Shore Leave

Life was about compromises. Jena wanted a two bedroom apartment for the pair. Zircon pointed out that this would mean they’d have less money for recreation, which was bad, and less to spend on food, which was worse. They had settled on a one bedroom apartment near the Asrat City Academy which had the option for the sofa to fold out into a bed.

The android had pointed out he didn’t need a bed to sleep in. He could go into downcycle mode while sitting on a chair, laying on the floor, or even standing in the corner on his hands. Humans were often quite concerned with appearances, and in spite of her cybernetic components Jena Foster was the most human human he had recollection of meeting.

Their first day on Asrat was a rush to get some clothing for the pair and some equipment Jena would need for school. She had plenty of wages stored up from her three and a half years of military service, but she didn’t want to dip into her savings too much. The clothes she bought were recycled, the equipment she bought was recycled, and as for food? By living with someone who worked at the Academy’s restaurant, she would get a discount there.

Finances on the Foster farmstead had been the domain of her mother, Adora. She had sat up the table with her often watching her scrimp and save and make the most of their income, always putting some by for rainy times.

It was on the second day of shore leave that she had started at the Academy, and after a morning of induction she strolled into the restaurant. Zircon was on the counter, serving students with a polite smile and looking rather nice in his black trousers, white shirt and pastel blue apron. It seemed some of the students were already smitten with him.

“Jena, good afternoon. How are your studies going?” He asked as she finally got to the front of the queue.

“They’ve yet to really begin, ask me tomorrow night once the first day of subjects is out of the way.” Jena smiled. While she was in a Galactic Armed Forces tank top and a pair of her black boots, the tight jeans that were hugging her artificial legs were one of the bargains she got from a fabric recycling plant the prior day.

“I shall. What would you like to order?”

Having scanned the menu with her implants when she entered the store, she placed her hand on the ident reader and transferred her order across. On seeing Zircon’s staff discount take a chunk off the price, she accepted the payment prompt.

“Our soup of the day is always an excellent choice. It, your coffee, and your slice of cake will be with you soon. Please, take a seat.” Zircon gestured to the sitting area. He was still in range enough to the Herne to download autocrew role programs, and it had been simple to find one suitable for the job.

“Thanks, Zircon. See you later for dinner?”

“Of course.” He smiled, and the sun glinting through the windows of the academy’s restaurant caught the iridescent nature of his white-blonde hair.

Jena could feel the smitten students glaring daggers at her. It put a bit of a spring in her step.

 

“Math is hard.” Jena’s voice came from the sofa. Glancing over at her dataslate, Zircon saw the answer right away.

“Does your internal computer require servicing? Your data interpreter’s calculator function should be able to do that sum as quickly as I am able to.”

“We’re not supposed to use them. We need to work it out the old fashioned way.” Slumping back, her head draped over the arm of the sofa so she could peer at the android. “Want to go out later? There’s a bar near here.”

Even an android was able to do the math on that one. “You know I have no desire to do that, which means you are asking as you want to go out, presumably to get away from your mathematical problems. So my answer would be no.”

With a sigh, Jena sat up. “Five point seven nine four?”

“Correct, and I will make you a cup of tea if you wish to have a drink.”

 

A private beach gave Zaha Roland certain luxuries when it came to how she spent her vacation. Strolling out of her villa and down to the beach with only a towel and her sword was quite the liberating feeling. The sun felt good on her, and shutting down most of the notifications and functions of her internal computer left her to only receive the important things on her time off: The warmth on her tanning skin, the tang of salt in the air to smell and taste, and the sound of waves lapping against the shore.

The slight regret of not bringing one of the Herne’s autocrew with her for a little ‘recreation’ to go along with the relaxation soon faded as the Admiral drifted into a pleasant doze, waiting for the beep to tell her to roll over onto her back.

 

Asrat City Academy had a rather nice lawn laid out in the quad surrounded by the education facility’s buildings. Jena spent her time waiting for Zircon’s shift to finish sprawled out on the soft grass, idly reading one of the required books for her Galactic Language and Literature course. The sun had just dipped behind the west building that contained a lot of the lecture halls and other larger facilities, leaving the quad pleasantly warm.

She was just about to get up and go hunting for her android roommate when she saw him strolling out from the door to the restaurant, a brown paper bag under each arm loaded with goods. Springing to her feet, she tucked her dataslate into her satchel and headed to meet him half-way.

“There was some produce going spare that needed to be used up.” Zircon explained as she neared him. “The manager said I could take it home. We have not really cooked in the kitchen yet.”

Taking one of the bags from him, she started in the direction of the exit, a vaulted archway to the south of the quad. “Maybe I’ll cook for you. Good day at work?”

“Uneventful, which could be extrapolated as to meaning good. How are your lessons going?”

“I’m currently on some literary analysis. I’m not looking forwards to the creative writing section.” Jena replied. Vigilance had been drummed into her from an early age, and the cyborg was carefully surveying her surroundings as they walked the short distance back home.

“Well, I may be able to provide assistance to you with mathematics and other academic subjects, but the creative arts are beyond my capacity.” Zircon admitted.

“I feel like that too sometimes. Have you ever tried?”

“No.” He replied.

“Well, I haven’t tried either. Maybe we could both give it a go?” Jena laughed, carefully opening the door into their building.

“On other matters,” Zircon sidestepped the request, “my colleagues have invited me out tomorrow night for drinks.”

“… You should go. It’s good for team building, and I could use the time to really knuckle down on the work I’ve been set. Especially with that sandsailing course coming this weekend.” She encouraged him, opening the door to their apartment with her hips. “For now though? Let’s see what I can rustle up!”

The Romanov holiday home was quiet. That either meant Treshka and the children were out, meditating, or that they had murdered each other. Professor Simeon Romanov, Chief of Development at Ural II’s Galactic Federation Psi Research Institute decided to go and investigate.

He found the five sat in a circle, each one dressed in training clothes and levitating a ball of shifting sand just in front of them. Treshka was the tallest, almost two feet taller than her husband thanks to the genes she inherited from her Trogadek mother’s side. His three daughters and his son only had about a foot in height on him, and the dark skin they inherited from their father helped cover the more exotic colouring passed down from their grandmother.

He didn’t even need to say anything. “Alright children, your father’s come to find us which means we’ve been quiet for too long.” His wife spoke with a grin. Lowering the sand into the box it came from with a thought, she was up and quickly crossing the floor to drape a thick arm around his shoulders. “Let’s get some lunch.”

 

“So, everyone!” The Galactic Lang. and Lit. tutor said with a clap of her hands. “You’ve all had some time to work on a piece to read to the class. I hope you’re ready. I want to see how expressive you can be. Let’s start with…” Activating a randomization command, the tutor picked the first name at the top of the list. “Foster, Jena!”

Jena could feel the eyes of her fellow students on her as she descended from the seating to stand at the front of the class. The stares locked on her didn’t help her nerves.

“So, Jena, what have you got for us?” The tutor asked. She was in a smart grey business suit, a stark contrast from the mess of black hair with an orange streak dyed through a lock and the glasses patched up with electrical tape around the arms.

Clearing her throat a few times, the cyborg looked over to her. “It’s a short piece of writing, titled ‘All Such A Laugh’.”

“Excellent, well, you have the floor, Miss Foster.”

Jena kept her eyes on the dataslate, instead of those watching her.

“It all seemed such a laugh when I was a child. Pitched battles and conflict, my imagination ran wild. It didn’t prepare me for when they came. To see one my age, on the ground slain. I took up a rifle when few else could. I took up a rifle, and knew that I would. I was twelve when I made that first shot. I often wonder where I’d be, had I not. Everything I saw had turned me harsh. Just a few years earlier, it seemed such a laugh.”

Looking up to a room full of silence, the expressions facing her were mixed at best. There was a lot of shock. That shock was mirrored on the tutor’s face before she recovered and clapped her hands. “Haunting yet wonderful, such imagination to write from the tortured view of a child. We should never be afraid of writing some of the darker aspects of our imagi-”

“It wasn’t imagination.” Jena interrupted, her cheeks hot with anger. “It… forget it.” Every part of her body was screaming with tension and the need to let the stress out. A powerful leap sent her from the floor, up the tiers of desks and seats to land where she’d been sitting. Snatching her satchel up, she shoved her dataslate in it before leaving the lecture hall. She had already brought up the class sign-up sheet in-vision to remove Gal. Lang and Lit from her studies.

 

When Jena did not turn up for lunch at the Restaurant, Zircon made a note of it to ask her later. When she did not turn up for dinner either, the android had asked to be let out early that night with a promise that he’d make it up early the next morning. It had taken a while for him to track her down, finally finding her in the gym on the top floor of their apartment building.

She was drenched in sweat, having pushed her artificial components enough to require them to begin active cooling. The punching bag she was in front of swung wildly with each blow she landed, sending it hurtling away only to swing back for more punishment.

“What is troubling you, Jena?” He asked over the sound of fists hitting the reinforced bag.

“I.” Punch. “Am.” Jab. “No.” Punch. “Good.” Jab. “At.” Punch. “Creative.” Jab. “Arts!” The strength of the next strike she leveled at the bag freed it from its tether and sent it rolling across the floor. With a frustrated groan she sank to the floor, digging her fingers into her damp locks of blonde.

Crossing the floor, he placed a hand on her shoulder. “Return home and shower. I will cook for you.” He was about to pull it away when she covered his with her own hand.

“Thanks, Zircon.”

Cool, dark, and just a little bit damp. Medenia, Operations Officer on the ISV Herne, made a content little sound as she rested against the rocks in the cave she had booked for herself. There was a pool of crystal clear water to dip her toes into, and thick veins of quartz ran through the walls, glinting in the minimal light her torch was set to provide.

Grabbing her sketchbook and the now rather worndown set of pencils she carried with her, the officer started to make some sketches of the stalagmite and stalactite formation in a nook nearby.

“If only all my shore leave could be spent like this.”

Having withdrawn from one of her lessons, Jena had more time for other things. Not that she had other things planned. The cyborg had put herself out there a little more, coming out of her shell only to snap back in and withdraw further.

Zircon, on the other hand, had been out some more times with his work colleagues. She couldn’t begrudge the android of that, but thoughts of Farringdon III came to mind. He fitted in easily wherever he went. She was still getting some uneasy glances in her other classes.

Pressing back against the tree she was leaning against, she felt the sheathe for her service knife press into her back. Only a month in, and she was about ready for shore leave to end.

New Opportunities

Three years passed quickly on board the ISV Herne. While fighting back the Volsta formed the bulk of their activities, there were other missions that Jena Foster got to experience. The crew of the interstellar support vessel came to the aid of stranded ships, helped evacuate a planet undergoing massive seismic disturbances, fought off pirates and delivered medical supplies and expertise to a world suddenly afflicted by a virulent disease.

The last one had been a tense one, some of the nightmares she had of the Volsta occupation of her homeworld would be replaced by the afflicted individuals she was unable to help. It was such a dream that had her up early, watching as the service support structures were brought into place around the hull.

A ship the size of the Herne would need six to eight months of service. It was made more difficult by the fact it could not land on a planet, necessitating a lot of work to be done in zero gravity. It had been in use for a decade and it was time for a proper work over by the technical crews of the Asrat Ship Consortium, the contracted company that had built the Herne for the Galactic Federation. As such their terminus was the space docks orbiting above Asrat Prime.

The mood of the crew was a mixed one. All of them would get shore leave. Some of them would not be returning to the support ship. A standard tour of duty for the Galactic Armed Forces was ten years. Many would stay on for another turn, some had asked or been requested for transfer to other ships or units. A small number had decided to retire from military service. Joy mixed with melancholy as faces would move on and new ones would arrive.

The cyborg was undecided as to what she’d do. She had the option of early transfer, or ten more years of service on the ship. As she stared out into space through one of the viewing monitors, her mind issued no great revelations about her future.

She felt the presence before he announced himself. A steaming cup of coffee appeared besides her, held out by the bioskin-clad hand of the android Ensign Zircon Herne. He was dressed as always in his military uniform, while she was in ship casuals consisting of a pair of black slacks and a grey tank top.

“Good morning, Jena.” Zircon smiled politely.

Taking the cup from him, she blew gently before taking a sip. A sigh escaped her lips. “Morning, Zircon. And thanks.” She raised the cup a little in appreciation.

“Many of the crew sleep fitfully and wake early on days such as this. I thought you could do with some coffee.” He explained. “Have you decided what to do with your time off?”

“Not a clue.” She laughed. “Maybe take some college courses, get some extra training done. A little recreation if my budget can afford it. You?”

A smile crossed his face. “You forget that I am part of the ship. I will undergo a service and will likely be placed into a storage state until the Herne is ready for operations again.” He registered her expression dropping. “We will see each other again if you chose to serve your next tour of duty with us.” That didn’t seem to cheer her up either.

“At least one of us doesn’t have to worry about what they’re doing.” Jena sighed, running her free hand through her short cut of blonde hair. “Even if I do stay on with the Herne, I’ll miss having you about.” She knew some of the other crew joked behind her back about her attachment to the android. A good number of the bioforms ignored the autocrew or only spoke to them if they needed something. She treated them like she’d treat anyone else.

Zircon had attempted resuming his normal operations on the ship. It took three days before Jena complained that he was avoiding her and not having meals as usual. He had explained to her that it was not common practice for autocrew to join the main crew for dinner, but the cyborg was having none of it. Jena ignored the looks that had gotten her in the mess hall. He was good company, especially for someone new to the military and new to traveling in space.

“That is the way things are, Jena.” Zircon shrugged apologetically. “Whatever you opt to do, I wish you a pleasant shoreleave. I have duties to attend to. Let me know when you are disembarking, I will assist you with your luggage.”

She deflated a little as he strolled off, his walk always fast and purposeful. Ever since she joined as a cadet, Zircon had been a constant in her life. With another sip of coffee she returned to gazing out into space as yet more struts and scaffolding was erected around them.

 

It was rare for anyone to knock on the door to the Admiral’s residential rooms. The fact someone knocked rather than requested entry from the computer narrowed the list of who it might be. Zaha Roland quickly belted her white silk dressing robe, tied her hair up and headed for the door.

Ensign Foster was stood there, awkwardly, with an empty cup in one hand. She had filled out a little more since Zaha first met her, looking much healthier than the lean freedom fighter hurting over the subjugation of her planet. “Admiral, I’m sorry to disturb you, I just-” She gestured helplessly, unable to find the words.

“Come in, Ensign.” She stepped aside to permit her entry. Zaha had packed her bags the night before and had them stacked near the exit. She noted Jena take in the decor. “It’s better with augmented reality.”

“I’m still not too used to that, Admiral. I… haven’t really bothered with it in my room. It’s nice in here though. Airy, bright, but comfortable.”

“Take a seat.” She gestured to the soft couch with a glass coffee table in front of it, opting to take the couch facing it instead. “Life on a ship is a far cry from a busy farm with lots of physical possessions.”

Ensign Foster nodded. “There are some things I miss, and a few I don’t.”

Holding a hand up, Zaha quickly headed for the kitchen to procure her french press and a small tray of condiments. “Help yourself, it’s freshly brewed.”

“Thank you, Admiral. Zircon made me a cup earlier but… this is the sort of morning where one just won’t cut it.”

Watching as the Ensign prepared herself a cup, Zaha leaned back on the sofa. “I assume what’s troubling you is all the new opportunities you have to pursue?”

“Yes, wait-” Her nodding shifted to a shake of her head. “Not quite. In a sense but…” Her jaw seemed to lock open as she tried to find words for what she wanted to say. Admiral Roland almost interrupted her before she blurted it out. “I was wondering if Zircon could come with me during shore leave. After his service of course and any additional work he might be needed to perform but I… I’d rather not be getting R&R while he’s… offline.”

