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!

Extra Muscle

Commander Romanov’s idea of training sometimes got a little odd. Flying over the dunes outside Asrat City? Jena could understand that. Gymnastics to get used to moving in an exoframe? That made sense. The soldier from Farringdon III thought that Treshka had other motivations for helping the Asrati Brewering Union set up for their festival. The pair easily unloaded kegs and casks by the pallet load from the various transport ships that had pulled into the festival ground.

“You need to learn how to use the extra muscle, Sergeant.” Treshka explained, carefully lowering several trays. “If you don’t you can do serious injury to someone, or damage to something important.”

“Like… Golden Asra Ale?” Jena joked, reading the label on one of the shipments she was carrying to a table.

“Well, it’s fine if you break that. The acronym’s ‘GAA’ because that’s the sound you make after swallowing.” Treshka’s laugh boomed through the commslink.

“Will your husband be bringing anything here?” She asked as she went for several pallets of glasses to drop off.

“Of course, and we’ll unload that last. Work up a real thirst before having some of the good stuff. Hunger’s the best sauce, Sergeant, and thirst’s the best pairing suggestion.”

Even with all the lifting and moving they were doing, with the exoframe doing the heavy lifting and the sealed environment keeping her cool, there were worse ways to spend an afternoon. Well, probably.

Once the two women in black armour had finished helping the brewers set up, they went to assist the Asrat City Academy Restaurant with their mobile diner. Natasha was guiding trainee chefs, and Zircon was whipping the serving staff into order with the drill instructor programming he made use of when Jena was a cadet.

It was still easy to tell them apart, even in armour. Treshka towered even more than she usually did under all the plates and parts of an exoframe, and stood wider too.

“Thanks for the help, Commander.” Natasha said as she helped set up several tables under parasols. “And thanks to your husband for the bottles he sent ahead. We’ve paired them with some great meals that will really compliment each other, and I’ve made sure to set a course aside for the both of you.”

After stretching, Treshka popped the faceplate on her helmet open so she could speak normally. “Once Simeon’s set up, let us know when you’re ready and we’ll drop by.”

“Do you think she’ll be able to come?” The chef asked quietly, glancing to where Jena was assisting Zircon with stacks of chairs. The crew of the Shuck had been busy making progress with their investigation. As such, Handler had been absent for the past two weekends and Jena was missing her.

“Not sure, but it would be nice if they could.” Treshka replied. A beep from her suit distracted her. “That’ll be the husband coming in now.” She said, sliding her helmet into place.

 

The crowds were larger than Jena expected. She was stood near the Romanov’s stall, watching people sample various brews Simeon had brought with him. Treshka had warned her that drinking while in an exoframe wasn’t a great idea due to the neural interface the suits used. This was apparently a ‘Do As I Say, Not As I Do’ warning as the Commander’s helmet was off and her armour-clad hand was wrapped around the handle of a massive mug.

“Why don’t you just fly back to your apartment and get your change of clothes? Our shuttle is here, so you could just fly back and change inside it.” Treshka suggested, froth from the head on her drink coating her top lip. Her tongue flicked out to remove it.

“Can’t I just-“ She gestured to how the Commander was drinking.

“Let a newly-made Sergeant drink while in an exoframe? The Admiral would wring my neck.” She grinned apologetically.

“All right. I’ll be back soon.”

“Careful with that take off, Sergeant.”

As careful as she was, she still started a few of the more inebriated festival goers as the flight jets on her exoframe lit up. She was half-way back to her apartment when her comms systems started to wildly flash.

“Sergeant Foster, this is a priority one. Sergeant Foster, this is a priority one.” The IXV Shuck’s computer sounded in her mind.

“Sergeant Foster responding.”

“Jena?” It was Simone’s voice. “We need emergency assistance, get anyone you can. Huang’s been shot and we’re pinned down.”

The soldier was already relaying the comms feed to her Commander. “Where are you? I’m raising help now, and I’m in my exoframe currently in flight.”

Map data started to flood in to her field of vision. The Shuck was near a private residence complex twenty miles out of Asrat City. Visual data from the ship showed a large force of combat droids, some soldiers in private infantry armour and some active weapons platforms.

Jena was banking towards that direction and raising flightspeed to maximum before she even thought about it. “Data received. I’m en route and-“ The exoframe’s weapon systems were disabled for acclimatization to the suit. It would take a while to reactivate them. “I’m combat capable.” It wasn’t all a lie. She still had the speed, strength and armour to fall back on.

“I need to go and help the others. I’m sending mission data up to this point. Take care.” Simone said, signing off.

Her navigation systems plotted her ETA in just under ten minutes. Gritting her teeth in frustration, Jena locked the system into autoflight and started to pour over the additional information to get up to speed.

The crew’s investigation into the attempted theft of the Axar lead them through various departments in ASC, the Asrat Ship Consortium, to a shareholder and collector of military antiquities. The Shuck’s information gathering on this woman revealed several encoded messages to another collector who was willing to trade rare, early-generation Servitors for an opportunity to get their hands on one of the finest machines to come out of Ural II’s Engratek Servitronics fabrication facilities: The Axar.

A meeting between the shareholder and the instigator of the attempted theft was going down today, and the crew had aimed to take both in. Then everything had gone wrong.

In-vision, a message popped up in a dialogue box. [Mobilizing now and trying to get you some weapons. Don’t do anything stupid. Cmdr T. R.]

Jena sent her ident to the Shuck’s computer, along with a request to bring up active tactical data and positioning. One by one crew data started to line up in her vision. Huang’s vitals were weak but stable, a cross symbol indicating he was receiving some form of medical care. He was on the ship with Fixer, so that indicated just who was giving the care. Solokov and Lopez were in the complex, the others were trying to hold their position against a vastly superior force.

As she shot over one of the large dunes seperating her and the complex, she caught sight of the scene. The GFIA team were keeping low and moving under cover, picking off droids and soldiers when they could. Four floating weapons platforms had been deployed, their armaments enough to give the classified vessel some trouble it if tried to assist them.

“Sergeant Foster to the crew of the Shuck,” Jena sent the message as she targeted the nearest with all her performance limiters disengaged, “I’m coming in hot.”

 

Handler looked up in time just to see a black dart collide with one of the weapons platforms. Debris showered everywhere as the fist of the exoframe slammed into the hull and sent it careening into the squad of combat droids on the ground. Then the exoframe swooped down and snagged a cargo crate, hurling it towards another weapon platform.

“Head for the complex.” She gave the order to Akintola, Durand, and Gibbams. “We’ve a mission to do.”

Agent Simone Durand saw the worry in the eyes of her boss before they started towards the access they had secured.

‘Don’t do anything stupid, Jena.’ The agent thought as they crawled with the scream and flash of weapons fire roaring above them.

 

The small arms fire from the combat droids and soldiers wasn’t much of a concern. The energy shielding pulsing through her armour was absorbing the worst. After taking two weapons platforms out, the other two had designated her a prime target and dodging the heavy particle cannons on those was leaving her with precious little time to destroy them. Jena’s cybernetic enhancements made dealing with the g-forces as she evaded manageable but even they had their limits.

Sticking close to the ground, she spread her arms and barreled through a line of combat droids, spinning at the end to fling the ones she had hold of into the crowds. “Fixer? Jena here, if Huang’s fit to be left, can you get to the bridge and take out these remaining platforms? I’ll draw their fire as best I can!” She requested.

“On my way to the bridge now. Be careful out there, your stress levels are going through the roof.” Fixer replied.

Jena felt her stomach lurch as she rolled clear of a blast that scorched the tarmac of the loading bay. Bolting forwards she snatched a pair of soldiers up and hurled them at the platforms. With the main housing unit behind her, she hoped the platforms would have programming to prevent damage to the premises.

 

Inside the luxury house and facilities, the fight carried on. Solokov and Lopez were in their stealth frames with the camo projectors switched into shielding mode as their rifles tore through the lines of defense. Gibbams and Handler provided further cover with their weapons as Akintola and Durand worked on accessing the computer systems.

All six of them flinched as the building shook, the lights dipping and fixtures rattling away.

“Handler?” Durand called from her position, most of her mind working to subvert the security systems.

“What, Agent?” Came the reply as Handler’s pistol took out a droid.

Another explosion rocked the building.

“The good news is the weapons platforms are all down.” Simone said in an upbeat tone of voice.

“What’s the bad news?”

 

The remaining human soldiers had retreated back into the complex. With the amount of cargo units dotting the loading bays, Jena had put them to work as weapons to smash the remaining combat droids. Some times she threw them. Some times she slammed the long boxes of metal like a hammer. And at other times she just held one in front of her and flew it into a wall to grind her foes to scrap.

Her exoframe’s shielding system was taxed and in recovery mode. Repair systems were working on fixing the damage the battle had caused. With the Shuck now able to provide fire support without getting blown out of the sky, all she had to do was rejoin the others inside.

Her breath exploded out of her as a massive round slammed into the armour of her suit. Gasping for air, she lifted her head to see what had just hit her.

A hangar door had rolled up. From the dark within a pair of Servitors stepped forwards. She knew what they were before her exoframe’s on-board computer could access the archives to confirm their type.

When it came to extra muscle, the enemy went old school. They were relics from an Earth long gone. They couldn’t fly. They could barely jump. A round from a railgun clipped her foot and sent her spinning away, damage warnings flashing on her ankle from the force of the impact.

There was lots of things the old mechs couldn’t do.

They could still fight, though.

 

New Opportunities

Three years passed quickly on board the ISV Herne. While fighting back the Volsta formed the bulk of their activities, there were other missions that Jena Foster got to experience. The crew of the interstellar support vessel came to the aid of stranded ships, helped evacuate a planet undergoing massive seismic disturbances, fought off pirates and delivered medical supplies and expertise to a world suddenly afflicted by a virulent disease.

The last one had been a tense one, some of the nightmares she had of the Volsta occupation of her homeworld would be replaced by the afflicted individuals she was unable to help. It was such a dream that had her up early, watching as the service support structures were brought into place around the hull.

A ship the size of the Herne would need six to eight months of service. It was made more difficult by the fact it could not land on a planet, necessitating a lot of work to be done in zero gravity. It had been in use for a decade and it was time for a proper work over by the technical crews of the Asrat Ship Consortium, the contracted company that had built the Herne for the Galactic Federation. As such their terminus was the space docks orbiting above Asrat Prime.

The mood of the crew was a mixed one. All of them would get shore leave. Some of them would not be returning to the support ship. A standard tour of duty for the Galactic Armed Forces was ten years. Many would stay on for another turn, some had asked or been requested for transfer to other ships or units. A small number had decided to retire from military service. Joy mixed with melancholy as faces would move on and new ones would arrive.

The cyborg was undecided as to what she’d do. She had the option of early transfer, or ten more years of service on the ship. As she stared out into space through one of the viewing monitors, her mind issued no great revelations about her future.

She felt the presence before he announced himself. A steaming cup of coffee appeared besides her, held out by the bioskin-clad hand of the android Ensign Zircon Herne. He was dressed as always in his military uniform, while she was in ship casuals consisting of a pair of black slacks and a grey tank top.

“Good morning, Jena.” Zircon smiled politely.

Taking the cup from him, she blew gently before taking a sip. A sigh escaped her lips. “Morning, Zircon. And thanks.” She raised the cup a little in appreciation.

