Another Round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the glasses?”

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

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

Jena stared for a moment before sighing.

“They do not look good?”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

She mused on that. “Might be it.”

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

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

Zaha nodded. “Command commands,”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zircon nodded.

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

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

 

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

Loose Ends

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good.” Jena looked left. “Simone?”

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

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

Simone perked up immediately at the mention of presents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“It’s late.” Simone yawned.

“Yep.” Jena nodded.

“Mmmh.” Handler mumbled.

“I should get going.”

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

“Mmmh.”

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

“Are you sure?” Simone asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get in here, Agent.”

These Last Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over The Flames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handler just smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Likewise.”

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

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

More Than You Can Chew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handler nodded.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“When are you getting out of here?”

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

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

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

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

“You looked like hell.” Simone stated.

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Work And Play

After another day at the Admiral’s villa Jena, Zircon and Natasha had been dropped back off in Asrat City to resume the rest of their shore leave. As a result of the events on the Herne, they would be planetside longer to allow Armitage Technologies to give the Herne a thorough rundown and service. It meant Jena had more time to catch up on the studies she missed in any case.

As a new week began the soldier was already looking forwards to the weekend. If nothing major cropped up, Handler would be visiting. Natasha had kindly offered to let Zircon stop with her for the weekend to give them some space. There was an alternate reason there of course, but Jena wouldn’t bring that up given the plans she had made with her lover.

Her mood had improved greatly after a good fight, several good talks and some recuperating. It made her studies easier to grasp. The bonus she had gotten from going up a rank sitting in her bank account was also a welcome boost to her good mood.

Seeing Commander Romanov waiting for her outside her class on a Thursday afternoon did cause a spike in her blood pressure and heart rate, though.

“Commander, what’s wrong?” Jena asked, already feeling herself slip into that soldier mindset. It was only then that she noticed the half-Trogadek woman wasn’t in her uniform and instead was in jeans and a hoodie, pretty similar to how Jena was dressed.

“Nothing’s wrong, Sergeant. I just wanted to sort some things out now.” She procured a laser measuring device from a pocket. “I need to run some final calibration checks before we start work on an exoframe for you.”

Jena’s worried expression quickly shifted to one of excitement. Those of rank Sergeant and above on the Herne got access to an exoframe. The suits of powered armour not only amplified strength and traversal abilities. They also provided a soldier with better armour, NBC and hazardous environmental protection, and information warfare capabilities. Flying in a Servitor was one thing. Flying in an exoframe?

“We can head back to my apartment. Zircon’s at the restaurant.” Jena started for the exit, getting halfway down the corridor before looking to Treshka. “If you don’t mind my asking, Commander. Why are you doing this, and why now in your time off?”

Treshka laughed. “The children wanted to do some shopping in the city, my husband is out buying fruit. I’d rather not see how the kids spend their allowance, and farmers tend to worry I might make off with their livestock.”

Jena thought back on her galactic history. “The Trogadek raiding parties were centuries ago.”

“Old fears die hard. Give it three centuries and I am sure farmers on Farringdon Three will still worry about Volsta dropships.”

Thoughts of her days in the Resistance flashed back to her. “… Yeah. I see your point, Commander.”

In the quad, the pair were getting some looks. Jena’s reputation had spread from the mugging incident and news of the attempted theft she helped to thwart. Treshka always got looks, the statuesque warrior towering above the others. Some were looking a bit appreciative of the way her jeans hugged her muscular legs.

“On a similar note, I am sure the Volsta will tell their children that if they don’t behave, a blonde falcon will swoop in and steal them away.” She commented quietly, having to crouch down a little to whisper it. On seeing the Sergeant’s demeanor shift, she patted her on the back. “Perhaps I went a little far in my praise.”

“I did what I had to do, Commander. Now I prefer to take pride in my military record.”

“Fair enough.” Commander Romanov then veered off towards a street vendor just outside the Academy to buy a bag of hot, freshly sliced Asrati Sandsnake. “Mmh, can’t get enough of this stuff.”

Eager for a change of conversation and a distraction from the sticky carvings of meat her Commander was lowering into her mouth, Jena asked about the Romanov children.

“Four of them.” Treshka said after a lick of her lips. “Three daughters. Zeshka, Malhka and Torhka. All of them studying at the Psi Research Institute on Ural Two.”

“That’s where Simeon works, right?” Jena had done some reading up. That institute had helped train some of the most talented psi users in the military.

Romanov nodded. “That’s where I studied, and where I met him.”

“And your son?”

