Jess listened to the chaos for a moment then she drew in a breath. “Hey!” She barked out loudly, her voice carrying over the anxiety and causing an abrupt silence to fall after the echoes of it faded.
Dev cleared her throat. “Be calm.” She added, in a milder tone, into all that quiet. “What is the situation here please?” She asked. “it’s NM-Dev-1 speaking.”
The inside of the housing space was as pitch black as the rest of the halls but the difference here was there were a hundred lightly traced rings sparkling with internal light that were the biometric collars of a hundred bio alts scattered across the room.
It did not cast much light, the faint traces powered by the life energy of the bio alts themselves, transferred down the probes inserted up into their brain stems but it was enough to locate them and provide the barest of up shadows over their heads.
The rings all moved and shifted as they all turned in surprise, hearing her.
“NM-Dev-1.” Someone said, nearby. “You are here.”
“I am.” Dev agreed. “And Jess is here as well.”
A murmur traveled across the room. “Agent Jess.” One of the nearby sets said. “And NM-Dev-1. This is optimal. They can tell us what is happening.”
“Possibly.” Dev said. “What is the situation here please? Are you all safe?”
More motion, gathering slowly towards them, uncertainly. “There is no power. We heard loud noises.” The one who had spoken to Dev. “I am KayTee-512.” He added. “We were all sent here after the night meal and told to stay in our assigned quarters and not to go out.”
“Yes.” Dev said. “We were told the same.”
That got a murmuring response. “But you are here.” The KayTee observed. “You did not obey the request.”
“We often do not.” Dev agreed.
Jess poked Dev in the back. “Time.” She muttered. “If they’re looking for us and find us here that’s just going to be a whole crowd of parts flying.”
“Yes. So thank you KayTee” Dev said. “We are not sure of the status of what is going on inside the facility . We will need to go to the main egress and investigate so please give us a path to the door.”
“It is locked closed.” The KayTee told her. “We cannot open it. There is no power to any systems.”
Jess impatiently started forward, steering Dev with her as she moved. “Move away from my voice.” She said. “Lemme through, kids. We got trouble to get into.”
“It is locked.” The KayTee observed again. “It would be excellent if you could open the doors so that we, to, can help investigate.”
“Jess has a process to open the doors” Dev assured him, as she reached out to take hold of the back of Jess’s shirt. “Our doors were closed as well in our quarters and now they are not.”
“You helped with that.” Jess muttered. “That mess probably flooded the whole level by now.”
“Yes.” Dev agreed mournfully. “There will be a lot of damage if that is true.”
The bio alts moved a little bit to give them space to get through which Jess strode through with confidence, the crowd dark but clear in her vision, multiple shades of gray and anxious faces with eyes opened very wide trying to see.
Dev just prevented herself from reaching up to touch her neck, aware that she and Jess alone were dark ghosts in the room.
It was still an echo, for her, that she had to remember. She knew the sets were all observing it, she could see the faint motion as shifted in their passing, half turning to follow the sounds of their progress.
“What are you intending to do?” The KayTee called after them. “May we help?”
He must be the senior of his set, Dev realized, and the KayTees the senior of the sets there, the most advanced, with the most skills. Memories of station surfaced, of shifting for position, of tensions she never had to deal with being the only member of her own set.
She had only herself to compete with, in that regard. Never had a set standard to meet, or a baseline to be measured against. She had been the baseline, Doctor Dan had once told her, laughing his gentle laugh. First in class.
After a moment, she nodded to herself.
“Dunno.” Jess answered him. “How about we get the door open and we’ll go from there.” She reached the entrance to the bio alts chambers and put her hand against the metal surface, feeling the rumble of the tunnels under her touch and against the soles of her feet.
Where the hell was the power? Jess wondered. “What the hell did they do to this thing? They try to pack the batteries in that crate?” She studied the wall. “Stand back everyone.” She took a step back herself and prepared to throw herself at the panel, when Dev gave one of her small, peculiar throat clearings.
Jess paused. “What?” She looked at her partner, clearly seeing the faint, wry grin on her face. “Rrrrocket? What do you have up your sleeve?”
“May I investigate an idea?”
“Not if it involves you bashing any part of your body against it. That’s my job.” Jess said. “Okay?”
“Absolutely.” Dev walked forward and put her hands against the door, then pushed sideways. The panel slid aside grudgingly, slightly, then stuck, her palms sliding on the surface. “Jess, can you assist? I think we can move this sideways.”
Jess was standing behind her with her arms folded. “Hot damn, Devvie. That just saved my ass some bruises.” She said, and then went over to the door and grabbed the now visible edge, hauling it along. Halfway done, she got around the door itself and switched to shoving it, her back pressed against the jamb. “Get out of the way, I got this.”
Dev stepped back, as the door slid past her into it’s pocket with a grinding, complaining screech. “It seems that your comment on the reduction in pressure in the hydraulic infrastructure could be accurate.” She remarked, as a flow of cold, salt tinged air flooded inward. “In an excellent sort of way.”
“The door is open?” KayTee said, in a tone of true surprise. “What did you do?”
“It is a long story, KayTee.” Dev said. “I can explain later. We have a task to do now.”