“Many of the crew sleep fitfully and wake early on days such as this. I thought you could do with some coffee.” He explained. “Have you decided what to do with your time off?”

“Not a clue.” She laughed. “Maybe take some college courses, get some extra training done. A little recreation if my budget can afford it. You?”

A smile crossed his face. “You forget that I am part of the ship. I will undergo a service and will likely be placed into a storage state until the Herne is ready for operations again.” He registered her expression dropping. “We will see each other again if you chose to serve your next tour of duty with us.” That didn’t seem to cheer her up either.

“At least one of us doesn’t have to worry about what they’re doing.” Jena sighed, running her free hand through her short cut of blonde hair. “Even if I do stay on with the Herne, I’ll miss having you about.” She knew some of the other crew joked behind her back about her attachment to the android. A good number of the bioforms ignored the autocrew or only spoke to them if they needed something. She treated them like she’d treat anyone else.

Zircon had attempted resuming his normal operations on the ship. It took three days before Jena complained that he was avoiding her and not having meals as usual. He had explained to her that it was not common practice for autocrew to join the main crew for dinner, but the cyborg was having none of it. Jena ignored the looks that had gotten her in the mess hall. He was good company, especially for someone new to the military and new to traveling in space.

“That is the way things are, Jena.” Zircon shrugged apologetically. “Whatever you opt to do, I wish you a pleasant shoreleave. I have duties to attend to. Let me know when you are disembarking, I will assist you with your luggage.”

She deflated a little as he strolled off, his walk always fast and purposeful. Ever since she joined as a cadet, Zircon had been a constant in her life. With another sip of coffee she returned to gazing out into space as yet more struts and scaffolding was erected around them.

 

It was rare for anyone to knock on the door to the Admiral’s residential rooms. The fact someone knocked rather than requested entry from the computer narrowed the list of who it might be. Zaha Roland quickly belted her white silk dressing robe, tied her hair up and headed for the door.

Ensign Foster was stood there, awkwardly, with an empty cup in one hand. She had filled out a little more since Zaha first met her, looking much healthier than the lean freedom fighter hurting over the subjugation of her planet. “Admiral, I’m sorry to disturb you, I just-” She gestured helplessly, unable to find the words.

“Come in, Ensign.” She stepped aside to permit her entry. Zaha had packed her bags the night before and had them stacked near the exit. She noted Jena take in the decor. “It’s better with augmented reality.”

“I’m still not too used to that, Admiral. I… haven’t really bothered with it in my room. It’s nice in here though. Airy, bright, but comfortable.”

“Take a seat.” She gestured to the soft couch with a glass coffee table in front of it, opting to take the couch facing it instead. “Life on a ship is a far cry from a busy farm with lots of physical possessions.”

Ensign Foster nodded. “There are some things I miss, and a few I don’t.”

Holding a hand up, Zaha quickly headed for the kitchen to procure her french press and a small tray of condiments. “Help yourself, it’s freshly brewed.”

“Thank you, Admiral. Zircon made me a cup earlier but… this is the sort of morning where one just won’t cut it.”

Watching as the Ensign prepared herself a cup, Zaha leaned back on the sofa. “I assume what’s troubling you is all the new opportunities you have to pursue?”

“Yes, wait-” Her nodding shifted to a shake of her head. “Not quite. In a sense but…” Her jaw seemed to lock open as she tried to find words for what she wanted to say. Admiral Roland almost interrupted her before she blurted it out. “I was wondering if Zircon could come with me during shore leave. After his service of course and any additional work he might be needed to perform but I… I’d rather not be getting R&R while he’s… offline.”

Quirking a carefully plucked eyebrow, Zaha considered the Ensign in front of her. “That’s sweet, but perhaps you should use the time to find another partner. I’ve no problem with people spending recreation time with autocrew but shoreleave is a little-”

“Partner?!” Jena interjected, eyes wide. “It’s not like… he’s my friend. That’s all. We’ve never-” She made an odd little gesture with her arms that Zaha took to mean ‘fornicated’, “I’ve no interest in that. I just thought- I’m sorry to disturb you, I should g-”

“Sit.” The command halted Jena’s rise from the sofa. “You understand that the Ensign is an android, correct? His politeness is programmed. His looks are assigned by a randomization algorithm. He is designed to acknowledge and assist you as a crew member, not consider you a friend.” While the words were firm, there was no harshness intended with them.

“I’m fully aware of that, Admiral.” Jena had stiffened, her posture rigid.

“What do you plan on doing with your shore leave?” She asked.

“Education. Learn new things, do new things. I just-” The rigid posture slumped away. “I just want someone I trust about while I try and… I never went to school as a teenager, Admiral.” Jena admitted. “Everything I learned was for the fight against the Volsta. Every waking moment I was training myself to fight, or fighting.” It was almost like the air had been let out of her.

“Two conditions. I will grant this request on two conditions.”

Jena’s head shot up to look at her Admiral.

“One, you strongly consider staying on with us for another decade. We’ll be heading through the central planets, it’ll be a learning experience for you to see worlds more hectic than Farringdon III. You can make a start on that on Asrat Prime.”

“And the second condition?”

“I have a project for you. I’d like you to write a paper on interactions with autocrew from the perspective of someone from a planet with low levels of automatons.” Zaha smiled. “That should be reason enough to spend your shore leave with one of the autocrew.” Reaching for her dataslate, she tapped in a few orders.

“Yes, Admiral. Thank you.” The blonde smiled at her, then turned crimson when she saw the Admiral reach up to let her hair down.

“Something amiss?”

“N-no, Admiral, just… I’ll let you get on. Thank you again, Admiral.”

Zaha Roland watched Jena drain her mug of coffee and almost sprint for the door with a perplexed expression.

 

Commander Treskha Romanov had doubled over laughing after the Admiral told her the story. “You’ve gone soft on me, Zaha.”

“I suppose I have, but I couldn’t help but feel some pity towards her.” She explained. She was out of the robe and back in her uniform. The white Admiral’s jacket would not come off until all the crew leaving the ship were off and the handover to the technical crew was complete.

Romanov on the other hand was in denim shorts and a black bandeau top with an unbuttoned sleeveless white blouse slung over it. The ensemble showed off a lot of chartreuse yellow skin over her thick muscles, and the well-defined abdominal muscles of the Herne’s second in command.

They were currently waiting for the transport to come in to whisk Treskha away to the villa her family were renting for her stay on the planet. Asrat had a large landmass with a tropical climate. That meant there was a lot of beach to go around. A good villa was easy to rent, and Zaha would probably find herself in one at some point.

“Just don’t tell her that. So, plans for your time off?”

Zaha chuckled. “Private beach, a towel and a lot of good books.”

“Swimsuit or bikini?”

“Neither.” The Admiral grinned.

Treshka’s booming laughter filled the hangar. “Well, if you ever get bored, come pay us a visit. The kids would love to see you again, and my husband’s home brewing is better than ever.” A chime indicated the first airlock to the hangar was being opened. “That’s my ride here then.”

Mindful of the sword clipped to her belt, the Admiral leaned in for a hug. “Take care, my friend. Get a lot of rest in, and I’ll pay you all a visit.”

Treskha easily lifted her Admiral up in a bearhug as the first airlock finished its routine and the second started to open. “I’ll be checking the ship logs when I get back. If I find out you’ve come skulking about here in your time off… well, better hope I don’t.” Setting her down, she saluted. “Request permission to disembark, Admiral.”

Zaha saluted back. “Permission granted, Commander.”

 

The Admiral saw a number of the crew off that day. Chief Engineer Shay MacAllister had his break planned at a little servicing station on a popular surface transport route on Asrat Prime, repairing ground vehicles and taking in traveler’s tales in the adjacent cafe. It was a working holiday, but Zaha expected nothing less from her engineer. Navigation Officer Saekal would be stopping in Tabata, one of the smaller cities on the planet. The Lathusian warp engineer had netted himself a part in a couple of small theatre productions, and the Admiral promised to come and see at least one of them.

Operations Officer Medenia had an interesting break planned. There were a series of caves that formed an underground city situated near the equator. The pale Dalonomyd, hailing from a planet where the dark was their natural habitat, planned to give her eyes a rest from the protective lenses she had placed in them and spend time spelunking and aiding in geological surveys.

Ensign Jena Foster was one of the last to leave. She had a holdall slung over each shoulder, and was wearing a rather fetching floral dress that came down to the middle of her thighs, along with simple sandals. Zircon was with her, the autocrew Ensign dressed in the slacks and shirt he was given for formal functions on the ship. He carried two holdalls as well, the standard black and grey design available for all members of the military to use.

“Ensigns.” The Admiral smiled. “Have you decided what you’re going to do yet?”

Jena smiled. “I’ve enrolled at Asrat City Academy to get some of the standard qualifications I missed. I’ve got some sightseeing and recreation for us, but in general it’ll be nose to the grindstone.”

“I have my service booked at Iron Shell Conditioning, Admiral.” Zircon Herne reported. “The Academy’s restaurant needed staff, so while Jena is studying I will be at work there. The salary will help go towards some of the costs of things the Ensign has planned.”

Zaha tried not to let the surprise show on her face of an autocrew earning a wage.

“And then we’ll be back here. Another tour of duty on the Herne, Admiral.” The cyborg said, offering her hand. “I hope you enjoy your time off.”

“Likewise, Ensigns.” The first airlock chime sounded. “I should prepare for my own departure.”

Nodding, Jena and Zircon saluted. “Permission to disembark, Admiral?”

“Permission granted, Ensigns. See you on Recommission Day.”

 

The Admiral’s shuttle was waiting for her as she took one last walk around the bridge. Only the complement of autocrew, minus Zircon, were left on board. Her bags had already been loaded onto it, and a strappy blue summer dress that had been a gift from a former crew-mate was hanging up ready for her to change into.

She paused in front of her chair on the bridge, looking up at the commissioning plate on the ceiling. A low sigh escaped her. “Rest well, my love. We’ve another tour coming soon.” Then her sword was slid into the holder and her voice filled the room. “ISV Herne, this is Admiral Zaha Nanako Roland. Requesting permission to disembark.”

“This is the ISV Herne. The ship has recognized Admiral Zaha Nanako Roland’s command authority.” There was a pause. “The ISV Herne has now been decommissioned for a full service. Temporary permissions have been set for the Asrat Ship Consortium. Permission to disembark granted, Admiral. Proceed to the IJV Hunter’s Oak for final departure.”

Volsta’s Dagger

Zircon had taken care of the launch. The android’s direct interface with the combat servitor the pair were in easily allowed him to bring it out from the bay and into the space around the Herne. Removed from the influence of the ship’s gravity drive, Jena Foster felt the effects of zero G for the first time. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, though that might have been in part due to the sight displayed in her in-vision display.

She had been briefed about the odd sensor readings the Herne had picked up as it journeyed to the star sector. All of them had, the message relayed from the Admiral through their commslinks. What they hadn’t expected was the sudden turbulence necessitating dropping from warp encapsulation early.

The reason for it became apparent on exiting. What had been reported as three Volsta battlecruisers was clearly not. It dwarfed the Herne in length, a chimera of captured Galactic Federation ships and Volsta vessels. Dropships had been hastily converted into a fleet of support units, backing the mass of hulls with their weapons and shields. The snarling mass of energy at the front of the ship was the more pressing issue.

