Of Sea and Stars

Part 7

Jess finished a lazy flip in mid air, reaching out to grab a padded strut as Dev drifted up next to her.    They paused together, watching the children play down the curve from where they were floating.  “This is cool.”

Dev smiled. “I’m really glad you are enjoying it.”

“Are you?”

“Yes.”  The bio alt nodded. “I find null really relaxing. We didn’t get to experience it a lot after we left the basic school, but every once in a while you could come in and play catch or something if you had a few free minutes.”

Jess regarded the children. “They kept you pretty busy, huh?”

“They did.  Some of us… not very many, got to do what we wanted in between class and lab, or lab and meal – in the mornings sometimes after early meal we could spend ten or maybe twenty minutes doing what we wanted.”

Her partner digested this in silence.  “Huh.”  She eventually grunted. “That because you were a superstar?”

“No, well.”  Dev frowned a little. “I was always sort of advanced in class.  Gigi was too.  We had a little assigned crib down by the dorms. I would go sit in there and do a lab, sometimes or read a few pages of my book.”

A scream drew their sharp attention, and Jess curled her boots up and got them up against the padded strut as her body tensed, ready to launch.  “What was that?”

Dev had hand over handed along the support, her head turning right and left to locate the sound.  Another yell rang out, and from the corner of her eye she saw Doctor Dan bolt away from the glass and start running down slope.  “Something’s wrong.”

“Yeah but what?”  Jess was searching the area herself, but the outline of station and the angles defeated her instincts. Then she saw the net spread below the children springing free and opening. “That a good thing?” She pointed.

“No.. oh no!”  Dev’s eyes widened. “That open space – if they fall through there and grav cuts back in they’ll fall!”

Jess uncoiled her body and launched herself towards the net, wishing now that this null grav was water, since there was nothing to continue pushing against to make herself go faster and she wasn’t equipped with wings.

Beneath her she could see the children starting to tumble towards the opening.  “Not good!”  She suddenly felt the faint tug of gravity against her. 

“Not good!” Dev yelled back.

She could see the edge of the net and angled towards it, lunging past several bio alt kids who goggled at her in frightened alarm.  

No time to worry about that.  She caught the edge of the net and saw a strut coming up, curling herself up in the air and kicking out as she reached it to zoom off in a different direction, the net caught in the clenched fingers of one hand.

She heard a klaxon, and saw moving figures from the corner of her eye as she shot across the open space dragging the net behind her as she saw the loose fastening the net had come off of.

She got a hand on that, then quickly got her body twisted around in time to fend off another strut, pulling her arms together to catch the net around her.

Gravity went weird, and she felt forces pushing and shoving against her from directions she never expected them to.  She could feel pressure against her lungs, and a sudden headache, but she clasped her hands around her opposite wrists, coming to rest in mid air as the net tried to pull her grip apart.

Her fingers gripped harder, resisting the pull and she arched her back, closing her eyes in concentration. 

“Hang on Jess!”  Dev had reached her side and was now climbing up the net as children bounced against it, wide eyed in eerie silence.   “Hang on!”

“Hanging.” Jess opened one eye as a small body hit her, looking down to see a tiny moppet with curly red hair clutching her jumpsuit. “Hey.”

The bio alt child looked up at her. “Mam.” He burbled as another child bounced against him, and took hold of her. “Scared!”

“Ever hear of going from a boat into the water?” Jess inquired, but got only incomprehensive stares back.  “Never mind. Don’t pinch me.”

The first child wrapped an arm around her leg and stared through the net, as the gravity fluxed again and they were shoved downward.

Dev got hold of the loosened line and climbed up into the rigging, putting the line over her shoulder and pulling it forward as she climbed up the supports towards the control panel.  She paused as the pull increased and took a better hold as she was almost yanked free.

“Whatever you’re doing, Devvie, hurry it up. I’m collecting limpets.” Jess commented, tightening her grip again as the pull became intense, making her muscles suddenly stand out under her jumpsuit.  “Getting crunchy!”

“Yes!” Dev saw the issue, the huge hook that held the net had disengaged, and was drifting.  She looped the line over the hook and secured it, then she bounced over to the control panel. “It’s lost power!” 

“Can ya fix it?”  Jess closed her eyes again as the strain increased. “Before my shoulders come out of their sockets?”

Dev turned around and looked across the open space.

There was a jet pod making it’s way towards them, far too slowly.  She could see technicians on the walk, watching.  The children were all falling against the net in confusion.

She could feel grav fluctuating again.

Not correct.   She turned back and got to the panel, unlatching the front and yanking it open.  Inside, she let her eyes scan over the boards, and without hesitation, she reached inside and tripped the reset relay, pulling her hand back as the boards re-energized.

With a growling clank the hook started to retract, pulling Jess with it towards her along with the five or six children who had latched on to her.  “It’s okay, Jess!”

Jess relaxed her hold and moved herself away as the mechanism pulled the net taught again, and the odd stresses and pulls against her vanished.  The children started drifting again, and after a moment, they started laughing as though it had just been a big game.

“Good!” One of the children who had grabbed onto her said, kicking away from the net and turning a somersault. “Where’s da ball!”

Dev shut the panel and drifted down to join Jess as the hook retracted completely, and the games started up again.   “Its an excellent thing you caught the net, Jess.” She remarked. “With null grav fluxing, the children could have gotten really hurt.”

“Mm.”  Jess was still hanging onto the net fabric, watching the kids move off, their fright gone.  “That sort of thing happen a lot?”

“It happens.” Dev was scanning the area intently.  “But not a lot.  It’s quite a coincidence it happened just then.”

“Mm” Her partner repeated the low sound.  “How much of a coincidence?” She asked. “You knew that system in there, Devvie?”

“No.” Dev answered, after a moment. “That is not something I was programmed with.  It just seemed like it needed to be reset.  Power might have fluctuated, and made it go offline.” She considered. “There wasn’t any overlay. “

“You just figured it out.”  Jess confirmed. “Just like I just did what I do.”

“Yes.”

Jess could see a group of white lab coated figures watching them. “Or the whole thing could have been arranged to give them something to look at.” She started down the net. “Let’s go find out.” 

Dev pulled herself along behind her, the null area no longer seeming so lighthearted. 

**

Kurok had stopped mid walkway and gone to the glass, seeing Jess catch the net and secure it with her powerful grip.  He could see the surface fluctuating, and the children tumbling, but the con that handled grav in the gym was on other side of the ring from him and out of reach.

A safety pod was on the way, maneuvering cautiously, but the agents quick response had kept the net mostly in place, and the gap that threatened to open to let helpless children tumble down to deck had closed.

There were klaxons sounding though, and he could see by the motion of the net that gravity was threatening to take hold, pulling the synth webbing taut against the hold Jess had on it, and he could see her body flexing in response.

Doss caught up with him. “Oh my goodness what’s going on Daniel??”  He was gasping.  “Oh! The agent! The children! Look!”

