It was, in fact, excellent flying weather. Dev had planned a course that paralleled the coastline, and they were treated to clear air, and a view of the rolling foam touched breakers as they crashed against the towering rock walls and interspersed infrequent beaches below them.
Birds were awing, flying just over the water’s surface to hunt, and circling the precipices that held their nests, and despite their traveling speed they caught sight of a breaching whale offshore that made Dev want to slow down to watch.
She didn’t though, keeping along the long, curving joining of sea and land that past the shore tumbled into bare and craggy cliffs and steep valleys where once forested land and humanity had been, stretching along to the east where there was now just deep sea.
Jess had told her, in an offhand way, that once, while swimming near the coastline of the Bay she’d found a sunken city, just really rubble and Dev made a note to remind her of that, and see if they could, maybe on the way back, take the carrier down into the water to look at it.
She glanced in the reflective panel over her station and watched Jess in it, enjoying the warm in-flight lights showing the clear twinkle of her eyes as she talked to April and outlined the distinctive shape of her face.
Dev smiled, then went back to her screens, making a slight adjustment to the course she was flying by hand rather than using the automation system, boosting the engines a bit as she caught sight of the curving headland of the Bay in the distance.
She adjusted comms a little, watching for the scan as they came within range of the Drake’s Bay control ops. Right on time, she saw the return from the sensors, and waited expectantly, her head cocked slightly to one side. “Jess, we have contact.”
“Drake’s Bay control to incoming flight.” A clear, confident, young sounding voice echoed in the bud in her ear. “Please identify.”
Totally unnecessary, Dev knew. They were broadcasting their ident, and Drake’s Bay absolutely knew who they were and in fact were anticipating their arrival. She opened the channel. “Drake’s Bay control, this is incoming Interforce flight BR270006 inbound to your location.”
The voice came back at once. “Yes. You are expected BR270006. Bay 2 pad 1 is prepared for you.” A pause. “Welcome, NM-Dev-1.”
Dev smiled. “Thank you, Kevin.” She responded. “I am accompanied by senior agent Jess Drake, agents April Anston and Mike Arias, and technicians Doug Sars and Chester Garcia.”
“We have noted that, NM-Dev-1, welcome to all.” Kevin responded. “Safe landing.”
“Sounds calm.” Jess commented, relaxed in her chair. “Any action around the old rock pile, Dev?”
Dev studied the returns from her sensors. “There are eight vessels in the water docking area.” She commented. “And there are work crews out on shore, as well as on the front part of the cliff.”
Jess unbuckled her restraints and stood up, moving forward to stand behind Dev’s seat, putting her hands on the back of it and leaning forward to look out the open transparent shield. “Huh. One of them’s Uncle Max.” She said, after a brief pause. “Hey Devvie, isn’t that our old buddy Siggurd near the curve? Isn’t that the old crate we stole?”
“Yes, I believe so.” Dev agreed, checking her sensor return. “It will be interesting to see him.”
“Probably all sheltering from that storm.” Jess went back and dropped into her seat. “It was heading north when it came past the base.”
“They cleaned up that harbor.” April said, as Dev dropped altitude and banked to turn towards the flight bays. “Got the piers rebuilt too. Nice setup there.”
“Put Interforces cred to good use.” Jess smiled without much humor. “But yeah they extended the docking facility. They can fit in a few more boats along the north wall.”
The bay of Drake’s Bay was a huge promontory headland shaped in a rough circle of tall rock walls that extended down into the sea, providing a narrow entrance between the edges that allowed ships to pass into a sheltered open space of calm water.
At ground level, there were cavern openings, natural, that allowed smaller ships to sail all the way in to offload, while a ring of docks served the larger vessels along a steel rampway that extended outward from the main cliff face that featured rows of carved windows and large metal hatches near the top.
One hatch was open, and as they drifted past the flash of arc welding was seen inside, along with the nose of the plasma battery gun that was hidden inside.
Dev came level with their assigned bay, the second from the top of the cliff and saw the metal doors open waiting for them. She slowed her forward speed and aimed for the pad, standing empty, the Bay mechs well clear of the oncoming craft, umbilical lines slung over their shoulders.
She cut the engines as she crossed into the docking cavern, letting her forward motion take the carrier in and over the pad, it’s extended skids touching down in the exact center of it without even a puff of the landing jets.
“Nice.” Jess complimented her.
The carrier settled into place, and she shunted power from the engines, turning on the secure lamps on the outside of the craft as the mechs came forward, waiting for her to unlock the ports on the outside. With a light touch, she did, then looking around the inside of the docking bay.
There were light flyers parked at the rear of it, two of them painted in Bay colors and the space was light and tidy, as neatly appointed as any back at the Base, all signs of the previous damage she’d seen erased.
Dev shut down the carrier and released the lock on the hatch, as her passengers stood up and gathered up their things. She waited for Doug to move out of the way then went to her cabinet and opened it, removing her pack and setting it on the ledge while she shrugged into her jacket.
Jess opened the hatch and stuck her head out. “Hey, scrub.”
“Hey cuz.” The mech outside greeted her with a grin. “Sup?” He was wearing the typical Bay coverall, with a mech patch on the shoulder, but below it was a second emblem, a five pointed star with a elliptical circle around it.
“Just taking a day of vaycay.” Jess walked down the ramp, shrugging her pack onto her back. “What’s the scoop here, Dusty?”
“Hoo.” Dustin shook his head. “Plenty of what the what, cuz. They got a lot for you to put your eyeballs on.”
“Great.” Jess got off the ramp and cleared the way for Mike, April, Doug, Chester, and last, Dev to exist. “I think you remember this bunch.”
“Oh yeah, we rode a rocket together.” April nodded. “Hey.”
“Yo.” Dustin greeted her solemnly. “See ya!” He finished locking down the umbilicals as they walked past him, moving between the pads towards the inner entry.
“He’s one of the kids that went to station?” Mike said. “I think I remember seeing him when we got here.”
“He was.” Jess led the way down the sloping ramp out of the docking bay into the ledge that surrounded the large central cavern and headed for the spiral stairs. “Lets go find the doc.”
She looked around as they started down the steps, appreciating the impression of calm and order she could see all around them. Passing the storage levels, she could see Bay residents and bios working at sorting and stocking bales and supplies, one battered lift plate covered in stacks of dried seaweed.
She could smell the tang of it on the air and nodded. “Shoreline must be full of that stuff from the storm.” She noted with a jerk of her jaw. “Make for good fishrolls.” She added, giving Dev a wink.
Dev licked her lips in silence, looking forward to them.
Several levels more down they were passing the spacer’s quarters, where all the bio alts lived. A glance sideways showed the whole area had been spruced up, and there was now a large area that had comfortable chairs in it just off the landing with worktables and a warming stove tucked to one side.
There were two figures seated there poring over a screen, the light from it outlining their profiles as they talked softly to each other.
“That’s where we stayed that last time.” April commented. “Those guys took it over? Good.”
“They did.” Dev was right behind her. “The sets were very happy about it.” She said. “They have sent me pictures of what they did to the insides. It’s nice. Really different than the creche on station was.”
“I bet.” April murmured. “I didn’t see much of it up there but all of it was weird.”
They continued downward and as they reached the second level they spotted several figures emerge from one of the lower corridors, stopping and waving when they caught sight of them. “There’s Doctor Dan.” Dev said.
“And Mike.” Jess agreed as they got to the bottom of the stairs and started across the huge cavern, stepping through the large pool of gray, pallid light from outside pouring in from the clear plas roundel at the very top of the cavern. “Everyone looks happy. So far so good.”
“A hell of a lot happier than the last time we were here.” April confirmed. “Maybe we won’t even have to sleep in a storage room or get weird looks in the mess.”
“Definitely better than a storage room.” April regarded the quarters she and Doug had been provided, which were large and high ceilinged, with windows cut into the rock walls that showed a nice view of the Bay just below them. There were comfortable beds in them, and sanitary units, and a dispenser area already stocked with bottled water and snacks.
“As nice as at the base.” Doug remarked. “Probably was someone’s crib who croaked in that last shootfest.”
“Probably.” April agreed. “Lets go on the tour. From that look on Kurok’s face, something’s up here.” She swept the inside of the room one last time with her eyes and then joined him in the hallway that connected the two. “This was the family area. I think they parked Jess down that hall there.” She pointed to the right. “Def better.”
