SUNSWEPT 8B

The afternoon seemed to stretch into far longer than a mere few hours could hold. Meyan made little progress on the protein enigmas and, if anything, felt even more confused. Almost all of the others had left their stations and as she looked about her, only a few remained tidying their spaces after the day's work. Petrian was still there of course and he'd already exclaimed the progress he'd made despite her lack of such... multiple times. She mentally checked the time once more; a full eight minutes until the meeting. She looked again at the same protein array and just shut it off. Her brain couldn't do it anymore anyway. She left her station as the holo wound down and headed for the restrooms if only to kill at least a couple of those eight minutes. "See ya in a few min." Petrian didn't really hear her anyway but at least she'd tried.

She rounded the corner into the hall and glanced down to the end where she could see the flickering glow of a holo she could not see, nor could she see Solu who must already be preparing for the meeting out of sight in her office. Meyan took a few steps and turned into the restroom just in time to see a coworker washing his hands at the sink. She nodded. He nodded back. She made her way for one of the partitioned stalls and just closed the door.

She didn't really need to use the stall but instead waited for the sound of the door and even a few moments after. She just needed the moment alone to compose herself. So many thoughts were racing through her head and even the old headaches she'd gotten just after the implant was installed seemed to have returned. It had to be stress right? She looked to her hands and a strange kind of sinking feeling came as she noticed that they were almost shaking. Oh just fedo-fantastic. Not exhaustion, nothing silly like a hangover, not even some reaction to the experiment. Nope; this was plain old nerves. Anxiety wasn't exactly a common thing in modern society and where it did occur in chronic fashion medication and behavioral treatment were so advanced that to truly suffer from such an affliction was nearly unheard of. But here she was, shaking like she hadn't done since a young kid. "Get it together Mey-Lui..."

The childhood nickname brought her back to a time in her youth when such afflictions were common and even as she voiced the encouragement, in her mind she heard it in her mother's voice. Still the slight tremble continued. Deep breaths, exhale. Another look at her hands; better. She emerged from the stall and walked to the sanitizing station. The girl looking back out at her from the mirror was somehow older than she felt and she was sweating. She reached for a towel and started dabbing even as she took another deep breath. Better. She was gathering herself, slowly. This sort of thing hadn't happened in years and she took it as a sign of just how much change she was going through that such a silly thing as anxiety would resurface. But with her memories of those times also came the reflexive behaviors she'd learned to deal with them. She took another deep breath and focused on her face in the mirror. She began reviewing each aspect of change in her life and compartmentalizing them. Delynn; she smiled, thought of the night's date, ignored that she'd be late; that she didn't need to think of. She set him aside and next thought of the physical changes. She was green now; yep, nothing to do about that. But she'd also found that spending time in S'up and slightly cool refreshers left her feeling almost euphoric so there was a bonus there too. Set that aside. She took another deep breath and continued, gaining focus. Her job... yeah, that was the final straw wasn't it. Well, when she was done gathering herself here she would just have to deal with what Solu had to tell her and Petrian. It was that simple and yet even the thought of all of her concerns from the morning threatened to overwhelm her yet again. Keep breathing. She took another deep breath and kept sorting the pieces.

As a slightly calmer woman stepped from the restroom she checked her chronometer and her eyes went wide. She was almost fifteen minutes late! Had she missed the alert entirely? Meyan hurried down the hall and knocked gently on the doorframe of the open office.

"Come in Meyan." Solu's voice was almost too kind and laced with more patience than Meyan felt she deserved. She stepped into the office and as she looked around she was immediately confronted by how small and windowless the office was. Somehow she'd assumed that the director of a cutting edge cybernetics firm would warrant something with at least a window. Solu must have sensed her confusion because she chuckled softly while motioning to the open seat beside an already waiting Petrian. "Trust me, the next one will be a lot nicer, I'll make sure of that." How did every capsuleer always seem to know just what she was thinking? Once more her implant suddenly kicked in and was just about to launch into some explanation of enhanced perception or some academic drivel before she cut it off. She really needed to teach that thing to perceive a rhetorical question. She moved to take her seat as Solu's demeanor changed slightly. "I think we should begin by talking about exactly what I know about this project. I know you have questions; so do I. I will try to answer them the best that I can."

