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.