The Consequences (Part 2)

“I’ll help you out of that.” Ruby was saying, drumming her knuckles lightly against the top of their helmet. “Just… take a seat so I can reach.”

With a nod, Teknight fell back onto the extra-large custom recliner in the reception room of the armoured hero’s apartment. The pair had only just arrived back at Unity Station, the orbiting space base of VIGIL.

The low Earth orbit structure contained planet-facing monitoring and imaging technology, links to a satellite network for secure communications and reporting, and space-facing systems to watch over the stars and protect the world from threats. The artificial gravity drive and array of facilities made it a popular home for some of the more globe-trotting heroes.

On hearing the click of the helmet locks releasing, Ruby carefully lifted it clear to reveal dark ring-framed eyes, puffy and red. “Oh, Zahir…” The red-head sighed softly, pressing her lips to his forehead after sweeping some of the sweat-slicked black hair back.

“It wasn’t supposed to-” His words were cut off by sobs as his head bowed, shoulders shaking with each sorrowful gasp. “It… if…”

“Just let it out, Z.” The dragon soothed, moving behind the grief-stricken man so she could slip her arms around him as he sat. She let him cry for a while before speaking again. “It could have been much worse.”

“But I-” Zahir’s voice failed him again, hoarse from his tears.

“Rozalin’s team is beginning the clean up. We all agreed that a limited team would go in to deal with a containment situation. Your new recruit is stable and continuing to improve with medical treatment.” The dragon woman’s fingers flicked out one by one as she made each point. “And yes, while they got away, the amount of spent fuel they stole was small in the grand scheme of things.”

“I thought I was ready to get out there again.” He said quietly.

“I know.” Ruby gave him a quick, gentle squeeze with her arms. “Do you want to get out of the suit yet? Or would you like a cup of tea first?” She leaned over so she could playfully wink at him. “You know I’m good with a teapot, unlike most of the Yanks here.”

That brought a slight smile to his lips, in spite of the day he had. “Tea, please.”

 

Once Ruby had headed to the kitchen, Zahir grabbed his glasses from the table besides the large chair and slipped them on. “B-VOS?”

“Yes, Zahir?” The feminine voice of VIGIL’s command AI came from above.

“Teleport them here from my lab.” He gave the order with weary resignation. Light flashed in front of him as a storage crate suddenly materialized from within a shimmering sphere.

“I am sure Ruby would be happy to assist you in-“

“No.” Zahir’s slender features were set in determination. With a thought, the interlocks released from the chestplate of the Teknight armour. The arms were the next to release. The cool air of the apartment chilled his bare skin, muscles on his arms bunching up as he hauled himself free from the confines. With some acrobatic skill he rolled off the suit and onto the floor, wincing as the plastisteel pelvic region replacement clunked on the floor.

“Is everything alright?” Ruby called from the kitchen.

“Just fine.” He called back, his hands fumbling with the clasps on the storage case. Once opened, he drew one of the prosthetic legs out and hooked it up to the interlock of his artificial hips. With the limb working, he could easily sit up and connect the other.

“Sunshine Grey, just as you like- oh for the love of, I said I’d help!” Ruby grunted, trying her hardest to suppress the wisps of smoke and embers from erupting around her. Uncontrolled combustion was a no-no on Unity Station. Setting the cup down, she easily lifted the scientist up from the floor. Ignoring further protests from him, she slung him over her shoulders in a fireman’s lift, grabbed the cup of tea, and took both of them through into the guest bedroom he had been staying in.

A pair of cats looked up at the sudden entry, eyes alert as they took in the scene. Apparently satisfied, they rolled away from their spot on the pillow. With the tea set on the bedside counter, Ruby then hefted Zahir off and placed him on the bed. The two felines were quick to assume their normal position, the white cat purring against his right arm as the black one nestled up against his waist.

“I was going to say I don’t need to go to bed, but…” Zahir trailed off, his hands moving to fuss over the head of each cat as they nuzzled against him.

