Of Sea and Stars

Part 5

Dan Kurok sat quietly in his office, a soft rumble of computer generated thunder echoing softly in the background.   He was studying a tablet propped up on his desk, making notes into a console just to the side of it

A soft knock on the door panel made him pause and look up. ‘Come in.” He triggered the lock, and sat back as a tall figure dressed in a white lab coat entered. “Hello, Halley. “

“Hello Doctor.” The woman came over and sat down. “Pardon me for interrupting you, but I have some directives here I’d like to discuss if you have a moment.”

Kurok sat back and folded his hands over his stomach.  “Go ahead.” He invited.  “It’s time I took a break from this anyway.”

Halley smiled, looking reassured. “Thank you, sir.” She looked down at her pad. “The arrangements for the visits from NM-Dev-1 and the Interforce person..  I see you countermanded the housing?” She looked up in some confusion. “Was there something wrong?”

“Yes.” Kurok nodded. “You placed Dev into crŹche quarters.”

Hally’s brows creased.  “Yes, sir, I did. Where else would I have assigned a biological unit?”

“Guest quarters. Preferably right next to Agent Drakes.”  Doctor Dan said, placidly. “Which is where I put her.”  He watched the proctor’s face twitch.  “And I locked that down so no one could imagine I made a mistake and change it back.”

“I don’t understand.”

Dev is our guest.” Kurok said. “Just as Jesslyn Drake is.  They are coming here to assist me at some effort and disruption to themselves. I want them treated with courtesy.”

The proctor studied him. “But Doctor, NM-Dev-1 is a bio alt.  The only place she should be housed, outside the crŹche, is in transient quarters. You know that. It’s the rules.”

I  know.” Doctor Dan smiled kindly at her. “I wrote most of those rules you know.”

“Everyone will get upset. And it will cause a problem for the other bio alts.” Halley said, seriously.  “Think of the precedent it would set, and all the questions.”

“I know. I have.”  Kurok said. “However I also thought about how difficult it is going to be for Dev to return here, given she’s lived as a natural born for almost six months and how unhappy it would make her if we put her back in the crŹche.”

“But she’s a bio alt.”

“I know, and she knows that.  But she has not lived as one since she left here, and at her assignment, they don’t treat her as one.” Doctor Dan said, with a note of finality in his voice.  “So since she’s doing me a favor, I’m going to make sure she doesn’t suffer unhappiness because of it.”

“But Doctor.” Halley looked distressed.

Kurok interrupted her gently  “And, of course, we are all going to respect the presence of senior operations agent Jess Drake, who I suspect will break the neck of anyone intentionally making Dev unhappy. I’d rather not lose valuable scientific personnel including of course yourself.”

Halley shut her jaw with a tiny, audible snick.

“So if you want to give that as the reason I’ve made such a radical exception to the rules, feel free to do so.” He concluded. “Everyone should also understand that our rules, as we know them, will quite possibly not be respected by agent Drake, and there’s also a good possibility that we will not be able to do anything about that.”

“Doctor, that sounds terrible.” Halley finally said. “The agent sounds very dangerous.”

“She is.” Doctor Dan smiled his gentle smile. “Jess is a quite classically presented amoral sociopath, and she’s spent most of her life practicing her brutal and significantly homicidal talents with great success.  But all in all, I quite like her, and I think you all will find her engaging and somewhat entertaining.”

Halley merely stared at him.

“She’s also rather attached to Dev.  Let’s make sure that doesn’t get anyone killed, all right?”

Uncertainly the proctor stood up and retreated, escaping out the door and leaving him once again in peace.  Kurok chuckled a little and went back to his screen, pausing again as a note presented itself to him on his pad.

He tapped it and read it through, drumming his fingertips on the desk.

**

April stood near the back of the carrier, long rifle cradled in the crook of one arm.  Their hapless captive was standing near the hatch dripping rain on the floor, while Jess relaxed comfortably in her padded seat.

Doug was up near the pilot’s station, sitting on the jumpseat, his head close to Dev’s elbow as they both hovered over the controls.

Outside, the storm had actually gotten worse, raining so hard you couldn’t see the wagons from the carriers, though Dev was monitoring them through her scanners.

“So.” The kid had his arms wrapped around him.  “Two, maybe three weeks back we all got plundered, the stores, you know? Took everything they could get an ran when the alarms done went off. Ran back to the road.”

Jess glanced over at April, who shrugged.  “Could have been a tribe. They do that.”  The agent said. “I remember some raids, back in the day.”

“You one of them?”  The boy asked, after a pause.

“I was.”  April responded. “Now I’m Interforce.”

“So we weren’t gonna let them do it again.” The boy refocused on Jess.  “Why’d you get all up in the biz?”

Why?  Jess rolled her eyes in Dev’s direction  The bio alt returned the look noncommittally.  “Didn’t look like a two sided fight to me.” Jess said.  “When we came over the horizon, we saw wagons getting blown up by high power blasters.”

The boy looked down at his boots.

“Unlicensed blasters.” Jess said.

“Had to get something.” The boy muttered.  “Anyway we paid for it.  Was six of us in there.”

Jess stood up, towering over him. “Where’d the blasters come from?” She repeated April’s earlier question.  Who’d you buy them from?”

He shook his head. “Dunno.”

Jess had her hands in her pockets, and she stood there in silence, regarding him.  He was thin and weedy, reminding her a little of her youngest brother.  Dev, contact Cooper’s Rock holding. Ask for whoever runs the place. I want to talk to them.”

“Yes.”  Dev put her cup in her ear and turned to comms, adjusting the frequencies as she called up the local civ list.  “Cooper’s Rock stakehold this is Interforce flight BR270006 calling.  Please respond.”

The kid swallowed. 

“They know you’re out here?”  April asked.

He shook his head.

Dev waited, then repeated her hail, her eyes glancing over the scanning results as she did.  The wagons had remained in place outside, and her wiremaps showed no moving life around them. No doubt the nomads were sheltering from the rain just as they were.

“No answer?”  Doug asked in a low voice. 

Dev shook her head and repeated the hail a third time.

“That’s some stupid people.” The other tech uttered. “Let me tell ya, where I come from? They teach you to answer an Interforce hail even if you’re tied up and dead.”

“Hm.”

“Or having sex.” Doug added, as an afterthought. “You just don’t blow em off, you know?”

None of that really made sense to Dev, so she concentrated on comms, fitting her ear cup a little more firmly and tuning the receive a little as the faint sound of a carrier opening came to her.  She unconsciously leaned closer to the console, half closing her eyes to concentrate.

There was the sound of activity in the far off background, then a strong, female voice answered in her ear. “This is Cooper’s.  Who’s calling?”

Ah. That seemed more correct. “Cooper’s Rock this is Interforce flight BR270006.  Flight leader requests to speak with person in charge there.”  Dev settled back in her chair. 

Momentary silence. “You’re speaking to them. This is Darana Cooper.”

“Please stand by.”  Dev half turned. “Jess, we have the person you requested on comm.”

Jess nodded. “Gimme.”  She indicated her board.

Dev transferred the comms back then started a deep scan on the nomad wagons.  “There seem to be a good deal of energy weapons inside those vehicles.” She commented to Doug.

“Oh yeah.” He squirmed around to look at the screens.  “Those guys are crazy vicious. They’ll shoot ya and not even ask.”

Jess cleared her throat a little. “This is Jess Drake.” She said into comms.  “Who’s speaking?”

“Dee Cooper.  Hello Jess.” The voice came back. “Long long time no talk to.”

“Has been.” Jess acknowledged. “When I’m done you’ll wish it was longer.  We flew right into a firefight over here near the old west road.”

