Partners

Part 4

Jess took a sip of her kack, her eyes flicking from one screen to the other studying her options.  The weather had put a halt on an immediate leave and now it looked like she was going to have to wait for daylight to go.

Sucked.  She scanned the metrics again. It really was a fairly simple plan. She’d target the laboratory she knew they had the new growth tech in, aiming for a supply station entrance halfway up the hill the place was built into.

No doubt she’d draw a crowd.   They’d cut off trying to communicate with the two teams, hopefully giving the impression they’ considered them destroyed and were no longer interested in them.  Wouldn’t b the first time, both sides knew it. 

You cut your losses. Made no sense wasting precious resources chasing after a lost cause.   Jess knew if she hadn’t made her own way out in her last gig chances were no rescue would have been attempted for her.

She didn’t resent that.  It was just the way it was – they were valuable resources, sure, but they were, as she’d told Dev, expendable when there were other things at stake. 

Her comm buzzed, and she tapped it. “Drake.”

“We meeting?” Jason asked. “Weather tanked.”

“Yeah. Bring Elaine over.”  Jess said. “We’ll be plus eight to go, but might as well go over the  outline.”

“Be there.”  Jason cut the comm off.

Jess leaned over and tapped another button. “Dev?” She waited. After a pause, she tapped again. “Dev?”

With a soft crackle the circuit opened “Yes.”  The bio alt’s voice responded. “My apologies. I was investigating the wet space.”

“The what?” Jess stared in puzzlement at the comm..

“There is a space in the sanitary facility with a pipe over it.”

“Oh. The shower.”  Jess said. “You were taking one.”  She listened to the faint sound of breathing coming over the comm., as her new next door neighbor considered what she’d said. That was one thing she’d noticed about Dev – she waited to talk until she knew what she wanted to say.

“Yes.” Dev finally concluded.  “If you mean, I went under the pipe and got very wet.” She added.  “That was unusual.”

“You don’t have showers upside?”  Jess found herself weirdly distracted by this odd conversation.

“We do.”  Dev said. “But they don’t involve getting wet.”

“Oh.’ Jess said. “Well, dry off and come over. We’re going to run the plan.” 

“All right.”  The bio alt replied.  “Thank you.”

The comm cut off.  Jess gazed at it in bemusement for a minute, then she went back to the console screen and started assembling the information she would need to lay out the statistics and the routes to her colleagues.

Two minutes, and a knock on the inner door sounded. Jess pressed the ingress key and the door slid open, revealing  Dev’s slim figure.    The bio alt’s hair was damp, slicked back off her forehead and giving her finely etched features a slightly tougher cast.   “So water’s a novelty for ya, huh?”

Dev sat down in one of the chairs across from Jess’s workspace.  “Running water, yes.” She agreed. “They made all the water in the crŹche. They told us it was expensive.  The natural borns had it, I think, in their quarters but we used flash rad to clean our skins.”

Jess leaned on her elbows. “Radiation?”

Dev nodded. “It would burn off our sleepclothes and the first layer or so of skin.” She said. “Effective way to get rid of dirt and any bacteria.” She inspected her hand. “I think I like water better.”

A soft chime came at the outer door.  Jess pressed the release button, then sat back as Jason and Elaine entered. “C’mon in” She swiveled both displays around and slid them back so everyone could see them as they approached warily and took the seats next to Dev.

“Okay.” Jess sorted out the sheets.  “Weather cranked us.”

“Heard that.” Jason said. “Shaking the roof upstairs.”

Jess nodded. “Big e-stat storm coming overhead.  Met figures it’ll clear by oh six.”   She touched a control, and displayed a map on the screen.  “Here’s the frontal boundary.”

“Big one.” Elaine commented.  “Wouldn’t want to be out in that.  Is it going to reach the other side?”

“That’s our cover.”  Jess ran the scan forward. “See that? It’s scheduled over the drop site just before twelve hundred. We come in behind it. “

Both Jason and Elaine nodded.

“Then we…” Jess motioned between herself and Dev. “Split off, and head for the front door of the lab there.” She pointed. “You two come around the side here, and tuck in behind the cliffs.”

“You’re not going to drop in there, Jess.” Jason said. “That’s suicide.”

Jess shook her head. “Not in my plans but I want them to think I am. “ She said. “I’ll take out the outer post here.. “She pointed at a lonely outcropping surrounded by sea.  “With the guns and then come in at wave level. “

“Freak them out.” Elaine said. “And with the chop they can’t be sure you’re alone.” 

Jess nodded.

“So then we wait for the plugs to rush off to grab you, and we go get Dirk and Patrick.”  Jason said. “We get out. You get out, you join us, we run for home.”

Jess nodded again. “Real basic. Nothing fancy.  We just want to get them back.” She pushed two slips of film at them. “Here’s the plotting coordinates. If I were you, I’d wait until we’re underway to program em in.”

Both agents looked very uncomfortable.  “Brents gonna freak.”

Jess shrugged.  “Fact is, Bain said he thought someone was still talking from inside.” She said. “You want to risk it?”

“Jess.” Elaine leaned back and crossed her legs at the ankles. “I was thinking about that.  Doesn’t make sense they’d use the same vector twice. They don’t, y’know?”

Jess grunted.

“How do we know it’s not …  I mean, maybe it was Bricker.”  Jason said.  “I remember taking classes with him a year ago or so – he didn’t seem like such a hothead jerk back then. I liked him.” He went on. “So maybe he was turned, and he turned Josh?”

“Jase’s right. He has changed… or he did change, anyway.” Elaine agreed. “When he was a group leader, I always thought you could trust him. Hell – he was given just like we were.”

It was tempting.  Jess studied her colleagues, and the silently watching bio alt. Tempting to think it was all Bricker, and now that he was dead, they could relax and be safe again.  “Josh liked Bricker.” She allowed. “He used to have dinner and drinks with him.”

Elaine eyed her. “Rumor said more.”

Jess put it all aside. “Maybe.” She lifted a hand. “But right now, we  don’t’ have time to look at that.  Let’s get the teams back, then we can regroup.  If we’re lucky, you’re right, and it was him but if you don’t tell your techs, and the plan gets spilled we know two things – one, you were wrong and it wasn’t him, and two, there’s still someone out there.”

“Damn I hope it was.”  Jason groused. “I hate walking around with clouds over my head, and we’ve got the new group coming in next month on top of it.  That’s twelve more unknown vectors. “

Six new agents, six new techs, fresh from the ops academy. “I know.”  Jess agreed. “But it’ll be good to get some of those empty bays back in action. I ‘m starting to feel like a really dying breed here.”

They were all silent after that.

“So, flight deck at oh four?” Jason finally said.  “I’m going to get some bunk time. My head’s exploding.”   He stood up, stretching his body out. “Meet you all for breakfast?”

Jess and Elaine nodded, and Elaine stood to join him in leaving.   They stood in awkward silence, then they turned and went to the door, leaving Jess and Dev alone behind them.

Jess studied the door somberly for a moment, before she turned her attention back to the bio alt. “You ready to do this?” She asked bluntly.

Dev considered the question.  “I have done all the reviews I can on the sims.” She said. “I am as prepared to execute your request as I can be, given the circumstances.”

