Can't feel the arm. Think its still there. Rifle's empty. Squad needs you. Chips are down...
The marksman's empty rifle clatters uselessly down onto the bullet, beamer and boot churned earth, his still functioning right arm going for his pistol. The rarely used but immaculately maintained HK45 comes up. Time seems to slow down as he lines up a shot on the screaming trophy-taking, genocide-instigating, civilian-murdering asshole. The Khiraba's warcry is met with an oddly detached quiet as he squeezes the trigger.
Angel sends the last Khiraba to hell with a clean headshot. The Imperial's arms go as limp as his legs, but Angel keeps the HK45 trained on the dead men until Cowboy, Semo, and Davis trample through the shredded underbrush, pick their way over wherren corpses, and emerge into a rain-soaked armageddon. Everyone here is fucked up. Luis is holding his severed arm and is trying to somehow also get to his kauka. Hugh's lying on the ground, trying to clamber over a dead Chosen and stand on his good leg. Angel's been reduced to using his pistol. His pistol. He's lost most of his vest and shirt, and sways like a wino on a raft. Arketta lies in the mud, a nasty black burn marring her right ear and scalp. Zaef's down as well, with a ubiquitous grenade pin glinting in his left hand and several beam and bullet wounds crisscrossing his torso.
"Sir, you guys are a mess," Semo states the obvious as he pulls Hugh to his feet.
"Yeah, the wherren have the perimeter secure and Swims-the-Black and the Turai are protecting the Keepers, Captain Verrill," Davis says as he surveys the scene. On seeing Luis' sorry state, he runs over and sits Luis down. "Hey, hey, Luis, look at me," he says as he grabs onto Luis' severed arm with one hand and detaches his kauka with the other. "How are you doing?"
Luis blinks, his vision fuzzy at the edges. Shock, he thinks. "Is Arketta all right?"
"She's gonna be just fine," Davis says. "You can see as soon as you're put back together, so, let go of your arm, okay?"
"...Yeah, whatever." Luis relaxes his grip with the hand he's still hooked to and blinks again. It doesn't help the blurriness.
Davis takes Luis' left arm, turns it around and makes sure it's oriented the right way before he holds it onto the ragged burned stump with one hand and activates the kauka.
Still fuzzy, and trying to ignore the kauka going to work, Luis stares into the middle distance. "I kind of hate those things," he mutters. "Makes pulling the trigger too easy. Makes starting a fight easier." He pauses. "I don't mind so much what it can do for your body, but even that's not quite right either."
Davis nods as the device knits Luis' arm back together and he semi-rambles through the shock. "Just like any other tech, Luis. Depends on the hand that's wielding it. Beats the alternative, though."
Luis nods slowly, "I guess."
As the arm knits itself back together, Luis lets out a sigh. "Davis...help me up, will you?" He reaches up with his good arm.
"You sure?" Davis looks at the mushy gap in Luis' bicep where the flesh is still regenerating without skin protecting it.
"Yeah. If I'm well enough to be shooting, I can do this."
Davis nods and lifts Luis up with one arm under his good right arm's shoulder. Luis wobbles a bit and still looks very pale, but he manages to support his own weight and the weight of his gear. He sticks Luis' kauka in his right hand. "She's all yours, Luis."
With Davis's help, Luis makes his way to where Arketta lies. With Luis' left arm still knitting, it takes Davis' help to get down to his knees. Carefully, he rolls Arketta over, and goes to work. As he works, he mutters to Arketta, and he reaches out with his left hand, injured arm shaking with the effort, and touches her cheek. "Come on, Arketta. You can do this. Come on, soldier."
Cowboy's hard-pressed to find a surviving Khiraba, actually. The female's been shredded by Zaef's grenade. The SCAR sniper, dead thrice over by bullet and beam. The other rifle-wielder's a lead balloon, and the guy with the knives is face down, a perfectly round hole drilled into his helmet visor. Only one Imperial is still bleeding, the one Luis riddled with submachinegun fire. His breathing is shallow, and he couldn't possibly have that much more blood to lose, but Cowboy grants him a merciful death. Better this way than to bleed out slow, or be healed only to be handed over to the wherren, or taken back to camp and risk escape or sabotage.
The burnt, crackling flakes of Arketta's head wound fall off like dead leaves, revealing bare skull for a moment before pink, red, and then tan close back over the wound. Her ear starts regenerating, and Arketta comes around. Her groggy eyes focus on Luis and she immediately looks to his arm. She's relieved his actual arm is reattched, and smiles. "We got them, Luis," she says as she hugs the Delta medic, nodding in approval as the last Khiraba's executed.
