Partners

Part 2

Stephen waited until they were halfway through dinner, with a half a liter down before he told her.   Public space, he figured, with all the rest of ops around them would keep her from at least punching him in the face. “So that’s the deal.”

Jess leaned back and twirled the glass in her fingertips, watching him with an expressionless face.  “Let me make sure I understand.” She said. “Some idiot decided it was a good idea to try making a bio alt into a tech ops agent?”  She had kept her voice down. “Really?”

“Really.” Stephan said, encouraged by the calm response. “Frankly, Jess, I told him I thought it was crazy.”

“I see.”

“It’s become really political.” Stephan said. “The rest of the ops group lodging protests like that…  so it got them embarrassed. You know how dangerous that is.’

Jess studied the liquid in the glass. “Despite what you think, I didn’t kickstart that.”  She said. “Everyone’s just watching me and saying that could be them.” She looked up at him. “So their answer is to come up with the equivalent of me walking in front of a laser cannon? Cause that’s what it is. Never mind not trusting my back – the poor stupid critter will probably shoot me in it accidentally.”

Stephen frowned. “Jess, they said they were programming it to be able to do this.”

Jess rolled her eyes.

“Look, what do you want me to tell you? Tell them?”

“That they’re liars.”  Jess said. “Because they are. They’re just looking to save face.  Put that thing in here, we both get offed, everyone turns around and says, well, I guess the council knew better all the time, and should go on picking they way they always have. But look! We listed to them. We tried!” Her voice dripped with raspy sarcasm.  “Rest of the group’s just relieved it wasn’t them.”

Stephen exhaled, an unhappy expression on his face.   He’d known Jess for all the years of his life, had sat across a table from that tall, rangy form with it’s dark hair, and those light blue eyes many times, had fought many fights with her, and of all the agents in the group he trusted her the most.

Not because Jess was nice.  She wasn’t.  But she was honest and her focus was true and it killed him that it was her that Joshua had knifed because there were others who deserved it more. “It’s a political thing.” He repeated. “Not really a whole lot of choice in it, Jess.”

“What does that mean?”

They were both keeping their voices down, ostensibly just enjoying dinner together, in the uncrowded ops dining hall on level 3.   There were six other people in the place, three pairs of two at the small tables and everyone else was making a show of pretending to ignore them.

“What does that mean, Stephan?” Jess repeated, slightly louder. “You know I’m not going to agree to this.”

He leaned forward. “Not sure you have a choice.”

Jess’s face went very still.

“Look.” He glanced around. “I told you this is political.  Bricker has a lot on the line. He has debts to pay to the council. So it’s either we cooperate, or..”

“Or?” Jess repeated.

“Or he said there’s no place in the organization for people who didn’t.”

Jess’s expression got even more still. ‘So, let me see.” She said. “Either I agree to walk into fire, or I get booted out into the streets, since I don’t have enough years in to retire. Is that right?”

He couldn’t even look at her. “It’s political.” He muttered. “This whole thing got bigger than us.”

“Are those my choices, Stephen?”

He finally looked up. “That’s what Bricker said.  Either you cooperate with the plan, or you’re out.” He said. “But Jess, listen, give it a chance, for Pete’s sake.  You don’t know, maybe it’ll work.”

“It wont’ work.” Jess said, in a remote tone. “I’m not going to go out on a failure that also kills some poor beast that has no choice in the matter.  Tell Bricker he can take his political ass and trash compact himself.”

“Jess, think about what you’re doing. “ Stephen urged her, keeping his voice low.

Jess put her glass down. “Screw yourself..” S he said, standing abruptly. “Process my outpapers.  I’ll go pack. Not that I‘ve got a lot to.”  She tossed a chit down on the tray and turned, heading for the door to the hall.

Stephan was far too stunned to react until it was too late and she was gone. He stood up and started after her, aware of all the eyes on his back as he got to the door and went through it, looking quickly right and left.

The hallway beyond was empty however, only two cleaning staff were carefully vacuuming along the wall, their gray coveralls almost blending into it.   Of Jess there was no sign, and he debated whether he should go ot her quarters.

Go and try to talk her down? Stephen frowned.  He started towards the bunkhouse but his comm unit chirped and he stopped as the soft bing and central comms voice sounded in his ear.  “Commander Bock, to central ops, priority.”

He paused, then reluctantly headed down a slightly different corridor, a sinking sensation already in his stomach.

**

Jess kept her pace relaxed until she’d entered her living space, waiting until the door slid shut behind her before she let herself react, spinning her body and slamming her fist into the wall with enough force to dent it.

Then she dropped into one of the chairs and stared at the ceiling, her eyes staring at the Interforce shield above the workspace.  “Mother fucking bastards.”

Her voice sounded loud in the room.  There was no echo. The fabric on the walls absorbed everything, even the crack of her fist against the surface underneath.   

Her stomach was in turmoil.  The meal she’d just eaten was lodged somewhere up near her breastbone, and suspected it wouldn’t be long before she ejected it.  ‘Damn them.” She whispered. “Spend your whole life giving it all to them and what does it mean? Jack nothing.”

Jack nothing.  Jess rested her head against her hand.  Two hundred emplacements, countless liters of blood shed, more successful missions than any other agent and on top of it, this last damn cluster and what?

Nothing.  “What have you done for me lately? Wasn’t that the old saying?”  Jess felt the anger draining out of her, leaving her mostly just depressed.  “Come cover our asses or get lost. Yeah well…” She glanced around. “Guess I’ll go get lost.”

Literally, she would get nothing.  Her last pay transfer, any supply chits she had on record, and a ride out to the nearest shelter.  They wouldn’t even give her a transfer home.

Not that home had any meaning for her, anymore.  Jess half closed her eyes. She’d been submitted to the corps when she’d been old enough to walk, and entered for school and training.  The cost was covered by the agency, and she was guaranteed a job for life, as long as that life lasted, given what they did.

She’d been back home maybe a half dozen times in all, strange, awkward visits with her mother and two brothers,  the one hardly knowing what to say to her and the two boys resentful they didn’t get to go where she had.

Her father, of course, had died in service, the same service she’d given her all to, all her life because that’s what Drakes did.  Ten generations. She was the eleventh.  To now find out just what that was worth – it hurt.

Maybe she’d just tear into central command and go after Bricker.  They’d gun her down, and at least she wouldn’t have to suffer living in a crate, and scraping seaweed from the rocks downstairs.  Be a fast exit, wouldn’t it?

She was glad Dad wasn’t around to see it.   Even more glad he hadn’t been around to see Joshua’s defection. Close as he’d been to his tech partner, he’d have lost his mind with it.

With a sigh, she pushed herself to her feet and went over to her workspace. She sat down in the big, comfortable chair and keyed in the pad.   Would Stephan have already processed her?   She waited for a lockout, but the pad logged in and gave her access with no complaints.

She keyed in her own profile and watched it form on the pad, sliding at her command to the section where her service status was and pausing.  She reached over to tag herself inactive, when a soft chime indicated some incoming event.

Maybe Stephan was just a step behind her.  She keyed over to the input and opened it, finding instead an info packet there. 

“That makes no sense.” Irritated, she was about to flip back and effectively kill herself in the system when she caught the sending entity and paused, realizing it was from the district assignments group.   Reluctantly, she keyed it and watched it open, reading the first few words before she realized this had to be part of the insanity Stephan had told her about.

“Screw that.” She closed the file and went back to the status, resetting the field to voluntary dismissal, and applying it before she could talk herself out of it and into a compromising honor suck.  “Done.”

