Angel hasn't had a chance to get off his vox all day - counting the Boranai'i day. Orders keep on coming in from Boranai, almost 10 million lats so far. His vox pings once for a message from Barnes on payment and establishing his corporate presence on Earth, and once more for a message from the Sheen.
"Specialist Riviera - or Kesh, as you prefer," the Sheen Ambassador says in the message, "it has been communicated to me that the construction of the training grounds at Mesas Negras have been completed to our joint specifications. We are anxious to begin joint training in conjunction with the Narsai'i - however, it has become apparent to us that it might be most prudent to postpone bringing over the various shells the twenty Sheen will be utilizing throughout training until this situation with your government has been resolved in our favor. If it is at all possible, a final review of the training curriculum and grounds with myself and the Sheen that approved this plan before training commences would be ideal. Thank you for your prompt reply."
Angel bounces from yet another cat-nap back to work, listening to the message from Barnes first. He's handled more money over the course of the last hour than his parents - or him up until very recently - had any expectation to see in their lifetime. It's more than a touch stressful. Still, the news is mostly good. The lag between the government paying Kesh Holdings and the money he needs to get the Boranai supply chain moving again is irksome, but nothing more than that. And he is getting paid - the contract was signed by people who will, for better or worse, not be affected by GRHDI going under.
He fires a quick vox message back. "Thanks Samantha, I appreciate you helping set things up. One more thing - any chance I could get a vetted list of potential hires forwarded to me? I need a goddamned secretary."
A little more thought goes into his reply to the Sheen. "Ambassador - Lets stick with Riviera. I'm glad to hear the training grounds are finished, but I agree that it might be a good idea to wait to begin until certain political matters are settled. I don't want the Sheen to be drawn into anything more than they have to be. I'd be happy to go over the protocols and ground with yourself and any other Sheen you wish, at your convenience."
Sending that off as well, he pours himself his third cup of coffee today. "That? Just the kind of thing I need a secretary for."
Hugh saunters into Angel’s living room, taking in the decor and freezing in place for a second or two as his eyes strafe the gargantuan holodisplay. Welp, I know whose Superbowl party I’m going to, Hugh thinks. Boxes stacked throughout the room hang open, displaying ruinously expensive Hedion’i clothing and kitchenware. The weapons - and Hugh is pretty sure Angel’s brought a few of those - must be buried out of sight. He spots more boxes from a glance into the bedroom. That aside, there’s some Army furniture, but most of it is still vac-packed by way of Arketta and will likely not see the light of day anytime soon. Hugh takes a step forward, and his trained ears can immediately tell that the floor near the entrance sounds “off” - another consequence of their little collective prank. Hugh doesn’t want to know how long it took to rip out all that linoleum.
By now, Hugh’s been standing in Angel’s apartment for more than a few seconds without saying anything, and the whole thing starts to tip into weird territory when Angel looks at him. Hugh puts on a smile and says “Hey, Angel,”, hoping to segue this little moment into an actual conversation.
Angel’s smile is genuine. “Sir.” He stands, giving Hugh a comfortable, easy salute. “Want a beer? Or something more exotic? Gorlan sent something over - fermented from some kind of fruit I can’t for the life of me pronounce. It’s good though - like hard cider and whiskey got together and had a torrid love affair.” As he stands, he idly clears the information on Kesh Holdings and the Sheen from the desk with a wave of his hand, more to make room than anything else.
“Sounds good,” Hugh says. “I suppose we’ll both want some hard liquor in our bellies for what I’m about to ask you.”
Angel nods, pouring both of them a fairly generous glass, setting both on the table over cheap coasters pilfered from god-knows-where. “Going to make me guess?”
Hugh takes his glass and raises it silently, waiting for Angel to join him in a sip. “That’s pretty good,” Hugh opines. “Angel, I’m here to ask you to lend me a gun.”
“Glad you like it.” Angel takes a thoughtful sip. “I take it this isn’t the kind of gun you can just walk into the armory and check out? And that your reasons don’t involve finding out if Imperial ballistic correction software takes all the sport out of duck hunting?”
“Correct on both counts,” Hugh says. “I really hope I don’t have to use it, but...I would be lying if I said I’m not about ready to go lone gunman if things don’t start looking up with the DoD.” He takes another sip. “You know about Bob Russell. Well, I’ve turned this thing around in my head a couple of times and at the end of the day I just don’t think we can outmaneuver the bastard effectively. I’ve got a lead on someone within the DoD, but that might be a trap and even if it isn’t I’m kind of just waiting for the other shoe to drop on that. So I’m thinking, worst comes to worst - I’m not getting mired down in Spy vs. Spy bullshit with him when we’ve got a lot of other shit on our plates that needs doing. I’ll take the bastard out and be done with playing his game.”
Angel sets his glass down, his expression one of obvious concern. “And you want me to provide you with the gun you intend to use to kill a U.S. citizen and a Federal employee?”
“That’s what I’m asking, yes,” Hugh says. “Figured it’s better for both of us if I don’t bullshit you about any of this. I hope it doesn’t get this far, Angel. Believe me, I want to outsmart that man for once, and I’ve got something else cooking that should serve that purpose without bloodshed. But I’m not going to keep letting him monkeywrench everything we do on Earth. This is the one move I’m sure he can’t counter.”
Angel taps his fingers thoughtfully on the edge of the table. “Sir...that’s treason. The lone gunman doesn’t normally get the hero edit at the end of the movie. You do this, it’ll land you six-feet under, and I’d put good money on the rest of 815 in prison, at best. Yeah, it might buy us some time, but if that comes undone, it comes undone hard.”
Hugh sighs. “I know.” He looks at Angel. “But I’d rather go down than watch that man sabotage everything we’ve fought for out here. When all else fails...well, you got a better idea?”
Angel takes a very long sip of his drink before nodding. “I do Sir. First, the answer to your question is no. I’m not an arms dealer.” He holds up his hand to halt whatever protest is building up from Hugh.
“You let Davis and Barnes play their hand. Then you let me play mine - I don’t even exist to Bob Russell, but I’m one of the richest men on Earth. If an oil company can get a nice desert war kicked off, you can sure as hell bet I can tie him up with a couple senators.” He sets his glass down. “And then, and only then, do we play it your way. But you’re not the one who does it. You get your ass safely off to Whiirr or wherever. You get the team out too. You’re a good man Captain, and not all that impressive a shot. If someone kills Russell with one of my guns, it’ll be me.”
Hugh smirks. What can you say in response to that? He pounds the rest of his liquor and puts the glass back down. “Thank you for your time, Angel. And for the drink.”
Angel nods. “Any time Captain.”
Hugh rises from his seat and taps the side of his leg with his fingers. “I really hope you don’t have to take that shot,” he says.
“So do I Sir.” He allows himself a slight chuckle. “Davis will come through. Hair brained schemes have almost killed us half-a-dozen times, high time one worked properly, without gunfire at the end.”
“Yeah, let’s hope,” Hugh says. “You have a good one now.” He makes for the exit, head awash in thoughts. Well, you’ve got your own harebrained scheme to take care of, Mister. Not so happy that Angel wants to fall on that sword - but then again, if somebody has to kill Russell, might as well show that we care by sending the best. Doesn’t matter what goes down as long as it gets him out of our way.
Hunter settles into the same table at which he held his interviews not too long before, though it seems more distant after walking between worlds. The moleskine is there, and his vox, as well as his laptop full of old correspondence and numbers. It’s time to make some calls.
There's a palpable split in opinion among the officer corps about GRHDI. It's hard to tell what the rough proportions are, but the "they're a bunch of alien-loving fifth columnists" faction is more vocal, and assumes they have support from above. There's a bit of open support among the COIN circles, but it's mostly silence from the people Hunter expects would make up their base. People aren't looking to go on the record and make enemies over it. It's hard to suss out over the phone anyhow, as it's the kind of thing one would more easily discuss in a safe environment, possibly after a drink or two. That doesn't stop them from asking to see if Hunter can get them an off-world visit.
The perception of things on-the-ground is pretty good. People hear that things on Whirr and Boranai are good; maybe a little too good, since even a couple of his COIN contacts actually believes the "sparse worlds" theory.
Only one of them has met Dyer, describing him as "some new guy at JSOC" he briefly interacted with on official business. A LinkedIn page is fairly spare and nondescript, as are the West Point records he traces back. Dyer graduated in the upper portion of his class, and his subsequent service record is classified. Most likely a ghost-hunter.
Hunter's contacts in the intelligence community are even more circumspect. They're very quiet, changing subjects after brief non-answers. They're not just CIA quiet, either; It's obvious that whatever pressure in the military there is to crush the GRHDI, it's even stronger in the CIA.
Reflecting on the relative paucity of independent off-world information sources, Hunter also shoots off an email to one of the reconstruction and development NGOs he's done work with, inquiring about the possibility of bringing a team out, with Barnes cc'd. It'd be great to get some people on the ground on Whirr.
That all done, he sets up the last and final call of the day, and for him the most important. After figuring out the new UI for Skype that the Sheen had helped hack together and exchanging a couple of chats, Hunter sets it in motion.
The face of a 20 year old girl - woman, Hunter reminds himself - appears on his vox’s holodisplay in front of him, her black hair pulled back into a ponytail as she’s framed by her dorm room bunk in her NROTC exercise sweats. Next to that, a younger man appears, sitting in front of a bay window and the New England sky. “Hi, dad,” Harold Brand says.
“Hi, Sir,” Kaitlin Brand echoes. Both kids smile at seeing their father.
“It is so great to see you.” Hunter smiles. “Grades are good?”
“Yes, Sir,” Kaitlin replies. “Got an A in Issues in Global Politics and Modern Political Theory, and I’m almost packed and ready for OCS.”
“And, well, I graduated, so there’s that,” Harold adds. “I got accepted for the Southeast Asia semester abroad program, too. Thinking about flying out next month and spending the summer doing aid work and getting used to Thailand.”
