“The decision’s been made, that we’re just spread too thin.” The suit was standing at the head of the table, his fingertips resting on it’s surface. “No reflection on anyone here, it is what it is. What happened.. well it happened.” He said, with some emphasis.
The woman who’d come with him, nodded in silent agreement.
They were both admin types. Dressed in almost civs, expensive looking jackets and leggings, with flashes of glitz on her ears and his fingers. A senior director and project manager none of them had ever heard of.
Jess leaned back in her seat and laced her fingers together, aware of Dev giving her a sideways glance. “It happened.” She remarked mildly.
The man looked at her, then looked away, unable to return her intent stare, a slight flaring of the nostrils she recognized as someone who feared the crazy and was working hard to hide it.
He cleared his throat. “So we’re going to shut down these eastern stations, and pull everyone back to the west and regroup. It puts a buffer between us and them, and lets things cool down while we build ourselves back up.” The man concluded. “Anyone got any questions?”
April managed to speak first, ahead of the indrawn breaths around the room. “So what happens to the people who live out here?” She asked in a flat tone. “The ones who depend on us being here to not get whiffed.”
The suit looked at her. “They’ll survive, just like they always have. There’s not much to squabble over.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Without us here, I doubt there’ll be much interest.”
“What about Quebec City?” Elaine spoke up, slowly. “They’ve got something to fight over.”
“They know how to make deals.” The suit answered, bluntly. “You’ve been there. You know they play the game. They’ll be fine.”
The woman stepped up next to him. “We’ve got berths for all of you, and you’ll retain all your status and rankings.” She said, briskly. “I think some of you came from out there. It’ll be nice to go home, won’t it?” She looked at Doug, who stared back at her with a blank expression. “No? Well, you’ll get used to it. More civilized than anywhere around here, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I remember.” Doug said. “Why I was so glad to get sent here.”
The woman glanced at him and frowned.
“So, we’ll get started on shutting things down. You all can help out by getting your things packed up, and getting ready to head out. We want to be out of here by tomorrow before dark.” The man said. “Dark here, which means we’ll get back to the coast by dark there.”
He paused, as though waiting for more commentary, slightly surprised and a little discomfited by the utter silence facing him. “Okay, so that’s that. C’mon people, tomorrow’s another day. We’ll take the fight somewhere else.” He picked up the packet of plas he’d been carrying and tucked it under his arm. “Briana?” He indicated the door behind them, which lead into the ops corridor. “Anders? Your office.”
The door closed behind the three of them.
There was a moment of silence, then Doug drew breath to speak again, but stopped when April put her hand on his wrist and squeezed it. “Don’t waste your breath.” She said, in a flat tone. “This is a done deal.”
Then she turned her head deliberately and looked at Jess.
Jess reached up and ran her fingers through her hair, making a little wiggling motion with her nose. “Might as well go get a last round of surfing in I guess.” She said, in a casual tone. “You up for that Devvie?” She glanced sideways at her partner.
Dev had her most noncommittal expression on. “That would be excellent.” She pronounced, standing up as Jess did and pausing to let her partner duck past her before she followed her towards the door. “I don’t think I really have that much to pack anyway.”
“Not a bad idea.” April stood in place and dusted herself off. “You?” She looked at Doug.
“Sure.” Doug got up, and Mike and Chester followed suit as they all made their way to the door and the outer hallway beyond.
There was a long pause, and then Brent stood up and went out.
That left Elaine there, with the two new agents. “Wasn’t how I was looking for today to go.” She said, bluntly. “With us running.”
“That how you see this?” Charlie said. “Running?”
“What’d you call it, strategic rear advance?” Dave Carter spoke up, earning a surprised sideways look from Elaine. “Dude, they’re scarpering their little asses out of here and running home to the Juneau hills. They’re gonna go hide.”
“Other side’s going to come in and take this whole section over.” Elaine said, with a faint shake of her head. “Doesn’t even matter if it has anything but oysters to offer them. It’s territory.” She paused. “And they lost a lot to it over the years.”
“Ah, they don’t care.” Boone half shrugged. “They’re going to cut a deal so we become one big happy planet again.” He stood up. “Until we just start stabbing each other in the streets.” He shook his head. “Glad I didn’t bother unpacking.”
He left, and that left Dave and Elaine regarding each other across the table. “You been here a while?” He asked her.
“All my career.” Elaine responded straightforwardly. “I take it as a point of pride to be able to say that, and still be around and breathing. There’s no tougher station then this one.” She got up. “Maybe I’ll go surfing.” She said. “Damned if I want to go play footsie with that pair of wankers.” She lifted her voice and tilted her head at the ceiling. “Record that, assholes.”
Dave sat in the empty briefing room for few minutes, regarding the walls and the empty chairs around him. Then he smiled, and pushed himself to his feet, carefully moving his chair into place against the table before he turned and walked out.
Dev detoured past her quarters to pick up her portable scanner in it’s weather proof case. She slung it over her shoulder as she let the door close behind her and went back up the operations hall, her head shaking faintly as she went over the meeting they’d just had.
Dev paused as a KayTee caught up to her. “Hello.”
“We heard the natural borns are going to close this facility down.” The KayTee’s eyes were wide. “Is it true?”
“That is what they told us.” Dev saw no point in not confirming the news, which had surely spread through the halls as fast as she herself could run them. “We will go to a different place, on the other side of the landmass.”
“Have you been there?”
Dev shook her head. “No, I have only been to the Interforce school.” She studied his face. “It could be an opportunity for good work. There will be things for us to do there.”
The KayTee studied her for a long moment. “I don’t think we’re going.” He finally said, in a low, almost breathless voice. “I don’t think they want us to go.”
Would that be true? Dev pondered the thought. “We are all valuable assets.” She answered, slowly. “It would be suboptimal for them to just leave us behind.” She paused. “Did you hear something about that?”
Reluctantly, he shook his head. “I just think it’s going to be that way.” He admitted. “Just the way they looked at us.”
The halls were empty, and yet Dev felt an urge to look carefully around where they were standing, or to take out her scanner and see what was in the air, what was maybe listening to them. “Well, we have to wait to see what happens.” She finally said. “I’m going to go down to the caverns. Jess wishes to have a last time to surf in that place she likes.”
“We have to see what’s going to happen.” The KayTee said, in a mournful tone. “Maybe it will be good, and you are right, Dev. It could be excellent work.”
Dev gave him a little wave, then she started off down the hallway again, feeling troubled. What she’d said was true – the bio alts at the facility were all well trained, and skilled workers, valuable to Interforce. It would make no sense to just leave them behind.
Why would they?
Dev was turning the corner to move down the long rampway to the lower levels when the man who’d given them the news stepped out from a door and held his hand up to her.
Dev casually slid her hand under the shoulder strap of her scanner and paused. “Hello.” She issued her standard greeting.
“Hello, is it.. .Dev?” The man asked, and smiled at her.
“Yes.” Dev agreed. “NM-Dev-1, but please call me Dev.”
The woman came up behind him, from the small room beyond. “Oh, it’s senior tech Dev.” She said. “I was really hoping to get to meet you. We’ve all heard so much about all the things you’ve done here.”
The man nodded. “Yes, we’re looking forward to talking to you once we get back to the West, Dev. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there for you. I hope you’re looking forward to it.”
“You know..” The woman came closer to her. “I really don’t know if they’ve talked to you about your status, have they?”
Dev’s nape hairs prickled. “I am not sure who they are.” She temporized. “But I am content with my status.”
“Yes, of course.” The man said. “You are a bio alt, after all.”
“I am.” She agreed mildly. “I have enjoyed my assignment so far, and would like to continue to do so.”
The two exchanged glances. “Hang on.” The woman ducked into the room and then came out with a plas envelope in her hand. “Might as well give this to you now… here.” She offered it. “It’s your citizen validation and credentials. I know you’ve been.. well.. acting in that regard for a while, but here it is officially.”
Slowly, Dev reached out and took the envelope.
“So we wanted you to know, that is, interforce did, that you’re a really valuable technician.” The man said, in an earnest tone. “And you’re going to have a lot of opportunity in our technical centers. You can decide what you want to do there, you understand?”
