SUNSWEPT CH9

"A Walk in the Park"

Jallif checked the chronometer set into the bulkhead that curved and encroached into his berth. Fedo'd weeks... He rolled over and reached down to press the catch on the miniscule locker that was built into and beneath the hard slab he'd been forced to endure for what had now become just over three weeks. For the past two of those, his new employer had sent him and this fedo'd shuttle bouncing back and forth throughout this pathetic system on one errand or another. Now they were racing from ass-end of nowhere Terminus to Skyreach Anchorage for bob-knows-what reason. He extracted pants and a well-worn shirt from the locker and pressed it closed before rolling out of his berth and using his newfound contortionist skills to 'stand up' in the overly curved cabin that had become his home. He once again bumped his head, winced, and cursed that slug for his current situation. Won't even let me use the ambassador's suite while he's off-ship... Not even his cabin either.

Once dressed and sporting the bruises that came with that activity, he palmed open the access panel-turned door and exited into the hall of the shuttle. It was the only corridor of the Gallente diplomatic vessel and what had at one point been just a storage cabinet had been repurposed into a servants' bunk complete with it's lack of amenities and even a hatch that when closed blended flush into the corridor wall such that any visiting dignitary, or rushed customs team, wouldn't give it a second thought. Directly to his left he could see the stately double-door entrance to the Ambassador's suite and not for the first time Jallif gave it a contemptuous sneer. It was empty, of course. The Ambassador had used it maybe once in the shuttle's entire space worthy service; before he passed it onto his daughter for her own use. It had been a birthday gift actually. The freedom to travel the stars in full diplomatic style; such an empowering gift for his little princess so that she could finally realize her dream of saving the universe, one back-ass system at a time. Jallif shivered in yet more contempt for Ghera's folly.

Discovering the truth of this shuttle-turned-prison had given him at least some amusement, especially when he realized who the previous occupant of his current berth had to have been. The amusement was temporary of course because in the end his unwanted boss was still getting the last laugh. Despite numerous visits to Icarus or even Renaissance's orbital docks, he'd never been permitted to so much as glance out of his hidden berth for fear that some unexpected inspection team might finally locate Origin's most wanted criminal. When he was able to wander the pathetically small ship it was as a sort of pariah. The crew, truly loyal to the Ambassador and by extension his daughter and her agents, were well aware of his role as a complete peon. Sure, he had been introduced to them as the Adjunct to the Chief Advisor of the daughter of the Ambassador; or put another way... I'm a complete nobody, an annoyance worse than a fedo. His supposed role was to communicate privately with both Ghera and the boss, her 'Advisor', and inform the shuttle's Captain as to their needs. It afforded him a tiny scrap of authority but he'd discovered just how little that authority had counted for when he'd tried to bluff his way out of the wormhole about a week into his new role. Instead of taking the shuttle out of Origin and back into known space as he'd directed, the Captain had simply sneered at him as if he were no more than a smear on the outer hull. How the hole was I supposed to know that only the Ambassador or her Advisor could apply for passage rights? When the Captain had asked for those very important documents Jallif had only been able to give a confused stare. Any hope at authority he'd had with the Captain had evaporated and he'd also had the unfortunate luck of earning himself a lecture on Colonial security procedure to boot. The key takeaway from the whole excruciating experience had been that without secured passage rights even the Captain had no idea where the current exit wormhole from the system was. Only Alexylva Paradox knew where to find freedom in this bob-forsaken shithole and they sure as hell weren't going to give it to him. He couldn't even take over the shuttle and fly it out of the hole because without that navigation information from Alexylva, he'd never find the exit... even if he had the guts to overpower the pilot in the first place. He was still trapped.

He made his way down the rest of the corridor to the bridge and ducked in. He'd already passed along the order for the shuttle to lay in course for Skyreach before leaving his cabin and it rankled that he couldn't give the order in person. His berth had been conveniently shielded from cargo scanners; another modification that had clearly been added following the compartment's use for servants. It meant that while inside any station's forcefield or protection he was forced to spend the time hiding out in the tiny space. His only reprieve from that closet was during warp as the shuttle sped towards its next destination. He was starting to worry that he might be overly excited by the sound of a vessel entering warp.