“Def.” Doug said. “And windows outside. Haven’t seen that since I left home.”
April laughed her low, ironic laugh. “Try living in a caravanserai. I’m fine with no windows thanks.”
They made their way into the gathering area behind the kitchen, which had a large warming unit, and the huge, stone wall that bore name plaques on either side of element. Mike and Chester were already there, looking around.
“Nice.” Mike said. “Did we see this last time? I don’t think so.”
“Memorial markers.” April said, knowledgably. “Right side’s just family. Left sides died in service. The red outline means they got the Star.”
Mike looked up the length of the wall on the left, his eyes visibly moving back and forth. “Wow.” He said. “I mean, we all went through school, and you heard about the Drakes but… “ He studied the names. “It’s different to see this like that.”
April tipped her head back to look all the way up the hearthstone. “The Pater always argued with the Mater about coming here.” She said. “He said there was no way to bargain with the Bay. Most of the time they didn’t have much to bargain with but the Mater always said she liked the people.” Her lips twitched into a brief grin.
“Interesting point of view.” Doug remarked. “Some tough folks here.”
“That’s why she liked them.” April glanced around as the inside door opened and Jess appeared, with Dev and Kurok in tow. “Ah, here we go.”
“Digs okay?” Jess asked them.
“Sweet.” April responded with a nod. “A lot nicer than the last time we showed up with you.”
Kurok glanced at Jess in question. “Did we do something inappropriate?”
“No.” Jess chuckled. “When I came the first time, Jimmy decided to piss me off by housing us in the unwanted guest quarters.”
Kurok’s pale eyebrows shot up. “No chance of that now. The whole section’s been repurposed.” He remarked. “But anyway, shall we take a little tour? I think we’ve got time for that before lunch. We’ve got a lot of things you might be interested in.”
His eyes were twinkling, and Jess suspected she might be in for some pleasant surprises, which she was more than willing to be distracted by. “Lead on.” She said agreeably. “Can’t wait to see what’s going on.”
She could already see things were good. The inside of the homestead had been cleaned up and repaired from the attacks, the walls were patched and the floor had been re-leveled and new stone laid down over it, the faint smell of it detectable to her.
She spotted the grins on faces appearing as she was seen and recognized and she relaxed a little, lifting her hand and returning some waves. “No guns this time.” She muttered to Dev, who was walking at her side, hands clasped behind her back.
“Seems optimal.” Dev agreed, nodding in recognition as two bio alts paused in mid stride and made eye contact with her, giving her a thumbs up gesture.
They walked through the big cavern, which was full of the sounds of people and movement, and Jess looked casually around as they went through, seeing a relaxed mix of Bay residents and bio alts, shaking her head a little in wonder at how that synthesis had happened.
“No.” Dan Kurok was walking on her other side, apparently reading her mind. “I still can’t believe it either.” He indicated one of the hallways. “Lets take a look at the thousand-ton whale first.” He led the way down through a long, crooked passage, with newly chiseled walls and the smell of fresh caulk. “We decided to put in an inside entry, and close up the external one with that pointless hatchway.”
“Smart.” April said.
“Very.” Jess confirmed. “That was a mess.”
“It was.” Kurok agreed, as they passed a scan portal that brought the usual tickle to all of them, making Jess flex her hand a little. “I had your bioscan credentialed.” He said. “It’s not a lethal stop, but it would set off alarms and no one wanted that bit of embarrassment this morning.”
He went to a newly mounted steel door at the end of the newly cut hallway and put his hand on a plate, which turned teal and opened in front of them. “So, now this cavern.”
The door hissed a little with air displacement, then they were breathing in a heady mix of air that carried the scent of plants and dirt and life, almost overwhelming in its richness.
“Ah.” Dev smiled. “I remember that smell from station.”
“Me too.” Doctor Dan said. He led the way inside and they paused to look around. “We’ve extended it a bit.” He added diffidently, clasping his hands behind his back.
Jess stared around the space, turning in a complete circle as she took in the stacked levels now building up towards the cavern ceiling with its embedded crystal, where once a single platform had been. “Whoa.”
“Yes.” Kurok acknowledged the tone. “You know the sets I brought down here had biological training. They’ve done quite a job taking what was here originally and building it out.” He said. “The crystalline structure of the roof, it seems, is a geological oddity, but one that is chemical and persistent. “
Jess found it hard to take in. The cavern had been a simple workspace when she’d last seen it, an inner and outer ring of extruded tables full of trays with synth dirt in them, and some small variety of plants growing. Now, the levels of terraced platforms stretched all the way up to the ceiling in every direction, with a wide range of different types of things on them.
She looked at Kurok. “So it’s going to keep glowing?” She ventured. “Is that what that means?”
“It is.” Kurok agreed. “Originally that crystal was found here, and people thought it might be good for rad.” He explained. “It’s not really. So then it was just used for conveniently lit dry storage until someone.. “He paused and made a small shrug. “Someone thought, hey why not try growing a plant in here.”
“Someone.” Jess regarded him. “Jimmy? No. He was dumb as a flatfish.” She dismissed the idea. “Between them my two brothers couldn’t have come up with that idea.”
“Well I certainly can’t say as I never got to know either of them, but I think it was someone who’d been either to Quebec, or the other side.” Kurok said. “Who saw product from station and knew what it’s value was.” He regarded the terraces. “It doesn’t really matter at this point, does it? It’s here, and it does in fact provide the radiation required for photosynthesis.”
“Sure does.” Doug was looking at the plants. He walked over to one of the platforms and studied it. “This one doesn’t even have dirt.”
They went over to examine it. It was a leafy plant with pleasant green leaves that had a slight shine to them, and some creamy white buds, and the roots of the plant were hanging down into a trough of liquid, which was being visibly circulated.
“No, that’s hydroponics.” Dr. Dan said. “Station tech. But really, this hydroculture over here is something I’m prouder of.” He drew their attention over to another platform, which was full of thick bushes with small round objects growing on them, as yet, dark green and tiny. “This is a clay based particulate, hard fired, which is found in abundance in the lower strata here at the Bay.” He put his hand in the bins they were in and drew out a handful of roundish reddish brown items and offered it to them. “It’s volcanic in origin.”
Jess took one. “It’s light.” She inspected it in surprise.
“It’s in a way, a lightweight ceramic.” Doctor Dan said, placidly. “It works wonderfully as growing medium because it aerates the roots and it’s porous. A lot better than the synth dirt.” He turned and gestured around the chamber. “As you can see.”
Dev was looking at the rock. “This is interesting.” She remarked. “It reminds me of the external shield tiling on station, Doctor Dan.”
“Yes.” Kurok nodded. “It’s where I got the idea, actually. I was working on seeing what could be done about protecting some of the fishing ships. They need salt water protection but lightweight… anyway.” He folded his arms. “So this is what we ended up trying with it, and it’s done quite well.”
“What are these?” Doug was fingering one of the small roundish buds on the tree. He leaned over and smelled it. “It’s… spicy smelling?”
“Oranges.” Doctor Dan replied. “They should be ripe in… oh… maybe a month, and then you can have a glass of orange juice from it.” He said. “At any rate, we delivered a few things to some interested folks a couple of months ago and it was pretty well received.”
Jess was still holding the bit of rock in her hand, and was still looking around the cavern, which was now filling with quietly working bio alts, and several Bay residents, sorting amongst the plants with rough collecting sacks over their shoulders. “A few things.” She repeated, looking over at Doctor Dan. “That why we have eight hulls in the harbor?”
“It is. Once word got out, we started having trading ships show up here, offering catch for plants.” Doctor Dan said, in a faintly amused tone. “Then they would take the plants up the coast and make double what they would have for the fish.”
“Oh boy.” Doug said, in a faint tone.
“Which was lovely, since the people here prefer eating fish to plants.” Kurok now let the grin he’d been holding back appear. “Win win all round, as they say. It’s somewhat of a cash crop. And it’s a way to get the stock delivered with no effort on our part, though I suspect quite soon now the Drake’s Bay fleet of four is going to expand.” He cleared his throat a little. “As we’ve already filled the coffers back up from what we spent repairing everything.”
“That’s why Uncle Max is here.” Jess slid the small rock into her pocket. “We haven’t heard anything about this at base. Jason would have said something.”
“Not a damn thing.” April came back from inspecting the plant with its roots in the water. “Not even whispers in ops.”
