SUNSWEPT CH13


Chapter 13 "In the Shadows"

Very little light found its way through the two narrow windows placed at the far end if the room despite the uselessly thin curtains meant to cover them. What light did find its way in was choked by a sort of damp dust about the room. Drake took a deep breath as he awoke and immediately regretted both the breathing and the waking. He managed not to gag at the smell though he felt his brain should have somehow remembered the dangers of breathing too heavily from their brief introduction to the home the previous night. There were sounds of other children starting to stir about the room and he rolled over on the thin mattress to check on Sophia in the cot next to him. At first glance she was still asleep but he knew better. She'd have been awake by now so she must be lying quiet for other reasons.

One of the other children suddenly launched into a sneezing fit and Drake noticed as one of the older children moved quickly out of bed to go attend to the poor kid. There was no wonder about the cause of the sneezing, all one had to do was look about at the sheer volume of mold lining the corners and joints. The stuff must be nearly semi-sapient given how long it had had to grow to reach such proportions. The state of affairs had flat out shocked him upon arrival. How could any person who cared for their charges leave a place to such ill repair? He'd been more than ready to blame the Head Matron for such neglect only to discover that the relatively young Ms. Welote was almost sick herself trying desperately to clean the place day in and out. The dichotomy was so striking that he'd spent late into the night trying to understand it. Ultimately he'd discovered that Head Matron Welote had made no less than 53 personal appeals to the property owners for funds to buy cleaning supplies sufficient to actually prevent such decay. She'd been flatly refused each time on ground that there was no budget for such stringent chemicals. Spending even more time in the mystery and not getting sleep, Drake had found that any such money which might have been used for cleaning must have gone to bribing local inspectors because the buildings last fifteen inspections had given this House, and every other House owned by that company, a glowing review.

It was humbling to discover such corruption existed even within Origin, especially at the expense of children. The only thought which had let him get any sleep at all the previous night was that he knew something that most did not. Approximately three days ago that same corrupt individual who ran this shit-show had been discovered and forced to sell off his entire set of assets to Saranen Housing, a particularly upstanding offshoot of the benevolent Araai Foundation. He'd sold them at a considerable loss as well in return for certain... protections. The powers within OSS, having been tipped off from an 'unknown journalist' source, had significantly more care for what might befall all of the children under the criminal's care and so in exchange for protecting his identity to the public, he would allow the complete take-over and transition of all of his housing assets to a company of their choosing. It just so happened that the movers and shakers within OSS happened to also be pretty close to some of the more prominent members of the Araai foundation. The only piece missing from the whole little cabal was the liquid sum of isk needed to make the greatly discounted purchase. Drake hadn't discovered where the sudden grant had come from, but he had his suspicions. An anonymous donation to the Araai Foundation happened to suddenly appear yesterday morning, just in time to complete the sale. Drake wasn't blind to the hierarchy of corruption evident in that sale either but somehow he couldn't bring himself to hold a grudge against a win-win proposition which held, at its heart, the safety and security of possibility hundreds of children.

In the end, all of the backroom deals and shadowed maneuvering led to something almost remarkable. Within a few days each and every one of the Head Matrons, after sufficient investigation for complicity, would be alerted to their houses' new ownership as well as to its impending renovation. Drake looked back over all of the mold, dust, and filth and knew that its days were sufficiently numbered.

In that glance though he also noticed that all but a few of the other children were rushing to dress and be out the bedroom door. One of the larger kids, this one clearly possessed of a bully's presence, gave him and the still 'sleeping' Sophia a sneer. "Last one down get nothing! Good luck street filth!" With that he was out the door leaving only the two of them and the sneezing boy who then soldiered through the door only a few steps after the bully.

He turned to Sophia once everyone was gone. "You ok?"

She didn't move. "Go ahead, I'll be along in a bit. Gotta check something."

He just shrugged. He trusted her instinct almost as much as his own. "I'll go find out what the breakfast rules are, maybe we really won't get fed if we're late." He didn't much believe it but it didn't hurt to know. They had a few secreted ration tablets in case they needed them but he didn't think they would. His trip downstairs had another purpose as well though. During the wee hours of the morning a new nanny drone should have arrived and thus relieved the one previously kept at the House. Nanny drones, like any other commodity, were managed by the parent company of any Childrens' Home and it shouldn't have been all too strange for one to simply replace the other and send it for maintenance. Or at least it wouldn't have been odd for any other parent company who believed in keeping their assets in good repair. For Matron Welote it might have come as a bit of a surprise if she was paying enough attention. Drake wasn't about to bet on whether she noticed. And so, rather than his gnawing hunger, it was the mission which pulled him downstairs to check on their insurance policy should things get too bad.