Light of every colour crackled and tore at reality, flecked with streaks of brilliant white and thick veins of purest black. Whatever the ship was, it was trying to go into warp. The wave of distortion was struggling to expand. Parts of it enveloped further up the length of the ship as other sections snapped back to reveal the pointed tip. The engines on it were at full thrust as it tried to break through into warpspace.

“ISV Herne to all units.” Came the voice of Operations Officer Medenia. “Get into formation while we analyze the situation.”

“Given the situation, I will take us to our formation point.” Zircon’s voice sounded from above her in their servitor’s cockpit. “I will transfer control of weapons systems to you.”

“Got it.” Jena nodded. It was probably the best she wasn’t flying. From the control readouts alone to perform a full stop the idea of flying one in combat was beyond her. Slipping into full control mode, she felt her arms go slack before the weight of the servitor’s limbs registered in her mind.

 

“They’ve cobbled their warp encapsulator technology together with more modern types.” Shay was saying, pointing out details on a zoomed-in view of the massive structure. “This section of hull is from a Trilobyte-class freighter unit. And look at this section here,” the engineer gestured towards a slender length running towards the engine block on the back. “That’s a Hermes-class Jumpship.”

“They can clearly see us.” Admiral Roland had a look of bafflement on her face. “They’ve not even got us targeted. Saekal, how’re your calculations going?”

“If, and that is a pretty big if, that thing can get into warp, they’re on a direct course for Farringdon Three.” The Lathusian navigation officer replied, his purple-skinned hands dancing across his keyboards as he worked with the figures the sensors gave him.

“All the weapons ports on the hulls have been retrofitted to divert power to their shields and warp encapsulators.” Shay brought up some examples on the viewscreen. “Even if they got to Farringdon Three, they’d only have the dropships.”

Commander Treshka Romanov had been silent, staring at the screen with her pale eyes. When realization hit, all seven foot two of her tensed up. That tensing was what drew Admiral Roland’s attention to her second-in-command.

The bellowed swear from the Commander was what brought the attention of everyone else on the bridge to her.

“Medenia, send Alpha through Delta to attack now!” She roared. “That thing doesn’t need weapons if they ram it into the planet!”

 

From her cockpit, Jena had a good view as four wings of assorted ship classes descended into battle. Moving to surround the enemy structure, the AI onboard their mech registered the energy readings and assigned false colour to them for ease of viewing. Streams of energy lanced out to batter against the shields reinforced by the modified dropships.

The section of space above her lit up as the Herne fired its weapons all at once. The barrage scattered across the shields. As waves of energy skittered over them, they buckled enough to let fire from the fleet through. What little return fire the modified support units had been giving died off as they directed all power to the shields.

“What’s the falloff on our weapons, Zircon?” The cyborg asked. Before he could respond the servitor’s AI had brought up the rangefinder. Glancing to the guns they were carrying, each had a warning prompt saying the target was out of effective range.

“They do not have the power of the weapons on the Herne.” Zircon noted. “Combat servitors are designed for engaging at closer range and for smaller targets.”

“Thought as much.” Jena sighed. “I just feel a bit useless out here.”

 

It was rare for an Admiral to leave the bridge in a combat situation, but Zaha Roland had gone off in pursuit of her second-in-command. “I get that you feel useless in here, Commander, but-”

“With all due respect, Admiral,” Commander Romanov spoke as her powerful legs took her in long strides towards her hangar, “but nothing. If that thing establishes warp encapsulation, we’ll need to fight it in warpspace.” The hangar doors opened to reveal her custom-built servitor.

Most heavy-class servitors stopped at around thirty-five feet in height. The Axar was fifty. Instead of the standard Galactic Federation Grey, hers was white with red banding around the joints. The limbs were bulky and reinforced with even more armour plating. The rear of it was the special part. A large, thick disc was mounted in the middle of The Axar’s back. Along with the engines in the middle, the rim of the disc was made up with a tightly packed group of support units, ready to either swivel out or detach.

“Commander-” Zaha was cut off as her subordinate turned and fixed her with a glare.

“Know your place and get back to the bridge, Admiral.” She snarled. The Axar’s chest plate opened to reveal the cockpit that was just about large enough to fit the muscular Trogadek woman.”

Drawing herself up, Admiral Roland nodded and turned on her heels. “Fight well, Commander.” She called, steadying her sword with her hand as she returned to the bridge. The virtual presence she had left there was reporting everything back to her, but Romanov was right. She knew her place.

Closing her eyes, she directed her presence about the bridge even as she closed the distance to return to it. [“Medenia, assign Omega Wing to Romanov’s command.”] The first message went. [“Saekal, make sure we’re not in the path of the enemy vessel.”]

The bridge doors slid open and she spoke her next order aloud. “Shay, we may need a warp gate on very short notice.” Falling back into her seat, Zaha noted the damage done to the Volsta’s construct. It was a start, but it wasn’t enough.

 

Zircon had started moving to the next formation point a moment after the command had been issued from the Herne. Free to look about with the android piloting, she saw it was only the fighters and servitors coming into position, the larger ships were staying to support the flagship.

[“Ensign Foster.”] The Commander’s voice almost growled at her over comms. [“If we’re needed I won’t have time to coddle you, can you fly that unit competently?”]

[“Commander, I have taken flight duties while Ensign Foster is in command of weapons.”] The android spoke for her. [“We are combat capable.”]

The huge form of The Axar drifted into view and Jena found herself staring at the head of the machine. It was more ornate than any she had seen in person, given almost a feral cat motif, like the mountain beasts she had seen pictures of as a kid. They had gathered at the prow of the ship, the tower behind them and the array of weapon system emplacements beneath them.

[“Listen up.”] Romanov called to all of them. [“If we have to fight, we will be doing it in warpspace. There are risks, but stay close and keep the co-ordinates of the Herne’s warp gate noted and you should be fine.”]

Jena had heard stories about people being trapped in warpspace forever. She tried to push those tales out of her head.

[“Chief Engineer MacAllister has provided details on what to target.”] Data streamed into their in-vision displays, syncing up with the onboard AI ready to superimpose on the vessel.

A coordinated volley struck the enemy ship. In quick succession Alpha and Gamma Wings fired on the shields, then the Herne unleashed its barrage. With the shields waivering, Beta and Delta Wings broke through. Explosions shot through the structure and Jena breathed a sigh of relief.

The maelstrom of energy at the front of the structure tore open. With a sudden lurch the ship plunged into warpspace, leaving its support units behind to be torn apart by the fleet’s fire.

Treshka’s swearing could be heard across all channels. The engines on the back of The Axar sparked to life. [“Omega Wing, with me!”] She cried out, boosting towards the warp gate the Herne was opening.

Jena could feel their servitor’s hands tighten around the grips of the rifles as they plunged into the swirl of colour after the Commander.

 

“Omega Wing have gone through our warp gate.” Chief Engineer MacAllister reported. “The opening is stable, I’ll keep an eye on it though.” The Herne was not designed to act as a warp gate, though it could open small entrances into warpspace using some of its encapsulators.

“Alpha to Delta Wings are cleaning up the remaining support units.” Medenia said, the operations officer co-ordinating the efforts of the task force.

As Zaha was about to speak, the Herne’s computer received a communication and brought it up on the screen. The stern face of a Volsta Commandant was staring out with spittle flecking his lips.

“This strike will just be the first! Volsta’s Dagger will plunge into the heart of Farringdon Three. You may have taken it from us, but we will not let you have it! The rage and fury of the Volsta Empire will lash out and pierce every world you stole away from us! Pride is everything, the Volsta Empire stand proud!”

As the message flickered away, Zaha Roland cracked her knuckles. “Get a message out to all our forces. Include the data we have on the Dagger and warn them about this new tactic. Send evacuation orders to Central City, get them to disseminate the warning.” Her hands gripped and squeezed each other as she thought of the units going after the suicide vessel. She hoped her long-time friend wouldn’t do anything stupid.

 

It took Jena a while to get used to moving without directing where she was going. With her mind fully occupied on the servitor, it felt like she was being possessed as Zircon directed their motions as Omega Wing came alongside the ship. A squeeze of her right hand fired shots from the long-barrelled energy rifle in that arm, several bursts slamming into the warp emitter she had targeted. A squeeze of her left hand and the short barrelled rifle howled with activity, puncturing a power relay pipe running along part of the section she had been assigned to.

The fighters were at the back, emptying their energy reserves with volley after volley into the engines of their opponent. This left the servitors to concentrate on the smaller targets dotted along the hull.

She noted that The Axar was pushing ahead, the support units mounted on the back disc firing in staccato at different targets as she boosted along the length of the Volsta’s Dagger. The assault from the four wings of the task force had done some serious damage to the ship, but it was still in warp and still hurtling towards her homeworld. A shrugging motion from her shoulders set the missile launchers mounted there to work, streaking off towards her next set of targets.

[“This is Fighter Omega A7!”] Some excited chatter came over comms. [“The engine block has lost power.”]

[“Move to the front and change firing type configuration to pulse blasters.”] Treshka ordered. [“We need to slow it down.”]

Jena watched the fighters zoom past her. A massive object like the one they were fighting could do a lot of damage to planet even in warp. Weird things could happen in such situations and she’d rather not see the result on the planet she just left.

Suddenly she was spinning and felt her stomach lurch. Warnings were appearing in-vision about G-force stabilizers being unable to compensate as Zircon flew erratically. It took a moment for her to realize just why he was doing it. Chunks of the Dagger were falling away as its structure was compromised. She winced as a nearby servitor collided with a strip of hull and was sent reeling away.

[“This is A4, our pulse blasters are having minimal effects on target velocity!”]

The Axar’s engines flared as it zipped along to the front of the ship. [“I’m going to do something stupid.”] The Commander’s voice came through to the wing. [“If I die, haul my ass back to the Admiral.”]

 

Treshka Romanov’s teeth sank into her bottom lip as she readied herself. The Axar had turned to face the Dagger, and the body of the servitor had titled up to let all of the support units on her back take aim at the front of the ship. Interlocking her fingers, she rested her hands against her stomach and breathed deeply.

Some species in the universe had natural talents in the way of psychokinesis. The Maltie were gifted at it. Half of her own species had the considerable mental fortitude required for it. The other half, human, could access such powers with training and/or cybernetic enhancements. As a half-breed, she had benefited from both. She felt her eyes roll back and blood trickle from her nose as she tapped into the gift, and then channeled it through the psi-boosters that had been fitted to her mech. As her teeth dug into the soft flesh of her lip, Treshka set her shoulders. A little lift of her shoulder blades, a peculiar parting motion, and she felt the disc mounted to The Axar shift. Revolving on their mounts, the support units span to direct their psiwave emitters at the Volsta’s weapon.

A hoarse cry escaped her lips as the field began to form in front of her, a wave of projected force to try and halt the path of her enemy. Her mouth contorted as she spoke old Trogadek mantras to bolster the spirit even as her mind screamed with the exertion to manifest and manipulate such forces.