“No. The general sense was, after that last bit of shenanigan, best not advertise.” Doctor Dan said. “However, you obviously have a right to know about it. I wouldn’t, if I were you, tell anyone else.” He addressed Jess somberly. “No one really wants to go through that all again, so it’s all been done in complicit silence.”
“Smart.” April echoed her early comment. “Trader’s are going to find out though. Surprised they’re not sniffing around, they knew about that first set of plants.”
“Well.” Doctor Dan exhaled. “That’s why I’m very glad you stopped by. I think we probably better discuss some kind of plan.” He said. “I was about to ask you to visit when I got your note that you were.”
“What’s that over there?” Doug asked, pointing into the distance. “Those colored things.”
Doctor Dan smiled. “Those are flowers.” He said, waving them on. “Come smell them. Dev knows what they are.” He started walking towards the far side of the space. “And if you see over there, they’ve opened up a little entranceway. There’s another cavern beyond that wall with more of that crystal.”
“Oh boy.” Doug said again. “This is gonna be a thing.”
“Oh yeah.” Chester agreed, his eyes wide as they walked along. “A gigantic, huge thing.”
They ended up back in the stakeholder’s compound, taking seats in the gathering room Jess had last been in during her mother’s processing out.
Jess settled into one of the chairs just to the side of the hearthstone, hiking one knee up over the other as a bio alt came in with a tray of grape tea.
“Thank you, Billy.” Doctor Dan said. “How are your classes going?”
The bio alt set the tray down. “I like them, Doctor Dan. I think it will take some time to understand, but my instructor seems to think I have done well.”
“Great.” Doctor Dan waited for the bio alt to leave, then he turned to them and sighed. “Where do I start?”
Dev went over and retrieved two cups of the steaming tea, bringing one over to Jess. “The sets seem very happy, Doctor Dan.”
Doug came over behind her and picked up the tray, moving around and offering cups to the rest of them. “This place really seems a lot more .. uh… “
“Normal?” April suggested dryly. “Like less shoot filled nuts and more hey we’re just living here kinda now?”
“Well, that’s all likely true.” Doctor Dan put his hands behind his head. “You know we all really didn’t have much expectation of… I at least had no idea what was going to happen after we got here.” He said. “So we just took it one day at a time.”
“Us too, back at 10.” April said. “I think we all got scratch pads with who was on what side still.”
“Right.” Doctor Dan agreed. “I mean, we all went through quite a bit of chaos there.” He said. “Anyway it started very quietly, with the plants. We or at least I, wasn’t really sure how to go about making it into a real trading offering, you know? There wasn’t that much of any of it.”
“Just a tree or whatever of things. I remember.” Jess said, her hands clasped around the mug. “No volume.”
“Right.” Kurok said, drawing the word out. “At first it was just .. well, sort of a novelty? One of the boats asked me for some veg, you know, to stretch out the fish stew at sea. So we handed over some squash and okra, and a box of bell peppers and potatoes because that’s what was actually ready and I didn’t think much of it. I figured if it made things better for individuals here, well, that’s what they’d hoped for at first, wasn’t it?”
“All those people hammering on the doors here, figured it would be all ready for em?” Doug asked. “I mean, there weren’t that many of those things then, and it takes time doesn’t it?”
“It does, and that’s what I told Dee, and Jean and the rest of them. Yes, we’d deal with them, but we needed to sort ourselves out first.” Kurok said. “And that it would take time for that.”
Dev had settled on the arm of the large chair Jess was in, and she was sipping her tea, just listening.
“What’s a potato?” Jess whispered.
“It’s a starchy root. You have actually consumed some.” Dev told her. “It was in those frozen meals we had at North Pole.”
Jess stared at her, eyes narrowed for a moment. “The white stuff?” She guessed, her dark eyebrows hiking.
“Now about the boat, Your Uncle Max’s boat in fact. They pulled in someplace a little up the coast and ran in to some shore collectors from Hawkstown.” Doctor Dan went on. “They hadn’t had a chance to use any of the veg, but the collectors had limpets and crab and so they traded and sat down to make a stew and ended up reinventing something called jambalaya.
“What is that?” April asked.
“Spicy seafood and vegetables, largely.” Doctor Dan said. “Anyway they ended up selling it at dock and made more than they would have wholesaling catch. Very popular.”
“I see where this is going.” Jess commented. “Gulls don’t poop on Max.” She predicted. “He spilled to the other captains.”
“Next thing I knew, two more boats showed up, full of catch, looking to trade.” Doctor Dan confirmed. “So of course we did. I mean, we had to do something with the produce anyway at that point since the photosynthesis turned out more efficient than I’d expected and things were moving right along in the cavern.”
“Aside from just eat it?” April asked. “I mean, you could have.”
“We could. Some of it, some of the root veg, and onions and the like were in that stew you had for lunch in fact. Homely veg, but they like it here.” Kurok said. “But the fancy stuff, everyone stood up and said, hell no, sell it. Trade it. Lets get cred going. So we did.”
“Then you starting thinking, what else?” Jess was watching him intently.
“Well, right.” Kurok nodded at her. “So yes, we started to think about how to branch out. What would people really like? What would be sturdy enough to take a boat trip?”
“What did they have on the other side?” Jess smiled at him. “But you’d have had to get more seeds, right? There wasn’t that many different things here.”
“Certainly, but they don’t.. well, they do actually grow on trees but there aren’t any trees and I couldn’t really just make a call up to the bio station now could I?” Kurok asked, drolly. “So what I ended up getting was some science gear.” He smiled gently at her. “That cost some cred. But with that, I could make more seeds, because, after all, that’s the business I was in.” He paused eyes twinkling. “Carrots are considerably easier than Dev was.”
Jess blinked a few times. “Does anyone around here realize that’s what you’re doing?”
“They know we’ve got new crops.” He shrugged slightly. “One would also assume they know I am a geneticist and those two things are related.” He said. “Cathy, my assistant, of course knows and the sets take it for granted.” He extended his legs and crossed them at the ankle. “As long as we keep everything in small batches, like they were boutique things, I think we’re okay.” He exhaled. “For now.”
“For now.” April said. “But once everyone knows you can make what they want, that’s a whole other thing.”
“Absolutely.” Mike echoed. “If it was any place but here holy crap you’d have people crawling all over you.”
“We would have had a lot more intense interest. True.” Kurok said, calmly. “Anywhere but here. Everyone knows, especially after that last go round, that this place is not the place to knock down doors if you want to keep your head on your shoulders.”
“Just like Interforce found out.” Jess exhaled. “But eventually everyone’s going to want a piece of this.” She swirled sea grape tea in her cup and took a sip of it. “That why they were shining up the plasma gun?” She asked. “We saw them in there on the way in.”
“That’s what Security Mike wants to talk to you about after dinner.” Doctor Dan said. “About what we’re going to need to protect what’s here, both the plants and the people.” He sighed. “So it’s a lucky thing you decided to drop by.” He glanced at the rest of them. “All of you at base? Must be a slow week.”
“Oh, that’s right we haven’t told you yet.” Jess leaned back in her chair, kicking out a booted foot in an oddly adolescent motion. “We’re grounded.”
“All of us, told to stay around base.” April said. “Some scam with the politicos. Some talks or something, trying to work out how to make a truce or whatever.”
“Again?” Doctor Dan said. “C’mon now people really. Do they not remember how that ended the last time?” He looked at the ceiling in some exasperation. Then he tipped his head back up and looked over at them. “So is this place considered ‘around base’ then?”
Jess grinned a little. “I figure Jason knows the fewer of us around the less trouble we’ll get into.”
“Not that many of us anyway.” Mike said, after a brief pause. “It was kinda ghoulish in the pit yesterday.” He glanced aside, then back across at Jess. “Glad we came out here. It’s a lot more..uh.. lively.”
“Well, I’m glad, too, if it ended up with you lot visiting.” Doctor Dan said. “I really wasn’t comfortable with you not knowing, Jess. I just didn’t want to put it on comms, after that last go round.” He pushed himself to his feet. “Anyway, now that you’ve been brought up to speed, lets show you the rest of what’s been done here.”
“More surprises?” Jess ventured. “Not sure I can take more like that.”
He chuckled. “No, just fixing and improvement. Hopefully I’ve stood up to your trust in leaving me here to run the place.”
