The rain had started again, as the doors to the landing bays were pushed open and folded flat against the rock walls and the coveralled figures moving them were instantly drenched, turning their coveralls a dark green almost black.
They ignored it, used to it, shaking their heads to fling raindrops out of they eyes and push the wet hair back from their foreheads as they propped the doors in place and sauntered back inside, immune from the weather.
In Rockstar, Dev was in the pilot seat, communicating quietly to ops, and the other five carriers they’d decided to take with them on the search. Behind her Jess was in her gunner chair, talking to April, who was carrying her flight kit tucked under one arm.
Behind them were six fighters, all of them new, almost bouncing in their seats with excitement, pleased and proud to be in this carrier and carefully fastening the restraints around themselves as they waited to take off.
“Decent route.” April said, reviewing a data pad over Jess’s shoulder. “There’s a trench, old road base that runs along here, we can check that out. Goes around the and down to the flats. Hey.” She paused. “You think maybe it was some of the bing bongs the Doc told us about, who chased his ass?”
“Too recent.” Jess shook her head. “All right, lets get out there. Either we’ll find signs of the ghost, or we just get a training run in.”
“Got it.” April got up from her kneeling position and stood. “Nobody shoots but us, right?”
“Nobody shoots but us.” Jess confirmed, turning to activate her boards. “No gunners in those other four. Let Mike and Mike hold the fort here. We run into anything that needs more than us it’s more than we want anyway.”
“Truth.” April nodded decisively and headed out of the carrier, hopping off the launch pad and striding over to where her own craft was waiting, off gassing with flight lights lit. She vaulted onto the deck and the hatch closed behind her with an audible whomp.
“Ready Dev?” Jess glanced outside the hatch to make sure they were clear, then reached over to seal it.
“Yes.” Dev responded, as she felt the air compress around her in the carrier as the seals pressurized. “I have set and transmitted the coordinates. The flight is ready.”
“Let’s go.” Jess glanced around at the fighters, who were watching her with bright eyes. Six kids, four male and two female, ready for whatever the adventure would bring them. Hoping that was a fight, where she was hoping it really wasn’t the kind of fight that might cause an Interforce team to send out that squirt.
That usually meant them. Jess didn’t know if her little yonks and the bio pilots were in any way ready to go head to head with them, a very different prospect than knocking around some bozo civs. She thought about that as Dev rolled them out into the storm, with Doug on their tail, holding outside the landing bay for the other four to join them.
It was at least just a steady rain, with only the usual winds to deal with.
“Please prepare to move north west, on my mark.” Dev said quietly into comms. “Stay at the directed flight level, and use full scans. Report anything on a return.”
“Roger that.” Doug replied promptly, echoed by the four Kaytees. “Lets go sightseeing!”
Dev looked up in the reflective surface and saw Jess’s eyes meet hers, a slight grin on her face. She returned it. “Mark.” She said. “Proceed.”
They flew off in an arrow pattern, with Dev at the front and center, leading the flight, sweeping over the high mountain ridges that fell into the sea and moving inland, over the repeated lines of the mountains that arched away to the north.
Jess got her targeting boards set up, with the long range scanners that fed data constantly back to Dev’s station. She slid her hands into the trigger gloves, feeling the contacts on the inside of them tickle her skin, and the screens react in a flicker of grids and lines.
“You blow up a mountain with this?” One of the kids leaned forward with interest to peer at the boards. “Heard that from someone.”
“I have.” Jess responded. “A pretty big mountain matter of fact.” She finished calibrating. “I needed a distraction to get something done.” She glanced at the kid, a tall, well built young woman with dark straight hair cut short. “And it sure as hell distracted everyone.”
“Lotta splat.” The girl suggested.
“Sucked to be them.” Jess agreed. “Ten, twelve thousand maybe. No one counted.”
“Dev’s first flight.” Jess continued, glancing around the kids who now glanced up at the back of Dev’s head. “Blew everyone’s mind and Gibraltar to hell.”
“Foooo.” The girl made a low sound of appreciation, echoed by the others. “Wow.”
One of the kids working down on the offloading docks, Jess recalled. “Better than hauling scales?” She asked the kid, indicating the carrier with a motion of her hand.
The girl made a snorting sound. “Damn sight better. I tried for a spot on my dad’s boat but I freakin get seasick just crossing the Bay.”
The other kids chuckled, relaxing a little.
“Kicked me off after the first trip.” The girl concluded. “I said screw that. Hauling net gets me a bed anyway.”
“The way Dev drives, you could get seasick up here in this thing.” Jess told her. “If it goes upside down, hold your breath.” She offered solemnly. “And try not to chuck up in my direction.”
“Took a pill before I got on.” The girl countered, with an almost cheeky grin. “Wasn’t gonna lose my slot.”
Jess laughed. “Good job.” She leaned back in her chair and studied them, guessing she shared some spirals with the lot, and quite a few with that girl, because she had that look. “Kirin.” Jess recalled the name. “Your dad runs Headwind.”
Kirin nodded. “Bastard.”
“They all are.” Jess’s eyes twinkled. “My uncle’s the worst of em.”
“Truth.” The girl grinned briefly.
“Hey Drake - what’s the gig?” The boy next to her asked, cradling his pipe in his arms, leaning his elbows on his knees. “They just told us load on.”
Jess turned a little in her chair so she was facing them, this half circle of yonks. “Dev picked up a distress call from someone at Interforce when she was on patrol.”
The kids didn’t look either worried or impressed. “We going to give em claps?” The boy said, cupping his hands and putting them together. “We care?”
“Depends.” Jess answered, after a long pause, making them all shift uncomfortably. “Something happened. I want to know what it was.”
In her ear, Dev’s low, melodious voice was keeping up comms, directing the Kaytees, passing along helpful hints, and fending off Doug’s attempt at humor. It was a low grade comfort, half heard and half just sensed through the sound waves hitting the delicate inner bones the comms were pressed against.
She pushed the sleeves on her hoodie up on her arms, exposing the burns down both of them. “Keep everyone’s scans at max, Devvie.”
“Yes.” Dev confirmed. “Thank you, Jess.”
Jess realized the reminder was probably unnecessary, and that Dev had a much better idea of what to do with those scanners than she ever would. She turned her attention back to the yonks. “So anyway, that’s what we’re gonna go find”
“So we’re like hunting.” Kirin concluded.
“We are.” Jess agreed. “Who was it? What were they running from? Was it someone like me? If it was, I want to know what happened because we don’t call for help easy.” She leaned her elbows on the chair arms. “Something that dangerous to someone like me, can be trouble for us.” She gestured around the inside of the carrier.
“Ain’t gonna come at us. Found out last time what that’s like.” The boy countered.
“Doesn’t mean its not trouble.” Jess regarded him steadily. “Ten thousand of the other side I offed in that cliff blow up had no idea I was around. No idea who I was.”
Not exactly probably true. Given what that installation was. Jess smiled inwardly. They’d know her name, if nothing else and probably one of them, at least had died in a firestorm cursing it.
“Stand by.” Dev’s voice said quietly in her ear. “Jess, we’re almost to target.”
“See if you can pick up an echo.” Jess said. “Spread out in a spiral pattern, you go furthest west.”
“Ack.” Dev relayed the instructions, and the carrier tilted slightly as she vectored off and crossed the invisible line that was their patrol limits heading due west.
