Of Sea and Stars

Part 15

 

‘Here they come.” Brent adjusted his seat.  “Down the ridge there.”

Jason glanced at the vid.  “Any scan past them?”

“No.” His tech said, in a calm tone.  “Bet they scared the assholes back to Juneau.” He tapped the input pads, and the carrier shifted slightly under them. “Nice soak. They got good power there.”

“Yeah.” Jason frowned a little. “A scotch too familiar.”

They watched as the oncoming carrier suddenly bolted almost straight up, slowing and coming through the speed of sound with a booming crack as they reached the same flight level and did a lazy rollover to come nose to nose with Brent and Jason’s bus.

“Wow.” Brent sighed. “That’s some flying.”’

It was.  Jason shook his head a little. “I’ve watched every minute of vid we got on that thing flying and you know, it’s more like watching a bird fly than a machine.”

“Specially in one of these.” Brent agreed, mournfully.  “Hey Dev.” He spoke now into his comms as the sideband came up with the proximity of the recently arrived carrier. “It’s Brent. What’s the deal?”

Dev’s slightly burring tone answered. “We engaged the vehicles approaching from the west. Jess did some excellent work on them. But we also took onboard the person leading the attack and he is now secured.”

Jason snorted a little. “What in the hell are we doing here? They don’t need any help.”

“Jason.”  Jess’s deeper voice emerged.  “Got anything behind us coming? Heard a big boom and the rear screen’s a little scratch.”

“Nada, Jessie.” Jason tuned his screen. “Oh, wait. Crap. Sorry no here they come. “ He flicked the comms. “Form up!” He braced his boots against the deck.  “All hail, Brent. Give me comms over the whole range.”

“Go.” Brent flexed his hands as the carrier facing them slid sideways then arched around, coming into line next to them with a small rocking motion.  They were close enough for him to see the block lettering on the side, and through the forward canopy Dev’s profile was just visible.

A moment later, she looked over, and then gave him a little wave. He took his hand off the throttles and waved back, suppressing a grin.

“What are you doing?” Jason asked.

Nothin” Brent focused on the scan. “They’re not at attack speed.” He said. “You calling?”

Jason cleared his throat.  “Oncoming Interforce flight. What are your intentions?”

Silence.

Fucktards.” Brent muttered. “Ass end of a seagull.”

“Oncoming Interforce flight, speak up or we’re going to tank you.” Jason said, in a slow and deliberate tone. “There’s an invasion force coming over the water and we don’t have time for this.”

Ident.” A voice erupted.

“Jason Anders, Base Ten.” Jason said. “Ident.”

“Jason, Elaine’s calling on sideband ten.” Brent interrupted him.  “Urgent.”

“Sure it’s urgent. Whole fucking world is urgent and gone the hell to crap.” Jason switched inputs. “G’wan El.”

“You all better turn around and get back here. There’s already an advance group on the ground and we have heavy incoming.”

“Jess.” Jason switched to sideband.

“I heard it.  Let’s go.” Jess said. “If they come up our asses blast them.”

“Who us?” Brent asked. 

“That was to the Bay.” Jess said. “They just activated the topside guns.”

No choice. Or, to be real, out of choices.  “Got it.” Jason switched back to broadcast. “Listen jackasses. We’re going to go fight the real bad guys. If you’re smart you’ll come with us and earn your pay.” He said. “Anders out.”  He pulled down his triggers and flexed his hands into them. “Let’s go do what we do.”

**

Arp had regained consciousness, much to his dismay.  “Fuck.”  He gasped out. “You’re killing me!”

Jess glanced over at him. “No, if I’d have wanted that you’d be dead.” She said. “Shut up or you’ll wish even more you were.”  She flexed her hands. “Dev, go for the closest ground forces.”

“Yes.”  Dev drew in a breath and released it.  “Stand by to maneuver.”  She warned. “Brent, we are going to thirty degrees your horizon and pitch down.”

“Got it.” Brent answered. “Good luck! We’re executing a spread Gamma. Try to keep out of your way.”

Arp was arching his neck to look at the screen.  “What is that?”

“Your allies, invading.”  Jess pulled her restraints tight. “Go for it Devvie!”

Arp stared in silence as the view abruptly changed, and the carrier went into an attack dive, with the rest of the flight splitting up and dividing around them.  They swept up and over the ridge barely skimming the ground and then were diving across the curved frontage of the homestead, heading towards three small craft firing against the entrances.

Jess didn’t hesitate an instant as the attack against the Bay got into her guts and her back arched in pure reaction.  She came down on the triggers in a full on barrage as Dev swept them in a tight arc, their backs to the cliff. 

Two of the enemy diverted and came around but a moment later they were under fire as Jason’s craft came in from the other direction and with two booming thumps obliterated one of them.

“Bay’s hailing them.” Doug spoke up, busy with the repair boards.  “Just got tagged by their targeting.” He keyed off an alarm. “Hope that means they won’t shoot us.”

“I am going for the sea entrance.” Dev said. “There are anomalies there.”  She curved the carrier around and ducked under the remaining small craft as Jess pounded them with plasma bombs ejected from the upper guns and she heard the searing crack of penetrated shields.

Then they were at sea level, coming across the wide curve of Drake’s Bay, level with the gray water towards the ship cavern at full speed.  “Drakes Bay operations, this is BR270006, we are inbound firing.” Dev said into comms.  “Please tell everyone to take care.”

“Thank you Dev, we see you.” Doctor Dan answered calmly.  “There is some fighting going on in the halls here.  Take care yourself.”

“Shit.” Doug grunted. “Where did these bastards come from so fast?” He reset the scan and sorted the results. “Body landers, at water level.”

“See em.” Jess redirected her guns at the entrance and a moment later the water was boiling as she slammed fire into the opening, and bodies went flying as a half dozen light personnel carriers dove at her in a frantic attempt to cut them off.  “Get me right in there Dev.”

“Yes.”  Dev kept one hand on the throttles and put her other on the engine controls, counting in her head the microseconds before reversing course would not be an option.  “Three, two.. hold on please.” She shoved the engines into reverse and hauled up on the directional controls as the carrier plunged towards the rock wall in a shudder of competing forces

“Boom boom.” Jess dropped two plasma bombs just as the carrier changed direction in mid air, dropping almost into the water as Dev cut the mains and turned them with just aerodynamic motion, before engaging power again and releasing a blast  that sent up a ferocious spray of water behind them as they went sideways and then upright as she sent them on a tight parabola along the cliff wall.

A swarm of attackers plunged at them, and she got the carrier around and was starting up when a voice erupted into her ear.

“Dev, stay down!”  Doctor Dan yelled. “Down! The battery is about to fire!!!”

instinctively she sent the carrier back down to the water and over head they all heard a cavalcade of thunder and then explosion after explosion as the Bay’s barrage guns let loose.  “Wow.”  Dev muttered, her ears buzzing painfully from the loudness of it. “What was that?”

“Plasma cannons.” Jess said. “Old school ones. They’re lucky they fired and not blew the hell up.” She reset the targeting arrays.  “What a freaking backwash.”

