Jade Imperium - Convocation, Pt. 2

punkey 2014-07-21 13:36:49
The people in the village seem to sense the impending showdown: the streets are clearer than usual, with most of the usual "villagers" that would be out this afternoon sitting inside, near windows, waiting to see the show. The fact that this is a training scenario, and the word probably is already out to prepare for some big showy throwdown probably contributes, but even the dry desert air is holding still, waiting to see what's going to happen next.

The Sheen are already holding foot and skimmer traffic for a block surrounding the target hab, with two of the four remaining aerial shells in an orbit high above for overwatch. Grey has set up its command post in a restaurant courtyard due south of the target hab, and Hug'sh and Luis are there with Hal.
"So, the asshole is here," Grey says, highlighting the target hab on the holodisplay projecting from its shell. "I'm thinking we just tighten the perimeter give him a chance to surrender, and if he doesn't take it, kick the doors in on all four sides."
”Two items,” Hug’sh says. ”One, Hunter is a heavy-weapons specialist. We should be mindful of explosive surprises. Two, do we have a ground scan of the area? Any signs of more tunneling activity?”
Grey shakes a sensor pod. "We have no idea what's underneath there, we had to keep the ground scanning to a minimum to avoid detection."
”Hm,” Hug’sh says. ”It’s unlikely, but maybe we can have scanners running when we tighten the noose, just a rough scan - we don’t need a precise fix, just confirm solid ground around it. Anyway, that’s my worries. Anything on your end, Luis?”
“Those scanners don’t go deeper than about 4 feet if you’re not taking it slow,” Luis says. “We’ll be blind below that, but that’ll give us a start.”
Grey bobs an affirmative. "Sounds like a plan - but we'll have to turn them off for the attack itself. Hal's agreed to carry one of the scanners, and take two trins on the west side. I'll take the east, Luis, you'll have two trins on the north, and Walks-the-Fire will take two from the south. We move in slow and cautiously, sensors up for ambushes from either the house or the side. Like Walks-the-Fire said, the guy's an explosives expert, so watch for booby traps. Once we're one hab away on all sides, I'll call for surrender, and then we breach. Copy?"
“Copy,” Luis says.
”Copy,” Hug’sh says.
"Copy," Hal says for the benefit of the non-Sheen in the audience.
"Then let's move out," Grey says.


The descending sun gets into Hug’sh’s left eye whenever he checks on the trin to the left - Orphan Grinder, Kararr and Hulor, a recipe for a damn fast breach and/or potential calamities too numerous to name, and therefore very worthy of his continued attention. By contrast, eager-to-please Kurr and BONESAW, a Sheen warrior noted primarily for his ability to follow orders, make for a much less concerning trin with Hug’sh in the lead. Coming up on the target hab via the side alleys, there’s a certain amount of dashing from cover to cover - actually, it’s pretty much all dashing from cover to cover, as quietly and out-of-sight-ly as they can manage. Hug’sh grips his training beamer tightly. So far, they’ve been up against Bashakra’i and Narsai’i operatives playing their enemies, but to go after a member of 815 is a whole different beast, and Hug’sh shudders to think what Hunter managed to cobble together in the weeks he’s had all but free reign in the village, with access to both heavy weapons and construction materials. One thing’s for certain, this won’t be pretty.

Despite Orphan Grinder’s audible disappointment over not getting to climb over the roofs of those stupid habs instead of going around them the boring way, the two southern trins make it to their staging point, and Hug’sh takes the moment of calm to inspect their target one last time as he gets on the vox.
”Team South is on station,” Hug’sh voxes. ”North, give me a status check.”
Luis looks to Percussive maintenance, who has the other trin he’s in charge of, and gets a nod. “Team North is on station.”
”West side?” Hug’sh voxes.
"West side is good, staring at a blank wall, but good," Hal replies.
"And East is clear," Grey finishes. "Go for advance."

All four sides creep slowly inwards, looking in every window and underneath every door. With the area evacuated, it's eerily quiet in the town. Everyone's concentrating so hard on not being "blown up" that it's only Grey's call to halt that holds the lines at the perimeter.
"Going to make the call out," Grey says, and a moment later its voice booms across the area. "Hunter Brand! We have your hab surrounded, and we have the superior firepower! Surrender, or we will come in after you!"
"I'd like to see you fucking try!" Hunter's voice calls back from inside the hab.
"Okay, I think that's enough trying to do this the peaceful way," Grey says over the vox. "Go to knock."
Luis moves in with his trin. With Percussive Maintenance’s trin providing cover, they plaster themselves against the wall of the hab around the door, then provide cover themselves as Percussive Maintenance joins them. After taking a moment to get the mix of shells and Wherren arranged, Luis activates his vox. “Ready to knock.”
"And...go," Grey says.
Percussive moves around to the door, scans it with a brief flash from its sensors, and then levels a two-legged kick against the door - and promptly bounces back off onto its back. "What the fuck?" it exclaims.

The thump of Kararr’s shoulder failing to move the door next to his trin provides the clue for Hug’sh to get on the vox again. ”No joy here, either,” he says. ”Grey?”
A barrage of beamer fire from the east side of the building is the only answer. "Hit! I'm hit!" Grey exclaims over the vox. "Still here, but down a couple legs! Asshole's got a fucking quad-linked beamer pointed at the door!"
Percussive tries again at the door, and it fractures in half - to reveal a solid spraycrete wall on the other side. "Shit!"
”Scan the walls, find me some weak spots and slap our breaching charges on them,” Hug’sh voxes calmly. Then, he works his way along the south wall of the hab to the eastern corner and around, toward the entrance. ”Nice one, Hunter!” he shouts. ”But I suggest you surrender within the next, oh, twenty seconds.”
"Go to Hell!" Hunter shouts back.
Hal throws two of its legs up onto the roof of the building, pressing its undercarriage against the building, and Hug'sh's ears ring again with the whine of the ground scanners. It scuttles along the wall, but stops near the northwest corner. "Got a weak spot here," Hal says. "Well, by 'weak' I mean three feet thick, but..."
”The reason I’m bringing this up,” Hug’sh shouts, ”is that we’re currently working out how to drop your hab on you. Turns out we recently got our hands on a lot of explosives.”
"Freedom before death!" Hunter shouts. "Better to die on my feet!"
While Hugh keeps Hunter’s attention, Luis takes charge of directing his trins to finding and placing what charges they have to shatter the weak point Hal identified. With how thick the walls are, this might not do it, but if they can be breached with these explosives, this should do it. Idly, he wishes they’d actually thought to bring as many explosives as Hug’sh is leading Hunter to believe they have.
Hug’sh creeps up to the door, unclipping a flashbang. If the breach actually works - they’re still going to need the edge before they go in. ”I’m sorry you feel that way!” Hug’sh shouts, a little quieter - hopefully, with the thick walls, Hunter can’t tell exactly where he is. ”But one way or another, you won’t feel that way much longer. Last chance, Hunter.”
"Come and get me!" Hunter shouts back.
”Confirm ready to breach,” Hug’sh whisper-voxes, pulling the safety pin on the flashbang.
Luis waves his trin back out of the blast area, and follows, trailing the detonator behind. “All right. Stand by. 4. 3. 2. 1.” He punches the firing key.

There's a boom from the breaching charge - but a moment later, a second blast rips across the area, so fast that it even bowls over the Sheen shells and so loud that none of you actually hear it. Once you all roll back over after being blown ass-over-teakettle, all you can see is a huge plume of debris, dust and smoke rising out of Hunter's hab, and all the windows are broken out from the surrounding habs, littering the ground with glittering shards of plastic.
"Holy fucking shit," Hal exclaims as waves its legs up in the air, trying to write itself.
”Argh,” Hug’sh barks, then looks down at his hand - and realizes that the flashbang’s gone off a few feet away when he dropped it, and that didn’t even rate in the face of the explosion from the hab. ”Just when I got rid of my tinnitus…” He clicks his vox on. ”Everyone...report...status, please.”
”The simulation gear says we’re still alive,” Kararr responds. ”I’ve felt better, though.”
”We’re fucked up, but we are up,” BONESAW adds.
Luis pulls himself to his feet with a groan. The Wherren are likewise coming up, and the Sheen too, though they sport some new dents from debris. Luis can feel a few bruises of his own from similar sources. “North Team bruised but ready,” he says.
"Don't think there's a lot left to be ready for," Grey says. Hug'sh can see it dragging itself towards what's left of the front door. "Yeah, it's all gone in there. Walks-the-Fire, Luis, get in there and clear it."
”Copy,” Hug’sh says. Struggling to take a steady first step, his second is more reassured, and by the time he slides up to the doorway, he’s remembered to have his hands on his gun, too. Hug’sh slides down to a kneel, then quickly peeks past the frame, withdrawing his head to safety just as quickly. The inside seems nought but debris, with a nice clean crater in the middle. Hug’sh looks across to Luis, then signs. I take point, you follow.
Luis nods, and checks his beamer. Ready, he signs back.
Hug’sh turns the corner and leads the way inside. There are weapon fragments strewn about everywhere, not necessarily the result of the actual blast - why waste perfectly good materiel when junk will do? - while the thick walls taper, funneling the blast upward - and speaking of funnels, that’s all that’s left of what is now a very, very thoroughly collapsed tunnel entrance.
”Fuck me,” Hug’sh grunts. ”Tunnel entrance!” he calls out. ”It collapsed from the blast.”
“Shit!” Luis says. He looks over the rubble, then the remains of the hab. “Hab seems secure, what’s left of it. Can we track where this tunnel goes from here?”
Hal wanders over, somewhat unsteady on its busted up legs. "Yeah, we could, but I bet it goes one way - out there," it says, pointing a manipulator arm towards the edge of the village. "Fucker's gone."
“No kidding,” Luis says. “First chance we get, I want a full scan of the perimeter for any other tunnels crossing it.”
”Let’s keep a strategic view,” Hug’sh suggests. ”One more tunnel down, and a lot of prep time Hunter didn’t get to use for anything else. We’ve also got him out of the city, and with more tunnel scans, we should be able to cut off all further routes past our perimeter.” He spits on the ground. ”But on a tactical note...damn.”
Grey drags itself into the hab on two legs, and looks around. "Damn indeed."
punkey 2014-07-21 13:37:29
Five more minutes, Mr. Quis, the amorphous blob of silver communicates to Ody, its metallic tendrils spread wide across the finished Gateport bay.
Good, thank you, Ody replies. He knows it’s just a machine, but still, with as little as anyone knows about Masters technology, being polite couldn’t hurt.

Ody breaks contact with the central blob still on the floor, and looks around. Out of all of the custom engineering jobs Ody has done for the Bashakra’i village (still without a name for the next ten minutes), the Gateport is the one he’s most proud of by far. Most of the others were simple redesigns and merges of existing pre-made hab architecture, and the Kesh Holdings central office was fun simply because getting to play with million-lat building materials is always fun, but the Gateport...here, Ody feels he contributed to a real work of art. The smooth grey spraycrete walls and floors give a nice contrast to the warmth of the red woods and black metal of the seating and architectural accents, and even the emergency bollards are a pleasing brushed steel. Tranquil streams of water over black river rock flow in between the lush green of low bushes and ferns on either side of the pathway, concealing the sconces and firing positions focused on the still-forming Gateway. The blocking mechanism sits in two halves on its tracks, waiting for the Gateway to finish forming before it can lock into place, securing the Gateway in its mount and acting to further highlight the Gateway as the visual centerpiece of the terminal. Above all of this is the decorative living roof, a lush green field built on top of the five-hundred-ton slab of spraycrete last resort. Next door, an identical Gateway terminal stands mostly finished and sans Gateway, waiting on an authorization from GRHDI promised after the two-month trial period for this first Gateway is over, and with grounds reserved for three more just like it.

Ody sighs and gives the Gateport amphitheater - and the amorphous and shifting metal ring being assembled in the middle of it - one more glance. This is probably the last time he'll see it without the bustle of people coming and going, and the Kansatai providing security, and he wants to savor it.
Which lasts for just a few more seconds before the head of the event's security detail puts a hand on his shoulder. "Time to go, lahnai," Arlana says with a smile, in her full armor with her helm flipped up.
"One more second," Ody says.
Arlana walks up next to Ody and puts an arm around his shoulder, the armor's boots making up some of Ody's height advantage. "It is a gorgeous thing that you made, Ody," she says, her pride obvious in her voice.
"I helped a bit," Ody says with a smile.
"Of course," Arlana says, and gives Ody a peck on the cheek. "But we really have to go."
"Right, Brinai and Miss Barnes have their ceremony to do," Ody says, and returns the peck. "Let's go, Security Chief Quis."
Arlana folds her helm's faceplate back down with a gesture, and nods to the other two members of her trin. "Let's move."

Arlana leads the way for the little group out of the Gateport terminal towards the backside of the stage that's been set up at the Gateport's assembly area for the big event. International media, dignitaries from each of the nations participating in the GRHDI program, representatives, senators and governors from Virginia and beyond, and, of course, a fair amount of Bashakra'i as well, mostly in the gold and orange uniforms of the Kansatai providing security. Seated up towards the front of the crowd are the guests of honor - Bashakra'i, Wherren and Sheen leaders, GRHDI officials - all of the 815 are seated, with Angel Kesh bridging the gap between them and those who directly contributed to the construction, including a currently empty seat for Ody Quis. Of course, for those in those seats of honor, this event is more than a chance to Be Seen At An Important Event; it's the founding of something new, exciting, and hopeful. In fifteen minutes, the Gateway will connect Atea and the Bashakra'i with their new home away from home, and the first wave of residents will stream through.

But first, there is ceremony, dedications and grandiosity to be done. Off to one side of the stage, Samantha Barnes looks to Ody for the go ahead, which he grants with a nod as Arlana leads him back to his seat before resuming her own patrol. A brief flurry of vox communication with the GRHDI officials, agents, and Kansatai confirms one last security check and that all of the preparations are ready, then Director Barnes strides confidently out onto the stage.
"Thank you, ladies, gentlemen, and Sheen for being here today," Barnes says. "It is appropriate that we mark the opening of this village with the opening of the Gateport here, because what we are really celebrating today is the first bridge between our two societies. Earth and the Bashakra'i already stand together against the Imperium, but what we start today will last far beyond the war - the forging of allies in war into partners in peace. There is much that we have to learn from each other, and this place, this village will be the start of all of that. Officials and media from around the world will be able to come here to observe what life beyond the Gateway is really like day-to-day, and the Bashakra'i will have a chance to interact with Earth and its societies that only living here can bring. There has been many misunderstandings and a lot of false statements and rumors spread about our off-world allies; here is where we will prove them wrong. This will be the first great experiment in meshing off-world and Earth culture, and I believe it is in good hands."
Barnes vacates the podium and lets Brinai shuffle up to the microphone. "I suppose the first thing that I should say is 'Thank you'," Brinai says. "It seems obvious enough to be disingenuous, but it still should be said - and it is something that we Bashakra'i all feel. Ever since the Imperium burned our homeworld, we have lacked solid ground to call our own. We have friendly worlds and shadowports and Atea, but nowhere have we found somewhere safe enough to stand out in the open as ourselves, proud and unafraid. There have been tensions between the Bashakra'i and the Narsai'i, for sure, but even still, this is a place where I, and the other Bashakra'i, can say who we are without fear of detainment, isolation, and even torture. This will be a home for families, for technicians, for artisans, for those of us that long to live on friendly ground once more. The land here reminds me of the Bashakra'i plains, and it is on these plains where the partnership with the Narsai'i will flourish."
More than a few glances go in Garrett's direction as Brinai speaks - grateful as she does seem, this is...a little too grateful. Garrett himself betrays nothing as to the depth of his involvement as Barnes walks back up to the podium.
"Thank you, Brinai," Barnes says. "And now, the live feed of the Gateway opening."

A massive holodisplay, the width of the stage and ten feet tall, blinks on above her, showing the Gateport and the Groi constructor device doing its job, its writhing and glowing silver mass hanging in ropes from the supports and ceiling and flowing over a hovering silver ring. The quicksilver fountain effect is hypnotic, but it only lasts a few seconds before the flowing metal freezes up, the ripples and drips brilliant and glinting in the Gateport lights. Cracks appear at the edges of the amorphous metal ring, spreading and branching all over at an exponential rate, spreading out from the ring to all of the tendrils. When the cracks reach the metallic sphere of the keg itself, the entire assembly shatters into pieces, falling as solid chunks that turn to liquid before they hit the floor, revealing the Gateway itself. A black box appears on the holodisplay as the Gateway flashes its dialing glyphs, blocking out the code from the audience, but below the redaction, the pool of quicksilver on the floor can be seen returning to the keg. As the sequence finishes, the last of the silver returns to the keg, which then pulls itself inward and returns to its usual sedately solid form.

The gantries on the side of the Gateway, having sat inactive all this time, are now triggered to close as the Gateway finishes announcing itself to the network at large. The redaction gone, the audience now has a full view of the Gateway, sitting in the cradle built to catch it after construction was completed. A hook comes down and lifts the ring into the air as the metal support and dialing structure closes up around it. A chorus of metal-on-metal sounds from the Gateport as the latches and locks secure the two halves together, the dialing mechanism runs a quick 360 degrees around the ring to check the track alignment, then the shutters race down and up over the portal itself. With one last rattle of the shutters, the audience bursts into applause as the Bashakra'i village Gateport is ready for use.
"And now, the first round of new residents to this village will cross," Barnes' voice booms over the holodisplay, and sure enough, the Gateway flashes open and the shutter retracts, revealing a small crowd of Bashakra'i, bags packed and on hovering sleds behind them. The applause from the Bashakra'i only grows louder as this first wave walks through the Gateway, and the applause turns into a standing ovation.

Off to the side, by the stage, Ody wraps an arm around Arlana's back and leans his head on hers. He can feel the tension in her even through the armor - after all, if an attack was going to come, from within, without, or across the Gateway, now would be the time - but she slackens just a bit at his touch. "Well, I think that's job done. Time for a new challenge." He pauses. "They've asked me to stay on as deputy manager, in charge of infrastructure. But I've asked them for time, since you seemed so uncertain -"
Arlana turns to Ody. "Take the job," she says. "It's so perfect for you, and Arketta and the 815 have so much for me to do, it'd be silly not to stay close to them, and..." She retracts her faceplate and smiles. "And I think that maybe this place might be the start of something bigger. It'd be foolish to leave now."
Ody smiles back, and plants a kiss on Arlana's forehead. "And you could just shoot anyone that tries to mess with us, my Samal."
Arlana leans into Ody. "And don't you forget it."
punkey 2014-07-21 13:38:31
The next few days after the rather spectacular departure of Big Bad Hunter from the village are unpleasant, but in a markedly different (and more low-key) way. With Hunter gone and the insurgency more or less routed and cut-off, attacks drop back down to nothing, save a few Sheen getting hit with rocks on patrol. Instead, without the village clean-up and repair guy, the duty falls to the Sheen and Wherren that know how to operate the equipment to rebuild the damage (really, just schlep the machine around so the “villagers” working on maintaining the village can fix it), and picking up the detritus from nearly a month of solid conflict.

