Jess studied the small table near the window for a long moment, and then she nodded in satisfaction and took a seat on one side of it, stretching her legs out and letting her elbows rest on the chair’s stolid, square topped arms.
There was nothing fancy here, everything was well built and functional, and she relaxed a little, ears cocked to listen for the sound of the door down the hall closing and the almost soundless footsteps coming over to share the small carafe of tea she’d filched from the mess kitchen.
Well, not really filched. The night cook had seemed happy to see her, and given her not only the tea, but a small plas container of just finished fishrolls, newly tucked into the thin seaweed coming out of it’s soak. She eyed them contentedly, knowing Dev would as well.
It had come to be her favorite part of the day, this late evening meet up, after she’d finished whatever tasks had fallen her way and Dev had finished whatever wrenching she had on her schedule.
It was time to just sit back and have a cup of something warm and talk about the day, or about some project Dev was dreaming up, or about the gossip from the lower levels, where the bio alts at base lived.
Life wasn’t bad for them there. They had reasonable assignments, and Interforce treated them as valued objects, as valued as the weapons and other operational items at the base were and so they were well fed, and adequately housed.
No complaints, Dev had told her. They had been scared, during the fighting, but of course they would be. Seeing so many people from the base made dead had shocked and dismayed the whole lot of them, but the comms they’d been given during the emergencies had stayed with them and there was a sense that somehow, oddly, they’d gotten some status out of it all.
Ah. Jess smiled, hearing the far-off sound of a door closing, and then only moments later, a light knock at hers. “C’mon in, Devvie.”
The door opened and Dev slipped inside, dressed in her sleeveless top and shorts that matched what Jess herself was wearing. “Hello.” She greeted her partner warmly. “The showers here are very nice.”
Jess smiled. “Better than bases.” She said. “Better water pressure here. Bigger tunnels.”
Dev went around her over to the sanitary unit. She picked up the small kit on the counter and removed a comb from it, coming back to where Jess was sitting and casually running the comb through her partner’s wet, unruly hair. “I know you dislike tangles.”
Jess let her hands rest on her thighs, resisting the urge to turn around to look at Dev. “Won’t matter. It’s just a mop anyway.”
Dev paused, then continued her motion. “It doesn’t even remotely resemble a mop, Jess.” She disagreed. “You have beautiful hair.” She brushed the strands back from her temples, where they came back over her ears in a gentle wave. “I don’t understand why you always say that.”
Why did she always say that? Jess tipped her head back a little. “Maybe I just want you to tell me I’m wrong.” She smiled with a hint of mischief. “Those kinds of compliments are in short supply in our line of business.” She felt Dev’s fingers riffle through her hair. “Or maybe I just like someone doing that.”
Dev let one hand drop to the smoothly arching muscle that went along Jess’s neck down to her shoulder and gently squeezed it. “That’s optimal, as I enjoy doing it.” She took the comb back to the kit and slid it inside, then went back around and settled herself into the other chair. “I think this has been an excellent day.”
“Sure is now.” Jess’s eyes twinkled a little.
Dev’s hair was still damp from her shower, and she hitched herself back in the chair and pulled her legs up crossed under her in a flurry of unconscious cuteness. In her brief clothes, she displayed her compact yet well made form, her smooth skin showing the surprisingly sturdy muscularity just under it.
On her left arm, the fading scar of a recent burn mark was evident. “Almost healed.” Jess pointed at it. “Near as dark as mine is.” She glanced at her right arm, where a similar burn showed on the skin just above her elbow.
The two burns were similar, but not entirely alike. Jess’s had different dots and bars, and Dev’s had a striking blue colored stripe in it and a small many pointed star that was meant to show her part in the escape from station.
“Yes, it doesn’t hurt at all anymore.” Dev inspected her own arm, moving it. “I showed it to the sets, when they told me about the patch they made for the people here who went to station.” She said. “They liked the star very much, because it was like the one they put on theirs.”
“They should have given you one too.” Jess said. “Since you flew their asses down from there and saved all of us from creepy space and then getting blown to bits by TR’s.” She concluded. “That was an especially rockety gig, Rocket.”
Dev produced a brief grin. “Would you like some tea?” She indicated the carafe. “I think everyone did excellent work on that mission. We all participated, and the sets did as well.” She reached over and poured out the tea into the two stoneware cups, old and battered and slightly chipped, long worn and washed.
Jess took her cup, then nudged the container of fishrolls in Dev’s direction. “They just finished these. Grab em before they get clammy.” She said, settling back into her chair before continuing. “I think it all ended up all right but damn I wish some things hadn’t happened.” She slowly shook her head. “So much bullshit.”
Dev took a fishroll and nudged the container back towards Jess. “I was talking to Doctor Dan about that.” She said. “He told me sometimes things just have to happen.” She took a bite of the fishroll and chewed, delighted with the still warm krill and stringy seaweed inside. “He thinks if it had not happened at that time, it would have still happened.”
“Once they took Tayler? Yeah.” Jess took a roll and bit it in half, chewing it as she studied the inside of the roll. “There was no real way out of that, once it was in work. I keep trying to go back bit by bit to see if there was a point where it could have gone another way but..” She shrugged. “Start to finish shitshow.”
There was no point, Dev had learned, in trying to picture what that might look like and so she didn’t even ask what it was. “We could not have stopped it. The persons who made it happen would have had to not do what they did.”
Jess nodded. “Yeah, we just reacted.” She said, with a mournful sigh. “Just like anyone with half a brain would have guessed we would.”
Dev nodded, taking a sip of the sea grape tea. “This tea is excellent here.” She regarded the cup. “Is there something they do to it? It doesn’t taste like the kind at base at all.” The hot beverage seemed a little thicker, and it had a rich, spicy taste to it.
Jess took a sip, and swirled it inside her mouth, considering the question. “No idea.” She finally said. “I’ll take you in the mess kitchen to meet Petar and his gang tomorrow and you can ask them how they make it.” She paused, looking at Dev, who was looking at her, with an open, interested look. “Most of the grub at base they machine process. No one really does anything but serve it. Not here.”
“Really?” Dev looked at the tea.
“Really. Bunch of allotments in the mess here are people who take whatever we get and make something out of it.” Jess told her. “Same as at places like Jontons. Like they did on Sig’s boat. Never wanted to spend cred to put in the new kind of processors.”
Dev considered that. “It’s excellent then, because the meals here have been better than anywhere else.” She said in a serious tone. “If that is the reason, it’s too bad they do not do that at our base because I am sure everyone would enjoy it.”
Jess glanced around, and nodded a little. “Yeah, the old rockpile has it’s good points.” She admitted. “Lot of things they could do now around here but I hope that’s not one of them.” She said. “Keep that old school. Save the mech for jazzing up all that crap in the armory.”
“There is a lot of opportunity for good work here.” Dev nodded thoughtfully. “You know, Jess, I was thinking, about the updrafts in that circular area.” She indicated the now dark view past the window. “It would be interesting to think about building something you could use to fly over the water.” She finished her fishroll and dusted her fingers off.
“Like… a flyer? Like a carrier?” Jess asked, in a puzzled tone.
“No, something you could wear on your back. Like your drop device, but not for going down.” Dev promptly said. “So you could just fly.” She said. “Over the water, and you could help find things like .. I think Doctor Dan called them limpets?”
Her partner’s dark eyebrows contracted, and she tilted her head slightly to one side. “You want to strap a rocket to your ass, Rocket?”
“A small one. Maybe.” Dev took one of the remaining rolls, while Jess was still holding half of hers. “It’s just an idea. I was working out the aerodynamic envelope earlier before it got so dark outside.”
Jess tried to imagine it, flying through the air without the enclosure of a craft around her and then she gave her partner a slightly wide eyed look. “You scare the crap out of me sometimes.”
Dev blinked mildly. “Is that good or bad?”
Jess started laughing. “Where do you come up with ideas like that?”
Dev took the question at face value. “Well, I’ve been programmed to problem solve. So I think about what might be a problem then I think about what could be done to solve it.” She responded. “For this… really I am not sure it’s a problem but I thought being able to fly would be fun.”
“Wouldn’t be much fun if it crapped out with you up there.”
“That’s true.” Dev agreed mildly. “But a lot of things we do have danger.”
