Partners

Part 7

 

Dev rubbed herself dry with the towel, and was headed towards her locker when she heard Jess’s voice nearby.  

A moment later, the tall agent stuck her head around the corner of the changing area, and then entered. “There you are.” She addressed Dev. “How’d the gym go.”

“Very nice.” Dev said.  She removed her jumpsuit from the locker and stepped into it. “The stations are really good, and I jumped into the big wet thing.”

Jess studied her. “The pool?”

“Yes.”  Dev ruffled her hair dry.  “I really liked that.” She said. “But I think I have to work out that whole swimming thing since my head kept going under and it was all a bit difficult.

Jess put her hands on her hips.

Dev stopped her motion, seeing the look on Jess’s face. “Is there something incorrect?”

“Ever occur to you that jumping in water and not knowing how to swim is a bad idea?” Jess asked.

Dev considered the question, as she put the towel in the container and ran her fingers through her hair to order it. “No.”  She finally concluded. “How would I know how if I didn’t try it?”

Jess nodded.  “Okay.” She looked around.  “Glad you liked the gym.” She exhaled a little. “I have to start getting back in here  regularily now that med cleared me.”   Her voice sounded regretful.  “But listen, it looks like we’ve got a few days break due to met. “

Dev closed her locker.  “Okay.” She said. “Is there something else we need to do?”

“C’mon” Jess started walking towards the door, and Dev followed her unquestioningly.  They exited the gym and walked through the central corridor.   “Tomorrow night we’ll have to go to the induction of the new class.”

“Okay.”

“And the party afterwards.” Jess said.

Dev walked along at her side in silence for a few strides.  “What’s a party?”

Jess rubbed the bridge of her nose. “It’s when everyone gets together in one room and drinks themselves stupid while eating bad seaweed crackers and mushroom dip.”

Dev digested this thoughtfully.   “Is this a good thing or a bad thing?” She finally asked, as they headed down the long corridor towards the carrier hanger.  “You sound like it’s a bad thing.”

Jess chuckled dryly. “I’m just not a party animal.” She admitted. “You saw the crowd in the bar when we got back from the rescue. More of the same of that.” She palmed open the door to the hangar and motioned Dev to go in.

They walked inside, finding the hangar relatively quiet.  “Want to check out the body job.” Jess said. “Always pays to put an eyeball on it.”

Dev decided just to follow along, since neither remark made any sense to her. She stuck by Jess’s side as they walked between the parked vehicles, moving towards the rear where the tech station was.  The tall ceiling was shrouded in darkness, the roof overhead firmly shut. 

There were a lot of techs moving around.  They gave her and Jess brief glances, then went back to their tasks, which made Dev feel pretty good.  She liked being treated casually.  ‘Do you have to go to the party?”

Jess sighed. “Yes and no.” She responded. “Its expected. So we go, but … “ She paused, and fell silent. “Maybe it was Josh dragging me to all of them I don’t know.” She led the way around a tool bay and ducked under the fuel piping.  “Doesn’t matter.”

Here, close to where they were rebuilding what was apparently their carrier, the smells were sharp and the mist in the air made Dev’s eyes water.  She forgot all about the party when she saw the framework of the big craft under the lights, scoured clean of all the battle damage. “Wow.”

“Stripped her down to bare.”  Jess agreed. “Ugly thing, isn’t it?”

“I don’t’ think so, no.” Dev edged around to get a better look. Without it’s skin on, you could see all the systems and gyros that made the carrier function and she stared in rapt fascination, feeling a strong surge of programming tickling her.  “This is very interesting.”

A man in a scuffed and stained orange jumpsuit came around the side of the carrier. “What was that?” He sidled over to Dev. “Were you saying you were interested?”

“Very.” Dev agreed.

Jess rolled her eyes. “Oh no.” She sighed. “Now you’re in for it.”

“Shut up, Drake.” The tech motioned Dev closer. “Finally, one of you appreciates my work.”  He focused his attention on the tech. “My name’s Clint.” He said. “We almost met the other day when you brought this baby back here.”

“Dev.” Dev smiled at him, a genuine and appreciative grin. “Are you building it all up from scratch? It looks much better already.”

Clint returned the smile. “Let me give you a tour.”  He steered her towards the stripped down rig. “Beat it, Drake. I know you just think of this as your damned bus.”

Jess felt a sudden rush of anger that really surprised her.  She surged after them and only just kept herself from slamming Clint in the back, pulling back at such a last minute that Clint sensed it, and half turned, his eyes going a little wider in alarm.

He looked at her face, and then he stepped away from Dev and put both his hands up, palms outward. “Sorry. Over the top. Didn’t mean to piss you off.”

Dev had turned too, and she instinctively did the opposite. She moved a little closer and looked up at Jess with a slightly concerned expression, one hand lifting up and touching Jess on the arm. “Is there something wrong?”

Jess felt a flush rising to her face, and she was glad of the glaring lights that obscured it. “No.” She said. “I just don’t appreciate being told off.”

Clint let his hands slowly lower. “Sorry, Jess.’ He said.  “I really was just razzing you.”

Jess felt her body relax, aware that her muscles had tightened into a pre fight posture, her fingers twitching a bit at her sides.  “It’s okay.” She said, briefly.  “But you know, maybe I want to see the damn old thing too.”

“Hey, no problem!” Clint smiled again. “C”mon.”  He turned and led them under the carrier, it’s stark structure now so very evident.  “You really porched it this time. We had to rebuild half the front end…”

Jess ducked under one of the steel ribs and followed him and after a brief pause, Dev joined her.   ‘Sorry about that.” Jess muttered. “He just bites my shorts sometimes.”

Dev reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose, giving Jess a sideways glance.

“Just a saying.” Jess felt herself relax a little more, appreciating the humor. “He’s never been near my shorts.”

“So anyway.” Clint said, oblivious of the whispers. “Since we had to rebuild this old sucker from the frame I decided to put in a whole new scan package, and that newfangled targeting system they just released down in the lab.”

“Oh yeah?” Jess investigated the item. “I saw a squirt on that.”

Dev poked her head inside the frame and took in the details avidly, setting aside her concern over Jess’s reaction a moment ago.  Her companion now seemed to be over the anger, and Dev was glad because she could see that it had frightened Clint.

Just like the security men had been frightened.   Dev peeked over and watched Jess as she listened to Clint’s explanation of the new targeting system. She was relaxed and interested now, her hands running over the device.

Doctor Dan had told her she could trust Jess.  Dev thought about that.  She trusted Doctor Dan.  So it must be all right.  She put a hand on the curved nose, obviously new, and could see through the lines and gears the now empty spot her chair would rest in. 

At least for her, it must be all right.

“Dev?”

Dev removed her head from the wiring and moved around the forward struts. “Yes?”

“Here’s the mod chamber.”  Jess pointed to a door behind the dock. “You said you wanted to get some time in there sometime.”

“You mod?” Clint kept a wary eye on Jess, but circled back around to where Dev was standing.  “You wouldn’t be interested in being a part of the assembly would you?”