Davis looks over at Cowboy as he cuts the throat of the last surviving Khiraba and nods. "Good thinking," he says, and turns back to Arketta and Luis when she stirs awake. He smiles and pats Luis on the back, then stands up and jogs over to Zaef. He gets a quick application of the kauka's special rays and Davis waits for him to wake back up as his unseen bullet holes and beam scars close up.
Zaef groans as he comes to; his chest still feels like someone tried to cook it from the inside out but the pain starts to fade slowly. He opens his eyes to see Davis is hanging over him with a kauka, almost exactly like Luis did just minutes ago. "Fuck ME, can't I get woken by a hot chick for once?"
Davis laughs and clasps hands with Zaef to pull him to his feet. "Sorry to disappoint you," he says. "You all right, Zaef?"
Zaef takes it and pulls himself to his feet, not even grimacing as his chest starts to burn again. "I've had far worse than this. How are the others? We still got everyone?"
"Looks like, you and Arketta were the only ones that were down, but Angel and Hugh could still use some healing," Davis says. He looks over at the blasted remains of the female Khiraba. "That your doing?"
Zaef grunts. "Looks like it. How many bodies we got? There were six of the fuckers."
"All six are dead," Davis says. "Great work, Zaef. I'll let you catch your breath, alright?"
"Yeah, you get to work." Zaef trudges over to the corpses and finds that Cowboy has already done a marvelous job of slitting throats. He does, however, know that there are some nice knives on one of the bodies, and probably a few Turai swords lying about as well. Along with these, Zaef also manages to find not one, but TWO kaukas. He decides to spread some of this good fortune around.
Zaef walks over to Angel with the disc in hand. "Hold still, I'll see what I can do about those burns."
Davis sees Hugh wobbling a bit, trying to keep himself upright, and jogs over to him next. "Hey, Captain Verrill, let me help you out," Davis says, and activates the kauka next to his chest.
"Thanks, Davis," Hugh says, wincing as the kauka does its work. "Looks like we got into a fair fight. Rookie mistake."
"Damn fucking straight," Davis says, and claps Hugh on the back as his wounds start closing up. "Don't ever make that mistake again."
"If you promise not to get the camp blown up again," Hugh shoots back.
"Can do," Davis says. He looks over at Zaef standing next to Angel with a kauka in his hand. "You feeling up for a walk, Captain Verrill?"
"Sure," Hugh says, "let's see if I can walk it off."
"Which way to the leaders you took out?" Davis asks.
"Back there," Hugh points. He brings up his Tenner and does a short function check. "Looking for anything in specific?"
"I want their voxes. We know next to nothing about the Khiraba and Expansion, and I think it's time to fix that," he says.
"Right," Hugh says. "We didn't have time to strip them but I don't think there's too many scavengers hanging around this area after we blew everything to pieces."
"Good," Davis says. "Shall we?"
"After you," Hugh says, following Davis on still not completely steady legs.
"So, I got the Turai and the Keepers to be out there standing guard," Davis says as he picks his way over fallen logs and broken bodies. "They have Tenners from the Hab 2 crate."
"How many of our Wherren are watching them?" Hugh asks. "We're all outside now, I'd feel a bit foolish if we ended up handing the camp back to the guys we took it from."
"We lost... about ten. So, twenty or so. Kosai got the orbital survivors to riot, but the wherren were able to handle it, and the Keepers and the Turai helped them," Davis says. "I wouldn't put them in the 'mission ready' column just yet, but I think we can trust them for now. Especially since we're the only humans left down here, I think."
"Let's hope that thought keeps them in check for the time being, then," Hugh says. "I wish we had the people to check on the Wherren hostages. Didn't feel good leaving them behind, no matter how good their hidey-hole might be."
"Hiigra knows, as soon as I call in with the all-clear, he'll send a party to go pick them up." Davis sees the remains of the Khiraba leadership through the brush ahead, stops, and looks back at the injured Delta captain. "We did a good job, Hugh. Hiigra's a bright guy and a great leader, and with the Imperium are pushed off Whiirr, he and whoever he picks to help him will be able to get his people here off the ground."
"What I'd tell you 'bout that 'Hugh' business, Davis?" Hugh says, then grins. "Ah, you know, forget it. Hugh's fine. We just liberated us a damn planet. I'm not exactly in a protocol and decorum kind of mood here."