Jess set a few parameters on her own boards, then put her hands back down on her thighs. “Now we wait.”
“Hey Drake.” Kirin spoke up. “What’s that one for?” She pointed at one of the burns on Jess’s left arm. “That the big blow up?”
Jess glanced at her forearm, then pushed the sleeve up further. “That one is.” She studied the mark. “My first mission with Dev.” She glanced up towards the pilot’s station and found Dev watching her in the reflection. “Devvie has one almost like it.”
The yonks were interested. “You got one too, Rocket?” Kirin asked, leaning forward to look at Dev.
“Yes.” Dev paused in her instruction, glancing at them in the reflector. “I thought it was an interesting thing to experience, and Jess agreed.”
“That’s cool.” Kirin said immediately. “Does it hurt?”
“Still cool.” The boy next to Kirin said. “We gonna do that?” He eyed Jess hopefully.
The kids looked really disappointed. “We’ll find something else.” Jess told them. “Burning yourself on purpose is stupid. It was just something we did, in service. I ain’t in service no more, and I ain’t getting any more of these damn things.”
“But it’s cool.”
“It’s not. Its stupid, and it’s painful and you have to let it heal, and it’s a mess.” Jess argued. “We’ll figure something else out.”
“Dev even thought it was cool.” Kirin pushed back.
“That’s not exactly true.” Dev spoke up, in a mildly bemused tone. “I thought it was a valuable experience.”
Dev put her attention back to her scans, figuring she wasn’t going to win that particular argument. The frequencies were clean, there were no reflections, nothing to parse. “Jess, I’m going to see if we have any atmospheric bounce.”
“Go for it.” Jess reached up and tightened her restraints in an automatic gesture. “We can argue about self mutilation later.”
Dev warned the flight, then she took the controls and sent the carrier abruptly skyward, shooting up towards the cloud cover and then through it in a surge of power, opening up the spectrum to see if she could catch any echos, any signals reflecting off the upper cloud layer.
“Whoa.” Kirin grabbed the belt holding her in place. “Evan, hang on to that damn pipe before you hit me with it.”
Evan shifted the pipe and braced his feet against the floor, as the craft leveled out and surged forward, the sound of the engines now louder in the thinner atmosphere.
Dev set the scanners to the furthest range possible, her eyes moving from one output to the other, watching for anomalies.
They flew in silence for a minute.
“Dev.” Jess said, suddenly. “Go back along a line twenty five degrees northwest.”
Dev adjusted their course, restarting the sweep and taking in the wiremap of the ground beneath them that was flat and rocky, the rain sweeping across it in a pounding scour. “Course altered.” She announced. “Heading twenty five degrees northwest from target acquisition.”
Jess watched her screens intently, and the yonks watched her, their eyes a little wide.
“Echo.” Dev said, suddenly. “I have a repeat of the squirt, end one, capture.” She hit controls. ‘Sending it.”
Jess saw the echo appear on her input screen and she studied it. “Same as last time.”
“Yes. It’s a loop.”
“Tell the squad to spread out on our course. Slow down.” Jess encapsulated the signal and sent it out to April, who would know what it was. “ “Tell them to do a deep search scan for particulate, metallic.”
April’s voice crackled into the sideband. “Def someone from the force, flying.” She said, crisply. “Figure they got caught in weather?” She suggested. “Doug saw your course change. You got some intel?”
“No. Just what’s the first thing west and north of us?” Jess said.
Dev did a quick comparison of their course with the history of flights they’d taken and observed the potential match. “Interesting.” She changed the scan slightly, adding a filter. The ground they were covering was sterile and lifeless, she picked up nothing biologic at all.
Just rock, and rain. “Squirt is looping and detectable, Jess. It’s an automatic, power gradient fading point two percent every cycle.”
“Beacon.” Jess concluded. “Let’s go get it.”
“Flight, please target source of signal, stand by to shift coordinates by two degrees.” Dev instructed the other pilots. “We have been directed to investigate the source of the beacon.”
Jess nodded quietly to herself. She curled her legs around the base of her seat and leaned forward against the restraints, studying the targeting data she was extracting from the scans that Dev was running, the arms comp analyzing what it saw with an eye of finding something interesting to shoot.
She ran the signal through the filters again, but it was the same as it had been when she’d first heard it back at the Bay - just an alert frame, set on repeat, with no detail behind it like a seagull squalling for no reason on the rocks outside their space.
She’d nailed one with a rock only that morning, chasing it’s noisy ass away. This was the same sort of thing - just a squealing beacon left to transmit a loop that told them nothing.
So, either an automatic system triggered by some catastrophic event to the craft that carried it… or potentially a trap trying to draw them in.
Jess smiled in anticipation, folding her hands together as they flew towards it. “Keep an eye out for weird stuff Devvie.” She almost whispered into the comms. “Might be a scam.”
Dev was briefly silent. “Someone is expecting us to investigate.”
“Could be.” She looked at the silently watching fighters. “Ready to mix it up?”
“Oh yeah.” Kirin said, instantly. “You serious?”
“Yeah.” Evan, seated next to her, chimed in. “Lets do it!”
Jess could feel the tickling sensation on the palms of her hands as despite all evidence to the contrary, she felt a fight coming. “Take it slow, Devvie. Bring us down to ground level as we get to the spot.”
“Ident.” Dev said. “The signal is coming from that rock structure two nautical miles from our current position. Ground ahead of it is clear, no biologic signs.”
“Drake.” April broke in again. “You figure this is a trap?”
“Nice.” April’s tone was satisfied. “I wanted a shootfest today. Want to keep two of these guys up here with scans?”
Jess paused, and considered the question, knowing she had only perhaps a minute to decide what to do, and realizing it was again a situation where she had to decide for more people than she was used to. She hadn’t really thought about how to approach the escarpment - she’d assumed she and Dev would land and she would take the kids out and they’d see what they’d see.
But.. was that smart?
“They’re not armed. No point.” Jess said. “We all land, key’s gonna be how fast they come at us after we’re down.” She paused again. “And how fast you and I can get back to these buckets and get behind the triggers.”
Logic dictated that she and April stay behind, in the carriers, and let the fighters go out and trip the trap. But these kids were too raw. Jess internally cursed. Too raw, and the pilots save Dev and Doug would not take independent action.
Was this stupid? Should they just turn around and get more people?
“Target in range.” Dev’s voice intoned calmly. “There is metallic residual. No electronic footprint except for the beacon.”
Too late. “Okay. Land in an arc, Devvie. They can’t sneak up behind us we’ve got nothing but dead flats but tune the alerter.”
“Yes.” Dev agreed, having already done so. “ I have synced the scan consoles.” She slowed the carrier’s speed, extending the landing skids and putting the craft down at a distance that would allow them reaction time if something burst out at them, despite the empty scans.
Sometimes scans could lie, and she could see Jess was triggered, her knees jumping in a faint rhythm and her eyes searching her boards with that focused intensity.
She kept the engines powered, and the skids only lightly touched the ground, holding a point in space. “Please remove your restraints before you attempt to exit the craft.” She reminded the fighters. “Standing by to open the hatch.”
There was the sound of belts being released and Jess released her more extensive restraints. “Kick it open.”
Dev did, and the door opened with a thunk as it popped outward, and swung out of the way, but she kept the ramp from extending, not wanting that to prevent her from lifting urgently.
