Jess climbed down the last section of rock, leaping off the lowest ledge to the ground and landing with a hop. April was standing at the edge of the passage, her hands planted on her hips, watching her come down.
There was a strong wind coming through the gap, and the clouds were clustering overhead, but the air was only damp and not full of rain. The wind brought it’s own whistling howl but there was no edge of thunder on it and on this side of the cliffs, smelled more of the dank wetness of granite than saltwater.
Jess had removed her overshirt and was just in a light tank and her work pants, her service burns showing vividly against her pale skin as she walked back to where April was waiting, swinging her arms out after her recent climbing effort.
“So?” April tossed her the overshirt as she approached.
“It’ll fit.” Jess slung the shirt over her shoulder. “Right behind that ridge there.” She pointed. “Frame’ll butt up against that edge.”
April studied it “Almost like it was made for it.” She mused. “Yeah, that’ll work. Might have to slag some rock in behind it as a base.”
“Might.” Jess agreed. “Enough metallics in that stuff to harden it.”
A dozen or so loaders were working in the pass, using cargo handlers to move all the loose rocks and any crates out of the way, and there were teams of stockers moving back and forth from the storage caverns to the entry steering carts full of supply.
Storage caverns on one side, vast and extending into the second set of cliffs that were the back side of the Bay. A wall of rock facing landward, like the one facing seaward, the pitch slanting inland with a wide paved incline that led out to the remains of a highway the traders used to move from homestead to homestead.
The other side of the ingress were more cliffs, more, much smaller caves that were irregular and scattered, wary refuge for the scavengers who worked the fringes and brought in bags full of anything they found to trade for a meal.
Shells, sometimes. Limpets scoured from the rocks on the outer ring of the bay, mossy algae scraped off flat surfaces. Nets pulled in from the shore cut loose by accident from the fishing vessels. Eggs from the legions of seabirds.
All had value to the Bay, all worth a bowlful of whatever the meal was, and a cake, or a fistful of fishrolls, or a bagful of the worn beyond use fabrics and clothes that were specially treasured.
Today there were no caravans in the unload area, and the space itself was open and empty, the wind swirling inside and sending clouds of fine dust up into the air. The scavengers shelters were also empty, all of them out ranging the shores to either side of the Bay, until darkness would force them back with their findings.
The small caves were, at least, out of the rain and the wind, they had hammocks slung inside and catchbasins for the freshwater rain and there was a shared sanitary space with rough, but partially warm water showers.
At that, Drake’s Bay was better than most. The shore was broad, the findings were enough to survive on, the scavengers were not shot on sight as they were elsewhere.
“Y’know.” April had her head tipped back. “We keep stripping metal from 10, we could put a top cover on this thing.” She measured the distance with her eyes. “Bet… yeah, hey Doug!” She let out a yell. “Measure the opening, will ya! From the gap to the wall?”
Doug was taking readings not far away, and he lifted a hand and waved.
“We could grab that cap they had to throw onto the top of that carrier bay.” April continued. “Bet it’d fit.”
“You figuring to lift that whole damn mountain over here?” Jess gave her a look. “They gotta come reclaim it sooner or later.”
“I figure it ain’t sooner.” The nomad stated. “Put a roof up over that, metal, so Rocket’s brainwave’ll work and this whole area gets more useful.” She rocked up and down on the heels of her boots, her hands in the front pocket of her thick hooded pullover. “Too much open to deal with, otherwise.”
Jess looked at the loading dock area, windswept and weatherworn. Always a mess to use for unload, due to the weather, always ruining stock and making the Bay an ill favored place to trade. “From the back caverns all over to main door?” She gestured with one hand. “Might cover it.”
“Yeah.” April studied the space. “More secure. Only place you can approach then is by sea, and that’s where the launch bays are.”
“And the big energy guns.” Jess agreed. “Assuming we can get them working.” The wind picked up again and blew against them, ruffling Aprils curls and tangling Jess’s dark locks. “Yeah. It’s a good idea if we can pull it off.” She said. “I figured we’d just shut the back entry but that loses us everything back here if we get hit.”
The outside caverns weren’t used that much, since they were outside the perimeter, and aside from temporary storage, or the games, or the market, they didn’t get much use. But they could, Jess mused. It could almost be a second big hall out here.
They could, and use the caverns on either side of the ingress. “Could make workshops out here.” She said. “For that damn mech.”
‘Yeah.” April said. “Hey.”
Jess glanced at her companion, eyebrows lifting.
“That gill thing also make you not feel the cold?” April asked, her head cocked to one side as Jess stood there in her light covering.
Jess looked down at herself, then extended one arm and poked it with a finger on her opposite hand. “Got a insulating layer under the skin. Common here.” She said offhandedly. “Bay’s been working in the weather and crap for so long it developed.”
April stared at her with interest. “No shit?”
“I get cold.” Jess answered a little defensively. “It just doesn’t bother me that much.” She said. “And yeah, that’s useful as hell underwater but it didn’t come with it.” She held up one hand and spread her fingers out wide. “Like this.”
April edged closer and studied her fingers which had small, but distinct webbing between them. “That’s really not part of that whole thing?” She asked in a surprised tone.
Jess shook her head, closing her hand into a ball. “Ask anyone from here.” She said. “Ask my uncle Max. Most everyone has it. We swim from birth pretty much.”
“Doc must be pissed off he’s so damn busy.” April remarked. “He’d have a picnic with this place.” She said. “Makes sense then why everyone wants your gillies.” She put her hands behind her back and rocked up and down on her bootheels, looking off into the distance.
The loaders had paused as they approached, watching them with some curiosity as they halted to wait for the techs and Mike Arias to catch up with them. “You find the scrapping spot?” Jess asked, suddenly, as she removed the shirt from her shoulder and pulled it on over her head.
“Did.” April produced a satisfied grin. “It’s that place they were playing rugger in. They clear out that whole area and just whale on each other.”
“Yeah? That sounds kinda fun.”
“They were asking if you were going to come down and mess with them.” April gave her a sideways glance. “Not sure if they wanted me to say yes, or no.” She admitted. “But they were good with me and Mike joining in.” She crackled her knuckles. “Gonna be fun. We had to promise not to off anyone.”
“Can we promise that?”
April paused and looked off into the distance, her attention going inward. Then she looked up. “You ever did?”
“Besides Bain, and Stephen and the yonks who trashed the Bay?” Jess’s eyes twinkled a little. “I got Joshua, my tech who turned and anyone who got in my way when they attacked here.” She answered, in a bit more serious tone. “But you mean like in a scrap?” She said. “Not intentioned?”
“No.” Jess shook her head. “I never offed anyone by accident. Like I told Jacques, always been a reason. I went to the edge plenty of times in the pit, but never went over the line. You?”
April stared past her. “No, never lost it in the zone.” She responded quietly. “Plenty of times I wanted to. Shit I went through Canon City with such assholes.” She sighed, shaking her head. “But that training works. I capped it.”
“Broke my instructor’s neck in final.” Jess smiled briefly. “But that was on purpose too.”
“And they let you graduate?”
“Conscious choice. Guy was a dick and I didn’t want to take that out on a defenseless animal.”
April started slightly, tilting her head up a little. “Oh crap.. that was you?” She said, in a startled tone. “You know they stopped that stupid drill afterward. We didn’t get it, but we heard about it.”
“That was me.” Jess admitted. “I told em offing a non com just to prove I could was lame. You wanted to know I could kill something on command? Okay. I did. Graduate my ass.” She put her hands behind her back and clasped them as she spotted the approaching techs. “Commandant brought an armed backup to the point with him.”
“Whoa.” April finally said. “I ain’t never heard of that happening.”
Jess smiled briefly. “It does happen. Most cadets don’t know - but I did.” She said. “Probably was me telling the brass he had brains for doing it that let him pass me in.”
April looked at her for a long moment. “You really are outside the box.” She said, in an approving tone. “I like that.”
Jess chuckled. “Yeah. So sure, I’ll come play. With you two if no one else’ ll mix it up with me.” She pulled a comms set out of her pocket and slid it over her ear. “Tac tac, Dev.”
“Dev here.” Dev’s warm, burring voice answered and Jess half turned, as Mike Arias and the techs arrived at their side, hoisting work bags onto their shoulder. “I have completed setting up our location. I think you will be pleased.”
