Of Sea and Stars

Part 4

Dev walked quietly through the doorway into the landing bay, producing brief smiles for the people inside who were doing various tasks but looked up to watch her pass. 

They seemed more curious than unfriendly, not bothering to hide their stares but she detected no danger from them which was a little surprising given that Jess had told her how much her kind were disliked here.

She wondered if it was the fact that she had her collar covered that made them less incorrect. After all, with her jumpsuit on, there was no obvious difference between her, and anyone else in the cavern.

There were a half dozen people around her carrier, all looking at it with some excitement, and Dev hesitated a little before she eased between them. “Excuse me.” She said, in an apologetic tone. “I have to get this craft ready to go.”

“Oh!” They sprang aside and the closest one to her held his hands up in what she was starting to recognize as a motion of surrender. “Hey sorry! We’re just looking at it. It’s so cool.”

These were younger natural born, she realized. Not quite children but not quite grown. “It’s no problem.” She reassured them. “I think it’s pretty cool too.”   She triggered the unlock for the hatch and watched it open. 

“Can we see inside?”  The same one asked. “Please? We won’t touch anything I promise!”

Dev regarded them for a moment. “Yes, but please just stand near the door and don’t go near anything.” She climbed up into the carrier and walked past the weapons station, turning to watch them cautiously poking their heads inside to see.

They were younger than she was she thought, all with shoulder length hair or longer pulled back into a bundle that hung down their backs.  They were angular and long limbed, and dressed in roughly made coveralls well worn. 

“Is that where Jess sits?” One of them pointed at the weapons console.  “With all the triggers?”

“Yes.” Dev sat down in her own station and started up the flight sequence.  “That is where Jess sits.” She watched them in the reflector as she started up the pre checks, observing the battery soak and preparing to switch to internal power.

“Wow.”  Cautiously, the one who’d spoken to her first stepped up slowly into the carrier, keeping his hands tucked under his arms as he looked at the console. “Can I sit there, just for a second?”  He gave her an appealing look. “Please?”

Dev was finding this a little funny.  “Yes, but just for a moment, as Jess will be here soon.” She warned. “And she usually wants to leave quickly.”

He sat down behind the console, staring at the pads, and the pull down handholds avidly. “Wow.” He repeated.  “Rad.”

One of the others had creeped up along the wall of the carrier, looking at the pilots station.  “That’s a lot of stuff” He said, in an impressed tone.  “Wow. How long did it take you to learn how to work all of it?”

Dev regarded him with mild bemusement.  “Well.  Actually about a week, to be honest.  But I am a biological alternative, after all. We learn like that.”  She observed his reaction with interest, then looked around to see what the others thought.

All of them looked at her.  The two inside, and the two outside, their eyes opening wider. “You are?”  The one near her asked. “Really?”

“Yes, really.”  Dev slid her ear cups into place.  “I was born in space.”

“Really???”  The boy almost squeaked in excitement.  “I didn’t know that’s where they all came from. In space? Like, way up there?”  He leaned back against the wall of the carrier, cautiously. “Above the clouds?”

Dev staged the engines for pre-start and half turned her chair.  “Yes. I am from Biologic station 2. It’s where all bio alts are from.”  She glanced out the window, slightly relieved to see Jess’s tall figure enter from the hallway.  “Are you all from here?”

“Yes.”  The boy sitting in Jess’s seat nodded. “We’re all Bay rats.  My dad works in security.” He stuck his hands in is pockets. “You’re really cute.” He added, with a grin. 

Possibly incorrect, she thought.  “Thank you. You are reasonably attractive as well.”  Dev responded. “I think you should probably go outside now however, as we are getting ready to leave.” She paused, but they all just shuffled their feet. “And I hear Jess approaching.”

That got them moving, as they hopped out of the carrier just as she did, in fact, hear the distinctive sound of Jess’s boots on stone outside.

“Hey.”  Jess’s voice sounded. “What are you runts doing in there?”

Dev dutifully got up and went to the hatch opening.  “It’s okay, Jess. They wanted to see the inside of our craft.”  She explained.  “I allowed it.”

The kids were all scampering off the metal landing pad, shoulders hunched a little as they escaped Jess’s glare. They paused and peeked back though, as they got past the power converter.

“Mmph.”  Jess rambled inside as Dev backed up to let her enter. “Kids.”

Dev gave the boys a little wave, and shut the hatch door.  “They were relatively pleasant. They seemed impressed at your station and one of them called me cute.”   She made her way back to the pilots station.

“What??”

Dev looked over her shoulder, to see her partner glowering. “Was that incorrect, really? I was wondering if it was.” She asked, with a slight frown.

Jess sat back in her chair and exhaled. She reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose, then she visibly forced herself to relax.  “No, it’s fine, Dev.”  She said. “They get points for good taste.  Did they want anything besides that?”

“Just to see inside of this craft.”  Dev said. “They were only here a minute or so.”  She regarded Jess in silence for a moment.  “You look very attractive in that clothing.”

In the act of drawing a breath, Jess paused, one eyebrow shifting upward. “I do?”

Dev nodded. 

Jess glanced down at herself.  Instead of her usual black jumpsuit she’d put on a thickly woven pullover in Drake’s Bay colors and a pair of sharkskin pants tucked into her regulation boots. “They told me not to freak out the civ council more than I had to.” She admitted. “So I found this in a drawer in one of the store rooms.”

“I like the colors.”  Dev said, swiveling around in her seat and preparing the carrier for flight. 

Comms crackled. “Tac 2 to Tac 1.”

Jess pushed her comm link into place. “Tac 1. Go ahead.”

April and Doug were on patrol outside, searching for the downed mini transport.  “Tac 1, target spotted, endit.”

“Stand by we’ll join you.”  Jess got her restraints in place. “Let’s fly, Dev.  We’ll check out what the kids found first and then head over to the meeting.” She settled back as she felt the carrier shift under her, watching the forward view in her screens as Dev prepared to take them out.

She felt a bit uneasy with all the change, and at the prospect of staying here at the Bay for a while.  It felt like things were slipping away from her, and though Alters had confidently sold her on commanding the small force he ordered up she wasn’t sure how that all was going to turn out.

She wasn’t sure she was that kind of leader, outside being responsible for herself and Dev, or maybe just the kids.

A lot of other agents were going to get a chance to move ahead at base now. Jess scowled.  Just when things were going really good for her too.

“Jess?”

“Mm?”  Jess looked up as they exited the cavern and into free air, a morning of only drifting mist lacking a storm for a change.  The wind was only thrumming gently against the hull, as Dev banked around and started for the outer edge of the half circle Bay.

“I can stay here with you, correct?”  Dev asked, after she finished the maneuver. “You said you were not going back to the citadel.”

Jess went still for a moment, her mind racing, going over what Alters had told her. What had he said? He was sending a force, she’d be in charge…. Had he inferred anything at all about Dev? That he’d want her to go back to the base with him?

The sudden gut clench relaxed, as she replayed the conversation and confirmed to herself that nothing had been said about Dev, one way or the other. 

“Yes.”  She said finally, aware of how stiff Dev’s body had gotten.  “You’re my partner. That didn’t change just because they want me to be a boof head here for a while.”  She confirmed.  “And he didn’t mention anything again about us going topside.”

