Rain fell in sheets over the edge of a granite promontory, dark gray rock against a dark gray sky, frothed at its base by the rolling gray blue waves of a wide and endless sea framing a monochromatic vison that was grim and unfriendly to life.
Natural and stark, towering stone walls however were broken unexpectedly along one side by metal doors, huge and weather stained. The chiseled slot windows that dotted the front and the reinforced stone shelf within reach of the waves that thundered against it, drenching the surface then draining back into the sea also signaled the presence of humanity.
Seabirds coasted in front of breakwater, skimming close to the waves in hopes of a last meal for the day.
The scene was dark and growing darker as behind an impenetrable layer of clouds diffuse light dimmed in an unseen sunset, bringing the end of the day to Interforce Base 10, all its inhabitants tucked inside working on finishing up tasks and changing of shifts as night fell outside, changing the view from monochromatic to impenetrably dark, only the faintest glow showing from the windows, and a ventilation gap near the side of the metal doors.
It was loud in the service cavern, the sound of pneumatic wrenches keening and the low thub-thub of jets at marking idle making it difficult to communicate in words, most resorting to nods and gestures, and rapid hand signals, ears protected by plugs that blocked out most of the mechanical clamor.
One side of the cavern held a dozen large, blocky, ungraceful looking craft, each on its own metal grid landing pad, with umbilicals draped over them and bodies in coveralls weaving among them all busy with something, anything, everything, no one standing around in idle repose.
Around the perimeter, cleaning staff in gray drifted into view, starting to sweep the ground and empty the service bins, all of them silent, all with the metallic gleam of faintly lit bands around the base of their necks.
On the pad closest to the wall, one of the vehicles had its hatch open and seated on the deck, with both booted feet on the metal surface below was a short, blond haired woman in a dark green jumpsuit, with cables and tools poking out of pockets and a small square box resting on her knee.
Unique in the room, the figure was slight, almost delicate in appearance, in contrast to the other figures moving around the vehicles, most of them tall and broad, and visibly muscled, also in green with a few in black, and some in the browns and vivid orange of technical services and maintenance.
Above her, the vehicle, a Bantam class carrier loomed, all darkly patinaed steel and blunt angles, large engine pods designed to overcome the complete lack of aerodynamics. On its side, as on all the vehicles sides, names were stenciled in matte black against dappled gray and this one said Drake, J, and underneath that, Dev.
The woman worked with visible satisfaction on the control module, using probes attached to a sensor pack around her neck, her booted feet crossed at the ankle, ignoring the cacophony of sound around her as she nodded her head a little as though listening to some internal tune.
The figure looked up. “Hello, Doug. How are you?”
One of the taller men in green, came over and crouched next to the carrier. “I just heard you were back. Did you have a good trip out to Quebec?”
“I think so.” Dev responded. “Jess seemed to think it was acceptable. We got the two men from the other side to follow us through the docks and then Jess got them to fight with each other.” She reported. “They ended up being taken to jail.”
“I have no idea.” Dev said, placidly. “But Jess found that very amusing. I think she thought it was optimal and we got to have a meal at Jonton’s, so I thought so too.”
Doug nodded, taking a seat on the metal surface. “April told me she heard Jason’s due back tonight from that big meeting out west.” He said, in a confiding tone. “She figures some changes are coming.”
“Really? Like what?” Dev went back to working on her module.
“Shake ups.” Doug said, darkly. “Finally nail everyone for all the stuff that went on.”
Dev eyed him briefly. “Nail them to what?” She asked. “And are they going to shake them first? That all sounds very suboptimal.”
Doug looked at her meaningfully, but Dev merely waited for enlightenment, her pale head cocked to one side. “It’s just a saying.” He finally relented. “Like we’d get in trouble for the Westies we killed.”
Dev nodded. “Jess said something when we were in Quebec about the other foot dropping?” She paused. “No, the other shoe dropping. Is that what you mean?” She watched him nod back. “She said she thought they might want to, but they won’t. There aren’t enough of us left to do our jobs, they can’t lose more.”
“That’s what I think too. But you know April. She’s kinda dark.”
Dev looked up at him again, one eyebrow lifting up. “Is that a new change? We were only gone for two days.”
“Are you ever going to not take things literally?” Doug said, in a mournful tone. “Doesn’t that wear off?”
“I don’t think being a bio alt wears off.” Dev said. “I can’t really go back and not be hatched from an egg in space and grow up speaking in strange idioms instead.” She eyed him. “And really, there isn’t enough time for me to have to look up everything everyone says all the time.”
Two figures walking by stopped and looked at them. “Hey.” The nearer one said. “You tell us which way the mess is?”
They were in black jumpsuits, sleek and body hugging, with dark blue piping and agent’s insignia. “We just landed.” The second one said, as the silence lengthened, and they were studied by the two seated techs. “We’re from Rainier Island.” He added. “We’re assigned here?”
“Hello.” Dev finally said since Doug was apparently content to let her do the talking. “The operations mess is level six, down the blue hall, third turn on the left.” She said. “Are you the transfers that were expected?”
The nearer man looked at her, then glanced behind her at the carrier crouching balefully behind them. “Are you…” He paused, looking at her jumpsuit collar tabs, where the twinkle of senior tech insignia was visible. “The... um...”
“Biological Alternative, set 0202-164812, instance NM-Dev-1.” Dev supplied readily. “Yes I am. You can call me Dev.” She added. “This is Doug.” She indicated her companion. “I would proceed to the mess if you are hungry. It’s almost dinner, and everyone will be going.”
“Uh… Thanks.” The man lifted his hand and then they walked off, keeping their heads straight ahead of them, not looking back.
“Just what we need. Goons.” Doug sighed. “At least they weren’t mean to you.”
“Why would they be?” Dev regarded him in some surprise. “I haven’t done anything for them to be mean about, and if they have heard of my name, I expect they also have heard of Jess and would not want to upset her.” She made a final adjustment to the module and stood up, retreating into the carrier and going to the pilot’s station, where she dropped into the pilot’s chair and rolled sideways, ducking down to insert the module into the console.
“Where is Jess anyway? I haven’t seen her back yet.” Doug asked, remaining seated outside.
“She is in the cavern, surfing.” Dev stood up and dusted off her hands. “And now, I will go there and join her.” She exited the carrier and triggered the hatch, watching it slide close and seal behind her. “And then we will go for a meal.”
“You like that surfing? I nearly broke my leg the last time I tried it.” Doug got up.
Dev settled her sensor pack on her neck again. “I like doing things that make Jess happy.” She demurred. “And it’s not too bad now that I have obtained nose plugs and a helmet.”
Doug made a grimacing face. “Sounds like… fun?”
“Some of the time, yes.” Dev waved and headed for the back passage out of the cavern, that angled downward and brought from its depths a moist, briny scent. “Some of the time not really.” She added to herself. “Hopefully today will not be one of those times.”
Doug’s comms unit beeped as he watched Dev leave. “Yo.” He tapped the unit.
“Where are you?” His partner April’s voice was as usual, dour. “Oh, never mind I can hear where you are. Dinner?”
“Sure.” Doug agreed. “Unless you want to wait for the late shift. We could have company.”
The vast cavern under the base was mostly natural stone, with sections of crudely shaped openings and tunnels that provided space for the machinery that allowed the facility to create the power it needed to run itself with.
The outer wall of the cavern was rooted and thick and drilled out under its edge were huge intake holes that let the power of the seawater surge in and turn massive turbines, arching through the length of the facility and then exiting out further down the coastline.
When the tides were out, the lower edge of the outer wall was exposed, and waves that normally would break outside, surged inside and rolled across the width of the cavern, filling it with surge and froth and occasionally human figures on boards that let the power of the water pick them up and rode the waves across the cavern.
Today, this close to dinner, only a single figure was there, dressed in a worn wetsuit and paddling out from the landing slope towards the edge of the cavern, as another wave came rolling in under it.
Dev paused at the edge of the ramp that led down to water level and watched, as the tall figure on the board stood up and turned, picking up the wave and riding it as it lifted, then sliding down its front surface and under the curling top of it as it approached the back wall.
Just when it seemed it would slam the figure into the rocks, the figure popped out of the end of the wave and jumped clear, grabbing the edge of the board as they sailed over the seawall and reached the landing beach, the froth of the water drenching them.
