I must apologise for how long it took me to get this done. Exam stress and recuperation; most of you know the deal.
It's a shorter chapter, albeit one that sets up some events for later. This is the beginning of a three-chapter quiet arc, time for some more character development before I throw them into... well, you'll see.
CHAPTER 4: Downtime Part 1
Two hours later, Red Team were sitting around the same conference table as they had been before, already in casual uniform - four pairs of grey lightweight shirt and trousers, one beige, all trimmed in Singularity red. The five looked to the figure that paced at the head of the table.
"Congratulations on the success of your recent mission," began the Commander. "We've got plenty of footage, and as of just now physical samples of tech from the structure. We're sending them down to the labs to be examined. Once again, this is a matter of secrecy. We need you within reach for further missions; you are to remain planetside, though you are off-duty as of now, and probably for the next few days."
"Thank you, sir," said Damiel. "Is that it?"
"Yes, Officer. Dismissed."
The team left the room with an air of excitement. Damiel led them to the armoury, where they took their seats one by one on the deserted benches. Nathan was the last to sit again, and he looked expectantly to their leader, who merely shrugged.
Ri frowned. "This is the first break we've had since Nathan was seconded to us." She turned to the trooper in question. "I guess, whatever we do, we should try and train him to work with the team."
"Right. At the same time, with what's happened and the continuing operation, I think we all need a break," added Arryn. "And we all need to keep training as well, not just Nathan."
Damiel wasn't sure. The Station was okay, though it didn't offer much in the way of training equipment or recreation, and the grey interior was getting monotonous. Somewhere else would be better.
Arryn, eyes widening as though a light had switched on, dashed over to where her combat suit hung, unclipping the wrist comm from its mount, and tapped rapidly at it while the team watched, bemused.
Scant seconds later, she turned it triumphantly to them, the screen showing a clifftop clearing overlooking the sea, surrounded by trees and hills.
"Look alright?" She said encouragingly.
Damiel shifted. "Well... I suppose so."
"It's a site about thirty kilometres out from Jaigur, on the coast. We can rec a shuttle and take some time there to train Nathan," she explained.
"Sounds good, actually. We'll want to take our kit, and supplies. Probably don't need any training equipment, looking at that. Hmm... I suppose a guided air corvette would be good enough as a transport too," calculated Damiel. "They carry Freelance quads as well. You all okay with the idea?"
A chorus of affirmatives rose.
"Okay, let's grab our stuff and move."
The five of them each started piling up their own equipment, packing it into heavy bags to be carried with them, and slinging satchels across their backs carrying various items of hand luggage.
Nathan, having less possessions than the SSMs, was the first to finish. Damiel, noticing his readiness, sent him to the Station's reception to organise transport, while the four elites followed a minute behind.
At the reception, Nathan smiled to the tired secretary; the woman, being the same as had been on the desk the day before, clearly had a somewhat monotonous job. Nonetheless, her face warmed to his presence, and she struck up her occupational conversation.
"Good morning. How can I help you?"
"I'm here to organise downtime transport for SSM Red Team," he began to explain.
She seemed bewildered, suspicious even. "I was under the impression you were an SDF trooper."
"I am; my-... uh... I've been seconded to Red Team though." His hands balled into fists, the slip up bringing to mind his previous team yet again.
"Oh, okay. If you say so."
"I need to requisition an Air Corvette for transport, if that's okay. Quads included," he continued.
"Can do. I've authenticated the team, and it's going to be prepped in a moment at the Link. I'll need your CO - Petty Officer Thaum? - to sign the order, but other than that you're good to go."
He smiled gratefully. "He'll be here any second."
"Don't worry - I've sent the request to his comm. And any minute..." she idly clicked her tongue - "and he's accepted it. Moment they get here you're good to go."
The team arrived, as expected, mere seconds later, holding up the weight of all their equipment. Even with the impressive strength their training granted them, they were all clearly feeling it. Arryn, for one, looked as though she had been drinking a little too much, tipsily swaying under the mass of the bags she carried; Adom, bizarrely enough, was smiling tightly, causing Nathan to lean away, concerned.
Damiel, at the fore, swayed his head to the door. The team drew in and moved in a heap to the open space, into the afternoon sun.
Nathan stood at the railing of the AI controlled Air Corvette, in the viewing bridge that sat just behind the command module. The huge windows overlooked the wooded hills that drifted by below them. To his left, he could see the receding shapes of Jaigur, to his right rolling hills and converging rivers. He leant, arms crossed on the bar, immersed in the scenery.
Behind him, the others sat on a horseshoe of couches recessed into the rear end of the module, each with their own entertainment. Damiel was reading on his comm, Arryn playing a strategy sim. Adom and Ri sat by each other closely and quietly. Nathan took a second to coolly observe the group as they relaxed.
Damiel glanced up from the text, catching Nathan's eye. Setting the slim device aside, he bounced lightly to his feet, dashing up the ramp onto the viewing catwalk, moving beside the trooper and leaning back against the rail, elbows propped up on the bar. Nathan ducked his head in greeting. "Damiel."
"Nathan," responded the officer. "You alright?"
"Yeah, just thinking. Appreciating the view," he expanded.
"It's certainly appreciable," agreed Damiel, dryly.
"So..." began Nathan.