However, Command also sees fit to grace the training exercise with something much requested: reinforcements. With the human side of the training pretty much wrapped up, it’s time for their final exam - joining the training already in progress, just in time for the big finale. Grey, Hug’sh and Luis are waiting at the edge of the village as the trucks drive up the road towards them.
“Figures the humans show up just in time for the shitty parts to be over,” Ten Tons grouses from its guard post.
”Nothing is over,” Hug’sh opines. ”We needed reinforcements and we got them. Fine soldiers, all of them.”
“Still,” Ten Tons says.
“You want to be the one that takes a training spearbomb to your pods, be my guest, Ten Tons,” Grey replies. “They’re our reinforcements, which means they’re keeping your busted chassis from getting sent back to the server for the rest of the exercise and out of the fun. Got it?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ten Tons says, and shuffles back to watch.
While Luis doesn’t speak up, he’s more than a little proud to see Grey pointing that out--and even more glad when Ten Tons seems to accept it, however doubtfully. Before their training, neither would have been as likely, and the improvement is both clear and good to see.
”Let’s shake some hands, then,” Hug’sh says.

And it’s not much longer before you have that opportunity. At the head of the convoy is a sight for Luis’ sore optical augmentations - Arketta, face shield up and smiling at him. She hops off of the truck as it rolls to a halt and walks briskly up to the group as the other trucks stop behind her.
She bows to Grey, her smile staying on as she returns to upright. “Samal Quis and Hotel Company reporting, Sir.”
Grey nods a sensor pod as the others scan the disembarking Narsai’i and Bashakra’i. “Good to see you, Samal. We could use your help shoring this place up - intel says that the insurgents are preparing a big attack in the next couple days.”
Arketta nods. “Then we’ll get set up into your patrol schedule ASAP.” She turns to Hug’sh and simply gives him a curt nod. Hug’sh returns the nod, flashing a subdued green in her direction, but the real smile is reserved for when she turns to Luis. “Samal,” she says with a bow.
“Samal,” Luis says, grinning in return. “Good to have you here.” His face turns just slightly more serious. “We have barrack space set aside for your people, though it’s got a little prep work yet to be done. We can get your troops settled, then get them up to speed on the situation and schedules.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Arketta says. “And if it’s fine with the others here, I’d like to schedule a briefing in your hab in three hours?” She smirks. “Alone?”
“We’ve got a lot I’d like to get the Samal here caught up on,” Luis says to Grey and Hug’sh, trying and failing to hold back a grin of his own.
Hug’sh nods as a wave of green runs through his fur, then absent-mindedly claps Grey on its shoulder. ”By all means - we’ll find a way to keep busy.”
“Meat bags,” Grey just says as it shakes its sensor pods.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:38:51
“Whee, back in the desert on night patrol,” Danielsson mutters as he walks point. He looks over his shoulder for a moment back to Shenloma and Leaj. “How come you guys get the sci-fi shit and we’ve still got these NODs?”
“Ask your leaders,” Shenloma says with a shrug from behind his Turai armor’s helm.
“This is bullshit,” Danielsson says. “I blame you, Boyd. They saw a Marine and locked up all the good shit.”
“Maybe they figured you’d just lose it, Army boy,” Boyd replies, then looks over his shoulder to, well, to the eight-foot-tall four-legged death robot. “How much further to the tunnel exit?”
BONESAW pauses for two milliseconds as it references Narsai’i customary units and converts its mapping data. “Half a klick,” BONESAW says.
“Thanks,” Danielsson says, for once not dripping with sarcasm. “Squat so far on the NOD, but I guess hidden camps keep their patrols tight. Anybody else see something?”
“Old footsteps, but we’re already going the right way,” Percussive Maintenance replies.
”We don’t see anything,” Khodash grunts over the radio.
“What?” Danielsson asks for the third time tonight.
“They don’t see anything,” BONESAW translates.
“Oh, okay,” Danielsson says. “I wonder what the flip pay for Whiirrsign is…” he mutters.

“Heads up, we’re coming up on the exit,” Hal calls out over the vox, and the whole squad gets quiet, fast. Danielsson holds up his fist to sign for a stop, then crouches down and starts creeping forward up a small dune, getting down on his belly as he nears the crest. He takes a cautious peek over the top to see a mini-FOB, with a mix of very busy OpFor unpacking gear for what seems like an imminent total assault. The whole camp’s in blackout, with night vision worn by OpFor, too. “Gotcha,” Danielsson mutters, then slowly works his way back the slope until he’s broken line of sight, at which point he turns around and waves for his team to follow him up.
“Team Iggy to Terminator-6, we have visual,” Danielsson voxes. “Secure camp, blacked out, they’re in high gear, preparing to move out. Please advise, over.”
“Hold position, Iggy,” Grey replies.
“Finally, some no-shit assaulting,” Danielsson says. “Hey! Boyd!” he whisper-shouts. “You ready for this?”
“Yeah, I’m ready,” Boyd replies.
“Hal, BONESAW?” Danielsson says. “How do you want to play this? You guys are faster, we can cover you from here if you want to go dance.”
“We’ll flank if you provide the base of fire,” BONESAW replies.
”And we’ll lead the flank,” Khodash adds.
”There’s a good line down that gully,” Hulor points out.
“What?” Danielsson whispers.
“They’re going to lead the flank,” BONESAW says. “Learn some Whiirrsign already.”
“I can hardly speak Imperial!” Danielsson crows back.
“Now that’s true,” Boyd throws in.
“Cool it, boys,” Leaj says. “Thank you, BONESAW.”
“Guess we’ll be bugging Davis for lessons,” Danielsson mutters as Boyd, Leaj and Shen make their way up the dune to join him for some long-range fire. He looks around, gives a quiet thumbs up and gets one from each in return.

“Command says ‘good job’ and to return to the village, Iggy,” Grey says as it comes back on the vox channel.
“Solid copy, Terminator-6,” Danielsson voxes back, mouthing a ‘Fuck!’. “Iggy is RTB, over.” He turns to Boyd. “Now I got sand in my cammies for nothing. Doesn’t seem fair.”
“Maybe we’ll get a bonus point or two when this shit’s over for finding their little secret staging area,” BONESAW throws in.
“You guys are still waiting for that original one point, right?” Danielsson says as he makes his way back down the dunes. “Given that they’ve scrooged you so far, I don’t see anything more substantial than a warm handshake for this.”
”Perhaps we’ll get recognized for doing a good job?” Khodash says hopefully.
“...what?” Danielsson says.
BONESAW bobs its sensor pod in much the same way a human might roll its eyes. ”Perhaps,” it says, then turns to Danielsson. “We will see.”

As they walk away from the cliff and start the trek back to base, Shen turns to Danielsson. “Why are we calling ourselves Team Iggy, anyway?” he asks. “What does that mean?”
Danielsson smirks, Boyd shakes his head, BONESAW rolls its sensor pod.
“I am the world’s forgotten boy,” Danielsson starts to quietly bawl. “The one who searches and destroys…”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:39:15
The commander’s tent in the Green Zone isn’t getting any bigger, though the command staff keeps growing. Fortunately, Arketta is a much easier accommodation than another large Sheen shell or Wherren, though the desk real estate for coffee mugs is dangerously crowded now. Hug’sh is bowed over the work table in the middle, considering the AO map before him with the village, its defensive perimeter and the location of the newly discovered OpFor staging area all weighing on his mind as he tries to figure out how to defend against the likeliest attack vectors without exposing a particular flank - and, optimally, not having to surrender too much of the village to destruction by resorting to defense in depth.
Grey is standing over the table with Hug'sh, in a human-sized shell instead of its usual four-legged heavy weapons version. "Grinder's latest report just came in," it says, and its holodisplay appears overlayed on top of the map. "Seeing about three-hundred and fifty bad guys to the north in that staging area that Iggy found two days ago. Looks like they're ready to attack any day now, they've stopped getting supplies."
Luis, meanwhile, is staring at the enemy’s motor pool. “So they’ll probably be coming soon, and with that kind of transport they can move fast enough to hit us wherever they want on our perimeter.” He looks around the table. “Do we wait for them to come to our prepared defenses, or do we try and attack them when they’re not expecting it?”
"Command wants this to be as if they're pushing in from further out, so we're restricted to taking them here," Grey replies.
"Which is spink-shit, but I think that we can handle it if we steal an idea from Hunter," Arketta says. "We spraycrete bunker this first row of habs on the attacking side," she says, drawing a highlighted line with her finger through Grey's holo. "They don't have enough vehicles to move everyone, so fortifying this northern section should give us a stronger barricade. We extend it down...this far," another gesture highlights the three blocks south, "and that should adequately protect our flanks and give us a rear position for replacements and supplies."
”Good,” Hug’sh says. ”They’re far more vulnerable to our heavies when they’re mounted, so if they want to circle the village, they’ll have to do so at a distance with dune cover. Aerial shells should give us enough warning on their movements to adjust our defenses. We’ll take the main thrust of their force on the north side. As far as we know, they don’t have any heavy artillery, so that places us in a very good defensive posture. Hunker down, engage any vehicles trying to close. The ground is open, so they’ll either have to settle for harassing us from a distance or attempt a crossing, which is suicide. Our priority is keeping the heavy shells in the fight. If we lose them, our anti-vehicle firepower goes way down and we’ll open ourselves up to a blitz.” He looks over to Grey. ”What do you think?”
Grey bobs. "Sounds good to me. Luis?"
“It sounds good to me, too,” Luis says. “Might be worth having any spares we have on rapid response, rather than having all the heavy shells at the edge of town, so we can reposition them to where they decide to hit, or where we start losing heavies.”
Grey pauses for a second, then it looks to Hug'sh and Arketta. "...what do you think?"
Hug’sh nods. ”A good plan,” he says.
Arketta nods as well. "I agree."
Grey bobs in response. "Well then, Luis, they're all yours. Arketta, Walks-the-Fire, I want you both on the northern line, Samal, you on the eastern half and Walks-the-Fire on the west. Any other questions?"
”None,” Hug’sh says.
“Nope,” Luis says.
"Good, go and do it," Grey says.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:39:35
One disadvantage of sitting in a freshly spraycreted bunker-hab is the heat. Not only from the sun beating down from above, but also from the tighter spaces making everyone’s body heat more of an issue, and just forget the heat of the curing spraycrete on top, too. No wonder Hunter was always out and about while he set his hab up, Hug’sh thinks, ruffling his fur in an attempt to get some air moving over his body.

”How are the Narsai’i doing with the Imperial training, Arketta?” Hug’sh asks. ”It’s getting to be a problem that they don’t understand Whiirrsign.”
"They're...all right with the language," Arketta replies cautiously. "They can talk, and understand orders, and read a little bit. We can probably get the very basics for Whirr-sign down for them by Afghanistan, and we'll need to put half of the Bashakra'i in there, too." She looks to Luis. "How about the Sheen? How do you think they'll do in this?"
“If this was the old days, they’d already be charging the enemy staging point with whatever they had, damn the tactics or the mission,” Luis says. “They’re here, they’ve been making sure they understand their role, and they’re working well enough with the rest of the troops. That tells me they’ve changed how we wanted them too, and so I think they’ll do well.”
Hug’sh nods. ”I really think they get it,” he says. ”And I guess they can prove that any minute now.”
Arketta leans over and gives Luis a peck on the cheek. "Sorry about your uniform, Luis." And she gives Hug'sh a sorry look. "And...sorry for being in here, Walks-the-Fire."
Hug’sh ruffles his fur again. ”I’ll live,” he says. ”It’s good preparation for Afghanistan.”
Luis looks wantingly at Arketta’s air-conditioned carapace. Well, mostly at the carapace. “I’m sure there’s memos flying up to the quartermasters right now about it,” he says.

"Hey hey!" Orphan Grinder calls out over the force-wide vox channel. "We've got action!"
Luis' vision flashes with a video feed update, while Hug’sh turns to his subtly ornate wristband that pops up a holo with a wave over the controls. The video feed from Grinder's aerial shell shows the force assembled in the desert coming on line, and then a dozen people with some kind of big launcher running up to the front. "Looks like they got some kind of grenade launchers, you guys might want to -" All twelve of them start popping off rounds towards the village. "Holy shit! Take cover!"
”Incoming!” Hug’sh calls. Luis grabs for a wall to brace.
"Wait! Wait - oh, shit," Grinder continues. "They're not explosives, they're smoke." A moment passes. "IR smoke, motherfuckers. I'm blind up here, guys."
”They’re determined to close,” Hug’sh says. ”Grinder, can you reposition closer to the ground and to the side of their approach? That should let you see something past the smoke.” He turns to Luis. ”IR smoke on our positions means they’re blind, too. We should get ready for some close-range fighting. We know our positions, they don’t.”
“Right,” Luis says. “Still, if we can’t clear that, this is going to get ugly.”
Hug’sh checks his beamer. ”Let them come. I’m going outside, I’ll grab some guys and prepare to hold down the main road.”
“Got it,” Luis says. “I’ll get the reserves ready to roll.” He leaves the hab, and heads out to the staging area for his rapid reserve--Sheen and humans, since Wherren are too heavy to rapidly move on the backs of the Sheen shells. “All right,” he says, getting their attention. “Here it comes, let’s get saddled up.”

Hug’sh hurries over to the main road, where two habs on either side have been spraycreted to near-bunkers - and predictably enough, received a good dose of smoke. Rodirr’s already pressed up behind cover, waving Hug’sh over to his position.
”Your friend Hunter has an amusing toychest,” Rodirr says.
”I’m glad you can find the humor in it,” Hug’sh says. ”What’s the situation?”
”Hulor’s gone to scale a hab,” Rodirr says. ”Kararr and his troops are holding steady behind us to pounce on anyone trying to break through here. I have Khodash and her litter-brothers to the east, there’s another road that looks wide enough for their vehicles to come through.”
”Good,” Hug’sh says. ”You bring the spearbombs?”
Rodirr grins. ”Do you even have to ask?”
”And the others?” Hug’sh asks.
”BONESAW and his heavy shells are in the habs - they’re ready to open fire once we give them targets,” Rodirr says. ”The humans are farther back still. I think Danison went to climb with Hulor, and Leaj went with Shenloma and Boyd to find another tall hab. They want to give us cover fire from above.” Rodirr checks his beamer. ”That just leaves us to sit here and wait for the charge. Do they have helicopters, too?”
”I don’t think the Army will let us borrow helicopters for training anymore,” Hug’sh says. ”Not after last time.”
Rodirr smirks. ”I’ll just have to see if I can dent one of their Humm-veez instead.”
Hug’sh nods. ”Happy hunting, Rodirr.”

Confident that Rodirr has this part of the perimeter in hand, Hug’sh falls back, closer to where the humans have set up shop - while the bunkers will bear the brunt of the assault, the Narsai’i and Bashakra’i can hang back, disabling vehicles and offering covering fire against enemy infantry. And if any of Hunter’s mounted troops break through the line of defense, they’ll be brought to a hard stop here. It’s not the most confident position, given the numbers involved, and Hug’sh is a little miffled at Hunter’s textbook use of smoke to cover his movements, but they’ll hold this line - if they can keep Hunter from bypassing it. Hug’sh takes a deep breath as he slides into cover opposite some Bashakra’i trainees.

Let them come.

And, a minute later, they do. HMMWVs and pickup trucks burst out of the fog just over one-hundred meters away, and they open fire in a blaze of muzzle flashes and low-energy beams. Hug’sh smirks - impressive little cavalry charge, too bad about trying it on a fortified defense.
”North Front sectors, clear to engage hostiles,” Hug’sh voxes. ”North secondaries on standby.”
A return blaze of imitation gunfire erupts from the fortified habs, beamers augmented with the pop-whine of accelerators. In difference from the relative lack of casualty calls on Hug'sh's tactical channel, the attackers immediately start falling out - gunners on turrets climbing back inside, people firing out of windows leaning back into their seats, drivers letting their cars coast to a halt. It's not exactly the same kind of carnage, but it communicates the idea.
”Disengage stopped targets and focus on anything that’s still coming,” Hug’sh voxes, his voice deathly even. ”Grinder, what’s your situation? Any visuals?”
"Just assholes coming out of the smoke," Grinder replies. From one of the trucks towards the back, Hug'sh sees the telltalle puff of a spearbomb. Before Hug'sh can say anything, Grinder comes back on. "Whoa! Spearbomb! Evading!"
Hug’sh barks in surprise, seeing the aerial shell barely dodge the training spearbomb. ”Okay, you’re done there, Grinder,” Hug’sh voxes. ”Come back, circle and climb. I want you at altitude for a strategic view - and out of their weapons range.
"No problem," Grinder says. "Just gonna try to not die, BRB."

And as Hug'sh turns his attention back to the front lines, he sees more puffs - a lot more. A moment later, more than a dozen training spearbombs are arcing through the air, all across the front line.
”Incoming!” Hug’sh calls out, hunkering down again. Hunter’s really doing his damndest to suppress the defenses - and feeding a lot of his troops into the grinder for it. It’s cold, but Hug’sh hesitates to dismiss it - without heavy artillery, human waves are the only move he’s got, and Hug’sh saw too many of those attacks in Iraq to take it lightly. But they’ve done what they can to dig in - now it’s up to the whims of Saint Barbara. Seconds later, the spearbombs impact and pulse their "You're Dead, Sucker" signal, but no calls of "Down!" come over the tactical net on his side.
Hug’sh grins - nothing like a good bunker. ”North front, light them up,” he voxes. ”North secondaries, feel free to pick off stragglers. Grinder, give me a sitrep.”
"Still circling back," Grinder replies.
”Rodirr, Khodash, how’s the front?” Hug’sh voxes.
"We have problems!" Khodash barks back.
"They've got a line up," Rodirr grunts.
”I’m coming,” Hug’sh voxes, rising from cover to dart to the next hab on a route for Rodirr. ”Stay safe and get your spearbombs ready. We’ll dig them out. Hulor, how’s it looking from above? Can you get a shot at something?”
"They are hiding behind their vehicles like cowards!" Hulor barks back. "Others are coming up behind them, but we don't have enough weapons to push them all back!"
”Then save your ammo now,” Hug’sh huffs, vaulting a low fence to close with Rodirr’s bunker. ”We’ll send them running for you to pick off.” Hug’sh can all but see the wall of enemy incoming fire ahead of them; Hunter’s really pouring it on now, but he’s in a bind: the line’s too heavy to crack with raw firepower, so his best chance is to suppress and try to create a local spear point to break through, bypass and take out the bunkers from close range. But with the vehicle line their only cover, OpFor has a bigger problem: they’re bunched up, and the defenders have yet to unleash their own supply of man-portable artillery.

