SUNSWEPT CH7B


By late evening, Bee was finally starting to get a handle on the interplay between companion H'Aki and new companion KipTop. From the very moment Agent Kamella had escorted the boy in, H'Aki had practically starting hissing at him. Her entire demeanor had changed in an instant; if Bee had been able to find any reason for it xe would have said H'Aki had gone almost entirely into fight mode. After very brief introductions the Agent took Kip into another room, where Bee knew he'd participate in a full medical scan and health check as both xe and H'Aki had. It wasn't until the rather unassuming yet clearly confident boy was into the next room and well out of earshot that xer companion calmed down and attempted an explanation.

"Caldari..." The name was stated as a curse as H'Aki looked Bee right in the face. "Can't trust him, he'll steal your life right from you and call it 'business', just you watch."

Bee had never really encountered that kind of racial reaction and even in referencing her memory files from the time spent handling space traffic xe could only locate a meager few instances where some out-of-system captains had hinted at derisiveness towards any one culture. Xe had enough of a historical database to know that a veiled war had been raging between the Matari and Caldari out in empire space, beyond the wormholes that both protected and sojourned Origin. But Origin was a place of acceptance, and xe had testimonial after account in those historical files from within Origin to support this. Refugees and outcasts from every empire came into Origin to live a life away from the wars and bigotry of known space but perhaps xer files were incomplete. For example, xe'd already had to update quite a bit of them with what xe had learned of the darker corners of Foundation City from H'Aki. Perhaps things were different in those darker, less visible parts of Origin. The historical files certainly supported the premise that old grudges and racial beliefs died hard.

Another thought occurred to xer, "But... my face is Amarrian." H'Aki didn't seem to follow. "My research concludes that the Matari distrust the Amarr far more... and to you I'm Amarr right?"

H'Aki seemed to think on this for a moment then shook her head. "No, you're digi. Your body don't count cause it's your mind what makes you you."

"But not his mind that makes him him?"

Xer question was honest and the past few days of these sorts of honest questions had H'Aki reacting to her friend in kind, answering before she could consider the double standard. "His blood makes him Caldari."

"But not my blood?"

"Well, no... yes..." She looked at Bee, realizing that she couldn't explain this in a way someone without her experience would; could understand. "It's different."

The tone of xer companion's response informed xer that it was time to change the subject. The Agent and Kip would be back soon anyway. As Bee returned xer attention to the contemptuously easy hacking simulation game xe was playing xer mind concluded that H'Aki was already starting to reconsider her previous gut reaction to someone who was sure to be a new companion in their group. Again, reading H'Aki's body language had given xer more information than H'Aki realized. "Do you watch people's bodies?"

H'Aki blinked, unsure of the question.

"Let me rephrase, do you try to read what other humans or digital sapient communicate with their bodies?"

"Oh, you mean like how I know when someone is about to attack me by the way they shift their weight or are standing?"

Bee nodded, still looking at the data tablet problem that xer mind had already solved yet xer fingers were struggling to input. "Well yeah, but for more than just fighting?"

"Like if they are telling the truth?" H'Aki was proving yet again to be rather singularly minded.

"Deeper, looking for more than that."

"There's more than that?" H'Aki stopped fiddling with the small writing implement she had been flipping about like a possible projectile. "I don't know any of that stuff. Do you?"

"Hm mhm" Xe nodded.

H'Aki's look was a bit incredulous. "Like what?"

"For example; how Kip was walking."

"You mean how he was ready to attack anyone that came too close?" Her tone was again unkind in the boy's favor.

"I mean how he was scared out of his mind and determined not to show it." Bee finally looked up and at H'Aki.

"Oh come off it already! That boy was ready to fight and there weren't nothing more to read." She crossed her arms, still gripping the pen, this time like a dagger hidden beneath one arm. Xer companion was defensive, but still listening.

"I could teach you, if you like."