Jess leaned back and hiked up one knee to rest against the edge of the table. Her leg was bare, and the joint was large and somewhat stark under her skin, crossed with scars. She idly rubbed her thumb over one of them. “Yeah that’s a fact.”
“It’s like the surfing thing.” Dev concluded. “It can be quite uncomfortable, but also fun.”
“Now that you aren’t frozen and sliced up its more fun for you at least.” Jess allowed. “Y’know, now that I think about it I came up with that suit because I wanted it to be fun for you and not have to stick you in rad for an hour afterward and patch you up all the time just because you humor my weird obsessions.”
“Yes, it’s much more enjoyable now.” Dev said, equably. She regarded Jess solemnly across the table, the dim light outlining them in amber from the room, and faint silver from the outside. “Maybe I can make a thing so it will be fun for you to fly.”
A small revelation occurred to Jess. “You like making things.”
Dev nodded. “I do. Doctor Dan said he made me that way.”
“Just like he does.” Jess said. “I think he’s getting a kick out of having to invent all this stuff. Like when he said he was trying to figure out how to put shields on the boats.” She shifted and gestured vaguely towards the inner hall. “Like everyone here says, how do we make this happen? And he whips out a screwdriver and starts wrenching.”
Dev considered that in silence for a moment, her pale eyebrows lifting up a little. “Jess, I really think that’s true.” She finally said. “I think it was a really good thing for him that he came here.”
“Yeah.” Jess said. “He’s better off.” She said. “And for sure, the Bay is.” She grinned briefly. “They must’ve realized what a bullet they dodged wanting to force me to stay here.”
“I am confident we’d have done excellent work here.” Dev demurred. “But I am also pleased that Doctor Dan is happy to be here and doing good and interesting things.”
“True that.” Jess lifted her cup up and toasted her with it. “Alls well that doesn’t end at the business end of a blaster.”
Dev sipped her tea, pleased with the conversation. Jess seemed relaxed and in a calm mood, leaning back in her seat without the sometimes agitated motions that meant something was disturbing her. In the dim, ochre light from the wall sconces, her striking, angular profile was outlined well and there was a little smile present.
Excellent. She looked to her left, out the big plas window, where the faint reflection from the dock lights threw shadows against the far wall of the rock escarpments that surrounded the Bay and she leaned closer to look out and down.
The surface of the water wasn’t that far below them, and she could see the boats at dock against the far side, recognizing Sig’s boat right next to the one flying a Drake’s Bay banner, it’s outline only faintly visible. “Jess.”
“Yes?” Jess leaned forward and looked out. “Something attacking us? Give me a chance to get some exercise before bed? Maybe have to take a second shower to get the blood off?”
“The marking on the flag, what is that?” Dev ignored her partner’s ghoulish humor. “I saw it on the wall inside as well.”
“Oh.” Jess chuckled and leaned back. “It’s a dragon.” She wrapped her hands around her still upraise knee. “Way back in the day when they found this place, the fam decided to make a banner for it. Like they used to in the military.”
“I see.” Dev said. “My book had something about a dragon in it, Jess. They didn’t seem very optimal though. They ate a lot of people and burned down houses.”
“Yeah they weren’t nice, but then neither were we.” Her partner acknowledged. “Now why a dragon? Because a drake, as in our name, is a male duck.” Jess chuckled under her breath, as she watched Dev turn to look at her. “They’re about as scary as a puffin. So they decided to use a dragon, which was a big very scary thing that flew and breathed fire and they were also sometimes called drakes.”
Dev digested this, and almost had to laugh herself. She’d seen puffins, and it was hard to associate the relatively cute, stubby looking birds with anything she’d yet seen at Drake’s Bay, either the structure or the people who lived in it.
Certainly not her partner. Jess looked or acted nothing like a puffin. She glanced over, seeing the smile, and the glint of the light reflecting off her pale eyes. “Were they a real animal?”
“No.” Jess shook her head. “Well.” She relented. “Maybe back in the beginning of the world they were. They found dinosaur fossils that were sort of like that, with wings and claws. No idea if they breathed fire.” She said. “Anyway, it made a better banner than a duck so there ya go.”
Dev resolved to investigate the subject at a later date. An idea occurred to her that perhaps she could collect some small shells and create a copy of the animal as a picture. Perhaps Jess would enjoy it. “That’s very interesting.” She said. “I will have to take a vid of that large one in the hall tomorrow.”
She turned her attention back to her companion, who now had her cup of tea refilled and was cradling it in both hands, sipping from it. Dev found that her own cup had been refilled and she pulled it towards her, leaning her elbows on the table as she met Jess’s eyes.
They were so vivid. Dev wasn’t really sure why that was, but it always seemed to her that Jess’s eyes were more intense and more focused than any other, and also so attractive. She enjoyed looking at them, and at the shape of her face. “Will there be other activities tomorrow besides the market?” She asked. “Someone said something about a game.”
“Game.” Jess rumbled almost under her breath. “Dunno, Dev. Might be. They could do things like we do at the parties.” She said. “Dunking, that kind of stuff.”
Dev looked noncommittal. “Will this include eyeballs?”
“Maybe.” Jess broke into a grin. “Maybe it’ll be knife throwing. April’ll like that.” She set her cup down and pushed it back from the edge a little. “Ready to go sack out?” She inclined her head towards the bed.
“That would be pleasant.” Dev said, getting up and nudging the chair back into place. “It will be interesting to see natural light in the morning. I wonder if it will feel different than at the base.” She watched Jess stand and back away towards the bed. “It never mattered on station.”
Jess pulled the woven cover back and sat down, gesturing to the other side of the bed. “Not with all that going around and around with the sun and stuff. How could you tell what time it was?”
Dev slid under the cover and stretched out, looking past the edge of the bed out the window. “Well, that’s why they put us in sleep pods.” She said, as Jess got under the covers with her. Once, that had seemed strange, but now it was warm, and comfortable, and she welcomed the nearness. “To block the sun out.”
Jess reached out and took Dev’s hand and they interlaced fingers, and she felt her eyes close almost in reflex as Dev gently rubbed the edge of her thumb on her palm.
The touch took her to another place. Jess moved closer and in reaction to their presence in the bed the lights dimmed, now only the faint light from the outside was present and easy to ignore.
The heavy rock walls and the distance to the outer hall made it mostly silent. As Dev squirmed closer and their bodies touched, even the sub aural rumble of the water tunnels below them faded out and she was able to focus on the near-term immediate touch of Dev’s hand coming to rest on her ribcage.
She often felt abstracted, when they pleasured each other on base. There was always some faint edge sound, some echo of announcements, even in the relative safety of their quarters that made her senses twitch but here she found a surprising true quiet she felt willing to trust.
Odd, sorta. Why trust here? The last time she’d slept in this bed her brother had tried to kill her in it, a thundering cascade of stupidity that justified his being taken out by the staff before he could make any decisions on their behalf.
But she did trust it, and it was so easy to relax into the enjoyment of the slowly intensifying sensation and focus on it.
Dev’s lips touched hers and she could taste the slight tang of the seaweed on them as their bodies came into full contact, Dev’s knee moving hers aside with an always startling internal strength you somehow didn’t expect.
Jess thought it was really sexy. The confidence in that made her enjoy the pleasure, and she knew Dev enjoyed it too.
Probably, suit or not, a lot more than she did surfing.
They woke early, as they always did. While the lights on base echoed the time of day outside its walls and so they changed in a patter that altered throughout the year, first watch always started before it was light, a brief pause in the rhythm of the day preceded by a short time of quiet, as though the base itself was taking a deep breath and exhaling, getting ready to start it all over again.
When they were on insertion, hours were random and never a pattern. You got meals and sleep when you could, and often you didn’t. But when they were at base, they worked a daytime shift, all the agents did, on the same schedule, but free to move around meals, gym, rad, and other activities so they didn’t end up in close quarters with other agents they disagreed with.
So it was still pre-dawn dark outside when Jess and Dev settled in the big kitchen dining space at the center of the stakeholder’s compound with big cups of tea and bowls of leftover fish soup from the night before along with a handful of crispy crackers to start their day at their usual time.
The dining space window was central, and so they had a good view of the gap in the half circle walls out to the horizon, though everything outside was still quiet and the air over the bay was clear of rain for now. The shadow of a seabird glided past, silent and graceful.