Quirking a carefully plucked eyebrow, Zaha considered the Ensign in front of her. “That’s sweet, but perhaps you should use the time to find another partner. I’ve no problem with people spending recreation time with autocrew but shoreleave is a little-”

“Partner?!” Jena interjected, eyes wide. “It’s not like… he’s my friend. That’s all. We’ve never-” She made an odd little gesture with her arms that Zaha took to mean ‘fornicated’, “I’ve no interest in that. I just thought- I’m sorry to disturb you, I should g-”

“Sit.” The command halted Jena’s rise from the sofa. “You understand that the Ensign is an android, correct? His politeness is programmed. His looks are assigned by a randomization algorithm. He is designed to acknowledge and assist you as a crew member, not consider you a friend.” While the words were firm, there was no harshness intended with them.

“I’m fully aware of that, Admiral.” Jena had stiffened, her posture rigid.

“What do you plan on doing with your shore leave?” She asked.

“Education. Learn new things, do new things. I just-” The rigid posture slumped away. “I just want someone I trust about while I try and… I never went to school as a teenager, Admiral.” Jena admitted. “Everything I learned was for the fight against the Volsta. Every waking moment I was training myself to fight, or fighting.” It was almost like the air had been let out of her.

“Two conditions. I will grant this request on two conditions.”

Jena’s head shot up to look at her Admiral.

“One, you strongly consider staying on with us for another decade. We’ll be heading through the central planets, it’ll be a learning experience for you to see worlds more hectic than Farringdon III. You can make a start on that on Asrat Prime.”

“And the second condition?”

“I have a project for you. I’d like you to write a paper on interactions with autocrew from the perspective of someone from a planet with low levels of automatons.” Zaha smiled. “That should be reason enough to spend your shore leave with one of the autocrew.” Reaching for her dataslate, she tapped in a few orders.

“Yes, Admiral. Thank you.” The blonde smiled at her, then turned crimson when she saw the Admiral reach up to let her hair down.

“Something amiss?”

“N-no, Admiral, just… I’ll let you get on. Thank you again, Admiral.”

Zaha Roland watched Jena drain her mug of coffee and almost sprint for the door with a perplexed expression.

 

Commander Treskha Romanov had doubled over laughing after the Admiral told her the story. “You’ve gone soft on me, Zaha.”

“I suppose I have, but I couldn’t help but feel some pity towards her.” She explained. She was out of the robe and back in her uniform. The white Admiral’s jacket would not come off until all the crew leaving the ship were off and the handover to the technical crew was complete.

Romanov on the other hand was in denim shorts and a black bandeau top with an unbuttoned sleeveless white blouse slung over it. The ensemble showed off a lot of chartreuse yellow skin over her thick muscles, and the well-defined abdominal muscles of the Herne’s second in command.

They were currently waiting for the transport to come in to whisk Treskha away to the villa her family were renting for her stay on the planet. Asrat had a large landmass with a tropical climate. That meant there was a lot of beach to go around. A good villa was easy to rent, and Zaha would probably find herself in one at some point.

“Just don’t tell her that. So, plans for your time off?”

Zaha chuckled. “Private beach, a towel and a lot of good books.”

“Swimsuit or bikini?”

“Neither.” The Admiral grinned.

Treshka’s booming laughter filled the hangar. “Well, if you ever get bored, come pay us a visit. The kids would love to see you again, and my husband’s home brewing is better than ever.” A chime indicated the first airlock to the hangar was being opened. “That’s my ride here then.”

Mindful of the sword clipped to her belt, the Admiral leaned in for a hug. “Take care, my friend. Get a lot of rest in, and I’ll pay you all a visit.”

Treskha easily lifted her Admiral up in a bearhug as the first airlock finished its routine and the second started to open. “I’ll be checking the ship logs when I get back. If I find out you’ve come skulking about here in your time off… well, better hope I don’t.” Setting her down, she saluted. “Request permission to disembark, Admiral.”

Zaha saluted back. “Permission granted, Commander.”

 

The Admiral saw a number of the crew off that day. Chief Engineer Shay MacAllister had his break planned at a little servicing station on a popular surface transport route on Asrat Prime, repairing ground vehicles and taking in traveler’s tales in the adjacent cafe. It was a working holiday, but Zaha expected nothing less from her engineer. Navigation Officer Saekal would be stopping in Tabata, one of the smaller cities on the planet. The Lathusian warp engineer had netted himself a part in a couple of small theatre productions, and the Admiral promised to come and see at least one of them.

Operations Officer Medenia had an interesting break planned. There were a series of caves that formed an underground city situated near the equator. The pale Dalonomyd, hailing from a planet where the dark was their natural habitat, planned to give her eyes a rest from the protective lenses she had placed in them and spend time spelunking and aiding in geological surveys.

Ensign Jena Foster was one of the last to leave. She had a holdall slung over each shoulder, and was wearing a rather fetching floral dress that came down to the middle of her thighs, along with simple sandals. Zircon was with her, the autocrew Ensign dressed in the slacks and shirt he was given for formal functions on the ship. He carried two holdalls as well, the standard black and grey design available for all members of the military to use.

“Ensigns.” The Admiral smiled. “Have you decided what you’re going to do yet?”

Jena smiled. “I’ve enrolled at Asrat City Academy to get some of the standard qualifications I missed. I’ve got some sightseeing and recreation for us, but in general it’ll be nose to the grindstone.”

“I have my service booked at Iron Shell Conditioning, Admiral.” Zircon Herne reported. “The Academy’s restaurant needed staff, so while Jena is studying I will be at work there. The salary will help go towards some of the costs of things the Ensign has planned.”

Zaha tried not to let the surprise show on her face of an autocrew earning a wage.

“And then we’ll be back here. Another tour of duty on the Herne, Admiral.” The cyborg said, offering her hand. “I hope you enjoy your time off.”

“Likewise, Ensigns.” The first airlock chime sounded. “I should prepare for my own departure.”

Nodding, Jena and Zircon saluted. “Permission to disembark, Admiral?”

“Permission granted, Ensigns. See you on Recommission Day.”

 

The Admiral’s shuttle was waiting for her as she took one last walk around the bridge. Only the complement of autocrew, minus Zircon, were left on board. Her bags had already been loaded onto it, and a strappy blue summer dress that had been a gift from a former crew-mate was hanging up ready for her to change into.

She paused in front of her chair on the bridge, looking up at the commissioning plate on the ceiling. A low sigh escaped her. “Rest well, my love. We’ve another tour coming soon.” Then her sword was slid into the holder and her voice filled the room. “ISV Herne, this is Admiral Zaha Nanako Roland. Requesting permission to disembark.”

“This is the ISV Herne. The ship has recognized Admiral Zaha Nanako Roland’s command authority.” There was a pause. “The ISV Herne has now been decommissioned for a full service. Temporary permissions have been set for the Asrat Ship Consortium. Permission to disembark granted, Admiral. Proceed to the IJV Hunter’s Oak for final departure.”

Volsta’s Dagger

Zircon had taken care of the launch. The android’s direct interface with the combat servitor the pair were in easily allowed him to bring it out from the bay and into the space around the Herne. Removed from the influence of the ship’s gravity drive, Jena Foster felt the effects of zero G for the first time. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, though that might have been in part due to the sight displayed in her in-vision display.

She had been briefed about the odd sensor readings the Herne had picked up as it journeyed to the star sector. All of them had, the message relayed from the Admiral through their commslinks. What they hadn’t expected was the sudden turbulence necessitating dropping from warp encapsulation early.

The reason for it became apparent on exiting. What had been reported as three Volsta battlecruisers was clearly not. It dwarfed the Herne in length, a chimera of captured Galactic Federation ships and Volsta vessels. Dropships had been hastily converted into a fleet of support units, backing the mass of hulls with their weapons and shields. The snarling mass of energy at the front of the ship was the more pressing issue.

Light of every colour crackled and tore at reality, flecked with streaks of brilliant white and thick veins of purest black. Whatever the ship was, it was trying to go into warp. The wave of distortion was struggling to expand. Parts of it enveloped further up the length of the ship as other sections snapped back to reveal the pointed tip. The engines on it were at full thrust as it tried to break through into warpspace.

“ISV Herne to all units.” Came the voice of Operations Officer Medenia. “Get into formation while we analyze the situation.”

“Given the situation, I will take us to our formation point.” Zircon’s voice sounded from above her in their servitor’s cockpit. “I will transfer control of weapons systems to you.”

“Got it.” Jena nodded. It was probably the best she wasn’t flying. From the control readouts alone to perform a full stop the idea of flying one in combat was beyond her. Slipping into full control mode, she felt her arms go slack before the weight of the servitor’s limbs registered in her mind.

 

“They’ve cobbled their warp encapsulator technology together with more modern types.” Shay was saying, pointing out details on a zoomed-in view of the massive structure. “This section of hull is from a Trilobyte-class freighter unit. And look at this section here,” the engineer gestured towards a slender length running towards the engine block on the back. “That’s a Hermes-class Jumpship.”

“They can clearly see us.” Admiral Roland had a look of bafflement on her face. “They’ve not even got us targeted. Saekal, how’re your calculations going?”

“If, and that is a pretty big if, that thing can get into warp, they’re on a direct course for Farringdon Three.” The Lathusian navigation officer replied, his purple-skinned hands dancing across his keyboards as he worked with the figures the sensors gave him.

“All the weapons ports on the hulls have been retrofitted to divert power to their shields and warp encapsulators.” Shay brought up some examples on the viewscreen. “Even if they got to Farringdon Three, they’d only have the dropships.”

Commander Treshka Romanov had been silent, staring at the screen with her pale eyes. When realization hit, all seven foot two of her tensed up. That tensing was what drew Admiral Roland’s attention to her second-in-command.

The bellowed swear from the Commander was what brought the attention of everyone else on the bridge to her.

“Medenia, send Alpha through Delta to attack now!” She roared. “That thing doesn’t need weapons if they ram it into the planet!”

 

From her cockpit, Jena had a good view as four wings of assorted ship classes descended into battle. Moving to surround the enemy structure, the AI onboard their mech registered the energy readings and assigned false colour to them for ease of viewing. Streams of energy lanced out to batter against the shields reinforced by the modified dropships.

The section of space above her lit up as the Herne fired its weapons all at once. The barrage scattered across the shields. As waves of energy skittered over them, they buckled enough to let fire from the fleet through. What little return fire the modified support units had been giving died off as they directed all power to the shields.

“What’s the falloff on our weapons, Zircon?” The cyborg asked. Before he could respond the servitor’s AI had brought up the rangefinder. Glancing to the guns they were carrying, each had a warning prompt saying the target was out of effective range.

“They do not have the power of the weapons on the Herne.” Zircon noted. “Combat servitors are designed for engaging at closer range and for smaller targets.”

“Thought as much.” Jena sighed. “I just feel a bit useless out here.”

 

It was rare for an Admiral to leave the bridge in a combat situation, but Zaha Roland had gone off in pursuit of her second-in-command. “I get that you feel useless in here, Commander, but-”

“With all due respect, Admiral,” Commander Romanov spoke as her powerful legs took her in long strides towards her hangar, “but nothing. If that thing establishes warp encapsulation, we’ll need to fight it in warpspace.” The hangar doors opened to reveal her custom-built servitor.

Most heavy-class servitors stopped at around thirty-five feet in height. The Axar was fifty. Instead of the standard Galactic Federation Grey, hers was white with red banding around the joints. The limbs were bulky and reinforced with even more armour plating. The rear of it was the special part. A large, thick disc was mounted in the middle of The Axar’s back. Along with the engines in the middle, the rim of the disc was made up with a tightly packed group of support units, ready to either swivel out or detach.

“Commander-” Zaha was cut off as her subordinate turned and fixed her with a glare.

“Know your place and get back to the bridge, Admiral.” She snarled. The Axar’s chest plate opened to reveal the cockpit that was just about large enough to fit the muscular Trogadek woman.”

Drawing herself up, Admiral Roland nodded and turned on her heels. “Fight well, Commander.” She called, steadying her sword with her hand as she returned to the bridge. The virtual presence she had left there was reporting everything back to her, but Romanov was right. She knew her place.

Closing her eyes, she directed her presence about the bridge even as she closed the distance to return to it. [“Medenia, assign Omega Wing to Romanov’s command.”] The first message went. [“Saekal, make sure we’re not in the path of the enemy vessel.”]

The bridge doors slid open and she spoke her next order aloud. “Shay, we may need a warp gate on very short notice.” Falling back into her seat, Zaha noted the damage done to the Volsta’s construct. It was a start, but it wasn’t enough.

 

Zircon had started moving to the next formation point a moment after the command had been issued from the Herne. Free to look about with the android piloting, she saw it was only the fighters and servitors coming into position, the larger ships were staying to support the flagship.

[“Ensign Foster.”] The Commander’s voice almost growled at her over comms. [“If we’re needed I won’t have time to coddle you, can you fly that unit competently?”]

[“Commander, I have taken flight duties while Ensign Foster is in command of weapons.”] The android spoke for her. [“We are combat capable.”]

The huge form of The Axar drifted into view and Jena found herself staring at the head of the machine. It was more ornate than any she had seen in person, given almost a feral cat motif, like the mountain beasts she had seen pictures of as a kid. They had gathered at the prow of the ship, the tower behind them and the array of weapon system emplacements beneath them.

[“Listen up.”] Romanov called to all of them. [“If we have to fight, we will be doing it in warpspace. There are risks, but stay close and keep the co-ordinates of the Herne’s warp gate noted and you should be fine.”]

Jena had heard stories about people being trapped in warpspace forever. She tried to push those tales out of her head.

[“Chief Engineer MacAllister has provided details on what to target.”] Data streamed into their in-vision displays, syncing up with the onboard AI ready to superimpose on the vessel.

A coordinated volley struck the enemy ship. In quick succession Alpha and Gamma Wings fired on the shields, then the Herne unleashed its barrage. With the shields waivering, Beta and Delta Wings broke through. Explosions shot through the structure and Jena breathed a sigh of relief.

The maelstrom of energy at the front of the structure tore open. With a sudden lurch the ship plunged into warpspace, leaving its support units behind to be torn apart by the fleet’s fire.

Treshka’s swearing could be heard across all channels. The engines on the back of The Axar sparked to life. [“Omega Wing, with me!”] She cried out, boosting towards the warp gate the Herne was opening.

Jena could feel their servitor’s hands tighten around the grips of the rifles as they plunged into the swirl of colour after the Commander.

 

“Omega Wing have gone through our warp gate.” Chief Engineer MacAllister reported. “The opening is stable, I’ll keep an eye on it though.” The Herne was not designed to act as a warp gate, though it could open small entrances into warpspace using some of its encapsulators.

“Alpha to Delta Wings are cleaning up the remaining support units.” Medenia said, the operations officer co-ordinating the efforts of the task force.

As Zaha was about to speak, the Herne’s computer received a communication and brought it up on the screen. The stern face of a Volsta Commandant was staring out with spittle flecking his lips.

“This strike will just be the first! Volsta’s Dagger will plunge into the heart of Farringdon Three. You may have taken it from us, but we will not let you have it! The rage and fury of the Volsta Empire will lash out and pierce every world you stole away from us! Pride is everything, the Volsta Empire stand proud!”

As the message flickered away, Zaha Roland cracked her knuckles. “Get a message out to all our forces. Include the data we have on the Dagger and warn them about this new tactic. Send evacuation orders to Central City, get them to disseminate the warning.” Her hands gripped and squeezed each other as she thought of the units going after the suicide vessel. She hoped her long-time friend wouldn’t do anything stupid.

 

It took Jena a while to get used to moving without directing where she was going. With her mind fully occupied on the servitor, it felt like she was being possessed as Zircon directed their motions as Omega Wing came alongside the ship. A squeeze of her right hand fired shots from the long-barrelled energy rifle in that arm, several bursts slamming into the warp emitter she had targeted. A squeeze of her left hand and the short barrelled rifle howled with activity, puncturing a power relay pipe running along part of the section she had been assigned to.

