Dev had to admit she really had no idea what was going on. But not in an unpleasant way. She set aside trying to figure out what the point was behind the tests and tasks and games that were being contested and settled for just being entertained by them.
They had moved over from the gathering area to the game area, settling into some hammered metal seats with dusty canvas pads on them, maybe a hundred or so all told between the nomads and the Bay residents, and the drink vendors were circulating either with sacks on their backs to dispense from, or a wagon they pulled behind them.
She was seated next to Jess on a metal stool, her boots tucked under her and her back relaxed but straight. The area in front of them had been cleared out of the game things, and was now empty and as she watched a man and a boy went around the cleared area, dropping round, dark objects every few feet.
Nearby some of the Bay residents who’d played in the game were sitting down with friends, some bruised and battered, but a few showing off prizes they’d won, mostly gathering bags and short knives, and Dustin had a pair of sharkskin boots along with a black eye.
He looked very pleased. Cathy was seated next to him admiring the boots, and Dev noted she was sporting one of the silver ear cuffs that adorned her own ear, only with a yellow stone in it. “Those games seemed very … “ Dev paused.
Jess turned to listen. “What’s that, Devvie?”
“The games were interesting.” Dev concluded. “It seemed like mostly a fight.”
Jess nodded. “Sure.” She said. “It’s all competition and everyone likes a scrapper.” She explained. “All the kids want to be kickass. You get a good rep, nobody screws around with you.”
Dev tilted her head and considered that.
“Like being Interforce.” Jess continued, seeing the pucker between her pale brows. “People know that, they don’t mess with you.” She indicated the nomads on the other angle of the open cavern. “They did pretty good, kids got some swag, Bay got some swag.”
Dev just finally smiled and nodded. “When we did this, in the creche, we would hope we would win, because everyone would think you were special, and did good work.” She said. “It was a big perk. The natural born liked it, they exchanged chits on who would do the best.”
“What kind of stuff did you do?” Jess shifted and leaned closer.
“Go under grav and climb things, and throw round weights accurately, and doing an agility course very fast.” Dev said, promptly. “I liked that one the best.” She said. “But we would also do things like solve difficult puzzles, and sometimes they would make the older sets wrestle.”
“No boxing, huh?”
“Not really, no.” Dev said. “Sometimes the proctors and the admins would throw a ball in a ring, or wrestle with just their arms. Doctor Dan always won those.”
“I can see that.” Jess straightened in her chair, as two groups of people moved out onto the cleared open space of sand, marked off with the roundels. “He went through field school.” She pointed towards the group. “So we got two teams, right?”
Dev casually leaned her arm on Jess’s shoulder, obligingly looking where she was pointing. “Yes.”
“Each team faces off, and there’s a ball.” Jess said. “It’s really a sealskin stuffed with sand, so it’s kinda soft and you can grab it. Anyway, the deal is, you try to get hold of the ball and take it and shove it between the white rocks on either end of the square.”
Dev studied the space. “Okay.” She said, slowly.
“And everyone who doesn’t have the ball, either tries to rip the ball away or grab the person with the ball and beat them up until they drop it.” Jess said. “Whoever gets the ball between the white markers by the end of game wins.”
“I see.” Dev watched as the two groups separated, and left a gray, scuffed, vaguely round thing in the middle of the space as they gathered together into a tight cluster, heads inwards. “What exactly do they win?”
Dustin had gotten up and left his treasures in Cathy’s hands, trotting across the sand over to the nearer cluster who were wearing rough cutoff short sleeved shirts and short pants that vaguely reminded Dev of their sleeping clothes, and had blue/green headbands around their heads.
The other team, all made up of the caravaners and nomads, had gold/silver bands, and their clothes were a darker color, but much of the same style. They were all wearing short boots and some had clothes wrapped around their knees and elbows.
“No idea.” Jess gestured at one of the roaming drink sellers. “But it’s fun to watch. Maybe someone’ll get their leg broken. Saw that once you could hear the snap all the way across the room.” She cheerfully accepted two cups dispensed out of a sack on the man’s back and handed over a small chit. “Or maybe they’ll rumble.”
Dev accepted her cup. “What’s that?”
“Fight.” Jess said. “All that grabbing people get pissed and then they start fighting and that’s a good show. “ She paused. “Get going!” She let out a yell, and it was echoed all along the sidelines. “C’mon!!!”
Doctor Dan arrived and took a seat next to Dev, and then April and Doug slid into place at Jess’s right hand.
Dev leaned towards her mentor. “Do you enjoy this game, Doctor Dan?”
“Oh Dev.” Doctor Dan smiled his sweet, gentle smile. “Its organized insanity. Don’t hold it against anyone, would you please?”
“Of course not.” Dev said. “Have you played it?”
“Me?” Doctor Dan looked truly astonished. “I was in a dangerous enough business, thanks. Getting a broken arm for fun was not my idea of a good time.”
A yell went up and Dev turned her attention to the open space, where the groups were now lining up across from each other, on either side of the round gray thing, and after a sharp whistle the game began.
After just a minute, Dev remembered to breathe, as she watched the game participants rush each other and start a vicious struggle for the gray round thing, grunting and shoving and grappling as their heads cracked against each other so loudly she jumped.
It was definitely like a fight. She watched as one of the Bay residents managed to get a hand on the gray thing and yank it underneath two of the nomads grasps and a second later he dove on top of it and then everyone dove on top of him.
There was a lot of yelling, and thumps and grunts and the crowd around the edge of the space were cheering.
Jess seemed to be very entertained by it, letting out shouts of encouragement and watching the fight intently, and half standing a few times to wave her hands around, especially when the Bay residents managed to wrestle the gray thing to one side and then one of them, a tall, rangy brown haired boy, broke free and started running across the sand with the gray thing under his arm.
“They’re gonna kill him if they catch him.” Jess predicted, as a line of nomads broke off and bolted after him, moving at an angle to get between the boy and the white stones. “He shoulda waited for a guard. “
“Would you … like to participate?” Dev asked, with a faintly dubious expression.
“Can’t.” Jess stood up as they caught the kid, and wrestled him to the ground, and he hit so hard the gray thing popped out. One of the nomads lunged for it, and his hand hit it, but it bounded off the sand and then a second later Dustin grabbed it and jumped over him. “Nice one!” She yelled, then sat back down.
Dustin grinned and twisted around one of the nomads and wriggled out of the grasp of a second but then he tripped and fell and five or six big hands grabbed him and started pulling him onto his back. He tucked himself around the gray thing like a turtle just in time as the rest of the Bay caught up to the pile on and got his head down touching the ground before everyone landed on him.
One man was rolling free of the pile, holding his hand and Dev could see there was something incorrect about it. She looked briefly around the space and saw a group of bio alts seated along the wall, with expressions on their faces that matched what she knew was on her own.
She heard another crack, and her head swung around to see a Bay resident and a nomad shoving at each other, their feet digging tracks in the sand and blood rolling down the nomad’s face from his forehead. He shook his head rapidly and the blood flew outward.
She looked over at Jess, who was watching with bright eyed enjoyment, and for once, no internal dialog at all came to her mind.
She took a sip of her beverage instead, then, just watching as the two sides fought ferociously over the gray ball and thought perhaps it would be for the best if she just asked questions later.
They ended up in the mess, all of them who lasted the distance on the game, either as watchers or players and the victorious youngsters were sprawled across two of the tables covered in sand and some blood.
The mess had trays of fish rolls out and mugs of cold seaweed beer and a snack bowl of tiny fried and sea salted fish that were being grabbed up as fast as they arrived.
Jess was sitting on one of the tables, her long legs swinging over the side, talking about the game to Security Mike and Agent Mike, while April and Doug and Chester joined the team’s table as they relived the winning goal with Dustin it’s very proud protagonist.
Cathy had a medkit out on the table and was cleaning a long, deep cut on the side of Dustin’s head that was still leaking blood down the side of his face which she staunched and then taped closed with steady professional skill.
Dev took advantage of the fishrolls, a cup of hot tea in her other hand and just listened to this mostly incomprehensible discussion of feints and dodges and body bridges as she regarded the bruised and battered players, all male, mostly very young enjoying their beer.
“Weird, huh?” Jess turned to her, then put her arm around Dev, leaning close to her. “But it’s fun.”
Dev chewed her fishroll and swallowed. “I think I like this part better.” She remarked. “It seems like there are fewer people in constant discomfort and less yelling.”
