Partners

Part 3

Jess was aware of the security team behind her, and the medical techs bundling up Bricker’s body. She could hear their breathing, a little faster than normal, and sense the insecurity around her as everyone tried to adjust to what had just happened.

She focused past that. She had her elbows on the console and her eyes flicking from status readout to predictors, listening for the incoming bursts from the two teams out there. 

Two teams of two people, agent and tech,  in armored personnel carriers whose flight characteristics were roughly those of the ancient and mythic sperm whale.   Only thing going for them were two engines powerful enough to launch the damn things into space and a lot of strap webbing that kept you from killing yourself inside one.

Jess sighed, and flicked a few settings.

Running the boards wasn’t her favorite task.  She hated being here, and not there, able only to react to what was going on, but she’d done her share of this.  Every agent had, in training and in the times they couldn’t be out in the field for any number of reasons.

But she was glad she was here now, and able to concentrate on those signals because otherwise she’d have to think about how her life had gone into a radical tailspin in the last hour, and what the hell she was going to do next.

Less time to think about the quiet figure seated near the far wall, hands clasped, eyes absorbing everything around her.   NM-Dev-1 wasn’t anything like what she’d expected.  She’d figured they’d taken one of the pilot duffs, and tweaked him for this gig

This wasn’t a pilot. This wasn’t any of the types they’d gotten before.    She glanced to one side, watching the bio alt’s serious face as she studied the console next to her.  This was unknown.

A bleep caught her attention, and she looked back at the screens.

Bricker had screwed it.   Jess checked the position of the two teams, seeing them on the very edge of the dark side  “Six one, six one base.” She uttered into the comms.  He’d sent the two in without full intel and they’d gotten their asses chomped by a big armed patrol with long range guns.

There was only crackling for answer  The two teams, in their armored carriers had gone in over sea and tried to penetrate a small research station but they were caught now on the flats, the edgy crosslines of laser cannons pinning them down.

“What’s the game?” Stephen slid into the seat next to her. “This is crazy.”

“I can’t get to them.” Jess pointed at the scan link.  “They’re blocking comms.  Only thing I can tell is they’re intact. I can see the outline.”

“Shit.”

A blast of antiseptic made them both turn, to see a medic with a tank on his back washing down the floor. He glanced at them, then went back to his task.

Jess glanced at Stephen. “Wasn’t how I figured this day to go.”

Stephen snorted and shook his head.  Then he leaned a little closer. “Glad?”

Jess’s face tensed into a faint smile.

“All right, people.”  Alexander Bain came back into the comms center. “Report.”

Stephen swiveled in his seat.  “No new status sir. The two carriers are pinned down under tracer fire, no comms.”

“Well.” Bain strolled over. “Then suppose you go to the briefing center and join me for a strategy meeting. I think we need some strategy. Been sadly lacking here for a while, I believe.” He considered. “Drake, please take our new recruit here and have them kit her out.  Get her creds. My orders.”

Jess stood. “Do I have creds?” She asked.  “Hate to walk into security and get shot.”

Bain’s face shifted into a somewhat piratical smile. “I appreciate a sense of humor, Drake.” He said. “I believe my presence has been advertised sufficiently that you should be safe walking the halls. Once that’s settled, join us in the briefing center.”  He glanced at Doctor Dan, then crooked a finger at him. “You come with me.”

Doctor Dan regarded him. Then he got up and patted Dev on the shoulder. “Go with the agent, Dev.  I’ll see you shortly.”

They all shifted and moved.  Jess walked over to where the bio alt was standing, and gestured. “This way.”  She waited for the silent figure to join her and they walked down the ramp and out the door. 

The halls were very quiet.  Jess was glad, not wanting to run into a hundred people all asking her questions.   She hadn’t decided yet what to tell anyone, so it was good to just walk down the familiar floors passing from the enforcement area into the circling boundaries of security.

She’d passed through the first scan gate before she realized it, her body jerking in reaction at the tickle then relaxing as only a sedate bong reacted to her presence.   “Guess he was right.”  She muttered.

“Pardon?” The bio alt asked.

Jess looked at her.  She was relatively short, her head only reaching to Jess’s shoulder, and she had a slim body presently encased in a green tech jumpsuit.  “Talking to myself.” She said. “That scanner we just passed could have boiled my brain.”

Dev looked behind them, a startled expression on her face. “Oh.”

Jess paused as they reached the security center. “Sorry.” She eyed the bio alt. “My name’s Jess.”  She extended a hand. “I won’t say welcome.  You probably don’t really want to be here.”

Dev reached over and took the offered hand, closing her fingers around Jess’s and giving them a firm pressure.  “Thank you.” She said. “I don’t really have much say in it.”   She remarked. “But so far it’s been really interesting”

Jess cocked her head a little, not expecting so self aware a response.  “Right.” She turned and keyed the door open.  “Let’s see how much more interesting it’s going to be.”  She walked inside the center and went to the ops desk. “Jackson.”

The security captain had straightened when she entered, and was now waiting for them, his hands resting on the desk.  He was big, taller than Jess and about twice her weight, with a very muscular body and the typical security buzz cut.   “Drake.”

“Bain sent me down.” Jess said, briefly. “She needs creds.”  She indicated Dev. “And I guess I need reissued ones.”

“We heard.”  Jackson said. “He really plug Bricker?”

“Yup.”  Jess nodded.

“Good. Jackass.”  Jackson turned and motioned to a sergeant.  “Open up Drake’s access.” He ordered, then turned to Jess. “What level is this one?” He indicated Dev.  “Staff?  Support?”

“Enforcement ops tech.” Jess replied, dryly.

Jackson’s jaw dropped a little, and he stared openly at Dev.  “Thought that was bullshit rumor.”

“Apparently not.” Jess said. “Since here she is.”

Jackson shook his head. “Jackass.” He muttered. “Place is going to hell.”  He keyed in something, continually shaking his head as he worked. “Go stand in that.” He pointed to the genetiscan, waiting for Dev to comply before he continued coding.

Jess didn’t respond to the muttering.   She nodded at the sergeant when the woman came over to her,  running a hand wand over her. She held out her left hand, and the wand touched it, making her flinch a little as she felt the chips embedded there react.  “Thanks.”

“Agent.”  The sergeant responded.  “All clear.”

Jess flexed her hand, glancing over to see Dev standing quietly in the scanner, traces blinking in the collar she wore around her neck.  Their eyes met, and she managed a brief smile she hoped was reassuring.

It was something. The bio alt smiled back.

“They assigned her quarters yet?”  Jackson asked. “None coded here.”

“Heading to supply next.”  Jess said. “I guess they’ll do that there.”  She looked up, her face going a little blank. “We’ve got plenty of space at the moment.”

Jackson nodded. “Heard that.”  He said.  “All right, done.” He motioned the sergeant forward.  “Cred for ops.”

The sergeant went over to Dev, and scanned her.  They were more or less the same height, but the sergeant had the powerful muscularity typical of security and would have had dark red curly hair if it hadn’t been shorn close to her skull.  “Done.”  She handed Dev a set of clip on creds.  “Wear that for the biology based systems. The mechanicals don’t need it.”

