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.”

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