It was still pitch black, but the chill air was a welcome reminder of the outside. “That’s coming from the landing bay.” Jess decided. “Lets get up there.”
The rest of the corridors around them were mostly silent, far off sounds of bangs and thumps, and inarticulate voices floating on the peripherals. Dev turned on her scanner briefly, then shut it down before anything could pick up the signal. “It is clear.” She reported. “We can proceed.”
“Grab on.” Jess said, briskly. “Don’t want to lose ya.”
Dev fastened her hand to the back of Jess’s overshirt and they started forward again.
“What should we do?” The KayTee called after them. “Can we help you?”
“Stay there.” Jess called back. “It’s too dark to run around and bang into walls. Wait for the lights.”
“Yes.” The KayTee sounded a bit forlorn. “Okay.”
“But if they don’t, at least you can get out.” Jess added, pausing at a cross corridor, looking back over her shoulder to see the doorway full of glowing collars, that seemed vivid in her eyesight. “Go to the emergency exit at the end of this hallway, down to ground side.” She pointed, though there was no way they could see her. “You guys’ll be fine.”
Then she turned and started along the cross corridor, moving quickly as Dev latched on to the back of her shirt again, aware of time passing, minutes passing that they might need to get under cover before they got the lights, and the systems fixed and they found them.
She felt like someone was looking. The pre-aim had been unmistakable. But pre-aim was uniform - theirs looked just like the other sides and right now there was no telling who was at the trigger of it. No real telling for her, personally, even which side was more dangerous.
They got to the maintenance bay entrance, winding through a scattering of boxes and crates and evidence of rapid packing, but no other living thing was in the area, there was no sound of movement, or the smell of humanity that Jess could detect.
This was the level under the floor of the landing cavern and went the entire length and breadth of it, with access portals to the floor level for supplies and mechanical gear to be brought up to service the aircraft the base used.
It was usually full of carts and testers and pieces of gear being repaired. Now Jess looked around and could see nothing but boxes and debris. Perversely, despite the circumstances, it ticked her off and she let out a low, irritated growl.
“Sorry.” Jess started forward, between two service stations. “Figures our pad’s the last one in the back.” She muttered. “Cmon.. c’mon.” She shoved a crate out of the way and squeezed between two others. “Why not just rape the place while you’re at it? Bastards made us eat rat bars for dinner wanted to save supply for themselves.”
Dev hastened at her heels, wishing they were in the upper level where there, at least, there was clearer passage between the pads. She was familiar with the mech level of course, but it was weird and eerie in the utter darkness and with all the configuration she was used to changed.
She hoped the sets were all right. Staying in place was the correct thing but she still felt bad because they did, and she wondered in fact if they were going to be left behind at the base. “Jess.”
“What will happen to the sets if they leave them here?”
“They can get out.” Jess was busy finding a path through all the chaos. “Huh. Oh.” She paused, at the edge of long cargo ramp, where all the boxes she’d been shoving her way through were lined up. “This way.” She led the way up the ramp and up to the floor of the landing bay. “Why would they leave them? They’re all trained for Interforce. It’d be stupid.”
The massive door was, as she suspected she’d heard, closed, but the vents on either side were open and a cold wind was coming in, bringing the strong smell of both rain and the sea and ventilation to the inside halls.
Here she could see mostly huge shadows and outlines of carriers, everything dark and silent. It was eerie. She’d been in here a thousand times, but even in off-hours, there were always lights and always people, mechs doing work, bio alts doing work, even in the midwatch something was always going on.
Jess angled her way across the floor towards the pad their carrier was assigned to, slowing down to search the area and avoid leading them both into the end of a blaster. “That would ruin my damn day.”
Jess could see no one, and hear no one moving in the vicinity, no matter how hard she strained her ears.
But the sound of the wind coming in could be blocking that, and she found it hard to believe she could bust out of her quarters, leave a gusher of fluid in the halls, break through the bio alts quarters and end up where she was without getting challenged no matter what the distraction was.
Security should have…. Jess paused, thinking. Where the hell was security? “Probably hauling down the ops ramp about flood alerts.”
“Excuse me, Jess?”
“Just talking to myself.” She sped up, hauling Dev along with her as she dodged between the staged carriers, all of them tied down, all of them secured for storage. “Huh.” They would be traveling in the personnel transport, they’d said, everyone together, leaving all the rigs behind.
The transport was in the center of the floor, huge and hulking, it’s boosters and engines prepared for flight in the morning. The vents provided flashes of lightning from the outside, brief hints of silver that flashed over the vehicle, painting stripes across it’s dark gray skin.
“There we go.” Jess turned to the left, heading between a massive crane loader and the carrier platforms.
There was their carrier, equally secured, somnolent on its pad, shut down and dark and as they scrambled up onto the pad and approached it, Jess knew a moment of apprehension. What if someone already was ahead of her?
Dev had her scanner out and the screen briefly came to life, long enough for her agile fingers to rapidly dance across it, the screen’s light reflecting on her eyes and flashing a silver sheen on her hair. “It’s clear.” She said, as though reading Jess’s mind. “I have set the manual unlock”. She shut the scanner down and slid it around to her side. “Should I start up the internal systems?”
