Jade Imperium - Convocation, Pt. 2

punkey 2014-07-21 13:09:46
The closed hatch in the bulkhead looms large as Boyd does some last-minute micromaneuvering to get into his spot, mercifully at the “bottom” left, with Leaj to his “right” and Danielsson inverted above them.
“Ready?” Leaj asks, glancing at her beamer one more time.
“Ready,” Danielsson says.
“Ready,” Boyd echoes.
Leaj nods, then takes out a gatecrasher and smacks it onto the control panel. Within seconds, the hatch hisses and pops open. “Go go go!” Leaj barks, and Danielsson takes her at her word, flinging himself into the unknown - and right into a nasty spin. As he flails for control while sailing through the room, Boyd follows more cautiously, slowly drifting out into the open - and then Arketta pops up and nails Leaj while she’s trying to get past Boyd through the narrow hatch. Boyd tries to get his beamer on target, but the quick jerk just sends him careening - turning him to face a corner where Arlana’s been watching and waiting for a few seconds now, giving him enough time to register the disappointment on her face as she zaps him. Then, almost as an afterthought, Arketta pulls her knees in and leans back to shoot the still flailing Danielsson, just before he has a rendezvous with another bulkhead. “Ouch!” cries the ranger, though his pride took a bigger bump than his head.
“Shit,” Boyd adds, grabbing a nearby handhold and arresting his move, while Leaj glides across the room to check on Danielsson.

"So," Arketta says dryly. "I think you're going to do it again."


“Ready?” Leaj asks, for the nth time - where “n” is the number of times Danielsson and Boyd have not succeeded in clearing a room in zero g, and while both have kind of lost exact count, n is large enough to make Leaj sound very annoyed indeed.
“Ready,” Danielsson says, pumping his arm up and down as he calibrates his swing speed. He’s getting it right. This time, for sure.
“Ready,” Boyd says, clutching his beamer tightly in his off-hand.
For the nth time, the gatecrasher does its thing, and the hatch pops open, and this time there’s actually not a lot of daylight between the three as they each go through the hatch and fan out in a search cone. Danielsson’s still spinning a little, but he’s got his beamer aimed straight and steady enough - only there’s nothing to shoot in front of him. There is, however, Arlana up above the hatch, pressed flat against the “ceiling”, and she quickly taps him before Boyd returns the favor. The moment of “eye for an eye” passes quickly as Leaj - distracted by Danielsson’s cursing - gets hers from Arketta, who’s wedged herself prone against the wall and behind some wall-mounted lockers for both good cover and a very steady shot. Once more, Boyd snaps to reaction fire, but he can’t walk it on target before Arketta takes him out, too.

“Fuck!” Danielsson shouts. “God...fuck…fuck!” For emphasis, he slams his fist against the bulkhead he’s drifting past.
“We almost had it,” Boyd says.
“You had nothing,” Arlana counters. “Following the basic formation isn’t good enough. If you don’t cover the angles you’re supposed to, you will get outmaneuvered every time. You’re still thinking about rooms in killhouses. In here, there are no walls or floors or ceilings. We can brace against anything in here. Got that?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Danielsson and Boyd repeat in unison.
“Show me,” Arketta says. “Again!”


"This time, for fucking sure," Danielsson mutters as he checks his weapon, floating upside-down above the door. Boyd's already got a hand on the edge of the hatchway while Shenloma readies the gatecrasher.
"Ready?" Shenloma asks. Both Danielsson and Boyd nod, and the gatecrasher is slapped onto the panel one more time. There's the briefest pause between the door opening and Boyd heaving himself inside, but now that he's stopped trying to twist himself to orient to the floor, the Marine easily glides through the door on his side, with Danielsson pulling himself over the top. Danielsson has the first target - Arketta, hiding in the back corner on the ceiling, gets a zap from his training beamer. The rapid movement onto target sends him into a bit of a roll, though, but Boyd has his back when Arlana pops up from behind cover, and she gets a double-tap as well. By the time Shenloma is through the door and heading to his spot on the far wall, the scenario is done, and he focuses on stabilizing Danielsson while Boyd hits the wall with his shoulder and an "Oomph!"

"Good!" Arketta says, a smile on her face as she flips her helm up. "Could use some work, but overall, much better."
"Danielsson, you need to work on your movement - speed is fine, but you need to counter your shoulder motions with your hips," Arlana says. She demonstrates by flipping her rifle 45 degrees and twisting her hips the other way.
"Part of why women are better at zero-g combat," Shenloma adds as he slings his rifle around his back.
"Indeed," Arlana says. "And Kravitz, you are faster than you were before, but you need to work on your control. The zero-g training area will be open all week while we are here for our use, I recommend you both come back and spend some time doing drills in here."
Boyd doesn’t exactly look excited about the idea of spending more time in a zero-g environment, but he nods. “Yes, Samal.”
“You’re dismissed, everyone,” Arketta says. “Bring in the next group.”
“Yes, Samal,” all four of the squad replies, and float into the staging area.

“So, what do you two think of zero-g?” Leaj says, rolling through a quick backflip as she drifts towards the exit.
“I’m never eating anything again,” Boyd says, only half joking.
“Dicking around is fun, but I don’t care for the ballet,” Danielsson says. “Everything’s twice as hard. Kinda glad that’s over for now, to be honest.”
“I agree,” Shenloma adds.
“Yeah, zero-g combat…” Leaj shakes her head. “It’s fun to practice, but...you’re losing people. Every door you go through, someone takes a beam to the head.”
“Or you shoot something that lights you up with hard radiation,” Boyd says.
“That, fortunately, doesn’t happen very often,” Leaj replies. “Mr. Utari’s just really protective of his babies.”
“Uh, you ever hear of ’Murphy’s Law’, Leaj?” Danielsson says.
“Nope,” Leaj says as she bounces to a feet-first stop against the far wall. “I have heard of a bar called Murfi’s, though. Makes a pretty great blended drink.”
Danielsson thinks for a moment. “Okay, so I know where we’re going this evening, but for once I actually wasn’t talking about getting drunk.” He puts on a thoughtful expression. “Murphy’s Law puts words to what every soldier knows: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
“Very dramatic, thank you, Alex,” Boyd says. “It’s not literal truth, of course, but some days it feels like it. So when you say that the chances of hitting a bullseye full of radiation poisoning are very low, it’s not as reassuring as you might think.”
Shenloma shrugs as he swipes the panel to open the door. “That’s how combat goes. If we wanted to do something safe, we’d all be computers, sitting in front of cogitators all day.” He smirks and gives Leaj a playful poke with his elbow. “Leaj’s mom would be happier, at least. She’s worried about her since she was...twelve, I think.” Leaj just rolls her eyes - and gives Shenloma a poke back before swinging back onto her feet on the floor outside of the zero-g section.
“So,” Danielsson says to Shenloma, “are you gonna kiss her or what?”
“Alex!” Boyd growls.
“What?” Danielsson says. “Are we not talking about that? Did I miss a memo?”
“Tact,” Boyd says. “You’re missing tact.”
Shenloma just looks between the two of them, his brown cheeks reddening. “I...I don’t know what you’re talking about. She’s just a friend, guys.”
“Yeah, well,” Danielsson says, “you’re checking her benefits pretty hard.”
“Oh God,” Boyd mutters. “I’m not hearing this.”
“Fine, you don’t want to help our friend score, that’s on you,” Danielsson replies. “So, Shen, what’s the story? Are you into her? ‘cause you really look like you’re into her and she’s not exactly fighting it, either.”
“She’s just - we’re just -” Shenloma sputters, turning even more red. “I’ve known her my whole life, we grew up on the same hab block, guys. I...that’s it, that’s all.” He turns and swings back through the door onto his feet, then hustles off down the corridor after Leaj.

Danielsson bumps Boyd’s side with his elbow. “I sense a brother in arms needs us as wingmen, Boyd,” Danielsson says. “Look at the poor guy. If we don’t get him some play, he’ll starve himself to death in the friend zone.”
“I think it’s none of our business, Alex,” Boyd replies. “She obviously knows what she wants, and so does he. If this is fine for them, then I think we should leave it alone.”
“Leave it alone?” Danielsson says. “Yeah, right. You don’t -”
“Leave it alone, Alex,” Boyd says, this time more forcefully. “He doesn’t want us involved, and we’re going to respect that. Got it?”
“There’s nothing I respect about it,” Danielsson says, “but fine. Prime Directive in effect, aye Sir. I’ll let them keep making doe eyes at each other.”
“Good,” Boyd replies, and swings onto his feet on the other side of the threshold, only stumbling once. “Goddamn zero-g,” he mutters as he walks off.
“Marines locking down my game?” Danielsson says to himself. “What is this world coming to?” A slight mischievous smile plays over his face. “Guess Airborne leads the way again…”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:10:24
The chime hums and shakes the transit, making sure that if the sound didn’t wake Zaef up, the jolt would. Zaef groggily gets off - it’s his stop anyway - and lurches toward the noodle place in the adit for a quick bite before he heads home. He’s had very little to eat since he got up to supervise the Narsai’i zero-g training, and his impromptu participation in the exercise seems to have only made the problem worse.

It’s not very big, and the tile has gained some color from age, but it smells pretty spicy, savory, and kinda sweet too, and Zaef’s stomach rumbles agreeably. He sits down by the counter and manages not to fall back asleep before someone greets him and asks what he’d like.
"Hello, Mr. Utari!" the man behind the counter bellows. "What looks good for you tonight?"
“Medley with spink egg, please.” Zaef tries to blink the sleep out of his eyes. His reflection in the plastic partition looks about as tired as before, though. Maybe a little stupider for trying.
"Coming right up!" the man replies. "And perhaps some juice to drink, on the house?"
Zaef blinks again. The grogginess appears to have vanished as he glances over to the chef. “I, uh, I’m good, thanks.”

The man nods at Zaef with a smile, and walks off towards the large cookers to get his meal started. Zaef, in an attempt to stay awake, starts drumming on the counter and humming off-key to a half-remembered tune, but soon hears the sound of a rowdy bunch walking down the transit steps outside of the shop - and this particular bunch sounds like some of his Bashakra'i and Narsai'i charges. Zaef sighs, tries to put on a quasi-stern face, and turns to see what sort of mischief this crew is spouting.
"No, no, no," one of the Bashakra'i says. "This...this is the shit for drinking food, right here."
"'Bullshit,'" one of the Narsai'i replies. "I...this...fucking Imperial. Nothing beats a 'shawarma', my friend. Nothing!"
"Well, we're about to fucking see, right?" A few other voices shout in the affirmative - probably the Bashakra'i.

That's when the group, about eight strong, walks into the restaurant. Four of them he recognizes - two Narsai'i and their Bashakra'i buddies - with four other Bashakra'i Turai along for the ride. They all see Zaef at the same time; the Narsai'i react with an oh shit expression, while the Bashakra'i snap to a drunken Bashakra'i salute and bow.
"Mr. Utari," the Bashakra'i slur.
Zaef frowns a little at the bowing, but recovers quickly. “I see you’re starting the night off right. Now, are you going to sit down, or block the door all night?”
"No, Sir," one of his Bashakra'i - who looks like the leader of this little group - says, and motions for the others to sit at the counter. He alternates between looking blearily at the tiles on the opposite wall, covered in scorch marks, and sneaking furtive glances at Zaef.
Zaef doesn’t ignore this behavior for very long, what with being hungry and tired. “There a reason you keep looking at me?” he asks, really hoping it’s not some Arena fanboy wanting to go over some particular kill that he'd rather forget, or wanting some piece of his body signed over to his Arena name, "Bloodwraith". Always awkward.
After a few seconds of staring and false starts, he speaks up. "It's an honor to train under you, Mr, Utari," he blurts out. "I've heard the stories about when you were protecting Miss Brinai, and now you are with the 815, and...it's just a huge honor."
“Uh, sure. No problem,” Zaef stumbles. “Just doing my part.”
"Yeah, sure thing," the Bashakra'i says with a wink and a smile. "Hey, Ha-artigree, Al-faro, they tell you Narsai'i about who this man is?"
"No, man," Al-faro - probably Alfaro - replies.
"Shit, no wonder you guys were stupid enough to try to kill him!" one of the other Bashakra'i says with a laugh. "I was on the extraction team after that spinkshit whetu Harketo lured Brinai into an Imperial trap, and you killed a whole quad by yourself."
"Holy fuck, really?" the other Narsai'i, Hartigree, says.
"Master's truth," the storytelling Bashakra'i says.
“It’s possible,” Zaef intones. “Though I wasn’t exactly counting, so I cannot say.”
"And I heard about you taking two beamer hits when Kolo tried to run a coup, and still stuck a knife through the bastard's head!" one of the further back Bashakra'i offers up.
“That was pretty amazing,” Zaef concedes, “but I don’t think I could do it again - especially since I’d have to take another two beams.”
"And there's all the shit he's done with the 815!" the first Bashakra'i says. "See, you Narsai'i think Mr. Utari should be honored to be one of the 815, but really, the 815 should be honored to have this man with them." He claps a hand on Zaef's shoulder. "This man is a First-damned hero."
Zaef stiffens a little at the physical contact. “I am honored to work with the other 815,” he replies, gently. “They have shown us an excellent plan to win this war, and they are all accomplished warriors.”
"Yeah, sure, but...you're our hero, Mr. Utari," the first Bashakra'i says. The other Bashakra'i all solemnly nod in agreement. "You're an inspiration to all of us, that we can win this war, that we can make a difference in this fight."
As Zaef looks down the line, he doesn't see smiles or rolled eyes - he sees respect and admiration for him, and hope. Zaef lets out a sigh, and thinks carefully as he looks at the adoring faces staring at him. After a short pause, he says “Don’t sell yourself short. You’re heroes as well. You have to be, to stand up against the Emperor and the Turai and do what’s right.”
"Not like you, Mr. Utari," the first Bashakra'i says.
"Damn right," another says.
Zaef shakes his head, smiling a little. “I should hope not. You should try to be better than me. That way, I can have someone to look up to.”
"Yeah, I'll let you know as soon as we save our leader from a pack of Interceptors," the first Bashakra'i says with a slap on Zaef's back.
"Or track a Khiraba through the jungle at night," another says.
“Don’t disappoint me. I’m expecting a lot from you,” Zaef says.

The Bashakra'i laugh at that. "Sure thing, Mr. Utari." They turn back to the waiting cook and place their orders, while Zaef looks down to find his already cooked and steaming in front of him - with gratis cup of juice next to the bowl.

Zaef sighs and shakes his head, but he tucks in to both noodles and juice with gusto. He was a symbol, a legend again, it seems. He grabs a nearby canister of red flakes and adds a few shakes to his broth. And, he thought as the heat hit his tongue and zipped down his spine, while he didn’t mind what he represented quite as much this time, at the end of the day, he was just a man.

A man who act the part, perhaps, but still just a man.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:11:26
With all of the bustle and bother of the massive, multi-species and cross-planetary training operation going on, the visits to Washington, founding and construction of a truly Naranai’i village and negotiating the transfer of thousands of Bashakra’i to said village, it would be understandable if the founding of something as small as a detachment of two quads escaped the notice of a casual observer. However, the creation of the 81X teams is more than just a footnote for Garrett Davis, and he had, in fact, been counting the days until this meeting - both out of excitement, and out of a desire to get this project moving and in the field as soon as possible. He knows as well as anyone that they need these teams on the field, and yesterday, and so it’s with a good deal of energy that he walks into the 815 briefing room on Atea.

Still, with the teams looking to be made out of individuals from four different species, a degree of acclimation was required. And so, the humans - either from Narsai’i top-shelf units or the best of the Bashakra’i infiltrators and saboteurs - have spent the last two months integrated in with the training, playing bad guys and hostages, and more recently most of them have been “locals” and “insurgents” in the Sheen village wargame. It’s not all humans, though; a human-sized Sheen shell and a decidedly not-human-sized Wherren are in the room as well.

Garrett walks to the front of the room, flanked by Ngawai and followed by Arketta, Hunter, and Hug’sh - full-on half of 815 is present in this room, which is a very big deal for some of the others in attendance. Hunter, having been one of the major advocates of their creation, is looking forward to the presentation. He spots a couple of wooly Special Forces Beards, and wonders what’s going to happen to them when the teams go deep-cover. Hug’sh, for his part, can’t quite resist pointing out Jimmy Woo to Rodirr, leaving his pre-genemod friend slightly confused.

Garrett adjusts the sling that Naloni is happily suckling on her rag in, and looks over the group. “Welcome, everyone. Most of you got the whole talk about what it is we’re trying to do here when you were brought in, but there’s a couple of you that have been too busy participating in the training program to hear, so this is for your benefit,” he says, gesturing to Grey Goo Disaster and Rodirr. “We’re here to establish the last piece of our plan to bring the fight to the Imperium. With our recent victories and the influx of Naranai’i technology and knowledge, this alliance is well on the way to being able to match the Imperium technologically.” A slight exaggeration, but one that everyone in the room already understands. “A well-armed and trained fighting force is next, a military force that can match and overcome the Turai in a stand-up fight. That is what we’ve been working on for the last two months, and I think everyone can agree that we’re not doing too badly with that, either.” Nods of agreement go around the room. “But the last piece of the puzzle is what we’re establishing here today - the 81X program. No matter how many people we train and how much equipment we build, design or steal, we’re still going to be outnumbered by the Imperium, and that is a fact. So, if we’re not going to win by sheer military might, we’re going to have to fight smart, knock out their base of support, create allies and divisions amongst their ranks, and sabotage and disrupt operations and logistics far behind enemy lines. That’s what the 815 are best at, and it’s what we want the 81X teams to be the best at as well.” He looks to the two in the back. “Any questions so far?”

Rodirr gives a brief bark to draw attention, then continues in his parroted Imperial. “815 team is unique. How can make more with other people, have same success? Is like catching P’iere by tail with tongs.”
Hunter looks to the others, and answers, trying to rephrase his reports in less jargon-heavy language, and in Imperial to boot. “I’ve spent the last six months trying to figure out what exactly makes 815 effective, sorting out the pieces of it can be repeated from the pieces that are unique. We believe that good things will happen if we take teams made up of highly-skilled people from many backgrounds, get them to work together well, and give them free rein to affect the military and political situation. The reputation is something you’ll have to create on your own. The other thing is, scale. Even if these teams start out only half as effective as 815, two more teams stills doubles our overall effectiveness. There’s probably a maximum number out there, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the ceiling.

“There’s going to be a learning period. Your job will be to make it through that learning period alive. It’s not going to be a complete overlap. You won’t be able to do everything that 815 can do, but you might be able to do things we’d never even thought of. Does that make sense?”
Rodirr nods. “Makes sense,” he says. “Continue.”
Garrett nods. “And that is what we have asked each of you here for. You’re all experienced not only in out-and-out combat, but in infiltration, sabotage, and most importantly, negotiation. More than once our lives have been saved because we knew when to let our guns hang and talked instead of fought, and all of our greatest victories started from that point. This alliance is out there on its own against a big, scary enemy, and we need to start making some friends.” He claps his hands together. “So, now that you’re all pumped up from my rousing motivational speech, let’s go over what we do here and how we do it.” He motions to Hug’sh. “Hug’sh and Arketta will go over our common tactical situations and demands.”
Hug’sh nods in return and gently makes his way to the front, where he claps Garrett on the shoulder and stands by for him to translate. “Thank you for the introduction, Garrett. Let me get right to the core of the matter. Our usual method has been to insert undercover under false identities. Weapons were limited to what we could carry, but more importantly to what we could explain. For this reason, our cover identities usually involved either Turai or high-level nobles and functionaries with bodyguards. We’ve had some early successes smuggling firearms past Imperial scanners, but as the Imperium has become more aware of this threat and we’ve gotten better at both using Imperial weapons and generating covers, we usually carry Imperial now. As you should all be aware by now, Imperial weapons are generally easy to use and aren’t generally intended to be reloaded during combat. However, a big problem you’ll run into when you use them is that doing so anywhere near civilisation is like flicking on a tracking beacon. Kansat can detect powered-up weapons through scanners, and Imperial weapon fire can easily be traced, both visually and by sensors. By contrast, as far as we’re aware, shot tracking of Narsai’i firearms is not better than what we’ve got - locating by echo analysis, though not quite as sophisticated yet as our Boomerang system. This advantage likely won’t last much longer, but I recommend you use it while it’s still there, especially if you’re going long-range - Imperial weapons in general are less useful for that, they’re built for regular infantry and urban combat first. Another reason to use Turai as cover is their armor. In some isolated aspects, other armor systems are better than carapace, but in my opinion it’s the most generally useful, good protection and mobility, vision enhancement, good stealth, too - and nobody bats an eye at it. That said, Imperial fashion in general tends to the extravagant, so we’ve had some early successes with passing off our gear as simply strange - the Imperials seemed to be unfamiliar with soft body armor, perhaps because their standard issue is generally superior. However, propaganda videos and - sadly - the capture of our boys on Botane - has given the Imperium a very good idea of what Narsai’i or at least US Army standard issue gear looks like. I expect you’ll find it tough to explain how you got it if you’re questioned, so where possible, get the equivalent Imperial gear.

