These Last Days

When Jena Foster was a child, a month was a long time, and a year seemed almost infinite in scope. She could run for hours across fields and through woods and still have most of the day left to play. Now, seven weeks seemed to have been and gone in the blink of an eye.

She had finished her schooling, for one thing. New qualifications and skills were listed under her ident profile, and she had already made some plans to continue her learning on her downtime on the Herne. She had taken on some extra studies too, visiting the members of the Shuck in their time off. Fixer taught her some basics of cybernetic repair to go along with her mechanical skills. She had brushed up on her hacking abilities with Huang and Akintola.

Jena’s celebration of graduation happened at a bar. Zircon and Natasha were there, along with Handler and Simone. The chef and the android had left early after Natasha remembered that Zircon would be leaving the planet soon and had gotten a little weepy over the fact. That had left the three women drinking good wine somewhat overindulging on salty bar snacks. They had staggered back to Jena’s apartment after that, arm in arm in arm with Simone getting cautioned by the police for her loud, exuberant singing. Apologizing for her, Jena easily scooped the agent up and carried her on her shoulders back home.

What had happened after that, well… Handler and Simone were still being rather awkward around each other. That was on Jena’s list of things to fix before she departed from the world.

There were other tasks left for her to do before she was called back for another decade of duty aboard the Herne. Gifts to pick up for the few crew members on the ship she knew, some gifts for the crew of the Shuck, something for Natasha, and the errand she was on her way to do today.

The largest tower in the city was the Galactic Federation Communications Hub. The first few floors were dedicated towards customer service, with numerous communication booths lining the walls and a large help desk on the ground floor to offer assistance. Jena tapped her hand against one of the payment panels and followed the directions in-vision to a free booth.

The door slid shut behind her, the control panel in front giving her the option to display an image from Asrat behind her or choose one of her own to upload. Drawing from her internal memory, she brought up her camp at night in Masata Park to serve as the backdrop. She had some letters and photos to attach to the message she was about to send, and it was easy enough to navigate the system to get everything linked. All that was left to do was record the main part.

“Hi Jaret. It’s been a long time since we last spoke. I hope Rosie and the children are well, and that the farm is fine.” She said a little awkwardly to the camera. “I’m currently on Asrat, where the Herne has been undergoing repairs. I’ve become a Sergeant, Third Class, and already have a lot of interesting stories to tell you at some point.”

Settling back on the stool she was perched on, Jena carried on. “I’m attaching some photos, some videos, and some letters to fill in the blanks while I’ve been away. I’m also sending a little money too. You can put it away for a rainy day, or treat the kids to something on their aunt’s behalf.”

“I’ve been on shore leave for a while. Soon I’ll return to duty and it’ll be another ten years before I get this long off work. I’m not too sure what else to say now. It’s my first time doing one of these, so… I hope everyone is well. You should be able to get a message through to the Herne via Central City’s communication’s hub, if you want to send one. I love you, brother. Sorry it’s taken me this long to send word.” Jena’s finger pressed the button to finish recording and send, a slight tremble of her hand as she did so.

 

Gift shopping was something she called for backup with. Zircon had the day off work, and she had already picked up his gift, a soft sweater made from wool with flecks of iridescent thread woven through it. It almost resembled the Ensign’s pale blonde hair, which was the reason why she brought it for him.

“You need to get Natasha a little something, Zircon.” Jena smiled. She’d picked up a nice new apron with deep pockets as a practical gift, and a bottle of the chef’s favourite perfume as a personal gift. The department store they were stood in was well stocked, and Jena intended to get the bulk of her shopping done here.

“The purchase of gifts is not something I am programmed for, Jena.” The android replied.

The blonde had to laugh at that. He was programmed well enough for Natasha to have no complaints about his prowess, and able to provide companionship enough that she considered them to be dating, but not to buy a gift? “Do what I do, Zircon. Think of something practical she needs. You work alongside her almost every day so I’m sure you’ve lodged some data away up in that head of yours. Then a nice bit of clothing, or an ornament.”

She could almost see him processing through months of interactions before he picked up a sharpening stone and knife care set. “It is the brand she swears by.” He explained. “And she can get quite irate if a new chef is not caring for their knives properly.”

“Definitely practical, and thoughtful. Now, why don’t you head over to the fashion section and find something she’d look nice in? Something to take her out in, one final night on the town in Asrat City.”

“Will you be planning similar for your partner?” He asked, holding the set close to him.

“Something like that, yes. I’ll meet up with you in a bit, I’ve a few more things here to put in my basket.”

Commander Romanov and Fixer got similar gifts, sturdy stone tankards carved from the local mines. Each was a sandy yellow with tiny lines of orange and stains of red running through the surface. For her Admiral, it was a rather pricey pack of local coffee that she had noticed her drinking during the stay at the villa. Just getting expensive coffee didn’t seem enough though. She added a stone jar for the coffee to go in, of similar construction to the tankards. While she was getting the jar, she saw a circular place mat from the same line for her cafetiere to rest on.

With four stone products in the basket hooked onto her arm, she was glad for the cybernetic strength.

Pursing her lips as she browsed a shelf of tourist tat, Jena added a sandglobe containing a model of Asrat City as a little joke gift for Handler. The officer had been out in enough sandstorms, she might as well have a little something to take with her once the Shuck’s service and crew’s shore leave was complete. On the matter of more practical gifts for her and Simone though?

On their night out, Simone was always complaining about not having anywhere to place her clutch purse. A slender leather shoulder bag with a polished stone clasp was added to her basket, and one of the soft wool blankets with sleeves that Handler seemed to like was added too.

Shopping was simple in the department store. Picking up an item and carrying it with you added it to your purchases. If you left the store, the payment would be deducted. No queuing needed. There were still store assistants though, and they were clustered around Zircon as she approached the women’s fashion section, vying for the handsome android’s attention.

“He’s with me, ladies.” She called out to them, leading to disappointed faces on some of them. “And looking for something for his partner.” The other faces looked disappointed and soon went off.

“I do not seem to have much luck with groups of women, Jena. Thank you for coming to my assistance.” He said, falling into step besides her.

“I think you have a lot of luck with women, and that’s the problem.” She grinned, nudging him with her shoulder. “Dresses. Let’s look at dresses.”

 

Under the coffee table was filled with assorted bags as the pair took a break from shopping.

“Things will be different once we resume service.” Zircon was saying, a cup of tea held delicately in his slender fingers. “We are no longer the same rank. I will be serving under you.”

“I was thinking about that, actually.” Jena replied, lingering over the last few sips of coffee in her cup. “As a Sergeant, I can have someone serve as my second. I was wondering if you’d like that role? We already fly together in a Servitor, after all.”

“You would need to refer my name to the Commander for such an appointment. And an autocrew second is unheard of.”

“Lots of things are unheard of, Zircon. You’re a Third Class Ensign, an unheard of rank. All because you accompanied me on shore leave, an unheard of thing, and helped to stop a theft.” Jena smiled. “Besides, I hear in the world of business androids and gynoids are often used for personal assistants. That’s pretty much what a second is.”

He considered this before nodding. “Very well. If the Commander deems it appropriate, it will be my duty to serve you in such a role.” Finishing his cup, he noticed that Jena’s was also empty. “What do we do now?”

“Now? We finish off our shopping. These last days will go quickly, and I’ve a lot to do before we leave.”

Over The Flames

Life had settled down into what passed as normality for Jena Foster. In the week days she’d study at the Academy, finishing up courses and adding new qualifications to her ident profile. In the evenings she’d alternate between coursework and spending time with Young-ae. Natasha had suggested to Zircon that the android move in with her to give Jena and her partner some space, and the Ensign had accepted that offer.

