That Time Of Year

It was that time of year again, and the sounds carried from the Memorial Park through the roads and down the streets to his house. A blend of music from various attractions, sprinkled with with the sounds of delight and excitement, carried over the rooftops and reached his ears thanks to the favourable winds.

The trucks had rolled in the previous evening. After a night of rest and a day of set-up, the funfair was open for all. Bags of candy floss would hang from stalls, fresh donuts dipped into the fryers, hot dogs and burgers sold in paper napkins. Merry-go-rounds would twirl and dodge ’ems would duel. Spinners would reach skywards as they span the riders around, strapped to the inner walls of the device.

Games of skill were no doubt there, with hoops to toss, prizes to shoot and coconuts to topple over. Heading over to the windowsill, he opened the window a little more and perched on the white ledge listening to the sounds of leisure coming his way. It was still early in the evening…

Quickly slinging some trainers and a hooded top on, he tucked his wallet into the pocket of his hoodie and headed down the stairs, pausing only to grab his set of keys from the hook. The second his foot landed on the mat outside the front door, the waves of anxiety hit him. Retreating back into the porch halted the grip of the nerves on his stomach and slowed the flutter of his chest.

Pacing back and forth on the mat for a little, he gathered his courage and opened the front door again. Nausea came over him like a wave, and once back in the house standing in the porch wasn’t enough. Rapidly ascending the stairs, he locked the bathroom door behind him and sat on the white mat just by the tub as he waited for his stomach to settle.

With the bathroom window open, the siren call of the fair drifted through. With clammy skin and shaking hands he shut the window and curled up with the hood pulled up over his hair.

“Next year.” He promised himself. He’d deal with the issues, master the panic attacks, settle the anxiety and go up there next year to ride the rides. The only way his stomach would feel unsettled was from the motions of the ride and too many snacks from the stalls. “Next year.” He nodded to himself, though his legs still felt weak and his stomach still heaved.

“Maybe.”

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Departures

“Your room.” Admiral Roland gestured to one of the single occupancy rooms formerly used by the Volsta. She watched as Cadet Jena Foster placed her bags near the bed. Autocrew from the Herne had swept the Volsta Empire Barracks in Central City and renovated it ready for use. Men and women from various parts of Farringdon III had volunteered to undergo a Peacekeeper training course, and the facility would be perfect for housing them as they trained. For Jena, it would serve as boot camp to learn the ropes of the Galactic Armed Forces. The planet would get a mobile force to resolve the odd conflict that cropped up on the surface and help deal with any threats from off-planet. The deal had been one of the points drawn up by the new Farmer’s Council, and Zaha had signed off on it.

Stability meant less chance of her having to come out this distance. A six-month timetable had been agreed to hand over to civilian rule, and she was looking forwards to her Task Force rejoining combat in the anti-Volsta operations.

“You will have Saturday afternoons through to Monday mornings to do as you wish. Failure to report back will be a mark against you, and we will come looking.” Zaha said, reinforcing her point by clicking her sword’s scabbard on the ground. “Any questions, Cadet?”

“No, Admiral.” Jena replied. “If there’s anything I can do to assist the populace during my training, please let me know.”

A slight smile flickered onto Zaha’s lips. “Be in the courtyard at seven hundred hours tomorrow. You can start there.”

 

It had just gone eight in the morning and already some of the new recruits were flagging. Jena had a sack of building materials on each shoulder, carrying them from storage to load on the backs of supply vehicles waiting to be dispatched. While the fully human were drenched in sweat by this point, dark patches forming on their light grey cadet wear, Jena just had a slight sheen about her. Her cyborg systems could sweat to help dissipate heat, but the cooling systems were keeping up with the demand she was placing on herself.

An Ensign was watching over them, taking notes on how long each of them lasted. which of them took a break before getting back to work, and who just slumped to the ground and couldn’t muster the energy to get back up.

“You may stop now, Cadet Foster.” The Ensign said in a clipped accent.

She had been at it for three hours now, and dumped both sets of bags onto the back of a truck.

“All but Cadet Foster are required to head to medical tent one to receive your ident chips.” On noting the disjointed herd moving in that direction with a lot of complaining, the Ensign made a note to start them on drills and marching the next day.

“And me, Ensign?” Jena asked after the mass of other trainees had departed.

