Jade Imperium - Afghanistan, Pt. 1
Such is the situation that Angel Kesh, Garrett Davis, Ngawai Holoni (with Naloni balanced on her knee), and Swims-the-Black find themselves in, relaxing inside a tent outside one of the barracks, watching the soldiers hustle by with their duffle bags on their backs. Angel sighs, his feet up on a crate, still dressed just a little too stylishly for the middle-of-nowhere Afghanistan.
“Swear to god Davis.” He switches to Garrett’s last name partially to indicate he’s fucking with him - Ngawai had asked him to call him by his name and he tended to respect that. “Finally get back in an actual war, in an actual country, not getting shot at by aliens, and who’s in charge of the plan? You. So instead of a proper danger close artillery strike, or something equally safe, I’m going to get killed on a plan that hinges on the fact that next Wednesday is a half-moon and the cost of some tribal warlord’s favorite tea went up a dime.”
Garrett raises his right hand. “I swear on my honor as a former CIA case officer that this is a straight forward brigade-scale military operation. Lots of men and women with guns will be doing the bulk of the work, we’re just here to handle the sticky parts and put out any fires.”
Swims-the-Black chuffs a few times. ”Of course.”
“I…” Angel makes an expansive wave of his arm. “Do not believe you.”
Garrett winces. “Was it the ‘honor as a case officer’ part? I thought that was funny, at least.”
“Yes, the concept of a spy with honor is pretty amusing,” Ngawai replies as she plays with Naloni’s hands.
“True…” Angel inclines his head to Ngawai. “Though to be frank, you lost me at ‘CIA’.”
Garrett shrugs. “It’s true, though. I mean, the bulk of the work is going to be done by the tech. Between the forces we’ve brought on the ground and overhead and the Naranai’i tech we’re packing, we should be able to move at a pretty decent pace. The Taliban and their asshole friends have already made it pretty clear that the only thing worse than the Americans on their turf is aliens, so they’re looking for a stand-up fight and I’d hate to disappoint them.”
“That bit I can get behind. Never did like them much.”
Garrett nods. “I’ve got some unfinished business here myself.” Ngawai puts her hand on Garrett’s at that. “It’ll be good to finally make some real progress here.”
Swims nods and takes a drink from his beer. ”I knew Garrett fought here, but you did as well, Angel?”
“For a bit. Mostly I landed on the Iraq side of our expansive war on terror. Never did settle which was worse.” Angel took a sip from his beer, looking out at the landscape. “Pretty place though, when it’s not trying to kill you.”
”And these people we are fighting, they are…” Swims asks.
“Complicated. This particular strip of land has been having empires roll over it - and die in it - as long as there have been empires. At present, a group of religious extremists with a fondness for repression who rather vigorously supported some terrorists who attacked an American city.”
Swims coughs and barks a bit at that, while Ngawai simply raises an eyebrow. “How bad was it?”
“Close to 3,000 people dead, split between four airliners, two skyscrapers, and the Pentagon.”
Garrett nods sagely. “They flew the planes into the skyscrapers and the Pentagon, and one crashed in a field - and the skyscrapers fell.”
Swims rolls purple for a moment - and red. ”That is terrible.” His hand runs a claw down the beamer at his side. ”It will make shooting them feel more worthwhile.”
Ngawai nods. “No doubt.” She bends over and rubs her nose against Naloni’s. “Isn’t that right, sweetie? Mommy and daddy and Uncles Swims-the-Black and Angel are gonna go kill a lot of bad guys.” Naloni coos at that.
Angel nods. “Sure as hell going to try.”
Hale nods. "Oma. Border mining world, maybe...a few hundred thousand people there, settled in the northeast of the planet in dozens of small towns. Terrorists - I mean, rebels - had a solid foothold, and the Hand that Guides declared the mining operations too valuable to risk Needleship strikes, and so we went in. The whole Forty-Second of Duis' Ninety spent four years going from town to town." Hale pauses to take a bite of his food, giving Hunter the chance to look around and see all the inquisitive/wary/furious eyes looking at the Imperial sitting across the table from him. "We'd move in, meet with the local council or leader, and then do weeks of patrols around the area, keeping an eye out for any terrorist activity. Sometimes we'd find nothing, sometimes they'd be stupid and trigger-happy and try to blow us up right away, but usually they were smart enough to stay hidden and had friends in the town." Hale sighs and looks out the window again. "And that was when we brought in the Truthseekers." He shakes his head. "We'd get what we wanted, but...I would prefer to forget how often I've seen what a motivated Truthseeker can do." Hale's eyes drift towards the mountains off in the distance. "Beautiful planet, though. Good people, when they weren't trying to kill us. But I suppose they had a good reason."
