Of Sea and Stars

Part 6

The scientist’s quarters were on the other side of the ring level they were on, and Kurok’s were the last in the section. They met no one on their quiet walk, the hallway lights dim save the spears of sunlight that darted through panels at regular intervals.

Kurok palmed his door and then waved them inside, glancing casually back past them. “We’ll keep this short. I’m sure it’s been a long day for you both.”

Had it been? Dev didn’t feel particularly tired.  Especially now that she knew she wasn’t going to be spending the night in the crŹche, or in transport quarters.   She smiled a little as she felt Jess bump against her and looked aside to see the brief grin on her partner’s face.

“We’re fine.”  Jess spoke for them both. “We got to relax this afternoon on the beach.”

“Ah, I think I know the beach you speak of.”  Doctor Dan smiled as he closed the door. “Are you also a cooker of fish?”

“I am.”

Inside, his quarters were, for station spacious and included three rounded bubble shapes in a mixture of clear plas and brushed metal.  The front one included an area to sit, and the walls were mild and translucent, a soft non color that had a number of framed images on them.

Dev stood quietly and waited, but Jess went to the images and looked at them with interest as Doctor Dan went to a cabinet and retrieved a bottle and some glasses.  “I think I’ve been a few of these places.”

“No doubt you have.” Doctor Dan smiled. “That one underwater cavern is just up the coast from Base 10.”

It felt very strange to be there.  Dev had thought she’d known what it would be like to come back to station, but things had turned out very differently than she’d expected and it was interesting to her how that made her feel inside.

Maybe it was that they had started from Jess’s home. Had spent the trip in a private cabin, so different than her journey downside. 

Now here they were in Doctor Dan’s private space, which she’d never seen before.  It was nice and she noticed the Drake’s Bay shirt Jess had given him hanging on a notch near the door.   “This is a very pleasant space.” She offered, after a moment.

Doctor Dan looked up from pouring the drinks.  “You think so, Dev?” He asked.  “It’s all right, I suppose.  The porch has a nice view.” He indicated a sealed door.  “We can go out there later if you want.”

Jess detoured over and peered at the door.  “Airlock?”

“Safety.”   Doctor Dan brought a tray with him back to the seating.  “All of these subsections are designed to self seal in case of cracks or punctures. The shields are good, but micro meteorites get past them some times and a break in the surface will really ruin your day.”

Jess looked at the opening and then at him. “Nice, but a little creepy.”  She walked over and took a seat in one of the chairs, sprawling at her ease as she took a glass.  “Thanks.”

Unfazed. Completely at home.  Doctor Dan remembered that was a hallmark of most of the agents he’d ever met and certainly had been one of Justin’s. 

Even though she was now in a station in space for the first time in her life Jess had that air of commanding the circumstances he remembered so well.  “Here you go, Dev. I think you might have had this before.”

Dev took a glass and sniffed it.  It was honey mead, and she smiled. “I have, yes.” She took a sip and relaxed a little in her seat next to Jess.  “I like it.”

“So do I.”  Kurok sat down and regarded them.  “First of all, thank you both for coming up here.”

Jess grinned. “Interforce is as interested in this project working out as you all are.” She commented. “They want more of Devvie.”

“They do.”  Kurok agreed.  “Which is quite bemusing to me, of course, since my thoughts of being able to structure a set that could do what I myself had done had seemed to me more than once to be self satisfyingly gratuitous.”

“That really what you were after?” Jess asked, sipping her mead. “Seemed crazy to me that you brought that out right when we needed it.”

Dev felt a bit self conscious, listening to the conversation, since the it in question was her. But the mead was good and she just sat quietly sipping it, content to let her partner do the talking.

“Mm… not exactly.”  He admitted. “What I was after was something a bit more radical.” He relaxed back into his chair, regarding the liquid in his glass. “Something I am only willing to discuss with you here, where I know we’re in private.”

Jess’s brows lifted a little.

“Because I know every inch of these walls.”  Kurok winked at her.

“That a problem here?” She asked. “Thought this place was full of high minded scientists.”

“Hopefully that was as full of Interforce drollery as I remember.”

Jess smiled.

“One of the things we’d always done here in creating bio alt sets, is limit them.”  Kurok went on.  “Limit their intelligence, especially in the area of self determination and independent thought.  You can do that, you know. There’s an area of the brain where that develops and you just fill it with null matter and it never does.”

“Mm.  So you did intend them to be servants.”  Jess asked, but in a mild tone. “That’s what the Bay always thought.”

“The Bay, being what it is, with the history it has, would naturally think that.” He smiled briefly at her. “Since it’s as much an incubator than anything I have up here.”   He paused, then exhaled.  “Anyway it wasn’t so much they were designed to be servants as they were designed to be content with what they were asked to do.”

Dev drew in a breath, a little, memories of conversations in the crŹche echoing in her head. Hadn’t they been convinced every assignment would be a good one?  Or had that just been what they’d said knowing it was what the proctors wanted to hear?

“Humans, natural born ones, are not ever naturally content.”  Doctor Dan said. “And no one really likes taking out the garbage. So if you are creating human beings who are intended to do that, or to shuck shellfish or whatever – for me as a scientist it made sense to make them want to do that, and be happy as a result.”

“Huh.”  Jess grunted softly.  “Sometimes that doesn’t work out. I’ve seen it.”

“At the Quebec City place.”  Dev said.  “But I told you, Jess, they also program us to accept being treated badly.” She stated. “We’re okay with that. Really.”

They both looked at Kurok, who lifted his glass in acknowledgement. “Part of the being content.”

Jess considered that for a minute. “That’s fucked up.”  She responded.

Kurok didn’t look offended, even though Dev looked like she wanted to protest.    “It is.” He agreed. “It’s part of the scientific principal known as the law of unintended consequences, or sometimes alternatively the end justifying the means.”

“Uh huh.”

“Or lies you tell yourself to justify what you want to see done.”  Doctor Dan amended, with a quiet smile.  “We all do it.”

“True.” Jess acknowledged. “Like taking kids from their families before they end up killing their sibs or old annoying aunties. Just the right thing to do.” A faint smile appeared on her face. “It might sometimes even be the truth.”

“Truth is very rarely black and white.” He studied Jess. “So your next question of truth, if you want it answered, will include you in a very small group of potential traitors to humanity.”

A small silence fell. “Small, because it right now includes only myself, and since she will very quickly recognize it in herself, Dev.”  Kurok concluded.  “So think carefully before you ask, Jesslyn. You come from a very  very long line of conservative thinkers.”

**

Jess swirled her mead in it’s cup and drank it slowly, watching Kurok over the rim in silence for several long moments.  Y’know.” She finally said.  “My dad left me a note after he bought it. Told me if I went rogue, to look you up.”

Both of Daniel Kurok’s eyebrows lifted sharply.

“Said he knew you would give me a hand.” Jess added. “That I would be something to you.”

For a long moment, the scientist went still. Then he lifted his glass and grinned wryly at her. “He was a clever man, your father.”

“So bring it.”  Jess added, with a lazy smile, lifting her free hand and making a little come ahead gesture. “Maybe I’ll surprise you.”

Now it was Kurok’s turn to ponder, and he did, taking his time before he set his cup down and hiked one ankle up onto his opposing knee.  “I was a young idiot when I started working with bio alts here on station.” He said. “I didn’t originate the program, they were already working with basic models when I got here, mostly to do tasks here on station in space.”