The carrier was being buffeted and there was a wash of plasma across the forward screen tinting it orange and pink as they emerged from the wash and were at sea level again, and a light spray of water abruptly hit them from a falling chunk of metal plunging past.

“Doc’s hailing them again.”  Doug was keeping his head in the panels. “That just took out like a dozen of them they’re falling in pieces.. oh crap watch out!”

“Incoming!” Jess said, at the same time. “Devvie get us out of here!”

Dev jerked them abruptly to the right, then she pitched up and cut in the mains full power as they rocketed up the side of the mountain through a wall of fiery debris that was coming down on either side of them, smaller pieces impacting their outer hull.

Hatches were open in the wall, huge and dark and smoke rimed barely seen as they flashed past.

“Watch it!” Doug yelled, as alarms blared over the system showing them being targeted.  “They’re live! Dev! Look out!”

A momentary flash of a barrel, and a flare of energy releasing, and it was too late to avoid it but then there was no need to as it stopped long enough for the carrier to come across it and started up again as they cleared.

“Lucky.”  Doug was sweating. “Holy crap.”

April opened her hastily closed eyes, and grunted. “Buh.”

Jess smiled faintly. “Drake’s luck. I felt it scan me.” She got her hands back in the triggers.  “Come over the top and get around Dev.”

“BR270006 to flight.” Dev was saying. “Please stay clear of the guns in the wall.”    She was already curving them around though, and they came up and even and could see the Bay, now full of flaming debris  

Gimme comms, Dev.” Jess was looking around for targets and saw only wreckage, and landed troop carriers and on the screen the inbound force.

“Go ahead.” Doug answered, setting up the relay.  “You’re live.”

“Attacking force.” Jess boomed. “This is Jesslyn Drake.  Drake of Drake’s Bay. Put down your weapons and surrender!”

 Silence.

“We will never stop killing” Jess said. “We will never give up an inch. You will all die. Give up.”

Silence.

The Interforce flight formed up in a line with them, intact.  “This is Jason Anders, Base 10.” Jason’s voice cut in. “We are with Drake.”

“This is Dustin Kirk.” Another voice broke in. “Juneau Base. We are with Drake.”

“This is Dee Cooper, representing Eastern stakeholds, here in Drake’s Bay Ops. We are with Drake.”  Dee’s voice unexpectedly added.  “We’re not in their class but we’ll fight too.”

April reached out and kicked Arp’s boot. “You better pick a side.” She advised. “Actually pick a better side.  No percentage here for you to stick with whatever plan you think you had.”

“You really think all those people are really on her side.” Arp smiled.

“No.” Jess answered.  “They’re just smart enough to know a losing cause when they see one.”  She triggered comms again. “Thirty seconds, and we start attacking again.”  She said. “And believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Dev took a moment to wipe the sweat off her hands and her forehead, and flexed her fingers. “Did the repair routine run?” She asked Doug.  “I think I might have clipped one of the engine cowlings.”

Doug just laughed.

“Was that funny?”

**

“We got about another blast left in those things.” Johnathan said, leaning on the ops console.  Mofos.” He glanced around, keeping an eye on both Elaine and Doctor Dan, both crouching over the same datascreen. “What’s up in the hall?”

“Shooting.” A guard told him. “Standby.. “ He ducked out of the broken door and took off at a run, with a yell. 

“Not good.” Johnathan sighed.  “Fuckin hell.”

More yells, and then the sound of firing, up and close in. “Ware!”  One of the ops watch scrambled to his feet and pulled out a blaster, and instinctively Elaine did the same, shoving Doctor Dan down as she braced out over the screen and as bodies shoved past the edge of the door she fired.

Them. No question.  She pulled the blaster trigger again again as the door started to fill with them, and then she bolted past the chair and went for the fight as she recognized a face and then another.   They spotted her, and she heard the warning call and she grinned in fierce response. 

A knife and she kicked it.  Her own in her fist and she slashed in a backhanded motion as she shoved her gun into a throat and triggered it, feeling the heat of the backwash as a head came off in a splatter of blood and burned skin. 

The next thing she knew she had tall figures at her back and sticks and hammers were beating back the attackers, driven by a strength that made them as deadly as the weapon in her hand and she was then part of a wall that was moving forward step by step driving them back.

Then a surprise as a crowd appeared behind them, and started pounding on them with fists and cast iron pans dressed in space jumpsuits and all yelling for Dan Kurok.

Melee. Insanity. 

Then she saw one of the bios pick up an enemy soldier twice his size and throw him against the wall and the enemy turned and started firing at them and then a figure was coming past her letting out a yell and throwing himself between them and the bios.

So stupid.  Elaine braced and fired, ducking behind a piece of twisted steel and targeting the bad guys implacably as they fired into the oncoming bios and she saw Kurok disappear beneath a crush of bodies. 

Then a bio stepped in front of a Bay rat, a kid just past childhood and took one for him, body parts exploding across the room and hitting everyone in range and Elaine got the one that got him, her blaster fire getting him right between the eyes and sending him flying back into his comrades in a flailing of twitching arms and legs as his brain disintegrated.

Everything stopped, for a moment.  Then Johnathan was there, at her side, and bellowing in bass rage and from the side corridors from every direction came running Bay residents, bringing a wash of sea water and blood with them and Elaine saw the enemy squad leaders’ face, and his eyes met hers and she knew.

He knew.

“Kill em all.”  She aimed, and fired. “No one lives today.”

**

“Jess, they are hailing us.” Dev exhaled a little. “Asking for you.”

Gimme.”  Jess straightened up a little in unconscious reaction as the call passed back to her and she heard the faint popping in her ear before the link opened. “This is Jesslyn Drake.” She stated, then fell silent. 

An indrawing of breath she could clearly hear. “Drake.”  A voice answered, low and slightly raspy.  “What is your pitch?”

Jess rested her elbows on her console. “Give up or I’ll kill you.”  She said, in a mild tone. “That’s all I got.”

April, leaning back against the wall of the carrier, eyes blinking in pained exhaustion, smiled. “All we got.” She repeated softly.

And..” The voice paused. “We fight to nothing.” It sounded wryly resigned. “Die die die, soon nothing but seals and gulls left.”

“Probably.” Jess agreed.

Arp was listening, in silence.  Now he spoke up. “That’s Brudegan.”

Jess nodded. “Josten, turn around and go home.” She said. “Or stay and we fight. Pick one. I’m hungry and I can tell my pilot wants a break.”

Another sigh.  “You talk? This is your homeplace.  We sit down and talk before die?”

“Why?” Jess sighed.

“Why not?” Brudegan answered, with the same offhand mildness. “We have never met face to face. I have never looked into the eyes of a Drake and I want to before die.” He said. “But maybe you say yes, and I die anyway your guns shoot me.”

Jess considered that. “If I say yes my guns won’t shoot you.”  She said. “Word.”

“And what is that worth?”

“You tell me.”  Jess smiled briefly.  Brudegan was their ace of aces.  Overage now, her father’s vintage but a strategist without peer and a legend even Interforce respected.   Careful and rational and often even so incapable of coping with the madness that was what Jess was sometimes.

Most times.