Dev regarded her platter of soup and seaweed crackers with pleasure, and consumed a spoonful of the soup, her eyebrows lifting at the taste. “This is excellent.” She said, after swallowing. “I don’t think I’ve had soup for breakfast before.”
“Gets better the next day.” Jess propped one booted foot up against the bottom of the wide windowsill, leaning back in her seat with her cup of tea, her bowl of soup cradled in her other hand as she drank from it. “Gets thicker.” She sucked in a bit of clam and chewed it. “Tastes different.”
It did. Dev chewed thoughtfully. Thicker and with a more intense flavor and it stuck to her tongue a little bit in a nice kind of way. She crunched one of the crackers, pleased with the contrast from it’s crisp texture and took a sip of her tea to wash it down as she absorbed the quiet around them.
Jess leaned her elbow on the table, dressed in her Bay overshirt and a pair of mildly worn civilian work pants with pockets down the thighs, only her heavy issue boots her usual. She had her hair pulled back into a knot at the back of her neck and it was a pleasure, Dev thought, to be able to just sit and think about how attractive she was.
“Penny for your thoughts.” Jess glanced at her after the silence had gone on a minute, eyebrow lifting a little.
“What’s a penny?” Dev responded promptly. “You don’t have to give me anything, Jess.” She didn’t wait for Jess to answer. “I was just thinking about how attractive you are.”
Jess’s nose wrinkled. “Really?”
“Really. I think that way you have your hair is very nice. You can really see your face.” Dev went back to her soup. She herself was dressed in one of her warm, lined offduty jumpsuits, and she had her sharkskin jacket draped over her chair, ready to face the chill and possibly wet weather outside.
Jess sighed. “Wish I was cute like you.“ She said, in a mournful tone. “I always feel like a gargoyle.”
Dev paused and regarded her.
“It’s a weird thing with horns, wings and a forked tongue they used to make statues of.” Jess supplied readily. “To scare people.”
“Do you think I’m cute?” Dev asked, pausing with her spoon half raised to her mouth, head tilted a little to one side.
Jess blinked at her. “Hell yeah.” She said. “You’re like a dozen of those bear cubs in a basket level cute.” She put her bowl of soup down, it’s contents emptied, and pushed her seaweed crackers over to Dev’s side of the table. “Here. I know you like these things.”
Dev smiled. “I do.” She said. “But I think I like that you like how I look more.” Her eyes twinkled gently.
Jess felt a little odd, a little short of breath, but she rested her head against her fist and toasted Dev with her tea. “Glad I could make ya happy, Rocket.” She said, changing the subject. “Today’s gonna be fun. We’ll get to shop and not have to worry about me shooting someone.” She paused. “Probably.”
Dev went back to her spoon, picking up one of her donated crackers. “I am looking forward to it. But I hope they don’t have expired bears at this one. That was suboptimal.” She frowned. “With its head looking at you. Why would anyone want that on the floor, Jess?”
“Nah. These are land based traders. Those skins come in from ships. From the white.” Jess leaned back in her chair again, focusing on the window where the sky ahead of them to the east was going from black to dark gray. “Maybe they’ll have stuff from out west. That’d be fun. We can trade some of our stuff for some treats.”
Our. Jess paused and thought about that. We. Was she still holding that over from the fight? That us and them that suddenly turned on her, and made her, and the rest of the Bay, them. She remembered Security Mike asking her, in an almost puzzled tone. “You us now?”
She took a sip of her tea, the temperature now more easily drinkable though without the pungent steam that could clear your head in an instant. She swallowed, and imagined for a moment, putting that imagining in a carefully constrained box, to have this be normal.
When she’d tossed herself out of the force, that spur of the moment ego insanity, it wasn’t to come to this. She’d had no place here to come to, far as she’d known. She’d have come to fighting for a position, starting at the bottom, collecting at the shore like many of her younger cousins.
Maybe she’d have come into security, with the background, and then be dealing with her asshole family.
This was none of that now. No family, no shore collecting, no fighting up the pecking order.
That twenty minutes of being a civ, between walking out the back door and walking up that shuttle gangway and meeting Bain had changed her future forever, and she hadn’t any clue at all. Hadn’t even cared at the time because so much else was changing.
Hadn’t cared, because the Bay hadn’t been home to her really since she’d left at age six. Especially not since her father died, because he was at least someone she could talk to who needed nothing at all explained, who, on her infrequent trips home from school would exchange looks with her without any words needed when jackassery was happening.
Most of her schoolmates didn’t have that kind of understanding to go home to, and many didn’t. She’d always assumed it was their choice, and hadn’t found out until later it was nothing of the kind, that the homestead they’d been born to had to sign a liability release to let them come there, until they’d graduated, able to control the crazy and took the oath.
Of course, that had never been a question at the Bay. Jess smiled a little. Justin had found it hilarious when the waiver had come to him to sign for her, and she suspected she would find it just as hilarious when Tayler’s came to her in his turn.
She did feel a sense of responsibility for this place now though. She wanted good things to happen here, and for the place to do well, and in one corner of that she could just.. .just kind of imagine what it would like to have these quarters, and this view be what she woke up to every day.
Then she shook her head and smiled. For about a week. Then she’d be looking for other places to be, things to be doing, enemies to kill. Not the place for her, making deals with the neighbors and counting fish loads.
Not yet, and maybe never. Jess dismissed the thought and glanced across the table at her companion, watching the pearlescent light outline her face as she slowly blinked into it, a thoughtful, interested look there, one side of her lips moving into a faint smile.
Dev had finished, and stacked her plates neatly, and was resting her elbow on the table as she propped her head on her fist, watching the light grow outside. It was different than the lights changing inside base, and very different from station.
Light came fast on station. The sun blasted into the structure and then disappeared and never really gave anyone the sense of time passing. Base’s internal world always had seemed to her to have it’s own gravitas, an internal rhythm that only paid lip service to the outside.
But this, watching the light slowly grow, the clouds becoming visible, then more defined in her vision, a gradual shift of shadows from utter dark to the grayness of day, that outlined the cliffs of the Bay and brought out their dappled, subdued stone colors brought home to her the reality of time passing that was uniquely tied to downside.
That light was growing because the world they were on was turning in space, and the light of the sun it circled around gently illuminated it’s cloud locked surface in a pattern that marked the human day. It seemed to Dev to be very organic, and she remembered sometimes on station looking down at the world turning beneath them and seeing the light of the sun moving across it’s surface.
It was interesting, now, to see it from this side.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Jess asked again, as she watched Dev’s eyes move as she looked out, the light outside now calling out the glints of color. “Not me again?” She added, in a hopeful tone.
“Celestial mechanics, actually.” Dev looked at her, with a sheepish grin. “Should we go see what’s going on? Perhaps we can take our dishes and you can introduce me to those people you mentioned last night.” She stood up, pulling Jess’s dishes over to her. “And I think I hear someone approaching.”
Jess belatedly realized she did as well. “Yup.” She got up and stuck her hands inside the front pocket of the Bay shirt. “Lets get us another mug of this stuff and see what’s up.” She led the way down the corridor, calling a brief greeting to April and Doug exiting their hallway just ahead of her. “Morning.”
“Morning.” Doug responded cordially. “Gotta say, I do like that window.” He told Jess, as they caught up. “They try with the internals at 10, but there’s something different about natural.”
April looked up from adjusting the dagger at her hip. “Nice.” She said, briefly. “Fricken quiet.”
“Don’t jinx it.” Jess warned. “Lets just go have some fun.”
The market started up at mid-morning. Dev strolled along at Jess’s side as they exited the back entrance to the Bay, a heavily armored door that today was pushed open fully and folded back against the rock wall.
It was huge and steel, with big round rivets in it. “They stole that from a big ass building vault.” Jess commented as they went through. “From some government gig or other.”
“I see.” Dev observed the door. “It seems quite sturdy.”
There was a ramp leading down from the door to the valley floor behind the cliffs that held the main homestead, worn with the weather, and the marks of pallets and pullers from the delivery caverns across the short flat space in between.
It was bare rock, the ramp was long and wide, and had been lined with large stones on either side to keep the traffic contained.
The flats, usually full of land transport being loaded with the Bay’s scrounging and inshore take was now filled with trading caravans, lined up neatly separated into three groups, each set of caravans marked or painted with distinctive markings that indicated to whom they belonged.
April, walking on Jess’s other side, made a low, almost contemptuous grunting sound. “Watch that one.” She indicated the caravans on the far side of the flats. “Skank.”
