SUNSWEPT CH14


Chapter 14 "Action and Reaction"

Khonla didn't wait long; only about five revolutions around the wormhole into the sprawling Anoikis cluster. She hadn't even been to the other side yet and while she wasn't exactly eager to go in, at least it would mean the chance to get started scanning. Typical scout responsibilities included actually mapping the route she'd just sold to one of the most powerful corporations in New Eden. But Ezrak Kain's instructions had been specific and between the rock of Pandemonious Horde and the hard place of Kain's masters, she would take the Horde any day. So that meant that for her to have any chance at avoiding the Horde's wrath she would have only mere minutes to locate and find the next wormhole in the chain once she was inside. And she had to admit, at least there would be another wormhole. The pale gray-plum and black ripples of color deep within the center of the wormhole she orbited indicated that it would be a Class 2 wormhole system and one of the defining characteristics of a Class 2 was that it always had at least two active wormholes.

Once something of a cosmic mystery to the people of New Eden, the regular patterns found in otherwise random wormhole eruption and collapse was now actually rather predictable. For example, there were only really six classes of wormhole with Class 1 being generally the least risky and Class 6 being damn near suicide. Further examples of such patterns were that each class seemed to have rather defined metrics for the wormholes which spontaneously generated out of their system to bridge with another random system. Some Anoikis systems had wormholes which favored connections in Highsec while others liked to find specifically Class 5 or Class 3 systems. It wasn't until the first intrepid explorers of New Eden, most of them capsuleers and many of them working for the humanitarian corporations known as the Sisters of Eve, had mapped out more than several dozen that the pattern was discovered. And even then it wasn't until some poor fool stumbled into the previously dormant Sleepers and started comparing their ancient technology to that of the mysterious Jove empire that any connection was drawn.

Suddenly there were conspiracy theorists everywhere desperate to confirm that in fact the Jove had actually built the entire Anoikis cluster somehow. It was fantasy, laughable really. Until the drifters showed up. They had been the missing link in the theory, the answer to 'who but the Jove?' When the great Tyrannos commanders of the Drifter plague generated their very own wormhole, on command, and leapt from their private sanctuary systems out into the very heart of New Eden people finally believed. How did you fight beings who could create wormholes on command? With thousands and thousands of capsuleers apparently. And fought them they did. Some of those capsuleers actually won too.

With the revelation of the Drifter's ability to create such temporal marvels at will there was no longer much question as to Anoikis's synthetic origins. And knowing that she could trust in those patterns and that predictability, Khonla gently drifted out of her orbit and toward the event horizon. She could see the name of the Horde scout appear as one of only five others listed within the local system registry and because she had flagged his corporation to show along with a pale blue "+" icon it was not hard to pick his name out from the others. Even before her orbit began to deteriorate the invite to join his fleet channel relay pinged on her interface. She accepted.

::User KHONLA KEYEVA connects to fleet::

::Good, I'm in warp to you now, you may proceed back into the hole.:: Iknasus Vek

::Sure, but if there are any new signatures in there I might need to scan them down, you know, just for safety.:: Khonla Keyeva

::Whatever; these assholes are slow anyway.:: Iknasus Vek

::Assholes!? Look who's talkin' ya fedoshit!:: Kurvin Mors

::Hey now, we got young innocent type lady-scouts in the channel now, be nice.:: Diff Crack

::Hah!:: Kurvin Mors

::And what's wrong with having lady-bits then you dick?:: Sella Frick

....

Khonla just ignored the rest and let out a mental sigh. Nullsecers... they wouldn't know a manner if it smacked 'em in the teeth. Not that she was some pretty princess either but still. The important part for Khonla was that the rest of the fleet hadn't even fully assembled in Jita yet which meant she'd have time to find the next wormhole in the chain. She'd get to play the role of the '+1' for this fleet now, always one wormhole ahead or one jump ahead of them. The sick part was that eventually they'd catch up and figure out that she was 're-scanning' every system as she went. It would mean that their entire fleet would be waiting for dangerous seconds within each wormhole, completely exposed and with no local system registry to even show who else might be in the system. It was a recipe for death. Maybe that was exactly what Kain or his masters had wanted. Her only hope would be to make sure that somehow she got killed first.

::Khonla, make sure that hole of yours isn't EOL too right?:: Iknasus Vek

Reminding a scout to make sure the next wormhole wasn't 'End of Life' was like telling a fish to swim. It wasn't something she really wanted to let pass though.