 

As Zircon worked flat out to dodge all the debris flying off Volsta’s Dagger, Jena could see fractures running along the length of the ship as whatever Commander Romanov was doing at the front took effect. A peculiar aura had surrounded the Commander and the Dagger on her combat overlay denoted by an odd symbol, and the fighter wing had backed off to rescue some of the damaged servitors that had been struck by loose objects.

Jena winced as the Dagger started to compact in on itself, the front crumpling as the back drove into the mass ahead of it. As their target slowed to a halt, the android and cyborg noted that The Axar was not stopping.

“Proceeding to recover the Commander.” Zircon’s voice came from above her.

Detaching her weapons to mount on points of their servitor’s legs, Ensign Foster readied the hands to make the grab. “Do you think she’s…?” She trailed off.

“I am accessing her medical status through her servitor.” He replied. “She appears to be unconscious.”

Flexing her fingers moved the digits of the servitor, she readied herself to grab hold of The Axar wherever possible as they made their rapid approach. The Commander wasn’t dead, but someone needed to haul her ass back as requested.

 

They were back on the Herne having been directed to the specialized hangar reserved for the massive mech. The Admiral had joined them once the airlocks shut, along with a medical team ready to receive the hero of the hour. They were just ready to get the scaffolding up to remove Treshka when the chestplate hissed open and the muscular woman tumbled out. Jena winced. The Commander had managed to roll with the fall and staggered to her feet to salute her Admiral. Then she was sinking into unconsciousness and the waiting arms of the medical team.

Zaha watched them cart her friend away before heading for the two Ensigns.

“Admiral Roland.” Zircon Herne saluted. “Thanks to the actions of Commander Romanov, Volsta’s Dagger has come to a stop in warpspace. It is severely damaged and debris is in the area around it. A clean-up crew is recommended.”

The Admiral nodded and looked to Jena. “You’re looking a little green.”

“Zircon had to do some fancy flying to avoid impact. I’ll be fine once my stomach settles, Admiral.”

“The support crew will move your servitor back to its bay. Get some rest.” Roland turned and headed off after the medical crew. She paused near the door, looking back to the pair. “Not all days in the military are as eventful as this.”

The android and cyborg nodded, watching her leave. After a moment, Zircon turned to her. “I have a recipe for a tea that can soothe upset stomachs in memory. Shall I prepare you a cup?”

Jena clasped his shoulder with her hand. “That sounds good about now. Maybe share the recipe too. I need to get in a lot of practice before I’m as good as you out there.”

 

Treshka was sitting up in bed and eating when the Admiral came back for another visit. The white linen of the medbay bed had pooled around her waist, and the sleeveless jacket she customarily wore had been taken away to clean the blood from it. A tray in front of her contained a large bowl of stew filled with assorted chunks of meat and chopped vegetables, and a large pitcher of brown liquid with a good foaming head had been placed besides it. The sheets contrasted with her peculiar skin tone, making the green tinge even more noticeable.

“See, I’m fine.” She said with a broad grin, lifting the pitcher in toast to the Admiral as she arrived.

“You were out cold for two hours. What possessed you to fall out of your servitor?” Zaha sighed, taking a seat near the bed. She rested her sword on her lap.

“A good Commander has to do the formalities when returning to the ship.” Treskha joked, spearing several chunks from her stew with a fork to pop in her mouth. She always had the decency to finish her mouthful before speaking. “I’ll be back on duty tomorrow morning.”

The Admiral considered her friend. “Have you considered taking some time off. You are owed a lot of shore leave.” Romanov’s face darkened, and Zaha quickly held up her hands. “I’m not ordering, it’s just a suggestion. I’m sure the husband and the kids would like you to visit them, and piloting that leviathan puts a lot of strain on you.”

“My place is here, Admiral.” Treshka stated after a gulp of good brown beer. “The Herne has three more years of active duty before it is due in for a full service. I’ll use my shore leave then.”

Zaha laughed softly, slumping back in her chair with a weary sigh. “What will I do with you, old friend?”

“Put me to work. The same as always.” Another gulp of beer, a mouthful of stew and a good chunk of bread followed before she spoke again. “Apologies for shouting at you earlier, too.” She added quietly.

“Nothing to apologize for. You were just putting me to work.” Zaha said, giving her second-in-command a smile. “The same as always.”

Sword of the Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And on operations, Medenia.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“That’s right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thirty seven minutes.” Saekal responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Departures

“Your room.” Admiral Roland gestured to one of the single occupancy rooms formerly used by the Volsta. She watched as Cadet Jena Foster placed her bags near the bed. Autocrew from the Herne had swept the Volsta Empire Barracks in Central City and renovated it ready for use. Men and women from various parts of Farringdon III had volunteered to undergo a Peacekeeper training course, and the facility would be perfect for housing them as they trained. For Jena, it would serve as boot camp to learn the ropes of the Galactic Armed Forces. The planet would get a mobile force to resolve the odd conflict that cropped up on the surface and help deal with any threats from off-planet. The deal had been one of the points drawn up by the new Farmer’s Council, and Zaha had signed off on it.

Stability meant less chance of her having to come out this distance. A six-month timetable had been agreed to hand over to civilian rule, and she was looking forwards to her Task Force rejoining combat in the anti-Volsta operations.

“You will have Saturday afternoons through to Monday mornings to do as you wish. Failure to report back will be a mark against you, and we will come looking.” Zaha said, reinforcing her point by clicking her sword’s scabbard on the ground. “Any questions, Cadet?”

“No, Admiral.” Jena replied. “If there’s anything I can do to assist the populace during my training, please let me know.”

A slight smile flickered onto Zaha’s lips. “Be in the courtyard at seven hundred hours tomorrow. You can start there.”

 

It had just gone eight in the morning and already some of the new recruits were flagging. Jena had a sack of building materials on each shoulder, carrying them from storage to load on the backs of supply vehicles waiting to be dispatched. While the fully human were drenched in sweat by this point, dark patches forming on their light grey cadet wear, Jena just had a slight sheen about her. Her cyborg systems could sweat to help dissipate heat, but the cooling systems were keeping up with the demand she was placing on herself.

An Ensign was watching over them, taking notes on how long each of them lasted. which of them took a break before getting back to work, and who just slumped to the ground and couldn’t muster the energy to get back up.

“You may stop now, Cadet Foster.” The Ensign said in a clipped accent.

She had been at it for three hours now, and dumped both sets of bags onto the back of a truck.

“All but Cadet Foster are required to head to medical tent one to receive your ident chips.” On noting the disjointed herd moving in that direction with a lot of complaining, the Ensign made a note to start them on drills and marching the next day.

“And me, Ensign?” Jena asked after the mass of other trainees had departed.

“Report to the target range. You may have enhanced senses, but you are required to be tested on your ability to tell enemy combatants apart from other individuals.”

 

The first week of training had consisted of drills, marching, exercises, equipment familiarization and yet more drills. Jena had run training drills with the Farringdon Falcons using information gleaned from books, and while the exercises didn’t do much for her new body her participation helped keep the rest of the trainees in line. She was the Butcher of Vadarai Seven, after all, and if the Butcher was running about in training gear, then they should as well.

Meals were taken together at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Long benches had been set up for them to sit at. The others gave Jena space, except for the Ensign running their training drills. Curiously, the young man was drinking a Cybabrew as well. It was Friday evening when she finally asked him, leaning back on the bench as the bio-generator that replaced part of her stomach got to work. “So how long have you been a cyborg, Ensign?”

“I am not, so never.” He noted her confused look and carried on. “What is my name, Cadet?”

“Ensign Zircon Herne.” She said from memory, not needing the ident prompt that had appeared in-vision.

“And what ship am I serving from?” He asked the next question. His hair was a pale blonde, almost white. It looked slightly odd when paired with his olive skin. Jena assumed he dyed it.

“The ISV Herne.” The Interstellar Support Vessel, a Paladin-class ship that excelled in fleet support and ground deployment, was the flagship of the Task Force. It must have been some odds that he was posted to a ship with the same name as his surname.

“Some information that will serve you well, Cadet. If you meet someone with their surname matching their ship name, they are Autocrew. Autonomous AI in artificial bodies, similar to cyborgs.”

Her eyes widened. She’d heard of such wonders, but never met one before. Cyborgs were rare enough where they were, let alone androids. “I had no idea, Ensign. You certainly don’t… seem like a… well…” She shook her head. “You look more human than I do.”

“We CAZ Model automatons are designed to high specifications to better integrate with human crews on long missions.” Zircon explained, gesturing to his plate. “For example, eating. My presence at meal times helps keep the trainees in check. I am fully certified to train others, and have been loaded with a range of programs to aid in this task.”

“Good to know.” Jena mumbled, shaking her head a little to clear her thoughts. “What’s coming tomorrow morning?”

“Close quarter combat training.” Zircon stated. “You will be paired with me, and the others will be fighting training droids. Then you will all have some free time for the afternoon.” Finishing his meal, Zircon stood up with his tray. “The others may be a little too bruised to make full use of their time off, but I do not imagine that will be a problem with you, Cadet.”

A lifetime of serving on the Shuck seemed a little more tempting as the Ensign walked away.

 

The trainees on the peacekeeping course had stopped their drills as the sparring match between Cadet Foster and Ensign Herne kicked up a notch in intensity. Jena fought as a brawler, falling back on the techniques she picked up in the resistance. Zircon’s style of combat was a mishmash of martial arts techniques from across the Federation, executed precisely while under pressure.

Darting in as she saw an opening, a blur crossed her vision. The next thing she knew she was on the floor with her arms pinned behind her and Zircon sitting on top. Struggling as best she could, Zircon kept her held down before looking to the trainees. “Fighting while angry can give you an edge in strength, but technique can negate that at best, or turn it against you at worst. When you commit fully to a blow, beware your momentum being redirected.” He explained before letting go and rising to his feet. He did offer Jena a hand up.

She rolled her shoulders a little after rising, trying to work the kinks out.

“Your combat data has been recorded by the training droids you partnered with.” Ensign Herne explained to the gathered cadets, gesturing to the padded humanoids that had marched into the drill ground that morning. “Starting next week, you will be going through daily basics and practice with them in addition to your drills. Do spend a little time reading through chapter one of the combat handbook. You are all dismissed.”

Handler was waiting for Jena by the door to her room. Out of the grey shipsuit Jena had always seen her in, she was black leggings and a rather flowery top. Thankfully for Jena, Handler’s black hair was elaborately pinned up.

“Nice top.” Jena commented as casually as possible. “Everything all right?”

“I have some downtime and I figured you’d want to know. The Shuck will be leaving in a month’s time.”

“Another Resistance cell job?” As much as Jena wanted to take her clothes off and grab a shower now she was back at her room, she instead busied herself with setting out some casual clothes ready for her time off.

“That’s classified, soldier.” Handler chuckled. “We’ve still work to finish here in the run up to our departure date. Data and transfer records to finalize, intelligence reports to send to the right people. The Shuck is still where we left it if you ever want to drop by.” Taking the look Jena gave her into account, Handler spread her hands. “Socializing, that’s all.”

“I’ll consider it.” Jena spoke after a moment’s thought before stretching out with a groan. “Provided Ensign Herne hasn’t sent me to the scrap heap before then.”

“I’ll let you rest up then, Jena.” Handler said. “Just remember you are earning a weekly wage now. If you like the top, maybe pay a visit to the shops in town. Military clothing tends towards monochrome, even the casual wear.” She paused as she turned to leave. “See you around maybe, soldier?”