“What is it with all the lets talk crap today?” April grumbled. “Yak yak yak.” She carefully levered herself to her feet and went to the dispenser, removing a water and leaning against the weapons rack to drink it.

Dev tapped a pad next to her briefly, and regarded it then grunted softly under her breath. “That is a somewhat attractive animal.”

“What?” Doug leaned over. “What is that?”

“A yak.”

It was an oddly poignant moment and they both produced pained grins over it. “I don’t think that’s what she meant.” Doug sighed.

“What will it be for us, Drake?” Brudegan sounded faintly amused. “I have heard you have heart. Come show it to me.”

“Sure.” Jess said, with a faint shrug. “Land at the top layer there, near the cave entrance. Flight, stay in position.”

Jeeeesssssseeeeee.” Jason’s low tones rumbled. “Guy wants to plug you.”

Jess got up as the carrier started to move, Dev bringing them around in a gentle curve. “Yeah I know Jase.” She opened the sideband. “Everyone wants to plug me.  Maybe I can just get a straight answer out of them for once and it’ll help some poor intel bastard someday.”

“Jess, the other flight is just holding back beyond the ridge.” Dev reported. “I just got them on scan as we elevated over the ridge.”  She was holding the carrier in place, waiting for the enemy light speeder to land. “I have tried to inform Bay ops but they are offline.”

Not good.  Jess held on to the overhead rigging as the carrier set down and faced the possibility this was an end game. “Come with me Devvie. Everyone else stay here.”

April’s eyes slitted.

“Someone has to have their hands on the guns.” Jess correctly interpreted it.  Jase is probably right. They’re probably going to try and skunk me.”

“Why take Rocket then?” Doug spoke up, unexpectedly.  “Point to get you both skunked?”

“Yes, actually.”  Dev answered. “The point would be there is so much unpleasantness it would be incorrect in the extreme to have to deal with it without Jess here”  She stood and shrugged into her sharkskin jacket, closing up the front of it as she joined Jess at the door. 

As no one put forth any further protest, Jess hit the hatch and stepped backwards through it, then she stood with her hand on her blaster as Dev followed her out.  

The enemy speeder was crouched nearby, rough and blocky architecture, as ugly and utilitarian as their own craft with slightly more angular lines.   Standing outside was a man in a long jacket, with thick, windruffled gray brown hair and a blaster fastened across his chest.

“C’mon.” Jess put her hand on Dev’s shoulder.

They walked across the rocky ground, scoured by a stiff wind and as Jess blinked a few times to clear it from her eyeballs it occurred to her that right now life wasn’t good.   She wished she was weeks back and in the Citadel, in Base 10, having lunch with Jason and listening to Dev make sonic booms overhead.

She slowed to a halt an arms length away from him, studying his lined, weathered face just as he was studying her, his hazel eyes revealing nothing.

“So you are Drake.” Brudegan finally said. “You much resemble your father.”

Jess nodded. “And grandpappy Jack.” She said. “We all look like gargolyes with no sense of humor.”

He shifted his eyes to Dev. “And this is the prodigy?”

“Hello.” Dev responded before Jess could.  She held a hand out. “I’m Dev.”  She waited for him to take her hand and then she squeezed down, and released him. “I am Jess’s partner.”

Jess smiled. “Also known as Rocket.”

“Yes.” Dev admitted. “Also known as Rocket.”

Brudegan studied her. “You did not learn this flying from them.”

“No.” Dev said. “My technical instruction was given to me as biologic programming prior to my arrival.” When he didn’t respond, she continued. “Dev is short for NM-Dev-1.  I am a biological alternative.”

“We ordered a bunch more.”  Jess smiled lazily.  “But I was lucky enough to get the original.” She watched his face, and read the twitches and unconscious reaction without effort.  “You were hoping it wasn’t true, werentcha?”

He moved his head a trifle. “What you purchase, so can we.”

“In time.” Jess agreed.  “But you’ll never have this one.”

“In time we can do better.” The enemy flyer was behind him, and he leaned back against it, perching a little on the wing.  Though tall, he was shorter than Jess and he relaxed a little, reviewing her angular form.   “A force is coming, Drake that you cannot defeat. You know it.”

“I don’t.”  Jess said. “Know it.  I’ll know I’m defeated when I’m dead.” She gestured faintly at the wall. “You know what we are maybe, now.”

“Monsters.” Brudegan said. “Yes.”

“Yes.” Jess wasn’t offended. “Designed and bred monsters. You think the barrage was bad? Go inside. I have ten year old cousins you wont ‘be able to stop.”  And it came home to her, that lifelong sense of difference that had nothing to do with her as an individual but had dogged her all her career.

She felt a little idiotic, really, not having put that together.

He remained silent for a moment.   Jess merely waited and watched, her body relaxed, stained with blood, all the preceding hours of effort leaving no mark.

Everywhere else, they’d been able to make inroads. Insertions in the west had been easy. His overarching plan a success.  “I found a leverage point here.” He remarked, with a little smile.

“And I killed him.” Jess smiled back. “But if I hadn’t, someone else would have.”  She laced her fingers together, her thumb rubbing idly at some dried blood across one knuckle. “Its part of our crazy.”

He looked at Dev, who was watching him with an intent, sober stare.

“It would be excellent” Dev spoke up. “If you would explain what you want.” She blinked placidly. “Because I do not think anyone is having an optimal experience here.” She paused.  “And it would be interesting if there was a alternative to having everyone made dead.”

Brudegan’s bushy grizzled eyebrows lifted a little.  “So we have the speech of a construct but perhaps not the mind one eh?” His eyes flicked to Jess. “Perhaps you were leveraged more than you knew.”

“As in she comes from your side? Nah. The guy who made her is a lot smarter than you are.”

The older man’s lips twitched. “And if I said he was ours?” He folded his arms over his chest. “Never Interforces.”

“Half true.”  Her blue eyes twinkled just a little.  “Neither yours, nor Interforces.”  

Dev straightened up a little, but remained silent.

Jess sat down on a nearby uneven rock.  “So what do you want? All of us dead?”  She asked. “All of us, and all of us, and everyone dead, so that we run out of spirals and it all ends with a seagull eating our guts?”

He nodded briefly. “Yes.”

“Because of Gibraltar?”

“No.  Because if you exist, and continue to exist, you will eventually make all this side of the world in your image and when the wolves run out of rabbits to eat, then what?” Brudegan asked. ‘We cannot let you exist. Your own side cannot let you exist. You are a sickness with no cure.”

“Probably true.” Jess folded her hands over one knee, her ears picking up motion behind the craft and knowing it.  “Except you can’t defeat us. “ She said.  “You’re right, Brudegan. We are wolves.” 

He straightened as he now sensed the motion and from the landing bay to the right of them emerged a drifting crowd of armed figures, coming around the side of the flyer to stand and watch.

Covered in blood and dust, and a rime of the salt air and in the working coveralls of the Bay.

“But wolves know their own.”  Jess said, with a faint smile. “And they defend their territory.”

Cuz.” It was Dustin, blood covering half his face.  “We got em all inside.” He stared insolently at Brudegan. “Want me to get this one for ya?” 