With her exoframe needing repairs, Commander Romanov had put a halt to their training. Every once in a while Simone would drop by for dinner or drinks, wearing the bullet on a length of chain after Jena had carefully put a hole through it. Sometimes they’d meet Fixer for coffee. On some nights Handler would have errands to run and Jena would have the apartment to herself.

One such night was a Friday. A sand storm was blowing through Asrat City. Perched on the windowsill, Jena watched the desert winds sweep across the buildings and through the city streets. Her room was dark and cool, and the oversized hooded sweater she had slipped on to do her coursework in was perfect for curling up in to watch the storm.

She didn’t have long left on Asrat. In eight weeks the Herne would be ready to depart. Her time with Young-ae would be up, and the chance of them seeing each other again would reduce. They had put off having that talk for one reason or another. When it was quiet and without distraction, Jena’s mind came back to that fact.

They had a camping trip planned for the weekend. If the storms abated, some time in the wilderness with her lover might present the perfect opportunity. Leaving the blinds open, Jena retreated from the windowsill and undressed for bed. Sand swept across the thick window, leaving trails across the glass. The soldier watched these trails form and be blown away, her eyelids starting to droop.

She shot out of bed, drawing her pistol from under her bed in a smooth motion as she heard the front door slide open. A held breath escaped her as she saw Young-ae’s ident present. She still kept her gun low as she opened her bedroom door, just in case.

Young-ae was pulling her hooded cloak off, some sand she hadn’t shaken out in the lobby falling to the floor. A thin inner hood of gauze covered her head to protect herself from the sand.

“I can’t believe you were out in this storm.” Jena spoke, tucking her service pistol into the back of her underwear, the safeties engaging automatically.

“I was hoping to get back before it started, but it was interesting. Reminded me of agent training.” GFIA agents were put through rigorous courses to test their ability to adapt and operate in all climates. “The Asrat Weather Service says it’ll die down early in the morning.”

Jena leaned back against the wall and watched appreciatively as Young-ae stripped out of her bodysuit. She marveled at how she moved towards her. As her lover’s arms draped over her shoulders, Jena started back towards the bathroom. “Shower, then bed. We’ve a busy weekend ahead of us.”

 

The shuttlepod dropped them off at the Masata Planetary Park. It was far north of Asrat City, known for its network of cliffs and valleys and hardy plants thriving in the rough conditions. Their backpacks were loaded with food and supplies. Jena had several extra bags with her on account of her enhanced strength. Young-ae had the beacon with her to call back the shuttlepod if needed.

They dressed for the weather. Walking boots, light and airy clothing for the day plus layers for when the chill of night came, and hats to shield their eyes from the sun. Animal attacks were not unheard of, so Jena had her pistol and both of them had their knives.

Setting up the camp didn’t take long. The two-person tent was tethered to the ground by lengths of cord and spikes driven into the compacted dirt, their sleeping bags slung inside. The fire was easy enough for Jena to get started, though she had to resist the urge to bury a pit to conceal it in. This wasn’t Farringdon III, and Volsta wouldn’t be out hunting for her.

Young-ae had just finished spraying a circle of repellent around their campsite to keep the insects and any wandering animals away. “So, what do you want to do?”

“The fire’s steady. Zip the tent up, we’ll go exploring. I spotted some nice pathways along the valley west of us on the way in.”

The officer studied the Sergeant for a moment before linking arms with her. “Disappointed it isn’t greener?”

Jena nodded a little. “When I think camping, I always think of the forests back where I grew up, or digging fire pits in soft, dark loam.”

It had taken them longer than expected to get out of Asrat City. The sandstorm went on a little longer than forecast, and with more coming the next day, they opted to leave after lunchtime for the campsite and come back the next morning. Leaving later meant they missed the worst of the sun’s rays and they had less time to waste before the hot day gave way to the chill of night.

It may not have been green, but scrambling up sandy rockfaces and drifting through ancient valleys had its charm. They even saw a pack of rockwolves from a distance, the cute pups with tawny tufts of fur being watched over by their more vicious looking family. They stood at the mouth of a cavern, peering in but deciding not to venture forth. Forking out for a cave rescue bill was not in budget.

By the time they got back to camp the sun was beginning its descent. Stoking up the fire, Jena had offered to cook for them, a makeshift spit over the flames being used to turn marinated cuts of poultry while a covered pan placed on the fire steamed a mix of wild rice and vegetables.

“I’ll be leaving soon.” Jena broke the easy, comfortable silence that had settled between the pair during their explorations, keeping an eye on the meat. “And I don’t know when we’ll get to meet again.”

“I know.” Young-ae said, settling the opposite side of her to watch from across the campfire. “It’s been good though, right?”

Jena smiled. “It’s been the best. You’ve taught me a lot. Helped me a lot.” She peeked under the lid to check on the side dish. The rice was fluffing up nicely.

“That’s what counts then. It’s been nice to let my hair down.” The soldier laughed at that. “And I’ve felt younger for it. It’s been too long since I’ve had a relationship like this.”

“How old are you any- no… I won’t ask.” Jena said, before giving her a curious look. “Is Young-ae even your name?”

Handler just smiled.

Jena turned the meat, laughing away. “Why do the agents get to keep their name but you don’t?”

“It’s the price we pay for duty. Just like how Admiral Roland must always carry her sword. We give our names up to devote ourselves to the crew and the mission.” From her bag she pulled out several bottles of beer given to her by the Romanov family. And then a few more for luck.

The blonde took one of the bottles and clinked it with Handler’s before taking a long gulp. “And fraternizing with the crew is off limits?”

Handler took a drink as well. “It’s discouraged.”

Lifting the lid from the pan, Jena ran a fork through the rice and vegetables a few times before replacing it and giving the contents a few light tosses with her wrist. She’d seen Natasha do it many times. “And given what your job is, it’ll be harder for me to get messages to you.”

“We can touch base now and then when I’m not working. The Shuck may be hard to track, but a ship the size of the Herne? I’ll be able to get a message out to you.”

The soldier took another drink. “So, we try and keep in contact, make the most of the time I’ve got left planetside, and if we meet again…?”

“We can see about picking up where we left off, soldier.” Handler sprawled back, staring up at the night sky. “I won’t begrudge you if you find someone else though.”

“Likewise.”

Handler looked over the flames to Jena. “All done?”

Jena probed the meat with a skewer and nodded. “All done.”

More Than You Can Chew

“You need to stop picking fights with things larger than you, Sergeant.” Admiral Roland said, her tone and look pointed. Zaha was in her white Admiral’s jacket, though underneath a peach-coloured sundress could be seen.

“I know, Admiral. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Jena coughed, trying to clear her throat. A quick check on her map subsystems indicated she’d been moved to the Asrat City Hospital, and it was early the next morning. “How bad was it this time?”

“New left arm, new right foot, repairs to your bio-generator and blood processing systems, a pulmonary cleansing pump, and general system repairs. Exoframes can handle small arms projectile fire, but Servitor-class firearms? You are lucky it didn’t knock your head off.” The Admiral chided. “If you’re still feeling foggy now, that will be the concussion from landing head first in the sand. Avoid bright lights, loud noises, stressful exertion, and any narcotics.”

“Sorry to be a bother, Admiral. How are the others?” Jena resisted the urge to try and shake the haze from her mind.

“Agent Huang’s getting a new leg from the knee down. Agent Durand plans to make a necklace from the bullet they removed from her shoulder and is healing well.” Jena was about to ask before Zaha cut her off. “She’s fine, Sergeant.”

Jena’s shoulders relaxed. “And the mission?”

“Priya Arnold and Adrian Spieler have both been arrested and, once they’ve recovered from their injuries, will be tried for their crimes.” She pursed her lips. “If, in the case of Mr Spieler. He put up quite a fight and after they put him down it’s been a little touch and go.”

