Another Round

Sergeant Jena Foster was stood just outside her pick-up point with Ensign Zircon Herne to her side, the pair laden down with bags. There were other soldiers and staff members of the ISV Herne nearby, ready to rejoin the flagship for another decade of service. Jena didn’t pay much attention to the others though.

Natasha was teary-eyed, the small pocket pack of tissues she carried with her almost depleted already.  Simone was dealing with the chef, thankfully, an arm wrapped around her shoulder as she tried to cheer her up with the prospect of teaching the agent how to cook. Fixer was there to see them off too. Though that was mainly as he’d be getting the next shuttle up to his vessel, the IXV Shuck, to oversee some checks as that ship underwent maintenance.

Then there was Handler. Her lover would be joining Fixer for those checks, but she was definitely here for Jena’s departure. Her hair had been tied back, and for a change she was in her formal GFIA uniform consisting of a short grey jacket, white leggings and black knee-high boots. Jena was in her own uniform, and the pair exchanged a look. They knew how this was going to go down.

“You’ve come a long way since I first met you, Sergeant. I wonder what rank you’ll be at next time we meet.”

“And what utterly stupid thing I did to get such a rank?” Jena added with a smile.

“I doubt your promotions will be through diligence to filing systems or friendly interactions with the autocrew.” Handler gave a wry look to the soldier. She then glanced up, and Jena knew that her transport ship was coming in. Natasha must have seen it too, the dark-skinned chef flinging herself at Zircon for a goodbye kiss. The rapid expression of feeling didn’t startle the android, he simply followed programming to reciprocate and comfort.

“Take care of yourself, Handler. Until we meet again.” Jena gave a lazy salute, then winked to Simone. “You too, Agent.” There would be no kisses goodbye. That was decided that morning before breakfast. Simone only broke that rule a little. She blew a kiss in the blonde cyborg’s direction. Chuckling, Jena blew a peck back, then one for Handler.

The transport ship had comfortably settled behind them by the time Simone had pried Natasha away from Ensign Herne. He made no motion to wipe the deep red lipstick kisses from his own lips just yet.

“This is Transport ISVH-017 for the ISV Herne. Only returning crew may board this vessel. Any attempt by civilians to board will be firmly denied.” The transport’s control AI announced.

“Natasha, it’s been a pleasure.” Jena gave the sobbing woman a hug. “We’ll send word when we can.”

The response she gave was in a thick voice, garbled by tears and emotion.

“She said to look after Zircon.” Simone translated.

“We’ll have each other’s backs.” Jena promised, breaking away as she ship prompted her and Zircon to board. She paused at the airlock to glance out at the spacedock and the backdrop of Asrat City beyond. With a nod to those gathered there to send her off, she boarded the ship before the AI could reprimand her for holding up proceedings.

Directly behind their seats were luggage droids to ferry their belongings back to their rooms. Procuring a gift bag from one of her suitcases, Jena dumped the rest into the cargo bay before taking her seat. There was no window view, which she was a little glad of. She’d gotten most of the tears out the night before. She didn’t want to risk more.

“Any regrets on leaving, Sergeant?” Zircon asked as he settled besides her.

“Always. I know where my place is though, at least for the moment.” She held out a small box for the android. “A present.”

Looking curious, he took it in his hands. “You already gave me a gift.” The soft jumper was stowed away in his bag.

“This is for a different reason. Open it.” Jena prompted.

Slipping the ribbon off the rectangular box, Zircon opened the lid to reveal two items. The first were a slender pair of tinted glasses. The second was a small pip for his jacket, steel in the shape of the numeral II.

“I made the arrangements after talking to you about it, and both the Commander and the Admiral were happy with you being my second.” Jena clasped the android’s shoulder.

“And the glasses?”

She grinned. “I just thought they’d look good on you.”

“Do they?” He asked as he slipped the arms over his ears.

Jena stared for a moment before sighing.

“They do not look good?”

“Quite the opposite, Zircon. I think I’m going to have to beat the girls off you with a stick.”

 

Jena lingered on the transport, waiting for the others to exit before grabbing the heavy gift bag and stepping off the vehicle with Zircon in tow. Admiral Roland and Commander Romanov were stood between the ramp down and the hangar doors.

“Sergeant Foster, Ensign Herne.” Zaha said with a smile. “I thought we’d have to send out a search party for you.” She raised an eyebrow as the soldier lifted her gift bag.

“I wanted to get you both something, as thanks for all your assistance.” Jena stated with a little embarrassment. She pulled out the stone tankard and offered it to Treshka.

“Hah! I’ve got one already, but thanks. One for each hand now.” The muscular warrior grinned, hefting the mug in her hand. “Just to check though, you didn’t bring any alcohol on board I’d need to confiscate on board, did you?”

“No, Commander. I split the last six bottles with some friends last night.”

“Damn. I’ll have to dip into my own stash then.” She grinned.

Jena offered the bag to her admiral. Zaha looked inside and smiled. “Good coffee, a jar for them, and… a place mat?”

“For your cafetiere to rest on. I know it’s a little cliche, but… I know how much you like your coffee, Admiral.”