Meyan and Petrian both nodded and their director continued. "Yes, we are making implants for someone with the physical body of a preadolescent; for three of them to be exact." A holo-emitter flashed up to display three faces, each with names listed beside them. "First, let me clarify that while each of these... agents may look to be a child, they are each digital sapients." She paused as she enhanced two of the images. The boy had jet black wavy hair and his face held a look of someone with far more experience than a child should have. It was something in the set of his jaw and in his deep brown eyes. The selected girl had some of the brightest cyan eyes Meyan had ever seen with such fire-red hair that disappeared out of projection, longer than what was considered modern style. There was something about the softness of her features that seemed misleading. Those eyes were far too sharp. "This is Drake and Sophia, respectively." Solu continued what was very clearly a well thought out briefing. "They will each be receiving rather extensive versions of our software, once we finish it that is." She smiled gently at Meyan's monumental task. "And they have each had previous experience with implants so I am far less concerned about their ability to adjust." The holo changed again as the two enhanced faces ceased their 3d rotation and rejoined the third child's face in the original lineup.

"Now, Bee3 here is very different." Meyan had to take a breath as the third face separated from the others and began to rotate. With short, unruly platinum hair that came to her chin and irises of pale grey Bee3 had an almost ethereal look to her. And Meyan just knew that it had been her DNA that had been spinning in her mind for the past many hours. "With what I've been told, along with a little extra digging..." Solu gave a look somewhere between success and frustration, "I believe Bee3 to be a very rare digital mind indeed. She is truly unique in that not only is she physically a child but that even her digital mind is still developing."

"But, that isn't possible." Petrian's skepticism was well founded.

Solu simply exhaled, paused, and continued. "Yes, as it turns out, it is." Neither of them chose to challenge the impossibility further so she continued. "Have either of you heard of Prith Junction?"

Meyan was the first to respond, "Only in reference to the Ethical treatise by that name. I had to write about it back at Uni."

"And did the treatise mention the events which precipitated it?"

"No, only that there had been some event in the early days of Origin which called into question the ethics of trying to synthetically birth a consciousness rather than simply freeing it from the drone hive in an embryonic state." Meyan had to really tax her brain to recall the details. "As I recall, the debate was never settled, yet no one has ever actually tried it so it's really just an ethical exercise I guess."

Solu smiled even as Meyan finished. "Actually, they did try; in a network relay junction numbered 8L234HZ. Or, by another name, 'Prith Junction' named for the server's physical location beside the River Prith on Terminus."

The room fell silent as the weight of the revelation sank in. Finally it was Petrian who spoke. "So... If someone actually tried to birth a sentience synthetically... clearly they succeeded or we wouldn't be talking about this." He gestured to the still rotating image of Bee3 above the projector.

"I hadn't even heard of Origin at the time of the Prith Junction Massacre and almost all reference to it had been redacted, buried, or misdirected before any of us ever even crossed the event horizon into the colony." Meyan flinched slightly at the addition of the word massacre and she steeled herself for the history Solu was clearly about to reveal. Solu turned her eyes to the ghostly young figure and nodded. "This, she... I'm sorry, xe is the reason why."

"Xe?"

"Yes, Bee3 has no gender, and by xer only choice prefers the neutral pronoun structure of 'xe' and 'xer' versus 'they'. There was some note about disliking the idea of being mistaken as a multiple, but that isn't important." Solu refocused on the story with only a minor shake of her head. "What is important is that there is a very selective and very elite circle of coordinators and sub-coordinators within Alexylva Paradox who have gone to incredible lengths to protect even the hint as to Prith Junction's success."

"Ma'a... sorry, Solu." Meyan waited as the director nodded. "What exactly happened at Prith? I realize that the two of us are agreeing to some oath of secrecy here, and yes; I do agree. But you mentioned a massacre?"