“Yes.” Dev said, instantly.  She could feel the programming bubbling up, as she ran her eyes over the internal systems and their internal schematics flashed behind her eyes.  “I would really like that.”

“You would?” Jess was watching her in some bemusement.

Dev nodded. “It’s in my programming.” She explained. “How to run all the things inside, and fix them when they break.  It would be great to touch and work with them firsthand.”

Clint clasped his hands dramatically to his chest. “I’m in love.”

Jess rolled her eyes.

Dev grinned, a little uncertainly.  “Is that good or bad?”

“Seriously.” Clint smiled back at her. “It’s really great when one of you all take a true interest in the old buses. We work hard to keep them flying.”

“And we take them out and wreck them.” But Jess’s voice was mild and indulgent. “Be careful, Clint.  She kicked my ass as a pilot her first run. She’ll take your job away if you don’t watch out.”

“I didn’t kick you.” Dev objected. “I would never do that.”

“I saw the log.”  Clint said. “So they figured out how to make the real deal, huh? Crazy.” He studied Dev with curious eyes.  “Oh well. At least they made her cute.”

Dev gave him a slightly startled look.

‘Yes, they did.” Jess found herself agreeing, somewhat to her own surprise, enhanced when she caught Dev blushing at the words. 

That made her blush, suddenly, the unfamiliar sensation making her swallow.   “Hey.” She redirected all the attention to the carrier.  “So what’s the deal with the engines.”

Clint hesitated, then he cleared his throat and went with the subject change, moving around to the far side of the carrier where the huge engines were cradled, waiting for installation into the frame. “Y’know I heard rumors we were getting some new gear, but I don’t know if the new stuff’ll hold up like these babies did.”

“They.. um..” Dev felt a little confused, and a little lightheaded, but she wasn’t sure why.  “They had a lot of power.” She rallied on.  “More than the sims.  I was surprised.”

Clint beamed, fully restored to good humor. “Why thank you, kind lady.” He made a half bow. “I tuned them myself. Let me take the cover off the cowling here and show you some of the tunings.” He pulled a tool from his coveralls and started wrenching the engine cover, turning his back to them.

Jess tilted her head and regarded her companion. Dev was studying the ground, a faint smile on her face, and after a second, she looked up and met Jess’s eyes.

For a moment, the hangar faded out a little and then they both looked away and Dev was shaking her head a little as she stepped forward and joined Clint at the side of the engine.

Jess put her hand on one of the bare struts and just stood there watching. She was aware, vaguely that something a little odd was going on, but she wasn’t sure what it was, so she leaned against the carrier and listened to Clint’s monologue as Dev circled the engine and peered inside, the bright lights of the work bay gilding her pale hair.

Slowly her mind returned to the plan, and she straightened carefully, moving past the carrier and approaching the engine.  “Clint, the old man wants me to buzz out probably plus 2. This thing going to be ready?”

Clint looked up at her. “Plus 2?” He exhaled, and looked around.  “Crap, Jess. Most of my mechs are working on the retaining wall at the bay. We gotta get that done before tomorrow night.”

Jess lifted both hands slightly and let them drop.  “Not my schedule.”

“No, I know.” The master mechanic sighed. “Well, Dev, you up to help out for real? I could use a pair of hands.”

“Yes.” Dev said. “That would be excellent.”

“We’ll do our best.” Clint said. “but Jess, I’m not guaranteeing anything.  You may need to take a loaner if you have to go out plus 2.”

Jess frowned.  The last thing she wanted to do was go out with a strange vehicle.  It wasn’t as if Clint’s team didn’t take equal care of them, but you spent a lot of time learning the quirks of what you were… Her thoughts stopped, and she focused on Dev.

Dev, who had stepped into this carrier for the first time, and flown it with no familiarity at all.  “We’ll cope.”  Jess said. “I’d rather have ours, but Dev can handle it.”

Dev looked up and grinned at her over the top of the engine, a smudge of silicone grease on her nose.  “Thank you.” She said. “I am not sure that’s really true, but I’m glad you think so.”

“Ah, and modest as well.” Clint leaned next to her and pointed out a bit of machinery. “See that?  Regs say the noz has to be ten inches, but I found a way to put a throttle inside there that really boosts the exhaust.”

“Oh yes!” Dev straightened, holding her hands up as though they were around throttles. “I remember that, how much faster it seemed when I was changing direction, and heading up.”

“Yeah, I can still feel it.” Jess rubbed her own shoulder.  “Knocked my ass out of my chair twice.”

Clint chuckled.

“I did?”  Dev seemed amazed. “Really?”

“My fault. Forgot to tighten my harness.” Jess eased over and peered inside the engine.  The internal mechanics of the technology she’d mastered never really much interested her. She knew how it all worked, of course.  Every agent did, it was part of the training. You never knew when you might get caught outside and need to make repairs, for example. 

But still. That’s what the techs were for, after all, to pilot the carriers, sure, but also to know how they worked, and be up on all the systems so they could keep everything moving at the rate the agents needed to get their goals met.

And Dev, apparently, was going to be one of those kind of techs who slobbered over the gears.  Jess gave her pilot a tolerant look, as she dug into a gyro.  

Without warning, Dev hopped up onto the engine and lowered herself head down into the inside of the big blast chamber, both arms braced on either side easily bearing her weight. 

Clint gave her a surprised look, then cocked his head and glanced over at Jess. “Drake.” His face scrunched into a wry grin. “I think you may have gotten more than you bargained for in this new driver of yours.”

Jess gave him a wry look of agreement. “Had occurred to me.”

“Is that the plasma ignitor?” Dev asked, lowering herself a little more. “Wow. I didn’t know it looked like that.”

Jess walked over and poked her head inside the engine. 

“Yes, that’s it.”  Clint agreed, directing his hand flash over the object.  “It’s one of the few things on the old crate that’s direct drive. That cabling system routes right into the throttles. Real old school.”

“Wow.” Dev pulled herself up and sprawled over the top of the engine, flexing her fingers a little. “I didn’t know that.”

“Wow.” Jess echoed. “I didn’t know that either.”

“Hey Jess.” Clint lowered his voice. “Are you going to trial that new weapons rig? The one they hook up to your head?”

Jess looked quickly around, but they were alone. She gave Clint a warning glare.

“Everyone knows.” He interpreted the look. “You know how this place is. I heard it in the lunchroom last week.”

Jess did know.  She exhaled. “Not until they get the bugs out of it.” She said. “Since you heard that, you heard about what it did to Don”

Clint frowned, and nodded.  Dev remained quiet, looking from one of them to the other.

“Not the way I’d choose to go.”  Jess said with a note of finality.

“Gotcha.” Clint said. “So, anyway, once we get these chambers in here rebuilt, we can remount the engines.”

“I would love to help.” Dev reiterated. “This is great.”

Clint smiled.   “You want to help too, Jess?” He asked.

“No.”  Jess patted the engine. “I’m going to go run the tactics boards and see what’s out there.  Catch up with you later, Dev.” 

“Okay.”

Jess gave a light wave, and walked off, wondering why in the world she suddenly had an urge to learn about plasma injection. 