Dev remained briefly silent. “Excellent.” She said.  “I was worried about that this morning.”

That made Jess smile.  “That why you skipped breakfast?”

Dev glanced in the reflector, a sheepish expression on her face.  “Yes.”

Jess put her hands behind her head. “I’ll make it up to you when we get back.  Don’t worry Dev. You aint going no where. You’re mine.” 

That was excellent.  Dev got her course set in and maneuvered through the pass, spotting Doug’s carrier on the horizon. “There they are.”  She boosted a little, increasing their speed as they skimmed over the rocky ground.

It was rough, and wet, and there were layers of moss , spreading on either side of the blast area that they’d fired the night before.   There were small figures out there working, and she was low enough to see them stop, and look up as the carrier went over.  “What are they doing?”

“Scraping lichen.”  Jess glanced into the screen.  “Something I  never wanted to end up doing, tell you that. It’s hard work.”

Dev considered that. “Isn’t what we do hard?”

“Different kind of hard.”  Jess said. “That’s hard, and boring, and potentially death making.” She paused thoughtfully.  “Well, maybe it is a little like our jobs.” She admitted, with a wry smile. “Not so much boring I hope.”

“With you I never feel bored at all.” Dev reassured her. “No matter what we’re doing.”

Jess grinned to herself. “Aww thanks Devvie. Back atcha.”

Dev slowed the forward momentum as they came in range of the other carrier, and Doug backed off so they could see what the rookies found. There was a small outcropping of rock, and just past that, nestled behind the ridge was a compact craft.

She scanned it warily, one hand on the throttles in case the object decided to react to the energy sweep.   “This is a model 245B, standard small transport.”  Dev announced.

“Yeah.”  Jess had the specs on her console.  “New.”

Dev backed and went sideways around the craft, giving Jess a 360 degree view. The transport had no energy readback, naturally, since it was supposed to be stealthed and invisible to common land based searchers.

But not to airborne ones, and certainly not from Interforce craft.  Jess checked the outline. “You getting anything from it?” She asked. “Get closer.”

“No nothing.”  Dev cautiously lowered the carrier, watching her scanner intently. The transport was blended into the rock much like theirs would have been and as she got closer, she saw the energy return spike and abruptly boosted them back up, hitting the jets hard.

“Blurp.”  Jess grabbed her restraints as they lifted. “What was that fo.. oh crap.”

“Ware!” April’s voice came through the tie line, urgent and sharp, and Jess felt the carrier jolt into motion, the mains cutting in and driving them up between the ridges towards the sky a moment before a blast hit them on their lower shields and drove them further and faster upward.

“The craft exploded.” Dev explained somewhat unnecessarily, since the outer screens were still awash with energy flare. “It sensed this vehicle, I think.”

“Oh yeah.”  Jess was recording everything, watching the shield power and damping the return.  ‘Anything left?”

Dev arched around and started down again, seeing the visual of the scorched rock and shattered bits scattered now over the ground.  Where the transport had been was mostly rubble, and a few shards of twisted metal flung across the ridge.  “I don’t think so.”

“Bugger blew up!” Doug’s voice came through the comms. “Reminded me of those guys who were chasing us from the Pole.”

“No.”  Jess shook her head. “I’ve seen these do that. They’re programmed not to be found or searched like ours are. If someone had come near this thing and it knew it was one of them it would have blown up too.”

Dev glanced at her in the reflector. “With us in it?”

Jess chuckled. “No.”  She finished her scanning. “Well, no sense in hanging around here. You two want to land and see if there’s anything to be found? We’re heading for the council.”

“Will do.” April responded. “You don’t want an escort?”

Jess paused, then exhaled. “They asked me not to cause a ruckus.  It’s not that far. If we need backup, I’ll call. Till then watch everything.”

“Got it.” April clicked off.

Jess settled back in her seat. “Okay, Dev. Let’s go.”

Dev recalibrated the route and turned the carrier in an arc, boosting up to rise past the mountain ridge that housed Drake’s Bay and continue further inland.

Ahead of her the ground was craggy and uneven, bare mountains with valleys between them mostly filled with rock rubble, and sometimes water.

It seemed vast, and unfriendly. “Do people live here, Jess?”

“Define live.”  Jess was watching the screens. “Nothing really to live on.  Most of the scavengers live on the coast, picking up shore leavings that the processing center leaves behind. Or they hide in the hills and try to pick up scraps from places like the Bay.”

“That sounds unpleasant.”

“It is.”  Her partner agreed. “When I was going to bust out, I’d have ended up in one of the bunkers near the shore collecting seaweed and shellfish for the processing center.  I might have gotten bunk room at the Bay though, since I am a Drake.”

“I see.”

Jess regarded the ceiling for a moment in silence. “Actually given what my dad did I”d have gotten better than that. Woulda been a shocker for everyone.”  She sighed. “Glad it worked out like it did though. I got to meet you.”  She looked up to see Dev watching her in the reflector, a small, delighted smile on her face.

Jess felt a little warm spot inside her seeing that.  She winked at the reflection and saw her driver shift her attention, somewhat guiltily back to the controls and suddenly had to wonder if spending some time at the Bay with Dev wasn’t going to end up being kind of okay.

Since she didn’t have a choice anyway, right? Find a bright spot?  Should she get them some better digs?

Dev interrupted her musing,  having spotted a line of moving figures far ahead of them. “Oh, Jess look!”

A moment later Jess had bounded up next to her and knelt on the jumpseat, peering out the window. “Nomads.” She announced. “Big caravan of em.”

“Like April?”

Jess nodded.  “They travel between the homesteads, trading.  They pick up stuff in Quebec, trade it in the Bay, then they move off to the next place. I remember liking them when I was small. They usually had candy.”  Her eyes twinkled a little, and she got up and went back to her station, starting a capture.

Dev magnified the view, examining the moving line.  There were big, square vehicles being pulled by smaller ones, and walking people surrounding them.  Most had sticks, all were wrapped in layers of fabric.

The carrier was catching up rapidly to them, and she saw the ones in the back turn to look at them, then slowly the whole train stopped and watched as they overflew it .

“Got the shields on, Devvie?”

Dev glanced back. “Yes, but do you think they will try to injure us?” She sounded surprised. “We haven’t done anything to them.”

“Nomads are only friends to nomads. The rest of us are marks.”  Jess nudged one of the controls on her board, and took a scan.  ‘They’ll steal you blind if they can. We had to put a watch on them every time they stopped at the Bay.”

Hm.  Dev filed that away for future knowledge. “But April seems pleasant.”

Jess chuckled. “Only you would consider a nomad ops agent pleasant my friend.”  She saw nothing else in the scan to concern her, and let her head rest against the chair as she closed her eyes.  “She’s nice to me because she figures I’m her ticket to elevation. She’s nice to you because she knows I’ll wipe the floor with her if she isn’t.”

“Would you?”

“Absolutely.”

Dev didn’t think so. Not that Jess wouldn’t make someone hurt if she thought it was necessary, but that April only acted in a pleasant way because she was forced to.   She thought the other agent liked Jess and interacted with them because she enjoyed it.

But there was no sense in being contradictory.  It was already shaping up to be a somewhat incorrect day.

**

The council was held in the remains of an old stone construct, perched on a ridge amidst the rubble and destruction of what was once a city where people lived, back when there had been people and cities.