Cooper cursed under her breath.  “Those fucking guns.”

“Those fucking guns.” Jess agreed. “Which I blew into particles along with a half dozen trigger fingers.”

“Shit.” The woman exhaled. “I knew that would end like crap. But with all the stories we heard about you bunch being overrun we had to put something in.”  She said. “I heard about North, and all the damage at Ten.”

Jess listened in silence.  “Hm.” She finally responded. “That’s now the third story I heard around those guns.  Wonder when I’m going to hear the real one.”  She felt a mental tickling.  “We’ll drop the surviving punk over there.”

Cooper sounded surprised. “Don’t know what you’re talking about there, Jess. But it is what it is.  C”mon by.  You on patrol?” She asked, curiously.  “I thought I heard you made senior.”

“On my way back from council.” Jess demurred. “Surprised you weren’t there.”

“What the hell?”

“You’re behind in the gossip, Dee.”  Jess smiled briefly.  “I took over at the Bay.  Shares screwup.”

Cooper snorted audibly. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope.  Found out my brother was running dark.  We processed him out yesterday.”  Jess said.  “C’mon by some time. It’s been a while.”

There was a brief silence. “Well, crap, Jess. You’re right. I should have gone to council. I just had a sitch I had to take care of.” Cooper said. “I will swing by. We should talk.”

“Drake out.”  Jess cut the connection and swung her seat around. “Take him with you.” She told April. “We’re going to chase this dog hair poking my neck.”  She tapped on her board. “Sending you coordinates Devvie.”

“Yes.”  Dev took them and plotted their course, as April grabbed the kid and Doug stood up to join them. “Jess, there is someone approaching this vehicle.”

“Now they decide to move their asses.” April muttered. “Figures.” She shifted her rifle. “Want me to put them off?” She asked Jess. “Might have some cousins in there.”

Jess stood up. “No. Take him to your rig, wait for us. I”ll talk to them.” She put her jacket on and pulled the hood up, moving to the hatch. “Open her up, Dev. This shouldn’t take long.”

**

The nomad leader had a heavy sealskin overjacket on, with a fur lined hood that protected his face.  He was standing in an aggressive stance halfway between the wagons and the carrier, and Jess took her time walking over to meet up with him.

Behind her she heard the kid being dragged over to April and Doug’s bus, and she knew if she looked over her shoulder she would see Dev’s face in the window, watching her with serious intent, the sound of the open link between them echoing softly in her ear.  “Anything happening in there, Devvie?”

“There are two persons on the other side of the wagon who appear to be watching us.”  Dev answered. “There are another two who are trying to move the damaged vehicle.”

“No one pointing anything?”

“No.”

Good sign.   Jess slowed her pace, stopping a body length from the nomad and waiting.

“Agent.” He finally addressed her, taking a step or two closer. “Don’t want no debt to you. What that cost me?”

“Cost you the truth. Who started it?” 

The man smiled briefly a flash of white inside his thick, black beard. “Cheap enough.” He studied her face. “You local?”

“Drake.” Jess acknowledged.  “Drake’s Bay.” She added, somewhat unnecessarily.

“Ah.” He sobered.  “You coming back from council then? Heard the Bay got take over something like.”

“Who started it?” Jess countered, but with a smile.

The nomad chuckled under his breath.  “You know already, Drake. We bare had time to put the defense on.  We were thinking of shelter when my scout bike got blown out of the air with a kid on it.” He indicated the ridge. “We heard em laughing.”

“Kids.”  Jess said. “We caught two of them.”  She remarked. “From Cooper Rock.”

“Yah, figures. Woman there lets em run wild. I should file a suit against em for it.” The man said. “The Bay going to be an outpost now, Drake?”  He redirected the conversation.  “Tit for tat.”

“Something like.”  Jess responded. “What family are you?”

“Brogan.”  The nomad said. “We were at the Bay two weeks back. Heard lots of things there.” He watched Jess’s face intently.  “Lot of things.”

Jess shrugged. “I’ve only been back there a couple days.” She lifted a hand and started to back away. “Got work to do. Good traveling.”

“We’re good traders Drake.”  The nomad said. “If you’ve got like to trade.”

“Heard that.”  Jess headed back to the carrier, hearing the low whine of the engines spooling as Dev saw her approach and opened the hatch.  She jumped up onto the deck and hit the close, taking the time to take her jacket off as she felt the carrier move under her.  “Let’s go Dev.”

“That person seemed in discomfort.”  Dev remarked. “There was another individual behind the first conveyance with a weapon.”

“Yeah. I saw him.” Jess sat down and exhaled.  “We need some intel.  Got the feeling everyone around here knows more than we do.”  She pulled over her screen, and triggered comms. “Tac 2, Tac 1.”

“Ack.”

“Fast run, just drop.”  Jess said. “Recon.”

“Ack.” Doug sounded somewhat relieved. “Stand for lift.”

“Go.” Jess closed the channel and belatedly fastened her restraints. “Drop that kid off then go back to the Bay, Dev.  Something going on here.”

Dev boosted up without comment, shifting the carrier up and over the wagons and gaining altitude quickly.  In her screen she could see the aft sensors still capturing the solitary figure of the nomad standing in the rain watching them.

Then she cut in the mains and he was left far behind as they swiftly accelerated through the speed of sound, a soft boom trailing behind them.

**

It was still raining hard when they came through the pass and circled around to the landing bays.  They found the upper bay open to receive them, and inside a senior transport was visible.

“Alters is still here.”  Jess commented, as they braked.  “Don’t’ see any one else yet.”

“No.” Dev agreed.  “Just the one transport and the two carriers that accompanied it.” She aimed for the landing bay, her eyes flicking to the scanner.  The bay operations comms hadn’t seemed unusual or wary, but you  never knew.

She’d learned that, in her short time at Interforce.  Things you trusted, and things you expected could turn completely around when you least expected it.  “BR270006 to Drake’s Bay control. We are in bound to Pad 2.”

“See ya there, BR.” The casual response came back. “Glad to see ya back.”

Were they, actually?   Dev cut the mains as they came into the landing bay, hovering a little as she moved to one side around the transport and settled onto the steel layered pad.  She secured systems and opened the power hatch, hearing the slither and thunk as they were hooked up to the Bay’s batteries.

Jess got up from the jumpseat, patting Dev’s leg as she stood.  “I’m going to go talk to Alters. See where his plan’s got to. Those eggheads he brought with him should be done with their review by now.”

Dev nodded. “I think I will do some work on this vehicle. There is not much to do in the space they assigned us, and we did take a little damage in that explosion.” She got up and went to the equipment locker, opening it to reveal her comprehensive toolkit.

“Yeah, that’s kind of a crappy spot, huh?” Jess had opened the hatch, but paused in it to watch her.
“I’ll see if they can find something else for us, now that we’re gonna be around for a while.” She ducked outside and headed past the transport.

Dev sighed and opened up a console, taking a seat on the floor and sliding inside of it. 

A moment later the carrier rocked and she peeked out, to see Doug entering with a circuit board in his hands. “Hello.”

“Hey Rocket.”  He sat down.  “You got any spare A2’s?  I blew mine when we had to pop off from that boom.”

“I think so.”  Dev squirmed out and opened the lower cabinet.  “We took some damage as well.”

“Hey so I was talking to the transport driver on the way here.” Doug leaned closer and lowered his voice. “There’s some seriously funky stuff going on here.  Like besides all the stuff we saw, there’s some people missing from the guy Jess offed’s family.”

“Really?”

Doug nodded. “His wife and two kids.”  He said. “The reason we know one of the kid’s really missing is he didn’t turn up to be taken in.”

Dev propped herself up on one elbow. “Tayler.”  She said. “The little boy.”