“They didn’t want to have to clean up after themselves?” Jess asked.

Mmm not really no. It wasn’t that. They had a sense that because they lived here up on station, doing all this urgent, needed science, they should have people to do the things that weren’t scientific in nature.”

Jess chuckled humorlessly.

“Splitting hairs, yes.”  Doctor Dan acknowledged, with a wry smile.  “They didn’t want to bring up downworlders, ergo, the bio alt program.  Originally just for station, but then, when word got out, very lucrative for those downworlders who needed trustworthy workers.”

“Slaves.”  Jess stated.

“Because they had no choice in any of it, yes.” Kurok said. “That was where the program was when I got here.”

Dev felt so wide eyed her eyeballs were sore.  This was, maybe, too much truth for her to comfortably absorb.   She had her cup in her hands, still half full and she felt the solid weight of it as she waited for what was going to come next.

“Now Dev, this seems incorrect to you.” Doctor Dan seemed to realize her discomfort.  “I know basic school presented this information in a very different way.”

Dev put her cup down. “Yes.” She agreed. “But… we knew.”  She added. “The sets in my classes, we understood the truth behind what that was we just didn’t talk about it much because we knew it would make the proctors unhappy.”

Kurok smiled.

“You knew they were bullshitting?”  Jess asked her, in a tone of surprise.

“No, well.”  Dev gave her an appealing look. “Jess, I don’t know what a bullshit is. But we knew things about us we knew the proctors didn’t.  We didn’t think it was incorrect, we just thought it was sort of funny.”

Now Doctor Dan laughed, a light, surprised sound.

Jess leaned forward. “That’s what you did. You did that.” She pointed at Dev. “Had nothing to do with her being a tech, but that smart stuff.  That. They get it.”

“Yes, actually, I did that.”  He acknowledged. “When I became first an advanced, then the senior geneticist here, I put in a macro level change to the overarching biological alternative programming.”  He laced his fingers together and put his hands behind his head. “I wasn’t trying to make a better bio alt. I was trying to make better human beings.”

Jess leaned her elbow on the arm of her chair, looking intently at him. “When I first met Dev, I knew she was different.” She held up a hand when he started to answer. “We have bios on base. I’d dealt with them as mechs. They’re simple.”

He nodded.

“Dev was different. “ Jess looked over at her. “She was complicated.”

“Yes.”  Kurok agreed. “Dev, like her year and near year mates, understand what they are.  Who they are. What we are. How we’re different.” He paused. “So when they asked for a bio alt that could be an Interforce tech, the foundation was already there.”

They both looked at Dev.  “I am a developmental unit.” She remarked. “So that does not really surprise me.”

“And Dev was yet again different from the rest of them because what I added with her, was a very high level of intelligence.”  Doctor Dan said, with a faint smile. “The ‘New Model’ part of what Dev is. A potential we deliberately had avoided before now.”

**

Now they had tea.  Three cups of steaming, honey sweetened, real leaf tea in front of them as moving light reflected against the outer walls from the passing sun. 

Dev had forgotten all about being hungry, or the trip, or being in the crŹche.  She found the matter of fact explanations Doctor Dan was giving them to be breathtaking, though she mostly kept silent hardly knowing what to ask.

But Jess had known, all along.  Even without Doctor Dan telling her she’d known that Dev was different.  Was smart. Was like her, a natural born.  Even when they’d only just met, because Jess was, herself very smart even though she often said she wasn’t.

“If they find out about this they’re gonna lock you up in one of those plastic eggs.”  Jess was saying. “You realize that, right?  Even the security chief down at the Bay realized making smarter bio’s didn’t mean anything good for the average yonk down there.”

“Actually, they’ll just space me.”  Kurok said. “It’s much cleaner, and one more piece of debris out there won’t matter.  I’ve had to be extremely careful about the DNA patterns I’ve used.” He sipped his tea reflectively. “But I know someday they’ll figure it out. I’m not that arrogant.”

“That’s a little crazy.”

“Mm.” Kurok nodded.  “More than you know.  Staff’s already saying that the latest sets seem to have an understanding of status, and advancement.”  He sighed. “They compete for attention, and want to excel.  So far everyone views that as a positive.”

Jess got up to stretch her legs, rambling around in a long oval pattern.  “That’s why they were so jazzed to get on comms.” She said suddenly, looking around at Dev. “Right?”

“Well, yes, sure.”  Dev answered slowly. “To do that means better tasks, and more responsibility. That means a better place.”  She put her cup down.  “It was.. Jess, do you remember when we were in the base, and you all were up outside and I was down in the bio alt quarters?”

“When we were going to be splatted? Sure.”  Jess went over and peered out the airlock door.  “When you got that door opened.”

“Yes.  When I was able to get into systems, when I logged in with my operations credentials.” Dev said. “I told the rest of the sets that it was not optimal for the enemy to leave that avenue open and they said the enemy hadn’t expected one of us to have those credentials.”

“Yeah? And?”

“They said, I was the first.” Dev said.  “And I was. But they did not want me to be the last.”

Jess walked over and leaned against the back of the chair that Dev was sitting in, looking over her at Kurok.  “If they figure out what’s going on, those bio alts are probably in trouble.”

“That’s why only three people know.”  Doctor Dan said. “To anyone else, we’re just working on making bio alts more useful. You saw the reaction to Dev’s success.”

“Yeah.”  Jess watched him thoughtfully.  “But what’s the end game, Doc? Bio’s take over the world? How does this make anything better?”

“Fair question.”  Kurok smiled his gentle smile at her.  “And I’m not entirely sure if I have the answer to it yet.”  He looked around as the door announcer chimed. “Ah. I believe that might be dinner.”  He got up and went to the door, pausing to study the panel beside it before he opened it and stepped back. “Hope you enjoy what I ordered.”

“Agents eat anything.”  Jess said.  “And Dev eats anything except spicy crabs.”

“And live animals.”  Dev muttered. “But I know we won’t get that here.” 

Jess chuckled and gave her a little hug from behind then released her and straightened up.

A bio alt entered, pushing a small cart with trays on it. “I hope its all satisfactory Doctor Dan.” He glanced into the room, then quickly returned his attention to Kurok. 

“Thank you Ayebee.”  The doctor indicated the small preparation space. “Just leave it there.”  He stepped back out of the way.  “I appreciate all the things you brought here for my guests.”

The bio alt looked pleased at the acknowledgement. “Thank you.” He looked over at them again. “Hello, NM-Dev-1.  Welcome back.” He addressed Dev quietly.  “We have heard of your excellent work.”

“Hello, Ayebee.”  Dev responded cordially.  “Thank you. I’ve done my best so far.”  She glanced at Jess. “This is my friend, Jess.” 

“Hello.” The bio alt gave Jess a somewhat nervous look.  “Is it all correct, Doctor Dan?”

“Yes, thanks.  I’ll take it from here.”  Kurok let the bio alt out, then he returned to the cart.  “Come over here, my friends. There’s too many plates to carry them.”

There was a small counter near the preparation area, and little seats next to them, and for a moment the three of them were silent as they sorted out the contents.

“So.” Once they were settled, Kurok regarded them. “Let’s change the subject while we eat. Tell me about this whole seed thing , hmm? “ His voice was casual. “Doss told me someone called up here about it?”