Hug’sh comes up behind Rodirr’s bunker, drops his beamer into its sling and grabs one of the stacked spearbombs. Hefting it in his right hand, Hug’sh takes a breath and briefly leans out, just long enough to get a lock on a Humvee, then draws back behind the bunker and takes a step back, twisting the spearbomb’s controls for an airburst detonation. He takes another breath, leans back, and then takes two fast steps forward, hurling that sucker skyward like he’s auditioning for the Olympic javelin toss. A second later, the rocket engine kicks in and the training spearbomb arcs skyward. A few seconds after that, Hug'sh hears the clang of the impact.
"Eight of them are walking away!" Hulor barks over the channel. "Good throw!"
”Oh, I’m not done,” Hug’sh voxes back, and grabs the next spearbomb. ”Call out a clump for me, that’s where the next one’s going.”
"One second, something is coming -" Hulor starts, but then is interrupted by the eruption of a barrage of machine gun fire from the line. "I'm down!" he barks.
High-cyclic fire bursts up from across the enemy line, and Hug'sh's audio is full of barks and cries, wherren, human and Sheen.
Figures, Hug’sh thinks. Rooftop snipers might be great for getting a better view, but once they’ve silhouetted themselves, they’re all too easy to engage. But Hug’sh can’t think about them now, when he’s got people in the bunkers depending on him to get the fire off them, and more troops in reserve behind the defensive line ready to intervene if needed. ”North front, keep your heads down. North secondaries, your move. I want Sheen units heading for the flanks - enemy line is fixed and they’ve got no other cover, we’ll pincer their asses. Go around the line and mop them up from the sides.”
"Copy that," Hal replies. "Time to kick some ass."
”Good luck,” Hug’sh voxes, then leans out again for a quick and dirty target lock with this second spearbomb. The smoke is starting to clear to the front and sides of the village, leaving Hug'sh a clear line of sight to the hostile line and the reinforcements beyond. His eyes clock at least a dozen Mk48 machine guns propped up on vehicles across the line, but one in particular, manned by a familiar haircut: Hunter, wearing what looks like an Imperial version of a shemagh, barking orders as he rips off a dozen rounds from his belt of training 7.62mm ammo. Hug’sh smirks, then targets Hunter’s Humvee and withdraws back behind the bunker before sending the second spearbomb skyward. The whoosh-pause-clang combo plays out again, but when Hug'sh peeks back around the corner, he sees Hunter picking himself up off the ground, grabbing his machine gun and ducking down behind the line again. Tough old bastard, Hug’sh thinks. ”How’s the flanking coming, Hal?” he voxes as he reaches for spearbomb number three.
"On the move!" Hal calls. "Thirty seconds out!"
”Khodash, sitrep!” Hug’sh barks. The pressure’s starting to get to him a little bit - Hunter’s putting on a damn good show - but it’ll be a cold day in hell before he concedes the line.
"Keeping in cover! Too much weapons fire!" Khodash barks.
”Good, stay down!” Hug’sh barks. ”Help is on the way. Grinder, what’s your status?”
"Back overhead but keeping my distance," Grinder replies. "Just got this shell buffed and polished, don't want a ding in the finish. Looks...bad down there, chief."
”Yeah, Hunter’s brought some friends,” Hug’sh quips. ”Any units behind the firing line?”
"Lots," Grinder replies. "Looks like a hundred or so on the line, and at least half as many coming up behind them."
Shit, Hug’sh thinks. ”Hal, change of plans, go wide and beyond the line, then engage at range - Hunter’s got reinforcements that will probably engage you - fall back if they do and try to draw them apart. Too many to kill, we’re settling for disrupting his formation.”
“Copy, on it,” Hal replies.
”Grey, what’s the big picture?” Hug’sh voxes next. ”It feels like we’ve got the main thrust up here, how are the other sectors holding up?”
"Quiet on the other sectors so far," Grey says. "But I'm keeping Luis' rapid response force in reserve, I don't think that will last."
”I agree,” Hug’sh says. ”We’re taking a lot of fire, but they’re bogged down right now. I’m running a pincer to see if we can pry them apart.” Hug’sh weighs the spearbomb in his hand. ”This had better be a damn shiny point.”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:39:50
It’s never easy to listen over a radio while a fight happens elsewhere, but for the last few minutes, that’s what Luis and the response team have been doing--listening to the chatter of combat, explosions, gunfire, and more, as they sit idling in their ready area, waiting for a need to move. The lines are heavily engaged, but so far, there’s no sign of a potential breakthrough nor of the chance to smash the enemy that the reserve is waiting for. Instead, it’s just Luis, waiting with his troops, watching camera feed in his overlay and keeping in touch with Grey and Arketta, who’s in the lines under fire, barking orders as the engagement proceeds. Like the rest of the reserve, his adrenaline's up, and they want to go...but they can’t until it’s needed. He’s mainly watching the Sheen--he knows the human forces will be professional enough in combat, but the Sheen here are getting a lesson in nerves and waiting, and he can see bots bouncing and skittering a bit with a need to do something. Still, they're hanging in their trins, waiting on orders instead of barreling off towards the action.
Luis activates his vox to the reserve’s channel. “So far, the lines are holding,” he says. “Unless that changes, we’re holding here. Hang tight, but stay ready.” He tries to suit his own actions to the word, taking a few deep breaths and working to resist the urge to roll out to the lines to help his wife.
"Right, right," Ten Tons replies. "Shit fucking sucks."
“No shit,” Luis says. “Take a moment, check your gear, run some diagnostics. We’ll be in the thick of it soon enough.”
"Can't come fucking soon enough -" Ten Tons replies, but then is interrupted over the wider vox channel.

"Contact to the south!" I've Got Your Nose calls. "Taking fire from assholes in vehicles coming out of the smoke!"
All of the Sheen and humans in the rapid response team look at Luis simultaneously
“Nose, what’re their numbers like? Can you hold them?” Luis says.
"Uh, a couple vehicles?" Nose replies. "Wait wait, no, shit, like a dozen! Reinforcements would be fucking nice!"
“Rolling,” Luis says. He switches back to the unit channel. “All right, this is it. All units, we’re headed to the south line. Move it!” He nods to Percussive Maintenance, who stoops enough for Luis to climb on-board the killbot, and switches to the command net. “Rapid deploying south to assist!”
"Copy, rapid squad, good hunting," Grey replies.
"Let's go kill some bad guys!" Percussive whoops, and charges off at the head of the group as the humans on the Sheen backs try to hold on as tight as they can.

It's a short ride - but an exhilarating one, as the Sheen barrel through the village, galloping down streets and alleys. By the time they get close to the firefight, the Bashakra'i have gone from being wary about riding on the backs of their not-so-ancient enemies to terrified about riding on the back of a galloping robot, and the Narsai'i are more worried about dying for real from the transport than anything else. Still, everyone arrives alive and intact, and Percussive takes a knee again to let Luis off, who's sorely tempted to touch his ocular implants just to make sure they're still in his head.
Next time I have one of these brilliant ideas, Luis thinks. I’ll just keep it to myself. Still, after a moment, he gathers himself (and his trins) and points to the lines. “Let’s go.” He pushes to find Nose. “Status?”
"Follow the fucking gunfire!" Nose calls over the vox channel. Luis works his way through the last hundred feet to the front lines, ready with his weapon with the rest of his squad behind him. Before long, black shells, blue-and-green hoods, and multi-color fur come into vision, firing off beams at targets hidden by cover. It’s a lousy way to get a feel for the battlefield, and Luis pauses for a moment.
“Grinder,” he says on his vox. “Can you get me a feed of the south?”
“Sorry dude, let me pass you over,” Grinder says.
“Yo, this is The Fall That Kills You, you need eyes in the sky?” Fall says.
“Fall, this is Rapid,” Luis says. “I need a visual feed off the south front. Can you get me that?”
“Sure, sure,” Fall replies. “You want it piped your way?”
“Yep,” Luis says. “Standing by to receive.”
The standard “incoming feed” blip hits the side of Luis’ vision. “All yours,” Fall says.

Luis blinks the haptic for the feed, and his vision fills with the video from up above - what looks like thirty to fifty bad guys, in a rough semi-circle encircling the last remaining server a few dozen yards ahead of Luis’ position. He can actually almost see himself, standing in the street surrounded by the Sheen and humans of his backup team. There’s more than enough bad guys here to overrun the last server in a matter of minutes, and they’ve positioned themselves in buildings and behind vehicles for maximum cover against the beleaguered defenders - but with no consideration for attacks from any other direction.
“Nose, they’re set up pretty well here, but their flank looks open,” Luis says. “If you can hold here, we can swing around and hit it. Do you need any reinforcements to do that?”
“Not if you do it right the fuck now!” Nose calls back.
“Let’s move,” Luis says, and gestures he unit with him to swing for the flank beyond the enemy’s line of sight. With Fall’s overhead feed slid to one corner of his vision, Luis easily slides around the line of sight of the bad guys and to their back side. He gives a moment for his trins to shake out and get ready, then points to the end of the rough enemy line--more groups of troops huddling behind various habs than a unified line. “All right, let’s roll them up! Fall, designate targets for the spearbombs.”
“Got six groups of assholes lit up for your pleasure,” Fall replies.
“Targets designated for spearbombs,” Luis says. He takes a moment, breaking the throwers between the six groups, and grabbing one for himself. “Wait for the bombs to go off, then we move,” Luis says. “Throw on 3..2...1...now!” He tosses his spear skyward, lofting it enough for the engine to catch it, and it homes in on one of the designated targets. Five others arc upwards with it, and then split just in time to descend onto their individual targets. Three of them clang off of something metal, but Luis and all of the Sheen can see from Fall’s point of view that half of the people firing towards Nose’s rear guard have stopped and are sitting down on the ground.

“Push through!” Luis calls, and the advance starts. With enough people for a line two habs wide, Luis and his squad walk forward, beamers raised and accelerators hot. The squad steps around the corner, and for a moment, beamers blaze and accelerators fire, sending all eight of the hostiles’ vests beeping. Training weapons are kicked clear as the squad walks past, and when the squad hits the next hab, a Bashakra’i and a Narsai’i trainee and two Sheen stack up, kick the door in, and move through to clear. On the other side, the push continues as another blaze of weapons fire quickly downs another group of hostiles, then another hab is breached, Luis’ squad a methodically plodding machine spitting out particle beams and accelerator shots. By the fourth group the hostiles have wised up, but that just means that after the first beam is fired their way, the tempo gets stepped up to a fast walk with flashbangs leading the way. By the time the other end of the line is reached, they’ve stopped firing on Nose’s position entirely, but when Luis’ flashbang pops in midair in front of them, all they see is white light with their weapons beeping “You’re Dead, Idiot” warnings as they blind-fire on empty. It doesn’t take long before there isn’t an enemy line left[/]i--Luis and his unit simply push through and run out of enemies. The shock of the flank and the force imbalance was severe enough that Luis hasn’t taken a single loss. He pulls the unit back into Nose’s lines.
Nose climbs over the top of its defensive line, its sensors swiveling back and forth to take in the not-carnage properly. “Holy shit, man. That’s fucking badass. Is that what your stupid ‘tactics’ spinkshit lets you do all the time?”
“Yeah, it is,” Luis says. “Takes the right moment, but finding those moments and making use of them when they happen is basically what it’s about.”
“Fuck yeah, man,” Nose says. “Maybe you meatsacks know some shit after all.” It bobs its sensor pods. “We got this shit now. Go.”
“Right,” Luis says, and turns to his unit again. “Okay, saddle up, and let’s get back to base.” He thinks about the ride in. “Maybe a bit more slowly.”
“You’re no fucking fun, Luis,” Percussive jokes as it takes a knee.
Luis climbs on. “Grey, this is Rapid,” he says. “South is clear. We’re disengaged and RTB.”
“Good, get back ASAP, things are getting heavy on the north,” Grey replies.
“Got it,” Luis says. He turns to the units. “Let’s move!”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:40:11
When Luis and his troops arrive back at the main front lines, the situation is locked in a stalemate, with Hunter’s attacking line hosing down the defenders, who are mostly keeping down and bunkered up. The chatter of machine guns dominates as Luis slides his force back into place. This end of the lines is Hug’sh’s, and Luis seeks out his post towards the rear of the lines. Hug’sh is still pressed up against the back of a hardened hab, one hand on a spearbomb and the other on his vox as he (quite literally) barks orders at his troops, trying to coordinate a pincer by Hal’s heavy shells, redistributing his reserves to likely flashpoints and keeping his front line from panicking. He spots Luis and spares a hand movement to wave him over, guiding him more towards the doorway in the back wall of the hab than the edge where he’s crouched to observe the firing line before their gates.

”I’m glad you’re here, Luis,” Hug’sh yells over the noise of the fireworks. ”We’ve got Hunter directing this assault in person. They can’t advance, but they’re suppressing the shit out of us. What’s your status?”
“I’m here with my whole unit,” Luis says. “No losses, and we’re not engaged yet. Where do you want us?”
”We could use a good flanking maneuver!” Hug’sh says. ”I’ve got Hal doing a pincer, but Hunter’s getting reinforcements so it’ll be tough to disrupt his setup.” He muses for a moment. ”I wish we had artillery. This line’s begging for a fire mission.”
“No kidding,” Luis says. “At least they don’t have it either. Would it help if I joined up with Hal’s pincer, or tried to add a second one?”
"For First's fucking sake," Arketta shouts over the strategic vox line. "Spearbombs! We have fucking spearbombs! Those are our artillery! I swear to the Masters, I'll be putting you through training -" Her rant is interrupted by several beamer shots, loud enough to be her own. "Get aerial support over here to designate!"
Hug’sh rolls his eyes. Real original idea there. ”Grinder, I know it’s risky, but do you think you can get in range for a target paint on Hunter’s position?”
"Yeah, low and from the side, I can hook that up," Grinder replies. "Be better if we can get Fall over here to double-up."
"Yo, rollin' over now," Fall replies.
Hug’sh grits his teeth - two aerial shells at risk means this might get them both shot down - but finally nods to himself. ”Do it,” he voxes, then turns back to Luis. ”Luis, can you just pick a side, go around and do what you can from there? We’re juggling enough balls here right now.”
"Swing around to my side and I'll give you what forces I can so we can do this the right way," Arketta adds.
"Hal's already on Hug'sh's side, I want you to swing east around and pound them from the east side at range," Grey continues. "Once we have their line designated, we pop spearbombs from all three positions and push in while they're disorganized, starting from the sides and closing from the front. Understood?"
”Got it,” Hug’sh voxes. ”Standing by for spearbombs on your go, Grey.”

“Got it,” Luis says. “Moving out.” He gathers up his unit, and starts his swing around to the East.
Arketta meets Luis and his unit out of the back of her hab-turned-bunker. "I can spare two trins," she says, shining, chrome and faceless in her full carapace. "Think you can make them count?"
“I know I can hit hard with them,” Luis says.
"Good," Arketta says, and taps her helm. "Trins Alep, Josani, go with Samal Stanhill." A quick haptic retracts her helm's faceplate, and she gives him a quick smile and a peck on the cheek. "Go kick some ass, lahnai."
“Will do, dear,” Luis says. He turns to the new trins and his forces as Arketta's faceplate slides back down and she hustles back to her own position. “All right, everyone, move out!” He pulls through the front of their lines, and starts his swing around to the flank of the enemy lines. It's not an easy maneuver - the Mesas Negras desert is largely flat around the village's location, and while the Sheen can just press their shells into the dirt and scuttle along the ground for the most part, the humans are forced to hustle along, bent over. The navigation implanted in Luis' head comes in handy, keeping him in the right direction as his face is shoved into the dirt, and before long the chime only he can hear tells him that they've arrived at their designated fire position. A quick crawl up to the top of a small rise - no more than twenty feet tall, but more than enough for a tactical advantage - reveals that he's set up roughly at Hunter's two-o'-clock. The piles of brass from training ammunition glint on the ground, and Luis' enhanced vision lets him see the buckets of water they're using to cool the barrels of their machine guns - as well as the crowds of reinforcements behind the enemy line, poised and ready to rush in any moment.
"We're on station - holy fuck," Hal says. "That's a lot of bad guys."
“In position,” Luis says. “That is a lot of dudes.” He shakes his head. “We’ll cut them down to size. Grinder, can you start passing me designators for spearbombs? We’ll be set to go in a moment, Grey.”
"We're lighting them up now," Grinder replies. A dozen targets appear on Luis' augmented overlay. He passes the word along the ridge of the small rise, having his unit select the designated targets. He readies a spearbomb himself. “Grey, we’re ready on your go.”
"Hug'sh, Arketta, status?" Grey asks.
”Ready,” Hug’sh voxes back.
"East flank, ready," Arketta echoes.
"Pop spearbombs, flanks," Grey orders.
“Toss,” Luis calls to the rest of his troops, and pulls himself out of the dirt just enough to get off a lob with his spearbomb. As the engine lights, it’s joined by others from his unit, plus other trails from the other flank and the front. The barrage doesn't go unnoticed - the enemy line breaks and scatters, trying to get to cover - or at least minimize the casualties - but it doesn't do much good, as Grinder and Fall adjust the targets and kick the firing mode of the rain of spearbombs into airburst. Yet again, the barrage is an anticlimax - instead of a series of detonations rocking the battlefield, all you see and hear are the rain of spearbombs hitting the ground at the end of their flight paths and a chorus of beeps off in the distance as the enemy forces are decimated. Many of them get back up and rush to the line after a few seconds or try to form a line against the forces on their flanks, but the majority of them remain seated where they dove or get up to walk back towards the staging area.
”Effect on target?” Hug’sh voxes, hoping that they’ve finally managed to regain the initiative.
“They’re hit bad,” Luis says. “Most of them seem to be down. Do we push?”
"Do it," Grey says. "Push through."
”North front, suppressing fire!” Hug’sh voxes. ”Show them how we pin an enemy down!”
“Come on!” Luis shouts to his troops. “Rapid, we’re pushing through. Hit ‘em hard, watch for Hal coming the other way.”

The Sheen, humans and wherren all clamber to their feet and form up on Luis' sides, and as one unit, they hustle down the hill. The hostile forces fire back, and Luis' vox rings with calls of downed soldiers, but the attackers are outnumbered, and soon their ranks break before Luis' advance, the line surrendering or turning to run. Much to Luis' relief, the surrendered soldiers are quickly restrained by goo shots from the Sheen, and the line presses on. Across the gully, Hal's forces are meeting a similar success, and before long, only open ground separates Luis and Hal from the back of the enemy line.

“We’ve got them encircled,” Luis says over the vox. “Keep on holding their attention, and we can hit them from all sides.”
”Copy that,” Hug’sh says. Enough sitting on the sidelines - he grabs his beamer from its sling, slides up to the corner of the bunker, and leans out to pepper Hunter’s line with a few quick shots.

The rush continues, bringing the pincers in more and more contact with the bulk of the remaining hostile forces. Without cover, Luis and Hal's soldiers are forced to hit the dirt to minimize their profile, but at least they have a place to do it. A few of the attacking force react instinctively to the fire from the flanking teams and vault over their makeshift defensive line - only to get shot in the back by the village defenders in their bunkers on the other side. Less than a minute later, only a few attackers are left standing.

”All yours to mop up,” Hug’sh voxes - leaning out longer now, and firing less wildly, trying to pick off anyone who pokes out of cover. ”Anybody have eyes on more enemy troops in the area?”
"Looks clear from up here," Grinder replies.
"Seems like it's winding down -" Arketta starts, but then is interrupted by a long blast of machine gun fire from the hostile line. "Shit!"
Hug'sh's own training gear starts beeping wildly, warning of several near-hits. He yelps in surprise and draws himself back behind cover. ”Looks like we’ve got a hero,” he voxes, then grabs for another spearbomb. ”Grinder, can you paint him for me, please?”
"Can't see him," Grinder replies. "Must be underneath cover somewhere."
"I got him," Arketta replies. Hug'sh can hear her smirk over the vox. "It's Hunter. Middle of the line. He's too bunkered in, but if you have a spearbomb, you could flush him out. First to pop him gets a free shot?"
It’s too bad voxes don’t transmit Wherren fur color, because that one greens Hug’sh the hell up in a hurry. ”You’re on,” Hug’sh voxes, then sets his bulk in motion, racing to the cover of the next hab down the front to get his Mk. 2 eyeballs on Hunter and his spearbomb on target. Hug'sh can just see the barrel of Hunter's machine gun poking out from the gap in the sandbags underneath a particularly tall truck - just enough space to get a good arc of fire, but not enough space for a good shot. Smart, but Hug'sh has the solution to that in hand.

