Of Sea and Stars

Part 1

The booming roar sent a shuddering wave through solid rock, causing dust and bits of stone to fall from the ceilings as jump suited figures hastened to cover their heads.

“Son of a bitch!” Jason knocked a piece of granite off his shoulder. “What are they doing out there?”

“Blasting.” A tech supervisor told him, heading for the food line.  “I know we needed the updates but we need some sleep too.”

Jason ruffled his hair and observed the rock dust floating down from it. “Nice.” He was brown haired and good looking, with a squarely built head and a lean, muscular body encased in black fabric with teal blue piping at the neck.

Here in the citadel he wore no weapons but there was an edge to him that suggested he might want to.

He looked around, spotting a tall, dark haired woman entering the mess. “Hey! Jesslyn!”  He waved her over, half standing and sweeping off the top of the table.  “C’mere!”

Senior agent Jesslyn Drake ambled his way, picking up a chair at his table and dumping the debris off it onto the floor before she sat down in it.  “What?”  Like Jason, she was also lean and muscular, in the same gear but the rank pips at her neck had bars his didn’t.

“What’s the racket?”  Jason asked, as his partner Brent came over with a tray.  “They blowing up the cavern?” He waggled his eyebrows at her. “Figured they might have told you, at least.”

“Finally decided to put a forward facing dock load in.”  Jess informed him. “Closing up the roof – one of the donks said we were idiots for having an opening that let rain in every time we opened it.”

“Well.”  Jason grinned a little. “Got a point.”

“Got a point.”   Jess wryly agreed. “Lot of things just get to be how they get to be, you know?”

“I think they just like blowing stuff up.” Brent stated, forking into his seaweed. “Couldn’t sleep for a week when they put in those new guns.”  Burly and bull necked, with his crew cut freshly shortened Jason’s tech shook his head in annoyance.  “Jerks.”

“It’ll be over soon.” Jason said. “It will, right?”  He asked Jess. 

“Two more intake tunnels, but after that, yeah.”  Jess replied. “Need the power to run all those new fitting bays.”

A double bong sounded overhead. “Drake to Ops.”

“Crap.” Jess pushed herself to her feet. “Now what?”

“Ah, they can’t take a crap with out you Jessie.”  Jason chuckled and gave her a slap on the leg. “If you’re going up there see if El’s called in. She’s late reporting.”

“Sure.” Jess regretfully bypassed the chow line and wound her way through the crowd and out the door, turning right and moving down the long arched passageway deep inside the Citadel’s rugged mountain structure.

The hallways bore signs of new construction, and she passed newly set doors that would lead into newly blasted and cut chambers, glad at least the corridor that held her quarters was on the other side of ops.

Construction group members were busy all over, sanding and smoothing the new walls and openings, and moving jetpads around with piles of building material on them.

The freshening up was nice, but she, like the rest of the agents and techs stationed at Base 10 she was more than ready for it all to be done and not have to trip over piles of sound tiles and light fixtures every other minute.

She cleared the crossroads and went down the passage to ops, walking through a solid blue ring that laid a tickle over the surface of her skin and then through a second before she reached the door, the extra security added just recently after a more than embarrassing breach.

The rings passed her mutely though and she palmed into ops, stepping into a lock and listening to the door close behind her before the one in front of her opened up.

Also new.  A lock filled with sensors and at the quadrants, raw and powerful blasters that could turn a person her size into plasma gooked dust in under a second.  She didn’t even look at them, merely waited for the inner door to slide aside to let her on her way.

“Ah, Drake.”   Commander Bensen Alters turned from the main console hearing her enter. “Thanks for coming up.”

“Problem?” Jess asked briefly.  “Jason asked me to ask if Elaine logged in.”

“Nothing yet, no.” He said. “But we received this.” He handed her a plas. “Sit down, take your time reading it.”

Jess did, resting her elbows on her knees as she regarded the plas.  “Mini transport?” She muttered. “Someone inserted. Theirs.”

“Mm.” Alters had taken the seat next to her. “Right at the edge of Drake’s Bay.” He watched the angular face of the woman sitting knee to knee with him. “Familiar territory.”

Jess looked up briefly, then back down at the sheet.  The digital signature of the transport was blurry but clear enough to be identifiable, the ridge line it was tucked behind on the borderlands between Drake’s Bay homestead and the processing center next door. “Could be going to the center.” She remarked. “They’re not stupid enough to try and get into the Bay.”

“True.” Alters said, in a mild tone.  “But with a mini trans, it’s one, or at most a team.” He leaned back in the console command chair; now comfortable in it after the months he’d been stationed at 10. “There’s some contention there. Might be an incursion against you.”

Jess considered that. “Could be. I pissed a lot of people off.” She acknowledged. “Not giving up the shares screwed them up. They could make a pitch to knock me off.”

There was no particular emotion around the words and her face didn’t display any.  “After all, who else are they gonna ask? Maybe that’s how they got my dad.”

Alters nodded in approval.  “Was thinking that myself.”  He said.  “Given you were supposed to go to the quarterly sector meetup next week.  Seems like good timing.” He watched Jess’s face. “Glad you don’t have any illusions about the possibilities.”

“Mm.” jess put the plas down on the console.  “Maybe I’ll go over a day or so earlier and flush them out. Put a kill in.  If that’s how it went down, someone deserves it.” She remarked, matter of factly. “Sure beats hanging around here.”

Alters shifted forward a little. “They’ve been quiet. You put a hurt on them.  Two birds with a stone they’re figuring.  Maybe take a team with you.  I don’t want to waste the opportunity, and you’ve got a message to deliver to the sector in any case they probably won’t much like.”

They exchanged grimly wry looks.  “It’s a mess. They won’t like it is putting it mildly.” Jess agreed. “Sucks to be them.”

“Sucks to be them.” Alters smiled at her.

Jess smiled back. “Home sweet home.” She remarked dryly, standing up. “Thanks for the heads up. I’ll run a book on it, and pick a backup team. “   

“Good.” The commander nodded. “Listen, Drake. I know this is a big political mess. I get that its cramping your ability to assign out and probably long term affecting your career with Interforce.”

She shrugged. “Dying would do that too and that’s where I’ll be heading eventually. Don’t worry about it.  Worse things have happened than having to be a knife in the side of my birthplace. My father’s probably somewhere laughing his ass off.”

“Probably.” He lifted a hand and nodded as she turned and headed for the hatch, slipping between two other incoming people and causing a belated but distinct motion as they cleared space for her regardless of the relaxed body posture and smile.

Wildcard. No one wanted to mess with her.  Alters sighed. Even with the senior grade, and the accolades there was never a sense you knew which way a Drake was going to move and this one was no exception to that rule. 

And the damned political mess forced by Justin Drake’s machinations was putting a cramp in more than his daughter’s career, since they now had a senior agent who couldn’t be sent across the line, and leave a major homestead in limbo.

“Anything for me from Central Legal?” He turned his head and asked comms.  “They better call soon.”

“Nothing yet, sir.” Comms reported. “Do you want us to ping them?”