Jess was curiously tasting the contents of the plate, but she looked up sharply at the question. “What did he tell you?”

He chewed a few times and swallowed. “Just that someone found some of our seed stock downside. No one seemed to know much about it.” He answered slowly.  “Or did they?”

Jess studied him intently.  “That’s all he said?”

“Should there be more?”

“Well.”  Jess regarded her meal. “Alters told me they asked about how an entire cavern full of growing plants from those seeds could end up in Drake’s Bay.” She looked up at him. “Where apparently some rock can make them grow.”

Dan Kurok’s jaw actually dropped and he stared at her in open astonishment. “Uh… what????”

“What what, what about the seed, or what about the glowing rocks?” Jess looked a bit amused. “Just my luck, right? They find some damned crap at the Bay that does what that big ass machine we blew up did. Figures.”

“Glowing rock?” Kurok repeated slowly.  “What kind of glowing rock? There’s no type of phosphorescence anyone’s ever found that can trigger photosynthesis on a large scale..  we’d have regenerated half the damn planet..  I mean, what the hell?”

Dev got up and went over to her pack, opening one of the pouches in it and removing something. She came back over and put the item on the table next to his hand. “Here you go Doctor Dan I brought a little bit of this here for you to see. I thought you might want to.”

He put his fork down and picked up the rock, turning it over in his fingers. It emitted a soft glow, peachy yellow in color, just under the surface of it’s rough exterior. “Are you kidding me?” He spluttered eventually.  “This was in the Bay?”

Satisfied, Jess went back to ingesting her meal.  “That was in the Bay.  Someone did a deal with my brother.”  She forked up a bit of yellow substance and chewed it.  “There was some of this down there.” She pointed at the substance.  “What is it again?”

“Peaches?” Kurok said, faintly.  “Your brother was growing peaches?”

Kurok hadn’t known.   Jess felt a sense of relief in her guts.  Unless his acting skills were beyond her ability to detect them, the bewilderment not only on his face but in his voice rang true.  “Peaches.” She agreed. “I like em.”

“Randall said it was no big deal.”  Doctor Dan exhaled.  ‘So now who in the hell was lying?”

“I have some vid of the cavern too.”  Dev sat back down.  “It was really nice, Doctor Dan. It reminded me of the grow chambers here.  It smelled excellent.”

“I’m sure it did.” He answered faintly. 

“Base sent some of the research team over.” Jess commented. “I get the feeling there’s lots of cred in this.”

“You told them?” Kurok’s voice dropped almost an octave.

Jess looked back at him and shrugged. “I’m active duty.” She reminded him. “Sure I told them. After I told them I offed my sib for doing deals with what I suspected then was the other side.”

He covered his eyes with one hand and leaned on the table.  “Son of a bitch.”

Jess merely chewed, a look of wry bemusement on her face. “And here you thought you had news, huh?”

‘Son of a bitch.”

**

Finally, they were in their quarters.  Or to be more precise, they were in Jess’s quarters, seated on the bed together. “He’s freaking.”  Jess remarked, resting her elbows on her knees and looking around the space.

“Doctor Dan?”

“Yeah.”

Dev cleared her throat. “He does seem quite discomfited.” She acknowledged mournfully.  “I think we really made him incorrect with our report.”

Jess chuckled soundlessly. “You doing okay, Devvie?” She asked, after a pause. “About being up here I mean?”

Dev nodded. “Its not like I thought it was going to be.”  She admitted.  “I’m actually feeling sort of excellent at the moment actually.”

“Aw, c’mon you didn’t really think me and the doc were gonna let them take you and put you back with the rest of them did ja?” 

Dev smiled a little. “Honestly? Not really, but I was trying to psych myself so in case it did happen I was okay with it.”  She looked around. “But I also know my being here is going to upset a lot of people on station, and the Ayebee is going to tell everyone I was in Doctor Dan’s quarters.”

“Screw em.” Jess said.

Dev’s brow creased a little. “How would that help?”

Her partner snickered .  Then she got up and wandered around the space, looking out of the panel near the ceiling to see the stars outside.   The sun was behind the earth again and it was dark of the dark out there, a richness of black she’d never seen before.

‘I think I will go get some rest.” Dev stood up and lifted her backpack.  “Doctor Dan said he would meet with us in the morning.”  She moved to the door, aware of the tall, silent figure at her back.  “Good night Jess.”

“I might come visit.”  Jess said, as the door opened. “Don’t get freaked out.”

“Of course not.”  Dev left the room and went to the one right next to it, pausing before putting her hand on the pad.  She felt the faint tingle as it processed the chip in her hand then the door slid open to admit her.

It was dim and quiet inside, the lights coming up a little as she entered and put her pack down on the bed, unfastening it and removing her sanitary kit and her sleep clothes.   She took both into the small sanitary unit and set them down, pausing to review the facilities.

Water, yes, as she’d expected, though there was a sign pleading for economy with it.  Two small tubes of soap which she ignored and set out the ones she’d brought with her.  She used a little to wash her face with, then exchanged her jumpsuit for her sleep clothes.

Then, at last, the sight of her collar made her twitch a little, the first time it was visible since she’d come on station.  Dev exhaled.  She hadn’t hidden it on purpose, it was just how the Interforce uniforms were made after all. 

But the sleep clothes, the sleeveless shirt and shorts were not and exposed the bio alt device along with the dark brown lines patterned into the skin of her shoulder.

She folded her arms and regarded her profile somberly then she turned and went back into the main area of the room, detouring to the courtesy station to retrieve a small cup of tea, just as she would have done in her quarters at the base.

She took the tea back to the bedside with her and put it down on the plas table, sitting down on the bed and bouncing a little experimentally.

Reasonably comfortable.  She pulled her self up and leaned against the inflated pillow, the surface just a bit yielding as she stretched out and picked up the tea to sip it.

So here she was.   Dev looked up at the ceiling, which partially revealed the stars and partially was opaque to the level above.  This was far and above the fanciest place she’d ever been in on station and it was hard to lay here and think about all the bio alts in the dorms below or in their sleep pods rotating along station edge.

That had been her life.  Six downworld months ago she’d left here and that had been all she’d known and now?

And now.  But Doctor Dan had said they’d wanted to put her back in the crŹche only he’d not allowed it.  Dev could feel the truth in that, she’d seen the discomfort in the admins and the proctors faces and in fact, she suspected the two proctors had been there to take her away.

Doctor Dan had thought ahead about that, and made sure it was okay. But Dev knew that even if he hadn’t, Jess would have and now she knew for sure that she’d always felt a little different because she was.

Doctor Dan had made her different. Had made her smart, and brave and able to think with excellence so she could help Jess in a very good way.

She smiled at that, and squiggled down a little into a more comfortable position, sipping her tea in contentment. 

**

Jess spent a little while watching the stars, thinking about what they’d learned so far.  It was good to spend a little while just reflecting, something she didn’t often get a chance to do in an insertion.  Usually that was like their attack on the other science base was, all action and violence, not so much time to stand quietly and think.

But now she could. For a while, and after that she would grab her pack and go over to Dev’s room, where she would curl up with her in bed and be able to relax as much as she ever did, content that she’d be able to protect her partner in case anyone got any crazy ideas.

She went over to the chair near the far wall, sitting down in it and arranging her long limbs so that she could just look out the panel as she saw the streaks of light from the sun start to gild the station.

