Between the down falling snow, and the darkness, Dev felt secure in thinking that their approach was going unnoticed, regardless of the coating on the carriers.
The winds were rough and sheering, howling through the mountaintops they were descending through and she could feel the powerful yanking against her engines, as she moved at a painfully slow speed.
“Whoof.” Doug said, breaking the silence after a long while. “Never thought I’d be coming in here like this.” He said. “Feels like I’m driving through a surf tube.”
“Naw.” Brent answered, his voice calm. “Never let us newbs fly in a mess like this one.” He pronounced. “Half the half’d done a header into the rock and splat.”
“True that.” Doug said. “We never even’d simmed anything like it.”
“It would be a sim of you attacking the school.” April cut in. “Why the hell would they want to sim that and give anyone any ideas?”
Dev adjusted course a trifle. “Vector twenty six point three.” She announced into the sideband, interrupting the conversation. “We are now on final approach, please follow this vehicle into landing pattern.”
“Right behind ya.” Chester said cheerfully. “Feels like this thing’s gonna be pulled right into the mountain tho.”
“Suboptimal.” Dev frowned. “Please make efforts to avoid that circumstance.” She glanced into her reflector for a second. Jess was seated in her chair, arms folded over her chest, with her eyes lifted up to the ceiling, obviously thinking hard.
Thinking about what they would do when they landed, Dev decided. The fighters were all sitting up straight in their seats, eyes fastened on the forward wiremap, knees jiggling as if to an internal tune as they waited for it to be time for them to do something.
Well, thinking about that was Jess’s work to do. Dev returned all her attention to her course, winding the way through the mountain peaks invisible around them, relying on the sensors from her carrier, tuned with precision, to make a track into the rugged, slightly upthrust clear space behind the school.
The snow was so thick that even in light, she suspected it would obscure vision, and she was glad she’d spent the time she had in dialing in the specs. Even a dozen feet of error would bring them into rough contact with something large and unfortunate and the other carriers were taking their spatial coordinates from her, adjusting with offsets.
“I am going to land.” Dev said, and then she tilted the carrier just a bit to the left to clear an escarpment, allowing the scan to reveal the shelf she was aiming for and watching intently as she scanned ahead of them for any obstructions.
Or systems laid out on the rock to detect something like a carrier landing.
Or systems laid out on the rock to blow up something landing.
But the rock itself was scoured bare under it’s covering of snow and showed nothing but sandstone particulate, the structure of the mountains a different geology than the ones she was more familiar with in the east.
It was dense, yet porous, it’s characteristics non conductive and not suited to mechanical transmission. Dev ran continuous scans through it regardless, watching intently for any signs of a return.
On the far side of the rock surface, she could see a pile of stone rubble on short-range scan, but she quickly calculated that it would not impede their landing and she dropped forward, switching from mains to landing jets as the carrier came through a gap between two walls and settled gently groundward.
She kept her hands and boots ready, watching the map as the jets hit the thick snow layer and rather than puffing it off as it had at the pole, melted this heavier wetter precipitation as the carrier skids extended and they touched down on the uneven ground.
The carrier rocked back and forth as it found it’s footing, and then went still, slightly tipped to the right for a long moment before it adjusted and they came to even. “We are on the ground.” Dev said calmly. “Bay flight, please proceed to land.”
“Everything look cool, Dev?” Jess asked, in a quiet tone.
Dev consulted the scan. “It appears we are obscured from view.” She noted. “Between the precipitation, the inclination of the elevation we are currently sitting on and the scan obfuscation, it appears we have not been detected.”
She removed one hand at a time from the controls and flexed them, watching on her visual scan as could just barely see the other three carriers touching down behind her, in a two and one configuration that landed the flight in a parallelogram with Chester and Doug behind her, and Brent landing in back of them, closest to the wall.
The snow kept coming down, a heavy flow, that slid down off the angled planes of the carrier on either side of them. Dev made an adjustment and angled the engine pods a trifle forward to protect them from getting filled.
The met reflector on the roof showed her the winds had dropped, blocked by the cliffs, but were still pushing against the skin of the vehicle in fitful gusts making it rock intermittently.
Well, not pleasant, but also not as suboptimal as it had been at North Pole. She worked to close down the flight systems into an alerted quiescence, ready to flare back up in an instant if any condition were to change.
“Okay.” Jess stood up and walked over to her, looking out the windscreen as Dev released her flight restraints and removed her helmet, seeing nothing outside but darkness and snow, and long past it, a dim glow of halons, mere faint golden blobs marking the outline of the school. “Here we are.”
“Here we are.” April concluded. “So now what?”
Dev glanced at Jess’s face, and saw her lips move into a faint grimace, and then she looked back down at Dev and unexpectedly stuck her tongue out and bit down on the end of it in a quirky face that almost made Dev laugh.
Then she exhaled and resumed her normal expression. “Now we don’t waste the chaos. Get moving out to the edge of the drop.” She replied. “We go to the back of the fence and see if the wrenchers can get us in.”
“Right.” April said, in a tone of satisfaction. “Meet ya outside.” Her voice dropped as she turned her head. “Move it ya bing bongs!”
Their fighters were standing up behind them, arranging their pipes and knives, and the random metal they’d taken from the Pole. Jess put her hand on Dev’s shoulder and squeezed it. “Bring all your marbles, Devvie. We’re gonna need em.”
Dev paused in mid motion, her brows contracting. “I did not bring marbles, Jess.” She glanced up at her. “What are you expecting me to do with them?”
Jess chuckled. “Slang for brain cells.” She said briefly. “Not really tiny round glass beads.” She clarified.
“Oh.” Dev stood up, reaching to get her heavy parka and sliding into it. “Well, yes I did bring those.” She concluded, pausing to reach over and release the external drop rig. “I hope they remain unfrozen long enough to be functional.”
She got the fastenings done up on her jacket as Jess went and released the hatch, the soft hiss of the pneumatics audible as it unlocked and lifted up, letting in the ruffled thunder of the wind gusts in, along with a wash of wet snow.
The fighters immediately hopped out into it, moving away from the carrier. “Watch the edge.” Jess called out after them. “Bouncing’ll hurt.”
“Yo!” Evan called softly back, waving at her.
April came plowing over through the snow and vaulted into Rockstar, her work pants already wet from the knee down. She had a thick jacket on with its hood pushed back. “Warmer here than the icebox.” She commented. “Just pain in the ass cold, not damn my eyes are freezing cold.”
The cold air was thrumming through the carrier, but Dev had to agree it was in fact quite a bit warmer than it had been at North Pole, and she left her own hood back as she pulled on the warm gloves that Doctor Dan had given her, which left the tips of her fingers free.
“Yeah.” Jess waited for Mike and Mike to join them. “If we drop down to the bottom of the wall, there should be enough room to stand above the fence and not get fried.” She pulled the screen at her station around and displayed the frame reference.
The three other gunners clustered around the screen.
“Yeah, on that last step there.” Mike Arias agreed, running a finger along the wiremap. “Lets just hope we can get in the gate, cause that fence comes up against the wall all along here and no chance we climb it.” He spoke with some authority. “I got burn scars on my knees to prove that.”
April chuckled. “I remember that night.”
Big Mike just kept his hands in his pockets and rumbled his low laugh.
“All right.” Jess concluded, turning off the screen. “Lets get going. No sense in planning further than getting in the gate. No fucking clue what we’re gonna deal with after that.”
“Them.” Mike said, succinctly. “That’s what we’re gonna deal with.”
“It’s them yeah?” Big Mike’s eyes brightened. “We’re gonna mix it up? What’re they doing here anyhow?”
“Great question.” April said. “I figure they’re getting some raw material.” She looked steadily at Jess. “Fight fire with fire. Take these kids and screw with em.”
Jess regarded her soberly. “Could be.” She admitted. “Could be they just want to torch them.”
“Not with that transport.” April shook her head. “Unless they brought a battalion with em.”
“Lets go find out.” Jess pointed to the hatch and they hopped back out into the snow, while Dev got her scanner settled over her head and prepared the carrier to be secured. “You good, Devvie?”
Dev looked up from her console, with a faint air of surprise. “Excellent, thank you.”
Jess came over and pulled up her hood. “This is going to be a screwball.” She said. “Hope I don’t regret it on both of our behalf.”