“That his name? You seen him?”

“I did.  He showed me a starfish.”  Dev remembered. “I showed him a vid of a bear I saw in the north.”

Doug twirled the card in his fingers.  “Driver said he heard base talking to the commander.  Some mucky mucks are headed here to check it all out.”

Dev sighed. “I don’t think Jess is going to like that.”

“Not much she can do.”  Her fellow tech gave her a sympathetic look. “But hey maybe they’ll decide to take over and we can go back to the base.” He said. “I hope so. I get the creeps here, a little.”

“Me too.” Dev had to admit as she located the replacement card.  She handed it over to him.  “I would rather go home.”

**

Alters intercepted her on the way down the steps, and they moved aside into one of the storage rooms on the fourth level.

“How’d it go?” He asked, as they sealed the door behind them.

“Not bad.” Jess admitted.  “Council was pissed, but they realized pretty quick they couldn’t do anything about it so they just moved on.” She said, taking a seat on one of the boxes.  “Bunch of pointless crap after that, but Jimmy must have spilled to a lot of people because all of em wanted to talk to me.”

Alters nodded.  “Figured that.” He sat down across from her.  “This is a mess.”

Jess felt unhappy. “Wasn’t intended.”

“No one said it was.”  He replied, mildly.  “Some of the science derps from base are due here any minute to try and figure out what that glowing rock’s all about. “ He  glanced aside. “See if this is a single source for it.”

“What if it is?”

“Mm.”  Alters looked a bit uncomfortable. “Well, let’s see what happens first. No sense in speculating.” He said. “Anyway it’s pretty obvious though that the materials for this came from topside.”

Jess nodded. “Dev thinks so. She recognized the seed stock.”

He smiled briefly.  “Except that no one official there will admit to doing a deal. Not with him, not with anyone.  We asked.  Sent them the material scans.  Say they know nothing about it.”

There was a little silence. “Someone’s lying.”

Alters nodded.  “Intel thinks so.  They think it’s possible something’s going on up there, and HQ suggested we need to find out.”

Jess knew where this was going.  “Yeah.”

“Since they already want to see you and your partner, it made sense to me to tell HQ you’d be the ones we’d send up to check them out.” Alters said.  “So there’ll be a shuttle here tomorrow.”

“Thought I was supposed to be in charge of something here.”  Jess said, after a pause.

“Plans change.  HQ wants answers.” Alters said. “This place and the resident squad’ll be here when you get back.”  His voice took on a slightly conciliatory tone.  “C’mon, Drake.  We both know you’d be the one they’d send anyway.”

Jess grunted. Then she shrugged a little. “I wasn’t looking forward to getting stuck here anyway.” She admitted. “I’d rather be out in the field.”

Alters smiled.  “Glad you see it that way, Drake.  I know this is crunchy. So get you and your driver ready and go fly in space for a week. I’ll do my best to get this sorted out here before you get back.”

Jess eyed him. “You?”

He made a slight, knowing face. “I don’t really want to hang out here either, so nail them, wouldja?” He said. “HQ doesn’t want me to leave until the science people weigh in.”  He had the grace to look a bit apologetic. “No offense to you, Drake.”

On the verge of being offended, Jess paused and thought.  “None taken.” She said then.  “I’m field ops. I’d never have been in the line if this hadn’t been my homestead.”  She got up. “Let me go ask Dev what she wants to do.”

Alters cocked his head. “What do you mean?”

“She really didn’t want to go back up to station.”  Jess said, evenly. “So I’m not gonna make her.”

The commander blinked. “Drake.  That’s a bio alt. She’s got no choice in this.”

She nodded slightly.  “My partner. My pilot.  Base 10 still stands because of her. She doesn’t want to ride up to where they may treat her like what she is? Not gonna force her.”

Alters got up and walked over to her, studying the still, angular features. ‘They want to see her.”

“Don’t give a shit.” 

He smiled a little. “Drake, you’re a piece of work, you know that?” He sighed.  “This is not going to make you any friends.  No one likes ops who refuse to take orders. Understand?”  He lifted his eyes to meet hers, and then looked away again.  “Don’t screw things up for yourself.”

Jess just nodded, and left the room, before the temper she felt building got her in more trouble.  She headed for the steps and was halfway down another flight when she spotted Dev trotting up to meet her.

Determined looking, a tiny frown on her face, body  moving as smoothly as she had that carriers systems running. 

It made her smile grudgingly and took away the gnawing in the pit of her stomach and she sped up her own pace so she ended up on the first level just as Dev reached it.  “Hey.”

“Jess.”  Her brother Jake interrupted the reunion, appearing from the family quarters with a harassed look on his face. “Hey listen.”

Jess almost ignored him.  Then she turned. “What?”

“Okay so, not to be an asshole, but can you tell your watchdog to stop shooting at staff? They’re just trying to move you to nicer quarters.”

Dev exhaled. “That is why I was trying to find you.” She told Jess.  “Someone was in the space we were assigned, moving our things and April did not think that was a good idea.”

Jess regarded her, then looked at her brother. “Eleven generations of us in service and someone thought that was a good idea?”

Jake sighed. “They were just trying to show courtesy.”

Dev handed Jess a comm link, and she put it in her ear and tapped it. “Tac 2, Tac 1.”

Tac 2.” April answered promptly.

“Stand down.” Jess said. “My idiot family is trying to do something nice for us.”

“Ack.”

Jess clicked off. “Next time ask first.” She told Jake.  “Where were you thinking of?” 

He motioned her to follow and they went down the hall and through the entryway into the family quarters.    Past the kitchen and the clusters of common rooms, past the big old library and two hallways Jess knew led to where Jake and the late Jimmy had lived they came to a right hand hall and Jake pushed open a slightly ajar door that blocked it.  Here.

It was at the skin of the mountain wall, and there were periodically cut windows in the rock that let in the light from outside. On the other side of the hall were doors to quarters, and Jake stopped at the last of them.  “These haven’t been used for a while.”

Jess put her hand on the lock and it opened, and she pushed the door ahead of her as she walked inside.  “That’s fine.”   She glanced around at the large chamber, which included a food service area and granite faced sanitary unit.   “It’s good, Jake.”

“Great. Let me go make sure no one else’s been shot.”  Jake stomped off.

Dev eased inside and looked around.  ‘This is pleasant.” She commented.  “Nicer than the other location.”

Jess had perched on a table.  “Should be. It’s the stakeholder’s digs.  My father and mother used to have it.”  She smiled briefly. “Close the door.”

Dev did, and walked over to where her partner was.  “Is something incorrect?”

“Yeah.”  Jess admitted. “It’s getting more and more fucked up.  Alters told me the brass want him to stay in charge here.”

Dev frowned. “Arent’ you supposed to be?”

Jess shrugged. “Anyway, he needs someone to go up to station and find out what the score is with the seeds.” She watched Dev’s face go carefully noncommittal.  “I told him I would go, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

Dev’s expression went still, only her pale eyes moving a little as she studied Jess’s face.  “I told you, Jess. It’s okay. I want to go where you go.” She said, after a long pause. “I don’t want to stay here without you.”

“You could go back to the base.”  Jess had her hands clasped loosely in front of her. “Honest, Dev.  I don’t want to freak you out. I get it.” She cleared her throat a little.  “I want to do right by you. I mean.. you’re my friend, right?”

Dev sat down on the table next to her, shoulder to shoulder and they both remained silent for a few minutes.

“You are my friend, aren’t you?” Jess finally asked.

“Yes.”  Dev answered at once.  “In as far as I understand what that is, I am.”  She added, somewhat disconsolately. 

“Aw.” Jess rested her head against Dev’s.  “You’re the best friend I have, Devvie.”

