SUNSWEPT CH6B


Phedrick and Jemmie once more found themselves sitting opposite their enigmatic client in his comfortably lit anachronistic office. The morning had seen the completion of the first phase of their new task. Jemmie was still sporting bruises from her participation in the retrieval of not just Bee3 but other members of the team as well and Phedrick still wore the triumphant smirk of detective work that had borne fruit.

"Congratulations and well managed." Xeph leaned back in his chair and placed one ankle up on the other knee in his classically relaxed manner. "Now we get to the real work." He mentally activated a summons to the two techs waiting in the hall.

Jemmie was the first to respond, "Sir?"

"Both of you will be preparing for your insertion soon but I wanted to give you a chance to meet the techs who will be working with our team in your absence." Two techs dressed in medically influenced military fatigues stepped into the office from the hall. They came to parade rest just as the door closed. "Lt. Gein, and Field Tech Droitacopius, allow me to introduce Anki and Leth." Both agents stood and turned to greet the two newcomers with a handshake each. "Both have been fully briefed on what's ahead and following this meeting I expect the four of you to find some time before tomorrow to review the particular scientific details of the training phase, understood?" He leveled his best no-nonsense look at each of them.

Phedrick couldn't help but realize the trust implicit in giving himself and Jemmie full control over the final details in preparation for the training phase, nor that giving up such control was clearly not in their client's usual style. He nodded his assent along with the other three.

"Good, a few updates before we all depart then." Without sufficient chairs to go around, Phedrick chose to remain standing as Jemmie retook her seat. Xeph simply continued; "The insurgents' cell has been apparently silent since the launch incident and we can't wait any longer to get you two undercover. As such, I'm afraid you'll only have tomorrow to prepare before we initiate the process the day after, rather than the week we had expected." This was a pretty big time escalation in Phedrick's opinion but he stayed quiet. "Bee3's initial onboarding is progressing admirably especially with the addition of even one member of the team." Xeph nodded to Jemmie who had been responsible for securing both assets. "We anticipate inclusion of the rest of the team by the end of the week for sure." Xeph and the two techs exchanged nods in confirmation of the target date.

The capsuleer made eye contact with each of them before making his next point. "Let's be very clear here folks, this whole mission is based on what little intel we have on just a few members of this insurgent cell. We're banking a lot on very little and by the end of this we are all going to have to be prepared to be very flexible and quick on our feet. It is for that reason that we are pushing these limits and for the safety and future of Origin that we are even here. We cannot fail, and so I'm putting a lot of operational control in each of your hands. Use it, use it intelligently." The round of acknowledgement that followed solidified the mood of the room and Phedrick felt the full weight of the task ahead settling onto their shoulders. It was game time.

"Now, if you'll excuse me I have one last member to retrieve from Renaissance before we can initiate training. Thank you ladies and gentlemen." As Phedrick, Jemmie, and the two techs each made their way for the door to the hallway Xeph sat forward in his chair and pondered what he was about to put in motion.

*******


Consciousness returned slowly and not without some discomfort as Kip rolled to his side and discovered that he was un-bound on some sort of cot. The grogginess persisted despite his sudden adrenaline rush and he tried to expand his awareness of the current surroundings to take in the rather Spartan naval cabin in which he was sitting. Another figure, a woman dressed in the uniform of some sort of private security, sat in the sort of relaxed position he had seen military types use that looked anything but relaxed. Her bench was at the far end of the cabin and she was watching him out of the corner of her eye. So, they hadn't bound him, and there didn't seem to be any sort of bars or energy field keeping him in... clearly he was missing something. Without turning to face him the woman spoke; "We are in route to Icarus. Just sit tight, there is some water in the tap beside your bunk if ya need it."

In route.... In a ship! To Icarus... Station!? Many thoughts, too many, tried to rush through his head and he was forced to halt his attempts to sit up just to catch his bearings. He was in a ship, on the way to a space station that was rumored to be about to fall up into the sun! Though, how something could fall up never made sense to him. Nevermind that, he was on a ship... "What about sleepers... Empire Pirates... Drifters! And wait, I'm not going to confinement?"

