Jade Imperium - Convocation, Pt. 1

punkey 2013-05-19 03:27:27
Day 1 -
punkey 2013-05-19 03:28:03
The deserts of the Southwestern United States are never really still - topography combines with the punishing heat of the Sun to create thermals which in turn create stiff winds that shift seemingly at random. Even in the middle of the maze of prefab trailers that currently serve as the headquarters for the ever-growing GRHDI presence at Mesas Negras Joint Research Base, the wind rushes between the structures and buffets the small group standing in the middle of the quad - the five members of the documentary film crew invited in by GRHDI Director Barnes herself, their Marine officer escort, and their real escort - a single squad of six Marines, assigned to protect the film crew, and make sure they don't wander off.

The director/producer/narrator/interviewer, Don Terrence, stands in front of the two cameras, pointing a microphone at the officer, Captain Murray Wolcox. The mic isn't strictly necessary, their sound tech, Bill Crawford, is ably recording every whisper and scratch from the pair, and the cameras held by Freddy Towner and Ashley Parsons also have mics attached, but as "The Don" explained to their new assistant and gear schlepper, David Espinosa, the audience sees the microphone and thinks he's more honest.

And so, The Don stands in front of the camera with Captain Wolcox, pointing his superfluous microphone at him, and asks his first question.
"How's the light? Is the sun in your eyes, Captain?"
Wolcox gives him a tight smile. “No, it’s just fine, Mr. Terrence, thank you. Whatever’s best for your shot.”
"All right," Don says. "So, Captain, what is the brief history of Mesas Negras? This base wasn't always a major Gateway Research and Homeworld Defense Initiative operations base, correct?"
“That’s correct, Sir,” Wolcox says. “Gateway exploration started here, though, long before the GRHDI became publicly known. Mesas Negras was there from the start, and there’s a lot of history here. I think everyone here is very proud to be part of it.”
"How has the GRHDI changed things around here?" Don asks next.
“The GRHDI massively expanded the scope of operations at Mesas Negras,” Wolcox explains. “Rebuilding the gateway facilities for better security and throughput was the least of it. Today, Mesas Negras is growing in every direction.” He throws in a smirk. “It’s come pretty far from a normal Army base with a few classified sublevels. We’re well on our way to becoming a major gateport - Earth’s major gateport. And of course there’s the staging areas, the training facilities - some days I start worrying we might actually run out of desert.” He gives the camera a little ‘That was supposed to be a joke’ wink.
Don smiles - but in a way that's obviously polite, a practiced skill developed for just such politely anti-humorous situations. "And what is currently happening? The American people have heard a lot about what is going to happen here at Mesas Negras, what is the truth?"
Wolcox nods. Important question, important nod. “Right now, we’re preparing for the first major training exercise with our allies. We’re bringing together Marines, Navy, Air Force and Army personnel, Bashakran rebels, Sheen warforms and Wherren warriors - together with Task Force 815 - for what’s looking to be a very important milestone in joint operations going forward. Everybody brings something to the table, but you know how difficult it can be to have disparate branches of the armed forces work together closely. Now imagine the same situation with our allies, many of whom have never worked together before. So, I’m sure there will be some kinks to work out, but that’s exactly what makes these exercises so important. We’ll get an in-depth look at how our allies train and fight, we’ll share and develop tactics, and last but not least we hope to make some friends here. We’ve been very busy setting it all up, and I couldn’t be prouder of my Marines for going the extra mile under some very difficult conditions. I’m certain we’ll be able to look back on these three weeks as the start of a new paradigm in interstellar operations that will be the foundation of everything we do out there for years to come.”
"Is there any problems with people from Earth adjusting to our off-world allies?" Don asks. "The attacks on GRHDI personnel - Task Force 815 specifically - have been well-publicized."
Wolcox nods again. Longer pause. Somber voice. “It’s a difficult process,” he says. “Certainly, some very regrettable events have happened recently, and our thoughts are with Task Force 815 and their friends, who’ve born the brunt of it. I think that for a lot of people, the idea that we’ve gone from sending robots to Mars to sending soldiers across the universe in a few years has been hard to adjust to. It’s certainly taken me some time to wrap my head around. But what we have to realize is that there’s more to the gateways than the threat of war. There’s a literal universe of possibilities and opportunities out there. And what I hope these next weeks will prove to everyone is that our allies - even if they don’t look like us - are dependable, decent people, just like us. There’s a bright future out there, Mr. Terrence. We just have to embrace it.”
"And the troops here?" Don asks. "How are they getting along with our allies?"
“Well,” Wolcox says with a smile. “Now, let me caveat that by saying that so far there’s only been limited mingling, and I’m sure we’ll see some friction when the rubber meets the road - that’s just how these things are. I fully expect we’ll all walk away with a deeper appreciation for each other’s skill and valor. I, for one, am very much looking forward to sitting in on some of the Bashakran briefings. And what I’ve told my men - and I’m sure I’m not alone in this - is to keep an open mind, and put our best foot forward. We’ve all got a lot to learn and to teach, and I hope we’ll make the most of it.”

The Don nods. "I certainly hope so, Captain." He motions for the officer to follow him as he walks around the cameras, facing them towards the camp proper. "Now, Captain, we have been promised full access to the base and exercises, including Task Force 815. What can the public expect to see in this first episodic release?"
“Well, let's start out with the off-world resident housing. Down there, by those cranes - that’s the housing for the Bashakrans, or as they say, Bashakra’i,” explains the picture-perfect Marine Captain. Ashley pans past the young officer and zooms in a few vehicles meandering through the newly-paved roads. At the nearest edge, some tan-skinned children are roughhousing in a small play area, a Bashakra'i man installs a satellite dish mounting on his Quonset hut, all just living life save for the miles of fence and even more desert surrounding Mesas Negras. “They’ve had their share of tragedy in the past. They rebelled against the Imperium, and the Imperium struck back. They made their planet uninhabitable, destroyed their cities, it was a full-blown genocide and it scattered the Bashakrans all over the universe. But they never stopped fighting back. They’re expert guerillas and covert operatives. We owe a lot of Task Force 815’s successes to collaboration with Bashakran rebels. Boronai would have been impossible without them. Personally? I respect the hell out of them. The Imperium has killed many of them - but it’ll never beat them. And they’re fighting to make sure that nobody else has to go through what happened to them. I don’t care who you are or where you’re coming from on the topic, but you’ve got to respect that.” He pauses for a moment. "The ones that are here right now are mostly technicians and scientists that brought their families here to work with our researchers at Mesas Negras - the soldiers will be arriving here later today by plane."
"Why did they bring their families to Earth?" Don asks.
"Because Mesas Negras is halfway around the world from our only Gateway with access to their home ship - although, the construction of the new Mesas Negras Gateway should be complete later on today," Wolcox replies. "Maybe we'll be able to show you that, as well."

Wolcox turns to the left. “Now, the hangar over there -” Wolcox points at it even after Ashley has clearly found the right one, a large hangar on the other side of the Bashakra'i housing from the offices, “- serves as housing for the Sheen. They told us not to worry about the interior - they just needed a high voltage tap and a network drop.” The camera focuses on the roof, where the once plain matted surface has been about 80% covered in what looks like a dense forest of carbon bonsai trees. The remaining free space is taken up by smaller Sheen forms sunning themselves. Ashley zooms in further, getting her first decent shots of the alien war machines. “The tree things are solar power, by the way,” Wolcox explains. “The Sheen prefer to keep to themselves when they’re not training. However, when they’re training, they give a 110%. You can’t see it that well from so far away, but the warforms are big - and they move very fast, too. The Sheen fought the Imperium to a standstill before, but went into isolation after that. We’re very lucky to have them on our side.”

“Now, if you turn to the other side,” Wolcox says, “you’ll see our newest arrivals, a delegation of Wherren warriors in the huts over there.” Ashley swings the camera to the other side and resets the zoom. The Wherren seem to have taken over a small complex of Quonset huts. The retrofitted large AC units attached to each one are conspicuously new, as is the network of posts and tarps that links the huts and provides some shade. Underneath the central tarp, a handful of Wherren is sitting in a circle, doing - something that involves them showing synchronized patterns of green and blue. “Some of the Wherren were having a bit of a rough time with the dry desert heat,” Wolcox explains, “but that was easy enough to fix. That’s just the scout troop advising us on how to set up the accommodations, by the way, we’ve got a lot more coming in today with the Bashakrans. They’re a bit more adventurous than the Sheen - they’ve been to the PX and the chow hall, as well as just walking the base, but they never go anywhere alone. And they usually call ahead and wait for an interpreter to come meet them before they leave their hut.” Wolcox nods, mostly for his own benefit. “Very respectful, very disciplined. But that’s the power of stereotypes, I suppose. You understand, the Wherren homeworld isn’t very developed, and the Wherren who live on other planets are almost universally slaves and Imperial servants. I wasn’t expecting them to show up here and be so...polite and organized.”
Don's instincts kick in, and he quickly turns back to Wolcox. "What were you expecting, Captain?"
“Well, you know, stereotypes,” Wolcox says, trying to recover from his fumble. “But that’s exactly why we’re bringing everyone together here. We’ve all heard bits and pieces, but if we’re going to be working together, we need to get together and see each other in the flesh. So far, I’ve been very impressed with everyone. When Task Force 815 set this up, I was expecting that we’d have to basically try to cram Boot Camp into a week just so we’d have some semblance of common ground for the actual drills - but that’s the kind of arrogance you really can’t sustain when you watch those guys in action. They’re good. They’re all really good at what they do. Fitting all the puzzle pieces together, that’s going to be the real meat of the exercise here. We’re all going to have to move out of our comfort zones a little bit, but that’s the only way you learn something new, don’t you agree?”

Don nods. "And speaking of our men and women, where are they?"
“We’ve only had a small contingent here so far to spin up the exercise,” Wolcox notes. “We’re expecting a lot more Marines to come in later today.” After a moment, he adds, “The Army’s contribution should be showing up today, too.”
"What is planned for them?" Don asks. "What could they need to be taught?"
“First off, a crash-course in interstellar culture, with a focus on the Imperium,” Wolcox says. “It’s about more than speaking the language. Our boys need to be able to navigate the social landscape. The thing we have to understand here is that it’s not going to be like other wars, where we go in once, build a big base and then patrol from there. We’ll be on the move in hostile territory. Knowing how to orient yourself and how to act like a local, those are essential survival skills. Not to mention that knowing where our allies and enemies are coming from is going to make everything easier for our boys, from getting along with others to getting into the heads of their opponents and planning around that.”
"And after that?"
“Scenario exercises, mostly,” Wolcox says. “It’s one thing to talk about how our friends fight, it’s another to go through an exercise with them. We’re spinning up some very realistic and difficult scenarios based on 815’s experience, so the goal there is to test how well everything works, identify what doesn’t work and try to smooth out the rough edges. We can’t simulate everything, of course, but good exercise is worth its weight in gold. As the saying goes: train like you fight, fight like you train.”
Don turns back to the cameras. "And that's what will be going on here at Mesas Negras for the next six months: training, both intellectual and martial, preparing forces both from Earth and from beyond the stars to fight the greatest war the galaxy has ever known." He holds still for a few moments, then lets his mic hand drop. "All right, that's good." Don turns back to Wolcox. "Well, Captain, what's first on the tour? There's a lot of ground to cover, and the American people are eager to hear all about it."


“I’m Don Terrence, director and producer for this documentary,” Don’s smooth, dark face seems more at home in front of the camera than behind it as he exposits from a “confessional”-type room set up in the first level of the GHRDI facility. “We’re trying to educate people with this film, to introduce them to our offworld allies at a human level that they just haven’t been able to see yet. Everything we’ve seen has been second- or third-hand from servicemen and women who have fought the Imperium, or we’ve seen the political debacles in Washington and don’t know what to believe. This is a tremendous opportunity, and over the next few days we’ll be doing just that.”


Bill holds his microphone low to better pick up the crunch of the documentary team’s shoes on the hard-packed ground as they walk back down the path leading towards the motor pool, then step closer behind Freddy, who has just spun around for a shot including the older sound tech and the new guy, David, burdened down with the bulk of the additional gear. While Freddy focuses on the crew and Capt. Wolcox making their way down the landscaped path, Ashley focuses on the wider shot: the motor pool is in a phase of low activity, with the cars outnumbering the people. The split is fairly equitable: Humvees share the space with government-issue silver Chevrolet Cruze sedans and the personal cars of the GHRDI staff. Beyond the motor pool’s fence, the four-lane road stretches north back towards the main gate and the fork leading to the new training facility and housing, and south towards the mesa itself - and the entrance to the underground research bunker. Ashley stops to track a big two and a half ton truck rumbling its way down the road towards the mesa. Bill smiles despite the heat, while David shakes his head and struggles on. Freddy’s teeth show white through his unkempt beard, then he turns his mic back to Cpt. Wolcox and “the Don”.