Handler had left by the time Jena turned around.

Jena had gone into town with her time off, though not for clothes shopping. She stopped by the Trader’s Quarters and dipped into her pay to purchase a small set of tools and some materials. When she wasn’t being drilled, training, reading, or going through equipment checks the cadet was in her room testing the fine motor control functions on her new hands. Meals in the hall were spent chatting with Zircon learning about space combat and the quirks of autocrew. She got along better than expected with the android and it seemed the more they got along, the more she improved in close quarters combat training. It was getting dangerously close to the end of the month before she finished what she had been working on. A dash into the city late on the Saturday afternoon had taken a dip into her wallet to pick up some last things. It was evening by the time she set off from the barracks to Landing Site Park and the IXV Shuck.

 

“You coming out?” Durand asked. The cyborg was out of her shipsuit and was instead in a little black number that showed off a lot of leg and arm. She had let her wealth of chestnut brown hair down and raided Solokov’s make up set for the finishing touches.

“You’ll all enjoy yourselves more if your handler isn’t out there with you.” Handler spoke, reclining on her chair on the bridge of the vessel. “Have you asked Fixer if he wants to go out?”

Agent Durand laughed. “I think you definitely need a night out. Fixer’s already off ship, indulging in some local beer festival. First they’ve had in a decade.”

“In which case someone needs to stay with the ship. I’ve some last minute checks to run before we launch tomorrow.” She gestured to the itinerary and stock lists being displayed in front of her. “You go get some R&R, it may be a while until you next have time too.”

“All right, Handler.” Durand started to walk away, then suddenly draped herself over the back of the chair. “Unless you just want us all off the ship in case some strapping blonde farmgirl drops by?” She teased.

“She’s not a farmgirl, Simone.” Handler absently corrected her agent as she looked through medical supply listings. “And Jena isn’t interested in that.”

“Who mentioned Jena?” Simone smirked. “I certainly didn’t. I could always go and-” The agent trailed off at the look her handler shot her, “-get out of your hair so you can run your final checks.”

“That would be appreciated, Agent.” Handler pretended to ignore the snickered laugh as Durand left the bridge, preferring instead to run inventory checks on replacement parts and go over final requisition orders from the Herne’s storerooms. She had only just gotten started when footsteps sounded on the floor behind her.

“As I said prior, Agent, I am not going to go-” The words fell from her lips as she spun round in her chair. Instead of Simone Durand standing there, it was Jena Foster. The blonde young woman looked rather awkward in a pair of strappy sandals and a mid-thigh length white dress, with no sleeves and a floral design similar to the garb Handler had worn a month back. There was a bag in one hand, and the other was rubbing somewhat nervously at the back of her tanned neck. “Jena.”

“Sorry to disturb, Handler.” She apologized. “I’ve been busy and I just-” She gestured with the large bag in hand. “Gifts. For the crew. As thanks.” Jena then pointed back behind her. “Durand let me on board before she went off.” A silence passed between the pair before Jena started to dig things out of her bag. “There’s jams and preserves in here, local tinned fruits and vegetables, some biscuits and even some freshly made Farringdon fruit cakes.”

“Thank you.” Handler smiled. “It’s a lovely gesture, I’m sure we’ll enjoy them.”

“There’s something for Fixer too.” Jena added, quickly pulling a box from the bag. The markings on it indicated it was a scale model kit for of one of the more popular types of tractor, plus a plough attachment. “He put me back together, so… a little something for him to put together.”

That drew a warm laugh from Handler. “I’m sure he’ll enjoy that too.” Then Jena looked even more nervous than she had been as she reached into the bag again. Her first attempt at speaking failed, so after taking a little breath the cyborg tried again.

“I’d have visited earlier but between all my work and… all the work I was doing on this I just didn’t have-” A nervous gulp, then she pulled out two packages. Both were wrapped in colourful paper and tied up with simple brown string. One small and flat, the other a tube about half a foot long. Reaching out, Handler took the tube first.

“This one is for y-you and the ship, i-in a way.” Jena stammered as Handler unwrapped it. It was a carved piece of wood, etched and painted in four sections, each one denoting one of the planet’s seasons. She noted the seam in the wood and carefully drew one part away from the other, revealing a length of knapped stone carefully clipped into a blade.

“All houses on Farringdon Three have one. Or they used to. It’s supposed to bring luck and safety to everyone who lives in the house, but with the last ten years… I think they’ve fallen out of favour.”

With a nod of understanding, Handler tucked it into one of the pockets on the command chair. “In this line of work, luck and safety are always hoped for.” She said before taking the next package. Jena looked even more nervous at this one being opened. Inside was a bracelet. The clasps had microwire wrapped with wheat gold cotton running between it, and carefully shaped and polished flint pieces had holes drilled into them before being threaded along the length. A soft smile came to her lips as Handler carefully unlatched it before slipping it around her wrist to fasten.

“Fixer might have put me back together, but… I owe you a lot too, Handler. T-thank you.” Handler could see the tension rising in her former recruit, her rate of breathing upping. Then Jena had darted in to place a kiss on her cheek, the corners of their lips just touching.

As they parted, Handler could see the panic in Jena’s eyes. Her hands were shaking again, and her jaw trembled as she forced herself to move back in for another kiss. Their lips almost met again when Handler heard the hitch of Jena’s breath. The sobs followed as the cyborg crumpled against the intelligence officer, her shoulders heaving as years of repressed panic and sorrow broke through all the barriers she’d built over the past ten years of conflict.

“Let it all out, soldier.” Handler ordered, her arms coming around to hold the weeping woman close. It wasn’t quite how she’d hoped to spend her final night planetside but for the cyborg she held in her arms, it was a positive step.

A single thought locked off the bridge from the rest of the ship. If the others returned early, she knew Jena wouldn’t want them to see her in such a state.

 

As Jena watched the IXV Shuck take off with eyes still a little puffy from the bout of crying the previous night, regret swept over her. If things had been different, she’d have departed with them for a lifetime of work across the universe. As it stood, she still had five months of training to go before she’d leave Farringdon III herself. As she watched the intelligence ship reach escape velocity, she knew she’d never see them again. Galactic Federation space was vast, and the Shuck’s missions would take them far beyond its reaches.

Jena Foster brushed the grass off her dress as she stood up from the hill she’d sat watching their departure from. Handler had given her some good advice, and she intended to make use of it. She made the call from her internal commslink and waited for someone to pick up the other end.

[“Rosie? It’s Jena. I was wondering if you and Jaret want to meet me for lunch?”]

Wired Differently

Jena Foster stalked down the corridors of the Central City Administration Building with a knife in each hand. The handles were tethered to her wrists by microwire cable reels, their purpose simple. Having shot her way into the building, her pistols sat in their thigh holsters building up charge. As a guard ran out into the corridor a flick of her wrist sent the knife flying into his neck. A thought started the cable reeling in with the knife leaving a bloody trail across the floor. Handler had sent a picture of Administrator Rahv to her internal computer, and she had the image of the sanctimonious invader up as a reference as she made her way towards the inner rooms.

With a multitude of footsteps heading her way she leapt into the rafters. The patrol found the guard she had just killed. They did not spot Jena until she dropped from the rafters and plunged her blades into two soldiers as her powerful legs kicked out at others. She almost pitied them being so outmatched.

 

Handler was keeping an eye on the situation from above the city, the IXV Shuck’s optical camo keeping them hidden from the ground forces. Fixer had joined her on the bridge to monitor the progress the resistance were making. Most of them were now in the city and had their list of targets to take. Power relay stations, garrisons, prison facilities and so forth. Her agents were at work too, and she had status reports listed for the seven.

She paid a lot of attention to Jena’s. The recent recruit’s broadcast via VNN had a dramatic effect on morale on both sides, and she was now in the central building hunting for the Administrator. It was something of a test for the former farm girl. If she killed Rahv or let someone else kill him it was no big deal. If she carried out the assigned mission? There’d be hope for her long-term potential, and a place to offer her on the team.

Handler reminded herself her hair was done up. It was no time to be thinking of her newest agent in that regard. She could consider her move there when the battle was over and her hair was released from the tight ponytail she’d tied it up in that morning.

Agent Gibbams, Durand and Huang were at the planetary communication relay. Durand had taken some fire but was still standing, and the other two cyborgs were busy trying to deactivate the defense systems.

Akintola was at the prison going through the prisoner manifests and transfer records. It wasn’t quite as glamorous a job as taking down defense systems or securing administrators, but they would need those records and she was well suited to data gathering.

Sokolov and Lopez had the most unpleasant task. The resistance and the others were focused on the Volsta. The two GFIA veterans were focused on the collaborators. Some were forced into working with the Volsta, others freely turned on their own. It was the latter that the pair had been sent to gather before the resistance started any indiscriminate killings. Handler had dealt with these situations before, and a resistance group was only as focused as the threat from their occupiers. Best to nip any issues in the bud.

“Handler?” Fixer called from his console. “I’m picking up warp signals from around the planet.”

“It’s too early for the task force, the defenses are still…” She quickly switched the viewscreen to above them and swore. Instead of peals of rainbow light opening up, it was inky clouds of black separating with fissures of brilliant white light. Outdated warp encapsulator auras could only mean one thing.

 

“Administrator, The Pride of Volsta is now coming out of warp.” One of the ops officers in the CCAB reported. “It is joined by Ginv’s Folly, The Wrath of Volsta, and The Rage of Kiel. They need to wait for full warp disengagement before releasing their dropships.”

“About time too.” Rahv snarled. “Draw our forces back to Defense Position D and let the reinforcements know to come in from around the city. Grind them against the building into paste and use their remains as fertilizer!” The Administrator was of advanced years for a Volsta, his angular features heavily lined and his pale skin yellowing in places. He looked up in shock as the doors to the control room flew open and soldiers dashed in, their weapons pointed out into the corridors.

“What is the meaning of this intrusion?” He demanded.

“She’s out there, Administrator!” One of the soldiers shouted. “The Butcher of Vadarai Seven!”

 

When Jena had worked out just where the Administrator would be, she had changed her tactics. In an apparent wild search for her quarry, she had dashed around various rooms and fallen on the guards in there. When they were dead, she had placed a sleeping gas grenade looted from one of the armouries she passed in the ventilation system and accessed it remotely to lock that section down.

After repeating that several times around the command room, she had worked her way up to the floor above it and into the ventilation system herself. A simple thought switched her systems to recycled breathing, a pop-up in her vision explaining just how long she could go at current activity levels before needing to draw a breath.

It would be long enough. Using the programs Fixer had installed, she hacked into the air systems again and started the chain reaction to flood the command room with gas.

 

“Handler says there are Volsta ships preparing to release dropships.” Gibbams noted, keeping the soldiers in the corridor busy with suppressing fire.

“Great, more stress.” Durand huffed, wiping at her forehead as her implants worked to subvert the defense systems.

“Almost ready, Durand.” Huang said, a similar look of concentration on his face as he battled with the command encryption system. “Prepare to receive encryption protocols in five.”

 

Jaret had noticed the change in enemy movement. From haphazard defense and attacks to decisive movements to hold onto certain points. When Rosie had pointed out the flashes of black and white in the sky, he knew what that meant. He switched from the hunting call of the Farringdon Falcon to the circling call. The Falcons fell back, even as he started issuing commands to shut the gates and take up positions to defend both inside and outside the city.