Hidden deep inside this nanny drone was a nice little piece of software that would place it and it's suddenly enhanced combat capabilities directly into Drake and Sophia's vocal control the moment he uttered the words 'Three Pushes'. He smiled as he rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs and thought fondly of the brave kids who'd put that little piece of program into this nanny drone. He hoped they were safely tucked away aboard the Sub-Coordinator's ship, or better yet, back at Icarus. Drake double-checked his sullen posture and stepped into the raucous dining room.


Drake left the breakfast table a little earlier than the others and made his way back upstairs. He'd indeed found little food remaining for him and it hadn't taken long to eat it, confirm what information he needed, and slip out again. He found Sophia sitting calmly on her own cot. She looked over at him in a funny guilty sort of way which he questioned until he noticed her mouth moving. "You know, we only have so many of those."

"I didn't feel like starving myself for the mission, not yet anyway." She grinned knowing he'd never actually hold it against her.

He just 'humphed' and sat down on his own cot opposing her. "So why the sick routine?"

"I wanted to check for any bugs or hidden sensors."

Drake raised his eyebrow at her and gestured to the apparent lack of money in everything about the place.

Sophia shrugged. "One can never be too careful right?" He frowned. "So, was I really not going to get any food 'cause I was late?"

"Actually, no you weren't." There was surprise in her face. "And not because of some barbaric rule either. There simply wasn't enough to go around. Add into it that I'm pretty sure a few of the older kids managed to steal a helping without the Matron noticing. In fact I imagine they got away with a bit more this morning than most judging by the way they were grinning at Ms. Welote's back as she fussed over the drone."

"So it did arrive ok?" Her voice held only a little concern.

He nodded. "I think so. We won't know for sure until we need it but it was clearly not the model which had been here before. The Matron was almost beside herself worrying that somehow it was all a trick by her previous landlord."

Sophia cringed. "Wait, she knows?!"

"Crap, my words... No, I don't think so. To her he's still the 'current' owner."

That seemed to clear the confusion and Sophia visibly relaxed. "So we're all set then, as far as we know."

Drake nodded. "For the most part; yes. Matron Welote did seem to be acting very strangely though, and not because of the new bot. Almost as though she was expecting something but didn't really know what."

"She was the one who tipped that Ghera woman off I bet." Sophia looked around the room again. "And with the state of this house... I might actually forgive her for it."

"It was the reporter then."

Drake's statement came out as more of a question for confirmation and Sophia nodded. "For her sake, she didn't know her notes had been compromised and she'd been only too willing to cooperate with OSS once we told her so." She smiled sadly. "I hear the agent who interviewed her had his hands full convincing her to just keep on going with the story like nothing happened."

Drake thought about it for a moment and his own sad smirk joined hers. "She really was just writing a story on all... this then." He waved about to indicate the horrible disrepair.

"She really was."

"Well, I guess it worked; Saranen did get that big grant they needed to buy out this and several others of the worst Homes." He could hear other kids approaching the room, likely coming back from breakfast themselves and he could see that Sophia had heard them too. If he knew his partner her mind was already back on the mission.

"So, any time today then."

"You ready?"

Sophia gave him a sort of wicked smile, "Are you?"

*******


Waking up in a grav-bed was nothing like waking up on his dorm bed. For one, Kip's first peek at the world around him was entirely vertical. He could see out from between the parallel slightly padded panels which made up both sides of the 'bed' to look over the small cabin. There was a washstand tucked neatly into a recess in the wall along with several drawers beside it. It was a strange room but one he'd had enough time to at least inspect last night. Almost all of the drawers had been locked but those he could access had only basic hygiene items. Given who's cabin this was Kip wasn't about to go wasting his nantites on pure curiosity. The cabin was small, but at least the grav bed hadn't been too small as well. He tried to 'roll over' and succeeded only in wiggling just a little in zero-G. it took a moment to remember but once he had his hand moved slowly out and took hold of one of the padded holds which were carefully set into the bottom and top of the 'bed'. His space sickness somehow hadn't held true for all zero-G, apparently only for EVA but he did feel a little lightheaded from the gentle spin as he remembered to exert only a tiny bit of energy on the movement. The gentle rotation brought him nearly face to face with Bee. Xe was clearly awake as well and whispered to him. "Good morning."