Jess chuckled, a relaxed and happy sound almost out of place coming from her. “Did you try the fries with eyes?” She indicated the empty bowl now being refilled by one of the mess workers. “You only get them after games.” She scooped up a handful a fraction of a second before others dove in, and offered one to Dev.
“Fries with eyes.” Dev inspected the object which had a spicy, salty smell that was also definitely fish. She took a bite of it and chewed, ready to take a swallow of the tea to rapidly wash it down, but to her surprise it was crunchy and a little chewy and tasted nice. “Oh.”
It was a whole tiny fish, and it did in fact have it’s eyes intact, but they were very small and the bones inside were very soft and she had no difficulty in eating the entire object. “That’s excellent.” She concluded after swallowing.
“Usually they grind them up and they go into fishcakes.” Jess kicked her boots out a little, leaning back. “But when there’s games they save em up and make us a treat.” She regarded the crowd. “Good game. We only won by one goal, so the traders didn’t think we skunked em.” That was to Security Mike, who was chewing on a handful of fresh fries.
“No knives.” Mike agreed. “Everyone walked out feeling good. Cept that one guy who broke his leg. He aint’ gonna walk anywhere for a while.”
“They leave him in med here?” Mike Arias asked. “Got his boot stuck in the sand, I saw it. Two of those kids fell on it sideways.”
“Nah.” Security Mike shook his head. “Traders take their own. We offered.” He got up and took his mug, heading towards the kitchen. “Be back.” He tossed over his shoulder at them.
Dev took another fry with eyes from the rapidly depleting bowl and relaxed against Jess, looking at how happy the kids were, no matter how bruised, and how much enjoyment the rest had gotten watching them battle ferociously with the other team.
Most of them had their shirts torn and hanging in tatters and their skin was exposed , all pale and creamy white just like Jess’s was, under her clothes. It was chilly in the cavern, but they seemed to bear it easily, most of them stripping off the ragged cloth and wrapping it around their necks, or using it as a make shift bandage around sand burn or cuts.
They were all brawny, most of them with brown to dark hair like Jess’s, a few lighter brown to almost red, none of them pale haired like she or Doctor Dan. They had broad shoulders and long, muscular arms and legs, and their bodies were sturdy and elastic in motion and visibly strong.
Dev remembered charging along with them as they’d come up into central on station, carrying pipes and tools wrenched from workbenches looking as happy as they did right now.
Enjoying the mayhem of the game wholeheartedly, as they had in space, enjoying every moment of the flight, and the fighting, and the trip back to earth and now equally pleased with having spent hours essentially fighting with other people over the possession of a small gray bag.
So very different than anyone on station. Different than most of the people she’d met downside, in fact, even different from those at Base 10, or North.
Familiar to her, though, because she knew Jess.
Now she watched Jess grin as Dustin got up and he and two others started mocking out the final goal, and everyone scrambled to get out of their way and drag benches aside.
A wadded up shirt was the ball, and they grappled and wrangled and tumbled across the room with everyone yelling out encouragement until Dustin jumped and twisted and unexpectedly got released by the others and spun out of control half in the air and half just momentum right into the table and into Jess’s lap.
He slammed into her as she tossed her cup away to grab him and they ended up flat on the table gripping each other.
His eyes grew to size of gulls eggs when he realized what had happened and he went dead still, freezing in place on top of Jess’s tall form, his hands going up in that automatic gesture of surrender and in that moment everything went silent, and everyone stopped moving.
Everyone stared at the table as the danger became absolutely present and immediate and visible in their midst as Jess tensed up and her grip tightened and her body started to react.
Dustin grimaced. “Please don’t kill me, cuz.” He gave her a beseeching look, squinting at her in hope. “C’mon! I won the game!”
There was a moment when no one really knew what was going to happen except for Jess. Then she released Dustin, and arched her body up, shifting him aside with little effort, but grabbing him by the back of the neck as they moved and bumping their foreheads roughly together.
She came away with a smudge of his blood on her skin, and winked, and shoved him away from the table as she sat back up. “You did, ya scrub. Good job.”
He hopped a few times to catch his balance and then stood up, surprised and relieved and then as his body straightened up and he realized he was in fact safe, he grinned back at her, raising a fist at her and relaxing.
The room unfroze and everyone started moving again and the noise level bumped up, as Dustin went back to his seat and sat down, a faint glisten of sweat on his bare skin visible in the overhead light as he took a deep breath and let it out, and a mess worker came over and nudged him, handing him a mug of beer.
The rest of the youngsters looked at Jess hopefully. They watched intently as she stood up and dusted herself off, her eyes sweeping over them and pausing as she studied the group for a moment in silence.
“You all kicked ass.” She told them. “Just what you’d expect from one of us.” She added, causing a bit of tingly magic, carried on her words that made an audible pause in the room as she paused. “Hai” She ended, in a louder tone.
“Hai!” They all yelled back at her in a short wall of sound that echoed across the mess cavern, making the workers in the night watch stick their heads out to see what was going on.
The danger was past, and it was going to be okay. Jess went back and sat down, reaching over for one of the few remaining fries with eyes, waiting for the voices to raise again, and for everyone to look pointedly away from her.
Dev slid back over from where Jess had gently tossed her for safety and handed her a new mug from one of the trays going by. She didn’t comment on the event, merely sitting with her shoulder brushing Jess’s, sipping herself from one of the mugs of spicy, tangy pungent beer.
“That’s why we’re not allowed to play the game.” Jess said, after a little silence. “Its fun to watch, but it’s too easy to trigger us.” She said it in a calm, relaxed tone, without charge.
Invited to comment, Dev leaned over and kissed her on the shoulder instead, then she leaned her head on the spot and remained like that, her hands cradled around her mug.
“I wasn’t going to hurt him though.” Jess went on. “I wasn’t triggered.”
“No.” Dev said. “I didn’t think so.”
Jess half turned her head and regarded her partner, who looked calm and thoughtful and happy to be there, just leaning against her. “Can you tell?” She asked, in a low tone. “When I am?”
“Yes.” Dev said, placidly. “Of course.”
“Scare you?” Jess watched her profile intently.
Dev laughed softly, almost under her breath. “No.” She looked up at Jess and smiled. “Not at all.”
“Hm.” Jess’s eyes half closed. “I think I’d kinda like it if you jumped on top of me, so ya got a point there I guess.” She grinned.
A bench scraped nearby and they looked up to find April settling across from them, with a small bag in her hand, and she dropped it on the table with a smirk. “They figured they were just kids.” She said. “That was the most fun I had all day, collecting on that bet.”
“Ahh.” Jess upended the bag and a cascade of small chits spilled over the table, slithering everywhere. “Nice.”
“This was a blast.” Doug had settled next to her. “Thanks for inviting us.”
“Truth.” Mike Arias added, a thick woven scarf wrapped around his neck, framing his square, well shaped face nicely. “Thanks Drake.”
“Share it out.” Jess indicated the pile. “I’ll give mine to the kids. Their blood. They deserve a little cred.” She stretched out her legs and crossed them. “Probably never have the chance to be here for one these again.” She lifted her mug in their direction. “Was a good day.”
They returned the small salute. “A good day.” Doug agreed. “And we get to see the windows one more time.”
April gave him a look, and rolled her eyes.
Dev walked down the circular stairs, absorbing the quiet of early morning at the Bay. Below her, she could see an irregular stream of people heading for the mess but the crowd was light as yet, moving across the cavern in and then out of the gray dawn light from the opening above.
The light was marginal, the clouds overhead dark and lowered, and the plas surface overhead was being bombarded by a heavy rain that had started falling before dawn. So the cavern was mostly lit by the amber tinted halons with faint shadows of silver and the air itself vibrated with the thunder outside.
Dev was now well used to that sound, the low vibration of the rain rumbling softly in her inner ear as she considered it’s force and duration, and what that might mean for their trip back to Base 10.
She was dressed today in her tech greens, with her flying boots on, her insignia winking in the overhead lights on the stairs and as she reached the fifth level, she waved at the bio alts who were starting to make their way down.
“Hello Dev.“ Alvin joined her. “Are you leaving?” He asked. “You’re wearing your uniform.”
“Yes.” Dev agreed. “I was just preparing our vehicle for flight and storing my pack.” She said. “Jess is outside swimming in the sea.”
“Really?” Alvin looked over his shoulder. “It’s raining and cold outside.”
“Yes.” Dev nodded. “Jess enjoys the cold water. There is a small beach outside she finds appealing.”
Alvin digested that for a minute as they walked down the steps. “Natural born are difficult to comprehend sometimes.” He offered, hesitantly. “Aren’t they?”