Solu turned to receive the nod from Petrian and waited for him to follow with a verbal acceptance before continuing. "To truly explain we need to go into just a bit more of Origin history as well first but then yes, there was a massacre and yes, I will explain it as well as the aftermath that resulted." She took a breath and Meyan couldn't help but feel that perhaps all of the rumors of her director's crazy null-sec front-line past wasn't cover for some boring history as a professor or something like that. "Before the Origin Colonial Authority moved in, this system was home to a fringe Amarrian sect. Their name isn't quite important but that they did not leave peacefully is." Reference to Origin's violent beginnings unsettled Meyan a little and it showed in her face. "Life in the Anokis cluster is pretty much 'hound eat hound' and please trust me when I say that removing this particular sect of slaver-ridden filth was not a disservice to New Eden. But yes, our utopian origins were not without bloodshed." The play on words brought a sort of macabre levity to the discussion and Meyan settled back into her chair for Solu to continue.

"The greatest danger to any Anoikis system is the possibility of being seeded. Other factions will try to slip a cloaked vessel into some deep space 'safe', a spot out of scan range and not directly between any planet or structure where a stray transmission could possibly be intercepted. That scout can just go silent, the pilot and crew into stasis, and stay there powered down like a hole in space indefinitely. Until they reactivate, scan down the new entrance wormholes, and lead a massive hostile fleet right into our vulnerable system." Meyan had heard the horrors of being seeded almost weekly since she'd come to Origin but the fear they instilled was enough to give her a shiver even now. "Well, the previous inhabitants of this system left us a few seeded surprises as retribution for their eviction. And not all of them were scouts either."

"Warp forward a little to about a year after Origin was founded. Terminus had just been explored and determined safe for colonial expansion. Along with a few intrepid settlers, a small group of digital sapients also emigrated to help setup the primary relay junction servers for the furthest planet in our system, in a complex right on the banks of the River Prith. Now, this was before the colonial mandate requiring all back-ups to be stored in at least two separate databanks located on or above physically separate planets. So that means that all of the colonists, including this particular group of digital sapients, brought their digital back-ups with them for quick access to re-lifing should they encounter any calamitous event or sickness."

The director paused in her story and found both Meyan and Petrian still rapt with attention. "Our team of digital sapients had come for another reason however; one in addition to setting up the new relay. Known only to the Sentient Equilibrium and a mere few coordinators, this team also set up an experiment to discover if it was possible to do what none but a drone hive had done; to create synthetic consciousness and to do it using aspects of a chosen pairing of other digital sapients-"

"They wanted to have children!" Meyan couldn't restrain the crystallization of so many pieces of the puzzle.

"-in a randomized way. Yes, they wanted children, in a very human sense." Solu smiled, clearly sympathizing with the suddenly purple-cheeked biologist. "But to many, including those who were still adjusting to the very foreign idea of what they felt to be 'machines' being classified as sapient individuals, the idea of self-replicating AI consciousness was a very scary proposition. Remember, not everyone came to Origin because of its utopian ideals; some were simply looking for safety from the wars. And these colonists brought with them the history, faiths, and fears that had led to those wars."

Adjusting one's viewpoint took time and Solu was clearly giving them each time to try to understand such a dichotomous ideal from the open and accepting culture that had so quickly pervaded throughout Origin. Meyan thought back to a time before she had emigrated into the secluded system and realized that she had little trouble finding those she had known in her past who might very well feel as the antagonists of Solu's story did. She had to admit that even her father would likely feel that way. Solu continued.

"The previous inhabitants had been keeping an eye on the progression of what they saw as meddling usurpers and had even succeeded in slipping a few of their agents into the many thousands who were immigrating into Origin during those early days. After the fact, and way too late to have prevented it, OSS, still in it's infancy as an intelligence service, discovered that these previous inhabitants had even managed to place an agent in the original group of settlers to Terminus. Her primary mission was to try to hack a tertiary relay into the new junction for those scouts that were seeded out beyond our ninth planet and to use it in communication with their agents back further in system. But, even as that agent succeeded in opening the connection she stumbled into the firewalls protecting the digital nursery."