The screen went blank immediately, and she heard a soft whir and clack from upstairs as the weapons locker sealed itself.  A glance to the door showed a red light next to it as well, and she got up, feeling an irrational sense of loss hit her unexpectedly.

Even though she’d made the choice.  Even though she thought it was the right choice, and that it would at the very least save the bio alt they’d picked a gory, terrifying sacrifice.  Knowing she was now no longer a part of this place, of these people, of this world she’d been given to was hard to accept.

Hard to fathom. But she could hear the echo of the weapons lock in her mind and she knew if she tried to go outside she’d be met with an armed guard, denied access to anything except the lockdown if she persisted.

She could stay here, until they processed her.  Then she’d be taken to the service exit and the door would shut behind her, and she would never enter it again.

Done.  Over.   She doubted any of the others would even come to say goodbye.  You didn’t, when someone walked out.  She certainly had never, though she’d seen a half dozen agents do it, some she’d considered friends.

Quitters.  She remembered feeling embarrassed about them, unable to understand why they would just walk out.

Well now she knew.

Jess walked over to the bed and lay down on it, half curling up in a ball and wrapping her arms around the pillow.  She felt an odd sensation in her throat, and a tense pain around her heart, and she closed her eyes tightly, focusing on letting it all go past her.

**

Stephan entered central comms just as the big screen was fizzling to gray. He walked over to where Bricker was leaning against the main console and looked at him in question.

“Took you long enough.” Bricker said, in a crisp tone.

“I was in the dining hall.” 

Bricker turned and put his hands on his hips. “Danao just transmitted a burst report.  They got word through some scientist who just transferred up to Garden Station there’s been a breakthrough.”

“Yes?” Bock tried to focus on it, his mind distracted by recent events.

“Light amplification screen. They got photosynthesis working on a twelve by twelve meter platform.”  Bricker informed him. “We need that tech.  Council’s told me to get that tech.” He put hand on the planning board.  “So let’s get going on it.”

“Commander.”  One of the ops monitors came over and handed Bock a pad. “This just activated.”

Stephen looked at it, and cursed under his breath.

“What?”  Bricker said.

“I presented your idea to Jess Drake.” He said, handing the pad over. “She elected to shift out instead of going along with it.”

Bricker took the pad and stared at it. “Are you kidding me?” He looked up at Bock. ‘What kind of idiot is this?”

“No kind of idiot, sir.” Stephen responded, quietly. 

Bricker handed the pad back. “We don’t have time for this crap.  Agent wants out? Fine.  Get someone else to be part of the project.  I’m sure you can find someone.” He looked at Bock’s face. “What’s the problem? You need a visit to psych too?”

“Maybe.”  Stephen said. “Maybe I just got Jess’s point.”

“What?”

“John, you reminded me how few our resources are.  So now you tell me to throw one of them away?” Stephen said, slowly.  “We’re not machines.”

Bricker looked exasperated. “We don’t have time for this.” He said. “Do you not get it? Do you not understand what that breakthrough means?  That they’ve found a way to grow plants again, here, on the surface?”

 “I get it.” Bock replied. “So now you want me to send people… People, John? Our people? Into enemy space to try and get that technology and bring it back.   People who are here, who don’t trust us, who don’t trust the people that back them now.”

“Maybe we should go all bio alt.” Bricker said. “At least then they’d do what we told them to do, instead of wringing and crying and being pansy assed pieces of crap.  I told you. I don’t have time for this. The Council wants a plan, by tonight, to get someone in there.”

“I’ll see if I can find anyone willing.”  Bock turned and started to leave.

“If?”

Bock turned. “Unfortunately, sir, until you make good your plan to replace us with biddable robots, we still have a choice. We don’t force our people to go. We ask them.” He swiveled and left the comm. Center, heading for his office in the back section of the stronghold.

Word was already spreading. He could see ops agents loitering in the hall, watching his approach, gathered in groups.   He remembered being one of them, wondering what ‘they’ were going to ask now, viewing ‘them’ as the Brickers of the world who never really cared about what the cost was, only saw results.

Well, he was a them now. Stephen grimaced uncomfortably.  At least, that’s what his title said.

“Stephen.”  Jason Anders cut in front of his path, with Elaine Cruz next to him. “Can we speak with you?”  Both were seniors. Both veterans.  Apparently they’d been elected spokespeople.

Bock regarded them, then sighed. “Sure.” He waved a hand towards his door. “C’mon.” 

“He doesn’t get it.” Bricker said to the closed door, and then swiveled around to look at the rest of the people in the comms center.

They were all looking back at him, with closed, silent faces.  He could sense the anger in the room.  “I can replace all of you with them too.” He warned.  ‘We have a mission here, people.   That’s bigger than any of us.”

He turned back to the console and started keying in requests.

**

Dev was seated on a plastic bench, her elbows braced on her knees, sweat dripping off her as she tried to catch her breath.  Her whole body was shaking with her just ended effort, and she blinked salty droplets out of her eyes that landed on the gym floor.

She had never been so tired.   She flexed her hands, rough and sore from the climbing system and felt a blister forming just at the pad between her fingers and palms.  She was dressed in the light singlet they used in the gym and there were bruises on her knees and arms from all the work.

“NM-Dev-1?”

Dev looked up, to find a phys proctor there.  “Yes.”

“You have completed group A and group B tasks. Well done.” The proctor said.  “You are complete for the day.”   The woman gave her a sympathetic look.. “I know it’s been a long session.” 

“Yes.” Dev responded, direly grateful for the news.

“The rest of the day is scheduled clear for you, to review previous classes. Okay?”

“Yes.” Dev said. “Thank you.”

“Your welcome.” The proctor gave her a smile, then she shut her pad down and walked away, leaving Dev alone in the preparation area.

She straightened up and ran her hands through her damp hair, knowing from the ache in her arms she would be experiencing this class for quite some time.  At least she had some space to relax now, and a night meal to look forward to. 

It was cycle end today. That usually meant the dining hall would give them something a little different,  or two cakes, or maybe even some protein bars and she was glad of it since her body was craving replenishment from the past while.

Footsteps made her look up again, and she blinked as a familiar figure entered the gym and came over to where she was sitting. “Hello Doctor Dan.”

“Hello, Dev.”  Daniel  Kurok took a seat next to her.  “How are you?”

“Tired, right now.” Dev answered honestly.

You could always answer Doctor Dan straight.  He was the first doctor she remembered, and the one who always had the time to talk, and explain things.  He was a man of middling height, with straight, blond hair the same shade as hers, and a calm, appealing personality

 She had always liked him.  All the sets did. Doctor Dan was one of the very few who would talk to you as if you were actually a person. Not talk at you.

“I can imagine.” The doctor’s gentle grayish blue eyes regarded her. “I know you’ve been very busy preparing for your new assignment.  Are you excited about it?

Dev thought about that. “I am.” She said, eventually.  “It’s hard, but knowing so much is good.”

Doctor Dan smiled at her. “I’m glad to hear that.” He said. “I came to find you, because something has happened, and they need you to go to your assignment sooner than we thought.   I’d like to talk to you about it before you start getting ready.”

“How soon?” Dev asked. “I still have programming to get.”

“Tomorrow.” Doctor Dan put a hand on her shoulder as she stiffened. “But don’t be scared. You have what you need. The rest of the programming is just information, not skills and we’ll send it with you.” He reassured her. “Can you come with me? We can have dinner, and talk.”