The soldier started to push herself up off the bed, pausing to check if she had anything on under the sheets. A pale blue hospital gown covered her, which was a pleasant change from the last time she woke up from recovering. “I’ll try my best not to fight any more Servitors, Admiral.” She offered, before adding “At least while on shore leave.”

“See that you don’t. It’s bad enough dealing with Treshka, let alone another one who likes to bite off more than they can chew.” Stepping forwards, Zaha placed a small punnet of port-coloured grapes by her bedside. “I have other errands to run now, so eat these and wait for your next visitor.” She ordered, then headed for the door.

Feeling the pounding in her skull, Jena sipped at some water before deciding laying down was preferable to sitting up.

 

It didn’t take long for Handler to show up. She had changed into a fresh shipsuit, though her hair was still done up in a tight bun. “Simone shouldn’t have called you in, Jena. It wasn’t her place to, and you had no obligation to-”

“You helped me to rid Farringdon Three of the Volsta. I’d try and extinguish a sun by spitting if any of your crew asked me to.” Jena interrupted. She popped one of the berries in her mouth then offered the punnet in Handler’s direction.

What the intelligence officer was going to continue with was lost as she laughed, shaking her head as she took a seat and a grape. “A colourful description.”

“I kinda liked it myself.” The cyborg replied, brushing her fingers through her short hair. “I know we need to have a talk about some things at some point when it comes to work and us, but I think it’s for when my ears aren’t ringing.”

“That may be for the best.” Handler agreed. She reached up to take one of Jena’s hands in her own. “Thank you, though. It could have been much worse if you didn’t assist.”

Squeezing the hand in hers, Jena shuffled up the bed a little to she could sit up against the pillows. “How did they get the drop on you? It’s not like the team to miss four weapons platforms and a unit of defense droids.”

“We suspect they have some friends in various places who may have given them a heads up.”

“So, you’ll be busy tracking them down?” Jena felt her heart sink a little.

“No. That’s down to Internal Affairs. I’m bringing forwards booking the Shuck in for service, and giving the crew their shore leave to recover. It was built by Armitage Technologies for the GFIA, after all.”

“And they’re working on the Herne as we speak.”

Handler nodded.

“It makes sense.” She smiled. “Got anything nice planned?”

“I’m hoping to spend some time with a slightly reckless blonde.” Handler took another grape from the punnet. “Once she gets out of the hospital.”

“I guess I better get on that now then.” Jena said, clambering out of bed. She could feel the bedsheets on her bare skin as she sat, her gown open at the back. “Once I get pants.”

 

Discharging herself from the hospital involved more than just the acquisition of pants. There were forms to fill in, some tests to run and a lot of waiting about for some doctor to return with her results. During that time, Jena took her grapes in to go and see Simone. The brunette was propped up in bed and humming along to some music she was listening to.

“I get shot by an old pistol, you just had to go and one-up me by taking three shots from a railgun.” The agent grinned.

“I know, I’m terrible.” Jena chuckled, perching on the side of her bed. “Next time, you can fight the old Servitors and I’ll fight the ancient history fetishist.”

“We have a dea- wait, no we don’t.” Simone’s laugh was cut short by her wincing. “Don’t try and cheer me up with jokes. I’m still a little tender.”

“When are you getting out of here?”

“Tomorrow. They want to keep me in overnight. Fixer’s going to pick me and Tony up at the same time.”

“The Admiral said Agent Huang’s getting a new leg.”

“He’s being fitted for it now. I’d say you’d remember what that was like, but…” Jena had lost a year and a half of her life to the medically-induced coma she’d been put under while Fixer worked to transform her into a cyborg. “I was the one who found you, you know?”

Jena nodded. “It took me a little while, but I remember hearing you speak after the explosion and before I woke on the Shuck.”

“You looked like hell.” Simone stated.

“Thanks.”

“I didn’t think you’d last a day of the medical procedures, especially given our resources.”

“If you ever leave the GFIA, you should apply for a job here. You’ve got a great bedside manner.”

Simone laughed again, then shot Jena a wincing look. “I said no jokes.” She rubbed at her shoulder. “I didn’t mean it as… even blown up and beaten down, you still hung on and came back from the brink.”

“Where are you going with this, Simone?” Jena asked a little wearily.

“It impressed me, that’s all. And I never had a chance to say that.” She replied with a little shrug of her good shoulder.

A notification flashed up in vision, letting Jena know her test results were good and she was ready to be discharged. She placed the punnet on Simone’s bedside table. “I’ve always had good reasons to fight. I need to finish getting discharged, though.”

“Jena?” She called as the soldier reached the door out from the private room.

“Yes?”

The agent looked over her for a long while, silent before shaking her head. “It’s nothing.”

“Drop by the apartment sometime. If you bring the bullet with you, I can use my tools to make it into jewellery. The Admiral said you wanted it on a necklace.”

Agent Durand flashed Jena a bright smile at the offer. “I’ll take you up on that. Go get out of here. I’ve a new album to get back to listening to.” She said with a little tap at the side of her head.

Handler was waiting for her outside, an eyebrow quizzically raised at the contemplative expression on the blonde’s face. “Something up?”

“No.” Jena shook her head. “Let’s go home.”

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.

 

Work And Play

After another day at the Admiral’s villa Jena, Zircon and Natasha had been dropped back off in Asrat City to resume the rest of their shore leave. As a result of the events on the Herne, they would be planetside longer to allow Armitage Technologies to give the Herne a thorough rundown and service. It meant Jena had more time to catch up on the studies she missed in any case.

As a new week began the soldier was already looking forwards to the weekend. If nothing major cropped up, Handler would be visiting. Natasha had kindly offered to let Zircon stop with her for the weekend to give them some space. There was an alternate reason there of course, but Jena wouldn’t bring that up given the plans she had made with her lover.

Her mood had improved greatly after a good fight, several good talks and some recuperating. It made her studies easier to grasp. The bonus she had gotten from going up a rank sitting in her bank account was also a welcome boost to her good mood.

Seeing Commander Romanov waiting for her outside her class on a Thursday afternoon did cause a spike in her blood pressure and heart rate, though.

“Commander, what’s wrong?” Jena asked, already feeling herself slip into that soldier mindset. It was only then that she noticed the half-Trogadek woman wasn’t in her uniform and instead was in jeans and a hoodie, pretty similar to how Jena was dressed.

“Nothing’s wrong, Sergeant. I just wanted to sort some things out now.” She procured a laser measuring device from a pocket. “I need to run some final calibration checks before we start work on an exoframe for you.”

Jena’s worried expression quickly shifted to one of excitement. Those of rank Sergeant and above on the Herne got access to an exoframe. The suits of powered armour not only amplified strength and traversal abilities. They also provided a soldier with better armour, NBC and hazardous environmental protection, and information warfare capabilities. Flying in a Servitor was one thing. Flying in an exoframe?

“We can head back to my apartment. Zircon’s at the restaurant.” Jena started for the exit, getting halfway down the corridor before looking to Treshka. “If you don’t mind my asking, Commander. Why are you doing this, and why now in your time off?”

Treshka laughed. “The children wanted to do some shopping in the city, my husband is out buying fruit. I’d rather not see how the kids spend their allowance, and farmers tend to worry I might make off with their livestock.”

Jena thought back on her galactic history. “The Trogadek raiding parties were centuries ago.”

“Old fears die hard. Give it three centuries and I am sure farmers on Farringdon Three will still worry about Volsta dropships.”

Thoughts of her days in the Resistance flashed back to her. “… Yeah. I see your point, Commander.”