“You didn’t have to get either of us gifts, Sergeant. But thank you. I’ll put it them to good use.” Behind them, Transport ISVH-017 sunk down into the recessed bay to be returned to the rotation of ships for ferrying the crew back up. “The next ship will be here soon, so we need to get the formalities out of the way.”

Drawing herself straight, Jena saluted. “Sergeant Jena Foster, Third Class, reporting for duty. Permission to come aboard, Admiral?”

“Permission granted.” Zaha saluted. “Welcome back.”

“Ensign Zircon Herne, Third Class and Sergeant Foster’s appointed Second, reporting for duty. Permission to come aboard, Admiral?” Zircon saluted as well. The glasses gave the android a serious look from some angles, and softened his features from others. The two ranking officers looked a little amused.

“”Permission granted.” The Admiral saluted. “You’re breaking new ground, Ensign. Serve us well, as you always have.”

Zircon nodded, dropping his hand and moving to stand at ease just behind and to the side of Jena.

“Nice to have you back for another round.” Treshka added, thumbing behind her. “Get to your quarters, settle in and be ready to report for the staff briefing at fifteen hundred hours, ship standard time.”

At Treshka’s command, a set of directions popped up in-vision for the pair. They didn’t lead back to her old room, but to a new duplex room on the deck above. With joint salute to her, the pair started for their new home for the next decade.

 

“Transport ISVH-018 docking in five minutes.” The ship’s computer announced.

“Join me for coffee this evening, old friend?” Zaha asked, looking over the pack Jena had given her.

“Sounds good.” Treshka nodded, before a rumbling chuckle came from her. “I can’t believe she brought us gifts.”

“There’s a first time for everything. Maybe it’s a rural thing? Most of our crew come from closer to the center of the Galactic Federation.”

She mused on that. “Might be it.”

“You saw the orders that came in from the Central Military Command, yes?” Zaha asked.

“It’ll be nice to see Ural Two again, if only briefly. Simeon and the kids are on their way back now in our shuttle. Visiting the Ladoshan systems? Not so much.”

Zaha nodded. “Command commands,”

“And we obey.” The Trogadek finished with a wry smile.

 

The staff briefing room was a massive amphitheater located in the central tower of the Herne. The lower your rank, the further back you sat. On the stage at the front of the room stood the Admiral, the Commander, and Medenia, the Operations Officer. Behind them was a massive monitor ready to display star charts and tactical data.

“Welcome to some of our new crew members, and welcome back to the rest of you.” Zaha spoke, the ship’s computer working to carry her voice through the rows of seating. “We have been assigned our first orders for this new tour of duty. It is my responsibility to inform you of those orders.”

“Our first mission consists of two parts. We will be making a brief stop at Ural Two, to pick up a compliment of new Servitors. They are the newest models, and we will be using the training rooms on the ship to seek candidates to fly them. We will send some recommendations out, but if you wish to apply, drop by and book a session.”

“Ural Two is my home.” Commander Romanov spoke, her arms folded and her expression challenging. “There will be a short period of recreation time on the planet when we arrive. I expect all of you to be on your best behavior. You serve under me, and I will deal with any transgressions personally.”

“Thank you, Commander.” Admiral Roland nodded. “After that, we are being dispatched to the Ladoshan systems. The Ladoshan League of Planets wishes to apply for entry to the Galactic Federation. They are currently dealing with aggression from the Royal Denorian Military. This will hopefully be a diplomatic mission to ease strained relations and get both on our side, but we will be in a state of combat readiness from entering the system to leaving it.”

The Admiral glanced around the room. “Make the most of your downtime while you have it. Your duty rosters have been updated, report to your line chiefs if you have any issues. Meeting adjourned.”

A recommendation notification popped up in Jena’s field of view just as she was about to rise from her chair. Zircon touched her elbow, and she gave her Second a look.

“I have been recommended to be a candidate.” He stated. He actually managed to look a little perplexed.

“Likewise. How long will it take us to reach Ural Two?”

“One moment.” A vague look crossed his face as he sent the request to the Herne’s computer. “At maximum warp encapsulation, five weeks.”

“So we’re looking at eight or nine weeks, realistically?”

Zircon nodded.

“Well… I guess we better book some time in the training machines then.” Jena replied, clasping his shoulder with one hand. Amidst the throng of staff moving this way and that as they sought to exit the room, Jena felt eyes on her. Glancing about, she noticed the Commander was watching the pair with curiosity. Their eyes met for a moment, then Treshka turned away to talk with some of the senior crew.

As the crowds dispersed, Jena wondered just what she would be getting into during her first full tour of duty.

 

Author’s note: And that’s the end of Jena’s story for now. It’s been a pretty wild ride and went on longer than I thought it would! This has been almost 60k words, and I think once it’s been redrafted, edited, and with additional content and stories not suited for the blog added it’ll push far beyond that number. Thanks for reading!

These Last Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over The Flames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handler just smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Likewise.”

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

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

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.”

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.

