Anki stepped into the team commons in a manner that caused each of them to notice, set down whatever they were doing, and make their way over. They each took a seat around the table facing towards her. These sorts of informal information sessions were the norm for them however this particular session was anything but normal. Anki cleared her throat and began.
"Tomorrow you will begin the scenario phase of your training. Starting very early next morning you will be leaving base enroute to an old transport ship which has been allocated for our use."
She gave each of them a look to add weight to the very different feel in which this briefing was being given. The dormitory/training center had never been referred to as a base nor had these impromptu meetings been called anything close to a briefing. She tried to see them as soldiers, and for Drake and Sophia that wasn't too hard to do, however for the rest of the table she just had to remind herself of exactly what had been discussed during the meeting with the Sub-Coordinator only moments before. She had to treat all of them the same if this was going to work.
"Going forward, all future briefings will be attended in uniform and you will be given only twenty minutes in which to dress and prepare for each scenario. Is that understood?" Yeah, at least she'd been able to argue them down from only 10 minutes like normal adult tactical training. There was a round of non-committal agreement save for Drake and Sophia who almost instinctively chorused their 'Yes Ma'am's. "I'm sorry, perhaps I wasn't very clear. Is That Understood?!" The response this time was adequate from all. "Good. Now, I recommend you all get some sleep tonight, tomorrow is going to come very early." She turned to leave.
"Anki?" It was Kip.
She stopped her preparations to leave and her face soured. "Yes Recruit?"
The title gave Kip some pause but his courage prevailed. "How will I... we be participating? In what role?" She resisted the urge to reassure him as she normally would have.
"The first scenario will involve you, H'Aki, and Bee in defense against Drake and Sophia. I cannot tell you any more than that as the purpose of these scenarios will also be to test your ability to quickly respond to new information, including the specifics of the scenario." Kip was clearly not satisfied with the response but the time for enabling his dreams of glorious combat would soon come to an end. "If there is nothing else?" No one so much as moved. "Goodnight" She left the room as she had come in and only relaxed when she finally arrived at the monitoring suite around the corner from what would now be called 'The Base'. The afternoon was coming to a close and much still had to be done before the morning. Anki found her desk and began calling up each planned scenario starting with the first one tomorrow. Just kids... She pulled up the timeline and Drake and Sophia's fitness reports and sighed. At least those two 'kids' had only days to be ready for... well ready for hell, if ever there was such a place.
The small nondescript conference room smelled of sterilization and sweat as Meyan watched the holo-image of a man who had so impacted her life. She couldn't decide whether it was for the better or worse yet. Everyone who had had a hand in the monumental surgery from that morning had almost immediately relocated to this hidden room following her final activation and examination of Sophia's implant suite. They hadn't even had time to change other than Dr. Aszet who had only donned a clean set of medical scrubs. Despite being mid-afternoon, everyone in the room was ready for an early end to the day; that apparently included Sub-Coordinator Xepharious who had insisted on the usual post-theatre debrief. They'd already covered the standard review of each patient's condition; which was excellent despite the outpatient nature of the procedure and in line with any standard implant installation. Now they were moving on to the last item: Abnormalities.
Solu was currently speaking for the team. "The only abnormalities noted occurred during the activation of each patient's implant suite." Everyone turned their eyes to Meyan with concern. "While Bee3's activation took about 33% longer both Drake and Sophia completed their activation process in about half the time it normally takes for an equivalent adult being." Solu's tone implied heavily on the term 'equivalent adult being' and she looked pointedly to Xeph who merely nodded without any other indication or information. "Given the patient doctor relationship which was fostered during Bee3's time at Meyan's station and allowing additional time given that the child required additional reassurance," Meyan struggled hard not to let her embarrassment at the truth of that show. "I think that we can accurately attribute such additional time given as appropriate care for the situation." She accompanied the certain accolade with a smile to Meyan who only blushed further despite her attempts to hide it. There were general nods of agreement around the room save for Dr. Aszet who had stopped paying attention the moment the topic no longer concerned his sphere.
"I am, however a little concerned with the greatly shortened activation time in the other two." She turned her attention back to Xeph. "While we have absolutely no precedent against which to test these numbers given the patient's ages and the digital nature of their minds, I find that these numbers are far more in line with examples of adults who are receiving and implant suit upgrade." She seemed to be waiting for some sort of response.