“Sims aren’t the real thing.”

“I know.” Dev said. “I’ll do the best I can.”

They were both quiet for a minute. “So you figured out the shower, huh?”  Jess said. “I never thought about that whole water thing upside.  We have so much of it.”  She paused. “Want to see a lot more than that shower?”

Dev’s eyes searched her face with interest. “Sure.”

“C’mon.” Jess got up.  “It’s close to dark, but we can still see it.”  She led the way out of her quarters and went along the corridor, turning left at the central corridor and heading down a dark gray painted hall. 

They passed three section scans, then she turned right and went into a longer corridor with low, green tinted lights.   It was empty except for the two of them, and as they continued, the air became a little thicker and wetter.

“We can only stay out a few minutes. Storm’s coming overhead.”  Jess turned a final corner and faced a thick metal door, with a prominent palm scan. Letters stenciled in black on it were clearly visible.

“Exernal Access. This is an airlock.”  Dev read them.  ‘What does that mean?”

Jess grinned, and keyed the door.  It opened with a grinding, sucking sound revealing a square metal box. She stepped inside, and waited as Dev joined her with a somewhat cautious look at the stark walls. 

Then she keyed the outer door, and processed the lock. The inner door sealed, and then the outer released, with a  pressure change that made their ears pop.   At once, the box was filled with the intense smell of salt and a damp wind buffeted them with a roar.

Jess stepped forward onto a small rocky outcropping, and leaned her arms on the rough stone wall.  After a moment’s hesitation, Dev joined her, the bio alt’s hair and her own lashed back by the ferocious wind.

Dev put her hands on the stone, the surface feeling cold and damp under her touch as the airlock door closed behind them. 

It was strange.  She was looking out over a wild, white ruffled surface under a cap of solid, multilayered dark and light gray, and in the distance she could hear a heavy, almost continuous rumble.  “W.. .what is this?” She asked, raising her voice above the sound.

“It’s the ocean.”   Jess replied. “This is what used to be called the Atlantic Ocean, matter of fact. “ She glanced around at the high cliffs, weather worn and stark.   “It’s water.”

Dev looked out over the wild scene, breathing in the rich, mineral scented air.  The water was only about a hundred feet below them, crashing against the wall of rock sending spray up so high it almost reached them.

It was amazing.  Dev could only stare at it in wonder, it was so unlike anything she’d ever experienced or thought she would experience.  “It’s big.”

Jess chuckled. “It’s very big.” She agreed. “We’ll be flying over it tomorrow. “ She touched the wall. “These cliffs this old place is tunneled into used to have a huge waterfall coming over it.  Now the water’s taken over. “ She looked down at the surging waves.  “It’s our life now. We generate power by it, take food from it, and it’s why you have a water shower.  We’ve got plenty of it. About the only thing in the world we have plenty of.”

Dev could feel the rumble move through her, and she looked out over the surface of the water, seeing a seething motion that seemed never ending.  She edged forward and looked down over the wall, seeing the white foam at the base of the cliff washing over the rocks and rushing in and out of holes she caught a brief glimpse of.

They were standing on a small niche, with room for probably a dozen people on it. “What is this for?” She asked Jess. “This little place?”

“Just for us to look.” Jess answered. “To see storms coming in.” She pointed a a line of gray. “That’s what’s keeping us here tonight instead of going out. See those flashes?”

“Yes.”

“Electromagnetic surges.  They’ll knock a carrier right out of the sky. Shorts the systems out.”

“Oh.”  Dev could see the crackling bolts, and the flashes in the far off clouds.  “That sounds difficult.”

“We have a cavern downstairs.”  Jess said. “Sometimes we go down there, when it’s calmer, and swim.”

“Swim?”

“We jump in the water. In the ocean.”

Dev looked at her with unabashed wide eyed astonishment.

The rumble got a lot louder, and Jess turned and keyed the door. “Time to go in.  Storms too close.”  She waited for the panel to enter, then ducked inside and closed the door as soon as Dev cleared it.  When it shut, the sudden lack of sound was almost ear ringing.

Dev ran her fingers through her hair, straightening the wind blown disarray.  “That was amazing. Thank you for showing it to me.”  She licked her lips a little. “It’s salty.”

“Yes.” Jess agreed. “Ocean’s full of salt.  We scrub it to make it drinkable and then the salt’s used for cooking with the rest of the stuff they scrape out of it.” 

They walked along in silence for a few minutes.   “Do the colors mean something?” Dev asked as they crossed from the gray back into the dark blue, heading for the lighter blue of the residential corridor.

“Sort of.  They say they used to all be the same color, and everyone spent all their time getting lost so they changed them up so at least you can see if you’re in ops.. that’s the blue tones, or med, that’s yellow, or security, that’s red, and so on. There’s a chart in the docs in the system. You can look it up.” 

Dev thought about that. “They did that upside too.” She said. “You could tell where you were, what level, and that kind of thing by the walls.”  She paused. “But it wasn’t as big as this and there was nothing like what you just showed me. The only thing a little bit like that was the null grav gym.”

Jess keyed her door open. “The what?” She waved Dev forward. 

“Null gravity gym.  It was a big padded place they turned off grav in, and you got to play catch me, and ball, and do exercises.” Dev said.  “It was in the top of the crŹche, and it had a clear ceiling, You could float for a minute, sometimes, and just watch the stars.”

“Stars.” Jess paused in the center of her quarters. “I’ve read about those.”

Dev stopped at the internal door between their quarters and looked back. “If you ever come to the crŹche, I’ll show them to you.” She offered. “I think they’re really nice but not nearly as exciting as the ocean is.”

Jess met her eyes, then looked away with the faintest of smiles. “Get some rest.” She ordered. “The alarm will go off at 0300.  Then we’ll get to see if Bricker and Bain were right, and you’re worth something to the job or not.”

Dev nodded, then passed through into her own bunk, letting the door shut behind her.

Jess looked at the door briefly. Then she started towards her workspace, but midway there changed her mind and went back to her bed instead. She lay down on it and put her hands behind her head, looking up at the mica infested ceiling of the chamber.

“Stars.”  She murmured. “Huh.”

**

Dev went to the wardrobe module and examined the drawers again. In the crŹche, she’d slept in the soft paper garments they all changed into before getting into the sleep pods, which would be sucked off and recycled the following morning.

Here she wasn’t really sure what to do.   After a few moments thought, she stripped out of the jumpsuit and hung it up, leaving her in her underwear.  Then she put on a light undershirt she’d found on the shelves, that came down to her mid thigh, and had half sleeves.

That seemed all right.  She went over and pulled the covers down on the bed, climbing into it and pulling them back over her.   The surface of the bed conformed to her at once, and the lights dimmed, and she felt the covers warm to her skin.

She was tired.  With the time alteration and the early start to her day,  the tension and the activity had kept her on edge since they’d left the crŹche and now she was glad to relax her body, and know she had some time to rest before her first big trial.

It was exhausting, she’d discovered, to be in such a strange place, with all strange people, all disliking her for various different reasons. 

