The Eden Road: Part 3
(The day after the Power Team went into Darktown)
There were some things in life, no matter how large or small, that made a profound difference in someone's everyday routine. Huge events, tiny moments, it didn't matter. Sometimes, it was just some little something that could change everything.
Take an object as simple as an orange, for example. An uncomplicated, round, soft-fleshed bit of citrus that had been planted, grown and harvested in real soil, not a hydroponics lab and make it real. The very idea that something like that still existed was staggering. Yes, there were still some farming communities in existence, and root vegetables could grow well in some areas of the country, but the food was becoming more stunted each year since the nutrients in the soil couldn't be replenished easily or well. Harvests were becoming smaller and smaller each year. For a healthy, juicy orange to exist in the world they lived in - well, it just meant that the impossible was possible. Something as small as an orange had been the little something that made a profound difference in the everyday lives of five people.
Yet some things remained the same. For instance, their hydroponics lab was one of the few things that the team could point to and say this is something Stuart Power was shortsighted about. He'd originally designed it for limited small-scale experimentation. It had not been built to last for fifteen years as a fully-operational indoor 'greenhouse' facility growing enough plants to feed a five-person team. Adapting to large-scale use had proven problematic even for Scout and Jennifer's talents. A true hydroponics lab would have crops grown in water or some kind of mineral nutrient solution. They didn't have anything like that. They couldn't replicate enough of any type of nutrient solution to stock a hydroponics lab. Instead, they literally built dirt beds to grow their crops in. They had streamlined the power supply, redeployed resources, reconfigured greenhouse lamps, and tried to modify specific hydroponics equipment all in an effort to increase their own personal food production, but the internal structure and wiring were woefully lacking. Jury-rigging equipment had become an art form. The lab might not have been working right, but it was working.
Yet, even after all that time and work, trading with the hydroponics lab at the Passages was easier.
So when time permitted, Scout could be found working on various items in the lab, recruiting anyone with some spare time to help him. Sometimes it felt like a losing battle or that the lab was fighting them. It wanted to be a hydroponics lab, not an indoor greenhouse, and it fought all efforts to change it - at least, that's what Scout had jokingly said from time to time. Now that they had orange seeds - honest to goodness real orange seeds - the lab had to work right.
"How's it coming?" Hawk asked him.
Scout tightened the new lamp into place and then glanced at the water pipes. They were rusting in places and needed replacing, but that wasn't happening any time soon unless they could barter for waterproof pipes. "Slowly," he answered. "Give me a few more minutes to work on this area."
Hawk looked around the room. It wasn't big, maybe twice the size of any of their personal quarters? "You know, I knew Stuart for years. I'd watch him stare at building plans with an engineer for hours trying to get a specific design perfect, but this lab? I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again. This is one of the few things Stuart didn't think out. Or ran out of time before reworking this place."
"Ah, we'll get it fixed. Someday," Scout said as he stood up on the platform to work on the pipes. "And let's face it, Stuart was a brilliant scientist, but nobody can think of everything. My guess is he ran out of time." He tightened one of the supports holding the pipes above the dirt bed. "I'm guessing he could have built an Eden II of his own if he'd had more time." Then, he stopped tightening the support. "Eden II... Eden II..." Then he got quiet.
"Rob?" Hawk asked. "What's wrong?"
"Why is it called Eden II? Since it's a II, then does that mean there's an Eden I? And an Eden III? Are there a bunch of Edens out there and we just don't know about them? Or is this the only one that's left?"
Hawk shrugged. "I thought because there was already a Garden of Eden, this one would be the second one."
"What if it's not?" Scout asked as he went back to his work. "What if there are several Edens out there? What if they're all filled with refugees from the Wastelands and we just don't know about them yet?"
Hawk's expression changed with an idea. "Maybe we could get something more than oranges?" he smiled. "Bananas... it's been a long time since I had a banana split. But then we'd have to have ice cream. Apples, blueberries - Joanna's mom was a professional baker. Even studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris when she was young. She could make the best pies and pastries, but the best thing she made was blueberry pancakes. From scratch. I didn't even like blueberries until I had her pancakes."
"Imagine if we could have corn on the cob," Scout lamented. "I had that a few times when I was a kid. Some cornfields were still growing near where we lived and we could get a few ears of corn from time to time. My mother would roast them in the husk over the fire. They were delicious."
Tank walked into the lab with a big box of soil. Fresh soil with nutrients was as rare as cut diamonds, but putting nutrients back into soil they dug up from deep beneath the surface dirt was not easy either. Again, it was a resources problem. Re-nutrifying half-depleted soil meant having the nutrients required, and that was the resource they were short of. "Fifty pounds," he announced as he set the box on the floor. "Will that be enough?"
Scout nodded his head. "With what's already here in the plant bed, it should be. Go ahead and dump it in."
Tank hefted the box back up and scattered the dirt over the bed. "Is anything else planted here?"
"Nah," Scout answered as he reached into his tool belt for a wrench. "This is the one that had the water drainage control units stop working. Jennifer did some trading at the UTO a few months ago. Traded fuses for 'gardening' circuits. We think we've got it fixed. The other bed has our current crop growing in it because it hasn't broken down in months. In any case, the seeds should feel comfy once we get everything set up." Then, he removed a small remote from his pocket and pointed it toward a computer console. Soft jazz floated from the speakers.
Hawk listened for a moment, then asked, "Coltrane?"
Scout nodded. "I'm helping out with an experiment. Remember some old studies that said plants grow better with certain types of music?"
That did ring a bell. "Yeah. Something about harder music killing the plants and classical music being good for them?"
"Yep. Chelsea's been experimenting with music at the Passages. I've been helping her by finding examples of all sorts of music and taking them to her."
"Helping her?" Hawk asked.
"Yeah. She loves music too. Used to play the piano. Anyway, she's been researching databases and found some of the studies that say certain plants grow better with certain types of music. Low frequency sounds seem to work with most, but she swears that plants like carrots and potatoes that grow underground love baroque music. Plants on vines like tomatoes and peppers prefer music with wind instruments. She's experimenting with different types of fruits and vegetables with hard and soft outer skins -"
"Wait a minute," Tank interrupted. "I remember something about that. There was some disagreement if music made a difference at all with plant growth."
Scout shrugged. "Probably still is, but it's something Chelsea's interested in finding out. If it can help boost plant growth, it'd be worth it."