Meyan could already feel what was about to happen but the story had its own momentum and she prepared herself as Solu continued. "Fear is an incredibly powerful thing. It took mere moments for that agent to transmit her warning to the seeded scouts. Inside of ten minutes Alexylva scouts had triangulated the newly de-cloaked Punisher class frigate but it was already in warp and they had no idea where to. It hit atmo. on Terminus just as the first interdiction ships could accelerate into warp from Renaissance Station and even before they could exit warp in orbit of the settlement all that remained of the entire Prith watershed was a crater."

She'd been ready for it but the sheer scale of devastation wrought by just one pilot of one frigate threatened to bring her to tears. Meyan forced herself to take another deep breath and remembered her episode from earlier. And she'd just been worried about a little life stress? What was that compared to the kinetic bombardment of a nursery? She forced herself to focus back on the calm, almost tranquil eyes of the girl; the child floating before her and the incredible improbability of xer mere existence seemed to echo the magnitude of the descending heavens which xe'd somehow escaped. Only one word seemed appropriate; "How?"

Solu shook her head. "I don't know, I just know that somehow xe and very possibly a few others managed to survive in their digital post-embryonic form. Only Bee3 has yet been discovered to have survived."

For the first time in a long while Petrian spoke up. "So, if, like you said, only a very few coordinators knew all of this, how did you gain access to the information?" Petrian's face supplied the unspoken statement that he was aware of their directors clear lack of rank within the realm of the coordinators despite however fit for it Meyan may feel she was.

"Well, an orbital bombardment the size of a frigate doesn't exactly go unnoticed and so a memorial to the loss of the Prith Junction as well as all of the settlers who had both lived on site and been backed-up there has always existed. And the fact that those who had worked on the junction had once posited the theory that digital consciousness could be synthesized was not unknown nor classified." Petrian looked as though he was about to iterate his question but Solu continued. "But yes, you are correct that I now know more than I did before. Honestly? I think one of the coordinators may have slipped a firewall for me, because even now I no longer have access to the information." She leveled them both with a pointed look. "And neither do you. You both understand what I am saying, yes?"

No emphasis was needed this time as both Meyan and Petrian vocally affirmed her question with responding looks that conveyed the gravity of what they now knew.

Solu also took a moment to refocus the discussion and brought their attention back to the image of young Bee3. "Now that you are fully aware of xer background; I will inform you that we are indeed planning to build implants for xer as well as the other two. However, xe will have the option of accepting them or not.

A thought occurred to Meyan and without even thinking not to, she voiced it, "Wait, that means Bee3 is inhabiting a clone right? But we can't clone a child." The others hadn't made the sudden leap so she backtracked a little, "The other two aren't an issue right? Because their minds were already matured prior to being placed into their new bodies, they won't suffer any negative effects other than disorientation should they need to be re-lifed into a new clone."

"Correct..."

"So what about Bee3?" She nodded to the still floating face. "If xe were to be re-lifed we have absolutely no idea what effect it might have on xer mental development. Xer mind can't be more than a mere two years old at most!"

Petrian was still confused. "I thought we were talking about implants for them, not cloning them? And it shouldn't matter anyway, her- xer mind is digital anyway."

"Is it? Is it really? When we back up our consciousness it becomes digitally stored and ready to transition back over to a biologically analogate state. And every attempt at that transition for a pre-pubescent mind in the history of re-lifing has met with horribly tragic results. Every one of them, and I mean every single one was never able to mature past puberty in a mental sense."

Solu was also clearly starting to share her realization but Petrian was still trying to make the last leap.

"Petrian, for Drake and Sophia I now have a possible solution for the issue I've been wrestling with all day. The intensive nature of military grade implants is such that they will eventually do minor but irreparable damage to the user's brain tissue right?"

"... uh, yeah, I suppose? Over many years though..."

"Granted. But if Drake and Sophia can just re-life down the road then they can get a brand new shiny brain and brand new implants to eventually ruin it all over again."

"Yeah..."

"But can Bee3?"

"Oh..."

"Yeah. Oh." Meyan hadn't meant to get flustered but the last 'oh' was delivered in a sort of 'exactly' tone of voice and Petrian returned to being very quiet as the moral weight of it final settled.