“No, not yet. Don’t want to alert anyone.” Jess sidled up to the carrier, sitting there dark and silent. She hesitantly put her hand on it and felt through her fingertips the soundless sensation of motion, then the hatch undocked and lifted without any protest as it recognized her touch.
She stepped up inside without extending the ramp and paused, listening, and sniffing intently. Then she heard noises echoing from the outer hallway and pulled Dev inside, reaching over to seal the hatch as the bio alt joined her on the deck of the carrier.
It was quiet, with all the carriers’ systems shut down and they both stood there for several minutes in utter stillness, as the sound of shouting nearby resolved into the cursing of ops techs, heading past them.
“Why the hell they want to fly outta here now???” “Fricken suits.” “Have to leave all that shit we packed behind.. all that work for nothin!”
“What’s happening?” Dev whispered. “Are they preparing to go?”
Jess nodded in the darkness. “Running.” She exhaled. “They’re running. Whatever’s going on has them spooked.”
Dev moved around the gunner station in the carrier finding her way by touch in this more familiar environment. The blast shield was down on the carrier nose and she slid into her pilots seat but left all the controls off, glad to be seated inside the protection the carrier afforded.
Jess had her head cocked to one side, listening. “Getting the transport ready” She concluded, from the thunks and clangs. “Must have hand lights.” She said. “Why didn’t we think about having hand lights, Devvie?”
“First storage cabinet, near the drop apparatus.” Dev said. “I did not expect to need them in our quarters.”
Jess chuckled, and then she settled herself into her seat. The inside of the carrier smelled and looked right, the only oddity the gear bags that held all their personal possessions that were tucked inside the two big bins on the opposite side.
She heard the cargo handlers, battery powered, start up. “Loading.”
“That was a large quantity of cargo.” Dev concluded. “If they load it all, they will not have room for the sets.”
There was a long silence. “Yeah.” Jess slowly agreed. “Maybe they figured they needed supplies more than Base techs, if they’re closing down bases.”
“That is non optimal, Jess.” Dev’s voice, faced away from her in the darkness, changed pitch in a way that made Jess know she was frowning, and she could picture Dev’s face, with her brows creased. “What are they supposed to do?”
“Lets hold on that until we figure out what we’re going to do ourselves first.” Jess said pragmatically. “Wonder when they’re going to realize without power they can’t open that outer door. It closes automatically if power goes out.”
Dev considered that. “Oh, that’s an interesting problem. I don’t think our process would work on that mechanism. It’s too heavy.”
Jess chuckled, a softly unexpected sound there in the darkness. “Let someone else solve that problem for us, Devvie.” She put her hands behind her head and leaned back. “I can see how this is going. Those bastards are going to get who’s important to them, aka, them, onboard and if anyone doesn’t make it - too bad.”
“Hm.” Dev made a low noise in her throat. “That’s interesting.”
Jess’s eyes twinkled a little. “Works out for us.” She said. “Better than having to shoot our way out with guns that might blow up in my hands.”
“That is true.” Dev picked up her scanner and turned it on, tuning it as she turned in her seat. She studied the screen intently, watching the returns, the scanner’s sensors on input only. “Yes, there are hand tools and battery powered devices active in the area, and the aircraft has started up internal systems.”
“Oh.” Dev made a hasty adjustment. “They are scanning from that vehicle the inside of the cavern.” She reported. “I have configured this to return a null spectrum.”
“They can’t see us?”
“They cannot.” Dev flipped through another few screens. “Or, more specifically, they see what they expect to see, an empty carrier.”
Dev smiled briefly. “I can see people approaching the transport.” She watched groups, in ones or twos, approaching the vehicle, and the wire map showed the steady stream of boxes being loaded from the rear hatch.
Then a huge barrage of explosions echoed, and she quickly turned down the sound.
Jess hauled ass out of her chair and was at the hatch in a breath but paused just before touching it. “Can you see what that was?” She asked, in a tense, low voice.
Dev was already busy tapping. “Energy discharge.” She reported. “Signature matches heavy long blaster fire.”
Jess paused with her hands halfway between her thighs and the door. “What direction are they shooting?” She asked. “At us?”
Dev checked the readings then rescanned, shaking her head a little. “No. It appears they are firing at the cavern bay door.” She reported. “The rebounds are, however, non-optimal as they are being reflected all over the cavern.” She added. “They are doing damage to objects inside the facility, and two of the cargo handlers have now gone offline.”
Dev tuned the scanner. “More individuals are progressing towards the transport from main ops hall.” She reported. “Now the heavy fire has stopped.” She said. “Now it has started again, from a different vector.”
Jess backed up and sat back down in her seat. “That’s what happens when you get paper pushers running operations, Dev.” She said. “Maybe we can grab whatever they can’t now load and take it.” She put her hands behind her head again. “Depends what it is that is.”
The carrier rocked back and forth a little, unexpectedly.
“We have just been hit by a rebound.” Dev said. “There is no damage to this vehicle.”
“Not to these bricks. You picked the right place to hide.”
“Two persons have just been made dead.” Dev said, quietly. “I can see the energy dispersion. They took a direct hit.”
