Partners

Part 1

Hands grabbed her and she twisted, pulling against straps that kept her flat on her back, wrenching her arms to pull them free to fight.

It was dark. It was loud. She could hear screams and explosions.  Nearby there was laughter, and then she felt the hot agony as a knife plunged into her side and her back arched as she tried to move away from it.

An ankle came free, and she twisted more violently, lifting her knee up and kicking out against the hands holding her down.

“Jess!”

She heard her name. She tried to open her mouth to answer but there was a gag in it, and she could only growl in anger and frustration.

“Jess!”

The voice was suddenly louder, and she felt a sting on her arm and a breath after that the darkness mottled and faded and the screams muted, and she was out of the dream.

“Jess.”

Hands on her shoulders, shaking her.   Her body free.  Her back laying on a soft, conforming surface.

She opened her eyes, to see the commander over her, a medic just behind him, pulling a injector back away from her. 

The echoes of laughter faded away and the sounds of the den surrounded her and she blinked, finding the familiarity of the base on all sides, and no enemies anywhere to be seen.   “Sorry.”  She rasped, feeling pain in her throat from what she figured were screams.  “Sorry, Stephan.” A pause  “Sir.”

“It’s okay.”  The commander rested his forearms on his knee.  “You all right?” 

She lifted a hand and rubbed her temples. “Fantastic.”  Hiking herself up on the bed, she peered around, seeing the muted activity of late watch past the open door of her quarters.  Slowly the tension left her, and she exhaled, willing herself calm.

“You might want to let Dustin here give you a knockout.”  Stephan said. “Got a while before first watch.”

Jess shook her head.  “I’m all right.” She said. “Just a damn dream.” 

“Okay.”  The commander stood up.  He waved the medic out, then waited for the door to close. “I know it’s tough.”

“Yeah.”  Jess answered briefly. “Too bad they don’t have a program for this.  I”d take it.” She sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, resting her elbows on her bare knees.

Stephan sat back down on the padded stool near the bed. “Thought you were against repatterning.” He said. “Weren’t you the one who told me only cowards try to deal with their problems that way?”

Jess wasn’t offended.  “I was.” She said. “Then I was knifed in the back by my partner and watched my whole team be butchered in front of me.  Changes your perspective.”  Her eyes flicked up to his face, fastened on it. “I know what you’re going to tell me, Stephan. Get past it.”

He grunted. “You do need to.” He said. “Not that I don’t… “ He paused. “Jess, I’m not going to sit here and tell you I know how you feel, cause I don’t.  Nothing like that ever happened to me.” He shifted. “Hasn’t happened to anyone before, that I know of.”

“Great. Another first for the Drake family.”  Jess’s face twitched. “Eleven generations in service, always trying to be at the forefront of something.” She straightened up and ran her fingers through the dark , straight hair that fell to her shoulders.

“Well, that’s the point.”  Stephan cleared his throat. “As much as a natural born is bred for anything, you were bred for this. Just like I was. Just like Mike, and Justin, and  Sal were.”  He said. “You’ve got a tough mind.  You can get past it.”

“Sure.”  Jess answered.  “Just take a little time.”

The commander nodded. “That’s what I wanted to hear.” He stood and patted her on the shoulder. “Get some rest.  We’ll talk in the morning.  I’ve got some ideas on getting you repartnered.” He watched the body across from him stiffen.

Jess remained silent, however.  She merely nodded.

“Okay.” Stephan turned and made his way to the door, locking through with a palm press and letting it shut behind him.

The medic was waiting outside. “Okay?”  Destin asked, briefly.

Stephan shrugged. “Have no idea. “ He answered honestly.  “I’m not a doctor and even they aren’t sure what buttons to press to try and fix that.”  He steered the medic towards the door that separated the operations center from the living quarters and they passed through it, moving from dim peace into blue lit subdued tension.

Jess waited until she was sure the door was going to stay shut. Then she pushed herself to her feet and walked across the soft gray carpet into the sanitary unit, ignoring her too pale reflection in the mirror as she let a little icy cold water run in the sink and splashed some on her face.

She was tired, but not sleepy, not having any desire to return to the dream world they’d pulled her out of nor wanting to trigger another visit from the medic.  She leaned her hands on the sink and stared at the gray surface, resisting the urge to throw up.

Primitive.  She pushed away and went back into the space she’d called home for all the years of her adulthood,  a freeform two level room  that had her bed and storage space on one side and a curved workspace on the other with a  comfortable chair behind it. 

On the second level, in the loft was a small space for relaxing and meditation and the cabinets that held her personal gear.

All in shades of gray, blue and sea green, with indirect lighting that lent the pod a sense of calm and peace and an almost luxurious feel she was due as the senior op she was.   Jess went to her desk chair and sat down in it, the surface feeling cool against the back of her thighs and her tank top clad shoulders.

She stared at the door to the left of the exit.  It opened into a mirror image of the pod she was in, where until her last mission Joshua had lived.

Joshua. 

Her outsider partner, with his curly red hair and his bright, friendly smile.  They’d clicked right off, had the same interests, even liked the same music. Jess had often wondered if they’d selected for that when they paired them, but she really hadn’t cared, she’d just been glad they’d bonded and because he’d been carefully selected and undergone the training, she’d trusted him.

Trusted the competence of the board and the professionals whose job it was to carefully pick the teams and vet the outsider applicants so that there was that trust, when you were in a group and were on an emplacement and knew the people at your back were your family and without doubt.

Joshua had fooled everyone.   In his tenth emplacement with Jess, he’d turned and literally knifed her, sounding the alarm and bringing the guards of the detention center they’d penetrated down on top of them.

She’d watched, as they cut the rest of the team to pieces, slowly, knowing a moment of bleak pride at their clench jawed silence before they came for her. 

She would have gone the same way, except they misjudged her strength just a fraction.   Just a little.  Just enough for her to get loose, and free a hand, triggering the embedded recall chip just under her breastbone – just enough to get her hands on a gun and let her bone deep training take over.

The screams had been theirs.  The last being Joshua’s as he came into her sights and she blew his brains right out of his head with the heavy projectiles, scattering bone chips and blood all over the room.

She spent a moment reliving it, now in her conscious mind.  They’d given her a commendation for it, but that hadn’t erased the shame and the horror, and the sense of deep betrayal she wasn’t sure there was any getting over.

There would be no repartnering for her.  No one would live on the other side of that door, standing at her back, ready to put a blade into it.

No.

**

“Doctor?”

Randall Doss looked up, and saw the proctor standing in the doorway. “Yes?”

The tall, brown haired proctor entered. “Here’s the report you asked for.” He handed over a chip.  “And the director of Interforce is here and wishes to speak to you.” 

Doss blinked. “Interforce?  What does he want? Is there some problem with the last set we sent them?”