"Good point," Hawk agreed. "And Chelsea is doing these experiments, huh? And you're helping her out by playing jazz in our lab?"
"And does Patricia know you're helping out Chelsea?" Tank added.
Scout gave them both a dirty look as he adjusted another control on the hydroponic bed. "Okay, Hawk. It's as ready as it's gonna get."
Hawk looked at the orange seeds as he carefully poked a few holes in the dirt and dropped them in. He sighed. "It's a shame. These little seeds grew in real dirt, and now we're planting them in here."
"It's the only way we'll have oranges," Tank reminded him. "That is if we can keep the equipment working. If we can get our lab to triple its capacity, then next time we talk to anyone from Eden II, maybe we can ask for more seeds."
"Or more oranges," Scout suggested. "It'll take years before we get anything even resembling an orange from these trees, and that's if they even become trees." He double-checked the controls on the watering system. So many of the systems needed a complete overhaul, but that would mean taking them offline for too long. They'd lose a few meager harvests themselves. "Maybe we could set up some kind of trade route with them?" Drat it, the waterpipe had some air in it. He pulled out the wrench and began to make minute adjustments.
"They move people there," Tank reminded him. "It'd be easy enough to set up a trade route back to here."
Another quick turn of the wrench, and the waterpipe was functioning at 100%. "As long as we don't have to go to Darktown. That is one trip I don't want to have to make again," Scout murmured as he put away his tools. "Acid everywhere, malfunctioning biomechs..." he paused before adding, "although watching Blastarr act like that and fall flat on his face was pretty good entertainment. Maybe we could bottle up that acid into a missile?"
Tank chuckled. "Send Blastarr on an old fashioned acid trip?"
Scout laughed. "I didn't know that could happen to machines. He was losing it faster than the biomechs were. Maybe because he was bigger?"
Hawk shrugged. "What I want to know is if Eden expects us to use the route through Darktown to move people. There's no way to get people through there. That fog was so bad, Jennifer wouldn't fly the jumpship near it."
"A lot of what we saw and did doesn't make sense," Scout muttered. "Why go to Darktown in the first place? Why does Eden II have a safe place in that one lone building in the middle of all that? Do they meet there? And if they do, why? What's the point? They're in Eden II so they're already secure, and no one can get through Darktown because of the fog so who are they meeting? There are a lot of secure locations we could have gone to meet John. Why there? We had to fight through biomechs and walk all that way -"
"I'd say it was a test," Jon said as he entered the hydroponics lab and looked at the new row that would hopefully yield orange trees soon.
Hawk frowned. "Why a test? John said he knew about us, so what was he testing us for?"
"To see if we lived up to our reputations would be my guess," Jon explained. "Think about it. If it had been us requesting to meet up with a group whose reputations we had only heard about but never met and we wanted them for something important, we'd probably want to see if they lived up to the hype. He got to see that our suits were almost impervious to the fog. We had to fight our way through the biomechs that were there -"
"Why were biomechs there in the first place?" Scout asked suddenly. "There's nothing to guard."
"I don't know. Dread must have sent them in there for a reason." Jon sat down on the platform. "They were guarding that data terminal, so it must have been important if he was willing to have hundreds of biomechs get destroyed by the fog."
"I still haven't figured out how that thing was still functioning," Scout muttered. "It should have been toast after the first proton blast years ago."
"So should the laser door," Jon added. "I'm guessing that since John had that location protected from the fog somehow, maybe the terminal was protected as well? There has to be some reason to keep certain areas safe in the middle of all that."
Jennifer walked into the hydroponics lab, a reader in her hand. "Cypher just sent word to us that the Eden II contact was very impressed with us, and John has sent the instructions about where they want the new hub." She handed the reader to Jon. "Nothing there gives us any indication where the actual location of Eden II is."
"My guess is south," Scout called out. "Or west. Oranges? Has to be a warm climate, and there aren't that many areas that still get sunshine enough to grow oranges like that one."
Hawk grabbed a towel to clean his hands. "Vi said she had to go north to meet up with the Eden rep, and they were in Sector 24. That's southwest of us." He thought for a moment. "There's no way they could grow oranges in the north, is there? That ground can barely support what little crops that still grow there."
"Haven grew food," Scout reminded them. "And good stuff too, and they had a hydroponics lab there. Maybe it's possible to grow real food like that?"
Hawk chuckled. "I can tell the difference, but you're right. Ever since Chelsea went to work at the Passages, the vegetables we've traded for have been a lot better. They just don't have enough."
"Too bad we had to destroy Haven," Tank added. "We could have used the food there."
"Too bad it didn't take out Blastarr," Jennifer said.
Scout laughed. "Acid fog does though," he almost sighed. "We need to find a way to use that as a weapon. And look at what it did to those biomechs! They were going down on their own. Didn't work as well as an EMP blast, but I'm not complaining."
Jennifer pointed toward the reader. "The good news is we won't have to go back to Darktown again any time soon. Our starting point on the railroad is located in southern Colorado. Cypher brings people to a particular location, then we go pick them up and get the coordinates to take them to from there. Apparently, Eden II is thinking about having various paths to take to get from hub to hub instead of just one route."
"Colorado's convenient," Hawk said. "Wonder if they know where we live."
"Let's hope not," Jennifer mused. "Also, Cypher got some Intel that indicates Dread sent those biomechs into Darktown in just the last few days. No one knows the exact date or reason."
Scout laughed. "That info's a day late and a dollar short."
"That means they were sent in right before we got there," Tank observed. "That explains why those biomechs weren't acting right. Even if their systems were already falling apart, they were acting very strange."
"What do you mean?" Jennifer asked.
"When Scout approached them in his hologram, they saluted him."
"And?" Jennifer asked.
That got everyone's attention. "Why would they salute him unless there's a hierarchy in the biomechs?" Tanks asked her.
"Because there is one?" she answered, clearly amused.
Scout raised his hand. "Clueless people request explanation from expert please," he joked.
Jennifer smiled. "There is a type of hierarchy in the biomechs depending on how they're programmed. Some are programmed with specific jobs in mind. Some have a broad-spectrum programming that allows them to do a variety of tasks. Those at the data terminal were sentries. In comparison to our military ranks, they'd be like the privates and the corporals. The one in charge could be considered a sergeant."
