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Team Scarlet’s Wargame victory on Didumos had earned them something more than 50,000 bonus credits each. It had earned them even more than the right to remain contracted under Red Terraforming, Inc and continue competing against other squads to secure development rights of habitable exoplanets. They earned something even more precious that they’d been lacking for some time now—a break. Nic gathered with the rest of the squad in their Corvette’s living room as they prepared to disembark on Planet Baitian, the fully terraformed planet where they’d be spending their little getaway.

“150 hours of paid vacation,” Jarek said giddily, first in line for the door. “And it all starts now! Another planet to add to our list. What other job can you think of that sends you to this many different worlds?”

The Corvette was docked at Baitian’s main spaceport, sensibly located just a few kilometers from the heart of Taizhou, the planet’s most populous, tourism-heavy city. The metropolis made Paradigm Prep’s underground “city” look like a bunker. Skyscrapers made of softer standard steel and real glass dominated the landscape, adorned with colorful explosions of rooftop and hanging gardens. Flying delivery drones deftly zigzagged between the city’s expansive, multi-level light rail transit system whisking thousands of passengers wherever they needed to go. Nic even saw his first in-person wildlife—plump gray birds that pecked at the concrete outside the spaceport. Pigeons, Maqsud called them. Nic was in awe as he stared through the viewscreen.

“Why couldn’t they just say six days?” Perri replied. “Not that I’m complaining about the time off, obviously.” She smoothed out her standard-issue red uniform, everyone’s wardrobe of choice—at least until they picked up some new outfits.

“It’ll only be three local days, given Baitian’s long day-night cycle,” Maqsud enlightened her. “Let’s not get too caught up in commercialism here, shall we? I’d like to visit some museums and the botanical garden while we’re here. A hike would be sublime, if anyone would care to join me.”

Perri shrugged. “I’m down—”

“Excellent!”

“—if you come shopping with me.”

<Landing registration has been completed in accordance with Baitian planetary and Taizhou urban ordinances,> RTIFIS announced cheerily. <Please disembark the ship when ready and proceed to tourist check-in.>

Maqsud rolled his eyes. “Perri, don’t tell me you’re going to be given this rare opportunity to see Colony 87 in all its glory, and then squander it by being a puppet of capitalism!”

“You hate on it,” Jarek chided him with a grin, “but I don’t see you returning the bonus Red Terraforming gave us.”

“If I’m still forced to participate in the economic system I critique, then why would I put myself at a disadvantage? I’m a socialist, not an idiot,” Maqsud retorted.

“Is there a difference?” Perri shot back with a smirk.

Maqsud snorted. “I’m sorry, who here scored 100% on the Final Exam? Anybody? Anybody but me?” Silence. “That’s what I thought. Sufficient knowledge of history and contemporary facts tend to lead one to certain political conclusions...”

“Be careful, Max,” said Nic. “You’re doing that weird thing that you do sometimes where you make a complete pretentious ass of yourself.” The other three laughed, even Max. Their friendship had progressed to the point where humorous digs at each other were commonplace, and they could say things to each other that once would have been unthinkable.

“Perri’s some sort of avowed libertarian—in the twenty-seventh century, which is some absolute miracle of propaganda—and Jarek seems content with whatever pays well. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the paycheck either, but I think there are more equitable ways to distribute resources on a galactic scale. Not to mention the fact that the military industrial complex is still alive and well long after we’ve left Earth—and actual warfare—behind... Nic, what do you think about all this? On which side of the political fence do you sit?”

“My official position is to be totally neutral because I don’t want to take sides!” Nic replied with a cheery grin. “I’d say I’m riding that fence right up the middle.”

“Ah, the centrist position,” Max said with an amused wink. “Be careful, Nic. That fence is bound to chafe eventually.”

Nic put an arm each around his male squadmates. “Enough politics. This vacation is all about having some fun! Let’s do whatever sounds fun—hikes, shopping, gardens, full-sized group movie theaters, the works! Let’s all do it all!” The other members of Team Scarlet agreed to the compromise, and moments later, they stepped into a blur of exciting new experiences.

***

It was a blur that Nic never wanted to leave. Each fun excursion bled into the next one and the next one after that. Sightseeing in the city lasted hours. They took a hike through a nearby forest thick enough that they walked entirely in the shade of old trees; it was borderline spiritual for Nic, and he briefly imagined he was standing in ancient forest on Earth. They ate each meal at a new restaurant, trying foods they’d never tasted before—foods they didn’t even know existed.

Fresh, wet meats that weren’t vacuum-sealed and sent to them on a freighter, but cut and prepared right before their eyes, sprinkled with salt and seasonings that none of them could name. Jarek had to pass on two occasions as he couldn’t stomach the sight of it. There were fresh-baked breads of a multitude of grains warm to the touch and dusty with flour. They sampled fresh vegetables, the crisp and raw variety as well as those simmered in broths for hours, broadcasting decadent aromas that Nic had never smelled. This is the difference between freighter food and colony food, he found himself thinking at one lunch. This is what we’ll eat all the time when we’re retired. I can’t wait!

There were far too many shops in the city of Taizhou to visit all of them; Team Scarlet managed to patronize 32 in all. Maqsud warmed up to the idea a bit more when they passed shops called bookstores. On their home colony of Ayrus, where over 90% of the planet’s food had to be delivered on a ship monthly, there was no room for luxuries like paper books. Max had to make trips back to the Corvette to deposit his multiple literary hauls.

Perri was the most diverse shopper. Clothes. Jewelry. Perfume. A pair of books. The latest holophone imported from Iuxta. She bought a replica of an antique crossbow made of wood in a novelty store, a replica of an old wooden wheel used to steer ships in Earth’s ancient oceans, along with a functioning wooden record player. Nic only knew what that was from a movie he’d seen set on twentieth century Earth. He was worried all this wood would break. “But we already have free access to over ten million musicians from the last millennium,” Jarek told her on the way out of that store. “Why buy one of these?”

