Apple Time

“Hey, it’s apple time! Did you know it’s that time? Everyone needs an apple time, so it’s apple time for me!”

Every day at 10.33 on the dot, that song would issue from the breakroom. For three years, he had to put up with Marc singing about apple time as he cobbled together a quick brunch. The most ridiculous thing about it for Adam was that in those three years, he had never seen Marc eat a single apple. It was always oranges.

It was 10.30. In three minutes, that song would begin again. With his jaw clenched he hit the Windows Key and L to lock his computer and left his cubicle to get a cup of coffee.

The sight that greeted him had him seething. Someone had drained the last of the coffee and not sorted another pot out. With hands trembling from barely restrained fury he started to prep the other pot, staring with hard eyes at the rounded clock in the break room.

“Hey, it’s apple time!” Marc sung to himself as he strolled into the room just off the main thoroughfare.

“NO!” Adam whirled about to confront his colleague, knuckles white as his fists tried to fold in on themselves. “It is not apple time. It has never been apple time! Every day I have had to listen to you sing about apple time, and I have never seen you eat a damn apple! It’s always oranges and I know it’s oranges because you leave the peel in your bin and I can smell oranges every time I go past your desk!” He was breathing hard at the end of his rant, the beet red flush of fury draining with the rest of his colour as he realised what he’d just done.

Marc just smiled that boyish smile of his. “I get it.” He said, tapping a finger against Adam’s shirt. “Tomorrow.” What that actually meant was vague, but Marc retrieved his brunch from his lunch box, orange and all, and whistled a merry tune to himself as he left the break room.

The rest of the office workers stared at Adam as stepped back into the room. His voice had carried more than Marc’s singing ever did. “Sorry.” He mumbled in apology, thumbing behind him. “Someone left the coffee pot empty.”

 

It was 10.30. Adam had been watching the clock closely while typing up his figures. Locking his computer with a press of two keys, he made a cautious approach to the break room. There was coffee in the pot. HR had sent an e-mail out about being ‘Coffee Considerate’ the previous afternoon. As he prepped his favourite mug, he could hear footsteps approaching. Turning as casually as he could, an apple appeared in the doorway, followed by that boyish smile, brown hair and blue eyes. Marc wet his lips with a quick flick of his tongue before opening his mouth. Adam prepared for Apple Time.

“Orange you glad to see me? Orange you glad I care? For today I’ve an apple, and maybe with you I’ll share!”

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?”

Not Just Coffee

Sweaty, aching and dirty. Not some of the ways she wanted to spend a Friday evening. But that state was better than the actions that lead to it. Laying over a wall with her brow resting on her forearms, Mary Lewis sucked down deep breaths of air as she tried to centre herself, find balance amidst the chaos she had just left.

Paragon City was a place of wonder and hope. But equally, there was cruelty and despair mired in its darkest corners, and every once in a while it would bubble forth to corrupt and taint whatever it touched. And in the case of the apartment building she had just vacated, the dark magics of the Circle of Thorns had wrought unspeakable horrors upon the tenants.

Unspeakable, but she knew the paperwork would come through. They would ask for her expert account on the events that had taken place, her observations and every little, twisted detail for their records. She would have to relive those memories as she scribbled them down on paper, ready to be scanned and added to the system.

She knew the heavy blade that hung across her back was sheathed cleanly away. Only minutes before had it been sticky with the ichor of demons and cold from the spirits the blade had sent back to the ether. A simple spell had burned away what left of the conflict. The wounds she had received had quickly vanished to the well of restorative power that regenerated her flesh, but her clothing bore the gashes and her skin the soot and dirt of the conflict.

And then she inhaled on another deep breath, and something other than the scent of destruction filled her nose. Coffee. Fresh, hot and just the way she liked it. A sound just near her brought her head up to see the grande cup placed in front of her, a tall figure stood just behind it.

Light brown hair was done up in ponytail, with rectangular framed glasses resting on a slender, defined nose. A black leather trenchcoat warded off some of the night’s chill, a warm wool jumper underneath aiding in that effort.

“Nat? What are you doing out here?” She asked, forcing her aching limbs up so she could stand.

“I was working late at the office when I heard about a situation here.” The reporter said, nodding to the building behind. “A quick call to MAGI informed me you were on the case, so…” She tapped a carefully trimmed fingernail against the top of the cup, a matching one in her other hand.

“You don’t want to go in there,” Mary warned, glancing back at the building behind her. “I can give you some details for the report but…”

“I’m not here for the story.” Natasha said simply, pushing the coffee forwards. “You need to write this up, right?”

Mary nodded, taking an eager gulp from the cup. The heat of it didn’t bother her so much, the slight burn to her tongue rapidly mending itself.

“Want a hand?” Came the offer. “It’s been a while since we’ve chatted, schedules and all. I still owe you some help for that monster case a while back, and-”

Pushing herself over to Nat’s side of the wall, Mary took her cup up. “I’d appreciate that.”

Tapping her cup against the one in the heroine’s hand, they both started the walk towards the nearest train station. “There’s not just coffee.” She commented, pulling a paper bag out from one of her coat pockets. “There’s pastries too.”

Mary Lewis, the swordswoman known as Arachidamia, flashed a genuine smile towards her friend. “Bear claws?”

Natasha opened the bag and presented it to her; bear claws.

Author’s Note: Based on player characters and the setting from the now closed MMORPG ‘City of Heroes’.