“Dorheon. He will be attending there full time, once his schooling has finished.” Treshka lowered another slice of sandsnake into her mouth as they reached the apartment building.

“All psi-talented? You must be proud.” The cyborg swiped her hand over the entrance panel and quickly used her internal implant to assign Treshka as her guest.

“I’d be proud even if they weren’t, but as it stands they’re even better than I was at that age.”

When they got to the apartment, the Commander nodded in approval at the neatness. “All right, Sergeant.” She said, brandishing her measuring device. “Strip.”

 

 

“She made you strip completely?” Handler laughed, her spoon clattering from her hand into her bowl of ice cream. They were at a little cafe near one of the shopping complexes, bags safely stowed under the table. Jena had dipped into her promotion money to buy some new outfits.

“She did. Apparently these exoframes are skin-tight and everything needs to line up for various internal connections.” Jena groaned. “What have I gotten myself in for?”

“When is your first training session in one?”

“Two weeks time on a Thursday. She wanted Saturday, but…” Jena glanced to Young-ae meaningfully. “She seemed to get that I had other arrangements.”

The intelligence officer was looking particularly lovely. Her hair was artfully done up. Designer sunglasses helped her deal with the bright sun that day. Her light and airy sundress bore a swirling sand pattern on. Jena herself was in denim shorts and a tank top, eager to soak up the sun.

“I suppose training up now will save time once you are back on duty.” Handler said.

“Plus I get to fly.” Jena added eagerly.

“Plus you get to fly.” She smiled. “Are you nervous?”

“I’m fully flight-certified in all three Servitor classes, how different can it be?”

 

 

Flying in an exoframe was a lot different to flying in a Servitor. Jena had lifed her feet off the ground and promptly drove herself back-first into the sand. She could hear Treshka laughing through her commslink.

“Rookie error, Sergeant! Servitors, you push out with your back. Exoframes, you push up with your feet! Get up and try again!”

Moving in an exoframe was more ungainly than she thought it would be. The heavy black armour was soaking up heat from the sun and she had to shake herself several times to dislodge all the sand from her joints. The connections to her various machine interface ports let her fully integrate with the system, feeding its sensor systems directly to her brain. Not that it was helping much with flying as her next attempt had her skidding face-first for a few feet.

“Get up and try again, Sergeant! You think it’s bad rattling about in there? I can tell you some stories that will make your eyes water and your legs cross!”

That was one small advantage to losing most of her body on Farringdon III. All bodily waste extraction was handled by a single port designed for connection to systems like the ones in exoframes. She didn’t have to deal with any catheters. There was nothing left to do but dust herself down for another go.

 

 

Even as micromachines worked to heal her bruises, Jena still felt the need to lay on the sofa of their apartment with an ice pack on her face while Zircon and Natasha cooked.

“It’s a shame the Commander couldn’t stay for dinner.” Natasha called out as her hand jostled the contents of her pan about. “I think she’d like a nice stuffed pressbread.”

“I think she has plans with her family tonight” Jena called back.

“Will you be fine on your own, Sergeant?” Zircon asked, bringing her a glass of water fizzing away from a pain relief tab dropped into it.

Hauling herself up, Jena moved the ice pack to gulp down the concoction. “I won’t let me hitting a tree mess up anyone’s evening plans.” She spoke after swallowing and pulling a face. “Looking forwards to the concert, Natasha?”

“Definitely, and it’s nice that Zircon’s coming with me.” The chef quickly portioned out the contents of her pan into the sliced pockets of flatbread. “What about your evening?”

“Ancient Earth History.” Jena held up her dataslate, then tucked it safely out of the way as the food arrived. “We’re on the Annexation Wars. A bit of a bloody subject, but reading about early Servitor units and the first cybernetic soldiers is pretty interesting.”

“I’ll stick with the loud music and the handsome company.” Natasha said before sinking her teeth into her dinner.

 

 

Jena felt Young-ae stir, a lithe arm wrapping around her waist. The soldier had risen early to make some coffee for the pair, then sat in bed alternating between sipping and checking over her essay on early full-immersion control systems for Servitors. As a head nestled against her lap, she set her mug aside and used her now free hand to tousle the dark hair brushing against her stomach.

The intelligence officer didn’t get to visit every weekend, or sometimes only for a day or less. Jena tried to make the most of the time they had, knowing in the back of her mind at some point they would need to have a talk. The talk. The one about what will happen when the Herne and the Shuck go their separate ways.

