their mechs. But after almost two and a half years of prep and training, Argus's first intersterllar strike team, cheekily named Roanoke just a few months prior when they'd gotten their first real mission in the new star system, was finally about to touchdown at New Jamestown, and Margot Diaz was excited. And nervous. But mostly excited.

    "Sorry, what was that?" Ethan's voice was in her ear a second later, drawing her eyes from the blur of verdant green she could only just see out the shuttle window. "You wanted Tango's life support systems remotely shut down?"

    "Intentalo, culo," Margot quipped in her native Spanish. "See if you get any mystery science rocks when we get back."

    "If you get back."

    "Alright, enough." Captain's voice was sharp, if not entirely unamused, in her headset, and Margot felt her spine straighten automatically, an annoying habit she blamed on too much time spent with her copilot under Tango's sims for the last 18 months.

    "Diaz, your HUD's a go. Everyone else, buzz back to Ensign Choi. Without the chatter, please? Let's try and remember where we are and why. No more sims out here, kids, this here's the real deal. For starters, remember New Jamestown average gravity stands at 130% of Earth. Which means if you guys fall, you are fall hard. Be careful out there, and let's try and keep Doc here half sane, alright?

    "Now. I want to run down the plan with you all one more time before you come up on your DZ. I've got you guys clocked at touchdown in...t-minus twelve minutes. Climate report says you guys are looking at pretty mild days, but humidity is way up, almost 90% -- " Margot groaned and raked a hand through her jet curls, just barely tucked under a neon green bandana. The Captain continued pointedly, " -- so be watch yourselves, especially in the afternoons. Nights are expected to drop below freezing, too. Make sure you're either back at camp or locked down by dusk. All three mechs are outfitted with survival rations enough for ten people to last two weeks under optimal conditions. But let's not test that, deal?

    "DZ is about a three day mech-march from the colony, used to operate as a drop center for new supply shipments when the colony was first settled four years back, but we got it up and running for you guys to use as a base as needed. If we lose touch with you for whatever reason, we'll have a transport back up here to the Horus within twelve hours of lost contact, understood?"

    He waited for an answer while Go fiddled idly with the pistol on her belt, half-assedly reviewing what she could remember of her mission dossier. Which was little more than the winking the Argus logo from the digital file, the same one stitched into the her jumpsuit above her thigh. She'd always thought it looked creepy if you didn't know what you were looking at. But then maybe that was the point.

    Just across from her, David -- or Oak, as he went by now, thanks, of course, to Margot -- was running through his own files on his HUD. It consisted mostly of the team's vitals, all just shy of normal after having woken two weeks ago from six months of cryosleep. He set himself a quick reminder to key up scanners for Lady and Tango both first thing tomorrow.

    "...officially, we lost contact with New Jamestown about eight months ago, though transmissions were...garbled about six months prior to say the least," the Captain continued blithely. "Apparently, the story is the Somnambulist started receiving strange messages in place of weekly check-ins, and then one day, all outgoing communications ceased. No one's been able to pick up anything, not even radio signals, from the colony since. Investors hired Argus to find out what happened, and just what happened. This is recon and nothing else. I want to make that very clear. Are we understood?"

    "Yes, sir," David snapped. "You should start receiving reports by EOD tomorrow."

    Go, for her part, only nodded distractedly as she craned her neck to look out the small panel of glass at the side of their shuttle. The ground was getting closer and the butterflies in her stomach were starting to feel more like excited pterodactyls. She could just barely make out the top of a lone radio tower standing almost impossibly lean over the myriad dwarfed trees that covered most of the planet's surface.

    Grinning, she kicked the woman sitting diagonal from her and nodded out the window, green eyes wide.

    "Oye, Sparky. Race you there?"


    Intentalo, culo - try it, asshole
    Oye - hey
    #1 DotCom, Apr 3, 2016
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2016
  2. Selina Johnson was not having a good time of things. Her body, if not exactly the conscious part of her brain, had been awake for nearly a full thirty six hours. In an operation so small, a good deal of the pre-flight checks, system updates, and general double-checking fell on her. Throw in a healthy dose of acceleration gravity from entering orbit, and more than her fair share of baby blues, small stims named so for their bright neon blue color, and that was enough to turn the mechanic into a ball of frayed nerves. In equal parts post-cryo illness and post-stim crash, she jerked around in her seat, an inch or so away from coherent.

    She was vaguely aware of Margot's loadmouthing, being the only noise to fill the clattering innards of their shuttle. Vaguely aware of command's response. Thankful for the heads-up-display to cover her face, which hid the worst of the mingled terror and discomfort, Selina shut her eyes tightly and clutched at the safety belts wrapped around her torso. Once they landed, she would need to take another round of baby blues to keep herself kicking in the hopes of a respite soon: there was only so much her unconscious could be tricked before it, too, went out from under her.

    "He knows he can't remotely turn off light support, doesn't he?" She asked, softly, forgetting to open up a cross communication channel so that the rest of the crew could hear; that was a distinction between her and Margot, who didn't need the headset. The woman could probably shout in her mech loud enough for another pilot 50 meters away to hear her clearly.

    "That wouldn't make sense," Selina continued to no one in particular as the conversation went on, buzzing annoyingly in her ear. "All that would really matter is that they could turn it on remotely, in case the crew was knocked out from, uhh..." She fished for the right words. "Take off...High-g stuff. But really, these crash couches would take enough of what we'd expect to do unless..."

    Her train of thought trailed off as the ship shook again in its descent. Uneasily, Selina opened her eyes, took a deep breath, and mounted the courage to spare a glance out of the nearest view port, reflecting that view ports on any space craft were a bad idea: they were vulnerabilities, and she didn't need to see the outside, particularly on descent. The mechanic's stomach practically did a somersault as she saw the expansive sea of green treetops zooming by, growing larger by the second. How soon until they stopped, at that uneasy feeling of heavier natural gravity kicked in? A minute? Two? Three?

    The shuttle's air brakes suddenly set into gear, letting the air buffet at the dropship as it attempted to decelerate. Below her feet, Selina could feel the landing gear shift into their ready positions, the mechanical whine of powered servos adding to the faint buzz of the team's chatter. Snapping to attention, Selina grabbed her status pad from its container, tucked safely in a provided crew compartment below her seat. Her kit would be in the overhead stowage, and though nothing had given her reason to believe it had moved, the mechanic still did a double take to ensure the clunky box was still ensnared in two layers of netting.

    "...officially, we lost contact with New Jamestown about eight months ago, though transmissions were...garbled about six months prior to say the least," That would be Captain. "Apparently, the story is the Somnambulist started receiving strange messages in place of weekly check-ins, and then one day, all outgoing communications ceased. No one's been able to pick up anything, not even radio signals, from the colony since. Investors hired Argus to find out what happened, and just what happened. This is recon and nothing else. I want to make that very clear. Are we understood?"

    "Yessir, Cap'n sir," Selina chirped, remembering to open the communications channel this time.

    "She speaks." Frank mused dryly.

    "Not for long," she admitted, feeling nausea well up inside her and dissipate as quickly as it had come as the shuttle bucked again. "Might be vomiting and spluttering pretty soon."

    "May not want to do that in your HUD," the man offered with a wry wink. "That's hard to clear out."

    "Thanks." She rolled her eyes, regretting the decision almost immediately: the strain from lack of sleep sent a quick stab of dull pain behind her eyes at the motion.

    "Oye, Sparky. Race you there?" Margot.

    "Can Frankie carry me?" Selina questioned, welcoming the distractions from the thought of landing. "Or is that cheating?"

    Selina flinched as the shuttle's speed came to an abrupt halt. Though it had not been going particularly fast, the crew felt it. They all lurched sideways in their crash couches and then slammed back to their original postures. Then, with a good deal more grace, the pressure shifted from pushing them backwards to pushing them downwards as it lowered itself to the landing zone. The mechanic let out a sigh of relief, which she kept to her HUD, and undid the belt buckles to her crash couch with unsteady hands. With a hiss and a click, the safety belts released and snapped back into their chambers. Next came the restraints at her feet. Slowly, feeling an echo of soreness running through her back and shoulders, Selina unclasped her legs and waited for the red light "stay seated light" to flare green.

    Ding. The light switched over, and Selina stood up, swerving.

    "I'd really like for that to not be cheating."
    #2 ze_kraken, Apr 4, 2016
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2016
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  3. If it were up to her, David knew, Margot would have everybody believe she’d named him Oak for his surname alone.

    But Margot was smarter than that, no matter how she tried to hide it, and there was only so much anyone could keep from a man like David. He’d been hired for far more than his ability to administer a flu shot or two.

    Across from him, the young pilot lurched to her feet, a head full of curls bobbing under a wash of toxic green light. If gravity plus, just shy of double what it had been on the Somnambulist, bothered Margot, she gave no sign of it. Though that, too, was par for the course.

    “You can lose however you like, chica,” she said, throwing Selina a grin. “Just remember that’s two drinks next time we see a bar. You can put it on Frankie’s tab.”