H'Aki hadn't been ready for the angle of that verbal strike and her posture wilted. She'd been all ready to explain just how wrong Bee was and gearing up for the argument she was sure to follow. But their new friendship had prospered entirely around learning from each other and the willingness to teach. Bee had this incredible ability to read people's minds, something she swore was only a matter of observing them; no special 'digi' powers. And now xe was offering to share that secret knowledge. "How?" She uncoiled, the pen returning to rest on the table. "I mean, would you? Please?"

Bee set down the tablet and managed a passable smile. "Happy to! And as to how; as soon as the Agent comes back into the room, I want you to figure out how she is feeling, just by watching her." Xe'd considered using Kip as the subject; he'd have been much easier for a beginner than an agent who was schooled in motion conservation and misdirection. But that would likely reignite xer companion's ire and destroy all the progress of the lesson.

"How she's feeling? From just looking at her... Why would I care how she feels?"

"That's just the first step, the rest comes later in the equation."

"You and your math; ok, so I try to guess how she feels-"

"Not guess; discern."

"-discern how she feels." H'Aki's half grin towards Bee was not entirely kind or trusting. "Then what?"

"Then, as I doubt very much that you are going to have a chance to ask her yourself, you'll confirm your estimate by asking me."

"Because you'll know exactly how she feels?"

"Close enough anyway."

"Well aren't you all special then..." Knowing Bee would certainly have discerned correctly didn't salve her ego much. "Why not just try this experiment of yours on you, then I could ask you."

Bee was already shaking xer head. "I considered that, but I still don't have full control of my micro movements. My body would lie to you."

"Oh..."

H'Aki's tone implied a regret at bringing up Bee's lack of physical control but xe simply took it as a fact of growth; you had to start inadequate in order to improve to adequate.

The door leading into the lab adjoining their little common area began to open and Bee gave H'Aki one last look of encouragement before turning to face the entering pair, xer own mind already working out the agent's most likely mood.

"So what's your analysis?" Bee turned from xer on and off conversation with Kip who was now voraciously consuming some field tech manual on stealth field gear. Directly opposite the little table H'Aki looked up from her own data pad where she had presumably been rereading the news nets political opinion sites.

She took a quick look around the room and returned a questioning look to Bee.

"About Agent Kamella?" They'd been alone in the room for at least the past 15 minutes since the agent had stepped out. Bee was well aware that they'd never be fully alone, not with the three carefully placed cameras in this and every room xe'd been in for the past few days, but xe was hardly about to inform xer companions of that, yet.

H'Aki shot a distrusting look across at Kip who had only just come up for air from his field manual. "What am I gonna do? I don't even know what the hole you two are talking about." He rolled his eyes and stuck his nose back into the manual. His ears remained open however.

She turned her gaze back to Bee. "I don't know... scary? Angry?"

"You think angry why... because her face?"

"Well yeah, she didn't seem to move her face at all, it was just all... nothing."

Bee smiled. "And to you this means 'angry?'"

"It doesn't to you?"

Bee tried, xe really tried not to chuckle at xer companion's frustration. "Could be... but in this case I think her face was more resolute, determined, accepting. I think it's a soldier kind of thing. I'm assuming you noticed the military training in her gait?"

"In her ga- oh, her stride. Um, yeah actually. She did have that kinda walk, like she knew how to use her body as a weapon. But how does that mean 'determined'?"

Bee nodded and leaned forward, engaging more in xer teaching role. "I used to see it a lot with captains relinquishing their ship to Automated Docking Command." Xe proceeded right past the slightly incredulous look on H'Aki's face as well as any question that look might herald. "For someone with military training, that passive faced look tends to mean that they are accepting something they might not like and are determined not to let their disagreement show."

"That doesn't make a lot of sense. Why wouldn't they fight back if they didn't like it?"

Bee considered for a moment that K'Aki might not have the necessary military experience, or historical database to understand. "In the holos, when someone in the military breaks the rules, what happens?"

"You think I could'a ever afforded to see a holo?" H'Aki paused to look amused at Bee, momentarily forgetting Kip's presence with such an admission.

Bee took the question passively. "You've seen holo trailers on advertisement screens, even outdoor ones."

