"Why are you following me again?" Aki didn't look up at him as she asked; her shoulders hunched with annoyance and the dull, discomforting pulse of someone else's presence.
She tightened her fingers on the holo-controls and concentrated on the sample under the scope — she almost startled when Neil actually answered, and smoothed away the flinch with a twitch of the controls to zoom in on the plant cells.
"Your little peep show got the council all shook up," Neil drawled from his relaxed lounge against the far wall of the lab. Aki wasn't fooled, really — he had a good view of the door from there, and he was standing even when the place was littered with chairs. The lab was too big, in hopes of interns and assistants and scientists flocking to bio-etheric studies. The chairs were empty. Aki closed her eyes for a moment and felt for the quiet hum of the plate against her chest: incomplete, but working.
Neil almost startled her again, picking up the thread of... conversation... after a beat too long.
"Hey, doc, speakin' of peep shows — can I see?" Aki expelled a sharp breath and shot a glance over her shoulder — his nasal twang sounded like it should have a grin behind it, but his face was smooth, and Aki's frown died before it began. Neil did smile, then, almost hidden by his headset: a small twitch under strangely sad-slanted eyes, no real bite to the innuendo at all. "You know. Scientific curiosity an' all."
She nearly smiled back — it was strange, as if showing the council, talking to Gray, had pulled her back a little closer again, and she felt a small, unsteady warmth in her chest for the first time in... a long time. She started to turn back to her work, skipping back over the banter to ask, "I know the council is upset, but why does that—"
The door hissed open, and Aki jerked back around, shoulders tense again. She relaxed marginally when she saw Jane leaning against the doorframe. "Because you might be in danger. Doctor." Jane inclined her head to Aki, shallow but respectful; more than she'd gotten earlier. Jane hooked a thumb over her shoulder, jerking her chin at Neil. "Out, you idiot. Shift's over. You couldn't even explain why you're here?"
"Hey, already with the sniping?" Neil unglued himself from the wall.
"Not my fault if you're too busy flirting to show a little—"
"Hey, you were outside, how could ya even know th—" Neil fumbled to a halt. Jane raised an eyebrow, still blocking the door, arms crossed and hip cocked into the lean. Neil raised his hands in a gesture of defeat, shaking his head, and Jane snorted and let him pass.
Aki watched the interplay, feeling strangely distant. She'd held herself on the outside for so long. But it had been a while since she'd... noticed... it.
Neil nodded to her in parting, and Aki's eyes flicked back to Jane as he left. "Danger?"
Jane moved to take Neil's place, a little closer to Aki, where she could lean into the corner between the wall and a console. "You have a phantom inside you, Doctor." She kept her eyes on the door as she answered, and Aki realized she preferred that to Neil's easy regard — really preferred that to Gray's direct gaze. "Your research is controversial. People talk. The captain thought it would be smart to keep an eye on you."
Aki's mouth tightened immediately. "I don't need a babysitter." Her voice was clipped and hard, separates spaces between each word.
Jane turned to her. "Easy, Doctor. If you aren't worried, why were you so tense when the door opened?"
Aki had no answer to that, or maybe too many. Her mouth closed on them — the threat of funding cuts, the small shake of her fingers as she destroyed her research notes; the unwelcome sense of strength and security around Gray; the tension that had nothing to do with anything and creeped into her whenever someone entered her lab, her space. The dreams and the hum of her plate, sometimes reassuring and always frightening; two centimeters of steel that put a distance of miles between her and anyone else but Sid.
She shrugged, trying to drain the tension from her shoulders, and turned back to her scope, changing the subject. "So am I under house arrest, or can I go out?"
"Do you need to?" Aki heard the frown in Jane's voice.
"Yes, in a bit. I need to expose this sample to some phantoms, under observation." She frowned at the plant's cell structure. "From a distance," she added.