“You don’t have to go along with anything that might.. well, with any plans that get made or with anyone here.” The woman said, with emphasis on the words. “Do you understand, Dev?” She stared at Dev intently. “You can make your own choice to do what’s best for you. Do you get it?”
Dev tucked the envelope under her arm. “Yes, I do understand.” She remarked evenly. “Thank you very much, that’s very interesting information.” She paused. “Now please excuse me, I have a task I have to carry out.”
“No problem, thanks for the chat.” The man lifted his hand in a little wave. “I know you’ve got lots of things to do before we leave tomorrow.”
Dev turned and continued down the rampway away from them.
“Think she gets it, Briana?” The man asked, in a musing tone.
“Oh yes, I think so.” The human resources executive said. “I’ve seen the files on her, Alan. She’s smart, and you’ve seen the advances she’s registered in what, a half a year? What an absolute waste having her tied up out here.”
“Mm.” He nodded. “One good thing that’s come out of this place.” He jerked his head towards the inner hallway. “Want to see what we can scare up for dinner?”
“Scare’s the word.”
“This is bullshit.” April was sitting on a rock, dressed in her surfing suit newly retrieved from fab. “Fuck if I want to go out there.”
“Fuck if I want to go, and I’m FROM there.” Doug agreed mournfully, kicking his heels against the rock next to her. “Damned if I know why I’m so mad though. It’s not bad out west. They got a lot more places like Quebec.”
“Maybe because they came here to kill us?” April suggested. “Not looking forward to bumping into guys I had to tie up and beat senseless in battle.”
“Well, there’s that.” Her partner agreed mournfully. “But some of those guys ended up okay.”
They were all in or around the pool. It was a curved hollow in the rock to one side of the outtake chambers, with the rush of water all around them and yet, where voices could be heard easily. Jess was standing near the edge of the flow with her hand on her board, wearing her worn old covering.
“I just don’t like how they’re abandoning the area.” Mike said. “It just seems sketch.”
“Sketch.” Chester repeated. “Like it’s a big scam.”
“That’s what I said.” April nodded. “Scam.” She looked over at Jess. “Scam?”
Jess turned and leaned against the rock, folding her long arms as she faced them. “Does it matter?” She mused. “I mean, what are the scenarios.” She crossed her ankles. “One, they’re doing a deal with the other side that involves taking us out of here and leaving it open to them.”
“Would they do that?” Mike Arias asked. “Why?”
“If they thought there was nothing of value here? Sure. Why not? Maybe they’re trading it for something on that side. Maybe Market Island. Who knows?” Jess responded mildly. “Two, they decided being out here leads people inservice to become rebels.” She grinned briefly. “Since we shot at them and Jason told them to kiss his ass.”
“We did.” April conceded, with a return smile. “I guess there’s a grudge coming for that.”
“Like ours for what they did.” Mike said.
“Three..” Jess paused, as she spotted motion near the entry and stretched up to her full height as Dev came into view, making her way along the path from the upper hallway. “Three, it’s just true, this place is like a tomb and it makes no sense to keep it open until there’s more people to put here.”
Brent was in the pool, up to his neck in water as it swirled around him. “S’what Jason said.” He admitted. “Just makes sense.”
“Yeah.” Doug sighed. “Walking these empty halls is depressing.” He walked over and jumped into the pool, disappearing into the swirling waters and then emerging, to swim over to where Brent was propped against the rock wall. “Least we got to try out our new togs. Dev was right. These are ace.”
“These rigs are good.” Brent commented, plucking at his sleeve. “You can sit here and get a backrub and not freeze your ass off.”
“Yeah, nice job, Jess.” Mike went over and sorted through the boards propped into the niche to select one. “But we can take these with us, right? They got waves on that coast.” He looked over at Doug, his dark brows lifting in question.
“Sure.” Doug agreed. “Not much like this though. The water here’s... I don’t know... rougher?”
“Wilder.” Jess supplied. “More cliffs to smack up against.”
Dev had disappeared into the suiting area. Now she reappeared in her surfing suit, sealing the neck up as she walked across the wet rocks to where they were clustered, her booties soundless. “I have surveyed the area.” She said, as she arrived next to Jess. “It seems clear here. I did not detect any surveillance, and there is no electronic signature.”
She picked a spot next to Jess and leaned against the stone, a thoughtful look on her face.
“Were you expecting to find something listening?” Doug asked. “In here?” He indicated the cavern, in all of its huge and rough cut splendor. “Those suits didn’t look like spooks. More like bean counters.”
Dev considered. “I don’t think I had any expectation.” She said. “It just seemed prudent to observe if anything had.” She fell silent, a faint crease between her brows. “Because things are a bit odd, aren’t they?” She added, belatedly. “Suboptimal.”
“How do you feel about this whole thing, Dev?” Brent asked, after they’d all been silent for a minute. “Make sense to you? Closing the place down?”
Jess was watching her and after a moment she spoke up. “She doesn’t like it.”
Dev eyed her, with the faintest of smiles.
“How can you tell?” Doug spread his arms out along the rim of the pool. “You can tell.”
“I can tell.” Jess’s eyes, colorless in the ochre overheads nevertheless twinkled a little. “That’s the same look I get when I’m trying to get her to try octopus tentacles.”
“Something is making me feel cautious.” Dev confirmed, as she folded her arms over her chest. “I think those people who came here and talked to us are incorrect.”
Jess straightened up and looked at her more seriously. “Incorrect how?” She asked, and both April and Mike came over. “They didn’t say two words to you.” She paused. “Did they?”
“They did.” Dev said. “Before I came down here, they spoke with me and offered me citizen credentials.” She looked around at them. “They think I should go with them, and there is much good work there I could do where they are taking everyone.”
There was a brief period of silence. “Well, duh.” Doug spoke up. “Sure they do. That doesn’t make them sideways, it just gets them points for having a clue, Rocket. You’re a star.”
“Truth.” April half shrugged. “I’da been surprised if they hadn’t pitched you.”
“It was what they said.” Dev demurred. “That since I had the citizen card, I didn’t have to do… what other people might choose to do here.” She stated calmly. “It seemed like they expected some people not to go with them or agree with them.” She turned and regarded Jess. “Are you going to go with them, Jess?”
It was so quiet, the thundering sounds of the water became crystal clear around them, the rush and boom seemed like the cavern itself was breathing in and out, waiting. Brent and Doug came over to the edge of the pool and leaned close, their wet hands flat on the rock floor.
“They weren’t asking us. They were telling us.” Jess finally broke the silence. “We’re all inservice. It’s in the regs. They can tell us to go anywhere.” She looked from one to the other, then back to Dev who was standing quietly, just waiting.
“But nah. I ain’t going.” She added calmly. “For what it’s worth, I think you’re right. I think they’re incorrect, the way Bain was incorrect. The way Joshua was incorrect.” She took a breath. “Abandoning everyone out here is wrong. Full stop.”
“They mean us harm.” Dev nodded. “Yes, that’s how I feel.” She looked relieved. “Since they have given me citizen status then, I will take advantage of that and go wherever it is that you are going.” She gave a little, sharp nod. “And that seems excellent to me.”
“They could end up shooting us.” Jess regarded her with a smile. “I’m pretty sure they’re not going to just let me walk out of here, even if they expect it.”
“You think they do?” April looked, if anything, intrigued. “If all of us are troublemakers, you’re the biggest.”
“I am.” Jess quietly agreed. “Or I don’t know, maybe they will just let me walk out the door and down the coast. Maybe it’s part of their game.”
“Bet Dev can hotwire that bus.” Brent spoke up, his arms folded on the stone, his chin resting on his wrists. “You ain’t gonna end up walkin nowhere.”
Dev cleared her throat a little, glancing around with a brief smile.
“Lets get a few rounds of surfing in, shall we?” Mike picked up a board. “Since that’s what we said we would do. NO sense… “ Now he smiled, looking back over his shoulder. “Stirring up any suspicions, right?”
Everyone went to grab their boards, leaving Dev and Jess standing alone for a moment. Dev released a contented sigh. “I’m glad.”