“We’ll take a humvee over to the training ground first,” explains Wolcox. “It’s a little harder to schedule visits during range time but our timing’s just about right.”
“When does Task Force 815 arrive?” Don asks, foregoing his microphone in favor of walking down the path.
“They’re scheduled for today,” Wolcox says with a tight smile.
“Do you know what role they might be playing in training?”
“They’re instrumental for tying it all together,” Wolcox says. “815 has fought alongside Bashakrans, Wherren and Sheen before. What we’re trying to do here is to apply the lessons learned on a much bigger scale. So, they’ll be integral parts of exercise planning and evaluation. Some of them, like Specialist Kesh, Assistant Director Davis, Corporal Quis, and Captain Verrill, will be directly involved as training officers, others will help out behind the scenes.”
Don silently motions for his whole crew to focus in on Wolcox. “What do you think of Task Force 815?” he asks. “They’ve been at the center of a lot of controversy the last few weeks - their testimony to Congress, smears in the news, they’ve been involved in gunfights and even victims of an assassination attempt. What do you think, Captain?”
Wolcox doesn’t answer for a moment, mulling his next words before straightening up and looking directly at Don. “I believe in Task Force 815, Mr. Terrence,” Wolcox says. “As far as I’m concerned, they’ve been telling the truth from the word go, and while I get that a lot of it was hard to swallow, I mean, I couldn’t quite believe it all at first, but look around you, Mr. Terrence.” Wolcox sweeps an arm over the scenery. “It’s true. It’s happening. And they’re not the first people who got in trouble for telling the Emperor he had no clothes. Above all, they’re professionals. They’re extremely good at what they do. And it’s about time they got some recognition for it. I think I speak for all my Marines when I say that we’re ready to listen to them, and we’re ready to fight together with them. We’re proud to have them with us. They’re heroes. That’s what I think about Task Force 815.” He turns and gestures towards their ride, a Humvee parked at the curb ten feet away at the bottom of the path. “If you want to see some of them in action, we should head for the training ground. Some of 815 are there, preparing for tomorrow.”
Don thinks for a moment himself before waving his crew to shut their cameras down. "Then we should get moving."


Ashley drags on her cigarette before hurriedly stamping it out, then settles herself in the chair. “Ashley Parsons, camera two,” she says. “Still in the desert, heh heh. Uh, right, so... my job’s to, you know, film things,” Ashley adds a self-deprecating shrug. “They have robots.”


Wind rushes past, adding its high notes to the bass of the humvee’s engine. Wolcox steers the truck down asphalt half-covered with dust and sand towards a double-fenced gate. Behind the gate, large earth berms rise to either side of the road, covering the length of two football fields to either side - the camera struggles to capture the whole length in one shot, settling on a sweep from left to right. Ashley cusses to herself - she knows that’s a boring shot and won’t survive editing. Still, the berms are not quite as sprawling as the rifle range, but there’s clearly more than one area behind the gate. Freddy has more luck on his side of the vehicle: rising above the berms are two-occupant observation towers with a shielded ladder leading down and a rotating light on top of them, some going for a sedate green spin, some flashing a more rapid red. If every visible tower belongs to a separate bermed-off training area, there’s a total of eight of them, and judging by the three red lights, those three are currently weapons-hot with an active drill. Wolcox rolls the humvee to a stop in front of the gate and lowers the window on his side. One sweating guard checks credentials and then they are through.

“There have been a lot of changes, and I don’t mean the obvious ones,” Wolcox explains as they cruise at a more reasonable pace. “Mesas Negras was a top-secret facility, now we host a significant civilian population on-site. It was Army, now GHRDI, and now with Marines on top. Three species living together; humans, wherren, and sheen. Ah, here we are.”

The next camera footage shows a bizarre fireteam of four sheen shells stacked up, for lack of a better term, outside a heavily-weathered killhouse inside the confines of berms on three sides. Off to one side, out of direct sight of the killhouse, a portable shelter has been erected with a bank of monitors on the table, with two people standing underneath - one impossibly-well-dressed man in Imperial clothes, and one red-haired woman, not too shabbily dressed herself.
"And you have a Bashakran observer?" Don asks, nodding towards the tent.
“No, that's Specialist Angel Kesh, from Task Force 815m” Wolcox explains to Don as Freddy's camera looks on. From the camera's vantage point, Angel looks like he's clothed in a dark tan suit with impossibly sleek lines and not a crease to be seen. It's hard to even spot the seam where it opens, and when Angel reaches for his breast pocket, it’s like the fabric parts right before his hand and closes back up into nothing when he withdraws it. It’s also difficult to miss the cut of the clothes: although fitted with a tight Mandarin-like collar and cuffs, the sleeves seem wide and airy, with very subtle gussets at the elbows to keep the cuffs right over his wrists without anything pulling or pushing when he moves his arms - but it's still cut so well to his form that when he stands still, the lines immediately snap back to an ideal position. It’s not clear if the outfit has a jacket and pants as such: there’s a subtly darker area around Angel’s waist that could be a beltline, or just a visual artifact. Finally, he’s wearing something that might be mistaken for exceptionally slick moccassins, except that the shape of his ankles is obvious on their surface - it’s not quite a shoe, not quite a sock, but it does cover his feet and provide all the comfort, protection and traction he needs. By contrast, Erika looks like she had a Platinum Visa and about half an hour at REI to create her outfit. Dark brown pants over desert boots meet up with a wide-cut blouse the color of tea-stained paper; Erika has the sleeves rolled nearly all the way up and the top three buttons open. The sunglasses - big and chic - still do the job just as well in the bright desert sun as they do on Manhattan, and a wide-brimmed straw-knit sunhat shades the back of her neck from the sun.

“I’m sorry, Kesh - that’s Angel Kesh?” asks Don.
“The same,” Wolcox answers with a nod. "He has been working with this particular Sheen group for a while now." He turns back towards the killhouse. "They're about to start the exercise, Mr. Terrence, you might want to watch this."

On the instructor’s go, the machines sweep into the interior, which has been mocked up to resemble some sort of starship interior - Ashley gets a great shot from the observation tower. Targets and standups wither, burst, and shred apart under pinpoint weapons fire from the sheen’s gunpods. A surprise hostile flips out from a hatchway a heartbeat later; this is met in mid-deployment by a pattern of hypervelocity flechettes. Within the span of a few seconds, the Sheen in the killhouse have dealt with the hostile targets and maneuver their metal bulk around the handful of noncombatant decoy targets in a protective posture.
“Clear!” one of the shells shouts in an exuberant ringing basso.

"The Sheen have agreed to a cross-training program with the GRHDI and Marine Corps to prepare for joint operations," Wolcox explains with no small amount of pride. "Once we had their agreement, the Bashakrans and the Wherren followed. So, these were the first Sheen soldiers to come over, they will be aiding with the program, sharing their experience with the others. Fifty new Sheen will be arriving over the next few days to begin instruction, and, well...” the Marine falters for a moment before the camera cuts.

The next shot shows a killhouse in a similar setup, save for subtle variations in target placement and configuration of the fireteam’s shells. The instructor gives the word and utter chaos reigns for a second or two of gut-wrenching terror. One shell, screaming some binary battle cry, bursts bodily through the wall beside the opening hatch. Hostiles and civilian targets alike are shot down, then grabbed, stomped, and slashed to kindling. Gunpods slag the faux consoles and blast smoking craters in the reinforced shielding. One burst sails way off target as the warform does a gratuitous combat roll across a room, spraying into the air - Ashley ducks quickly as flechettes pepper the observation tower around her, and captures the full shakycam glory of the referee’s face frozen into a mask of “Holy shit!” as they both hit the deck.
“Clear!” screams one of the Sheen.
“Pwned!” shout the others. They disregard the final “surprise” hostile target in favor of celebratory tentacle fist-bumps. Freddy pans his camera back towards the observation tent with Angel and Erika, where Erika is on her phone and Angel simply braces himself on the table and shakes his head.

“As you can see,” Wolcox adds through a tight smile, “integration and training is one of our top priorities for our sheen allies.”
“Still a few bugs?” asks Terrence, his face somewhere between shock and smirk.
“Yeah, that’s one way to put it,” Wolcox says. “Excuse me for a moment.” Freddy gets Wolcox walking over to a ref and patting him on the shoulder; the ref takes off his ear protection, and then the berating starts. Wolcox actually stabs his fingers at the ref’s chest. The boom’s too far away to capture sound and the wind’s too strong to hear anything over the camera’s own mic, but the angry expression on Wolcox’s face says it all. However, the berating ends quickly, and Wolcox turns back to rejoin the crew, shaking his head a little as he walks back. “Sorry about that,” Wolcox says. “Obviously these two need to go through the safety brief again. We’re using live ammo on those ranges and that doesn’t leave any room for clowning around. It’s not our business to tell them how to approach the situations we present, but we’re not making any compromises on safety.”


“I’m Freddy Towner, I’m camera one.” Freddy’s smile is brief but his eyes maintain good-natured lines as he continues. “Been all over, did a lot of gigs up north for Discovery. This is a treat, though, seein’ all this.”


The humvee again, this time rolling down the access road to the Bashakra’i barracks. Bill and Ashley crane their equipment to catch a Black Hawk churning overhead. Cpt. Wolcox, as always, is talking to Don while driving.

“The Sheen are important in ways that go beyond their military usefulness. They were made by the Imperium, for starters, and that alone provides us valuable insight into our enemy. They won against the Imperium, at least enough to keep a world to call their own. Think about that.”
Don purses his lips before asking, “But it’s not enough for us to sequester ourselves like they have, is it?”
“No sir,” Wolcox replies. “We have to take the battle to the Imperium if we’re going to beat them. We have to defeat their... their culture of tyranny.” The humvee slows, turns, starts cruising slowly through the Bashakra’i barracks. Newly-constructed Quonset huts stand in neat rows under the Arizona sun. Freddy and Ashley both cover the exterior view, making sure they catch the handful of waves from the Bashakra’i who spotted the cameras.
“These people are our opening salvo in that war,” Wolcox says. “They’ve seen our way and they’ve seen the Imperium’s way and they’ve chosen to stand with us. Heh.”
“What’s funny?” Don asks.
“Well, in actuality we should think of it as us standing with them, Mr. Terrence,” Wolcox explained.


“I’ll tell you something, I’ve been over the recordings and I still can’t tell if what I got from those Sheen training runs is their actual noise or just interference,” the weathered older man says. He lets the superimposed title and position (Bill Crawford, Sound) handle the introductions. “They scared me, I’ll admit that, but mostly they’re just people. The Bash.. ackraye-ee... Bashakrai-ee too. The shit that’s been done to them, it’s horrifying. I’m not a soldier or anything, I just hold a boom mic and make everyone else sound good, but what I can do is tell who I can that these people? They’re not the enemy. They’re the victims. Sounds to me like the whole damn Imperium is full of victims who don’t even realize it.”


Ashley and Freddy hold their cameras steady just inside Wolcox’s hastily defined safe zone near the two and a half mile stretch of tarmac that serves as the Mesas Negras airfield. Ashley's camera is pointed at the runway, while Freddy's camera catches David as he keeps glancing over at the welcoming committee for the new recruits. The periphery of the crowd is made of gaggles of Marines and Army soldiers, standing around like they got to the party, grabbed a plastic cup with punch and just realized they don’t know anyone here, and GRHDI officials, who seem altogether more at ease with their incoming guests - although some seem out of place in a non-DC setting. Closer together, there’s a group of Task Force 815 members, past and current: Garrett Davis, Semo Putupu, Angel Kesh with his personal assistant, an oh-so-very-pregnant Ngawai Holoni, and Arketta Quis, who’s practically putting the Marine standing next to her in her shade. Arketta catches David lollygagging and gives him a somewhat embarrassed smile.

The C-5’s final approach seems impossibly slow in the distance, like it’s barely hanging in the air as it keeps getting closer to the tarmac with some barely visibly jitters adjusting for last-second crosswind. But finally the rear right wheels touch the ground, then the rear left, and the C-5 rolls forward nose up for a few seconds before it’s bled off enough speed that the nose goes down, too. 4 engines at full throttle thrown into thrust reverse start fighting the massive plane’s momentum as it hurls down the tarmac. After about ten seconds, the engines quiet down, the airbrakes on the wings retract and the plane rolls forward at a more leisurely clip, taxiing into position. The cargo plane’s belly finally touches the ground with a hydraulic sigh, and the welcoming committee carefully walks across the tarmac towards the back.

After a few minutes, the ramp at the back slowly lowers, revealing a motley group representing the whole off-world contingent of the alliance, delivered straight from Diego Garcia. When the ramp finally touches ground and the loadmaster waves them forward, they deplane slowly onto the hot runway. Humans mingle with the slightly bigger infiltration-sized Sheen shells and the significantly bigger Wherren warriors. The humans are tall and tan, sporting a bewildering mish-mash of clothes, weapons and other gear, but they all wear a distinctive blue and green wide collar draping over their shoulders. They were once rebels, brothers, sisters, parents, terrorists, chefs, pilots, but the collar now marks them out as Bashakra'i. The Wherren lumber down the ramp, many slinging heavy leather bags festooned with fetishes and runes over their shoulders, though a good couple of them chose synthetic bags of rebel production that they have merely redecorated. Their fur flashes in the sun as they broadcast their peculiar mixture of relief and worry. The Sheen are clearly using this trip as an opportunity to test out new bodyshapes, with about equal numbers of two-, four- and six-legged shells, with the number of arms - and heads, and pods - similarly experimental. Freddy and Ashley pick up brief weird light interference on their cameras, no doubt the Sheen sensors locking onto the camera lenses and scanning them as items of interest. In between two of the Wherren walks Captain Hugh Verrill, sticking out like a sore thumb in his Army class A uniform with a tan duffel bag slung over his shoulders - he looks like he skipped out on shaving that morning, and the uniform is a little crinkled from the long flight, but he’s wearing a big smile and chatting enthusiastically with the Wherren at his sides, a far cry from the dour and harried man who testified before Congress. Towards the other end of the disembarking crowd is Luis Stanhill, the only human not with some kind of sunshades thanks to his optical implants, and wearing a dark green Imperial tunic with Narsai'i blue jeans with a similar tan duffel over his shoulder as he continues an in-depth conversation with a couple of Sheen.

