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A Wildness Warily Awakened

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"Alpha, descent into atmosphere will be commencing in one hour."

Derek looked up. Frowned at the speaker mounted at the corner of the gym.

He had no way of knowing who was watching the video feeds, but there was a fairly good chance that it was the ship's Communications officer. The young man - Greenbug, Greenberg, something - always stared at Derek with an unsettling degree of fascination whenever their paths crossed.

It was hardly a new experience. There was a time when Derek would have tried to pass as just another passenger, keeping the distinctive Command-issued skinsuit and custom-built headset in his bags, but the infallible crew gossip network meant that the rumor Spec agents on board had made a full round of the ship less than an hour after departure. And they always, always singled Derek out as a Spec.

Laura had teased him that it was because he never smiled; apparently, he fitted popular culture's image of the dark, brooding, highly trained military operative gripped by a tortured past.

She always had a darkly strange sense of humor.

It's funny because it's true, little brother.

His hand slipped a little on the mat, causing him to pause in the middle of a push-up. He was, he realized, literally dripping with sweat; he'd long stopped counting the reps.

One bright side of travelling so far from the Central Cities was that Derek and his team were the only passengers, unless one counted the ridiculous number of shipping crates crammed into the cargo hold. Accordingly, there was nobody else in the gym, which was exactly how Derek liked it.

He was toweling off when Scott came barreling in. "Derek! Jackson wants to know if we're going in full suit for the landing."

"On a Zone 5 base?" asked Derek dryly.

"The planet's a Level Two," Scott pointed out.

"Only because most of it is now uninhabited and abandoned to the Deadeyes." Derek shook his head. "Tell the others: light gear only. You'll all thank me for it once you get a taste of the local weather." In the middle of a forest sounded like a pleasant description, to people who didn't look up other data like humidity and average annual rainfall.

"That's what Boyd said," admitted Scott, "But you know Jackson won't listen to anybody. He wants to show off to the locals."

Derek was not entirely opposed to presenting a particular image, especially if it got people to leave them alone to do their jobs. But they were going to land on the most secure area on the planet, which meant it was likely full of support crews who'd done rotations in far more hazardous zones, and suiting up like they expected to be attacked right on the landing pad would only make them appear paranoid and unprofessional. Derek was highly in favor of staying under the radar for this mission - though he wasn't going to elaborate on why, to Scott or anybody else.

Derek eyed Scott as the young man bounced on the balls of his feet. Jackson listened to Boyd, most of the time, but Derek was beginning to see why Boyd had sent Scott over to him. "You excited about this place?" Derek asked.

He'd once thought that Scott's boundless energy, frequently puzzled enthusiasm, and general puppy-like disposition were things the harsh hand of Command training and field experience would sand off over time.

Derek had since begun to accept that those things might just be an inherent part of Scott being, well, Scott.

"Must be obvious, huh? If even you can tell." Scott grinned, friendly and disarming.

It had taken them both a while, and the occasional intervention from the rest of the team, to get to this level of comfort with one another, where good-natured teasing could be just that. It still required conscious effort for Derek to not take advantage of an opening with a sniping comment.

Case in point: Derek refrained from pointing out that Scott was the last person in the world who should be commenting on people's observation skills, and instead shrugged wordlessly.

"Oh, man. Okay," said Scott, "My best friend is stationed at Beacon, and I haven't seen him since the last time we were both on leave, so I'm kind of excited? His name's Stiles, he works in the Labs."

"Under Doctor Harris?" asked Derek.

"Yeah." Scott's eyebrows hopped up.

"Why do you look surprised?" asked Derek, "I do read the prep files."

"Just, you know." Scott made a vague gesture. "I know you weren't happy with Allison stepping in to do the support stuff."

"That's because she's not really a researcher, Scott," said Derek. "She's a damn sniper, maybe one of the best on active duty. And that's what she should be doing. It's not about... the Argents, or all the other stuff."

"Right." Scott blinked, and his expression visibly brightened. "Wait, you just admitted that she's a great sniper."

Derek rolled his eyes. "She knows she is, Scott."

"It means more, coming from you." Scott threw the comment out casually, like it was obvious, and plowed on before Derek could begin to parse the meaning behind it. "I'll keep an eye out for any possible techies at the base."

"You do that," said Derek.

He didn't expect there to be any good candidates. The only people stationed at backwater places like Beacon must either not be qualified for the better facilities or unsuitable in some other way. Derek would only accept the best, because the lives of his team depended on everyone being able to do their job well.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to keep an eye out, and it was always a good idea to give Scott a side-project. This mission wasn't going to be particularly exciting for the team.

Naturally, Derek would turn out to be totally wrong on that last point.

-++ CC ++-

"Hey, boss," Erica greeted Derek when he entered the gear room. She was going through the weapons rack, eyes gleaming with poorly-concealed anticipation and the relish of someone looking forward to committing acts of bloody violence.