“Meet us in the mess and tell me about it.” Jess said. “We’re done out here, but April came up with something else now to go swipe and lift.”
“You might have to go steal one of those shuttles for this one.”
“Oh.” Dev responded. “Interesting.”
“Suboptimal. I cannot pilot two of those vehicles at once, Jess.” Dev intoned seriously. “And it would be difficult to deliver that skillset to others, except possibly to Doctor Dan.”
“I’m sure you’ll work it out. See ya in a few minutes.” Jess closed the channel and took one last look around. “Let’s go.” She turned and led the way back to the ramp up to the back entrance.
“Rocket really gonna steal a rocket?” Doug asked April. “Boy we’re zooming right on down the radial path huh?”
The mess hall was busy by the time they arrived, but the table along the far end had space for them, and they made their way over to it. Doctor Dan was there, with Cathy and Security Mike and they all made casual small talk as they plowed through lunch.
it was strange, Dev thought, at how at home it felt to be there. So completely different than the base, this huge room that could hold thousands of people all sitting together in noisy conversation. Everyone in the rough hewn Bay clothing or well worn pullovers, even the new sets from the Base who had hoodies on over their Interforce issued jumpsuits to keep them warm.
It felt good to be there, watching everyone share a meal.
“Dev’s going to write a routine to keep the carriers in sync when we lift that panel.” Doug was saying. “Cause otherwise the most dangerous thing in the skies is going to be us trying to move that honking ass thing all the way here.”
“Met’s good for tomorrow.” April noted. “If we leave early and get back early. Front’s due through round night meal.”
“Hey.” Chester looked up from his plate. “When’s Brent coming out of med? He go with us? Maybe Dev can unlock his bus and it’ll give us four.” He said. “He can watch our backs while we hoist.”
“Not sure.” Jess answered, after a pause. “He was still pretty groggy this morning. Not sure he should be driving a bus by tomorrow.”
“Still, its an excellent idea.” Doctor Dan spoke up, in his mild tone. “Those are turning out to be quite useful vehicles.” He glanced up at them. “If Dev can break the codes for a few more, I suspect we can get someone who can pilot them.”
“Like you.” April eyed him. “I saw you doing zoomies with that light flit the other day.”
Doctor Dan chuckled. “Yes, certainly I can drive a Bantam, but likely a few of the more senior KayTee’s from the base could as well, as long as they only had to get them from point A to point B.”
“Screw it, lets take em all.” Doug enthused. “Interforce doesn’t want the old things anyway. They mothballed em, or they’d have let us fly em out west when they left.”
Dev nodded in agreement. “That’s true.” She spoke up. “There was no intent to retrieve these vehicles. I saw the quiescence programming for them. It was terminal.” She looked up at the silence and found everyone looking at her. “I reversed it.” She added, feeling as there was some further explanation expected.
“Obviously.” Doctor Dan recovered first. “Can you adjust the rest of the carriers there, Dev? How much time should it take?”
Dev chewed her mouthful of seaweed thoughtfully, and then swallowed. “I think it would take about three hours.” She concluded. “If everything is optimal.”
“Could get that done while we’re cutting steel.” Jess said. “Assuming the place isn’t crawling with scavengers.” She nodded. “Lets take a bunch of your fly boys and grab as many as we can, we may not get another chance.”
April swirled her grog around in her mouth with a thoughtful expression. “Unless we just take possession of the whole place.” She said. “I really don’t think they’re coming back.”
A small silence fell. “Hold on.” Doctor Dan said. “We go from lets take some metal scrap to owning the bases?”
April shrugged. “Why not?” She said. “They left em. There’s some good mech we could recover there.”
“Dude.” Doug looked sideways at her. “Better we make it impossible for someone else not to be able to take them over huh? It takes like, what, two hundred people to run that place?”
“Better idea. We got a lot on our plate.” Jess nodded. “You can shut down the grid again, can’t you? I think Dev emptying the entire supply of pneumatic fluid probably got us halfway there. None of the heavy mech’ ll work.”
“Oh yeah. Forgot about that.” April went back to her lunch. “Yeah, probably better get this place planked up first.” She said. “But shutting everyone else out until we’re ready’s ace.” She paused in thought. “North never did get going again but lets leave North Pole alone. I can do without going back there. Anyone who wants that thing be my guest.”
It was a long statement for April, and there was a bit of quiet as everyone absorbed it.
“No argument there.” Doug agreed after it ended. “Never been that cold in my entire life before.”
“Brr.” Dev said, under her breath. “That was in fact suboptimal.”
“Yeah.” Jess finished up her fish. “No shielding and crap for systems. Not worth recovering. No idea why they wanted to try that after we got slammed there.” She said. “Dev had to jump start the whole thing with our bus.”
Dev took a breath as if to protest, then paused, and rocked her head back and forth a little. “Thats actually true.” She admitted. “The amount of degradation was absolutely non optimal.”
“And we were skunked.” Doug said. “Sold out."
“Skunked.” Jess agreed. “And there’s still some game in play. So we gotta cover our backs.”
“True that.” Mike Arias. “True, true that.”
“Now I wonder.” Doctor Dan mused, tapping his fork on his lower lip. “I wonder if it wasn’t all just one long game.” He looked up, to find the table all focused on him. “I was just thinking. We’ve seen so much of senseless, stupid things going on. I think either they all might be pieces in the puzzle…”
“Or?” Jess asked.
“Or a good percentage of the planet is far more stupid than I thought possible.” Doctor Dan concluded, going back to his plate.
“Or both.” Doug suggested.
“Or both.” Doctor Dan looked up again, and winked at them. “Not sure what the odds are either way on that one.”
Jess walked up the steps to her new abode and paused, then put her hand on the access pad. The door slid aside with no complaints and she walked inside, pausing to stand and absorb the environment. People had been there. She could detect that scent, though it was dispersed by the movement of air from the external opening on the far side of the space.
That brought the scent of the sea, and the rich pungency of wet rocks, a clean crispness that Jess found she liked. Just the feel of the outside refreshing the space pleased her, though she wasn’t entirely sure why.
Nothing smelled dangerous in the presence of others. She knew one of them was Dev, an indefinable difference she just recognized and the others were tinged with the cloth and salt scent of the working togs of the Bay.
Expected. The smell of plastics off gassing, expressed into air that hadn’t had that in a long time, also expected from Dev’s earlier report. All clear. Jess determined the space safe, and she felt her body relax, content that it would not be required to react in the near term.
Dev could have told her that in an instant, with her scanner, but Jess had always used her own senses as a counterpoint, her hearing and sense of smell tuned and acute, and if they jibed then it meant being doubly safe.
She continued on across the large open space, then turned down the hallway, pausing to glance inside the food prep area, noting the resupply of it and the neatly stacked cups. Everything was precisely aligned and it was easy for Jess to imagine their two assigned bios studiously getting things just so because that’s what they did.
Just like Dev, in her own, stunningly advanced, way. Not just to do something, but to do something with the best possible result. Jess thought about that a moment, standing there with her hand on the edge of the opening into the space. What was it Mike had called them? Just fucking useful.
She snorted a little under her breath. They could never have endured bios at the Bay before. There had been no slots or cred for that, for what anyone here would view as stupid coin spend, when there were bodies vying for berths all the time.
And, as she had, she viewed these created people, given the history of the Bay itself, with deep skepticism. Jelly Bag brains, she’d always thought, until she’d met Dev. A faint smile appeared on Jess’s face.
But then the Bay lost a thousand people in a pointless stupid fight. Slots had emptied. Knowledge had disappeared, skill sets had been bled out on the big hall floor, and with all that, a couple hundred of polite, skilled, eager to please people had shown up along with their creator and the pragmatism of the Bay had pivoted because..
Well, because they hadn’t had time to push back, until they could see the benefit. Like she had. Now the addition of a hundred more bios, with mechanical and military skill sets had been quickly accepted, the Bay still short on slots in deep, urgent need of working bodies who could fill berths and already knew what to do with even out of date machines of war.
Fucking useful. Jess pushed away from the door and went into the large round space between it and the front hallway, which was now a bit less empty, and the warming panel reacted to her presence, letting out a soft, pleasant glow.