 

Commendations

The workshop on the IXV Shuck was packed as they gathered around for Ensign Zircon Herne to be restarted after repairs. Fixer was to the side at a command console, cables from it running up to the ceiling, then down the harness into the back of the android’s neck. Jena had put her jogging bottoms and tank top back on after spending most of the day in the sea, and stood to the front along with Natasha and Zaha in their summer dresses, and Handler in her shipsuit.

“Try not to crowd him when he comes online.” Fixer stated as he sent the command through.

Jena took a step back to give him a bit more space, curious to see the process. At first his fingers flexed in order from thumb to little finger then back again. His toes, just brushing against the floor as he hung from the ceiling, did the same. His limbs bent a little at the knees and elbows before straightening. Then his head came up while his eyes blinked in a slow, steady pattern.

“He’s okay.” Fixer reassured Natasha.

Jena glanced to the chef and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. She gave Jena a grateful smile before looking back to Zircon.

The android’s head jolted up. “The combat situation has been resolved, I see.” Zircon stated, carefully taking in the room.

“How are you feeling, Zircon?” Jena asked.

“I am fine. My systems are all functioning normally. I am missing some recorded data from the time of my last update, but other than that… I am fine.” He looked around again. “Admiral, Natasha, Jena. I am glad you are all safe.”

Admiral Roland saluted. “The pair of you did good work in a difficult situation. As such, we will be having a little get-together here later with some of the senior crew. You will be the guests of honour, but it will be a casual affair so do not worry about getting dressed up.” Zaha looked to Handler. “The crew of the Shuck are invited too, of course.”

“I’ll be sure to let them know.” Handler said. “Fixer, lower Zircon down. Then we can give them some space.”

As the android’s harness was winched to the floor, Zaha excused herself as well. “I have to place some orders for this little party tonight. Natasha, you are a guest of honour as well for your service in assisting the military, so you can think twice about doing any cooking.” With another salute, Admiral Roland left with Fixer to leave the three in the room.

Natasha stepped close to give him a hug. “I’m glad you’re okay…” She breathed, her face pressed against the black shipsuit he’d been dressed post-repairs. “When I first saw you, I was afraid you were…”

“We both were.” Jena added as the chef trailed off. She didn’t give him a hug, but she did squeeze his shoulder with her hand. “Thanks for the rescue. I’d have been done for if you hadn’t distracted him.”

“I will always have your back, Ensign.” Zircon stated. He then looked around the room. “I have been in here for almost a week. A change of scenery is often recommended.”

Jena gave Natasha a nudge. “Why don’t you help Zircon get some clothes and go down to the beach. It made me feel better after my convalescence, and I doubt Zircon’s seen it first hand either.”

Natasha took Zircon’s hand carefully and looked to her. “Are you sure you don’t want to join us?”

The soldier shook her head, stretching out a little. “If there’s going to be a party later, I think I need some quiet time to prepare for it.” She noticed the look she was given and smiled. “Go have a swim, take a walk. I gather we’ve got a while before the others arrive.”

 

Her old room on the Shuck was, aside from a few extra supply crates, pretty much as she’d left it. There wasn’t much in there to begin with, but they at least kept the bed made. Settling down on it, Jena stared up at the ceiling and let her mind drift. Time passed as her thoughts skipped from subject to subject without any real coherence. Memories of Farringdon III. That embarrassing, maddening first time she met Natasha. The fight against Volsta’s Dagger. Faces of the diseased on the medical mission of mercy the Herne had been dispatched on. The Axar staring down at her as she bled over the hangar floor. Handler letting her hair down. Her assault on the Central City Administration Building. The featherlight touch she felt against her lips when she’d been kissed the night before.

The addition of weight to the bed startled Jena back to reality. Simone was laying besides her, arms folded and her chin resting on them. “Hiding from anyone in particular?” She asked with a grin.

“Not hiding. Just needed a quiet place to rest. I might have slept for almost a week, but it wasn’t restful, and I’ve had a lot to consider.” Jena replied.

“Good. If you were hiding, I’d have to drag you out of here by your hair.” Simone chuckled, her legs kicking in the air.

“You think you could?”

“Oh!” The agent was shooting her an arch look. “Don’t tempt me, Ensign. I’ve not had a good throw-down in ages. In any sense of the term.”

“Ah.” Jena’s cheeks coloured.

“Yeah. Exactly” Durand chuckled, pushing herself up. “I’m going to hit the showers before the others get back. When it comes to partying, I like to take my time getting ready. Might be an idea for you to get ready before everyone’s underfoot.” She said from the doorway.

“I’ll take it under consideration.”

She paused by the doorway, looking back. “You could always wash my back?”

Jena wished she could vanish into warp to escape the embarrassment, but that simply wasn’t an option. Instead, she took a deep breath, sat up and shook her head. “I appreciate the offer, Simone, but…”

The brunette nodded. “I know. But hey, like I said earlier: Don’t waste a good chance when it presents itself.”

As Simone wandered off whistling to herself, Jena decided the best course of action would be to get back to the Villa. Life had enough complications without adding more.

