Antiquities

“Fixer, I’m going to have some trouble fighting these.” Jena sent the message to the Shuck as she crawled into cover. She could hear the ancient machines stomping towards her and wondered how much their owner was fearful of the pricey museum pieces being destroyed.

“Those weapons they carry are rather fearsome, but they shouldn’t prove too much trouble.” Even with that said, the Shuck was pulling back after noticing the missile launchers mounted on the shoulder of each mech.

“Not so much that. I’ve been studying these thing lately. Destroying one rubs me the wrong way.” The cyborg laughed, thankful that she was able to shut off the pain signals coming from her damaged foot. The exoframe itself was fine, but the force of the shot had done a number on the joint within the armoured foot.

“-That’s- what’s troubling you!?”

Rolling to her feet, Jena limped alongside a crate as audio visualization software worked to triangulate the sounds of the old Servitors moving and give her a heads up. “I’ve gained an appreciation for them. That white one with the blue edging? It’s a Nottingham Systems Yeoman D!” She grinned. “It’s got to be at least eight-hundred years old and it’s walking about like it’s fresh off a production line.”

Her exoframe’s computer warned her about the IR targeting sweep flickering out from the Yeoman. “It’s trying to lock onto me, that means the missiles must be working replicas. Well, that or the pilot’s an idiot.”

“I’ve had to pull back anyway, Jena. Huang needs some more medical attention.”

“I’ll be okay. Give him my best.” Jena shut up and concentrated on the two looking for her. The Yeoman was heading off to her south. The other Servitor, a slightly newer Matsumoto Manufacturing model, was rooted in position and rotating its middle section to look for her. The Hayashi B96 wasn’t carrying a railgun like the Yeoman, but it was carrying a multi-barrelled autocannon.

Checking that the Yeoman was still moving the other way, Jena waited for her chance. As it turned away, she pushed off and started flying for its back. “Please don’t blow up.” She muttered in prayer as she ascended before darting down, fingers aiming for the bridge between the back of the Servitor and the power plant on its back. Prying into it, she leveraged her feet on the back of the machine’s head to forcibly separate the two parts. Vicious arcs leapt across the gap as they separated, scorching the surfaces to leave it as black as the paint job. The Hayashi B96 stopped dead. The pilot would have to blow the hatch with the explosive bolts to get out.

Her suit flagged up the IR targeting sweep again. Flying up and around she saw the launch ports on the shoulder mounted missile launchers open. Smoke streamed from the back of the Yeoman as it started to unleash its salvo. Rolling and darting about in evasive maneouvers, Jena headed to the back of the house as missiles streaked after her. They were faster, but she could bank and turn on a dime. Detonations flashed behind her as missiles collided into each other or struck the building. Her fingers crossed at the latter, hoping the Shuck’s team wouldn’t come to harm.

Coming around from the building, Jena saw the twitch of the Yeoman’s arm. She swerved and span out as the launched projectile slammed into her left forearm. Her suit screamed warnings at her. Her body was throwing up error messages. Her left arm was… well, her left arm wasn’t doing anything. The last thing she saw was the ground coming for her before she blacked out.

 

Akintola and Durand’s efforts with the computer systems had killed the lighting in the house and forced all the doors open. Switching to augmented vision mode, the intelligence team skulked through the dark corridors and taking out any resistance they encountered as they headed for the shelter in the basement level.

Handler had holstered her pistols and switched to a pair of thether blades. They were the paired knives and tether bracelets she had given Jena before the liberation of Central City from the Volsta, and while she didn’t have the cyborg’s artificial strength and accuracy, she had trained extensively with them from her youth. Through the pitch black she stalked, relying on her enhanced vision.

[“Handler, they’re on the move from the shelter.”] Akintola reported thanks to the little present of software she left in their system. [“Our instigator is heading for the western transport bay with guards. The shareholder’s going for the hangar, seems like she’s alone.”]

Using her tactical command interface, Handler divided her forces. Akintola, Lopez, Solokov and Gibbams would go for the transport bay. Durand was with her for the hangar. The five sent their confirmation signals back to her at the order.

[“Good luck.”] She added before sprinting off with Simone just behind her.

[“I wonder how Jena’s doing?”] Simone said over commslink, the message directed just at the officer. Both stumbled as a series of explosions rocked the building.

Handler pressed on. [“Stay focused, Agent. We need to capture one of them alive, and given the numbers, I think we’ve a better chance of that.”]

As they made their way towards the hangar, both saw Jena’s vital signal notification box in-vision change from green to orange.

[“I’ll handle the target, you-“]

[“Stay. Focused. Agent.”] Handler insisted, her jaw clenched and back tense. The emergency lighting was starting to come back online despite all of Akintola’s efforts to keep it timed out longer. As they entered into the hangar, the two came face to face with Priya Arnold, share broker and collector of military antiquities. Her hair was covered by a headscarf of gold and blue which looked a little out of place considering she was in an older style of military padded armour.

Simone was rolling out of the way as Priya raised some form of handgun, smoke puffing from it as a slug was launched her way. Their target then parried one of Handler’s thrown knives with her sword. As Handler’s blade retracted, Priya fired another shot.

Durand gasped as the pellet punched through her shipsuit into her shoulder. Several crude swears spilled from her lips as she recovered her weapon with her left hand. By that point, Handler had closed the distance and was in close combat.

Neither woman spoke at first as they squared off, trading feints and parries as they probed their opponents defenses. Priya blocked a series of swipes with her sword and followed up with an elbow to Handler’s stomach.

“Not bad, but you can’t beat me one on one!” She exulted, lining up her sword to thrust.

She screamed as a burst of energy particles tore into her leg, toppling over and dropping her sword as she clutched the limb in agony.

“Not a bad shot with my left hand.” Simone said, holstering her weapon. She climbed a little unsteadily to her feet.

Handler was already tying Ms Arnold’s wrists together with heavy duty zip tags. “Try to stay seated, Agent.” Her eyes were already scanning the hangar. An old military jeep from some past conflict was parked nearby. Placing a jammer into the ports on the back of Priya’s neck to stop her from triggering any traps, Handler headed for it and found the keys in the ignition.

[“Handler to Fixer, I have a prisoner to secure, and Durand’s been shot. We need extraction.”]

 

Commander Romanov was flying fast towards the compound, but she wasn’t alone. Behind her flew ships belonging to the Galactic Enforcement Organization, the police force of the Galactic Federation. A rapid response medivac unit accompanied them. She could see one disabled Servitor already, its power source torn from it and the hatch blown to allow the pilot to escape. Another was firing off rounds from its main weapon at the air, a slight distortion showing the Shuck trying to land while under fire.

[“Romanov to GEO Unit One, I’ll deal with that. Breach the compound and meet up with the GFIA team inside.”] She called to the units following before veering off after the mech.