Meyan's exhausted mind tried to follow what she could only assume was an entirely different level of sub conversation to the one being spoken. Solu had found something. Meyan could see it in the way she was not just asking Xeph but accusing him; pushing him to confirm her comparison. Meyan couldn't make the connection and ultimately decided that when those two were ready to bring her in on it, or at least once Solu had confirmation, she would tell her. The conversation was no longer focused on her and so her mind had begun to wonder a little as well. Eventually this meeting would end and she might even get in a quick nap before meeting Delyyn in the S'up.
"Very well, can we all agree then that other than the stated abnormalities," She shot a look at Xeph and Meyan realized that if he'd ever responded to Solu's previous veiled inquiry she'd totally missed it. "The operation was a resounding success and any additional notations, reports, or follow-up can wait until we've all had some much needed rest?" The resounding round of exhaled breath and tired smiles signaled unanimous approval.
Meyan began gathering her own labcoat and turned for the door. "Meyan, nice work in there." Solu had circled about the table and was moving to walk out with her. "I'd never have guessed it was your first time doing that."
Meyan almost missed a step. With all the preparation, review, practice, and ultimately the highly secretive nature of the project somehow it had never really occurred to her that she'd just performed one of the most technical aspects of the project and one that was way outside of the normal purview of some simple biologist. "Thank you." The blush in her cheeks was back.
Solu simply smiled that knowing kind smile of hers and winked. "Go get some rest and have some fun tonight. You earned it." Were she not as tired, Meyan might have noticed how Solu seemed to linger just a few moments before smiling again and heading off down the corridor towards her own apartments.
She didn't remember much of her own walk back, nor the few moments it took for her to deposit her clothing on the floor and collapse into bed. By the time her implant gently roused her several hours later she almost felt normal again.
Walking through the entrance to Sunny-side Up felt like sipping cool water in a desert. Or at least that's what she imagined it felt like being as she'd never even seen a real desert. Tez and Delyyn were already waiting for her at the normal corner table and while neither looked to have touched their first drink much, they were both giggling like children. The expression on her face as she walked up must have asked the question for her.
"Nothing, a good joke." Delyyn deferred explanation to Tez whose eyes went wide as she shook her head. She looked sheepishly over at Meyan but no joke came out. Meyan's drink that she had ordered via implant arrived and she took a sip.
"I, uh... I'll tell ya later."Tez immediately mimicked Meyan in taking a drink. To this Delyyn tried to hide his own smile and so the evening went even as a small but late dinner arrived, was consumed, and additional drinks had. In fact, it wasn't until just about the time that Meyan was about to ask if they wanted to move their little party out for a walk in the pleasure district that Delyyn finally turned to her and asked.
"Instead of the park tonight, think we could just go here instead?" He set out two plastic chips about a square inch in size but it was the completely deflated and deadpan way in which he said it that caused her to have to do a double take on the tickets just to realize what they were. "Wait... the theater!?"
Both of them again burst out laughing. "Hey, the delivery was her idea and I couldn't really say no."
"...your face!" Tez was too busy laughing to say anything else despite the playful glare Delyyn sent her way.
Meyan looked again at the tickets and scanned the marking on it into her implant. 7th row seats to Djilhof's Suite #6. "Isn't this that really romantic one? About that low-sec pirate who falls for one of the slaves he rescues, then they go back and pretend to be slaves together just to free his sister or something like that?"
Delyyn had no idea and so just shrugged but Tez worked through her giggles to illuminate her. "Yep, it's actually the one Iralis and I saw last night thanks to you!"
"But 7th row? That's like... isk pricing right?" Tez only grinned while Delyyn nodded.
"Yeah, Tez helped... but she just got me some special discount or something."
Tez followed him quickly with, "The show was actually his idea."
Meyan looked up at Tez but wasn't exactly sure how to say 'thank you'.
"Hey, just returning the favor hun." Tez gave her a cheeky smile that implied more than she needed to about last night.
Meyan looked again at Delyyn who was still grinning then back at Tez, "But, the dress... and this... you've already paid me back... and wait. You don't need to pay me back. I had whole tonnes of fun with Ellie!"