“The agent.”  Kurok repeated. “Demonstrating the utterly contradictory quality of sacrificing of self to the greater good.”  He watched Dev climbing up to the equipment panel, the fluctuating grav making her somewhat unsteady. “The only thing that ties Interforce together and keeps it going.”

“But…”

“Watch.” He leaned against the glass. “There must be several thousand kilos of force pulling on that grip.  Can you fathom the engineering that went into that?” He watched Jess in fascination.  “Imagine the strength there.”

“Well.. yes.” Doss was pressing his hands against the glass next to him. “Is the chamber malfunctioning?”

“So it seems.”

“Oh! What’s the unit doing?” Doss had spotted Dev’s moving form.  “Daniel!”

Kurok eyed him dourly “Dev? Probably she’s fixing the problem.”

Doss frowned.  “But that unit never received station maintenance programming.” He looked at Kurok. “So how would she know what to do?”

Ah crap.  “What do you mean, how would she know? She’s a tech.”  Kurok said.

“Yes of course, but not for our systems. That’s a very specific set.” The director stared at him. “I saw the programming schema for the unit it had nothing in there about station.”

Kurok carefully controlled his breathing.  “How would you know what to do, Randall, when faced with some unknown parameter in a class structure?” He responded casually. “You’d figure it out, based on experience, right?”

“Well, yes of course.”

“Dev does the same thing.”  Kurok turned and started down the tube again.  “Not really that remarkable actually humans have been doing that for twenty thousand years.”  He sped up to a jog, wanting to get away from Doss’s questioning eyes.

“But Daniel!”

“We can discuss it later.” He called back over his shoulder. “I want to make sure everyone’s all right.” He got around the curve of the ring and sped up, breaking into a jog again.

He heard the klaxon stop blaring and glanced through the glass, as the sound of mechanical motion cranked through the air, and the safety net curled back properly into place.   At the top of the net he saw Dev close up the equipment panel, and hurry to join her partner and he had to wonder.

Coincidence?

He triggered his commlink.  “Kurok to mech ops.”

“Mech ops here, sir.” The voice was quiet and respectful, not surprising since it was bio alt and knew well who he was. 

“CueTee, please give me a report on the malfunction in null space one alpha. It has just occurred, and there was fluctuation in null as well as a release of the safety restraints.”  Kurok asked. “Complete diagnostics.”

“Yes, Doctor Dan.” The CueTee responded. “Is there damage? Do you need a mech team? Should we alert medops?”

“No.”  Kurok replied. “NM-Dev-1 resolved the problem, all is well. I just want to know what happened.”

“That is excellent, Doctor Dan.  I will get the report for you right away.” The CueTee said. “Mech ops out.”

He dodged several running technicians and got to the main airlock, at the center of the null area.  Without much thought he keyed the door open and went inside, the two techs following him.  “Easy there, boys.”

“Hello Doctor Dan.” The nearer one said. “Is there trouble? We got called down here, and they said there was a malfunction.”

“Who sent you, lads?”  He asked them in a casual tone.

“The security desk.” The DeeDee answered earnestly.  “The director’s office called down, I heard them.”

“The security desk, hm?”

“Yes, Doctor Dan. The supervisor there told us to come here right away. Is it correct?” The tech’s voice took on an anxious tone.

“it’s fine. You’re all correct.”  Kurok told them. “Let’s go.”

The outer door sealed and the mechanical voice sounded, warning of the grav change.  Kurok took hold of one of the padded bars near the inner door and exhaled, feeling the shift as weight came off his spine and only his hold kept his feet on the ground.

The inner door opened and he pushed off the bar, drifting into the null and onto the viewing platform just inside. 

Above the net, the proctors were gathering in the children, getting them sorted by set and grouped together, the children holding each other hand to wrist in circles.

Jess and Dev were coming across the net to the platform.  “Wait here.” He told the techs. “NM-Dev-1 might be able to tell you what the problem was.”

“Oh!” The DeeDee caught hold of the spar next to him.

“Hey Doc.”  Jess came barreling over the rail, flipping over and hitting the glass wall of the airlock with some force.  “Any idea what that was all about?”

“Not yet.”  Kurok eyed her, reaching out a hand to steady Jess as she came around to land. “Waiting for Dev to tell me what she found.”

Dev hitched herself over onto the platform more decorously.  “Hello, Doctor Dan.”  She said, as she got her feet settled. “The panel went into overload.” She announced without preamble. “It was amazing how Jess got the net to stop until I could reset it.”

Jess grinned, then hooked her legs over the top of the support and hung upside down, rocking gently side to side. “You owe me a shoulder massage for that.”

Dev smiled. “Of course.”

“So there was no power inside?”  Doctor Dan asked her.  “These techs were sent to look at things.” He added, indicating the DeeDees. “It seems there’s nothing for them to do.”

“No.” Dev looked at them.  “It was the retraction hook panel, in the subsection.” She watched them nod. “Completely de-energized. I reset it. But you should inspect it and see if there is something that caused it to go offline.”

“Yes.” The two techs nodded, then started off the platform, using belt hooks to fasten themselves to the net lines as they started across.

The three of them exchanged glances.  

“What’s the chance of that happening?” Jess asked, folding her hands over her stomach.

“It happens.” Kurok admitted.  “Its all mechanical systems in there, the net and all that.”

“Doctor Dan, I don’t remember hearing of that happening at the same time grav had an issue.” Dev spoke up.  “The children could have really gotten hurt.”

“Mm.” Doctor Dan drummed his fingers against the rail.  “Let’s go get some lunch.” He said. “We can discuss this later.”  He triggered the lock door and led the way inside, dodging at the last minute to avoid Jess’s tumbling form. “Jesslyn!” He barked out in mild exasperation.

Jess chuckled, as she turned upright and took hold of one of the poles.  “This is gonna get good.”

**

Lunch was awkward.  Dev was aware that Doctor Doss, and the people with him were in a lot of discomfort, and the fact that not one, but two bio alts were seated at the table in the senior scientists dining room wasn’t helping.

She was glad to see Gigi though.   She was waiting for the general talk to get louder, so they could share a private word or two since Jess had ignored the seating plan and steered her to a seat right next to her friend.

“Ah, ah.” Doss cleared his throat. “Agent Drake, let me first say we owe you a big thank you, for being so forward in helping out in the null gymnasium earlier.”

“Yes.” The man sitting next to Doss said. “My name is John Akerson, sorry, we haven’t met.” He added. “I’m one of the financial directors here at Bio Station 2.”

“No problem.”  Jess responded.  “You all are supposed to be so super scientific up here it kinda surprised me to have it all go tits up like that.”

“What does that mean?” Gigi asked in a whisper.

“She thinks it was strange the malfunction happened.” Dev whispered back.  “It seemed incorrect.” She added. “To have the board lock up at the same time grav was in flux.”