The fighters were at the back, emptying their energy reserves with volley after volley into the engines of their opponent. This left the servitors to concentrate on the smaller targets dotted along the hull.

She noted that The Axar was pushing ahead, the support units mounted on the back disc firing in staccato at different targets as she boosted along the length of the Volsta’s Dagger. The assault from the four wings of the task force had done some serious damage to the ship, but it was still in warp and still hurtling towards her homeworld. A shrugging motion from her shoulders set the missile launchers mounted there to work, streaking off towards her next set of targets.

[“This is Fighter Omega A7!”] Some excited chatter came over comms. [“The engine block has lost power.”]

[“Move to the front and change firing type configuration to pulse blasters.”] Treshka ordered. [“We need to slow it down.”]

Jena watched the fighters zoom past her. A massive object like the one they were fighting could do a lot of damage to planet even in warp. Weird things could happen in such situations and she’d rather not see the result on the planet she just left.

Suddenly she was spinning and felt her stomach lurch. Warnings were appearing in-vision about G-force stabilizers being unable to compensate as Zircon flew erratically. It took a moment for her to realize just why he was doing it. Chunks of the Dagger were falling away as its structure was compromised. She winced as a nearby servitor collided with a strip of hull and was sent reeling away.

[“This is A4, our pulse blasters are having minimal effects on target velocity!”]

The Axar’s engines flared as it zipped along to the front of the ship. [“I’m going to do something stupid.”] The Commander’s voice came through to the wing. [“If I die, haul my ass back to the Admiral.”]

 

Treshka Romanov’s teeth sank into her bottom lip as she readied herself. The Axar had turned to face the Dagger, and the body of the servitor had titled up to let all of the support units on her back take aim at the front of the ship. Interlocking her fingers, she rested her hands against her stomach and breathed deeply.

Some species in the universe had natural talents in the way of psychokinesis. The Maltie were gifted at it. Half of her own species had the considerable mental fortitude required for it. The other half, human, could access such powers with training and/or cybernetic enhancements. As a half-breed, she had benefited from both. She felt her eyes roll back and blood trickle from her nose as she tapped into the gift, and then channeled it through the psi-boosters that had been fitted to her mech. As her teeth dug into the soft flesh of her lip, Treshka set her shoulders. A little lift of her shoulder blades, a peculiar parting motion, and she felt the disc mounted to The Axar shift. Revolving on their mounts, the support units span to direct their psiwave emitters at the Volsta’s weapon.

A hoarse cry escaped her lips as the field began to form in front of her, a wave of projected force to try and halt the path of her enemy. Her mouth contorted as she spoke old Trogadek mantras to bolster the spirit even as her mind screamed with the exertion to manifest and manipulate such forces.

 

As Zircon worked flat out to dodge all the debris flying off Volsta’s Dagger, Jena could see fractures running along the length of the ship as whatever Commander Romanov was doing at the front took effect. A peculiar aura had surrounded the Commander and the Dagger on her combat overlay denoted by an odd symbol, and the fighter wing had backed off to rescue some of the damaged servitors that had been struck by loose objects.

Jena winced as the Dagger started to compact in on itself, the front crumpling as the back drove into the mass ahead of it. As their target slowed to a halt, the android and cyborg noted that The Axar was not stopping.

“Proceeding to recover the Commander.” Zircon’s voice came from above her.

Detaching her weapons to mount on points of their servitor’s legs, Ensign Foster readied the hands to make the grab. “Do you think she’s…?” She trailed off.

“I am accessing her medical status through her servitor.” He replied. “She appears to be unconscious.”

Flexing her fingers moved the digits of the servitor, she readied herself to grab hold of The Axar wherever possible as they made their rapid approach. The Commander wasn’t dead, but someone needed to haul her ass back as requested.

 

They were back on the Herne having been directed to the specialized hangar reserved for the massive mech. The Admiral had joined them once the airlocks shut, along with a medical team ready to receive the hero of the hour. They were just ready to get the scaffolding up to remove Treshka when the chestplate hissed open and the muscular woman tumbled out. Jena winced. The Commander had managed to roll with the fall and staggered to her feet to salute her Admiral. Then she was sinking into unconsciousness and the waiting arms of the medical team.

Zaha watched them cart her friend away before heading for the two Ensigns.

“Admiral Roland.” Zircon Herne saluted. “Thanks to the actions of Commander Romanov, Volsta’s Dagger has come to a stop in warpspace. It is severely damaged and debris is in the area around it. A clean-up crew is recommended.”

The Admiral nodded and looked to Jena. “You’re looking a little green.”

“Zircon had to do some fancy flying to avoid impact. I’ll be fine once my stomach settles, Admiral.”

“The support crew will move your servitor back to its bay. Get some rest.” Roland turned and headed off after the medical crew. She paused near the door, looking back to the pair. “Not all days in the military are as eventful as this.”

The android and cyborg nodded, watching her leave. After a moment, Zircon turned to her. “I have a recipe for a tea that can soothe upset stomachs in memory. Shall I prepare you a cup?”

Jena clasped his shoulder with her hand. “That sounds good about now. Maybe share the recipe too. I need to get in a lot of practice before I’m as good as you out there.”

 

Treshka was sitting up in bed and eating when the Admiral came back for another visit. The white linen of the medbay bed had pooled around her waist, and the sleeveless jacket she customarily wore had been taken away to clean the blood from it. A tray in front of her contained a large bowl of stew filled with assorted chunks of meat and chopped vegetables, and a large pitcher of brown liquid with a good foaming head had been placed besides it. The sheets contrasted with her peculiar skin tone, making the green tinge even more noticeable.

“See, I’m fine.” She said with a broad grin, lifting the pitcher in toast to the Admiral as she arrived.

“You were out cold for two hours. What possessed you to fall out of your servitor?” Zaha sighed, taking a seat near the bed. She rested her sword on her lap.

“A good Commander has to do the formalities when returning to the ship.” Treskha joked, spearing several chunks from her stew with a fork to pop in her mouth. She always had the decency to finish her mouthful before speaking. “I’ll be back on duty tomorrow morning.”

The Admiral considered her friend. “Have you considered taking some time off. You are owed a lot of shore leave.” Romanov’s face darkened, and Zaha quickly held up her hands. “I’m not ordering, it’s just a suggestion. I’m sure the husband and the kids would like you to visit them, and piloting that leviathan puts a lot of strain on you.”

“My place is here, Admiral.” Treshka stated after a gulp of good brown beer. “The Herne has three more years of active duty before it is due in for a full service. I’ll use my shore leave then.”

Zaha laughed softly, slumping back in her chair with a weary sigh. “What will I do with you, old friend?”

“Put me to work. The same as always.” Another gulp of beer, a mouthful of stew and a good chunk of bread followed before she spoke again. “Apologies for shouting at you earlier, too.” She added quietly.

“Nothing to apologize for. You were just putting me to work.” Zaha said, giving her second-in-command a smile. “The same as always.”

Sword of the Hunter

“Admiral on bridge.” One of the autocrew reported, prompting everyone to rise as Admiral Zaha Roland stepped onto the amphitheater-styled bridge of the ISV Herne. Her white jacket was resplendent, and nary a strand of long black hair was out of place as she strolled into the room as if she owned it. After spending a few months on Farringdon III, she was pleased to be back on the bridge of her vessel.

The main change this time was that Ensign Jena Foster was present, accompanied as usual now by Ensign Zircon Herne. Her graduation from Cadet to Ensign had happened the day before. She had been permitted onto the bridge as a special privilege to see her home planet from orbit before departing. It was only when zoomed in that you could make out the patchwork of fields that crossed much of the land. Many of the places the freedom fighter would have been seeing for the first time, from the northern ice fields to the range of mountains in the south.

“All prepared, Ensign Foster?” She asked quietly as she passed in front of Jena. On getting a nod in return, Zaha headed for her seat in the center of the amphitheater. The bridge of the Herne was a clean, sterile white. Seating had machine interface ports on the headrest and the control panels in front of the seats could easily be configured depending on who was sitting there.

Unlike most ships, a fair number of the bridge crew on the flagship were bioforms. The vast majority human cyborgs, there were a couple of aliens on board who the Admiral was planning to introduce Jena to later. For now, she had been given her orders.

“Ensign Foster, it is your first time on the bridge of this ship, so make sure you switch your augmented reality mode onto full.”

“Yes, Admiral.” From her expression, she had done so and not seen much difference about the bright room.

That would soon change. Taking her seat, she drove her sheathed blade into the opening besides her chair. As the weapon slid into place, lights flickered along the length of the scabbard and hilt. Her fist tightened around the latter.

“This is the ISV Herne. The ship has recognized Admiral Zaha Nanako Roland’s command authority. Flagship role authorized.” The ship’s computer system announced to all on board.

Zaha was looking right at the new Ensign and saw her eyes widen as the AR environment flickered into life. Climbing plants, fountains and delicate gold trims came into existence. Behind every person present was a floating plaque denoting name, rank and role. With the sword at Zaha’s left, her right hand side was soon occupied by a floating model of the Paladin-class vessel.

It was a wide circular ship, almost disc shaped. The front rose up into a prow, higher on the top side than the underside. The top also bore a low tower in the center, with a large chamber running towards the engine emplacements at the back. Both the underside and the topside were dotted with bays for dropships, servitors and fighter wings, and along the rim were docking points for various ships to link up with.

“Admiral, the ship is now ready for warp.” One of the navigational officers reported. He was completely bald, with rich purple skin that was dotted with small bumps and ridges. The flatter nose was slightly upturned at the nostrils, and he had large grey eyes that seemed to easily take in all the details on his console.

“The other ships in the task force are moving into position. Alpha and Beta Wings are in position around the tower. Gamma and Delta Wings are stationed on the underside. Omega Wing is now ready to aid in warp encapsulation.” Zaha’s Operations Officer spoke up. She was almost pure white, with deep dark eyes and a soft mop of silvery-grey hair.

“Good, set a course for this star sector at full warp encapsulation.” She tapped some co-ordinates into a panel on her chair. “Once we’re at warp, have autocrew take over and come to the briefing room.” Zaha glanced over to Jena and gestured to the screen. “You’ll want to see this too.”

Ensign Foster turned to watch as a rainbow band began to spread over the ship. As the distortion passed Jena saw her homeworld as never before, the colours inverted and the space around it turning a brilliant white. A thrum ran through the Herne as its engines kicked in, starting to push it through warpspace flanked by the fleet.

“Zircon? Give her a moment, then bring her to the briefing room.” The Admiral ordered, removing her sword from the slot on her chair to make her exit from the bridge.

 

Farringdon III had long since disappeared from view by the time Zircon placed his hand on her shoulder. “Jena, the Admiral is waiting.”

“Of course… I’ve seen ships come out from and go into warp before but seeing it from the inside?” She shook her head as she let the android guide her along. “It’s going to take some getting used to.”

“But you will. Humans are adaptable, I have noted.” Zircon replied, taking her down a short length of corridor adjacent to the bridge. A gold light above the door flickered twice, then opened to allow them entry.

Admiral Roland sat at the head of the table. On the left hand side was the navigation and operations officers that had spoken earlier. On the right sat the chief engineer, a stocky man with dark skin bearing multiple scars, and the commander, Zaha’s right hand woman.

“As you all know, this is Ensign Foster. Recruited on Farringdon III after being saved by members of the Intelligence Agency, she spent a decade fighting against the Volsta. She was trained further by one of the autocrew, and will be joining us on our mission against the Volsta incursion.” Zaha explained. The sword lay in front of her on the table, never leaving her grip. “Any words before I make introductions and speak of our mission?”

“It’s an honour to serve on the ISV Herne with you all.” Jena spoke, then gestured to Zircon. “I would like to state that Ensign Herne’s work as training officer for myself and the peacekeeping force was exemplary. Hard but fair was the rule of the day. I learned much from him.”

The Admiral nodded. “Noted. Introductions then.” She gestured first to the commander, who had been absent from the bridge. “Treshka Romanov serves as my first officer.”

Commander Romanov was an impressively built woman. Her uniform was modified compared to the others, showing bare arms that were as thick with muscle as Jena’s thighs. She was the tallest in the room, a good head and a half taller than Jena. Her skin had a slight cast to it, a yellow leaning more towards green.

As Jena took the seat assigned to her via ident tag, Treshka easily leaned across the table to offer a hand. “I read the reports on you. Some impressive actions taken at a young age.”

“I did what I had to do.” She replied, noting the brunette hair held up in a topknot and the striking eyes of the woman, colourless irises that gained a glint of pink when the light was right.

“Next to her is our Chief Engineer, Shay MacAllister. He keeps the Herne running.”

“With help from my crews.” The engineer laughed, rising in his seat to shake Jena’s hand.

The Admiral then motioned towards the man on the left of her. He was currently stretching his four-fingered hands out in front of him, slender digits with bulbous knuckles. “Saekal, our warp specialist and navigation officer.”

“The Admiral commands and I direct the ship to obey.” He held his thumb and little finger together as he offered his left hand, the remaining two digits extended. At a commslink prompt from Zircon instructing her how to respond to such a gesture, Jena touched her fingertips to his in a form of greeting.

“And on operations, Medenia.”

The woman at the table with the dark eyes bowed her head. “I helped direct the counterattack against the Volsta’s space forces.”

“And that is why we are here today.” The Admiral continued. “Intelligence reports have indicated that three ships that were on their way to reinforce the Volsta line broke away and have been hiding in this star sector. We have been tasked with hunting the three ships down and ensuring that they will not prey on nearby systems.”

“There are a number of places in the sector where they could be hiding.” Romanov spoke. “MacAllister and Saekal, our enemy uses first or early second generation warp encapsulation to move faster than light. You are to try and exploit this outdated technology and prevent them from escaping.” The burly woman then looked to the operations officer. “Medenia, co-ordinate with our wings to deploy in an efficient search. Utilize our resources to check the remains of asteroids and debris in the sector.”

Then Treshka was looking at her and Zircon. “Foster, you have Servitor pilot training, but operating in space is different to on a world. You and your mentor,” she motioned with a large hand to the android “will be assigned to a wing to gain familiarity and help in the search.”

“You have been assigned a dual-pilot combat servitor for this task.” Admiral Roland stated, the permissions and the location of the servitor appearing in-vision for the pair. “I suggest you go and familiarize yourselves with it before you take it out. Operations will assign you to a wing.” Bringing the sword off the table, she tapped it against the floor. “Briefing dismissed.”

 

“What’s with the sword?” Jena found herself asking as they took one of the express elevators through the Herne towards their destination. Corridors large and small ran the length of the ship, with the larger ones being served by vertical and horizontal elevators to quickly get crew from A to B.

“When you were made Ensign, you were given your service knife, yes?” Zircon questioned.

“That’s right.”

“When you are made Admiral, you are given a service sword. It symbolizes the burden and responsibility of command. To be seen without it is a sign of dereliction of duty.”

Jena let out a low whistle. “She has to be seen with it at all times? Can she ever put it down?”

“An Admiral may place it by their chair or on their table during meals and meetings, or when sitting on the bridge. In their designated quarters it can be put down, but must be picked up before they leave.” Zircon held up a hand, directing them into a smaller elevator to reach their assigned hangar. “In addition to symbolic purposes, it serves as the command authorization key for a flagship. It is made especially for the Admiral, it is keyed to that individual, and deactivates on their death.”

“So, don’t ask her if I can have a go with it.” The cyborg joked. “Anything else I should know about it?”

“They all have their own name. Admiral Roland’s is ‘The Sword of the Hunter’.” The android paused before adding, “Please do not ask to ‘have a go with it’.”