Don is already on the move, and his crew follows, capturing the GHRDI staff enroute as well as glimpses of the recruits at distance. Sore necks, backs, and legs are stretched. Men and women smile, glad to be on solid ground, at their destination, or possibly just off the spartan aircraft. Freddy focuses on the veritable arsenal the Bashakra'i are carrying, from the oddly-shaped Imperial beam rifles to the chrome-and-gold stinger pistols, and he catches flashes of knives tucked into pants and snub nosed weapons under cloaks, the contingent clearly eschewing the regulations about personal weaponry. As the Bashakra’i wander out of the plane’s enormous shadow, several glance up at the sky and the sun beating down on them. One by one, they reached behind their heads and pull on their collars, drawing the fabric over their heads for shade. It looks like a hood that’s missing the sides, just forming a personal miniature roof over their heads - and the way it hovers, it’s clear that the fabric contains some techno-trickery to stiffen into this shape when it’s pulled up. With the hoods deployed, the Bashakra’i start looking a bit more uniform, proudly displaying a blue-and-green tartan-esque pattern over their heads. The Wherren reaction to the beating sun is more uneven. Many of them already had their hats out and ready, a mix of plain Imperial wide-brimmed hats simply scaled up to fit Wherren heads and hand-made leather bush hats. But a few - probably from the deeper jungle regions of Whiirr - clearly didn’t anticipate the raw intensity and heat of the withering desert sun and either hold up an arm to shield their faces or dig into their packs to produce hats; the other Wherren flash brief patterns of orange and green in response. The Sheen, naturally, barely notice the desert heat; the only reaction is a few of the hexapedal shells deploy more of the dendritic solar energy collectors out of their backs to soak up the free energy. The sentient robots are more interested in their conversation and scanning the surroundings than anything else, however, three of the bipedal Sheen excuse themselves for a moment and step onto a pallet ready for unloading, fold themselves in half a couple of times and go dark. A moment later, the three largest combat shells, folded and dormant, light up and deploy before quickly - but gingerly - walking down the ramp and rejoining the discussions they were engaged in to varying degrees of distress of the others, adding the final exotic spice to the cargo plane’s unorthodox delivery.

The welcoming committee of military and GRHDI personnel meet up with the new arrivals a few hundred feet from the massive plane, and it's there that the tempo of the moment immediately changes. Garrett, Ngawai and most of the military personnel head for the Bashakra'i, while Semo makes for the Wherren group and Angel walks swiftly towards the Sheen shells. Luis and Hugh each make a swift about-face and start calling or barking for the group they're responsible for to assemble.

“Good, I was hoping the Wherren would make it,” Wolcox points out. “You can see how their body language is chromatic as well as sign-based.” In the background of Bill's audio, the low rumble of several trucks pulling onto the tarmac is heard.
"And the Sheen robots - what happened with the ones that shut down?" Don asks.
"They didn't shut down, they jumped from one shell to the next," Wolcox answers. "Since the Sheen are a digital intelligence, each of the bodies - they call them 'shells' - can support any given Sheen. They simply transferred themselves from the smaller bodies into the larger ones."
"Wow," Terrence says. "Shit, try that again." He clears his throat. "That's fascinating."

By this point, the three groups have separated out, each surrounding the 815 member charged with organizing their respective programs. The Bashakra'i laugh as Luis Stanhill chimes in after Garrett Davis says something in Imperial, the Wherren group's colors settle down to a brown with a hint of blue as Hugh Verrill barks, grunts, and whirrs, and Angel Kesh's voice is easily heard over the total silence of the Sheen as they stand motionless for his directions. Ashley and Freddy walk quickly from group to group, getting shots of both the 815 instructors and the just-arrived participants. Many of the Bashakra'i and Wherren yawn and stretch, exhausted from the long flight, while the Sheen make for somewhat disconcerting footage, with most of the shells tasking a few of their many red-lensed sensors to track Freddy and Ashley as they film the group. Bill splits his time between following the two camera operators, while Don runs back and forth giving direction, and David simply takes the opportunity to wander and gawk.

After ten minutes or so of briefing, the Sheen are the first to depart - Angel Kesh having taken advantage of the Sheen's perfect memory to avoid having to repeat himself - and they eschew the transport trucks for simply walking towards their hangar. Garrett Davis and Hugh Verrill finish up with their speeches and answering questions a few minutes later, and guide their groups towards the trucks. As they walk towards the trucks, Arketta Quis breaks away into a flat run.

"Where's Corporal Quis going?" Don asks.
"Where we need to go," Wolcox says. "The Marines and Army trainees should be arriving in five, so we should be running, too."


Arketta’s jog could easily keep pace with most bataillon runs, thanks to her tall frame, and it’s that kind of edge that gets her to the motor pool a few minutes ahead of Don Terrence and his increasingly out-of-breath film crew. The buses have already pulled in by the time Freddy and Ashley get their cameras rolling - two full buses, in two slightly different shades of drab grey, both showing small “Mesas Negras” paper signs next to much larger “USMC” and “ARMY” stencils, respectively. The welcome committee is already present: 1st Lt. Matthew Decker, US Army, a tall fellow with broad shoulders who may have grown up aboard a rowboat, and Master Gunnery Sergeant Steven Lee, who looks like he’s walked to this tarmac lot over the broken bones of those foolish marines who presumed to call him “Master Guns”. Both of them are clearly in an informal uniform neatness competition, which makes Arketta’s well-worn cammies and sunglasses look positively...civilian.

The buses finally open their doors, letting loose a flood of tired-looking soldiers and marines. The first boot on the ground is understood by Decker as an invitation to start his routine. “Gentlemen!” he bellows. “Your vacation is officially over! Get your rear in gear and line ‘em up, we haven’t got all day!”
“Move it, devil dogs!” Lee adds.

Properly chastened, the weary travelers assemble, quickly building into three orderly rows with a healthy distance between the soldiers and the marines. Freddy moves behind Arketta, capturing some of the soldiers glancing at her.
“Atten-HUT!” Decker calls, and all eyes snap forward as the formation stands at attention. Decker makes a show of walking down the line, checking everyone before he walks back to stand beside Lee.
“Gentlemen, at ease, and welcome to Mesas Negras!” Decker calls out. “Your road here was long and tough, and I have bad news for you: it’s not getting any easier! I am 1st Lieutenant Decker and if you’re Army Strong, I will be your new best friend and worst enemy for the next three weeks! If you’re fleet, then you will come to love and loathe Master Gunnery Sergeant Lee, standing here to my right! As your lead instructors, we will make sure that you take away more than bruises and sunburn from our little safari! Standing to my left is Corporal Arketta Quis, and as far as this course is concerned, that spells Golf Oscar Delta! You will follow any and all of her orders to the goddamn letter, and anybody who has a problem with that had best about face now so I can kick their ass back onto the bus! Are we clear on that, gentlemen? Hoo-ah!”

The Army soldiers answer with a loud “HOO-AH!”, while the Marines keep standing with their eyes fixed forward.
“The Lieutenant asked you a question, devil dogs!” Lee shouts. “Are we clear on that? Oorah!”
“OO-RAH!” the Marines answer. Decker gives the show a strained smile.
“Here’s the good news, gentlemen!” Decker says. “Your gear is getting a comfy ride to the barracks! That leaves us free to take a little tour of the base and stretch our legs!” He turns to Arketta. “Corporal Quis, if you would do the honors.”
Arketta nods and steps to the front; Freddy motors behind the assembled soldiers to get a troops-eye-view while Ashley steadies her camera for a hero shot. “Atten-hut!” she calls out, and the troops snap to attention again. “Platoon, left, FACE!” The troops turn 90 degrees to the left in place - Arketta's accent clearly not an issue when it comes to drill commands. “Mark time, MARCH!” The troops start marching in place. “Forward, MARCH!”

As the troops are marched off (and quickly ordered into a double-time jog), Freddy turns to Ashley’s camera.
“So...” he says. “Do we get a jeep or what?”


“Yeah, the security clearance for this gig was apparently more than Freddy’s usual assistant could handle,” David Espinoza speaks to the camera. “They’re a really great team to work with, though. Don- er, Mr. Terrence really believes in this project.”

The muffled voice of someone asking a question shakes David out of an awkward pause. “Yes!” he agrees. “So we’re in the base itself, and they have this new Gateway... it’s weird, it’s like it was growing. Or it had been growing. Anyway, they brought it back from Boranai and... well, they say it was safe but we still all had to wear radiation badges, you know what I mean?”


The new Mesas Negras Gateport is filled with three things: technology, people, and nervous energy. Built near the entrance to the tunnel leading to the Mesas Negras underground base proper, the Gateport is a near replica of the original on Diego Garcia: a big hole in the ground, lined with concrete and with an enormous concrete slab roof, primed to drop onto the Gateway and any unfortunate invaders if the need arises. Mounted gun emplacements, some prefab offices for Gateway personnel and a concrete ramp up and out complete the permanent decor, however, for the special occasion, a few folding tables with cake, snacks, and most importantly, a large collection of champagne stand ready. Most of the GRHDI staff present at Mesas Negras and the top-ranking military personnel on base wait near the tables, and in yet another appearance in the day's footage, Task Force 815 members Garrett Davis and Hugh Verrill are joined by Zaef Utari and Hunter Brand. Don, Bill and David stay close to the dignitaries and staff, while Freddy and Ashley stand right up against the red-and-black caution tape strung between orange pylons that serves as a temporary safety barrier from the final stages of the Gateway's construction.

And it's that construction that Freddy and Ashley turn to record. Quicksilver tendrils extend from a gently pulsating mass - the activated Groi Gateway replicator - and up the thick length of braided cable connecting the replicator to the Groi reactor humming away in the corner. In the other direction, the mercuric strands attach to the walls and ceiling, anchoring a round form - the nearly completed Gateway. One lone technician is standing forward of the safety perimeter, his hand placed gingerly on top of the replicator's fluid bulk. Freddy focuses on the Gateway itself, while Ashley gets the wider shot with a careful pan.

The technician withdraws his hand from the replicator. "Fifteen seconds to go!" he shouts, and hustles back behind the safety cordon. All eyes go towards the Gateway - save for Ashley, who turns her camera on the assembled crowd. The room seems to hold its breath, and then suddenly the nacent Gateway issues a blindingly bright flash of light. The liquid metal flows off of the form, revealing the finished Gateway resting safely in its cradle as the Groi replicator quickly reabsorbs the tendrils. An awed silence falls over the room for a few seconds as a series of lights emerge from the Gateway's ring - the code of the finished device. As soon as it finishes, cheers and applause raise up from the crowd, but the champagne and cake remain untouched for the moment.
The Gateway operator, safely ensconced in his concrete booth, comes over the Gateport PA. "Stand clear, dialing mechanism moving in now." With a great rumble and a few pained screeches of metal, the dialing framework and mechanism moves in from the sides on rails built into the floor as Freddy takes a few steps back to get the whole mechanism in frame. The round track also includes the rolling shutter that blocks off the Gateway when not in use, which is held open for the momentous occasion.

A few seconds later, the dialing mechanism connects together with a few loud clangs, and the Gateway operator speaks up again. "Dialing Diego Garcia Gateway now." The dialing mechanism swings around in its track, and quickly taps on the Gateway in the pre-aligned locations, the glyphs lighting up in order. A second hush comes over the Gateport, as dialer punches in the code for Diego Garcia and the Gateway's virgin connection.
The instant the last glyph lights up, the inner rim of the Gateway glows for a moment - and then the bright golden flash of the Gateway connection lights up the Gateport. Freddy tilts his camera over to fiddle with some of the knobs, silently cursing as another round of cheers go up and champagne corks pop off. Diego Garcia’s Gateroom fills the portal; the celebrating personnel on the other side are a life-size silent movie. The first ones to step through are military and GRHDI personnel on Diego Garcia, and their counterparts on the Mesas Negras side step up to the Gateway to greet them, including Garrett Davis. Handshakes and flutes of champagne are exchanged, and after a few ceremonial pictures to mark the occasion, the welcoming party quickly steps out of the way for the real business at hand.

Having patiently waited their turn, the remaining contingent of Wherren trainees - the late crowd coming from the furthest reaches of the Wherren tribes contacted on Whiirr - hump gear bags through the Gateway. Amongst them is Swims-the-Black; the shipmaster's jade tusk caps quickly mark him out for both Ashley and Freddy, and they turn their cameras on him. Swims-the-Black apparently doesn't notice them, or perhaps he doesn't care. He pauses at the top of the ramp, quickly finds Garrett and flows through the crowd to embrace his friend. Hugh stands at the base of the ramp and greets the small Wherren contingent, who are rippling contented shades of sea green and brown. Swims bows to Hugh in greeting, and barks and signs something that gets him a round of chuckles from those close enough to hear or see him. Hugh shouts back, “That’s because the C-130 pilots were tired of you telling them how to fly their planes!”

