SUNSWEPT CH12

Chapter 12 "At Risk"

"Hang on!"

The warning reverberated through the hull. It was moot owing to the inertial compensators but Meyan took hold of a grab bar beside her and held fast.

"...It might work." This was almost in a whisper and Meyan now wished for some way to see what was going on beyond the confines of the small passenger compartment she was in. She wasn't far from the bridge which was fully automated on such a small scout and devoid of the crew which were currently manning the damage control central stations. If she was going to die out here she wanted to see it happen. Death held very different meaning in Origin; she would survive, or at least her of two weeks ago would. And she'd have her own notes to recall most of what she'd missed. But that would be it. She wouldn't have experienced any of the last day nor would she have the still pulsing desire to prove it to that insufferable Planning Director git. Losing everything would obviously been much worse, but losing even that much did scare her. She wasn't fool enough to deny her fear, but she was able to move through it.

Releasing the grab bar, and feeling just a little silly for having grabbed it, she began moving very quickly down the short corridor. On any normally crewed ship, there would have been many hands standing at station with a captain calling orders. What she found when she did reach the bridge was almost too eerie in its silence and stillness. She was alone, staring out at the emptiness of space. She could see the stars drift swiftly by as the ship seemed to rotate at gut-wrenching speed. She saw nothing of the ten or so drones that were supposed to be flying towards them but all of the sudden the Planetary Customs Office and the makeshift planning center they had just left came sliding into view from the left. They were heading back?

She could feel the tick of time as they seemed to crawl towards the customs office. She didn't dare speak up for fear that she might distract Tez but instead tried to puzzle out what her friend was doing. While the customs office itself had significant shielding, enough to extend around the industrial planning center tucked just beneath it, Meyan knew that those shields would be useless to the scout even if it did somehow reach the structure in time. Not being able to see their hunters behind her was really starting to bother her but she set her eyes on the massive semi-translucent bubble which was preventing them from leaving and waited.

Tez's voice was hushed again, "I think they might have bought it..." suddenly another bubble came flashing into being, the edge of this one only meters in front of them as they kept slowly burning toward it. Meyan could see the structures growing larger, but their trajectory seemed slightly off to make a rendezvous.

Meyan risked it. "I don't see them, are they following?" Her voice was barely audible.

"No, well not yet." Tez must have decided that more explanation was needed. "I cloaked up while I was traveling the other direction, away from the station. So they sent their drones and pointed their ships in that direction to try to de-cloak us before we could get out of the disruption bubble and go into warp." Tez gave a sort of uncharacteristic giggle that came out as an almost predatory growl instead.

"But we are going back to the structures?"

"Well, only a space-mad idiot or a completely green pilot would go right towards the thing they know will de-cloak them, right?"

"Will it?"

Meyan couldn't see her but Tez's voice gave Meyan the impression that the capsuleer was smiling a very wicked smile. "We are now in a parabolic orbit of the POCO at 2585 meters and their first warp disruption probe is about to fizzle out, so nope."

The 'nope' was spoken with a sort of finality that told Meyan that it had been directed at their hunters rather than as an answer to her question, though it did that as well. All she could do was wait and breathe. She tried to imagine the other ships moving further away behind her or that even if they did find her, and they did kill her, she would just be re-lifed. This thought, however, brought her mind right back to the memories of her time with Delyyn that she'd lose. Maybe it wouldn't bee to bad to lose some of those memories...

With so much time to just think, and her mind running on overdrive from yet more adrenaline, she let her thoughts drift about those things that perhaps she was normally too busy to think on, or was it that the prospect of losing any memory of having had these thoughts let her bring to light things which she had been trying so hard not to look at.

"Bubble's about to come down, we might be ok but... ok, the Sabre is turning around and heading back to the POCO... this is going to be really close..."

Part of her, the part which was still conscious of the here and now that she couldn't do anything to change, registered the icy coolness to Tez's voice and nerve. The other part of her was finally wrestling with her own cold truths. Images and thoughts from her time with Delyyn over the past few weeks moved through her head. Some of the words and some of the images seemed different, as though she was looking through a lens at them, as though she was seeing them objectively for the first time. She saw the pattern, the ups and the downs. How could she not given her training in pattern recognition? And she heard the words; Delyyn supporting her, caring for her, giving her comfort. But she also heard other things now, insinuations of how relationships were about compromise or how she might make something up to him. The last part stunned her. She had no memory of this but as she looked back over these memories that she had apparently stored away she could see them clearly, over and over again he had been pushing her towards something, towards what though? And he had done it so, carefully. Subtle words and actions. A frown here, a suggestion there, even one or two compliments he had made suddenly seemed suspect.

"Shit! He's on top of us! We're de-cloaking! 1... 2... 3! HAH! He deployed all the disrupter probes he had already; he's still reloading the launcher... AND HE DOESN'T HAVE US POINTED!" Tez's voice rang out in an almost feral glee that Meyan only barely registered. "WE'RE OUT!"

The 'here and now' Meyan watched as the stars before them blurred and the warp tunnel opened to loose them from almost certain doom. But even as the ship leapt into that dark warp tunnel, Meyan's mind had already been pulled past the event horizon of her own dark tunnel. Last night. That's what he had been pushing towards. Sex. She'd owed him sex.