Derek went to his locker and pressed his palm against the scanning panel in the middle of the door. The panel shone yellow, indicating a scan in progress, then blinked green to confirm a match. The green faded except for a grid of thin lines, like a standard number pad but without the numbers printed into the boxes. Some security consoles showed the numbers; Derek preferred the ones that didn't. He tapped out his passcode.

The locker door slid open. Derek's outer armor was in its usual bag; regulations said that Derek had to be able to put it on, plus weapons, in less than thirty seconds. The light gear, though, was hanging from the side. Body vest, arm guards, hip holsters. His blue-grey skinsuit, with its distinctive red lines and slight collar, provided little in the way of padding, but it was tougher to tear than chainmail. The whole thing was supposed to cover a specific percentage of body surface area, but being in the Specs came with certain perks.

Derek was buckling his boots on when Erica turned to him and asked, "Beam, bullet, or blade?"

The beam weapons were obnoxiously large; in light gear, they looked like overcompensation. Blades were Derek's personal preference. Not everyone was comfortable with getting close enough to the enemy to use them, though.

Of course, none of the team actually needed the weapons to be deadly. But those options were only to be used as a last resort. "Bullets."

"Figured. Come here, babies," cooed Erica, extracting her favorite pair of twin pistols from the handgun rack.

Officially, all their weapons had to be standard-issue, and the racks were communal, every piece free to be used by anybody in the team. But Derek didn't know a Pack that didn't have its own specialized additions. And the pieces may not have names on them, but no one would dream of touching Boyd's shotgun, or Isaac's modified curve-beamer. The crossbow hadn't been seen since Allison joined the team.

The one thing Derek did insist on was regular practice with all the weapon types. There was no telling what might happen on the field, and who might be faced with picking up the weapon of a fallen comrade.

Though he had a feeling Boyd would rather throw himself between the enemy and Jackson rather than try to work Jackson's temperamental beast of a machine-gun ever again.

"Erica, pass me-" The shotgun was sailing through the air before Derek had even finished talking. He deftly caught it in one hand. "Thanks."

The shotgun that Derek considered his looked like a standard Dicer-401. But it was heavier, the weight distributed differently, plus there was a hidden panel on the handgrip that could be slid out should Derek find himself in a tough spot or wanted to add a few surprises to his ammunition. He ran his hands over the sleek body, fond, before doing the usual check and load. Across the room, Erica was doing the same for her semi-automatic. Her pistols were already in their holsters, one on each hip.

"So," said Erica, "about Allison."

Derek groaned. "No."

"I'm not going to ask about whatever bad blood there is between the two of you," Erica assured him. "I just want to know - are you going to offer her the... treatment?"

"That's not really my call."

"It kind of is. I mean, yeah, Command makes the formal offer, but they only do it with the agent's Alpha's recommendation, right?"

Derek watches his hands intently, even though the motions of loading his gun are so ingrained that he can do this while asleep. "She's auxiliary, and her position is considered at-distance. She doesn't need the treatment." And doesn't want it, his tone implied.

"It's just. She and Scott have been getting pretty close, that's all."

Ah, that was what Erica was worried about. "Scott is not going to leave us," Derek said firmly. "You know how she feels about me. If she could have gotten him to transfer to another Pack, she would have. She's staying for him."

Not that Derek understood anything about the complicated relationship between Scott and Chris Argent's only daughter. But Scott was staying in the Pack, and Allison wouldn't leave him, so that was that.

"I guess." Erica did not seem completely convinced, but the fluttering moths of worry in her general person-scent began to dissipate.

Derek slid his shotgun into its usual place: strapped across his back. Considering the Allison matter closed, he asked, "Is everyone ready?"

"Yeah, except for Isaac; he's been in the med bay since we dropped back into normal space. I think he's trying to get them to loan him one of the more advanced portable body scanners."

Derek hummed in approval. Isaac held his own in the field, but Derek suspected that the young man would be more suited to working the surgery tools in the medical bay than hurling incendiaries. At the same time, Isaac would never let go of that beamer until it was pried from his cold, dead fingers.

Well. They'd all seen their share of doctors wielding guns. The Infected weren't picky about who they wanted to chomp on. It was a sad world where, in all likelihood, Isaac wouldn't even have to choose.

"Hustle him out," Derek ordered. "I want to get off this ship the second the exterior doors open."

Erica rolled her eyes. "Yes, Alpha."

-++ CC ++-

The fourth planet of system S-43-TI, named Cali, had one main landmass, which was covered by greenery in the north and rocky desert in the south. B-CON Base was located a little above the equator. Their first view of it - on the screen floating across one wall of the unloading bay - appeared abruptly after miles and miles of rolling canopy. It looked like a vaguely circular blob of white-grey buildings and a spider-web of streets, in the middle of which, like a sprawling steel spider, reigned the research facility that the rest of the settlement had been named after.