::Of course. It wasn't the last time I checked it though.:: Khonla Keyeva

It wasn't exactly a lie. Her Imicus shed its cloak as she moved within 2000 meters of the event horizon and began her approach. It was time to think fast and get to work and as she usually did when entering the fickle Anoikis, she said a silent prayer to the satirical Bob, god of wormholers. There was a bone-vibrating 'wub-wub-wub' as she entered the wormhole.

At first everything seemed quiet. But then the most dangerous moments in a wormhole were exactly when everything only seemed quiet. She used her ship interface to refresh an omni-directional passive scan, generally called a D-scan, and simultaneously added a notation in her navigational array to mark the exact cosmic center of the return wormhole she'd just come out of. Never, ever, ever forget to mark your exit. The mantra recited, it was time to review what her passive sensors had picked up.

What Khonla saw gave her a little pause. The system was pretty clearly inhabited as she could deduce from the signatures of at least three stations protected by active force fields and a single Astrahaus class station. So who ever did live here had an active naval force of some kind. The Astrahaus class was quite new and involved a lot of upgrades over the more common Tower class of stations. Most notably, the Astrahus afforded capsuleers internal docking slips which meant that unless she wanted to warp over to it and run more direct passive scans, she'd have no idea whether it held active capsuleers. Of course, this being wormhole space, she was just as in danger from cloaked ships as from docked ships, and if one of those ships were to undock at least she would see them coming.

Ultimately, the occupants of this particular system were of little concern to her. She had a job to do even if she didn't really know the full intended repercussions of that job. She was about to phase fully out of the disruption fields from her recent wormhole jump which would leave her bare to all other passive sensors. Normally this was where she'd warp out to some planet and begin the task of setting up a safe but she didn't have time for that today. She dropped probes, re-cloaked, then began moving swiftly in a completely different direction. There was no change to her D-scan and she let out another mental sigh of relief. There was always the possibility that the locals might have had a warp disruption ship, an interdictor class of some sort, stealthed on the hole. If they'd had one it wasn't appearing so she sent her probes to work once more.

Owing in part to Khonla's desire to at least try to scan down the next system before the fleet arrived, she ignored all other signatures apart from the single new wormhole that she located. It took a little longer still to fully scan down this one; it must lead to a higher class of wormhole to be so difficult. But she did confirm its location and started pulling in the probes again as she aligned her ship towards the new wormhole's location. A small alert pinged subtly in one of her implants. It was a rather special bit of software and not 100% legal either. It told her that someone had just accessed her CONCORD file. I guess the locals are here after all. Taken out of context, it wasn't an odd thing for someone to want to access the public record of her ship nor any record of recent capsuleer combat she may have been in, however to happen so recently after entering a wormhole left little chance as to who it might have been. It had been because of that tendency for local wormhole corporations to 'look up' an unknown scout that she had spent more than a little isk to purchase the small hack on her public record.

If the locals were watching this hole and not overtly challenging her it couldn't mean good things for any fleet that followed. Again Khonla reminded herself that warning them was decidedly not in Kain's plan and so she sucked it up and hoped, for the sake of the locals as well as the fleet, that whoever lived here would be well and inactive by the time the fleet arrived. The presence of cloaked local forces also meant that she would have to change her plans a little. Part of the mission from Kain also included the sending of a transmission upon arrival. If she were to try to send such broadcast now it might give away her current cloaked position to anyone with even simple triangulation equipment. Wormholers weren't exactly known for flying cheap equipment either. Her timing was going to have to be good.

Khonla's Imicus slipped into warp and then out again as she landed about ten kilometers off of the next wormhole. She took the time to mark the center of this wormhole's event horizon in her nav computer and then made a copy of the coordinates onto a separate drive within a spare container. Now for the hard part. Khonla knew that she was going to have to move ahead and map the next system if she had any hope of extending her little goose hunt long enough to maybe convince the Horde scout that she'd had a route that just went bad. But if the locals were any good at all, she'd likely be destroyed the moment she tried to make transit of the wormhole. Under normal circumstances, she should have just re-cloaked off this wormhole and waited for the fleet who could then warp to her, but if she wasn't even going to be in the system when they got here she had to leave something for their scout to know where the next hole in the chain would be. And she had to send Kain's transmission.

Khonla's Imicus once again dropped cloak and maneuvered into warp, this time headed for exactly 10 meters off of the more remote moons she could find. It was a little strange to her how coordinates in space couldn't translate accurately over relay channels, perhaps it was something in the constantly changing nature of such astrometric large figures but the only way for her to properly communicate any of her own navigational bookmarks would be to load them to a hard disk and then place that hard disk somewhere for Iknasus to find. She reached her destination just beside the heliopause of the barren moon and ejected the small container. She was just going to have to hope that the locals wouldn't notice it.