No one really wanted her to be there. She was a little sad about that, because having a placement here had been so exciting for her, despite how hard and strange the programming had been.  She had been looking forward to being able to use that training, and it made her feel bad to know that so many people here were against that.

Only the man with the gun seemed to be for it, and Doctor Dan.  The agents didn’t seem to trust her, and the other techs definitely didn’t want her around.

Then there was Jess.

Dev thought about Jess.  She wasn’t really sure what Jess’s view on her was.   She’d gotten the impression, in fact, Jess had said outright that she was working with her just because the ma with the gun wanted her to.

She had said, also, that she didn’t consider Dev a real part of her team, just a driver. 

It seemed quite clear. 

But really, Jess had been the only one in the place so far who had a friendly word for her, and who had offered to help her find her way.

Was that because the man with the gun wanted it that way?  Dev rolled onto her side and settled her head comfortably on the pillow.  If so, she was glad. At least there was someone who was willing to talk to her like she was a real person.

She wanted to do well for Jess.  She’d gone through the sim a dozen times, and hoped it would be enough to let her drive the carrier for real.

She trusted her programming.  She only hoped Jess would trust her.

**

The alarm bonged softly at 0300.   Jess blinked, as the lights inside adjusted and produced a quiet glow that gently illuminated her quarters.   With automatic motions, she got out of bed and shook herself, letting the last shreds of sleep fall away.

Wisps of her last dream faded with them and she didn’t’ try to recall what it was. There was an aching tension in her shoulders that meant it was a bad one and she was just glad it hadn’t gone on long enough to wake her screaming.

She retrieved a mug of kack from the dispenser and opened it, taking a long swallow as she walked into the sanitary unit as the lights helpfully came up inside.  She used the facility, then she started the shower running, pausing before she entered to go back into the main area and trigger comms to the overhead speaker on listen.

The familiar drone of the ops center filled the air and she listened for a minute, hearing nothing alarming, and then went back and took off her sleepware and stepped into the steaming water.

It felt good and she stood for a bit, letting the water pound against her. She pulled in a breath full of steam, the flat metallic scent of the water so very familiar to her.  She took a handful of scrub and burnished her skin with it, then used another handful and washed her hair. 

Old custom.   Most people in the world now used dry scrub or didn’t bother.   The rain came almost every day, and everyone got caught out in it.  To deliberately wet yourself was something that had come to be seen as wasteful and strange, but here in the fortress they all did.

They had the hydro power to run the desals, and the scrub was made from throwaway elements, so why not?   Jess rinsed her hair out again, and stood for another moment, letting the hot water relax her muscles.  It was one of the marks of Interforce, that neatly cropped, clean shaven look that was a long ago holdover from the national forces they’d all descended from.

She got out and shut the water down, then toweled herself dry and made her way thorugh the main chamber to the dressing station, popping it open and taking out a set of underwear and putting them on. Then she opened the second part of her cabinet and removed a drop suit, slipping into it and snapping the catches on.

Unlike the jumpsuit they all typically wore in the facility, this was different. It was far heavier and had lightweight body armor built into it protecting her most vital areas.   There were integrated comms and leads for the carrier systems and buckles and clips for her weapons.

She picked up her boots and carried them to the workstation, leaning a finger on the comms. “Dev?”

“Yes.” The answer came back immediately.

“Ready?” Jess asked.

“Yes.”

“C’mon in here.”  Jess released the button and sat down to pull her boots on.   A moment later the inner door opened and her tech entered.   She briefly scanned her slight form, noting she had found and put on the carrier ops rig and was holding her own boots in her hand. “Sit.”

Dev did,  putting down one boot and putting on the other. 

“You sleep okay?” Jess asked.  “I can imagine most of this is pretty strange.”

Dev glanced up at her. “Really well, thank you.” She said. “It’s very comfortable.” She put on her other boot.  “I really like the wet thing.  It makes my skin feel good.”

“The shower?” Jess smiled briefly.  “Yeah, I like it too.” She stood up, and after Dev did also, she scrutinized the bio alt’s gear with a critical eye. “They give you programming for this?” She pointed at the suit.

“Yes.” Dev said. “But also, there are some things that are left to natural sense.” She said. “Like putting underwear on, and that sort of thing. We don’t need programming for that.”

Jess started chuckling.  “You are really different from the rest of the bio’s we have here.” She admitted. “Are there many like you topside?”

Dev straightened her cuff a little. “I’m the only one they’ve produced in my set so far.” She said. “So I guess no.”

“Ah.” Jess pulled her hair back in a tail and quickly braided it, then tucked it into her collar.  “So you’re one of a kind, eh?”

“Yes.”

Well, that was interesting.  Jess climbed the steps up to her weapons locker. “Let me just get rigged, and we’ll grab some chow.”  She opened up the case and took out the stun knives, sliding them into their sheaths and added her sidearm into it’s holster.

Her heavy weapons were in the carrier, but she took the time to clip on a utility flash and a multitool then she trotted down the steps and waved Dev towards the door. “Let’s go, kid.” She said. “Time to make the doughnuts.”

Dev followed her willingly, but had a slightly perplexed expression on her face. “What’s a doughnut?” She asked. “And how do you make them?”

“They’re mythological.”  Jess said.

“Oh.”

**

Dev had to stop a moment just to stare when they entered the carrier hanger.  It was a huge cavern, larger than any space she’d ever seen inside before, and it was full of parked vehicles, most huddling in the dark.

Three were lit, however, and several bio alt mechanics were moving around them with pads and tools.   Jess headed towards the one furthest on the left and she quickly trotted to catch up with her  as Elaine and Jason split off and went to their own crafts.

Overhead were giant panels in the roof, on tracks that apparently opened to let the carriers out.   The whole place smelled of organics and synth oil, and echoed with the sounds of latches engaging and bangs of tools.

Dev’s eyes took in the carrier Jess was nearing.   Her programming kicked in, and the outline of the squat, powerful vehicle hit familiar chords as information about it poured in.   The outside color was mottled gray, except for the identification code stenciled outside the hatch, and Jess’s last name printed underneath it.

Jess palmed the hatch lock and ducked inside as it opened and Dev followed her, trying to take everything in as quickly as she could.

Programming gave her the inside before she saw it, and she nodded as she moved past the strapped down bucket seat Jess would ride in and went up into the nose of the carrier, where a second station was waiting for her.

The inside of the carrier was packed with gear.  Mostly electronic, monitoring and scanning systems, gyros, and positioning rigs.  To one side a rack was lashed that held long muzzled laser rifles and one heavy projectile cannon, and the drop pack with it’s jet systems.

Dev went to the pilot’s seat and settled into it, feeling the gimbals shift as it took her weight.  She took a breath and looked around at the console, comforted when a mental image of the sim settled over the reality of the controls and they started making sense to her.

“Run the checklist.” Jess’s voice was cool and a little distracted. 

“Yes.”  Dev flexed her hands, and settled back into the seat, waiting a moment until the programming kicked in and her fingers reached out to start the sequence. ‘Systems coming live.”  She warned, as the console came to life and in rapid succession, the equipment packs to her right and left followed.

Jess slowly sat down and watched in bemusement as the carrier came alive around her, as the slim hand of the bio alt went through touches and settings as though she’d done it many times before.