“Yes.” He rested his elbow on the console and pushed the plas into the recycler as the shift change happened, incoming staff nodding respectfully in his direction, but their respect had a different edge to him than they’d shown to Jess.

He was old.  Alters regarded them dryly.  He was past being crazy.  Or at least, that’s what they thought.

“Sir.” The comms on staff turned. “Coded call for you, from West 3, encap, eyeball.”

“Send it over.”  He slid an ear cup on and faced his console. “Next crisis.”

**

Jess went back to the mess to get her delayed lunch.   Jason and Brent were still there, and April had joined them, all of them looking up as she entered and went to the line, all of them ducking as another boom sounded overhead. 

“Holy crap.”  Brent groused.

But Jess had straightened back up and cocked her head. “That wasn’t a blast.” She said. “That’s a carrier coming in at speed.”  She turned and regarded the food processor, tapping in a code with an impatient gesture. “C’mon.”

The bio alt behind the counter, a tall, curly haired, fresh-faced man leaned forward. “Is it all right, Agent?”

“Yeah.”  Jess glanced up at the bio alt, his neck encircled by a tracework collar above the edge of his pale blue jumpsuit. “I’m just hungry.”

The man nodded and stepped back, paying careful attention to the machinery his set was designed to manage. 

Jason leaned on the railing and watched the line. “Bet I know which carrier it is.” He teased Jess. “I heard they were doing engine tests on that new pod and there’s no doubt who’d have called dibs on that first run.”

Brent snorted, but there was a grin on his face.  “Rocket for sure.” He nodded. “Can fricken drive a boot at mach 2.”

Jess put her tray down and took the last seat at the four top, not without a sigh. “Well, since I’m effectively grounded she’s got to do something to polish her rep.” She groused.  “At least she’ll get to show off for the grounders next week when I go piss off the entire coast.”

“Can’t they just shift over your shares to someone else?”  Jason asked. “What a pain in the butt, Jess. What was your pop thinking?”

“He was thinking he didn’t want the Bay to go over to shitheads, some of which he spawned.”  Jess munched her fish stew stolidly.  “He just wasn’t figuring on me screwing that all up while I was still in active service.”

“Freak chance.” Jason said.

“Story of my life.” She paused as the comms link clipped to her jumpsuit chirped, and put the ear bud in. “Drake.”

“Hello Jess, it’s Dev.” A warm, slightly burring voice answered.  “We just finished testing and the new pod is excellent.”

“We heard you arrive.”  Jess said. “C’mon over for lunch.”

“Be right there.”  

Dev disconnected and Jess removed the bud from her ear, aware that she was smiling for no real apparent reason.   ‘Anyway.” She cleared her throat.  “With any luck legal will pull their heads out of their asses and figure it all out soon.”

“About as soon as med clears me.”  Jason commiserated. “Poor us, stuck here doing centops duty.”  He got up and gathered his tray. “Let me clear space for Rocket.” He winked at Jess and made his way out of the mess, dropping his empties off in the bin on the way.

Brent snorted, shaking his head. “My run’s up next.” He got up. “See ya.”

“Does Dev care if they call her that?” April asked, after Brent disappeared. “Its sort of stupid sounding.”

Jess shrugged. “Nah, Dev doesn’t much care what she’s called. I had to pull up the comic in archives to explain the raccoon part though. She thought that was pretty funny and she likes cute looking animals.”

April eyed her, but continued eating in silence.

The mess door opened and two techs entered, in dark green flight suits, carrying comms helmets.  The one in the lead was short and female, with straight blond hair and following her was a tall, red haired male with an ambling gait.

Dev came right over to the table, putting her helmet down on the empty seat next to Jess. “The new entrance is going to be excellent.” She stated. “Did you see the hole?”  She ran her fingers through her hair, which was mussed from the helmet and a little sweat stained.  “It’s gigantic.”

“Not yet. Maybe you can take me on a tour after lunch.”  Jess winked at her. “We might have two hours clear weather today.”

“Absolutely.”  Dev said at once. “It appeared to be getting better as we were coming in. No lightning or anything like that.”

Doug, the second tech, put his own helmet down next to April.  “Hey boss.”

“How was the testing?” April asked.

“I like the new mods.”  Doug said. “But really, we were all there just to watch Rocket fly.” He grinned at Dev, and moved over to the line to get his tray.  “With those new power boosts? Booyah.”

Dev cleared her throat in a diffident sort of way, then she joined him in line.

April continued to clear her own tray.  “Been quiet anyway.” She addressed Jess.  “You haven’t missed much. Just that one patrol down near Picchu.”

“Haven’t heard from them.”  Jess commented.  “Hope it’s just a tech screwup.”

Dev came back with a tray full of edibles, and sat down next to Jess.  “The acceleration of the new engines is amazing.  At least ten times better than the old ones.”

“Oh no.” Jess propped her head up on one fist. “I’m screwed. They’re going to have to bungie tie me into that damn chair.” She said, in a mournful tone. “Or put me in a rubber padded suit.”

Doug and April laughed, as Dev regarded her partner with a look of perplexed concern.  “Do you want more restraints? I can ask the rigging technicians to adjust your position.”

Jess reached over and patted her hand. “Relax. It’ll give me a chance to work on my biceps.” She lifted her arms and tensed them as though holding onto a console. “Ahhhhh!!!!!!”

“Jess.” Dev realized she was being razzed.  “Maybe we should have them put in a three hundred and sixty degree gimbal for you.”

Doug grimaced. “Hey c’mon I’m trying to have some lunch here.  Don’t make me think of that upside down stuff you do.”

April chuckled and shook her head.  “So.” She eyed Jess. “I heard through the grapevine you were going out to the seaboard council in a couple days.  Want a watch on your back?”  She asked with a stolid straightforwardness, a vestige of her nomad background.

Jess stared at her as she thoughtfully chewed a mouthful of water grains and krill. Of the agent teams now at the base, there were only a few she felt completely confident of. 

Most were new, fill ins brought from other bases after the near disaster that had caused the destruction of North base, and almost of Ten, and of the older ones, there were some who so fiercely resented Jess’s promotion to senior it was hard for them to work in close.

Even all the heroics hadn’t changed that.  Jess chewed and swallowed.  She’d changed some minds, and it was good to have some of her worst adversaries dead in the conflict but there were some who still felt she’d scammed her bars and didn’t deserve to be over them.

But April was different.  A newly graduated agent from field school, who had been with Jess through the trials they’d faced and made her bones doing it she stayed out of the politics just keeping her head down and her weapons ready.

Feral, almost, as befit her background and Jess liked her as much as she could like another agent. “Sure.” She said, after a long pause. “Didn’t learn from the last time? Crap happens to me.”

“Exactly why I’m asking.” April produced a brief grin. “We’re bored.” She indicated herself and Doug, who was listening in silence.  “Besides, this is the big roundup. Some of our elders are going to be there and I thought I’d take the op to say hello.”

“Fair enough.”  Jess agreed. “Figure we leave in five days, late afternoon.”  She picked up another fishroll and bit into it.  “Spend a day or so at Drake’s Bay, then go to the conclave.”