The figure shook themselves, then spotted Dev and waved.
Dev smiled and continued down the ramp. She was met halfway back to the storage area where her board was.
“Hello Jess.” She greeted her agent partner, who towered over her in both height and overall size, the stretchy wetsuit outlining her broad shoulders and powerful body, her black hair slicked back and wet and outlining the strong, angular shape of her face.
“Devvvie!” Jess greeted her. “Ya finish up your wrenching?”
“I did.” Dev agreed. “Doug came in to say hello, and said Jason is coming back tonight. April thinks there will be some difficulties.” She said, placidly. “And two of the new agents have arrived.”
Jess nodded a few times. “Sounds about right.” Her glance sharpened. “They give you any trouble? The westies?”
“Me? No.” Dev said. “They just asked for directions to the mess hall. Why would they want to make trouble? They just got here.”
“Good. You know what they think about us out here in the boonies. Glad they kept their traps shut.” Jess draped a damp arm over her shoulders. “C’mon over here. I made something for ya.”
Dev readily moved with her, a smile appearing on her face. She had no idea what Jess had, but presents from her partner were always optimal, though sometimes surprising, and occasionally perplexing.
They arrived at the storage niche, where a crude metal bar was driven into the stone, and lines of wetsuits hung bearing the marks of long, hard use. Dev wasn’t fond of them, as they were all somewhat too large for her, even the one Jess had cut down for her use and didn’t provide a lot of protection against the cold water and dangerous rocks.
She usually ended up getting scraped and bruised from the surfing and having to spend a good amount of time in a hot shower afterward to return her body to a normal temperature. It was uncomfortable, and often dangerous and only the fact that her partner dearly loved the activity caused her to keep trying it.
“I found some info back in the back of some archive.” Jess said, setting her board to one side and opening a box Dev now noticed was sitting under the suits. “And I figured out...” She pulled a bit of black substance into view. “How to make one of these in your size.” She straightened up and held up a surfing suit. “See?”
“Oh.” Dev reached out and took the suit. “It’s different.” She noted. “More like one of our flight suits.”
“Yep.” Jess agreed. “Put it on.”
Dev obediently stripped out of her tech work suit and hung that up on the bar, then pulled on the new garment, which covered her completely including booties over her feet. It fit like a glove, and as she fastened it, she felt a lot warmer. “Oh.” She said, in surprise. “It’s warm.”
Jess nodded in satisfaction. “It’s got a lining in it. Between the outer and inner fabric. It’s metal mesh, and it holds in your body heat.”
Dev opened the throat covering of the suit and inspected it, then looked at Jess. “That’s amazing.” She closed the fastening again, savoring the comforting warmth. “Thank you Jess!”
Jess leaned against the rocks, folding her arms casually. “Figured it might make your suffering through this insanity easier on ya.” She remarked offhandedly. “You’re such a damn good sport about it.”
Dev turned and went over to the small, protected pool on the side of the raceway and without hesitation stepped off the rocks and into the water. Not unexpectedly she went underwater, but unexpectedly, she found herself popping to the surface and a moment later her head emerged into clear air. “Interesting.”
Jess was sitting on the side of the rocks, hands on the surface of them, ready to jump in. “Interesting?” She asked in an interrogative tone. “In a good way, or a bad way?”
“I do not sink in this.” Dev kept her arms and legs still, and she felt the water buoy her up, a comforting cradling sensation that also lacked the uncomfortable chill the frothy water usually brought with it. “I’m not cold.” She folded her hands on her stomach and relaxed. “Except my head.”
“Doesn’t cover your head. I figured you doing this with your head in a bag would bum you out.” Jess agreed, slipping into the water and coming over to her, gliding along next to her. “Really works?” She sounded surprised. “Really?”
“Really.” Dev looked up at the cavern ceiling, its details lost in the dim light. Then she rolled over in the water and started swimming for the edge. “Let me try surfing with it now.”
Halfway to the side, she abruptly got caught up from behind and they reached the edge of the pool in a surge as she was boosted easily up and out onto the rock surface. Jess leaped out after her, and they went to grab their boards and head for the front of the cave.
“You did great.” Jess toweled off her wet head as they changed back into jumpsuits. “You stayed on all the way through that whole last couple we did!”
“Jess, that was amazing.” Dev fastened up her suit and pulled her damp hair out from the collar. “I really liked it. It was so much more fun.” She felt more than a little exhilarated, for the first time having gotten through the exercise without chattering teeth and bruises.
“Good.” Jess smiled, putting the wet towel into a small bin nearby. “Now maybe I won’t feel like such a jackass for asking you to meet me down here.” She said. “Let’s go get some chow.” She led the way up the rough-cut ramp and they left the roar of the raceway behind as the air slowly lost its moist, briny chill.
The halls were quieter now. It was late watch, and most of the day shift regulars were in quarters, or relaxing somewhere, the few people they passed either maintenance or bio alts, busy at their tasks.
Most of the latter exchanged nods or a small wave with Dev, as she walked briskly along at Jess’s side. They made their way up through the lower levels past the maintenance bays that were now quiet and dark, and past the turnoff that would go to med, also dark at this time of night.
Ahead was the operations mess, and as Jess pushed the door open and held it for her to enter, Dev heard her partner grunt in contentment at the mostly empty room. She followed Jess over to one of the tables in the back, raised area and they sat down.
A bio alt server came over. “Hello Agent Jess.” He greeted Jess in a mild tone. “Hello NM-Dev-1.”
“Hello AyeBee 56.” Dev returned the greeting. ‘How are you?”
Jess settled back in her seat, and lifted a hand, as the door to the room opened again and April and Doug came in. She waved them over. “Gonna be two more.” She told the AyeBee briefly. “Beers all round.”
“Yes.” The AyeBee agreed. “We have fish stew and creamed seaweed tonight. Would you also like some sea grape tea?”
“That’s fine.” Jess responded. “Beer first.”
“Yes.” The AyeBee went off to the service line to assemble their trays.
April Anston arrived first and took the seat across from Jess. She was woman of middling height, with curly, dark copper hair and intense, no nonsense hazel eyes. She carried herself with a sense of confident strength, her body compact and muscular, and she carried a blade strapped to her hip. “Evening.”
Doug came around her and sat down across from Dev, giving her a tiny wink. “Hey Dev. How’d the surfing go?” He was a tall, gangly limbed man with red hair and gray eyes and a sprinkling of freckles that gave him an air of perpetual childness.
“Excellent.” Dev informed him. “Jess invented a new suit for me, and it’s amazing.”
Both April and Doug’s eyes shifted to Jess at once, both of them showing into a remarkably similar expression of intrigued surprise.
The AyeBee returned and put down their mugs of beer. Jess picked up hers and sat back. “What?” She finally said as they continued to eye her. “I can’t make something?” She extended her long legs out across the floor and crossed her ankles. “Maybe the wrencher queen here’s rubbing off on me.”
April cleared her throat and took a sip of her own beer. Made from fermented seaweed, it was dark green and had a pungent, spicy tang to it. “Hey if it’s better than those ratty old sealskins bring it.” She said, crisply. “Get the fabs to make us all some.”
“I might.” Jess relented. She paused as the AyeBee brought back a tray and put it down, handing them all plates full of steaming material, bringing with them the smell of fish and more seaweed. After the server left, she glanced around the room and then back at them. “Jason’s back.”
“Heard that.” April took a spoonful of her stew and mouthed it. “You talked to him.”
“He’s calling a meeting tomorrow morning.” Jess said. “Give us all the scoop. But he didn’t look happy.”
“Heard that too.” April glanced up at her. “Brent flew him out and back and I bumped into him near Centops when they got back.” She related. “Doesn’t know what’s up, he just hopes he’s not going to get tagged with one of those new Westies.”
“Not like he’s got much of a choice.” Jess scooped up some of her stew and raised her brows, then gave a slight, sideways shake of her head. “But I guess we’ll find out.”
“Guess we will.”
The operations planning room was a large, oval space with a plas table in the center and chairs around the perimeter of it, the walls dotted with screens that could be used to display information or vids.
Right now, the screen at the front of the room showed the view out over the sea from the east facing escarpment of the base, where the weather had calmed and now was just heavy clouds over whitecapped dark green sea, the pale gray light from the hidden sun bringing out hints of color in the water.