“Tea, bed, and beloved pets.” Ruby smiled. The cats gave her a long, hard look at their designation. She had always found something a little unsettling about the pair, a quality even she couldn’t put a finger on. Toshiro was fond enough of them in life, and even before they came into his care Zahir had been besotted with them.

“Zahir?” B-VOS spoke again. “Radiant is here to see you.”

The growing, if still small, smile that had been on his face vanished.

“I’ll hold him off for a bit.” Ruby promised. “Get some tea in you, Z, and don’t let the uptight torch do your head in.”

 

Radiant was only glowing a little as he waited outside the door. The years had been fairly kind to him, his weight only just starting to gather around his middle, and it was only the hair at his temples that had really gone grey, the rest a soft brown. “Rubarios.” He nodded stiffly, before taking a step towards the door.

Ruby’s arm shot out, her crimson fingernails clicking against the doorframe as she blocked his path. “Not yet.”

“Not yet?” An incredulous look crossed the second generation hero’s face. “Teknight was at the center of a serious incident, one which we are still trying to resolve now.”

“He’s only just gotten out of the suit, Albert. Let him get a little settled first.”

The glow around the older man jumped up in intensity as their eyes locked, bright hazel against burning amber.

“B-VOS! Tell him he’s got half an hour, but I then I am coming in there.” Radiant snapped. “No matter who is in the way of the door.”

“Of course, Radiant.” B-VOS dutifully replied as the hero stalked off down the corridors.

“I guess I’d be that stuck up too if I had all those batteries up my arse.” Ruby muttered as she watched him leave. She would have sworn she heard a barely suppressed laugh coming from the speakers of the AI system. “Did you say something, B?”

“No.”

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Incompatible

£1,799 paid and all he had to show for it was a headache and a maintenance plan for something he couldn’t use. No matter how many times he tried the calibration software, it wouldn’t respond. Every time he used the wireless input to tinker with the settings, nothing changed. The sales team had been perplexed when he went back to them with the problem, but other than using the small, wrist-mountable keyboard and trackpad there was little they could do about it.

“It’s a problem of compatibility.” The store manager said with an apologetic look. “It’s rare, but it happens. The full functionality may be limited, but you can still access a wealth of the product features with your keyb-”

“Can’t I get a refund or something? I wouldn’t have upgraded it if I knew that!”

“That is against store policy. It isn’t broken. There are no problems with the hardware or the software. The error is your own problem.” With a shrug of her shoulders, she shook her head. “We can’t do anything more.”

 

Sitting in bed with the room’s lighting dimmed down low, he reached for the controls and booted the calibration program up again. He had been able to check his work e-mail thanks to the device, but he wanted to give the program one last shot.

“Please draw a square.” The computer requested.

Squiggly lines and faint blobs of grey haze appeared on the display.

“Please draw a square.” Another request from voice, specially designed to sound warm and encouraging.

He got the sides right, but the second he tried to draw the top and bottom the picture morphed into an indistinct shape.

“Do you wish to abort calibration?” The question came from the computerized voice after several more failed attempts. With an angry huff he grabbed the control, closed the program down, and rolled over to bury his face in his pillow.

What was the point of a brand new, top of the line neural interface when you couldn’t even visualize a basic shape?

Memory Drive

Another morning, another pointless day of existence. That was what came to mind as he woke up and pushed himself out of the $60 motel room bed he was in. There was someone else in bed with him, a pretty young woman sleeping with a carefree expression on her face. Rising from the bed, he left the unknown woman to her rest as he showered and shaved. The face that stared back at him in the mirror as he ran the razor blade over his skin was a mystery. Shaved head, narrow brown eyes and a slightly crooked nose. It had to be his face, he was shaving it after all. Rinsing the soapy lather off from his cheeks, he ignored the unknown man staring at him in the mirror.

A memory stick sat on the bedside table as he padded back into the room from the adjacent bathroom. Picking the brushed steel item up, he twirled it in between his fingers as he surveyed the room. There was a pink sports bag on her side of the room. Draped over the chair near the TV counter was a leather jacket and a messenger bag, both in black. The long leather coat was a man’s fit, so it must be his. A small cabinet housing a mini-fridge was topped with coffee facilities, and it was a simple matter to pour some set it brewing as he dressed in slacks and a polo shirt pulled from the bag.