Jess sat down on the bed in the quarters she’d been given, looking out the thick, plas window that curved along the wall that was the outer edge of the space.
It felt strange. She had so few real memories of living here at the Bay, but the ones she had were of being inside stone, the lower corridors, running around in the storage rooms. Swimming, first in the protected inside waters of the Bay, and then on the small beach she’d taken Dev to the last time they were here.
She knew she had to have been in this room, it had belonged to her parents after all, but it struck no real chord with her and there was nothing in the décor of it, clean and neatly kept that triggered any images. Nothing of them were here – all of her father’s things were at Base 10, and they’d emptied out her mother’s after she’d died.
It was a large space, this wide bedroom with it’s long, curved window and an alcove where there were chairs and a warming stone, two other, smaller rooms one of which had been her father’s study, a small utility space with a drink dispenser and a big sanitary room almost a dead ringer for the one in her own quarters, at the base.
The walls were clean and spare, the floor had a few sea wrack weave coverings, the large bed covered in the rough extruded fabric in ocean colors. Plain and almost anonymous.
But it was nice, to see the birds floating in the air outside, and the clouds on the horizon, the sky already darkening with the oncoming night. She got up and went over to the opening, letting her hands rest on the curving edge of the rock outline over her head, watching a patrol flyer drift past.
There was a faint knock at the door and she turned. “C’mon in.”
The door opened and Dev came inside, her hair disheveled and a smudge of dirt on her nose. “Hello.”
“Hey Devvie. Where were ya?” Jess came over to her, pausing when her partner moved one of her hands from behind her back and extended it towards her, holding a deep red object in her fingers. “What’s that?”
“It’s a flower.” Dev said. “It’s for you.”
Jess stared at the thing for a second, then in reflex she took it, surprised at what it felt like. “Oh it’s weird.” She said, squeezing it very gently between her fingertips. “It’s… bunchy.”
Dev’s eyes twinkled.
Jess looked at her. “What am I supposed to do with it?”
“I have no idea.’ Dev said, straightforwardly. “I just remembered that you told me that one time that natural born people, a long time ago, gave people flowers when they liked them. So I was looking at the cavern again and saw a bush full of them, and Doctor Dan said I could have one.”
Jess felt herself blushing. “Ah.” She lifted the thing up and sniffed it. The scent was sweet and a little spicy, the flower layers and layers of smooth, curved petals with ends that reminded her of fish fins. “Can you eat them?”
“I definitely never tried.” Dev said, not sure if she should laugh at Jess’s bewildered expression or not. “I thought it was pretty, like you are. Doctor Dan said it was a rose.” She decided to divert the conversation. “He said it had to be picked since it was finished growing, and he already harvested the pollen. It would have fallen off and expired in any case so he said I could take it.”
Jess took a step back and sat down again on the bed, studying the round bloom in the palm of her hand. Around them the lights came in, warm and golden, reacting to the growing darkness outside and one of them caught the flower in her hand, clearly showing its natural structure. “It’s nice.”
Dev thought Jess was pleased. “It’s really amazing all the good work they’ve done here isn’t it?” She came over and sat down next to Jess. “I found out about the patch your relative was wearing where we parked the carrier.” She said. “It means they went to the bio station.”
“Yeah?” Jess looked up from the flower. “The kids, you mean.”
Dev nodded. “The sets made them for the ones that went there. Because they helped bring them here, and that was an excellent thing.” She reported. “The sets really like it here, and they were very happy when they were told the patches were excellent and everyone wore them.”
Jess gave her a sideways look, a bit of her dark hair falling down to obscure one eye. “Did you say I was pretty?”
“Yes.” Dev confirmed in a mild tone. “Is that suboptimal?”
“No.” Jess’s lips twitched, then she smiled. “Just unusual.” She studied the rose quietly. “I’m glad those kids are having a good life here. It would have stunk if we’d gone through all that to get them down then they’d hated it.”
“Me as well.” Dev relaxed, glancing outside as the sky beyond the window darkened. “It’s excellent that we came here. I like seeing the sets so happy very much.”
Jess thought about that as they sat there quietly together. It had turned out pretty good that they’d come, she felt. She’d found out about all the new plants, and seen all the ways the homestead had fixed things up since she’d almost caused it to self implode, making her feel better about things and figuring the rest of the residents were pretty glad she’d done what she’d done in the end.
She’d gotten to see the new caverns on the back side of the Bay, where a trickle of crafters and nomads had warily started to settle, close enough to walk up the stone path to the big steel doors into the lower tunnels, taking over the caves the scroungers had been in, that she’d blown half to bits on her last round of visits. “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”
“They’re doing an excellent job fixing up that place in the area outside.” Dev said. “Doctor Dan said it would make good shelters.”
“People’ll start showing up wanting them.” Jess predicted. “Like they do up in Quebec. Hanging around the edges until they stick.” She shifted, extending her long legs out and regarding them. “They see a chance to make some cred.”
“Oh, Jess.” Dev half turned to face her. “Kevin told me something today. He said the sets were getting.. they had cards, and they could use them to get things.”
Jess eyed her. “They’re getting paid.” She said. “They work, they get paid. That’s how that goes here.” She looked at her partner. “Like you do, back at Base.”
Dev blinked at her, in silence.
“You did know you were getting paid, right?” Jess said. “You have citizen credentials, Dev. Interforce can’t have a citizen out there flying loop de loops and risking their skin and not pay them.”
“I don’t really have those, Jess. That’s just for our work.” Dev said, in a serious tone. “I’m a bio alt. I’m contracted. I know I use my ident at the base, but I’m not really a citizen.”
Jess leaned back on her hands on the bed. “Oh.” She said, suddenly. “You thought the fact you can go into the base store and get things was just tied to being a tech?”
“Isn’t it?” Dev asked. “At the creche, if you did something with excellence, proctor might give you a chit, and you could take that and get an extra ration, or some sweet puffs. It’s the same, isn’t it?”
Jess shook her head slightly. “Those idents are tied to the cred system. I’m sure you don’t get paid what you’re worth but you get paid. We can look when we get back.” She smiled. “See how much you stocked up in there. Most of the techs just save a lot of it until they retire. Some spend it. Tucker bought a light flyer. He keeps in one of the unused storage caves.”
“That sounds so strange.” Dev said, in a tentative tone. “We’re given everything we need there. Why should they give you something else?” She asked. “That’s what the sets were asking me here. They don’t understand.”
Jess let herself down flat on the bed, spreading her arms out. “Why should they pay you.” She mused. “How it works is like this, Devvie. Kids get old enough to take the battery. The junior maniacs they send to Interforce, to Canyon City.”
Dev studied her seriously, nodding as she spoke.
“The rest of the kids get sorted into proficiencies. Here at the Bay, they get apprenticed.” Jess continued. “When they get old enough, if they’re good, they qualify for an open slot. Like Dustin did. You get a free pass until you hit majority and then you have to work at something. Be good at something.” She said. “And then, when you do take a slot, you get an allotment. You get paid cred, just like we do at Base. For what you do.”
“If you can’t do anything useful, you get booted out into the back beyond to scrape algae.” Jess said. “Scroungers. You saw em.”
Dev blinked again. “You make them leave?” She ventured hesitantly. “Like the people we saw at that admin place?” She had a brief internal flash memory of the ragged, hungry looking figures ducking behind crates and boxes, looking for scraps. “And the ones that…”
“The ones I blew up in the cave? Yeah.” Jess nodded. “Same ones I broke my stupid brother’s neck for screwing over. Equal opportunity homicidal maniac here.” She held up a hand and then let it drop to her stomach. “Most of them croak anyway. If they weren’t good enough to even get a custodial slot that’s not a bad thing, y’know?”
Dev regarded her noncommittally.
“No, huh?” Jess wrinkled her nose a bit.
Dev remained silent for a minute, her eyes moving slightly. “We’re all purpose made.” She finally said. “But I remember one of the proctors talking about a set that didn’t work out, and they were put down.” She paused. “Is it like that?”
“Kinda.” Jess said. “Except without all the white lab coats and cool space bounce rooms. You just die and get eaten by seagulls and crabs.”
“Yeah, it’s better to be a rock star.” Jess agreed. “If you test in for Interforce, your family gets a bonus and a chunk of cred for ya, because they know they lost you to help pitch in. So a big chunk of the cred that kept this place intermittently going all these years was our little family insanity problem.”
