The Mid-West Mission (Part 7)

With a copy of the Brading Standard tucked under one arm and the notepad app on his phone loaded with useful information, Albert Starr returned to the car to find Zara fussing over a cart horse while chatting with the owner. The young woman was staring into the amber eyes of the horse with a broad smile on her face, as the gentleman she had struck up conversation with gestured over towards the church.

“Made a friend, Zara?” Albert called out, diverting her attention away from the workhorse.

“Uncle! This is Jamie, his family owns one of the local farms. And this is Sunny.” She said, gesturing between the pair as she mentioned their names. “She’s an American Cream.”

“Jamie Matthews, sir.” The young man said, offering a hand.

“Albert.” The hero replied, feeling the handshake drop off a little as recognition caused Jamie’s eyes to widen and grip to slacken.

“Honour to meet you, sir.” Jamie said after clearing his throat. A slightly perturbed look crossed his face, and he leaned in to whisper. “Is the town in danger? I can ring the church bell if an evacuation’s needed?”

“We’re just here investigating something, Jamie. There’s no danger to anyone here.” Albert quietly reassured.

“Good. Grand.” Jamie breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, if there’s anything you need?”

Two different answers came from the two different Starrs at the same time. From Albert, ‘Information.’ From Zara, ‘Accommodation.’

Feeling two sets of eyes on her, Zara looked to her uncle to explain. “Work needs to know if they should book us in to the Watertown Hotel?”

“Well, if it’s hospitality and information you’re looking for, why not drop by the farm? The Matthews family have been here for five generations, and if Dad doesn’t know the answer, Grandma might.” Jamie offered, scratching at the back of his head as he spoke.

His niece’s eyes were boring a hopeful look at him. Lifting a finger to ask for a moment, he gestured Zara into the car. “We appreciate the offer, could you give us a moment?”

“Sure, Sir.” Jamie nodded, hopping up onto the cart. “Sunny here needs to drink up ready for the return trip.” Pointing to a water trough outside the Brading General Store, the young man grabbed the reigns and set off in that direction.

“Please can we, Uncle? He seems really nice and he knows about the town and he said I could take Sunny for a ride if-”

“Quiet, Zara.” Albert interrupted her eager spiel. “Don’t forget, we have a mission here. It’s not a vacation.” Setting the newspaper on the back seat, he unlocked his phone with a few taps of the touchscreen. “There’s a few names to look into. Martin Aimes-”

“I met him, briefly.” Zara spoke up. “He’s just a kid, maybe nine or ten? Bright red skin and was getting bullied for it. Jamie ran the bullies off, but the kid headed home. He lives with his grandmother.”

“… I see. Then there’s Clarissa Gable. Came off a horse in a nasty incident a year back, but she’s made a remarkable recovery. Possibly due to an accelerated healing factor. Libertas had that and was much more durable than baseline humans.” Albert read off the screen, glancing to his niece to see if she’d interject.

“Anyone else?”

“Daniel Davis, star quarterback of the local high school in Watertown.” Noticing the expectant look sent her way, he shrugged. “Sometimes athletic achievement is a good precursor to power activation. It may be the hometown hero effect when he was mentioned, but they seem to think he’s turned the team’s fortune around.”

“So, a kid with red skin. Someone who fell off a horse. A high school footballer. What about that artifact you mentioned? Can it pick anything up now?”

Fetching his jacket from the rear seat, Albert slipped a slender case from the inner pocket and opened it. Placing a slender stone arrowhead on his palm, his amber eyes began to glow as he fed energy into it. With a shudder, the stone piece rose up and began to just spin around.

“What’s that mean?”

Albert let the flow of energy taper off, the arrowhead soon falling to his palm to rest. “We’re in the right location, but they’re not actively using their abilities so it can’t get a read.”

The blonde next to him nodded, deep in thought. “So we should make friends with the locals, with a good source of information and someone to make introductions…”

“All right, Zara. We’ll take Mister Matthews up on his offer. Go and let him know.” Albert relented.

“Can I see if I can ride with him on the cart?” She added, beaming expectantly.