With coffee in hand, he slid the memory drive into the recessed slot on the back of his neck. Blinking, he looked at his client as she slept. Daria Smith, 22. She was on the run from a Cult of the Unseen Eye reclaimer team, and had pawned her few possessions of value to pay his fees. Slipping his waist holster out from his bag, he threaded it through his belt and fed the brown leather through the loops on his waistband. He felt better for having his gun on him.

With the memory drive in place he not only knew who she was and what he had to do, but who he was too. Crossing the floor, he gently shook Daria awake.

“Mmmh… Mister Hunter?” The brunette blinked rapidly as she cleared the sleep from her eyes.

“Get dressed, Miss Smith. We need to leave soon.” Mister Hunter replied. Satisfied with the nod she gave him, he headed to sit by the blinds with his coffee in hand, peering out at the motel car park.

“You can call me Daria you know, Mister Hunter?” She said, slipping out of the bed and adjusting the long green tee-shirt she was in before heading to the bathroom.

“Adrian.” Mister Hunter replied. “That’s my name.”

She kissed him on the cheek before heading to the bathroom. “Thank you for everything so far then, Adrian.”

Adrian kept his eyes on the car park as the bathroom door shut behind him. Maybe a different memory drive hooked into his spine would give him a different name, an alternate life. For today though he was Adrian Hunter, and that was all the motivation he needed to fulfill his duty.

This Is Your Brain

It was disconcerting to look at. It just floated there in a jar, hooked up via cables and nutrient tubes. It had no eyes, but Robert couldn’t help but feel it followed him wherever he moved in the room. That was only natural. It was his brain, after all.

Fourteen other brains floated alongside it, belonging to the respective crew members of the space station. Robert wondered if they ever came to look at their brains too.

He couldn’t help but feel a little confused. He knew his brain was in there, sending and receiving data from the processing units in his skull, but he couldn’t remember how it got into the jar to begin with. His childhood he could recall. Those teenage years came back to him with some embarrassment. Then there was a gap, and he was on the space station in a brand new artificial body that lacked the scars from falling over while playing football in the street.

The more he thought about it, the more his head hurt from the strain of trying to remember through a fog of confusion. Was it his actual brain in the jar hurting, or just some part of the program his body operated under?

“Crewman, have you finished the check of the processing core?” The voice of command came from above, snapping him out from his thoughts.

“Yes Command,” Robert replied, “all green.”

“Good.” Command stated. “Proceed onto your next task.”

Robert left his brain to float in the jar. Or his brain moved Robert away?

Some days it was hard to tell.

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!

Loose Ends

The apartment was nearly empty. Piles of bags were placed in the front room, the kitchen cupboards only had enough food in for a snack at night and breakfast the next day. Handler sat on the sofa, wondering just where Jena Foster was.

Their official final date had been the night before. The pair had gotten dressed up and went to the Asrat Academy Restaurant for dinner from a menu prepared by Natasha, then drinks and dancing before returning to the apartment to continue the… celebrations? That word didn’t seem right. A last hurrah.

The dark haired officer of the IXV Shuck had given Jena a lift to Fixer’s holiday home so she could give him his present. As for Handler’s own gift? Jena said to come to her apartment and wait at 20:00. It was 20:15 now, with no sign of her lover.

She was starting to get nervous when the door slid open and the blonde stepped through with a protesting brunette draped over her shoulder. Stepping over to the sofa, Jena carefully dropped Simone Durand onto it.

“We’re going to talk.” The soldier said, looking at the pair awkwardly sitting in front of her.

 

It was a faux pas. A mistake. An error in judgement. Following up a night of drinking with more drinks at home was one thing. Then Simone had started to get flirty with Jena. Handler decided to joke a little and vie for the soldier’s attention, competing against her agent. Simone had escalated by nestling up to one side of Jena. Handler did the same. Jena had been watching in bemusement, head fuzzy with good beer when Simone pecked her on the lips.