She had to admit to that one and tried to think back. "Yeah... I suppose getting eaten alive by a Drifter would be pretty bad."

"Eaten by a Drift- what kinda holo advertisements were you watching!? No, they get court martialed, kicked out of their unit."

"That's not so bad."

"It is when your unit is your life. Fedos, you know, for someone wanting to be a Matari freedom fighter, you sure don't know so much about soldiers."

H'Aki was once more defensive. "And you were some kinda Tribal Admiral in your past life?"

"What? No!" Bee clumsily tapped xer head "Whole system worth of data files in here, remember?"

"Oh. Right, sorry."

"Right, what you may not know is that a soldier without her unit doesn't stand a great chance; in the battle or after."

H'Aki's memories dropped suddenly back to the few years she'd spent with her mother after they'd relocated into Origin. Her mother had served on the front lines of the ongoing faction war with the Caldari and for the first time, and only for a brief moment; she suddenly had a whole new understanding of the woman who'd left everything for her. "Oh..."

Sensing something deeper in her companion, Bee relented. "So, yeah. When fighting means that, well. A soldier tends to fall back on their discipline and on the system which informs her that the ones making the rules have better intel than she. That face protects them, and protects their crew from the same."

"The captains you mean" H'Aki had noticed Bee's slip between the analogy and example.

"Right, for the captains it protects their crew too."

"So, what did Agent Kamella not want to be doing?" She was making the connection.

Bee couldn't immediately answer. "Not enough information I think."

"Did it have something to do with him?" H'Aki crossed her arms and nudged her head towards Kip.

"Huh, what?"

"Nothing." Bee looked to Kip, eager to avoid another possible confrontation. "Agent Kamella just seemed like she didn't want to be escorting you."

"Oh... well I could have told you that." Kip shrugged and tried to re-engage with his manual.

H'Aki wouldn't let him. "Yeah? And what the hole you know?"

"Just that she was takin orders from Xeph to drop me off here, with you two. And she mentioned having a party she was going to be late to, something about a new niece or something."

Bee thought that sort of information was outside what an agent would confide in their charge but stayed quiet. H'Aki was less reserved. "Fedoshit! She didn't tell you anything."

"Maybe it's 'cause I don't try to attack people when I meet 'em."

The jibe was well aimed to provoke xer dark skinned companion and Bee had to think fast to once more prevent an escalation, "No really Kip, how did you know?" Xe was getting a lot better at modulating xer tone and this time was rewarded with the desired effect.

Kip relented and once more looked into his data pad. "Or we passed one of her friends on the way here, some crewmember congratulating her on the new niece and asking if she'd make the party."

"Thought so!"

Kip blessedly ignored H'Aki's return fire.

"I still don't see how that sort of information is so helpful Bee."

Bee smiled. "Alone, right now, maybe it isn't. But this was just practice right?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Well, knowing how someone feels means you can manipulate their impression of you. It means you get to dictate the tactics of the verbal battlefield." Xe hoped xer military reference would help H'Aki see the value, even if xer real reasons for teaching xer companion what amounted to an extreme form of empathy were somewhat more self-protective. If they were to be a team of some sort, as xe was beginning to suspect, H'Aki would have to better recognize friend from foe or it was liable to get them all hurt.

H'Aki seemed content to ponder the revelation for a bit as Bee turned xer attention to further thought on those indicators suggesting 'team'. The addition of Kip, a child with clear skills in survival, to H'Aki's fighting prowess and xer own technical skillset was just too coincidental. Each was a specialist and at such a young age too. There were still pieces of the puzzle missing, far too many for xer care, but as xe wasn't in immediate danger, and Jemmie had promised xe would be kept safe, xe was forced to conclude that letting things play out seemed to be the best course. Perhaps when the team had fully assembled xe would get xer answers.