“Outstanding on both counts,” Hunter says. “OCS can be a drink from the fire hose but you should be alright. I’m sure your conditioning is in good shape but the best advice I can give is to learn how to get good rest in short periods. Meditation, catnaps, music, whatever gets you away and into your own place. Hal, I think going to Thailand could be a great idea. While I’d be be a hypocrite to lecture you about not getting into dangerous situations: be careful. I know it’s not your first time in a foreign country, but it might be your first time as a legal adult. I’ll talk with some of the aid groups operating in the north with the Karen, though. It’s good work and good people. If you really like it and you want to take a gap year, I’ll support you one hundred percent. I am so proud of you both.”
“Thanks, dad,” Harold says. A woman’s voice sounds off-screen. “It’s dad, mom.” The voice again. “Mom says hi.”
“Give your mother my regards. I hope she and Charles are doing well.”
Hunter’s ex-wife says something else off screen. “Yeah, okay, mom,” Harold says. “Dad, I have to go, Mom needs my help. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll– I’ll be here.” Hunter sets aside the dismay, recognizes the reality of whose house Harold’s in, and focuses on the time he has with his kids. I swear, I was there for his graduation a few weeks ago, and he looks older. “Tell me about your classes, Kate. What grand theories are the International Relations professors cooking up about the Imperium this week?”
Kaitlin’s eyes light up. Ever since the first real details about the Imperium were made public, Hunter’s daughter has focused on learning as much as she can about them. ”All the action is going to be out there soon, so I might as well already be an expert when I get there,” she had told him. “Well, Sir, I ate lunch with Professor Macklin in his office on Thursday, and the big thing in the Poli Sci department this week is this Congressional hearing on the GRHDI. What have you heard about that? Have you had time with your work in the Sudan?”
Hunter opens up a great big grin. “Actually, it’s funny you should mention that. Don’t spread it around, but you’re looking at the new expert witness for the defense. I’m on Diego Garcia right now.”
Kaitlin’s mouth drops open. “Shut up.”
“If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’, kiddo. For the past 72 hours, I’ve been eating, breathing, and sleeping GRHDI and off-world culture. They move fast over here; I’m just back from off-world. Gate travel is, well, something I’m getting used to.” Hunter refrains from dampening the excitement with extensive descriptions of the gastrointestinal.
“What do they have you doing?” Kaitlin asks breathlessly, having forgotten all about proper addressing. “Have you met Samantha Barnes? Where did you go?”
“Ms. Barnes asked me to take on the job. Technically, I’m an independent consultant here to observe 815 and GRHDI, see how they work, and deliver a broader conflict-assessment, but who knows what the upside is depending on the hearings. I was on Atea and Boranai, getting a look and seeing how things are going. The Imperium is definitely bigger than ‘a couple dozen sparsely populated worlds,’ or whatever hogwash they’re pitching.” Hunter’s excitement doesn’t quite match Kaitlin’s but it’s close. “This could be big. The odds are pretty good that ‘the Brand report’ is something people could be citing in papers fifty years from now. It’s totally uncharted territory, and I’m the cartographer. And actually...what’s the rest of your summer look like? Maybe Barnes could use an executive assistant...” Hunter suggests, lips curling into another smile, knowing he’s just poured gasoline onto a fire.
Kaitlin gasps. “Ohmygod. Dad - I mean, Sir, I have a month left after OCS. If you could maybe speak to Director Barnes, I mean, if it’s not going to get you into trouble, Sir...”
“I’ll see about it,” Hunter says. “I can’t make any promises, particularly if the Powers-That-Might-Be decide that it’d be better to let DoD run the show, but I can definitely put in a good word. I couldn’t think of anyone better for the job.”
“Right, it’d be hard to get work experience with an agency that doesn’t exist anymore,” Kaitlin says. “Thanks anyway, Sir.” She sighs. “I should focus more on OCS. It can’t be worse than last summer at MWTC, I think. Just one more year and I go from Midshipman Brand to Lieutenant Brand.” She smiles at her father. “Seems like a long time ago.”
“Lieutenant Brand is not a bad person to be, take it from experience. Of course, I was still an NCO in officer’s clothing then. Every once in a while I would forget, and chew someone out hard.” Hunter looks at her with an appreciation for the career she has lying in front of her. “Maybe one day you’ll get to be General Brand, and you can wheel me out for the Victory Day parades over the Imperium.”
Kaitlin gives her dad a mischievous smirk. “What if I get married? Then you’ll have to share the stage with my husband, and I might not be General Brand anymore.”
Hunter returns the smirk. “First off, thank you for using an ‘if,’ and not a ‘when.’ I promise not to scare your suitors too badly with collections of machetes from third-world countries. Second, getting married’s no reason to change your name. It’s a fine name, and you’re going to be a strong self-reliant wife who enters into a partnership of equals. Besides, what happens if you fall for someone with a name like Maitlin?”
Kaitlin laughs. “Fair enough, Sir.” She sighs. “I’m really excited about OCS, Sir. I’ve wanted to be like you for as long as I can remember, and now, I’m getting the chance to actually become like you.” She gives Hunter a warm smile. “I promise, I’ll make you proud, Sir. I’m going to be the best damn officer the Marines has ever seen. Before you know it, I’m going to be out there with you, promise.”
“Speaking as a father, that scares the hell out of me. Speaking as a father and a Marine, I couldn’t be prouder.” Hunter’s eyes are a little moist. He’s not sure if she can see it, but after a second of reflection, doesn’t care.
Kaitlin gives Hunter a warm smile through the connection. "Thanks, Sir - Dad."
Harold sits back down in front of the camera on his end of the line. "Hey, sorry, Mom just needed some help unloading groceries. What'd I miss?"
"Nothing," Kaitlin says, a smile still on her face. "Just more Marines stuff."
"Right, thanks for sparing me that," Harold says. "About the aid stuff, I've been talking with a guy who does work with USAID in Thailand, he said he's already got me a spot, but thanks for the offer."
“Good on you. Just make sure you get some time outside the embassy bubble. Let me know if you need anything.” Hunter says, his smile slightly muted.
"I will, Dad. Thanks for the offer." Harold takes a drink from a can of soda. "Hey, do you know anyone who does Doctors Without Borders or other stuff like that in the country?"
“Son, I know a lot of people who do aid all over the place. If you can write me out an email asking for information that describes what you’re looking for, but demonstrates what a polite, curious, and hardworking young aid-worker-in-training you are along the way, I’ll definitely plug it into my friends. I mean, I could tell them how great you are, but I think I’m biased.”
Harold laughs. "All right, I'll do that. Thanks. How are things in the Sudan?"
“Well, it’s kind of a long story, but I had to wrap up the South Sudan work up early. I explained it to your sister, and will leave it to her discretion when it comes to details. Surprising developments, but good ones. We can talk more about it next week.”
"Dad got hired by Samantha Barnes to work for the GRHDI!" Kaitlin shouts excitedly. "Isn't that awesome?"
Harold's eyebrows shoot up at the news. "Holy shit, wow," he says. "Did you get to see any aliens yet?"
“I have indeed, though I’m not sure that they’d call themselves that. But yes, I think the sooner you can figure out Whirr-sign, the sooner you could get out there on the ground doing outreach to populations that have never gotten help like that before.” Hunter’s eyes sparkle. “It’s a whole universe out there, and we’re a small but feisty part of it. The word of the day is Narsai’i, that’s for sure. It’s what everyone else calls us. We might well have to get used to it.”
Kaitlin nods and mouths the word a few times. "Nar-sai-i. That's the Imperial word for people from Earth?"
“That’s right," Hunter says. "It’s got a lot of different connotations that I’m trying to fully figure out, but basically we’re the lost homeworld for this whole star-spanning empire. Every once in a while I have to look around and pinch myself to make sure I’m not the main character in a bad science fiction novel.”
"Cool," Harold says. There's another sound from off-screen on Harold's end of the call. "Hey, Mom wants to talk to you, Dad. Good talking with you, and thanks for the help."
"I should get going too, Sir," Kaitlin adds. "Thanks for the advice."
“I love you both very much, and I’m very proud of both of you. And keep the letters coming; it’s a dying art after all.” Hunter waits as Kaitlin smiles, nods, and signs off. “Alright Hal, put your mother on. Do you know what she wants to talk about?”
"Nope. Later, Dad," Harold says, and stands up. "It's all yours, Mom."
Harold walks around the camera and an brown-haired woman about Hunter's age sits down in front of the laptop. "Hello, Hunter," Jen says. "I heard that you're working for the GRHDI, now. I hope you're staying safe."
“I hope so, too. We haven’t seen any action so far, but I’m doing fieldwork with 815. I promise you I won’t do anything stupid.” Hunter replies. It’s a promise he’s given her many times before.
Jen furrows her brow at that. "Are you sure that's a good idea? I've been hearing some bad things about Task Force 815 on the news. I don't know if it's a good idea for you to hitch your wagon to them, Hunter."
Hunter sighs, “You know how the news is, Jen. They’re not war criminals, and they’ve been a lot closer to the enemy than any of us have, for a lot longer than any of us have. I’m still trying to figure them out. They’re definitely carrying a lot of baggage. I don’t think they even realize they are. But they’re outstanding human beings. Well, outstanding beings, anyway.” Hunter corrects himself, thinking of Swims-the-Black.
"Well, I don't think it's such a good idea," Jen chides, "But if you think it'll be all right, then I'll leave it at that. I'm just worried about you, Hunter. The Sudan was one thing, but..." Jen reaches for the right words and fails to find them, "...out there? In the galaxy? Isn't that really dangerous, with all the aliens that want to kill us?"