She watched Dev reach up and pinch the bridge of her nose, a motion she’d come to understand was her bio alt partner’s way of trying to reconcile her native intelligence and given knowledge with an alien concept. “So if the Bay’s giving your buds an allotment, it really means they like them and want them here.” She said, reaching over and patting Dev on the leg. “It’s all good.”
A scant allotment, she figured. Spending money, so the kids could, if nomads visited with their trading train, get some little things for themselves. She could see it. “Weird for them huh?”
“Weird for me as well.” Dev finally said, taking her hand down and giving her head a rapid little shake. “They really don’t know what’s going on with that because we never own anything, Jess.” Dev lay down on her side and looked solemnly at Jess. “We’re not allowed to. I had to get a special permit from Doctor Dan just to keep my book. If anyone gave one of us anything we had to give it up to our proctor.”
Jess studied her face a moment. Then she shrugged a little, making a face. “Different place, different rules.” She said. “Bay ain’t changing any time soon. So tell em to suck it up?” She suggested helpfully. “It’s a good thing.”
Dev laughed faintly. “Of course it’s super optimal, Jess. I wouldn’t want to change any of it. I’ll try to explain to them tomorrow before we leave. I know they’ll be so happy.”
Jess still had the rose in her hand and now she extended her hand with it cupped in her palm. “Thanks for that, Devvie. I like it.” She gave the thing a sideways glance. “First time anyone’s given me anything like it.” She smiled briefly. “Or anything, really. You’re the only one who does that.”
Dev reached across and laid her fingers on Jess’s wrist, above where the rose was. “Thank you for being so wonderful, Jess. I think I’m so lucky I met you.”
“Even if we’re probably going to get killed together?” Jess’s pale eyes twinkled in wry appreciation.
“Even if.” Dev said firmly. “If I have to be made dead, I want it to be with you, and I will try to do it with excellence.”
Jess started laughing, her low melodic laugh that was just a little sound, and a lot of vibration. “Ah, Devvie. Lets put our Bay rags on and go see what they got for dinner. Nobody’s getting made dead tonight.”
Dev looked around the big room, as they waited for the large bins and trays of food to be brought out. There were lots of people, both natural born and bio alts there, seated around the oval tables and the room was full of the hum of conversation all around them.
She could smell spice in the air, and the tang of beer, and saw that there were some runners out now passing out pitchers and the round, iron soup pots and bowls that went with them.
Jess was next to her, and on their side of the oval were Mike and April and Chester and Doug, sitting across from Doctor Dan, Cathy his assistant, Jess’s Uncle Max, and their nautical friend Siggurd, who kept winking at her for some absolutely unknown to her reason.
She and Jess were wearing the sea colored overshirts from the Bay, and she was glad to have the warmth of that around her as she sat quietly and listened to the talk, detecting the people around her were in much better spirits definitely since the last time they’d visited.
Their soup arrived and as she had the last time, Jess stood up and served around the bowls of it, repeating what others were doing across the room, setting down a bowl in front of Dev with a little nudge against her leg.
Dev picked up her spoon and inspected the contents of the bowl, which was a medium thick liquid full of fish bits, with chunks of the tubular seaweed she particularly liked in it. She tasted it and nodded in pleasure, enjoying the crunch of the tubes and the chewiness of the fish.
“Storm was a kick ass.” Siggurd said. “Glad we held off leaving. Woulda rolled your keel over Maxie.”
“Woulda.” Uncle Max agreed. “We can chase it up the coast. Quebec’ll be glad to see us.” He chuckled, and so did Siggurd. “So Jessie, what’s this I hear about the Base being shut down?” He focused on her. “People there losing their minds again?”
Jess sat down with her own bowl and started drinking directly from it, sipping from the edge. She shrugged. “Political crap.”
Mike cleared his throat. “They told us yesterday we were confined to base while they have some talks going on with the other side.” He clarified. “I guess so many corpses on both sides got some attention.”
Siggurd snorted and rolled his eyes. “Been that for a long time, they just never saw it out west.” He said.
“Truth.” Max nodded. “I saw their faces, when they got blowed up here. You saw em.”
“I saw them.” Doctor Dan said. “In fact, I ran into some of them as they were on their way out the back door. You’re right. They were definitely not expecting what they got.”
“Aint gonna do nothing with that talking.” Sig shook his head. “Tried that a thousand times. All comes back to the same thing – you want what I got.”
Was that true? Jess pondered as she drank her soup, sucking in the bits of seaweed and chewing it. Had that been their mission, all the years of her service? Get what was theirs? “Or keep them from getting more than we got.” She said thoughtfully.
“That too.” Max agreed. “Every couple years some jellyhead puts out the idea of working together instead, and they talk around in a circle for a month.”
“Then everyone gets bored and starts shooting.” April intoned solemnly. “That’s what my Mater always said, and since we’re the ones who do the shooting, I guess if they keep us away from each other for a while at least they get tank capacity back.”
A tray arrived, with mounds of fish portions and thick leafy seaweed piled together along with a scattering of steamed clams. The tall Bay server set the platter down and nudged it forward with his hip, then took out a stack of plas plates from the bag on his back and dropped them next to it. “Yo.” He gave them all a nod and jogged off for another load.
“They rebuilt Highland Market.” Sig helped himself to some of the tray’s contents. “That’s where I’m heading next.” He gave Jess a brief grin. “Gonna see if they want some of this stuff you made here.”
“Highland Market.” Doctor Dan mused. “My gosh I haven’t been there in a long while. Didn’t I hear that volcano let loose again?”
“While we were there.” Jess said, motioning to Dev. “With his boat.” She jerked her head towards Sig. “Glad they got rolling again. That place is twisted fun.” She said. “You liked it, didn’tcha Dev?”
Dev considered her memories of the island, with it’s lines of stalls and exotic merchandise, and the spa where they’d hid out and gotten haircuts. “I did.” She agreed. “Did all the people come back there?” She asked Sig. “That’s where those black rocks came from.”
“Figured.” Sig said. “Charles got out and his crew, so they’re back. Who’s back from the sellers? I’ll tell ya when I get back.” He turned his head. “Wanna go with, Maxie?”
“Might do that.” Max leaned against the low back of his chair. “See if we get a better trade than we did at Quebec.” He nodded at Jess. “Bay’s been looking for a trade angle since it spun up. Damned if it didn’t take almost blowing it up to find one.”
Jess looked sharply at him, but his expression was mild. “Wasn’t really the plan.”
“Alls well that ends to our advantage, Jessie. You squared it.” Max waved his hand expansively. “Best fishing’s after a storm.”
“Truth.” Sig nodded solemnly. “You should come with me again, kid.” He squinted at Jess. “Since you ain’t got nothing to do right now.”
“Don’t” Doug leaned over and whispered to April. “You think being space sick is bad?”
“Not this time.” Jess just smiled. “I want to see how this all settles out.” She took a sip out of the mug she’d been served with. “But thanks for the offer.”
Dev took a sip of her own mug, finding a light, effervescent beverage with a spicy tang inside that washed down the fish and seaweed nicely, rather glad jess had turned down the unexpected offer though she had learned a lot on the trip and enjoyed driving the boat.
Too much right now felt like it was changing. Better to do as Jess said, and let things settle down.
Doctor Dan cleared his throat. “Speaking of sticking around though.” He said, eyeing the agents and techs. “We have two trading caravans arriving tomorrow, and apparently that means we’ve declared a market day. I suspect it won’t be as exciting as Highland but maybe you want to stay over another night and enjoy?”
“Market day?” Max eyed him with interest. “Haven’t heard of us having one of those in years. And two in at once?”
“Word’s spreading.” Sig said wisely.
“Well, we have things to trade now I expect.” Doctor Dan swirled his cup, his eyes twinkling. “Who knows what will show up?”
Dev walked across the huge hall, heading for the spiral staircase where ahead of her she could see a small crowd of bio alts climbing up to their level, their soft chatter audible to her as a buzzing echo in the tall chamber.
She had arranged to meet with the sets after dinner, since it now appeared that the following day would be more interesting than expected, and they would be spending a second night at the Bay.
She was glad. The thought of spending a second day with the opportunity to shop and bargain was very appealing, and she expected the sets would enjoy it as well. Jess had seemed happy they’d been asked, and already had sent a message back to Base 10 that they would be delayed in returning.