Jess stood up and reached over to pick up one of the spare poles, her hand blaster tucked into the small of her back. “Let’s go.” She jumped out of the carrier and the kids scrambled after her, leaving the carrier startlingly empty.
Dev tied in all the scans and started running the situational analytics on them, designed by Interforce but tuned by her in her spare time. She watched all the other fighters emerge and April join Jess at the front of them, as they started towards the outcrop where the beacon was, weakly, sending.
“Is there something we can do to assist, Dev?” Kevin asked, his voice calm. “We would like to help.”
Dev reflected her output screens to the other carriers. “Study these results. If anything seems suboptimal, advise everyone.”
“Excellent.” Keko’s voice responded. “Is this what is called an insertion, NM-Dev?”
Dev watched the gang of fighters and their two leaders advance on the rock formation. “Yes.” She answered after a brief pause. “Hopefully it will be an uneventful one.”
“Are they often uneventful?”
The rain drenched them quickly, as they approached the escarpment, now visibly pocked with dark, uneven sockets that promised an ingress and at least shelter from the weather and a quick scan of the surface indicated to Jess that this was not a habited area.
April came up next to her, curly hair plastered down to her skull, eyes flicking over the ground with a look of pleased anticipation. “Scam?”
Jess shrugged her shoulders eloquently. She studied the gaps in the rock and picked one at random, whose roof seemed least likely to smack her in the head. “Okay.” She said into comms. “Break into squads, everyone takes a tunnel.”
“Yo.” Many variations echoed back at her. The scrubs ganged up by their carrier group and trooped off into the caves, and as they crossed out of the rain and into the shadows, she saw them slow, and blink as she herself was slowing and blinking, transitioning from the gray light of outdoors.
Inside the cave was shades of darker gray and silver, an odd reflectivity that briefly made her pause, then move on, her six yonks at her back. April and her gang had split off at the first branch, and she could hear them moving along through these natural twisting passages.
She took in a breath, opening her mouth a little. It smelled of just rock, lacking the salt on the edges she’d smell at the Bay, just the metallic biting tang that made the back of her tongue twist.
“Been water through here.” April commented in her ear. “Flood, you can see the drain off.”
On the ground, yes. Jess could see it, a line of sediment she could feel faintly crunching under the soles of her boots. She reached out her hand and touched the wall, feeling its surface cold and damp against her fingertips. “Yeah. Flash from runoff. Line of cliffs west of here.”
“Nothin’s round here.” Someone said, in a low mutter.
Jess sensed that as well, but her skin was prickling and she knew there was something. “Keep going. Something made that squawk.”
There was nothing alive around them, nothing she could smell or hear, no taint on the still air in the tunnels of creatures aside from the ones she’d brought with her, who were spread out in a loose circle around her with their heads turning back and forth, just like hers was.
It was such an odd feeling, to be one of many. It almost made her smile but then faint change in the air made her halt, and seeing that the rest of them halted too, and went still, watching her.
After a moment of silence Kirin utter softly. “Sup?”
“Silicon sealant.” Jess responded quietly. “Coming from that northwest facing passage, there to the right.”
She started off in that direction, and they hustled to follow her as she shifted her grip on the pipe she’d picked up, taking a deeper breath of air. “Burned rock.”
“Got it.” April said. “Void ahead. We’re in the next chamber, I can hear you moving.” A moment later a faint tap against the rock sounded, and Jess reached out and tapped back. “Watch it.”
“Sup?” Kirin repeated softly.
“There’s something in here that ain’t natural.” Jess said, as she sped up the pace a little, wanting to get to the fun part. “Mech.”
Ahead she could see the branch off, and then, a flash as the two passages conjoined and she could see the shadow she identified as April coming towards them.
They joined as a group and as the passage opened up they spread out and now the smell of mech was stronger, and the burned smell of components now overpowered that of the shattered rock they were starting to pick themselves through.
Jess was the first through the crooked, crack of a gap into the void April had detected and she moved into the room, aware of no life in the air, just a large, looming hulk half buried in rubble and rock fragments, and behind it, a huge opening she could see at the very end of, rain and outside light.
“Someone flew their ass in here.” April concluded, as she climbed over the rocks. “They tried a Rocket. Didn’t go so good.”
The vehicle was cracked almost in half, it’s nose battered and crushed, as though it had fallen right out of the air into the cavern. As she got closer, and the scrubs spread out to investigate the cavern, she realized the outline was somewhat familiar. “Crap.”
“Training rig.” April finished her thought, as she peered inside the wreck. “No bodies inside.” She pulled out her blaster and turned on the pre-aim, illuminating the inside, as Jess came up behind her and looked over her head at it. “Clean.”
The inside was total devoid of any hint of power. The hatch was open and the rudimentary pilots and gunners seats were empty, and just frames with old plas webbing on them that made Jess grimace in memory.
“Junkers.” April sniffed. “What do you figure, some neo off course? Make sense if that’s where the screamer came from.”
Possible. “They’re usually a lot more careful of how they let go of these things.” Jess mused. “Hey Devvie? Could use some wrencher brains in here.”
“Ack.” Dev’s voice answered at once. “Be right there.”
“Yo.” Evan grunted into the local comms. “Heard something out there.”
Jess looked up quickly. “Out where?”
He pointed at the large gap. “Clank.” He said. “Like this.” He whacked his pipe against the rocks.”
Everyone started towards the exit. “Hold up.” Jess ordered sharply. “Dev, g’wan up over the ridge and see what’s over on this side before we walk our asses out into it?”
“Ack.” Dev said again, with the sound of the hatch closing behind her and the distinctive thrum and vibration of the restraints on her pilot’s chair retracting. “Stand by. Flight 2 and 3, please lift and do a full scan of the area. Flight six please accompany me.”
“Sure.” Doug responded amiably. “You always get the fun stuff.”
“You think something’s out there? They did’t see anything on scan.” April muttered.
“I think something’s out there. I can feel it.” Jess stared at the opening. “Move against the walls. “She ordered, moving away from the wrecked training carrier. “Don’t look at the opening, keep your night eyes.”
“Yo.” The twelve scrubs moved back, pressing their backs against the damp rock.
“Hey, nothin round here.” Another of the groups reported in. “Wanna go over by you?”
“Everyone c,mon back to the entrance we used.” Jess told them. “The more the merrier.”
April drew her blaster and cradled it in her hands.
“Jess.” Dev’s voice cut in, loud and urgent.
“Thought so.” Jess said. “Keep your head down Dev!”
“It’s a security transport, grounded, it’s not showing on scan but I can see it.” Dev said. “Something is blocking scan. I am going to see if I can…” She paused. “I am taking fire.”
“Oh boy.” April spun. “Let me go get in that damn bus. Doug!”
“No time.” Jess said. “Hang on Dev!” She bolted for the entrance, heading for the gap and picking up speed as the scrubs reacted, bolting after her with loud yells.
“Doug get over here and be a decoy.” April said, as she took off after her. “Pick me up on the ground!”
“Roger that boss.” Doug said. “C’mon the rest of you - lemme teach you about dodge ball. Everyone get up to level, and follow me!”