It was like getting a buzz.  Dev wasn’t sure what to say. She’d never been invited to go to a meal with anyone except one of her crŹche mates. “Yes.” She finally answered.  “I need to change first.”

“No problem.” The doctor patted her bare shoulder. “Go on, and I’ll wait for you outside in the lobby. “ He watched her walk off towards the changing space and sighed, glancing up as someone else walked up. “This makes me very unhappy, Randall.”

“I know.” Doss sat down on the bench just vacated.  “I know you had plans for this one.”

“It’s not just that.” The chief geneticist sighed. “I know you think I’m probably against the assignment, but I’m not. I think it’s a damn good idea, matter of fact.”

“You do?”  Doss seemed astonished.

“Yes, I do.” 

Doss scratched his head. “So you think this might work?” He asked. “Do you really think one of our products can do this?”

Doctor Dan looked at him with an oddly wry expression. “Yes, I do.” He repeated. “I just wanted to be prepared for it. Send the right set, properly trained and programmed. “ He frowned. “Not something jury rigged like this is. I have suspicions about their success motives.”

Doss shifted uncomfortably. “What do you mean??”

Kurok stood up. “Never mind.  I could be wrong.” He said. “But I’ll be escorting Dev down there.  I have our flight assignments already.”

“Oh, but Daniel!” Doss protested. “You have so much in work here!”

“I know. It will need to wait.”  The geneticist replied.  “I want to find out what this emergency is.  My sources in Interforce have told me the situation downside is not good.” He frowned. “I don’t want us to end up a scapegoat.”

“But they wanted us. They came and asked us, Daniel.”  Doss looked troubled.

“Mm. Yes, they did.”  Doctor Dan frowned. “And you should have brought me in when Bricker was here.  I know them better than you do.” He turned and headed for the entrance.

“Oh.”  Doss got up and followed him out the door and into the quiet lobby. “But there wasn’t time, really!”  There were three bio alts sitting on a bench near the door, waiting for their classes to start, but otherwise it was empty.  “Daniel, please don’t cause us trouble. I was hoping this order was the start of something big for the company. A breakthrough”

Doctor Dan looked at him.  “I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me,  Randall.  I’ll do what I think is best for all of us.”  He responded. “And if not I’ll try to warn you in advance.”  His face tensed into a faint grin.

“Yes, well, all right.” Doss sighed. “Please keep me advised on the progress.” He hurried off, leaving his colleague to take a seat in the lobby to wait.

Kurok did, dropping into a chair and idly studying the three men seated waiting.   Aybes, he mused, his mind running over the DNA he’d encoded in them, laying down a biological structure suited for the role they were meant to fill.

One of them noticed him, and waved. He waved back, and all three smiled a little, glad to be paid attention to by a doctor they knew held high status in the crŹche.   “Have a good session, lads.”

“Thank you , Doctor Dan.” The one who had waved spoke up. He stood then, and led the other two into the gym as the door opened and chimed green, leaving him alone in the hall.

Dan sighed.  Then he caught motion in his peripheral vision and turned his head to see Dev emerging from the gym, fastening her badge to her coverall pocket.   He smiled in reaction, proud of his work that was so evident in Dev’s attractive features and well made body. 

He supervised many sets. But Dev had been one of his personal efforts.  “That was fast.” He stood up. “Let’s go get something to eat. I bet you’re hungry.”

Dev smiled, a little bashfully. “They worked me hard in the gym today.” She admitted. “And it’s cycle end. I think we were going to get some extra tonight.”

“Well, don’t worry about it.”  Doctor Dan led the way through the halls. “We’re going to the little place we working scientists eat, so you will get fed, absolutely.” He triggered the door to the grav lift and stepped in, waiting for Dev to join him before he pointed up with his thumb, and they both kicked off.

The tubes were pretty empty, and they drifted upward through the clear glass, as the stations rotation brought then to aphelion, and they were faced with a vast starfield overhead.

Dev enjoyed the sight immensely.  She didn’t usually get the opportunity, since most of the crŹche areas she was accustomed to were down lift.  “They’re so pretty.”

Dan had been looking up also. “They are, aren’t they?” He said. “Savor them, Dev. You won’t get to see them downside.”

“That’s what they said.”  Dev agreed, as they reached the top and she followed the doctor through the hatch.   They were now in one of the upper residential areas, and she turned her head from side to side looking at the plush carpet, and woven tile walls.  “Only clouds.”

“Only clouds.”  Dan led the way to an entrance, where a bio alt was standing, manning a small desk. “Hello, Ceebee 245.”

The bio alt, dressed in a black jumper with silver piping, looked up. “Oh! Hello Doctor Dan.” He glanced at Dev, but didn’t address her. “Would you like a table?”

“Yes.” Dan said. “For two, please. My friend Dev here is joining me.”

Ceebee 245 looked briefly at Dev, then he half bowed, and indicated the door behind him. “Of course Doctor. Please come this way.”

Dev felt very out of place.  She followed Doctor Dan inside, and found herself in a bubble that held several dozen tables,  about a dozen of which were occupied.   She knew the people in the room were all looking at her, and she had some idea that her kind weren’t allowed.

Doctor Dan, though, seemed oblivious to this. He pulled out a chair for her at the table they were led to, and sat down himself. “Ceebee, please bring us two fruit punches to start with.”

Ceebee 245 nodded in acknowledgement, and disappeared, heading towards the service area.

Doctor Dan leaned on his forearms. “Dev, I know this seems very strange to you. But I’m doing it for a reason. “

Dev looked around. “I’ve never been here before.” She agreed. “It’s very pretty.”

The doctor smiled. “Yes, it is.” He said. “You know, the assignment we’re sending you on, I think sometimes you might end up in places like this, with your natural born partner.” He added. “And you might even be wearing clothing that will make people think you’re not a biological alternative.”

Dev remained silent, listening to him intently. 

“So I wanted you to just see what this was like, before you went downside.”  Doctor Dan looked at the pad on the table. “But I think I’ll order for both of us, if that’s okay with you.”

“Okay.”  Dev agreed. 

He keyed in an order, then turned his attention back to her. “They’ve given you a lot of programming this week, haven’t they?”

“Yes.” Dev was relieved to be talking about something familiar to her.  “I had two sessions. The first one was very long. It was all tech, really hard.” She said. “Then I had lab.”

“I saw your lab results.  You did very well.”  The doctor said  “The programmers were really pleased with how you took the program, too.”

Dev grinned in response.  “Thank you.”

Doctor Dan smiled.  “I’ve seen the programming.  What did they actually tell you about this assignment, Dev?  What did they say you were going to do?”

Dev was a little confused.  Wouldn’t Doctor Dan know that?  “Well.” She said. “Doctor Doss explained there was some problem that they wanted me to try and help with.  He took me to meet a man called Bricker, who said I would be working with them to try and solve the problem.”   She paused. “They didn’t say exactly what I would do, but the programming was a lot of tech, so I guessed I would be working with that, and with something to do with security.”

Long speech.  Doctor Dan regarded the young, serious face across from him.  “Does that worry you?”

Dev considered the question. “I don’t know.” She answered, finally.  “Should it?”

Ah.  Doctor Dan waited as two plates were delivered to them, and the server silently left.    He watched his dinner companion study the contents, then pick up the implements on one side and put them neatly to use. 

That, at least, they’d given her.   “They must have told you what Interforce does, didn’t they?” He sliced up his protein and took a sip of the fruit juice.