“Wait to be glad until we get away with it.” Jess told her dryly.
“I’m still glad even if we don’t. I feel like it’s correct.” Dev unexpectedly reached out and took Jess’s hand, lifting it up and kissing it, then releasing her and moving to the rack to retrieve her own board, as they all jumped into the pool, crossing it towards the inrace.
Jess went last to pick hers up, taking and releasing a breath and savoring that inward feeling of release at the inception of commitment to a course of action, like finding a path through the waves and seeing a landing clear on the other side of them.
She took a loping start and ran to the edge of the rocks, throwing herself forward and into the water, welcoming the chill and the smell of brine as it rushed over her.
Doctor Dan gently pushed the door to the flyer open and walked down the short steps, feeling the slightly harsh wind against his skin as he paused to watch the small greeting party come across the stone grounds towards the landing pad.
The two pilots had emerged behind him, Kurt holding the wrapped package tucked under one arm. They were looking around curiously.
Kurok put his hands in his pockets and waited, relaxed, as the group came up and climbed the short ramp to the landing pad and approached them. “Hello there.” He greeted them amiably.
“Hello.” The man in the lead had gray hair, and kind, brown eyes, and was wearing a pullover with an Interforce logo on it. “Kenneth Crow.” He eyed Doctor Dan. “And you are…”
“Daniel Kurok.” Doctor Dan supplied. “Stakeholder proxy of Drake’s Bay.”
The two behind him, one man, one woman, exchanged looks and nods, and they all sort of relaxed a little bit. “Of course.” Crow said. “I remember now, there was a.. “ He paused. “Well, a…”
“Kerfuffle.” Kurok supplied dryly. “Yes, there was, but fortunately I was around and in need of a job so it all worked out.” He half turned. “My pilots, Kurt and Kelson, who are contracted to Drake’s Bay.”
Both KayTees smiled, and nodded their heads, standing tall in their Bay coveralls and pullovers they were so proud of wearing.
The three from Interforce looked at them. “Boy, that must be a story.” Crow said, in a mild tone. “But c’mon inside, lets have a cup of tea, and chat about your visit request.” He gestured towards the admin building, with its tall doors. “Had no idea you all were heading out.”
“Last minute whim, really.” Doctor Dan walked alongside him. “Jess was at the Bay just recently and we had a market. Thought the boy would appreciate a little bit of home.”
The woman walking at his side smiled in a more genuine way. “He certainly does remember it.” She remarked. “I’m sure he will like whatever it is.”
“Lets go to my office.” Crow said. “Cindy, could you ask them to send a tea in? That’s a cold wind.”
Something, Kurok watched them from the corner of his eyes. Something was up. He kept up a stream of random casual chatter, about the weather and the market, the most normal of conversations as they entered Admin and walked along the quiet sandstone halls.
Colors were neutral and calming, and reminded him vaguely of station, the rooms on either side of the hall holding various offices, and Interforce staff, all in the warm light orange color one piece worksuits, not that different than the off duty suits worn on base, or the gray cadet uniforms of the students.
Students, he schooled his tongue.
“Here we are.” Crow palmed open a door and stood aside to let them enter. “I think we can just probably use the consultation room off to the left there for your visit.”
The office was neutral and calm, the furniture carved from the sandstone that surrounded the facility and fitted with a piece of volcanic glass that was truly stunning as it’s top. “That’s gorgeous.” Kurok said, gazing at it. “My goodness.”
Crow smiled a little more fully, walking over to touch it with his fingertips. “Why, thank you.” He said. “My hobby is climbing, and I found a bubble out there about a year back. I was able to get a piece brought back here and you know, I do love looking at it. Makes it a pleasure to be at work.”
“What is it Doctor Dan?” Kelson asked, in a soft tone. “It’s pretty.”
“Why not sit down a minute? It’ll take us some time to bring Tayler up from basic school.” Crow sat down behind his desk. “You said these youngsters were pilots?”
Kurok gestured for them to sit down on a bench near the desk and he took the chair opposite Crow. “They are, and shaping up to be fine ones.” He said, briskly. “KT-9923 series. They both know Tayler, they were on station when he.. ah.. visited there.”
Crow nodded. “He’s told us.” He said briefly, then checked his watch. “Where’s that tea? Let me go see if there’s some hangup with the brewer. I’ll be right back.”
He left using an inner door different from the one they entered, and as he did, Kurok relaxed into the chair he was in and pulled out a data tablet, casually thumbing through it. “It’s nice in here isn’t it lads?”
“It is, Doctor Dan.” Kurt agreed. “Its nice colors. I like them.” He looked around the room, as Doctor Dan got up from his chair and roamed around the edges of the space, pausing to look outside a square cut window on the inside wall. “Are there many natural born here?”
“Oh, it varies.” Kurok perched on a small ledge near at set of comp, very casually leaning over and putting leaning his hand on the access pad.
It hummed, then gently lit, and the screen unlocked. He set his data pad down next to it and crossed his legs at the ankle. “Let me see, I would guess the last time I was here, there were maybe three hundred students. Classes of different ages, you know, not that different from the creche.
Kelson nodded. “Age groups.” He said. “Youngers and olders.”
“Yes. Every year, some students are selected to come here to the school, and they’re tested to see what level they should be at. So they can be in classes with other students who are like them.”
Both bio alts nodded again. “Optimal.” Kurt concluded.
Doctor Dan picked up his data pad and resumed flipping through the contents of it, casually glancing again outside the window.
You could see the inner quad from there, the central open space between the sectors and a group of jumpsuit clad students were crossing space, six dark gray, and six a pale, mint green that marked agent and tech pairs very near to their graduation.
The screen to his left quietly shut off, and the pad’s light faded. He got up off the shelf and walked over to the window, studying the youngsters outside, watching as two of the gray clad started a scuffle, and the rest of them moved aside.
The door opened and Crow re-entered. “Here we go.” He was carrying a tray, and he put it down on the small table to the right of his desk. “There’s some of our near graduates.”
“I recognize the colors.” Doctor Dan turned and came over, accepting a cup. “Lads, would you like some of this? It’s a kind of tea they drink here.”
Kelson put down the package and came over, and Kurt quickly joined him, as Kurok set aside his cup for a moment and poured two for them. He waited for everyone to settle in with their tea. “Thanks for taking the time to humor this last minute request. I know it must be a busy time if you’ve got egress and assign going on.”
Crow studied him. “You do seem to know our ways.” He said. “There’s nothing in the records with your name though.” He said. “We’re a little curious.”
“Long story.” Doctor Dan sipped his tea. “But yes, I spent some time here, before I got my degree and went into science.”
The outer door now opened, and the woman Cindy returned, with a dark haired figure in light blue, his hand tucked into hers. “So Tayler, there are some people here who want to say hello to you.”
Tayler stopped walking and regarded him, eyes widening in surprise. “Space people!” He released his hold on the woman and came forward towards them, with an expression of open pleasure. “S’cool!”
He seemed in good spirits, his hair cut short as all the students would have been, the plain blue one piece suit making his dark hair stand out.
“Hello there Tayler.” Doctor Dan put his tea down and came over, kneeling down and extending a hand to him. “We thought we would come and say hello to you, and bring you something from home.” He motioned to Kelson.
Tayler took his hand with confidence. “You’re aunt Jessie’s friend.” He said. “Remember you.”
“Yes, I am.” Doctor Dan agreed. “Kelson, could you bring over what you have there?”
Kelson brought the package over. “We played float ball with you in null.” He offered the package out. “I remember that. It was fun.”
“It was.” Kurt agreed. “You were very good in null.” He added. “Proctors said you were naturally excellent.”
Tayler looked up at him with a grin. “That was fun.”
“What is null?” Crow asked, from where he was standing near his desk, just watching next to Cindy.
“Zero gravity.” Doctor Dan guided Tayler over to the bench and they sat down. “You know, we had a market at the Bay the past few days and there were lots of people there.” He said. “Go ahead and open that, see if you like it.”
Tayler swiftly divested the item of its covering and turned it around, staring at it intently. “Oh wow that’s cool.” He said, after a brief pause. He turned it around to show Crow and Cindy. “It’s my fambilys place!” He said. “Look!”