"Nope, Coordinator Xepharious's got a proposition for ya I think." This time she did turn to look at him. Her features were hard but there was at least some emotion behind her eyes that wasn't altogether unkind. He'd survived by reading people's intentions in their eyes and hers gave no indication of harming him.

He managed a sitting position and rubbed the remaining grogginess from his face. "Who's Xephoricus?"

"I am" The ship itself seemed to resonate with the voice yet it was a simple speaker central to the ceiling that he deduced as the real source. "Sit tight, we'll be docking shortly and then I'll answer any question you have."

A few minutes and a drink of filtered water later he could feel the ship leaving warp, a shuddering, uneasy feeling. The woman began to move efficiently about the room as though preparing to leave but he just sat on the bunk, unsure what to do next. He'd been in many, many dangerous situations and in absolutely none of them had anyone been nice to him, given him water, or given him freedom to even stand and move as he wished. This must be what real danger is. He'd used the time in silence to try to figure what sort of ship he was in. It was too well kept to be a true working ship, not a transport of some kind yet he could tell by the small bit of the cavernous cargo bay just opposite his cabin that the ship was built for moving at least something massive. A sort of black, deep blue, and silver finish also spoke to the less routine use of the ship. Maybe if he'd ever been in a ship before he could have figured more about the class or make. Ultimately he was forced to just ask; "Is this a transport of some kind?"

The woman actually broke her stern fa├žade and giggled. He was so stunned he almost missed her response. "Not unless you count transporting more drones than I care to number, no. The Angel's Wrath is a Stratios class cruiser, so no worries about those pirates or sleepers you were talking of earlier."

He had no idea what she was talking about but she seemed satisfied with the explanation so he decided now was not a good time to show his ignorance or confound himself with further questions. If she wasn't worried, clearly he had no need to be... from pirates or sleepers anyway. "And drifters?"

Her face went instantly serious again, a look that belied the true concern behind her words. "Well, we are cloaked, and still in Origin. So no; no worries about them either." She had finished whatever preparations she'd been doing and now turned to him. "Come on, we're docking now and you'll need to be outta here quick if we hope to make the Sub-Coordinator's schedule."

They were docking? He couldn't feel even a bump. Oh yeah, ships were supposed to have some sort of device that fixes that, inertial something-or-others. But why the rough ride out of warp then he wondered. This and many other questions added to the pile of things he didn't possibly have time to ask as he let himself be shepherded down a short corridor and out a docking hatch onto a sort of floating deck. No sooner had the two of them boarded along with what seemed like a pitifully small crew for anything called a 'cruiser', than the floating deck began moving laterally from the Angel's Wrath. The sheer size of the docking bay itself was so massive that he was forced to turn back and find reference in the ship as it moved away. As more and more of the Stratios revealed her stark curves and deep blue armoring Kip reached back into his memory and found that no holo-net image or fleet propaganda ads could compare to the real thing. Once clear of the length of the ship, their platform began to rotate around and bring the nose of the ship to bear. He'd never much cared for space before, but to see such a predator, and there was no mistaking the Angel's Wrath for anything but a predator even if he had no idea what the eight glowing little chevrons on her nose were, it was the kind of thing he imagined would stick with him for a while. He even forgot for just a few moments that he was in that deep, deep sort of danger.