Hunter nods, noting the eyes on them. “With everything I’ve read about Truthseekers, it sounds like they had reason enough. And I wouldn’t be surprised if rebel activity sprung up after using one. You go far enough in that kind of war, the origin gets kinda hazy; it just becomes a chain of revenge. Roadside bomb kills someone’s buddy, drone strike hits a wedding party, honor compels a response. You end up with a blood feud disguised as a police action.”
Hale shakes his head. “We never felt that way - at least as far as my trin was concerned. It was...sad and frustrating. We were going to win. But they threw their lives away for nothing - I still don’t understand it.”
Hunter frowns. “Hard to know for sure, but in my experience it seems like there are few forces more powerful in human psychology than the belief you don’t have a choice. Most every fighting force runs off that feeling. Maybe they were tired of running scared, and just snapped. Maybe they didn’t think it was hopeless. Which reminds me: why’d you choose to fight for us, Hale? You could have defected and lived peacefully in Northern Virginia, got yourself a contractor job. What brought you back into the fire?”
Hale crosses his arms and narrows his brow at Hunter. “Because your teammate, the Smiling Beast, talked me into it.” His frown deepens. “No, that’s not it. He...he showed me - no, that’s not it either.” Hale sighs. “This is a hopeless fight. I know it is. The Imperium has trillions and trillions of people in it, against one little planet, a few hundred million refugees without a home, a species that we’ve kept ignorant for hundreds of years, and billions of AI that will probably skin you all alive because they’re bored.” He shakes his head and returns to looking out the window. “But...but even though I know this, I...they are wrong. Our leaders - I mean, their leaders are wrong, and the people are wrong for believing their lies about how they are protected by the Turai. I know, I have been there, I have seen what we do in their name. We have…” Hale sucks in a stuttering breath before looking back at Hunter, trying to steel his face against the emotions attempting to escape. “I have done some terrible things in the name of keeping the galaxy together. And it has to stop. I don’t care who does it or how, but...I can’t let it happen anymore, and if you Narsai’i are as terrible as your allies seem to think you are, then maybe it won’t be you that does it, and I’ll have to find someone else to do this with. But that’s what I’m here for.” He takes out a bit of pent-up emotion on his chicken with a stab of his fork. “What are you here for, Hunter?”
“My daughter. My son. My own sense of justice. My own sense of ego, knowing that I couldn’t be left out of the biggest struggle in my planet’s history, to be quite honest. But mostly my children. If I die in battle so they can die of old age, it’ll be worth it.” Hunter lets a smile curl up his lip. “And when it comes to the odds, fuck it; Vidas Lam started with one planet, didn’t he?”
Hale chuckles. “Yes, he did.” He takes another bite and another thoughtful break to chew. “And your reasons...they are the right ones. Better than mine, at least.”
Hunter shrugs. “It’s early yet. Plenty of time to find new ones.”
Hale shakes his head one more time. “I think stopping something terrible from happening is a good enough reason - it’s that I used to be the one that did terrible things that is the problem.”
“It’s a problem,” Hunter admits, “but as strange as it sounds it’s also a reason for hope. If you can change, I reckon most Turai can. And if more of them do, we’re not going to be a handful of planets for long.”
“Maybe,” Hale says with a nod. “You’d better hope so; it’s probably the only chance you’ve all got.”
Only some of the command staff are there - General Cooper, Hug'sh and Rodirr, Onas, and one of the Sheen generals, currently in hexapedal shell just taller than the Narsai'i general. The holodisplay on the main table is projecting a slowly rotating three-dimensional map of their first advance - a week-long push designed to push the Red Zone back about fifty miles and draw the Taliban out of their holes for a fight. Blue forces are shown to be heavily outnumbered by green - the Narsai'i refusal to label the off-world elements in the same color a battle Garrett has long since had to acquiesce to - but they're all moving as one united front from the southwest, pushing north and east in an unfolding line.
And it's something to do with this line that Cooper and Onas are...discussing.
"You limit the 815 with your...your limited eyes," Onas counters.
"They're not all-powerful," Cooper replies. "And they can't be everywhere at once. They're a valuable resource, I agree - so let's put them on one job and let them get it done."