“No, he’s flagged.”  Jess said. “My chit.”

“Too damn bad.”  He winked at Dev. “But they put some hurt on the non coms, Cuz.”

Dev felt a sense of apprehension and she looked at Jess.

“Tried to get at the kids, but the spacies whacked at em.” One of the youngsters with Dustin added. “Pretty cool.”

“Cool.” Dustin agreed.

“I told Interforce about your scam.” Jess stood up and moved closer to him.  “I told them how you wormed your way in, and were setting us against each other.  Games up.”  Her voice hardened a trifle. “They’re hands off.”

Brudegan looked over at the line of waiting carriers outlined against the clouds, and faintly shook his head.

A faint crackle in Jess’s ear and she touched the comms. “Jase?”

“Heard the channels open up.” Jason’s voice said, with wry calmness. “Westies ordered to stand with us against the incoming.”

April’s voice chimed in. “Yeah, the jackass here heard it too. Bitching.”

Jess’s eyes went to Brudegan’s face, studying it.  She could sense the coming fight and like a mist of rain coating her skin she felt her body respond, flushing out the exhaustion and replacing it with the subtle buzz of excitement and anticipation.

“Ops says they’re gonna have to farm out the bodies if the rest of them come on in here Cuz.” Dustin glanced up at the thickening clouds. “Gotta sharpen the process blades.”

Jess saw the faintest of flinches in her enemies face. Just the minutest of contractions and she felt time slow as she took another of those minutes out and stepped back in her head, coming out of the moment into that gray place of no emotion

Where really, was the win?  She replayed and considered the last words Dev had said, their clear tones echoing in the back of her head.  Everyone expected the battle now.  Wanted it. She could even sense the taste for blood in her kinfolk standing nearby, denied them for so long.

Where was the win? Was there a win? Or just the lesser of two losses?

She drew breath and came back in.  “You want to see what this whole scam was about before you die for it?” She asked “See if it was worth it?”

She’d startled him. She could read it in his eyes, in the flicker of reaction, in the sudden shift of his body he coudnl’t quite control.  “You talk big. Walk it.  I’ll show you.”  She gestured to the bay opening across the rocks now full of fighters.

He shook his head. “I can die here as well in the clean air.” He said. “What protects me in there? The word of a Drake?”

Jess looked him in the eye. “My father told me once the only thing you come into and out of the world with is your honor.” She remarked. “And that you can’t have it taken. You can only give it away.” Her lips twitched a little “Jimmy died for giving his.”

Brudegan shifted his gaze off hers just long enough to see the crowd nearby unconsciously nodding their heads in agreement and he lifted one hand and let it drop. “Go. I will follow.” He said, with the faintest of shrugs. “Death is death.”

They walked across the rocky ground that moderated and became flat and regular as they approached the cliff opening and entered, the worksuited figures inside slowly drawing aside to let them pass.

**

“What the hell is she doing?”  Jason stared at the screen. “Are they going inside?”  He triggered comms. “Jess!”

“Ack.” Jess’s voice came back at him. “Standby tac. Ops G1.”

“Got a game on.”  Brent grunted.

“What kind of game.. oh. Gonna leverage the bastard.” Jason said. “Insurance.”

“Jason.”

He flicked comms. “Go El.”

“Had a bad mix up here.  Doc’s down. “ Elaine said. “Need to get him to the tank.”

Jason straightened up. “No med there?”

“TP bandages.”  Elaine responded. “Hes in countdown.”

“Crap.” Jason considered a minute. “Bring up the sidechannel to April, Brent.”

“Sideband up.”

“April, this is Jason.”

“Ack.” April responded promptly. “Sup?”

“Need you to take a med run back to Base 10.”

Dead silence for a moment. Jason figured it could go either way.  “It’s the doc.” He added in a card. “Took a hit.”

Still silence.

“Pissed.”  Brent said. “Don’t want to miss the fight.”

“Ack.” April finally answered. “Going in.” 

A moment later a carrier broke out of formation and pitched down, heading for the cliff face.  “El, the kids are on the way in for a pickup. Jess’s bus.”

“K, ack.”  Elaine cut off and the channel went offline.

Jason leaned back in his seat and folded his hands over his stomach. “Least they get to do something.”  He sighed. “Wish I knew what she was up to.”

**

Their boots scuffed on the cut stone floors, and then rang as they reached the circular iron stair and they started downward bathed in gray light from the cap at the apogee of it.  Below, they could hear shots and shouting, and a low booming roar.

“I have heard of this place.” Brudegan said, after a long silence. “This hall.”

Jess nodded, as they climbed down past the residential levels, all doors closed and sealed, redlit that bathed the landings in warning.   She was in the lead, with Dev at her side and Brudegan a step behind. The fighters from the Bay followed in an unruly clump, a dozen of them at her heels.

They reached the bottom and now there were bodies evident, sprawled and some dismembered, growing more numerous as they skirted them and headed down a corridor.

“Jess!”  Bay security chief Mike emerged from the ops area. “All sealed.” His eyes went to Brudegan and his hand to his gun in the same motion.

“Stop.” Jess lifted a hand. “Let him alone.”

Mike stared hard at her and him. “Some like him just blew out some worth a lot more of em.” He said. “Including your buddy from space.”

Jess hauled up sharply. “Kurok?”  She saw Dev’s eyes widen and the bio alt gasped.

Mike nodded. “We just hauled him into your crate and that nomad lit out for the base.”

“Ah.” Brudegan grunted. “Best news I could have had. The traitor dead.” He barely got the words out when he was lifted up bodily and slammed against the Bays’ rock wall, held there with solid force. He reeled and his head went back and forth before it dropped down to see furious green eyes looking up at him.

“If Doctor Dan is injured.” Dev said. “Or made dead it is not at all good news.”

Jess exhaled, letting the momentary shock fade. “Easy Devvie.”  She patted her partners back “Let him down. I’ll find out what the score is. They’re getting him back to med.”

Dev released the unpleasant man and he fell to his knees on the rock from the force of it.  It took a lot of concentration, more than she’d expected to resist hitting him. 

She wanted to. There was no sense in her that it was even wrong for her to do so and as she glanced up and found Mike looking at her he was nodding at her in understanding.

Which she in no way understood. But she could feel Jess’s hand still on her back, the tips of her fingers making little scratching motions felt through the hide of her jacket.

“Big mix.” Mike said. “Bunch of his kind got in the lower hall and the doc’s kids heard it and came to help.” He stated. “He jumped in front of a blast and they went nuts and tore those bastards apart. We hardly had a chance to get in on it.”

Brudegan was slowly climbing to his feet.

“Yeah they did good.” Dustin added. “They’re all right.”

Jess grabbed Brudegan’s arm and started forward. “Let’s get this over with.” She said. “I got things to do.”

Mike stood in her way. “What’s ‘this’?” He asked bluntly. “Besides something else to kill?”

“Not yet.” Jess said. “Not damn yet.”

**

Dev still felt her heart pounding as they crossed into the ops area, and abruptly she was barraged by a crowd of anxious sets who spotted her.

“Dev!” “NM-Dev-1!” Voices chorused.  A KayTee rushed over. “Something terrible happened to Doctor Dan!”