As they approached, Dev slowed the carrier, pitching it forward just a little so she could see what they were flying over.

The pattern of the city could still be seen.  Roads and buildings, some collapsed into bits, others partially standing filled the horizon.

In some of the buildings, she could see signs of life.  Bits of cloth fluttering in the wind and motion in and out of doorless doorways.   “What happened here, Jess?”

“Huh?”  Jess opened one eye and peered through the window. “Oh. Same thing that happened everywhere. Everyone croaked. Or left and went to the coast.”

“But there are people there.”

“Uh huh.” The agent agreed. “Trade for some scraps from the nomads, trap a bird now and then. Some of them sitting on old caches of freeze drieds. When they runs out they’ll croak too.” She shifted a little. “Some of them scrape up moss and lichen from the rocks, eat that, and bugs. Usually they show up when councils due, and beg.”

That sounded very incorrect.  Dev grimaced a little, as she maneuvered.  They were heading up a short slope to the ridge, where she could see flyers parked and the far off moving dots of people at the entrance.

“That used to be a bank.”  Jess remarked. “You know what that is?”

“Yes.”  Dev slowed again, and started studying the ground for sufficient space to land. “I had that in basic history.”

“At the end, it was just digital bits.  But they used to build these huge vaults to make everyone believe they were permanent and untouchable.  Morons.” The agent sighed. “But at least they built them from stuff that wouldn’t degrade.”

And, in fact, the building they were heading for did seem complete.  It had steps leading up from the rubbly ground that appeared functional, and behind the overhang she could see two doors flung wide open.

Even with the bottom of the steps was open ground.  “Put it down over there.” Jess told her. “Try not to squash anything. Those are expensive.”

Dev located a flat area past where the flyers were parked and aimed for it.  “Yes.” It was not quite even, but the carrier landing systems could handle that and she cut the mains as they drifted over, aware there were figures standing outside staring at them.

Jess chuckled. “Bet most of them never saw one of these close up before.”

The carrier landing jets fired as Dev set them gently down, sending up a cloud of steam as the jets heated the ground water.  She extended the skids and felt them level underneath them with a gentle rock.  “So, what occurs here now?” She asked, securing the engines.

Jess had unhooked her restraints and stood up.  “Have no clue.” She admitted. “Every quarter year all the stakeholders meet up and talk about crap.  I’ve got word from Interforce they suspended the rule that keeps us from being stakeholders and that’s going to piss them all off, but beyond that I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

“I see. “

“Stakeholders are not supposed to bring outsiders but screw it. You’re coming with me.”  Jess concluded. “So put your snazzy jacket on and let’s go cause a riot.”

Dev was pleased at being included but not so much about being in a riot which, according to her programming, was both uncomfortable and  possibly dangerous.  Nevertheless, she shut down the carrier and retrieved her portable scanner and outer garb and joined Jess at the hatch.

The agent was stowing a hand blaster in her belt at the small of her back, pulling the woven fabric over it to make it unobtrusive.  Then she brushed the sleeves down and hit the hatch, pausing to let the ramp unfold before she led them both out and onto the rocky ground.

Dev realized as she stepped on it that it wasn’t natural rock, but something like the ground inside the landing bays. “This is made stone.” She observed.

“Concrete.” Jess agreed. She put her hands in the pockets of her pullover and started across the landing space, already aware that they were collecting attention fast.  “C’mon.”

At the top of the stairs leading into the old stone building a group of people were standing, all of them half turned to watch the two Interforce operatives approach.

They walked past the flyers. Figures crouched on the lee side of them watched them pass, staring at them intently.

“Pilots.” Jess strolled along ignoring all of them.  They got close enough to see the faces of the people on the steps, and she grinned a little, understanding the looks of anger there.

Being the senior stakeholder of a homestead was a big deal.  There were only, probably, two dozen of them scattered up and down the eastern coast, all of them under the nominal protection now of Base 10.

Some were larger, some smaller, but all of them were centers of humanity and each of the stakeholders were the ones who controlled the commerce between them. Were responsible for collecting valuable items, running fishing boats, making deals with nomads, whatever it took to take control of resources to feed their residents and gain cred.

Drake’s Bay was one of the largest homesteads, and being right on the coast, had access to resources some of the others did not.  Jess understood that her family had a relatively privileged existence, and were more comfortable than many.

Died more often than most in the cause, of course, but still. Though her own life would have been one of hard labor up until she’d grown into the shares system if she ever had if she hadn’t gone for Interforce.

People worked hard at the Bay. Everyone got something out of it, housing, food, med if they needed it, but the people who got the most were Drakes since the shares were all tied to the family, passed down between the generations hopefully to those who had the best chance of keeping things quo.

But in the family, everyone wanted to be the Drake. The one who made the decisions, and when there wasn’t a clear senior stakeholder, it went by committee so at least some of the family got to rule the roost.  There wasn’t a contingency for what had happened with her.

Interforce took you? You were gone. No participation in the stakehold until you retired and went civ. After you stopped getting paid by them, and supported by them, when you were fully back in the fold and could be expected to make decisions based on what was best for the family without a conflict in interest.

Justin had made them uneasy.  He’d brought an outsider viewpoint back with him and Jess remembered the fights behind those kitchen doors when she’d made her brief visits after he’d been to council and pissed everyone off.

Hadn’t played the game with them, hadn’t been a dealmaker, hadn’t backed down from any of them in the big arguments because after all, he was not only the Drake, but an inactive ops agent.

Everyone knew they were crazy and even retired Justin had that edge, and that temper.

Her? Jess chuckled without much humor.

“Are you going to tell these people about the plants?”  Dev asked, suddenly. “My research indicated this meeting involves commerce.”

“No.”  Jess said. “They told me not to say anything.” 

They reached the bottom of the steps and started up them, as a thin, brassy bell rang.   The people on the steps above them turned and started to move inside, a few lingering at the entry until they reached the top and joined them.

The largest of these stood squarely in their path, and obviously meant to intercept them. He was tall and broad shouldered, with a thick beard and tawny colored hair pulled back into a knot at his neck. “Drake?”

Jess paused and regarded him, their eyes on a level.  “That would be me, yes.”

“Dan Furstan, Niagara Holding.” He said briefly.  “What’s the deal at the Bay?  We’ve heard all kinds of stories.”

Jess held up a portable comp chit.  “I’d rather only go through this once.” She said, but in a mild tone.  Niagara was one of the stakeholds they were relatively friendly with, according to the brief, crabbed notes she’d dug up.  “But it’s good to meet you.”

That got a tiny, wry smile from him. “Justin was a friend.” He acknowledged as he turned aside to let them walk on.  “And he didn’t have many.”

“No.” Jess returned the smile. “We never do.”  She glanced to the side. “This is my tech, Dev.”

Dan studied the slight figure standing next to Jess. “Not sure she’s welcome.”

“Not sure I care.” 

“You’re definitely Justin’s get.” His smile broadened a little. “Going to be an interesting council for a change.”

**

Dev spent some time examining the chamber, as she perched on a seat next to the bigger one Jess was sitting in.  

The room was filling up with people, who were spread out across the large, round space that was empty in the middle, and surrounded by chairs separated by dusty dividers that went all around the perimeter.