Davis smiles, but then starts the gruesome business of picking over the bodies to find Arpana and Manus' voxes. "Just can't wait to get home now," he says, thinking about Ngawai instead of the gore he's kneeling in.
"I never thought I'd be this ready for going home after a week-long deployment," Hugh says. "Then again, home is where I can get a decent damn steak. You got something better to look forward to."
"Yeah, I know who home is with," Davis says, "just wondering where it is these days." He grabs Arpana's vox off his burnt corpse, his skinsuit still smoldering from the beamer round that killed him. "Got them. You know?"
"Sorry, Davis, I got an agreement with the brass, says I don't need to deal with filing travel vouchers or existential philosophy."
Davis laughs and stands back up, voxes tucked safely in his bag. "Fair enough. Just..." he looks down at his wedding band, "...thinking about what's next. Not just for the team, but for me." He pauses for a second, looking at the tiny engraved Gate glyphs on the ring catch what's left of the sun poking through the clouds, then looks back at Hugh. "But enough about that. Let's get the hell out of here, it smells like shit."
"You think it's bad now, wait 'til they start rotting," Hugh says, "which won't be too long in the mother of all jungles here. Sooner or later, we're gonna have to get rid of all those bodies, serious biohazard aside from the smell. Now I figure we either reenlist our proven earthworks brigade for a mass grave or we fire up the barbecue."
"I think the Wherren will have a few ideas," Davis says. "It's mostly their dead out here, anyway." He shoots the dead Khiraba a look after he says that.
"True," Hugh says, looking back to the camp. "But either way you slice it, lots of dead meat out there and it's only getting riper. Come on, let's move. I want to be able to sleep when the lights go out tonight."
"Amen to that," Davis says, and leads the way back to the group.
Zaef walks over to Angel with the disc in hand. "Hold still, I'll see what I can do about those burns."
Angel looks up at Zaef with a detached, somewhat lost expression, blinking for a moment.
"Right..." switching the safety on the pistol, he returns it to its holster with an unsteady hand. He sways slightly, looking unsteady and largely on his feet as an act of inertia. "How bad?" He looks down at himself, and the seared, tattered remains of what used to be armor and a vest. "Can't actually feel all that mu...wait, yeah, there it is..." The marksman's eyes close in pain, and he drops to his knees.
Zaef sighs. The pain was too much for him after all. "So much for holding still."
He props Angel up against a nearby tree and powers the kauka over his wounds. "This isn't gonna grow a shirt and vest for you, so you'll just have to make do drawing all the attention from the ladies back at camp."
The kaukas soothe the team's grisly wounds, and the spoils of the battle are collected from the dead Imperials. Besides the two kaukas the Khiraba had (and more swords and knives than Zaef can carry), you take their voxes when you can. Intel's more important than any weaponry now. Most are armed with standard Imperial beamers, but you do recover two knockoff SCAR-Hs. They don't pass a close inspection, but they seem to work well enough. Their magazines are interchangeable with your standard issue. The woman and the knifey-stabby-got-shot-inna-head Khiraba also had firearms for their secondary weapon. These are not obvious copies of either the HK45s you carry or the Russian pistols you sold a lifetime ago, but amusingly one is chambered for 9mm and the other's .45 ACP. It seems that you've inadvertently brought that particular argument to the Imperium.
The last interesting bits of gear are three stubby, wide-mouthed longarms with a cocking lever like an olde-tyme Winchester. Arketta and Zaef recognize them as scramblers, archaic weapons meant to kill Sheen and little else.
As they walk back across the clearing to camp, Hugh and Davis see a smattering of wherren peeking over the trenches now that the shooting's stopped. The shaman greets them as they clamber into the research camp.
"I have been waiting for your return," he says. His vox is in his hand, ready to call his chief. "Are we victorious?"
"Our enemies draw no more breaths," Hugh replies. "It is hard-won, but it is victory."
The shaman nods and hits "send" on the device. He can barely contain his excitement as the signal connects and Hiigra answers. Behind Hugh and Davis, the wherren in the trenches and out in the clearing start to buzz with chatter.
"Hiigra," the shaman says, "We are free!!!" and he holds the vox aloft. The roar shocks you even after all you've gone through. The howls and cries of victory are echoed from Hiigra's end as wherever he is hears the news.