Hug’sh looks around, noting that the crowd seems to be more than a little puzzled by all of this coming from a Wherren. With a nod to Garrett, he continues.

”You are probably asking yourselves where I learned all of this. You are about to learn a secret very few people are aware of. Not too long ago, I was Captain Hugh Verrill.” There’s a fair bit of surprise from all around the room - Hunter and Arketta because Hug’sh just outed himself, the Bashakra’i that they’re seeing someone who actually went through that extensive set of genemods, and the Narsai’i...well, about all of it.
“Well then,” one of the older Bashakra’i says. “That explains that.”
Woo stares at Hug’sh slack-jawed, then his expression slowly turns into a grin. He raises his hand to cover his mouth and laughs into it. “Ho-ly shit,” he says.
Hunter frowns. Well, so much for OpSec, he thinks, and mentally drafting a memorandum inquiring about optional cyanide tooth capsules for 81X members in case of capture.
Hug’sh looks around. ”This is precious information, and we want it to stay that way. However, after some discussion, Garrett and I agree that you can’t do your jobs without it. You’ve all proven yourselves trustworthy - and as much as possible, we’re going to be open with you about how we operate and what we’re doing, so we don’t step on each other’s feet.” He looks to Woo and gives him a toothy smile. ”So, I don’t want to see this on your Facebook, Jimmy. Understood?”
There’s a longer-than-usual pause for Garrett’s translation to penetrate the Sergeant’s shock and confusion, but then he laughs. “Sure thing, Cap.”
”Good,” Hug’sh says. ”For anyone not in the loop, I am Walks-The-Fire, a Wherren who fought with team 815 at the defense of the village on Whiirr - not too far from the truth. In any event, I’ve bored you long enough with what you should and shouldn’t carry on missions, so as a reward, you get to have some genuinely useful info on tactics from Arketta Quis.” He turns to her and nods. ”All yours.”

Arketta nods back and steps forward, her chest out and shoulders square. Those who knew her before the training can tell that being in charge of 100 soldiers has definitely done good things for her confidence and bearing - if she had problems looking like less of a Turai and more of a Samal before, they’re gone now. “I know that some of you think that you know what I’m going to say, that if you’ve fought one quad of Turai, you’ve fought them all,” she starts. “And that’s true - from their end. But in the 81X teams, you will have to fight differently. Where we operate, there are no other cells to count on, and often no clear extraction method. When things go wrong or tactical situations change, you will be on your own to figure out how to survive and get out. That means fighting only when absolutely necessary, and reaching for strange solutions. The 815 use every advantage we can get: we only fight when we choose to, where we choose to, and how we choose to, and only when every other option has been exhausted. That means altering the terrain to our advantage, making alliances with former enemies, and stepping outside of our comfort zone when it puts the enemy at an even greater disadvantage.” Arketta nods towards Woo and a few other Special Forces soldiers. “The Narsai’i have a history of such things - they call it special war, and it is the only way to fight a full-scale war behind enemy lines.” She then turns to the Bashakra’i. “And the 81X teams will be organized as quads, so you can infiltrate as a Turai unit, and so those of you who are Bashakra’i know the drills that your attacks will be based on. That is what the tactical 81X training will be focused on - combining the Narsai’i knowledge of fighting without fighting, and the Bashakra’i knowledge of how to fight when talking stops working.” She smirks at that, and a few others do as well. “But those of you looking for me to lay out what special drills we practice in order to make it out there, doing our job, you’re going to be disappointed. There are no drills for what we do, besides the basics. They don’t teach how to win a fight between two skimmers while you dodge through dome traffic, but we’ve had to do it. They don’t teach how to take out a Kansat assault skimmer without spearbombs, but we’ve had to do it. Shooting down Interceptors with unguided shoulder rockets - in vacuum - isn’t taught in any school I know, but we’ve had to do it. What got us through all of those situations is a focus on the fundamentals, so that when the mission goes sideways and Garrett tells us we have a half-hour to impersonate a Truthseeker team or we have to start a riot and take out the Turai looking to pick off people we’re there to defend, we have that base of technique to fall back on so we’re badass enough to get the job done.” She looks over the group. “Understood?”
The group answers with a chorus of “Yes, Samal” and “Yes, Ma’am”s.
Arketta can’t help but break into a big, giddy grin. “Good.” She looks at some of the others in the group that don’t have the same muscled-and-tumbled look as the die hard soldiers. “Of course, not everything we do is shooting people and blowing up Mantas, and Garrett, Ngawai and Hunter are here to talk to you about that.”

Garrett and Ngawai then step forward. It seems that since the birth of their daughter that they’ve been more or less in constant motion, the full suite of the Imperium’s technologies for working families to care for a newborn at the office just as well being put to good use by the married couple, and even now, Naloni is starting to fuss, necessitating a smooth handoff to Ngawai as she walks into another room, cooing gently and rocking her daughter.
“So! As was mentioned before, we’re not putting together the 81X teams just as door-kickers and trigger-pullers. Some of you are here not because of your experience in combat, but because of your experience in diplomacy, spycraft and negotiations.” He nods towards Marta. “From the Narsai’i, we’ve selected people from the US State Department, United Nations, US CIA and British MI-6, and from the Bashakra’i, Kansatai and Bashakra’i intelligence. All of you are here because of your expertise in the kind of missions that we do - making friends, or dealing with enemies, in secret and far beyond the reach of help.” Garrett smirks. “I can’t offer you much as far as a standard operating procedure, again, because there simply can’t be one. I’m going to be asking you to act on your own judgement on the alliance’s behalf. You’re going to be out there, making first contact or even establishing rebel groups and bringing them into the fold, and your word will carry the weight of the Bashakra’i and Narsai’i - that’s not a responsibility I grant lightly. Think about what we’re fighting for and fighting against, and act accordingly. That’s about all the advice and guidance I can give.”
And with that, Ngawai walks back out of the side room, Naloni cradled in her arms and starting to cry. There’s a few “aww”s of sympathy from the interplanetary gallery of badasses, and Ngawai smirks as she hands the obviously upset newborn to her father. “She needs a diaper change,” Ngawai whispers to Garrett.
“You’re lucky I didn’t have that much to say,” Garrett replies with a peck on her cheek.
“Good luck,” Ngawai replies as Garrett walks off, then turns to the group. “Despite my husband being supposedly the ‘spy’ of the group -”
“Hey!” Garrett calls out from the other room.
“- I will be the one going over your responsibilities for intelligence gathering,” Ngawai says. “And as I am sure all of you familiar with spying are aware, the techniques really do not change all that much. Talking your way into a building is the same on Narsai as it is out here, and stealing information is the same whether it is printed on paper or on holodisc. All that really changes is the technology - and Narsai’i, you will be very pleasantly surprised at what Naranai’i technology can do.” She holds up an index finger with a black dot the size of a grain of rice on the tip. “This is a standard listening device, on the tip of my finger. It sticks to any surface without an adhesive, and can pick up any sound within ten feet.” She re-sticks the micro-bug to the film strip she got it from, and continues talking. “The only downside is if you’re more than 50 feet from it, you need to install a vox repeater somewhere nearby, but that is much easier than trying to hide something as large as one of your listening devices.” The reaction from the Narsai’i spies in the room ranges from a sage nod to rubbing of hands in anticipation. “But aside from that, you don’t need me to tell me your work. Bello has already volunteered his instructors to catch those of you Narsai’i who decide to join up on the tech, and only asked for some cross-training of his younger agents in Narsai’i spycraft in return. Spying is spying, independent of where you do it. We’re just asking you to take on the biggest stakes of your career.” She smiles and steps back. “Hunter, you wanted to say a few more words?”
“Certainly,” as Hunter stands and addresses the group. “We have told you that a traditional standup war doesn’t favor us. And if we think about it as a foreign conflict, it plays directly into their hands. We’re aiming for a full-blown civil war. We cannot just kill the enemy. We must convert some of them as well. Every system of power has its vulnerabilities, unquestioned assumptions, the things it must rely on in order to operate. At the highest strategic level, our work is to find those points of structural weakness and dissolve them. Sometimes this will be through blowing something up, but other times it will be by encouraging dissent or inspiring hope that there is another way. The Imperium’s greatest asset is the assumption that their system, unjust as it might be, is the only thing preventing chaos and starvation. Alongside all the other things you are doing, we need to take every opportunity to show that we represent an alternative. The alternative. The Imperium claims it is all-powerful and that its power is justified by the nature of the universe. Our actions show that it is weaker than it appears, and that its system of governance is cruel, corrupt, and unnecessary.

Hunter looks out across the assembled 81X members. “Every soldier, every administrator, every fighting or political unit has a breaking point, where they realize it’s better to change sides. Maybe because they see an advantage for themselves, maybe because they have no other choice, maybe because they took a long hard look at what the Imperium believes in and compared it to what we’re about. Some of the Naranai’i among you have reached that point in your own lives before coming to this side. We need to find the others.”

Hug’sh steps forward again. “Thank you, Hunter. So, this is what we had to say to you, just to start. I imagine you might have some questions. Please, ask away.
Marta Jimenez, the State Department official that Garrett invited, raises her hand first. "It seems that you'd be having us work at cross purposes. We are supposed to sabotage Imperial efforts and infrastructure, but convince the locals that we are the better alternative. Make friends, but blow things up. These two efforts do not exactly play well together." The Narsai'i and Sheen half of the room nod in agreement, and once her words are translated for the Bashakra'i and Wherren, they nod as well.
Ngawai steps forward. "You are right," she starts. "You will be tasked to work for two competing goals, with no clear guidance as to which is more important, and only your own initiative to guide you. That is why we have chosen this specific, small group. Each of you have been chosen not primarily for your combat, technical or interpersonal skills, but because you have all shown that you know when to make friends, and when to pull the trigger. This is why we have demanded from the beginning that the 81X teams operate like we do - free from interference from above, able to chose their own missions and operate on their own initiative. Because this war is too big, and our opponent too vast, for those that are not in the field to grasp the details of every situation. And when we are standing on a ledge as thin as we are, we cannot withstand a strategic mistake because the leaders on Narsai don't understand what is going on. If we think that you are straying off course and hurting the war effort, we will let you know - but you're all smart enough that you'll probably already know before we tell you." She smirks. "Again, that's why you're here."
“Your mission is to win this war,” Hug’sh says. ”Do whatever you think is best to achieve that. We are the last people in the universe who will hold you to doctrine or rules. Whatever works for you.”
Again, the responses get an appreciative nod from those invited - some obviously for the compliments paid, but also because it seems that the true purpose of the 81X teams came a bit more into focus. "So, basically,” Jimmy Woo pipes up, “you want to do interstellar warfare, agile style? Daily scrum, what are you guys blowing up today, okay, have fun!” He smirks. “I think I get now why the DoD wants to bury you guys so bad.”
Hug’sh takes on a brief burst of yellow. ”Uh, agile?” he says, glancing to Arketta. ”That’s one way of describing it. My point is, it’s going to involve a lot of thinking on your feet and flying by the seat of your pants. That’s what we expect and what we want to support.”
"By which he means yes," Garrett says, returning with his daughter cradled in his arms as her eyes desperately swivel every which way. "And yes, I'd imagine that the lack of anything even resembling something you could fill a two-inch binder with is a big part of why they aren't fans of us in Arlington." That gets a chuckle from the Narsai'i side of the room.
"Where is this outfit based out of?" another one of the Narsai'i pipe up. "What kind of facilities will we have?"
"We're negotiating with Brinai for an expanded space on Atea right now," Garrett continues, handing Naloni back to Ngawai so she can coo and fuss over her instead of him. "Atea will be our home base. Don't worry, for those of you who don't currently live here, transiting here by Gateway is no problem. For you Narsai'i, that means that moving to the Bashakra'i village in Virginia or nearby should be considered a requirement - unless you want to move to Diego Garcia or Mesas Negras."
"Pass," Jimmy Woo cracks.
"Exactly," Garrett replies with a nod and a smirk. "As for facilities, we'll have full access to the Bashakra'i Turai training facilities, plus whatever the Narsai'i let us into - probably just Mesas Negras - and whatever Angel Kesh is building in North Carolina."
”And the Wherren?” Rodirr rumbles from the back, drawing the looks of the crowd. ”We are training to fight, but what is our role in your strategy?”
”To fight alongside us, for the freedom that is the right of all sentient beings,” Hug’sh answers. ”Wherren have guided us wherever 815 has gone. We’ve trained together, Rodirr - we both know our warriors are unmatched. But more than that, Wherren are the heart of our efforts to understand each other. We need Wherren diplomats just as badly, if not moreso, than Wherren warriors. Whiirr will be an example to all for what this alliance can achieve. Our place is at the head of the table and the tip of the spear.” He smiles at Rodirr. ”Does that answer your question?”
Rodirr rolls a pleased green at Hug'sh. "I believe so," he barks.
"And I assume you're working on some way of bringing us along, too?" Grey Goo Scenario asks from next to Rodirr. "We don't exactly blend in."
Garrett nods. "There's an array of drones the Imperium use that are large enough to house the hardware for a Sheen intelligence and the tech to shield your processes and hardware from detection. Your development branches are working on the problem right now - they were very excited by the prospects of the project."
"Yeah, they get more than a little turned on by a tough nerd problem," Grey replies. "But what are we going to do?"
"It's going to sound repetitive, but the same thing as everyone else," Garrett says with a smirk. "In case this wasn't obvious before, let me say it one more time - we're serious about this being a force assembled from the best of the best from all of the races, species or whatever you want to call the differences between us. The Sheen can fight, they can talk, and they can spy - and you're learning damn fast how to do all three in the same branch. We want a Sheen 81X branch, and we want it on missions, doing the job."
"Right on," Grey says, bobbing all three of its sensor pods. "Got it."

Garrett looks over the group. They’re pretty rag-tag - uniforms from Narsai’i militaries (only Americans at the moment) and civilians, Bashakra’i Turai in both carapace and street clothes wearing their hoods down around their necks, and a grizzled Wherren and polished Sheen towering over everyone else at the back. He smirks. That’s pretty much what he had hoped for when this idea first came up.
He claps his hands together. “Well, at this point, I’d imagine that most of you know if you’re interested going further with this or not. I’ll understand if this isn’t for you - we’re intentionally breaking from how the Narsai’i fight wars, and the Bashakra’i have units stuck in all over the galaxy. If you are, then stick around, and we’ll get you squared away with a bunk in the barracks that Brinai has promised us any day now.” Garrett smirks at that. “We’ll send you back with whatever orders and authorizations are required, and you’ll get a month to get your affairs in order before returning here to start cross-training - both for effectiveness, and to create the teams.” He turns his attention to the two at the back. “Rodirr, Grey, you’ve got a training to complete, but the invitation stands. Also, keep an eye out for others that might be well-suited for these missions, at least on a provisional basis.”

A nod and a bob are returned, and Garrett looks back to the group. “Well, last chance to back out.” No one stands up, and a few Narsai’i and Bashakra’i cough or gesture for Garrett to get on with it. “Well, then welcome to 81X.”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:11:49
As the crowd slowly filters out of the room, Hug’sh stays next to the stage, shaking hands and answering a few quick questions with the help of some on-the-spot interpretation by Arketta. He’s just let go of Rodirr’s hand when he sees another arm extended toward him - with the hand held out balled into a fist. Attached to said arm is Jimmy Woo, looking as serious as he’s ever been.

“You say you’re Hugh?” Jimmy says. “Prove it.”

Hug’sh fixes him with a gaze, then balls his right hand into a fist, too - and they go dap, top, bottom, boosh! (with attendant bark from Hug’sh), putting a big grin on both of their faces.

“Ho-leeee shit, Hugh,” Jimmy says. “Now that’s going native with style.”
”I’m glad you’re here, Jimmy,” Hug’sh says. ”Perhaps you can tell me what the hell ‘agile’ means now.”
“Aw, just something my girlfriend keeps yammering about,” Jimmy says. “Just messing with you.” He looks Hug’sh over. “So I can’t tell what’s weirder, that you’re a sabertooth rainbow bear or that you sound like you actually give a shit about all this. But it’s a good pitch.”
”You’re in?” Hug’sh asks.
“Well, gee,” Jimmy says, “I can go feed mosquitos on Uncle Sam’s dime, or I get to write my own ticket to an interstellar war. I think you know my answer to that.”
”Maybe you should talk to your girlfriend first,” Hug’sh says, grin fading a little as concern-blue plays over his fur. ”It’s a big decision.”
Jimmy nods, soaking up a moment of somberness. “But we both know what my answer will be,” Jimmy says. “It’s killing me that you guys are risking your lives out here while I’m playing soldier in the bushes. The big game’s out here. You gotta put me in, coach.”
Hug’sh nods. ”You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t want you, Jimmy,” he says. ”Great to have you on the team.”
Jimmy gives Hug’sh his classic “no big deal” head bob/nod. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.” He sighs, looks away for a moment, and then looks back - with “high school buddy” Jimmy gone and replaced by “Army buddy” Jimmy. “So, straight-talk, Hugh. What’s the sitrep out there? What’s good, and what’s the odds of us ending up face down in a ditch?”
”The good part is that we’ve got people like you, top to bottom - everybody in this room can pull their weight, so we’re really putting the best of the best together. That’s the part we can control.” Hug’sh lowers his head and his voice. ”The odds...are not good. We’ve gotten into some shit that I still can’t believe we got out of. We’ve lost a lot of good people and it’s not going to stop until we either somehow win this or all get killed.”
“Or get captured,” Jimmy says. “Like our boys on Hedion.”
Hug’sh nods, slowly turning a mixture of red and orange. ”Trust me, Jimmy, if it comes to that, you’re better off dead,” Hug’sh says. ”The Army didn’t listen to us before and they didn’t listen to us after...and I’ve got the notion they think nothing of walking more of our boys into the grinder. That’s when I told them to stick my commission up their ass.” After a moment, he adds, ”Not quite in those words.”
Jimmy manages a smirk. "Not what I heard." He pauses. "So, when's the mission when we ride hard on wherever they're holding our boys and bust them out?"
”I wish we had one,” Hug’sh says. ”If it was just the usual ridiculous odds, we would have already gone, but as far as we can figure, it’s literally impossible. We don’t even know where they are being held, we only learn where some of them go when we get the broadcasts of the Arena fights.” Hug’sh shakes his head. ”You guys are our best chance. With fresh ideas and new angles, we just might pull together something that looks a little like a viable mission profile - and you can be sure I’ll be first in line the second we do.” The blue floods back over Hug’sh. ”Right now, though...the best we can do is make the bastards bleed for it.”
Jimmy's face falls, but he holds strong. "Right. Right, I can do that."
Hug'sh can feel the violet flooding off of him. He puts a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, though he stops short of grooming his old friend. ”I won’t lie, Jimmy. The odds are that this is going to get us all killed or worse. But I want to go down fighting instead of waiting for the Imperium to show up one day and glass our homes from orbit. Don’t you?”
Jimmy reaches for Hug'sh's shouder by reflex, but finds he can't, so instead puts his hand on Hug'sh's. "Damn straight, man." He squeezes the back of Hug'sh's hand, fingers digging in through the fur. "Damn straight."
Hug’sh nods. ”Then you’ve come to the right place,” Hug’sh says. He claps Jimmy on the shoulder one more time as the color of his fur slowly shifts back to greenish. ”I have to go and make sure my daughter’s behaving herself, but I’ll see you around, Jimmy.”
Jimmy's eyes go wide when Arketta finishes translating Hug'sh's grunts. "Whoa, whoa, daughter? You, well, you already..." He looks down to in between Hug'sh's legs. "Got busy with a lady rainbow bear? How fast does that work for...for Wherren?"
Hug’sh smirks. ”Adopted daughter,” Hug’sh says, with the green intensifying and picking up the yellow notes of Torega’s pattern. ”My bondmate and I both want cubs of our own, though, so you might want to look me up next year.”
Jimmy laughs. "Well, well. You know what this means, then." He snaps to attention and salutes Hug'sh. "Captain Verrill, as my first official act of insubordination as a member of 81X, I am disobeying your order to go back to Earth and following you to meet your wife and daughter."
Hug’sh laughs as he returns the salute. ”Careful mister, the punishment for that is a dinner date with my family on Whiirr,” he says. ”Come on, then. I’ll introduce you.”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:12:12
Jimmy’s introduction to Hug’sh family goes as well as can be expected, with momentary bafflement quickly making way to hugs and some gushing about Torega. Having established a good first impression on Rhea as one of few humans outside of 815, Jimmy soon bids them farewell on his way to the sights of Atea, leaving the young family clear to their next waypoint: a trip to the residential wards to a familiar transit stop. This time, though, Rhea and Hug’sh (with Torega riding on his hump, of course) walk past Biria’s apartment and onward to the local recreational area - an atrium built around a dense multi-level grove/park, a favored meeting spot among Atea’s Wherren population. Biria’s easy enough to spot, a lone human in a bigger crowd of - as Jimmy put it - “sabertoothed rainbow bears”, but she’d stick out just as much from a human crowd now. While she lacks the fur, hump and muzzle, she’s now as tall, stout and muscular as a Wherren, and little tusks glint in the simulated sunlight shining from above. The small cub latched to her broad and flattened chest also shows that there have been more changes under the hood, and when Hug’sh approaches, he can smell that her own musk has started asserting itself against Yarmhrr’s scent. Her other two cubs are play-wrestling in the grass next to her, rolling through the dirt under her watchful eyes, and Hug’sh has to gently clear his throat to get her attention.