A soft laugh escaped Jena’s lips as Young-ae planted little kisses on her stomach. She kept reading a while longer before a discontent sound came from her lover, a pair of dark eyes peering up at her.

“All work and no play makes Jena a dull girl.” The officer teased.

“I must have imagined last night then. There was a lot of play involved there. The amusement park. Karaoke. Here.” Jena smiled, still stroking her lover’s hair. “Wasn’t that enough?”

Young-ae contemplated that for a moment. Jena was amazed at how much younger the intelligence officer seemed when they were on their dates or alone like this, compared to the all-business commander of the Shuck she met years ago.

“No.” Young-ae shook her head. “Never enough.”

Mingling

Putting the box with the new rank insignia with her belongings gave the other partygoers time to get their food and start the process of mingling before Jena returned. This meant that not only did she have to queue less before her plate was loaded with assorted meats and vegetables in easy-to-eat finger food form, but she could pick and choose where she would start socializing. Clipping her glass of wine to the plate, a handy feature thought of by the designers, she started with Professor Romanov and Fixer.

The pair were sitting at one of the patio tables. Jena could hear them discussing machine interfaces as she approached. Fixer was in black slacks and a pale blue shirt and looked rather presentable. The Professor’s outfit she was still trying to figure out, but given his wife was dressed similarly, it had to have been a cultural thing. She was also trying to figure out just how the short, svelte scientist and the muscular half-Trogadek Commander hit it off.

“Fixer, Professor, might I join you for a bit?” Jena asked.

“Of course, Jena.” Fixer smiled, pushing a chair out with his foot. “Have you two met before?” He said with a glance between the pair.

“We haven’t, I just remember hearing from some of the crew that the Commander’s husband was a Professor involved with psionic research.” Jena replied.

“A pleasure, Sergeant. And please, call me Simeon.” Simeon spoke, offering the hand that wasn’t holding some sort of tiny fishcake.

“Jena, then.” She said as she shook the offered hand. “If it wasn’t for Fixer, I wouldn’t be sitting here now.”

“He mentioned! Quite resourceful to do a cyberization procedure in the field using spare parts and a modified medical facility. I have some colleagues in the Bionics and Cybernetics field who would love to take notes.”

Jena chewed thoughtfully on a pastry puffball containing a blend of pulled meat and pickles before speaking. “There must be some overlap between those fields and your own, right? I noticed Heko had trouble controlling The Axar, and it’s the only way I can think of to explain what I saw.”

The Professor smiled brightly at that. “An interesting notion, how did you come to that conclusion?” He had leaned forwards a little, discarding his food for the time being.

The soldier tried not to shrink back from the interested look he was giving her. “As a cyborg, I can control a Servitor completely with mind, or partially by using manual controls assisted by thought. Or just with manual controls. The Axar was not moving fluidly, but a hacker like Heko should have been able to access its machine interface. Unless it required that and psi ability to utilize.” She paused, holding up a hand to ask for a moment as she gnawed poultry off a bone. “Plus, your wife was able to stop it from crushing me and forcibly eject the pilot from outside.”

“Impressive!” Simeon grinned, pushing his plate aside. “You’re right, The Axar was designed to require someone with both a machine interface and psi talent to pilot it effectively. Trying to use it with just an MI alone put too much strain on a soldier with standard mental abilities.” Fixer had leaned in to listen too, forgetting about his plate of food. “It takes time for such a machine to learn the quirks of its operator, not that my wife has any quirks mind you! Once done though and an affinity has been created, remote operation is possible. Of course we are developing some interesting technology in a joint venture to enable pilots such as yourself to-”

“Eat!” Treshka growled in the Professor’s ear, appearing from behind Simeon to place her hands either side of him. “I know how you get when you start talking shop, my love.”

“It’s my fault, Commander.” Jena admitted. Even Fixer had started to eat again at Treshka’s order.

“Well, I am sure you will have time to talk with him at some point on work matters. For now though…” She poked Simeon in the back. “You need to eat, and then we dance.”

Jena rose and offered the Commander her chair. “I’ll go and mingle a little more then.”

Treshka pointed a finger at her plate. “You better eat too, or I’ll be pouring a bottle of our homebrew down your throat. Robust, fortifying, nutritious. A beer for convalescence, and we brought plenty with us.”

“Yes, Commander.” The cyborg smiled, making sure to grab her burger and take a bite out of it in plain sight of the warrior before heading off.

 

Agent Durand was making eyes at either Medenia, Shay, or both of them. Given their earlier encounter, she decided to give Simone and her little black dress some distance and opted to join Solokov, Akintola, and the Admiral near the barbecue.