“Mm. I think you’re the only friend I have, Jess. “ Her partner said. “Would leaving me here make you happy?”

Jess straightened up, and frowned. “No.”

Dev exhaled and nodded. “Well, you leaving me here wouldn’t make me happy either. It’s okay, Jess. I want to go with you.” She sounded positive.  “Even if its hard, or makes me feel sad or incorrect, I want to go with you and show you the stars, and the sun.”

Jess let out a relieved sigh. “That’s a damn good thing, Dev. Cause I really wanted you to go with me.”

“I can be helpful.” Dev agreed.

“No. I just don’t want to be without you.” Jess replied, simply.  “That would bum me out.” She stood up. “C’mon let’s look around our new digs and get our stuff. “

Unexpectedly,  Dev threw her arms around her and hugged her in a fierce, intense way.  After a brief, startled breath of inaction, Jess responded, happy just to be there in the moment.  Even though everything was going sideways, after all, she still had this.

Whatever this actually was. 

**

“Oh, Daniel.”  Randall Doss hurried over to the table in the quiet restaurant, where his colleague was stolidly munching through his food. “I’m glad I found you.”

“Were you looking for me?” Dan Kurok put his fork down and took a sip of his drink.  “We have a paging system, Randall.” He said. “And I do carry a comms link and lastly, you could have asked my admin to find me.”

Doss sat down across from him.  “Daniel,  have you seen the shuttle schedule?” He ignored the chatter.  “The one due in tomorrow?”

“Yes.”  Doctor Dan said. “We’ll have our guests here tomorrow evening.  I’ve checked all the preparations, and with any luck we won’t horribly embarrass ourselves or get someone’s neck broken by accident.”

“Do you think it’ll be all right, when they see the prototyping?” Doss looked worried. “Daniel, so much is riding on this project.”

“I think it’ll be fine.” Kurok picked up his fork again. “Randall, either order and eat with me, or go away until I’m done. This protein doesn’t do well when it’s cold.”

“Oh. Yes. Of course.” Doss signaled to the waiting server. “Sorry, Daniel. I’m just so frazzled about this, and that investigation. Horrible.”

“Investigation?”

Doss placed his order then turned back to his reluctant table mate and lowered his voice.  “We haven’t bothered you with it, you’ve been so busy. But it seems some of the product from the labs was found downside.”

Kurok stopped chewing. “Eh?”

“Exactly.” Doss took the glass of wine from the waiter and took a swallow of it. “Interforce. It seems they found seed product in a cavern, and Daniel, it was growing.”

Kurok blinked, and put his fork down again  “Eh?” He uttered again. “What are you saying? Growing inside a cave? You know that’s not possible Randall.  We’ve only had the most limited success using artificial light.”

“Exactly.” Doss repeated. “That’s what I told them.  I asked them for details, but they wouldn’t give me any, just the stock numbers and Daniel.. they were ours.”

The waiter returned with a plate, putting it down in front of Doss and giving him a little bow of respect before retreating.

“Thank you.”  Doss dug into the plate, and for a moment they were both silent. 

Kurok slowly took a drink from his glass. “Did they say where they found it?”

Doss shook his head. “You know Interforce. “ He cut a piece of the protein cake. “This is quite good, Daniel.  I’m glad you asked me to sit down with you.”

Kurok sat back with his glass, swirling it’s contents thoughtfully.  “Well, maybe Jesslyn will know more about it. I can ask her when she gets here.” He suggested. “Maybe it’s just a small pot, after all.”

Doss nodded. “It could be, yes.” He took a sip of wine.  “They didn’t seem too excited about it. Just a query, you know? That’s why I didn’t bother you or the other staff with it, didn’t seem like that big a deal but still. I don’t like it being our seeds.”

“No.”  Kurok agreed. “You know there still are some rogue genetic hacks down there, Randall. Maybe someone did some meddling.”

The director shook his head disapprovingly. “So dangerous.”  He chewed and swallowed. “Thank the stars that doesn’t go on much downside. Could turn out anything!”

Kurok smiled briefly.  “True. Humans with gills, for example.”

“Ugh!” Doss shuddered. “I can’t even imagine what that would look like.”

“I can.”

“What?”

**

“That’s skank.”  April folded her arms.  “Shift you off like that. It’s your place.”

They were seated at a table in the mess, Jess perversely avoiding the kitchen space in the family quarters preferring to eat with the common masses instead.   “Meh.”  She leaned back in her chair and picked up a big mug, taking a sip of local brew.  “Honestly? I’d rather go back to base.”

“Me too.” Dev agreed at once.

“Me three.” Doug chimed in.

“No, I know.” April settled lower in her seat grumpily.  “It’s all bs. Someone realized how much cred is up for grabs here.”

Jess nodded. “Why I want out.  Money always means trouble.”  She said.  “I’m glad we’re going topside to chase down what the game is there.”  She glanced at Dev, who was chewing stolidly through a thick fish stew.  Devvie promised to show me stars.”

“Yeah that’s kinda cool.” Doug sighed.  “You get to see all that weightless stuff and all that and the sun!”

Dev nodded, and swallowed.   She still did not want to go, and parts of her were all tied up in knots.  The more she thought about getting on the shuttle the more unhappy she felt, but she also was smart enough to realize she had no choice.

No choice, because Jess had to go, and she didn’t want to leave her.  The thought of being left behind while Jess went to station was causing her more discomfort than the thought of going along.

A little crazy.  It was like being pulled in two directions and being not really sure which direction was the right one. 

“Is that going to be weird for you, Dev?” April asked suddenly. “Going back there?”

“She’s fine.” Jess responded immediately. “I’m going to make sure they treat her right.”  She braced her elbow on the chair arm and rested her chin against her fist. “First time they look crosswise they’re going to get my boot in their ass.”

Dev grinned, a little, imagining it.  “I think Doctor Dan will make sure everyone is correct to us, Jess.” She remarked. “I am looking forward to seeing him.”  She nibbled a slightly sweet seaweed cake,  as the servers came over and brought around a bowl of something.

“Pudding!”  Jess seemed surprised. 

“Yes, ma’am.” The server’s eyes twinkled.  “Someone said they  made it just for you, Jesslyn.  They heard you liked it and we don’t get it often.”

Gimme.”  Jess pushed her dish forward, and closely inspected the large spoonful of dark, jiggling substance.  “Mm.”

Dev leaned over and examined it, sniffing the scent. “It smells like the brownies.”

Jess took a spoonful as the server went around to the rest of the table. “Mmm.”  She scooped up another spoon and offered it to Dev, realizing a moment too late that it had made everyone stare at her.

Her body twitched and she felt a sense of confusion but she was too far into the motion to retract it without embarrassing them both and so she just kept moving.

Screw it.

Dev took a bit off the spoon and mouthed it.  “That is excellent.” She concluded, shifting back to her own dish as the server finished depositing the substance on it. “Really good.”

Jess dug into her dessert and enjoyed it, bringing back to her mind memories of being a child and sharing it with her brothers.  It made her smile to think they’d made it for her, then the smile faded as she realized word would get out soon enough that she wasn’t really in charge of anything.

A dis, April had characterized it right, since stakeholds were at least nominally autonomous and she was human enough to feel more than a touch of shame and anger over Alters pushing her aside like that.

Then warn her not to make waves?

Jess felt her eyes narrow, but then a gentle touch on her knee made her look up and over at Dev, who was watching her with that adorably intense concern on her face. Her anger slid off it’s tracks unexpectedly and she exhaled. “Glad you like it.”

“I did.” Dev agreed. “But I thought for a moment you did not. Is all correct?”