It was cool.  Jess folded her hands over her stomach and just watched.   Being in space was cooler than she’d thought it would be, full of interesting things to see and null gravity to enjoy.

Now she would have to carefully hunt down who the target was and make sure no one messed with Dev – a fairly easy assignment, she reasoned and maybe Alters would be done screwing around by the time she got back.

She wanted him to be.  She wanted them to decide the cavern was just an isolated freak, and leave the Bay to grow some stuff in it to sell and move on.  Let her move on. Let her go back to regular duty, maybe name a placeholder for her there to keep an eye on things.

Maybe Alters would. He was getting close to retirement.  Jess gazed thoughtfully out the panel, seeing some motion in the background, a white faint streak moving across her plane of vision.

Did she care if Interforce took over the Bay?

Jess’s nose wrinkled a little as she made a face.  She did care. Even though going back there hadn’t ever occurred to her there was a part of it that was a part of her deep in the gut, a wash of old memories of being a child there, of her parents.

Of her brothers.

Of swimming with her father in the bay she’d brought Dev to, herself a little kid squealing with laughter.

She was the Drake of Drake’s Bay right now and there was a connection to the old place that made the thought of Alters and the Interforce group rummaging around rub her raw.

“And I was the idiot that brought them there.”  Jess sighed, twiddling her thumbs. “I should have kept my stupid damn mouth shut.”

She wanted now to go back in time, and not kill Jimmy, and leave him in charge since he’d been elected head of the family committee  in the absence of any clear stakeholder.  Go back in time and not find the damn cavern.  Go back in time and not tell Interforce.

Too damn late. 

Jess got up and lifted her pack up, trudging out the door to her room and going to the next door over.  She knocked on the surface, ignoring the annunciator, and waited, hearing the soft sounds of motion inside.

The door opened, and Dev was there, looking tousled and adorable in her shorts and tank. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Dev responded. “Would you like to come inside?” She backed up a step.

“Yeah. I was bumming myself out in the other room.”  Jess moved inside and dropped her pack near one of the chairs then sat down in it. “You scan this place?”

“Yes.”  Dev sat down in the chair next to her.  “Its possible there are devices here our scan won’t pick up.” She added, apologetically.  “The systems downside are a lot less sophisticated.”

Jess looked around the room pensively.  “You think the doc’d let them put bugs in?”

Dev had to think about that, and she did.  They sat there together in silence for about ten minutes, then the bio alt cleared her throat gently. “I would like to say no.”

Jess smiled.

‘But we were asked to come up here, and I do not know why.” Dev continued.  “They do not need us to look at the set metrics, Jess.  Neither of us really know what we’d be looking at.  I took some basic DNA classes with Doctor Dan, but I didn’t get a chance to do anything advanced.”

“Mm.” Jess nodded.

“Do you know why?”

Jess pulled her pack over and removed a small slate from inside it, setting it on her knee and flexing her fingers.  She started it up and began typing, scrounging over a little so Dev could see what she was doing.

Don’t think it has anything to do with the new bios.  Jess typed.  Something else going on. Could be about the stuff he said tonight, could be the seed stuff.

Dev nodded a little.  “I see.”   She went shoulder to shoulder with her partner and took over the keyboard.  But he sounded like he didn’t know anything about the seeds, and I didn’t find anything in the logs showing that he did.

Jess took back the slate.  I know. That rang true to me, too.  I don’t think he knew about that, but what if someone else here did, and made him ask us to come?

I don’t think anyone could make Doctor Dan do anything he didn’t want to do.  Dev typed.  Just like with you.

Jess chuckled softly.  Not on purpose. What if they came up with a good reason to ask, but it was a scam? They could want to get us out of the way, if they were sending more seed, or whatever.

“Oh.” Dev said. “That could be true.” 

Jess bent over the slate again.  Can’t trust anyone but us, Dev.  We go along with the game, but always keep your eyes out for something that doesn’t click. Doesn’t seem right.  You know this place, I don’t.  She waited for Dev to read it, and nod, then she deleted the page and turned the slate off. “You know what?”

“What?”

“I’m hungry.” 

Dev blinked at her. “Didn’t you enjoy the meal at Doctor Dan’s?” She reached for her pack. “I have some crackers.”

“Yeah, it was okay.”  Jess leaned back. “It was just.. that was all vegetable, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“I want some fish.”

Dev scrunched up her face. “Oh, Jess, I don’t think we have any of that up here. I know there are some tanks, but that’s for the director and people like that.  We never got any.”  She frowned. “Maybe we could get some protein bars from the night desk.”

“Night desk.”  Jess sounded interested.  “Where is it?”

Downlevel, near the labs. It’s for the natural borns who work the late shift and a few of the sets who clean.”  Dev said. “They usually had the bars, plus some tea always available.”

“Sounds good.” Jess stood up.  “Get your togs back on. Let’s go snooping.”

Dev eyed her “For a snack?”

“Sure. For a snack.”

**

Dev wasn’t sure at all if it was a good idea to go snooping.  She was back in her jumpsuit, her scanner slung over her shoulder as she and Jess walked down the quiet, darkened hallway.

She hadn’t gotten out much in the late shifts.  Once or twice, when she’d gotten out of lab later than usual, and the night she’d eaten dinner with Doctor Dan right before she left.    She looked down the passage and saw a guard near the drop tube, right at the edge of the level. “Jess.”

“Yes?”  Her partner was sauntering along, dressed in her offduty blacks.  “Ah. I see.”

As they approached the guard half turned to face them, but kept his hands resting on the belt around his waist.  “Evening.” He greeted them courteously.

A natural born.  Dev gave him a brief smile. “We’re just going to do down to the ops center.”

The guard amiably moved out of the way to let them pass.  “Please be careful of the drop tube. They were doing maintenance on it.”

Jess regarded him. “What’s your deal? You keeping an eye on us, or what?”

The guard looked puzzled. “Ma’am?”

“What’s your job?” 

“Oh.” He indicated the hallway. “I make sure no one bothers the people who live up here.”  He said. “The admins and scientists. And guests.” He added. “Priv.”

“Uh huh.”  Jess moved forward again. “Nice.” She touched the tube entrance, and watched it light up, the translucent door sliding open. “We’ll be back.”

“Yes, ma’ams.” 

They stepped inside the tube and started dropping. “Now that’s interesting, Devvie.”  Jess rotated as they dropped, amusing herself.  “Does he not know who you are? “

“My collar is covered.” Dev responded.  “It is possible he does not know since I am the only member of my set and he is a natural born. I don’t think I have seen him before, since bio alts are not allowed up on that level.”

“Uh huh.”  Jess tucked her knees up and did a somersault.  “I really like this.”

Dev steadied her as she completed rotating, and they approached the bottom of the tube. “Yes I see that.”   She was aware of her voice echoing, and how quiet it was around them. “I don’t think you should do that during the day. There are too many other people in the tube.”

They settled on the bottom and the door slid open, and she led the way out and turned to center.

There were four bio alts there, cleaning the floor and as they spotted them, it was obvious that they, at least knew who Dev was.    They straightened up and looked at her with undisguised interest, watching them as they passed by and headed for the desk visible at the center of the hall.

“NM-Dev-1.” One of them called out.

Dev paused and turned. “Yes?”  She waited for him to approach. “Hello BeeEff.”