Dev activated the leads and hooked them into her suit, sliding the comm rig over her head and tucking the ear cups into place.  She flicked her eyes to the registration number and then keyed in a command.  “Carrier BR27006 systems check.”

“Stand by.” A mechanical voice answered.  “Stand by BR27006.”

“Standing by.” Dev said.  She looked at the console readouts, and pulled a pad over, keying in the various settings and supplies they reported.   She saw an incoming request, and reviewed it. “They are asking to setup an intercom.”

“Go ahead.” Jess said. “That’s Jason.  It’s so we can talk to each other.”

“Intercom set to channel 4500, sideband 2.”  Dev spoke into the comms.  “Read back?”

“Confirmed.”  A male voice answered. “Channel 4500, sideband 2.  Brent out.”

Jess quickly checked the heavy arms, then she reached over and punched the door seal, closing out the sounds of the carrier bay.  At once, the internal sounds of the vehicle, the click and whir of the life support, and the low hum of the pre start engines became obvious.  

She could see Dev making adjustments, and she pulled her own pad over, and scanned the system readouts.  After a moment, she looked at the back of the pilot’s chair and let out a small, surprised breath. “Damn.”

“BR27006, systems check complete.” A voice called quietly in Dev’s ear. “Stand by for switch to internal systems.”

“Standing by.” Dev watched the readouts, as the umbilicals were removed and they were on internal power.   She could see the spool ups for the two big engines and the launch jets and she triggered the restraint system that closed around her holding her snugly to her seat.

Her feet in the boots found the side jet controls, the chair gimbal moving to adjust for her height.  Now that the internal systems were online, whispered voices started in her ear as systems came up to flight ready and reported to her.  “I think we’re set.” She reported to Jess.   “Everything’s online and green.”

Jess was seated in her chair, with her arms folded.  “You actually know how to do this.”

Dev turned in her seat and looked back at Jess. “Yes.”

“Unreal.”  Jess settled a comm set over her own head and triggered it. “Blue group 1, Blue group controller.”

“One, Tac 1.”

“One, Tac 2.” 

The answers came back in clipped tones.   “Report ready.” Jess said. “We are ready and standing by to launch.”

Bare hesitation.  “Tac 1 ready.”  Jason answered. “Standing by.”

“Tac 2 ready’ Elaine followed a beat later. “Standing by.”

“Ask control to open the gates.” Jess told Dev. “We’ll launch first, you all follow.  When we get to the first set of coordinates, I’ll split right you split left. Copy?”

“Understood.”  Jason reported.

“Gotcha.” Elaine said.

“Control,  this is BR27006. Requesting access for flight please.” Dev spoke into the comms. 

Even through the hull of the carrier, they could hear the roof opening, the huge metal panels grinding apart and allowing a thunder of water into the bay, drops falling and slamming into the carrier roof with a muted roar.

Dev settled herself and put her hands on the engine throttle controls,  her mind going over her next few steps.  She was glad she had the programming so solid for this, everything seemed familiar to her and the readouts all clicked in her mind.

“BR27006 this is control.” The voice said. “Access is granted. Launch when ready.”

“Go.”  Jess said.  “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Dev took a deep breath, and let it out, then she thumbed the launch jet controls and felt the carrier shift under her.  In the next moment, they were rising past the carriers on either side, and she gently puffed the side jets to position them under the wide opening.

It was like the sim, and not.  The rumbling and the sensation was the same, but there was a spatial difference she realized immediately and she gave the launch jets a little more power to get them up and out of the cavern. 

Below her, she spotted the two other carriers lifting to follow, and then she was above the hatches and into the steady rain still falling around them.   She shifted sideways again, and rotated the carrier 360 degrees on the horizon, looking at the endless expanse of craggy lifeless land and then the equally endless expanse of ocean.

The two other carriers emerged from the cavern, and hovered, as the big panels slid shut.   Dev programmed into the coordinates Jess had given her, and then she turned. “Ready to fly.”

Jess was still watching her, with her arms crossed, and a bemused smile on her face. “Let’s go, then.” She said. “So far, you’re doing fine.”

Dev smiled back, then she turned and settled herself again.  She opened the controls for the propulsion engines and triggered them, waiting for them to engage forward motion before she shut down the launch jets and they started forward.

The rumble of the carrier grew and the engines spooled up,  increasing their speed as they left the cliffs behind and headed out over open water.    It was very dark, but the multiband sensors in her forward display let Dev see in front of her as though it were daylight.

She increased the speed, and then settled down to watch the readouts, tweaking the trim on the carrier until the outer rumble slowed, then faded, as they went through the speed of sound. 

“Jess.” The intercom crackled.

“Yes, Jason?” Jess leaned back in her chair. 

“You driving that thing?”

Jess chuckled. “Nope. I’m sitting in the back, about to start checking my guns.”

“Shit.”

Dev glanced behind her.  “I’m sorry if I’m causing him disturbance.” She returned her attention to the readouts, making a slight adjustment to their trim. 

“That was a compliment. Don’t’ worry about it.” Jess said.  “Okay, I’m going to check out the weapons systems. Don’t make any loud noise. I’ve got a jumpy trigger finger and I don’t want to shoot Jason’s butt from under him.”

Dev’s eyes widened a little, and she turned around again to look at Jess.

Jess grinned, and winked. “Keep your eyes on the road, kid.  We’re going to have us some fun.”

**

The long trip had given Dev ample opportunity to explore all the controls on the carrier and she was now reasonably comfortable with them, settled back in her chair as the water skimmed under them for mile after mile of ruffled white gray surface.

Jess had tuned the weapons systems that were rooted in her console, laser cannons mounted on all sides of the carrier along with two racks of flash bombs in eject tubes.  Now she was working with the pad at her station, keying in trims on the cannons and keeping an eye on their progress.

She hadn’t spoken much.  Dev occasionally glanced back at her, noting the absorbed expression as s she went about her tasks.  “Sixty minutes to edge of the storm.” She said, as Jess looked up and met her eyes.

“Good.”  Jess said. “Okay, here’s the plan.” She got up and came over to where Dev was sitting, kneeling at her side with her pad in her hand. “This is the layout of the base.”  She leaned her forearm on the arm of Dev’s chair and indicated a wiremap diagram.

Dev looked at it attentively.  There was a triangular block in the center, with a tracing over it outlining entrances and a landing field.  “Okay.”

“We go past the Gibralter outpost.”  Jess pointed at the wedge.  “That’s where they should pick us up and start chasing us from.” She moved the pad image along and pointed at a set of scattered islands. “That’s the Spanish Archipelego where most of the experimentation happens, and this is the control center at Andorra.” She indicated another large wedge.   “That’s our target.”

Dev nodded.

“The service port those other teams were going for is here.”  Jess swiped at the pad, enlarging the wedge and pointing out a ruggedly cut square depression just below the summit, obviously a landing pad.  “They’re pinned down here.” She swiveled the diagram and pointed to an uneven overhang in a narrow part of  a V shaped crack in the rock.

“Okay.” Dev agreed.