The Captain and crew paid him no mind as they went about their duties of preparing for the upcoming arrival at Skyreach. He, in turn, studied each of them with veiled contempt. They thought they were so well hidden. A simple shuttle crew? Hah! He could see it in the way they moved, in the immaculate way they kept to exact schedules and precise regimented cleanings of the craft. They were military; Navy, every last one of 'em. It was in the way they looked at him too; the barely noticed glances, the way some of them kept their bodies turned slightly sidelong to him. They saw him as a threat and only their Naval training was keeping them from turning on him and he knew it. He may not get time off-ship but they did. He was sure that one of them would have ratted him out within the first two days he'd been stashed away on the ship but they hadn't and something about that just made it worse. Not only did they think they were better than him, but they knew they were. And he hated them for it. While they'd all been coddled into their fancy schools, rich-kid military academies, and precious loving families he'd been out in the galaxy learning to survive.

The shuttle pulled back out of warp to bring the thriving hub of Origin's primary industrial station rushing into view. The massive central tower that served as the center of operation, power regulation facility, and defense coordination loomed over the multitude of labs, ship construction and maintenance arrays, warehouses, and flurry of automated workers, courier drones, and offices. The shuttle swiftly decelerated past the globe of defensive batteries as it approached the force field and only then did the Captain turn to look questioningly at Jallif. It was a not so subtle hint meant to prod him back off the bridge before visual contact was established or any random ship scans could be performed. Jallif rolled his eyes and removed himself from the bridge just as the pilot chimed; "Security passcode accepted sir, docking coordinates sent. Preparing to transition to station auto-pilot."

"Acknowledged, affirmative for handoff."

"Handoff requested..."

Jallif missed the rest of the pedantic prattle of docking routine as he made his way back to his cabin. It was all pretty meaningless anyway. They'd dock, something outside his control would happen while he hid away in his little compartment and then he might find out what or who had come onto the shuttle once they were back in warp. He resealed the hatch and moved back over to his bunk where he accessed the scrambled and coded transmission device that his boss had planted on him before all this had started. He checked that it was on and waited. As had become routine, he'd receive some directive from the boss while they were docked. The directive would usually give him at least some clues as to what they were doing at the station and it would be his job to sort it all out and communicate those directions to whomever during the next transit to another station and new directives. The only location where they went anymore where he would get any rest now was the station over Renaissance where the shuttle would invariably idle for a while before the next communication from 'The Businessman' would send them out again.

Most of the directives he received were in the form of coded communications to send along to Ghera now. She had clearly relocated to the planet along with the few bedraggled looking operatives which they had thawed out from the shuttle's first trip out to Eureka. He never knew what was in the communication packets but there was something about being a glorified errand-boy that only further aggravated his annoyance. Why couldn't his 'boss' just communicate directly to her? And it always had to be Jallif himself to initiate the communication and specifically from the ship's standard coms array. And so he waited, and waited. No transmission came. He'd started to nod off when he suddenly felt the telltale vibrations of the ship entering warp. He awoke suddenly and hurried to get out of his cabin for at least those few moments of freedom.

He was just trying to puzzle out why he'd not gotten a communication when he heard the captain's voice coming from inside the Ambassador's suite. He stopped and listened even as he resealed his cabin's hatch.

"And you felt that imputing coordinates directly into MY ship's nav. computer would make me feel what; happy?"

"My business attending to her potential investments in this wonderful colony's exploding economy is complete and now I must see to preparations on the other end of the supply chain Captain." 'The Businessman's' tone was that of sweet honey as though he'd done nothing wrong. It was a tone specifically designed to put the Captain at a disadvantage. Jallif had no trouble selecting Ghera as the 'her' either. "As these coordinates were entrusted to me by Alexylva Paradox themselves, I saw fit to ensure they were entered precisely and promptly."

The Captain did not take the insult to his crew's competency well. "You know very well that we were sent here to escort the ambassador's daughter out of the sleeper infested hole, not play chauffeur to her lackey."

"Her lackey?" Jallif could hear the danger in his boss's altered tone but apparently the Captain couldn't, or simply chose not to.

"Don't for a second forget that I am well aware that we had to sneak you into this hole or that for some fedo-infested reason you have us hiding a known criminal on this ship. I don't care what the Ambassador said about you, I am not leaving this system without the ambassador's daughter.