“Thank you.”  Dev took the creds and applied them to her jumpsuit.   

“Good luck.” The woman said, unexpectedly, extending a hand. “I’m Boston.”

Dev returned the shake.  “Thank you.” She said, again.

The sergeant turned and made her way back behind the desk, and Jess motioned to the door.  “Next.” She let Dev go ahead of her, and they exited the security center.     “You can expect that kind of reaction.” Jess said, after a moments walking. “Pretty much everyone thinks your being here is asinine.”

Dev gave her a sideways look. “Do you?” She asked, in a mild tone.

Jess took a breath to answer, then paused.

“It doesn’t offend me.” Dev said. “There’s not much I can do about it since I’m here.”

Well, that was true, wasn’t it?  Jess felt very offbalance. This bio alt was turning out to be more of a surprise than she needed at the moment. “I don’t know.” She finally answered. “I thought it was a bad idea when I heard about it.”

“Why?”

Why.  Jess was glad to see the supply hallway at her left. She turned and swiped the door controls, leading Dev inside to the big processing center. 

Here there were more bio alts.   She watched them catch sight of Dev and react, then go back to their tasks, a little distracted and intrigued by the wary expressions on their faces.   She stepped up to the counter, manned by an older man with a scar across his face and through one destroyed eye.  “Hey Buddy.”

The man gazed gravely at her. “Jess. Welcome back.” He said. “That was the shortest outprocess in the history of Interforce, I’m guessing.  I heard the Old Man himself talked you down, then blew Bricker’s head off.  Been quite the morning.”  He glanced to one side. “Who’s this?”

Jess nodded. “Been quite the morning.” She agreed. “This is Dev.”  She said. “She’s Bricker’s experiment.”  She exchanged glances with the supply master.  “Bain asked me to get her kitted out. He wants to continue it, I guess.”

Dev regarded the man and noted he had a somewhat kinder eye than most she’d encountered so far in this new place.  She also noted he and her escort called each other by common names, and that Jess also seemed more relaxed here.

The security place had been stern and a little hostile, even though the people there had done what they’d been asked to.   “Hello.” Dev said. 

“Hello, Dev.” Buddy replied.  “So we need to give you all the crank you need to be a tech, huh?” He keyed in something on the console.  “Sure hope they know what they’re doing.”  He looked up. “Plenty of berths available., unfortunately.  Preference?” He directed the question at Jess.

Jess took a mental step back and thought about the question.  There were a lot of empty berths. Aside from the recent deaths, they’d already been six teams short.  Dev could be given any of them, since all of the bunks were more or less the same.

She looked up and found Dev watching her.  She’d known what Bricker’s intent was, and felt the truth in her own rejection of that.   Nothing really had changed and yet, in the small space of the morning, everything had changed.

Had she changed?  “Put her in Joshua’s berth.” She heard herself saying.  “Bain asked me to get her settled.”

Buddy didn’t blink an eye. “Done.” He said. “I’ll have the bulk of it sent there.” He glanced at Dev. “Could you please go stand on that other platform there?”  He pointed to the outfitting console.  “Thanks.”

Dev obediently went over and stood in the box, which scanned her with a completely different type of signal.  It felt a little warm, and not at all tickly and it took only a moment. Then she stepped out and returned to Jess’s side.

Buddy turned and removed a green sack, which he handed over to her. “Basics.” He said, as she took it. “Everything else will be sent. Okay?”

Having once again no choice in the matter, Dev nodded.

“Let’s go.” Jess said, briefly. “I’ll drop you at your bunk, then go see what the bad news is.”  She glanced at Buddy. “I guess I need resupply too.”

“Already done.” Buddy waved her off. “We saw it come active again from security.”

“Thanks.” Jess led the way again.  They went through the doors and turned right. “You got kit on the shuttle?”

Dev touched the small bag hanging at her belt. “Just this.”  She said. “They told me I would get everything here.”

“Well, at least they got something right.”  Jess produced a brief smile.  They continued down the hall and then into the centrum, passing through two scanners, then a third as they entered a blue shaded hallway.

A few turns later and they were at a door.   “Scan it.” Jess stood back. “Might as well find out if they actually did what they were supposed to do.”

Dev put her hand on the keypad, and the door slid obediently open.  She glanced back at Jess for instruction, then walked inside at the slight gesture she received. 

Jess entered behind her. “Listen.” She said. “I have no idea how this is going to work out.  You could just be in here for an hour, then be packed back upstairs.”

Dev nodded.  “You don’t think I can do what was requested.”

Jess let the door shut behind them and then she turned, studying the bio alt in silence for a bit.  “They train people for a half year to do the job.  You’ve had a week.  So no,  I don’t think so.” She said. “Actually I think a lot of people don’t want to think so, because if you could…”

“If I could, we could replace you.” Dev concurred. “And we’re cheap and expendable. That’s what they say.” She watched Jess’s face, taking a breath as she suddenly saw an intent personality become present there, as Jess abruptly looked at her, not through her and she saw more intelligence and emotion in that one glance than she’d ever experienced before.  “So you know, I don’t know if I can help either.  I just have what programming I have, and I’ll do the best I can if they want me to try.”

Jess exhaled. “Yeah well.” She glanced past the bio alt to the rest of the room. “Lately we’ve been sort of expendable too.” She indicated the room. “Until they figure it all out, you bunk here. “

Dev looked around at the space.  “By myself?” She asked, in a surprised tone.

Jess twitched a little and looked at her. “What?”

The bio alt, for the first time, looked a little offbalance. “Sorry.” She peered around. “It’s a big room.” She explained. “It wasn’t ‘like this in the crŹche.”

“No, I guess not.” Jess felt faintly amused.  “Okay, well, that’s the sanitary station.” She pointed, then paused. “You know what that is, right?”

“Yes.”

“Shower and lav in there, you can put your kit in the cabinet.”  Jess swiveled around. “Sleep.” She pointed at the bed. “Relax.” She pointed to the left hand side loft. “And work.” She pointed at the right hand side loft.  “I’ll leave you to explore.   We’ll call you if we want you to come to the comms center. Otherwise, stick around here. It’s easy to get lost in this place.”

Dev nodded. “Okay.”

Jess turned to go.  At the door, she paused and looked back.  Then she turned and left, without speaking.

Dev drew in a deep, deep breath, then she let it out.  There was so much to absorb, she was really glad she had a few minutes at least to just do that.   She set the green bag down , then she sat down in the chair behind the workspace on the lower level, which was soft and comfortable and reminded her just a little of her sleeping pod back in the crŹche.

She sat back in it and turned it around, regarding this huge space with more than a little bemusement.  So here she was.  Things were not going according to plan, but she’d ended up in this place anyway with all this incredible strangeness around her.

At the very very least, she’d have a cycles worth of stories to tell them back in the crŹche if they did send her back.   Dev pondered that idea, and decided she really hoped they didn’t.

Really.

**

Jess detoured past the caffeine station on her way back to the strategy center.  She put her palm down on the dispenser plate and the system produced a vacuum bottle full of her preference.  She uncapped it and took a sip, turning around and leaning against the counter.