April nodded. “Sounds good.” She said. “Thanks.”  She finished up her tray and got up. “Let’s go Doug. We’ve got sims in ten.”

They left with brief waves, and Jess waited for them to go before she turned and regarded her tech partner. “We need to leave a little early.” She said, lowering her tone, even though most of the tables around them were now empty.

“I see.” Dev was chewing her seaweed salad with intense concentration.  “To go to your place first?”

Jess nodded.  “I”ll try to keep them from being assholes to you.” She sighed. “But they are not going to be happy to see me, that’s for sure.”

Dev made a face, and reached over to put her hand on Jess’s. “I’m sure it’ll be okay Jess. It’s really not your fault what happened.” She said, seriously.  “I mean, you said your father did all that. Right?”

Jess chewed her roll, giving her partner wry look. 

After a moment,  Dev returned her attention to her tray, picking up a little cake and biting into it.

“Yeah, it’ll probably be okay.”  Jess said, after the silence had become awkward.  “They know I’m likely to shoot people if they piss me off, that’s what usually keeps the peace.”  She finished up her fish roll. “I’m just in a down mood.”

Dev eyed her. “I have a swimming session scheduled for after lunch. Would you like to attend?”

Jess’s lips twitched.

The mess door opened and a squad of bio alts entered with re supply.  They were walking a gyro and as they passed the two of them, they gave a nod of acknowledgement.  “Agent Drake, Tech NM-Dev-1.” The bio alt in the lead said, a comms link settled over his left ear. “Greetings.”

“Hello, Geebee.” Dev responded.  “Is that from the shuttle today?”

“Yes.”  The bio alt responded. “Some of the boxes were from the crŹche.” He added. “Some went to distribution, NM-Dev-1, I think one was for you.”

“For me?” Dev looked an sounded surprised.

“Bet it’s from the Doc.”  Jess got up and picked up her tray, holding a hand out for Dev’s. “Gimme. Let’s go gear up and do some gym.” 

“Thanks, Geebee.”  Dev handed her tray over, aware that the bio alts were watching Jess take it, and go to the disposal.   She picked up her helmet and joined her at the door, and they moved from the quiet of the mess into the busy hallway beyond.

At the end of the passage past Centops were the ops quarters and the last two in that hall were theirs.  Jess’s was the first and they entered using her doorway, remaining silent until the doors slid shut behind them.

Jess went to her work desk and sat down behind it, while Dev went past her to the inner door that separated their quarters.  It opened at her approach and she went inside, going to the gear locker and stowing her comms helm.

She stripped out of her flight gear and put it on it’s holder, then she turned and made her way into the sanitary unit, already looking forward to the hot blast of water hitting her skin.

A soft bong sound made her stop, and reverse her course, looking back over at the stores locker, seeing a faint glow behind one section of it.

“Provisioning complete.” The mechanical voice commented.  

Dev walked over to the locker and opened it again, glancing briefly at the mirror in the back that reflected her slight, yet muscular body in her under wraps, and the metallic illuminated collar that went all the way around her neck.

In the suit it wasn’t visible. Even in the light off duty jumpers she wore it wasn’t, unlike all the other bio alts in the base.  She was one of them, and not.  Born from an egg on a space station like the rest of the biological alternatives, and yet, she held natural born status in the base.

Complicated, and somewhat disturbing to them and occasionally to her.  The rest of them designed and programmed for specific tasks, to fly shuttles, or fix machinery, or to clean and maintain the base.

Dev was not like them in that regard. She had been designed to fill the role of an operations tech and that meant she lived and worked, not in the dorm downstairs on a regulated schedule, but like all of the other techs who had a more conventional origin and were natural born.

A more than successful experiment that now had the administrative section of Interforce in a tailspin because not only did Dev perform the role of operations tech she excelled at it and that meant the future of their recruitment program was now in question.

Along with throwing into question the difference between bio alts and natural borns.

 With a faint sigh she turned her attention to the package in the locker, lifting it out and examining it.

Thoughtfully, she went and put it down on her workspace, then she returned to the sanitary unit and continued with getting her shower on.  “First things first.” She remarked to her reflection, as she removed her under wraps and turned on the shower.

Steam and mist filled that end of the sanitary space and she stepped under it, breathing in the now, to her, familiar scent. She felt the water heat her skin and she took a handful of the soap that smelled a little spicy and scrubbed her body with it.

The air in the room compressed a little, and she faintly heard the door opening. “Jess?” She called out.

Her partner’s dark, shaggy head appeared in the entry way to the sanitary unit. “You were expecting someone else?”

“No.”  Dev applied some of the soap to her head.  “But you never know really. In the crŹche everyone but us had the keys.”  She stepped under the water and let it rinse her off.  “You couldn’t really tell proctors not to walk in on you.”

“Hmph. Well no one but me better be coming in here without your say so.”  Jess said. “Is that your box on the table? Can I look at it?”

Dev peered at her “Of course.”  She turned off the water and got a towel to dry herself off with, as her partner disappeared back into the outer room.   She wrapped herself in the towel and poked her head out of the opening, seeing Jess seated behind her workspace idly twirling the box in her fingers.

Hm.   Dev dried her hair off and exchanged her towel for fresh underthings, then she emerged into the main room and went to her locker.  “You can open that.” She got a lined jumpsuit out and put it on, running the fastenings up as she walked over to where Jess was sitting.

“Nah, it’s your box.”  Jess pushed it over to her.

Dev sat down next to her, ignoring the box. “Are you upset?”

Jess’s pale blue eyes flicked to her alertly.  “Me? Why?””

“You seem .. uh… “ Dev searched her memory. “Ticked off.”

Jess scowled engagingly at her.  “I am, a little.” She admitted. “Pissed off all this stuff with the Bay is cramping me.” She regarded the neutral expression on Dev’s face. “Everyone else gets to go out in the field and I’m stuck here.” She clarified to save her parter the need to look up the slang.

“Oh.”  Dev took her hand. “I’m sorry Jess. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Jess sighed. “I wish.”  She stared dourly at the table.  “All this legal garbage. By the time they sort it out I’ll be retired and they won’t need to.”

Dev absorbed that. “Excellent.” She said. “Then can we go on a boat and see seals and dolphins again? Or maybe a whale?”

It forced Jess to laugh and she did.  “Ah Devvie.”  She dismissed the gloom.  “I guess that might not be a bad thing, huh?  I’ll end up not croaking and you and I can have some fun together.” She pulled Dev’s hand over and put a kiss on the back of it.  “What would I do without ya?”

Dev smiled at her. “I wish all this legal stuff was done too.” She admitted. “My contract’s in question and that’s a little uncomfortable.”  She picked up the box.  “I’d rather have that sorted out.”  She undid the catches on the box and opened it, noting the origin. “Its from the crŹche.”

Jess scooted her chair up to watch.  “From the doc?”

Dev removed a square translucent piece and put it on the table.  “Oh! It’s so pretty!”  She found a bit of plas inside as well and opened it.  “It is from Doctor Dan!”

She put the plas down where they could both see it, it’s surface covered with an untidy scrawl. 

Hello Dev!

