Keeping Count

The brush ran smoothly through her hair, stroke after stroke from top to tip. Her maid was diligent in her duty. One hundred brushes, every morning. Sunlight streamed in through the bay windows into the royal bedroom, not yet reaching the full length mirror in front of where the Queen sat. Once possessing an unmarred beauty, her face was now careworn and her wealth of raven black hair streaked through with grey.

“Eighty-one, eighty-two-” She heard her maid counting just under her breath as the paddle slid down, drawing the bristles through her locks.

Waiting for the Queen once she left the room would be stacks of paperwork, reports from the front lines, and the list of casualties. The last one was never a surprise, though.

“How many today?” The Queen inquired as her maid finished brushing. She could see the the young woman’s lips moving as she picked her way through the bristles with delicate fingers.

“Thirteen, your Majesty.” Came the delayed reply in a timid little voice, carefully presenting thirteen strands of grey hair, draped over her palm.

She took them carefully, running her fingertips along the length. “You may go for now.”  She only let her jaw tremble for a moment once the maid was out of the room before steeling her expression into one of regal calm.

Thirteen grey hairs for thirteen fallen knights.

Unbridled

In the eight weeks that had passed since Jena Foster’s re-awakening, she had time for a lot of reading. Her neural computer implant let her pull information from the computers of the IXV Shuck, the ship that had become her temporary home. At first her reading had been on the matter of cyborgs, given her new status as one. Then she added in the general history of human enhancement. In one of the corridors of the ship she walked on her hands as her mind let her scroll through the document she was currently reading.

It was the mid-twenty first century on Earth when human enhancement projects split into two distinct paths. The development of the human-machine interface let a mind communicate directly with electronic components and from that point on companies competed against each other to create the strongest, the fastest, the most efficient components they could. Someone with only a cybernetic arm would be constrained by their biological components. Someone with most of their body replaced on the other hand could far exceed human performance in all fields, but saw increased maintenance and upkeep costs.

Genetic enhancement was making its own strides. Widespread testing and genetic treatments paved the way for eradicating many diseases, though not without controversy rising over definitions of disease and disability. Those arguments were nothing when it came to improving the human genome. Decades of legal wrangling and philosophical waxing played out in courts and academia until a project was pitched to increase the baselines of all humans born after the treatment.

Centuries later, Jena herself benefited from long-term effects of those treatments. Humans lived longer and healthier lives while staying productive for longer. Where a hundred was once considered a ripe old age to die at, it was now a life cut short. How you looked at that age was still the matter of luck, though.

“Foster,” Handler called from the end of one of the corridors, “come give me a hand with these supply crates.”

Flipping to her feet, Jena went in pursuit of the young woman who lead the cell. While Jena’s hair was blonde and her skin still had some of its tan, Handler was the opposite. She had almost chalk white skin and her dark hair held up in a severe bob. Handler was all business, and Jena appreciated that.

“Crates with a red mark need to go to Fixer. Blue to the bridge.” She said as she struggled lifting one of the blue crates up.

Glancing at the handles, Jena turned four crates on their side, placing two of the crates together handle-to-handle. Slipping her hands around both, her new strength easily let her lift four at once with the even distribution of weight easily spread across the internal supports put into her back and shoulders.

Jena followed behind Handler, hoping the dark grey combat bodysuit she wore was not quite as tight on her body as their leader’s shipsuit was.

“Eyes up, soldier.” The dark haired woman spoke after a few moments as they worked their way through the corridor.

The former farmer felt herself blushing, not quite sure as to why.

 

Sat with a padded shirt over his overalls, Jaret was in his workshop with an old ceramisteel axe on his lap. Notches had been made in the handle once. Dark scorch marks covered the wood now. It had been found along with the ruined remains of his sister’s rifle. It was the only thing he had to remember her by.

“Wish you could have been here for this, little sister.” He spoke aloud in the darkness. “I’ll take this into battle with me. Hopefully I won’t have to use it. Just… look out for us. If not for me, for my wife.” He added as he felt someone step into the room. Rosie had been there to pick him up after his sister’s death. She was a timid young woman with mousy hair, but there was steel under the colourful home-made sweaters she always wrapped herself in.

She kissed him on the cheek. “It’s time, Jaret.” She whispered as she clung tightly to him.

Stepping out of his workshop with her, he looked over the gathered forces waiting for his leadership. Farm vehicles had been modified and reinforced with additional armour from scrapped machines. Their weapons were a mix of their own hunting and defense rifles, and newer Galactic Armed Forces models smuggled in by intelligence agencies. They were a rag-tag force, one of many that would be heading to the city, but they were united in their task.