The Sheen, one optics pod on the door, speaks up the instant you all step inside. "Finally," it grunts. "Enough bitching, maybe we could finally ask them what they want to do."
Rodirr flashes an amused green for a moment. "Yes, that sounds like a good idea."
General Cooper and Onas both turn to the team. "Welcome back, all of you," Cooper says. "There is a difference of opinion as to how your team could be best utilized."
"I gathered," Garrett says.
"What is the disagreement?" Arketta asks.
"It's agreed among the strategists we have here that Task Force 815 would be best utilized on a single high-priority mission for the initial push," Cooper says, and waves a hand over the holodisplay - actually moving it where he wanted it to go for once. "There's a few candidates, but essentially, rather than spreading your expertise thin, we put you on one mission and leave it to you to complete."
"And see if we can do what we're told and play nice," Ngawai adds.
"And that," Cooper agrees. "You have a history of difficulty with that." Hug'sh and Rodirr both glimmer green for a moment.
"While I think that the 815 would be best at responding to problems as they occur," Onas says. "The skimmers we have will move you across the line in very little time, and you will have the ability to respond to what you want."
"Spreading them thin across hundreds of miles of front," Cooper replies.
"They can handle it," Onas replies.
"So, those are your options," Rodirr says.
"And if you choose to pursue a single mission, there are two that could use a force of your expertise," Cooper says. He highlights two particularly nasty looking routes - one narrow finger of red running up a mountain valley, and another a broad swath of crimson on a high plateau. "Here, this mountain pass will allow us to cut days off of our travel eastward - and the Taliban know it. It's a favorite place for mortar and rocket ambushes from the mountains on both sides, but they don't dare blow the road, since it's their only way in and out too." He points to the second area. "And here, we've been squeezed by our timetable - we need to transport Sheen and Bashakran equipment out ahead of the route clearance and main forces over this plateau, but it's an area of heavy insurgent activity - ambushes, IEDs, even a few cobbled-together up-armored technical strikes."
The Sheen turns all of its sensor pods on the team. "So? What do you think?"
With a tinge of yellow for emphasis, Hug'sh taps a claw on the map.
"This plateau," he grunts. "The enemy recognizes its importance and has deployed their forces to secure it. Ambushes need men, men need to rest and sleep and eat. Ay-iiiiih-dshs" - Hug'sh tries his hand at pronouncing the phrase - "bombs require supplies and technicians. Vehicles require fuel. 815 can not only secure a route, but figure out where the enemy is staging from, how they operate and communicate. This is a problem worthy of their attention." He then taps the mountain pass. "Vital as the supply route through the mountains is, it is an area of low engagement. The enemy deploys rocket and mortar teams as well as scouts here, but cannot bring in large vehicles or massed troops - if this road is the only thing worth drawing on your maps, then they are likely reduced to using difficult footpaths into the mountains. It will be very difficult to locate the enemy in this territory, and even more difficult to fight them effectively. The 815 may know many things, but they are not trained for mountain warfare. In the left claw, however, the enemy cannot linger long in this territory without supply. Control the surrounding areas and use flying machines to watch the mountains from above - they may not be able to hunt down the enemy even then, but they will be in the best position to shoot back when an attack occurs."
He leans forward. "815 is best at dealing with situations we have time to dig into and locate enemy weaknesses that favor asymmetric combat. With respect, Onas, rapid reaction means having very little time to get to know the terrain or the odds, or find the enemy's weak points. Spending that time on a single high-value target is more likely to be worth it than trying to go in against a bunch of little fights without the time to really be ready."
He nods to Cooper. "Between the two targets the General suggests, I also agree with Walks-the-Fire that the investment's more likely to result in a meaningful victory at the plateau. At the plateau, we can create a gap the rest of the force can easily exploit, and we're not trained for the kind of mountain warfare that finding and fixing the enemy meaningfully would mean at the pass."
"What do you think, Arketta?" Garrett asks.
"I think both of these are bad ideas," Arketta says. "The mountain road, we wouldn't see any of them until we are right on top of them, and the pass is steep enough that without skimmers - or Mantas - we couldn't get high enough quickly enough to strike back. It'd be about survival, not clearing the way -" She turns to Cooper and raises an eyebrow. "Unless we're the bait for Narsai'i flying attack vehicles. That is the only way to make sure all of the hostiles are dead."