Doug patted her shoulder. “Can you tell me which they are when we get inside so I don’t buy fake black diamonds from them, boss?”
Mike and Chester were behind them, both looking around with interest. All of the Interforce contingent were dressed, as were Dev and Jess, in off duty civ clothes, removing any sense of oversight and allowing them to blend in with the crowd.
Even Jess, who usually stood out with her striking looks and height, blended in with the Bay residents enough to be taken for one, and as they joined the casual stream of people heading for the largest of the storage caverns they did blend and with the bios scattered among them, none of them drew a second glance.
The vendors had taken up the whole space, it’s main entrance huge and wide and open to the elements, but narrow enough so that once inside, the rock interior was dry and large and suited for their foldable stands laid out in long rows.
It already smelled like a range of things being cooked, and Dev sniffed that with interest, watching her fellow bio alts looking everywhere with wide eyes.
On the far side of the cavern, five or six of the Bay logistics managers were standing with the same number of traders, everyone with clipboards in hand.
“Bartering.” Jess nudged Dev’s shoulder, nodding in their direction. “The big stuff.”
Dev had no idea what that meant, but she nodded back. The trader tables held a large amount of all sorts of things, as they had on Market Island, and the crowd started to disperse among them, strolling through the rows to see what there was to be had.
Against the back wall a couple of Bay security were lounging, looking relaxed with hands in the pockets of their Bay overshirts.
In the center of all the rows was a square platform and there, two men were climbing on top of it, carrying somewhat bulky looking bagged items.
“Jess, what’s that?” Dev asked, as they detoured down a row near the entrance.
“Huh?” Jess looked up. “Oh.” She said. “Music.” She patted Dev’s back. “You should like that, Devvie if those guys are any good. If not I’ll just punch them for ya.”
The sound in the room was picking up, voices and murmurs, and the occasional laugh were beginning to echo up to the high ceiling, which had light panels mounted in it to give the space a slightly amber warm glow that reflected off the neatly swept natural stone floor.
“Ah there you are.”
Jess looked up to find Doctor Dan heading their way, with one of the traders. “That a bad guy?” She whispered to April.
April glanced up from inspecting a woven piece of fabric. “He’s okay.” She said, after a moment. “Josten family. They’re pretty square.” She edged away. “But I don’t really want to talk to him.”
“He probably wants to meet the head of house.” Doug suggested. “But hey… look, knives!” He pointed at a vendor nearby, who had a small anvil inside his little tarp booth. After a moment, April made an approving noise and they headed in that direction.
Dev suppressed a smile and stayed at Jess’s side as Doctor Dan arrived with the other man, and Mike and Chester wandered off towards a table with glass containers on it, adroitly disengaging from the social niceties.
“Ah, Jesslyn.” Doctor Dan came to a stop. “This is Trader Josten. He wanted a word with you, since you happened to be here on this happy occasion.” He said. “Trader, this is Jesslyn Drake, senior stakeholder here at Drake’s Bay, and her partner, Dev.”
Jess had no difficulty at all reading the levels of blandly dry humor in Kurok’s tone. She stuck her hands in the pockets of her shirt and eyed him. “Hi.” She responded in a mild tone.
“Hello.” Dev added.
Josten was a middle aged man, with a thick, full but neatly trimmed beard that was mostly rust red with some streaks of gray in it. He was burly, and had the muscular body of someone who came up through the ranks doing the work.
Generally, a good sign.
“Greetings, stakeholder.” The man addressed her briskly. “We’re glad to be here, and it’s good to meet you here, where we can do a little business together.” He’d stopped at a distance that let her meet his eyes without having to tip his head all the way back, and he regarded her in a forthright manner. “Your name is known to us.”
Jess’s right eyebrow lifted. “Yeah, it’s nice.” She agreed. “So what’s on your mind?” She asked, glancing over and past him to where a vendor was serving something from a steaming pot. “How about a cup to talk over?”
The man half turned. “That would be welcome.” He smiled at her. “By all means.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to it.” Doctor Dan said, placidly. “I have to go finish up a chat with those fellows over there.” He indicated the group near the door. “Catch up later.” He went off at an angle from their path and disappeared in the crowd.
They walked over to the booth, where several Bay residents were accepting cups of the rich, pungent smelling beverage, along with Alvin and Kevin. Jess took advantage of her height and met the eyes of the stall owner, holding up three fingers to him.
With a grin, the man complied, and she handed him a chit for it. They took the cups and stepped a pace back into a small opening between the stalls, giving them at least an illusion of privacy.
It was an illusion, they all understood that.
“Good to see trade here.” Jess broke the small silence, as she sipped the hot drink from her mug. Then she paused and looked at the cup. “What the hell is this?” She said, after a moment. “It’s..” She licked her lips. “What is it?”
The trader chuckled. “It’s sea grape wine, lady.” He took a sip. “Bredon, the vintner, is in my train. Does it suit you?”
Dev cautiously took a mouthful, wary of her partners reaction, but the spicy heat was at first surprising, and then delightful as the flavor manifested on the back of her tongue. It reminded her a little bit of the spicy shrimp at Jonton’s, but sweeter, and as she took a breath in it infused her senses. “Ah.”
Jess glanced at her. “Like it?” She guessed, seeing Dev’s pale brows lift in pleasure. “You do.”
Dev nodded. “I do.” She said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anything like it.”
“Nor will you.” Josten told her. “His family’s been at it for generations. His brother runs a shop in Quebec City. He wanted to come with us down here when he heard we were coming, wants to talk to someone about herbs.”
“Herbs.” Jess repeated slowly.
“To use for this?” Dev asked. “That would be excellent.” She took another sip of the wine. “They used them on station, Jess. To make special things to drink, and every once in a while we got to taste them.”
The trader studied Dev. “You know this.” He said. “Topside.”
Dev nodded. “Yes.” She answered, then fell silent.
“Sure she does. She was born there. In space.” Jess leaned her elbow on Dev’s shoulder, gazing at him, watching the little twitches around his eyes, and the shifts of the skin over his high cheekbones. She kept the words, so be nice inside her head, but her own eyes narrowed as she silently projected them.
But then he grinned broadly at Dev, expressing a kind of delight. “Ah, and you are then the Rocket that I have also heard of?”
Dev shrugged modestly. “I do get called that.” She agreed. “But I don’t think that has anything to do with where I come from, actually.” She turned to Jess. “The persons you introduced me to this morning are also interested in herbs, Jess. They said Doctor Dan was going to talk to them about it.” She diverted the conversation back.
Jess took another sip of the drink, getting used to the spicy taste that left a lingering fragrance in the back of her throat. “Does he sell this by the bottle?” She asked Josten, lifting her eyebrows meaningfully. “Maybe we can make a deal.”
Josten smiled now at her, a broad, unfeigned mercantile smile. “That is why we are here.” He said, simply. “It has been many a year, all the years of my majority, since we have had something new under the clouds in this part of the world.” He said. “I do not wait. I want to see what advantage this brings.”
Jess took a breath and then paused, as she was about to demur, and step away from the interest, disavowing her part in what the traders had to offer. It felt suddenly like she was going for an insertion, and given the chance to play this stakeholder role for a day.. why not?
Why not? “Introduce us.” She indicated the vendor stall, who had collected quite a big crowd by now, the scent of his hot wine wafting through the cavern and attracting those entering coming across the chilly flats. “Lets see what else he’s got.”
Dev had a problem. The market was progressing very well for her, and she had inspected and obtained all kinds of things and now she was out of pocket space to put them. She paused and stepped aside out of the foot traffic and looked around, pondering if she should detour up to the carrier to pick up one of her gear packs.
Jess was a few aisles down, looking at some shirts. They’d left their new nomad leader friend behind a short while ago, with promises to meet up later, and perhaps give him and his winemaker a tour of the plant cavern.
Everyone seemed happy. Dev could see Bay residents and bio alts browsing the shops, and everyone seemed to have at least one thing they were carrying.
That seemed excellent. She had spent some moments earlier showing the sets how to review what their cards had on them, a simple enough process, and they all had, delighted with the amounts that had been credited. It made Dev a little curious as to what was in hers, but that would have to wait until they were back at base, and had access to secure admin.
