A Dangerous Op

The two armour-clad individuals, one hero and one villain, crawled on their stomachs towards the injured girl in the room. Sophie Reynolds was laying on her back, hands clasped over the gunshot wound to her abdomen.

“Sophie?” Teknight called out.

The teen started to move a little.

“No, stay where you are. You need to move your hands so we can treat your wound.” The hero ordered, looking over to Lieutenant Glay. The soldier was changing the head over on his sole cybernetic limb.

“Can you do anything about the radiation from the wound?” The soldier asked.

Adjusting the output levels on their gauntlets, Teknight started to project the dampening field over the oozing wound. Sophie’s body clenched from the added discomfort until Simon jabbed a needle full of serum into her thigh.

“It’s Revita.” Glay said, waiting a moment before removing the needle. “Promotes tissue regeneration and dulls pain.” Noting the sort of look Teknight was giving him, he added “Fifth generation, addiction doesn’t start to form with this until three uses in a five day period.”

“I said nothing.”

“You were saying nothing quite loudly, in fact.” Simon chuckled, carefully moving the field medic attachment on his cybernetic arm into position over the wound. “Initiating the medical scan… there is still some interference, but nothing critical.”

“I’ll see if I can dampen the radiation any more. Stay strong, Sophie.” Teknight spoke, altering the field projector settings on the fly. “Once we can move her, we have artificial blood products on our ship.”

The soldier just gave a nod of his head, going over all the data pouring into his field of view. Carefully lowering the arm, a cylinder popped out of it and started to push needles from its body, pricking the wound and injecting numbing agents to help with the pain as much as possible. Sweat beaded on his forehead inside the suit as he exercised the fine control needed to operate the limbs with such precise and minute movements.

“Why are you doing this?” The question came from the hero eventually.

“Those who die for Black Spectrum deserve to rest in its soil.” The reply was quick and confident. “Tending to your injured comrade on our terms assures my ability to carry out that sacred duty.”

“I meant coming here to take nuclear waste.”

“Ah.” Simon sounded rather amused. “When Tiberius Black commands, we obey. Perhaps another time we could debate the role and effectiveness of sanctions, but as for now…” The head on the field medic attachment quickly switched over to a claw device on a flexible cable that lowered into the wound. “The bullet did not go deep.”

Noticing Sophie’s bloodied hand reaching over, Teknight took it and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Stay strong.”

“I’d chide Sanders for his lack of trigger discipline but…” His damaged artificial arm gestured to where the corpse was. With a clink, the now irradiated bullet landed on the floor. The arm switched tasks again, patching the damage as best he could in the situation before filling the wound with a dollop of pink paste that quickly set. “She’s safe to move now.”

Cutting off the projected dampening field made the Teknight suit’s onboard computer a little happier as heat and power drain levels started to return to normal. With the uttermost care the hero gathered Sophie up and rose. “I’ll take her to be further treated. See to your men, I will inform my allies of our terms.”

Lieutenant Glay was already lifting one of the bodies to sling over his broad, exoframe-clad shoulders. “Wise, we would not want a misunderstanding, would we?”

 

“What the hell’s happening here, Tek?” Ruby demanded, flaming sword in hand. Between the long red hair, the red leather trenchcoat and the matching trousers, it was clear she had a penchant for crimson.

“There’s an OGRE Lieutenant in the fuel facility. Adrian? Go in and apprehend him as peacefully as possible.”

Adrian looked over and nodded. At ten foot tall and six wide, the massive robot did not seem like an Adrian, but it was what he elected to name himself. “Proceeding.” The deep synthetic voice stated, stomping off towards the target location.

Teknight kept moving towards the unit Sophie had been transported in, issuing orders to the control AI on both ships to prep for medical treatment. With a team of androids and gynoids loading with the latest medical treatment programs to work on her, Sophie would be in good hands. Ruby’s question was ignored for as long as possible, at least until the red-head dragged them aside.

“Are you sure you’re fit to back at work?” The woman asked with concern written all over her face. “No one would blame you if you needed more time off.”