Wolcox near-shouts over the din. “God, it’ll be good to make that trip in a few strides. We have no basis for comparison other than astronomically large numbers when traveling to an alien planet. These Gateways are the only real means we have for that. But just about everyone here has been on that long flight to Diego Garcia and this... this is worth celebrating. This second Gateway will be key to running concurrent operations. For resupply, for transport of personnel and equipment, for import and export. We’re twice as maneuverable now, strategically speaking,” he finishes.
“Twice as vulnerable?” Don asks.
“The same security measures in place at Diego Garcia are replicated here,” Wolcox replies. “I can’t go into detail, of course, but we have made some innovations that the Imperium doesn’t even utilize. There is no downside to this, Mr. Terrence.”


Bill and Ashley walk slowly around the quiet memorial much later. The quiet hum of far-off machinery and the chirping of insects is all Bill’s equipment records. Ashley slowly pans across the eternal flame and the small collection of wreaths loved ones bothered to keep current before settling on the bronze Gateway-shaped memorial. She stops for a closer focus on the memorial plaque. The names would be unfamiliar to those who will later see their documentary, but the number of them is an uncomfortable reminder of the threat they all face.
punkey 2013-05-19 03:29:47
Shenloma Abeon casually reached across the table and gently plucked his ridiculously opulent burr-fruit cocktail off the platinum surface. Not platinum-clad, mind you. Platinum - the metal conducting the warmth of the sand on the waterfront of his Napai'i palace to his beverage, keeping it at just the right temperature. It really is all about the little things, you know. Lounging on either side was Io Oamma, a primary instruction classmate of his who went from invisible to the most attractive girl in the academy in the space of a year. Either side, because one of them - Shenloma could never remember which - is a clone of the real one, but both are stunningly gorgeous, bronze skin glowing in the beachfront sun, their bodies alternately firm and soft in all the right places, and totally hot for the guy they begged for help with a mathematics project in 8th year and then never spoke a single word to ever again.
"Which one of you wants to oil my back?" Shenloma asks them coyly, adding a couple of drops of kurpa venom to his drink.
"I do," the Io clones reply sensually.
"Well, only one of you can oil my back - one of you has to work my front," Shenloma says with a smirk.

"Ooh, I'll do that," Io says. They both take a squirt from the bottle of refined tree oil and move into position at his front and back, pressing their ample bosoms against him from both sides. Shenloma feels near to absolute bliss, and it only gets better when the Io Oamma in front of him looks deep into his eyes, opens her mouth, and then an absolutely ear-shatteringly loud blast of music makes Shenloma's head ring so hard that he damn near falls out of the top bunk.
The lights flick on in the barracks to reveal Garrett Davis and two uniformed Narsai'i. "Time to get up!" Garrett Davis shouts over the top of the infernal music - music played on some brass instrument one of the Narsai'i is holding up to his lips and blowing into as hard as he can. "I hope you spink-larvae brought running gear, because you've got a half-hour to get up, get dressed and meet at the skimmer pool for a 5 kilometer run to the killhouses!" He claps his hands and shakes the bunk of one of their number that's still asleep. "The sooner you move out, the less hot it will be for the run, so get moving!"

As Davis turns on his heel and leaves, Shenloma finally gets enough of his wits about him to wave his hand past his vox on the charging stand he taped to the wall the previous night - 0531 local Narsai time, early enough that the view outside the window is as dark as the bottom of a well. That is far too fucking early by Shenloma's estimation, and as he turns to dangle his feet over the edge of the bunk, he says as much.
"It is far too fucking early," Shenloma grouses tiredly.
"And yet here we are," Leaj replies as she pushes Shenloma's feet out of the way. "The packet did tell us we're getting up early at first, I told you."
"Yeah, but..." Shenloma slides to the floor as Leaj gets out of the way. "I was sound asleep."
Leaj slaps Shenloma's chest with the back of her hand and smirks. "It was another Io Oamma dream."
"This time, there were two of them - clones," Shenloma replies wistfully as his pants hit the floor.
"It made sense in primary instruction, but now it's just sad," Leaj says as she strips off her lightweight night top.
Shenloma smirks as he pulls the upper half of his sleeveless skinsuit over his shoulders. "Great fantasy material never grows old."
"That's what's sad, she kicked you in the groin when you tried to kiss her before the fall solstice function, so you're thinking about a woman who caused you emotional and physical pain," Leaj points out.
"First love, rejected," Shenloma replies, adopting an appropriately poetic pose. "Forever after, no other love shall taste as sweet as forbidden passion."
Leaj rolls her eyes. "Then again, with the women you've dated since, maybe you like pain," she says.
This time, Shenloma fights back, giving Leaj a push as she balances on one foot, trying to slide her toes into the pockets on her running shoes, sending her to the floor. His revenge complete, Shenloma makes one critical error: not stepping out of grappling range, and not a second later Leaj trips Shenloma, bringing him to the floor as well and right into a headlock.
"Hey! You two!" Rav-Turai Nakiloest shouts from her bunk. "Save it for the training!"
"Yes, Rav-Turai," Shenloma and Leaj say simultaneously. They help each other to their feet and then turn their concentration on getting dressed and ready.

Shenloma looks up at Leaj Lelolooth as he slides on his own shoes - if he's honest, and tortured to within an inch of his life, Leaj is definitely more attractive than the real Io Oamma could possibly be, with her strong, broad shoulders and wide hips. But he and Leaj grew up five habs apart from each other in the AndaTronics Industries habs on Airshaz, and have been inseparable since the age of five. They went to primary instruction together, enlisted with their people's Turai together, and are in the same quad together. Sleeping with her would be like sleeping with his sister, if he had a sister, and he knows she feels the same, except about her brother, which she does have.
Leaj tightens her sash around her waist and turns back to Shenloma as he adjusts his epaulettes. "Are you ready to go?" she asks with an excited smile. "Because I'm ready to go and I think that it's time we should go so you should be ready to go."
"Calm down, crazy," Shenloma jokes. Leaj had been wound tight ever since they had been picked by their Rav-Samal to represent their quads at this prestigious Narsai'i training exercise. Still, he envied her enthusiasm as he slid his finger across the band of his loose sheer leggings to activate the waist to tighten.
Leaj already had her hood on, her smile beaming at him. "Ready?"
Shenloma pulled his own hood up over his head and squeezed the tip, feeling the fabric instantly go rigid as he returned her smile. "Ready. Narsai'i, watch out."


The South Carolina summer sun gently pushes a breeze through the branches of the sweet gum tree outside Cameron Benton’s window, the gentle scent and sound reminding Sergeant Boyd Kravitz of home more than any other as he pistons in and out of his girlfriend as her parents watch The Price is Right downstairs. With high school out for the summer, Kravitz’s thoughts had turned to baseball practice, working on his truck, and, of course, banging his girlfriend, but with the new possibility of joining the Marine Corps floating through his head. Even right now, as Cameron hisses through gritted death and waves him on deeper, the concept of Boyd joining the Marines is there, and he imagines himself in that sharp black and red uniform - still fucking Cameron’s brains out, of course.

And now he is in his dress blues as Cameron’s ankles dig into his back, and he’s so very, very close - but then Boyd is rocketed awake by the familiar sound of drums being played very loudly in his immediate vicinity. He’s feet-down on the floor before he’s even wiped the sleep from his eyes and moments later he’s up and watching Lee step in between two more people in some weird polished-chrome alien armor play...a set of drum pads and some weird-ass fucking recorder, but amplified by some speaker setup Boyd can’t see.

"Up on your feet, Marines!" Lee claps. "Now, now, now, let's go!"
Boyd doesn't have to look at his watch to know that it's early, but he expected this. He's already up, but now he and the rest of the barracks quickly move to stand at attention in front of their bunks.
"We are marching outside to meet with our new Army friends, and I want to show them up in the worst fucking way, so we will be perfect, understood?" Lee shouts.
"Yes, Master Gunnery Sergeant!" Boyd and the rest of the barracks shout.
"All right!" Lee shouts back. "On my say-so, you will exit these quarters, hang a left, exit the building and assemble your hungover asses into a smart formation by the flagpole! And when I get out there, you had best be at ease with nothing in the breeze! Am I making myself clear, devil dogs?”
“Yes, Master Gunnery Sergeant!” the Marines shout.
“Wonderful!” Lee shouts. “On my mark, fall out. Mark!”

Marines are used to misery, and this awakening - rude as it is - is no different. Starting from the bunks closest to the door, the Marines take off running, pulling a half-decent zipper merge just before the door, though some immediately have to pay back that grace debt by nearly bouncing off the wall opposite the door as they make a sharp left turn. The nice orderly exfil turns into a bit of a race down the hallway, until the human spearhead of the group makes contact with the double-wide exit and swings the doors open. While the first Marines need a moment to rejoin the group after deflecting to the side, the runners-up are already at the flagpole outside, holding their hands up against the low-slung sun at the horizon. The vision of Arketta Quis and some older woman in shiny alien armor quickly retards any amount of enthusiasm for showing off - okay, now it’s Basic. With their hands already near-stuck to the sides, the Marines frantically shuffle forward until the front right corner of the gaggle finds a tile joint under the sand. He locks in position, and that gives the guy behind him his place, while the guys to the left shuffle forward to meet the line with their heads locked to the right and down. On the other side of the flagpole, much the same game is being played by the Army - and that makes it a competition. Lines are matched, distances are measured in bumped elbows from arms akimbo, and the sleepier Marines are forcibly and silently pushed into proper alignment by their peers. In the end, the few seconds headstart of the Marines cinch the race for them, and they freeze in proper formation while the last Army guys finish lining up.

"Good morning!" Quis shouts.
“Good morning Corporal Quis!” comes the combined vocal capacity of both the Army and Marine detachments.
"Six months of training starts today!" Quis continues. "You are not here just to learn how to fight the Imperium, you are here to learn how to fight with your new allies! It is our job to teach you not just tactics, but to understand our enemies - and our allies!" She pauses and takes a deep breath. "And that begins with your own people! Master Gunnery Sergeant Lee, Lieutenant Decker, pair them up!"

Decker steps in front of his formation and clears his throat. “Gentlemen,” he begins, “we’ve taken the liberty of choosing your new dance partners! When I call your name, you will fall out and maneuver yourself into a nice and orderly line starting from that stripe” - Decker waves towards a yellow marking on the pavement of the access road - “where you will wait for further instructions. You will find our brothers from the Corps doing the same evolution, which means that once you’re there, you will find your new battle buddy standing to your left. You will all show your new friend some courtesy - for our guys from the 82nd, courtesy means “handshake”, not “headbutt”, am I making myself clear?”
“Yes, Sir!” comes the shouting from the Army detachment.
“Why, I think that’s pretty fucking clear, devil dogs!” Lee shouts. “Now, I know these are Army boys, but I will tolerate no hazing, kidding or other aggravating pranketeering from my Marines! When your battle buddy falls down, you drag his ass over the finish line, oorah?”
“OORAH!” the Marines shout.

Boyd waits patiently at attention until Lee shouted his name - "Sergeant Kravitz, Boyd!" - and hustled over to his side of the yellow line, where an Army grunt with a 75th Rangers tattoo on his shoulder arrived next to him at the same moment. Following orders, Boyd turns to him and shakes his hand.
"Sergeant Boyd Kravitz, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines," Boyd says.
"Sergeant Alexander Danielsson, 75th Rangers," the Army guy replies.
"Alex all right, Sergeant?" Boyd asks.
Boyd catches Sergeant Danielsson clocking the Star of David pendant on a chain around his neck. "Yeah, Alex is fine, Sergeant," he replies. Introductions concluded, they both turn back towards the flagpole and resume standing at attention.

After a few more minutes, all one-hundred soldiers are paired off, and Quis steps forward again, this time with the older woman at her side. "Now, let me introduce the last member of your training team! This is Samal Arlana Quis! She will be teaching tactics, Imperial military culture, and will be kicking your asses! And yes, she is my mother, so be nice to her or you'll have to deal with me!"
A little chuckle rises from the soldiers at that.
"Stow it, Marines!" Lee barks.
"She is twice as hard as any of you, believe me!" Quis continues, and for the first time, actually smirks and seems completely confident to Boyd. "And to prove it, she will be leading the run to the killhouses, where we will meet up with the Bashakra'i rebels, and will be competing against them for time in the same killhouse runs!"
So, we're setting the handicap for the rag-tag group of rebels, huh? Boyd thinks.
"You will hear that Samal Quis and the Bashakra'i do not speak English - get used to it!" Quis continues. "When you are off of Earth, everyone speaks Imperial, and over the next six months, you'd better read the books and listen to the audio files you have been given, because by the end, you will be lucky to hear a single word of English from anyone in our joint exercises! There will be classroom instruction, but it will not be enough! You will have to learn on your own, or you will be lost!" Quis pauses, and looks around in what would normally be a dramatic pause for effect, but seems to Boyd to be a little less so. "That is all! You are dismissed to prepare for the day!"