    A smile twitched on David's lips, but he remained silent, as per usual, embodying the quiet, sturdy strength of his new moniker. He wondered sometimes whether Margot had been brought along on this expedition solely to keep her three crew mates from descending into maddening silence on their own. It was true when the others said she did more than enough talking for all three of them. They were only lucky they hadn't run into anyone who might not be as forgiving as they were.

    “Releasing cabin pressure in 3...2...1,” crackled a voice overhead, as the pneumatic hiss of the loading bay door sliding away filled their ears. A rush of hot, wet air and the verdant green of a mossy hillside greeted them on the other side. David checked the filter on his helmet reflexively. The issue of finding a system, or even just a planet that didn't need to be dramatically terraformed to support carbon life forms had been more or less solved by a combination of patience, trial and error, and FTL travel. The atmosphere on this new planet was perhaps just slightly less oxygen-rich than what had been the norm aboard the Somnambulist, let alone back on Earth. But it was nothing they hadn’t prepared for with months' worth of training in high altitude chambers. David himself knew the first signs of ozone poisoning so well, he could diagnose in his sleep.

    Still, they all knew more than a eight or so hours without a quick hit of purified oxygen from the mechs or back at base...Well. There was a reason missions like these started slowly.

    “This is as close as I get." David could already feel their shuttle rumbling to life again beneath booted feet. "No room to land up on top, so this is what you've got to work with. Sorry, team."

    "It's alright," Margot said sagely. "I was hoping to start off the mission with a half mile hike straight up in 90% humidity."

    “The biodome was strategically placed at the highest choke point in the area, Diaz," Captain snapped wearily. "It's also the only feasible place to park Tango's loading dock, so unless you want to spend the entire mission scaling a couple hundred feet of metal -- "

    "Sir. No, sir."

    "Damn straight. Pack up and head out, Roanoke. I'll brief while you walk."

    Margot was the first out the door, unsurprisingly, all abuzz with what David could only guess was nervous excitement. That had always been Margot's MO, though. Play first, work later. And anything to avoid an interaction even slightly resembling sincerity. He watched her for a moment, ushering Frank ahead to join his copilot while he himself hung back half a moment with Selina.

    “Okay?” he asked with a raised brow, looking their engineer up and down. “You know, you keep popping those blues, they’re gonna be calling me to wring your heart back into your chest with a mop. How waterproof are Lady’s controls?”

    “Don’t worry, Sparky, I won’t let anything happen to her,” Margot called from up ahead. "C'mon, kids, let's get a move on, yeah? There's still time for ghost stories and marshmallows."

    “Can it, Diaz. And listen up.” Captain’s voice came over their headsets again, automatically dimming David’s view of the vitals for himself and his teammates. They would stay that way until Captain was done speaking. Or until one of them experienced a medical crisis of any sort, measured by heart rate, blood pressure, EKG waves, and half a dozen more statistics he'd trained and retrained himself on. It'd been a while since he'd really needed those EMS skills. But it'd been a while since he was in the field, too. Just ahead, Margot was already making her way up the path, her boots only half laced. David sighed and tried not to notice, nudging Selina into action behind their crew mates.

    “Until we know base camp is secure, I want you all sleeping in shifts,” Captain went on. “Diaz and Ellis, take the scout mechs and trace a perimeter. Security feeds haven’t shown anything within a radius of 3km or so from where you are now in weeks, but I don’t need my team taking any chances. Now, remember, it gets cold at night, and if you think that humidity’s a beast now, just wait until the sun goes down. I recommend you guys suit up ASAP and get back as soon as you can. You can rest up and eat once camp is secure, understood?”

    “Roger,” came Margot’s voice again, though with a little more exertion behind it now.

    “Good,” said Cap. “Oak and Johnson, run a brief check of the 'dome's life support systems, then bed down for the night. We can pull full reports tomorrow, so long as everything looks normal. We had our guys out there just a few weeks ago, so it shouldn’t take too long. It’ll be waking up Tango that’s the real challenge, but that comes later.”

    David nodded in response and rolled his shoulders, already making a to-do list in his head for this evening and tomorrow both. Frank and Margot would be gone most of that time, but that was all for the best. Margot didn’t know how to settle down unless she was unconscious, and Frank had always been the more hands-on type. Besides, they could all use the quiet. Or at least he and Selina could. David could only hope Frank was used to Margot by now.

    “You’re coming up on the biodome now. Your coms line will still be open, but I’m going dark until I hear a check-in from recon, understood?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Good,” Captain said. “Then Strike Roanoke, say hello to your home for the remainder of this mission.”

    David squinted up to the dome at the top of the hill and tried not to feel small and alone. Even with his extra training, his piloting skills were nowhere near those of Frank and Margot. He knew backwards and forwards his time tomorrow would be better spent pulling physicals for the team, checking and double-checking their support systems, making sure their rations were in order. He would not need his mech for at least another day or two yet.

    But it was hard not to want Askari with him just then. The four of them hiked in relative silence, eyes watering under the downdraft of the shuttle as it lifted off. It was quiet for a moment. Then, of course, Margot spoke. This time, though, he couldn't help but feel somewhat grateful.

    “I call biggest bed,” she said. “And as far as chores go – I don’t do bathrooms.”
    #3 DotCom, Apr 8, 2016
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2016
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  4. "Please not on my tab," Franklin requested as he hauled his rucksack from where it lay snared above his seat, allowing himself one of his rare quips. "Argus really takes that 'take the experience first, the money comes later' thing to heart."

    Then, just like that, he was all business again, hauling his ruck over his shoulder and running over a last minute checklist. The familiar weight of his pistol was there at his side, unloaded. The magazines, incredibly small and lightweight thanks to a combination of magnetic acceleration technology and investment in "micro-ammunition", were stored in a small pouch on his opposite leg. Argus usually did not bother giving their pilots anything beyond pistols - the old-Earth maxim of tank crews 'if I ever have to leave my tank I'm dead' had proven more or less true for Mech operators as well.

    "Damn, Choi," the soldier whistled as he was met with a wall of humidity. "Hope the HVAC in the dome is still working properly."

    "Standby, PFC Ellis," Choi responded with a hint of dry sarcasm. "It appears we are experiencing some technical difficulties. Did you say that you want the HVAC on your dome disabled?"

    Pencil-pushing motherfucker. I'll win the professional war, you see.

    "Negative, Ensign Choi," he went on, taking his first step outside of the shuttle, lifting a hand up to block the incoming sunlight. It was worse than the Louisiana swamps back home on Earth. With a shudder, Franklin wondered how the jungle would feel after a good, solid rain. Franklin shut off the link with Choi and moved down further into the jungle undergrowth: he agreed with Margot, for once. Hoofing it up half a mile of jungle hell was just the way to start a mission...

    And then Margot did what Margot did, and Captain intervened in another one of Margot's lovely bouts of sarcasm and loud-mouthing. Frank listened in keenly to Captain's briefing as he waited for Selina and David to leave the shuttle, noting that their dedicated engineer didn't look like she would be fixing anything any time soon. Even something as simple as a biodome check might send her into a nervous breakdown, one (luckily) Margot wouldn't be there to witness.

    Great. Wishy-washy weather. Frank was enjoying this planet already. At least I won't get used to either climate. Hate to make this creepy mission any better.

    Once Captain reported that his end of the mission would be dark until the recon trip was done, and all the chores back on the base more-or-less finished, Franklin managed a quick dash to stride side-by-side with Margot. Rather, attempted to. Jogging up-hill in a native gravity far greater than Earth's, and lugging all of his kit, Franklin hardly managed a few steps before he had to return to a slow walk. He offered a glance over his shoulder, seeing a still incoherent Selina being guided along by David. Ruefully, he reflected that carrying her along with her gear probably would have sent him sprawling back down the hill.

    “I call biggest bed,” Margot spoke up after the boom of the departing shuttle died. “And as far as chores go – I don’t do bathrooms.”

    "Well," Selina chimed in, voice hoarse and low. "I'll be off fixing shit, and I'm pretty sure David stubbed his toe on the shuttle or something, so that leaves you with bathrooms, Frank."

    "That technical term for it, Johnson?" He asked, taking advantage of the conversation to cease his uphill battle with gravity.

    "I'll have you know I earn two thousand more a year because of the 'fixing shit' seal on my diploma," she remarked, adding. "Gravity can chī shǐ from a chòu biǎozi's sǐ pì yǎn!"

    "Tell me how you really feel," Frank allowed himself a smirk: he wasn't entirely sure that the engineer had said, but he'd spent enough time around Selina to pick up on some Mandarin.

    The dome's sheer girth was in plain view now, towering well over the lofty jungle growth overhead. An impressive and intricate web of support beams crisscrossed massive panes of transparent metal plating. At each point where the beams intersected shimmered a miniature solar array, flashing gold in the sunlight; the further up the dome, the larger and more frequent the individual panels became. That was another thing he could look forward to: recycling everything. Colonies with a less-than-friendly environment often had to reuse everything, the saying going something along the lines of 'no such thing as enjoying fresh air' on a colony.

    "Riddle me this, how do we get in there once we're at the wall? Johnson?"