A striking angle, a photo taken coming head on to the seawall entry to the Bay, coming through the waves with a view of the curving promontory wall behind it, the colors awash with the lighter blues of the bay, the darker of the sea, and the froth of the waves a deep cream.
Crow came over. “Why, that’s very nice.” He said, in a mildly surprised tone. “That’s a beautiful picture of the front of it, and look at those waves!” He glanced at Kurok. “Who took that shot?”
“A very skilled carrier pilot.” Doctor Dan smiled. “And the frame is made from rocks and shells from the beach there, Tayler. Do you like it?”
Tayler turned it around and studied it, totally absorbed. “So cool.” He ran a fingertip over the hammered frame, with its inset decorations. Then he looked up at Kurok. “Yeah.”
“Good, I’m glad.” Kurok patted him gently on the shoulder. “Maybe you could put it up in your room, and look at it sometimes.”
Tayler grinned suddenly, and nodded. “Yeah.”
“Why don’t we do that right now?” Cindy suggested. “You could tell me where you would like it, Tayler, and we can get it set up for you.” She held out a hand. “Ready?”
Tayler turned and looked at Doctor Dan. “Thanks.” He said. “Is Aunt Jessie comin?”
“Soon as she’s able to.” Doctor Dan replied in an easy tone. “I know she promised to, didn’t she? She will.”
He smiled again, then he took Cindy’s hand and let himself be led out, the picture tucked firmly under his other arm with his fingertips curled around the edge of it.
The door closed, and then it was silent for a moment. “Well, thank you for giving us that opportunity.” Doctor Dan said. “We’ll be on our way now and let you get on with your day.” He gestured to the two waiting bio alts. “Come on lads, time for another flying lesson on the way home.”
Crow was studying him. “Well, glad you stopped by.” He said. “Most of the int.. children who come here – they don’t have a big attachment to home.”
“Drakes are different.” Kurok supplied, with a brief smile.
“Drakes are different.” Crow nodded. “He’s adjusting, but he misses home. So it was a kind thing you did there, bringing that. He has some small things he brought with him, but nothing like that image. It’s very striking.”
Kurok lifted his hand in a genial wave, then followed Crow out of the office and down the pale colored rock hallway and out the entryway, passing through a scanner with it’s familiar tickle. He saw his two pilot’s fingers twitch, and they glanced at each other as they walked back out into the cold wind.
Jess sat on the chair in her quarters, dressed in an offduty suit, her still damp hair drawn back off her forehead as she pondered her gear, and the large duffel on the floor just past her bare feet.
Now that she’d decided she was going to run out on Interforce, and possibly stupidly told a bunch of people about it, the question of how exactly she was going to achieve the fact without getting either shot or put in restraints was swirling in her head.
Resigning as she had the last time had resulted in immediate lockdown. She wasn’t sure if that was what would happen this time, but the chance was there. She would be locked in her quarters, and then.. and then what? Would they fly off and leave her locked down?
And what would that mean for Dev? Jess wondered. What if Dev also told them she was leaving? How far would that offer of citizenship really go, with this bunch? Would be valid only if Dev decided in their favor and if not, then… oh, wait sorry, there’s a catch.
Free of her quarters, Jess would have the chance to do something about that. Doing being probably getting both of them killed, but still. The thought of being locked up in here while they put DEV in restraints and tossed her on the transport….
Jess’s nostrils flared hard, and she felt that galvanic skin response that was her internal triggers firing. Her mouth went a little dry. She closed her eyes and took a few breaths, releasing the energy starting to build, having no use for it in the moment.
The inner door in her quarters chimed gently, and then opened, and Dev entered, coming over and sitting down on the edge of the bed in the room and putting down a thick package she was carrying. “Hello Jess!”
“Hi.” Jess rolled her head to one side and regarded her partner.
Dev laid down her scanner, and then tuned a few settings, pausing to regard the results before she glanced over at Jess. “It’s quite all right now.” She remarked. “I am intercepting scan, and returning a vocal loop of our conversation.”
“You’re damn handy, Dev.” Jess propped her elbow on the chair arm. “You’re so much smarter than everyone else is. What are they hearing?”
“Us discussing how much gear to pack.” Dev said, placidly. “How many suits, and what mechanical bits I am going to bring, and asking if I could take my toolkit.”
Jess smiled. “Do I tell them ahead of time, or just not get on the transport. Whatcha think?” She asked. “Go along with the plan right up until we don’t?” She asked. “Take off at the last minute?”
“They might be expecting us to do that.” Dev said, after a brief pause to think about the question.
“They might be expecting ME to do that.” Jess corrected her.
Dev considered that for a moment more, taking her time. “That’s true. They would not expect me to decide to go against their orders, because they know I’m a biological alternative.” She said. “And going with them to gain an opportunity to perform good work and advancement is a logical bio alt decision.”
“It is. The sets downstairs are very worried they’re not going to be taken along, because they know that, and they want the opportunity.” Dev said. “Clint told me there are places that they have in the west, where work can be done to make new things, like what I was doing here. The sets were very interested to hear that, and want a chance to excel.”
“The research centers. That’s true.” Jess noted. She looked towards the outer door, then back at Dev. “Sure you don’t want to go?”
“Absolutely sure.” Dev didn’t hesitate even a second, as though she’d been waiting to be asked. “Unless you go. Then I will do the best I can to accommodate that decision.” She added, almost as an afterthought. “But I do not feel like this is an excellent course of action for us to take.”
Us. Jess considered how that made her feel, that little odd warm spot inside her that surrounded everything that Dev was in her life. “I’m glad.” She said, quietly. “I don’t know where this is going to take us, Devvie, but if I had to go anywhere, I’d like you to be there with me.”
Dev smiled wholeheartedly. “I really hope it takes us back to your birthplace.” She concluded. “That would be excellent.”
“That would be suicidal.” Jess extended her legs with a sigh. Then she frowned. “I think.” She muttered. “I don’t know. I was just thinking me being there would make the Bay the first target, but then I realized..”
“It is anyway.” Dev nodded. “Yes. Because of the plants and the cave. They said that when we were there, and that they would need to get more things to defend them.” She paused and regarded Jess. “I think they would consider it optimal if you would help.”
“Do they want me there?” Jess looked up at the ceiling. “I scare them.” She added, with a faint shrug. “Do they want to risk having me around?”
Dev thought about their recent visit, then she reached over and put her hand on Jess’s hand, resting on her thigh. “I really do think they do, Jess.”
Jess eyed her. “Until I break someone else’s neck?” She countered dryly.
Dev’s nose wrinkled a little. “I don’t really think that bothers them.” She admitted. “Like it doesn’t here.”
They looked quietly at each other, only the scanner making it’s soft, burbling sounds. Then Jess sighed again. “No you’re right, it doesn’t. But… you muster out and you don’t get a free pass for that anymore.” She paused and frowned as her thoughts moderated. “But then again, if they’re pulling out, who’s going to be the law out here anyway?”
They were quiet again for a minute. “I have packed all of the things that were given to me here in the big bag.” Dev said, at last. “And then .. I have my pack, where I put all the things I got, or that you gave me.” She added. “I thought it might be good to just bring the pack.”
Jess looked at her. “Put out the big carrier for them to pick up in the morning and load into the personnel carrier?” She said. “Don’t take anything that’s interforce with us.” She nodded a little. “Not a bad idea. But that means I’m gonna have to walk to the Bay in my underwear.”
With a brief grin, Dev picked up the package and handed it to her. “Maybe you could use this.”
Glad for the distraction, Jess sat up and took it, opening up the bag and peering inside. “What have we here?” She pulled out a pair of rugged work pants, with side pockets and ankle ties, along with a hooded pullover, both in the dark blues and greens of the Bay colors.
She studied them, then looked over at Dev. “Did you know all this was going to happen?” She asked seriously. “That we’d need something like this?”
Dev regarded her back in the same serious way for a moment, then grinned, almost mischievously. “No, of course not.” She said. “I just like giving you things and this seemed like something you would enjoy.” She pointed at the front of the pullover. “Did you see? There is an animal on the front that reminded me of the creature at your birthplace.”