Her eyes roamed over the nearby stalls, then she made a small sound of approval. “Ah.” She walked across the aisle to a small booth where two women sat, one of them on a stool behind a piece of plastic board set across two steel supports, the other behind her on a shorter stool working on something.
On the plas there were handmade bags, woven out of a thin, worn type of cording in a tight mesh. They had a piece of equally worn rope tied to them to make sort of a strap. “Hello.” Dev picked one up. “These are attractive.” She glanced up as the woman on the stool stood up and came over. “What are the made from?”
“Took it from the water.” The woman said. “Came on the tide, from the boats. It’s fisherfolk nets and suchlike.”
Ah yes. Dev nodded. “I saw things like this when I was on a fishing boat.” She agreed, recognizing now the slightly waxy feel of the strands. Around the top, which had a draw opening, were small bits of drilled glass in many different, faded, sea washed colors and the weave was dense, yet flexible.
And large enough to carry all the things she’d stashed so far in her jumpsuit pockets, and had tucked under one arm. “Excellent. How much credit would you like for them?”
The woman looked pleased, pulled the stool up behind her to sit down and they started to bargain. Occasionally, the second woman looked up from her work, smiled a little, and then looked back down. They were both weather-beaten, and their skin had a wind roughened surface, the backs of their hands covered in tiny white scars.
They had wiry, grizzled hair, partially dark, with copper streaks in it, that was tucked back into a knot at the back of their necks, and the woman working was wearing a bracelet that looked like it was made of the same net material, with the same pieces of weathered glass knotted through it.
All of which Dev noticed and cataloged, as she traded offers back and forth with the woman, eventually settling on a midpoint that satisfied them both. “That’s optimal.” She removed the ident skin from one of her pockets and slid the dark, blank square chit card from it, handing it over.
The woman regarded it for a moment before she took it and applied it to a small batt device sitting beside her, which accepted it without complaint and flashed blue before she handed it back. “Didn’t know you were one of them.”
Dev stood for a moment, holding her card in one hand and the ident skin in the other, trying to sort out which them that them was. “I’m assigned to Interforce.” She ventured. “Is that what you mean?” She put the card away and the ident back into her pocket, reasoning there was no visible way the woman could know her birth origin.
“Cred’s cred.” The woman shrugged and pushed the bag over to her. “Not for me to say, specially not here.” She looked around the cavern. “Specially not here.”
Dev felt it might be sub optimal, but she just took the bag and smiled. “Thank you. I’m sure everyone will like these and want to purchase them.” She unloaded her pockets of her purchases and put them into the bag, then slung it over one shoulder and moved on.
The reaction to Interforce was like that sometimes. It ranged from wary respect, to outright fear with occasional forays into either enthusiasm or utter hatred. This seemed more like fright, from hearing stories rather than anything more personal.
She shrugged a little and kept going. There was half a row left to walk down, and by stretching up onto her toes, Dev could see the top of Jess’s head on the next one down. With a nod she proceeded to move along the line of tables, moving her head back and forth to see what was on offer as she did, plotting a path to intersect her partner’s.
Dev paused as Kevin caught up to her. “Hello.” She greeted him with a smile. “How are you doing?”
He had on a sweater with a high collar, in a gray green sea foam kind of color that Dev recalled from one of their missions. “That’s very attractive.” She complimented him. “Did you find that here?”
“I did!” Kevin nodded vigorously. “They have them in some kinds of colors, on the last row there. Isn’t it nice and warm?” He touched the sleeve. “And so soft! Oh.” He looked at Dev’s shoulder. “That’s a nice bag!”
“It’s very nice garment.” Dev also touched the sleeve. “I was given one of these to wear when I was out on a mission where we were on a fishing boat. It was very warm, even outside.” She swung open her bag. “I got this a short way back on this row. I was running out of pockets.” She admitted. “I obtained several things for Jess.”
“That is very considerate.” Kevin peered into the bag. “Oh, those soaps smelled really good. Alvin got some as well.”
“Yes, that and some other items I thought she might enjoy.” Dev said. “Its fun. They had some spicy drops on the second row and I think she will like them.”
“It’s good to get things for other people.” Kevin nodded solemnly. “Remember when they would have the little market in the creche? Everyone wanted to get something for their favorite proctor.”
“Or Doctor Dan.” Dev smiled in remembrance. “We all knew his favorite treats.”
Kevin looked over his shoulder. “I have to go see if I can get one of these bags. I could put shells I find in it when Im done shopping. It’s a small enough weave.” He inspected it. “What is it?” He ran a finger along the surface. “It’s.. is it rope?”
“Fishing net.” Dev said promptly. “They put it in the water and fish swim into it, and they bring them into the boat and take them to a processing station. I think it’s an excellent use of it, when they can’t use it to catch fish anymore.”
“Optimal.” Kevin said immediately. “They taught us in the creche, don’t waste things.” He observed. “This is fun, isn’t it?” He looked around at the cavern, and his ears perked up as the men on the platform started to make sounds. “Oh!”
They were playing metal devices that had a soft, shimmering sound. Dev and Kevin stood there listening, while the wandering streams of people moved past them.
“That’s very nice.” Dev said, after a minute of silence. “I wonder how they do that? I remember hearing music when we were on station, but never saw it being done.”
Kevin nodded, enchanted by the sound. “The natural born here make a sound sometimes.” He said. “At dinner, sometimes or after. A lot louder than this.”
Dev swung her back over her shoulder again. “I hope we get to hear that.” She said. “The one time I heard natural born make a sound wasn’t optimal. This would be better I think.”
They eased back into the crowd and strolled along, slowing now and then to look at the tables they were moving past. Some of the things were incomprehensible objects, and Dev made a note of a few to ask Jess about, but some were easily recognizable and they paused in front of a small table with a case of glittering objects.
There was a man behind it, short and gnarled, with knotted fingers and thick, bushy gray eyebrows that extended out over his eyes. “Whatcha kids looking for?” He asked. “You, boy!” He nudged the tray forward. “Buy your girl a pretty.”
Both Dev and Kevin stared at him for a long moment, then looked at each other, before looking back at him. “What does that mean?” Kevin asked Dev, in a bewildered tone.
“I have no idea.” Dev responded, then focused on the tray. “These are attractive.” She studied them. “What do you do with them?” She looked at the man, hoping he wouldn’t repeat his odd language. “Do you wear them?”
One of his very bushy brows lifted sharply. “Where the hell you from, kid, you don’t know what jewelry is? You from the flats?”
Kevin shifted a little, moving back from the table, clearly willing to leave this odd natural born to Dev.
“We’re from Bio Station 2.” Dev responded equably. “That’s a space station in orbit around the planet where almost nothing is flat.” She picked up one of the objects on the tray, which was a piece of shiny metal worked and twisted into a pattern, the bottom part cradling a small, glittering stone. “This is jewelry you said?”’
“Its pretty.” Kevin eased closer to her and peered over her shoulder. “I like that color.”
“I do as well.” Dev said. “It reminds me, in fact, of Jess’s eyes.”
“C’mere.” The man came around the table. “Gimme that.” He took the object from her and reached up. “Hold still, kid.” He grabbed Dev’s ear and twisted the piece of metal around it, ignoring her abruptly widened eyed stare. “Ah, I won’t hurcha.”
It didn’t, in fact hurt, it just felt strange, and when he was done and stepped back, it still felt strange. For a moment, Dev was sharply reminded of what it felt like taking a deep breath when you were wearing a metal collar. She twitched her ear.
“See?” The man stepped back. “Looks good, right?” He nudged Kevin. “Tell her how good it looks.”
Bewildered, but as always ready to please, Kevin took a step closer to Dev and inspected the object. It was curled around her ear and the sparkling stone rested just below her earlobe. “It is very attractive.” He told Dev. “It’s wrapped around your ear.”
“Here.” The man picked up a flat piece of shiny metal and held it up so Dev could see her own reflection. “Space huh? More like some scraper cave.” He muttered. “Don’t know much of nothing.”
Dev let the words go past her, as she regarded the silver mesh now folded around her ear, quickly warming to her skin temperature. She turned her head a little and it caught the light, and she grinned a little, nodding in approval. “It is nice.” She agreed, turning to regard the still muttering vendor. “What is the price of this object?”
“Whatta ya got?” The man shot back. “That piece is a lotta work, took me weeks to make it.”
“That’s not how it works.” Dev told him calmly. “I would like to buy this, and I would like to discuss it with you, but you have to have a price in mind.”