Dev shook her head, chewing thoughtfully.

Figures.  “Well, Dev, you’re right that you’ll be doing something with security.”  Doctor Dan said. “Interforce sends people to do things that make the lives of people who are on our side better, and prevent people who aren’t on our side from hurting us.”

Dev swallowed.  “That doesn’t sound so bad.” She hesitantly offered.

“Well, it doesn’t, if you just look at the surface of those words.” Doctor Dan said. “What that really means,  Dev, is that you will be doing some dangerous things, and it’s possible you could get hurt doing them. You could see other people hurt. “

“Oh.”  Somehow, though, Dev had known that. Something in the programming had told her, she reasoned, since she felt no prickle of surprise at the words, nor dread hearing them.  “I”ll do my best to be safe.” She said.

Doctor Dan smiled again. “I know you will.” He said. “When I put you together, Dev, I tried to give you the ability to adapt, and to handle difficult things.  This assignment is going to be difficult, but I think you can do it.”

Dev produced another tentative smile at the compliment.   “Thank you.”

“What I am going to warn you about though, is about how people downside will feel about you, about what you are.” Doctor Dan’s voice gentled. “There are other bio alts in Interforce. But none of them will be doing what you will.  Some people might not like it.”

Dev nodded. “Like here, when they don’t like it when someone else gets higher skills.” She said. “They want it too.  Or they think they should get it.”

Impressed, Doctor Dan regarded this product of his making.  The insight was more than he expected, and showed a self awareness he hadn’t quite anticipated. “Yes, that’s it exactly.” He said. “Have you had trouble like that much here?”

Dev shrugged.  “A little.” She admitted. “I think its also mostly because I’m .. “ She hesitated. “There’s no one else in my set.” She explained. “So everyone else has someone else who is just like them, and it makes them stick out less.”

Doctor Dan put his fork down and touched her hand. “You should have come and talked to me about that, Dev.  I could have explained it better for you.”

The pale green eyes took on the faintest hint of a twinkle. “It was hard, sometimes.” She admitted. “But… being the only one in my set made me think maybe I would get to do something special.” She said. “And I guess I will.”

Doctor Dan rested his chin on his fist, his face creasing into a grin.

‘So even if it turns out to be scary, and maybe really hard and not a lot of fun.” Dev continued. “I’ll still have gotten to do it. “

Part of that, Doctor Dan knew, he’d programmed into her.  He’d selected the genes carefully, moving towards a half imagined , not quite all the way designed different step – maybe forwards, maybe sideways. 

A developmental unit. That’s what the Dev stood for. He’d rolled the genetic dice and only now was he getting to see what numbers those dice were returning to him, almost impossible to know before the set reached maturity and a full realization of all the synaptic growth.

Dev now put her fork down and looked earnestly at him. “Doctor Dan, can I ask you for something?”

“Absolutely.”  He responded, still a bit bemused.

Dev’s eyes went to her plate, then lifted up to him. “If it’s too hard.” She paused. “And it doesn’t work out, could you make it so I don’t have to forget all this?”

Pinned by that soulful look, Doctor Dan bit the inside of his lip and had to pause to let the tension in his throat relax before he answered. “I promise you, Dev.  I’ll only let that happen if you ask me to do it.”

Dev smiled in relief and returned her attention to her plate. “Thank you.”  She said. “And thank you for letting me come here. This is really good.” She indicated the plates rapidly depleting content. “Or maybe I was just really hungry.” 

Doctor Dan patted her shoulder. “It is good.” He said. “And it was my pleasure, Dev.  I’m glad we got a chance to talk.” He put his mind to his plate as well, his thoughts already racing far ahead.  “I really am.”

**

Dev was aware of how quiet it was in the crŹche when she returned.  A proctor caught sight of her and approached, with a pad strapped to their arm.  “Hello, proctor.” She greeted the woman.

“NM-Dev-1?”

“Yes.”

“You are late back.”

Dev regarded the proctor thoughtfully. “Doctor Dan required my presence.” She said. “He just sent me back here.”

“Doctor Kurok?” The proctor said.  “He didn’t log his request.”

Dev didn’t respond to that, having no control over what Doctor Dan did and knowing the proctor knew that.

The proctor tapped on the pad. “We have been told you are being transferred out tomorrow on the first transport, hour ten.”

“Yes.” Dev agreed. “They told me.”

“You may take one size small pack bag with you.” The proctor said. “Everything else you need will be provided by your assigned contractor.  You have no schedule tomorrow, after break fast report to the transfer station no later than hour nine. Understood?”

“Yes.”  Dev hoped the proctor was done.  She was tired, and after the evening of being treated to the attention of Doctor Dan, the impersonal and rote instruction felt a little grating.  

Just a little. 

The proctor nodded. “Very well.  The pods are already programmed for this sequence. Since you’re late, you will need to overnight in transit quarters.” She consulted the pad. “B32, section 2 in the outer ring has been cleared for you.”

“Thank you.” Dev said. “Good night.”

The proctor glanced up at her in some surprise.  The she pointed to the outer ring and left, taking her pad with her.

Dev exhaled. Then she headed towards the corridor, glancing back to see the night pods making their slow, gentle transit and realizing she wouldn’t be feeling that comforting motion again, at least for a while.

Change was happening.   The unknown was pouring down on her far faster than she’d expected.  By tomorrow, she realized, she’d be in her assignment and tonight she stood on the cusp of having her life move to a completely different mold.

Good? Bad?

Or just different?

**

It was Stephen who came to escort her.  

Jess was sitting in the chair near the door to her quarters, her neatly packed duffel at her feet.  The room was bare and clean, the workspace cleared, everything tucked into place ready for whoever was going to live in it next.

She’d come with terms with two things. First – regret for making a snap decision and acting on it before thinking it all the way through.   Second, that she was sticking to the decision anyway, even though she knew it was mostly due to ego alone and not the best choice for her at this stage in her life.

She was stubborn and proud, and she knew it. She knew everyone else knew that also, and given the choice of breaking down and asking for a reneg, or sticking to her pride and doing something stupid, she’d pick doing something stupid every time.

Family trait.  Jess was studying the scars on the back of her right hand when the door unlocked and slid open, and Stephen walked inside and faced her.  “Ready?”

“Yep.” Jess stood up and shouldered the duffel.  The sudden reality of the moment made her breath catch, but she waited for Stephan to turn and lead the way out, gazing quietly at the floor.

“Jess.”

She looked up at him, a little surprised at the expression on his face and the distinct shadows under his eyes. “Yeah?”

Stephan took a breath, and then released it.  “Everyone wanted to come with me. Wanted to… come see you the past couple days. Bricker blocked it off. Didn’t want them getting any ideas, he said.”

“Fuck him.”  Jess said, in a mild tone. “I hope he walks off the edge of that cliff out there and ends up fishfood.”

Stephan nodded.  “I just didn’t want you to think no one gave a damn.”  He said. ‘They did. I do.”

Jess wasn’t sure if it made it worse or better to hear that. “Let’s go.” She said. “I”d like to have time to find a place to crash before dark.”  She appreciated what he had said, but in her heart, she knew if anyone had truly wanted to come and say good bye…

They would have.   No one wanted to rock the boat though.  Jess had no illusions about the relationship with the rest of the ops battalion she was leaving. They were colleagues, they occasionally crossed paths during emplacements, they’d step in front of a laser cannon for each other in the field but there was no one here, save perhaps Stephen, she could have characterized as a true friend.