Slipping the artifact back into its case, Radiant let out a long sigh. “If I didn’t, you’d complain all the way there. Go on.”

Zara flung herself across the divide to kiss his cheek. “You’re the best, Uncle!” She said with arms wrapping around his neck. “Um, just don’t tell Uncle Emilio I said that.”

Albert shook his head as she left the car and dashed in the direction of the general store. It was bad enough that his daughters could wrap him around their fingers, now Zara was doing it too.

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Prints

Her assistant rushed the prints through to the office. Under one arm was the folder, which she snatched from his hand to peer through. Contained within were assorted ink copies of finger, toe, hand, and footprints.

Sitting back on her chair, she leafed through the collection several times. The assistant stood nearby, waiting for his next order.

“Get these framed.” She stated, handing over all but one.

“Of course, ma’am.” Taking the folder, he left her to contemplate the smallest of the pieces and the message jotted down just underneath the image.

Her finger traced around the small hand before running across the scrawl of words. The date was only two days ago. After a moment of indecision she buzzed through to her secretary. “Make some space in my schedule, and book a car for me.”

“Yes, Commander. Where do you want to go?” The slightly tinny voice replied through the speaker.

“The hospital. I want to meet my new grandson.”

Coupon Queen

Her scissors snipped away at the latest magazine to come through the door, clipping out the various promotional and manufacturers coupons contained within. Like all good clippers, she had a system. Like all coupon enthusiasts, she researched constantly to get the best deals. It had become a game to get the most for the least, her social media and forum accounts used to report her hauls to other clippers.

Each store in her vicinity had a folder. She would check the coupons she had against store offers and deals, then assign it to the folder. Her car had a cool box in the back, and in the space of a morning she could knock out at least three stores before coming home to stock the cupboards up. She didn’t need all that she bought, so some went to the church, and some went to the shelter. Pet food always went to the local veterinary office. They’d been so good to her when Boxer died.

The cupboards were always full. Stock was rotated in and out from there, her pantry, and the storage shelves she set up in the garage. She was always ready to receive, always had something to bring to local cook-outs and pot lucks. And there was always stuff for them in, ready for when they popped around. His favourite jar of jelly. Her preferred shower gel. The cookies he always liked. That cereal they always badgered her to get.

She’d box some of the stuff up to send out to them, handwritten notes in each one sending word from home and all the neighbourhood news. It had been a while since they visited, but there was always the chance they’d pop over and she’d be mortified if the shelves were bare and the fridge under-stocked!

There was no music blaring out from the rooms as she got in from the mega mart. No games consoles filling the house with explosions or football on the TV. She had coupons for everything, except for what she really wanted.

Criminology

The bathroom was the focal point of investigation. The handle of the implement was coated in a fine powder to reveal the fingerprints on it.. Tweezers were being used to carefully extract hairs from the tangle knotted in the working end of the tool. Her hands were covered in blue nitrile gloves as she examined and gathered evidence, a determined look on her face.

“Aren’t you being a little bit ridiculous?” Her father asked.

“Someone keeps using my hairbrush, Dad.” She replied, sorting the hairs out by length and colour on a sheet of white A4 paper. “And I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”

When she wanted to study Criminology, it was more CSI he had in mind. Not Anatomy of a Hairbrush Theft.

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.”

New Skills

Ident chips were pretty useful things Jena Foster came to find out as the months passed. In addition to storing her records, wallet and contact data, it also held her qualifications. As she trained in new disciplines during her time as a cadet, a new skill was added every time she passed a test. It was thanks to the most recent exam that three months in, with only three left to go, she had left the barracks on a courier cycle and was crossing the countryside to her brother’s farm.

Dressed in a padded courier jacket and with a helmet giving her some additional protection, Jena was not alone on this trip. Ensign Zircon Herne had his arms confidently around her waist as she took the bike down rural roads and past vast expanses of farmland.

[“I do not see why I could not have a bike of my own.”] The android commented via commslink. The bike’s engine itself was quiet, but the wind as they sped along made it easier for them to talk that way.