Cooper nods. "That is what we were hoping you would say. The predecessors to Task Force 815 did similar things in the past, and between the Sheen and our own close air support, we can keep you covered well enough to enable you to strike back and enter the caves they're hiding in."
"Or we would get blown up by rockets and mortar fire," Arketta replies. She turns to the plateau model next. "Not that the plateau is much better. We would have line of sight - but so would the enemy. I have fought in similar circumstances against insurgents when I was Imperial Turai - we should expect IEDs on and off the roads, rocket and mortar ambushes sighted on the road, and machine gun positions. It will be...loud and uncomfortable."
She sighs and puts her hands on her hips as she stands upright again. "But that is the advantage, too. Instead of hundreds of places to hide, there are...three villages on this route, and those are the only places where they could be staging in this area. They will be in one of those villages. It will be hard getting there, and they will be dug in, but we will at least have a target to hit." Arketta looks to Garrett. "I vote we hit the plateau."
Ngawai nods. "Rapid response would be a waste of effort, and we'd be too spread out to be effective. We do our best work all together."
Garrett nods and turns back to Cooper. "Then that's settled. We'll get your convoy through, General."
"Word of advice on the skimmers. Fast as they are, their glorified helicopters, and not that hard to down with small arms fire." Angel knew that bit from experience. "And if there's one group in the world that's really good at taking down glorified helicopters with small arms fire, it's the Afghans."
"Indeed," Onas says. "Garrett, Luis, stay here and speak with me when we're done."
"Right," the Sheen general says. "Anyway, we'll all be up in here, keeping shit rolling from our end. The Narsai'i will be in strategic command, with Onas, Bello, Rodirr and myself here to keep the Homeworlders from touching any of the cogitators and electrocuting themselves." Onas smirks at that.
"You'll have MRAPs as well as CAS and field artillery support," Cooper says.
Garrett raises an eyebrow. "Expecting a party, I guess."
"You'll be a platoon going up against a company-sized force," Cooper says. "Some additional firepower is warranted." He looks over the map one more time. "You have your mission, 815. Tomorrow, 0900, you roll out at the head of the convoy. Take tonight to get ready and get some rest. Dismissed."
"What's on your mind, Onas?" Garrett asks, switching back to Imperial.
"I have been tasked with giving you the Bashakra'i briefing," Onas replies, and looks to Luis. "Be sure to pass this along to Samal Quis."
Luis simply nods, with a certain degree of “of course” visible in his face.
"Bello's feeds have been established in the Narsai'i housing," Onas starts. "Nothing suspicious so far, but he's just connected his threat analysis cogitator to the feeds, so we should have a better idea soon. Of course, any direction you or any of the other 815 can point us would aid our search for traitors."
Luis frowns. He’d been briefed on the plan to emplace the feeds, but hadn’t liked it. “I’m reasonably sure of the ones we brought. As for the others...we don’t know enough to point out any worries that might or might not be there.”
Garrett, on the other hand, seems to have not been given the full Bashakra'i plan. "How extensive, exactly, is this surveillance?"
"The Narsai'i housing and common areas," Onas replies.
"And it was done -" Garrett starts.
"It was done by Bello's agents," Onas replies simply.
"Right, so at least we won't have to worry about the Narsai'i eating the bugs by accident," Garrett says. "And Luis already knew because..."
"He is fifth in command of the Bashakra'i on Narsai," Onas says. "There was not enough time to fully inform the GRHDI."
"Right..." Garrett says with a slow nod.
"Anyway, this plan," Onas says. "Does it seem excessively dangerous to either of you?"
"Not...excessively dangerous," Garrett hedges. "I mean, it seems legit to me."
“It’s special ops,” Luis says. “Outnumbered, critical locations...it’s sort of what we’re for. It doesn’t smell any more dangerous than ‘brown out a planet.’ If there’s anything that’s not legit about it, it’d be buried in the details we haven’t had time to dig into yet.”
"That's what worries us," Onas says. "Not that we don't trust the Narsai'i, but we do not trust them completely. Yet." He crosses his arms and narrows his eyes at the room. "There's definitely some...ugly attitudes in this group of Narsai'i."
“Anything worse than we’ve already dealt with?” Luis asks.
"I am worried for some of our Turai," Onas says. "If it is found out that they are homosexuals. I have heard some...comments." His brow furrows further. "It is no wonder Paul hides himself away on Boranai with me. And if that is their attitude towards something so minor, then I am worried for all of our safety."