Getting weapons on the exoframe active had proved troublesome. The Herne’s computer was in a reboot phase and was unable to issue the authorization commands to the pair of suits. Hers had a feature that wasn’t locked, however. As IR targeting lines turned in the direction of reinforcements, the chance to use it presented itself.

Missiles streamed out of the shoulder units. Reaching out with her mind, bolsted by the psi boosters in her exoframe’s helmet, the Commander clenched her fists and stopped them mid flight. Sweat started to trickle down her face as she grit her teeth and twisted the missiles back in the direction they were launched. With a shove of her hands they hurtled back to blast the mech to pieces.

She let out a gasp as she disengaged the psi boosters. Her tongue flicked just under her nose.

“No nosebleeds this time.” Treshka sighed with relief. [“Commander Romanov to the crew of the IXV Shuck. GEO are entering the compound to assist, transmitting their ident codes to you. Make yourself known to them. We have medical assistance here too. Please report.”]

The Shuck was landing on an open pad, a jeep driving out to meet it. Zooming in, she could see Handler behind the wheel, someone trussed up in the back, and a bleeding Agent Durand keeping a gun pointed at their prisoner. With a push of her feet she flew down to meet them.

“Jena’s injured somewhere.” Was the first thing out of Handler’s mouth.

“I’ll find her. See to your wounded, and your prisoner.” Treshka promised, taking to the air. A quick sweep found the transponder in Jena’s exoframe. Heading in that direction there was a massive disturbance in the sand, but no sign of the suit.

“Sergeant Foster?” Treshka called on landing right over the transponder position. “Sergeant Foster, respond.”

The ground underneath shuddered. Stepping back, Commander Romanov didn’t even need to activate the boosters. Gathering her will she parted the sand with ease to reveal a submerged suit caked with sand and dust.

“Commander… Sergeant Foster reporting. I feel like hell.” Jena spluttered and coughed over comms, her voice thick and groggy. The soldier’s helmet opened, Jena spitting and gagging from nausea.

A preliminary medical scan revealed nothing to stop her being moved. Treshka easily lifted the woman up to carry towards the ship. “If you’re going to throw up, fine. Just don’t get it on the suit, Sergeant.”

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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.

 

The Harder You Fall

The scream coming from the hangar forced him into action. Shuffling over with his damaged leg, Ensign Zircon Herne wrapped his fingers around the handles on the weapons locker built into the wall of the corridor. With his good leg braced against the wall he started to pull. Stress indicators appeared in-vision, bars indicating strength exerted rising in columns along each side of his field of view. There was a similar bar in place for his right leg as he pushed against the wall with that. The bar for the left leg was non-existent, the power cut off to the damaged limb.

“Stop messing around, Heko, and get the merchandise on board!” A woman’s voice distorted by speakers and distance came from the open doors.

As the stress on his artificial muscles rose, the sides of the panel started to buckle.

[“Admiral, any news on weapon locker AHC zero zero five?”] He sent the message to the bridge, his face at ease as his arms strained with effort.

[“I’m trying, but it isn’t responding.”] The Admiral’s voice sounded internally. [“Reinforcements have arrived though, Treshka is on her way down there now.”]

[“We may not have the time. Jena is in danger. Admiral, authorize my limiter release.”]

[“All right. I’m authorizing the release now, hold on.”] A moment later a burst of encrypted data came through his commslink.

A symbol of an arm bearing an old-fashioned mechanical padlock on the top edge of his vision vanished. Strength exertion bars shot up, and the metal cover on the weapons locker tore free with a screeching sound. The back of the unit was distended from an impact from the other side of the wall, but the weapons within all gave status green ident readings.

“It won’t be long now. She’s wounded.” Heko’s voice boomed from the broadcast speakers.

With his limiters off, he was able to take two energy cannons without worrying about an armament access violation.. The thick-barrelled weapons bearing a particle accelerator and power generator unit at the other end were meant to be used with both arms. Zircon hefted them up and ignored the weight exceed levels chiming for his already strained limbs. With a shove of his functioning leg, he rolled into the doorway and braced himself.

Patching the cannons targeting systems into his own OS was easy thanks to the low-speed machine interface ports that sprung from his wrists, parting the bioskin to connect to the weapons. His arm muscles were taut as he twisted and shifted them into position.

“You’re done for, soldier!”

Zircon squeezed one trigger, sending a volley of energy into the head of The Axar. The energy cannon was designed for heavily armoured infantry targets, not Servitors and definitely not extra-heavy class Servitors like Commander Romanov’s machine. A squeeze of the other trigger sent another shot its way, then he alternated.

The mech turned to face him.

He kept firing.

In the corner of his view he saw Jena make a dash for the cargo ship, her back weeping blood. The Axar was flinging debris towards the hangar doors. Bolts and other small parts ricocheted about him as the onslaught drew close. An attempt to roll clear was thwarted as a heavy ceramisteel loading trolley shot forwards and collided with the wall, the sound maxing out his ambient noise readings. Still he kept firing, not even bothering to release the triggers now. The temperatures on the cannons were rising. His own internal temp readings were rising.

The criminal in The Axar snarled as he booted a goods cart with a solid kick.

Zircon met the hurtling object with the same resolute expression he wore the day he was activated.

[STRUCTURAL ERROR]

[EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN DATA DUMP INITIATED]

 

 

The chattering of her teeth was the first thing Jena Foster heard as consciousness returned to her. She felt cold, her body shivering violently under silky sheet covers tucked around her.

The first thing her eyes registered as light flooded her vision was that it was wrong. No. It was natural light instead of the artificial lamps of the Herne, brightly pouring through sheer trappings covering a massive arched window to fill the room.

She thought to push the covers off her trembling body and stand. Her limbs did not respond. Her neck could move, so she craned her head back to try and push herself up as her eyes wildly searched for clues.

“Ssssh… Easy there.” A gentle shadow crooned as a black shape filled her view. “You need to rest.” The shadow advised, pushing her down onto the soft mattress.

“C-c-cold… f-f-fight. Got t-to fight.” Jena stuttered, her teeth clicking together.

“There’s no one to fight.” The shadow soothed, a hand pressing on her forehead. “Sleep, Jena.”

A slow spread of warmth starting at the back of her neck seeped its way up to her brain. As the feeling washed over her Jena could feel herself slipping back into unconsciousness and strove to cling on to the fading spots of light.

“Sleep.” The kindly shadow commanded. “That’s an order, soldier.”

A soft sigh escaped her lips. If it was an order…

 

 

Admiral Zaha Roland’s luxury villa was crowded. After the situation on ther flagship, she had decided to use her holiday home as her base of operations, if only to stop the ship’s computer constantly reminding her that she had not taken all her mandated holiday time. Asrat Ship Consortium officials had grovelled for forgiveness by her favourite chair, falling over themselves at the breach of security and the crimes of their workers. Natasha Henderson was in the kitchen cooking for Zaha’s assorted house guests, the Academy chef claiming that keeping busy and doing what she loved would help after seeing the state of Zircon’s broken body.