 

Between leaving her old room and getting ready in the Villa, several more ships had arrived to join the IJV Hunter’s Oak and the IXV Shuck. Firstly was the IHV Windsor from the Herne, a small haulage ship carrying Chief Engineer Shay MacAllister and Operations Officer Medenia. Both were in their military uniforms, but had taken the jackets off and undone a couple of buttons on their shirts.

Next was the IJV Stone Flower, the ship belonging to the Romanov family. Treshka was in black leggings and a long white top belted at the waist with a delicate red and gold sash. Professor Simeon Romanov was in similar garb, though his belt had a rich purple instead of red. They brought apologies from Saekal, who would have come had it not been for a play he was performing in that night.

Zircon was in his formal function outfit, and Natasha had a hard time keeping her eyes off the handsomely dressed android. Jena herself was in her floral dress she bought from Central City years ago. With Handler present, it was the only logical choice.

The rest of the Shuck’s agents had also came back in the vehicles they requisitioned, and throughout the afternoon drone ships had been dropping off automatons and goods for the ‘little celebration’ Zaha was putting together. The serving staff had been given strict instructions to keep Natasha out of the kitchen, and after several attempts to sneak in and help she had finally given up.

As the Asrati sky began to darken, Admiral Zaha Roland called everyone to attention. The patio outside the main living area of the villa had been lit up with flights of microdrones in firefly formations, and an automaton was tending the barbecue nearby that was emanating a wealth of delicious odours. Another automaton was going around with a tray of glasses for the toasts, filled with a slightly tart local sparkling wine.

“Thank you all for coming,” Zaha began, “to what is just going to be a little, casual celebration for the actions that helped prevent the theft of The Axar.” She was dressed in a rather fetching black dress with a panel cut from the front that let a lot of toned abdomen show, with her white Admiral’s jacket draped across her shoulders and her sword at her waist. “When criminals attempted to subvert the Herne’s computer systems through the autocrew, it was the sole android away from the ship, Ensign Zircon Herne, who detected what they were doing. With the help of Miss Natasha Henderson, he and Ensign Jena Foster alerted me and returned to the flagship to investigate.”

Taking a moment to sip from a glass of water, she continued on. “At risk to themselves they eliminated some of the attackers, came to my aid when I was under fire, and were injured in the fight to reclaim The Axar. The two Ensigns acted in an exemplary manner as we would hope all members of the military would, with dedication and valour. Miss Henderson, a civilian chef, not only helped them get back to the Herne, but once there assisted me in my efforts to regain control of the sabotaged systems.”

“As Admiral of the ISV Herne, I am authorized by the Galactic Federation to bestow honours. Miss Henderson, would you come here?”

Natasha looked bashful as she headed towards the Admiral.

“I am proud to award you a Civil Service Star, for coming to the assistance of the military and going above and beyond what would be expected.” She held out a small grey box. As Natasha took it, her ident implants picked up the data transfer from the Admiral. Jena saw the silver star appear to the left of the chef’s name even before she opened the box to reveal the pin serving as physical proof of her deed.

As the applause from those gathered around died down, Zaha turned to look at Jena. “Ensign Jena Foster. Even before you joined, you served your people with diligence and duty. You have continued that as an Ensign. This will be your last day as an Ensign, though.”

Jena could hear Simone laughing at the panicked expression her face bore. Her Admiral was smiling at her, brandishing another grey box trimmed with gold.

“From the moment you take this box, you will be Sergeant Jena Foster, Third Class. With rank comes the burden of duty. The sword at my side is proof of this. Know that my Commander, Treshka Romanov, and I think it is nothing your shoulders cannot bear the weight of.”

The cyborg’s hand trembled as she stepped up and took the box. When she had gone from Cadet to Ensign, the steel half-pip by her name had changed into a full one.  Now a bronze ring encircled that pip, and a bronze star besides it. Opening the box revealed the ring for her pip, and the star to clip next to it.

A pair of massive hands clapped her shoulders warmly, startling her from staring at them. “Carry on like you have and those won’t be the last ones you get, Sergeant.” Treskha grinned.

As more applause sounded around them, Jena searched for one face in the crowd.

Handler smiled proudly as she clapped. The newly-appointed Sergeant was glad that the lights from microdrones helped to hide the flush of her cheeks.

“And finally,” Zaha spoke, waiting for the noise to die down before continuing. “Ensign Zircon Herne. It is unusual for a member of the autocrew to get commendations. Unheard of, in fact. Had it not been for unusual circumstances though, you would not have detected the intrusion and one of the most powerful Servitors in the Galactic Armed Forces would now be in unknown hands.”

She motioned for Zircon to step forwards, holding out the final grey box. “My hands are tied in many regards, but my gratitude is not. We recognize your service with an unofficial commendation as Ensign Zircon Herne. Third Class.” She opened the box. A steel star sat on the pillow of white silk.

“Thank you, Admiral.” The android spoke as he took from box from her. “I did my duty, and will continue to do my duty to you, the ship, and the crew.” Natasha flew to his side to give him a hug. Jena simply patted his shoulder, giving him a warm smile.

“Now then!” Zaha called, raising her glass. “I know you’re all hungry, and definitely thirsty. A toast to those we honoured, then keep out of my way because I want one of those burgers.” She said with a gesture to the grill even as she raised her glass, cheers and laughs filling the night.