Jaret held Jena’s axe above his head. They all knew whose it was, and what it meant to the leader of the Farringdon Falcons. “I’ve never been to Central City before.” He called out to his fellows. “So once we leave here, I don’t plan on stopping until I’ve seen Landing Site Park!” A titter of laughter came from some of the older members. “I also hear they’re looking for something for a new monument. A monument to celebrate the day we liberated the city, and the planet, from the Volsta Empire.” He looked over his sister’s axe in an exaggerated manner.

“I think this would do the job.” A cheer came up from the group, and Jaret put on his most confident smile. Turning, he pointed in the direction of Central City. “Let’s get moving, and no one stops until we’ve seen our liberation!”

 

“It’s almost time, Jena.” Handler called from behind her.

Jena had spent the last few days finishing her preprations and helping get the ship ready. She had been through checks with Fixer, plans with Handler, and listened in on the other six agents reporting back to the ship. Fixer had also given her a cartridge to place into the back of her neck loaded with combat stimulants, and a warning to be sparring in their use. Her system would regulate them and prevent her doing any damage but she needed to pick the right time to use them.

She was taking one final look over the tactical map of Central City when Handler had called to her. “I know.”

Jena turned as she heard footsteps coming towards her, and the sound of a zip being moved. Handler had her hair down and the front of her light grey shipsuit had a v-shaped split of pale skin in it where it had been unzipped. Her green eyes looked up, down, across, flitting about trying to decide where to look.

“Eyes front, soldier.” Handler smirked. “I noticed you looking the other day, figured you might need some stress relief before the battle.”

Had Jena been looking? Confusion crossed the cyborg’s face, and Handler paused too.

“I’m sorry.” Jena said, keeping her gaze firmly on Handler’s dark eyes. “I’ve never… with anyone, and…” She was getting more and more flustered. Taking a deep breath, she shook her head. “Thanks- for the offer that is, but… stress has always kept me keen. I think I’ll need keen tomorrow.”

Handler didn’t look offended at being turned down, like that man in the camp had. She simply smiled and zipped her suit back up. “Maybe after the battle then.” Her hands worked quickly to tie her hair up, and the old Handler was back with her. “Make final checks on your loadout for tomorrow. We’ll be holding you in reserve until all forces are committed, then deploying you to the optimal location for affecting ally and enemy morale.”

As Handler walked away, Jena tried her best to ignore the readings of her elevated heart rate. Instead she opted to look over the edge of one of her combat knives she had been given. If stress kept her keen, that little encounter would leave her as sharp as the knife she was checking.

 

The Farringdon Falcons did have to stop a couple of times on the way to Central City to let slower vehicles catch up and to rest the engines and the troops. It was at the last stop for the final day that Rosie had slipped into Jaret’s sleeping bag. The pair had nestled together under the stars.

“Are you scared?” She asked.

“Terrified.” He replied with a soft chuckle, tousling her hair with a hand. “I don’t know how she did it.”

“You’re just as strong as Jena, just in a different way.” Rosie stated, capturing his lips with her own. “And she’ll be out there with all of us tomorrow.”

“I know.” He nodded. “I just can’t let my nerves show to anyone.”

“But me.” Rosie spoke with warmth, glad he was able to confide in her. Even though she was a bit more open with him in private, her cheeks still heated up as she spoke. “Will you lay with me?”

Jaret’s hands slipped down to pull her close.

 

“This is Reporter Zang, with the Volsta News Network!” The broadcast rang out across all channels around Farringdon III. “The Resistance, pushed back and fought against for years by the brave Volsta forces, have launched a desperate all-out attack against Central City! But do not fear, for the walls of Central City stand strong, and its garrison are ready to defend the seat of Volsta power on the planet! I am here on the front lines with the brave soldiers of the Eastern Unit, engaged with the ramshackle forces of the Farringdon Falcons!” Zang caught his breath before continuing. “With the death of the Butcher of Vadarai Seven almost two years ago now, the terrorist formerly of the Falcons number, these criminals must not have much fight left in them to be driven to such a desperate action! Stay tuned in with me here on the front lines as the mighty Volsta repel these peasants!”

“The perfect target.” Handler almost purred as she listened in. “I’ve marked the location on your overview, Jena. Get out there, reinforce the Falcons and make yourself known.”