Jess turned the fabric around to look. “Oh yeah, there is!” She touched the stitching. “Market?”
“I love it.” Jess grinned. “Thanks Devvie.”
“And, I also considered – the sensors here would not have anything to track on it as items given us by Interforce might.” Dev concluded. “I think that would be useful.”
Jess leaned on her fist. “I think I’m lucky you’re with me. You’re better at planning than I am.” She said, simply. “Okay, we go over to the mess for dinner, and just talk smack.” She carefully set the shirt and trousers on her workspace surface and stood up. “C’mon, superstar. Let’s get this party started.”
Dev picked up her scanner. “Switching off.” She warned, then did. “Dinner sounds excellent.” She concluded. “I will join you in the hall.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Jess stood up, picking up the big duffel and tossing it on the bed. “Always good to have one.”
“I think the present was considered excellent, Doctor Dan.” Kurt commented, as they lifted away from the plateau and started east. “It was very nice.”
“Yes, I think so too.” Doctor Dan was sitting in his passenger seat, hands clasped over his stomach, legs extended with ankles crossed. “Always take the opportunity to do something nice for someone, lads.”
Both bio alts smiled, and glanced at him, then went back to their piloting.
Kurok thought about what his opportunity had provided him. A kind thought for Tayler, certainly. Some interesting, possibly irrelevant intel about the school itself, that it had a graduating class in process, that there had been a sense of normality there, that he himself had only raised a mild curiosity.
And yet, he felt, there was something there. Something in the brief looks between the staff, and a sense, almost an extra sense of tension that the cadet graduation could not really account for.
“Doctor Dan? It seems a vehicle has followed us.”
And then again. “Really?” Kurok kept his tone lightly interested. “What makes you think they’re following us, Kelson? They could just be going in the same direction.”
Kelson glanced in the reflective surface at him. “The vehicle adjusted course when we just did, Doctor Dan, and it is just past the range where most vehicles would not be detected.”
“Isn’t that interesting. But we can see it because we have excellent scanners, right?”
“That is correct.” Kurt agreed. “They do not know that we can see them.”
“Well, that seems silly, doesn’t it?” Doctor Dan mused. “We’re on a direct track back to Drake’s Bay, aren’t we?”
Kelson nodded. “Just as you directed.” He said. “I thought it was interesting as well, as they adjusted speed when I did.”
Clever lad. Kurok smiled a little to himself. “It is interesting, Kelson, and a very good thing that you noticed that. We always want to be aware of things around us, especially when we are flying between places where there are not many other populated areas around.”
“It is very empty here.” Kurt said.
It was, just miles and miles of shallow inland water with the occasional rocky surface, lifting to a ridge of folded earth in the far distance that would let them down to the sea, and the stark promontory that held the Bay in a fold of what had once been called the Appalachians.
An inland mountain range that had become waterfront property, as it were, when the seas had risen and covered the coastal plains.
There was life to be found here, in the inland seas. Fish and amphibians and insects lived there, on each other, and the lichen and algae that had evolved a way to grow. There were no homesteads though. There wasn’t enough protein to support that.
“Keep an eye on them, lads. Let me know if anything changes.” Doctor Dan hiked up the knee of his pants and pulled out his datapad, activating it. “Hopefully its all just a coincidence, and they’re going to take the same route as we are, and then head up to Quebec.”
It was quiet for another ten minutes or so, and he was able to set up some searches, then Kurt cleared his throat. “Doctor Dan?”
“They are increasing speed and coming closer.”
Kurok sniffed reflectively. “Excellent.” He put his datapad in the large pocket on the thigh of his pants. “Kelson, my lad, switch places with me here, would you?” He unbelted his restraints and stood up. “Let me get some practice in on this plane.”
Kelson hurriedly complied, easing around the console as he traded places and sitting down in the passenger seat that Kurok had just relinquished. “Are you sure, Doctor Dan? Maybe they are going elsewhere, like you said.”
Kurok sat down in the pilot’s seat and snapped the restraints around him with casual familiarity. “They could be. Put your belt on, lad.” He scanned the plane’s controls. “But I think we should find out. Now hold on, and stay calm.”
He adjusted the seat and then eased the throttles forward, the plane surging ahead and then up as he went for the cloud layer in a steep climb. “Let me know if they stick with us.”
They punched through the clouds and he arced the plane to the left, running the engines up to top speed and skimming the tops, wisps of vapor lashing over the tops of the wings as he checked his altitude. “With us?”
Kurt was studying the scan. “Yes.”
“Hold on, lads.” Kurok sighed. “We’re going for a ride.” He pulled the restraints a bit tighter and slid open a small, newer looking panel on the side of the console. Angling to the right just a little, he reached in and tapped two controls, and was rewarded with a rumbling roar and a kick in the back.
“Doctor Dan! What is that?”
“Afterburners.” Doctor Dan replied briskly. “Lets see if they’ve got any appetite to follow us into the white.”
Kurt was watching the edges of the clouds whipping by with wide eyes. “Will we see a bear?”
“We well might.”
Dinner was odd and discordant, strange and full of those dissonant overtones that reminded Jess strongly of the old days, when there had been a lot of agents around, most of them at the best of times frenemies.
She was sprawled at her usual table in the back, in the ops mess, with Dev seated next to her, stolidly chewing her way through a somewhat random mixture of foodstuffs apparently being cleaned out of the processors in preparation to closing the place down.
The suits were in the far corner, with Jason and Elaine, at a table for four.
The room itself was half full, because the Base was barely a quarter staffed and most of the conversation was just light commentary on what was being brought, and what was being looked forward to when they got to the west.
April entered, with Mike Arias, and went to the mess line to pick up a tray. They brought them over to the table Jess was seated at. “Mind?” April asked, looking at one of the empty seats.
“Nah.” Jess waved at it. “You packed?”
“I am packed.” April concluded, with a tone of finality and satisfaction.
“Me too.” Arias agreed, taking the seat next to her. There were two other chairs at the table. “What is this?” He indicated the tray.
“Protein cakes.” Dev spoke up. “It appears they had a surplus.”
Edible, and what was usually packed in carriers for long duration insertions, to keep bodies alive and energized. “They make them ahead of time. With no missions, there were portions left.” The bio alt concluded. “We had them on station.”
“They don’t taste like much.” Arias sampled his. “But I guess it is what it is.”
“It is.” Jess picked up her tray. “I’m going to get more. Be right back.”
Dev took a sip from her glass, swallowing the bland bar. “I was in the landing bay. The transport has arrived.” She commented. “They are loading it.”
“Doug said.” April grunted. “He said he was grabbing some personal stuff out of the carrier while he could still get in it.”
“Chester too.” Mike said. “I asked him to grab my pack while he was in there.”
Jess returned with several slabs on her tray and sat back down. “What model transport is it, Dev?” She asked in an apparently random question.
Dev glanced at her. “I believe it’s a G8 series.” She said. “Maybe a 1700.”
Jess nodded and forked up one of the slabs. “Comfortable ride.” She concluded.
All utterly common and conventual. Jess was aware though, that people were watching them. That the suits were watching them and trying not to be seen to be watching them. They had seated themselves to be able to watch them, Jason and Elaine’s backs were to the room.
Never something she’d have done. Jess smiled. From where she was, in the back, on the slightly raised platform that held three tables, two of them empty, with her back to the wall she could see everyone and everything and she could see clearly that they were being watched.
She was being watched? Jess pondered. What were they expecting her to do? She was unarmed – more so even than April who had her dalknife at her hip and Mike, with his new blade on his calf. Were they expecting her to stand up and make a scene?
Make a protest? Tell them they were all dirtbags for abandoning the east?
She considered sincerely thanking them, at the end of dinner. Walking over and saying it was great they’d decided to leave the east alone, that maybe now that Interforce was gone from the coast, the other side would abandon it too.
It might even be true, were it not for the Bay. Jess rather expected they wanted the other side to take care of that little problem for them.
She smiled again, and nudged her tray towards Dev. “Want some?”