::Iknasus, I need to peek into the next system to make sure it's clean. Wormhole coordinates are in a can 10km off moon 1 of planet 9. Just in case.:: Khonla Keyeva

::Just in case? I thought you said the system was clean.:: Iknasus Vek

::Can never be too careful right?:: Khonla Keyeva

He didn't respond and she was happy he didn't. She still hoped that she could pull this off. Again her Imicus came out of warp at the wormhole but this time she landed right on top of it. Just as she felt the proximity to the wormhole's distortions she got off her other, more important transmission; Kain's transmission. Then she jumped through the wormhole...

...and straight into hell. The Flycatcher class Interdictor Destroyer was almost right on top of her as she willed her ship not to phase fully from the safety of the wormhole's distortions which hid her exact location. But it didn't really matter. The moment she even moved she'd be in trouble. She assessed her options quickly even as she reflexively marked the return hole in her nav computers. She could try to make a run for it, cloak up and change direction hoping to sneak out right under the destroyer's nose. That wasn't likely to work, he was already getting closer and his inertia alone would damn near bump him into her even if she did cloak before he could target lock her. So that left going back. It was a dangerous proposition in so many, many ways. She'd incur a polarization timer, meaning she would not be able to try jumping back through again; essentially she'd be stuck back in the original system. But her frigate would jump faster than the destroyer and that meant a few extra seconds to try to get into warp before he came out of the wormhole and targeted her. The other danger, and one she thought might be even worse, was that any single thing she uttered to the fleet from this point out was going to have to be a complete lie. Kain had been very graphic as to precisely what would happen to Khonla's mother if she so much as hinted at danger to the rest of her adopted fleet. It was still the best option.

It took only a millisecond for Khonla's Imicus to swing about even as it slipped out of the concealing discharge from the wormhole. The Destroyer reacted immediately. But rather than increasing speed towards her it also swung quickly on its axis. They were both still inside the massive warp disruption field which the Flycatcher's probe was emitting, so he couldn't warp anywhere... that meant he knew she was going back for the hole and he was going to try to jump first. If her reaction time had been even a fraction faster she could have switched back to option one and had a chance. But it wasn't. The Flycatcher hit the event horizon moments before she did and by the time she emerged on the other side the Flycatcher already had a warp bubble up. Her only chance left was to try to sneak away.

But this time the destroyer had come out entirely on the other side of the wormhole from her and pointing in the opposite direction. She had a chance! Khonla blasted her drives up to full and had the cloak been activated by a button on a console she would have demolished the entire console. Her propulsion boosters kicked in and like a missile she started shooting outward from the bubble and cloaking at the same time. She didn't even look to see if the destroyer was following but instead immediately realigned towards the most recent spot she had in her nav computer; that barren moon. She was still in the bubble and unable to enter warp yet so she had a moment to look for the Flycatcher. Her juke had worked! He was making fast for the course she'd just been on and with any luck he'd deploy the third and final disruptions probe in his launcher in the wrong direction. She quickly checked her D-scan and found only the Flycatcher on it. Good. She'd need some place to jump off of in order to set up a safe; a random spot in the system not directly between any major planetary traffic lanes. Her Imicus glided past the edge of the warp bubble and she dropped cloak then punched it into warp along the same trajectory she currently held. This time she set the jump to bring her out of warp right at 100km from the same moon. She checked D-scan one more time and found only the Flycatcher again. Khonla even took the time to narrow and angle the passive scanner to cover only the area she was coming from; yep, the destroyer was still hunting for her back at the wormhole. Then she swung the scanners about and pointed them directly forward. Nada. She'd make it. For just a moment she wondered if that was a good thing.

Then she landed out of warp, right on top of a Huginn Class Cruiser. Force recon cruisers, of which the Huginn was one, had that infernal ability to evade passive sensors. She'd never seen it coming and whoever was flying it had guessed her next move too damn well. Because the Huginn was no good for cloaking and never appeared on passive D-scan it could just sit there like a hole in space. But it wasn't cloaked witch meant that anything which got within 2500 meters of it would start reflecting its emissions and be unable to cloak. Khonla's Imicus was now 2152 meters from the Huginn. She tried to run, to reengage her engines and booster and get out but this Huginn was built for hunting slippery frigates and she didn't even realign before it had her targeted and destroyed. As her pod ejected from the ship which burst apart around her she could already sense fate closing in. There was no point in asking ransom, she had nothing with which to pay anyway. And maybe this way she'd be able to find another life before the Horde scout realized she wasn't even in the wormhole anymore. The blinding flash of light came a few moments later and soon she was waking up once more back in the cloning facilities of the Jita system's largest trade center.

