Of Sea and Stars

Part 13

 

Jess reached the bottom of the shaft and released the bottom rung, landing on a slick rock surface that jarred every bone in her body.  She swept around and pressed her back against the nearby wall, stooping briefly to retrieve the spear lying nearby.

She was in a tunnel, irregularly shaped, that sloped downward to her left and upward to her right.  She started downward, reaching up to touch her head as she heard a distinct ringing in her ears.  Concussed, probably. She resisted the urge to shake her noggin, and just hoped the ringing would stop.

Hard to hear past it.  Hard to concentrate on what she was doing with all that noise and the nausea and the pain elsewhere.  Though she’d been trained well to ignore all that right now she was finding it rough, it was even hard for her to remember the last time she’d…

Oh, no. She remembered now her brief rest up in the shuttle, trusting Dev not to drive into something catastrophic.

Dev.  Who had taken on that shuttle and sweated it down, and who must be even more tired than Jess was.  She leaned against the wall and considered that, then focused her intent on finding her partner and getting a nap. Screw everything and everyone else.

This far down the noise from the fighting was faded, and she shoved off against the wall only to pause again as a brief spell of dizziness almost made her stumble.

Not good.  She took a breath and forced her body to settle, then started off again more confidently in the direction she knew would lead her to where she’d seen the carrier disappear.

Ahead of her she could hear the sound of the sea and that and the salt smell drew her insistently, speeding up her steps as she reached the end of the ramp and entered the ship cavern.

There she halted and stared, her eyes widening at the destruction in front of her.

Six ships were half sunk in the harbor, overturned and full of holes while dead bodies floated nearby.  The edge of the cavern was still dropping debris into the water and one side of the space looked like a bomb had hit it.

Between two granite columns, a little sideways, was an Interforce carrier where no such thing belonged.  Jess looked at the angle, and then at the carrier.

If she’d had any doubt, now she didn’t.  No other pilot on the planet could have landed that damn brick where it was in one piece and in fact she had no real idea how they were going to get it back out because there wasn’t even clearance to turn.

With a low, muttered sound she made her way along the edge of the ship dock and came up to the carrier, circling it and leaning against the engine cowling long enough to just look at the painted names on the outside of the craft.

Her carrier.

Their carrier.  She went up next to the skin and bumped it with her shoulder, leaning over and kissing it where the block letter DEV was stenciled, then resting her head against the cool surface for a long moment.

Then she unlocked the door and stepped inside, letting it close behind her.

She could still smell Dev’s presence and she stood a moment, taking in a breath of the air inside and tasting it on the back of her tongue as she set the spear down.  What now?  She was aware that thoughts were coming more slowly to her than usual, but bangs on the noggin did that.

She wished she could sit down for a while in her nice, padded chair but she forced herself to keep standing, as she removed the jumpsuit  she was wearing and traded it for her half armored battle suit hanging in the locker that would at least give her a small bit of protection that her duty suit hadn’t.

She took a wipe from the dispenser and ran it over her face, watching it come back covered in soot and blood and bits of bone and carefully avoiding looking at her reflection in any shiny surface after she dropped the wipe into the garbage bag.

Damn, her head hurt.  Jess finished fastening up her battle suit and peered around the carrier, reaching into the drink dispenser and removing a container of kack she opened and drained in a draught that didn’t do much for her roiling stomach but at least brought a flicker of energy behind it.

Dev’s pack was gone, she noted.

The med kit was also gone.

Jess finished the kack and tossed it, then went to the arming rack, noting her long blaster was slightly out of place.  She studied it for a minute, then lifted it up and examined it, before she seated it along her leg on it’s hard points.

She added two more heavy blasters and a long dagger, then she turned to the hatch and put her hands on the edges of it, waiting for the dizziness to fade again before she hit the hatch and backed to let it open.

Salt air hit her in the face and then death almost did as a flicker of motion made her half turn.  Facing her were two blue clad security guards and before she could react they fired at her point blank.

She twisted and lunged to one side as one blast hit her half armor, and it spun her around enough to miss the second and she slammed into the side of the carrier and then headed for the rock floor.

Ow.

She got her hand blaster out and fired back as she hit the ground, a bump in the rock giving her enough cover to survive to shoot again, and then again, instinct taking over in a wash of relief and she stopped trying to think and just gave over to it.

One of them dove behind the engine and took a shot, then as she watched him aim at her, in almost slow motion, something hit him in the side of the head and blew his skull apart.

The other guard dove for the ground, glancing around frantically.  Jess got a line on him and shot him, then she scrambled to her feet and ducked behind the engine, glad of it’s solid bulk under her hands.

“Drake!”

“Here.”  She kept the blaster in her hand, as a tall figure came around the carrier and spotted her, and they looked at each other for a very long moment.  “Mike.”

“Fuckin A.”  The Drake’s Bay security chief wiped his forehead off. “Ops ops.” He said into a comms.  “Found the alpha. Secure.”

Jess pushed herself upright.  “What’s the deal?”

“Got carriers coming in.” Mike said.  “Saw this one come in the cavern. Son of a fucking bitch.”

Jess patted the skin of the carrier. “Dev.” She said. “You know where she went?”

Mike shook his head. “Fighting’s up near the stairs .We got em pinned down. Maybe she went that way to all the noise? Figure she’s looking for you.”

“Probably.”   Jess said. “Got my bell rung.”

“Looks it.” Mike said. “Got a lot of blood there.” He took a step back. “Maybe you should stick here in that crate? Safest place in the joint at the mo.”

Jess was already moving past him towards the long sloping rampway that led from the cavern up to the processing rooms where fish became food or items to sell.  Here the rock never really lost the scent of that, and she circled the carrier and started upwards.

Mike caught up with her. “Okay so not.” He said, falling silent and keeping pace with her.   There were far of sounds of shots, and yells, and more distant the scream of the wind.  “Storm’s comin.  Ground those bastards.”

Jess nodded. “Until reinforcements get here from the west.” She said. “We can only do this so long. They got more and bigger bombs than we do.”

We’s we, now?”

“Yeah. Maybe always was.” Jess muttered. “Maybe dad knew better than he knew.”

Mike smiled grimly, and just nodded.

They heard running steps coming at them and they drew apart, going to the walls of the passage and bracing, Jess with her blaster and Mike with an old style rocket launcher he lifted casually to his shoulder.

A running body came around the corner and spotted them, skidding to a halt and throwing their hands up. “For fucks sake I surrender. Don’t shoot me!!” They bawled. “I’m done!”

Red cropped hair, and security blue.  Jess stepped away from the wall, but kept the blaster in focus.  “Rusty.” She said. “No shooting yet.”

The woman stared at her. “Drake?”  She took a very cautious step forward. “Holy shit.” She looked surprisingly relieved. “Listen, I’m null. I’m not under orders. I just want to stay alive.” She got the words out quickly. “Don’t kill me.”

“Okay.” Jess said, after a moment.  “Who’s in charge now?”

“No clue.” Rusty slowly lowered her hands to her sides.  She was unarmed, and had blood over the front of her uniform, now visible to Jess. “There’s an insanity here, Drake.” She said. “We walked into a buzz saw.”

Jess almost smiled. “Insanity that Interforce has been tapping for a long time now” She pointed back the way Rusty had come from “We’re going that way.”

Rusty stared at her. “Are you good guys or bad guys, Drake? What side am I on if I go with you?”