"Huh. Machines aren't equal," Hawk observed. "Imagine that."
"No, not really," Jennifer pointed out. "The ones with human minds would be higher up in the hierarchy and get more responsible positions, but I doubt if any of the biomechs we met up with in Darktown were transferees. That'd be a waste of mental resources for Dread."
Hawk turned on the sun lamps so the orange seeds could begin the growing process. They sputtered and hissed and went out. Hawk slapped the side of the light shield and the lamp came back on. "I never thought to compare Dread's forces to our military. I thought it was just cadets, youth leaders, and overunits."
"And commanders and a few other ranks you probably haven't run into," Jennifer teased.
Hawk was clearly interested. "So what would a youth leader be the equivalent of in the army?"
Without missing a beat, Jennifer said, "A captain."
"Captain?" Scout repeated.
Jennifer shook her head. "Generally speaking, but I was a youth leader assigned to Aerial Recon. Don't forget that. That's the first strike group of Dread's Air Forces. And by comparison, a youth leader in that particular branch has a lot more authority than your typical youth leader. That would be on the same level and authority as a colonel in the army. And if I had been Overunit Chase in Aerial Recon, I'd have had the authority equal to an army general, answerable only to Dread and Overmind."
"No majors?" Tank asked, clearly smiling at the idea.
"No, not really. At least, not the way we think of majors. There's nothing in Dread's army that fits that description or authority or responsibility."
"What about commanders?" Hawk asked.
"Commanders are more autonomous officers that provide a variety of tasks. Most are used for infiltration or reconnaissance. I don't know why. Some are the personal assistants of the overunits but they're more like spies who answer to Dread. Some are involved in getting prisoners for the factories or other facilities. I think they're Dread's eyes and ears more than anything. They're his special guard, soldiers personally selected by Dread and Overmind for whatever reason... at least, that's what I was always told."
Jon listened. There was a bit of truth-shading in that explanation. Jennifer deliberately didn't tell them that she had been promoted to the rank of overunit. He understood her reluctance. It wasn't something she was proud of or comfortable with. But a colonel? Even a general? He forced himself not to smile at the sudden realization. Although she had been promoted and hadn't had the chance to use it officially, she outranked him as a Dread soldier. In fact, she had been the superior officer ever since she got her orders to go to Aerial Recon.
"What about youth leaders in other branches of Dread's forces?" Jon wanted to know.
"Most have the authority of a captain," she said with a smile. "It all depends on where they're stationed and what they're doing that determines their place in the Corps hierarchy."
"Quick question," Tank asked. "In Aerial Recon, you'd have had the authority of a colonel? When were you ever going to tell us you outranked all of us?"
Jon laughed out loud at the question. He wasn't the only one surprised at this new revelation.
Jennifer smiled. "Maybe when you guys joined the Dread Youth? Then I could order you around," she joked.
"All of us in the Dread military?" Hawk mused aloud. "I don't know... even if we were sent to Aerial Recon, we'd all have to be pretty good pilots. Those folks are good. Any time we've gone up against those ships, they've almost out-maneuvered us."
"Jennifer's outflown them every time," Scout corrected him as he tossed his wrench back into the toolbox.
"That's just because I know a few tricks they don't," she explained.
"And you've got a jumpship that'll fly through hoops for you - even if you haven't found a name for her yet," Scout said with a smile. "But good or not, I don't think those cockpits in Dread's fighters are big enough for someone Tank's size.
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Tank said, pretending to be menacing.
Letting the other three have their fun little conversation, Hawk walked over to Jon and nudged him on the shoulder. "Did you know about her outranking us?"
Jon shook his head. "No, I didn't know about this. Explains a few things though." He smiled at her.
"What?" Hawk asked.
Jon just shrugged and smiled. "Why she doesn't really follow orders sometimes." That was the moment Jennifer glanced back at him, and he had the odd feeling that she knew exactly what he'd just said. "I think I'll stop there before I get into trouble," he said.
"Smart move," Hawk said, patting Jon on the shoulder. He had this odd look on his face, as if he was considering this new information.
"What?" Jon asked.
Hawk looked back with an innocent look on his face. "What, what?"
"What are you thinking?"
"Nothing much. It's just the idea that she outranks all of us. It's... amusing."
Amusing? That wasn't a word Hawk would usually use. Jon glanced back over at Jennifer and saw the subtle grin. They alone knew the secret of her promotion, and they alone knew the special context of the mission where the phrase 'pulling rank' had a distinct meaning for them. Maybe this bit of news gave them a few more in-jokes to play with? Their eyes met, and Jon shared the subtle grin with her. If anyone else saw the look Jon and Jennifer shared, no one said anything.
Jon cleared his throat. "Okay, everybody, I need your suits. That acid fog didn't do them any good. I need to run a systems check on the wiring and make certain everything's in good working order."
Eden II. Jon still couldn't believe it. It was real. Vi and the Wardogs were there. At least, that's what Jon wanted to believe. All they had to go on was Cypher's word and a piece of cloth with what Hawk believed was Vi's handwriting. And if it was true, if Eden II did exist, then the Wardogs had made it. Others had made it there as well. They were safely out of Dread's reach - if it was all true.
But to be safe? Jon couldn't remember the last time he felt 'safe.' Even in a secret base, there was always the ever-present threat of discovery. There was always the idea dancing in the back of his mind that one day Dread would find them. That dream he had some months back of Blastarr being in the base... he shook his head to clear it. No, that wouldn't happen. They had failsafes and security systems. They had anti-intruder technology and weaponry. Their internal systems worked on their own frequency, not linked in with any external system. Even if they were discovered, getting inside the base would be a technological miracle, hopefully well beyond any of Dread's resources. It couldn't happen, right? He hoped it couldn't happen. The idea of Dread or his soldiers getting hold of their base...
But what would it be like to feel safe, even for a short time? To relax, to let his guard down, to simply be and not have to be Captain Power...
It was something to dream about, but to know Eden II existed? No doubts? No wondering at the mythical nature of it? That was a complete change in thinking.
They might be able to go there someday, but would they really walk on green grass? Drink fresh water? See stars? Or was the legend more practical like he and Jennifer had once speculated? Green fields were actually hydroponics or greenhouses, water filtration plants filled up fabricated lakes, artificial lighting that mimicked real lighting, but that orange singularly denied that being the fact. That orange had grown in real soil under real sunshine. It had flourished in fresh air. It had grown on a tree and had been handpicked by someone in Eden II. A real tree.