Jena laughed as the elevator corridor opened up into the hangar, spotting the crouched form of their servitor in its service bay. “That’s okay, Zircon. I’ll just have a go with this instead.”

 

As an Admiral, Zaha had learned to get a feel for minute changes in the bridge’s atmosphere. She could feel the consternation coming from MacAllister and Saekal as they looked over readings. Romanov and Medenia were busy assembling the wings and giving them roles.

Settling back into her chair, it was a simple matter to project a virtual representation of herself close to where the two men were working, for their eyes only. [“Trouble?”] She asked through her commslink.

[“Could be.”] Shay spoke first. [“How sure are we on that intel?”]

[“It came through the usual channels. Why?”] Admiral Roland inquired.

[“The readings we’re getting on long-range scans don’t match what I’d expect for first to third generation warp encapsulators. In all my years of service, even at the Lathos School of Warp Physics, I’ve never seen anything like this.”] Her Lathusian navigation officer reported.

Zaha opened her eyes, her virtual presence snapping back. “Operations! Prepare Wings Alpha through Delta for combat! Wing Omega is to defend the Herne!”

Commander Romanov soon joined the side of her Admiral. “Trouble?”

“Could be, Treshka.” Zaha nodded. “Navigation, how long until we are at our original exit point?”

“Thirty seven minutes.” Saekal responded.

“Keep an eye on those readings out there, we’ll make adjustments if need be. Medenia, assign Foster to Wing Omega. I don’t want them straying too far from the ship.”

“Yes, Admiral.” The Dalonomyd operations officer confirmed.

“As you have the bridge,” Commander Romanov whispered, “do I have permission to prepare my servitor?”

Zaha looked to her colleague and sadly shook her head. “I need you here, old friend.”

Treshka sighed and took her custom-made seat near the Admiral. “I should never have let you promote me.”

“Well, you did. Take command of the Herne’s weapon systems.” Zaha allowed herself to grin at her colleague, before taking stock of the bridge. Hopefully they wouldn’t need all the firepower they were readying, but you didn’t get to Admiral without a healthy sense of paranoia.

New Skills

Ident chips were pretty useful things Jena Foster came to find out as the months passed. In addition to storing her records, wallet and contact data, it also held her qualifications. As she trained in new disciplines during her time as a cadet, a new skill was added every time she passed a test. It was thanks to the most recent exam that three months in, with only three left to go, she had left the barracks on a courier cycle and was crossing the countryside to her brother’s farm.

Dressed in a padded courier jacket and with a helmet giving her some additional protection, Jena was not alone on this trip. Ensign Zircon Herne had his arms confidently around her waist as she took the bike down rural roads and past vast expanses of farmland.

[“I do not see why I could not have a bike of my own.”] The android commented via commslink. The bike’s engine itself was quiet, but the wind as they sped along made it easier for them to talk that way.

[“Because the rest are in use or being repaired and I got this one fixed.”] Jena replied before adding, [“You’re also the one who was suggesting a change of scenery.”]

[“I did not mean for you to bring me along, Cadet.”] The android said, automatically leaning along with her as she rounded a tight corner.

[“The trainees were getting restless with you about all the time. They’ll lower their guard a bit with you gone for a weekend.”] Noting her position on the map overlay, she slowed down as she approached Foster Farm. Sheets were hanging on the washing lines and rows of workers were in the fields. A sad smile crossed Jena’s face as she pulled up in the courtyard. It wasn’t her home anymore, but the similarities were there.

Immediately Zircon climbed off the bike and placed his helmet where he had been sitting. Then he was at Rosie’s side, helping her with the basket of linen she was just pulling in. That did bring a grin to Jena’s face. He was so different around civilians compared to the trainees in his care, and his desire to help was understandable. Her sister-in-law’s pregnancy was in the early stages but she was showing under the apron she had over her clothing.

“Jaret cleared some space for the bike in the shed, Jena.” Rosie called, before directing the android in with the washing.

Nodding, Jena climbed off and wheeled the bike over to the shed. She was eager to get the padded courier jacket and trousers off along with her helmet. Underneath the riding gear she opted for jeans that tucked into her leather boots and a black vest with ‘Starbound Soldiers’ scrawled on it in faded white writing.

As she walked into the living area of the farmstead to help with the linen, the contrast between her and the Ensign couldn’t be more pronounced. On realising he was being dragged to the farm, Zircon had changed from his military uniform to beige slacks and a white shirt, finished off with a deep red waistcoat and cream tie. Jena was surprised on two fronts. One, that the autocrew member possessed clothes other than his uniform. Two, that he looked much younger than her and like he was ready to go out to church in his Sunday best.

“As part of the crew on a flagship, we often perform diplomatic and hospitality functions. We are assigned additional clothing to this end, and it is selected based on select aesthetic characteristics.” The android explained quietly as he loaded dry, folded sheets into a storage cupboard. “This outfit was selected to go along with my build, skin colour and hair colour.”

She wasn’t quite sure that beige went with anything, but she had noticed that the slight iridescence in his hair and his boyish looks had brought the worst out in some of the girls. To Zircon’s credit, he handled each little request to get him alone with care. It had been the idea of many of the girls to secret him away somewhere to get to know each other better under the pretense of some helpful task. Ever the drill instructor, Ensign Herne had them all pulling their weight together to get everything done quickly and efficiently.

“Can you leave him behind?” Rosie asked as she worked a pie crust with her hands.

“I think the Admiral would object to that.” Jena laughed. Instead of pie crusts, the cadet was busy removing dark meat from the remains of several cooked chickens to go in the pie.

“So…” Her sister-in-law trailed off. “It’s good your not the jealous type. My older sister would have been prowling around him with an axe by now to ward them off.” She glanced at Jena’s rapidly blinking expression and sighed. “You know what I mean. You two are…” she crossed her fingers slowly, “Right?”

“No. No we are not-” Jena crossed her fingers as well. “We are definitely not anything like that.” On seeing the look of suspicion shot at her, Jena went further. “He’s my superior officer, I only brought him out here as the trainees needed a break from his watchful eye and-” The last one fell away from her lips before she could speak it.

“And?” Rosie pressed, pulling the bowl of leftover chicken away from Jena to begin sprinkling into the pies, along with a mix of vegetables and seasoning.

It took a moment for her to consider her answer. “He’s not my type.”

“Well, he’s definitely the type of some of the staff here. He better watch himself tonight.” Rosie hummed, then gestured to the pile of drumsticks and wings. “Save those for the lunch bags. Easy to eat on the fields.”

 

The mess table on Foster farm was in the longest room of the building and could easily seat the workforce, plus guests. As Jarell and Adora Foster had sat at the head of the table on the old farm, Jaret and Rosie Foster sat at the head of this one. Zircon sat next to Jaret, and Jena acted as a buffer between her Ensign and the suitors who had been after him. The table itself was loaded with enough food and drink for all of them

Jaret banged his pewter tankard on the table a few times before clearing his throat. Farmlife suited him well, and some of the worries and weight that had worn on his face during the occupation had started to fade already. “Before we eat, we must say thanks. We say thanks to each other, for coming together to work the land. We thank the land and sky, for providing us with this food. We say thanks to time, as it helps us all grow.” He left a pause to let a little anticipation build before carrying on to the finish.

“We say thanks to our guests. Ensign Zircon Herne, who works dutifully day and night to train our fellows to help keep the peace. And Cadet Jena Foster, my sister, who will be leaving us in three months to join the military in aiding others, as they provided aid to us.” Raising his tankard, he waited for the others to lift their drinks before finishing. “To Zircon, and to Jena, the B-” A slight pause as he remembered her wish, then he continued. “The bravest woman I know,” Another pause and a grin followed. “Who isn’t married to me.”

Rosie’s warm laughter got the other started, and then the hungry farmers were on their food and in their cups.

 

Jaret found his sister outside by the fire watching as Ensign Herne was passed from girl to girl to dance with as music played, courtesy of some of the older farmhands. “He seems to be having a good time.”

“Impressive, isn’t it?” He’d heard that tone of her voice before.

“Jena?”

“He’s an android, brother.” Jena explained. “There’s hundreds similar to him on the Herne. They build them, randomize their features, and send them onto ships to act as the crew when others can’t or won’t. He looks more human than I do, sometimes he even acts more human than I do.” She explained quietly. “I know I’m not built for Farringdon Three anymore but… sometimes when I look at him I wonder if I’m ready for what’s out there.”

“Is that why you brought him along with you?”

“No.” Jena laughed. “One of the reasons I brought him along with me was I thought he might like a break, even if he is just programming and data.”

“Aren’t we all?” He paused. “Is that what you meant when you told Rosie he isn’t your type?”

“Not quite.” Jena said before sprawling out. It felt good to stretch out, even if most of her body was cybernetic. “You’ve done well with this place in a short time. The others would be proud. I know they’d like Rosie.” The farm’s matriarch had become less timid once they had settled, and was currently surrounded by some of the older women likely getting inundated with advice.

They both saw a pretty young woman talk Zircon away from the dancing. Exchanging glances, Jaret looked after the pair. “Should I go and call her away?”

“Hang on.” Switching to internal communications, she fired a message across to him. [“Ensign, are you all right?”]

[“I have been propositioned.”] The reply that came back didn’t seem too alarmed.

[“Do you need any help?”]

Whatever answer she was expecting to get back, she did not expect the response. [“A generous offer, but I am confident in being able to provide satisfaction to her on my own.”]

Jaret looked alarmed at the spluttering sounds his sister was making. “So, should I go over there?” He asked, offering her a mug of something rich and fruity to clear her throat.

“No.” The word was rather strangled sounding. “He’s got this. Apparently. Just… let’s not bring this up. Again.” Jena spoke firmly. “Ever.”

 

It had been rather late when Jena had gotten back to the twin room Rosie and Jaret had set aside for her and Zircon. The sleeping arrangement had been made while Rosie was under certain impressions that the beds would be pushed together. Even with her implants and enhanced blood burning their way through the alcohol in her system, she was still a little fuzzy headed when she slumped back onto the bed. Her boots were kicked off first. Then the jeans came off. Finally she extracted her bra out from her top and just laid on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

It was even later when Zircon strolled in. Even in the low-light environment Jena could see the lipstick marks on his collar.

“You were not aware that models of my specification are fully functional, were you?” He said in the darkness, slipping out of his clothing and neatly folding it for the next day.

“I didn’t give it much thought.” Quiet passed between them before she spoke again. “Why did they make you that way?”

“We were designed originally as full-body replacements for cyborgs. The ability to load tri-core operating AI onto one was an unintended feature. We can work alongside our bioform colleagues better, can be repaired and maintained similar to cyborgs such as yourself, and if asked can provide certain services to the crew, without the risk of interpersonal conflict that can develop among bioform relations.”

If the lights had been on, he’d have been able to see her slack-jawed. “So… the reason you went off with her instead of all the others that had been pestering you?”

“She was the only one to ask in a clear, upfront manner that she wished to partake of such activities.”

“… Zircon?”

“Yes, Jena?”

“You’re an odd, odd man.” She chuckled. “Get some sleep.”

 

Over her remaining few months on Farringdon III, Jena and Zircon returned a number of times to the farm at the weekend. Often on a courier cycle, and occasionally driving one of the supply trucks she was now qualified to drive if they had items that needed shipping to and from Central City. The trainees at the barracks seemed to enjoy their weekends more when the Ensign wasn’t prowling about, even if he had deputized some of the autocrew to watch in his place.

The little weekend breaks to the farm were a nice reprieve from the training schedule and life in the city. Jena knew that she’d never fit in properly on a farm full time. It was nice however to make some memories on a farm that didn’t end in such a way that her original home’s did.

Her final visit to the farm was by way of air. She had just gotten her servitor operations license, enabling her to use all three classes of mechanized walkers. Taking a medium class duo-pilot model out with Zircon, she had flown manually outside of the city limits before switching to full submersion mode. Her body went limp in her chair as her mind took direct control of the vehicle. She couldn’t help but laugh as her twenty-five foot bipedal ‘body’ zipped across the countryside, banking and rolling and climbing and diving as if she could defy gravity.

The grey-coated servitor came to a stop in the air over the courtyard. Landing struts extended from various points as Jena made her descent and landed in the correct position as eager kids on the farm watched the mech touch down. Returning control to her cyborg body, she let the chestplate open for Zircon to climb out first before joining him on the ground.

“That’s not going to fit in the shed.” Jaret laughed, giving his sister a hug before offering a calloused hand for Zircon to shake.

“As long as the birds don’t sit on it too much, it should be fine there.” Jena said before digging a foil pack of pickled Marrowcarp from her pocket. “For the lady in your life. The last pack in Central City.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Jena. Rosie just can’t get enough pickled food at the moment.” He glanced towards the farmhouse, then the pack in his hands. “I better take this to her before she breaks the door down.”

“Twins, who’d have thought it?” Jena chuckled, letting her brother head back to his wife.

“Did you bring us anything, Jena?” A young boy’s voice piped up from behind her. She turned to see the gaggle of kids loitering near her.

“A giant robot isn’t enough?”

“Nuh-uh! You’ll take it away soon!”

“Hmm, good point.” Jena mused. “You know, I don’t have anything on me, but I think Zircon might have some dataslate programs with him… and I bet some of those are games.” Just like that, the crowd dissipated from around her and fled to the android to pester him instead. Though they had seen the tail end of the war, they were too young to have gotten involved in it like she had. She was glad for that. Jena had stopped being a kid when she first saw “Toothy” Tommy laying on the ground.

“Jena?” One of the older farmwomen called to her. “Could you take a look at my laser strimmer? I think the lenses are out of alignment.”

Rolling the sleeves of her black hoodie up, the cyborg nodded and headed over. While she had gained lots of new skills and qualifications over the past half a year, the old ones were still there.

Departures

“Your room.” Admiral Roland gestured to one of the single occupancy rooms formerly used by the Volsta. She watched as Cadet Jena Foster placed her bags near the bed. Autocrew from the Herne had swept the Volsta Empire Barracks in Central City and renovated it ready for use. Men and women from various parts of Farringdon III had volunteered to undergo a Peacekeeper training course, and the facility would be perfect for housing them as they trained. For Jena, it would serve as boot camp to learn the ropes of the Galactic Armed Forces. The planet would get a mobile force to resolve the odd conflict that cropped up on the surface and help deal with any threats from off-planet. The deal had been one of the points drawn up by the new Farmer’s Council, and Zaha had signed off on it.

Stability meant less chance of her having to come out this distance. A six-month timetable had been agreed to hand over to civilian rule, and she was looking forwards to her Task Force rejoining combat in the anti-Volsta operations.

“You will have Saturday afternoons through to Monday mornings to do as you wish. Failure to report back will be a mark against you, and we will come looking.” Zaha said, reinforcing her point by clicking her sword’s scabbard on the ground. “Any questions, Cadet?”

“No, Admiral.” Jena replied. “If there’s anything I can do to assist the populace during my training, please let me know.”

A slight smile flickered onto Zaha’s lips. “Be in the courtyard at seven hundred hours tomorrow. You can start there.”

 

It had just gone eight in the morning and already some of the new recruits were flagging. Jena had a sack of building materials on each shoulder, carrying them from storage to load on the backs of supply vehicles waiting to be dispatched. While the fully human were drenched in sweat by this point, dark patches forming on their light grey cadet wear, Jena just had a slight sheen about her. Her cyborg systems could sweat to help dissipate heat, but the cooling systems were keeping up with the demand she was placing on herself.

An Ensign was watching over them, taking notes on how long each of them lasted. which of them took a break before getting back to work, and who just slumped to the ground and couldn’t muster the energy to get back up.

“You may stop now, Cadet Foster.” The Ensign said in a clipped accent.

She had been at it for three hours now, and dumped both sets of bags onto the back of a truck.