He noticed the splayed form of H'Aki's appendages just beyond Bee and smiled at how anyone could sleep so... everywhere. They could both hear her soft rhythmic breathing and Kip didn't really want to wake her either. "Good morning." He whispered in response.

"I think she punched me last night, my butt is sore." Bee gave a sort of half grin half frown and xe rubbed xer backside.

Kip shared xer grin. "You were the one that wanted the middle."

"I know, but next time it's yours."

"Sure" He smiled. "You been up for a while?"

Bee's grin faded and xe nodded. "They haven't come back yet, and we are still docked at Renaissance."

"Sophia and Drake?"

Xe nodded. "I found personnel files on them..." So xe had been digging more. "I didn't want to open them, you know.. didn't feel.. right."

"Why not?"

Xe gave him a look that indicated that he should know the answer to that already. "How would you like it if they went hacking into your past?"

"They already did." Xe wasn't expecting that answer. "And into yours right? I mean, if they were the ones running this I bet they already know everything about us that we know, maybe even more?"

Bee was quiet for a moment before speaking again. "I guess so." This time xer silence was clearly a productive one as xe activated xer implants and Kip could visibly see xer thinking through the encryptions. He'd awoken significantly by now to need to use the restroom so he gently reached for another handheld and slowly eased himself out of the grav fields. The transition back to gravity was awkward and left him feeling just a little queasy so he took a moment or two to adjust. Unfortunately the sudden addition of gravity lent more urgency to his task so dizzy or not he quickly made his way around the corner to the small pocket of the cabin which housed the refresher and waste facilities.

By the time he returned Bee was still hard at work though xe had moved to take over the portion of the bed which Kip had so recently occupied. Further inspection showed that perhaps xer impetus for moving may have been the new sprawl which H'Aki had adopted; filling even more of the space between grav plates, if that was possible. He didn't want to disturb either of them so he found a recessed stool and extracted it to sit down and wait. Comparing his two friends in their resting state was amusing to say the least. Bee, like him, wore a loose fitting fabric which they'd gotten from the ship's stores. It was a bit too large but xe'd managed. Also like him, Bee took up so very little space within the grav field. He wondered if it had anything to do with personality; small, wrapped, and protective for Bee and himself while H'Aki's position and preferred lack of sleepwear matched her quick emotions, free spirit, and zest. Thoughts of something as simple as flimsy clothing making one feel protected was an interesting concept. He'd never really put a lot of thought into the 'why' of such things; he'd never really had the time to before. It was Bee who'd gotten him to actually start thinking about the 'whys between moments' as he'd started calling it. Perhaps that sort of thinking was why he'd finally felt ok letting xer in like he did last night. Certainly it was how he now understood that it was H'Aki's willingness to take risk which he found so fascinating and maybe even a little mysterious. His were rather deep thoughts on this morning and as Bee's eyes opened to indicate xe had found something he silently wondered if maybe that meant he was finally reaching the puberty process, or at least the part of it where Leth had said his brain could start to process the growth necessary for re-lifing.

Bee slipped gracefully out of the grav-bed with none of the lightheadedness which he had. But instead of walking over to join him xe smirked his way, rolled xer eyes at the inconvenience of it, then made xer way around to the waste reclamator. It left Kip with a few more moments to think on what might be just ahead for him. He'd once asked Leth when he would be eligible for re-lifing but rather than an answer he'd gotten a science lesson instead. Eventually the short answer would have been 'after puberty' but somewhere in the long answer Kip had learned a lot more about adolescent anatomy and brain physiology than he'd asked for. 'Pre-adolescent brains were still quite elastic', Leth had intoned, 'and while we do know that modern advancements in genetics and even natural human evolution have brought the mental maturation process more in line, chronologically, with the physical timing; the physical timing has moved up as well. There aren't any records that go back far enough but some have speculated that puberty once lasted clear into the mid-teens while the mental maturation didn't complete until almost the mid-twenties.' Kip had managed to hang on this long without becoming too bored. 'Personally I tend to respect these theories even though not everyone does. But in the end that's all they are, theories. Sure there are certainly signs in the genetic history that point to it but without any actual historical medical records a large percentage of the scientific field just can't get behind it. For our purposes, or that of the re-lifing process, brain elasticity doesn't solidify enough until around the early teens.' Kip eyes must have gave him away because Leth had simplified it for him; 'When you've got a lot of hair down there you get a spare.' Kip wasn't exactly praying to Bob for puberty to start but at least a hint of it would be nice. Maybe that was why the whole deeper thinking thing mattered so much.