::How's that other hole look, anything EOL yet?:: Iknasus Vek

Khonla wished she could die, really die this time.

::Looks great! But I might as well leave a can in here too and keep hunting down chain to be sure.:: Khonla Keyeva


Streya's Huginn finished looting and space-dusting the wreck of the Imicus before she moved back over to the innocuous container. It didn't take much to open but once she did all Streya found was a single data storage device which contained only the coordinates of Origin's current Class 4 wormhole. This was a proverbial breadcrumb and it meant more ships would soon be on their way. It was time to prepare for what might be coming to retrieve the wayward breadcrumb.

*******


Coordinator Relay 1932 hours:

::I have confirmation that the Imicus was indeed the source of the signal.:: Xepharious Wryn

::I think that we can expect Curren's 'distraction' at any time within the next few hours. Do we have any indication as to what that distraction will be?:: Saede Riordan

::The navigational marks found in the canister would imply a fleet is soon to follow, wouldn't you agree?:: Streya Jormagdnir

::That does make sense.:: Saede Riordan

::I think we can also narrow down the timing of the incursion to match with how long it would take to transport a few dozen children from Renaissance's surface to the space docks in orbit.:: Xepharious Wryn

::Is it wise to operate on Ghera's assumptions?::Saede Riordan

::Perhaps not, but I think we are safe within a certain margin of error. And further communication from our operatives still embedded within her system can give us a running update if needed.::Xepharious Wryn

::Hmm, yes. That will be a useful asset. Are you sure that they are sufficiently protected in their cover, we've noticed a distinct lack of officer backup in the area of your operations Sub-Coordinator.:: Saede Riordan

::Acknowledged Coordinator; however, given Ghera's current access to local systems it seemed unwise to move any assets within what I considered her awareness envelope to be. Also, if she were to detect any response from us, she may abandon her current plans and either leave too early for us to gage Curren's timing or worse, she may do something... reckless.:: Xepharious Wryn

::Very well.:: Saede Riordan

::I have great faith in my operative, however their current continued operations on planet mean that I must find another to confront Curren when the time comes.:: Xephairous Wryn

::If he is to be where you expect, only a member of Alexylva Paradox would have clearance anyway. Unfortunately, I think we may have need of every capsuleer we can muster should a large enough fleet come through that wormhole.:: Streya Jormagdnir

::Then it will have to be me.:: Xepharous Wryn

::I don't like the idea of losing you from the battle Xeph.:: Streya Jormagdnir

::Perhaps the true battle will be waged within.:: Xepharious Wryn

::Perhaps. Very well, proceed Sub-Coordinator, and good luck.:: Streya Jormagdnir

::You too.:: Xepharious Wryn

Xeph didn't leave the channel but simply turned his attention elsewhere. A quick survey of his ship's internal systems showed the three kids within to remain very much the same as earlier; bored. He wasn't about to take this ship and those kids out into harm's way so he'd need to leave them here. He arranged for the ship's power and systems to remain active but idle and then initiated the process of removing his pod from the Angel's Song. Despite his previous actions the ship still seemed to dim as an orifice beside his capsule opened a channel directly out of the hull. The tractor beam quickly filled that channel and began extracting his pod as well as him along with it. He thought of sending Bee some sort of communication that he was leaving and they were to stay here and stay safe, but he decided against it. Bee would certainly notice the change in the ship's status without her capsuleer and xe'd be smart enough to know that he would have told them to leave the ship if that had been his intentions.

Xeph quickly reviewed his options and selected one of the few ships he still had docked within what was left of the old Indigo City. Putting aside a moment of nostalgia he sent the command ahead to begin preparing his Manticore class stealth bomber for flight. He did indeed know exactly where Curren was going now and he'd need the ships stealthy profile and cloaking to ensure that he got there first.

*******


It was time. 'The Businessman' smiled slowly to himself despite the relatively cramped salvage drone in which he currently hid. It wasn't the best idea he'd ever come up with, but it had worked. His ideas were taking on a rather disturbing pattern of involving tiny spaces he noted and he reminded himself to consider something a bit more planet-bound and open-spaces for his much earned respite. But that would come after he got back what was his.

