Antiquities

“Fixer, I’m going to have some trouble fighting these.” Jena sent the message to the Shuck as she crawled into cover. She could hear the ancient machines stomping towards her and wondered how much their owner was fearful of the pricey museum pieces being destroyed.

“Those weapons they carry are rather fearsome, but they shouldn’t prove too much trouble.” Even with that said, the Shuck was pulling back after noticing the missile launchers mounted on the shoulder of each mech.

“Not so much that. I’ve been studying these thing lately. Destroying one rubs me the wrong way.” The cyborg laughed, thankful that she was able to shut off the pain signals coming from her damaged foot. The exoframe itself was fine, but the force of the shot had done a number on the joint within the armoured foot.

“-That’s- what’s troubling you!?”

Rolling to her feet, Jena limped alongside a crate as audio visualization software worked to triangulate the sounds of the old Servitors moving and give her a heads up. “I’ve gained an appreciation for them. That white one with the blue edging? It’s a Nottingham Systems Yeoman D!” She grinned. “It’s got to be at least eight-hundred years old and it’s walking about like it’s fresh off a production line.”

Her exoframe’s computer warned her about the IR targeting sweep flickering out from the Yeoman. “It’s trying to lock onto me, that means the missiles must be working replicas. Well, that or the pilot’s an idiot.”

“I’ve had to pull back anyway, Jena. Huang needs some more medical attention.”

“I’ll be okay. Give him my best.” Jena shut up and concentrated on the two looking for her. The Yeoman was heading off to her south. The other Servitor, a slightly newer Matsumoto Manufacturing model, was rooted in position and rotating its middle section to look for her. The Hayashi B96 wasn’t carrying a railgun like the Yeoman, but it was carrying a multi-barrelled autocannon.

Checking that the Yeoman was still moving the other way, Jena waited for her chance. As it turned away, she pushed off and started flying for its back. “Please don’t blow up.” She muttered in prayer as she ascended before darting down, fingers aiming for the bridge between the back of the Servitor and the power plant on its back. Prying into it, she leveraged her feet on the back of the machine’s head to forcibly separate the two parts. Vicious arcs leapt across the gap as they separated, scorching the surfaces to leave it as black as the paint job. The Hayashi B96 stopped dead. The pilot would have to blow the hatch with the explosive bolts to get out.

Her suit flagged up the IR targeting sweep again. Flying up and around she saw the launch ports on the shoulder mounted missile launchers open. Smoke streamed from the back of the Yeoman as it started to unleash its salvo. Rolling and darting about in evasive maneouvers, Jena headed to the back of the house as missiles streaked after her. They were faster, but she could bank and turn on a dime. Detonations flashed behind her as missiles collided into each other or struck the building. Her fingers crossed at the latter, hoping the Shuck’s team wouldn’t come to harm.

Coming around from the building, Jena saw the twitch of the Yeoman’s arm. She swerved and span out as the launched projectile slammed into her left forearm. Her suit screamed warnings at her. Her body was throwing up error messages. Her left arm was… well, her left arm wasn’t doing anything. The last thing she saw was the ground coming for her before she blacked out.

 

Akintola and Durand’s efforts with the computer systems had killed the lighting in the house and forced all the doors open. Switching to augmented vision mode, the intelligence team skulked through the dark corridors and taking out any resistance they encountered as they headed for the shelter in the basement level.

Handler had holstered her pistols and switched to a pair of thether blades. They were the paired knives and tether bracelets she had given Jena before the liberation of Central City from the Volsta, and while she didn’t have the cyborg’s artificial strength and accuracy, she had trained extensively with them from her youth. Through the pitch black she stalked, relying on her enhanced vision.

[“Handler, they’re on the move from the shelter.”] Akintola reported thanks to the little present of software she left in their system. [“Our instigator is heading for the western transport bay with guards. The shareholder’s going for the hangar, seems like she’s alone.”]

Using her tactical command interface, Handler divided her forces. Akintola, Lopez, Solokov and Gibbams would go for the transport bay. Durand was with her for the hangar. The five sent their confirmation signals back to her at the order.

[“Good luck.”] She added before sprinting off with Simone just behind her.

[“I wonder how Jena’s doing?”] Simone said over commslink, the message directed just at the officer. Both stumbled as a series of explosions rocked the building.

Handler pressed on. [“Stay focused, Agent. We need to capture one of them alive, and given the numbers, I think we’ve a better chance of that.”]

As they made their way towards the hangar, both saw Jena’s vital signal notification box in-vision change from green to orange.

[“I’ll handle the target, you-“]

[“Stay. Focused. Agent.”] Handler insisted, her jaw clenched and back tense. The emergency lighting was starting to come back online despite all of Akintola’s efforts to keep it timed out longer. As they entered into the hangar, the two came face to face with Priya Arnold, share broker and collector of military antiquities. Her hair was covered by a headscarf of gold and blue which looked a little out of place considering she was in an older style of military padded armour.

Simone was rolling out of the way as Priya raised some form of handgun, smoke puffing from it as a slug was launched her way. Their target then parried one of Handler’s thrown knives with her sword. As Handler’s blade retracted, Priya fired another shot.

Durand gasped as the pellet punched through her shipsuit into her shoulder. Several crude swears spilled from her lips as she recovered her weapon with her left hand. By that point, Handler had closed the distance and was in close combat.

Neither woman spoke at first as they squared off, trading feints and parries as they probed their opponents defenses. Priya blocked a series of swipes with her sword and followed up with an elbow to Handler’s stomach.

“Not bad, but you can’t beat me one on one!” She exulted, lining up her sword to thrust.

She screamed as a burst of energy particles tore into her leg, toppling over and dropping her sword as she clutched the limb in agony.

“Not a bad shot with my left hand.” Simone said, holstering her weapon. She climbed a little unsteadily to her feet.

Handler was already tying Ms Arnold’s wrists together with heavy duty zip tags. “Try to stay seated, Agent.” Her eyes were already scanning the hangar. An old military jeep from some past conflict was parked nearby. Placing a jammer into the ports on the back of Priya’s neck to stop her from triggering any traps, Handler headed for it and found the keys in the ignition.

[“Handler to Fixer, I have a prisoner to secure, and Durand’s been shot. We need extraction.”]

 

Commander Romanov was flying fast towards the compound, but she wasn’t alone. Behind her flew ships belonging to the Galactic Enforcement Organization, the police force of the Galactic Federation. A rapid response medivac unit accompanied them. She could see one disabled Servitor already, its power source torn from it and the hatch blown to allow the pilot to escape. Another was firing off rounds from its main weapon at the air, a slight distortion showing the Shuck trying to land while under fire.

[“Romanov to GEO Unit One, I’ll deal with that. Breach the compound and meet up with the GFIA team inside.”] She called to the units following before veering off after the mech.

Getting weapons on the exoframe active had proved troublesome. The Herne’s computer was in a reboot phase and was unable to issue the authorization commands to the pair of suits. Hers had a feature that wasn’t locked, however. As IR targeting lines turned in the direction of reinforcements, the chance to use it presented itself.

Missiles streamed out of the shoulder units. Reaching out with her mind, bolsted by the psi boosters in her exoframe’s helmet, the Commander clenched her fists and stopped them mid flight. Sweat started to trickle down her face as she grit her teeth and twisted the missiles back in the direction they were launched. With a shove of her hands they hurtled back to blast the mech to pieces.