Exactly 43 minutes and 23 seconds later each of their silent reading was interrupted by the arrival and prompt introductions of 'Drake', a sandy haired sour looking kid of about nine years, and 14 minutes and 12 seconds after that 'Sophia' who was lanky of build with uncharacteristically long brown hair and clearly Jin-Mei decent. The names were clearly nicknames of some sort, but then 'KipTop' was clearly not his real name and even xe had adopted 'Bee' so perhaps H'aki's declaration of the custom of nicknames held even more weight than xe had originally estimated. Both Drake and Sophia had entered from the lab rather than from the main entrance as Kip had. Even more differentiating, both seemed to be having even more difficulty managing their physical selves than Bee had had. Could they be recently new to digital sapience just like xer? It was common enough for digital minded individuals to download themselves into synthesized human clones, built to specification. And just about every such new digital sapient had an adjustment period however it was much less common for one to choose a child's body as xe had. Bee still saw xerself as a child, still developing in the world since xer conception and prompt escape from Prith Junction. But other digitally minded came into existence in a fully formed mental state. This usually led those seeking digital sapience to choose a body likely to reflect their considerable and diverse knowledge without being patronized by their peers. Those others who did choose a child's body often did so simply for the 'experience' of it, and subsequently returned to more adult choices later.

Both new kids were helped in by a pair of techs who introduced themselves as Leth and Anki, Techs with the OSS Research branch. Leth followed his own introduction by claiming expertise in both clone behavioral development and digital sapient integration. The last part he spoke while looking pointedly at Bee as if to indicate that she was to use him as a resource if needed. Indeed, an additional pool of knowledge, especially one with tactile experience would be invaluable but Bee wasn't quite ready to trust blindly. Xe'd need to do some digging on these two, and keep an eye on the newcomers to their team as well. Perhaps xe might start digging now, "Anki, is there a reason Jemmie hasn't returned to visit?"

The other tech hadn't been expecting such a direct question and stumbled to respond. It was Sophia who was first to explain. "Eshe hand to ghet mme ff... ffi..." A look of utter frustration came quickly to the 11year old's face and Bee felt an unfamiliar feeling of jealousy for how quickly she had picked up human reactions, if she was in fact a digital sapient as xe suspected. Sohpa looked pleadingly to Anki who finished.

"Jemmie had to pick up Sophia and Drake from Serendipity Station before going undercover with her partner. I don't think we'll be seeing them for some time, I'm sorry she wasn't able to come say 'good bye', I know she wanted to." It was her pupils that gave her away and Bee instantly started searching xer files for anything that might explain what Anki was not saying. Xe found it in the an old manifest registry that had once belonged to Indigo's port authority bean counters; Serendipity had been the foremost supplier of advanced custom clones and one that had advertised heavily to the digital elite.

So these two must likely be new digital sapients like xer. But unlike xer they wouldn't have the same randomized algorithms and Bayesian Catalyst xe'd inherited from xer intrepid parents at Prith Junction. In short, they already had well defined 'personalities' which would remain so no matter what vessel they chose to inhabit. Xe wondered if that had helped them more quickly connect to the synapses which controlled facial muscular reactions. Could it be that the very same agents in xer programming that gave xer unlimited personality potential were also hampering xer ability to physically relay the very same physical cues xe was teaching H'Aki to look for? Xe also realized that Leth had used distinctly gendered pronouns when introducing them. Bee wondered if that had been part of a normal digital sapient process xe'd been left out of as well.

After helping Sophia to a seat at the table Anki and Leth retreated back into the lab promising to return shortly with an explanation as to what was coming next for all of them. The anticipation of finally getting some answers seemed to perk up H'Aki but KipTop took on the rather smug look of someone more informed than his present company. He'd have to watch that ego of his, it wasn't exactly becoming... or safe.

Drake's situational awareness must have been just as good as xers and he leveled a rather unkind glare at Kip. "Wvat, gue fink gue've got efryting figgrd out, ohn't ga?"

Kip, who hadn't expected to be challenged wasn't sure what to say and only grinned back, this time with just a little less bravado.

"Ckze's got a bettr ideeeh f wvat's happning tan gue." Drake had motioned toward Bee in his accusation but had clearly had some difficulty with the neutral pronoun.