“Yeah.” Jess went back to her pudding.  “I was just remembering something that pissed me off. All better now.” She licked the spoon, enjoying the sweet taste and stolidly bypassing the melancholy.  “So here’s what I want you two to do while we’re topside.”

April and Doug leaned closer. “That’s what I said. We’re not part of the parade.”  April stated. “That’s not our gig.”

“Not your gig.” Jess agreed.  ‘Those guns out there.”

“Hah.  You were right.” Doug poked April in the leg. “You said that was sketch.”

“It was. Those were big ass high power rigs. Not something you pick up at market.” April looked pleased at the grin on Jess’s face. “Either they got them from our side, or they got them from their side and if they got them from their side, why?”

“And they were new.” Doug added. “I ran the profile before they blew up and it was twelve gamma.”

Dev looked at him with interest. “Really?”

He nodded. “I got it on scan. Still on the bus since we don’t sync here.” 

“Makes no sense to have them there.  Just to blow up a caravanserai?” April was scraping the last of the pudding off her plate.  “They weren’t carrying anything like that. Just hand weapons.”

“Right.” Jess picked up the ball again. “So we have those. I want you to visit Cooper’s Rock and talk to them there, see if you can get an angle on the guns. I don’t believe either story those kids were spilling.”

“It might be useful.” Dev spoke up diffidently. “If we knew if there were more of those weapons.”

April nodded, and put her bowl down.   “I’m going to hook up with that van tomorrow and angle my connections to try and see if they’ve seen this stuff before. I know the leader of that bunch.  Used to camp with my tribe once a by.”

“Okay, good.” Jess stood up and stretched. “Let’s go try out our new beds.  Tomorrow’s probably going to be a long ass day.”

“Better than those hammocks.” Doug joined her. “Almost as nice as our quarters on base.”

“Almost.”  Jess smiled.

“I’m glad it has an outer door. Makes me feel better.” April caught up to them as they walked between the tables and headed for the entrance, shrugging off the watching eyes of the sparse diners.  “They put Alter’s bunch in that kind of barracks space near the cave.”

Jess chuckled. “Did they?  I missed that.” Her humor was restored. “Glad I don’t know most of them, they’re the newbies.. those teams Alters brought in from the west coast.”

April looked at her, one brow cocking in question.

“They leak.”  Jess’s eyes twinkled. “And the enviro doesn’t work. Cold as crap in there and close enough to the wall for sea lice to infest.”

“Oh, wow.” Doug made a face.  “Did you tell them to do that?”

Jess shook her head.

“Maybe they don’t like you being dissed either.”  April suggested. “Like they got a ‘tude.”

Jess considered that as they walked through the halls, aware that she was already starting to get used to being there, her steps becoming automatic as she led the way to the first level and the hallway they’d been assigned as theirs.

Jess palmed the outer door open and held it, then followed the three of them down the outer walk, passing the windows set in the cliff wall.   She paused and looked out one, the inky darkness broken by the working lights of the Bay and the tiny sparkles of boats moving in and out.

Hmph.” She turned and went to the inner door, pushing it open and walking inside, then coming to a complete halt as her skin prickled and her battle instincts flared.

She turned and ducked as a whisper came over her head and then she just let her body react.  She dove at the shadowy figure in the corner of the room and caught them by the back of their jacket as they bolted for the door, hauling them around with her momentum to slam them into the rock wall.

They cried out in pain, and she lifted them up in her grip and got her hand around a fabric covered throat and squeezed.

Fingers grabbed at her wrist and pulled, but she just squeezed harder, staring into the eyes framed by a dark blue harbor hoodie. 

She could smell the fear, and on the verge of blackout she released the throat she was choking and put her hand against her attacker’s chest instead, pinning them to the wall.  “Now.”

The outer door opened and Jess came close to over reacting before she recognized the body heading her way.  “Get the lights on Devvie. Let’s see who we got.”

“Yes.”  Dev went to the old fashioned lamps and turned one on.  “Are you all right?”

Jess studied the body she was pinning to the wall.  “Sure.”  She released her hold. “So, who are ya?”

The figure licked its lips.  “Someone who loved your brother.”  A shaking hand swept down the hood, revealing a young, female face with an oval shape, and curly blond hair. “And wants to take revenge for you offing him.”

Jess regarded her. “If you haven’t bred yet, don’t.  Gene pool doesn’t need that much stupid.”  She remarked. “Plus which, you suck at killing.”

Dev had circled the room and turned on the other lamps, then she came over to stand next to her partner, regarding this short, slim invader. “I am going to parse into these systems and see why this location allowed her to enter.” 

“Shut up, you rag doll.” The woman responded.

Jess whacked her in the face, feeling bone crunch under her knuckles, sending the girl slamming back against the wall. She grabbed her as she bounced off then she picked her up and put her over her shoulder, heading out the door as she whistled lightly under her breath.  “Lock em out, Devvie.”

With a faint shake of her head, Dev sat down at the stone carved desk in the room, pulling over the input pad resting on it, and putting her portable scanner down.  

**

Jess turned the punk over to security.   “Who is she?”

The on duty chief rolled his eyes. “Names  Kacey.  She had a full out hard on for Jimmy, no matter he was married and had the kids.”

Jess’s mental train switched tracks. “And where are Mary and the kids?” She asked. “Heard from Alters Tayler never showed up for school.”

The chief looked around, then back at her.   “Cant tell for sure, but one day they were here, the next day they were gone, and we were told not to ask any questions.”

“By Jimmy?”

“None other and since he was the elected head of, we didn’t ask.”

“When?”

“Three weeks back.”

“No one saw them go?” Jess asked, in a skeptical tone.

“No one saw them go, but everyone heard a flyer come in and land up on the top bay.”  The chief said. “That didn’t make it into the logs.”

“A flyer.”  Jess mused. “So everyone hears a flyer, and no one sees a mini transport from the other side come in and land.  Really, Chief?” She crossed her arms over her chest and regarded him.

He shrugged. “You know the drill.”

Jess shook her head. “Maybe I don’t.  Last time I spent any time here I was five.  A lot of things can change.” 

The security chief leaned against the door jamb and folded his muscular arms over his chest. “Yeah. Like a Drake making book with a jelly bag.” He watched her closely.  “Not everyone appreciates that.”

Jess leaned against the opposite side of the door frame, crossing her ankles and lacing her fingers together. “I took convincing.”  She conceded. “So I wont take offense at that, this time.  Dev’s not a jelly bag.”

“Not a bio alt?”  He looked at her in surprise. “They said she was.”

“She is. Just not a jelly bag brain.”  Jess replied. “She’s smarter than both of us combined.  New kind of bio.

The chief frowned. “All the people out there, scavengers and all that, and they make bios now who can even take our jobs? Mine? Yours?  What’s the payoff in that, Drake? The one good thing about them was they were dumb as rocks.”

“Don’t think they’ll ever make any that can take my job.”  Jess smiled briefly. “Those skills you don’t want to code spirals for.” She flexed her hands, then lifted her eyes and looked right at the chief, who, after a brief inhale, took a step back.

He lifted his hands, palms out, facing her. “I remember Justin. Don’t need a reminder.

Curiously, it cheered her up. “So anyway.  Jimmy had an admirer. Keep her out of my way.”  Jess pushed off from the doorjamb. “Dev and I are taking a shuttle out tomorrow.  The two with me are friendly.”  She looked back at him.  “Can’t vouch for anyone else.”

He lowered his hands. “Heard that.”  He acknowledged.  “Good flight.”

**

Dev had gotten her gear settled in the big space she’d been assigned, and she was standing with her arms folded regarding her things deciding what to take with her to space.