“Stupid.” Jess sighed. “Why can’t someone be as smart as you are, and figure out how to release the locks?” She looked over at Dev. “Anyone we knew?”
Dev studied the information. “I would have to run a genetiscan. It could be detectable.” She answered, regretfully. “It seems quite suboptimal on the floor right now. Many persons are running around everywhere.” She watched two pinpoints move along the outside rim of the cavern.
“We’ll figure it out once those idiots leave.” Jess wiggled one booted foot in mild contentment. “These togs are really comfortable. Good pick.” She observed. “Can’t believe someone did these pants long enough for my ass.”
Dev glanced at her, even though Jess was just a dark spot in the inside of a dark carrier. “There are several people using a hand lift at elevation near the doors.” She announced. “And I am glad you like the clothing. I think it’s quite attractive on you.”
“How can you tell? I could be wearing a sheet of seaweed in here and you wouldn’t know.”
“I think I would smell that. But I was looking at you in our quarters when the power went out.” Dev went back to the screen. “They are attempting to use the hand lift to pry open the doors.”
“Finally, someone with a brain arrived. Hope they don’t shoot them.”
Dev put the scanner down on her panel and turned towards her controls. “I think it’s safe to release the umbilical, Jess. With all the noise outside and the shooting it will not be noticed.”
“Yeah, makes sense.” Jess sighed. “Stupid gunners could be shooting bits off half the half out there.”
Dev released the clamps and ejected the connections to the carrier. With power down it would not show on any one’s board, but even with power it wouldn’t have, since she’d taken care to isolate the carrier’s control systems the previous day.
She reviewed the boards, all quiet and dark, and decided to leave them as they were, just in case the power came back and live systems would stand out. The scanner would mask their presence, but there were limits to what the small device could do and things seemed to be going along somewhat positively at the moment.
Jess got up and came over, sitting down on the jumpseat next to Dev and watching the screen as the wire map, a very bare and minimal return showed what was going on outside them. She could clearly hear someone shouting commands outside, telling people to board.
It felt good to know she wasn’t going to be obeying it. She’d started out not really having a plan and ending up exactly where she’d wanted to so from Jess’s perspective, they were in a great position. “If they have to work so hard to get that thing open, they’ll leave it open.” She predicted confidently. “C’mon sea cucumber brains make it easy for us.”
“They have just cut through the retaining track to better position the lift, so that would seem true.” Dev was watching the screen. “They won’t be able to close it.”
“They really are running.” Jess said, after a moment’s silence. “They’re not coming back. They don’t care what they’re leaving here.”
“No.” Dev said, quietly. “It appears not.”
Now Jess could hear running feet, and the wire map showed figures dashing across the floor heading for the transport. “Any comms going on?”
Dev flipped over to a second screen and reviewed the returns. “Just hand comms.” She said. “Local.” She tuned a channel, and then opened it. “
“Get to the transport!” A male voice bellowed. “Move! They’ll have that open in ten minutes anyone not on is staying behind!”
“That’s the security chief, Barona.” Dev remarked. “He seems upset.”
“What about ops?” A yell came back to him.
“That’s centops control, mobile.” Jess said. “Burton, the ops mids chief. They must have evac’d from there.”
“Screw it! Not worth the trouble. C’mon, Jax, get over here.” Barona responded. “Everyone on sec-chan board now!”
“We can’t get to residental! It’s hip deep in fluid!” Someone answered. “We gotta vent!”
“Leave it!” Barona yelled. “Just move. Whoever stayed in bed’ll die there.”
Jess sniffed reflectively. “Bye, assholes.”
Dev glanced at her.
Jess reached over and picked up Dev’s hand, bringing it over and giving it a kiss on the back. “We’re home free, Dev. They don’t care who they’re leaving. Just who they’re taking. Sometimes fate just goes your way, you know?”
“Yes.” Dev leaned over to the side and kissed Jess on the lips. “It seems so.”
Jess kissed her back, and they leaned over to watch the wire map, watching the heat map of the transport engines rev up, and a last scattering of moving figures approach it. Jess lifted her free hand and waggled her fingers at them, as a wash of water vapor coming across it showed the doors opening up.
An air horn, the oldest of the old tech they had, sounded, a raw warning that echoed through the cavern, followed by the transports engines spooling up, the rumble of their jet release shaking the platform the carrier as perched on.
It made their ear tickle, and Jess rubbed hers, then it was receding into the distance, replaced by thunder from the outside, and the drum of rain wash flowing down the wall.
At last it was quiet.
Dev and Jess sat there for several minutes, just listening to the sound of the rain outside the cavern, a booming thunder rolling in that was loud enough to make their ears itch and Jess rubbed hers. “Idiots.” She muttered.
“To leave in the storm?” Dev asked, her booted feet extended and crossed at the ankles. She had her shoulders pressed back against the back of her pilot’s seat, content to relax here in this one place she considered to be truly hers.
More than her quarters, though she had enjoyed the space there. This carrier had come to define her role, and had brought her both notice and notoriety in equal measure along with her unlikely nickname. She was glad they’d be taking the craft with them.