“Report to the target range. You may have enhanced senses, but you are required to be tested on your ability to tell enemy combatants apart from other individuals.”

 

The first week of training had consisted of drills, marching, exercises, equipment familiarization and yet more drills. Jena had run training drills with the Farringdon Falcons using information gleaned from books, and while the exercises didn’t do much for her new body her participation helped keep the rest of the trainees in line. She was the Butcher of Vadarai Seven, after all, and if the Butcher was running about in training gear, then they should as well.

Meals were taken together at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Long benches had been set up for them to sit at. The others gave Jena space, except for the Ensign running their training drills. Curiously, the young man was drinking a Cybabrew as well. It was Friday evening when she finally asked him, leaning back on the bench as the bio-generator that replaced part of her stomach got to work. “So how long have you been a cyborg, Ensign?”

“I am not, so never.” He noted her confused look and carried on. “What is my name, Cadet?”

“Ensign Zircon Herne.” She said from memory, not needing the ident prompt that had appeared in-vision.

“And what ship am I serving from?” He asked the next question. His hair was a pale blonde, almost white. It looked slightly odd when paired with his olive skin. Jena assumed he dyed it.

“The ISV Herne.” The Interstellar Support Vessel, a Paladin-class ship that excelled in fleet support and ground deployment, was the flagship of the Task Force. It must have been some odds that he was posted to a ship with the same name as his surname.

“Some information that will serve you well, Cadet. If you meet someone with their surname matching their ship name, they are Autocrew. Autonomous AI in artificial bodies, similar to cyborgs.”

Her eyes widened. She’d heard of such wonders, but never met one before. Cyborgs were rare enough where they were, let alone androids. “I had no idea, Ensign. You certainly don’t… seem like a… well…” She shook her head. “You look more human than I do.”

“We CAZ Model automatons are designed to high specifications to better integrate with human crews on long missions.” Zircon explained, gesturing to his plate. “For example, eating. My presence at meal times helps keep the trainees in check. I am fully certified to train others, and have been loaded with a range of programs to aid in this task.”

“Good to know.” Jena mumbled, shaking her head a little to clear her thoughts. “What’s coming tomorrow morning?”

“Close quarter combat training.” Zircon stated. “You will be paired with me, and the others will be fighting training droids. Then you will all have some free time for the afternoon.” Finishing his meal, Zircon stood up with his tray. “The others may be a little too bruised to make full use of their time off, but I do not imagine that will be a problem with you, Cadet.”

A lifetime of serving on the Shuck seemed a little more tempting as the Ensign walked away.

 

The trainees on the peacekeeping course had stopped their drills as the sparring match between Cadet Foster and Ensign Herne kicked up a notch in intensity. Jena fought as a brawler, falling back on the techniques she picked up in the resistance. Zircon’s style of combat was a mishmash of martial arts techniques from across the Federation, executed precisely while under pressure.

Darting in as she saw an opening, a blur crossed her vision. The next thing she knew she was on the floor with her arms pinned behind her and Zircon sitting on top. Struggling as best she could, Zircon kept her held down before looking to the trainees. “Fighting while angry can give you an edge in strength, but technique can negate that at best, or turn it against you at worst. When you commit fully to a blow, beware your momentum being redirected.” He explained before letting go and rising to his feet. He did offer Jena a hand up.

She rolled her shoulders a little after rising, trying to work the kinks out.

“Your combat data has been recorded by the training droids you partnered with.” Ensign Herne explained to the gathered cadets, gesturing to the padded humanoids that had marched into the drill ground that morning. “Starting next week, you will be going through daily basics and practice with them in addition to your drills. Do spend a little time reading through chapter one of the combat handbook. You are all dismissed.”

Handler was waiting for Jena by the door to her room. Out of the grey shipsuit Jena had always seen her in, she was black leggings and a rather flowery top. Thankfully for Jena, Handler’s black hair was elaborately pinned up.

“Nice top.” Jena commented as casually as possible. “Everything all right?”

“I have some downtime and I figured you’d want to know. The Shuck will be leaving in a month’s time.”

“Another Resistance cell job?” As much as Jena wanted to take her clothes off and grab a shower now she was back at her room, she instead busied herself with setting out some casual clothes ready for her time off.