What could have been.  She studied the bottle.  By this time she should have been in a scavenger station, trading her jumpsuit for an exposure kit, and if she’d been lucky, assigned to a work battalion down in the caverns harvesting seaweed.

And at  that she would have been one of the lucky, with basic but functional housing and the promise of a meal so long as the quotas were upheld.

She knew what it was.  She had two siblings out there somewhere doing the work, since they hadn’t qualified for anything better, and their family’s tenure in service guaranteed them at least that.

Those that had neither family connection or needed skills ended up in the outlands, the only shelter there what they built themselves, and as for what they lived on? 

Jess’s face tensed into a grimace. They lived on what they could steal, and being caught out in the outlands was as dangerous to someone like her as taking a trip to the other side.

So here she was instead, her whole intent reversed, and she’d have been lying if she’d said she was sad about it. It was one thing to stand on your honor. It was another to actually like the consequences of that and Jess was self aware enough to know she’d lead a relatively priveliged life and she liked it that way.

It was nice to know she’d likely be lying down in her bunk tonight rather than on cold stone, or in a rough worn hammock, and she could have caffeine when she wanted, and a meal in the senior mess.  She felt a bit guilty over how glad she was Bain had showed up, brought her back in, then blew Bricker away like he’d been no more than a sea rat caught in the storage silo.

Very unexpected She’d thought maybe Bain would come in and take charge, make plans, maybe make some changes.. hell she’d hoped he  would do that but outright kill Bricker?”

Ah, no.  More than a little scary.   Jess capped her drink and took it with her, heading with no further delay towards the strategy planning center.  Outside the door she met up with two of her remaining peers and they all looked at each in silence for a long moment.

“Jason.”  Jess murmured. “Glad you two weren’t the ones out there.”

“Jess.”  Jason Anders finally said. “What in the Hell’s going on?” He was a tall man, with thick brown hair and hazel eyes.

“Crap all, from what I hear.” The woman next to him said. “Is it true? Bricker’s dead?”

“They didn’t’ send a squirt out?” Jess frowned. “Public as it was? Bain splatted him in the middle of central comms for craps sake.  In front of some doctor from the bio station no less.”

“No, nothing.”  Jason shook his head. “Elaine? You get anything on comms?”

“Not a damn thing.” Elaine Cruz shook her head.  “I just heard something from one of the med techs they sent in there to clean the mess up.” She put her hands on her hips, her rust red hair making her fair skin and green eyes stand out.

Jess glanced at the door. “Well, you got the baseline of it.  I was humping up onto the shuttle when I ran into Bain. He knew everything.  Asked me to come back with him, and about two minutes after we got to central he pulled a blaster out and took Bricker’s head off.”

“Damn.”  Jason said. “Just like that? For nothing?”

“Bain could do it for nothing.” Elaine said. “Who’d stop him?”

“I didn’t.” Jess said. “I got the feeling it wasn’t just one thing that caused it.” She studied the both of them. “They call you in there?”

Elaine nodded. “Tucker and Brent are in their quarters.  Scared to death.” She said. “Afraid Bain’s going to do the same to them.”

Jess turned and palmed the door. “Let’s find out how screwed we are.”

“Jess?” Jason said, just as the door started opening. “Glad you’re back.”

“Ditto.” Elaine said.

The door was open and Jess didn’t answer. She led the way into the strategy center past the outer chamber with it’s scattering of austere chairs and to the second portal, which was guarded by two members of the security group. 

Jess half expected to be challenged, but the guards merely drew aside and triggered the door for them, and the three enforcement agents proceeded inside.

It was quiet.  Stephen was seated near one end of the large plotting table, and Bain was in the big leader’s chair at the very end.  The table was lit with statistics, and the curved wall behind the table was brilliant with readouts and scans. 

“Ah. There you all are.” Bain said. “Did you get your new colleague settled, Drake?”

“Yes.” Jess sat down mid table, and Elaine and Jason took seats next to her, on the side away from Bain.   

“New colleague?”  Jason asked, in a low tone.   “What’s that about?”

“Did you say something, Anders?” Bain asked.  “We don’t really have time for idle chit chat you know. Not if we’re going to find some way of getting those two teams back.”

Jason cleared his throat. “Sorry sir.” He said. “I was just wondering what new colleague we have.” He returned Bain’s look steadily. “It’s been a sore subject here lately.”

“So I have heard.”  Bain stood up and leaned on the table.  “Perhaps I should explain. “

**

Dev stuck her head into the sanitary facility, entering after a moment and putting her small personal kit down.  The space was clean and austere, the stone lined walls with faint flecks of reflectivity in their depths described a roughly rectangular space with inset cabinets on both long sides.

A half wall concealed a lavatory.   Dev studied it curiously, reaching forward to press one of the buttons on the top and jumping back a little as she was rewarded with a faint roaring sound.  She peeked inside the bowl and saw a moving substance, not the vacuum system she was used to. "Ah."

Well, she'd figure that out soon enough. 

With a faint shrug, she went on to the counter, which held a neatly folded set of assorted fabric. She touched the surface of one, finding it soft and nubbly. It was too small to wear, and she picked one of them up, unfolding it and releasing a faint, to her unrecognizable scent into the air.

Another puzzle.  Dev examined the inset bowl next to them, which had a hole in the bottom, and mechanisms at the top. She reached out and touched one, and leaped back as something rushed out of the pipe at the top and splashed into the bowl with a thick, almost musical sound.

Urgently, she searched her programming, and found nothing regarding it, but then a deeper memory triggered, and she relaxed, recalling something from her basics programming.

She stepped forward again and hesitantly put her hand under the flow, inhaling a little as it chilled her skin.  Her other hand joined it, and she rubbed them both together, then she touched the mechanism again. She stood with her hands dripping into the sink for a moment, then with a satisfied grunt, she picked up one of the pieces of fabric and used it to dry her hands off.   So this was water, freely running water, which she'd never experienced before. "Interesting."

She continued her exploration, opening the cabinets and finding more fabric, larger pieces, again neatly folded.  At the end of the room was another half wall, and she peeked behind it to find a square space with a drain in the floor, and a pipe extruded out with a round, flat head.   Curiously, she reached in and touched the controls, letting out a yip of surprise when a blast of water came out of the head and drenched her.

She batted at the controls and turned the water off, then stood, dripping, her arms held out away from her body a little. She blinked, and then shook her head, scattering droplets everywhere. "Ah hah." She licked her lips, finding that the water tasted a little sweet, and then she decided staying in the wet jumpsuit in the cool air of the chamber probably was not a good idea.

She unbuckled and slipped out of it, laying it across the counter and then turning to the cabinets and removing one of the large, square fabrics. She wrapped it around her as she bent over to unbuckle and remove her boots, setting them down under the counter as well.   Going to her small kit, she removed her comb and ran it through her wet hair and setting it to order.