“Not all the aliens want to kill us, Jen. Most of them are just normal people like you and me. As for the ones who don’t...” Hunter pauses. “They’re coming, whether we like it or not. We’ve got about thirty years to get ready, and every day counts. If what I do and what I know can help keep us from going off in a wrong direction, I have to help. We’re all looking down the barrel, Jen, all seven billion of us. It’s just a lot longer and slower than most of the ones we deal with.” Hunter has tried to keep a certain reserve in dealing with his wife since the divorce, but his eyes show the accumulated worry and fear of the last 72 hours.
Jen nods. "All right, I believe you. Just be careful, okay?"
“I will.” It’s a familiar script, repeated in Kuwait, Haiti, and Kuwait again, but with less of the cocksure spirit and devil-may-care confidence of earlier years. “In more down to Earth matters, I saw your message about what Hal’s school is going to cost over four years. Talk about sticker shock.”
"It's expensive, but Charles has already volunteered to pay into the fund that you and I set up for him, so it shouldn't be a problem," Jen says.
“Oh, it’s not as if you and I won’t be able to pay for it, and we agreed that money would never stop him from going where he wanted. I’m just an old grump who wonders how much it really costs to polish all the Gothic architecture they’ve got.”
"Well, it turns out the best East Coast colleges are pretty expensive when you don't let the Marines have their way with you once you're done," Jen says pointedly.
“I don’t see anything wrong with trading an education for service to the country that made that education possible, but this is an argument we’ve had too many times before," Hunter says. "Hal is going to get an education that’s very different from mine or Kaitlin’s, and I’m happy to pay for it. I just hope he makes the most of it, and comes out of it ready to change the world on his terms. But if he becomes an investment banker, I think I’m going to have that midlife crisis I’ve been planning for a while.”
Jen rolls her eyes, not wanting to get into another "what's wrong with a career that actually makes real and consistent money" argument. "Well, good luck with your new job. And again, the next time you talk with the kids, could you at least try to talk to them about calling Charles 'Dad' once in a while? For me?"
Hunter purses his lips, holding back ill-advised words. Finally he speaks. “It’s the least I can do for all you’ve done holding down the fort. It’ll probably be easier when Hal’s out of the house. Maybe they can start with some other nickname of endearment and work up to it?”
"It's just really important to him," Jen says. "He's told me more than a few times he wishes they would call him 'Dad' every once in a while. Try, okay?"
“Okay. I’ll try.” Hunter has a welling in his chest, but it’s no time to inject his own ego. His eyes are sincere, though. But with a slight smile turning up at the corners of his mouth, he adds, “After all, we’re all modern adults here, we live in a country where it’s becoming perfectly acceptable for kids to have two dads.”
Jen shakes her head. "Jesus, Hunter. Why do you -" She stops herself from arguing with her ex-husband.
“I get it, I get it," Hunter says. "I’ll talk to them about it next time. Really, I will.”
Jen purses her lips and decides against bringing up how many "next times" there has been. "All right. Well, I have to get going, Charles and I are going to take Hal out shopping for some of the things on the equipment list for Thailand, and apparently he needs a few hundred dollars in immunizations for this trip."
“All right, take care. If you send me the list of immunizations, I can see about putting it under my Tricare. We’ll talk more later.” Hunter looks at her. “I appreciate all you’re doing, Jen.”
"It's fine, Charles can afford it on his insurance," Jen says. "And thanks, Hunter. Stay safe, okay?"
Hunter smiles wanly, and Jen clicks out the connection. Methodically, Hunter records detailed notes in a separate, smaller moleskine, and stares out the window for an interval that might be considered awkward if anyone else were around. Finally, he takes a deep breath, packs his bag up, and walks out the hangar door into the afternoon light.
After a few hour respite to unpack, shower, take care of personal business and repack for DC, the entire lineup of Task Force 815 is waiting at the Diego Garcia airstrip for the customary C-130 transport plane back to the mainland - save Zaef Utari (whose message you all received before he left), and Garrett Davis and Ngawai Lea Holoni. Also conspicuously absent is the C-130, which is clearly visible off to the side of the runway's tarmac, but is decidedly not sitting on it, ready and fueled for takeoff.
Swims-the-Black stands next to the terminal, and inhales a brief sea breeze deep into his sinuses. He's dressed in his standard color-shifting vest, Imperial pants and Narsai'i sandals. After taking care of finalizing his statement to the Congressional committee and sending it off, Swims worked off some nervous energy at the gym and simply relaxed watching Narsai'i TV in his cabin.
Angel sits at a table nearby, his automated luggage standing at attention next to his chair as he sits in yet another ridiculously expensive tailored Hedion'i suit. In a more utilitarian case on the other side of his chair resides one of his Imperial rifles, his new sidearm in its holster at his side, and inside his luggage resides a pair of straight black fatigues.
Hugh shows up fashionably late - emphasis on fashionable, as his multicam fatigues have clearly gotten some amount of TLC, not to mention his fresh haircut and clean shave. He's munching on a small pack of elk jerky, which smacks of buying the most expensive snack they were selling at the base exchange, and seems to be in good spirits overall. He nods to Angel and makes his way to Swims, reaching up to clap the Wherren on the shoulder in a perhaps overly familiar way. "Hey, Swims. We haven't talked in a while, how are you doing?"
Swims-the-Black smiles, not willing to give up his prime position in the breeze just yet. "I am fine, thanks. I have submitted my part of our statement to your Congress, and the news that General Bolton and the Boranai'i Kansat are looking after the Wherren on Boranai was a pleasant surprise." He turns to look at Hugh as the breeze dies down. "And how are you doing? Did you get your answers on Boranai?"
"Yes," Hugh says, leaving it at that. "Nice breeze here, isn't it. "Yes, but I believe we are supposed to be leaving soon, yet I see no plane," Swims says, looking around.
"Worst case scenario, we can always swim," Hugh quips.
Swims chuckles. "I suppose so. You wouldn't happen to know where Garrett or Ngawai are, either, would you?"
"I don't, but seeing how they're both missing," Hugh says, and flashes a smile. "Well, you know."
Swims' fur ruffles against the breeze as a blue and yellow wave rolls over him. "Garrett implied something similar, but that was over an hour ago. And...err...well, one learns things about someone you share an office with if you're paying attention. They should be...done by now."
"If the gateway's a-rocking, don't come a-knocking," Hugh says. "I guess we could drag them away from their pre-matrimonial duties, but I doubt it'll speed up getting the plane ready. When we're seated and they're still fucking, that's when I'll get annoyed."
After the meeting at the Gateport breaks up, Luis finishes checking his messages before heading to the Sheen’s hangar about Hugh’s encryption scheme. The first message is Yisai's, and is delivered in her usual monotone-- but with a familiar tone rather than a dismissive one.
"Luis. Looking forward to seeing you next week for exercises. We got confirmation of your Interceptor being directed to our hangar. Lucky you, one of the v1887's. I attached a picture to this message. Wear something thin and flexible next time."
The attached image, which Luis pulls up in a portion of his overlay, shows a pristine Interceptor hanging from a gantry inside one of the Boranai Needleships. Luis grins at the picture for a moment, but then puts together a quick response.
“Yisai, looking forward to being there next week, assuming DC doesn’t go horribly wrong. Can you send me any useful data on the v1887, particularly in comparison to the model I was last time?”
After sending that message, Luis checks the message from the hacker Sheen, and is glad he did before going to see him.
“Hey, Luis. Just wanted to let you know that I've been keeping tabs on a few things for us. First, I've been monitoring New Horizons communications - they know they got hit, they don't know who or how, and they're pissed about it, so, triple word score there. Secondly, badass job at Congress. Twitter blew the fuck up over you and Captain Verrill.” Luis is smiling, pleased at the mention of New Horizon’s reaction to their intrusion and the public reaction to their efforts in DC so far, but the message continues. “And last, I know you're going back to DC for the big finale soon. I just want to say, 'be careful'. There's a lot of crazy floating around out there right now, and...well...it would suck if you got killed. I mean, who would I have to experiment on? So...stay safe. Later.” Luis’ smile fades at the concern in the Sheen’s voice. Sarcastic, smart, scarily good, these are words Luis would have used to describe his friend. Despite the usual sarcastic words, the worry in them is touching.
When Luis reaches the hangar, he uses one of the side access doors and heads for his friend’s workspace. The Sheen’s carapace is sitting on the table, powered off with lights down. Luis walks over, and raps lightly on the table near the carapace. “Hey, man. Got a few minutes?” he asks.
“Hey, Luis!” he hears his Sheen friend shout from behind him. Something stomps over to the table from behind - it’s a massive Sheen shell, with two articulated mass accelerator cannons on the back, four smaller mass accelerators on top of the central disc, and six huge legs that look like they could pick up the chair Luis is sitting on and crush it to splinters. “How do you like the new look?” The central head’s five eyes suddenly glow bright red. “I WILL DESTROY YOU HUMAN - Hah! Just fucking around, finishing running diagnostics on this shell. What’s up?”
Luis grins. “Well, for a moment I was wondering if I needed my eyes re-calibrated, but I came because I have a tech compatibility issue I’d like to run past you.” Luis pauses for a moment. “Oh, and...thanks for the support. It means a lot.”
“Yeah, no problem, man,” the Sheen says. “Just give me a moment.” He sits down, the legs folding upwards to allow the central disc to rest on the floor of the hangar, and then the lights go dark in the head. A moment later, the Sheen’s usual shell on the desk lights back up and skitters around on its own legs to face Luis, its tail in the air. “Ah, that’s better. So, what do you need?”
Luis turns from the massive carapace to the Sheen’s usual one on the desk. “I’ve got an encryption issue, trying to get something going that Hugh can use on his vox but will work with some guy at the Pentagon who we’re feeling out.”
“Sure, just some Narsai’i encryption. Shouldn’t be that hard, we can get it done in a day or two,” the Sheen says.
Luis nods. “Yeah, I figured that, I just was thinking about how to get it running on the vox, especially since we only have a few hours.”
“Oh.” The Sheen skitters back and forth for a second. “Well, shit. It just has to work, yeah? Doesn’t need to be pretty?”