The other agents and techs were also happy about it, once April had clarified that it wasn’t her own nomad family who’d arrived, and now everyone was looking forward to the closest thing they would likely see to a party any time soon.
All good. Jess had gone off to talk to some of the Bay ops team, and so she was left to her own plans for awhile and she reached the stairs and started up to fulfill them.
Dev paused on the third level, as she saw a young woman coming towards her. “Hello.”
Cathy, Doctor Dan’s young assistant came over to the stairs, putting her hands on the metal railing that edged the floor boundary. “Are you going up to five?”
Cathy had been one of her proctors in class, when she’d been taking some of her advanced studies and Dev had always liked her. “I am, I wanted to have a chat with the sets and learn about all the things they’ve been doing.” She replied straightforwardly. “How are you?”
“Really, much better now.” Cathy smiled at her. “Its gotten so much better here, you know? When we first arrived it was so scary.”
“Yes, very suboptimal.” Dev nodded. “However, more optimal than remaining on station.” She said. “But things worked out better than anyone thought they might I think.”
Cathy nodded back. “They did. I want to say I miss station and all the people and things there, but you know now? I don’t.” She admitted frankly. “It’s better here. The sets are happy, they’re treated really well, they all have great work to do, and best of all, Doctor Dan gets to make things however he wants to. No politics.”
Most bio alts looked past the politics. But Dev nodded, because she knew that Cathy knew she understood them better than most. “It was very good that Jess put him in charge here. He’s doing amazing things.” She paused. “Have you heard anything about what happened up on station?”
Officially, they had. A crisp, impersonal short report of an attack by the other side on the bio station, and a commendation to various Interforce personnel namely herself and Jess, for responding and repelling it. Details about the enemy shuttle latching on, and pictures of dead enemy agents exposed to the vacuum of space.
Jess had read it and rolled literally off her chair laughing. Dev hadn’t really thought it was that amusing but at least they hadn’t gotten in terrible trouble over it so she supposed it was all right.
Cathy leaned on the railing. “Sort of.” She said. “One of the lab techs there sent me a note. It was terrible after, of course.”
“Yes.” Dev nodded. “Jess knew it would be.”
“It was all mixed up. But somehow, I’m not really sure how it happened… “ She looked in either direction. “Everything got blamed on Doctor Doss.” She lowered her voice. “The sets and everything.. all the things Doctor Dan did… there’s no record of them.”
“No, Doctor Dan made sure of that.” Dev said equably. “I saw the routines he was running. It would have looked like damage to the main storage from all the power flux.”
Cathy nodded. “So the sets ended up okay.”
Dev let out a held breath. “That’s excellent.” There had been no word at all about the sets in any of the official reports. Almost as if they weren’t important enough to mention, but Jess had told her it was better not to ask and draw attention to them.
“I mean, some of them got hurt and everything, and some of the citizens, you know, when that all happened. And the dock blew and everything, but they put Doctor Michaels in charge, and so far it’s .. they’re just trying to get things back together.”
“That’s moderately optimal.” Dev concluded.
“Yes.” Cathy took a breath. “But then what I heard was, the report said that Doctor Doss made a deal with the other side, and then they came and damaged station when he broke it.”
Dev nodded a little. “That’s actually what did happen.” She remarked placidly.
Cathy had taken another breath to continue and now she paused. “Really?” She said. “I haven’t really wanted to ask Doctor Dan about it, because I think he feels bad, I mean, about leaving and the sets and all. I told him the sets were okay and he liked that. I think.”
It occurred to Dev in that instant that while Cathy was very loyal, and friendly, and a good lab technician, she wasn’t really that smart. “Yes. He was concerned. But I am glad it all worked out. “ She told her one time proctor. “And I am also glad you are happy as well. I know Doctor Dan values your presence.”
Cathy’s face broke into to a large smile. “Oh, thank you Dev!” She reached out and touched Dev’s arm. “I really appreciate you saying that.” She said. “Anyway, don’t let me hold you up. Are you staying for the market tomorrow? Everyone seems to be really excited about it, like the gatherings we used to do on station.”
“We are, yes.” Dev said. “I think we are all looking forward to it as well.” She lifted her hand in farewell, and then continued up the spiral stairs, moving to one side as Jess’s cousin, the young man from the dock came down the steps passing her. “Hello.”
“Yo, Rocket.” Dustin greeted her casually. “Sup?”
He kept on going, and exited on the third level, where apparently Cathy was waiting for him. They both disappeared under the next floor level out of her sight, and Dev concluded his brief utterance had not been so much of a question but some sort of greeting that didn’t necessarily need to be answered.
Natural born. She shook her head as she reached the fifth level and stepped onto the rock floor, the walls and rooms here the same chiseled uniformity as the ones downstairs, but the floors here were covered in sea wrack weave throws, as had been in the quarters she’d been issued, and there was decorations on the walls.
“NM-Dev-1!” Kevin spotted her. “We were waiting for you. Come over here to our gathering area!”
Dev felt a sense of almost relief in joining the assembling sets who were drifting over. She understood that there was a commonality between her and the other bio alts and they shared a lot of things she often struggled with in dealing with natural borns.
Like suboptimal linguistic utterances. “Hello!” She greeted them, as they came into the space, where there was a heating stone and comfortable seats extending around it. The sets came over and they all took seats around the area.
They were all dressed somewhat differently. Most wore the Bay coverall, but all had some coloring or marking that indicated where they worked, and even the same birth year sets she saw all looked a little different.
A different way of combing their hair, or wearing their boots, the uniformity of the creche was utterly lost. Dev thought that was really excellent, remembering her own urge to show off her differences when she’d come back to station. “This space is really nice.”
“Isn’t it?” An Ayebee called Alvin came and sat next to her. “We can’t all fit in here at once, but we work different times so that is all right. It’s so nice to have someplace to just sit and have a talk, with some hot beverage where it’s warm.”
Dev nodded. “You have made this very attractive.” She said, looking around. “Are those seashells?” She looked at some square items on the wall.
“Yes.” Alvin nodded. “We get them from the area outside near the water. They have colors, and they look attractive when put in a pattern, don’t they?” He looked at the nearest of them, with a nod of satisfaction. “We made those and we made some for the natural born as well.”
“Yes, we even found a way to use remainders of fishing wire and some shells to make bracelets.” Kevin came over to join them, offering Dev a cup of sea grape tea. “See?” He rolled up his sleeve and showed Dev his wrist.”
“That’s very attractive!” Dev looked closely at it. “Really nice!”
Kevin sat down, visibly pleased. “I never thought having an assignment was going to be like this.” He admitted. “I wanted to do good work, even hard work, but I always thought I would be treated like we were in the creche.”
Dev, who had seen bio alts treated far worse in other places, remained silent.
“They’re happy when we help.” Alvin said, slowly. “Like they don’t expect us to.”
The sets pondered that, and then looked at Dev in question.
Dev understood the question. She was a bit unsure of how to answer it. “They were not used to bio alts.” She finally said. “I think.. I think they are used to people fighting them.” She added. “And they expect other natural born to be mean and take things.”
Kevin nodded. “Yes, they speak about that in operations. They watch for incorrect people coming here. And they talk a lot about Agent Jess.” He said. “They really like her… and they like that she made a lot of other natural born dead.” He paused. “Which is confusing.”
“It’s confusing.” Dev agreed without trying to explain. “So because they think that way, I think it surprised them that all we wanted to do was help them and make them happy. That’s very special to them.”
“Yes.” Alvin said. “And because they like that we make them happy and help them, they want to take care of us and ensure we are well.” He said. “It’s awesome.”
“It’s awesome.” The rest of the sets echoed, a soft murmur of sound that tickled Dev’s ears.
“I’m so glad we got picked to come down here from station.” A female bio alt said. “Really glad, you know?” She wore a patch on her shoulder that matched the one that Dustin had.
“Me too, Tina.” Dev called up her name, and her designation, TeeBee, from memory. “We are here, and we have natural born to take care of, and Doctor Dan is here making things with excellence. It’s optimal.” She looked around at the sets, and all the now slightly different faces looking back at her and felt happy. “The market tomorrow should be interesting.”
A lot of voices murmured, and heads nodded.
“So I have found out about those cards Kevin told me about.” Dev said. “Here is the meaning of that.”