Then Handler kissed Jena, staking her claim. The conflict escalated between the two crew members, causing Jena to laugh even as they alternated. Then she leaned back out of reach and shook her head with a chuckle. “Just kiss each other already.”

What followed was a delightful breach in crew protocol for the Galactic Federation Intelligence Agency. What followed that was even more delightful. When the morning light came streaming through the window, bringing wakefulness and realization to the pair?

Simone quickly left, and the two had been avoiding each other as much as possible. Until now.

“What do you mean, talk?” Simone asked.

“About this.” Jena gestured between the pair. “I’m partially to blame for this, and I’m not going to leave the planet with you two acting like colossal loose ends. You’re crew mates. You’re friends.” Looking between the pair, she let out a sigh as her hand ruffled her own hair. “Handler. Did you enjoy yourself?”

“From what I remember?” She glanced left to where Simone was sitting on the sofa and nodded. “Yes.”

“Good.” Jena looked left. “Simone?”

“… Yeah. I mean, how could I not?” She looked at the pair and gave a slightly timid grin, mopping her hair back into some order after being carried into the apartment.

“Great. I enjoyed myself too. It happened, it’s done. I’ll be able to rest easy knowing that you two aren’t going to be avoiding each other.” Letting out a little breath, the cyborg stretched her arms up. “Are you two ready for presents now?”

Simone perked up immediately at the mention of presents.

Retrieving a bag hidden away in a counter from prying eyes, Jena returned to the sofa. “So, firstly I’ve got something here for Handler.” She smiled, reaching into the ornate paper gift bag. She pulled out a sleeved blanket. “I was going to get you a new one, but I figured you’ve stolen this one enough from me… I know how cold the bridge of the Shuck can get on night duty, so… yeah.”

Handler carefully collected the folded wool and held it close to her, a soft smile on her lips and a grateful look in her eye.

“Now, Simone. I lost count of how many times you complained about your clutch purse, so…” She drew the slender leather shoulder bag out and presented it to her.

The agent traced her fingers over the polished stone clasp, then slipped the strap over her shoulder. “How do I look?”

“Like someone who has a hands-free place to keep her belongings.” Handler commented.

“Handler. I also lost count of how many times you braved the sandstorms to get back here.” Taking the sand globe out, she passed it across. “For when you’re back on duty, a dusty reminder of Asrat City.”

She was laughing as she shook the globe, watching particles of sand swirl about in the water around the model city before settling.

Clothing came next, a silky black top for Simone with a low cut that could be described as ‘perilous’, and a pale cream dress for Handler with fading swirls of sand at the hem. Finally, Jena drew out a small gift envelope and held it between them. “This is for both of you.”

Handler was the one who took it, peeking inside to reveal printed and ident-tagged gift certificates for the Academy Restaurant.

“I’ve instructed Natasha to track you down and hit you with a rolling pin if you don’t use these. I know you look out for each other being teammates, but I want you to look out for each other for me, too. And check on Natasha. We’re not the only ones who’ll be parting, after all.” Folding the gift bag up, Jena sat in front of the sofa and leaned back against the coffee table.

“Well… I’ve not made much in the way of plans yet, what with Handler dropping shore leave on us with such little notice. I can fit a few lunches and dinners with the boss in.” Simone said. “Plus it gives me time to work on subverting Natasha to come and work for us in the Shuck’s mess room.” She added with a grin.

“All right, Jena.” Handler nodded, then glanced to her left. “This weekend sound good? It’ll give a little time between Zircon leaving until we see Chef Henderson. I doubt we want to drop in on her right away.”

“I think I can make a little room in my sparse schedule.”

“Fantastic.” Jena said, then thumbed to the fridge. “I’ve got six bottles left of Romanov’s finest beer. I can’t take them on duty with me, and it’s no where near enough to lead to a repeat of last time we were together like this.” That line was necessary, given the nervous look the pair exchanged. “Why don’t we drink to good times, old stories, and new gossip?”