Gigi frowned.

“There was a power surge.”  Doctor Dan replied, in a careful tone.  “Mechanical operations reported that one of the solar arrays over provided the grid.”

Jess looked up and to the right, where one of the arrays was clearly in view. “That?” She watched in some fascination as the array shifted it’s angle, following the course of the sun they were moving past.

“Not that one, but yes.”  Kurok agreed. “I suppose that must interest you, Jess.  Nothing like that downside.”

“Its useful, like the hydro tunnels are.” Jess remarked. “Seems to provide you with enough power.”

The scientists relaxed a little, and the finance director leaned forward. “I haven’t been downside. Tell me about that?  One of my brothers worked on a turbine station in Quebec City.”

“So, how is it going for you, Dev?”  Gigi asked.  “Everyone says you have done really excellent work.”

Dev grinned a little, and blushed. “That is what they say.”  She demurred. “Really, I just used the programming they gave me and did the best I could.  It was Jess who really did some excellent things and got very good results.” She considered. “But I was glad I could help her in that.”

“They sent a vid up, with you flying a vehicle.” Gigi nodded. “The proctors of the pilots, you know, the KayCees, have been studying it.”

“The carrier. Yes.”  Dev agreed. “I have done quite well with that actually. “ She admitted. “It’s a lot of fun to fly, and they have just installed some new and more powerful engines. I like them.”

“Excuse me NM-Dev-1.”

Dev looked over at Akerson. “Yes?”

“I heard you went right to the control panel and fixed it, in the null.”  He asked, in a somewhat accusatory tone. “Without being instructed to.”

Dev was aware of Jess reacting next to her, and instinctively she reached out and just put her hand over her partner’s wrist.  “Of course, sir.” She responded calmly. “My programming is in tech.  The entire point of the advanced level was not to have to wait for instruction.”

He stared at her. 

“Dev is correct.” Kurok spoke up as they were suddenly surrounded by bio alt servers, carefully putting down plates in front of them.  “That is exactly and precisely why she received the programming I designed.”

“Do we want bios who make their own decisions?” Akerson asked. “I’m not sure …”

“No no, that’s exactly what was requested, John. Please. You’ve read the contract. “ Doss interrupted. “Now stop.”

Akerson frowned at him. “That wasn’t what it said.”

“It was.” Doss replied firmly. “Now please stop, or leave. These are our guests.” He turned his attention to Jess.  “Now what were we talking about? The turbines, wasn’t it?”

“Do you?” Gigi asked under her breath.  “Make your own decisions, Dev?”

Dev could see Jess still had that narrowed eyed look, but her body was relaxing a little.  She waited until she saw her lean back a little, then she settled back herself. “Of course.”  She responded to Gigi. “It’s what the work is.  We go outside the base, and stop bad things from happening.  Jess depends on me knowing what to do.”

“She doesn’t tell you?”

“Sometimes.  Where to go, and what course to put in , and things like that.” Dev acknowledged. “But the rest of it, no.  She expects me to do it on my own.”

“Wow.” Gigi smiled a little. “That’s amazing.”  She glanced around then back at Dev. “There are more of us at the Interforce base, isn’t that correct?  A lot more? One of the proctors said they were sending two more full sets downworld.”

“There are.” Dev forked up some of the protein cubes.  “Ten or twelve different sets.”

“Do you stay with them?” Gigi asked, in a curious tone.

“No.” Dev suppressed a smile.  “I live next to Jess.  I have to be ready to work at all times with her.” She took a sip of the tea they’d been served. “All of the techs and agents live in one area.”

“But they’re natural born, the rest of them?”

“Yes.”

“Is that difficult?” Gigi wondered. “I can’t imagine having to live with all natural borns around me. It would be uncomfortable I think.”

Dev considered that.  “It isn’t difficult at all.”  She was suddenly aware of the slight twitching of Jess’s ear and knew her partner was listening.  “It was a little uncomfortable at first, but after we did a few missions, it was fine.  They call me Rocket.”

Gigi paused uncertainly, but then she smiled a little.   “Do they? Is that good? Why do they call you that?”

Jess leaned past her, addressing Gigi directly. “Because she’s the best pilot we’ve got and the queen of the wrenchers.”  She reached a hand over. “Hi. I’m Jess.”

Gigi took her hand and then released it.  “Hello.”

Gigi was cute, and looked roughly the same age as Dev.  She was in a space jumpsuit though, and the design for bio alts clearly exposed their collars.  She didn’t seem really comfortable sitting at the table with them. 

“Agent Drake.”  Doss distracted her. “Excuse me but is it true.. I mean, are you from the Drake’s Bay homestead?”

“What clued you into that?”  Jess asked, with a deadpan expression.

“Well…” He frowned.  “Someone said it.” He looked accusingly at one of the other scientists.

Jess had finished the contents of her plate, and now she leaned back in her chair and regarded Doss.  “Yes, as my name might indicate, I am in fact from Drake’s Bay.  Why?”

Doss nodded. “It’s quite strange you know? That you are visiting us here, and we have heard from Interforce that there seems to be some issue with product from here at that location.”

Jess folded her arms over her chest.  “Someone sold my brother a bunch of stuff from here, yeah.” She agreed. “What of it?”

“How do you know it was from here?” Akerson asked, sharply.

“The seed lots had designations from here, sir. “ Dev said. “I recognized them.”

Akerson looked like he was thinking of being mean to her, Dev thought, but after a quick look at Jess he decided not to, which wasn’t surprising since Jess was glowering at him, and even sitting down she was taller than he was.

Taller than everyone was, actually.  

“It could have been stolen.” Akerson muttered.

“Yes, that’s possible.” Dev agreed. “But regardless of how it arrived downworld, it came from here.  There were twelve to fourteens species, including fruit plants, grasses, mint and sage, corn, and some beans.”

“And peaches.” Jess confirmed.

“They were grown using a bioluminescent chemical reaction.” Doctor Dan commented. “Dev was kind enough to bring me a sample of the phosphine bearing mineral.”  He added, with a faint smile.

There was a little silence.  “Daniel.”  Doss said, after a moment. “That’s very unusual.”

“Yes.” Kurok agreed, shortly.  “We need to send a team there, to review it.  The implications, if the mineral is producible, are somewhat profound.”

Akerson leaned forward. “They grew seed with it? You’re sure?”

“How could they think this wasn’t of great importance?” Doss exhaled, sitting back in his seat. “My stars.”

The bio alt servers came over and removed their plates, and a second set of servers came in with small dishes with a ball of frozen confection in their centers.   Dev’s eyes widened a little, and she got a poke from Gigi, who indicated the plate.

Jess was watching Akerson.  “Sure someone from here didn’t do a deal with Jimmy?” She drawled a little “That was my brother’s name. James Drake.” She watched the faces, senses made sharp from years of playing this game alert to twitches around the lip, the shift of shoulders, the sudden motion of hands washing each other.