*I will return at once,* Hiigra says. *I will try to find better words on my journey, but for now, thank you, all of you.*
Davis got choked up back when he liberated villages in Afghanistan, and he gets that same feeling right now. "This is what we came here to fight for, Hiigra, but we could not have done it without you and your people. This victory belongs to all of us."
"But the future - and our friendship - belongs to your people," Hugh adds. He looks to Davis. "Spur of the moment."
Davis nods. "Captain Verrill is right. We leave it up to your people to decide where to go from here, with us or without us. We shall talk more about this when you arrive, Hiigra, yes?"
*Gladly - this puny device cannot contain my joy,* the chief responds.
"We shall have to have quite the celebration," Davis says. "We shall see you in a day or so."
Davis smiles at the Shaman. "So, Shaman, how do you feel?"
The shaman grins at Davis and says, "You can see how I feel. You people are the ones I should ask that of."
"Like I just helped set my brothers and sisters free," Davis says, and quickly embraces the Shaman and claps him on the back. "Pretty much just like that."
"Like I just fought off an entire army," Hugh replies, hewing a little closer to the obvious.
The shaman gives Hugh a wry look. "Amusingly enough, that is how I feel as well. We will tend to our dead and wounded. The jungle will take the enemy dead, and tomorrow we will handle... this," he waves dismissively at the Chosen littering the clearing.
The smile drops off of Davis' face. "I want to lend my assistance, Shaman. I will join your men as soon as I am able, if that is all right with you."
It is, and although the work at hand and the storm washing over the camp figuratively and literally dampen the mood, the wherren help the wounded and tend the dead with hope coloring their fur. They know that those that fell did not die in chains.
Zaef sighs. The pain was too much for him after all. "So much for holding still."
He props Angel up against a nearby tree and powers the kauka over his wounds. "This isn't gonna grow a shirt and vest for you, so you'll just have to make do drawing all the attention from the ladies back at camp."
"Even the Imperium can't cure my handsome. It is my burden to...AHHH..." his eyes widen a bit as nerves come back to life. "...bear."
Davis looks around and spots Luis walking back from the edge of the forest, walking next to each other. They're smiling at each other and giving each other lovey-dovey looks, but Davis notes the lack of actual physical contact. Once Luis gets closer, Davis calls out to him. "Luis! I could use your help on something."
Luis looks up, "Yeah? What can I do for you?"
"I could use your help talking with the Keepers and the Turai, if you're interested," he says. "You're pretty good at talking with people, and I figure I could use the extra perspective. So, you in?"
"Yeah, sure." He turns to Arketta, "You want to come along, or what?"
"Why not?" She says with a smile.
"Great!" Davis says, and turns back to the Shaman. "I would be honored if you would join us as well. These people aided in the defense of the wherren in the dome, and we need to talk about how things will proceed here for the next few days."
"They are the last of their kind on Whiirr?" the shaman asks. "And noone else is coming to rescue them?"
"As far as we know, yes, they are the last Imperials on the planet," Davis says. "But I'm trying to move everyone, them and us, past 'Imperials against us'. They have shown where their hearts and minds lie, and it is not with our oppressors. I think it would go a long way towards showing them where your species is at if you were to join us."
"Certainly, it just is more reassuring if they have little reason to cause problems," the shaman says.
Davis smiles. "Why do you think I felt comfortable leaving them armed and back in the base? I'm trusting, Shaman, not stupid." He motions towards Hab Two. "Shall we?"
The Imperials have gingerly made themselves at home in Hab Two in the meantime. After all, it kind of was theirs to begin with. Kaoak looks up from the kitchen as Davis, Luis, Arketta, and the shaman enter. "Is it all over?"
"Yes, the Khiraba are dead," Davis says. He looks around. "Hey, Vimu, Shenest, can you come over here for a minute?"
The Imperials walk over and Davis continues. "Well, now that we're not being shot at, there's some things that we can do that we couldn't before. First, some introductions." Davis motions to the Shaman. "Shenest, Vimu, Kaoak, this is the Shaman for Hiigra's tribe, he fought in the trenches outside. Shaman, this is Shenest, Vimu, and Kaoak, they helped keep the wherren in the dome safe when the orbital survivors rioted and tried to kill their guards."
"'Sup," Vimu says. Kaoak merely nods. Shenest reflexively rubs her neck. "We've met, of course," she replies tentatively.
"I appreciate your help in the dome," the shaman says. "You all are of course welcome here until the holy ring is finished."
