Partners

Part 5

They were the last ship back.   Dev held the carrier, limping in on one engine, steady as she watched the recovered vessel with it’s four passengers and the two that had gone with them sink through the wide opening into the landing bay.

It was still raining.  But it was a steady unrelenting drizzle and the winds had died down, allowing Dev to relax as she waited.  

Jess was in her seat, tapping furiously on her consoles and pad, occasionally chuckling to herself.   She seemed to be in a very good mood, and Dev cautiously evaluated the idea that she’d done okay in their mission.

Her first one.  She had, at least, brought them both back in one piece if the carrier wasn’t, and since they’d gotten the other teams back, she figured the whole thing might have been something of a success.

Not too bad, for someone who had only driven a sim before now.  Dev glanced at her reflection in the curved forward shield,  noting her sweat dampened hair.  She raked it back and settled her hands on the controls again, the feeling of the throttles against her palms starting to become comfortably familiar.

She moved the carrier forward, tilting the nose down a little with a boost on the landing jets to give her a good view of the bay.  She could see clear airspace and she leveled the craft, then increased the lower jets and cut off her main engines.

The carrier drifted downward,  clearing the bay opening and settling lower and lower into the vast cavern.   “BR27006” She spoke softly into the comms  “Requesting landing pad.”

The comm crackled immediately. “BR27006,  landing pad 82 cleared for your approach.”

Dev located the spot, marked with big, easily read numbers and she adjusted the side jets to move them over, hovering above the numbers before she cut power to the landing jets and they settled slowly into place.

There was a team waiting. She recognized a group of Ceebees, in pale orange jumpsuits with kits and hoses in their hands and as soon as she cut power to the drive systems, they bolted forward towards the carrier.

Two sprayed the outside down with something. “What is that?”

“Sealant.”  Jess said, still slouched in her seat.  “In case we popped a line. Don’t want to blast anyone with anything.”   She now had her hands folded over her stomach and was just relaxing.   “When they make the hookup, send the logs and the flight recorder detail over to storage.”

Dev nodded. “Yes.” She had been waiting, in fact, for specifically that.  She saw a light come on midway up the console, and ran her fingers over the keys, accepting the connection and setting up the synch. 

Another light, and she shut down internal power, and they went into pitch darkness for a few seconds before the external connection kicked in and the lights came back on, along with internal ventilation now being supplied from the dock.

It felt good, the air was cool and fresh and not full of half baked sealant.  Dev blinked a little, and unbuckled her harness as she turned her seat around and watched the webbing retract.

“So.” Jess regarded her.  “NM-Dev-1, you can pilot a carrier.”

“Yes.” Dev smiled. “Apparently so.”

“Where’d you pick up all the upside down stuff?” Jess asked. “I’m betting the other side’s never seen one of these do that before cause I sure haven’t.”

Upside down?  Dev frowned a little, and her head tilted to one side. “You mean this?” She lifted one hand and tilted it back and forth.

“I mean when you were flying with the bottom of this thing pointed skyward.” Jess explained.

“Oh.”  Dev nodded. “In space… “She pointed upward. “In the crŹche, you get to train in a null grav sim for some of this. It’s all.. um.” She considered. “There’s no right or wrong side up.  You learn in all dimensions.”

Jess studied her face intently for a long moment. “Interesting.” She said, finally.   “Well, I’ll tell you what, Dev.  You did as well or better as anyone I’ve ever seen driving this bus. “

“Are you surprised?”

“Yes.” Jess nodded.

“Me too.” Dev replied, with an almost impish grin.  “Sims are one thing, but real is different.  This was very difficult.”  She said. “Mostly because I didn’t have any programming on what to do. They don’t give you programs to know what to do when you are flying at a mountain with twenty planes chasing you and shooting at you.”

“Ah.” Jess murmured. “So you just did that on instinct.”

Dev considered that carefully.  “I’m not sure what that means.”

“You didn’t think about what to do.” Jess clarified. “You just reacted. You just did it.”

Dev considered again, then nodded. She half turned as the comm crackled, reaching over to accept a key.

“BR27006, you are cleared for exit.  Systems stable, please release locks and proceed to debrief.”  A stolid male voice intoned.   “Agent Drake,  Mr Bain’s compliments.”

“Hah.” Jess stood up and stretched. “C’mon. Let’s get the brain hosing out of the way and go get a drink. We earned it.” She waved Dev forward, and keyed the hatch, waiting a moment as it unsealed and popped outward, swinging clear to let them out of the craft. 

She stepped out and down to the ground, as two bio alt techs edged past her, carrying toolkits.   She waited for Dev to follow her, not missing the looks of the other bio alts as she left the carrier past them.

Mixture of envy and awe.  Jess was intrigued, but she put it aside as she turned to regard her craft.  Always a little battered by weather and battle, this time it looked like the carrier had been driven right through that big storm front and then right into the side of the mountain they were currently standing inside.  “Shitcakes.”

Dev turned and looked, her eyes getting big and round. “Wow.”

Every inch of the craft was scored by fire, it’s outside a dark and creased dappled gray.  One of the external engine pods was sliced through, dripping lurid green fluid on the ground.  There was a huge rent right along the side, it’s end just shy of the curve of the nose where Dev had been seated.

A man came up next to Jess, dressed in a deep orange suit. “Holy shit, Drake. What the hell did you do to that thing?”

Jess glanced at him, bemused. “You should see what the other guy looks like.” She said. “Sorry, Clint.  Looks like a total overhaul.”

The man snorted, then seemed to notice Dev for the first time. “Who’s this?”

“This is Dev.”  Jess supplied. “She’s my p.. pilot.”  She felt her tongue stutter, and felt a pang.   “Wait till you see the logs.”

Clint was regarding Dev thoughtfully. “Oh, yeah. I heard about that.” He said. “Nice to meet you.” He extended a hand.  “Hope you don’t do this everytime. Too much work.”

Dev politely shook his hand. “I’ll try not to.” She said. “They’re very sturdy pieces of equipment.”

Clint beamed.

Jess sighed. “The way to his heart is through a hydraulic tube c’mon.” She touched Dev’s sleeve. “They’re waiting for us in debrief.”

They walked along the marked floor, as techs and support people swarmed around them, and the other three carriers who had just come in.   The rest of the crews had already gone down the tunnel, so Jess wasted no more time and turned off the rocky floor into a tall, scan equipped deep blue hallway.

She felt the tickle as she passed through, and saw Dev blink a little. “You feel that?”

Dev looked at her. “Yes. The scan, you mean?”

“Yeah.” Jess nodded. “That’s all security.  You have to be coded to go through. If you’re not, you get enough of a blast to take you out when you’re inside. Some places, like central command, you get more than that.”

“Oh.”

“I”ll show you the grid when we get back to quarters. We’re coded everywhere, but not everyone is. Good to know if you’re walking with someone outside ops.”

“I see.”

Jess led the way towards a closed automatic door, and put her hand on the pad outside it.  “Drake, J, and NM-Dev-1 for debrief.”