Rising At Dawn

As the first rays of sun began to flood the bedroom, Jena’s implants began to work on her blood chemistry to rouse her from slumber. It was a pretty clever system the soldier had to admit. It could be triggered either internally via her system clock, externally via some trigger, or disabled to leave her to wake naturally. As a child on a farm it was customary to rise at first light, so rise she did.

It felt good to be moving. Her artificial joints and spine seemed stiff though. Slipping from the bed, a few stretches and exercises soon had those kinks worked out. She did note that several of her cybernetic systems had been disabled via her internal software. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she padded towards the doors out of the bedroom while trying to restore her more advanced functions.

The hardwood floor was solid and cool underfoot, and area she exited into was bright and filled with the warm aroma of expensive coffee. Jena breathed deep and followed her nose towards the french press in the kitchen, situated on a marble counter and flanked by delicate cups. There was something familiar about the press she noted while pouring and prepping the beverage to her liking. A hint of milk, a little sugar.

The first sip felt wonderful on her tongue. She savoured the mouthful, letting it wash over her taste buds before swallowing.

“Good morning, Ensign.” Admiral Roland said from the breakfast bar, some surprise on her face as she took in the sight in front of her.

“Admiral, it’s good to see you again.” Jena saluted before having another sip of coffee, a joyful smile crossing her face. It was a good blend.

“Likewise.” There was a note of caution in Zaha’s voice as she spoke. She was in the white dressing robe Jena had seen her in on the morning they left for shore leave, her black hair had been carefully braided and a plate sat empty in front of her, save for a few toast crumbs. “How are you feeling this morning?”

The soldier stretched out, groaning with satisfaction as her neck cricked. “Better than I have in a while.” A flush touched her cheeks. “I had a nice dream too but-” She remembered just who she was speaking. As caffeine started to flood her system she took the opportunity to look around some more at the luxury setting. A quizzical look crossed her face.

“We’re at my holiday villa, Ensign. You’ve been resting here after an incident on the Herne. You were injured in the line of duty and have been asleep for almost six days.” Zaha explained at the prompting from the person behind Jena.

“The Axar… I stopped the man from stealing it. Zircon was killed by…” Her eyes narrowed. “No, he’s being fixed.” A gentle shadow by her bed had told her that. “They’re investigating the attempt now.” That gentle shadow had kissed her. Realization hit and Jena felt the presence behind her. She turned to see Handler standing there, a piece of toast in one hand and a coffee cup in the other and dressed as usual in a shipsuit that complemented her trained physique perfectly.

The biggest smile she’d ever had graced her face, and the cup was almost dropped on the counter as she rushed over to hug her, easily lifting the dark-haired woman in her embrace. “I never thought I’d see you again…” She mumbled mid-cuddle.

“Your Admiral is responsible.” Handler smiled, unable to do much while hoisted up except keep her coffee from spilling. “She put in the call for us to get involved. Do you remember everything we talked about last night?”

Setting her down, Jena nodded. She could feel her face turning pink at some of the things she said.

“Good. That’s a good sign.” Handler smiled. She was trying hard to keep her eyes on Jena’s face. “There’s something you need to do, then you can join the Admiral and I for breakfast before Natasha joins us.”

“What’s that?” Jena asked, turning back to the breakfast bar.

“You could put some clothes on, Ensign.” Zaha commented, her gaze going from Jena’s feet to the crop of blonde hair on top of her head. “There’s a bag under the bed you woke on.”

Jena looked down, let out a startled oath, and bolted for the bedroom as quick as her cheeks were red.

 

Once she was dressed in her usual off-duty jogging bottoms and tank top breakfast at first was a light affair of just toast and coffee plus a recap of the events during Jena’s convalescence, until Natasha had joined them. The chef was certainly pleased to see the Ensign up and about, and headed through to the kitchen in a ocean-patterned summer dress to cook for the three women. Excusing herself to get a drink, Jena went through to join her.

“Are you all right?” She asked the younger woman.

“Isn’t that what I should be asking you?” Natasha replied with, busy tending to some rashers of meat frying away.

“I always preferred worrying about people to having them worry about me.”  Jena said, pouring a glass of sandmelon juice. “I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but I’m feeling better. I’m sorry you met me at a weak moment.” Clearing her throat with a sip, she gestured to Natasha. “You?”

The chef flipped the rashers. “I’ve gotten over the shock of seeing Zircon in such a way. Fixer’s been really nice, answering questions and everything. And everyone appreciates my cooking,” Natasha laughed, “So I don’t feel like a useless lump.”

“Speaking of, is there anything I can do to help in here?”

Zaha and Handler laughed from where they were sitting. Jena looked over in confusion.

“They already know the answer, having asked that themselves: Get out from underfoot.” She smiled.

Jena quickly obliged, having heard her mother issue such utterances to older staffers on the farm many a time.

 

It felt odd stepping back into converted medbay she had woken up on almost four years ago. Aside from Zircon hanging from the ceiling in a maintenence harness, and Beryl’s body restrained on the table while the automaton’s brain rested in a diagnostic containment unit, it hadn’t changed much.