A pause ticked by, and Aki pretended to ignore it, thinking of ways to lose Jane in the labyrinthine hallways if it came to it. And ways to get her ship back.
"No, as long as you stay orbital or above phantom flight zone, you're free to go." Aki didn't let her relief show. "With an escort," Jane added.
Aki closed her eyes, exhaling sharply through her nose. She turned to see Jane's eyes on the doorway, meditatively alert, a very small grin quirking her lips. Jane waved one hand from where her arm rested atop the console, indicating herself. Only one escort, then.
Which meant... Aki might still slip away.
Which also meant... not under official orders. Gray's personal concern, then, not the council's. Aki filed it away, ignoring the pang of frustration at the official not-quite-benevolent neglect.
"Why?" Jane interrupted her thoughts, leaving only a brief annoyance at Gray's protectiveness.
"Why do you need to expose it?" Jane turned to her for a moment, and Aki read genuine curiosity in her face. Jane turned back to her watch, adding, "Under observation. From a distance."
Aki smiled, small but there.
She turned back to the scope, completing her notes and lining up the samples as she talked. "We're still studying the physical effect a phantom has on living things. We have theories about the—" she edited herself away from spiritual; it was too easy to explain, as if she were going over the experiment with Sid, sharing the fruits of her studies; she frowned as she continued: "—the non-physical effects, and how the two interact. How the bio-etheric wave affects both."
She adjusted the scope, easing away her frown. "We have samples," Aki pointed without turning around, knowing Jane would catch the motion, "from normal plants, plants exposed to the incomplete wave, and..." Aki trailed off and looked up at the small, fragile leaf already stored away in a sample case; a cutting from the stubborn plant from the Square. "... And a sample from one of the wave donors."
She heard the faint, soft rustle of fatigues, and knew Jane had turned to look at her again. Aki kept her eyes on the plant cutting. Her hand rose, absently, to touch the case. "We haven't had many chances to see how phantoms affect wave donors." How one would affect me. "If there's anything... different about them."
"You couldn't do this with all the donors?"
Aki turned her head a little, gaze rolling cautiously back to Jane before facing away again, busying herself with setting the samples in the observation tray. "This is the first donor that could propagate asexually, keeping the... none of the others could be exposed without killing them. Two of them were human." Aki snapped the donor sample into the tray, absently thumbed the instrument panel active, and turned with the prepared tray.
"Human?" Jane frowned, silent for a few moments. "No volunteers?" she asked at last.
"No." Aki cut her gaze to the floor, then back up, trying to edge the shortness from her tone in favor of some winning neutrality. "My ship is impounded."
"Do you need any equipment on it?"
Aki hesitated, eyes going to the observation tray, where the instrument panel lights glowed, bright and functional, turned on as part of her routine.
Jane caught the pause and glance; the humor-laden smile was in her tone, not her face. "We're taking mine. Use the rappel harness to lower that. Let me suit up." Jane's headset chirped a boot-up and she started murmuring into it, pushing herself away from the wall and walking over to the door. Aki suppressed a fizzle of frustration.
She cantered a few steps to catch up and shoulder past Jane through the door. "Excuse me. I'll meet you at the hangar." She might be able to persuade a Department-issue vehicle out of the requisitions clerk, if she arrived without a Deep Eye escort.
A hand landed on her shoulder, light but firm. Aki turned and followed the dense cording of muscle up Jane's arm. Jane tapped her headset significantly. "Not so fast, Doctor Ross."
Neil met them at the hangar, jogging up with a Deep Eyes compact-kit, the armor packed into boxy but portable storage mode. He tossed it to Jane. "Thought my shift was over."
She caught it easily mid-stride, hardly shifting back under the weight. "Cry harder. Ryan's on duty." Her long strides got her to the hangar door first; she entered a code and said, "Proudfoot, aerial mission."