It seemed that each space was allocated to a stakehold, and they had carvings in them in the stone that indicated which one belonged to which homestead.  The one they were sitting in had the image of the snake like thing she recognized from Drake’s Bay and had space enough in it for about a dozen people, seats of various sizes and construction.

The other sections were the same, and all of them were more full of people than theirs was.   Overhead there was a dome and in the dome the kind of clear surface from the big stairwell at Jess’s place let in outside light.

It was quite attractive.  The railings around them were the same substance as the table in Jess’s kitchen and they felt warm to the touch.  The chairs were also the same, but in in the other areas some were covered in a thick covering. “Jess…”

“Those are bearskin, yes.”  Her partner answered as though reading her mind. “Sorry about that.”

Now, how did Jess know she was going to ask about it?  Dev peered at the agent with interest. Could Jess read her mind?  “I understand the need to use all resources, Jess. I am wearing the skin of an animal myself.”

Jess looked at her. “So you don’t think they’re cute anymore?”

“I did not say that.”

Jess chuckled briefly. “It’s a sign you’ve got cred.” She said. “Those things cost like crazy. “  She stretched her legs out and leaned her elbows on the chair arms which were bare of any fuzzy substance.  “Never got much traction at the Bay.”

“Because the animals are attractive?”

Jess tilted her head a little.  “Boats bring in the skins sometimes.” She admitted. “I think the idea was, you sold it for hard cred, you didn’t keep it to use.”

“I see.”

“Sorry about that, Devvie.” Jess reached over and patted her on the leg. “Having seen those cubs, I couldn’t use one now either.”

Across from them there was a section that was just now getting occupied, with rather more people than the rest of them, filling the space completely and taking up all the seats.   

“Quebec City.”  Jess nodded at them.  “They’re the biggest group in council. Only major town on this side of Atlantia.”

Dev studied the group with interest, since that was one of the few places she’d been to. The people who filled the section were all dressed in colorful garments and made a show of dusting off the chairs before they sat down.

“Maybe we can get started now.”  Jess theorized. “I think that was the last bunch they were waiting for.”  She straightened up a little.  “Looks like they’re bringing around some drinks.”

Without being asked, Dev scanned the tray being passed, running the results through her biologic analyzer.  “Jess, that is leaf tea.”  She paused, as the man offering the beverage stopped in front of them and Jess stood up to retrieve two cups.

The man looked at the two of them, then at the cups.  “Council members only.” He stated gruffly.

Jess smiled. “Going to take it away from me?” 

 “We have rules here.”  He returned her stare boldly.  “Everyone follows them, even Drakes.”

Jess turned and handed a cup to Dev, then she turned back to face him.  “Ever had an active Interforce ops agent be a councilmember?” She watched him frown. “Here’s a clue. We come as a pair. We put our lives on the line for you dirtgrubbers every day. Don’t grudge someone I regard as family a cup of damned tea.”

Her voice was quiet, but serious and lacked it’s usual mocking tone and after a brief moment, he nodded and turned away to take his tray on down the line.  

Jess resumed her seat, inspecting her cup with a suspicious sniff.  “Did you mean this is real, old timey tea?”

“Yes.” Dev took a sip of it.  “I’m sorry if my being here is incorrect.”

“I’m not.”  Jess took a swallow of the beverage and licked her lips thoughtfully. “It’s okay. I think I like sea grape better.”

“Me too.” Dev agreed. “I have had leaf tea before but it was a different kind than this.”

“Want some honey in it.” Jess glanced around the chamber, with a slightly mocking smile, their almost empty section now almost awkwardly obvious.  “Rest of them bring guards, and spongers.  They shouldn’t say a word about me bringing you.”

A silver haired women in a lined overtunic went to the middle of the open space and held up a little device, moving it and producing a tinkling tone.  “To order.”

Comp had very little information on the council, so Dev sharpened her attention, ready to learn something new.  She could see some of the others watching Jess, and in the section next to them the man who had spoken to Jess was laughing at something.

The silver haired woman put the device down on the wooden podium she was standing next to and put her hands on the top of it.  “Eastern Seaboard council, fourth quarter,  year three hundred fifty two.”

Jess put her tea down on the small table at the edge of their section and sat up.

The woman looked directly at her. “First order of business, let’s get this straightened out. I am told there is a change of stakeholder at Drake’s Bay?”

“No bullshit. I like it.”  Jess got up and went to the rail, putting her hand on it and vaulting over it.  The round section in the middle was a body length down and she landed lightly, walking over to the podium and extending her hand with the comp chip in it.  “Jesslyn Drake.”

The woman took the chip gingerly.  Then she walked over to an old console in the center of the back of the circle and inserted it.

“You’re active Interforce.”  One of the men in a section had stood up and was facing her. “Not allowed by reg.”

Jess had her hands folded in front of her, and now she shrugged slightly. “They’re our regs.” She said. “We can change them.”

A low murmur went up around the circle.  Dev watched everyone carefully, keeping her scanner down below the edge of the railing tuned for energy flares.   

“Not fair, Drake.” The man objected. “You’ve got an elected stakeholder there.”

“Not anymore.”  She smiled briefly. “Jimmy’s no longer with us.”  She folded her arms over her chest, rotating a little to scan the circle.  “He made one bad deal too many.”

The woman behind the console looked up, clearing her throat. “This seems in order.” She sounded profoundly surprised. “You have the legitimate number of shares.”

“Dad was a stickler for details.”  Jess agreed. “That was Justin Drake. He coded his shares to my civ profile.”

The woman looked at the screen. “They were transferred. I see that.”

“She’s Interforce.” The man said. “Active duty!”

“They, as in Interforce have released the sanction. It’s their sanction, not ours.”  The woman told him sounding even more surprised. . “Authorized by the directorate in Pichu.” She looked back at the records.  “Their intent is for Agent Drake to remain in control of the stakehold.”

A lot of voices now rose.  Dev set her device to record them, incase Jess wanted to inspect them later, as Jess returned to the railing, then leaped up and grabbed it, hauling herself up and over it and back into the chair she’d started from in an easy motion.

“These individuals are not pleased.”  Dev commented.

Jess chuckled, folding her hands over her stomach, watching the rest of the room stand and mill around in their sections talking loudly, fully aware that no amount of discussion could actually change the facts she’d just recorded.

They couldn’t vote her out, couldn’t lodge a protest, couldn’t even legally draw a suit about it and any of them who might have wanted to do something more direct and physical had the simple fact that she was, in fact, active Interforce to deal with.

The rest of them had brought guards. Big, bulky figures with clubs at their belts and old, well cared for blasters in holsters at their hip.  Murders weren’t unknown, and more than one stakeholder argument had ended in bloodshed, or gotten into trouble either coming or going to the council.

The closest thing they had to law was Interforce Security and their own guards and even Interforce Security would think twice before crossing Jess.

Jess was more trouble than most of them wanted to deal with. So she smiled benignly at the crowd, and relaxed, waiting for all the chaos to die down so they could start plowing through whatever the agenda was.  She glanced at Dev, who was busy watching everyone around them, finding her profile unexpectedly engaging.  “Hey Dev.”

The pale, sea colored eyes went to her at once.  “Yes?”

“Whatcha doing?” 