The ship passed over the settlement and made a wide loop. They got a glimpse of a couple of Food Fields a few miles out of the protective wall that encircled the settlement. That was where all the fresh produce needed by the inhabitants were grown. Each Field had a wide, heavily guarded road leading to it. Small brown transports of various sizes rolled down the these roads like industrious beetles, some carrying workers and their necessary guard detail to the Fields, others ferrying the harvested crop back towards the settlement.

No sightings of Deadeyes, but they were notoriously shy of bright sunlight and airborne vehicles. In addition, the enormous trees of Cali's forests produced extensive, multi-layered canopies.

It stirred something under Derek's skin. The planets in the heart of Centuria were all terraformed to near-artificiality. Only planets in the outer systems still possessed a mostly-native biosphere, and a lot of them had been abandoned over the last decade.

Cali hadn't escaped the exodus, either. Derek spotted a couple of small patches in the distance, the too-regular shapes of buildings; those had been towns, once, before the Deadeyes made it too dangerous to live in undefended communities surrounded by dense wood.

B-CON was the only settlement left, now.

|| P A R T O N E ||

Everyone has at least heard of the Spec-CA, or Specialized Combat Agents; the remarkable part is how, in this day and age, what is known about the Specs is still more rumor than confirmed fact. General knowledge is that they are an elite branch of Command, Centuria's joint intelligence and military agency. [...] The units nicknamed NightSpecs specialize in direct combat with the Infected. Their numbers are not known, nor is the nature of the training they receive. Command has repeatedly declined to confirm or deny their existence, stating only that the Spec-CA branch is crucial to the fight against the Infected.
- commentary from 'The War That Is Not', by Matt Daehler



Humidity slapped them like a soggy fly-swatter the moment the outer airlock disengaged. Old habit kept Derek motionless, but he could hear the rest of the Pack shifting in discomfort.

Out of the corner of one eye, he could see Scott twitching and absently touching his headpiece, clearly uncomfortable after not having worn it for the entire journey. Derek had made a habit, early on in his military career, of wearing his as much as possible; his head now felt odd whenever he took it off. Scott's headset was actually the most lightweight out of all of theirs, comprising mainly of what looked like wide sunglasses connected on one end to an earpiece. As a scout, his priority was speed and the ability to blend in; if he didn't wear any visible gear, the headpiece just made him look like a spoiled kid tourist. Derek's headpiece, on the other hand, verged on being a helmet, covering most of his face and head.

They waited while the doors gradually turned transparent, admitting the blinding sunlight of full noon. A vertical line appeared, grew wider, opened. Derek hefted his bag. Went through before the door finished opening, continued on down the ramp. He could hear the muffled steps of his team following closely behind.

Boyd stood closest to Derek and to his right; the traditional placement of the second-in-command. Scott was to his left. Then Erica and Isaac, and finally Jackson anchoring the rear.

There was a woman in a generic moss green and black Planetary Guard uniform waiting for them at the bottom of the ramp. She didn't speak until they were all standing level with her on the concrete. "Unit H-Cali-4?"

"Yes," said Derek. "I'm Unit Leader Derek."

The Guard hesitated, eyeing his insignia. "Spec-CAG?"

Specialized Combat Agents - General type were the general-purpose agents of the Specs, the most numerous and, thus, most commonly seen. They were no less expertly trained than the other types. But their treatment protocol, in comparison to the far more drastic... enhancements made to agents of other types, seemed to Derek more like taking a round of vitamins and bioboosters.

Not that he would ever say so to a Spec-CAG’s face.

Derek gave the standard Command answer, which was to keep his expression blank and stare at the Guard until she dropped her gaze.

"Welcome to B-CON Base, Alpha Derek," said the Guard, clearing her throat sheepishly. "We're somewhat understaffed at the moment, in all departments, so we appreciate your presence here." She nodded towards the large doors leading into the building. It had been opened all the way, to accommodate the steady stream of uniformed base crew unloading cargo from the ship. "I expect that the Overseer will confirm your assigned duties before tomorrow. A lab tech will take you to the barracks."

True to her word, a nervous-looking young man ambled up to them mere seconds after the Guard hurried off. "Hey, hi, Specs! Welcome. Um. If you could follow me, I'll show you where you'll be bunking."

Derek blinked at the lab tech. Something about him was... odd. But his face matched the picture on the pass hanging from his neck, and his lab coat was appropriately stained and smelled of various chemicals. On the other hand, he was too nervous and new for Derek to tell if he was being dishonest.

Really, suspicion less than five minutes after landing?

Derek frowned, then nodded and gestured for the young man to lead the way.

The landing platform was at the top of what turned out to be the tallest building in the settlement- a grand eighteen levels, three of which were underground.

The typical government research facility on most Central Cities averaged around seventy levels.

"It's probably the oldest active lab around," said the lab tech, who was clearly taking it upon himself to be an impromptu tour guide, "I'm pretty sure this building has been here since the first colonization."

"Not exactly something to be proud about," snarked Jackson.