She’d thought Joshua was a friend.  He sure acted like one.  She followed Stephan’s silent form down the empty hall, memories chasing her footsteps.   She remembered the easy companionship, the casual dinners, and games of cards in their quarters in the infrequent intervals they’d been in them.

She still wanted to throw up every time she thought about him.    With a sigh, she shifted the strap of her duffel on her shoulder as they crossed the central corridor and turned into the series of blast shields that led to the transport entrance.

Doors slid shut after them as they went, each one putting her more on the outside until they got to the last one, and she could smell a transport off gassing nearby.    Just before the door was a lock clearance, and first Stephan, and then Jess stepped into it, enduring the electric blue tickle of the genetiscan that was the final determination of identity.

Jess heard the soft chimes and burbles.  “Ident complete. “ The calm voice of the system announced. “Final exit confirmed.  Do not attempt reentry.”

Stephen keyed open the external entrance, and the smell of the transport got a lot stronger. He led the way outside onto the landing pad and waited for Jess to join him.

The door slid shut behind her, and Jess felt a sudden sense of deep loss that made her jaw clench.  Even the sight of the transport, usually an interest of hers, didn’t dull it.   She moved to one side and sat down on the bench to wait, as the big jet’s hatch was still sealed shut and the techs were still bringing out umbilicals and cooling to it.

Stephen sat down next to her, resting his elbows on his knees, watching the gasses from the jet lifts evaporate.   “I’m sorry.” He said, after a long moment.

“For what?” Jess leaned back and rested her head against the rock wall.  “None of this was your fault, Stephan.”

“I know.” He agreed. “I’m just sorry.  I don’t’ want you to leave. I’ll miss you.”

Jess was so surprised she nearly fell off the bench.  She turned her head and looked at Stephen, but he was staring ahead, his shoulders hunched.  “Well.” She said. “I’ll miss you too.” She waited for him to look at her, and their eyes met. “I’ll miss this place. It’s the only home I’ve ever known.”

“Stupid mother fuckers.”  Stephen said, clipping the words, and clamping his jaw shut. “If Elias was still here…”

“Well, she’s not.” Jess sighed. “But she would have kicked Bricker’s ass, that’s true, and put a shut on his damn crazy ideas.”

The transport door opened, and moved down to form a ramp,  and after a brief pause, several people came out.  Most were in Interforce uniform, and didn’t really give them a glance on passing.   The last two were a man and a women, both blond and in civilian dress.

The woman had a bio alt collar, and as she cleared the ramp she looked over and her eyes met Jess’s.

It was an almost physical impact. Jess felt her nape hairs lift a little, bringing a chill to the back of her neck  as her heart did a funny little thump in her chest. She watched the blond woman almost trip on the edge of the ramp, and then she looked away as the man next to her put a hand on her shoulder and urged her towards the entrance.

Jess saw the door close behind them and she jerked her attention back to the transport.   Was that Bricker’s damn crazy project?   “Bricker keeping that bio alt idea going?” She asked, clearing her throat a little as she heard the rasp in her voice.

Stephen had been obvious to the drama, apparently.  “Yeah.” He stood up. “Told them he wanted to start early, matter of fact.” He looked at Jess. “Lets get you settled onboard.”

It must have been the bio alt.  Jess stood up, resisting the urge to look behind her, at the closed door.  She’d never seen that set before, and she’d come in with what looked like a proctor.  

Huh.   She followed Stephen up the ramp, then exhaled, and dismissed the unlikely newcomer, since  she was heading in the wrong direction to care.   “That’s too bad.” She said. “I was hoping they’d at least kill that idea, and save that poor bastard pain and trouble.”

“Yeah, well, we don’t have any unpaired agents so I don’t know why he wanted them now.” Stephen stopped abruptly, almost making Jess crash into him. “Oh.” He took a step back. “Sir.”

Jess looked up quickly, and edged to one side. Standing at the top of the ramp was an older man, with silver white hair and a long, saturnine face.  He had a hooked nose, and bushy eyebrows, and she felt her own eyes open wide as her brain identified him.

The Old Man.  That’s what every one she’d ever known called him, but never to his face, and she was careful to school her tongue not to utter that description rather than his name.  Alexander Bain, the man who ran Interforce, though she had no idea what his actual title was, or whether he really did own the vast organization or just operated it for some moneyed consortium.

“Commander Bock.” The man rumbled.  “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“No sir.” Stephen inclined his head a little. “It’s a great honor.” 

“Hm.”  The man mused. “And this is Agent Drake, I assume?”

“No.” Jess replied quietly. “Not anymore, sir.”  

“Hm.” The old man studied her, making a little beak with his lips, and knitting his brows.  “I see. Well, perhaps you could join me inside for a moment, so we can have a chat.  I would hate to lose this opportunity to exchange a few words with someone who has tendered my organization such excellent service.”

Jess felt very offbalance, and not only because she was standing on a ramp.  “Yes, sure.” She managed to mutter. 

“I didn’t know you were arriving sir.” Stephan said, meekly.  “We would have made arrangements.”

“You didn’t know I was arriving because I took some pains to make sure you didn’t know I was arriving.” Bain informed him. “What’s the fun of being the Old Man if I can’t show up unannounced and scare the living daylights out of everyone?”

“Sir.” Stephen responded.

“Please go take a seat there, Commander.”  Bain pointed at the bench. “Do not contact anyone, do not move until we come back. Understood?”

“Sir.”

Bain turned and went back into the transport, clearly expecting Jess to follow him. She did, shifting her duffel a little to allow it to clear the door frame as she went inside, moving off the metal ramp onto the solid steel of the airframe.

They went down the port passageway, past the general seating section with it’s rows of cramped bucket seats and belt ins.   The lights were dim, and there were three bio alts there vacuuming the interior with the intent, single minded purpose of their kind.

Bain led the way through a second passageway, and then down into the aft of the transport, opening a door and passing through into a smaller, more comfortable section.

He took a seat on one of the large, plush chairs and indicated the other with a wave of his hand.  “Please sit down.”

Jess unloaded her duffel and put it neatly against the wall. Then she sat down in the chair and put her hands on the arms, facing him and waiting.

He could be there for many reasons.  She was not quite vain enough to think she was one of them. Jess knew she could be forgiven if she immediately started explaining her part and viewpoint in the whole situation but she was savvy enough to know sometimes it was just better to shut your mouth and wait.

So she did.

Bain studied her.  “You have a reputation for many things. “ He said. “For stubbornness and arrogance, for courage and perseverance, for strategic brilliance and occasional criminal insubordination.”

Jess pondered that. “That’s pretty accurate.” She said.  “I trust my own judgment, and have learned painfully not to trust pretty much anyone elses.”

“Hm.” The Old Man burred. “You know, I learned much the same lessons myself.” He said. “However, I never quit over any of it.”

Jess waited, not really offended by the accusation as it was, in essence, true.

The silence lengthened.  Eventually, the Old Man smiled a trifle.  “It occurs to me that perhaps what I was told regarding this entire event was not entirely accurate.” He said. “Would you like to enlighten me further?”

Perfect opening.  The tantalizingly offered leverage made her tongue itch.   Jess watched the Old Man’s body language, and evaluated him as she’d had to so many others over the years. “The official report is the official report. Sir.”  She said.  “I’m sure the director had reason for the report he tendered to you.”

Bain steepled his fingers and regarded her.  “Come now.” He said. “I’m sure you have a side to this event to tell.  There’s always more than one.”