The pad glowed, then the door opened, and they went in.   “Gotta show you the rec, and your rad area too.” Jess commented, as they went through another door and into a larger room, this one half full of people.  “But we’ll get a drink first.”

Dev was content to follow along, listening to Jess’s ramblings.  She considered them, cautiously optimistic that they seemed to be trending towards a tendency to let her stay, at least for a little while. 

She recognized Stephen Bock in the room, and the four agents they’d gone with, and four people she didn’t know, along with the man with the gun, Bain.   She stopped as Jess did, and she watched Jess spread her arms out as they all started making noises at her.

Very strange.  But Jess looked pleased, so she supposed it was all right.  She followed Jess over to two open chairs and they sat down next to each other.   She looked over at the man wit the gun, surprised to find him smiling at her.

She smiled back.

“Well.”  Bain leaned back.  “Welcome back, you four.” He looked at the four people Dev didin’t know. “None the worse for wear I see.”

“Was a little tough sir.”  Sandy Tucker responded. “Me and Roger tried to make our own diversion with our boat, but they didn’t buy it.  We thought we were going to have to try and climb out when all of a sudden they all took  off.”

‘Right.” Jason said. “By the time we crested over the ridge just east of them, Jess, the guards all hauled ass and it was easy peasy getting to them and getting out. They didn’t even leave a comms watch.” He glanced at Dev then back at Jess. “What the hell did you do to draw them off?”

‘We can roll the flight recorder.” Jess said. “Faster that way than for me to tell it.”  She eyed Sandy. “I guess you know I blew your boat up.”

Sandy nodded. “Jase said.” She looked at the tall, very muscular man next to her. “Mike figured that might happen.  We didn’t really have any way of broadcasting it wasn’t rigged, or that you’d believe it if we did.”

The tall man grunted. “Fuckers. They knew we were coming , Jess.” He looked across the table. “We came in polar, and we just cleared Gibralter and they were on us. Chased us to the ridge and we got under cover – blasted the ones who had the guts to come at us, but we were stuck there.”

“Saw you on scan.” Jason said.  “It was a bad plan to start with.”

Both Mike and Sandy looked uncomfortable.  “Well, you made your view clear.” Mike said, stiffly.

Bain had been watching and listening, and now he cleared his throat. “He was right.” He said, in a mild tone.  “It was a damn fool idea, and now we had to put three teams at risk just to get us back to square one.”

Mike looked sullenly at him.

“What about you?” Sandy suddenly asked, looking at Jess. “I thought you were out.  Didn’t you stand on your pride about that?” She pointed at Dev.  “Now you’re here? It’s here? What’s the deal?”

Bain cleared his throat again. “Agent Drake was thoughtful enough to agree to my request that she remain with us.”  He said.  “I’m quite gratified. “ He looked at Jess. “And how is the experiment going, Agent Drake?”

Jess remained expressionless. “I’ll let the flight recorder speak for itself.” She remarked. “But I’ll be more than glad to continue with it.”  She folded her hands on the table.   “I like the results so far.”

Dev’s ears perked.  That sounded like a positive thing, since she strongly suspected she was the experiment in question.

“Hmm. Indeed.”  Bain’s eyes twinkled a little.  “Then by all means, let’s see this recorder.”  He nodded at Stephen, who was sitting in silence, just watching everyone. “Mr. Bock. Please proceed.”

Stephen got up and went to the console, triggering the big display in the back of the room. The panels slid open, and he adjusted the room lights, then keyed in the recording that Dev had sent from the carrier. “Here we go, sir.”

He sat down as the scene recorder rolled, presenting a view from all the carrier’s sensors overlayed to produce an almost three dimensional presentation.   One one corner was a mission clock, and on the other a base readout of the carrier’s systems.

They heard Dev’s voice quietly asking for flight access, then the recorder started forward.

“Go to time lock 1140 loc if you want to see the other carrier blown out.” Jess said. “And 1150 loc if you want to see the exciting stuff.”

Bock looked at  Bain, who nodded. He got up and keyed in the change, and suddenly the carrier was accelerating towards the hulk of Gibralter and the defender’s beacons flared. 

It didn’t really take that long. Dev was a little surprised at how fast it all went once it started. When she’d been doing it, it seemed a lot longer.   She relived the dives and rolls, nodding a little as the carrier  wove it’s way through the enemy, rolling over and over as it darted between defenders and through arcs of fire.

“Holy shit.”  Sandy said, after a few minutes utter silence.

Jess sat back in her seat and smiled. She could see Bain’s face, and even his craggy old eyes were wide and astonished, as they blasted past Gibralter and she laid a line of fire inside their control center.   Then they were past, and she could feel her heart start accelerating as she relived their one team attack on the heavily defended science center.

“Oh my go… whoa!”  Jason yelped, as the carrier dove for the waves.

Diving, diving, the alarms going off, redlining the carrier with all that evident on the screen as they pulled out and into that damn rolling wave at the very last minute, the enemy behind them splashing into the water unable to stop.

Wild.

Then she sat back, remembering the incredible pull of gravity on her body and the ache still in her arms as she kept firing, all the way up the escarpment and over the top into the clouds in one long, screaming, rumbling run that ended in gray silence and the bleeting of overworked systems.

“Holy shit.” Sandy said, again.

“That’s about it.” Jess said, in as normal a voice as she could muster. “The rest you know.”

The lights came up a little as Stephen cut the replay off, and they all turned around and stared at the two women seated at the end of the table.

Even Bain, his customary dismissive, offhand faćade dropped like a rock off the cliff, his jaw hanging slightly open.

Jess smiled briefly.  “Can we get the one by ones done? I owe my pilot here a drink.” She jerked her head in Dev’s direction. “And as a matter of fact, I think you all do too.”

Dev was absolutely not sure what response would be appropriate, so she decided not to have any at all. She remained silent, her hands folded on the table, a mild look on her face as the rest of the group stared at her.

“Not bad for her first flight, huh?”  Jess finally said.

Bain relaxed into his seat, and exhaled. “Indeed.”  He commented. “Been a very educational day.”

**

Dev was content to stick to Jess’s side as they all entered a wide, low room with comfortable looking chairs.  She took a seat next to Jess  as she listened to the rest of them chatter, glad to be able to participate in what was evidently a positive experience.

The other agents and techs ignored her.  That was all right, from her perspective.  She was satisfied that Jess and the man with the gun were happy with her and she was looking forward to the moment when she could go and get in the wet thing and maybe have a chance to read a page or two of her book.

She wondered if she could find Doctor Dan, and ask him what he thought about the mission.  She knew a lot of the programming she’d been given was his, and she was curious if it had turned out as he’d expected.

“Dev?”

Dev looked up. “Yes?”   She reached up in reflex and took the glass she was being handed, her eyes darting to Jess’s face in question.  “Thank you.”

“You ever had booze?”  Jess inquired as she watched her sip at the contents.

Dev blinked and moved the glass away. The drink was a very strange mixture of fruits and something that fizzed and something else that burned as she swallowed.  “If that’s what this is, then definitely not.”