Quiet and armed to the teeth with knives, a plasma cutter, and several energy pistols, Jena squeezed Handler’s shoulder before departing from the bridge. Her dark grey and black combat suit showed off her physique, and was designed to provide some protection from energy weapons and other damage. As she took off running for the exit to drop into the battlefield, she ran one last systems check and remembered what Fixer had told her earlier.

[Disable Performance Limiters?] The message appeared in her in-vision display. With a thought, the message changed. [Performance Limiters Disabled. User Caution Advised.] As the optically-camouflaged ship slid through the air towards the eastern front, Jena Foster crouched down in the open airlock, gripping recesses on the floor. [“I’m in position.”] She broadcast through the Shuck’s communications systems to Handler.

 

It was not going well.  Volsta troops were bombarding their fleet of vehicles with fire. The armour was beginning to fail, and the Falcons could barely get off attacks in response before having to duck out of the way of incoming fire. And that damn reporter’s spiel was continuing to demean and diminish everything the Falcons had done. As one of the smaller vehicles on their left wing exploded, Jaret hoped the amount of fire they were drawing would give one of the other teams space to breach the city and take out the planetary defense systems.

“Jaret!” Rosie called from behind. “I’m picking up a disruption approaching in the air.”

“Take cover, everyone!” Jaret yelled.

A fleeting shape passed over the battlefield, a mere shimmer in the air. A singular figure fell from the distortion, and then the carnage started. Jaret watched as from behind enemy lines, Volsta soldiers were flung in the air. He winced as one shot forwards and bounced off one of their gun emplacements to lay broken on the ground.

“What the hell is going on over there?!” He heard one of his men say from behind as one of the Volsta’s defense vehicles was tipped on its side.

“Back-up from the GFIA?” Jaret called back. “Whatever is going on, we have a chance. Check your fire and give them some support!” He yelled, before whistling the hunting call.

Bolstered, the Falcons begun their advance again as they laid down fire.

 

Unbridled, Jena tore through the ranks of soldiers. It felt good to fight once more. Fire burned in her veins as she laid out soldiers with single blows. Each punch could send a man hurtling up and across the mud, and her enhanced reflexes and joints let her dance through danger, conserving her weapons. With the Falcons joining the fight again, her destination was clear. The broadcast vehicle of the VNN.

“An enemy combatant has landed in the lines of the brave Volsta, and has begun an inhuman rampage! The brutality and barbarism of the terrorists can plainly be seen as… as…” Reporter Zang trailed off as he saw the vengeful face approaching him, her uniform stained with Volsta blood. “It… it can’t be.” A younger version of that face had been all over the news a couple of years back.

One of the soldiers charged at her, only to have his neck crushed with a squeeze of her hand. Picking his body up, she hurled him into his fellows. Zang scrambled for the vehicle and locked the door behind him. With a snarl, she plunged her hands into the metal and easily tore it off. With the Falcons encroaching their location, the soldiers were too busy to help him. She flung the door at the backs of some soldiers before staring at Zang and his broadcast camera.

“Let the dogs of the Volsta Empire howl in anguish.” Jena Foster growled. “The Butcher of Vadarai Seven has risen, and the Falcons hunt once more!” With a shrill whistle, she sounded the hunting call and promptly rolled the vehicle over onto its top.

 

Jaret stood ashen-faced as his dead sister walked towards him. At the sound of her voice the rest of the Falcons had surged forth to rout the Volsta. She looked a little older, a lot stronger, and dressed in dark colours with blood dripping from her arms a lot more vicious than even he remembered her being. He fell to his knees, tears running down his cheeks.

“Stand, my brother.” Her voice was a little deeper. “There’ll be time for that later.” Wiping her hands on her thighs, she easily pulled him to his feet. “You need to get into the city. I can clear the gatehouse and open it for you, then I need to assist with taking down the planetary defenses.”

Trembling, he managed a nod. She gave his shoulder a squeeze before pushing him in the direction of Rosie, who had been watching with wide eyes.

“Give him a few minutes to get his brain back in order, but get moving towards the gates.” Jena ordered. Then she turned and ran for the walls, her legs carrying her faster than anyone he’d ever seen. Gunfire started down at her, then she was leaping up to the top of the wall in a single jump. Soldiers soon started to fly off the battlement as she worked in close combat.

Gripping the axe he had carried since her death, Jaret drew himself up and took a deep breath. “You heard Jena! Falcons, advance! We take Central City today!”