Dev was caught between wanting to find out what happened and following Jess and the bad guy.  Her partner seemed to realize this because she half turned and gestured her to stay.

“Be right back, Devvie.” Jess said. “Take charge here, huh?”

Obey? Not obey? Dev exhaled and slowed, allowing the sets to catch her up.  “What happened, AyeBee?” She asked as she was surrounded.   The fighters from the Bay also paused, but Mike followed Jess, a gun gripped in one hand.

“It was very incorrect.” The Kaytee said.  “There were incorrect people here, and they came in the same way as we did, where the shuttle was.”

A CeeBee nodded. “We saw them.” He said. “Some of them tried to make dead the children.”

“That’s terrible.” Dev frowned. “So incorrect!”

“We stopped them.” The Kaytee tried not to sound proud. “They ran away from us.” He added, with widened eyes.

“We chased them here, and then they were trying to make dead the people in operations, where Doctor Dan was.”  The CeeBee said. “And then they were trying to make us dead, and Doctor Dan came out to fight with them to make them stop!”

Yes, Doctor Dan would have done that.  “He is brave.”  Dev said. “And he cares very much for us.”

Us The sets around her nodded. “He does.” The CeeBee said. “He said we were like his children, NM-Dev-1. It was so excellent”

“Yes.” The Kaytee agreed. “But they made him very damaged, and we got angry about that.” He paused. “And then we had to make them stop hurting him and we did.”

Dev studied them, and understood. “Yes. That was a correct thing to do.”  She said, in a quiet voice. “I hope he is okay.”  She added. “My partner said they were taking him back to our base, to med.”

“Yes. Cathy went with him also, in the vehicle.” CeeBee said. “Will we go there too?”

She looked around and saw the sets, working alongside the people from Jess’s home place to clean things up, some of them in burned jumpsuits and covered in blood and as she watched, one of the Bay workers went up to a Kaytee and offered him a coat.

The Kaytee took it gratefully, and put it on over his shredded jumpsuit, rubbing his arms from the cold and the person from the Bay smiled. “I don’t know.” Dev finally answered. “We did good work here.”

“It was hard.” The Kaytee near her said. “And two of us got made dead.” He added. “Many of us were damaged.”

“Yes” Dev said. “Downside is hard, and damage is frequent. Even for the natural borns.” She watched as one of the sets helped a limping Bay worker move to an area where there seemed to be some med. “It is not like station.”

“No.” The Kaytee said. “It is not like station.” He considered. “But maybe that is not all incorrect for us.” He folded his arms over his chest. “It is good to make our own choices.”

“NM-Dev-1, this place is called Drake’s Bay.” The CeeBee said. “Like the name of your partner.”

“This is her birthplace.” Dev responded. “But it seems very complicated and a lot of things are strange and incorrect at the moment.” 

She spotted Elaine at the same time the agent spotted her and Elaine changed direction and came over to her. “Hello.”

“So these are more of your kind of bio, huh?” Elaine said, without hesitation. “I figured there were more.” She glanced around and nodded. “Where’s Jess?”  She asked. “Someone said she was just here.”

“Yes.” Dev decided to leave the first question alone. “She was taking an enemy person to show them something. She said she would be right back.”

Elaine blinked at her. “Enemy person?” She said. “Who? What the hell’d she bring one of them in here for? We killed enough of them already!”

“I think she is trying to avoid everyone being made dead.” Dev said placidly. “I will go find her and see.” She ducked out of the group and started down the hallway she’d seen Jess disappear through, reasoning that she’d stayed in the location Jess had indicated just long enough.

She was tired, and hungry, and she wanted the fight to be over. It had been more than enough for one day.

**

The doors to the cavern had been solidly shut, but they opened to Jess’s handprint and she shoved the portal open to allow them to pass. 

Brudegan had fallen silent and remained so as they entered the cave, and the rich scent of growing things washed over them.  The large door boomed shut behind them, and then all the sound heard was a the soft hiss of the water misting system cutting on and off.

“The fuck you showing him this for?” Mike said, bluntly.

“Shut up.” Jess replied.  “This crap is where it all started.”

Brudegan slowly turned in a circle, looking at all the greens and colors. “It is real.” He finally said, on an indrawn breath. “I never thought it was.”

Jess walked over to one of the plant areas and touched a leaf.  “You thought it was a scam.”

“I did.” He came to join her and reached out to touch the plant himself. “I knew this was possible on the stations, yes? I have seen it. I have eaten it. We provision ourselves much better than you.”

It was true.  Jess merely nodded.

“It was a trick. To destroy your trustworthiness and also, gain us a lab rat.”  Brudegan turned to look at her. “And it succeeded.” He smiled. “So now come, Drake. What is your offer? You brought me here to make one.” He wandered a step down the walk and sniffed one of the plants. “Despite your big talk, we both know the force coming here is going to obliterate you.”

“Then why even bother offering you a deal?” Jess leaned against the wall. “If you’re so sure you’ll win, why not just wait. Though, we both know I’m going to kill you anyway.”

He looked at her. “You promised me safety.”

“From them.”  Jess smiled at him, a frank and full expression of glee.  “Not from me.”

He went for his gun but Jess was full seconds ahead of him and she had it and ripped it off him before he could touch it, and she’d flung it far off before it could recognize her as enemy and explode.

All in a breath.

Then she leaned against the wall again, while Mike did likewise, with a grunt of approval.  “You’re not going to win.” She said. “If I have to kill every single one of you coming in here I will.”  She folded her arms over her chest. “And I can.”

He had stopped in mid motion and now he let his hands fall to his side.  In the silence then, the sound of the outer door opening made them turn, to see Dev making her way into the cavern, her issue boots rasping softly on the ground.

Mike turned to watch her, but didn’t move to intercept her slight form and she moved past him with just a brief sideways glance.

Jess was between Dev and Brudegan, but she gently pushed herself off the wall and brought her center of balance up over the balls of her feet, her senses focused on him as her pilot arrived.  “Hey Devvie. You stayed there longer than I thought you would.”

Dev frowned. “The agent Elaine was looking for you.” She explained. “There is some data they would like you to review and I said I would come find you.”

Coulda called me.”

“Yes.”

“Any word on the doc?” Jess could see the furrows of worry on her partner’s cute face.

“No. The sets said he was really damaged.” Dev lifted her eyes to Jess’s. “He was trying to defend them.”

Yes, he would have. “Sa’ll right Dev. I’m about done here. Just wanted this clown to see what he’s going to die for.” Jess said. “They get the power spooled up to that laser disrupter on the ridge?”

Dev blinked. “Yes.” She answered briefly.

Brudegan stirred. “A long lost technology.” He said, warily. “We know it.

Jess smiled. “Not here. Everything here’s a throwback. You forget that? Left in the past? Isn’t that why you want to have us kick the bucket, you and maybe Interforce? You aint’ got nothing to match us anymore.”

Mike, leaning nearby, smiled. “Got that right.”