The corridor doors slid open and tall figures started to enter, taking seats around the perimeter of the table. Jason Anders came in with Elaine Cruz at his heels, Brent and Tucker trailing behind them as they took seats at the top of the table’s oval shape.
It was early, before the start of first watch, and the agents and techs just sat there, waiting for everyone to show up, faces wary and a little sleep blurred, the tension in the room palpable.
The door opened again and April and Jess entered and took their customary seats roughly across from Jason and Elaine, while Dev and Doug settled next to them.
Jess leaned back in her seat and folded her arms, as the last agents entered, Mike Arias leading the two new West Coast transfers and pointing them to empty seats on the long side of the table.
Jason pressed a button on the arm of the chair he was sitting in, and they all heard the doors seal, compressing the air in the room as he hitched himself forward and leaned his elbows on the table. “Okay.”
“What’s the bad news?” Jess spoke up. “Let’s not waste any time.”
Jason gave her a brief grin. “I wasn’t.” He said. “I’m just trying to find a way to phrase what I do know so it makes sense. So, what they told us was that with all the craziness over the last year, they all realized something has to change.”
“Tolja.” April muttered.
“We can’t keep doing this until we all just croak.” Jason pretended he hadn’t heard. “I think we all agree that’s probably true. So, what they’re doing is working with the other side to set up a … “He paused. “A working group I guess you’d call it, to see how we can stop the fighting.”
“That again?” Mike said. “Isn’t that the tune they played when they pulled that scientist scam?”
“Cooperation again?” April chimed in. “C’mon. We’ve been down that road a thousand times before. It’s all just a game.”
Jason nodded. “You’re not saying anything I didn’t.” He said, bluntly. “But what they asked us to do, us, I mean Interforce, is to just stop.” He held his hand up. “No missions, no insertions, just hold off, stay in base, let them talk.”
Jess eyed him but remained silent.
“For how long?” Elaine asked, at his right hand. “Long enough to let them get a few over on us?”
Jason shrugged his broad shoulders. He had straight brown hair and brown eyes and he mostly lacked the sharp edges the rest of the agents displayed. “My plan is, we take the downtime to get everything sorted back out, get our repairs done, get our new members settled. I’m with you. I don’t think this is going to last more than a month in real-time but for right now, everyone stays within our local range here, and keep your head down.”
“Gotta be more to it than that.” April said in an undertone to Jess. “No way it’s just a parlay.”
Jess shrugged. “I’ll get some surfing in.” She said. “Rocket’ll invent a dozen new tech modules and maybe we can take the skiff out and get some shrimp. When was the last time any of us got a vacation?” She said.
Dev leaned close to her. “What is a vacation?” She whispered.
“It’s a break from work.” Doug, seated to her left murmured. “So, you don’t have to work and you get to do stuff like... um… “He paused. “Sit on the beach?”
“So, is that clear to everyone?” Jason asked. “We keep our standard patrol routing for our territories, and standard internal operations but all external ops on hold. Got it?”
One of the new West Coasters nodded. “Give us time to get settled.” He said. “That’s not bad.” He glanced around. “Charlie Boone, in case we haven’t met yet.” He had black hair and gray eyes, and a scar that went across his face from his left ear to his nose.
“Welcome.” Jason said. “And, Dave Carter, there to your right. Welcome to Base 10.”
Carter had tightly curled brown hair and dark skin, and he merely nodded.
“Which one talked to you?” Jess asked Dev.
“The one on the left.” Dev said. “With the scar.” She added. “He is the one that Brent does not wish to be connected to.”
Jess studied the room, the chairs only half filled, just like the base itself was barely half filled, so many of them lost in the battles upon battles.
“Has to be more than that.” April stated, flatly. “Something’s in play.”
Jess nodded slightly, but then stood up. “Is what it is.” She pronounced. “I vote we make the most of the downtime. Build some things back up.”
Jason’s eyes met hers, and he nodded appreciatively at her. “Thanks Jessie.” He said. “That’s how I’m reading it to. Give us some time to get crap sorted out here after everything that went on.” He also stood up. “All right people. That’s all I got.”
Everyone filed out of the room, but Jess waited by her chair until Jason came around to where she was standing. They exchanged glances, then she held up her fist and he bumped it with his own. “Crazy.” Jess said, briefly.
“Crazy.” Jason confirmed.
They were the last in the room, save Dev, who was standing near the doorway waiting for Jess to finish talking before they both went off to rad.
“Think it’s a game?” Jess asked, after a brief pause.
He let out a breath, scrubbing the fingers of one hand through his short, cropped hair. “I think it’s coming from them.” He finally said. “But I also think maybe we went over the top, this last year. Y’know?”
“Do I know?” Jess eyed him. “Came right through my homestead didn’t it.” She said. “We both said then, there has to be a better way than this.” She paused. “I just don’t know a bunch of bean heads in a room talking is it. We’ll end up getting screwed.”
Jason sighed. “Could be true, Jessie.” He admitted. “I could feel the bullshit in the room.” He shrugged. “But what are we going to do? I say we do what you said, lets use the time to get our crap back together and see what comes out of it. Maybe something will.”
“Maybe nothing will.”
“Maybe nothing will, but at least we’ll have our crap together.” Jason said, pragmatically. “We could all use a break. Get North back running, get numbers back up… that I didn’t argue with.” He exhaled. “They were hiding their cards. Those two Westies are probably sending reports back on anything they see.”
“Probably.” Jess smiled briefly. “They seem like lumps.”
Jason folded his arms. “Yeah. Brent doesn’t want to hook up with either of them.”
“Don’t make him.” Jess said, bluntly.
“We’re out of agents, Jess.” Jason said. “We lost over a hundred in that fight, between us and the west.”
Jess shrugged. “Brent’s a good guy. Let him stick with you.”
“Do I need a tech?”
Jess merely looked at him, with an expressionless face.
“He doesn’t deserve some lump. Let me think about it.” Jason sighed. “Okay, off to some bullshit meeting. You know, when you said no way to this? I thought you were nuts.” He patted her shoulder. “You weren’t.” He eased past her and gave Dev a brief wave, as he left the room, the door shutting swiftly behind him.
“That was excellent of you, Jess.”
Jess studied Dev. “What was?”
“Telling Jason to keep Brent as his partner.” Dev said. “It was excellent that you said it.”
“Was it?” Jess put her hand on Dev’s back. “C’mon, let’s go get some rad, and go to the gym. “He’s been bitching about being reassigned since Jason got booted up. Just makes sense. Always good to have a wrencher you trust at your back.” She nudged the door open. “Besides if we’re confined to base, who cares? Can’t do anything anyway.”
Dev smiled, as they went out the door. “He’s going to be really pleased.”
“Then I hope he stops whining.”
Dev twitched her collar straight as she walked along the corridor, a good session of rad and a tough circuit in the gym behind her and an afternoon of circuit design ahead of her to look forward to. Unlike most of her colleagues and Jess, she found the idea of being able to spend time inside the Citadel working on her technical projects pleasurable, though she admittedly had enjoyed some of their travels outside.
Jess had detoured to the materials fabrication workshop to drop off her new swimming suit to be duplicated, and they had planned to then meet up in the mess where she was heading now. Halfway there she crossed through an intersection and then she was hailed.
Dev halted. “Hello CeeBee.” She stood still as the bio alt caught up to her. “How are you?” She smiled in reflex at the short, slimly built youngster, with his curly red hair and very blue eyes. He was dressed in a gray jumpsuit, the low neckline exposing his golden inset collar.
“Doing really well.” The CeeBee told her. “I passed the mech test! They’re going to assign me to the machine bay.”
“Excellent!” Dev said. “That’s really good to hear. It’s optimal that we can do this work.”
“It is.” CeeBee said. “We know it’s because so many people got made dead.” He sobered. “That’s not excellent.”
“No.” Dev agreed. “That was hard, and sad.”
“But we will have a chance to do good work, like you do.” CeeBee said, confidently. “Maybe I’ll get to work on your carrier!” He glanced behind him. “Let me go tell my crechemates. We saved some cakes from dinner last night in case I made it, and we could have them together.”