 

The fighting was fierce in the city itself, and noting the stress readings on her arms Jena had fallen back on her weapons rather than risk overtaxing the artificial limbs. As a unit charged towards the now open gates and the Falcons making their way in, she gripped her pistols in both hands and activated one of the combat stims.

An odd sensation washed over her. The running Volsta slowed to a crawl, even as the slightest movement could make her arms swing rapidly. Her fingers squeezed the trigger over and over as she adjusted her aim, and then time was running normally as the charging group crumpled with their wounds.

Bounding from rooftop to rooftop, she checked some of the other combat stims she was carrying and triggered one to give her repair systems a kick. Repair and cooling solutions rushed to her limbs, and the conditions of each soon shifted back up from amber to green.

[“Foster, I see you.”] GFIA Agent Gibbams said over internal commslink. Looking up, she could see the balding intelligence operative on a nearby tower. [“Head for the central building. I’ll keep an eye on the Falcons.”]

[“Change in orders?”]

[“Handler wants you to capture Administrator Rahv, head of the occupation forces on Farringdon III, and secure him ready for handing over to the military when they arrive.”] Gibbams explained. [“Secure him, Foster. The military and intelligence agency wants him alive, don’t let any of the resistance extract mob justice on him.”]

With a nod, Jena took the elevated route to the complex in the middle of the city, taking potshots at Volsta troops as she went.

It wouldn’t be long now.

Learning to Breathe

The Vadarai-7 Massacre, as orchestrated by Jena Foster of the Farringdon Falcons, had been a massive success. With the loss in troops and dropships, the Volsta ground forces had pulled back to strongholds like Central City and given the various resistance groups time to bolster their numbers and up their training. Their space forces had also diminished, running skeleton crews and sending their ships to combat Galactic Federation forces at other points of conflict.

There had even been some rumours circulating in the past two years that the Galactic Federation Intelligence Agency had landed forward agents on Farringdon III to help the resistance effort.

Jena was unsettled though. Now seventeen, she still retained the lithe muscles and lean look, even if other parts of her had started to fill out now they were eating better. And that was part of the problem. The Volsta were in their heavily guarded enclaves, automated space defense platforms placed around the planet controlled from Central City. Farmers that had joined the resistance groups had left to go back to their farms and provide for the populace once more. The resistance groups tested the defenses of the enclaves and carried out raids on Volsta supply trains, but their fangs had been sated with an improvement of living standards.

They were at a stalemate.

Wandering the Falcon camp one evening, four things hit her. The smell of cooked food. The light and warmth from the now-openly burning campfires. The singing and music from around the campfire. Only a few years ago this would have been a beacon in the night, the flame to draw swarms of Volsta in to raze the camp to the ground and leave them not even buried, just thrown in a pile.

She knew he was coming before he even made his move, a muscled arm crossing in front of her to press against a thick tree trunk. She didn’t bother to lift her head, just glanced upwards at the brunette staring down at her with a salacious smile.

“If it isn’t the famous Jena Foster.” The man tried to bring on the charm. “You want some company tonight? You’re not on guard roster, and neither am I.”

Some of the women in camp’s torsos were in various stages of swelling after years of being too focused on survival to contemplate bringing a child into the world. Having worked on the farm with animals in her childhood years she knew the basics, but had no interest in them.

“No.” She stated.

He looked like he had been struck, the smiling expression falling away to be placed with angry rejection. “What, am I not good enough for the Butcher of Vadarai Seven?” The music and singing at the campfire had fallen away as they noticed the commotion. “I’ve killed plenty of Volsta.” He added in boast, as if that was supposed to mean anything.

Turning now to look up at the man who had interrupted her thoughts, Jena glanced about at the various sets of eyes looking at them. There was going to be problems soon, she surmised, so it’d be best to put a stop to them now. “Actually, there is something you could do for me. Only you.” She said, loud enough for her voice to carry around them.

The facade of charm slid back onto his face. “Oh yeah? What do you need?”

“An example.”

A puzzled look crossed his face, then her fist collided with his chin and sent him hurtling back onto the ground. Then she was on him, bloodying her scarred knuckles with each blow landed on his face. She lost count of how many punches she landed before Jaret had hauled her off the beaten-senseless man with a full nelson lock.

 

“Was there any need for that?” Jaret snapped, interposing himself between his sister and the door out of his workshop. “What has gotten into you!?”

“I could ask you the same thing, brother.” Jena replied. “Have you seen out there? Singing, open fires, pregnancies. We are exposing ourselves, leaving ourselves vulnerable when we should be focusing on the Volsta.”