“So the tricky part is, we need to keep this thing in one piece while they chase us.” Jess said. “It’s got halfway decent shielding but it won’t take more than a couple direct hits, and being blown to molecules would ruin my day.”

“Yes.” Dev nodded. “Mine too.”

“So you need to let them get close enough to think they’re going to catch us, but not close enough for them to nail us. “ Jess said. “You can use these ridges here, and the edge of the cliffs  - they have to think we’re going for the service port.”

“Okay.” 

“So then we are.”  Jess said. “You’re going to put me down in that entrance and I’m going to leave them a calling card just for what they did to me the last time.”

Dev looked at her.  “I don’t remember you going over that in the plan.”

Jess smiled. “What I didn’t tell everyone they can’t tell anyone else.”  She said. “If Bain’s right, and there’s another leak inside Interforce, then they’ll expect me to just try and draw them off from the others, which means, they won’t really chase me. “

“Okay.” Dev nodded slowly.

“So then I can get into the service port, and give them something to really worry about. That will draw them off.”

“But they’ll come after you.”

“You’ll have to draw them off, then come back and pick me up.” Jess agreed. “It’ll be tight.”

“I’m sorry, you did realize I’ve never actually done this before.” Dev reminded her. “That wasn’t anything I ever even sim’d.”

Jess studied her face, at fairly close range. “So we’ll find out for sure if you’ve got the chops for it. Otherwise, chances are we’ll both croak.”

Dev studied her somberly. ‘That seems like a non optimal plan.”  She commented. “Are you sure you want to do it?”

Jess felt a prickle of surprise.  One thing Joshua had never done was question her.  Techs didn’t. They weren’t the strategic part of the deal.  What did this bio alt know about risk anyway? She looked back at Dev, taking a breath to tell her off when she was caught by the expression on her face.

Serious.  Intent.

Concerned.

She re-sounded the question in her head.  “Why wouldn’t I want to do it?” She countered.

“Well.” Dev glanced at her consoles, then back at jess. “If something happens and it doesn’t work, then both the other teams, and two with us, and you and I might not return.  Does this achieve your goals?”

Jess revised her anger.  “I’m gambling on the fact that theyre more interested in me than the others.  If I focus them on me, the rest of the teams have a much better chance of getting out of here in one piece.”

Dev considered that, and they sat in silence studying each other. “I will do the best I can to do what you ask then.” She finally said. “It would be a good thing if we all got out in one piece.” She swiveled around and put a hand to one ear. “BR27006.”

“Long range scan, one inbound.”  The soft speech sounded in her ear.   

“What is it?” Jess asked, since she’d left her commset back on her station.

“They say they are picking up a single signal inbound to us.” Dev said.  “Directly ahead.”

‘Interesting.” Jess scuttled back to her station and slid into her chair, swinging the commset up and onto her head.  She pulled the pad around and started tapping on it, her eyes flicking to the various screens and readouts on her own console.

Dev focused on the air ahead of them, still full of rain, and wisps of cloud they were traveling through.  She adjusted her scans and after a minute, they picked up the inbound signal also, a quick pan showing no identifying squirts that would mark them friend or otherwise.

It was coming fast, though.  The comp quickly tabulated a vector and she heard Jess behind her starting to activate the weapons systems.

Her harness snugged down and the inside lights, already fairly dim, went to ice blue. She saw two panels come active and she adjusted the power leads from the engines as they shunted energy to the weapons systems  Jess was now spooling up.

Dev took hold of the throttles and keyed off auto gen, holding the course by hand as she adjusted the side jets.  The incoming object was heading right for them, and now the scan was warning  distance. “Five minutes out.”

“Do you have an ident?”

“No.” Dev flexed her hands on the throttles. “Do you want me to evade it?”

“Hang on.” Jess got her hands into the triggering gloves and activated the targeting system.  At once, she had a heads up display of what Dev was seeing through the front windows, and side panels that showed her the sensors on the outside of the carrier.   “Let it come close enough for visual, then turn to port and come up over it.”

“Okay.”  Dev reviewed what she’d have to do, and nodded to herself.   She put the scan up on one monitor and watched it, seeing the blip getting larger and larger on the display. 

“Tac 1, Tac2.” Jess’s voice sounded over the intercom.   “We’re going to engage the incoming. Stand clear of my zenith please.”

“Done.”

“Clear.”

The male voices answering almost sounded alike, except one was a little deeper than the other.  Dev had met the other two techs at the dining hall and their reaction to her had been so unfriendly that Jess had felt she needed to say something to them about it.

Dev wasn’t sure that was a good thing.  She understood why they felt the way they did.  Certainly, she thought the two men and also the other agents had resented Jess’s words.   But she had to admit to herself she had gotten a certain odd sensation when it had happened that she still hadnt’ figured out.

“Okay, here it comes.”  Jess said. “Get ready.”

“Ready.” Dev replied.  She focused her attention on the forward window, trading the scans for realtime.  Ahead of her, she could see the heavy cloud bank they were flying under and she searched the edges of it for the first sight of the oncoming craft.

A faint flicker, then there it was. “Visual.” Dev said.  “Evading.” She took the craft into a bowing turn to the left, then hit the bottom jets and the starboard side ones, boosting the carrier up and over the intruder.

“Circle back.” Jess yelled.

Dev held the turn, then rotated the throttles and blended the jets to bring the carrier around in a tight turn, half on it’s side . She spotted the craft and dropped down to come alongside it, close enough now to see it clearly. “It’s another one of these.” She said in surprise.

“Fuckers.”  Jess slid around in her station. “Tac 1, Tac 2 loose empty, probably rigged. I’m going to take it out clear standby.”

“Clear!”

“Clear!” 

“Hold her steady.” Jess told Dev, as she brought the guns to bear and and fired at point blank range. As a stitching of fire creased the other carrier a bright pinprick of fire erupted near the engines. “Crap! Take her up! Hurry!”

Dev reacted instantly, kicking in the bottom jets and hauling the throttles up  at full power, booting the starboard thrusters and peeling the carrier off at a high G high speed arc that took them up into the clouds.

An explosion behind them rocked the air, rumbling through the carrier walls as they punched through the lower cloud layer, and they were between that and the upper one.  Dev hit the scan and located the other two carriers, and completed the turn, pitching down through the clouds again and sending out a location burst ahead of them on shortwave before she hauled the carrier into a tight turn to bring them back on course.

Her heart was hammering, a little.  She was almost at the point where she was overrunning the programming, the sims not quite up to replicating the events she found herself a part of. 
“Okay.”

“Erf.”

Dev glanced quickly back over her shoulder, spotting Jess righting herself in her chair.  “Are you all right?”

“Peachy.”  Jess put her commset back on. “Tac 1, Tac 2.  Stable?”

“Stable, confirmed kill.” Jason answered. “Nice. Sent a squirt.”

“Stable.” Elaine echoed.  “Close in scan showed that to be BR24004.”

Jess exhaled. “Crap.”

“Got that.” Jason replied. “So we know.”

“Damn it.” Jess muttered, clicking off comm and staring at the readouts.  “Damn it, damn it. They’re probably both gone. This is a goose chase. That was one of the two carriers that we’re after.”