And get her hands dirty.

**

It was late by the time Dev got back to her quarters, her head buzzing with all the stimulation from the day and her hands and arms covered in silica gel.  

She’d had so much fun with Clint.  He had the same enthusiasm for the machinery as she did and it was really enjoyable sharing that while at the same time getting important things done to get their carrier back together.

She’d learned a lot from him, too.  Pieces and bits that programming left out, and additional understanding that let her put parts of what she had together better.   All good, and they’d made some progress on the engines, too.

She went into the sanitary unit, and once inside stripped out of her jumpsuit.  Clint had suggested she ask for the kind of work coverall he used, which had more pockets in better places for all the adjustment tools and was a tougher fabric.

Dev flexed her hands, noting she’d gotten a few cuts and scuffs on them from the work, but the discomfort wasn’t significant and she divested herself of her underclothes and started the water running.

She had to laugh a bit. Everywhere her jumpsuit wasn’t, she was covered in dirt and grunge, and it was very nice to get under the warm water and scrub.   She had no idea in the world what she would have done up in the crŹche. The amount of rad it would have taken to get this off her skin – boy that would have hurt.

This was much nicer.  She happily squeezed some of the .. yes, Jess had said it was soap – onto the cloth and rubbed it all over her, then washed her hair and stood for a minute just letting the shower thrum against her skin.

She felt her stomach growl, and shut the water off, stepping out and grabbing a towel to dry herself off with.  Then she paused and considered how natural it was starting to feel to be here, which in itself didn’t seem natural because she’d only been here a few days.

But she did feel that way. She put her suit and underthings into the laundry basket and wrapped the towel around her, walking out into the room and crossing to her uniform case.  She opened it and then paused, faced with a  small surprise.

Along with the standard jumpsuits and her pilot ones, now there were a few others, one in a deep blue and another in purple that seemed very casual.  She pulled aside the regular ones exposing the blue one and touched the fabric, which was very soft.

“Hm.”  Dev put on a pair of dry underclothes and studied the blue suit, liking the feel against her skin very much.  “Wonder where this came from?” Was it another thing from Bain, she pondered. Or maybe just something that came as part of her job?  Maybe it was something she would need on the mission.

Of course.   Dev took out one of her regular off duty suits and slipped into it, fastening the catches and transferring her insignia to the collar.  She went back into the sanitary unit and picked up her comb, raking it through her hair to order it.

She was just finishing when she heard the inner door open, feeling a funny little prickle down her spine as she looked in the mirror and Jess appeared in it, leaning against the edge of the entrance.  “Hello.”

“Finished wrenching for the day?” Jess inquired.

Dev turned and put the comb down.  “Yes. I really liked it.” She admitted. “Is that wrong?” She watched Jess’s face, noting anew it’s distinctive shape and the piercing quality of her eyes.  “I didn’t meant to be incorrect.”

“You weren’t.”  Jess’s eyes shifted and met hers.  “You’re a tech. Some techs just want to drive and do mods. Some like to wrench.  It’s all right.” She said.  “Want to do dinner? I got stuck in comp pulling tracking data. I just got back.”

“Me too.”  Dev said. “I’d love to go. It’s been a long time since breakfast.”

“It has. C”mon.”  Jess turned and led the way through her quarters to the outer door, which she palmed open.  “Any good news on the old bus?”

“Yes.” Dev said. “I think we did good work today. “

They walked along the corridor, which seemed a lot busier than Dev remembered it. There were a lot of people clustered in groups and passing them. 

“Peh.” Jess angled towards the wall to avoid a group of talking men.  “Mess is going to be a damn circus.”

“What’s a circus?”  Dev asked promptly.  “I”ve never heard of that.”

“What’s a circus.” Jess mused, as they turned down the hall and paused, spotting a big crowd outside the mess hall.   “In the old days, they used to travel around and put up tents, where you could go to see performing animals, and clowns, and trapeze artists.”    She glanced at Dev, who was staring at her in fascinated incomprehension. “I”ll show you on scan later.” 

They squeezed past the crowd and entered the mess, only to pull up short again. Every table was taken, and more had been shoved in until it was packed with bodies.

“Oh no.”  Jess turned and went over to the food service are. “I vote we get a bag meal and go sit on the porch.”

“Okay.” Dev went right along with it, having no real desire to squeeze in with the crowd.  She took the wrapped package the Ceebee handed her and followed Jess out the door again, pressing back against the wall as a half dozen men in fancy looking suits pushed past them.

She saw Jess’s eyes narrow, but the agent merely edged past them and headed down to the lifts.  Dev kept close after her, and shortly they were going down  to the lower corridors.  When the lift stopped and they stepped out, they were alone.

“What a nuthouse.”  Jess grumbled.  “I hate these damned ceremonies. Everyone and their mother’s asshole shows up for them.” She strode down the hall and the air got damp and salty as they made their way to the lock and went inside.  “Weather’s broken for a while. We can get some air.”

Dev waited, holding her package, as the lock cycled and the outer door opened, giving them access to the small platform overlooking the sea.

Unlike the previous time, the winds were quiet and the sea below them was only rustling with a dim roar, not the fierce crashing Dev had heard the last time Jess had brought her here.   She sat down on the bench next to the agent and started unwrapping her meal.

The air smelled wet and salty, but she liked it.  She could almost feel the rasp of the air against her skin as a physical thing, and as she took in a lungful of air, it occurred to her that the real thing felt very different than the manufactured air she’d become used to in the crŹche.

That never smelled like anything.  This she could taste on her tongue and as she took a bite of the roll that was in the package it enhanced the flavor of it.  She peered at the item curiously as she chewed. “This is interesting.” She said, after a minute.

“Seaweed roll.”  Jess answered, a little indistinctly due to her mouthful.  She swallowed and regarded hers.  “They take the little stuff they catch in the seine nets – the krill and tiny shrimps and all, and mix it with some water grain and wrap it in leaf weed.”

“I like it.” 

“Me too.” Jess smiled briefly.  “But you seem to like everything.”

Dev leaned back against the wall, extending her legs out and crossing them at the ankles.  “Well.” She chewed thoughtfully.  “Nothings really been bad yet.  I like some things more than other things, but I haven’t gotten anything yet that made me just stop.”

“Did you up there?”  Jess leaned her elbows on her knees, her back to sore to press against the wall.

“Yes.” Her companion said. “There was a kind of fruit once, and I just got a smell of it and it made me sick.”

“Huh.”

“They stopped making the fruit.”  Dev continued. “They tried all that stuff on us.”

Jess’s jaws moved stolidly, ingesting the roll.  The pain was killing her appetite but she knew she had to get something inside her before she took more drugs for it.  She’d found that out the hard way.  And she did like the things, the spicy taste and crunch of the grains appealed to her.

Maybe a good night’s sleep would help.  She finished the first roll and took out the second one.  There was also some rice cakes inside, and a tube of water and at the bottom a piece of sweet dough to finish with.

Common. She’d had many of these meals usually out on assignment, or waiting for insertion, but occasionally in the heat of ops they’d get them delivered to the comm center too.  Not fancy, but it kept you going.