The platform began to drift further away from the ship and descend slightly. He once more willed himself to look ahead into the expanse of the dock and saw that they were moving pointedly for a section of structure marked for embarking and disembarking. He could make out hundreds of various techs and crew moving about the various levels of the dock, as well as in and out of the tunnels and corridors leading further into the station on all sides. The trip to just the single platform ring they were moving for was likely to take some time so he continued his scan of the dock. Small craft and drones whirred about in indicated traffic lanes and beyond them as the workers of the station went about their duties. One such craft whizzed right over their descending platform and his eyes followed it back toward the Angel's Wrath and over it. Even from this distance, the cruiser still filled his vision but he could finally get a full look at her. She seemed almost small now within the cavernous dock. What would the ship that filled this dock look like? He watched as a strange blue egg shaped pod floated out from a tiny access hatch in the central hull. The small object, and looking from his vantage point that pod was miniscule compared to the cruiser, was clearly held aloft by some sort of energy beam which was swiftly retracting it out away from the ship and then pushing it with what must be immense speed toward yet another small opening in the walls of the dock. As the capsule disappeared from sight the whole of the Angel's Wrath seemed to dim, almost as though it's very life and essence had just departed with that tiny egg. Even in her resting state she was still something of awe; something truly angelic even? An alarm alerted him back to face forward and he realized that he'd once more been staring longer than he thought; they'd nearly arrived at the massive docking platform. The crew about him were still joking with one another and the woman, clearly his escort at least, was standing just beside him and pointing at one of the many massive corridor entrances off to his left. "-ing through that corridor to the upper concourse." The look on her face indicated that she was waiting for at least an acknowledgement that he understood so he paused in his survey of the docks just long enough to nod. She smirked and tactfully returned his nod in kind. A rattling thunk heralded their arrival on the docking concourse and the pair waited for the rest of the crew to step off the hover platform before disembarking themselves.

There were people everywhere. What had been no more than specks from his initial view at the edge of the ship had become a throng of humanity as the two of them worked their way through the masses. It took nearly fifteen whole minutes just to make their way on foot to their target corridor. During that time Kip watched as both people and cargo flew by overhead on trolley after barge. Too bad they couldn't rate using one of those huh? And she had mentioned an entire additional concourse they were heading for...

Kip was beginning to fear that they'd be walking the length and breadth of the station, something he was physically up for but doubted his sense of self and scale could manage, when they finally arrived at the corridor and his escort finally spoke again. "We're going to hop into that tram over there, see the one?"

Beyond a short line that had only just formed, a large multi-car tram was settling into a temporary park with flashing lights alerting everyone to its soon to open doors. Wordlessly he followed her to the back of the line which was already starting to move. He spared one last look about the dock and tried to imagine just how much of New Hyjn city could actually fit into a station which housed docks that could hold a cubed city block each. A part of him retreated inward, overwhelmed by so much so sudden and he took his seat in the tram-car beside the woman. He still didn't even know her name and that only seemed to alienate her further from him. For only the second time in his short life Kip finally felt completely and utterly helpless and his hand reflexively went to his scar, just to touch it and the nanostraw it hid, if only for the mere sense of comfort it might give him. The tram engaged and began to accelerate into the city.

Through kilometers of corridor and out into large open plazas they flew. Their tram stopped only a few times but by the third massive public plaza Kip had lost all hope of trying to map their route through the station. It didn't help that the tram also had inertial 'thingies' as well. At one point he was pretty sure they had even been speeding upside down relative to a multi-story shopping plaza, but just for a split second before they were once more enveloped by a tunnel. Just before the fifth stop the woman came to her feet and indicated that he was to do the same. He could tell by looking through the windows at the blur of lights flashing by that they were slowing despite the complete lack of deceleration felt inside the car. He'd seen these kind of trams in New Hyjn but he'd never had the credits necessary to board one nor the great desire to get nabbed by the officials which patrolled them diligently. He'd often fantasized about trying to slip a skimdisc into one of the robotic conductor's credit readers but as those conductors never left the tram cars it was never more than a wistful kid's daydream. He looked about for such a conductor, sure that his escort would have to scan her credit before leaving but he couldn't see even evidence of one. Not one passenger so much as had their hands on their credit chips. The idea that nearly every passenger on the tram had already paid, that his escort had already paid for the both of them via her implant couldn't even occur to him. His confusion was cut short yet again as the tram came to its full stop and he and his nameless escort stepped from the tram and onto a luxurious platform. A soft artificial breeze smelling softly of some sort of plant drifted on the air and brought with it a sort of calming feel. Or at least it would have if Kip hadn't already been so utterly tense and exhausted by the whole trip.