”Spearbomb out!” Hug’sh calls as he flings the last explosive rocket (pretend) death stick at the truck. The real blast would bury anyone beneath it under the burning wreckage, but Hug’sh will settle for getting Hunter to move. His hands don’t stay free for long, as he grabs his beamer and takes a knee, getting ready to shoot Hunter as soon as he shows himself. The underarm fling sends the spearbomb rocketing just a foot off the ground straight at Hunter's makeshift bunker. He sees it coming and the machine gun barrel vanishes just in time for the now-familiar clang of spearbomb on metal, and a moment later Hunter appears, silhouetted in the window of the truck he was hiding under.

Breathe out. Stock against shoulder. Steady now. Hug’sh has just a moment to squint his eye and bring the sight on target - the actual firing is almost incidental reflex, as his training beamer does its best WHAP! imitation. Hunter disappears from side for a second or two, but then raises his arms and walks out into the open. Hug’sh can’t suppress the green-yellow in his fur as he gets back to his feet.

”Scratch one insurgent commander,” Hug’sh voxes.
"Yes!" Arketta shouts over the vox. "And you owe me a shot."
”Looked more like a photo finish to me,” Hug’sh replies. ”Command, permission to abuse the training data records to settle a bet?”
"Permission granted," a human - or a Sheen - voice replies on the other end. "Participant Arketta Quis killed Participant Hunter Brand."
"Hah!" Arketta cries, and whoops a few times over the vox.
”Fair enough,” Hug’sh concedes. ”We’ll settle up after ENDEX - unless anybody sees another army of heavily-armed insurgents coming our way?”
Luis actually stands up and scans the horizon the other way, over the flat, bare desert. “Not that I see. Grinder, Fall, anything up top?”
"Looks clear to me," Grinder replies.
"Ditto," Fall replies.
"Anyone out there, report any hostile activity," Grey replies. The vox remains silent. "Then go out there and mop up. Good job everyone."
punkey 2014-07-21 13:40:39
It’s takes a few hours for the initial part of mopping things up to wind down. As the Mesas Negras sun slips slowly towards the horizon, the villager volunteers and the assorted troops are working on securing the captured prisoners, cleaning up the detritus of the “battle” and collecting gear. Meanwhile, the command staff-Luis, Grey, Hal, Arketa, and Hug’sh, are back in the command tent. The atmosphere is more relaxed--several of the displays are shut down, and the tension is definitely off. It’s not quite over, but the feeling is that it’s coming soon.
Luis grins at the other commanders. “Well, that went off better than I might have worried. The Sheen worked well with everyone else, and it was fun getting to play the cavalry.”
Grey and Hal both give Luis a look. "Well, yeah," Hal replies. "What did you expect?"
“I expected nothing less after what you’d shown me in training and here so far,” Luis says. “But tell me that would have been this clean before all this.”
"Well, no," Hal says. "But, you know, we want to win. Get that fucking point. And what we did before wouldn't have worked. Probably won't work going forward, either."
"That is to say, yes, thank you," Grey replies with a bob. "You meatbags didn't do too bad, either." It swivels one to look at Hug'sh. "Your people did good too, Walks-the-Fire."
Hug’sh nods. ”Thank you,” he says. ”I have to say, after running the training for my troops, it felt good to get to be part of the action again. Hunter put on a great show for us.”
Hal shakes its pods. "Man, I owe that fucker enough alcohol to give him a hangover that sucks as bad as all of this has."
Arketta looks back to Hug'sh, her arm around Luis' shoulder. "How did your trainees do, do you think?" she asks. "I think the ones under my command did well enough here, but the real change was on Atea, I think. At least these Narsai'i and Bashakra'i seem to get and respect each other."
”A few first-timer mistakes,” Hug’sh concedes. ”Wherren blend so well into forests that it can be hard to get an instinct about how visible we are in urban terrain - that cost us a scout trin. I think everyone held up well during the siege. The big issue I see going forward is communication - we’ll have to draw up an action plan when we’re done here. My trainees all understand Imperial, and the Sheen can interpret for them, but there’s still too few humans who understand Whiirrsign.”
"Some of the Bashakra'i do," Arketta adds. "But yes, we need to work on that. Something else for Garrett and Ngawai to do, I think. But, I think you and Hal both did a great job," she says, nodding to both Grey and Hal. "You both have become great leaders, I think."
Both Grey and Hal remain quiet and sink a little lower, probably out of embarrassment. "Just getting the mission done," Grey says.
“That’s what leadership’s about,” Luis says. “Stepping up, and making sure the job gets done, and seeing that the people doing if have what they need to do their parts. You’ve been doing that, all exercise.”
”I’ve got a little unofficial art project for you two,” Hug’sh says with a grin, producing a can of spray paint from his leather satchel. ”If you’re up for it.”
"Uh...okay..." Hal says.
"Sure, I guess," Grey adds.
”Take a knee, both of you,” Hug’sh advises, then rattles the can for a bit and moves to add a little something to Hal’s and Grey’s shoulder armor: three stacked angled lines for Hal and a single thick bar for Grey. ”Brevet only, so don’t go asking for a bigger paycheck now,” he adds with a new smirk on his muzzle.
Both Grey and Hal pause as they look over their new decorations. "...you know that this is just a shell, right?" Hal says.
"Shut up and take the compliment, Hal," Grey says, and nods to Hug'sh. "Thank you. It means a lot."
"Yeah, I mean, it does, it's really cool, thanks," Hal says.
Hug’sh turns to Luis. ”No small part of the credit belongs to you, Luis,” he says. ”Well done, with everything.”
“Thanks, Walks-the-Fire,” Luis says. “It took a lot of work, but we got through it.”
"I think you more than got through it," Arketta says as she gives her husband a squeeze. "You kept everything in your training going, and under a lot of pressure."
"Yeah, we were shitty trainees," Hal says. "But we had you to look up to. It helped, a lot."
"And you let us learn by doing, instead of just telling us what to do," Grey adds. "You did a great job, Luis. You're a great leader."
"You hear that, Luis?" Arketta says, giving him another squeeze. "You finally hear that?"
“Thanks,” Luis says, grinning. “It...means a lot.”
Hug’sh claps Luis on the shoulder and smiles down at him. ”About that shot I owe Arketta - what do you say we grab Hunter and make an evening of it? First round on me.”
Arketta smiles. "Sounds like fun. I think he should be done wrapping up his final meeting soon."
"Shit yeah," Hal says. "Come on, 'lieutenant'."
"You guys go on ahead, we'll catch up," Arketta says, holding onto Luis' hand.
”Yes, let’s give them some time to debrief,” Hug’sh says, then makes his way outside, trailed by Hal and Grey.
"Meatbags," Hal says, shaking its sensor pods, as it follows Hug'sh and Grey out.

Arketta takes Luis' hands and looks into his eyes. "Hey," she says, suddenly choking up.
“Yeah?” Luis says.
"I'm really proud of you," Arketta says. She wraps her arms around him and hugs him tightly, her carapace pressing up against his plate carrier. "And you did such a great job, and...I've missed you, Luis. I'm just glad this is almost over, and I'll see you again."
Luis returns the hug, wrapping his arms tight around her. “I’m glad too, I’ve missed having you around.”
Arketta leans in for a kiss, and the two of them stand there entwined for a good few seconds. "I...want to stay here, for a bit," Arketta says. "Just with you."
“Me too,” Luis says.
Arketta smiles, and picks Luis up and carries him over to Hana's cot over in the corner, laying him down before snuggling in behind him. She sighs contentedly as she wraps an arm around Luis and buries her face the back of his head, their armor rubbing up against each other.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:43:00
After the action, there's the cleanup. Most of the duties are being handled by the combined Army Corps of Engineers/Bashakra'i construction crews that built the village in the first place - a village intended to be left standing for future training purposes which now requires extensive reconstruction, something that the Army personnel are giving the participants some dirty looks over while the Bashakra'i are just grateful for the overtime - but there's still duties to be done for the participants.

Duties such as cleaning weapons, which finds our favorite foursome behind the armory shack with a gargantuan stack of weapons, less than half of which have been cleaned so far.
“Now I’m just saying,” Danielsson says, running a cleaning rod down the barrel of a SCAR-L, “that we had the perfect perch. It was choice, man. And we could have had a good time, called out some shots, maybe even gotten a few kills, if Hulor hadn’t flashed green. But bam, we get made and they light us the fuck up. Three hours of fieldcraft down the pisser for a good feeling.”
"As if the reflections on your silly straps and vest didn't give us away," Shenloma replies, his arm elbow-deep in an accelerator shroud.
“Before you answer, Alex,” Boyd cuts in, “yes, your gear is all taped and burnished very nicely, but are you a hundred percent dead certain that there is no way anything could have glinted at any angle in the wandering sunlight?”
“Uh...no,” Danielsson admits, and sighs. “Man, I really wanted some kills. You’re right, it wasn’t all on Hulor.” He withdraws the rod and looks down the barrel. “Can I kvetch about Command calling us off when we had the perfect setup for the night raid, though? Are we all on the same page with that?”
"Yeah, what was that about?" Leaj says, slapping the shroud on her beamer shut. "We were there, we had the perfect setup, we could have waited for backup and then just rode on down that hill and pushed them all out."
"Which was not the point of the exercise," Shenloma adds. "And you know it."
"Yeah, but...man, we could have kicked some ass," Leaj says.
"Don't you fucking know it," Ten Tons of Fun says as it walks past in a heavy weapons shell, pulling a cart of hab appliances behind it. Leaj puts up a hand, and a manipulator arm snakes out of the shell to give her a high-five.
Danielsson puts up his hand, too, grabbing a high-five from Ten Tons, too. “Nice shooting out there,” Danielsson says. “You guys get your point or what?”
"You fucking know it," Ten Tons replies, turning a sensor pod around to keep...well, eye contact is close enough. "We got the point, and saved the village. We fucking rock. See you guys back at Mesas Negras."
“Keep on keeping on,” Danielsson replies, then goes back to his rifle. “But yeah, Leaj, about that...when the Army schedules an exercise for two months, it takes two months, end of story. They have a script, and if you break it you get a pat on the back and a reset. Considering the general level of bullshit in the military, I actually think that’s one of the most realistic aspects of our training. If you want lateral thinking and can live with losing brilliantly, join the Red Team next time.” He shrugs. “But I guess at the end, you can either color inside the lines, or go and take what you want, you know? It’s better that we got out there and tried than to just sit here and wait for the setpiece to come to us.”
"Yeah, the boss for this, Grey Goo Scenario?" Boyd says. "He had his shit together. I've had worse PL's."
"Yeah," Leaj says. "I mean, maybe not as my Rav-Samal? But he'll be a good leader, I think."
"And if he does end up as our Rav-Samal?" Shenloma asks, elbowing Leaj a little.
Leaj bangs her leg against Shenloma's in return. "Then I'll just sleep with a scrambler under my pillow," she says, then stands up. "You seen the contact paste?"
"I've got it here," Shenloma says. "Let me -" Leaj simply leans over his lap, stretching past him. Danielsson watches as Shen's tan cheeks blush a little at the close contact before Leaj sits back down.
"Thanks," Leaj says.
“So, what are you guys doing tonight?” Danielsson asks with a smirk.
Boyd shoots Danielsson a look, but doesn't say anything. "Probably gonna get a bottle of shanoor brandy and pass it around," Leaj says with a smirk. "Why? I thought you two were gonna get hammered on brandy with us."
“Yeah, well,” Danielsson says, “the night doesn’t end when I have to tuck in Boyd at 2100, does it?”
"No, but then we'll just have to see where the night takes us," Shenloma replies.
"Which probably isn't all that far in this backwater post," Leaj adds.
“Good, good,” Danielsson says. “Well, sounds like we’ve all got some fun ahead of us. Except you, Boyd, but somebody has to be the team lightweight, right?”
"Fuck you," Boyd replies. "So, why don't we talk about something else?"
“Like what?” Danielsson asks, reaching for a baby wipe to scrub the chamber of his rifle.
"Anything else," Boyd says, giving Danielsson a glare.
“Yeah, sure,” Danielsson says. “Wow, how about that weather, right guys? It’s so warm and sandy, I thought it was gonna rain today for sure. And man, this gun is clean now. So clean.”
Shenloma and Leaj both give Danielsson a curious look. "Is...there something we need to know going on between you two?" Shenloma asks.
"Something...personal?" Leaj asks.
“Oh, wow,” Danielsson says. “Boyd, you wanted to talk about something different, let’s talk about us. Go ahead.”
Leaj leans forward. "We think it's great that at least some of you Narsai'i are honest with yourselves."
"I mean, we didn't see this coming -" Shenloma starts.
“I’m glad somebody’s noticing the sexual tension, the little hints…” Danielsson begins, smirking at Boyd.
Boyd's turned bright red by this point. "Hey, hey, Danielsson and I are not fucking. I'm not fucking gay."
“Right, because having feelings for a battle buddy is so unprofessional,” Danielsson counters.
"Yeah, but not a fucking man, shit," Boyd replies.
Shenloma and Leaj simply look confused. "Then what's going on?" Shenloma asks.
Boyd looks at Danielsson, who's just giving him a big shit-eating grin. "Fuck it. Fine, go," Boyd says.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Danielsson says. “To clarify, no, Boyd and I are not in a relationship or even attracted to each other, I was just messing with him a bit. However, we’ve noticed that this isn’t true for you guys.” He looks at Leaj and Shenloma. “Don’t give me any bullshit. You guys want each other. And I’m telling you, there ain’t no time like today. You want something, you go and ask for it, right?”
Shenloma's eyes go wide as the red returns to his cheeks. "I mean, we're friends, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that -"
Leaj just shrugs. "Yeah, so what?"

That stops Shenloma cold. "...really?" he asks.
"Uh, yeah," Leaj says. "You're my best friend in this whole fucked-up galaxy, asshole." She gives him a slug on the shoulder. "You've been there for me since we were old enough to walk, and now we're battle buddies together. Fuck yeah, I wouldn't mind jumping into your bunk."
"Well, I thought - I mean, you said that you'd rather have me as a friend than anyone else as a lover, so I thought -" Shenloma says.
"And you think you can't do both, big boy?" Leaj asks, putting her hand on his groin as she leans in towards him. Shenloma looks like he's about to combust when Leaj moves in and sticks her tongue in his mouth. She makes out with him for a good few seconds before sitting back down. "Masters above, men are so fucking stupid," she says, giving Shenloma an elbow again.
Shenloma sits there in shock for a few moments, then returns the elbow. "Maybe next time just say something, then?"
"Please, I couldn't have made things more clear without sucking your dick," Leaj replies.
"Obviously not," Shenloma replies.
“Isn’t it great?” Danielsson says, smirking at Boyd. “This is great. You go, guys.” Boyd just shakes his head and shoves the cleaning rod down another gun barrel. “Well, I think it’s great,” Danielsson adds.
"It's pretty good," Leaj says. After a few seconds, Shenloma leans over and gives Leaj a kiss on the cheek. "Okay, now it's fucking terrible," she says as she puts an arm around his shoulder and returns the effort.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:44:27
Angel’s skimmer came in low and fast across the dirt path, kicking up a small cloud of dust before rising slightly to settle on the landing pad on the roof of Kesh Holdings’ terran headquarters with a soft, steady whine. Next to his space is Erika's - her skimmer naturally already parked next to his. She asked for a basic skimmer to handle the commute from her apartment in DC, but obviously the Toyota Corolla of skimmers just wouldn't do, and so an equally sleek and sporty-looking teardrop sits in her space, luxurious and well-equipped without being ostentatious and over-the-top, unlike Angel's, much to his eternal embarrassment.

“Much better than Afghanistan.” Angel mutters to himself as he heads inside, into the pleasantly air conditioned building. The decor was simple and understated - which meant, as it turns out, hideously expensive, even by Angel’s rapidly adjusting standards. He didn’t actually know walls could be made from sapphire but...well, the nearly floor to ceiling windows were. The rest was light wood where the sun would hit, brushed metal where it wouldn’t, and slightly curved surfaces to meld Narsai and Imperial architectural influences, making everyone feel at least a little bit at home.

Nodding to Erika as he passed her office, he assumed she’d catch him if there was anything particularly pressing. And then there was his office - while theoretically his vox could handle nearly all of Kesh Holdings’ daily business, Angel found he preferred staggeringly expensive flat screens, which dominated the better part of a wall. Still, at least in office equipment, he wasn’t a complete luddite, and the office came with a rather sophisticated voice recognition system.

“Morning Maria. Anything urgent?” Still a little odd, just speaking into the empty air, but he was growing used to it.
"There are twelve vox messages pending, and one-hundred and thirty-six emails," the room intones, the Faxom-Io stock voice still as silky smooth when being spoken by a whole room instead of just the vox in his ear. "One-hundred and thirty of those emails appear to be solicitations for business opportunities according to my filters, and six are in response to your educational and research initiatives, and are marked as 'important'. Six of your incoming vox messages are from Task Force 815 regarding the Mesas Negras training, the other six are from GRHDI officials in regards to Kesh Holdings importation and PMC business, and all are also marked 'important'. No messages are currently flagged as 'urgent'."

“Good lord.” Angel shook his head. “And has Erika already done her usual filtering?”

"Miss O'Byrne has been occupied all morning replying to replies from business and educational leaders in regards to your research and educational programs, collating purchase orders from corporations and governments for Faxom-Io power and vox technology, and starting background checks on applicants to Kesh PMC," Maria replies. "She has relayed a message to you. Do you wish me to play it?"

“Please.” Angel sat down at his desk, tapping a few keys to bring down the temperature in his office by a few degrees.

The room chimed to signal the start of the recording. "You are damn lucky you have me," Erika said. "The PMC background checks will be started by this afternoon, and the sales requests spreadsheet will be ready by tonight. I never thought I'd miss standing in the desert." Another chime signals the end of the recording. "What are your requests, Mr. Kesh?"

Angel sighs softly. “Lets start with the messages from 815.”


A few hours later, with the backlog of messages that actually warrant a response worked through, Angel leans back in his chair, closing his eyes. The Chinese were not getting top placements in the R&D program - not yet. Congress was already fussing, and that would tip them over the edge. Most of the other business prospects were worth pursuing, at least initially - the entire idea of Kesh Holdings was to spread its resources pretty widely in order to both distribute Imperial tech where it would do the most good, and prevent any company - save perhaps Kesh Holdings - from accidentally hitting the alien civilization lottery.

“Did the governor of North Carolina ever return my call?” Angel had been going back and forth with them on tax breaks and other incentives to locate ExTerran in the state, but they were rapidly passing ‘I’ll think about it’ and into Angel being blown off.
"He did, Mr. Kesh," Maria replied. "His voice message mostly involved voicing concerns for off-world presence on your requested property, and inquiring on priority listing for vox and power equipment for his state's technology sectors, calling it 'a prime opportunity being missed'."

“Of course he did. Please reply, using my voice print. Tell him that while I understand his concerns, the off-world presence, or lack thereof, is not a point of negotiation. I do however appreciate his cooperation, and will make sure…” he scrolled through a list on one of his screens. “The applications from Duke Energy, along with UNC and Duke University, will be given my full attention.”
"Very well, Mr. Kesh," Maria replies. "It is 1230 local time, Mr. Kesh. Would you like me to place a lunch order for you?"
“Already? Sure...grilled chicken ceasar salad if you please?”
"Of course, Mr. Kesh." And with that, Maria falls silent for the first time all day.

Sadly for Angel, this moment of peace is interrupted by Erika. "Angel, we have a problem."