Simone and Fixer hadn’t changed much either. The agent was lounging on a chair near Beryl, eyeing the soldier with mirth. Fixer greeted her warmly, the older man giving her a check over just to make sure the cyborg he had helped create was at her best.

“All fine.” He smiled after running the diagnostic. When she didn’t reply, he followed her gaze to Zircon. “Ah. He’s lost a few memories from the past three months, but we recovered as much as we could. We’re undergoing final diagnostics now.”

“Thank you, Fixer.” Jena said softly, heading over to look up at the android she considered a friend.

“We’ll call you and Natasha when he’s ready to reboot.” Fixer promised.

“Is that a subtle hint for me to let you get on with your work?” Jena asked after a moment, chuckling away.

“It is. Go and enjoy the beach rather than staying cooped up in here.”

“I might just do that.” Jena commented. “I’ve never seen an ocean from the ground before.”

Just as she was about to exit the Shuck, a hand caught her wrist. Jena’s moved on autopilot to pin Simone against the wall before letting go. “Sorry, Agent Durand.”

“Don’t worry.” The woman smiled. “Good to see your reflexes are honed. I just had something for you, and some advice.” From behind her, Simone pulled out a small bag to offer Jena. “I had the fabricator run this up quickly.”

Peeking inside revealed a white two piece bikini set with delicate red and purple petals accentuating the side and underside of the wearer’s curves.

“I figured you didn’t have one, so…” She gestured at the bag.

“It’s like my dress… thank you, Simone.” Jena smiled warmly.

“And now for the advice.” Simone leaned against the wall of the airlock. “Don’t waste a good chance when it presents itself.”

“That’s it?” She questioned.

“That’s it. Now why don’t you put that on and go down to the beach. We’re not on shore leave, unfortunately.” Pushing away from the wall, Agent Durand headed deeper into the ship. “Work work work, always work.”

Borrowing a towel from the villa, Jena changed into the bikini and took a walk down to the beach. Her legs stopped as she looked out at the vastness of it all. Blue stretched out for as far as she could see, gentle foam lapping against the sand. Slinging the towel over her shoulder, Jena picked up pace as she ran for the water. The sudden shock of the cold ocean striking her foot made her leap, landing with a splash.

Balling the towel up, she hurled it away from the damp sand before pushing her body to wade into the colder depths, laughing away as she kicked water up and swept her hand through the waves. She felt so light in it! A quick check of her various ports ensured they had all been sealed and her head dipped under the water only to rise a moment later, spluttering brine.

Mopping her damp hair back Jena turned to the shore. She had felt eyes on her. Looking up and shielding herself from the glare of the morning sun, she saw a dark figure on the roof of the villa watching her. Jena’s eyes worked to zoom in, processing what data she could. From the figure and what she could see of the hairstyle…

Jena waved at Handler before turning back to play in the sea some more. She had some time before Zircon would wake. Letting the tide sweep past her before washing back felt like it was eroding the stress that had built up during shore leave. There wasn’t much to do until Fixer gave her the call. The beach was as good a place as any to wait.

Night Watch

Night had fallen over Admiral Zaha Roland’s villa. Handler opened the window to let cool, crisp ocean air in after checking Jena’s forehead with the back of her hand. The cyborg’s recovery was going as she expected, nanomachines and micromachines being pumped around her system to repair the damage from the fight and the stress placed on her systems.

The Galactic Federation Intelligence Agency officer had read through the reports forwarded to her by the Admiral. Her military career up until that point had been impeccable. Her training as a cadet was exemplary. Jena had even taken her advice to spend more time with her remaining family when she could at the weekends back on Farringdon III.

It was her first shore leave where things had started to go wrong. It had been easy for Handler to get access to some of the class records from the Asrat City Academy, and Natasha’s report to Zaha had helped fill in some of the gaps.

She let out a low, soft sigh as she resumed her place by the bed. “What am I to do with you, soldier?” She asked, taking up a damp cloth to help cool her down.

 

She must have drifted off for a bit. Movement startled her out of her doze. Handler lifted her head up and saw a pair of eyes staring at her in the dimly-lit room.

“I’m either dead… or being tormented by dreams…” Jena spoke, her voice hoarse from lack of use.

“Nice to see you too, soldier.” Handler replied, preparing herself in case she needed to administer more sedation to her former teammate. “What makes you say that?”

“As you’re here. So I’m either having that dream again, or this is what it’s like after you’re dead.” She sounded weary in spite of all the rest she’d gotten.

“Well, I can confirm you’re not dead in just a moment.” Handler said, picking up the cable running from the back of Jena’s neck and plugging it into her own MI port. With a thought she initiated parts of the soldier’s in-vision display to show her vitals.

“Good to know…” Her heavy eyes slid shut for a while until she got the energy to open them again. “So it’s a dream.”

Glancing around the room she looked back to Jena before speaking. “How do these dreams usually go?”

“We talk.”

“Shocking.” Handler smiled softly.

“Sometimes you hold me.”