    "Someone with less professional pride and more preparation could, you know, hack it," she croaked. "But I'm not up to being malicious when I've got a legitimate access code here."

    Silence fell over the group again as they continued their march up the hill. With a dome of such size, it was difficult to gauge their progress towards it as it grew gradually larger and larger. Franklin had given up on attempting to outpace Margot, sinking into a grueling process: step right, step left, pause. Step right, step left, pause. He was feeling thankful for the support wiring in his rucksack that kept him from tipping over at the excess weight. The wire frame would, in theory, take the worst of the strain on his shoulders away. It wasn't a walk in the park, but it helped.

    Sweat beading down his forehead, trailing down the hook of his nose, Franklin longed for the comfortable, climate-controlled cockpit of the Tango. Nothing sounded better than two air seals to keep the humidity out and a steady air flow that adapted to its user's needs. Soon, he told himself, trying to spur his protesting legs into motion. Just a bit further...

    ...But then he looked up from the ground and they were there.

    Frank craned his neck to stare along the slight curve of the terradome. The very top of the structure was lost in the reflection of solar panels and treetops, but by a forced perspective, the dome looked more like a straight wall than a concave one. He shuddered, realizing just how high they were, and seated himself on a nearby rock, panting. Margot, of course, looked more or less undisturbed. Just another round in the booming gun of a mouth she wielded.

    A moment later, Selina and David came into clear view from the thicket. The engineer ducked underneath a tree branch lazily and staggered forward up the hill in one last push of motion. For a few seconds she stood hunched over, hands on her knees, panting. Franklin allowed her some slack - she had been through a rough day with getting the prechecks in motion - but her load was nothing compared to his or Margot's. The woman recovered, slung her pad from its place in her pack, and moved up to the dome's gates. With a few keystrokes and a nod of satisfaction, she stepped back from the gate's access port and watched as the gates ground into motion.

    Almost giddily, Selina spoke up. "This is an airlock, so I'll get to open another big door!"
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  5. Six months into her training with Frankie, about six weeks after they'd met Tango for the first time, and two weeks before Argus had finally pinned down Selina and Oak, Margot had fractured a rib during her crash course in basic combat training, and, in classic Margot style, quite literally laughed it off. It had taken Frank another week and a half of not-so-subtle hints to get her to admit that anything was wrong, and even then, it had been less "admission" and more "I just remembered I forgot my comically oversized coffee mug at the infirmary, I should go grab that."

    Margot would have sworn up and down the only reason she and Frank had ever been paired together was because he was probably the only person in the world with enough of a stick up his ass he could take things seriously for both of them. She liked her copilot most days. Hell, Margot was pretty sure she could have gotten along with the lovechild of Hitler and cancer if she had to. But she was also pretty sure they'd both have a hell of a lot more fun if Frank could ever learn to relax.

    But given there was a better chance of whatever the hell had happened to this colony falling out of the sky and into their laps, Go had long since given up holding her breath waiting for that to happen. The best she could hope for now was getting him to crack a smile once a year or so.

    She grinned down at him now, automatically forcing her breathing into a more regular pattern when she saw the top of his head crest the ridge of stone at her feet. The smooth metal surface of the dome at her back provided almost zero relief from the heat settled over her shoulders like a soggy blanket. Margot could feel beads of sweat rolling down the curve of her spine like slugs. Slugs that were, for some reason, faintly warm.


    "Slowing down, old man?" she taunted, hoping the few minutes she'd outpaced him by had been enough for the flush in her cheeks to fade, if only to annoy him. "Y'know, every year, I tell them: 'It's time to hand sole control of Tango over to me. I can handle it, and Frankie's 20 seconds from a mostly-well-earned retirement.' And every year they say, 'What? Who are you? This is a military frequency.'"

    Still, she only chuckled when he drew close, digging through her gear one handed for her dented and worn canteen. She took a swig, tried not to make a face at the already-tepid water, then tossed it to him. Margot lived and died to torture her copilot, but she knew there wasn't half a chance in hell they'd let her anywhere near Tango without him, and for all she complained, she knew this was a better setup than where she'd been before. More rules, sure, and way less sleeping in. But at least she was never alone.

    "Then open it already, Sparky," Go insisted, hauling her duffle back over a shoulder. "I called best view, but we all know that doesn't mean shit until you've sweated through your bed sheets to back up your claim."

    "Hate to burst you bubble," Oak chimed in from where he'd finally joined the group, "but I think bunking is pretty standardized, Diaz. You can choose 'cabin across from the latrines' or 'cabin across from the airlock'."

    Margot rolled her eyes. "Quit with the sweet talk, Oak, you're breaking my heart."

    She really did want to get inside the biodome. Where she slept didn't matter one whit to Margot. But she hated standing still. Always had. Next to being stuck somewhere on her own, it was just about the worst thing she could imagine.

    Well, that and a human colony of nearly two-hundred people just up and disappearing. But at least she got to do something about that.

    "C'mon, chica," Margot urged impatiently. "It's hot. And I hafta pee. And camp isn't gonna explore itself."
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  6. "You know they said that was the last rest stop for a while, 'Marge," Selina talked as she worked at the panel. "Space is pretty damn big. Should've used the space-chute like everyone else."

    The mechanic finished typing in the command sequence for the first airlock door and the mammoth concrete and steel gate began to grind open. Luckily for the crew below, their suits canceled a good deal of the noise from the grating of gears and servo-limbs. Though she could not hear it - or feel it, for that matter - Selina shut her eyes and imagined the sudden rushing air coming from the open airlock. Like Mars back in Sol, air on this planet was breathable (minus some ammonia issues here and there) at the right pressure. Releasing air from an airlock was not throwing valuable breathing time away.

    Once the outer doors were wide open, Selina stepped through into the airlock itself. The chamber itself was large enough to house ground-based supply transports, though the roof still only hung a good half meter above their heads. In a bar-side conversation with Frankie, Selina had mentioned in passing that the airlock size wouldn't make sense on a jungle world, and she was right: the trail they had taken up to this particularly doorway would not be accommodating any normal vehicles. Standardized design at play.

    As the group situated themselves in the airlock, Selina simply activated the panel to the outer door from the interior and waited for the airlock doors to shut. Once they shut, and a soft female voice from the panel informed that the air had pressurized and Selina removed her helmet with a hiss of pressurized air. Smirking, she inhaled her first breath of fresh, non-recycled air and made her way to the panel for the inner doors. The mechanic punched in the sequence and the inner doors ground open.

    "Voilà," Selina bobbed a sarcastic curtsy, swerving as another wave of nausea struck her.

    "Now that we're here," Frank snapped off his own helmet as he spoke. "Can we talk about when I became old man?"

    "Not now," Selina replied, hiccuping. "Margot has to pee, Frankie, sheesh."

    Frank laughed the comment off and the group stepped into the colony's dome. The domes on Mars and Titan back home were paradises compared to the small, cramped one that greeted them. Granted, Mars had been 'in development' for little under a century now and Titan benefited from a grossly disproportionate amount of UN Coalition funding, but even their smallest domes outdid this one in size. A small terrace lined the middle row, towering high to the peak of the dome. Due to a lack of staff and support systems running at below-optimal levels, the terrace was overgrown with dried weeds. The HAB blocks that ringed around the tower were in equal disrepair, but true to their rugged design, they showed no signs of advanced deterioration or chance of collapse.

    "Alright - David and I'll get working on the big boy after you two get a look through the HABs, make sure our spooks in the night aren't still lurking around," the mechanic began. "The little'uns are good to go once you're ready, made sure to look them over remotely about a day ago."

    Franklin drew his pistol from its holster and snapped his helmet back on, syncing the weapon to his heads-up-display with a high-pitched beep.

    "Hey Johnson - ever wonder if it's fair that I do this shit and you get paid more?"

    "We get back to Earth, I'll show you my diploma, okay space-cowboy?"

    "I grew up in Louisiana, not Texas," Frank grunted, beginning to trudge towards a HAB doorway: it did not help that the shoulder pad of his suit bore a symbol that looked suspiciously like a "Lone Star" symbol.

    Selina attempted her best southern drawl, ruined by her Martian accent (a hosh-posh of Mandarin and Russian), as she drew a finger gun from her imaginary holster, adjusting her equally fabricated belt buckle. "Aww shit, 'fergot 'mah six-shooter back on the ranch."

    "Ok, that just proves you've never been on Earth," Frank turned his head back to meet her gaze. "And aren't you supposed to be dying of withdrawals? I thought 'Go was the loudmouth."

    "Oh, you're right, I'd never want to usurp her of that title."
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  7. "Please and thank you!" shouted Margot from somewhere David could guess was not the head. He wondered a moment whether she'd found the toilets before wandering off, or if she'd just been bored and bullshitting when she'd told them all her reason for needing to get inside. Neither seemed too far-fetched. Margot had the attention span of a kindergartner and an imagination twice the size. It'd taken all of them a solid couple months to figure out whether she was being sincere when she spoke to them, which was, of course, all the time. David might have guessed that made it easier to tell, but he was still willing to bet Margot could look him straight in the eye and tell him his ass was on fire and he wouldn't know whether she was trying to save his life or just tell him he had something stuck in his teeth.