When he was a boy, there was this huge oak tree in their back yard. He and his dad had built a tree house. Jon himself had designed it as a wraparound type structure. They literally built a floor that wrapped around the tree trunk so it was basically formed like a doughnut. Walls, a roof, two rope ladders that climbed up both sides of the tree for a dual entrance, it had been a rather impressive endeavor. It was so sturdy and well built, Jon slept up there from time to time. When his friends came over for a party, that's where they would be - no parents allowed, of course.
His mother had requested a type of 'dumbwaiter' to be built so she could send up food and drinks to the partygoers without climbing up either ladder. She had once said that they were well-made ladders, but she wasn't going to try to balance a basket of food in one hand and hold on to the ladder with the other, and she wouldn't trust a hook on a rope to lift a basket either. Voila. A type of rope lift that was operated on a counterbalance was added to the structure.
He had a lot of fond memories of that tree house. He and Mitch would have pretend wars in it where they were the soldiers holding the fort, literally. Sometimes, they'd play that they were in the crow's nest of a ship, on the lookout for enemies. It was a fun place to play when they were kids. Out in the Wastelands, trees didn't grow like that anymore. Maybe they had big oaks in Eden II? Maybe they could be transplanted? Maybe he could help his kids build a tree house someday - if he ever had children.
Eden II could be a new beginning for everyone if Dread could be defeated - no, when Dread was defeated. He wouldn't give in to any negative thoughts. Dread could be defeated, he would be, then they could rebuild everything. They could rebuild the world, and they could rebuild their lives.
And the very fact that a place like Eden II existed was proof that everything really could be good again. For all of them. Perhaps in ways Jon was only recently thinking about.
As he walked down the corridor with an armload of powersuits, he considered another complete change in thinking going on in his mind. Jennifer outranked him! He'd never once considered the hierarchy of the Dread Youth in comparison to the regular army or any other military branch. He'd just assumed that a youth leader was one level of authority up from cadets and biomechs. Maybe he should have looked closer.
Then again, on their team, rank didn't follow the same rigid structure as it did in true military units. After all, he was a captain and Hawk was a major. Hawk outranked him, but Jon led the team. That raised a few eyebrows from people occasionally, especially from former rank-and-file military, but no one on the team gave it a second thought.
Although some of the looks Hawk had given Jon when he found out Jennifer outranked him meant that he might be planning something new. He and Jennifer had already picked up on the fact the others were sort of nudging them together, but after everything that had been going on between them, they really didn't need outside nudging, not even from the team. They were nudging themselves closer to each other all by themselves, thank you very much.
Still, a colonel? It was an interesting facet in their growing relationship.
As he continued down the corridor, he realized he had everyone's suit but Jennifer's. He made a turn in the corridor toward her quarters. Just as he got in visual range, he saw the door was ajar. There was movement inside, but he didn't stop until he realized the movement was an arm. Jennifer's bare arm. There was a massive bruise on it. It was hand-shaped... biomech fingers had clenched her arm and dragged her behind that wall when they were in Darktown. He could make out each distinct digit on her skin. He had no idea she'd been grabbed that hard! That kind of strength could have broken bone. If she was hurt and ignoring the wound... he raised his fist to knock on her door... then he realized she was changing out of her suit and quickly stood back. That was not the time or place to ask those kinds of questions. He averted his eyes and moved on. It wouldn't be right or polite to stay there and watch, but the memory of that bruise didn't go away. She had to be hurting, but she hadn't said anything.
Wait - that bruise... the suit should have protected her from a bruise that bad. Perhaps the acid had degraded her suit to that extent? He'd have to check. He didn't want her getting hurt because her suit was damaged.
He reached the lab and dropped the suits on the workbench. He did a quick check of the suits' external wiring. "Hawk's is okay, just superficial scarring. Scout's got some frayed lines, still working but won't for long. Tank's ... mostly intact, just a little work needs to be done on it. Mine, definitely need to patch a few wires -"
"Here's mine," Jennifer's voice sounded behind him. Jon turned as Jennifer walked into the workroom with her suit in her arms. He could spot obvious damage on the suit's sleeve where the material seemed pulled. Maybe the fog and the biomech's grip had worn down that area? Then, he saw the bruise on her arm halfway hidden by a rolled up sleeve. More than that, there was a large, darkening bruise on her neck.
The biomech had grabbed her by the neck? Jon hadn't realized that.
He took her suit and placed it on the pile, then reached out and carefully took hold of her arm. Pulling her toward him, he eased her sleeve up to examine that bruise, then gently touched the side of her neck. "Those are bad bruises," he whispered.
She moved away from him slightly, but it was the look on her face that surprised him. It was one he hadn't seen in a long time. It seemed as if the bruise was something she hadn't cared about and didn't think anyone else would either. Then, when Jon pointed it out, it reminded her of another difference that set her apart. That was a look he hoped he'd never see again. It usually led to an explanation of something else that Dread had done to the Dread Youth, and it was always something that Jon didn't like. "It's part of the job. And they're not the first ones like this I've had."
That sounded rather ominous. "What do you mean?"
Jennifer shrugged. "That biomech grabbed me, and I had to fight him off. It wasn't anything new. I used to do that all the time."
"That was part of the Youth training."
He was right. It was another explanation of something Dread did that made him angry, but this was something unexpected. He kept his anger in check. This was one of those times to listen, not react. He leaned against the worktable and gave her a gentle pull so she could lean against the worktable next to him. "What happened?"
She didn't answer at first. She sat there for a moment, quiet and introspective. Then she took his hand. She placed her palm against his, measuring her fingers to his. Her hand seemed small compared to his, but the strength in those hands always surprised him. Whether it was in a fight or grappling with the controls of the jumpship to keep her airborne, her hands were strong and steady. At that moment, she was trying to avoid the question by diverting her thoughts. He would wait as long as he needed to. He would always listen. Even if he couldn't understand, he'd listen.
Jon thought she wouldn't answer, then she wove her fingers with his and said, "Dread trained us to always be observant, to always expect an enemy to be anywhere. There was a certain design of biomech that he created as training robots. They would hide behind doors and walls and grab us as we'd go to our classes or to our duty stations. Sometimes, they'd be hiding in our quarters and attack us when we came back. Our objective was to get free, fight back and damage the biomech in any way possible. The older and stronger we became, the more strength and tricks Dread had to design into these biomechs. Eventually, we were using hand-to-hand combat against them."