Doss looked the most uncomfortable. “We will check the records, certainly but there was no transaction in these goods that I knew of.”  He said, stiffly.

“Nor I.” Akerson said. “But I won’t lie and say we wouldn’t be interested in working with you on that kind of project.  But of course. .. “ He drew back a little.  “You’re Interforce. You can’t speak for them.”

“Of course.”  Jess smiled at him without any humor.  

“That’s not quite true.”  Doctor Dan spoke up, in a mild tone.  He was busy finishing his meal and kept his eyes on it. “Jesslyn is the current Drake of Drake’s Bay due to an odd confluence of intent and happenstance.”

Awkward silence.  Kurok waited a moment, then looked up in mock innocence.  “Sorry.” He eyed Jess. “Was that a secret?”

Jess’s eyes twinkled at him in somber appreciation.  “Just an uncomfortable truth.”  She let her eyes lift up and pin Doss. “But that’s why Interforce is there, at the Bay, poking around in your seed beds. I called them in.”

Akerson put one hand on the table, fingers curled into his palm.  “The rest of these white coats may not know about downside, but I do. Active Interforce can’t be a stakeholder.”

“Mm.” Kurok wiped his lips. “Drakes don’t’ always go by the rules. Jess’s father often didn’t.” He let the waiting bio alt take his plate. “Thank you, AyeBee.”

Jess’s eyebrow twitched.  She’d never heard ever of any rumors of Justin being a rule breaker.  The opposite, in fact.  She took a breath to protest, then paused, as Kurok gave her a swift, sideways glance, along with the faintest twitch of his lips.

Huh.

“You’re welcome, Doctor Dan.” The AyeBee said. “Can I bring you a tea?”

“Yes please.”  He put the napkin down. “Jess is in fact the controlling stakeholder. More importantly, she was the controlling stakeholder when those seed lots were delivered over.  I checked the lot dates.  That means whoever did the deal really did it with Interforce and now they’re very very interested.”  He looked around the table. “So if anyone here does know about this, I’d cough up that information.”

“We should discuss this in private.”  Akerson growled, glancing at Dev and Gigi.  “As I told Doss, I don’t know squat about this. But I can see profit in it, just like Interforce can.” He got up and shoved his chair into place. “Doss, your office, ten standard.”   He walked quickly out of the dining hall.

Doctor Doss sighed in exasperation. “Daniel!”

“Yes Randall?” Doctor Dan gave him one of his kinder smiles.  “Please don’t be stressed. The man is an ass, and the whole station knows it.”

Doss got up. “That’s not the point. Must you prod him like that?  The council is upset enough already.” He pushed his chair in. “He can cause us a lot of trouble.” He added, as he started off to follow Akerson.  “Really!”

After an awkward pause, the rest of the scientists got up and left the table, muttering half hearted goodbyes.

Kurok watched them leave, then he edged his chair around to the side. “Now, you lot.” He lowered his voice. “Gigi, it probably would be best if you pretend you never heard any of this.”

“Of course, Doctor Dan. “ Gigi answered promptly. “I pretend I never hear anything in the Director’s office.”

Jess chuckled.  “Your kids are smarter than you are, Doc.”

“Mm.”  He grinned briefly. “You have no idea.”

Gigi looked around “But… could you come down to the crŹche for a moment? Everyone really wants to say hello to Dev.” She said. “They asked me to ask you, because they knew I was going to have a meal with you today.”

Doctor Dan smiled.  “Is that okay by you, Dev?”

“Yes.” Dev said, after a moment.  “As long as Jess goes with us.” She added unexpectedly.

“Like I wouldn’t?”  Jess remarked.  “C’mon. I still want to see your baby pictures.”  She got up and waited for them to join her.  “Let’s go see how the other half lives.”

“Quite more than half.”

**

The trip to the crŹche involved another grav tube, which made Jess happy.  She resisted the urge to tumble in space as they drifted down, slowly shedding the proctors and staff of the station as they gathered isolated bio alts along the way.

It was obvious to Jess that all the bio alts both knew who Dev was and had their attention glued on Dan Kurok. She could see them watching him, waiting for him to look their way, hoping for the recognition that indicated. 

Dev had her noncommittal expression on, and Jess casually rested her hand on her partner’s shoulder, feeling the tension under her fingertips.  “Relax, Devvie.”

Dev gave her a sideways glanced, then smiled a little and looked down.

“So, here we start going into the living quarters of all the bio alts.” Doctor Dan commented.  “They have a meal hall, recreation, and so on that’s exclusive to them.”

Jess studied the decks they were moving past, and thought about the areas in the citadel which served the same purpose.   Were the corridors bleaker and more utilitarian?  They didn’t seem to be here. They were still the same smooth curves and mild, milky colors.

The lower halls at Base 10 were more roughly cut, but Jess considered that most of the lower areas of the citadel were like that, including the passages she took daily down to the power turbine tunnels where she surfed in the rough backwash.

Bio alts in the lower halls. Here.  At the Base.  Jess cocked her head slightly to one side. There were no bio alts at Drake’s bay but there…

No there, lower levels were better.  “Huh.”

“Something wrong?” Doctor Dan asked.

“Just thinking.” Jess returned her attention to their surroundings. “So what was all that about my dad being a rebel?”

Kurok chuckled dryly.  “Had to say something.”

Here the floors were plain metal, and the doors had no ornamentation as they had on the upper levels. There was no soothing weave on the walls, it was bare and faintly reflective and there was no pictures or random art anywhere.

They reached the next to last level and left the tube, emerging back into gravity into an area bounded by security doors with portals where they could see guards working at consoles.  The guards looked up as they came into view, but relaxed when they spotted Kurok who was apparently well known to them and expected.  “Hello Doctor Kurok.” One called out, giving him a wave.

“Hello lads.”  Doctor Dan returned the wave.  “Just here for a visit.”

Each had a space jumpsuit on, with a tool belt that held several canisters, and one rectangular device mounted prominently on the strap that came across their chests where they could slap it with one hand.

“No problem, sir.”  The guard said. “They always love it when you come down.”  He glanced at Dev and Jess, and nodded briefly at them.

Gigi could have been a walking floor mop.  Jess watched the guards thoughtfully.

The doors to the interior were open and they walked through into a wide, busy space which held the soft murmur and echo of many voices. 

‘This is the dayroom.”  Dev had moved closer and lowered her voice.  “You can see there, where the ramp goes up? That goes to the sleeping pods.”

“Hm.”  Jess looked around.  The space was full of bio alts, all dressed in various color jumpsuits, some blue and red, some light green, some dun colored.  All of them wore visible collars, and as they entered, a ripple ran across the room as the bio alts noticed them.

The black and dark green uniforms were unique and they stood out and that drew eyes.