“Certainly.” Dev took one of the slabs and transferred it to her plate. “It’s always good to consume edibles before a journey.”
The door slid open and Doug and Chester entered, retrieved their trays and joined the table. They had the scent of electronics offgassing lingering about them, and a brief smell of hydraulic oil, and Doug had a smudge of grease on his nose.
“You get everything?” April regarded him drolly.
Doug nodded. “All tidied up.” He said. “Tomorrow can’t come too soon.”
Across the room, the suits got up and left, leaving their trays on the table, and walking out without a backwards glance.
The room perceptibly relaxed once they were gone. People leaned back in their seats, and the vocal levels lifted, becoming less stilted and louder. Brent came in and picked up a tray, hesitated, then went over and sat down next to Jason, who patted him on the shoulder.
Jess watched it all, and could almost feel the pieces of a puzzle start to assemble themselves for her inspection. She was moving the pieces around in her head when the inner door to the food preparation area opened and two of the bio alts came out carrying trays.
“Oh Jess, look.” Dev poked her in the ribs. “Those things you like.”
Brownies. The first of the two bio alts brough his tray around to the rest of the room, starting with Jason but the second came right over to Jess’s table. “Agent Jess, we heard these were something you enjoyed.” He put the tray down. “We found some ingredients.”
“You heard.” Jess slowly swung her head around to look at Dev, who had one of her blander expressions on. “I wonder where you heard that from.”
Dev paused, then a brief grin appeared on her face.
“Thanks.” Jess picked up two of the brownies and put one on Dev’s tray. “I do like em.”
A buzz was lifting in the room, a tone of surprise and delight as everyone dug in and consumed the unexpected treats. Across the room, Jason had turned around in his seat and caught Jess’s eye, lifting his brownie up and toasting her with it.
Jess just pointed at Dev, and then took a bite of the treat.
They punched down out of the clouds and dove, heading for the shallow waters rapidly turning from frothed gray to icy, and into a curtain of rain. Kurt had his eyes glued to the scanner, and behind him, Kelson was straining forward in his restraints watching what he could.
“They are behind us.” Kurt said, after a brief moment.
Kurok concentrated on driving, feeling the push of the weather against the skin of the light flyer and briefly wishing they were in a much different vehicle. He got down to water level and spotted ahead of him the start of the white, the long line of glacier that extended now deep across the continent, creeping further every year.
It was a landscape of dips and crags and ice canyons and he set the flyer towards the forward edge of them, watching the wiremap as it scanned ahead and gave him some idea of the topology they were heading for. “All right.” He said, quietly. “Now lets see what they’ve got between their legs.”
“Doctor Dan?” Kelson frowned. “What does that mean?”
Despite the uncomfortable speed, and the uncertainty, Kurok couldn’t quite hold back a chuckle. “Tell you later, Kelson. Sit back now.”
The ice cliffs were coming up fast and he plotted a course right into the face of them, at this distance looking like a suicidal track and he increased speed a little, aware from the corner of his eye the pursuing vehicle behind them.
It was a light class recon, Interforce, armed. He recognized the outline. “Maybe we’re the graduation test.” He mused, adjusting the throttles a touch, and skewing the flaps on the flyer, as the seconds counted down to reaching the glacier’s edge. “Well if we are, good luck kids.”
At the last moment, the crack in the ice he’d been aiming for appeared and then they passed into it, the edges of the ice a mere bodylength on either side as they were suddenly out of the wind and he got the rudders moved to handle the lack of resistance.
The crack was narrow and twisting and he had to concentrate on taking the centerline of it, old memories surfacing with fingertip instincts he hadn’t had to use in a very long while.
“They have turned off.” Karl said, in a placid tone. “They are taking a course back along the way we have come.”
Well, maybe they were kids. “Well, that’s great isn’t it? Are you enjoying this ride?” Doctor Dan took the speed down so he could handle the steering without worrying too much about plowing the flyer into the ice. “This is a glacier, and it’s made from rain.”
Kelson was looking out the window. “It’s amazing, Doctor Dan.”
“It is.” Karl was staring at the ice walls they were flying through. The gray light brought out deep blue highlights and it all had a fantastic, eerie beauty to it. “It’s amazing.”
Kurok smiled. “Well, now that we’re not being chased around, let me show you a little more.” He gently eased the flyer up and out of the trench, and they were above the glacier. “We’ll see if we can find a bear, and keep along the edge of the ice so we can dodge again if we have to.”
From a distance the glacier looked flat, but up close it was ridge after ridge of spiky edged surface, and the rain had tapered off here, giving them a clear view.
A light flashed on the console. “Kelson, can you answer that please?” Doctor Dan said. “I’ve got my hands a bit full here on manual.”
“Of course.” Kelson keyed the panel next to him. “Calling station, this is Bay Recon. Please repeat?” He spoke crisply and confidently into the comms.
“Bay Recon, this is Bay ops.” A voice answered, one he recognized. “It’s Operations, Doctor Dan.” He said, and then listened again. “Go ahead Bay ops.”
“What is your ETA to this location? There is a secured comms for Doctor Dan, marked urgent.”
Kelson repeated the words aloud.
“Hm.” Doctor Dan adjusted his course. “Could I have caused that much trouble already?” He mused. “Tell them two hours, Kelson. I’ll try to hurry.” He kicked in the afterburners again and headed east. “The bears will have to wait for another time.”
Jess finished putting everything into her duffel, pulling the zippers closed and securing the tie down. She was dressed in her sleep clothing, and before she lifted the bag, she scanned the room with her eyes to make sure she hadn’t left anything.
All her uniforms, check. The gear packs she’d taken on insertions, check. All the datapads and catalogs she’d used to plan. All in the bag.
The only thing left out was her clothing for the next day.
She wished the next day was over. With a sigh she lifted the bag and went to the door, touching the pad next to it and waiting for it to slide open before she emerged into the hallway and dropped it next to the wall.
She glanced to one side, and saw a smaller duffel, Dev’s, neatly tucked against the wall outside her quarters, and as she looked in the other direction, she could see a few others.
She ducked back inside and closed the door, then she went over to her workspace and sat down behind it, just looking around the place.
It was bland and lacked personality, but then, it always had. She’d been in the other agent’s quarters and it was the same there, no one kept random things there. No keepsakes, no random art. It was all dark gray stone walls, gray steel bedframes and cabinets, colorless light.
It had never been hers, really. Just her assigned space, and could be moved at ops whim, or due to maintenance, you were expected to pick up and go where you were told without bitching about it and sometimes she’d had to. It had never bothered her, after all, that was the point of what they were wasn’t it?
The soft chime sounded on the inner door, and then it opened, and Dev came in, also dressed in her sleep clothes, her everpresent scanner draped over one shoulder.
“Hey Devvie.” Jess greeted her.
“Hello.” Dev responded, coming over and sitting down in the chair in front of the workspace. She set down the scanner and turned it on, tuning it for a moment before she nodded. “Did you hear the announcement, Jess? They moved up the departure.”
“To sunrise.” Jess nodded. “That actually made more sense to me than waiting until lunch.” She leaned back in her chair. “They must have finished loading early.” She put her hands behind her head. “Wish they’d leave now. I’m done with waiting.”
They looked at each other. “Should we?” Jess asked. “Wait for late watch, then take off?”
“Yes.” Dev said, simply. “I feel like incorrect things are going to happen.”
“They disabled all the hand weapons.” Jess said. “I just put them all in the bag and put it outside. No point in trying to take them.”
They could hear a hand transport moving outside, the faint sounds of the duffels being picked up coming through the door and as they paused outside hers, Jess felt a sudden sense of warning deep in her guts. She couldn’t really put her finger on what the wrongness was, but she knew it was there.
She felt it, just like she realized Dev felt it.
The lights dimmed, a little, and outside they could hear the ops watch changing, the shift announcements echoing softly, steadily, with no sense that it was for the very last time, and yet it was. Jess took a breath, and then exhaled. “They closed the landing bay hatch. I just heard it.”
“Suboptimal.” Dev commented. “We will have to wait for it to open to leave.” She said. “It might be good to get into our vehicle.”