He smiled at the recognition.  “Are you well? They said you did excellent work downside.” He motioned the rest of his setmates over, and they eagerly complied.  “It’s good to see you.”

The BeeEff’s were tall and had brown curly hair, and a spattering of freckles across their noses.  Jess studied them briefly, putting her hand on Dev’s back.

“Thanks, BeeEff. This is my partner, Jess Drake.”  Dev introduced her companion. “We work together, downworld.”

“Hello.”  The BeeEff said, timidly. “You are a natural born.”

“I am.” Jess agreed. “And Dev here is a rock star.”

The BeeEffs all looked at Dev with approval. “It’s good you have done such excellent work, NM-Dev-1.” The one who had spoken before said. “It’s good for all of us.”

Dev drew breath to speak, then paused as a proctor approached with a slate.  “I think the proctor is looking for you.” She said, almost apologetically, as the man paused.  “Nice to speak with you.”

“Yes.” The BeeEffs nodded. “Good night.” They went back to their cleaning task, and Jess and Dev walked on, aware of the eyes of the proctor fastened on them.

**

The people at the night desk had their shorts in a twist.  Jess recognized that immediately.  She leaned on the counter as Dev politely requested some snacks, watching the supervisor on duty try to figure out a way to deny the request with her listening.

“Is there a problem?” Jess finally asked.  “We had a long day and we’re hungry.”

The supervisor pursed their lips a trifle. “Oh, no.  It will just take a moment.” He finally said, reluctantly.  “I am sorry for the delay – you are Jesslyn Drake?”

“I am Jesslyn Drake.” Jess confirmed in an amiable tone. “The hungry homicidal maniac.  Cough up the grub.”

“Jess.” Dev put a hand on her arm. “The JayCee is coming with it.  See? Over there.” She pointed at the hallway behind them, where a bio alt was visible, heading their way pushing a cart.  “It’ll just be a minute.”

“Citizen Drake, you could have made the request from your assigned quarters.” The supervisor told her.  “It would have been delivered to you.”

“I didn’t make the request. Dev did.”  Jess said. “But she can get goodies delivered to her bunk too, right?”

The man looked at her. “Ah, well…”

“Because I sure wouldn’t want anyone here to diss my tech.” Jess cut him off, in a flat tone. “I’m sure Dan Kurok warned all of you I’m easily irritated and like to hurt people who make me that way.”

The supervisor’s eyes widened a little. “We were told to treat you as our guest, with courtesy.” He said. “But NM-Dev-1 is not a citizen. She is a biological alternative, and we have regulations regarding how they are to be managed here.”

Brave of him, really.

Jess put her hands on the counter and boosted herself up,  leaning forward.  “She’s an Interforce tech. With credentials.” She said. “You realize that makes her a citizen downworld, right?” She added, in a conversational tone.

The man turned his head slightly and looked at Dev, who was standing just to one side, hands folded in front of her. 

Dev remained quiet, knowing the super was really mad.  Behind him, she could see the bio alts on shift, the ones straightening the ops center and doing some data entry and knew they were listening closely to what was going on.

Jess would get points with them. Dev glanced aside as the JayCee arrived. “Thank you, JayCee.” She broke up the uncomfortable tableau as she went and retrieved the plas case he had on the cart. 

“You are welcome, NM-Dev-1.” The bio alt smiled at her.  “It was my pleasure to bring it.”

Dev smiled back, then half turned. “This is my partner, Jess.” She said.  “Jess, this is JayCee. I was in class with his set.”

Jess waved.  “Hi there.”  She straightened up. “We’ll be heading back to our bunks now so you can relax.” She told the supervisor.  “Don’t let me catch anyone being a jackass, okay?” She pushed away from the counter and held her hand out. “Gimme that, Devvie. I’ll carry it for ya.”

Dev eyed her. “If you are going to tumble in the null tube again, I’d better hold onto it.”  She said. “You’ll make a mess.”

Jess chucked.  “Point made. Let’s go.” She let her eyes travel around the group, seeing the stoneface expression on the supervisor, and the imperfectly hidden delight on the faces of the bio alts.  She winked at them, then sauntered after Dev, letting out a low whistle under her breath.

“Are you causing people discomfort on purpose?” Dev asked, as they walked down the now empty hallway.

“Yes.” 

“Why?”

“Because when you knock people off balance they don’t have time, sometimes, to think about how they react and you learn things like that.”  Jess said, in an unexpectedly serious tone.  “And, I don’t want them to be comfortable with the idea of treating you like you belong here. You don’t.”

“I see.” Dev said, thoughtfully.  ‘The sets here seem to find that interesting.”

Jess chuckled, bouncing a little as they approached the tube again, looking forward to the drift upward. “This might end up being cool, Dev.” She palmed the tube entrance open and kicked away from the pad, zooming upward with a low rumble of delight.

“It’s going to end up being something.” Dev closed the door and kicked gently up herself, unable to stifle a chuckle of her own.

**

Jess found a squirt waiting for her the next morning, passed through encrypted past the station’s systems and delivered to her on a slate.  ‘Thanks.”  She took the slate from the bio alt that delivered it, moving back into the room she’d been assigned and sitting down to open and read.

Dev was sitting in the open area, waiting.  They were due to meet Dan Kurok shortly, and he’d told them he’d come to get them and lead them to breakfast.

“Now what?”  Jess presented her eyeballs to the slate, and waited for the message to decrypt.  “We’ve only been up here less than a day.”

The slate cleared, and April’s image appeared. “Good morning.”  The agent said, clearing her throat. “Science team just left. They took samples.  We scoured the back beyond and found two more gun emplacements but they were empty.  No one wants to take cred.”

Hmph.” Jess grunted.

“We deactivated them.”  April continued.  “Doug parsed the records comp here, and extracted transport movement. It’s embedded.  Two trips didn’t have point of origin.”

“The seeds, I guess.”  Jess muttered.  “Would they take an entire transport?” She asked, looking up at Dev.

“No. The other was probably the synth dirt.”  Dev said. “That’s quite bulky.”

“Ah, sure.”  Jess triggered the message to continue.

“We also found a script.  I embedded that too.” April looked troubled.  “Seemed like a … I think it’s code, but I’m not sure.  Maybe Rocket can look at it.” The agent looked around, then back at the screen. “That’s all for now. Hope your trips profitable.” 

She signed off, and the slate went blank.   The attachments bubbled up, and she brought up the script first, leaning to one side as Dev came over to look at it. “Whatcha think, Devvie?”

Dev looked at the letters on the screen for a while.  “There seems to be a pattern, but I am not sure what it is.” She admitted. “I would like some time to study it.”

The annunciator chimed. 

“That must be the doc.”  Jess stood up and locked the pad, slipping it into her backpack and locking that as well.    She set it down next to Dev’s and they went to the door, opening it to find Kurok standing there. “Morning.”

He looked slightly amused. “It is, and a relatively funny one for me having to read the night operations report.”  

“We were hungry.”  Jess smiled briefly and shrugged.  “Those vegetable things don’t do much for me.” She admitted.  “I kept thinking about Jonton’s jumping shrimp.”

“Mm.”  Kurok had his Drake’s Bay overshirt on and he leaned a shoulder against the door opening, his hands in the front single pocket of it. “Well, I can’t promise breakfast will be any better, but let’s go get it over with so I can give you a tour, and then get my programming review with Dev done.”