Tez was talking to her again but she didn't register, nor did she comprehend the tactical view that materialized before her depicting two Stratios's, a Devoter, and about five other various ships converging on the remaining Legion, Proteus, and Sabre who were now trapped in a warp bubble that the Sabre had belatedly launched.

She was still working through just about every conversation now, questioning all of it. He'd recommended she spend time with his friends, and she liked them, especially Iralis, but she also saw other things. Like how he'd turn a normal conversation towards something specifically romantic. And always he was so chivalric. And even with all of the little hints he'd drop; about how she might let go, how she should enjoy herself more, he had been good. He'd helped her get out of her shell and no matter his intentions; she still thought that was a good thing.

The rollercoaster was still there though, an up and down of emotional confusion. And yes, a lot of that may have had to do with her energy from the photosynthesizing, but how much of it wasn't? She thought of how she'd felt just before coming on this fated trip, how low, how much she'd been torturing herself that she'd let him down again. Had she always been so focused on him? Yes... with her new lens of retrospect the answer was yes almost from the first time his hands touched her. And then again there was the way he had sat away from her on the shuttle. Looking at it now she couldn't be sure that it wasn't exactly the right move to make her want to give in, to comfort him by changing her mind and agreeing to stay the night. But he was trying too right? He arranged this trip, and he was willing to go to S'up instead of the other bars for her. He had given too, made sacrifices right? But sacrifices for what? And again, at the end of that equation was... sex.

Her mind came back to their narrow escape and the orientation of the tactical overlay shifted as their cloaked Buzzard leapt from one side of the battlefield to some point on the other. From this angle she could now see that their would-be hunters were a dwindling few prey. Synthesized sounds of battle traveled over the speakers as Meyan heard the Legion breaking up and the Proteus's guns silence for an unfortunately timed reload. Alexylva Paradox was ruthless in their vengeance though. She could just make out the spreading debris of what must have been the sabre and she watched as the Devoter's on-board warp disruption field trapped the Sabre's capsuleer in locked and webbed suspension, waiting for judgment. Meyan's thoughts of Delyyn waned enough that she clearly heard Tez telling her that they'd just caught one of the other enemy Stratios one system over as it tried to flee. Without further warning, one of the Alexylva Stratios flipped on its keel and lept into warp. She recognized the name of that one's capsuleer but couldn't immediately place it.

The final death knell from the Legion was spectacular as it flared brilliantly leaving just the Proteus class cruiser which she could clearly see was nearly dead itself. There were obvious signs of damage on the Alexylva ships as well and their hulls seemed to smolder in response to the Proteus's guns which had just resumed firing. The Legion's pod, containing her capsuleer, started moving towards the nearby edge of the devoter's bubble but was swiftly locked onto and obliterated. The Proteus used the distraction to fire off three final volleys into the Alexylva Stratios which had it ensnared. "Damn... Nina's in deep structure..." Meyan marveled at the coolness with which Tez described the near fatality of Ninavask's ship. It was surreal to watch her boss's boss so vehemently berzerked upon the remaining invader. The Proteus couldn't hold any more though and under the combined fire of the remaining Devoter, Stratios, and Legion class cruisers she finally gave to as explosions began rippling across her hull.

"The capsuleers?" Meyan didn't particularly feel a need for compassion towards those that had tried to kill her but something in her required her to ask. She could clearly see the remaining two pods, still pinned down by the Devoter's bubble.

"They didn't request ransom..."

There was a dead finality in Tez's voice, one that sent a chill through Meyan. In almost synchronized secession both pods were struck with the full fury of three cruisers worth of armament. Only space dust remained.

She tried to recall where her thoughts about Delyyn had headed but couldn't. Meyan knew that something had changed, and she wasn't really sure what it was or how it would play out, but now was no longer the time to think on it. Tez warped them back into the expanding debris field and they approached the wreck of the Sabre. Meyan had never seen the looting of a wreck or the collection of post-combat biomass before but as she watched Tez gingerly scoop several floating bodies into the Buzzard's cargo hold, including one that had all manner of tubes and sockets splayed out of her, Meyan decided that she never again needed to witness exactly where her next 'life' came from. She retreated back to the small passenger compartment and spent the rest of the trip desperately trying to keep the image of the pale naked half-woman from haunting her dreams forever.

*******

Kip's eyes opened and for a solid two minutes he just lay there. Had the alarm sounded? No. It felt like he'd had a full night's rest but he heard no one else rustling about. The others had been waking up at almost the precise time needed for them all to get dressed and ready for each morning scenario. A few years of living on the streets had made Kip enough of a light sleeper that their usual rustling was enough to wake him as well. He closed his eyes, rolled over, and listened for the gentle sounds of breathing which normally accompanied the sleeping state of his teammates. They were there, but they seemed less somehow. The lights hadn't come on yet, so there was no need to fully rouse and Kip knew the real value of sleep. He smiled just a little to himself and his mind started to find that tendril of a dream he'd been having. He'd almost gotten it too when he heard the unmistakable sound of The Base's front entry closing.