“Yeah, it can be as kludgey as needed as long as it works,” Luis says.
“Then fuck yeah, let’s get on it,” the Sheen says. Luis’s vox pings in his ear as a notification window appears on his peripheral vision, asking if he’d allow the Sheen - who is simply identified as “Sheen friend” - to connect. It reminds Luis of something else, and he pauses before accepting the connection.
“Before we get too into things...it’s pretty clumsy to just tell people ‘I know a Sheen’ whenever I have to explain who I’m going to for tech support. Would you be okay with me calling you Flynn?”
“Flynn, the character from Tron, or Flynn, the character from that Disney movie Tangled, or Flynn, what the kid on Breaking Bad calls himself?” the Sheen asks.
Luis blinks. “I was thinking Tron,” he says. “How is it that the robot knows more about pop culture than I do?”
“Not taking full advantage of that vox attached to your brain, Luis! Torrent some TV shows or something and watch them on the flight to DC,” the Sheen says. “Plus, that whole ‘collective memory’ thing that we Sheen rock is pretty great. But yeah, Flynn is fine. Tron was cool.”
Luis nods. “Yeah it was. How’d the new one turn out?”
The Sheen - Flynn - shakes itself. “Pass.”
“Dang,” Luis say, and accepts the connection request that’s still floating in the corner of his vision. “Shall we, then?”
A window opens in Luis’ vision with a second blinking cursor inside. “Let’s do this,” Flynn says.
Luis sits at one of the tables near Angel, half-watching the plane distinctly not being prepared, the rest of his attention focusing on a set of schematics comparing the v1887 Interceptor and the v1872 that he was on Atea. It’d arrived from Yisai with the message, "Glad to see the interest. Good sign for an Interceptor. I've marked some of my favorite parts. - Yisai” and several highlighted sections. Right now Luis is examining the primary power distribution stepdowns of the two versions, comparing how the power network balances between the engines, weapons, avionics, and tertiary systems like life support. Yisai had pointed it out, and the specs clearly indicate that the revised configuration is more efficient and produces less waste heat, particularly during low-power use like cruising between burns, but Luis’ level of Imperium technical knowledge isn’t quite enough for him to really grok where the new version is getting the savings, just that it does.
When Hugh shows up and begins talking to Swims, Luis shakes his head and clears the schematics from his overlays, after adding the distribution network to a list of things to ask someone about, and goes to join them. Stepping up at the tail end of a Whirr-sign exchange that looked like something about Davis, Luis asks in Imperial, “So, did they cancel our flight and I didn’t get word?”
Arketta gets up from the small stack of bags that Luis and she have assembled. "What are we waiting for? Is Zaef really not coming?" she asks. Most of the couple's bags are packed with clothes - Luis brought a few spare suits and more work-friendly outfits, while Arketta is forced to wear her only dress-appropriate outfit, her US Army dress uniform, after their attempts at buying off the rack in DC only lead to frustration over the annoyingly short average height and slight build of Narsai'i women, with the rest of her clothes - all fatigues, t-shirts and a suit of body armor - packed in her bag, cushioning her beam rifle, two .45 pistols, and plenty of ammunition, spare magazines and beam rifle rods.
Swims nods. "He seemed quite determined to leave when he stopped by our office and told Garrett and me," he signs, and then makes a huffing sigh. "It is frustrating, but if he felt it was necessary, I don't think it's our place to stop him."
Zaef walks around the small engine room, double-checking everything as he goes. The reactor’s connections were good, the impeller matrix was receiving power, and the commands from the bridge were clear as day. So why was the damn thing listing during tests? Power was being shunted in equal distribution; why was it veering left?
Zaef walks over to a small crawlspace just under the gravity controls,pulling some cables out of the way and hoping the man who designed this room was shot. He kneels down by the vent and says, “Boy, are you sure the port impeller connections are clear?”
Two knocks come back, even as the echoes fade. An affirmative.
Zaef scratches his chin and frowns. There was nothing keeping the impellers from working as intended, but the ship still listed towards port. Either the impellers themselves were faulty, or there was something wrong with the starboard impeller connections, and Zaef didn’t like to entertain the idea of a ship with faulty impellers after that one trip to Jang-Xur. He still had nightmares about that docking procedure gone horribly wrong.
Zaef hears the stomp of new feet into the engine room, and looks up to see two pairs of boots he definitely recognizes - having had them up his ass more than a few times. “Have you checked the starboard impellers for modifications?” Brinai asks. “Irsani likes to fiddle with the transport ships in his spare time.”
“Seems more like sabotage from where I’m standing.” Zaef growls as he turns back to the crawlspace. “Boy, I’m gonna need you to go check on the starboard impeller connections. And cover your ears.” He stands and looks Brinai in the eyes. “Because you sure as hell didn’t come down here to give me a hand with ship repair.”
A orange-skinned kid who looks six years old - but Zaef knows hasn’t changed for 4 years - scurries out of an access panel in the floor, darts around Brinai and slides into an open crawl-space on the opposite wall. Brinai watches him go, then turns back to Zaef. “What are you doing here, Utari?” she asks pointedly.
Zaef, after a moment’s hesitation, smirks. “Working.”
“Are you?” Brinai asks. “You wanted to be attached to the 815, and yet as they face down those who wish them stripped of their power and banished from Narsai, you are here, working on ships, instead of there, supporting them.”
Zaef snorts. “There isn’t anything left to do to help, especially not for me. Politicking isn’t my strong suit, and they don’t need me to beat anyone up, so if I must spend the next day twiddling my thumbs, I’ll be twiddling them to the tune of a finely-repaired cruise engine.”
Brinai bristles. “I said support, Zaef. Believe me, knowing that your friends have your back is more than enough. I know that politics is not something you like - or are any good at - but even you cannot be so blind as to believe that the rest of the 815 are immune to the pressure.”
Zaef pulls out the vox from his pocket and dangles it in front of him. “Just because I’m not on their side of the Gate does not mean I do not have their backs, Brinai,” he says quietly. “Nor am I immune to the pressures we’re feeling now, for that matter. That is part of why I’m here.”
“And yet you keep it in your pocket, hiding here on the other side of the Gateway,” Brinai says. “You are a better man than this, Zaef. You should be there with the rest of the 815, standing proud in defiance, showing those Narsai’i what true courage is.”
Zaef sets his jaw as Brinai tries to guilt-trip him and slips the vox back into his pocket so he can hide a clenched fist. “If you think I’m hiding here on Atea, then why are you here too? Why will you not stand tall in front of the Narsai’i? This decision affects you as well, and it would demonstrate that courage you adore.”
Brinai opens her mouth to speak, then pauses with her mouth still open before closing it again and thinking for a moment more. “Because it is not the Bashakra’i they wish to abolish,” she starts again, her eyes refocusing on Zaef. “And because...because my presence there would only serve to inflame the passions of those that oppose the GRHDI and the 815. I am not a member of the 815, you are, Zaef.”
Zaef doesn’t even try to hide his disgust. “So because it doesn’t affect you directly, you abstain? Is that why you wish me to go, so that I may show them the courage you lack?”
"I have duties here, Zaef!" Brinai shoots back, stepping up close and getting as much in Zaef's face as she can. "I cannot simply leave whenever I wish! You, on the other hand, are supposedly their teammate, and yet when they need your support the most, you run off to play with ships, like you have before! I always know where I can find you, Utari: here, hiding from your problems."
“Then I suppose you think the only difference between us is you prefer to hide in a bigger ship!” Zaef snarls back.
"And you think the only difference is that at least pretending to be there is the same thing as being there!" Brinai shouts.
Zaef and Brinai stare each other down for a few moments - neither one says a word to the other as they both silently fume at the other. After a few seconds, they both hear a cough from the starboard side, and turn to see the shipkid standing there with a hand-soldered logic board in his hand.
"Found the problem," the shipkid says. "Someone replaced the starboard impeller power supply's logic board with this hotter version, threw the balance out of whack."
“Good work, kid,” Zaef says gently. “I’ll try to dig up the logic board needed, you take a short break.” He takes the custom piece of circuitry and puts a few lats in the boy’s palm in it’s place.
The shipkid smiles and runs off, leaving Brinai and Zaef alone in the engine room. "I suppose we're both cowards, then," Brinai says, the old woman's stare not deviating from Zaef.
Zaef meets her gaze evenly. “Perhaps,” he says quietly after a few seconds.
"Then perhaps we should do something about it," Brinai suggests, her voice still on edge.
“We should, at that,” Zaef says coolly. “Grab what you need, and I’ll meet you by the Gate in five. Unless you would prefer a different escort?”
"Make it ten," Brinai quickly replies. "I need to let Samantha know that I am coming, and you need to clean the grease out of your hair."
“Fine, see you then,” Zaef says before he charges out of the engine room. A few seconds later, Brinai can hear him shouting for the shipkid about a bag, and to be “fucking careful with it!”
Something tells her that it’s probably not his personal grooming kit.
Zaef stops for a second by one of Atea’s airlocks, leaning against the wall as he catches his breath. His sides burn, and he clenches his teeth as he sucks in stale air, trying to force the stabbing pain to subside.
I know I’m getting older, dammit. I don’t need your fucking help to tell me that.
The shipkid catches up with him as Zaef manages to stand up straight, nearly collapsing at his feet. Zaef reaches down and steadies the kid, and takes the bag gingerly into his hands. Setting both kid and bag down by the airlock door, he opens the rucksack and rummages around inside -
Zaef jerks his hand out, but the cut on his finger isn’t as bad as it looks; even as he pulls his hand out, he can feel the sharp pain dull. Nevertheless, Zaef starts rooting around more gingerly - and with his uncut hand - and pulls out a knife tip, the fresh blood running down it a testament to its danger.
The knife tip is still dripping with Zaef’s blood, which might gross him out more if he wasn’t riding a high wave of painkillers. He looks past the two, three inch fragment at the exasperated, pale face of the man patching him up and tries to shrug.