"Hand-to-hand against a biomech? When you were a kid? That's why you're so good at close quarters combat," he observed.
"It was either get good in a fight or get more bruises," she said matter-of-factly. The look in her eyes at that moment was another that Jon hadn't seen in a long time. It was the 'this was my life, this was all I knew, and I thought it was normal' look. In other words, she was telling him another mystery about her past, one that she was only now feeling comfortable enough and safe enough to describe. "Anyway, Dread eventually started building the training mechs from heavier materials. Made them weigh twice as much. He said we were his soldiers, made to fight all enemies of the Machine. We were taught new fighting techniques, but they didn't help us deal with the heavier clickers. We could fight them hand-to-hand, and I couldn't tell you how. We just did. Other biomechs couldn't stand against them even when fighting two to one, so I don't know how we could."
With his free hand, Jon moved Jennifer's hair away from the bruise on her neck. Had it gotten worse in the few minutes she'd been in there? He gently traced the perimeter of it with his thumb and she flinched slightly. The bruise would heal, but right now, the area was hurting, and she was treating it like nothing was out of the ordinary. This was something normal from her childhood? Just when he thought he knew everything bad Dread had done to the Dread Youth... "This happened all the time?"
"When I was younger. It happened a lot more for a few years before I made youth leader. I got tired of being grabbed by a robot so I started destroying them instead of escaping and damaging them."
Destroying a machine? A cadet? And Dread let them? "You destroyed them?"
"It was easier than you'd think," she pointed out. "You know how certain locations on a biomech are weaker than others? Like at the joints and at the data core site and the exact center of the front plate?"
"If you hit three weaker spots on a training mech in quick succession, it overloads its sensors and sends a shock through its system. It puts it in a two second reboot mode, and when it does, you rip out the power core or rip off its head." Jon was about to say something supportive when he realized she was smirking at him. She was actually smirking at him! As if what she had just said was the most obvious thing in the world!
Jon shook his head and smirked back. The way she explained it made it all seem so simple. "Dread taught you this?"
She shook her head. "Absolutely not. The idea that we could consider ourselves superior to a machine in a fight? That wouldn't work since he kept repeating that machines were superior to humans in all ways. No, I figured it out for myself after the first attack. I was one big bruise after that one. I couldn't walk without limping, I think it bruised a rib, definitely pulled a few muscles, and I was determined to not let that happen again."
Of that, he had no doubt. She was too good at tactical options. "But back then, you believed the litanies, didn't you?"
"Every word," she agreed readily.
His hand moved to the bruise on her arm. If she was thinking these bruises were just 'part of the job,' how bad were the bruises she got fighting training mechs? "Can you teach us how to fight them like that?"
She grinned up at him. "Our suits limit our maneuverability, but the big problem is that it only works on the training mechs. I exploited a weakness that Dread didn't know about. Once I made youth leader, the only time I had to deal with training mechs was in formal sparring matches. There were no more hiding attacks."
So specific training ended after a promotion? That was intriguing, but it was also a discussion for another time. "So... destroying Dread's robots... did you get in trouble?"
There was a slight smile playing at her lips. "No. When that happened, I honestly can't tell you what happened. That training mech attacked me, and I didn't think. I reacted. I took him down, I ripped his head off, and I was so proud of myself. I'd won that battle just like Dread was wanting us to do. I don't think he was expecting any of us to go to that extreme. The idea that I had destroyed a machine didn't even cross my mind until another cadet walked by and just stared at us. He was absolutely horrified at seeing a dead biomech at my feet, and he ran off to get the overunit. That was when I realized what I'd done and that I was probably going to be in trouble. When the overunit arrived, not to mention a lot more cadets, that overunit didn't know what to say. Finally, she looked at me, said 'Well done, Cadet Chase,' and left. Not long after that, I was told I was being promoted to youth leader, the youngest ever in the Dread Youth. And, I received special recognition for exceeding expectations. At the youth leader promotion ceremony, come to think of it."
Jon pulled her a little closer and the light shone more directly on the bruise on her arm. That one looked worse than the one on her neck. She wasn't trying to hide them, he realized. She just didn't think they were a big deal - not like he did.
Leaning against the bench, situated so closely side by side, he was very aware of her. He was also aware that he was enjoying being that close to her, and given how she was scooting closer to him, she was happy with the proximity as well. "It took a lot of strength to yank yourself away from a biomech though. Their grips are pretty tight."
"Hawk once said I wasn't a lightweight. I'm not sure what he meant."
Jon smiled. "It's a boxing term. In this case, I think he means you're a lot stronger than you look."
She shrugged, and he noticed how she was holding her arm close to her as if her shoulder was hurting her. He carefully placed his hand on her shoulder and felt the muscles twitching. "Jennifer?"
"That grabby robot gave me a yank when he pulled me in that door. That's all. It's nothing serious."
She looked up at him and shook her head. "It's all right. Don't worry."
"I worry about you," he told her. "Did Hawk take a look at it?"
She shook her head. "Mentor scanned me when we got back. It's not broken or dislocated. It's just sore."
"You didn't say anything," he pointed out. He didn't want her going back to previous behavior of ignoring injuries. He gently kneaded his fingers into her shoulder, feeling the tightness ease up slightly.
"It's better now. I think I just need to let it rest for a while."
Rest would be a good thing, but she wouldn't rest while everyone else was working. It wasn't in her nature, but if everyone was resting... "You know, it won't take long to repair the suits if I had a little help. Everything's quiet at the moment... want to take an afternoon off?"
She didn't have to consider it. "I like that idea," she said enthusiastically.
"I'll tell the others," Jon said with a smile. "It's been a while since any of us have had any real downtime. I think we deserve it."
There was a new type of music playing through the control room speakers. Good percussion, some kind of wind instruments, strings...
"Afternoon off," Scout almost sang. "I don't know what to do with myself."
"What is that music," Tank finally asked.
Scout turned the volume down slightly. "I was doing some more research about helping plant growth so our little orange seeds will grow and found this file in the music library."
"Plant growth again?" Tank asked him.