The furniture they’d picked had been delivered and was now scattered around the space, battered and somewhat grungy but at least giving them something to sit on. Jess turned around in a circle, then she walked along the front corridor, pausing at the small room that once had been hers.
She saw the desk inside and her brows lifted, recalling then Dev’s comment about the access as she reviewed the neatly positioned stone surface. In here? She saw the access station, the cables curling in a gentle spiral to the panel on the wall.
In here. The surface fit, and after a moment she pulled a stool from against the wall over and sat down behind it, finding it a good height to accommodate her long legs.
She put her hands on the surface and looked out at the ruffled waters of the Bay, and the curve of the protective walls in the distance.
Why not in here? Dev must have guided the loaders to bring the slab in to the place she knew Jess was familiar with, right? Dev would do that.
Jess nodded to herself. She could imagine her tech working through that situation and making what would seem to her to be a logical decision. The view was good from here, the slab fit, so why not? Jess grinned briefly, leaning on her elbows to gaze out the plas.
Busy in the Bay today. She could see a dozen close in small boats pulling in shallow water shellfish, and there were two limpet scrapers working along the wall with divers down likely bringing up urchins or maybe some sea cukes.
Along the far wall were the mussel and oyster barges, lashed to the rocks, mostly sunken tanks full of growing bivalves attached to placed rock surface, and the long curve of the Bay nearest her window had the shallow sand flats where the clams burrowed and were picked by hand, by divers.
All would go into the live tanks in the lower caverns and be traded off to boats for deep water catch or provisions from elsewhere. Sometimes the Bay catch would be more than the tanks could hold, and then the Bay would be treated to the favorites and just thinking about that made Jess lick her lips.
The sound of the boats drifted in from the gap to the left of the hallway and she smiled suddenly. Now that they had other things to trade, maybe the Bay catch would end up in the mess more frequently and no one would argue with that result.
Certainly she wouldn’t. The Bay clams were the only crop they kept local, and had been known for previously. They were the base of the clam stew that was not only a favorite at home, but taken out on the boats in frozen blocks they let the captains trade for provision anywhere they stopped on the way to delivering their deep water catch to the processor.
Jess idly watched the nearest small boat bring up it’s divers, the figures pulling off their breathing apparatus as they came up onto the deck and hoisted their catch bags after them. The contents were dumped into the boat’s inline tanks, and she imagined, for a moment, what it would have been like for her to have ended up in that kind of slot.
She would have been good at it. She flexed one hand, and rubbed her thumb along the webbing she’d displayed for April. Would she have gone through the hassle of doing the gas exchange or just use the breather?
Jess could see the advantage. Breathers were a pain. She remembered as a young child hunting shells along that curved shoreline, happily breathing water after she’d found out she could. So okay, yeah, maybe she got what April had said.
It wasn’t weird, it was just fucking useful. There was an advantage to it, and the Bay was always quick to see an advantage when there was one. Gills. Bios. Random genetic scientists. Scrap from Interforce. All fucking useful.
With a faint shake of her head she turned her attention to the access console, reaching over and putting her hand on the bio pad. It lit immediately, and the screen came on. There was a brief startup, then the main command set, with a small icon on the top corner.
Jess looked curiously at it, then started laughing, when she realized it was a tiny wiremap raccoon face. Dev’s sign, apparently, that she’d run the checks and all was secure. “Aww, Devvie. That’s so damn cute.”
There were messages for her, which was a surprise of a different kind. She drew a finger on the access pad and touched the blinking icon for them, her dark brows edging up again as a list of black lines appeared on the screen. “Eh?”
She’d always checked what was in comms at base because they would send out notifies from ops for all kinds of things you were expected to know about. Drills and alarms, and schedules, when sections would be closed, who had watch… but she’d never gotten many notes that were personally for her.
Every once in a while, an invite to dinner, usually from Jason or Elaine.
Note from her brother, until she broke his neck. But nothing personal, or casual because she hadn’t had that relationship with anyone there. Anything casual was usually exchanged in person, over a cup or lunch in the ops mess.
Now there was a long list of messages direct to her, and, as she started to poke through them, she found they were mostly words of welcome. Just casual words, a reminder here and there from someone who went to station with them, a note from Petar telling her to stop by the kitchen and let him know what he could add to rotation for her.
It was a very strange feeling, and Jess sat there for quite some time just working through them, trying to decide if the feeling was good, or bad, or just…
A note from Uncle Max, about upgrades for his boat.
A list of pending trades and incoming stores.
Scattered in there were the expected notes from ops, mech and tech, confirmation of accesses, lists of what would be offered in the mess for the week.
It was strange, and not. Like what she was used to and very different at the same time because so many of the messages were personal, to her.
She looked at one from Dustin, reading it three or four times before she figured out what the hell he was talking about, and then pausing, and rereading his addressing of her as head of house.
Head of House? Capital letters. Was she that? Jess frowned. Wouldn’t it be Max, who was the eldest of the remaining immediate family being Justin’s brother? Or had he abandoned that responsibility when he took on the ship’s captaincy instead?
If he was smart, he had. Jess studied the screen. Justin had been Head of House when he’d been alive, she recalled vaguely. Some administrative thing he hadn’t talked much about. What the hell was she supposed to do if she was?
What the hell, in fact, was the Drake actually supposed to do on a daily basis? Jess wondered if Dev could find her some kind of manual in the regs, some checklist of crap she had to pay attention to, something she never had to deal with before.
Being an agent, she knew what she had to do. She’d been trained extensively for it. This?
A little disconcerted, Jess selected Dustin’s note and answered it, tapping lightly on the input pad and sending it on its way. Fastest way to find out what was expected was to find out, wasn’t it?
She heard the outer door start to open and instinct brought her up standing and heading that way without any thought, her hand dropping to her hip where no weapon rested.
But the door slid all the way open as she cleared the corridor and it was Dev entering, her arms full of some cloth. “Ah, it’s you.” Jess greeted her, relaxing. “Whatcha got there?”
“Hello.” Dev responded. “I was able to obtain some additional supplies from the storage area.” She went past Jess into the hall beyond and into the small room they’d decided to use for keeping things. “Some additional work garments, and items to wear at night.”
Jess trailed her into the storage area and watched over her shoulder as she sorted out her burdens. “Yeah, it’s colder in here than it was back at base.” She said. “Forgot about that.”
Dev glanced over her shoulder. “It is.” She said. “But I like it.” She added. “It smells like the sea in here and I find that pleasant.”
“Me too.” Jess picked up a long sleeved garment in the faded green blue typical of the Bay. It had a worn appearance, but was whole, and it smelled of the cleaning soap everything else did. “They have a lot of this stuff up there?”
“They do.” Dev said. “I was told it was because of all the people who got made dead in the fight.” She said, in a straightforward way. “The sets told me that’s how they got most of their clothing when they arrived as well.”
Jess nodded. “Sure.” She agreed. “I was thinking I’d have to have some stuff custom done, because I’m such a gargoyle, but here I’m.. “ She paused. “Not really that different.” She finished thoughtfully, watching Dev nod in comprehension. “More people my size.”
“Yes. I saw a lot of garments that would fit you. Would you like me to return there and pick some out?” Dev held up a warmly lined vest, with pockets on the front. “I especially liked this.” She slipped it on and fastened it. “Excellent for working in.”
It came to her thighs and fit well, and was a faded teal color with a strong knit. Jess studied it. “That’s really cute.” She approved. “And it leaves your arms free.”
Jess glanced around the storage room and then back at her. “Would you pick some stuff for me? You got a knack for it.” She asked, in a diffident tone. “I usually get stuff that doesn’t match. Used to having a choice of black and black.”
Dev looked pleased. “Of course.” She agreed. “I thought I should get some things because it seems we won’t get a chance to shop immediately. It would be excellent to do that for you as well.”
“While we’re taking over half the planet? Yeah.” Jess relaxed into a smile. “Hey, want to go sit in our big empty room and have a cup of grog? Then you can tell me what I should do with all the stupid mail I have in my.. oh yeah, did you set up that desk?”
“Yes, sure.. yes.” Dev answered in sequence. “Is it all right? I thought that room might be appropriate, and the view is nice.”