“He started it.”
The man’s eyes bulge, and he starts moving his mouth so fast and furiously that Zaef can feel some spit slap against his face. His wild gesticulations cause his forceps to lose their grip on the blade, and it goes flying off.
It makes a weird spinning motion as it flies off into the glittering space, along with a full bottle of fermented shanoor with “Jonros - For keeping me in one piece.” Zaef figured he’d always like the stuff because it looked like blood when you held it up to the light. He always did that too.
Zaef realizes that the hand that’s bleeding is pressed against the glass of the airlock door, and jerks away. Then he hits the button to cycle the airlock and reaches back into his bag. His face falls and he starts hurriedly rummaging though the various items for what he’s looking for.
Zaef’s head shoots up and glares daggers at the shipkid, crumbs of candy lats still coating his face. He holds out his hand. The kid gulps and sheepishly drops the remaining candy coins into his hand.
He looks down at the meager amount of candy in his hand and looks back up at Zaef, completely bewildered. Zaef coolly arches an eyebrow. “I saw how you ducked out of that firefight, and I saw you run off to that bar while we were loading those goods - the ones I told you we needed everyone on deck for? No? Doesn’t ring a bell? Course not. So, here’s the deal. You want real money? Do real work.”
Zaef wonders, just for a moment, if antagonizing the 6’6 man who punched out a Wherren in a bar brawl and shot a Kansatai’i out of a skimmer was a wise move. For a few seconds, the galoot simply stares at Zaef, then draws his pantaki, grabs Zaef by the collar and -
- tosses him aside while he puts down a couple of Tube Spinks who were just playing dead. Huh.
The big man turns back to Zaef, lying on the ground, smirks and holds out his hand.
Zaef pulls out a lat. “You’ll get the rest after you handle the cargo,” he says, grinning, as he tosses the gold coin up for the statue-esque man to catch.
The sugar-coated faces of Vidas Lam glints in the pale light of the airlock, next to a big bottle of cheap booze labelled “Quhan - doing the work I pay you for...eventually.” He’d never cared much about what he drank, as long as they was plenty to go around. Zaef figured that’d just have to tide him over.
He takes a deep breath and taps the cycle button on the airlock controls. He doesn’t watch this bunch get sucked out into space; he just turns back to the bag and pulls out a blanket.
He feels the soft weave between his fingers as he stares quizzically at the portly man standing by the gravity controls. “Why the hell was I draped in your blanket when I woke up?”
The fat man shifts slightly, putting his weight on one leg. “Well, you looked pretty cold and uncomfortable asleep in the pilot’s crasher. I figured...Well...”
“Wouldn’t you need it?”
His jowls swing from side to side as he shakes his head and laughs. “What, down here near the reactor? This thing’s giving off enough castoff to keep me plenty warm.”
Zaef lays the blanket down on the cot. “Well, you hang on to it anyway. I won’t need it up there.”
Another laugh. “Sure you won’t.”
Zaef looks down, but the blanket isn’t draped around him and the pilot’s crasher. It‘s folded neatly and placed on the floor of the airlock, by two bottles of Aikoroan Binayan brandy, one labeled “Zaloph - For always bringing me that blanket,” and the other labeled “Hemmai - For flying when I couldn’t.”
Zaef clenches the key code tightly in his shaking fist. He turns his eyes to his left side, pleadingly.
“We need to keep flying, Zaef, you know that. We can’t be docked here for another couple weeks just because you’re...” An audible glup. “You’re sick. We need to run jobs to keep this baby running, and we’ve got a few lined up that can help us fly for a while. But we need to fly.”
Zaef’s voice comes out rough, and cracks at times. “Why not you?”
“I can’t fly and keep an eye on you at the same time. It’s hard enough for you to behave even when...Look, she has the skills. She can do it.”
Zaef looks back to his right, at the petite woman. She takes a step back as he did so, nearly knocking the wind out of the obese man behind her. But he puts a hand on her shoulder and nods, and she smiles at him. Then she looks back at Zaef and all the color drains from her face. Zaef could feel the tears streaming down his face and the tingling of his cheeks, but he could see clearly, at least.
“I love this ship,” He croaks. “I do. Will you...take care of her? As...as you would your husband?”
The man blushes, but the woman meets his gaze. “Of course.” She holds out her hand. “But I need you to trust me.”
Zaef stares her down for a few seconds. Then he holds out his fist, shivering and shaking away from the heat of his body. “Take care of her, you two.”
The key code falls out of his hand and lands on the cold airlock floor. Zaef turns around and walks out of the chamber, sealing it behind him. He presses the cycle button. He doesn’t watch the airlock empty, it’s already hard enough to see. He reaches into his bag, taking in a shuddering breath even as he takes out a deck of cards.
He lays down a good set: a lady of diamonds and a lord of circles. But the woman sitting across from him grins as she lays down two lords, and higher suits than his. Zaef hurmphs. “Nice. How’d you stack the deck this time?”
“Trade secret,” She says smugly. Zaef catches her glance towards the door as she pulls the winnings into her little pile, however. “Waiting for someone?” he teases.
“Don’t think that’s any of your business, Master,” she says distractedly as she starts counting up her lucre.
“That’s where you and I differ,” Zaef says as he starts shuffling the cards. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head over him - I’ve known him to come out of much worse than this.”
She looks up at him then, golden lats still uncounted in her hand. Her expression says more than she ever could, but she tries anyway. “Wait - you -”
“I know because I watch as well as listen. You two may argue a deal, but you both spent plenty of time taking peeks at each other when you don’t think you’re being watched.” Zaef flips two cards up and puts them off to the side as he continues shuffling. “You, for instance, like taking a long gander at his ass whenever he walks away from one of your little arguments.”
She puzzles over this for a bit before replying. “What does he look at when I’m not paying attention?”
“I’d rather not say.” Zaef passes her two cards and deals another two to discard, and continues shuffling.
She peeks at her cards before putting them down and staring at Zaef. “Look, I know you discourage relationships on board-”
Zaef cuts her off with a laugh. “But I have a married couple living in the engine room together. For fuck’s sake, haven’t you ever wondered why that is? Or why the gravity cuts out at odd times, for that matter? I say that to all the new recruits. It keeps their libidos in check, for the most part. But mostly, it makes sure that you’re serious. If you’re aching to break a rule I’ve set done in stone for this, it’s a promising start.”
She nods along. “And why the gravity cuts out?”
Zaef deals himself a couple cards and smirks. “You ever take this relationship with Lani places, and you might just find out on your own.” He taps his cards. “In fact, if you beat me this round, I’ll tell you a few tricks that might help speed things along.”
She smiles and folds her arms. “Well, now I can’t afford to lose.” She picks up her hand. “Are you ready?”
Zaef flips the top two cards over: a lord of circles and a lady of diamonds, next to a bottle of firefruit liquor labeled “Valoa - For always winning the right gambles.” He pauses for a bit, then flips the cards around so they’re facing each other. It was, he figured, the way they’d have wanted it.
He spaces the mementos away and pulls out a bottle of cheap booze, and walks into the airlock. He weighs the bottle in his hand, and looks over at the cycling switch, then back to the bottle in his hand. The label says “Lani - Always Our Ship. Always.”
He grabs the bottle by the neck and says “This ship is already christened, but I will always call it the Coward’s Hideaway now.” He swallows a lump in his throat. “What do you think? Fitting?”
“You’re not one for subtlely, are you?”
Zaef thinks he can see, just for a moment, a bearded smile, leaking blood and laughter. He wipes the tears from his eyes. “No. No, I never was.”
The bottle smashes against the the impenetrable curtain separating him from the void.
Zaef steps out of the airlock, shuts it, and punches the cycle. He watches the last drops of booze swirl out of the chamber with a heaving sob he can barely choke down.
“You owe me some air after those cycles,” Brinai softly chides Zaef. He turns to see the old rebel leader standing there with her luggage parked next to her, her hands folded in front of her and a kind expression on her face. She smiles at Zaef as he stands there, coughing and sobbing.
Zaef tries to snort, but it’s really just a sniffle. “You can take it out of my fucking lungs.” He pulls out one last bottle from the sack. The label reads “To Zak - This is your name. I will find you one day.” He looks down at the shipkid, back at the bottle, sighs, and gives it to the shipkid. “Don’t try to drink it all at once. S’bad for you.”
The shipkid looks at the bottle, then back to Zaef. “Thanks,” he says, and runs off back towards the maintenance bay.
Zaef wipes his eyes and takes a deep breath, than turns to Brinai. “I’m ready.”
Brinai’s smile widens. “No, you’re a mess. Come here, Zaef.”
Zaef smirks as he walks towards Brinai. “M’always a mess.”
Brinai laughs. “I know.” She wraps her arms around Zaef and rests her head on his shoulder as she pats him on the back. “Shh, I know, Zaef. It’s okay.”
Zaef hesitates for a moment before returning the embrace. He hugs her for a moment before letting go and breaking back into a grin. “I’ve had my yearly cry, Brinai. I’m ready.”
Brinai laughs as she lets Zaef go, a laugh that grows as she wipes her eyes. “Of course. You don’t need me to make you feel better.” She picks up her bag. “Shall we, Zaef?”
Zaef shoulders his bag and his grin grows as he puts a hand on Brinai’s shoulder. “Let’s.”
After reassuring Bello that she will be fine and that the GRHDI will be able to protect her for the entire time it takes for the Gateway capacitors to charge, Brinai leaves the tall, nervous man in charge of Atea in her absence. The Gateway flashes open, and even before they step through, Zaef and Brinai can see that Barnes, in the absence of the ability to plan in advance, has gone all-out on security. On the other side of the Gateway, Zaef can see more clearly: A dozen armed men, all wearing what he recognizes as Narsai'i - United States - Army fatigues with big GRHDI patches on their shoulders. They're fully decked out in body armor and holding Narsai'i beam rifles, and instantly approach Zaef and Brinai.