Jettisoning himself to be tractored in by the Mammoth class hauler just before it transitioned back into Origin had been about the riskiest thing he'd ever done and not the least of which because any one of a thousand stray laser blasts from the Blood Raider frigates could have vaporized him. It had been a relatively easy thing for him to send Kain to pay off a raider patrol and give them the flight plan for the Mammoth. They hadn't been at all happy about the stipulation that they could only harass the hauler and not capture it, but when he'd offered them whatever was left of the richly appointed diplomatic shuttle instead they were willing to take the deal. The transfer had worked though and once back in Origin he'd entirely cleared his tail. Anyone who might have been onto him before would know him to be either dead or at least lost outside of the system and no longer a threat. The second part of that plan hadn't worked entirely though. The diplomatic shuttle as well as that rat Jallif had somehow managed to survive the Blood Raider pirates. It would have been inestimably better had Ghera lost her only chance at leaving and that fedo'd Jallif had a knack for messing up plans out of sheer damned bad luck. It didn't really matter anymore anyway. Soon he'd have the knowledge he'd come for and when he had it, he wouldn't need a ship to escape. And he'd be leaving with much more than he'd come in with too.

He shifted his cramped muscles and pulled out the datapad he'd stashed to the side of him. The drone that he was masquerading as obviously had no need for exterior view ports so he used the datapad linked, as it was into the drone's systems, to 'see' outside him. He was still nestled within one of the spare garages attached to one of the larger construction gantries. He'd chosen this particular drone and this particular gantry for a reason. Most importantly, this gantry had just been shipped in about that very same Mammoth thus giving him access to it. But also of importance; whoever was managing the dismantling of the old Indigo City station believed in Just In Time project methodology. And that meant that this particular gantry with these particular salvage drones wasn't planned for use until the very last stage of dismantling. Sure, the drone had been inspected, but he'd paid a LOT of isk, more than what had gone to the Blood Raiders, to ensure that this particular drone was equipped with the latest in counter-espionage software and that it would somehow end up on exactly the correct transport. So he sat, uncomfortable in posture but comfortable in the safe knowledge that he was finally so close. And it was time.

Roger Dean Curren, as he was known to some, twisted his smile into a sneer as he hacked into the gantry's override systems and released his own drone into space. His infiltration of The Cradle would be noticed but due in part to its remote position, sequestered within a 12000 meter no-fly zone in the most remote part of Indigo City's force field, it would take too long for anyone to reach him once the no-fly proximity alarms were sounded. But he wasn't one for leaving that up to chance. He knew that he had about a two hour head start and he needed to establish his drone as standard traffic if he hoped to get anywhere near that no-fly zone by the time his little 'distraction' arrived. So he manually piloted the clumsy drone over to join a few others which were already methodically tearing apart the last vestiges of Indigo City's detached outer hull. He'd make a few trips moving some of the larger sections to and from the materials holding zone on the other side of the spherical territory within the force field but more importantly his trips would take him right past the edge of the no-fly zone several times. So when those incompetent Nullseccers finally did make their entrance he'd have all the cover possible to just veer off his route and right toward his final objective.

*******


It obviously wasn't the first time or manner in which Ghera had found this system's culture appalling but that it was such a flagrant thing never ceased to infuriate her. The fact that it was also such a stupidly pointless thing only made it more annoying. When she and her crew had moved into their current repurposed warehouse the facility had come complete with four separate restrooms two of which also functioned as washrooms with fully installed refresher chambers. It hadn't been hard to impose a strict division between genders amongst her crew. Most of them had spent enough time outside of Origin and among more civilized societies that they were only too happy to comply with the separate facilities. But every attempt she'd made to impose the same norms upon the children had failed utterly. The first time she'd tried, half of them didn't even know what the 'men's' or 'women's' symbol meant and those that did flat out didn't care. Sure, there were a few, likely more recent refugees to Origin, who gave the signs pause. But they were quickly chided by the others. Especially when faced with ridicule, all of the children were far more interested in showering or visiting the waste facilities with their friends and the idea of 'his' and 'hers' never entered their mind. Future attempts were still met with indifference and in both attempts she'd had to give up rather than provoke a situation where she might have to bring anything close to physical violence against the children; and that was something that she would never do. Sure she wanted to rescue these children, and yes it was almost absurdly silly for her to even care that much about this, but something in her just couldn't fathom such a barbaric custom, even though part of her knew it existed in other parts of Gallente culture. Also, she had the time to kill.