Jess chuckled. 

“So, how far are you going to take this?” Sandy asked, indicating Dev.  “Obviously you’re sucking up to Bain but for how long?”

“Are you really that much of an asshole?”  Jess responded. 

“Takes one to know one.” Sandy shrugged.

“Then I’m going to take this all the way.” Jess steadily met her gaze. “Dev can go as far as she’s able in this place as far as I’m concerned.” She leaned back in her chair and extended her long legs out. “And at least I’m not sucking up to someone who got his brains blown out for being a moron like you were.”

“Hey c’mon.”  Jason gave them both a look. “We just had a successful mission here.  Let’s not act like jerks.”

“That was Bricker’s idea!” Mike pointed at Dev.

“She.”  Jess corrected him. “Was Bricker’s idea.  But no one here can say why.”  She took a swallow of her drink.  “Bain’s reason for wanting her here might be a whole other thing.”

“Bricker just didn’t buy into your bullshit mystique.”  Sandy was unrepentant.  “At least I don’t pretend to like you, Jess, or kiss your ass for any reason unlike everyone else apparently.”

Dev was listening, her head swiveling to regard each speaker. At this last, she turned and looked at Jess, then scanning down her long form to her seat, then back up to her face. Her brow creased in confusion.  “You have a lot of unusual customs.” She commented mildly.  “Programming definitely didn’t cover that one.”

Jess started laughing, and Jason did too, and after a long, frozen moment the rest of them reluctantly started to chuckle.

“Shit, it.. “  Mike caught Jess’s sharp eye.  “She’s got a sense of fucking humor. “ He grudgingly conceded.

“Look.” Jess said. “She’s a one off.  Just go with the program.”   She leaned her arm on the chair arm next to Dev’s.  “So much shit’s going down right now who knows how it’s all going to end up. “

“One off?”  Mike asked warily.

“I’m an experimental set.” Dev spoke directly to him.  “I don’t have crŹche mates.”

All of the agents in the group seemed to relax just a little. 

“There isn’t a dozen of her back there waiting to take over.” Jess clarified.  “So chill out.  Go yell at Bain if you want to for her being here. It’s not her fault.”

Dev took a drink from her glass.  She was not at all sure if she liked it, but everyone else seemed to so she was willing to give it a try. 

It was very strange and a little difficult being here with all the other people. 

The outer door opened and Stephen Bock came in. He stopped to grab a drink from the tray that had been set up near the grouping of chairs they were in, and sat down in an empty one.  “So.” He looked at them. “You all done sniping at Jess and being rude to her tech?”

“Fuck you Stephen.”  Sandy said. 

‘You want to be put on report for that?” Stephen asked.  “I had to put up with your attitude when I was an agent, Sandra.  I don’t have to now.”

“You don’t have the balls.”

“I do.” Stephen clicked his commset. “Please send a recorder down here from ops.”  He said. “I have a disciplinary action to execute.”

Sandy stared at him. “You bastard.”

“Guess it’s different now that your sugar daddy got his head blown off, huh?”  Jason produced a brief smile.  “We all know that wasn’t his ass you were kissing.”

“You all can go to hell.” Sandy got up, and her partner Todd did too. He hadn’t said a word the entire time they’d been in the room, and followed her in equal silence as she left the lounge.

“We’re going to go get cleaned up.” Mike also stood.  “C’mon Nappy.”  He glanced at Jess. “Thanks, Jess.  All bullshit aside.” He extended his big, muscled hand. “You put it out there for us.”

Jess returned the clasp, then released it. “Anytime.”

“Anyway.” Stephen looked tired.  He looked over at Jess, who was sitting next to him. “Bain wants to see you in a bout an hour.” He said.  “We’ve gotten some interesting intelligence he want to review with you.”

Jess nodded. “I’m going to go grab some grub then.” She stood up. “Interested, Dev?”

“Yes.” Dev responded immediately. “That would be nice.” She put her cup down on the tray and stepped aside, as Jess came around her chair and headed for the door.

“We’ll go too.”  Jason stood up. “Been a long time since breakfast.  Stephen? You up for chow? Been a damn long day.”

They walked together through the hallways towards the dining hall, as Stephen came along with them.   Dev  stuck close to Jess, but then, out of the corner of her eye she saw Doctor Dan come out of a doorway and spot her.

His eyes lit up. He crossed the hallway and intercepted them, the group slowing as he approached and watching him warily.  “Congratulations.” He nodded at them, then turned to Dev.  “Excuse us.” 

The group moved on, leaving them behind.   Dev did however, catch Jess looking back at her, the tall woman’s eyebrows slightly lifted. “I’ll be right there.” She said, with a little half wave.

Jess waved back, and pointed at the dining hall then ducked inside.

Dev turned back around. “Hello, Doctor Dan.”

“Hello, Dev.” Doctor Dan leaned forward and gave her a hug. “I just wanted to take a minute to congratulate you for your work today.”

Dev smiled.  “It was difficult.”

“I just bet it was.” Doctor Dan chuckled. “I saw the recorder.  You did an amazing job for your first flight.”  He put both hands on her shoulders.  “Really good, Dev.  Everyone thinks so.”

Dev glanced at the now dissappeeard group. “I don’t’ think everyone does, Doctor Dan, but the person I was the pilot for was very pleased with me, I believe.”

Doctor Dan’s gray eyes warmed as he looked at her. “Jess is very pleased with you.” He said. “And she’s got a good reason to be.  You achieved a very significant thing together.”  He glanced casually around, but they were alone in the hall. “I’ll be going back to the crŹche tomorrow, Dev.”

“I won’t be?”  Dev felt a little, excited thump in her chest. 

“No, you’re staying here.” He squeezed her shoulders. “Do your best.” He told her. “You can trust Jess Drake, and you can trust Alex Bain.”

Dev nodded.  “You trust them.”

“I would trust Alex with my life, and have.”  Doctor Dan said, in a serious tone. “And you can too, but you can also trust Jess, and I hope she comes to trust you.”

Dev hesitated, then she nodded again.  “I hope she does.”  She said. “I want to do good work for her.” She watched Doctor Dan’s face, as he smiled gently.  “People here sometimes aren’t nice.”

“I know.”  Doctor Dan.  “Be strong, Dev.  In the end, people who try to hurt people like you, end up only hurting themselves. “ He let his hands drop. “I have sent you my personal comms link to your quarters. Use it if you need to. If you just want to talk or tell me something, do it.”

Dev smiled. “I will.” She said. “Thank you for everything, Doctor Dan. I’ll do my best here.”

“I know you will.” Doctor Dan gave her another hug. “Go get some food.  Is that okay for you  so far?”

“It’s fine.” Dev said. “Will you come eat with us?”

He shook his head. “I think I will make your new colleagues very uncomfortable.” He patted her back. “I’ll be by to say goodbye before I leave.  Go on now.”

Dev clasped his hand and released it, then she turned and headed for the dining hall, pausing as the scan picked up her badge and opened the door as she approached.  

Once it closed, she took a breath and released it. 