Solu, who had had the advantage of the entire exchange to think through the dilemma, offered her decision. "Which is why xe will be fully briefed on the risks of accepting such equipment and offered a civilian version instead."

"But will the civilian model meet xer needs if xe is to be part of... well whatever we are preparing these children for?" The question was implied in Meyan's comment and Solu nodded.

"I won't allow xer to harm xerself but as you've already stated, we have no way of knowing if xe will be subject to the same limitations as one who was born biologically. And yes, what we are preparing these children for is potentially as dire as what befell Prith Junction." Meyan could sense the other half of the picture forthcoming so she held the rest of her questions. "The enemy we are hunting has already resorted to using bioterrorism merely as a diversion so we have little doubt that something like mass genocide falls within their machinations."

It clicked for her and Meyan realized that Solu had been referring to the terrorist bombing at the Tearnix launch. That had been merely a diversion?! The awareness of someone so malevolent was very sobering.

"The only lead we have so far will require a team of agents posing as children, in every believable sense, to infiltrate the enemy's cell."

"Why children?" Meyan was thinking it but it was Petrian who asked.

"That part is a little trickier. The Sub-Coordinator who is orchestrating all this has reason to believe that he can get one step ahead of the mastermind behind the attack on the Market and he has intel on at least one member of the terrorist's team that leads him to believe that she will start trying to kidnap as many orphan children as she can before the final stages of whatever the mastermind is planning occur."

There were a lot of unspoken 'ifs' in Solu's tone and Meyan found herself sympathizing with her director. "In other words we have only a slim chance of a slight hope."

Solu's responding smile carried both appreciation for a comrade in her skepticism and affirmation of that same skepticism. "Yes."

"But it's all we have?"

Her smile turned a little sour. "Also; Yes."

The entire small office seemed to go quiet, lit primarily by the still floating face of Bee3's hologram. It was Meyan who finally broke the contemplation. "Then I guess we start trying to figure out how to adapt the programming as best we can. I mean, sure we will offer xer the civilian grade one, but knowing what xe's already come though do either of you think xe'll accept it?" Their faces told her they didn't. "Then maybe I can at least reduce the impact enough such that the military grade ones will take more than ten to fifteen years to do any damage; give xer brain at least a chance to finish maturing on its own before needing to re-life."

"I think I've already gotten the miniaturization issue tackled, just need to finish running some tests really." There was genuine hope and excitement in Petrian's voice and the team spirit was catching.

Solu leaned back a little in her own chair. "And perhaps I can convince my Sub-Coordinator friend to also restrict Bee3 from seeing any actual fieldwork, I believe he was at least already leaning that direction on account of what we don't know about xer re-lifing situation." She let the image of Bee3 drift back into the set of all three as she seemed to ponder other things.

Meyan also leaned back but she was already eager to jump back into the project with a renewed sense of purpose. She was about to ask Petrian about a particular aspect of his miniaturization solution, perhaps it might have applications at the nano-level, when an offhand thought had her checking the current time. Her heart dropped; 23:36. The blood must have drained just a little from her face as well because Solu was suddenly looking at her with concern, even pausing in whatever she was about to say. "Meyan?"

"I... I'm sorry, I have to go." She quickly stood and looked about as if she were forgetting the pads and usual items she no longer needed to carry. "I'm sorry but I'm really late." She looked again to Solu as if to ask permission to leave the briefing early but Solu simply smiled understandingly and nodded in anticipation of the question.

Petrian, however seemed oblivious to the unspoken interplay. He looked up and back and forth between the other two. "Meeting over?"

"I think so, Petrian." Solu let the holo dimm and turn off and the office lights grow brighter. Meyan had just concluded that she in fact had nothing to remember to take with her and was now making her way rabidly back towards the hall. "It is late, and we'll need to jump into this again pretty early tomorrow anyway. Go get some rest."