"Yeah. It's an interesting concept. I was looking for music with good harmonies or good baselines, and I stumbled on this one. It was a short-lived style that lasted about a decade in the late 21st century. There was a resurgence of acoustic versions of the early to mid-21st century techno and dance songs. I'm playing it to see if I like it."
Hawk sat down at the control console and listened. "There are way too many types of music to keep up with. Dance songs, I get. Feel good songs, romantic songs, sing-along songs. All good. These other styles? They change all the time. What was techno?"
"Some kind of electronic dance music," Scout explained. "The mid-century techno style was actually a remade version of the late 20th and early 21st century rock ballads. The original techno started in the late 20th century. Get this - that techno started in Detroit."
"Where Dread is now," Tank observed. "I wonder what he'd think about that."
"I don't know what Dread would think, but could we change stations here? Please?" Hawk asked. "Something a little mellower?"
Scout laughed as he stopped that music and began playing a ballad. He switched the music from the control room speakers to play all over the base. "Gotta love music," he stated. "Notice how it makes everybody feel better? Takes away the crankiness?" There was a pause before he asked, "Maybe that's Dread's problem. Maybe he doesn't like music."
"He used to," Hawk explained. "I had to go to some of those fundraising dinners that Taggart had, usually running security for Stuart, and Taggart always had classical music playing. He wanted everyone to think he was into the arts. To tell the truth, I don't think he knew the difference between the Beach Boys and Beethoven until he started getting power hungry. That's when his tastes started changing. Stuart told me that every time they worked in the lab, Taggart played anything but classical because he hated a quiet lab. He wanted noise. When he got obsessed with Overmind, that all changed."
Scout sighed. "Yeah. Guess Overmind didn't care too much for music. Too bad. There's a lot out there to like."
There was a quiet moment between them, and then Hawk noticed Tank grin as he realized something. "Hawk, have you noticed that Scout's music appreciation seems to be growing lately?" Tank quietly observed.
Hawk had to agree. "I have, as a matter of fact. And Scout is someone who already has a keen interest in music and wouldn't actually need to research certain genres... he'd already know about them."
"Guys -" Scout began to say.
Tank laughed. "We're getting sloppy, Hawk. The clues were right in front of us, and we haven't paid them any attention."
"Look, you two -" Scout tried to interrupt.
"You're right, Tank. Maybe we're getting old?"
"Guys, I'm just helping out -" Scout tried to say.
"Is that what they're calling it now?" Tank mused out loud. "Let's look at the facts. One - you're looking around for all kinds of music in the databases to present to Chelsea," he pointed out. "Two - you're looking for music that is specifically suggested as an aid to plant growth which Chelsea is very interested in. Three - Chelsea works in the hydroponics lab at the Passages and you go there every time we visit. Sounds somewhat simple when you put all the facts together because I don't think you've grown bored with the songs you usually play around here.'
Scout? Bored with music? Hawk suppressed a laugh while Scout sat there for a moment, unable to come up with an answer.
Then Hawk lost control and laughed out loud. The idea of a speechless Scout could only mean one thing. "Oh, oh!" Hawk laughed. "So that's what it is! Scout, you and Chelsea have gotten serious. I knew it would happen some day!"
Scout put up his hand and shook his head. "Hey, I like Chelsea. I really like Chelsea. We're -"
"More than friends?" Hawk finished for him. "Come to think of it, we've been getting some really good vegetables when we trade at the Passages lately. I don't think she'd go to all that trouble if she didn't like you too. And you go straight to hydroponics every single time we go there, and we don't see you again until it's time to leave. I'm guessing you're not just scrounging for extra parts and supplies while we're there, huh?"
Scout cleared his throat. "Hawk -"
"What about Patricia? I thought you two were sort of friendly."
"Whoa, hold it, stop," Scout said, clearly uncomfortable. Perhaps more uncomfortable than anyone could ever remember. "Look, me and Patricia? We're friends. It's just me and Chelsea are... better friends."
Hawk slapped his leg in delight. "Oh, I knew it. I knew it had to happen someday," Hawk repeated. The smile turned into a satisfied grin. "Trying to make a good impression, not caring how it makes you look... knew it was gonna happen. Just like me and Joanna. Just like Jon and Jennifer -"
"Stop," Scout said, his voice a little nervous. "Look, we're supposed to be helping the captain and Jennifer get together. Everything's fine between me and Chelsea. And let me be the first to say that I don't need any help in that area. Never have." He took a deep breath and changed the subject. "And what about the fact Jennifer outranks us in the Dread Youth? Who knew that kind of ranking system was in the Dread Youth? Did the captain know?"
"Not in the least," Hawk admitted quickly. "I think he found it interesting. Did you see that look that went between them after that conversation?"
"They've got a secret," Tank concluded. "I've thought they've had several, but something about that conversation touched on one in particular."
"Lots of secrets," Hawk agreed. "There's no telling what they're talking about during those late night chess games these days. And speaking of talks..." he pressed a button and Mentor appeared above them.
"Yes, Major, what can I do for you?"
Hawk cleared his throat. "Mentor, you and Jennifer talk a lot when she has the night shift. Right?"
"Yes, we do."
"I don't want to be asking about anything that's private, but did she ever explain the military structure of the Dread Youth and how the hierarchy works?"
Mentor thought for a moment. "We've had some discussion about various military structures over the centuries, the Dread Youth included."
"Did she ever mention that a youth leader could hold the equivalent authority of a captain, a colonel or even a general in our army?"
"Yes, she has," Mentor said. Was that a smug smile on his face?
Scout whirled around in his seat. "Wait a minute. You knew she outranked us?"
Tank joined in. "And you didn't tell us?"
"It seemed somewhat irrelevant by the time we discussed it," Mentor pointed out. "After all, none of you were in the Dread Youth, therefore her authority in that military structure would have no effect on her position with this team. Here, she is a corporal and a pilot and is content to be so."
"Well, when did you find all this out?" Hawk asked him.
"A year ago," Mentor answered quickly.
The three men frowned. Jennifer had been with them for some years, and this information only came to light a year ago?"
"Uh, Mentor," Scout looked like he was trying to find the exact right words to ask the question. "A year ago? Wouldn't she have told you a lot sooner than that?"
"Actually, I asked her about the Dread Youth," the hologram explained. "When the captain gave Corporal Chase access to my databanks after she first arrived here, she asked many questions over a wide variety of subjects in a very small amount of time."