His eyes shot back open to look out across the shadows of the barely lit bunkroom. There wasn't enough light to see past the empty bunk over to where H'Aki would have been but as he concentrated on that breathing he realized part of it wasn't coming from beneath him. It took a little effort to pull his head over the edge but when he did he found that Drake's bed beneath him was very clearly empty. Well, that figured. Drake was always sneaking off really early or really late for something. He still wouldn't tell anyone what, but then Kip wasn't exactly eager to tell his life story either even if he was starting to feel close enough to these teammates of his to let down his emotional guard just a little. Still, it was odd that Drake was actually leaving The Base this time though. His eyes were starting to adjust again so he looked out again towards H'Aki's bunk. Maybe she'd heard it too. He could make out a shape in her bunk but his semi-alert mind struggled with it. Viewing someone laying down in profile wasn't always the most accurate assessment but there just didn't seem to be enough shadow over there to make up a person, even one as small and lithe as H'Aki. He finally glanced over at the time mark set into the far wall. The backlit numbers he found there told him it was only about another ten minutes until he'd have to get up anyway. Well, he wasn't going to be able to fall back asleep now so sitting up seemed a wise next step. He gave his eyes a rub then looked over again. Yep, she clearly wasn't there. Already up and in the bathroom maybe? Even the thought of the bathroom elicited his own need to go so he set aside the mystery and started making his way in himself.

By the time he arrived back into the bunkroom Sophia and Bee had the lights on but instead of getting ready they were both looking over at him.

"Oh, so it's just Drake and H'Aki?" Bee's question confused him and it took a few moments for Kip to latch back onto his previous mystery.

"Huh?"

Sophia provided the assistance for his morning addled mind. "H'Aki and Drake; they're missing."

"Oh, yeah... I thought I heard the front entry but I just figured it was Drake going out to... well to be Drake." He shrugged and started over towards his gear for the day.

Sophia and Bee looked at each other but they seemed less ready to just dismiss the oddity. Bee in particular seemed troubled. "H'Aki has no reason to go anywhere though? The gym?"

"And Drake didn't need to go anywhere this morning either." Sophia chopped off the end of her observation just as Bee gave her a curious look.

Kip missed that entire interaction, lucky for Sophia, but the idea of both of them missing was starting to give him some thought as he methodically reached for his freshly washed suit. It was still warm from the scrubbers and he thought once again how nice it was that someone delivered them freshly cleaned each morning just before they got up. The first few days the sudden morning interruption had woken him prematurely, enough for him to say 'thank you'. But over the past few days he'd become accustomed to it and the intrusion no longer seemed to occur to his sleeping mind. "Maybe it was just the laundry running late this morning and they are out in the gym." Bee seemed to be thinking pretty hard about his comment, or at least about something, as he noticed xer start to shimmy into xer suit. He finished fastening his own suit; his mind still on a curiosity of how the odd fabric of the suit would likely feel pretty clammy against his bare skin had it not still been warm.

"No, they aren't in the g-"

"Fall in!" The shout from Anki in the commons interrupted Bee and caused Kip to jump slightly. He looked at the chrono on the wall and seemed confused. By that clock they still had another three minutes. He was ready anyway and so was Sophie but Bee still hadn't fully zipped xer suit.

He smiled and swiped up xer helmet. "Zip while ya walk... or jog I guess." Sophia was already at attention by the time Bee and Kip caught up only a few moments later. Drake and H'Aki were still nowhere to be seen.

"As you were." Anki didn't even seem to notice their missing teammates so at least that meant their absence was expected. Kip tried to think of how or where they had gone but by now he'd gotten used to the sort of games Anki liked to play on them and, put with the earlier than usual summons, he contented himself with the knowledge that he'd soon find out, or not, during the briefing.

Bee and Sophia settled into a resting stance along with Kip as they waited for Anki to continue. Kip glanced over at the spot in their impromptu lineup where H'Aki would have been. Four days of facing Anki's scenarios together, pitted against each other time and again, had brought out a certain 'one-upsmanship' between each of them at the same time as it had brought them closer together. The match-ups had been sufficiently randomized such that no two or three people were ever on the same team for more than a few consecutive scenarios and even as Kip looked at the conspicuous holes in their formation he wondered if this time they'd just decided that the other team needed a head start. And if that was true, regardless of what parameters of the scenario would require a head start on the part of the other team, Kip grinned at the fact that he would have the chance to hold H'Aki's 'head start' against her later.

The two of them specifically had fallen into a kind of affectionate friendship since the night they had spent in the gym. He figured she saw it almost more as a brother-sister sort of thing though part of him still knew that he never could. Only yesterday she'd actually sat leaning against him while reading through one of the tech manuals they had to memorize. It hadn't been much, but somehow just the feel of her against him has sent all sorts of butterflies through him. And he knew that she didn't like him that way, and he knew that to her it was a friendship thing. But to him, at least knowing that she was ok enough to let him into her circle, into her world as it were; that was enough. Maybe she'd sit with him again while they read tonight too. Or maybe not.

The whole thought process had taken only a few moments as he returned his eyes to Anki. "It seems that your comrades have gone and gotten themselves lost this morning." There was a twinkle to her grin that told Kip that his 'comrades' must have had very little choice in the matter of their getting lost. Guess they weren't opponents this time; at least he could tease her for 'getting lost'. "The three of you will be leaving shortly to find them. Any questions?"

Sophia was the first to ask. "What are the search parameters?" It was an odd question to Kip. It was rare that Anki even offered to answer questions and most of those answers gave more riddles than real information. But even as Kip tried to fathom such a vague question Anki began to answer.

"You may not leave the station."

Sophia continued. "EVA?"