She glanced at Dev, who was busy consuming everything in her box with a studious seriousness that almost made Jess laugh.  They had both fallen silent,  but she was surprised to realize it was a comfortable silence, requiring no chatter between them.

She liked that.  Jess herself wasn’t much of a talker, and it seemed her new pilot wasn’t either which seemed to her to be another good sign.   In the dim outside solar powered light that lit the platform, Dev was cast in low color shadows, her pale hair contrasting with the darkness of her suit and she appeared relaxed, looking around as she chewed with a contented expression.

Jess went back to her own meal trying to ignore the once again throbbing ache in her back, trying to remember just how much of the painkiller she had left in her quarters. Maybe she could take some and just sack out….

The touch on her arm nearly made her jump out of her skin.  “Urf!”

“Wow. Sorry about that.”  Dev withdrew her hand. “I didn’t mean to alarm you, I just wanted to ask you a question.”

Jess turned the seaweed roll around in her fingers for a moment, then she glanced sideways at Dev. “Go ahead and ask.” She said. “But be careful about grabbing me. Sometimes I don’t think first and I could hit you without meaning to.”

“Okay.” Dev was studying her with a serious expression. “Is there something disturbing you?”

Jess was caught by utter surprise at the question. “Me?”

Dev looked around the small platform, then back at her. “Yes.”

‘Why?” Jess heard a sharp note enter her voice, not entirely intended.

Undisturbed,  Dev merely looked at her. “Since this morning, after the attack it seemed to be you were.” She said. “I didn’t mean to offend you by asking.”

Jess studied those open and guileless eyes, hearing the polite concern in Dev’s voice and not detecting any hidden meaning behind the words. “I’m not offended.” She said, gruffly.  “I said you could ask me things, didn’t I?”

‘Yes.”  Dev smiled. “You did.”

There was an odd sense of conflict in her.  Jess found herself teetering between brushing Dev off, and confiding in her and she wasn’t entirely sure why.  It was a strange feeling, new and confusing. 

“I hope it wasn’t something I did that disturbed you.” Dev spoke up again, a faint hesitance in her voice.

All at once, Jess decided. “Nah.” She shook her head. “You’ve only done good stuff, Dev.   I slammed my back against a door handle this morning right where I got hurt the last time and it’s bothering me, that’s all.”

Dev looked relieved, and yet, still concerned.  “I’m sorry you got hurt. Are you going to med?”

“No.” Jess shook her head. “It’s not that bad.  Just annoying and med tends to make big deals out of nothing.”

The bio alt nodded. “I never liked going either. “ She confided.  “You never knew what they’d do to you and then..”  She paused. “Well, you never wanted them to think you were really hurt or really sick.”

Jess looked at her, head tilted slightly in question.

Dev glanced aside. “Not much use for damaged products.”

Jess blinked.  “What?”

Dev looked embarrassed.  “We’re not actually people. Not legally.” She clarified.  “So if you were really damaged they’d just scratch you and start over.” She glanced up at Jess, who was sitting there, roll forgotten in her hand, her jaw a little dropped. “So that’s why we like to find a place to do good work.” She concluded softly. “Kind of makes it safer.”

Jess reached out and put her hand on Dev’s shoulder. “You’re as much a person here as I am.”  She said. “So don’t worry about them trying to scratch you as long as I’m around.”

It was hard to say, really, which one of them was more surprised to hear her say that.  Certainly Jess herself was a little amazed and more than a touch confused as to where it had come from.  She barely knew Dev, really.

And yet, it was true.  Whether it was that she felt sorry for the kid, or that she felt responsible for her wasn’t really important.

“Thank you.” Dev said, after a moment. “So that’s why I asked if you were upset, and I was hoping it wasn’t at me.” She gravely studied Jess’s face. “And I’m very sorry you don’t feel well.  I hope it gets better soon.”

Jess relaxed. She lowered her hand to her knee and settled slowly back against the wall, not bothering to hide a grimace now.  “I’m sure it will be.” She sighed. “Never get stabbed in the back, Dev. It takes forever to heal and hurts like hell.”

Dev watched the sharp profile across from her, wondering if it was a trick of the half light or if Jess really looked for a moment as sad as those words sounded.   Then her companion shifted a little and the impression was gone.

“Okay.” Dev went back to scavenging her box. “I’ll try to remember that.” She added. “It’s too bad you don’t have null grav here. That’s where I went when I hurt my leg in training. It made it feel better.”

Jess thought about that. “Well.” She finished her roll and dug out the sweet cake.   “No, we don’t have null gravity here, but you know, water’s almost as good.”

Dev immediately looked interested.  “Like the shower?”

“No.” Jess shook her head.  “The gym pool maybe. It’s going to be too rough to go surf the caverns tonight.”  She glanced up , to where clouds were now skudding over them, and the corresponding wind was picking up.  “Want to join me later?”

“In the pool?” Dev asked.

Jess nodded. “I forgot the pool’s pretty good for therapy. Gets the G’s off you.”

“Yes, absolutely.”  Dev’s eyes brightened.  “Maybe you can show me how to swim.  I didn’t have a lot of success with that.”  She finished her tube of water and folded everything up, putting it back into the container neatly. 

“What the hell made you just jump in?”  Jess asked.

“I just wanted to feel what it was like.” Her companion said. “I never had any programming at all about that so I thought the fastest way for me to learn about it was to just do it.”  She added. “It’s like that sometimes for us. You find a hole, and you want to fill it in.”

Jess considered that. “Interesting philosophy.”  She admitted.

Dev smiled. She set the package down and got up, walking over to the edge of the platform and putting her hands on the railing.

The wind was coming up, and it was a little exciting to her to be facing into it, feeling the pressure of it against her skin as it blew her hair back and made her blink.

It felt a little wild and unpredictable.  Dev decided she really liked that, as she watched the ruffled white capped darkness of the sea below them, lit by the lower outside lights of the citadel.  She could hear the thunder of the surf below, and after a second, as though in counterpoint, thunder from above in the thick layer of clouds over head.

“Don’t get any ideas.”  Jess placed her hands on the steel rail next to Dev’s.  “Jumping in that would be a fast lesson but very very short.”

Dev chuckled a little. “We’re curious, but not generally self destructive.” She commented.  “I know the difference.”  She studied the view, and exhaled. “This is so amazing though.  It’s like looking out at the stars in the crŹche but better.  So unlimited.”

Jess leaned on the rail and pondered that, watching Dev out of the corner of her eye as the spray dusted her skin.  “Unlimited?”

Dev nodded, pointing out at the horizon.  “It goes on a long way but you can tell that. The stars – you can’t really tell how far back they go so this gives you a better look at something big.” She clarified. “It seems more real.”

“It also gets you wet.”  Jess wiped a bit of spray from her face.  “I’m guessing space doesn’t do that.”

Dev held her hand out and watched her skin get coated. “No.  You can’t touch space.” She said. “And it can’t touch you. Not like this.”