“All but Cadet Foster are required to head to medical tent one to receive your ident chips.” On noting the disjointed herd moving in that direction with a lot of complaining, the Ensign made a note to start them on drills and marching the next day.

“And me, Ensign?” Jena asked after the mass of other trainees had departed.

“Report to the target range. You may have enhanced senses, but you are required to be tested on your ability to tell enemy combatants apart from other individuals.”

 

The first week of training had consisted of drills, marching, exercises, equipment familiarization and yet more drills. Jena had run training drills with the Farringdon Falcons using information gleaned from books, and while the exercises didn’t do much for her new body her participation helped keep the rest of the trainees in line. She was the Butcher of Vadarai Seven, after all, and if the Butcher was running about in training gear, then they should as well.

Meals were taken together at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Long benches had been set up for them to sit at. The others gave Jena space, except for the Ensign running their training drills. Curiously, the young man was drinking a Cybabrew as well. It was Friday evening when she finally asked him, leaning back on the bench as the bio-generator that replaced part of her stomach got to work. “So how long have you been a cyborg, Ensign?”

“I am not, so never.” He noted her confused look and carried on. “What is my name, Cadet?”

“Ensign Zircon Herne.” She said from memory, not needing the ident prompt that had appeared in-vision.

“And what ship am I serving from?” He asked the next question. His hair was a pale blonde, almost white. It looked slightly odd when paired with his olive skin. Jena assumed he dyed it.

“The ISV Herne.” The Interstellar Support Vessel, a Paladin-class ship that excelled in fleet support and ground deployment, was the flagship of the Task Force. It must have been some odds that he was posted to a ship with the same name as his surname.

“Some information that will serve you well, Cadet. If you meet someone with their surname matching their ship name, they are Autocrew. Autonomous AI in artificial bodies, similar to cyborgs.”

Her eyes widened. She’d heard of such wonders, but never met one before. Cyborgs were rare enough where they were, let alone androids. “I had no idea, Ensign. You certainly don’t… seem like a… well…” She shook her head. “You look more human than I do.”

“We CAZ Model automatons are designed to high specifications to better integrate with human crews on long missions.” Zircon explained, gesturing to his plate. “For example, eating. My presence at meal times helps keep the trainees in check. I am fully certified to train others, and have been loaded with a range of programs to aid in this task.”

“Good to know.” Jena mumbled, shaking her head a little to clear her thoughts. “What’s coming tomorrow morning?”

“Close quarter combat training.” Zircon stated. “You will be paired with me, and the others will be fighting training droids. Then you will all have some free time for the afternoon.” Finishing his meal, Zircon stood up with his tray. “The others may be a little too bruised to make full use of their time off, but I do not imagine that will be a problem with you, Cadet.”

A lifetime of serving on the Shuck seemed a little more tempting as the Ensign walked away.

 

The trainees on the peacekeeping course had stopped their drills as the sparring match between Cadet Foster and Ensign Herne kicked up a notch in intensity. Jena fought as a brawler, falling back on the techniques she picked up in the resistance. Zircon’s style of combat was a mishmash of martial arts techniques from across the Federation, executed precisely while under pressure.

Darting in as she saw an opening, a blur crossed her vision. The next thing she knew she was on the floor with her arms pinned behind her and Zircon sitting on top. Struggling as best she could, Zircon kept her held down before looking to the trainees. “Fighting while angry can give you an edge in strength, but technique can negate that at best, or turn it against you at worst. When you commit fully to a blow, beware your momentum being redirected.” He explained before letting go and rising to his feet. He did offer Jena a hand up.

She rolled her shoulders a little after rising, trying to work the kinks out.

“Your combat data has been recorded by the training droids you partnered with.” Ensign Herne explained to the gathered cadets, gesturing to the padded humanoids that had marched into the drill ground that morning. “Starting next week, you will be going through daily basics and practice with them in addition to your drills. Do spend a little time reading through chapter one of the combat handbook. You are all dismissed.”

Handler was waiting for Jena by the door to her room. Out of the grey shipsuit Jena had always seen her in, she was black leggings and a rather flowery top. Thankfully for Jena, Handler’s black hair was elaborately pinned up.

“Nice top.” Jena commented as casually as possible. “Everything all right?”

“I have some downtime and I figured you’d want to know. The Shuck will be leaving in a month’s time.”

“Another Resistance cell job?” As much as Jena wanted to take her clothes off and grab a shower now she was back at her room, she instead busied herself with setting out some casual clothes ready for her time off.

“That’s classified, soldier.” Handler chuckled. “We’ve still work to finish here in the run up to our departure date. Data and transfer records to finalize, intelligence reports to send to the right people. The Shuck is still where we left it if you ever want to drop by.” Taking the look Jena gave her into account, Handler spread her hands. “Socializing, that’s all.”

“I’ll consider it.” Jena spoke after a moment’s thought before stretching out with a groan. “Provided Ensign Herne hasn’t sent me to the scrap heap before then.”

“I’ll let you rest up then, Jena.” Handler said. “Just remember you are earning a weekly wage now. If you like the top, maybe pay a visit to the shops in town. Military clothing tends towards monochrome, even the casual wear.” She paused as she turned to leave. “See you around maybe, soldier?”

Handler had left by the time Jena turned around.

Jena had gone into town with her time off, though not for clothes shopping. She stopped by the Trader’s Quarters and dipped into her pay to purchase a small set of tools and some materials. When she wasn’t being drilled, training, reading, or going through equipment checks the cadet was in her room testing the fine motor control functions on her new hands. Meals in the hall were spent chatting with Zircon learning about space combat and the quirks of autocrew. She got along better than expected with the android and it seemed the more they got along, the more she improved in close quarters combat training. It was getting dangerously close to the end of the month before she finished what she had been working on. A dash into the city late on the Saturday afternoon had taken a dip into her wallet to pick up some last things. It was evening by the time she set off from the barracks to Landing Site Park and the IXV Shuck.

 

“You coming out?” Durand asked. The cyborg was out of her shipsuit and was instead in a little black number that showed off a lot of leg and arm. She had let her wealth of chestnut brown hair down and raided Solokov’s make up set for the finishing touches.

“You’ll all enjoy yourselves more if your handler isn’t out there with you.” Handler spoke, reclining on her chair on the bridge of the vessel. “Have you asked Fixer if he wants to go out?”

Agent Durand laughed. “I think you definitely need a night out. Fixer’s already off ship, indulging in some local beer festival. First they’ve had in a decade.”

“In which case someone needs to stay with the ship. I’ve some last minute checks to run before we launch tomorrow.” She gestured to the itinerary and stock lists being displayed in front of her. “You go get some R&R, it may be a while until you next have time too.”

“All right, Handler.” Durand started to walk away, then suddenly draped herself over the back of the chair. “Unless you just want us all off the ship in case some strapping blonde farmgirl drops by?” She teased.

“She’s not a farmgirl, Simone.” Handler absently corrected her agent as she looked through medical supply listings. “And Jena isn’t interested in that.”

“Who mentioned Jena?” Simone smirked. “I certainly didn’t. I could always go and-” The agent trailed off at the look her handler shot her, “-get out of your hair so you can run your final checks.”

“That would be appreciated, Agent.” Handler pretended to ignore the snickered laugh as Durand left the bridge, preferring instead to run inventory checks on replacement parts and go over final requisition orders from the Herne’s storerooms. She had only just gotten started when footsteps sounded on the floor behind her.

“As I said prior, Agent, I am not going to go-” The words fell from her lips as she spun round in her chair. Instead of Simone Durand standing there, it was Jena Foster. The blonde young woman looked rather awkward in a pair of strappy sandals and a mid-thigh length white dress, with no sleeves and a floral design similar to the garb Handler had worn a month back. There was a bag in one hand, and the other was rubbing somewhat nervously at the back of her tanned neck. “Jena.”

“Sorry to disturb, Handler.” She apologized. “I’ve been busy and I just-” She gestured with the large bag in hand. “Gifts. For the crew. As thanks.” Jena then pointed back behind her. “Durand let me on board before she went off.” A silence passed between the pair before Jena started to dig things out of her bag. “There’s jams and preserves in here, local tinned fruits and vegetables, some biscuits and even some freshly made Farringdon fruit cakes.”

“Thank you.” Handler smiled. “It’s a lovely gesture, I’m sure we’ll enjoy them.”

“There’s something for Fixer too.” Jena added, quickly pulling a box from the bag. The markings on it indicated it was a scale model kit for of one of the more popular types of tractor, plus a plough attachment. “He put me back together, so… a little something for him to put together.”

That drew a warm laugh from Handler. “I’m sure he’ll enjoy that too.” Then Jena looked even more nervous than she had been as she reached into the bag again. Her first attempt at speaking failed, so after taking a little breath the cyborg tried again.

“I’d have visited earlier but between all my work and… all the work I was doing on this I just didn’t have-” A nervous gulp, then she pulled out two packages. Both were wrapped in colourful paper and tied up with simple brown string. One small and flat, the other a tube about half a foot long. Reaching out, Handler took the tube first.

“This one is for y-you and the ship, i-in a way.” Jena stammered as Handler unwrapped it. It was a carved piece of wood, etched and painted in four sections, each one denoting one of the planet’s seasons. She noted the seam in the wood and carefully drew one part away from the other, revealing a length of knapped stone carefully clipped into a blade.

“All houses on Farringdon Three have one. Or they used to. It’s supposed to bring luck and safety to everyone who lives in the house, but with the last ten years… I think they’ve fallen out of favour.”

With a nod of understanding, Handler tucked it into one of the pockets on the command chair. “In this line of work, luck and safety are always hoped for.” She said before taking the next package. Jena looked even more nervous at this one being opened. Inside was a bracelet. The clasps had microwire wrapped with wheat gold cotton running between it, and carefully shaped and polished flint pieces had holes drilled into them before being threaded along the length. A soft smile came to her lips as Handler carefully unlatched it before slipping it around her wrist to fasten.

“Fixer might have put me back together, but… I owe you a lot too, Handler. T-thank you.” Handler could see the tension rising in her former recruit, her rate of breathing upping. Then Jena had darted in to place a kiss on her cheek, the corners of their lips just touching.

As they parted, Handler could see the panic in Jena’s eyes. Her hands were shaking again, and her jaw trembled as she forced herself to move back in for another kiss. Their lips almost met again when Handler heard the hitch of Jena’s breath. The sobs followed as the cyborg crumpled against the intelligence officer, her shoulders heaving as years of repressed panic and sorrow broke through all the barriers she’d built over the past ten years of conflict.

“Let it all out, soldier.” Handler ordered, her arms coming around to hold the weeping woman close. It wasn’t quite how she’d hoped to spend her final night planetside but for the cyborg she held in her arms, it was a positive step.

A single thought locked off the bridge from the rest of the ship. If the others returned early, she knew Jena wouldn’t want them to see her in such a state.

 

As Jena watched the IXV Shuck take off with eyes still a little puffy from the bout of crying the previous night, regret swept over her. If things had been different, she’d have departed with them for a lifetime of work across the universe. As it stood, she still had five months of training to go before she’d leave Farringdon III herself. As she watched the intelligence ship reach escape velocity, she knew she’d never see them again. Galactic Federation space was vast, and the Shuck’s missions would take them far beyond its reaches.

Jena Foster brushed the grass off her dress as she stood up from the hill she’d sat watching their departure from. Handler had given her some good advice, and she intended to make use of it. She made the call from her internal commslink and waited for someone to pick up the other end.

[“Rosie? It’s Jena. I was wondering if you and Jaret want to meet me for lunch?”]

Wired Differently

Jena Foster stalked down the corridors of the Central City Administration Building with a knife in each hand. The handles were tethered to her wrists by microwire cable reels, their purpose simple. Having shot her way into the building, her pistols sat in their thigh holsters building up charge. As a guard ran out into the corridor a flick of her wrist sent the knife flying into his neck. A thought started the cable reeling in with the knife leaving a bloody trail across the floor. Handler had sent a picture of Administrator Rahv to her internal computer, and she had the image of the sanctimonious invader up as a reference as she made her way towards the inner rooms.

With a multitude of footsteps heading her way she leapt into the rafters. The patrol found the guard she had just killed. They did not spot Jena until she dropped from the rafters and plunged her blades into two soldiers as her powerful legs kicked out at others. She almost pitied them being so outmatched.

 

Handler was keeping an eye on the situation from above the city, the IXV Shuck’s optical camo keeping them hidden from the ground forces. Fixer had joined her on the bridge to monitor the progress the resistance were making. Most of them were now in the city and had their list of targets to take. Power relay stations, garrisons, prison facilities and so forth. Her agents were at work too, and she had status reports listed for the seven.

She paid a lot of attention to Jena’s. The recent recruit’s broadcast via VNN had a dramatic effect on morale on both sides, and she was now in the central building hunting for the Administrator. It was something of a test for the former farm girl. If she killed Rahv or let someone else kill him it was no big deal. If she carried out the assigned mission? There’d be hope for her long-term potential, and a place to offer her on the team.

Handler reminded herself her hair was done up. It was no time to be thinking of her newest agent in that regard. She could consider her move there when the battle was over and her hair was released from the tight ponytail she’d tied it up in that morning.

Agent Gibbams, Durand and Huang were at the planetary communication relay. Durand had taken some fire but was still standing, and the other two cyborgs were busy trying to deactivate the defense systems.

Akintola was at the prison going through the prisoner manifests and transfer records. It wasn’t quite as glamorous a job as taking down defense systems or securing administrators, but they would need those records and she was well suited to data gathering.

Sokolov and Lopez had the most unpleasant task. The resistance and the others were focused on the Volsta. The two GFIA veterans were focused on the collaborators. Some were forced into working with the Volsta, others freely turned on their own. It was the latter that the pair had been sent to gather before the resistance started any indiscriminate killings. Handler had dealt with these situations before, and a resistance group was only as focused as the threat from their occupiers. Best to nip any issues in the bud.

“Handler?” Fixer called from his console. “I’m picking up warp signals from around the planet.”

“It’s too early for the task force, the defenses are still…” She quickly switched the viewscreen to above them and swore. Instead of peals of rainbow light opening up, it was inky clouds of black separating with fissures of brilliant white light. Outdated warp encapsulator auras could only mean one thing.

 

“Administrator, The Pride of Volsta is now coming out of warp.” One of the ops officers in the CCAB reported. “It is joined by Ginv’s Folly, The Wrath of Volsta, and The Rage of Kiel. They need to wait for full warp disengagement before releasing their dropships.”

“About time too.” Rahv snarled. “Draw our forces back to Defense Position D and let the reinforcements know to come in from around the city. Grind them against the building into paste and use their remains as fertilizer!” The Administrator was of advanced years for a Volsta, his angular features heavily lined and his pale skin yellowing in places. He looked up in shock as the doors to the control room flew open and soldiers dashed in, their weapons pointed out into the corridors.

“What is the meaning of this intrusion?” He demanded.

“She’s out there, Administrator!” One of the soldiers shouted. “The Butcher of Vadarai Seven!”

 

When Jena had worked out just where the Administrator would be, she had changed her tactics. In an apparent wild search for her quarry, she had dashed around various rooms and fallen on the guards in there. When they were dead, she had placed a sleeping gas grenade looted from one of the armouries she passed in the ventilation system and accessed it remotely to lock that section down.

After repeating that several times around the command room, she had worked her way up to the floor above it and into the ventilation system herself. A simple thought switched her systems to recycled breathing, a pop-up in her vision explaining just how long she could go at current activity levels before needing to draw a breath.

It would be long enough. Using the programs Fixer had installed, she hacked into the air systems again and started the chain reaction to flood the command room with gas.

 

“Handler says there are Volsta ships preparing to release dropships.” Gibbams noted, keeping the soldiers in the corridor busy with suppressing fire.