“They are weird.” Dev nodded. “I have learned to just observe and accept things that often have no logic structure.”
“Did you enjoy the games yesterday?” Dev changed the subject. “I thought they were interesting.”
Bert, a BeeAye, caught up with them. “We were not sure if those were games or fights.” He said. He had curly red hair and freckles and attractive dark green eyes. “The natural born seemed to enjoy them.” He added doubtfully. “But some of them were really damaged.”
Bess, a BeeBee, short, stocky and confident was trailing them. “That one visitor broke his leg clean through.” She said. “I was there when they took him out. He was really suboptimal.” She paused a moment. “But I think I would like to try the game.”
“Really?” Alvin glanced at her. “Even though they got damaged like that? It doesn’t seem optimal.” He paused. “Or actually, fun.” He made a face.
“Really.” Bess said. “We are strong, but they don’t expect that. Like Kevin is fast. He could go around them I think. Anyway, I’d like to try it, to see why the natural born find it enjoyable.”
“I as well.” Dev spoke up as they reached the bottom level and joined the stream of residents. “However, there is likely not much opportunity for me to do that at the Base as Jess has told me they don’t engage in that activity at Interforce.” She stopped and drew aside. “I have to finish getting ready to leave.”
The bio alts just waved and kept going, and Dev turned and went along the wall to the hallway that led to their assigned quarters.
She palmed through the outer door and went along the inner hall to the kitchen space whose windows overlooked the Bay, collecting a cup of tea from the dispenser and sitting down at the table to enjoy it, and the view, even though right now it was literally sheets of rain dousing the inner cliffside and a wash of water was coming down from the upper levels and falling in front of her.
In the peripheral of her hearing she picked up the sounds of her fellow techs and the agents in their nearby rooms, and briefly turned her thoughts to her decision not to join Jess for a morning swim.
After all, it was raining outside. When she had gone to the landing bay she’d felt the wet and the coldness of the air as it blew in the opening, dusting her skin with chilly dampness and she had been glad to get inside the carrier to get away from it.
She had thought perhaps Jess was disappointed when she’d turned down the offer to join her though, and now sitting here looking out at the lashing rain and dim light she herself had second thoughts.
She could have managed it, even without the new suit Jess had designed. It would have been very cold and very uncomfortable, but she felt that it would have pleased Jess to have her there, instead of going out by herself into the gray green sea.
She resolved that the next opportunity that was offered, she would accept and find a way to bear it. That decided, she leaned back and sipped at her hot tea, watching a sea bird flying almost sideways through the rain, wind gusting it almost into the cliff.
Birds needed side thrusters. She watched the struggling creature and willed it mentally to drop down out of the updrafts before it got smashed against the plas and made them both suboptimally unhappy.
She heard the outer door open then. She turned and set her cup down as the sound of wet, bare feet traveled down the passage and then Jess arrived, dripping wet and in just one of the brief under suits she wore with her uniform.
Jess’s skin that was exposed was blue with cold, the fabric encasing her tall, well proportioned body clinging to it sopping wet and providing in no way any comfort.
They regarded each other for a moment in silence. “Yeah, I’m an idiot.” Jess concluded mournfully. “Can I have a cup of hot tea?”
“Of course.” Dev got up and went to the dispenser. “Was it a nice swim?”
“No.” Jess came over and sat down, dripping seawater on the floor. She pulled her hair back and twisted it, glancing at her bare, blue tinged limbs, her shin covered in long scrapes. “You’re a lot smarter than I am Devvie. It’s stupid cold out there and I went headfirst into a barracuda.” She said. “Talk me out of that next time willya?”
Dev brought the biggest cup she could find full of hot tea over and put it down. Then she went back into the quarters she’d been assigned and retrieved a towel, bringing it with her and unfolding it as she came back to the table.
Jess had both hands cupped around the mug and was sipping from it. She paused as the towel touched her head and glanced over her shoulder, as Dev industriously started drying her off. “But I found something for ya.” She said, indicating an object on the table.
Dev peeked over her shoulder to see a shell there, glistening and oval shaped. She reached over and picked it up, gingerly turning it over in case there was an animal inside. There wasn’t, but instead there was a beautiful multicolored polished surface. “Oh!”
“It’s abalone.” Jess sipped her tea, seeming pleased with the response.
“Jess, that’s very attractive.” Dev put the shell down and went back to her drying activities. “Thank you!” She got all the water off Jess’s shoulders and ruffled her hair, seeing the pale blue fade from her skin as it flushed a more normal color. “The carrier is ready whenever you wish to depart.”
“Do I?” Jess turned her head and regarded Dev with thoughtful pale eyes. “Yeah, we should get out of here.” She answered herself without much pause. “Let’s go find out what’s going on back at Base. Maybe their powwow scams over and we’ve got plans to make.” She stood up and took her cup with her. “Let me go take a shower and get my ghoul garb on.”
Dev watched her retreat to her space and she folded the towel, putting it down on one of the weathered surfaces before she exchanged her cup for a fresh, hot one and resumed her seat near the window. After a moment she turned around and looked thoughtfully at the room, it’s dark stone walls and lofty ceiling around her.
Then she turned and watched the rain, the water below patterned with swathes of it, the boats at dock rocking slightly in the wind.
One of the ships, the one with the Drake banner, was moving slowly out, heading for the gap in the walls, and as they did the sound of a bell came to her ears, and after that a long, low hooting sound in response that seemed to come from the dock itself.
She remembered the last time she’d heard the sound, overflying the Bay as they had left, and Jess had told her afterward that it was a sign of respect. That had made Jess smile. She watched the boat cruise through the channel, it’s bow taking on a pitch and roll as it traded the calm waters for the rougher seas offshore.
Would they be out on a boat on their next assignment? Dev thought that might be interesting, and she thought perhaps they could find the bear again and see how she and her cubs were doing.
The outer door opened again, and footsteps came briskly towards the kitchen. Dev kept her seat and sipped at her cup, as two Ayebees entered, carrying trays. “Hello, good morning.” She greeted them.
“Hello, NM-Dev-1.” The nearer Ayebee said. “We have brought you a meal, as they said you were getting ready to leave today. We thought you would like something before you went.”
The trays held bowls and cups of various things and the standard battered plates she recognized from the mess. There was a smell of brine and what she thought was eggs as they set them down. “Thank you very much.” Dev said. “Jess is just having a shower and i know she will appreciate this as well.”
“We brought enough for everyone.” The Ayebee said. “Please enjoy it!”
They waved and left and Dev started investigating the contents of the trays. She glanced up when there were sounds nearby to find April and Doug coming in with Mike and Chester behind them. “We have been brought a meal.”
They were all dressed in their Interforce uniforms, with light packs slung over their shoulders that were much the same as the one she’d stored in the carrier not that long ago. April had her dagger on, but the rest of them had left weapons behind as a courtesy, though Mike Arias now also had a knife with a beautifully carved hilt strapped to his calf.
Dev sorted out the trays and put some of the edibles on two of the plates, setting them aside as she took some cups and poured out the spicy smelling beverage they’d had the day before.
“What do we have here?” Jess appeared in her blacks, tossing her pack against the wall. She had her damp hair pulled back into a tail and tied with a piece of cord with tiny shells threaded on it. “Who ordered room service?”
“Hey, you’re the big kahuna.” Doug slid some of the hard boiled plover eggs down to April. “Wouldn’t it have had to be you?”
Jess sat down next to Dev and pulled the spare plate over, inspecting it. She picked up an egg and popped it into her mouth, chewing with evident enjoyment. “I didn’t ask for it. Devvie?”
Dev swallowed her mouthful. “Some Ayebees from the mess brought it. They said they thought it would be nice for us to get a meal before we left. I did not request it.”
“No argument here.” Chester sat down across from Dev with a mug from the tray. “Nice to be treated like welcome guests. Most places don’t.”
“Unless you pay a high ticket.” April remarked. “Then they don’t care if you’re Interforce.”
Dev remembered their visit to Market Island, and the spa, and how Jonton had treated them in Quebec. “I don’t think anyone here minds that.” She said thoughtfully. “Our being from Interforce.”
“Here? No.” April chuckled. “At least not our bit of Interforce. Long as we have Drake with us, we are honored guests. Right?” She shifted her eyes to Jess, who was munching on chunks of a meaty fish. “They like you now. I heard it from everyone.”
“Truth.” Doug agreed.