Then they all recognized Doctor Dan, and then some reacted to seeing Gigi and then they put two and two together as they realized the shorter of the two strangely dressed women was know to them.

Was one of them. 

Jess easily felt the electric result. Excitement and interest as bodies straightened up and turned towards them.  She sensed the response to be positive, her own body relaxing as her senses understood the people moving towards them to be friendly or at least, not dangerous.

There was a central desk, staffed by other bio alts, and they came to a halt near the oval structure as many sets moved towards them. 

“Hello Doctor Dan.”  The closest of them behind the desk greeted them. “Hello, Gigi5, and NM-Dev-1.” He looked uncertainly at Jess.

“This is Jess.” Gigi supplied. “She’s a friend of NM-Dev-1’s, and also, of Doctor Dan’s.”

The bio alt behind the desk looked reassured. “Hello, Jess.” He said. “I am CeeEm245. I am on duty today here in the hall.”

“Hi” Jess responded amiably. 

“Yes.” Doctor Dan put his hands on the table. “We heard everyone wanted to say hello to Dev, so we stopped by to visit, and also, Jess wanted to see the crŹche.”

Several proctors had come over, and paused, uncertainly.  Kurok glanced at them, then turned and leaned on the counter.  “Jess works for Interforce, who holds Dev’s contract.” He explained to the now clustered masses.  “Dev now also works for Interforce, as an operations technician, the very first of her kind to do so.”

“An excellent assignment.” The CeeEm said, in an impressed tone.

“A very excellent assignment, and what you all might not know is that I, myself, was once an operations technician, and I worked for Interforce just like Dev now does.”  Doctor Dan acknowledged the murmured interest with a slight wave. “So I was very happy and very proud that Dev was able to do this.”

Dev maintained a prudent silence, merely standing next to Jess with her hands clasped behind her back.

Doctor Dan smiled. “I’m sure all of you have lots of questions.” He said. “Am I right?”

One of the BeeEffs stepped forward. “Yes, Doctor Dan, we do.” He agreed. “We want to get such excellent assignments too.”

The proctors looked unsettled, and a bit nervous, and they shuffled their feet as the crowd very gently eased around them towards the console.  “Doctor Kurok….” One of them said. “Are you s..”

“Good lads. Go get yourself some tea.”  Kurok told them.  “I can handle this.”

“But..”

“Go.”

**

There were a lot of questions.  But first, Doctor Dan got behind the console, taking over one of the positions and putting vid on the screen. “This was Dev’s very first mission.” He said. “So you all can see what she does for her assignment.”

Jess chuckled.

“Hm.” Dev muttered under her breath. “Isn’t that supposed to be restricted?”

“C’mon, Devvie. You’re a rock star.” Jess patted her back.

The screen lit up and then audio cut in and they could hear Dev’s voice on comms, requesting flight clearance.   The KayTees were gathered near her and they watched with deep interest as the carrier lifted out of the docking cavern and into the weather.

“We have programming for that location.” One of the KayTees said. “I recognize it.”

“It’s Interforce Base 10.” Dev finally spoke up.  “It’s where we are assigned.  There are KayTees there who fly from that cavern also.”

“Oh!” Gigi inhaled as the vid turned in a complete circle, showing first the craggy ridge line that the base was built into, and then the endless expanse of sea. “Is that downside?”

“That is downside.”  Dev confirmed.  “The substance hitting the window is called rain, and it happens a lot.”  She was sitting on a stool next to the counter now, Jess was leaning on it behind her.  “It’s water.” She added. “Everything almost is water downside.”

“What is that you are flying?”  One of the KayBees asked.

“That is BR270006, a Bantam class heavy armored carrier.”  Dev said. “I am the pilot, Jess is the flight leader.”

“And the gunner.” Jess lifted her hands up and wiggled her fingers.

The carrier moved into flight and went through the speed of sound, the cracking booms echoing through the big space and making the bio alts jump a little. 

“That’s a sonic boom.”  Doctor Dan said, into the quiet the followed.  “You KayTees would have had that in programming also, since the courier craft you fly can go that fast.”

“Yes.” The nearest KayTee said. “We know that.” 

“We have heard that in the sim.” A second agreed.

Dev’s voice again from the vid, seeing a target.   Then the carrier went into evasive maneuvers and the bodies all around them jerked in reaction, eyes glued to the vid screens as the POV from the carrier swirled and rotated, going up and over the incoming rogue carrier. 

Then Jess’s voice, battle clipped and warning, and flashes of blasters coming past the nose of the carrier to blow the other one out of the sky, the implosion resounding through the screen as pieces of it went in every direction.

“That vehicle was empty. But it was dangerous.” Doctor Dan remarked.  “Dev, did you find your programming useful during this event?”

Dev was quiet for a moment.  “Knowing what controls to use and how to make the craft fly was excellent.”  She stated. “I knew exactly what to do.”

“My first experience in flying upside down.” Jess added. “But not my last.”

The screen now showed the approach to Gibraltar and Dev took a breath, knowing what was coming since she’d had to suffer watching it endless times in the operations lounge.  “This was a bit more.. um..”

The room went quiet, as the carrier sped up and then went into battle, blasts coming past them and impacting them, rocking the carrier from side to side, the chaos an odd counterpoint to Dev and Jess’s calm voices in call and response to the situation.

“Here comes the big boom.” Jess said, as the carrier went right at the mountain face, turning at the very last second as chasers zoomed past them and crashed into it, and then the rumbling thumps as Jess put plasma bombs into the slim opening going sideways across the rock

A flash of the rear sensors as the firestorm erupted and then a shudder as the blast caught up to them and blew them sideways, the carrier tumbling almost at the edge of control, falling powerless down and down until the energy overload faded and Dev could start up the engines again.

She did, and then they were shooting over the ruffled waters.  “That is the ocean.”  Dev remarked. “There is a lot of it.”

‘That is also water.”  Gigi said.  

“Yes.” Dev agreed. “I have swam in it.”

Everyone nearby turned and looked at her.

“Jess has taught me how to surf.”  Dev said. “And when we collected Doctor Dan, we had to swim to get away.”

“Rescued me.” Doctor Dan gently corrected.  “But that is another story.”

“You don’t want to miss this next part.” Jess pointed at the screen.

The heads swiveled back as Dev outraced the enemy,  taking them down to the surface and then zooming through the big round wave, causing many of the sets to gasp, and then gasp again as the carrier barreled at top speed at the rock wall only tip on it’s edge and rocket straight upward at high speed right up into the clouds with enemy fire thundering at them on every side.

Only to tip and fall and circle and then the mechanical voice was noting the squirt from Jason and they heard Jess’s voice yelling for her to run, run run that it was over and they’d done it…. And she put the engines into full remembering that solid thump as it had driven her back in her seat and the restraints retracted…

As always, Dev felt her heart race, remembering that.   Now she took a breath and lifted her head as a thick silence fell and she found a sea of eyes on her.  It felt like it might be a little incorrect, those looks and all that quiet as the flares receded and all you could hear was the alarms, and the warning beeps.