"As you've already seen for yourself, she is in no hurry to leave just now and you've had it from her own mouth that I am to be afforded every courtesy shown her and her family. Need I pull her up via holo just to remind you?"

The captain seemed to shrink into himself and Jallif could only imagine the horrors implicit in the veiled threat. He tried to think of what the boss could have over Ghera but ultimately decided that it didn't matter. He did glean something from the conversation though. If The Businessman was acting on the say-so of this ambassador's daughter,at least outwardly, maybe Jallif could cut a better deal with her. Maybe I take your puppet strings myself? Then we see who shoves who into a closet.

The Captain never answered but instead pushed past Jallif on his way back towards the bridge. Only a moment later 'The Businessman" stepped out of the ambassadors cabin and glanced over at Jallif. "We will be moving to a new phase in our little deal; one that I will be conducting from outside the system." Jallif didn't dare to hope that the boss would be taking him along with and he could already anticipate the next words. "You will remain on this shuttle. I will continue sending instructions though much less frequently."

Jallif glared at him out the side of his eyes but said nothing.

"Once everything is ready I will send for you." 'The Businessman's smile was so superficial Jallif didn't even know why he tried. "I might even have employment for you on the outside." What a load of fedoshit.

"And what am I supposed to do while I wait? Play babysitter with Ghera?"

"No, in fact I don't want you to even have face -to-face contact with her at all." You mean you don't want me to use her against you.

"And the point of keeping me in system?" Jallif was sure there really was none but even the fake reason might give him some clue as to the boss's masterplan, and something he could offer Ghera.

'The Businessman' stopped just outside the bridge and turned to look Jallif dead in the face. His tone was a growling whisper; "I don't trust Ghera not to screw something up and if and when she does I need you to make sure that she doesn't bring you and I down with her."

"And just exactly how am I supposed to do... whatever it is you think I am supposed to do about it!?"

"I expect you to use that fantastic self-preservation instinct of yours to make sure her stupidity doesn't make it back to us, using any means necessary." Something was missing and Jallif just couldn't place it. The boss was being entirely too open with him all of the sudden. Sure, it seemed as though he was leaving the system so why would he care, but even then. And was that a compliment?

"You want me to kill her? What, as soon as she boards this shuttle in an attempt to get away, or at best sneak some stupid kids out?"

"I want you... to use your head." 'The Businessman' visibly tried to relax himself. "I fully expect that she will try to do exactly what you suggest and try to bring some kids out. And to do that she is expecting you to lead her to me once she is back out in the real universe." Jallif's face was a mask of pure confusion. "I've led her to believe that I will provide her with protection and a safe place to hide; fates know her father won't after she is officially a criminal."

It started to dawn on him even as the ship began to slip out of the long warp to the wormhole that would take them out into high security space. "She thinks I will know where you are."

The Businessman's smile was predatory now. "And when you lead her to whatever remote station you contrive, you can simply slip away on your own." Fedoshit I can... "And, if you and she make it that far, you will find a way to use the 1,000isk that I've deposited into your accounts... from an untraceable source of course."

Jallif had a sudden desire to find any terminal from which he could confirm his accounts. There was none but a sum of 1,000isk was still outrageous. He'd be quite rich on whatever planet he decided to lavish upon. 'The Businessman' simply turned and started making his way back to the Ambassador's Suite with that sick smile that Jallif knew meant that somehow the boss knew he'd won. Jallif tried to ponder what options he actually had as he slipped into his normal perch in the back corner just inside the bridge.

"Receiving final transit permission from... sorry sir, I can't triangulate the communication but it must be a cloaked ship." The communications officer seemed confused whereas the Captain merely shrugged.

"It's to be expected; wormholers will be wormholers. Acknowledge and continue into the event horizon." The Captain's scowl only seemed to worsen and Jallif received one piercing glare that he was sure was intended vicariously for 'The Businessman'.

Jallif felt his entire body vibrate as they crossed the event horizon. Spread out before the shuttle he could just make out the shimmering green-black that was synonymous with Gallente space's nearby nebulae. Transit took almost a full thirty seconds as the vessel slipped from one corner of nowhere back into charted space. The nauseating vibrations of the wormhole began to settle as they emerged on the far side.

"Carpor, set navigation for the Dodixie syste-"

"Multiple Warp signatures sir!"

"Tactical? Carpor, belay that course correction, keep us in the wormhole's distortions!"