“How do I know you even have a cred to your name?” The man said. “Worth my time to talk about it?”
“You put it on her.” Kevin noted. “Did you not think she would like it and want to purchase it?”
“Shut up, kid.”
A calm, friendly voice spoke up behind them. “Well now.” Doctor Dan put a hand on both Dev and Kevin’s backs. “What have we found here?” He said. “Dev, that looks really nice on you.” He added, spotting her new adornment. “Look at that, very pretty.”
Dev was glad to see him. The vendor was unpleasant, and she was about to take the item off and leave it behind, unwilling to continue the conversation but equally unwilling to not try and purchase it. “Thank you, Doctor Dan.” She said. “I was interested in obtaining it, but this person does not seem interested in discussing that.”
Doctor Dan eyed the man. “Tell you what, Dev. You and Kevin go off and see what’s on offer down on the end there. I can see Jess near the wall. I’ll take care of this for you.” He squeezed her shoulder almost imperceptibly. “Go on.”
Kevin started backing off, obeying without question. Dev paused and regarded her mentor for a long moment and then she grinned briefly. “Okay Doctor Dan. Will you come over there when you’re done? I think Jess wanted to meet up for lunch.”
“You bet.” Doctor Dan shooed them off, then turned to face the vendor. “Now for you.” He shifted his balance for a bit, putting his hands into his pockets and regarding the vendor with a stern look.
“What’s your plug?” The man said. “That your kid? Looks like you. Or is she your bed warmer?”
Kurok moved closer. “Listen you muppet.” He said, in a low, but intent voice. “We’re all here to make some cred, and have a little bad sargasso beer. Don’t end up a red blot on the rocks I have to get cleaned up, hm?” He lifted his brows. “In a manner of speaking, yes, she’s one of my kids, but more importantly, she’s an Interforce tech, and the partner of an easily irritated Interforce agent who would not hesitate to pull your arm off and beat you to death with it if you mess with her.”
His expression changed. “That one?” He blurted. “That kid?”
“That one, that kid.” Doctor Dan said. “So knock it the hell off. Now.” He pulled out a cred chit. “How much is that damn thing? Be nice, because once she shows it around, you’ll probably have more customers.”
The vendor looked upset and a little unhappy. “You should tell people.” He said. “Don’t they wear uniforms? How should I know? You could get kilt here.”
“You easily could.” Doctor Dan nudged the tray. “Now come on, name your price. I’ve got things to do here.” He looked down at the jewelry. “Not even going to ask you where that silver came from.”
The vendor snorted, regaining his composure. “Wouldn’t tell the likes of you even if you did.”
“That man was strange.” Kevin said, as they walked down to the end of the row, passing by a table full of large shells with iridescent insides and one of small carved pieces of rock. Neither of them really caught Dev’s eye, and she was also trying to rid herself of the jewelry maker’s unpleasantness.
It hadn’t really been dangerous. She’d been in enough insertions by now to be able to judge the difference in natural born – between those who were being suboptimal for their own entertainment, and those that truly meant her harm.
This was the first kind. But she wasn’t really sure why, since driving away customers would seem not to be in the man’s best interest.
“He was sub optimal.” She concluded, as they reached the end, and came around the corner to see a small area set up with battered plas tables and equally battered steel, where there was a tall, weathered female huckster standing behind a high metal bench covered in baskets.
And past her? “Ah.” Dev felt her face crease into a smile.
Jess was sitting at one of the tables, her long legs sprawled out, and as they came into sight she smiled, raised a hand up and curled her fingers at them in a come ahead gesture.
“Dev.” Kevin said. “I will come to have a meal with you, but I must first go find a bag like yours.” He pointed behind them. “Is that acceptable?”
“Of course.” Dev nodded. “Go ahead.”
Kevin turned and trotted off back down the lane they’d just come up, and Dev continued on her way, approaching the small meal area that now had collected a handful of others. But Jess was alone in her corner, arms spread across the crate barrier behind her that defined the space.
Their eyes met, and Dev smiled again. She threaded her way through the other tables until she reached the one in back, and sat down on the stool nearest her partner. “Hello.”
“Devvieeeeee.” Jess produced her usual warble. “What do you have there?” She leaned forward, looking at the side of Dev’s head. “What is that?”
Obligingly, Dev scooted closer. “It’s a .. I think the person with them called it a jewelry?”
“Ohh.” Jess slid herself nearer and reached out to gently touch the lacy metal work clipped around Dev’s well shaped ear. “I like that!”
Dev watched her from a sidelong glance, as Jess’s fingers explored the new adornment, a look of pleased interest on her face. “Yes, I thought you might.” She remarked. “It seemed especially optimal to me since the piece of colored rock in it reminded me of the color of your eyes.”
Jess looked up, brows hiking a little in pleased surprise. “Does it?”
Dev nodded, able to confirm the comparison at this close distance, the halon lights overhead reflecting into those pale depths. She was about to relate the disagreeableness of the vendor, then paused, and remained silent, content to just watch Jess react.
“Nice.” Jess nodded. “They have more?” She asked, unexpectedly. “I think one of those might actually look good on me.”
Oh. Hm. “Yes.” Dev answered after a brief pause. “I can show you if you want?” Perhaps Doctor Dan would have made the vendor happier.
“I want.” Jess leaned back, satisfied. “But chow first.” She looked over at the woman behind the counter and gave her a nod, then indicated both of them. “Basket of bits.” She said. “Bet you like it.”
Dev settled back on her stool, tucking her booted feet under her and reserving judgement. She swung her bag off her shoulder and set it down on the ground, immediately attracting her partner’s attention again.
Jess reached over and touched the bag, feeling it’s surface. “Fishing line?” She asked, in a surprised tone. “That what this is?”
“It is.” Dev agreed, watching in her peripheral vision as the woman behind the counter took two plas baskets and was filling them up with something from a large pot resting on a heating surface against the wall of the cavern. There was a spicy, almost tangy scent coming from the area. “I needed something to carry the items I purchased. I was running out of pockets.”
Jess lifted the bag experimentally. “Ahhh.” She grinned. “Me too, but I ended up with something scrungier.” She set the bag down and reached to her other side, lifting up a salt and weatherstained rough bag, with several patches sealed onto the side of it. “Scavenger pouch I grabbed from one of the storage rooms around the corner.”
The woman came from behind the counter and put down two baskets, then went back and got two mugs and dropped them next to them. “Two.” She said, brusquely, then walked back to her station and scanned the crowd sitting down at the tables, waiting for the next order.
Dev picked up the mug first, and took a sip from it, finding a beverage that was cold and fizzy, and tasting.. well, she wasn’t really sure what it tasted like, but it was mild and refreshing. She set the mug down and inspected the basket. “Hm.”
“Bits.” Jess squirmed closer. “Don’t worry Devvie. I made sure it was all dead before they put it in front of ya.” She picked up a thin, plas stick that had come in the basket and used it to point at various things. “That’s octopus, that’s sea cucumber, conch, and ray.”
“I see.” Dev used the stick that had come with her portion and poked the sharpened end into a red hued purple underhued pale piece of something and put it into her mouth. It was moderately chewy, and had a very pleasant tangy spicy flavor. “Mm.” She made a sound of approval.
“Thought you’d like it.” Jess speared up a bit of something and ate it. “Bycatch.” She said. “What’s in the nets they can’t sell the processor.”
“It’s good.” Dev eyed the jelly like sea cucumber and picked it up with her fingers instead, barely tasting it as it dissolved in her mouth. She moved on to the conch, and that seemed a lot more familiar. “Kind of like a clam?”
“Kinda.” Jess took a sip of the beverage. “So this is pretty fun, right?” She looked up and waved her stick at the internal space. “Haven’t had one of these this big since I can remember. Usually its just one train, and maybe one row. Two.”
“The sets are enjoying it.” Dev now speared up her sea bits more confidently. “And I saw April with some large items she seemed pleased about.” She glanced around. The rest of the tables were now filled, and everyone seemed to also be enjoying their meal. “Yes, it’s fun.”
She watched Jess nod a little, and look around, chewing on a bit of her octopus, a faint smile on her lips, and after a moment their eyes met. Dev took a bit of the ray, a dark, thin slice of meat, and reached out to offer it, expecting Jess to take it with her hands.