Jess shrugged. “Side that probably lives. But no guarantees.”  She moved past the security guard and picked up the pace, hearing echoing sounds and shots ahead of her. 

**

Dev pressed her back against the wall, feeling both salt and moisture as she carefully peered around the corner.  She could hear screaming, and a quick check of her scan showed a lot of people, mostly Interforce ahead of her, and she swept around and behind her searching for Jess’s bio.

Hard, with so many people around that had that.  But she persisted and after a moment the wiremap resolved and she spotted her partner on the move heading … “Ah.”

Dev blinked and looked behind her, a moment later spotting a familiar figure stalking her way. She stepped out away from the wall and into the dim light from the overhead and then Jess’s eyes tracked to her and they locked on.

Oh.  Jess looked horrible.  She had blood all over her head and she was limping , almost staggering with one hand lightly brushing the wall.  But when her eyes met Dev’s her face broke into a grin and Dev knew a brief sensation of floating on air as she exhaled in relief.

It made her knees weak. 

Devvviiieee!” Jess warbled softly as they met, and she without hesitation pulled Dev into a hug. “Nice landing back there, you Rocket Racoon you.”

Dev gently hugged her back, noting the odd stare from the short figure behind her, and the brief nod from the tall man. “Hello.” She said. “I’m really glad I found you.”  She said. “There’s so much incorrectness here I don’t know where to start.”

A loud roar interrupted their reunion, and they threw themselves against the corridor wall as rocks started coming down from the ceiling.

“What the hell!” Mike bawled  They get so pissed of they blew themselves up?”

Would’nt put it past em” Rusty said.  “End game.” She braced next to him. “No real thinking going on.” She shielded her head with an arm. “Is that a rocket launcher?”

“Yeah.” He ducked a thick blanket of stone that detached from the ceiling and covered them.  “Real Bay issue.”

“Holy crap. Last time I saw one was in history class at Rainier Island.”

Jess had her eyes closed, her body braced and arms lifted over both of them to shield them from the debris.  Dev reached up to touch her face, feeling the dried blood against her fingertips. “You are not well.”

One blood shot blue eye opened and rotated down to peer at her. “I’m absolutely fan fucking tastic right now.” She said.  “I thought you croaked. I was really bummed there for a minute.”

Dev gave her a brief smile. “I felt the same way.” She admitted. “I was thinking, if that was true, and you were not here anymore that it would be okay if they made me dead too. “ She remarked in a reflective tone.

“Really?”

“Yes of course.” Dev said. “You’re my reason for being here.”

Jess felt a little prickling against her skin and it got very quiet in her head, just for a minute there as those words echoed through her ears and traveled down to her heart in a spread of warmth she could actually feel.

It felt so amazing.  It made the headache, and the pain and all the crap they dealing with just a secondary consideration and she got an insight into herself she hadn’t really expected.  Amoral sociopaths weren’t supposed to give a shit about anyone else and right up to now, this one hadn’t.

Not really. Not even for her father, who she’d liked as much as someone like her could.

So maybe, Jess looked past Dev’s head and saw a cloud of dust heading their way, most likely full of vaporized relatives.  So maybe there was a little bit of her that wasn’t all that craziness. “Thanks Dev. I was kinda feeling the same way too.”

“Excellent.” Her partner concluded. “I hope everyone can stop shooting now.”

“Me too.” Jess almost chuckled. “Lets go see what blew up.” She finally said, aware of the stares and the discomfort of it all.  “And see if there’s anyone left to surrender.”

She put her arm across Dev’s shoulders and shifted her gun to her other side, starting forward as the cloud hit them and peppered them with stench, and stone, and dust that made her slit her eyes and clamp her lips shut as her black half armor was covered in debris.

Dev just ducked her head and pressed her face against Jess’s side, allowing the suit she was wearing block some of the dust.

It was sub optimal, and stinky, and dangerous and horrible and yet, absolutely excellent, all at the same time.  Crazy and sad and good and in that  moment with Jess’s arm around her and for the very first time Dev felt, inside herself, a sense of herself as a person.

It felt strange, but awesome.

They made their way through the cloud  and at the end of the hallway where Dev had first paused they found utter destruction.  The arch had collapsed and the spot Dev had been standing was gone, the hallway half obscured with rubble.

“WTF?” Mike climbed up the rubble and sprawled across the top of it, peering past. “Hey!” He let out a yell into the darkness beyond. 

“Mike?”  A voice yelled back. “Holy shit man! Whole fucking mountain fell down in here!”

Jess sighed.

Mike squirmed up through the open space at the top of the debris and slid down the other side, and Jess reluctantly released Dev in order to follow him.   Rusty brought up the rear and they carefully climbed up and over the rubble and emerged into the large central hall of Drake’s Bay.

Ghostly figures were everywhere, and lights started to come up, highlighting lumps and piles of bodies and stone on the floor and as they came to the center with the overhead plas opening above them, lighting blasted overhead and lit everything in tarnished silver.

“We give up.” A quiet, dark clad figure came over, hands up, exhausted. “Drake, you win.”  It was one of the Western Interforce seniors, barely known to Jess except as a face in the hallways just before she’d left Base 10.  “Please just stop killing people.”

“Get the bats going!” A voice called out. “We beat their asses!”

Jess looked around and saw all the bodies, all the death, the destruction of her stakehold and knew it all for a lie.  “Tell everyone left to put their weapons down.” She said to the senior.  “Let’s see what we can salvage from this.”

The man nodded. “I’m sorry, Drake.” He said. “We should have refused orders.” His face was white, and creased in pain.  “We didn’t know what we were getting into.”

The boom of thunder rolled through the rock. “Yeah.” Jess sighed. “Me either.”

**

They managed to get inside one of the service corridors.  Doctor Dan was in the lead, with the kids from the Bay at his heels, and the bio alts clustering behind them.  It was an outer pathway he vaguely remembered from years past, which would circle around and wind it’s way through the storage areas in the lower levels of the stakehold.

“That one there.” Dustin pointed, confidently.  “That’ll come up through the mess and we can get to central ops from there.”

“Yah. We take the garbage out this way. To the grinder.”  Another youth said. “Damn I’m hungry.”

So typical. Doctor Dan almost had to smile, thinking of Justin and the neverending snacks stashed away in every single one of his pockets.  “Maybe later, lads.” He said. “Lets get out of some trouble first, hm?”

“Yeah, probably nothing set up in there.”  One of the kids sighed.  “Probably just more dead stuff.”

They entered a niche that held a doorway, and Dustin took hold of the latch and hauled it backwards.  Before Kurok could react six of the Bay kids were inside, sticks and rocks and random weapons held at the ready.  He got inside with the next group, glad he’d left Cathy, and Taylor and Jake back in the shuttle.

No argument from Jake.  “Might end up being the last Drake after all.” He’d said, closing the hatch after them.

And well he might.  Doctor Dan could smell gunpowder and flash, and yes, the cloying scent of death as he shouldered his way through the moving crowd and got to the front, seeing a room with scattered bits of carnage, but not as much as they’d seen elsewhere.

He remembered this room. He remembered walking through it at Justin’s side, and sitting at table surrounded by members of the homestead amidst the smell of fish stew and beer.  Accepted because to not would be risking Justin’s hair trigger wrath and they all knew it.

Like swimming with sharks, he’d told Justin later, and Justin had laughed and laughed.

Seeing this room now, he wouldn’t have been laughing. The betrayal of his birth home would have put him so deep in the zone Kurok didn’t think any of those stop words would have pulled him out of it.