[“Because the rest are in use or being repaired and I got this one fixed.”] Jena replied before adding, [“You’re also the one who was suggesting a change of scenery.”]

[“I did not mean for you to bring me along, Cadet.”] The android said, automatically leaning along with her as she rounded a tight corner.

[“The trainees were getting restless with you about all the time. They’ll lower their guard a bit with you gone for a weekend.”] Noting her position on the map overlay, she slowed down as she approached Foster Farm. Sheets were hanging on the washing lines and rows of workers were in the fields. A sad smile crossed Jena’s face as she pulled up in the courtyard. It wasn’t her home anymore, but the similarities were there.

Immediately Zircon climbed off the bike and placed his helmet where he had been sitting. Then he was at Rosie’s side, helping her with the basket of linen she was just pulling in. That did bring a grin to Jena’s face. He was so different around civilians compared to the trainees in his care, and his desire to help was understandable. Her sister-in-law’s pregnancy was in the early stages but she was showing under the apron she had over her clothing.

“Jaret cleared some space for the bike in the shed, Jena.” Rosie called, before directing the android in with the washing.

Nodding, Jena climbed off and wheeled the bike over to the shed. She was eager to get the padded courier jacket and trousers off along with her helmet. Underneath the riding gear she opted for jeans that tucked into her leather boots and a black vest with ‘Starbound Soldiers’ scrawled on it in faded white writing.

As she walked into the living area of the farmstead to help with the linen, the contrast between her and the Ensign couldn’t be more pronounced. On realising he was being dragged to the farm, Zircon had changed from his military uniform to beige slacks and a white shirt, finished off with a deep red waistcoat and cream tie. Jena was surprised on two fronts. One, that the autocrew member possessed clothes other than his uniform. Two, that he looked much younger than her and like he was ready to go out to church in his Sunday best.

“As part of the crew on a flagship, we often perform diplomatic and hospitality functions. We are assigned additional clothing to this end, and it is selected based on select aesthetic characteristics.” The android explained quietly as he loaded dry, folded sheets into a storage cupboard. “This outfit was selected to go along with my build, skin colour and hair colour.”

She wasn’t quite sure that beige went with anything, but she had noticed that the slight iridescence in his hair and his boyish looks had brought the worst out in some of the girls. To Zircon’s credit, he handled each little request to get him alone with care. It had been the idea of many of the girls to secret him away somewhere to get to know each other better under the pretense of some helpful task. Ever the drill instructor, Ensign Herne had them all pulling their weight together to get everything done quickly and efficiently.

“Can you leave him behind?” Rosie asked as she worked a pie crust with her hands.

“I think the Admiral would object to that.” Jena laughed. Instead of pie crusts, the cadet was busy removing dark meat from the remains of several cooked chickens to go in the pie.

“So…” Her sister-in-law trailed off. “It’s good your not the jealous type. My older sister would have been prowling around him with an axe by now to ward them off.” She glanced at Jena’s rapidly blinking expression and sighed. “You know what I mean. You two are…” she crossed her fingers slowly, “Right?”

“No. No we are not-” Jena crossed her fingers as well. “We are definitely not anything like that.” On seeing the look of suspicion shot at her, Jena went further. “He’s my superior officer, I only brought him out here as the trainees needed a break from his watchful eye and-” The last one fell away from her lips before she could speak it.

“And?” Rosie pressed, pulling the bowl of leftover chicken away from Jena to begin sprinkling into the pies, along with a mix of vegetables and seasoning.

It took a moment for her to consider her answer. “He’s not my type.”

“Well, he’s definitely the type of some of the staff here. He better watch himself tonight.” Rosie hummed, then gestured to the pile of drumsticks and wings. “Save those for the lunch bags. Easy to eat on the fields.”

 

The mess table on Foster farm was in the longest room of the building and could easily seat the workforce, plus guests. As Jarell and Adora Foster had sat at the head of the table on the old farm, Jaret and Rosie Foster sat at the head of this one. Zircon sat next to Jaret, and Jena acted as a buffer between her Ensign and the suitors who had been after him. The table itself was loaded with enough food and drink for all of them

Jaret banged his pewter tankard on the table a few times before clearing his throat. Farmlife suited him well, and some of the worries and weight that had worn on his face during the occupation had started to fade already. “Before we eat, we must say thanks. We say thanks to each other, for coming together to work the land. We thank the land and sky, for providing us with this food. We say thanks to time, as it helps us all grow.” He left a pause to let a little anticipation build before carrying on to the finish.