She let out a gasp as she disengaged the psi boosters. Her tongue flicked just under her nose.

“No nosebleeds this time.” Treshka sighed with relief. [“Commander Romanov to the crew of the IXV Shuck. GEO are entering the compound to assist, transmitting their ident codes to you. Make yourself known to them. We have medical assistance here too. Please report.”]

The Shuck was landing on an open pad, a jeep driving out to meet it. Zooming in, she could see Handler behind the wheel, someone trussed up in the back, and a bleeding Agent Durand keeping a gun pointed at their prisoner. With a push of her feet she flew down to meet them.

“Jena’s injured somewhere.” Was the first thing out of Handler’s mouth.

“I’ll find her. See to your wounded, and your prisoner.” Treshka promised, taking to the air. A quick sweep found the transponder in Jena’s exoframe. Heading in that direction there was a massive disturbance in the sand, but no sign of the suit.

“Sergeant Foster?” Treshka called on landing right over the transponder position. “Sergeant Foster, respond.”

The ground underneath shuddered. Stepping back, Commander Romanov didn’t even need to activate the boosters. Gathering her will she parted the sand with ease to reveal a submerged suit caked with sand and dust.

“Commander… Sergeant Foster reporting. I feel like hell.” Jena spluttered and coughed over comms, her voice thick and groggy. The soldier’s helmet opened, Jena spitting and gagging from nausea.

A preliminary medical scan revealed nothing to stop her being moved. Treshka easily lifted the woman up to carry towards the ship. “If you’re going to throw up, fine. Just don’t get it on the suit, Sergeant.”

Extra Muscle

Commander Romanov’s idea of training sometimes got a little odd. Flying over the dunes outside Asrat City? Jena could understand that. Gymnastics to get used to moving in an exoframe? That made sense. The soldier from Farringdon III thought that Treshka had other motivations for helping the Asrati Brewering Union set up for their festival. The pair easily unloaded kegs and casks by the pallet load from the various transport ships that had pulled into the festival ground.

“You need to learn how to use the extra muscle, Sergeant.” Treshka explained, carefully lowering several trays. “If you don’t you can do serious injury to someone, or damage to something important.”

“Like… Golden Asra Ale?” Jena joked, reading the label on one of the shipments she was carrying to a table.

“Well, it’s fine if you break that. The acronym’s ‘GAA’ because that’s the sound you make after swallowing.” Treshka’s laugh boomed through the commslink.

“Will your husband be bringing anything here?” She asked as she went for several pallets of glasses to drop off.

“Of course, and we’ll unload that last. Work up a real thirst before having some of the good stuff. Hunger’s the best sauce, Sergeant, and thirst’s the best pairing suggestion.”

Even with all the lifting and moving they were doing, with the exoframe doing the heavy lifting and the sealed environment keeping her cool, there were worse ways to spend an afternoon. Well, probably.

Once the two women in black armour had finished helping the brewers set up, they went to assist the Asrat City Academy Restaurant with their mobile diner. Natasha was guiding trainee chefs, and Zircon was whipping the serving staff into order with the drill instructor programming he made use of when Jena was a cadet.

It was still easy to tell them apart, even in armour. Treshka towered even more than she usually did under all the plates and parts of an exoframe, and stood wider too.

“Thanks for the help, Commander.” Natasha said as she helped set up several tables under parasols. “And thanks to your husband for the bottles he sent ahead. We’ve paired them with some great meals that will really compliment each other, and I’ve made sure to set a course aside for the both of you.”

After stretching, Treshka popped the faceplate on her helmet open so she could speak normally. “Once Simeon’s set up, let us know when you’re ready and we’ll drop by.”

“Do you think she’ll be able to come?” The chef asked quietly, glancing to where Jena was assisting Zircon with stacks of chairs. The crew of the Shuck had been busy making progress with their investigation. As such, Handler had been absent for the past two weekends and Jena was missing her.

“Not sure, but it would be nice if they could.” Treshka replied. A beep from her suit distracted her. “That’ll be the husband coming in now.” She said, sliding her helmet into place.

 

The crowds were larger than Jena expected. She was stood near the Romanov’s stall, watching people sample various brews Simeon had brought with him. Treshka had warned her that drinking while in an exoframe wasn’t a great idea due to the neural interface the suits used. This was apparently a ‘Do As I Say, Not As I Do’ warning as the Commander’s helmet was off and her armour-clad hand was wrapped around the handle of a massive mug.

“Why don’t you just fly back to your apartment and get your change of clothes? Our shuttle is here, so you could just fly back and change inside it.” Treshka suggested, froth from the head on her drink coating her top lip. Her tongue flicked out to remove it.

“Can’t I just-“ She gestured to how the Commander was drinking.

“Let a newly-made Sergeant drink while in an exoframe? The Admiral would wring my neck.” She grinned apologetically.

“All right. I’ll be back soon.”

“Careful with that take off, Sergeant.”

As careful as she was, she still started a few of the more inebriated festival goers as the flight jets on her exoframe lit up. She was half-way back to her apartment when her comms systems started to wildly flash.

“Sergeant Foster, this is a priority one. Sergeant Foster, this is a priority one.” The IXV Shuck’s computer sounded in her mind.

“Sergeant Foster responding.”

“Jena?” It was Simone’s voice. “We need emergency assistance, get anyone you can. Huang’s been shot and we’re pinned down.”

The soldier was already relaying the comms feed to her Commander. “Where are you? I’m raising help now, and I’m in my exoframe currently in flight.”

Map data started to flood in to her field of vision. The Shuck was near a private residence complex twenty miles out of Asrat City. Visual data from the ship showed a large force of combat droids, some soldiers in private infantry armour and some active weapons platforms.

Jena was banking towards that direction and raising flightspeed to maximum before she even thought about it. “Data received. I’m en route and-“ The exoframe’s weapon systems were disabled for acclimatization to the suit. It would take a while to reactivate them. “I’m combat capable.” It wasn’t all a lie. She still had the speed, strength and armour to fall back on.

“I need to go and help the others. I’m sending mission data up to this point. Take care.” Simone said, signing off.

Her navigation systems plotted her ETA in just under ten minutes. Gritting her teeth in frustration, Jena locked the system into autoflight and started to pour over the additional information to get up to speed.

The crew’s investigation into the attempted theft of the Axar lead them through various departments in ASC, the Asrat Ship Consortium, to a shareholder and collector of military antiquities. The Shuck’s information gathering on this woman revealed several encoded messages to another collector who was willing to trade rare, early-generation Servitors for an opportunity to get their hands on one of the finest machines to come out of Ural II’s Engratek Servitronics fabrication facilities: The Axar.

A meeting between the shareholder and the instigator of the attempted theft was going down today, and the crew had aimed to take both in. Then everything had gone wrong.

In-vision, a message popped up in a dialogue box. [Mobilizing now and trying to get you some weapons. Don’t do anything stupid. Cmdr T. R.]