    "If you're looking for Tango, 'Go," David called, smirking, "he's this way."

    "Tangogo can wait," Margot said, popping up from somewhere behind them, her helmet tucked under her arm, green eyes pinned to the dome's zenith overhead. "Or, what, we don't get to look around at all?"

    David shrugged. "Captain's orders. Besides, he's right -- you think the humidity is bad when the sun's up, wait 'til you see what it's like near freezing. You ever take a bath in ice water?"

    Margot rolled her eyes. "Don't be melodramatic, Oak," she said with a grin, but started to follow after Frank anyway. David watched her bound after her copilot to throw an arm around his neck, only half attempting to drag him down in the process. They were an odd pair, but he supposed you had to be in this business. One part detective, one part bouncer, one part kid who never quite grew up, and if Frank wasn't quite the kid, Margot had more than enough ineffable whimsy to make up for it...though she, unlike Frank, was always forgetting her standard issue pistol somewhere.

    "C'mon, old man," she teased again. "You keep up this time, maybe you downgrade to hip middle-aged man. Better?"

    Whatever she said next was lost as David's attention was pulled to his tablet by a soft ping. He frowned, made a few quick keystrokes across the screen, then sighed heavily.

    "Margot -- " he started. She looked back at him, pausing in her clumsy attempt to get her helmet on past her curls.

    "If you're going to offer to help, I'm good," she said dryly.

    "Wasn't gonna," he said evenly. "But you -- "

    "Can it wait, Doc? If Frankie gets a head start, I'll never live it down."

    David paused a moment, dark eyes dropping back down to his screen for half a moment. He considered, then sighed again. "Just come see me before you turn in for the night," he ceded after a moment. "Wake me up if you have to."

    Margot grinned. "Oh, gladly," she said, before ducking out after Frankie.

    David gave Selina a measured, if somewhat weary glance. "You, too," he said. "I need to get the infirmary prepped anyway."

    'Prepped' was a bit of an overstatement as the infirmary in a dome this size was little more than an extension of David's small cabin space. An extra bed, and extra toilet, a closet stocked with aging medical supplies. Argus had assured them this mission wouldn't last more than a month or two at a stretch, so he wasn't needlessly concerned...but even necessary concern was more than enough to leave him feeling a little skittish.

    "The last thing we need down here is another random disappearance because your heart popped, alright?"
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  8. "Some suboxone, maybe?" Selina requested, dragging out her pad and fiddling with a few commands. "It'll kick any of the physical addiction issues in the ass before they have a chance to take root."

    She paused, halting abruptly and staring up from her tablet.

    "Well, you're the doctor," the mechanic added slowly, as if the statement was a deep, personal revelation. "Ignore me. Frankie - you got any progress in the HABs yet? Tango isn't going to fix itself."

    Frank, who had beaten Margot to the first door by a small enough margin to warrant a 'tie', paused and opened up a channel with Selina.

    "It looks clear enough for you to go ahead and start working," he replied.

    "Roger that, Davy Crockett."

    "He's from Tennessee, Johnson," Frank snorted in partial amusement. "Not Texas."

    "I'll get it right one day."

    Frank's attention returned to the room he was supposed to be clearing - had anything actually been lurking in a ventway, hiding in a corner, or aiming a weapon at him, he would have been a corpse. Grinning, coming to the conclusion that this meant his current room was clear, Franklin braced himself at the left-hand side of another drab hallway. He knew that on Mars these units were commonplace, that families had to often inhabit a space smaller than the cargo hold of the shuttle they had arrived on, but this had been his first time actually inside of a HAB block. On either end of the crammed hallway stood rows of tight doorways, shut with thick blast-proof doorways meant to resist air pressure loss in a worst-case scenario. He hadn't bothered investigating the closed doors - for starters, he didn't have any of the access codes, and anything lurking behind blast doors would have to wait for another day.

    "Hey Margot," Frank chimed in to a channel to Margot, who had taken another hallway. "Maybe you're in the hallway with all the horror movie shots of skeletons with suspiciously round holes in their heads or no food, but I'm not seeing anything."


    After grabbing the requisite tools and allotting the needed programs to her pad, Selina Johnson stood staring at the rear-most airlock of the dome. Her helmet was firmly attached to her suit, and she had even bothered to put on her more pertinent safety gear. Her elbows, shins, and shoulders were all covered in a semi-flexible aqueous solution of metal held in place with soft pads. At the turn of a dial, the fluid - meant to resist blunt shock from heavy objects - could harden into bullet-proof overlays for more 'tense' situations. On Earth, they weighed like a sack of bricks. On this world, they may as well have been boulders.

    Out of habit, the mechanic sucked in a sharp breath as the outer airlock door began its opening sequence. Back home on Mars, she'd always been paranoid of a dome breach, a fear she would have to live with again for the duration of this mission. What a joy. Once the outer doors opened fully, she hobbled out to where her HUD indicated the Tango would be. She could see it plain as day, towering well over the height of the dome if it had not landed on an incline. Beside it stood My Fair Lady and Askari, looking diminutive and vaguely child-like next to the sheer girth of the Tango.

    "I get paid more," she huffed to herself as she began the epic task of walking in a straight line towards Tango. "But you get to drive the cool one."

    Selina made her way to the base of Tango and grimaced, staring at the ladder on the mech's leg, which would have given the redwoods on Earth a run for their money. As quickly as she could, the mechanic tossed off her safety gear, letting it fall to the ground with a satisfying thud and clambered up the ladder to the first access point into the mech. Normally pilots were allowed to enter through the port in the 'small of the back' of the suit, but Selina wasn't so lucky. She had to climb up to the mech's hip, where she could clamber in through a narrow chute and make her way into the rest of Tango.

    Once nestled within the access port, Selina clambered through the chute and stood at the first opportunity, shutting the open chute with a quick key command at an access port. Another few strokes and the sudden hiss of pressurized air sounded, prompting Selina to snap off her helmet. Taking in a short breath of pre-checked, filtered, high-density air, she began to go to work, running through a list of issues her pad had prompted upon her initial scan. Six minor issues, nothing she couldn't work on and get back to David before he poisoned her medication. Just a partial fracture in three air recycling parts, two mismatched hand actuators, and an improperly wired targeting system.

    Damn things, she mused as she climbed another ladder up to the control floor of the mech. Built too good for mechanics to have fun with. Nothing ever breaks.

    For a moment she stood, gazing out of the view port of the command center. Upon her arrival, motion detectors had tagged her as a potential pilot and started the first processes in kicking the mech into life. Cameras for the digital display of the outside world were one of the first systems to come online. Since the Tango currently faced the dome, she couldn't see much at all that she hadn't already, but the joy of being in a cockpit again after months of prep and space travel felt... great.

    Well, come on then, let's get going.
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  9. "Nothing here but beer cans and male strippers, Ell," Margot quipped dryly, though even the sound of his voice in her ear eased the panic wrapped around her chest like a vice. "Looks like we missed a hell of a party. Well. You did. I'll grab you a doggy bag before I leave."

    In reality, of course, there was nothing and no one. Dust, and dark, and stale recycled air that smelled faintly of moth balls, or what Go assumed space moth balls smelled like, never mind that she wasn't supposed to be smelling much of anything at all. Argus was a relatively young firm, or at least their team was new enough. But Fancypants Resorts (Margot had long since forgotten the name of their corporate investors, if she'd ever known it in the first place) had a rep for many things, and pristine cleanliness topped the list. It made Margot wonder why they'd come to a firm like Argus at all, except that she suspected Cap oozed Type A so thick, most suits could smell it coming a mile away.

    That, or else discretion. FTL travel was getting more affordable by the day, but that only made untouched real estate all the more difficult to find and fund. If the news outlets back home got wind of a company like Fancypants sniffing around a new planet, there'd be a bum rush before the end of the calendar year. Margot figured a new team couldn't raise too much fuss, even if they fucked up colossally. The last thing anyone, here, Mars, or back on Earth needed was galactic planet over a colony gone silent.

    Still, for a job that no one was supposed to know about, the suits had offered up more than enough to keep the Argus team afloat in case this mission meant they never got another. And that was a good enough reason for Margot to stick around. Tango was just the shiny icing on the cake.

    "How big a perimeter you think we can trace before the temp drops?" Margot asked abruptly, in a rare show of sincere curiosity. The HABs were notoriously small, and clearing them wouldn't take more than a few minutes before they could get out to Lady and Askari. But if she'd felt restless before, she was getting downright claustrophobic now, and while the idea of sitting in one of the bitty-mechs cockpits hardly helped with that, she actually was pretty stoked to explore at least the camp circle. They wouldn't be getting down to the abandoned colony before nightfall. But maybe they could find a decent place to hike. Or something.

    "Latrine double duty says Cap calls us back before we see our first star."


    "How 'about we start with prevention before we kick in the treatment?" David offered with a wry grin as Selina went off to tame Tango."Deal?" he added hopefully, though he got only silence in response.