We have worked out a new process here on station and it let us create these little squares of compressed gas with star images inside them. I thought you might like one to remind you of us.  Hope you and Jesslyn are well.

DJK

Jess picked up the square and peered into it.  Though it seemed clear, when she got her eye up close it turned into a silky black with pinpoints of light in it. “Wow.”

Dev got next to her and peered inside. “That’s amazing.”  She said. “Its so nice of him to do that, isn’t it?” She moved her head a little. “I think that’s the back view from station, opposite from downside. I remember looking at those stars there, with the hook shape.”

Stars. Jess inspected them intently.  Something she’d never seen in her life, the view of them from planet side blocked by the impenetrable layer of clouds that covered the earth. “Nice.”  She sighed. “The doc’s a good guy.”

“He is.” Dev smiled in delight at her present. “I miss him.”

Jess bumped her on the shoulder.  “At least your contracts safe with him.” She reminded her partner.  “But listen.  We’re leaving a few days early because ops caught a mini transport landing near the Bay.”

Dev’s expression went serious. “From the other side?”

Jess nodded.  “So I get a little action.” She smiled wryly.  “Either they’re trying to get into the processing center or they bought one of my family.”

“Oh Jess.”  Dev had no idea how to feel about that, having no family, but she had to assume it must make her partner feel bad.  “That’s terrible.” She paused, seeing the noncommittal expression on Jess’s angular face.

Jess shrugged.  “Peh. Anyway, we get to use the council as an excuse to root around, and maybe draw out whatever it is.”   She stood up and ruffled Dev’s hair. “Swimming?”

“Yes.”

“Then maybe surfing?” Jess asked, in a hopeful tone.

“Yes.”  Dev answered firmly, repressing a shiver.  “Absolutely.”

**

The gym was busy, all of the operational teams getting in some extra time since they weren’t out on assignment.  Jess and Dev made their way into the changing room, exchanging greetings as they walked.

“One good thing about being stuck here.” Jess exchanged her jump suit for an exercise one.  “I got time in this place and got my ass back in shape.”

Dev paused in the motion of sealing her own suit and regarded her partner in a moment of reflective silence.  Then she cleared her throat. “Was it supposed to be a different shape than it is?”

Jess put her hands on her hips.  “You’re such a little punk sometimes.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“You make me laugh. That’s always good.”  Jess bumped her towards the entry. “I’m going to go into the pit. Come rescue me if you hear me screaming.”

Dev followed her into the main area and watched her briefly as she ambled off towards the hand to hand combat arena, where there were already a handful of agents sparring with each other.   It was Jess’s favorite exercise, even though she often came out of it with lurid purple bruises and once, a broken finger.

With a faint shake of her head Dev moved purposefully towards the exercise machines, stopping at the first empty one and setting it to conform to her body.    She settled into the support surface and positioned her arms and legs. “System, start.”

“Ident?”

“Dev.”

The machine considered that. “Starting.”

Dev nodded in satisfaction and felt the pressure come against her grip.  She closed her eyes and started the exercise, a core strength routine she was very familiar with.  At least now the machine didn’t argue with her.

Jess paused at the edge of the sparring area and looked back over her shoulder, watching Dev in her routine, with a look of intense concentration on her face.  Then she chuckled and undid the catches on the heavy net that surrounded the area and walked inside.

The net sealed behind her, and she walked along the rock wall towards the warm up line, pausing to pick up a pair of gloves and slip them on her hands, the magnetic closures tightening around her wrists. 

She approached the heavy, old style, hanging bags of beach sand and started a rhythmic tattoo on one of them, alternating punches and kicks to get her body warmed up.

It also gave her a chance to see who was in the pit and might be up for a match.   Jess worked her way around the bag, looking past it to the floor.  Three transplants, an old buddy of one of her long time adversaries and Mike Arias, one of the recently graduated agents.

Mike was fighting Harrison,  and two of the transplants were going at it, which left her with the other one, Jorge, as a potential opponent.  He was currently just standing around, waiting for one of the other bouts to finish.

Jess recalled his history as she continued her warm up.  Jorge and his tech partner Sal had come from the west coast. He was a little older than she was, a little shorter, and with a body that looked like he spent a lot of time keeping himself in trim.

He was a neutral, stayed out of the politics like April did, and so far had kept his mouth shut. His partner had been poking warily around Dev, having heard about this odd prodigy but reserved judgement about her so far, at least in public.

So.

Jess felt her body loosen up and she finished her drill, then walked down the steps to the lower level where the rest of the agents were, pausing to make eye contact with Jorge and raise an eyebrow.

He held up his hands and nodded, then they both sidestepped into one of the padded rings and faced each other. 

Jess gave him a little nod of respect and then let her arms drop, moving her center of balance over up and over the balls of her feet and giving him first go.

He didn’t hesitate.  He came forward and engaged her with fast, rapid punches, one going right at her head.

Jess moved with him, shifting and avoiding the blows with a peculiar, sinuous grace as she stepped closer and tapped him in the ribs, moving past him as he turned and snapped a fast kick at her.

He was good.   Jess smiled, aware that she was likely going to enjoy herself this bout, and she ducked the kick, then uncoiled from the slight crouch she’d taken and came right up off the ground, tucking her legs up and then launching them out to hit him in the chest.

He flew backwards, eyes opening in surprise, then tumbled and came back up again and back at her, with a grin of his own.

Jess landed and came to meet him, exchanging punches in a crack of glove against glove.  She opened her left hand and let him target it, then blocked a roundhouse from his right hand, hopping backwards just in time to miss a kick to the ribs.

She could feel her breathing slow, and the color leach out of her vision, batting aside his powerful right hand and getting her left in to impact his chin.

She could see the madness rising in his eyes and knew in a moment they would both go past the line and it would move from a friendly spar to something else and she savored that as she felt the change and then they were going at each other in earnest.

Someone, in the distance, yelled in alarm.

Jess shifted into high gear, her hands moving with flickering speed as she got inside his defenses again and again, and then she was in the air again, one foot snaking out to catch him behind the knee, and the other slamming him in the gut, the combination dumping him on his ass.

She dropped into a crouch, aware of the low growl issuing from her throat, and he paused, and went still, and lifted his hands palms out toward her.

“Smart.”  Harrison spoke up.  “Don’t mix with the animal.”

Jess straightened up, staring steadily at him.

“No problem.” Jorge got up and smiled. “I like a good mix up. Specially with a captain in the kick assing business.”   He blinked a few times, clearing the haze, and extended a gloved hand out to Jess. “Hai, Drake.”

Jess felt her body relax and she returned the bump. “ Back at you.” She said, after a brief clearing of her throat. “Go another round?”

“Oh yeah.”  Jorge shook himself and took up a position again. “Let’s go.”

“Hey, I’m next.”  Mike Arias spoke up.  “I want you to show me how to do that kick.”

Jess flexed her hands and smiled, dismissing Harrison with a brief twitch of her lips.  She went back to the center of the pit and cleared her mind, considering she might have gotten a point or two out of the exchange.

Heh.

Animal?

**

Dev was halfway across the pool, swimming with careful, determined motions that abruptly became a flail when a large body landed in the water next to her, ducking her under.  She scrambled for the surface and shook her hair out of her eyes, spluttering. “Whoa!”