The hangar started its cycle, and Aki slowed from the jog she'd used to keep up with Jane; it would take the huge mechanism a while to murmur through to the correct ship and release it. Jane dropped the kit as Aki and Neil approached and popped it open with her foot. The armor hissed apart into recognizable shapes again, and Jane started donning it with deeply professional speed and immodesty.
At least Jane wasn't slowing her down. Much.
Aki shifted the tray, and turned to see Neil watching Jane. She cleared her throat quietly; Neil started and Jane glanced up, baring her teeth a moment later in something only half grin.
Neil jerked around to face Aki. "Uh, a... Are you ladies sure you don't need a pilot?"
Jane snorted; Aki hid a small smile as Neil turned away from her again. "We're fine, Neil. Get some sleep. Find a friend." Neil rolled his eyes and pointedly switched off his headset, giving Aki another short nod before jogging away again.
The hangar had cycled to a Deep Eyes craft, insectoid and serial-numbered. Jane lowered its ramp, waving Aki aboard as she put on the light half-helmet. She looked dangerous and competent; Aki eyed the knife strapped to her left shoulder and remembered the easy weight of Jane's arm on her shoulder; the way Jane had taken one of her flares in the Square and rebounded it to shower the phantom in energy motes.
"You asked if there had been any volunteers. From the two human donors."
Jane paused at the top of the ramp, half-turning to face her.
"Would you have? Volunteered?"
Jane looked down at her for a long time, hulking in the maw of the ship, solid in her armor.
"Depends on what use you'd get out of it."
Aki grimaced. "Just good data to have. You're better where you are."
Jane smiled, a small, tight tilt of lips. "Tell the captain that and I might get a promotion."
She started up into the ship again, and the moment passed; Jane raised the ramp with Aki still on it, easing the trip up, and Aki trotted inside.
Jane slid into the pilot's seat, performing checks with absent-minded automatic attention. "Where to?"
Aki fought an awkward urge to clear her throat and dispel the strange closeness from a moment ago. Watching Neil and Jane reminded her too much of studying for her degrees, being an intern herself: the tense and easy camaraderie of smart, competent people. It felt too familiar, a strangely rough texture on her slow willingness to reach out again.
She slid into the co-pilot's seat instead, tray on her lap, settling a moment to cover her pause. "Anywhere we can get a phantom to come by. Don't need to go far."
Aki's lips quirked. "Yeah."
"Long trip. Keeping me up past my bedtime, Doctor?"
Aki frowned, her hand curling unconsciously against her chest. She thought of her dreams, coming faster, clearer, sharper. The instrument tray suddenly felt heavy on her knees; she told herself it was the pressure of take-off.
"Is there anything we can do to draw the phantoms in faster?"
Jane thought a moment before shaking her head. "Too dangerous. If we were using that as a distraction, sure. But a bad idea to lure them straight to us."
They settled only a few hundred miles away from the barrier, down the coast and a little past the continental shelf. Aki glanced out over the flat grey waters. The ocean looked strange and eternal, too old to be changed. "Fishing, huh?"
"Oh, yeah. Lots of little guys. The big metas left here almost immediately after impact."
"But the smaller ones stayed. As if there's still something alive down there to draw them." Aki leaned further over, catching the edge of their own shadow underneath, cast at an angle by the setting sun. She'd seen whales streaking under the surface of the ocean before; the ship's shadow looked big enough, but with none of the grace and silent power. "We never even knew everything that lived down there before the phantoms came."
Jane leaned over to look, managing to look companionable and relaxed in her field armor, elbows propped on her knees and hands hanging, relaxed and ready, by her shins. "Maybe they're still down there."
Aki smiled, feeling like she'd done so more in a day than she had in years. "Survivors."
"Very functional survivors."
"Still ugly. I'll stay up here, thanks."
Aki didn't disagree, instead keying her wristcom to life and checking on the instruments below. "Anyone coming?" she asked Jane.
Jane swept the ghostly blue gaze of her visored right eye over the waters. "A few way below. No one high enough yet."