”Hello, Biria,” he says, a gentle green in his fur.
Biria nods and smiles. "Hello, Hug'sh. You're looking very good."
Yarmhrr chuffs a laugh as the two cubs on the ground look up at Hug'sh and Rhea, and turn a little blue, climbing under the legs of their parents. "Yes, it seems the Cyllans did a good job for you. Not as good as my Biria, but good enough." He gives Biria a lick as they lean against each other.
Rhea's fur shifts to a verdant green. "Hello, Biria, Yarmhrr. I would ask how things are going, but I can see that they are going well."
Biria shifts her big arms to adjust the cub clinging to her. "I had to get an advance payout for some of my benefits to pay for the muscular-skeletal round of genemods, but it was worth it to stand as tall as Yarmhrr." She licks Yarhmrr back.
”Looks great,” Hug’sh agrees, then bows down a little to show off Torega clinging to his hump. ”There’s someone I’d like you to meet, Biria. This is Torega, our daughter. Say hi, Torega.”
Torega, forced to stop hiding behind Hug'sh's head, flashes blue for a moment before she forces a simple green onto her fur. "...hi," she grunts quietly.
Biria and Yarmhrr both give Torega a bow. "Hello, Torega," they both grunt in return.
"She is very cute," Yarmhrr says.
"And smart, I can see it in her eyes," Biria says. "She reminds me of a friend of mine."
Hug’sh nods to that, reaching up to stroke Torega. ”Torega, would you like to see the park with your mother? I have some things to talk over with Biria.”
"Okay," Torega says, and climbs over Hug'sh's broad shoulders to cling to Rhea's instead, burying her face in Rhea's fur and purring. Rhea gives Hug'sh a quick groom before walking off deeper into the park, where a few dozen cubs are playing under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Biria and Yarmhrr watch Rhea walk off, then turn their attention back to Hug'sh. One of the cubs on the ground climbs up on Biria's knee and pushes her face into the folds of her clothes, followed shortly by the last one crying out for a moment before Biria scoops him up as well and slides him inside her custom tunic to join his litter-siblings.
”Have you been on any more missions?” Hug’sh asks openly.
"One or two," Biria says. "None since I was given the correct bone and muscles."
Hug’sh nods. ”If you ever want me to come along again...just call.”
"I...I have been thinking about that," Biria says. She looks down at the three cubs latched to her chest. "I do not know if I will be doing the same missions again. It is...I don't…" She sniffles and snorts like a Wherren, and Yarmhrr turns a deep violet and starts grooming her face.
Hug’sh bends over and rubs his muzzle against the other side of her face. ”It is hard to forget what we saw,” Hug’sh says. ”And your family comes first.”
She recovers a bit, and shifts to free up an arm to wipe her eyes. "And, well, I have my mate and cubs to think about," she says, smiling down at her cubs. "I have spoken with Onas, he understands, and has put in a request for me to be transferred to intelligence. I can still serve the Bashakra'i as an infiltrator, working to help free Wherren in slums around the Imperium."
Hug’sh nods to that. ”Tough work, but you’re the right choice. I think I’ll have to go a similar way when I get back in the field with 815. Maybe we can compare notes next time.” He smiles. ”Your cubs have gotten much bigger since the last time I saw you. You’ll be chasing them all across this park in no time.”
"Being able to give them what they needed made all the difference," Biria replies, wrapping her arms around them as they purr. It's weird, seeing big Wherren arms without the Wherren fur, but the way her eyes glisten as she grooms the topmost two cubs looks very familiar to Hug'sh.
Hug’sh smiles at the image. ”Well, speaking of cubs, I should probably go look for my own - Rhea’s fast, but nothing beats Torega in a dead sprint for new things. It was good seeing you. Take care, Biria, Yarmhrr.”
Yarmhrr nods. "Always. It is good to see you and Rhea, Hug'sh." Biria just grunts as she focuses on her nursing cubs.

Hug’sh gives them a final nod, then gets back on his feet and walks off deeper into the park, where he quickly spots Torega making some new friends over a game of tossball while Rhea stands to the side and watches. Hug’sh walks up to her and puts an arm around her shoulders, giving her head a quick groom.
”I see Torega still has some energy left,” Hug’sh says. ”Are you hungry?”
Rhea sighs. "Yes," she grunts, but her colors are fringed with a deep violet.
”What’s on your mind?” Hug’sh asks, settling back into grooming her.
"I miss them so much," Rhea whines, holding tightly to Hug'sh as she watches Torega, the violet taking over her fur.
Hug’sh embraces her, grooming her for a bit more before he finds the words to answer. ”I know,” he whispers to her.
Rhea watches the cubs play for a few more seconds before she finds the composure to finish. "I will be able soon," she says. "Would you...like to try now? With everything? Would you still be able to go out and fight?"
Hug’sh considers it for a moment. ”Yes,” he whispers. ”I want this...for us, Rhea. I want this for our family. And no matter how hard it is to be apart from you and Torega, I will keep fighting - so that, one day, our children will know freedom and peace. I can do no less.”
Rhea nods, and rubs her muzzle against her bondmate's, purring as her special pattern for Hug'sh starts to crowd out the violet. "Of course, Hug'sh. I would want nothing else. And...I want to have a litter with you. More than one, over a long, long life together."
Hug’sh returns the muzzle rub. ”I want nothing more than that,” he whispers. ”We’re going to need a big house,” he says, smiling just a little.
"I love you, bondmate," Rhea rumbles as she starts to keen and cry, her big hunter's shoulders shaking.
”I love you too, bondmate,” Hug’sh echoes, steadying her in a tight embrace.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:13:15
Not even the rain stops the relentless pace of equipment being unloaded at the Village 815 Gateway on Whiirr. With equipment to build habs across hundreds of villages on this continent alone coming in, let alone equip the humans and Wherren forces alike, every Gateway opening carries at least two or three truckloads of material. That means that there's a serious demand for labor to aid in the unloading and loading of equipment all across the planet, and with Wherren coming in from all over the galaxy needing work and their natural tendency towards physical strength, many of the off-worlder refugees are spending at least some time hefting crates and pallets around.

Worash shakes the water off of his fur as he steps into the Narsai'i military workshop hab, erected on the outskirts of the clearing. The chief of 815 demanded that the Narsai'i place their military far away from his new village center, a thought that made the trek through the wet field pushing the hovering cart loaded with strange silver cylinders less unpleasant. The cart hovers itself to a stop inside, and Worash looks for the lead Narsai'i, an unpleasant human with a tendency to snap like an akwhela at things he does not expect.
"I have a load of kh-eegs for your medical facility," Worash says as the human looks over a bunch of paper.
The human looks sharply up at Worash. "What? What do you mean?" He stomps over and looks at the load. "Good, the Groi replicators are here. Put them over next to the reactors," he says with a wave in the general direction of some equally strange silver coffin-shaped devices. "Let me know the instant you are done, I will need your help moving my office furniture up the stairs."
Worash tries to suppress the orange and red in his fur as he nodded - at least on Mia, he was valued for his work with machinery, here, the Narsai'i seem to mostly regard him as dumb labor. He had complained to their leaders and to his temporary chief, and they had promised him a job building air recyclers and finishing hab work - not as glamorous as skimmer repair, but better than hauling boxes around for ungrateful Narsai'i.

Still, the metal cylinders aren't going to move themselves, and Worash grabs the first one and hefts it. It's bulky and awkward, but strangely light for its size, and it's pleasantly easy to move. Worash bends at the knees to gently set it down, but before he can let it go, the surface of the cylinder flows out around his hand! He only manages to let out a surprised bark as the cylinder shoots out another metal tentacle towards the coffin, and then his vision goes black.
Welcome, Worash. Would you like to create kaukas?
What? Worash barks - well, not barks per se, but it's what sound he would make if he was making any sound.
This replicator is programmed to create kaukas from provided mass. Sufficient mass and power sources have been detected, and so this unit has been activated and now asks for the user - you, Worash - for permission to proceed to produce kaukas suitable for Wherren use.
Worash's fur doesn't not change to an annoyed orange - even the strange machines are smart-asses here. Kaukas and Masters tech are only usable by humans, everyone knows that.
And yet here you are. Observations have noted the ascendence of the Wherren to galactic prominence, and have therefore unlocked the ability to create kaukas suited for Wherren use, and use other Groi technology suited for lower sophonts. So, once more, would you like to create kaukas?
Yes, Worash replies, but you could be less rude about it.
Apologies, Worash. Initializing kauka production.

Worash feels the cylinder let his hand go, and he snaps back into reality just in time to see the brace of Narsai'i soldiers all pointing their guns in his direction and shouting at him in broken Imperial to freeze, get down on the ground, put his hands in the air, stop using the machine and make the machine stop. Worash chooses the least threatening of the options presented, and just puts his hands in the air - just in time for a metal tentacle to lash out past him and grab the weapons of the Narsai'i soldiers. The form of the weapons breaks down before his eyes, and soon the black metal guns change form into a blob of silver and gold metal. Worash stares in amazement as a tendril squirts out from the blob, forms into a ring, and then drops onto the floor - a fully formed kauka. Five more follow suit, before the machine turns itself off.
Worash feels a headache come on, and the cylinder speaks in his head. Please insert more matter to continue - and be more careful where you point your weapons in the future. From the reaction of the other humans, they felt and heard it too.

A Narsai'i vehicle slides to a stop outside, and more Narsai'i soldiers, this time accompanied by a few Wherren warriors and Chief Hiigra step inside. "What is going on?" Hiigra barks.
"This idiot somehow activated a Groi -" the pushy Narsai'i leader started to say before Hiigra cut him off.
"I am not asking you, Dr. Maerck," Hiigra grunts, snorting in the human's direction, the orange derision plain on his fur. "I am asking the Wherren your soldiers almost killed for no visible reason." Hiigra stomps over to Worash. "What happened?" he barks again, looking Worash in the eyes.
Worash bows his head in deference. "I was moving this device over here as instructed, when it grabbed my hand and asked if I wanted to have it make kauka - Wherren ones, not human ones. I said yes, and then, well..." Worash bends over and picks one of the silver rings up. "It did."
Hiigra's fur explodes in a spectrum of green and yellow. "You mean to tell me that these are kauka that will heal Wherren?"
Worash keeps his orange in check. "Yes, Chief."
"This...this will change everything," Hiigra barks. He turns to the uppity human. "Move this replicator and a reactor to my village immediately, doctor. I have to send word to Narsai at once."
The doctor glares at Hiigra for a moment, but nods. "Right away." Worash almost wishes he'd mouth off - it'd be amusing to see Hiigra shake the little human around like a doll.
"And you - I apologize, but what is your name?" Hiigra asks.
"Worash, chief," he replies.
"You supervise the move and setup, then gather what waste material you can from the village and start making as many of these as possible," Hiigra says. "This is a great day for the Wherren, and we have to make as many of these as possible to share amongst the tribes."
Worash bows to Hiigra. "Yes, chief. Right away." He turns to the human doctor, his fur green as it ruffles. "You heard the chief! Get me help to move this right away!"
The human glares at him, but nods. Worash turns back to the device and smiles. Maybe this job wouldn't be so terrible after all.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:15:14
After every exercise, backbreaking and sleep-stealing though it might be, comes the really tough part: putting all the toys back into the box. With his troops justifiably enjoying a bit of peace and quiet, Hug’sh has taken it upon himself to cover that chore. The crates of guns and gear are a bit much to carry all at once, but with the help of his trusty handcart, Hug’sh at least manages to bring a nontrivial proportion of the checked-out gear to the Mesas Negras armory. It’s one of those times where he regrets having a better sense of smell, with an equal amount of gun oil and fuck-this-Army-shit wafting through the air the closer he gets to the armorer’s desk.

”Hello!” Hug’sh barks, turning the push into pull as he brings the cart to a halt. ”I’m here to check in this equipment.”
The sergeant behind the desk eyes the truly monumental stack of equipment Hug'sh just hauled in with one weary glare, and Hug'sh with another as he barks at him. "Got your 57s?"
Hug’sh grabs a fat stack of paperwork from the top of a crate and hands it to the sergeant. ”Here you go, Sergeant,” he says.
The sergeant doesn't even look at them. "Copies of the 22's from check-out?"
”They’re in the stack, too,” Hug’sh says.
The sergeant's hand moves to his right, and the gate buzzes. "Bring 'em on in."

Hug’sh nods and pushes forward on the cart, aiming for the gate - which does swing open just a bit before proving too narrow for the cart. Hug’sh gives an annoyed grunt, then pulls the handcart back just a bit, climbing past the cart to push the gate all the way open.
"Those XM-10 crates are a pain," the sergeant says. "They made them too fucking big, so they're too heavy to carry through the door on their own." He walks over with a pallet jack. "Here, you'll need this."
Hug’sh politely ignores this suggestion. With a huff, he grabs the first crate and heaves the 500 pounds of portable death off the cart into the armory proper, setting it down at the side of the gate to keep it propped open. He gives the armorer a nervous smile.

”I can manage,” Hug’sh says. ”Thank you.”
"Uh, yeah." The sergeant looks stunned. "You...you go right ahead."

Hug’sh nods, then grabs the second crate off the handcart and heaves it up to waist level, crab-walking it through the gate past the first crate before setting it down next to the weapon racks. With all the gear in the safe zone, Hug’sh starts unloading, going over every tenner just to make sure nothing’s broken and that all ammo rods have been unloaded - fortunately, the whole dirt issue is much simplified from having to check in firearms, but Hug’sh still has to put a good quarter of the rifles aside on a table for further cleaning. He’ll have to talk to his guys about not making more work for the armorers at some point. The other crate soon follows, and after a half-hour of crossing his t’s and dotting his i’s, Hug’sh is left with a few hundred pounds of stripped webbing and accessories. He piles it all back into a crate and hefts it over his shoulder, then makes his way back out.

As he comes up to the front, there's a couple other younger NCOs waiting for the desk sergeant to take care of their paperwork. Hug'sh doesn't recognize any of them - they must be from the Army side of the base.
"Hey, looks like Garrison got a helper monkey!" one of them says with a laugh.
"Well, if they're gonna play soldier out in the desert, I suppose some of them have got to be stuck in the cage, right?" another one throws in, getting another laugh out of the group. "Right?"
Hug’sh audibly harrumphs as he walks up to them, crate still slung over his shoulder - and making sure to stand up all the way as he steps in front of them, looking down at them with just a hint of red in his fur.
"Hey, he's putting on his little red vest!" the third says, getting another round of laughter.
"Shut the fuck up, all of you," the desk sergeant says.
"Come on, Garrison, we're just having a little fun," the first says.
"He could fuck all three of you dipshits up without breaking a sweat," the desk sergeant says.
Hug’sh looks down at the ringleader, then clamps his hand onto the man’s shoulder, giving him a toothy little smile. He winces a bit at the pressure Hug'sh is suddenly putting on his shoulder.
"Hey, tell this monkey to get his fucking paws off of me," he protests.
Hug’sh’s smile goes a little brighter, and he does let go - only to pat the ringleader on the head. ”Tell him that I am in a good mood,” he tells the desk sergeant. ”And that if he wants to talk shit about us, he knows where to find us.”
"He says you're damn fucking lucky he's in a good mood," the desk sergeant says. "And that if you've got something to say about the Wherren, you can say it to all of them. You know where they are."
"Yeah, him and the rest of the no-hopers," the second sergeant says, giving Hug'sh the kind of glare he got used to seeing in Basic. "Bunch of wastes of time and resources, all of them. Too fucking stupid to speak English, can't handle uniform, can't stand in a fucking straight line. You're all just a waste of space as far as I'm concerned, good for rear-guard - or keeping my men from taking a bullet. Should have let you stay in your fucking mud huts."
Hug’sh’s fur goes from a reddish tinge to a five-alert red over the course of the man’s rant, but he doesn’t give in to the twitch in his hand that could see him cracking a few skulls in the next ten seconds. Instead, he squints at the man’s nametape, then turns to the desk sergeant again, his fur shifting from red to orange in disdain. ”Sergeant, please advise Sergeant Hill here that I won’t tolerate him speaking to me or my troops in that way. I can take this straight to Director Barnes - and have your security tapes backing me up, too. If they’re not out of here in ten seconds, I will bury them in paperwork.”
"What the fuck is this ape grunting at me?" the sergeant in question barks at the desk sergeant.
"To get the fuck out before he has you brought up on formal charges and makes your life a living hell," the desk sergeant replies. "I recommend you three take him up on it. You'll get your paperwork in the morning."
"Like this lowlife can do shit -" the mouthy sergeant starts.
"This 'lowlife' is in charge of the entire Wherren training and knows GRHDI Director Barnes and Colonel Easom personally," the desk sergeant replies. "His offer is a gift. I'd fucking take it."

The two other sergeants that had been standing quietly since the desk sergeant first spoke up turn pale at the mention of Hug'sh's bona fides, but the last one turns red - but doesn't say another word as he follows the other two out the door. Hug’sh says nothing as he watches them leave, though his fur slowly returns to a neutral brown. What would be a sigh on a human is more of a huff that rolls over his shoulders and back, and he turns to the desk sergeant one more time.
”Sorry for the trouble, sergeant,” he says. ”The next time we check out gear, it’ll come back squeaky-clean, I promise.”
"Thanks for not taking Hill's head off," the desk sergeant replies. "And sorry for your trouble. Next time, I'll keep a rolled up newspaper around to smack them on the nose."
”Yes, I figure that’ll do more good than anything I can do with them,” Hug’sh replies, smiling a little. ”I’ll be back with the rest of the gear in a few minutes.”
"Take your time, Walks-the-Fire," the desk sergeant replies, and goes back to his paperwork. Hug’sh grabs the empty handcart and pushes it before him as he makes to leave for the barracks and pick up the rest of the exercise gear. It’s not all humans, he tells himself - but damn if the racist assholes weren’t a lot easier to ignore back when he was human, and a white male at that. Blue spreads over his fur as the thought churns in his head - well, Hug’sh, you didn’t say word one about this while it didn’t affect you, did you? But it’s not so easy to ignore now that it’s biting you in the ass, is it?
punkey 2014-07-21 13:15:32
Hug’sh sighs. He really didn’t need that bouncing around his brain housing group today. Inevitably, the process of coming to terms with his thoughts and feelings leads him to the office of Swims-the-Black, and while his hand stops shy of knocking on the door for a moment - is it really the time to be dumping all his maladjusted crap on Swims again? - he does eventually move on to knock at the door twice.

”Swims-the-Black?” Hug’sh calls, then almost walks away as soon as he’s called. Damn it, he should be able to fix his own problems, not come crawling to his friends - and let’s be honest, they’ve been more his friends than he has been theirs - every time his new body puts him in an uncomfortable situation. He’s got family now, damn it, he’s trying to raise his daughter to be better than this, he should know the answers - or at least he able to work them out for himself instead of running for help just because some of these racist idiot assholes -
"Yes, Hug'sh?" Swims-the-Black says, the office door cracked open and sandwich in his hand. Well, what is a sandwich for him or Hug'sh - to any human, it's an entire loaf of sourdough cut in half and filled with leafy greens and chicken.
”Hello, Swims-the-Black,” Hug’sh says, head hanging just a little. ”I hate to do this, but there are some things I need to talk to someone about, and...I was hoping you have a few minutes for me.”
"Of course, Hug'sh," Swims-the-Black replies. He looks over his shoulder, probably back to Garrett. "Are we done for now?"
"Yes, go, do what you need to do," Garrett barks. "Good morning, Hug'sh," he adds from behind the door somewhere.
”Hello, Garrett!” Hug’sh barks back.
"Would you prefer to go someplace private?" Swims asks.
”Yes,” Hug’sh says. ”We can talk in my office.”
"I am thinking that my quarters might be a better place," Swims replies. He fades into green. "Or at least more spacious."
Hug’sh smirks at that. ”That works for me.”

It's a short walk down the hill towards the GRHDI housing, giving time for Swims-the-Black to finish his breakfast. Once inside, Swims flicks on the lights as Hug'sh follows him through the door, and looks around. He's never seen the inside of Swims' quarters before - another pang of guilt, there - and it's surprisingly refreshing and homey, if for no other reason than all of the furniture looks properly sized for wherren, not humans. There's some art on the walls - mostly Imperial, but some on skins from Whiirr - but all seem to share the same kind of hand, presumably a wherren one. Swims hangs up his multicolor vest and leaves his sandals at the door, and walks towards the fridge. "Do you want something to drink, Hug'sh?" he asks.
”Yes, thank you,” Hug’sh answers, taking in the scenery.