Her second-in-command, Treshka Romanov, had left the other day to bring The Axar planetside so her husband could help her give it a full check. There was also some muttering about a shopping trip to replace the outfit she had ruined. Shay MacAllister, the ISV Herne’s chief engineer, had opted to stay on board and help run diagnostics until a new company could get out there and service it. At ASC’s expense, of course.

She glanced out of the arched window, coffee in hand. Her shuttle had company, a sleek ship parked next to it. It had taken a couple of days for that ship to join them, and on board they were taking care of two jobs. Repairing Zircon, and preparing the brain of Heko’s combat automaton, Beryl, for information analysis. The two intruders who hadn’t been killed in the action were at a secure Galactic Federation medical facility, undergoing treatment.

With everything in hand or happening, it gave her little to do other than go through her notes, prepare her notes, and yearn for an empty house so she could laze nude on her private beach.

There was the small matter of Ensign Foster, the blonde cyborg currently in her bedroom occupying the bed. She had spent the past week asleep, recovering from trauma and injuries sustained. At least the bed in her shuttle was comfortable. Draining her cup of the rich brown beverage it contained, Zaha went to pour another as the door to the bedroom slid open.

“How’s she doing?” Zaha called from the coffee table.

“She woke up for a little bit.” The reply came, the door closing. “I was able to get her back to sleep.”

“I look forwards to when I can get my own bed back.” The Admiral joked, stirring the contents of her cup. “Coffee?”

“Please. It shouldn’t be too long now. We’ve almost got Ensign Herne back up and running. He wasn’t able to recover all the missing data, but a fresh reboot from previous back-ups would have lost all of the previous three months.” She took a seat on the sofa, gathering her mop of shoulder-length hair up into a ponytail.

“Having Zircon about will help with her recovery.” Zaha smiled, passing over the delicate white cup.

“I hope so, Admiral.” The woman sighed, taking a well-needed sip.

“Likewise. So, how have you been, Handler?”

The Bigger They Are

Jena hurled herself behind one of the storage crates as The Axar’s huge fist slammed into where she was just stood. The Servitor was soon swinging to where she had gone for cover, and on her hands and knees she scrambled away as it sent storage units flying. Hauling herself to her feet, the cyborg sprinted towards one of the gantries and leapt up. The entire hanging structure shook as The Axar threw a crate at it, knocking her off her feet again. Each footstep filled the hangar with sound as it neared. It had hold of one end and was starting to pull. Jumping back onto the floor, she heard the support cables snap.

With a quick dash she slid between the legs of the mech. One small note of comfort was that the weapons array on its back was not yet firing at her. Whether the hacker lacked the skill or ability to control the array of support units mounted there or being in the Herne was somehow preventing it, she didn’t care.

“You can do nothing against me, soldier. You could die now as recompense for your earlier act and save yourself the effort.” The hacker’s voice boomed through the broadcast speakers.

She opted to hide in a recess rather than talk back. She needed a plan. She needed weapons. She needed a Servitor. She needed back up. She needed anything as opposed to what she had, which was nothing.

Ducking down, she crawled along one of the access paths for cleaning units to take in the lay of the land. The Axar stood in the centre of the hangar, turning around as it tried to spot her. A cargo ship had locked its docking channel into the airlock to receive the massive Servitor. Tossed and upturned containers littered the room, components and parts spilling out of some. Cutting The Axar off from the docked ship was the first priority, her primary mission.

[“Zircon, can you access the hangar’s systems and shut off the docking channel?”] She sent the message to her comrade on the outside of the room.

[“I can attempt to, if they are working through the autocrew. Are they loading it now?”] His voice sounded in her mind.

Boxes collided with the walls as the servitor started hurling more about, trying to rattle her and drive her into the open.

[“The infiltration team’s hacker gained access to it. It’s currently trying to kill me. So… sooner the better.”]

 

Admiral Roland had an intense look on her face, the communications ports installed on her wrist spliced into one of the cable lengths they had hauled out from an access port. “It sounds like you three had an eventful evening before you even boarded the ship.”

Natasha made an affirmative sound, her arms aching from the effort to stop the cable retracting back to its channel. She had given Zaha the rundown of Ensign Foster’s situation as they browsed the ship’s schematic and specification guides to find the right subsystem. “And now… phew, now she’s out there doing the only thing she thinks she can do.”

“Keep it steady, I’m nearly done. I’d rather not have my wrist interfaces torn out.” Zaha encouraged her. “I’ll have words with her and look into getting her some help.”

Gritting her teeth, the chef felt her hands going numb as she kept the cable taut. “I’m trying but…”

“This is the ISV Herne. The ship has recognized Admiral Zaha Nanako Roland’s Command Authority.” The ship’s computer chimed in a soft, feminine voice. “All temporary access permissions have been rescinded. Please note, the ISV Herne has not completed its service. Please note, there are irregularities in the autocrew command system. Please note, you have not undergone your mandated relaxation time, Admiral.”

Zaha ejected the spliced ports from her wrists and pulled her hands back. “You can let go, now.”

The cable whizzed back into the channel.

“Admiral, this is Ensign Zircon Herne. We have a situation.” Zircon’s clipped accent came from the bridge’s comms channel.

 

Even as she rolled clear of a swipe from one of The Axar’s claws, she knew something was up with it. She’d seen Treskha pilot it, and it moved quicker then than it was now. While still fast, its swings were lumbering, unwieldy. Even she could pilot a Servitor better. The only time she moved like that in one was when-

A scream was torn from her lips as a crate cover skittered across her back. Groaning in agony, she managed to drop into one of the runoff channels for when the machine was washed. She could feel hot, slick liquid against her as she eased along the floor. She was bleeding. It wasn’t the fluids from her artificial limbs, it was the supply for her remaining biological components. Rolling onto her front, she made for one of the recesses as quickly as she was able to. Maybe she could give her body some time to recover, let the nanomachines coursing through her blood do their job.

“Stop messing around, Heko, and get the merchandise on board!” A broadcast from the pilot of the getaway vehicle called. She sounded annoyed.

Jena could see The Axar examining the lid of the crate that struck her, her blood smearing one side.

“It won’t be long now. She’s wounded.” Its head tracked along the runoff channel, then looking up to her hiding spot. “You’re done for, soldier!”

A ripple of energy shot from the hangar doors to strike the Servitor’s head, followed by another, and another, and another. While its thick armour plating was withstanding the blasts, it still turned to face the threat.

The earlier interrupted thought hit her again. Her Servitor only moved that slowly if she was using manual controls. The Axar was designed to be piloted by those with psychic talent, so maybe it would only take full immersion controls from a psychic. It wasn’t much, but it was an edge. And with it distracted, it gave her a chance to deal with the primary mission.