‘That’s true, sir.” Jess said. “But my view is my view, not the corps view. That’s what is relevant to you.”

Now Bain smiled more easily.  “Ah.” He leaned back. “Eleven generations, hasn’t it been?  Given at birth, taught and trained by the corps, loyalty bred in the gut for years. Even if the corps just turned its back on you regardless of your service at the whim of a single minded chimp with a view so narrow it’s  a wonder he does not trip on his own focus.”

Jess remained silent for a few moments, as she watched him watch her.  Then she exhaled a little, deciding on honesty. “Only home I’ve ever known.’ She admitted. “But I’d be damned if I was going to walk the corps into an embarrassing disaster just to serve the purpose of being the scapegoat for the Council.”

“Hm.”  Bain mused. “Is that what you think this is?”

“Don’t you?” Jess responded bluntly. “Or why are you here?”

“Why am I here.” The Old Man tapped his fingertips together. “Now, that’s a very good question, isn’t it. “ He said. “Before I get into that, let me express to you how personally grateful I am that you concluded the ambush you got into the way that you did. I think you must know that  the results of that incident turned out badly for the group who planned it on the other side.”

Jess wasn’t sure how to feel about that. “We lost good people.”

“We did.” Bain agreed. “But they lost more good people, and it seriously pains me to think our final consequence of that situation will be losing you.”

That could only be a compliment.  For no apparent reason, Jess suddenly recalled a pair of pale green eyes looking into hers and she let herself have a moment of possibly wondering if there was a way back.  “Thank you, sir.” She answered. “It hurts me to separate myself.” She paused. “I had hoped by taking myself out of the situation, it might stop the Directors plans. But it seems not to be so.”

“No.”  Bain shook his head. “But consider this.” He said. “It might well be the idea of replacing a tech with a bio alt is a pitch to deflect the investigation of the Council.”

Jess nodded.

“However, it’s equally possible that this idea, as unlikely as it seems to you, might succeed.” Bain said. “And in which case, almost certainly we will achieve a sea change that might alter the way the corps operates in a good way.”

“All due respect sir, I don’t really think so.”  Jess said.  “It takes months to train a tech.  They’ve had only a couple of days to prepare and even with the knowledge, the instincts aren’t there.”

“Hm.”  The Old Man leaned forward. “Jess Drake.” He said. “Do you truly wish to leave?”

There was a long silence.

“Do you truly wish to become a harvester? Live in a stone box? Sleep on the floor?  Scrape moss and seaweed for two meals a day?”

“No.”  Jess finally admitted. “But I don’t want to lose my honor either.”

“Ah.”  Bain said. “That I do understand, as I too put a great stake on my honor.” He looked intently at her.  “Let me ask you this. Would you put your honor to one side just long enough to accompany me back inside that rock pile? There is something I believe I would like to show you. This might or.. might not allow you to bend your principals enough to consider remaining.”

It was so tempting to immediately agree.  Jess knew she wanted to – the surge of emotion at the offer was undeniable.    Catching  Bains eyes on her, she realized abruptly that he knew that, he was reading her just as clearly as she often read others, and so – she just smiled. “I can do that.” She agreed.  “Gladly.’ She added.

Bain smiled.  “I imagined you might say that.” He stood up. “Let’s go then.  Before your Commander Bock cannot sit on his instincts any longer and rushes inside to ruin my surprise.”  He waited for Jess to get her duffle, then led the way back out.

He paused, just before they were about to exit, and turned.  “Drake.” He said in a completely  different, lower, and more serious tone. “I do understand what you experienced.  I understand why you have lost trust.”

Jess studied him. “I’ll carry the memory of his laughter as he cut me to my grave.” She said. “That takes a lot of getting over. I’m not sure I can.”

Bain nodded. “Consider helping me resolve this crisis, as you did the last one, and I will put you in a position that will not require that of you.”   He watched her eyes intently. “Think on it.” He turned and descended the ramp, now in pristine condition from it’s cleaning.

Jess took a deep breath and released it. She followed him down the ramp and across the landing pad, seeing a group of bio alts, and several security troops waiting there to board.   Stephan saw them and stood up, approaching quickly.

“Bock.”  The Old Man waved him forward. “Glad you didn’t go with your base instincts. Join us.”

Stephen just nodded and fell in next to Jess. He raised his eyebrows at her, and she raised her shoulders at him, and they walked on in silence.

The troops braced to attention as they recognized Bain. The bio alts just looked confused. 

Jess kept her head down as she caught up to the Old Man at the stronghold entrance, watching him key open the door and step inside. “Sir.”

“Hm?” Bain turned and looked at her.

“They’ll need to reset.” She pointed at the scanner. “I’m not much in the mood to be crisped to death right now.”

“Ah. “ Bain turned and pointed at one of the guards. “Deactivate that.” He indicated the scanner, squatting mutely over the entrance.

“Sir, we can’t.” The guard looked distressed. 

“You can.”  Bain said. “Or did you mean to tell me you don’t know how?”

The guard went to the console. “No, sir, I do know, but…”

“Come along, lad.” Bain said. “Just tell them I said to do it.  I am the last court of appeals. The final judge., as it were.”  He glanced at Stephen, and smiled.  “Has a nice ring, doesn’t it?”

“Sir.”  Stephen murmured.

Jess stood quietly waiting, not exactly sure what emotion it was that was stirring up her guts.  As the faint hum ceased, and the light went out over the scanner,  she had to force herself to cross under it, wondering if she really hadn’t just gone from bad to infinitely worse.

“Well done.”  Bain started forward with her. “Now don’t you worry, Drake. We’ll get this all sorted out Tally ho.”

**

Dev felt the rumble as the transport inserted into the atmosphere and wished they had a view outside.  She hitched her body forward a little in it’s strapping and looked around, seeing most everyone else sitting with their eyes closed, and their bodies pressed back into their seats.

Her heart was racing.  She wasn’t entirely sure why, since the process they were performing seemed ordinary to the people there.  But the stresses around her were changing, and she was starting to feel gravity again, tugs that settled her feet on the ground and as the rumble deepened she imagined the fire outside as the shuttles shields shed the increasing atmosphere to either side.

It was quiet  otherwise in the cabin.  There hadn’t been much talk during the undock and orbit, the rest of the passengers being used to the travel, apparently.  

Dev flexed her hands a little as the rumble eased and then they were back in full grav, only it was planet grav, not artificial, and the feeling was curiously different.  She couldn’t really quantify what the difference was, but shifted in her seat al iittle, moving around to get used to it.

Doctor Dan opened his eyes and looked over at her.  “Feel strange?”

“A little.” Dev admitted.

“It’s more consistent.”  Doctor Dan said. “On station, the gravity is generated by machine and it’s not always exactly the same. You get used to that.” He indicated the inside of the cabin. “Downside, it never changes.”

“Oh.” Dev considered that. “Is that good or bad?”

“Neither.” Doctor Dan said. “Just different.”

A soft chime sounded. “Atmosphere insertion complete.  Please remain in your seats.”

Dev settled back in her seat to experience the rest of the trip.  She had come to the transport station early and had gotten to see the shuttle dock, watching in fascination as it drifted in, maneuvering jets firing gently as it matched station rotation and locked on. 

It had come from a ring of other stations downorbit from them, and they had been the last stop before it left space and returned planet side to deliver it’s cargo and passengers.  From the crŹche, some bio alts had joined them, machine techs and two pilots, including the ones she’d met in the dining hall.

No one had spoken though.    