Jena sent her ident to the Shuck’s computer, along with a request to bring up active tactical data and positioning. One by one crew data started to line up in her vision. Huang’s vitals were weak but stable, a cross symbol indicating he was receiving some form of medical care. He was on the ship with Fixer, so that indicated just who was giving the care. Solokov and Lopez were in the complex, the others were trying to hold their position against a vastly superior force.

As she shot over one of the large dunes seperating her and the complex, she caught sight of the scene. The GFIA team were keeping low and moving under cover, picking off droids and soldiers when they could. Four floating weapons platforms had been deployed, their armaments enough to give the classified vessel some trouble it if tried to assist them.

“Sergeant Foster to the crew of the Shuck,” Jena sent the message as she targeted the nearest with all her performance limiters disengaged, “I’m coming in hot.”

 

Handler looked up in time just to see a black dart collide with one of the weapons platforms. Debris showered everywhere as the fist of the exoframe slammed into the hull and sent it careening into the squad of combat droids on the ground. Then the exoframe swooped down and snagged a cargo crate, hurling it towards another weapon platform.

“Head for the complex.” She gave the order to Akintola, Durand, and Gibbams. “We’ve a mission to do.”

Agent Simone Durand saw the worry in the eyes of her boss before they started towards the access they had secured.

‘Don’t do anything stupid, Jena.’ The agent thought as they crawled with the scream and flash of weapons fire roaring above them.

 

The small arms fire from the combat droids and soldiers wasn’t much of a concern. The energy shielding pulsing through her armour was absorbing the worst. After taking two weapons platforms out, the other two had designated her a prime target and dodging the heavy particle cannons on those was leaving her with precious little time to destroy them. Jena’s cybernetic enhancements made dealing with the g-forces as she evaded manageable but even they had their limits.

Sticking close to the ground, she spread her arms and barreled through a line of combat droids, spinning at the end to fling the ones she had hold of into the crowds. “Fixer? Jena here, if Huang’s fit to be left, can you get to the bridge and take out these remaining platforms? I’ll draw their fire as best I can!” She requested.

“On my way to the bridge now. Be careful out there, your stress levels are going through the roof.” Fixer replied.

Jena felt her stomach lurch as she rolled clear of a blast that scorched the tarmac of the loading bay. Bolting forwards she snatched a pair of soldiers up and hurled them at the platforms. With the main housing unit behind her, she hoped the platforms would have programming to prevent damage to the premises.

 

Inside the luxury house and facilities, the fight carried on. Solokov and Lopez were in their stealth frames with the camo projectors switched into shielding mode as their rifles tore through the lines of defense. Gibbams and Handler provided further cover with their weapons as Akintola and Durand worked on accessing the computer systems.

All six of them flinched as the building shook, the lights dipping and fixtures rattling away.

“Handler?” Durand called from her position, most of her mind working to subvert the security systems.

“What, Agent?” Came the reply as Handler’s pistol took out a droid.

Another explosion rocked the building.

“The good news is the weapons platforms are all down.” Simone said in an upbeat tone of voice.

“What’s the bad news?”

 

The remaining human soldiers had retreated back into the complex. With the amount of cargo units dotting the loading bays, Jena had put them to work as weapons to smash the remaining combat droids. Some times she threw them. Some times she slammed the long boxes of metal like a hammer. And at other times she just held one in front of her and flew it into a wall to grind her foes to scrap.

Her exoframe’s shielding system was taxed and in recovery mode. Repair systems were working on fixing the damage the battle had caused. With the Shuck now able to provide fire support without getting blown out of the sky, all she had to do was rejoin the others inside.

Her breath exploded out of her as a massive round slammed into the armour of her suit. Gasping for air, she lifted her head to see what had just hit her.

A hangar door had rolled up. From the dark within a pair of Servitors stepped forwards. She knew what they were before her exoframe’s on-board computer could access the archives to confirm their type.

When it came to extra muscle, the enemy went old school. They were relics from an Earth long gone. They couldn’t fly. They could barely jump. A round from a railgun clipped her foot and sent her spinning away, damage warnings flashing on her ankle from the force of the impact.

There was lots of things the old mechs couldn’t do.

They could still fight, though.

 

The Harder You Fall

The scream coming from the hangar forced him into action. Shuffling over with his damaged leg, Ensign Zircon Herne wrapped his fingers around the handles on the weapons locker built into the wall of the corridor. With his good leg braced against the wall he started to pull. Stress indicators appeared in-vision, bars indicating strength exerted rising in columns along each side of his field of view. There was a similar bar in place for his right leg as he pushed against the wall with that. The bar for the left leg was non-existent, the power cut off to the damaged limb.

“Stop messing around, Heko, and get the merchandise on board!” A woman’s voice distorted by speakers and distance came from the open doors.

As the stress on his artificial muscles rose, the sides of the panel started to buckle.

[“Admiral, any news on weapon locker AHC zero zero five?”] He sent the message to the bridge, his face at ease as his arms strained with effort.

[“I’m trying, but it isn’t responding.”] The Admiral’s voice sounded internally. [“Reinforcements have arrived though, Treshka is on her way down there now.”]

[“We may not have the time. Jena is in danger. Admiral, authorize my limiter release.”]

[“All right. I’m authorizing the release now, hold on.”] A moment later a burst of encrypted data came through his commslink.

A symbol of an arm bearing an old-fashioned mechanical padlock on the top edge of his vision vanished. Strength exertion bars shot up, and the metal cover on the weapons locker tore free with a screeching sound. The back of the unit was distended from an impact from the other side of the wall, but the weapons within all gave status green ident readings.

“It won’t be long now. She’s wounded.” Heko’s voice boomed from the broadcast speakers.

With his limiters off, he was able to take two energy cannons without worrying about an armament access violation.. The thick-barrelled weapons bearing a particle accelerator and power generator unit at the other end were meant to be used with both arms. Zircon hefted them up and ignored the weight exceed levels chiming for his already strained limbs. With a shove of his functioning leg, he rolled into the doorway and braced himself.

Patching the cannons targeting systems into his own OS was easy thanks to the low-speed machine interface ports that sprung from his wrists, parting the bioskin to connect to the weapons. His arm muscles were taut as he twisted and shifted them into position.

“You’re done for, soldier!”

Zircon squeezed one trigger, sending a volley of energy into the head of The Axar. The energy cannon was designed for heavily armoured infantry targets, not Servitors and definitely not extra-heavy class Servitors like Commander Romanov’s machine. A squeeze of the other trigger sent another shot its way, then he alternated.

The mech turned to face him.

He kept firing.

In the corner of his view he saw Jena make a dash for the cargo ship, her back weeping blood. The Axar was flinging debris towards the hangar doors. Bolts and other small parts ricocheted about him as the onslaught drew close. An attempt to roll clear was thwarted as a heavy ceramisteel loading trolley shot forwards and collided with the wall, the sound maxing out his ambient noise readings. Still he kept firing, not even bothering to release the triggers now. The temperatures on the cannons were rising. His own internal temp readings were rising.

The criminal in The Axar snarled as he booted a goods cart with a solid kick.

Zircon met the hurtling object with the same resolute expression he wore the day he was activated.

[STRUCTURAL ERROR]

[EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN DATA DUMP INITIATED]

 

 

The chattering of her teeth was the first thing Jena Foster heard as consciousness returned to her. She felt cold, her body shivering violently under silky sheet covers tucked around her.