“I will endeavor to prevent that.” Dev finished her work and straightened up. “Shall we egress?”
“Lets.” Jess turned and led the way to the hatch, hopping out into the snow that quickly laid a white blanket over her shoulders. She turned and caught Dev as she prepared to follow, lifting her down gently to the ground. “Remind me I owe ya a hot tub once we get back home.”
Dev pulled the cover over her mouth, giving her a thumbs up and nod, and they moved off into the storm.
By the time they made their careful way up to the edge of the ridge, the fighters were all spread out across the verge of it, forty invisible figures in the swirl of snow and overcast darkness between the tumbled rockfall on one side, to the sheer cliffside on the other.
Dev knelt at the edge of the precipice, sliding a set of night vision goggles into place and putting her hood back up as she reviewed the scene in front of her, mindful of the motion of the other pilots as they pulled forward the drop rigs from the front of the carriers and started to lower them down along the wall.
She could see past the swirls of white snow now, and she studied the drop at least a hundred feet beneath them, a jutting ridge that tilted downward another fifty feet in a steep ramp bordered by the edge of the electric fence.
It was charged, definitely. Dev had no doubt if anyone stumbled and fell against it they would be instantly made dead.
At the bottom of the ramp there was a visible gate in the wall, she could see the faint outline of it, bare steel facing them with no external access pad, and not intended to be ingressed through, only providing egress from the other side.
“That.” Doug plopped down next to her. “Was the big secret nirvana.” He rested on his elbows, one of the drop rigs dangling from his left hand. “All the triggers, that was the thing, you know? Find that door and be able to get out.”
Dev regarded him. “Get out and do what?” She asked. “It does not seem to be a very interesting location.”
Doug shrugged. “Do anything? Climb out? Just be able to do what you wanted to do when you wanted to do it?”
It made zero sense. “I see.” Dev went back to reviewing the scene, and she heard Jess chuckle dryly from just behind her.
“When you’re in the pit.” Jess had the rig from Rockstar and was feeding it down the wall. “You know what’s up. You’re like a fish in a trap, you just want to get out.”
Still made zero sense to her. Dev watched the progress of the rig. She turned her head and looked up past the carriers, tucked against the further rock wall that was a sheer drop from the top of the mountain above them. Beyond that, she had seen in the scan, was unpopulated rocky ground all the way until the white.
“April and Mike were trying to get out to come up here and have a picnic.” Doug related, in a whisper. “Just to do it.”
Jess nodded as she listened. “I get it.” She said. “I got up onto the roof of the Pit twice. Just for the hell of it.” She answered, almost absently. “Just sat up there and had my snack and a bev.”
“Nice.” April nodded approvingly. “We shoulda thought of that.” She nudged Mike. “Did you get zapped?” She asked Jess.
“Never caught me.” Jess’s eyes were visibly twinkling.
Dev concentrated on calling up schematics she had in the database Doctor Dan had provided, of the electrical and alarm systems of the school always mindful of the fact it was potentially tainted data. “The control pad for that egress seems to be in the entryway between the large building and the pedestal about three meters from the inside of the fence.”
“That’d be right.” Doug nodded. “I did the scam for em.” He added as an aside.
Dev regarded him. “They would have had an advantage of being inside the fence to utilize it.”
“Okay, it’s bottomed.” Jess put her own hoodie up and shook her head to divest it of a coating of snow. “Let’s go Devvie. You and me first.”
Dev slid the scanner into her parka and fastened it, trading her half gloves for full ones stuffed in her pockets to descend down the rig.
“Want me to give you a ride?” Jess asked, as she slid off the ledge and took hold of the rough edged cable. “Kinda big drop.”
“Its optimal.” Dev sat on the edge and put her hand on the rig. “I am familiar with this activity.” She said in a mild tone. “We performed it under grav on station.”
Jess moved down the rig. “Lemme get outta your way then.” She looked back up. “Wait for me to signal, then everyone come on down and spread out along the ridge. Do not f’n touch the wall. Okay?”
“We got it.” Big Mike waved her down. “G’wan.”
Jess started down the line, her work gloves gripping the rough cable as she moved quickly along the face of the drop wall, focusing her attention below her, tuning her senses to look for threats, feeling her body tense up as it recognized the familiar emotions of insertion.
A prickle of thrill and anticipation, always.
What may what could slid aside for the now. She was here, there were targets. She felt the tension and motion as Dev came on the line after her and she spared a brief glance up to see her bio alt partner handling the descent with relaxed ease, her boots crossed around the rig and as she lowered herself hand over hand.
Dev still could surprise her sometimes with that.
Jess returned her attention to her descent, moving faster as the ground approached and the wall with it and her body recognized the electrical charge as she neared the bottom making the hairs on her body lift a little in reaction.
The electrified wall extended up twenty feet, and the top of it was part of a metal grid that extended across from the rock wall to the Pit’s structure, solid, weathered steel with it’s ominous hum and deadly current that covered a wide open space below.
A solid rust and ochre cage, and the emptiness of the yard. Jess felt the swell of anger it had always sparked in her and she landed on the sloping path, going up to her knees in the snow, facing the wall a body length away from her.
It discordantly thrummed, as it always had. She could feel the edgy disruption of the energy it was charged with, the intent of it to keep the contents of the Pit inside, and secure.
Secured. Getting out of the door in the wall meant you were unsecured. And that, of course, was the lure when you were a cadet.
Dev came to land next to her and immediately drew out her scanner, moving to within a half of her own body length to the service door and and bending her head to review the information she had.
Jess stayed where she was, watching. “Lemme know what ya think, Devvie. Not gonna haul everyone’s ass down here if you think it’s a no go.”
Dev observed her scan results. The wall was charged with a lethal amount of electrical current potential, and even at this distance it was making her scalp prickle. She moved a few steps over and closer to the service access to inspect the possibilities there.
Immediately she felt Jess close in behind her, and felt the light grip of her hand in the fabric of the coat she was wearing and it made Dev smile.
She was really in no danger, she had excellent balance, and the winds were curtailed here in this pocket of stone but she appreciated the almost unconscious thought behind the gesture.
Contented, she went back to her graphs, looking at the electrical signature of the structure. The door was bolted from the inside, there was an electrical drawer and linkage that went through the thick steel girders and turned a forty five degree corner to where the panel was, nestled inside a steel, closed box.
Quite suboptimal. She ran a few quick routines, examining the sine waves exposed to the scanner. They were linear in nature, and a subsequent attempt at bending them had no result. The control surface was secured, and had a hardline connection internally, it’s ingress was protected.
Dev drummed her fingertips on the outside of the scanner. Then she expanded her range and exposed the device to a wider footprint that included the fence extending to either side of her.
The falling snow was a little irritating, as it blew against her exposed skin, but it melted after a brief chill and she blinked a bit of the wet out of her eyes, as she observed the sine waves on her scanner. “Ah.”
“Ah good or ah bad?” Jess asked instantly, leaning against her and peering over her shoulder.
Dev looked back over her shoulder briefly. “Both. Which would you prefer first?”
Her partner grinned. “Good question.”
Dev showed her the screen. “The locking mechanism is being held closed by this high tension circuitry.” She pointed. “That, I suppose, is the good part, as any system being controlled through robotic synergy is available for disruption.” She paused briefly “However, the non optimal part would be that we have to overcharge the polarity to get it to release.”
Jess remained silent for a moment. “Blow it up you mean?” She suggested warily. “That’s gonna be loud.”
“No, short circuit would be a more accurate statement. We need to produce a feedback loop into the current.” Dev gently corrected her. “It will have an element of risk, and we will need a large piece of metal, approximately six meters, bent at the ends to bridge the power grid in the structure on either side of the entry.”
“Oh.” Jess studied the fence. “How… you mean we have to put metal against the wall and freak it out? How do we do that without getting fried?”
“That is the element of risk.” Dev acknowledged. “The movement will need to be sychronized, and very accurate, releasing the metal which we do not actually have and is not actually shaped to our needs at a specific point of time to make contact without remaining in contact with anything biological.”
Jess was silent again for a moment. “You can’t just get in there and wiggle something to make it release with all your Rockety skills?” She asked in a mournful tone.
“No.” Dev said, regretfully. “There is no way to intercept the circuitry from this location. If we were inside, I could possibly release it with more highly technical method.”
“Or if I had extremely long upper appendages.”