They moved through the mess, going between the tables and stepping over bodies in the dim light.  “Them mostly”  Dustin commented. “We kicked ass.”

Security uniforms, largely.  Doctor Dan pondered that as they got to the front of the room and to the big folding old school doors that were actual wood and smelled of antiquity and dust.  “Hold up.” Doctor Dan said, quietly, pressing the side of his head against the warm neutral surface.

C’mon..” One of the kids pushed gently against the door.

It yanked back without warning and before they could move they were facing a lot f blasters and heavy duty weapons, held in arms in Interforce colors that were covered in blood and gore and in the next breath weapons were raised and pointed.

Oh crap. Kurok spread his arms out. “Get back!”

“Kill them!” The shout came back from him from those dark clad figures stripped of reason and desperate facing off against the Bay kids who bristled instantly, full of hormones and inbred instinct and responded in kind.

The rage around him built and as fingers tightened on triggers and lungs sucked in air to yell he managed to shove his way forward and raise both hands. “STOP!” He bellowed at the top of his voice. “STAND DOWN!” He added, injecting as much of that back in the day command he’d been taught to use way back when.

For just an instant there was an afterflash, and he almost saw them fire, almost felt the wash of rage as the youngsters next to him moved in response and yet when the echo of his voice faded, incredibly, they listened. 

No one fired.

“Who the hell are you?” A man in an Interforce uniform he didn’t know asked. “What are those, kids?”  He lifted the muzzle of his blaster up. “I don’t care. Even the damn babies in this place are screwball so you better get out of our way buddy. We’re getting out of here.

Doctor Dan took a step forward.   “My name is DJ Kurok.” He said, in a calm tone. “Senior field tech, retired.” He half turned. “And yes, these are some juvenile members of Drake’s Bay homestead.” He paused. “Along with several sets of biological alternatives under my direction.”

He was aware of the vibrating tension in the young bodies next to him, their eyes focused on the security force, fingers curled around pikes and poles they’d picked up on the way in.

The Interforce agent studied him intently.  “Peter, contact centops. See if they’re answering again.” He said to a shorter man in green next to him.  “If not you’re all just going to get out of our way.”

“Sure.” Doctor Dan said. “You’re welcome to leave, but if you go out that way, you’ll just end up in the outer passageways.”

“No answer, John.” The tech said. “I don’t hear anything on any channel.”

Doctor Dan took another step forward, getting within range of them. “We heard some explosions. I don’t know if anyone’s quite left that way.” He indicated the central hall. “May not be anyone left to answer.”

The agent was young.  Kurok could see him licking his lips, and suddenly he felt sad for all of them. “You’re from Tempe? Or Juneau?” He asked. “I was stationed Base 10, back in the day.”

They looked shell shocked, that old fashioned way of describing those who’d be under arms in battle and were on the edge, unsure of how to move forward, afraid of retreating.  Holding tight to a twisted normality. But he could see some of them listening to him, blinking, soothed by the familiar words.

“John, I’m not getting any returns.” The tech said. “We should go see what happened.” He glanced at Doctor Dan. “Or get out of here. Anything but just stand around.”

There were twenty of them, ten agents, and ten techs, and Kurok didn’t know any of them.  They were all young, probably just graduated from field school, new recruits after the last disaster. “Tough day.”  He commented quietly.

“We’re from Juneau.” The agent said, finally. “They sent us to help.”

“Well.” Doctor Dan sighed. “My advice to you is to just go into the mess there and sit down or come with us to see what happened. Put the guns down. Don’t try to damage these young people because they just came back from Bio station 2 in space, and its been a long day for them too.”

Dustin straightened up next to him in visible pride, and the rest of the kids joined him, all of them taller than Kurok was and bearing their wounds and scars proudly.

The agent licked his lips again. “They brought Drake back.” He said. “With the shuttle.”

“Bet your ass we did.” Dustin said. “My cuz.” He pointed his thumb at his own chest. “My pop was her pop’s bro and I’m Drake, and this is Drake, and you aint got no damn right to be here.” He rocked forward a little. “No right to snuff out them olders, no right to be taking nothing from here.”

Doctor Dan watched the agents carefully. “He’s right.” He said, in a gentle tone.  “For the entire history of Interforce the backbone of everything it is came from here, and this place has bled more for it than any other place on earth.”

The agent hesitated, clearly on the edge, clearly poised on the brink of that slide into the zone and then, when Kurok was convinced he was going to go over and he was getting ready to move the agent’s body posture changed.

His shoulders relaxed. Hand slid off the blaster. “Yeah. How do we get out of here?” He asked. “We left our carriers on the next ridge.”

“C’mon.” Kurok waved him forward. “You’ll need to get up to the upper levels to get out that way.  Follow me.”

And they did.  This odd assortment of Bay rats, Interforce ops, and stolidly following bio alts clustered at his heels as they walked down the hall and headed for central. 

**

The storm was coming overhead.  Night had fallen, and now the flashes of lightning were almost continuous, lighting the central hall in gold washed silver as power came back and what was left to return did also. 

Jess was sitting on a box, her hands resting on her knees, allowing Dev to clean some of the blood of the side of her head as Mike read off statistics from a plas clipboard.

Old as the hills. Older than she was.  A sheet of beaten and gouged material that had been used by men in Mike’s position for as long as Drake’s Bay had existed. 

“Still findin bodies.” Mike said. “Told everyone to just drag everything to the processor and start pumping. Gotta get them out of the halls.”

“Yeah.”  Jess agreed.

She wasn’t really sure if it mattered.  Interforce would come back at them, soon as the storm ended, with everything they had.

She paused and thought.  Wouldn’t they?  “Any word from the shuttle?”  She asked Dev. 

“No. I can’t raise them.”  Dev finished cleaning the deep cut under Jess’s ear, and gently wiped off the lump on the side of her head. “That looks very sub-optimal.”

“Feels like that.”  Jess agreed. “We lost a thousand people here, Dev.”  She shook her head very faintly. “For what?”

“For the Bay our side.”  Mike was scribbling on the plas, and he answered briefly.  “Been building to it,  Jess. Everyone’s trying to make this place like all the other homesteads. Blood can’t handle it.” He looked up at her. “Pretending we’re not different.”

“Yeah.” Jess said, after a pause.  “We are different.”

“We.” He repeated.

“We.”  Jess echoed him. “Me more than many. They only take the most different. Make us Interforce.  Let us kill the others as much as we want.  Rest of you are stuck here, wanting to beat kittens to death and you have to just scrape limpets.  Sad.”  She blinked a few times. “Not enough people left to breed it out of us.”

“They tried.” Mike folded his broad arms over his chest and the clipboard. “Got them babies off anyone they could.”

“Never worked. Doc saw it upside. What did they call it, Dev? Sticky?” Jess sighed. “Flipped a bit. We all got it Just mattered what degree.”

Mike nodded. “You got it.”  He studied the board. “That’s why the first ones down were the elders. They wanted to bleed for the Bay. I saw old Uncle get it, taking out one of them with a kitchen knife in that one good hand.” He smiled a little. “Bastard was laughing his head off.”

Old Uncle.  Jess remembered seeing him at that dysfunctional lunch on the occasion of her mother’s processing.  Good on ya, Jessie, he’d said on hearing of her slaughter of the other side.  Good on ya.

“Yeah I can picture it.”  Jess said. “He had a right to it. They skunked him.”

“They did.” Mike agreed. “He took it back from em.”