"Too late sir, we are already aligning for warp!"

"Kaladies, who ar-"

"Sir, I have one Minmatar Mastodon class deep space transport on grid as well as at least five- no, count seven Cruor class frigates exiting warp!"

"Blooders..." The Captain's face became ice. "Carpor, time till warp? Kaladies, status?"

"They have the transport scrambled too far from the wormhole and they've already got us targe-" Multiple warning alarms went off as the shuttle was sprayed with warp scramblers and the full brunt of at least one of the Cruor's complement of capacitor neutralizers. "They have us webbed as well sir."

For about the only time in his life, Jallif suddenly wondered where in space CONCORD was. He'd happily take imprisonment over being drained of blood while he still lived just for the amusement of the sickest zealots in New Eden.

"Carpor, make for the wormhole, now!"

"But... Yes sir!"

The shuttle bucked as it turned against the web emitters which ripped its thrust from it. It was as if the cruors were sucking the very life out of the pathetic shuttle. Jallif's instincts told him that wherever 'The Businessman' was, he'd likely have the best plan for escape so he ditched the bridge even as the captain was desperately trying to get back into Origin where the Paradox forces could make quick work of a few Blood Raider frigates.

Kaladies spoke up; "The others have stopped shooting the transport and are coming for us sir!"

Jallif didn't hear any more as he was already moving swiftly for the end of the corridor.

He reached the Ambassador's suite to find it empty. The nearby diplomatic envoy pods were still intact and Jallif suddenly wondered where 'The Businessman' could have gone. He scrambled and almost missed the flashing light indicating that someone had accessed and left open an emergency decompression cabinet in the corridor just past his own closet of a cabin. Sure enough, one suit was missing. Jallif looked up and down the corridor but couldn't see anyone. On a hunch he ran to amidships and opened the access hatch that lead to the power access tunnel which lead down and aft of the shuttle. He could hear clinking within and dove into the passage even as the ship started taking enemy fire. Jallif scrambled down the length of the compartment just in time to see something that had been attached to the hull itself blasting off. The boss had had some sort of emergency container coupled directly to the hull! It was overdoing it a bit for any plans to escape a wreckage but Jallif didn't have any more time to try to figure out what was about to happen to his erstwhile boss. The pilot had lived up to the kind of reputation that gets you hired to go retrieve a prized ambassador's daughter and Jallif could already see the edges of the wormhole out of the small hatch window. They'd make it back into Origin. So close to escaping... The lights stopped flickering and the ship seemed to stall out for just a moment before it was taken by the massive forces of the wormhole and they were suddenly once more back in Anoikis.

Jallif ran back to the bridge as fast as he could. He had to know what was going on.

"-dox, Please identify yo-"

"Shuttle 5547S0G, Transiting under fire from Blood Raiders, be ready for hostiles in pursuit." The captain had given up all pretense of proper procedure and was now broadcasting as though he was some damned fleet commander over battle coms.

"Acknowledged, you are cleared for warp to Icarus but will be held in orbit until the situation can be resolved."

Jallif saw his chance. "No! Take us back out, get us the hole out of this system!"

The Captain rounded on him with all the fury of the hardened fleet captain Jallif realized him to be. "I will do nothing of the sort! Sit your ass down in that corner of yours and shut up. And just maybe you will live to resume your little life of sucking at the tit of that fedoshit boss of yours." The captain turned once more to the pilot. "Set course for Icarus Station, get us there Carpor! Ellet, what is the time on our polarization?"

"Still 3:24 minutes sir." The navigator had the unprofessionalism to shoot a glower at Jallif before returning her attention to the instruments.

"Activation on the wormhole sir!"

"Carpor!?"

"We are aligning into the warp tunnel now sir!"

The same officer who called the activation spoke again and Jallif tried to follow the fast exchanges fearing the next one would bring the Blooders. "Mastodon class industrial emerging from the wormhole's distortions sir! It's the same hauler that they had pinned down!"

"Good for them... now, Get. Us. Out. Of. Here!" The Captain rounded back on Carpor just as the warp tunnel opened and they leapt from the battlefield to safety. Well, safety for them maybe. Jallif could have cried.