Nathan's eyes drifted to Adom and Ri, reclining a little on the settees, both looking unusually relaxed in their closeness. Damiel followed his gaze in amusement as he saw the gears quietly turn.
"Those two, huh?" he ventured, echoing Nathan's thoughts. Nathan shot him a grin, recognising his perception.
"Yeah. They tend to keep it quiet, but yeah," explained Damiel.
"I was going to say, they don't seem very alike." Nathan laughed slightly.
"Hasn't stopped them yet." He paused, waiting for an opinion, but Nathan didn't respond. "You know, knowing Ri, it makes sense, somehow. Adom is hardly vulnerable, and she has always had her own speculative and curious side. I guess she saw him as an opportunity to learn, to maybe have a positive impact on his... attitude, I suppose. I mean if you're looking for something else for her to find appealing, he's hardly unattractive."
Nathan looked at the pair sidelong, eyebrows raised in appreciative speculation, and decided that both of them seemed reasonably good-looking, though Ri perhaps was more eye-catching. He bucked his head to indicate some kind of accord, but looked clearly at Damiel for the following question.
"No comment on Ri, then?"
A laugh. "Even if I considered myself a reasonable judge, she's hardly one to appreciate such superficial praise, and certainly not one from her direct superior, even one as informal as me."
"That makes sense."
He opened his mouth to continue, yet stalled as his mind tried to calculate an appropriate tone and structure for his words, finding one he considered within reason soon enough. "Was Schaen involved with anyone?"
Damiel looked almost wistful. "No, he was always too focused on his work as a soldier. I feel like he would have considered relationships a distraction. I never actually asked him his opinion."
Nathan nodded thoughtfully, Damiel smiling conspiratorially to himself as he studied the man's expression. Nathan noticed it, but didn't comment. Moments later, he pushed away from the railing, drifting over to Arryn.
He took a seat next to her, observing with intrigue the game she was playing. A simplistic strategy, by the look of it; she tapped lightly away the display, commanding clouds of blue specks to flank and destroy enemy units. She wasn't tense, seeming comfortable with the difficulty and her own capabilities as she fended off a wide array of offensives.
"Hey Nathan." She flicked her eyes up to him momentarily, before returning her attention to the game.
"You doing okay?" he asked.
"Yeah. Just kicking back."
"Looks like training to me," he stated. She hesitated just long enough for a wing of her forces to succumb to its disadvantaged situation.
"You think?" she asked.
"Seems to be strategic practice at least."
She pondered this. "I suppose. I've always viewed it as a way of relaxing without leaving work out of the picture; it's not overly beneficial to my abilities on the field."
He continued to watch, halfway between studious and mesmerised, as she systematically wiped out her opponent, coming to a swift victory. Perhaps the lower challenge contributed to her representation of the activity as a way of relaxing; he had no doubt however that that was her choice, rather than a shortcoming in the comm's AI.
"Is it normal for SSMs to do things like this?" he asked, eventually.
"Huh?" She seemed confused.
"This trip. It seems so... informal, relaxed. I can't imagine SDF squads doing things like this. No time."
"I suppose as an SSM, life is often more hectic and fast than that of an SDF trooper. In our downtime, we have to make as much use of it as we can. At the same time, constant training is important for us, to keep the unit effective. Camping, exploration; they offer practice, but are also therapeutic - which is really important when life is as crazy as it is," she laughed. "It's like the game, fun and enjoyable, but with some innate utilitarian value. I suppose you'll see what I mean after we get there in..." she checked her comm's clock, "...ten minutes or so."
"Okay then." He remained seated, eyes roving the screen of the Comm as Arryn began a new match, studying for himself the movements of the game, before lying back a little, gazing instead passively around the room. Everyone was still, and unable to see the ground move by at this angle, Nathan almost felt he looked at a still of his companions, which did not change until he stood again - wandering past the dozing Adom and Ri, and returned to the viewing deck, nodding again to Damiel.
"You alright?" inquired Nathan.
"Yeah," came the reply.
Nathan leaned out towards the glass, looking past the front of the ship to the young sea coming into view. He could see the hills at the edge of the cliffs that surrounded the ocean, and watched as the afternoon sun of Miaxi hung above them. Ever so slowly, the ground rose up, and the bald crest of a single hill grew into clarity, and the ever present pull of gravity wavered with their descent. Only moments later, the grass bucked in waves beneath the jets of the engines, the trees swayed, and the grumble of the turbines shook the floor. Then, with a clunk and a descending whine, the craft touched down, balanced perfectly atop the rounded summit.
As the stubby landing ramp dropped from the hull of the Corvette, the party looked out at the treeline, at once wary and intrigued. The clearing was wide, with slopes on every side leading down behind them to the cliff, and ahead into a wooded gradient, the new trees dense and quiet.
When the team left warily the shadow of the ship's hull, the sun and the breeze hit at once. The sky was clear above, though on the slowly darkening eastern horizon a low wall of cloud could be discerned. Nathan set out ahead, Damiel keeping pace and Arryn just behind, while Ri and Adom stood beside each other, looking on from the edge of the shade.
Downtime Part 1.5: Author's Note
Ri and Adom are probably going to be the canon pairing everyone hates.
Well, they would if anyone read it.
*Eyes glistening* I'm so alone...