Then she looked around and spotted Jess, who was standing in the line.   She quickly went over to join her, coming to stand next to her in front of the food dispenser.

“Your buddy give you a pat on the back?”  Jess asked.

“Doctor Dan?  Yes. He’s going home tomorrow.” Dev replied. “He wanted to tell me that, and compliment me on my work.”

Jess punched in two sets of codes. “So he was saying goodbye?”

“Something like that, yes.” Dev smiled briefly.  “So I suppose I’m staying.”

“Oh yeah, you’re staying.”  Jess pushed a tray at her. “Later on I’ll show you around the place the right way.”   She picked up the tray and headed for a large table where the others were sitting.   She took a seat and Dev took one beside her. 

‘Lot of people coming in.”  Jason said, glancing around. “All the prep people for the new class.”  He forked up some of his fish.  “Thought for a few days they’d cancel it.”

“Yeah.” Elaine agreed. “Brent, don’t you know one of the newbies?” She looked at the tech, a man of middling height and very black hair.   “I thought you said you did”

Brent nodded. “Cousin of mine.” He admitted.  “I tried to talk him out of it but the jackass didn’t listen.”

Dev listened politely, as she chewed. The tray held some different things than last time, a crispy cake she liked very much,  some chewy protein she guessed was probably fish, and some things in hard shells, which tasted salty.

“So. Um. Dev.”

Dev swallowed and looked up at Elaine, with a start of surprise. “Yes?”

The agent leaned against the table. “I’ve always wanted to ask this. What the hell is the collar for?”

“Oh.”  Dev put her fork down. “It’s a programming interface.” She said.  “It gets installed right after you mostly finish growing, when you start to get skills.”

“Ah huh.” Elaine said. “So, it’s a plug?”

“Not really.” Dev unsealed the neck of her suit and peeled it down low enough to expose the collar. “There are leads that the programming system connects to but then there are leads go up through the back of your neck here..” She touched the back of her head.  “And into your cortex.”

“They put wires in your brain?”  Elaine said, after a pause.

“Yes.” Dev agreed. “It’s how they give us programs.”

“How do they do that?” Jason asked, curiously. 

“I don’t know. I’m not a programmer.”  Dev smiled briefly.  “It’s a special skill, not many natural born can do it. “

“Natural born.” Jess looked at her. “Is that what you call us?”

“Yes.” 

“Weird.” Jason shook his head.

They all went back to eating. Dev closed the collar on her suit and took a sip of the pale fizzy drink, which she was getting to like, and she felt okay about getting the questions since at least they were asking and not just talking at her like they were before.

Good sign, she supposed. 

“What do you suppose Bain wants?” Jason asked Jess.  “That guy scares me. Don’t care who knows it.”

Jess shrugged. “Can’t be too bad. We all made it.” She said. “Besides, one of the things I noticed going in was that we surprised them.”

Elaine was nodding, her mouth full.

“Felt like that to us too.” Jason said.   “I expected we’d get ambushed… hell, I told Elaine we were probably flying into a net coming around the side of that ridge they were hiding under but it took them time to react and I figured they didn’t know we were coming. “

“Which is strange.” Elaine said. “Because you know we don’t usually leave our kind there in their clutches.  If it had been me, I’d have expected us.”

Jess grunted. “Point.”

“Yeah.”  Jason frowned.  “Hell, though, I’m not going to look a gift horse in the ass.”

Dev made a mental note to access her pad when she got back to her quarters and start looking up some of the odd verbal utterances she’d heard so far from Jess and her other colleagues.   She’d heard that thing about the horse twice now, so she figured it had to mean something pretty important,

“So who else is coming in the class?” Elaine asked.  “Twelve for us and?” She looked at Jess. “Any idea?”

Jess scraped the last of the fish from her plate.  “Repair chiefs, some security, and from what I hear, a dozen of the biological guys for downstairs.”

“Huh.”

“There are some pilots and mechanics coming from the crŹche.” Dev offered. “They were staging them when I left.” She added. “They were talking about new vehicles.”

“Ah.” Jason was listening to her. “Finally! They’ve been rebuilding those carriers since I was a baby.”

“Last year?” Elaine elbowed him.  

“Shut up.” Jason elbowed her back.

“Good to see a new bus if it’s true.” Brent allowed. “So many things are falling off mine I was afraid I’d tank someone on the deck when we took off.”

“Yeah, if they give them to us, not the newbies.” Tucker spoke up for the first time.  “Member what they said the last time, that they had to get the good stuff cause they didn’t know better. We could handle all the crap.”

“Well.” Jess rested her elbows on the table and cradled her mug in her hands. “Anyone tries to pull that bullshit line on me I just point them at her.” She pointed at Dev.  “They didn’t come any newer than she did this morning.”

Tucker and Brent gave Dev a grudging nod.    “Yeah that’s true I guess.” Tucker said. “Sides what your rig looked like when you got back I figure they’d got to build it up from base steel anyhow.”

They finished lunch and filtered out the door, most heading for the residential quarters on the next ring of hallways outward.   Dev walked quietly along at Jess’s side, as it got quieter and quieter when the two other teams peeled off to their rooms.

Jess and Dev’s quarters were, Dev realized, at the end of the half ring hall.  Right across from them was the entrance to the ops center,  it’s outline grid a sedate blue unlike the raw red of the previous day.

She  paused as she went past Jess’s door towards her own, to absorb the idea that this place was, now, for her, a home.

For now long? She didn’t know. But she had passed the first test of this new assignment and earned herself a continued presence with the possibility of a longer term stay.

“Hey, Dev?”

Dev turned, to find Jess in her doorway. “Yes?”

“Change then come over.  I want you to come see Bain with me.”

Ah. Hm. The man with the gun. “Okay.” Dev agreed.

Jess came over and leaned against the wall, folding her arms across her chest. “Don’t let the jackassery get to you.”

Dev looked at her, blinking a few times.   “Is that… supposed to refer to the rude attitude?”

Jess nodded.  “We’re all pretty hard on each other.  Sandy and I never got along.”

“No problem.” Dev said.

“Does it bother you?” Jess asked, in a quiet tone.

“Does it bother you?” Dev returned the question.

The tall, dark haired woman studied her in silence for a long moment.  “Hmp.” She finally grunted. “Damn good question.” She turned and headed back to her door.  “Very damn good question.”

Dev waited until the door closed, then she turned and went to her own quarters, scanning through and letting the heavy panel slid shut behind her.  She stopped and looked around, taking in the room with a fresh set of eyes.

On the workspace, there was a packet, and some covered pads, delivered when she was on the mission, apparently.   So this, for now, was home.  She bypassed the table and headed for the sanitary space, already looking forward to the wet thing, and fresh clothes, and the tour Jess had promised her for later.

Today had, after all, turned out to be a really, really, really good day.

** 

Dev looked up as she heard a buzz at the door.  She got up and went to it, triggering the latch and stepped back as the door slid open and Jess entered. She was dressed in one of the more casual jumpsuits, with fewer pockets and softer fabric.