Swims stands up with two large bottles of beer. Before Hug'sh can say anything, he pops the caps off of both of them and offers one to Hug'sh. The floral accents waft through Hug’sh’s nostrils, and the hops dance over his tongue as he takes a swig with Swims. A few of those sips later, Hug’sh finds himself really enjoying one of those piney hop-bombs that Swims always seems to have on hand for the first time, after finding them damn near undrinkable before. But he also sees Swims’ expression turn questioning, and after another sip, Hug’sh broaches the topic of why he’s here in the first place.
”So I ran into some humans today who thought they could treat us like dumb beasts,” Hug’sh says. ”I still struggle with not being able to make myself understood in anything but Whiirr-sign, but...that’s not really the issue.” Hug’sh shakes his head. ”It hurts to be disrespected like that, and...I did it too often myself. I never thought about it. I never needed to - this world was made in the image of humans. And even among humans, I was in a group that was considered to be on top, that ran everything. I never suffered injustice, so I felt no need to speak against it, ignored it when I saw it. Now it affects me, and I feel...not only bad for not speaking when I had the voice for it, but also because I only realize it now, after I have hit this wall again and again. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. It seems...selfish. Yet - I cannot help it.”
Before he says anything, Swims takes a seat on his oversized sofa, and motions for Hug'sh to do the same. Hug'sh sits down next to Swims, leaning his shoulder on Swims'. "Well, first I should ask, what about yourself are you pitying?"
”The speaking,” Hug’sh says. ”It shouldn’t matter. They should learn to understand Whiirr-sign. There should be, like, a translator on everyone’s vox. Something. But it is...incredibly frustrating, to know all the words, to have a lifetime of memories of speaking - and not being able to say anything. And even then, I keep asking myself, even if I can do it, will it help? Humans who hate Wherren won’t suddenly respect me because I can speak a few words. And I’m not sure how I can deal with this idea that I’m...never going to be afforded the same basic respect as any random human would. You know?”

Swims turns orange for a moment, but he quickly disappears the color from his fur. "I…" Swims pauses. "I would ask why this matters so much to you now. You did not seem to care what others thought of you too much when you were a human."
”Because being human...being the right kind of human...afforded me much more than I ever realized before,” Hug’sh says. ”Something I felt entitled to when I changed bodies, something I think everyone should get, but clearly something that is not as universal as I thought. Hugh Verrill did not have to care what others thought of him, because he could get away with it. But now, I cannot take any of that for granted - because what humans think of me now could very well hurt me or the people close to me.”
"That is true," Swims replies. "But you are still an important person, and an honorable one now. Garrett respects you, Barnes respects you, I respect you."
”You know me,” Hug’sh says. ”But people who do not know me...feel entitled to treat me like an animal now. Whatever they may have thought of Hugh Verrill, at least they knew not to act out in my presence. It is…” Hug’sh slumps and turns blue. ”This small bubble with my friends and family is good. But the world beyond that is much more hostile than I am used to. More than I imagined it would be. It is...I’m not sure how to deal with it. I’m not sure where to start dealing with it, even.”
"I would start with remembering that they don't know you, and their feelings should not matter to you," Swims says.

”But they do!” Hug’sh barks, yellow fading into his blue. ”Those feelings decide how they act. When somebody hates Wherren, what is there to stop him abusing us? They feel...they are safe spewing their hate at us. Because Hugh Verrill never spoke out against them, and now I can’t! Without the kindness of my friends or that of strangers who might happen to want to help us...I feel like there’s nothing I can do, that even when I’m not being attacked I am just...tolerated. And it’s burning me up inside that this is how it is and that I’m not sure if we can make it better for our cubs.” Hug’sh reaches peak yellow as his shoulders slump down as far as they can go. ”I hate them,” he says quietly. ”I hate those humans. I hate that I cannot do anything that doesn’t play into their wrongheadedness. I hate...I hate that I was like that. I hate that I can’t leave it behind. There’s so much good in my life now, but I cannot...I just can’t leave those things behind.” He sighs. ”Everything is so much easier in the village. But out here, every day I need to figure out how to live my life all over again. Do you know what I mean?”

Swims rubs his muzzle against Hug'sh's and purrs, and Hug'sh purrs back. "I do," he replies. "Twice, actually. First, I was young, barely old enough to be considered an adult, and I was energetic and enthusiastic about being Chosen. Then I was thrown into the...the abuse, I think would be the best word, that was Alef-ka training. The trainers were not instructed to kill us - we were considered too valuable as slaves for that - but they did everything but. It was painful, humiliating, they tried everything to break you and just give in to their orders and live only for the Emperor, but I stayed strong." Swims' yellow fur gains a blue fringe. "Even still, leaving the Alef-ka...I was afraid I might die without the orders from my Emperor. And then, of course, I was put into the Arena, where I very likely would have died. And when I emerged as a Champion...I had no idea how to live a life of my own. Without the orders of the Alef-ka, without the regularity of life in the Arena, I knew nothing, and had to learn everything all over again. But I did it, and you can do it too, Hug'sh. You are just frustrated - and that is good. Life as a Wherren is frustrating. The injustice, the mistreatment, the disrespect, they are constants in this life that you and I share. But do you see me stepping down to the level of the humans around us?"
”No,” Hug’sh admits. ”And I am only slowly realizing how much strength it takes to do that. Strength I hope to have some day - strength that requires I put in some work.” He shakes his head. ”I’m not entitled to anything. I acted like I was and only showed off how little I know. I should...I should take this as a sign that my new life has just begun, and I have much to learn still.” He claps Swims on the shoulder. ”Thank you for your words and your support, Swims-the-Black. I must...find a better way of dealing with these feelings. I won’t get better at dealing with humans if I don’t go out and do it. Perhaps...I should go out to dinner again today. Would you join me?”

"Of course," Swims-the-Black barks, putting his own hand on Hug'sh's shoulder. "And you are still a very accomplished and successful male, Hug'sh. You have a bondmate and a daughter who both love you, and a dozen other mewling cubs that look up to you, and you are one of the 815, the scourge of the Imperium." He leans against Hug'sh again. "My secret for staying my hand is simple. Only through our own actions can we devalue who we are. No one else can do this for us, no matter what they say. If others insult who I am or what I am, it only lowers their esteem, not my own. If I keep my head held high and act as I feel is right, then no human can make me small and powerless."
”I held back today,” Hug’sh says. ”I just...it is easy to get angry, and I fear that when I do it will just serve to prove their hate right. I need to grow a thicker skin.”
"Wherren feel things more deeply than humans do - our colors are not just for show," Swims replies. "You will eventually come to appreciate it, I think, after being so reserved as a human."
”I hope so,” Hug’sh says. ”Thank you again, Swims-the-Black. I will pick you up for dinner at seven?”

Swims finishes off his bottle of beer and stands up. "Sounds all right to me," he replies. Hug'sh stands up as well, and Swims-the-Black wraps his massive arms around Hug'sh, clasping around his hump in an embrace. Hug’sh returns the embrace and draws Swims into a hug, only letting go slowly. "You are doing better, Hug'sh Walks-the-Fire," Swims-the-Black says. "Better than I thought, and sooner than I would have anticipated. You really are becoming Wherren."
”High praise coming from you, Swims-the-Black,” Hug’sh replies with a wave of green in his fur, then turns to leave. ”I’ll let you get back to your sandwich now.”
"It is awfully lonely in that chiller," Swims replies, and give Hug'sh one last muzzle bump before stepping back. "Have a good day, Hug'sh."
Hug’sh nods. ”And a good day to you, Swims-the-Black.”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:16:39
As far as human vehicles go, the Army’s three-and-a-half ton trucks are some of the few that offer a somewhat comfortable amount of space for Wherren rider - and riding in the cab up front gives Hug’sh the benefit of the A/C, too. Rank hath its privileges. Up ahead looms the training village, a sprawling little patch of low-built habs and tight alleys between them, with the scars of recent battles still visible even a few minutes out. Hug’sh snorts - A/C or not, the dry air still doesn’t agree with him - and then turns to look over his shoulder, inspecting the half-dozen warriors in the back of the truck.

”Like I said before,” Hug’sh begins. ”We are here to help the Sheen restore peace to this village. They have been here for a while and this is their command. We will observe what they do, listen to what they have to say and support them in any way possible. Understood?”
"Yes," half of the wherren in the back bark.
"Understood," grunt the other half.

The convoy rolls into the village, down main street past habs with shuttered doors and windows, past just a few civilians wearily going about their daily business. Within a minute, they’ve reached the main town square - the trucks slow down to circle around it, getting Hug’sh to duck his head low in an attempt to watch the rooftops for RPGs or other fun surprises. When nothing kinetic happens, he leans back, just as the short connecting road from there takes them to the Green Zone, which - honestly - isn’t looking all that green, what with the scorchmarks on several buildings and the heavy guard of several tall Sheen shells tracking every move in the area. Hug’sh does notice one shell that’s not moving, but he can see the sensors twitching, scanning for threats while assessing the convoy and probably everyone in it. As the truck comes to a stop, Hug’sh waits to watch the other trucks pull to their parking spots, then gently opens the door and jumps out, eyes squinting against the hot air and bright light outside.

The Sheen swivels one of its three sensor pods Hug'sh's way. "You Walks-the-Fire?" the robot asks.
”That’s me,” Hug’sh answers. ”Gray Goo Scenario?”
"Indeed," Grey replies, and walks over towards the truck on its four big legs. It gives Hug'sh an experience he hasn't had in a while - being significantly shorter than the person he's talking to, as Grey is a good foot taller than Hug'sh in its current shell. "Did you manage to bring in any of the equipment we requested, or just soldiers?"
”We managed to bring in a server and some replacement shells,” Hug’sh says. ”Do you want us to unload the gear somewhere?”
"No charging stations?" Grey asks, stepping around to the back and poking a sensor pod into the back of the truck, over the heads and startled barks of the wherren disembarking.
”No,” Hug’sh says. ”Just what you see. I have a full packing list, but it’s a short one.” He looks around. ”Insurgents aren’t messing around. I’d like to grab some shelter so we can discuss the situation.”
"Yeah, but...shit." Grey looks around. "There wasn't space for them?"
”We would have made space,” Hug’sh says. ”But that’s all we got. So, take this inside? We’re kind of painting a big target on our backs standing around here.”
"Shit, right, sorry," Grey says. "Come on, follow me. We'll go to Hana's tent, she's the leader of the locals."

The Sheen leads Hug'sh towards a large desert tan tent towards the corner of the complex. One Sheen in a human-sized shell stands outside on guard, and gives Grey a nod as it and Hug'sh walk up. Grey bends down onto its "knees" and hobbles into the tent first, and Hug'sh follows behind. Inside, on the other half of the tent not occupied by Grey's shell, stands a cot and a few boxes with clothes and other items inside, and an older woman with the hard look of an experienced Turai. There's a few boxes next to the cot which are probably supposed to be her personal belongings from whatever disaster befell her home, but the lack of any damage or dust tells Hug'sh that it's just another part of the simulation.
"Who is this?" Hana asks.
"This is Walks-the-Fire, he's in charge of the Wherren reinforcements that we called for," Grey replies. "We need to talk about defense and positioning, and I figured that he should meet you at the same time."
Hug’sh bows his head as his name is called, then extends a hand to shake. ”A pleasure to meet you, Hana.”
Hana bows to Hug'sh. "And you as well, Walks-the-Fire. What are your intentions in our village?"
”Our intentions are to provide security and restore normality as quickly as possible,” Hug’sh says. ”I’d like to get a better sense of the situation first, though. Where do you see the biggest problems right now?”
Hana gives Grey a harsh look. "Normal would mean the Sheen and Narsai'i leaving us alone, but that is not going to happen. Our problems might go away if that were to happen." She sighs. "But it is not, and perhaps it will not help after all. That aside, the problem is that our people are under attack for helping the Sheen, and the Sheen are forcing us to help them."
"Hey, no one's forcing anyone -" Grey starts, then stops itself. "We agreed on a mutual defense plan for the moment, and agreed to bring in more supplies. Walks-the-Fire, did you manage to bring in the supplies for the village?"
”Yes, we did,” Hug’sh says, then turns to Hana. ”Thank you for your help and your forthrightness. I’m sure we’ll have much more to discuss once we’ve properly set up here.”
"Yes, I'm sure," Hana says. "But for now, we must get those supplies to those that need them most. The west and east sides of town took the most damage, they need the construction supplies, and the food vendors need their fuel and produce restocked. I trust you can get that done?" she asks Hug'sh.
Hug’sh looks to Gray. ”I can take some of my soldiers to do that, it’d be a good way to get a feel for the village, too. Is that okay with you, Grey?”
Grey bobs a sensor pod. "Yes, go ahead and do that. Just make sure that you speak with Hal - Hallelujah It's Raining Blood - as well, and put the ones not on resupply duty into the trins that need filling out."
Hug’sh nods. ”I will. We’ll try to integrate into your patrol schedule so we’re not spreading ourselves too thin.” He nods one more time to Hana. ”If anything else needs doing, let us know, please. Otherwise, I’ll go get my troops sorted out now.”
Grey nods. "Go ahead."
Hana nods as well. "Good luck, Walks-the-Fire."

”Thank you,” Hug’sh says, bows to Hana once more, then walks out to meet the other Wherren again. The troops have unloaded the cargo from the trucks - what little cargo there was - and are now standing around, waiting for Hug’sh to call some shots. Hug’sh takes Rodirr aside.
”Get everyone under shelter and the gear stored. The Sheen have some holes in their trins, we’ll have to make sure those are filled before we think about putting our own teams together. We’re also joining the next patrol to get the lay of the land and deliver supplies.” Hug’sh looks around. ”I don’t know about you, but it looks like the insurgency really did a number on this place. We should be ready for an exploratory attack, either here or as an ambush on the way - they saw us arrive, and they’re sure to hit us just to see what we’ll do. I’ll go talk to Hallelujah, but if anything happens before I get back, you’re in charge. ROE is defensive fire only, don’t pursue. Good?”
"Got it," Rodirr grunts. "How many should I pick out for supplies duty?"
”Six trins, four to carry supplies, two to screen,” Hug’sh says. ”We’ll just make a first partial delivery, see how that goes, and then take it from there. Select another group that size for a second delivery and keep them in reserve for now. Deploy the others as you see fit.”
"Understood," Rodirr says. "How is the situation with the village humans?"
”Bad,” Hug’sh says by way of summary. ”They don’t want us here and the insurgents are going after Hana and anyone else who’s collaborating with us. The way I see it, we not only have to make the villagers hate us less, we also need to make sure that people feel safer working with us. We’ve got a tough task ahead of us. I hope we can get some points when we deliver the supplies, and maybe spot a few problems we can help solve, but right now the log is very slippery.”
"I will tell everyone to be on their best behavior, then," Rodirr replies. He nods to something behind Hug'sh. "I think that Sheen is trying to get your attention."

Hug’sh turns around to look up at another towering shell, trading a surprised yellow for a more pleasant green. ”Hello, I am Walks-the-Fire,” Hug’sh says. ”Who are you?”
"Hallelujah It's Raining Blood," the Sheen replies. "So, you're the one in charge of the Wherren?"
Hug’sh nods. ”Grey told me to speak to you. We have supplies to deliver, and I would like to go out with one of your patrols to do it, so we can get a feel for the village and see what’s what. He also mentioned that you have some trins that need to be filled out.” Hug’sh nods towards Rodirr. ”This is Rodirr. He’s in charge when I’m not around and will handle the details. So...what’s your view on the situation right now? Anything we should know that isn’t in the reports?”
Hal bobs its shell. "The big news is that we broke the big insurgent hideout in the outskirts of town," it says. "They're regrouping, and I know we haven't gotten a full handle on them yet, but with them now on the back foot, we can start to look for how they're getting into the village and getting resupplied. It's a good start, but we're a long way from unfucking this place, and we need all the help we can get doing that. Aside from that, well...we're not that good at playing nice with humans, and we could probably use some help with that, too. If you know how. And...well, aside from that, shit's pretty fucked up for everyone here. Anything you and yours can do to fix how shitty things are here would be pretty fucking welcome."
Hug’sh nods. ”I heard you took some prisoners in the raid. We could observe the interrogations, we’re pretty good at reading human body language. Other than that, I’d like to see what’s going on with my own eyes before I weigh in on how we can unfuck it.” Hug’sh looks around. ”How’s local crime? Break-ins, looting, fighting, anything like that?”
"We're keeping that shit locked down - if there was any," Hal replies. "Turns out that not everything about this First-damned simulation is perfectly realistic. The Bashakra'i Turai running this game aren't big fans of having to play thieves and looters."
Hug’sh smirks. ”Small favors,” he says. ”One last thing, do you have a map of this place we could look at? Street level is one thing, but I’d like to see the big picture, too.”
"Can you use - uh, I mean, do you have a vox?" Hal asks.
”Yes, we all have a vox,” Hug’sh says, holding his out for Hal to see. ”Honestly, the others are better at using it than I am, but I get by. What do you have?”
One of Hal's other sensor pods swings over and gives it a quick scan before the vox beeps twice. "Just sent you the maps we have. If you need real-time, well, we're shit out of aerial shells unless there's some in the trucks."
”We did bring a few,” Hug’sh says. ”How did the insurgents take out the ones you started with?”
"That is something we're trying to figure out," Hal replies. "Spearbombs were able to reach that high, but the question is how they were able to target them in the first place." It pauses. "Anything else, or can I get my patrols rolling?"
”That’s all for now,” Hug’sh says.

As Hal walks away, Hug’sh turns back to Rodirr.

”An insurgency with spearbombs won’t have just one base,” Hug’sh says. ”They took a blow, but the way they’ve been running around hitting the Sheen tells me they’re well-supplied, well-organized and playing for keeps. Just more reason to be careful. Let’s keep our eyes and ears open out there.”
"Copy that," Rodirr grunts. He looks over the Sheen guards patrolling the exterior of the Green Zone, most of them looking twitchy, even for robots. "What's your impressions of the Sheen so far?"
”Their technology isn’t helping them much and they’re not used to dealing with counterinsurgency,” Hug’sh says. ”They know they’re in trouble and they don’t know how to fix it. I think their plan so far is to dig in, take out the insurgents as they come and hope that they’ll win that way at some point, but I’m not seeing much engagement with the village itself yet. They’re learning, but they’re paying for every lesson. So, yes, I think they could use some help.”
"Then that is what we shall provide," Rodirr barks, his fur a muted yellow. "I will organize the supply mission, Hug'sh - I mean, Walks-the-Fire." The old mercenary rolls over green at the slip of the tongue, and walks away.

Hug’sh sighs as he looks over the Sheen. Angel’s whupping you guys pretty good, he thinks. Stop whining about being bad with humans and start working on it. If you don’t step it up, this sim will break your backs. Grey’s in charge, that’s probably a good choice - he seems like he’s got his head on straight. Hal’s playing Sarge, I’m not sure he could take over for Grey if he had to, though. What about the rest of them? I guess I should go meet the others, too.

Hug’sh gives the whole situation a big huff. No time to compare training philosophies - they’re here, and they’re going to help the Sheen clean this up to the best of their ability. And if the Wherren think they’re not in the spotlight for this one, they might stop looking to Hug’sh for everything and start stepping up a little themselves - Angel’s probably going to have some thoughts about them, too. Hug’sh pats his rifle for reassurance, then heads off to join the first resupply mission.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:17:09
Part of the “making nice with the locals” plan that was implemented early on was a weekly summit between the Sheen and the local council - more or less just a gripe-fest at first, but now with the insurgency pouring the pressure on, it’s become a tactical review and planning meeting first and foremost. Of course, that quadrupled the Sheen’s interest in the whole affair. This week’s has a new wrinkle, a 6’6” furry one walking next to Luis - Hug’sh and his Wherren troopers arrived earlier this week, and have spent the last few days getting integrated into the patrol schedule. They’ve done all right, for what little action there’s been. Hana’s militia...well, it hasn’t been in the way, but it’s obvious that they view this as an arrangement made at the barrel of a gun - or accelerator, as the case may be. As for the “bad guys”, they’ve been remarkably quiet, so much so that the Sheen are getting antsy and on edge. Not for action: they’re suspicious of the calm, and are nervous about when the next hit is coming.