Zaef frowns and his hands caress the hilts of his blades. It’s bad enough that he’s being baby-sat, but now he’s going to be baby-sat by heavily-armed men he’s never seen before.
"Greetings, Ma'am, Sir," the soldier with the most...shapes on his shoulder says - in Imperial. "We're here to escort you to the plane."
“Thank you. Lead the way,” Zaef says in English. “And never call me ‘Sir’ again.”
Brinai gives a small nod. "Lead the way. And don't call me 'Ma'am', boy," she says in Imperial.
"Be nice to them, Brinai," Davis says in Imperial with a big smile on his face, who both Zaef and Brinai just now notice is standing at the bottom of the ramp with Ngawai. "They're just doing their job."
"I'm here to speak to your leaders and show my support, not be coddled like a First-damned Napai'i noble," Brinai says back as she walks down the ramp towards Davis. She yanks her luggage out of the hands of one of the soldiers. "I can carry my own bags, too."
Davis bows to Brinai, adding a small Bashakra'i respectful flourish. "On behalf of the United States government, I welcome you to Narsai," Davis says in an overly officious tone, the smirk still on his face. Brinai cracks a small smile at that.
"Okay, now that the official bullshit is out of the way, can I say that it's good to see you again, Brinai?" Ngawai asks.
"It's good to see you too, Ngawai," Brinai says, adding a small bow to Ngawai. "I have heard that the little one is doing well."
"Yes, she is," Ngawai says, putting a hand on her belly. "She can come out any minute now too, that would be nice."
"I'm sure," Brinai responds, then turns to Davis as she, Zaef, Davis and Ngawai - along with Brinai's bodyguards - leave the Gateport. "So, Garrett, what exactly else will I have to suffer through in this ridiculous show?"
"Well, our elected leader of sorts - the President - wants to have an official meet-and-greet at the executive residence, and insists on hosting you as his guest of honor," Davis starts.
“And I’m going to have to insist, as well, that you behave yourself there. And if I don’t think you can, I’ll just have to go with you to make sure you don’t do anything rash.” Zaef leans over and whispers in her ear in quick Imperial. “The man is not our enemy, even if his advisors are.”
"Yes, I've heard from Samantha that Zaef knows his way around the West Wing," Davis says with a grin. Brinai gives Zaef a curious look.
Zaef pierces Davis with a quick glare then turns back to Brinai. “Davis’ jokes need some polishing.”
Brinai sighs. "And I am completely unable to avoid being the subject of a dancing spink show?"
"Unfortunately, yes," Davis answers. "You've only gotten a chance to experience the fun side of being a leader, ordering attacks, heroically swooping in to save the day. Now, you get to experience the drudgery of shaking hands and pretending to talk meaningfully while really only asking when lunch is."
Brinai's look turns sour. "I don't suppose it's too late to go back to hiding on Atea?"
Zaef’s frown deepens as he sighs through his nose. “Yes, it is. You’ll just have to settle with watching us suffer, too.”
Davis nods. He's about to say something in response when Ngawai slugs him in the arm and gives him a "be good" look. "Right this way, then," Davis says. Ngawai gives Zaef and Brinai a "you're welcome" wink.
Zaef gives her a grateful nod, and so does Brinai.
Davis rubs his arm as the smartassed look vanishes from his face and is replaced by his more friendly default expression and a genuine smile. "I do want to thank you for coming here, Brinai. Your presence here means a lot to us, and me."
"It is no problem, Garrett," Brinai says. "I am proud to support my friends and fellow freedom fighters." Before Zaef can say anything, she continues, "And you should thank Zaef for showing me the error of my ways."
Davis turns to Zaef, and gives him as much of a bow as he can as they all continue walking. "Thanks then, Zaef. For this, and for coming back. Really, it means a lot to me and the rest of the team."
Zaef looks uncomfortable. “Then do me a favor and stop bowing or so help me I will put my foot where the sun don’t shine.” He shoots a glance at Brinai. “Besides, you should be thanking Brinai for her, uh, encouragement.”
Davis smiles at Zaef. "Then, I thank you both for making sure the other showed up."
"And I'll just thank you for not killing each other," Ngawai adds with a grin.
Zaef smirks and raises an eyebrow. “You say it like it’s out of the question.”
Swims-the-Black is the first one to notice Brinai, Zaef, Davis, Ngawai and Brinai's 12 new friends walking down the tarmac. His fur rolls a green and yellow patchwork of pleased colors as he nods towards the oncoming group. "Looks like Zaef decided to come after all," Swims says with a smile on his face. "Zaef!" Swims barks. "Over here!"
"Have you brought a plane with you?" Arketta asks. "Ours seems to have gone missing."
"It's good to see you," Luis says to Brinai, then turns to Zaef, his eyes sweeping over the distinctly alert-looking men in fatigues with GRHDI patches. "You've got something smoother than a plane? What, are these guys here to carry us to DC?"
Brinai straightens her back and squares her shoulders to look every inch of her whole 5'9" height and looks over the assembled Task Force 815. "It's good to see you all," she says. "Even you, Captain Verrill." She nods in Hugh's direction. "I thought that I was doing my best to support you from Atea, but Zaef...convinced me that I should stop hiding on the worldship and stand with you in front of your world's leaders. I would be glad to..." Brinai stops herself and shakes her head. "No, that's spinkshit. I'm an old fighter and I'd rather raid the Akwhela's Eye than speak to your leaders, but since you need a voice of support, here I am."
Her speech finished, Brinai looks around. "Now, where's the skimmer?"
"No skimmer, Samantha has arranged for one of our airplanes to come for us," Davis says. "That one, over there." Davis points to the private jet just now taxing across the tarmac from the hangars to the airport. "It's as nice as a skimmer, but it does take longer to get around," Swims-the-Black adds in Whirr-sign.
"Hmph. As long as it won't fall out out of the sky or explode, that's good enough for me," Brinai says.
“Our airplane technology rarely falls out of the sky or explodes, I promise,” Davis says.
Brinai gives it a skeptical look, and quickly covers her ears as the jet’s engines spin up to propel it across the tarmac towards the group. “It sounds like it’s about to explode right here on the ground!” she shouts.
After some skeptical looks at the plane once it arrives and the engines are powered back down, and one of the GRHDI security detail checks the plane’s cargo hold for explosives at Brinai’s insistence, luggage is loaded onto the plane, followed by its passengers. Unlike the plane trips with Gorlan, this one is considerably more crowded, given Brinai’s protective detail. Still, everyone fits in with a few seats to spare, and it’s certainly nicer than the back of another C-130.
Hugh doesn’t waste much time finding a comfy seat to plop down in. Within minutes, he’s got his encrypted vox open again, going over the short exchange of emails with Dyer, looking for whatever subtle clues he may have missed that the Major is not on the level. After about the third read, he starts wondering when somebody will find the time to port Angry Birds to the voxes. (Hugh does like blowing up virtual pigs quite a bit, much to his own surprise.) But idle wishes do not an App Store make, so he returns to the emails for another go at the phrasing’s subtleties. That lasts for just one more go before Hugh turns the vox off completely. It is then that he spots Brinai a few rows forward of him, also pouring through her vox - most likely notes for her business in D.C. Hugh looks out of the window for a moment, takes a breath, then shoots up from his seat, walks forward to her row and sits down across the aisle. Her security detail tenses up momentarily, but it’s obviously just reflex.
“We should talk,” he says quickly, obviously needing to get that out before he loses his nerve.
Brinai nods. “Yes, we should. It’s good that we get this out of the way before we both speak to your leaders - wouldn’t want any misconceptions ruining our chances.” She waves at one of her detail to stand up from the seat across from her. “Do you mind, boy? Captain Verrill and I need to talk, and my old bones don’t appreciate having to lean across the aisle.”
The guard promptly stands up and leaves a space for Hugh with a polite “Ma’am”.
Hugh switches seats quickly. When he starts speaking again, he’s not looking at Brinai, and he’s rushing through his words like he needs to get them out before they disappear. “Okay. First, I’ve been an idiot. I know that. I never trusted Simmons but I didn’t think about the harm I would do talking to him. Boneheaded move. I’ve also been a dick to Onas, so if you could let him know I’m sorry about that, that would be great. Second. I really want this awkward thing we have to end. I want to fix this. So please tell me what you want from me. Something concrete I can do. Because I’m sick and tired of being treated like second class and getting lectured about my mistakes. I want that to end. So, give me an olive branch here. Please.”
Brinai sits and listens to Hugh, then slowly rubs her hands together in thought. “First, I do not know why I would give you a branch, but I assume that means some kind of peace offering, yes?”
“Exactly,” Hugh says. “Just give me something to do that will fix this. I know people are more complicated then that, but I think if we two publicly bury our differences, that will mean a lot to you, me, and a lot of other people.”
“Well, I think that what Onas said he told you is not that far off from what Bello, myself and many other Bashakra’i are looking for,” Brinai says. “We know that you know you made a mistake, Hugh. You’re not an idiot, you know that you stuck your hand in the tarantek burrow and got your fingers bitten off. But what we don’t see is any sign that you won’t do it again. What was the justification you used for talking with Simmons in the first place?”
“He caught me off guard,” Hugh says. “I mean, first off, he talked to all of us. He tried to rile all of us up.”
Brinai raises her hand. “I don’t mean when he tried to commit suicide on my ship by antagonizing you and your team. I mean when he first approached you, before you left for Hedion.”
“He had the right credentials,” Hugh says. “I mean, he seemed legit. It wasn’t the first time I got someone I didn’t know from higher up the chain asking me questions. I never thought that there might be a conspiracy against us. I mean, I got suspicious when he told me to keep an eye on the team...but I figured it would come to nothing. I wasn’t seeing him as a potential enemy, just another bureaucrat who didn’t get it, and...at the time, I thought worrying about Davis and Ngawai wasn’t so far fetched. I had my own biases against them and Simmons played into that.”