“Attitudes change quickly, sometimes,” Luis says. “They are on that. If anything, looking at how much the Narsai’i have changed on that gives some hope for accepting other differences.”
"That does not change the things that they say now," Onas grunts.
“No, it doesn’t,” Luis says. “It doesn’t stop them from saying things about people just like Paul and you, and it doesn’t stop them from calling Garrett and me and Hug’sh and the rest of us insane or traitors or going native. But we can’t afford to let it bend us, or divert us now. We’ve just got to push on, and do the job until they change their minds.”
"Right," Onas says. It doesn't change his expression much.
"Still not gonna trust them until they wisen up?" Garrett asks.
"Pretty much," Onas says. "Good luck on your mission."
"Thanks," Garrett says.
“Thanks,” Luis says. “Good luck back here.”
"I will do what I can," Onas says. "And do not blame me if a loud-mouthed Narsai'i gets thrown through a table," he adds, giving one or two in the tent a particularly hard glare.
Except for one particular convoy. Garrett walks along the side of the line of MRAPs, jealously inspecting the convoy that he will not be taking part in - and the reason for that is strapped to his chest in her sling. Naloni eyes the massive trucks with the same wide-eyed fascination that she gives almost everything as Ngawai walks up next to her husband and gives him a kiss.
“You get checked yet?” Garrett asks.
“Rod is full, beamer and vox charged up, gear all checks out, fluids full,” Ngawai replies, and draws her sidearm - a SIG P227 - and checks for a round in the chamber. “Sidearm ready to go. Ready for patrol.” She smirks. “Looking forward to getting back out there.”
“I bet,” Garrett replies. His eyes are communicating something more nervous than congratulatory. “Be careful. All right?”
Ngawai’s smile changes tone, and she leans forward to bump foreheads with Garrett. “I will, lahna. I promise.” She gives Naloni a kiss before looking back up to Garrett’s face. “I won’t even ask Swims-the-Black to shoot me in the gut.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Garrett says with a smile. “Good luck.”
“Good luck,” Ngawai echoes, and climbs up into her MRAP.
Further up the convoy, Hale and Hunter walk along the line of vehicles, Hale giving the convoy a worried look. “This is a bad idea,” he says.
Hunter keeps walking. “Talk to me, Hale. Tell me what you’re seeing, and what you think it means.”
“We’re guarding this convoy,” Hale starts. “A convoy that we know is going into hostile territory. The briefing said they would have repeating Narsai’i projectile weapons, explosives hidden on the roads, and ambushes in the villages.” He knocks on the side of the MRAP next to them. “And all we have are these things. Armor’s nice, but they can always just build a bigger bomb.”
Hunter nods, and shrugs. “The best defense against ambushes and IEDs, in my experience, is a deep familiarity with the environment, and the situational awareness to know when something’s off. We don’t really have that. At some point, we know they’re going to try and hit us. There are fewer places to for that to happen, and bigger bombs need a bigger logistical tail. I’m not saying it’s an ideal strategy--we’re basically waiting for them to swing a bag of hammers at us-- but they’re going to have to show their hand relatively quickly.”
“And then we’re going to shoot back with one of those?” Hale asks, looking up at the long barrel of the M2HB mounted on the top of the MRAP. “Or that?” He nods to the Mark 19 mounted to the lead MRAP in front of theirs.
Hunter looks at the weapons for a long moment. “If it comes to that, but it’d be nice to pick them up earlier. There’s a reason we have drones hanging out here ‘round the clock.” He gestures to the sky, index finger making small circles.
“Not...Sheen,” Hale says.
“No, they’re remotely controlled from...locations in the US,” Hunter says. “So they’re not true AI, but since their pilots aren’t tied to the craft they can stay in the air indefinitely. They can’t substitute for a presence on the ground, but they’re invaluable for certain things.”
Hale sighs. “Good. I know that they are supposedly on our side now, but...I do not trust them.” He looks back to the MRAP. “Or this plan. Why not use your skimmers? Mantas? Whatever flying vehicles you Narsai’i have?”
“Because if the people of this land know two things, it’s herding animals and shooting flying vehicles with shoulder-fired rockets,” Hunter says. “I can see why they’re being sparing with deployment during these early stages. Once we put them into the field, it won’t be long before the enemy learn how to hit them.”