“I don’t know, sir.” The proctor responded. “He’s waiting in your office.”

The doctor frowned. “Very well.” He got up from the tall chair he’d been huddled in, reviewing the digital scoping system.    “I’ll go talk to him now. I certainly hope there wasn’t any mistake.” He tugged his work tunic straight and hurried out of the lab, turning right and moving along one of the curving, well lit corridors of the crŹche.

He passed through a steady stream of similarly clad men and women, most with digital pads strapped to their arms, and comm buds blinking in their ears as they moved in abstract distraction – only honed peripheral vision letting them proceed without collision.

He reached the grav tube and triggered it, waiting for it to open then stepping into the column of gravity, giving the little hop that started him downward along the curve.   He turned and looked out as he dropped, admiring for the nth time the curve of the earth below him, and the deliciously crisp blackness of space beyond.

At the bottom level he triggered the exit and pushed himself into the hallway, regaining normal gravity in the faint bunny hop typical to the crŹche and the other stations in orbit.  Another few minutes walking and he was at his office, passing through the outside and giving his attendant a wave as he passed.  “Hear I have a visitor, Gigi.”

“Sir you do.”  The pretty young woman behind the console agreed. She had wavy brown hair and almond colored eyes, along with a delicately circuit traced collar around her neck.  “May I bring you tea?”

“Please, and for my guest as well.”  The doctor tugged his tunic straight again and then palmed his door open, revealing his half circle office with it’s twin bubble windows giving a gorgeous view of the stars.

A tall man in a formal uniform was standing near the first bubble, looking out.

“Director?  They said you wish to see me?” The doctor waved the door closed behind him.  “What can we do for you?”

The director turned to face him.  He had iron gray hair, closely cropped to his head, and a neatly trimmed beard and moustache that didn’t quite hide a plasma scar across one side of his face. “Doctor.” He had a low, burring voice. “I have a problem I need you to solve for me.”

“Oh?”  The doctor felt a little anxiety subside. He went to his desk and sat down behind it. “Anything we can do for Interforce.” He said. “Please do sit down.  My assistant is bringing us some tea.”

The director sat down.  “You provide us with resources.”

Doctor Doss nodded after a pause. “We provide you with biological alternative units.” He agreed.  “For many purposes.  I believe you have our service units and recently we provided you with some higher end samples, for low space jet plane piloting.”

“Yes.”

There was a small silence. “They have been satisfactory?” The doctor finally asked.  “There’s no trouble with them is there?  Our programming schemas are very stringent.”

“They’re fine.”  The director paused, as the door opened and Gigi entered with a tray.  He watched the young woman as she expertly poured the tea, and served them.   She was wearing a sedate sea green station uniform, and space boots and her well formed body was both graceful and assured as she bowed to him.  “Thank you.”

“Sir.” Gigi straightened and picked up the tray, then left, closing the door behind her.

“New model.” The doctor indicated the now closed door. “That’s a G-G 3200.  We are enhancing our basic service module with some entry level tech programming.”

The director nodded. “So you are experimenting with mixing some of the genotypes” He stated. “That’s good. It bears on the problem we want you to solve for us.” He sipped his tea.   “To state it plainly, doctor, we need you to develop an advanced design for us, but we don’t have time for you to do it from scratch.”

“I see.”

“I need a bio alt I can put in the field as a operative agent.”  The director went on. “Military.”

The doctor straightened up, his eyes blinking. “But director.”

The man held a hand up. “I know.” He said. “We’ve told you a dozen times you can’t make a model that will have the independent decision making that’s’ required.   I still believe that.”

“But..”

“But my problem is this.  We had a failure of process.”  The director cut him off.  “I can’t go into the details. But the result is, we do not have confidence in a certain process right now and we have an urgent need for an operative.”

Doss stared at him.  “Director.” He said. “We can do a lot. But this is… these are still biological organisms we’re dealing with. They’re not machines. They’re human beings.”

“Technically, no they aren’t.”

The doctor lifted a hand, much as the director had done a moment ago. “Legally, no. But from a scientific viewpoint, from the view of reality, director, they are. Regardless of what our society considers them.”

“Regardless of how we pretend to ourselves you’re not creating slaves, yes.”  The director assented, in a dry tone.  “Let’s not split hairs.”

The doctor’s shoulders twitched at the blunt rudeness.  “In any case, we don’t snap our fingers and create a program set just like that.”  He said. “There are physical, as well as mental structures to consider.”

“I know that.”

“The models we have in production right now are geared to be assistants, to serve, to provide a helpmate.  They’re not soldiers. They’re certainly not capable of  putting on a uniform and going into battle.”

“Anyone can be taught to kill.” The director replied.  “You may not believe that, but I’ve been in this business a very very long time, doctor, and you’ll just have to take that on faith from me.” He sipped his tea again.  “But as it happens – the operative I need is not required to do that.  They need to be a tech, and above all, they need to be absolutely trusted.”

“A tech.”  The doctor mused.

“Think of it as a possible new line of business.” The tall man said, with an expressionless face. “If this works out, we could perhaps offer you a deal to supply us with this resource ongoing. It would relieve us of a certain responsibility.

The doctor licked his lips.  “Well.” He murmured. “Certainly we would love to be able to continue our business relationship, enhance it, as it were.”

“I have to tell you – this is not a popular decision of mine.” The director said. “Many people think it can’t be done.”

The doctor folded his hands on his desk. “Director, given time, money and talent nothing is impossible. “ he watched the man smile grimly.  “But as it happens, there might be a resource I.. well, perhaps we could do some modifications. “

The director nodded.  “When? The need is urgent, as I said.  There is a risk.”

Oh well,.  Doss was already running the calculations.  If it didn’t work, he could always say he’d told them so. “Two weeks.”  He said. “And I will need to know the exact requirement, including any imprinting.”

The director’s smile widened slightly.  “That can be arranged. “ He lifted his cup. “Got any more of this? We don’t get it much down side.”

The doctor leaned towards his comm unit.  “Gigi?”

“Sir.”

“First, please bring us some more tea.” He said.  “And then, please go to the crŹche master and tell him I need to see him. I don’t want to disturb him if he’s programming by calling.”

“Sir.”

“Tell him to come to my office when he’s available, and to bring NM-Dev-1 with him.”

“Yes sir.”

The doctor sat back and took a sip of his own tea, swirling the delicate beverage in his mouth before he swallowed it.  “The programming could be complex.” He commented.  “We’ll have to put a lot of resources into meeting your timeline.”

“We’ll make it worth your while.”  His guest smiled now, with feral completeness. “You can be sure of that, doctor.  Cost isn’t a concern for us at this moment.”

Now the doctor smiled, tapping the toes of his space boots together under the desk.  “Given that, we’ll find the time and talent, director.  You know that’s how that goes.” He lifted his tea cup and the director mimicked the motion, as the station rotation moved them into the light and the windows automatically filtered the glare.