The air of the world filled her lungs, so much thicker and more vibrant than what she’d been used to and she could feel the salt on her lips and smell the pungent scent of the water. “It makes me feel all over.”

“You like that.”  Jess commented. 

Dev turned to look at her, with a smile. “Very much. Don’t you?”

Jess smiled in return, looking down at her folded hands on the rail. Then she glanced off across the horizon. “I might learn to.” She said. “C’mon. Let’s go back inside before the storm hits.”  She turned and picked up her bundle, keying the airlock with her free hand. “See what other trouble we can get into tonight.”

**

She was going to learn how to swim.   Dev felt a bit like bouncing around her quarters, as she waited for Jess to finish her discussion outside.  

The halls had started to finally empty out as they walked back but Stephen Bock had caught up with them just outside the operations center and Dev had quickly realized he wanted a private talk with Jess.

In the creche, she’d gotten that a lot Proctors and other instructors always wanted to talk outside their earshot, as though bio alts really didn’t know what was going on.  

Dev found that a little funny.  New proctors always acted like they were dumb, and though some sets certainly weren’t that sharp, most had average intelligence and knew what was going on around them.

Others, like Dev, were just as intelligent as the teachers instructing them and it was usually a funny moment when the newbies figured it all out.

LIke spelling words they didn’t think the bio alts would understand. LIke they were children or something.

She remembered one of them, a woman who had just come to the creche from one of the science stations. She was teaching a class in how plants grew, and thought she had to explain to them what a pea was

What a pea was.  Like they didn’t live on a biologic test station, and had been fed every single variety of pea the ag group could come up with in hopes of developing something they could use downside.

Dev had stood up and recited the entire phylum of them, in alphabetical order.   She could still hear her class laughing, there in her head and see the discomfited look on the teacher’s face as she was force to just stand there and listen.

 She chuckled, now, and went over to the dispenser for a bottle of water to sip but paused when she saw a light sedately flashing on her pad.

Curious, she went over and sat down, pulling the pad over and keying it on.  To her bemused surprise, she found she had a message waiting. 

A message? Who would be sending her a message? She touched the surface of the pad and the message opened up.

Dev -

Thanks for your help today! I really appreciated the extra hands! Hope you can come back soon and we can really get into the engines!

Clint.

Dev sat back and folded her arms over her chest, rereading the message a few times.  It didn’t seem to really have a purpose, after all, Clint had said the same thing before she’d left that day,   So why had he sent it?

Just to be polite?  Dev keyed the screen and the data input came up. She replied to the message, deciding a polite gesture certainly warranted an equally polite response.

Hello Clint -

You are most welcome. I am glad we had good results.  I look forward to helping again.

Dev

Dev regarded the message, and then sent it, with a little smile. “That’s nice.” She said. “He’s an interesting person.”

Another natural born who treated her almost like one of his own kind.

The inner door popped open and Jess trudged in, rolling her eyes and dropping down into one of the chairs near Dev’s workspace.  “What a shoebox full of buttcracks this is sometimes.” She announced, propping her elbow on the chair arm and letting her head rest against her hand. 

Dev stopped in mid motion and stared at her, then went immediately back to the pad and started typing on it then stopped again and looked at Jess. “How do you spell that second thing?” She asked, hesitantly.  “I think I can guess what a shoebox is.”

Jess chuckled wryly. “Stupid Stephen was trying to convince me to do the intake speech tomorrow night.” She said. “I told him that was his job.  I don’t know what got into him.”

Dev folded her hands on the desk.  “So, he wanted you to talk to everyone?”

Jess nodded.

The bio alt considered this. “You have a very nice voice.” She concluded. “I’m sure  the new people would enjoy it.”

Jess stared at her with her head cocked just slightly to one side. “What?”

“All of those people who are just getting here.” Dev said. “I’m sure it will seem very strange to them, so wouldn’t it be great for them to have someone as experienced and nice as you welcome them?”  She watched Jess’s eyes open up a little wider. “I would have liked that.”

“Rather than having someone beheaded as your welcome?”  Jess demurred. “Yeah, I guess.” She muttered, her brows contracting. “What the hell would I say.. wait a minute. Did you call me nice?”

“Yes.”

“Me? Nice?”  Jess sat up a little.

“Yes.”  Dev smiled at the look on her companions face.  It was a mixture of embarrassment and uncertainty and she found it sort of endearing.  “You’ve been very nice to me, and I wanted to say thank you for that.”

Jess blushed visibly, which was very interesting. “Just trying to help” She muttered, then got up. “Let’s do this pool thing.”   She brusquely indicated the door.  “Maybe it’ll make my back chill out and I can get a decent night’s sleep.”

“Okay.” Dev got up and joined her and they headed for the door.  She was a little puzzled though, since she’d never quite experienced such a discomfited reaction to a compliment before.  She reviewed what she’d said, a few times, and decided she couldn’t detect any particular reason her words should have caused Jess distress.

They walked through the central hall now almost peaceful, the few people going in the opposite direction mostly ignoring them.    Jess glanced to either side as they turned the corner to the rec area, and cleared her throat “Ops agents aren’t supposed to be nice.”

“Not even to the people they work with?” Dev asked.  “Why?”

“Because we’re assholes.”

Dev frowned. ‘Here we go with that ass stuff again.” She sighed. “I think I have to ask Doctor Dan if he has a translation for all of this. I’m not sure why you all find people’s behinds so interesting.”

“Heh heh.” That put a grudging smile on Jess’s face.  “We’re just typically nasty tempered people.” She clarified. “You saw us in the bar.  We’d go at each other’s throats if house rules let us.”

Dev kept up pace next to her.  “Well, okay.” She said. “But Jess, you have been nice to me. Not nasty at all.” She protested. “You’ve been nicer to me than anyone else I’ve ever met.”

Jess remained silent, as they entered the gym. 

At this late hour, it was almost empty.  There were a few people in the weight bearing area, and one on a treadmill but the rest of the huge space was quiet, and the lights had been dimmed a bit in response to that.

They walked together into the changing room.   Jess went to what was, apparently, her locker and opened it, studying the contents with a dour glare.

Dev decided remaining quiet was probably the best thing to do. She opened her locker, then paused.

After a brief moment, they both looked up at each other at the same time.

Jess came over and sat down on the bench next to Dev’s locker, her exercise gear in her hand. “Sorry.” She said. “I think we’re nasty to each other because we know it’s pointless to make friends. You just lose them.  After a while of that, you just walk around the pain.”

Dev sat down next to her. “I understand.” She said. “Sometimes it was like that in the creche. You  never wanted to get too close to anyone because they could get assigned at any time and you’d never see them again.”

Jess nodded. “Yeah.”

Dev looked down at her hands, clenched a little on her workout suit.  “Well.” She said. “You know, I’m your pilot, so maybe it’ll be that whatever happens will happen to both of us at the same time.” She glanced up, getting caught by Jess’s intent gaze at close quarters.  “So maybe its okay to be nice to me.”

After a brief, still second Jess relaxed a bit, her face easing into a faint smile. “I’m nice to you because I like you.” She said. “I don’t like a lot of people.”