In the quad, the pair were getting some looks. Jena’s reputation had spread from the mugging incident and news of the attempted theft she helped to thwart. Treshka always got looks, the statuesque warrior towering above the others. Some were looking a bit appreciative of the way her jeans hugged her muscular legs.

“On a similar note, I am sure the Volsta will tell their children that if they don’t behave, a blonde falcon will swoop in and steal them away.” She commented quietly, having to crouch down a little to whisper it. On seeing the Sergeant’s demeanor shift, she patted her on the back. “Perhaps I went a little far in my praise.”

“I did what I had to do, Commander. Now I prefer to take pride in my military record.”

“Fair enough.” Commander Romanov then veered off towards a street vendor just outside the Academy to buy a bag of hot, freshly sliced Asrati Sandsnake. “Mmh, can’t get enough of this stuff.”

Eager for a change of conversation and a distraction from the sticky carvings of meat her Commander was lowering into her mouth, Jena asked about the Romanov children.

“Four of them.” Treshka said after a lick of her lips. “Three daughters. Zeshka, Malhka and Torhka. All of them studying at the Psi Research Institute on Ural Two.”

“That’s where Simeon works, right?” Jena had done some reading up. That institute had helped train some of the most talented psi users in the military.

Romanov nodded. “That’s where I studied, and where I met him.”

“And your son?”

“Dorheon. He will be attending there full time, once his schooling has finished.” Treshka lowered another slice of sandsnake into her mouth as they reached the apartment building.

“All psi-talented? You must be proud.” The cyborg swiped her hand over the entrance panel and quickly used her internal implant to assign Treshka as her guest.

“I’d be proud even if they weren’t, but as it stands they’re even better than I was at that age.”

When they got to the apartment, the Commander nodded in approval at the neatness. “All right, Sergeant.” She said, brandishing her measuring device. “Strip.”

 

 

“She made you strip completely?” Handler laughed, her spoon clattering from her hand into her bowl of ice cream. They were at a little cafe near one of the shopping complexes, bags safely stowed under the table. Jena had dipped into her promotion money to buy some new outfits.

“She did. Apparently these exoframes are skin-tight and everything needs to line up for various internal connections.” Jena groaned. “What have I gotten myself in for?”

“When is your first training session in one?”

“Two weeks time on a Thursday. She wanted Saturday, but…” Jena glanced to Young-ae meaningfully. “She seemed to get that I had other arrangements.”

The intelligence officer was looking particularly lovely. Her hair was artfully done up. Designer sunglasses helped her deal with the bright sun that day. Her light and airy sundress bore a swirling sand pattern on. Jena herself was in denim shorts and a tank top, eager to soak up the sun.

“I suppose training up now will save time once you are back on duty.” Handler said.

“Plus I get to fly.” Jena added eagerly.

“Plus you get to fly.” She smiled. “Are you nervous?”

“I’m fully flight-certified in all three Servitor classes, how different can it be?”

 

 

Flying in an exoframe was a lot different to flying in a Servitor. Jena had lifed her feet off the ground and promptly drove herself back-first into the sand. She could hear Treshka laughing through her commslink.

“Rookie error, Sergeant! Servitors, you push out with your back. Exoframes, you push up with your feet! Get up and try again!”

Moving in an exoframe was more ungainly than she thought it would be. The heavy black armour was soaking up heat from the sun and she had to shake herself several times to dislodge all the sand from her joints. The connections to her various machine interface ports let her fully integrate with the system, feeding its sensor systems directly to her brain. Not that it was helping much with flying as her next attempt had her skidding face-first for a few feet.

“Get up and try again, Sergeant! You think it’s bad rattling about in there? I can tell you some stories that will make your eyes water and your legs cross!”

That was one small advantage to losing most of her body on Farringdon III. All bodily waste extraction was handled by a single port designed for connection to systems like the ones in exoframes. She didn’t have to deal with any catheters. There was nothing left to do but dust herself down for another go.

 

 

Even as micromachines worked to heal her bruises, Jena still felt the need to lay on the sofa of their apartment with an ice pack on her face while Zircon and Natasha cooked.

“It’s a shame the Commander couldn’t stay for dinner.” Natasha called out as her hand jostled the contents of her pan about. “I think she’d like a nice stuffed pressbread.”

“I think she has plans with her family tonight” Jena called back.

“Will you be fine on your own, Sergeant?” Zircon asked, bringing her a glass of water fizzing away from a pain relief tab dropped into it.

Hauling herself up, Jena moved the ice pack to gulp down the concoction. “I won’t let me hitting a tree mess up anyone’s evening plans.” She spoke after swallowing and pulling a face. “Looking forwards to the concert, Natasha?”

“Definitely, and it’s nice that Zircon’s coming with me.” The chef quickly portioned out the contents of her pan into the sliced pockets of flatbread. “What about your evening?”

“Ancient Earth History.” Jena held up her dataslate, then tucked it safely out of the way as the food arrived. “We’re on the Annexation Wars. A bit of a bloody subject, but reading about early Servitor units and the first cybernetic soldiers is pretty interesting.”

“I’ll stick with the loud music and the handsome company.” Natasha said before sinking her teeth into her dinner.

 

 

Jena felt Young-ae stir, a lithe arm wrapping around her waist. The soldier had risen early to make some coffee for the pair, then sat in bed alternating between sipping and checking over her essay on early full-immersion control systems for Servitors. As a head nestled against her lap, she set her mug aside and used her now free hand to tousle the dark hair brushing against her stomach.

The intelligence officer didn’t get to visit every weekend, or sometimes only for a day or less. Jena tried to make the most of the time they had, knowing in the back of her mind at some point they would need to have a talk. The talk. The one about what will happen when the Herne and the Shuck go their separate ways.

A soft laugh escaped Jena’s lips as Young-ae planted little kisses on her stomach. She kept reading a while longer before a discontent sound came from her lover, a pair of dark eyes peering up at her.

“All work and no play makes Jena a dull girl.” The officer teased.

“I must have imagined last night then. There was a lot of play involved there. The amusement park. Karaoke. Here.” Jena smiled, still stroking her lover’s hair. “Wasn’t that enough?”

Young-ae contemplated that for a moment. Jena was amazed at how much younger the intelligence officer seemed when they were on their dates or alone like this, compared to the all-business commander of the Shuck she met years ago.

“No.” Young-ae shook her head. “Never enough.”

Mingling

Putting the box with the new rank insignia with her belongings gave the other partygoers time to get their food and start the process of mingling before Jena returned. This meant that not only did she have to queue less before her plate was loaded with assorted meats and vegetables in easy-to-eat finger food form, but she could pick and choose where she would start socializing. Clipping her glass of wine to the plate, a handy feature thought of by the designers, she started with Professor Romanov and Fixer.

The pair were sitting at one of the patio tables. Jena could hear them discussing machine interfaces as she approached. Fixer was in black slacks and a pale blue shirt and looked rather presentable. The Professor’s outfit she was still trying to figure out, but given his wife was dressed similarly, it had to have been a cultural thing. She was also trying to figure out just how the short, svelte scientist and the muscular half-Trogadek Commander hit it off.

“Fixer, Professor, might I join you for a bit?” Jena asked.

“Of course, Jena.” Fixer smiled, pushing a chair out with his foot. “Have you two met before?” He said with a glance between the pair.

“We haven’t, I just remember hearing from some of the crew that the Commander’s husband was a Professor involved with psionic research.” Jena replied.

“A pleasure, Sergeant. And please, call me Simeon.” Simeon spoke, offering the hand that wasn’t holding some sort of tiny fishcake.

“Jena, then.” She said as she shook the offered hand. “If it wasn’t for Fixer, I wouldn’t be sitting here now.”