"So," Davis says, rubbing his hands together, "what are we going to do now? I'd like to just let you all loose in the camp, if that's all right with the three of you. I'd like a chance for us to get to know each other as equals, not with one of us at the wrong end of a beam rifle. Shenest, you know Luis, if you could talk to him about what you and the other Keepers need or want, and I will talk with Kaoak and Vimu. Shaman, do you have anything else you wish to say to them?"
"Only that I do not forsee any problems from my tribe," he says.
"Thank you, Shaman," Davis says, and turns back to the two possibly-ex-Turai. "So, do you want to take a walk, and we can discuss what what's next for us and for the two of you?"
Thunder rolls across the darkened camp, and the downpour soon forces the group into the shelter of the bunker stairwell. "So what IS next?" Vimu asks. He shakes rain off his short-cropped hair. "We're not exactly prisoners, and we're not exactly Narsai'i."
"Well, it's largely up to each of you," Davis says. "In the camp, until we get out of here, you guys can do whatever you want. It'd be great if you wanted to socialize with us, so we can get a better handle on the society we're going to be joining eventually, but basically you two are free to do whatever you want. After we're out of here, well, you can go wherever you want. You might not consider yourselves Narsai'i, but I will certainly make sure there is a place for the two of you if you want to join us or just stay on Narsai. You'll have to go through our basic training if you want to go out on missions, but the options are limitless for you both. We're all Imperials, and we are all Narsai'i. You want to join us, like Arketta Quis did, like Ngawai Lea Holoni did, like Swims-the-Black did, like Hethna Varos and others have, you are more than welcome."
"I'll think about it," Kaoak says.
"Not me," Vimu adds. "I am going home and I am going to sleep for a week, turn the atmo down to fifty or sixty, and remember what chillbumps feel like. Never wanna see another Firstdamn tree as long as I live."
Davis smiles. "Well, you and I are agreed on that. But I will tell you what I told Shenest. The Imperium puts their version of the truth above everything else. They need to sell the fiction that we are bloodthirsty monsters, bent on burning the Imperium to the ground and pissing on the ashes, and they have done whatever it takes to sell that story, including killing those who can prove otherwise. Now, if you're worried about family, if you're worried about personal mementos, we can get them out. We can delay the Imperium finding out what happened here and use that time to get your family and your personal items out, but they will find out eventually, and you know what they will do when that happens."
"Besides all that, what's the deal when the Gate's made?" Vimu asks. "You bring people through and what? We leave right from here? And what about the others in the dome?"
"Well, unless you have some kind of burning desire to stay here, yeah, you'll head back with us to be debriefed and given living quarters, clothes, information about Narsai, that kind of thing. Kind of a welcome committee, really," Davis says. "Our military will be coming through to establish a base and set up for spreading the word to the rest of the Wherren on the planet and setting up schools, living quarters, clean water, that kind of thing, working to get them where they want to be. As for the others in the dome, I'm going to be talking with them individually once we're cleaned up out here, go on a bit of a walk once the rain dies down. If they want to take their chances back in the Imperium, then they'll be interviewed, we'll get statements from them, and send them on their way once we're ready. If they want to stay on Narsai, they can stay."
"I'll think about it," Vimu says.
"I understand that this is a lot to think about," Davis says. "Just know that this isn't some kind of brainwashing recruitment scam. If you want to know what we're all about, please, ask any of us. And thank you for your help."
Vimu grunts in response. He and Kaoak are clearly more occupied with their thoughts than Davis' pleasantries.
"And if you can find Zaef Utari, he knows a great autochef recipie for something very, very alcoholic," he adds. "I've got to go help the Shaman with the dead, so, if there's no other questions..."
"Not for you," Kaoak replies. "But I might go find this Zaef person..."
Back in Hab Two, Luis and Arketta are left with Shenest and her posse of Keepers. They seem to be more interested in bitching about the sorry state of their cafeteria than in their collective futures, but Luis gets Shenest to settle down long enough to hash out what turns out to be a compromise acceptable to the entire Keeper contingent. The Keepers will remain on Whiirr (after their initial debrief on Earth) and continue their research. It's a solution that keeps them compartmentalized from Earth, isolated from the Imperium, and doing work they were already familiar with. It's the familiarity that's key to Luis' argument - same job, new boss. For the most part, the Keepers are on Whiirr because they are legitimately interested in learning its secrets. Luis' proposal has the least impact on their lives.