"Can we go any lower?"
Aki couldn't decide between amusement and frustration, and checked her wristcom instead. It wasn't powerful enough to sense all the phantoms so far below, but it picked up a few. She set it to alert her when one approached the sample tray, and settled in to wait, maybe catch some sleep.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when the wristcom beeped her immediately.
The ship blatted an alarm at the same time, and a tinny beeping escaped Jane's helmet.
Jane didn't waste time on a flinch or start; her hands were already on the controls, ship thrusters priming for a boost. "Holy—" she breathed. "Big meta, coming this way."
Aki twitched a glance out the window, frustrated at not being able to see it; her wrist chimed insistently at her and she shut the alarm off only to have it immediately explode in data, the instruments in the tray streaming information about the little plants' deaths.
Aki's heart sped up. She unbuckled her flight harness, skittered back through the ship and slapped the retraction on the rappel line. She had a dizzying view down the belly hatch for a moment, the tiny speck of her observation tray and a vast uneven ripple over the water, touched with light-motes where the tiny plant lives been absorbed. Her breath caught somewhere between fear and appreciation: she'd never seen a bigger phantom.
"Coming right for us, Doctor!"
Aki snapped out of the fascination and scrambled back to her seat, and Jane gunned it before she managed to strap in all the way. Aki clutched the seat for the burst of acceleration.
She nearly flew out of it when Jane snapped the ship hard to the side and up. "Strap in, Doctor! We have more friends."
Aki fumbled the harness into place, snapping a nod and a look behind her to check on the tray still coming up from maximum rappel length.
"Hang on," Jane called, and threw them into a straight ascent. "Never seen so many come so fast."
The ship buzzed persistently at them, and Aki checked her wrist again to see at least five meta-class still within sensing range.
"Damn, these things can fly," Jane muttered. She glanced aside, sharp beep-beep-beeps from her visor tracking the phantoms behind them, then a short glance back, at the open hatch and the rappel line through it. "That thing broadcasting?"
"Yes, but I still need to collect the samples and—"
"Sorry, Doctor. We're going orbital." And Jane slapped the emergency release.
The rappel line ejected, the belly hatch shut with an abrupt hiss-snap, and Aki's body hit the cushioned seat sharply enough to check her breath.
Aki jerked to face Jane as soon as they hit orbit. "I needed those samples back." She didn't raise her voice, but it edged sharply into the still air of the cockpit, still sounding too loud against the silent vacuum outside.
Jane keyed in commands for de-orbitting outside New York. "Sorry, Doctor. My orders are to protect you."
Aki's mouth tightened at the distant professionalism; she ignored that and swung back to the safety of indignant authority. "Those samples—"
"Are replaceable. Sorry, Doctor Ross, but you're not." She finished the commands, and the ship aligned itself silently for re-entry. She went on, more quietly. "You said the donor sample could be reproduced. And you have the broadcast data."
"That research was urgent."
Jane closed her eyes, for a moment, hands light on the controls until she was sure the autopilot had locked in the short flight. Then she turned to Aki, face strangely neutral, the lines of her brows and mouth sharp in the hard unrefracted sunlight of space. "Then live to do it."
Aki frowned, eyes darting around Jane's face, trying to understand, clipping down to her wristcom and the data stored on it. And she realized, faintly, that though this was not a test, she could still fail it.
She thought back to the tangential warmth of Jane and Neil's exchange; Neil's easy, harmless gaze; Jane talking about ugly fish; the way Ryan's face had looked after she'd saved Gray. Sid's voice, old and warm, and his hand on her shoulder. Gray, his eyes concerned and his touch soft on her cheek.
Aki looked away, eyes darting uncomfortably; she stilled her hand before it could crawl up to her chest again.
"I—" She turned to face Jane again. "Thank you."
Jane's mouth barely moved, but the smile reached her eyes. Aki felt a small twinge of relief, and busied herself with sorting through the data.