“He mentioned! Quite resourceful to do a cyberization procedure in the field using spare parts and a modified medical facility. I have some colleagues in the Bionics and Cybernetics field who would love to take notes.”

Jena chewed thoughtfully on a pastry puffball containing a blend of pulled meat and pickles before speaking. “There must be some overlap between those fields and your own, right? I noticed Heko had trouble controlling The Axar, and it’s the only way I can think of to explain what I saw.”

The Professor smiled brightly at that. “An interesting notion, how did you come to that conclusion?” He had leaned forwards a little, discarding his food for the time being.

The soldier tried not to shrink back from the interested look he was giving her. “As a cyborg, I can control a Servitor completely with mind, or partially by using manual controls assisted by thought. Or just with manual controls. The Axar was not moving fluidly, but a hacker like Heko should have been able to access its machine interface. Unless it required that and psi ability to utilize.” She paused, holding up a hand to ask for a moment as she gnawed poultry off a bone. “Plus, your wife was able to stop it from crushing me and forcibly eject the pilot from outside.”

“Impressive!” Simeon grinned, pushing his plate aside. “You’re right, The Axar was designed to require someone with both a machine interface and psi talent to pilot it effectively. Trying to use it with just an MI alone put too much strain on a soldier with standard mental abilities.” Fixer had leaned in to listen too, forgetting about his plate of food. “It takes time for such a machine to learn the quirks of its operator, not that my wife has any quirks mind you! Once done though and an affinity has been created, remote operation is possible. Of course we are developing some interesting technology in a joint venture to enable pilots such as yourself to-”

“Eat!” Treshka growled in the Professor’s ear, appearing from behind Simeon to place her hands either side of him. “I know how you get when you start talking shop, my love.”

“It’s my fault, Commander.” Jena admitted. Even Fixer had started to eat again at Treshka’s order.

“Well, I am sure you will have time to talk with him at some point on work matters. For now though…” She poked Simeon in the back. “You need to eat, and then we dance.”

Jena rose and offered the Commander her chair. “I’ll go and mingle a little more then.”

Treshka pointed a finger at her plate. “You better eat too, or I’ll be pouring a bottle of our homebrew down your throat. Robust, fortifying, nutritious. A beer for convalescence, and we brought plenty with us.”

“Yes, Commander.” The cyborg smiled, making sure to grab her burger and take a bite out of it in plain sight of the warrior before heading off.

 

Agent Durand was making eyes at either Medenia, Shay, or both of them. Given their earlier encounter, she decided to give Simone and her little black dress some distance and opted to join Solokov, Akintola, and the Admiral near the barbecue.

“Was Simeon talking shop?” Zaha asked with a smile as Jena headed over. Her Admiral’s jacket had been hung up, and her sword was slung over her back so it wasn’t in the way of her sitting.

“Until the Commander made him eat. I take it that’s a regular thing?” Jena asked.

“My father was like that when my mother got too deep in her studies.” Solokov said. The wiry agent was out of her usual stealth exoframe and shipsuit. Instead she wore slacks and a short-sleeved blouse, her dirty blonde hair feathered and styled into peaks and spikes.

“Mine were like that with me.” Akintola added. Given her bandeau dress seemed to be running its own calculations as silvery numbers tallied and scrolled down the black length, Jena could imagine her hunched over a computer hacking. “When it comes to people-watching though, I’m more interested in those three.” She nodded to Simone and the two Herne crew-members.

“Ah, I see what you mean.” Admiral Roland said after a moment of watching Durand’s body language with the pair.

“Do you get shore leave like we do?” Jena asked, finishing her wine after a encountering a rather spicy meat pate on a cracker. “I get the feeling she needs some.”

“Ours is coming up soon, but we’re still a way off.” Akintola replied. “The Shuck is a year and a bit away from its full service.”

“It gives us something to look forward to.” Solokov added.

“Time for me to do the rounds some more.” Zaha spoke up as she rose. “Make sure you try some of the drinks the Romanovs’ brought with them, Jena.” The Admiral added as she made a beeline for Agents Huang, Gibbams and Lopez.

 

After drifting about a little more to talk with various combinations of people, Jena made sure to snag a couple of bottles from the table and load her plate up again. Borrowing one of the microdrones for light, she excused herself from the chatter and music to head for the beach. Earlier in the day she found a pleasant hump to perch on and look out from. She found herself back on there, watching the reflected light from the moons glimmer off the waves.

The first bottle she drank from was rich, fruity and with a warmth in the aftertaste that glowed in the back of her throat. As the tide lapped against the shore she alternated between pulls from the bottle and trying various bits from her plate.

She could hear the sand shift as someone approached. Besides her Handler sat down, carrying food and drink too. Her dark hair was tied back, the officer’s eyes accentuated with kohl and her lips a deep red. The dress she wore was a strappy little black number with the hint of deep crimson in the fabric, the material becoming feathered with sheer net as it came down her thighs. She had drawn her knees up, and clinked her bottle against Jena’s as she sat before eating quietly.

“I wasn’t hiding out here.” The soldier stated upfront. “I’d have left the drone at the villa if I wanted to do that.”

“You just needed to get away from the crowd for a bit.” Handler replied between mouthfuls. “I understand that.”

“Is Simone still on the hunt?” Jena asked with a chuckle.

“I may tie her to the lawn later and activate the sprinkler system.” Handler chuckled softly. “I’m surprised she wasn’t eyeing you.”

“She… already made a pass at me.” Jena admitted. “She was following some advice she gave me earlier. I turned her down.”

The silence between the two was broken as they both drank from their bottles, Jena finishing hers and opening the second one. This had a more tart flavour, but each mouthful ended with a sweetness that lingered on the tongue.

“Still keeping your edge?” Handler asked quietly.

Jena could feel the tips of her fingers tingling from nervousness. Setting her bottle and plate down, she slowly reached over behind Handler, her fingers removing the clip to let her hair fall down. Sliding the clip back into the wealth of black so it wouldn’t get lost, she picked her things up again.

“Whenever I see someone let their hair down, I always think of you.” The soldier said softly.

Even as she smiled, Handler shook her head. “You don’t have to force your-”

“I’m not forcing- okay, I am. But that’s only because this body…” Jena glanced down at her hands and flexed her fingers to try and shift the feeling of weakness from them, “I took on the Volsta army with it, but when it comes to natural things there’s a disconnect. It won’t listen to me, or I can’t understand it.”

“Jena…”

“I’ve no idea what I’m doing, Handler. I know my body can’t do some things. But I won’t find that out if I don’t push myself, and I-”

“Young-ae.” Handler suddenly interrupted with.

“What?”

“My name.”

Jena blinked. “Oh.”

Handler rose up. “If we circle around to the right, we can reach the Shuck without going through the party.”

Dismissing the microdrone light with a wave of her hand, Jena stood as well and started to follow the officer.

“Oh, soldier?” Handler stopped, turning back to look at the blonde.

“Yes?”

“No one knows what they’re doing at first.”

Jena felt a little better on hearing that.

Commendations

The workshop on the IXV Shuck was packed as they gathered around for Ensign Zircon Herne to be restarted after repairs. Fixer was to the side at a command console, cables from it running up to the ceiling, then down the harness into the back of the android’s neck. Jena had put her jogging bottoms and tank top back on after spending most of the day in the sea, and stood to the front along with Natasha and Zaha in their summer dresses, and Handler in her shipsuit.

“Try not to crowd him when he comes online.” Fixer stated as he sent the command through.

Jena took a step back to give him a bit more space, curious to see the process. At first his fingers flexed in order from thumb to little finger then back again. His toes, just brushing against the floor as he hung from the ceiling, did the same. His limbs bent a little at the knees and elbows before straightening. Then his head came up while his eyes blinked in a slow, steady pattern.