“Right. Okay.” Jess turned around and then pulled her back over to the back wall. “Stay here, I’ll be right back.” She crouched and leaped upward, grabbing the rig and starting to swarm upward against the steady stream of snowfall.
Dev watched her for a moment, then she turned around and obediently leaned back against the wall as she’d been instructed, pulling her hood forward to protect her face as she continued to study the scan, stamping her boots every so often to remove the wet snow from their upper surface.
“Watch the end of that thing!” Doug hissed, hastily taking hold of a long piece of metal being carried forward by fighters and yanking back on it. “You touch that fence we’re all cod fritters.”
“Yum.” Evan edged aside. “Shuts. I’m hungry.”
Dev stood against the wall watching the approach. All of the fighters were now down at her level, the four drop rigs dangling against the wall, almost blending in with the brown sandstone and the faint shadows from the halons across the school.
They had no lights on, the fighter able to handle the shadows, and the pilots with night vision goggles on that made it all come to the same thing. One line of them, twenty abreast, carried the metal, and a second line stood behind them in the bare space available between the wall and the fence.
“Ok.” Jess scooted up next to her, glancing down the thin ledge as the line of bodies approached. “We got everything ya need Devvie?”
“Well.” Dev had her arms crossed over her chest as she observed the work. “I hope that the solution to our difficulty does not also prevent some of us from leaving.”
Jess snorted and started shaking with laughter. “You don’t like our pipe?”
It was a skid off one of the carriers, the ends already bent upward. “I do, but it serves a purpose on the vehicle it came from?” Dev said, mournfully.
“Ah, it’ll be fine. I’m sure Doug can take that thing off tilted sideways.” Jess said. “You could.”
Dev eyed her with a non committal expression.
The fighters shuffled into position and looked at them expectantly, hopping up and down in place as the snow kept falling onto them and shaking their bodies to send clumps of it flying. Dev took a step forward and then put her hand on the bent end and started positioning it. “Please try to remain still.”
“That gap there.” Doug shuffled around her and eased down the line “Yeah, and that one…no hold on don’t push forward.” He stopped and held his arms out. “Don’t knock me into that okay?”
Brent came over to Dev and showed her the screen on his scanner. “S’got just clear.” He said. “Gonna have to shove it hard in, get the inside against the strut there.”
“Yes.” Dev agreed.
“Can we hurry this up?” April was standing behind the line of fighters, jumping up and down and rubbing her arms. “Before we end up flash fried statues?”
“Want my jacket?” Doug stuck his head between two of the fighters.
“No.” April said. “I have no intention of carrying your frozen ass back to that lopsided crate.”
Dev cleared her throat. “Could we please move forward, and prepare to insert this article?” She was just able to fit between the end of the pipe and the rock wall. “This end has to fit between those two posts, at the same time as the other end fits between those two posts, without anyone touching the pipe while it touches the fence. Is that clear?”
“Yo.” The fighters fidgeted. “S’sgo!!!”
“Up!” Jess muffled a smile as the line lifted the heavy pipe up over their heads. “On three.” She stamped one boot on the ground. “One.”
Boots started thumping with her. “Boom.” Evan said, almost under his breath.
“Two.” The line moved forward, Jess just behind them, the edge of the pipe almost touching the fence.
“Three.” Jess called. “GO!”
Dev instinctively averted her eyes and half turned as the line of fighters moved as one, responding to Jess’s bark, half bending and shoving the pipe forward in the air, releasing it at the very last second before it touched the fence and lifting their hands clear as it made impact.
The surge of power was intense, reaching out and bathing the line of them in a rush of prickling sensation, sending snow dampened hair back and up and causing a huge green glow to wash them in a brief, silent flare.
Dev felt her nape hairs lift and the feeling against her skin was on the edge of discomfort, reminding her with a sudden, vivid memory of the radiation cleaning she’d borne every day up on station.
She kept her attention focused on her scanner though, and watched as the shift and warping of the electrical signal fluttered across her screen, and then, just as she doubted the effectiveness of her plan, there was a very anticlimactic low clicking sound.
Dev reached forward in some relief to the service hatch, only to be yanked back as Jess’s arm snaked around her and held her still. “Hello?” She whispered, in a startled tone.
“Sure you want to touch that?” Jess whispered back.
“Yes.” Dev showed her the screen. “It’s fine. Just do not touch anything but the door.”
“Let me.” Jess lifted her up and switched places with her, squeezing between the last fighter and the wall and reaching out to take hold of the service door, her body braced and expectant as she yanked it towards her.
The portal opened, it’s mechanism released with the removal of the electrical charge, swinging open obediently and stopping without folding back against the still energized fence, as the fierce hum fluttered and flared, a tracing of blue electricity sketching across the long metal brace now latched into the fence.
“Nice.” April clapped Dev on the back. “Good job, Dev.”
“Let’s go.” Jess moved through the gate into the yard. “Don’t f’n touch the metal.” She whispered back over her shoulder, fiercely. “Just follow me.”
“Booyah.” The fighters agreeably lined up as April and Doug followed Dev who scooted through behind Jess.
The Mikes and Chester and Brent stood back, shooing the fighters through and brought up the rear. “Keep that stuff near your ass.” Chester warned, as the fighters shrugged the long projectile rifles over their shoulders.
Dev went at once to the control panel inside the fence, as the rest of the force filtered inside. She opened the box cover and inspected the input panel ignoring the ident pad. She felt a presence behind her and turned, to find Doug there with his own scanner.
Behind them the fighters filed past, as Jess led them along with April along a rocky path through the bare scoured space to a set of steps, snow covered and uneven that made their way downward and forward towards the dark bulk of the building on the far side.
“This’s called the backyard.” Doug said, peering at her screen. “What’cha gonna do?”
Dev attached leads from her scanner to the side of the input panel and quickly ran scans against it, then she input a program and observed the results. “This does not seem overly secure.”
“Nah.” Doug agreed. “I mean.. yeah, it was always a target for the triggers but more outta frustration, you know?”
“Not really no.” Dev ran a second program. “I am going to reset the alerts this station would have sent and advise all is well.” She finished her work. “It would be suboptimal to have them respond to an alert.”
“Probably ignored it.” Doug said. “What did you do there? How did you insert?”
Dev straightened and pushed the door shut over the console. “I broke the service code.” She said, briefly. “Lets join the others.” She slung her scanner over her shoulder and started for the steps, where the last of the fighters were disappearing into the ochre tinted shadows, a mixture of gray and gold in her night scope covered eyes.
“You did? When?” Doug followed her. “How do you do that stuff so fast?”
Dev smiled, and trotted more quickly to join the others, as they started down the steps. “Programming.” She said. “And a bit of good guessing.” She allowed, as they disappeared into the gloom of the shadows of the building.
“If I guessed I’d probably have blown up my hand.” Doug sighed as he hustled after her. “Hey wait for me.”
The steps led down to a bare, dark corridor of stone, with a thick wall of rock on one side, and the wall of the tall building on the other, a long stretch of blank surface, utter darkness with single spears of ochre light pointed directly downward.
The overhang of the structure at least kept the snow off them, and the floor was chill, but dry. Jess strode along it, experiencing unpleasant reminders of the many walks along this same way, moving from common mess to the yard.
Now she followed the path along the wall, ears cocked and alert, hands flexing, expecting to find a target at any moment, aware of April hair triggered at her heels.
“Checkpoint.” April said, in a low mutter.
Jess nodded and slowed, as they reached the far corner of the building and the narrowed gap that allowed only single file entry, through a stone gateway that burrowed into the side of the facility and the ochre light abruptly became more regular lighting the way in dangerous clarity.
Jess halted, and regarded the square end of the path, barred by a thick metal door and an entry pad. She looked behind her, and April pressed back against the wall as the line of fighters shuffled and parted, allowing the pilots to come forward.
Dev was already swinging her scanner from her shoulder when Jess suddenly stiffened and held a hand up, cocking her head to one side as she leaned close to the outer side of the door.
Everyone froze, then Jess beckoned Dev forward, and met April’s eyes shifting her gaze to the opposite side of the door.
Without hesitation April took up position, loosening her dal knife in it’s sheath at her breastbone. A smile appeared on her face, visible in the blaring light overhead.
Jess pressed Dev against the wall behind her and with her other hand, made a pushing motion to the rest of the party, keeping up the gesture until they’d turned around the last corner and were not visible from the door.