Armour plated shoulders sagged down. “I need to be doing something, Ru.”

“Questions are going to be asked, though. You need to-” A chirp in Ruby’s earpiece distracted both of them as a flurry of communications came in.

“Target is not found.” Adrian reported in a rumbling monotone.

“Another spatial disturbance is occurring behind the plant.” B-VOS added. “The Black Spectrum ship is appearing again.”

With a crackle of flame, Ruby’s coat split down the back into a pair of scaled wings. With a quick beat of them she was up in the air and darting towards the location in question. Just as she crested over part of the building, the ship lurched away and faded out of sight, leaving the woman swearing and spitting flame with equal intensity.

“The trapped technicians have the system back under control.” Adrian reported from inside the facility. “They are beginning automated services. I will escort them out in the mobile shelter once they are ready.”

Getting her tempter under control, Ruby tapped a finger to her ear. “B, transfer mission control to me. Tek, you’re off duty for the moment. Get in a decontamination shower.” She ordered, looking over to where her friend was. With weary movements, Teknight departed towards the showers that had been set up at the perimeter. Every step was followed by Ruby’s worried gaze.

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Another Round

Sergeant Jena Foster was stood just outside her pick-up point with Ensign Zircon Herne to her side, the pair laden down with bags. There were other soldiers and staff members of the ISV Herne nearby, ready to rejoin the flagship for another decade of service. Jena didn’t pay much attention to the others though.

Natasha was teary-eyed, the small pocket pack of tissues she carried with her almost depleted already.  Simone was dealing with the chef, thankfully, an arm wrapped around her shoulder as she tried to cheer her up with the prospect of teaching the agent how to cook. Fixer was there to see them off too. Though that was mainly as he’d be getting the next shuttle up to his vessel, the IXV Shuck, to oversee some checks as that ship underwent maintenance.

Then there was Handler. Her lover would be joining Fixer for those checks, but she was definitely here for Jena’s departure. Her hair had been tied back, and for a change she was in her formal GFIA uniform consisting of a short grey jacket, white leggings and black knee-high boots. Jena was in her own uniform, and the pair exchanged a look. They knew how this was going to go down.

“You’ve come a long way since I first met you, Sergeant. I wonder what rank you’ll be at next time we meet.”

“And what utterly stupid thing I did to get such a rank?” Jena added with a smile.

“I doubt your promotions will be through diligence to filing systems or friendly interactions with the autocrew.” Handler gave a wry look to the soldier. She then glanced up, and Jena knew that her transport ship was coming in. Natasha must have seen it too, the dark-skinned chef flinging herself at Zircon for a goodbye kiss. The rapid expression of feeling didn’t startle the android, he simply followed programming to reciprocate and comfort.

“Take care of yourself, Handler. Until we meet again.” Jena gave a lazy salute, then winked to Simone. “You too, Agent.” There would be no kisses goodbye. That was decided that morning before breakfast. Simone only broke that rule a little. She blew a kiss in the blonde cyborg’s direction. Chuckling, Jena blew a peck back, then one for Handler.

The transport ship had comfortably settled behind them by the time Simone had pried Natasha away from Ensign Herne. He made no motion to wipe the deep red lipstick kisses from his own lips just yet.

“This is Transport ISVH-017 for the ISV Herne. Only returning crew may board this vessel. Any attempt by civilians to board will be firmly denied.” The transport’s control AI announced.

“Natasha, it’s been a pleasure.” Jena gave the sobbing woman a hug. “We’ll send word when we can.”

The response she gave was in a thick voice, garbled by tears and emotion.

“She said to look after Zircon.” Simone translated.

“We’ll have each other’s backs.” Jena promised, breaking away as she ship prompted her and Zircon to board. She paused at the airlock to glance out at the spacedock and the backdrop of Asrat City beyond. With a nod to those gathered there to send her off, she boarded the ship before the AI could reprimand her for holding up proceedings.