Interforce uniforms, yes.   She had set them aside.   Her sharkskin jacket,  yes, and her pack and sanitary kit that she took on the carrier with her.  Though she knew they would have necessities up on station, she wanted to bring her own.

They were different and she wanted to be seen to be different, especially in crŹche housing.  Uncomfortable as that would be, she wanted some of her own things with her.  Though Jess had promised to make everyone be nice, and she had every faith in her partner, she knew what the rules were.

She was a bio alt.  Even Doctor Dan couldn’t change that.  At best, they’d put her in transit quarters, down near the shuttle bay but at least there she’d have a little privacy.

There was a tap on the outer door and she went over to open it, reasonably sure who was on the other side.   “Hello.”

“Hey Devvie.”  Jess rambled into the room, bumping the door shut behind her.  “Like your new digs?” She peered around, then went over to poke at the bed.  “Not bad.”  She sat down on it and rested her elbows on her knees.  “Know what?”

Dev came over and sat down next to her. “What?”

“I could use a nap.” Jess admitted. “It’s been a long ass day.”

“Me too.”  Dev agreed. “I would like some rest especially before our trip tomorrow.”  She kicked out her feet a little, bumping her heels against the base of the bed. “I wonder if I’ll have to sleep in a pod tomorrow night.”

Jess regarded her. “You’re sleeping in whatever bed they put me in tomorrow night.” She informed her.  “And let me tell you, Dev, I ain’t sleeping in no plastic egg.”

Dev let her head rest against her partner’s shoulder. “I don’t think you’d fit.”  She admitted.  “Most of us are shorter than you are.”

Jess put her head down against Dev’s, taking a deep breath and exhaling.  She thought about things she could be doing, places she could be poking into, and somehow it all just seemed pointless.

Boring. 

It made her feel better just to sit here with Dev, rocking them both back and forth a little together as she listened to the mechanical sounds of the Bay around her.

“Tomorrow morning, I’m going to take you down to the beach I used to swim off when I was a kid.”  Jess said. “It’s not crazy waves like at the base. It’s just a nice piece of sand.  We can scrounge.”

“I’d like to see that place. Was it where you have that picture of you?”

“Where I look like a wet piece of seaweed? Yes.”   Jess smiled. “We can go swimming. Maybe we’ll see dolphins.”  She watched Dev from the corner of her eye, seeing the tension slowly relax across her face. “Maybe we’ll see a turtle.”

Dev nodded a little. “I’d like that.”  She reached over and took hold of Jess’s hand.  “Jess, could we practice sex tonight?”

Jess blinked. “Sure.”  She answered readily.  “Nice big bed to do it in, not that crappy little hammock.”  She picked up Dev’s hand around hers and put a kiss on her knuckles.  “Want to get a shower first?”

“I’d love to.”  Dev soaked in the moment, gathering it to her, intent on savoring all the human experience it offered, because once they went back to station tomorrow?

You never knew what would happen.

**

Dev liked the beach very much.   She ruffled her hair dry, tasting the rich saltiness of the sea on her tongue as she walked across the soft moist sand.  

This was much nicer than their surfing space.   The sand was a semi circle tucked against one of the extruded cliff walls of Drake’s Bay with a tumble of salt washed boulders behind it. 

A portion of the rocks had been altered, making a space that was sheltered from the weather and which contained a place to cook with control surfaces that ran under the ground back into the big caverns in the cliffs.

Jess was in there, wet and disheveled, busy preparing a fish she’d caught in the water they’d just recently come out of,  aligning it on the electric grill along with some crunchy seaweed and some mussels.

The swimming had been successful as well, since the half circle of beach fronted a shallow, protected bit of water that wasn’t very deep and had no real current, perfect for her to practice and for Jess to play around in, doing flips and dives and other odd acrobatics.

It had only rained a little and now was not at all, the air a little dry and cool and the breeze enough to dry them and Dev felt a sense of animal comfort that was a little surprising but good.

Also, the fish Jess was cooking smelled great.   Dev went over and watched the process, determined  to push aside her anxiety at their pending trip to space in order to enjoy the treat.

“How’s that, Devvie?”  Jess regarded her work.  “Lucky to find that big a grouper this shallow. “

Dev studied the split opened animal currently grilling.  “It seems very appealing.” She said. “I like this space as well.” She indicated the beach and the rocks.  “Thank you for bringing me here.”

Jess grinned.  “Used to spend a lot of time here.” She poked the fish.  “Nothing really like it near the base.”

Dev put the towel she’d been drying herself with around her neck and found a chisled rock bench to sit down on, getting herself settled only to jump up a moment later. “Oh Jess! Look!”

Jess grabbed the knife she’d been using to clean the fish with and jumped around the grill, raising it as she got around the rock edge enough to see what Dev was looking at.  “Oh.”  She relaxed. “Devvie, don’t do that to me huh?”

“What is that?”  Dev asked, as a large animal lifted its head and looked at her, strings of seaweed hanging from it’s mouth.

“That’s a sea turtle.”   Jess regarded the beast, whose back was easily as wide as the width of her reach.   “Hey buddy!”

The turtle chewed reflectively, then went back to the pile of green the water had washed ashore.  Behind it, Dev could see the track in the sand it had made as it came up out of the water. “Were we swimming with that? I didn’t see it.”  She edged forward.

“Don’t put your fingers near it’s mouth.”  Jess warned.  “They lay eggs on the beach.  Never knew them to do it here though.”  She returned to the grill and started sorting out her bounty onto old, scarred plas plates.

The turtle ignored Dev as she came closer.  It’s body was hard, she noted, big and oval shaped and she tentatively reached out to touch it, finding it slightly rough and a little slick.   The animal moved forward on it’s short feet, and munched steadily on the same type of seaweed that Jess was cooking inside.

She knelt down to observe it, keeping her hands far away from it’s beak like mouth.  It paused and looked at her, it’s eyes deep and black and round and very inhuman. 

Jess came out with two plates and sat down on a rock. “Here.” She offered one of the plates to Dev, who scrambled to her feet and sat down next to her.  “They live longer than we do.” She indicated the turtle.

“Really?”  Dev injested some of the fish, which, freshly grilled and dusted with spice was delicious. “What is the hard part for?”

“Protection. Like our carrier.”  Jess said.  “It pulls it’s head and legs in and nothing can get at it.”   She regarded the turtle.  “It’s a living dinosaur. You know what that is?”

Dev considered. “No.” She said, regretfully. “I’ll look it up when I get back to my scanner.” She paused to chew and swallow. “This is really good.”

Jess seemed pleased with the compliment.  “Dad taught me to make this.  Said it was good for an agent to be able to fend for themselves, out in the beyond.”  She looked up and around the little cove. “We used to come down here when I was on leave, just the two of us.”

Dev tried to imagine what that would have been like, and failed.  She just had no referents. “It sounds nice.” She offered.

“Yeah.”  Her companion looked off into the distance, eyes a little unfocused. “He said he and I were family in a way the rest of them weren’t.” She said, in a thoughtful tone. “I think I miss him.”

More things she really didn’t have referents on.  Did she miss anyone? Dev didn’t think so.  Her most interesting relationship was sitting right there next to her.  It was like whatever had happened to her before in her life was just…

Just really nothing.  Dev frowned, wondering if that wasn’t a little incorrect. “If you were no longer here, I would really miss you.” She concluded. “That would be horrible.”

Jess chuckled, and bumped shoulders with her. “Aw, you sweet talker you.”  She nibbled a mussel out of it’s shell, then glanced up sharply as her ears picked up the soft shift of boots against sand. “Hope we’re not going to have our lunch ruined.”

Dev looked around, unsure. “What?”