They walked through the central arch of the platform and out into a wide corridor. A few turns later and finally Kip and his companion came to their destination. The door seemed nothing special and only a number above the security panel to the right of the door gave any indication of what was within. The woman palmed the door pad and moments later the door opened.

Kip stepped into the room and almost shielded his eyes. A distinctly medical feel and aesthetic permeated the room. Neatly arrayed electronics and equipment sat stored at the far end beside a door which led further into a separate room. There was a table and chairs set in the middle of the room that looked almost out of place in a room where lab equipment would have been more at home. The woman indicated that he was to sit in the chairs but made no move to do so herself. Kip had only begun to climb into the basic looking chair when the door at the far end of the room opened and a rather tall man with short dark hair and neatly trimmed beard stepped through. "Kamella, thank you."

The woman snapped to attention with a smart salute and immediately turned and left through the door they'd entered through. Kip realized he was once more alone with a stranger and in so much as his entirely exhausted brain could manage he tried to size up his new companion. The man stepped forward with the gate of one entirely sure of who he was and what he wanted. There was a confidence there that was nearly overwhelming. The scars on his cheeks spoke of a past of violence and pain that Kip had seen all too often on the streets of his home city. This man had once been a slave. Kip inwardly hoped that he didn't share the same temperament that often accompanied the other ex-slaves who roamed his childhood streets; feeling the universe owed them something and that it was their given right to take it as they saw fit. There hadn't been many slave-gangs in New Hyjn... but what he'd experienced in his youth, even sheltered by his dad, had been scary enough. "Welcome Tim- I'm sorry, KipTop." His voice, also dripping with confidence and presumption, had a deep, almost gravelly tone to it and in his distracted and drained state he almost missed the fumble. The name had a sort of stabbing effect and his unconscious mind immediately disregarded it along with all of the excruciating memories it might possibly evoke. Kip simply took his seat and waited. "I imagine that you are in need of some rest after your trip but I'm afraid I don't have the luxury of time." The man sat opposite and to the left of Kip. Resting one hand on the table he continued; "I've been watching you and your employer for some time now."

Kip was suddenly stiff. "What have you done to th-"

He held up his hand to forestall the rest of Kip's demand. "They are all safe, even the one you call Coal, and they are being cared for." Kip wasn't about to demand he explain what that meant but his face sure did. The man took it in stride and even let a slight smile slip. "I admire your passion for your friends, in fact that is just one of the reasons why I've brought you here. You see, I'm in need of your expertise."

Kip's emotional rollercoaster left the grav-track. "A job!? I'm here for... a job?"

"In a word; yes." The man sat forward and extended his hand. "My name is Xepharious, you may call me Xeph."

The ship? Wait, no... the egg! Suddenly the swagger, the sense of power, and all of the feelings of moving at the whims of space royalty made sense. He was sitting with an honest-to-Bob fedo'd capsuleer, and one that was offering him a job. He slowly took the deity's hand. "KipTop... sir."

Xeph smiled and retracted his hand to the table once more. "You can skip the 'sir' bit, just Xeph is fine. And yes; I'd like to hire you on as part of a special team. The work will be hard but should be much less dangerous than what you are used to working for that small time petty chip-shifter."

Kip balked to hear the man he had feared and worked for dismissed so swiftly but as the capsuleer's words set in his face pulled into a distorted and defiant glare. "I can handle danger; I ain't some kid like the others."

"Perhaps not then." Xeph seemed to be rethinking his tack. "Perhaps the consulting role I had in mind may not be... dangerous enough for your skill level." The man grinned. "I was going to have you advising the team, but maybe you should be part of it."

Kip beamed, now he was negotiating. "You bet your boots sir. And, ah... just what sort of team is this?"

"Counter terrorism and infiltration. You think you can hack it?"

His beaming grin widened and some of that bravado and false confidence which had served him so well on the streets seemed to once more find its way past all the flashy show of this would-be king of space. "You think I can't?"