Private Relay, 11:45 hours [that day]:
::User XEPHARIOUS WRYN connects::
::User PHEDRIC GEIN connects::
::User JEMMALYN DROITACOPIUS connects::
::This isn't exactly covert timing... :: Phedrick Gein
::I realize but it couldn't be helped. The Primary Target has gone silent again. :: Xepharious Wryn
::And this time is different than the last? :: Jemmalyn Droitacopius
::Yes, we believe he is very close to his goal. Our next phase can't wait any longer, we need that information. :: Xepharious Wryn
::We're ready. :: Phedrick Gein
::Excellent:: Xepharious Wryn
::Will the third asset be joining us?:: Jemmalyn Droitacopius
::We've decided to keep xer from this. There is just too much risk. :: Xepharious Wryn
::Understood. :: Jemmalyn Droitacopius
::User JEMMALYN DROITACOPIUS disconnects::
::User PHEDRIC GEIN disconnects::
Spirits were mixed from the morning's challenge as the team made their way out of the refreshers and into their respective bunk areas to dress. The time between the morning's debrief and when they were expected to gather again for the afternoon briefing left just enough time for a quick refresher and lunch, any time spent dawdling would only mean less time to eat. The rhythm was almost second nature by now but as they emerged from the bunk room to line up at the typical impromptu buffet which arranged itself each day, they also found Anki waiting for them. Her arrival generally announced the end of lunch and the beginning of the afternoon briefing. Kip glanced longingly over at the buffet but even as his stomach voiced its own opinion his muscles responded by coming quickly to attention right along with the other members of the team.
"As you were." They relaxed but no one moved nor took their eyes from Anki. "I'm afraid the timeline on this afternoon's scenario is a little tighter due to... interplanetary travel needs." She let that scrap of information settle. Kip had come to realize just how forthcoming his current hosts typically were with any information regarding the next scenario; which is to say 'not very'. That Anki was even telling them this meant that it was important and it meant that the rest of the challenge would likely by predicated on the additional time constraints that 'interplanetary travel' usually implied. In short, 'you'll have less time due to travel time outside of your control' which in turn meant they'd be getting very little time on the planet, whichever planet they were going to.
No one interrupted despite the pause and Anki looked over to the buffet. "Go grab your food but settle in, this will be a working lunch folks."
Nobody had to tell Kip twice and he moved quickly over to the food along with the others. He still hadn't had a chance to talk much with H'Aki, and he could tell that she was still pretty sore. Whether it was from failing to disarm the bomb or the indecorous manner in which he'd found her he couldn't yet tell. He had meant to talk with her during lunch; to at least try to patch up roughed feelings. But maybe jumping right into another chance to make up for the morning's failure would work too.
Five butts found their seats rather efficiently and looked up at the holograms that were only just now beginning to envelop the room. Food found mouths by habit but all attention was now focused on the spinning orb of Renaissance which had two very clearly highlighted circles about both the cities of Foundation and New Hyjn.
"As usual, two teams. Bee, Kip, and H'Aki get New Hyjn, Drake and Sophia get Foundation City."Anki's brisk manner wasn't unusual, but it did seem to have an extra tension to it. Kip noticed as Leth and Sophia locked eyes for just a moment but he didn't have much more time than to notice as Anki was continuing. "Each team will be tasked with infiltrating a Children's Home, uploading a file to the nanny drone within, and getting out again before the respective Matrons are aware of your presence."
That must be why everyone was so on edge. Up until that morning they'd never really involved random civilians in their scenarios and even during the morning scenario they were supposed to avoid them. Now they were being sent right into the proverbial hornet's nest.
"We've confirmed that for both of the target Houses the Head Matrons will be away for an emergency meeting however you aren't to rely on that. Use your skills and especially your stealth. Folks, this will be your first live-fire exercise. Treat anyone you encounter as though they have no awareness of your mission, The Base, or even your real identity." Now it was each of their turns to look at each other. "You are under very strict orders to use physical force only if required for extraction. You will not risk exposing or endangering yourselves, is that clearly understood?"
A chorus of yeses responded.