"Oh She told us, she's like your bestest, bestest friend now by the way." Tez giggled.
Meyan just sort of started at them. "Um... thank you? I mean, yes, thank you!" They both had a little bit more of a laugh at her expense and she took it in good humor. She was already thinking about exactly what she could match with that new pink dress even as they agreed to part ways and Delyyn agreed to meet her again in front of the theater.
The show was nothing short of spectacular. The lights, the music, even the soaring performers who did their best to adapt their typically 'theater in the round' performance to accommodate the gravitational enhancements that the theater had become so famous for. The walk back to his apartment was almost magical. Most of her walks had always been during the early evening or daytime. And while one or two of the river plants were perpetually glowing, walking into the pleasure commons at the peak of night was truly otherworldly. Vibrant park lights were dwarfed by cascading beds of bioluminescent gardens at every level of the atrium. In the synthetic breeze they seemed to sway and roll as though she were surrounded by a sea of life.
He took the long way through the park, meandering past the stream and over a bridge or two until they finally came to the lift and to his door. He held the door as she stepped in and slipped off her new shoes. The entire night he'd barely been able to take his eyes off her and now as she realized that once more he seemed to be transfixed just inside the door she humored him with a slight twirl of her pink dress. "I guess this one's a winner then."
"I, uh... huh?" His eyes had once more dropped to the slightly translucent hem of the dress as she'd twirled but once more they found hers. "I thought you hated pink."
That he even noticed suddenly meant the world to her and with his eyes on hers despite the dress, in that moment, she was finally ready. She reached out and took his hand as he clumsily flipped off his own shoes and followed her towards the bedroom without a word.
Somehow, the night was made even more magical.
The inhabitants of 'The Base' were a bit more subdued as proverbial 'dusk' settled in. Sophia continued to study just about every tactical scenario she could invent out in the commons while Kip listened in and tried to keep up with some of the more arcane ones. Drake was off doing whatever he did in the evening, but then he was always subdued. In the bunk room, Bee reclined in xer bed as xer mind flew through every scrap of evidence xe had to solve the riddle that was Sophia and Drake. Xe was already feeling a little guilty at keeping xer implant secret from Kip and H'Aki; they were xer friends and teammates and it just sort of felt wrong. At the thought xe looked up at the bottom of H'Aki's bunk. Xe knew that H'Aki had a data pad up there with her and because xe was already patched into the security feed xe could see that she was grinning in a perplexed sort of way. Xe couldn't really inquire, given only the camera feed which xe 'didn't have', or xe might give away xer new implants; so xe waited. A moment later H'Aki spoke. "Huh..."
"What is it?"
"Huh? Oh.. I'm just watching the camera drone replay of my fight with Kip this morning."
"What about it?" Xe moved past the momentary discomfort of realizing that xe was getting the new implant while the others were training, "Something funny?" Bee climbed out of xer bunk and stood on one of the rungs which H'Aki used to get to the top bunk. From there xe could just see the pad that xer friend was holding.
"Oh, um... not really... it's just, well, I think he let me tackle him on a couple of these." Her smile screwed up into a smirk/cringe as she watched the same section of footage yet again.
Bee was missing the frame of reference. Xe didn't have the angle and rather than try to climb higher into H'Aki's bunk xe stepped back down and said so.
"Here..." H'Aki activated her data pad and 'threw' the image from a two dimensional pad up to a three-dimensional holo projected from one of the room standard emitters with a swipe of her fingers. The room filled with mats, faceless non-dummies, a rather sweaty H'Aki, and a rather tired looking Kip, all in holographic form. The images moved once more through the exercise as first one dummy, then a second dove for Kip. He managed a passable block on the first, turning it away to his left before striking out with the side of his foot for the shin of the second and connecting. As the second dummy catapulted into a roll over the strike, a tactic intended to save its non-corporeal shin bone, holo-H'Aki was already in motion and moving in for a strike at Kip's exposed back. "See, he is supposed to duck and let me overextend into a roll over him..." The holo-Kip did no such thing. Whether out of exhaustion or for some other arcane reason, holo-Kip instead pivoted to see his attacker and take her into a grapple meant to fling her off and to the side. The fling never happened and both holo-persons crumpled heavily to the floor as Kip's left leg didn't plant correctly to redirect holo-H'Aki's momentum.