Dev felt an unusual heat on her skin, and knew it was her turn to blush.  “Thanks.” She said. “I like you too.”

Jess’s smile became more pronounced.  “So let’s go swimming.” She said, getting up.  “Don’t pay attention to the crap I say, Dev.  Sometimes I just talk out my... “ She paused, and laughed. “Sometimes I say things just to hear myself talking.”

Somehow, Dev thought, as she changed into her workout suit and followed Jess into the big open space.  Somehow, she didn’t really think that was true. She thought Jess said exactly what she felt.

At least, she certainly hoped so.

“Okay.”  Jess led the way around to the shallow end of the pool and stepped into it. The brief exercise clothes just outlined her tall form, and she paused for a minute and let her hand down to test the temperature.  “Ah.” She sounded surprised.

“What’s wrong?” Dev stepped in next to her. “Oh. It’s warmer than it was earlier.”

“Yeees.”  Jess seemed pleased. She splashed into the water and then dropped into it onto her back, making a wave swirl out from her all over the tank. “Oh, I like this.”

Dev followed more slowly. She took the time to enjoy the feeling of the water buoying her, it’s warmth immediately penetrating her and easing muscles just a little sore from her earlier exercise. “That feels very nice.”

Jess had gone to the edge of the pool and was leaning against it, her eyes half closed. “It sure does.” She agreed. “Damn, I’d forgotten what that felt like.” 

Dev made her way through the water over to her side.  “Why is it warm now?”

Jess exhaled. “I don’t care.”  She shifted her shoulders and let her head drop back. “Just feels good.”

It did.  Dev flexed her hands, breathing in the smell of the water. The sound of the treadmill had faded, and now only the clank from the weight bearing space was audible, along with the hum and low buzz that was the air handlers high over head.

“Okay.”  Jess reluctantly opened her eyes. “So here we are, in the pool.” She pushed away from the side.  “What did you do when you jumped in?”

“Just this.” Dev made a paddling motion with her hands.

“Natural instinct.” Jess looked approving. “Babies do that, when you drop  them in the water.”

“You drop babies in the water?”  Dev’s eyebrows went up.

“Just a saying.”  Jess launched herself forward. “Watch.”

Dev did, avidly.   Jess lifted her arms up and put them forward, pulling back against the water and making her go forward.  She was also kicking her feet.

“Ow.”  Jess stopped after a few strokes. “Damn it.” She rolled over onto her back and used her legs to move her back to where Dev was, keeping her hands folded on her stomach.  “Fucking shoulder.”

“It must hurt a lot.”  Dev said, with sympathy.

Jess came to a halt next to her. “Driving me crazy.” She admitted.  “Okay, now you try.”

Dev thought about what she’d just seen her companion do, and made a picture in her head about it, running through the motions in her imagination before she took a deep breath and presented herself to the water.

At the first stroke, her head went under.  Dev only just kept herself from sucking in a breath in surprise, moving her other arm forward and exhaling as her head broke the surface again.

“Whoa whoa... “ Jess’s voice echoed behind her.

Dev’s head went under again, and then she suddenly felt hands on her hauling her up to the surface.  She spluttered as she came up again, shaking the hair out of her eyes as Jess came around in front of her and grabbed her other arm just above the elbow. “Wow.”

“Stop.” Jess was trying not to laugh. “You’re sinking like a damned rock.”

Dev stopped moving, blinking the water out of her eyes.  “That’s why I stuck to the paddling.” She explained. “If I stopped moving I went under.” She could feel the grip on her, warm and sure, but not uncomfortable.

“So I see.” Jess pushed her gently backwards until they were shallow enough for Dev to stand. “Okay.” She released the bio alt, rubbing the tips of her fingers together as she remembered the strength she’d felt under the soft skin.

Interesting.

“You were doing this?” Dev leaned forward a little, and moved her arms in a swimming motion. “Right?”  She peered at Jess, droplets of water dripping off the tip of her nose. “It looked so easy when you did it.”

“Right.” Jess motioned her sideways. ‘“Let me hold on to you and you can practice it here where it’s harder to drown.”  She gave Dev a quick smile.  “It looked easy for me because I’ve been doing it all my life.”

That sounded like a very good idea. Dev leaned forward again and Jess moved closer, putting a hand under her belly and another on her thigh.   For a moment, Dev completely lost track of what she was doing as her body reacted then the water hit her in the face and she forced her arms into motion.

“That’s it.” Jess commented. “Over your... yeah. Cup your hands, don’t slap the water.”

Dev did her best with the unfamiliar moves, then as she did as Jess suggested and cupped her hands, she felt the strong pull against the water. Then a sudden tickle of programming clicked in and it went from awkward to familiar in the space of a breath.

Strange, and then not. A familiar sensation to her but usually not this visceral. 

She started kicking her feet in the same rhythm, and after a minute of that, she felt Jess’s hold shift, from her stomach to her back, the long fingers tangling themselves in her light covering and holding her up.

“I’m gonna let you go.” Jess said. “Just keep that up... that’s right.”

Then the grip was gone, and she was moving forward in the water, this time without the odd and jerky lack of coordination that had shoved her head under the surface previously.

“Turn your head on every other stroke and breathe.” Jess called out, surprisingly close by.    She was swimming alongside her, and every time Dev did turn to that side, she took a breath and saw her companion do the same.

There was a memory there.  She realized it wasn’t really programming, it was something else. Something dimmer and less certain, a flash of a mental picture that brighter and colder and had a lot more noise.

A thundering rush, and laughter.

Then it was gone, and it was just her, and Jess, and the big empty space again.

They reached the end of the tank at about the same time, and she grabbed the edge and held on, the bottom far below her feet.  “Wow.” She spluttered. “I didn’t sink.”

“Nice.” Jess complimented her. “You keep this up you might not drown if we get dumped out  of the carrier  one of these trips”

Dev wiped the water out of her eyes with one hand. “Does that happen often?”

“It happens.”  Jess was also holding on, moving her other arm around carefully.  “Huh.” She looked a little relieved. “Water’s helping loosen it up” She turned around. “Below my shoulderblade, you see any bumps there?”

Dev moved aside the fabric and studied her companions back. “Here, you mean?” She touched a red, raw looking area.

“Yeah.”

Dev gently stroked the area with her fingertips. “I don’t... no I think it’s just the scar.” She said. “No bumps.”

Jess was regarding the skin on her arm with a bemused expression. “No bumps, huh?” She turned. “Well, good.” She pointed back in the other direction. “Let’s try another lap. We’ll have you communing with the fishes yet.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Ahheh.” Jess chuckled. “We’ll have to find out.”

**

 

Jess sat down on her bed, the cool air brushing against her bare shoulders.  Her skin felt a little waterlogged, and the soft sheets felt good as she slowly lowered herself down onto her back.  “Man, I’m tired.”  She spoke casually to the ceiling. “But that was a pretty damn good time.”

It was mid first watch, late and quiet in the citadel and the halls they’d walked back through had been blessedly free of random intruders.   Jess exhaled, running her mind over the hours spent in the pool, hearing again the laughter echoing in her ears.