“He’s okay.” Fixer reassured Natasha.

Jena glanced to the chef and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. She gave Jena a grateful smile before looking back to Zircon.

The android’s head jolted up. “The combat situation has been resolved, I see.” Zircon stated, carefully taking in the room.

“How are you feeling, Zircon?” Jena asked.

“I am fine. My systems are all functioning normally. I am missing some recorded data from the time of my last update, but other than that… I am fine.” He looked around again. “Admiral, Natasha, Jena. I am glad you are all safe.”

Admiral Roland saluted. “The pair of you did good work in a difficult situation. As such, we will be having a little get-together here later with some of the senior crew. You will be the guests of honour, but it will be a casual affair so do not worry about getting dressed up.” Zaha looked to Handler. “The crew of the Shuck are invited too, of course.”

“I’ll be sure to let them know.” Handler said. “Fixer, lower Zircon down. Then we can give them some space.”

As the android’s harness was winched to the floor, Zaha excused herself as well. “I have to place some orders for this little party tonight. Natasha, you are a guest of honour as well for your service in assisting the military, so you can think twice about doing any cooking.” With another salute, Admiral Roland left with Fixer to leave the three in the room.

Natasha stepped close to give him a hug. “I’m glad you’re okay…” She breathed, her face pressed against the black shipsuit he’d been dressed post-repairs. “When I first saw you, I was afraid you were…”

“We both were.” Jena added as the chef trailed off. She didn’t give him a hug, but she did squeeze his shoulder with her hand. “Thanks for the rescue. I’d have been done for if you hadn’t distracted him.”

“I will always have your back, Ensign.” Zircon stated. He then looked around the room. “I have been in here for almost a week. A change of scenery is often recommended.”

Jena gave Natasha a nudge. “Why don’t you help Zircon get some clothes and go down to the beach. It made me feel better after my convalescence, and I doubt Zircon’s seen it first hand either.”

Natasha took Zircon’s hand carefully and looked to her. “Are you sure you don’t want to join us?”

The soldier shook her head, stretching out a little. “If there’s going to be a party later, I think I need some quiet time to prepare for it.” She noticed the look she was given and smiled. “Go have a swim, take a walk. I gather we’ve got a while before the others arrive.”

 

Her old room on the Shuck was, aside from a few extra supply crates, pretty much as she’d left it. There wasn’t much in there to begin with, but they at least kept the bed made. Settling down on it, Jena stared up at the ceiling and let her mind drift. Time passed as her thoughts skipped from subject to subject without any real coherence. Memories of Farringdon III. That embarrassing, maddening first time she met Natasha. The fight against Volsta’s Dagger. Faces of the diseased on the medical mission of mercy the Herne had been dispatched on. The Axar staring down at her as she bled over the hangar floor. Handler letting her hair down. Her assault on the Central City Administration Building. The featherlight touch she felt against her lips when she’d been kissed the night before.

The addition of weight to the bed startled Jena back to reality. Simone was laying besides her, arms folded and her chin resting on them. “Hiding from anyone in particular?” She asked with a grin.

“Not hiding. Just needed a quiet place to rest. I might have slept for almost a week, but it wasn’t restful, and I’ve had a lot to consider.” Jena replied.

“Good. If you were hiding, I’d have to drag you out of here by your hair.” Simone chuckled, her legs kicking in the air.

“You think you could?”

“Oh!” The agent was shooting her an arch look. “Don’t tempt me, Ensign. I’ve not had a good throw-down in ages. In any sense of the term.”

“Ah.” Jena’s cheeks coloured.

“Yeah. Exactly” Durand chuckled, pushing herself up. “I’m going to hit the showers before the others get back. When it comes to partying, I like to take my time getting ready. Might be an idea for you to get ready before everyone’s underfoot.” She said from the doorway.

“I’ll take it under consideration.”

She paused by the doorway, looking back. “You could always wash my back?”

Jena wished she could vanish into warp to escape the embarrassment, but that simply wasn’t an option. Instead, she took a deep breath, sat up and shook her head. “I appreciate the offer, Simone, but…”

The brunette nodded. “I know. But hey, like I said earlier: Don’t waste a good chance when it presents itself.”

As Simone wandered off whistling to herself, Jena decided the best course of action would be to get back to the Villa. Life had enough complications without adding more.

 

Between leaving her old room and getting ready in the Villa, several more ships had arrived to join the IJV Hunter’s Oak and the IXV Shuck. Firstly was the IHV Windsor from the Herne, a small haulage ship carrying Chief Engineer Shay MacAllister and Operations Officer Medenia. Both were in their military uniforms, but had taken the jackets off and undone a couple of buttons on their shirts.

Next was the IJV Stone Flower, the ship belonging to the Romanov family. Treshka was in black leggings and a long white top belted at the waist with a delicate red and gold sash. Professor Simeon Romanov was in similar garb, though his belt had a rich purple instead of red. They brought apologies from Saekal, who would have come had it not been for a play he was performing in that night.

Zircon was in his formal function outfit, and Natasha had a hard time keeping her eyes off the handsomely dressed android. Jena herself was in her floral dress she bought from Central City years ago. With Handler present, it was the only logical choice.

The rest of the Shuck’s agents had also came back in the vehicles they requisitioned, and throughout the afternoon drone ships had been dropping off automatons and goods for the ‘little celebration’ Zaha was putting together. The serving staff had been given strict instructions to keep Natasha out of the kitchen, and after several attempts to sneak in and help she had finally given up.

As the Asrati sky began to darken, Admiral Zaha Roland called everyone to attention. The patio outside the main living area of the villa had been lit up with flights of microdrones in firefly formations, and an automaton was tending the barbecue nearby that was emanating a wealth of delicious odours. Another automaton was going around with a tray of glasses for the toasts, filled with a slightly tart local sparkling wine.

“Thank you all for coming,” Zaha began, “to what is just going to be a little, casual celebration for the actions that helped prevent the theft of The Axar.” She was dressed in a rather fetching black dress with a panel cut from the front that let a lot of toned abdomen show, with her white Admiral’s jacket draped across her shoulders and her sword at her waist. “When criminals attempted to subvert the Herne’s computer systems through the autocrew, it was the sole android away from the ship, Ensign Zircon Herne, who detected what they were doing. With the help of Miss Natasha Henderson, he and Ensign Jena Foster alerted me and returned to the flagship to investigate.”

Taking a moment to sip from a glass of water, she continued on. “At risk to themselves they eliminated some of the attackers, came to my aid when I was under fire, and were injured in the fight to reclaim The Axar. The two Ensigns acted in an exemplary manner as we would hope all members of the military would, with dedication and valour. Miss Henderson, a civilian chef, not only helped them get back to the Herne, but once there assisted me in my efforts to regain control of the sabotaged systems.”

“As Admiral of the ISV Herne, I am authorized by the Galactic Federation to bestow honours. Miss Henderson, would you come here?”

Natasha looked bashful as she headed towards the Admiral.

“I am proud to award you a Civil Service Star, for coming to the assistance of the military and going above and beyond what would be expected.” She held out a small grey box. As Natasha took it, her ident implants picked up the data transfer from the Admiral. Jena saw the silver star appear to the left of the chef’s name even before she opened the box to reveal the pin serving as physical proof of her deed.

As the applause from those gathered around died down, Zaha turned to look at Jena. “Ensign Jena Foster. Even before you joined, you served your people with diligence and duty. You have continued that as an Ensign. This will be your last day as an Ensign, though.”

Jena could hear Simone laughing at the panicked expression her face bore. Her Admiral was smiling at her, brandishing another grey box trimmed with gold.