Directly behind their seats were luggage droids to ferry their belongings back to their rooms. Procuring a gift bag from one of her suitcases, Jena dumped the rest into the cargo bay before taking her seat. There was no window view, which she was a little glad of. She’d gotten most of the tears out the night before. She didn’t want to risk more.

“Any regrets on leaving, Sergeant?” Zircon asked as he settled besides her.

“Always. I know where my place is though, at least for the moment.” She held out a small box for the android. “A present.”

Looking curious, he took it in his hands. “You already gave me a gift.” The soft jumper was stowed away in his bag.

“This is for a different reason. Open it.” Jena prompted.

Slipping the ribbon off the rectangular box, Zircon opened the lid to reveal two items. The first were a slender pair of tinted glasses. The second was a small pip for his jacket, steel in the shape of the numeral II.

“I made the arrangements after talking to you about it, and both the Commander and the Admiral were happy with you being my second.” Jena clasped the android’s shoulder.

“And the glasses?”

She grinned. “I just thought they’d look good on you.”

“Do they?” He asked as he slipped the arms over his ears.

Jena stared for a moment before sighing.

“They do not look good?”

“Quite the opposite, Zircon. I think I’m going to have to beat the girls off you with a stick.”

 

Jena lingered on the transport, waiting for the others to exit before grabbing the heavy gift bag and stepping off the vehicle with Zircon in tow. Admiral Roland and Commander Romanov were stood between the ramp down and the hangar doors.

“Sergeant Foster, Ensign Herne.” Zaha said with a smile. “I thought we’d have to send out a search party for you.” She raised an eyebrow as the soldier lifted her gift bag.

“I wanted to get you both something, as thanks for all your assistance.” Jena stated with a little embarrassment. She pulled out the stone tankard and offered it to Treshka.

“Hah! I’ve got one already, but thanks. One for each hand now.” The muscular warrior grinned, hefting the mug in her hand. “Just to check though, you didn’t bring any alcohol on board I’d need to confiscate on board, did you?”

“No, Commander. I split the last six bottles with some friends last night.”

“Damn. I’ll have to dip into my own stash then.” She grinned.

Jena offered the bag to her admiral. Zaha looked inside and smiled. “Good coffee, a jar for them, and… a place mat?”

“For your cafetiere to rest on. I know it’s a little cliche, but… I know how much you like your coffee, Admiral.”

“You didn’t have to get either of us gifts, Sergeant. But thank you. I’ll put it them to good use.” Behind them, Transport ISVH-017 sunk down into the recessed bay to be returned to the rotation of ships for ferrying the crew back up. “The next ship will be here soon, so we need to get the formalities out of the way.”

Drawing herself straight, Jena saluted. “Sergeant Jena Foster, Third Class, reporting for duty. Permission to come aboard, Admiral?”

“Permission granted.” Zaha saluted. “Welcome back.”

“Ensign Zircon Herne, Third Class and Sergeant Foster’s appointed Second, reporting for duty. Permission to come aboard, Admiral?” Zircon saluted as well. The glasses gave the android a serious look from some angles, and softened his features from others. The two ranking officers looked a little amused.

“”Permission granted.” The Admiral saluted. “You’re breaking new ground, Ensign. Serve us well, as you always have.”

Zircon nodded, dropping his hand and moving to stand at ease just behind and to the side of Jena.

“Nice to have you back for another round.” Treshka added, thumbing behind her. “Get to your quarters, settle in and be ready to report for the staff briefing at fifteen hundred hours, ship standard time.”

At Treshka’s command, a set of directions popped up in-vision for the pair. They didn’t lead back to her old room, but to a new duplex room on the deck above. With joint salute to her, the pair started for their new home for the next decade.

 

“Transport ISVH-018 docking in five minutes.” The ship’s computer announced.

“Join me for coffee this evening, old friend?” Zaha asked, looking over the pack Jena had given her.

“Sounds good.” Treshka nodded, before a rumbling chuckle came from her. “I can’t believe she brought us gifts.”