She smiled. Her body was slowly relaxing, and every breath she took made that more profound.  She let her eyes close and spread her arms out carefully, feeling a residual ache but nothing like the sharp pain she’d experienced all day.  “Ahhh.”

Then her comm buzzed.   Jess groaned and turned her head towards it, seeing the flashing light that indicated not an internal call, but one from outside.  “Huh.” She levered herself up and went to the workspace, coming around the table and sitting down in the chair as she touched the console. “Drake.”

The screen came on, and after a fuzzy moment, cleared and she was looking into a pair of eyes the same color as hers, framed in a male face with a neatly trimmed dark beard.  “Hello, Jess. Sorry. I know its late there.”

Jess leaned forward. “It’s all right, Jimmy. What’s up?”  She responded, watching her brother’s face intently.  Several years her senior, he’d finally worked his way into a decent position at one of the processing centers and gotten married. Managed to spawn two kids, one little girl and one tow headed boy who was, Jess remembered, around five.

Around five. 

“Just wanted to let you  know about Tayler.”  Jimmy said. “He went through the battery last week. They called us today. He’s in.  They’ll take him next month.”

Jess exhaled a little. “Generation 12, huh?”

“Yep.”  Her brother studied her. “The old family curse.”

Jess wasn’t really sure how to answer that.  She knew she had nothing to do with Tayler’s scores, but there was always a bittersweetness to it hearing that another family member had tested in.   They’d had at least one and occasionally more in each generation, the one prior to Jess’s father’s had sent three, and Jess had an uncle serving up in the Arctic somewhere.

It was what it was  “If I’m still around when he inducts, I’ll keep an eye on him.” Jess said. “You can give him my comm if he wants to talk about it, later.”

“Thanks.” Her brother managed a brief smile. “At least you know you don’t have to donate those eggs to keep the line going, right.”

“Huh.” Jess snorted wryly.  “Yeah. Like that would happen.”  She glanced to one side, then looked back at the screen. “How’s Mari?”

Jim shrugged. “Took it hard. But she knew who she was marrying.”  He concluded. “At least she knows Jimmy’s going to be set and get schooled.  More than most do.” He said. “Peg’s going to be pretty smart, we think.  Maybe go into science” He added. “She tested that way.”

“Good to hear.”  Jess said. “How’s mom?”

“Running for chamber councillor.” Jim said, with a wry look.  “She’s probably going to bunk in with one of those other polits. Said she was tired of looking at 2D pictures on the wall and talking to dad’s old boots.”

“Don’t blame her.” 

“Me either.” Her brother assented. “Matter of fact, she boxed up a lot of his stuff. “He glanced at Jess, with an apologetic expression “I told her to send them to you, not dump em. Figured maybe you’d at least like to look through em.”

Jess gazed somberly at him. “Thanks, Jimmy.  Appreciate the thought.” She said. “There’s still a couple of old goats in service around here that would probably like to take a look too.” 

JIm smiled. “Anyway, it’s late.  I’m surprised I caught you there. Things okay?”

Jess thought about her recent past.  “Same as usual.” She responded. “We’ve got induction tomorrow night, we’re all around.”

“Gotcha.” Jimmy nodded. “Have fun.”

“Thanks you too. Give my regards to Mari and the kids.” Jess leaned back, as she watched her brother lift his hand in goodbye, and cut the signal off.    She pondered the dark screen for a few minutes, thinking.

Jimmy was the only one who took pains to keep in touch.  Her other brother, Jake... she wasn’t even sure where he was most of the time.  Never had any ambition, the last time she’d seen him he was a raker on the coast, and apparently content to stay that way.

When she reached field retirement age, if she did, she’d have the option to take a permanent admin assignment and get married, and have kids.

Jess chuckled wryly at her faint reflection in the screen.  She didn’t see any of that happening, even if she somehow survived her active phase, but now, with Bain’s attention she might possibly end up running something if she did. That would be all right.  She could picture herself in Bricker’s position, with a lot more savvy and a lot less jackasswardness.

And no Sandy kissing her ass or anything else.  

Jess got up and went back to the bed, considering her next day’s schedule.   The halls would be nuts, so maybe she’d show Dev the caverns.  Maybe they’d end up in the pool at night again. She got under the covers and stretched out feeling a vague sense of content that was for her quite rare.

She heard the faint sound of movement from next door and turned her head towards the inner portal that separated her quarter’s from Dev’s, imagining her pilot rattling around in the big space, probably settling down in bed much like she was.

She was really starting to like Dev.  Aside from her unexpectedly significant skills as a bus driver, she had a gentle and appealing personality that was completely unlike anyone Jess had ever worked with before.  Most agents, and even techs were intolerantly aggressive and ego driven herself included.

Dev was neither. She had a dry yet pronounced sense of humor, didn’t take herself seriously, and her bright and impish smile made it almost impossible to stay in a bad mood around her.

She liked spending time around her. Jess thought about that for a minute. With Joshua, it hadn’t quite been like that. It was more like she didn’t mind spending time with him.  He had been someone she could casually play a board game with, or have a drink while they talked about work.

He hadn’t sought out her presence, she hadn’t done the same for him.  They were compatible in the sense that they could easily mesh on the job and she wasn’t irritated by him most of the time but Jess knew the feeling was completely different than how she felt about Dev.

She wanted to be in Dev’s space.  She’d almost stopped thinking of her as a bio alt.

Jess studied the ceiling intently.  Was she moving towards a place where she might consider trusting Dev? Was the fact that the bio alt had no choice in any of this making her feel sorry for her?  Making her want to protect her?  Was it’ Jess’s innate sense of honor making a surprising appearance?

“Huh.” She let out a small grunt.  “I have no real fucking clue what it is but I like it.”  She put the thoughts aside, and closed her eyes, rolling over onto her side and tugging the covers snug around her, glad for once to surrender to sleep.

**

Dev sat herself down on the mat that was in her relaxation area and crossed her legs up under her, leaning her elbows on her knees as she regarded the dimly lit space. 

Her body was very tired.  After the long session in the gym, and the long session in the pool doing all those unfamiliar things she felt pleasantly exhausted and she was looking forward to the big comfortable bed downstairs.  But first, she wanted to sit and think for a few minutes.

This was something she’d never been able to do. She’d never really had the choice of where to go and what to do, except for those few minutes between class and meals, and lab and sleep.

Now, here in her quarters she could choose to do downstairs and go to sleep, or sit here and think, or read a page of her book, or even go into the other side of her two level space and run a sim if she wanted to.

The freedom was almost intoxicating.

So though she was tired, she had climbed up into her relaxation area and now she was sitting here on the cushy meditation pad enjoying a bit of peace and quiet just because she could.

She was pretty sure no other bio alts got to do this.  The ones in the creche - certainly not. The ones here in Interforce? She’d heard two of the mechs talking when she was working with Clint.  They’d discussed eating in the common room, and their sleep bunks in a communal room together and what would happen if they were late getting to work.

They hadn’t sounded really unhappy, more typical griping she remembered from the creche but they weren’t treated as natural born. They didn’t have what she did.  Dev looked around her space pensively.  Here she had the same as any other person in the ops group, an insanity of riches to one of her kind.