Instead of being intimidated like Derek expected - Jackson was more bark than bite, really, but his bark was pretty damn convincing - the lab tech breezily volleyed back, "Hey, hang around for a few hundred years and see how well you hold up." The nervous scent faded as more and more words tumbled out. "Okay, I'm taking you guys through the all-access areas, but you should get your own key-tags before the day is out, and then I can show you all the little shortcuts around the place, just hit me up. This level is mainly waiting rooms and storage, because of the landing platform. The elevators are this way, emergency stairs over there..."

The barracks were in an adjacent, though connected, building. The lab tech talked the entire journey there - which Derek would normally find annoying, but the young man didn't require any responses to his babble, and quite possibly didn't seem to care if they listened to him or tuned him out. Plus, most of it was information about the base that wasn't covered by the briefings, and thus nominally useful.

"You guys get a section all to yourselves," said the lab tech when they turned a corner and breezed through a set of doors, "three bunks to a room, communal showers, the laundry is on the ground floor-" The second the double-doors slid close behind them, he turned to Scott and punched him in the arm. "Dude, you couldn't have given me an arrival date? I've been hanging around the landing platform for weeks."

A flat what the hell sat on Derek's tongue. Scott laughed and launched himself at the lab tech.

"Stiles!" exclaimed Scott happily. The two of them hugged and back-slapped each other with boyish gusto. "It's so good to see you, man, you don't even know."

"This is a face to yearn for, glad you've discovered that," said Stiles, beaming. "Hey, you guys aren't on duty until tomorrow, right? Your Alpha's room is that one there at the end of the hall. Go stash your stuff, take your suppressants, do whatever you gotta-"

Stiles squeaked when Derek pushed him up against the wall. "Scott. Tell me you didn't."

Only a dozen people at Command HQ had direct access to the list of assignments being undertaken by active Spec teams. Only a handful were able to view details about the teams themselves. And of that, only two or three had the authorization to know which ones were Spec-CAL.

Spec-CAL was the only Spec type to require the regular administration of suppressants.

"Derek!" Scott grabbed Derek's arm. "I didn't. You know I didn't tell him."

"He didn't tell me," gasped Stiles. Derek pushed him higher, and his feet kicked ineffectually. "Didn't have to. My dad. Worked for Command. Retired."

Heartrate speeding up, but distinctly no lie-stutter. Derek lowered him without letting go of his lab coat and shirt. "If he's retired, he wouldn't have access to active missions."

Or, at least, he shouldn't. But Derek was well familiar with how bureaucracy worked. Know the right people, attend the right events, and secrets became just another currency.

Stiles rolled his eyes. His heart was wild with fear, his person-scent thrumming with it, but the look he directed Derek was all affronted pride. "He never let that kind of information slip even when he was active. No, I just know what it means when the Command insignia has a double moon on it like yours does. Plus Scott got a Valour Star for Sky Six last summer. That spaceport city’s been a Zone One for the longest time, no regular Spec-CAG would have been sent there. And that time Scott fell off the grid for three months, exactly the time frame for when the Lakoan Crisis mysteriously resolved itself due to 'internal forces'."

"Stiles is really good at putting things together, okay," Scott said, "And it's not like he's going to tell anyone. Seriously, Derek, Derek, let him go."

The hint of a growl swung Derek's attention to Scott. Scott objected to a lot of Derek's decisions as a matter of course - it was part of the reason Derek kept him around, and doing so was part of the reason why the other Alphas thought Derek was crazy - and he was particularly protective of hapless citizens. But rarely did that steel wall come down - the unmistakable statement of there is a line here, this is a cause I will fight you over. The only times Derek had seen it before had been to do with Scott's mother, which was understandable, and Allison.

Derek glared at Scott, then stepped back. Stiles slumped against the wall, coughing weakly.

"I'm all right, dude." Stiles waved Scott off when Scott rested a concerned hand on his shoulder. "Not the first time my mouth's gotten me into trouble."

"That's supposed to make me feel better?" sighed Scott.

The two of them grinned broadly at each other, as if one hadn't been on the verge of having his windpipe crushed a minute earlier and the other hadn't subsequently declared his willingness to fight an Alpha to protect his friend. Puppies, that's what they were - and while Derek could write encyclopedias on how unintended, stupid mistakes could still lead to innocent people being dead, he was getting the feeling that he had, maybe, overreacted a little bit.

"Everyone settle in," he barked. "Mess hall in one hour."

His team treated him to variations of the eye-roll, but willingly dispersed into the two opposite-facing rooms. Boyd, Jackson, and Erica went into one. Isaac and Scott went into the other. Stiles followed the latter and sat down on the free bed that Allison would, ostensibly, be taking when she joined them. Derek stood in the hallway for a minute, gaze alternating between the two doors. A sign on the wall explained that barrack doors would remain open during daylight hours unless someone inside set them to close. Stiles glanced his way a few times, looking uneasy and likely wondering why Derek was still standing there. It wasn't until the instinctive nervousness of being in a completely new place dimmed from the collective sense of Pack, until the familiar scent began seeping out of both rooms and filling the hallway, that Derek continued into the single room that had been given to his use.