“Jess?”  Dev was there, holding something out. “Would you like some hot tea?”

Jess took the cup and held it, feeling it warm the palms of her hands. “Didja get some yourself, Devvie? You must be whacked.” She looked at her partner, who did in fact look exhausted.

Dev eyed her. “Yes, I did, and also this.” She handed over a fish roll.

Jess shifted her cup to one hand and took the roll with her other.  “Glad everyone stopped shooting for now.”  She took a sip of the tea, hot and pungent.  “Better than the stuff up on the station.”

“It is.” Dev sat down next to her and took a sip from her own cup. “I’m glad we’re back here.”

“We’re going to get toasted, Dev.  There’re not gonna let me survive this.” Jess said, in a tired tone.  “Either Interforce’ll eliminate me or the family council will. I did this.”  Jess gestured to the battered hall with her cup. “My fuck up. “

Mike was standing there, listening. “Nope.” He disagreed. “You just did a sitch. Jimmy did this, and that crackerhead director.” He leaned against one of the crates that had been dragged into the central hall. “Sides, nothing left of the family, Jess.  You’re it.”

“Jake’s in the shuttle with Tayler.” Jess said, after a long pause.

Mike snorted.  “One’s worthless the other’s taken like I said you’re it.”

“I’m taken.”

The security chief shook his head. “You’re old enough to have sense. Like Justin was.”  He looked up as a buzz of voices suddenly rose. “Now what?”

Arms rose, bodies straightened and turned and came to order as the far hall filled with figures, some black and green clad.   But at their head was a short, scruffy form in a Bay jacket, who lifted both hands up and let out a sharp whistle.

“Doctor Dan.” Dev stood up.

“Doctor Dan.” Jess had to smile, seeing him as he herded a handful of Interforce along with his battle group of Bay rats and entourage of bio alts. “Relax Mike. He’s a friend.” She managed to get to her feet and lifted one hand to catch his attention. 

Hes not with friends.” Mike said. “Where the hell did those bio’s come from?”

“Space.”  Dev said. “They came from the space station.  They helped us get away from there.”

Mike looked at her. “Don’t much care for you all.”

Jess slowly swung her head around to stare at him.

“Give me the stink eye all you want, Drake” Mike said. “I’m gonna say it. I don’t like the jelly bag brains. We don’t here. Never have.” He studied her shrewdly. “Justin didn’t.”

Jess was too tired to really get mad.  “He never met Dev.”  She said. “She’s us.” She indicated the bios, who were all turning in a circle, looking up at the huge hall.  “Don’t diss them Mike.  My head hurts too much to kill ya.”

Mike snorted softly. “Where’d he get the Bay coat?”

“I gave it to him.”  Jess watched Doctor Dan approaching, looking almost as tired as she felt. “He was my pop’s tech, back in the day.”

“Huh.” Mike’s expression shifted a little.

Doctor Dan had reached them with his crowd, the Interforce agents looking sullen and nervous.  “Excuse me.” He edged past Mike.  “Are you all right?”  He asked them both. “Dev told me you got into some trouble.” He came close, grimacing when he saw Jess’s face.

“Probably never been out of trouble.” Jess sighed and sat back down. “I figure we’ve got till the storm clears before we’re ass over teakettle again.”

“Well.” Doctor Dan opened the med kit Dev had put next to her.  “Lets do what we can until then.” He half turned and motioned to the crowd. “Frank, just settle your group over near the wall there, with the others.”

Without a word, the Interforce agents and their techs went over to where there were a half dozen surviving others, all seated near the wall with drinks and fishrolls.”

Doctor Dan watched them, then he turned back around to Jess, pausing when he saw them all looking at him in bemusement. “I was a senior.” He remarked, with the faintest of smiles. “That’s trained in too.”

“It is.” Jess leaned back, holding onto the edge of the box with her fingertips. “For all the good it’s gonna do us.”

“Ah, you never know, Jesslyn.” Doctor Dan motioned the bio alts over, and they slowly surrounded them, watching Jess with interest. “Now, my friends you’re going to see an old fashioned technique called stitching.”

“Ugh.” Jess grimaced.

“Oh it’ll only take a minute.”

**

Met was on their side, for a change.  Jess felt a sense of utter relief as she lay down flat on her back on the bed in the quarters they’d been assigned, pumped full of some drugs and feeling raw around all the spots Doctor Dan had attended to.

That had hurt. But now the painkillers had kicked in and she’d been forced to lay down, the violent weather allowing for nothing else. Everything would wait now, for that non stop rumble and flash of lightning to end

In the distance she could hear April’s voice, and Doug’s, and several others recounting their part in the battle and that let her relax a little, hearing the laughter and the clink of mugs.  

No one was going to try and kill her yet, though that was coming. 

The bio alts had been settled in one of the storage areas, with rations and padding to sit down on while the storm kept raging over head and according to met would remain that way for another six to eight hours.

Nothing could fly.  Even comms was disrupted.  One of the bad ones that for once, for her, meant nothing but good.   Even the few remaining Interforce they hadn’t found had found them and offered up weapons, just to be able to sit quietly in the big hall and rest.

So she could rest too, and here she was, in a big bed, with Dev curled up next to her already fast asleep, already showered, and changed and in a fresh green jumpsuit from her kit, bootless and in clean white socks and out like a light.

It felt so nice to just be still.  Jess had her eyes half closed, and one arm draped over Dev’s compact body, not really giving a crap what anyone else thought about it.  What the hell did it matter? She had no future.  Neither in the force nor in the Bay, so now it was just a matter of waiting it out.

She felt kind of peaceful about it, actually.  Jess let her eyes close and immediately felt that sense of dislocation that meant sleep was coming at her fast.  Maybe when she woke up it would already be over.

Maybe someone would overpower the guard and kill her in her sleep.

Dev stirred then, and snuggled closer to her, bringing a soothing warmth to her right side and the gloomy thoughts faded, leaving her in just that moment of present and with that, she just let it go.

Maybe she’d dream about space.

**

IT was thunder that woke her.  Dev lifted her head and looked around, confused for a moment where she was.  She didn’t recognize the rock walls at first, or the loud sound of rain, much louder than she’d become used to in the citadel.

Then she remembered, and she settled back down in the bed next to Jess. Aside from the thunder it was quiet, the voices she recalled before sleep were silenced, though far off she thought she could hear footsteps echoing softly against the stone.

She was in Drake’s Bay, where terrible things had happened.

Jess was breathing deeply, sound asleep next to her.  Dev let her eyes close again, feeling she could still get more sleep but not on that ragged edge of exhaustion that had barely let her finish her shower and tumble into bed.

It had felt so amazing to be able to rest. She had been so tired. To be able to curl up next to Jess and know for at least a little while she was safe was excellent.

And now she had a piece of time to sit quietly and think about everything that had happened in the last few days, from their flight to station, to her losing her collar, to the escape back downside.

She lifted a hand and touched her neck slipping her fingers under the edge of her jumpsuit to feel again the smooth skin that had been covered so long with metal.  The back of her neck was no longer even sore, and she could barely feel the small scabs over where Doctor Dan had removed the synaptics in her brain.

Good and bad, the good being she no longer could be controlled and the bad being everything she learned from now on had to be the old fashioned way. She would never again wake up with new knowledge effortlessly inserted into her head.

Dev thought about that. Then she shrugged just a little. After all, that’s how Jess did everything, right?  And the rest of the agents and techs.

That pushed her thoughts to Interforce and what might happen with that, since all the bad things.  Were she and Jess still part of it?