Jess grinned. “It’s perfect. Thanks Dev.” She put her arms around her partner and hugged her. “You really are a rockstar.”
Dev knew a moment of utter contentment. She returned the hug, already looking forward to a return visit to the cloth storage to see what nice things she could find that would please Jess, confident they would.
Jess ducked under the engine pod of their carrier, walking around the craft in what she knew was a pointless inspection she nevertheless did anyway. The craft was meticulously prepared, every inch of it rubbed clean of any char by its mech crew and its systems prepped by Dev for tomorrow’s excursion.
She knew that, but like April and Mike a short while before, she also knew this walk of the deck was expected and so she did it, peering at the engine intakes and ending up near the hatch. She studied the side of the hulking machine, noting the Interforce designation had been sanded off the skin.
Her name and Dev’s hadn’t. There it was, Drake, J and underneath, just Dev, in block letters. She regarded that for a minute. Someone had taken the time to reink the names, so they stood out clean and sharp against the carrier’s metal skin.
Jess turned, to find Dustin climbing onto the pad. “Yo.” She returned the Bay greeting. “Sup?”
“You gonna name it?” Dustin asked. “We can put the stencil on, ya?”
“Why the hell would I name it?”
Dustin shrugged. “Gotta call it something yah? For the callsign, for ops?”
Oh. Jess pondered that. “Lemme ask Dev.” She finally said. “It’s really her bus.” She regarded her cousin. “You get my note?”
Dustin looked surprised and he stood all the way up, looking around as though it might be floating in mid air somewhere. “Crap no.” He said. “Wasn’t near a rig been gettin stuff done in here.” He looked a little embarrassed. “Just a Q, yo?”
Jess nodded. “You got a co hab in mind?” She put her hands into the middle pocket of her Bay pullover, a relaxed posture to signal she wasn’t pissed off.
“Maybe.” Dustin hunched his shoulders a little. “Can’t tell if I can’t ask can’t ask if I don’t get a bunko, yo?”
“You just got a slot.” Jess commented. “You got mech. You any good?”
Dustin looked guardedly at her. “I aint broke nothing recent.”
No, Dustin probably wasn’t much good. He was a simple mind, a good fit for the important but unskilled tasks around the mech, taking care of things, keeping things up. “You paint that?” Jess asked, indicating the letters with a shrug of her shoulder.
He grinned. “Yo.”
The letters were, as she’d noted, crisp and precise, so there was some attention to detail. “You take good care of these old crates, I’ll see what I can do.”
Dustin’s face lit up. “These? He indicated the carriers. “They’re awesome!” He enthused. “First time I saw one up close I was whacked!”
Jess eyed him wryly. “I remember. Devvie gave you a tour.”
Solemnly, he nodded at her. “Take good care of em, cuz. I swear.” He told her. “Specially this one.” He patted their carrier. “Lemme know what to call it, I’ll paint it on.”
“Okay.” Jess agreed. “Make sure Dev’s got what she needs too, yah? Maybe she’ll teach ya some stuff.”
Dustin’s eyes widened. “Ok!” He exhaled. “You goin down to the mix up cuz?” He asked. “Everybody’s lookin for ya.”
Jess nodded. “Soon as I finish here.” She said. “Lookin forward to it.” She leaned over and pulled one hand out, touching the hatch and feeling it slide aside. “So let me finish up.”
He nodded rapidly, then backed up and hopped off the pad, jogging quickly out of sight towards the back of the cavern.
Jess ducked inside the carrier, chuckling a little to herself as she dropped into her seat and rotated it around, regarding the spool of steel wire that was now installed along the back wall, extending down thorough the superstructure to an egress hook below the deck.
On top of the spool a row of basic, simple metal seats had been affixed and the same on the side where the drop rig had been to provide enough space for passengers. The seats were plain and hard, but they had webbing restraints over them and on the floor there were now tie downs for any cargo they had to carry.
Totally unneeded in the craft before. Jess looked around, satisfied that all was well, and they were prepared for their raid in the early morning. She looked over head at her own controls and then lifted one hand up and took hold of the triggers, sliding her hand into the custom fitted glove.
The carrier recognized her presence, and activated, bringing live her boards and the targeting systems though there was no power since the engines were inactive. “Damn.” Jess looked at the boards, moving the triggers with a wiggle of her fingers and watching them respond. “Wouldja look at that.”
Dev had told her, matter of factly, that she’d disabled the kill switch on the weapons comp, but hearing it and seeing systems respond that she knew damn well should not almost took her breath away.
Stunning. And Dev had done it on her own, calculating they might need it. “Maybe we should call this thing Rockstar.” She mused, wiggling her fingers again. “Cause damn she is.”
She heard steps nearby and yanked her hand out of the glove, swiveling and starting to come to her feet when she looked through the hatch and saw one of the KayTee’s approaching. He had on an Interforce maintenance jumper, with a hoodie over it.
“Hello.” He paused at the hatchway. “We saw the activity, and so came to observe.”
“Yeah, just me.” Jess leaned back in her seat. “Keko right?”
“Yes.” Keko agreed. “We considered it was likely you, Agent Jess. I remember you always checked your vehicle prior to egress.” He straightened a little. “I am to go with you tomorrow, to transport additional vehicles.”
“Excited?” Jess folded her hands over her stomach. “To fly one of these things?”
Keko took a step closer and leaned against the hatch opening. “Yes, I am.” He admitted. “We were never permitted to fly Bantams. Doctor Dan worked up a basic sim for us and we just finished it. It’s a complex craft, but I think we can manage.”
“He’s the one to teach ya.” Jess said. “Lets hope we get in and out with no problem and give ya a chance to fly.”
“Yes.” Keko nodded. “Sorry to bother you then, Agent Jess. I will inform flight operations all is well here.” He gave her a little wave, then turned and made his way off the platform, disappearing back into the shadows of the landing cavern.
Jess sat there quietly considering for a few minutes. Then she stood up and left the carrier, sealing up the hatch and heading off herself.
“This is wild.” April stood to one side, watching the melee going on.
“It’s wild.” Mike Arias agreed. “But I like it. Can’t wait to get into the mix.” He was dressed in a sleeveless brown shirt and his arms were exposed, with his service burns visible on his shoulder. “We next?”
“We’re next.” April stretched herself and shook her arms out. “These guys are really bruisers.”
There was a large crowd gathered in the sand covered cavern. In the tiers around the rugger area there were maybe two hundred people, a mixture of men and women, of all ages, all dressed in shirts and leggings, with work boots and some with gloves.
“They are.” Mike said.
The Bay residents were by and large built on the same framework. They were all tall and long limbed, with broad shoulders and a strong, visible bone structure. Some were more lightly built, some were brawnier but they all looked like they could handle themselves in a fight.
The fights were no rules, no holds barred. It was literally a melee, all hand to hand, no weapons in evidence. Boxing, grappling, wrestling, kicking… April let out a small laugh. “Ain’t seen anything like this since I left home.” She sounded a touch wistful.
“Ain’t seen anything like this.” Mike hopped up and down a few times. “C’mon they’re changing groups.” He tapped April on the shoulder and they started towards the center of the open space, which was now being cleared by the last group of fighters.
April noted the high spirits, despite the bruises and limps. It made her smile in a feral sort of way as the joined the next group gathering, aware of rising energy around her.
“Reg ass kickers are here.” One of the older men indicated them. “See if they hold up.”
“Lookin forward to it.” April shot back at him.
“Careful we don’t trip over ya.” The man said, grinning, holding one hand down to show her height.
“Just the right level to bite your nuts off.” April responded with an equal grin. “C’mon, buddy. Put your cred where your mouth is.”
A roar of appreciative laughter rose, and they started to close in, waiting for the signal to start fighting.
“Oh, this is gonna be fun.” Mike Arias sighed happily. “Not like the damn assholes at Base.” He let out a yell, and brought his hands up, rocking back and forth from foot to foot.
Then the signal came, a whistle from the teeth of Security Mike, and it was on.
With a lunge they all came together and a moment later there were a dozen fights going on, as opponents clashed and separated and then split out to battle. April was pitted against a man taller than her, with long, muscular arms and she only barely evaded him as she slid past and got a leg tangled in his, knocking him offbalance.