Zaef trudges over to his favorite spot in Hab Two: a chair right by the auto-chef. There's not much to do right now, so he grabs himself a small snack and a stiff drink, dripping water all over the floor and controls. A couple Keepers protest the mess, but Zaef just throws them a glare and starts to dig in.
The clik-clik of armored footsteps approaching couldn't have put him on edge more. Meal forgotten, Zaef reaches for his knives, and whips around to see two formerly-captive Turai approaching him, hands held up in the universal body language of 'What the hell please don't kill me.'
"Sorry," Zaef mumbles, sheathing the blades. "I don't like being snuck up on."
"We don't like getting stabbed," Kaoak replies, easing down from his 'holy crap I almost died' pose. "But we do like drinking, there hasn't been enough of it going on here, and your ravilar said you were the man to see for that."
"'Sup," Vimu adds.
Zaef raises an eyebrow. Ravilar?...Oh. "Davis?"
"Yes," they both speak in unison. "Does that guy ever turn off?" Vimu asks, sitting down unbidden at Zaef's table.
"Only if you're lucky." Zaef starts working the auto-chef for more booze. "What was he talking to you about?"
Both men graciously take their portions of the concoctions and after the initial round of coughing, Kaoak answers. "He says we're going to Earth once your Gateway's done, make a... statement, whatever the hell that means, and then we're free. He asked us to join your little rebellion, which I figure he does to everyone."
Vimu adds, "And he thinks the Imperium is gonna kill us all if we go back, but then he'd say that, 'cause he's askin' us to join you people. You've been around Homeworlders... is Davis full of shit? What are they really like?"
Zaef decides another round of drinks in order, including a big one for himself this time. "I've got a question for you first. How long have you served as Turai? Have you ever done anything you've thought twice about?"
"I'm a year in," Vimu replies. "Kaoak's got 6 months on me. As for regrets..."
Kaoak laughs into his cup. "You mean besides taking this post? Sure. I've pulled the trigger and it's been a shitty outcome. But I haven't pulled the trigger and it's still been a shitty outcome. If you're fucked, you're fucked."
Zaef's suddenly reminded of a conversation he had with Lani right before his life was turned upside down, and it had basically boiled down to those words. He takes a deep swig. "True enough."
Zaef sighs. "Good news first, then. They're not all like Davis. Most of the Narsai'i I've met have been courteous, if professional, but rarely so talkative. However. Davis is many things, and I don't always like or agree with those things, but he doesn't look you in the face and lie to you about something like that."
"But are we really just gonna be set free if that's what we want?" Kaoak's finished his drink already and walks over to the chef for more. "What's he, or you, or anyone gonna do if whoever's above you just says, 'sorry, we want Kaoak and Vimu interrogated and dumped out an airlock'? You know, it'd be real fuckin' ironic if that's what happens."
"Come on, man," Vimu starts.
Kaoak gesticulates wildly as he continues. "No, it'd be just like that freighter. Routine inspection, some minor contraband, we were all okay with yelling at the crew and 'confiscating' their shit when we get the order to make an example. We'd already told the crew nothin' bad was going to happen, we didn't give a shit about some minor hassle that was only going to end in a ton of reports, but orders are orders, else you're the one headin' out the airlock."
Zaef turns to look at Kaoak, and finds himself looking at the faceless visor of the Rav-Samal, leveling the chamakana at his face, hearing the same platitudes. 'Sorry, orders are orders.' He can even see himself knocking the rifle out of the way, bringing the pantaki up under the bastard's chin before blowing his brains all over his subordinates. He blinks and Kaoak is standing there instead, looking at him like he's wondering if Zaef's still awake.
Zaef gets up and starts pouring himself another, trying to keep his emotions under control and wondering how the knife got in his hand. "Far as I can tell, they're going to keep their word. Davis and the others have influence, if they say you go free, you go free. The Homeworld has laws against war crimes and what you do with prisoners of war. Davis wouldn't let you go quickly, he thinks that the Imperium will have you silenced if you go back, and in all honesty, I completely agree with him on that. It's just the sort of thing the fuckers would do. They love making examples. But if you listen to everything he has to say and you still want to go back, then he will do so. Hell, he'll have to do so."
He empties his cup with a single swig, hands shaking a little as he does so. He flattens the plastic against his forehead and tosses it over his shoulder.
"And if you're still worried that someone's gonna want you violated with the wrong end of a pantaki-unlikely, as I say-I will gut the bastard and dial the Gate for you myself. Will that reassure you?" Zaef growls.