“Doctor Dan.” Dev settled her scanner over her shoulder.  “I don’t think I’m qualified to review anything you have done.” She stated. “I only just barely got out of the basic class.”

Tch tch tch.”  Kurok made a clucking noise with his tongue as they joined him in the hall. “Dev, that’s not at all true.” He told her. “If you hadn’t ended up being assigned so spectacularly, I had you marked down for a place in the lab with me.”

Dev caught her breath in surprise.

“What did you think? That I was going to let you work in the kitchen?” Kurok smiled at her expression. “Come on now.  You knew you were an advanced student.”

For a moment, Dev took herself out of that space they were walking through, her mind throwing her into the sudden question of which she would have liked better.  Staying at station? Working with Doctor Dan?

That had been her dream of dreams.

Now?  Dev glanced at Jess, who was blinking into an errant beam of sun, a brief flash of it lighting up her pale blue eyes as they never did downworld.

“But I’m sure you’re glad things worked out as they did.” Doctor Dan said placidly.  “Am I right?”

Dev cleared her throat gently. “I really like my assignment very much, Doctor Dan.” She could see Jess’s lips curve upward.  “But thank you for letting me know about working with you.”

He chuckled. “Well stop being so modest.  You’ve got no reason to be.”

Jess grinned at him. “I’m trying to talk her into going for the senior rank they just opened.” She said. “She thinks it’s going to piss them all off.”

“Well, she’s got a point.” Kurok admitted.  “But I suspect they’ll get over it.” He eyed Dev. “After all, they did with me.”

“Hah!” Jess chortled.  “She tell you what they all call her?”

“Jess.” Dev felt her skin warming.

Doctor Dan’s eyes twinkled at her.  “Now, Dev. How bad could it be, if Jesslyn puts up with it?”  He clapped his hand on Dev’s shoulder. “I want to show you the structure outline for what will become your colleagues some day, and I very much value your opinion about it, since you know how it feels from the inside.”

Dev didn’t deny how excellent that made her feel.  “The other techs refer to me as Rocket.”  She admitted, as they moved down the passageway.  “I don’t quite understand why.”

Doctor Dan muffled a laugh.  “Really?”

“Rocket Raccoon.”  Jess confirmed. “I think it’s cute as hell.”

Dev sighed.  “I don’t think I look like that animal, Jess.”

Kurok patted her shoulder again. “Did your cohorts give you this name on their own, Dev? They came up with it?”

“Yes.”

“That’s excellent.” He told her, in a serious tone.  “That really is, Dev. It means they accept you as one of them.” He led the way past the drop tube, and around the curve of the station, towards the center.  “I remember when they started calling me DJ, you know?  After I came to Interforce.”

Dev listened with interest.  “Really?”

He nodded. “You could of course use my first name, Daniel, or Dan, which is a short version of it, but they found something completely different to call me and it took me a while to realize what that meant.”

“Hm.”  Dev glanced at her partner. “I remember you asked me what I wanted to be called.”

Jess nodded. “I liked Dev. It’s short and sounds good.” She said. “But Rocket is a lot of fun.”

Hm.  Dev dropped a step or so behind her companions as Doctor Dan started explaining the parts of the station they were passing.  They were on the residential level, and most of the people they passed were natural born, often turning to watch them go by.

“So, up at the apogee of station, we have the classrooms and the common areas.” Doctor Dan was saying. “All the children learn up there. I’m sure Dev has told you about it.”

“She did.” Jess agreed.  “All the kids?” She sounded skeptical.

“Actually yes. Until they’re around six or seven, all the children learn together.”  Kurok said.  “I mean, really. Why make separate classrooms? They all learn to read the same way.”

“We all don’t read, Doctor Dan.”  Dev said, as they came to a cross path and turned.  “I remember some of the sets in my classes, they couldn’t.”

“Its true.” Kurok led them into a clean, brightly lit cafeteria, which wasn’t too different than the one at Base Ten.   “Come, let’s get some breakfast, and then we can finish talking.”  He took a tray and they followed him, taking a selection of items and moving along the line. 

“Good morning, Daniel.”  Doss hurried over. “I see you have our guests with you.”

“Incredibly observant of you, Randall.”  Doctor Dan smiled gently at him. “Will you join us? I was just explaining to agent Drake how our school framework is set up.  Doctor Doss developed the class structure, you know.”

Caught between pleasure and a suspicion he was being made fun of, Doss managed a slightly plastic smile.  “Well yes of course.”  He followed them to a table near the wall of the café, where they had a good view of the outside of station.  “I hope the accommodations were acceptable, Agent Drake?”

Jess settled into her seat next to Dev, pausing to look outside as she caught sight of motion. “What’s that?”

“Maintenance.” Dev glanced past her. “I think they’re cleaning the exhaust vanes.”

“Huh.”  Jess watched a moment, then focused back on Doss.  “Bunk’s fine.” She studied his round, moonlike face. “You the guy in charge?”

Kurok chuckled, but kept his attention on the toast he was putting some jam on.

“Well.” Doss sighed. “That’s the theory, you know. I’m the director of the science part of the station, of Bioforce.”  He took a sip of his tea. “Is this your first time in space… ah..

“Call me Jess.”  Jess bit gingerly into the protein cubes on her tray.   “Yeah, so far it’s pretty cool with all the floating around stuff. I’m not so crazy about the chow.”  She swallowed then shrugged and forked up another cube.

“Is it so different downworld?” Doss seemed very glad to be on a safe subject.  He was dressed in a space jumpsuit, pale blue in color, with the soft space boots everyone on station wore.  “The food I mean?”

“Very.” Kurok answered.  “Jesslyn is far more accustomed to fungus, seaweed and animal protein. “ He munched his toast. “I actually prefer that myself.”

“Really.”  Doss studied him. “I”ve never heard you complain about the food here, Daniel.”

“What would the point of that be?” Doctor Dan inquired. “This is where I live.”  He glanced at Dev. “Which do you prefer, Dev?”

“Downside.” Dev didn’t even have to think about it.  “Jess has introduced me to some really excellent meals.”   She straightened up a little in her seat.  “And at the base, they make special things called brownies.”

“Ooh!” Kurok broke into a grin. “They still make those?”

“They do.” Jess confirmed. “Only on special occasions, but they do.”  She regarded her now empty tray. “We done here? What’s next?” She leaned on her forearms.  “Gonna show me how you grow stuff up here? “

Her eyes were on Kurok, her senses were pinned to Doss, and her ears picked up the increased breathing and the shift of his body against the chair.  

“If you like, sure.”  Kurok stood up, picking up his tray.  “But first, if you don’t mind I’d like to get a scan of you into our analyzer, with all your specialness.” His eyes twinkled at her. “I’m going to enjoy scaring the living daylights out of every colleague I have.”

“Daniel, what do you mean?”  Doss stood up as well, glancing from him to Jess. 

“You’ll see.”  Kurok waved them along.   “Let’s go, you two.  Maybe I can figure out how to get this damn machinery to cough up some brownies later.”

**

They were in the lab.  Dev was seated on a stool behind the genetiscan console, watching as Doctor Dan tuned the leads for the sensors poised above Jess’s relaxed body as it lay on the examining table.   “Just a moment more.”

“What’s Doss’s background?” Jess asked, her eyes studying the machinery over her head.