With fluid grace Handler rose, went for the fridge and pulled out the cool bottles. Fetching the bottle opener from a drawer, she returned to the sofa and set them on the coffee table. “I’ll certainly drink to good times.” She said, claiming a bottle.

“I’ll take new gossip.” Simone snatched a beer from the table.

“I guess that leaves me with old stories.” Jena’s artificial thumb easily pried the cap off the bottle without need for the opener. “So… Ensign Foster versus the Pandor Pirates?” She offered her bottle out to the others. The pair clinked their bottles against hers.

“I’m always up for a story with pirates in.” Simone settled back against the sofa, ready to give Jena her full attention.

 

Their bottles were empty, as were their cups of coffee. The small stash of biscuits had been quickly depleted, and the last of the fruit bowl had been consumed. Handler had one end of the sofa, Simone the other, and Jena sat on the floor with her arms and chin resting on a cushion.

“It’s late.” Simone yawned.

“Yep.” Jena nodded.

“Mmmh.” Handler mumbled.

“I should get going.”

“You should, but you won’t.” Jena replied. “It’s too late.”

“Mmmh.”

“See, your officer agrees with me.” Jena noted, pushing herself up off the floor. “I’ll get the blankets and make the sofa up for you.”

“Are you sure?” Simone asked.

“Mmmh.” Came from both the officer and the soldier that time.

“Hey, where are you going to stay after tomorrow, Handler?” Simone suddenly asked. “You’ve been living here, but where’s your stuff?”

“Admiral Roland’s extended the lease on her villa for a month. She’s letting me use it as thanks.” Handler roused herself up from where she’d almost slipped off into a doze. “Then I’ll need to find somewhere else.”

“Lucky you.” Simone huffed. “I’ll just get freshened up.” She excused herself for the bathroom, leaving Jena to make the bed up in the living area. Then it was Handler’s turn to get ready for bed, and finally Jena’s.

“Night, you two.” Simone called from the sofa, snuggled down under the covers.

“Sleep well.” Jena called back, shutting the door to the bedroom.

The lighting in the living area switched to downcycle mode, strips only just illuminating trip hazards. Simone sprawled out a little in the silent room and stared up at the dark ceiling, her hands clasped behind the back of her head. Light suddenly streamed into the room, causing her to squint over at the figure in the doorway.

“Get in here, Agent.”

These Last Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over The Flames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handler just smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Likewise.”

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

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

More Than You Can Chew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handler nodded.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“When are you getting out of here?”

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

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

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

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

“You looked like hell.” Simone stated.

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

Extra Muscle

Commander Romanov’s idea of training sometimes got a little odd. Flying over the dunes outside Asrat City? Jena could understand that. Gymnastics to get used to moving in an exoframe? That made sense. The soldier from Farringdon III thought that Treshka had other motivations for helping the Asrati Brewering Union set up for their festival. The pair easily unloaded kegs and casks by the pallet load from the various transport ships that had pulled into the festival ground.

“You need to learn how to use the extra muscle, Sergeant.” Treshka explained, carefully lowering several trays. “If you don’t you can do serious injury to someone, or damage to something important.”

“Like… Golden Asra Ale?” Jena joked, reading the label on one of the shipments she was carrying to a table.

“Well, it’s fine if you break that. The acronym’s ‘GAA’ because that’s the sound you make after swallowing.” Treshka’s laugh boomed through the commslink.

“Will your husband be bringing anything here?” She asked as she went for several pallets of glasses to drop off.

“Of course, and we’ll unload that last. Work up a real thirst before having some of the good stuff. Hunger’s the best sauce, Sergeant, and thirst’s the best pairing suggestion.”

Even with all the lifting and moving they were doing, with the exoframe doing the heavy lifting and the sealed environment keeping her cool, there were worse ways to spend an afternoon. Well, probably.

Once the two women in black armour had finished helping the brewers set up, they went to assist the Asrat City Academy Restaurant with their mobile diner. Natasha was guiding trainee chefs, and Zircon was whipping the serving staff into order with the drill instructor programming he made use of when Jena was a cadet.