Both Turai look at Zaef a little askance and nod slowly. "Um, yeah, that'll do," Kaoak replies softly. He at least seems to realize he's struck a nerve.
Vimu finishes his drink off and grins mischievously. "Let's go find that guy with the beard," he suggests.
"Yeah, go on, just don't do anything stupid." Zaef grunts, rubbing his temples.
"Don't worry, we're bringing these," Vimu says, filling a cup for each hand. "Thanks."
Zaef grins a little. "Smart. Don't so anything Gupta Khari wouldn't do."
Drip. The storm's been long gone for an hour or so, but the water pooling on the damaged hab roof makes its presence known as Davis and Swims-the-Black slide into their sleeping bags. Someone had already found a bucket, but the water continues to find its way in through foamcrete cracked by Imperial ordnance.
Swims scratches at bug bites and scrapes at the grave-dirt still caking his hands.
Davis' gear lies on the floor by the entrance to the hab, still covered with mud. While Swims cleans his hands, Davis is dunking his head in and out of a bucket trying to get the mud out of his hair from the burials of the dead members of Hiigra's tribe. His arms burn from the bites of the insects that somehow managed to still swarm during the rainstorm.
"Is there any kind of side-effects I need to worry about here?" Davis asks, looking over his shoulder at Swims.
"You're the first human I've seen them take interest in," the shipmaster replies. "The egg-laying ones shouldn't be able to feed off you, but if your skin gets clusters of little moving bumps on it, then we'll take care of it."
Davis' eyes go wide and he freezes bent over the bucket. "That's...that's good." He and Swims stare at each other for a second, then Davis cracks a slight smile, which spreads to Swims-the-Black's face, which turns into a chuckle, and before long the two of them are belly-laughing as Davis takes a seat on his cot. "I'd hate to say it's the first time I've left an assignment with an unscheduled guest, but..."
"These would not be the kind of guest you marry," Swims guffaws.
"Hey!" Davis says, and throws his towel at Swims, still laughing. "She is more likely to kick my ass, though." Davis wipes his eyes to clear the water and tears of laughter. He and Swims sit there for a minute, slowly winding down. Once they're finished, he looks up at his friend. "So, we did it. You did it."
Swims waves Davis' gushing off with a toothy smirk. "Barely, but yes. The only Imperials are in this camp right here. On all of Whiirr. To think these people might actually live free is a new thought. A good thought."
"Your people, Swims-the-Black," Davis says. "These are your people."
"They have a long way to go before I think of them as my people again," Swims replies. "Or maybe I have a long way to go. You are always part of your family, but you may find yourself closer to your friends. Perhaps when Whiirr has dragged itself up out of its jungles I will feel more at home here."
"Perhaps," Davis says. [/i]"But until then, I'm sure Ngawai, myself and especially Naloni would appreciate having Uncle Swims-the-Black around."[/i] He smiles.
The storm passes during the night, but the wherren wait it out in order to put their honored dead to rest with another funeral pyre and accompanying ceremony. The morning sun brings few aliens out of the habs, but they've earned a rest. Cowboy takes it upon himself to start plugging the leaks and reinforcing the damaged hab walls. Meanwhile, Davis heads to the dome chamber to have a go at the orbital survivors that rioted during the battle.
Vimu brushes past Davis on his way out of the dome. His scant non-weapon personal effects are scooped up into a small bag. Davis lets the Turai through and enters the dome chamber. The large space is quieter now, owing to the Keepers moving out as well as the damaged and inoperative systems that were always contributing a comforting hum.
At least the air's still pumping.
The orbital survivors-turned-refugees-turned-prisoners watch Davis carefully when he enters. The wounds they sustained during their feeble escape attempt have all been healed, but Davis doesn't get the same feeling of "pressure cooker" this time. Perhaps the lack of any sort of rescue has dampened their spirits, or perhaps knowing that yes, there is a line they can cross that results in broken jaws and stab wounds and contusions.
Davis walks up next to Kosai and takes a seat. "Are you feeling better?"
The Turai cycles through a series of facial expressions but finally settles on "remarkably composed". "Yes," she says.
"I'm asking about you, Kosai. I know that it's been a...trying day or so. But I'm more than willing to forgive and forget and move on so the last two days here don't need to be tense between us," Davis says.
"Magnanimous in victory," she replies.
"I prefer to think of it as more like 'not an asshole'," Davis says. "Care to join me for a walk outside? Your choice."