Tucked behind Jess’s tall form, Dev now had a chance to position the scanner and past the door she detected what her partner had heard minutes before - three biologic entities were approaching, moving along a corridor inside the space.
Jess had heard them. She could see the edges of her partner’s ears twitching.
She, herself, could not hear them, but the scanner picked up the outline and added it to the inside wiremap from her database, showing her the internal structure of the building with it’s tiers of small chambers and inner, open space.
She focused on the approaching biologics, studying the returns.
They came closer moving down a long hallway and she did hear the soft shirring click as a sensor was engaged, her scanner picking up the relays. She took a half step back to clear space for Jess to react and a quick glance down the hallway showed Doug peeking around the corner, then hastily pulling back.
Jess went very still, her breathing slow and even but her body tensing as her ears twitched, listening to everything behind the door, fingertips just barely twitching.
The door unlocked, and started to swing outward and Jess waited for it to give enough clearance before she curled her fingers around the edge of the door and yanked it outward, slamming it against the outer wall as two men came stumbling out, surprised, one with an outstretched hand ready to push the door open.
Them. In uniform, that shades of browns they used when on mission, rough and thick protective fabric, shield integrated as hers had been when she’d been an Interforce agent in the field.
Jess grabbed him and shoved him right at April, who took hold of his throat and pulled him sideways and against the wall in utter silence, already shoving his head up as she cut his throat with her knife in a graceful swiping motion.
A hot spray of blood went over the hall, eerily dark in the ocher overnight accompanied by a low, delighted chuckle.
Jess hadn’t waited to see what the result was, trusting April’s lethality without question.
She slid inside and went body to body with the second man, as he swung a blaster around to gun her down, forcing him backwards as she reached behind him to the last, much smaller figure and hauled him out behind her towards the door to get him out of her way.
Them. Jess felt her instincts respond to the presence, as the man started to react, finger tightening on the blaster trigger and releasing as he fought to focus on her quicksilver motion.
He would want to back to put distance between them, but the corridor was too narrow for that and she was already within reach, the thought of drawing her own blaster not even occurring to her this close in.
The blaster bolt fired and she sinuously ducked it, then body slammed the enemy a second time, driving him against the wall. She punched him on the rebound, and kicked the blaster out of his hand, sending it bounding back up the hallway with a loud and discordant clatter.
She could see his eyes fasten on her and she smiled at him, allowing him that one long moment of recognition before she grabbed the front of his uniform with one hand and pulled him sharply towards her, whipping her elbow up and into his jaw snapping his head back and his neck in a single fluid motion.
His knees buckled and he slid to the ground, gracelessly flapping arms and grotesquely angled head, death taking him and she took a step back, slightly surprised at the ease of it. “Bye.”
She whirled and headed back for the doorway, held flat open against the wall helpfully by one of Dev’s boots as her partner focused her scanner inside, gathering information with a stolidly calm expression.
Dev kept her body flat against cold wall, staying out of the way as a relatively slight figure came past her and halted in consternation.
The hallway was abruptly filled with large, darkly clad, snow damp figures barreling towards the door and the third man jumped in reaction, backing against the wall next to where Dev was.
He was in the gray uniform she remembered, from the induction of the new agents what seemed a lifetime ago in Base 10 and she realized he was younger than she was, She held a hand up to the lunging fighters in warning.
Jess then came barreling out the door, but came to a halt when she, too, recognized the gray uniform.
April slid past her and through the door, knife held out as she scoped the terrain ahead of them, with Doug quickly following her with his scanner in hand, Mike Arias at their heels.
The kid in gray kept his back to the wall, hands up, palms outward. He was, Jess reckoned, about fifteen or sixteen. Newly cadet. HIs uniform was stained with blood and ragged, and he was bootless, toes splayed out on the cold corridor gripping the surface.
He had dark blond hair, straight and Interforce cut, and a lurid bruise across his right cheekbone and he swallowed in tense surprise, glancing at all of them, unsure of what to do. Too young, Jess realized, to know who the bad guys were.
“Name.” She said, succinctly.
The kid took a breath. “Sutton.” He glanced down the hall at the crowd of burly figures, staring flatly at him, and the bloody figure on the ground, arms splayed out, throat gaping open. “Robert Sutton.” He added. “Who are you people?”
“Clear.” April popped her head back out. “We should get inside. Someone’s gonna send a snoop to find out what all the noise is and Mike wants a kill.”
“Yeah.” Jess made a hand motion, and moved out of the way as the fighters flowed past. “Stop at the mess.” She said. “There’ll be kills to go round.”
April nodded and disappeared.
Jess turned to the kid. “What’s going on in there?” She asked crisply. “I know they’ve got a half battalion in the front by Admin. What’s the gig?”
Sutton relaxed visibly at this more familiar language. “Well I was about to get plugged and dumped.” He said. “They came to scope me and I jumped em.” He admitted. “Bad idea, they kicked my ass.”
Jess’s lips twitched. “Happens.”
“Well, they’re going to kill all of us.” He said, in a calm tone. “They already started. Six of em, saw them on the floor.” He looked very young and was struggling visibly to be more grown up than he was. “Figured I’d make a try.” His head jerked back a little, chin moving upward. “Why not, right?”
“Just bumped?” Jess asked, in a milder tone. “Came from bridge?”
He nodded. “Last week. They showed up here dark yesterday.” He added hesitantly. “You killed them, So I guess you’re not bad guys?” His voice lifted in question, expressing some doubt. “Are you?” He eyed her, standing there in her damp hoodie, towering over him.
“C’mon” Jess motioned him to come after her, and when he hesitated, she grabbed him by the arm and hoisted him inside the building. “Shut the door, Devvie. Lets go kick ass.”
“Certainly.” Dev let the door gently shut as she entered, and followed as they jogged down the hall.
The hallway was, as April claimed, clear and they made rapid progress along the back side of the building, a long plain passage with no windows or doors to worry about.
April was in the lead, with Mike at her side, both with blasters out, carried in that casual hold at shoulder level with the muzzles pointed up at the ceiling. Big Mike was at their backs, a long projectile rifle in his hands, his sea boots moving silently across the floor, with the three pilots.
Behind them the fighters came two abreast in the hall, watching with bright, interested eyes and behind them was the kid, Jess and Dev bringing up the rear, striding along with occasional reverse walks to watch their backs.
It was silent, else.
Then a door opened far off, and a burst of sound echoed down the hall, rough laughter and the sound of an electrical contact, and at that, all the former Interforce among them grimaced.
“Someone’s getting zapped.” Jess muttered. “Assholes.”
The kid was padding along next to her, hustling to keep up. “Yeah, s’what they’re doing. Cranking it up until you fry.” He reported. “Tried other stuff.”
“But it didn’t work and they lost interest.” Jess said, dryly. “You’d think they’d remember.”
Sutton eyed her. “I guess.” He said. “Hadn’t gotten down to us yet. Me and two bridgers. Might have worked on us if they cut fingers off and stuff.”
The whole group came to a halt, and Jess tapped the rearmost fighters on the shoulder. “Move.”
A path was opened and she led Dev and the kid forward through them, until she reached the front. April was standing at the edge of a passage, head cocked. “Sup?”
Jess leaned forward and inhaled, through her nose, and then a little through her mouth, letting the air run over her tongue. “Blood.”
She moved past and into the open space, and Dev was at her shoulder, scanner out, fingers moving over the input in an intense concentration.
The gap was a branch of three hallways. One, led back the way they came in, the second to a set of double doors with a set of block letters painted on them, and the third a wider corridor that ended with a lit scan gate, illuminated in red.
“Through mess?” April asked.
The sound of the electrical impact grew louder.
“Dev, can you get through that?” Jess asked, pointing at the scan. “Faster, and they might have the mess gassed.”
“Point.” April conceded. “Joke always was who could tell?”
Dev and Doug moved forward almost at the same time, and went to the other end of the wider hallway, staying clear of the scan and scoping the walls. “This is a class five scan Jess.” Dev looked over her shoulders. “I will review.”
Chester edged forward and went to join them, and a moment later, Brent followed.
“This feels like a trap.” April suddenly said, in an almost sub vocal tone.”
“Here.” Chester uttered, moving to the other side of the wall, touching a set of indents at the top of a section. “I think it’s here.”