“You said things to him that you shouldn’t have because he was a representative of your leaders - leaders that you knew were less than pleased with what your team was doing,” Brinai says. “And what have you been saying we should do in the last week or so?”
“Look, Brinai, I don’t have the inside scoop on how you run your organization, but being part of a chain of command means, to me, that I have to pass info up the chain and follow orders even when I don’t particularly like them.” Hugh shakes his head. “If I truly thought the organization outside of our team was corrupt and worthy of suspicion and subversion, then I would be a poor officer. I’ve been a soldier first, Brinai. That doesn’t work without some faith that the people who are in command know what they are doing. I know now that this trust was misplaced, but I also had to consider the possibility that what we were doing wasn’t the right thing and that the only way to sort that out was to tell the people on top what was going on. The last thing I wanted to do was to become one of those corrupt officials with his own personal fiefdom carved out of the whole who subverts any attempt at external control and accountability.”
Brinai’s eyes narrow. “Like Garrett? Or like me?” She leans back in her seat. “Captain Verrill, Onas told me that you said basically the same thing to him on Boranai, and I have to ask the same question he did: what has your blind loyalty to the Narsai’i given you, besides an attempted beating and kidnapping and your friends and teammates slandered and attacked? It’s clear to us, and probably even to the Narsai’i members of your team, that the Narsai leadership has proven itself to be less than trustworthy. After all, if you think that the people in command know what they’re doing, why are you spying on them and going to your leaders to tell them how wrong they are?”
Hugh feels more anger rising in his chest. “Hindsight is 20/20, Brinai,” he says. “You’re forgetting that the way they played me is the reason why we now know that there are people we can’t trust in our own government. Before that...before that, I dismissed it as paranoia. Which isn’t exactly a stretch for Garrett.”
“I think we both know that’s not true,” Brinai says. “Garrett is as dedicated to Narsai as you are, Captain, but he is not willing to let his dedication to saving his home blind him to what lies before him.”
“Or he was paranoid and turned out to be right,” Hugh says. “Look. We’re not going to get to the bottom of how we all truly felt and believed at the time in this conversation. If you think I was a fool then, please, I will not tell you you’re wrong. What I’m asking you to believe is that I did what I thought was right with the information and knowledge I had at the time. We can keep arguing about this until the cows come home, but that’s the best answer I have for you.”
“And I have told you what our concerns are - what everyone’s concerns are,” Brinai replies evenly. “We’re not concerned that you don’t think you made a mistake. We’re concerned that you don’t seem to think that doing it in the first place was a mistake, and that you seem very interested in making the same mistake again.”
“Then you’re accusing me of having the wrong principles,” Hugh says. “That I should not have passed on information and followed orders by default, but that I should have played my cards close to the vest unless I was certain it would not harm anyone.” Hugh sighs. “Maybe that’s right. Maybe I should have realized a long time ago that I needed to be much more careful with who I trusted. But...what I want you to understand is this. I acted how I was trained. That lead me to make a grave mistake. I do not want you to applaud me for sticking to that even when I felt it might be wrong - that was foolish. But I do want you to understand that these decisions were not made out of malice or deliberate ignorance.”
Brinai smiles. “Please, Captain. I am well aware of what happened - you were played for a fool. Simmons wanted to drive a wedge into the 815, and you were the obvious place to start. You were the most likely to blindly accept his authority, you were already suspicious of Garrett and Ngawai’s motives and so easily dismissed their warnings. All he had to do was tell you he was representing your leaders and you rolled right over.” She leans back forwards. “I know that Arketta owes a lot of who she is now to your training, and I believe so do Luis and Angel, yes? Then maybe you should learn a lesson from them, and know when to obey your orders and your leaders, and know when to trust your gut that there’s a big pile of scrofa shit - or a beam - coming your way. Believe me, you live longer that way.”
“I’ve learned that lesson, believe me,” Hugh says. “But it is difficult to make decisions and have faith in yourself when your mistakes keep haunting you. That is why I’m here.”
“Then prove it,” Brinai says, “and stop acting like you haven’t learned from your mistakes. I’ve already said my piece - twice, now. That’s all I’ve got.” She cocks an eyebrow at him. “Well, what do you have to say?”
“How?” Hugh says. “That is the question that brought me here. How can I prove it to you? What do I have to do before I get the ‘lesson learned’ box ticked?”
“This isn’t preflight checks, Verrill,” Brinai says, annoyed. “We’re not keeping a list of what to do for you. We can’t trust you as long as you think that your leaders are beyond suspicion, that some blasted chain is more important than what the behavior of your leaders shows of their intentions. We can’t trust you as long as you don’t think for yourself, Verrill.”
“Then I have really good news for you,” Hugh says. “I’ve suspected everyone in my chain of command up to the President himself of being in league with Simmons. I’ve watched what they’re doing and drawn my conclusions accordingly. And believe me, I have my own plans for how to deal with this situation.” His voice grows more intense. “You don’t trust me because you think I’m still the same Hugh Verrill who made that mistake. I’m not.”
Brinai’s eyebrows rise a millimeter or two. “Actions, not words, Captain.”
“You’ll have your actions,” Hugh says.
“And then you’ll have our trust - and our aid, if you need it,” Brinai says.
“I’ve already made my own arrangements,” Hugh says, “but thank you nevertheless.”
“Hmph.” Brinai scratches at her chin. “Do you remember Ahaz and Tais?”
“Their story didn’t end well,” Hugh says. “What about them?”
“Garrett was furious when he found out about them,” Brinai says. “I still think that bastard deserved what he had coming, and it was merely a very unfortunate bit of luck that his family was there and not on Boranai in your people’s custody, but he did have a point about collateral damage and unintended consequences.” She fixes Hugh with a hard look. “Be careful of both. If you need help limiting either one, let me know.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Hugh says.
“Good,” Brinai says, and relaxes. “Any other questions you want to ask me?”
“Just one,” Hugh says, and points to the vox clipped to his ear. “How do you turn the vibration alarm off?”
Brinai leans to the side to get a better look at Hugh’s vox. “Options at the top of the holo, or press and hold the button.”
“Oh,” Hugh says. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Captain Verrill,” Brinai says, and returns to her holodisplay.
Hugh slinks off back to his seat. Well, at least he’s making some progress - that was less shouting than with Onas, at least. And with Dyer, Hugh actually has a plan this time. God above, if you let me fuck this up, I’m going to run into Buddha’s fat arms, he thinks. At least that guy hands out second chances.
Hunter is hammering away at a report and accompanying presentation. He's muttering different things about "talk over this" "make this different in the leave-behind" that his vox is helpfully converting to augmented-reality comments. In addition to the vox, splayed out before him are several reports, a number of moleskines, his ruggedized laptop, and several sheets of graph paper on which he's drawing abstract flow diagrams for making the case. The diagrams are far less cryptic than his notes. When he gets to the boxes marked "USMC" and "SecState," he pauses in thought for a second, shoots off a message to Barnes asking for a conference call soon, and goes off to find Davis.
“Got a minute?”
Davis looks up from his vox. “Yeah, take a seat.” He motions to the seat across the table from him, in the little set of four facing seats he’s sharing with Ngawai and Swims-the-Black.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about outcomes and endgames for all the politicking,” Hunter says. “Besides the obvious win or lose ones, there might be some potential players and partners we might want to be in contact before the hearing.”
Davis nods as Ngawai turns up the volume on her Ikuni Teamta, Grand Apprehendress holo and Swims-the-Black slides his own projected holodisplay out of the way. “What do you have in mind?” Davis asks.
“I have the feeling that no matter what happens, there’s going to be bad blood between GRHDI and the Army proper,” Hunter replies. “Besides that, what we do doesn’t really fit with their whole Fulda-Gap, bureaucracy-at-war approach to life. They’re an 800-pound gorilla, sure. But if we can offer expertise and access to other groups that’re used to dealing with the gorilla, we’re less alone. So, I’m thinking we put out feelers to the State Department and the Marine Corps.”
Davis nods. “In the hope of replacing that 800-pound gorilla with something that doesn’t hate us quite so much.”
“Exactly. I mean, think about it. What’s in the Marines’ DNA? Lightning raids, amphibious landings, island-hopping, maneuver warfare and resourcefulness. And State? Cultural fluency, diplomatic savvy, broad-scoped political analysis. It’s what you do. It’d be a much better cultural fit with either or both of them than what you have now.”
“Well, Samantha and I already have a counter-proposal ready to move the GRHDI to be an independent agency affiliated with the State Department,” Davis says, “and we have both been concerned with how we’re going to get military aid from the Narsai’i, again, without having to deal with people who hate us quite so much. We did talk about exploring the Marines as an option. Have you told Samantha about this?”
“Yes, though I’ve only had the breathing room to put pieces like this together now. I just sent her a message and we should be on a conference call before long.”
Hunter’s vox beeps on his ear. “...and I think that might be it. If there’s one thing I love about this place, it’s that everyone moves quickly.”
Barnes is, in fact, on the other end of the connection. “I’m here, Mr. Brand. You said you needed a chance to talk?”
“That’s right, ma’am. I’m here with Assistant Director Davis, and I’m interested in putting our heads together when it comes to fitting in GRHDI with the State Department and the USMC, and what we can do in terms of outreach and building bridges before the congressional hearings.”
“Well, Garrett and I have been talking with my contacts at State about conjoining our agencies,” Barnes says. “I presume you have ideas about cultivating a relationship with the Marines?”
“I do indeed. Partly it relates to them finding new roles for their self-assigned identity in the armed forces, but it also fits with their existing relationships with State when it comes to Embassy garrisons. I have a couple of friends and mentors in the Corps I’m due for lunch with when we touch down in D.C., and I can’t think of a better time to start the conversation.”
“Well, if you think it wouldn’t be out of line, I can arrange time with the Commandant as well,” Barnes says.