Dev moved over and gave him a hug. “Congratulations, Cee.” She said. “I hope you enjoy the work as much as I enjoy mine.”
He grinned and hugged her back. “Thanks Dev. See you around the lab.” He trotted off down the hallway, heading for the lower levels where the bio alts assigned to Base 10 lived, on strict work schedules but still with more freedom than they’d had in the creche up on station.
More than she’d had. Until she came to Interforce and took the place of a natural born and became the first of her kind to do what she did and live like she did.
First of her kind to have her collar removed, and was, now to anyone’s view, no different than all the natural borns she worked alongside.
So, in her field tech greens, she turned and walked along the hallway and up a second, through a gateway that CeeBee couldn’t enter that separated the operations secure areas from the rest of the base and headed for the operations mess, where only field agents and technicians along with the ops crews were allowed.
Inside, it was busy. Dev quickly glanced around and identified a few free tables, so she went to the dispensing line and picked up two trays, sliding them along the line to where the AyeBees were standing behind the machinery. “Hello AyeBee.”
“Hello, NM-Dev-1.” AyeBee greeted her. “Would you like some fish and mushrooms? They brought in a boat load this morning, it’s very fresh.”
“I would. Could I get two portions please? I’m going to bring one to Jess.” Dev waited, as the AyeBee dished up some of the baked, flaky white fish, and added scoops of mushrooms next to them, putting a plate down on each tray.. “Thank you.”
She took the trays down the line and added a cup of the fizzy, slightly sweet beverage they all drank to them, then she picked them both up and slid through the crowded room to a small table at the back of one of the raised areas, sitting at the side of the table so that Jess could take the chair with her back to the wall.
Cliff leaned over from the next table. “Hey Dev!”
“Hello.” Dev sorted out her plate. “How are you, Cliff?”
Cliff had a senior tech rating bar on his collar and was wearing the dark blue of operations mechanical. “Not too bad. I hear we’re going to have plenty of time to patch up the rigs. True?”
“It seems so.” Dev took a sip of her drink, keeping a watch in her peripheral vision on the door. “I have heard we will not be going on missions for some time.”
Cliff nodded. “Good.” He said. “We need some regen time.” He said. “Too much crap went on here.”
Dev considered that. “It was suboptimal.” She agreed, making a little face.
The door to the mess opened and Jess entered. Dev took in a scan of the room, noting the looks and attention her partner got as she crossed the floor, catching the range of expressions and reactions. “Hello Jess.”
“Hey Rocket.” Jess took a seat across the table and pulled her tray over to her. “Thanks for getting me some grub.”
“They had some fish today. I though you would like it.” Dev started into her meal, cutting with her fork through the firm white filet on her plate. “Are they going to replicate your suit?”
“Yup.” Jess was chewing her fish. “That’s not bad.” She studied it. “Haven’t seen that kind here in a while… wonder where it came from.” She forked up some mushrooms and popped them in her mouth. “Maybe a boat didn’t feel like making the run to the processors.”
“It’s good.” Dev agreed. “I’m glad we got to go to Quebec again before they told us to stay here.”
Jess tapped her fork against her tray. “Jason said… we had to stay inside our local range.” She said. “How about we see if we can take a ride over to the Bay? See your buddy the Doc?”
“That would be excellent.” Dev looked up at her in surprise and visible delight. “From the messages I have gotten from the sets there, it seems they are doing well.”
“Lemme see if we can do that.” Jess went back to her meal. “Make sure they’re all not still pissed off at me.” She glanced up as the mess door opened again, and the two new agents entered together, went to the tray line together, and took a seat together at one of the tables against the back wall.
They looked over at the table Jess and Dev were sitting at, their eyes holding on them with a long, arrogant touch before they turned their heads and started eating.
“That was interesting.” Dev commented mildly.
“Couple of dipshits.” Jess dismissed them. “Bet they won’t be here long.” She reached over and stole a mushroom from Dev’s plate. “Gonna wrench later? I’m going to spend some time in the pit. Maybe those guys’ll show up there and make my day.”
The pit was the unarmed combat facility. “Yes, I have a mod to our vehicle I’m working on.” Dev said. “Do you think we can surf again this evening?”
Jess stopped in mid chew, and her pale blue eyes opening up wide. “You serious?”
“Yes. I really enjoyed it.” Dev confirmed. “It was nice as well, to have a late meal when it’s quieter here.” She smiled, delighted to see the happy look on Jess’s face, which came so very seldom. “Or we can get a box and have it in our quarters if you’d like that.”
Jess took a breath to answer, then she paused and just looked at Dev for a long moment. “I’d like that.” She finally said, quietly. “You’re definitely on.”
Dev resisted the urge to ask what she was on top of. She went back to consuming the rest of her mushrooms, pleased with reaction to her plan. It might, she thought, even end up with them practicing sex.
Jess paused at the doorway to the pit, flexing her hands a little as she surveyed the other occupants there ahead of her, still feeling a sense of buoyancy over Dev’s unexpected request to surf with her, making her bounce from one foot to the other.
April was there, and Mike Arias, who were sparring with each other, and to one side, one of the new Westies was leaning against the wall, watching them fight.
Jess went inside and moved to the left, going over to the changing area and trading her black jumpsuit for a pair of the extruded workout shirts and pants, worn and dry feeling against her skin, but a little stretchy and a completely neutral dun color.
Designed not to trigger anyone. The feel was utterly different than a duty suit, and the color was designed to be mild and unlike what anyone usually wore so it didn’t invoke a reaction based on a peripherally recognized outline. Jess felt the usual sense of calm she got from wearing them, and the expectation that she could spend some time working off twitchy energy they were all subject to without ending up killing someone.
She went to the warmup room and found it empty and felt a moment of melancholy knowing that even though she’d disliked a lot of the other agents, it was unsettling for it to be so quiet, as though everyone were out on insertions she knew didn’t exist.
Thoughtfully, she approached the target dummies and paused to take a breath, then release it. She dismissed the melancholy and focused on the target, dense vaguely human forms with electronic sensors that recorded hits and allowed the targets to evade or return them. “Control, dummy twelve.”
“Acknowledged.” The room system issued two sedate, low beeping sounds to warn her, then triggered the warmup program.
It knew who she was, so the target started moving immediately and within ten or so seconds Jess was engaged with it, moving and dodging along with it as it came at her with robotic calm, unable to be affected by fear or impressed by her skills.
That was nice, about the robots. Jess slid under the robot’s arm, cutting across to strike her, and caught the arm in the curve of her elbow, bracing a hand on its back and pulling the limb out of position until it cracked.
The robot paused, and after a moment, the limb popped back into place and they went back to their engagement. It was all hand to hand, all grappling and shoving, the mechanical target larger and far heavier than she was, and hard to knock off balance due to its stubby, round, thick legs.
Jess enjoyed the warmup. She liked facing off against the robot because it never took offense, never got mad at her, never mocked her in the war of words the agents often used to provoke a misstep. It was just a robot, doing what it had been designed to do, to all intents and purposes content to be kicked and slammed around by Drake, J. all day long.
She ducked and kicked and whacked around with the target, leaping over its head and booting it as she tumbled in the air and landed to avoid its sweeping arms, padded so it’s strikes would not be steel against flesh.
Its hands were thick sealskin covered circles but if they hit you hard enough, they’d leave a bruise, and a point of pride was to come out of the warmup without them and Jess always did. Or at least she made sure they were on parts of her body covered by cloth.
She kept at it for a half hour, aware in her peripheral vision when the newbie came to the entrance to the warmup room and stood there watching her for the last few of the minutes of it and knowing that she showed off a little, vaulting over the target as it tried to intercept her and turning in midair to kick the back of its head, sending its body violently rocking forward to smack it’s face on the ground.
He was the shorter and darker of the two. The one who hadn’t spoken to Dev. She caught him jerking in reaction to her antics, and grinned.
Jess finished up her routine by ducking under the robot’s long arms and coming face to face with it, sliding her arms around his cylindrical metal body and lifting him up off the ground.
His legs wiggled back and forth in surprise as an alarm went off and it made her laugh. She let him down. “Finish!” She called out, releasing her hold, and stepping back, as the robot caught its balance and straightening up into quiescence. Her body felt warm and ready for action and she playfully swung and tapped the target’s hand before she turned and started for the door.