“We say thanks to our guests. Ensign Zircon Herne, who works dutifully day and night to train our fellows to help keep the peace. And Cadet Jena Foster, my sister, who will be leaving us in three months to join the military in aiding others, as they provided aid to us.” Raising his tankard, he waited for the others to lift their drinks before finishing. “To Zircon, and to Jena, the B-” A slight pause as he remembered her wish, then he continued. “The bravest woman I know,” Another pause and a grin followed. “Who isn’t married to me.”

Rosie’s warm laughter got the other started, and then the hungry farmers were on their food and in their cups.

 

Jaret found his sister outside by the fire watching as Ensign Herne was passed from girl to girl to dance with as music played, courtesy of some of the older farmhands. “He seems to be having a good time.”

“Impressive, isn’t it?” He’d heard that tone of her voice before.

“Jena?”

“He’s an android, brother.” Jena explained. “There’s hundreds similar to him on the Herne. They build them, randomize their features, and send them onto ships to act as the crew when others can’t or won’t. He looks more human than I do, sometimes he even acts more human than I do.” She explained quietly. “I know I’m not built for Farringdon Three anymore but… sometimes when I look at him I wonder if I’m ready for what’s out there.”

“Is that why you brought him along with you?”

“No.” Jena laughed. “One of the reasons I brought him along with me was I thought he might like a break, even if he is just programming and data.”

“Aren’t we all?” He paused. “Is that what you meant when you told Rosie he isn’t your type?”

“Not quite.” Jena said before sprawling out. It felt good to stretch out, even if most of her body was cybernetic. “You’ve done well with this place in a short time. The others would be proud. I know they’d like Rosie.” The farm’s matriarch had become less timid once they had settled, and was currently surrounded by some of the older women likely getting inundated with advice.

They both saw a pretty young woman talk Zircon away from the dancing. Exchanging glances, Jaret looked after the pair. “Should I go and call her away?”

“Hang on.” Switching to internal communications, she fired a message across to him. [“Ensign, are you all right?”]

[“I have been propositioned.”] The reply that came back didn’t seem too alarmed.

[“Do you need any help?”]

Whatever answer she was expecting to get back, she did not expect the response. [“A generous offer, but I am confident in being able to provide satisfaction to her on my own.”]

Jaret looked alarmed at the spluttering sounds his sister was making. “So, should I go over there?” He asked, offering her a mug of something rich and fruity to clear her throat.

“No.” The word was rather strangled sounding. “He’s got this. Apparently. Just… let’s not bring this up. Again.” Jena spoke firmly. “Ever.”

 

It had been rather late when Jena had gotten back to the twin room Rosie and Jaret had set aside for her and Zircon. The sleeping arrangement had been made while Rosie was under certain impressions that the beds would be pushed together. Even with her implants and enhanced blood burning their way through the alcohol in her system, she was still a little fuzzy headed when she slumped back onto the bed. Her boots were kicked off first. Then the jeans came off. Finally she extracted her bra out from her top and just laid on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

It was even later when Zircon strolled in. Even in the low-light environment Jena could see the lipstick marks on his collar.

“You were not aware that models of my specification are fully functional, were you?” He said in the darkness, slipping out of his clothing and neatly folding it for the next day.

“I didn’t give it much thought.” Quiet passed between them before she spoke again. “Why did they make you that way?”

“We were designed originally as full-body replacements for cyborgs. The ability to load tri-core operating AI onto one was an unintended feature. We can work alongside our bioform colleagues better, can be repaired and maintained similar to cyborgs such as yourself, and if asked can provide certain services to the crew, without the risk of interpersonal conflict that can develop among bioform relations.”

If the lights had been on, he’d have been able to see her slack-jawed. “So… the reason you went off with her instead of all the others that had been pestering you?”