*****


Kip found himself walking with the others down another corridor that, as before, was also lined with the watchful eyes of security cameras. This time though, he wasn't walking alone. Sophia was striding along just beside him while Drake, Bee, and H'Aki were just a few steps ahead and already in their own heated debate about who bested who in the last sparring match. Most of combat training was multi-attacker scenarios now and even in the short few weeks since Kip had made his embarrassing debut into the world of combat training he was surprised by how quickly he'd gotten better. He was still having trouble with more than one opponent at a time and he still wasn't a match for H'Aki, or even Drake and Sophia who had both excelled as such a rate that he was even more perplexed as to how, or indeed who they really were. Bee had been dropping hints about it but she wouldn't come out and tell him what she suspected and it gnawed at him. But they were both nice enough, especialy Sophia, who, as it turned out, had a practical joker streak in her a kilometer wide. She'd got him good a few nights in with some sort of fluid pouch designed to fail when it reached body temperature. He'd awoken to a very wet bed and spent half a day trying to hide his mortified embarrassment from the others until the incessantly gigging culprit finally 'fessed up just after lunch. She'd even gone so far as to explain, very privately to him, that she'd gone after him first so that now they could prank the others together. A few days later they'd gotten Drake by reprogramming the controls on his favorite refresher station to only allow shower mode, then heckled him about all the water he was wasting. He was so sour about it that Sophia insisted on doubling down on him as their primary target for the next two as well. Leth and Anki weren't exempt either as each of them fell for some very minor but well-crafted reprogramming of their equipment. Leth had gone almost apoplectic when he'd done a health scan on Sophia which reported her as 100% inert 'meat popsicle'. Kip had no idea what a popsicle was but somehow the unrestrained giggling from inside the scanner; giggling which apparently a waiting Bee could hear even outside the room, had quickly calmed the frantic tech. Kip was discovering that he had a pretty good hand for hacking as well and all of the pranks were actually giving him challenging practice. Sophia had been the one to reprogram the scanner, but all of the others had been Kip; with Sophia's encouragement of course. He hadn't even had to use his nanotube once.

Bee was proving to be the hardest one of all. Every trap they laid for xer xe saw right through. Simple hacking was out of the question given that xe seemed to know the moment someone tried to interface with anything of xers. Xe seemed incapable of embarrassment which ruled out a whole host of what Sophia referred to as the 'oldies but goodies'; his fluid pouch had been one of those apparently. And so, as the team happily trotted through the station on their way to some much appreciated time away from their protective facility, Kip and Sophia were deep in collusion about just how they were going to achieve their ultimate victory.

"Are you sure the whipped cream on the face one wouldn't work? That one normally works on everyone." It wasn't the first time Sophia had suggested it.

Kip shook his head. "I've gone to wake xer before; xe doesn't sleep quite like we seem to. It's like xe has some sort of instant alarm the moment someone touches xer."

"I still can't understand why anyone would do that... It's not like we are on assignment or anything. Xe should sleep while xe can; xe'll not be getting so much during the next phase right?"

Kip wasn't sure how Sophia seemed to know so much about what to expect in their training, but then she'd never told anyone much about her past. He decided to let it go like the others and focus again on the challenge at hand. "Xe spends a lot of time on the terminal, could we try to change xer access password to something funny?"

Sophia seemed to like the idea for just a few moments before she seemed to remember something then shook her head. "Starting tomorrow I don't think xe'll be on the terminal much."

Kip was puzzled. "The next phase of training won't be that hard will it? Xe'll still have time for those searches xe does right?"

Sophia seemed trapped. She knew something, something she couldn't tell Kip. It bothered him, a lot. But he'd gotten a lot better about all the secrets in the last few weeks. At first he'd just assumed that the others wouldn't tell him things until one day Bee corrected him. It wasn't that they wouldn't but that they couldn't. When he'd asked xer why xe replied by asking him to keep a secret for xer. 'I can still remember the exact moment of my birth, the visual imprint of my... parents.' It seemed a rather innocuous secret but xe made him promise not to tell anyone, ever and he agreed. The very next thing she'd done was to ask him what he'd say to the others if they asked him to tell them xer secret. He realized that his answer was actually the answer to his own question and xe just smiled at him. Now, he looked back at Sophia who was still trying to figured out how to answer her friend. "You know what, it's nothing, but yeah.. so we need something else."