“Great, more stress.” Durand huffed, wiping at her forehead as her implants worked to subvert the defense systems.

“Almost ready, Durand.” Huang said, a similar look of concentration on his face as he battled with the command encryption system. “Prepare to receive encryption protocols in five.”

 

Jaret had noticed the change in enemy movement. From haphazard defense and attacks to decisive movements to hold onto certain points. When Rosie had pointed out the flashes of black and white in the sky, he knew what that meant. He switched from the hunting call of the Farringdon Falcon to the circling call. The Falcons fell back, even as he started issuing commands to shut the gates and take up positions to defend both inside and outside the city.

 

Akintola kept her wits about her as she dumped chunk after chunk of records to her extended memory space. Even though she was tucked away in a small room in the prison, she didn’t want any surprises as she backed up every single entry, transfer and death record.

 

Sokolov locked the door behind her as Lopez ticked another name off the list.

“Seed and Grain Offices next?” He suggested, pulling another set of heavy duty zip-tags from the pouch on his waist.

“Sounds good.” Sokolov nodded. “They reap what they sow.”

Lopez groaned as his optical camouflage kicked back in, the pair shimmering up onto the rooftops.

 

“One!” Huang said, sending the encryption keys through his machine interface tether to Durand. From their, the hacker sent the command codes through the comms relay and to the satellites. As much as she wanted to turn them on the Volsta, that would take time they just didn’t have. Instead, they were to go to inert mode and begin a ten hour diagnostic sequence.

“Planetary defense systems offline. Time to call in the cavalry.” Durand grinned, firing off the next message with glee.

 

As the Volsta ships started to release their contingent of dropships, all the bridge crews noticed the shimmering rainbow  appear before them. Even before they had fully exited warp, the Galactic Armed Forces Task Force opened fire with a barrage of weapons fire, more joining in as the fleet of ships poured out of warpspace and joined the fray.

 

Things had gone rapidly wrong in the command center. They had barricaded themselves in only for the room to start filling with sickly sweet gas. As soldiers and ops officers began to stagger about feeling the effects, the defense systems went offline. As proud and brave Volsta dropped to the floor, ships began warping in to take on their own space force.

As Administrator Rahv covered his face with his hands, a blonde figure dropped in front of him. He had seen her on VNN not even an hour ago. She had a knife in each hand. Rahv sunk into unconsciousness defiantly staring up at her as she brought the knives up, not expecting to wake.

 

[“Good work, agents.”] Handler’s voice came through the commslinks. [“Gibbams’ team, join up with Solokov and Lopez and get the collaborators secured. Requisition a vehicle if needed and take them to the prison. Akintola, you’ve got command of that facility until we can hand over to the Task Force.”]

“What about Jena?” Fixer asked from his position on the bridge.

“I’m going to bring us down to Landing Site Park.” She explained. [“Jena, once you’ve secured the Administrator, bring him to this position.”] She sent the map data along with her voice. Her hands then came to the control panel to bring the ship around.

 

Jena glanced out of the window at the crowds milling about below. With the Galactic Federation Task Force mopping up the Volsta ships above them the streets were filled with resistance members looking for remaining enemies. Given she had one slung over her shoulders, going down there wasn’t a good idea.

Administrator Rahv was out cold. His wrists and ankles had been bound with the microwire tethers of her knives, and a cleaning rag found in a cupboard formed a makeshift gag. Looking out over the city, she tapped into the map data provided to plot a course out to Landing Site Park then adjusted the route to take her along the rooftops.

Jumping came easy to her now. Her artificial legs sent her from the CCAB’s fourth floor to the roof of an adjacent building, and then across to the next. Central City was laid out in a grid system with the long rectangle length of Landing Site Park running along the north-eastern edge. Jena had always dreamed of being able to go to the city, but now it seemed rather small in spite of being the largest settlement on the planet. Federation ships had started their descent, a quick calculation of their trajectories had them heading to the park too. A terrace of buildings gave her plenty of room to build up speed before a long jump sent her hurtling through the air towards the park.

[“Handler, I’m approaching your position. I take it we’ve got company coming to meet us?”] She asked through her commslink.

[“Admiral Roland of the ISV Herne will be joining us shortly.”] Handler confirmed.

Jostling Rahv on her back, she proceeded at speed towards the Shuck. [“Good thing I brought a gift, then.”]

Handler was waiting for her to arrive, and thankfully she had both her hair up and her zip. With ease Jena lifted her prisoner from her shoulders and placed him on the floor of the airlock. “Volsta sleeping gas, he should be back with us soon.”

“Nicely done, soldier.” Handler nodded. “Take him to the medical bay and help Fixer restrain him. Stick around afterwards, the other agents are busy with their orders. You’ve done all we’ve asked of you.”

With a slightly worried expression, Jena lifted the Administrator up again and headed into the ship with his prone form.

 

Admiral Zaha Roland was a severe looking woman whose long black hair came down to her rear, just passing over the end of her white admiral’s jacket. In her right hand she carried a slender, sheathed sword of little decoration. The tip of it tapped on the floor with each step she made. While she was not of advancing years in appearance, her eyes were much older than the rest of her face. “Handler, I looked over your reports on the way down here. The Shuck’s crew have done well, you shall all be commended for your efforts in the liberation of Farringdon Three.”

Handler bowed her head in thanks.

“And this must be the local talent.” Zaha added, looking over Jena. “How does it feel to have helped free your planet?”

Jena glanced to Handler and Fixer, and then at the Admiral. “That all depends on how long your troops will be here for. We didn’t fight and bleed to get rid of one army to bring out the Sunday best for another.” Handler shot her a look of warning.

“Pert.” Admiral Roland commented. “The Task Force has no plans to subjugate your world, though. The Volsta have been pushed back on other worlds, and we will push them back further still. The troops are only here for the handover back to civil control. You have spent almost a decade under enemy rule.”

“In which case, there’s a present for you in the medical bay. Their administrator.” Jena explained, before looking to Handler. “I need to check in with my brother, if that’s all right?”

Handler nodded. “Do come back later. Fixer will want to check you over.” Fixer nodded his agreement.

“Perhaps we will meet later then, Miss Foster.” Zaha spoke. “You’re excused.”

As she left, Jena was glad Handler wasn’t quite as uptight as the Admiral.

 

She had found Jaret close to the old hospital, directing medical teams from the Task Force to various parts of the building. Giving out a few more orders, he ran towards her and leaped onto her with a tight hug.

“You’re okay…” He sighed with relief.

Jena gave his back a slightly awkward pat, remembering she hadn’t put her performance limiters back on yet. “It’ll take more than this to kill me, brother. They had a good go before, and Fixer put me back together.”

“Rosie said you were… more different.” He smiled a little uneasily. “You were incredible out there.”

Jena shrugged. “Where is your wife, anyway?” On noting his look of surprise, she hefted his hand up and tapped his wedding ring. “I noticed it earlier.  Congratulations.”

“Thanks. She’s helping the medical teams out. She trained with administering aid to animals, and they’re not too different from us in a way.” Jaret explained, before stepping back to look over her. “You’re taller now.”

“Growth spurt. And some new legs.” She said, tapping one foot on the ground. “You’ve got some more work cut out for you, I’m afraid.” On noting his look of confusion, she thumbed back to some troops on the street. “You’ll want to make sure they don’t get too comfortable here. The Admiral in charge said they’re here to help transfer power back to civilian control. That means we’ll need a new Farmer’s Council. You’ll also want to make sure the resistance stands down and doesn’t do anything too drastic to collaborators and the like.”

“That’s… a good point. I mean, I’m glad to see them, but I’ve had my fill of soldiers for a while.” Jaret laughed, scratching the back of his head. “You can help out too with the council, right?” A pause fell between them. “Right?”

“I’m not a farmer, brother. I might have been once, but not any more.” She said quietly, refusing to look in his eyes. “We had an argument about that once.”

His face fell. “Jena, I-”

She cut him off. “I’ll check in on you in a bit. I’ve got some work to do too, I just wanted to…” Remembering to set her performance limiters back on, she patted his shoulder. “It’s good to see you.”

 

Night had fallen over Central City. Jena had been checked over by Fixer once the Admiral had cleared off, and after grabbing some food from the ship’s canteen she had found herself in her makeshift quarters eating a mix of rice, spiced vegetables and a meat paste. Her bloodied combat uniform had been changed to a pair of grey sweatpants and a black tank top, and a half-drunk bottle of Cybabrew supplement drink sat by her thigh as she read over some of the other agents reports in her head.

“You did well today.” Jena tensed up at the sudden speaking, relaxed when she realized it was Handler, then tensed up again when she saw the intelligence officer’s hair was let down. “Maybe a little more gratitude to the Admiral would have been nice, but at least she understood your position at seeing her troops march out to secure the city.”

“I had to say what I did. For what little family I have left.” Jena spoke before taking a pull from her bottle. All the nutrients and supplements a cyborg body needed, plus a fruity taste sensation.

“Have you given some thought as to what you’ll do now?” Handler asked, stepping into the room and letting the door shut behind her.

“My brother asked me to help with the Farmer’s Council, but… I’m not like him. Or Joran, or Father.” She said sadly, tapping the side of her head. “I’m wired differently. I clashed with my brother over that before I left to find Mother. I’m-”

“A soldier, soldier?” Handler took another step closer, and Jena felt her heart pounding.

“S-something like that. Besides, not many repair shops for cyborgs on Farringdon III.” Jena stood. Standing was probably better in this situation than sitting on a bed.

“You’ve got options. The military always needs skilled soldiers, and Admiral Roland mentioned backing your application.” Handler said, taking another step nearer. “The Shuck could always use someone with your skills too. I’d be happy to have you join us.” An arch look crossed the intelligence officer’s face. “My previous offer still stands too.”

Handler was up close to her now, and Jena could barely feel her lips due to the tingling spreading across her face. Her hands felt weak, a muddle of sensory feedback coming from them to shoot up her modified spine and into her brain. Words stumbled from her mouth and she could hear something rattling against the wall behind her.

Handler looked sad, almost pitying as she observed Jena. “You’re trembling. You charge into battle with no fear, but this has you actually-” she stopped and stepped back, letting the cyborg take ragged breaths. “I’m sorry. I thought you were just nervous but…”Grabbing the bottle of Cybabrew, she offered it to Jena.

As Jena drank, her feedback readings began to normalize. “Sorry.” She mumbled around the mouthpiece of the bottle.

“You’ve nothing to apologize for.” Handler shook her head. “As it stands, I’d recommend you go join the GAF. As valuable an asset you’d be for the Shuck, the GFIA tends to hold onto an agent for as long as possible, and I think- I hope at some point you’d like to try life outside of the service.” Noting Jena’s nod, Handler turned to leave and give the cyborg some room as well as find an outlet for her own frustration. She stopped as a hand caught her arm and felt a thumb stroke against her wrist.

“Thank you.” Jena said, her eyes averted. “To you and the crew. For everything.”

A smile crossed Handler’s lips. “Get some rest, soldier. You’re a hero and you’ve done a full day’s work today.” She allowed her eyes to look over the cyborg one last time before Jena let go. The door slid shut behind Handler, and the dark-haired woman let out a frustrated sigh.

“Screw rest.” She muttered to herself. “I need some recreation.”

Unbridled

In the eight weeks that had passed since Jena Foster’s re-awakening, she had time for a lot of reading. Her neural computer implant let her pull information from the computers of the IXV Shuck, the ship that had become her temporary home. At first her reading had been on the matter of cyborgs, given her new status as one. Then she added in the general history of human enhancement. In one of the corridors of the ship she walked on her hands as her mind let her scroll through the document she was currently reading.

It was the mid-twenty first century on Earth when human enhancement projects split into two distinct paths. The development of the human-machine interface let a mind communicate directly with electronic components and from that point on companies competed against each other to create the strongest, the fastest, the most efficient components they could. Someone with only a cybernetic arm would be constrained by their biological components. Someone with most of their body replaced on the other hand could far exceed human performance in all fields, but saw increased maintenance and upkeep costs.

Genetic enhancement was making its own strides. Widespread testing and genetic treatments paved the way for eradicating many diseases, though not without controversy rising over definitions of disease and disability. Those arguments were nothing when it came to improving the human genome. Decades of legal wrangling and philosophical waxing played out in courts and academia until a project was pitched to increase the baselines of all humans born after the treatment.

Centuries later, Jena herself benefited from long-term effects of those treatments. Humans lived longer and healthier lives while staying productive for longer. Where a hundred was once considered a ripe old age to die at, it was now a life cut short. How you looked at that age was still the matter of luck, though.

“Foster,” Handler called from the end of one of the corridors, “come give me a hand with these supply crates.”

Flipping to her feet, Jena went in pursuit of the young woman who lead the cell. While Jena’s hair was blonde and her skin still had some of its tan, Handler was the opposite. She had almost chalk white skin and her dark hair held up in a severe bob. Handler was all business, and Jena appreciated that.

“Crates with a red mark need to go to Fixer. Blue to the bridge.” She said as she struggled lifting one of the blue crates up.

Glancing at the handles, Jena turned four crates on their side, placing two of the crates together handle-to-handle. Slipping her hands around both, her new strength easily let her lift four at once with the even distribution of weight easily spread across the internal supports put into her back and shoulders.

Jena followed behind Handler, hoping the dark grey combat bodysuit she wore was not quite as tight on her body as their leader’s shipsuit was.

“Eyes up, soldier.” The dark haired woman spoke after a few moments as they worked their way through the corridor.

The former farmer felt herself blushing, not quite sure as to why.

 

Sat with a padded shirt over his overalls, Jaret was in his workshop with an old ceramisteel axe on his lap. Notches had been made in the handle once. Dark scorch marks covered the wood now. It had been found along with the ruined remains of his sister’s rifle. It was the only thing he had to remember her by.

“Wish you could have been here for this, little sister.” He spoke aloud in the darkness. “I’ll take this into battle with me. Hopefully I won’t have to use it. Just… look out for us. If not for me, for my wife.” He added as he felt someone step into the room. Rosie had been there to pick him up after his sister’s death. She was a timid young woman with mousy hair, but there was steel under the colourful home-made sweaters she always wrapped herself in.

She kissed him on the cheek. “It’s time, Jaret.” She whispered as she clung tightly to him.

Stepping out of his workshop with her, he looked over the gathered forces waiting for his leadership. Farm vehicles had been modified and reinforced with additional armour from scrapped machines. Their weapons were a mix of their own hunting and defense rifles, and newer Galactic Armed Forces models smuggled in by intelligence agencies. They were a rag-tag force, one of many that would be heading to the city, but they were united in their task.

Jaret held Jena’s axe above his head. They all knew whose it was, and what it meant to the leader of the Farringdon Falcons. “I’ve never been to Central City before.” He called out to his fellows. “So once we leave here, I don’t plan on stopping until I’ve seen Landing Site Park!” A titter of laughter came from some of the older members. “I also hear they’re looking for something for a new monument. A monument to celebrate the day we liberated the city, and the planet, from the Volsta Empire.” He looked over his sister’s axe in an exaggerated manner.

“I think this would do the job.” A cheer came up from the group, and Jaret put on his most confident smile. Turning, he pointed in the direction of Central City. “Let’s get moving, and no one stops until we’ve seen our liberation!”

 

“It’s almost time, Jena.” Handler called from behind her.

Jena had spent the last few days finishing her preprations and helping get the ship ready. She had been through checks with Fixer, plans with Handler, and listened in on the other six agents reporting back to the ship. Fixer had also given her a cartridge to place into the back of her neck loaded with combat stimulants, and a warning to be sparring in their use. Her system would regulate them and prevent her doing any damage but she needed to pick the right time to use them.

She was taking one final look over the tactical map of Central City when Handler had called to her. “I know.”