It took every ounce of will to stand, the wound on her back sending pain shooting through her as she moved. She still had her knife. Her pistol had recovered a couple of shots. With her teeth sinking into her lower lip she bolted for the cargo ship, her long strides carrying her up the length of channel connecting the Herne and the hold of the vessel. With grit alone she forced herself through the ship, her hands clenching her weapons. Determination kept her from stumbling. Pride kept her from crying out. She could feel the slick sheen of sweat on her skin as she breached the cockpit. The pilot turned just in time to meet her end from a round to the chest.

 

Treshka Romanov charged out of the small transport ship Shay had picked her up in, her pace unmatched as she ran for The Axar’s hangar. She had not wasted time by dressing. Her feet were bare and her body was clad in a little white number she knew her husband loved. She didn’t care about the amount of skin she showed. Her first duty was to her Admiral. Her joint second duty was the Herne and The Axar, and both were in peril.

A pile of buckled metal boxes littered the length of corridor in front of the bay doors. On her naked soles she skidded past and burst into the hangar. Ensign Foster was there, staring up at The Axar as it hefted an arm up, ready to crush her with.

Treshka growled as she gathered her will, one of the spaghetti straps on her outfit snapping as her muscles bunched under it.

 

Jena readied herself for the blow. She was laying on the ground, her pistol raised and her eyes defiant as she stared into the stylized face of her Commander’s machine. Her previous two shots did nothing to it, she only had one left and it wouldn’t be enough for what Heko did.

The arm swung down. As much as she wanted to flinch, she kept her gaze on the eyes of the Servitor. She’d face death the way she wanted, fighting till the end.

The blow never came. The arm’s movement had been arrested mid-strike. It started to kneel, part of its chest plate unlatching. She could see in as the opening parted, the hacker scrambling in his seat.trying to shut the doors.

Maybe one shot would be enough after all.

The Axar’s cockpit spat Heko out. As he fell the distance from the cockpit to the floor, Jena took her shot. As the body crumbled in front of her she started to drag herself closer. One shot wasn’t enough. She discarded her pistol and went for her knife.

“That’s about enough of that, Ensign.” Romanov said, snatching the knife from her trembling hand with ease before she could strike. “He’s dead. We don’t desecrate the dead.”

“He’s dead.” The words came thick from her throat.

“Yeah, I just said he was.” Treshka’s pale eyes peered down, studying her from head to feet. “You need some medical attention if you’re repeating the obvious.”

Jena shook her head, eyes now fixed on the mess of boxes Treskha had passed. “Zircon, he’s…” The world faded to black as she slumped down, head clunking against the floor.

 

[“Zaha? The infiltrators have been neutralized and The Axar secured. Foster’s alive. Out cold and bleeding, but she’ll live.”] Treskha sent the message up to the bridge.

[“And Zircon?”] The Admiral responded with.

She nudged some of the piled boxes with her bare foot. She wouldn’t be able to do much with Jena in her arms. [“Offline. Looks like the thief threw a goods cart at it.”]

There was a long pause before the reply came. [“And our thief?”]

Treshka snorted. [“Dead, unfortunately. Foster shot him before I could get to him, I managed to stop her from carving up the remains.”]

[“Get her to the nearest medical facility and patch her up as best you can. I’ll send what manpower we have to assist. ASC are scrambling their ships to meet us up here.”]

Commander Romanov started for the nearest medbay. “Come along Ensign, I need to stop you from bleeding all over my lingerie.”

Interlopers

It felt good to be back in uniform. Jena Foster stood in the cabin of the civilian delivery shuttle with her black military overcoat draped over her shoulders, her knife at her back and her service pistol slung in its holster. As COS Caterer-1 approached the service entrance to the Herne’s space dock she felt the calm before battle wash over her.

Zircon was dressed similar to herself, though with no service firearm or knife she had ordered him to take a ceramisteel rolling pin and kitchen knife from their apartment. He was sat in the co-pilot’s seat, cables running from the back of his neck to the console as he used his clearance codes to enable their passage through and clear them for docking with the flagship.

It was all on their pilot to navigate through the opening and to pull them up alongside one of the Herne’s many service airlocks. Jena had loaned the shorter woman some of her clothes, so the tracksuit and hooded top swamped Natasha. Her brown hair had been tied back and a intense expression was on her face as she flew the ship.

“It may be an idea if Natasha comes with us.” Zircon spoke up as they pulled alongside the centre of the disc that formed the majority of the ship’s chassis. “Our arrival may alert whoever is on board, and I do not rate the airlock on this ship to withstand any intrusion attempts.”

“All right then, Natasha. I’ll be on point, Zircon will mind the rear. If we say drop, you drop and stay small.”

The chef nodded, edging the ship in close before initiating the docking sequence.

Jena’s hands went to her weapons. The knife was held in her left hand, the pistol in her right. Her firing arm was held straight out at shoulder level, with her forearm resting on the wrist of her left arm, the blade held outward ready to strike. The world around her seemed more vibrant and sharper as her reflexes and sense of awareness ramped up ready for a combat situation. She could feel body heat as Natasha stood behind her, and then Zircon heading up the rear.

With a thought, she opened the airlock and edged in, taking in all avenues of approach with a glance. “Proceed.” She whispered back once the coast was clear.

The corridor this close to the hull was for service purposes only, a network of large bulkhead-secured transit paths with smaller walkways. While the inner corridors tended towards a pure white similar to the bridge, here it was all metal and warning stripes. On the trip up, Zircon had said the intrusions started from one of the hangars assigned to the service teams and was proceeding towards the central tower and the facilities on the top of the ship. With a map in a corner of her in-vision display, Jena lead the way.

“I have been able to negotiate our passage with the Herne’s computer, but I must warn you both: We have likely been noted by the interlopers.” Zircon mentioned as they boarded one of the massive elevators to take them up to the top level of the central disc.

“Can we arm ourselves any better?” Jena asked. “I’m competent with these, but a rifle or assault cannon would be appreciated.”

“I am unable to get access to restricted weapons systems. On a more pleasant note, they are unable to access them either. They seem to be doing all their work through the autocrew system.”

Jena turned to the android. “Any chance of you being affected?”

“Wait, you’re an android!?” Natasha blinked.

“There are differences between my operating system and theirs. I suspect that an exploit was injected during their servicing on the ship. I have yet to be serviced so am unaffected.” Zircon explained. He glanced to Natasha. “I am. Is this a problem?”

“I thought you were just a bit formal…”

Jena cleared her throat as the elevator came to a halt. “You can discuss this at another time. Get clear of the doors.” She shooed them to one side, taking the other for herself. As the doors slid apart, she patched into the camera feed on her service gun to check around the corners.

All clear in the corridors.

“Keep behind me.” She ordered, moving ahead with steely resolve. As composed as she was upping her sensory reaction levels was causing her heart rate and blood pressure to climb as every sound, every shadow leapt to prominence in her mind.

“A personnel elevator ahead is descending.” Zircon reported. “Estimated occupancy three to five individuals.”