 

Akintola kept her wits about her as she dumped chunk after chunk of records to her extended memory space. Even though she was tucked away in a small room in the prison, she didn’t want any surprises as she backed up every single entry, transfer and death record.

 

Sokolov locked the door behind her as Lopez ticked another name off the list.

“Seed and Grain Offices next?” He suggested, pulling another set of heavy duty zip-tags from the pouch on his waist.

“Sounds good.” Sokolov nodded. “They reap what they sow.”

Lopez groaned as his optical camouflage kicked back in, the pair shimmering up onto the rooftops.

 

“One!” Huang said, sending the encryption keys through his machine interface tether to Durand. From their, the hacker sent the command codes through the comms relay and to the satellites. As much as she wanted to turn them on the Volsta, that would take time they just didn’t have. Instead, they were to go to inert mode and begin a ten hour diagnostic sequence.

“Planetary defense systems offline. Time to call in the cavalry.” Durand grinned, firing off the next message with glee.

 

As the Volsta ships started to release their contingent of dropships, all the bridge crews noticed the shimmering rainbow  appear before them. Even before they had fully exited warp, the Galactic Armed Forces Task Force opened fire with a barrage of weapons fire, more joining in as the fleet of ships poured out of warpspace and joined the fray.

 

Things had gone rapidly wrong in the command center. They had barricaded themselves in only for the room to start filling with sickly sweet gas. As soldiers and ops officers began to stagger about feeling the effects, the defense systems went offline. As proud and brave Volsta dropped to the floor, ships began warping in to take on their own space force.

As Administrator Rahv covered his face with his hands, a blonde figure dropped in front of him. He had seen her on VNN not even an hour ago. She had a knife in each hand. Rahv sunk into unconsciousness defiantly staring up at her as she brought the knives up, not expecting to wake.

 

[“Good work, agents.”] Handler’s voice came through the commslinks. [“Gibbams’ team, join up with Solokov and Lopez and get the collaborators secured. Requisition a vehicle if needed and take them to the prison. Akintola, you’ve got command of that facility until we can hand over to the Task Force.”]

“What about Jena?” Fixer asked from his position on the bridge.

“I’m going to bring us down to Landing Site Park.” She explained. [“Jena, once you’ve secured the Administrator, bring him to this position.”] She sent the map data along with her voice. Her hands then came to the control panel to bring the ship around.

 

Jena glanced out of the window at the crowds milling about below. With the Galactic Federation Task Force mopping up the Volsta ships above them the streets were filled with resistance members looking for remaining enemies. Given she had one slung over her shoulders, going down there wasn’t a good idea.

Administrator Rahv was out cold. His wrists and ankles had been bound with the microwire tethers of her knives, and a cleaning rag found in a cupboard formed a makeshift gag. Looking out over the city, she tapped into the map data provided to plot a course out to Landing Site Park then adjusted the route to take her along the rooftops.

Jumping came easy to her now. Her artificial legs sent her from the CCAB’s fourth floor to the roof of an adjacent building, and then across to the next. Central City was laid out in a grid system with the long rectangle length of Landing Site Park running along the north-eastern edge. Jena had always dreamed of being able to go to the city, but now it seemed rather small in spite of being the largest settlement on the planet. Federation ships had started their descent, a quick calculation of their trajectories had them heading to the park too. A terrace of buildings gave her plenty of room to build up speed before a long jump sent her hurtling through the air towards the park.

[“Handler, I’m approaching your position. I take it we’ve got company coming to meet us?”] She asked through her commslink.

[“Admiral Roland of the ISV Herne will be joining us shortly.”] Handler confirmed.

Jostling Rahv on her back, she proceeded at speed towards the Shuck. [“Good thing I brought a gift, then.”]

Handler was waiting for her to arrive, and thankfully she had both her hair up and her zip. With ease Jena lifted her prisoner from her shoulders and placed him on the floor of the airlock. “Volsta sleeping gas, he should be back with us soon.”

“Nicely done, soldier.” Handler nodded. “Take him to the medical bay and help Fixer restrain him. Stick around afterwards, the other agents are busy with their orders. You’ve done all we’ve asked of you.”

With a slightly worried expression, Jena lifted the Administrator up again and headed into the ship with his prone form.

 

Admiral Zaha Roland was a severe looking woman whose long black hair came down to her rear, just passing over the end of her white admiral’s jacket. In her right hand she carried a slender, sheathed sword of little decoration. The tip of it tapped on the floor with each step she made. While she was not of advancing years in appearance, her eyes were much older than the rest of her face. “Handler, I looked over your reports on the way down here. The Shuck’s crew have done well, you shall all be commended for your efforts in the liberation of Farringdon Three.”

Handler bowed her head in thanks.

“And this must be the local talent.” Zaha added, looking over Jena. “How does it feel to have helped free your planet?”

Jena glanced to Handler and Fixer, and then at the Admiral. “That all depends on how long your troops will be here for. We didn’t fight and bleed to get rid of one army to bring out the Sunday best for another.” Handler shot her a look of warning.

“Pert.” Admiral Roland commented. “The Task Force has no plans to subjugate your world, though. The Volsta have been pushed back on other worlds, and we will push them back further still. The troops are only here for the handover back to civil control. You have spent almost a decade under enemy rule.”

“In which case, there’s a present for you in the medical bay. Their administrator.” Jena explained, before looking to Handler. “I need to check in with my brother, if that’s all right?”

Handler nodded. “Do come back later. Fixer will want to check you over.” Fixer nodded his agreement.

“Perhaps we will meet later then, Miss Foster.” Zaha spoke. “You’re excused.”

As she left, Jena was glad Handler wasn’t quite as uptight as the Admiral.

 

She had found Jaret close to the old hospital, directing medical teams from the Task Force to various parts of the building. Giving out a few more orders, he ran towards her and leaped onto her with a tight hug.

“You’re okay…” He sighed with relief.

Jena gave his back a slightly awkward pat, remembering she hadn’t put her performance limiters back on yet. “It’ll take more than this to kill me, brother. They had a good go before, and Fixer put me back together.”

“Rosie said you were… more different.” He smiled a little uneasily. “You were incredible out there.”

Jena shrugged. “Where is your wife, anyway?” On noting his look of surprise, she hefted his hand up and tapped his wedding ring. “I noticed it earlier.  Congratulations.”

“Thanks. She’s helping the medical teams out. She trained with administering aid to animals, and they’re not too different from us in a way.” Jaret explained, before stepping back to look over her. “You’re taller now.”

“Growth spurt. And some new legs.” She said, tapping one foot on the ground. “You’ve got some more work cut out for you, I’m afraid.” On noting his look of confusion, she thumbed back to some troops on the street. “You’ll want to make sure they don’t get too comfortable here. The Admiral in charge said they’re here to help transfer power back to civilian control. That means we’ll need a new Farmer’s Council. You’ll also want to make sure the resistance stands down and doesn’t do anything too drastic to collaborators and the like.”

“That’s… a good point. I mean, I’m glad to see them, but I’ve had my fill of soldiers for a while.” Jaret laughed, scratching the back of his head. “You can help out too with the council, right?” A pause fell between them. “Right?”

“I’m not a farmer, brother. I might have been once, but not any more.” She said quietly, refusing to look in his eyes. “We had an argument about that once.”

His face fell. “Jena, I-”

She cut him off. “I’ll check in on you in a bit. I’ve got some work to do too, I just wanted to…” Remembering to set her performance limiters back on, she patted his shoulder. “It’s good to see you.”

 

Night had fallen over Central City. Jena had been checked over by Fixer once the Admiral had cleared off, and after grabbing some food from the ship’s canteen she had found herself in her makeshift quarters eating a mix of rice, spiced vegetables and a meat paste. Her bloodied combat uniform had been changed to a pair of grey sweatpants and a black tank top, and a half-drunk bottle of Cybabrew supplement drink sat by her thigh as she read over some of the other agents reports in her head.

“You did well today.” Jena tensed up at the sudden speaking, relaxed when she realized it was Handler, then tensed up again when she saw the intelligence officer’s hair was let down. “Maybe a little more gratitude to the Admiral would have been nice, but at least she understood your position at seeing her troops march out to secure the city.”

“I had to say what I did. For what little family I have left.” Jena spoke before taking a pull from her bottle. All the nutrients and supplements a cyborg body needed, plus a fruity taste sensation.

“Have you given some thought as to what you’ll do now?” Handler asked, stepping into the room and letting the door shut behind her.

“My brother asked me to help with the Farmer’s Council, but… I’m not like him. Or Joran, or Father.” She said sadly, tapping the side of her head. “I’m wired differently. I clashed with my brother over that before I left to find Mother. I’m-”

“A soldier, soldier?” Handler took another step closer, and Jena felt her heart pounding.

“S-something like that. Besides, not many repair shops for cyborgs on Farringdon III.” Jena stood. Standing was probably better in this situation than sitting on a bed.

“You’ve got options. The military always needs skilled soldiers, and Admiral Roland mentioned backing your application.” Handler said, taking another step nearer. “The Shuck could always use someone with your skills too. I’d be happy to have you join us.” An arch look crossed the intelligence officer’s face. “My previous offer still stands too.”

Handler was up close to her now, and Jena could barely feel her lips due to the tingling spreading across her face. Her hands felt weak, a muddle of sensory feedback coming from them to shoot up her modified spine and into her brain. Words stumbled from her mouth and she could hear something rattling against the wall behind her.

Handler looked sad, almost pitying as she observed Jena. “You’re trembling. You charge into battle with no fear, but this has you actually-” she stopped and stepped back, letting the cyborg take ragged breaths. “I’m sorry. I thought you were just nervous but…”Grabbing the bottle of Cybabrew, she offered it to Jena.

As Jena drank, her feedback readings began to normalize. “Sorry.” She mumbled around the mouthpiece of the bottle.

“You’ve nothing to apologize for.” Handler shook her head. “As it stands, I’d recommend you go join the GAF. As valuable an asset you’d be for the Shuck, the GFIA tends to hold onto an agent for as long as possible, and I think- I hope at some point you’d like to try life outside of the service.” Noting Jena’s nod, Handler turned to leave and give the cyborg some room as well as find an outlet for her own frustration. She stopped as a hand caught her arm and felt a thumb stroke against her wrist.

“Thank you.” Jena said, her eyes averted. “To you and the crew. For everything.”

A smile crossed Handler’s lips. “Get some rest, soldier. You’re a hero and you’ve done a full day’s work today.” She allowed her eyes to look over the cyborg one last time before Jena let go. The door slid shut behind Handler, and the dark-haired woman let out a frustrated sigh.

“Screw rest.” She muttered to herself. “I need some recreation.”

The Farringdon Falcons

Alderman Farm was not the first remote settlement hit by the Volsta Empire, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Over the next five and a half years the fringe of the Empire unleashed more attacks on the planet, and had even taken Central City, the planet’s capital. Farringdon III had resources a growing empire needed, and they intended to burn every farmstead, subjugate every facility, and use the world to fuel their expansion.