Dev adjusted her controls again and put the carrier back on auto nav.  She half turned again in her seat and looked back at Jess.  “I’m sorry, but does that mean the people we’re going to try and retrieve are not as expected?”

Jess gazed quietly into nothing for a moment.  “They’re probably either dead or wish they were.”  She said. “It’s hard to get into one of these carriers if the people inside it don’t’ want you to.”  She glanced at the hatch. “There’s an integrity sensor and when it’s breached the gun systems implode.”

“Oh.”

“That carrier looked untouched.” Jess felt sad. “So they must have been let in, to tamper with it, and given codes.”

“Oh.” Dev’s voice took on a completely different tone. “You’re… “ She paused. “We’re not supposed to do that.” She corrected herself.  ‘Programming told me.”

“No, Dev. We’re not supposed to do that.”  Jess sighed.

“So are we continuing on this course?” Dev asked after a long moment’s silence.

Jess sat back in her seat. “Let me think about that for a bit, kid.” She let her head rest against the back of the chair. “Just keep us on track for now.”

Dev turned back around and ran her eye over her settings, then she peered out the forward window, seeing the bulky outline of the clouds overhead in the eerie glow of the infrared.  She checked the clock, and snugged her straps a bit tighter, wishing she had a drink of water somewhere around.

She heard Jess unstrapping and moving around, but she kept her eyes forward, watching the horizon for the first sign of land, wondering how this latest development was going to change the plan.

After about five minutes, Jess appeared at her elbow, handing over a sealed vacuum container and opening one of her own.  “If it were two carriers I just blew up, we’d have turned back already.” 

Dev examined the container, and opened it, finding a cold, slightly fizzy beverage inside. She took a sip of it, wondering if Jess had somehow heard what she was thinking. 

“But there’s still a team there.” Jess went on.  “And  I can’t just go back and leave them and not know.”

“Okay.” Dev nodded. “I’m sorry something happened to that other one.  I hope it isn’t as bad as you think it is.” She lifted the container. “Thank you for the drink. I needed one.”

Their eyes met briefly. “There’s a dispenser there, behind the scan console. It’s tucked in back, you can barely see it.”  Jess said. “Sorry. Should have told you when we came in. It’s not standard.” She was perched on the edge of the console, running the edge of her finger against the container.

Dev wasn’t sure what to do. She sipped her drink, watching her readouts and from the corner of her eye, watching the silent figure at her left hand side.

“Anyway.”  Jess straightened abruptly.  “So maybe we won’t drop.  At this point, I don’t know what to expect when we get there.” She went back to her station and sat down, setting the container in a swinging holder as she went back to looking at scan.

Dev put her own cup down and ran over the engine settings, making sure the power levels were where they needed to be and everything looked normal.

Normal.  Dev had to rub the bridge of her nose for a moment.  Normal?  She had gone from her classes in the crŹche to driving a half strange transport into a big fight in just a sun’s complete turn.  Her life could not possibly have changed more than it had in the last day.

Could not possibly.

“Thirty minutes to the edge of the storm. “ She told Jess. 

Jess put her pad away and drained her drink.  She got up and went to the drop pack, checking the harness carefully and running the device thorugh its diagnostic checks.  Little more than a set of small, tightly controlled air jets it was designed to let a person wearing it fall out of the lower hatch of a carrier and land without killing themselves.

Or that was the theory anyway.  Jess had several long healed bone breaks from using the thing, but it was safer and more controlled than either gliders or chutes and in an area like they were going into, full of cliffs and rocks, at least it would give her a chance at an upright landing.

She opened the harness up and got it clipped, ready for her to step into if the time came. Then she set up one of the big laser rifles in it’s holder on one side, and a grenade launcher on the other, balancing out the weight.

She made sure they were secured, then she sat back down in her seat and powered up the weapons systems again.

So what was the plan now?  Jess glanced up at the pilots seat.  Joshua would have asked a dozen times already, nervously messing with switches and toggles up there.   In contrast, Dev was quietly running her checks, and getting ready to take the ship off auto nav, her eyes never ceasing to move over the readouts watching them closely.

Very surprisingly competent.  Jess was uncomfortably stunned at the level of knowledge the crŹche had given this kid in a week, aware of just how long it would have taken a natural born person to get to this level.

On the one hand, at least she knew the kid probably wasn’t going to drive the bus into a cliff.  At least, not more so than any of the other techs.  ON the other hand, if they could do this with just one week’s lead time…

Holy shit.  Maybe that’s what Bain really wanted. Get rid of all the troublesome, stubborn artifacts in the company and replace them with cute, competent, smart kids.

Who he could trust.

Who he could order by the dozens if he wanted and not have to pay the family tender rights.

Jess stared at the back of Dev’s head.  Should she let that happen?  “Did you say you were the only one of you?” She asked, suddenly. 

Dev turned and looked back. “Yes.” She said. “I always sort of envied my crechemates who were part of a set group.  They always had people to talk to.”

Jess managed a brief smile. No,  there would be no instant conversion.  Even bio alts took the same years to grow up and mature as natural born did.   So even if Dev did work out, it would be… “How old are you?”

Dev’s nose wrinkled a little. “Seventeen and a half standard years.”  She admitted. “We’re not supposed to be assigned before eighteen, but this was a special request.”

A kid indeed.  Jess did the math.  Even if it did work out, she’d be either retired to a watchman’s role, or dead by then.  So what the hell.  “I wont’ tell anyone.” She said. “Let’s get in there, and see what we see.  Play it by ear.  I’d like to find out at least what happened to our four.”

Dev nodded.  “I”ll do my best.”

“I bet you will.” 

**

They were moments from the edge of the storm, and Dev throttled back to match the carrier’s speed with with the energy shot edge of clouds she could now clearly see on the horizon.  She checked the positioning estimate and saw the edge of the Gibraltar outpost on the far position on the grid.

That was where Jess said they would start chasing them.  She rechecked the sensors, moving from one view to another until she was sure they had a good view all around the shuttle so she could see things coming at them.

The scan would tell her positioning, but she knew enough about the systems to know that sometimes they weren’t one hundred percent correct.  It was good to be able to see for yourself too.  The sims did that  - more than once she’d requested a perimeter view and found obstacles, or once even a stalled shuttle that the scan hadn’t reported.

So she checked and rechecked, feeling a nervous ball start to form in her stomach as they crept closer. 

This was hard.  Dev wasn’t sure she was up to this task, it’s demands overrunning the amount of programming she had for it.   She knew what to do, but she also knew things would start happening so fast she would have no time to think about it.

“Okay.” Jess exhaled, bringing her systems live. “Let’s get ready to run the gauntlet, kid.”

Dev had no idea what a gauntlet was or why they would want to run one, but she settled her hands on the controls, put her boots on the thruster pedals and hit the toggle that would flood her comms with all the inputs of the carrier.

Instantly, the sound of the wind outside trickled in, and she could hear the thunder and crackle of the storm. The screens over her seat came alive with views around the carrier and she focused on the forward screen, where she knew the storm would roll over their target any minute.

Behind it, they were hidden. There was so much disruption in the atmosphere in the leading edge no scans could see past it.  They were coming in hard behind it, the two other carriers to their left and right, a few thousand feet to their rear.