She remembered breathing hard, and feeling exhilarated.

Jess broke the silence, casually straightening up to her full height and draping an arm over Dev’s shoulders. “Best pilot in Interforce.”  She said.  “And a kick ass wrencher.”

Dev’s nostrils flared a little and she glanced back at her partner.  “Jess.”

“And of course, that was just Dev’s first flight.” Doctor Dan chuckled.  “So you see, with the programming track we developed for Dev, she was able to be quite successful at her assignment.”

The KayTee nearest them turned fully around looked intently at Dev, then at Kurok, then back at Dev. “What is the thing on your uniform?” He asked. “The green thing?”

“That is my technicians insignia.” Dev answered. “I received it when I arrived at the Interforce Base number ten, and keyed in.”  She half turned and looked up at Jess. “Jess has one as well.”

The KayTee examined it, the crowd moving closer.  “Do the gold lines mean you are a natural born?” He asked Jess, a little timidly.

Jess shook her head. “Those mean I’m a senior operations agent.”  She said. “Dev’ll have those soon enough.”   She said, glancing over at Kurok. “Just like the doc did.”

Gigi edged closer.  “They’re pretty.” She remarked.

“They are attractive.” The KayTee agreed, looking from Dev to Jess. “The green means you are a technician?”  He touched her sleeve, briefly.

Dev understood the underlying question. “Yes, all techs wear green, with the black edging and agents wear black with green.” She explained.  “When we are on duty.”

“All of you.” The KayTee said “You and the natural borns.”

“Yes.”

The bio alts looked at each other then up at Doctor Dan, who was leaning against the counter on the inside of it, watching them.

“So you can see.” Doctor Dan said, after a moment of charged silence. “We have developed a very successful programming set.  That’s why Interforce has asked for more resources like Dev.”

A CeeEff edged closer.  “Could you give us that programming, Doctor Dan?”  She asked. “We would like to be excellent and successful at our assignments also.”

Murmurs rose, and then there was a stir as some proctors emerged from the staff break room behind the ramp to the sleep chambers, coming to a halt as they saw the crowd.  “What’s going on here?” One asked, loudly.

“It’s all right. I was just showing them a vid.” Doctor Dan straightened up. 

“Oh.” The proctor looked a little embarrassed. “Sorry Doctor Kurok.”

“No problem. All right everyone, that’s all for now.” Doctor Dan said, as the bio alts started to move off in every direction.  “CeeEff, that’s a good question you asked.” He added, to the young woman who had stayed, watching him. “You already have some of the programming, you know.  It was in the advanced B12 section.”

A faint smiled appeared on her face, and she nodded. Then she turned towards Dev. “Congratulations, NM-Dev-1.  You have done some excellent work.”

“I had a lot of assistance.”  Dev responded modestly.  “It was really Doctor Dan’s work.

“Tch tch.” Kurok came around the counter as the proctors approached them. “We can discuss it all later, hm?  I think its time for us to finish our tour, and go to the lab.”  He casually eased between the proctors and Dev. “Something I can help you good folks with?”

“Oh, no, Doctor Kurok.” The proctor who’d spoken up before said. “We were coming to see if there was something you needed.   We heard the reports of a crowd in here.”  He glanced at Jess, who still had her arm draped over Dev.  “Security told us.”

“Well, nothing to worry about. I was just showing off Dev’s first mission.” Kurok said.  “I knew everyone would want to see it. After all, she’s one of them.”

The proctor nodded. “Of course. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.. “His voice trailed off. “Anyway, can we help in any way?”

“No.” Kurok patted Dev on the shoulder. “Now it’s time for Dev to see what we’ve developed for her successors. Excuse us.”  He waited for them to move out of the way, and they did with some reluctance.

“Can we see the vid, Doctor Kurok?” The second proctor asked, as they started to move away. “Is it in the library?”

Kurok looked over his shoulder, a bit of his sandy hair covering one eye. “You can.” He said. “If you need any explanation of it, come see me later.”

All of them looked relieved. “Yes, Doctor.” The first proctor said. “Thank you.”

He smiled briefly.  “Not a problem, lads. Enjoy.” 

**

Jess acknowledged the shift as they walked, her honed senses moving from a benign watchfulness to that inner tension of being in enemy territory.    Something was in work around her, something other than the seed scam which she reckoned was probably nothing more than a grab for cred.

“So.” Doctor Dan indicated a direction. “These are the genetics labs, where I spend most of my time on station.”

Gigi had left them, returning uptube to her station in the outer office of the Director, giving them a little wave as they parted.

“This where you design people?”  Jess clarified, as they went down a long, long corridor, which curved up at it’s far horizon.   “Cook up the spirals”

“Yes.”  Doctor Dan palmed into one of the side doors and stood back to let them enter. “This is my development lab.”  He followed them inside. “Dev was born here, in fact, in this room.”

Dev suppressed a faint smile, as she glanced around.  The room was a large space, with a curved outer wall that displayed the stars.  There were comp stations in different locations, and one long wall was a workspace now displaying genetic scribblings.

She had spent time in this lab, working on her final project for genetics class but that had just been because the largest of the historical repositories was here, and Doctor Dan had made it so it only could be accessed from inside the space.

She hadn’t thought to ask why, then. She’d just been very glad to be allowed to use the systems, here in Doctor Dan’s very own laboratory.

Jess was strolling around the lab, peering into the screens.  “All just phosphor to me.”  She admitted, with a smile. “I haven’t even seen my own scan or if I did, I wouldn’t have any idea what I was looking at.”

“No, I suspect you haven’t and wouldn’t.” Kurok went over to the main station and sat down, pulling over an input pad and keying it on.  “It’s an esoteric science, and you lot downworld don’t have much use for it.”

“True.” Jess agreed.

“Now, Dev.” He motioned her over.  “So let’s start with your design.”

That got Jess’s immediate attention, and she joined them in front of the screen, as Kurok called up a sequence and displayed it.

“Still nothing but phosphor to me.” Jess said, in a mournful tone. “I was hoping for baby on the bathrug shots.”

Doctor Dan chuckled. “Later.” He picked up a light pen and traced a line on the screen.  “This is the complete structure for the technician programming, you see that Dev? It fits here, along the Satlut promontories, and curves around inside the section here.”

“What does that mean?”  Jess asked.

Dev surprisingly was the one who answered. “Programming goes in different places in our heads.” She said. “Sometimes they just put it in some empty space where they find it and you have to hunt around for it. But this wasn’t like that.” 

“Right.” Doctor Dan nodded.

“This was put in this place here, and that’s right between the general area, and the part where you don’t have to think about what you’re doing.” She leaned closer to the screen.  “It makes it easier.”

“Instinct.”  Jess guessed.