“Devvviiiie!”  Jess warbled under her breath. “Whatcha doing?”

Dev dog paddled, keeping her head above water, and looked around. “Swimming?” She watched her partner roll lazily over onto her back. “Was your session successful?”

“Yeeees.” Jess hooked one hand around Dev’s bicep, then she kicked her legs in a scissors motion, pulling both of them effortlessly through the water.  “Ended up in a two on one the other two regretted.”   She chortled.

Now in the shallows, they both stood up and let the water sheet off them.   Dev could see new bruises on her partner’s body, and a long scratch down her left thigh. “Are you injured?”

“Nah.”  Jess didn’t even look down.  “Felt good.”

Dev eyed her doubtfully.  “Well, that’s excellent then.”

Jess chuckled. “I know you think I’m nutty. It’s okay.” She raked the dark wet hair off her head.  “They train us to like being kicked around.” 

Dev tried to imagine what that was like.  She reviewed her programming and tried to think of something so profoundly unpleasant that she’d been geared to enjoy and couldn’t. “Okay.” She surrendered. “I’m glad you’re happy about it.”

“Urgh. “ Jess slid down in the water and stretched herself out, enjoying the gentle buoyancy.  “But you lucked out.  I used enough spare energy to not want to go surf the rest of the day.”  She watched the muscles to either side of Dev’s mouth twitch.  “You’re such a good sport about that, Devvie.”

Surfing was difficult.  Not only difficult for her, but occasionally dangerous and often painful.   Dev nevertheless participated when Jess wanted to, driven by her urge to make her natural born partner happy.

Programming, yes, but also a deep inner emotion that supported and surrounded that programming, reinforcing it to cause her to subvert her own comfort willingly.

Was that like Jess enjoying being struck?

Dev frowned, then applied herself to the water again. “I’m almost done with this session.  Would you l like to get some sun replacement after we finish?”

Jess was leaning against the wall, a mildly distracted look on her face.   She glanced up at Dev. “I would.” She agreed. “C”mon, race ya!”

Dev good naturedly started forward, having no illusions whatsoever that she could keep pace with her partner.  She’d gotten much better at swimming, but Jess moved through the water like she was part of it.

They reached the other side of the pool and started back,  swimming shoulder to shoulder as Jess alternated between strokes, her head turned to watch Dev, the translucent eyelids that protected her eyes underwater glinting faintly.

She kept her breathing air based though, and they continued a dozen more laps before they hoisted themselves out of the pool via the ladder and stood dripping together for a moment, as a crowd of others moved past from the weight bearing area.

Dev was aware of the looks they both got, brief and shifted quickly away.  Jess ignored it, and led the way over to the changing area, grabbing a towel as they walked inside and tossing it to her.  She wiped her face off and roughly dried her hair, then let the fabric drape around her neck.

April and Doug entered.  “Hello there.”  April briefly greeted them, as she went to a set of lockers across from theirs.

“Hello.”  Dev returned the greeting, as Jess lifted a hand in acknowledgement. “How was the new sim set, Doug?”

“Eh.” Doug waggled his hand, as he stripped out of his jump suit.  “I don’t like the new autonomics much. Feels laggy.”

“Everything feels laggy to you, rookie.”  One of the older techs told him.  “All you do is bitch about the gear.”

Doug held both hands out. “Can I help it if this stuff is older and draggier than school?”  He half turned. “You try it, Rocket. See what you think.”

Dev was toweling her body off before getting back into her work suit.  “Well, I haven’t had much to compare it too, but I will be in them this evening.”  She paused, noting the older tech was staring at her neck.   “So we’ll see.”

The tech jerked around straight and faced his locker, and Dev glanced behind her, to find Jess relaxing, her glare moderating to something more normal.  

Deciding she had nothing to add to the conversation, she did up the catches on her suit, covering her collar, and took her towel and the wet exercise suit to the recycler.

“Hey.”  Brent caught up with them as they exited.  “You hear they’re opening up a senior track?” He addressed Dev, coming up on her right side.

“Yeah?”  Jess peered past her. “You should try for that, Devvie.”

Thankfully, programming supplied the information promptly.  “Do you mean a senior technician position?” She asked. “I don’t think so.  I don’t think they’d like a bio alt applying for that.  People already have discomfort.” She replied in a mild tone.  “Are you?” She asked Brent.

“Tried twice. Ain’t got the brains.”  Brent admitted.  “Bet you could do it.”

The difference in Brent’s attitude and the older tech in the gym was striking.   “How about if I assist you to study for it? I would like you to achieve that if you want to.” Dev diverted the conversation.

As much as his naturally morose expression allowed, he brightened. “Sure.” 

“Excellent.”  Dev lifted a hand in goodbye as Brent split off from them and headed for the simulators.  Then she glanced up at Jess, who was frowning.  “It would be nice to help Brent, don’t you think?”

“He’s a rock head, for a tech.” Jess disagreed. “You’re wasting your time. You should go for it yourself. You’d ace it.”

“Possibly.”  Dev followed her along the corridor towards their sun replacement rooms.  “But I would rather avoid the discomfort.”  She said. “I have noticed there is a lot of that, in the new teams who came here after the attack.”

“Hm.”  Jess palmed her room open. “Cmon in with me.”

“Of course.”

They entered the rad chamber and removed their clothes, as Jess went to the console and coded in a session for both of them.   

When she re-entered the main room Dev was relaxing on one of the two translucent lounges and she paused to regard her before she took a seat on the opposite chair.  Dev was short and compact, but visibly muscled just under her skin and that always seemed a little at odds with her calm and polite manner.

“That cut looks like it is causing you discomfort.”  Dev commented. “Would you like me to put a bandage on it?”

“Nah.”  Jess lay down and let her body go slack, feeling the distinct ache of hard use and now the faint sting of the cuts she’d gotten. “Not unless it starts spurting blood.” She added, as an afterthought.

Dev half sat up and peered at her.

“Just kidding.”

The bio alt lay back down, and folded her hands over her stomach.  

“Have jackasses been bothering you?” Jess asked, after a moment of silence. “Giving you a hard time?”

Dev considered her response for a bit before answering.  “It’s just things I hear.” She finally said. “That people are saying, but not to me.”  She glanced at the other couch, seeing Jess’s pale blue eyes looking directly back at her. “Generally when you are not present.”

Jess’s nostrils flared a little.  

“So, thank you so much, Jess, for being so nice and thinking I should try to achieve that new grade, but I think it will just make people even more uncomfortable.”

Jess sat up and swung her long legs off her couch, resting her hands on the side of it and leaning forward. “Screw them.” She stated flatly.  “Dev, you’re as much an ops tech as any of them are. You’ve got full status.  You’ve done more than most of them have and they’re just jealous of you.”

Surprisingly, Dev nodded. “Yes, I understand that. It has to do with status, and that’s very important to natural borns.”

Jess’s brows lifted.

“And bio alts too, actually.”  Her partner admitted.  “We always want more status.”