Dev’s heart started beating faster.  She felt uncomfortable, her mouth was dry, and her hands felt shaky.   Her forward display was showing the nearby flashes and behind her, she heard Jess hitting contacts, making a strange low noise as she did so.

Disconcerting.

“Dev?”

“Yes?”

“Good luck.” Jess said, in a quiet tone.  “Just go with it.”

Dev had no idea what that meant. “Okay.” She agreed.  “Storm is over Gibralter, standy by for clearance.”

“Here we go.”  Jess brought the targeting systems online and started hunting.  “Tac 1, Tac 2. Soon as we clear for scan, split left. We meet at the drop zone.   Look for the remaining carrier, and report.”

“Understood.”  Jason said. “Meet you on the flip side.”

“Go.” Elaine added. “Luck.”

“Thanks.” Jess said, clicking off just as the storm cleared the rocky promontory and her scan came alive with signals. “They can see us.”

Dev sorted the incoming signals, almost feeling the scans bounce off the hull of the carrier as the storm rolled over the big rock and exposed it’s raw, rugged flank to them.  She could see lights peppered across it’s surface, and then a beacon flared out, heading towards them.

Instinctively, she pitched the carrier forward and nosed down,  and the beacon flashed past them. Dev saw lights start to flash on the rock face and then scan told her multiple targets were moving towards them and she hauled the throttles up and hit the engines to full.

Two dart shaped forms came whipping towards them.  Dev pitched the carrier to bring the nose right between the attackers,  trying not to flinch as a barrage of laser fire came right at them.

A bare second later, return fire flashed past in her peripheral vision and the two darts split to either side, and she arched between them, seeing another line of darts now heading their way.

“Draw them to the right.” Jess said. “Get behind the rock then go down to the deck. The waves’ll confuse em.”

Dev waited for the line to come into range, then she pitched down, then hard right as a hail of hard point missiles rattled against the hull.

“Bastards.”  Jess twitched her fingers, keeping on scope as the carrier turned half on it’s side, and the projectiles thumped against the well shielded bottom.  The gyros kept pace with the motion though and she let loose a burst of laser pulses that streaked against the gray sky and wrote a stitching of fire across one of the darts.

It blossomed into fire and the machine headed for the water, a small ball heading the other direction marking the pilot’s ejection.

Jess tracked the ball, and squeezed off a shot just as her world turned up side down as the carrier did, before it just as quickly rolled around right side up and then she was under at least five G’s as they went into a steep climb.

Targets, targets.  Warning bells chimed in her ears and she focused on her task, firing long, ripping bursts at the dozens now of ships heading toward them.

Laser fire was everywhere, blossoming to the right and to the left, and blanking scan briefly  as the carrier dodged the shots. 

She was heartened, by the reaction. The defenders hadn’t been there waiting for her, she’d had a good ten minutes inbound before they reacted. That could only be a good sign.  She now capped off the comms, putting the intercom between her and the other two carriers on battle silence., knowing they would be doing the same.  “Go go go.”

Dev didn’t take a second to look back. She was fully engaged in figuring out how to get out of the way of the dozens of ships chasing them, and keeping the carrier in constant erratic motion to dodge the bolts headed their way.

It was scary.   She tried to keep them all in view, her heart thumping hard, seeing a group of six heading her way that triggered, suddenly a burst of programming.   Something told her about that group, and about that formation and as she pitched away from them she saw them split apart.

She knew, somehow, that they were going to encircle her.   She focused on the six, and saw them curving around, and she saw the two heading for the waves to cut off an escape that way.   She rolled the carrior and dodged a blinding flash of laser fire then she caught sight of three of the darts closing in on her.

A blast hit them on the left side. She felt the shudder and two red alerts started flashing on the board.  Another flash went to portside, and then she twisted the throttles, kicking the side thrusters hard as she slid under one of the darts and the screens momentarily blacked out, as the rumble of counterfire hit at such close quarters it nearly fried the scans.

Another alarm went off as she turned in the other direction, then she pitched the nose down and skimmed past one of the lower guards so close the dart peeled off and dropped into a spiral to avoid hitting them.

Fire erupted all around them. Dev was totally unsure if it was against them or from them, the flares were so vivid it was causing sparkles in her own eyes.   She pushed the throttles forward and dove for the waves, seeing them white and stark against the rock as the gray light grew around them.

 She saw one of the darts cross her path, and she turned the carrier onto it’s side as the dart fired at point blank range, their bottom armor rumbling as it absorbed the energy, and the vessel shuddered again as their own guns cut loose.

There was an explosion so close to them they lurched sideways in midflight, and she righted their flying angle and looked frantically around.  For a moment, they were in the clear and she saw a ledge projecting out from the big rock and she aimed for it, intending to duck under it and curve along the  rock.

She could see a sudden flare of lights along the granite surface, and scan erupted as the darts who had been diving  at them diverted and streaked for the wall to get between her and it.

She heard Jess laugh behind her, but she wasn’t really sure why.   She dodged a spinning dart heading for the waves and reached the ledge moments before the rest of them, turning alongside it and increasing speed as she felt Jess let loose with the guns in a long, continuous, rumbling barrage.

The rumble was replaced with a larger one and all of a sudden the darts were heading away from her, and the rock and she had a clear shot around the edge of the promontory. 

“Faster.”  Jess commented. “Got a boom coming behind us.”

A what?  Dev obediently pushed the throttles forward and kpt as close to the rock as she could, sensing a motion in the air behind them. She checked the rear sensors and her eyes nearly came out of her head when she saw a fireball exploding out from under the ledge.

She hauled up on the controls and shoved the throttles forward again to full speed, hearing the imminent collision alerts and feeling the buffeting as the advance wave of the explosion caught them and she felt the carrier start to tumble.

She went with the motion shoving hard on the side thrusters to keep them away from the rocks as she fought to regain control over the carrier.     The two big engines flared, and she was almost deaf from the alarms and the sound of impacts against the hull.  

No control.  She abruptly cut the engines and felt the carrier drop out of the rampaging explosion and plummet for the surface of the water as the energy flared over their heads.

“Dev?”

“Yes?”

“Didn’t mean to show you the ocean this soon.”  Jess’s voice sounded concerned.

“Oh.”

Dev was aware of the approaching surface, and she flared the side and bottom jets, evening out the flight of the carrier before she cut the mains in again so close to the waves they washed the bottom hull.

Then they were past Gibralter, and in free air again.  Dev gained altitude and started running checks, watching the scan reports for attackers.  “Where are they?”

“Keep moving!” Jess called out. “Head for Alterra.”

Dev started to respond to all the alarms, seeing clear scan for the moment.  She shut off all the emergency alerts, starting some of the programs that would repair what could be repaired inflight.  The systems started shunting power, whispers in her ear reporting damage and status.

They had taken damage in the rear shielding, and three of the external sensors were gone giving her little view on the port side.  The forward sensors cleared after a repair, and she looked out to see a gray lit day and a stretch of ruffled white gray water with a few  lumps of island rising in the mist.

Her heartbeat settled a little, as she realized she’d gotten through her very first air battle.   “Wow.”