“Eh?” Kurok looked up from his fiddling.  “Early brain stem development. I wasn’t kidding. He did design the class structure.”  He paused. “Why?”

“He got family downside?”

“I have no idea. Never thought about it. I’ve known Randall for many years, and he’s got the imagination of a sea slug.”  Kurok finished his calculations. “Just lay still for a moment, would you?”

“Sure.” Jess closed her eyes and to all intents and purposes went to sleep.

“Perfect.”  Doctor Dan started the scan, leaning forward and watching in fascination as the advanced heuristic device parsed through Jess’s biology.   “Look at that bone structure.”

Thus invited, Dev hopped off the stool and came closer peering past her mentor’s shoulder at the screen. “Is it different?”

“Oh yes, look.” Kurok traced a pattern on the display. “It’s five or six times denser than average, and do you see this structure here?  In my knee, or yours, Dev, we’d have far less of these arches.” He traced another line. “And there are ten times more ligament attachment points here.”

Dev looked over the console at Jess, who had one eye open peering back at her in some amusement. “That’s amazing.”

Jess closed her eye and shook her head.

The scan moved up Jess’s body, slowing a little as it came over her chest and recorded the double lung structure that allowed Jess to breathe water.  “Just amazing.” Doctor Dan shook his head. “I’ve been wanting a look at those since we were in that water.”

“My gills?” Jess queried, with a smile.

“Exactly.”  Doctor Dan came around the console and approached her.  “I don’t know who did the work, but I will tell you, as someone who has done a bit of this, they were good.” He leaned on the table, regarding her.  “That’s not an easy change.”

Jess folded her hands over her stomach.  “Always surprised me it worked as well as it does.” She admitted. “First time I got my head held under the water to force it, I thought I was going to croak.”

Kurok studied her. “She did that?”

Jess shook her head. “My father did.” She replied in a mild tone. “I got picked up in a scan, and he had to prove it had a purpose.”

“Hm.”

She shrugged slightly. 

A soft sound chimed overhead. “Doctor Kurok please contact the Director.”  A female voice followed it. “Doctor Kurok, please contact the Director.”

“All right I heard you.”  Kurok went back to the console and pressed a few keys, putting a commlink into his ear.  “This is Dan Kurok.”

Dev moved away from the console so as not to be appearing to listen, even though she thought Doctor Dan probably did not mind.  She went over to where Jess was laying and put her hands on the surface of the table.

“Hi.”  Jess greeted her. “Like my insides?”

“I like all your sides.”  Dev readily responded. “Does this make you be in discomfort?”

“Nah.” Jess stretched out a little and then relaxed.  “Doc’s okay.”  She assented. “And I don’t mind, my guts are what they are, you know?” She twiddled her thumbs. “I got over them being a novelty a long time ago, though I gotta tell you it was worth the look on the medic’s face the first time I got sent to the tank.”

“Okay.”  Kurok  put the comms link down and went back to the console. “We’re invited to lunch with staff.”  He rolled his eyes slightly. “I think he’s just anxious to get the sign off on Dev’s design to tell the truth and he knows if he keeps annoying me I might speed that up.”

Jess chuckled.  “Make em wait.” She suggested. “Dev promised to show me the floating place up top.”

“Ah, the null grav gym.”  Doctor Dan also chuckled. “You do enjoy the null, don’t you?”

“I do. It reminds me of being under water.” Jess confirmed. “Only less wet.”

“That knife wound finally completely healed I see.”  Kurok commented, his eyes on the screen. “Bet that was a relief.”  He glanced up over the screen. “All done.”

“You’re faster than the meds at base.” Jess levered herself up off the table and got onto her feet. “Now what? We get to see your side of the business?  I wanna see where Dev came from.”

Kurok was typing on an entry pad. “Absolutely.”  He finished and saved the dataset, sending it to his privately coded storage.  “I even have pictures of Dev as a baby. Interested?”

“Hell yes. She’s seen mine.” Jess agreed cheerfully

“Yes, I have too.”  Kurok’s eyes twinkled a little. “So let’s go give you the backstage tour, shall we?  And, Dev, I got a note from your friend Gigi she’d love to meet up with us to have some tea.”

“Excellent.”  Dev put her hands behind her back and rocked up and down a little in her issue boots, glad she was in her Interforce uniform, with it’s dark piping, her insignia neatly polished on either side of her neck.  “I would like to see Gigi.  Is she still assigned to the Director?”

“She is.” Kurok marshaled them out the door and led the way down the hall. “She’s anxious to hear how you’ve been doing.” He glanced at Dev. “You’re free to tell her what you like, but I’d go a little light on the details if you don’t mind.”

“The gory details?” Jess asked. “That’ll be a short conversation.”

“Mm.”

“I can tell her about the bear.” Dev commented.  “That should be pretty safe.”

“Except for the two inch long fangs.”

**

The crŹche made her squirmy, Jess realized in relatively short order.  She paused inside the door to a large, light hued chamber, full of rows upon rows of small mechanized units, where workers wore white jumpsuits and headcovers as they moved down the lines.

“So, these are the incubators.”  Doctor Dan led them over to the nearest set, peering inside one.  It was full of a rosy colored fluid, and contained a small, twitching form.  “That’s a pre-natal bio alt.”

Jess’s eyes got wider as she regarded the thing inside. “A what?”

“A baby, before it’s born.”  Kurok muffled a smile.  “When they’re close to birth stage, we transfer them into a birthing unit for their last month of growth before being born.”

Jess gave Dev a sideways look. “Is that the egg thing?”

Dev nodded, with a brief grin.   She’d been in here many times, of course, and it was a little funny to see Jess’s somewhat alarmed reaction. “I told Jess I came from an egg in space and she thought I was making a joke.”

“This is weird.”  Jess concluded. “Can we see an egg?”

Kurok chuckled and motioned them on along.   The tenders turned to watch them as they passed, the pale walls and floors making the dark jumpsuits Dev and Jess were wearing a startling contrast.  “There are two thousand individuals in here, representing fifty different sets.” He remarked, as they passed the last row, in which the units were empty.  “And those are waiting for Dev’s successors.”

Jess peeked inside one.  “So that’s supposed to mimic a uterus?”  She sounded dubious. 

“Mm… except the fluid is artificial amniotic and the embryos are fed artificial nutrients.” Kurok palmed another door and gestured them past him. “And it accelerates the process. Only takes three months instead of nine.”

They went through a connecting passage and into a second chamber, this one quiet and dimly lit, and full of rings in motion, with plastic ovals turning slowly as they rotated. Each one was roughly armlength in size, and here the minders sat at consoles full of screens they intently monitored.

“Hello Doctor Dan.” One of them got up and smiled as he approached. 

“Hello, Seth.”  Doctor Dan replied. “This is Jesslyn Drake, from Interforce, and you will remember her partner, Dev.”

“Yes, of course.” The minder nodded. “We were told you would be visiting.  Welcome back, Dev.” 

“Thank you.” Dev replied. “Jess was interested in seeing a hatching chamber.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”  Jess muttered.

“We’re about to open one.” Seth said. “Would you like to watch?” He didn’t wait, but led them over to a table surrounded by technicians.  They had removed one of the ovals from the moving rings and had it cradled in holders. 

“You moved around like that before you were born?” Jess whispered, pointing at the rings.

“Yes.” Dev agreed.