“To success, doctor.  For both of us.”

**

A soft knock came on the top of her helmet.  NM-Dev-1 put the program on hold and ducked out from under it, blinking a little to bring her eyes back into normal focus. “Hello, proctor.”  She said, surprised to see him there.

“Hello, Dev.”  The proctor sat down next to her. “How are you?”

Dev quickly arranged herself on the bench, sitting up straight and tucking her boots under her.  “Doing well, proctor. I finished the first advanced program, and I’m looking at the second one now.” She answered confidently. 

“Great.” The proctor shifted his body a little, and looked at her. “Dev, I came to talk to you because the administrator has asked me to bring you to his office. He wants to speak with you.”

She watched his face, seeing the tension there. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No.”  The proctor answered immediately. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Dev.  It’s just that some people have come to us, and asked us to do a special job for them and the administrator thinks you can do that job.”

Dev was momentarily silent.   “I’m getting assigned?” She asked, with a small intake of breath. “Really?”

The proctor’s brow tensed.  “Well.” He shifted again, clearly uncomfortable.  “These people.. they want us to give you some special programs, Dev, and then we’ll see if you can do what they want.”

“Oh.” Dev murmured. “Is it hard?”

“It might be.” The proctor admitted. “It’s not like anything you’ve done before.  But we’ve tried to give you things that stretch your abilities, and this will be something like that again.”  He watched the young bio alt in front of him, seeing the thoughtful look on her face.

He had his doubts.   NM-Dev-1, though an experimental prototype that the name indicated, was not a type he would have ever considered for something as radical as this.    She was a little below medium height, and slender, with a pleasant, friendly face and sandy colored hair.  

Though she’d had the usual physical training, she didn’t look anything like what he supposed an Interforce soldier should look like, and the idea of her in those stark, gray surroundings made him truly rather uncomfortable.

He liked Dev.  As much as one could like a bio alt.  She was good natured and relatively clever, able to hold a conversation and even come up with an idea or two of her own once in a while.   She smiled a lot, and was always eager to learn new things.

He just wondered if she’d enjoy learning what she’d have to in order to fill the order.  Would Dev enjoy being set to operate the weapons systems Interforce used?  It seemed very wrong for her type.

“Will I go somewhere” Dev asked, unexpectedly. “I mean.. out of the crŹche?”

‘Yes. You’ll need to go downside.” The proctor told her.  “Are you ready to come talk to the administrator?  He’ll tell you more about what you’re going to do.”   He stood up. “When he’s done, I’ll take you to the programming center so they can start giving you the programs you’ll need.”

Dev felt a little apprehensive. “Will you tell me what the programs are?”

The proctor put a hand on her shoulder. “I think it’ll be better for you if you just take them, Dev.  Not think about it too much before you go.”  He released her. “Let’s go now.  The administrator is waiting.”

Dev followed along as he turned and started towards the big central grav stack, at this time of the shift filling with techs and minders heading to quarters, and at the outside edges, bio alts assigned to the station making their way to the dorms. 

Dev saw familiar faces, and she lifted a hand to wave, getting a timid response as the eyes shifted to the proctor next to her, and the little separation between them and the crowd.   She had thought she was going to spend a quiet night in the dorms, after the night meal and maybe have a game of stones with a few of her crechemates before sleep.

Now, who knew where she’d end up sleeping if she did at all.

It had started out such an ordinary day, too.  A new set had come into the dorms, and there was lots of showing around to do before gym, and then the daymeal, and after that her studies. She’d almost been done before the proctor had found her.

Now, she really didn’t know what was going to happen.  The thought of being assigned made her happy, but the look on the proctor’s face, and the way he’d spoken made her think there was something wrong with this assignment, at least to him.

They left the tube and walked along the outside corridor of the station, the transparent walls giving a full view of the earth orbit they were in.  Dev smiled a little at the stars, and let them distract her as she traced their patterns in their endlessly fascinating variations.

It almost made the walk too short.    She followed the proctor though as he turned inside a doorway and put his palm to a lock, waiting for the door to slide open then gesturing her inside.

Restricted zone.  Dev had never been inside it.  She glanced at the silver toned walls as they walked, passing office after office, now darkened for the day.    At the very end, in the corner was a taller more impressive door, and that’s where the proctor led her.

They stood inside the entrance. “Gigi, can you tell the adminstrator we’re here?”  The proctor asked the admin behind the desk.

“Sir.” Gigi pressed a button, looking up  and exchanging the briefest of nods with Dev.

They had something in common, and in fact, Dev was familiar with Gigi from the crŹche.  They were both something of an experimental set,  though Dev’s programming had started out from the beginning to be advanced while Gigi’s added skills had been a recent development.

They were both different.  She had daymeal with Gigi sometimes.  The rest of the sets tended to stick together and while no one was unfriendly everyone knew the more skills you were given, the better your chance of getting a really good assignment.

So there was jealousy.  Dev had talked to Gigi about it, and they had thought that maybe this was just a little indication of how parts of them were still like the natural born around them because no one was given a jealous program. You just had it.

Just like the natural borns just had it.  Dev had told Gigi though, that they shouldn’t talk about it.

Gigi had agreed.   She was part of a small set, only six, and Dev.. well, Dev was just one. No sense in upsetting people when you didn’t have a group around you and it wasn’t nice to make a big thing of things you knew or could do that others couldn’t.

The door in front of them opened and she followed the proctor in.   The administrator’s office was very large, and it had pretty white and blue carpet and a lot of clear glass ornaments.   Dev turned around and stared at it for a moment, amazed by the tall ceilings, and the sense of light and air.

“Well, hello there NM-Dev-1.”

Dev turned, and looked at the administrator. “Hello, sir.” She said. He still had his lab overlay on, and with his curly hair in constant disarray he never seemed that threatening.

Another man was there, a tall, gray man and he was watching her. She looked at him, and saw the crease in his face, and the uniform.   He was looking very intently at her and she felt like moving away from him.

Dev felt a little fear.  Was this who she was going to be assigned to?

“This is Commandant Bricker, of Interforce.” Doctor Doss said. “Do you know what that is, Dev? Have you had that program?”

“Yes, sir, I do.” Dev said. 

“Good.” The doctor said. “So you know how important Interforce is, right? They protect us from all the people who are trying to hurt those of us in the Republic, don’t they.”

“Yes, sir.” Dev said. “They’re very brave.” She added, unprompted.

Bricker produced a faint smile.

“That’s right.” Doss agreed. “Well, Dev, we have a wonderful opportunity to help the commandant and all those brave people.  They have a job, a tech job, and they came to us to see if we could help them, if we had someone who could do that job.”

“Sir.”  Dev felt her breathing go a little faster.  She was afraid, and she wasn’t. “I don’t know how to be brave.”