Dev scooted to the edge of her chair and shared her scanner screen, still holding it down low so it couldn’t be seen. “I was recording this for you, and also, running some bio scans on these individuals. None of them seem related to you.”

Jess laughed. “Did you expect them to be?”

“Well.” Dev started to answer, then paused as the woman in the center of the room rang the tinkling device again.

“Show me later.”  Jess patted her knee and returned her attention to the council.  “Bet most of them are related to sea cucumbers.”

Sea cucumbers. Dev frowned, and sent a quick search into the scanner’s memory, then relaying the request to the carrier.   She looked at the picture it returned, then looked at the people, then looked at Jess.

**

It was nice to get back outside.  The weather had turned colder, but the clouds seemed to have thinned a little, and there was less moisture on the air than there had been. 

Three of the other stakeholders had pulled Jess aside to talk to her, and they were standing at the bottom of the steps while the others dispersed to their flyers. 

Dev was standing politely out of voice range waiting for her partner to finish her discussion.  She was close enough to one of the flyers to study it,  the craft designed for five or six people, boxy and squat near the ground.

Unattractive.  She had her scanner slung over her shoulder and her hands in her pockets to keep them warm, the wind sweeping across the landing pad stinging her cheeks.

“Hey.” 

Dev waited, then glanced to one side, finding one of the pilots of the flyers staring at her.  It was a female, with thick red hair and freckles covering her face.  “Hello?”

She had a rust red jacket on, with yellow trim, and a patch that was half black and half white circles with a large capital A in the center.  “You from the Bay?”

Dev considered the question briefly before she answered. “Jess and I came from there before this location, yes.” 

‘True she offed JD?”

That required some cursory translation. “Yes.”  Dev replied after a long pause.

“That’s cold.” The pilot said. “Drakes are mean bastards.”

Dev flexed her hands inside her pockets, surprised to find herself getting angry at the statement. “I have not found Jess to be mean at all.” She disagreed.  “She is my partner, and has been very kind to me.”

The woman’s eyes flicked to her jacket collar, where her tech’s insignia winked in the dim light.  “No harm no foul, tech.  Don’t blame you for volunteering.  It’s a good paycheck and a decent bed. I signed up myself but didn’t have the stomach for it.”

Dev glanced back, to see Jess still in conversation with the others.  She turned back around to face the pilot.  “Do you like flying that vehicle?”  She indicated the flyer.  “It seems robust.”

The woman relaxed, moving closer. “Ah it’s a pig.” She admitted, giving Dev a smile. “Nothing like what you parked over there.” Her chin jerked towards the carrier, lodged in baleful silence at the back side of the space.  “These things are short haul taxies. Furthest I’ve flown is Quebec.”

“I have been there also.” Dev saw the other pilots that were left drifting over. There were only three or four of them, and she wasn’t worried about them, but she shifted her position enough to keep them in view and Jess as well.  “But we have been further than that.  To the North Pole, and some other places.”

“I bet.” The woman grinned. “Hey, so what’s your name?  I know it’s not Drake. You don’t look nothing like em.”

“Dev.”  Dev extended a hand politely. “And yours?”

“Charlene. But them all call me Pepper.”  The woman returned the clasp and released her. “I’m from Niagara.”

Dev considered that. “Some of the other techs like to call me Rocket.” She admitted.  “And I’m from Bio Station 2, in high earth orbit.”  She stuck her hands back into her pockets, since the air was getting ever colder.  “Getting used to the weather was interesting.”

“Wow.”  Pepper said.  “You’re from space? For real?” She half turned to the watching pilots. “Get that?”

“Yes.”  Dev agreed.

“That’s the science station.”  One of the male pilots said. “My brother flies the shuttles. That’s where bio alts come from.”

Dev nodded. “Yes, we do.”  She said, then stopped speaking, interested to see what the reaction would be, accepting the stares now directed at her.

“You’re a bio?” Pepper asked, her voice heavy with disbelief. “No way.”

“I heard Ten got one.” The man said.  “Some special kind.” He added. “New.”

“Yes.  I am NM-Dev-1.”  Dev supplied. “That’s New Model, Developmental.”  She added. “So it’s true I am not a standard type.”

‘Surprised they let you at the Bay.” The man said, his voice slightly chilly. 

“I am Jess’s partner.” Dev responded, not without a touch of pride in her tone. “I have been treated well there.”

“What’s going on here?” Jess’s voice interrupted them, as the agent came over and stood next to Dev. “You making some friends, Devvie?”

“I was asking them about these craft.”  Dev explained. “Are you finished with your discussion?”

“Yeah.” Jess leaned her arm on Dev’s shoulders, watching the pilots with slightly narrowed eyes. “Time to get back to the ranch.  C’mon.” She nudged the bio alt towards the carrier.

“Goodbye.”  Dev turned and headed for her craft, aware the other pilots were watching them closely, most of them staring at Jess.     They crossed the uneven ground, moving between the flyers as they walked along in silence.

“Get outta here!” A loud voice made them both turn their heads and look, to find one of the pilots throwing a rock at some ragged figures, who scurried quickly away and ducked behind some of the rocky rubble scattered around the open space. 

They ran too fast for Dev to really see them, but as she peered in that direction, a small head poked around one of the rocks and then disappeared seeing she was watching them.  “Jess did you see that?” She pointed at the rock.

“I did.” Jess cleared her throat. “Just some juvies. Don’t worry about them. They’ll stay back now that the wingers are tossing rocks at them.”

“What are they?”

“Kids.”

Dev peered past her partner. “Children?”

“Yeah.”  Jess palmed open the carrier, and hopped inside.

“Drake!” 

A call came from outside, and Jess paused and ducked her head back out as Dev squirmed past her.   “Ah crap.  Get this bus started.”  She stepped back outside to meet the oncoming figure while Dev moved up into her seat and sat down.

Out the front window, she could see the rubble, and as the pilots went to make their machines ready she saw the heads cautiously raise up past the rock to see.

They were mostly bare, and she could see them shivering, their sunken eyes watching avidly as the flyers got ready to leave, glancing at the council chamber in impatience.

What were they doing?   Dev turned the recorders on, getting up from her seat and going to the hatch. 

Jess was outside, talking to the man from Niagara.  “Problem, Devvie?”  Jess asked, as she emerged. 

“No, just wanted to check something.”  Dev went around to the rear of the carrier and opened a hatch, looking past it to watch the two children.   From the angle she was at she could see they were anxiously watching the flyers,  looking at the building every little while. 

She could see their bodies in profile, and it seemed to her they were exceedingly thin, their ribs visible through rents in the rags barely covering them.   One of them turned to look at her, and then Dev found their eyes meeting for a long moment.

Then the other child grabbed hold of the one looking at her, and tugged them towards the building. They scampered through the rubble and dodged past the last of the flyers, heading up the steps on their hands and knees and disappearing inside.

Dev closed the hatch thoughtfully, and returned inside.

“So anyway, Drake.” Furstan said. “That’s what Jimmy said, at the last quarter. Something about some project at the Bay. You know what he was talking about? He said it was big money, and I got the sense he sold that to Quebec.”

Jess knew he was watching her closely.  “Quebec said they wanted to talk to me on the side.” She admitted. “Maybe it’s related. Don’t know.”  She could see the tall, thin, jet black haired rep from the city waiting past Dan and felt a sense of impatience at all the politicking. 