Jena turned as she heard footsteps coming towards her, and the sound of a zip being moved. Handler had her hair down and the front of her light grey shipsuit had a v-shaped split of pale skin in it where it had been unzipped. Her green eyes looked up, down, across, flitting about trying to decide where to look.

“Eyes front, soldier.” Handler smirked. “I noticed you looking the other day, figured you might need some stress relief before the battle.”

Had Jena been looking? Confusion crossed the cyborg’s face, and Handler paused too.

“I’m sorry.” Jena said, keeping her gaze firmly on Handler’s dark eyes. “I’ve never… with anyone, and…” She was getting more and more flustered. Taking a deep breath, she shook her head. “Thanks- for the offer that is, but… stress has always kept me keen. I think I’ll need keen tomorrow.”

Handler didn’t look offended at being turned down, like that man in the camp had. She simply smiled and zipped her suit back up. “Maybe after the battle then.” Her hands worked quickly to tie her hair up, and the old Handler was back with her. “Make final checks on your loadout for tomorrow. We’ll be holding you in reserve until all forces are committed, then deploying you to the optimal location for affecting ally and enemy morale.”

As Handler walked away, Jena tried her best to ignore the readings of her elevated heart rate. Instead she opted to look over the edge of one of her combat knives she had been given. If stress kept her keen, that little encounter would leave her as sharp as the knife she was checking.

 

The Farringdon Falcons did have to stop a couple of times on the way to Central City to let slower vehicles catch up and to rest the engines and the troops. It was at the last stop for the final day that Rosie had slipped into Jaret’s sleeping bag. The pair had nestled together under the stars.

“Are you scared?” She asked.

“Terrified.” He replied with a soft chuckle, tousling her hair with a hand. “I don’t know how she did it.”

“You’re just as strong as Jena, just in a different way.” Rosie stated, capturing his lips with her own. “And she’ll be out there with all of us tomorrow.”

“I know.” He nodded. “I just can’t let my nerves show to anyone.”

“But me.” Rosie spoke with warmth, glad he was able to confide in her. Even though she was a bit more open with him in private, her cheeks still heated up as she spoke. “Will you lay with me?”

Jaret’s hands slipped down to pull her close.

 

“This is Reporter Zang, with the Volsta News Network!” The broadcast rang out across all channels around Farringdon III. “The Resistance, pushed back and fought against for years by the brave Volsta forces, have launched a desperate all-out attack against Central City! But do not fear, for the walls of Central City stand strong, and its garrison are ready to defend the seat of Volsta power on the planet! I am here on the front lines with the brave soldiers of the Eastern Unit, engaged with the ramshackle forces of the Farringdon Falcons!” Zang caught his breath before continuing. “With the death of the Butcher of Vadarai Seven almost two years ago now, the terrorist formerly of the Falcons number, these criminals must not have much fight left in them to be driven to such a desperate action! Stay tuned in with me here on the front lines as the mighty Volsta repel these peasants!”

“The perfect target.” Handler almost purred as she listened in. “I’ve marked the location on your overview, Jena. Get out there, reinforce the Falcons and make yourself known.”

Quiet and armed to the teeth with knives, a plasma cutter, and several energy pistols, Jena squeezed Handler’s shoulder before departing from the bridge. Her dark grey and black combat suit showed off her physique, and was designed to provide some protection from energy weapons and other damage. As she took off running for the exit to drop into the battlefield, she ran one last systems check and remembered what Fixer had told her earlier.

[Disable Performance Limiters?] The message appeared in her in-vision display. With a thought, the message changed. [Performance Limiters Disabled. User Caution Advised.] As the optically-camouflaged ship slid through the air towards the eastern front, Jena Foster crouched down in the open airlock, gripping recesses on the floor. [“I’m in position.”] She broadcast through the Shuck’s communications systems to Handler.

 

It was not going well.  Volsta troops were bombarding their fleet of vehicles with fire. The armour was beginning to fail, and the Falcons could barely get off attacks in response before having to duck out of the way of incoming fire. And that damn reporter’s spiel was continuing to demean and diminish everything the Falcons had done. As one of the smaller vehicles on their left wing exploded, Jaret hoped the amount of fire they were drawing would give one of the other teams space to breach the city and take out the planetary defense systems.

“Jaret!” Rosie called from behind. “I’m picking up a disruption approaching in the air.”

“Take cover, everyone!” Jaret yelled.

A fleeting shape passed over the battlefield, a mere shimmer in the air. A singular figure fell from the distortion, and then the carnage started. Jaret watched as from behind enemy lines, Volsta soldiers were flung in the air. He winced as one shot forwards and bounced off one of their gun emplacements to lay broken on the ground.

“What the hell is going on over there?!” He heard one of his men say from behind as one of the Volsta’s defense vehicles was tipped on its side.

“Back-up from the GFIA?” Jaret called back. “Whatever is going on, we have a chance. Check your fire and give them some support!” He yelled, before whistling the hunting call.

Bolstered, the Falcons begun their advance again as they laid down fire.

 

Unbridled, Jena tore through the ranks of soldiers. It felt good to fight once more. Fire burned in her veins as she laid out soldiers with single blows. Each punch could send a man hurtling up and across the mud, and her enhanced reflexes and joints let her dance through danger, conserving her weapons. With the Falcons joining the fight again, her destination was clear. The broadcast vehicle of the VNN.

“An enemy combatant has landed in the lines of the brave Volsta, and has begun an inhuman rampage! The brutality and barbarism of the terrorists can plainly be seen as… as…” Reporter Zang trailed off as he saw the vengeful face approaching him, her uniform stained with Volsta blood. “It… it can’t be.” A younger version of that face had been all over the news a couple of years back.

One of the soldiers charged at her, only to have his neck crushed with a squeeze of her hand. Picking his body up, she hurled him into his fellows. Zang scrambled for the vehicle and locked the door behind him. With a snarl, she plunged her hands into the metal and easily tore it off. With the Falcons encroaching their location, the soldiers were too busy to help him. She flung the door at the backs of some soldiers before staring at Zang and his broadcast camera.

“Let the dogs of the Volsta Empire howl in anguish.” Jena Foster growled. “The Butcher of Vadarai Seven has risen, and the Falcons hunt once more!” With a shrill whistle, she sounded the hunting call and promptly rolled the vehicle over onto its top.

 

Jaret stood ashen-faced as his dead sister walked towards him. At the sound of her voice the rest of the Falcons had surged forth to rout the Volsta. She looked a little older, a lot stronger, and dressed in dark colours with blood dripping from her arms a lot more vicious than even he remembered her being. He fell to his knees, tears running down his cheeks.

“Stand, my brother.” Her voice was a little deeper. “There’ll be time for that later.” Wiping her hands on her thighs, she easily pulled him to his feet. “You need to get into the city. I can clear the gatehouse and open it for you, then I need to assist with taking down the planetary defenses.”

Trembling, he managed a nod. She gave his shoulder a squeeze before pushing him in the direction of Rosie, who had been watching with wide eyes.

“Give him a few minutes to get his brain back in order, but get moving towards the gates.” Jena ordered. Then she turned and ran for the walls, her legs carrying her faster than anyone he’d ever seen. Gunfire started down at her, then she was leaping up to the top of the wall in a single jump. Soldiers soon started to fly off the battlement as she worked in close combat.

Gripping the axe he had carried since her death, Jaret drew himself up and took a deep breath. “You heard Jena! Falcons, advance! We take Central City today!”

 

The fighting was fierce in the city itself, and noting the stress readings on her arms Jena had fallen back on her weapons rather than risk overtaxing the artificial limbs. As a unit charged towards the now open gates and the Falcons making their way in, she gripped her pistols in both hands and activated one of the combat stims.

An odd sensation washed over her. The running Volsta slowed to a crawl, even as the slightest movement could make her arms swing rapidly. Her fingers squeezed the trigger over and over as she adjusted her aim, and then time was running normally as the charging group crumpled with their wounds.

Bounding from rooftop to rooftop, she checked some of the other combat stims she was carrying and triggered one to give her repair systems a kick. Repair and cooling solutions rushed to her limbs, and the conditions of each soon shifted back up from amber to green.

[“Foster, I see you.”] GFIA Agent Gibbams said over internal commslink. Looking up, she could see the balding intelligence operative on a nearby tower. [“Head for the central building. I’ll keep an eye on the Falcons.”]

[“Change in orders?”]

[“Handler wants you to capture Administrator Rahv, head of the occupation forces on Farringdon III, and secure him ready for handing over to the military when they arrive.”] Gibbams explained. [“Secure him, Foster. The military and intelligence agency wants him alive, don’t let any of the resistance extract mob justice on him.”]

With a nod, Jena took the elevated route to the complex in the middle of the city, taking potshots at Volsta troops as she went.

It wouldn’t be long now.

Learning to Breathe

The Vadarai-7 Massacre, as orchestrated by Jena Foster of the Farringdon Falcons, had been a massive success. With the loss in troops and dropships, the Volsta ground forces had pulled back to strongholds like Central City and given the various resistance groups time to bolster their numbers and up their training. Their space forces had also diminished, running skeleton crews and sending their ships to combat Galactic Federation forces at other points of conflict.

There had even been some rumours circulating in the past two years that the Galactic Federation Intelligence Agency had landed forward agents on Farringdon III to help the resistance effort.

Jena was unsettled though. Now seventeen, she still retained the lithe muscles and lean look, even if other parts of her had started to fill out now they were eating better. And that was part of the problem. The Volsta were in their heavily guarded enclaves, automated space defense platforms placed around the planet controlled from Central City. Farmers that had joined the resistance groups had left to go back to their farms and provide for the populace once more. The resistance groups tested the defenses of the enclaves and carried out raids on Volsta supply trains, but their fangs had been sated with an improvement of living standards.

They were at a stalemate.

Wandering the Falcon camp one evening, four things hit her. The smell of cooked food. The light and warmth from the now-openly burning campfires. The singing and music from around the campfire. Only a few years ago this would have been a beacon in the night, the flame to draw swarms of Volsta in to raze the camp to the ground and leave them not even buried, just thrown in a pile.

She knew he was coming before he even made his move, a muscled arm crossing in front of her to press against a thick tree trunk. She didn’t bother to lift her head, just glanced upwards at the brunette staring down at her with a salacious smile.

“If it isn’t the famous Jena Foster.” The man tried to bring on the charm. “You want some company tonight? You’re not on guard roster, and neither am I.”

Some of the women in camp’s torsos were in various stages of swelling after years of being too focused on survival to contemplate bringing a child into the world. Having worked on the farm with animals in her childhood years she knew the basics, but had no interest in them.

“No.” She stated.

He looked like he had been struck, the smiling expression falling away to be placed with angry rejection. “What, am I not good enough for the Butcher of Vadarai Seven?” The music and singing at the campfire had fallen away as they noticed the commotion. “I’ve killed plenty of Volsta.” He added in boast, as if that was supposed to mean anything.

Turning now to look up at the man who had interrupted her thoughts, Jena glanced about at the various sets of eyes looking at them. There was going to be problems soon, she surmised, so it’d be best to put a stop to them now. “Actually, there is something you could do for me. Only you.” She said, loud enough for her voice to carry around them.

The facade of charm slid back onto his face. “Oh yeah? What do you need?”

“An example.”

A puzzled look crossed his face, then her fist collided with his chin and sent him hurtling back onto the ground. Then she was on him, bloodying her scarred knuckles with each blow landed on his face. She lost count of how many punches she landed before Jaret had hauled her off the beaten-senseless man with a full nelson lock.

 

“Was there any need for that?” Jaret snapped, interposing himself between his sister and the door out of his workshop. “What has gotten into you!?”

“I could ask you the same thing, brother.” Jena replied. “Have you seen out there? Singing, open fires, pregnancies. We are exposing ourselves, leaving ourselves vulnerable when we should be focusing on the Volsta.”

“And that’s a good enough reason to beat a visiting resistance member half to death?” The weight of logistics and leadership had worn heavy on Jaret, and late nights reading had given him a noticeable squint.

“He propositioned me and didn’t seem to want to take no for an answer, so I made an example of him.” Jena stated simply, staring down her brother.

“That isn’t good enough. You wanted me to lead the camp, so I’m leading it. That means if you have a problem with someone, you bring it to me. You don’t take matters into your own hands.”

Her fists bunched up again, blood trickling down her fingers. “If I’ve got a prob-, okay, okay, I’ll come to you with my problem. We have become complacent and it will get us killed! There is my problem.”

Jaret stepped closer, his back rigid and his own fists clenched. “Not everyone is you, Jena. Not everyone can be focused all the time. We have breathing room, you gave us that, people need to breathe and you need to learn how to breathe again!”

“Jaret?” A timid voice came from behind them, going ignored.

“Do you know what he called me? ‘The Butcher of Vadarai Seven’. That is something I will have to carry for the rest of my life, so forgive me if I can’t ‘breathe’ because of the fear of the Volsta’s hands coming back down to wrap around our necks while we sing and play happy families around the campfire!”

“Jena?” The timid voice sounded again, drowned out by the constantly raising voices between brother and sister.

“See, this is your problem! You don’t see a slight return to normality as progress! Remember when I said you turned vicious? This is what I mean! You are so focused on the fight you’ve forgotten how to live!”

What Jena was about to say next fell off her lips as the timid voice spoke once more from behind Jaret. “Someone’s seen your mother.”

 

Adora Foster had been visiting the Farmer’s Council when Central City fell. There had been no word of her in eight years. Now word had filtered through the Resistance of her being shipped out to a Volsta farmstead to work the fields, and Jena was packing her possessions. Her dad’s hunting rifle sat by her rucksack, along with her walking boots, her axe and a mix of rations and food supplies. Her campwear had been changed for layered traveling clothes of an earthen hue, with a camouflage blanket sleep in and provide cover.

“This might be a trap.” Jaret warned from behind her.

“I know.”

“And you’re still going to go?”

Jena crammed her waist pack with more supplies. “I’ve forgotten how to live, remember?”

Jaret winced. “I didn’t mean-”

“You did. It doesn’t matter. If it’s a trap, I’ll send word once I’ve dealt with it. If it’s Mother… I’ll bring her here.” She stepped into her boots and started to lace them up. “Consider what I’ve said, about the camp. We’ve had two years, but so have they. They could have ships ready to drop out of warp, loaded with dropships and troops, and only be a week away.”

He nodded, hefting up her rucksack to slip over her shoulders. “One thing, before you go?”

“What?”

“All those years ago, how did you know the code for the weapons locker?” Jaret asked, tentatively opening his arms to give his sister one last hug.

“I used to sit on his lap as a baby when he’d check the weapons over. I must have seen him put that code in hundreds of times.” She sidestepped the hug, but clasped his shoulder with her hand. “Take care.”

“You too, Jena.” Jaret Foster said as he watched his sister walk away.

 

It had taken a month of walking and living off the land. On the way she checked in with resistance encampments and information posts to track down the small farm where Adora Foster was said to be working. On the outskirts of the farm she placed a gull feather under a chunk of flint on the wall and waited nearby. It was night when the resistance agent came for her to lead her through the fields to the bunkhouse.

“She’s just inside.” The agent said, her hand turning the doorknob.

Jena clearly heard the click as the door opened. She dropped to her knees and covered her face with her hands as the blastwave surged out of the building.

 

“Handler, we’re too late.” She heard a voice say once the ringing in her ears subsided. “We’ll have a look about, but I don’t think we’ll… hang on.” She could feel a presence over her. “She’s still alive! Quick, get the medkit over here, we need to stabilize her!” As a throng of activity settled over her, Jena sunk into unconsciousness.

 

The first thing Jena Foster noticed when she opened her eyes was that one and a half years had passed. She noticed this because the date was clearly displayed in the bottom of her field of vision. It was also just past dawn, her status was apparently green, and she was at full charge. Then she tried to take a breath and wound up gagging and gasping, writhing around on the solid bed as her lungs refused to draw air in as she needed them too. Sets of hands came to press her down. Through the haze of panic, voices started to register.