    With a sign and a chuckle, he grabbed his bag and hauled it over his shoulder again as he made his way down the hall to the infirmary. Having the largest bunk was a convenient perk most folks never considered when it came to playing doctor in a space like this. Of course, half of it would belong to any quarantined patients that happened through his doors before their trip was done, but given that their team was small enough that they could each have semi private bunking and bathing, he didn't think it'd be much of an issue. The only way he'd end up sharing his space was if he had to actually, literally quarantine someone -- unpleasant, but even more unlikely -- or if one of their group managed to find themselves flatlined. David was determined not to let it get that far, though they'd all spent at least a year training to avoid exactly that. He and Selina didn't tend to draw much fire Tango could deflect, and while Margot and Frank made a mismatched pair, the two of them together were also a surprisingly solid team. Or at least they looked after each other well enough to avoid a mess. He could be content in that much.

    As David moved down the hall, the halogen lamps overhead buzzed to life, leading him to a glass panel where the hallway ended. David stopped in front of it for a moment, searching for a door handle on instinct. Frowning, he lifted a hand to press against the glass, and it glow blue-white around his fingertips. A second later, it released a pressured hiss and slide into the wall.

    The rest of the office, save for his sleeping compartment, a small, dark room to his left, lit up on its own, including a small wall mounted camera that swiveled to track his movement. David was unperturbed. It was common practice for medical rooms, especially those that could conceivably become operating rooms, to have something on hand to record potential practices. It had used to make David uncomfortable, having someone watch his every move. But he'd shaken his shyness not long after having lost his first patient.

    He set his bag on an empty table and looked around the room. The bed at the center of the room had been state-of-the-art maybe twenty years ago, doubling as both operating and examination table. There was a book shelf along one wall, and a series of cabinet and drawers along another. A small, useless window high up on the third wall allowed a clear patch of sky to show through, though it was at too odd an angle to provide much of a view. A nondescript stool sat tucked under a nondescript desk. David pulled it out with a hand and sat, relieved, examining his tablet with his other hand.

    They'd all completed high-level physicals before boarding the shuttle down to the planet's surface, and David was privy to a constant feed from the team's vitals if he needed them. There were a few last minute checks he wanted to run before they started the mission proper -- Margot's blood glucose levels had been a little lower than he was comfortable with, even with the shunt she wore, and Selina wasn't much more reliable when it came to telling him whether anything was off -- but for the most part, he was little more than a glorified pharmacist. Administer a few pain killers or anti-nausea meds here, get a splint around a joint there, if he was lucky. Sit and keep his supplies fully stocked. It wasn't a very glamorous job, sure. But David didn't mind that so much when the other half of his job consisted of operating what was essentially a giant suit of armor around a planet that had maybe killed off its last friendly inhabitants.
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  10. "At least we'll be able to chill the beer without too much trouble," Franklin responded, snorting. "And no way in hell I'm taking you up on that bet, 'Go. That might leave you on bathroom duty - I could never let that sit well on my conscious."

    He paused then, holstering his pistol and checking his wrist-mounted chronoreader. Roughly five standard Terran hours until sunset if all was correct.

    "I wager we can make a klick or two around the perimeter before 'Cap starts actin' like a real commanding officer. Might stretch it to half a klick depending on how bad the temp drops off and how fast if we were in Tango, but I don't trust the little'un's to perform too well in the climate control department: they've got as close to window units as billion dollar mechas get. But, way I see it, one klick should do it for immediate threats. Who knows? Maybe there's more male strippers just waiting out there. Heard it's pretty easy to pick up dudes in a 'mech."

    Franklin clicked the releases of his helmet and took his first, real breath of the facility's inner air. Stale - probably taken in a thousand times before him - but better than the ship. It would be a couple of hours before Selina could get the air scrubbers working well enough to filter the outside air. She was probably used to the scent - the feel - of recycled air, having grown up in domes her whole life, but Frank found them a tad on the unsettling side. But air was just one thing, water was another entirely. The rational part of his brain told him that the stuff on Earth was just heavily filtered and treated water, and before it was heavily filtered and treated water it was dinosaur piss, and before it was dinosaur piss it was some giant fish's toilet, but a few hundred million years of filtration helped.

    "Hey 'Marv," Frank chirped, making his way down to where the Lady and Askari stood outside, checking his remaining HAB blocks as he went.

    "'Marv? As in Marvin the mother-fucking Martian?" Selina questioned, incredulous. "I 'dunno, Frankie, I think Margot's right. You are getting old. Points for originality - no one's ever gone that old school."

    "Surprised you could put two and two together."

    "We have a shitton of museums making fun of Earthers for thinking about what Martians would look like," she paused. "Sorry, but 'historical hindsight' tends to make people look like idiots. What you call for? I heard 'Go mention male strippers, you get one's number for me?"

    "How's Tango lookin'?"

    "Beautiful as always - working just fine, just a few gàn nǐ niáng power couplings for the hands and targeting systems. There were some busted air pipes, but those were easy. If it isn't too much to ask, if you could rough her up a bit out there, might prevent me from gouging my eyes out."

    "I feel compelled to inform you that to willingly put my suit, or any Argus property, in unnecessary danger would violate employee code-" Selina cut him off with a hiss.

    "I swear you get off to legalities sometimes. Now can I get back to doing important things, ground-pounder? I 'gotta fix this up and then report to 'Doc."


    Franklin stood before the last door of the hallway, weapon back in hand. The reader beside the handle indicated that, unlike the dozens of others like it, this door wasn't locked. This door, with steel and titanium mined on Earth, refined by some automaton in a factory, tested by a man in a lab-coat, marked with a number, shipped off to a warehouse, scanned, shipped off to a city, hauled in space, scanned, sent down to a new world it was never meant to see, taken up by some worker, fitted to this wall, sealed, locked in place, and finally used was just shut off by the pull of a lever. Frank grasped at the release lever, heaved up and over, expecting to hear the stereotypical hiss of a pressure door movies had led him to believe would happen. Instead, the door creaked inward, revealing a small chamber with hardly a night light's worth of glow.

    Pistol raised, Frank gingerly stepped over the ridge that separated the heavy door from the floor and viewed the room from his pistol's camera feed. Too dark to see by, he enabled the thermal-light-amplification screen on the feed and winced as the image on his HUD suddenly flared in blurry, pasty green light.


    Nothing, just like the other rooms. A few workers' uniforms were hung neatly in a wall-closet, a fine layer of dust resting over them. The two beds composing the bunk that sprouted out of an indention in the wall, while not made, were neat enough to be marked as careless owners. No sheets marked the floor, the pillows rested where heads might've, and there were no suspicious bloodstains anywhere. About to leave, Frank spun on his heels at the sudden, booming thud of water against the metal flooring.


    Following the noise to its source, hair prickling across his arms, heart pounding frantically, Frank knelt beneath the doorway once more and clambered into the HAB block. A drop of chilled water suddenly struck him on the nose. Trying to keep his wits about him, Franklin's gaze shifted upward to search for the source of the drops: condensation from an overhead air coolant system. He let out a shaky laugh, clocking his sidearm in its holster and stepping back out into the hallway. Frank shut the door behind him and hastened himself for the awaiting scout mechs.

    With any luck, Margot would never find out about the day Franklin Ellis nearly shit himself over an air conditioner.
  11. "Then maybe I'll let you do the heavy lifting, Frankie." Margot continued down the hallway with her eyes on the green light of the locked door at the end, though she figured she wasn't much looking forward to what was beyond that, either. She understood the need for efficiency, sort of. But Selina had just reported Tango was fine, and she couldn't for the life of her figure out why the two pilots trained to handle Tango weren't.

    "I haven't been having much luck in the date-by-mech department, but maybe that's just because all the good ones don't appreciate being literally picked up."

    Still. It felt a little easier to joke when Selina joined in. Not that Margot had ever had a problem with dry with before. But their banter made it feel a little less like she was about to tuck herself into a tiny, cramped coffin -- even if that coffin was fitted with heavy duty short range ammo and an engine that made old 21st century spacecraft look like a Model-T -- but only just slightly. Like all of them, Margot had been trained to handle the mini cruisers on her own. And with her position as Tango's primary movement specialist, she'd been trained to pilot the bigger mech on her own in an emergency. But the handling had never been the problem. Margot was loud, forgetful, and irreverent, but she knew how to do her job. That wasn't the part that freaked her out. She just hated being alone. It'd always seemed like the safest course of action for anyone who was going to make FTL space travel a regular part of their lives. Margot was not one for rules, but she happened to put a lot of faith in the buddy system.

    Not that she'd ever tell Frankie that, God forbid it went to his head. She'd never hear the end of it.

    "So, okay, we go a few times around, try not to freeze our asses off, and call it a night?" Margot reached the door and tried not to feel too relieved. Tried also to ignore shadows twisting themselves into strange and terrifying shapes at the edge of her vision. The door all but fell away under her fingers and she strode into the last chamber with her hand on her belt. "You wanna try Lady today, Frankie? Maybe help out with your woman troubles?"

    It was...mostly a joke. Lady was a little smaller, and therefore, a little faster than Askari, but her controls were twice as temperamental. It was the sort of thing that had always come second nature to Margot, where others had to beat the scout mech into tenuous submission. She didn't mind it so much. It felt like a good distraction from the claustrophobia that threatened with a scout.