"She jumped around in her conversations, huh?" Scout asked.
"She did. Her curiosity about everything produced many questions over many subjects. After some time had passed, and we developed a friendship, I asked her if I could ask questions about her past. She agreed, and we began discussing some parts of her life in the Dread Youth. Many were areas she was uncomfortable discussing, so we would talk about something else. I believe I learned as much from her as she did from me."
Hawk thought about that. "Was this to be kept secret?"
"No," Mentor answered. "The information is in the database. The Resistance leaders once believed that the more information the Resistance had about the Dread Youth, the easier it would be to create tactical plans to fight them. Before Corporal Chase joined us, I searched as many databases as I could for information, but very little was available outside of the Volcania network. Once she was here, we would discuss a particular aspect of the information, and she would correct it or add to it. Some of the data loaded into the databases prior to that was completely incorrect. The captain has sent this information to other resistance forces."
"But Jennifer doesn't talk about it much, does she?" Hawk asked.
"No, she doesn't."
That made sense. Jennifer had been opening up more lately about her past, but it had been a slow path to take. It was no surprise that she was guarded with certain information even around Mentor. Sometimes, the past was just too hurtful to discuss. She would answer direct questions; she always had, but to just talk conversationally about some of what she experienced as a child and young adult? It had taken some time for her to get to that stage.
Scout quickly found the file in Mentor's database and read through some of the information. "It's nowhere near complete," he muttered. "It's not much more than we already know except the Dread Youth military structure is pretty complex. It's not simple, that's for certain. It's like Jennifer said, authority and rank depends on where they're assigned."
Tank walked over to the monitor and peered over Scout's shoulder. "We've only dealt with overunits and youth leaders. An occasional cadet. They all seemed the same."
"Maybe the one's we've met up with are a lot alike?" Hawk suggested. "We've mostly fought cadets and squad leaders and the occasional overunit. Jennifer mentioned something about commanders and not knowing what they were up to, but I can't recall ever dealing with one before."
Scout leaned back in his seat, his eyes never leaving the screen. "There's no telling what else is out there," he murmured. "Dread must have compartmentalized the Dread Youth. One group wouldn't know what the other group was doing."
"Making it easier to keep secrets," Tank pointed out. "Jennifer's story about that associate of hers, Colville, she said no one would have believed her if she told what happened. Maybe compartmentalization is another reason the problems with the transference program isn't known. If the Dread Youth knew that a person didn't really transfer into a metal body, would they still be willing to stand in line for one?"
"All this info..." Scout shook his head. "None of the Dread Youth would believe us if we told them about any of it."
"Of course not," Hawk agreed. "And Jennifer's tried time and again, but she's considered a traitor. They won't listen to her either."
"Hmmm," Tank pondered. "I wonder if they would have if they knew she had been transferred to Aerial Recon. If they only see her as another youth leader -"
"Who went rogue instead of one of the leaders in their own ranks," Scout finished for him. "It might give what she says to some of the soldiers she's come across more weight?"
"Something to think about," Hawk said, "but not our call." Then, Hawk began smiling, and he couldn't wipe the grin off his face.
Scout glanced up at him. "What?"
"What, what?" Hawk asked.
"Whatever it is that's got you so happy, you want to share?"
"Jennifer wasn't an ordinary youth leader. We already knew that, but know we know she outranked all of us," Hawk quipped. "It just got me thinking about some things."
"Some of the things she's done over the years, how she sneaked into Dread facilities, how she knew how to bypass security systems - all of it. There's a lot more to her than we ever knew."
"And?" Tank prompted him.
"Jon didn't know anything about her being the superior officer, and now I'm wondering what else Jon and Jennifer will be talking about during those late night chess games."
Ballads? Scout was playing ballads through the speaker system?
What prompted that choice? Or were the others up to something again, Jon wondered. He placed the last repaired powersuit on the table and pointed up toward the speakers. "I think Scout's up to something," Jon said.
Jennifer glanced up and listened to the music. "What?"
"He might be trying to earn points with Chelsea with more music experiments or they're changing tactics." Or maybe those three had decided getting Jon and Jennifer on KP wasn't working the way they wanted, so they were going down more obvious routes?
"He likes her," Jennifer said. "Have you noticed he's more than eager to go to the Passages lately? No matter the reason? He always goes to the hydroponics lab and stays."
"They're that serious?" Jon knew there was a relationship between them but he didn't know it had grown that close.
Jennifer nodded. "That's why we don't see Scout for long periods of time when we go to the Passages. I've heard about some dinners and dances and his helping out in the hydroponics lab in all sorts of ways. Scuttlebutt is saying that Scout may go there and stay one day if he gets tired of the fighting."
"So that's where he's disappearing to," Jon pondered that idea. Last time they were at the Passages, they'd been there for two days and he barely saw Scout the entire time. He hadn't really given it a thought at the time, but Scout and Chelsea... that explained a lot. Then, he frowned. He hadn't thought about losing any of his team like that since Hawk and Vi met months earlier. Vi had invited Hawk to go with them to Eden II. Hawk had turned down the offer, but now that they knew that Eden II was real, was he regretting that decision? He still had feelings for Vi. He might want to retire to Eden II at some point. Scout might want to stay with Chelsea some day. Tank? Jon didn't know about.
He had no intentions of leaving the team.
But Jennifer? There was only one time that he'd ever been truly concerned about her leaving the team. Not long after Jennifer had joined the team, the UTO had requested pilots from the resistance teams for a single transport job. She and Hawk had volunteered, and when they returned, Jennifer was wearing a well-fitting UTO uniform. It had been a thank-you gift from the UTO command for her help. Up until then, she had been wearing the smallest hand-me-downs they could find for her. Jon didn't think much of it at the time, thinking it was only a gift, until the UTO began to request Jennifer's help more and more. She eagerly accepted each request. After a few months, she came back to the base with a UTO patch on her sleeve. Only pilots formerly recognized as UTO pilots were allowed to wear them. For a very scary moment, Jon was worried that Jennifer was going to leave the team and join the UTO, but she always came back.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Sure," she said.
He tapped the patch on her sleeve. "Did you ever think about leaving here and joining the UTO?"
Jennifer smiled. He reached out and took her hand. "Jennifer?"
She shook her head. "No. It's just when I help them out, I get to do something I love to do."