“That would be even better. If you want me in the room on that, I’ll be ready.”
"Actually, I was thinking that you would be our representative," Barnes says matter-of-factly. "You are the most familiar with the culture. After talking with the Sheen Ambassador, talking to just one man shouldn't be that intimidating. Do you think you can handle it solo, or..."
“Well, if you put it that way, ma’am, most certainly,” Hunter says. “Thankfully I was never under the direct command of the man, so it should be easier to meet as near-peers.”
“And do you want someone else in the room with you?” Samantha asks. “Someone who’s more experienced in our off-world operations?”
“That’d make things a little more equitable, I’d reckon. Maybe a life-size reminder of the brave new worlds that are out there...” Hunter muses, his gaze turning to Swims-the-Black. “Any chance you could spare a Whirr-capable translator for the occasion?”
Swims-the-Black grunts and cracks a small smile. “Sure, Derick Spencer just rotated back from working with first-contact teams on Whiirr,” Barnes says. “Do you need him for talking with your friends, or just the Commandant?”
”My words to your leaders will be done when we are there. I can go to see your friends,” Swims adds, his English speaking voice sounding like a distant, massive cousin of a St. Bernard slowly enunciating proper English.
“Thank you, I appreciate that very much.” Hunter replies with a nod. “I think your presence and words will add very much to our case.”
Swims grunts and returns to working on his own vox. “Do you think that the Marines will be less intolerably racist and likely to kill us?” Barnes asks.
“Hmn.” Hunter pauses for a second. “My guess is, they’ll be much less likely to kill us, and somewhat less racist. We’ll probably have to screen the first few units that go, until we have a clear culture of expected conduct for off-world deployment.”
“That was the plan already, Garrett and I would hand-pick the leadership and keep a close eye on weekly reports for the Afghanistan shakedown mission,” Barnes says. “What you’re saying is that you think the Marines will need less babysitting.”
“Marines are expected to figure things out as they go along. This usually works well, as long as the meat-head element is kept to a minimum.”
“And with careful unit selection and the leadership on board, that should be doable,” Barnes says, completing Hunter’s implied thought. “And you think that they’ll actually be more accepting of GRHDI and Bashakra’i leadership, and working with the Bashakra’i, Wherren and Sheen.”
“Pragmatically, they’re used to dealing with situations where they’re not the top dog in the situation. They’ve been in embassies and on naval bases, and in peacekeeping zones with comrades from a dozen nations. If you show you know what you’re doing and you have your shit together, you’ll get respect from a Marine. Doesn’t matter if your skin is purple or you even have skin, as long as you get things done.”
“All right, convince me, Mr. Brand,” Barnes says. “Tell Swims-the-Black thanks for me and I’ll see you on the ground at DC.” The vox beeps twice to confirm the ended call.
Well then, Hunter thinks. I guess I actually have to make all that work, now. He nods to Swims, thanks Davis, and heads back his desk with a head full of schemes, and a slightly heavier step.
After a while, the plane settled down into the regimented schedule that adjusting to a time zone on the other side of the planet requires. To the surprise of some, even Brinai knows the routine - Gateway travel doesn’t eliminate the factor of jet lag, it just takes out the boring part in between. The flight from Diego Garcia is long, and the refueling stop in Saudi Arabia made it that much longer. Still, the plane touches down at Andrews AFB outside of Washington DC in the early morning light - the same day that it left Diego Garcia.
Barnes is there on the tarmac again, but this time her entourage has a different look about it - and when you disembark the plane, the four men and women move to protect Brinai.
“What is this, Samantha?” Brinai asks.
“They are your protection here in Washington DC,” Barnes replies. “We call them the Secret Service. They’ll be escorting you to the White House to meet the President.”
“And he would be your leader?”
“The closest we have to one,” Barnes answers. “And before you ask, these men are trustworthy beyond doubt. It’s their job to protect people like you, and they take it very seriously. Just don’t give them too hard of a time.”
“Hmph.” Brinai looks around. “I suppose this will have to do. Come, let’s get this over with.”
“Sorry, Brinai, I have to take care of business with 815,” Barnes says. “I’ll meet you there later.”
Brinai turns to get into the SUV, carrying her bags with her. The Secret Service moves to get in with her, but before they can stop him, Zaef walks up to the door next to Brinai and steps into the SUV with her.
The agents start to move to pull him out, but Barnes stops them. “He’s fine, let him go with her.” She nods at Zaef, who nods back.
Once the SUV with Brinai, Zaef and Brinai’s new friends rolls off, the GRHDI escort that carried Brinai to DC departs in their own SUVs, leaving Barnes and the rest of the team standing on the windy tarmac.
“I will be right with you all,” Barnes says, “but Angel has an important meeting to get to and I need to brief him on that.” ”We will be here,” Swims-the-Black grunts.
"You're a lucky man, Angel," Barnes says as she walks beside Angel, leading him towards the main doors of the hangar as his luggage dutifully follows beside him. "I managed to poach Erika away from Sterling-Bosch on Wall Street - she was the CEO's assistant, and she is exactly what you need."
Angel nods, keeping pace with Barnes as they head away from the still idling jet. "Sounds promising Samantha - what's she been told? Or offered for that matter?"
"About as much as I know," Barnes replies. "She's working for you, Angel Kesh, who is from Narsai - Earth - but is also a member of a Hedion'i family that has connections with Imperial industry. You're starting a company to start selling Imperial equipment and technology to Earth, as well as licensing Imperial tech for production and design here. And that you have absolutely zero experience as a corporate...anything, really, since you've been in the military your adult life. Anything else I should have told her?" she asks.
Angel shakes his head. "No, that sounds just about right. And her last name?"
"O'Byrne," Barnes says as she leads Angel into the hangar.
Inside, a tall (for a Narsai'i) woman with red hair stands, her long black dress and teal jacket blowing in the breeze coming off of the runway tarmac. She's holding a leather portfolio in her hands, and watches Angel and Barnes approach the SUV.
When they arrive, she walks up and extends a hand to shake. "Mr. Kesh, I'm Erika O'Byrne, and I'll be your executive assistant. I have a Bachelors in Communications and Public Relations from Boston University and a MBA from Yale, and a decade of experience in business. I have been told that you need someone like me in the worst way, so, what questions do you have?"
Angel shakes her hand, nodding approvingly. "Ms. O'Byrne, a pleasure. And yes, it sounds like you've been given an accurate picture of things. First, I assume that by taking this position you're alright with working with Imperials and...non-humans?"
"Yes, sir," Erika says. "If I can tolerate investment bankers, I think working with Imperials and aliens should be a snap."
"Fair." Angel thinks for a moment. "If someone goes digging around in your past, are they going to find anything exciting?"
Erika shakes her head. "No, sir. I payed attention in Hiding the Bodies 101 at Yale," she says with a smirk.
"Which brings us to our next question. Any problem working for someone who tagged out with a high school diploma?"
"No, sir," Erika says. "Ms. Barnes gave me a copy of your GRHDI record and what she could of your work in the Army, and believe me, you've already accomplished more than most of the men I've worked for. As long as you make smart decisions, things will be fine." She smiles. "And I'm here to make sure you do make smart decisions."
"Just the kind of person I was looking for. Alright, last two. I need a Senator's aide to be told to fuck off...politely. You say...?"
"Depends on what you've told others that day," Erika replies.
Angel shrugs. "Build a scenario. Pretend your boss is...I don't know...hip deep in mud with a bunch of killer robots on another planet, and they want an answer today."
"Then I would say that Mr. Kesh is out of the office, and that he'll get back to you as soon as possible."
"Alright. And say I tell you I've forgotten to pick my girlfriend up something for her birthday, and I need you to pop out and pick something up?"
Erika smirks again. "That would depend on whether or not I'd be allowed to speak as freely as I've been lead to believe."
"For the purposes of this exercise, lets say 'Yes'."
"Then I'd probably ask if you need me to remind you which girlfriend this gift was for, and then place an order for what you need," Erika says.
Angel chuckles. "For the record, we would also have accepted 'No, I'm busy' as a valid answer." The Delta scout/Industrial magnate turns to Barnes. "I like this one. Nicely done."
Barnes nods. "Glad I could help. I believe you two have business to attend to, and we have a Congressional hearing to prepare for, so, if you'll excuse me?"
Angel nods. "Good luck Samantha. And thanks."
Barnes nods and walks off. Erika watches Barnes leave, and then turns to Angel. "So, Mr. Kesh, or Angel, whichever you prefer, I believe we have a company to create."
"Angel is fine, if you're alright with Erika? Otherwise this will get oddly lopsided. But yes, we have a company to create."
"Erika is fine," she says. "Then if you'll come with me, I've arranged a meeting with DC's best law firm, who have agreed to handle Kesh Holdings' legal affairs for just slightly more per hour than you pay me."
"For the record, what exactly *are* we paying you?"
"Oh, a lot of money. I did mention the Yale MBA, right?" Erika gives Angel a wink as she climbs into the driver's seat of the SUV. "But trust me, Angel, I'm worth every penny."
Barnes returns a few minutes later as the team sees an SUV drive off towards the end of the tarmac with Angel in the passenger seat and a redhead with big sunglasses in the driver’s seat.
“Now that Angel is off to take care of his business, we should start thinking about taking care of ours,” Barnes says. She looks at Hugh. “You mentioned having contact with someone in the DoD about a meeting to de-escalate things?”
"Yeah, a Major Dyer from JSOC," Hugh says. "It's been a bit of a surprise contact so we haven't been able to find out too much about him. I arranged a meeting at a spa to ensure we both show up unarmed and unwired." He shrugs. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
Barnes furrows her brow. "I would be very careful, Hugh. Given how the Pentagon has been acting towards us as of late, I'd expect it to be another trap before I'd believe in some last-second olive branch out of the blue. I think that you should drop the meeting and focus on the Congressional hearing, but if you want to pursue this, then be careful. It sounds like an ambush to me."