It was on this particular waste of her time that Ghera was pondering when the silent alarm she had set up went off. The scout had arrived and the clock had started. Ghera jumped up from her chair, startling the other two gentlemen in the room. "It's time. Go round 'em up!" She smiled with mock warmth as her chief-most associates quickly found their feet as well and made for the room's exit. Rather than follow them, Ghera moved to the walkway which wrapped about the main office which had become her base of operations. The walkway afforded her a good view of the many playing kids below and she simply folder her arms to watch as her associates gathered their teammates and started moving swiftly out onto the main floor.


Sophia's communications implant chimed at her causing her to jump suddenly. She thanked Bob that she'd been at the washstand and not out in the warehouse among the other kids where such a sudden jump might have drawn attention. Sophia placed her hands through the moleculizer to sanitize them and used the motion to look around for anyone else who might also be in the restroom. A few of the older kids were using the refresher room but they were too far away to hear or see her and she could still hear Drake taking his time in one of the stalls. "Hey, would ya hurry up in there?"

"Nope... my time. You go play jokes on your pet drone or something." His retort was muffled by the opaque barriers which also functioned as atomizers. Their invention had been hailed as one of the universe's 'life changing products' mere moments after the first had been installed many, many years ago. They let sound and some light through but the idea of 'restroom stench' was almost a forgotten thing.

Normally she would have been more than happy to rise to his jibe but they hadn't the time now. "I'll rephrase." She paused for effect; perhaps a little joking was ok. "It's time."

That got his attention quick. The waste receptacle 'ka-chunked' and she heard hurried sounds of Drake redressing even as the stall barriers de-materialized. "You could have said that first."

"Yeah, but where's the fun in that?" She grinned and walked quickly ahead of him and out of the restroom to her faithful 'pet' drone while Drake was only a few steps behind having stopped to use the washstand himself first.

Sophia could already see Ghera's minions gathering up in the locker room which prefaced the stairs leading up to the warehouse's office. She quickly averted her visual sweep as she saw Ghera step out onto the walkway to oversee the roundup of all the kids. As yet neither Sophia nor Drake had managed to puzzle out exactly how Ghera hoped to get this many kids past the spaceport security. Drake had suggested that she might try to pack them all in crates and while Sophia had severe doubts about such a thing working, what little she had learned from Ghera's files also spoke of someone who actually thought they were doing right by these kids. So forced mass shipping didn't fit that. The only method left was stasis of some kind which didn't bode well. It was theoretically possible to use some sort of stasis crate to hold them all in a suspended state. Food was shipped in such methods so obtaining such a crate wouldn't be hard. It might create some issues for Drake and Sophia though who had only minimal options for such a fate. And those minimal options all lay within the software package tucked safely inside her nanny drone. Should the drone be placed into stasis for any reason it was set to trigger a sort of anti-stasis field around it and anything within about a half-meter. So assuming she and Drake stayed together with the drone between them they'd at least be alert and able to start finding a way to disable the container.

The goons were making their way onto the floor and spreading out to encompass the kids. The smartest of them made straight for the small cadre of 'bullies' which sat in their typical reigning spot at the highest, most central point of the play structures. No doubt they'd be finding some simplistic way to bribe cooperation from the reigning 'kings of the playground'. Sophia hated the way in which Ghera was playing politics with children but she had to admit that it was working. The most damage any of the kids might do to one of their own was nothing compared to how much damage one of the adult goons could accidentally do and if using those politics kept the kids policing themselves, there was far less chance for the sort of tantrums or childlike stupidity which might get someone truly hurt or worse.

The bribe must have worked because no sooner had the goons stepped away chief-most of the 'bully kings' stood up and started shouting for everyone to shut up and listen.

"Right! All of ya need to line up and get ready to move. They are going to take us out for a treat an' anyone who puts up a fuss gets left behind!" Well that was a load of crap. "Everyone go one at a time through that door in there and do what the big guys tell ya." The lanky boy who'd started marshalling the crowd made his way quickly off his little hill and his stride took him right to the front of the line leading into the locker area and to a door further within and beside the stairs upward. The glare he gave anyone who dared get in his way was enough to earn him first pick of whatever that 'treat' might be.

Sophia and Drake found a spot somewhere about middle of the line. With all of the kids finally in an orderly line Sophia was able to get a more specific count of the 34 odd children which Ghera had managed to snatch. It wasn't an incredibly large sum, but it was still more than just a few. The line started moving and up ahead Sophia could see that the door they were moving through led into a sort of enclosed walkway between buildings. That made sense, however they planned to move all the kids, it had to be housed in whatever other warehouse they were moving into. She stayed close to her drone and did her best to reinforce the image of a scared little girl.