Glad to be free of the cold wetness, she used another fabric to dry herself off, then she went back into the main part of the room.   This left her in a quandary though, as she could hardly respond to any of the requests that might be made of her without clothes on.   She started towards one of the cabinets in the main part of the room when she heard rumbling behind it, a set of bangs and slams that sent her back to the sanitary facility, unsure of what was going on.

A soft chime sounded. "Main stores, provisioning complete." 

Dev regarded the speaker, then she glanced towards the big cabinet again. The doors in it - previously solid and dark gray, were now turning translucent, backlit with a gentle golden glow  Cautiously, she approached it, opening the front to find a line of dark jumpsuits hanging there, and a set of shelves below.  She opened the first one, gratified to find at least familiar looking underwear there.  "At least I know what this is."  She muttered. “There’s a lot of stuff they forgot to program about this place.”

She traded her fabric for the garments, which fit neatly, then she removed one of the jumpsuits and slipped it on.  It too, fit her perfectly, but the fabric was unlike anything she'd ever felt before. It was soft and a little stretchy, conforming to her body and very comfortable.

It had a collar that extended up covering the back of her neck, and was gathered at her wrists and ankles with many pockets and rip strips to hold things.

She liked that.  The color was dark green with black trims and it had a deep blue ring around the neckline, but no other insignia to it.  Almost the same as the one Jess had been wearing, save hers was all black, except that same blue ring.

She glanced at her reflection in the door mirror, blinking a little at the unexpected outline. She'd pulled the front catch all the way up, and the fabric had sealed around her neck, completely covering her collar and a part of her felt a little strange, looking at herself and not seeing that.

Thoughtfully, she studied herself, wondering how long she would get to wear the new clothes.  Then she shrugged, finding several pairs of boots on the floor of the cabinet and selecting one of them to take  back with her to the comfortable chair near the desk.

She sat down, and set the boots down next to her. Then she looked around, wondering if.. ah.  She got back up and went to the counter on the other side of the sanitary room, where she'd spotted a refrigerated dispenser.  

That, in it’s essential form, she knew.  In the common spaces of the crŹche there were always stations you could get a drink from and they looked pretty much like this one.

She opened it, and was cheered to find sealed containers of liquid and solids. She removed one of each and brought them back to the desk, feeling a luxury all out of proportion as she opened the liquid, finding it clear and clean and apparently water, and unwrapping the solids to discover crispy little crackers that smelled faintly of brine and were sprinkled with tiny seeds and salt.

Dev bit into one cautiously.  It had an interesting taste, and after a few nibbles she decided she liked it.

She sat in her chair, munching her crackers and sipping from the water, looking around at this inconceivably huge space they'd assigned to her.   She could see the upper level on one side had consoles, and she brightened, realizing she might be able to practice some of her programming. On the other side, she could see a couch, and what appeared to be a big console, with some shelves and mats. Jess had said something about relaxing up there, and Dev considered that maybe she could use it like she had her little cubicle back in the creche - as a place to sit quietly, and maybe read some of her book.

Everything was so different here, but different in a way she didn't mind, Dev decided.  She finished her crackers and set her water aside, then she climbed up to the second level with her book in her hand, and sat down on the couch.  It had an overhead light and she lay down bathed in it, opening the book and settling herself down to enjoy a page.

After a moment, she looked up, and looked around, then smiled, and shook her head.

**

"Are you kidding me?" Jason stared at Jess, aghast.  "That's real?"

Jess glanced across at Bain, who merely tapped his fingers against his lips in silence. "Well." She said. "In that they brought a bio alt here, yes."

Jason looked at Bain. "Sir?"

"Yes?"

"Are you advocating this, sir?"

Bain regarded him. "You would not?"

Jason and Elaine exchanged glances. "Sir." He said, in a respectful tone. "We..." Then he paused, and a frown appeared on his long face.

"Caught in a connundrum?"  Bain said. "I believe you were just about to inform me that you have to place great trust in your technical assistants, hmm? "  He observed them. "And yet, we do indeed have a trust issue here.  You do not trust your colleagues, you do not trust your leadership, and quite likely, you do not trust that I will not blow your heads off as I did the director's this morning. Hmm?"

The door slid open, and Dan Kurok came in. He gave them all a cursory glance, then took a seat near on the opposite side of the table from Jess. "Your central records store is a mess." He told Bain. "I have a query running but likely it wont' turn up much more than a recipe for chocolate cupcakes."

Jess's eyebrows jerked up at his casual address. She was beginning to wonder who this man was, aside from some gene doctor from topside. 

"And what do you think, Drake?"  Bain turned to her. "Do you still disagree with this experiment of ours having met it's subject?"

Jess felt all the eyes on her and she hunched her shoulders a bit in reaction. "Why don't we talk about what the plan is before we go into that" She said. "We've got four people out there pinned down and in terminal danger - I think  that's more important than how I feel about  bio alts."

"And yet." Bain watched her. a faint smile on his lips. "You had her put in agents quarters adjoining yours. Interesting?"

"Statement stands." Jess responded dryly.

"Very well."  Bain left off prodding her. "As I was discussing with Bock here, it seems the issue was that your colleagues were attempting an insertion here." He pointed at a mapping coordinate. "Where they were expecting to find an exhaust station." He stood and juggled the laser guide in his hand. "What they found was a half dozen armored carriers."

"Trap?" Jason asked.

"Or did they get skunked?" Jess quietly disagreed. "Someone tipped them."

Bain pursed his lips. "I think their plans were known." He said. "As there is indeed an exhaust station at that locale" He brought up another overlay. "Just as the last mission was compromised - but we thought we knew the information vector there."

"They were waiting for us.." Jess agreed. "I heard the hatches clamp just before Joshua turned on me." She studied her hands. "He hadn't had a chance to send comms before we got there. I would have heard it."

Bain nodded. "So. it was my conclusion that someone else within Interforce was compromised."

"Is that why you shot him?" Elaine spoke up.

"No." Bain regarded her. "I shot him because he was a blithering idiot." He said, then paused. "Although." He went on. "That could possibly have been the reason for the compromise."   He cleared his throat. "The problem is, he was put in place by someone at a high level, who was put in place by someone else at a high level, who was put in place by me." 

"Ah." Jess nodded.

"You run out of magnesium slugs after awhile of that."  Bain said. "So the truth is, people, we don't know where the hole is."

Kurok snorted softly, and shook his head.

Jess looked at her two fellow agents.  "So someone is leaking our ops to the other side." She said. "And it could be all the way up."

"Yes."

"So.. Josh was probably turned from this side. From the inside."  Jason said, slowly. "We've been trying to figure out when he was nicked, and no one could." He looked at Jess. "Maybe he never was. Maybe someone was just talking him into it over dinner, here."

"Huh." Jess grunted.

"So we have a another quandary."  Bain said. "Obviously we need to go and assist the two teams who are now trapped under fire. However, outside this room I cannot tell you that the very plans we make might not be sent ahead."

"Outside this room?" Stephen queried. "So you consider this group secure."

"Yes." Bain said. "Congratulations. No one else is going to die here today."