“Someone’s coming, around the rocks there.”  Jess wolfed down the rest of her fish and set the plas down, dusting her fingers off and standing up as two figures came around the bend and onto the beach.  “Hold it.”

The two stopped and looked at her, uncertainly.  They were in Interforce jumpsuits, but with science piping and the typical side packs and unknown to her.  “We were just taking some samples.”  The one in front said.

Jess walked casually into their path.  “What kind of samples?”

“Commander Alters said we had free range.” The second one said. “Can you just let us get on with it?”

“No.”  Jess felt her posture alter, and she took a step towards them.  “Alters doesn’t own this place, and you better not bring your jackasswardness out here.”

They took a step back, recognizing the change. “Sorry.” The one in front said. “You must be agent Drake.”  He added.  “No offense intended, agent. Hard to know one of us here, half the folks here look like they belong.”

Jess relaxed, but only a little. “Lines a little thin between in and out here.” She acknowledged.  “You’ll live longer if you assume we’re all a little screwball.”   She indicated the bags. “Now, what kind of samples are you taking?”

They hesitated.  “We’re not supposed to talk about it.” The second one said. “It’s restricted.”

Jess felt her temper flare, and knew they knew it. 

“It’s two segements of phosphine bearing mineral, with interjections of what appears to be volcanic sediment.”  Dev’s voice came from behind them, as she walked up and joined Jess, her scanner in her hand. “There is no radiant qualities to the samples they have.”

There was an uncomfortable silence when she stopped talking, broken by Jess’s low, wry chuckle.  “Thanks Dev.”  Her companion rested her elbow on Dev’s shoulder.  “My tech.” She added.  “Take your rock collection and go somewhere else. This is my beach.”

They backed off. “We’ll just come back later.” The second one said. “And we’ll make sure the commander knows.”

Jess sighed, waiting for them to leave, and then going over to sit down next to the turtle, giving his head a light scratch with her fingertips. “Aint’ going to end well, Devvie.  I better talk to Alters myself.”

“Perhaps he will decide to not have us go to station.”

“Don’t count on it.”

**

Dev did up the catches on her backpack and set it on the chair near the old, rock surfaced desk in the space she’d been given.   

Her skin was still a little tingling from the shower she’d taken, finding the water pressure here in Drake’s Bay significantly more powerful than what she’d known in the citadel. 

Interesting.  The soap smelled like the type at the base, but it was just a little different, a little spicier and the scent just a bit stronger and she’d taken the time to fill one of the empty tubes from her kit with it to take it up with her.

That was good.  Not only was it different from what the rest of the bio alts would have, it was different and from her partner’s homeland.  Dev patted the outside of the pack, which already had her scanner and her toolkit inside it.

She went over to the dispenser and retrieved a glass of fizzy something, not the kack they had at base, but something lighter and with a different, sharper taste.  It wasn’t as intense, and she had decided she liked it. 

The furniture in the room was odd and also a little strange, the chairs and one of the tables made out of the organic substance like the table in the private kitchen.  She sat down on one of the ones near the bed and leaned back, waiting for Jess to knock.

She’d heard the arrival of the shuttle earlier and  now that it was time, she just looked past the event and hoped it all worked out.

There was an inner door to her space, and a few moments  later it bumped open and Jess poked her head in. “Hey!”  She came in carrying her own pack. “Ready?”

“Yes.”  Dev stood up and put her cup down, getting her pack and swinging it onto her back.  “Are you?”

“Mm.”  Jess closed the door and they left from Dev’s main one, going down the corridor and emerging into the first level of Drake’s Bay. 

Surprisingly the halls were full of people, and it took them some time to make their way through the crowd and down the long passageway towards the distant pad the shuttle had set down on.  This was past the main part of the stake hold, but there were people lining the way from the time they left the family quarters to the entrance to the pad that the shuttle had set down on.

No one said anything.  The Drake’s Bay personnel were just there, sorting ropes made of seaweed and moving boxes around, apparently randomly at work and justified to be there.

Jess knew better.   She kept a smile on her face all the way down, lifting a hand and returning casual greetings until they went through the last big metal doors and exited into the raw, bare stone space that was the shuttle pad.

A half dozen Bay guards were there. “Drake.”  One of them gave her a tap on the chest salute.  “Good flight.”

Jess paused and regarded him.  All six of the guards looked right back at her, braced, in Bay colors. “Keep an eye on things.” She said. “We’ve got crabs in the kitchen.”

The lead guard smiled at her, without any humor at all. “Heard that.”

Jess touched her forehead in a return salute, and walked past, out from the overhang of stone, into the open.

Not like at the base.  Nothing guarded the pad, it was just a large flat stone plateau that now held the big, tube shaped shuttle with it’s gently pointed snout and the wide wings jutting out to either side.

A shuttle loader was waiting for them. “Jesslyn Drake?”

“That’d be me.”  Jess agreed. “And NM-Dev-1.” 

He nodded. “Come with me. Station arranged quarters onboard for you.”  

They followed him across the empty pad and up the ramp, into the entry way of the shuttle, as wisps of rocket fuel tainted the air.   They turned to enter the main cabin as they came to the hatchway, but the man waved them forward. “Private cabin.”

They got a glimpse of the main room, half full of bodes in seats, most of which bore bio alt collars, and had eyes fixed on the far wall.    Dev remembered being one of them, and she met the eyes of one near the end of the row of hard seats.

He stared at her, then looked away, and the door shut as they moved past and into a smaller chamber, with wider, padded seats.  “Here you go. Have a good flight.”  The loader shut the door behind them, and they were alone.

They stowed their packs in the small cabinets, then took seats in the plush, comfortable couches, fastening the restraints as the engines rumbled into life below.

**

It was always interesting to watch the shuttle come in.  Dan Kurok leaned against the outer wall, appreciating the gentle dance of the big craft as it nosed carefully closer, aiming for the docking connector between two struts of the station.

It was quiet, station was in night shift and most of the staff and bios were in quarters and crŹche respectively leaving only a few people loitering about.

Doss, of course, and a half dozen of the scientific administrators, two of the station ops and near the far edge of the docking ring, three security guards.

Kurok watched them in some amusement, as they shifted from boot to boot eyeing the shuttle.  He had no earthly idea what the guards thought they were going to get to do in this little circus, but he was half tempted to just let them find out the hard way the difference between station and downside.

“Daniel.” Doss came over.  “They’re almost here.”  

“Yes, I see the shuttle.”  Kurok indicated the big craft settling nose in to the docking ring.  “Now, suppose you get rid of those two proctors, and the guards, and let me handle this.”  He stepped around Doss and headed for the lock.

“But Daniel, don’t you want them to take care of the unit?”

“No.”

Doss hurried after him, and they joined the small group of administrators.  “Daniel, I must protest.”

“Please don’t bother.”  Kurok rounded on him. “Randall, please. You are asking for trouble, and if something stupid happens there’s a limited amount I can do about it.”

“Dan, c’mon.” One of the other administrators sighed. “We know this is your super special project but the bottom line is it’s a bio unit.  You can’t pretend otherwise.”

Kurok shook his head and folded his arms. “Fine.” He said. “It’s not me that’s going to end up either dead or horribly damaged. I’ll just stand back out of the way because you all can’t be bothered to remove your heads from your asses.”

“We have security here.” The man answered, stiffly.

Kurok just chuckled without humor.

The inner lock opened, and as he had expected, Jess and Dev were the first ones out.   Jess was in front, her very tall figure encased in the solid black with green piping of an Interforce drop suit, head sweeping back and forth, body thrumming with energy.

Her eyes found the security guards, and she grinned briefly, meeting Kurok’s gaze next.   Behind her Dev was keeping up with the agent’s longer strides, dressed in her deep green tech jumpsuit, but over that she had on a beautiful and shimmering green/blue jacket that was obviously not Interforce issue.