“Well. Half the people who didn’t like me got splatted.” Jess chewed thoughtfully on another egg. “Including my family. The homestead ended up getting a crap ton of cred, and now we got a cash crop and they don’t have to deal with me on the daily. Why not like me now?” Her tone was reasonable, her expression mildly interested. “I cleaned up my mess.”
April nodded. “Like in a big way.”
There was one small dish left on the tray and Dev looked inside the cover of it “Oh.” She removed a round, slightly fuzzy object. “A peach.” She paused, then handed it to Jess. “I think you said you liked these.”
Jess didn’t take it. “I do.” She said. “Cut it up and give everyone a piece. They ain’t got many.”
They finished up their ad hoc breakfast with a peach split six ways, the fruit’s stone removed and left behind in the dish it had come in.
Mike licked his fingers clean of the juice. “That’s nice.” He said, in a sincere tone. “No idea what it is. Peach you said?” He glanced at Dev. “You could bring a crate of those with you to Quebec and pay for a three-day party there with em I bet.”
“They don’t travel well, according to Doctor Dan. They’re soft.” Dev enjoyed the slightly tangy sweet taste of the peach. “So, they wouldn’t do well on a ship.”
“They’d be fine in a carrier.” April mused, licking her lips. “Mike’s right. Those shirts up there would give you the earth for a bucket of these.” She regarded the pit left behind thoughtfully.
“Maybe.” Jess stood up. “Speaking of carriers, let’s go get in ours.” She gave the room a last look around before they retreated up the hallway to the large, locked door.
Dev settled into her pilots’ seat, starting her pre-checks as everyone else filed in behind her and took their stations. She slid her ear cups in place and clipped on her comms gear, glancing out the forward hatch at the Bay tech team who was coming forward to disconnect her umbilicals.
It was a BeeAye, Ben, who disconnected her, his Bay coverall with its sleeves rolled up so they didn’t come down over his hands. He waved at her through the plas, and she waved back, and she waited for him to step back before she retracted the cables.
On its own power, the carrier shifted and settled, and the engines let out their low whine of startup as she fed them energy and activated all her systems for flight.
She glanced up at the mirror and watched Jess settling into her gunner’s seat, extending her legs and folding her hands over harness. Did Jess want her boards active? After a moment’s indecision, she balanced the engines and retracted her own restraints. “BR270006 to Drake’s Bay Ops, preparing to depart.” She spoke into the comms. “Standing by for clearance.”
Then she activated the boards to her right and left, as Doug settled into the jump seat, and selected the sequence to bring Jess’s controls live and shunt power from the engines to the guns. She watched Jess’s reflection as she caught the change in status lights and saw the quick smile, as she reached out to acknowledge them with a press of her hand on the auth pad.
“Drakes Bay Ops to BR270006, you are clear to depart. There is no other traffic in the area.” Kevin’s voice responded in her ear. “Please have a good flight and come back soon!”
“Thank you, Kevin.” Dev answered, flipping on the lights on the engine cowlings that would warn anyone in the cavern that the carrier was about to lift. “Please be aware, we are about to depart.” She warned her passengers, then shifted power to the landing jets and put the carrier in motion.
Unlike when they landed, she negotiated her way out of the landing cavern with gentle touches on the side thrusters and the landing jets until they emerged into the rain, moving from relative silence to a heavy thunder overhead.
“Glad we’re not outside today.” April remarked from the drop seat.
“Let’s get back to base, Dev.” Jess hiked up one knee and put her hand on the surface of her uniform boot. “See what we missed.”
“Bet they missed more.” Doug told Dev. “Bet it was way more fun here than back there.”
Dev drifted out across the Bay and waited until she heard the bell below them, smiling, as she turned the carrier and then boosted quickly up and out of the surrounding cliffs and transitioned from thrusters to the powerful engines, rolling up into the sky and accelerating up through the speed of sound, leaving behind a solid boom to answer the tone.
Torrential rain obscured almost everything outside, as Dan Kurok stood quietly watching surface of the Bay from the wide window on the northernmost curve of the wall. To his right was the large former storage area he’d taken over as a workshop, and to his left the long newly chiseled hallway that led to the plant cavern.
He could see the bare outline of a craft gently easing from the landing bay and smiled as it gracefully drifted out away from the wall and turned, then converted to forward motion and took off like what was described in the old days as a bat out of hell.
A breath later, and a double concussive boom sounded through the walls, rattling some of the equipment on a nearby table.
“Wow, what was that.”
Doctor Dan turned to find several young men behind him staring past out the window. “Hello lads.” He said. “That was a large flying vehicle breaking the speed of sound. You remember that from class, don’t you?”
“Oh yes.” The nearest one nodded. “From flight class, yes I do. It’s loud.”
“It’s loud but you don’t hear it when you’re inside the vehicle, you know.” Doctor Dan told them. “But you certainly do when you are left behind.” He turned his back on the Bay below. “Now, are we ready for our work today? Let’s see if we can set up those tables in the lab and get that all arranged.”
“Sure, Doctor Dan.” They turned and went into the newly opened area and started to work, leaving him standing in the alcove pondering the past few days. He was still there with his arms folded when Security Mike came over, a clipboard in one hand.
“So.” He said, holding the clipboard against his waist. “That was all right.”
Kurok looked at him with some puzzlement for a moment. “You mean our little market, or our visitors from Interforce?”
“Drake being here.” Mike said, succinctly. “It was good.”
“Right up until you all thought young Dustin was going to get his gawky neck broken.” Doctor Dan smiled just a little. “That was a moment.”
“Nah, he was fine, we could tell.” MIke disagreed. “It was alright she liked the rugger. Didn’t figure that. Justin never did. That was a huh.” He made a huffing sound. “You heard she gave the kids the cred she won off those traders for the game? Little idiots’ll probably wear it like a necklace.”
Kurok leaned back against the stone wall, as he once had commonly leaned against the transparent side of a space station. “Did she?” He mused. “She’s more social than Justin was that’s for certain. He’d’ have never invited other agents here, or hung around with them.”
“Jess isn’t much more than a kid. I realized that last night.” Doctor Dan said. “They’re not a bad bunch.” He concluded. “Glad they seemed to enjoy the visit.”
Mike slowly nodded. “They’d be all right here.” He said, after a pause. “Too bad they’re probably gonna croak having to do some pointless crap for people who don’t give a shit about them.” He shook his head and moved off along the line of the corridor, heading to the cross walk that would take him to security ops.
“It is too bad.” Doctor Dan sighed. “Those kids could be a lot more useful to the world if they could focus on something other than violence. Except that was what they’d been bred and trained for, wasn’t it?” He mused, watching a flood of bio alts head down towards the plant cavern, a lilting sound of their voices drifting back to him. But they really didn’t seem like the agents he remembered, or Justin.
Justin would have killed that kid. He knew that without a doubt. But from his corner of the mess hall just watching he’d barely started to get up when he’d taken in Jess’s body posture and sat back down knowing, as Mike had known, he was in no danger.
In no danger, and in fact, he’d gotten out of it with a head butt from his head of household and a pocket of cred. Amazing really. Or was it? Suddenly he found himself a little curious about Jess, and what her metrics were, going through Canyon City.
Putting thought to action he pushed away from the wall and went into the large cavern that was in the midst of becoming a lab and workroom for his various projects on behalf of the Bay. There were bio alts, and several Bay residents, setting up tables and surfaces everywhere.
He walked over to where two Kaytees were wrestling a cabinet into place. “Hello there. That’s just the right place I wanted that.”
One of them looked over and grinned at him “Is it, Doctor Dan? That’s excellent.” His bay overshirt shifted a little as he took a step back and briefly, a wink of metal showed as his collar was exposed. “This is going to be a nice big lab for you, isn’t it? Bigger than the one on station.”
“Lots bigger.” Doctor Dan said. “Kelson, have you finished the work on that light flyer you were talking to Dev about?”
He nodded. “Yes, she helped me adjust the gyro for it, and it’s optimal now. It was so nice of her to take some of her time and work with me.” He said. “Would you like to see it?”
“I would.” Kurok said, briskly. “In fact, would you like to take a ride in it with me? I need to stop by some of our neighbors, and a few other errands.”
Kelson’s eyes lit up. “Absolutely Doctor Dan!” He said. “Now?”
“No time like the present, lad.” Doctor Dan clapped him on the shoulder, catching the envious look on the other bio alt’s face he’d been working with. “Kurt, would you like to come as well? We can go over some flight dynamics and make it a lesson.”
“Yes, Doctor Dan,I would really like that.”
“Let’s go then.” He gestured towards the central hall. “I’ll just let central ops know we’re taking a little trip. You go on and I’ll meet you in the landing bay.”