Did they still hold her contract?

Did her contract actually mean anything now that she was no longer able to be programmed?

So many questions.  Dev found herself more awake now, and she was aware of being thirsty.  Carefully she rolled away from Jess and got up, feeling the rough surface of the seaweed mat rugs that covered the stone floor through her socks.  

She ran her fingers through her hair and slipped out of the room into the hallway, pausing to look out the plas round windows in the side of the cliff.

Complete darkness outside, rain lashing against the surface, only the barest hint of whitecaps outside the Bay.  She continued on and gently pushed the door open between the hall and the outer central space, careful to close the door softly behind her.

Here it was also quiet.  There were guards near the walls and they glanced at her as she proceeded through the open central space towards where she remembered there being a drink dispenser.  To one side, she could see the other Interforce agents and techs, the ones she didn’t know, laying down on some pads, asleep.

Wasn’t that strange?  They had been the enemy, and defeated, and now they slept in trust of the guards from the Bay standing against the walls with old fashioned guns and quietly proud expressions.

One of them saw her watching and gave her a little nod.  Was that acceptance? Approval?  Dev retrieved a bottle of water and opened it, taking several swallows, almost sure the sound of her gulping was echoing across the hall.   Then she removed another bottle and walked over to the guard, offering it to him.

His face creased into a smile, and he took it.  “I saw you fly into the cavern.” He said, without preamble. “Freaking awesome.”

They stood together drinking for a moment.   “I had to get away from the people who were chasing me, and also, to find Jess.”  Dev said. “I think I did some damage to the vessels there however.”

“They blew up that other one.” The guard said. “Jerks. Take efing ever to get that bay cleaned out.”

“Yes, I felt the explosion as I was exiting.” Dev agreed. “It seemed somewhat pointless to me.”

“They was trying to get you.” The guard said.  “That old jerk, yeah?  He said they should blow you up and the Drake went and broke his neck for it.”

Dev blinked a little  Commander Alters?”

He nodded. “Broke it like a stick. Pissed her off.”  He took a swallow of the water. “I’m Bruce.  They call you Dev, right?”

“Right.”  Dev nodded. “Yes, I think that would have made Jess very upset. I know if someone had said that to me I would have been really mad.”

Bruce looked around and made a small grunt under his breath.  “Cleared out a lot here.” He commented. “Thing’s ll be diff, now I betcha.”

The sound of footsteps made them both look to the right, to see Doctor Dan emerging from a side hallway, pulling his bay shirt over his head as he walked over to join them.  “Hello Doctor Dan.   Dev greeted him.

“Hello you two.” Kurok responded. “I see it’s still raining outside.”

“Like crazy.”  Bruce agreed. “Ops said another two, three.”  He crushed the water dispenser in one hand and tucked it into a pocket on his rough Bay garb.  “They got all the boards back up.  Ready if those bastards come back at us.”

Doctor Dan got his shirt settled and gave himself a little shake.  “Never thought I’d be so glad to see weather.” He remarked. “Seems like they cleaned up in here too.” He said.  “Now it just smells like fish and the sea.”

“Yup.” Bruce leaned against the wall.  “Finished chewing em all out bout two hours ago.  They got Jake and the kid from the shuttle too.” He pointed to one of the hallways. “Got the mess back up.”

Dev’s ears perked up.  “I could bring a snack back for Jess.” She concluded. “Would you like a meal, Doctor Dan?” She started off in the direction he’d pointed, and a moment later Doctor Dan caught up with her.   They walked together in silence until they were some lengths down the hall.

The lights were back on, and all the way down the tunnel like passage the inset lamps were glowing with a steady golden illumination and now they could hear sounds of mechanicals echoing softly through the rock and a few voices from the mess ahead

“I’m sure you realize this whole thing isn’t over.” Doctor Dan said.

“I had, yes.” Dev agreed. “But Jess has taught me to appreciate the current moment because you really never know what’s going to happen next.”

Kurok smiled.  “In her type of life, that’s very true.” He said. “And you know, come to think of it in my life lately that’s pretty true a well.”

They entered the mess, and the few people inside looked up at them.  One of them was the security chief Mike, and he waved them over to a table where April was also seated, with a very sleepy looking Doug.

Doug brightened on spotted Dev, however.  “Rocket!”

“Hello.”  Dev sat down next to him, while Doctor Dan took a seat across from her at the table.  “Did you get any rest?”

“About ten minutes.” Doug gave April a dour look.

“Suck it up, buttercup.”  April replied, with a droll expression. “And you got more than that. We just got up here.” She leaned on the table, as one of the mess workers came over with a tray of fish rolls and steaming cups of sea grape tea. 

Dev took two rolls and then two more she set to one side, and a cup of the tea.  It was richly pungent, almost spicy and it cleared her head as she sipped it.  Very different than the leaf tea they drank on station and she thought it was better.

The fish rolls were fresh and full of water grains along with the tiny fish and she munched it appreciatively, enjoying the taste.  “Has there been any comms?”

“Nothing.” April responded. “Nothing from Ten, nothing from any other homestead – its like the bands are just shut down.  I was in ops and they didn’t even hear any weather squirts from Quebec City.”

“Hm.” Doctor Dan grunted under his breath.

“Could be weather.” Doug suggested. “The spectrum is off the charts. Almost like it was when we were up against that stuff from the other side. “

“That was shut down.” Doctor Dan said. “I wonder if this is people not responding because they can’t or because they just don’t’ want to.  Interforce attacking a settled homestead, especially this one is a political situation to say the least.”

April was nodding as she chewed.

“Got that right.” Mike agreed.  “The fuck were they thinking?”

April swallowed thoughtfully.  “Possible Alters was rogue?” She suggested. “Hell, the old man was.” She glanced at Kurok. “How deep did that scam go?”

Doctor Dan’s eyes narrowed a little, and his face twitched.

“Most of the ones that came here were from the west.”  Doug said. “Not from Base 10, not really.” He said. “But Jess said Jason didn’t warn her off, so…”

“Yes.” Doctor Dan swallowed. “So maybe people didn’t think this was right, but no one wanted to stop it. I bet there are homesteads out there waiting to see what they can scavenge after this is done.”

Mike eyed him, his head moving up and down.  “No one’s friends. Everyone wants a piece of this.”   He lifted a hand and circled his finger to indicate the Bay in general. “They ain’t getting nothing. Don’t care what they think they got to throw against us.”

April chuckled without much humor.  “I’m sure plenty of reports went back to HQ to support that.” She said. “We going to send those westies out of here after it stops raining? Or keep them for barter?” 

A little silence fell after that. “So you us now too?” Mike asked, in a quizzical tone.  “Seems like that induction doesn’t mean much these days.”

Doug covered his eyes with one hand but April just regarded him benignly.   “That goes both ways.” She said. “Right’s right, wrong’s wrong. I wasn’t raised to follow anyone without knowing what’s best for me.”  The agent winked at Mike. 

Dev started on her second roll.  There were a few more people entering, and she saw a color difference and focused past the wandering guards to see a space suited figure peering inside hesitantly. “Doctor Dan.”  She indicated the door. “I think the sets may be hungry.”

“Bet they are.” Doctor Dan waved the bio alts forward. “Hope I don’t have to fight the wolves for some food for them.”  He stood at his place as the group came timidly towards him, four AyeBees and two KayTees, with Cathy his lab assistant trailing behind them. 