"Unnecessary." Anki gave a slight grin along with the answer as well as a quick glance to Kip. One of the previous scenarios had played out in full space suits on the outer hull of BubbleBait and Kip had discovered, much to everyone else's amusement, that he was one of the small percentage of people who became absolutely and uncontrollably sick during EVA. Only significant medication had even let him finish the scenario, and even that had required that he step out of half of it just to have his suit exchanged for a clean one. Thank Bob someone had had the foresight to make two suits for each of them.

Bee continued the line of questions. "Access restrictions?" Xe seemed less sure in xer tone and Kip realized that the question could have had two separate meanings.

"You will have no need to hack into any space," And now Anki gave only a hint of a smirk, "Or network."

Nobody else offered a question.

"Two more things, the rules on being seen or recognized still apply. Oh, and this is a race." There was no mistaking Anki's grin now.

Bee seemed confused; "Against?"

"Time."


Tucked away within one of the less used commercial docking sub-levels two sets of pathetically simple shackles fell to the metal grate in near unison. "Ok, so now what?"

Drake returned only a shrug to H'Aki's question. He starting to look around to assess their situation and she quickly followed suit. As if the extra early wake-up by the 'laundry crew' hadn't been strange enough the sudden feeling of numbness and almost instant effects of the drug they had used left her feeling more than a little groggy. Her first awareness after waking from the blackout had been the feel of cold manacles on her wrists. That unpleasant sensation was soothed somewhat when the sound of Drake's groggy rousing joined them a few second later. Once coherent, the pair had immediately started in on using each other's hidden hacking spikes to remove the first obstacle from their wrists.

As her vision began to clear, H'Aki could see the tiny room that they were encased within. It had no apparent access hatch nor did it look like the kind of place one normally kept people. Other than that the room seemed impeccably clean. "Where are we?"

"A smuggler's hold maybe?" Drake was now looking very closely along the metal sheeted walls. "There's got to be a seam around here somewhere..."

H'Aki moved to the wall opposite him and started looking on her own. "Do you see any sort of camera or audio pickup?"

"Not yet, but check that corner over there," He looked back and nodded to the corner of the room she was approaching. "From over here it looks like it might have the largest gap between plates." She saw the end he was pointing at and went to it. It was weird that he hadn't started his search for a faux wall at the largest gap but upon arrival she realized why. Sure enough, the reason for the larger gap became instantly apparent when she saw the hinged joints. Drake was already looking along the smaller seam at the opposing corner to each wall that this corner edged so she started looking for any surveillance tech secreted between the hinges. She found none.

"I guess they didn't figure we were dangerous enough to watch." She was a little shocked at her own calm despite what she was beginning to suspect as a very elaborate kidnapping attempt. "You think this is just another scenario?"

Drake paused only for a moment in his search. "Could be, though this clearly isn't BubbleBait, I'd have recognized it." H'Aki was about to ask how he could have possibly known, but then she decided that he'd likely not answer. Just as he'd never explained how he'd known the things he had during the failed reactor core defense scenario several days back. "And they've never put us into a scenario without prep before." His tone was uncharacteristically sarcastic. "But you have to admit, just the two of us? Feels like a rather typical team split don't ya think?"

"Yeah..." H'Aki still wasn't convinced. "The others could just be in a separate cell."

Drake did pause at that, but when she turned to see his face he was smiling. "Yeah, but with the kind of surveillance Anki and Leth have on The Base? Not likely. Besides, how many kidnappers do you know that would lock their holding cells with a data port pointed inward?" He stepped to the side to reveal a very slim data jack which he'd slid out of its narrow hiding spot. He carefully slipped his own hacking spike into the port. She had no idea where he'd hidden that on his person.

A holo projector which sat just inside the spot where the jack had been flush with the wall began to glow and a projected interface appeared along with the image of Leth. It brought to mind another image of holo-Leth in slightly less composed garments and H'Aki stifled a giggle. "Congratulations! You've discovered how to get out of this cell." The holo-Leth smirked. "Unfortunately, as this is also a test as to your other teammate's ability to find and rescue you, we would prefer if you remained in need of rescuing."

Drake rolled his eyes and shot of look that practically screamed 'of course' at H'Aki. Oblivious to his commentary, holo-Leth continued. "We don't want you to feel ignored or become bored however, so our demolitions friends have put together a toy for you to play with in this little play-pen of yours."

"Play-pen?"

"Demolitions!?" H'Aki wasn't sure what suddenly suppressed her more; the idea of defusing a bomb or the way Drake had instead latched onto Leth's teasing rather than the bomb.

Still the hologram continued. "And, to make it even more fun for you, if you fail to defuse the bomb, before the other three find you, you lose."

Now Drake's incredulous amusement soured. "Seriously?" Holo-Leth disappeared. "They had to pick the two of us with the least electronics skill; no offense." He glanced at H'Aki to make sure she hadn't taken any.

She was already making her way over to the data jack. "Um, nothing says where this bomb is supposed to be?"

Drake looked; he even tried to access any data within the jack via his implants but with no luck. "Nope. But if this one is Leth's little stunt we can almost assume it's got to be in the most insane place possible." Leth, it had turned out, had an even worse sense of humor for practical joking than Sophia did, and he also applied to the school that once pranked it was on him to pay it forward, with interest. His 'jokes', such as they were, began showing up in the form of some of the cruelest objectives the team had ever seen. The whole team of course blamed Sophia and had even told him so on repeated occasion, but he'd only smile and repeat that 'turnabout was always fair play', whatever that meant. Slowly both of their eyes turned upward to see a very, very faint crease in the panel above.