“Shitshow.” April picked up speed as Jess emerged into he light, then abruptly whirled around and leaped up against the rock wall of the escarpment. “What in the f…”’
What in the F was Jess climbing up the side of the cliff, moving from handhold to handhold as easily as if she was walking up the steps at the Bay, gaining altitude as she was spotted from the ground and bolts started aiming her way hitting where she’d been a moment before as she moved quickly along.
Dev was busy. The security guards who were part of the transport were on the ground using the vehicle as shelter and firing up at her with long, powerful laser blasters that slammed against the lower armor of the carrier as she shifted and dodged in mid air, keeping the hits squarely in the thickest part of her shields.
She wasn’t really in much danger. The carriers were designed to survive air to air battles with other vehicles, so though the long rifles could blow holes in stone, they merely rocked the craft she was flying in a little bit.
But there were a lot of them. “There are fifty individuals.” She reported. “They are heavily armed, and are wearing standard class three armor.”
The entrance was suddenly a boil with scrubs and Dev quickly dove the carrier down between them and the security guards, taking the hits on the outer shell as they started barreling across the wet, rocky ground.
A motion caught her eye and she saw Jess leap up onto the rock wall and start to climb upward, and without a hesitation she knew what her partner was up to. “Suboptimal.” She muttered. “Flight 6…”
“On the way Rocket.” Doug called back, as the five carriers came arching over the top of the wall. “Whatcha.. oh. Oh crap.”
“Please assist in distracting those people and drawing fire.” Dev told him. “I have a task.”
The five carriers came plunging down and headed right for the security transport, as though they were going to crash right into it and Dev took advantage of that distraction to move her carrier into a rolling circle, looking quickly at the wall to see where Jess was.
There. Near a point of rock and exposed to the sky, a perfect target. Dev hit her landing jets and a moment later a huge cloud of steam rushed up past her, obscuring the view. She shifted the craft forward and then slid sideways near the wall as close as she could get.
Jess crouched and leaped in perfect confidence, turning a somersault and landing on the roof of the carrier with a solid thump as she lay down flat under a barrage of fire.
The nose came up and she almost slid backwards off the end of the craft. “Slippery up here Devvie!” She yelled into the shortwave comms.
“Stand by please.” Dev shifted away from the rock wall as she lifted up, getting clearance to maneuver. “I assume you wish to enter?”
“Yeah, let me try to get over onto that en… ow!” Jess yelped. “Bastard!” She drew her blaster and got her arm round the edge of the carrier, returning fire. “Someone get that… yeah! Good one!”
The sniper was piled on by three scrubs, bearing him to the ground with booming yells they could hear aloft, and gaining the attention of the surrounding security guards who turned to go help their comrade out
That gave Dev the chance to punch the hatch opening and then without warning she rolled the carrier onto it’s side and then tipped it aft upward, and let her motion and gravity do the work as Jess was tumbled onto the side of the carrier and then into the open hatch.
“Yow!” Jess yelped into her comms. “What the WHAT??”
Barely enough time to close it before a bolt took out something inside, and then she was completing the roll and coming upright again, her hands moving in a blur to transfer power to Jess’s console as she punched the armed lights on the bottom in warning as their armament came live.
“Don’t you even think about doing that to me, Douglas.” April’s voice cut in abruptly. “Land your ass.”
“Landing my ass.” Doug was holding back a laugh. “Stand by.”
“Nice!” Jess caught her breathe as she pulled herself into the gunner chair, wet and bruised and bleeding from a gash on the side of her head. “Good job, Devvie!”
“Non optimal” Dev frowned. “You are damaged.”
“Not nearly as much as I could have been and not nearly as much as I’m gonna damage them. Get past those kids.” Jess got her hands in the triggers and pulled them down, priming the guns as she wrapped her legs around her chair support in lieu of her restraints.
Dev went to the ground and they were skimming over it, almost hitting the surface as the scrubs ducked and rolled and powered forward, evading the blasts as they reached the transport and threw themselves at the line of guards coming out belatedly to engage them.
Caught by surprise, the guards weren’t prepared, relying on their long range weapons to hold opponents off, not ready for opponents who ignored the fire and just came right at them, ducking and weaving and dodging the energy bolts without fear.
Jess saw them look up at her, understand what the profile of the vehicle was, and see the lights and she grinned, sending a rapid-fire set of blasts against the side of the transport as she understood that they now understood what they were facing.
She could almost hear the silent ‘oh shit’.
“Get out of the way!” Doug yelled into the comms. “Get back! Get … just don’t go that way!” Move Move!! Keko.. Kevin get around that rock point there!”
“Please clear this vehicles range of motion.” Dev warned. “We are actively firing.”
“That means all of it. All the motions!” Doug yelled over her. “Chase those guys down there, just run on top of them! Go over there! To the right!”
The scrubs were in heaven. The guards had lined up behind the transport and they were now fighting hand to hand with them, unable to use the long rifles to any good effect and their armor proving more a hindrance than a help.
They were not trained for this. They were not prepared to deal with an enemy who paid no attention to their perceived threat and just wanted to get their hands on them and tear them apart, yelling in delight.
One got taken right off his feet by Evan, with Kirin behind him reaching for the helmet on his head and yanking it off, as they battered him with their pipes.
Over their heads, Jess was laying down gunfire, rocking the transport continuously. The rest of the carriers peeled off and started flying around the escarpment in a wild confusion of dark hulls, ducking the scattered bolts from the long rifles or deflecting them against their lower armor, becoming more assured as the sets realized their vehicles could take the hits with no damage.
“Don’t tank this one, wouldja Jess?” April broke in. “It’s in better shape than the other clunker.”
Two of the carriers raced off to the north, staying close to the ground and sending back scan that now showed detail Dev could not see when they were behind the escarpment to the south and she made a note to return and sample the material of it as an urgent to do item.
The entire security platoon had hidden from them. Dev shook her head a little. Hidden from all their technology but not, she recalled, not from Jess, who had sensed them. Not in specifics, but in a knowing that was a mystery to her.
No time to wonder about it now though.
“Come over the top of that damn thing, Dev.” Jess instructed. “How are the kids doing?”
Dev did as asked, circling the transport and tipping the carrier forward so Jess could see out the front windscreen, which nearly sent her pitching over her station.
“Sorry.” Dev adjusted the pitch. “You might want to put on your restraints.”
“I might.” Jess yanked herself back, releasing the triggers and sparing a moment to pull her belts on over her head and fasten them. “Okay.” She stood up and leaned into the straps, peering at the transport. “Yonks are doing it.”
There were security down on the ground, and there were security that were now pelting across the rocky ground in the rain, heading away from the transport, discarding their weapons and just running in terror from the large, eager eyed fighters chasing after them.
“Are we going to take that craft as well, Jess.” Dev was busy at her console. “I have to see if there are mods that can deal with the security of it.”
Were they? Should they? It reminded Jess suddenly of something, “Don’t touch those weapons ya scrubs.” She warned into comms. “Leave em lying they’l blow your asses up.”
“Yo. We got that.” One of them answered. “They told us.”
“And those.” Dev muttered, writing down a note. “Many tasks.”
“Land.” Jess told her. “Lemme get out there and see what’s going on.”
“Are you finished shooting?” Dev asked. “I will then safe the arms.” She put a hand on the console and waited, watching Jess in the reflector.
Jess hesitated, then closed off comms and just addressed Dev. “Damn it. I can’t do everything at once can I?.” She complained.