Bee returned and found a spot leaning against the bulkhead next to Kip. Xe glanced over at H'Aki and smiled at how she had now completely taken over most of the grav-bed without so much as stirring. "I just can't sleep like that."

"Me neither."

Bee sighed. "So, I did some extra digging."

"And?"

"It's... odd. I was able to find a backdoor in their completely fake personnel files. I think it was the same route that whoever had invented those identities had used to do it."

Kip nodded but his face showed confusion. "Ok, so if 'Drake' and 'Sophia' were totally fake people, where did they get the bodies from?"

It was a fair question. One xe had already asked xerself actually. "I think from the same place that I did."

"Huh?"

Bee had to be careful here. Xe knew that just about everything that had to do with the lab in which xe'd first awoken was strictly top secret and while xe didn't technically have the clearance for information xe had gained during those first few days of consciousness in this body, xe wasn't about to incur the wrath of the very same people who were currently offering xer protection by breaking confidentiality even if xe'd never actually agreed to it. "These body specifications were left over from when someone tried to clone children during the early days of the re-lifing process." Xe could see Kip's curiosity peaked but xe also didn't want to take the time to try to explain it all while dancing about the parts xe couldn't talk about. "Well, we know that you can't re-life someone under a certain age right? Scientists had to find that out somehow right?"

"Yeah, but-" Bee was already shaking xer head.

"Sorry Kip, that part isn't important right now." Xe gave him a moment to let go of where his questions were about to lead and come back to the issue of Drake and Sophia. "I think I found their real names, or at least their names from before. Phedrick and Jemmalyn."

"Huh."

"They are OSS Agents, really high placed field agents too. I can't even begin to hack into any of their previous mission or even this one for that matter, it's all way too dark Ops."

"Wait, if it is too hard to hack their mission files, how did you get into their personnel files?"

Bee actually, honest-to-Bob, blushed. "I uh, I figured out Sophia's passcode."

"How?!" Kip almost forgot to whisper.

Bee considered not telling him but couldn't think of any reason not to. "Well, she couldn't use the standard DNA embedded encryption because her new body would have carried separate DNA and she might need to slip back into the file to make an adjustment. That she would have been the one to make the forgeries in the first place just made sense." Kip nodded in agreement. "Which was backed up by the fact that the path between the two datafiles was completely her hacking style."

Kip, who xe realized might have been just a little too reliant on his nanotubes automated hacking program, wasn't catching xer meaning.

"Everyone has a style. I know you still haven't done much hacking but I also know that you know the normal interface?" It was spoken less as a question and more as a statement but he nodded anyway. "Well, when you are navigating the various data nodes, some people like to encrypt for depth; putting the target access point as far away from the initial point of system access as possible and behind as many firewalls as possible." He was still with xer. Xe started shaking xer own head now and grinning. "Sophia, or Jemmalyn doesn't. She likes to put the target access node actually rather close to the initial system access point, surround it with a particularly aggressive anti-virus firewall, but then place the rest of her defenses as though blocking a target further away." It was a particularly interesting strategy and one which Bee had struggled to understand when xe'd first learned it from Sophia. Rather than defending against the hacker's attrition, Sophia had assumed a certain sophistication on the part of her opponent. It had been exactly that sophistication which had caused Bee to initially assume that the first, more aggressive, defense wouldn't be worth xer time or the expense of xer virus strength to hack. By the time xe had expended xer virus strength searching out the further extents of the data nodes, finding virtually nothing but tempting firewalls, xe'd had nothing left to defeat that initial aggressive defense. Sophia hadn't defeated Bee's hacking ability but rather xer logic. It was a mistake Bee had been specific not to make this time. "Well, the rest I picked up from knowing her."

"So, she told you her passcode?" Kip was a bit incredulous.

Bee grinned. "No, but she was just a little too reliant on that DNA component so her passcode was just an alphanumeric derivative of what is most important to her."

"Which was?"