The walkway didn't take long to traverse and soon the kids were spilling out into the next facility. Sophia could see Ghera and the last of her associates following them into the tunnel. She'd considered trying to call in the cavalry and put a stop to everything right now but the rest of Curren's trap was still out there, a deadfall waiting to be sprung and any extra bit of information that she might eek out of this, even from within a stasis container, could help Origin's defense. She was covertly trying to watch Ghera's face behind her and so wasn't looking forward when she heard Drake's sudden expletive.

"Well shit."

Sophia spun her head around to see what had suddenly caused Drake to stop in his tracks and swear. Clone Stasis Pods, a whole pile of em. Now it was her turn to swear.

"How do you want to play it?" Drake's voice was calm as ever but she could hear the hint of worry within it. Suddenly her mind was flying back to the training scenario where she'd been so triumphant as she watched H'Aki stuff a struggling Drake into such a pod aboard BubbleBait. Yet somehow it had completely slipped her mind that she might be actually faced with such a fate herself. They'd never expected to still be undercover by this point and so while the nanny drone did have programming to deal with stasis in the event that she and Drake had been smuggled in such way between Home and Warehouse, little planning had gone into all of the ways to smuggle someone off planet. And they fedo-well should have seen this coming too.

Clone Stasis Pods weren't exactly hard to obtain though they weren't cheap. In a universe where capsuleer clones were created, shipped, and sold as commodities, the industry needed a viable way to transport such wares without any sort of damage coming to them. The answer was the CSP. Oh, it had many other names, some more branded than others, but the concept was the same. A standardized self-contained unit just large enough to fit a single body and with enough power and redundancies to survive floating in space for considerable periods of time.

But right now it was the amount of space on the inside which brought just a hint of fear to Sophia and Drake. The nanny drone wasn't going to fit in there with either of them. And they would be separated too. Playing along was no longer an option and they were going to have to move fast if they had any hope of surviving, alerting back-up, or preventing any of these other kids from being hurt. "Jig is up I guess. I'll initiate the drone." Sophie swung about and spoke aloud, "Three Pushes."

Many things happened very suddenly such that anyone who had happened to be watching would have had a hard time understanding their actual order. Deep within the processor of Sophia's pet nanny drone several different scripts came to life and began battling one another. Strongest among them was the primary piece of software which 'heard' its activation code and immediately began trying to rewrite the drone's entire operating system. As soon as it did, Rigger's code kicked in. This bit of programming wasn't as robust and it certainly wasn't built to cover the full expanse of what the rewrite code was trying to do, but it's more focused nature also made it more effective. Detailed to prevent any offensive action of any kind on top of having already, supposedly, having gutted the nanny drone's operating system save for its movement, Rigger's code immediately recognized the activation of a small weapons compartment concealed within the drone's chassis. The original nanny drone programming had never been aware of such a compartment, and indeed it had been covertly added while in route between Homes such that Rigger's original code hadn't detected it. But Rigger hadn't gotten his nickname from being lazy and now the backups in his code kicked in and instantly and permanently sealed the compartment from opening. Sophia's code package had no way of unsealing the compartment and hadn't been given parameters for combating a coded counter-attack so it simply threw an error and kept right on with the rest of its reprogramming. Rigger's code did actually attempt to stall or prevent the reprogramming but as good as Rigger was, Sophia's code had ultimately been too thorough otherwise. Each attempt that Riggers code made to prevent the rewrite, Sophia's code simply identified as the original programming trying to reassert itself. The end result was that with the exception of the weapons compartment and the activation of one or two clearly offensive subroutines, Nan-Nan the drone ceased being a nanny drone and suddenly became a very light combat drone.

There was, however, an entirely separate bit of code which suddenly asserted itself as well. This code found no conflict with either of the other two pieces of code and so if code could have been said to have sat and watched anything, that was what this code did. It acknowledged the takeover of the combat subroutines and the suppression of a few of them. It recorded the error in the weapons compartment as well as everything else that was happening within the drone. And then, just before the rewrite found and erased its code, that little program of Bee's took full control of the drones sensory package and audio capabilities and for the first time in a long while Nan-Nan spoke, "Do you want some milk?"

The face which Nan-Nan's video sensors recorded from Sophia was one of utter shock, confusion, disbelief, and odd muscle contortion. The audio and sensory shanghai didn't last long, only enough time for a snapshot which also happen to show the CSPs in the background. Then the entire program shifted everything it had to capturing the drones transmission hardware. Bee's code shot off a high-priority burst transmission aimed at just about everything at once and containing absolutely no subtlety at all. Bee hadn't known exactly where xe'd be when the trap was triggered so xe'd compensated but making sure the signal went everywhere. It was the last act of a doomed code and just as soon as the signal was sent Sophia's programming took full control of Nan-Nan the Battle Bot.