That got another brief, crabbed smile from Bricker.  “We can teach you that.” He said, his low, burring voice tickling her ears.  “If you have the heart for it.”

Dev looked at him, and their eyes met.  Again, she was afraid and not, because she could see something real there, something interesting and complex that reminded her a little of some of her history lessons.

Some of the people she’d seen there.  “Sir.” She murmured.

“We have some programs to give you, Dev, that will help you learn what to do, so you can help the commandant.  So I want you to go with the proctor and get started. We don’t have a lot of time. They need you very badly.”

“Sir.” Dev replied.  “I’ll do the best I can.”

Doss smiled at her, a real smile. “I know you will.” He gave the proctor a nod. “Robin, you know what to do.  Let’s get started.”

“Right away, sir.”  The proctor touched Dev’s shoulder. “Let’s go, Dev.  You’ve got lots to learn.”  He guided her out of the office and the door slid shut behind them.

Doss leaned back against his desk, and watched the director out of the corner of his eye. “I know she’s young, and probably not what you were looking for.” He said.

“No.”  Bricker sat back down. “Frankly, I had no idea what I was looking for. “ He said. “You people give me the creeps and I won’t lie about it.”

“Well, if we had more time..” Doss temporized. “We could breed something up for you, to your specifications but you said..”

“I know. I said I needed them now.”  Bricker cut him off.  “But as it happens, I think this one might be all right.  I didn’t want a soldier.”

“Oh. Well good.”  Doss sat down behind his desk. 

“We don’t’ want programmable soldiers.”  The director said. “Because it’s just as easy for someone else to program them.  After our training they’re damned destructive, and damned expensive for us to maintain.”

“I see.” The doctor murmured, who actually didn’t see. “I’m not really sure, then…”

“You don’t need to be sure.” The director said. “Just give me what I ask for, and I’ll take it from there. “

**

Dev sat in the programming room, her legs dangling over the side of the body shaped couch.  The sensor grid was cocked and in place over the head of it, and across the room the tech was busy setting up the boards.

It was a quiet chamber.  The walls were dimly lit and a soft green color, and the light in the room was a soothing light amber.  She knew it was designed to make her relax, but even knowing that, she felt her stomach in knots and her mouth dry as a paper.

She’d been in here many times before, of course.  Here, or in one of the many chambers like it on this level where she’d gotten her basic, and then advanced skill programming over the years.  It was in this chamber, in fact that she’d gotten her first tech programming skill, waking to a delight of knowledge she’d run right to the sim lab and explored.

This, though, was different. 

“Lay down, please.” The tech instructed.  “The programmer is coming in. “

Dev took a deep breath and swiveled her body, putting her feet up on the gentle slope and her head down under the sensor grid.    She watched as it slowly descended, the nodes settling over her head in familiar spots.

She felt the faint twitch as they synched and she took a breath and released it, forcing her hands to relax on the soft surface as the tech came over and adjusted the couch a little.

He had a digital pad on his arm. “Biological Alternative, set 0202-164812, instance NM-Dev-1?”

“Yes.” Dev agreed. “That’s me.”

The tech nodded. “Okay, just relax for me please. I’m going to test the grid. It might tickle.”

Dev closed her eyes, and immediately felt the faint twitchy/tickling sensation as the grid came live, sending testing pulses through her head.  A flare of colored light behind her eyes, the scent of fruit, the sound of a gong, all without anything audible or truly visible.  “Blue, apple, bell.” She said, after they’d died down.

“Excellent.” The tech patted her arm.  Then he wrapped a sensor around her wrist, and gently tapped the center of her forehead. “Go down for me please.  Let the system take over. Let go.”

And having no choice, Dev did.  She felt a weight lift off her chest, and she focused on the soft echoes of the gong still chiming in her mind, the chimes now coming in the pattern of her heartbeat.

Deeper. Slower.

She was down.

The tech consulted a reading, watching the face under the grid of sensors relax and go still, the slim and toned body easing into compliance, hands uncurling, fingers easing out.

He adjusted a few settings., half turning as the door opened behind him. “She’s down.”

The programmer settled behind the console. “Thanks.” He said, with a sigh. “Damned last minute admin crap.”  He settled his hands on the controls and reviewed the display, eyes flicking back and forth in absorbtion.  “Wow.” He said, after a minute. “Didin’t expect to see this.”

The tech trotted around and looked over his shoulder. “That’s military.” He said, flatly. “I’ve seen stuff like that in the pilot set.”

The programmer nodded. “Yeah, this one’s being sent to Interforce.” He perked up. “Hey, maybe they’re finally figuring out just how useful these guys are to  them.  Could be a big new contract.”

“But on her model?”  The tech pointed. “Gonna cute them to death?”

“Tech.”  The programmer started to work, setting parameters.  “All tech side.  This is a lot though. Hope that thing can handle it.”  He picked up a sensor helmet and put it on, adjusting the leads with expert hands.  “Okay, stand by.”

The tech went to the monitoring station and settled in, adjusting the monitors to watch the steady biological readouts.  “She’s good.”

The programmer glanced briefly at the couch, then went back to his screens, eyes going to deep focus as he put his fingers over the digital sensors and exhaled. 

The room faded out. He activated his helmet display and it flickered to life, a spiderweb of lightning shot tracers forming in his mind’s eye, a digital recreation of the mind under the grid.  From long experience, he navigated through the pulses, knowing where he was by patiently taught instinct as he found the familiar areas of thought and reason.

It was good when they were young like this one. There was plenty of storage for him to set his code into, the pulses were gentle and regular and less of a chance of him screwing something up.

It happened.

He found the spot he wanted, and settled down, calling up the programming codes and feeding them in as that oldest of languages, electrical binary. 

Yes or no.  On or off.  Building blocks of data that would slowly be made more complex but started out in a very basic way, changing thoughts and patterns.  Changing what would be perceived as instinct to a different bias.

As basic as changing whether one flew, or fought,  if that was needed.

This one, he noted, didn’t need that change at least.

He would give her the data and tech first, he decided.  Build up that knowledge base and confidence and then, then just before they were ready to send her out, he’d give her that last set.

The brutal truth set.

**

“Are you out of your cotton picking mind?”   Stephan Bock stared at the commandant seated in the big chair at the head of the table.  “John? Are you nuts?”

Bricker let his hands rest on the table, folded together.  “You never really lost that archaic language, did you?” He mused. “Nuts. Cotton.”  He flexed his fingers. “I guess hydroponic pod and tartex don’t have the same ring.”

“John.”

The commandant leaned back and studied his old friend.  “Stephan,  the options here are very limited. We have a problem.”

“Yes, we have a problem, but solving a problem with pointless insanity ‘s never been your game play.”  Bock said.  “A bio alt?  Why don’t you just suggest we put a lab rat in as a field partner.  It’s be cuter, and probably have a better chance at making an independent decision.”