He waited for them to scoot ahead of him, then he paused to regard the room, making a picture in his head of what it was going to look like when he was done with it. He nodded a few times, then turned and headed back to his quarters for a jacket.
And a blaster.
It was a quiet flight back, the heavy rain drumming on the roof of the carrier as Dev once again skirted the coastline, finding the changing sight of the ocean’s surface and the moving water more interesting than the cragged rocky landscape inland.
Below her, the waves thundered and crashed against the rock walls of the escarpment that ran along their line of flight, some ejecting up almost high enough to dust the bottom of the craft.
Dev kept glancing in the reflective surface, the only sound the calm whisper of the carrier’s systems in her ear as it reported placidly on their technical status, the weather outside, their distance to destination. She reached over and flicked a setting, and in the other bud she could hear the weather and sea outside, and the wind that pushed against the carrier’s stolid forward motion.
Her new module was performing well, but she was reluctant to break the silence to discuss it, and Doug seated at her left-hand side seemed content to just look out the front screen, his boot up against the curve of the forward wall and his elbow resting on his knee.
Behind her, Jess was relaxed in her seat, her guns deactivated and pushed to one side, though Dev had power in ready reserve for them. She had her head tipped back against the seat and her hands resting on the arms of the chair, eyes half closed.
April was studying something she’d taken from her pack, and Mike and Chester were side by side on the back shelf, seemingly content to just ride. Chester was kicking his boots idly out a little, the heels thumping rhythmically against the steel supports.
It was hard for Dev to imagine doing that, really. She’d almost always been in the drivers seat in vehicles they were using, the exception being the shuttle on its way down that first time and the boat. After all, that was part of her function, and what she’d been given programming for and what she would say in the privacy of her own thoughts what she was very good at.
Because she was. From her very first mission, to this quiet, common flight today Dev knew and understood that she was the best pilot in the area. She had no idea if there were better in the other areas of Interforce’s purview but in this one, there were not.
She tried not to talk about it. She didn’t want the natural born to get angry or resentful for something neither they, nor she could change, and performing with less than excellence to prevent that she would not do. The fact that she was the youngest field tech with a senior rating, and a bio alt on top of it, was more than enough.
She adjusted the pitch of their flight a little, as they started around the curve that would take them into Base 10’s range, and glanced expectantly at the comms board, waiting for the hail from Base 10 Centops when they came into scan.
For several minutes, it was very quiet. Dev reached out and tuned the comms, checking to make sure the channels were set and hadn’t gotten turned off during their visit.
A brief memory surfaced of their return during the weather attack, when they’d been faced with that kind of silence and she grimaced a little, glancing back to find Jess looking at her with one eye open, piercing and blue, eyebrow just slightly lifted.
Then she heard a soft crackle in her ear, and she leaned back, lifting one hand to adjust the bud and signal to Jess they had incoming comms.
“Interforce Base 10 to incoming flight, please identify.” Centops sounded crisply normal.
Ah Dev gave a little nod. “Base 10, this is BR270006 inbound from Drake’s Bay homestead. Requesting permission to approach and land.” Ahead of her, she could see the tall promontory that was the base, and even from this distance she could see the dark shadow that was the open landing bay.
“Roger that, BR270006, pad 7 is reserved for you, come ahead and land when ready.”
All as expected. “Thank you, Base10, we are ten minutes from final approach.” Dev closed the channel and turned on the carrier’s landing lights.
“Home sweet home.” Jess said, in reflective tone. “Least we don’t have to land in the rain anymore. How idiotic was that? Taking us that long to figure out we should put the landing door on the side of the mountain instead of the top?”
“Tradition.” April remarked briefly. “Sticks like plas glue.”
Dev brought them around into the landing zone and slowed as they came to the level of the bay and could see inside, where the ochre work lights were on full blast, and the ring of inset guidance lights a deep vivid blue guiding them in.
The rain thundered down over them until they crossed the verge, and then it was almost shocking in it’s absence, until the sounds of the ongoing work flooded in, the bongs of the overhead cranes and steel being cut and someone hammering metal.
The central lane ingress was clear, and Dev drifted down it, passing carriers being worked on either side as she went to the pad in the back, the one they’d left from.
It was a large pad, with just a little extra space, and two extra work bays near the back wall of the cavern and she neatly turned the carrier as she arrived above it and settled down in one smooth motion to the skids.
Around her, she heard and felt the motion as the agents and techs got up, unclipped restraints and started sorting out their gear, while she went through the motions of shutting things down and securing systems.
“Hey Drake, thanks for the invite.” Mike Arias said suddenly. “That was a nice break.”
“Yeah.” April agreed. “Big props.”
Jess shrugged into her pack, that had bags and other things strapped to it. “Yeah it was fun.” She said. “Glad it was better than last time.” She fastened the pack belt around her waist with a soft clicking sound. “Can’t have things go to crap every time I guess.”
Dev reached over and released the hatch, and it retracted, then swung open to let them out, the exit ramp extending and locking in place. She pushed back her seat and released her harness, going through her procedures with smoothly automatic motions.
Everyone trooped out save Jess, who stood quietly by her seat, waiting for Dev to finish her tasks. “Whatj’da think, Dev?” She asked, idly.
“About our time at your place?” Dev unhooked her ear buds and shut down power to the grid and stood, moving around behind her station. “I had an excellent time.” She went to the storage cabinets to retrieve her things. “Didn’t you?”
Jess leaned against the carrier wall. “Yeah I did.” She admitted. “Most fun I’ve had there probably since I left the first time.” She waited for Dev to finish getting her things and then they left the carrier, walking down the metal ramp way to the stone floor of the cavern.
It was busy, and the carrier that had been assigned to one of their new agents was being worked in, one of its massive engines being replaced.
“Home sweet home.” Jess repeated, in a musing tone. “Let’s put our stuff away and see what’s been going on.”
Dev was behind her work table in the tech lab, examining a circuit layout under the intense focus light when Brent found her there late that afternoon.
“Here you are.”
Dev glanced around then up at him and smiled. “Yes.” She agreed. “Here in fact, I am. How are you?”
“Heard you guys had a party.”
Dev sat up and swung the light aside a bit so her eyes could adjust to the lower light of the lab. “At Jess’s home place? Yes, it was nice.” She said. “There was a market, and they did some.. “ She paused. “There were some activities and music. It was very enjoyable.”
Brent nodded the whole time she was talking. “Chester won’t shut up about it.” He said. “Can you get us on the list next time? Me and Jase?” He grinned at her. “I know Jess’ll do it if you ask her.”
Dev considered that. “I think Jess would do it if you asked.” She replied straightforwardly. “I know she likes both of you and would be glad if you wanted to visit her home place. But yes, I will mention it. I think you would have had a good time.”
“I saw the knife Arias brought back. It’s sweet.” Brent said. “Didn’t figure there was much to go to on the south side. Thought we’d have to go to Quebec and that’s off limits.”
“Is it?” Dev leaned on the counter. “That is the same, then?”
Brent nodded. “We can go west if we have to, and up to North, down past where Jess’s place is, but that’s it and nobody wants to go to North.”
No. Dev herself had no desire to go there. “I remember what it looked like after it got attacked.” She said. “I can’t forget that.”
“Everyone there’s sour anyway.” Brent said. “Anyway least you go to do something. It’s dead as a door nail here. Not nothing coming in. Just some word they got some big conference going on over in Juneau.” He leaned closer to her and lowered his voice. “Jase thinks it’s a scam. You know, to suck them in over there and keep it quiet here for a while.”
Dev regarded him somberly. “That could be true.” She said. “Or they do not wish to have a fight like the last one for a while.”
Brent grinned briefly. “Yeah, that’s bingo.” He put the tip of his finger on his nose. “But hey we got time to get stuff all rigged up good, and get some newbies in. Heard a class is coming out.”
The last class had ended up producing April and Doug, and Mike and Chester, so Dev viewed this in a positive light if more people like them came to the base and ended up on their team.
Jess liked them. Jess had not liked the agents that had been there before, most of which now were gone, made dead. So perhaps the new agents, whoever they were, would be equally as excellent.
“Whatcha working on?” Brent asked, pointing at the card. His whole attitude seemed to have shifted 180 degrees his reassignment, to the point where he seemed like quite a different person.
Dev found that interesting. “So, this is an autonomic systems control module.” She pushed the card forwards and towards him. “It interfaces with all the flight systems, and lets you remotely program them.”