The door slid open at his approach and closed behind him. The privacy was superficial, as he could feel the team right outside and, technically, any one of them could come barging in whenever they felt like it. That was considered natural, among Pack. But years of lying low, with only his sister for company, had implanted a need for his own space, the occasional illusion of separation.

A single bed with white sheets, a tiny built-in closet, a desk, a mirror, a computer terminal. Standard government-issue room, nothing new. He opened the closet and saw that there were a couple of generic Centuria facility uniforms, each bearing the B-CON badge, stacked neatly in their individual transparent packets. The better to help them blend in, he supposed. The computer terminal looked a little different from what he was used to: there were no obvious touchpads, just the ports and transmitters sitting at the back edge of the desk. He knocked on the desk, testing, and was rewarded with the transmitter blinking green. The air above the desk shimmered. A holographic window appeared and floated up until it was level with his face.

He prodded the Command symbol. A simple white box appeared. He typed in his passcode, appended with the mission passcode.

No Spec team had a permanent designation. Spec-CAGs were the largest in number, and it was not uncommon for the other types to pretend to be Spec-CAGs in order to hide their nature and purpose. The very existence of Spec-CALs was not widely known outside of Command. In any case, it was easier to use the names given to them by the general public, such as NightSpecs or Deadmeeters. The only official designations they were ever given were related to missions or the places where they were stationed at the time.

For all that Command presented the Spec-CAs as being the same as all the other branches of the armed forces, Command was actually exceptionally accommodating towards the needs of each type; such as, in the case of the Spec-CALs, the traditional Pack structure. This meant, among many other things, that Command left the Alphas to order their Packs as they saw fit, and addressed each Pack via their Alpha.

No new messages since they left the ship. He could see that the rest of the Pack, except for Scott, were logged on as well, though Jackson left within a minute. Derek heard him stomping out of the room and up the hallway. Eager to explore the area and ingratiate himself with the locals, no doubt.

Derek switched to the open channels and spent half an hour checking the general news feeds, mostly out of habit. He took a look through local news but there wasn't much of it - the only media presence in this system was ZeroTenTime, and even they mainly operated from their satellite station over on Cali's ice-covered neighbor planet.

The mission briefings had captured the general idea: the only remaining living settlement on the planet was B-CON, written colloquially as "Beacon" and known locally as "Beacon Hills" due to the ring of abandoned towers, buildings, and a couple of actual hills that encircled the area and, incidentally, being the main reason the settlement had managed to keep from being overrun. The Centuria government had connected the ring into a continuous perimeter: the Barrier.

Local sentiment was, reportedly, that life could be hard inside the Barrier, cramped as it was with the refugees from all the other towns and logging villages on the planet. But the only thing outside the Barrier was death.

Derek was the last to arrive at the mess hall. Somehow, he was not at all surprised to see Lab Tech Stiles there as well. Scott usually preferred to sit in the center, but today he was at the end, in order to sit next to his friend without sticking a relative stranger in the middle of the group.

Seems like puppies can learn.

Transitioning from a space environment to an on-planet one usually made their systems a little sensitive for a day, so the only food on the table was cold meats. Well, close approximations thereof; refugee settlements like Beacon often didn't have access to as much fresh meat as the population required.

“No word yet, but we're here as general support, not a specific mission, so we get a waiting period just like all the other combatants,” said Derek, instead of asking Scott, Does your friend really have to be here?

See, Derek was capable of learning, too.

“Yes, sir,” said Isaac. It was only half-mocking. "It feels like a vacation already."

Nobody had questioned Derek's decision to come to Cali. But then, they probably weren't surprised, after the clusterfuck that was JupiterSea. It wasn't that Command blamed them, exactly, because it had been obvious from the moment they boarded the first ship in the Infection-infiltrated fleet that the mission was doomed to fail. But losing an entire fleet never looked good no matter the circumstances. Perhaps Derek had picked up social instincts at some point after all, because he could tell that Command wanted his people to lie low for a while.

A Laikos team, not to mention a team with their track record, could have their pick of assignments; Derek had made a show of scrolling to the very bottom of the priority list, and selecting an entry, seemingly at random.

The fact that Derek had his own reason for choosing Cali was something he kept to himself.

-++ CC ++-

After the long transport journey, Derek wanted nothing more than to hide away in a quiet corner until his body acclimatized to the brand-new biosphere it had been shunted into. But training and past experience had him on his feet, wandering around the facility, forcing himself to learn human-useful things like the routes between the most frequently used areas, and incidentally also learning the things that could only be appreciated by the others in the Pack, such as which toilet facilities were the cleanest and how the noise level in the wing closest to the transport hangar could reach uncomfortable levels during the day.