“You told me you have a trust problem.” Bricker said, in a calm voice. “You told me you not only have a senior op refusing to accept a new tech,  you have an entire ops group having issues with emplacements since they don’t trust the people with them.”

“Yes, but..”

“Yes, but nothing. “ The commandant stood up. “You know how it is with us, Stephan.   How small the pool of ops agents is.  What do we have, a thousand, tops?  In the whole territory?”

“Nine hundred ninety seven.”  Bock stated quietly.  “That gene combo doesn’t come up much.”

“Exactly. So – they need to be teamed with a different skill set, and the only place that comes from is outside.”  Bricker said.  “We take what applicants we have, and we vet them hard.”

“Not hard enough.” Bocks voice was bitter.  “We got lucky nature slaughtered nurture that time. “

The commandant sighed.  “So my point is, we have to take what we can get.  You can’t force someone into the corps.  Much as everyone believes otherwise.”

Bock grunted.   “Pool’s getting shallower.” He admitted. “Not enough diversity.”

“So there it is.” Bricker stood up and paced. “We have a gene pool that’s pathetically restricted, and no resources to support unrestricted breeding – we might even be past the point of no return anyway. We agreed?”

Bock grunted again.

“So.” Bricker turned and leaned his knuckles on the table. “We can’t afford to lose the gene sets we do have, Stephen. They have to be able to trust the people at their back, if we want to continue this long, painful fight of ours.”

“But bio alts?”  Stephan said. “John, they’re just big collections of cell structures with basic instructions added.  How can you seriously think one of them can even be able to do the most mundane tech tasks in the field?”

“The pilots fly.”

Bock waved that off with an impatient hand. “Sure.” He said. “They fly, they get from point A to point B, they can land and take care of their machines… but if they run into a drone high up in the gray, they freeze. You know it. We’ve lost a dozen.”

“Training’s too basic.”

“Their brains are plastic bags full of pixie dust.” 

“Stephen.”

“John, they are.  Just because I’m ops, doesn’t mean I havent’ done the research. I took the classes, remember? So I could direct them?”  He stood up now and did his own pacing.  “Look, I’m not saying bio alts aren’t useful. They are. I don’t know what we’d do without them, since they take care of pretty much everything in this place except for operational activities. But they just take instructions, and carry out the basics. They don’t think for themselves.”

“Well.”  Bricker sighed and sat down. “I want to try and see if we can make one think.”

“John.”

“Your ops agent, the one that wont’ take a partner?  What happens to them if they can’t be convinced?”

Bock dropped into his seat with a grunt. 

“Worth a try?”

“Jess won’t agree to this.”  Bock said.  “She has no use for bio alts.”

“We have no use for lone ops agents who refuse orders.”

Stephen frowned. “John, that’s harsh.”

“Life is harsh, Stephen. In case you hadn’t noticed.”  Bricker retorted, dryly.  “We’re the fine, thin edge trying to prevent complete collapse of our remaining society and frankly, I don’t have time for rebels. So either your prima donna decides to help us with this project, or they can go and spend their days harvesting seaweed. “

“What if I don’t want to help you. You sending me to rake the beds too?”  Bock countered.  “What if I think trying to send a bio alt out with Jess is the same thing as putting her up in front of a lead cannon.”

Bricker studied him.  “Put your jackassery away for a minute and think about one thing. What if it works?”

“It won’t.”

“What if it does?” Bricker insisted.  “What if we prove we can have bio alts made that can fill those roles, Stephen?  If we take them to another level?  If we don’t have to rely on the recruiters?  What if this crazy idea turns out to mean we survive?”

Bock was silent for a few minutes. “You’re serious.”

“I am.” The director agreed quietly. “Look this first trial – I know it won’t probably work. We took an existing model and threw some heavy tech into it. But I want to see the potential, if we can have one made to order, to our spec, you understand?”

Bock grunted.

“If this one even gets a few baby steps, we can see what the long term could be for us. “ 

“And if it doesn’t?”

Bricker shrugged. “Then it’s just a failed experiment, we send it back and get it wiped, and we look elsewhere. But at least it gives you something to toss at this ops agent of yours. Maybe it’ll be a challenge.”

Stephen sighed.  Then he lifted a hand and let it fall. “What the hell. Sure.”   He said. “Worst can happen is it wont’ work.  I don’t think we can put Jess in the field right now anyway.  Psych says she’s not fit for it.”

Bricker nodded. “That’s the spirit.” He said.  “Did a good clean up job in all that mess I hear.”

Bock nodded. “Took out a whole cell. Killed two dozen including the infiltrator and ID’d the locale for the strike team.  Made a very big hole in the ground.”

“Hm.”  Bricker grunted. “Impressive.” He said. “I can see why you want to keep the op around.”

“I do. I really do.”

**

Jess felt the steady patter of rain against her skin as she stood out in the sentryway, leaning her elbows on the armored rail and looking out.

The sky, as always, was dark gray, filled with layered clouds and allowing only the filtered, muted light to reach the surface that spread out ahead of her.

Gray, and gray, and dark greens, and ochres.   The cold wind blew against her face, bringing the smell of brine and damp rock to her nose and she exhaled, absorbing the surroundings of home.

The citadel she called home was built into a granite cliff, protected by the hard, basement rock that surrounded it.  At the base of the cliff on one side was the endless span of the sea, it’s surge flowing through cut tunnels that generated power, and into caverns where they harvested what the tide brought them.

On the other side, rocky ground interspersed with gravel, and the odd patch of lichen spread as far as the eye could see.

There were no trees, and no plants, though once there had been.  There were no people.  It had been generations since homes and buildings had been seen anywhere and now you had to look hard to even discern the faint outlines of what had been roads.

It was bleak. But it had been this bleak for her whole life, and rather than find it depressing Jess instead always felt a sense of peace looking out over this vastness of solitude.

Once upon  a time, she reflected, this had been a place of life and plenty.  Back in the day when everyone had argued over the impact of humanity on the planet, and how they could somehow fix the effect they were having on it.

Back in the day, when there had been lifestyles, and money, and religion to argue over.  Back when they’d thought humanity ruled the world and it was humanity’s decisions that would chart the course of the future.

Everyone had thought a disaster would come someday.  Almost no one had predicted that when it did, humanity had no part in it, and no control over the results.

One after another, six big volcanos had erupted, along a crack in the planet’s crust.  It was simply a matter of physics after that – debris in the air that turned into clouds, that blocked the sun, and in turn spawned more clouds,  and acid rain they couldn’t escape, or block, or do anything about.

Horrifically, frighteningly fast, how a food chain can collapse.  Plants, and forests, and animals and cultures, and civilization vanished in the blink of a planetary eye, reducing a fertile world to an almost barren bleakness.

Almost.