The dark-skinned agent was still there, in the doorway, his head cocked faintly to one side watching her approach. Jess was wagering with herself about what he was going to do, hoping it was a plan to be a jerk to her so she could get in a satisfying ass kicking to round out the pleasures of the day.
“Did you just pick up that robot?” The agent asked when she was almost within reach.
Jess paused. “Yeah.” She acknowledged, then paused, regarding him. “Want a match?” She added invitingly, her eyebrows hiking a little as she brought up her hands to waist level, wiggling her fingers.
“Hell no.” He responded at once. “I don’t want to get in the pit with someone who can pick up a thousand-pound metal robot, thanks. I have the crazy, but not that much crazy.” He stepped back to get out of her way. “What the hell do you spar with, one of the carriers?”
Huh. Jess wasn’t sure if she should be amused or disappointed. “Nah.” She asked. “They mostly just point me at the bad guys.” The lack of pretentious jackassery was a pleasant surprise in the newcomer and Jess briefly wondered if he was one of the kids who’d gotten sold in, not so much tested in like she had.
“I know.” He nodded. “I saw the vid.” He added. “I’m Dave. I was part of the insurrection out west. For a reward, I got sent here.” He exhaled. “Gotta say, it’s different.”
“Welcome.” Jess indicated the door. “C’mon. Let’s go have some fun.”
“Speak for yourself.”
Dev liked the electronics lab a lot. There was a small desk surface in a little angle of it near the back and she usually stored her projects in progress there. The area had a lot of little drawers and bins to store things, a worn, padded stool to sit on and was out of the general traffic of the lab that was usually busy in the afternoons.
She entered from the operations corridor, taking a breath of the air filled with the smell of metal and epoxy spray, mixed with the distinct scent of electronics offgassing she was very familiar with from her work with her carrier. There were four other techs there, all working at benches around the room in contented silence.
Chester, Tucker and Doug were there, absorbed in their work and the fourth… ah. The fourth was Brent.
Brent spotted her enter and he left his bench and came over to hers as she reached it. “Hey Dev!”
Dev seated herself behind her little desk. “Hello, Brent. How are you?”
He leaned on the desk with both hands, his bull necked muscularity evident under his tech jumpsuit. “I’m good. You hear I’ve been reassigned to Jason?”
“Have you? That’s excellent!” Dev said.
Brent smiled. “Yeah, with all the traveling he figures he’s in for, he said he wants someone who knows what they’re doing at his back. Doesn’t want to go headfirst into a cliff.”
“It seems you will get to see more of things than we will right now then.” Dev observed. “But having you do that is optimal. I know Jess will be pleased to hear it.” She added. “Would you like to see some of the mods I am working on? Maybe you will want them for your carrier.”
“Sure.” Brent said. “I was just tuning the gyro, but I’d like to see what Rocket’s up to.” He grinned again and winked at her. “Feels good to be back in my old place.”
“Yes.” Dev smiled back at him. “It is good to have a place that you know you belong in.” She settled her feet on the rungs of the stool. “I’ll get things set up here if you want to bring your gyro over. We can look at it.”
He patted the surface of the steel table and then went off back to where he’d been leaning over a cabinet, and Dev paused in her assembly of parts to look after him and nod a little to herself. Yes. She thought. Jess was going to be pleased to hear about that and she looked forward to telling her, as Brent was also enjoying telling everyone else.
She touched the cabinet to her left and felt the tickle as it read the chip embedded in her hand and opened, keyed to her identity. Inside there were boards in various states of progress and she removed the one in the bottom slot, sitting it down carefully on a pad made of dried sea sponge.
She could smell it, a musty, salty scent and its rough texture against her fingers left a faint feeling of the sea, but it provided a sturdy cushion to lay the board on, that wouldn’t damage its delicate metal traced underside. She clipped the diagnostic leads to the edges and before touching it further, wrapped a strap around her right wrist that attached a ground line to her that would discharge the dry air’s static.
She pulled her scanner from another cabinet at her right knee and set it up on the table, attaching the diagnostic leads to it and turning it on.
The door opened and she glanced up, to see the new agent enter, pausing to look around. The other techs also looked up but went back to their work and ignored the newcomer.
Clint entered from the maintenance office adjoining, though, and casually took a seat behind the big console there, pulling an input pad over and accessing it, his body poised so he could keep the new agent in sight.
Interesting. Dev wondered if there was something behind Clint’s activity and the new transfer’s presence, or if it was all just a coincidence. Clint kept his eyes on the tablet as the agent moved around the room, apparently just seeing what there was to be seen.
It looked very normal and casual, except that Dev knew that Clint being there at the console wasn’t normal or usual because she herself was usually here at this desk at this time when she was here in the Base and part of her core programming had been to review things to determine the unusual and evaluate what they might mean.
But the agent just roamed around, and Clint just tapped into his tablet surface and so Dev merely marked it down as something out of norm and put her concentration back on the card, wanting to get the new metrics in place before Brent returned so she could show them to him.
The new mod was designed to improve the energy transfer from the carrier’s battery systems to its motive drive and she’d worked out a little routine to precache some of the power to enhance the responsiveness of the hydraulic steering.
She set up a tablet and reviewed the card’s programming, focusing on the section of the enhancement and making a slight change, observing the results as they flashed across the tablet’s screen.
Dev looked up to find the new agent standing next to her desk. “Hello.” She responded, then waited, watching him.
He had a square, blocky face, and his nose was crooked. The scar that bisected his cheek had the shiny edges that a blaster caused, and he had his hands in the front pockets of his agent’s duty suit, a little different version of the one Jess wore. “Wanted to say thanks for the directions yesterday.”
“You’re welcome.” Dar promptly responded, seeing from the corner of her eye both Brent and now a newly arrived Doug watching them. “I’m glad they were useful.” She added, after a moment’s pause since the agent seemed to be expecting something other than that.
“I’ve never actually spoken to a bio alt before.” The man said, in a thoughtful tone. “So, if I say something out of line, sorry.”
“I’m sure you won’t. I’m used to hearing all kinds of things spoken to me.” Dev said. “Is there something else you would like to know?”
Doug was drifting nearer, wandering over to where Clint was and leaning against the console and Dev suddenly wondered if they expected the newcomer to do something incorrect.
That would be non-optimal. It might disrupt her plans to join Jess for surfing, and if Jess heard about it things could get very incorrect very quickly. She casually glanced past the agent and met Doug’s eyes for just a second.
Doug slid over towards her. “Hey Rocket.” He greeted her casually, glancing at the newcomer. “You’re Charlie, right?”
“I am.” The agent seemed a bit relieved at the interruption. “And you’re Doug Sars, right? You’re another Rainier boy.”
“That I am.” Doug admitted cheerfully. “I like the weather better here in the east. So, what’s up, Rocket?” He leaned on the desk. “You inventing some new controller?”
“Hello Doug.” Dev amiably played along. “How are you?”
“Doing great, thanks. April went over to the pit.” Doug confided, as though they were alone.
“Jess as well.” Dev nodded. “I’m sure they’re enjoying themselves.”
“So, Charlie.” Doug returned his attention to the agent. “You like the tech side? You came to the right desk. Rocket’s the bomb.” He gave Charlie a genial nod. “Want to talk about the gen mods in that carrier they assigned you? Used to be mine.”
Brent slid past the agent to come around the side of the desk, dragging a second stool with him and settling it next to Dev. “All right… let’s see that new mod.” He said, brusquely.
Charlie looked at them, with an almost amused look, then smiled at Doug. “Nope, just getting to know the place. Have fun.” He took a step backwards. “No point in my looking at the rig until they assign me someone who can drive it.” He nodded at them then turned and sauntered out of the room.
Dev looked from Brent to Doug. “That was interesting.” She pondered. “But I think it would have ended up suboptimal.”
“Yeah, and we busted it up.” Doug said. “If he’s got something on his mind, we’ll hear it eventually. Typical Westie.”
“Ain’t you from there?” Brent lifted a faintly sardonic eyebrow.
“That’s how I know. April kicked the typical Westie crap right out of me our first month together.” Doug told him, with a grin. “She was like, I’m a nomad. You all suck.”