“And that’s a good enough reason to beat a visiting resistance member half to death?” The weight of logistics and leadership had worn heavy on Jaret, and late nights reading had given him a noticeable squint.

“He propositioned me and didn’t seem to want to take no for an answer, so I made an example of him.” Jena stated simply, staring down her brother.

“That isn’t good enough. You wanted me to lead the camp, so I’m leading it. That means if you have a problem with someone, you bring it to me. You don’t take matters into your own hands.”

Her fists bunched up again, blood trickling down her fingers. “If I’ve got a prob-, okay, okay, I’ll come to you with my problem. We have become complacent and it will get us killed! There is my problem.”

Jaret stepped closer, his back rigid and his own fists clenched. “Not everyone is you, Jena. Not everyone can be focused all the time. We have breathing room, you gave us that, people need to breathe and you need to learn how to breathe again!”

“Jaret?” A timid voice came from behind them, going ignored.

“Do you know what he called me? ‘The Butcher of Vadarai Seven’. That is something I will have to carry for the rest of my life, so forgive me if I can’t ‘breathe’ because of the fear of the Volsta’s hands coming back down to wrap around our necks while we sing and play happy families around the campfire!”

“Jena?” The timid voice sounded again, drowned out by the constantly raising voices between brother and sister.

“See, this is your problem! You don’t see a slight return to normality as progress! Remember when I said you turned vicious? This is what I mean! You are so focused on the fight you’ve forgotten how to live!”

What Jena was about to say next fell off her lips as the timid voice spoke once more from behind Jaret. “Someone’s seen your mother.”

 

Adora Foster had been visiting the Farmer’s Council when Central City fell. There had been no word of her in eight years. Now word had filtered through the Resistance of her being shipped out to a Volsta farmstead to work the fields, and Jena was packing her possessions. Her dad’s hunting rifle sat by her rucksack, along with her walking boots, her axe and a mix of rations and food supplies. Her campwear had been changed for layered traveling clothes of an earthen hue, with a camouflage blanket sleep in and provide cover.

“This might be a trap.” Jaret warned from behind her.

“I know.”

“And you’re still going to go?”

Jena crammed her waist pack with more supplies. “I’ve forgotten how to live, remember?”

Jaret winced. “I didn’t mean-”

“You did. It doesn’t matter. If it’s a trap, I’ll send word once I’ve dealt with it. If it’s Mother… I’ll bring her here.” She stepped into her boots and started to lace them up. “Consider what I’ve said, about the camp. We’ve had two years, but so have they. They could have ships ready to drop out of warp, loaded with dropships and troops, and only be a week away.”

He nodded, hefting up her rucksack to slip over her shoulders. “One thing, before you go?”

“What?”

“All those years ago, how did you know the code for the weapons locker?” Jaret asked, tentatively opening his arms to give his sister one last hug.

“I used to sit on his lap as a baby when he’d check the weapons over. I must have seen him put that code in hundreds of times.” She sidestepped the hug, but clasped his shoulder with her hand. “Take care.”

“You too, Jena.” Jaret Foster said as he watched his sister walk away.

 

It had taken a month of walking and living off the land. On the way she checked in with resistance encampments and information posts to track down the small farm where Adora Foster was said to be working. On the outskirts of the farm she placed a gull feather under a chunk of flint on the wall and waited nearby. It was night when the resistance agent came for her to lead her through the fields to the bunkhouse.

“She’s just inside.” The agent said, her hand turning the doorknob.

Jena clearly heard the click as the door opened. She dropped to her knees and covered her face with her hands as the blastwave surged out of the building.

 

“Handler, we’re too late.” She heard a voice say once the ringing in her ears subsided. “We’ll have a look about, but I don’t think we’ll… hang on.” She could feel a presence over her. “She’s still alive! Quick, get the medkit over here, we need to stabilize her!” As a throng of activity settled over her, Jena sunk into unconsciousness.

 

The first thing Jena Foster noticed when she opened her eyes was that one and a half years had passed. She noticed this because the date was clearly displayed in the bottom of her field of vision. It was also just past dawn, her status was apparently green, and she was at full charge. Then she tried to take a breath and wound up gagging and gasping, writhing around on the solid bed as her lungs refused to draw air in as she needed them too. Sets of hands came to press her down. Through the haze of panic, voices started to register.