“Scandalous.”

“Once you were at the farm, chasing chickens.” Jena added.

The agent laughed softly at that. “A shame I never got to see the farm. Yours, or your brother’s.”

“The food was good. There was dancing too, but I never danced with anyone.”

“Not even Ensign Herne?” Handler asked, cautious about mentioning the android’s name.

Jena shook her head. “The other girls would lynch me. I’ve not danced in years. Not since the Volsta invaded.”

“They would have to be very capable to get the drop on you.” She commented. “Do we do anything else in these dreams?”

“Sometimes…” Her eyelids drooped again, her breathing slowing before she roused herself. “Sometimes we kiss, and then I cry.”

Handler removed the cloth from Jena’s forehead and checked her temperature again. “Surely I’m not that bad at kissing, soldier.” The joke gave way to a sad look. “You’ve been bottling things up again.”

“I’m-” A building look of defiance buckled as she sagged down. “I’m struggling.” Came the admission.

Handler lifted the dataslate she had with her. “I know. I read some reports.”

“I’ll be okay once shore leave finishes.” The soldier stated.

“Perhaps, but you can’t be a soldier forever. Even if you might want to be. You made progress on Farringdon, you’ve had a little set-back here but that can happen.” She spoke gently. “A set-back isn’t the end of the world.”

“Zircon’s dead.” It was said quickly, as if it might stick in her throat if she didn’t get it out there.

“The Volsta thought that about you, but Fixer proved them wrong. I’ve had him working on the Ensign. Should be ready to restart soon.” Handler’s voice was gentle in the night air, her hand finding Jena’s wrist to squeeze. “Durand has been working on pulling data from the combat automaton you destroyed. The others are investigating the attempt to steal from the Herne. Durand has also been pestering me about you, but when isn’t she?”

The soldier had started to drift off again, eyelids flickering as she struggled between the waking world and the land of dreams. Mumbled nothings toppled from her lips, and it was with great effort that Jena forced herself awake. “Kiss?”

“What about kisses?” Handler asked, her spare hand coming up to brush some of Jena’s hair from where it had stuck to her forehead.

“Can I have one? Before…” she stifled a yawn, “Before I wake up…”

“I don’t know.” Handler gently teased the exhausted woman. “Apparently my kisses make people cry.”

Jena just pouted her lips.

Handler glanced about the room to make sure Simone hadn’t snuck in to watch. Satisfied that one of her agents wasn’t observing her in the shadows, she leaned in to brush her lips against Jena’s.

With a content sigh the tension left Jena’s body as she sunk back to sleep.

Carefully tucking her in, Handler removed the cable from the back of her neck and headed to the window. Outside the coastal plain rolled away from the beach villa, lightly dusted with sand and hardy plants. Settling on the windowsill, her implants triggered to let one side of her brain and the corresponding side of her body rest. It was GFIA technology, designed to let their agents stay active and monitor situations. Centuries ago it had been used by military snipers and assassins waiting for their target.

Normal sleep was better, but it was good enough to keep her rested as she cared for Jena.

And she did care for Jena, as much as she loathed Simone needling her about it. The body was one thing; taut artificial muscle mixed with a farmer-turned-soldier’s physique and  that boyish cut of blonde. Handler’s dreams about Jena tended to be a lot more explicit than the ones the soldier admitted to having. Her mind was another entirely. Handler wasn’t sure which she felt more. Admiration for Jena’s drive and focus on the liberation of her planet and her devotion to her military work, or pity for what it had done to the little girl who had to grow up so quickly after what the Volsta did.

She felt a tear run down the cheek of the resting side of her body.

It was going to be a long night.

Soup of the Day

From the smell alone Natasha Henderson knew a little more salt was needed. The villa’s kitchen was surprisingly well stocked. One day she’d use up an item from the fridge, the next a delivery drone would drop more off. Scooping a small amount of soup up on her spoon she tasted after seasoning and nodded.

Cooking kept her mind off the sight of seeing Zircon’s body twisted and broken, the android unconscious from his injuries. It also helped distract her thoughts from the state Jena had been in. The blood she could stomach. The sobbing and screaming before they put her under medical sedation?

The shudder that ran through her almost made her drop the spoon into the pot.

In the living area, she could hear Admiral Roland talking with the mysterious Handler who had arrived on board the IXV Shuck. That vessel was where they were working on healing- no, repairing Zircon. It was hard just to think of him as an automaton. That was Jena’s problem too.

Natasha found it hard to get a reading on Handler. When her crew were about she was all business. She relaxed a little around the Admiral, the pair now talking over coffee. She’d taken Handler some food the previous night and seen another side of her.

The intelligence officer had kneeled by Jena’s bed, carefully checking over her vitals as a hand stroked the cyborg’s. A single eye looked over as Natasha entered, and the chef felt it best to just leave the tray and exit rather than disturb her vigil.

Turning the heat off, Natasha carefully picked up the pot and started for the Shuck. This batch was for the crew as they came and went. She had seen the seven other members as they disembarked.