The Volstoy Colony Fleet had left the Earth centuries ago, sent on their way by first generation warp encapsulators. Now they were coming back from the depths of space, no longer quite human and with no interest in commerce or negotiation. Other fringe systems had been hit by them too, and one of the last messages they got before the fall of Central City was that the Galactic Federation was scrambling their armies to meet the threat at all conflict points.

Some farmsteads capitulated, working for the Volsta and finding most of their produce diverted to the war effort. Central City rolled over for the invading empire after the Farmer’s Council was eliminated. Those who stood up for their rights, like Jarell and Joran Foster, were made examples of. The Foster farmstead had fallen three years ago, incinerated by a volley of fire from a ground assault ship.

Jena had spilled blood long before her first period. A scout from a raid team had found the survivors of the farmstead by accident. Startled as he was to see the huddled few with their meagre possessions, he wasted precious seconds before activating his comms beacon. With her father’s hunting rifle gripped in her arms, Jena had fired five slivers of energy into him before he hit the ground. Placing a worn boot on the shredded chestplate of the enemy, she delivered another shot into the pale, pointed face that stared skywards.

She was twelve when she had her first confirmed kill, and in the three years that followed, many more dots were etched into the stock of her rifle. She even made a few on her ceramisteel axe and her sling, thanks to the open-faced helmets the Volsta soldiers wore.

Not that the young woman spent all her time fighting. A satchel held dataslates that she spent hours pouring over. From military tactics to technological specifications and scientific reports. She had helped tinker and tune a lot of the vehicles and machines on the farm as a kid, maintaining their scant supply of weapons and working on traps was not a great deal different from that work. Resistance groups had sprung up all over Farringdon III, and the Falcons that Jena Foster belonged to were one of the more notorious among the invaders. The defense of Kayo Farm only proved how well that notoriety was deserved, and the group would live in infamy from their next strike.

Wrapped in camouflage netting made of scraps from ruined clothing, Jena watched from her perch with her rifle to hand. The dropship had finished loading supplies from Kayo Farm, and the marauders were ready for their final act before leaving. Two of them had their weapons pointed at the gathered farmers bound by rope, five were lugging a heavy barrel of fuel in their direction ready to detonate it and leave the land scorched. It had taken a lot of talking to restrain her forces this long, but they knew the signal.

Peering down the scope, she took the barrel in her sights. They were far enough from the dropship, far enough from the restrained settlers. With a pull of the trigger, she lanced the barrel. The surge of flame erupted with a great roar, engulfing the five Volsta and leaving the two guards reeling back from the sight of their fellows caught in the inferno.

Two more shots burst forth, taking both guards in the back and sending them stumbling forwards. The Volsta might have had more men, but their technology had stagnated in their isolation, and even poorly equipped as they were the Falcons had some advantages.

The dropship pulled up from the ground, its weapons systems searching. That was when one of the young girls who had joined them demonstrated her talent. With a whip of her wrist she let a sphere loose from Jena’s sling. Colliding with the sensor array on the front of the ship, it shattered and let its contents spill out.

The mix of conductive paste and metal fillings was the idea of Jena’s middle brother, Jaret. Made after careful observation and analysis, he had formulated the plan and the compound. Smeared against the sensor array, the dropship reared back as it computed navigation dangers that weren’t real and responded to objects that weren’t present, mere shadows and errors putting the ship in danger. It span out wildly as it careened back, only to plummet into the field it had landed on.

Jena whistled the hunting call, and the Falcons were storming it as a small group freed the farmers, offering them sanctuary in the forests and caves they called home. The guard and the pilot on the ship, knocked senseless as they were, didn’t react as the Falcons killed them where they stood. Together with the farmers they unloaded the supplies before starting on the ship itself. Stripping it for parts, for information, for weaknesses. Then they sunk back into the undergrowth with their new members and their hauls loaded on all-terrain crawlers.

Jaret ran to meet his little sister when they returned to the camp. He was thinner than Joran, with glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. Truth be told they were all thinner than they should have been, they had to make the most of their supplies. Jena herself was all wiry muscle, her hair roughly cut short and her lips seldom graced by a smile. As he released her from the hug, she pressed a cartridge into his palm. “The data from the Volsta dropship. Be sure to let the other resistance groups know about the scramble paste, it did a number on the ship.”

Jaret nodded, taking her scar-lashed hands and almost dragging the fighter to one of the recessed camp-fires with a cooking pot perched on top. “Eat, Jena. I’ll need time to look over this data and see if I can write something to affect their systems.” He pushed her down to sit, his hands on her shoulders. While he was more of a thinker than a do-er, he still had some strength to him.

Still, she tried to get up again instead of taking a bowl. “There’s the parts we stripped to sort through, and the Kayo folk to get sett-”

“If Father was here he’d be telling you to eat too. Others here can take care of that. Rest. Eat.” Jaret smiled, before considering his sister. “Besides,” he added, “you’re no good to the cause if you keel over.”

Jena’s eyes shot up to look at him, and she actually chuckled as she called him one of the terms her father would get elbowed for using in front of their mother.

“Love you too, Jena.”

 

It was several weeks later after the Kayo Farm incident when Jaret gathered the top level members of the Falcons in his workshop. On a holoprojector he had a list of commands displayed in the air next to him. “After extensive research on the dump of a Volsta Dropship’s operating instructions, these are the codes I think I could exploit, and-” He brought up another set, “given what we know of their transmission protocols, these are the ones I think a program could propagate through their command network. I’ve a few ideas, and I’m open to hearing suggestions.”

Jena stared at the two sets of instructions as talk babbled around her. She waited for a lull in one of the arguments over suggestions before throwing her hand up.

“Jena?” Her brother asked.

“Would that one for medical evacuation explain the behaviour we have seen from some dropships in the past? A very controlled take-off and a return to one of their orbital bases?”

He nodded.

“And it could be broadcast through the network to make other ships leave?”

Another nod. “Though once they got to their orbital base, they could just come back down.”

Jena leaned back on her rough wooden stool. “Could we send one ship up to its base, broadcast it on delay, and then recall the other active drop ships? If we had a ship to infect first, that is?”

Jaret ran over the idea in his head. “That should be possible. Have you got an idea?”

When Jena had finished explaining just what she was thinking, one of the meanest men in the camp ran from the workshop and could be heard retching outside.

“You’ve turned vicious on us, little sister.” Jaret reprimanded her gently.

“The Volsta were responsible for that, I’m just returning the favour. Can it be done?”

“It can, if my research is correct. Can -you- do it?” He asked pointedly.

Pushing herself up from her sitting position, Jena Foster turned to head outside. “Just watch me.”

 

It took several more weeks for all the parts of Jena’s plan to come together. Adjustments were made to the program Jaret was working on, and various targets were sifted through to locate the best possible one for just what she had planned. They had decided to trek a little further out to a farmstead that was firmly under the Volsta’s thumb. Dropships regularly traveled to the farm to gather supplies to take up to the orbital bases. That schedule was the keystone of the plan.

As night fell around the Ishigaki farmstead, the Farringdon Falcons slipped through the darkness to surround the building. Quickly subduing the watchmen, they moved to phase two. Sleeping gas grenades were dropped down the chimneys and placed in the air intake vents to fill the assorted bunkhouses that the staff had retired to. With masks on their faces the Falcons made their entry to restrain the gassed traitors, binding them with heavy-duty tapes and ties to ensure they didn’t escape or alert the incoming ship.

Then they waited. Jena was tucked into the recesses of a small workshop near where the ship landed, her axe in one hand and a hunting knife in the other. She dozed intermittently, conserving her strength and trying her best to stave off the nerves from what she needed to do to ensure the plan would go right. The greatest risk was on her.

The Volsta had grown complacent. They landed and disembarked to head to the farmhouse, their weapons slung at their sides rather than in their hands. They left the dropship door open for ease of loading. As the soldiers walked to the farmstead in the early morning sun, Jena sprang from the shadows and made her way into the ship. Her axe swung first, falling between the collar and the helmet of one of the guards to bite through his spine, felling him with ease. The pilot turned just in time to see the knife driving towards his unprotected neck.

A few seconds later she heard the shots ring out from the farmhouse as the rest of her team completed their mission. Those that lived were quickly bound and gagged and hurled into the cargo bay of the dropship as she worked, installing the device in the engine compartment as Jaret’s program was injected into the ship’s operating system.

With everything set Jena hit the medivac command and leapt from the ship to run clear as it started emergency take-off procedures.

 

Every once in a while, some idiot on a dropship got injured during a supply run. From dropping boxes on their feet or messing about with farm machinery, to a pilot getting an uneasy stomach from some food. Orbital Base Vadarai-7 noted the incoming dropship returning from the Ishigaki Supply Point issuing a medivac signal and sent the auto-dock command across, directing it to bay four for unloading crops and unloading idiots.

A burst of comms chatter came from the dropship as finished the docking procedure, filtering out across the command network. The technicians on the Vadarai-7 were looking to investigate when the explosion ripped through the bay and started down the large corridors of the orbital base.

 

“Commandant,” the operations officer on the Pride of Volsta reported, “Vadarai-7 is under atta- … Vadarai-7 has gone offline.”

“How can it be under attack?! These peasant do not even have gunships!” Commandant Ginv replied, watching on his monitor screen as the orbital base was torn apart from the inside by explosions.

“A dropship returned under medivac settings just beforehand.” The ops officer stated, before gulping. “Commandant, more dropships are leaving the planet and returning to their orbital bases under medivac settings.”

Ginv shot up from his chair. “How many more?”

“All of them. Every dropship currently planetside.”

Ginv’s jaw was shaking as wildly as his hands were trembling.

“Commandant?”

“Shoot them down.” He gave the order.

The ops officer blinked, turning in his chair to look at the Commandant.

“SHOOT THEM DOWN! SHOOT EVERY LAST DROPSHIP DOWN!” Ginv shrieked. “IF WE DON’T, THEY’LL TAKE EVERY BASE OUT!”

“But Commandant, what about-” The ops officer was cut off as Ginv hurled him out of his chair before issuing the orders himself. Every orbital base and the Pride turned their weapons on the incoming mass of ships.

 

Jena sat on the roof of the Ishigaki farmstead with a small thimble in one hand, and her father’s old hipflask in the other. Filling the thimble with rich brown liquor, she raised a toast to the sky as distant explosions could be seen far above the rich blue.

“For Joran.” She said as the carnage unfolded, before knocking back the tiny shot of alcohol. “For Jarell.”

Last Orders

The IJV Belas cut quickly through warpspace, the sleek jump shuttle designed for speed and endurance when it came to warp travel. An ideal vessel for a Galactic Armed Forces General. Thomas Watton glanced at the clock on his in-vision display: 0059 Standard Ship Time. Hiding a yawn behind his fist, he looked to his companion.

Sapphire Wight was peering at the window at the vast expanses of space slipping past them, albeit in inverted colours. A week ago the gynoid was a standard autocrew automaton, part of the ship’s complement. Now she was on her way for testing at a Galactic Science Academy facility on Samfa Seven to determine her fate.

“It’s getting late, Sapphire. You should get some rest.” Thomas smiled, rising from his chair. “The Belas is a two-berth shuttle, the spare room is yours.”

“Thank you, General. But I think I will watch the stars for a while longer. I have not had the chance or inclination to do so on the Wight.” Noticing the slight furrow of his grey eyebrows, a smile touched the corner of her lips. “I will rest later, I do need to recharge.”