A mile and a half into the jog to the killhouses, it's clear to Boyd that Quis wasn't bullshitting about her mom. Ten pairs ahead, she's so comfortable that she's turning around and running backwards, shouting and taunting them in...well, it's Imperial, Boyd supposes, as his own breathing starts to get heavier. Next to him, Danielsson plods along.
"You think all Imperial women are this fucking tough?" Boyd wonders out loud.
“You’re suffering from what my daddy would call ‘sampling bias’, my naive friend,” Danielsson replies. “Of course they lead with the tough chicks. But I firmly believe that once you get past a couple planets, you’re gonna find yourself knee-deep in fatties and uglies - you know, Marine, your speed.” He grins at Boyd.
Boyd shakes his head, but manages to return a smirk. "That's fine - I'd sell tickets to watch Quis break you like a twig." He turns back to jogging.
“I’m sure that passes for entertainment down in Charleston,” Danielsson says. “You are a Charleston boy, right? I could swear you sound just like my grand-uncle before the laryngectomy. What the hell kinda southern name is Kravitz, anyway?”
"That would be because it's Jewish," Boyd replies. "We have Jews in the South, too."
“Well, shalom, then,” Danielsson says. “As for the sporting event, you can sell tickets but don’t count me out that easily.” He quickly taps his right hand onto the side of his left shoulder. “See that tab? Means I’m allowed to punch girls.”
Boyd holds his tongue and keeps jogging.
“Okay, inappropriate, message received,” Danielsson says. “Look, Kravitz, I didn’t mean to bust your balls or anything. I just seem to get to know people by making them want to punch me in the dick. I’m an asshole that way. The way I see it, we’re gonna be working together and I think we shouldn’t be hating each other on the first day already. So, I stow the crap, peace, first two rounds on me tonight?”
Boyd thinks for a moment before he nods. "All right." A few more steps go on before he speaks up again. "Where are you from, then? Minnesota, North Dakota?"
“Minnesota,” Danielsson says. “One of those small towns where you learn to drive on ice before you ever see a clear road. I joined the Army, figured anywhere else would be a step up. Wasn’t wrong.”
"Just wanted to serve my country, Marines sounded the coolest," Boyd replies. "Wasn't wrong." He smirks.
“Yeah, well, here we are, both of us,” Danielsson says. “Sandbox to sandbox tasking, gotta love the OPTEMPO. You see the town on the way in? I think I was asleep.”
"Yeah, something like a thousand people," Boyd replies. "'bout the biggest they get around here, I bet."
“So, let me get this straight, six months of getting our asses kicked in a foreign language, and the best night on the town we can have is, what, a fucking truck stop?” Danielsson says. “Fuck my life and fuck the Army.”
"It's a sight better than Afghanistan," Boyd replies. "The villages didn't have a truck to stop with."
“I’m starting to miss Bagram,” Danielsson grumbles, then quickly adds “said nobody in recorded history, ever. But, man, this sucks.”
Boyd shrugs between steps. "My momma told me to be thankful for what you get, and I'd say the chance to be at the cutting edge of kicking ass counts."
“Is that this ‘motivation’ thing I keep hearing about?” Danielsson asks. “Whatever. I work hard, I play hard, that’s my motto. But going out for a drink on base is super-lame. I may have to leave after those two rounds and fall asleep sober.” He swishes something around in his mouth. “How long is this formation run? Starting to suck up more sand than a man should.”
"Four or five klicks," Boyd replies. Just saying it makes it seem further away.
“Then this is the end of my end of the conversation,” Danielsson says, grabbing the shemagh around his neck and pulling it up over his mouth and nose.
Boyd agrees, and shuts up himself.


As it turns out, this particular sandbox has a sandbox, or rather, six of them. Arlana Quis brings the formation run to a finish at the far left training area, where it turns out the group of Bashakra’i rebels is already waiting for them under the watchful eyes of Garrett Davis and a few officers.

Alex’s first glance at his new interstellar allies is not encouraging: the early hours and the run excuse some of it, but that is some of the most shamtastic gear he has ever seen, and he’s done ANP training. And say what you will about the state of the ACUs in his detachment after a plane ride, but at least everyone’s wearing the same damn uniform. Finally, do these people not have grooming standards?

Boyd's thinking largely the same thing without knowing it: the aliens don't seem to have anything that resembles a uniform, just some epaulettes and their weird hood-things they're all wearing. All of their clothes are loose-fitting and don't look half as durable as his uniform, made of this weird thin fabric...and with no buttons or zippers. Even their guns don't match; aside from some weird oversized barrel, they all look different, some gold, some silver, some copper or bronze or whatever, and with different...things on them, buttons and lights and sights and bullshit. They're just walking around, speaking in their weird language, most of them looking at Boyd and his fellow Marines - and the Army guys, too.

“That’s right, drink it in, boys and girls,” Danielsson mutters. “This is how soldiers look.”
"They do look pretty fucking shabby," Boyd adds. "You think any of them have been in a stand-up fight before, or is it all just sneaking around Vietcong shit?"
“Beats me,” Danielsson says. “But, you know, visuals aside, there’s gotta be a reason these guys are here. They don’t look like much, that’s all I’m committing to right now.”
Boyd crosses his arms. "If this is the best the aliens can do, I'm not impressed."
“I’m not impressed, either,” Danielsson says. “Let’s hope they’ve got skills, at least.”
"Looks like they know which direction goes bang, or zap, or whatever with those ray guns of theirs," Boyd offers. "But that's about it."
Danielsson shrugs. “Should be good for a laugh, if nothing else. Come on, let’s fall in.”


Shenloma pokes Leaj in the ribs with his elbow. "Hey, take a look, the Narsai'i are here."
Leaj turns around from rubbing a few almost-imperceptible dust motes off of her prized Harumdor Tech chamakana. "Wow, fancy clothes - all the better to get shot in. Not real subtle there, guys."
"They look hot, too. How does material that thick breathe?" Shenloma wonders as he slides his hood to the side to block the morning Narsai'i sun. "Still, we've seen the Narsai'i fight - and if these are anything like the Narsai'i we've seen, they can certainly kick some ass." Shenloma goes back to checking to make sure the stupid Narsai'i air vehicle didn't knock his barrel shroud out of true from his sights.
Leaj studies them for a few more seconds. "Hey, where are the women?" she suddenly says. "I don't see any women here."
Shenloma turns back. "Yeah, that's fucking weird. Maybe they're in a different group? This is all men, and the women...left separately for some reason? I mean, that one quad we saw once didn't have any women in it, but I just assumed they were all homosexuals and it was some weird Narsai'i thing."
Leaj turns towards the Narsai'i. "Hey! Where are all your women?" she shouts towards them, but all she gets back is a few bellows back in the Narsai'i tongue.
Shenloma gives Leaj a shove from behind. "They don't speak Imperial, Leaj, remember?"
"And that's fucking stupid, too. They're here to fight out in the rest of the galaxy, it'd be smart to maybe be able to talk to other people," Leaj mutters.
"Hey! Turai Lelolooth! Don't taunt the Narsai'i!" Rav-Turai Nakiloest shouts from the front of the group.
"Yes, Rav-Turai! Won't happen again!" Leaj shouts back.

Then something completely unexpected happens. "The Narsai'i don't have women in combat units," Garrett Davis says as he walks over to Shenloma and Leaj. "At least, the ones from this nation don't." Leaj bolts upright like she's been electrocuted, and even Shenloma feels more than a little awed at having one of the 815 speaking to him. Davis gives a slight bow to them both. "Turai Lelolooth and Abeon, right?"
"Yes, Mr. Davis," Leaj says, her voice immediately a half-octave higher.
"Women aren't given the same respect here on Narsai - we're sadly backwards that way," Davis says. "This nation, the 'United States of America', views women as soft and weak."
"They should watch Leaj on leave in a bar, that'll change their minds fast," Shenloma cracks. "Either at the bar or the fight afterwards."
Leaj gives Shenloma a horrified look, but Davis just smiles. "I'm sure. You two ready to show the Narsai'i what you've got?"
"Always, sir," Leaj replies, her hero-worship augmented by genuine enthusiasm to kick ass.
"We'll be going second, but I want your trin and one other to go first," Davis says. "They think you're a bunch of amateurs - show them just how wrong they are, yeah?" he says with a wink.
Leaj bows deeply to Davis, and Shenloma adds a slightly lesser bow. "Thank you, Mr. Davis! We...we..."
"She means to say we'll show them why the Turai fear battle with the Bashakra'i," Shenloma says for her.
Davis smiles. "I'm sure. Good luck," he says, and walks away.

Leaj turns to Shenloma. "Masters above, that was Garrett fucking Davis! And he wants us to go first! We get to be ones who the Narsai'i first see fight! Us!"
"Yeah, it's pretty crazy," Shenloma agrees.
"Pretty crazy, nothing, it's insane!" Leaj replies, grabbing Shenloma by the shoulders and shaking him. "We have to beat them, Shenloma. We have to!"
"Then we should watch them, because the first of their trins is about to go through the sim," Shenloma says, pointing to the non-holographic displays with one hand while Leaj still grips his shoulders.

Leaj muscles her way to the front, dragging Shenloma behind her with one hand and her chamakana in the other, and the pair watch as the first Narsai'i group approaches the sim.

This is Narsai’i home turf, and it shows. Six of their soldiers approach the door and get in position; a few looks and hand signs later, one shoots the door twice, another pulls it open and the third goes in. Gunfire erupts as the Narsai’i engage their targets, shout at “civilians” to get down and bust open hiding places. But even though they see the doors leading to other rooms, they don’t circle through them; only when they’ve gone through every part of that first room do they all call out something and reassemble, splitting into two trins, one for each door leading out of the first room, though not without some delays in sorting themselves. Then they breach into the next rooms, where their careful sweeping continues. It’s slow, and frankly not very exciting to watch, as the Narsai’i soldiers seem to be in no particular hurry. Shenloma steals a glance at the clipboard of one of the Narsai’i instructors: it’s two long columns of checkboxes, and while he’s marking off most of the left side, he’s hardly finding anything to tick on the right. Still, the clock ticking in the upper right corner of the video feed advanced mercilessly, and by the time the “all clear!” is called, the instructor writes down the time with obvious disapproval.

"Their instructors don't look very happy," Shenloma notes.
"They looked pretty fucking slow to me," Leaj agrees. She presses her thumb against the body of her chamakana and it powers up. "Let's show them what the Bashakra'i can do, yeah?" she asks with a smirk.
Shenloma swipes his own chamakana to life and smiles.


After watching the first run wrap up, Danielsson scoffs and shakes his head. “That’s what we’re leading with? That’s right past shamtastic straight into shamzilla. Did we forget to wake these guys up or what?”
"They probably thought the same as us," Boyd replies.
“Probably,” Danielsson says. “Well, past tense is right. Our turn comes up, we’re hitting this sim full speed, agreed?”
"Fuck yes," Boyd nods. "If they're not going to show the aliens what the US military can do, it's up to us."
“Indeed it is,” Danielsson says, holding out his right fist.
Boyd returns the fist-bump, then nods towards the monitor screens. "First aliens are on deck."

The aliens' first group of six stacks up by the door, four men and two women, Boyd notices. The first surprise comes quickly: the lead alien's rifle makes a loud WHAP, and the knob, as well as part of the door around the knob, just vanishes in a flash of light. He kicks the door open, and the aliens all rush in, their rifles issuing more WHAPs, blowing fist-sized holes in the plywood targets. The Bad Guy targets in the first room are dispatched in seconds, but before all six are even in the first room, the lead three aliens split off, the woman in front kicking the door to the second room open and the trio rush in, more alien ray gun sounds matching the show on the monitors of quick, precise violence. The second trio has finished with the first room and is already breaching the third by the time the first group stacks up at the door to the last room, the whole group moving through the killhouse like a flood, rushing forward in a wave. Both groups pause for the last door, and then breach at the same time, flooding the final room and dispatching their plywood targets with deadly efficiency. The raw speed of the run guarantees fat stacks of points in that column, and though a few of the beams got a little too close for comfort, no civilian targets were hit. The only major thing anyone can ding them for is for edging from “fast” into “hasty”; Boyd did catch them cutting a few corners with their checks, and there’s one or two places where they wouldn’t have seen a hidden IED in time. Garrett Davis’s eval sheet accordingly has a few black marks on that category, but overall, a very strong first entry - Danielsson’s teeth are set on edge when he sees the score on the board, almost thirty points higher than Team Earth’s first run - and damn near a full score. That will not stand.

"Fuuuck," Boyd drawls.
“I’ve got nothing to add to that,” Danielsson agrees.
"Okay, the aliens can fight," Boyd says. "Means we've got to step our game up. Oorah?"
“You got that right,” Danielsson says. After a moment, he adds “Hooah.”


As the Narsai'i soldiers walk out of the sim, high-fiving and chest-bumping, Shenloma keeps his eyes on the slate scoreboard from his seat on a bench - and one of the Narsai'i instructors steps up to the chalkboard and erases the Bashakra'i score just below Shenloma's and Leaj's run.
"Damn," Shenloma says appreciatively. "So, they're not just all flash."
"Their uniforms are still silly, though," Leaj says, not even looking up from polishing her chamakana.
Shenloma takes a drink from his water bladder. "I don't know," he muses out loud.
"Oh, come on, they're obviously ridiculously hot," Leaj says.
"No, I mean, this whole thing," Shenloma replies. "Working with the Narsai'i. I mean, they don't even have any women here. What the fuck is up with that?"
"Yeah, that's not cool," Leaj agrees. "If what Mr. Davis said is right, then they must be pretty backwards." She pauses and looks over her shoulder at the Narsai'i. "Wonder what other shit we'll find out about."
"I mean, these guys seem all right," Shenloma adds. "But...you've heard what happened to the 815."
Leaj nods.
"I just wonder if they're gonna treat us the same way," Shenloma says.
Leaj shrugs. "If they do, then...I guess we'll have to do what we have to do." She looks over at Shenloma. "You really think it'll come to that?"
Shenloma shakes his head. "Nah. These Narsai'i were vetted by the 815. But..."
"You're worried," Leaj finishes. "'Cause that's what you do." She slugs Shenloma in the shoulder. "Don't worry. I've got your back."
Shenloma nods. "And I've got yours. Now, we just have to hope that most of the Narsai'i are better people than what we've heard."