"You'll each be taking different transportation and you'll meet up back here tomorrow after having spent the night aboard your respective transport ships. For reasons of guardianship I will accompany Drake and Sophia while Leth-" And she nodded to her cohort who stepped forward and nodded, "-will be traveling with you other three only so far as the arrivals gate on planet." Anki ended abruptly and looked about the group. Kip's own emotions were such a whirl of excitement and anticipation that he was entirely oblivious to the way in which H'Aki and Bee were glancing about. It was finally happening, he was finally going out in the field and he was actually going home. Even if he couldn't stay, that meant a lot.
There were no questions this time and while Kip tried to reign in his tempest of feelings on the matter Bee and H'Aki began their own brand of mental planning. Drake and Sophia just seemed as calm and collected as always.
Kip stepped off of the shuttle loading ramp alongside H'Aki and Bee. They were instantly surrounded by the throng of other people arriving from the orbiting spaceport. For many of these people it was their first planet-side view of a new home, for Kip it was a homecoming. This was his city, even if he'd only really lived here for less than a handful of standard years. It was the smells that hit him first and made it all so real.
It was the presence of Leth standing beside them which brought his mind back to the fact that this time was very different. It was still required that any minor either travel with some sort of guardian escort or the shuttle service, as commissioned by the Origin Colonial Authority, would provide one. Their next move would have been just a little difficult to explain to some unsuspecting colonial escort, and any drone escort may have raised alarm at it. So as they passed through the initial arrival checks and finally came to the open area where loved ones met travelers and emigrants stood to wonder at their new fates that each of the three pre-teens turned and shared a nod with their mentor, opponent, nemesis prankster, and temporary guardian. Then they each melted into the crowd and were gone.
Kip actually chose to step backward while the others each went their own way. He was amazed at how quickly old habits seemed to kick in as he found another family and started following them just a few steps behind. It was a tactic he'd used before and there was no reason why it wouldn't work now. Anyone looking out for unattended youth would just assume that he was a dawdling member of the other family and that family wouldn't pay any mind to some kid that wasn't theirs that just happened to be traveling in the same direction. He didn't even have to try to mask the unwashed state he used to live in, something which had always made this move risky in the past. It didn't take long, moving from group to group as he did, to eventually reach the spaceport exit and make his way across the arrivals loading zone to the friendly looking chain restaurant which sat just beyond. A few quick adjustments and the satchel which had been luggage now appeared to be a school bag. He pulled a hat from his coat pocket and put it off-cant on his head leaving the school mascot clearly visible. His posture changed as well. The boy who walked in and found a seat in one of the booths was no longer some sullen kid pulled on a family outing but now a rebellious school kid out on break from classes; ready to meet his friends.
Where were those friends anyway? He turned to look out the window back at the loading zone but he couldn't see either of the other two. Maybe it wasn't surprising that he'd made it here first, but he figured that they shouldn't be that far behind. One of the servers glanced his way and he just shrugged back at him. 'Don't know where they are' was a fairly universal body language and based on the amused grin he received from the server his ruse worked. That same server approached and offered him some water until his friends got there. He accepted, even had time to receive the offered water, and yet still they hadn't arrived.
He was almost about to go back out looking when finally both of them came through the door and found him in the booth. It was H'Aki who offered a hushed explanation. "Some do-gooder saw Bee and thought xe was a lost kid." H'Aki gave an amused grin at the absurdity of Bee lost. "Lucky 'big sis' was there to find you right?"
Bee gave H'Aki a look of over abused patience and even Kip had to question just how H'Aki, who looked just as young as Bee if not younger, could have convinced anyone that she was the older, more mature of the pair. The look was fully ignored and so Bee looked back to Kip to continue the story; "Crazy lady kept insisting that 'little girls should never be alone', I just couldn't get it through her head that I was perfectly capable of finding my own transportation to visit my Grandmama." Xe rolled xer eyes in the gesture Bee often reserved for those that just seemed unable to understand xer. Kip knew xer well enough by now to realize that it was likely the misgendering more than the unwanted mothering which annoyed xer more.