The first thing her eyes registered as light flooded her vision was that it was wrong. No. It was natural light instead of the artificial lamps of the Herne, brightly pouring through sheer trappings covering a massive arched window to fill the room.

She thought to push the covers off her trembling body and stand. Her limbs did not respond. Her neck could move, so she craned her head back to try and push herself up as her eyes wildly searched for clues.

“Ssssh… Easy there.” A gentle shadow crooned as a black shape filled her view. “You need to rest.” The shadow advised, pushing her down onto the soft mattress.

“C-c-cold… f-f-fight. Got t-to fight.” Jena stuttered, her teeth clicking together.

“There’s no one to fight.” The shadow soothed, a hand pressing on her forehead. “Sleep, Jena.”

A slow spread of warmth starting at the back of her neck seeped its way up to her brain. As the feeling washed over her Jena could feel herself slipping back into unconsciousness and strove to cling on to the fading spots of light.

“Sleep.” The kindly shadow commanded. “That’s an order, soldier.”

A soft sigh escaped her lips. If it was an order…

 

 

Admiral Zaha Roland’s luxury villa was crowded. After the situation on ther flagship, she had decided to use her holiday home as her base of operations, if only to stop the ship’s computer constantly reminding her that she had not taken all her mandated holiday time. Asrat Ship Consortium officials had grovelled for forgiveness by her favourite chair, falling over themselves at the breach of security and the crimes of their workers. Natasha Henderson was in the kitchen cooking for Zaha’s assorted house guests, the Academy chef claiming that keeping busy and doing what she loved would help after seeing the state of Zircon’s broken body.

Her second-in-command, Treshka Romanov, had left the other day to bring The Axar planetside so her husband could help her give it a full check. There was also some muttering about a shopping trip to replace the outfit she had ruined. Shay MacAllister, the ISV Herne’s chief engineer, had opted to stay on board and help run diagnostics until a new company could get out there and service it. At ASC’s expense, of course.

She glanced out of the arched window, coffee in hand. Her shuttle had company, a sleek ship parked next to it. It had taken a couple of days for that ship to join them, and on board they were taking care of two jobs. Repairing Zircon, and preparing the brain of Heko’s combat automaton, Beryl, for information analysis. The two intruders who hadn’t been killed in the action were at a secure Galactic Federation medical facility, undergoing treatment.

With everything in hand or happening, it gave her little to do other than go through her notes, prepare her notes, and yearn for an empty house so she could laze nude on her private beach.

There was the small matter of Ensign Foster, the blonde cyborg currently in her bedroom occupying the bed. She had spent the past week asleep, recovering from trauma and injuries sustained. At least the bed in her shuttle was comfortable. Draining her cup of the rich brown beverage it contained, Zaha went to pour another as the door to the bedroom slid open.

“How’s she doing?” Zaha called from the coffee table.

“She woke up for a little bit.” The reply came, the door closing. “I was able to get her back to sleep.”

“I look forwards to when I can get my own bed back.” The Admiral joked, stirring the contents of her cup. “Coffee?”

“Please. It shouldn’t be too long now. We’ve almost got Ensign Herne back up and running. He wasn’t able to recover all the missing data, but a fresh reboot from previous back-ups would have lost all of the previous three months.” She took a seat on the sofa, gathering her mop of shoulder-length hair up into a ponytail.

“Having Zircon about will help with her recovery.” Zaha smiled, passing over the delicate white cup.

“I hope so, Admiral.” The woman sighed, taking a well-needed sip.

“Likewise. So, how have you been, Handler?”

The Bigger They Are

Jena hurled herself behind one of the storage crates as The Axar’s huge fist slammed into where she was just stood. The Servitor was soon swinging to where she had gone for cover, and on her hands and knees she scrambled away as it sent storage units flying. Hauling herself to her feet, the cyborg sprinted towards one of the gantries and leapt up. The entire hanging structure shook as The Axar threw a crate at it, knocking her off her feet again. Each footstep filled the hangar with sound as it neared. It had hold of one end and was starting to pull. Jumping back onto the floor, she heard the support cables snap.

With a quick dash she slid between the legs of the mech. One small note of comfort was that the weapons array on its back was not yet firing at her. Whether the hacker lacked the skill or ability to control the array of support units mounted there or being in the Herne was somehow preventing it, she didn’t care.

“You can do nothing against me, soldier. You could die now as recompense for your earlier act and save yourself the effort.” The hacker’s voice boomed through the broadcast speakers.

She opted to hide in a recess rather than talk back. She needed a plan. She needed weapons. She needed a Servitor. She needed back up. She needed anything as opposed to what she had, which was nothing.

Ducking down, she crawled along one of the access paths for cleaning units to take in the lay of the land. The Axar stood in the centre of the hangar, turning around as it tried to spot her. A cargo ship had locked its docking channel into the airlock to receive the massive Servitor. Tossed and upturned containers littered the room, components and parts spilling out of some. Cutting The Axar off from the docked ship was the first priority, her primary mission.

[“Zircon, can you access the hangar’s systems and shut off the docking channel?”] She sent the message to her comrade on the outside of the room.

[“I can attempt to, if they are working through the autocrew. Are they loading it now?”] His voice sounded in her mind.

Boxes collided with the walls as the servitor started hurling more about, trying to rattle her and drive her into the open.

[“The infiltration team’s hacker gained access to it. It’s currently trying to kill me. So… sooner the better.”]

 

Admiral Roland had an intense look on her face, the communications ports installed on her wrist spliced into one of the cable lengths they had hauled out from an access port. “It sounds like you three had an eventful evening before you even boarded the ship.”

Natasha made an affirmative sound, her arms aching from the effort to stop the cable retracting back to its channel. She had given Zaha the rundown of Ensign Foster’s situation as they browsed the ship’s schematic and specification guides to find the right subsystem. “And now… phew, now she’s out there doing the only thing she thinks she can do.”

“Keep it steady, I’m nearly done. I’d rather not have my wrist interfaces torn out.” Zaha encouraged her. “I’ll have words with her and look into getting her some help.”

Gritting her teeth, the chef felt her hands going numb as she kept the cable taut. “I’m trying but…”

“This is the ISV Herne. The ship has recognized Admiral Zaha Nanako Roland’s Command Authority.” The ship’s computer chimed in a soft, feminine voice. “All temporary access permissions have been rescinded. Please note, the ISV Herne has not completed its service. Please note, there are irregularities in the autocrew command system. Please note, you have not undergone your mandated relaxation time, Admiral.”

Zaha ejected the spliced ports from her wrists and pulled her hands back. “You can let go, now.”

The cable whizzed back into the channel.

“Admiral, this is Ensign Zircon Herne. We have a situation.” Zircon’s clipped accent came from the bridge’s comms channel.

 

Even as she rolled clear of a swipe from one of The Axar’s claws, she knew something was up with it. She’d seen Treskha pilot it, and it moved quicker then than it was now. While still fast, its swings were lumbering, unwieldy. Even she could pilot a Servitor better. The only time she moved like that in one was when-

A scream was torn from her lips as a crate cover skittered across her back. Groaning in agony, she managed to drop into one of the runoff channels for when the machine was washed. She could feel hot, slick liquid against her as she eased along the floor. She was bleeding. It wasn’t the fluids from her artificial limbs, it was the supply for her remaining biological components. Rolling onto her front, she made for one of the recesses as quickly as she was able to. Maybe she could give her body some time to recover, let the nanomachines coursing through her blood do their job.