Brent blinked. “You kidding? Remote like, from here? Like anyone could make it do stuff?”
Dev shook her head. “No, it’s biometric pattern keyed to the authorized pilot.” She explained. “Of course, because you don’t want someone else doing that while you are in the middle of a mission.”
“So you could fly your rig from sitting in bed?” Brent whispered. “Is that what you mean?”
Dev sat up and frowned at him. “Why would I want to do that?”
“No, you know. You could be on a drop, under, and you could make the bus come and like, distract people or get it to where you need to be?”
“Oh, yes, exactly.” Dev glanced around the tech room. “It’s very quiet in here today.” She asked. “I was going to see if anyone wanted to help install this.”
“Count me in, and lemme give Doug a buzz.” Brent said. “They got a scrounge party goin on in storage - that’s where everyone is.” He confided to her. “Most of us can’t build from scratch like you can.”
He tapped the desk. “Be right back.” He said, trotting off before Dev could answer him and she sat there for a long moment, thinking about what he’d just said.
Dev looked over her left shoulder. “Hello, Clint. How are you?” She greeted the mech supervisor.
“Doin all right.” Clint nodded, “Have a nice visit? Heard from Doug it was a good time.”
Had it been that interesting? Dev was a bit taken aback at how quickly word seemed to have spread about such a non-operational event. “It was excellent, thanks.” She assured him. “Clint, may I ask a question?” She diverted the conversation, since Clint would have the answer to her pondering, she was confident.
Looking pleased, he walked over and leaned against her cabinet. “Shoot.”
Dev paused. “During the training for the technical positions I am currently filling, do they include training in systems fabrication?”
“Oh now.” Clint shifted, lacing his fingers together and leaning back against the wall. “Like what you do, you mean?” He indicated the board at her elbow. “Making stuff? New stuff? Designing and all that?”
Dev nodded. “I received programming for building components.” She said, then paused. “So I thought others would receive that in their preparation classes to come here.”
“I came in through trade, not the tech route.” Clint said, after a long pause for thought. “You know, I apprenticed to my uncle, learned how to fix stuff, that kinda thing. So I can’t say really about what the kids learned at school but I’d say no, they didn’t get that.”
Dev wasn’t sure exactly what his tone indicated. “It’s useful.” She remarked, in a diffident tone.
He started laughing. “Yeah but those kids… listen, Dev, you’re not…. Those kids.. most of them are book learners, who want excitement. They don’t want to build stuff, they want to make cred and its a way out of their homestead.”
“I see.” Said Dev, who actually didn’t.
“If you’d have come in the regular way, you’d have ended up working over in Juneau, or Picchu, that’s where they design our stuff and develop new things like what you do.” Clint pointed at the card again. “That’s why you stand out so bad here. No one does that who’s inservice, in the field. They wouldn’t have sent you out here.”
“Ah.” Dev murmured. “That’s very interesting.”
“Anyway, don’t let it stop ya.” Clint smiled. “Just don’t let them talk you into going off and working out there. We need you here.” He winked and patted the console, then went back to his three cornered workstation in the very back of the tech lab, settling behind it and pulling a data pad over.
Dev folded her arms. “Interesting.” She repeated. “But weird and possibly sub optimal.” Her comms buzzed, and she tapped it. “Dev.”
“We’re in the work bay.. c’mon!” Brent’s voice buzzed through in her ear. “Got an engine misfiring we can’t figure out.”
Dev picked up her new card and slipped it into a static repellent folder, then put it under her arm and started for the door.
The meeting room seemed undersized for the people who were in it. Agents tended to be tall, and the space was filled with them, Jason at the head of the rectangular table facing Jess at the far end, with eight others crammed in on either side.
This was the smaller room than the one they used for ops briefings. This one was at the back of centops, restricted entry, around the corner from Jason’s office as the director. It was usually used for small groups, but there was just enough space for all the agents they currently had, so Jason had called them there.
“So.” Elaine leaned back. “Any news?”
Jason shrugged his broad shoulders. “Same as the scuttlebutt everyone’s heard. Some wigs in some meeting up on the northwest coast, everyone stay put, keep your mouths shut and your guns off.” He said. “So that’s the rules of the road right now.”
“We should at least put some scouts on the ground in Quebec.” Elaine disagreed. “They’re going to take the opportunity to get in there.”
“They’re supposed to be staying put too.”
Elaine rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Jase. “
“She’s right.” Charlie Boone spoke up. “They bring over all the talking heads on that side, while the pointy end starts showing up on this side. They want Quebec.” He finished talking and fell silent.
Jason glanced across the table. “You’re both probably right. But that’s all I heard. If there’s more to it, I’m not on the party list. There are folks out there who probably haven’t forgotten I shoved my boot in their ass when they showed up here last time.” He reminded them drily.
Jess smiled at him, but kept silent.
“Anyway.” Jason said. “They are graduating a class in a week and a half. We’re slated to get a half dozen teams out here.”
“With all that stay put stuff?” April asked. “They send a dozen more of us? What does that say?”
“They gotta do something with em.” Dave Carter said. “It’s rotation time out there. Gotta move all the levels up.”
“So we’re getting space ready for them, and we’ll have to go through the dog and pony show. Let’s see what we can do to start tuning things. We’re getting six pairs, North’s getting three. So maybe the message that sends is, we’ll stay quiet, but not for long.”
Elaine nodded. “That’s better.” She grudgingly noted. “I just don’t want them to get the idea they can wander in here.”
“Everyone agrees El.” Jason said. “And even if we can’t get to Quebec, maybe we can put feelers out to people who can.” He added. “So that’s all for now.”
No one was satisfied. Jess could feel it as they stood and started to move towards the door and she stayed seated, because Jason stayed seated and he was looking right at her.
No need to tell her to stay. No need to work hard to feel the jealousy and resentment of some of the others who hesitated before leaving, hoping to be told to stay behind as well, sensing privileged communication they wanted to be a part of.
But at last the door closed behind Elaine, who was of all of them the closest to Jason, and had been paired with him in the field before his promotion. Friends from field school, and casual lovers the rumors said.
Elaine expected to be in Jasons confidence. She made a point of shooing the others ahead of her and pulling the door closed as though she was part of the game and maybe, Jess thought, she was.
Jess had no expectations of the kind but there was something there that had brought him down on her side when logic had dictated otherwise and she wasn’t about to turn down intel regardless of the reason. Aside from the fact that she liked both Jason and Elaine and always had.
“So.” Jason said, after the door had closed and sealed. “How’s the old place?”
Jess leaned back and propped her knee against the table, relaxing her posture and sending that friendly message. “They’re doing good. Had a caravan by when we were there. Ended up watching a rugger match and almost killing a cousin.” She said, casually. “Usual Bay visit. Had some clam stew, got some nick nacks.”
Jason smiled. “Brent heard it from Chester and Doug. They said it was cool, and your fam didn’t shiv you this time.”
“Come with me next time.” Jess offered as though it had just occurred to her and had not been suggested to her by Dev. “Not sure when next time’ll be but when it is.”
Jason also relaxed, twiddling his input stylus between his fingers. “I don’t think this pow wow’s gonna last long. I think E’s right it’s just a decoy.” He looked back at her. “What I don’t get is that’s so obvious to us, why isn’t it to anyone on the other coast?”
“Maybe it is.” Jess said, then stopped.
Jason watched her face. “Part of the scam?”
He shook his head in frustration. “Doesn’t really make sense, Jess. I just don’t trust anything right now. Every time I talk to those people I feel like I’m inserted. You know what I mean? Every word has double meanings.”
“I get it.” Jess was nodding in understanding. “I totally get it. Who’s the enemy?” She pointed east. “Them?” She pointed west “Them? Us?”
“Who’s the enemy.” He repeated back to her. “I keep hoping this all ends up better than I think it will but man, Jess, my tongue itches.”
“Got it.” Jess said. “All we can do is do what we do. We’ll end up somewhere.”
“Fish food.” He smiled without humor, field school joke.
“Maybe.” Jess met his eyes with calm. Death to either of them was a bland void. She didn’t fear it, she knew he didn’t either.
They looked at each there for a minute, in silence. “Glad you got to go home, Jess. For sure the next time I’ll tack on.” Jason concluded, with a faint smile. “I’d like to see the place without any guns blazing.”He added. “Bet that big hall looks nice without blood and bodies all over it.”
“Yeah, cleans up nice. So you got it.” Jess pushed herself to her feet. “Now we prep for some kids.” She said. “Let’s see what that’s gonna be like.”