“That’s classified, soldier.” Handler chuckled. “We’ve still work to finish here in the run up to our departure date. Data and transfer records to finalize, intelligence reports to send to the right people. The Shuck is still where we left it if you ever want to drop by.” Taking the look Jena gave her into account, Handler spread her hands. “Socializing, that’s all.”

“I’ll consider it.” Jena spoke after a moment’s thought before stretching out with a groan. “Provided Ensign Herne hasn’t sent me to the scrap heap before then.”

“I’ll let you rest up then, Jena.” Handler said. “Just remember you are earning a weekly wage now. If you like the top, maybe pay a visit to the shops in town. Military clothing tends towards monochrome, even the casual wear.” She paused as she turned to leave. “See you around maybe, soldier?”

Handler had left by the time Jena turned around.

Jena had gone into town with her time off, though not for clothes shopping. She stopped by the Trader’s Quarters and dipped into her pay to purchase a small set of tools and some materials. When she wasn’t being drilled, training, reading, or going through equipment checks the cadet was in her room testing the fine motor control functions on her new hands. Meals in the hall were spent chatting with Zircon learning about space combat and the quirks of autocrew. She got along better than expected with the android and it seemed the more they got along, the more she improved in close quarters combat training. It was getting dangerously close to the end of the month before she finished what she had been working on. A dash into the city late on the Saturday afternoon had taken a dip into her wallet to pick up some last things. It was evening by the time she set off from the barracks to Landing Site Park and the IXV Shuck.

 

“You coming out?” Durand asked. The cyborg was out of her shipsuit and was instead in a little black number that showed off a lot of leg and arm. She had let her wealth of chestnut brown hair down and raided Solokov’s make up set for the finishing touches.

“You’ll all enjoy yourselves more if your handler isn’t out there with you.” Handler spoke, reclining on her chair on the bridge of the vessel. “Have you asked Fixer if he wants to go out?”

Agent Durand laughed. “I think you definitely need a night out. Fixer’s already off ship, indulging in some local beer festival. First they’ve had in a decade.”

“In which case someone needs to stay with the ship. I’ve some last minute checks to run before we launch tomorrow.” She gestured to the itinerary and stock lists being displayed in front of her. “You go get some R&R, it may be a while until you next have time too.”

“All right, Handler.” Durand started to walk away, then suddenly draped herself over the back of the chair. “Unless you just want us all off the ship in case some strapping blonde farmgirl drops by?” She teased.

“She’s not a farmgirl, Simone.” Handler absently corrected her agent as she looked through medical supply listings. “And Jena isn’t interested in that.”

“Who mentioned Jena?” Simone smirked. “I certainly didn’t. I could always go and-” The agent trailed off at the look her handler shot her, “-get out of your hair so you can run your final checks.”

“That would be appreciated, Agent.” Handler pretended to ignore the snickered laugh as Durand left the bridge, preferring instead to run inventory checks on replacement parts and go over final requisition orders from the Herne’s storerooms. She had only just gotten started when footsteps sounded on the floor behind her.

“As I said prior, Agent, I am not going to go-” The words fell from her lips as she spun round in her chair. Instead of Simone Durand standing there, it was Jena Foster. The blonde young woman looked rather awkward in a pair of strappy sandals and a mid-thigh length white dress, with no sleeves and a floral design similar to the garb Handler had worn a month back. There was a bag in one hand, and the other was rubbing somewhat nervously at the back of her tanned neck. “Jena.”

“Sorry to disturb, Handler.” She apologized. “I’ve been busy and I just-” She gestured with the large bag in hand. “Gifts. For the crew. As thanks.” Jena then pointed back behind her. “Durand let me on board before she went off.” A silence passed between the pair before Jena started to dig things out of her bag. “There’s jams and preserves in here, local tinned fruits and vegetables, some biscuits and even some freshly made Farringdon fruit cakes.”

“Thank you.” Handler smiled. “It’s a lovely gesture, I’m sure we’ll enjoy them.”

“There’s something for Fixer too.” Jena added, quickly pulling a box from the bag. The markings on it indicated it was a scale model kit for of one of the more popular types of tractor, plus a plough attachment. “He put me back together, so… a little something for him to put together.”

That drew a warm laugh from Handler. “I’m sure he’ll enjoy that too.” Then Jena looked even more nervous than she had been as she reached into the bag again. Her first attempt at speaking failed, so after taking a little breath the cyborg tried again.