“But it also makes you a target.”  Jess’s expression shifted to pensive.  “Don’t I know it.”  She rested her elbows on her knees and laced her fingers together.  The reddish gold light of the rad darkened her skin, but the burned in designs on both arms still were visible.

Dev resisted looking at her own arm, which had a handful of the designs as well. “Let’s wait until we do a few more missions, Jess.” She said. “Then the next time maybe I will try that.  I think it’s better if a few others get it first, since they told me it’s been a long time since it’s been offered.”

True.  “Yeah, okay.”  Jess sighed, and lay back down. “It just pisses me off.” 

Dev got up and went to kneel down by Jess’s couch, putting a hand on her arm.  “Please don’t be upset, Jess.”   She leaned forward and very gently kissed Jess on her ribcage, then put her cheek down on the spot and looked up at her partner’s face.

For a brief moment, it remained a stony mask.

Then the grim tension dissolved, and Jess’s expression softened as she smiled a little, one hand reaching up to stroke Dev’s cheek. “You’re so good to me Devvie.”  She acknowledged mournfully. “Everyone else thinks I’m just a grumpy maniac but you never do.”

“You’re not.” Dev smiled, glad she’d done the right thing.  “You’re amazing, Jess.”

Jess smiled back, and edged over.  “C’mon  It’s big enough for both of us up here.”  She surrendered to the peace she knew was there, hovering at the edge of her own insanity, wrapped up in this mutual affection.

“Absolutely.”  Dev got up on the louge and curled up against Jess, winding her arms around her in contentment, glad to let the rad lull them both to sleep.

**

Dev stood next to her carrier, the sounds of ongoing construction in the cavern loud and almost overwhelming.  She resisted the urge to cover her ears and continued her walk around the pad, checking the newly installed engine pods and moving past the open hatch to run her hand over one of the joints.

Overhead the sound of rain on the recently finished roofing thundered, but the giant new forward doors were half open and past them she could see other carriers on  slow patrol watching it.

“Hey Dev.” Clint came up onto the pad from the diagnostic station. “Everything okay?”

“It seems so.” Dev agreed. “And, also, I would like to say congratulations on your new promotion.”  She indicated the insignia on this collar. 

Clint grinned, looking briefly around before he leaned an elbow on the carrier. “Thanks Dev! I was trying for this one a while. Nice they put it all through after all the last mess.” He said. “Bumped my allocation up too.”

“Excellent.” Dev grinned back.  “It’s good to be successful.” 

“You should know.” Clint returned the compliment with a wink. “I heard they opened a senior track. I know you’ll make it on the first go.”

Dev drew breath to argue, then paused. “Thank you.”  She merely said. “Actually I am looking forward to taking this carrier out and getting some longer range metrics on the new engines.”

He nodded, and shared the contents of his readout pad. “Well, you’re ready so if you want to start checks have at it. “ He indicated some of the contents. “I’m interested to know if this torque upswing works out.”

Dev glanced up as she spotted Doug heading for his carrier, parked on the next pad. She lifted a hand as he called a greeting, almost completely unheard in the overriding noise.

“You taking the kids with you?” Clint asked. “I had their rig on standby.”

“Yes, they will accompany us.”  Dev patted the engine pod and turned. “Let me get things ready to fly.”   She walked up the ramp, past the skin where her name and Jess’s were stenciled and paused. “Oh, Clint?”

He hurried over. “What’s up?”

Dev glanced around. “Please do me a favor?”

“Anything.”

“If someone has some idea to change this to that Rocket thing, please don’t let them. I’d rather it be my designation.” She pointed at the skin.

Clint regarded the block letters. “Don’t think they mean that as an insult, Dev. I heard one of the other techs talking it’s more like it’s.. um…”  He paused. “Kind of a your one of us sort of thing.”

She considered that. “I don’t mind them calling me that.  It’s just this is my designation.” She agreed. “It’s who I am, and I would like that accurate on my.. um.. our vehicle.”

Clint nodded.  “No problem Dev. I get it.”  He assured her. “I got your back.”

“Thank you.” Dev waved a little and went inside, bypassing the as yet quiet and dark weapons station and sliding into her pilot’s seat up in the nose.  The wraparound cockpit showed new and freshly installed modules everywhere and she paused a moment to look at them.

She folded her hands over her stomach and considered a somewhat new sensation as given programming was overlaid with learned experience gained as she had installed most of the new components and in some cases, gotten a suggestion or two in on their design.

She tried to compare the two different sets of knowledge, but it was hard, as they’d now integrated to a reasonable degree and she had to remind herself which she’d been given and which she know knew, as bio alts said, knew of her own self.

With a soft grunt, she slid forward a little and started bringing up the carrier’s systems, reaching out and picking up the comms and settling it in place, hooking it into the carrier pilot suit she was wearing. 

The big machine came alive around her, boards lighting and the talkback whispers starting in her ear cups as she prepared to bring the engines online.  

She glanced to her left, out the big window, and spotted Jess entering the cavern, walking alongside April. 

The former nomad was taller than Dev, but Jess towered over her,  one of the tallest female  natural born Dev had yet met.   Both women had on their half armored suits, and weapons seated at hard points and they casually crossed the floor in conversation with each other.

Dev could see others watching them.  Some of the cavern techs in brief interest, some of the bio alt techs in serious consideration.

That was complicated.  The bio alts in general in the citadel tended to regard Jess positively for a number of reasons but not the least because of how Jess treated Dev.  They didn’t tend to have the wary fear of her that some of the natural borns did.

But Jess seemed to be in a reasonably good mood today, even laughing at something April had said as the other agent angled off towards her carrier, leaving Jess to come on to her own.   She looked up as she did, meeting Dev’s eyes through the plas.

Dev smiled and waved, and her smiled broadened as her partner waved back, giving her a little salute as she walked along the grated floor on her way to the carrier entrance.

In preparation, Dev lit up the weapons console, bringing all the boards online as she heard Jess’s steps on the ramp and adjusting the interior lights as she felt the carrier rock just slightly on it’s skids as her partner entered. “Hello.”

“Hey Dev.”  Jess settled her long blaster into it’s clips and dropped into her chair.  “We ready to go?”

“Just about.” Dev watched the reflective panel over her head and in a moment, Jess’s pale eyes met hers in it, and they both smiled in reflex at each other.  “I’m glad we can go and do some good work.”

“I was bored too.” Jess agreed, pulling her restraints around her and securing them then triggering the hatch closure.  “Let’s get flying, NM-Dev.”

Dev triggered her own restraints and settled herself as her seat rocked and shifted forward.  “BR27006, comm check. “ She uttered. “Standby for systems regen.”

“BR27006, clear comms.”  The voice from flight ops answered. “Standing by.”

Jess could hear the soft whine of the engines spooling and she whistled softly under her breath as she commissioned her systems. 

She felt the faint twitch as the power systems exchanged, and the pop and thunk as Dev released the feeds and was aware of a distinct sense of relief, glad indeed they were headed out.

She cracked her knuckles and checked that her restraints were all the way retracted.  Very glad.

**

“You know.” Dev had set course and trimmed the engines before she looked back over her shoulder. “When it’s raining, I think having the door on top was actually better.”