He circled the Labs, which looked like a building in its own right nestled inside the central facility structure, spanning the basement levels and a large portion of the levels up to the twelfth, though the main entrance was on Level 4. Derek opted not to go in; he didn't count himself as being particularly adept at identifying scents, but he didn't have to know what a scent meant to know when it was something bad. In any case, there was plenty to see through the multitude of indoor floor-to-ceiling windows next to the main entrance: bee-hives of activity around blocks of testing consoles, people in lab coats scurrying about, doors to isolation units glowing active-green in the far back, everybody brandishing at least one tablet computer.

He'd just finished the main building and was ambling across a small, well-trimmed lawn when his headset beeped, alerting him to a message. He pressed two fingers, index and ring, down on his palm to open it.

The message was from the Overseer’s office. He skimmed over the short, generic welcome message, and read the list of duties assigned to his Pack. Nothing unusual: regular patrol outings, escort and protection of groups upon request, the ubiquitous “missions suited to the specialized abilities and expertise of TEAM and/or MEMBERS thereof”.

He stopped at the nearest port and connected his headset. He could use his palm-pad to type out messages, but he always preferred a full keyboard if there was one nearby. Even when, like now, all he ended up writing was:


Between disconnecting from the port and continuing his stroll around the outside of the barracks, his headset beeped five times, each an acknowledgement from his Pack that they’d received and affirmed the message.

-++ CC ++-

Being in 'full suit' technically meant having every inch of skin covered except for the face, to minimize risk of contact with hazardous materials and general protection against the elements. Spec-CALs received exemptions here as well; Derek got away with wearing his usual skinsuit, which left his arms and neck bare. He conceded to wearing the body armor - in fact, his was heavier, due to several invisible modifications - because he was not willing to skimp out on his arsenal of weapons.

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The outer layer was all hard casing: over the chest, back, knees, shins, forearms. Here, as well, the Spec-CALs were set apart from other Specs. Their body armor was off-white and grey, easy to see, the material similar to metal in its smoothness but without the aggravating shine. There were Specs that were trained and outfitted for stealth - type Laikos was not one of them.

Their primary purpose was to protect people from zombies. Derek knew that attempts had been made to design the Spec-CAL suit in such a way as to draw the zombies' attention towards it, causing the zombies to target the Specs rather than civilians, but as far as anyone had been able to tell, the only things zombies latched onto were heat and a working pulse, with no distinction made between targets.

Zombies: the ultimate equalizers.

Underneath the armor, the dark middle layer provided some padding, additional protection, and also carried some of their electronic equipment. The controls for Derek's headset were strapped to the palms of his hands, embedded in what looked like black, fingerless gloves that slipped under his wrist-guards.

Here, too, the tendency towards modifications left all their suits looking distinctly different from one another's. All the others, except Erica and Derek, had full gloves; Isaac's suit was actually thicker than standard issue; Boyd hated the body armor and tried to get away with wearing as little of it as he could; Jackson's skinsuit could harden into scales, and likely cost more than all of the others' suits combined.

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The vehicle provided for their patrol mission was a familiar TerrainBrain - the standard ground transport used by Planetary Guards for relatively stable on-planet environments. It had a box-like lower half and a sloping egg-shaped upper half, and wide wheels suited to urban roads and mild forest terrain. Derek slid inside via the hatch at the top, the rest of the team piling in after him.

The space inside was cramped. The pilot's chair was front and center, and then two chairs were situated behind it on either side, like the three points of a triangle. One chair would be central command and the other would be weapons control, depending on which side the highest ranking officer decided to sit. This time, Derek opted for the chair on the right. Boyd sat down in the pilot's chair. Erica had won the coin toss with Jackson and got to take the weapons on this outing; she took the remaining chair on Boyd's left.

Maintenance crew waved them out of the transport hangar and onto the main road. There were four main thoroughfares extending out from the facility in a straight line towards the Barrier. Two of them led directly to the larger Gates in the Barrier; all four connected to the Barrier Circuit, which was the circular road that followed the entire length of the Barrier on the inside. Derek brought up a map of Beacon on one of the windows floating in front of him; with the roads emphasized, it looked rather like a lopsided wheel with four spokes. The sprawl of buildings were packed between those four roads, and they did not have so much as streets as gaps between dense collections of living quarters.

Static crackled through the morning-quiet air. Then, a loud, "Hey guys! What's the undead forecast for today?"

Derek absolutely did not slam his head against the overhead panel in surprise. "What's Stiles doing on the comms?"

"Danny owed me a favor," Stiles answered breezily. "Seen any zombies yet?"

"For the love of-" Derek muttered, while somewhere behind him Jackson went, "What?"

"They're not... really zombies," protested Scott, with all the conviction of soggy tissue.

"They are if everyone calls them zombies. Admit it, you call them that too," Stiles insisted.

It was true. Scott grinned sheepishly at the rest of them.