It was still easy to tell them apart, even in armour. Treshka towered even more than she usually did under all the plates and parts of an exoframe, and stood wider too.

“Thanks for the help, Commander.” Natasha said as she helped set up several tables under parasols. “And thanks to your husband for the bottles he sent ahead. We’ve paired them with some great meals that will really compliment each other, and I’ve made sure to set a course aside for the both of you.”

After stretching, Treshka popped the faceplate on her helmet open so she could speak normally. “Once Simeon’s set up, let us know when you’re ready and we’ll drop by.”

“Do you think she’ll be able to come?” The chef asked quietly, glancing to where Jena was assisting Zircon with stacks of chairs. The crew of the Shuck had been busy making progress with their investigation. As such, Handler had been absent for the past two weekends and Jena was missing her.

“Not sure, but it would be nice if they could.” Treshka replied. A beep from her suit distracted her. “That’ll be the husband coming in now.” She said, sliding her helmet into place.

 

The crowds were larger than Jena expected. She was stood near the Romanov’s stall, watching people sample various brews Simeon had brought with him. Treshka had warned her that drinking while in an exoframe wasn’t a great idea due to the neural interface the suits used. This was apparently a ‘Do As I Say, Not As I Do’ warning as the Commander’s helmet was off and her armour-clad hand was wrapped around the handle of a massive mug.

“Why don’t you just fly back to your apartment and get your change of clothes? Our shuttle is here, so you could just fly back and change inside it.” Treshka suggested, froth from the head on her drink coating her top lip. Her tongue flicked out to remove it.

“Can’t I just-“ She gestured to how the Commander was drinking.

“Let a newly-made Sergeant drink while in an exoframe? The Admiral would wring my neck.” She grinned apologetically.

“All right. I’ll be back soon.”

“Careful with that take off, Sergeant.”

As careful as she was, she still started a few of the more inebriated festival goers as the flight jets on her exoframe lit up. She was half-way back to her apartment when her comms systems started to wildly flash.

“Sergeant Foster, this is a priority one. Sergeant Foster, this is a priority one.” The IXV Shuck’s computer sounded in her mind.

“Sergeant Foster responding.”

“Jena?” It was Simone’s voice. “We need emergency assistance, get anyone you can. Huang’s been shot and we’re pinned down.”

The soldier was already relaying the comms feed to her Commander. “Where are you? I’m raising help now, and I’m in my exoframe currently in flight.”

Map data started to flood in to her field of vision. The Shuck was near a private residence complex twenty miles out of Asrat City. Visual data from the ship showed a large force of combat droids, some soldiers in private infantry armour and some active weapons platforms.

Jena was banking towards that direction and raising flightspeed to maximum before she even thought about it. “Data received. I’m en route and-“ The exoframe’s weapon systems were disabled for acclimatization to the suit. It would take a while to reactivate them. “I’m combat capable.” It wasn’t all a lie. She still had the speed, strength and armour to fall back on.

“I need to go and help the others. I’m sending mission data up to this point. Take care.” Simone said, signing off.

Her navigation systems plotted her ETA in just under ten minutes. Gritting her teeth in frustration, Jena locked the system into autoflight and started to pour over the additional information to get up to speed.

The crew’s investigation into the attempted theft of the Axar lead them through various departments in ASC, the Asrat Ship Consortium, to a shareholder and collector of military antiquities. The Shuck’s information gathering on this woman revealed several encoded messages to another collector who was willing to trade rare, early-generation Servitors for an opportunity to get their hands on one of the finest machines to come out of Ural II’s Engratek Servitronics fabrication facilities: The Axar.

A meeting between the shareholder and the instigator of the attempted theft was going down today, and the crew had aimed to take both in. Then everything had gone wrong.

In-vision, a message popped up in a dialogue box. [Mobilizing now and trying to get you some weapons. Don’t do anything stupid. Cmdr T. R.]