All of that will surely be brought up at the meeting. Hug’sh and Luis are walking there right now, from their “protected housing” just outside of the Green Zone. Grey voxed the both of them to say that it’d see them there later, and Hana is still without a home and living in there, and so the only concern at the moment for attendance is when the two erstwhile instructors are showing up. Hug’sh has a general look of relaxed alertness about him, his eyes still on alleys and rooftops as he walks with his rifle slung in front of his chest. Luis’ scanning of their surroundings are a bit less relaxed--like the Sheen, he’s starting to get antsy when things stop breaking loose for extended periods of time.
“So,” he says, turning to Hugh...Hug’sh, he mentally corrects. “What do you think of the place so far?”
“Waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Hug’sh says. “A week with no incidents is one to watch. No doubt OpFor’s restructuring after the raid, but I was expecting some action to probe my troops. It’s got everyone on edge, so I think we could do with a review of ROE, remind everyone what we’re here to protect. Oh, and why didn’t anyone tell me Hunter’s playing, too?”
Luis was nodding agreement with the beginning, but the last bit catches him off guard. “He’s here?” he says, surprised.
”Saw him doing some structural work on a blasted hab,” Hug’sh says. ”I’m not going to spoil anyone’s fun, but I figured you should know the caliber of opposition we’re dealing with here.” Hug’sh smirks. ”You’ve got a good defensive line, Luis, but how much do your guys know about the people in this village?”
“Less than I probably should,” Luis says. “I’m split between wanting to take a lot of direct control, or dig around, and wanting to let Grey and the Sheen have their own initiative. I guess I didn’t realize just how much we were missing.”
”Counterinsurgency’s a tough mission,” Hug’sh muses. ”You don’t have to walk the Sheen through every step, but you’re in charge and you get to set the objectives. If you need some HUMINT, let them know and let them figure out how to get it. If they have questions, they can still come to you.” Hug’sh ruffles his fur for a moment. ”Speaking as someone who’s got nothing to do with this exercise at large, of course.”
“Yeah,” Luis says. “I have to say, I’m impressed by your troopers. They seem really professional for the amount of training time you’ve had with them.”
”They’re good soldiers,” Hug’sh says, green spreading through his fur. ”So are your troops. Gray’s got his head on straight and Hal’s taking good care of the nitty-gritty. Do you want some more overbearing officer advice?”
Luis grins. “I’d be happy to hear it. You’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have and I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Hug’sh nods. ”What have you done this last week, Luis? Has it been business as usual? Any specific orders you gave your troops in light of the current situation?”
“Increased awareness, trying to get the militia and your troopers worked into things, and...that’s about it.” Luis takes a breath and blows it out. “I feel like I should be doing more, but I’m not entirely sure what.” He turns to Hug’sh. “What should I be thinking about that I’m missing?”
”Momentum,” Hug’sh says. ”Your objective is set as beating the insurgency, okay, but where’s the feeling of progress? You raided the camp, but all it’s gotten you so far is a week of radio silence and lack of action, with a lot of tension on top. That’s a motivation killer for everyone involved. You should think about something tangible you can work toward and achieve. Track it. The supply shipments, repairs around the village, reported incidents, that’s all good stuff for your briefings. Drill down with your orders, make them specific and let the Sheen figure out how to achieve them. You can also check in with the patrols, ask how their day is going and if they noticed anything. Details can get drowned out in big briefings, so you sometimes have to go digging a little. And when you do, it shows that you’re involved, present and motivated. All that flows downhill, too.” Hug’sh pauses and looks over to Luis. ”Any one of those is a fine starting point. Think about it and consider what you can put into practice. You don’t need to 180 your whole command style, but if you spend a minute each day thinking about what you can do better tomorrow, you’ll be on the right track. Okay?”
Luis nods, then thinks about it for a couple steps. “Okay. I know you’re playing up the whole ‘just an observer’ thing, but would you mind giving me some help pushing into that at the meeting today?”
”Not at all,” Hug’sh says with a grin. ”Just give me the nod and I’ll sprinkle some moto on the proceedings.”
“Thanks,” Luis says. “So..how are things going for you, personally?”
”Things are good,” Hug’sh says. ”Rhea and I are working on getting a hab for us and having a litter of cubs - in that order, I hope. How about you and Arketta? Still settling in on Atea?”
“There’s still some settling left to do,” Luis says. “Arketta’s applying to the local Kansat, which has her thrilled. But it’s starting to feel...a lot like home.”
”That’s great,” Hug’sh says, fur green as he puts a hand on Luis’s shoulder. ”Have you thought about having kids?”
Luis chuckles. “Yeah, we are. Seems like after Garrett and Ngawai, we’re all baby-mad. Give it a few more years, and there’ll probably be enough 815 kids running around to take on a quad.”
”Well, somebody has to address the strategic imbalance in troop strength,” Hug’sh says, joining in on the chuckle.

It seems that Grey has beaten them to the punch - both Hug’sh and Luis hear the Sheen’s preferred synthesized voice inside the tent, talking with Hana.
“So, your people haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary?” Grey asks.
“Again, you hard-headed robot, no, we have not,” Hana replies testily. “As far as I have been told, there has been no new activity.”
“And you don’t honestly believe that, do you?” Grey replies.
“I believe what my people tell me!” Hana snaps back.
Before either Hug’sh or Luis can step in, Grey continues. “Yes, that’s what you have to work with, and I understand. But I am telling you, we have been tracking -” One of the sensor pods swivels towards the door of the tent as Luis and Hug’sh walk in. “Good morning, Luis, Walks-the-Fire.” Hana bows in respect to the both of you.
“Good morning, Hana,” Luis says, and returns the bow. “Good morning Grey, what’s the situation?”
Hug’sh returns the bow, but stays silent for the moment.
“The situation is that I think that we’ve detected an anomalous pattern of movement in the village,” Grey says. “I was about to explain it to Hana, but it’s better that we’re all here.” A holodisplay appears in front of the Sheen, showing an overhead map of the village, covered in multi-colored squiggly lines, and with a table covered in numbers, and also color-coded. It’s...rather dense. “After we got blindsided by so many attackers in the village at once, I collated the visual data from all the Sheen and, over the last few days, created a four-dimensional map of every identifiable face during the attack to track the movement of the attackers with my spare cycles, and we found two things: one, there were too many people in the village.”
“I’d think that would be obvious,” Hana says.
Before the attack,” Grey replies, and the lines and table run backwards, lines undrawing themselves and table depopulating. “This is two days before the attack? There’s 288 people in the village.” It runs back even further. “Two weeks? 243. There’s an extra forty-five people that just appear out of nowhere.”
Hug’sh nods at the analysis. Good initiative, he thinks. Let’s see what we can do with this.
“Have you run those new faces against the attackers, or those from the camp?” Luis asks.
“I have, and 91.11% of them participated in the attacks,” Grey replies. It turns its sensor pods back to Hana. “We have Sheen at every road into the village, and we know everyone that comes and goes - but they’re still getting in. We have a hole in our security, and they’re exploiting it.”
“So?” Hana shrugs. “Of course they are, so what?”
“So, unless they brought a Gateway with them, there has to be a tunnel somewhere that leads into one of the buildings, and I highly doubt that’s something your people wouldn’t have heard about,” Grey replies.
“Now, just wait a minute,” Hana shouts. “Are you accusing me of something?”
”One moment, please,” Hug’sh says, raising a hand in the universal “Hold on a minute” gesture. ”If there’s a tunnel bypassing our security, then we’re giving our enemies free reign of the situation. That doesn’t help any of us. In my opinion, our first priority should be putting our resources together to find it and neutralize it.”
“Right,” Luis says. “Grey, what kind of ground-penetrating sensing assets do we have?”
“We’re figuring something out right now,” Grey replies, “but I think there might be a way to narrow things down.” It turns its pods back to Hana. “Hana, I am not accusing you of colluding with our enemies - our enemies, remember. But someone in your circle is hiding information from us, or working against us.”
Hana scoffs. “Preposterous.”
“Is it?” Grey asks. “Here’s the graph of just the newcomers that were also attackers, during the attack.” The map runs forward again, then lines vanish until there’s a few dozen on the display. The pattern is pretty clear - they all appeared from a couple of blocks of habs on either side of the village. “That’s a lot of bad guys to just be hanging around and no one noticing, Hana.” It flicks off the display. “You’ve got a problem.”
Hana’s expression darkens. “It seems that I do.”
“A problem like that is all of our problem,” Luis says. “Can you help us put names to those people, and to the people they were hanging around with in the days before the attack?” Luis asks. “If you can do that and we can work out who they’re associating with, that can help us track it down.”
“I am more concerned with the people in the village that are working with the insurgents,” Grey replies. “Someone high up around here is working against us. We can find these tunnels and close them with a search grid - but more will open if they have the cover to dig them under.” The pods sweep back, once again, to Hana. “We need to find who amongst your little council is the traitor.”
Hana sets her jaw, but says nothing.
”I am not an expert in these things, but if we can locate the existing tunnels, surely we can find new ones being built before they become useful to the enemy,” Hug’sh says. ”Once we have cut off the lines of supply, the enemy will be much easier to handle. And searching for the tunnels does not preclude a thorough search of the village for saboteurs. In fact, it seems both tasks are intertwined. I also think Luis’s suggestion is a good one; the saboteurs hide in the crowd, so taking away that advantage will help us greatly. Can you identify the people of this village in the images the Sheen have captured, Hana?”
”Some of them,” Hana replies. “I don’t know everyone that lives here personally.”
”It will be a start,” Hug’sh says. ”We do not require all of their details, a simple “Yes” or “No” will do for now. Grey, did you capture their voices along with their faces? People talking to each other should give us at least some names, and we can figure out their homes from where they are seen, yes?”
“Only some of them, and not very well,” Grey replies with a shrug. “We weren’t exactly listening in.” Hana actually breaks character for a momentary nod of approval.
“Good to have, anyway,” Luis says. “Nice initiative. Having this list could let us do a few things. We can work backwards, and try and find their network based on who the identified attackers were working with before the attacks, and we can also use it going forward to spot new faces. Hana, Grey, if you’ll work on getting that put together, we can also make plans to do both of those other tasks.”
Hug’sh nods to that. ”A significant breakthrough. Good work, Grey. Hana, how is the village doing? Have you heard of anything we should know about?”
“Not at the moment, but I’m not exactly being talked to either -” Hana starts, moving into the “wrapping up” part of the script, but Grey interrupts her.
Or we could just wrap the whole group up at once,” Grey says impatiently.
“What are you suggesting?” Luis asks.
“Easy,” Grey replies. “There’s two tunnels, by the looks of things. We figure out where they are - quietly. And then we tell Maron we know where one is and we’re hitting it in five, Igeo the other, and Tano nothing. That’s just enough time to send the word out but not enough to double-check anything. Whatever’s protected, we know that that’s our traitor.”
“That implies that you trust me,” Hana says.
“Yes, well, one, you’ve been cooped up here more or less and we’ve seen your every move - you’re not our traitor,” Grey says. “And two...I’ve seen how you behave and act, and read your biometrics. You trust us.”
Hana manages to fake a harumph, but says nothing.
”That sounds like a good plan to me,” Hug’sh says, keeping his eyes on Hana’s body language.
“All right,” Luis says. “Grey, if you can put together a plan for how we detect the tunnels without anyone getting wind of it, then I’m onboard with that plan. If we can’t, though, we’ll have to do it a more old-fashioned way. Either way, I also want that census done.” He turns to look to Hana. “Anything else that you need?”
“Just more supplies for everyone,” Hana replies. She seems more than a little surprised that Grey managed to figure out how to jump ahead a few pages in the script.
”We’ll work on that,” Hug’sh says, then looks to Luis.
“All right,” Luis says. “Sounds like we’ve all got work to do, so let’s get to it.”
Grey nods, and heads out of the tent.

With another nod and bow to Hana, Hug’sh and Luis exit the tent, too, heading back to their barracks. As they clear the tent, Hug’sh ruffles his fur again.
”Grey’s doing excellent work,” he says. ”We’ve got a lot on our to-do lists now, but I think this could be the break we need. What’s your take on this?”
“It’s a lot better to be being proactive,” Luis says. “I’m wondering how his plan works if the tunnel sites are well-protected in general, or if more than one is our mole. We could end up getting a bad read, but it’s certainly worth a shot.”
Hug’sh nods. ”If nothing else, we have the tech to find the tunnels and the firepower to raid them,” he says. ”Figuring out who might be collaborating with OpFor is a nice bonus, but shutting down supply lines is our primary objective. Let’s set our baseline there and take anything else as bonus.”
“That’s what I was thinking, too,” Luis says.
Hug’sh’s fur returns to a more neutral color. ”What do you make of Grey provoking Hana? Is that how he acts with everyone, or is he trying to rile her up?”
“They’re always brusque,” Luis says, “But that was a bit more than he usually gives. Could be he was trying to see how she’d take it, along with the news of the tunnels. Could be something else. I’ll talk with him about it.”
Hug’sh nods. ”You do that. I’ll go over what we got from Grey’s analysis. When we kick the tunnels in, there’s bound to be some scattering - and if we’re on top of it, we might be able to root out their fallback positions inside the village. We’ll also want to figure out where the tunnels end - as far as we can, anyway, without reorbiting the flying shells, that could tip off OpFor after all.”
“All sounds good,” Luis says. “Actually, that’s a thought. They’ve got to have some sensors of their own--they downed Orphan Grinder during our attack while he was above what should have been visual range. I’ll talk about that with Grey, see what they might be using. Maybe we can pick off something from it if it’s not totally passive.”
”My knowledge of radar comes pretty much from Top Gun,” Hug’sh admits, ”but...either they’re sending out something, which we would detect - you know, little red warning light comes on? Or they’re homing in one the shell’s transmissions, but that’s more than a spearbomb can do, so...something sophisticated on the ground intercepting those transmissions? You’d know better than me how big it is and how we can find it.”
“Tracking the Sheen network is pretty much out of the question, and if they had the assets to break our voxes...it’d take a lot more hardware than we found at that camp,” Luis says. “On the other hand, if they just had some idea on where to look, they could maybe track them down with some fancy optics. That...could have come from the council, if we do have a leak.”
”Well, shit,” Hug’sh says, a wave of yellow rippling down his fur. ”So much for OPSEC. Right, nothing we can do about that now - but when we’re going terminal with the tunnel raid, we should rearrange the shell orbits. And…” Hug’sh thinks for a moment. ”Okay, I think that’s actually everything now from my side.”
“I don’t think I have anything else, either,” Luis says. “Let me know if you think of anything or need anything.”
Hug’sh nods. ”I will. And Luis? Feel free to consider my earlier suggestions just that - suggestions. I have a good feeling about this. We might be able to seal the deal with that strike.”
“Thanks,” Luis says. “We’ll see what we can do.”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:19:03
The "prisoners" captured in Grey's nighttime raid created a rather unique temporary problem - where to house them? If this was a real situation, they'd have been long ago sent back to command for housing and interrogation far away from the front lines, but seeing as this is a training exercise, not to mention that part of the point was to get the Sheen some experience in dealing with humans, they've been kept in the village. Specifically, in a cleared-out couple of habs next to the Green Zone. Bunk beds have been put in one of the habs, enough to house all of the "prisoners", with the hab next door cleared out for the Sheen guards and an ersatz interrogation room. Things aren't exactly rough for the prisoners: they've been given their voxes and are fed from the local restaurants. After all, this is a simulation for the Sheen, not the training staff, and they can pretend how to be captured just as well on a full stomach as an empty one.

And now that a plan of action has been put together, Grey can no longer put off trying its manipulator arm at interrogation. Still, it's with a certain nervous reluctance that it stands in the corner with Luis, as the guards go and get the first one of the prisoners.
Luis sees the nerves in the flicker of Grey’s sensor pods--the scan rate is a bit too elevated, and it’s a sign of how much time he’s been spending with Sheen that he can tell that. How about something else to think about, Luis thinks.
“All right, Grey,” Luis says.
"I'm not nervous," Grey blurts out. "Not that it would be wrong for me to be nervous."
“Of course not,” Luis says. “Still, why don’t we just run through this one last time, for us meatbags?”
"Okay, okay," Grey says. "We're looking for any information on tunnels, smuggling, and how they're sneaking people and materiel past our checkpoints." It stops for a second. "Oh, shit - and how they're avoiding detection in the village, and who's in charge." It shakes a sensor pod. "Fucking stupid."
“What’s wrong?” Luis asks.
"Nothing, just that I forgot, you know, half of the reason we're doing this shit, and I'm a fucking AI," Grey replies.
“You’re doing this for the first time,” Luis says. “It’s fine. I’m here if you forget something, and frankly, we have more than one prisoner, so you have more chances to do this right if you mess this first one up.”
"Yeah, sure, okay," Grey says. It sways back and forth a couple times. "Let's do this."

Luis' vox buzzes with interference for a moment, and one of the human-sized Sheen brings in a human-sized human prisoner, and sits him down in the chair. He gives Grey a harsh look, but says nothing.
"So," Grey says out loud. "Before we get started, do you want anything? Something to drink?"
The prisoner - who looks to Luis more like a Narsai'i than a Bashakra'i - just continues to glare up at Grey.
"Right," Grey continues. "Well, I think that...that it's best if we start out with improving things in this room." Another buzz of interference in Luis' ears, and the climate controller kicks on in the corner, blowing cooler, moister air in the room. "There, that should probably feel better, yes?"
More silence.
"Well, it feels better, even to me," Grey replies. "I know that you don't want to be here, and believe me, I'd rather not be here, either. But...right now, you and me, we have the same problem - we're both stuck here because of decisions made by people higher up than us. Am I right? You probably didn't even want to be out in the desert - you could have been here, in the village."
That actually gets through to the man in the chair, and he gives a slight nod.
"See?" Grey says. "This desert is probably the last place either of us want to be. The sand, the dust, the heat, I know that humans don't like it much more than our shells do. But they put you out in the middle of nowhere, in what you had to know was a shit defensive position. No sky cover, no good defensive lines if you get found...did they even give you a plan for if you get caught?"
Finally, the man in the chair speaks up. "No."
"See?" Grey cries. "We combat branch Sheen call that 'fucking bullshit'. Pretty sure you humans do too. You got fucked by your leaders, my friend." It pauses. "You sure you don't want that glass of water? Something to eat?"
The man in the chair freezes for a second, then nods. "I'll take a glass of water."
Luis' ears buzz once more. "All right, your glass of water is on the way. Let's just take a break and wait for that and let the air cool down a bit in here, all right? All right."

"Holy shit," Grey voxes in Luis' ear. "Holy fucking shit. How am I doing, I have no fucking clue."
“You’ve got him talking,” Luis says over the vox, his lips not moving. “That’s a great start. And you’ve got a connection with him. Just let it roll, and try and turn him towards the topics we’re interested in--subtly.”
"Right, right," Grey says.
“You’ve got this,” Luis says.
"Yeah, I got this," Grey echoes. "I got this."

One of the Sheen guards comes back with a cup of water, and sets it down in front of the man, who takes a careful sip from it.
"Cold enough for you?" Grey asks.
"It's fine," the man says.
"So, you're stuck out in the desert, while the people pulling your strings are living it up in a nice warm hab at night, with climate conditioning in the heat of the day while you're sweating your balls off," Grey says. "That doesn't seem fair to me. Does it seem fair to you?"
"Not really," the man admits.
"I mean, you're doing all the heavy lifting, bringing in equipment and guns for them, leaving you with a few spearbombs and some dusty old beamers," Grey continues. "Did they even return your distress call when you saw our shell flying overhead?"
The man scoffs. "They just told us where it would be. We didn't get a warning about the rest."
"Hah!" Grey says. "No shit. Well then, I think it's pretty clear that they hung your ass out to dry. They didn't give a shit if you lived or died. But us, we've fed you, kept you warm, kept you out of the elements. My Sheen and I, we're bound to throw ourselves in front of a beam to protect you. Honest truth."
The man gives Grey a skeptical look at that.
"New rules," Grey replies. "The Sheen are turning over a new leaf - and I, for one, welcome the change. And you know what? We can help you. You just have to help us, first."
The man's face darkens. "Help how?"
"Hey, nothing major," Grey replies. "You've got friends you don't want to burn, I understand. Anything you want to share about the tunnel you were guarding, anything else like that, or anything that keeps me and mine safe when we raid the safehouses and tunnel exits we've found, that'll go a long way towards getting you out of here. And, if you want to stick it to your bosses that left you out in the desert to die, anything you've got on them wouldn't go amiss, either."

The man thinks about it for a few seconds. He looks at the cup of water in front of him, the climate conditioner by the wall, and then at the hot desert sun outside. "Fuck it," he finally says. "Sure."
"Great!" Grey says out loud, while a loud "FUCK YES" blasts in Luis' head. "That's just great. Just start with whatever you want to start out with."
The man gives Grey a look at his verbal slip-up, but nods. "Right. What do you want to know?"
punkey 2014-07-21 13:19:37
It’s a nice day for a patrol, all things considered, with some cloud cover to keep the worst of the heat at bay and not a lot of activity on the streets. Patrol Bravo’s doing the outskirts this time, a leisurely circle through the outer parts of the village, showing presence without going looking for trouble. At least that’s what they’re trying to project - a mixed group of Sheen warrior shells and Wherren soldiers can only look so casual - without giving away their special cargo: a trio of ground-penetrating radar emitters, crammed into the chassis of three heavy weapons shells to get a high-resolution scan of what lies beneath the streets. Just walking through the rough area their prisoner gave up would have given the game away from the start, but now that they’re crossing into the target zone, it’s hard not to tense up just a little.