Everyone flinched a little, except Kurok.    He cleared his throat.  "So the issue is, you can't trust the outsiders. That includes your techs, and most of the staff inside this facility."  He looked at Jess. "That was why Bricker came and asked us to design a set that could be programmed for the job. We know what's in their minds. You can't say that about anyone else."

Jess returned his look.  "Doesn't do me any good if they can't do the job."

"HOw do you know they can't?" Kurok countered.  "LIsten, I know you people think what we do is just create amiable rag dolls for slave labor, but I wouldn't be here with Dev if i didn't think she could be of value to you. Regardless of what Doss promised.  He doesn't own me."

Bain chuckled softly. "No one ever did."

Kurok glanced sideways at him, then returned his attention to Jess.  "You've met her.  You tell me. Mindless?"

Jess was aware of the silence in the room, and very aware of the intent looks focused on her.  She thought about her few minutes with the bio alt, running back in her mind their conversations. "No" She answered, in a somewhat surprised tone. "More complex than I expected." She admitted. "But that doesn't mean she can be a tech."

"Drake." Bain leaned on the table again. "This is the bottom line.  For this plan here.. " He pointed at the screen. "We will send your colleagues there to stand by, to cover for the two trapped teams. But to get them out, we need to distract, and for that we need you,and you need someone with you that you have to trust since you will be putting yourself in the wolves mouth."

"Why me?" Jess asked. 'Send someone else. "

"Because they want you."  Bain answered, with a thin smile.  "You were stabbed, and we lost four good agents, all because they were intent on keeping you - and they would have if you hadn't been just that muchh better than they had anticipated."

Jess felt cold. "Me?"

"Crap." Jason uttered.

"You." Bain said. "And before you ask, no, I don't know why.  Likely you made some enemy on the other side who has now gained high level there."

"So you're going to throw Jess into the fire?"  Elaine asked. "Since you know they want her?"

Bain straightened up and paced around at the head of the table. "Yes." He said. "Because we know they want her. It will provide the distraction we need, as they send all their assets after her, to set the other teams free."

"Wait a minute.." Stephen stood up. "Sir.."

"Stephen, sit." Jess waved him down. "I'll do it." She said. "We'll give this experiment a try. Worst I can end up is dead."  She pointed at the displays. "Send a burst to my account. I want to study the layout. I'll do the setup."

"Jess, c'mon." Stephen said. "I thought you said this was asinine! Isn't this the very same thing you were quitting about this damn morning????"

Jess nodded. "It was." She said. "But I didn't have all the intel I needed to make that choice. All I had was your pitch of what Bricker said.  Bricker's dead.  The story's changed."

Bain gazed at her with surprising fondness. "You are a throwback, aren't you?"  He said. "So you will accept Kurok's little project, hmm?"

Jess found herself nodding.

"Jess!"

Was she crazy?  Maybe.  Jess felt a sudden and surprising shame over walking out and figured maybe this was just her ego's way of erasing that.  Right? Wrong? Who the hell knew.  She looked up at Kurok, who was studying her with quiet, intent eyes. "Can she drive a carrier?"

"Yes." He answered, in a quiet tone. "She's been programmed to."

Jess stood. "Give me the dump." She said. "Stephen can you plot the weather? I thought I heard a storm coming in."  She glanced around the table. "Are we done here? I've got gear to settle."

"So you don't wish us to go over the plan, Drake?"  Bain asked.  "All of us together?"

"No."  Jess said. "It just became not your plan." She gestured to Jason and Elaine. "We'll meet later. Prep to go less 24."

Silently, the other two agents rose and followed her and she left the conferencing center, the door sliding shut behind them with a soft metallic thump.

"Hm." Bain grunted.

'You wanted her to participate."  Kurok leaned back, a faint grin on his face. "Someone used to tell me to be careful what I asked for, as I recall."

Bain gave him a dour look.

"Would you excuse me, Sir?" Stephen got up. "I've got things to do."  He waited until Bain nodded, then he turned and left the room from a different door, heading back up the secure hallway to central comms.

Bain sat down and swiveled his seat to face Kurok. "Not a good situation, DJ."

"No." Kurok agreed. "And I"m not sure we're going in the right direction in solving it."

"Hm."

The doctor glanced up at him. “Been a damn long time since the last time I was called that.”

Bain smiled briefly.

**

Jess steered her slightly rabid sounding followers into the caffeine station.  “Look.” She held a hand up. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t know.”

“Jess, how can you even consider going out with one of them?” Elaine asked. “Why not just find a cat outside and let them drive? You’re going to get your self killed. No one wants that.”

“Maybe I do.”

Utter silence fell for a long and uncomfortable moment.  Jess fell back to lean against the wall.  She rain her hand through her dark hair, avoiding their eyes. “It’ll be fine.” She said. “Worse comes to worse I can drive the damn thing.”

“What if they catch you?”  Jason asked. “You heard what he said, they want you, Jess.  Why put yourself in their hands? Tell these guys no. You can. I’ve heard you.”

Jess studied them both. “Because it’s not the right thing to do.” She said. “We’ve got four people trapped there.”

“Who could give a crap about you. They went. We didn’t.” Elaine said, bluntly.

“Doesn’t matter if they give a crap about me.” Jess said.  “Doesn’t even matter if someone dumps the plan.  I’m not going to sit here in my ass while four people are out there getting shot. If you two don’t want to go out – don’t. I’ll be the decoy then figure out how to get over to them and get them out.”

“Jess.”

“So I’m an asshole and its impossible.” She shrugged. “Who cares?”  She pushed off the wall. “Now I’ve got to go prep.  Hell if I know what’s secure around here… if you’re interested, I’ll let you know when I’m ready and we can meet in my quarters.”

Jason sighed.  “Do we bring Tucker and Brent?” He didn’t even look at Elaine, obviously sure of her answer. The two had been in training together, were several years older than Jess was, and were frequently paired in the field. 

“Do you?” Jess turned the question back at him. “They’re your partners.”

Elaine went to the dispenser, and requested a bottle. “I hate this.” She turned around, holding the bottle between both hands as though warming them. “How in hell do we know what’s safe and what’s not?”

“Tucker and I have worked together for ten years.” Jason said. “Brent’s been part of the team for twelve. “

“And Joshua was for nine.”  Jess shrugged. “But if what you said in there was right, Jace, and he was turned recently then time in service doesn’t matter.”

Both senior agents looked disturbed. Then Jason scratched his scalp at the back of his neck and looked at Jess. “Shit. Maybe your damn bio alt makes sense after all.”

Elaine snorted softly. “Until it drives you into a cliff wall.” She studied her bottle. “I say you and I meet with Jess, Jace.  We can fill them in later.  This sounds more like an in and out anyway, no hard tech.”

Jess nodded. “Deal.” She reached around Elaine and requested her own bottle.  “Let’s hope the weather clears and we can get this done.”

“Let’s hope the weather clears regardless.” Jason followed them out and down the hallway, heading back towards the residential corridors. “We don’t need any more floods.”

**

Jess cleared into her quarters, glancing around as she entered and spotting the evidence she’d been reprovisioned in her absence.  She could see the uniform module in service, and her duffel had been delivered back and was sitting next to her bed.