Meyan missed any further conversation between the other two as she was then racing down the hall and out into the lab proper. Even the lights in the lab had dimmed off from lack of movement for over an hour and as they gently glowed back on Meyan once more cursed herself for losing track of time so grievously. The lab lights never made it back to full illumination as she crossed out into the entry room and within seconds she was across the hall and standing outside S'up. Her mind was racing for some sort of way to apologize even before she stepped close enough to activate the door but she took the few seconds to compose herself. The anxieties from earlier in the night were right there, ready to come back but somehow the pure adrenaline of the past few moments seemed to have outweighed them. She took the deep breath anyway and once she was sure she had fully composed herself, or at least outwardly composed herself, she stepped inside.

Delyyn was still there; laughing loudly with Tez and Aaron at the usual table. They each looked to be more than a few drinks in as usual but without Anna there to temper the pair. Meyan was suddenly fearful for just how many drinks in they really were. She walked up to the table about ready to burst in apology.

"Mmeyan! You made it!" Tez's slightly slurring greeting preempted any apology and hinted strongly at just how many more than 'few' they'd had.

"Sssorry hun, but when you ssaid you'd be late... an' Tezss here didn't have kidddo duty, we decided to sstart without yyou." Meyan could tell that he was way beyond his normal limit and that this was meant to be his apology, but through her own exhaustion following such a heavy day it felt more like an accusation. "An' when yyou never sshowed well..." Definitely an accusation.

"I... We had to..." She couldn't even manage the hasty apology she'd come up with but he didn't seem to notice. Instead he waved his hand to summon yet more drinks. She couldn't have known they were for her and even if she had she couldn't have cared. She'd utterly failed. It was her fault. She hadn't even sent him another message to reschedule, she'd completely forgotten the time and completely forgotten she could have done so even had she kept track of the time. The imploding emotions met with the wave of exhaustion as it crashed into the maelstrom that had been her anxiety from earlier with the ultimate result that her world just sort of fell out from under her. She was the worst girlfriend in the history of girlfriends, and on her first day of it too!

She fled. He couldn't possibly have seen her crashing in on herself in an emotional personal horror and he wouldn't have had the capacity to do anything had he seen it, so she fled. The fast paced shuffle back to her rooms was spent desperately trying to fight back the torrent of tears threatening to overcome her and even if it was only in her mind she imagined the door slamming shut as it whisked back across the doorframe from left to right. For the second night in a row her back landed heavily against the door but this time it heralded an outburst of pain. Finally her anger turned from her to him and she quietly sobbed that her incompetence, while it may have lead to his drunken state, certainly didn't make her responsible for it. Her pity party train quickly took a new rail as she vocally cursed that he hadn't even bothered to message her either. And to think, last night she had been that close to inviting him into this very same room. Her mind raced between pity and anger even as she finally managed the effort to strip down and find her way into the suspension bed. One final though passede through her mind as she eventually found sleep; Guys Suck.

*******


Xe eyed the glowing activation panel on the column before xer. A single dot followed by many little dots, two dots followed by a water drop amidst many little dots, and finally three dots followed by two water drops. Xe pressed the panel once and a warm mist sprang forth from the small apertures all along the column from decking to ceiling as xe was enveloped by the soothing mist. Xe closed xer eyes and exhaled slowly as Kip limped into the refresher room. He also took a moment to inspect the illuminated instructions and tried a single press. "What the!?" Bee opened xer eyes just in time to see Kip jump back out of the mist with a strange look on his face.

"You were expecting something else?" Xe was struggling not to laugh as he eyed up the shower head that was as yet doing nothing with a look of pure incredulity and betrayal. "Oh, right... used to life planetside. Try three presses."

Kip edged back into the mist and gave the pad three presses and was immediately rewarded with a gentle shower of water.

"Do you have any idea what percentage of the water supply you are using?" Xer tone was only a little chastising.

He didn't even look over but instead just answered through the water that now poured over his bruising temple. "Do you?"

Xe started to try to calculate the rate of water volume as compared to the total station reservoir but realized that xe completely lacked the second figure.

".001% for a ten minute shower, so enjoy it." Drake's response heralded his own limping entrance as he managed his way to a column and palmed it once. Almost as an afterthought he glanced over to Bee and added, "Used to work with station resource allotment."