He was practically on the edge of the stool; xe was sorry to have to disappoint him. "Sorry, I can't betray her trust like that." Bee's face was a mix of sadness for having lead him into the story xe couldn't finish as well as a little surprise that he would even ask it of xer.

Kip took a rather deep breath and let out a frustrated sigh but ultimately seemed to understand. "Ok. So what did you find?"

"Well, it's not so much what as when." Kip was waiting not so patiently for the rest. "Following the date-marks on the files, I could see a point at which Sophia's work got suddenly more rushed. She started spending longer sessions working on her and Drake's identity and I could see that the depth got progressively shallower." He wasn't following. "Stuff like references, transcripts. Whereas with Drake's, which she did first, there were performance evaluations and even curriculum director's names." He was catching up. "And there's more to it as well; I think they never intended to introduce our team to each other right after Drake and Sophia were cloned into their current bodies. She was building these identities to pass as human sapient and not digital sapient. Otherwise why go through the effort of giving them past school evaluations which would have been just silly if someone saw the way they were adjusting so rough to the cloning process, or even knew they were cloned in the first place?"

"So, what changed?"

"Well, that's the thing. I matched all this up with an external timeline and all of her meticulous preparations changed to a much more rushed form of work almost exactly one hour after she rescued me from the lab. Or, to put it another way, the very night of that bioterrorist attack in the Icarus Station market."

Kip raised an eyebrow at xer mention of the lab but xe didn't acknowledge it. The cabin stayed quiet for a few moments with neither of them really having much to say as they thought about it.

"So they are going after the fedoscum that killed all those children then." Both of them jumped at H'Aki's observation made from an otherwise apparently inert form still sprawled within the grav-bed.

"You're awake?!"

"Wait, how much of that did you hear?"

H'Aki feigned an exasperated moan. "All of it, can't you let a girl get some sleep?"

*******


The pattern was becoming a bit dull at this point but that didn't bother Ghera as much so long as it kept working. The hack she'd used, or more precisely that her associate had used, to slip into a local journalist's notes had worked fantastically. This was now the sixth home she'd be able to liberate within the week. Horrible; all of them filthy and detestable. It almost wasn't worth walking into the stench. But that look on each Matron's face; now that was worth doing this in person. Well, the look as well as the overwhelming feeling of finally doing something. The praise from the kids didn't hurt either.

Targeting the worst of the homes wasn't precisely an act of charity but rather of risk management. If she could she'd free all of the children from this backward system. She'd spare them the sickening indoctrination that they were somehow equal to the soulless unfeeling machines which had wormed their way to even the head of such an upstart colony. And she'd spare the universe from the spread of such a diseased culture. But that same overlord machine which she detested also frightened her. She wasn't too stupid as to not admit that fear either. It made her smarter, more careful. That she was actually rescuing children from the very Homes it had failed to correct also gave her something over it. She could see the rot that apparently it couldn't. And because the Sentient Equilibrium couldn't seem to see this rot, that was where she struck first. Six Homes in seven days; they were getting good at the pattern too.

She moved to press the door pad but found it inoperable. Ghera simply knocked instead. A few moments past but eventually a rather young Matron came to the door looking very nervous.

"Can I, can I help you?" Then the woman saw Ghera's associates and she paled.

"Good morning Matron Welote." Ghera used the young woman's moment of confusion to more or less push herself into the Home's foyer. Two of Ghera's three associates followed. "Thank you for letting us talk inside."

"Who are you? Wait, why... Is this to do with that reporter?" Ms. Welote's confusion would soon resolve into something resembling defense of her charges so Ghera had to finish the story and quick.

"I'm with the OSS, part of a Children's Services task force. It has come to our attention that the children in this facility are living in an unsafe environment," That was a massive understatement. "and we've come to see to it that they are immediately relocated." This part of the pattern required that she keep moving. If the Matron so much as doubted for a moment, or questioned why the 'OSS Operatives' hadn't so much as flashed their embedded IDs, they might have to actually do something... harsh, to the poor Matron. "Jesnef here will begin loading the children into the transport we've brought, would you please call them in."

Jesnef, perhaps the beefier of the two associates which had followed Ghera inside, put on a rather awkward looking smile as if to show that he was all sorts of trustworthy. And she had to admit he kinda was, to Ghera at least. To Matron Welote however, that smile set off just about every alarm in her maternal instinct. Ghera could tell from just one look at her face that this was about to go very, very badly. She let out a quick sigh for the attempt at formality. "Riggers..."