“She was the only one to ask in a clear, upfront manner that she wished to partake of such activities.”

“… Zircon?”

“Yes, Jena?”

“You’re an odd, odd man.” She chuckled. “Get some sleep.”

 

Over her remaining few months on Farringdon III, Jena and Zircon returned a number of times to the farm at the weekend. Often on a courier cycle, and occasionally driving one of the supply trucks she was now qualified to drive if they had items that needed shipping to and from Central City. The trainees at the barracks seemed to enjoy their weekends more when the Ensign wasn’t prowling about, even if he had deputized some of the autocrew to watch in his place.

The little weekend breaks to the farm were a nice reprieve from the training schedule and life in the city. Jena knew that she’d never fit in properly on a farm full time. It was nice however to make some memories on a farm that didn’t end in such a way that her original home’s did.

Her final visit to the farm was by way of air. She had just gotten her servitor operations license, enabling her to use all three classes of mechanized walkers. Taking a medium class duo-pilot model out with Zircon, she had flown manually outside of the city limits before switching to full submersion mode. Her body went limp in her chair as her mind took direct control of the vehicle. She couldn’t help but laugh as her twenty-five foot bipedal ‘body’ zipped across the countryside, banking and rolling and climbing and diving as if she could defy gravity.

The grey-coated servitor came to a stop in the air over the courtyard. Landing struts extended from various points as Jena made her descent and landed in the correct position as eager kids on the farm watched the mech touch down. Returning control to her cyborg body, she let the chestplate open for Zircon to climb out first before joining him on the ground.

“That’s not going to fit in the shed.” Jaret laughed, giving his sister a hug before offering a calloused hand for Zircon to shake.

“As long as the birds don’t sit on it too much, it should be fine there.” Jena said before digging a foil pack of pickled Marrowcarp from her pocket. “For the lady in your life. The last pack in Central City.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Jena. Rosie just can’t get enough pickled food at the moment.” He glanced towards the farmhouse, then the pack in his hands. “I better take this to her before she breaks the door down.”

“Twins, who’d have thought it?” Jena chuckled, letting her brother head back to his wife.

“Did you bring us anything, Jena?” A young boy’s voice piped up from behind her. She turned to see the gaggle of kids loitering near her.

“A giant robot isn’t enough?”

“Nuh-uh! You’ll take it away soon!”

“Hmm, good point.” Jena mused. “You know, I don’t have anything on me, but I think Zircon might have some dataslate programs with him… and I bet some of those are games.” Just like that, the crowd dissipated from around her and fled to the android to pester him instead. Though they had seen the tail end of the war, they were too young to have gotten involved in it like she had. She was glad for that. Jena had stopped being a kid when she first saw “Toothy” Tommy laying on the ground.

“Jena?” One of the older farmwomen called to her. “Could you take a look at my laser strimmer? I think the lenses are out of alignment.”

Rolling the sleeves of her black hoodie up, the cyborg nodded and headed over. While she had gained lots of new skills and qualifications over the past half a year, the old ones were still there.

Clopping

Clop clop clop one way.

Clop clop clop closer.

The gait was irregular, unsure.

Each strike of the foot clicked against the laminate floor and echoed about the room, through the open plan layout and to their ears.

“Is there a horse in there helping out?” He wondered aloud.

A rapid flurry of clopping followed, a head poking out from around the corner. “IT’S NOT FUNNY, DAD!”

She clopped back into the kitchen, leaving him with a glare from his wife. Her mouth’s barely suppressed mirth twitching at the corners of her lips dulled the usual impact her looks had on him.

“She needs to practice for her new job.” She chided.

“Oh shit, the pasta!” Came from the one-girl stampede in the kitchen.

“I get that, but while cooking?”

“Aw sod, the veg!” Their daughter was at a gallop now.

“She was quieter in those old clod stompers she used to wear!”

His wife sighed. “The goth days are gone now, it’s going to be all business and heels.”

“Fuck, the fish!” Their daughter swore amidst the clanging of pans and pots.

Her husband chuckled. “She’s still got the mouth of a sailor though.”