“How long are you going to be at the Bay? Maybe we’ll come over to visit.” Furstan said.

“Don’t know. “ Jess shrugged. “You know Interforce.”  She started to take a step back towards the carrier, hearing Dev spooling the engines. “Speaking of, I gotta go.”

“Drake!” The rep from Quebec waved a hand at her.

“Got a call. Need to move.” Jess escaped into the carrier. “Send comms.” She hit the hatch control and dropped into her seat, growling a little. “Stupid crap.”  She slapped her restraints in place. “Get moving Dev, before another idiot tries to bang on the door.”

Dev obediently got the engines going, hitting the landing jets and boosting the carrier up and off the concrete. There were still two flyers on the ground, and she could see the man who had been talking to Jess and the tall man from Quebec talking to each other near one of them.

She turned off the external sensors as they rose up out of audible range and she gently drifted over the big building, circling it before she laid in the course back to Drake’s Bay. 

“What did you think, Dev?”  Jess asked.  “Bunch of crap ass, huh?”

Dev glanced at the reflector.  “I was confused.” She admitted. “I wasn’t really at all sure what was going on.”

“No, me either.”  Jess sighed. “Furstan suspects something.”

“About the plants?”

“About something. He wants to come visit.”  Jess shook her head. “And Quebec City.  Jostar hinted they had a signed deal with us for something.”  She released the belts and got up, moving restlessly over to the drink dispenser.  ‘Those pilots say anything to you?”

“Not really, no.”  Dev leveled the craft and programmed into their destination. “We were just talking about the aircraft.”  She set the scanners and shifted back into her seat, one ear cocked to listen for Jess.

They headed down the slope from the ruined city, and she could feel the wind rising as it tugged against the profile of the carrier.  Ahead of them was a flat rocky stretch with jagged hills on either side, and a large body of water in the distance. 

It was dark and light grays, greens and the flat black blue of the water and as they started over it the rain started coming down.

Jess came over and claimed the jumpseat, handing over  cup of  kack as she extended her legs out along the floor.   She tipped her head back and regarded the wash of water cascading over the forward shield, the faint rumble of thunder coming through the plas.  “Ah Dev.”

“Yes?”  Dev had been adjusting  her ear cup, and now she ran a quick eye over the auto pilot before she focused more intently on her partner. “You seem upset.”

“I am.”  Jess admitted. “I don’t like all this.  I want to go back to the citadel.”

Dev decided that fit how she felt as well. “It would be good to be in our space.” She agreed. “It’s more comfortable than the quarters they assigned us at your place.”

Jess remained thoughtfully quiet, her brows twitching a little.

“And I kind of miss the pool.” The bio alt concluded. “I thought my last session was pretty successful.”

“Yeah.”  Jess finally sighed.  “I forget sometimes that I’ve spent more time there than I ever did at home.” She paused. “At the Bay, I mean.  Crap I left when I was five.  I think I spent a total of two months there since then.”

Dev watched her from the corner of her eye, the turned up collar of the pullover giving her a different profile. “Are you in discomfort over it?” She hazarded a guess.

“Yes.” Jess answered. “Well, no. I mean… “ She made a low noise in her throat. “I don’t know.”  She cradled her cup in both hands, drawing her knees up and resting her elbows on them in oddly cramped discomfort. “It’s weird.”

Dev trimmed the engines, her eyes flicking over the boards. “I think I understand. It would be weird for me if I had to go back to the crŹche.”  She said. “It would cause me discomfort, because I’m used to something different now.”

“We treat you like one of us.”  Jess was glad to shift the focus from her squirminess to Dev’s.

“No.” Dev shook her head faintly. “You don’t really, Jess. You always know what I am, and so does everyone else at the base. What is different is that I have the ability to interact with you freely. You don’t know how I’m expected to react.”

Jess puzzled over that for a few minutes.  “Huh?”  She finally said. “What does that mean?”

Dev turned her head and regarded her partner. “What I just said to you? If I had said that to a proctor, in the crŹche I would have been taken in for some adjustment. They do not want me to understand as well as all that.”

Jess blinked at her.  “What the hell?” She said. “They make you super smart and then get mad when you are?” 

“Doctor Dan did that.” Dev smiled wryly.  “I’m not entirely sure everyone knew.” She admitted. “He told me once, when I wanted to ask some questions about programming that it was okay for me to ask him anything, but not my regular proctors.” She adjusted their course. “He said it would cause them discomfort.”

Jess felt slightly enlightened.  “You really are different.”  She mused. “NM-Dev.”  

Dev was about to answer, when the scanner alerted and she focused on the screens, since the forward shield was awash with rain. “There are people ahead.”  She said. “Some kind of conflict.”

Jess got up and went to her station, stripping off the pullover and hanging it over the back shelf, then exchanging the trousers she had on for a jumpsuit from the hatch against the back wall.  She seated herself and belted in, then pulled her screens closer. “Give me some juice.”

Dev shunted power to the weapons and activated the boards behind her, adjusting their course to approach and trimming the engines.  The scanner showed use of energy weapons and she boosted the power on the shields in case someone decided to direct them at the carrier.  

She studied the wiremap coming back. “Jess, here is the outline.” She sent the image back.

“Nomads.”  Jess said, after a brief pause.  “Looks like a wagon train on the road.” She scanned the energy pattern. “Someone’s shooting at them. Turn on the recorders, let’s fly over again and get a capture before we move on.”

“Aren’t we going to assist them?”  Dev asked.

“No. Not our business.” The agent responded briskly. “Just want to gather some intel.”  She looked up after a relatively long period of silence greeted her words, to see Dev watching her in the reflector, a studiously noncommittal expression on her face.

She knew what that meant.   She knew Dev well enough by now, after four months of service together, to know that her bio alt tech wanted to stop and help everything in her path including limping starfish and therefore thought Jess should do it too. 

Wasn’t in the cards. Wasn’t her gig.   She met Dev’s eyes in the reflector.  Interforce wasn’t a rescue service.

She drummed her fingers on the weapons console, wrenching her gaze from her partner’s with some effort and studying the wiremap instead.  “Must have been the group we overflew earlier.” She commented.

“They appeared to recognize this vehicle as we went over them.” Dev offered. “Could they be part of April’s family?”

Possible, not likely.  Carriers were extremely distinctive lumps of metal and it would have been smart for anyone traveling to make note of them.  She didn’t even know what tribe April had come from, never thought to check, didn’t actually care.

Didn’t matter, after all.

“I wonder if they might have heard about the plants” Dev suggested next.

Jess tried not to smile, but after a moment, she gave up.  “You’re a sneaky little bugger, Devvie.” She sighed. “Okay, take us down and let’s see who they are.”  She pulled down her targeting rigs and got her hands into the trigger gloves.

She felt the carrier respond immediately, as they went into a dive and she felt the grav on her, watching the scope as it showed them heading groundward at a slightly alarming pace.   She tapped comms. “Tac 2 on?”

Almost immediately Doug’s voice came back. “Tac 1, Tac 2 on station.”

“Mark loc.” Jess said.

“Marked.” Doug said.

April’s voice cut in. “Ops?”

“Jess, one minute.”  Dev said.