The sets clustered closer, some taking out the cards and holding them, glancing down as Dev started into her explanation, hoping it would make more sense to them, than it had to her.
Jess settled into one of the large, comfortable chairs in front of the hearthstone in the family compound, with Dan Kurok and Mike across from her, all three of them sipping from steaming mugs of some rich, spicy beverage of Bay concoction that scented the air with fragrance.
There was alcohol in it. Jess couldn’t tell from the taste what else was, but it reminded her of the grog they served at the base during celebrations and she figured now she knew the source of that.
It was good, though, and she leaned back in her chair and waited, now that they’d gotten back from their rambling inspection of the grounds for Mike to make his pitch.
“Got that whole area in the back beyond cleaned out.” He started, extending his big, booted feet across the stone floor. “Figure we can set those two vans up in that pair of caverns in the west side.” He studied Jess over the rim of his coup. “East side’s good for shelter.”
“Nice space.” Jess commented finally. “Lot of people going to want to park their asses there. They know there might be cred and leavings here now.”
Mike nodded. “Not worried about the scroungers. Worried about all the other homesteads ganging up and deciding to come in here.”
“They’re really not that stupid.” Doctor Dan objected. “I’ve spoken to Dee, she knows most of them.” He held up a hand when Mike went to protest. “Yes, they would like what we have here, they’re jealous of us having it, everyone knows that. But everyone around here also knows what this place is.”
“That’ll keep em back for a while.” Mike assented. “But not forever, and not everyone’s from round here, doc. More word gets out, more folk’sll come by. You know it. I know it.” He looked over at Jess. “And you know it better than anyone does. Used to be we had Interforce to back us up.”
“Now?” Mike shrugged. “After what they did? Yeah they paid us off, and that put a patch on but no way no how do I trust them. No way.” He stared at Jess, as though expecting her to protest.
“No, me either.” Jess said, mildly. “But at least if I’m inside, that puts a cramp on them.”
“What’s your idea then?” Jess asked, crossing her ankles, the collar of the woven Bay shirt brushing against the lobes of her ears. “We can only break open the armory so many times and most of that stuff is so old it’ll do us more damage than them.”
“Make our own Interforce.” Mike responded, and then stopped talking.
There was a long silence. “Well.” Doctor Dan finally said. “That’s ambitious.” He took a sip from his mug. “I’m not sure I was exactly expecting that.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Jess asked him, equally surprised. “Make our own Interforce? What the hell would we do with one?”
Mike paused to take a sip from his mug. “You know damn well, Drake, what gives them the edge.” He poked a thumb at his chest. “We do. Drakes do. What if we stopped going there, and just kept all of us here.”
Doctor Dan’s eyebrows lifted. “Ignore the battery?”
“Just don’t take it.” Mike said. “Make our own, to classify the kids, but take the ones that would have gone to Canon City and teach em ourselves. Only reason they do it there is to keep a lid on them. We got enough brawn here to do it.”
Jess put her mug down on the slate table at her elbow and folded her long arms over her chest. “Are you serious?”
Mike nodded. “Been thinking about it. What you said when you were here the last time, about us sending the best and brightest out there. Kinda stinks for us who didn’t go, but it’s sorta true, I seen it. Justin was an asshole but he was sharp.”
Doctor Dan shifted a little, brows quirking. “He really wasn’t an asshole.” His eyes narrowed slightly. “He just didn’t suffer fools gladly. Something we shared.”
“We all share it.” Jess interrupted the hackle raising. “So we train kids to be what I am.” She said. “Then what?” She asked. “What do you do with them? Attack Quebec? We get bored easily and like to kill people.” She watched him think. “That was the whole point of Canon City. Take all of us and point us at the bad guys to keep us from randomly knifing the good guys.”
“Justin was all right when he lived here.” Mike half shrugged. “He wasn’t that crazy.”
“Oh, my friend.” Doctor Dan shook his head. “You didn’t know him well enough then.”
Mike shrugged again. “I can just tell you what it was like when he was here. He never broke anyone’s neck in the mess for no reason.”
“Neither have I.” Jess remarked. “Yet.”
“Scared the hell out of people that showed up here to make trouble, tell you that.” Mike went on. “Jokers start fights out on the dock, all he’d have to do is show up there and that stopped right that second.”
“Well, that’s true.” Doctor Dan mused. “I can imagine that.”
“You didn’t answer my question.” Jess redirected the conversation. “What are we going to do with a bunch of us? Or do you mean we’d run this place like a base?”
Mike nodded. “That’s what. People like you to lead the troops. Troops we got plenty of, you know? Everyone here’s a fighter. We make enough cred, we can buy new guns, get rid of that stuff in the armory. We get that, and a force, and nobody’s gonna think about taking nothing from us no how.”
“Well there’s one obvious problem with that.” Doctor Dan said. “In the fifteen years it’ll take any candidates here to grow up and become dangerous whatever’s going to happen is going to be long over.”
“Wouldn’t do no good anyway. We need all growed up ones here to do the teaching.” Mike said, swirling the liquid in his mug. “Or someone who’s been through most of it.” He looked at Doctor Dan. “Like you.”
“Oh no. I have no damned idea how to get five year old moppets to where Justin was when I met him.” Doctor Dan waved his finger in the air. “He was already psychologically integrated, past puberty, on the cusp of adulthood.” He said. “You think doing what they do is easy? Let me tell you it’s not. It would be easier for me just to design an archtype like that from scratch.”
A little silence fell.
“You could.” Jess said, in a musing tone. “But that’d take even longer.” She rested her elbow on the chair arm.
Doctor Dan shook his head. “What we can do is study what it would take to harden this place, and make it very hard to do what they did the last time. We started that.” He glanced from one to the other. “We can make good partnerships with the nearest homesteads.”
“Won’t help if someone wants in bad enough.” Mike said. “We need to scare the hell out of people, not make friends with them.” He jerked his head towards Jess. “That’s the whole point of them, aint it? Half the half doesn’t happen because they’re afraid of the likes of her.”
“No, that’s true.” Jess said, in a mild tone. “We’re wildcards. You see it in the vids, when you get to see them. Other sides there with armor and guns and they see one of us, and you can see the ‘oh shit’ bubble over their heads. They know pointing a gun at me won’t stop me. They know they have to shoot with perfect aim and hit just the right spot between my eyes and blow my head off or else they’re going to die because I’ll rip them apart.”
“No second chances.” Mike said.
“No.” Doctor Dan sighed. “Look I agree we need to be able to defend ourselves. I’m just not convinced we need to duplicate that model to do it.”
Mike pondered that briefly. “They grabbed Tayler.” He commented. “They did.”
Doctor Dan sighed. “They did.” He agreed. “Madness. All madness. They were going to pay the station to deliberately create copies of him.”
Jess just chuckled and shook her head.
“Would you have?” Mike asked, in an interested tone, watching Kurok’s face.
His eyes widened into a look of almost comical horror. “Me?” He pointed at his own chest. “Are you out of your mind or do you think I am? Of course not.” He said. “They had no concept at all what they were being asked to do. They had no idea what that genetic structure is.”
“They do now.” Jess’s eyes twinkled.
“Idiots.” Kurok muttered.
“I’m actually surprised they didn’t try that before.” Jess said. “You said they have a bio alt program.”
“Frankenstein’s monster complex.” Doctor Dan said promptly. “They’re terrified something they deliberately do, deliberately create will be the end of them. Their biological alternatives are just clones, really. They find a type they like and make copies.”
“Not what you did.” Mike said.
“No.” Kurok answered. “My goal, if you can say it was a goal, was to take everything I did and try to move the species ahead with it. Try to make things better.” He drained his mug and set it down on the small table near the chair he was sitting in. “And because of Justin, I studied the genetic underpinnings of the Bay. If they’d asked me, which of course they didn’t, I would have told them.. no actually I would have just blown their heads off.”
“Which you did.” Jess remarked. “But what about more like Dev?” She asked. “Could you do that here?”
Mike looked pleased at the question, as though he’d been working on how to ask it himself.
Doctor Dan didn’t answer immediately. He thought about the question in silence for a few minutes and they just waited. Finally he looked up at Jess and their eyes met. “Could I?” He cocked his head. “I brought the entirety of my research database with me on that shuttle. Given the equipment needed, sure.”
