Another Round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the glasses?”

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

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

Jena stared for a moment before sighing.

“They do not look good?”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

She mused on that. “Might be it.”

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

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

Zaha nodded. “Command commands,”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zircon nodded.

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

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

 

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

Loose Ends

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good.” Jena looked left. “Simone?”

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

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

Simone perked up immediately at the mention of presents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“It’s late.” Simone yawned.

“Yep.” Jena nodded.

“Mmmh.” Handler mumbled.

“I should get going.”

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

“Mmmh.”

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

“Are you sure?” Simone asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get in here, Agent.”

These Last Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over The Flames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handler just smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Likewise.”

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

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