Then they were grappling and she relied on her lower center of gravity to make him work for his holds, listening to him curse as he tried to get a grab on her. She kept herself in motion, understanding if he got those paws on her she would probably get tossed on her ass.
Rockin chaos. April dove gleefully back into it. Lucky It was a sand floor, and she was glad she had long sleeves and pants on as she skidded on her knees twisting out of the way and just barely evaded someone else’s head kick.
She went from knees to her feet in a crouch then dove between her opponent’s legs, her size alone her advantage as he awkwardly tried reached down and grab her, while she had the time to twist and get a hold on him as she bounced up onto his back.
“Raagh!” He reached back but was caught in a headlock. “Ooof!’
April chuckled joyfully. Rockin chaos.
Jess exited the back door to the storing area and went out into the chill damp wind and the halon lit open space between the main cliff and the storage cavern promontory across from it.
She stuck her hands into the overshirt’s middle pocket and headed for the opening she could see in the side of the rock, a pair of lights mounted over it spilling a reasonable guideline out across the rough ground.
She stepped over the runoff channel dug to let rain drain and felt her body begin to perk up, as she looked forward to the scrapping she knew was on the immediate horizon. April and Mike were already there, and she increased her pace, then broke into an easy lope to warm up.
She was genuinely looking forward to the mixup. She had that slightly antsy feeling she’d get when it had been too long between scrapping and she wanted it, wanted to feel the tickle down her spine and the energy of the fight.
It excited her because it would be so different from either the pit at the base or a real trip into the zone in the field, going up against this random gang of the Bay who wanted to become.. security? Jess thought about that. Become soldiers? Fighters?
Become what she was? That they could not do, and she was pretty sure they didn’t really want to but she was also pretty sure she had no real idea what to do with them either. They saw a path, she figured, to a better slot, a better allotment and she had no argument with what.
Well, maybe she could think of something to do with them, and at least in the meantime, there’d be the scrap.
The entrance was standing open and she slowed up as she crossed it, moving quickly across the front section that had held the market to the rear area where she could hear yells and the sounds of fighting.
The market section was dark, the lights overhead turned off and the sorting tables they used to sort out supplies folded against the walls out of the way. Jess’s boots scuffed lightly against the sand strewn floor, and she felt her pulse pick up as she climbed up the short incline to the rugger pitch, where she could now see a knot of battling figures.
All the makeshift gear that had been there, various gym and strength rigs, had been moved aside near the wall as they had during the market, and a ring of spectators were on the tiered rocks on either side, watching the fight with enjoyment.
Jess joined them, vaulting up onto the top level and finding a spot to watch, enough in the shadows so she was not immediately recognized.
It was a rumble. Jess had to grin. A dozen people all whaling on each other, including April and Mike, fists and knees flying everywhere as pairs went down in wrestling holds while others dodged powerful punches and kicks.
Nearby, several Bay residents who had been in a prior fight were standing, waiting their turn again, some holding cold packs against knots in heads and bruises.
She looked around, glad to see the numbers. Then she turned her attention to the fight, watching April get in and get an arm around the leg of her opponent, then haul backwards surprising the hell of him with her strength as he ended up ass over head on the ground.
A yell went up at that, and then Mike whistled, and the opponents broke apart, laughing and talking smack, one of them grabbing his opponent by the head and rubbing his knuckles into his hair.
Then Security Mike turned and spotted her. “Drake!” He lifted one long, muscular arm and gestured her over.
Jess walked down the tiers, past the watchers, feeling the attention focus on her as she arrived at the sand level, crossing over to where Mike was standing. “That’d be me.” She turned to take in the watchers, then looked back at him. “We ready for some fun?”
Mike studied her. “You sure ya wanna mix it up?”
“Yeah.” Jess turned and walked out onto the sand, stripping off her overshirt and tossing it aside onto one of the levels as she turned and faced him, hands lifted, fingers curled into a come ahead gesture. “Let’s rumble.”
Still in her tank, she spread her arms out, hopping lightly up and down on the sand.
Mike grinned. “How many?” He gestured around the rugger pitch.
“How many ya got?” Jess grinned at him. “Loser buys the first tank of beer.”
April chortled softly under her breath, while Mike Arias wiped the blood from a hit to the face off his nose. “This is going to be a mess.” She said. “Too many of those damn ogres for even her to handle.”
“She doesn’t care.” Mike observed. “She wins, she wins, she loses, against that many, she still wins.” He predicted. “Good plan.”
“They want it.” April said, looking quickly around, as the floor began to fill with half eager, half scared people. “You can smell it.”
Jess was now standing easily in the center of the pitch waiting, the overhead halons catching brief hints of the burned color going down the length of one arm, and part of the other. She reached up and pulled her hair back into a knot as she waited for them to gather in a rough circle around her, filling the sands.
A cold wind blew in from the open doors and fluttered the light tank top against her body and she took a breath in, and released it. Then she spread her arms out a little wider. “Well?” She stared around at all of them. “C’mon? There’s beer waiting!”
That broke the tension and then with a shake of his head, and a laugh, Security Mike whistled, and it was on.
And it was on. April and Mike went over to where Security Mike was standing as the crowd closed into a chaotic scrum of circling figures trying to get an angle on Jess, who was easily moving through them, taking on one, or two , and dodging two or three more, ducking and swerving with fluid grace.
“You holding out?” Security Mike asked.
“We’ve been in the pit with her.” April said. “It’s more fun to watch.”
“Truth.” Arias agreed. “Just watch.”
He did. “She can move.” Security Mike said, after a minute of it. “F’n crazy.”
“You can’t get a hand on her.” Mike Arias said, watching Jess dive for the ground, hitting it with both hands and pushing herself off in a different direction, twisting in mid air and then kicking out with both feet to take out two big men who were just not fast enough to follow her motion.
Two more jumped on top of her, and then with a roar the rest followed, thumping and banging, grabbing and scrambling as the pile surged and shifted and then Jess was rolling out from under it and getting to her feet, reaching out and slapping the topmost fighter on the behind.
“Too many of us!” One of the longshoremen yelled. “Back off, you all, back off, let them get in there!’
A group of six got to their feet and came at her, big and long limbed, and powerful the way Jess was powerful, but they just could not match her speed, nothing could, it was fluid and unceasing motion that came in, targeted, hit, then moved past leaving doubled over bodies and gasping behind her.
“How the fuck does she do that?” Security Mike wondered. “That how they train ya?”
“They train us.” April said. “But you can’t train all of that.”
“No.” Mike Arias shook his head, his brawny arms folded over his chest. “It’s like fighting the ocean. Waves just come over you and knock you on your ass.” He said. “None of the other agents wanted to be in the pit with her. They made out like it was the crazy, you know?” He glanced at Security Mike. “Wasn’t. They just didn’t want to look bad.”
“Huh.” Security Mike eyed him thoughtfully. “You did though.”
“We did.” April said. “We’re newbies. No rep. Didn’t matter, and sucks to be them cause you learn shit from someone who can do that.” She jerked her chin in Jess’s direction. “Learned moves from her I never even saw in school.”
“That one, there.” Mike Arias pointed. “See that way she blocked that kick? No way she could have seen it.”
Jess was now bouncing all over like a ball, leapfrogging over people and somersaulting past hands reaching out to grab her, and then body slamming into them in a reverse move that had so much power behind it she picked them up and threw them backwards.
It was like she had eyes in the back of her head. She evaded grabs and blows and ducked punches she couldn’t possibly have seen, reaching back and blocking motion with a quick whacks and motions of her shoulders that shrugged off attempts to tackle her.
She flipped in mid air and came down on her feet, straightening up, the breeze in the cavern at her back chilling her skin from the sweat. She looked around at the group, who’d gone still, just watching her. “More?” She asked, hopefully.
“Oh yeah.” The tall man who’d challenged April breathed out. “I gotta get you on the ground now c’mon.” He shifted into a stance. “All them jumps and tricks… let me get my hands on ya and none of that squiggling round.”
He lunged for her, reaching out with both hands and Jess stood still and let him come, then caught his hands in mid air, bracing herself in space and stopping him cold in his forward motion.