“Yeah.” Jess shifted on the jumpseat, which was in truth uncomfortable and too small for her tall frame. “Whatcha say, we go out and see what the sitch is out there then take off? I know some caves we can shelter in if it gets too hairy.”
“It would allow the weather to reduce.” Dev concluded. “This vehicle can cope with the precipitation, but I would just as soon not deal with lightning induced power fluctuations if we can avoid them.” She pondered. “Since we will not have the option to return here for repair.”
Jess patted her on the back. “I’m gonna stick my head out. Lets get this crate ready to go.”
Dev reached over and activated her panels, and the interior lights on the carrier came on at their dimmest setting, enough after the utter darkness to bring everything into sharp relief around them.
She half turned, and found Jess still sitting there, just watching her, head leaning against the side of the carrier, a faint smile on her face.
They looked silently at each other.
“Just you and me now, Devvie.” Jess said, after a moment.
Dev grinned. “Excellent.” She pronounced. “I think we could not have asked for a better outcome.”
That made Jess grin wider. “Just wait until we have to fish for breakfast then you’ll wish we went west.” She pushed herself to her feet, unfolding her length and ducking slightly to avoid hitting her head on the console above Dev’s seat. “Let me make sure we’re clear to leave.”
Dev turned to her controls and triggered the protective screen over her station, watching the shield slide back to expose the darkness of the cavern beyond, briefly lit with lightning from the open bay door.
Well, half open. She ducked her head and peered at it, the doors cranked partially open enough to allow the transport egress. More than enough to allow the carrier, so she just nodded and started bringing things live.
Jess went to the hatch and put her hand against the panel inside, waiting the heartbeat it took for the door to unlatch and move silently aside, and as it got halfway open, it all changed.
Pops and thunks and sound and light flared all around her and she slammed the hatch controls and dove to one side in pure instinct, landing across her own console as the blare of light came in the front nose windows Dev had just revealed. “Dev! Get down!”
Dev was paused half standing, her hands on her controls, looking out the window. “Yes.” She responded. “I see power has returned.” She sounded mildly bemused. “Interesting.”
“Get your damn head down!” Jess flipped herself over her chair and came around the back of Dev’s seat to lean next to her. The halon lights were now on over the cavern and around them she could see panels booting up and hear the rising hum of energy all around them. “Damn it.”
There were blaster shots creasing the sides of carriers and consoles all around them, and not far away two bodies were laying in large chunks, blood pooling on the floor around them. It looked like they’d been under attack.
Maybe they had been? Jess’s eyes narrowed. Double scam?
“That seems like a big coincidence Devvie.” She said, grimly. “Power coming back right after those bimbos leave.” She looked around the carrier. “And all I got is a folded piece of metal to defend us with. If I touch those triggers this thing’s gonna come apart with us in it.”
Dev leaned to one side and looked past the front of the carrier. “Interesting.”
Jess frowned. “Maybe I have something in those lockers. Damn it! Did I think I was going to throw rocks at the bad guys? What the hell is wrong with me!”
“Jess.” Dev gently put her hand on Jess’s cheek and pushed her head around to look to the carrier’s left hand side. “I am confident as well it was not a coincidence, but I think it’s all right.”
A figure had appeared and was looking at them through the open shield. It lifted its hand and made a thumbs up hand signal, and grinned.
“April?” Jess said, after a moments surprised silence.
“And Doug.” Dev said, as a second figure appeared. “It seems some others stayed behind.”
Jess pushed off and went back to the hatch, opening it again and sticking her head out, now hearing the sound of boots approaching as she emerged from the carrier and moved out onto the landing pad to face the small crowd gathering.
“What the hell?” Jess asked April, who was swaggering up, looking extremely pleased with herself. “You guys pull the plug on this place?”
“He did.” April jerked a thumb at Doug. “Finally did something right.”
“That was excellent.” Dev had emerged behind her, and now she came to the side of the pad. “It was very good work.”
“We just decided we weren’t going.” Mike Arias said, leaning on the edge of the platform, dressed in a civilian jacket and rugged overalls. “We figured if we could panic those suits, they’d take off. Make ‘em think we were being targeted.” He nodded in satisfaction. “I just didn’t like them. Gave me chicken skin.”
Dev regarded him with contracted brows.
“Worked.” April said, succinctly. “No idea what they hell they thought was happening, but they couldn’t get out of here fast enough.”
Doug had been rocking back and forth on his boots. “My dad was in charge of the hydro works back on the Island. I know a few things about interlacing interconnects and how to uncouple them.” He said, modestly. “So that’s what i did. I figured at night, in the dark, they’d flip out.”
“A bypass.” Chester mused. “Well, they flipped.” He agreed. “Seriously.”
Doug nodded. “Wasn’t hard. The transfer switch here’s in front of the batts. Cuts off everything when you take it out.” He explained. “They figured that out after the last cluster and it was on a list of stuff they were supposed to fix they never did.”
“Whatever works.” Jess glanced at the rest of the people who had strolled over. Not a big crowd, but Clint was there, and Jerad from Medical, along with the two agents and two techs, and in the back, near the wall she could see the sets gathering, peering out with anxious apprehension. “So. Now what do we do?”