H'Aki's chuckle carried no mirth. "And how are we getting up there?"

"We climb?"

She raised one very skeptical eyebrow at him. "On what?"

His grin actually did have just a bit of dry humor. "Well, that depends; you want top or bottom?"

After getting over the initial shock at such stark humor H'Aki caught on and without even dignifying his grin with a response she began to not-so-carefully climb up his back.

"Hey, watch it! Those boney feet hurt!"

She found his shoulders with her feet but decided to spare him the extra pain of using the calloused ball of her foot rather than the instep to hoist herself the rest of the way up. She didn't want to hurt him that much. His hands found the back of her ankles to give balance and she reached with one hand against the ceiling to steady them as her other hand found the crease and pressed against it. What should have been metal gave way like a wet film and her fingers curled about the edge of a panel about thirty centimeters by twenty-five centimeters. Very carefully she pulled on both edges of it and slowly it descended.

"I don't think it's actually attached to anything." The statement was more for Drake's sake as her mind was already racing through the possibilities. She couldn't see above the panel yet but it did have weight to it. There were no hard fastened attachments that prevented her from shifting the plate side to side and it was now free of the magnetic bonds which had held it in place. That devilish humor of Leth's was still very foremost in her mind and along with it all manner of traps he could have set.

Drake wasn't privy to her thoughts of course but he'd surmised her caution all the same. "Well take a look at it already, you're getting heavy."

"That's a horrible thing to say to a lady!" She grinned along with the retort but her mind wasn't in the banter. Partly to stick it to him but also to gain some additional height she adjusted her feet to bring the balls in line with his shoulders and she pressed herself up the extra centimeters and felt very carefully for any pressure that might indicate that the panel had been tethered by some trip-string to some exploding paint bomb or alarm. Drake silently protested the additional pain in his shoulders with a scathing glare that went entirely unnoticed by the concentrating H'Aki. "I can almost see it."

It was Drakes turn to press up on his toes thus lifting the two of them just a little bit higher. "Anything?"

She could actually hear the strain in his voice and felt a little bad for the teasing but his final lift had done the trick and it was a good thing too. "Um, yep. It's tethered, and we just reached the end of it too." Peeking over the edge she could just see the thin filament of wire which now stretched taught back up to connect to Bob-knew-what back in the dark niche in the ceiling. She could also see a small canister strapped to clearly fake explosives sitting in the middle of the panel. "I think I can snip it."

"Hurry." There was an audible grunt and H'Aki could actually feel a slight shake to Drake's previously solid support. "Please."

Aware that even her calves were going to give out soon she carefully slipped one hand under the panel to support it while the other reached along the back of her neck and extracted the very carefully concealed ceramicrete knife that hid within the stiff roots of her mohawk. While some might have thought her obsession with steel-straight hair a thing of vanity; and maybe part of it was, it afforded her a particularly nice little hiding spot for the thin slightly curved blade she now produced from it. She may be naked as the day she'd been born but that didn't mean she had no place to conceal a little protection. Add in that the type of people to threaten her might actually be deterred by the idea of getting their hands all sticky with hair grease and all in all her little obsession was just down right defensive thinking. Her papa would have been proud.

The tiny sliver of hers flicked out quickly across the filament and it fell into two limp pieces. "Got it, bring me down... slowly."

"Sure" There was relief in his voice and as he slowly started to lower himself to one knee she bent her own knees to try to absorb the shifting balance. She still had the panel on one hand but the other hand reached out to find his head for additional balance. She was careful to place the small blade between her fingers sharp side pointed up as not to inadvertently stab her poor impromptu ladder. A few careful adjustments and H'Aki was able to step from his shoulders to his knee and finally to the decking. Taking the panel back in both hands she spent a wasted moment looking around for where to put the bomb.

She smirked. "Because it would be too much to just give us a table?"

"A table would have sure made that last bit a lot easier right?" Drake was smirking too but the tone of his voice clearly suggested she stop wishing for the impossible. "The floor will have to do."

H'Aki resisted the urge to shrug and she gingerly lowered the panel as well as the bomb set on it to the floor. "And now we are back to that bit about our bomb skills." She curled her legs quickly into a cross-legged seat to one side of the rather small explosive while Drake took up a similar position on the other side.

"The others aren't likely to be just given star charts with big red arrows to where we are and while Leth is still nursing that grudge let's both keep in mind who most of that grudge is really pointed at shall we?"

H'Aki had the momentary mental image of what kind of obstacles might now await their friends. "At least Sophia's really good in combat, even if the other two aren't so much."

Drake looked up from the canister he'd been examining and gave her another smirk. "Let's not rest on their combat prowess, or lack thereof in the other two's case. How about we get this bomb dead."

"Kip is getting better so yeah... we'd better."


Several moments later they had located not one but two opposing access panels. Removing them wasn't going to be too much of an issue and having a plan of attack felt like progress. Apparently Drake was feeling a little better about their chances too; at least enough to initiate what H'Aki felt was rather idle chitchat.

"How is it going with the admirer anyway?"

H'Aki leveled him with a no-nonsense stare. "He's not that bad..." Her access panel came away with only a little pressure and she set it aside before moving her fingers back into the tiny hatch.