“Ack.”  Jess said into comms, then disconnected and got herself ready, watching the wiremap change to visual with enough clarity for her to identify what she was looking at.  “Standby for targeting.”  She identified the blaster sources, from a rocky outcropping off the flat surface that was once a road.

The nomad train, which it was, had their vehicles in a square and themselves inside it, firing back with hand weapons.  

Their attackers were using long range blasters, much higher power, and as she watched, they took out the side of one of the cargo wagons, sending it in pieces up into the air.   “Get between them and the nomads, Dev.”

“Yes.” Dev sounded happy.

“Lets hope they have no limping starfish.”

“Um… what?”

**

“Faster.” April was in her rig, thigh muscle jumping as she watched the screen, anticipating the fight to come.   Doug was in the pilots seat, giving the throttles a nudge as they shot between two craggy ridges and closed in on Jess’s last position.

“Not too fast, boss.” Doug had his eyes glued to the scan. “Last thing I want is to come around a corner and find Rocket coming right at us.”

“Boards’ll pick them up.”  April disagreed.

“Want to make book on that?” He responded. “Or that my rookie self can outfly her?”

April grunted as an answer, acknowledging the thought.  She’d sim’d pretty much every single flight and fight scenario comp had come up with but nothing quite matched the way Dev flew, they hadn’t been updated yet to accommodate her space born acrobatics.

Crazy weird.  After the run over to the other side they’d learned to keep well clear of their airspace and never to assume the bio alt would react as per the sims.

Never.

Dangerous, to anyone in the area, and on top of that she had hair trigger Drake on the guns who apparently did not have to think before shooting and trusted her instincts as to who was friend and who was enemy.

April thought that the outline of her carrier would mark them as friendly, but you never knew.  “Time?”

“Two minutes.”  Doug adjusted the pitch and moved a bit forward, getting his boots on the side thruster pedals and adjusting his grip on the throttles. 

It was raining, and misty, the clouds descending down between the hills and making visual almost useless.  He depended on the scan, and now, ninety seconds out, he got wiremap and picked up Rocket’s motion ahead of them. “There they are.”

A ripple of energy went through the boards as April brought her guns live.

“They’ve got target.”  Doug saw the blaster flare and adjusted their trajectory to arc in the same motion, leveling and dipping towards the ground.  “That escarpment, to the left. Big energy.”

“Got it.”  April was aware of the road, and the outline of the caravan but she disregarded it, assuming that Jess had defined friend and enemy accurately and they weren’t about to get shot in the ass.

Always a possibility though. “Watch our rear shields.”

“Bumped.”

Doug held his throttles ready, concentrating on the other carrier that was heading right on to the rocks at top speed.  The enemy fire had come off the road and was focused on Dev’s machine, the forward shields splashing diverted energy to either side.

Dev had her hard shield down and was flying blind, just on her scan.  Doug shivered a little, glad they were on a vector and not yet being targeted so he didn’t have to do the same.  April was used to targeting on the boards but he didn’t like not having true vision out the front.

“Tac 2, stand by for overshot.”  Dev’s voice cut into their comms, over the sideband that had come up when they’d come into range. “We will reverse course.”

Doug was relieved to hear the warning.  “Tac 1 copy taking hard cut south.”  He answered, getting ready to change course himself. “Hear that, boss?”

“Got it.” April said. “Glad she warned us.”

“No joke.”

With a shuddering boom, Dev’s carrier came over the escarpment hiding the enemy and cut both speed and power, the energy beams flying past them into air as she tumbled and rotated a hundred eighty degrees. 

Doug took his craft to a sharp right, blowing by the gun emplacement as April let loose and he saw Dev flash past them, releasing plasma bombs into the protected space the enemy was hiding in. 

“Ware.”  Dev’s voice cut in unexpectedly. “Energy release.”

“Oh crap.”  Doug hit the landing jets and boosted them up as he heard the crackling boom of an explosion so loud it vibrated through the skin of the carrier.  “They had a power sink.”

He hit the engines and sent them rocketing skyward, turning to the right and skimming over a rock wall then ducking down behind it as the explosion turned the air to fire.

Rocks started tumbling down the walls and the top edge of the crest disintegrated, rubble flying and impacting the outside skin of the carrier with pocks and pings as Doug flew them through it.  

“Get back there.” April said. “Though I’m guessing not much is left.”

“Nope.” Doug shifted the scan output to her boards as he slowed down and moved into a turn, now between two narrow canyon walls as he headed back to the battle area.   “Hey – look!” He saw a small flyer speeding away. 

“Follow em.” April brought her guns back up as the carrier bent around in another turn, and sped up.  “Tac 1, Tac 2, in chase.”

“Tac 2, ack.” 

**

Dev started damage routines running, getting alerts from some of the systems stressed by her flight maneuvers and the explosion they’d flown through.  They were high over the road now, coming back in a curved descent. 

“That was nice.” Jess was rubbing one shoulder. “I need to get padded straps though.”

“Did you take some damage?” Dev chanced a glance behind her.

“Better than us getting hit by that fireball.”  The agent said.  “That was a big one.”

“There was a lot of energy.” Dev returned her attention to the controls and did an overfly of the explosion site, the rocks scarred deep black with a significant ejecta that reached past the road.  “The scanner shows no biologic signs.”

“With that boom? I bet it doesn’t.”  Jess studied the output the screens.  “Go ahead and land on the road.”  She replayed the explosion with some sense of satisfaction, the two plas bombs she’d placed landing with pinpoint accuracy.

Nice.

“We’ll need to do a scrape once the temp drops.”  She commented. “Need to find out who those suckers were.” She adjusted the straps again. “Unless that’s what the kids are chasing.”

Dev brought the carrier around and dropped to ground level, slowing the mains as she approached the road that the wagons were still huddled over.  There were figures in motion, but they were behind the bulk of trucks as the rain started to come down harder.

She got the landing jets going, cutting the main engines as she slowly lowered the carrier to the ground, raising the hard shield up from the curved front nose, the sound of the jets covered by the rumbling thunder overhead.

The carrier settled onto it’s skids and she shut the external systems down, making sure the recordings were spooled to memory, and switching from battle scans to the systems that would watch their surroundings.  “Secure.”

“Mm.”  Jess relaxed, her eyes going to the front shield.  “They staying in their box?”

“Yes.”  Dev switched the forward scan back to Jess’s station.  “This storm is quite extensive”  She twitched a little when a lightning blast came out of the sky and slammed into the ground to the west of them.

Jess folded her hands over her stomach and leaned back in her seat. “We’ll wait then.” She said. “Lets see what happens.”

**

Doug leaned forward a little as the carrier wove through the canyon, the scanners locked on to the flyer struggling to stay ahead of them.    “Can’t be many of them in there. “  He repeated a sweep. “Two I think.”

“Two is two more than none.”  April carefully tuned her forward weapons.  “Get directly behind them, and level.”

He complied, dropping in behind the flyer and increasing power to the engines as they closed in.  “No markings. Unregistered.” He commented.  “Local though.”

“Local.”  April agreed.  She lined up her guns and took careful aim, dialing down the power as she got off a shot and hit the flyer in the engines.   It lurched and tumbled and she let off another shot, scorching the top of the craft as it slowed. 

“Nice.” Doug slowed with it and followed them down as they headed for the ground, lights starting to flash on the tips of the flyer’s wings.  “Scared.”

“Should be.”