She dropped into the chair at the workspace and swung the pad around, reaching over to trigger her console and freezing as she heard a slight noise beyond the sliding portal to her right.

For a moment, she’d forgotten.  “Ah.”   She studied the door with a frown.  Then she got up and went to the inner door, pressing the annunciator chime and waiting.

After a very long pause, the door opened, and she was facing the bio alt.

Dev had changed, she noted, into the dark green field service kit.  “You get settled in?” She asked.

“Yes.” Dev said. “They brought everything I needed.”

“Good.” Jess said. “Okay, so.. “ She held her hand against the door so it wouldn’t close.  “Um.”

Dev tilted her head a little to one side. “Is this where you live?” She pointed behind Jess.

Jess turned, then turned back. “Ah, yes.” She said. “It is.” She watched Dev nod thoughtfully. “We’re going to have a planning session later on in here. We have to go and get some people out of some trouble.”

Dev’s body posture altered, as she straightened up a little and her chin lifted. “We?”

‘That’s what you came here for, right?”  Jess asked.  “Wasn’t it?” She looked curiously at Dev. “They did program you to do this, didn’t they?”

“Yes” The bio alt responded.  “They did.”

“Okay.” Jess said. “So I’ll call you when we’re having the session. “ She watched the woman nod again. “Did you get a meal?”

Dev turned and pointed at the refrigerator. “They left water and crackers there. I had some.”

Jess winced.

“I liked them.” Dev went on. “Were they not for eating?”

“Let me show you where the mess is.”  Jess exhaled. “C’mon.” She motioned the bio alt forward.  Once Dev cleared the door she let it shut, then she led the way to her own outer door.  “You can eat those. Not sure why you’d want to, but they’re survival rations.”

“Oh.”

Jess led the way down the corridor and around the bend towards where the communal area was. She passed a number of people, most of whom did a double take on seeing her, and then a second on seeing her companion.

Mild entertainment.   They crossed the large central hall and paused, as Stephen caught sight of them and hurried over.

“Jess, here’s the weather.” Stephen glanced at Dev, then at the film.  “Nothing good. Don’t think you can.”

He stopped talking as Jess put her hands over the report and stared at him.  “Thanks.” She said. “I appreciate your checking.” She folded the film and put it in a pocket.  “We’re going to the mess.”

Stephen glanced again at Dev. “Oh.”

Jess circled around him and continued on down the corridor, moving past the operations desk and down the left hand turn that would take them into the operations dining hall.   “Only field ops in here.” She commented briefly, scanning the door open and motioning Dev to precede her.

Dev stepped inside, and looked around. The room was large, with many different levels to it, the same dark gray at the rest of the facility but with somber splashes of color in the fabric of the chairs arranged around the small tables.

In the back, on the highest platform, there were several large tables arranged near the wall, with seats behind them. They were empty.   Two of the smaller tables were occupied, and the people at them had turned to stare at her and Jess when they entered.

Dev was used to being stared at. It didn’t bother her. She returned there gaze with a mild neutral expression, waiting for Jess to instruct her further on what they needed to do.

“C’mon.” Jess indicated a food line in the back.  “We line up for everything but dinner when we come in here. That they serve.”

“All right.” Dev followed her willingly as they passed through the tables.  She watched what the other woman did, and picked up a tray, putting it down on the railings as they moved down them.  “We had facilities like this in the crŹche.”

Jess glanced at her. “Did you?”

Dev studied the now incomprehensible things facing her.  There were dispensers and trays of what she assumed were edibles, but the smells and sights were completely unfamiliar. “Yes. But there was only one thing. They just gave it to us.” She looked back. “What do you do now?”

“You pick what you want.”  Jess frowned. “You know how to do that?  I didn’t figure lunch was a challenge.”

Dev’s face twitched a little. “I don’t know what any of this is.” She admitted.

Jess rubbed the bridge of her nose.   Then she turned and punched in a set of numbers, waiting as the dispenser rumbled and clattered, then opened to reveal a divided tray of steaming food. She put it down on her own tray, then coded in the same set again. “Well, this has never killed me so it probably won’t kill you either.” She took the second portion and gave it to Dev.

Dev studied it, as she followed Jess down the line, finding a glass of something added to her selection before they picked up the trays and walked over to a small table.    She  sat down, glad now  that Doctor Dan had brought her to the fancy place to prepare her.

People were still staring at her.  She retrieved the utensils, reaching over and taking a sip from the glass to give her a moment to study what was on the plate.

The taste in the glass made her pause though, and she pulled it back and looked at it. “What is this?”

Jess looked up from cutting her food. “What?”

Dev lifted the glass. “This?”

“Kack.”  Jess said. “Generic caffeinated grog with vitamins.”

It was very odd.  Dev took another sip, trying to decide if she liked it or not. It was faintly spicy, and a bit sweet, with a hint of effervescence.    Then she put the glass down and took a bit of one of things on the tray and put it in her mouth.

It had a mildly chewy texture, and a nice taste.  “And this?” Dev asked. “It’s good.”

Jess swallowed a mouthful of it. “Fish stew.”  She said. “Most of what we eat here is fish based.” She pointed down and to the left. “Locally got.”

“Fish.”  Dev spoke the word thoughtfully.

“Yeah.” Jess pointed at the rest of the tray. “That’s fish, and this is seaweed, but they make it taste like something.  This is mushroom.”  She pointed at the last section. “They grow it in caverns near the bottom of the cliff.”

“Oh.”  Dev tasted a bit of of the seaweed.  It seemed to be in a creamy substance, and she found she liked it as well. The mushrooms were dense and rich, and reminded her very faintly of the protein cakes from the crŹche.

All good.  She dug in with a sense of relief.  Doctor Dan had warned her there would be very different things to contend with downside, but she was very glad to see not all of them were different in a bad way.

“That all right for you?” Jess asked, after a moment of silence. 

Dev nodded. “It’s very good.” She said, after a swallow. “Thank you.”

Jess was silent for a few minutes more, then she looked up again. “What did you have upside?” She asked. “Plastic pellets or something? Must have been if you could eat those crackers.”

“Well.” Dev took a sip of the beverage. “Tea mostly, to drink.” She indicated the cup. “And they just made a cake for the main thing, I think it had beans or soy, with greens and maybe some fruit.  It depended on what the test facility was working on.”

‘Fruit.”  Jess mused.  “Maybe Bain knows what that’s like.” She went back to her plate. “None of us could afford it.”

Dev paused and studied her for a moment. Despite the words, there didn’t seem to be any resentment in her table companion’s voice, just a matter of fact commentary.   “You know, only the really important people in the crŹche would get to have something like this.” She pointed at her plate. “So I guess it’s relative?”

Jess glanced up, a look of dark humor in her eyes. “You think?”

Dev wasn’t sure how to respond to that.  She felt a little bit confused as those pale eyes watched her, almost glad when a throat clearing at her right hand side made them both look up.   A woman was standing there, dressed as Jess was.

“Elaine.”  Jess half turned. “What’s up?”

The woman cocked her head slightly. ‘You going to introduce me, Jess?”