“Of course we do.” Angel sighs softly. “What’s going on now Erika?”
“The gates of Hell have opened, and all the assholes have come streaming out,” Erika replies out of his desk. “We’ve got execs from Apple, IBM, TI, and a half-dozen other companies in the lobby - legal teams in tow - and they want to discuss the technology distribution and design program. And if I had to guess, it’s not about how grateful they are that they’ve been let into it.”

“Of course not. Why play nice in the sandbox? I take it our lawyers are back from lunch? If so, get them to go distract their counterparts downstairs. The executives can come up, but for the moment, I’d like to solve this without half the law firms in Manhattan in the room.”
"Shall I sic the dogs on them, too?" Erika asks with a smirk Angel can hear through the vox. "They'll be up in a minute."

A few minutes later, a phalanx of six men of various degrees of greying hair and two distinct styles of expensive dress walk straight past Erika and into Angel's office. Five of the six men are over the age of forty, dressed in several-thousand dollar suits - pocket change compared to the custom-engineered skinsuit and its attached components that perfectly simulate the look of an overly-elaborate Narsai'i suit while actually being built out of a dozen components hung off of the skinsuit by quantum attachment. The odd man out is actually younger than Angel, a twenty-something computer zillionaire dressed in a $500 t-shirt, $1,000 hoodie and jeans (separately) and $500 sneakers.
"Mr. Kesh," William Price, the IBM exec, says. "We are here to renegotiate the terms of your technology and research sharing agreement."
"Yeah, see, it's just not gonna work out for us," James - Jimmy to the press - Melvin, said wunderkind zillionaire.
Price winces at Melvin's interruption. "Yes, quite. We have gotten together, and decided that the pace, cost, and distribution of what crumbs Kesh Holdings is willing to give out is not acceptable to us. For what our six companies are providing, we think that we deserve...more. More technology, more say in how it is distributed, and for less cost. After all, without our involvement, who will you partner with?"
"Yawn, blah blah," Melvin says. "Let me put this straight to you, chief." He takes a seat in front of Angel's desk, and puts his feet up on the edge. "We're not having this 'slow build' bullshit, see? We think you're holding back - or maybe just full of shit." He winks at Angel. "And we think that it should go to where it'll help the most." He gestures behind him. "To us. Why are you wasting your time with anyone else? We're all you need, right here. And, all these demands that we provide our own development costs and testing - the way we see it, we're doing all of your hard work. You're lucky we don't charge you for the privilege of selling our shit back to you."
The Apple exec - Vin Merrill, if Angel's memory serves - steps forward. "However indelicately put, that is more or less where we stand." The other four men that have remained silent so far all nod. "And, honestly, we don't think you have much of a choice but to acquiesce."
A notice comes up on Angel's holodisplay that lets him know - in Imperial glyphs, of course - that Erika is requesting a vox connection with video entitled "Let me see the show".

Angel blinks, once, and lets Erika access the visual feed streaming from his vox, never one to deny his very hard working assistant the chance for a little...entertainment. At the same time, he mentally sends a command to his suit, subtly altering the light absorbing properties of the garment to more closely match the executives. That, and the look he gives Melvin, very much suggests an aura of ‘Quiet, the grownups are talking’. He sighs softly, leaning back in his chair.

“Mr. Price, I’m...disappointed. I had hoped IBM of all companies would understand. That empire is built on what, five Nobel Prizes? The steady, relentless development of new technology has made you a very rich man, and I am practically handing you the next generation of that empire.”

“Here is what I’m trying to share with you gentlemen. I’ve been in places with no native industry. Places where people make due selling used scraps of other people’s industry, and cast offs from richer countries.” Angel pauses for a moment.

“Earth is one of these places. Make no mistake about this fact. Earth, all of this, Kesh Holdings. This is a mildly diverting emerging markets play. These people buy starships like they’re Gulfstreams. You all got excited that Musk managed to have a rocket not crash. This firm does not need you. It doesn’t even need Earth. You have two choices - you can embrace this, and if we manage to make it through this war, remain relevant. Enjoy the fruits of an Earth that still has native industry. Which can still innovate. Still be relevant on a larger stage. Or this can be the day that historians will point to as the day you signed the death warrant of your firms. The industriums will carve this planet up like a roast, because that is what they do.”

He shook his head. “If you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to accompany me to dinner tonight, on the other side of the Gate to see for yourself. And if you’re not willing to do that...get the fuck out of my office.”
One of the other suits from one of the chip makers - Intel or AMD or TI, it's hard to tell all the white men in suits apart - furrows his brow a little deeper than the others. "You can't threaten us, you need us. Without our manufacturing and product development, you don't have a damn thing. You are in our business now, not just running around in some alien shithole with a gun."

“Who do you think makes technology for the rest of the galaxy? Do you think they run with ‘Intel Inside’? That’s what I’m offering you - the chance to be a player in what’s to come. The alternative, gentlemen, is I use the manufacturing and product development I already have access to. The market gets flooded with devices your engineers can’t even dream of yet. I’d prefer not to do that, because this remains my home, and I’d prefer it not to be a miserable little backwater. As I said, if you don’t believe me, the offer for dinner is still open.”

To make the point, Angel turns to the bank of displays - ironically, an unnecessary affectation - opens up a vox chat, and tells Erika to book somewhere nice across the Gate, all without moving a muscle. “The good news for you Melvin is that by our standards, they have a very lax dress code.”
Six suites at Nga'a and one very secure dinner party at Khalkiota, booked, Erika messages back immediately. Black-level VIP membership and a vast corporate expense account have their privileges.
"Hmph," Price says. He, and some of the others, seem to have not considered the fact that Angel does not, in fact, need them to make anything in order for him to succeed. Price in particular still seems skeptical of that idea, but he doesn't have the demeanor of someone taking to a child anymore, either. "And a tour of one of your production facilities."

Angel smirks softly. Erika, see if we can book a factory tour somewhere. Preferably something local. I’ll buy you dinner if you can get us in at a toy factory.
There's a pause as Erika no doubt pours over the Faxom-Io sub-industria listings. Kanak Entertainment has a facility two arcologies away - I'll book a sub-orbital hop to get you all there.

“Done.” Angel smiles at the assembled executives. “Now, lets all get you cleared for gate transit, shall we?”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:44:51
The process for clearing GRHDI and military requests for transit through any Gateway, including the village Gateport, involves a lot of paperwork, fingerprint and DNA logging, and a battery of questions to determine suitability for visitation off-world. The process for Kesh Holdings is considerably shorter - a voxed request to Atea for clearance, palmprint acknowledgement of the risks involved, and Angel Kesh and his six passengers are cleared for transit. Less than two hours later, Angel walks through the Gateway onto the platform of the Upper Akis Gateport, in the company of six very seasick-looking men. Kansatai and Faxom-Io security have already cleared the platform, leaving just a phalanx of Kesh estate servants. They quickly rush in with plastic sickness bags and patches of anti-nausea medication, while the Kesh estate's butler, Iyim, walks to Angel's side and bows to his employer.
"Your brother sends his regards, and will join you and your guests for dinner at Khalkiota, Master Kesh," Iyim says. He eyes the six Narsai'i warily. "Do you think that they can pass for...well...for not being from where they are from? Do they even speak Imperial?"

Angel smiles genuinely at Iyim, inclining his head slightly. “No, they don’t speak Imperial. They have however, been briefed on the myriad and colorful fates that await them if they get caught. As for passing…” Angel shrugs. “Think you can arrange for a pack of pretty people in garish colors to keep eyes off them until we get inside?”
Iyim smiles back. "Master, this is Upper Akis. One must only wait minutes for some noble desperate for attention to prance through. But, they would also pass for the help. If you might fly your skimmer around to the servant's entrance, we could meet you there."
Angel reminds himself to give the man a bonus at Christmas - contextless holiday or not. “That is a much better idea.” He switches to English. “You’re going to pass as the help. Do try to act the part.”
Price and the other Men In Suits are too busy dealing with their upset stomachs to be offended, and simply nod.
“Iyim will show you to your rooms, and let you all get settled," Angel says. "The nausea should pass in a few minutes.”
Iyim bows to Angel one more time, and then turns to his charges. "Masters, if you would all just follow me, I will guide you to your transport to Nga'a..."


Upon arrival at Nga'a, Angel's six guests are forced to let Iyim and Angel do all the talking for them as they're checked into the hotel's systems and lead upstairs to their suites. By this point, remaining quiet is not a particularly large issue, as all of the executives - save for Melvin - are stunned into silence. A sky buzzing with flying vehicles over a city that seems to descend forever, capped by a massive transparent dome; it's safe to say that this is all quite beyond what any of them were expecting. Melvin is the only one not dumbstruck; instead, he's jumping around like a kid let loose in a candy store. Erika has done well with the hotel - the suites are, well, they're miniscule compared to Angel's penthouse higher up the tower, but each is more similar to a reasonably sized apartment than a hotel.

Also waiting upstairs is Tangesa, called in on short notice by the Kesh brothers to outfit their off-worlder guests in something suitably executive as another demonstration of Imperial technical prowess and as further disguise. All six men are quickly measured for their new clothes - in Faxom-Io green-and-white, of course. The suits worn by the pale, male and stale executives are given a disdainful look by the designer as she hands them back, while Melvin's clothes are actually given an appreciative nod. Tangesa half-jokingly asked if she could be allowed a few days to actually design something proper, but then reluctantly allowed for algorithms and computer assembly to take over. A half-hour later, packages arrived containing the executives' new clothes, a quick change assisted by Tangesa ensued, and the whole group is herded back downstairs by Iyim and Angel while Tangesa is seen off with a double-peck on the cheek and a wave goodbye.


If arriving at Akis and going to Nga'a were mind-blowing, then arriving at Khalkiota can only be described as scandalous for the executives. Two women and two men in ornate yet very revealing dress escort Angel's guests out of the skimmer, and without having to ask, escort them to their private dining room. Familiar faces from the serving staff of Khalkiota greet Angel inside - it seems either Gorlan or the management here know well enough to place only those deemed trustworthy with him - but the most familiar and welcome face of all greets Angel from across the table set with exotic meats and pastries.

Gorlan Kesh, dressed in a shimmering metallic deep dark blue pants and jacket, with tails at least four feet long and held off the ground by impellers. The jacket lays on top of a deep crimson vest, with nothing else underneath to cover his torso. As he bows in greeting, the blue of the jacket shimmers with the orange compliment of the Kesh family colors.
"Greetings," Gorlan says in Imperial, maintaining a proper and businesslike pose. "My name is Gorlan Kesh, brother of Angel Kesh. Welcome to Akis. How have you found our home so far?" He looks to one of the two house men, who nods back. “I assure you, this room is secure, so feel free to speak.”
Something else more than slightly surprising happens next - one of the ‘escorts’ from the front translates for Gorlan, and not entirely unsuccessfully. It seems Khalkiota really does have what everyone needs. Price and his associates, however, have no idea about the relevance of this, and answers blithely, if still somewhat stunned. “’It has been...an experience. I assume that this is one of the wealthiest cities in your Imperium?’
The translator echoes Price’s words back to Gorlan in Imperial. “Oh, no, no,” Gorlan says with a smirk. “Akis is above average, for sure, one of the top three on Hedion - some would say the richest in culture and prestige - but by no means are we the wealthiest. Some of the palaces on Napai are worth as much as all of Akis put together - and nearly as large.”
That’s another stunner for the group of Narsai’i. “’My God,’” one of them says.
“If you think that Akis is impressive, wait until you see the assembly line for our local Kanak Entertainment sub-industrium,” Gorlan replies, and gestures at the table. “Please, eat and drink. If you have any questions...apparently the staff here will be able to assist you. But please, do not leave without an escort.”

As the six executives gingerly poke at the sumptuous feast on offer, Gorlan walks over to Angel and gives him an embrace. “How are you, brother?” he asks with a smile. “I see you have decided it is time to show your homeworlder friends a bit of the rest of the galaxy.”

Angel smiles, embracing Gorlan before chuckling wryly. “I’m well. Construction is finally mostly running itself. These gentlemen are some of the people I was hoping to partner with on Narsai. But, like our politicians, our business leaders seem to be having trouble...placing Narsai in context. This was intended as an illustrative exercise, and an excuse to have dinner with you.”
“Well, judging by their reactions…” Gorlan says, looking back over his shoulder. “I think that it’s having the intended effect.” A curious look comes over his face. “What, exactly, are they threatening you with?”

“Exactly what you’d expect. More, and faster, and with less oversight and a bigger piece of the pie. I believe the message I was intended to receive was that we need them more than they need us. I thought this would be more effective than simply telling them that I could just drop everything, go across the Gate, and live my life a wealthy man enjoying good company.”
Gorlan cocks an eyebrow. “Obviously, they don’t understand exactly how far behind they are.” He looks back at the group again. “I’d expect that from the youngest one, the one stuffing his face over there -” Angel looks, and indeed, Melvin is cramming cakes into his face, “- but this betrays a serious lack of perspective on the part of the Narsai’i.” He sighs. “One more reason I’m glad I’m here instead of there.”

Angel chuckles. “I am coming to think that ‘Narsai’ secretly means ‘serious lack of perspective’ and you’ve just failed to tell me this whole time.”
Gorlan laughs as well, and claps a hand on Angel’s back. “Maybe, maybe.” He starts to push Angel towards the assembled buffet. “But I think we should worry about this more in the morning. For right now, you look famished, brother. Go, eat, enjoy the fruits of your expense account.”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:45:12
During the meal, Angel’s vox gently whispered in his ear that Samal Tenai Viaj was inquiring if Angel has time to see her later on that night. A quick affirmative - with cab fare attached - was sent off, and after depositing his well-fed and very tired guests in their expensive hotel suites (and guaranteeing that they were locked inside and had trusted Kesh family guards posted outside), Angel let his skimmer do the flying back to the estate, where Samal Viaj was already waiting in his bedroom, lounging on his bed with her skinsuit half off.

The next morning, it was Angel’s turn to be up before Tenai, and as a quick breakfast was ordered from the kitchen, she asked if he was available later on tonight, and that she’d like to give him something. Her tone of voice implied that she actually meant presenting Angel with a physical item, rather than just more aerobically-intense rutting, and he accepted, albeit with a bit of caution.

Before long, though, Samal Viaj was on her way back to her quad, and Angel was on his way to the regional transport hub for a chartered suborbital pop. Gorlan admonished the Narsai’i that this might be a bit intense, and all six executives - still dressed in the clothes Tangesa had cooked up for them the day before and in immaculate shape - gave each other nervous looks as some of them turned a little green preemptively. Ten minutes later, the Faxom-Io shipmaster was giving the five-second countdown as the transport cleared the safety radius around Akis, and then the ship’s plasma engines kicked into drive, flinging the ship up out of the atmosphere into the high-speed suborbital transit lane to the Iisa arcology, a quarter of the planet away. The executives squealed in discomfort or were disturbingly quiet, but either way the exertion didn’t last long, and a half-hour later, the transport glided to a gentle stop on the pad in the arcology, the Kanak Entertainment-branded skimmer resting on the pad in purple and blue.

A short skimmer ride down through the arcology’s levels quickly saw them going beyond the easy reach of the sun’s light, but the artificial stuff shone from bright panels positioned to guarantee the same lighting conditions below as above. Consequently, Angel’s shades still darkened as he climbed out of the skimmer, and took up rear guard as Gorlan lead the tour. Once inside, the factory looked more like something from the chip fabrication lines of some of his erstwhile business partners than any sort of industrial factory - no forges, stamps or presses, no heavy machinery much at all. Instead, the facility is divided into twenty floors, each the size of a soccer field or so, each with two sections: the cogitators and the workers that man them, and the nanofabrication lines themselves.

“So, here is where the production itself happens,” Gorlan says as the group stands in an overhead observation deck next to three shift leaders, each with a cogitator of their own. A Kesh household servant stands by his side translating. “On the one side, cogitator workers handle the detail work of keeping the nanoforges in spec, and guarantee quality and accuracy across the line. Even equipment as sophisticated as this requires the intelligence and attention to detail of a human hand.”
’What about advanced automation, like with the Sheen?’” one of the execs asks.
Gorlan frowns, and turns a bit pale. “No. Absolutely not, for...many reasons.” He sighs, then returns to his pleasantly bullshit smile. “As for non-artificially intelligent automation, that would require coding a virtual intelligence for every single step of every single product - something that simply training a person to handle is vastly cheaper and more efficient for. Here, let me give you an example.” He turns to one of the shift leaders. “Ma’am, if you would produce a single scale model Khaomai Combine Sunburst for me, I believe it’s item SS-3321?” The woman nods, and with a few waggles of her fingers at her cogitator, the order goes out. “Now, if you watch the line closest to us…”

All eyes go to the nanofabrication line closest to the window. Another toy chamakana slides out, but then the pattern of back-and-forth on the nanoforge changes, and the shape of a model skimmer starts to appear, molecular layer by layer. “Our technology allows us to produce items atom-for-atom, which gives us infinite flexibility for production, and with the world-class workers here at Kanak Entertainment, quality control down to the molecule.”
The executives are all stunned. “’And...this is how you make toys?’” one of them asks.
“Well, yes,” Gorlan says, surprised at the question. “And weapons, and hab appliances, and voxes and cogitators. I have it on very good authority that some industriums can produce one million voxes per day, or several hundred thousand cogitators from some of the larger fabrication facilities. This facility is much smaller than that, obviously, more on the scale of what my brother is proposing to build on Narsai. Perhaps twenty or thirty thousand units per day.”
All six executives look Angel’s way, and for the first time, all six look scared shitless of him.

Angel tries to keep his expression as neutral as possible, with just a slight hint of satisfaction, rather than the absolute triumph he feels at at least this small victory of knocking some sense into someone.

“Thank you Gorlan - I believe this...helps our new partners understand more fully what Kesh Industries brings to the table. Now, we should probably get you gentlemen home - I’m sure your lawyers didn’t turn off the meter before you left, and they’re doubtlessly eager to hear your thoughts on whether or not our agreements need to be...revisited. The exit is through the gift shop.”

It didn’t hurt to twist the knife *just* a little.

“...yes,” Price says. “I...I think we’ve seen enough?” he asks his fellow business tycoons - who have now realized that they are very, very small fish in a very, very deep ocean, partnered with someone who, if not a giant whale, is at the very least one dangerous shark. “We’ll communicate what we’ve seen here to our boards and...explain the situation.”

“Excellent. I hope you enjoyed your trip as well.” He smiled slightly. “Let me know if you have any other questions - I’ll be here for another day or two, before returning to Earth.”
Price and the other executives turn pale. “...how are we getting back?”

“I’ve made arrangements to be picked up by your escorts from last night, who will see you get safely back to...friendly space.”
“Very well,” Price replies, trying to reclaim some degree of gravitas after his display of naked fear. “You will be hearing from us soon as to the issues discussed today.” He grabs for his suit’s lapels, but his hands slide off the unnaturally slick fabric.
“And as a parting gift, please look over the Kanak Entertainment catalog, and have any standard-sized item you wish,” Gorlan says. As the executives are distracted by a holodisplay catalog (and trying to figure out how to work it), he leans over to Angel. “Not that I am complaining about you spending more time at home, but don’t you have a war to plan? If you need any aid expediting things here, don’t hesitate to ask, brother.”

Angel smiles, shaking his head. “The war will wait a day, on idiots and generals and idiot generals. Besides, I may have a date, or at least...something that bears looking into.”


Samal Viaj’s voxed invitation points Angel towards a...well, it would have been expensive back when he was just Specialist Angel Riviera, but now the restaurant is pleasantly quaint. The eatery’s nice, subtle music and subdued decor lacks the bombast and extravagance of the restaurant’s Angel’s grown accustomed to on Hedion, but the scents of the roasted meats wafting from the tables certainly smells high-end to him as he waits in the foyer.