“Now what do we do?” April returned the question. “We figured you maybe had a plan.”
“Me?” Jess folded her arms. “I had a plan for me and Rocket, sure.” She said. “She rigged our bus so we could duck into it, then wait for them to give up on us and take off.”
“Rocket fixed us up so we could take a hike, too.” Doug informed her. “We did our wrenching last night when we were ah.. cleaning out the carriers.”
Jess remembered them arriving at dinner with grease stains, and she turned to regard Dev. “She did, huh?”
Dev had her noncommittal expression on, and her hands were clasped behind her back “I offered to duplicate the functionality of the new module I have been testing.” She demurred. “It seemed retaining local control over these vehicles could be useful.”
“Ya think?” Jess swung back around to the rest of them. “We were going to duck out after the transport left. Figured we could outrun it if nothing else.”
Chester chuckled a little. “They wouldn’t have chased ya.” He said. “Nobody’s gonna stick with Rocket.”
“We had the same idea. We were just hanging out ignoring the evac order waiting for Doug to put the juice back on after they left when the whole damn residential level flooded out.” April said. “What a mess. I think that’s what really wigged em.”
Dev cleared her throat.
“Nearly screwed up the plan.” Doug said. “The big hatch slammed shut.” He pointed at the half open bay. “I could hear em yelling through the access tubes and then someone showed up and told em to use the hand jacks.”
Clint held his hand up. “That’d be me.” He said, with a twinkle in his eye. “I was fixin to just hide out in the maintenance shaft, while all the hubbub was going on and then see what my options were.” He leaned against the pad. “I saw the pneumatic systems all go offline. That’s what the flood was?”
“Sorry about that.” Dev said. “We had to get the doors open in our quarters. I disrupted the pneumatic lines.” She explained. “That reduced system pressure.” She paused. “Somewhat catastrophically, it seems.’
“So. that’s what happened.” April started laughing. “I was cursing Doug because he trapped us all in our bunks while he was down in the raceway and all of a sudden I heard this sound and the door slammed open.”
“Didn’t think about that.” Doug blushed a little. “But hey, it worked out didn’t it?”
“Apparently so.” Dev concluded. “Even without a plan it became optimal.”
Jess put her hands on her hips. “Well they’re gone.” She studied the opening. “But they’ll be back to salvage all that crap they left behind.” She looked at the crowd. “Probably a good idea to figure out what to do next to get clear of here.”
Clint came over and leaned against one of the consoles that serviced the pad. “What are you doing, Drake?” He said. “You weren’t never going to go, were ya?”
Jess felt herself relax. “Nah,” She put her hands in her pockets, “I’m going to the Bay. I figure they’ll find me useful for something.” She glanced aside at Dev. “You still up for that?”
Dev looked at her with a slightly bewildered expression. “Of course. If by that you mean do I wish to go with you to your birthplace.”
Jess. nodded, and gave her a brief grin.
“I would go wherever it is you were going.” Dev continued in a mild tone. “It doesn’t really matter to me where that is, but I am glad it’s your birthplace because I am quite fond of it.”
A little silence fell. Jess glanced furtively around and reached up to rub her cheek, aware of the blush coloring her skin from the heat against her fingertips and the grins of the others watching her. “Aww. Thanks Devvie.”
“C’mon Drake.” April climbed up onto the platform and came over to stand next to her, with a stern, almost arrogant jerk of her jaw. “We could be useful, too. Take us with you.” She hooked her thumbs in her belt, her hand resting against the hilt of the dalknife in it’s hilt. “We got skills.”
Jess regarded her thoughtfully. “That’s true.” She finally said. “They didn’t drown me for the last bunch I dumped on em.”
“Well, now, you can’t just show up at a homestead, you know..” Clint started
“She can.” April cut him off. “Shut it down. You can stay here if you want to.”
“Didn’t say I wanted to.” Clint said. “Just said it isn’t that easy sometimes.”
“I hear Drake’s got some leverage there.” Jerad hitched his hip up and leaned on the platform. “That true, Drake? That place need a half baked quack like me? Otherwise I was going to hike up to Quebec. I figure someone up there could use first aid.”
“Kurok could probably use another pair of doc hands.” Jess allowed. “The two other medics got splatted in the last fight.”
Dev came over and tugged on Jess’s sleeve. “And we can take the sets, right Jess?” She whispered. “They are all trained in many systems. They could do good work.”
Jess looked around at all of them. Then she exhaled. “Gonna take a lot of trips.” She said. “Maybe we should head over first and make sure it’s not going to be a crap show.” She wondered if the Bay would be up for it. Were they still okay with bringing in outsiders? “Worked out the last time, but that was the last time.”
“Yes, we can only take a handful in each of our vehicles.” Dev agreed. “Let me go explain to them what we would like to do.” She turned and went off down the steps to the carrier’s platform and onto the floor, heading off towards the edge of the cavern where the sets were milling.
April was watching her “Wasn’t really in the plan, huh?”
Jess’s lips twitched “Wasn’t really a plan.” She admitted. “Yours was better. Get rid of all the bastards. Less chance of getting our heads blown off that way.” She was studying the doors to the landing cavern. “I figure we got about ten hours before they get back there, realize it was a scam, and send an armored gun platform back.”