Dev smiled at her expression. “April is now in her carrier. Perhaps she could cover?” She suggested, watching Jess’s eyes flick to the side then back to her. “I think she would enjoy that.”
“Perhaps you’re better at this tactical shit than I am.” Jess grinned wryly. “April, you on trigger?” She opened comms again. “Need a backup.”
“Right behind ya. What’re we shooting? The kids are taking care of these guys fine.” April said. “Got two of them chasing down some of the ones running off.”
“Just cover the area and blow up anything that gets stupid.” Jess instructed. “I’m gonna go see if there’s anyone with a brain still moving and find out why these guys are here.” She paused. “Find me some guys with metal on their shoulders, ya scrubs. Bring em out.”
“Yo.””Booyah.” “Walkin crab pots.”
“Gotcha.” April responded in an approving tone. “We’re good.”
Dev slid the carrier sideways into an open, flat area and lowered it to the ground, as a whole group of fighters came surging out from behind the transport, shoving a line of security in front of them, all with their hands up, and sans weapons.
Jess released herself and stood up. “Open.” She turned and went to the hatch, waiting for it to clear enough space not to hit her head before she walked out and dropped to the ground, striding across the rubble, rain hitting her, pipe clenched in her hand.
April’s carrier came to hover at an angle to them, weapons active lights flashing , baleful and at the ready.
Behind the windscreen Dev could see Doug at the controls, and after a moment he looked back at her, and gave her a thumbs up.
She waved back, and watched as Jess walked across the to the transport, where two of the fighters had their grip on one of the security, this one in a set of armor and shoulder splashes she recognized as a captain.
After a moment she locked the controls and stood, pulling on her jacket and sliding her scanner over her shoulder as she went to the hatch and dropped to the ground, turning to close the ingress behind her with a command.
Then she turned and started the scanner up, as she walked after Jess in the rain.
“Drake.” The security captain stared at her, his face white with shock, and covered in blood from being divested of his helmet and dragged across the ground. “You’re Jess Drake.”
Jess nodded. She stood there facing him with her hands on her hips, her hoodie and work pants fully darkened with rain. “What are you doing here?” She asked crisply. “Dugger, right? “
“Yeah.” The captain blinked. “Was about to ask you the same. HQ said you were dead.”
Jess looked at herself then at him, then she spread her arms out. “Not dead.”
“What the hell is this?” He looked around at the yonks, all in their hoodies, drenched din the rain. “What are these guys?”
“My fam.” Jess smiled at him with no humor.
“Oh.” He said. “We heard something about that, at Canyon. Some dust up.”
“You could call it that.” Jess said. “You know Interforce pulled out of here.” She made a circling motion of her hand. “I was at Ten when they took off and left a bunch of us behind.”
Slowly, Duggar nodded. “We know but, anyway… we were tracking down a deserter.” He explained. “From Canyon. That’s our station.” He looked at the hovering carriers. “You.. are those from Ten?” He asked. “I thought.. they told us they… “
“Never mind that.” Jess cut him off. “What kind of deserter? Some kid?”
Jess took a step closer and shifted her grip on her pipe. She saw his instinctive reaction, that drawing back of the shoulders and the twitch along his forearms. “What kind?”
“Cadet.” He finally answered. “Had some argument with the CO there, I don’t know the deets. You know they don’t tell us nothin, Drake. We just got orders to search.”
Jess was aware of Dev’s arrival at her side, standing just a pace or so behind her, far enough not to hinder Jess if she had to start fighting. Her pale hair was darkened with rain and pulled back from her forehead in a messy tangle, the rain rolling off the surface of her sharkskin jacket.
‘Transport with 50 troops on it to look for one runner?” Jess studied his face. “He kick the CO in the crotch or something?”
Painfully, Duggar grimaced. “No idea. Just did what they told me.” He looked away then back at her. “I’ll tell em I didn’t find anything.” He looked around at the scrubs, who were listening with interest. “Your fam huh?”
“My fam.” Jess agreed. “This is Drake’s Bay.” She indicated the scrubs, who grinned. “Tell them to keep the hell away from us, if anyone asks.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” Duggar lifted his hands now in the familiar gesture, hands facing forward at shoulder level. “I get it. They pulled out, you pulled in. Got it. I heard what happened in that fight, Drake, I don’t want any mixing up with you.”
Jess let the pipe rest against her shoulder, relaxing her stance. “Smart man.” She said briefly. “Dev, anything about this missing kid?”
Dev glanced up from her screen, her pale green eyes fixing on the security guard in sharp inspection. “There has been nothing to indicate any presence of anyone in this vicinity, Jess.” She remarked. “I think they are looking in the wrong location.”
“That’s the bio alt.” Duggar said, after a pause.
“Yes.” Dev responded in a mild tone. “I am also not dead.” She added. “In case that was in question.”
“You gonna off em, Jess?” April asked in a conversational tone, over comms. “Rocket could probably unleash that transport. We could use it.” She said. “And no mouthing off to worry about.”
Listening, the scrubs perked up, looking at their captives with renewed interest.
Jess considered for a long moment. Then she half turned to obscure her voice. “No.” She then said. “I want them to talk.” She turned back to Duggar. “Put your arms down on the ground, all of them. Then you have ten minutes to board that thing and get out of her. Don’t come back.”
He closed his eyes, drawing in a breath and releasing it. “Okay.” He said. “Understood.”
“Shoo.” Jess waved the pipe at him.
Slowly, he kept his hands up and backed away from her, and the scrubs let him go, staring at him until he got back to the line of beaten up guards. “Board.” He ordered, pointing at the ramp into the transport. “Drop your guns on the ground. Now.”
Evan picked up a piece of their discarded armor and stood casually, breaking into pieces in his hands as they retreated, the sound of rifles hitting the stone loud as the security guards moved quickly to get onboard.
Three dead bodies were taken with them, dragged by their comrades. The thirty six scrubs, some with cuts and bruises, all mobile and active gathered around Jess in a cluster, watching them, tossing their pipes casually into the air.
“Sup?” Kirin turned and regarded Jess.
“Security from the Interforce school. Chasing a cadet who took off running.” Jess responded. “Might have been in that trainer we saw inside.”
“Dja tell him about it?” April asked.
“Nope.” Jess grinned.
The ground was littered with armor bits and dropped weapons. Dev diligently kept scanning, looking for anomalies, but the weapons seemed standard issue Interforce, and she didn’t detect anything unusual, but she was also conscious of not being able to detect these systems at all from the other side of the ridge.
It made her doubt her results, which she found profoundly uncomfortable. She kept running the scans as they waited for the transport to load, turning in a circle to gather everything she could.
She paused, with her back to the transport, and looked up at the large, irregular hole in the side of the escarpment. With a frown, she changed the scanner from biologic to geologic and started a new evaluation.
“Move it!” Jess let out a bellow, as some of the security guards were pausing to turn and watch them as they waited to board.
“Ow.” April yelped. “Would you turn off your damn mike before you do that?”
Dev, having seen Jess’s deep inhale had already plucked her ear bud out. Now she put it back in and studied her results. “Interesting.”
“What is?” Jess leaned over and peered at her screen. “Looks like rocks.”
“Yes.” Dev agreed. “With an interesting metallic component. A bit like the ones at the Bay, but with an internal structure I have not seen before.” She said. “It might have been causing the scan block.” She felt a bit better about that, if there was a reason. “See? I can’t scan the interior of that structure.”