“If they scan, they’ll find us there.”
A faint smile appeared on Dev’s face. “Possibly not. I have been considering what would need to be done to reflect the scan, as I am doing with this vocal listener.” She indicated the device. “I don’t know if I could do that, but there are possibilities.”
“You really are a rockstar.” Jess smiled back at her. “I was just going to start killing everyone and figured that kind of distraction might either get us out or splatted.” She winked. “I like that plan better and we might actually live through it. All right Devvie. After the bell, we go.”
“Excellent.” Dev exhaled, looking relieved. “I will then go back and change, and then return.” She got up, lifting the scanner then switching it off. “Good night, Jess.”
“Night, Rocket.” Jess responded. “See ya in the morning.”
Dev went back to the door and slipped into her own quarters. Jess nodded a few times to herself and then she got up and changed out of the sleep clothes and into what Dev had gifted her, finding them both comfortable and well fitting.
She sat down behind her work surface and pulled a pair of sealskin boots over, that she’d found in the back of her uniform cabinet, picked up on that last visit to Market island with Joshua before it all went to hell. Now they’d come in handy, and the karma in that made her smile.
What would karma bring her for this insanity? She finished securing the boots and leaned back, dimming the lights in the room and hiking her boot up and propping it against the desk. And what, she wondered, was the Bay going to say about all this?
Well, with any luck, she’d find out.
Dev finished fastening the blue green colored jumpsuit and glanced at her reflection in the mirror. It was a simple garment, a tough fabric with pockets in the thighs and arms and chest, various fastenings, and a gear patch on both shoulders indicating it’s wearer was assigned to technology in a Bio station creche. The hooks and D rings were designed for tie downs in null that no one here would even understand.
It felt strange. She’d last worn it the first day she’d arrived here at Interforce, walking warily in Doctor Dan’s shadow through this very strange, very dark, very violent space full of aggressive agents, and wary techs and being made dead had seemed a routine activity.
Now that life seemed so vastly far away, she could barely remember what it had felt like to be so brand new. She ran her fingers through her hair and neatly folded her sleep clothes, leaving them in the clothing cabinet that was otherwise bare.
Her boots were waiting near her workspace, and she pulled them on and laced them, glad at least these were downside boots and not the light spacer footwear she’d originally come in. She picked up her sharkskin jacket and her scanner and slid it over her shoulder.
She had discussed the scanner with Jess. There was no doubt she’d used the device in her work as an Interforce technician, but this one, this scanner, she’d built and programmed herself, her regular assigned one packed in her large gear bag that had been taken away already.
Fair game, Jess had pronounced. So she’d kept it.
Dev stood up and looked around one last time, before she went to the inner door that separated her quarters from Jess’s and touched the annunciator out of polite habit.
The door slid open, and Jess looked up from where she was seated behind her workspace, and then as their eyes met, all the lights went out.
It made Dev inhale sharply, her skin reacting with a prickle as she moved instinctively forward to clear the door and then stopped. The door remained open behind her though, and it was very dark, and very silent.
“Crap.” Jess broke it. “Now what?”
Dev took that as the commentary it was, and not possibly a cause of the lack of power. “Nonoptimal.” She provided her own equivalent. She remained still, then sensed motion ahead of her and a moment later Jess’s hand was on her shoulder. “What should we do?”
“Good question.” Jess responded in a calm tone. “I vote we wait a minute to see if the emergencies come on or if the mains come back.” She said. “Could be a maintenance glitch, with them prepping to shut down.”
“Yeeess.” Dev extended the word slowly.
“Nah, I don’t think so either, but lets give it a minute.” Jess chuckled. “Maybe they’ll tell us it’s ten minutes and we can just stand here and kiss each other.”
That seemed like a reasonable plan. Dev took a breath, and then exhaled. She could smell a little bit of the sea on the clothing Jess was wearing, and she could hear the faint sounds as her partner turned her head from side to side and her hair brushed against fabric.
“What’s that you have on?” Jess asked after a moments silence. “Have I seen it before?”
Dev glanced down at herself, a useless reflex since she could see literally nothing. “I think you have.” She said. “Once. It’s the clothing I was wearing when I arrived with Doctor Dan on the shuttle.”
“Oh yeah.” Jess mused. “I sort of remember that.”
Dev’s eyebrows creased. “Can you see me?”
“Really?” Dev was able to forget the strangeness of the situation for a moment in her amazement. “Jess it’s perfectly dark in here.”
Jess chuckled silently. “Not a lot.” She acknowledged. “Mostly shadows but I didn’t recognize the outline of your duds.” She shifted. “I can see enough not to crash into things.” She paused. “Should have switched to the emergency lights by now.”
She put her arms around Dev’s shoulders and started towards the outer door. “Lets see if we can hear anything.” She moved slowly but surely and when they reached the door she put her hand on it, feeling the chill of the metal against her fingertips. “Get your sniffer going.”
Dev put her jacket over her shoulder and lifted the scanner, turning it on and waiting for it to come up. In the dim light from the display she could now see Jess’s form in the clothing she’d gifted her and it made her smile. “What would you like to know about?”
Dev tuned the scanner. “Nothing in the vicinity.” She tuned further. “I see other hand scanners in operation, and heat signatures of moving persons.”
“Coming this way?” Jess asked, in a calm tone.
“Not particularly.” Dev scanned further. “I can see the quiescent heat signatures of the vehicles in the landing bay, and some of the loading machinery, but they are dormant. I think everything is off.” She reported. “I am not seeing any active power sources.”
“That seems suboptimal.” Dev concluded.
“Definitely not normal.” Jess agreed. “But lets see if we can get this door open, because it might provide you and I with a good path down to the landing bay without getting shot.” She turned to study the door. “Where’s the controller?”
Dev went to work with the scanner, tracing out the circuitry that kept the portal shut. It was large and metal, and thick enough to be a successful deterrent to physical force, even by Jess. She found the mechanism and reviewed it, calling up the schema in the scanner’s internal memory.
“Can you talk to the main system?” Jess was watching her alertly.
Dev paused, and looked at her, the faint screen light outlining Jess’s sharp profile. “No, nothing seems powered, Jess.” She said. “Which seems nonoptimal as operations should have emergency residual battery power.”
“Doesn’t make sense.” Her partner muttered. “I can feel the turbine intakes through the ground. The vibrations’ normal.”
Dev could feel it too, the subliminal rumble coming through the soles of her boots that was the water intake that powered the base. “Yes. Something cut off the transfer.”
Jess nodded silently. “Lets get the door open.”
Dev went back to work, focusing on the schematics as Jess waited there in silence, not fidgeting as she sometimes did, just standing next to her, hands at her sides. Nevertheless, she could feel the tension building as the darkness continued and she became aware of just how enclosed they were.
She found the control circuit, and moved closer to the wall, studying the surface and detecting the faint outline of the panel. “The hydraulic interlock is here, Jess.” She looked up as Jess came up against her back to peer over her shoulder. “You can see the indents.”
Jess regarded the square, then she took Dev by the shoulders and pulled her backwards, then sideways. “Hang out here for a second.”
Dev reversed the screen on her scanner and outlined the panel. “I now wish I had retained my toolkit.” She added mournfully. “I think I have a device that could get under that edge.”
“Yeah.” Her partner took a step back, then balled her hand into a fist and lunged forward, slamming her knuckles against the steel surface with enough power to lift her up off her feet. The sound of her fist hitting the wall was sharp and loud and echoed.
Jess pulled back her hand and regarded the results of her effort. “One more.” She said, throwing her body again towards the wall and hitting the same location with the same fist. She grunted contentedly, moving forward without quite so much violence, and putting her fingertips around the edge of the panel that now was sticking out.
A twisting wrench, and she yanked the panel door off the wall, exposing the mechanics underneath. “Anything you can do with that, Devvie?”
Dev moved closer and inspected the internal arrangement. “I did not expect that to be that easy.” She paused to pick up the hand Jess had hit the wall with and inspect it, finding the knuckles intact. “Interesting.”