Dev had realized that there were a few different kinds of garb. One was this type,  and she was wearing the same now too, and another was the kind she  had worn to pilot the carrier which was a heavier fabric, with clips and embedded links for the carrier’s systems to plug into.

She liked the lighter one.  It was very comfortable. She’d made a note to ask Jess about the sleeping clothes though.  “Hello.”

“Ready?” Jess’s eyes swept briefly over the interior.  She spotted the packet on the workspace and walked over to it. “You open this?”

“No.” Dev said. “I didn’t know what it was.”

Jess worked the clamp and opened the padded envelope.  “C’mere.” She shook out the contents into her hand then turned as Dev approached.   “Last bit of archaic crap we use.” She reached up and took hold of Dev’s jumpsuit collar.

Dev stood stock still, not really sure what was going on.  She could feel the warmth of Jess’s fingers against her skin , though, and she decided it felt nice.

“There.” Jess let her hands fall, producing a brief smile as Dev gave her a questioning look. “It’s like the one I have.” She touched the insignia on her collar. “Except the bottom enamel strips are green instead of black.”

“Oh.” Dev reached up to feel the item now fastened to her suit.  “Thank you.”

“It doesn’t mean anything except that you’re one of us.” Jess said.  “I guess when we coded you in as ops tech, it triggered the whole process so that included this.” She picked up a few other items that had dropped out of the packet. “This is your chit card.”

Dev studied it. “Okay.”

“When you go on missions, you get credits.” Jess explained. “You can take this and go to the exchange, and trade the credits for stuff.”

“Stuff?”

“Stuff. You know, like…” Jess paused. “Well, I guess you probably don’t know.  Nevermind, I’ll take you there and show you. It’s easier than explaining.”

“Okay.” Dev replied amiably. 

“You can also use it at dinner for drinks or extras, which I’ll show you today too.”  Jess concluded. “And this pad template – you can specify what you want in here and supply will take care of it for you. Like something other than crackers for the dispenser or a different temperature profile.”

“Okay.”  Dev said.

“You can put the card in your ident pack.”  Jess said. “Okay? So let’s go talk to Bain. I want to get your status clarified before I have to go and have back alley fights with everyone I work with.” She turned and led the way to the door.

What did that mean? Dev wondered.   She followed Jess through the hallways, passing the ops center and continuing around the curve into a gray shaded hallway she hadn’t been in yet.   This one had two scans, which she felt as an itchy tingle as they went through.

At the end of the hallway was a shielded door, guarded by two big security officers.  They regarded her and Jess as they approached, and only at the very end did they move aside and key the door open.

Jess ignored them.  “Thank you.” Dev murmured as she went by, seeing a pair of pale blue eyes half hidden in a blast helmet regarding her before the man turned and face forward again.

They walked into a small outer office, and the door behind them closed.  Jess stood quietly before the inner door, looking around a little as a soft sets of bings and clicks sounded, then the inner door opened.

“Ah.” Bain was seated behind a big desk, watching as they entered. “ Right on time, Drake. And I see you brought your charming companion with you.” He got up and came around the desk, extended his hand to Dev. “Hello, my dear.  You are very welcome to this meeting.”

Dev politely shook his hand. “Thank you, sir.”

“You did some excellent work.” Bain told her.  “Extraordinary, for your first flight, hm?

“I did the best I could.” Dev smiled. “I’m very glad it all worked out correctly.”

“Yes.”  Bain went back behind the desk and gestured for them to sit down in the two chairs in front of it.  “Well, Drake, looks like your plan succeeded.” He steepled his fingers. “Hm?  All of you returned and I’ve gotten some intelligence here that indicates you left some.. hm… consternation shall we say behind you?” He pushed a folder across the desk.

Jess took it, and flipped through the plastic like sheets inside.  “Ah.” She grunted. “So that’s what that ledge was.”

“Hm. Yes.”  Bain nodded. “Plasma station. Took out quite a quarter of the mountain face when it exploded.  I daresay you left your mark.”

Wow.  Jess sounded the word silently in her head.  She selected a grainy picture and passed it to Dev. “Big boom.”

Dev studied the picture.  For a moment, it was a blank, then suddenly the memory flashes popped in, and she recalled the high speed dive past the cliff. She tried to tie in that memory with the picture, which showed a huge hole where the ledge had been.

“Well done.” Bain said. “I would guess you’ve set them back quite a bit, Drake. Sure you ddin’t make any more friends on that side though.”

“Mm.”  Jess gruned.  “Wasn’t the lab they had the new growth experiment in though.”

“Ah, no.”  Bain agreed. “That’s what I wanted to discuss with you.  That needs to be addressed. I want you to do it.” 

Jess closed the folder.  “Two days ago I wasn’t even cleared for active duty.” She said. “One day ago I was being processed out.”

“And?” Bain cocked his head at her.

“There’s probably a better choice than me to take on a new mission.”

“I disagree.” Bain shook his head. “I realize you were involved in several very stressful incidents, but given the resources we have right now, I cannot recommend another in your place.” He watched her expression. “Besides,  your wish to leave us was all based around the presence of your new associate here, and I believe you have, as they say, gotten over that.”

Jess pondered this.  “Yeah, now both her and I are taking crap from every direction because of it.”

“Indeed?”

“Indeed.”  Jess said.  “This started off as a hair brained scheme by Bricker.   Everyone knew it.   Now everyone needs to know what the deal is.”

“Hm.”  Bain tapped his fingertips against his lips.  “My view is, yes, it was a hair brained scheme that unlikely as it was, worked.”  He said. “The people up at LifeSource took him seriously, and gave our friend here what skills they could in so short a time, and this morning it was amply demonstrated  that their cobbled together effort performed as well as any of our training programs could.”

“That’s true.” Jess agreed.

“Hm. Well then.” Bain “I have decided to inform everyone that Bricker was making that request on my orders.” He said. “I never mind taking credit for someone elses insane ideas so long as they prove out, hm?”

“I see.”  Jess said, slowly.

‘So then this becomes my idea, and my plan.”  Bain gave Dev a s mile. “Since it has already proven to be a success. We will instruct LIfeSource to continue on developing this program, and will hopefully be able to use it’s results in the future.”

Dev shifted a little. “Excuse me, sir.” She said. “Is it really a good idea to presume success based on so limited an evidence?”

Both Jess and Bain stared at her.

“Do you doubt your abilities, my young friend?” Bain asked.

“Yes.” Dev said. “I havent’ seen that much of them. “ She explained. “I trust the programming they gave me, but you are risking a lot on untested skills.”

Jess half turned in her seat so she was facing Dev. “You don’t want to stay here?”

Dev met her eyes. “I do.” She said. “But I don’t want to disappoint you.” 

Jess felt the lengthening silence as she studied the young, intense face next to her.  Finally she took a breath. “I’ll take my chances.”  She said, shifting to look back at Bain, who was watching them both with an expression of bemused interest.  “If you do this, you need to do it all the way. Give her full status.  Let everyone know. Then they’ll stop taking shots at her.”