“Was Simeon talking shop?” Zaha asked with a smile as Jena headed over. Her Admiral’s jacket had been hung up, and her sword was slung over her back so it wasn’t in the way of her sitting.

“Until the Commander made him eat. I take it that’s a regular thing?” Jena asked.

“My father was like that when my mother got too deep in her studies.” Solokov said. The wiry agent was out of her usual stealth exoframe and shipsuit. Instead she wore slacks and a short-sleeved blouse, her dirty blonde hair feathered and styled into peaks and spikes.

“Mine were like that with me.” Akintola added. Given her bandeau dress seemed to be running its own calculations as silvery numbers tallied and scrolled down the black length, Jena could imagine her hunched over a computer hacking. “When it comes to people-watching though, I’m more interested in those three.” She nodded to Simone and the two Herne crew-members.

“Ah, I see what you mean.” Admiral Roland said after a moment of watching Durand’s body language with the pair.

“Do you get shore leave like we do?” Jena asked, finishing her wine after a encountering a rather spicy meat pate on a cracker. “I get the feeling she needs some.”

“Ours is coming up soon, but we’re still a way off.” Akintola replied. “The Shuck is a year and a bit away from its full service.”

“It gives us something to look forward to.” Solokov added.

“Time for me to do the rounds some more.” Zaha spoke up as she rose. “Make sure you try some of the drinks the Romanovs’ brought with them, Jena.” The Admiral added as she made a beeline for Agents Huang, Gibbams and Lopez.

 

After drifting about a little more to talk with various combinations of people, Jena made sure to snag a couple of bottles from the table and load her plate up again. Borrowing one of the microdrones for light, she excused herself from the chatter and music to head for the beach. Earlier in the day she found a pleasant hump to perch on and look out from. She found herself back on there, watching the reflected light from the moons glimmer off the waves.

The first bottle she drank from was rich, fruity and with a warmth in the aftertaste that glowed in the back of her throat. As the tide lapped against the shore she alternated between pulls from the bottle and trying various bits from her plate.

She could hear the sand shift as someone approached. Besides her Handler sat down, carrying food and drink too. Her dark hair was tied back, the officer’s eyes accentuated with kohl and her lips a deep red. The dress she wore was a strappy little black number with the hint of deep crimson in the fabric, the material becoming feathered with sheer net as it came down her thighs. She had drawn her knees up, and clinked her bottle against Jena’s as she sat before eating quietly.

“I wasn’t hiding out here.” The soldier stated upfront. “I’d have left the drone at the villa if I wanted to do that.”

“You just needed to get away from the crowd for a bit.” Handler replied between mouthfuls. “I understand that.”

“Is Simone still on the hunt?” Jena asked with a chuckle.

“I may tie her to the lawn later and activate the sprinkler system.” Handler chuckled softly. “I’m surprised she wasn’t eyeing you.”

“She… already made a pass at me.” Jena admitted. “She was following some advice she gave me earlier. I turned her down.”

The silence between the two was broken as they both drank from their bottles, Jena finishing hers and opening the second one. This had a more tart flavour, but each mouthful ended with a sweetness that lingered on the tongue.

“Still keeping your edge?” Handler asked quietly.

Jena could feel the tips of her fingers tingling from nervousness. Setting her bottle and plate down, she slowly reached over behind Handler, her fingers removing the clip to let her hair fall down. Sliding the clip back into the wealth of black so it wouldn’t get lost, she picked her things up again.

“Whenever I see someone let their hair down, I always think of you.” The soldier said softly.

Even as she smiled, Handler shook her head. “You don’t have to force your-”

“I’m not forcing- okay, I am. But that’s only because this body…” Jena glanced down at her hands and flexed her fingers to try and shift the feeling of weakness from them, “I took on the Volsta army with it, but when it comes to natural things there’s a disconnect. It won’t listen to me, or I can’t understand it.”

“Jena…”

“I’ve no idea what I’m doing, Handler. I know my body can’t do some things. But I won’t find that out if I don’t push myself, and I-”

“Young-ae.” Handler suddenly interrupted with.

“What?”

“My name.”

Jena blinked. “Oh.”

Handler rose up. “If we circle around to the right, we can reach the Shuck without going through the party.”

Dismissing the microdrone light with a wave of her hand, Jena stood as well and started to follow the officer.

“Oh, soldier?” Handler stopped, turning back to look at the blonde.

“Yes?”

“No one knows what they’re doing at first.”

Jena felt a little better on hearing that.

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.