“It’s different when you own something, you know?” Perri answered him on their way to their first movie theater. She wore a proud smile as she adjusted the strap of her shopping backpack. “These are our rewards for a job well done. All the more motivation for me to play even harder next time. I’ll be able to look around my room and see all the fruits of my hard work. You should get something nice, too, Nic. What do you like?” It was at that moment, about 60 hours into their vacation, that Nic realized he hadn’t bought a single thing but food and tickets of admission, nothing he could take with him.

He smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll find something, I’m sure.”

The following day, at a naturalistic shop, Shanti bought her only items: a potted plant, a paper notebook, and an analog pen filled with ink. Jarek later bought a customized gigantic plush of his avatar in one of his favorite sims, Furflower Island, and tied its arms across his chest so he could carry it around. “You’re such a dork,” Perri snorted at him, to which he grinningly replied, “I could log in and see my avatar whenever I want, but it’s different when you own something, you know, Perri?” She playfully shoved him and he nearly lost his balance. Nic laughed.

***

It was hot and humid when they’d first arrived on Baitian, and it rained on the second local day. This was far from the gentle sprinkle they’d reveled in back on Ducenti; these raindrops were plump, heavy, and pelted anything in their path. They spent the rest of their vacation indoors. Maqsud got to see his museums—two art museums, one for Baitian art and one for Earth art, plus a museum of the planet’s history. Colony 87 was one of the final planets to see actual war over its colonization; holographic battle reenactments spliced with real footage played from a central display between terraplastic-encased artifacts, actual weapons scavenged from the historical battlefield. Nic saw a slightly corroded Submachine Gun, two Pistols, a disassembled Fragmentation Grenade, and a remarkably pristine Satyr vehicle.

Perri asked Nic to take a picture of her in the driver’s seat. He took three. “Very nice,” he said, transferring the pics from his holophone to hers.

And they were. The two squadmates shared a smile that lingered.

After one last sleep cycle in cramped rental bed-pods—funnily enough, there seemed to be less elbow room in this sprawling city than on their five-person spaceship—their last local day was the most laid back. Nic bought a thought-to-speech cranial link earpiece from a tech shop and gifted it to Shanti. “You don’t have to use it,” he told her as she sheepishly accepted it. “Just... if you want it.” She put it on immediately.

“[Thanks,]” Shanti's new robotic voice said gratefully. She was quiet again after that, but it gave Nic peace of mind knowing she could now communicate whenever she wanted. There’s no telling when we would have had another chance to shop in a place like this, he thought. I’m glad they had it here.

For their last meal on Baitian, they got bowls of noodle soup; it was closer to their usual fare aboard the Corvette, except these had snips of fresh green veggies called “leeks” and “pelleries” that both added a tangy onion flavor and a crisp, refreshing crunch. Nic drank in the scenery one last time—the million lights of the city in every color of the spectrum, the hustle and bustle of Taizhou residents and tourists, and the sight of his friends sipping steaming soup from their bowls. It was a break in the conversation when everyone looked their own way for a moment, engrossed in their own thoughts.

A protective instinct washed over him. This was his squad; what he did, how he led them, decided their fates as much as it did his own. There was a difference between knowing it and feeling it like he did now. He wanted nothing but continued success for the five of them, and he didn’t want them to part until they were ready for retirement.

But he wouldn’t mind retiring with them, either. They’d come a long way from five strangers lumped together on Graduation Day.

***

When they returned to their Corvette for departure, everyone was exhausted. It was a happy exhaustion born of a sleep debt owed to nearly a week of fun with only intermittent shuteye.

“On Earth, not long after air travel had been invented,” Maqsud explained, “there was a term called jet lag. People on Earth flying from one time zone to another had their circadian rhythms disrupted, which were much more sensitive before gene editing made our rhythms more adaptive, of course. I wonder what those people would have thought of us traveling to different planets with entirely unique systems of keeping time.”

“It’s interesting how Ayrus still raised us with a 24-hour cycle like on Earth,” Nic answered. “I wonder how they’ll adapt once everyone lives above ground.”

“True, but a 27-hour schedule is not so radically different.”

<Welcome back, Team Scarlet,> RTIFIS greeted them. <Did you enjoy your vacation?> Everyone answered the AI in the affirmative in their own ways. <I am glad to hear that. Takeoff will begin shortly in preparation for your next assignment.> Everyone shared an excited look with each other, and Nic and Jarek both rubbed their hands together in anticipation. <Once FTL transit has commenced, your official briefing beacon is ready for viewing.>

They followed protocol for takeoff, strapping in, taxiing down the spaceport runway, liftoff, waiting for the paragravity to set in... it had all become second nature to Nic by now. They unbuckled once cleared to do so and Nic, for one, felt energized at the prospect of their next assignment. “RTIFIS, play the beacon, please. Let’s gear up for our next Wargame and keep this winning streak going!”

<Your next assignment is not a Wargame. This mission is highly classified, and no details are to be shared with anyone outside of Team Scarlet or your direct point of contact at Red Terraforming, Inc. Do you understand these stipulations? I am instructed to obtain clear confirmation before playing the beacon.>

Nic shared a confused look with the rest of his squad. No one said anything, but he could almost see the questions unfurling behind their eyes. “Understood, RTIFIS. We won’t tell anyone. It’ll be top secret.”

<Thank you, Scarlet 1. Playing beacon now.>

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A note from Raz Scrivens

What mysterious mission awaits Team Scarlet? Come back Saturday at 7:05AM EST for Chapter 38 to find out!


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Raz Scrivens

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