    She cleared the last HAB hurriedly, then went in search of Frankie and the mechs. That was enough time poking around in the dark, thank you very much.

    "Venga, Ell. Let's get this shit over with so we can get back in a real suit tomorrow," Margot added with a relieved grin. "Promise to bring her back with a burned out bulb or two, Sparky"
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  12. "That's the plan," Frank responded. "If you're feeling particularly risky you could-"

    "Nope, nope, nope," Selina interjected. "If you're 'gonna talk about using Lady's reactor core to heat your chassis up a 'lil bit, which I know you're not, I'm sure it says in employee manual, section four, subsection two, line who cares, 'Frankie does not touch the fucking reactor core'. Sure, you'll be warm, but that'll be from an air-cooled decaying Helium-3 isotope. No touchie."

    When no response was forthcoming on Frank's end, Selina cut off the channel and went back to her work. She had run a full diagnostic scan on the electrical system while she sealed the cracks in the oxygenator's vent systems with vac-tape and liquid sealant to allow the patches to suck inward or blow outward, anchored in place by sealant and more tape. Of course, she would never admit that she had, essentially, fixed a multi-million credit war machine with duct tape and super glue. It was expensive duct tape and super glue, with a tensile strength matching that of steel, but something told her that wouldn't matter to, well, anyone.

    When the mechanic had returned from her duct-taping and super-gluing to her PAD, dutifully generating more practical solutions to the hand actuators, which were, to put it simply, unplugged. The strain of landing had shaken them and the couplings had snapped out of place. Normally, if they had been in a hanger or maintenance bay, this would not have been a problem. Selina would have taken the requisite ladder on the scaffolding frame, utilized a remote drone, or done anything infinitely easier than climbing out back of the hip of Tango and up to the arm. She supposed she should be thankful: the big minds behind standardized mech designs had thought of just about everything Murphy could throw at them and added a ladder from the hip to the shoulder, and from the shoulder to the arm. One problem. They had planned for all repairs to be carried out by a "normal" human operator familiar with 1 g and a standard deviation of about .33 g. A tall, skinny Martian who was, in theory, supposed to be chugging around around 10kg of body armor alongside tools did not factor into their equation.

    She'd have to come back later.

    "Hey Oak - I'm headin' back down. 'Gonna need your medical expertise before I can go muck about with machines some more."

    Of course, that meant that Tango would most certainly not be finished today. Davie would insist on her resting and taking it easy. Those were great for people without important things to do.

    "I'm settling on six hours of sleep - no more," she added, for good measure.


    Frank and Margot had met in the center of the colony dome before heading out of the rear airlock, helmets sealed entirely. Though he was certain that if nothing straight out of a horror vid was awaiting them in the HABs, where an ambush was easier to carry out, Frank's hand did not stray from the pistol strapped to his leg as the secondary airlock doors cranked open. The outside world was, no surprise, still as aquatic as a swimming pool. Committed to what would swiftly become a royally uncomfortable patrol run, Frank hastened down-hill towards the mammoth figure of Tango, sweat already beading down his forehead and back from the potent mixture of heat and humidity.

    Once the pair arrived at a point where the hill evened out into a roughly smooth plain, the choice landing spot for Tango and her smaller siblings, he triggered a remote signal to unlock Lady from his helmet's communication's antenna. Selina had remarked earlier that this world was one where you kept your mech doors locked, the windows up, and never came to a complete stop at red lights. The memory brought a smile to Frank's lips as he clambered up the side ladder of Lady and hauled open the rear access point. Unlike Tango, which shared more in common with a walking tank than anything else, Lady and Askari were up-sized variants of the power armor jarheads wore in the marines back home. Still about twice as tall, three or four times as wide, the two suits were far from the minuscule toys Tango made them seem like.

    With considerable effort, Frank hoisted himself atop the shoulders of Lady and slid deftly into the opening, slamming the access door down behind him as he went. The door automatically sealed shut and dispensed the bad air inside the cockpit. His HUD went silent for a moment before flickering back to life with status data of Lady. Once the oxygen reached breathable levels, Frank reached up and undid the seals at his helmet's respirator and swapped it for the one attached directly to the mech's air supply. Without scrubbers or CO2 filters, the on-board recycler could process an air flow enough for one occupant for about six standard hours before the CO2 build up became dangerous. The problem was never in the amount of oxygen the system could reclaim from the breath a human released, it was in the inevitable CO2 build-up. At just under 1% carbon-dioxide-per-oxygen, the pilot would feel light-headed. At 2%, it would become impossible to operate the mech. At 3%, the pilot would pass out. So, needless to say, in addition to "never leech power from the reactor", all Argus operators were also instructed in maintaining a healthy level of CO2 in smaller mechs. Usually this meant opening the top hatch every so often if scrubbers were available, but here, resupplies and filters were the only ways to stop rampant issues of air poisoning.

    After letting the Helium-3, 'cold' fusion reactor core warm up, Frank checked the overall power consumption rate. About expected. Water condensation on the solar paneling had cut the efficiency of the reaction by about 2%, but it was nothing the fusion/fission drive couldn't handle. Satisfied he would not asphyxiate or have his mech shut down mid-patrol, Frank eased his arms into the movement-receptors on his left and right and went through the initial exercises to see if the mech was responding to his actions. Step left. Step right. Arm up. Arm down. Run two steps. Swing both arms together. A tad too eager, but workable.

    "Alright 'Go, I'll take the half of the circle due east, you take due west, we'll meet at the airlock we entered through in two hours after a full loop."

    With that, Frank began to move Lady in earnest, still alarmed at how fluid Selina had set the controls. It would be days before the mech readjusted to its 'new' pilot, and by then, Frank wouldn't have a reason to care anymore. Utilizing the 360-degree array of cameras and the digital display before him, Franklin shifted the mech's weight left to grab at the weapon hung from its back: a standard 30mm MAC repater, multi-barreled, effective range of 3km. With a higher native gravity, each depleted uranium round could punch clean through Tango at the right point. The weapon, sensing the presence of an arm, magnetically latched itself, registering as a ping within the cockpit. Frank swung the arm back down and clasped the other hand over the weapon.

    Here's to the beginning of a very long two hour patrol.
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  13. Back before she’d gotten picked up to run grunt shifts for Argus, Margot had been a pretty decent...well. She’d been a lot of things. Most of them she was decent at, though very few were decent in and of themselves. She’d made most of her money in underground bot fighting rings, first betting, then building, then fighting herself when the tech got bigger, heavier, dirtier, more unyielding. She generally counted on her competitors underestimating her, thinking her too short, or too brown, or too female, or too anything but brooding former MMA with funding from bitter tech bros stealing old hardware from work. But Margot had grown up with three older brothers, and she was fast and reckless and probably too much of a daredevil for her own good. And she really, really liked winning.

    Outside of that, life had generally consisted of starting a bunch of tv shows she never watch through to the end, trying (and failing) to teach herself how to swim, and getting high with...anyone who was around. She'd spent most of her teenage years bumming fake IDs and designer drugs off older friends, or adjunct/out-of-work professors who wanted to borrow her work or her brain. There were some days she wasn't quite sure what'd made the offer with Argus seem so appealing outside the fact that it hadn't been an offer so much as an order. In any case, it was an order that came with a big paycheck and a bigger perk. Margot still felt completely and utterly over the moon -- no pun intended -- when she got to fuck around with Tango.

    Askari, on the other hand...

    The older model had a more reliable engine system, sure, but like any good senior with its salt, it got stubborn with age. For the most part, that worked out just now. She didn't mind breaking in the mech while David was working, especially if the workout meant she was a little warmer and a lot more exhausted when they finished. As far as she was concerned, that was an excuse to double her dessert rations for the night the second she could feel her fingertips again. She'd be sore tomorrow, but that was better than exposed tonight. Especially as the impending dark made the new world seem less mysterious and more...claustrophobic.

    To be fair, she should have been paying closer attention the whole way around. There was a reason she preferred to work with a partner – even in the smaller mechs, it was tough to man the controls and keep an eye out at the same time. And that was assuming you had careful focus. Margot’s was half shot to begin with, and decidedly frayed as she closed on the last half mile between her and open air and hot water and sleep and fucking people again.

    Still, she had a job to do, whether she liked it or not. And when Askari’s heat signature spiked suddenly somewhere behind her, Margot swallowed hard to keep her stomach in check before turning to face the tight cluster of faintly bioluminescent flora less than a quarter mile off her path.

    “Well, shit,” she muttered to herself. “There’d better be a good half dozen pancakes in the mess when we get back, and God help us if they aren’t chocolate chip.”


    By the time Selina found the med bay, David had more or less finished his own rounds. His cabinets were stocked and labeled with everything from cotton balls to bandaids to saline solution in warmed IV bags to the affectionately-coined 'Shock Gel' that had first his the market when David was still a kid. The stuff was antiseptic, anesthetic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, hypoallergenic, and cheap as hell. Plus it had a shelf life twice as long as David was old, and waterproof when applied to an open wound. Some even set you could eat it, though he hadn't tested that theory yet. Everyone at Argus, even the paper-pushers had a branded tube of the bright blue gel, which smelled faintly of bleach and mint, somewhere at their desks. David's team were also equipped with an emergency supply at every pilot's station.