He kicked in the jets and hovered as the flyer landed, turning on the lights on the bottom of the carrier to bathe the craft in a flat silver glare. 

The hatch on the side popped open and two figures tumbled out, holding their hands up. 

April chuckled audibly.  “Okay, I’m going to go out there.  Keep it hovering a little just in case they’re squirmier than they look.”   She got up and went to the weapons rack, seating her long rifle and putting handguns in both side holsters. 

Doug lowered the carrier to the ground and watched in the reflector, triggering the hatch when April gave him the hand signal to.  His agent hopped out, ignoring the lashing rain as she crossed the rocky ground.

Both of the figures were taller than April was, but Doug could see the apprehension in their eyes as his partner approached, full of that dark energy that was typical of the field agents.  They liked scaring people, he decided, opening the scanner and starting up the recorders.

April stalked them, glowering at the two of them as they took hesitant steps back.  Doug tuned the scanner higher, so he could hear what was going on.

“D.. don’t shoot us!”  The closer one stuttered.  “We give up.”

April paused and regarded them, seeing the lanky, angular frames and wide eyes.  “Who are you?”  She asked shortly.  “Why were you shooting?”

The closer one cautiously lowered his arms, then lifted one hand to shield his eyes from the rain. “Cooper’s Rock Holding. We were just guarding the road. They shot first.”

“Bet they didn’t.”  April disagreed. “There’s nothing here for a caravanserai to shoot at.” 

His nostrils flared. ‘They saw us getting in the gun cache.  Shot at us.” He admitted. “We were just getting back at them.”

April studied him. “What’s your name?”

“Jack.”

She glanced up as the thunder rolled over head, and a lightning blast turned the sky to silver. “Both of you, come with me.” She ordered.  “My senior ‘ll want to talk to you.”

“Who’s that?”

“Jess Drake.”  April smiled at the look of sudden apprehension on their faces. “She’s the one who blew that emplacement to hell so if I were you I wouldn’t bother to lie to her.”  She drew a handgun out and motioned to the carrier. “Move it.”

Jack looked behind him. “We can’t leave the flyer here.” He said. “Scavengers’ll strip it.”  He added. “We’ll follow you back.”

April looked skeptically at him.  “You willing to risk being blown out of the sky if I think you’re lying?”

The other boy edged up. “We’ll come witcha, Agent.  No screwing around. I want to go home to dinner.”

She let them wait for it, the rain pelting down on all of them. “Where’d you get those big blasters?”  She asked, finally, watching their eyes closely, especially the corners of them. The faces slacked, and relaxed a little, as they exchanged glances.

“Don’t know.” Jack said. “Been there a long time.  My daddy used to come out here and shoot rocks for fun with em.”

April fired her blaster at him, clipping his ear with it as he let out a shocked yell. “Don’t lie.”  She said. “I don’t have time for it. I’ll just blow your head off if you do it again.”

The other boy waved his hands at her.  “Homestead and Progets Cliff bought em. Had to beat off those damn pirates somehow. Stealing everything they get their hands on.” He said. “Been in like three months.”

April nodded. “That’s better. They weren’t here last time I came through her and that was a year back or so.  What pirates?”

‘Traders.” Jack had his hand over his ear and he was glaring at her sullenly. ‘DIdn’t have to do that.”

“Traders. Like nomad tribes?”  April asked in a mild tone. “Like the ones you shot at today?”  She watched the other boy nod hesitantly.   “Okay.  Follow me and we’ll go ask them about that.”  She holstered her gun.  “Tear off in another direction, we’ll take you down.”

“Okay.” The younger boy agreed. “C’mon Jack.”

“Fuck that.”  Jack muttered. “I’m going home.”

April removed her gun again, and this time shot him in the head.  He dropped to the ground, steam rising from the blast, face obliterated. “Sorry. He was really too stupid to be allowed to breed.” 

The younger boy had jumped aside.  “Shit.” He gasped. “You kilt him!”

“I did.” April agreed. “Now get in the flyer and follow me unless you want me to knock you over the head and bring you to the Drake naked.”

He turned and ran for the flyer. “Okay!”

April shook her head and headed back to the carrier, aware of Doug’s eyes watching her through the plas.  She gave him a slight wave, and went to the hatch, hopping up into the craft. “Morons.” She hit the hatch close.  “Mater always said Cooper’s mated with starfish.”

Doug prepared the carrier to fly.  “Seem like kids.”

“They are.”

“I was kinda stupid as a kid.” Doug commented.

“Good thing we didn’t cross paths until you grew up then.” April seated her restraints. “Make sure the  little bastard follows us.”

“Mm.”  Doug boosted on the jets and rotated, then started on a course back to the road. 

**

Jess slid into her issue jacket and put her hood up.  “I’m going to go talk to them.” She said. “Tired of sitting here.”

They’d only been sitting for a matter of five minutes, but Dev just nodded. “Shall I come with you?” 

“Nah.” The agent said.  “No sense in both of us getting drenched.  Just keep an eye on them for me and let out one of those cute yells of yours if they do something sketch.” She punched the hatch door and exited without waiting for Dev to answer.

Dev sighed and returned her attention to the wagons, which were still tightly shuttered and blocked any sign of their inhabitants.  The rain was coming down sideways and in waves that flowed over Jess’s tall, angular form as it made it’s way across the road’s rubble strewn surface.

Just shy of the front wagon the agent stopped and stood, her hands in her jacket pockets, head down a little, protected by the hood, being relentlessly pelted by the weather.

It seemed somewhat un optimal.

Dev glanced behind her at the weapons station, then she returned her attention to the windscreen.  Her fingers were on the comms key, as she leaned on her console a little, ready to yell a warning into Jess’s ear.

Comms crackled in her ear. “Tac 2, Tac 1.”

“Ack.” She responded.

“Target one, enroute.”

“Ack.” Dev reached over and triggered the outside comms. “Jess.”

Jess, who had merely been loitering and waiting for the wagons to burp up someone, half turned and looked back over her shoulder, reaching up to touch the comms key in her ear.  She held up her other arm, shielding her face from the rain. “Go Dev.”

“The second carrier is on the way back. They have a captive.”  Dev informed her.  “There is also a wave of much heavier precipitation coming down the road so perhaps you should return?”

“Ya think?”

“I do, actually.” Dev said. “You appear to be in discomfort.”

Jess regarded the sky, then she turned and retreated back to the carrier, coming inside and shutting the hatch.  “No movement in there, huh?”

“No.” Dev agreed.

Jess was dripping all over the floor of the carrier, and when she pushed her hood back, raindrops were trickling from the point of her nose.  “I should have stayed my ass inside.” She shed her jacket and hung it up.  “Why did you let me do that, Devvie?”

Dev looked over at her.  “Excuse me?”

“Next time just tackle me.”   Jess got up and retrieved the pullover, settling it over her head and sitting back down.  “Don’t let me be stupid.”

Dev checked the long range scan, then she got up and went to the dispenser, removing some towels and coming over to dry Jess’s face with them, with a serious, intent look.  Jess’s cheeks were chilled, and she gently put her hand against one of them, staring down into her eyes.  “You’re never stupid, Jess.  You’re the smartest person I know.”

Jess stuck her tongue out, making a face when it was wiped with the towel.

**

Continued in Part 5