Both had regulation packs on their backs, and Jess had done them the courtesy of not having any visible weapons hanging off her though Kurok fully expected the pack to contain them.

Dev looked wary and anxious.

“Wow.” The administrator next to Kurok muttered. “I didn’t expect the agent to be that big.”

Kurok chuckled again then went forward, leaving the group behind.   He got smiles from both visitors and then a moment later he was giving them both hugs, spending a long moment embracing Dev and patting her on the back. “It’s going to be okay.” He whispered into her ear “Just relax.”

Dev responded with a powerful squeeze, and a real smile, then she stepped back diffidently as Jess gave him a hug. 

“How was the trip?” Kurok asked, as they started towards the welcoming committee.

“Interesting.”  Dev remarked, eyeing her partner. “I think Jess enjoyed the null a lot.”

Jess chuckled. “Thanks for arranging for the private bunk.” She told Kurok. “Woulda probably freaked out the civs in the main cabin.”

Ooooh… let’s save that story for later.”  He said. “Please be patient with the idiocy you’re about to encounter.  We’ll get through it and go have some dinner.”

Mmm.”  Jess rumbled low in her throat. “I promised Devvie I’d make sure no one got jerky on her.”

“I figured that.” Kurok smiled at the group they were approaching. “Please try not to shoot the walls. Vacccum disarranges everything and is tedious to fix.” He added in a low tone.   “Well, everyone.” He raised his voice as they arrived. “Let’s make introductions.”

Everyone, including the proctors, was staring at Jess, who, after a moment seemed to find this funny.  She casually draped her arm over Dev’s shoulders and waited, making a point of reaching over to brush some non existent dust off the tech insignia at the bio alt’s collar.

Kurok saw the motion and stifled a smile. “This is senior agent Jesslyn Drake, of Interforce, and her tech partner and pilot Dev.”  He announced. “As you all know, Dev was born here, and is a prototype for the Interforce tech service which has been extremely successful.”

“Yes, hello.” Doss edged forward, bravely extending his hand to Jess. “You are most welcome, Agent Drake.”

Jess took his hand and clasped it, staring hard at him after she released her grip.

“And of course, welcome back, ah.. Dev.”  Doss added belatedly.  “We were very gratified to hear of your excellent work.”

“Thank you, Director.”  Dev responded. “Thanks to Doctor Dan, I was well prepared for this work, and have had excellent programming to assist me in performing it.”

Kurok smiled at her.  Dev is far too modest.  But we can all discuss that later. I’m sure our guests want to relax after their journey from downside.”   He glanced at the two visitors. “Let me walk you to your quarters, hm?”

“Well we..” Doss paused, finding those cold and unnerving blue eyes fastened hard on him again, and noting the uneasy and nervous expressions on everyone elses faces, most especially the proctors.  Even the other administrators were completely and unusually silent, leaving all the talking to him. “I mean, you see we do have some protocols, Daniel and..

Jess shifted a little, straightening up to her full height.  “Hey.”  She barked, getting everyone’s attention immediately.  Dev’s us now. You better treat her like one of us. First one who doesn’t is gonna get my fist in their face.  Got it?”

The administrators looked at the security guards, who stared back, wide eyed.

Kurok merely stood there, waiting.   He could smell the fear, and though he knew Jess was putting on a show the potential for violence in the tall figure next to him was real. 

“Oh, of course no!”  Doss recovered first, and stepped up, gaining himself points if he’d only known it. “Of course Dev is our welcome guest, as you are, Agent Drake! We are very thankful you could take time from your busy schedule to come up and assist us in moving the project forward.”

“Great. We done posturing now?”  Kurok said. “C’mon you two. Let’s get you settled.”  He put a hand on Jess’s back, feeling the silent laughter as he guided them through the crowd towards the portal from the shuttle bay into the main part of the station.

Dev glanced at the proctors as they moved through, giving them a polite smile as they backed up out of the way.  They looked troubled.  Everyone looked incorrect. But she had Jess’s arm over her shoulders and they were with Doctor Dan, and for now it all seemed like it was going to be all right.

They cleared the dock doors and then Jess just stopped, tipping her head back and staring  up.  “Are those stars?”  She asked, after a brief pause.

Doctor Dan gently guided them to the side of the passage, so they didn’t block traffic. “Yes, those are stars.”  He said. “I forgot you wouldn’t have seen them on the shuttle.”

The station had clear panels and Jess was under one, looking up at the speckles and pinpoints of light against a silky black background.  She hadn’t been sure of what to expect, and now she wasn’t sure what to think when Dev took her arm and pointed down. “That’s what downside looks like from here.”

She refocused, and looked out a second panel, seeing a huge gray surface rolling below them, bathed in shadow and darkness.  At the very edge, she could see a slice of brighter light.  “What’s that?”

“Ah. That’s the sun about to come up.”  Kurok said.  “Does that a dozen or so times in an orbital day.”   He could hear, in the edges of his hearing the servos in motion to move the solar panels, and the motion caught Jess’s attention.  “Let’s get you in quarters. You’ll have plenty of time to sightsee, I promise.”  

Up until the time they’d left the shuttle, it had seemed routine.  Jess reluctantly started to move, letting her eyes scan everything, now that they were in station and it all was very very different.  Walls were clear, or visibly metal.

The air smelled strange, and sterile, like the depths of the systems storage bunkers in the citadel.

Her balance felt odd.

And there were stars overhead, and the world below, the dark surface punctuated by flashes of lightning that rippled across it.

She had no connection to the surface. The comms didn’t reach up here. 

She felt Dev take her hand, and she was glad.  She focused her attention on the walkway, and set aside the wonder for a little while as she listened to the bumps and low, subvocal thumping around her as they walked across some main corridor and headed for a large, vertical clear tube.

There weren’t many people around, she noticed, and no visible bio alts. 

“Okay, we step in here, and kick upwards.” Kurok said.  “Remember how to do this, Dev?”

“I do.”  Dev took a firmer hold of Jess’s hand. “Jess, this is null.”

The tube seemed like a complete drop to the bottom, but Jess felt the lack of gravity as soon as they cleared the entrance, and like Dev, she pushed upward and then they were just drifting up past other levels, mostly darkened.

It felt amazing, just like the shuttle had once they were out of the earth’s gravity.  It was almost like being underwater.  

Then light blasted them, and she jerked in reaction, turning towards the source and seeing a ball of white fire come up over the edge of the world, laying a silver surface over the tops of the clouds and bathing the inside of the station.

“That is the sun.”  Dev commented mildly.  “A star, close up.”

“That’s cool.”  Jess admitted, watching the light move in fascination.  “It just burns in space?”

“It does.”  Doctor Dan said, as he guided them to a landing platform.  “Here we go. This is the distinguished guest quarters.” He led the way back into gravity and they walked along a plush corridor whose roof was open to the stars.  “I assigned your rooms personally.”

“Mm.” Dev made a low sound. “I think that possibly caused some discomfort.”

Kurok chuckled. “It did. I won’t lie to you Dev. There was some idea of putting you in crŹche quarters but I refused to allow it.”

“Good idea.”  Jess eyed him.  “Cause I wouldn’t have gone for that.”

“Mm. Yes I know.”  Doctor Dan paused before a door and then opened it with a touch.  “Let’s go inside and have a talk.”

“Good idea.”  Jess repeated, with a wry expression.  “Got some grog in there?”

Kurok paused. “Do we need some?” He watched both heads nod in response. “Ah. Let’s go to my quarters for our chat then. I’m more prepared there.”

**

Continued in Part 6