Jess studied the screen. “You can’t see the trainer in there.”
“No. I assume they could not either.” Dev said. “But you found it.”
Jess lifted her eyes to study the escarpment. “We found it.” She said. “I could smell the mech. But no people. Not even a dead people.”
Behind them, the transport powered up and cautiously lifted, easing up past the hovering carriers and edging away towards the northwest.
“Whoever piloted that craft had to go somewhere.” Dev said, after a long pause.
“Yeah.” Jess mused. “So lets see if we can go find them.”
The rain had started to come down harder, and the pilots were happy to land their carriers on the east more sheltered side of the escarpment, as the fighters re-entered the tunnels to search.
“Should we exit and assist?” Keko asked. “We have infrared lenses in these vehicles that would allow us to see in that space.”
Dev finished pulling a dry shirt on and a sweater over it. “Jess requested we stay with these carriers and keep prepared to depart.” She ran her fingers through her hair and shook herself. The rain had been cold, with a tinge of ice in it, and she now investigated the holding cabinets behind her station to see if she had a spare garment for Jess packed in one for when she returned from the cave.
“April has our set.” Doug commented over the station to station comms between the carriers. “She’s ticked she can’t just see in the dark like Jess can. That’s crazy.”
“That she is upset?” Dev paused in her search and looked over her shoulder at the comms panel.
“That Jess and the rest of these guys can see in the dark.”
“Ah.” Dev went back to her methodical search of the cargo locker. “Yes, it’s amazing.”
“We did excellent work earlier didn’t we?” Kevin spoke up. “In preventing those guards from firing on us.”
“That was good.” Keko agreed. “That was interesting flying.”
“That was interesting flying and really excellent work.” Dev went over and picked up her drink bottle and went back to her station, taking a seat and leaning back in her pilot’s chair. “Kieran, is the transport still on scan?”
Kieran, in Flight 4, was hovering at altitude, just under the cloud cover so his scan would see over the escarpment. “The vehicle has maintained course, and is on trajectory to the coordinates you provided.” He responded promptly. “There is no other activity at this time.”
“Thank you.” Dev opened her bottle and took a sip from it. “Can you navigate to the other side of this ridge, and perform a deep scan for biologic signs please?”
“Yes.” Kieran responded confidently. “I have programming for that.”
“I am sending over a biograph.” Dev continued. “Please filter it out of the results and revert.”
“So what’s in this rock pile, Rocket?” Doug asked. “That’s weird that it blocked all the scans. It’s just a hump of stone, right?”
“I have a sample to bring back for Doctor Dan to examine.” Dev answered. “I sent back a geologic scan, but it was not specific enough to determine the structure.” She studied the screen at her left hand. “It is almost as if there is something inside the rock that was melted into it.”
“Some metallic substance.” Dev clarified. “But it could be useful.” She pondered. “There is no detectable radiation, or emittive properties. It just seems to be a particular construction and density that absorbs or blocks signal.”
“We could coat the outside of these things in it and be invisible.” Doug said in a conversational tone “That’d be cool, right?”
Dev stared at the comms panel, both her pale eyebrows hiking right up almost to her hairline. “That is a very Interesting idea.”
“Putting rock on the outside of these vehicles would change the flight dynamics” Keko commented. “As well as increase the lifting weight.”
“I was kidding.” Doug chuckled. “Sorta.”
He had been. But it was an interesting idea. Dev took another sip of her beverage, the slightly odd tasting slightly effervescent seaweed extract from the Bay. Interesting, because plastering rock on the outside of Rockstar really wasn’t a feasible idea, but what if she could extract whatever the metallic substance was and use that? Would that be useful?
Yes, she thought that might be useful. She picked up her data pad and tapped some notes onto it, to a scrolling list of possible tasks and things she wanted to investigate.
On the comms digital display, she had the sidebands that were allowing Jess and the rest of the fighters to communicate through their earbuds, relayed through the carrier’s comms systems. “Interesting that the comms signals penetrate that substance.”
“They don’t want to make Jess mad.” Doug bantered. “No serious, its frequency maybe. Sidebands lower.”
“That’s true.” Dev mused.
“Dev, this is Kieran. I have applied the filter and scanned. Are you expecting a result?”
“Interesting.” Kieran replied. “There might be a reflection. I am going to triangulate.”
“Excellent.” Dev propped one boot up against the console and watched out the front screen, drumming the fingers of her right hand against her thigh. Then she went to the library in the carrier’s systems and reviewed the location they were perched on, flicking back through screens of geologic history.
Jess’s voice rumbled in her ear, the tones making a faint tickle against her eardrum. “Devvie.”
“Here, Jess.” She responded, glancing up at comms and seeing they were on a private sideband. “Is everything nominal?”
Dev focused on the comms. “Is there an issue?” She flicked her eyes over the control consoles, taking in the condition of the carrier in a single sweep. “How can I assist?”
“I’m here in a hole in the ground in the dark and you’re not here.”
Dev stood up at once. “A moment. I will egress.”
Jess chuckled. “Nah just kidding.” She said. “Stay in there it’s raining ice.” She said. “I”m gonna give this another ten minutes then we can take off and head back to the Bay and chalk it up to a unicorn hunt.”
Still standing, Dev regarded the boards. “Are you certain?”
“I”m sure I don’t want you turning blue.” Jess’s voice was warmly teasing. “I’d have to kiss ya.”
Dev pondered “That’s a very attractive idea.” She eyed the storage closets, wondering if she’d remembered to pack the cold weather parka that had ended up stuffed in one of the storage lockers in the carrier when they’d taken it from the Base.
Jess chuckled again. “Yeah, let me finish this up and we can get out of here. I’m guessing if there was someone stupid enough to be in that brick while it flew into a mountain they’re a burned up splat.”
Dev remembered what North Base was like, and the sense memory made her grimace. “Unfortunate.”
“Let that be a lesson to ya. Don’t fly into mountains.”
“I did.” Dev commented mildly.
Jess smiled, and you could hear it in her voice. “Don’t fly into mountains unless you’re Rocket Raccoon, the best pilot on planet Earth.”
Well, there was some small bit of truth in that. There, in the privacy of the carrier Dev could glance at her own reflection and grin at herself. “Perhaps they ejected and landed in another area.” She suggested. “And programmed the carrier to crash.”
“Could be.” Jess assented. “Damn good thought Devvie. We should patrol around.”
“Dev.” Kieran’s voice broke in on the other channel. “Sending output.”
“A moment, Jess.” Dev sat down and slid her seat forward, tuning in the squirt and pulling it up into her analytics module. Her pale eyes scanned it, then she slowly went over it again, leaning forward a little as the cryptic output scrolled.
“Anything cool?” Jess asked.
Dev sat back. “Possibly.”
“Oh hey, hold on to it. I think we may have found something.” Jess said, then clicked off, the carrier going quiet.
Dev frowned and sat back. “Kieran, what is your position?” She listened to the crisply presented coordinates. “Please hold at that location, I will join you.”
“Thought Jessy said to stay put?” Doug suggested. “Aren’t we supposed to be running a hot stick?”
Dev was busy putting her craft into flight. “It’s also possible she would not mind repeating our earlier activity.” She said. “But in any case, I would like to inspect this anomaly.” She fastened her restraints and boosted up on her landing jets. “Please remain here.”