Conversation dropped quickly as the server came and took their orders. The plan held that after dinner they'd find public transportation heading into the city, ostensibly towards one of the more elite primary schools. As most formal education was conducted via network access and tailored for each child specifically, schoolhouses were much more of a freeform assemblage of students with proper adult supervision than rigid classroom affairs. Students studied at their own rate and took assessments which were used more to direct and guide than to rank. This left students of their apparent age a lot of freedom to come and go even during the evening so long as their student-specific learning goals were met. Periodic demonstrations or presentations were part of each curriculum as were each student's required responses to their peers' presentations. But again, it was between each student, parental guardian, and the school's curriculum directors as to how each goal was set and achieved. This all resulted in the concept of attendance at anything but the presentations as rather fluid and it was for this reason which the three of them had, with approval from Anki, adopted the persona of students out for dinner.
H'Aki waited for the server to leave before continuing. "The house is only about three blocks away from the school so I think we can walk it. The trouble is going to be getting inside."
"We couldn't be lucky enough to get a house in one of the towers could we?" Kip smirked knowing Anki and Leth would never have been so short-sighted as to select a target within one of the towers he knew so well. He practically knew the conduits of those atmospheric giants better than he knew himself.
Bee's raised eyebrow echoed his thoughts. "What about waste chutes? I know you said you've used those before."
Kip shook his head. "Naw, the chutes on the surface buildings tend to be pretty one-directional; down." He thought for a moment. "Why not just use the front door?"
Bee quickly pinged to his thought. "Right, why not? I could just forge us some transfer documents, and didn't Anki say the Head Matron would be out until tomorrow morning? I'll just fake his signature and we can be out of there before he shows up to contend it."
It took H'Aki a moment to check through the logic but soon even she was nodding. "How long to make the documents?"
Bee let out a rather uncharacteristic sigh. "I, um. I'm already working on it."
Kip and H'aki looked at each other then back at Bee, xe wasn't holding any sort of tablet.
Xe continued in a rather resigned manner. "Look, I'm not supposed to tell you this, or even to let you catch on. But Wards of the Colony don't have personally owned data-pads. They are always provided by the home. So we were going to have to ditch our school pads anyway right?" They nodded. "So you were going to find out pretty quick once we were inside anyway. I have implants, pretty high grade ones."
To say that this was a bombshell for Kip and H'Aki would have been calling a Titian Class ship 'big'. Kip actually realized he was gawking and had to shake himself visually to stop. Bee continued. "So do Drake and Sophia."
"Wait, and you weren't allowed to tell us?" H'Aki had recovered a bit quicker than Kip.
Xe was shaking xer head. "At first I thought it was a digi' thing. But I'm not so sure of that anymore."
Bee's continuing revelations were put on hold for longer than Kip would have liked as the server arrived with their food. It wasn't until he had asked them more times than necessary if there was anything else that they needed and left them to actually eat the food that Kip got out his first words on the matter. "But, those things are expensive!"
Bee didn't seem to know how to respond but H'Aki had to cover her giggle. No one had even thought of taking a bite yet. Unable to find a response Bee just continued. "At first I thought it was a digi' thing."
"But it's not?" H'Aki seemed pretty comfortable with the idea of the three digital sapients of their team being given a tool that would help them approximate the digitally expansive existence they had known prior to becoming sapients.
"No, I don't think Drake and Sophia were, are digitally minded."
"Wait, you were the one who told us they were." Kip was only just getting used to that fact. It had been the fact that H'Aki and he were different from the others which had in some ways helped him feel more kinship to her than the others. It was silly but he couldn't deny it.
"I know I did, but there was just something in their story that didn't stack up. And it was you who asked me to look into it a bit more anyway." Kip didn't have a response to that. "They work too good as a team. And they learned kinesthetic challenges way to fast not to have used those motions before." Still the others didn't respond. "I think they were once adults, homosapien adults."
"That's, just not possible." H'Aki's grasp on cloning sciences was horrible to say the least but even she knew they were in some pretty rare territory.
Bee nodded. "And that's what I thought to. But I think Sophia, or whoever she really is, was, figured it out."
The food was all but forgotten as the bite Kip had been about to take finally made its way back to the plate from whence it had come. "Why Sophia?"
"Well, I wasn't sure of it until this morning, when I saw Drake nodding to Anki."