His feet dropped to the ground and he grunted in surprise, his hands held by hers as Jess stood there as he shoved against her, her body not budging an inch despite the fact he outweighed her by at least half. He twisted and tried to pull his hands free, but her fingers clamped down and tightened and he struggled in vain.
Then she abruptly released him and ducked under his arms, leaping forward and getting her shoulder into his gut and an arm between his legs, throwing him up and over onto her shoulders, standing and lifting his weight.
“Shiiiiit!” He let out a squawk.
Jess pondered pressing him over her head, then she just turned and threw him off, onto his back on the ground a body length from her with an offhand shrug. He fell hard, and his head slammed against the sand, sending a spurt of it across the ground.
“That’s fucking sweet.” Security Mike commented mildly to April.
“He your top guy?” April had her arms folded. “Or thinks he is?”
“Thinks he is.”
Jess waited to see if the guy was going to come at her again but his fall had stunned him, and he was blinking up at her. She stepped forward and extended a hand to him. “Sorry about that.”
Slowly, he reached up and gripped her hand, and was hauled up to his feet in a smooth motion, then released as Jess stepped back out of range and came to a balanced stance, knees slightly bent, eyes moving steadily in either direction.
April and Mike Arias moved out onto the floor and came to a halt just behind her, standing quietly.
Just in case it got weird.
The man wiped his hands on his trousers. “That something you can teach, Drake?” He eyed her, surprisingly unresentful. “How to fight like that?”
She studied him, then slowly turned and regarded the lot of them, all intent eyes and shifting stances, less afraid than intrigued by her display. The mix it up was a joy to them, she realized. There was a hunger there, an interest and desire that caught her by surprise.
“Maybe.” She finally said. “Some of it just comes naturally.” She looked thoughtfully at them, aware suddenly of being among a lot of people who were more like her than not. That height, the broad frames, that focused stare she recognized from the mirror.
It was a strange feeling, a culmination of the intense, sometimes discordant echo she had here of a past that might have been, yet never was. Looking around, despite the blood and the bruises, she saw a reflection of the glee she felt herself and it struck her, the obvious realization that these were her kin.
Blood of her blood, to many varying degrees. She was not the outsider here, not by a long shot. Just one of many, in this collection of the crazy.
Her house, matter of fact. “Dustin, c’mere.” A thought occurred to her and she motioned her cousin over. “Lemme try something.”
Her cousin happily came forward, one of the youngers there, but one she knew might prove out the thought she’d just had. “Yo, cuz.” He greeted her. “Slick moves, ya?”
Jess nodded. “Turn around.” She said, and he did. “Close your eyes.”
“You going to kick my ass?” He asked, in a somewhat dismayed tone. “I didn’t do nothing yet! Didn’t even get a chance at ya!”
“Only if you don’t do what I ask.” Jess informed him. “Close your eyes and keep em closed.”
Dustin closed his eyes. “Okay.”
There was a clear space behind him. Jess silently moved to the side, consciously making no sound as she slid across the opening, then paused, and took a step forward, crossing that certain point, and feeling her own senses recognize it.
Dustin flinched and ducked his head and hunched his shoulders in pure physical automatic reaction.
Jess stopped still. “Why did you do that?” She asked, in a mild tone. “Why’d you move?”
Slowly, his shoulders relaxed, and he tilted is head, thinking. “Dunno.” He said, after an awkward pause. “Felt like I… “ He paused. “Thought you were gonna whack me, yo?”
Jess took a step backwards, just that bit of a distance, her skin relaxing. “You felt me come closer. Now I’m not.”
Dustin was absolutely silent, his eyes closed, head half tilted to one side, his hands at his sides.
Jess took a silent step forward, her senses prickling. And at that moment, saw his hands curl in reaction and lift up, palms forward. “You feel it.”
Slowly, he turned his head around and looked over his shoulder at her, eyes wide. “Yo.” He said, on a released breath.
“Huh.” Jess exhaled. “Interesting.” She said. “That’s the comes natural part.” She turned to look at the watching group. “I have a space around me and I just know when something’s in it. The training part’s how to know what to do about it.”
“Huh.” Security Mike grunted, and almost absently, lifted his hand and touched the back of his neck.
Dustin turned all the way around and faced her, with an amazed expression. “Whoa.” He breathed. “For real?” He said. “That was reall, cuz!”
Jess relaxed a little. “Yeah.” She told him. “Maybe it comes from being from here.”
The crowd was now all looking around at each other in somewhat bewildered silence. “Like the crazy?” One of the longshoremen asked, hesitantly. “That kinda thing?”
Jess eyed him. “We call it the crazy.” She admitted. “But it’s not really crazy. It’s just a thing.”
“Drake.” One of the reg ops was standing there, covered in sand burns. “I was standing ops when you opened the vault up, yeah? What you did to that guy, that was crazy.”
“No.” She shook her head. “It was goal oriented. My goal was to make sure he couldn’t use that console to blow up my partner.” Her eyes narrowed a little bit. “It looks crazy, because we.., I don’t let anything stop me from achieving my goal.”
“Huh.” Security Mike had his hands on his hips. “You teach us all with this thing?”
“Maybe.” Jess frowned thoughtfully. “With that you can be really kickass.” She said. “And it scares crap out of your targets.”
She had everyone’s attention now, and the obvious idea was forming in her head. “So maybe that’s what security’s going to be here. A big ass bunch of ass kickers, who know what to do, when to do it, who to do it to. “
“Nice.” April grunted, with a nod.
They clustered closer in to listen, in a sudden presence of salt tinged sweat and sand burn, studying her and the two younger agents on either side, evaluating them with that subconscious energy so much a part of the Bay.
Edgy and real, as natural for them, as it was for her.
“You in?” Jess asked, after a moment of silence. “Give it a shot?”
The silence lasted again for another moment, then suddenly, loudly, “HAI!” came back at her so forcefully it made Jess’s skin react in galvanic response and her body tensed just long enough for her to recognize the sound and relax.
She exhaled, nodding a little. Maybe she could teach a little of it. Maybe here. Maybe to these slightly mad eyed hulksters who to some degree shared something with her. Something they’d been born with.
Something they’d probably cursed.
“Wild.” Mike Arias whispered to April, whose gaze had gone inward, and who was staring past the edge of the crowd. “Right?”
April exhaled, and suddenly, grinned. “Wild.” She said. “But totally, totally ace.” She folded her arms over her chest, nodding. “Totally ace.”
Dev bopped her way through the big main hall, coming down the steps from their quarters and moving across to the mess hall, which at this late hour was quiet, only a few people passing in and out of the big metal doors.
She could, she knew, have asked one of their two assigned attendants to run an errand for her, but they had gone to their quarters after the night meal, and she saw no reason to disturb them.
Jess was over across the way at the storage cavern doing some fighting activities. Dev thought she might want a snack after she finished her exercise since she usually did, so she wanted to have that prepared and to take some things for their kits in the carrier.
She had spent some good amount of time in the storage caverns, and there were many things now in their quarters she hoped Jess would find appropriate.
Some clothes as she’d promised, but she also combed through the containers of household items and brought back two boxes full of things they could use along with six loads of various objects to be used as makeshift furniture.
She had found the process enjoyable. The storage cavern material was very random, but the challenge of looking at it and constructing uses for the objects was appealing and she thought it had been mostly successful.
She’d also finished putting away her parts, and gotten the few personal things she’d brought from the base put in place in her workspace, all ready for her to start modding when they got back from their mission the following day.
She considered that it had been a good day. It felt like excellent progress had been made.
Dev entered the mess, angling across the huge room towards the rear. In front of the doors to the kitchen there was a dispensing counter, with snacks available for the overnight watch, and a pot full of soup that was gently steaming.
Jess might like some of that, she decided. She pushed open the door of the mess kitchen and peered inside, spotting several of the cooks finishing up their work including a BeeAye, who was busy cleaning and sharpening a set of knives.
The BeeAye was closest, so she approached him. “Hello.”
He looked up. “Oh!” He put the knife he was working with down and wiped his hands. “Hello, Dev.” He said. “How are you?”
“Hello Billy.” Dev responded. “Excellent, thank you. I was looking to see if there were any water bottles available. I searched through the old storage, but could not find any, and we did not bring any from the base.”