The Bay people all stared at them.  But they didn’t do anything to prevent their passage, and the mess worker, after a glance at Mike, brought over a tray of rolls.

It was a tipping point. Doctor Dan knew it, even if his table companions didn’t.  “Thank you.” He told the mess worker. “It’s as strange for them to be here as it is for you all to have them.” He gestured for them to sit at the table next to them.  “I appreciate the courtesy.”

Some of the Bay people eased around them and sat down nearby, with curious expressions. “These are real ones.” One of them said. “Not like her.” He pointed at Dev.

“Yes.” Doctor Dan didn’t bother to argue.  “These are AyeBees, and KayTees, service workers and pilots from the space station.” He was glad to see a tray of hot tea added to the table. “That’s sea grape tea, lads.  And the items on the plate there are fish rolls. Try them.”

Cathy came to his side. “I didn’t want to bring all of them.” She said, in a low tone.  “Someone told me…  they said the sets weren’t really welcome here.”

Doctor Dan sighed. “Its complicated.”  He pointed her to a seat next to Dev, who had taken the opportunity to consume another of the fish rolls.  “Cathy is one of my lab assistants from station.”

Mike gave her a brief smile. “Welcome to the nuthouse.” He said, in a cordial tone. “What’s it like living in space?” He offered her a mug. “Cathy your name? I’m Mike.”

She nodded, and took the mug. “Thank you.”  She sipped it gingerly, then her brows lifted a little. “That’s really good.”  She said. “What’s it made of?”

“That’s sea grape. It’s a type of seaweed that grows off the coast nearby. The fishermen bring it in with the catch.” Doctor Dan said knowledgably. “They boil it to make tea, then they eat the sea grapes as a vegetable.”

“You do know.” Mike was studying him intently. 

“I do.” Doctor Dan sat down and picked up his mug, keeping an eye on the sets in his peripheral vision.  “I came here a few times with Justin, on the odd day off or so.” He leaned back a little, looking around the mess. “Enough to know the drill.”

“Justin Drake?” The security chief tilted his head a little.

“Yes. He and I were partnered in Interforce together.” Doctor Dan said.  ‘So now that we’ve done with history, has anything happened while we’ve napped?” He asked. “Should be getting light soon.”

Mike had been nodding a little. “Thought you looked a little familiar.  Justin had a still vid of you in his office, before he bought it.” He stood up and drained the contents of his mug.  “All the rain is all that happened. Im going to ops to see if anything’s on scan.” 

He put the cup down and headed for the door, passing several more guards who had come wandering in, taking seats at some of the empty tables, their eyes fastening curiously on the steadily munching sets.

One of the KayTee’s looked up.  “This is good.” He held up the fish roll. 

Dev stood up and gathered up a cup and the fish rolls she set aside. “They are.” She agreed. “I like them, and so does Jess, so I will bring her some now.” She stepped around the table and started for the door, confident that Doctor Dan would make sure things were all correct.

A moment later April caught up with her and Doug belatedly followed. 

**

It was dark in the room.  Not even a shadow preceded the figure slipping through the door, and there was no sound when it was pushed closed behind it.

The figure paused, and slowly scanned the space, eyes hidden behind night glasses that outlined everything in shades of blue and gray.  The bed only held one occupant, and that was a clearly defined heat map, burning an almost white against the silvery surface.

Long and lean, arms outflung, one palm turned upright and relaxed. 

After a moment the figure moved forward silently, lifting a blaster and releasing the safety on it with equal lack of sound. Took position, and a breath, ready to level aim and fire, with one more look at the body on the bed, seeing only a gentle regular rhythm of breathing.

Easier than planned.

Brought the blaster down and aimed and only then realized there were eyes looking back at him, and a smile and oh shit.

Jess moved with all the speed of a long lost species of snake, rolling off the bed and lunging forward to slam into the figure with the gun and take them both backwards across the rough surface of the floor with a solid sound of bodies impacting.

One hand on the blaster, shifting off, to the wrist of the hand holding it, breaking that with a snap and boxing the gun away with a quick motion to hear it impact the wall across the room and drop to the ground.

The smell of steel.  Jess unlocked her elbows and dropped her body to the ground as she felt the pass of a knife near her ear, and she came up under it and butted the attacker’s chin with the top of her head, as her knee snaked up and pinned the arm wielding the weapon to the floor.

She lifted up and let her eyes focus, as the room came into clear vision in silver and gray. “Stop.”  She caught the other arm swinging across and shoved it back down onto the ground, putting her other knee across the attacker’s torso.  “Enough of us haven’t died?”

The soft thunk of a head falling back to land on the floor. “Fuck.” Her brother let out an exasperated breath. “Finish it then.”

“No.” Jess responded.  “Believe it or not, I don’t randomly kill people, even if they’re stupid enough to try to kill me.”  She got up and lifted him with her, shoving him into one of the chairs as she went to put her hand on the light plate.

Turning, she walked back and yanked the night glasses off his head and tossed them into the corner. “What was that for? Don’t tell me you were taking revenge for Jimmy.”  She glanced briefly around the room. “He was no friend of yours.”

Jake was cradling his broken wrist in one hand, blood dripping from his nose where he’d impacted his sister’s head.  He was dressed in a black jumpsuit with a hoodie.  “No. I don’t want anything for him. I just want all that’s left of this place for me.”

Jess sat down on the bed, letting her hands rest on her knees.  “You know something? I’m going to have to castrate you because you really are too stupid to be allowed to breed.” She said in a conversational tone. “It’s one thing to want that Drake heritage, Jake. It’s a completely other thing to try and take it from someone like me.”

“At least me they’d all treat with.” Jake said. “You? This won’t stop until this place is nothing but sand and dead bodies.  Tell me that’s not true.”

“Probably.” Jess agreed. “Doesn’t change me not letting you take it.”

“Bitch.”

“Absolutely.” His sister said. “Alpha bitch, get of an alpha dog, who didn’t want you to have it either.” Jess smiled humorlessly at him. “This is mine until they splatter my insides all over it, Jake. Don’t try that again.”

“Whole place die with you not matter?” Jake spat at her.

“No.”  Jess folded her hands and tapped her thumbs together.  “I don’t care. That’s the whole point of being an amoral sociopath.”

The door opened and at once the room was rather full of agitated techs and a nomad with a gun.  Dev quickly emptied her hands of her supplies and came over to Jess, while April drew a bead on Jake with very little humor in her expression.

Jess eyed them. “Is that food?” She got up and went to the desk Dev had dropped her burden onto. “Nice.”  She picked up a fish roll and turned, leaning against the furniture. “Thanks Devvie.” She munched contentedly on it. “My brother thought he’d grease the skids of Bay ownership.”

“When you see the whole region coming at us at light, you’ll wish I’d succeeded.” Jake said. “Hope you enjoy croaking, sis. I’ll enjoy watching.”

Jess continued chewing. “You really think you won’t die first?”

“How about now?” April asked.  “We might be busy later.” She added, with a brief smile.  “Scan started picking up bio readings coming in.”

Jess picked up the second roll. “Party time.” She said. “Tie him up. Don’t want a rotting corpse in my bedroom.”   She winked at Dev and took a bite. “Then let’s go do what we do.”

**

It was still storm raging outside, but central ops had been cleaned out and re manned, and when Jess got there she could still smell the astringent scent of antiseptic sea foam soap that was used to scrub up pretty much everything at the Bay.

The smell was imprinted in her brain, and a brief flicker of memory inserted itself into her mind’s eye as she brushed past the broken door into the large room.