"Yeah, I saw that too, what was all that about?" H'Aki had given up her own food as well.
"Well, neither of them was surprised by the sudden change in operational tempo like the three of us were." Understanding was still vacant from the others so xe began enumerating the signs one finger at time. "Extra-planetary travel, live-fire exercise rather than 'scenario', and even a return to these specific teams." Understanding was starting to dawn. "Those two knew this mission was coming. What's more, they ordered it."
Xe nodded. "That's what I meant about it being Sophia who came up with the cloning tech. Leth takes his direction from her not the other way around. It took me a while to see it but she is his mentor. It's in the way he looks at her, the way he never explains himself or the tech to her. He knows that she doesn't need him to because he learned it from her. Even the way he's never managed to pull a successful prank on her gives him away. He respects her too much."
"But what about..." Kip's brain just wasn't moving fast enough to continue the question.
"I know, it's a lot. But it's there." And this morning the nod that Leth gave the two of them was one of seeking approval. I think it's why Anki was always the one to brief us without Leth, they knew he had too many tells."
It was finally Kip's turn to nod as he understood how it had been Bee to see those almost imperceptible giveaways. H'Aki had more questions though. "So why was he there this time?"
Bee shrugged. "I don't know... yet." The determination in xer eyes said that xe would find out but as the server reproached to check on them they were reminded of their failure to consume even one bite of the rapidly cooling food.
The rest of the meal was taken in near silence with only a few remarks as to Mr. Capum's curriculum difficulty ratio or which curriculum director was more helpful for calculus than the others. Further discussion on how they'd get into the house had to wait until they were on their way but they had each all but forgotten about Bee's implants when compared to xer suspicions about their other two teammates. By the time the three of them stepped off the tram a few blocks away from their target they had again shifted their look to that of something more disheveled and worn out. Bee assured them that the documents were already set and uploaded to the Araai Foundation's server.
The rather neat Matron who greeted them at the door to the three story stone façade Childrens' House found three hungry, confused, and exhausted kids on her doorstep and never even thought to give their transfer papers more than a cursory glance. The poor things, how could anyone live with themselves to have run their House so poorly as to result in such fragile looking treasures? She had them inside and soup bowls in front of them before they could even object.
Her mortification was compounded when they seemed too tired even for the soup which went uneaten.
Private Relay, 19:26 hours,
::User XEPHARIOUS WRYN connects::
::User NARAISH ADARN connects::
::Package is deliverd. :: Xepharious Wryn
::I've had the drone reassigned due to 'maintenance needs' The Foundation won't think anything of it but you realize that I will need to tell them something.::Naraish Adarn
::In a few days you can tell anyone you trust the whole thing but for now this has to be completely legit so you can just tell them that it was a personal request from an 'unnamed' friend and imply that you happen to know that Matron personally. :: Xepharious Wryn
::Because I regularly fraternize with motherly old ladies? :: Naraish Adarn
::This one is young enough to be believable; what do they care you practically own their funding. They won't push it. :: Xepharious Wryn
::Alright, alright. But that's quite a few you owe me now. :: Naraish Adarn
I'll take it out of your tab. :: Xepharious Wryn
Hah! Like hole you will; ya grumpy Barkeep :: Naraish Adarn
Oh, they're in, gotta go. :: Xepharious Wryn
Good luck :: Naraish Adarn
For all of us :: Xepharious Wryn
::User XEPHARIOUS WRYN disconnects::
The front door approach came back to bite them in the ass. Kip, Bee, and H'Aki had no issues slipping out of the House later that night but apparently they hadn't counted on Matron Celeste's sixth sense. No sooner were they out of bed when they heard rummaging from down the hall. Kip's nanostraw, fully restocked with nanites thanks to Anki, got them through the front door again but they had to book it across the street as more than one light came on in the House's windows. The trouble didn't stop once they reached the spaceport either. Bee intercepted an all-points-bulletin with their faces as it sped ahead of them to reach every security officer throughout the spaceport. To add insult to injured pride, they were the exact same photos which Bee had so carefully implanted into their counterfeit files and given to the overprotective Matron.