The other large piece of muscle which had accompanied Ghera inside moved with blinding speed and a moment later the Matron was fainting into his arms. Ghera looked about to see how many children might have seen the move but she saw only about three of them and those that she saw hadn't reacted. It was unlikely that any child could have seen the tiny needle which had scratched the matron's neck and to them it should look as though their Head Matron had simply passed out from all of the excitement. Of course that normally worked better on account of the usually older age of most Head Matrons. Ghera gave a silent thanks to fate that no other Matrons or adults had been present. They might not have accepted the ruse so easily. She turned back to Jesnef. "Might as well start rounding em up." Next she turned to one of the pre-teen boys who was looking on. He had the look of being the House bully, every Home had one, and he'd do nicely for her plans. "Please tell your housemates that we need them all in the foyer and if you see any of the other Matrons tell them I'd like to speak with them here as well."

The boy stiffened but seemed to have caught the offer of power she'd been tempting him with. "Matron Jason is at the store."

Good, she wouldn't have to worry about his 'matronly' instinct either. But she would have to leave someone here to clean up after the left. "Thank you, that is very helpful..."

"Callob, or just Cal" The boy grinned.

"Thank you , Cal." She spared him a genuinely warm smile then made a teasingly 'shoo-ing' gesture to set him on his task. He grinned even more back at her and was off. "Now, we'll need the Matron back on her feet to lead them out, think you can manage that Riggers?"

Riggers's voice was almost gravel. "She's coming around any moment."

"Good" Ms. Welote was already stirring and a quick glance about showed that all of the kids which had been watching had already scurried off to assemble their housemates. She stepped in very close to the waking Matron just in case though. The tone of her whisper was very cold. "Your vocal cords will be swelled as an after-effect so please don't even try to talk. I don't mean for any of these children to be hurt but I will not allow them to remain in this house so if you will kindly walk with my associate here out to the transportation he will find you a nice comfortable spot where you will be safe. If you even so much as try to resist one of the children might get... hurt." Her inflection was subtle but the grogginess in the Matron's eyes fled to be replaced with terror. "Riggers here will see that you are comfortable."

Ghera gave a nod to Riggers who immediately began assisting the still dazed Matron calmly out to the front seat of the waiting transport where she would soon be firmly restrained. That had turned out to be the master-stroke of the whole plan. Any official who just happened to be watching a random city surveillance angle and see a whole Home of children piling into a transport would also see their Matron seated calmly in the passenger's seat as well. Even if the something so austere as the Sentient Equilibrium itself were to follow them by camera a docile Matron in the front seat of a transport full of kids would simply flag as 'field trip' and raise no alarms. There were flaws in the plan, as there were in any plan, but as long as no one paid any special attention to it, and as long as no one spent too much time thinking about where the various transports ended up, they had a window.

Each Head Matron typically reported into their corporate supervisors about once per week and the schedule wasn't too hard to figure out based on com records stolen from that corporation. This particular Home's corporate masters were even more lax and that gave Ghera an entire two weeks before the missing children might be noticed. She'd left a few of her associates in each of the homes she liberated to ensure that they would make their standard check in, just in case things took longer than a few weeks, but for once she'd been thankful to that horrid 'Businessman' for getting her the extra manpower; it meant she had enough bodies to liberate almost double the Houses she'd expected.

By now the various children had begun to gather in the foyer and she counted up a full two more than the house's roster had stated. Ghera shrugged it off, the roster was about a week old anyway and two more with her were just two less minds corrupted overall. She put on her best 'motherly' face. "Good morning ladies and gentleman," Addressing them as adults always seemed to help. "Matron Welote has a very special treat for you all today. We're going on a surprise field trip!" There were hopeful smiles from all but a few of the kids. "Your very kind Matron has already gone out to the transport so if you'll follow Mr. Jesnef here in a nice orderly line we'll get you all out and on our way!"

A few of the kids tried asking where they were going but she twinkled her eye and just said "It's a surprise!" Next there were some who looked at her massive associate and were suddenly timid. "Oh, don't mind him, he's just a massive teddy-bear. I hear he's even ticklish." That elicited a devilish grin from several of the kids and one not so happy scowl from Jesnef, but it seemed to work and the kids began moving towards the door. That was until Ghera noticed one last holdout. A rather lanky and freckled redhead who seemed way too old for such things was practically wrapped about the nanny drone. "Honey, we need to go, all of us." She tried the sweet approach.