Bee wasn't an expert at hand to hand tactics but she ventured a guess; "Maybe he thought he had a better chance of turning you than throwing you?"Bee did notice that the Kip in these vids had somehow figured out how to anticipate the next opponent, at least a little better.
"No, see, he'll never have enough time to fully turn and plant that foot, never. He should know that too." H'Aki left the image paused, switched to a separate camera with a face-on view of Kip then zoomed it into see his foot plant over and over a few times on short loop. "Yeah... He isn't even trying to get that ankle locked!"
Bee thought xe had seen something. "Hey, can I have control for a sec?"
"Sure." H'Aki lifted the pad across and down to Bee who almost slipped and refused it. The pause went unnoticed and Bee pulled the pad into one arm and faked motions with xer other hand while xer mind reached out through the new implant to take control of the playback. Xe pulled the focus back out from the foot and then zoomed back in, this time on Kip's face. Once more H'Aki came in for the grapple but just as she was expecting to find Kip's back and instead came face to face with him, a very clear boyish grin could be seen on his face. The expression confused Bee and xe set the replay to short loop again, this time zoomed in on that grin. "I don't understand..." Xe looked up at xer companion who had grown very silent.
"THAT SLAVER LOVIN' FEDO HUMPIN' 'DARI SHIT!" H'Aki burst up from the cross-legged spot she'd had on her own cot, leapt to the floor, and stormed out of the room, straight into the commons.
Bee had to scramble just to catch up and dropped the pad on xer own cot. Xe arrived in the commons to find Kip hoisted from his seat opposite Sophia. H'Aki was already well into her forceful accusations.
"...perverted son of a slaver! What, you want some kind of kiss or something?!" Kip, dangling as he was up against the bulkhead, could only stammer and grow incredibly red in the face. Something in the embarrassment smeared all over his face finally clued Bee into what could possibly be going on and xer eyes bulged. "Well, you sick in the mind or some'in?"
"N-no, honest!" Kip was finally finding words but not fast enough for his assailant's like.
Bee's historical files had little to say on the subject of adolescent mating behavior but from what xe had xe was very confused. Due to Origin's very liberal stance on nudity and romantic entanglements, infractions and the punishment that resulted from them almost exclusively focused on the concept of consent. In fact, so much of the system's culture on relationships revolved around consent rather than tactile contact that the punishments for lewd behavior and incidental contact were almost non-existent while those for violating consent even without physical contact were staggering. Further, the social stigma assigned to anyone accused of coercing or bypassing someone's consent was heavy enough to keep even adolescents touting the 'Consent is Sexy' mantra. Indeed, being accused of perverted acts was a very dire thing indeed. But how could a boyish grin have anything to do with breaking H'Aki's consent?
"Honest?!" H'Aki lowered Kip back to his feet yet kept him firmly in her grip. "Then how about you honestly explain that to me." Her words were measured as she points back over to the hologram that had followed Bee into the room. The image continued to loop the grin and Bee suddenly noticed Sophia's covert attempts to get xer attention. In xer scramble to keep up with xer companion xe'd left the decoy datapad in the dormitory. The hologram had followed the device controlling it as normal, which in this case was now xer implant. Xe quickly tossed xer hands behind xer as if xe was still holding the device; for some reason behind xer...
Everyone else in the room was too busy to notice as even Drake entered from wherever it was Drake went to be alone every evening. Kip had gone pale and was only then attempting an explanation; "I... I guess I kinda like you?" He winced as though ready for another blow.
"And so you what, let me tackle you?" H'Aki's look was one of incredulity, whether for his affections for her or the way he chose to show them, Bee couldn't tell.
"I don't know..." He seemed to be recovering a little sensing that her tirade was cooling. "I don't know what to do with..."
"With what, with your stupid feelings?" H'Aki still had him pinned to the wall but as her body language had grown less threatening it seemed to Bee that Drake and Sophia had moved to just watching them. Xe wondered whether Leth or Anki were watching from just outside the commons by this point. "You couldn't just say something?"
Kip was quickly rallying and his embarrassment, fear, and confusion shifted finally into anger. "Yeah well, you ain't exactly easy to talk to now are you?" He used one of the grappling moves that H'Aki had taught him and knocked himself free of her grip. Kip didn't move though, he stood his ground, letting his frustration fuel his bravado as he started right back at her. H'Aki didn't seem to have a response ready for this.