"Sunny skies so far," Boyd said amusedly from the pilot’s chair, because Derek's Pack is full of comedians. "Got a blip hinting at some light showers over at the northeastern tower, though. They’re requesting our assistance."

Boyd looked questioningly over his shoulder at Derek. Derek nodded. Boyd sent the map of the area and the route over to Derek's console, while Scott said, "H-Cali-4 to Base, we're answering the blip from Tower 6."

"Copy H-Cali-4, informing Tower 6 of your approach," answered Stiles, somehow managing to sound obnoxious and businesslike at the same time. "Sending you the activity briefs from the last seven days and the logged patrol routes."

It was clear that, cheekiness aside, Stiles knew what he was doing. "I thought he was a lab tech?" said Derek, looking questioningly at Scott.

"I worked in the Comm Tower for months before Harris agreed to let me into the Labs," explained Stiles. "Actually, I've been around here for so long that I've probably done every job there is."

Derek wanted to ask, why are you still a lab tech, then?, and from the slight edge to Stiles' light tone, Stiles was probably expecting him to. But Derek did not particularly want to hear the young man's life story, and in any case was less than willing to discuss matters unrelated to the mission over a recorded comm line, even if Stiles didn't seem to care. "What should we be expecting at the Barrier?"

There was a pause. Stiles' voice, when it came back, sounded a touch warmer than before. "Most of the really heavy stuff goes down in the south, but the east and northeastern sections get a fair amount of rainfall, too. There's a dried-up river that follows the Barrier for a bit, less than a mile from Tower 6. The riverbanks on our side are steep enough to discourage the loners, but sometimes a group collects there and gets determined enough to rush the Barrier.” There was a faint creaking sound, a minor alteration of breathing; Derek imagined Stiles stretching in his seat on the other end. “You know how the zombies seem to get smarter with numbers? Well, there's a hypothesis kicking around the Labs that when they're in a group, they also get better at distinguishing human from other zombies, and human from other animals. Like, a zombie on its own is just as likely to chomp on a fellow zombie as a human, right? But put maybe a dozen of them together and they'll go after any humans first, even if one of them goes down and becomes an easy meal."

The wolf is stronger in a pack, Derek couldn't help but think. He inwardly shuddered.

Stiles coughs. "Not that, um, you heard it from me. It's just something one of the many, many projects that the distinguished experimental researchers here are looking into! Oh, you should see an abandoned warehouse soon. Well, half of one. Past that, there's about half a mile of rubble that you have to drive over. I'd highly recommend using your thrusters instead of your wheels. Floating over it isn't as manly as bouncing around in a metal container, I agree, but the fuel it'll use is actually cheaper than having to repair the frame and wheels after you've gone over that section several times. Seriously, the maintenance techs will thank you."

Derek rolled his eyes but nodded at Boyd. Boyd pulled up the controls for the thrusters.

Stiles' commentary followed them all the way to Tower 6. Derek tuned him out, directing his attention instead to the view of the settlement as they rolled past it. Linking his headset to the transport’s systems allowed him to look out through all twelve cameras installed at various points around the vehicle’s body.

There was only one actual window, and that was in front of the pilot’s chair. Fewer openings meant fewer opportunities for the Infected to get in. The rest of the transport's occupants, in addition to being squashed onto benches along the back of the transport, had to make do with real-time video feeds from the external cameras, which were projected into the central space behind the pilot's chair and between the two back seats.

All the buildings in Beacon were fairly low to the ground, only a handful of levels at the most, which put them as pre-Infection construction. Derek remembered from the mission briefs that the current population was at least twice the number that the settlement was made to hold. And yet, despite the dearth of living space, a lot of the structures that they travelled past looked empty; people would rather live on top of each other, whole families cramming into rooms built for single occupants, than live in an old Infection site or too near the Barrier.

There were a couple of houses that looked like they’d been torched: the stone blackened, gaps where wood might once have been used for walls, doors and windows heavily barricaded. It didn’t take much imagination to guess what must have happened. Had the Deadeyes gotten through the Barrier? Or had the Infection found some other way inside?

On some planets, the Infection had merely been used as an excuse. There had been times when Derek had been tempted to leave people to the flesh-eating mobs.

A disdainful rumble from that locked-away part of him carried the thought: at least hunger was a purer motivation, and teeth a cleaner way to go, than the things those who prided themselves in their humanity did to one another.

Beacon didn’t seem to have that kind of atmosphere, though. The city smelled fearful, veiled by a faint cloud of desperation, but it was all directed outward. There was, reassuringly, a sense of the people being cared for, people caring for each other. The places where the population had turned against itself had reeked in a way that Derek would never be able to forget. Beacon, for all its dustiness and disrepair, seemed oddly peaceful.