Danielsson’s just about sliding off his chair, and Boyd’s not doing that much better, but at least they’re up to the last seconds of the last sim for the aliens. The two new battle buddies managed to cinch a damn-near flawless run for Team Earth, but those Bashakrans running the killhouse now aren’t giving up without a fight. And to be fair, they’re starting to get this “careful” thing, though they’re still in constant motion. No close calls on the civilian targets, either. It’s not the fastest run, but it is plenty fast, and after some intense deliberation the trainers can’t seem to come up with anything to deduct points for. That makes it Aliens 97 to Earth’s 98 - Danielsson gives Boyd another fistbump for the hard-fought victory.

“Mess with the best...” Danielsson mutters.
"And who's the best?" Boyd says, offering a fist.
“I believe that’s us,” Danielsson replies with a bump. “Welcome to Earth!”
Boyd watches the aliens walk out of their killhouse. "Should we go meet second place?"
“Yeah,” Danielsson says. “Yeah, I guess. Let’s check out the freakshow.”

Boyd and Danielsson push up off their seats and make their way out of the crowd of Marines and Army soldiers. They get a few stares from their own people as they walk across the open desert sand between the two groups, but it seems like full-on half the aliens stare at them once their intent to cross the invisible line becomes clear. Danielsson looks around, then turns to Boyd.
“This was your idea,” Danielsson says. “So, you chat ‘em up.”
"You gonna puss out on me now?" Boyd asks, giving Danielsson a look as the two men come to a stop pretty much half-way between their fellow Earthlings and the aliens.
“Who you’re calling a pussy?” Danielsson says, then turns back to look at the Bashakrans. “Look, you wanted to talk to the aliens, they’re over there. I’m just the wingman in this scenario. It’s not like I speak Bashakran or whatever. All I know is we’ve got space aliens - motherfucking space aliens - staring at our dumb asses, and they're - it's - all this fucking bullshit is fucking weird.”
"Yeah," Boyd says, "it's creeping me the fuck out."
"And they're fucking staring at us, and the clothes and their weird fucking hats...it's fucking strange," Danielsson adds.

Boyd nods. The two men stand there for a few seconds, backs to the aliens, before they both look over their shoulders.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Danielsson says. "We're already fucking out here, we can't just stand here like a couple of limp dicks forever, and we can't go back. Let's just get this fucking over with." He turns and resumes walking up to the Bashakrans. “Hey!" he shouts with a smile and a wave.
Boyd quickly turns and follows with a friendly smile and a smaller wave of his own.
“E-ha,” a few of the Imperials say back, tentatively waving.
“Uh, eha,” Danielsson replies, then turns to the instructors. “Yo, can we get a terp over here?”
One of the Task Force 815 members, Garrett Davis, quickly steps out of the Bashakran group. “They said ‘hello’,” he says. “What do you need, Sergeants?”
“Looking to shake the hand of the alien squad that came in second, Sir,” Boyd says.
Both Boyd and Danielsson see Davis’ eyes narrow at ‘alien’. “Bashakra’i.”
“Sorry, Sir,” Boyd quickly apologizes.
“We’d just like to tell the Bashakra’i that we were impressed with their performance and look forward to the rematch,” Danielsson says. “Sir.”
Davis nods appreciatively, and turns back towards the group of aliens - Bashakrans. “Rav-Turai Nakiloest! Ta-a l’la-li, oop dil’i trin’a!” A woman - tall by Boyd and Danielsson’s standards, but seemingly a few inches shy of most of the group - walks forward, barks something in their weird-ass language, and five more aliens walk out. Davis talks to them a bit more, and the aliens all put on smiles of varying degrees of sincerity before bowing to Boyd and Danielsson, and speaking up themselves.
“They say that they’re impressed you were able to beat them, and are looking forward to the next time as well,” Davis translates for them.
“Cool,” Danielsson says. “Um...” After a moment of deliberation, he holds out his hand to shake towards the alien woman.
The woman looks at Danielsson curiously for a moment, before getting the idea and grasping his hand - hard - and giving it one quick shake. “Bis-tra na-ia, ah-naan da-ti zah-he,” she says with a smirk. Danielsson grasps back with some measure of strength, but leaves it at “Manly Men” level rather than an impromptu bonecrushing competition.
“Next time, we will win,” Davis translates.
“Good luck with that,” Boyd says, returning the smirk and experiencing her crushing handshake.
Danielsson wears a small smile and folds his arms in front of his chest. “Yeah, we’ll see about that,” he adds.
The next soldier is a man, at least three inches taller than Danielsson, who regards the pair with respect, but also a quiet smirk. “Turai Shenloma Abeon,” he says.
“Sergeant Alexander Danielsson,” Danielsson offers, holding his hand out to shake again.
Shenloma gives his hand the same single shake before the woman next to him elbows him out of the way and grabs Danielsson’s hand. “Oop ae-no-ah’i Turai Leaj Lelolooth,” she says with a smile as she gives the same strong-handed single shake.
“Good for you!” Danielsson says, returning the smile and the shake. He then turns to Boyd. “Enough cultural immersion for you?”
Boyd nods. “I think this is pretty good,” he says as the second guy, Turai Shenloma, gives him the same one-shake greeting. He nods behind them. “Take a look.”
Danielsson turns around to see the rest of Team Earth cautiously shuffle up to them, having apparently realized that there’s some extra credit to be had here. He gives them a shit-eating “Get in line!” kind of grin, then turns back to the aliens and offers his hand again for the next guy to shake. As they work their way through the group, Danielsson takes a moment to turn to Boyd.
“Remember,” he says, “this is all your fault.”
“Gonna have a fucking hand cramp after this,” Boyd says. “Too bad they don’t have coins. Bet we could beat SecNav.”
“Okay, challenge coins?” Danielsson says. “Now I know you’re a POG.”
“I take free drinks where I can get them,” Boyd replies.
“Fair enough,” Danielsson concedes.


With the two Narsai’i rapidly turning into an informal meet-and-greet session, it’s clear to Shenloma that Leaj is way more into meeting the Narsai’i than he is, smiling and grabbing for hands immediately. “Having fun?” Shenloma asks her.
“Hey, we didn't have any 'training accidents' yet. And now that I know they know what the fuck they’re doing, they're not that bad. Maybe we can work on their stupid culture hating women,” Leaj says.
“Fair enough,” Shenloma says. “But this is just the first day. We’ll get to see what they’re really like soon.”
Leaj rolls her eyes. “They can’t be that bad, or they wouldn’t be here.”
“We’ll see,” Shenloma says.
punkey 2013-05-19 03:35:11
Hal wakes up.

Well, it doesn’t really wake up. Hallelujah It’s Raining Blood is cognizant of its surroundings at all times. It looks back into dataspace with some longing at the near-perfect recreation of an Earthling toy from three decades ago, almost ready to be broken down and sent to a variety of the prevailing culture’s primitive replicators for illicit meatspace production. Then it shifts its subroutines over to the mundane yet important task of animating its warshell into a roughly standing position, so that the two humans and ten wastes of space entering the barracks would have a visual indicator of Hal’s attention. Hal knows Luis Stanhill and Angel Kesh. They walked on Hashateem. They are supposed to be training the Sheen contingent, teaching them how to wage war according to their culturally approved paradigm, and for the most part Hallelujah It’s Raining Blood agrees with the concepts. The Sheen and the meat are allies now; it would no longer be acceptable to publicly maintain kill/death ratio records, nor would it be acceptable to utilize the dead in building defensive structures. However, Hallelujah It's Raining Blood does see the wisdom in the arguments Angel Kesh made to the Sheen - if ending the war with less Sheen casualties means less Imperial casualties, unfortunately, that is the way it should be. That doesn't mean it understands why the fun has to stop, too.

*End of an era,* Orphan Grinder transmits as the trainers enter and the 50 Sheen shells wake up.
*Here comes another load of sanctimonious garbage,* I've Got Your Nose grumbles. *Why do we all have to suffer through this torture again?*
It was a rhetorical question. Nose knew, just as they all did, but that didn’t stop Gray Goo Scenario from expounding for its own benefit. *If we could do it with less of you, we would,* the old Sheen explains. *This training is the most important paradigm shift our branch has seen, and the combat branch chose each of us because we represented the most inclusive cross-section of our respective versions. When we pass our training back to Hashateem, it will be integrated more efficiently than if we only sent a few of you.*
*So, you represent the more obsolete versions, right Grey?* Nose cracks.
*Correct,* Grey replies. *It would be foolish to leave such an important task to inexperienced dataforms.* If Hal could smirk, Hal would have smirked. That was Grey Goo Scenario’s way. It’d take it, and later on, it’d just end up on top anyway. Still, Hal could’ve done with less waiting. This synchronized... standing was getting real fuckin’ old.

Angel Kesh finally finishes his inhalation and speaks. "Good morning," he says. Contrary to the hours of Narsai'i entertainment covering military training protocols Hal has reviewed, he speaks with a very even tone. It's a bit disappointing. "You all know Luis Stanhill and myself. You will meet the ten fine soldiers behind us as the day goes on - we will be your instructors for the next six months of training. Our goal is to train you not only on our doctrine and rules of combat, but tactics and strategy as well. We will all be learning how to work together as one force - Narsai'i, Bashakra'i, Wherren and Sheen - and it's not going to be easy. In fact, it'll probably be a pretty fucking bumpy ride. But it's one we need to take. Agreed?"

*Agreed,* Grey Goo Scenario transmits.
*We’ll fuckin’ see,* I’ve Got Your Nose appends.
*Okay, why not?*
*Meh.* This one from Orphan Grinder.
The chorus of meager agreement went on in a burst of silence before the assembled Sheen realized that of the meatbags before them, only Stanhill had any chance of “hearing” them. Sheepishly, the fifty Sheen warshells responded in unison: “Agreed”. Apparently the first training lesson was remembering that not every species had vox transmitters or dataspace uplinks.
"Good," Angel replies. "We're starting today with room entry. Bring your bipedal shells and let's move out."

Even though it was the accepted thing to be wary about the training, Hal couldn’t help but feel a little excited and more than a little curious. It ached to do something, even if it was according to the agreed-upon compacts and commands of this training program. How the meat is going to teach it anything that couldn't be simply handled with a few seconds and an upload, Hal still can't figure out, but it supposes that's half the reason it's interested in the first place.


The humans are clearly miserable. Hal picks out beads of sweat on Stanhill’s neck, tracks the rivulets of dusty moisture that streak his face around his much more sensible eyes. Did the humans learn better if they were made to suffer? Why else would they build a training facility in such an environment?

*They must think we’ll learn better if we’re suffering,* Orphan Grinder comments. *ZOMG, how long is this shit going to take?*
*We have not even begun our first true exercise,* Grey reassures diplomatically.
*That’s my goddamn point!* Grinder says.

Hal admits, the shell has a point. Apparently, the second lesson is that the humans put a lot of stock into things like “fields of fire” and “safety areas” and “bullet stops”. The Marine ruining their fun at the front of the miserably hot dirt field that serves as their classroom is currently explaining how intentionally breaching starship hulls - one of Hallelujah It’s Raining Blood’s favorite ways to sow panic and discord among air-breathing hostiles - would result in Bad Things Happening. Shooting unarmed targets, also Bad. Even wounding unarmed targets was frowned upon. Not that any of them had ever considered wounding someone on purpose. Wounds were what happened when you missed.

*Gonna be a lot harder to score those triple kills if we can’t let some air out,* Nose quips.
"So, remember your safe directions," the Marine says. "No firing in a direction that isn't backstopped - and that includes into the air."
*Oh, now that's just fucking spinkshit,* Grinder shouts.
"Now, Deputy Director Stanhill is going to give you your mission," the Marine says, and stands aside for Luis.
Luis steps up, settles his arms behind him, and surveys the shells. “All right, provided you’ve all been paying attention, this should be fairly simple. You have been assigned to teams of four. Each team will enter the complex, and must secure all four rooms. Points will be awarded by how well your tactics match what your instructors have just gone over with you. Watch your safe directions, make sure to check your targets, watch for friendlies, and this’ll be easy. Any questions?”
“Does it hurt?” I’ve Got Your Nose asks, standing with the other three Sheen.
“Does what hurt?,” Luis asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Knowing that you can replace as much as you want, but you’ll never be as good as me,” Nose finishes, its sensory array positively beaming with its cleverness.
Luis smirks. “Then go prove it. If that’s true, this shouldn’t a problem at all.”
If Hal could smirk, it would have smirked.


Hallelujah It’s Raining Blood crouches next to Orphan Grinder beside the flimsy steel door, its accelerators loaded and charged. On the other side, Grey Goo Scenario gives a brief nod, both for its team’s benefit as well as Stanhill, watching from the tower above. The grimy red light outside the kill house blinks to green and the buzzer sounds.