Dev moved over and checked. “Yes.” She rapidly input data, then moving her eyes from the wall to the scanner, she reached up and touched a section, then ran her hand over the surface across a break in the wall covering, to a second section, moving so close to the scan it outlined her in lurid red. “Here.”
The sounds from beyond the scanner got louder, and along with the electrical sound, they could hear the crunch of breaking bone, and a fresh round of laughter.
“Get back.” Big Mike suddenly said.
Instinctively the pilots all drew back from the wall, and a moment later they were all ducking as Mike lifted his projectile rifle and fired it point blank into the surface, the backlash from the big weapon sending his body back a step.
The sound was so loud it made their ears ring, and Jess swiveled and reacted by slugging Big Mike in the side of the head with her fist, sending him flying into the pileup of fighters, all of which were scrambling around. “Nobody else pick a gun up or I’ll break your arms.”
The smoke cleared and Dev advanced to the wall, which now had a huge hole in it, the metal surface bent and cratered, as the projectile had exploded on impact.
“The hell’s the alarms.” April was shoving fighters against the far wall. “Get the hell out of the way so I can shoot damn it!”
Sutton was plastered against the wall, eyes huge. “They turned em off.” He said. “Kept alerting on em, being them, you know?”
The echoes finally faded, then they heard through the scan portal the sounds of running feet, coming towards them.
“That’s a blind, they can shoot us like fish.” Mike said, in a calm tone. “We’re screwed if we can’t get through there and cut them off.”
Dev squeezed between the milling fighters and stuck her head and upper body into the hole in the wall, feeling the heat against her skin as she wriggled inside. “Suboptimal.”
It was painful, but she twisted into position and reached out to attach a probe to a now exposed circuit board, feeling Doug put a hand on her back.
“We got ya covered, Rocket. Go for it.”
She was going for it, as best she understood that request. She only hoped the codes she had were real ones.
Dev could feel the droplets of sweat trickle into her eyes and briefly now wished the cold outside would penetrate where she was. She shook her head a little and sent drops flying, as she worked to set her probe into a piece of circuitry that would be useful.
Behind her she could hear the fighters swarming around and the clank of metal hitting the walls and somehow she knew the casual touch now on her right calf was Jess, waiting silently against the wall next to her.
She was very conscious of the seconds passing, and the dependency on her skills. Jess’s touch was light, but she could also feel the light tapping of her thumb even through the fabric of her flight suit and knew that Jess, too was counting the moments.
Ah. She saw the signals jump on her screen, and without pausing she dove into the programming, bypassing the higher level control circuits and quickly accessing the more basic controls, getting to the power inputs and cutting them off.
She felt the squeeze on her calf, and then a pat.
“GO!” Jess barked. “Get into the next room and behind the barrier and get ready to shoot those damned things you’re hauling.”
There was a rush of movement behind her as she contained the circuitry, setting blocks and guards so it could not be reversed and powered back on, taking a breath full of burned electronics and releasing it, grimacing at the taste of the air.
Unpleasant. She finished her work and quickly scanned the devices, checking for traps and signal intelligence, then she nodded in satisfaction and closed the scanner down.
She took a breath and started to squirm backwards, stopping when she was grasped unceremoniously by the hips and pulled out, lifted neatly out of the wall and swung through the air gripped in Jess’s powerful hands.
The air in the hall was cold, and a shocking difference from the inside of the console and she felt her sweat drying rapidly as she was pulled around, avoiding the rush of the fighters as they barreled past Jess.
That mass of motion and energy cleared and she was then let down on her feet. “Thank you.”
“That’s my Devvie.” Jess patted her on the back. “C’mon.” She half turned and pointed at the barefoot Sutton, who was still pressed against the wall, simply staring at them. “Stay there.”
“Sure.” He nodded, staying where he was. “I’m not looking to get in the way of those guys. Or you.”
“Good.” Jess hustled herself and Dev off.
They chased after the fighters, who were pouring down the hall past the now darkened scan portal and through the double doors ahead of them, into a narrow short hall that opened into a large, octagonal room.
Ahead of them was a half wall and they reached it just as a line of running, dun clothed figures cleared the far door and saw them, and started firing. Blaster fire careened off the walls and the barrier they were crouched behind, filling the room with a trace work of lethal energy.
They were partial targets, but even so the aim seemed unable to quite hit the shifting bodies, who moved and slammed up against the barrier in flickering bits of motion that evaded the beams as near misses, some catching flying hair and tugging it loose.
Jess ended up on her knees behind the barrier and pulled her hood up, the still damp fabric cooling the skin on her ears as she saw the enemy force pause and disperse, keeping low and behind the angular metal mess tables, the smell of steel scour strong in her nostrils. “Put your hoods up!”
Them. They were laying down a strong barrage of competent blaster fire, and she could see, past one of the tables one of them on comms.
The fighters all started to stand up but Jess shoved the nearest ones down. “Shoot!” She told them in a fierce voice as she ducked an incoming blaster beam. “Right through the tables. Just point and hit the triggers.”
Eying her, they swung and shouldered the long projectile rifles, laying a line of them on the top of the barrier, sides tucked close to heads and in a moment the sound of explosives firing filled the room and sent projectiles in all directions, sending along a wave of shock with them as the enemy was suddenly faced with parts of tables and seats raining around them as hot, metallic debris.
Dev got behind the barrier wall, next to April who was silently laughing.
“I can already smell the blood.” April told her cheerfully. “This is fun, huh?” She turned and took a peek over the barrier, seeing the rush of reinforcements heading in. “Here we go.” Getting up on a knee she took aim and fired her blaster at a dun figure scrambling across the floor towards a bulkhead. The beam caught him on the side of the head and he flew jerkily through the air, slamming down over one of the half demolished tables.
“Shoot again!” Jess instructed the yonks, keeping her own head down. “Devvie, we gotta get to the big console in admin, far side next room.” She told her partner. “We’re gonna need the lockdown codes.”
Dev had found it on her scanner, and she observed it’s location, as the chaos in the room intensified. “Yes, I see.” She remarked. “Interesting problem.”
Jess patted her on the shoulder. “Lemme get us past this shitstorm first then you’re on.”
“Does she think you have a can opener for everything?” Doug whispered, from his position crouched next to her. “And she gives me grief for messing with you?”
Dev looked at him briefly, then grinned and went back to her scanner.
“Let’s just rush em.” Big Mike concluded. “They can’t hit all of us.”
“Hai!” Evan let out a yell. “S’go with the boom!”
The fighters all popped up over the barrier again and fired, the loud roar of the guns making ears ring up and down the line but this volley was rather more on target and it sent body parts flying as it caught the reinforcements as they entered the space.
“That’s more like it.” April complimented them. “Good job, kiddos!”
“Hai!” Another volley and then the blaster fire petered out, and they could hear boots running in the other direction, and yelling in a foreign battle language.
“Woohoo!” Dustin wiggled in his kneeling stance. “Sweet!”
“Oh yeah.” Evan agreed.
“Lets get after them.” Jess got to her feet and hopped over the barrier, moving through the area ahead of it. The room was filled with metal benches and tables and there were bodies and body parts lying everywhere, as a haze of gunpowder smoke filled the air, deep and pungent enough to taste on the back of her tongue.
“Nice.” Big Mike vaulted over the wall and joined her, as they moved through the haze. “Cooper’s gets a bonus, yo? Good stuff.” He looked with approval at the destruction. “Big ass boom.”
“Dee gets a bonus.” Jess confirmed, with a humorless grin. “She was in the right place at right time.”
Mike nodded. “Run out of em still.” He said, in a regretful tone. “Even that pile of em.”
Jess also nodded. “Maybe we need to learn how to make them.” She said, as her head swept right to left, satisfied the room was now empty of enemy. She lifted her hand and waved the rest of the fighters forward, letting out a low whistle in punctuation. “Can’t be that hard.”
“Lets go.” April got up and led the fighters forward. They shouldered their long rifles and hopped over the barrier, looking around at the mortal destruction they’d caused with bright eyed interest. “Don’t slip on the guts.” She added in warning as Evan almost did ending with an awkward hop. “Those rounds leave sharp edges.”
“That’s some serious f’n goo.” Kirin observed, sidestepping a leg, then lightly booting it several yards ahead of their line. The side of her face had a dark bruised burn on it, from the recoil of the rifle but it didn’t seem to be bothering her.