“Yeah, I come with a whole bag of party tricks.” Jess moved back and started manipulating the panel. “Magic eyeballs, gills, you name it.” She muttered. “Don’t look so impressed. They teach us at school construction engineering and how to find weak spots.”
Dev shook her head a little, but moved in and looked at the controls, reaching in to manipulate some of the pipes and fittings. “I think I can get this to open.” She finally announced. “But it could cause a mess.”
Jess turned around and indicated the inside of the room. “Devvie, who cares?”
“Please go stand by the door then.” Dev moved to press her own back against the wall. “And out of the range of this panel.”
Jess obediently did as she was told, bouncing a little on the balls of her feet. “G’wan.”
Dev slid her scanner around to her right side and let it rest against her hip, then she reached inside the panel with her left hand and gripped the hydraulic lines, giving them a hefty yank and twist, her face tightening into a grimace of effort as the pipes came loose.
The result was direly spectacular, as hydraulic fluid under pressure exploded from the wall, shooting across the room and thumping loudly against the far side, drenching the beds and workspace in a flood of dark liquid.
“Wow.” Jess’s eyebrows lifted up.
While it was still arching across the space, the door to the outside suddenly slid open, slamming against the jamb with a crunch.
The sound of the fluid hitting everything was loud, and it echoed, as Jess slipped outside, motioning Dev to follow her. “Lets go before that gets all over us.” She murmured, as they moved across to the far side of the hall. There, she paused. “Put your jacket on.”
Dev slid into the garment, leaving her scanner on underneath. “Okay.”
“Hold on to the back of my shirt.” Jess said. “Need to keep my hands free.”
Dev took hold. “Yes.”
“Lets go.” Jess started down the hall, leaving the gushing pipes behind them as the fluid now started to run out the door to what had been her quarters. “That was pretty slick.”
“The pressure was holding the door closed.” Dev said, walking along behind Jess in complete darkness. “I thought if we released the pressure, it would open them. I think it’s a safety feature.”
Jess considered that as they made their way along the residential hallway of operations, passing silent, empty spaces on either side. Would they make the doors close by default or open by default, given who the rooms were holding?
Interesting question. What was more dangerous, having your most potent weapon locked up in case of disaster or having them free?
Jess dismissed that for later consideration and focused on the direction they were traveling. She knew the internal structure of the citadel well, of course, but she didn’t really know what was going on. At a crossroads, she paused to listen.
Jess touched her shoulder in a warning gesture. “Don’t turn that on.”
Dev hadn’t reached for it. “I assumed not.” She said in a mild tone. “It’s visible to anyone scanning us.”
“Not that. It makes us eyeball visible.” Jess corrected her. “Leave it off for now.” She hesitated, then moved to the right, along the service hallway that led from ops to maintenance. Far off, she could hear boots on the ground, but they were moving away from them, towards centops.
That made sense to her. If centops was offline, they’d want to get that fixed first and she knew they had a very limited time to get under cover before all the systems came back and they would know where they were because scanner or no, light or no, base systems knew what her and what Dev’s genetiscan was.
No way to hide it. Especially hers.
The outline of the hall was clear to her, grays and shadows and the faintest reflections and she felt her eyes widen in response to the lack of light, almost feeling her pupils dilating to bring in all the detail they could, which wasn’t much.
But as she’d told Dev, enough for her to walk in this hallway and not crash into the wall, and to see anything moving ahead of them, potentially armed, potentially dangerous.
“Jess.” Dev whispered.
Jess stopped and pressed against the wall. “Hm?”
Jess put her back flat to the wall and looked over Dev’s head, seeing a brief, almost imagined glimpse of pre-aim splashing along the floor, flashing past them and then disappearing. “Blaster.” She murmured, turning her head to look ahead of them.
She took a breath, and released it, then took another, and then she saw it, two corridors ahead, another splash.
Hunters. Their side? The other side? Jess felt her pulse speed up. What did that even mean right now?
Dev tugged on her sleeve. “There’s a door near here.”
Jess looked around in puzzlement. “No there is… oh hang on.” She pointed at a hatchway two body lengths away from them. “That?”
“Is it a door?” Dev whispered. “A small one, with a handle?”
“Yeees.” Jess looked doubtfully at it, then she moved over and opened the simple latch on it, pushing the door open and peering inside. It was a very ordinary looking mechanical space. “It’s got a bunch of pipes in it.”
Dev gently urged her inside, putting her hand on Jess’s back and following her inside, then closing the door behind them. They stood in utter silence for a long minute, then the soft rasp of muffled footsteps came closer, just a whisper of fabric against stone.
Jess pulled Dev around behind her and got her back to the stack of pipes, moving into a balanced stance with her hand clasped around the piece of bent metal she’d taken from the wall, wrapping her fingers around it so the pointed end of it, strengthened by doubling it, faced towards the door.
But the footsteps went past, moving along the hall away from them. Jess listened intently, but it was impossible from just the sound to tell if the hunters were friends or enemies.
When the sound had faded, she turned. “Nice catch, Devvie.” She looked around. “What the hell is this?”
Dev exhaled audibly. “Its very suboptimal not being able to see anything.” She stated. “This is a service bay. If I remember correctly, there should be an inner door, and past that is the delivery hatchway. It leads down to the lower level.”
Jess considered that. “Down to where the bios live?”
“Lead on.” Jess said. “No wait. You can’t. Tell me where to go now?” She slid the bent piece of metal into the back of her waistband and grasped Dev’s arm firmly. “Out that door?”
“Yes.” Dev whispered. “We can get to the service corridors.”
Service corridors, where the ordinary people, natural born and bio alt, went about the daily work of keeping things running. In the darkness, the workers would be huddled in their sleeping chambers, knowing better than to venture out.
“Lets go.” Jess found the door and cautiously opened it, pausing to listen inside. There were faint pops and crackles in the distance, and just a brief echo of someone yelling. Then silence.
She moved silently inside, aware of Dev latched on to the back of her shirt again and she released her arm so she could straighten and turn and look up and down a long, narrow space with a turn midway. It smelled dusty, and the floor held a hint of rock scrub they used to keep the algae down.
She walked to the midway entry and peered around it, seeing nothing but emptier hallway, dim and gray, a cleaning cart parked against the wall a little way up. With more confidence she continued, leaning forward a little, ears straining, aware of the downward slant of the floor.
The air brought her the scent of rock dust, the chemicals from the cleaning cart, and a hint of the sea that settled on the back of her tongue and with every step she felt the rightness of the path. She reached back and gave Dev a little pat on the side, feeling a brief press of fingers along her elbow.
They could hear, now, muffled movement in the corridor on the other side of the rock wall from where they were, steps and curses, and the clang of metal against metal.
“Mech.” Dev whispered.
Jess nodded, “Heading to centops.”
They reached the end of the hallway and Jess paused. “Which way?”
Obediently Jess turned right and walked along a smaller, narrower corridor that also sloped downward, and as she drew in a breath, she caught a hint of dampness. “Vents.” She muttered. “Must be near the outer skin.” She reached out and touched the wall, feeling a clammy dampness and chill, not quite wet, not quite dry.
The hall bent around to the left, and she could imagine in her head where they were, curving along the outer edge of the facility, and on the edge of her hearing she detected water motion far off, on the other side of the right hand wall.
“End of this walkway, there is a door.” Dev murmured.
“You spend a lot of time down here?”
“No. They showed me once.” Her partner responded in a mild tone.
Jess chuckled very softly under her breath. They reached the end, and there was in fact a door, with a handle. “Locked probably.”
“Probably, but from the other side.” Dev said. “I had to auth through, that time. The sets couldn’t.”
Jess paused and turned around to look at her. Dev was standing there, her hand still gripped around the back of Jess’s shirt, her head tilted a little to one side, just waiting. “So they can’t get into this hall from their quarters.”
“No, but they can get into their quarters from the hall.” Dev agreed. “Now that they know, after I opened it.”
“Innnnnteresting.” Jess turned the handle and gave the door a push. “Hope we don’t scare them to death.” She peered through the door, where the hallway extended another few body lengths, and then turned. “Smells like people.”
And then they heard voices, low and urgent, and fearful.