“Explains your flying style.”  Jess made sure she was well behind the rest of them as the clustered around the egg, and it was popped open.   She warily eyed the interior, which seemed to be a large ball of goo, quickly wiped down by a technician to reveal a small, naked, gasping baby.

They washed it down with a faintly steaming liquid and it opened it’s eyes, sticking it’s tongue out and hiccupping.

“Huh.” Jess regarded it. “Messy.”

“Not nearly as much as a natural born’s.”  Doctor Dan gave her an amused look. “Which I don’t guess you’ve ever witnessed.”

“Nope. Only seen a whale deliver underwater.” Jess responded as she watched them wrap the new baby up in a piece of fabric, and attach a plastic band around it’s tiny arm. From where she was, Jess could clearly see two letters printed on it, and a set of numbers. 

“That’s a KayDee.”  Dev told her in an undertone, as they moved the halves of the egg away and the baby vanished to another chamber and they prepared to unhook a new egg from the ring.  “They do station maintenance.”

“Ah huh.”  Jess was glad Kurok was leading them elsewhere.   “So he’ll stay here then, I guess?”

“Or go to another station.”  Dev agreed. 

They followed Kurok out into a hallway, and then they were in the main part of station again, heading for a lift tube. “We’ll take a look at the play gym, then get some lunch.” He saw the grin on Jess’s face.  “Much more to your tastes, I’m sure.”

“Not much for babies.” Jess said. “Once we graduate to field school, we never go back to the areas where they bring the kids in to.”

“No, I suppose not.”  Doctor Dan kicked off in the tube and they floated upward, along with a flock of others. 

This was the first time they were with a lot of people and Dev quickly noticed they were being watched by everyone.   She folded her hands in front of her and ignored the looks, as they moved past any number of proctors and staff, and on the edges of the tube, other bio alts.

As they went past the mid levels up to the upper section, there were less people around them and Jess took advantage of that as she went into a series of lazy tumbling motions. There was a fluidly graceful way she was moving that was different, and she quickly drew the eyes of the few onlookers left.

Kurok watched, with a faint smile on his face.  Not what the staff had expected, he was sure, this Drake, with her aerobatic antics.   He half turned, catching Dev’s expression as she too looked at her partner, the unfeigned affection clearly showing.

“Seems like a natural spacer, eh Dev?” He chuckled softly.

“Yes.”  Dev agreed. “Jess is so amazing at everything.”

“Did I just hear that?” Jess was upside down, eyeing them.

“I said you were amazing.” Dev repeated. “And you are!”  She reached up to take Jess’s extended hand, as her partner rotated around to normal attitude. “Do you know how long it takes most people to know how to tumble in null?”

Jess rolled her eyes, and looked over at Kurok.

“She’s right.”  Doctor Dan advised her. “Some never learn. At least not without throwing up every other minute.”

“I had more than enough practice with my ass over my head with her flying.” Jess informed them. “I had to get extra restraints put in so I’d stop banging my head on the bus floor.”

Dev turned an appealing shade of pink, while Doctor Dan merely chuckled.

Then they were at the top level and exiting, now at the outer rim of station and heading along a passageway that had classrooms on either side of it. 

“Do you ever keep the kids separate?” Jess asked, unexpectedly.  “The bios and the rest?   I know you said not in basic but after?”

“We don’t have many natural born children up here.” Doctor Dan answered quietly.  “In a year, maybe ten or so.  They attend basic education classes with the sets who they match in terms of standard intelligence.”

“Ah.”

“Then after that, they take a set of tests and are sorted out to various areas on station for specialized classes.

“A battery.”  Jess smiled a little at him.

“Of sorts, but academic in nature.”  Kurok responded.  “Not quite like the one downworld.” He gave her a sidelong look “We have more control over the genetics, you see.”

They came to a wall and looked past it, the thick translucent surface curving under their hands as they watched the activity beyond.   There was a heavy set of lock doors and past it, bathed in sunlight, a host of children tumbling in null gravity.

Jess looked charmed. “Is that what you remember?” She asked Dev. “What you told me about?”

“Yes.” Dev remembered well being one of those children, if she closed her eyes she could feel again the freedom of floating, and the giggling of her classmates. “It was fun.”

“That looks really cool.” Jess watched the children playing a ball game, bouncing off padded surfaces and laughing in delight.  “Can we go inside?”

“You can.”  Doctor Dan said, dryly.  “I’ve lost my taste for null. That trip on the shuttle was enough for me to remember it.”

He went to the edge of the lock and palmed the door open, waving them in.  “Have at it, kids.”

Jess bounced right in, and Dev joined her, the two of them standing side by side as the portal shut and sealed.

“Stand by for zero gravity conditions.”  A woman’s voice, the same one theyd heard before, chimed. “In ten seconds. Nine.  Eight.”

“C’mon.”  Jess went to the front of the chamber, waiting impatiently for the inner door to open. “Let’s go Dev.”

The door opened, and Jess leaned forward, then shoved off with both feet, heading upward swiftly as Dev followed her.

It was an amazing feeling.  Jess reached one of the padded surfaces and turned in mid air, kicking off again and savoring the sensation of flying as she reached out and caught hold of Dev, pulling her around and then releasing her.

They both spun into a ray of sunlight, brilliant though buffered by the shielding on the outer skin of the station and Jess spread her arms out to savor it, this light she’d only ever seen the dimly reflected faintness of.

At the far end of the space a thick and padded net was spread, curtaining off the play area and most of the children were down at that end, batting colorful rubber balls at each other.  They were unaware of the two dark clad figures moving around above them and Jess flipped over and floated on her back.

“What are they doing?” Randall Doss came up behind Doctor Dan.  “Daniel, you let them in there with the children? What’s wrong with you?”

“Watch them.”  Kurok leaned against the wall. “They’re not doing anything.  Watch Jesslyn in the null, Randall. As natural as she’d been born here.”

Doss peered past him.  “She terrified the night staff.  They came and complained to me.” He sighed. “I don’t know if we should take that other contract, trying to reproduce something like her, Daniel.”

“No harm. We can’t.”  Kurok told him. “The manipulation they did, the mutations they encoded – it’s far too dangerous to try. I’ll send you the report.”

“Can’t, or won’t?” Doss looked shrewdly at him.

“Can’t.  We don’t have the skill for that level of manipulation anymore. Thank goodness.” Kurok watched Jess push gently off a surface and roll into a somersault, moving past Dev who reached out to catch her. “We barely touch the surface of that kind of thing and frankly I wouldn’t want to try to program that kind of amorality.”

Doss looked relieved.  “After seeing her, I’m glad to hear you say that. “ He said. “So we should just agree to do the study? Can we get that much money out of it?”

“Study? Sure.” Doctor Dan said.  “But we can’t reproduce something like her, and even if we could I wouldn’t and anyway we don’t have to.  They reproduce themselves. That’s a different species you’re looking at there, Randall.”

“What are you saying?” Doss turned and looked at him. “Are you serious?”

“Very.” 

“Then we should conclude this investigation as soon as we can, Daniel.  This could end up being very dangerous to us.”  The Director stared back at the two dark figures.  “Is the special unit safe?  I don’t want to lose our investment in it.”

“Her.”  Kurok corrected him quietly.  “She’s safe.  Probably safer than anyone else.”

“I hope so.”  Doss shook his head. “I certainly hope so.”

**

Continued in Part 7