“There’s a first time for everything. Maybe it’s a rural thing? Most of our crew come from closer to the center of the Galactic Federation.”

She mused on that. “Might be it.”

“You saw the orders that came in from the Central Military Command, yes?” Zaha asked.

“It’ll be nice to see Ural Two again, if only briefly. Simeon and the kids are on their way back now in our shuttle. Visiting the Ladoshan systems? Not so much.”

Zaha nodded. “Command commands,”

“And we obey.” The Trogadek finished with a wry smile.

 

The staff briefing room was a massive amphitheater located in the central tower of the Herne. The lower your rank, the further back you sat. On the stage at the front of the room stood the Admiral, the Commander, and Medenia, the Operations Officer. Behind them was a massive monitor ready to display star charts and tactical data.

“Welcome to some of our new crew members, and welcome back to the rest of you.” Zaha spoke, the ship’s computer working to carry her voice through the rows of seating. “We have been assigned our first orders for this new tour of duty. It is my responsibility to inform you of those orders.”

“Our first mission consists of two parts. We will be making a brief stop at Ural Two, to pick up a compliment of new Servitors. They are the newest models, and we will be using the training rooms on the ship to seek candidates to fly them. We will send some recommendations out, but if you wish to apply, drop by and book a session.”

“Ural Two is my home.” Commander Romanov spoke, her arms folded and her expression challenging. “There will be a short period of recreation time on the planet when we arrive. I expect all of you to be on your best behavior. You serve under me, and I will deal with any transgressions personally.”

“Thank you, Commander.” Admiral Roland nodded. “After that, we are being dispatched to the Ladoshan systems. The Ladoshan League of Planets wishes to apply for entry to the Galactic Federation. They are currently dealing with aggression from the Royal Denorian Military. This will hopefully be a diplomatic mission to ease strained relations and get both on our side, but we will be in a state of combat readiness from entering the system to leaving it.”

The Admiral glanced around the room. “Make the most of your downtime while you have it. Your duty rosters have been updated, report to your line chiefs if you have any issues. Meeting adjourned.”

A recommendation notification popped up in Jena’s field of view just as she was about to rise from her chair. Zircon touched her elbow, and she gave her Second a look.

“I have been recommended to be a candidate.” He stated. He actually managed to look a little perplexed.

“Likewise. How long will it take us to reach Ural Two?”

“One moment.” A vague look crossed his face as he sent the request to the Herne’s computer. “At maximum warp encapsulation, five weeks.”

“So we’re looking at eight or nine weeks, realistically?”

Zircon nodded.

“Well… I guess we better book some time in the training machines then.” Jena replied, clasping his shoulder with one hand. Amidst the throng of staff moving this way and that as they sought to exit the room, Jena felt eyes on her. Glancing about, she noticed the Commander was watching the pair with curiosity. Their eyes met for a moment, then Treshka turned away to talk with some of the senior crew.

As the crowds dispersed, Jena wondered just what she would be getting into during her first full tour of duty.

 

Author’s note: And that’s the end of Jena’s story for now. It’s been a pretty wild ride and went on longer than I thought it would! This has been almost 60k words, and I think once it’s been redrafted, edited, and with additional content and stories not suited for the blog added it’ll push far beyond that number. Thanks for reading!

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.”

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.”

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.

The Harder You Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re done for, soldier!”

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

The mech turned to face him.

He kept firing.

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

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

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

[STRUCTURAL ERROR]

[EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN DATA DUMP INITIATED]

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bigger They Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cable whizzed back into the channel.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Maybe one shot would be enough after all.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interlopers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you were just a bit formal…”

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

All clear in the corridors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[“Admiral!”] Jena called over commslink.

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

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

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

“Okay…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“What’s your name?”

“Natasha Henderson.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hand snatched it out of the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a snarl of rage Beryl leapt forwards.

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

The man had disappeared, as had his equipment.

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

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

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

Stress Relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she was vexed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I’ve heard them too.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ensign Jena Foster.” The subdued reply came.

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

“A little better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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