He thought a moment. “Oh yes.” He said. “We have some to provide to the boats in the prep room.” He said. “Would you like one?”
“I would like two. One for me and one for Jess.” Dev was aware from the corner of her eye of the other cooks watching them. “May I go with you to get them? I am still finding my way around.”
“Of course.” Billy wrapped the knives up in a thick piece of cloth and folded them together, tucking them under his arm. “It’s this way.” He led her through the big space, which stretched the width of the mess room on the other side of the wall, one whole end taken up by massive structures with deeply burnished tops, and doors that could be pulled down. “Those are the ovens.” He saw her looking at them. “That’s where we cook the foods.”
“It’s very interesting.” Dev said. “And it’s warm in here.”
“Yes.” Billy grinned. “I don’t have to wear a coat, it’s nice.” He went to a set of doors set into the rock in the back of the space and opened one. “It’s so different than station.” He said, as he led her inside. “There, everything was just processed by mechs.” He looked along the shelves. “Yes, here. Is this what you wanted?”
Dev inspected the shelf. “Yes.” She said. “That would be excellent.”
“Hey, what’s up here?” A gruff voice interrupted them, and the door was thrust open. A burly man entered, with thick curly hair. “Whatcha doin?”
“Hello, Chef.” Billy responded. “I was getting water bottles for Dev.”
“Hello.” Dev added, as the man turned towards her. “I think we met the other day. Jess introduced us.”
She’d found that here, just as at the Base, sometimes the mention of Jess’s name brought interesting results. Sometimes suboptimal, sometimes optimal, and occasionally enlightening.
In this case, it seemed optimal as the newcomer’s attitude adjusted and he got a lot less challenging and more correctly polite.
“Ohh.” The man nodded. “Yeah, she did, hi there.” He took a step back. “Y’know, someone coulda gotten them for ya, and the Drake.” He said. “Ya just gotta ask.”
“Yes.” Dev agreed. “But I wanted to select a snack to bring back to our housing and obtain some supplies for us to take in the carrier tomorrow. So that was a bit complicated to ask someone else to do.” She took the two cannisters Billy had in his hands. “Besides, it’s very pleasant to get to meet everyone.”
“Yeah, okay.” Petar said. “Hey you take good care of what she asks for Billy. Don’t want the Drake pissed off.”
“Of course.” Billy responded in a mild tone. “Was there anything you wanted to provide, Chef?” He prompted. “If Dev is taking a snack, I mean?”
Petar paused then, suddenly and surprisingly grinned, which changed his entire rather grumpy exterior. “You’re a sharp one, you are.” He said. “Yeah, you hang on there a minute. Lemme get you a little something something.’
He whisked out the door and disappeared, and as his footsteps faded off they heard the activity in the main space increase exponentially, pans and pots and the clanging of things being put away ringing out loud and clear.
Billy and Dev looked at each other, then Dev chuckled a little. “I am sure Jess would appreciate a treat, if that’s what that is.”
“Yes. The Chef is excellent.” Billy told her. “He did not wish me to be assigned here at first, but Doctor Dan spoke with him.” He added. “All of the natural born want to be assigned here, so it was very special that he allowed me to be.”
“Yes.” Dev tucked the bottles under her arm. “It was like how it was when I came downworld.”
“Yes.” Billy nodded his head solemnly. “I had to work very hard. I did not want to disappoint Doctor Dan in any way.”
“I as well.” Dev smiled at him. “But it seems it turned out excellently for both of us.” She stood back and let him lead the way out of the storage room, her gaze traveling over the supplies in case they had any further need.
“Yes, and the other natural born are becoming less suboptimal about it.” Billy agreed. “Doctor Dan told me to just be calm and it will be okay.”
“Doctor Dan understands these natural born with excellence.” Dev acknowledged. “He always knows what to say.”
“Yes.” Billy pulled the door closed and they walked across the space to the cooking area, where Petar was busy at a worktable, one of the cooks standing by to assist, and the rest finishing up their tasks.
Dev watched them watch her as they came to a stop at the side of the table Petar was working at. He was taking pieces of fish, and setting them onto small clumps of the tiny beaded seaweed often found in their meals, and wrapping them with a thin strip of kelp.
“That’s very attractive.” Dev remarked, after a moment of silence.
Petar looked up. “You think so?” He asked. “Is a snack. Just a little bite.” He put the piece he was working on in a battered plas container and then built another one. “But its pretty, isn’t it?”
“Like a flower.” Dev said. “Do you create all the meals here?”
Petar finished the last little piece and then he looked up. “Yeah.” He straightened up, putting his hands on his hips. “And?” He jerked his chin at her with a slightly challenging gesture.
Dev nodded. “I think you must be excellent at that then, because the meals here are the best I have had anywhere.” She stated. “Better than the station or at Base 10.”
“Yes.” Billy spoke up, nodding his head. “Much better.” He said. “And the sets from the base say the same, that they are better than it was there.”
Petar looked positively charmed. “Yeah?” He looked around. “It’s an old fashioned kinda place.” He said. “Nothin fancy.”
The other cooks had approached and were standing nearby, just listening. The cooking space was quiet now and clean, the floors brushed and washed, the machines near the wall cool and wiped down. Only one section was still active, with a tall man standing near it, preparing fish on a large board and cutting it into pieces.
“Jess told me, it’s excellent because people do it.” Dev said. “She says in most places, it’s not like that.”
One of the younger cooks nodded, and came over to her “S’right.” He said. “My pap said it, he worked in here.”
“He was a good cook.” Petar said. “Maybe in a thousand years you’ll do half as good.” He handed Dev the container. “See if the Drake likes it. Hear she’s out the back mixing it up.”
“I’m sure she will.” Dev accepted the container. “Yes, she is involved in the fighting activity. She enjoys it a lot.”
“Sure.” The young cook grinned briefly. “We all like scrapping.” He glanced at Petar. “Offshift.” He added hastily as the chef gave him a dour look.
“Come in here any time.” Petar told Dev, focusing on her with a smile. “Long as you tell me how good my chow is.” He winked at her, then dusted his hands off. “What the hell you all standing here? Get out!” He yelled the cooks. “You want to sleep in here? Move it!”
The cooks scattered, and he strode after them, shooing them ahead of him like a flock of puffins. Dev regarded the noisy retreat, and glanced at Billy. “That was..” She paused. “Probably optimal?” Her voice lifted in question.
“Optimal.” Billy nodded. “He likes you.” He said. “May I help you carry something across the hall? I am going to put my tools away and it’s the same direction.”
Dev handed him the bottles. “Yes, I have to also get some soup and those cakes, which will be excellent to take with us on our mission.” She headed for the dispending table. “I should have brought along my carrying bag.”
“That was good.” April nodded, as she and Mike Arias walked alongside Jess on the way across the big hall towards their quarters.
“Yeah, not gonna have to worry about getting workouts here.” Mike sighed in contentment. “We can just do this every night.”
April rocked back and forth, shadowboxing as she stepped. “Felt great.” She glanced up. “You kick enough ass, Drake?”
Jess nodded. “It was good.” She agreed. “Way better than the gym. Real work.” She scanned the inside of the hall, which was quiet, the late watch moving to station in ops, and a maint team fixing a door to one of the inner hallways.
Overhead the plas cap was pitch dark, the clouds moving over it invisible, though the chill damp emerged from the lower hallways and pushed against them as they crossed.
“Got some potential there too.” Arias said. “They can all whup.” He glanced at Jess. “We could train em up I think. Focus them.”
“Might be able to.” Jess agreed. “We’ll see.” They reached the far side of the hall and the branching ingress that would lead to their quarters and the steps to hers. “See ya in the dark O.”
“See ya.” April lifted her hand, and walked with Mike to the inner hall, pressing her hand to the ingress panel and waiting as it slid open. “Give us some action anyway.”
Mike followed her down the hallway. “Lets us use what we brought.” He said. “That’s a thing here.” He paused at the doorway to his quarters. “Got some value.”
April paused with her door open, looking over her shoulder. “Yeah it does.” She grinned briefly. “Think about being up front of a squad of those guys with skills in. They were scary just as a mob up topside.”