And then Samal Viaj walks in off of the skimmer balcony, and...well, it’s definitely not how he’s ever seen her before. Instead of the carapace - or less - she’s dressed in a shimmering iridescent wrap, the self-tightening affair flexing and stretching just enough to allow a full-range of motion while showing off her peak athletic condition, as well as just the right amount of skin by Imperial standards. It lacks the shifting colors or impeller-lifted elements that Angel’s used to, so it probably didn’t cost her a year’s salary, but it’s also not cheap.
She smiles and slips her arm into Angel’s as she walks up to the hostess’s podium. “Reservation for two, Viaj,” she says.
The hostess looks over the list - she doesn’t seem to recognize who Angel is, yet another sign that this place isn’t exactly frequented by the seriously rich. Any establishment looking to attract clientele of Angel’s caliber has the front-of-house memorize the who’s who in the social registry. After a second, she looks up and smiles. “Of course. Right this way, Samal.” She leads Tenai and Angel through the tables to a booth against the back wall. “Your requested table,” the hostess says as she waves the holodisplay with the menu on it to life. Your average diner would look at the table as out-of-the-way and romantic, but Angel also sees that it has complete tactical sightlines to the whole restaurant.

“Thank you,” Tenai says with a bow, and takes a seat.

Truth be told, Angel actually enjoys “slumming it” a little - at this point on Earth he’s mildly famous, and in the Imperium...he’s either ‘assign a small fleet of waiters’ famous, or ‘kill on sight’ famous, neither one of which allows for genuine relaxation. He follows the hostess and Tenai to the booth, noticing both the romantic setup, and the rather nice tactical position. That leaves him a little bit on guard - it could be habit, or Tenai may have chosen that table for a reason. After all, pleasant as her company is, he might count as ‘kill on sight’ famous if she was pressed.
Tenai smiles at Angel and waves through the menu. “The crustaceans here are great, and the red meat is also pretty solid,” she tells Angel. “I’ve been here a couple times before, celebrating a good raid once, and my promotion to Samal.”
“Fond memories then.” Angel has a few spots of that of his own, including a BBQ place in Fayetteville. He looks over the menu, making a selection - and small talk - while he keeps an eye on the room from time to time, noticing Tenai occasionally does the same, but with the distinct possibility that she’s just nervous.

Angel, let’s face it. If its a genuine ambush, you’re already more than a little fucked.

“Makes me wonder what the occasion is…”
Tenai puts down her fork, a thin, flexible affair perfectly designed for scraping the meat out of the long, hard shells of the seafood she ordered. “Well…” She takes a deep breath. “We have been seeing each other for two months now, and…” She blushes. “I’ve never actually done this before, so I don’t know if this is the right thing, but -” She pulls a jewelry box out of a pouch in her wrap, and slides it across the table to Angel. “I am offering you a token, Angel.” She leans back, and carefully studies his face.

Angel takes the box and opens it, looking at the charm necklace admiringly. Turning it over, he notices the brief glow of a built in ID scanner, and chuckles as the image on the charm shifts from the attractive young woman in front of him in full battle armor to the same attractive young woman wearing nothing but a smile.

“It’s beautiful.” Mostly a reference to her image in it. “But a question...I’m still a little behind on traditions in places that count as civilization. A token?”
Tenai laughs. “Ah, well, it’s an old spinkshit Turai tradition. If a Turai gains favor with a noble, it’s tradition to give a small token for the noble to remember them by, as a sign of the Turai’s respect and gratitude, and if the noble accepts it, it’s an acknowledgement that they favor the Turai, too.” She shakes her head. “It’s a stupid tradition, but my Rav-Samal suggested it when I asked about some way to let you know that, well...I’ve come to appreciate our time together.”

Angel laughs as well. “Hey now. I wouldn’t call anything that involves giving me something with...that picture in it...entirely spinkshit.” He takes the token, wrapping it around his neck, and giving her a curious look. “Thank you.”

He smiles as their respective meals come, giving Tenai a curious expression. “I’ve enjoyed our time together too. Thank your Rav-Samal for me, it’s...an excellent gift.”
“Well, he took the images, so I’ll be sure to mention you appreciate his skills with a sconce,” Tenai says as she turns back to her food. “I’d turn it back when you have your other consorts around, though, just in case they’re the jealous type.”
“I was wondering how you did that. My next guess was going to be the misappropriation of some top flight Turai surveillance drone. Other consorts those...are less of a concern.”
Tenai’s eyebrows go up. “...you only have one consort?” she asks, surprised.
Angel raises his hand slightly in the apparently universal gesture of ‘What can I say’, winking. “I suppose I could go shopping for another couple…”
“Shit, I think you should,” Tenai says, popping a fried grain ball in her mouth. “I’ve heard that some nobles half as wealthy as you have a consort for every day of the year. You’re probably missing out just sleeping with me.”
He laughs, taking another bite of his meal. “I am, at most, a one for every day of the week kind of guy. As for missing out…” he pauses for another bite. “Pretty sure that idea is spinkshit too.”
Tenai laughs - but still has to pause to wipe the corner of an eye. “Aww, ain’t that sweet.” She takes a breath. “Thank you for accepting the token, Angel. I’ve got a system patrol in two days that’ll take me off-world for two weeks, so…” She smirks at him over her meal.

Angel nods. “I understand...at least I have something to keep me company then. Keep yourself safe Samal.”
“And until then...are you busy, my noble?” Tenai asks, her smirk still on her lips.
Angel returns the smirk. “Not if you’re leaving for two weeks.”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:45:28
The end of the Sheen village exercise brings with it the closest thing Luis has had to a vacation in a while--no more getting up at early hours to Gate to Mesa Negras, nor is there hours a day of trying to wrangle killer robots through killrooms or patrols of the village. Nor, thankfully, is there another one of Mesa Negras’ patented 100-degree-in-the-shade sunny days. That said, though, there is still work to be done. However, it’s the kind of work Luis can do in more comfortable clothes, spread out on a table in the 815 ready room on Atea, working through analysis of the Sheen performance, and observations about the training in general, and what it could mean for when 815 move out on the next mission. Setting down a fresh mug of steaming coffee, Luis pulls himself back into his chair, and take a moment to settle his tactics for assaulting the next hill of papers.

There's a knock at the bulkhead leading out to the main hallway, and as Luis looks over, Arketta sticks her head in through the door, her hair tied up behind her and a smile on her face. "Hello!" she says in a sing-song voice.
Luis looks up and grins. “Hello! How’ve you been?”
"Well..." Arketta steps inside, and she's wearing a very special set of armor. It's not as complete as her Turai carapace, with black skinsuit showing between golden-chrome plates of armor, blue and green epaulettes and a bright orange sash. "I passed!" she says, her smile growing even bigger. "Kansatai Arketta Quis, at your service!"
“Hey! Awesome!” Luis shoves back his chair and stands to walk over to her. “At my service how?” he asks in a quieter tone as he gets close.
"Well, that we will have to discuss later," Arketta replies as she wraps her arms around Luis and gives him a kiss. "I've got patrol four days a week, and I asked about deployments, and the Rav-Kansat said that most of the Kansatai on Atea are active duty Turai as well, so they just rotate through as they are deployed and return, so it's no problem." She gives Luis another squeeze. "I can't wait to go out there and get to work making our ward safer."
“That’s great to hear!” Luis says. “Would the patrol schedule preclude going out to dinner to celebrate tonight?”
"No, it would not," Arketta says as she walks over to the sofa against the wall and takes a seat. "Is...all of that?" she asks, motioning towards Luis' piles of paperwork.
Luis shakes his head. “No, it’s not time-critical, and I’ve made some good progress today.” He joins her by the couch.
"Then...I want to talk," Arketta says, her smile getting a bit smaller. "About what we're going to do now. Okay?"

“Okay,” Luis says, and sits down next to her. “What’s on your mind?”
"Well..." Arketta says as she undoes her hair. "Our future. You and I - and our children. I think we should talk about what we're going to do."
“What do you mean?” Luis asks.
"Things like if we're going to raise a child on Atea, for a start," Arketta says. "Are we going to stay here, or are we going to move to the Bashakra'i village in Virginia? I mean, they need Kansatai there, too, and you can commute to the Interceptors from there. And...I think that we should think about maybe giving the Narsai'i another chance."
Luis frowns thoughtfully. “That’s a good question. They’ve been getting better in training, and maybe in another few years it’ll have sunk in enough that we could.” He pauses. “I guess it depends at least some on how we take care of them when we’re on missions. Atea’s schools are nice enough, and the people are good, but...would we be shoving them off onto our parents every time we’re on deployment?”
"Well, I'm sure that there's people in the village that could help us with that," Arketta says.
“Which is a case for the village,” Luis says. “It’d mean uprooting them less often. On the other hand...that’d mean moving again, and I’m getting to like it here.” He shrugs. “And there’s people who can and would help here too.” He shrugs. “We could probably make them all work, but you’ve clearly given this a lot of thought." At that, Arketta tilts her head to one side and gives him a "Really?" look. Luis shrugs. “What were you thinking about it?”
"I'm thinking I want you to tell me what you really think," Arketta says pointedly, "instead of trying to do your usual 'both ideas sound fine, what do you want' routine."
“I don’t know,” Luis says. “I always thought if I had a family, it’d be on Earth. But Narsai might not be ready in time. Not just culture, either, schools, technology...I don’t know. The Village offers some of both, but I haven’t really spent enough time there to picture raising a kid there. It’s just kind of another collection of standard habs. I’m getting to like Atea more and more, and we can build a network here, but a ship floating in deep space, even with a city onboard, is a bit different than anywhere I pictured raising a kid. Intuitively, if Narsai’s an option again, I’d kind of like to, but we’re building a life here, and I’d hate to destroy that just when we’ve found someplace that accepts us.”
"So..." Arketta says.
“So you can say I’m equivocating, but I wanted to hear what your gut instinct was, too,” Luis says.

"Well..." Arketta starts, then crosses her arms with a "hmph". "I don't know either. Atea, it's our home now. I mean, look at me! I'm a Kansat now. And you're an Interceptor. We have a berth, neighbors, a ward, you have your silly dodge-ball games that you go to and watch, favorite restaurants and everything. We live here. But...it's still a worldship. And it's still a target, and it's not as safe as Narsai."
“Narsai’s got its own threats, we know that," Luis says. "And while some areas are changing, the village is drawing those who aren’t like moths--you’ve seen the same incident reports I have, right? If we go to the village, at least until Narsai changes more, you’d spend a lot of time as a Kansat standing between the village and protests, drunken rabble, and maybe even worse angry at us for just being there.”
"I can take it," Arketta protests.
“Should you have to? Should our kid have to see you have to? I don’t want them to grow up thinking they’re wrong for being themselves,” Luis says. “That’s why I’m not sure I trust my gut on this.”
Arketta sighs. "Yes. It's just that...I want to give the Narsai'i another chance. I...I have to think that they will remember what the people that gave them these great ideas said! All these things that we're fighting for, and they have forgotten them! If we give up on them, then who is left?"
“I don’t know,” Luis says. “And I’m not giving up on changing their minds. They’ll come around, and we’ll help them. I’m just not sure I’m ready to risk our child on them changing immediately.”
Arketta sighs one more time, and leans against Luis' shoulder, her head resting on top of his. "I know. And I know you think I'm too nice and optimistic with the Narsai'i."
“I want to be,” Luis says. “Maybe they’ll prove I can be again. A year or two can change a lot.”
"But not right now," Arketta replies as she rubs Luis' back.
“...Yeah,” Luis says with a sigh.

"Then we stay here," Arketta says. "And that means that we need to ask Brinai about family berthing. And we need to apply for a reserve slot at the best primary academy on Atea. And we need to…”
“I’m sure there’s time for all that later,” Luis says. “It’d be a little hard to fill in a date of birth on the school forms so far, wouldn’t it? Until it happens, we’ve got time. Maybe Narsai will change, but Atea can work if it doesn’t, and Brinai and everyone else here will do everything they can to make it easy for us if it needs to.”
"They'll be our child's patrons if they have anything to say about it," Arketta adds with a laugh. She sighs again, and returns to her position leaning on Luis. "Or children."
Luis grins. “Or children. Are you okay with that, staying here for now?”
"Well, I didn't just get this fancy uniform for nothing," Arketta says with a smile. "Yes, I am, Luis. Like I said, this is home right now. I just wasn't sure if we wanted it to stay that way forever."
“Yeah,” Luis says. “I’m willing to see if the Narsai'i change, but until then it seems best to me.”
Arketta snuggles up closer to Luis, her arm wrapping around his shoulders as she pulls him up against her armor. "And if this is forever, that wouldn't be so bad."
“Nope,” Luis says, smiling.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:45:41
Hug'sh hits the mat shoulder first immediately before Swims-the-Black's elbow shoves itself under his muzzle and against his neck, his other arm folding Hug'sh's right arm up and behind his head, holding the limb in place.
"Yield!" Swims barks, his fur ablaze in red.
Hug’sh grunts from the effort of trying to free himself, but even if Swims wasn’t stronger than him, simple physics dictate that he’s not getting out of that lock. He taps his free hand onto the mat and yelps ”I yield!” as his fur shifts from red to blue.

Swims' fur instantly flattens out into brown, and he lets Hug'sh go. "You still try to fight like a human," he grunts with a bemused mint green fringe. He stands up and offers Hug'sh a hand up. "Do you see what I mean by that?"
”I didn’t use my strength,” Hug’sh says. ”I thought I’d just get my hands on you, but I hesitated and didn’t commit my weight.” He looks up at Swims for a sign. ”Yes?”
Swims nods, his longer head fur blossoming in green. "Exactly. The base of Alef-ka hand-to-hand technique is using our mass and strength to our advantage. No one touches an Alef-ka when we don't want to be touched without consequence - every grapple, blow or even brush is countered with an explosive thrust -" he demonstrates with a sudden shoulder check against a training dummy that knocks it straight to the ground with a thwack. "Do you understand?"
Hug’sh nods as he straightens up. ”I understand the principle, it’s just...taking a while to apply it. I must use my full strength without losing control of the movement, after all. It’s not as easy as you make it look, Swims-the-Black.” He smiles as his fur tinges green. ”Thank you for teaching me this.”
Swims-the-Black nods. "It is nice to be able to make something good out of that horrible training," he grunts, his fur ruffling. "And you are a good student. But you say you are having problems learning the basic thrusts?"
”More like...learning to trust my body,” Hug’sh says, casting his eyes down. ”I broke a few glasses at the school when I got careless. There’s just a lot to keep track of.”
Swims-the-Black nods. "You are not used to being so strong. Have you found your one-rep maximum for weight training?"
Hug’sh goes greener. ”I benched 640 pounds the other day,” he says. ”I think I lifted more weight in a half hour than I did in a week as a human.” The green recedes a bit again as Hug’sh ponders that. ”I think I need to stop these comparisons. It’s...it is how it is now. I need to work with that instead of always thinking like I need to compensate for it somehow. I know it’s tripping me up.”
Swims grunts. "And perhaps you have not yet had to use it properly. One cannot know the fullness of one's abilities until you really test them." He reaches over and picks up the training dummy. "So, we will go back to the basics. You will learn the standard shoulder thrusts, in all four directions, until you are perfect. Understand?"
”I understand,” Hug’sh grunts.
"Good," Swims replies, and pushes the dummy towards Hug'sh on its wheeled base. "I will demonstrate for you. First, the thrust starts from the opposite foot..."


The dummy’s had a rough day, and it’s not getting better as Hug’sh shoulder-slams it once again. He’s definitely feeling the bruise on his shoulder, but the dummy’s clearly getting it even worse, crashing to the ground with a sound that is all too easy to mistake for a skull cracking on concrete - even against the soft mat. Hug’sh looks down at his handiwork, then rotates his shoulder and rubs it with his free hand as the dull pain sets in again. One thing’s for sure, you don’t want to get caught in this move against Hug’sh - that just leaves all the other techniques to learn.

”How was that?” Hug’sh asks. ”I think I’ve got the hip rotation now. It’s definitely hitting harder than before.”
"Indeed," Swims nods. "That looked fine by me," he says as he stands up "Tomorrow, we will work on applying it on the other shoulder, and in all directions."
”I hope that’ll go a little faster,” Hug’sh says, rubbing his shoulder again. ”And I ran into Sergeant Hill this morning. He didn’t insult me, but he glared at me. So...well, I turned a little red, but I went on my way.” Hug’sh takes a deep breath. ”Like you said. I tried not to get angry. He does what he chooses, and I do what I choose.”
"Good," Swims grunts as he starts to put the training tools away. "He is not worth your time or effort."
”I am not responsible for his problems,” Hug’sh adds. ”We’re doing good work here, Swims-the-Black. Let the Narsai’i think what they will. Right?”
"Pretty much," Swims grunts. He picks up the training dummy, and the head lolls off to one side, the dummy obviously broken. He chuffs a laugh at that, which is shortly joined by Hug’sh.
”I think we’ll need a new one,” Hug’sh says.
"They have spares," Swims replies, his fur green. "But you sound...more centered than you did when we last talked about how you are feeling, Hug'sh."
”I’m focused on the training,” Hug’sh says. ”You know, I’ve been shirking hard work all my life. I got by without committing myself. But here, it’s just us and the dummy. I’m not just getting by. I’m trying to get better, and I am getting better, and that’s...it feels good. Like I’m really finding myself. And it’s just easier to let go of the unimportant things when you know what’s important.”
"Like Rhea and Torega," Swims grunts. "And the Wherren under your command."
Hug’sh nods to that. ”Exactly,” he grunts. ”Let the US Army be the US Army. They can worry about themselves.”
"And how does that feel, then?" Swims asks.
Hug’sh ponders that for a moment. ”It’s...it’s more work than not caring about anything. I just feel like there’s a lot of - energy - that I’m giving away now, every day, and it’s tiring, but it also feels good. It’s exhausting, but I feel good about it.” He adds a smile to his face. ”Like a long training session. And it’s energy that comes back. Not like before, where I felt like...every day was just taking things away from me. You know?”
Swims nods. "I understand that." He pauses as he locks up the cabinet for the training equipment. "I don't know if this is out of line for me, but...you haven't sounded much like Hugh Verrill, the human recently. I recognize some of how you act - the parts of human Hugh that were not an asshole - but that aside, it seems to me that human Hugh is gone - and, well, I prefer Hug'sh. Not just because you seem unlikely to betray me, but because you are a more centered, more focused, and better person."
Hug’sh smirks at that. ”I can be bitter and sarcastic if you want to feel nostalgic,” Hug’sh says, then quickly regains his serious expression. ”I was a miserable human being. The less I am like that now, the better, as far as I am concerned. I miss Hugh Verrill less with every day that passes - and I do not want to be like him again. If I ever start down that road, feel free to remind me of this conversation.”
Swims chuffs a few times. "That, I can certainly do, Hug'sh."
punkey 2014-07-21 13:46:25
Arketta has her feet up on the common area table when the berth’s entry chime sounds. She sweeps her gown to the side as she stands up and hustles over to the door, throwing the rest of her wrap over her shoulder in the process. The door holo flicks on as she approaches, showing Yisai standing at ease on the other side of the door.
“Come on in, Yisai,” Arketta says as she flicks a finger to unlock the door.
The door slides briskly open and Yisai quickly steps through, a plastic bag with two heater boxes inside in her hand. “Greetings, Arketta Quis,” Yisai says with a quick nod. “Thank you for allowing me into your berth.”
“It’s no problem, Yisai,” Arketta says, and gives the bag a quizzical look. “I thought we were going out, it’s your week to pick.”
Yisai’s stance stiffens. “I...apologize, Arketta. I wish to stay here for today’s lunch; I have some things I wish to discuss with you that I would rather do in private. I obtained lunch for us at the roasted spink restaurant two adits sunward from here that you liked so much six weeks ago.” She pauses, but continues before Arketta can speak up. “I apologize if this was rude, I should have voxed you to ask what you wanted.” She bows. “I will gladly replace the meal if you want -”
“No, no, it’s fine, Yisai,” Arketta says. “Please, come, take a seat and let’s talk.” She walks towards the dining table. “And eat. Vidas Lam, I am hungry.”