“About.” April nodded and nodded again at Mike who had joined them on the platform. “We figured if we had our own rigs we could grab whatever’s around and take it with us.” She watched Dev get to the other side of the cavern. “Didn’t figure on them leaving the bios.”
“Bastards.” Jess said, briefly. “They could have squeezed them in if they’d left all the cargo behind, made the hold into a strap down.”
“Don’t get that.” Mike said. “Those guys are valuable.”
“To run a base.” Jess was looking thoughtfully at the group. “And they got bases in the West, don’t they?”
“Maybe they’re going to send the transport back.” Doug suggested. “Cause Mike’s right. Those guys would be worth a pretty penny back there, and even if they didn’t have base slots, they could farm em out for a good price.”
“Yeah well.” Jess turned her eyes to the opening in the wall, flashes of lightning still illuminating the sky outside that was now just showing a hint of gray. “Maybe they won’t want to go. Maybe they want to stay here and wait for a pickup.”
April just looked at her. “I say we take them and all the gear we can haul out of here with em. We’re wasting time.”
Jess nodded, finally. “Yeah. We’re wasting time. Lets get those boxes on the edge there and see what’s salvageable.”
“Want a tank?” Jerad suggested “Figure you need one over there”
“Can Dev hotwire more of these buses?” Clint asked. “I got my license. I can drive one, long as it’s mostly in a straight path.”
A long roll of thunder sounded, and after it faded, Jess straightened, and cocked her head. “Somethings coming.” She said, crisply. “Engines, heading this way.” She turned “Hey Dev! Need your scanner!” She motioned to the opening. “We got trouble!”
Dev turned and started running back over.
“Lets get these rigs ready.” April motioned Doug towards theirs. “Talkings finally over.”
“I’ll help you pack the tank.” Clint told Jerad. “C’mon, lets get out of the way.”
Dev dove without any questioning into the carrier and instead of picking up her scanner, threw herself into her pilot’s seat and hit the rapid startup sequence with her fingertips almost a blur. She pulled her comm and control headset on with one hand, tucking the earbud into place as she started getting returns from the carrier’s much more powerful systems.
Jess was right behind her. “Hope it’s just a recon.” She muttered. “One of them sniffing around to see what the sitch is. They probably heard we’re shutting down.”
Dev moved her scan pad into position on her right-hand side and started absorbing the results. “The weather is obstructing.” She said, after a moment. “There is a lot of disruption.”
“Grrrowl.” Jess was leaning over the back of her chair, watching the screen intently. “C’mon… c’mon..” She added. “Not sure what in the hell we can do about it if it is them. Maybe have Doug shut the place down again, make them think it’s dead.”
“It’s a single craft.” Dev said, after a moment’s silence. “Inbound, standard heading, from the south.” She studied the scan. “No ident.”
“Bring up a sideband to the kids and let them know.”
“It’s already up.” Dev responded. “Tac 1, to Tac 2, Tac 3, single inbound, dual commercial engine.” She scanned the results. “No weapons return.”
Jess’s brow creased “Civ?”
“Unknown.” Dev said. “They’re scanning us.”
“That civ?” Doug’s voice came through the comms. “Profile’s not theirs.”
“Scanner is on our frequencies.” Dev concluded. “It appears to be a small flyer, with enhanced diagnostic systems.” She studied the wireframe that was forming in front of her. “Heading directly for the landing bay.”
“We need a visual.” Jess decided. “Be right back.” She turned and leaped out of the carrier with a sense of relief as she released her pent up energy in a speed run for the side of the cavern, dodging bits of debris and broken crates and the odd body part.
The wall was coming fast, and she didn’t slacken speed, getting to a point on the ground her sense of spatial dynamics telling her was the right angle and she was at the right point in space to turn her run into a leap and let her forward motion take her to the rock face.
She reached out and grabbed a handhold, then rapidly pulled herself upward as she heard some yells behind her, that she ignored. The doors were in a slot, and she reached the slot and ran along it, perfectly balanced, until she got to the edge that was open and hauled herself around it.
Then reflected with a curse at her own stupidity in not bringing an infrared scope with her, since it was dark turning out slight gray outside, and full of clouds and rain and whatever was coming was invisible.
Mostly invisible. She climbed out onto the landing ledge, the lip of the hatchway and stood with the wind whipping against her, one leg braced against the wall as she cupped her hands over her eyes and stared into the gloom.
Exposed, and vulnerable, she. knew, but trusted her reflexes to throw herself out of range if she sensed inbound fire as she searched the airspace, patiently separating the clouds and the rain and the dark background from the oncoming craft.
“You are out of your blasted mind.” April’s voice came from behind her, out of breath. “What are you going to do, grab it barehand?”
Ah Jess felt her eyes adjusted, and focus, as she found her target. “Trying to see what kind of bad news this is.”
“What do you think you can see in this mess of any news?” April was behind the edge of the door, only her head poking out. “I can’t see crap.”