“Mm… artificially induced instinct.” Kurok confirmed.  “So the specifics, like about the carrier, the controls, and so on, that’s in general.” He touched an area.  “You can over write it you need to, with newer data, and that kind of thing. But this here… “ He touched another. “That’s a little magical.”

Jess’s dark eyebrows hiked up.

“It’s not data, exactly. It’s a methodology that blends a framework with a natural inclination.”

Jess stared at the screen, thoughts shifting through her mind with a jittering rapidity.  “So.. you take something like the natural ability to problem solve and give it a specific structure.”

Both Dev and Doctor Dan looked at her in some mild surprise. “Yes.” Kurok said. “I designed Dev to have a flexible, powerful mind, and then shaped that with technical detail.” He paused. “Very good, Jesslyn. I didn’t realize you had that background knowledge yourself.”

“I don’t.”  Jess shook her head. “You know perfectly well I don’t.  It just makes sense.”  Her eyes took on a darkly humorous glint. “After all, that’s exactly what they do with us, isn’t it? They take a natural twist and give it a purpose.”

“Hm.” Doctor Dan grunted.

‘Isn’t that where you got the idea?” Jess asked.  “Watching my dad?”

For a moment, she thought Kurok was going to get mad at her for saying it.  She waited, seeing the tensions shift, as his eyes lifted to meet hers, an intellectual fencing she only rarely used.

Then he smiled, with a touch of sheepishness.  “Not consciously.”  He admitted. “But there’s probably a grain of truth in that, Jesslyn even as I see where you see that in hindsight.”

“So Jess was right.” Dev spoke up. “She said we were not that different.”

“Mm.”  Doctor Dan chuckled under his breath and shook his head.  “Anyway.” He pointed back to the screen and shifted the input. “This is what the design is for the new techs.  I shifted some of the integration into general, because we’ll have more time to give them specific information.”

“So they won’t have to guess all the time.”  Dev stated. “That will make them be in less discomfort.”

“Exactly.”  He paused. “Was it terribly uncomfortable for you, Dev?  We just had so little time.”

“Not really, Doctor Dan.  I got used to it.” Dev responded. “It made me work harder, but in a good way.”

Jess wandered off, roaming around the lab and peering at the tridimensional models integrated into the walls, all genetic representations marked with cryptic symbolism.  She studied one of the models, seeing different colored pathways marking out something apparently relevant, branching into this area and that area.

It was the most intricate of the models, and Jess circled it curiously,  leaning over to read the cryptic label, already sure of what she would see.  “Hey Dev. It’s your head.”  She peeked past the model, to see Dev looking back at her. 

Doctor Dan smiled. “Yes. That’s the developmental new model.” He confirmed.  “Hidden in plain sight as it were.”  

The doors to the lab opened, and three men entered, two of them with the belts the guards had worn in the crŹche.   “Doctor Kurok?”

Jess circled the model and got between the men and the table Dev and Doctor Dan were at, standing squarely in their way.  “Stop.” She commanded them.

“It’s all right, Jess.” Kurok gently eased past her. “What’s the problem, boys?”

“There’s a missing person, Doctor. “  The guard in the lead looked nervously at Jess.  “They would like your help in finding them, with genetiscan.” He said. “It’s one of the children.  We think they might have gotten lost during the malfunction.”

“Absolutely.  Give me the designation.” Doctor Dan said.  “Sit down, friends. This won’t take long.”

Jess moved aside and went back to the table, as the guard handed over a plas to him. She saw his eyes drop to it, then jerk upwards in confusion to stare back at the guard.

‘This is a natural born.” Kurok stated, watching the guards nod. “And you think they’re lost?”

The guards nodded again.  “Doctor Doss is asking.”

Kurok sat down behind another console and keyed it on.  “I see.”  He started tapping in data. “Or at least, I hope I don’t see.”

**

Dev looked up from the screen she was studying, sensing motion.  She watched the guards, who had retreated to the far wall, and saw one of them fingering the device on his chest.  “Jess.”

Jess eased in next to her. “Yeah?”

“The thing those guards have.” Dev said, in a low tone. “That is what they use to stop us.” She watched the man.  “Remember I told you?”

“I remember.”  Jess leaned against the table, tilting her head to keep the guard in her peripheral vision.  “That square thing on his chest?”

“Yes.”

“They use it often?”

Dev’s eyes narrowed. “We think it’s more often than they should.”  She acknowledged. “There’s different levels. Some of them hurt.”

“I figured.”  Jess leaned on the counter.  “Hey doc?”

Kurok looked up from his tasked, visibly irritated.  “Yes?”

Jess raised an eyebrow at him, and after moment, a faint grin appeared on his face.  “Wanna dump the badges?” She mentioned, casually.  “They’re making me twitch.”

He glanced at the guards.  “Boys, you can take off. This’ll take me a while. I’ll call it in to operations.”

The guards looked uncomfortable. “Sir, they told us to stay.”

“And I’m telling you to leave. “ Doctor Dan told them. “Unless you’re here to arrest me.”

The nearest one’s eyes widened. “Oh no Doctor Kurok! We’re here to um…”

“Protect me?” Kurok’s eyes twinkled. “From these two huh?” He gave Dev and Jess a sideways look. “You dangerous characters you.”

Jess chuckled audibly.  “Can’t decide which is funnier. That I’d do something to you, or that they think they can stop me from doing something to you.”

“Hey.”  The guard frowned.  “We have a job to do here.  Doctor Doss sent us.”

“And Jesslyn’s point is, if she decided to break my neck, there’s not a damn thing you could do about it.”  Kurok shook his head and returned his attention to the screen. 

“You’re safe.”  Jess chuckled.  

Dev regretted now saying anything.   She started towards Doctor Dan, ready to offer her help in the search.  “Can I scan that for you?”

“Hey!” The guard started forward.  “Stay away from him.”

Doctor Dan looked up over his screen. “Please don’t be an idiot. “ He said, just as Jess started to follow Dev over.

“Hey!”

Jess sensed the change and her eyes widened as she saw the flush on his face, then too many things happened at once. He slapped at his chest, Dev jerked and cried out, then dropped like a rock, and then it all went black and white for her.

Cold.

Hot.

Rage swept over her like a wave in the ocean and she let instinct take over and surrendered herself to it.

Before anyone could draw another breath she was over the console and reaching for him, batting the other guard out of the way and booting the third across the room in one long rippling motion that ended with her and the guard who had zapped Dev nose to nose.

“Dev!” Kurok dropped to his knees on the ground. “You bloody idiots!!!” He yelled.  “What in the hell was that for!????”

 The guard tried to bring his hands up between them. “Hey I..”

Jess’s right hand hit his jaw, and a moment later he was dead on the ground. Just like that, just that easy, and she was turning and grabbing his body, lifting it up and throwing it against the wall with a sodden, heavy crunch.