Several fighters had the same, and Evan had the side of his hoodie hood with a long burn in it where a blaster beam had caught him.
All minor, all easily dismissed. The fighters quickly examined their now more respected long rifles and checked the magazines, ensuring a fresh projectile had loaded into the chamber as they trooped across the destruction filled room.
The projectiles were short range, but they were heavy and powerful and exploded on impact, blowing holes through the metal tables and ripping enemy bodies apart into bloody messes of almost unrecognizable sections, filling the air with the iron tang of blood and the funk of entrails and the taint of burned skin.
They left it all behind. There was a long, wide corridor past the room and the doors were flung open along it, some debris left on the ground showing a fast retreat. A cup, plas and scarred from age, lying with a spill of liquid, and along the wall, a hand held device.
Jess detoured to snag it. “Zapper.” She told Big Mike, as she slipped it into her front pocket. “Day room’s up there. Let’s move it.”
They sped up and in a moment there were another set of double doors at the end of the wide hallway with no other exit. There were dark plas portals in the walls, but as they passed, they could see no motion or light behind them. “No watchers on watch.” April commented. “Assholes.”
Dev had made her way through the crowd and was at Jess’s side when they reached the far doors, her scanner already out and active as Doug and Chester scooted up to join her. “This is unsecured.” She said at once, bemused. “They have disabled the locking mechanics from central control.”
“Idiots.” Jess reached out and touched the opener. “Get ready to mix up!” She called out, as the doors started to swing open, sending a gust of blood tinted air back at them, and a sudden barrage of blaster fire. “Heads down!”
The doors swung all the way open and an almost full block of fire came with them, as the fighters instinctively swirled apart and got out of the way, letting the beams fly down the hall and impact the far end of the passage.
“Hoo!” One of the fighters let out a yelp, as the blaster fire continued and a ricochet off the inner wall grazed him. “Hot juice!”
“Now what?” April slid up the wall next to Jess. “Wait till they overheat the guns?”
A bolt came from an angle and they both ducked and shifted, and it hit the wall that Jess was standing against with a searing splash. “What if they don’t?”
“We gotta cut that off.” Jess measured the distance to the doors, which had opened inward. “I can pull it closed if I can get to it.”
“You’re gonna fry your ass doing that.” April said pragmatically. “What if we throw that kid into the doorway, make em stop for a second?”
“Might be long enough.” Jess pondered.
Dev had her back flat against the inside wall, busy with her scanner, and in a moment, the door abruptly released from it’s open position and slammed shut, blocking the fire in a sudden cessation of blaster hiss and crackle as the steel blocked the beams.
For a moment there was silence.
“Or the stupid things could just decide to close.” April concluded. “Yay us.”
“You do that, Devvie?” Jess finally asked, with a faint chuckle, looking past April to where Dev was standing up against the wall.
Dev looked up with some slight bemusement. “Well yes actually.” She said. “The progression of high power destructive plasma energy in this hallway seemed suboptimal.”
Jess gave her a thumbs up.
Doug had moved to the end of the wall that the doors were set into past where Dev was standing, and he and Chester were working at a panel they’d exposed in the surface. “Service hatch.” He called over his shoulder. “There’s a mech void behind here. We can get into the security corridor behind access control.”
Jess immediately changed focus and the fighters all swung that way with her. “Behind the wall panel?” She asked. “Guard booth?”
Doug nodded, busy with his own scanner. “Trying to get into the comp.” He whacked the side of the device with his hand. “C’mon you…”
“Move.” Jess pushed him out of the way and motioned for Dustin to come up next to her. “Stick your fubar in there, ya scrub. Lets make a hole in the wall.”
“Hoo!” Dustin squirmed forward with a look of delight and got the pry bar end of his new tool in the crack between two adjacent metal wall panels and leaned against it with Big Mike getting a paw on the end of the tool and adding his weight.
The edge of the pry bar slid between the panels with a grinding squeak, and then both Big Mike and Dustin leaned to the side, pulling back on the tool as the metal screamed in protest.
Jess prudently got out of the way just in time as the panel came away from the wall with a loud crack, sending both men prying at it tumbling to the ground as it came loose.
Hands reached forward and got hold of the panel and then it was gone, wrenched away from the superstructure and passed back as a gap was revealed, dark and narrow.
Very dark, and very narrow. “I ain’t fitting in there.” Big Mike said, mournfully. “Maybe my leg.”
Doug turned sideways and immediately squeezed into the gap, his scanner held out ahead of him. “C’mon Ches - remember this place?” He called over his shoulder. “S’where Toby hid that one night.”
“Yup.” Chester was at his back and squeezed into the gap, just ahead of Mike Arias and April and they disappeared into the darkness beyond in rapid silence.
Dev stayed where she was, judging the size of the void and determining that though she could easily fit through the opening, the fighters including Jess could not and her preference was to remain with Jess. There were, she concluded, more than enough people doing the task.
Jess stuck her head in the gap. “Distract em!” She called in a low tone.
“Ack.” April’s voice floated back.
Satisfied, Jess drew back and turned back towards the main doors, now firmly shut. She made pushing motions with her hands at the fighters.
“OKay, get back into the hallway there and hang on. Soon as they make a racket Dev’ll open the doors and we go in ” She told the waiting gang, who nodded. “No space to shoot. Just mix it up.”
“Hai.” They all backed up and fell into position, stowing their rifles on their backs and bouncing up and down on the balls of their feet with frenetic energy. “S’go.”
Jess went over and picked up the discarded wall panel, hefting it in her hands and then turning to face the doors, holding the metal piece easily. “Get ready, Devvie.”
Dev was still pressed against the wall, eyes on scanner. “Ack.”
They could hear the sounds of motion inside the room, muffled shouts, clangs, the shuffle of boots heading for where they were, and then the lights in the monitoring rooms behind the panels abruptly came on, sending blocks of green tinted light into the corridor they were in.
“Yuck.” Jess eyed the nearest panel. “On the other hand, might need to shoot at those.”
Several of the fighters swiveled and faced the walls, lifting their rifles up and aiming them at the translucent blocks as the halons behind them lit up, showing bare, functional stations.
Then they heard a solid, considerable roaring boom, from the right, where the gap was.
Seconds later, alarms started to sound and from inside the doors they could hear blaster fire again, but this time not in their direction, and the running arced around and headed away.
“Now.” Jess said, in a calm voice.
Obediently, Dev triggered the door control, and the two now blaster scorched doors swung abruptly inward again allowing Jess to bound inside with long strides, holding the metal panel ahead of her and letting out a yell.
The fighters crowded in after her and massed through the door, and as they cleared it, the spread out on either side and charged, catching the enemy inside by surprise as they directed their defense against a second entryway to the left that was issuing blaster fire at them in return.
Jess charged across the space towards the mass of enemy and just kept going, slamming into the first of them as they turned to face this new challenge, swiveling at her with a blaster but unable to get it around in time to stop her forward motion.
She knocked him down to the ground and used the steel as a weapon as he rolled onto his side, scrambling for his blaster that had been jarred loose by his fall.
Jess got a boot on his arm and pinned it in place, then she slammed the sharp edge of the panel into the skin of his neck, throwing her weight against it and using her momentum to separate his head from his body, the crunch of the bone as she parted his spine felt through her hands.
HIs body jerked in autonomous reaction, then went still, his head at an improbable angle not quite detached from his body.
Jess didn’t stop to finish that work. She whipped the panel up again and turned to find a new target, spotting the motion as April led her party out from behind the control station, her blaster in one hand, her knife in the other.
The rest of the fighters had flood the room in a rush of dark energy and now engaged with the enemy with long whoops of delight, overwhelming the soldiers who turned to fire, but unable to take aim before the swarm reached them, multiple fighters grabbing each one and taking them to the ground.
The fighters let out yells of excitement as they started ripping through the half armor the enemy were wearing, solid plates made to stop energy weapons that now just provided handholds as the Bay born pounced on them and started tearing them apart.
Dev had followed Jess in and immediately wove through the carnage with her focus on the command console visible against the far wall, a large, blocky, steel structure, elevated above the level of the floor with heavy metal access doors.
One was hanging open, and it had blaster burns across it, the fastening mechanism melted in a thick slag.