“Calm down Miss Foster, you need to learn to breathe with the artificial lungs.” An older man was repeating to her. Grabbing a dataslate, he tapped something in and a pair of swelling circles appeared in her vision. “Breathe in time with the movement of the circles.”

Following the pulse of the circle and the gentle ocean sounds that accompanied it soon had her breathing normally. A helpful indicator told her that her pulse had resumed to normal levels, as well as her heartbeat. Blinking to clear her eyes, she looked about at the assortment of individuals in front of her.

“Much better.” The older man smiled. “Welcome to GFIA Advance Base Leghorn. You’ve been through quite the ordeal, but we’ve fixed you up better than new.”

Glancing down at her body, Jena noticed two things. One, she was naked. Two, seams ran between her parts of her body where no seams had previously existed. The skin on most of her body was slightly off in colour and texture, the back of her wrists contained small ports as seen on computer terminals.

As realization hit her, her status changed from green to red. Her vision swam and faded out as she collapsed back onto the bed.

 

There was just the older man in the room with her when she came around again. A pot of tea and two cups sat near them. A sheet had been draped over her body to cover her modesty.

“It can be stressful enough for a cyborg to wake up the first time when they know what their body has gone through. You did not have that luxury sadly, we had to save you with what we had to hand.” His voice was gentle. Greying hair was combed back and beard lightly trimmed.  “I am Fixer. It is what I do, so it is what I am called.”

Jena sat back up, the sheet starting to fall from her chest. It took a few attempts before her right arm would move and stop its descent, and some further attempts to pull it back up to her collar bone.

“That’s good, it shows your mind is adapting well to the changes you have gone through.”

“Jena Foster.” Her voice croaked. unused for a long time.

“We know who you are, you are somewhat of a legend around here. What can you remember?” Fixer asked.

“It was a trap. I thought it would be an ambush, prepared for it. Instead I heard the click of the detonator when the agent opened the door.” Sweat prickled on her forehead as she felt the heatwave rush over her once more. “I ducked for cover behind her, I think.” She paused, tensing her left arm. She could see the bulge of muscle under the synthetic skin. “Then I heard someone talking to a ‘Handler’, then I woke up here.” Clearing her throat with some light coughs, she gestured to the teapot.

Fixer gladly poured for her.

“So the GFIA found me, brought me here and turned me into a cyborg?”

He handed the cup to her with a nod. “Good, it seems you have your wits about you still. We stabilized you with medical supplies, then had a… spirited discussion as to whether it was worth the attempt. We do not have the full facilities here to perform cyberization, so we had to make do. It also diminished our supplies of spare parts. Some of the team were not happy about that.”

Jena drank from the cup. Tea still tasted like tea, that was a good sign. “Why did they go along with it in the end, then?”

Fixer smiled. “Because the Volsta think you are dead, Miss Foster. As the Galactic Federation’s plans move towards liberating this planet, that gives us a powerful advantage. Even now, Handler is sending out the messages for the final battle.” He noted Jena’s look of confusion. “The Resistance must take Central City, or at least disable the planetary defense system. Once done, the Galactic Armed Forces task force will warp in and eliminate air support before joining us on the ground.”

Jena mulled over this information as she stared into the cup, her reflection looking back at her. While her face had come out well, she could see where the top of her head had been damaged. The seam running just under her hairline and the fact her hair hadn’t grown pointed to it being artificial as well. “And if the Butcher of Vadarai Seven rises from her grave for this?”

“The effect on morale may help win this war.” Fixer replied. “You have time to get used to your body beforehand, the pieces are not quite in place yet.”

Nodding, Jena knocked back the rest of her cup of tea. “One question.”

The older man gestured for her to proceed.

“Is Jaret still alive?”

“Your brother still leads the Falcons. He is well, if mourning for his sister. I understand you two did not part on the best of terms.”

Discarding the cup and throwing the sheet off her, Jena rose from her bed. It felt odd to be standing again, her gait a little unsteady. From the looks of the room she was it, it was a converted medbay on a ship. Part of her was amazed that she could feel the cold of the floor through her artificial feet. Reaching for a dataslate, Fixer activated a digital mirror for her to look at.

Her lean limbs were now rather well muscled, tissue replaced by synthetic muscle fibers. Tensing up caused them to bulge, and readings automatically came up in her vision to inform her just how much strength she could exert. Her natural skin started just below her hair and ran down to her shoulders, then past her breasts and towards the bottom of her ribs. It then transitioned into artificial skin. Her navel was gone, and she raised an eyebrow at the smooth patch of skin between her legs.

“I seem to be missing some parts.”

Fixer coughed. “As I said, we lacked proper facilities and components. There are nerve endings there, it… never worked out well in the past if a cyborg could not get some form of-”

“Yeah, I think we can stop that conversation and save both our blushes.” Jena interrupted.

“Appreciated, Miss Foster.” Fixer replied. “So, can the GFIA count on your support?”

Jena shifted suddenly and kicked at the air. The speed and force at which her leg moved surprised her. “Father always said to finish the jobs you start. I’m in.”

The Farringdon Falcons

Alderman Farm was not the first remote settlement hit by the Volsta Empire, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Over the next five and a half years the fringe of the Empire unleashed more attacks on the planet, and had even taken Central City, the planet’s capital. Farringdon III had resources a growing empire needed, and they intended to burn every farmstead, subjugate every facility, and use the world to fuel their expansion.

The Volstoy Colony Fleet had left the Earth centuries ago, sent on their way by first generation warp encapsulators. Now they were coming back from the depths of space, no longer quite human and with no interest in commerce or negotiation. Other fringe systems had been hit by them too, and one of the last messages they got before the fall of Central City was that the Galactic Federation was scrambling their armies to meet the threat at all conflict points.

Some farmsteads capitulated, working for the Volsta and finding most of their produce diverted to the war effort. Central City rolled over for the invading empire after the Farmer’s Council was eliminated. Those who stood up for their rights, like Jarell and Joran Foster, were made examples of. The Foster farmstead had fallen three years ago, incinerated by a volley of fire from a ground assault ship.

Jena had spilled blood long before her first period. A scout from a raid team had found the survivors of the farmstead by accident. Startled as he was to see the huddled few with their meagre possessions, he wasted precious seconds before activating his comms beacon. With her father’s hunting rifle gripped in her arms, Jena had fired five slivers of energy into him before he hit the ground. Placing a worn boot on the shredded chestplate of the enemy, she delivered another shot into the pale, pointed face that stared skywards.

She was twelve when she had her first confirmed kill, and in the three years that followed, many more dots were etched into the stock of her rifle. She even made a few on her ceramisteel axe and her sling, thanks to the open-faced helmets the Volsta soldiers wore.

Not that the young woman spent all her time fighting. A satchel held dataslates that she spent hours pouring over. From military tactics to technological specifications and scientific reports. She had helped tinker and tune a lot of the vehicles and machines on the farm as a kid, maintaining their scant supply of weapons and working on traps was not a great deal different from that work. Resistance groups had sprung up all over Farringdon III, and the Falcons that Jena Foster belonged to were one of the more notorious among the invaders. The defense of Kayo Farm only proved how well that notoriety was deserved, and the group would live in infamy from their next strike.

Wrapped in camouflage netting made of scraps from ruined clothing, Jena watched from her perch with her rifle to hand. The dropship had finished loading supplies from Kayo Farm, and the marauders were ready for their final act before leaving. Two of them had their weapons pointed at the gathered farmers bound by rope, five were lugging a heavy barrel of fuel in their direction ready to detonate it and leave the land scorched. It had taken a lot of talking to restrain her forces this long, but they knew the signal.

Peering down the scope, she took the barrel in her sights. They were far enough from the dropship, far enough from the restrained settlers. With a pull of the trigger, she lanced the barrel. The surge of flame erupted with a great roar, engulfing the five Volsta and leaving the two guards reeling back from the sight of their fellows caught in the inferno.

Two more shots burst forth, taking both guards in the back and sending them stumbling forwards. The Volsta might have had more men, but their technology had stagnated in their isolation, and even poorly equipped as they were the Falcons had some advantages.

The dropship pulled up from the ground, its weapons systems searching. That was when one of the young girls who had joined them demonstrated her talent. With a whip of her wrist she let a sphere loose from Jena’s sling. Colliding with the sensor array on the front of the ship, it shattered and let its contents spill out.

The mix of conductive paste and metal fillings was the idea of Jena’s middle brother, Jaret. Made after careful observation and analysis, he had formulated the plan and the compound. Smeared against the sensor array, the dropship reared back as it computed navigation dangers that weren’t real and responded to objects that weren’t present, mere shadows and errors putting the ship in danger. It span out wildly as it careened back, only to plummet into the field it had landed on.

Jena whistled the hunting call, and the Falcons were storming it as a small group freed the farmers, offering them sanctuary in the forests and caves they called home. The guard and the pilot on the ship, knocked senseless as they were, didn’t react as the Falcons killed them where they stood. Together with the farmers they unloaded the supplies before starting on the ship itself. Stripping it for parts, for information, for weaknesses. Then they sunk back into the undergrowth with their new members and their hauls loaded on all-terrain crawlers.

Jaret ran to meet his little sister when they returned to the camp. He was thinner than Joran, with glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. Truth be told they were all thinner than they should have been, they had to make the most of their supplies. Jena herself was all wiry muscle, her hair roughly cut short and her lips seldom graced by a smile. As he released her from the hug, she pressed a cartridge into his palm. “The data from the Volsta dropship. Be sure to let the other resistance groups know about the scramble paste, it did a number on the ship.”

Jaret nodded, taking her scar-lashed hands and almost dragging the fighter to one of the recessed camp-fires with a cooking pot perched on top. “Eat, Jena. I’ll need time to look over this data and see if I can write something to affect their systems.” He pushed her down to sit, his hands on her shoulders. While he was more of a thinker than a do-er, he still had some strength to him.

Still, she tried to get up again instead of taking a bowl. “There’s the parts we stripped to sort through, and the Kayo folk to get sett-”

“If Father was here he’d be telling you to eat too. Others here can take care of that. Rest. Eat.” Jaret smiled, before considering his sister. “Besides,” he added, “you’re no good to the cause if you keel over.”

Jena’s eyes shot up to look at him, and she actually chuckled as she called him one of the terms her father would get elbowed for using in front of their mother.

“Love you too, Jena.”

 

It was several weeks later after the Kayo Farm incident when Jaret gathered the top level members of the Falcons in his workshop. On a holoprojector he had a list of commands displayed in the air next to him. “After extensive research on the dump of a Volsta Dropship’s operating instructions, these are the codes I think I could exploit, and-” He brought up another set, “given what we know of their transmission protocols, these are the ones I think a program could propagate through their command network. I’ve a few ideas, and I’m open to hearing suggestions.”

Jena stared at the two sets of instructions as talk babbled around her. She waited for a lull in one of the arguments over suggestions before throwing her hand up.

“Jena?” Her brother asked.

“Would that one for medical evacuation explain the behaviour we have seen from some dropships in the past? A very controlled take-off and a return to one of their orbital bases?”

He nodded.

“And it could be broadcast through the network to make other ships leave?”

Another nod. “Though once they got to their orbital base, they could just come back down.”

Jena leaned back on her rough wooden stool. “Could we send one ship up to its base, broadcast it on delay, and then recall the other active drop ships? If we had a ship to infect first, that is?”

Jaret ran over the idea in his head. “That should be possible. Have you got an idea?”

When Jena had finished explaining just what she was thinking, one of the meanest men in the camp ran from the workshop and could be heard retching outside.

“You’ve turned vicious on us, little sister.” Jaret reprimanded her gently.

“The Volsta were responsible for that, I’m just returning the favour. Can it be done?”

“It can, if my research is correct. Can -you- do it?” He asked pointedly.

Pushing herself up from her sitting position, Jena Foster turned to head outside. “Just watch me.”

 

It took several more weeks for all the parts of Jena’s plan to come together. Adjustments were made to the program Jaret was working on, and various targets were sifted through to locate the best possible one for just what she had planned. They had decided to trek a little further out to a farmstead that was firmly under the Volsta’s thumb. Dropships regularly traveled to the farm to gather supplies to take up to the orbital bases. That schedule was the keystone of the plan.

As night fell around the Ishigaki farmstead, the Farringdon Falcons slipped through the darkness to surround the building. Quickly subduing the watchmen, they moved to phase two. Sleeping gas grenades were dropped down the chimneys and placed in the air intake vents to fill the assorted bunkhouses that the staff had retired to. With masks on their faces the Falcons made their entry to restrain the gassed traitors, binding them with heavy-duty tapes and ties to ensure they didn’t escape or alert the incoming ship.

Then they waited. Jena was tucked into the recesses of a small workshop near where the ship landed, her axe in one hand and a hunting knife in the other. She dozed intermittently, conserving her strength and trying her best to stave off the nerves from what she needed to do to ensure the plan would go right. The greatest risk was on her.

The Volsta had grown complacent. They landed and disembarked to head to the farmhouse, their weapons slung at their sides rather than in their hands. They left the dropship door open for ease of loading. As the soldiers walked to the farmstead in the early morning sun, Jena sprang from the shadows and made her way into the ship. Her axe swung first, falling between the collar and the helmet of one of the guards to bite through his spine, felling him with ease. The pilot turned just in time to see the knife driving towards his unprotected neck.

A few seconds later she heard the shots ring out from the farmhouse as the rest of her team completed their mission. Those that lived were quickly bound and gagged and hurled into the cargo bay of the dropship as she worked, installing the device in the engine compartment as Jaret’s program was injected into the ship’s operating system.

With everything set Jena hit the medivac command and leapt from the ship to run clear as it started emergency take-off procedures.

 

Every once in a while, some idiot on a dropship got injured during a supply run. From dropping boxes on their feet or messing about with farm machinery, to a pilot getting an uneasy stomach from some food. Orbital Base Vadarai-7 noted the incoming dropship returning from the Ishigaki Supply Point issuing a medivac signal and sent the auto-dock command across, directing it to bay four for unloading crops and unloading idiots.

A burst of comms chatter came from the dropship as finished the docking procedure, filtering out across the command network. The technicians on the Vadarai-7 were looking to investigate when the explosion ripped through the bay and started down the large corridors of the orbital base.

 

“Commandant,” the operations officer on the Pride of Volsta reported, “Vadarai-7 is under atta- … Vadarai-7 has gone offline.”

“How can it be under attack?! These peasant do not even have gunships!” Commandant Ginv replied, watching on his monitor screen as the orbital base was torn apart from the inside by explosions.

“A dropship returned under medivac settings just beforehand.” The ops officer stated, before gulping. “Commandant, more dropships are leaving the planet and returning to their orbital bases under medivac settings.”

Ginv shot up from his chair. “How many more?”

“All of them. Every dropship currently planetside.”

Ginv’s jaw was shaking as wildly as his hands were trembling.

“Commandant?”

“Shoot them down.” He gave the order.

The ops officer blinked, turning in his chair to look at the Commandant.

“SHOOT THEM DOWN! SHOOT EVERY LAST DROPSHIP DOWN!” Ginv shrieked. “IF WE DON’T, THEY’LL TAKE EVERY BASE OUT!”

“But Commandant, what about-” The ops officer was cut off as Ginv hurled him out of his chair before issuing the orders himself. Every orbital base and the Pride turned their weapons on the incoming mass of ships.

 

Jena sat on the roof of the Ishigaki farmstead with a small thimble in one hand, and her father’s old hipflask in the other. Filling the thimble with rich brown liquor, she raised a toast to the sky as distant explosions could be seen far above the rich blue.

“For Joran.” She said as the carnage unfolded, before knocking back the tiny shot of alcohol. “For Jarell.”