“I’d have visited earlier but between all my work and… all the work I was doing on this I just didn’t have-” A nervous gulp, then she pulled out two packages. Both were wrapped in colourful paper and tied up with simple brown string. One small and flat, the other a tube about half a foot long. Reaching out, Handler took the tube first.

“This one is for y-you and the ship, i-in a way.” Jena stammered as Handler unwrapped it. It was a carved piece of wood, etched and painted in four sections, each one denoting one of the planet’s seasons. She noted the seam in the wood and carefully drew one part away from the other, revealing a length of knapped stone carefully clipped into a blade.

“All houses on Farringdon Three have one. Or they used to. It’s supposed to bring luck and safety to everyone who lives in the house, but with the last ten years… I think they’ve fallen out of favour.”

With a nod of understanding, Handler tucked it into one of the pockets on the command chair. “In this line of work, luck and safety are always hoped for.” She said before taking the next package. Jena looked even more nervous at this one being opened. Inside was a bracelet. The clasps had microwire wrapped with wheat gold cotton running between it, and carefully shaped and polished flint pieces had holes drilled into them before being threaded along the length. A soft smile came to her lips as Handler carefully unlatched it before slipping it around her wrist to fasten.

“Fixer might have put me back together, but… I owe you a lot too, Handler. T-thank you.” Handler could see the tension rising in her former recruit, her rate of breathing upping. Then Jena had darted in to place a kiss on her cheek, the corners of their lips just touching.

As they parted, Handler could see the panic in Jena’s eyes. Her hands were shaking again, and her jaw trembled as she forced herself to move back in for another kiss. Their lips almost met again when Handler heard the hitch of Jena’s breath. The sobs followed as the cyborg crumpled against the intelligence officer, her shoulders heaving as years of repressed panic and sorrow broke through all the barriers she’d built over the past ten years of conflict.

“Let it all out, soldier.” Handler ordered, her arms coming around to hold the weeping woman close. It wasn’t quite how she’d hoped to spend her final night planetside but for the cyborg she held in her arms, it was a positive step.

A single thought locked off the bridge from the rest of the ship. If the others returned early, she knew Jena wouldn’t want them to see her in such a state.

 

As Jena watched the IXV Shuck take off with eyes still a little puffy from the bout of crying the previous night, regret swept over her. If things had been different, she’d have departed with them for a lifetime of work across the universe. As it stood, she still had five months of training to go before she’d leave Farringdon III herself. As she watched the intelligence ship reach escape velocity, she knew she’d never see them again. Galactic Federation space was vast, and the Shuck’s missions would take them far beyond its reaches.

Jena Foster brushed the grass off her dress as she stood up from the hill she’d sat watching their departure from. Handler had given her some good advice, and she intended to make use of it. She made the call from her internal commslink and waited for someone to pick up the other end.

[“Rosie? It’s Jena. I was wondering if you and Jaret want to meet me for lunch?”]

Precise

“You said you’d be back by nine-fifteen!” He sobbed, pacing back and forth in the hallway. “I was worried.”

“I said I’d be back at about that time, dear, and it’s only nine-seventeen now.” She explained calmly, reaching out to her agitated partner. Halting his frantic movements, she ran her thumbs along his shoulders.

“I got worried when you were a minute late, and when you were two minutes late…” He was dialling the emergency services just as she got in, his previous attempt to call her cellphone stymied by the lack of battery charge.

“I know… listen, why don’t you make a cup of tea for us? I’ll make sure it never happens again, okay?” She smiled gently, leaning in to kiss his cheek. With a mute little nod, he ambled towards the kitchen leaving her free to log into her computer.

It took only a short amount of time to pull his configuration file up. The latest firmware update had reset her partner’s notification of owner absence alert setting. No wonder he was so upset, she thought as she toggled the slider to something more appropriate. With a hit of the confirm button, the instructions were uploaded to the household network and beamed wirelessly into his logic cores.

He was quick in setting the cup of tea besides her. “I had one made already.”

“I know, and it’s not your fault. I tinkered with your settings, it was making you too precise in waiting for me to get in.” She looked up into the deep, handsome eyes of the android companion she had purchased a few months ago. “But after we’ve had our cup of tea… I’ll apologise for making you worry?” Her eyes flicked to the door to the bedroom.

With an eager smile, he raised his cup of tea in toast. “You know I could never say no to that.”