Brent chuckled under his breath. “Yeah. Guys’ a goon. Makes my neck itch.” He exhaled. “S’why I really was glad Jason hooked me up back with him, not with either of those two. Just don’t like them.”
Dev studied her two apparent guardians. “Do you think they’re incorrect?” She asked. “They mean harm?” She clarified. “They were sent here to do incorrect things to us?”
Clint came out from behind the console and came over. “Good job, kids.” He complimented Brent and Doug. “Guy’s trouble or I’m a sea lion.” He said. “Pair of bad eggs.”
Dev pondered all of that, her brow in a knot. “They have barely arrived.” She evaded the urge to ask about the eggs. “Have they done something incorrect already?”
“Guy has a rep as a troublemaker and dog.” Clint told her, bluntly. “He likes the ladies.”
Dev stared at him in patent incomprehension.
“Thinks he’s hot.” Brent grunted. “Figures he’d start poking around Dev.”
Dev reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I’m sorry I have no idea what you are all saying.” She admitted. “What is so sub optimal about this person? Or these people? We have barely spoken a few words to them and this one was nominally pleasant.”
The three of them looked away in some chagrin and embarrassment.
“Would you rather I ask Jess?”
Clint rubbed his jaw. “That could solve the problem.” He mused, nodding a little.
“Could.” Brent agreed. “She’d just break his neck. End that right there.”
“Guys.” Doug leaned a little closer to Dev and lowered his voice. “I think we all don’t like them because yeah, they came from the West, and those guys didn’t treat us so good not too long ago.” He said. “I mean, I know there were a bunch of them who came out and said they took over, but there were a lot of them that were on the other side, you know?”
“Yes.” Dev nodded. “That I understand.”
“So – we don’t know what side they were. We know what they say.” Doug said. “Now for the other thing…” He paused, choosing his words. “Maybe he wants to get to know you, you know?”
Dev’s right eyebrow lifted in question.
“Like real friendly.” Brent contributed.
“Spend time alone in your crib kinda way.” Clint muttered.
Dev’s left eyebrow lifted to join its mate, and she looked from one to the other for a long moment before speaking. “Are you saying this person, who just arrived, would like to practice sex with me?” She asked, in a disbelieving tone. “Just because he came over to say hello?”
“He has that rep.” Clint explained, blushing a little. “I know some mech guys out west, and I got a read on him, and the other guy. Other guy’s kinda a null, never really made a rep for anything, but this guy, this Charlie, got a couple of marks in the ledger for screwing up on missions cause he was off in someone’s bunk.”
“Got a tech killed.” Brent said. “Wasn’t there when the shooting started. Jason told me, last night.”
Dev looked at him.
“Hadn’t heard that.” Clint muttered.
“That’s… very incorrect.” Dev said, slowly. “It doesn’t seem optimal that he came here.”
“Anyway, you stay clear of him, Dev.” Clint patted her arm. “Maybe he just got some bad breaks, and made some bad choices, but we had enough crap happen here. Don’t need more.”
“Said that.” Brent agreed. “So, what’s up with the mod?” He pointedly changed the subject.
Dev thought about all that for a moment, as Doug and Clint moved off a little, talking in a low tone to each other. They were all her friends, she concluded, considering the word carefully. It mattered to them what happened to her and she thought that was nice.
A little odd sometimes, but nice.
Then she shook her head and dismissed the conversation, feeling though that it was a bit unfair to treat the new agents as incorrect until they’d proved to be so.
She moved over a little so Brent could see better. “It’s an interface mod for the power systems.” She said. “I wanted to see if I could make the control systems respond faster.” She explained. “It always seems a bit...” She paused.
“Laggy.” Brent nodded at once. “Got it, yeah, so you turn and it’s just a beat, like, before it goes.”
“Been like that forever.” Brent eyed her. “You fix it?”
“Possibly.” Dev said. “I am going to make some more adjustments to it, and then we can go try it in the carrier and see if it works.”
“Can’t go far.” Brent grunted. “But we don’t need to.”
“Not far at all.”
Jess stepped back off the mat, her bare feet moving from the rough, flexible surface to the stone floor as she felt the chill of it against her soles. She felt relaxed, and pleasantly well stretched out from the fight, that had left Mike and April flat on their backs across from her.
She enjoyed two on one, especially when the two she was facing off against weren’t total assholes to her. Then it was a challenge, and fun, a friendly competition where you could concentrate on form and skills and not on what bullshit was going to come flying at you to entertain your opponent’s cronies.
No real cronies here, now. She flexed her hands and glanced around. The Westie was just getting up from being dumped on his ass by Elaine and he was laughing a little and so was she.
It felt a little strange. She felt a little disconnected, almost. The echoes were too loud, and too infrequent and she briefly wished the techs would come in to watch as they sometimes did, to fill the space a little.
She felt like she’d have liked to see Dev there, hands behind her back, brow creased as she pondered the strangeness of natural born who beat on each other for fun.
April climbed to her feet, dusting her hands off, and Mike rolled over and then spent a minute stretching his body out as they all sort of took a pause, the pit quieting down as echoes of punches and kicks faded.
“Wish you’d come back to the tribe with me and do that neck kick to my Mater.” April sighed, glancing over at Jess. “Ouch.”
“You could do it yourself now.” Mike said, getting up. “You were a little punk when you left there, you been back?”
“Nah.” April said. “You leave, you leave. Once they know you aren’t going to bring anything back to them, you ain’t family anymore.” She rocked her head to either side, cracking her neck. “Anyway, what do I have in common with them now?”
“Yeah.” Mike paused, reflectively. “I went back a few times, but it was weird.” He admitted. “You can’t talk about your life with them, can you? They want to talk about the price of salt extractors, and what do I say to that? Do you know how it feels to kill a penguin, ma? They squeak when you crush em.”
April chuckled, a little. “They do.” She admitted. “Stinking little bastards.”
They both sat down on the edge of the pit, and after a moment, Jess came over and sat down next to them. “Good fight.” She commented. “I like it when no one has to be carried to med.”
“Ever you?” Mike gave her a sideways glance.
“Sure.” Jess said. “You go full out sometimes. Forget where you are.” She hiked up one knee and circled it with both arms, as they watched Elaine and Dave go at it, circling each other with sparring gloves on. “Cracked my head a few times.”
“What do you think about this shutdown?” April asked, abruptly. “Scam?”
“I think it’s the usual political power that be bull.” Mike said. “They’ll arrange a meet and yak, then someone’ll kill someone, and we’ll be right back to it.”
Jess jerked her chin towards Dave. “He said he was one of the guys that rebelled out there. Said they ended up sending him here.”
April snorted. “That was all bullshit. Should never have happened. You’re either in or you’re out – we’re all supposed to be on the same side. Isn’t that what they teach you at school?” She smiled briefly. “You believe it, right? Until you’re about ten.”
“There were always tiers.” Mike said, stifling a yawn. “We all knew it. I was different because my family were miners. You were different because you were nomad. Different perks, different crowds... different assignments. You didn’t catch any of the status dudes being sent out here.”
“All went to Juneau, or Picchu, or stayed at Canyon City in cush jobs.” April agreed. “Different world, out there. I remember us going out to the big Plateau, seeing those big hydros and all those dug ins. Everyone had enough to eat, decent clothes.” She exhaled. “I felt like a nomad there, for sure.”
Jess had listened in silence, nodding a little. She’d been there, gone through school just like they had. She knew.
Well, sort of knew. She had without a doubt been considered different. From the first time she’d sat in class and they’d heard about things her family members had done – the whole class turning and staring at her – she’d been marked out but she’d always worn that mark of difference with pride.
Of course, she was different. She was a Drake.
“I went back home all the time.” She finally said, almost in a tone of surprise. “That was never weird for me.”
April chuckled her low, dry way. “Not there.” She said. “Everyone there got it. They knew what was going on.”
“Yeah.” Jess agreed, smiling briefly. “Listen, I don’t know what this whole thing’s about.” Her tone changed and she shook her head. “But I’m going to take advantage of the downtime and take a ride to the Bay.” She eyed them. “Wanna go?” She added, after a brief hesitation.
“Absolutely.” April answered instantly.
“Sure.” Mike chimed in. “When?”