Morning.  Early.  The family kitchen still bearing that smell after being cleaned the night before.  Herself stealing fish rolls from the night hearth meant for the guard.

Jess smiled briefly and straightened, looking quickly around the room and evaluating the attitudes of the ops watch.

“Hey Drake.” The captain of the watch greeted her casually. “Good fight.”

Eyes looked up to see her, faint smiles flickered over faces before they went back to the screens and pads, looking closely at metrics since the big screens on the wall had been blasted into carbon charred bits.  

“Good fight.” Jess agreed. “Got another coming?”

“Got something.”  The captain turned a screen to face her. “Bio readings all up and down the ridgeline here near the caves.”

Jess put her hands on the console and studied the readout.  ‘Jake said the whole region’d be coming down on us. Guess he was right.”

“Smarmy little gitwad.” The chief said. “No offense, Drake, but you had a skank family.”

“No offense taken. Had no control over it.”  Jess straightened as a flicker of motion caught her attention and she half turned to watch Dev enter, her flight pack on her back.  “What do you think you’re up to, Rocket?”

Dev smiled. “I am going to try and get the carrier out of where I landed it.” She said. “I think it will be more useful if I do that.”  She moved aside as April and Doug entered behind her, both of them carrying packs and April armed to the teeth.

“Looks like the neighbors have come calling.” Jess indicated the screens. “I’m going to go out to the back fence and see if they’ll talk.”

“Us too.” April stated flatly. “In case the stupidity gets to crazy level.”

“They know you don’t got much to bargain with, Drake.” The captain said, but in a commiserating tone.  “Everyone round knows we got thumped.”

“Did we?” Jess eyed him. “I don’t see Interforce in charge here.”

A little silence fell, as the ops team regarded her in some silent surprise.

Jess got that.  She was in Interforce colors, with a tech, and another team at her side, and Interforce had arrived at her request.   They had no actual reason to trust her, save that she’d come back, walked the gauntlet and thrown herself at the unlock code that would allow the Bay to defend itself.

These ops watchers knew that. They’d been here.  The one near the back wall had been the one who had grabbed her arm and hauled her forward across the console and fired over her head in her defense.

But still, she was Interforce.

Wasn’t she?

Whats the scan on the Bay side?”  Jess asked, after the silence had gotten awkward. “Empty?”

“Empty.” The ops watch agreed. “No one’s stupid enough to come in there with ships.”

Jess drew breath, then exhaled, finding herself in a very odd moment of indecision.  She was trying to tell everyone to get going to the back entrance and send Dev to get the carrier and in that moment, she realized she couldn’t.

Could not.  Could not send Dev off by herself.  Even though it was the right decision. To have her tech get that carrier out and go herself to distract what seemed like an oncoming mob.

She was aware everyone was watching her.

Fuck.

Carrier’ll be a better negotiating platform.” She spoke up finally. “Let’s go use that.”  She pointed at the door and was relieved when she saw not only April, but Doug nodding in agreement.  “If Dev can fly it out of there.”

“Drake.”  The watch captain called out, and Jess turned at the door. “You’re not just going to fly off are ya?”

Jess didn’t even have the energy for offense.  “And go where?” She asked simply.  “Where else but here?”

The captain lifted a hand in acknowledgement and dropped back into a seat.  “Kill em all then.  We’ll take vid.”

**

It was a relief to get to the carrier.  Dev settled into her station, with Doug in the jumpseat next to her, and April strapping herself into the drop rig as Jess settled behind her console.

“How in the hell are you going to get out of here?” April asked, with mild curiousity in her tone.  “Don’t get me wrong, Drake.  I was as glad to get into this thing as anyone was.”

That was actually a good question.  Dev had the front shield up and the nose of the carrier was right up against the rocks, with stone pylons on either side of it.   There was no room to turn, and the overhead was so close there was no room to hover.

Outside, there were some few Bay workers watching, halting in their efforts to salvage some of the ships she’d literally ripped in pieces on entry.

Well.

Dev got her ear cups settled and started up systems, feeling the familiar motion of the boards coming live and her seat adjusting in reaction, bringing on a distinct sense of pleasure. 

Dev’ll figure it out.”  Jess was leaning back in her seat.

Dev glanced at her in the reflector, finding faintly amused blue eyes looking back and she felt her lips smile a little in response. “I hope so.” She remarked. “Or this will be an extremely short expedition.”

“Just glad to be in here.” Doug said, resting his big hands on his knees. “Jess, no offense but your family’s a dozen devils worth of fierce.” He exhaled. “Holy crap.”

“They are.”  Jess agreed in a mild tone, as the whine of applied power started to rise around them. “Like a whole pile of enforcement agents… and wannabees. Which is exactly what they are.”  She put her elbows on the arms of her chair and hiked one knee up.  “It’s only the craziest of us that get put into service.”

April had been nodding in silence. “I like it.”  She concluded. “Fighting with those kids up on station – nice.” She tugged her straps a bit tighter. “When I was with my family, I felt like a fish with wings.  No one was like me.  Here? Everyone is.”

Doug grimaced a little.

S’true.”  Jess agreed wryly.  “Ready, Devvie?”

Dev regarded the control panels, and the wiremap that showed the enclosure of rock all around the carrier generating proximity warnings echoing into her ear.  “Yes.”  She flexed her hands, and made a picture in her head of what she wanted to do.

Getting the carrier to actually do it would an interesting process.

She put her hands on the controls and gently triggered the landing jets, stilling the alerts as the top of the carrier immediately almost impacted the stone cavern roof.  She adjusted the multiple outlets, lowering the force in the aft jets just slightly.

The forward jets pulsed, releasing and returning power in a quick flicker of her fingertips and in reaction the carrier backed up.  The stone columns closed in on either side and they felt the jostling shock as the sides of craft hit them.

Dev pulsed the front jets a bit more, grimacing a little at the scraping squeal.

“I can blow out those things if you want.” Jess remarked.

“Thank you. But I believe they are holding up the ceiling.” Dev gritted her teeth. “Please hold on.”

“Uh oh.” Doug grabbed for a handhold. “Please don’t tell me you’re going upside down.” He curled his legs around the jumpseat supports.

“I don’t know why everyone always assumes I am going to invert this craft.”  Dev muttered, adjusting the power to the side jets to tilt the carrier to one side.  There was a soft pop and crunch as stored items in the cabinets shifted and she increased the power to the forward outlets, rocking the carrier back and forth as it wiggled backwards.

“No one in the world’s ever driven one of these like that I bet.” April remarked.

“No bet.” Jess watched the scan intently, reaching up to kill the alarms as they were dinged and dented by the hard stone that made up Drake’s Bay. 

Dev adjusted the jets, tilting the carrier over a little more as the restraints contracted around her, and feeling the carrier engine pods come loose from the hold of the rock.  Quickly she righted the craft and boosted the rear landing outlets as they came free of the narrow spit of stone and emerged over the docking area.

 In free air.

Jess clapped her hands, and after a moment April and Doug joined her, and Dev gave them all a bewildered look from the pilots station.  “Is there something wrong?”

“No.”  Jess settled into her seat.  “I told you all Dev would work it out.”

Natural borns.  Dev shook her head and gently rotated the carrier, sweeping the scan around as she did and picking up several people standing on the far end of the cavern.  She keyed in vid scan, and put it on the screen. “We are being observed.”