“Get Natasha safe. I’ll take care of them.” Sprinting towards a wall, Jena leapt up it and continued her run pushing upwards with powerful strides. Gripping the blade of her knife in her teeth, her free hand gripped one of the cable pipes running near the ceiling and she was easily able to tuck herself out of sight of anyone walking towards her from beneath.

With the android and the chef sheltering in a storage cupboard for the automated cleaning units Jena shut her eyes to focus on the footsteps coming nearer.

“-said something about an airlock being triggered down here. Might be one of the Consortium crews.” A woman spoke.

“None of them should be on shift tonight.” A gruff-voiced man responded.

Another woman snarled. “It doesn’t matter who they are, we kill them and get on with the plan. The buyer wants the goods, all we need to do is get it out of here.”

Three walked under her clad in ASC Orange spacesuits with helmets, the uniform of the company doing the work. The machine pistols they were carrying were not work-issued, on the other hand. She let them walk a little further before letting go. The first shot from her pistol struck one in the back of the neck, accelerated particles surging through the bridge to their machine interface. Crouched down in her landing, she snatched the blade from her tooth and dashed in as they swung round to face her.

Zircon darted out of hiding to engage one of them, a woman from the shape of her spacesuit. His hand was reaching for her weapon even as his other swung the rolling pin towards her visor.

The remaining intruder was hers to deal with. Jena let off a shot aimed at the gun moving towards her, buying her enough time to close the distance and drive them back with a shoulder barge. The machine pistol went scattering to one side, and Jena was on her. The pair were soon rolling on the floor. She could hear the woman hissing and spitting thanks to the helmet-mounted local broadcast speakers, her contorted features just visible through the reflective glass visor.

They pounded on each other as they tumbled, getting in strikes where they could. A knee to the stomach sent Jena off and her opponent scrambling for her gun. It was then that the Ensign saw her moment. Jena lunged forwards and grabbed her opponent from behind, snaring her in a double shoulder lock. Planting her feet in a firm stance, Jena leaned back to add leverage. She dropped her body down to pin the opponent further, and didn’t stop pulling until she heard the spine crack. The snarls and hisses fell into whimpers of pain.

“I’ll talk! I’ll talk!” The other woman was begging from a prone position on the floor. Zircon stood over her, rolling pin in hand.

“Who are you and why are you here?” Jena demanded, retrieving her weapons.

“The Axar! We’re here for The Axar!” Her visor was cracked and she was nursing her right arm.

“Commander Romanov’s Servitor?” Zircon questioned. “Whatever for?”

“Someone wants it. We get it. They pay us big money. I don’t know what they want it for.” She gasped, cradling her arm as she sat up. “Please don’t kill me.”

Zircon was looking at her now. It was her decision.

“Leave these two where they are.” She thumbed at the other two. “He’s dead and she’s not going anywhere. Get Natasha out of the store room and lock this one in there.”

The android was quick to work. Just before they sealed the door, Jena looked to their prisoner. “How many of you?”

“Eleven. There’s eleven of us.” Her eyes strayed to her companions. “… There were eleven of us.”

“And there’ll be less when I’m through. You picked the wrong ship to rob. Seal her in, Zircon.” Natasha was staring at her when she turned around. “Problem?”

The chef looked to the two on the floor, then back to Jena and shook her head.

“We proceed on then, to the Commander’s Hangar.”

 

Zircon’s ears heard it first. “Weapons fire ahead.”

They were nearing the bridge. The android had two recovered machine pistols in his hands, Natasha was holding the kitchen knife and rolling pin, and Jena kept to her service knife and pistol.

“Two shooters. Both with machine pistols.” Jena said as her ears picked up the noise. Then her internal computer picked up something on peer to peer communications. An ident tag coming from the bridge.

[“Admiral!”] Jena called over commslink.

[“Ensign Foster! I’m pinned down and can’t get a clear shot.”] Zaha replied.

[“Stay where you are, Admiral. We will be with you momentarily.”] Zircon added, before looking to Jena. “I must do my duty.”

With a nod, she watched as he took off in front of her at speed, his legs carrying him in long strides towards the bridge. “Keep an eye out behind us, Natasha. If you see anything, yell and move behind me.”

“Okay…”

Jena could hear more gunfire as she neared the bridge. Sticking close to the wall, she checked around with her pistol’s camera. She couldn’t see the Admiral, but Zircon was bounding over control panels with both guns aimed at different targets. She took a shot when she could and clipped one on the shoulder.

Zaha Roland appeared from behind the Navigation Officer’s station. Clad in her white admiral’s jacket, her hands were on her sword. As the left held the scabbard tightly, the right drew the blade. With a horizontal slice a wave of light cut forth into the distracted invaders. Trapped between the three of them, they were soon slain.

“What’ve you found out?” Zaha asked, re-sheathing the Sword of the Hunter.

“There’s eleven of them. Six now. They’re here to steal Commander Romanov’s Servitor, and are being paid to do so for someone.” Jena explained, ushering Natasha forwards to stand with them. “And Zircon thinks it’s an inside job, someone tampered with the autocrew.”

The android nodded. “Security alerts which should have been sent externally were routed to the autocrew. If Jena had not requested me to accompany her…”

The Admiral nodded. “I came here on my shuttle, and I’ve sent Shay to gather some others. The Axar is a powerful machine that must not be allowed to leave Galactic Federation hands. Who’s this?” She looked to Natasha.

“A friend. She works with Zircon, and she risked herself to fly us up here.” Jena stated.

Zaha offered her a hand. “Your aid has been noted, but I would feel much more comfortable if a civilian was out of danger. Ensigns, head for The Axar. I’ll take your friend to my shuttle, she’ll be safe enough there, then I’ll join you.”

She looked to her companion, then back to her Admiral. “We can’t let you risk yourself more than you have. You could seal the bridge off and try and restore control.”

Admiral Roland looked rankled to be kept out of the fight for her vessel, but soon sighed. “Alright. Go, you two. I’ll try and re-activate one of the weapons lockers near the hangar.”

 

Natasha watched the pair leave, gnawing on her bottom lip. “Will they be okay?”

“She’s capable in a fight, and he is an advanced machine.” Zaha replied from her chair, trying to rouse the computer with her sword. Nothing was happening as she placed it into the slot, and on removing it she could see why. Someone had emptied metal filings into the hole. The glittering grey dust clung to the tip of her sword.

“She’s not in a good place right now, uh, Admiral. I’ve only just met her but-”

“What’s your name?”

“Natasha Henderson.”

“Well, Natasha. Why don’t you come and give me a hand with some of these access panels?” Zaha asked. “We’re going to have to do this the old fashioned way, and you can tell me all about this.”

 

The man they had encountered on their way to the hangar was not in a ASC spacesuit. He was dressed in a black combat suit with an energy rifle slung at his side. On seeing the pair running towards him he reached for it, only to find Jena’s knife in his throat. She paused only to grab and clean it on the man’s suit before taking off again. Just from one look at the rifle she could tell it was ident-tagged to his suit. It would be useless in her hands.