It felt odd, giving direction to a natural born. The rest of the pilots were sets, and that was no problem. Dev didn’t feel strange at all directing them, she was the senior, and they knew that, and were fine with it as well.
Doug was, however, a mild natural born and she felt he might not be too upset. He also had become accustomed to being directed by her while they were Interforce.
“Okey dokey Rocket.” He confirmed the belief in a cheerful tone. “We’ll hang out here, but y’know, we might be better aloft. I know Jessy didn’t want us out of range of the Bay but if we were up in the air, if they come out on that side we’d be able to get to them faster.”
Dev was already lifting up. “It is a compromise, as if they come out on this side, it would be faster to recover them.”
“Yeah, that’s true. But I’m kinda bored.”
Dev grinned to herself. “We could take the opportunity to practice close order motion.”
“We can do drills!” Doug said. “C’mon kids, lets get some practice in.”
Jess squeezed through a crack in the rock, the rough stone rasping against her wet hoodie. She licked a droplet of rain off her lips and eased forward, following that indefinable itch, that odd and sometimes disconnected instinct moving her in a particular direction towards a particular goal.
“Nothin?” She heard a yonk whisper in her ear. “Don’ see nothing.”
“Don’t try to look.” Jess whispered back. “Don’t try to do anything. Just let your body move.” She tried to explain it, and couldn’t really find the words. ‘Think about something else.”
She was doing it, her footsteps gentle and soundless on the ground, feeling her body already tensing, coiling, her ears pricking up as she sensed there was something there. Something ahead and to the left, making the hair lift on the back of her neck.
“It’s like hunting.” She finally added, in a low mutter. “How do you know where to go?”
They’d probably never even thought about that, and the silence that followed was oddly profound. When your daily task was to find stuff, you didn’t question success, now did you? You walked along, and went where your feet took you, and there were mollusk blowholes.
There were the crannies that held sea urchins.
There were just the rocks that had limpets on them, on the back side. You just knew, you just did, you brought back your bagful. Did you think about how you knew? Was there really anything to even think about?
“Yo.” A yonk breathed into the comms. “Here maybe.”
And Jess knew where he was, to the left of her, in the direction she was already heading, and it made her smile as she squeezed through another gap and found two Bay fighters there, in the shadows of the caves, arms distance from each other, facing a rounded cap of rock ahead of them.
“There.” It was Kirin, and she turned and indicated the protrusion. “Just feels different.”
“Does.” Jess moved around to the far left of it, examining the surface. There was something less than authentic about it. Something shaped, rather than natural. “Back up.” She told the fighters, who were now gathering around her.
They did, and she picked up a rock on the ground, a heavy one with sharp edges, and hefted it, and as one they all scattered and moved as far back as they could in the cavern as she lifted it over her head and threw it at the cap, her body moving in a powerful whipping motion.
It slammed into the stone with a loud sound that wasn’t much like rock, and echoed loudly, but not quite enough to muffle the faint sound that was behind it.
“Heard somethin.” Kirin said, as April came in behind them and crossed the cavern to Jess’s side. “Like a seal blowhole.”
“Heard what?” April said. “What the hell was that?”
“Me throwing a rock at that wall.”
April eyed her. “Bored?”
Jess turned and faced her, shaking her head and then making a quick hand signal, nodding as April pulled out her blaster and gripped to two handed and she pulled her own gun out of the holster in the small of her back.
“Jess.” Dev’s voice popped unexpectedly into her ear, as the rumble of carrier engines suddenly penetrated the rock at their backs. “There is a biologic signature ahead of you.” She spoke quietly, but quickly. “I was able to alter the scan properties to resolve around the metallic interference.”
“Good job Devvie.” Jess muttered. “What is it?”
“A natural born. It doesn’t signature match anything I have in my library.” Dev reported.
“So not one of us.”
Dev paused. “If you mean, not a relative of yours, or from Drake’s Bay or a bio alt, yes.”
“Even a baby one of us, is one of us.” Jess glanced around, then she replaced her blaster in it’s housing and walked forward towards the protrusion, going right up against it and laying her hands on the rough surface in gentle silence. “Stand back and let me and April handle this.”
April adjusted her goggles and nodded, moving sideways to clear Jess’s line of motion.
She breathed in the scent of it tasting the mineral tang of the stone, and behind it, the acid taint of metal. And behind that? What did she feel was behind that? An immature but potentially dangerous unknown?
Could well be.
She closed her eyes and breathed in through her mouth, aware of the tense silence behind her as the scrubs watched her intently, and April waited, slowly lowering her gun into position, the red pre aim splashing against the surface to one side of Jess’s head. .
Jess ignored it and stretched her arms out and fit her fingers into angles in the stone, then she tightened her grip and leaned back, arching her body and drawing in a deep breath.
“The hell are you doing?” April whispered in her ear.
“Just being Bay.”Jess muttered back, then she gathered herself and surged backwards, every muscle standing out on her arms and back, straining the fabric of the work pants over her thighs as she hauled against the rock surface, balancing a moment on the verge of falling back against it before it let loose with a crack and she almost fell over as the rock facade came away in her grip.
She hopped back awkwardly, dragging the piece with her and swinging around to slam against the rock face as the scrubs bounded forward and April scooted in ahead of them with a bold yell into the void behind it, the vivid splash of her pre-aim blaring across the space.
There in the dark, in the shadows, Jess caught again the soft gasp she’d heard after the rock toss repeat itself.
“I..” A small voice echoed softly. “I give up. Please don’t shoot me.”
The thrum of the engines of Dev’s carrier rumbled again, so close Jess had to stop herself from turning to look through the tunnel they’d come through as though her partner had found a way to fit the craft inside it.
“Jess.” Her comms crackled. “That was a loud sound.”
“So’kay Dev.” Jess said into comms, dragging the rock facade aside and throwing it against the wall again so she could muscle her way through the ring of scrubs and bristling ex agent to inspect her booty. “We found him.”
“Excellent.” Dev said. “All is well then?”
Jess snorted softly. “For us.” She peered through the shadows, where April’s blaster had found a target, the red splash centered on a human head, reflecting off pale, very wide eyes.
Behind the ripped away place was a small depression, and inside that, huddled against the back of it was a short, slight figure wearing a Canyon City gray jumpsuit, so dirty with rock dust it seemed black, smudges of the dust obscuring his face.
Jess studied him. “Hi kid.” She finally said. “Sup?”
He stared blindly around, clearly unable to see them. HIs hair was curly, and some indeterminate darkish color and he had a snub nose and he was so damn young it made her grimace.
“Uh hi.…” He had his hands in the air, raised at shoulder level, palms out. “Please don’t kill me. I didn’t do anything to you.”
“Yo.” Evan said. “You ain’t big enough to do anything to us, dude.”
The scrubs chuckled, and half turned to look at Jess in question, while April lifted her blaster and held it at her shoulder, one eyebrow lifting. “They letting juniors play around in the sims these days?” She asked, in a quizzical tone.
“Take him outside.” Jess said, after a pause. “Let him see what he’s gotten himself into.”
Two scrubs willingly went over and took hold of him, lifting him up onto his feet that almost collapsed under him. Kirin observed that, and picked him up, putting him over her shoulder and then turning to head out of the caves, into the thunder and rain.