"So yeah, I let you tackle me cause I kinda like you and you were finally being nice to me, an' well you're fun to wrestle with. Now, if you are done accusing me of being all creepy perverted and such maybe you can stop treating me like just some 'Dari', yeah I heard you say it the other day, and let me be. I promise I won't let you tackle me again, alright?" He gave her a hard stare for just a few more moments before he turned and started off towards the gym.
Drake uncrossed his arms and made for the bunk room while Bee stepped back over to K'Aki letting the projection dissipate. "Look at him, please." H'Aki glanced over at the retreating Kip then back to Bee.
"Yeah, yeah... I see it." Bee could tell that H'Aki really could and together they read the complete defeat in his step. "I'll go apologize."
Bee didn't respond. Xe didn't need to. If anyone could get Kip's heart back into it, it would likely be H'Aki who's 'tough love' apparently seemed to be exactly what Kip needed most.
Kip didn't even bother to change but just walked directly onto the mats. He didn't know what he wanted or even why he was in here. The briefing had confirmed all his fears; that he wasn't cut out for this. He never meant to have a crush on H'Aki either, it just sort of happened. How do you control these things anyway? He wished he knew because he'd sure to Bob stop it right now. The room lights began to flicker on and he deactivated them with a command. He didn't really want light right now and the little that was spilling in from the hall and the commons was enough for him to locate a suitably isolated corner.
He sat against one of the inanimate pads crossed-legged with his head down. For the first time ever he just wanted to go home. To see Mistress Sdint and find out how the other kids were doing. He wanted to see Coal, and Celery, and... well anyone else in New Hyjn. The sounds of hesitant footsteps entering the gym alerted him and he raised his head to see H'Aki coming his way. She started talking when she was only half way in as if unsure into which shadow he'd gone. "Kip, look, I'm sorry ok?"
"Bee sent ya, right?"
"No, not really." She had located his position and was walking the rest of the way over.
"Yeah, well you can tell Bee it's ok, I don't want to do it anymore, any of it."
H'Aki gave him a derisive look, she seemed to be weighing something in her head before her look turned harder. "Look, I do like sparring with you, and look at how far you got this morning alone! You managed to get the anticipation down and take on two separate opponents before me."
"I still can't get the kick though."
"You will." Something in her tone caused him to look up and he saw vulnerability in her face where he'd only ever seen resolve. "Kip, when I was just a little kid, I mean little little, my momma taught me how to deal with folks like slaver gangs and such. She had to right? Cause if they didn't snatch me to sell me, than they were gonna do it to do far worse things right?" Kip tried to consider what it could have been like for her living a street life that was somehow even scarier than his own. "Shit like that? That's also reflex for me right? I ain't never had someone 'like' me or nothin'?"
"You don't have to like me back... not really."
"I do though, maybe just not the same way." Kip tried to see past how much confirmation that she didn't have a crush on him hurt. All he wanted to do right now was hide and disappear. But then he thought of Bee, and of Drake and Sophia. They may not need his teaching anymore, but maybe they still needed him in other ways. Maybe he could still be a team member; a friend.
He glanced over at H'Aki who had just sat down next to him, also crossed-legged like him. "You don't think they will let us fight either, do you?"
The question seemed to catch her off guard and she took some time responding. "No, not really."
"But that's what you do. It's what you love." He could see the pained expression on her face and knew that she'd been quietly thinking about it without wanting others to know.
She sighed and let her head fall back against the mats. He smiled just a little as he noticed that she also tilted her head instinctively to protect the mohawk that still wouldn't quite stand straight. "I think... no. I know I'm not done with fighting. I don't think they'll let me back on the streets like before, but then maybe that won't be so bad. I think I'm a good teacher, so maybe they'll let me do that for a while." He didn't have a good response so he just nodded and waited. "Someday... someday though I'll be really old enough and maybe by then I'll be better too."
She turned finally and smiled at him. "Yeah, I mean if a couple of digital kids can best me in just a month or so, I got some work to do right?"