Bain tapped his fingertips together again. “Agent Drake.” He said. “I certainly can send any amount of directives but I think it will take more than that for your new comrade to be accepted.” He gave her a meaningful look, one scrubby gray eyebrow hiking up.

Jess looked away, then back at him. “You do your part, I’ll do mine.”

Bain smiled. “Deal.” He said. “Now, about that mission?”

Jess settled back in her seat.  “We can’t do a frontal assault again. They’ll be keyed to it. I’ll need to insert.”

Bain nodded.

“Send me all the intel.”  Jess finally said.  “I’ll work up something.”

“Splendid.” The old man gave her a fond look. “Now, for  a more pleasant subject.  In recognition of your performance in this morning’s rescue I have added a senior level achievement to your records.”

Jess’s eyebrows rose.

“And I have advanced a benefit and comfort package to your colleague.” Bain pointed a forefinger at  Dev. “Since I know she came from the crŹche with very little.  Enjoy it, my dear.”

Dev had no idea what he was talking about, but it sounded good. “Thank you sir.” She said. “I will continue trying to do my best.”

Bain leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk. “Thank you.” He said.  “People, we were in a serious crisis point yesterday.  I’m glad we made our way through it, but we’re not out of the woods yet.  Intelligence showed us that in this case, Agent Drake, there was no leak of information regarding your attack.”

“Not that I could tell, no.”  Jess agreed. “But does that mean we snuffed the leak, or they’re just in hiding, biding their time?”

Bain inclined his head.

“The key is, who turned Joshua.”  Jess continued. “Was it someone on the outside or someone on the inside.” She looked Bain in the eye. “I don’t think Bricker had the brains for it.”

Bain smiled faintly.  “He was my nephew.”

Only years of field service let Jess remain in her chair and not roll onto the floor.  She knew her eyes had widened and she clamped her jaw to keep it from dropping.

“My sister’s son.”  Bain went on, in a reflective tone.  “She gave him over when he was five.  I never thought he really did have the brains for it either, but he made it through the course.” He sniffed. “I agree with you, Drake.  I don’t think he was the leak, and he wasn’t the one who turned tech Joshua.”

“So that person’s still here, if it was an inside job.”

“You think it was.”

Jess gazed at him. “I spent almost every waking moment with him for nine years on the outside of this facility.  No one outside got close to him.”

“Hm.”

“But inside?” Jess went on.  “That was different.”

Bain sighed. “I have security doing an investigation on it.” He admitted.  “Very low key.”  He turned to Dev. “You will let us know, won’t you my dear, if anyone asks you to do something against us?”

“Yes.” Dev answered immediately. “That’s wrong.”

“Is that what your programming tells you?”  He cocked his head slightly.

Dev thought about that for a minute.  “They gave me the rules.” She said, after a bit. “But this ..  I think that’s an in here thing.” She touched her chest. “It feels wrong.”

“Hm.”  Bain nodded in approval. “Very good.” He focused back on Jess.  “Be on your way, Drake.  I’m sure you have things to settle.  I’ll have intelligence send you an info pack, and will expect your review in the very near term.”

Jess nodded and stood. “Thanks.” She said. “I’ll let you know what I think.”

Bain chuckled. “Of that I have no doubt.”  He sat back as they left, resting his elbows on the chair arm and twiddled his thumbs. “Dj?”

Doctor Dan came out from behind the big console behind them and came around to sit in the chair his bio alt had so recently vacated.  “Well?”

“Damn fine job.” Bain told him straightforwardly.  “Now, tell me the truth.  This wasn’t a last minute rush thing.”

The scientist shook his head. “No.” He said. “I’d been planning to introduce the idea to you, so I’d done the prep with Dev.” He added.  “The last set of tech skills, yes, that was a rush.  We had to write that on the fly, but I had the schema outlines already done.”

Bain nodded. “I think she’ll do well She has an interesting mix of intelligence and given knowledge.”

“She’s a good design.” Doctor Dan agreed.  “She won’t turn, by the way. They’ll have to kill her first. The one thing about the way I engineered her logic structure that wasn’t entirely logical.”

“You understand that at a gut level.”  Bain smiled faintly at him.

“Yes.” He smiled just as faintly back.  “I’ll miss Dev.  I really enjoyed watching her progress.”

‘I’m sure she’ll be fine with Drake.” Bain stood up.  “She’s already taken up a protective stance over your protégée as well as having been sufficiently distracted to allow her to get past that recent disaster.”

“She’s good people.” Doctor Dan said, as he joined Bain and they both disappeared behind the console, through a hidden door and into a quiet hallway. “I think Dev will do very well with her.”

“Hm.” Bain eyed him. “Sure you don’t want a job?”

Doctor Dan smiled a little. “I have a job.”

Bain snorted.

**

“So I suppose I really am staying.” Dev said, as they walked along the corridor.  “That was a very interesting meeting.”

“I told you that you were staying.” Jess chuckled. “Yeah, it was.” She admitted. “We’ll have to go back and see what kind of swag we got.  I’m glad he put you in for something.” She stepped into the lift, and waited for Dev to join her. “Let’s start at the top, and work our way down.”

“I’m not sure what that means.” Dev confessed.  “But it sounds nice.”

“Here’s the roof.”  Jess led the way out of the lift to a huge open space, with solid glass covering all of it.  Overhead the thick, dark clouds were drifting, and once they’d cleared the lift encasement they could see all around them out to the horizon.

 Dev turned around in a circle, looking at the vast, open barrenness on one side, and then out across what was now becoming a familiar venue of open ocean. 

“When the new class comes in, we’ll all gather here for the induction ceremony.” Jess told her. “With any luck I’ll get you started on the right foot with them and we can work from there.”

“It’s difficult isn’t it?” Dev said. “

“Hm.”  Jess looked at her. “Would it be easier for you if you stayed down with the rest of the bios?”

Dev put her hands behind her back. “Of course it would”

“Do you want to do that?”

“No.” Dev replied without hesitation. 

Jess smiled.  “Good.” She waved her hand. “Let’s go.  I’ll show you the gym and the rad facility, that’s on the next floor, and then we can go past the reference center and stop in at the exchange.”

“For the stuff?”

“Yeah, we’ll get some stuff. “

**

They had, in fact, gotten stuff.    Dev sat cross legged on her bed, surveying the items around her with a sense of bemusement.   She had learned a lot of new concepts including what rad was and why it was important to her, what the concept of luxury was, and the answer to the mystery of what to sleep in.

It was a little overwhelming.   Dev looked around her living space. Now not only did she have this place but she had another place, sort of like the little cubicle in the crŹche, where she could study and do research while she was getting her required dose of sun replacement.

She had more space to herself here than anyone topside, even the most important people.  It was amazing and a little strange, but she suspected she’d get used to it after a while.

Now, this stuff.  Dev sorted among the items.  The exchange was full of stuff that Jess had called luxuries, items that were not given to them, but must be earned.  This included stuff from topside, she was surprised to see and she’d gotten a package of the little sweet puffs they’d eaten on rare occasions in the crŹche.