Yisai steps over to the table, putting the bag down first before sitting bolt-upright against the wall. “Please, go ahead,” she says, not moving to get her own food.
“Are you hungry, Yisai?” Arketta asks.
“Yes, but...but I am nervous, and that makes it hard for me to want to eat,” Yisai replies. Her golden ocular implants nervously flicker across Arketta’s face.
“Do you want to talk first?” Arketta asks.
Yisai pauses. “If you want to eat, I will gladly wait -”
“No, no, whatever you want to do, I will do -” Arketta starts.
“But you said that you are hungry, and I am your friend -”
“And I am your friend, which means I will wait for you to feel comfortable,” Arketta says, finally getting to finish a sentence. She takes Yisai’s hand. “Friends put their friend’s comfort ahead of their own if it’s reasonable, and I think that you need comfort more than I need food.” She lets Yisai’s hand go and sits back into her chair. “So, please. Go ahead.”

Yisai takes a deep breath. Her face and hands fidget slightly, and Arketta knows that she just pulled up a script she’d pre-written on her onboard vox. She smiles politely as Yisai works up the courage to continue. “I first want to thank you for supporting me, Arketta,” Yisai says, her voice more metered and even. “You have been an excellent friend, as far as my extremely limited experience can say, and I would not have made it so far without your aid.” She takes a deep breath. “And now I find myself in need of your assistance again. I have two friends, which seems more than adequate for anyone, but now I cannot stop myself…” Yisai freezes up, closes her eyes, and takes another deep breath. “I cannot stop myself from thinking of more. I have read the serials, seen the holos, and...and I have seen you and Luis together. I have always wanted someone…” She sniffs a couple times before continuing. “I have always wanted someone to understand and care about me like in the holos, like you and Luis care for each other. And I think that perhaps that person could be you.”
Arketta smiles all through Yisai’s speech, right up until the very end, where shock replaces warmth for a few moments. “Ah, err…”
Yisai instantly bolts to her feet and makes for the door. “I knew this was a mistake, I apologize a thousand times, Arketta, I will go now, I have made a terrible mistake -”
“Yisai, wait!” Arketta says. Yisai freezes, her back to Arketta. “I...I do care about you, but just...how do you think Luis and I feel about each other?”
Yisai turns around, but remains as straight as a beamer shot. “I...I think that you look out for each other, that you know how each other thinks and feels on many things, that you support and are there for each other no matter what happens. You would die for each other. I have seen all of this.”
“That’s true,” Arketta says. “All of that is true, but...there are other parts to our relationship.”
“You are talking about physical attraction, and sexual congress,” Yisai says.
“Yes,” Arketta replies. “Is that...part of what you meant you wanted between you and me?”
Yisai furrows her brow. “I don’t see why that’s entirely necessary; you and I have other shared interests and experiences besides mutual attraction, such as our Turai background and an interest in exploring culinary experiences.”

“But...you do know that sex is an important part of my relationship with Luis, right?” Arketta asks.
“Yes, but I assumed that it was not a key aspect of your relationship,” Yisai replied. “I have analyzed many holos, serials and observed others for many hours. Sexual congress is present in many relationships that are less enduring and more antagonistic - if not lethal for one or both members, while other relationships are completely without sexual congress yet last for lifetimes, enriching both members throughout. The conclusion is obvious - sexual congress is not a prerequisite for a deep and meaningful relationship of the kind that you and Luis and other married couples, combat partners, or life-long friends share.” She pauses. “Was I wrong? If so, I am prepared to engage in such activities -”
“No!” Arketta cries out. “No, no, it’s...it’s not required. I...just never thought of things that way.” She pauses for thought, then shrugs with a smirk. “I guess you’re right, though, in your own way. But, well…” Arketta sighs, and stops to think again. Yisai respectfully waits at full attention. “What you’re talking about, there’s a difference between - I mean, err…”
“I have simplified things too much,” Yisai says.
“Yes,” Arketta continues. “Sex, it might not tell you how good a relationship is, but it’s an important difference between kinds of relationships. You have sex with a significant other, you don’t with a friend.”
“That does not explain the many, many circumstances where people say they are friends, yet participate in sexual congress anyway,” Yisai points out.
“Yes, well, then they’re not really expecting a real relationship out of it, it’s just sex -” Arketta stops when she sees Yisai’s confused look, and sighs. “Relationships...they’re complicated. Yes, sometimes people who are not as close as significant others are have sex, and sometimes people can be closer than husband and wife but do not have sex.”
Yisai’s shoulders slump. “Then all of my analysis is useless here.”
“Well, not really,” Arketta says, smirk returning to her lips. “I mean, you figured out more stuff than I would have. Actually, you figured out a lot on your own.” The smirk turns into a smile. “Figures, you being so much smarter than I am.”
“I am simply observant,” Yisai deflects.

“Right,” Arketta says, and gives Yisai a wave. “Come on, sit back down.” Yisai steps back over and returns to the precise spot and position she sat in before. Arketta takes a deep breath before continuing. “You figured out a lot of things, so you probably know what you want, right?”
Yisai nods. “I do.”
“You want a relationship that’s close like how I am with Luis, where we don’t hide things from each other, where we’re honest and trusting and we always have each other’s back, where one of us would do whatever it takes to make sure the other one is happy, where we’d take a beam for each other?” Arketta asks.
Yisai nods again. “I do.”
Arketta smiles. “Well, then you’ve already got it. Yisai, you are one of my closest friends, and you are my banner sister. You already have all of those things with me.”
Yisai is quiet for nearly thirty seconds. A few tears appear around the edges of her implants. “...oh,” she whispers. “I...I didn’t know, I just assumed…I assumed that one had to make such things official, with an announcement or request or declaration before such duties and entitlements could be expected.”
“You can’t requisition a best friend, Yisai,” Arketta says, scooting her chair around next to Yisai and looping her arm around her shoulder. “They’re earned, and you have more than earned the right to all of that with me.”
Yisai sniffs, but still doesn’t wipe her eyes. “...thank you, Arketta.”
Arketta gives her a sideways look. “But do you want a partner? Like how I have Luis?”
“...maybe,” Yisai ventures.
“Well...are you looking for a woman, like me?” Arketta asks.
“I believe that I could be attracted to a woman, yes,” Yisai replies. “Or a man. I am not sure, I just know that I sometimes feel sexual arousal when I see or think about certain men or women.”
Arketta takes a deep breath. “Well, then that’s a good start. Why don’t you tell me what you think you like about them, and we’ll see if we can’t figure out what you’re attracted to.”
“That seems like a very logical and consistent method to derive a list of attributes to seek out,” Yisai replies. “I believe that this disproves what you said earlier about not being as smart as I am.”
“Well, let’s not go too far,” Arketta says.
“You give yourself far too little credit, Arketta,” Yisai replies, and nods towards the forgotten warmer boxes of roasted spink and sides. “And I think that our efforts to find a partner for me can wait until after lunch.”
“Oh! Yes!” Arketta says, and fishes the boxes out of the bag. She places them in the middle of the table and gets up to grab a pair of plates, putting one in front of Yisai with a smile. “Thank you, Yisai. For being my friend.”
Yisai smiles in her shy and awkward way. “Yes. Thank you for being my friend as well, Arketta.”
“Aww, you’re welcome,” Arketta says, and stabs a fork into the slices of spink. “Now, how many pieces do you want?”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:47:46
Even after fifteen minutes of transit time through Atea to get to G'het's door, Swims-the-Black still can't get the blue and yellow out of his fur. The first...well, Swims can't avoid calling it a "date" now, really, seemed to go well enough, but she was so guarded, and he was so nervous and wrapped up in his own head that he's not sure about much of anything that may or may not have happened between them. Even now, the ghosts of his Alef-ka trainers are jeering in his ear, pointing, laughing and shaming him, making him grovelling and small at their feet. Twenty years of distance and...accomplishment in this area haven't blunted their conditioning, but Swims grips the box with his herbal corsage, sucks in a deep breath, and slowly lets it out, his fur rippling as he breathes the fear out of his colors. He sets his shoulders, grunts one more time to build his confidence, and taps the panel next to her door to page G'het's berth.

"One second," G'het grunts through the panel, leaving Swims to fidget a bit more as the blue edges back in. He forces his fur flat as the door slides open, and he nervously puts his corsage forward to G'het, standing in her maintenance-issue overalls on the other side of the door. Swims suddenly feels very overdressed in his vest and shimmering platinum-threaded pants in front of G'het's greasy yellow overalls, but her fur shifts blue and yellow in concert with his.
"Hello, G'het," Swims finally grunts. "You look...good. Busy, but good." G'het's blue deepens, causing a spike in yellow in his own. "No! I mean it!" he grunts in a panic. "You…I mean...I like a female that knows technical things, and, err...you look happy. Like you like where you are."
G'het nods as she tries to force her fur back to brown, then flashes yellow for a moment, then tries to get that under control, and then just relents into a nervous yellow-and-blue mess. "Thank you," she says plainly after all of that display. "The work here is...well, it is not challenging, but it is fine. I have been promised a move from routing maintenance to reactor duty. That should be more interesting." After a moment where Swims tries to think of something else to say, blue flattens out her fur. "I mean...thank you, Swims-the-Black. It is nice to see you again." She forces the tips of her fur to green for him, but her smile is genuine when she leans forward and rubs her muzzle against his. Swims-the-Black bursts into green, and when she pulls back, she looks down at his hand and notices the corsage. "Oh! And more herbs!" She takes the box from him and cracks it open in front of her muzzle, taking a deep sniff that sends ripples of green and yellow - real colors - over her fur. "It smells nice. Thank you, Swims-the-Black."
Swims gives G'het a small bow. "I am glad you like it."
G'het stands to the side, putting on a green wave on her fur in welcome. "Please, come in. I...I still am not sure how to cook, but I have found an excellent smoked spink cart near my work, and brought some of their skewers home for us to share."
Swims sticks his muzzle in the air and sniffs a couple times. "The Tolokol's cart?" he asks. "That's the best spink on the worldship."
"Yes, their spink is very good," G'het says evenly, but her fur rolls another wave of bright green. She moves to grab the two self-heating boxes on the counter, but Swims-the-Black moves next to her.
"Please, let me help you," Swims says. "You don't have to do everything."

G'het looks at Swims in surprise for a moment, but then nods with a bit more green fringing her muzzle. As Swims steps up next to her, his shoulder rubbing up against hers, she closes her eyes and purrs for a second. Swims freezes and flashes back to a fearful blue, but then G'het leans a bit into him, angling her muzzle up slightly to rub against his. Swims finally relaxes a bit and rubs back, his purring stuttering but just as loud. She gives him one last muzzle rub before leaning back away and walking back towards the table, taking a seat and motioning for Swims-the-Black to sit beside her. The big Wherren is a riot of blue, yellow and green, but he slowly steps towards the seat and slides in next to her. They lean into each other as they both start in on their spink skewers, Swims-the-Black eating his first spink in a single nervous bite before getting himself under control and actually bothering to taste his food. G'het sees him nervously swallow his first spink and chuffs a few times, her ruffle of green tickling Swims' side. She starts purring again, rubbing herself against Swims in between bites. He tries to focus on his food, tries to focus on anything other than G'het's dusky, gritty musk as she leans against him, but he can't hide the green and yellow taking over his fur.

Swims-the-Black's famous appetite is whittled down to just taking nibbling bites at his last spink as G'het finishes hers and wipes her muzzle with a handful of paper napkins. She leans against Swims-the-Black as he keeps a tortured focus on his last bit of spink, purring loudly as she leans her muzzle on his shoulder. "I...I think I would prefer to keep seeing you, Swims-the-Black," she grunts. "I can feel that you want to support and comfort me, and...I want someone like that in my life." Violet fringes her fur. "You are the first that has not wanted me to hide my colors, hide myself. I have never had someone like that before. You...this feels good, you here." She rolls her eyes to meet Swims-the-Black's. "Do you agree with this?"
Swims has to try three times to swallow the bit of spink in his mouth before he can speak. "Yes," he grunts, barely above a whisper.
G'het licks Swims-the-Black's muzzle, and is quickly lost in the explosion of green and yellow fur from him as he stays stock still. She chuffs a couple more times. "Good, I am glad."
"I am sorry," Swims abruptly barks, his fur lying flat again.
"For what?" G'het asks, raising her muzzle off of Swims' shoulder.
"I...I do not know what to do now," Swims replies, and hangs his head. "I...I was made to be fearful of this by the trainers, and I do not know what to do now. I care for you, G'het, and I want you to be my mate, but I do not know how to." He whines in shame, and leans against her.
G'het echoes his whine, but then takes his muzzle in her hand and lifts his gaze to meet hers. Tusk to jade tusk, her eyes meet his, and she gives him a slow and gentle lick on the nose as she puts her fur on end in a riot of green and yellow. "I do not have much experience either, Swims-the-Black, but I think that this is a good start." Tentatively, Swims-the-Black sticks his broad tongue out, and gingerly runs it along the side of G'het's muzzle. She closes her eyes and purrs deeply, then returns the favor. "Yes, I think that is how you should do it." She smiles as her greens deepen, and Swims-the-Black smiles back at her.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:55:41
The nice thing about the seventh-inning stretch, Hunter thinks as they pull onto I-95, is that it’s a socially-acceptable opportunity to beat the traffic. With the Orioles having picked up a two-run lead, and no dog in the fight on anyone’s part, the family had elected to make its good-byes a little sooner. Well, Hunter had suggested it, but they had had enough of downtown game-day traffic on the way in. All in all though, a beautiful day, the closest thing to a family outing they’d had since the barbeque at Washington’s Crossing. The food was overpriced and the crowds a bit much, but the view couldn’t have been beaten. Charles had come through with seats on the third-base line, close enough to smell the grass. Even Hal had gotten into it; despite not really being “into sports,” they had a good conversation about sabermetrics, moneyball, and measurement. It was the kind of timeless summer afternoon that echoes in the imagination, and echoing it is for Hunter and Katelin.
“Not a bad way to spend your last free afternoon for a while, eh?” Hunter asks.
Katelin laughs nervously. "Yeah, it was pretty great. Mom didn't seem so thrilled, but I guess I was expecting that."
Hunter nods and shrugs, eyes on the road. “It’s her way, she’s your mother. She’d have felt that way pretty much anything we did.”
Katelin sighs. "Yeah." She looks out the window, fidgeting with her hair again. She'd done that ever since she was four. Hunter noticed it the first time she lied about having gone outside after dark, and it'd never stopped being her nervous habit. With her face turned away, she looks almost the same as she did that first time, until she turns back to her father. "Dad, do you think I can do this?"
Hunter takes a second to check the road and make sure it’s clear before turning to face her. “Absolutely. Katelin, you will always be my little girl, but I know that you’ve grown and changed, and you’re more people than that. You’re Katelin the national merit everything, captain of the debate team armed with exactly the right fact at the right time. You’re also LT Brand, tough-as-nails PT champion. You’re also the first executive assistant who could actually keep up with Director Barnes. You can do this.” He turns back to the road.
Katelin sniffs and wipes her eyes - this isn't the first time she's asked her father that question, and it isn't the first time he's told her pretty much the same speech, but this is the one that really seems to matter. "Thanks, Sir."

"Well!" Katelin says with another nervous laugh. "Enough about me. How about you? What's going on with the GRHDI? How has the training been going?"
“It’s been good. Pretty necessary, too. Lots of lessons that needed to be learnt by doing. Believe it or not, I’ve been basically playing the Imperial version of my uncle Jake. I’ve been hauling concrete bags and fixing walls, getting to be outside most of the day. Well, the only difference is I’m also running an insurgency. I’m pretty sure Uncle Jake drew the line there.”
Katelin laughs at that. "Construction work and running OPFOR. Sounds like you're having fun."
“It’s certainly been good for my health. An army of personal trainers aren’t going to match up to this kind of plan. Also it’s just been good to practice the language, work my way into the everyday rhythms of the culture. I don’t know if you remember how coffee-obsessed I got when I was in Eritrea, but it’s a little like that.”
Katelin smiles. "Yeah, so it's pretty bad."
Hunter smiles back. “Terrible. In fact, it’s turrible. Wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.”

Katelin laughs again at that, and it's nice to hear a normal laugh, not a nervous one from her. The radio moves onto another news segment in the background. "Despite what is largely considered an improving climate for minorities, women, and gay rights, a recent paper from Columbia University highlights exactly how far we have to go in the job market. Female pay discrepancy still hangs at roughly seventy-five cents to the dollar, gay and lesbian individuals lack legal protection in most states from discrimination in hiring and firing, and minorities are half as likely to be hired when the race of the applicant is known."
Hunter turns the volume down, with pursed lips and a disapproving glower. “I swear to god, sometimes it feels like we live in a third-world country.”
Katelin gives her father a curious look. "Hmm? What do you mean?"
Hunter shrugs. “Sometimes it feels like we just don’t learn, like it takes forever to get over such small differences. Maybe I’ve been in a bubble out there with the Bashakrai’i, but it’s one where things just aren’t a big deal to them...I just wish we’d gotten over it faster.”
The curious look stays on Katelin's face - just more of a "tell me more" expression now, rather than a "what are you talking about". "Like, what do you mean? What things? I mean, I noticed more women in command and in uniform when I voxed with the Bashakra'i, but I never actually went over there, or to the village."
“It’s worth a visit,” Hunter starts. “Women in command, gays in the military...all these things we feel like are so controversial, so difficult, so impossible, they just do. And it’s second-nature to them, because they haven’t known anything different. It blew my mind the first time I saw a unit celebrating their commander’s anniversary with her wife, but that’s just what they do. I don’t know if it’s the Imperium that guaranteed it, but it’s there.”
"Wow," Katelin says. "Sounds pretty great, at least with the Bashakra'i."
“Yeah,” Hunter says. “I’m actually pretty impressed how much the army and marine units have rolled with it. It’s like, they just go with what reality their DI says they need to accept.”
"Well, they're closer to my age," Katelin points out. "And lots of them don't really care as much as your generation does."
“Well, I suppose that’s true,” Hunter yields.
"So, what do you think about all of that? Bashakra'i society?" Karelin asks, and smiles. "Come on, you've talked my ear off for hours about everywhere you've ever been and how they live, you have to have something about the first culture not from Earth you've ever been embedded with."
“Well, I think there’s something to a society that forms under one stable rule, and a society that forms in opposition to that. They’re a very direct people, not a lot of time for nuance. Even their spies are pretty blunt when they have an opportunity to talk turkey.” Hunter furrows his brow. “One of the more interesting things I noticed, and this probably comes out of being a people-at-war, is how they differentiate their wants and needs. Needs are always handled seriously, as soon as they can be addressed. Wants, though, they’re a lot more subtle about. You almost have to drag it out of them.”
"What do you think about them, though?" Katelin asks. "Not the analysis and the paper you're writing in your head." She smirks at that. "What's your opinion, do you like them?"
“Do I like them? Yes I do.” Hunter replies with a warm smile. “They’re very solid, they don’t waste a lot of time on things that hang us up. They’re definitely not boring, I can tell you that much.”
Katelin laughs. "So, what does drive you nuts about them?"
“Well, like I said, they button everything down, or at least they think they do,” Hunter elaborates, growing a bit more animated than his standard academic self. “They’ve been trained to subsume their needs to the greater good, but that doesn’t stop them from being damnably passive-aggressive when they actually want something. It’s gonna come out one way or another.”

