A printed stencil is recommended for beginners.

There was still tape stuck to Nihlus’s nose. Even then, the lines were unbalanced.

Disregarding all else, symmetry is the most important element for traditional insignia.

The light in the cockpit was too dim. It must be the light; Saren hoped it was the light, casting the shadow of a crooked smirk on Nihlus’s otherwise handsome features.

Do not apply more than two coats to the same area. Covering the designated area in a single stroke is optimal in practice.

The stripes over his cheekbones were too thin, but he dared not paint over them a third time. They would become thick and matte, like the ruined pattern over his left ear. A stifling coat that ill suited the texture of his youthful, scarless plates. 

Saren leaned back and crossed his arms, inspecting his handiwork. 

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Nihlus’s body flopped into the navigator’s seat. Nihlus’s mind was still in the corridor; checking the VI’s notice board, turning down the lightstrips, salivating at the smell of lightly-burnt rations wafting from the miniature oven. Must have set it for a few minutes too many. Damn colonial models. Seemed like everyone out there ate their food raw, their kitchens all automated and sterile, like medical labs. No feral varren to fight you for your share on your way back to the hab, no need for fires to scorch away the dirt. Just as well. He’d never fancied the taste of ash.

The screens in the cockpit flickered like the flames in his memory, but without warmth. That came courtesy of the vents on the ceiling, roaring in overtime. A yellow ribbon fluttered in the stream. The thermochromic fabric had turned white at the knot, his favourite litmus test for the temperature of home. A pleasant 310K, long attached to a bill he couldn’t afford. He put his feet up on the console. And now? Who’s got the last hearth now?

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Nihlus paused at the foot of the stairs and waved the plastic tube. “I’m looking for a replacement water filter. The small ones, for the tap.”

“They’re on the third row.” Saren’s eyes narrowed as Nihlus padded his way across the vehicle bay. “Use a ladder.”

There were perfectly sturdy crates lined up in the bottom row. But still, the ladders were just a few steps away from the workbench, and it gave him an excuse to peer over Saren’s shoulder. Saren was poking at something small, and the panels overhead were set to maximum brightness. Maybe he’d picked up that targeting system from Ilium after all.

Nihlus spotted the cushioned case, hidden behind a tri-tiered toolbox. Wasn’t the targeting system. He whistled. 

“So that’s the new pair. How do they fit?”

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“The reason I ran the cycle five times, Nihlus, is because that is the minimum number mandated by the revised Biodiversity Conservation Act to eliminate all contaminants. Zurael-2 is a garden world under the observation of the United Institute of Exoscience Studies, and they are very sensitive when it comes to…”

Nihlus subtly dialled down the volume, stretched, and yawned. The inside of his helmet fogged up briefly, to be replaced by an overlay showing the optimal path to their destination. Damn, quite the steep climb. 

He shouldered his pack, pulling the straps tight around his cowl, and checked behind him one last time. His ship was hidden beneath a giant sheet of camo-cloth. Careful observers would never be fooled; even without the ragged holes, the cloth was only a pale imitation of the surrounding alien landscape, so bright and beautiful it made him want to burst into song. He was panting from creatively tying the cloth around every fin and strut of the excessively angular vessel, but one look at the rosy skyline reinvigorated him, filled his chest with awe, and massively improved the quality of his recycled oxygen.

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As the door slid open, Desolas wished fervently that the voices belonged to the plumbers.

They did not.

The man wore white and blue and black. The symbol on his cowl matched the one on the skycar downstairs. He was kneeling, and he had his back to Desolas. He had a tiny vial between his talons. A complex-looking machine sat on the ground nearby.

The woman wore the same colours, but her face was bare. In one hand she held what appeared to be a thermometer, and in the other, Saren’s wrist. 

“You’re a precocious thing, but you should listen to her,” the man said. “Patience is key, remember.”

“The recommended exercises are all on the handbook,” the woman said gently, pocketing her instrument so she could clasp Saren’s hand in both her own. The scales on her right thumb were a different colour from the rest. “I’ve updated the community caretakers and systems with your new access level. Be a good soldier. Don’t make me revoke it.” She winked.

“I won’t.” Saren hesitated, and slowly winked back.

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Athusia, the neurologist, looked at him from across the table. The light of the folding lamp appeared as two tiny pinpricks in dark, violet-framed eyes as he stared, for ten seconds if not more, at Saren’s face.

“At ease,” Saren said at last. Athusia let the datapad fall between his hands. It clacked against the rest.

“You said it yourself: it wasn’t a dream. I shouldn’t keep you,” Athusia replied after another long pause. The chair swivelled to the left as he stood. “I should return to my work.”

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