She went for the next one, just getting up from the floor and as her hands touched him she heard two sharp, staccato syllables and went still, holding him in a grip, her head turning to look at where the sound came from.

Shocked, a little, when she realized it was Kurok, looking slightly shocked himself .

The stop code.  Probably written in the quirk of his brain somewhere, a reflex trained bone deep inside the techs that went through field school who had to be paired with an agent and knew when they were in the zone together they might need it.

Nothing exotic. Just a code that was just as deeply drummed into the predatory spirits that lived just under the skins of people like Jess. 

Kurok was looking at her, one hand lifted in her direction. “She’s only down, not out.” He said, in a gentle tone. “And we need to find out if they did that on purpose.” He added, pointing at the guard Jess had her hands on.  “Mind asking him?”

The guard in her grip had the sense to stay still, breathing hard, staring at her.   Jess turned her head and looked at him, and his heels rattled against the floor as he pissed himself in fear.

“Did he?” Jess rasped, feeling her fingers twitch against him.

His teeth chattered.  Jess was holding him up with little effort, only just barely keeping herself from breaking his neck and he probably knew that, could see it in her eyes and in the vibrating tension in her body.

“DID HE?”

“Okay, maybe I should ask.”  Kurok stripped off the harbor jacket he was wearing and wrapped it around Dev’s quiet, still form. Then he stood up and walked over to them “Albert, please don’t be stupid.  You don’t want to die or get hurt and there’s a very good possibility of both if you don’t tell us.”

“Nnnno.” He managed to get out. “Told us to guard you.” He turned his head so he could avoid Jess’s eyes. “Said they were dangerous.”

Doctor Dan sighed.  “Yes.” He said. “But what would make Edgar use his controller? Dev wasn’t doing anything to me.” He reached over and grabbed the man’s jaw, turning his head to look into his eyes. “Albert?”

A mediocre man, a guard because he had no other use.  His face was twisted, and his nose had been broken before, and now he just shook his head. “Dunno.”

Jess shifted her grip and put pressure on him, bending his back into an arc and he screamed in fear.  “Cough it up.” She suggested.  “I can hurt you so badly you’re going to beg me to kill you and buddy?”  Jess tightened her fingers. “I promise you it’ll just make me laugh because that’s just the kinda gal I am.”

He stared at her, shaking, into those ice cold blue eyes.

“You can’t even make charges. You injured an Interforce op.”  Jess said. “I’ll cut you in pieces, slowly. Leave parts of you all over the station.”

One more moment of resistance, and then he broke. “No no no.. just.. didn’t mean to take her down.” He said. “Swear it! Just stupid! Just mad about her!” He was babbling now. “One of them!”

Kurok sighed.

“Not fair!” Albert squealed. “Make it better than us!”

Jess dropped him and watched him bounce off the hard steel ground with no expression on her face. “Idiots.”

“Yes.” Kurok looked over at the dead guard, and the unconscious one, and the puddle of stinking, shuddering coward at his feet.  “Sorry, Jesslyn.” He sighed.

“For what?” Jess turned and went to one of the specimen sinks, releasing cleanser over her hands before she shook them free of the residue and went back to where Dev was lying. 

Then in a breath, it was color again and she felt her guts clench and she dropped to one knee as the other refused to hold her up.  “Hey Devvie.” She braced one hand against the floor and touched Dev’s face, which was still, and blank.  “Hang in there, huh? Doc’ll fix you up.”

She was suddenly, scared.  An uncertain terror filled her, and she could barely keep herself propped upright. “She’s gonna be okay, right doc?”

“Yes.”  He came over and patted her shoulder.  “Do an old man a favor hm? Can you carry her over into that room on the far side there? I have a programming table I can use to bring her back up.”

For a long, long moment Jess was afraid she couldn’t do it.  Her body was shaking inside and she had no real idea why, but after a few breaths she leaned forward and gathered Dev’s slack form up and stood, cradling her body against her. 

The room to the side was quiet, and had no star windows in it. It was roundish as most of the spaces in station were and there was a console on a raised platform on one side, and a rectangular table on the other. 

Jess very gently laid her burden down on the table, as she heard Kurok come in behind her. 

“I locked the outer door.”  Kurok joined her, and then pulled down an overhead rig.  “Last thing I need is some wig head stumbling in here to ask me a question and tripping over a corpse.”

“She was scared of those zappers.”  Jess said, moving aside a little.  “What are you going to do?” She asked, after a little pause, a hand reaching out to touch Dev’s without conscious thought.

“I’m going to connect up and make sure they didn’t do any damage.”  Doctor Dan undid the uniform at Dev’s neck, and eased the dark fabric aside, exposing her collar.  “Then I’ll bring her up.” He glanced up at Jess’s face. “She’ll be fine.” He added, in a gentler tone. 

Jess went around to the other side of the table and rested her hands on it, facing him.  On the table, her fingertips were still twitching. “That going to cause you trouble?” She jerked her head in the direction of the outer chamber.

“Probably. But I did warn them.”  Kurok carefully attached the programming rig to the jacks on Dev’s collar.  “We scientists tend to be really obtuse at times. “ He shook his head absently.  “We think what we want to think and never stop to remember the important details.”

“You managed to remember the stop code.”  Jess smiled faintly.

“Mm.”  His face creased briefly into a return smile.  “Remind me to tell you later the first time I had to use that with your father.”  He went to the console and sat down behind it, bringing up the screen. “This doesn’t have an input to station systems. It’s standalone.” 

“Good.”

Kurok looked at her.  “Got that prickly feeling, do you?” He ran the calibration automatically, watching the tall figure across the room. “I never lost it.” He admitted. “As long as I’ve been here, I’ve been looking over my shoulder.”

“Huh.” Jess found herself distracted by Dev’s quiet, pale face. “Doc?”

“Hm.” He glanced over the console at her.

“Can you take the collar off her?”

Doctor Dan waited for the program to boot up, his hands leaning on the metal of the console as he regarded her with a serious expression on his face.  “That will limit her.”  He said. “There’s a lot left for me to give her that way.”

“Could also save her life.” Jess responded. “Anyone finds out about that zapper they got an angle I can’t counter.”

“Mm.” Kurok grunted in acknowledgement. “We all have weaknesses, Jess. Not to mention it should be her choice.” He sat down on the stool and concentrated on the screen a moment, pausing to look back up at her. “But yes. I can.”

Jess curled her fingers around Dev’s, convincing herself that she felt a return pressure, even though there was no motion at all other than a steady motion of the bio alts chest.

Doctor Dan was peering intently at the screen, his hands still on the input pad. “My god.”

Jess stiffened. “What?”

“No, it’s all right. Just way more synaptic growth than I expected.”

Jess reached over and moved a bit of hair out of Dev’s eyes.  “Yeah okay. Can you wake her up and then look at all the googlies?”

“Give me a minute.” He started inputting. “I will.”

**

Continued in Part 8