A rumble moved through the walls.  “Yep, there’s the energy pumps now.” Jess noted. “Fish are gonna get a damn good meal.”  She chuckled.  Off to the rear of the chamber she detected a faint sound, and her fingers flexed. A rough play put in work far too fast, but then, it had often been like that in her life

Casually, she reached over and prised off a bit of the glowing rock, turning it in her fingers and examining it. “Good thing the doc got to suss this.  Got all the scoop in the carrier.” She glance up at Brudegan, whose face had gone still. “Kickass scientist.”

Her senses came alert as she gently juggled the rock in one hand, her breathing slowing down as she shifted just slightly and in reaction, Dev reached out and put a hand on her back in an unconscious motion.  Jess half turned and smiled, letting the rock drop to the ground at her feet.

Brudegan’s hand clenched, and his face twitched starting a grin of triumph that froze solid.  His hand clenched again, and again, and they could hear the faintest of clicks coming from his closed fist.

Dev watched him with a faintly puzzled expression, then her eyes widened as Jess casually reached over and undid the fastenings at her uniform neck and peeled it back. 

“Like I said, kickass scientist.” Jess smiled.  “Drop it, Brudegan. It’s useless.”  She leaned closer to Dev and with a wink she kissed the spot where once there had been a metallic band around her partners neck.

Dev stood stock still, unsure of what reaction to have so deciding to have none at all.  Her body reacted to the touch though, a pleasant flush of response that cleared the exhaustion out some.  She took a breath and then many things happened.

Blaster fire, and then she was being pushed flat to the ground with Jess crouching over her, returning the fire and the man Brudegan was bolting across the floor and Mike the security guard was on his knees with his big old rifle aiming past them and a yell coming from his throat.

They could hear boots in the outer corridor and at that moment Brudegan reached the gun Jess had thrown across the chamber and he dove for it, catching it up and tumbling into a turn at the same moment to fire back at them right at the floor where Dev was.

And then she wasn’t as Jess picked her up and lunged into the opposite direction, to a curve in the cavern wall that blocked the fire and dusted them with glowing backsplash.

Mike landed next to them and fired over Jess’s head. “They’re getting out!” He yelled. “He got that rock piece!”

“Let em.”  Jess spat a bit of dust out of her mouth.

“What?” Mike stared at her in shock.

“Just keep your fucking head down and let them go.” Jess repeated, wiping the back of her head across her face.

A portal boomed in the far end of the cavern and the firing stopped, and they were alone. 

“Let’s go.” Jess got to her feet and pulled Dev with her. “Ops.”  She holstered her blaster and started off at a lope that became a run.

**

“What the hell’s going on?” Elaine thumped down in the ops seat and yanked a board over “Penetration?”

“Sig!” The next ops yelled.  “Got sig from the back! Josh send a crew back there!”

“El, two armored fliers by the shuttle pad.” Jason’s voice erupted in comms. “Target?”

“Target!” She confirmed. “Take em out!”

“On it”

The next ops grinned briefly. “Nice to have an air force again.” He said, both thighs moving in convulsive twitching as he set and reset parameters.

Elaine briefly looked at him and their eyes met, and she had to grin back.

The carriers holding off outside went into attack formation and spun off into a dive aiming at the narrow cleft that would open to the plateau where the shuttle pad was that was now the focus of the enemy.

“Bout twenty for the rest of that crowd.” Johnathan said from the master ops console, half it’s lights out and covered in dust from the roof. “Gonna cover us like gull shit.”

Boots in the hall, coming fast, and they turned to find Jess entering and just slowing so as not to take out a few people who didin’t get out of the way in time.

“There you are.” El said.  “We just went for the back there. Jason’s going to take those bastards out before the rest of them get here and we’re screwed.”  She indicated a board. “Those are all Szenge class, Jess.  Just got the intel.  We can’t take that not even if all the coast were here fresh fueled.”

Dev had come in with Mike behind her. 

“Move.” Jess took over a console. “Gimme comms to Jason.” She saw Dev sit down at an empty board and look at it, then start tapping surfaces.  “Dev get our net up.”

“Yes.” Dev put a comms in her own ear.

“What’s up?” Elaine asked.

Gotta stop them tanking those flyers.” Jess got a headset on. “Jase! Jase!”

“What???” Elaine stood up. “The hell are you doing?”

“Jason is on channel twelve.” Dev spoke up.  “I am trying to contact Base 10 or our vehicle.”

Jess heard the channel open. “Jase!”

“Busy!” He yelled back. “Shooting bad guys in a barrel!”

Jess took a breath. “Stop.” She said emphatically into the comms. “Stop firing. Let them go.”

She could feel the shock around the room, and saw Elaine stand up at her station and turn.  Only Dev remained where she was, eyes on the boards, fingertips moving.

“What?” Jason answered. “The fuck, Jess?”

“Let them go.” Jess repeated. “My order.”

Dead silence for a long moment.  “You asked me to trust you, Jase. Return the favor.” Jess said, finally. “Let them go. Let them get back to their fleet.”

“You’ve gone nuts” Elaine spoke up. “That crack in your skull because I know enough about Drakes go know you haven’t gone over.”

“Thanks El.”  Jess leaned on the console. “Nicest thing you ever said about me.”  She touched the comms. “Jase? You gonna listen or not?”

“Ack.” Jason answered. “Heeling off.”

“Better have a good reason for that, Drake.” Mike spoke up from behind her. “if you just sold us down the river I’m gonna shoot you myself.” He shifted his gun, then paused as Dev got up and got between him and Jess’s back. “Shoot you too, jelly bag.”

“That is possibly true.” Dev said. “But I will do my best to prevent it.”

Jess leaned back, her body coming to rest against Dev’s as she let her head rest just between her partner’s shoulderblades. “Pretty funny when a bio alt from an egg in space is standing guard over me against my family and the force y’know?”

The screen showed the enemy fliers bolting across the sea, one of them singed as they passed the line of Interforce carriers that had just started to break off.   Two of the carriers bent into a tight turn and sped after them but held fire.

As they all watched the two intersected the oncoming force, and the carriers peeled off to run parallel to them, shields up and as they all expected the attack it never came.

Instead, as they all stared at the monitor the force from the other side first slowed, and then broke apart, turning in formation as the two fliers joined them.

“Guess they got what they came for.” Elaine said, in a dry tone. “What’s up with that, Jess? What’s the game?”

“They got what I wanted them to get.”  Jess felt her shoulders relax. “Not sure there was a game. Not sure I had time for a game. Not even sure yet what their game was.”

“Everyone is not going to be made dead.” Dev concluded. “That seems optimal.”

“Maybe that was my game.” Jess propped her chin up on her fist. “Dev wanted to know if there was a way to end this in something other than mutual slaughter.”

Dev regarded her in slight bemusement.

“That’s fucked up.” Elaine nevertheless sat back down at the console. “You have a lot to explain to a lot of people.” She exhaled. “But yeah maybe its not the worst thing not to croak today because I’ve lost track of who the hell the players are at this point.”

Johnathan was looking at the console output. “They’re really turning around and hauling ass away.” He sounded surprised. “Maybe that means we can finally get some food in here I’m fuckin starving.”

Jess had to laugh, just a little.  “I bet Dev is thinking the same thing.”