“I’m going to have a headache tomorrow.” She breathed. “A couple of combat stims would make this easier.”

“Do not push yourself too hard, Jena.” Zircon said, picking up speed to take point. As soon as he saw the two near the hangar entrance in their black suits, he dropped into a slide across the ground. Clusters of particles surged from each of his machine pistols as he fired, joined by the more sedate fire of Jena’s service pistol as she hugged the wall to provide back up.

Warning readings flagged up in his programming as a sliver of energy from one of the rifles punctured clean through his knee to the back of his thigh. Drawing his other leg up to protect his body, he squeezed down on both triggers, depleting the energy reserves on the pair.

Jena’s own pistol was warning her as she made sure they were dead. Tucking it back into her holster to let the charger cycle on it, she moved to check on Zircon.

“Reduced mobility, but I will continue functioning.” He said to ease her worried expression.

Hefting him up and dragging him over to near the weapon’s locker, she placed him by it. “Stay here and call me when the Admiral unlocks this. There’s three left. But they need someone in their ship, so that’s technically two.”

“Be careful in any case. You may not feel it at times, but you are still human.”

“I’ll try to keep that in mind.” Jena replied. With her knife in hand, she headed for the hangar. There was no quiet way to do it. The large doors slid open to reveal the massive form of The Axar crouched in the middle of the bay. One of the access panels on its thighs had been opened and cables ran from it to a mobile computer terminal being operated by a combat-suit clad man with a thick headset concealing his eyes and ears. Taking her knife, Jena threw it at the man with a flick of her wrist.

A hand snatched it out of the air.

“Beryl, please be a dear and deal with that.” The hacker gestured over at Jena.

From the shadows of the Servitor’s leg the owner of the hand stepped out, toying with the knife she had caught. She was naked. Her dark skin stood in contrast to the carefully spiked light green hair. Her eyes were a deep gold, and the way she moved was like flowing liquid. “Of course, Master.” She purred before grinning at Jena. “You should not play with knives, soldier.”

Jena dove to the side as the knife whistled past. Rolling to her feet, Beryl was already running at her. “I’m not playing!” Jena spat as they met, their blows shifting to feints and parries as they sized each other up. Reversals were countered and counters reversed as their fists, elbows, knees and feet met.

Beryl lashed out with a dropkick, catching Jena in the stomach and sending her sprawling. Her leaping descent was stopped by the cyborg quickly rolling clear and back to her feet.

“I was designed by my Master for my Master, soldier.” Beryl stated proudly. “You cannot stop me, and that means you will not stop Him.” A curious look crossed her face when Jena held her hand up, before laughing as she watched the cyborg remove her overcoat and jacket.

“I’m not bold enough for the full frontal look.” Jena stated, digging her fingers into her shirt before tearing that off to leave her in just the support bra she wore under the uniform. “But it is getting a little warm. Round two?”

The muscles in Beryl’s lean physique clenched as she assumed a combat pose straight from the Galactic Armed Forces handbook.

“You’re going to lose, you know.” Jena said with a tight grin. “After all, I know your Master programmed you to suck.”

With a snarl of rage Beryl leapt forwards.

Twisting in her sidestep, Jena lifted her service pistol. It had one shot left in the tank. With a squeeze of the trigger, Beryl’s jaw disappeared in a splatter of bioskin and artificial compounds. Dropping the gun, she grabbed the combat gynoid by the ankle and hauled her up. Setting her feet in motion, she span and span as she neared one of the storage crates before slamming her foe’s head into it. Releasing her hands from the dead weight, she recovered her gun and knife then looked to…

The man had disappeared, as had his equipment.

“Let me make this quiet clear…” A voice came from somewhere in the hangar.

Jena blanched as the Servitor started to rise to its feet.

“You will pay for that.” The claws on the massive machine’s hands spread out before clenching tightly. “And I intend to receive that payment presently, and promptly.”

Sword of the Hunter

“Admiral on bridge.” One of the autocrew reported, prompting everyone to rise as Admiral Zaha Roland stepped onto the amphitheater-styled bridge of the ISV Herne. Her white jacket was resplendent, and nary a strand of long black hair was out of place as she strolled into the room as if she owned it. After spending a few months on Farringdon III, she was pleased to be back on the bridge of her vessel.

The main change this time was that Ensign Jena Foster was present, accompanied as usual now by Ensign Zircon Herne. Her graduation from Cadet to Ensign had happened the day before. She had been permitted onto the bridge as a special privilege to see her home planet from orbit before departing. It was only when zoomed in that you could make out the patchwork of fields that crossed much of the land. Many of the places the freedom fighter would have been seeing for the first time, from the northern ice fields to the range of mountains in the south.

“All prepared, Ensign Foster?” She asked quietly as she passed in front of Jena. On getting a nod in return, Zaha headed for her seat in the center of the amphitheater. The bridge of the Herne was a clean, sterile white. Seating had machine interface ports on the headrest and the control panels in front of the seats could easily be configured depending on who was sitting there.

Unlike most ships, a fair number of the bridge crew on the flagship were bioforms. The vast majority human cyborgs, there were a couple of aliens on board who the Admiral was planning to introduce Jena to later. For now, she had been given her orders.

“Ensign Foster, it is your first time on the bridge of this ship, so make sure you switch your augmented reality mode onto full.”

“Yes, Admiral.” From her expression, she had done so and not seen much difference about the bright room.

That would soon change. Taking her seat, she drove her sheathed blade into the opening besides her chair. As the weapon slid into place, lights flickered along the length of the scabbard and hilt. Her fist tightened around the latter.

“This is the ISV Herne. The ship has recognized Admiral Zaha Nanako Roland’s command authority. Flagship role authorized.” The ship’s computer system announced to all on board.

Zaha was looking right at the new Ensign and saw her eyes widen as the AR environment flickered into life. Climbing plants, fountains and delicate gold trims came into existence. Behind every person present was a floating plaque denoting name, rank and role. With the sword at Zaha’s left, her right hand side was soon occupied by a floating model of the Paladin-class vessel.

It was a wide circular ship, almost disc shaped. The front rose up into a prow, higher on the top side than the underside. The top also bore a low tower in the center, with a large chamber running towards the engine emplacements at the back. Both the underside and the topside were dotted with bays for dropships, servitors and fighter wings, and along the rim were docking points for various ships to link up with.

“Admiral, the ship is now ready for warp.” One of the navigational officers reported. He was completely bald, with rich purple skin that was dotted with small bumps and ridges. The flatter nose was slightly upturned at the nostrils, and he had large grey eyes that seemed to easily take in all the details on his console.