Jena sent her ident to the Shuck’s computer, along with a request to bring up active tactical data and positioning. One by one crew data started to line up in her vision. Huang’s vitals were weak but stable, a cross symbol indicating he was receiving some form of medical care. He was on the ship with Fixer, so that indicated just who was giving the care. Solokov and Lopez were in the complex, the others were trying to hold their position against a vastly superior force.

As she shot over one of the large dunes seperating her and the complex, she caught sight of the scene. The GFIA team were keeping low and moving under cover, picking off droids and soldiers when they could. Four floating weapons platforms had been deployed, their armaments enough to give the classified vessel some trouble it if tried to assist them.

“Sergeant Foster to the crew of the Shuck,” Jena sent the message as she targeted the nearest with all her performance limiters disengaged, “I’m coming in hot.”

 

Handler looked up in time just to see a black dart collide with one of the weapons platforms. Debris showered everywhere as the fist of the exoframe slammed into the hull and sent it careening into the squad of combat droids on the ground. Then the exoframe swooped down and snagged a cargo crate, hurling it towards another weapon platform.

“Head for the complex.” She gave the order to Akintola, Durand, and Gibbams. “We’ve a mission to do.”

Agent Simone Durand saw the worry in the eyes of her boss before they started towards the access they had secured.

‘Don’t do anything stupid, Jena.’ The agent thought as they crawled with the scream and flash of weapons fire roaring above them.

 

The small arms fire from the combat droids and soldiers wasn’t much of a concern. The energy shielding pulsing through her armour was absorbing the worst. After taking two weapons platforms out, the other two had designated her a prime target and dodging the heavy particle cannons on those was leaving her with precious little time to destroy them. Jena’s cybernetic enhancements made dealing with the g-forces as she evaded manageable but even they had their limits.

Sticking close to the ground, she spread her arms and barreled through a line of combat droids, spinning at the end to fling the ones she had hold of into the crowds. “Fixer? Jena here, if Huang’s fit to be left, can you get to the bridge and take out these remaining platforms? I’ll draw their fire as best I can!” She requested.

“On my way to the bridge now. Be careful out there, your stress levels are going through the roof.” Fixer replied.

Jena felt her stomach lurch as she rolled clear of a blast that scorched the tarmac of the loading bay. Bolting forwards she snatched a pair of soldiers up and hurled them at the platforms. With the main housing unit behind her, she hoped the platforms would have programming to prevent damage to the premises.

 

Inside the luxury house and facilities, the fight carried on. Solokov and Lopez were in their stealth frames with the camo projectors switched into shielding mode as their rifles tore through the lines of defense. Gibbams and Handler provided further cover with their weapons as Akintola and Durand worked on accessing the computer systems.

All six of them flinched as the building shook, the lights dipping and fixtures rattling away.

“Handler?” Durand called from her position, most of her mind working to subvert the security systems.

“What, Agent?” Came the reply as Handler’s pistol took out a droid.

Another explosion rocked the building.

“The good news is the weapons platforms are all down.” Simone said in an upbeat tone of voice.

“What’s the bad news?”

 

The remaining human soldiers had retreated back into the complex. With the amount of cargo units dotting the loading bays, Jena had put them to work as weapons to smash the remaining combat droids. Some times she threw them. Some times she slammed the long boxes of metal like a hammer. And at other times she just held one in front of her and flew it into a wall to grind her foes to scrap.

Her exoframe’s shielding system was taxed and in recovery mode. Repair systems were working on fixing the damage the battle had caused. With the Shuck now able to provide fire support without getting blown out of the sky, all she had to do was rejoin the others inside.

Her breath exploded out of her as a massive round slammed into the armour of her suit. Gasping for air, she lifted her head to see what had just hit her.

A hangar door had rolled up. From the dark within a pair of Servitors stepped forwards. She knew what they were before her exoframe’s on-board computer could access the archives to confirm their type.

When it came to extra muscle, the enemy went old school. They were relics from an Earth long gone. They couldn’t fly. They could barely jump. A round from a railgun clipped her foot and sent her spinning away, damage warnings flashing on her ankle from the force of the impact.

There was lots of things the old mechs couldn’t do.

They could still fight, though.