“Calm down Miss Foster, you need to learn to breathe with the artificial lungs.” An older man was repeating to her. Grabbing a dataslate, he tapped something in and a pair of swelling circles appeared in her vision. “Breathe in time with the movement of the circles.”

Following the pulse of the circle and the gentle ocean sounds that accompanied it soon had her breathing normally. A helpful indicator told her that her pulse had resumed to normal levels, as well as her heartbeat. Blinking to clear her eyes, she looked about at the assortment of individuals in front of her.

“Much better.” The older man smiled. “Welcome to GFIA Advance Base Leghorn. You’ve been through quite the ordeal, but we’ve fixed you up better than new.”

Glancing down at her body, Jena noticed two things. One, she was naked. Two, seams ran between her parts of her body where no seams had previously existed. The skin on most of her body was slightly off in colour and texture, the back of her wrists contained small ports as seen on computer terminals.

As realization hit her, her status changed from green to red. Her vision swam and faded out as she collapsed back onto the bed.

 

There was just the older man in the room with her when she came around again. A pot of tea and two cups sat near them. A sheet had been draped over her body to cover her modesty.

“It can be stressful enough for a cyborg to wake up the first time when they know what their body has gone through. You did not have that luxury sadly, we had to save you with what we had to hand.” His voice was gentle. Greying hair was combed back and beard lightly trimmed.  “I am Fixer. It is what I do, so it is what I am called.”

Jena sat back up, the sheet starting to fall from her chest. It took a few attempts before her right arm would move and stop its descent, and some further attempts to pull it back up to her collar bone.

“That’s good, it shows your mind is adapting well to the changes you have gone through.”

“Jena Foster.” Her voice croaked. unused for a long time.

“We know who you are, you are somewhat of a legend around here. What can you remember?” Fixer asked.

“It was a trap. I thought it would be an ambush, prepared for it. Instead I heard the click of the detonator when the agent opened the door.” Sweat prickled on her forehead as she felt the heatwave rush over her once more. “I ducked for cover behind her, I think.” She paused, tensing her left arm. She could see the bulge of muscle under the synthetic skin. “Then I heard someone talking to a ‘Handler’, then I woke up here.” Clearing her throat with some light coughs, she gestured to the teapot.

Fixer gladly poured for her.

“So the GFIA found me, brought me here and turned me into a cyborg?”

He handed the cup to her with a nod. “Good, it seems you have your wits about you still. We stabilized you with medical supplies, then had a… spirited discussion as to whether it was worth the attempt. We do not have the full facilities here to perform cyberization, so we had to make do. It also diminished our supplies of spare parts. Some of the team were not happy about that.”

Jena drank from the cup. Tea still tasted like tea, that was a good sign. “Why did they go along with it in the end, then?”

Fixer smiled. “Because the Volsta think you are dead, Miss Foster. As the Galactic Federation’s plans move towards liberating this planet, that gives us a powerful advantage. Even now, Handler is sending out the messages for the final battle.” He noted Jena’s look of confusion. “The Resistance must take Central City, or at least disable the planetary defense system. Once done, the Galactic Armed Forces task force will warp in and eliminate air support before joining us on the ground.”

Jena mulled over this information as she stared into the cup, her reflection looking back at her. While her face had come out well, she could see where the top of her head had been damaged. The seam running just under her hairline and the fact her hair hadn’t grown pointed to it being artificial as well. “And if the Butcher of Vadarai Seven rises from her grave for this?”

“The effect on morale may help win this war.” Fixer replied. “You have time to get used to your body beforehand, the pieces are not quite in place yet.”

Nodding, Jena knocked back the rest of her cup of tea. “One question.”

The older man gestured for her to proceed.

“Is Jaret still alive?”

“Your brother still leads the Falcons. He is well, if mourning for his sister. I understand you two did not part on the best of terms.”

Discarding the cup and throwing the sheet off her, Jena rose from her bed. It felt odd to be standing again, her gait a little unsteady. From the looks of the room she was it, it was a converted medbay on a ship. Part of her was amazed that she could feel the cold of the floor through her artificial feet. Reaching for a dataslate, Fixer activated a digital mirror for her to look at.

Her lean limbs were now rather well muscled, tissue replaced by synthetic muscle fibers. Tensing up caused them to bulge, and readings automatically came up in her vision to inform her just how much strength she could exert. Her natural skin started just below her hair and ran down to her shoulders, then past her breasts and towards the bottom of her ribs. It then transitioned into artificial skin. Her navel was gone, and she raised an eyebrow at the smooth patch of skin between her legs.