The aforementioned rubble rose abruptly up the road ahead. From the height of the pile and visible variety of materials, Derek thought that a whole swathe of buildings must have been demolished to create such quantities. The whole mile of it followed the Barrier along one side; perhaps the locals wanted to create a clear gap between the Barrier and the first line of buildings? It would be easier to gun down any Infected that broke through the Barrier while they stumbled over the rubble than hunting them through buildings. Plus, the Barrier in this section looked partially made out of larger chunks of the same rubble, stacked up into a solid wall.

The rubble-Barrier eventually merged into a long grey building that looked like it had once been part of a larger complex, not unlike the research facility. At the far end stood Tower 6. It was hard to tell under the dirt and erosion, but Derek was fairly sure that the Tower used to be a clock tower of some kind. Most of the top had been replaced with what seemed like the bridge module of an old space-faring transport.

A Planetary Guard stepped out to greet them once Boyd killed the transport's engines. Derek took great satisfaction in cutting off Stiles mid-babble.

"Unit Leader?" asked the Guard when Derek climbed out of the vehicle.

"Yes. Alpha Derek," Derek introduced himself. He saluted the Guard. "You reported that there's been some activity?"

"It started approximately an hour ago, Alpha," said the Guard, returning Derek’s salute. He gestured for the team to follow him. The Pack fell into their usual walking formation behind Derek. "The Guards on duty reported multiple sightings coming from the direction of the dry river. They haven't come up to the Barrier yet, or within range of our guns, but we can see movement amongst the trees." The Guard hesitated.

"What is it?" asked Derek.

"One of the watchers thought he saw something unusual," said the Guard. "The watch-officer on duty gave him and two others permission to go check it out."

"They haven't returned?" guessed Boyd.

"No. But it's been only ten minutes. They maintained radio contact right up until four minutes before you arrived."

"What was this unusual sighting?" asked Derek.

"The watcher wasn't very clear. But his watch-mate said that she'd glimpsed something, as well. They, uh, said that it looked like a large, wild animal."

Derek sensed the spike of anxiety from the rest of the Pack, though none of them gave any obvious, outward signs. "Scanners?"

"Too many heat signatures out there to be sure."

"All right." Derek nodded at his Pack. "If you'll get Base to authorize a gate-opening, we can go out and look for your missing people."

The Guard saluted. "Thank you."

'Gate' was the term used for any part of the Barrier that could be opened or shut. The closest one to Tower 6 was, in fact, a door, and looked to have been part of whatever larger structure that the Tower used to jut out of, of which only the Tower and the long grey wall on either side of the door remained. Tower and wall had been incorporated into the Barrier. On the Tower's side, what looked to be the remains of a dozen vehicles had been compacted into a barricade to connect this section to the next. The air around the wall shimmered from the energy shield encasing it. Beacon being what it was, Derek didn't expect the energy shield to extend very high up - ten feet, at the most. The richer cities at the heart of Centuria could afford a dome of shielding.

Derek waited at the gate with his team for a full minute before subtly switching to their private comm channel. "All right, get it off your chests."

Naturally, they all tried to talk at once.

"Do you think it's, you know-"

"This is like Indigo all over again-"

"We should go back for the beam weapons-"

"Or," Boyd's voice cut through the chatter, "it really might be a large animal."

Derek saw every head turning towards him, because he was apparently expected to know about the behavioral quirks of the local wildlife. A small voice at the back of his mind pointed out that maybe someone like Stiles would actually have this information, and what the hell, was there no escaping this kid? "Usually, wild animals do stay away from the Infected. But maybe the ones on this planet don't. Boyd is right, it really could just be a large animal."

The comm switched back to the regular channel when the call from Tower 6 came through. "Base has given you authorization, H-Cali-4. Gate 6-East being opened."

The hum of the energy shield stopped. Heavy clanking noises came from the door as the locks disengaged.

"Base to H-Cali-4, confirming authorization of Barrier exit," came Stiles' voice. "Window of re-entry is one hour, standard procedure on all operations. Priority is retrieval of missing units. Do you copy?"

"Copy that, Base," answered Scott. Then, "Dude, are you eating chips? I can hear you eating chips."

A muffled, "No. Definitely not."

"Stiles, if you don't stop distracting my team, I'm going to have to report you," barked Derek.

"We're not even out of the Barrier yet," protested Scott. He'd taken himself off comm before speaking, at least. "What's up with you? You're being more uptight than usual."

Admitting that Stiles seemed to be getting under Derek's skin would probably sound even more childish than it already did inside Derek's head. Admitting that Derek had been feeling a growing sense of... not quite unease, not yet, but definitely the niggling sense that there was something off, ever since they stepped foot on this planet, did not advance itself as a particularly good idea either, especially right before their first excursion and with the Pack already anxious about this 'large animal' sighting.

"We're in unfamiliar territory," said Derek eventually.

Scott muttered, "Great, that was helpful," under his breath. Derek ignored him. The door finished opening with a rather ominous clang.

"Team is clear for exit," said Stiles.

"Copy, Base.” Derek nodded to his Pack, and cautiously led the way out into the unknown.