“The other ships in the task force are moving into position. Alpha and Beta Wings are in position around the tower. Gamma and Delta Wings are stationed on the underside. Omega Wing is now ready to aid in warp encapsulation.” Zaha’s Operations Officer spoke up. She was almost pure white, with deep dark eyes and a soft mop of silvery-grey hair.

“Good, set a course for this star sector at full warp encapsulation.” She tapped some co-ordinates into a panel on her chair. “Once we’re at warp, have autocrew take over and come to the briefing room.” Zaha glanced over to Jena and gestured to the screen. “You’ll want to see this too.”

Ensign Foster turned to watch as a rainbow band began to spread over the ship. As the distortion passed Jena saw her homeworld as never before, the colours inverted and the space around it turning a brilliant white. A thrum ran through the Herne as its engines kicked in, starting to push it through warpspace flanked by the fleet.

“Zircon? Give her a moment, then bring her to the briefing room.” The Admiral ordered, removing her sword from the slot on her chair to make her exit from the bridge.

 

Farringdon III had long since disappeared from view by the time Zircon placed his hand on her shoulder. “Jena, the Admiral is waiting.”

“Of course… I’ve seen ships come out from and go into warp before but seeing it from the inside?” She shook her head as she let the android guide her along. “It’s going to take some getting used to.”

“But you will. Humans are adaptable, I have noted.” Zircon replied, taking her down a short length of corridor adjacent to the bridge. A gold light above the door flickered twice, then opened to allow them entry.

Admiral Roland sat at the head of the table. On the left hand side was the navigation and operations officers that had spoken earlier. On the right sat the chief engineer, a stocky man with dark skin bearing multiple scars, and the commander, Zaha’s right hand woman.

“As you all know, this is Ensign Foster. Recruited on Farringdon III after being saved by members of the Intelligence Agency, she spent a decade fighting against the Volsta. She was trained further by one of the autocrew, and will be joining us on our mission against the Volsta incursion.” Zaha explained. The sword lay in front of her on the table, never leaving her grip. “Any words before I make introductions and speak of our mission?”

“It’s an honour to serve on the ISV Herne with you all.” Jena spoke, then gestured to Zircon. “I would like to state that Ensign Herne’s work as training officer for myself and the peacekeeping force was exemplary. Hard but fair was the rule of the day. I learned much from him.”

The Admiral nodded. “Noted. Introductions then.” She gestured first to the commander, who had been absent from the bridge. “Treshka Romanov serves as my first officer.”

Commander Romanov was an impressively built woman. Her uniform was modified compared to the others, showing bare arms that were as thick with muscle as Jena’s thighs. She was the tallest in the room, a good head and a half taller than Jena. Her skin had a slight cast to it, a yellow leaning more towards green.

As Jena took the seat assigned to her via ident tag, Treshka easily leaned across the table to offer a hand. “I read the reports on you. Some impressive actions taken at a young age.”

“I did what I had to do.” She replied, noting the brunette hair held up in a topknot and the striking eyes of the woman, colourless irises that gained a glint of pink when the light was right.

“Next to her is our Chief Engineer, Shay MacAllister. He keeps the Herne running.”

“With help from my crews.” The engineer laughed, rising in his seat to shake Jena’s hand.

The Admiral then motioned towards the man on the left of her. He was currently stretching his four-fingered hands out in front of him, slender digits with bulbous knuckles. “Saekal, our warp specialist and navigation officer.”

“The Admiral commands and I direct the ship to obey.” He held his thumb and little finger together as he offered his left hand, the remaining two digits extended. At a commslink prompt from Zircon instructing her how to respond to such a gesture, Jena touched her fingertips to his in a form of greeting.

“And on operations, Medenia.”

The woman at the table with the dark eyes bowed her head. “I helped direct the counterattack against the Volsta’s space forces.”

“And that is why we are here today.” The Admiral continued. “Intelligence reports have indicated that three ships that were on their way to reinforce the Volsta line broke away and have been hiding in this star sector. We have been tasked with hunting the three ships down and ensuring that they will not prey on nearby systems.”

“There are a number of places in the sector where they could be hiding.” Romanov spoke. “MacAllister and Saekal, our enemy uses first or early second generation warp encapsulation to move faster than light. You are to try and exploit this outdated technology and prevent them from escaping.” The burly woman then looked to the operations officer. “Medenia, co-ordinate with our wings to deploy in an efficient search. Utilize our resources to check the remains of asteroids and debris in the sector.”

Then Treshka was looking at her and Zircon. “Foster, you have Servitor pilot training, but operating in space is different to on a world. You and your mentor,” she motioned with a large hand to the android “will be assigned to a wing to gain familiarity and help in the search.”

“You have been assigned a dual-pilot combat servitor for this task.” Admiral Roland stated, the permissions and the location of the servitor appearing in-vision for the pair. “I suggest you go and familiarize yourselves with it before you take it out. Operations will assign you to a wing.” Bringing the sword off the table, she tapped it against the floor. “Briefing dismissed.”

 

“What’s with the sword?” Jena found herself asking as they took one of the express elevators through the Herne towards their destination. Corridors large and small ran the length of the ship, with the larger ones being served by vertical and horizontal elevators to quickly get crew from A to B.

“When you were made Ensign, you were given your service knife, yes?” Zircon questioned.

“That’s right.”

“When you are made Admiral, you are given a service sword. It symbolizes the burden and responsibility of command. To be seen without it is a sign of dereliction of duty.”

Jena let out a low whistle. “She has to be seen with it at all times? Can she ever put it down?”

“An Admiral may place it by their chair or on their table during meals and meetings, or when sitting on the bridge. In their designated quarters it can be put down, but must be picked up before they leave.” Zircon held up a hand, directing them into a smaller elevator to reach their assigned hangar. “In addition to symbolic purposes, it serves as the command authorization key for a flagship. It is made especially for the Admiral, it is keyed to that individual, and deactivates on their death.”

“So, don’t ask her if I can have a go with it.” The cyborg joked. “Anything else I should know about it?”

“They all have their own name. Admiral Roland’s is ‘The Sword of the Hunter’.” The android paused before adding, “Please do not ask to ‘have a go with it’.”

Jena laughed as the elevator corridor opened up into the hangar, spotting the crouched form of their servitor in its service bay. “That’s okay, Zircon. I’ll just have a go with this instead.”

 

As an Admiral, Zaha had learned to get a feel for minute changes in the bridge’s atmosphere. She could feel the consternation coming from MacAllister and Saekal as they looked over readings. Romanov and Medenia were busy assembling the wings and giving them roles.

Settling back into her chair, it was a simple matter to project a virtual representation of herself close to where the two men were working, for their eyes only. [“Trouble?”] She asked through her commslink.

[“Could be.”] Shay spoke first. [“How sure are we on that intel?”]

[“It came through the usual channels. Why?”] Admiral Roland inquired.

[“The readings we’re getting on long-range scans don’t match what I’d expect for first to third generation warp encapsulators. In all my years of service, even at the Lathos School of Warp Physics, I’ve never seen anything like this.”] Her Lathusian navigation officer reported.