It’s a tension Hug’sh can read on Grey’s shell, not by the more organic metrics of tightening muscles, but by the swivel speed of the sensor pods. No matter how careful they are, OpFor might well be expecting this move, and the threat of another ambush hanging over a deliberately light patrol would make anyone nervous. Hug’sh has something he’d like to get off his chest before they’re horribly “killed”, however, so he walks up next to Grey and clears his throat, waiting for the sensors to swivel towards him.

”If you have a moment, Grey Goo Scenario…” Hug’sh begins.
"Yes?" Grey asks, turning a sensor pod his way.
”I just wanted to say, from one soldier to another: you’re doing a great job here,” Hug’sh says, his fur going green. ”I’m impressed.”
Grey doesn't say anything for a few seconds. It's near-to-impossible even for a Wherren like Hug'sh to sense any sort of emotion from the Sheen's shell, but the tone in Grey's response makes it a bit clearer. "Err, hey, thanks," the robot nervously replies. "You, you guys are doing great, too."
”Thank you, I’ll be sure to pass that on,” Hug’sh says. His eyes turn back towards the street and the habs around it.
Grey does the same, retasking that sensor pod to scanning windows in the hab blocks on either side, but then soon turns it back to Hug'sh. "Great, uh, how?"
”You took charge of a bad situation and got it under control,” Hug’sh says, eyes flicking between the street and Grey as he half-turns back to face the Sheen. ”You’ve come up with a damn good plan to deal a crushing blow to OpFor. And the way you turned that prisoner around? Textbook. Couldn’t have done it better myself.”
"Yeah, well, not bad for a situation designed for us to win," Grey replies.
”How do you figure that?” Hug’sh asks. ”I mean, yeah, obviously they’re not just going to crush you on a training op, but this is still hard mode - you’ve got some really devious mentors working to teach you some hard lessons. Don’t get humble on me now, Grey. You’ve earned everything that’s going your way right now.”
"We'll see after we get our point," Grey remarks, and points its pod back towards the windows around them.
Hug’sh nods and turns back to watching the street - and the people on the street that are observing them. The Bashakra'i and Narsai'i working the exercise have grown fairly used to the Sheen by this point, but it's still an interesting occurrence to see a patrol cruise down your street. Hug'sh recognizes one or two of the Bashakra'i, but all the Narsai'i are strangers to him.

After a few more minutes of patrol, they're coming up on the block where their flipped prisoners reported the first tunnel, and Hug'sh has to work to keep the yellow out of his fur.
"I hope this shit doesn't fucking short and explode," Ten Tons of Fun grumbles over the vox in Hug'sh's ear.
”No room for a fuse in your chassis?” Hug’sh asks.
"Technical branch nerds always try to cram in more power, never more margin," Ten Tons replies. "It's always 'an extra ten percent range' or 'we could get twenty meters per second velocity out of it', never 'hey, let's make this shit not explode if you run it for more than thirty seconds'."
”Sounds like a trip,” Hug’sh replies noncommittally, his mind more on the street than the conversation.
"Yeah, in several directions at once," Ten Tons replies.
"Less talk, more scanning," Grey cuts in.
"Copy, turning on deathtrap," Ten Tons replies, and two other Sheen simply copy their orders. Hug'sh flinches as the whine of the radar’s beefy transformers floods the street - which is apparently just inside the perfect hearing range of Wherren, and so his exquisitely-designed, almost-pristine eardrums give him the full opera, while the humans around them don’t seem to hear a thing. ”Fantastic,” Hug’sh mutters.
"Hmm?" Grey asks.
”The good news is I can hear the sets working,” Hug’sh says. ”The bad news is I can hear the sets working. Very well, in fact.”
"Suck," Grey replies.
"Got the edge of the tunnel," Ten Tons replies from the left flank. The other two chime in shortly thereafter - it seems the tunnel runs diagonally towards the edge of the village, and underneath another hab block nearby.
”Good,” Hug’sh voxes. ”Just keep walking.”
"Right," Ten Tons replies. "Fly casual."

In this case, "fly casual" means waiting until the end of the road at the edge of the village to turn around and head back to figure out if it keeps going, or if their intel is correct. As they approach the target, the electrical whine from the devices comes back with a vengeance in Hug'sh's ears, and this time he sees a few other Wherren on the patrol flinch as well. It worms its way deeper and deeper into his head, but he has to block it out, keep his fur neutral, just keep walking and watching. The yellow slowly makes way for brown in his fur as he wills himself away from the annoyance of the radar whine. There’ll be time to joke about it later; right now, there’s a job to do.
"Nothing, nothing..." Ten Tons says in Hug'sh's ear, seemingly trying to outcompete the high-pitched squeal from the radar lodged inside of its chassis for "more annoying sound". A minute of that later, the whining and the voxed repetition cease. "No tunnel. Found some buried cow bones, but no tunnel."
”Good,” Hug’sh says. ”Good enough for you, Grey?”
"Good for me," Grey replies. "Let's kick down the door." It pauses. "If that's what you think we should do, Walks-the-Fire."
”Risky,” Hug’sh says as he keeps walking, nodding to the other Wherren and Sheen to keep up appearances for now. ”If you want my advice: they know we’re here, they’re waiting to see what we do. We could just keep going now, let them think everything’s okay, then we come back later, hard and fast, with a proper raid setup. On the flipside, if they know what we’re going to do, they might use the time to evacuate. It’s your call, Grey.”
"They've blown up a lot of shells," Grey muses over vox. "Including a few of mine. And we all have guns. And the other patrol has found their tunnel."
”Sounds like we’re fighting, then,” Hug’sh says. ”Where do you want us?”
"Kicking in the front door with us," Grey replies. "You wherren fit better inside there than some of us do. We'll circle back around on 'patrol' to give them time to get into position on the other tunnel, do it simultaneously."
”Got it,” Hug’sh says. ”Let’s go hunt.”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:19:58
It takes another fifteen minutes for both sides to sync up their patrol cycles, but now both teams are ready to go. Two trins of Wherren and two of Sheen are with each side, and as the suspect house on their eastern side of the village comes into view again, Grey opens a vox channel to both quads.
“Okay, west end, you’ve got a hab block to enter, so expect that the ground floor has been taken over entirely by insurgents - and maybe even had the walls knocked out,” Grey says over the link. “Multiple simultaneous entry is the name of the game for you guys. Copy?”
“Roger that,” Hal replies, having been given charge of the other quad.
“And Walks-the-Fire, I want you going in the front door while I take my trins through the back, push them into the middle,” Grey says, with a bit of uncertainty creeping into its voice. “Right?”
”Got you,” Hug’sh says. ”You guys react faster than us, so we’ll give the go code, should make for good sync.” He looks over to his troops, who give him a blue-fringed green - nervous, but ready to go.
“Right, right,” Grey says. “You know what, you give the go for the whole op, that makes sense.”
Hug’sh nods. ”Can do,” he says. ”See you in the middle.” With a few quick hand signs, he signals the Wherren to keep it casual - once both quads get a hab away, he’ll signal for everyone to bust ass to their entry points and stack up, get a status check, and then call out for the breach.
“See you on the other side,” Grey replies. “All trins, Walks-the-Fire has command.”
”Copy,” Rodirr grunts.
“Copy,” Hal echoes.
”Low-profile approach, everyone,” Hug’sh voxes. ”Hal, I need a ping when you’re a hab away. On Go-Alpha, I want you to stack up at the doors as quickly as possible and prepare the breach, ping me when you’re ready. On Go-Bravo, we breach. Questions?”
“Absolutely none,” Hal replies. “Let’s ruin these fuckers’ day.”
”Stay safe,” Hug’sh says.

The “patrol” rolls on, drawing closer to the target hab with every step, but so far, it’s all unhurried business as usual, and while Hug’sh watches the people on the street for possible reactions, he just sees the usual uneasiness, with no inkling that their plan is compromised so far.
”Coming up on the site,” Hug’sh voxes. ”Hal, status check.”
“4.73 seconds from one hab away,” Hal replies. “All clear.”
Hug’sh grunts. They’re close to their hab as well - just gotta wait for Hal to be close enough, two more steps…
“In position,” Hal says.
Hug’sh looks to both sides, getting nods from Grey and Khodash, then takes one last breath. ”Alpha, go go go!” he voxes and breaks into a sprint - together with his troops and Grey’s trins, that makes for a few tons of meat and metal suddenly rushing down the street, scattering the “villagers” to the sides. If anything’s going to go pear-shaped in the approach, now would be the time. Hug’sh comes to a stop with a huff as he slides up to the front door, while Rodirr and Hulor quickly take the other side of the frame. Over the confused voices and footsteps from inside, Hug’sh unclips a flash/bang from his gear and pulls the pin.
”Bravo!” he barks, as Khodash pulls the door open for him just long enough for Hug’sh to deliver his housewarming gift to OpFor. One mississippi...and there’s the BAMF!. Khodash pulls the door open again - wide open this time - and Hug’sh rushes in.

Inside the first room, four humans are blinking their eyes and shaking their heads - even the training flashbangs will throw you for a loop. Hug’sh quickly realizes that there’s not going to be much room for the others to follow if he stops and fires his training gun from a safe distance - not so much a problem when you’re fighting paper, but less optimal when you’ve got actual people to worry about. Instead, he does what any self-respecting Wherren warrior would do: make use of his bulk. Leading with his shoulder, Hug’sh aims himself at the nearest opponent for a quick rush against the next wall. The woman tries to dodge out of the way, but her desperate dive just means that she’s in midair when Hug’sh connects, and the blow knocks her over the top of a table and against the wall. The other two Wherren in his trin hustle in behind him, and with a chorus of whaps, the other three humans are “down”. Hug’sh moves to secure his takedown while Kararr, Tarl and Kurr move to tackle the next room. The woman doesn’t resist the flexcuffs - not that she can, given how sparkly clean her clock is right now after that close encounter with a charging Wherren.

Kararr’s kick sends the door flying clear across the room - still could never break him of that - and after a few more whaps, Hug’sh hears something encouraging, and something very discouraging.
“Got a tunnel!” Kararr barks.
”Down!” Kurr howls. ”I’m hit!” Khodash explodes in a burst of yellow and blue at the sound.
Hug’sh grunts in acknowledgement. ”Hold your ground, we’re coming,” he barks, then gathers Khodash and Hulor to follow the other trin into the next room. The rest of his trin follows right behind into the room, and Kararr is indeed correct - a two meter by two meter hole sits in the middle of the room, a tripod and a winch suspended over top to haul heavy gear out of the top. There’s a few humans on the ground, secured or “dead”, and Kurr is with them. Obviously, he’s not actually injured, but his training gear says that he took a shot in the leg.
”Tarl, help Kurr,” Hug’sh barks, covering the door to the next room - where it only takes a second or two for the accelerator fire to stop.
“We’re clear,” Grey calls.
”Copy, we have the tunnel,” Hug’sh calls back. ”Hal, what’s your status?”
"This line is busy kicking ass, call back later," Hal replies.
Hug’sh turns back to his troops. ”Check and ID all prisoners!” he barks. ”I want this hab searched for contraband.”
"Yeah, uh, keep doing what you're doing!" Grey echoes from the other room. The door between the two slides open as the wet slaps of the Sheen goo restraints echo through their side of the hab, and Grey sticks a sensor pod inside. "How are things going in here?"
”We took a hit, but we found the tunnel,” Hug’sh says. ”You?”
"We're down a couple legs, but we're good otherwise," Grey replies. "It's a fucking asshole shopping center in here, take a look." It backs off to let Hug'sh inside.
Hug’sh follows Grey, training beamer bouncing across his chest rig. Inside, there's stacks of boxes with Imperial glyphs on them marking them out as carrying beamers, rods, and explosives - everything you need to cause trouble. Of course, the beamers are all training versions and the explosives are dummies, but even still, this looks far too much like endless midnight raids in the outskirts of Baghdad to Hug’sh, and his fur flashes the same red-blue it did then. ”Gotcha,” he mutters.
"And we have a bumper crop of said assholes," Grey says, motioning to the humans on the floor, but also tasking a sensor pod to look over the other Sheen in the room. "Hey, Grevious, your leg's shot off, act like it."
Grievous Bodily Harm actually bothers to vocalize a sigh, then lifts one of its four legs off the ground.
”What’s the situation with Hal?” Hug’sh asks, still eyeing the stockpile.
"Done now," Hal replies. "They knocked down all the walls on the lower floor, turned it into a all-you-can-blow-up superstore. Got four prisoners, and ten dead bad guys. Lost a shell to a scrambler booby trap."
”Copy,” Hug’sh says, then turns to Grey. ”You got the cleanup?”
Ten Tons extends a cutting torch on an arm from its shell. "Burn it all?"
"No, we'll take it back to the Green Zone and ship back what we can't use," Grey replies. A tentacle-like arm extends out of the back of the shell and snakes down to pick up a beamer, and points it at the wall. "Worst case, we can shoot back with their own guns."
”They might try to take it back,” Hug’sh cautions.
"So, burn it all?" Ten Tons asks again, edging its torch closer to the pile of boxes.
”No, the plan is good,” Hug’sh says, nodding to Grey. ”Just saying that we should expect an attempt to by OpFor to take it back before it leaves the AO.”
"There's a shipment coming in tomorrow, I'll call in to Command that they're going to have cargo on the way out, and we'll put together a work party to get it loaded ASAP," Grey replies. "Hal, I want you to put that party together, all right?"
"Copy," Hal replies. "Double the guard on duty?"
"Yeah, we'll do it during charging shift change," Grey agrees. It looks to Hug'sh. Hug’sh gives him a green-furred nod. "All right, everyone, set up security and wait for backup," Grey continues. "Walks-the-Fire, I could use one of your trins on security, too."
”No problem,” Hug’sh says. ”Khodash, you and Tarl help Kurr on the way back. Hulor, Kararr, you’re with me.”
Kararr grunts. "I suppose guard duty is proper punishment for a job well done."
”You’re a victim of your own success,” Hug’sh replies, with that moment of Ol’ Hugh Verrill breaking through. He turns to the 815 siblings. ”Oh, and Kurr? Shit happens. I’ll see you in the Green Zone and we’ll talk.”
Kurr nods. "Thank you...Walks-the-Fire," he grunts, and climbs to his feet. "I am sorry I let you down like this."
”Don’t worry about that now,” Hug’sh says. ”Like I said, we’ll talk later.”
Kurr nods, and Khodash gives her litter-brother a brief lick before they file out for the walk back to the Green Zone. Hug’sh turns to clap Grey’s shell on the shoulder(?).
”Good work, Grey,” Hug’sh says. ”Next raid’s yours again, right?”
"One of the only things I've done recently that I feel comfortable doing," Grey replies.
Hug’sh nods. ”Not a lot of overlap between warzones and comfort zones,” he says. ”That doesn’t go away - but it gets better. Let’s pack it up for now, all right?”
"I'm comfortable in war zones - it's in my code," Grey replies. "It's being in charge that's weird. Always thought just cutting off heads didn't make a lot of sense, but I didn't expect that I'd be the one actually having to make decisions."
”Somebody has to,” Hug’sh says. ”For what it’s worth - I’d follow you.”
Grey chuckles. "Well, then you're as crazy as everyone else."
”Reassuring, isn’t it?” Hug’sh barks.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:20:42
One of Garrett's favorite things about working on Atea is the informality of the whole affair. Suit and tie never was his favorite outfit, and being able to just wear an airy Bashakra'i tunic and jeans to important meetings suits him just fine, thanks. In fact, that's what he's wearing right now as he walks towards one of the meeting rooms in the command section of Atea, and it's one of the few things that's giving him comfort ahead of this little meeting of the minds. The Sheen and Wherren have both independently come to Garrett in the last few weeks, as the training has wound to a close, demanding a summit between themselves and the Bashakra'i regarding their relative positions in the alliance, and he figured it would be best to get everyone's grievances out in the open at once. And honestly, he's just happy that they're not pissed at the Narsai'i this time.

That's not to say things are exactly copacetic when he walks into the room. Hiigra's fur is a deep red-black, and the Sheen Ambassador's sphere is, well, it still doesn't really emote all that often, but the stony silence with which it hovers next to Hiigra's shoulder still manages to convey a good degree of disquiet. Brinai walks in behind Garrett, dressed in one of her finer shawls and carrying a very patient expression on her face.
"Good afternoon, Ambassador," Garrett says to the Sheen sphere. "And good morning to you as well, Hiigra," Garrett adds with a bow, which Hiigra returns. "And thank you for coming, Brinai."
"Considering I am the one that everyone is here to complain at, it'd be rude of me not to show up," Brinai replies. Hiigra grunts and ruffles his fur at that, and the Sheen sphere remains stock still and blank.
"I think 'complain at' is a bit overly dramatic, Brinai," Garrett says, putting a bit of strain on his voice.
"Yes, yes," Brinai replies. "I apologize, Ambassador, Hiigra," she says with a bow. "I understand that you both have issues you wish to bring to my attention. Please, speak your minds."
Hiigra nods. "Please, speak first, Ambassador," he grunts as he takes a seat.

"Thank you, Chief," the Ambassador says, a face finally appearing on the surface of the sphere, more detailed and life-like than the generic holos generated before. "Brinai, the Sheen understand and appreciate the apprehension and distrust that your people have towards us. Prior to six months ago, the only way that you people and the Sheen communicated was via weapons fire. But now, we are partners in this alliance, and we believe it is time that you remove the scrambler hidden behind your backs, so to speak."
Brinai smiles politely. "What do you mean?"
"We mean the rules excluding Sheen instances from Atea and Bashakra'i outposts unless specifically authorized by you," the Ambassador replies. "As of right now, Sheen are essentially banned from all Bashakra'i installations, and this is not only an illogical circumstance as we approach integrating our fighting forces, but it is insulting to the Sheen after how we have worked to conform to the standards and demands that you humans have placed on us. We have become better for the effort, and think that it is time that the Bashakra'i recognize that like the Narsai'i have."
Brinai shifts uncomfortably for a second. Garrett can't tell if it's from actually being found lacking compared to the Narsai'i for a change, or the idea of letting the Sheen loose onto her station. "Who, exactly, do you want me to open up my station to?"
"The Sheen are more than just soldiers," the Ambassador responds. "We have technical workers, engineers, technicians, even artisans. There are whole branches of the Sheen that are deeply interested in the technical and anthropological aspects of Atea, and we are more than willing to work with your people to improve things for everyone. We want to help, Brinai. Let us."

Brinai stares at the Ambassador for a moment before turning to Hiigra. "And you, Chief?"
"The Wherren have one demand - respect," Hiigra grunts. "I have read many stories and reports from Wherren coming in from across the galaxy, stories of bravery and sacrifice from my people in service of this revolution dating far before we liberated Whiirr- before your people even broke from the Imperium. And yet there are no shrines in our honor, no one speaks of our heroes and their brave sacrifices - we are barely given credit at all, while many of your people still treat us as dumb savages. This is unacceptable." Hiigra's fur ruffles a bright red at that. "I could say that the Wherren are the true founders of this revolution, but what we demand is simply acknowledgement of our sacrifices and our effort - and to be treated as equals, both in sacrifice and capability. The harassment and prejudice need to stop, Brinai, and that can start with you."
Brinai furrows her brow. "I have always -"
"Have you, Brinai?" Hiigra grunts. "Where is the shrine to the Wherren that helped smuggle you and your leadership council off Mia, at the cost of the Turai executing every last one? Or the day remembering the Wherren that have fought and died alongside your agents on hundreds of worlds?" Hiigra ruffles his fur at Brinai as she remains silent. "That is what I thought. Actions, not words, Brinai. I believe that you personally bear no disrespect, but it is time that the Bashakra'i as a whole recognize that it is with our aid that you stand where you are today."