She seemed relieved and took a moment to think. "Xe's always listening to those music files... you know, the really old classical opera ones? Maybe we try to replace all of the files with remixed versions, so they have the same name but a really different sound? You think xe'd notice?"

"Maybe, but hey, it's worth a shot right?" He grinned back at her, caught up in the mischief as they rounded the corner into one of the smaller pleasure decks of Icarus.

This commons wasn't nearly as grand as the one nearby where most of the capsuleers quartered or even a spec compared to what was planned for Indigo but it was still a lot nicer than being cooped up in that dormitory. At only two floors tall it boasted a small central stage where Kip imagined live music could be played or some form of theatre perhaps. Various stores and shops lined the outer walking path and while there wasn't much in the way of vegetation in this particular pleasure commons, it did have the best iced cream ever according to Sophia. They set a direct course for that particular stand just to the left side of the area's center.

A trip out for Iced Cream was a sort of reward for them. In this instance, it was in recognition of the next phase of their training starting tomorrow. They'd finally start actual tactical training! The group lined up at the stand and everyone started trying to decide what they wanted. Naturally, as the only person to have actually had this Iced Cream, Sophia's opinion was in high demand. While the others were asking her what they should try Kip thought about something that had been bothering him a little about the phases. He'd been getting better; they all had. He had no chance of holding his own against H'Aki but somehow in the last week Drake and Sophia had bested H'Aki on more than one occasion each. They'd both touted H'Aki's teaching skill as not to discourage her, and for the most part she just accepted the explanation, but Kip had been sneaking in extra mat time whenever he could, practicing his forms really early in the morning and even late into the night when he could but he still couldn't manage things that Sophia could now do without apparently having to even think about it. Both of them had also mastered skills that Kip had taking the better part of his recent childhood perfecting. They could virtually disappear into the duct system that surrounded their secluded training center and on more than one occasion Kip had found little 'found you!' notes in every single one of his stashes that he'd worked so hard to create in that network. Now he was having trouble even locating the stashes that they were making. Just last night he'd finally given up and had Drake tell him where Sophie's latest was.

It had been a fun game, a bit of a twist on 'hide and seek' where they would each scamper around the conduits leaving little parcels of cloth, empty tubes, or blocks meant to represent other valuable survival items and then the others would have to try to find those items. The games usually lasted days with everyone starting with a total of five items colored for each of them. H'Aki, who had been the worst at it, was red, Sophia wanted white, Drake was ever so characteristically black, and Bee really wanted green. With his preference of red already taken, Kip opted for blue. The scoring was simple; when you found someone else's items, you could keep them or trade them to get your own items back in order to hide them again. H'Aki was the first to try to display her finds by stringing them up to the foot of her cot but it quickly caught on. If you managed to obtain at least one of each of the other's colors, while no one had one of your own, you won and the game would be reset the next day. In the past two weeks Drake and Kip had each won twice and Sophia had won once. All of Drake and Sophia's wins had come within the past four days and Kip was suddenly very curious to know just how Drake had managed to find all of Kip's prized pieces on back to back days. Kip was still the best at hiding and so his blue pieces were the rarest to see on any cot. Drake had used those shiny blue pieces to trade with the others, and in doing so was now challenging Kip as the undisputed champion.

In all of it though, Kip couldn't help but feel like the pace of training was about the jump ahead of him. Kip and H'Aki had their routine health scans that morning, it was nothing really, just a checkup to make sure the increased training wasn't negatively impacting them. If anything it was helping! Kip already felt like he could take on a whole city and for the first time in his life his initial reaction to danger wasn't always flight. But still, He wasn't sure he was ready for whatever was next. They all brought their selections over to a nearby table, all but Drake who opted to take a table on his own over in the corner. Kip noticed that Bee, Sophia, and even Drake also seemed a little nervous, possibly about the next phase?

"You two worried about tomorrow?" Both Bee and Sohpia seemed suddenly surprised at his question and gave each other an oddly worried glance. Bee was probably just surprised that he was doing better at picking up on other people's feelings like she was trying to teach him to do, but Sophia's surprise hinted at something more."

Bee asked first, "What about tomorrow?"

"The next phase, I mean, we don't even know what it will be." He took a seat as they each did and sampled the strange ball-like paste in his cup. Wow! Ok, this place was a good choice. He took another bite quickly and then another.