She dodged a man fighting with Kirin and scrambled over three additional bodies, these dressed in the gray of cadets, until she reached the console and circled it, joined by Doug a moment later.
“That’ll save time.” Doug swung the door all the way open. “Always wanted to get inside this thing.”
Dev hopped up into the station, going to the far end and sitting down in a thick, scarred, slightly bent metal seat and putting her scanner on the work surface.
“This is going great, huh?” Doug took the seat next to her, and they looked out as something slammed against the thick plas translucent panel to see a broken body dressed in dun colored armor sliding down it.
The head was turned backwards in a very unnatural position and the eyes were open and staring at oblivion as it thunked against the plas and left a smear of red plasma in it’s wake.
“Moderately optimal.” Dev concluded, keeping her attention on the boards in front of her. “At least for us.” She added, almost as an afterthought.
“Not so much for them.” Doug agreed, as Brent and Chester joined them in the command station. “C’mon guys, lets get this control party started!”
“Storm’s on our side.” April reported, coming back into the central room, holstering her blaster. “Wind came back up, front must be stalled over us.”
“Yay?” Jess’s dark brows twitched.
“Blowing so hard they’re locked down over in admin.” Mike added as he arrived on her heels. “Ten dead stickers in the front guard station. Blaster fire to the face.”
“Nice. More garbage to take out.” Jess concluded. “Drag em outside and let em ice over.”
“Heard that.” Big Mike had been standing by listening. “C’mon, you four.” He instructed some of the fighters assigned to his carrier and they trooped out after him.
Sutton had edged into the space, and slowly made his way across to where they were standing, staring around the room where the fighters were collecting body parts and dragging corpses off to a side hallway that had a door now pulled off its hinges.
There was a cold, wet draft issuing from it, and the floor had streaks of dried and drying blood mixed with bootprints along it’s length.
He eyed Jess hesitantly “Are you.. um.. going to let the rest of us out?” He indicated the upper level hallways. “I mean, what’s left of us. I watched em zap a bunch to terminal before I lost it and started whacking out.”
They watched a fighter walk by, with a stiffened body slung over one shoulder, heading for the hallway. “Working on it.” Jess concluded briefly. “Unless you’ve got the unlock codes and wanna hand em over.”
“Nah.” Sutton said, in a mournful tone. “Woulda been a gag for sure.”
“Where ya from?” April asked, glancing up from where she was cleaning her dalknife with care. “Juneau?”
HIs lips tensed briefly into an ironic smile. “I’m local.” He said. “Mom was admin, dad was sticker.” He glanced around. “They took the fee and left. No idea where they are now.”
April nodded. “Typical.” She went back to her cleaning.
Dev appeared out of the entry to the control center and came over to them, her scanner slung over her shoulder.
“We good, Devvie?” Jess inquired.
“Yes.” Dev said. “I have the ingresses secured, and I have cut off any transmission between this facility and the other buildings.” She held up her scanner and showed Jess the screen. “And I believe these are the codes you were asking for.”
Jess took the scanner and reviewed the screen. “Rockstar.” She said, briefly.
Sutton craned his neck to get a peek at the screen. “You cracked comp?” He eyed Dev. “For real?”
“Yes.” Dev responded in a mild tone. “Generally speaking, that is my function.”
“Okay.” Jess finished her review. “Take him up to lobby 2 and Dev’ll open the doors.” She told April. “Get everyone together and tell them what the story is. I don’t want any crazy town. Anyone wants to start a problem gets locked back down.”
“Right.” April sheathed her knife. “Or we could just leave them all in lockdown.” She suggested thoughtfully. “If it’s going to be a hassle.” She looked at Sutton. “Might be less chance of being offed.”
“Die now die later.” Sutton remarked, then shrugged. “Whatever.”
April nodded and motioned for him to follow her. “C’mon. Gimme two minutes, Rocket.” She waved Mike Arias to come along and he put his blaster in it’s holster and followed them out.
Jess looked around and exhaled. “Huh.” She put her hand on Dev’s back. “Lets go to central. Show me the gig.”
They walked back across the room, and climbed up the metal steps to the enclosed command center, pushing the door open to reveal Doug, Chester and Brent there on the ground, heads inside consoles. Doug was whistling tunelessly under his breath.
Brent pulled his head back into view and eyed them. “Hey.”
“Hello.” Dev responded. “They are going to retrieve the other students here.”
“Oh yay, baby triggers.” Doug’s voice floated out of the console.
Jess went to the center console, broad and thick, it’s surface painted many times, with chips and dents in the surface. She stood for a moment looking down at it, reconciling faint memories of having been in the pod on those very rare occasions they’d been allowed.
Dev merely sat down on a metal stool at one side of the console and readied her scanner. “April and Mike are going up to the level with the rooms and are preparing to discuss this situation.” She told her colleagues.
“You really going to let the kids out?” Doug’s head appeared. “Why?” He asked, with mild interest.
Jess was leaning over the console, studying the screens. Now she looked up at him. “Because if it were me, I’d want to be let out.” She responded flatly. “That’s why.”
Doug’s eyebrows lifted. “What if they come after us? I mean, they are registered triggers, yeah? They signed the regs?”
Dev listened, as she set up a link into the portal, reviewing the control sets that managed the doors. The cadets were housed in a set of regularly spaced, square housings, and she flicked over to the camera systems she had intercepted.
Yes, they had doors that opened into the hall, she could see receding into the distance, and the lights overhead were crimson tinged and the screen in front of her indicated their locked down status.
She thought about that briefly, the memory of the creche on station surfacing, and how the sets had been locked inside.
“If they decide to be that stupid then we’ll kill them.” Jess responded mildly. “But they might have local intel we don’t I’d like to find out first.”
“Truth.” Doug accepted that and went back to what he was working on. “I”m going to block that back gate open, k Devvie?”
“Excellent idea.” Dev was reviewing the progress of April, Mike and Sutton as they passed through a large metal grid gateway that was propped open and climbed up a set of metal steps to the next level. “It would be good to be able to get back to our vehicles with little impediment.”
“You should figure out how to run those things remotely.” Jess suggested. “Just fly them down with your rig.”
Dev gave her a sideways look.
Jess ruffled her hair and chuckled. “Okay, we ready to let them out?”
Dev went back to her screen, seeing April now standing outside a set of very large, thick metal doors. “I think so.” She showed Jess the screen. “Is that the appropriate location?”
“Lobby 2. Yeah.” Jess’s eyes narrowed. “I got jumped in lobby 4. Bastards refused to open the doors to let me get to my crib. Had six guys come after me.” A smile of memory appeared on her face. “They didn’t make that mistake again.”
“Ho ho ho.” Doug chortled softly, echoing inside the console. “Stickers?”
“Yep.” Jess agreed. “Admin came down but I was red sleeve by that time and it was on them.”
“That was some dumb shit.” Doug pulled his head out and looked at her again. “Even us baby wrenchers knew better than that.”
“Jackass.” Jess shrugged. “Some bet going on.”
“Go ahead, Rocket.” April said, into Dev’s ear as their shortwave crackled.
Dev triggered the doors in front of April and they slowly swung open, the metal easily a foot thick as it cleared the jamb and folded flat back against the wall. April waved in response and the three passed through into a short hallway with another similar door at the other end of it.
She opened the second one and they moved into the hallway that circled the open space, the open edge of the hall a half wall with a steel grate going to the ceiling for the rest, allowing an obstructed view. She waited for April to wave again, then she enabled the codes for the chambers on the floor, triggering the unlock sequence.
An alarm sounded. The overhead lights morphed from crimson tinged to teal. Then the sound of metal on metal, all around the second floor ring of housings echoed loudly and she could hear the grinding and creaking of mechanical working, followed by the light, soft echoes of boots.
On the cam scan, she saw gray clad, tense figures moving out of the housings, moving out to the steel grillwork to look out, and then ahead of them to the open doors to the lobby.
“Here they come.” Doug slid out from under the console. “Okay, we got everything tied up there, Rocket. I sent comms intercept to our group channel.”
“Thank you.” Dev agreed solemnly. “Yes I see the stream.”
“Stuff’s easier than I remember.” Brent sat up. “Or maybe I learned crap since. Old prots in there.”
“School.” Doug said. “Wanna go find some rat bars? Storage is back behind the wall there.” He pointed vaguely to one side. “And I’ll grab met again.”