Jess stood up, towering over them. “Tomorrow. I cleared it with Jason. He just said keep a low profile.” Her pale eyes twinkled just a little. “I said I’d try.” She winked, and sauntered out, heading for the changing room.
April grunted in satisfaction and nodded. “Nice.” She leaned back on her hands.
“Better than hanging around here.” Mike agreed. “Maybe it’ll be all over by the time we get back.”
Dev triggered the hatch on their carrier and waited for it to lift then scooted inside. She removed her overnight pack from her back and stowed it inside the small compartment that had her name on its door.
Or, well, not quite her name. She regarded the chiseled metal plate, bearing the word “Rocket” on it with a bemused expression. Impossible for her to either refuse or protest, since Jess had made it with her blaster and affixed it there herself.
She finally just smiled and reached out to touch it. The metal had come from station, scrounged from the shuttle she’d flown down from it and had that odd reflectivity she remembered well, a hint of iridescence and she decided to just appreciate it for the gift it was.
Then she started through the process of ensuring the carrier was ready to go. They would take passengers with them this time, so she pulled down the back shelf that she and Jess sometimes took rest on and made sure the restraints were in place on them and went to the frame that held Jess’s drop pack which had a small ledge just large enough to sit on as well.
The fourth extra seat was the jump seat up near her pilot’s station. She went forward into the nose of the carrier and sat down in her seat, reaching forward to pick up an ear bud and settling it into her right ear as she started up the carrier’s systems.
Soon, she knew, she would hear Jess and the others approaching, but it was some minutes before the time they’d arranged to meet and she spent them activating the boards and modules she’d worked on the previous days, carefully observing their responses.
She even had the new module with its engineering code in place, since the trip to the Bay was a short and easy one, and perfect for her to test its functionality. She set the startup diagnostics to run and got up, going over to make sure supply had stocked the extra things she’d asked for, short trip or not.
The carrier was designed to, long term, support two people. One agent, one pilot. So it’s standard operation stocked things like water and energy bars, seaweed crackers and sanitary supplies for that number. Dev peered inside the storage lockers and nodded in satisfaction.
Extra containers of all those things were packed neatly inside, where they might, in an insertion, carry spare weapons, munitions, electronics or exposure suits.
It was a short trip, Jess had said they would come back the next day, but you never knew, and it always paid to be prepared just in case.
Dev went back to her seat and observed the results of the diagnostics, her fingers tapping over the control surfaces in now automatic motions, needing no thought to make the carrier ready for flight, her actions confident and assured and without the faint hesitation of a bio alt under programming.
She triggered the front shield and it slid up, allowing her a view of the inside of the docking cavern. There were three other carriers nearby getting worked on, one, she saw, was Doug and April’s, an engine was being replaced.
Above her head, sealed now, was the huge metal ceiling that had once been used to enter and exit the docking area, certainly allowing a comprehensive view surroundings immediate on exit but extremely inconvenient when it was pouring down rain and opening it drenched everything inside.
The doors now mounted in the east facing escarpment made a lot more sense.
Dev spotted motion in the entry from the ops corridor and a moment later Jess appeared, with April striding next to her. Trailing behind them, Mike and his partner Chester and Doug were talking together, all of them carrying overnight packs on their backs.
Excellent. They were right on time. Dev felt the carrier start up around her, shifting a tiny bit on its pad as the hydraulics tightened up and the engines went through their prestart routine. “Pad ops, stand by to retract our umbilical lines.” She spoke into local comms, watching the bio alt mech react and step back away off the steel grating out of range.
She watched the readout from the new module, but it seemed stable, and she nodded to herself in satisfaction as she hit the undock and the power and diag lines retracted into body of the carrier with a metallic, slithering sound and the solid thunks of covers seating.
She had done this now many times. And yet still, there was a feeling inside her of the responsibility of what she was doing, and that every time she was expected to do this work with excellence, as she had from even the very first time.
She never wanted to disappoint Jess. She always wanted it to be perfect.
Boots sounded on the pad ramp and then Jess was vaulting inside. “Hey Devvie!”
Dev glanced in the reflective mirror above her station and smiled as her eyes met Jess’s in it. “Hello.”
April climbed into the carrier and glanced around, then went to the jump rig and stowed her pack underneath it, leaving the longer seats in the back for Mike and Chester who were just walking up the ramp outside.
She was the shortest of the agents, not much taller than Dev, but heavier and more muscular, with an elastic way of moving that advertised the strength regardless of size and of all of them she was the only one who could even use the ledge as anything more than a leaning spot.
The jump rig wasn’t really intended to be comfortable, with its truncated platform. “How do you even use this?” She asked Jess as she got settled into the cramped niche, her back against the pack that an agent could wear to drop into a situation through a hatch below her boots.
“Try not to.” Jess put her pack into the other compartment next to Dev’s and went to her weapons station, sitting down in her chair. “Smack my head every damn time I go near it.” She stretched out her long legs and wriggled her shoulders into the padding of the seat.
April glanced at the bulkhead over her. “I bet.”
Doug entered and scooted past Jess, coming up to the front of the carrier and pulling down the jump seat next to Dev. “Hey Rocket.”
“Hello.” Dev had finished her preparatory work and was now just sitting, waiting for everyone to take their place. “Jess, I have preclearance from ops. They’re waiting to open the doors for us.”
“Anyone asking any stupid questions?”
Dev pondered that. “I don’t think so.” She said. “Just the usual things, routing and egress plan.”
“Good.” Jess pulled her restraints over her head and buckled them. “Let’s go.”
Dev settled her ear bud more firmly. “Centops, this is BR270006, requesting permission to lift.” She spoke into comms, as she studied her surroundings through the front shield, making sure no one was ignorant of the flashing lights on the engine pods of her carrier and wandering too close to her impending movement.
She spotted the new agents then, across the cavern next to one of the carriers. They were standing there just talking to Clint, apparently about the carrier she recognized as Doug and April’s old one. “I think you’re glad to have switched vehicles.” She commented to Doug. “I see they are putting on a new engine for your new one.”
“Sure am and yep, they finally are.” Doug leaned forward, peering out the shield. “Hahahah. Lookie there.”
“What?” April asked, from her spot near the back of the carrier.
“Westies checking out our old rig.” Doug said. “Good riddance!”
“BR270006, you are cleared to lift. Stand by for egress.” Centops finally answered her. “Bring up sideband 12, in ops.”
“Yes.” Dev tuned the comms. “Sideband 12 open.” She moved her seat forward a little, settling her boots on the thruster pedals. “Stand by to lift.”
The sound of restraints being tightened echoed through the carrier as Dev eased power into the landing jets, boosting the carrier up swiftly towards the cavern’s ceiling, rising over the other vehicles and the work being done to them.
Heads turned to watch them. Dev boosted quickly though and left them behind as she reached launch level and paused, waiting for the doors to retract ahead of her. They were rumbling open, audible through the skin of the craft, and she could now see outside where the weather, for once, seemed to be mild.
“Rain stopped.” Doug commented, confirming her opinion. “Nice.”
“Yes.” Dev spooled up the engines and as they took on power, she cut the jets, transitioning from vertical to horizontal flight in a smooth surge that took them out of the cavern in a blur, leaving behind a slight boom of air displacement.
Jess, in her gunner’s seat with her hands folded over her stomach, snickered.
Once outside Dev boosted up quickly and came up over the escarpment, turning in a perfect spiral that took the carrier upside down and back upright in a powerful, elegant loop. She let her sensors get a sweep of the area before she leveled out and headed south, wasting no time in coming up to speed and leaving the base behind.
It was quiet, and though the sky was covered in thick, dark clouds, there was only a light wind and no rain for a change, the carrier making its way through the air with a light tailwind.
Dan Kurok walked into the large, high ceilinged kitchen in the stakeholder’s complex at Drake’s Bay. It was early, and still mostly dark outside but he was an early riser by nature and enjoyed the quiet before the usual storms of the day.
He went over to the heating unit and requested a cup of sea grape tea, taking the cup with him to the window to peer through the window that took up most of the room’s outer wall.
Dark, yes, but he could see the froth of whitecaps past the curve of the Bay cliff and down below in the harbor there were white, halon lights on outlining a half dozen rough and ready ships tied up at dock, taking shelter from last night’s massive storms.