He got up and took his mug over to the dispenser in the corner, trading the contents for a hot serving of sea grape tea. “Would I?” He turned to face them. “Why would you ask me to? Another cash crop?” He stood in the half shadows, watching them both.
Mike just shrugged, his rugged, square face unoffended. “Just like em.” He responded simply. “They’re nice and they do what they’re fucking told without needing to punch the crap out of them.” He said. “If we’re gonna build an Interforce here, we’ll have plenty of the other kind.”
Doctor Dan came back over and sat on the arm of the chair, leaning his elbow back on the back of it. “I don’t know that I want to build a creche here. It’s a huge amount of resources, and frankly, it’d be easier to market carrots.” He eyed them. “But I could enable them to reproduce.”
Jess blinked, and Mike’s eyebrows hiked up.
“I mean, they are human beings.” Doctor Dan watched them with some slight amusement. “I’d still need some equipment, but a lot less, and definitely cheaper to do it. Most of the sets here are relatively compatible.” He held up a hand. “But I’d want their children to be registered citizens.”
Jess set her mug down and leaned forward, drawing up her knees and resting her elbows on them, ankles crossed. “What happens if they breed to us? What does that look like?” She watched his brow furrow. “Just more us?”
It was over Mike’s head, so he just sat there listening in silence, his hazel eyes going from one to the other.
“Good question.” Doctor Dan finally said. “They have persistent patterning, but then, so do you. I don’t know.” He finally concluded. “I could run some tests, but again, that’s going to require some gear, and more sophisticated than what I’m using for the plants.”
“Might be cool. Might be creepy.” Jess mused. “Kinda like space.”
“Well, we’re not going to solve that question tonight.” Doctor Dan said. “But it’s certainly something we should discuss again.” He took his mug, toasted them with it, then retreated back along the far side hallway that led to his quarters.
Mike also stood up. “That’s two things we need cred for then.” He said, pragmatically. “Guns and kids.” He lifted a hand. “Night, Drake.” He headed for the main hallway out and left Jess sitting there in the quiet of the family space alone.
Jess waited until she heard the outer door close behind him and then she sat back in the chair and slowly looked around the room, this chiseled out space she only vaguely remembered being in, on the floor near the heating element playing with a horse conch.
The chair was comfortable, and she regarded it, realizing it was because the arms of it, and the seat was long enough to match her long arms and long legs and the back was wide enough to support the width of her broad shoulders.
Because of course, it had been made for Drakes, and a Drake she undoubtably was. She sat back in it and folded her hands over her stomach, enjoying the quiet, and the dim light, and the hint of the grog still on the air, and the faintly salt infused scent of the Bay shirt she was wearing.
There was a metal sculpture on one wall of the room, just random welded bits of something that she probably had been told about at one time but forgotten, but it arched around the main hall entry from the floor up to the ceiling and then back down.
After a minute she got up and took her mug into the short hall in the back that led into the kitchen space and emerged into it, pausing as the lights reacted to her presence and came on showing the food preparation area against the back wall.
She set the mug down in the washer and turned, trying to remember what it had been like to live here, only calling up the smallest, vaguest glimpses of the feel of the bare stone against her feet as she ran through it, and the smell of something an old auntie was cooking.
On the far side of the room, against the outer skin wall of the cliff was the huge table against the backdrop of the floor to ceiling windows, now ink black outside, with only the faintest glimmer of lights from the docks just below. She walked over and looked out, seeing the pinpoints that were the inside lights of the ships, the crews bunking comfortably inside.
Even Uncle Max, for whom his onboard cabin had been home for many a year. The thick plas kept most of the sound out but if she concentrated, she could hear the rush of the waves against the rock walls, and she could feel, through the balls of her feet, the faintest vibration of the hydro tunnels four levels below.
She heard the outer door open and close, and then the soft footfalls of someone in offduty boots with a particular rhythmic stride. She smiled. “Hey Devvie!” She called out. “In here.”
Dev entered the kitchen. “Hello!” She came over to Jess and looked out. “Is there something out there suboptimal?”
“No.” Jess shook her head. “I was just putting my cup away.” She turned, then perched a hip on the table. “How’s your buddies?”
“Very well.” Dev reported. “I explained about the card, and it made them very happy to hear about that, and they are really looking forward to the market tomorrow.”
Unexpectedly, Jess reached out and touched Dev’s cheek, feeling the motion as the contact made her smile and the muscles of her face shifted under her fingers. “What do you think about this place, Dev?” She asked. “You like it?”
Dev cocked her head a trifle to one side. “Your birthplace?” She asked, in a somewhat surprised tone. “I like it very much.” She glanced past Jess. “I think the way you can see out from some of the spaces is very attractive, and the place with the round stairs is my favorite. It’s very pretty.” She paused. “I’m glad we came here.”
“Yeah, it’s not bad for a rockpile.” Jess said. “I really don’t remember living here that much. I remember school a lot more, but that was a different kind of rockpile.”
“It’s a lot more optimal than the last time we were here.” Dev said. “I was going to go downlevel and see if they fixed all the damage I did that time.” She looked faintly abashed. “I was glad no one was harmed.”
Dev had flown their carrier into the ship docking cavern, a space in no way sized to accommodate that craft and both the dock and the cargo ships that had been inside it had suffered impact damage from the armored craft in both it’s coming and eventual retreat from it.
“Turned out okay.” Jess tweaked her ear, then let her hand drop. “I’m glad. I felt kind of crappy about trashing the place.”
“I as well.” Dev confirmed. “However, I have discovered those that saw it happen seemed to.. like it?” Her voice lifted in some puzzled question. “And to be honest I’m not really sure what that’s all about, Jess. I don’t understand why that was a good thing.”
Jess laughed. “It was a rock star piece of flying.” She said, and then she glanced across the kitchen. “Want to go relax?” She indicated the southernmost hallway, that led to the quarters they had been assigned. “Probably going to be a long ass day tomorrow.”
“Yes, that would be excellent.” Dev agreed.
They keyed through the door in the hallway and walked down along the inside passage. At the end of it were the two entrances to their rooms, and Dev walked past the one that Jess stopped at and went to her own.
She paused at it, with her hand on the access plate and looked back. “Would you like to share a drink?”
Jess grinned. “Meet you after a shower.” She agreed, then disappeared into her space.
Dev smiled and entered her own room, letting the door close behind her and pausing to regard the interior. It was not made on two levels, as hers at the base was, but it was not too different. There was a sleeping space, with a comfortable looking bed, a small area where there was a warming stone and some chairs to relax in, and in the back against the window on the very edge of the space was a desk and access point.
She had left her backpack on the bed, and now she went over to it and retrieved her sleeping clothes and sanitary kit, taking them into the sanitary space that literally could have been transplanted from her quarters at base. It was even positioned the same way, and she set her clothes down and went over to turn on the shower with a pleasurable expectation.
The shower space was instantly filled with water, and she shed her clothing and got under it, finding the pressure more intense than at base, and the water with a slightly different scent to it she decided she liked. She scrubbed her skin with the bit of sea sponge she’d brought with her, but used the dispenser of soap attached to the shower wall.
It felt excellent. She washed her pale hair and then turned off the water and stepped out, wrapping one of the provided pieces of cloth around her as she faced the reflective surface and used a second cloth to ruffle her head dry.
She glanced at the reflection, and, as always, paused to study the spot on her neck that had until very recently held a metallic golden collar, along with it’s interspinal programming probes that had extended up into her brain. Now not even a trace remained, the repetition of rad evening out the skin tone and leaving only the tiniest of scars at the back of her neck from where the probes had been.
The sets had talked to her about programming, since Doctor Dan only had some rudimentary systems here and couldn’t really give them information that way. They’d been learning things the way she now had to, and everyone, even her, had agreed it was a lot easier to be given it.
But they were learning how to learn, and no one thought they would like to trade back, just as she felt herself. Dev nodded to herself in the mirror, then ran a comb through her hair and put on her sleep clothes, already looking forward to the hot tea she knew Jess would be scrounging, along with whatever snacks that might be found.
It would be nice. It was their usual thing to do, and then, possibly, they would practice sex, and that would be excellent as well. A comforting routine in this different place that really somehow wasn’t that different.
Dev went out and folded her clothes neatly, setting the heavy shirt aside for the next day, and folding the rest inside her backpack. Then she regarded the stone floor and slipped back into the off-duty boots in deference to the chilly floor of the hall, and left the room.