Bee was just about to inquire as to where Drake had gained the programming to read humans as well as xer when his curiosity got the better of him first. He turned to Bee and really focused on his words to get them out. "Wvy not just toose ta be a gurl? It's wvat gue look like."

Sophia's jaw damn near hit the table, both H'Aki and Kip took sudden notice at such a personal question, and it took Bee several moments to even respond.

"But I'm not a girl now am I? Why didn't you decide not to be a boy?" To Bee it was a rather genuine question without defensiveness or anger. They'd had a choice in clone design, clearly they'd made that choice for a reason. Xe'd simply chosen the most viable clone available to xer with no regard to anything so benign as gender.

Drake had no real answer for this, at least not that he'd reveal, so he let the matter drop. The timing was good as Anki and Leth returned and stood in front of the group. Bee, Kip, and H'aki had to swing around behind Drake and Sohpia who remained seated.

"Thank you for being so patient with us as we got you all together. As some of you already know..." Anki nodded to Kip, "or may have surmised..." she nodded to Bee, "you are to be part of an elite counter-terrorism team." Anki paused taking in their individual reactions and Bee wasn't surprised to observe H'Aki's surprise, Drake and Sophia's complete lack of reaction, or Kip's sudden ego inflation. "Now, some of you have not had a chance to even agree to this so before I move forward let me make it clear that any of you who wish to participate only as consultants for your particular skill will be encouraged to do so." Again the tech's pupils gave her away; more secrets. Bee had a hard time reconciling how any official, human or digital, could be ok with sending children into danger but by the look of zeal overcoming Kip, or the way he seemed to eye up everyone else at the mention of an 'opt out', perhaps the ruse was on him.

Leth took over. "Each of you possesses certain skills that are... above average for your age." He didn't seem comfortable labeling them as experts it seemed. "You'll be teaching these skills to one another regardless of participation in the final infiltration squad so you'll need to get used to working with and learning from one-another. I see that Bee3 and H'Aki have already found such a repport..." Bee realized xe'd been attempting a very human wink towards xer companion and further surprised xerself with an unbidden blush at being noticed. "You're to spend this evening getting better acquainted and tomorrow we'll begin the training." Bee was finally starting to piece together the final bits of xer puzzle as he finished. Xe was either here to be an actual member of the squad or to advise Drake and Sophia who, like her were digital sapients and therefore immune to true death. Based on their complete lack of reaction to the briefing, they'd already agreed to this process. That would mean that of the five of them, only xe still remained to choose to participate.

As xe was coming to this realization Kip was leaning towards H'Aki with a smirk on his face. Xe just barely caught what she was saying in a whisper, "I'm fighting, Bee's hacking, you're survival, so what are Drake and Sophia?" The question was an honest one, and Bee hadn't put much thought to it, but now it seemed they were each to have a skill as well.

"Pretty obvious isn't it? They're going to teach us all how to stand up without falling down." Kip's comment had been uncalled for and unwelcome but before Bee could even think to point that out to him H'Aki had already moved in a flash of motion and dropped him.

Neither tech had even seen it coming and both could only stare as an incredibly surprised and sufficiently penitent Kip coughed and gagged from under the weight of H'Aki's knee.

"H'Aki!"

She was only paying attention to Kip with almost no care for the gawking techs or Bee's plea. "Consider this your first lesson secret spy boy; you don't make fun of my friends. Got it?"

Anki had overcome her shock enough to make her way about the table but Kip very quickly nodded his acceptance to her ultimatum and she was already releasing her grip on his wrist. The whole thing had happened so fast that Drake and Sophia were still trying to turn around in their seats to identify the thud behind them.

In the sudden violence Bee lost track of xer most recent internal inquiries and instead returned to xer earlier thoughts on how to keep xer companions from killing one another. H'Aki had risen fully to her feet again and the chip on Kip's shoulder seemed very thoroughly shattered. Xe reached down to offer him a hand to his feet while xe used xer own chair for balance. He surprised xer by accepting it.

Back in the front of the room, Leth summed up xer current processing; "We clearly have a lot of work ahead of us."