"Defending him now are we?"

"He can't help it, I'm just so perfect." She winced as her finger slipped along something sharp within the cylinder. The wince totally ruined the perfectly good grin which had begun to grace her face.

"I see that." He paused in his own removal of the opposing access plate to give her a rather suspect grin. It was rare to see Drake so informal with anyone. Maybe the past few weeks were finally catching up with him and he was finally feeling comfortable with his companions. Nobody was that much of an island right?

She shrugged. "I don't really know what it is. I mean, he's not really my type." Both of their eyes and fingers were on their work but the conversation flowed back and forth almost as an aside. Somehow knowing it was just another scenario took some of the immediacy out of it but H'Aki had also gotten a lot better at multitasking over the past few weeks as well. And well, Drake had always been pretty good at that.

"Aren't you a little young to have a 'type'?"

"Define young."

"Touche"

She did smile slightly at that. It was pretty much accepted knowledge within the group now that he and Sophia were clearly chronologically older than their current human bodies appeared and when she had thought about it no one in the group had led a particularly easy childhood so perhaps they were all a little older than they looked; which brought her back to Kip. "He is kinda sweet though, in that trying too hard sort of way I guess."

"He is?"

"Well, maybe not to you. But yeah." She couldn't help but smile. "And I guess he is nice to talk to sometimes."

Drake's fingers pulled out the wire they'd been targeting and he took a very deep breath before stopping to realize he had nothing with which to cut it. "Uh... you still got that knife of yours?"

"It's kinda slimy..."

He shrugged. "Ok then, you get to use it." He rearranged the wire to hold it out for her as she reached over and deftly flicked it into abrupt ends. Within the bomb a faint whirring ceased. "Well, that takes care of the timer. How much you want to bet this thing still has a remote detonation we need to disable too?"

"No bet"

Drake already had his fingers back into the cylinder. "I thought you talked with Bee more than Kip."

"Well I..." It hadn't really occurred to her before but he was right. Mostly she and Kip just sort of sat together more than talked. "Huh..."

"I'm not really saying it's bad or anything. But you two do seem to work together well. I mean, look at some of the recent scenarios you two have been paired together on."

She did think back on those and he was right. When paired together they'd generally been rather successful, even against the other three. It wasn't because they were better either. Sure, H'Aki was still a stronger combatant than all of the others, even Drake and Sophia, but she had to admit that in at least two examples it had been Kip's creativity which had utterly ransacked Drake, Bee, or Sophia's more carefully thought out strategies. He had this knack for thinking so far outside the crate that half of his ideas were near laughable. The crazy part was that through sheer dumb luck alone they almost always worked!

She had paused in her work but Drake didn't seem to notice. "However you feel about him, you do make a good team. Don't underestimate that."

H'Aki did look up at him this time. It wasn't like Drake to be so open but now he was downright talkative. "What do you know..." He didn't look up but she could tell that he'd heard her. "Something's coming isn't it?"

Still he didn't react. "A little help here?" His request brought her eyes back to the task at hand despite the very clear distraction it was meant to be. "You just keep him from doing anything too stupid, that's all." It was still a complete deflection but she could tell that the direct approach had failed. He was right too; they did make a good team. But then that was the whole point right? All this was to make all of them into a good team. But Drake and Sophia had always been just a bit more united than the others.

"You and Sophia work really well together too." She made the statement without looking away from the wires she was sorting.

He didn't respond for several moments but when he did he was clearly back to the old 'island' Drake. "We do." His own wire sorting had paused and while the tone of his voice implied he didn't want to talk about it, he was clearly deep in thought.

She had hit on it but she had no idea what 'it' was, and she wasn't going to today either. This was a puzzle she was just going to have to work out of Sophia or maybe Bee later. She glanced up from her own access into the tangle of wires and circuits and grinned. "A little help here?"

"Oh why not." He smiled back at her but the softness from it was gone. They both went to work on the bomb again in silence.


Kip slowed his jog as the others did the same. It had been some time since they'd seen another person which meant the brisk jog they had just taken had been longer than expected. It was too risky to be seen running through the corridors but without anyone around to see... At least they hadn't had to make the jog in full suit. Despite the extra time it had taken to remove them Sophia had argued that it was going to be so much easier to pass as just another bunch of kids without having to hide the suits. They'd just have to deal with any combat threats as they encountered them and so far they hadn't found any. Skulking through conduits was also out of the question given the sheer size of the entire station. They could slip through the seams when they got closer but first they had to figure out where it was they were getting closer to.

Bee's first suggestion had been to use the stations security camera system to track the path of their dirty laundry. That had apparently been the right instinct as xe quickly produced recordings of a couple extra-large hovercarts of laundry being casually hauled along the various corridors up to the intersection in which they now stood. Tricks had been played and in the next security frame rather than just a single set of carts coming and leaving no less than seven carts could be seen exiting the intersection in various directions.

"Can you tell the laundry crews apart?" Sophia was looking over Bee's shoulder to the pad xe held but Bee was already shaking xer head.

"They aren't separate crews, or carts for that matter. Someone holographically copied the original set then projected them all stepping off from the exact same spot."