Dev had landed the carrier outside the cave tunnels entrances, turning the fuselage sideways and opening the hatch as she saw motion coming out of the blackness that resolved into rain darkened and drenched figures, tall and ambling heading in her direction.
Jess was in the lead, and apparently undamaged, she was relieved to note. April was walking next to her, shaking her head.
“Flights please land and prepare to board crew.” She instructed the hovering carriers overhead, who immediately started to descend into the flat area that the security transport had been parked in. She could feel the damp cold coming in from the open hatch and she extended the ramp to the rough ground.
Jess thumped up into the craft, making it rock slightly. “Put him down over there.” She pointed to the back row of seating.
Kirin obeyed, dumping the slight figure onto the seat and stepping back as he twisted himself upright, looking more than a little disoriented and rubbing his eyes, his face red and flushed from being carried head downward.
The rain had washed some of the rock dust off him and in the overhead light of the carrier his mud colored hair had resolved into a deep rusty red, and it matched the spattering of freckles across his face as he stared around at them with wide gray blue eyes.
Dev watched in the reflector, busy with scans.
The six scrubs they’d brought clambered in, and April came in as well, pulling the night vision glasses of her head and letting them hang around her neck.
Jess sat down in her seat and turned it around to face their captive, laying her forearms against the padded metal and watching the rain drip off her hands to the ground. She studied the diminutive figure as the scrubs settled themselves, two of them taking a seat on the deck nearby. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Ryan.” The boy answered promptly. “Ma’am.”
April hastily covered her mouth and looked away, while the scrubs all snickered.
“Ryan what?” Jess ignored them.
He took a breath. “Hendler.” He paused. “My family runs Beartooth Power.” He added. “Out west.”
Jess remembered the name, vaguely, from school. “Tech?”
He looked down at his hands, cut up and covered in scrapes. “I guess.” He said. “I mean, I was.” He glanced at the open hatch. “Not now, since I run off, probably .”
“How old are you?” April asked, suddenly, from her spot hunkering down on the deck, the gun held loosely in one hand.
“Fifteen.” Ryan admitted.
“You musta just gotten in.”
He nodded. “About six months I guess.” He looked around at them again. “I was just gonna get assigned.” He put his hands on his knees, the fabric under them slashed and worn. “Then all that stuff happened.”
April and Jess exchanged glances. “What stuff?” Jess asked, still in a mild tone.
He looked surprised. “All the close down stuff. They stopped our classes. That stuff.” He said, looking from one to the other. “You heard about it? They sent out comms, we heard it. My dad heard it, wanted to get me home again.”
“No, we hadn’t heard it.” Jess said, slowly. “What’re they gonna do with everyone there?”
Ryan shrugged. “I dunno. I figured, only chance I’d get to fly me one of those rigs, so me and Carson… he’s my buddy from there, we were hoping we’d get assigned the same, you know? So we made it up we’d go grab one of the rigs and take a ride.”
This was totally not any of what Jess expected. She could see by the outline of April’s profile the nomad felt the same way. “So where’s he?” She asked in a casual tone. “Your buddy?”
“They caught him sneaking out. Locked him down.” Ryan said, glumly. “They didn’t watch us so good so I got to the hanger and got me my ride.” He looked at them with a defensive expression. “Didn’t do so bad, till the end there.”
“Till you flew into a mountain.” April said, dryly.
“They was chasing me.” He shot back. “I did all right.” He paused, then looked furtively at them. “Where are them guys anyhow? I know they landed round here somewhere.” He hesitated. “Guess I better go give it up.”
“We chased em off.” Kirin told him. “Kicked their asses outta here.”
“Yo.” Evan agreed solemnly. “Drake told em to take on off and they done that.”
“Drake.” Ryan repeated slowly, after a pause. “Where am I?” He asked, in a hesitant voice.
“Tanner’s escarpment.” April supplied. “That’s where you crashed your rig at.” She paused, as though for effect. “We’re from Drake’s Bay.”
Ryan looked around at the interior of the carrier. “Oh boy.” He muttered. “Went too far east.”
Dev got up and came back to the gunner’s station, drawing the boy’s attention. She handed Jess a dry long sleeved shirt. “This was packed in the cargo cabinet. I thought you might like to be dry.” She glanced at their captive, who was eying her with interested surprise. “Hello.” She turned back to her partner. “Should we depart?”
Jess draped the dry garment over her console. “Thanks Devvie.” She said. “Yeah, button it all up and lets get going. I think we’ve had enough surprises for today.”
“Hey, I can just hang out here.” Ryan started to get up, but stopped when the hatch powered closed at a touch of Jess’s fingers. “I mean, thanks for chasing those guys off but I…”
“You want to go back to school?” Jess asked. “They’re gonna roast ya.”
Ryan licked his lips, now visibly nervous. “Maybe some detention.” He shook his head. “Won’t be so bad.. it’s pretty cool there.”
Jess stood up, towering over him and he straightened back away from her as she casually pulled her hoodie off, baring her torso and stripping the sopping garment off her arms. “No it’s not.” She bundled the the shirt in her hands and squeezed the water out of it with powerful twists. “We know.”
“We know.” April agreed, with a faint grin. “Some of us more than others.” She jerked her head towards the service burns outlined in the overhead halons of the carrier.
Jess set the hoodie down and pulled on the dry shirt Dev had provided, watching the kid watch her. Sh pushed the long sleeves up to keep her burns exposed, then put her hands on her hips and hiked her eyebrows. “Well?” She stared at him. “You really want to go back there? We’ll take ya. I can visit my nephew.”
“Tttttayler.” Evan warbled. “Little crazy dude.”
“Or you could come back to Drake’s Bay with us.” Dev suggested, as she picked up Jess’s hoodie. “If you enjoy technical work, it might be interesting for you.” She smiled politely at him. “We always have a lot of that available.”
Ryan licked his lips again, but he slowly sat back down on the seat. “Okay.” He took a breath and released it. “But I can change my mind right?”
Jess snorted, resuming her seat and pulling her restraints on over her shoulders. “Buckle up everybody.”
Dev took the shirt to the dryer and put it in side, pressing it to start it’s cycle as she went to her seat and moved it forward into position. April took the jumpseat and fastened the belt, shoving her blaster back into it’s holster. “Freaking day.”
“Yes.” She started up the engines. “I can’t quite decide if it was optimal or not.”
Dev pulled the comms onto her head and settled the ear buds. “Flight, prepare to lift, and return to base.”
Soft responses came back, and then “Roger that, Rocket.” Doug’s voice was confident and louder. “You got April with ya?”
“Yes.” Dev glanced to one side. “We have 10 on board. I will try not to do anything unsettling.” She powered the engines and sent the carrier skyward. “There’s not enough seatbelts.”
“Good.” Doug said. “I ain’t had lunch yet. That upside down stuff makes me upchuck on an empty stomach.”
Dev grinned briefly at that, then glanced in the reflector, pleased to find Jess peering back, her hands folded over her stomach with it’s dry cloth covering. Jess winked at her, and she smiled back, setting course for home as the rest of the flight lifted around her and formed up.
It had been an interesting day. Interesting in a good way, she thought, and possibly in a future problem way, but she was glad they’d rescued the pilot however reluctantly he was to be taken, and that the scrubs had their battle and would get their markers from the bin.
And it was almost time for night meal. Maybe they would even have shrimps.