“You are being observed.”  Jess glanced at the screen.  “Let’s go, Devvie. Before they think I’m going to take off and start shooting at us.”

Dev eased her way through the destruction she suspected she caused, avoiding the masts of the sunken at dock ships as she approached the cavern entry, lit faintly from the outside.  There were fallen rocks half obscuring the opening, and beyond that the scan picked up an Interforce carrier, sunken and lifeless where it crashed on chasing her.

She wondered briefly if she’d known the pilot and tech.  It made her feel sad, as she cautiously emerged from the cavern into the blowing rain.

It thundered down on the roof of the carrier and she adjusted the thrust against it, setting up a scan that covered all of the half circle of Drake’s Bay.   The storm was still overhead, but moving off and the lightning blasts were now only occasional rather than constant.

She started up the mains and cut off the landing jets, feeling the little thump as she was shoved back in her seat.  Beside her, Doug was half turned in the jump, watching the boards and the forward view.

There was just enough light for the outline of the cliffs to show against the dark gray sky and below them the Bay was ruffled slightly from the wind, the edge of the cliffs showing fresh scars of blast damage and the shoreline littered with fallen rock.

The bay itself was empty. The docks to one side that usually held skiffs and work boats were barren, the pens that held the catch showing empty and broken sided.

“Mess.” Jess sighed. “They’re gonna blow my brains out for this.”

“Who is?” Dev asked.

“The Bay.”  Jess put her hands behind her head.  “C’mon, let’s get over the top of the cliff to the back side. See what’s waiting for us there.”   She slid closer to her console and started keying up the weapons systems. “Gimme some juice.”

Dev did, as she increased speed and started upward, over the cliff as the sound of the rain increased, and a roll of thunder rumbled overhead.  She topped over the forward cliff and flew up and over the bulk of the mountain, aiming for the pass between two tall crags that angled down towards the small plateau that eventually sloped down to the barrens beyond.

“Scan is showing large bio mass.” Dev said, into the quiet.  “Also picking up high energy weapons.”

April had unhooked herself and edged over to get a view of Jess’s console. “Holy crap. Where did those grubbers get that?”

“Same place they got the guns they fired on that caravan with.” Jess was dialing in settings. “People’ll sell anyone anything for enough cred.”  She pulled down her triggers and flexed her hands. “Does it pay to talk to them?”

“Can we out gun them? Not wit those metrics.” April was holding onto a roof rack spar. “They’re going to blow us out.”

“If they can catch us.” Jess’s eyes twinkled wryly.  “They’ve never seen Dev fly.”

“Jess, we’re being hailed.”  Dev said. “Signal is originating from the bio mass.” She was touching her ear cup. “Open frequency.” She added. “They do not know who we are.”

Jess studied the scan, seeing the energy points that were tucked behind rock walls, and the smaller flares that were heavy blasters. 

Someone had armed her neighbors.   She drummed her thumbs on the console.  Probably end up no win. “Go ahead and answer them, Devvie.”  Jess decided, retrieving her own comms set and putting it inside her ear. “Lets see what this is.”

“Yes.”  Dev nodded.  “Calling station, this is Interforce flight BR270006. Please identify.” She responded crisply, as though she was answering central ops. A brief at the comms board showed it with normal readings, and she was just a little too distracted to evaluate what that meant.

“BR270006.. this is a rep from Cooper’s Rock. What’s your intention?” A female voice answered, with loud sounds of other voices, and the thrumming of rain in the background.

“I got it.” Jess keyed in comms. “Dee, better question would be whats your intention.”

“Is that the dumbass with the kid?” April muttered. “That feels like a damn year ago.”

Dev was happy enough to leave the communications to her partner, as she guided her way through the granite spires, the rain repelllers clearing the windscreen as the light grudgingly grew brighter given the clouds.  She could now see the steep, craggy mountainside, and as she crossed over the landing caverns she could see three of them at least were completely destroyed.

“Jess, come down and lets talk.” Dee Cooper said. “I’m sure we can do a deal.”

There was a rough, desperate edge to the voice, and Jess evaluated that as she tapped her fingers together. “They thought they could do a deal with the Bay too, Dee.  Didn’t work out for them.” She fenced delicately.  “Sure you want to try?”

Silence.

Dev slowed the engines as they came up over the plateau, seeing between the next fold of the mountain the faint outline of the shuttle, abandoned on its pad. The caves were in the valley before it, and she could see a lot of black charring across the surface of the rock and wagons filling the passage with lots of bio around them.

Finally, a sigh. “Let’s try talking, Jess.” Dee’s voice came back. “What choice do you really have?”

Jess lifted her hands and then put them back down in a shrug the other woman had no chance of seeing  Sure.”  She folded her hands around her hiked knee.  “Be there in a sec.”  She cut off the comms. “Dev, put it down right on that crossroad there, in the center.”

“This is going to be a bitch.” April predicted.  “They want that rock.  Space station wanted that rock.  Other side wanted the rock and Interforce half killed itself for it.” She went back and perched on the drop rig again.

“The Bay wants it.”   Jess said, after a pause. “They don’t really even know why they want it, they just know no one should take it away from them.  There’s no logic there. I can’t fight that.” She sighed and leaned back in the seat. “Protect whats ours. Its in here.” She thumped her chest.

Dev angled the carrier into the valley, and dropped down to ground level, skimming over the wet, racing runoff and coming head on to the caravans.   Scan showed her big energy weapons pointed their way from inside the caves and this close she could now see the armed bodies behind the blockade.

She set the carrier down in the center of the crossroads, extending the skids and settling onto them, cutting the thrust from the engines but keeping the power up for shields and weapons.

Scan beeped softly. “Jess, there is a flight inbound.” She half turned “A dozen carriers of this class.”

Jess sighed. Then she released her restraints and got up.  “Let me get some grandstanding in while I can then.” She went over to the arms rack and set her long blaster into it’s hard points. “Want to come along?” She asked April.

“Positively.” April was checking her hand blaster. “Sorry  l left my guns on that damn carrier they blew up.”  She frowned.  Shoulda taken them with.”

Jess put her knives into the sheaths at her back and then paused as her fingers brushed something inside the pack she’d brought with her “Oh.” She carefully withdrew it. “Here. Brought you a souvenir from station.” She reversed the knife in her hand an offered it hilt first. “Figured you’d do better with it than I would.”

April paused in mid motion and blinked, glancing at her first and then at the knife. “Wow.”  She gingerly reached out and took the hilt of the dalknife, lifting it to the harsh inside light of the carrier to see it’s reflection. “That is wicked.”

Jess felt an unusual sense of pleasure, watching the reaction.  “And hey I owed you for coming up to fetch my ass.”  She finished arming. “Took it off the scum bastard who turned my last tech.”

April paused and looked up at her, the knife held between them.  After a moment, she smiled. “Nice.” She stated. “I”ll try to reclaim it’s honor in yours.”

Jess grabbed her jacket from the locker and shrugged into it. “You two..

“Stay here.” Dev finished for her. “But we may assist if things do not go well.”

Jess turned her collar up, and produced a wry, faint smile. “If they end up killing me, take it out on them, wouldja Devvie

Dev didn’t even twitch. “Yes, I will.”

Jess turned and slapped the hatch release, and walked down the ramp that extended from it.   April smiled, and slid the dalknife into her pocket, keeping hold of the hilt.  “Wicked.”  She repeated, then hopped out of the carrier to follow Jess.

Dev triggered the hatch and it closed, shutting out the sound of the weather.

**

Continued in Part 14