He saw that fire in her eyes, that voice that just dared anyone to try to stop her and once more he realized that despite her feelings, and despite the fact that he truly did understand that she wasn't interested; he still liked her. And maybe he'd go on liking her. And maybe that was ok. With the way she'd turned to face him he noticed that her hair had flipped over just right and was, for some divinely wrought moment in time, standing straight up. "Hey, your hair's straight."
She seemed to freeze. "Quick, you have a camera or something?!"
He shook his head with an almost vacant look.
"Guess I can't move then." She smiled at the silliness of her own comment but also didn't move.
He smiled back but his thoughts turned again to the morning. "So, what do we do about tomorrow?"
It took her a moment to puzzle out the meaning of his question but when she did she just shrugged; very gently. "We give it everything, just like we have been."
"Even though we know you and I aren't going to really get to go into the field?"
She nodded. "Especially then. Why have us here, I mean have you ever thought that one more step?"
"I'm sure Bee has."
H'Aki smiled knowingly in response to his sotto voce remark but he did continue after a moment. "Not really, no."
"If you put two or three digital sentients into children's bodies, and told them to fight like children, hide like children, and act like children, you'd sure as Hek need some children to teach them right?"
It was a huge mental leap and Kip returned a sort of incredulous stare her way as he processed the revelation. "How did you..." He wasn't even sure how to ask the question.
She was already shaking her head, her perfect hair forgotten. "I didn't. Bee dropped one too many hints while xe was trying to cover for where they'd been this morning."
"Wait, you asked her?"
She nodded. "You weren't wrong when you said they were gone too long for a health screen."
"And xe told you?"
"No, xe didn't, which still worries me." H'Aki's lips moved into an awkward sort of scowl. "But xe spent way too much time not talking about preparations for tomorrow and with all the time xe's spent trying to get me to read what people don't say... Well xe kinda screwed xerself there. Whatever they were doing was something technological and to do with preparing a digital sapient for battle tactics." She took a pause to look at him again. "And you and I aren't ready yet so... it was just the only thing that made sense. I mean, they never really had Drake and Sophia teaching anything to us right?"
"Yeah..." He let things sit for a moment. "But what about Bee? Will xe fight with them?"
"I really don't know." The scowl was back. "Maybe xe actually does get to choose, like we were supposed to. But like I was about to say; they still need us to teach. Only now we need to be their opponents, their allies, and maybe even... their dead weight." H'Aki's face had gone from the scowl to something much darker. Kip could almost see the ghosts of her past in the shadows cast by the hall's light.
"People die doing this stuff Kip, this ain't no game we're playing. And if they are going into fight, I mean really fight? They may have to learn how to do it while rescuing helpless hostages or even pulling out dead friends. My mom used to talk about it, when she was drunk enough or thought I wasn't still awake."
"But then why kids? I mean... why even make them kids?"
It was something she'd clearly already thought of because she simply leveled him with such an expressionless look that spoke of frustration, fury, resignation, and even acceptance. "Maybe that's the point."
He didn't get it, but then he also wasn't about to ask her to clarify. She looked once more off at some undefined place at the other end of the gym and his gaze fall back to his hands in his lap. As they both sat there in silence, he thought not of Sophia and Drake, nor of Bee. He didn't even think on what they had just talked about. Instead he thought about H'Aki. H'Aki who had been so hot tempered and volatile when they'd first met. She'd changed, at least in most respects given her attack just a bit ago. He thought of how he'd changed. He'd never really cared about someone else before. Even with Coal he never thought more than to send her a simple note telling her to run. He'd always looked out for himself and gotten by fine. Part of him saw Bee's touch in a lot of that, and thinking back on H'Aki he could see xer working there too. Maybe that had been the point? For him at least, maybe it wasn't about being some Super Spy or Space Soldier. Maybe it was about finding friends, finding who he wanted to be.
They sat there in silence for a few more hours before they both fell asleep against the mats. When Bee came to check on them just before xe xerself went to bed xe found Kip's head resting against H'Aki's shoulder and her hand resting on his. Bee smiled and went to bed.
Kip and H'Aki awoke to bright flashing lights and a blaring siren as their entire world erupted around them. Someone was shouting for them to stand to attention and fall in but they had neither the wits nor the clarity of vision to know who. One line did break through that haze though as they scrambled to find their feet;
"I said stand to! We're under attack!"