Jon hadn't been expecting that answer. Then again, he wasn't sure what she was going to say. "What's that?"
"Fly a ship," she answered, her tone sounding as if it were the most obvious answer.
"But you fly the jumpship all the time."
That made her laugh. "I know, and I love flying my jumpship, but sometimes, it's nice to be able to sit in a pilot's seat and just fly a ship. A lot of times when I'm in the jumpship, I'm having to rush to some location under attack, fight Soaron, rush one of us to a medical center somewhere... but when I fly with the UTO, I usually only fly a ship. I get to sit in a cockpit of a transonic fighter jet and go on scouting missions for the transports or I get to fly one of the carriers that's slow and hard to maneuver and falling apart but takes every bit of skill I have to keep it in the air. It's like when you get on a skybike and ride for the fun of it." She had a faraway look in her eyes, the same one someone gets when talking about something they love. Her eyes were absolutely shining.
"That's what the UTO is for you," he nodded. That, he understood all too well. To do something you love just for the love of doing it? That was a rare moment for anyone. No wonder she loved working with the UTO. "So does that mean I don't have to worry about you running off to the UTO and leaving us pilotless?" he joked.
"What?" she pretended to be shocked. "And leave my jumpship with all of you? She'd hate me for it."
"Well, I know one thing," he said as he stood up, moved in front of her, placed his hands on either side of her and leaned over slightly. He glanced back toward the door and saw no one coming. He wanted to spend some time alone with her, and he wanted their conversation to remain private. "I'm really glad you decided to stay here with us," he told her.
"You need someone here who's able to beat you at chess," she joked.
"I can think of other things," Jon smiled, then heard the song change. It was a slow dance ballad. Maybe it was just the next song in the set or maybe Scout and the others were up to something, but it gave him an idea. "Since we're on downtime for the rest of the afternoon, maybe we can find some pleasant ways to pass the time."
In an absolutely unexpected and pleasant move, she boldly reached up and adjusted his collar. "What do you have in mind?" she asked.
He glanced back into the corridor again and saw they were very much alone. He leaned back and held out his hand to her. "Well, we're alone down here, nice music playing... " He took two steps back, extended his hand, bowed slightly and asked, "May I have the honor of this dance?"
Jennifer seemed to consider his offer for just a moment, then said, "Yes, you may." She took his hand and he pulled her into his arms. They swayed to the music, not needing to talk at that moment. The lab was not large, but there was just enough room for the two of them to slow dance. It wasn't the first time they'd danced together. There had been parties they'd attended at the Passages where dancing was expected, an occasional celebration at a settlement, but it was the first time dancing had been so spontaneous and without hesitation on either of their parts.
One song led into another, but the dance remained the same. Jon held her hand in his, his other rested gently on her back. Their bodies touched as they swayed to the music, and he could feel the warmth of her hand resting on his shoulder. Her small hand fit perfectly in his, and her head rested comfortably against his chest. Just a few months earlier, they couldn't have danced together so effortlessly. But then again, months earlier, they wouldn't have been so obviously left alone. Things had changed between them, and things had changed at the base. The team was giving them their time together.
The song changed again to a softer, slower tune. He pulled her a little closer to him and noticed the bruises again. She needed more than a single afternoon off to heal, but she wouldn't take it. She'd refuse any time in the regenerator for something she'd consider so trivial. Still, for her not to mention an injury meant it was bothering her on a deeper level. At that point in their relationship, he thought it better to not mention it, but there was something else he wanted to know. "Can I ask you something?"
He felt her nod her head. "When you said that you didn't like a grabby robot, did you mean that because of what happened during training?"
She raised her head so she could see him better. Her eyes were almost dancing in merriment. "Well, mostly, but if you're going to get grabbed by someone, I can think of better candidates," she teased.
Jon raised an eyebrow, clearly amused. "Really? Is there a short list?"
Jennifer just grinned. "Wouldn't you like to know?"
Jon nodded. He was enjoying the verbal game. "Absolutely."
With a smile, Jennifer said, "Maybe it's an extremely short list."
"Oh? That short? How many does an extremely make?"
Jennifer's smile turned into a rather coy grin. "Present company only."
Yeah, things had definitely changed between them.
"Can I ask you something?" she said.
She stood up on her tiptoes so she was closer to him and whispered, "Why did a youth leader outranking you explain a few things?"
Ah. She'd heard that comment he'd made to Hawk. From the look on her face, he wasn't in any trouble. "Well, it explains why you don't follow orders sometimes."
The grin became a laugh. Jennifer asked, "Did you ever think it depended on the orders?
A logical answer. "No, I never thought that," he admitted. "I thought I always gave good orders."
She nodded. "Sometimes. Most of the time," she acknowledged.
Most of the time? She was teasing him! He loved it when she let her guard down and wasn't so serious. She had a fun sense of humor that few had ever witnessed, and he was seeing that side of her more and more, especially when they were alone. Oh, he could banter back in a joking manner, but with another song starting, he was in the mood for other things. In fact, the very fact they were alone and dancing brought other things to mind. The feel of her in his arms, the sense that they were the only ones in the world, that they were both exactly where they wanted to be, doing what they were doing, and the look in her eyes when she looked at him... yeah, things had definitely changed between them. "I was thinking something else though. Since the others haven't tricked us into doing KP again lately, I think they're trying something else."
Jon nodded. "Maybe sequestering us off into the kitchen wasn't working the way they wanted."
Jennifer considered that fact. "So they're serenading us?" she asked him.
Jon tilted his head slightly and listened to the music. "Good choice of music," he commented.
She looked up at the speakers, then back to him. Her eyes, the eyes that truly did reflect her soul, the eyes that he first saw that day on the mountainside and had looked into every day since, they were telling him how she felt at that moment just as they had then. He wished he could stop time. "You know, it'd be a shame to disappoint them," he hinted, but how did Jennifer feel about it?
"Absolutely," she agreed. Again, they were silent as they danced together. There was a greater degree of comfort between them than there was before. The way Jon's hand held hers, the way she held him... finally, she whispered, "Well, if this is their latest idea, I like it."
Again, Jon glanced out into the corridor and saw they were still alone. He gazed down at her and they stopped dancing. He held her tight, then slowly, he leaned down and gave her a lingering kiss. When he pulled back and looked into her eyes, he could see the light reflecting in them, but there was so much more. He whispered, "I do too."