“I seem to be missing some parts.”

Fixer coughed. “As I said, we lacked proper facilities and components. There are nerve endings there, it… never worked out well in the past if a cyborg could not get some form of-”

“Yeah, I think we can stop that conversation and save both our blushes.” Jena interrupted.

“Appreciated, Miss Foster.” Fixer replied. “So, can the GFIA count on your support?”

Jena shifted suddenly and kicked at the air. The speed and force at which her leg moved surprised her. “Father always said to finish the jobs you start. I’m in.”

Scars of War

“I sit writing this in the pockmarked remains of a border town, our unit having rolled in to secure the area. I am Specialist Jacob Dalmers, a member of the United Nations Armed Forces, of the North American Regiment’s Engineering Corps. Our duties here are threefold:

  1. Sweep and secure the area, making buildings safe and disabling any IEDs or traps that may have been left.
  2. Restore utilities to the area, from water and power to sewage and communications.
  3. Aid the civilian population who have remained behind.

The first duty is very important. A year ago, I was on the receiving end of such an attack. Most of my body is now military-grade cybernetics. A rough estimate would be 80%. Organs have been replaced with cybernetic components to power and work the prosthetics that make up my limbs. I had some augmentations beforehand, military standard comm units and vision augmentation. This is far beyond that.

Removing these threats means the rest of our operation can proceed smoothly, with minimal risk of injury. And the threats are not always due to traps. Unstable buildings are common thanks to artillery and rockets, and we have tools to buttress them or bring them down if they are too hazardous.

The second duty only takes place after the first. We have supplies to last us while we work on repairing the destruction brought here thanks to the war between the UNAF forces, and the insurgent Cartel organizations. The Annexation Wars that ended in the 2080’s were supposed to be the last major conflict. As a soldier, I can say there will likely be more after this. As a person, I am sad to feel that way.

The people in this region have had to endure much in the course of this conflict from both sides. War damages everyone. And the populace do not have the benefit of exoframes to enhance their strength to clear the rubble. They lack the armour plating to protect themselves or their livelihoods from damage caused by both sides of this battle. They do not have the benefit of carefully planned logistics to keep them supplied with essentials.

And that is what the last duty is about. The first two points help the people, but we must do what we can to aid them and to gain their trust. We cannot presume to ride in the victors to praise and adulation. There is only one way to earn their respect and prove that we are here for the right reasons…”

The journal he had been writing disappeared from his vision as he approached the rubble of a small housing complex. Saved to memory, Specialist Dalmers had more important things to do than write for his memoirs. With his mechanical limbs, his body armour and the corps exoframe he wore to aid him in his duty, he towered a head or two above most of the men left in the region.

The people digging through the remains of the building looked warily at him as he approached. With his armaments secured in their holsters, he raised his hands up. One of them, an older looking woman, said something to him in Mexican. After a moment, the translation of what she said appeared in-vision, suspended above her in a speech bubble.

[We’re looking for our belongings. We aren’t looking for trouble.]

Nodding, Jacob joined them and sunk down to his knees to begin lifting chunks of debris up, his arms and exoframe easily hefting the rubble to the wheelbarrows they had set up to aid in clearing the site. With wary eyes still on him, he pulled up his translation program to compose a sentence.

[I am not looking for trouble either. May I continue to help?] He selected, and then watched as the program finished the translation. Reading off the words, the civilians seemed to consider this for a moment before nodding. With a slight bow of his head he got back to digging with armoured hands well suited to the job. It would take a lot of work and time to heal the scars of the Annexation Wars, let alone this conflict.

Author’s Note: This week’s Three Word Wednesday words are: Destruction, Endure, Trust. This is a Tranquil Law setting story, dealing with one of the secondary characters in his former profession.

With Shaking Hands

It was over. It was finally over. It had been a long quest, fraught with peril. She had met so many people along the way, people who became integral to her life. Whether as treasured friends or hated enemies, the journey she had taken went across continents and to places she had never dreamed of.

The Naetherdrake had been slain after a climactic battle. They had sustained injuries. Their blood had been shed. Their bodies ached from exertion. But they had overcome this final challenge like all those that had come before hand. The war had disrupted all their lives, and they yearned to see what an era of peace would bring them. And with that, with trembling arms, they could lay their weapons down for good.

And with shaking hands, she could set the controller down.

“Wow.”

The game had been worth the saving of her pocket, birthday and Christmas money.