“Now, when it’s raining like this, you have to be careful how you take off, lads.” Doctor Dan sat in the passenger seat of the light flyer, arms folded as they lifted off from the small plateau outside Cooper’s Rock stakehold. “Remember all that water offsets lift.”
“Yes, Doctor Dan.” Kelson was seated in the pilot’s station, and Kurt was in the copilot’s seat, busy with navigation. “It feels much different!”
Strapped behind his seat was a crate full of minerals, very recently traded for a crate full of plant matter, the ostensible initial focus of this little journey. Cooper’s was a mining stakehold, and had always had warily good relations with the Bay, but now were proving to be a nice little trading partner much to everyones surprise and delight.
Doctor Dan regarded the landscape outside the forward screen. “Now, Kurt, lets see how the flyer operates on a longer journey. I’m going to give you some coordinates, and you put them in.”
“Yes!” Kurt nodded, swiveling around confidently to the navigation panel. “Go ahead, Doctor Dan!”
Kurok recited them and watched as they were entered. “That’s it, lad.” He said, encouragingly. “Go ahead and plot that, and it’s going to ask you, are you sure?”
Kurt nodded. “Yes, it says unknown destination.” He reported. “It wants me to confirm commit.”
“That’s right. It’s fine. Just tell it to commit.”
Obediently, the bio alt did as he was told, and the flyer lifted up over the cliffs and turned to the west. “Now go ahead and put some speed on, Kelson.” Doctor Dan said, placidly. “It’s a couple of hours trip, but lets see how fast we can go there, and come back.”
With a brisk nod, Kelson adjusted his controls and then fed the engines power, as the flyer boosted up and cleared the cliffs. “Doctor Dan, should we go above the clouds? Then it wouldn’t be raining.” He asked, after a moment of adjusting the pitch of the wings. “Would it?”
“Excellent question, Kelson. Here’s some thoughts behind that possibility. You see, there’s a tradeoff in the ability of the air to lift our wings and the lack of density of the air the higher we go. But lets give that a try, shall we? Proceed to – let me see, yes, lets go up another 5 thousand and see what that gets us.”
“Doctor Dan, this is fun.” Kurt looked over his shoulder. “Thank you for letting us do this.”
“Yes, thank you!” Kelson chimed in, as he finished adjusting the ailerons.
Doctor Dan smiled at him. “My pleasure, lads.” He glanced over to his left, where there was another small box lashed to the flyer wall. “It’s great for me to get a chance to do some practical labs with you. Everyone wins, right?”
“Yes.” Kurt said, in a satisfied tone. “This is excellent.”
The flyer punched through the lower layer of clouds and then was in clear air, with another layer above them. “Oh.” Kelson said, in surprise. “There’s more clouds.”
“But less rain.” Kurt observed. “Interesting.”
“Above that second layer, if we went there, we’d see space.” Doctor Dan remarked. “But there’s not enough air to support the plane. That’s where rockets need to be used.”
“Like the shuttle.” Kelson nodded. “Yes, I remember the vehicle had both types of power plants.” He said. “I have spoken to NM-Dev-1 about what it was like to fly like that. She said it was very interesting.”
Interesting. “Ah, Dev’s learning the nuances of understatement. That’s great. But we don’t have rockets on this plane, so we’ll stay here.” Kurok concluded. “But you see, there is less rain, but we also have less lift. Watch the flaps there.”
“Yes, it feels different.” Kelson was watching the control surface intently.
The flyer was a lightweight passenger vehicle, made for six people, plus two pilots or fewer with cargo. Right now only two passenger seats were installed, the back of the vehicle had skids on the metal composite floor with tie downs for small crates.
“Where are we going, Doctor Dan?” Kelson asked, after they’d flown in silence for a while. “Is it really unknown?”
Doctor Dan smiled at him. “It’s not unknown to me, lad.” He said. “It’s a place where natural born go to be taught things, like I’m teaching you now. I just have an errand to run there, and you’re helping me do that.” He glanced at the box. “We’re going to bring a little gift to young Tayler. Do you remember Tayler from station? He came to visit us.”
“Oh yes!” Kurt looked around in surprise. “We were playing with him in the lab before.. when we all had to go on the shuttle.” He paused. “He is from our place. He is related to Agent Jess.”
“Yes, he’s from Drake’s Bay, and he’s Jess’s nephew. I’m going to bring him something from there that I think he will enjoy.”
“That’s excellent, Doctor Dan.” Kelson nodded in satisfaction. “This is very good work.”
Doctor Dan settled back in his seat and extended his legs out, crossing them at the ankles. “Oh, I think so.” He smiled, his eyes twinkling just a little. “We always want to do good things for other people, don’t we?”
“Yes.” Kurt said, with a nod. “We certainly do.”
It was well after noon before they came into the vicinity of Canyon City. Kurok watched through the forward screen as the once familiar landscape came into focus ahead of them, a never-ending stretch of craggy flatlands and rubble, with mountains rising behind it.
Past the nearest range they would fly over the plateau that held the gates of the Interforce training facility, which he never in the privacy of his own mind called a school.
He knew better than that.
Oh, for the youngers, the children they took in from families some willing and some not, there was learning. The education they gave those kids was the equal of any anywhere, in math and technology, in learning skills, in science. It was where he, after all, had first realized he had the aptitude for genetics.
In those classrooms, surrounded by just post adolescents like he was, who were already so dangerous they had protocols around them.
Where he without effort, excelled and achieved respect for doing so, countering the mountain he had to climb in other areas these kids had been being trained on for half a decade already.
“We are almost at our destination, Doctor Dan.” Kurt observed. “There seems to be something ahead of us.”
Kurok smiled, without much humor. “Yes, lads, there is.” He agreed. “That’s the Interforce School there, just on the horizon. That’s where we’re going.”
“Comp doesn’t recognize it.” Kelson commented, studying the readouts. “That seems unusual for such a large facility.”
“No, you only know where it is if you know where it is.” Doctor Dan said. “It’s a special place, and there are many youngers there, so they want it to be hard to find.”
“Like the nursery rooms at our place.” Kurt nodded. “Where we protected the children, during the fight. They are behind a lot of hallways.”
“Exactly, Kurt.” Doctor Dan agreed. “And so, here we are.” He leaned over and keyed the comms panel at his right shoulder. “When they hail us, I’ll answer, if that’s all right with you. I know what to ask them.”
“Yes, Doctor Dan.” Both pilots nodded.
He had his pitch ready in his head when the hail came, and he waited the correct number of breaths before he keyed the mic and responded, as anyone else who was in a civ vehicle might. “Hello, Canyon City, this is stakeholder proxy for Drake’s Bay coming to bring a bit of home to Tayler Drake.”
He enjoyed the bit of silence that followed, easily imagining the comm ops tech trying to puzzle out the combination of civilian cheer and normalcy with the use of the facilities nonpublic name.
What would they do? If they’d been in Jess’s carrier, it would be a nonevent. Dev would be landing it right next to the ops center, an accepted part of their world, and likely the administrator or a high level lackey would be hurrying out to greet them.
This light flyer with a newly stenciled dragon guardant on the tail? Anyone’s guess. “Now lads, don’t be surprised at anything that happens here.” Kurok warned the pilots. “There are a lot of regulations around this place. Just stay calm, and let me handle everything.”
Both bio alts looked around at him, with slightly puzzled expressions, as though to indicate they never had any intent to do anything but that, a little surprised he found the need to say it.
Which of course they hadn’t. They were bio alts, and he was the ultimately trusted and supremely authoritative Doctor Dan.
“Interforce Operations to incoming Drake’s Bay.” The voice finally answered. “Please land at the visitor facility, forward pad, and remain with your vehicle.”
Reasonable response, really. Kurok nodded in approval. “Will do, IO.” He said. “ETA five minutes.” He responded casually, giving them a few more bits of curiosity to chew over. “Now, Kelson, when we pass that escarpment there, you will see a clear space, in front of some gates. Please land the flyer there.”
“Yes, Doctor Dan.” Kelson shifted a little and took a firmer grip on the controls. “Is everything okay?”
“Oh yes.” He reassured him. “As okay as it could be, lad.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his waist, jiggling his knees a little, a faint twinkle of anticipation in his eyes. “They haven’t shot at us yet, so I’m confident it’ll be fine.”
Kurt looked around at him, eyes widening a little bit.
“Just fine.” Doctor Dan repeated. “Perhaps five minutes will give them time to figure out who in the hell they were just talking to.” He twiddled his fingers. “Though I hope they don’t remember me too well.”