She heard Jess release her harness behind her and after a moment, she felt a hand on her shoulder.  With a start, she half turned and looked up, blinking a little sweat out of her eyes.  “Yes?”

Jess smiled at her. “Good job.”

Dev smiled tentatively back.

Jess reset some triggers and then retrieved another two of the drink containers, handing one over to Dev before she returned to her own chair.  

Dev set the container into it’s swivel and wiped her damp hair back off her brow.   She could imagine she still felt the pressure against her shoulder of Jess’s fingers and gave herself a moment, just a small one, to savor this bit of accomplishment.

Then she went back to the boards, continuing the process of resetting alarms and assessing damage. They were running at top speed a thousand feet over the waves and she could see fog rising from the water everywhere, swirling behind them as their exhaust stirred it.

It was eerie, and a little beautiful. 

“They’ll be waiting for us at Alterra.”  Jess said.  “We need to make this fast.  I’m feeding you up the coordinates to the science center.  Head right for it.”  She keyed something into her pad.  “Make em believe we’re going to ram this thing right into entrance.”

“Okay.” Dev said. “Are we actually going to do that?”

“No, Dev. Dying’s not on my schedule today.”  Jess chuckled a little. “Just make them think we are. Then go somewhere else.”

Go somewhere else.  Dev turned and shook her head a little.  She saw the coordinates plot on her navigation grid and she flexed her hands, putting them back on the controls and taking off the auto nav. 

At the edge of the grid she could see the Alterra escarpment, and as she did, she saw a set of blinking lights erupt from it. “Is that them?”

“Yes,”  Jess slammed back into her seat and pulled her controls around.  “Looks like they spotted us.”

The lights multiplied and doubled, tripled, filling the screen with alerts and causing the scan to erupt.  “There’s a lot of them.”

“Yup.”

Dev could see them coming in from all directions.   “This is going to be difficult.”

“Only hard things are worth doing, kid.”  Jess said. “Remember that.”

Dev stared at the oncoming armada.  “Okay.” She shifted her hands on the controls. “I will try to remember that.”

“Good.” Jess tightened her harness and took a deep breath.   She got herself set and made live the guns, checking the power reserves and finding them acceptable.  

She hoped her diversion would let Elaine and Jason check the place where they’d last seen the other two teams.  She had no idea what they would find given the carrier she’d blown up.  But they knew where to look and they knew what to do with what they found.

She checked the time, and checked her plan grid.   Then she started the targeting systems and let the targets flood her consciousness. 

There were a lot.   She lined up the first six and launched a blast on alternating forward guns, glad the carrier’s weapon systems had a slightly longer range than their enemy’s.  She could see them forming into attack circles and one of them dove right for them.

In a heartbeat, they were in the center of a circle of death.  The enemy ships matched synch with them and started firing, and Jess fired back, then found herself inverting as the carrier did a barrel roll and the lasers rotated with the ship, nailing at least part of all of the enemy fighters.

Then they were through that bunch and going nose on to a second, when two of that group dove right at them.

Jess fired the forward guns and as they flashed by she grabbed a breath as she inverted again and went under heavy G as the carrier turned on it’s tail and her fire went right up the tailpipes of the retreating enemy ships and blew them out of the sky.

Holy crap.  

Still upside down, Jess found herself  launching a plasma bomb towards a cluster of fighters and then just before she started getting lightheaded they were right way up and she was holding her triggers down on the forward guns as they went full speed through enemy lines.

Dev was concentrating as hard as she could.   She was aware of the strain on the engines under her control,  but she used all the power she had to keep the carrier on a constantly shifting course as the air around her was filled with enemy fire.

Some was hitting the carrier.  She had alarms going off again.   The forward screen was almost constantly whitewashed with their own return guns as Jess blasted a path for them through the enemy ships.

The carrier was larger than the defenders, and better armored.  The defenders were more agile and faster. 

Dev spotted the entrance to the science center, a flat platform halfway up the escarpment with thick  barracades in front of it.  The door looked like it was big, and metal, and pretty much the same as the ones in the Interforce facility.

She spotted another wheel of figures fit themselves around her and she did another barrel roll, then her eyes widened as she came out of the inversion right into the path of a larger, more well armored craft.

She could see the laser cannons on top of it so she sent the carrier almost straight down, flinching a little as two of the enemy crashed into each other over her head.   She pulled up in a high G arc with all her engines firing, gritting her teeth against the pressure as she came up just under the bigger craft, hearing Jess let loose with the upper guns on it.

‘Nice!” Jess yelled.

Dev managed a brief grin as she dove for the waves again, seeing huge breaking waves below her.  She could feel the impacts on the hull of fire and a quick glance at the monitors showed a dozen darts coming after her all shooting  continuously.

Alarms blared.

Dev aimed right for the sea, hearing the mounting damage in her commsat. She knew she had to get out of range of them before the lasers blew the carrier apart.

Jess was firing the rear guns.  “Not much juice left!” She yelled.

Dev pulled the nose up just as they reached sea level as a huge breaker rolled up right into her path. She shot down the center of it, taking the carrier right through the huge phosphorescent tube of water as Jess let out a shout of surprise.

They shot out the other end of the tube and Dev blinked as the salt wash cleared and they were moments away from the escarpment.

She heard a huge disruption behind her.   But there was no time to wonder what it was as she fought to control her craft and get the nose up before they went headlong into the rock face.

By a whisper they didn’t.  She shot up the face of the cliff as Jess launched plasma bombs in a thumping salvo against it.   She held the carrier in it’s straight up climb until they shot up over the top of it and right into the cloud layer just above.

A blue light was flashing hard on the comms console.  Dev didn’t have time to look at it though. She arched the carrier over as they reached an altitude almost too high for the jets and curved back over into level flight.

Her heart was absolutely racing.  She could feel shivers going up and down her spine and she was alternately feeling flushed and chilled, panting through her open mouth as she caught her breath.

“Keep going!”  Jess yelled. “Go go go! They got them! We did it!!”

Dev stared in confusion at the console. “What?”

“The light.” Jess pointed. “That’s an ultraviolet squirt from Jason. They got them.  Get out of here! We did it!”

Dev looked around, and checked the scan, and found only fading targets, blips they were leaving behind as they raced between the cloud layers back in the direction they came.  “W.. why aren’t they chasing us” She asked.  “Where did they go?”

Jess laughed. “Don’t look a gift horse in the ass, Dev. Just fly.”

Dev wiped her brow and let out a long exhale, chills still running up and down her spine.  “Wow.”  She said. “That was crazy.”

Jess chuckled again.

“But I liked it.” Dev said, unexpectedly.  “I really did.” She half turned in her chair and looked at Jess. “It was fun.”

Jess peered at her from behind her targeting console, seeing the intense sparkle in her pilot’s eyes. “Hm.’ She grunted softly. “We may just have to keep you.”

“Excuse me?” Dev leaned towards her. “Did you say something?”

Jess smiled. “Take us home, Dev.” She said. “Before this thing falls apart.” She leaned back as the battered craft rumbled through the thick, moist air.  “There’s a lot more work to do.”

**

Continued in Part 6