    Shock gel, however, would not buy Selina any extra time to poke around Tango's innermost workings, or at least not tonight. She and David wouldn't be properly planet side for at least another day or so, but they both still had plenty of work in front of them, and precisely none of it could be done unconscious or tweaking. That, he figured, was what they had the think brown sludge of semi-dehydrated coffee for.

    It'd have been easier to give Selina the full physical now, while Frank and Margot were out, but they'd be ready to crash by the time they returned, and David didn't want to waste any of their waking hours, especially if he and Selina were going to be stuck inside base for another twenty-four hours minimum.

    He gave his teammate a warm smile as she entered.

    "So?" he inquired, raising an eyebrow as he gestured to an open stool. "How's Tango look? She recovered from the ride here yet?"
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  14. "What? You just 'gonna pack up and go work for some Earther corp run by some wángbādàn? Nǚhái, you don't know right from hùnzhàng if it was lookin' you right in the face. The hell you doin' Leena?"

    Selina shrugged.

    "You independence shǎguā are some fèi wù dǎnxiǎo guǐ," the mechanic spat. "Cào nǐ zǔzōng shíbā dài. It's a job, idiot. I ain't dyin' here over some bullshit feud, got it? We still came from Earth."

    "It's 'bout more than that, you xiǎo lǎopó-"

    "The fuck you just call me lǎo piáo? Look, I invited you over for a drink. I'm workin' for Argus whether you can take that or not, now sit down and enjoy a drink or fuck off, dong ma?"


    "Oh, her insides are all fixed up, workin' as intended," Selina replied. "Her arms are still a bit wonky- they might've taken a hit on landing on one of these trees or somethin', but I figured you'd be pretty upset with me if I went out and climbed around in the state I'm in."

    In the past five minutes, the mechanic's exhaustion had crept back up and she could feel the dull ache of sleeplessness behind her eyes. Thump. Thump. Thump with each pulse of her heart. Oh what she wouldn't give for some time off right about now, but sadly the mission clock didn't allot for short-term exposure to suspect energy pills and the inevitable crash thereafter. Selina sank, thankfully, into the stool David had gestured to and groaned as her tense muscles went limp at her sides: that at least alleviated some of the lingering pain.

    "But really 'doc, I just need some sleep," she blurted out, half incoherent. "And something to flush these meds out, dong ma?"

    Of course, she only got a protein-and-electrolyte heavy cocktail of water and cheap grape flavoring. Oak had used all the technical terms in the explanation, but in short, the baby blues weren't leaving until Selina pissed her kidneys out and received decent rest. The fluid was quite foul, but after living off a strict diet of cryo-provided nutrient packs and filtered, recycled water, it may as well have been fizzy grape soda to her. Oak had given her two non-impactful pain killers for the headache, and with decent hydration, Selina was able to function once again in mediocrity. With the first step of her routine medical check out of the way, the mechanic set herself back to doing all the interesting and important things that weren't related to giant suits of armor.


    "Hey jiāhuo," came Selina's patchy voice through the channel that connected Lady back to home base. "Tango is almost good to go. How's my Lady treating you?"

    Frank, worn from over an hour of trudging through a uniform landscape of trees and brush, withdrew his arm from the mech's right slot and flicked the 'send' switch on his internal communications with a grunt.

    "She's alright."

    "That all I'm going to get, huh?"


    The channel shut off and Frank flipped the channel back down 'silent', returning back to the grind of patrolling. Right foot, left foot, pause. Right foot, left foot, pause. Any faster, and the temperamental controls would send him sprawling into an awkward half-sprint half-trip, as a nasty spill down the vertical slope of a hill had shown him just half an hour before. Frank had never really been a mech pilot until Argus had placed him on this glorified scouting trip - he and 'Go had, for the most part, lived their lives as their respective roles since day one. While piloting Lady was little more than walking as he normally would, the added risk of falling and damaging company property made him all the more deliberate, and all the more likely to hesitate and make a fuck-up of walking. 'Go would never let him hear the end of that one.

    Something flickered in Frank's peripheral vision, causing him to halt abruptly. Lady shuddered at the sudden stop, shaking its human pilot as its legs locked back into a stationary balancing position. Frank turned his head left, letting the screen fill in the landscape to his HUD. There, by a fallen tree. He switched thermal imaging on with a quick audio command and reexamined the patch of ground around the base of the log. Nothing. Flicking off traditional thermal imaging, he switched to infrared, pointing the MAC cannon's targeting laser towards the log for a light source.

    The fuck is wrong with you? First climate control units, now logs?

    Grunting with agitation - not wanting to toss aside a potential threat, Frank shifted the mech's body over and began to walk in the direction of the log, weapon raised and ready to fire. Shifting Lady's weight on one foot, Frank thrust forward with his leg and kicked over the log. With an audible crack the wood gave way and fell over before it sped tumbling down the hillside. Making a mental note to send a satrep request to Horus, Frank retreated back to his highlighted patrol route. Little over a quarter of a mile now, and no matter how many times his gut feelings had been proven wrong, he knew the truth to be irrefutable.

    They were not alone.


    "To a first day decently done, 'eh?" Frank remarked, hoisting his mix-and-stir milk compound in mock toast to the crew.

    Well, to Margot anyways. Selina had retreated to her bunk after snatching a meal pack greedily from the crate of supplies that had been dropped in a dead-drop months before their arrival. David was fussing over some medical record or another, or simply wasn't coming. Frank himself sat before a self-heating Thai curry paste that vaguely resembled rice, fork clutched in his hand, shoving food in one mouthful at a time. He had ignored 'Go, who had snuck a second portion of whatever cheap byproduct passed for sweets in standard space-time rationing, wagering that as always, Argus had overstocked their food supplies.

    "I still don't get it, though," he stated through a mouthful of rice. "The fuck happened here? I get this isn't colony central, but you 'gotta figure something hit here too, yeah?"
  15. ---
    "Rise and shine, 'Go. This scrambled egg power isn't gonna mix itself, and you're not getting within twenty feet of Tango without something besides gummy bears in your system."

    Margot rolled over in her bunk and groaned into her pillow. "Not my turn," she called back to David, her voice muffled by the pillow and the door between them. "I'm switching shifts with Sparky. Don't tell me Cap didn't give you the memo."

    David snorted, leaning up against Margot's door as he patiently flicked through the day's already-too-long checklist. "Yeah, nice try," he said. "What, sixteen hours' sleep wasn't enough? You're the most well-rested person on the crew by now!"

    "Going for the record," Margot called back as she sat up and started tugging on her khaki-colored jumpsuit. It was only a half-truth. They both knew she'd go crazy if she had to spend another minute trapped in her bunk, not really sleeping anyway. As if she hadn't been staring at the cabin wall for the last six hours trying to trick herself into believing that bullshit counting sheep thing. "Make it a nice, round 24. But you know me, Oak. Go big or go back to bed."

    "Tell you what," David replied casually. "This time, you keep your blood glucose levels somewhere in the realm of normal today, and I'll let you steal an extra pillow from my supply closet. Deal?"

    Margot snorted despite herself. "Oooh, tempting," she drawled, tugging on her boots with one hand, while trying to wrangle her frizzy brown curls into a ponytail with her other. "Do I have a choice?"

    "You do not."

    "Well, then, you got yourself a deal."

    Oak grinned. "I thought so. Come see me before you go."

    Margot mumbled a wordless reply and stood to stretch and yawn into a sleepy-looking reflection, scowling at herself. If this were fifty years ago, Argus wouldn't have let her into the training sim, so much as on a high-priority mission. Her diabetes was far from a death sentence, but between the long stints of cryosleep and less-than-trustworthy freeze-dried nutrition packs, not to mention Margot's tendency to forget she wasn't invincible, it wasn't uncommon for the earliest deep-space trips to send lucky diabetics into shock, cardiac arrest, or worse. Nowadays, Margot was only rarely reminded of her "condition" -- like when shifting g-forces messed with her blood pressure, or, apparently, when atmospheric reintroduction training wasn't quite as rigorous as it maybe should have been.

    Frankie had gotten bored enough or cold enough or hungry enough -- or, Margot guessed, but only half believed -- worried enough after waiting an extra half hour at the dock for her to show up that eventually, he'd circled back to look for her...only to find her almost obsessively scanning the same four-by-four foot patch of scrub over and over again with Askari's near-shot heat sensor. When she'd told him what she'd seen (or hinted at it, since she wasn't quite sure herself), he'd joined her search for all of about five minutes, until they both realized her hands were shaking so badly, even Askari was getting a little twitchy. Margot had started insisting she was cold around the same time David reminded her she was long overdue for her meds and probably halfway through a sugar crash.