It Tolls For Tea

Her sword arm ached from the raging battle she had been fighting for the last hour. Blows were carefully parried, strikes avoided and thrusts countered. The sun had just started to set when a mighty bell tolled. The warring warriors looked up and around at each other as the sound hung in the air.

Sheathing her blade in the scabbard, the knight pulled the helmet from the top of her head. “The queen needs me.” She declared, before departing the field and heading for the castle.

There was no cowardice in her actions.

Even the mightiest knight could not resist the call of pizza night, and no plastic swords or rubber helmets were allowed at the royal table when it was time for a feast.

At The Beach

In spite of having to squint from the bright afternoon sun, Carol was glad to finally be able to sit down. It had been a hectic morning, herding three excitable children around town while dealing with their complaints, requests and the occasional squabble.

Sitting on a low wall, she stretched her legs out, happy to get the pressure off her sore feet. The three kids were running around on the beach. From chasing the tide to being chased by a small, scuttling crab, they were well on the way to burning off the ice creams they had wolfed down.

Taking a lick from her own ice cream, a 99 with Flake, she soon realised her mistake. Like sharp-eyed hawks, they had spotted their prey and descended on her rapidly.

“Carol! Can I have your flake?” Dan, the eldest asked with hopeful eyes.

“I want the flake, Carol, pleaaaaaaaaase?!” Lucy, the middle child, pleaded.

“Flaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaake!” Rebecca, the youngest, drawled out, eyeing the crumbly chocolate treat eagerly.

Their looked to each other, and Carol knew a good old-fashioned sibling argue bout was coming.

She was cunning, though. Wedging the wafer cone between her thighs, she pulled the Flake out and quickly snapped it into three even pieces. Then she wiped the excess ice cream off on the cone, and presented them with three pieces. She fixed them a look.

“You can take one each, okay? No being greedy.”

In one moment, three pieces of chocolate sat on the palm of her hand. The next, they were gone and the kids were running off around the beach again. The crab soon resumed its chase of Rebecca, too.

A quiet snap could just be heard from behind, and half a Flake was placed in the vacant hole in her soft-serve ice cream.

“You’re good with the kids, Carol.” Martin smiled, taking a seat next to her with his own 99, and a bag of assorted groceries to take back to the caravan.

“Thanks… I did worry about how we’d all get on, our first holiday away together.” She admitted, letting her tongue catch a trail of melting ice cream that had been trickling towards her hand.

Martin slipped an arm around her shoulder, the pair sitting to watch his -no, their- kids charging about on the beach.

“You do know that this won’t tire them out at all for the evening, right?” Martin chuckled. “They’ll still be pestering us for change for the arcade machines, snacks and drinks.”

Smiling, Carol nodded. “I know,” she said before a pause to eat some ice cream, “I think I’d miss it if they weren’t.”

 

Author’s Note: Today’s Three Word Wednesday words were: squint, argue, lick. A 99 is a type of ice cream in the UK, a wafer cone with soft-serve vanilla ice cream. Often comes with a Flake, a type of chocolate bar, sticking out of it.

Eggs and Bunnies

The village hall was full of children, all seated at tables with an egg of their own, and pots of various water colour paints to decorate it with. The Atkinson‚Äôs had just dropped their daughter off there with Mrs Bilk, a kindly old woman who was (with the help of some of the younger adults) running the village’s Easter celebrations.

“We’ll be back in time for lunch,” Tricia Atkinson said to her daughter, giving her a big hug and a kiss on the forehead. “And I look forwards to seeing how you paint your egg.”

“I’m gonna paint daffodils on it!” Georgina declared proudly, before giggling as her father hugged her from behind, easily lifting her up to set in the chair Mrs Bilk had lead her to.

“Daffodils are good, maybe a bunny or two, too?” Greg smiled, before looking up to Mrs Bilk. “Thanks again for organizing this.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble.” She smiled, carefully placing an egg in front of Georgina. “The old ways have to be passed on, after all. Speaking of…” Mrs Bilk crooked a slightly bushy eyebrow at the couple, a knowing smile on her face.

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