The ten percent of humanity that had survived had done so because the one great strength of their race was the ability to adapt, and adapt, and adapt again, finding new ways to live, new resources to exploit, and new patterns to fall into.

And so they had survived, and learned to live again in a hard world where needs were boiled down to stark essentials.

But they were still human, and conflict was so written into the species that even when so few were left, still, there were sides to be taken.   Now, the conflict wasn’t over ideology or trade, it was over raw resources in a world where access to them meant life or death.

Was there a mind on the other side that had data they needed? They’d go take them.  An invention they could exploit?  Jess or someone like her would be assigned to find a way to locate and retrieve it.  Was there someone who, though not useful to them, would give the other side an advantage?

Jess had killed her share of them. There was no sentiment. No compassion.  Survival was as raw a master as humanity had ever known.  

There could be no open warfare. There wasn’t enough of them for that. They just fought step by step, in close rooms, or dark tunnels,  infiltrating labs, and invading systems.  Their lives depended on the sea, and on the hydroponic stations high above, circling the world.

Jess licked a bit of the rain off her lips.   It had stopped being deadly to them generations back, as their biology adapted to the new conditions and to her it tasted sweet.  It dampened her hair, and the workout suit she was wearing, cooling her body down from the session she’d just completed.

Thunder rumbled overhead, and she took heed of the warning, ducking back inside the armored door and keying it shut behind her. It closed with a compressed thump, and she walked along the corridor towards the enviro center. 

She passed the occasional steadily moving figure in the hall, giving the brief nod of acknowledgement the contact required.  Just past the major corridor that held the dining hall and rec area, she turned into one of many half rounded doorways.

It opened as her presence registered and closed behind her as she entered, the light inside altering from neutral to a soft twilight that outlined her as she stripped off her workout suit and set it on the cleaning shelf.

Naked, she moved into the rad room and it switched on, bathing her in a deep ultraviolet glow.  She sprawled on a transparent chair, letting the artificial sunlight cover her skin as she touched the work pad on the arm of the chair, and called up the ops report.

The one thing they hadn’t evolved out of, that need for the touch of the sun they no longer saw.  Jess rested her elbow on the chair and propped her chin up with it, relaxing in the glow as she caught up on the events of the day.

Her dream of two days past was finally fading.  She’d spent a good, restful night last night, and was almost to where she was starting to feel almost normal again.  The details of the failed raid were fading, along with the scar on her back from the knife.

The trust hadn’t returned though, and Jess had been silently gratified when the other senior ops had gone to the top and registered big concerns of their own as to how far they themselves could trust the tech partners they’d been given.

She knew Stephen thought she’d egged them on, and she would have, if they hadn’t come up with it on their own. If it happened to her, they reasoned, it could happen to any of them.

And that was true.  The techs were all very uncomfortable, sitting together in the dining hall as the ops in residence gathered at their own, and getting faintly concerned and maybe a little suspicious looks from the rest of the citadel staff.

Not fair.  Jess readily conceded. Joshua had been the first turned in as far back as anyone knew, and there was no real reason to suspect any of the other techs but they were suspected anyway.

Tough luck for them.  Tougher luck for Stephen, who was now having to deal with far more than just her problem.

It was time for him, and for his boss to put the thumb down on the council, since it was their process that screwed up. Someone should pay for it.

But even as she thought it, Jess knew in her guts the finger pointing would eventually deflect fault to the four winds likely right back to them, and their group, and her.

Humanity hadn’t changed all THAT much.

A soft knock sounded at the door, an anachronistic touch that almost made her smile. “Come.”  She called out, hearing the soft click as the vocal systems analyzed her response and acted on it.

The outer door opened and she saw a shadowy form enter, crossing in front of the dim light long enough for her to recognized Stephen’s tall, solid, bulk.  “In here.”

He crossed into the sun chamber and sat down on the bench. He was dressed in a workout suit much as she’d been, and his hair was plastered to his head with sweat. “You up for dinner?”

Hm. “Sure.” Jess agreed, wondering what the pitch was going to be. “What’s up?”

“I’ve just had a crap filled day ad I’d like to sit across a plastic table from a good looking woman and talk about trigger ratios and forget it was a crap filled day.” He answered, with surprising bluntness.
“That’s all.”

Jess looked up from her pad, watching him. He was sprawled on the bench and she read honest exhaustion in his body set.  She knew Bricker had been with him most of the morning, and she knew she was probably one of the subjects of the meeting, but she read no dissembling in his face and that surprised her.

Stephan was a friend. But first and foremost, he was her superior and even though they’d grown up together, been schooled together, and been in service together for years she had no illusion of where his loyalties lay.

Ah. There were those trust issues again.  She smiled briefly.  “Sounds good.” She replied. “I’ve got backed up rations, want to share a liter of grog?”

His face creased into a responding smile.  “You’re starting to sound like your old self.”

Jess considered that.  “Im’ not sure that old self still lives in here.” She answered. “But I got a decent night sleep last night so who knows.”

He nodded. “Know how that feels.”  He indicated the light. “Mind if I share your glow? Mine’s being serviced.”

“Feel  free.”  Jess went back to her pad as he stripped out of his suit and went to the transparent lounge, dropping down onto it and stretching out.    The floor and walls were reflective, so every inch of them got some of it and though a necessity, she had always found it oddly relaxing.

She and Stephen were relatively alike in looks. They were both tall, and they both had spare, well muscled bodies with well developed arms and shoulders and powerful legs.  The same training had stamped them, and though the biological differences were still obvious they didn’t obscure the fact that here were two people who had come out of the same mold.

Might even have been sibs, once up on a time.

Jess wondered how long it would take for him to corner her into whatever it was Bricker wanted.

She’d already decided to refuse.   What would the threat be?  What would the price be?

Did she really even care?

**

Dev woke to the soft chime of her scheduler, opening her eyes to find the soft neutral colored interior of her sleeping pod surrounding her.     The sedate glow that accompanied the chime intensified a little and she stretched, waiting expectantly until the latch triggered and the pod opened.

She sat up and swung her legs over the side, leaning her hands on the edge and peering out to see the normal, placid activity of the early dayshift in the crŹche.    

All around there were people emerging from sleep pods, some entering them as well who had worked the night through,  groups of her crŹche mates briefly chatting nearby.   Overhead the walls curved to meet a dome, and beams of sunlight arched through to hit solar panels, moving from one to the other in a stately dance as the station that held the crŹche rotated.

To either side of her, a line of sleeping pods extended around the curved wall, layered one over the other on sliding tracks that positioned the units for exit at the right time and place.  Once a pod was evacuated, it slid up and out of the way, allowing the next one to use the landing space.

And speaking of that, her own pod was gently beeping, warning her of imminent motion.

She stood up on the platform outside, and moved away from the pod, hearing it close behind her as she walked down the sloping ramp and joined a line of bodies heading into the bathing and changing center., all in light sleepsuits, all with bare feet, all with faintly lit collars around their necks.

