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.

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