So. She figured she had to do a really, really excellent job here at Interforce because she didn’t want to go back to being treated like the mechs were.   Dev felt a little uncomfortable with that, but she also knew it was true.

She’d gotten a taste for what it was like being a natural born, and she liked it.  Was that what Doctor Dan was trying to warn her about, that night?  Maybe it was. But she knew she didn’t want to go back to the creche, or even to be reassigned to a lesser job here.

She wanted this.  She wanted to be not only a tech, but the best one here, to do excellent things for Jess, and have Jess come to trust her to do the right thing at the right time and make them both successful.    She felt it as a fire in her gut, and it was new and strange, but good.

With a nod, she stretched herself out, and lay down on her back, looking up at the rock ceiling with its inset speckles of crystal that were evident in the low, blue light. 

They were almost like stars.  Dev felt her body relax, and she was able to let go that determination and think about her day, especially the lessons she’d learned in the pool.

That had been fun.  A lot of fun.  Not only had she gotten a pretty good idea of how to swim, she’d spent hours with Jess and they chased up and down the tank so many times she could still hear the splash of the water and Jess’s low laughter.

When they’d left the gym, it had been completely empty and they’d changed together in a comfortably casual silence before leaving the space and making their way through the quiet halls back to their quarters but not without a detour to the mess hall for a snack.

Just a fish roll and a cup of kack but it really hit the spot after all the activity, and especially more so because of the relaxed companionship as they sat in the mess just like any other agent and tech pair. Just like Elaine and Tucker, who gave them a casual wave as they passed through.

Jess.  Dev called up a picture in her mind of her next door neighbor.  She smiled as she thought about her, aware of a warm, happy emotion that caused.   She thought maybe the pool had done Jess’s shoulder some good too, because she seemed in less discomfort when they finished, and her mood had improved as the night went on.

All good.

Dev let her thoughts drift a little.  Then she let her eyes open, and sat up, getting to her feet and walking down the steps to the main part of the room.  She was already in her sleepware, and she went to her bed and got under the covers, wondering what the next day would have in store for them.

She hoped it wouldn’t start like the previous day had. 

**

For the first time in a while, Jess woke normally, at her own time.  There was no strident alarm, and no soft bong of her timer, just a slow fade from sleep into awareness that left her blinking into the dim light, her body curled into comfort under the covers.

She glanced at the chrono and relaxed, seeing a respectable time before morning that let her stay where she was, and enjoy the moment instead of bouncing out of bed and bolting for the shower as sometimes she had to when she forgot to set the alarm.

She rolled over and stretched her body out, flexing her hands and sighing as she settled into comfortable position on her back.  The room was still mostly dark, the lights embedded in the walls just faintly lit to match what was going on outside.

There was no real beating that circadian rhythm.  Jess folded her hands over her stomach. Not that they hadn’t tried, and not that she couldn’t rig her own for a short while, especially when inserted. But she’d been born in this zone and given it’s preference her body stuck to it.

That turned her mind to Dev.  What zone did your body think it was in when you were born on station, whirling around the planet all day long? Did they even have the same rhythms she and the rest of them did?

Dev seemed content to wake and sleep when told to, so maybe they’d done something to her that let her adjust without complaint. Or maybe she really did have to adjust, but just didn’t bitch about it.

Jess considered that last thought had it’s merits.  Dev wasn’t a complainer. Part of that she knew was built in because she was a bio alt and part she suspected was just how Dev was. At least, she hoped so because it was something she really appreciated in a p..

Jess paused and exhaled. In a pilot? Sure.  She’d told Dev point blank that’s all she wanted her to be, just a bus driver, hadn’t she? Well that was good.  Dev had turned out to be an unexpectedly good bus driver so far, so they both should be very happy.

She didn’t want a partner. Certainly not a bio alt partner she knew very little about.  Jess frowned, the words sounding metallic and false in her own mental ears because she suspected it wasn’t really all that true after the last couple of days.

It just hurt though, thinking of Joshua and that last bitter laughter. She felt embarrassed that she’d been taken like that, even though everyone else had too. She didn’t want to risk that happening again, and suffer the shame and the... grief...  of knowing you were so horribly wrong about someone.

It was just too hard. Her stomach felt sick just thinking about it.  Wasn’t it safer and easier for both her and Dev if she just kept her at arms length?  What if the bio alt funked out at something, and had to be kicked back to serving breadsticks or something. Wouldn’t it be easier on her if she...

Jess pinched the bridge of her nose. Who in the hell did she think she was fooling? Here she was laying her arguing with her conscience when her ears were already cocked to listen for the first sounds of stirring from beyond that inner door.

There was part of her that wanted that friendship, no matter what her ego said about it. She wasn’t really a natural loner and never had been, enjoying the companionship of first her classmates, and then her fellow agents. Even when she disagreed with them, she liked being part of this closed, eclectic brotherhood.

Well.  Jess tapped her navel with the edges of her thumbs. Maybe Dev just wasn’t structured for it.  She seemed very friendly, but reserved so maybe she really didn’t have a choice after all and she’d have to deal with however it was the bio alt was programmed to relate to her.

That made her feel better.  Jess stretched again, and then pulled the covers aside and got up, passing through her workspace as the lights reacted to her presence and brightened. She keyed the dispenser to provide some kack and touched the ops console com, nodding a little as the overhead speaker started to echo softly with the current ops chatter.

Nothing sounded out of place.  Unlike the previous day, she could only hear standard reports, and the shipcom to two carriers that were on patrol.

Taking no chances.  Especially since they had the induction tonight, and that meant a lot of dignitaries and newcomers around.  Her com chimed, and she sat down, and keyed it. “Drake.”

“Jess, it’s Stephen.”  Bock answered. “Listen, I know you really don’t want to hear me bugging you again about that speech but I really wish..”

“Okay.” Jess propped her chin on her fist. “I’ll do it.”

“Sorry, got a call. Anyway I really wi... wait. What?” Stephen said. “What did you just say?”

“I said I’ll do it.” Jess said. “Anything to keep you off my back.”

Stephen was silent for a minute. “Really?”

“Really.”  Jess said. “Anyway, Dev thinks I”m so nice I should greet all the newbies so they feel at home.”

Another long moment of silence. “What??”  Stephen repeated, more loudly and disbelievingly.

Jess heard a soft tap on her outer door. “Gotta go.” She cut the line off and went to the door, checking the sensor, a little surprised to see it was her pilot. She palmed it open. “Hey there.”

“Hello.” Dev had her arms full. “If you thought the mess was crazy last night you should see it this morning. I grabbed what I could. Want some?”

Jess smiled, and stepped back. “Absolutely. C’mon in.” She clapped Dev on the back as she followed her over to her workspace. “Can’t think of a better way to start the morning.”

Dev looked up from putting down her burden, cocking her head slightly as she regarded Jess with a faintly questioning look.

The agent winked at her, and grinned. “It’s gonna be an interesting day.”

**

Con’t in Part 8