“Stop messing around, Heko, and get the merchandise on board!” A broadcast from the pilot of the getaway vehicle called. She sounded annoyed.

Jena could see The Axar examining the lid of the crate that struck her, her blood smearing one side.

“It won’t be long now. She’s wounded.” Its head tracked along the runoff channel, then looking up to her hiding spot. “You’re done for, soldier!”

A ripple of energy shot from the hangar doors to strike the Servitor’s head, followed by another, and another, and another. While its thick armour plating was withstanding the blasts, it still turned to face the threat.

The earlier interrupted thought hit her again. Her Servitor only moved that slowly if she was using manual controls. The Axar was designed to be piloted by those with psychic talent, so maybe it would only take full immersion controls from a psychic. It wasn’t much, but it was an edge. And with it distracted, it gave her a chance to deal with the primary mission.

It took every ounce of will to stand, the wound on her back sending pain shooting through her as she moved. She still had her knife. Her pistol had recovered a couple of shots. With her teeth sinking into her lower lip she bolted for the cargo ship, her long strides carrying her up the length of channel connecting the Herne and the hold of the vessel. With grit alone she forced herself through the ship, her hands clenching her weapons. Determination kept her from stumbling. Pride kept her from crying out. She could feel the slick sheen of sweat on her skin as she breached the cockpit. The pilot turned just in time to meet her end from a round to the chest.

 

Treshka Romanov charged out of the small transport ship Shay had picked her up in, her pace unmatched as she ran for The Axar’s hangar. She had not wasted time by dressing. Her feet were bare and her body was clad in a little white number she knew her husband loved. She didn’t care about the amount of skin she showed. Her first duty was to her Admiral. Her joint second duty was the Herne and The Axar, and both were in peril.

A pile of buckled metal boxes littered the length of corridor in front of the bay doors. On her naked soles she skidded past and burst into the hangar. Ensign Foster was there, staring up at The Axar as it hefted an arm up, ready to crush her with.

Treshka growled as she gathered her will, one of the spaghetti straps on her outfit snapping as her muscles bunched under it.

 

Jena readied herself for the blow. She was laying on the ground, her pistol raised and her eyes defiant as she stared into the stylized face of her Commander’s machine. Her previous two shots did nothing to it, she only had one left and it wouldn’t be enough for what Heko did.

The arm swung down. As much as she wanted to flinch, she kept her gaze on the eyes of the Servitor. She’d face death the way she wanted, fighting till the end.

The blow never came. The arm’s movement had been arrested mid-strike. It started to kneel, part of its chest plate unlatching. She could see in as the opening parted, the hacker scrambling in his seat.trying to shut the doors.

Maybe one shot would be enough after all.

The Axar’s cockpit spat Heko out. As he fell the distance from the cockpit to the floor, Jena took her shot. As the body crumbled in front of her she started to drag herself closer. One shot wasn’t enough. She discarded her pistol and went for her knife.

“That’s about enough of that, Ensign.” Romanov said, snatching the knife from her trembling hand with ease before she could strike. “He’s dead. We don’t desecrate the dead.”

“He’s dead.” The words came thick from her throat.

“Yeah, I just said he was.” Treshka’s pale eyes peered down, studying her from head to feet. “You need some medical attention if you’re repeating the obvious.”

Jena shook her head, eyes now fixed on the mess of boxes Treskha had passed. “Zircon, he’s…” The world faded to black as she slumped down, head clunking against the floor.

 

[“Zaha? The infiltrators have been neutralized and The Axar secured. Foster’s alive. Out cold and bleeding, but she’ll live.”] Treskha sent the message up to the bridge.

[“And Zircon?”] The Admiral responded with.

She nudged some of the piled boxes with her bare foot. She wouldn’t be able to do much with Jena in her arms. [“Offline. Looks like the thief threw a goods cart at it.”]

There was a long pause before the reply came. [“And our thief?”]

Treshka snorted. [“Dead, unfortunately. Foster shot him before I could get to him, I managed to stop her from carving up the remains.”]

[“Get her to the nearest medical facility and patch her up as best you can. I’ll send what manpower we have to assist. ASC are scrambling their ships to meet us up here.”]

Commander Romanov started for the nearest medbay. “Come along Ensign, I need to stop you from bleeding all over my lingerie.”

Interlopers

It felt good to be back in uniform. Jena Foster stood in the cabin of the civilian delivery shuttle with her black military overcoat draped over her shoulders, her knife at her back and her service pistol slung in its holster. As COS Caterer-1 approached the service entrance to the Herne’s space dock she felt the calm before battle wash over her.

Zircon was dressed similar to herself, though with no service firearm or knife she had ordered him to take a ceramisteel rolling pin and kitchen knife from their apartment. He was sat in the co-pilot’s seat, cables running from the back of his neck to the console as he used his clearance codes to enable their passage through and clear them for docking with the flagship.

It was all on their pilot to navigate through the opening and to pull them up alongside one of the Herne’s many service airlocks. Jena had loaned the shorter woman some of her clothes, so the tracksuit and hooded top swamped Natasha. Her brown hair had been tied back and a intense expression was on her face as she flew the ship.

“It may be an idea if Natasha comes with us.” Zircon spoke up as they pulled alongside the centre of the disc that formed the majority of the ship’s chassis. “Our arrival may alert whoever is on board, and I do not rate the airlock on this ship to withstand any intrusion attempts.”

“All right then, Natasha. I’ll be on point, Zircon will mind the rear. If we say drop, you drop and stay small.”

The chef nodded, edging the ship in close before initiating the docking sequence.

Jena’s hands went to her weapons. The knife was held in her left hand, the pistol in her right. Her firing arm was held straight out at shoulder level, with her forearm resting on the wrist of her left arm, the blade held outward ready to strike. The world around her seemed more vibrant and sharper as her reflexes and sense of awareness ramped up ready for a combat situation. She could feel body heat as Natasha stood behind her, and then Zircon heading up the rear.

With a thought, she opened the airlock and edged in, taking in all avenues of approach with a glance. “Proceed.” She whispered back once the coast was clear.

The corridor this close to the hull was for service purposes only, a network of large bulkhead-secured transit paths with smaller walkways. While the inner corridors tended towards a pure white similar to the bridge, here it was all metal and warning stripes. On the trip up, Zircon had said the intrusions started from one of the hangars assigned to the service teams and was proceeding towards the central tower and the facilities on the top of the ship. With a map in a corner of her in-vision display, Jena lead the way.

“I have been able to negotiate our passage with the Herne’s computer, but I must warn you both: We have likely been noted by the interlopers.” Zircon mentioned as they boarded one of the massive elevators to take them up to the top level of the central disc.

“Can we arm ourselves any better?” Jena asked. “I’m competent with these, but a rifle or assault cannon would be appreciated.”

“I am unable to get access to restricted weapons systems. On a more pleasant note, they are unable to access them either. They seem to be doing all their work through the autocrew system.”

Jena turned to the android. “Any chance of you being affected?”