You could also get things to wear, and Jess had told her it was easy to see the most successful agents and techs because they didn’t wear jumpsuits in off-time – they wore some of the things you could get in the exchange or – this was very interesting – things they bartered for in the living spaces outside.

For now, Dev had gotten a few pairs of soft short leggings and sleeveless shirts to sleep in, as that’s what Jess told her she used.   She set those aside and the puffs, and pulled over the box she’d found when she’d gotten back.

That was from the man with the gun, Jess had told her.   The box was full of things like insulated drink containers and a pack she could take on the carrier with her with compartments to carry things in. It had straps and hooks that would fasten to the console near her seat.

It was nice.  She liked it. There was also a folding tool she could use to get into hatches, that also had a knife in it – she’d seen Jess carry one  and a thing to wear that was thick and heavy and had a hood that was very warm when she put it on.

A jacket, Jess had called it, for when they were outside and had to leave the carrier.

Very interesting. 

Next, she removed a sanitary kit she could take in the carrier also.  It had wipes and little bottles of something you could put on  your skin and mouth rinse.   She could, Jess had told her, order more for it when she’d used it all.

Also very interesting.

Dev got up and found places for all her new stuff, in the drawers of the big cabinet mostly.  Once that was done, she picked up her book from her workspace and climbed up into the relaxing area and sat down on the couch.

She had some time before Jess came back and she settled back in the couch, opening the book and reading from where she’d left off. 

**

Jess finished requesting data, then she logged off the intel system and sat down at the small desk, using a stylus to make a few notes on the folder she was carrying.    She wrote in silence for a few minutes, then glanced up as the door behind her opened.

Shit. She cursed silently. “Hello  Jared.”

The tall, spare medical director came over and sat in the seat next to her.   “How long did you figure on ignoring the request to med?”

“I’ve been busy.” Jess said, continuing to scribble. “Besides, what would be the point?  Bain put me back into service. He ranks you.”

“Yeah and I heard what he does to people who disagree with him.”  Jared spared a brief smile.  “I wouldn’t have said no to him either.  But you still have a hold on your chart – want to spend ten minutes with me and get it cleared legit?”

Jess checked the time on the console. “If its only ten minutes, sure.” She finished writing and stood up. “I’ve got an appointment to get to.”

She followed Jared down the  hall, out of the gray section into the white, passing suite after suite of examination and operation rooms most fortunately now not in use.   She’d spent her time in those rooms and like any other agent hated the place.

Jared led her into a small exam room, the one she knew was right next to his offices.   She sealed and put the folder down on the desk and lay down on the exam table, feeling the warmth and tickle of the diagnostic systems.

 “You look like you’re feeling better.” Jared commented, from behind the console. “Your back still giving you problems?”

“No.” Jess shook her head. “A little tender, that’s all.”  She clarified. “Still a little heat sensitive.”

Jared nodded. “Hold still.”

Jess felt the scan focus on her head and she closed her eyes.

“How’s your sleeping?”

“Okay the last few days.” Jess cracked one eyeball open cautiously, then opened them both as the scan faded.  “Been too busy to think about it.”

“Hm. That’s what I thought.” Jared came from around the console and appeared next to her. “I can still see adherence in there. You could have gotten into trouble going out.”

Jess lifted a hand and wiggled it’s fingers. “The only thing I exercised yesterday were these. “ She said. “I shot the hell out of everything while sitting on my ass.”

Jared snorted, then chuckled a little. “I heard.  About that, and about your new pilot.” He studied Jess’s face. “How’s that going?”

“She’s fine.”  His erstwhile patient said.  “Pretty good pilot.  Not a bad personality. “

“For a bio alt, you mean.”

“For anyone.   She’s a nice kid.  We’re getting along pretty well.” Jess responded.  “Bain’s just sending orders down to make her permanent.”

“I saw. I got them.”  Jared said. “I want to see her too, to get a baseline. You think that’s going to work?  Most people I talked to didn’t.”

Jess half shrugged. “Most people you’ve talked to haven’t worked with her.  They think bios are walking jelly bag brains.   Dev isn’t.  She’s not one of us, but she’s not one of them either.”

“Huh. You sure that’s not just wishful thinking?”

“Talk to her and form your own opinion.” Jess said. “Done now? I’ve got places to go and people to see.”

Jared leaned against the table.  “I’m done.  You look like you’re finally on the right track again, Jess. You had me worried there for a few weeks.  Maybe everything going to shit was good for you.”

Jess smiled wryly. “Kicked my head out of my ass, you mean.” She interpreted. ‘Yeah, maybe.  At least I’m not upchucking all night from nightmares.”

“No you aren’t.” He turned off the scanner. “Your bodyweight’s stopped dropping.  I’m going to release you officially so they don’t have to keep overriding me from ops.” He said, in a droll tone.  “Nice to know just exactly how much authority I really have.”

Jess sat up and swung her long legs off the table.  “Don’t feel bad, Jared.  Bain steam rolled over pretty much everything but then – he’s the old man.”

“Yes, he is.”  The medico agreed. “A lot of people got the shit scared out of them by him.  No one expected … I mean, you hear the stories and all that, but no one thought he’d just come in here and start shooting.”

“No.” Jess retrieved her folder. “But he did.”

“What I’m wondering now is – will he stay here, or is he going to pick someone to replace Bricker?” Jared watched her face closely.  “What do you think?”

Jess shrugged both shoulders. “I’m just an agent.  I try to think as little as possible.” She turned and headed for the door.

“Senior agent, now.”

Jess looked back over her shoulder and grinned, then she went through the door and was gone.

**

The dining hall was almost empty when Jess and Dev entered it.  None of the other agents or techs were there, just a few console operators from the ops center nearby, and  alone in the corner, Stephen Bock.

Jess gave him a casual wave as she took a seat at a small table and motioned Dev to do the same.   “So here’s how this works.” She said.  “That screen shows you what’s available tonight.  You tap on what you want, and they deliver it.”

“I see.”  Dev regarded the screen.  “Why do they do that, if they make you go pick it up the rest of the time?”

“Tradition.”  Jess said.  “There are some things we do… just because that’s the way we’ve always done them and no one wants to change it because it meant something way back when.”  She keyed something into the pad. “I’ll throw a few credits at this.”

Dev studied her choices, and made her selection.  Then she folded her hands on the table and regarded her tablemate.  “Is it something like these?” She touched the insignia at her neck.

“Something like that.” Jess agreed. “You’ll see more of the traditional stuff when we attend the incoming ceremony for the new class.”  She smiled. “I remember when it was me up there.  I”d never seen any place like this before.”

Dev pondered that. “We have… I guess it’s sort of like that when we graduate from basic learning.” She said. “We all come into a big room, and they take record of all our designations and where we would be going for advanced classes.”

“Yeah.” Jess nodded. “I had that in school.”

“Then they took us all to medical and had our collars installed.” Dev touched her throat.  “They said we were all grown up then.”

Jess leaned her chin on her fist. “So… they don’t do that special programming with you until you’re older?”  She looked up as a bio alt waitservant approached, with a tray. “Thanks.”