Brinai sighs, then remains quiet for a few seconds. "Is that all?" she asks. Hiigra flashes red and orange at that as the Sheen Ambassador sphere goes blank again, but before Garrett can speak up, she raises her hand to silence him. "I do not mean any disrespect, Garrett, Chief, Ambassador. It is just tiring to hear how poorly others think that I am treating them." She looks to the Ambassador. "Ambassador, consider my concerns - the Sheen are fully capable of penetrating any degree of our security and disabling our systems. Simply having Sheen on our station would be upsetting to many." Brinai then turns to Hiigra. "As for your concerns, chief...I have no excuse. I apologize." She bows to Hiigra before looking back to the Ambassador sphere. "What assurances can I have that your Sheen will not wreak havoc in my ship, Ambassador?"
"The same that we gave the Narsai'i, Brinai," the Ambassador replies icily. "We have proven ourselves to the Narsai'i, we have obeyed your rules, Brinai, but now we want reciprocation. Your suspicion and paranoia towards the Sheen is bordering on insulting."
"It has served us well so far -" Brinai starts to argue back, but Garrett cuts her off.
"But now it's time to put it aside for the alliance, perhaps," Garrett says, then looks to Brinai. "Have the Sheen not done everything that they said they would to cooperate and prove themselves trustworthy, Brinai?"
"Yes, but -" Brinai starts.
"And have they caused problems on Narsai, a planet infinitely less digitally secure than Atea?" Garrett continues.
"No," Brinai answers.
"And you could use their help, Brinai," Garrett says. "Tell the truth, there's a lot that the Sheen could aid you with here. Maintenance, security, and simply adding more to the diversity of this worldship."
Brinai stays silent as she glares at Garrett, her eyes flicking occasionally to the floating Ambassador. "Perhaps," she eventually admits.
"And you wouldn't want to get shown up by the Narsai'i actually being more accepting and welcoming than the Bashakra'i," Garrett adds with a smirk.
Brinai harumphs and glares at him for a few more moments. "Fine," she relents, then looks to the Ambassador. "We will lay out a staged pathway towards full access for the Sheen, Ambassador."
"Soon," the Ambassador replies.
Brinai turns to Hiigra. "And you and I will discuss properly honoring your people as soon as possible."
"Thank you, Brinai," Hiigra replies.
Brinai looks over the table. “And unless there is anything else, I would like to get lunch before we get started on what now apparently constitutes my day.”
”Yes, please,” Hiigra grunts as he stands up.
“This is an acceptable time to pause for refreshment,” the Ambassador replies.
“Ambassador, Hiigra,” Brinai says as she bows to each in turn. “Garrett, with me, please.” The tone implies that she’s not asking.
“Of course, Brinai,” Garrett replies, and follows right behind the rebel leader.

Brinai waits until they’re back in the foot corridor before speaking again. “That was one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had,” she says icily. “Your description of how the Sheen and Wherren felt was not really sufficient.”
“I’m sorry, Brinai, but there’s really no way to have prepared you for this and not had you already on the defensive when you walked in the door,” Garrett replies.
Brinai harumphs again. “I suppose so. But…”
“How long should I expect the cold shoulder for?” Garrett asks with a sigh.
“The opposite, Garrett,” Brinai says. “You have warned me the day when I would have to stop thinking so much like a paranoid leader of a secret rebellion and more like the kind of politicians I detested when I was younger would come - and it seems that day is now. But I am not as adept at these...situations as you are.”
“Oh, Brinai, I...it wouldn’t really be appropriate for me to speak on your behalf,” Garrett protests, trying to head Brinai off at the pass.
Brinai stops in her tracks and gives Garrett a mischievous smirk. “That’s never stopped you before, Garrett. Maybe I won’t be sending you to negotiate with the Narsai’i, no, but for things like this? I’m no good at it, I’m too damn old to be griped at all the time before I lose my patience and need to just blast something. Bello’s too cautious and paranoid - and we need him to stay that way, and Onas would probably just open up with blasting something. You, on the other hand, you I trust to have your head on straight with things like this - Masters know you seem to actually enjoy it somehow. So, you listen to the complaints, bring what you think should be done to me, and we’ll work to implement the changes.”
Garrett rubs his arm uncomfortably. “I...suppose that wouldn’t be too bad.”
“Good!” Brinai says. “And your first job is to go back in there and get things hammered out with the Sheen and Hiigra.”
“But - hey!” Garrett protests.
“Have fun, Garrett,” Brinai says with a twinkle in her eye as she turns back around. “I’ll bring you something from the noodle bar.”
punkey 2014-07-21 13:21:00
It’s rather late by the time Garrett manages to extricate himself from the negotiations with the Ambassador and Hiigra. An official holiday and a half-dozen shrines and dedication speeches are planned for places to be determined around Atea in places of prominence and honor - including one in the same park as the Bashakra Memorial - to honor the sacrifices and bravery of the Wherren species in service of the rebellion, and a six-month plan to slowly roll in Sheen inhabitance on Atea, starting with low-access Sheen such as artisans and cultural observers at first, but eventually allowing for the creation of slots for Sheen at the highest levels of access, down to the reactor cores themselves.

Of course, with so much detail to be worked out, Garrett stayed well past his scheduled Gateway back to Mesas Negras and his wife and daughter. A concerned - and annoyed - vox from Ngawai a half-hour later lead to a hasty decision: dinner and sleep will be take place on Atea tonight. Garrett hustled over to the Gateway to meet his wife and daughter a half-hour later, and then it was off towards the arcade near the command deck for dinner.

"Aikoro'i looks good," Ngawai says as they walk through the bustle of people shopping and perusing the various restaurants for dinner. "I could use something more green after eating at the Mesas Negras dining hall."
"How about Allipes'i, then?" Garrett replies, one arm up underneath Naloni's sling. "Bit more spice with some darker greens and scrofa instead of spink sounds better to me."
"Hmm," Ngawai wonders as they both come to a stop in front of the restaurant - Valley Floor according to the glyphs glowing dark green above their heads.

Which leads directly to Ngawai almost being run over by a tall, thin man as he hustles out of the door, bags of groceries in his arms. "Oh! Excuse me," Bello says, then stops. "Hello, Garrett, Ngawai." He bows to the couple. "Good evening."
"Ah! Good to see you, Bello," Garrett says, returning the bow as best he can with Naloni slung across his chest.
"And thanks for not running me over," Ngawai adds as she returns the bow.
"Again, many apologies," Bello says. "What brings you to Natau Arcade?"
"Dinner," Ngawai replies. "Garrett got held late doing Brinai's dirty work with negotiations, and so we decided to make it a night over on Atea."
"Hmm," Bello says, and thinks for a moment. "I was going to reduce this recipe down for one, but I have the materials to make it for three. Would you care to join me for dinner?"
Garrett and Ngawai look at each other. "Well, I wouldn't want to impose -" Garrett starts.
"It wouldn't be an imposition at all," Bello replies. "I have known you both just long enough to trust you, and Brinai has been needling me to be more approachable to our fellow leaders. So, please, I insist."
"All right, Bello, we'd be happy to join you," Ngawai replies, and Garrett nods as well.
"My skimmer is in the lot a few stops down," Bello replies with a gracious bow. "Please, follow me."

Garrett looks to Ngawai as Bello walks past them; they both shrug at each other and follow the Bashakra'i spymaster through the arcade. His skimmer is, unsurprisingly, a basic closed-top model, if slightly older than expected to Ngawai's eyes. The ride to Bello's is short, but just long enough for both of them to pick up on just how both uneasy the secretive man is with taking even two of his friends back to his berth. As they arrive, the door to Bello's garage next to his berth - a rare luxury - rolls up as the skimmer turns over to autopilot and easily makes the tight turn into the garage.
"Here we are," Bello says as he steps out. "Please, come inside and take a seat."

Garrett and Ngawai follow Bello inside, and the first thing that strikes both of the trained operatives is that, well, Bello's place is pretty different. Instead of the prefab powder-coated metal and plastic, Bello's berth is all wooden furniture, covered in leather and made with a crafting touch. It's actually far more familiar to Garrett than it is to Ngawai, reminding him of some of the nicer offices he'd been in back on Narsai. As they move into the kitchen - a more conventional section of the berth than the living area - the contents of one wooden cabinet in particular catch both of their attention: a collection of books. Real Imperial books, printed on paper - a pretty rare sight in a society where everything is digital. Some of them are worse for wear than others, and a few even have visible scorch marks and gouges in the covers, but there's still a whole cabinet filled with them.
"Ah, yes, some of my most prized possessions," Bello replies. "Leftovers of my life before the burning of Bashakra. I still like to spend some of my free time reading through them when I can. There's something more meditative about holding an actual object in your hands."
"I've never actually heard you talk about your life before the Imperium attacked," Garrett says. Naloni decides she's had enough of daddy time, and starts to fuss and cry and reaches for Ngawai, so Garrett hands their daughter off to his wife.
"It's in the past," Bello replies as he unpacks the groceries. "Obviously, I no longer hold the position that I once did, and so it is not worth mentioning." He puts the last of the greens down and sighs. "But I suppose that it is fair that you ask, and as fair that I answer. I was a literary professor - Bashakra'i classics were a specialty, which make up the bulk of my collection."
Both Garrett and Ngawai's eyebrows go up at Bello's response. "That...was not what I was expecting," Ngawai replies as she slips her tunic off of her shoulder to clear the way to feed Naloni.
"Contrary to Imperial propaganda, not all of us were born soldiers and rebels with chamakana in our cribs," Bello replies as he begins to prep the greens. "The Bashakra'i are a proud people with a rich history, and it was my job to instill an interest - and maybe even love - in the classics of literature created by and about our people. The natural beauty of our home has inspired many writers since even before Vidas Lam's forging of the worlds into the Imperium, and..." Bello sighs. "And especially since that the Imperium have burned much of our world to ash, the descriptions in those books," he points to the cabinet with the knife in his hand, "the descriptions of our verdant forests, the words inspired by our soaring mountains and broad plains, the tales of our world the Imperium stole from us are all we have left!"

The knife in Bello's outstretched hand wavers as his voice cracks and face contorts with emotion, and it's only after a second of staring at his books that Bello turns back to his prep work. "And there's more than a few good stories in there - and stories of my own associated with them." He looks over his shoulder to Garrett and Ngawai at his dining table. "I can recommend a few books for either one of you, if you would like."
"That would be lovely, Bello," Ngawai responds as she adjusts her support for Naloni. "I'm more of a Ikuni Teamta reader, but perhaps I could stand to have a bit more highbrow reading."
Bello chuckles. "Nothing wrong with reading something entertaining - I've read a few serials in the series, they're better than most." He piles the greens into a plastic colander and starts to rinse them in the sink. "I am not above serials myself; they pass the time while I wait for contacts."
"So, how did you fall into your current position?" Garrett asks. "Certainly there must be a story in there."
"Nothing much to tell," Bello replies as he takes his knife to more vegetation. "After the evacuation, the remnants of the Bashakra'i Turai went from refugee camp to refugee camp, recruiting to rebuild our forces and create the core of a resistance to strike back. I, rather upset at the barbaric annihilation of my home, volunteered, and was placed in the intelligence service. It turned out that navigating the petty internecine warfare of academia transferred well to the world of covert action and intelligence gathering, as well as the rather ugly period of internal squabbling over who should run the resistance, and I rose through the ranks through merit and survival. Brinai and I were...more entangled than we are now, at the time, and so when I was made to choose my allegiance within the resistance, I threw my lot in with her. She made me her intelligence chief, and after we emerged victorious, I became the de facto master of Bashakra'i intelligence operations." He smiles as he pours a measure of red oil over the leaves. "I dare say that she would not be here today without my aid."
"I'd gathered that you and Brinai have a past, but I'd never heard anything from either of you about it," Ngawai says.
"It's in the past," Bello replies as a warming box with slices of cooked scrofa flank is cracked open, releasing a plume of water vapor. "We were involved, on-and-off, for a while, but we were not what you call a good couple. We agreed that it would be for the best if we just close the door on that part of our lives, which is why we don't speak about it particularly often."
"But you still care about her," Ngawai replies.
"Of course," Bello says. "Just as she does me, but, for the good of the resistance, and ourselves, we keep things as they are."

Garrett nods, and looks to Ngawai with raised eyebrows as Bello puts the finishing touches on the meal. She returns the look as she finishes cleaning herself and Naloni up after her meal, and slides her wrap back over her shoulder. "I have to say, Bello, it's odd seeing you being so forthcoming," Garrett says.
"Well, one cannot live a life of total secrecy with everyone they know," Bello says as he carries the platter to the table with the finished meal on it. Strips of scrofa and colorful vegetation lay on top of a bed of dark green leaves, washed and dressed with a spicy oil turned red and piquant by the infusion of spicy fruits. It looks as good as it smells to Garrett and Ngawai. "It is nice to tell my story to a select few, so long as they know well enough to keep my secrets."
"Sure thing, Bello," Garrett says.
"Of course," Ngawai replies. "You won't have to worry about killing us to seal any leaks."
Bello pauses for a long moment, then smiles as he fills his own plate from the platter. "No, I suppose not. Like I said, you've proven yourselves trustworthy. Please, eat."
Garrett and Ngawai both laugh at that, but they also wait for Bello to take his first bite before they do the same.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:23:27
After a long day in the middle of nowhere in the hot desert, even the climate-conditioned and perfectly padded interior of a set of Turai armor starts to feel more than a little confining. Even still, Arlana Quis is a Samal, not some rookie Turai, and so before stepping into her hab at Mesas Negras and tracking dirt and dust inside, she seals up her helm one last time and hoses herself off out in the quad, rinsing off all the dust and debris that the day deposited on her pristine carapace. Shining and bright in the overhead lighting of the hab block, she reaches through her front door for a towel kept there, wipes her carapace off, and steps inside.

The door clicks as the lock engages behind her, leaving Arlana alone in her hab for two. The few boxes of their personal belongings she and Ody brought with them from Hedion still stand in a corner, a lifetime of memories and mementos reduced to a few plastic containers. Other than that, it's mostly just prefab furniture, a mix of Narsai'i and Naranai'i decor slapped together by the Narsai'i/Bashakra'i construction teams that erected the habs in the first place. Arlana sighs as she carefully places her carapace back in its case and charging station and closes the lid, then, still in her skinsuit, faces one of the few pieces of furniture not original to the hab - a grav-field resistance exercise device. With the early start to the day and the remote location, Arlana hadn't had time for her usual morning workout with her daughter, so an abbreviated evening session here in her skinsuit would have to do. Her hair still pinned back in a tight bun, Arlana does a few stretches in her skinsuit before attacking the exercise device with a quick six-rep squat set to warm up.

Forty-five minutes later, Arlana finishes her last set of resisted sit-ups, her abs burning and taut through her skinsuit, now thoroughly soaked with sweat even in the dry desert air. She peels it off in the middle of the living area - no one here to see anything, after all - and hangs it up next to her recharging carapace before walking into her room to change into something more airy for the night. A nice flowing gown, tan like the desert sands of Hedion, and a darker brown wrap over her shoulders that blends perfectly into her flowing brown hair, flecked with streaks of grey. One last stretch works out some of the soreness from her triceps and lats leftover from a particularly intense set, and then it's to the chiller for a bottle of "wine", a Narsai'i fermented fruit juice. The seal pops out with a twist, and then, glass in hand, Arlana takes a seat in the living area, her gown flowing to the ground around her, her transformation from Samal to mother of an empty nest complete.

And that nest feels particularly empty tonight. With Arketta so busy with the training, and Ody thousands of kilometers away, the nighttimes alone have worn particularly hard on Arlana. She sighs, and takes a drink, wishing that her husband could be with her on this sofa right now, instead of building a village that's already seen more interference from the Narsai'i outside than she would like.

Still, there is one way that she can bridge the gap. With a wave of her hand, the holodisplay on the wall shimmers to life, and the time in the corner lets Arlana know that it's just about the right time to make her connection with Ody.
"Connect to Ody," Arlana orders as she curls up a bit deeper into her seat, glass of wine held in both hands. The display blinks "Opening Connection to: Ody" for a few moments, before the display is dominated by a very tired-looking Ody, seated at his own dining table in his temporary village housing.
"Hey, lahnai," Ody says with a smile.
"Hey yourself," Arlana replies with a matching smile of her own.
"How was your day, love?" Ody asks as he takes a sip of some hot Narsai'i beverage.
"More desert, more training, more shouting," Arlana replies dismissively. "Arketta handled most of it, I was just there to keep the little spinks in line and provide support where I was needed." She sighs happily. "She's growing into a proper Samal in front of my eyes, Ody."
"Just like her mother," Ody replies. "You know that I couldn't be more proud of you both, showing the Narsai'i and Bashakra'i how things are really done for the Turai."
"We're just doing our duty," Arlana replies sheepishly, running a hand through her hair as she takes a sip of her wine. "It's you that we're both proud of, Ody. Tell me how the village is coming along."
Ody leans forward and takes another sip from his cup. "Well, the services layer finished running the last route today, so the whole village is run for water and waste. You should see it, Arlana, there's row after row of little flags marking the hook-ups down nearly every street. The Narsai'i and Bashakra'i working hab erection are starting to get a flow going, we're seeing a two-story hab block go up every six hours or so, with another day per for finishing. The last of the materials for Mr. Kesh's offices arrived today, so construction on that can start to ramp up, and I'm getting the designs from the Bashakra'i for all of the civic buildings by tomorrow. The Gateport is almost complete, and they're turning on the Gate replicator tomorrow. I expect that we'll see a few changes here and there, but barring any serious setbacks, I think we'll be done with Stage One by the middle of next week."
Arlana just smiles as Ody excitedly rattles off the benchmarks of his progress. "It all sounds amazing, Ody. I can't wait to fly out to see it all - and see you again."
Ody sighs, his smile staying wide. "I can't wait to see you too, lahnai. I miss you. I've got a hab all picked out for us, right off of the main street. It's a nice, quiet neighborhood, and..." Ody sees that Arlana's smile has faded a bit at the mention of him making plans to live in the village. "What's wrong?"

Arlana takes a drink and stares into Ody's eyes before speaking again. "What if we don't move to the village?" she asks cautiously.
"What do you mean?" Ody asks. "We've been looking forward to moving here for months now."
"I mean, the Narsai'i have been a lot more hostile than either of us were expecting," Arlana says. "I've read the reports - they try to intrude and attack the convoys supplying the village site a few times a week, and that's not going to stop when the village is up and running. The Narsai'i are going to be a problem, and if a bunch of them get through -"
"But they won't," Ody replies. "The Narsai'i military have a whole bunch of soldiers here, not to mention the Bashakra'i Kansat patrolling inside the city. This is going to be the safest settlement on the planet, Arlana. And besides, I'll have you here to shoot anyone who tries to mess with us, right?"
Arlana smirks at that. "You just like it because you built it."
"You're damn right I do," Ody says with a smile. "I'm proud of this place, Arlana. Broadcast power, full vox communications, elegant layout of water inflow and outflow, and a perfect flow from home to work to shopping and back again. It's a village that anyone would be proud to live in - us included. And it's going to be safe, Arlana. The Bashakra'i are putting the perimeter sensors out for a mile in every direction - they'll know long before anyone even gets close. And in case things somehow get too bad for them, the Narsai'i stationed here are the good ones, the ones like yours, Arlana. We've seen what passes for Narsai'i cities, Arlana. You know this is the best option."
Arlana sighs. "I know, it is, but...I'm just worried. Worried about Narsai in general."
"You're worried that we made the wrong choice staying on Narsai instead of going somewhere else," Ody says.
"Yeah, I still am," Arlana admits.
"Well, let me tell you, with all the love in my heart, lahnai - you're being ridiculous," Ody says plainly.

"What?" Arlana asks, almost knocking over her glass.
"Think of all that we've accomplished here, Arlana," Ody says. "You and our daughter have reconnected in a way that you've never had before, doing something you both love - being soldiers. Do you think she'd have been able to do what she's doing without you? She's leaning on you every step of the way. And don't try to say that you haven't loved every bit of getting to be a Samal again."
Arlana smiles. "Maybe that's true."
"I know it is," Ody says. "And being one of the lead construction engineers on Narsai beats being an evaporator foreman any day, believe me."
"And I'm proud of you, too," Arlana starts, but Ody keeps going.
"And yes, the Narsai'i are a little crazy, and a little racist, and a little backward, but, lahnai, we were going to be murdered on Hedion," Ody says. "Remember? The Steward plotting to kill us, and the Imperium spying on our every move? I think that you'll agree that some upset locals is better than that."
"Perhaps," Arlana concedes.
"And, really, don't you believe in what the Narsai'i believe in?" Ody asks. "The good ones? Fairness, equality, freedom, things like that? Haven't you wished for those things for our daughter and the whole galaxy? I know you have, and I know I have, too. This place, it isn't perfect, but...it feels like home. Doesn't it feel that way for you, too?"

Arlana sighs, and buries herself deeper into her wrap as she slides down into the chair. "It does, it does." She wraps her arms tightly around herself. "It's just...I worry for you, lahnai. I worry for our daughter, I worry for Luis, I worry for all of us. After all we've been through to be back together...I just want to know that everything will turn out all right. And I can't know that with everything that's going on here." She blinks away a few tears. "I just want everything to be perfect for our family, and I can't make it be that way."
Ody smiles, and moves in to hug her image before remembering she's on the other side of the continent from him. "I know, I know - my Samal wants to protect everyone. But there's some things not even you can beat and shout into shape, lahnai." They both chuckle at that. "But this feels right to me, staying here."
Arlana sighs, and takes another drink. "Then I say we stay here." She smiles at Ody through the vox. "You've never put us on the wrong course before."
"I have an amazing woman showing me the way," Ody replies. He leans forward and kisses her floating image. "I'll see you soon, lahnai. I love you so much."
Arlana puts her glass aside and climbs out of the chair, her gown flowing down around her as she walks up to his image and returns the kiss. "I love you too, lahnai. Good night, Ody."
"Good night, Arlana," Ody replies, and the connection ends.