Kosai gets up and heads for the exit. Davis is quick to follow and then catch up, and with a nod the guards part and he and Kosai are soon strolling around the muddy, trampled camp. Cowboy's attempts at hab-roof repair are punctuated with curses. Kaoak and Vimu are (surprisingly) nowhere near manual labor. The pyre from the previous night still smoulders, lending a harsh smell and a ashen haze to the vista.
"So, what now?" Davis asks.
"I remain a quiet, reserved prisoner until the Gateway is built. I am taken to your Homeworld or other base of operations for debriefing or interrogation, depending on how truthful you've been, and am then released to my government."
"If that's what you want, yes," Davis says, "but there's a lot of leeway in between the extremes here, Kosai." Davis pauses. "I do have one question for you, though. I haven't spent a lot of time living in the Imperium, and from what I've seen of the ravilars, they're mostly just propagandists, spreading a bent version of the truth. What, exactly, equates what I've done here with them? Is it just that you have no way of knowing if I'm telling the truth, so you assume that I'm lying?"
"That's a bingo," Kosai says.
Davis smiles and shakes his head. "Well, obviously that means that I've done something untrustworthy. What have I lied about so far?"
Now Kosai smiles. "Nothing that I can tell, but that is of course part of your plan."
Davis laughs and rubs his hands together. "Ooh, a plan! Tell me how devious I am, please!" he says jokingly.
"You can't lie to us while we still pose a danger - any danger - to your mission. Not if you want to turn us, which is all you have been doing since you arrived here. You don't want to be friends with us, you just want allies. And you'll say 'no, that's not true, I sincerely value our friendship' like some slopfest adolescent drama, and it's all spinkshit, Davis. You are full of spinkshit and I will not be turned."
"Well, first, I'd hate to disappoint your plan. No, that's not true, I sincerely value our friendship," Davis says.
Kosai laughs as Davis repeats her line. "We are not going to be friends, Davis. I am your prisoner and you are my jailer. Anything beyond that is too much for me to believe."
Davis smiles and shrugs. "Well, it was worth a shot right? I don't think we've quite risen to the level of 'friends', and I don't expect you to join us, and that's fine. But what I do hope for is that you and I can have some kind of an amicable agreement, and that isn't spinkshit. I like your take on things, Kosai. If there's any hope that Narsai can join the Imperium some day, like I hope we will, we're going to need more people like you."
Kosai frowns. "People like me don't betray their Emperor and their comrades. They stand up against the enemy no matter the odds, even if they're a handful of scared civilians with no weapons."
"And I'm not asking for you to betray anyone," Davis says. "I don't mean that we, as in Narsai, will need people like you to join us. I mean that we're going to need people like you in the Imperium. You're reasonable, you have morals, you know that there's a time to fight and a time to keep the peace. When the time comes for the Imperium to make a choice between a peacefully agreed-upon resolution, or a pointless and destructive battle to the death that results in a galaxy that neither side would want to live in, we're going to need people like you on the other side of the table, Kosai. Someone who doesn't buy into the propaganda and knows the truth, who isn't just going to throw the lives of billions away."
"Then the sooner you send me back, the better," she says.
"Well, I'd like to make an offer to you," Davis says.
"I bet you would."
"I know that you have your sights set on becoming the Hand that Guides the Emperor's Sword, yeah?"
"What of it?" she replies dismissively.
"Well, you're going to have a lot of rivals for the position, right? Others that aren't quite as moral as you, who have no qualms about killing civilians, or you, probably."
"It will be a hard-won victory, and some of the opposing parties may need to be removed, yes," she answers.
"Well, I'm in the market for evil bastards to take out," Davis says. "I propose that we leave an untraceable line of communication open between us, a Cortex address or something. If you need a particularly evil bastard made dead or humiliated, and your information checks out, I might be able to arrange for him to suddenly have fatal problems with Narsai'i attacks."
Kosai stops and sits on some rubble. She thinks there for a few minutes in the sun. "That is a deal I can agree to without being friends. Done."
"Good. And if at some future point, I need a hit list, I might send a message the other way, is that acceptable?" Davis asks.
"Fine," Kosai says. "This is all ephemeral anyway; aren't you convinced my government is just going to kill us all for being on the same planet with you?"
"Pretty much, but what kind of long-term planner would I be if I didn't make contingency plans?" Davis asks with a smile. "I really do hope you go back to shooting up the ranks, Kosai, and I will help you rise to being the Hand that Guides, I promise you that. If they don't kill you, of course."