The girl only shook her head and managed the start of what could actually be tears. "Not without Mr. Nan-Nan."

Ghera was nearly beside herself and unsure whether to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all or be pissed that this overgrown toddler might actually put up a fuss over a damned nanny drone. It really wasn't worth the effort. "Ok, you can bring... Mr. Nan-Nan, he should fit just fine in the transport." She thought of saying that they wouldn't be able to take the drone into the building they were going to but the last thing Ghera needed right now was to cause a scene on the way out to the transport. The drone, which was entirely traceable, would be a rather large risk and she'd have to find some way to get rid of it or at least deactivate it covertly before they arrived, but the girl seemed to calm a bit and for now it would have to do.

As the last of children, and drone, settled into the transport Ghera took a moment to speak with Rigger. "Zofberger will stay behind as planned but I'd like you to ride with the kids on this one."

Riggers never was very expressive but he manages to raise his eyebrow questioningly. "I thought Jesnef was the 'teddy bear'." Well, she hadn't expected him to be happy about it.

"Sure, but you are the electronics wiz. I need to you reprogram a drone..."


"Mr. Nan-Nan?"

Sophia and Drake were lagging behind the other kids as they walked away from the transport which had just been pulled into a large warehouse.

"Hey, I had to think fast. Would you rather we left it back at the House?"

His face answered the obviously silly question. "You did see her goon slip that deactivation routine in on the transport right?"

Sophia nodded. "But he didn't see me slip in the counter to it a moment later." Drake grinned in response. "The moment he deactivated everything my counter routines kicked in and even counter-hacked his digital signature."

Drake raised an eyebrow in question. "So, I have his access credentials, now anything we do in their system while we're here will look like it was done by one Stanley Rigent."

"Won't they figure that out pretty quick?"

Sophia just grinned. "But if they never see a kid anywhere near an access terminal and even Mr. 'Rigger', who doesn't have an implant by the way, doesn't go near one, they'll have to conclude that he is either lying to them, or perhaps one of the other goons is putting him up for the fall."

Drake still wasn't impressed. "It's still messy."

"We're kids, remember? We do messy."

The other kids ahead of them were already ogling over the large array of second-hand or hastily assembled play structures and game courts which filled all but the initial entrance to the warehouse. Swarms of other children were already at play or just talking together in recently formed little cliques. None of them appeared to be malnourished or uncared for and here or there Sophia could see a large man or woman walking among the kids wearing a grudging smile.

"They look well cared for." Drake was apparently following along her same thoughts.

"Yeah, they do." She found the local network system and used Riggers's credentials to slip in. She didn't want to make too many waves and making any changes at this point might do exactly that, but a few inquiries later and she had a solid schematic of the warehouse as well as at least a rough tally of the kids within it. "They've actually got a decent setup here, if you ignore the caretaker to child ratio that is."

Drake frowned. "So it's a nice hole in the wall prison."

Behind them they saw the young Head Matron being not so gently escorted across and into a secured door. Sophia noticed that Ghera had waited until the new group of kids was too distracted to move her. Sophia glanced away quickly, not wanting to be caught being too curious.

"How do they ever hope to get this many kid out?" Drake's attention was still on the mass of youth in front of them.

"I don't know, but they aren't the primary target, so I'll let you do you and I'll do me." She felt a little cold saying it but ultimately Sophia knew that the greater danger was still hidden somewhere in Origin and if somehow they managed to save all these kids in the process then that would just have to be a bonus. Not for the first time Jemmalyn Droitacopius found that there were some realities of her job that she just simply hated.

Drake nodded as he set about mapping out the social hierarchy and any possible escape plan they might have should everything go south. Meanwhile, Sophia slipped deeper into the network searching for some backdoor that might exist between Ghera's systems and their real target. This was her kind of stealth and she found herself thanking Bee on more than one occasion as she narrowly slipped past one firewall or went around another. She couldn't afford to actually defeat or even degrade any of the current mechanisms in her way; that might alert someone to her presence. Instead she was just beginning her work as she mapped out the digital space around them to match Drake's physical and social space. Her task was likely to take some time so she found a nice corner and pretended to hunker down with her pet drone Mr. Nan-Nan like her life depended on him, which it still could in the end.

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