Fixer was the man she paid the most attention to seeing as he’d be repairing Zircon. The bearded older man was kindly and gentle, and had put up with her questions on her last visit bringing food to the ship. His workshop would be her last delivery on the vessel, so she could spend a little more time watching him work as Ensign Herne hung from the ceiling with maintenance straps and cables.

Simone Durand was down there too. An agent with a wealth of brown hair and a slightly impish manner, her job was dealing with the brain of a combat automaton Jena had fought against, making copies of the data contained within to use as evidence. She stayed away from that area in the workshop, if only to avoid looking at the damage Jena had done to the gynoid known as Beryl.

Gibbams, Huang, Akintola, Sokolov and Lopez she saw less often. They had requisitioned some vehicles to take them to business in Asrat City and on the Herne itself, examining the dead bodies and making observations on the techniques they used. They usually came back late from work, so Natasha had seen to only bringing them food that was safe to reheat or able to be kept on a low heat.

Her shoes clinked on the access ramp as she headed into the stealth ship. The pot would go to the mess hall, then she’d serve up two generous helpings of soup along with a little bread and take it down to the duo. Plus some for herself. Joining them to eat meant she got to spend more time asking questions.

“I bought you some food!” She called out as she neared the workshop.

The door parted and Durand stuck her head out. “Yes! I knew it was almost lunch. Thanks, chef!” She said, her hand on the door to keep it open for her to step through. Simone Durand, like Handler, was wearing one of the black, tight-fitting shipsuits that even Natasha would be a bit shy about wearing. Fixer was in a similar one, though he had an old white jacket slung over it, his pockets filled with tools.

Natasha herself on the other hand was in jeans and a t-shirt that she had delivered to the villa, along with some other clothing her size. It was a little easier to wear than the oversized clothing Jena lent her, and she felt more comfortable in her own clothes while the Admiral was asking questions for her reports.

“Miss Henderson, thank you as always. What are we having?” Fixer smiled, taking his fine detail goggles off and wiping his hands on his coat.

“Soup of the Day!” Natasha declared with a flourish, holding out the tray. “Taka fish, gingergrass, seapea, spiced sandshrub tenders, a little salt, and some bread to dip.”

Simone cleared some space on the converted medbay bed and dragged some stools over to it. “If you’re not careful, Natasha, I’ll stow you away in the overhead and have you cook for us all the time.”

The chef let out a nervous laugh. “I’m only as good as the ingredients I have access to.”

“Damn.” Simone sighed. “There goes that plan.”

“Don’t worry, Miss Henderson, she is only jesting.” Fixer reassured her. “Though if you’d want to join the crew, I am sure your talents could be put to work in the field of interrogation.”

“Talk, or you don’t get any!” Simone laughed, brandishing her spoon in a threatening manner.

“Eat, or I won’t bring you soup again.” Natasha said to stop the teasing. Both quickly started on their food. It wasn’t long until she broke the silence though.

“How’s he doing today?”

“Zircon Herne should be online by the end of the week. The damage to his body is almost all repaired.” Fixer said after a dunk of bread.

Natasha gulped. “And his mind?”

“We’ve recovered most of his memories from the three month period and merged them in with the data from his last back up. Usually we would just wipe to the last back up, but…” Fixer trailed off.

“Handler thought doing that might make things harder on Jena.” Simone filled in.

“Will he- do you know what he will remember?” Came the question.

“There were some interesting recent memories of you there, if that’s what you mean.” Simone chuckled. “Unless you want us to get rid of-”

“No!” Natasha blushed. “No… it’s all right. Forget I asked.”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed about.” Simone continued.

“I’m not!”

Agent Durand grinned. “You’re blushing.”

“That’s enough, Simone.” Fixer chided.

The agent raised her hands to indicate she was backing off, chewing on the slice of bread sticking out of her mouth as Fixer gave her a long look.

“How is Jena, by the way?” The older man asked.

A mouthful of soup had to be swallowed before she could answer. “I heard Handler saying she woke up earlier, but she put her back to sleep.”

Simone almost choked on her bread after letting out a snorted laugh.

“It took a year and a half to rebuild her body when we found her.” Fixer said, pointedly ignoring his colleague. “After having a rough time of things physically and mentally, it may take her a while to be one hundred percent.”

“I don’t really know her that well, only through…” She trailed off to stare at the pale haired android hanging from the ceiling.

“Well, how we met her is a story for the Ensign herself to tell you.” Simone said, picking her bowl up to drain the rest with a hearty slurp.

“Handler thinks highly of her.” Natasha noted. “She’s rarely left her side since she got here.”

Simone grinned. “That’s because Handler wants to-”

“Wants to what, Agent?” Handler asked as she entered the workshop.

Durand clamped her mouth shut and saluted as the commander of the unit walked in and placed her hand on the chef’s shoulder. “Miss Henderson, the Admiral would like to go over some additional questions with you.”

“Of course.” Natasha nodded, quickly finishing her own lunch before getting up. She paused. “Thank you, by the way.”

“For what?” Handler replied.

“Looking after them. I’m sure they appreciate it. Even Zircon.”

The intelligence officer nodded briefly, and Natasha got on her way back to the villa.

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.”