“From the moment you take this box, you will be Sergeant Jena Foster, Third Class. With rank comes the burden of duty. The sword at my side is proof of this. Know that my Commander, Treshka Romanov, and I think it is nothing your shoulders cannot bear the weight of.”

The cyborg’s hand trembled as she stepped up and took the box. When she had gone from Cadet to Ensign, the steel half-pip by her name had changed into a full one.  Now a bronze ring encircled that pip, and a bronze star besides it. Opening the box revealed the ring for her pip, and the star to clip next to it.

A pair of massive hands clapped her shoulders warmly, startling her from staring at them. “Carry on like you have and those won’t be the last ones you get, Sergeant.” Treskha grinned.

As more applause sounded around them, Jena searched for one face in the crowd.

Handler smiled proudly as she clapped. The newly-appointed Sergeant was glad that the lights from microdrones helped to hide the flush of her cheeks.

“And finally,” Zaha spoke, waiting for the noise to die down before continuing. “Ensign Zircon Herne. It is unusual for a member of the autocrew to get commendations. Unheard of, in fact. Had it not been for unusual circumstances though, you would not have detected the intrusion and one of the most powerful Servitors in the Galactic Armed Forces would now be in unknown hands.”

She motioned for Zircon to step forwards, holding out the final grey box. “My hands are tied in many regards, but my gratitude is not. We recognize your service with an unofficial commendation as Ensign Zircon Herne. Third Class.” She opened the box. A steel star sat on the pillow of white silk.

“Thank you, Admiral.” The android spoke as he took from box from her. “I did my duty, and will continue to do my duty to you, the ship, and the crew.” Natasha flew to his side to give him a hug. Jena simply patted his shoulder, giving him a warm smile.

“Now then!” Zaha called, raising her glass. “I know you’re all hungry, and definitely thirsty. A toast to those we honoured, then keep out of my way because I want one of those burgers.” She said with a gesture to the grill even as she raised her glass, cheers and laughs filling the night.

Rising At Dawn

As the first rays of sun began to flood the bedroom, Jena’s implants began to work on her blood chemistry to rouse her from slumber. It was a pretty clever system the soldier had to admit. It could be triggered either internally via her system clock, externally via some trigger, or disabled to leave her to wake naturally. As a child on a farm it was customary to rise at first light, so rise she did.

It felt good to be moving. Her artificial joints and spine seemed stiff though. Slipping from the bed, a few stretches and exercises soon had those kinks worked out. She did note that several of her cybernetic systems had been disabled via her internal software. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she padded towards the doors out of the bedroom while trying to restore her more advanced functions.

The hardwood floor was solid and cool underfoot, and area she exited into was bright and filled with the warm aroma of expensive coffee. Jena breathed deep and followed her nose towards the french press in the kitchen, situated on a marble counter and flanked by delicate cups. There was something familiar about the press she noted while pouring and prepping the beverage to her liking. A hint of milk, a little sugar.

The first sip felt wonderful on her tongue. She savoured the mouthful, letting it wash over her taste buds before swallowing.

“Good morning, Ensign.” Admiral Roland said from the breakfast bar, some surprise on her face as she took in the sight in front of her.

“Admiral, it’s good to see you again.” Jena saluted before having another sip of coffee, a joyful smile crossing her face. It was a good blend.

“Likewise.” There was a note of caution in Zaha’s voice as she spoke. She was in the white dressing robe Jena had seen her in on the morning they left for shore leave, her black hair had been carefully braided and a plate sat empty in front of her, save for a few toast crumbs. “How are you feeling this morning?”

The soldier stretched out, groaning with satisfaction as her neck cricked. “Better than I have in a while.” A flush touched her cheeks. “I had a nice dream too but-” She remembered just who she was speaking. As caffeine started to flood her system she took the opportunity to look around some more at the luxury setting. A quizzical look crossed her face.

“We’re at my holiday villa, Ensign. You’ve been resting here after an incident on the Herne. You were injured in the line of duty and have been asleep for almost six days.” Zaha explained at the prompting from the person behind Jena.

“The Axar… I stopped the man from stealing it. Zircon was killed by…” Her eyes narrowed. “No, he’s being fixed.” A gentle shadow by her bed had told her that. “They’re investigating the attempt now.” That gentle shadow had kissed her. Realization hit and Jena felt the presence behind her. She turned to see Handler standing there, a piece of toast in one hand and a coffee cup in the other and dressed as usual in a shipsuit that complemented her trained physique perfectly.

The biggest smile she’d ever had graced her face, and the cup was almost dropped on the counter as she rushed over to hug her, easily lifting the dark-haired woman in her embrace. “I never thought I’d see you again…” She mumbled mid-cuddle.

“Your Admiral is responsible.” Handler smiled, unable to do much while hoisted up except keep her coffee from spilling. “She put in the call for us to get involved. Do you remember everything we talked about last night?”

Setting her down, Jena nodded. She could feel her face turning pink at some of the things she said.

“Good. That’s a good sign.” Handler smiled. She was trying hard to keep her eyes on Jena’s face. “There’s something you need to do, then you can join the Admiral and I for breakfast before Natasha joins us.”

“What’s that?” Jena asked, turning back to the breakfast bar.

“You could put some clothes on, Ensign.” Zaha commented, her gaze going from Jena’s feet to the crop of blonde hair on top of her head. “There’s a bag under the bed you woke on.”

Jena looked down, let out a startled oath, and bolted for the bedroom as quick as her cheeks were red.

 

Once she was dressed in her usual off-duty jogging bottoms and tank top breakfast at first was a light affair of just toast and coffee plus a recap of the events during Jena’s convalescence, until Natasha had joined them. The chef was certainly pleased to see the Ensign up and about, and headed through to the kitchen in a ocean-patterned summer dress to cook for the three women. Excusing herself to get a drink, Jena went through to join her.

“Are you all right?” She asked the younger woman.

“Isn’t that what I should be asking you?” Natasha replied with, busy tending to some rashers of meat frying away.

“I always preferred worrying about people to having them worry about me.”  Jena said, pouring a glass of sandmelon juice. “I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but I’m feeling better. I’m sorry you met me at a weak moment.” Clearing her throat with a sip, she gestured to Natasha. “You?”

The chef flipped the rashers. “I’ve gotten over the shock of seeing Zircon in such a way. Fixer’s been really nice, answering questions and everything. And everyone appreciates my cooking,” Natasha laughed, “So I don’t feel like a useless lump.”

“Speaking of, is there anything I can do to help in here?”

Zaha and Handler laughed from where they were sitting. Jena looked over in confusion.

“They already know the answer, having asked that themselves: Get out from underfoot.” She smiled.

Jena quickly obliged, having heard her mother issue such utterances to older staffers on the farm many a time.

 

It felt odd stepping back into converted medbay she had woken up on almost four years ago. Aside from Zircon hanging from the ceiling in a maintenence harness, and Beryl’s body restrained on the table while the automaton’s brain rested in a diagnostic containment unit, it hadn’t changed much.

Simone and Fixer hadn’t changed much either. The agent was lounging on a chair near Beryl, eyeing the soldier with mirth. Fixer greeted her warmly, the older man giving her a check over just to make sure the cyborg he had helped create was at her best.

“All fine.” He smiled after running the diagnostic. When she didn’t reply, he followed her gaze to Zircon. “Ah. He’s lost a few memories from the past three months, but we recovered as much as we could. We’re undergoing final diagnostics now.”

“Thank you, Fixer.” Jena said softly, heading over to look up at the android she considered a friend.

“We’ll call you and Natasha when he’s ready to reboot.” Fixer promised.

“Is that a subtle hint for me to let you get on with your work?” Jena asked after a moment, chuckling away.

“It is. Go and enjoy the beach rather than staying cooped up in here.”