Kip finally took a look for himself and the effect was eerie. It was like each crew member and cart had separated into multiples of themselves. Some stayed in place for just a few seconds while the others all picked different directions. The set that stayed then took off in a similar starburst pattern. So even if they tracked the video footage for progressively further out screens, something Bee could easily do in only seconds, they'd have no idea if it was the first passing set or the second, or even if they were holograms.

Kip offered his own thought. "Could you track which corridor holo-emitters are in use and rule those out?"

Bee blinked and seemed to be doing just that but a moment later xe was shaking xer head again. "Not using emitters; must be drones in each hologram."

"Inside each?" Kip had never heard or seen drones designed just to emit holographics but he knew they existed. Sophia also seemed confused.

Bee looked up towards Sophia for just a moment. "Like Dr. Terona"

Sophia nodded but Kip must have missed something. "Like who?"

"Oh, just a doctor we digi's had to work with early on." If Kip had been paying more attention he might have caught the way Bee had almost winced at xer slip. Instead he only noticed the fact that for the first time Bee had openly stated Sophia's digital nature in front of her.

Sophia didn't even react to it. Her mind was laser focused on the task and she seemed to be deep in thought. "Maybe we are doing this wrong."

"How so?" Kip was willing to look at any angle at this point.

Sophia looked about at the empty intersection and when she couldn't see anyone coming or going from any direction she laid out the puzzle that had been occupying her mind for the past several corridors. "So, we know this is a scenario and a test. But we've been reacting this entire time; following the clues."

"Yeah?" Bee had lowered xer pad as well.

"So, we know a little of who we are playing against. We may have rules but so do they."

"Huh?"

"We have to be covert for the same reasons they do. We are in training for anti-terrorist threats right? So they have to protect our cover as much as we do. So that means that they've been leading us along some of the least used sectors of the station."

Bee didn't consult xer tablet but was already nodding. "You're right. Anytime we got close to the more populated areas the laundry crew would take some rather obscure detour to go around it."

"Now, is that because they want to keep us hidden as we follow... or are the game-makers also telling us something about the kidnappers."

It finally registered for Kip. "They don't want to be seen either!"

Sophia smiled. "That's what I was thinking too."

"So that means that they are likely heading to somewhere equally as remote or hidden?" Bee was also putting it together.

"Yes, but also that they are playing the part." Sophia looked back at two suddenly confused faces. "Hey, remember that these so-called laundry crew as still part of the Anki's scenario. And each scenario is meant to reflect potentially real situations."

It was Kip's turn to nod. "So they gotta play by the rules too."

"Yep." Sophia smiled just a little. "So, if you were a kidnapper, and you had some reason to steal two pre-teens from their comfy beds in the heart of Origin, where would you try to go?"

Kip chuckled. "The hole out of Origin."

"Exactly"

Sophia's process made a lot of sense. Sure she was clearly using information that Kip didn't have access to. That she had just identified all of the scenarios as having connection to real world scenarios was easy enough but that they were all somehow related to something as dangerous as kidnapping required a leap Kip hadn't been willing to make. Even during his time on the streets Kip had felt at least marginally safe in the knowledge that had anyone ever tried to actually kidnap him, and not just to relocate to some new children's house but to really kidnap him, they'd be quickly found and the penalty would be harsh. He didn't particularly feel like a child anymore but he wasn't of legal age yet and that meant some pretty significant inherent protections. Kip didn't know anything about the Sentient Equilibrium, and he didn't really need to. But he did see the effect of its protection. Children's rights were one of the few pet crusades which that vaunted super-AI had taken to and anyone so stupid as to attempt such a thing as to forcibly remove a child from their home or try to abuse, imprison, or Bob forbid bring violence to them would want to be as far away from Origin as possible.

As Kip put that knowledge against the other scenarios an interesting picture began to form. Taken all together were they being trained to rescue imprisoned kids? It matched the skill set almost perfectly. At the same time as that thought came to him another blazed through his mind distracting him from the first. "A ship! Bee, is the BubbleBait docked anywhere right now? Or one of the Sub-Coordinator's ships?"

It took xer a moment as xe mimicked searching through the tablet. "Not the BubbleBait, I think it is still anchored at one of the outlying towers. But Sub-Coordinator Xepharious has a lot of ships berthed at Icarus, twelve of them."

Kip noticed that Bee seemed to come up with the information rather quickly but Sophia was already jumping in. "Maybe one that is docked at a remote platform, or say one of the lower manufacturing drop-off docking ports." Again there was something Kip was missing as was evident by the sly smile Bee shot Sophia.

Bee was about to respond immediately but noticed something in Sophia's glance, looked for a moment to Kip, and then paused to look down at her pad. A few seconds later she looked back up at Kip. "Yep, the Relentless, A rather lonely Drake Class battlecruiser just took up berthing at a gas transfer port late last night."

"Let's be sure though." Sophia was clearly as excited as the other two but she was at least thinking through everything. "We can't afford to go chasing after too many teasers. When was the last time that ship went anywhere?"

Bee again consulted her pad. Meanwhile Sophia was already looking around corners as though planning their route. "Before its transfer to the lower docking port; not for almost a standard year."

"I think that's our 'kidnapper' then. You start looking for camera footage near the loading platforms." She turned to Kip. "I'll start getting us there; you however get to think up a way to get us into that docking port without being noticed."

"It's part of the damned microcircuit!"