“Wait, you’re an android!?” Natasha blinked.

“There are differences between my operating system and theirs. I suspect that an exploit was injected during their servicing on the ship. I have yet to be serviced so am unaffected.” Zircon explained. He glanced to Natasha. “I am. Is this a problem?”

“I thought you were just a bit formal…”

Jena cleared her throat as the elevator came to a halt. “You can discuss this at another time. Get clear of the doors.” She shooed them to one side, taking the other for herself. As the doors slid apart, she patched into the camera feed on her service gun to check around the corners.

All clear in the corridors.

“Keep behind me.” She ordered, moving ahead with steely resolve. As composed as she was upping her sensory reaction levels was causing her heart rate and blood pressure to climb as every sound, every shadow leapt to prominence in her mind.

“A personnel elevator ahead is descending.” Zircon reported. “Estimated occupancy three to five individuals.”

“Get Natasha safe. I’ll take care of them.” Sprinting towards a wall, Jena leapt up it and continued her run pushing upwards with powerful strides. Gripping the blade of her knife in her teeth, her free hand gripped one of the cable pipes running near the ceiling and she was easily able to tuck herself out of sight of anyone walking towards her from beneath.

With the android and the chef sheltering in a storage cupboard for the automated cleaning units Jena shut her eyes to focus on the footsteps coming nearer.

“-said something about an airlock being triggered down here. Might be one of the Consortium crews.” A woman spoke.

“None of them should be on shift tonight.” A gruff-voiced man responded.

Another woman snarled. “It doesn’t matter who they are, we kill them and get on with the plan. The buyer wants the goods, all we need to do is get it out of here.”

Three walked under her clad in ASC Orange spacesuits with helmets, the uniform of the company doing the work. The machine pistols they were carrying were not work-issued, on the other hand. She let them walk a little further before letting go. The first shot from her pistol struck one in the back of the neck, accelerated particles surging through the bridge to their machine interface. Crouched down in her landing, she snatched the blade from her tooth and dashed in as they swung round to face her.

Zircon darted out of hiding to engage one of them, a woman from the shape of her spacesuit. His hand was reaching for her weapon even as his other swung the rolling pin towards her visor.

The remaining intruder was hers to deal with. Jena let off a shot aimed at the gun moving towards her, buying her enough time to close the distance and drive them back with a shoulder barge. The machine pistol went scattering to one side, and Jena was on her. The pair were soon rolling on the floor. She could hear the woman hissing and spitting thanks to the helmet-mounted local broadcast speakers, her contorted features just visible through the reflective glass visor.

They pounded on each other as they tumbled, getting in strikes where they could. A knee to the stomach sent Jena off and her opponent scrambling for her gun. It was then that the Ensign saw her moment. Jena lunged forwards and grabbed her opponent from behind, snaring her in a double shoulder lock. Planting her feet in a firm stance, Jena leaned back to add leverage. She dropped her body down to pin the opponent further, and didn’t stop pulling until she heard the spine crack. The snarls and hisses fell into whimpers of pain.

“I’ll talk! I’ll talk!” The other woman was begging from a prone position on the floor. Zircon stood over her, rolling pin in hand.

“Who are you and why are you here?” Jena demanded, retrieving her weapons.

“The Axar! We’re here for The Axar!” Her visor was cracked and she was nursing her right arm.

“Commander Romanov’s Servitor?” Zircon questioned. “Whatever for?”

“Someone wants it. We get it. They pay us big money. I don’t know what they want it for.” She gasped, cradling her arm as she sat up. “Please don’t kill me.”

Zircon was looking at her now. It was her decision.

“Leave these two where they are.” She thumbed at the other two. “He’s dead and she’s not going anywhere. Get Natasha out of the store room and lock this one in there.”

The android was quick to work. Just before they sealed the door, Jena looked to their prisoner. “How many of you?”

“Eleven. There’s eleven of us.” Her eyes strayed to her companions. “… There were eleven of us.”

“And there’ll be less when I’m through. You picked the wrong ship to rob. Seal her in, Zircon.” Natasha was staring at her when she turned around. “Problem?”

The chef looked to the two on the floor, then back to Jena and shook her head.

“We proceed on then, to the Commander’s Hangar.”

 

Zircon’s ears heard it first. “Weapons fire ahead.”

They were nearing the bridge. The android had two recovered machine pistols in his hands, Natasha was holding the kitchen knife and rolling pin, and Jena kept to her service knife and pistol.

“Two shooters. Both with machine pistols.” Jena said as her ears picked up the noise. Then her internal computer picked up something on peer to peer communications. An ident tag coming from the bridge.

[“Admiral!”] Jena called over commslink.

[“Ensign Foster! I’m pinned down and can’t get a clear shot.”] Zaha replied.

[“Stay where you are, Admiral. We will be with you momentarily.”] Zircon added, before looking to Jena. “I must do my duty.”

With a nod, she watched as he took off in front of her at speed, his legs carrying him in long strides towards the bridge. “Keep an eye out behind us, Natasha. If you see anything, yell and move behind me.”

“Okay…”

Jena could hear more gunfire as she neared the bridge. Sticking close to the wall, she checked around with her pistol’s camera. She couldn’t see the Admiral, but Zircon was bounding over control panels with both guns aimed at different targets. She took a shot when she could and clipped one on the shoulder.

Zaha Roland appeared from behind the Navigation Officer’s station. Clad in her white admiral’s jacket, her hands were on her sword. As the left held the scabbard tightly, the right drew the blade. With a horizontal slice a wave of light cut forth into the distracted invaders. Trapped between the three of them, they were soon slain.

“What’ve you found out?” Zaha asked, re-sheathing the Sword of the Hunter.

“There’s eleven of them. Six now. They’re here to steal Commander Romanov’s Servitor, and are being paid to do so for someone.” Jena explained, ushering Natasha forwards to stand with them. “And Zircon thinks it’s an inside job, someone tampered with the autocrew.”

The android nodded. “Security alerts which should have been sent externally were routed to the autocrew. If Jena had not requested me to accompany her…”

The Admiral nodded. “I came here on my shuttle, and I’ve sent Shay to gather some others. The Axar is a powerful machine that must not be allowed to leave Galactic Federation hands. Who’s this?” She looked to Natasha.

“A friend. She works with Zircon, and she risked herself to fly us up here.” Jena stated.

Zaha offered her a hand. “Your aid has been noted, but I would feel much more comfortable if a civilian was out of danger. Ensigns, head for The Axar. I’ll take your friend to my shuttle, she’ll be safe enough there, then I’ll join you.”

She looked to her companion, then back to her Admiral. “We can’t let you risk yourself more than you have. You could seal the bridge off and try and restore control.”

Admiral Roland looked rankled to be kept out of the fight for her vessel, but soon sighed. “Alright. Go, you two. I’ll try and re-activate one of the weapons lockers near the hangar.”

 

Natasha watched the pair leave, gnawing on her bottom lip. “Will they be okay?”

“She’s capable in a fight, and he is an advanced machine.” Zaha replied from her chair, trying to rouse the computer with her sword. Nothing was happening as she placed it into the slot, and on removing it she could see why. Someone had emptied metal filings into the hole. The glittering grey dust clung to the tip of her sword.