Like hers.  Dev never thought much about it, since she couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t worn one.  It was light and fitted very well to her skin, never chafing or causing her any trouble and with the delicate tracery of the electronics on it, she actually found them rather attractive.

Or at least, that’s what she told herself.

“Morning , Dev.”  Aybe 285 was in front of her, flexing his hands and stifling a yawn.  There were five or six of his set in front of him, and behind her were some Ceebees, and she spotted Gigi and another of her set as well.

“Morning.” Dev responded. She could hear the soft hum of conversation around her, and behind the edge of the crŹche she spotted a splash of the sun coursing through the station walls and it brought to mind the fact that she was due in the lab right after she broke the night’s fast.

She had new skills. She could feel them, a tickly sensation in the back of her skull that almost made her want to scratch her head there as she wondered what the scope of the new knowledge was. 

It was tech, that she knew, and a lot of it. She’d spent an evening and the following day in programming, and she’d seen the rings of dark fatigue under the eyes of the programmer when they’d finally let her come up, in a hazy mixture of adrenaline and euphoria that had her breathing hard and shaking.

A little dizzy, and ravenous.  One of the meds had walked her to the dining hall and sat with her as she’d consumed her tray, her head finally clearing by the time she drained her second cup of cinnamon tea as her body adjusted back to something close to normal.

The med had gotten her a second sandwich, giving her a pat on the shoulder before he left her there to finish up.  It wasn’t unusual, he’d told her, but she’d never taken that much programming at one time, and she had to admit it had unsettled her.

She was next in line, and went to an open cleaning station, stepping inside and ducking her head a little as the air blasted away the set of paper clothing she’d been wearing to sleep in, the warm pressure feeling good against her skin.

A quick flash of irradiated light cleaned her, and then she was stepping out, turning to the right and going to the line of cabinets that ringed the outer wall.   Twenty third in the row to the right of the door, on lower level A, was hers.

She opened the door and stepped inside, waiting for it to close after her.  The inside light came on and the sound around her faded and she was in the only piece of privacy she’d ever known, given to her when she’d graduated from basic instruction.

Her crib, as they called it.  Barely big enough for her to stretch her arms out twice, it held a cabinet, a padded bench and a counter,  her workspace and the narrow, shallow drawer she kept her few personal possessions in.

Not everyone got one.  Only those destined for higher skill programs were issued one of the limited cribs and it was a definite mark of status in the crŹche along with the ability that went with it to manage the small amount of unregulated time in their day.

She could come here, and study, or watch a lecture from the library or just sit and think for a few minutes by herself.  It was nice to have a place of quiet and peace in the crowded crŹche, and the padded bench was even long enough for her to lay down and relax if she wanted to though she seldom did.

 Dev went over to the closet and opened it, sliding into an undertunic, then pulling on a snug jumpsuit over that.   The fabric was soft, and a soft blue green in color,  the gears patches on either shoulder indicating her assignment to tech and a change for her from the neutral beige of the unassigned.

It felt good.  She liked the color.  It contrasted with her pale hair much better than the other ones had and it made her feel happy to be getting new skills and the opportunity to be a part of something that the director had told her was so important.

 She was still a little apprehensive about the programs, but so far nothing felt strange or out of sorts – she’d had some bad programs that had left her sick to her stomach and once had come up with such a headache they’d had to put her back down again and adjust something.

This was nothing like that.  She remembered a brief dream in her sleep last night which she sometimes would have after a long session, but it had been nothing more than a few images, a gray space, a cliff,  a face, and the smell of brine but they were new and different and she found them intriguing because they weren’t skills.

They were something that was intended to get her ready, programs that would let her know what to do when she got to wherever they were sending her and give her enough information for her to know the proper way to respond and interact with the people she’d meet there.

It wasn’t knowledge, precisely, it wasn’t facts she could call up and examine. This was deep stuff.

She picked up her ident badge and clipped it to her front pocket then she went to the small mirror and picked up her comb, raking her thick, short hair into some kind of order.  She peered at her reflection,  nodding a little at it as she put the comb back down.

She checked the chrono over the door, then she pulled back the simple chair in front of the equally spare desk and sat down to review her notes before the time she was due in the dining hall.  After a minute, though, she pushed the monitor pad on it’s arm aside and opened the drawer to her right hand, removing a tattered square object and setting in on the desktop.

With a faint smile, she opened the cover of the book and read the first page, as she had so many times before, savoring the images the words brought to her and in the simple luxury of reading – a skill not always programmed in her crŹche mates.

A teacher had given it to her when she’d left basic, on the day her birth group had sat in the speaking hall for the last time, before they were sent through processing and given their programming track when they’d learned what level they were being sent to.

It was an old favorite of his, he’d told her, the book given to him by his grandfather, and passed down through his family.  Dev wasn’t sure why he’d given it to her, aside from him saying he thought she would enjoy it, but she was very happy she had it and she often took minutes like this to read a few pages of it.

It was a long story, full of fantastic creatures and places.  

She spent a quarter hour immersed in the book, then she closed it and put it away, getting up and heading for the door.   The lights dimmed as she left, trading the quiet dimness for the bright lit common space of the crŹche and all of it’s inhabitants.

“Hello, Dev.” Gigi had appeared from her own crib, several down to the left of Dev’s.  “How are you? I missed seeing you at daymeal yesterday.”

“Very well.” Dev matched strides with her.  “I was down.” She said, briefly.  “I made it up for late serving.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Gigi nodded. “Was it a good program set?”

“I think so. I haven’t worked with it yet.” Dev joined the line in the dining hall, walking along the line and accepting the tray that was handed to her. “Thank you.” She addressed the server, a tall, quiet man with black curly hair and pretty hazel eyes.

He was an Eren, she thought.  Eren or a Erem, one of the more common sets with lots of members.  They were nice, and they liked music, she recalled.  They got programmed for a lot of different admin things but of course took their turn in the service line just as she did sometimes though Dev usually ended up back in the prep area rather than the front.

She pushed her tray down the line as Gigi picked up hers, and they both walked across the huge room and took a seat at one of the blue tables on the left hand side.

“What are these?”  Gigi poked one of two round white objects on her tray.

“Eggs.”  Dev answered knowledgably.  “You cut them open. They’re good.  I guess they finished some experiment on them or something. I had them once.  I like them.”

Gigi cut one in half and examined it. “Oh. It’s pretty.” She displayed the inside, which had a perflectly round yellow ball inside the white outer part.

Dev put a little jam from the tiny paper cup on the tray onto her wafer and bit into it, adding a slice of her own egg on top for the next chew.  

“So, you’re going downside, right?” Gigi looked over at her. “I heard the director say that.”

Dev nodded. “I think so.” She said, taking a sip of tea to wash down her wafer.  “I wonder what it will be like.”