“I might just do that.” Jena commented. “I’ve never seen an ocean from the ground before.”

Just as she was about to exit the Shuck, a hand caught her wrist. Jena’s moved on autopilot to pin Simone against the wall before letting go. “Sorry, Agent Durand.”

“Don’t worry.” The woman smiled. “Good to see your reflexes are honed. I just had something for you, and some advice.” From behind her, Simone pulled out a small bag to offer Jena. “I had the fabricator run this up quickly.”

Peeking inside revealed a white two piece bikini set with delicate red and purple petals accentuating the side and underside of the wearer’s curves.

“I figured you didn’t have one, so…” She gestured at the bag.

“It’s like my dress… thank you, Simone.” Jena smiled warmly.

“And now for the advice.” Simone leaned against the wall of the airlock. “Don’t waste a good chance when it presents itself.”

“That’s it?” She questioned.

“That’s it. Now why don’t you put that on and go down to the beach. We’re not on shore leave, unfortunately.” Pushing away from the wall, Agent Durand headed deeper into the ship. “Work work work, always work.”

Borrowing a towel from the villa, Jena changed into the bikini and took a walk down to the beach. Her legs stopped as she looked out at the vastness of it all. Blue stretched out for as far as she could see, gentle foam lapping against the sand. Slinging the towel over her shoulder, Jena picked up pace as she ran for the water. The sudden shock of the cold ocean striking her foot made her leap, landing with a splash.

Balling the towel up, she hurled it away from the damp sand before pushing her body to wade into the colder depths, laughing away as she kicked water up and swept her hand through the waves. She felt so light in it! A quick check of her various ports ensured they had all been sealed and her head dipped under the water only to rise a moment later, spluttering brine.

Mopping her damp hair back Jena turned to the shore. She had felt eyes on her. Looking up and shielding herself from the glare of the morning sun, she saw a dark figure on the roof of the villa watching her. Jena’s eyes worked to zoom in, processing what data she could. From the figure and what she could see of the hairstyle…

Jena waved at Handler before turning back to play in the sea some more. She had some time before Zircon would wake. Letting the tide sweep past her before washing back felt like it was eroding the stress that had built up during shore leave. There wasn’t much to do until Fixer gave her the call. The beach was as good a place as any to wait.

Night Watch

Night had fallen over Admiral Zaha Roland’s villa. Handler opened the window to let cool, crisp ocean air in after checking Jena’s forehead with the back of her hand. The cyborg’s recovery was going as she expected, nanomachines and micromachines being pumped around her system to repair the damage from the fight and the stress placed on her systems.

The Galactic Federation Intelligence Agency officer had read through the reports forwarded to her by the Admiral. Her military career up until that point had been impeccable. Her training as a cadet was exemplary. Jena had even taken her advice to spend more time with her remaining family when she could at the weekends back on Farringdon III.

It was her first shore leave where things had started to go wrong. It had been easy for Handler to get access to some of the class records from the Asrat City Academy, and Natasha’s report to Zaha had helped fill in some of the gaps.

She let out a low, soft sigh as she resumed her place by the bed. “What am I to do with you, soldier?” She asked, taking up a damp cloth to help cool her down.

 

She must have drifted off for a bit. Movement startled her out of her doze. Handler lifted her head up and saw a pair of eyes staring at her in the dimly-lit room.

“I’m either dead… or being tormented by dreams…” Jena spoke, her voice hoarse from lack of use.

“Nice to see you too, soldier.” Handler replied, preparing herself in case she needed to administer more sedation to her former teammate. “What makes you say that?”

“As you’re here. So I’m either having that dream again, or this is what it’s like after you’re dead.” She sounded weary in spite of all the rest she’d gotten.

“Well, I can confirm you’re not dead in just a moment.” Handler said, picking up the cable running from the back of Jena’s neck and plugging it into her own MI port. With a thought she initiated parts of the soldier’s in-vision display to show her vitals.

“Good to know…” Her heavy eyes slid shut for a while until she got the energy to open them again. “So it’s a dream.”

Glancing around the room she looked back to Jena before speaking. “How do these dreams usually go?”

“We talk.”

“Shocking.” Handler smiled softly.

“Sometimes you hold me.”

“Scandalous.”

“Once you were at the farm, chasing chickens.” Jena added.

The agent laughed softly at that. “A shame I never got to see the farm. Yours, or your brother’s.”

“The food was good. There was dancing too, but I never danced with anyone.”

“Not even Ensign Herne?” Handler asked, cautious about mentioning the android’s name.

Jena shook her head. “The other girls would lynch me. I’ve not danced in years. Not since the Volsta invaded.”

“They would have to be very capable to get the drop on you.” She commented. “Do we do anything else in these dreams?”

“Sometimes…” Her eyelids drooped again, her breathing slowing before she roused herself. “Sometimes we kiss, and then I cry.”

Handler removed the cloth from Jena’s forehead and checked her temperature again. “Surely I’m not that bad at kissing, soldier.” The joke gave way to a sad look. “You’ve been bottling things up again.”

“I’m-” A building look of defiance buckled as she sagged down. “I’m struggling.” Came the admission.

Handler lifted the dataslate she had with her. “I know. I read some reports.”

“I’ll be okay once shore leave finishes.” The soldier stated.

“Perhaps, but you can’t be a soldier forever. Even if you might want to be. You made progress on Farringdon, you’ve had a little set-back here but that can happen.” She spoke gently. “A set-back isn’t the end of the world.”

“Zircon’s dead.” It was said quickly, as if it might stick in her throat if she didn’t get it out there.

“The Volsta thought that about you, but Fixer proved them wrong. I’ve had him working on the Ensign. Should be ready to restart soon.” Handler’s voice was gentle in the night air, her hand finding Jena’s wrist to squeeze. “Durand has been working on pulling data from the combat automaton you destroyed. The others are investigating the attempt to steal from the Herne. Durand has also been pestering me about you, but when isn’t she?”

The soldier had started to drift off again, eyelids flickering as she struggled between the waking world and the land of dreams. Mumbled nothings toppled from her lips, and it was with great effort that Jena forced herself awake. “Kiss?”

“What about kisses?” Handler asked, her spare hand coming up to brush some of Jena’s hair from where it had stuck to her forehead.

“Can I have one? Before…” she stifled a yawn, “Before I wake up…”

“I don’t know.” Handler gently teased the exhausted woman. “Apparently my kisses make people cry.”

Jena just pouted her lips.

Handler glanced about the room to make sure Simone hadn’t snuck in to watch. Satisfied that one of her agents wasn’t observing her in the shadows, she leaned in to brush her lips against Jena’s.

With a content sigh the tension left Jena’s body as she sunk back to sleep.

Carefully tucking her in, Handler removed the cable from the back of her neck and headed to the window. Outside the coastal plain rolled away from the beach villa, lightly dusted with sand and hardy plants. Settling on the windowsill, her implants triggered to let one side of her brain and the corresponding side of her body rest. It was GFIA technology, designed to let their agents stay active and monitor situations. Centuries ago it had been used by military snipers and assassins waiting for their target.

Normal sleep was better, but it was good enough to keep her rested as she cared for Jena.

And she did care for Jena, as much as she loathed Simone needling her about it. The body was one thing; taut artificial muscle mixed with a farmer-turned-soldier’s physique and  that boyish cut of blonde. Handler’s dreams about Jena tended to be a lot more explicit than the ones the soldier admitted to having. Her mind was another entirely. Handler wasn’t sure which she felt more. Admiration for Jena’s drive and focus on the liberation of her planet and her devotion to her military work, or pity for what it had done to the little girl who had to grow up so quickly after what the Volsta did.

She felt a tear run down the cheek of the resting side of her body.

It was going to be a long night.