“She’s not in a good place right now, uh, Admiral. I’ve only just met her but-”

“What’s your name?”

“Natasha Henderson.”

“Well, Natasha. Why don’t you come and give me a hand with some of these access panels?” Zaha asked. “We’re going to have to do this the old fashioned way, and you can tell me all about this.”

 

The man they had encountered on their way to the hangar was not in a ASC spacesuit. He was dressed in a black combat suit with an energy rifle slung at his side. On seeing the pair running towards him he reached for it, only to find Jena’s knife in his throat. She paused only to grab and clean it on the man’s suit before taking off again. Just from one look at the rifle she could tell it was ident-tagged to his suit. It would be useless in her hands.

“I’m going to have a headache tomorrow.” She breathed. “A couple of combat stims would make this easier.”

“Do not push yourself too hard, Jena.” Zircon said, picking up speed to take point. As soon as he saw the two near the hangar entrance in their black suits, he dropped into a slide across the ground. Clusters of particles surged from each of his machine pistols as he fired, joined by the more sedate fire of Jena’s service pistol as she hugged the wall to provide back up.

Warning readings flagged up in his programming as a sliver of energy from one of the rifles punctured clean through his knee to the back of his thigh. Drawing his other leg up to protect his body, he squeezed down on both triggers, depleting the energy reserves on the pair.

Jena’s own pistol was warning her as she made sure they were dead. Tucking it back into her holster to let the charger cycle on it, she moved to check on Zircon.

“Reduced mobility, but I will continue functioning.” He said to ease her worried expression.

Hefting him up and dragging him over to near the weapon’s locker, she placed him by it. “Stay here and call me when the Admiral unlocks this. There’s three left. But they need someone in their ship, so that’s technically two.”

“Be careful in any case. You may not feel it at times, but you are still human.”

“I’ll try to keep that in mind.” Jena replied. With her knife in hand, she headed for the hangar. There was no quiet way to do it. The large doors slid open to reveal the massive form of The Axar crouched in the middle of the bay. One of the access panels on its thighs had been opened and cables ran from it to a mobile computer terminal being operated by a combat-suit clad man with a thick headset concealing his eyes and ears. Taking her knife, Jena threw it at the man with a flick of her wrist.

A hand snatched it out of the air.

“Beryl, please be a dear and deal with that.” The hacker gestured over at Jena.

From the shadows of the Servitor’s leg the owner of the hand stepped out, toying with the knife she had caught. She was naked. Her dark skin stood in contrast to the carefully spiked light green hair. Her eyes were a deep gold, and the way she moved was like flowing liquid. “Of course, Master.” She purred before grinning at Jena. “You should not play with knives, soldier.”

Jena dove to the side as the knife whistled past. Rolling to her feet, Beryl was already running at her. “I’m not playing!” Jena spat as they met, their blows shifting to feints and parries as they sized each other up. Reversals were countered and counters reversed as their fists, elbows, knees and feet met.

Beryl lashed out with a dropkick, catching Jena in the stomach and sending her sprawling. Her leaping descent was stopped by the cyborg quickly rolling clear and back to her feet.

“I was designed by my Master for my Master, soldier.” Beryl stated proudly. “You cannot stop me, and that means you will not stop Him.” A curious look crossed her face when Jena held her hand up, before laughing as she watched the cyborg remove her overcoat and jacket.

“I’m not bold enough for the full frontal look.” Jena stated, digging her fingers into her shirt before tearing that off to leave her in just the support bra she wore under the uniform. “But it is getting a little warm. Round two?”

The muscles in Beryl’s lean physique clenched as she assumed a combat pose straight from the Galactic Armed Forces handbook.

“You’re going to lose, you know.” Jena said with a tight grin. “After all, I know your Master programmed you to suck.”

With a snarl of rage Beryl leapt forwards.

Twisting in her sidestep, Jena lifted her service pistol. It had one shot left in the tank. With a squeeze of the trigger, Beryl’s jaw disappeared in a splatter of bioskin and artificial compounds. Dropping the gun, she grabbed the combat gynoid by the ankle and hauled her up. Setting her feet in motion, she span and span as she neared one of the storage crates before slamming her foe’s head into it. Releasing her hands from the dead weight, she recovered her gun and knife then looked to…

The man had disappeared, as had his equipment.

“Let me make this quiet clear…” A voice came from somewhere in the hangar.

Jena blanched as the Servitor started to rise to its feet.

“You will pay for that.” The claws on the massive machine’s hands spread out before clenching tightly. “And I intend to receive that payment presently, and promptly.”

Stress Relief

The steady sounds coming from the living area had her seething. Not just the rhythmic knocking as Zircon entertained one of his colleagues. The past two months had been a constant wear on her nerves. Her courses at the Academy, minus Galactic Language and Literature now, were going well but the atmosphere was getting to her. The more guarded she got, the more the other students kept their distance. The more they kept their distance, the more she bristled.

A moan traveled through the door, Jena Foster tore the covers back and quickly started to dress, her jogging bottoms and a hooded top her choice for the cool Asrat night air. As she slipped her training sneakers on she tried her best to ignore some of the signals her body was sending her. The tingling ‘pops’ a certain part of her cyborg body was feeding to her brain only got worse when she opened the door to see Zircon mid-thrust with a pair of dusky legs wrapped around his midsection.

“Jena?” He called, glancing over as she went for the door.

“Out for a run.” She called back, slipping from the apartment and letting her cybernetic legs take the strain as she vaulted down the stairs instead of taking the lift. Hitting the ground running, she took off out of the building to jog through the sidestreets and along the pavements. An earlier storm had whipped up sand, sprinkling it delicately along the paved surfaces. It took a moment for her gait to adjust to the reduced traction the sand caused, then she picked up speed.

Maybe Zaha had been right. As much as she liked Zircon, he wasn’t human. He didn’t have a full grasp on etiquette and that wasn’t his fault. Three months of sharing a small apartment hadn’t gone as she planned, and while the recreation activities they did together were nice, it wasn’t military service. Perhaps spending it on her own would have forced her to interact more with the other students.

A warning flashed up in-vision at the force her clenched fists were exerting. Her mastery had increased on operating her body in the almost four years she had it, and she had reduced the restrictions her performance limiters placed on her as she got used to it. Even so, when she was vexed she put a bit more power than she planned to in her actions.

And she was vexed.

Irate as she was, she could feel the situation change around her. She was being followed. Two had stepped out in front of her in the alley she was running in. Two came from behind. One of the men in front stepped forth with a cheery smile on his face, holding a portable credit terminal in one hand. “Evening, Miss. Fancy making a charitable donation?”

“Not tonight.” Jena said. A thought suddenly struck her, she had left her service knife on the bedside table. Her service pistol was in the locker under her bed. Stupid.

“There are other ways you can donate to a good cause. Help out, as it were.” The man spoke again, taking a step nearer. Their ident chips were scrambled. The terminal they carried would help launder the transferred credits their extorted. A warning had gone up around the academy about gangs like this skulking the streets.

“Look. I have a had a bad day, in a bad week, in a bad month.” Jena spat, drawing herself up. Under her clothing her artificial muscles bunched up, ready to release their power as she lifted her limiter. “So I recommend that you turn around and leave me alone, got it?”