The other pilots got up and dusted themselves off. “Anything else ya need, Dev?” Chester asked. “We good?”
“Excellent thanks.” Dev assured him, and they clambered out of the command center, as the sound of voices from the second level filtered down, April’s strong tones and a lower murmur of unfamiliar ones. “Jess, what did a red sleeve mean?”
“Hm?” Jess had been listening to the voices, head cocked. “Oh red sleeve. Yeah, when you were a cadet if you offed someone before grad you got a dark red sleeve added to your daysuit.” She studied the cameras now visible on the console. “Don’t see any there, so we’re probably not gonna have that much trouble.”
“I see.” Dev said.
“Its a reminder.” Jess grinned briefly. “Proceed at your own risk.”
“Once you grad it doesn’t matter. It’s assumed.” She patted Dev’s shoulder. “C’mon, lets go see how we want to move over to admin. I want to get this over with.”
She headed for the door to the command pod and Dev got up and followed her, wedging the door to the console room open on her way.
There were fifteen of them, and Sutton made sixteen. Six dead meant the whole cadre was only twenty two. April studied them as they approached warily, keeping some spacing between them and she grinned a little fiercely as she remembered that warding off.
You were in the Pit for four years. From bridge to grad, or sometimes, from bridge to dead, your body tossed in the incinerator and a brief notification sent to your family. Your book schooling was finished in bridge, you passed your exams, then they scheduled you to bump with a few at a time.
These were all youngers. They were fresh faced and close trimmed, all with toned, powerful bodies and dressed in the steel gray of registered cadets. “Anyone on the upper decks?” April asked, as they arrived in the lobby.
A tall redheaded girl was the closest to her, and probably, nomad born. She had that attitude. “Who are you?” She gestured behind her at the hallway. “What the hell is going on?”
“Hey.” Sutton pushed himself forward and held a hand up. “Lara, lemme tell ya, I got no idea who these people are either but don’t fuck with them I saw them rip steel walls apart.”
Mike Arias chuckled. “We’re from Drake’s Bay.” He said. “But April here and I graduated from this place a year or so back.”
“Drake’s Bay.” Lara said, slowly. “So you’re the deserters we heard about?”
Mike and April exchanged glances, and April shrugged. “From our perspective, you’re the deserters.” She told Lara bluntly. “So don’t be an asshole or we’ll put you right back in your crib and leave the locks on.”
A shorter, stocky blond boy shouldered himself forward. “Can you tell us what’s going on?” He asked in a calm tone. “We know they offed some of us.”
“Six.” Mike said. “Looks to us like enemy arms took over the place, aided by friendlies.”
“It was them.” Lara nodded grimly. “And it was more than six. That was just their playtime. They took out a dozen when they took the place and locked the rest of us down. They were in mess.”
“Where are they now?” The blond boy asked warily. “Them, I mean?”
“Dead.” Mike Arias supplied. “We killed em all.” He added casually.
Some of the cadets were still in the back of the passage, and were looking out through the grate down to the lower level.
“We heard the shooting.” Lara said, slowly. “And some explosions. We knew something was going on… figured it was Interforce coming in to take care of things.” She glanced briefly around at the rest of the cadets, who nodded. “Comms were cut off, vid, we had no idea what the score was once they locked the doors.”
“Yeah, we figured they were taking the place.” A tall, black haired boy said, his almost colorless gray eyes focused intently on them. “Interforce, I mean… not just…” He eyed them doubtfully “Not just some people from a stakehold?”
“Well.” Mike grinned suddenly. “Sorta but not really.” He put his hands in his pockets, relaxing his body posture. “But that’s a long story. Lets go back downstairs and we can share intel.”
“Better than staying up here.” The blond boy concluded. “I’m Jackson Johnstone. Generally they call me JJ.” He addressed Mike and April. “For what it’s worth, glad you splatted em.”
“April Anston, and Mike Arias.” April said, briefly. “Let’s go. We don’t have much time.” She switched to comms. “We’re coming down. Do a scan on the upper levels.”
“Ack.” Chester answered. “We’re on it.”
“They took over comp.” Sutton advised them. “And I’m gonna run down to my crib and grab some shoes.” He pointed at his feet. “Be right back.” He squirmed through the shifting crowd of cadets and headed off counter clockwise along the hall.
“Might want to get some jackets too.” Mike Arias advised. “If you intend on leaving the building.”
There was a momentary stillness, then first a few, then the rest of the cadets peeled off and moved back into the hallway, heading away.
Dev was standing in the middle of the open space, her scanner held out in front of her, turning in a slow, deliberate circle as she directed her biologic scan at the upper levels.
It was difficult, there was a lot of metal obscuring the scan, but she persevered, tuning and retuning the signal as the activity in the rooms swirled around her.
The Bay fighters were ringing the space, some bringing in scrounging from nearby hallways. They had their projectile rifles slung over their backs, and their pipes and knives sheathed.
On one table was a large metal container with it’s top off, and a scattering of protein bars around it, and the cadets were gathered nearby gladly consuming some of them.
Most were glancing around them at the Bay residents, watching them with wide, somewhat covert looks as they stood in a random group.
The floor of the space was smeared with blood and the tang of it was present on the air moving through the corridors, and from the blocked open one the smell of burning up towards them as well.
“Okay, all the garbage taken care of.” Jess leaned with both hands on the largest table, near the front entrance to the space. “I say we move up to the porch, and stage there.” She ran a finger over the plas with the wiremap on it. “If we can get here, and get the gates opened up we can move out along the ridge behind the playground.”
April was at her shoulder, nodding. “Yeah. That works. I don’t trust that they’re not out there already coming at us. They got comms off, I heard em.”
“So we better move.” Jess concluded.
“Yep.” Mike Arias agreed.
“Jess.” Dev arrived with her scanner. “I have detected biologic returns on the fourth level.”
“Yea?” Jess glanced at it. “Doors still locked up there?”
“Leave it.” Jess folded up the plas. “Let em stay there until we’re done.” She stuffed the plas into her pocket and turned, letting out a whistle “S’go!”
The fighters swirled immediately towards her, checking their weapons, moving in a clump towards the entrance at the front of the hallway. They pulled their hoodies up and snugged them around their heads, following April and Mike and Big Mike through the doors.
Jess turned to the group of cadets. “Coming?”
JJ faced her squarely. “What are you going to do?” He asked. “I haven’t figured out yet if you all are good guys or bad guys.” He added. “Gimme a gun. Maybe I’ll shoot them. Maybe I’ll shoot you?” He shrugged. “Who knows?”
Jess smiled at him, her blue eyes twinkling in the overhead halon lights. She stood there, framed in her hoodie, with Dev standing quietly at her side. “Fair question.” She responded, as they all focused on her, with that youthful arrogance she well remembered. “We’re going to take over admin, kill the bad guys, kill any of the good guys who helped the bad guys, and then grab our kin and go home.”
There was a brief silence. “Just like that.” Lara asked, but with a mild tone. “We heard there’s a whole transport of them up there.”
“Just like that.” Jess stared back at them, with her flat, Bay stare. “Stay here if you want. Come with us and help if you want. Your choice.” She put her hand on Dev’s back. “C’mon, Devvie. Lets go do what we do.”
“Certainly.” Dev settled her scanner over her shoulder and pulled up her parka hood, taking her gloves out of her pockets and putting them on. “Winds are currently at fifty five knots across the internal part of this facility and that is predicted to remain for the next forty five minutes. You might wish to bring a hat.” She concluded, as she turned and followed Jess towards the entry hall.
JJ sniffed. “I’m going.” He announced briefly, and started after them. “Fuck it.”
“Me too.” Sutton ran after him.
Lara looked thoughtfully after the two. “That was the bio alt.” She said, after a moment of silence. “The one we heard about, wasn’t it?”
“Musta been.” The black haired boy said. “Was Drake’s partner, right?”
“What the hell.” Lara half shrugged, and pulled the hood of her jacket up. “Far as we know, it’s them attacking. No one ever gets in trouble for going against that.” She loped towards the door, her lanky frame moving easily.
“I”m staying here.” The black haired boy said, sitting down at one of the tables, extending his legs out and crossing them. “Happy to see who ends up on top on this one.”
Several others nodded, and joined him. “Could go either way.”
But the rest turned and headed for the door, without comment, following the fading footsteps.