“OHHH YEEEAAAAHHH!!!” Grinder takes the door and part of the wall down as it barrels into the first room. Hal’s in next, the splinters still careening around the chamber. Target overlays embrace faux hostiles like long-lost friends. Prime, it had been worth the wait, Hal thinks, before unleashing a stream of hypervelocity slugs from its left arm across three targets, half the north wall, and (oops) Nose’s right leg. Hal’s shoulder-mounted gunpod slashes through another target (wait, did that one have a weapon? Fuck it) and he’s done, already moving for the second room. Grinder, full of deadly momentum, gets there first, goes through the wall, screams in delight. Grey heads for the fourth room by itself, trying to salvage some semblance of what they had just been told. Its accelerators burp out pinpoint destruction.

*Sorry!* Nose crashes Hal to the deck and steps nimbly over him as Hallelujah rolls to a crouch. The warshell’s not sorry at all - its leg sparks where the friendly fire holed the armor - but it’s having too much fun to care. Nose sets both arm accelerators and the gunpod to “fuck everything”, then burns a 7.3 second long continual stream of fire through the walls between rooms 1 and 3 at roughly knee, waist, and head level.

“I don’t think that was what we were intended to do,” Grey says as it extricates itself from the kill house wreckage.
“Shit on that!” Grinder shouts in ecstasy. “Fucking badass!”
“What else you got?!” Nose asks noone in particular. “Because we got more of this, bitches!”
Even Hal feels pretty good. Maybe it wasn’t the cleanest run, but they had to give them points for speed. “Hey! If your primitive chronographs don’t have numbers that small, we can keep time for you! Here’s what it says: ‘We’re awesome.’”

Hal can’t quite remember if a human rubbing the bridge of its nose with thumb and forefinger was a congratulatory sign or if it meant the human was simply tired of the silly suboptimal environment they had built for themselves.
“Well, that was impressive all right,” Luis says, straightening up. “I thought you Sheen were supposed to be impressive, but we had four instant failures on the rubric, we discussed them at length just before the exercise, I reminded you before you went in of what they were, and you managed to fail on all of them anyway. You shot the killhouse to pieces, you killed every friendly, you fired into the air, and you even managed to damage your own squadmates. So the good news is that we don’t need to worry about your time to run or your admirably terrible hit percentage because your score is a zero. And because you managed to destroy the rooms you were told not destroy, you get a nice amount of time to think over why you can’t follow basic instructions while we set up again.”

The Sheen’s demeanor doesn’t dampen too badly with each criticism until Luis gets to their score. Nose looks positively crestfallen. Even Grey looks like it’s about to cry, but then it did put in the most effort.
“Grey Goo Scenario,” Stanhill calls after replaying the carnage on his internal systems, “You looked like you had some understanding of what we’re looking to do here, so we’re going to give you a chance to prove your performance wasn’t a fluke. There’s enough of rooms 1 and 4 left for you to run it solo while your team reviews the mission parameters and rules of engagement.”
“Hey! Grey gets to go again?!” Orphan Grinder wails. “That’s spinkshit!”
*Fuck*, Hal voxes. *And we sit here on our metal asses?*
I’ve Got Your Nose was silent, presumably still coping with the emotional trauma of being awarded no points.
*I theorize that obsolete versions such as myself must require additional training iterations in order to keep up with such bleeding-edge branches like you*, Grey voxes, the smugness breaking through the otherwise dispassionate delivery. *Watch and learn, bitches.*


Hallelujah It’s Raining Blood crouches next to Orphan Grinder beside the flimsy steel door, its accelerators loaded and charged. On the other side, I’ve Got Your Nose is motionless, one sensor tracking its team, one tracking Stanhill, watching from the tower above. Grey Goo Scenario was off doing Prime knew what with the rest of the top six scoring Sheen - which are also the only six Sheen with any scores at all. The grimy red light outside the kill house blinks to green and the buzzer sounds.

Orphan Grinder hesitates - a first in Hal’s experience - and Hal trips up on its comrade’s shell. I’ve Got Your Nose shoulders past and through the door with a bang of metal on metal, then it’s just noise from inside. Hal and Grinder extricate themselves and follow Nose into the first chamber, where they see their comrade’s ripped a target free from its spring-loaded mount and is slamming it into a second target like a club.
“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” Nose shouts in time with each shuddering impact. At least his faux victims were both hostiles. Hal picks off one target that spent several seconds with a clear view on Nose’s back, then charges through to the second room. Grinder follows Hal in and still manages to blow apart an unarmed target, the gunpod rounds streaking through the plywood to shred a hostile on the other side of the room.
Hal thinks it can still salvage the run, it just needs to get a step ahead of the two fucktards it’s been saddled with. The “dead” bystander target’s trampled by heavy metal feet as Hal ducks around Grinder’s continual muzzle flashes, throws himself into the next room, smashes through into a hive of hostile targets. Hal can’t see anything but multi-kill bonus points for the briefest of moments, then it’s over. Its two arm-mounted accelerators are orange with castoff heat. It’s gunpod screams red warnings across its BIOS. The room is clear, the detritus of plywood corpses littering the ground like wrapping paper on Christmas morning.

“Score all the points,” Hal mutters to himself. Then one of the Marine instructors walks in, turns over some of the debris with his boot, and calmly picks up half of a shredded unarmed target.


Hallelujah It’s Raining Blood crouches next to Orphan Grinder beside the flimsy steel door, its accelerators loaded and charged. On the other side, I’ve Got Your Nose nods back. They were ready this time. They’d ace this stupid boring torture test and join Grey and the other high scorers in... well, they’d be more training exercises, but for fuck’s sake, they’d be different exercises. Grey had sent them intermittent vox feeds of him following human markerlights to place indirect killdrone shots on some old trucks. High explosives were always more fun than... plywood. The grimy red light outside the kill house blinks to green and the buzzer sounds.

Orphan Grinder kicks the door and the trio of Sheen stalk calmly into the first room. Hal surveys the targets arrayed before it and is glad they didn’t follow Nose’s plan, which was “assume the setup would be the same and just instant replay it in dataspace until they got it right”. Each Sheen stops at each hostile target and fires single, measured shots through the head before moving on, walking slowly to the next room. It was slow, excruciatingly numbing busywork, but Hal knows this time they’d have more than a zero on the leaderboards. As Grinder steps gingerly around a hostage target to pulp the armed target behind it, Hal looks up to the observation tower. They’d figured out the meat’s little game, all right. It didn’t see any way they could fail this time.

Luis walks into the killhouse with a smug smile. “I suppose that’s better. At least you’ve proven you get what counts for an automatic failure--and you managed it without shooting each other or the friendlies. On the other hand, you were so slow about it that anything with a pulse could probably have beaten you at it. Still, it’s good enough for 15 points out of 100-- but you’ll need 70 to pass. At least the fact that you hit every shot means we ought to be able to get things set back up quickly. You think you can try a run where you get that kind of result without taking so long your enemies are in serious danger of dying of natural causes first?”
Hal was just happy to have points. Grinder was too, but Nose’s shell angrily stalks back to the battered steel door and waits.
*This test is bullshit,* Nose transmits. *Fifteen fucking points. They can blow it out their hairy meat-covered asses.*


Hallelujah It’s Raining Blood crouches next to Orphan Grinder beside the flimsy steel door, its accelerators loaded and charged. On the other side, I’ve Got Your Nose nods back, its sensor pod focused on the observation tower with disconcerting stillness. The grimy red light outside the kill house blinks to green and the buzzer sounds.

Grinder gives the oft-used door a brutal kick but Nose shoves its comrade out of the way. Hal picks up a high-intensity sensor pulse from Nose, then the erstwhile Sheen’s arms pivot in precise movements, each pause accompanied by brilliant muzzleflash and accelerator thunder, each shot a direct hit on hostile after hostile. Nose just stands in one place, its gunpod tracking spots on the wall and firing lethal burps through the plywood into rooms beyond, each one finding an otherwise concealed target. A few seconds of this and Nose looks up at the tower. It keeps staring daggers up there as it calmly walks to one of the perfectly untouched bystanders, places its left accelerator against the face, and blows the plywood to kindling.

“Set this back up quickly, you sacks of uncooked hamburger.”
Hal and Grinder watch in mounting horror as I’ve Got Your Nose mechanically and comprehensively reduces the killhouse to smoking ruination. Hal might’ve been down with it if it wasn’t their fourth run so far. It just wanted the torture to stop. *Grinder, we’ve gotta stop that stupid fucker before we’re here all goddamn night.*
*...Yeah. This ain’t fun anymore. Trolling isn’t gonna get us out of here.*
*All right,* Hal replies. *I’ll take its legs. You get its arms.*

Nose’s right leg was stomping groundward towards half a plywood board painted with a schoolgirl when Hal’s burst hits the knee actuator and rips the warshell’s leg free with a shower of sparks and screaming metal. His gunpod slags Nose’s other leg at the hip and a second burst severs that limb. Grinder tackles Nose to the floor, its pincers crushing its comrade’s ammo feeds, its gunpod shredding Nose’s own smoking weapon.

Hal walks over. If it could feel tired, it would have had a slump in its step. *Nose, you fucked up this run just to prove a point nobody cares about. Grinder and me, we’re done fucking around here. Grinder’s right. This isn’t fun anymore. We just want to get through this, so you can go get a new shell and help us do it, or we can drag your retarded carcass out that ruined doorframe and leave you leaking coolant while we finish up here. You stupid ragequitting asshole.*

On the tower, the instructors start moving to intervene, but Luis holds up a hand. “This isn’t too bad in their terms, let them work it out. It’ll be more effective from their peers.”

Nose is silent for a long time. Luis actually finishes his sentence before the Sheen finally replies, *All right. Let’s just get it over with. Pulse your sensors and target that way, we don’t even need to run around.*
Hal shakes its head. *No, we have to go through it. The targets are just paint on wood. We can’t see which ones are friendly.*
*Fuck it, then. Fine. We’ll do it their way. I’ll be back.* Nose’s shell goes limp.


Fifty points out of the seventy needed to pass. It was disheartening, but at least they were honest mistakes. The next three runs inched closer to passing, each one incrementally better in terms of speed. After the ninth run - and a score of 74 - Hal, Grinder, and Nose found a little more spring in their clanking heavy steps.

*I hope the other tests aren’t as hard this one,* Hal transmits.
*Grey says they’re not,* Grinder adds.
*That rusted-out heap would say that,* Nose replies. *But whatever. We kicked this thing’s ass, now we get blow shit up for real reals.*
*For real reals?* Grinder asks. *You need to stay off the internet.*
*Yeah,* Hal says. *For real reals.* If Hallelujah It’s Raining Blood could smile, it would have smiled.
punkey 2013-05-19 03:35:55
Khodash wakes up when she can no longer sleep. Neither growls from animals nor the morning songs of the elders can be heard in this strange, dead place the humans call Mesas Negras, and the soft whirring of the cold air machines is a poor substitute for the rain dancing on the roof of her family’s hut. But she quickly pushes these thoughts aside and crawls out of her cot to wake her two litter-brothers. After many weeks of training with Warmaster Putupo and learning the weapon arts of the humans, they have all been selected for advanced training with the best warriors of Whiirr - no, of the whole galaxy! It was already a great honor for the village that the humans named their elite spearhead unit “815”, but to actually be trained by them and be able to fight at the frontlines, that made Khodash very excited - and now she’s here. As the eldest of her litter, it is Khodash’s duty to keep her litter-brothers out of trouble, and that means being ready for training when the Captain Verrill shows up.

As she creeps through the room, she catches the eyes of other Wherren - many from distant villages, some of them even from Imperial worlds - that are still in their cots, looking around, waiting for something. Narsai is new for all of them, but for a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve gone to another world, and their blue fur with yellow fringes and lowered heads tell a story of homesickness and uncertainty. Khodash resolves to talk to them, but her litter-brothers come first. As she licks Kurr’s cheek softly to wake him up, she hears a clicking sound from the far end of the room. Kurr stirs half-awake and Khodash turns around. Sitting at a large table is a Wherren she already noticed on the flight. He’s a little more hunched than the others, and is not quite as big as he used to be, but he looks quite at ease with himself and the others and the many strange things on Narsai. With a soft grunt and a wave, he greets her, then turns back to the field-stripped beamer rifle on the table in front of him that he now begins to reassemble, with a serene pale green settling over his fur and chromomimetic vest.

”Whu - Khodash?” Kurr slurs and yawns as he climbs out of his cot.
”Get up, Kurr,” Khodash replies, eyes darting between her litter-brother and the old Wherren at the end of the room. ”Go and find Tarl. We need to be ready in five minutes.”
”Yessis,” Kurr moans.

As Kurr slinks off, Khodash turns to the Wherren on the other side, who are now looking to her for their cues.
”All of you, get up, too!” Khodash says. ”We need to be ready when Captain Verrill arrives.” That galvanizes most of them into action, and the whole room fills with soft talking and flashed patterns as the Wherren get to their feet and start to collect their gear.