The frontman for the little gang laughed, a condescending grin on his face. “Listen, Miss, I don’t think-” He collapsed back as Jena coldcocked him on the jaw. The surprise from his fellows let her get close to the man just behind him, doubling him over with a blow to the stomach.

She felt a hand on her other wrist. With a wrench she drew the attacker in and twisted her arm. Her foot lashed out to strike him in the leg, and with a dual motion she pushed him away while pulling on his arm. A sickening crack filled the alley, then a swing of her elbow collided with the side of his head.

The last man standing was rapidly backing away. How long had it been since she’d been in a proper fight? No weapons, no servitors, just close combat. A grin split her lips as she pursued him, the stress bubbling away from inside her as the heat of battle set her heart going.

He was trying to scramble over a wall when she locked her hands around his ankle and yanked him down. Even with one leg hoisted in the air by him he tried to scramble away on his hands and knee. “Please… please no…!” He cried. Lights came on in nearby buildings as his calls attracted attention. Faces were peering out at her now, and the fire in her veins simmered down to leave her feeling cold.

“Call the police.” She called out to the watchers. “This man and three others in that alley tried to rob me.”

 

“I hope your friend is alright.” Natasha said after gulping down a glass of water. She worked as a chef in the Academy’s restaurant, and had finally plucked up the courage to ask Zircon out for some fun, but the way the blonde left had her concerned.

“She has been stressed lately.” Zircon admitted, popping one of the supplement pills he had to take in his mouth before drinking. “A run may do her some good.”

“At two in the morning?” The chef deadpanned. “When there’s been those criminals reported who extort money from citizens?” She rolled her eyes. “And she likely left because of the noise we were making. If you’d have said she was here, I’d have taken you to my place!”

Zircon topped Natasha’s glass up from the pitcher he brought with him. “We may have neglected to lay down ground rules for the apartment about such activities.” He admitted after a moment. “I do not seek sex out, and she has never expressed interest in it. The subject had not come up.”

With her little black dress pulled back on over her head, Natasha worked her fingers through her tresses of brown hair while speaking. “Maybe you should talk about it. Maybe you should put some clothes on too before she gets back. Even if I am enjoying the show.” She added with an appreciative look up his body.

He had just pulled his trousers back up when the apartment door slid open. When the blonde had left her back was rigid and her stride quick. Now she was slumped and moving slowly, and Natasha could see the welts on her knuckles. The chef leapt from the sofa and came over. “I’m really sorry about earlier, I hope we didn’t disturb you too much.”

“It’s fine.” The student shrugged. Her eyes flicked over Natasha. “You leaving?”

“Probably for the best.” She said with a look to Zircon.

“Don’t. I just stopped four muggers, always a chance there might be more.” That explained the contusions on her fists, then. Glancing down, Natasha saw they were rapidly healing.

“Under such circumstances it may be for the best if you stay the night, Natasha.” Zircon advised while on his way to the kitchen. He had already pulled three mugs out from the cupboards before she could reply.

“Sure then… you took on four of them?”

The blonde shrugged. “They weren’t too much of a threat.”

“Zircon mentioned you were a solider.” Natasha hesitated for a moment before continuing. “And I had heard some of the stories going around the campus.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard them too.”

 

The trio sat about the living area in an uneasy silence after Zircon had made tea. Jena was quiet, guarded. Zircon was observing, and Natasha was stuck in the middle kicking herself for getting involved.

“Zircon?” Jena started. “You’re familiar with my systems. Can I put myself in a standby mode, like an autocrew member?”

“That is possible, with some modifications. Why?”

“Next time we have shore leave, I’m sorely tempted to just shut down for the duration. No schooling, no recreation, no relaxation. Just close my eyes one moment, then open them ready to get back to work.”

“Are you serious?!” Natasha interjected before she could stop herself. “Just switching yourself off and on like that? Not using your time off?” She covered her mouth with her hands as Jena’s gaze fixed on her.

“You’ve heard the stories about me.” The cyborg sat forwards. “I left my home because war changed me. Being in the military was good for me. Structure, duty, a role. Then I finally get my first load of shore leave and I hate it.” She knocked back the last of her cup of tea before a mirthless smile crossed her face. “I hate not being able to turn off all the survival tactics that are ingrained in me. I hate being around civilians when those tactics drive them away. I hate that he’s more human that I’ll ever feel.” Jena shot Zircon a look.

In silence Natasha stared at her. The tight clench of the cyborg’s jaw, the hard eyes, the thick tone of self-loathing seeping into her voice with every admission. She glanced to Zircon. Her colleague was silent. The blonde cyborg drew in a breath before continuing.

“And most of all, I’ve come to hate myself. I was so proud of everything I did to protect my family and friends. Look at me now. I can’t fit in. I can’t unwind. I can’t even have sex! The only thing that’s been any stress relief to me is beating up some muggers.” With that admission Jena sunk her head into her hands, staring at the floor.

After an awkward pause, Natasha looked to Zircon. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

“I am unsure on what to say given the information revealed.”

“Well, that’s useful.” With a huff, the chef changed positions to sit next to Jena. “We got off on the wrong foot. I’m Natasha Henderson, you might have seen me in the back of the Asrat City Academy restaurant.” She offered her hand.

“Ensign Jena Foster.” The subdued reply came.

“Hope you’re feeling a bit better after getting all that off your chest. Sounds like you’ve been bottling it up for a while. My brother used to do that. Everything was fine until he’d exploded and vent all at once.”

“A little better.”

Natasha smiled. “That’s good. Look, I know the counselors at the Academy. Maybe you should go and have words with one of them? They’re there to help, after all.”

“That may have to wait.” Zircon interjected. Both women looked over to him. “A security alert has just been tripped on the Herne.”

Lifting her head, Jena spoke. “Probably just the maintenance crew making an error.”

“Another security alert has just been tripped. Someone is routing them through the autocrew command network.” He pushed himself up from his seat. “I am required to return to the ship and investigate.”

“Well, I’m not letting you go alone.” Some life had returned to her eyes as she rose as well. “But getting up there is going to be a pain.”

“I’ve got a ship.” Natasha chimed in with. The pair looked to her. “Well, it’s the restaurant’s delivery ship, but I’m flight certified in it. We do external catering on ships in orbit sometimes.”

Taking a breath to compose herself, Jena started for the bedroom. “Get your gear, Zircon. I’ll get mine, something more substantial for Natasha to wear, and we’ll take a look.” The last part of her sentence was muffled by the door closing behind her.

“Are you willing to do this, Natasha?” Zircon asked while pulling his kit bag from its storage place under one of the counters.

“It’s a citizen’s duty to help out members of the Galactic Federation’s forces.” She replied. “But are two of you going to be enough?”

“I am attempting to gain assistance now.” Came the reply.

 

Warning pips from one of her implants roused Admiral Zaha Roland from her bed. The villa’s bedroom was filled with a wan red light, the source being the Sword of the Hunter. Her sword. Grabbing it, notifications started to flood into one of her in-vision displays from 0436-8 Designation “Herne, Zircon” of the ship’s autocrew.

Dropping the blade, she started her calls for assistance even as she moved to dress. Whatever was happening on-board her vessel, she was not going to stand for it.

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.”

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.”