    Frankie had all but dragged her back to base camp as she angrily tried to convince him that was she certainly not seeing things, all while knowing perfectly well that the ache behind her eyeballs meant a migraine, and the accompanying hallucinations, weren't all that far off. She'd sat in sullen silence over her stolen second dessert as Frankie proved himself, for once, to be the chattier of the two. She was just piecing together an answer -- and excuse to brave the cold and the dark and find something to convince herself she was just in need of a fucking donut, when David had stopped her with two fingers laid against the inside of her wrist, his dark eyes cold and hard as stone.

    "You're about two steps to tachycardic, Diaz," Oak said, his usually easy-going demeanor melting to something that would have been formidable in a smaller man. In David, it was just shy of scary. "Sit down, shut up, drink your goddamn juice."

    Margot opened her mouth to argue and puked instead.

    David had patiently, expectantly raised an eyebrow, handed her a trash bin and waited for her to stop retching long enough to say, "Fucking headache," before smugly replying, "Not to be a dick, 'Go, but maybe next time you listen when I tell you to swing by the infirmary before you go play with your toys?"

    Margot had glared at him sullenly, accepting the water bottle he tossed her with a grimace. "They were your toys, and fuck y -- " And then she puked again and decided that maybe, just maybe, she really had been seeing things. She tried not to think about it too much as David hauled her to feet and she tried to send Frank a look that said, Hold that thought, we'll talk about this later.

    Because a fluke was one thing. But what were the chances that she and Frankie both saw something they didn't really see?

    In the infirmary, sipping watered down apple juice and typing up her half of her report on her tablet, Go had relented only when David had finally taken the thing from her. Then, as if reading her mind, he dropped his shit-eating grin for something a little more sincere.

    "Look. If it makes you feel better, everything within a quarter mile from the dome is under semi-constant surveillance. If the radar systems turns up anything besides dirt and mud in the next two days, you'll be the first to know. Alright?"

    Margot, furious and miserable, had glared her response, and David gave her that smile that was supposed to be reassuring but felt more than a little conciliatory at the moment.

    "Get some sleep, Diaz. You can kick my ass in the morning. Okay?"


    Oak had laughed and turned to flick the lights off as Margot tugged the blankets over her head. On the desk at her bedside, her radio crackled to life, echoing David's in his office. "Strike Roanoke, why am I still waiting for a report?" came Cap's voice, tinged with weary impatience.

    Margot sat up, wincing, to grab her radio. Oak reached it first.

    "Mandatory bedrest, Cap," he said pleasantly, raising an imperious eyebrow as Margot frantically gestured to him not to share her paranoid delusions with the Captain. "Need the team 100% these next few days or I understand I'll have to do all the heavy lifting by myself. You'll have full reports by...tomorrow at 1300 hours. Copy?"

    There was a pause during which Margot found herself almost wishing the Captain would ask for details now. Then, "Copy that. Get some sleep, Roanoke. The real fun starts tomorrow."

    'Tomorrow', as it happened, was put off a bit when neither Selina, nor Margot turned up to first call. Margot, for her part, woke to find herself saddled with the worst migraine she'd had since she was a kid, and could only take her steady diet of apple juice and water through an IV. It meant Selina had a little more time to tinker with Tango, but it also meant Frank would likely be stuck with Lady if he made it out at all. In the end, they ended up giving physical and recon reports over to Cap so they could have the full next day to make it out to camp while Oak and Selina hung back. Margot was just waking up for her night watch as the other three turned in, but the long stretch hadn't turned up anything but stars and dropping temperatures.

    By the time she and Frankie were suiting up at dawn the next day, Margot was feeling somewhere between sheepish and nervous. She and Frank were headed all the way out to New Jamestown, which would also mean Tango's first planet-side run since they'd left their home solar system. It was good. Margot was excited to stretch her legs and redeem her less than stunning finish from her first night.

    But she hadn't yet forgotten that creeping certainty that something had been watching her. Watching all of them.

    "Running systems check," Margot parroted. Then, after a pause she hoped sounded casual, "What'd you send to Cap in your report from the other night?"
    #15 DotCom, Aug 7, 2016
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2016
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  16. "You know," Selina said to no one in particular, "the difference between a Martian Terranbot and a colonial lawyer?"

    No response came from the Tango's on board computer.

    "One sucks up time, energy, and money, the other keeps oxygen in your HAB," the mechanic continued, thrumming her fingers against the console controls of Tango impatiently as she waited for an updated schematic report to show. As had happened before, the computer - programmed to respond to a set of predetermined commands - remained silent.

    "Hey, fuck you, alright? It's a good joke."

    Normally, in such a situation, Selina simply would have opened up a channel with one of the other crew mates, but 'Go was taking some paid vacation (an old Argus saying that referred to the company's staunch "no sick leave" policies), Frank was about as interesting to hold conversation with as was a serverbot in some fast food chain, and David was a doctor. Try as she might to shake the image out of her head, Selina couldn't quite displace the idea that, behind his medical protocols, dripping snark, and occupational capacity for small talk, there wasn't much to him. At all.

    "And you're no help either," she spat at the console as it dutifully continued its scan.

    The last three days had been hell for the Martian-born mechanic. In the interest of keeping her energy levels optimal without having to resort to pumping her full of even more drugs to couteract her stims, she had been kept on a strict fluid-mostly diet. Electrolytes, protein cubes mixed in, and her choice of orange or grape flavoring. Every day. For three days. She had considered taunting 'Go about how her own situation was infinitely less shitty than the loud-mouthed mech pilot's, but then she recalled that some day, some day soon in fact, 'Go would be back on her feet.

    "And how do you deal with Marg- Fuck it, finally."

    At long last, the fruit of Selina's past three days of electrolyte-fueled, gravity-contorted labor came slowly into view on the console's screen, loading pixel by pixel into a comprehensive scan of the Tango. Her Martian body was not finding much solace in the heightened gravitational pull of this planet. Acceleration g-force and Earth-like gravity already made her feel weak at the legs and considerably more unfit than she was in actuality. As a kid she'd taken some Earther corp's drugs to allow her body to function well in both environments. What had ended up happening was an insane mark up on the price, and surprise, when started taking physiological improvement drugs and suddenly stop, the nice long list of disclaimers at the end of holo ads begin to crop up. Blood that cannot clot properly, bones that can't bear much weight or bend when there is none, so on and so forth. Luckily "do not operate heavy machinery" never made its way on the list, so Argus had still taken her on. Lady had been carefully constructed to offer a functional weight distribution system for its pilot, and all was sound. Frank, no doubt, had found that feature annoying, but without it, Selina would never be able to pilot anything.

    The report finished loading and Selina's face upturned in a wide, stupid grin. No mechanical problems could be detected, particularly with the heat scanner. She had asked why Margot and Frank had been so anal about that particular detail and (perhaps, more importantly) why they requested she be the one to scan it again before the Tango's maiden voyage. They knew perfectly well how to run their own damn scans. Selina still had to make sure that Frank hadn't messed with her baby too much on his, granted short, trips. She definitely did not want to be mucking around with something other crew knew perfectly well how to handle.

    Satisfied that there would be nothing wrong with Tango and her ability to assess temperatures, Selina shipped the report back to home base, ensuring that everyone from Horus to the dozens of empty HAB blocks could see. After all, she wouldn't want anyone to miss it.


    Frank was tired. Not "I've had a few rough nights" tired, or even "I drank too much last night" tired. He was "I'm almost dead" tired. Those had been, paraphrased perhaps, the exact terms David had used to describe his sudden condition. For two nights, David had monitored his sleep pattern and could discern no obvious source of the issue. Resorting to concentrated caffeine capsules and, as a kick-start, a direct shot of dopamine and endorphin for when the dopamine inevitably wore off, Frank had been able to function at mediocre performance levels.

    Franklin Ellis didn't do mediocre.

    In the span of the morning before he and 'Go were scheduled to depart he had, in spite of doc's orders, done some quick PT around the HAB unit, filed his report, and placed in an official maintenance request for Selina to take a look at the colony station HVAC units. He had taken a quick look-over of Tango. In short, Franklin Ellis felt like Franklin Ellis again. Though he was unsure how long this newfound energy would last, he had been loaded up with his own store of supplies to keep himself going, safely, until he met with David again. By the time the sun had risen over their dome, her and Margot sat running through their pre-checks.

    "What'd you send to Cap in your report from the other night?" Margot inquired, looking a considerable amount healthier than she had just a day ago. Still, he could hear - and see - the undertone of some lingering strain.

    "I told him the truth," he replied simply. "If he wants to ship out a pysch team from Earth to put us in check, let him, 'eh? Hey, did Sparky check out that thermal sensor like we asked? The weapon cameras all have their own filters working just fine, but may want to double check the pilot station."

    As he waited for Margot's response, Frank double-checked his weapon systems. All four remote missiles remained intact and primed, their safeties armed. The ammunition on the various rail platforms dotting the shoulders, arms, and back even, shone through fully loaded and operational. The left and right hand actuators were less than stable, but Selina had claimed they wouldn't break down unless they got into a sparring match with another, bigger, meaner mech, which had been a roundabout way of saying there were no issues.

    "Fire leader green across the board," he stated for the record. "Awaiting pilot pre-check scans now. Standby."

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