Zaha opened her eyes, her virtual presence snapping back. “Operations! Prepare Wings Alpha through Delta for combat! Wing Omega is to defend the Herne!”

Commander Romanov soon joined the side of her Admiral. “Trouble?”

“Could be, Treshka.” Zaha nodded. “Navigation, how long until we are at our original exit point?”

“Thirty seven minutes.” Saekal responded.

“Keep an eye on those readings out there, we’ll make adjustments if need be. Medenia, assign Foster to Wing Omega. I don’t want them straying too far from the ship.”

“Yes, Admiral.” The Dalonomyd operations officer confirmed.

“As you have the bridge,” Commander Romanov whispered, “do I have permission to prepare my servitor?”

Zaha looked to her colleague and sadly shook her head. “I need you here, old friend.”

Treshka sighed and took her custom-made seat near the Admiral. “I should never have let you promote me.”

“Well, you did. Take command of the Herne’s weapon systems.” Zaha allowed herself to grin at her colleague, before taking stock of the bridge. Hopefully they wouldn’t need all the firepower they were readying, but you didn’t get to Admiral without a healthy sense of paranoia.

Proficient

The prize was a certificate. All that stood between him and a watermarked paper copy of the ‘Mechanically Assisted Servitor Unit – Proficient Pilot Certification’ was the final test being held at his nearest certification center. It was just a short trip east on the transit system from his nearest station to Yeoman Heavy Industrial Ltd. He’d made the journey early in the morning, and spent the free hours before the test by his mech.

The Mechanically Assisted Servitor Unit, known generally as a MASU, stood at eighteen foot tall. The connectors and frames all confirmed to a global standard, the result of a UN ruling to promote competing brands and choice in the bipedal mech market. They had long been a fascination of Ronnie Byers, and the seventeen year old boy from Bromley had scored highly up till now.

In the preceding hours to the test, Ronnie spent his time checking, adjusting and tweaking the unit. They were pretty basic models, with standard being the word of the day in regards to loadout and chassis. Originally developed for use in space, they had quickly become a workable alternative to vans, trucks and various specialized equipment. Just one could do the job of a crew, changing tools very quickly to perform a different job. They had found use in military conflicts too, as urban assault weapons ideal for navigating quickly through the gardens of concrete and metal.

Others had gone before him, and in the minutes running up to his test, he made the final checks in the cockpit. The pilot sat themselves in a frame-mounted chair, locking their legs and arms into exoframes that controlled the corresponding limbs of the MASU. Each arm had a Human-Machine Interface port for the wrist, along with one for the neck in the head brace. Piloting them was a mixture of thoughts, movements and switches. It came more naturally to some than others.

The power up signal was given to Ronnie. As the systems in the unit fired up from standby mode, he could feel his consciousness spreading through the machine and becoming an extension of himself. The mech begun to stomp its way outside, the large feet designed to prevent the ground cracking under its weight. The monitors inside the cockpit automatically adjusted to the change in light as he took in the test track, a mock-up urban setting that he was to traverse via GPS guidance, using his skills, techniques and available tools to complete.

“Pilot Byers.” The voice came from his comms unit. “Test will begin when you give your ready signal. Good luck.”

Ronnie took a deep breath, tasting the micromachine-filtered atmosphere of the Biological, Chemical and Nuclear sealed unit. “Pilot Ronnie Byers here. Giving you my ready signal, let’s do this.” The display lit up with the GPS overlay. Driving forwards, he soon switched to the Dyson Drive System hidden in the large feet, using a combination of caterpillar tracks, drive wheels and turning orbs to make his way through the traffic simulations. The grading from all the parts of the test would help his application to the UN Police Force, where high transit speed was a requirement.

Ducking and weaving through the traffic, he followed the co-ordinates given to a building site just off the main road. The directions shifted, instructing him to perform a variety of building tasks with the tools at hand. A burst of thought moved the directions notification window to a sub screen, and over the main screen he overlaid radio-frequency identification meshes that flagged up the tools and their locations.

Equipping them was easy, picking them up like he would out of the suit. Going to the building assigned to him, Ronnie made equally easy work of his tasks. A section of wall was knocked down thanks to a RamSurge unit and proper use of a structural analysis tool. A quickly programmed macro for wielding gave a neat join that would have been more difficult if he tried to do it manually. Holes were dug, drilled and filled. Ground was leveled, walls painted, and supplies moved with thanks to the massive strength increase a MASU provided.

There was a chime from his directions display. All passed and to move on. The next section was on agility and balance. Before even getting onto the course, Ronnie remembered to realign the gyroscopes after using external equipment, as well as perform a weight distribution check. The actual course for this was easy with all the hours he’d put in the simulator, as well as utilizing some techniques not taught in the course, such as a drive wheel clamp lock, to propel himself along the narrow crossing part with speed and perfection. When the course called for him to climb upwards, it was a jump-drive assisted cable climb, mindful of the structure of the building to avoid damage. Another success chime.

Mechanized crime had become an issue, so the next section was dedicated to combating and restraining a stolen unit. The cable system came into play again for this. Entering close range with the Dyson Drive, Ronnie fired the cable clamps out between and around the enemy unit’s legs, keeping the wires taut on the approach. At the last moment, he veered right and around to ensnare it before backing off. Firing the lock breaks into the ground, he crouched the unit to provide a solid base before reeling the cables in. Success chimed thrice, and it was on to the next courses.

Fine Motor Manipulation. Search and Rescue Basics. Law Enforcement Basics. External Machine Interfacing. In-Action Unit Repair. On-Board System Diagnostics. Self-Righting. Each part of the test came and was bested. And now that he was on the home straight back to the base, Ronnie radioed in.

“Test Base, this is Pilot Byers requesting permission to park”

“Permission denied.” An unfamiliar voice came over the comms.

“Repeat that, Test Base?”

“One final test, Pilot Byers.” The unfamiliar voice spoke again. From one of the side roads, a UNAF Defender unit burst out at speed, the white paint gleaming in the sun. “Captain Lance Silverstone, UNAF. You’re good, Pilot Byers. I’m uploading RFID frequencies to you. Arm up.” The mech slid to a stop and gave a salute, before gesturing to a building.

Speechless, Ronnie followed the gesture, the equipment’s tags popping up on his HUD from there. It was as easy to equip the shield, Shock Tonfa and UK N15 ‘Buckingham’ Combined Assault Rifle provided. The display flagged up that the gun was loaded with training rounds. He turned to face his unexpected opponent.

“Just one question before we start, Captain.” He asked, a slight tremble in his voice.

“Of course, Pilot.”

“Why are  you doing this?”

Lance laughed over the comms. “Your documentation says you want to join the PF’s. I think you’re Armed Forces material.” He shifted his Defender into a combat-ready pose. “So you better prove me right. Bring your A-game, Pilot. I want to see that potential!”