"Oh I thought you meant our... health scans." Kip had missed Bee's vocal pause as something strange seemed to be happening near the roof of his mouth.

"Whoh, slow down or you'll get-" Kip nearly dropped the rest of his Iced Cream as he grabbed his temples in sudden shocking pain. "-that." Sophia's frown did little to mask the amusement she was trying to hide. "It will go away, give it a moment."

Bee was looking down at xer own cup as if suddenly questioning whether it was a weapon. Sophia lost her battle and let out a snorting giggle. "Oh, it only does that," she motioned to Kip, "if you eat it too fast. My mom used to call it 'brain freeze'." Bee took another bite very, very slowly all while still watching Sophia for some sort of hint that it was a joke of hers. This produced yet another giggle from Sophia.

Kip was indeed recovering from the brain freeze but he set the cup down for a moment and continued his inquiry. "What is there to be worried about a health scan, you two are doing better than I am."

"Oh, nothing, why I was confused." Bee spoke with xer mouth partially full as xe slowly tested the cream before swallowing.

Sophia was still trying to stop laughing at her friends. "I overheard Anki talking about it with Leth yesterday; we'll start doing basic counter-terrorism scenarios. Splitting into teams and trying to achieve objectives; stuff like that."

"But there are five of us, so who gets left out?" Kip worried that it might be him as he still had the worst overall combat scores.

Sophia was shaking her head. "Nobody, teams will always be uneven. I'm guessing the first matchup will be Drake and I vs. the three of you."

"Won't that be unfair?" Kip noticed that Bee wasn't saying anything but instead seemed to be thinking really hard about everything, as usual.

Sophia smiled "That's the point. It's not a challenge if it's fair!" Kip couldn't fault her logic but somehow he just didn't like the idea of knowingly fighting while outmatched.

"And why you and Drake first?"

Sophia seemed to pause for a moment. "Don't worry, I'm sure you and H'Aki will get a chance to kick all our butts too." It wasn't an answer to his question but something in the smile that Sophia gave him distracted him from pushing for follow-up. "Anyway, I'm getting seconds!" She gave everyone at the table a mock scandalous look, stood, and walked back towards the vendor's cart.

The exchange still hadn't illuminated anything for him but with Sophia gone he finally had a chance to ask Bee about yet another thing that had been bothering him. Gee, maybe he was doing way too much thinking these days. With so much more to learn and master he felt like his brain was going off the lev-rails. "Do you think Drake and Sophia are being treated a little unfairly?"

"How so?" Bee had managed only xer second bite since receiving the warning about brain freeze.

"Oh, just that Anki and Leth always seem to be so much harder on them while the rest of us get high marks for not doing as good. I mean, you have to have seen how much they've improved right? I know nobody can match you in hacking yet, but they've already bested H'Aki at fighting and me at sneakin' about. It just seems like somehow all of this is more for them than for us you know?"

Bee was very still as xe thought, glancing over at Drake who was still sitting all alone at his remote table. Kip wasn't sure if xe'd respond, it was like xer to want to think things over longer than most anyway. "Bee, I know you've noticed, and I know you've got your suspicions and maybe you can't even tell me, or H'Aki for that matter. But can you at least try to find something out? Maybe something you could tell me?"

"You want me to do what, try to hack them or something?" There was a very dangerous undertone to Xer voice and Kip suddenly caught the slip in what xe'd just said.

"Wait, you think they are digi's just like you!"

"Please don't use that word... but yes. At least that's what I thought." Xe took yet another very slow bite and stared down into xer cup in what looked like half contemplation and half self-rebuke. "I'll... look at what I can find publicly, but I can't promise a lot." She gave him a look that clearly said 'don't push it' so he dropped it.

Sophia was returning with yet another cup leading Bee to look down at xer's which was rapidly turning to cream soup. Xe must have decided that xe was eating it too slowly and took another quick bite to try to catch up.

"Isn't this the best part of being a kid?!" Sophia's excitement really was irrepressible sometimes and Kip just smiled in agreement. Her long red hair bounced as she walked and Kip tried to see her not as the kid she clearly was but as some sort of machine. He gave up quickly and shrugged. What was all the fuss about with digital sapients anyway? They seemed like normal people to him. He worked on finishing the rest of his own cup as conversation quickly turned to what the next day might bring and in the end even Drake managed to wander back over and lend his predictions.

*****