Hale’s eyebrows raise. “Okay, maybe not, then.” He pounds the MRAP one more time. “All that war you talked about, I guess. Then I guess we’re riding in these things.” He looks back up at the M2 on top of the MRAP. “Don’t suppose I’ll get a chance to man that thing? What does it shoot? That metal band the energy feed for the big accelerator shroud?”
Hunter realizes Hale’s mistake. “Actually, why don’t I brief you on our armaments...”
This one’s been marinating for five hours, and while Hug’sh obviously does not greatly mind his own musk, the same cannot be said for the others in the vehicle. Ngawai and Arketta, though closer to Hug’sh, gamely bear up to the odor, but the Army driver up front is sucking air almost exclusively from the ventilation hole in his window and, frankly, looks like he’s been figuring out how to throw up out of said hole without getting his breakfast all over the interior of his ride for the last, oh, ten minutes or so.
”Perhaps we should consider technicals,” Hug’sh jokes, trying to lighten the oppressive mood from his oppressive funk just a little.
"There's always the roof," Ngawai jokes back.
"How did Garrett take losing the lat flip?" Arketta asks.
"Not well," Ngawai replies, smirking. "But he lightened up when Naloni laughed as he picked her up." She sighs and her smirk turns into a smile.
”She’ll be crawling soon,” Hug’sh says. ”That’s when the fun really starts.” He chuffs his fur in a futile attempt to cool down a little. ”How much further?”
Arketta flips up the holodisplay on her carapace. "Half-hour before we cross the DL."
”I see,” Hug’sh says. With the conversation’s topics seeming momentarily exhausted, he reaches for his own vox and calls up the interface to scroll through his to-do log. His eyes are drawn to a very, very important item, and his fur turns green and yellow as he manipulates the controls to start a new recording.
”Hello, Torega,” he begins. ”Today, we are on a new mission to explore a village. Ngawai and Arketta are with me. The weather is very hot here, and the air is thinner than at Mesas Negras, but we are fine. I hope that you are doing well in school and that everything is all right at home. I look forward to your next message. All my love, daughter. You are in my heart always.” He clicks off the recording, then puts the file into the upload queue for the next gateway connection. He looks up to see both women in the back of the MRAP smiling warmly in his direction; Ngawai with the knowing joy of a new mother, and Arketta with the warm smile of someone who hopes to be a mother very soon.
”Sorry,” Hug’sh blurts, though his fur clearly shows the distinct lack of sorriness. ”I just thought I’d take care of some things while I’m sitting around doing nothing useful.”
"I think it's cute," Arketta says, her smile refusing to dim. "Someday soon, I hope to do the same for my little one."
”We’re going to have some fucked-up photo album evenings,” Hug’sh says, then pitches his voice higher in a mock tone. ”Oh, look, here’s daddy and his friends clearing a building! Oh, and this is where we took artillery fire, wasn’t that exciting? Yes it was!”
Ngawai and Arketta both laugh at that. "But we will certainly be close," Ngawai replies.
”Hazardously close?” Hug’sh digs, but then follows that up with a harrumph. ”That...didn’t translate as well as I wanted it to. Joking aside, though, it’s a little strange to me how our children are growing up when war is so...normal. I remember my Grandfather, and he’d barely even admit to having been to Korea, nevermind tell us anything about what he did there.” A little blue filters into Hug’sh’s fur.
"Our children will be fine," Arketta says.
Ngawai nods along. "Hug'sh, that is just how life in the Imperium has been. We are always at war with terrorists trying to destroy the Imperium - and there usually is a real threat out there. It is a dangerous galaxy, and we have done all right." She gives a sardonic laugh. "I mean, look at us."
”Indeed,” Hug’sh says. ”I hope they have a well at our stop.”
Ngawai nods towards Hug'sh's gear. "Give me your spray bottle, I'll fill it up."
”I’m not sure more water in the air in here will help,” Hug’sh replies. ”Unless you really like the fragrant mix of wet puppies and ashes.”
"I have smelled worse," Ngawai says.
"And I have my helm if it gets really bad," Arketta adds with a smile.
”I was thinking of our ally in the front,” Hug’sh says. ”It’s good for a Wherren to look green, but on a human…”
Ngawai laughs. "Fair enough," she says, but then gives Hug'sh a look that still seems strange on the hardened bounty hunter's face - a warm maternal smile. "But if you need it, just let me know."
”Will do,” Hug’sh answers. ”So, Ngawai…” he begins. ”I’ll just come out with the stupid question, but what was it like for you with Naloni when she was born? I hope I’m not prying...”