Instead, her partner, with a little grin, and a twinkle in her eyes, leaned over and took it with her lips, gently nibbling Dev’s fingertips as she did.
The sound of the room faded out just a little, and Dev felt her mind go blank, her focus on nothing but Jess’s face as she winked at her, sticking out the tip of her tongue just a tiny bit.
Such an amazing feeling. Dev took in a breath and then exhaled. She lowered her hand to the table, and concentrating, winked back, listening to the chuckle as it was only partially successful. Then the sound of the room rushed back in, and then they both looked up as they were being hailed, seeing Doug and April coming over.
For a moment, she sort of wished they wouldn’t.
Then she shook herself, and held up a hand in greeting, as their comrades took a seat across from them, and Doug unloaded a pack half the size of his body off onto the floor with a grunt.
It seemed like everyone was going home with presents.
Dev sealed the hatch on the carrier and dusted her hands off as she moved away from the vehicle and back across the stone floor of the landing cavern. Her acquisitions from the market were now stowed away in her storage compartment, waiting for a correct moment to present to Jess once they were back at the base.
The market itself was over, and now everyone was gathering for what Jess had called a potluck meal. Dev resisted the urge to use the carrier’s systems to look that up, and instead decided to just be surprised and with any luck delighted at whatever that was.
She had her Bay overshirt on, as the light was fading outside and the chill of the wind had invaded the hallways, and she was glad of it’s warmth around her as she walked through the quiet spaces, the other residents all still outside in the outer caverns.
Save the watch. Dev saw the changing of the shifts happening, and spotted Kevin as he went along the hallway to the operations center, still wearing his new sweater, and with a bag like hers slung over his shoulder. He walked side by side with one of the Bay ops, who had a package under one arm and was explaining something.
Kevin was nodding. Another Bay ops was listening, and just behind them a BeeAye was walking along, a box of something balanced on one shoulder.
Dev smiled, as she reached the bottom of the stairs and walked along the wide hallway that led to the back entrance, and she could already hear the music drifting from the spaces beyond through that open door.
It was more… she considered. The music had more energy, she though now. It was faster, and louder, and she could hear the sounds of clapping and so she assumed the crowd was enjoying it actively, rather than just casually listening to the softer sounds she’d heard earlier.
As she walked down the ramp and across the flats she could see some of the vendors packing away their things, the wagons that carried it showing as faint lights in the gloom of dusk, catching wisps of voices and easy laughter on the wind.
After the potluck, she was reliably informed, there would be games. Dev was not at all sure what that would be like, but she reasoned it couldn’t be worse or stranger than the thing with the eyeballs, and the ball throwing dunk she’d see at Interforce, so she resolved to enjoy that too.
What ever that ended up being.
Dev paused, as Doug jogged up from behind. “Hello.” She greeted him with a smile. “Did you get more things at the market? The bag you had at daymeal was big.”
“I did.” Doug admitted as they walked together. “I just stashed the lot of it in my room. They had more stuff here than I thought they would. I got some sealskin boots that’re gonna be great for walking around at Base.” He looked around as they neared the cavern entrance. “You got some stuff too, I saw.”
“Yes.” Dev smiled briefly. “I just put some things in our vehicle.”
Doug looked sharply at her. “You think they’d riffle through them here?” His voice lifted. “For real?”
Dev sorted that out in a moment of puzzled silence. “Oh.” She said. “You mean people would take them? Oh no. That’s not what I thought at all, but I know Jess would peek at what I purchased otherwise as she suspects some of it will be given to her.”
“Yes, of course.”
Doug eyed her. “What do you get an agent?” He asked. “I mean, what do you get that won’t get you laughed at, or get tossed in the processor?”
They entered the cavern, and paused, as the big space was now full of people, mingling together, traders and Bay residents, and bio alts, with some others interspersed from the surrounding areas. Dev spotted Dee, and several of her minions, and a space had been cleared near the little raised platform that now had half a dozen people on it playing…
Playing all kinds of things she had no reference for. The sound was relatively pleasant, however. “What do you get an agent? You mean, what did I get for Jess?” She looked at Doug. “I got things I thought she would enjoy.. I’m not really sure it… I didn’t think about it being for an agent.”
“Like what?” Doug persisted. “C’mon, Dev, help me out here. I want to get something nice for April.” He said. “I like her. You know, like you like Jess.”
Dev folded her arms, as they edged to one side to get out of the stream of people milling around. The tables that had held things to purchase earlier, were now pushed against the walls of the cavern and had dishes and containers and bowls of things sitting on them which people were taking items from seemingly at random.
“Oh.” She said, after a brief pause. “I did not know that.”
“C’mon.” Doug grinned at her. “Occupational hazard, right? That’s what they told me when I was matched with her. It’s cool.”
Did she consider Jess a hazard? Dev pondered the question. Jess certainly was hazardous to anyone who was not being correct to her. “I just thought about things I know Jess enjoys.” She said, slowly. “A cup for tea, some ties for her hair.” She paused. “A bracelet.”
“April would punch me if I gave her any of those.” Doug said, mournfully. “And man, that hurts.”
Dev tried to imagine any situation where giving a gift would produce a physical attack from her partner and came up utterly blank. “How about some gloves for our missions in the carrier?” She suggested warily. “Or some sweet treats.”
“Hm.” Doug made a thoughtful sound. “She’s always bitching about how cold those triggers are in our bus. Maybe half gloves so she can be comfortable while she’s blowing things up. Yeah.” He nodded. “That’s a great idea, Dev. Maybe I can find someone who has those.. what were they that they had in the shuttle?”
“Ginger drops.” Dev supplied promptly. “They had them on the fishing boat also.” She said. “Perhaps they would trade you for some.”
“Yep, that’s what they were.” He patted Dev on the shoulder. “Thanks, Dev! Great idea.” He pointed across the room. “Looks like our gang is gathering over there. Wanna go join them?”
Dev had already spotted Jess’s tall, distinctive figure, near a scattering of chairs on the far side of the cavern, to one side of a large, open space that had a sand covered floor. It had been blocked off earlier in the day, and now seemed to have boxes and equipment scattered around, with the center left wide open. “Yes.” She agreed, and they started making their way through the crowd.
The containers on the tables were full of whatever was left from the market, along with some items that were provided by Drake’s Bay’s mess hall kitchen.
Dev was relatively content with the round plas full of things Jess had brought back, as none of them seemed either alive, or trick foods such as eyeballs, though one was round enough to make her pause.
Jess had set her own plate down on small table between their seats, and was talking to Dee, while other visitors milled around just within eyesight, all watching Jess and pretending they weren’t.
Doctor Dan was seated across from her, with a mug clasped in one hand, his eyes slowly moving around and watching the people who were pretending not to watch.
Dev found it all very interesting. There was an undercurrent of wary tension in the air and after a moment, April looked over and met her eyes, her own shifting around, then rolling up to the ceiling and back down. There was a trader and his mate sitting next to her, making small talk.
She inspected her plate and picked up the round thing that wasn’t an eyeball, sniffing it and detecting a bit of spice, and the briny smell of seafood, along with an earthy scent she recognized as mushrooms. She took a bite, and was very pleasantly surprised at the result.
“Those are good.” Chester was on the other side of her, and he’d just sat down with a plate. “And these.” He pointed at the clams covered in creamy seaweed. “This is all right.”
The music, along with the level of conversation was loud enough to obscure most of the speech around them, and Dev wished she’d brought her scanner along with her. “What do you think is going on over there?” She indicated the cleared space.
“Games.” Chester said, knowledgably. “Fight games. Heard a bunch of them talking about it when I was coming back down here. Scrapping.” He put one of the round things into his mouth and chewed it. “Mm.”
Oh. “Like what they do in the exercise area?” Dev asked. “At the base?”
Chester nodded, still chewing. “And some shooting, for prizes and stuff.” He swallowed. “For the kids mostly. Some of the trader’s youngers, some of the kids here.”
Doug arrived with two pieces of plas and deposited them down on the table next to where April was talking to the trader, looking over and giving Dev a wink.
With a little shake of her head, Dev focused her attention on Jess, who was now leaning over towards her, providing a more interesting focal point. “Hello.” She said. “Have you tried these? They’re excellent.”
“Stuffed mushrooms?” Jess reached over and took one off Dev’s plate, taking bite, chewing thoughtfully. “That’s pretty damn good.” She said. “You find enough chow?”