One of the tall, lanky Befes slid down the bench towards her. He was also dressed in a tech jumpsuit and he gave her a small grin. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Dev smiled back.

“Befe 512.” The newcomer introduced himself.  “I think we’re going to the same place.”   He said. “My subset’s going to be mechanics at Interforce.” He offered a hand in greeting.

Dev took it and returned the clasp. “That’s good.” She said. “it’s good to know people if you’er going to a different place.  My name’s Dev.” She turned and indicated Gigi. “And this is Gigi.  She’s admin for the director.”

“Hi.”  Befe offered a hand. “Nice to meet you.”  He turned back to Dev. “My set mate heard you were going to be a real tech for them  Not just fixing things like we do.  In ops. “

Dev blinked at him. “He did?”

“Wow.” Gigi looked at her. “That’s big.  We don’t do that.”

Dev tried to recall everything the director had said to her. A special job, wasn’t that what he’d said?  Something to help them with a problem?  She was sure he hadn’t said anything about her being an ops tech.   “Gigi’s right. We don’t do that.”  She objected.   “They won’t let us do that.  It’s too hard to program. “ She added. “I don’t think it can be that. Maybe something with the admin systems.”

 

 

Befe shrugged. “That’s what he heard. In any case, I’m glad you’’re going with us. It’s good to know people.” He slid back down the bench to where some of his setmates were sitting, along with three or four others in blue green jumpsuits.

Gigi made a face. “That sounded strange.” She said. “I don’t think people are supposed to be talking about this.”

Dev finished her egg and wafer, and drank her tea. “You know how things get around.” She said, putting the cup down.  “Do you remember that story about Proctor Joan and the head chef?”

Gigi chuckled, covering her mouth hastily with her hand.   “Bananas!” She whispered.

Dev laughed.  “Exactly.” She got up and picked up her tray. “I’m off to the lab.  See you at daymeal.”  She put the tray in the disposal and walked quickly out of the dining hall, joining the flood of bodies moving along the walkway.

The sun speared through the station walls, and Dev walked through slices of filtered light, lifting her hand a little to intercept a bit of it and watching as it gilded her skin.  It made her smile, and she kept smiling as she turned down the hallway and entered the big cross tunnel that led to the techlab.

The walls slanted into the entrance, which had a bio reader and a screen.  Dev stepped up to it, and waited for the soft glow to appear overhead.  She felt that little tickle on her skin, then the screen lit up.

“Ident.” It said, briefly.

“NM-Dev-1” Dev answered.

The door slid open, and she continued inside, moving directly across the big entrance to the processing desk that squatted directly in the center.   She went to the processing agent and unclipped her badge, handing it to him and waiting as he keyed it in.

He studied the screen, then handed her badge back. “Lab 26, first corridor, third door, eight hours. Reset when done.”

“Thank you.” Dev clipped her badge back on and then circled the desk and headed for the lab.   She didn’t pass anyone on the way there, the halls were quieter than usual, and most of the labs were dark and empty, their doors gaping open into the hall.

Lab 26 illuminated as she entered, and the door closed behind her.   Dev paused and looked around, seeing floor to ceiling gray consoles packed into every square inch of the room, leaving only a half octagon desk with a chair behind it.

It smelled just faintly of silicon.  She circled the lab first, examining the consoles, but found nothing on them to indicate their purpose which was intimidating in and of itself.  Usually tech rigs had plates and decals, but these were blank and somehow seemed a little scary to her.

Maybe it was the flat gray color.  

With a sigh, Dev went to the console and sat down in the chair, feeling the surface of it warm to her body, and conform to her figure a little. She adjusted it to her height, then she put her hands down on the tablet surface and heard the almost soundless click and hum of electronics starting up.

A panel slid aside, revealing a headset.  Dev took it out and put it on, smelling the newness of the plastic and steel as the contacts settled over her head and she felt the ear piece snuggle into her ear.  For another moment here was silence, then the boards all lit up.

She jerked, a little, surprised at all the activity.  The half octagon suddenly came alive with sensors and readout panels, the banks lining the walls showed a thousand or more systems and she waited, just letting her eyes roam, for the programming to kick in.

It took a little while, sometimes.  The instruction sets were all in there, but it was sometimes like having a book and it being just out of focus.  You knew the words were there, but you couldn’t quite see them until you brought them closer or a little further and your mind pulled them into clarity.

Until then, it was just a blast of lights and gauges. She looked ahead of her, feeling the slightly crawling sensation on the back of her neck just before the flickering kaleidoscope abruptly shifted and took on meaning as a blast of comprehension overcame her.

A machine voice started whispering into her ear as she found herself short of breath, her body jerking a little as she tried to sync with the program, let it take over and show her what she needed to know.

She knew what the gauges were now, what that screen was, and this screen was, and why that set of readouts was so important.

A wash of tingling dismay made her lean forward, as she took in the  whole of it, and understood what the assignment was they had given her.  She sucked in a breath hard, feeling her heart beating like thunder as the lights dimmed and went to blue and a scenario started.

The consoles shifted and the two nearest to her changed to show controls her hands jerked back from as the voice whispered about metrics, and targets and the three dimensional spatial understanding  that now flooded up into her conscious mind.

She felt like throwing up.  This was wrong. This was dark, and cold and implacable.

But the program had her good and no matter how much she tried to pull her mind back from it the insidious comprehension pushed aside her doubts,  spurring her body to obey the  insistently whispered instructions as her hands moved, and her breathing slowly steadied and she lost herself to the rush of it.

Just lost her grip.   Like the knowledge was water, flowing fast as it had in the old story she read, carrying her along to a destination of it’s own choosing.

There was no fighting it.  The seduction of the knowledge pulled her forward after her brief struggle, as she could sense the opening up of corridor after corridor of new skills she knew were waiting for her. 

As good as a narcotic to one of her kind.   The one thing they all craved at least those who comprehended that much.   To be given the skills that took the beyond a superficial mediocrity.   This was that kind of program, she now understood.

It was tech. Deep tech.  Really knowing things that mattered.   Knowing people that mattered.  Being a part of something truly important with the opportunity to do more than she’d ever dreamed of.

Did it really matter if it was dark?  If she sensed it was going to be scary?

The whispered voice wound around her and took hold, and she felt her heartbeat settle as her body translated the understanding to a sensual level, as a trigger inside her released a jolt of pleasure into her awareness.

It felt good.  The more she relaxed, and thought about the skills, the better it felt.  The fear faded, and the sense of nausea with it, replaced instead with a tingling in her guts and a feeling of anticipation.

She drew in a breath and refocused her eyes on the screens, now nodding just a little as the voice started reporting what she was seeing, and her reflexes woke up, responding to the prompts as the scenario progressed.

She was sure it would turn out all right.

**

Continued in Part 2