"Ghera, something is transmitting in here!"

She whirled about to see the sneer on Rigger's face. "Must be that fedo'd nanny drone! Deal with it."

Ghera watched as both Rigger and Jesnef firmly moved the last in line of the children aside and descended upon two of the children who, for some bizarre reason had taken up fighting stances in defense of the infernal drone. The boy, girl, and drone fought, and they fought well too, but in the end Rigger's swiftness and Jesnef's mass were just enough to hold the two kids and machine at bay until more of her associates could arrive. The moment they had the two children subdued Riggers turned and put three rounds of blaster fire right through the drones central processor and it crashed to the floor.

The rest of the children stood in shock, unsure what to do next. Ghera, at least, knew what she had to do. That transmission could have been anything and with the way those two kids had fought, chances were that the authorities knew where she was and would be along very quickly. Her nice and easy plan to load the kids up went right out of the airlock. She turned to the two associates who had stayed back from the skirmish and nodded. They nodded back, then each pulled stun batons set on low from their sides. Securing the rest of the kids ended up looking more like an attempt at herding cats, and Ghera spent every second of it cursing both her need to use such barbaric force as well as herself for being willing to use it. But it was over quickly and soon after each and every kid was securely loaded with strong vitals into their own pod. 'Nan-Nan the Battle Bot' lay in oozing shattered pieces on the floor.


Many kilometers away, tucked safely into an orbiting station, Nan-Nan's message was being decoded by the only receiver programmed to actually understand it. Once decoded, the receiving implant imparted all it had learned directly to its owner. Bee gasped and dropped the game cards xe'd been holding.

"Sophia's in trouble; they both are." The other two looked quickly up from their own cards as they registered what Bee had said.

Kip was the first to respond. "Do you know where they are?"

Bee shook xer head. "No, the signal had to bounce off of a separate receiver just to get out of the shielding so I'm still trying to triangulate." They were all standing up now as though getting ready for action. There was a pause though before Bee's eyes got suddenly wide. "Got it, an old rented warehouse, and a ground to atmo. transport just took off from there too!"

"Where is it heading!?" H'Aki was already stepping over to the side of the room where the three of them had stored the rest of their gear from the previous day's exercise.

Bee continued to sift through the data streaming into xer implant but xe noticed H'Aki and Kip moving to gather their things and xe shook xer head. "You know we can't right? We have to stay here. It's too dangerous."

Kip said nothing but his face was a mix of resistance to the idea and acceptance that Bee might be right. H'Aki damn near shouted. "Of course we can! That what we were trained for right?"

"No, that's what Drake and Sophia were trained for! We're just kids remember?" Bee didn't raise xer voice but the enunciation which xe put into it went a long way to making xer point.

H'Aki began to deflate just a little. She'd come to realize that Bee's logic was never off and if xe thought it was too risky, then it likely was. Still she couldn't just give up. "Ok, well at least let's find out where they are going and then we can alert the Sub-Coordinator or something."

Bee relaxed and reviewed the transport's route. "The station; here. That transport doesn't have warp capabilities so they must be trying to dock with a ship. Let me see which hatch they are filed for."

In the few moments that it took Bee to search, H'Aki had left Kip still sitting deflated on the pile of gear and had wandered back over to stand beside Bee.

"That's strange. They are filed to dock at hatch C5, but there is already a ship still docked there."

H'Aki gave Bee an odd look but Bee didn't notice, xe was already searching for an answer to the mystery. "It's a diplomatic courier vessel and it sure hasn't filed to... Oh, there it is. The courier just sent an emergency request for departure." Bee was still finding more data so H'Aki just waited. "With how quickly the transport is coming in, even if they fired everything up now, that courier shuttle won't be able to detach in time."

"What are they planning to do, crash right through the courier then?"

Bee shook xer head slowly at H'Aki. "No, but they could dock directly with it."

"And bypass customs entirely!" The realization hit H'Aki like a sack of steel as the standard planetary departure process she'd read so many times from one of her manuals flared through her mind.

"I better get this to the Sub-Coordinator, now." Bee started searching desperately through the public directories for any mention of Sub-Coordinator Wryn's com address. Xe was just about to start trying to hack into the private directories for a try when H'Aki's hand touched xer shoulder.

"Um, Bee? Where's Kip?"

********