Jess looked at her, then at Dev. “Sure.” She said.  Her eyes went to Dev. “What do you want people to call you?”

Dev was caught flatfooted. “Excuse me?”

“You’re asking a bio alt what they want?” Elaine’s eyebrows hiked. “C’mon, Jess.”

Jess glanced at her. “This isn’t a pod tech.” She said. “I don’t invite them to lunch.” She turned back around. “What is it you want people here to call you? I know what your label is.” She said. “My name is Jesslyn Drake. But people call me Jess.” She paused. “When they don’t’ call me bastard, or jackass, or asshole.”

Elaine chuckled reflexively.

“Oh.”  Dev nodded. “Okay, I get it..” She looked up at Elaine. “My designation is Biological Alternative, set 0202-164812, instance NM-Dev-1.” She said. “But you can call me Dev.”

 Elaine stared at her. “That doesn’t sound like a regular bio alt set name.”

“It isn’t.” Dev agreed. “I’m a developmental special set.” She blinked placidly at the other woman.  “Experimental.”

“Oh.” Elaine said. “Well, I’m Elaine.” She somewhat hesitantly extended a hand in greeting. “I think we’ll be working together.”

Dev clasped it and released. 

“Elaine’s an agent, like I am.” Jess said. “She works with an outsider tech named Brent. He’s over at that table afraid to come here and meet you.” She indicated a tall, blond haired man seated nearby.

“He’s not afraid.” Elaine frowned.  “He’s just not comfortable with all of this.’

Dev looked at Jess, seeing a clearly defined expression of skepticism there.  The man Brent was dressed exactly like she herself was and as she watched he glanced over at them, then looked quickly away.

So was he doing what she would be?  Did he think she wasn’t capable?

Things were getting very, very interesting.

**

Jess and Dev walked back to their quarters through very quiet corridors.  “Everyone’s keeping their head down.” Jess commented.

 “I see.”  Dev murmured, after a slight pause .”They afraid the man with the gun is going to take them off?”

Muffling a snort, Jess stopped in mid stride and looked at her.

Dev stopped as well, and stood there, head tilted slightly in question.

“Did you…”  Jess said, then paused, shaping the air with her hands. “Was that a joke?”

“Did you think it was funny?” Dev inquired.

“Yes, I did.”

“Then it was a joke.”  The bio alt commented. “If you didn’t think so it would still have been a joke, but an unsuccessful one I wouldn’t use again.”

Jess’s lips twitched. “Did they program you for that?” She started walking again.   “For jokes?”

“No.” Dev replied. “Most of us have a sense of humor. “ She followed Jess around the corner into the residential hall. “It varies.”

“I can see you have the dry variety.” Jess said.  “Good. So do I.  It’ll make it easier to work together.” She reached up and tightened the knot of hair at the back of her head. “I don’t like stand up yuck men.”

Dev’s ears perked up.   She really didn’t know what that was, but it sounded like the agent had accepted her and that bode well for her not being immediately returned to the crŹche. She had no illusions that she would be eventually, after this experiment was over, but the longer she stayed, the more experience she’d be able to get, and that might mean something later on for her.

If she didn’t get hurt doing this, as Doctor Dan had warned.  She wondered if Jess had ever gotten hurt doing her job. It sounded dangerous, even more than the tasks she’d been programmed for.

There was a man standing in front of Jess’s door, one that she remembered from the communications hall. 

“Hey Jason.”  Jess greeted him.  “Reports not ready yet.”

“I guessed.” He held his hand up, with had a small, gun like device in it.  “Ready for this?”

Jess stopped, and looked at him.   Dev thought she might be angry, and she wasn’t sure what was going on.  But after a minute,  the tall woman relaxed, and waved a hand at the plate on her door for it to open.

Dev started to walk around her, to go to the other side of the hall around the corner where her own door was. 

“Wait.”

Dev turned, to find both of them looking at her.  “I was going to work on some sims.” She said. “I found some in the catalog in that room.”

“You can come in this way.” Jess indicated her quarters. “I wanted to introduce you to Jason here anyway.”

The man didn’t like her. Dev could tell.  But she nodded in agreement and followed them inside, standing quietly as Jess walked over to her workspace chair and then turned,  releasing the catches on her jumpsuit and pulling it half down to expose her upper body before she sat down. 

Dev blinked a few times as she found herself handling a slew of inputs all at once, some really unexpected.   Jess’s body was a rich, golden color and she could see a few faint scars, which answered her earlier question. But the most striking thing was the intricate designs on her arms, start at the tips of her shoulders and going down.  There were black lines and color, and small dots in an uneven pattern between them, and she realized one whole limb was complete down to the wrist, and the other halfway.

Wow. She had nothing at all in programming for this.  What was going on?  She knew no one in the crŹche had markings like that.

“Jason, this is Dev.” Jess said, putting her forearms down on the chair and leaning back.  “She’s going to drive my bus for me.”

The man looked at Dev. “Yeah?”

“Dev, this is Jason. He’s also an agent.” Jess said. “He’s about to carve me for my last gig.”

‘Hello. It’s nice to meet you.”  Dev addressed the man politely.

He stared at her. “Charmed.” He said briefly, then turned his attention back to the gun like device, which he triggered, producing a vivid blue light at the tip.   “Don’t you have some cleaning to do or something?”
Jess abruptly lashed out with one leg, slamming her booted foot against the man’s knee and sending him careening to the floor, juggling the gun frantically as he fell.  “Don’t be a jackass, Jason.” She warned. “It’s not her fault she’s here. “

“Son of  a bitch are you crazy!” Jason managed to get hold of the device and rolled over. “I could have shot the whole fucking room out!”

“We have plenty.”  Jess didn’t look either alarmed or sorry.  “Bain wants this project to succeed. I’m not going to be the one who prevents that, and if you have a brain cell left in your head you won’t either.”

Jason paused in the midst of getting to his knees and stared at her, his eyes narrowing as Jess’s brows hiked meaningfully.  “Oh”

“Sit.”  Jess waved Dev to one of the chairs near the workspace. “Not many people get to see one of us get marked.”

Dev had absolutely no idea what was going on. “Okay.” She managed to answer. “What does that mean?”  She sat down and tried to assimilate everything that had just happened, but her thoughts wouldn’t settle properly and she gave it up after a minute.

Jason got up and pulled a chair over, settling himself next to where Jess was. “I get you.” He said, making some adjustements.  “It’s just really damn hard.”  He looked over at Dev. “No offense meant, kid.” He said. “I’ve just been at this a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of people kicked downstairs for your kind.”

Dev still had no idea what was going on, or what downstairs was.  “I’m sorry.” She replied.  “I can tell you none of us wants to harm anyone.”

“Of course they don’t. They’ve got no more choice about being here than you and I did, Jase.”  Jess said. “If you want to be mad, be mad at the bastards at the top. They made the decision.”  She flexed her arm and turned it slightly.  “Put it there.”

Jason grunted.  