Jess was sprawled in her chair, her boards quiesced at least for the first part of the short flight home.  “You don’t get slammed with the rain like coming out front?” She guessed.

“Yes.”  Dev agreed.  “One hour flight time. “ She then reported. “The other carrier is behind us, slightly to the left.”

Jess nodded. “This is going to be interesting since I didn’t warn them I was coming.” She remarked. “Or that I was bringing guests.”

“Is that going to cause discomfort?”

“Oh yes.”

Dev spent a few more minutes getting the carrier all sorted, before she turned in her chair to face Jess.   “Is that a good or bad thing?”

Jess’s expression was wry.  “Ah, Dev.”  She sighed. “Where do I start?  Remember I told you the last time we went to the Bay it was different?”

“With the scans, and everything. Yes.  But since it was only I think the second or third place I’d been it was hard for me to tell the difference.”  Dev agreed. “But it seemed more like…  “ She considered. “More like a base than the Quebec place or the other places we went.”

Jess nodded. “It is more like it.” She wriggled into a more comfortable position.  “Back in the day, after everything went to crap it took a little time for it all to fall apart.” She said.  “The governments fell apart the last, because they had the most to lose.”

Dev folded her hands and just listened, programmed history surfacing.

“Last thing that went to pieces, was the armed forces.”  Jess went on.  “And parts of those forces were..  well, lets say they’d been working for a while to get the basic human being and goose them a little.”

Dev’s brows creased, a little.

“Not too different from you, really.”  Her partner remarked mildly.  “Some things don’t change, I guess. But there were forces that were being genetically tweaked. Bigger. Stronger. Hardier.”  She picked up a cup from her console and drank from it. “Remember I told you my mother paid some quack to mess with her eggs?  That was what was left of all that after all this time.”

“Oh.”  Dev finally spoke.  “I didn’t know that.”

“They leave that out of most histories. I know it because.. well let me get to that.”  Jess said. “Anyway, back in that day there were a couple of those guys and they decided, after they weren’t getting paid anymore, they were going to find a place and set up shop for themselves, and take all their buddies with them.”

“I see.”

“Their names were David and Brian Drake.”  Jess smiled briefly.  “And they had two sisters named Sally and Jess.”

“Oh!”

“All of them  had been in that special program.”  Jess’s blue eyes twinkled a little. “And they took the last of the transports they could steal, and they found Drake’s Bay, just a bunch of caves in a mountainside on the edge of the sea.”

“So all of them were soldiers?”

“All of them were.”  Jess confirmed. “And they were mostly mean and aggressive sons of bitches, and didn’t get along either with each other or the people left in the area, who they beat up and commandeered.”

“Oh.” Dev repeated. “That doesn’t sound good.”

“Wasn’t.”  Her partner agreed. “That’s why that’s never told in the history books, just that when the regional governments finally bribed and scraped enough together to get things going again that when they looked for something to replace the military, that’s who they went to.”

Dev frowned again.

“They cut a deal with them, back in the day.  They hired them as mercenaries.”  Jess told her, in a cheerful tone.  “Promised them food and support if they’d join what was going to become Interforce.”  She took another sip.  “But after that they realized there was something wrong with them.”

“Something wrong?”

“All the fiddling had made a lot of them psychos, and that bred.”  Jess said. “Not only in the Bay, but other places. You know what a sociopath is, Dev?”

Dev blinked. “Yes.” She said. “But…”

Jess raised her hand.  “One of the things they had to screw around with was taking away all the guilt and compassion . Messes up your ability to kill things at random.”  She said. “So I am a highly functioning sociopath. No soul searching. No wringing of hands. Give me a mission and I execute it.  No mental stress about blowing people up.”

Dev’s jaw actually dropped. “They did that on purpose????”  She sputtered. “Really?”

“Kind of kicks your ass when you find out.”  Jess agreed quietly. “But in this business, it makes it a lot easier Dev.  We get our heads blown off, but don’t have much post traumatic stress anymore.”  Her eyes had a humorous glint in them.  “That’s why they take us at five. So they get to us, and structure us and we have time to intellectually figure out it’s a pretty good life, even though it might be a short one at the end of it. Only one in a hundred refuses to go into service from school.”

“Wow.” Dev remembered her human interface classes, and she could almost hear Doctor Dan’s calm, gentle voice explaining things she now understood he’d known from a personal perspective in a unique way.

“It takes a lot to screw us up here.” Jess pointed at her head. “Something like what happened to me before we met. Before, that would have nixed whoever it happened to. For me it just sent me to psych for a while – now I don’t even think about it.”

Dev blinked again.

“Of course, you did help with that.” Jess smiled at her partners nonplussed expression.  “Crazy huh?” She swirled the beverage in her cup and drained it.  “So anyway, over the years it meant more Interforce came from the Bay than pretty much anywhere on the East coast, and since they took a lot of us, the rest bred cleaner and it’s gotten less crazy.” She leaned back.  “But Drakes…  all of them had it. All of them bred it.  We end up with more of it than most and most of us turn out assholes because of it.”

Dev actually could not think of anything to say to that, so she changed the subject slightly. “Did Doctor Dan know all this?”

“I’m sure my dad told him, especially if he took him to the Bay and he did.”  Jess replied. “He’s no dummy and neither was my pop and it’s not a secret inside the family – at least not those of us who went.”

“Wow.” Dev repeated.

“My dad was the first of us for a while who lived long enough to retire and come into shares at the Bay.” Jess said. “When you do that, go inactive, you’re supposed to be old enough to leave the crazy behind, but people still looked crosswise at him. I realize it now, thinking back.”

Dev watched her face, seeing nothing more than reflection there.  “Will it eventually not be like that?” She finally asked. “If it goes along enough?”

Jess remained silent for a few minutes. “They tell us there’ve been less of us over the years.”  She said. “But I don’t know. Someone once told me it’s a black and white, off or on thing. What they flipped.” Her eyes were a little unfocused. “Maybe the doc would know.”

“Doctor Dan knows a lot.”  Dev had to agree.  “Maybe we can ask him sometime.”

“Maybe.”  Jess said. “But until then, just keep all that under your hat.”

Dev just looked at her.

“Don’t tell anyone.” Jess had to chuckle.

Dev smiled then briefly.  “Jess.” She asked, after a few more minutes of silence.  “Is that why they don’t like bio alts there? Because of what happened to them before?”

“Nah, I don’t…” Jess paused and her eyes shifted to the floor.  “I never thought about that.” She admitted, with a frown. “Just was a thing you knew there.”

Dev sensed the discomfort and she turned, settling herself back in her seat and running a set of checks with automatic motions.   The weather had slacked off a little, and she could see the deep greens of the sea rolling gently against the cliffs that bordered it’s edge, ruffled with only slight caps of white.

The new sensors were reporting and she checked the scopes, seeing the depth soundings repeating back to her showing the sea life underneath the surface.   She tuned them, knowing a moment of self pride in the knowledge that the programming for them had come from her.

Clint had gotten the credit for it.  She’d just suggested it, then turned over the code module from her own scanner to him and he’d taken it to the modders from there.  Excellent, really.  Now all the carriers had it.