Dev cleared her throat a little

“So.” Elaine looked at them.  “Is this over?”

Jess just shrugged.

“I mean, what the hell?”

**

The family table didn’t have much family around it and the bowls of edibles on top of it were nothing fancy.  But Jess was happy to sit with her hands curled around a cup of rich fish broth and savor however brief a moment of peace.

A moment of survival anyhow.

The Interforce carriers from Base 10 had landed. Jason and Elaine were seated at the table, with Johnathan and Mike resting bloodstained elbows on the scarred wood surface.

There was no Uncle Max. No old uncles or aunts, and no brothers or any of their family. Jake was still in lockup, and Tayler was somewhere, bewildered, bereft of his own family in a place now very strange.

Not really his home anymore.

She was tired.  Now, after it all, her head hurt like crazy again and she knew if she peeled off her uniform there would be lots of bruises under it and for what, really?

No win, anywhere.

Dev was in ops, persistently trying to get information from Base 10.  Horribly worried about Kurok.  Jess lifted her eyes and saw a bio alt enter, one of the brown haired sort of nice ones. “Hey.”

“Hello.” The bio alt came over to her.  “We would like to bring some food to the operations center. Is that all right?”

Jess blinked at him. “Sure.”  Dev had shared a plate of seaweed rolls with her, but she figured more couldn’t hurt. “Take that basket over there.”

“Thank you.”

CeeBee? BeeTee? “What’s your name.” Jess asked.

“I am AyeBee 354.”

Right. “How about I call you Abe?” Jess said. “I’m not good at remembering numbers.”

The bio alt regarded her with surprised interest.  “My crŹche name was Alvin.”  He said, after a pause to retrieve the basket. “Would you like to address me as that?”

“Alvin.  Sure.”  Jess agreed, watching as he left the kitchen with the basket, taking the task of someone who probably died in some pointless way in some corridor and was now fish food.

“This is profoundly fucked up.” Jason said, after a pause.

“Yeah.” Jess agreed. “What do we do now? Go back to base?” She sucked at her soup, then straightened a little as Dev entered. “Any luck?”

Dev came over and sat down next to her on one of the kitchen stools. “I got through to our base.” She said. “They have put Doctor Dan in some mechanical device. They do not expect he will.. “ She stopped. “He was very damaged.”

Aw.  Jess put her cup down. “Sorry to hear that, Devvie.” She said.

“Yeah.” Elaine spoke up. “He’s the one who figured out how to set off those guns on the roof.” She said.  “He’s good people.”

Dev remained silent for a few moments.  “May we go see him, Jess?”  She asked. “April and Doug have just returned with our vehicle.”

“We should all go back.” Jason said. “I’m sure there’s some coded message somewhere telling me to go shoot myself I should probably read and ignore.”

“Or shoot me.” Jess said. “Or shoot them. Or shoot ourselves in the head.”

“I don’t feel like shooting anything right now.” Elaine admitted. “But I’d love a hot shower and a nap.”

Jess studied Dev’s face. “Sure, lets go.” She put down her soup and pushed herself to her feet. “I don’t think the gooneys are coming back.” She “Not if they think we’ve got a laser disrupter all ready to make them atomic particles.”

“Yeah what was that all about?” Mike asked, turning and standing up as she neared.

Jess paused. “A laser disrupter is a piece of old school technology that basically grabs whatever energy it sees and multiplies it into a really big boom.  Used against the big troop transports and stuff like that. Could take out a base.”

Mike’s jaw dropped a little. “We got one?”

Jess yawned and rubbed the side of her face. “No.”

Jason started to laugh. “But you told them we did.”

“Yeah. Figured. What the hell? We had a thermonuke. We’re certified crazy.  We got barrage guns on the roof. Why not?” Jess half shrugged. “We coulda.”

“Those guns nearly blew up on us.” Johnathan said. “Doc guy said it wouldn’t take another round.”

“But they didn’t know that.” Elaine exhaled. “Crap I didn’t know that after what I saw here if you’d have told me you had a disrupter in the basement I’d have believed it.”

Mike moved over a little, into her way. “So that’s it? You just leaving now?”

Jess was too tired to even take offense. Actually, she reasoned he had a point.  “I’ll be back.”

“Might not want you back.” He said, straightforwardly.  “If he was right lot of people died being in your target range.”

Jess considered that for a minute.  “Move out of my way or I’ll kill you.” She finally said, in a mild tone. “Maybe it was me who almost got splatted because the target was this.” She pointed at the ground, then drew her gun from it’s hard point and had it at his neck before he could stir. “Move.”

He stared at her for a long minute, and they all wondered.  Then he stepped back, with an almost smile.  “Not going to call that bluff, Drake.” He sat down at the table.  “But someone will.”

Jess put the gun back and continued on her way, with Dev silently moving at her side. After a pause, Elaine and Jason followed, and the kitchen fell silent, as the two Bay men regarded each other across the table.

“She’d have done it.” Johnathan said. “She’s Drake both sides. There’s just no end to the jackassery in that.” He sipped from his mug of soup.  “Could end up net plus, Mike.”

“It could.”  The security chief agreed. “Cleared out a lot of the useless round here.  Finally get to move my fuckin quarters where they should be.”

“Mm.”

**

It was excellent, really excellent, to be sitting back in her pilot’s seat in the carrier, going through the now familiar steps to bring the big vehicle online.  Dev slid her comms helmet on and plugged into the inputs, anxious to be on their way.

Behind her Jess was speaking with April and to her left, Doug was sitting in the pilot jumpseat, his long legs sprawled across the floor of the carrier.  “Sorry about the doc.” He said, after a bit of silence.

Dev drew a breath, then released it.  “Thank you for trying to bring him to safety.”  She said. “I know that must have been difficult.”

Doug blinked a few times. “Truth? I thought April was going to kick up when they asked but she didn’t. Just told me to get my ass moving.” He said. “I was glad to. She was glad to. He bled for us.”

He bled for us.  Dev had heard that a lot in the last few days. “Yes.”   She pre-spooled the engines.  “Jess? We are about to maneuver.”

Without comment both agents sat down and strapped in.

Dev lifted the carrier and slid it sideways on it’s landing jets, turning the vehicle and easing out of the landing bay door to emerge above the cliff that held Drake’s Bay.  

Below, in the half circle bay there were already small work boats afloat, gingerly moving towards the debris from the fight, towing it out of the way.  

It was starting to rain.

“Base seemed okay.” April continued the conversation she’d been having with Jess. “Got me in an out, all reg, no real grilling or nothing.”

“Yeah.” Jess sighed. “Hope that’s still the case with my ass on board.”

Behind them, the rest of the Base 10 carriers emerged from the bays and made up formation as Dev waited there for them.  Then she started forward, hoping the same thing Jess hoped. 

She wanted a chance to see Doctor Dan.

They flew along the coastline, once past the Bay unmarked and unremarkable in it’s rain lashed and ruffled gray blue surface.  Waves crashed up against the cliffs, and covered the isolated small beaches full of small rocks and sand.

“This is Interforce flight BR270006, inbound to Base 10.” Dev spoke up into the silence after it had gone on for a long while. “Requesting approach and landing assignment.”