"It was very painful," Ngawai says bluntly, but still with a smile on her face. "I have been shot more than once, and giving birth was more painful than any of that."
”And afterwards?” Hug’sh asks. ”They look so...small.”
"Afterwards..." Ngawai sighs as Arketta settles in and pays rapt attention. "Afterwards was life-changing. Everything I thought I knew about what mattered to me...it changed. I...I..." Ngawai sniffles and wipes her eyes. "It made...what I was trying to do before..." She looks to the side and stops talking.
Hug’sh reaches over and puts his hand on her shoulder. ”I understand if this is too private for you…”
"No," Ngawai says, shaking her head. "No, Doctor Jessica said that talking about this is good. Ask, please."
”What is it like to...nurse?” Hug’sh asks, then quickly adds a new waterfall of words as his fur tinges bluer. ”I mean, Wherren cubs are obviously very different from human babies, they can cling to fur and there’s three at a time and they’re smaller, but with Wherren both parents nurse and Rhea’s done it before but I don’t even know where to start trying to figure that out, she says it’ll come naturally but I’m really concerned about this because I want to be a good father to my cubs from the first moment and it’s my duty to be there for them just as much as their mother and -”
"Okay, okay," Ngawai says. "You honestly don't need to do that much. You just put them in the right place, and they know how to do the rest."
”How does it feel?” Hug’sh quickly asks. ”When do you know they’ve...had enough?”
Ngawai smiles. "It's...nice. And eventually either they stop, or you decide they've had enough."
”I...see,” Hug’sh replies, not sounding very reassured. ”I guess I’ll find out, then. Thank you for sharing, Ngawai.”
"Hug'sh, what are you really worried about?" Ngawai asked. "Or you, Arketta? I...I am definitely not the best mother in the world, but..." She swallows hard. "I will share what I can."
”I don’t know,” Hug’sh admits. ”It’s...it’s hard to explain. I feel so anxious, and I’m not sure if it’s just...biology, or some worry I haven’t dealt with properly, or the universe trying to tell me something and me not being ready to listen. I...I hope that when the time comes, when that moment is there, that I will be ready. That is all.”
"Well, some of it is...what is going on inside of you," Ngawai replies, then turns to Arketta. "You'll find out all about that soon enough." She looks back to Hug'sh. "And as for the rest of it...I want you to be completely honest, completely cold, and forget about how I feel - do you think you are better-suited to be a parent than me? Or Garrett?"
Hug’sh actually yelps at that question. ”No!” he adds. ”That is...no, of course not. Why would we think that? It’s not a competition, Ngawai.”
Ngawai raises an eyebrow.
”There are no perfect parents,” Hug’sh says. ”We all take it one day at a time and try to do our best. Yes?”
"But?" Ngawai asks.
”No but,” Hug’sh says. ”Ngawai, anyone who sees you and Garrett with Naloni and doesn’t think you’re great parents needs to get their head examined. What’s this about? Are the Narsai’i being dicks again? Because that’s seriously about half of what Narsai’i do, be dicks.”
"That is not what I am saying," Ngawai says. "My point is, I look at how other parents are, and I can't help but think that they're doing everything wrong sometimes. I know that I am doing my best to raise Naloni to be strong, fierce, smart and independent. She will be able to shoot the wings off of a bug at 100 meters by the time she is 12, and she will calculate cruise vectors in her head by 15. And if she doesn’t want to do that, if she wants to play a quith and join a band, then we’ll help her be the best at that, too. Garrett and I, we kick ass at being parents, even though we're terrible at it all the time. It's that confidence that keeps me going. I will give anything to make sure of all of this, because...because she makes me feel like I can. Do you understand?"
Hug’sh nods. ”I understand,” he says. ”We want the best for Torega and our next litter, too. We don’t know what that is yet, but we will all find out together. I think that’s the important part at the core.”
Ngawai nods. ”Then I think you’ll be just fine. That’s all any of us want, I think.” Arketta nods along.
Hug’sh chuffs his fur and lets another green note enter his pattern. ”Perhaps once Naloni can crawl, we could arrange a play date,” he says.
”Perhaps,” Ngawai replies, then turns to Arketta. ”And then you and Luis could join us.”
”Hopefully,” Arketta says. She shakes her head and smiles. ”We really are making our own little insurgency. I’m just thinking about what will happen when they learn to talk to each other.”
”That’ll be the last day I sleep,” Hug’sh jokes.