The man placed the drink she’d ordered on the table, and then, with the barest hesitation, put a second one in front of Dev.

“Thank you.” Dev looked up at him.

The man nodded, then he straightened and went back into the preparation area. 

Jess snorted and shook her head.

“That’s a Ceebee 245.” Dev commented. “They do that – the serving thing, up in the crŹche too, for the natural borns in the fancy places.”

“They do?”

“Yes.”  Dev said. “They don’t give us any programming until we graduate basic.  They teach us the regular way before that.  Reading, and writing, and basic skills.”

“Huh.” Jess sipped her drink.  “I guess that’s not too different from how I grew up.  I was in pre school until I was five, and they gave us the aptitude battery.”  She said. “Then they sent me to the academy, on my sixth birthday.”

Dev took a sip of the glass she’d been given finding a medium fizzy beverage with a taste that reminded her of the soy nuts that had sometimes been served in the crŹche. “What is this?”

“Beer.”  Jess said. “Like it?”

Dev tasted it again. “I think so.”  She said, after a pause. “So what did they teach you at the academy? Is that where all of the people here went?”

 “What did they teach me.” Jess mused. “I hardly remember.  Like you said, reading and writing I suppose. Some math, geography.  History. How we got to be in the situation we’re in, that sort of thing, for classes.” She paused, as the server came back and put down their plates.  “Then at… I guess around age ten they start teaching us the business.” She lifted her hand and made a circle over her head, encompassing the structure around them.

“So, you knew you wanted to do this?” Dev cut a bit of the fish on her plate and put it in her mouth.

“Wasn’t given a choice.”  Jess was plowing through her meal.

Dev stopped chewing. “Really?”

Jess looked up at her. “Really.”  She washed her mouthful down with a swallow of the beer.  “Didn’t really want a choice, that’s what the battery is for.  My family’s been doing this for ever, so when I tested high it was a foregone conclusion that I’d go, and I’d graduate, and I’d come to a place like this and do what we do.”

“Wow.”  Dev took another sip of the fizzy beverage.   “So all the other people we work with, the ones we went on the mission with, they all did that too?”

“Not exactly.  The agents, me, and Elaine, Jason, Sandy… we all did.  So did Stephen over there, and the guy who got his head taken off.  Anyone who wears the black bars like I do.  They do the whole course, from childhood.”  Jess explained. “The techs, like Brent, come in around your age.  They get schooled on the outside, and if they pass the tests and the background checks and the psych, they get admitted.” She forked up some of the fish and ate it. “Damn, that’s good.”

“Oh.”  Dev was also enjoying the taste.  “So that’s why I heard someone call them outsiders?”

“Yes.”  Jess nodded.  “They come to what we call field school.  During that, they get matched to an agent, and then sent out as a team usually with a couple others to someplace like this.”

None of this had been in the programming, Dev realized. Only the rules and regulations of Interforce, and the technical knowledge she’d need to do the job.

“There are always more techs than agents.” Jess said, after a short silence.  “We get in the way of blasters more often.” She gave Dev a wry wink.  “But we can choose to leave. I almost did the other day.”

“Yes.”  Dev murmured.  “I’m really glad you didn’t.”

Jess paused in mid chew, as she met the serious, earnest eyes gazing at her.  After a moment she hastily swallowed. “Yeah, I’m kinda glad too. “ She said. “It’s gotten a lot more interesting here lately.”

Her tablemate looked a touch puzzled, but then smiled.

They both looked up, a little startled, as they heard a throat being cleared nearby.  Stephen Bock was standing by their table, his hands in the pockets of his jumpsuit. 

“Stephen.”  Jess motioned to a seat. “Join us.”

“No, just stopping to offer my congratulations.” Stephen said. “I saw your ranking change.  Well deserved, Jess.”

“Thanks.”  Jess accepted the words with a brief nod.

“And congratulations to you too.” Stephen turned to Dev. “The system recorded your permanent assignment here.  So welcome.”

Dev had put her utensils down when he’d started speaking and now she nodded. “Thank you.” She said, politely.  “I’m glad I was able to contribute to good results.”

“Well, you did a good job, and I hope we can trust you to keep Jess’s ass out of the fire again in the future.”  Stephen said.

Dev looked at him, then she glanced at Jess, as one eyebrow hiked up.  “They didn’t cover that in the programming either.” She apologized. “I’m not really sure what to do with your ass.”

Jess hastily swallowed what was in her mouth and clapped her hand over it, snorting and then dissolving into laughter. 

Stephen covered his eyes, and sat down in the seat abruptly.

Dev regarded them with mild amusement until they recovered their composure.  “Sorry about that.” She apologized. “I don’t really understand some of the things you say sometimes.  I have a few I need to look up in the reference library later on.”

“What he meant was.”  Jess cleared her throat and wiped a tear from her eye.  “He expects you to keep me out of trouble.”

Dev pondered that, taking a sip of her beer. “Isn’t our job to get into trouble?”

Stephen started chuckling again.  “You really do have a sense of humor.” He complimented her.  “But I think Jess would have said, your job is to cause trouble.” He rubbed his eyes. “Ah well, it’s been a day.” He let his hands rest on his knees.  “Recap tomorrow, Jess?”

“See you in ops.” Jess agreed, giving him a nod as he got up and headed for the door to the hall.  After the door closed behind him, she looked back at Dev. “You can just ask if you don’t understand what the hell I’m saying, y’know.”

Dev smiled as she finished up her meal.  “I will next time.” She said. “Sometimes I can guess what it is by the conversation around it, but all the stuff about horses and asses and things confuses me. “

Jess chuckled again. “You’re so damn funny.”

“Is it? I mean.. am I?” Dev put her utensils down. “I wasn’t trying to be that time.”  She paused, and looked up as the server came back again, putting down a final set of plates. They contained a square of dark brown substance, which she studied as the man removed the other plates. “Thank you.”

“Ahhh. “ Jess pulled over her own plate. “Now that’s a rare treat.  I didn’t think they were doing these until the induction ceremony.”

“They were testing them, ma’am.” The server replied quietly. “We were instructed to give them to all the patrons here tonight.” He turned and disappeared again.

“Hey, wait.”  Jess called after him. “Bring us over some kack, then.  These don’t go with beer.” She broke off a corner of the substance and popped it into her mouth. “Mm.”

Dev tentatively did the same, mouthing the substance as her eyes opened wide. “Oh.”  She blinked. “Wow. What is that?”

“It’s called a brownie.” Jess was busy with her own. “I guess because it’s brown.” She regarded the item. “One of the very few things from the old times they can still make, though I think they make it now with rice flour from the paddy caverns and gulls eggs.” She looked up. “Like it?”

“Yes.” Dev answered immediately. “It’s really nice.”

Jess looked up, then looked around carefully. ‘Want to see if we can steal whatever’s left back there?”’

Dev looked up from her plate. “I thought I was supposed to keep you out of trouble?”

Jess just grinned at her.

**

Continued in Part 6