Jess allowed the focus to tighten and felt the tickle of a scan. “It’s civ.” She said, as the craft abruptly turned out the left, showing it’s long profile to her, then surprisingly, it’s flight lights came on and illuminated it’s chassis, and the tail that was now within her sight.
“What the..” April squinted. “It turned its lights on? Civ and insane? Better get your ass inside before they crash into you.”
“Yeah.” Jess leaned back against the wall. “Get back. It’s gonna land.” She made a long, exaggerated signal with her arms, and then half turned and pointed inside the cavern. “It’s friendly. I think.”
Jess climbed back inside the cavern, glad to be out of the wind. “Got the Bay mark on its tail.” She got back along the ledge in time to see Dev coming out along the ledge. “Hey Devvie.”
“It’s Doctor Dan!” Dev called out, in a relieved tone. “I was able to contact him from the carrier. He’s very.. “ She paused. “I think he’s upset.”
Jess dusted her hands off, as April backed away from her. “Even if he’s got bad news, he’s at least not gonna shoot at us.” She said. “C’mon, let’s find out what his problem is.”
“Like we need more of them.”
The flyer was now landed in the spot the transport had been, set down neatly before discharging its passengers.
Mike from Bay Security was there, tall and hulking, along with Doctor Dan in his Drake’s Bay pullover, and a KayTee pilot in a flight jumpsuit with a turtleneck sweater over it.
Doctor Dan was standing with his hands on his hips staring around the cavern with a look best described as disgusted disbelief. His silvered blond hair was almost standing on end, as though he’d been running his fingers through it.
“I was trying to get here to see if I could talk some sense into those administrative idiots” Kurok was saying. “I got the message from West ops and then had to deal with a barrage of our neighbors who showed up in a panic or I’d have been here sooner.”
To one side, Clint and Jerad were stacking gear to be moved, and a dozen of the bio alts from the base were helping them.
The rest of the sets were working with Chester and Doug, and a group of them were removing the blown apart bodies, taking the pieces to the outprocessing center, glad to be busy at something.
All of them were glad to see Dan Kurok. Their stress level had come right down at his appearance, and everyone was enjoying being treated to a remarkable demonstration of his righteous indignation.
“They sent a message out to the homesteads saying they were pulling out?” Jess said, in a tone of disbelief. “What the what?”
“What the bloody what!” Kurok repeated. “Absolute idiotic muppets. ‘Thank you for your patience as we work out our operational strategies. We will be closing the east coast bases until staffing levels recover, and we are confident this will not affect you in any way.’ I nearly had my jaw hit the desk.”
He looked around. “What happened here, or should I not ask?” He looked up at Jess. “Never mind, that can wait. My assumption is you lot are heading our way?”
“That all right?” Jess asked, tilting her head.
Security Mike laughed, a rough and almost harsh sound that echoed across the cavern. “F’kn.”
“My second reason for coming here was to provide an escape vehicle for you.” Doctor Dan responded with more civilized verbiage. “Of course, it is. Mike was going to bring a squad with him, but I figured the space in the flyer was better saved for passengers.”
“Jackasses.” Mike growled. “They effen picked up and ran like skinks.” He seemed unable to absorb that. “Left the whole effen coast to be scraped by the bastards. Surprised they ain’t here by now if we heard it, they did.”
“Can we save the stories for later?” April asked. “Back of my neck’s itching. We need to get out of here.”
Dev rejoined them just then, returning a tool to the toolkit now strapped at her waist. “We have eight vehicles now operational, aside from the carriers.” She announced. “And there are six KayTees who can pilot six of them.”
“Cargo craft, but we can squeeze a lot of bodies in there.” MIke observed. “Good job, Rocket. Gonna be nice to have you around.”
Dev smiled briefly. “Thank you. The other carriers are sealed. I might be able to reverse the seal with some effort, but it would take a significant amount of time.”
“I can fly one of the cargo planes.” Doctor Dan said. “And I think I heard that tech mech manager say he can fly. So that’s that.” He regarded Dev. “You‘ll have to show me that module, Dev.”
“Of course.” Dev looked satisfied. “But I also think it’s wise for us to leave. It’s light outside, and the weather has moderated. Scan is clear, but it’s limited distance.”
“Lets get loaded up.” Jess said. “Get that last batch in and lets move.”
They all split up and headed for the waiting flyers, save Doctor Dan and Jess, who stood for a moment together in the center of the cavern. “I could be an outlaw.” Jess said to him. “Maybe you don’t want me to stay at the Bay. That could be the wrong kind of trouble.”
Doctor Dan, surprisingly, patted her arm. “Ah, Jesslyn.” He said. “It’s more complicated than that.”
“More complicated than this?” Jess’s eyebrows shot up and her voice lifted with them. She spread her long arms and indicated the interior of the cavern. “Really?”
“Someone sent you civ.” Doctor Dan said, with his gentle smile. “I found that notification waiting for me after I finished calming down the local natives. You have to come to the Bay.” He looked wryly at her. “And truly, the Bay wants you. So lets get back there, and we can talk about all the problems we just took on.”
Jess stared at him, stunned. “Oh crap.” She managed to say. “How the hell did that happen?”
“Mm.” Doctor Dan clasped his hands together and cracked his knuckles. “Going to be interesting times.”