Just like nothing had happened.  Just like they were coming back from a training run. 

“BR270006, acknowledged.” Base 10 ops answered. “Stand by for pad assignment.  Welcome home.”

Surreal.

They approached the imposing cliff face that was the Citadel, coming around the side of the peak to where the new landing doors had been installed recently and yet seemingly a lifetime ago.  

The bay was already open for them, and the carriers behind them.  Dev could see mechs moving into position and she slowed the carrier as it crossed into the bay, which bore signs of recent battle. 

“BR270006, pad 6.” Ops said. “Please clear quickly so the rest of the flight can land.”

“Yes.” Dev headed for the pad, where she could already see a group of bio mechs standing by.  She cut power as she extended the landing skids, feeling the faint jar as they hit the pad surface and then the thump and pop as the jets cut out and they were down. “BR270006, secure.”  She reported to comms.

Jess was up and out of her seat, and opening the hatch, standing full in it’s breadth as the small ramp extended.  Her eyes swept the interior of the big cavern, but nothing seemed out of place and then she saw Cliff heading her way, his arm in a sling.

Across the cavern the rest of the carriers were landing, the noise in the room rising to include all their offgassing, and the clanks and pops of the umbilicals being attached.

All normal.

“Jess. Welcome back.” Cliff said, as he mounted the raised pad. “Everyone okay?”

Jess stepped aside to let the rest of them out, sensing Dev at her back. “Yeah.  Dev needs to get to med.”  She said, briefly.  “We can all talk later.”

Cliff nodded in understanding. “Hey at least you all made it back in one piece.” He said. “We heard the comms. They multiplexed it all call.” He moved aside to let them exit, then he surprisingly followed along as they came down off the pad and walked across the cavern floor.

Dev felt sick, now that she was here.  She kept her hands in the pockets of her jacket, responding to the quiet greetings of the mechs and techs as they passed. 

The rest of the agents and techs quickly caught up to them and they went into the long corridor together, a vague flash of memory coming to Dev of her first return from her first mission here, where everything really had changed.

She wished briefly that she was back in that time, on that walk to the briefing room, everything so new and fresh again.  It was sad, and tiring to be surrounded by so much pain and death, where nothing seemed like it would be optimal and all choices appeared wrong.

They passed a glowing blue ring and she almost didn’t notice, just felt the brief tingle under her skin and the soft chorus of chimes as they all were scanned, and recognized and allowed.

There were marks of fighting on the walls, but mostly the base seemed to be as normal as she remembered it to be.  Some mechs in the hall, some security, all moving aside to let the operations group pass.

Soft tones, standard announcements, ops reports all moving past her as they moved from gray to green to the blue of operations and then off one corridor to the white of med.

Jarad was in the hall, and he paused as he saw them.  “You’re back.”  He had one of the tough fabric med jumpsuits on, liberally splattered with blood and the yellow and green blood stop and pain cream they used for triage. 

“Busy day.” Jess said, briefly.

“Could say.” The chief medic glanced at Dev, then back at Jess. “Guess you’re here for the tank.” He paused, but they all just looked at him “C’mon.” He waved them to follow. “I told ops I’d keep the lights on until you all got here.”

Dev didn’t understand what that meant, but she saw the expression on Jess’s face and it made her heart sink because she knew her partner understood that, and it wasn’t good. She took a breath and they went through a pair of double doors that opened for them quietly and then she was in a room she hadn’t been in before.

Inside there were six big units, all filled with thick green liquid and in three of them there were naked human forms, with tubes and leads snaking from them. 

Jared led them to the last one, near the back wall. Inside, they could see a stocky form that had old, faded marks on it’s arms and the tab readouts over the tank were all red.  “So.”  Jared turned “As I told the agent here.” He indicated April. “He took a neural right in the head.”

“Fuck.” Jess exhaled in pure reaction.

“He walked in front of it.”  Elaine said, in a somber tone. “Had a half dozen of the dirty firing and he just took it.”

Dev walked closer and put her hands on the surface of the tank. Doctor Dan’s eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving and she could see the damage.

She exhaled a little, her breath fogging the surface of the tank, and felt a very deep sadness.  There had been so much she’d wanted to talk to him about.

Jared regarded the form, then swiveled back around. “If anyone had any doubt he was one of us, that killed it.”  He remarked. “And it killed him.” He looked at Dev. “I just kept the machines on so you could.. um.” He paused and faltered as Dev’s eyes filled with tears.  “Ah, sorry.” He ended in a mutter.

People died in here, all the time.  Jared wasn’t used to anyone reacting to it, even when long time friendships were lost and partnerships ended.  Their lives just didn’t allow for that.

Much.

“Gosh I’m sorry Dev.” Clint said, in a small voice.

Most of the agents looked down, or away.  Most of the techs moved closer.  Doug reached over to pat her on the arm.  It was a little uncomfortable.

Embarrassing.  Dev felt hideously alone there, sensing that.  She hastily wiped at her face, and tried to think about something else.

But then Jess moved closer and put her arms around Dev, pulling her close in a hug and she turned and buried her face into Jess’s chest to get away from all those watching eyes.

“Ah, Devvie.”  Jess said, in a sad, and resigned tone. “Only thing I can tell ya is if he had to pick a way to go you know he’d pick that one.”

“I know.” Dev muttered softly. “But I’ll miss him so much.”

“Yeah, I know. Me too.” Jess rubbed her back.  “You want some of your other buddies to come up here too?”  She suggested. “Maybe we’ll sing him a song, something like that huh?”

Dev had to struggle to understand what her partner was asking. “Oh.” She finally murmured. “Yes.”

“I’ll go get some of them.” Clint muttered, turning and shoving his way out of the room.

“Damn that’s a real shame.” Jason finally said, awkwardly. “No shot, Jared?”

The doctor shook his head, looking uncomfortable. “It was a crapshoot even getting him here.” He said, giving April a little nod. “They redlined it.”

Jess could feel Dev sniffling against her and she felt a sense of deep sadness herself.  To have come as far as he had, and escaped all what they all had, to end like this?

A waste, and it was making Dev really unhappy. Jess remembered what she’d felt, in those minutes she’d thought Dev had blown up, and her brow creased.

She could see through the surface of the tank, at the still form that showed even through the liquid the scars of a lifetime that had been like hers. Blaster marks. The distinctive star shaped etching across the ribs that had been a metal spinner.

The dark, burned in marks of field ops missions, all down one arm and the fresher, new one she’d done herself.

A man who had lived and died by his own rules.  Who had worn his honor on his sleeve, literally.

Who had given his loyalty and love to her father and now she’d never get a chance to ask him why, really, he’d left though she thought she knew.

There were sounds behind her, and she looked over her shoulder as some bio alts entered, eyes wide with shock and horror and Cathy came in with them her eyes unapologetically reddened with tears.

His dying mattered.  Jess exhaled. His dying made a difference to all these people, herself included and it was a shame he wasn’t there to see it. “Okay.” She took the lead, because she had to. “We’ll sing him out. Then Jared can get his work done.”

They gathered close, all of them mingled together in common silence. 

**

Continued in Part 16