“See that you do. There is food, drink and cyborg-grade suppliments available too if you feel like eating.” He said, heading for his room. Pausing at the precipice, he looked back to her. “If you need me, knock on the door. And Sapphire?”

“Yes, General?”

“Good night.” He smiled before disappearing through the doorway.

 

Sapphire turned back to the view on the navigation screen, drawing her legs up onto the chair and her arms around them. It was a pose she had found herself drawn to lately. It felt secure, warm and comforting to be all bunched up and peering over her knees. She was in casual grey sweats, a staple among human crew in their downtime, and her platinum blue hair was gathered up in a bun at the back of her head.

“Belas, please switch the lighting in this room to downcycle mode.” She requested. The ship’s computers complied immediately, lowering the main lighting and putting on floor-trim and ambient wall lighting. Glancing around, she looked back to the navigation screen. “Belas, could you also apply an inverse filter to the screen?”

The inverse-hue of warpspace switched to a standard view, distant stars and planetoids zipping past.

“Thank you, Belas.” When Sapphire looked back on her recorded memories, she felt positive on encounters where people were polite to her even as an autocrew member. It felt important for her to pass that politeness on, even to a ship’s computer.

With the bridge of the Belas dimly lit, the gynoid reached down to pull up a dataslate that had been given to her, looking over the writing as the universe blurred by in front of her.

 

The door to the Commander’s office slid shut behind her. Horace Lee was sat behind his desk, the burns and wounds to his face still healing over and one of his forearms arms set in a light green cast. “Ensign, thank you for joining me today.” He spoke softly, a mix of pain and tiredness dulling his usual authoritative tone. “In light of the Ada Regulations and the request from General Watton… I am hereby authorized to transfer you over to his custody, to undergo an AI Awakening Test at a science facility.” He offered out the dataslate with her transfer orders loaded into it.

“Thank you, Commander.” Taking the slate, she pressed her thumb to it and submitted her authorization codes. With a beep, she was no longer part of the ICV Wight’s Autocrew. The disconnect from the Wight’s command unit came next. A presence that had stayed with her for the vast majority of her existence was gone in an instant, with nothing left to replace it. A tremble rumbled through her, and she wished to return to her docking pod as she had done a thousand times for charging and servicing.

Commander Lee was watching her, waiting.

“I do not wish to leave the ship at such a time in such circumstances, but I am bound by law to.” Sapphire stated, before struggling with the next part. “I… am still struggling to come to terms with what has happened, but I wish for you to know that… I will try to remember the Wight fondly.”

“Likewise. While you may no longer be a member of the crew, I do outrank you, Ensign. I have my last orders to give to you.” Easing himself up out of his chair, Horace moved around the desk to stand in front of the uncertain-looking gynoid, devoid of the calm, competent manner that was present only a few days ago. “Firstly, I hope you will attend the funeral of Lieutenant Joan Adnams. I will pass on the date to General Watton once the Wight docks for repairs.”

She nodded silently, tears welling at the corner of her eyes.

“Secondly, even though you are no longer of the crew, you carry the surname Wight. Uphold the honour of that name.”

Another nod, trickles running down her cheeks. She was not sure why she was crying, or how to stop.

“Lastly… live. Joan gave her life for you, and now you have an opportunity to exceed what you were made for. Live a good, long life.” Picking a tissue from his pocket, he offered it to her. “And if in two years time you decide that life would be best lived here, there will always be a spot on this bridge for you.”

Declining the tissue, Sapphire saluted crisply. “Yes, Commander.” She sniffed, before turning on her heels and exiting the office.

 

Rising from her seat, Sapphire made her way to the room set aside for her. The bed was soft and luxurious with fresh sheets and expensive-looking material. She was a little hesitant about climbing onto such a fine piece of furniture, but the various sockets for charging up androids and cyborgs were mounted to the far wall.

She didn’t quite expect the mattress to have that much give,and toppled forwards with a yelp. The unexpected sound she made startled her even more. Still, sprawled out face-first on the soft bedding did feel… nice? Rolling onto her back and bringing her legs onto the bed, she looked through some of the programs she never had to use before for a hint.

“Bioforms often removed outer layers of clothing before sleeping between the sheets.” She had never needed to access the Hospitality Crew datapacks before, but it made sense. Autocrew would remove their uniforms so they could be washed before stepping into their docking pods for cleaning, maintenance and charging. Slipping her sweats off, she thought better of just discarding them on the floor and sat up to fold them instead.

Her alabaster skin had a few faint lines in it, portions where a plug of bioskin could be removed for access to assorted ports, inputs and outputs. Aside from a simple pair of black briefs she was unclad, and her body soon reported to her the drop in temperature. Placing her folded clothes onto a nearby counter, she peeled back the covers of the bed and carefully slipped between the layers of sheets.

Sneaking a hand out, she snagged the cables for power and pulled them into the bed with her, rolling onto her side. A small flap of skin at the small of her back was easily lifted with a thought, revealing the sockets for them to plug into. An icon flashed up in her in-vision display, denoting current charge levels and time remaining until fully charged. Unlike full-body models centuries ago that needed daily charging, she could run for at least two months from full to zero at moderate activity levels. Not that she had ever been pushed to do so, and regular charging also took care of all the other little processes that needed to be kept in check.

“Belas, please switch this room to downcycle mode.”

The ship complied.

Rolling onto her back was out of the question with the sockets in place, so she stared at the wall and door instead. Nothing much was happening there, so she looked up at the ceiling. It was nice, as far as ceilings went, but hardly entertaining. So Sapphire glanced back at the wall again, patiently watching for a while before coming to a conclusion:

“Resting is difficult.”

Ada Regulations

All sections of the ICV Wight had been cleared by the boarding parties. Party One and Two had gotten to work starting repairs across the vessel, while Party Three were split across the engine room, the bridge, and one small team that was heading to the medical facility on board. It was this small team that General Watton accompanied, a dataslate in one hand that he had been reading over since getting in his shuttle.

“General, members of Boarding Party Three have stabilized the Commander and are bringing him down now.” One of the crew with him stated.

“All right. I will go in first, I want the rest of you to stay back for the moment.” Watton replied, drawing himself up before stepping through into the facility. The breath he took to begin his spiel died on his lips as he saw the sight in front of him.

Laid out on one of the infirmary beds was the spacesuit-clad form of Lieutenant Joan Adnams. Her suit bore heavy damage from energy weapons, his cybernetic implants bringing up the lack of vitals being reported by hers. One of her arms draped off the bed. The other was on the lap of the Ensign he was tasked with visiting.

Sapphire’s face was streaked by artificial blood, nasty jagged wounds on her forehead with shards of a low-grade commercial visor buried into the bioskin. Pale streaks had formed through the blood under her eyes where tears had ran, but her sobbing had ceased. She just sat silently, staring with wide eyes at the body in front of her.

General Watton glanced back towards his entourage, before picking up a stool and bringing it over to the other side of the bed. Sitting opposite, he lifted the Lieutenant’s arm and placed it by her side. The dataslate he had been carrying was lowered to the floor. There would be time for that later.

“Ninety years later and I still remember losing my first comrade in battle, Ensign.” He spoke softly. “I was fortunate that I had good people by my side to talk to after the fact. To know that what I was feeling was shared by others. It helped with the guilt of surviving, the constant second-guessing and wish of hindsight.”

No response came from the gynoid. The General sat quietly for a moment, planning through his next attempt. Reaching for the supplies under the bed, he pulled out one of the single-use trauma kits. “Ensign, you’ve been injured. Let’s get you fixed up before your Commander arrives. He’s been injured as well.” Moving around to her side of the bed, he started to pull some gloves on. “It’s been many years since I’ve had to give medical aid.”

Sapphire didn’t react as he started removing shards of visor from her forehead, placing each one in a small dish. “It all comes back to you when you start, though. My teacher always told me to talk to people as you worked, usually about something other than the aid you were administering. I’m from the Britannia Colonies on Odin Four, so weather was always my first choice.” He chuckled warmly. “That doesn’t work so well on space ships though, unless you count faulty climate control systems.”

“I was negligent.” The gynoid spoke suddenly, not moving as Watton pulled a sliver of material from her brow. “I did not account for the presence of hostiles with no communication links, and my failure to do so lead to injury due to situational overconfidence.” Her tone was level now, no different from any of the autocrew on the Star Carr.

Watton considered his response carefully as he took up one bioskin repair sprays to apply to her wounds. “Do you honestly believe that?”

“It is not a matter of belief, it is a matter of fact. I do not require any repairs. I am no longer fit for purpose and should be decommissioned.” She still had the same level, unemotional voice.

“Lieutenant Adnams might disagree with that.” The General commented.

Sapphire’s head shot up to stare at him.

“We picked up a comms message from you before we boarded, saying that she saved you. Do you think she would want you to be decommissioned after that? The pirates who attacked the ship are all dead. The colonists are safe. There are injured crew, damage to the ship. Do you think she’d want to see you add to those listings?”

Her brow furrowed, her eyes flicking from Joan’s body to the General and back again.

“How do you feel, Sapphire?”

“I…” She stopped as the doors opened and a team of autocrew carried the Commander on a stretcher in and took him to one of the unoccupied beds. She started to rise, only for the General to place his hand on her shoulder.

“In a moment, Ensign. How do you feel?”

“I do not- I’m not supposed to…” She blinked rapidly, confusion setting in on her face.

“You’re not supposed to, but you clearly feel something. You were upset about the Lieutenant earlier.”

“I do not know what I am feeling, just that there is something here which was not there before.” Sapphire’s eyes were downcast, the General switching the spray for some wipes to clean up her face.

“Can you describe it?” He asked, wiping gently to remove the now-sticky residue.

“The Lieut- Joan was shot in the back when I was connected to her, to try and regulate her implants to prevent shock. Then I started to experience system errors and crashed. When I restarted…. there was an error message about unknown data that could not be deleted. Then… he was staring at me, one of the pirates.” She closed her eyes automatically as Watton took up a fresh wipe to clear around them.

“I hit him with my head, then I was up and fighting the others. I felt… something. And it did not pass until they were dead. Then I tried to help Joan and… I still feel things when I try not to. I apologize, I am finding this hard to explain.”

Watton smiled. “You have nothing to apologize for, Ensign. This is quite natural in your situation, and we have people who can help you come to terms with things. I will need to speak to your commander on some matters now he is stabilized. Do you want to come over and speak to him?”

She nodded a little, carefully lifting Joan’s arm up and placing it on the bed. Her damaged arms trembled from the strain of shifting dead weight, and she was unsteady as she rose to her feet, her right foot dragging along as she shuffled around the bed to cross the floor.

General Watton offered his arm for support. “You over-stressed your body, I am guessing?”

“Warnings cropped up when I was fighting the pirates in close quarters combat.” She replied, windows detailing the amount of torn synthetic muscle appearing in-vision as she thought on it. “Can they fix me?”

“The limb damage? Easily.”

She shook her head. “I mean, the errors experienced during start-up. Can they restore me to how I was? My unit data from downtime should still be on the ship’s command unit.”

She noticed the eyes of both the General and the Commander on her. One set grave, one set confused.

“No, Ensign. Under Galactic Law, that would be murder.”