Mike nodded sagely. “Yeah, I’d take even a mob of em. That’s some sweet raw material.” He lifted his hand and waved. “O dark.”
“O dark.” April went inside and let the door shut behind her.
Jess watched the two of them disappear into the inner halls and then she turned and went to the sealed doorway to the right, putting her hand on the pad and watching it slide open to reveal the wide steps up to her crazy, empty, weird housing.
Funky and strange, but the expansive space was kind of appealing to her, and she trotted up the steps, already thinking ahead to the blast of the shower. She heard the door slide shut behind her, and she put her hand on the inner door, feeling the tickle against her palm as it identified her.
The panel turned a pleasing teal, and the door slid aside. Jess took a step forward, aware of some additional adornment in the hallway, and the smell of something edible, and the faint sounds of Dev’s presence. “Hey Devvie.”
Dev’s head popped into view from the inner hallway. “Hello Jess!”
Jess surveyed the hall, finding some blocky cabinets against the wall, and a long table. “Went shopping in storage huh?”
“I did.” Dev emerged from the hallway. She had on a hoodie that was large on her, but tied with a piece of harbor rope around her waist, and leggings. “I think the storage persons were pleased with my attention.”
Jess entered and looked around. “They must have been if they called up the loaders to haul this up for ya this late in the watch.” She walked over and sat on the long counter, bouncing up and down on it, pleased when it didn’t budge. “Nice.”
“Was your session optimal?” Dev asked. “I brought back some soup from the mess, as I thought you perhaps might like some after the activity.” She said. “And the person in charge in the kitchen sent a small treat.”
“I would.” Jess got up off the counter. “Let me go shower all this grit off me.” She headed off to the inner section of the housing and paused as she passed her office, noting a storage cabinet was now against the other wall, and a chair was inside. “Been busy, hey Dev?” She called back over her shoulder, hearing a slight chuckle echo back as she kept on going.
She went along to the sanitary space and ducked inside, stripping out of the gear she’d fought in, and observing that a laundry basket was also now in evidence, woven plas and battered, but functional. She shoved the gear inside and went into the shower, turning it on and letting the powerful jets rinse her off.
She used the soap and glanced down, finding a few bruises along her ribcage and a long scratch down one forearm from the grappling. She felt good though, energized and relaxed, pleased with having a big group of people around who enjoyed scrapping as much as she did.
Agents mostly did it because they had to. Hand to hand were skills you had to hone, and systems knew when you avoided the pit. Most of them preferred the gym, keeping their bodies strong and only spending the amount of time in the fighting facility absolutely required.
Always had seemed a shame to her, because without a doubt she found fighting a lot more fun to keep in shape than working with pressure machines and so she was always looking into the pit hoping to see someone in there looking for a bout when she passed it.
Here, two hundred big, strong, if somewhat unskilled people showed up and she could have all the scrapping she wanted and nobody got mad about it.
Sweet. Jess scrubbed the sand out of her hair and sighed in content. Maybe she’d even be able to teach them something.
Maybe. She thought about the swirl of energy she’d felt around her, and the laughter. Maybe there was something here that couldn’t exactly replace Interforce but could be a different kind of answer to some of their security questions.
And anyway, finding out would be a hell of a lot more fun.
Dev heated up the soup in the food processing station and prepared two bowls of it, taking them into the half circular space they’d identified as a place to consume edibles. It now had a square pedestal in it, and a round piece of metal on top, and two stools and she put down the dishes then went back for some drinks.
She brough them, and the container from Petar into the space and then stood near the entrance, waiting for Jess to appear.
In a minute, she did, ruffling her hair dry with a towel, a tank and shorts covering only a small amount of her body.
That was pleasant. Dev found Jess’s body very attractive, and so she found herself smiling as her partner spotted her and detoured over, enjoying the precise symmetry of her form, and the smooth power of the way she moved.
She regretted that it was just too cold in the space for her to dress the same. Dev pondered what could be done about that situation. “I have set up a platform here.” She stepped back to allow Jess to enter. “I think it’s acceptable to use for a meal.”
Jess slung the towel around her neck and sat down on one of the stools, which was high enough not to make her feel awkward. “Awesome.” She pronounced, pulling the bowl over. “What have we here? Ah. Bycatch soup.”
“Yes.” Dev seated herself on the other stool. “It smells attractive..”
“It does. Good pick.” Jess had picked up the bowl and was drinking from it. “Just the right thing for after a mixup.” She pronounced. “It was fun. Had a big bunch of people show up. We figured we might be able to teach them a few tricks.”
“Excellent.” Dev used a more conventional spoon based way of ingesting her soup. “Brent has been released from med. I encountered him exiting, and accompanied him to a space near Mike and Chester’s location.”
Jess glanced over the rim of her bowl . “Glad he’s feeling better.”
“He feels well.” Dev agreed. “Chester spoke to him about our mission tomorrow and he wishes to attend.” She looked up at Jess. “I could release his vehicle. It had most of the same mods as ours does.”
Jess rested both elbows on the table and cradled her soup in both hands, gently biting on the edge of the bowl. “What do you think about that?” She asked. “You think he’s okay?” She watched Dev’s expressive face as she considered the question.
Dev took her time, ingesting a few more spoons of soup as she thought. “I think he’s… “ She paused. “Something is making him upset.”
“What happened at the base?”
“I think so. It’s like when they take you down, and you come back up, and something is different, and you don’t know what it is.” Dev answered slowly. “He doesn’t know what happened and it is suboptimal for him.” She looked up at Jess with a serious expression. “I do not think he’s incorrect, if that is what you are asking me.”
Jess took a sip of the soup. “That’s what I was asking.” She said simply. “I don’t think he’s screwball either, I just don’t really know what side he’s on.”
Dev considered that thought. What side would Brent be on? “He could be his own side.” She suggested. “I think Jason is his friend.” She set the spoon down. “I think if it had happened to me, I would be most concerned with finding out what happened to you.”
“Maybe.” Jess put her empty bowl on the table and pulled over the small plas container Dev had put on the table. She opened it and inspected the contents, picking up one of the small snacks and looking at it. “Would I have dumped you out the back of a transport?” She mused. “Nah. What are these things?”
Dev smiled. “Those are from Petar. He thought you might like them. I have scanned them and they are apparently safely edible.”
One of Jess’s very dark eyebrows hiked up as she looked at her partner over the small snack in her fingers. “Apparently?” She looked warily at the object. “Any reason you think they’re not?”
“Not really but there is no branching routine in that programming I received regarding the safety of consumables.” Dev responded promptly. “And I am always interested to see if they might have unexpected things in them.”
“Like live animals?” Jess’s eyes twinkled, and she popped the object it into her mouth. “Lets find out.”
Dev sat back and took a sip of her grog, washing down the soup with it’s light effervescence, watching Jess chew thoughtfully, her face making several intrigued twists and her eyes widening a little. Hard to really determine what that indicated.
Jess swallowed. “That’s good.” She pronounced. “I like it.” She nudged the box with her knuckles. “Give it a try.”
Dev obediently took one and eyed it. “All at once?”
Jess nodded. “Yeah, it’s the fish and the crunchy seaweed, it’s a good mix.” She picked up a second and put it into her mouth. “A little spicy. He put something on the fish maybe.”
There was a little tang to the scent, but it was mild. Dev put the bundle into her mouth and bit down, finding the flesh of the fish firm but flaky, and the center, a wrapped coil of the stringy seaweed she liked astringent and crisp as she chewed it.
It was good. She nodded, glancing up at Jess. “Its nice.”
“It’s a good snack.” Jess studied the box as she took a third piece. “Good energy boost.” She sat back and exhaled in contentment. “This is great, Devvie. I like this spot.” She tapped the tabletop, it’s rough, battered surface dented but mellow looking in the overhead recessed lights. “Good place for us to just to hang out.”
Dev was finishing her share of the treat. She smiled and licked her lips, glancing around the small room. “Yes, I thought it would be very functional.” She said. “After our mission, I will continue researching what is in storage to see if there are other useful things.”
Jess stood up. “C’mon.” She held her hand out. “Lets go try out our bed again. At least it’ll be warm enough there for you to take off your boots.” She draped her arm over Dev’s shoulders as she joined her and they walked from the little nook down the hallway towards the bedroom.