Now they were heading to their destination and she was starting to get nervous about it.  Until they landed, she could just experience everything in sort of a neutral way, as a new thing, but once they got to where they were going it would start to get a lot more real, and the hard part would begin.

She was really glad Doctor Dan was going too.  He seemed very relaxed.  “Do you go on these very much?” She asked him.

“Oh, I’ve done my share.”  Doctor Dan said. “When I was younger, I did a lot of different things.”  He added. “But I haven’t in a while.  I don’t think it’s changed much though. There are only so many ways you can enter a planetary atmosphere, you know.”

Dev’s ears popped, and she reached up to rub them.

“Almost there.”  Doctor Dan remarked.  “Interforce’s Base Ten is on the northeast coast of what was originally referred to as the North American continent.”

Dev nodded. “I remember that from basics class.” She said. “Now it’s just Atlantia.” She added. “It’s much smaller now too.”

“Under water.” Doctor Dan said. “Only the highlands survived.” He tightened his straps a little. “Okay, Dev, we’re gong to land now so sit back.”

Dev did, and took a breath as she felt the stresses change, and the rumble suddenly got a lot louder.  The craft altered it’s trajectory, and she felt it tipping upward, the vibration of the engines making the cabin shake and jostling it’s passengers in their seats.

“Retros.”  Doctor Dan commented, over the noise. “That’s normal.”

Then the rumbling died down and she felt a thump under them, and they were still. 

“Please remain seated.” The PA voice came over. “Vessel is being secured. Do not attempt to stand.”

Dev could hear bangs and thumps outside, and then after what seemed a very long time, she heard the clash of locks being released, and a sudden change of pressure that seemed to thrum against her ears.

The inside hatch opened, and one of the flight attendants appeared.   “We have arrived. Please debark.”  The man said, pressing a button on the wall.  The straps around them all slacked, and they were free to stand up.

Dev did, as the others did, and she paused to stretch her body out after the ride.  Moving felt a little strange, and she glanced at Doctor Dan as he likewise manipulated his body.  She took a breath, and found a strange scent hitting her nose, rough and chemical smelling.

“Ah, the smell of rockets.” Doctor Dan muttered. “How I haven’t missed that.”  He indicated the row. “Go on, Dev.  Let’s get outside.”

Dev moved slowly along the seats, watching the rest of the passengers get in line in front of her.  She found herself at the tail end, and used the wait to get used to how different the gravity felt.  It wasn’t bad feeling, just strange, and she flexed her hands as they reached the exit of the craft and she found herself at the top of an outside ramp.

Outside.  Dev felt a prickle of shock as a gust of air blew against her, and she could taste and smell all kinds of things on it, from machine oil to salt.  It felt wet to her, and she licked her lips a little as she started down the ramp after the others.

They were in a landing bay, she realized.  Ahead of her was a tall uneven rock wall, and a sealed opening dug into the bottom of it, with some lockers and benches outside and a loading platform full of sealed containers.

Seated on the benches were two people dressed in charcoal jumpsuits and as Dev looked at them, the closer of the two looked up and met her eyes.

It was a woman, with dark hair and a planed, angular face that looked tired, and defeated and sad and Dev’s heart gave a thump as she felt a surge of empathy for her without having the least idea why.

Then her foot caught on the ramp and she missed her step, and Doctor Dan was catching her, and when she looked back over, the woman had looked away, and it was over.

They were down the ramp and past the benches, and the big door was sliding open to reveal a group of men with weapons, dressed in steel gray armored suits and she had to set aside the strange encounter and focus on this new thing instead.

Everything was strange.  The smell of the air was almost overwhelming, and she was almost glad when the door behind them slid shut and the movement of it was blocked out.  She stood back as three men came forward and took charge of the other bio alts, pointing them towards an orange painted corridor.

They passed through a gateway on the way, and she could see the pale blue light as it coursed over each one of them, the gateway softly chiming and data flickering on the console as they passed. 

The armed men ignored all of them.   Dev wondered what they were there for, then she was being guided forward by Doctor Dan and it was her turn to go through the gate.  “What is this?” She asked him softly.

“It records who you are.” Doctor Dan said. “Don’t worry.  They’re expecting you. We sent them your scan ahead of time.”

Reassured, Dev entered the gateway, and felt a sharp tickle against her skin as the beam passed over her. It felt a little bit like being connected to a programming cradle, and it wasn’t entirely comfortable.   She stepped out of it at the chime, and waited for Doctor Dan to join her.

A man in a green jumpsuit approached. “You the new experiment?” He asked Dev.

Doctor Dan quickly came up next to her. “This is NM-Dev-1.” He said. “I believe she’s expected.” He gazed steadily at the men.  “Although I probably am not.”

The man in green studied something on the pad strapped to his arm, then he looked up sharply at Doctor Dan. “The director asked me to bring her to the ready center.” He said. “He didn’t say anything about you.”

“Well, let’s just go ask him, shall we?” Doctor Dan put a hand on Dev’s back.  “I have the transfer authority for my friend Dev here, so I’m sure the director will be happy to talk to me about it.” 

Dev felt very unsettled.  She could sense the hostility all around, and the man was looking at Doctor Dan in a very wrong way.  

The man in green entered something on the pad. “One minute.” He said. “Detail, stand down.” He ordered, directing his voice towards the men with the weapons. “The exit event went without issue.”  He said.  “Return to barracks.”

The soldiers safed their weapons and shouldered them, then started back towards the inside of the building, heading down a blue colored corridor without any comment.   That left the man in green alone in the entryway with Dev and Doctor Dan.

“The genetiscan won’t positive ident you.” The man said to Doctor Dan.  “It just passes your scan and given name as secure.”

“Mmhm.”  Doctor Dan agreed.  “That’d be about right.”

“Please wait here.” The man in green went over to a console on the wall, and started typing into it.

Doctor Dan chuckled a little. “Some things never change.” He sighed. “Well, Dev, this is your new home. What do you think about it?”

Dev looked at him in apprehension. “Everyone seems angry here. Or upset.” She said. “Doctor Dan, who were those people outside?”

“Which people?”

“The ones on the bench.”  She said. “The ones in dark suits.”

“Ah.” Doctor Dan cast his memory back a short while, running through their arrival in mental pictoral shorthand.  He called up a shot of the wall, and the bench, and two figures…. Ah.   “Those were enforcement agents, Dev. “

“Oh.”

He half shut his eyes and focused on one of the two faces, and then his body stiffened a little as he put the presence, and the security troop together. 

“Please come with me.” The man in green had returned, and was gesturing towards the furthest corridor, sealed tightly with a metal door. “The director asked me to bring you both to the ops center.”

They followed him in silence.  Doctor Dan’s brow was now creased with worry, and Dev was too busy looking at everything to talk.

It was very, very strange.  Dev tilted her head back and looked up at the high ceiling, it’s irregular surface seeming odd and out of place.   She followed the two men through the now open steel door, and down a corridor that seemed very long, and very bisected by many other steel doors blocking their way until they were keyed through.

Security?  Dev felt the sensation of the space they were in closing in on her, aware suddenly of how much solid material was around them as they moved further inside the facility.   There were no other people around until they entered the last door in the corridor, which opened up into a huge central space, with yet more corridors leading off in all directions.

Here, there were people. Lots of them.  Dev felt their eyes on her as they passed, and she moved closer to Doctor Dan in reflex at the borderline hostility directed at her. 

The man in green led them to a door set in stone with a rotating red light over it. He scanned through, and then held the door open for them to enter.  