Well, that would certainly give him access to the figures xe was missing. His speech also carried only a hint of a lilt as well as a rather paternal tone that belied him as a much older digital mind than his youthful body implied. Sophia entered next and of the four of them she had clearly taken the least beating from the day's training. Where bruising was only just starting to show for both Kip and Drake, Sophie had only a scratch on her cheek from where she'd fallen into Drake's fingernail as he'd missed catching her. "'Aki fould be along in juft a fec, fe wanted to go over tomorrow'f training wif Anki." Bee noticed Kip hold his giggle this time. Sophie gave Drake a gluttonous smile and palmed her own column three times. Drake only rolled his eyes back at her.

Silence fell over the group, interrupted only by the patter of water, the movement of bare feet on textured tile, and the occasional sigh of released tension. After a few minutes H'Aki joined them, pausing only for a moment to interpret the instructions before pressing three times. Again, no one spoke for the next few minutes before Bee noticed Kip repeatedly eyeing up H'Aki as if trying to make a decision. When he finally walked out of his own shower and towards hers Bee had a moment of trepidation; if they fought in here Kip was likely to come away with far more than bruises.

"Um, H'Aki?" The complete lack of confrontation in Kips voice surprised Bee and eased xer fears.

H'Aki turned from rinsing her face to look at Kip. "Yeah?" There was no lack of confrontation in that her tone though.

"I... where did you learn to fight like that? I mean, you can't be much older than me an' I never seen any kid do that." Some part of Kip must have been pulling at him to go back to his own business and he looked as though he wanted to follow it but curiosity was winning. For someone so burned by curiosity on the streets, whatever force was motivating Kip now, Bee really wanted to know.

Some of the initial fight drained out of H'Aki's stance and she went back to running her hands through what little hair made up her mohawk. "Mum taught me." A glance told her this wouldn't be enough to sate his curiosity so she continued, "She said I'd need to protect myself; why... you want to hurt me too?"

Bee caught the hint of past pain in that last question despite the sarcastic tone in which it was spoken or the slight smirk H'Aki accompanied it with.

"Yeah but... I mean no I don't want to hurt you. I never did. But, I mean... how are you able to throw me when I am so much larger?" Bee knew H'Aki to be a full eleven years old but as xe now reevaluated how Kip must have first viewed her xe began to assemble the puzzle he was only just now completing. Bee had known her age through their prior conversations but with her short stature, uncommonly young facial features, and without the benefit of seeing her incredibly toned muscles as he had now, Kip must have assumed her to have been no more than eight or nine. He'd been underestimating her from the moment he met her and he was finally catching up.

H'Aki took a second to consider the honesty in his question and dropped the last bit of her defensive posture. "Alright, here I'll show you." She stepped up to Kip and took his wrist gently as she turned her back into him. The sheen of the shower made any hope of grappling or a full demonstration a bad idea at best but H'Aki didn't seem to be intending that much. Instead she brought herself up under his arm and pressed her shoulder blade and back into his ribs even as she gave a slight sustained tug to his wrist. "It's in the roll of my shoulder and back, feel how I am making your body curve to match mine?"

"Yeah?" Despite knowing she wouldn't actually throw him Kip was still tensing for the throw he'd been subjected to earlier.

"Well, by doing that I am giving your body only one option for getting away without hurting itself. It has to go where I want it to or break in half." She turned and grinned teasingly up at him, "And even your scrawny ass isn't going to break in half now is it?" He nodded in understanding and H'Aki gently released her grapple and turned back into her shower. Bee could sense some of the animosity ebb from the headstrong Matari and nodded as well as xe continued to scrape the lather from xer legs.

"Hey, didn't Bee say something along that line but with hacking?" Bee perked up again. "Yeah.. Bee.. didn't you say the best way to hack something was to give it no other choice but to let your virus past?"

"I did?" Xe paused to scan xer files.

Drake had finished his own refresher and, pausing to turn off Kip's forgotten shower, stepped out of the room grabbing a towel on the way to the bunk-room.

Sophia joined the discussion from her own column. "Well, yeah, not in the fame wordf... but you faid that ufing a fplit makef the anti-viruf fink that it had to protect itfelf from one part of your viruf while actually allowing the other part to paff the counter directed at the firft part."