It was not quite daywatch, but behind him past the doors he could hear early morning stirring, boots on the stone floor, the far off thunk of something being unloaded and to the left the noise that was the main mess readying breakfast.
All the stirrings known and expected and not unsurprisingly, not very different than the Interforce bases north of them. Communal and insular, with the bounds of tradition firmly set, unchanged for generations here at this stakehold he now called home.
In the outer corridor, and beyond the huge main hall the watch was changing, in operations, the nightwatch was sitting with the incoming team, going over everything, anything and nothing that had gone on before going off to have their breakfast, and then off shift.
It had, to him, a comforting structure and despite his history with this place he’d become accustomed to being here and realized some small time ago to his surprise that he’d come to like it better than he had in his former world on station.
He looked around the kitchen, which was quiet and spare. It had its heating element, and the extruder that would provide drinks and snacks, but he seldom had more than tea here, spending his mealtimes in the mess with all the rest of the Bay.
The stakeholder’s family could choose to forgo that. There had been times in the past when there had been enough of them, enough close family to fill up the compound of chambers and this room would have been active by now, a cook or two or an auntie there taking care of the family, and kids.
But there weren’t any close kin of the stakeholder here. Jess was one of the last of her immediate family. He stayed here in one of the complex of rooms only because he knew it was expected of him as her proxy.
He’d selected one of the set of rooms on the far side of the kitchen from the stakeholder’s quarters, three comfortably sized chambers chiseled with precision from the stone with broad, wide windows that showed the sea. He’d converted one into a study, there was a comfortable bedroom and a large bathing room, and he felt himself very well housed indeed.
He heard boots behind him, and a tap. “Good morning.” He remained looking out at the harbor as the door swung open and Mike, the head of security entered. “Have some tea.” He pointed an elbow at the dispenser. “Rains stopped.”
“Not bad, for o dark of the dark.” Mike went to the dispenser and requested a cup. He was a towering figure, with heavy, broad shoulders and long muscular arms. He was wearing a Bay coverall, thick rugged fabric in the mix of steel blues and grays over a woven hoodie, its fabric bunched around his neck below his short cropped hair. “Good day for scraping the shore.”
It was. Doctor Dan sipped from his cup, enjoying the almost astringent taste of the tea, pungent and tannic. It was chilly, as it always was, and he was glad of the thick bay overshirt he was wearing that kept out the cold damp. “Goodness only knows what’ll be washed up after that weather.” He peered out. “Seems like we’ve got more company coming in. Two more hulls on the horizon there?”
“Saw that.” Mike came over with his tea and looked out. “More boats in.”
“Two on a run down from Quebec.” Doctor Dan agreed. “We’re becoming a popular stop.”
Mike chuckled deep in his throat. “Gotta say.” He remarked. “I thought that whole rig was a load of bs nothing. All that cavern and those plants.” He glanced at Doctor Dan. “One more thing I was crap ass wrong about. Whole thing turned out pretty damn good.”
Whole thing, Kurok knew, included him and the bio alt sets who’d shown up with him. “I think we’re doing all right.” He agreed mildly. “Seems like things worked out better than expected all round, hm?”
Mike chuckled again. Then he gave Kurok a quick side glance. “They got a pad ready in the number two docking.” He said. “About polished the floor in there.”
Doctor Dan smiled his gentle smile. “I’m glad Jess is stopping by. We have a lot to show her.” He sipped his tea. “Last time she came here, you know, she was pretty well convinced she was going to get shot by you all.”
Mike didn’t refute the mild accusation. “Nah. Too damn dangerous to try it.” He said, straightforwardly. “We all knew it. All of ops saw her rip that dumb grunt apart with her bare hands. You’d get one shot, and you’d have to be dead on or she’d pop your noggin off.”
“Well, that is true.”
“And we didn’t want to.” Mike went on, unexpectedly. “We wanted her here. We knew it would screw up everything probably, but we didn’t care.” He glanced at Kurok again. “We didn’t want no more scams. But she did good, bringing you in, cause her walking out on the oath would have been a crap thing too.”
“She certainly understood the challenges.” Kurok nodded. “She has that strategic mind, you know. Comes with the... “He paused. “The territory.”
“Comes with the crazy.” Mike smiled. “You ain’t got to play word games here, Doc. We know about the crazy.”
Doctor Dan went to the cleanser and put his cup inside. “I know you do.” He put his hands in the front pocket of his harbor shirt, with its embroidered Drake’s Bay insignia on it. “But you know, living with Justin as long as I did, and spending the time I did at Canon City, I can’t think of it as crazy really because it isn’t.”
Mike put his cup down. “Well, it ain’t normal.”
Dan Kurok looked at him, head cocked slightly to one side. “Isn’t it?” He said. “How different is it, really?”
“C’mon doc. You seen what goes on. You seen what they do.” Mike said. “You were in that. You know.”
“Mm.” Kurok gave a little half shrug. “I don’t think it’s crazy, I never have... it’s a different mentation, yes.” He took one hand out of his pouch pocket and tapped the side of his head. “Different pathways in the brain.”
Mike shrugged as well. “You’re the doc.” He amiably pointed to the door. “Mess?”
“Mess.” Doctor Dan agreed, and followed him out the door and down the short hallway, solid and dark carved into the stone of the mountain that held Drake’s Bay. He deferred the discussion, understanding it would take a long time to budge Mike’s view of it, seeing it as he did, from the inside.
Because, of course, he had it himself, the crazy. Just not quite enough to get taken for it.
Ah well. Kurok drew in a breath and released it, focusing on the day as they made their way between the thick rock walls. There were doors on either side leading to other suites of rooms, and then the large door at the end.
Mike pushed the door open, and they emerged into the central hall of the Bay, a huge cavern that went from rock floor to the ceiling far overhead, narrowing into a point that was capped by a roughly round transparent prismed block, battered by weather and impacts that nevertheless let in the light of dawn that was breaking outside.
The cavern itself was enormous, with passageways leading off in many directions, some precision cut and exact, others carved out more haphazardly. On the left-hand side of the edge of the cavern was a wrought iron spiral staircase that went all the way up to the roof, landings splitting off to levels at regular intervals all along the perimeter.
It was vast, and impressive, and had a stark, eerie beauty that came from the unfinished slate stone walls and the mixture of evenly placed light fixtures and the pale upper glow. Raw and grand, never beautified, starkly overwhelming in its scale.
Kurok quite liked it. There was always a sense of motion around the hall, and from the lower-level tunnels a never-ending, faint rumble of water that boomed through the cylindrically bored massive intakes that made their hydro power, tapping the current offshore that surged along the curve of the land mass, bringing it in through the intakes to turn the giant turbines, then routing it back out just down the coast.
You could see it, from the upper-level windows, a surging ripple sending waves out across the sea.
They crossed the open space in the center, where figures were emerging from first and second level hallways and ramps and coming down the spiral stairs, wearing coveralls like Mikes and pullovers, tall hulking Bay born, mixed with smaller, lighter bio alt sets all heading as they were for the mess.
A hum of voices, echoing softly off the rock walls, and the patter of boots on the stairs as more bio alts came down from their level five quarters.
He still smiled every time he saw them, now after six months an accepted part of the life of the Bay, mixing with the rough and towering locals, on their way to their daily work in utter content, blissfully happy to have good, needed jobs to do and people to do things for.
Never, in a million years had he ever, ever expected to see that. A bizarre miracle of chance and circumstance and in the end, a win win result. Unbelievable.
“Good morning, Doctor Dan.” A KayTee, Kevin, was just pulling the sleeve of his pullover straight, ready to get some breakfast before he went to take a shift in Bay ops. “I heard NM-Dev-1 is going to visit today.”
“That’s right.” Doctor Dan confirmed, aware of the bio alt heads turning at his voice all around him. “She’s even bringing Jess Drake with her. So, I’m sure we’re going to have a wonderful time today.”
Mike chuckled under his breath.
Kevin, tall and dark haired, and trained for comms, smiled. “I think I will be on duty when they will arrive.” He proudly told Doctor Dan. “It will be an excellent shift.”
Doctor Dan patted him on the shoulder as they entered the mess, getting into the flow of people sorting themselves out and finding a table. “Ah.” He said, observing the trays being brought out. “Scrambled eggs and cockles. It is going to be an excellent day.”