“Thank you.” Doctor Dan gave him a brief smile, and then he guided Dev inside a round cavern of a room, with consoles around every available edge, and lined up in the center around a big lit screen and table where four people were standing.

One, she recognized immediately as the director who’d visited them. Bricker, his name was. The other three were unknown to her, not even a memory flash indicating they’d been programmed.  She followed Doctor Dan down three steps, then across a ramp up to the central table.

Bricker was juggling a light pen. “I thought they were sending her alone.” He said. “I don’t need anything that needs an escort.”

Doctor Dan stepped up onto the platform and took a seat on one of the stools, folding his arms across his chest in a typical pose. “I don’t need to turn over one of my projects to ignorant gits.” He said. “You cut short the programming cycle. I want to know why.”

His voice was casual, and unafraid, and Dev felt a certain awe of him.  Even though she knew he was important, at least to her kind, she knew from her programming they were in a dangerous space.

The other people in the room were staring at Doctor Dan. Bricker had stopped juggling his pen and was also staring as though unable to believe what he was hearing.

“You have any idea where you are,. Buddy?”  Bricker finally said.

“Yes.” Doctor Dan replied. “Station 10, Central Design level 4, commspace Alpha, control central, datastore prime.”  He said. “Now please answer my question. If you can’t, then I will be more than glad to take my friend Dev here, and go back where we came from.”

Dev merely stood very still, having no referents. 

“As the chief geneticist of the Human Sciences station, whom youv’e asked to provide you with this resource, I need to know why you have truncated an already insufficient release cycle.” Doctor Dan restated his question.  “I have no intention of providing you with either a scapegoat or an excuse for failure.”

Bricker started juggling his pen again. “So that’s who you are.” He said. “Figures why we didn’t have an ident on you. Made sure no one could look at your insides too close. Huh?”

Doctor Dan didn’t answer, here merely sat there, head cocked a little to one side, waiting.

Bricker turned to the display table.  “Well, you’er gonna have to wait, buddy, since I’ve got an activity in work. If it completes, maybe you can just take this jelly bag with you and go back to that crystal palace you got up there after all.”

The door opened behind them, and Bricker glanced over his shoulder as three people entered. “What ..” He straightened and started to reach for a pad, then stopped. “Sir.”

Alexander Bain strolled up the ramp. “Bricker.” He glanced at the rest of them. “I found these two outside. Seems a terrible place to leave agents, seeing as you’ve lost so many lately.”

Dev backed up a little as the two other people emerged from the shadows, revealing the two from the outside bench.  Now they looked wary and uncomfortable, and she held her breath as they both looked around and she found herself once again meeting the woman’s gaze.

Doctor Dan had gotten up off his stool and taken a step back, putting himself between Dev and the table and the tension in the room ratcheted up to a higher level.  “Well now. This is getting interesting.”

Bain’s eyes swept over and pinned him, one grizzled gray brow lifting sharply. “You.”

“You asked for a bio alt.”  Doctor Dan’s lips twitched.

“Did we.”  Bain mused. “Bricker, what’s going on here?”

Bricker recovered. “Sir, that person requested dismissal, we followed procedure and processed the request. “ He pointed at Jess.  “She was supposed to leave on the shuttle.”

“I see.” Bain regarded him. “And you allowed this without intervention?”

Bricker shrugged. “I don’t need quitters or  lone wolves.” He said. “I saw no reason to intervene or even ask.”

“I see. Hm.” Bain half turned and regarded Dev, who was standing as far back as she could on the platform. “And you, my dear?”  

“This is ah….”  Doctor Dan said.  “The resource requested.”

“Ah..”  Bain strolled over and regarded Dev. “What a charming young lady.” He said. “My name is Alexander Bain, my dear.”

“NM-Dev-1.” Dev answered quietly, extending a hand in greeting. “Its’ very nice to meet you.”

“And I, you.” Bain shook her hand.   “Now. He released her and turned back to Bricker.  “I received reports your other agents refused assignment. Is that true?”

“They tried.” Bricker answered grimly. “I persuaded them otherwise. I have two team out now, about to make a grab for the new photo synth technology.” He tried, somewhat unsuccessfully to keep the triumph out of his voice. He turned and pointed at jess, who was waiting silently in the shadows. “She tried to make the whole team a bunch of refusers. But I put them against the wall and told them they’d end up in point Alaska without envirosuits if they tried.”

Jess took a half step forward, and stiffened. Bock put a hand on her arm.

“I see.” Bain nodded. “So you felt this was the best way to motivate them?”

“It worked.” Bricker turned back to the display. “Excuse me.  Team Beta, report.”

“Sir, I tracked them they’re in shadow right now.” One of the techs standing at console spoke up. “Due in position one hundred ninety seconds.”

“Sir.” Jess spoke, her low voice echoing softly in the chamber. She fell silent when Bain held a hand up in her direction.

“Director Bricker, please turn around and face me. “Alexander Bain said.

“Sir, I’m sorry, I’m in the middle of something here.” Bricker glanced up. “Can it wait?”

“No, I am afraid it cannot.”

Bricker straightened up and turned. “Yes?”

The room swirled into motion, as Bain lifted his hand from his side and there was a hand weapon in it, and both Stephen and Jess stiffened, then Jess made a sign and they both froze, and Doctor Dan spun Dev around and put his body between her and Bain and…

The projectile caught Bricker in the throat, and exploded, sending blood and skin out to either side with a  splattering sound as it hit the consoles to the right and left of him. His head lolled and dropped off to the floor, and his body collapsed to the ground, thumping and twitching as the techs jumped out of the way.

Absolute shocked silence fell, until Bain replaced the weapon into it’s hidden holster and dusted his hands off. “I never have approved of shooting anyone in the back.” He commented.  “Now.” He turned. “Bock, please take charge, and have this unpleasantness cleaned up.”

He looked at all of them.  “Any questions for me?” He glanced at Jess. “Drake, I suggest you take a look at what those colleagues of yours are into. I suspect it’s not good.”

Jess stirred out of her shock and jumped up onto the platform, shoving aside the tech as she stepped over Brickers body, muttering curses under her breath.

Bain clapped his hands. “Come on, people. We’re in some trouble here. Let’s think our way out of it, shall we? Start moving.”

Bock went to the comms panel, and started speaking into it, as the other men on the platform went to consoles.

Dev stood as still as she could, her mind on overload trying to absorb all the data she’d just been given.  She tried to make sense of it, but found her focus irresistibly turning to the ops console, where the woman Bain had called Drake was sitting finding it much easier to think about her than about the man she’d just seen killed.

She no longer looked sad, or depressed.   There was energy crackling from every inch of her, as her eyes flicked through the screens with intense concentration.

She was so interesting.

“Dev.”  Doctor Dan stirred her from her focus.  “Are you doing okay?”

Dev looked at him.  “I’m all right.” She said. “I just don’t know really what’s going on.”

Doctor Dan looked around, then shook his head a little. “I’m not really sure either. But we’ll find out, don’t you worry.” He did, in fact, look worried himself. “I wont’ leave you here otherwise.”

Dev nodded. Then she glanced past Doctor Dan to the platform, to find the woman Drake looking back at her, with wary curiosity. 

“We’ll find out.” Doctor Dan patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry.”

Dev looked down at the ground, surprised to see spatters of blood on the steel only a few inches from her boots.  “I’m sure we will.”  She murmured, thoughtfully.  “Yes.”

**

Continued in Partners Part 3