“Being marked.”  Jess turned to Dev. “They don’t let us put patches on these suits anymore like in the old days. You could get a patch or a mark for all your achievements.  We can’t do that now so we do this.”  She pointd at her arm. “For every gig, for every mission, we tell the story here.”

Dev stared in fascination at the designs. 

“Where it was, what it did… “ A high pitched buzz sounded and Jess licked her lips, setting her feet squarely on the floor as Jason leaned close with the device in his hand.  “Who we lost.”  She took a breath. “Who we killed.”

“Ready.” Jason braced the hand holding the gun with his other hand.  He waited for Jess to nod, then he carefully pulled the trigger, and the blue light jumped from the gun to Jess’s skin, with a high keening sound and a faint sizzle.

Dev felt a shiver go down her spine.  She could see Jess’s body stiffen and her eyes closed, though her breathing remained steady.

“Didn’t think I was going to get this mark.” Jess said after a  minute or two.

“Yeah.” Jason murmured softly.  “Lot of dots for this one.”

“Thirteen black. Don’t short em.”  Jess said, in a clipped tone.  “Twelve of them there and Joshua.”

“Hm.” Jason grunted.

Dev felt very out of depth. She could smell the faint scent of burned flesh, and she could see the muscles in Jess’s legs jumping and she realized whatever this was probably hurt a lot.  There were a lot of marks on her arms, and the whole thing seemed just a little insane to her.

“Green or no?”

Jess was silent for a while. “ Can a complete failure be a green?” She asked.  “No. Leave it clear.”

“Okay.”  Jason made another adjustment. “Color.” He warned, leaning close again, and the high buzz returned.

“Joshua’s the reason you’re here. “ Jess looked over at Dev.   “He was my partner. My tech.” She said. “The other side bought him and he led us into a trap and knifed me in the gut.”

Dev’s eyes widened.

“Bastard.” Jason muttered.

“So you’re going to be my bus driver.” Jess said. “You’re never going to be my partner. You understand? No offense.”

Dev lifted her head a little and their eyes met.  “I do understand.”  She said. “Doctor Dan told me what happened.  I’m really sorry for you. It must have been terrible.”  Her eyes never left Jess’s and as the silence lengthened,  the buzz faded.

Finally Jason cleared his throat. “Sucks it took one of them to say that.” He said. “None of us did.”

Jess’s gaze dropped, and she sat there just breathing for a minute. “You done?” She said. “I’ve got weather to look at.”

Jason decommissioned the gun and clipped it to his jumpsuit, getting up from his chair and dusting his hands off. “Yeah.” He said. “Put some rub on it when you get a chance. I’m going to get some grub.”  He turned and left, and the door slid shut behind him with a faint thump.

It was awkwardly quiet for a minute. “May I look at it?” Dev asked.

“Sure.”  Jess murmured.

Dev got up and went to the chair Jason had used, settling down on it and studying the red raw design now carved in Jess’s skin.  “Wow.”

“Stupid tradition.” Jess sighed. “But once you start you can’t stop it.” She looked at her arm, then at Dev past it. “I always promised myself I’d retire out before I got both sleeves.”  She pushed herself to her feet. “Now I really do have weather to study. “ She indicated the inner door between their quarters. “Get some rest.  I’ll call you in when it’s time to talk about the mission.”

“Okay.”  Dev got up and went to the door, then she turned. “Thanks for letting me help you.” She said. “And thank you for showing me the dining hall.”

Jess settled behind her desk and leaned on it, gazing at Dev thoughtfully.  “If nothing else, we’ll learn something.”  She said. “You’re interesting.”

Dev paused with her hand on the touchplate for the door.  “I think you’re interesting too.” She replied, with a faint smile, before she triggered the latch and went through it, letting it close behind her.

Jess sat back in her chair and drummed her fingers lightly on the arms.   Then she exhaled and pulled the sheets Stephen had given her over, unfolding them and reaching out to touch the console pad. “Ouch.” She grimaced, as she pulled at the newly raw skin on her arm.  “Maybe it wasn’t smart to do that when we’re flying tonight.”

She adjusted the light and studied the report, touching a finger on the dotted lines and sweeps, grimacing as she analyzed the information. “Or maybe not.”

**

Dev stood for a minute in her chamber, just listening to her own heartbeat slow and settle.  Once it had, she went over and got a bottle of liquid from the dispenser, opening it and drinking it down in a draught. 

Then she went and sat in her chair, trying to decide what to do.   Jess had told her to get some rest, but Jess had also inferred that they might be going out on a mission tonight so she realized her tech skills would be put to a very real test very real soon.

She’d been in the sims for the carriers, of course.  She’d known she would have to pilot them, that was part of the programming and she’d done a whole shift in the lab for that.  But sims were sims, and she decided she’d set up a session and review everything just to be sure.

That decided, she went in the sanitary facility and used it, still bemused by the swirling water.   Then she came back into the main part of the chamber and went over to the bed, sitting down on it curiously and then laying down on her back.

Very different from the crŹche and it’s snug, rotating pods that cradled you and rocked you through the night. 

This was cool, though yielding, the surface conforming to her body in a comfortable way, but wide and spacious giving her room to spread out as much as she wanted.

The pillows were also mild and yielding, and they cradled her head, making it easy to relax.  She did so for a few minutes, watching the lights adjust themselves as the pressure of the bed was detected an analyzed.

The illumination softened and darkened, and she found herself thinking about everything she’d seen in the long day.

Her leaving from the crŹche. The arrival at Interforce.  The killing of the director.  Being given her things. Being given this space.  Lunch.

Jess.

She thought about the design she’d seen cut into Jess’s arm, and how sad it seemed to her that these people, these soldiers seemed to have so hard a life, that they had to carve their accomplishments into their own flesh and get no thanks otherwise.

And what had Jess meant when she said she hadn’t had a choice to be here either?  Dev looked at the faint glints of mica in the rough cut ceiling.  That she didn’t really understand, nor what she’d meant when she referred to Elaine’s tech as an outsider.

What did that mean, really? And, what had Jason meant by knowing people who were kicked downstairs, as he had said, because of her kind?

Did he mean they’d lost their place here, because of bio alts?  Dev frowned.   What was downstairs?  Could it really be that natural born people had been displaced like that? She’d always thought that bio alts did tasks no natural born would want to, and they would have gone on to do something more interesting or rewarding in its place.

Surely that was true. Surely they didn’t just throw those natural born out.  Dev got up and walked around, feeling a burst of nervous energy.   That’s how it was in the crŹche.  The natural born people did the important jobs, and the bio alts did the rest.

She climbed up the steps to the training area, and seated herself at the console. 

But.  She put her hands on the pads and keyed them.  But here she was, doing a natural born person’s job.  This had been Joshua’s job.

His job, and his rooms and Jess, his partner.

But she wasn’t to be Jess’s partner.  Jess didn’t want that.  Joshua had betrayed her.  She was just here to help.

She wanted to help.  She wanted to do well for these people. 

She wanted to do her best, certainly, for Jess who had defended her, and been nice to her, and who apparently wanted her to succeed.

Who found her interesting.  Dev studied her reflection in the console.  

Interesting.

**

Continued in Part 4