Lucky for them, Bee wasn't the only one to catch the bulletin and as they peered out from their hiding spot near the departures drop off Leth's concerned face was more than evident as he obtrusively talked with more than one security guard. They fortified their pride and decided to accept the clearly offered option. As a group all three of them adopted the look of scared runaways, pulled hats or hoods low over their heads, and chose a path that would let them 'sneak' past the officers and into the spaceport. They were caught, as expected, but Leth had seen them coming and it was only a matter of flashing his own OSS credentials before he had assumed full custody of the errant youths. Leth didn't talk much during their trip spaceside and when Kip tentatively apologized for causing so much trouble Leth's only response was that Anki would cover the breach in OpSec during the debrief; tomorrow. By the time the three reached the Sub-Coordinator's docked Astero class frigate no one had said anything for over an hour. Bee, Kip, and H'Aki were escorted into a small passenger cabin where none of them really felt much like sleeping.
"I'm going for a refresher." It was the first words she'd spoken since the spaceport and H'Aki's declaration actually caused Kip to jump just a little. Without waiting for further comment she stood and started making her way down the narrow corridor towards the nearest restroom facility in search of a refresher nozzle.
Kip reached into his satchel, which they had retrieved on the way back, and brought out the datapad. He didn't really know what he was looking for but at the moment he didn't too much care. One of the Current News programs was still active from earlier when he'd wanted anyone who looked to believe he was a student, and one of the stories caught his eye. It was a culture piece about one of Origin's up and coming pop stars and for lack of anything better to watch he selected the story and brought up a short video of his performance.
Bee looked up at the soft music. "What are you watching?"
"Just some singer who opened the new theatre on Icarus." He didn't really look up but he did notice Bee scooching closer.
Xe looked over his shoulder as Kip moved the pad slightly left and the view shifted in response to circle the performer. The illusion of having personal control of a camera drone was seamless as the view shifted fluidly from one emplaced camera to another about the 360 degree theatre. It was a more traditional style of music, one that Kip wasn't particularly fond of, but it was still better than thinking about other things.
"Aren't you worried about Drake and Sophia?"
"I'm trying not to be." Kip lifted the pad to emphasize his current chosen distraction and Bee mumbled something sounding like and apology.
It was a few more moments before Bee spoke again. "It must be pretty cool to open a new theatre, or to be the first to really use a space like that."
Kip shifted his view from the singer in the spotlight and his band beside him and instead tried to look beyond the central stage situated near the southern pole of the theatre. The camera controls let him actually focus just to the side of the performers but not by much. Whoever had designed the YouView for this show never really anticipated someone might want to look back at the audience. "I don't know that he's really using much of the space though. Isn't this theatre supposed to be grav-controlled; a full sphere?"
The camera wouldn't let him see it, but to the side in a separate window he pulled up the specs on the physical space and shook his head. "Somebody ought to 'of put some real three-D thinking into this opening performance."
"The reviews were really good..." It wasn't a defense of the performers but more a statement and Bee offered it with only an informative tone.
"Yeah..." Kip seemed pretty deep in thought so Bee just waited. "I think I've seen this singer before."
Kip had always been more closed about his past than even H'Aki so the comment got Bee's attention. "In New Hyjn?"
He nodded slowly but his eyes were now looking at something far beyond the pad in front of him. "With my Mom."
"I thought you never knew your Mom." Kip winced just a little. He'd never really told any of them much about his past and he'd never even mentioned his mom to anyone other than H'Aki, and even that had been only in passing. "I'm sorry; we don't have to talk about it if you don't want."
Kip let out a slow sign. "No, it's ok. I guess most kids like me; orphans... we don't like talking about it, even if we were lucky, or unlucky enough to have known our true parents. I guess it's just too painful."
"I never knew my parents either."
Kip finally did look up to meet Bee's eyes. They were just as deep as his in that moment and he realized that for as much as he'd hidden his own past, he'd always just assumed xers had been a purely technological existence. "Would you like to talk about it?"
Xe shook xer head gently. "It doesn't hurt, not like it seems to for you. But I just don't have enough data on them to really talk about it."