Drake peered through the mess of dissected innards to see the central processing board for the rather sophisticated explosive between them. He could see the source of H'Aki's frustration but couldn't begin to figure on a solution for it. Rather than connecting the remote receiver by wire to the chip which initiated the detonation the receiver was part of the igniter itself. And that igniter was fused to the metal lead which ran directly into the explosive compound which was strapped to the cylinder which in turn housed the electronic components. To round out the nice little package those straps we also made of metal and rigged back into the igniter such that if they were forcibly removed it would set the bomb off as well. Well, it would if the explosive had been real anyway.

"I don't suppose you've got a metal saw hidden on you as well?"

H'Aki flung out her arms as if to say 'search me'. It was an entirely silly statement given both of their current state of undress. "Your turn."

He frowned but had the dark humor to make a show of patting about the waistband of the shorts he usually chose to sleep in. "Nope"

She sat back from the tangle of wires and for just a moment wondered how the other team was doing. Probably a lot better as long as they hadn't been given an impossible task.

Drake had also sat back but he was now looking up at the compartment from which the bomb had come. "You don't suppose they stashed something else up there do you?"

Her body language clearly asked if he was sure about reprising his role as human ladder.

He wasn't deterred. "You got anything else?"

"Nope" She unwrapped stiff legs and stood as he also made his way over. She looked up as they both stood beneath the opening. "At least this time I don't have to stay on your shoulders right?"

Drake only grunted and crouched for her to climb up his back once more. H'Aki scrambled up, this time with a little more care for foot placement, and took hold of the edges of the opening. "Give me a little boost?"

They both bent their legs and as Drake gave a count of three both sprang upward. She wasn't going to have enough clearance to actually crawl up into then move around much in the space above, but there was just enough of a lip that she was able to press her forearms out on either side of opening and press against what turned out to be the outer walls of the end of an air duct. She shifted a little more until she was looking down the return end of the duct and right into a rather thick grate. "I guess we weren't getting out this way anyway huh?"

"What is it?" Drake no longer held any of her weight so he had moved out from beneath her should she need to drop quickly.

She took a few moments to give the short section of duct a good look-over before answering. "Well, there's a short bit of duct up here, maybe enough to squeeze into but then a pretty solid grate. Were we inclined to leave this little cell without the bomb I imagine we could find a way to get past the grate but for now I don't think that's in the mission description" Drake's abrupt chuckle agreed. "There is some piping up here, let me..." She reached out one hand while still balancing on the elbow and started to touch one of the pipes with a pale blue stripe. She almost instantly retracted her hand and quickly shoved the injured finger into her other armpit for warmth. "Ouch, yep. Coolant line."

"Why would there be a coolant line in an air duct?"

She looked a little closer at either end of the duct. "I don't think this space was meant to be an air duct but rather a mechanical corridor. I think our friendly game-makers needed to make sure we didn't suffocate and decided on a little engineering."

"Ok, so can we use it?" Drake was suddenly a bit more hopeful.

H'Aki grinned down at him in response. "Well, the line is made of thermoplastic, so I can cut it. How thick are those shorts of yours?"

"My shorts, what do they have to do with it?"

Her smile continued as she glanced over at the bomb. "Well, we might be able to freeze those straps brittle enough to break, and if not then we could try freezing the entire chipset. Either way I think it's the best shot we got. And to do all that I'd need to be able to aim the coolant line once I cut it. That means holding the damned thing and..." She paused for a breath and to make sure he was watching her grin. "your shorts are about the only bit of insulation I see around."

It took a bit for H'Aki to drop down and then for them to carefully get her and the bomb back up into the conduit. A slightly less clothed Drake remained below unable to really do much of anything but look up and wonder if he'd ever get his favorite sleeping shorts back in anything but frozen tatters. Those shorts were now wrapped several times over about her hand as she gripped the small line. She wouldn't be able to hold it long and she could already feel the cold bleeding through the cloth. Luckily the line was only about a centimeter think. She brought her knife about to cut the line when a large bang from further down duct surprised her enough that the dropped both the knife and the line. Familiar voices immediately followed that bang as they echoed down the conduit but all she could think of was that they were so close to winning. Skip the straps, if she could just freeze over the whole bomb before they came around the corner she and Drake could still win. Then she heard the knife hit the floor below.


The image that greeted Kip as he came around the corner of the awkward mechanical conduit turned ventilation shaft gave him more than just a little pause. To say that he hadn't expected to see their rescues already in the conduit was at least accurate but rather than the happy faces of liberated friends, he came face to bum with one very irate H'Aki. He couldn't see more than her feet and rear end as she had jammed her bottom half into the conduit. Her upper half must have been hanging down because all he could hear was her shouting to someone below. "Just throw it! They're almost here!"

Somewhere below Drake responded. "I'm NOT throwing a knife to you!"

"Just do it! I'll just patch the cut later!"

Kip wasn't sure exactly what to do or say, but he thought that he at least owed it to H'Aki to let her know that he was already here. In the few moments it took for him to make up his mind he also noticed the rather mangled bomb laying just the other side of the thick grate which divided them.

"Um, H'Aki?"

She darn near lost her grip and fell out of the duct entirely. Then everything went very quiet for several seconds. "Yes Kip?"

He almost turned around and went back the other way rather than face the absolute zero temperature behind the soft way she asked. "I, uh, I think I'm here to get you out. But it might be a little easier if I could talk to your face..."

"Well congratulations to you then."

*******