"Right, but she also said that a split can really weaken your virus strength if it fails right?" Kip turned from Sophia to confirm he had learned it right with Bee. Xe nodded back. "Kinda like kicking open a disposal shoot if you are being followed?"

"Kicking open a what?" H'Aki hadn't followed the leap.

Kip smiled, eager to be the one teaching now. "Well it's like if you are being chased right? And you know that the officials know that you know your way around the ducts. You kick open a few disposal ducts as you move past em, while the officials and their drones aren't watchin ya, and then move on to find a different duct to take. Sure, it won't fool em long, but they still gotta send the drones down the shoots you kicked open just to check that you didn't just slide down em to get away." The others were catching up. "That way, by the time they get to the duct you did take they have less drones to send in after you."

Bee, ever one to put faith in drones, was confused. "There is no way you are fast enough to get ahead of the drones though, they'd see you. Or the aerial cameras?

Kip was already shaking his head. "Offie's don't got that kinda equipment."

"But to capsuleers and even the piloted ships, camera drones are virtually disposable, unlimited."

Sophie again added perspective. "Yeah, but your everyday ftreet official getf two, maybe free dronef if fey are fecial tafk forf..." She gave up believing her point already communicated.

Even Bee couldn't suppress a chuckle this time and leveled Sophia with an empathetic look. "Can I help you with that 'f' of yours later?"

Sophia's return look was pure gratitude, "Fank you!"

Bee continued her question to Kip. "Still, wouldn't the drones move faster than you can run?"

He nodded. "Yeah... but they ain't about to try to stun a kid. Somethin' in the code where if they miscalculate the charge it could kill the kid so really they are just cameras. So if you can get around a corner faster than they can get a chase on ya, they gotta hang back. Ain't no code saying I can't shoot a drone." Kip had a bit of a grin at the idea.

"But you don't have a gun?"

"If they didn't get a good scan on me then they don't know that. It's why you gotta move fast when ya get seen."

Everyone let that idea settle in as they each finished rinsing off. Bee was pretty sure there was missing logic in Kip's argument but wasn't going to press. The true gain in the discussion wasn't learning about how to hide fast enough, nor had it been the hacking or the fighting lesson. For the first time the team had worked together on something, even if only for a moment and to Bee who knew xe'd have to trust in this team for xer safety from Them, that was the true value.


Bee stepped from the hall into the bunk-room and up to xer lower bunk where xe started dressing. Drake was nowhere to be seen but Sophia soon walked over to her bunk beside the door and promptly collapsed into it with a long sigh where she lay face down on the pillow in exaggerated exhaustion. Kip walked in just ahead of H'Aki but before moving to his bunk he turned and Bee overheard him thank H'Aki for teaching him about the throw. H'Aki just nodded and looked about at the two remaining top bunks available. She was carrying all of her gear having gone into the showers straight from the gym and she chose the bunk above Bee and moved to set her things on it.

"You were a lot nicer to Kip in there."

H'Aki paused while trying to smooth her hair back into its more vertical position and looked down at Bee. "Well, the 'dari asked nicely and I couldn't really just blow him off; we're supposed to be a team an' all."

Bee wasn't fully convinced that the mistrust had been buried but xe left it alone and redirected xer curiosity instead. "Oh, and what's with the hair, if I can ask?" H'Aki had resumed her desperate hopes that this time the hair might stand a little straighter as it dried.

"Just like my Daddy." H'Aki beamed down at Bee despite the failing attempt.

Bee tried commiseration. "I wish I knew my dad, or paternal program donor, or whatever it's called."

"I wish I knew mine too."

Bee had no response to that revelation and so said nothing more as H'Aki climbed up into the bunk. Drake hobbled back in from the common room and chuckled as he saw Sophia already fast asleep without having bothered to even get under the covers. The others looked over at the chuckle and he responded by recommending they all follow suit. Tomorrow was going to come early.

Bee saw no fault in his logic and so decided not to continue xer inquiry into xer companion's history. Instead xe used the remaining moments as the lights dimmed to wonder as to just how Drake seemed so much more informed than xer and Sophia. The inquiry never finished running as xe drifted quickly into sleep.