Steel Rain

Once upon a time, the aircraft used to drop aid packages, parachuting down to earth in sturdy crates, filled to the brim with food, medicine and supplies.

He didn’t understand the politics that caused the changes. He was only a young boy. At first the planes didn’t come. The soldiers in their peacekeeping uniforms, the ones who would give out bars of candy on occasion, had gone too.

The fun programs he used to watch on the television went. Important people said important things that he didn’t really get, but it worried his parents, the parents of his friends, it… well, everyone was more tense. Strange, scary men and women with big guns and rugged vehicles roamed the streets. He was forbidden from playing outside. That was for the best really.

Planes returned after a few weeks. But this time was so different. Missiles streaked up into the sky, roaring fire behind them. Bombs fell from the planes, sending dust and debris upwards as they exploded. Barbed wire barricades came up around the city. Concrete barriers were laid outside important buildings.

He was awake one night, peering out of a window. It gave him a view of something he had never seen before. Steel rain came from the sky, high-flying planes supported by little dots dropping larger metal objects. As they fell, they twisted and turned and fired out at the missiles coming for them.

As they fell closer, they released parachutes to slow their descent. The steel rain landed on the ground with clouds of dust swirling underneath. If he hadn’t have seen them, he’d think it was fiction, something from the cartoons he used to watch. With large metal feet they stomped around, an array of weapons firing as they began to fight with the scary people in town.

His father pulled him away from the window, carrying him quickly to the kitchen to hide under the thick wooden table that his mother was already crouched under.

“Father, what’s happening?” He asked in a hushed whisper, pressed between his parents as artillery fire rocked the neighbourhood. The second word his father used, he didn’t understand. The third one though, he knew too well.

“The Annexation Wars, son. The war’s come here properly.”

Something Saturday: Monologue #1 (Ameer Anwar)

“Hardest thing about being a soldier, if you ask me? Not being one any more. I joined the British Armed Forces when I was 16. Trained up till I was 18, then deployed for the tail-end of World War 3, and all of the Annexation Wars.

You have to understand, my parents? They didn’t want me to join up. Said I was forbidden. I left home and joined anyway. All of my old life left behind. One of the reasons why it’s hard being anything but a solider. That’s all Ameer Anwar’s ever been.

I was trained in signals, communications and electronic warfare. That’s why the 1st Adders wanted me for the Annexation Wars. We all had our roles, our skills that we brought into the team. They trained us together and they trained us until we bled and sweat and cried on each other, and that gave us a strong bond.

With advanced exo-suits from UNAF’s finest R&D departments we were what those DARPA boys from the States had dreamed of for years. We’d drop high, open our parachutes low and execute our mission in a matter of minutes. That’s what we did in Kigali, and everything went as well as expected.

Well, apart from my arm. I hate going into the story in detail, and it’s been written up plenty, so here are the basics: I took a bomb blast at close range. Lost my arm and various other bits.

By then, the UNAF were well into their Rapid Rehabilitation Program. Those who were injured were cyberized, given new parts to replace damaged flesh, patched up and had the command routines for their metal bits fed into their brain. Then they sent us off to fight again.

Some say they did the job that the King’s Horses and Men couldn’t do with Humpty Dumpty, but hell if some of us weren’t broken, or walking ghosts. I got off lightly. Others? You treat a man like a tool and one day he’ll break. And they did break. And when you have men and women bristling with military-grade gear and something off in the head? You get tragedies happening.

Post-Conflict Psychosis with a side of Rapid Rehabilitation Stress Syndrome. It’s no surprise really. You drill people till they’re automatons, you send them into scenes of horror, you put the sick and the injured on a production line to get them ‘ready for the worthy fight’ and you know what happens?

They get put back in the civilian world and all that programming is still there, and it will find away to go off. And now I’m out. Done my time, fought my fights. My parts would cost too much to replace and now they’ve scaled down the army, I’m old tech.

They’ve promised me some research position on the Moon. Using my signals skills at the Daedalus Radiotelescope, latest bastion in the exploration of space. At least until some wise-ass puts one on Mars. Then I guess I’ll be old tech again. Maybe you can come by and interview me again. See if I’ve snapped and punched some teen coffee jockey in the face because the sound of my espresso being made hearkens back to the good ol’ days of witnessing atrocities.

Are we done here now? I have a shuttle to catch.”

– Ameer Anwar, speaking to UNBC’s ”Five Years On” Project, 2093. At the request of the UNAF Press & Public Relations Department, it was not included for broadcast.