It was a slightly cryptic response but he wasn't going to pry. Instead he decided that maybe talking about his own past might in some way help xer with xers. "We used to watch the stars together, that's what I remember, what I miss most." His voice had gotten just a little distant and xer eyes took on a sort of comforting warmth as xe listened. "We'd go out to the malls then, after late night sweets, we'd find the tallest building we could and just watch the stars 'till I fell asleep." He again paused but this time he looked up as though he could see those stars even now through the hull of the docked ship. Bee hadn't so much as moved but still xe offered him that look which was both understanding and just a bit mesmerized. Perhaps, never having had such memories with xer own family, xe was sort of sharing in his memories. "Then she got the offer to crew for a capsuleer."
It was pretty common for capsuleer crew to make significantly more than standard system crews and while there was certainly added risk to 'strapping in with an egg jockey', there was also a lot of prestige to it as well. If your capsuleer was good then the potential gains were even better. To make it even more enticing, because of Origin's standardly available re-lifing process, the overall risks of death were even less. Assuming sufficient suspended state biomass supply, an Origin system crew member could expect that prestige to bring them back to their loved ones even quicker. But biomass shortages were not uncommon and as Bee did the quick math on xer search the dates lined up pretty good. Kip's mom had likely gotten caught in the queue caused by the greatest biomass shortage in Origin history. Still, she would have eventually been re-lifed. "So, that would mean she is here then, somewhere right?"
Kip hadn't been privy to xer search and he looked even more pained. "She doesn't know where to find me, even if she was re-lifed. I... When the drone told me she'd been killed and wouldn't be coming home for some time I didn't understand. I thought she was REALLY dead, 'cause that's what happens to crew, that's what happened to my pa. I ran away.
"But you must have been tracked, right?"
His hand reached down and felt the scar. "I was, yeah... but I sold it, I guess before she could find me. She likely thinks I'm dead too. I tried going back to our old apartment when I finally understood that she might still be alive but it was rented out to someone else by then.
"You still remember your name right? Your real name?"
"Why not look her up?"
Kip shook his head violently. "She's better off not having to worry about me, better she thinks I'm dead." Even as he said it he recognized how much of a gut reaction his response had been, had always been. He let himself actually think about it, he'd always just assumed he'd not last much longer on the street and he had no money to get space-side to try to find her or even the inkling of where to start looking. But now... They sat in silence for a few moments before his thoughts finally came around. "Bee?"
"Do... Do you think you could search for her?"
The datapad's holo filled the stillness of the next few minutes with a song all too cheerful for the gravity Bee felt in his request. He had just taken a massive leap and asked xer to be his net. "I... Yes. I'll need at least your name though."
Sub-Coordinator Xepharious floated, suspended in his own pod and living through every conduit, sensor, and vocal pickup of the Angel's Song. He'd stayed docked though he knew that Drake and Sophia, or as he knew them; Agents Gein and Droitacopius, wouldn't be coming back that night and nor were they likely to return the following morning. He knew he was risking much by keeping his charges here but traveling back to Icarus with them right now was almost as dangerous. In the end he felt that having them tucked safely under his figurative wing was best. Besides, he couldn't bring himself to warp off when two of his agents were still directly in harm's way on the planet below. He'd set them up for the gamble and he'd see it through.
But his thoughts weren't on them in that moment, and they weren't even on their mission. Instead his multi-tasking mind was racing back to the files he and Solu had stored on the central secured network at Icarus. They were running a cross-check on two samples of blood which he'd never before thought to compare. It took only moments but the result filled him with such hope and triumph he dared not even breathe. But the tests were conclusive. Lethrov wasn't exactly an uncommon name and coincidences were plentiful when so many millions of people lived in one system. But the timeline and the woman Kip had described had been just too many coincidences. Xeph thought back to the bright and eager Munitions Mate he'd promoted to crew his very first stealth bomber, and that same bright and eager recruit he'd hired so long ago to crew the Relentless. He thought of how she would always find some remote spot in his ship from which to stare out at the stars. He also thought of how excited she'd been when he sponsored her for Capsuleer trials. Even then she'd been so very secretive about her past even going so far as to secure the identity of her only dependent. He'd never thought to look; thought to ask.
His thoughts now were on just how she would feel when tomorrow morning he'd bring Tezra Lethrov her long lost son.