Katelin nods. "Haven't seen you get this worked up over an assignment before - over the people you're doing it with, I mean."
“Well, normally, there’s a certain amount of distance, of separation between who I’m looking at and what I’m a part of. With this assignment things were a little less clear.” Hunter responds diplomatically.
Katelin gasps through her smile. "You more than like them, don't you? The famous Hunter Brand objectivity, well and truly gone."
Hunter gives something of a ‘you got me’ look. “Maybe not from the big picture, but there is definitely one in particular who’s messing with my scientific outlook.”
Katelin gasps again. "You didn't. Oh my God, you did!"
Hunter sighs, then gives a long theatrical shrug. “My dear, I try very hard not to overshare, but I’m not made of stone.”
Katelin smiles. "Who is she? What does she do? Is she hot? When can I meet her?"
Hunter holds up a hand in mock defense. “Okay, so I’m still sorting all this out, and I don’t know what our trajectory is, so there’s a lot more up in the air than I’d typically share, but what the hell, it’s going to be a while until we talk. Her name is Honima. She’s normally part of an infiltration team, but she’s working as a vegetable peddler as part of the training program. She can bake a mean sweet-gourd, too,” he says with a bit of a twinkle in his eye.
Katelin leans over and gives Hunter the side-hug. "I knew you seemed happy. Not just work-happy, but...getting-some happy."
“Well, if that’s something you can recognize these days...” Hunter starts. “But I don’t pry. Your life is your own,” he replies, with a self-aware officiousness.
"Hey, well, you might not believe it, but not all the boys go for the Marine physique in a woman," Katelin replies.
“That should sort the wheat from the chaff,” Hunter counters. “If they’re threatened by that, they’re probably also threatened by what’s between your ears.”
Katelin laughs again. "Fair enough. But..." she pauses for a moment to judge her words, then continues. "But I do all right."
Hunter’s lip curls into a small smile. “I figured you would. Just remember to be safe.”
Katelin nods. "Of course." There's a tense silence in the car for a second. "And I'm talking about my sex life with my dad!" She turns to look at Hunter. "So, subject change?"

“With all due haste,” Hunter agrees. “So, back to the training. I honestly feel sorry for the Sheen, having to deal with messy counterinsurgency issues. They need to learn it, but sometimes feels like kicking a puppy. They really don’t see me as anything but the village fix-it man.”
"Just means you're good at your job," Katelin replies. "But what do you think about them? The Ambassador seemed...nice, but in a weird way. Not like it was faking it, but that it was still figuring out how to talk to humans."
“Think of it as those geeky mouth-breather types from high school, multiplied by about a thousand. They’re awkward, they’re scarily intelligent, and they learn so quickly. There’s a certain way they treat combat like a video game, because they can just get into another shell. But if you drill the seriousness of the situation into them, and show them why it is we do what we do, they become impressive pretty quickly. I’m just glad they’re on our side, and they’re willing to listen to us.”
"I heard something different around the office," Katelin says. "Seemed like they didn't listen much at all and mostly did their own thing."
“Well, that’s the problem,” Hunter allows. “As soon as they stop listening, it’s almost impossible to get them back into it. They’ve got five thousand other things they’re thinking about, and it’s easy for them to get arrogant about these squishy people trying to tell them what to do. But the units in the training are listening, and trying. Hopefully that radiates outward as time goes on.”

"Hopefully," Katelin says. Another silence descends, before Katelin looks over at Hunter. "Maybe you'll want to stay out there a bit longer, working there seems to be doing good things for you, Mr. Muscles. Is that all the genemods?"
“The muscles are a Brand Family tradition, as you might be discovering. The genemods are what keep me from throwing my back out or waking up stiff as a board after sleeping on a rice mat. Still, I can’t say I was expecting to look or feel like this at my age.”
"Miss Barnes gave me a solid 'maybe' when I asked her about getting them myself," Katelin says. "You like it, then? No weird side effects?"
“Aside from feeling like I’m twenty-nine again? Nope, it’s been gravy.”
Katelin nods. She pauses for a second, then speaks up again. "Think you might have more done?" she asks. "The stuff that Kesh Holdings sent me when I asked about genemods was...it doesn't look like there's anything they can't do."
“There’s a pretty deep rabbit-hole there, especially when you add in the stuff that Cyllans are capable of. Some of that will turn your hair white. As for me, I’m not sure. I think it comes down to how much work in the field I’ll need to do. Getting a boost to cardio and conditioning would definitely free up a lot of time. Pushing the peaks of natural human performance, I could maybe see myself getting. But beyond that there’s not a lot that interests me. I know who I am. Your father’s not going to be growing gills anytime soon.”
"You'll need to get new clothes if you're gonna go all superhero," Katelin says.
“Did you hear about the sword, though?” Hunter asks. “I flashed the mameluke at a wedding feast, and some of the Bashakrai’i went and got one made from valyrian steel or whatever the hell they make armor-piercing swords out of. I might have to learn how to actually use the thing for more than close order drill. Arketta even offered training.”
"Wow!" Katelin asks. "Think she'll train me?"

“I think she would,” Hunter replies, as he flips on the turn signal toward the crowded Quantico offramp. “We’re coming up.”
"Oh, wow," Katelin says. "I didn't think we would..." she pauses to wipe her eyes. "I didn't think we would get here so fast."
“That’s how it always is,” Hunter reflects, not just about the drive to Quantico. “Katelin, I am so proud of you.”
"Thanks, dad. I know. And I…I'm proud of you, too. I'm proud to be Major Brand's daughter," Katelin says, as the tears start to come a bit more quickly, and she wraps her arms around Hunter and gives him a hug so tight it actually makes his ribs pop a little. "I love you, dad."
Hunter pulls over, and returns the hug as the car idles, countless families at the drop-off doing the same thing. Hunter sees in his arms at once the little girl who told him she wanted to be a Marine, and the Marine that she grew into, strong and capable. This is fatherhood, he thinks, feeling grateful he got to be the one who dropped her off.
And suitably enough, it's Katelin that lets go first. She wipes her eyes one more time, then looks back ahead and nods forward. "Well, we gotta drive the last few miles, dad. I can't wait to get there now." One more pause. "Thanks for being the one who took me here." The tone in her voice says that she means that in more than just one way.
Hunter looks, and nods, and holds. “Always, kiddo. Always.”
punkey 2014-07-21 14:10:55
Zaef strolls down the corridors towards Brinai’s berth in the protected housing section of the command ward. The Turai manning the closest checkpoint to her berth know Zaef, and the guards outside her door nod as Zaef walks up. These visits are somewhat regular, and Zaef hasn’t killed Brinai...yet, anyway.

Today might be a little different. Zaef’s just not sure how yet. He lets out a deep breath and taps the page panel, shoulders stiff.
"Come in, my boy," Brinai calls through the speaker.
Zaef opens the door and enters. Brinai is seated at the table in her quarters, working at her holodisplay with her shawl around her shoulders, and she looks up at him through the display. ”How are you?” Zaef asks.
"Busy as ever," Brinai replies. "Garrett has me working on…accommodating the Sheen, putting them on my ship."
Zaef arches an eyebrow. “They make you uncomfortable.”
Brinai arches one right back. "Don't they make you uncomfortable? You know as well as I do what they did during the Sheen War, what they could do now." She sighs and shakes her head. "I know they say they are our allies now, but…here, on my ship. This will just take getting used to."
Zaef nods. “Yes, it will. On their side, as well, I think. They haven’t fought the Imperium in a long time, and certainly not under our rules.” He pauses. “Or talked with people, for that matter. I’m hoping that last one will pass faster than the others.”
Brinai chuckles. "Me too." She looks up at him again. "Are you going to sit down?"
Zaef takes a seat on the other end of the table.
Brinai follows Zaef with her eyes, and waits for a second. "So, how are you doing?" she asks in an overtly polite way.
“Good,” Zaef replies. “Narsai’i training’s going well, all things considered. They haven’t forgotten everything we taught them on Atea, and now our boys and girls are the ones learning, getting prepped for Afghanistan. Another language to learn, new cultures and customs. And the Narsai’i aren’t having anywhere near as much fun as ours did ribbing them for not knowing what they consider ‘basic,’ so they seem to be opening up to each other a bit.” He shrugs, and starts fiddling with a platinum band on his finger. “Car’s coming along. Waiting for some replacement parts at the moment. And...well, I’m not really sure who proposed to whom in the end, but Kitty and I are engaged.”
Brinai nods and smiles. "That's good, Zaef. I'm proud of you." Her smile widens.
Zaef frowns, and his fingers start drumming on the table. “You don’t seem terribly surprised, considering.”
"Oh, I've heard from some of my people working at Mesas Negras," Brinai says. She stands up and walks over to his side to put a hand on his shoulder. "I really am so very proud of you, Zaef. I could not be more happy for you, my son."
Zaef lets out a sigh through his nose, but when Brinai puts a hand on his shoulder, he reaches up and covers her hand with his. “Thank you, Brinai.”
"When is the wedding?" Brinai asks.
“Haven’t made much in the way of plans yet,” Zaef says. “Sometime after Afghanistan. I’ll let you know when we finalize the date.”
"And how is Kitty?" Brinai asks. "How is my future..." She drifts off. "Well, I like her. How is she?"
“She’s doing fine. She keeps busy, between her work, helping with the car, designing her own fitness program…” Zaef smiles and shakes his head. “I make sure she takes some time to relax, though.”
Brinai chuckles. "I'm sure you both must be very happy." She taps her fingers. "What about this...Afghanistan? What does...she think?"
“She’s worried,” Zaef responds. “And who wouldn’t be? It’s war. I’m worried too. It’s not exactly a battlefield I’m familiar with, and what few stories I’ve heard don’t paint a pretty picture.”
"Yes, I have been reading the reports from the Narsai'i, and that our people have recovered from the Narsai'i, and it shows it to be a hard place." Brinai sighs. "Let her know that...she has a home here. That if she is family to you, she is family to me, and that she is welcome on my ship, and in my quarters, any time."
Zaef nods. “I’ll do that. Thank you.”
"And you, Zaef? How are you? Are you excited, or anxious?" Brinai asks. "About the marriage, I mean."
“Both.” Zaef pauses. Brinai puts her hand across her table to Zaef and smiles. “Big changes are coming, for both of us. Likely good as well as bad. It’s...It’ll be a new experience.”
"Are you looking forward to these...new experiences?" Brinai asks with a similarly circular tone of voice to Zaef.
“Anxious and excited, Brinai,” Zaef says. “In this case, they’re inseparable.”
"And she is fine with your other lady?" Brinai asks with a smirk.
“You kidding? She wants one.” Zaef responds with a mirror of Brinai’s smirk on his face.
"Oh?" Brinai asks. "Well then! Perhaps that would make an appropriate wedding gift for the two of you. I already know what you like in a ship, of course."
Zaef chuckles. “Yes, yes, very funny, Brinai.”
Brinai's expression turns serious. "I mean it, my boy. Whatever you and Kitty want, it is yours. And if you both want a ship, then I will move every star in the sky to get you what you want."
Zaef doesn’t speak. Or move. Or breathe. He stares at Brinai disbelievingly, head cocked to one side, mouth agape.
Brinai's smile returns, and actually grows a bit. "Are you all right, Zaef?"
Zaef does not react. He still looks like his brain shorted out. After what feels to be a long, long while, Zaef finally blinks, closes his gaping mouth, and attempts speech. “I...That is...astoundingly generous of you. I still don’t quite know what to say.”
Brinai's smile stays on as she slides her chair around the table next to Zaef and takes his hand. "You say thank you, Zaef. How many times do I have to teach you manners?"
“It has nothing to do with that,” Zaef responds solemnly. “What you are doing is providing me...me and mine with a home, a refuge...another member of the family. Just saying thanks isn’t enough. Nowhere near.”
"You are...my boy, Zaef," Brinai says, tearing up as she squeezes his hands. "I want to give you whatever it is you want. Do you understand? You are my boy."

Zaef simply responds by letting go of Brinai’s hands...to pull her into a tight hug. Brinai returns the hug as much as she can. “Thank you, Nanna,” Zaef whispers to her.
"You're welcome, son," Brinai whispers back.
punkey 2014-07-21 14:11:11
"You drive a hard bargain," Garrett grunts from his position prone on the floor. "I like that. But let's be reasonable here, all right?" He shuffles forward a few inches on his elbows. "You've got something I want. I've got something you want. There's no reason we can't make a deal that's beneficial for both parties here, right?"
Naloni stares up at Garrett from her position on her blanket, her hazel eyes wide as she gums on the set of keys for his office.
"The silent treatment, I see," Garrett replies, and pulls a gummy ring out from Naloni's sling. "Well, are you sure I can't tempt you with this?" He gingerly starts to try to prise his keys out of Naloni's fingers, but when she starts to fuss, he backs off. "Fine, fine, you win."

The door to the apartment opens as Garrett watches Naloni redirect her focus on exploring the texture and shape of the next key with her mouth. "Garrett? Are you here?" Ngawai asks.
"Down here, on the floor," Garrett replies.
Ngawai walks around the sofa and takes a seat on the floor next to her husband. "I see you two are doing all right," she says, resting her hand on Garrett's head.
Garrett sits upright and leans against Ngawai. "How was your recertification?"
"I do the physical testing tomorrow, but I passed the range qualification just fine," Ngawai replies. "Has she eaten recently?"
"I was just about to take care of that," Garrett says, and climbs to his feet. "What was your score?"
"Thirty-seven out of forty," Ngawai replies as she takes Garrett's place at tickling Naloni. She lets the keys drop long enough to giggle and smile up at her mother. "Could have done a bit better, but I am pleased enough with that. I stopped by the exercise center and ran a quick three kilometers on the treadmill afterwards, just to get some things out of my head."
"Mhmm," Garrett says, coming back with bottle of milk simulant in hand. "So, which of these do you want more?" He asks Naloni as he returns to the floor. "Milk, or my keys?"
Naloni's eyes turn to focus on her father, and then the bottle in his hand. The keys are quickly forgotten and dropped to one side as she turns her attention to the bottle that Garrett slowly brings in towards her.
"That's what I thought," Garrett replies, and Ngawai smiles as he scoops his daughter up off the floor, cradling Naloni in his arms, and sits down on the sofa to feed her.
"Any other problems while I was at work, thefts aside?" Ngawai asks with a smirk, wiping Garrett's keys off with Naloni's blanket as she sits down next to him.
Garrett slowly nods. "Well...nope," he says. "No real problems with Naloni, she was perfect. Arketta and Arlana are preparing to move the Bashakra'i and Narsai'i into the village tomorrow, and I think between them, Lee and Decker, I think they'll do all right."
Ngawai cocks an eyebrow as she leans against Garrett. "You think so?"
"Yeah, I really do," Garrett replies. He looks towards Ngawai as Naloni suckles away in his arms. "They've both got the tactics down pat - not that that was ever really a concern, but the Atea trip really was the final touch on making them think and act like one cohesive unit. I think that, at least for the fifty or so Narsai'i we've got here, they get what we're trying to do and what needs to be done. We'll have to see how the integration with the Wherren and Sheen go, but I'd be surprised if anything negative happens. It's a combat situation, they know how to act and what to do."
Ngawai nods. "That they do."

Garrett and Ngawai then simply sit together in silence, watching Naloni suckle on her bottle until she drinks the whole thing. "So," Garrett says. "I think that it's time that we talk about what went wrong for us today. Like Medicae Jessica suggested."
Ngawai sighs, but nods.
"I'll get Naloni put down in her crib, and then we can talk," Garrett says. He gives Ngawai a peck on the cheek. "I love you, lahna."
"I love you too, lahna," Ngawai replies, then sinks lower into the sofa.
Garrett walks off, Naloni propped up on his shoulder and her blanket slung underneath her, gently patting her on the back. “Okay, sweetie, time for you to make a mess on daddy’s shoulder…” Meanwhile, Ngawai sniffles and wipes her nose and rolls over onto her back on the sofa.
A few minutes later, Garrett returns. A quick wave and a few haptics turns the living room holodisplay onto the sconce pointed into Naloni’s crib, and he lays down on the sofa next to Ngawai and wraps his arms around her from behind. “I’ll go first, if you want.”
Ngawai just nods in return as she shoves her hands into her armpits and starts to curl up.

“Well, it was nice getting to stay home with Naloni all day,” Garrett starts. “I’ve been feeling really guilty, leaving her here with you or Swims-the-Black or Angel. I’ve been afraid she’ll stop recognizing me.” He sighs. “But that’s not what I want to talk about. When I tried to give her the bottle for her afternoon meal, she just kept on turning her head away, and when I kept trying, she started to cry.” He moves one hand from Ngawai’s abdomen to wipe his eyes. “And I couldn’t get her to stop. My own daughter, refusing to eat and crying at me, some stranger that she was scared of, that wasn’t you. I tried, Ngawai, I swear, for ten minutes before I just couldn’t take any more and went into the bathroom to get myself back together. I felt like such a failure as a father...I would have given Thrax himself the gatecode to this place if it would make her happy.” He sighs. “And when I came back out, Naloni looked right at me from her chair, and she smiled. I got down on my knees in front of her, and she took the bottle straight away. I swear, if she had laid into you like she did that bottle, you’d be sore for days. But...I can’t shake the feeling that you would have done it better. That if I was here more, I would have done better. If I was a better father.”
Ngawai rolls over and looks Garrett in the eyes. “You are an amazing father, Garrett. She’s...she’s just headstrong. And temperamental. And particular.” Something resembling a smirk finds its way onto her lips. “Like her parents.”
Garrett manages a chuckle. “I guess.” He gives her a peck on the forehead. “Your turn.”
Ngawai sighs. “I...I had what Medicae Jessica would call a flashback. Waiting for my score at the range.”
Garrett just hugs Ngawai closer. “It’s all right, lahna.”
Ngawai rests her cheek against Garrett’s and closes her eyes as tears start to run sideways down her face. “I looked down the line of soldiers with beamers, and all I saw was...was the Turai detachment we had with us on Malenko’s ship, firing at a boy that escaped from his...his cage. She claimed she saw him planting a bomb, but...but I knew better.” Her shoulders start to quake. “I knew better and I didn’t say anything,” she wails, and buries her face in Garrett’s shoulder.
“Shh,” Garrett whispers as he gently strokes Ngawai’s back. “It’s okay. Just...just let it all out.” He turns his head to kiss Ngawai again. “You’re a good person, Ngawai Lea Holoni. You’re a good person. Say it with me. I’m a good person.”
“I’m a good...good person,” Ngawai sobs, and sucks in a stuttering breath. “I’m a good person.”
“You’re the most amazing woman I have ever known, and you are an amazing mother,” Garrett continues. “And we will get through this, together. Okay?”
Ngawai nods. “Okay. You and me. Together.”
“Forever,” Garrett says, and then just holds his wife as close as he can.