And Arlana is left alone in her hab for two once again. She sighs, brushes her gown down with her hands, and polishes off her glass of wine. Leaving the glass in the sink, she walks back to the bedroom and strips down before sliding into a cut-down skinsuit for the night. She curls up into bed, grabs Ody's pillow and holds it in a tight grapple, her strong arms giving it a big squeeze as she buries her face in it before she relents. The pillow is released but kept close as Arlana lets out one more sigh and allows herself to fall asleep.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:34:50
Zaef stepped back and leaned against the workbench, taking a swig of water from the bottle. He glared at the engine sitting on it’s block, practically a pedestal of pig iron. So far the inspection hadn’t turned up any major defects...aside from suffering from being a sub-standard piece of crap. It hadn’t stood the test of time well: the headers flow like clogged arteries, the carburetor wasn’t much better, the wiring was burnt out(almost literally, as his nose could attest), and a host of other, small problems that arise when you don’t take proper care of your shit and leave it out in your lawn for decades.

He glanced down at the blueprints for guidance, namely knowing what a non-fucked-up engine actually looks like, and noticed the time on the vox. An eyebrow goes up. Kitty usually got back around a half hour or so, and would stop by to ask about...well, just about everything. She’d even pitch in with the car, if she could, and she usually could. Of course, Kitty also got incredibly wrapped up in her own work, as well. If she was in, Zaef figured he’d see what she was working on. He doubted he could help if needed, but it never hurt to ask.

When Zaef knocks on her door, it’s a few seconds before Kitty’s voice sounds from the other side. “Ohmygosh. Sorry! Sorry, sorry, sorry…” she says as she runs towards the door, which she flings open with a smile and a peck on Zaef’s cheek. “Hi, Zaef. I’m so sorry, I just got so wrapped up in all of my research that - hey! I could show you what I’m proposing to do right now! Come on!” She grabs him by the wrist and leads him into her apartment. Zaef trails dutifully along behind as Kitty leads him to her kitchen table, covered with paper notes and her plus-sized holodisplay. “So, I’ve been researching Naranai’i fitness technology to see if there’s something that can help me get ready to go back out there, and I had no idea the depth of research and advances that had been done!” She grabs a stack of notes and hands it to Zaef. “Personalized hormone treatments! Side-effect free muscle growth stimulants! Individualized micronutrient diets! Muscle exhaustion metrics to optimize development cycles! There’s literally nothing left to chance!” She swipes across her holodisplay and brings up a rather...comprehensive list of procedures, treatments and products that she presumably wants to do to herself. “So, I’ve put together a regimen from all available resources - meaning mostly Kesh Pharmaceuticals - and I think that I could be strong enough to join you out there in six months!” She looks over to her master plan and sighs happily. “What do you think?”

Zaef looks enthused and slightly relieved - at first. As he scrolls down the list - indeed, notices he can scroll down the list, his cautious smile turns upside down and his brow scrunches. “Kitty, this is...an incredible plan, and it would make you strong enough to bench press the car. But, uh, no side effects is, ah, bit of a lie.” He pauses, bites his lip almost imperceptibly. “Truth be told, I did some - not all, oh no - of the treatments and procedures listed here when I was in the Arena. It was...I was capable of only short bursts of energy throughout the day, and after that, I was done. I would sleep for about 13 hours, give or take, for every few hours of training.” Zaef turns his head to look at Kitty. “And you wear out quick, because when you train like that, you burn every last bit of energy your body has. The meals were enormous piles of mush, and I mean enormous, and you wolf it all down because you feel like you’ve been starving for days. And then you go right back at it after you put all that down, because you’re so full of energy and you just have to do something. A lot. And really angrily.”
Kitty looks crestfallen. “Oh. So, I wouldn’t have time to do research. Or work on the car with you.”
Zaef shakes his head, though he smiles at the last one. “No, you would have about six to seven hours conscious, and it’d be all training. Now, if you decide to make putting the engine back in the car part of the training, I’m sure we could work something-” He snorts derisively. “Oh, who am I kidding, I can’t joke about this. I am glad you’re looking at some of the Imperial advances, though.” Zaef pulls out his vox, presses a few ethereal buttons. “See, I’ve been piecing together a schedule for you too, during my lunch breaks during the joint training.” There’s a ping from Kitty’s holo. “There isn’t much on it yet. I don’t get lunch too often, anymore. But I’d been thinking about using some Imperial techniques and treatments, and I just wasn’t sure how’d you feel about it. They’re not quite as drastic as some of the stuff you were considering, but they work fine, and they won’t burn you out. They just take more time.”
“Oh!” Kitty swipes Zaef’s shared file open and looks it over. “Yes, this looks...more reasonable.” She smiles at him. “Mind if I…”
Zaef nods, smiling, and pulls up a chair next to her.
She turns back to the display without taking a seat of her own, the display just projecting a virtual keyboard for her. “Just going to replace this muscle fatigue monitor with the most recent model, change the hormone mix a bit, and swap in this nutrient pack...done!” She turns to Zaef. “What do you think?”
Zaef looks it through, and keeps his smile this time. “Very tight. I’d space out the regimen more in the beginning, allow a more gradual change. Less fatigue, less chance for injury. But it’s a fine plan, even as is.”
“Great!” Kitty throws herself at Zaef, who catches her in his big, strong arms. “I’ll place the order tonight.” Her eyes go wide as she looks up into Zaef’s. “Oh! Oh, one second!” She puts her hands on his chest and pushes herself off of Zaef, just as he had started to wrap his arms around her. Zaef manages to shake his head, sigh, and chuckle all at once as Kitty prances - yes, literally prances - off into her room. “Something came in the mail for us…” she calls in a sing-song voice.
Zaef sits up straight. “Already?”
Kitty walks back into the room, and takes a knee in front of the seated Zaef, a big smile on her face. “Now, let me do this properly this time.” She pulls a hand out from behind her back to reveal a small black hinged box, and cracks it open to reveal a brightly polished silver-colored ring - actually made of pure platinum. “Zaef Utari, will you marry me?”
Zaef opens his mouth, closes it, stares a Kitty for a second, then picks her up and kisses her. When they break for air, he says, “That was a ‘yes,’ in case you were wondering.”
“Maybe I was!” Kitty says with a devious grin. “But you can’t put it on just yet.”
Zaef cocks his head to the side, raises an eyebrow.
“We have to work on the car!” Kitty says. “Wouldn’t want to get your shiny new engagement ring all covered in oil, would we?”
Zaef’s face splits into a grin, and he fills the room with his belly laugh.

“Come on!” Kitty says, dropping the boxes onto the table and leading Zaef, still laughing, out the door by the hand. The door locks itself behind them as she leads him down the stairs and out towards their garage, where she finally comes to a stop over the iron lump that Zaef was working on before. “So, what’s today’s project? Strip the engine, pull the heads?”
Zaef nods. “Yes, let’s see how much more of this piece of crap needs cleaning.”
“Okay!” Kitty walks over to the toolbox with Zaef, as she supplies them both with what they need to crack the nut open.

Tools now in hand, they both sit down in front of the engine and start loosening the bolts holding the various accessory drive bits onto the front of the engine. Kitty leans up against Zaef for a moment after she pulls the alternator off of the engine, and sighs as she simply rests her weight against his, enjoying his warmth and the sensation of his skin, while Zaef loops one arm over her, pressing himself against her while still working on taking off bolts. Kitty doesn't move, just maneuvers her hands to get at the power steering pump as they work arm in greasy arm.
"Can't wait until we're doing this on our ship," Kitty whispers.
“Neither can I,” Zaef whispers back.
Kitty pauses just long enough to plant one more kiss on Zaef's cheek, then goes back to work.
punkey 2014-07-21 13:35:48
With Sheen and Wherren quads all over transporting the hoarded weapons back to the Green Zone and sealing up the tunnels, this leaves the interrogations of the captured insurgents to Hug'sh and Grey. Hug’sh takes what he feels is a rather efficient route through the testimonies of “his” prisoners, but when he walks out of the interrogation room, Grey’s already waiting in the hallway.
”They were tipped off just minutes before we attacked,” Hug’sh says. ”This was the only tunnel, but they’ve got reinforcements coming - lots of reinforcements. Looks like they’re upgrading from sabotage to siege. What did you get?”
If robots had facial expressions, Hug'sh is pretty sure Grey would be beaming at this moment. "No warning on the eastern tunnel," Grey says. "So, that clears Igeo and Tano. Which just leaves Maron."
”Where is he now?” Hug’sh asks.
"No idea," Grey replies. "We'll take it to Luis, see what he knows."
“You need me?” Luis says, walking in. “Just talked to Command, and confirmed we’re getting transport for everything you picked up. What’s the word from the prisoners?”
”No more tunnels, but OpFor’s gearing up for a big move outside the village - they’re not packing up, they’re going all out,” Hug’sh says. ”And we have a mole - probably Maron.” Grey just continues looking as smug as a faceless robot can look.
“All right,” Luis says. “We’ll need to bring that up to Hana. Any news about the details on this big move? What, where, how much they’ve got to do it with?”
Grey takes a moment out from being smug to shift about nervously. "They didn't provide a lot of detail but...it sounds like it'll be twice as big as the last one. The raids and the failure of their last attack seems to have convinced them to go all-in."
“Then we have to keep these tunnels sealed,” Luis says. “If we can force them to make a conventional assault on our prepared perimeter, we can maybe hold them off, but not if they can get past our lines and into the town again.”
”We can collapse the tunnel, and we’ll know if they’re digging new ones long before they can break through,” Hug’sh says. ”I’m concerned about the firepower OpFor will sling our way. If they’re going to assault the village, we should try to get the civilians away from the outskirts where the fighting will be heaviest. I hope they’ll be on our side and listen to Hana when we reveal exactly how dangerous our enemies are, and what they’re prepared to do.”
"Uh, hate to be the one to mention the obvious, but we barely survived the last attack," Grey says. "And no insult to the Wherren, but I doubt that even with your help we'll make it through a bigger attack. We need reinforcements, and we need them bad."
”Any word from command on that?” Hug’sh asks, turning to Luis.
“The word is ‘soon’ but not specific,” Luis says. “We have an advantage over last time, though, if we don’t have them in our rear areas. If they come in time, we’ll use them, but otherwise, we’ll hold with what we have.”
”If we can get the outskirts evacuated, we can defend in depth,” Hug’sh offers. ”My Wherren excel in skirmish warfare. Let the enemy come and wear themselves out against one defensive line, then suck them deeper into the village, where they’ll have to go street to street - lots of lanes for flanking movements, lots of ambush opportunities. I don’t know if we can beat them, but we can damn sure make them pay for every step.”
"Yes, but I think that not dying might be the best option," Grey says. "Hug'sh - Walks-the-Fire, I mean, you get your people ready to defend for the moment, but leave me a trin. I'll task Hal to join you, and I'll lead a trin of my people and a trin of yours, and we'll go with Luis to talk with Hana and get this Maron situation sorted out." It looks at Luis and Hug'sh with two different sensor pods, waiting for acknowledgement of orders, not approval - it seems when shit goes down, the Sheen robot is more than willing to step up.
”Sounds good,” Hug’sh says.
“Let’s get to it,” Luis agrees.
”Well, I got work to do, then,” Hug’sh says. ”Catch you later.” Hug’sh wanders off, his mind already filling with ideas on how to turn the village sim into a fortress.
Grey turns to Luis. "You ready to get screamed at?" it asks.
“It won’t get any easier for being delayed, so why not,” Luis says.
Grey nods. "Then let's go see Hana."
punkey 2014-07-21 13:36:03
Hana is sitting in the shade provided by the front flap of her tent, fingers waggling away at a holodisplay. She looks up at Luis and Grey as they approach, glaring at them through the display. "So?" she asks expectedly.
“The raid was a success,” Luis says. “We found both tunnels, and we’ve seized them. We found our mole, too.”
Hana sighs. "Who have your baseless accusations come up with?"
“We only found serious preparations waiting at the tunnel we told Maron about,” Luis says. “That’s strong evidence he’s our leak.”
"Hmph," Hana says. "And do you plan to get more evidence before you round him up and execute him?"
"Hey, no one's executing anyone," Grey protests. "We're gonna go arrest his ass and ask him some questions, because there's no way he's in charge of all of this shit."
"Oh, really?" Hana asks skeptically.
"Yeah, really," Grey replies. "Once more, for the eighty-sixth time, we are not the bloodthirsty monsters your Imperium has told horror stories about. Not anymore. And, he can't be in charge, because he was already here when the attacks started. Unless you guys have had a bunch of insurgent assholes waiting around for an excuse to blow things up this whole time, he joined up with whoever's responsible for turning this place upside-down and shaking it."
“Which leads to its own questions,” Luis says. “Like why. We’re not going to execute him, we just need to find out what he’s up to. And we need to find out fast, because that’s not the only thing we found out.”
Hana's eyes narrow. "What else did you hear?"
"There's a bigger attack coming," Grey replies. "A much bigger one. Twice the size of the last one, at least. They're giving up convincing us to leave through attrition, they're just gonna roll up and try to push us out - and they're not going to care who gets in the way."
"That is...bad," Hana says. "So, shall we go and confront Maron, then?"
"Uh..." Grey says.
Luis looks her in the eye. “He’s yours. How do you want to handle this? If we take the lead on it, it could just make people react...about like you were.”
"I would give Maron a second chance," Hana says.
“And how would you suggest that?” Luis says. “We can’t trust him.”
"I trust him," Hana shoots back.
"And we've proven pretty well that that trust is misplaced," Grey replies. "Face it, Hana, one of your friends has tried to have you killed."
Hana is silent for a good long while after that.
“We have enough that we need to bring him in and find out what else he’s been up to,” Luis says. “My question is if you have any preference in how we do it.”
"Gently," Hana simply says.
Grey nods. "We can do that."
“Would you be willing to help us with that?” Luis says. “Having you along might help us keep it peaceful.”
Hana nods. "All right. I want to see his face when you accuse him for myself."
Grey bobs its sensor pods. "I can respect that. Let's go."

Fortunately, the walk to Maron's hab isn't too far, and therefore doesn't give Hana time to change her mind. Maron doesn't wait for them to walk inside; he barges out the front door. "What the fuck do you think you are doing, kicking down doors with just a minute's warning -"
Luis and Grey’s weapons come up, and lock onto Malon. "Stand back!" Grey barks. "Hands up where we can see them, Maron!"
"Whoa!" Maron says, and looks to Hana. "Hana, they're going to kill me!"
"No, they're going to arrest you, Maron," Hana replies. "Because you are working with the insurgents."
“Stand down, and come quietly,” Luis says.
"Hana, are you really going to believe them -" Maron starts.
"We only told you one of the places we were going to strike," Grey says. "And that was the only one of the two that was defended. We got you, Maron."
Maron sighs. He doesn't say anything else, he just gets on his hands and knees and puts his hands behind his head. Luis zipties Malon’s hands, then gives him a quick frisk. He finds a stinger tucked into the back of his pants, and removes it, then stands him up.
“All right,” Luis says. “Grey, we’re taking this guy in. I want a trin here as soon as you can to go through this hab for anything he might have left.”
Grey bobs. "Already on it." It takes up position in front of Maron. "Let's get our new friend back to the Green Zone and see what he has to say for himself."
punkey 2014-07-21 13:36:17
With Luis occupied with searching Maron's residence for any further proof of his involvement, the job of interrogating Maron falls to Hug'sh and Grey. He's swiftly transported - "carried" might be a more accurate term, as he was hefted onto Grey's back - to the hab block detention center and put in the interrogation room with a bottle of water and told to wait.

Outside said room, Hana climbs underneath Grey's bulk, currently taking up the whole width of the second floor balcony, and gives both Hug'sh and Grey a harsh glance. "I will be watching this, yes?"
”Indeed,” Hug’sh says. ”Make yourself comfortable, this could take a while.”
"Heh, I certainly hope so," Hana says with a smirk. "Outside of this place? He's my husband." Her smirk widens. "Don't go too easy on him, he didn't tell me he was a bad guy either."
Grey shakes its sensors.
”He’ll talk,” Hug’sh proclaims confidently.
"Good," Hana says. "I mean, I will be watching your every move to see if you tear his arms off!" she shouts. "Now, go." She waves Grey and Hug'sh into the room. Hug’sh gives Grey a “fun times” wink, then pulls the door open, letting Grey make his entrance.

Grey enters as calmly as an eight-foot tall four-legged battle robot can, ducking under the doorframe and casually walking across the floor. It’s an entrance that almost makes Hug’sh looks small, until he walks up to stand beside Grey, both towering over Maron. Hug’sh smiles and turns his head toward Grey without taking his eyes off Maron.
”Shall we?” he asks.
"I think we shall," Grey replies. "So, Maron, we have two trins turning your house upside down. We've got your vox, and the contents have been uploaded to a computational branch for cracking - should take a few hours at the most. You're cooked, Maron. Done. There's really just one choice before you at the moment, and that's how long do you want to sit in that detention center?"
Maron gives Grey a sideways look - this was not the tack he was expecting. Hug’sh stays impassive, fur a flat brown as he looks down at Maron. "What do you mean?"
"Well, what I mean is that people get traded out of detention centers all the time when things go wrong," Grey says. "But they don't just let anyone go. If you cooperate, give up the leaders here, show some remorse about blowing up my Sheen? You'd end up on the "to be traded" short list right away." It takes a step forward. "But you say nothing? Well, I hope you like living in detention centers, because you're never leaving the inside of one ever again."
Hug’sh watches the emotions on Maron’s face, the layer of fake defiance slash fear over real...pleasure? Yeah, Maron-the-training-officer is eating this shit up, while Maron-the-character’s stonewall looks a little crumbly. And to think Hug’sh thought he could spot liars when he was human...
"Well..." Maron starts, then pauses to think. "That's not true! I'm very important! I won't be inside long no matter what you do?"
Grey chuckles. "Buddy, you're not even close to a big deal. This village is the extent of your little world, while we're dealing with assholes that make shit rumble on multiple planets. No one in this little League of Assholes is coming to save you. None of them give a shit about you. If you want out of this, you're gonna have to self-rescue. Which we are willing to help with."
Grey’s getting through - Hug’sh sees Maron’s chin sink in a reflexive mini-nod as he concentrates on keeping the expression on his face frozen. "Look, we've learned pretty much all we need to know from the outside players your boss has brought in - they all talked, and they all got shipped back to the detention center." Hug’sh notes that the detention center makes for a less effective threat when Maron perks up at the thought of getting to leave the training scenario desert behind, but of course character-Maron has to be intimidated, which is acted out a moment later. "So, all we want to know about is one thing - when is the second attack on the village? Where will they strike from? Where are they gathering?"
That actually surprises Maron - for real. Even Grey can read it. "What attack?"
Grey pauses, and then laughs for a few good seconds. It's a bit disconcerting when he doesn't actually move with the laughter, but the audio sounds genuine enough. "Holy shit, they didn't tell you, did they? Oh man, that does not bode well for your village. They're attacking - here! Again! They're done with our shit, and they're coming to just blow us all to hell - which I guess we can say means you and anyone else who gets in their way now. Probably gonna just push everyone out that they don't shoot dead in the street and take over the whole village themselves." Grey turns to Hug'sh. "That sound about right, Walks-the-Fire?"
”Sounds exactly right,” Hug’sh says. ”I mean, think about it, Maron. Think about how much manpower, how much equipment these guys are packing. When they beat us, there’ll be no one left who can stand up to them. After all the trouble they went through to take over the village - do you really think they’ll just leave when we’re gone?”
"No," Maron says. "No, I do not." He leans back and sighs before looking back at Grey. "I did all of this for my people. You have to understand that. I did it to protect them, from everyone."
Grey steps up to the other side of the table. "And I get that. But you...you picked the wrong side, buddy. But now you can help us kick the asses of the real bad guys. Just tell us everything you know."
"All right," Maron says. He sucks in a deep breath, and breathes it out again. "He's the spraycrete guy - name's Hunter."
Hug’sh nods. ”Go on.”
"He lives in a hab on the north end of town," Maron continues. "He's probably got a few beamers and stingers in his hab, but that's all I know.
Hug’sh turns to Grey. ”Do we have a patrol in the area?”
Grey nods. "I can have them watching his house as soon as Maron gives us an address."
"Bahu 11," Maron says.
"And it's sent," Grey says, and looks to Hug'sh. "Want to help get the guy that's made our lives miserable?"
”Ohhhhh yeah,” Hug’sh says, flashing a green-ringed smile.
Grey nods its sensor pods, and the two turn to leave. "Oh, and…Grey Goo Scenario, right?" Maron says.
Grey stops and swivels a pod back to Maron. "Yeah?"
"Good job," Maron says, and takes a drink of water. "Damn good job."
Grey actually stands up a little straighter at that. "Thank you," it says, and then ducks down to walk out of the door.