“Yes.” Dev scooped up some of the clam and seaweed, which she found she liked as well. “Chester was telling me about the activities that will go on over there.” She indicated the space. “Are we expected to participate?”
Jess stopped in mid chew, her blue eyes widening. She swallowed hastily. “The games?” She asked, in a surprised tone. Her eyes tracked over to the sandy floor at the far end of the cavern, where now some old, battered, metal targets were being dragged.
“Yes.” Dev studied her, a little bemused at her reaction. “I think we were at the parties at Base, right?”
Jess was briefly silent, then she shook her head. “Nah, not that… not this stuff.” She said. “Base is different.” She picked up a mug on the table and took a swallow of what was in it. “Not good to mix us with civs, Devvie. We don’t react well to competition.”
Jess waved the mug to encompass herself, April, and Mike. “Us.” She said, with a tone of faint regret. “One of those kids’ll do something stupid and get their neck broken and it’ll ruin everyone’s day.”
April, who’d been listening, nodded. “People come at you in our world, it’s not a game.” She said, succinctly. “Reflexes don’t know it’s just a gag. Even in the pit they’ve got stunners, right?”
“Right.” Jess shifted on her hard, metal seat, with it’s thin, hammered arms she couldn’t quite balance anything on that was useful. “We can just watch and bet.”
“They’re not going to take our chits.” Mike laughed. “They’ll figure it’s rigged.”
“Truth.” April assented. “It’ll be fun to watch the kiddies though.” She was leaning back on her stool with her back to the wall, one booted foot hiked up on her opposite knee. “Hope they kick nomad ass.”
“Or we could go dance.” Doug suggested, in a mild tone. “That group’s pretty good.”
Jess looked sideways at Dev, who had on her most noncommittal expression, and started laughing. “What did you say it looked like, Devvie? People getting electrocuted?” She turned her attention to Dan Kurok, who was merely sitting there with his ankles crossed, sipping from his mug. “You forgot the dancing lessons, Doc.”
Kurok lifted one pale eyebrow. “I had a week to pull together what we sent Dev with. No. Dancing wasn’t on the programming list.” He made a low, snorting noise. “Along with ukulele, hopscotch and poetry.”
Dev studied the dancers, on the whole this wasn’t something she’d been expected to do since the people doing it looked so ridiculous. She cautiously decided to put the other three subjects into the same category, pending further investigation. “Okay.” She agreed. “So it will be entertainment for us.”
“It will.” Jess half turned to look across the sand. “Look, they’ll start with wrestling.” She said. “Whoever pins the other person three times, wins.”
“What do they win?” Dev watched the two figures whirling their arms around in circles with interest.
“No idea.” Jess responded. “Once you go in, you don’t participate, so I usually ducked out and went swimming when this was going on when I had breaks from school.”
“The nomads donated prizes from their stock, the Bay donated prizes from here.” Doctor Dan spoke up. “So the winners get things from wherever they don’t come from.” He looked up as a slim figure appeared at his elbow. “Hello Billy.”
“Hello Doctor Dan. I brought you a plate. I saw you hadn’t gotten anything.” Billy the BeeAye set a piece of plas down. “Some things are already consumed.” He confided. “And these are excellent.”
Doctor Dan smiled at him. “Did you make them?” He guessed, his eyes twinkling a little.
“Yes, I did.” Billy answered in a straightforward, unironic way. “Let me know if you like them.” He gave the rest of them a little wave and disappeared back into the crowd.
“I saw him in the kitchens.” Jess noted.
“Yes.” Doctor Dan sampled one of the items on the platter. “He’s been working in there, under Petar. It was quite an accomplishment to get that to happen.” He chewed thoughtfully. “That’s quite good.” He said. “Anyway, that was one of the bastions of suspicion here, because as you likely know, allocations in the kitchen are dear and very much in demand.”
“Nice.” Jess merely nodded. “What’d you trade Petar for? He’s a hard head.”
“Herbs.” Kurok smiled. “He gets his own little patch of them in the garden.” He offered some of the tidbits on his plate to them. “Here, give it a try. It helps that Billy learns fast, has clever hands, and does what he’s told.”
The two opponents started their battle at that moment, and everyone turned to watch. Dev understood at once what they were doing, it was a technique for fighting she’d seen some of the agents, and many of the techs use in the exercise area.
The two men, boys really, were well matched in size and they went at each other with enthusiasm, both bare to the waist, with half legged work pants that came to just below their knees and bare feet.
The Bay resident had the typical wide shouldered, broad boned physique common to the stakehold, and he used his long reach to good advantage, keeping his opponent away from him as he sought to grapple.
A good portion of the crowd had gathered at the edge of the sand and were cheering and yelling, and Jess relaxed in her seat, content to enjoy the show. She suspected the stakehold would do well in the games, they usually did and she could remember, vaguely, hearing her various cousins and her brothers showing off markers from the few times she’d witnessed them.
She’d been too young to participate, of course, before she’d gone to Canyon City, and afterward, she really had no interest even if it had been allowed. She’d first returned home after she was ten, four years after she’d gone, and by then, she understood if only in a dim way, the difference.
Her difference. Even if Justin hadn’t talked to her about it when the Canyon City shuttle had let her off there, for a week’s break. Everything had changed, by then. The stakehold treated her with the same wary respect they treated Justin and the familiar teasing had stopped.
Just, stopped. She’d spent most of her time alone, exploring old haunts in the lower levels and swimming in the Bay, talking to the fishermen who stopped by and a little, precious time with her father when he could get away from the stakeholder duties to play in the surf with her.
She remembered it being melancholy. But heading back she decided she’d enjoyed it, enjoyed the time climbing and crawling around in the caverns, and swimming alongside the big sea turtles that grazed along the rocks, sharing the seaweed with them.
It was okay, she decided, that she was treated like her father. So many of her classmates never even went home.
Jess turned her head from facing the wrestlers, to Dev, whose voice tickled her ear. “Yes, oh wrencher queen?” She studied the ear clasp on Dev’s ear, twinkling gently in the overhead lighting. “Are you going to ask me why we do these silly things?”
“No.” Dev shook her head. “I understand that part. We had competitions sometimes too, at the creche on station. We did labs, and worked in the gym and went against each other, for points.”
“Sometimes.” Dev said. “What I was wondering though was why it was so interesting that Billy was working in the food place.” She continued. “At Base, and at station, we always were assigned that kind of duty.”
A loud cheer went up, and Jess looked over to see the Bay wrestler dart in and get a hold on his opponent, lifting him up and taking him backwards onto the sand. A spray of it went in all directions, and then the two of them were scrabbling to hold each other down.
“Kitchen’s always prime slots.” Jess said, keeping her eyes on the fight. “You never go hungry.” She stopped speaking, watching with interest as the Bay wrestler got his leg hooked around his opponents and twisted hard, his body arching as he flipped the other man over onto his back and then leaned forward to pin his shoulders. “Nice.”
Dev waited for further explanation for a moment, watching herself as the two men stood up and laughed, dusting the sand off their bodies. They were replaced with two others, and she recognized Jess’s cousin Dustin as the Bay representative.
From the corner of her eye, she spotted Cathy sliding into place to watch, talking to one of the nomads.
“Smart of the doc to offer spices to old Petar. He’s been bitching about the thieves at Quebec getting them from station for as long as I’ve been breathing.” Jess commented, then put her fingers between her teeth and let out a whistle, raising a hand in a fist pump when Dustin looked around for the sound.
He spotted her and lifted a fist in return, and the Bay residents around the arena made a low, but loud hooting noise.
Jess looked at her, as they leaned close to each other, to speak above the roaring noise. “Know what’s going to be real fun soon?” She asked. “They’re going to play a scrum of rugger.” She wiggled her eyebrows. “That’ll be a show.”
Dev leaned on her elbow. “That sounds excellent.” She said. “I think.”
“Any idea what that is?”
“Not in the least.”
Jess chuckled. “You think this stuff is nuts? Wait for that. Half the half’ll end up in med.” She picked up her plate and put it down on the chair arm, holding it in place so she could share the contents. “That we should get a bet on.”
“Want me to get one in the bag?” April offered. “That wagon driver’s dumb enough to do it.”
Jess’s eyes glinted. “Yeah.”
April got up and handed her plate to Doug, then dodged past him and vanished into the crowd.