She heard Jess release her restraints and move around behind her.  “They put in a new dispenser, Jess.  I brought some tea for it.”

“I see.” Jess’s voice had a smile in it.  “Want some? We might as well get as much pleasure out of this as we can before we get to the homestead.”

“Yes, please.”  Dev checked the nav.  “Forty five minutes. “

“At ten minutes out,  send a call.” Jess put cups in the dispenser,  poking around in the new compartments. “You brought honey, you little bunny.”

Dev just smiled.  “BR27006 to BR34066, sideband, sendit” She spoke into her mic, and watched the sideband connection come up between her carrier and Doug’s.   “Check.” His voice echoed softly into her ear.  “You there, Rocket?”

“Yes, please keep this pinned up.”  Dev said. “We will make contact in thirty five local minutes.”

“Gotcha.” Doug responded. “So hey, Chester’s so torked they didn’t get to go with us like last time.”  He said, in a casual tone.  “I’m super glad April asked.”

Dev had no idea what to respond to that.  “Please stand by.” She compromised, shaking her head a little, then looking up as Jess appeared next to her, taking a seat on the low jump bench next to her position and offering her a cup.

They sipped their tea in silence, Jess’s hand resting casually on Dev’s knee, her legs extended along the floor of the carrier in what had to be cramped discomfort, content to simply sit there instead of her comfortable padded position in the back.

Jess seemed to like to do that, Dev had noticed. She pondered having something done to her raw jump seat to make it more comfortable, then put her cup in the holder and picked up comms as it crackled into her ear.  “We’re being hailed.”

Jess chuckled soundlessly.  “They’re on their toes this morning. Send our ident.”  She remained where she was, leaning back against the console, as Dev shifted channels and sent the transmit.

“Drakes Bay control, this is Interforce flight BR27006 inbound, with escort.”  Dev uttered into her mic. “Senior agent Jesslyn Drake in command.”  She added, seeing the gentle twinkle in her partner’s eyes.

There was a long moment of silence.  “Keep on course, aim for the landing bays.”  Jess instructed. “They don’t open up for us land it right on top of the damn roof.”

Dev hoped sincerely they wouldn’t have to do that, but she trimmed the course and changed their angle slightly, still twenty minutes out from the homestead.  She drew in breath to repeat her request, then paused when she heard the crackle of comms opening.

“Interforce flight BR27006 and escort, please use landing bay six, pads one and two.” The voice came back, without any negative inflection she could detect.  “Control sends greetings, and welcome.”

Dev looked quickly at Jess, whose eyebrows were almost up into her hairline.  “Thank you, Drakes Bay.  We copy and will comply.”  She responded, closing comms. “That sounded excellent.”

“It did.”  Jess said, in a surprised tone.  “Huh.”

“You weren’t expecting that.”  The bio alt said, as she relayed the landing instructions to April and Doug.  “Is it not correct?”

Jess got to her feet and went back to her station, putting her cup in it’s holder and dropping into her chair, pulling her restraints to as she activated her screens.  “Really good question, Dev. “ She switched her inputs to receive and started to analyze the results.  “Realllly good.”

**

Dev slowed her forward speed and dropped her altitude as she made her approach to Drake’s Bay homestead.  It was situated in a half circle of cliff walls around a roughly round bay, the outer edge dropping down into the water via  series of descending spires.

The stone itself was layers of grays and blues and greens, and to Dev’s eyes, the place had an eerie and majestic beauty, combined with the deep blue of the protected bay before it, where fishing vessels were crossing towards the sea level caverns below.

Overhead, above them, a flyer was drifting lazily, in a circling pattern.

One side of the circle had a series of openings and she headed for one of them, it’s metal bay doors standing open to receive them.  

As the carriers flew slowly overhead, a sea bell rang beneath them, audible in the sensors she had open and Dev glanced quickly in the reflector, watching Jess’s face for a reaction, reassured when it was only a raised eyebrow.

After a moment Jess reached up and touched a control, and her station went dark, spooling the power back to Dev’s batteries.  Then she returned her hands to their folded position on her stomach and twiddled her thumbs in the slightest of nervous twitches.

Hm.  Dev went back to her piloting, sliding the carrier a bit sideways to straighten her approach, cutting the mains as they cleared the cavern entrance and using her residual momentum to land on the pad on the right side of it.

Not even a touch of the landing jets.  She felt the skids settle to the pad and secured the engines, opening the power link hatch as a tech outside approached them.

“Nice landing, Dev.”  Jess had unfastened her restraints and stood up.  “April in?”

Dev peered to her right. “Yes, they’re fine.” She reported, busy with the work of securing the carrier’s systems.  “This seems nominal.”

Jess was fastening her suit up.  “Yeah. They keep things pretty square here.” She pulled out her backpack and Dev’s. already loaded with changes of clothes and their kits.  “Open the door.”

Dev released herself and got up, triggering the hatch as she collected her scanner and walked back to get her pack from Jess.  She closed the fastenings on her sharkskin jacket and settled the pack over it, waiting for Jess to do the same.

The jacket was non reg, and lined, a set of her tech insignia fastened to the well fitted collar and had a silvery green and blue sheen to it that reflected its different colors depending on the light.

Dev liked it.  It was both less bulky and warmer than the reg issue and fit her well, and Jess had repeatedly told her she looked good in it.  All excellent.

“Okay.” Jess settled her pack. “Let’s go, Devvie.  See what insanity we have in store for us today.”  She paused, regarding the weapons rack, then regretfully palmed it closed before she led the way down the ramp to the pad.

The tech who had connected them was securing the line and he looked up as they approached, giving Jess a respectful nod.  “Drake.”  He said, as he stepped out of their way. “Welcome.”

Jess paused. “Hello Reggie.” She returned the greeting. “This is my partner, Dev.”  She indicated her companion.   “Dev, this is Reggie. He’s a cousin of mine.”

“Hello.”  Dev responded. “It’s nice to meet you.”

The bay tech regarded her seriously.  He was shorter than Jess, and had curly dark brown hair and hazel eyes, and didn’t resemble her even in the slightest.  “You’re a bio alt?” He said, after a pause. “Really?”

“Yes really.”  Dev wasn’t sure what to make of the response. “Biological Alternative, set 0202-164812, instance NM-Dev-1.” She agreed. “But most people call me Dev.”

Jess waited with unusual patience as she watched her cousin process this.  He wasn’t one of her brighter relations, but on the flip side of that, he didn’t have that edge some of her closer ones did.

Ten years her junior, he also wasn’t likely to be a smart ass and get his head taken off by her to start the visit off on completely the wrong foot.

“Huh.” Reggie extended a hand out. “Welcome, tech Dev.”

Extremely unexpected, and somewhat excellent.  Dev took his hand and returned the grip. “Thank you very much.” She released him and he lifted a hand, turning and going back to his work as she turned and looked at Jess. “That was interesting.”

“That was interesting.” Jess repeated, shaking her head.  “Might have been the nicest thing to happen to us all day.” She added with a sigh.  “Lets hope it wasn’t.”

**

Continued in Part 2