“Never mind, lads. Lets just set down. I can show you something really interesting on our way back to the Bay.”
The door to the vehicle cavern was open, letting in a flood out dim, gray outdoor light, and a wash of wet, cold air form the storm lashing the walls outside. A cascade of water was coming off the top of the promontory, forming a small waterfall that ran past the opening, and a rumbling thunder faintly vibrated the walls.
Dev was flat on her back, her head inside the carrier’s control console, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles as she worked with probes to test the intake leads traced on the surface of the system over her.
So far, the testing was going along well. She felt like the board was going to be successful.
She glanced towards the open hatch of the carrier. “Hello?”
Clint stuck his head in. “We can’t link to your boards in here for updates.”
Ah. “Yes.” Dev said. “I’m testing a new component. I will revert the system when I am finished.”
“No problem.” Clint half waved at her. “Wanted to make sure everything was okay.” He removed his head from the opening and walked off, his boots scuffing lightly on the metal grating of the ramp that led down off the pad.
Dev looked thoughtfully at the new board. “Interesting.” She started probing a different area. “Unexpected, but interesting.”
Sometimes modules were like that. She had intent when she programmed them, and yet sometimes when they were integrated, side logic appeared that she hadn’t expected. In this case, code she’d used to allow the remote programming interface had, quite rightly, assumed she didn’t want anyone but her doing the programming and was wanting her auth.
Probably it was disturbing the master control systems, who also, quite rightly, expected to be able to mesh and sync programming across the fleet of carriers for consistent results.
So, interesting, but she would have to adjust it for standard ops.
Footsteps sounded, but these were not Clint returning and she paused again, reaching over and picking up her ear bud and inserting it into her ear. It chimed softly and synced with comms, and she waited as the steps came closer and someone entered whose walking pattern she didn’t recognize.
“Ah, excuse me.”
Ah. The new agent, Charlie Boone, the one no one seemed to like. “Hello.” She issued her standard greeting.
He stayed near the hatch and put up both hands, palms out. “Okay to talk to you for a minute?”
Interesting approach. It was almost as if he was treating her as most people treated Jess, when they were unsure of her temper. “It depends on what you want to talk about.” Dev answered in a straightforward kind of way. “And also, for how long as I have task here I need to complete.”
He lowered his hands and sat down on the entrance edge, so that his feet were outside the carrier and he was just leaning inside a little bit. “I don’t really want any trouble.”
Even more interesting. “That’s excellent?” Dev remained where she was, letting the probe rest on her stomach. “I seldom want trouble either, in fact.” She added. “Did you expect me to?”
He relaxed just a bit. “The way every person in this rock pile warns me off you, I wasn’t sure what the hell to expect.” He answered readily. Despite the scar, he was not unattractive, and he had interesting, intense eyes. “You have a lot of buddies in this place.”
Dev considered that for a moment. “Yes.” She agreed. “And there is also my partner, Jess.”
“And also Jess Drake.” He nodded. “The ultimate threat, as in, look sideways at you, and I get my neck broken. You think that’s likely?”
“Yes.” She answered placidly.
“Yes.” Dev repeated, with a slight smile. “Jess does not care for people who are incorrect in that regards.” She said. “But you are not being incorrect, so it should not be an issue.”
“Okay. So here’s my question.” He leaned one elbow on his knee and regarded her.
Dev waited, to see if this was going to be a pleasant surprise, like the questions the mech leader at Jess’s homestead had been, or an unpleasant one that would involve personal details, or just neither and about being a bio alt or what space was like or something boring.
She was used to the last two, and always looked forward to getting the first.
“What does it feel like, to just know things.” He asked, and then waited.
Oh that was a little interesting. “Do you mean, what does it feel like when you’ve been given instruction?” She clarified. “Been programmed?”
Dev thought about that for a few minutes in silence, as he just sat there. What did it feel like? How could she really compare it to anything? “If you know what you are getting, then it’s like reading a book.” She finally said. “Except you don’t have to read it.”
“Its… just there?”
She nodded. “If they tell you that you are going to do this task, we’re going to give you the knowledge - and when you come up, you know how to do it. Its nice.” She concluded. “Most sets enjoy it. It means you’re being made more valuable, and you will get a better assignment.”
Boone remained thoughtfully silent, then took a breath. “Did you get a lot of programming to do this?” He made a vague gesture around him.
“Of course, I did. When I first came here and drove this vehicle, I would look at a board, and as I looked at each instrument, I understood what it did, and what it was for, and how to use it.” Dev continued. “That was very useful.” She concluded. “I had to do several assignments very quickly.”
“Huh. Yeah I saw the vids.” He made a low sound. Then he looked up to see her staring at him in silence, waiting. “My family had bio alts.” He said. “I had a minder, her name was Nelly.”
Dev nodded. “An EnEll set.” She said. “They are excellent with children. They work in the creche in that function as well.” She remembered them, a little, with their cheerful yellow jumpers and straight, dark hair, and how they would come to collect all of them for daymeal and sleep.
Coo Coo They would call, and clap twice, and the memory made Dev smile, amidst an image of plas, translucent walls and a flash of stars. “I knew some of them.” She turned her attention back to Boone.
He cleared his throat. “Well, I wanted to ask her that question, about what it was like and I decided I was going to, one day, after I went to go take some test.” Boone said. “Except they took me, and I never saw her again and I couldn’t.” He stood up outside the carrier and gave her a little wave. “So thanks for satisfying that bit of curiosity.”
He walked away down the ramp and Dev studied the now empty spot in the carrier’s entry for a moment, considering the interaction. “That was interesting.” She concluded. “Though quite unexpected.” She shifted her back and moved her head inside the console again, studying her module. “And I think slightly suboptimal.”
She made another adjustment and studied the readings, her fingers moving almost automatically as she thought about what else she wanted the module to do.
Then the overhead bong’d and that echoed inside her ear bud. She paused to listen, a little surprised when an all call requesting field teams to ops conf sounded. “Also unexpected.” She looked up and made a last adjustment to the module and then slid out from the console and closed it, standing up and dropping her probe into one of the pockets of her work suit. “But maybe not suboptimal.”
She dusted herself off and left the carrier, reaching in to close the hatch as she emerged onto the platform to see other techs disengaging themselves from tasks as she was. She walked down the ramp and joined that movement of green, easily spotted among the brown and gray suits of automation and mech.
They all joined together on the central walkway as they approached the ramp into the main part of the facility, and made the turn up the hallway that was coded for ops, passing without hindrance the scan ring that bisected it and would brusquely push back anyone else.
“They can’t have given up that parlay so fast.” Doug said, a smudge of dark green grease over one eyebrow. “Something must have happened.”
“Coulda.” Brent grunted.
Chester was wiping his hands free of service grease. “One of two things.” He predicted. “Either they gave up on the yak yak and we gotta get back to grind, or what they did was a trap, and we gotta go rescue someone’s ass.”
“Or take vengeance for one.” Doug said. “I know which one April’d rather.”
Dev had nothing to contribute, and no additional information to provide, so she merely walked along between them, reaching up to run her fingers through her pale hair and settle it into some kind of order. Ahead of them she saw movement in black, as agents also headed into the briefing center.
Waiting her turn to enter the briefing center door, she looked inside and spotted Jess already there, and as she cleared the threshold she slipped through the crowd who was flooding around the table to get to her partner’s side. “Hello.”
“Yo, Devvie.” Jess was in one of the seats at the back, and she patted the empty one next to her. “Saved ya a place.” She remarked with a wry smile, as there had really been no effort on her part since the rest of the operations teams assumed her presence there automatically.
“Thank you.” Dev sat down, looking around to detect an uneasy air and guarded expressions on the faces of the people in the room. “Is there an issue?” She looked up at Jess, who was casually looking around.
“Couple of suits came in about an hour ago.” Jess leaned over and spoke quietly. “Something’s up.”
Dev considered. “Is this an excellent thing, or not so much?”
Jess looked off into the distance for a long moment, then she looked at Dev at close range, shrugging slightly. She had no true knowledge, only a gut feeling, and the instinct of an agent watching body posture and intent of those around her.
She didn’t know the suits. They weren’t any of the ones who’d come out the last time. But she did know Jason, and standing there on the far side of the room, she could read trouble.
Now, whether it was good trouble or bad trouble, or trouble for someone else – they’d soon find out. “At least its something, which is better than hanging around doing nothing.” She admitted. “I don’t like being grounded.”
Dev settled back in her seat, her hands resting on her knees, waiting to see what the something would be.