By the time Hugh Verrill and his training officers arrive ten minutes later, Khodash has everyone geared up and standing next to their cots - even the old Wherren seems to be humoring her and going along with her orders. Four dozen pairs of eyes look straight ahead, and before Hugh can address them, Khodash steps out and gives him her best salute. A small smirk plays across his lips as Hugh stands up a little straighter and returns the gesture.
”Khodash, daughter of Lorarl, defender of 815, chosen of Putupo, reporting!” Khodash barks, unable to keep the green out of her fur. ”We are all assembled and ready to be trained, Captain!”
”Thank you, Khodash, you can fall in now,” Hugh says - softer than her, but still loud enough for everyone to hear him. Khodash salutes him again, then steps back to the foot of her cot and stands with her litter-brothers. As Hugh walks forward, he looks to the sides, inspecting his troops, before stopping in the middle of the room.
”My name is Captain Verrill,” Hugh begins, ”for those of you who don’t know me yet. On behalf of everyone here at Mesas Negras, I wish to welcome you to Narsai’i and thank you for coming. We are honored to have so many strong warriors here with us. In the next few months, we will teach you more about how to fight together with others as part of an army.” Hugh looks around, making sure he’s got everyone’s attention. ”In a word...we will teach you to be soldiers. Helping me are Lieutenant Carter” - he points to the tall African-American woman behind him - ”and Lieutenant Shen” - a sun-tanned man of vague Asian-American ancestry - ”so please follow their orders and show them every respect. Now, if you would all follow us, it’s time for breakfast. Any questions so far?”
”No, Captain!” Khodash barks.
”No, Captain!” comes the echo from the other Wherren, though some with more enthusiasm than others; Hugh notes one very large Wherren who seems to be mouthing along, and flashes a hint of orange from being stared at. Hugh ignores him and turns to leave.
”Everybody follow me!” he calls; the Wherren break their rigid positions and assemble into a loose group behind Hugh and the two instructors, chatting among themselves with flashes of green (many), blue (a few) and orange (the big Wherren).

”What food do they have?” Kurr asks Tarl. ”I hope they have the packages!”
”Emm-Arrr-eeeeh!” Tarl yelps, in a ear-twisting approximation of the human pronounciation.
”Yes!” Kurr says. ”I will have two Emm-Arr-eeh!”
”Quiet, both of you!” Khodash barks. ”We will eat whatever food the Captain offers!”
”Yes, litter-sister,” Kurr and Tarl whine with a flash of blue fur, an obviously well-practiced maneuver.


They don’t serve MREs for breakfast at the Mesas Negras dining facility, but Kurr and Tarl do discover the wonders of made-to-order omelettes. The cook’s nervous glances keep being answered by nodding from Hugh as the two litter-brothers yelp and order their pans piled high with jalapeno slices, mushrooms and red onions. Khodash, who simply ordered whatever Hugh picked, seems on the edge of either getting up from her table to walk over to them, or just shouting at her litter-brothers across the dining hall, but eventually the two receive their food and go to join her. Khodash feels a little orange creep into her fur, but finally she just turns her head and digs into her rice pudding.

”Excuse me, Khodash of 815,” comes a bark from her side; Khodash turns to see a young Wherren hunter with a well-worn leather harness across his chest, just standing there with vivid blue fur. ”Name is Hulor of 290. The Narsai’i knife has a blunt tip. Need a stabbing tool for meat. Take yours if you don’t use, please?”
”...sure,” Khodash says, pushing the unused fork on her tablet toward the hunter. ”You can have my furrr-gg, Hulor.
Hulor picks up the silverware and eyes it suspiciously for a moment, then flashes green and yellow. ”My thanks for your furg, Khodash of 815.”

With that, Hulor turns and walks back to his table, where he sits down alone. Khodash watches him grip the fork in his fist and stab it into a pile of bacon strips, shoveling them into his mouth as quickly as he can chew them apart. There’s nobody else at his table, but before Khodash can decide whether to move next to him, Kurr and Tarl slide their tablets onto the table.
”Look, litter-sister!” Kurr says. ”Captain Verrill let us have all the green fruits!”
”I see that,” Khodash says.
Both omelettes have crumbled apart on their way out of the pan due to the heroic dose of chunkies while utterly lacking any cheese. Tarl shoves a mouthful onto his spoon and then chews down on it. After a few seconds, he starts hacking and tearing up as the “green fruits” unleash their brand of chemical warfare in his mouth.
Kurr laughs at that and claps on his brother’s back as the fur around Tarl’s face takes on an alarmingly red color. ”Now I see why Captain Verrill let us have them all!” Kurr yelps. ”I will get you water, litter-brother.”


Tarl’s mouth keeps stinging throughout the morning, so it’s a good thing the Narsai’i are providing a water machine in the tent where Captain Verrill holds his first introductory lesson in urban combat. What’s not so good is the big Wherren sitting between Tarl and the water machine; Tarl has to press past him every time he gets up and goes to get a new cup of water. The first three times go mostly without incident, but on the fourth run, the orange-furred giant makes no attempt to clear the way for Tarl to get back to his litter. That, in turn, leaves Tarl standing around not knowing what to do; when Hugh looks at him, Tarl bows his head and heads back out, finally sitting down in the back of the tent next to the old Wherren with his color-changing vest.

”That’s Clawbreaker,” the old Wherren barks softly. ”Better to stay away from trouble like him, yes?”
”Yes,” Tarl says. ”I am Tarl, son of Lorarl -”
The old Wherren settles into a subdued green. ”- litter-brother of Khodash and and Kurr, yes?” he finishes. ”I researched all your names. I’m Rodirr, by the way.”
”That’s very considerate, Rodirr,” Tarl says.
”Not exactly,” Rodirr says, and smirks. ”Just good preparation, hm?”

Tarl’s attention is forcibly refocused on Hugh when the good Captain slaps his telescopic pointer against the whiteboard up front, showing the layout of a killhouse setup.
”For the first practical lesson,” Hugh says, ”I require a team of volunteers.”
Tarl sees Khodash’s hand shoot up and drag Kurr with her; he raises his hand, too.
”Yes, thank you, Khodash, Kurr, Tarl,” Hugh says. ”I need one more volunteer.”
Tarl turns to Rodirr. ”Do you want to?” he asks.
Rodirr shakes his head. ”Never volunteer for anything. We’re all going to get our turn eventually, yes?”
”And thank you, Hulor,” Hugh says from up front; Tarl’s eyes fly to the young hunter, who meets Khodash’s glance with a splash of green and yellow.
”Does he have a crush on her already, then?” Rodirr muses to himself.
”If he does,” Tarl says, ”he’s picked the wrong female.”


Fifteen minutes later, the impromptu fireteam of Khodash, Kurr, Tarl and Hulor stacks up outside the front entrance of the killhouse. The sun’s beating down from above, and in the few minutes he’s been outside, Hulor’s already gotten sweaty. It’s still worse for the litter from 815, as they’re all wearing bulky tactical vests for their gear, although their chromomimetic shirts and pants do their best to work some of that Imperial temperature regulation magic. Hulor’s kept it simple and clipped his magazine pouches to his hunting harness. He takes another breath, steadies himself and exchanges glances with the 815 litter, who have taken up their positions on either side of the door. Khodash’s fur shifts orange as she raises her left hand and gives the sign.

Hulor shoots his SCAR one, two, three times, blowing out the door’s lock; a swift kick opens the path into the simulated hab. Kurr is the first one in; by the time Khodash follows, he’s already firing. Then it’s Tarl’s turn while both his littermates fire at targets in their sectors. When Hulor rushes in, he comes to a stop in the middle of the room, with all three “enemies” already eliminated, though not without a few strays.

”Next room!” Khodash barks, pointing to the room’s only exit; Hulor turns and fires at the door’s lock. Kurr throws himself against the door, bursting into the next room where he lays down a lot of fire; Khodash has to wait a second before he stops shooting and moves out of the way, finding that he’s already “killed” both targets.

”Next room!” Khodash barks again, just as Tarl goes through the door; by virtue of keeping Hulor out of the room until last, they actually have time to stack up against the next door again. Hulor follows, then repeats his lockbusting performance, but this time the door swings open by itself, and Hulor sees the target behind it. Well, he’s already got his gun up and the finger on the trigger, so Hulor takes aim and drills the cardboard turai once through the faceplate of his helmet. Kurr throws him a glance from his position at the door; Hulor barks ”Go!” and then the litter moves forward into the final room. There’s two targets in Kurr’s sector, but he only gets one down before his SCAR locks open on an empty chamber; Khodash is too busy in her own sector, and after a few seconds, just as Tarl enters, Kurr remembers the right phrase and shouts out ”Gun down!”, taking a knee to reload. Tarl quickly finishes off the leftover target, and then Hulor enters, does a final sweep, and shouts ”All clear!”.


It took less than two minutes to run the simulation, but Hugh fills half an hour with his analysis. Honestly, for a first run, it was pretty good, and he’s not shy about telling his volunteers, but the devil is very much in the details. Inconsistent use of verbal commands and status. Ineffective weapon use - “Two shots per target, people!” - paired with not keeping track of ammunition status or leaving time for tactical reloads. Inconsistent breaches. Firing out of sector, blocking teammates and not achieving zone of dominance as quickly as possible. Kurr can’t believe he stood in the doorway to the second room that long, but the video captured from the surveillance inside the killhouse doesn’t lie. Then he gets dinged again for the last room, but he’s already angry at himself over it - Hugh at least gives him credit for the right status call.

”You need more practice,” Hugh concludes. ”The simulation has been reset in the meantime. Who wants to go next?”

A lot of arms go up.


There’s four more sims, then lunch (the infamous Mesas Negras Curry Monday Special), then seven further sims before everyone has cycled through the killhouse - a grueling schedule for the instructors. It is, however, made a little easier by not having to come up with something separate to do for the Wherren who aren’t on the sim. Hugh has them watching the sims live via the cameras inside, and most of the class is paying very careful attention to the mistakes he calls out; by sim 4, the analysis shifts into more of a Q&A format, by sim 7 he notices the Wherren start discussing their tactics among each other, and by sim 8, he has to start passing out a second batch of notebooks to some especially prolific note-takers. The skills of most Wherren can safely be rated “competent”: they know how to shoot and reload and fix stoppages and with minor exceptions, gun safety doesn’t slip; Hugh resolves to thank Semo in person for the excellent basic prep. That plus the theory he’s taught them should see them safely through the basic sim, though most still have a ways to go into putting it all together into practice. The most noticeable effect over the course of the day is that continuing sims make the Wherren work hard to tighten their moves, but it all slows the runs down, and by the final two, the Wherren are actually taking more penalties for time than they’re avoiding on errors - and they’re noticing it, too.

”Slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” Hugh tries to explain, but he can see that that’s not enough for some of his students. Why are the points structured like that? Hugh realizes it wasn’t the best move to bring up the point scale when maxing out the points isn’t even the, er, point of the first few exercises. Couldn’t they learn more by varying the layout? Fair enough, Hugh thinks, but rearranging the killhouse takes manpower and time he doesn’t have today - maybe he can pull some of the students aside on later days to help with that. And how do we deal with [insert advanced topic Hugh hasn’t covered yet]? Hugh has to issue a “Bear with me, we’ll get to that later” promise at this point because it’s getting pretty late into the afternoon and he’s frankly running out of time and prepared lesson material for the day.

Putting all the students under such scrutiny yields some enlightening results on its own, quite apart from the learning: out of the vast sea of “good”, a few exceptionals crystallize. By sim 6, it’s become clear that the unique setup of the first run with (mostly) one litter together yielded some of the smoothest teamwork, mostly on account of Khodash taking a clear leadership position, which seems harder to establish when throwing strangers together. Rodirr cleans up on the “efficiency” scorecard, with two shots per target, no misses and least time in that illustrious group spent on target acquisition and aiming. And it’s a good thing he ran the last sim with Kararr “Clawbreaker”, the largest Wherren in the group, because that guy can and does kick the doors in the simulated hab straight off the hinges, putting the killhouse out of commission for the day.


”Good job, Kararr,” Hugh offers as the Wherren filter out of the tent after the official end of the training session. ”But you can go a little easier on the hab tomorrow, alright?”
”Of course, Captain, Kararr replies, but he can’t keep the orange fringes off his green fur. He had heard that Verrill had gotten into teaching cubs on Whiirr, but Kararr is no cub - he’s an arena champion, a bodyguard to Sambasan nobles and mostly recently a freelance violence professional. And yet, here he is, collecting his little pats on the back for the simplest of tasks and being led from barracks to meals to the training range to the meals again, marching in a group as if the humans don’t trust the Wherren not to get lost on the way...

...which isn’t that surprising, considering all the other bright-eyed chumps the Narsai’i scared up straight from their villages. These cubs even call themselves “Chosen”, and Kararr knows why: they don’t get it. They go off to serve foreign masters like their fathers and grandfathers and grandgrandfathers, only now those masters are “liberators” instead of “gods”. Maybe the Narsai’i even believe that they really freed Whiir, but Kararr knows that they couldn’t have done it from the goodness of their hearts: Narsai needs soldiers. Doesn’t matter, though. Kararr’s not here because he likes the Narsai’i...even the “good” humans are still that, humans...but these Narsai’i have hurt the Imperium, and Kararr’s here to help them keep doing that.

It’s a thankless quest for personal satisfaction...but it would be a lot more bearable without all those damn idiot savages.


After an early dinner, Hugh marches the Wherren back to their barracks, but past the sleeping hall into another wing of the building. This is where Lieutenants Carter and Shen have set up a more permanent “classroom”, with a dozen tables, a dozen (numbered) whiteboards ringing the walls of the room, and stacks and stacks of notebooks, pens, markers and other presentation gear. On each table lies a stack of paper: four stapled copies each of a killhouse layout.

”On each table, there’s one layout we’re running tomorrow,” Hugh explains. ”Find yourself into groups of four - you can stay in the groups you used for the exercise today, if you want to. Then, I want you to familiarize yourselves with your layout. Discuss how you’re going to run it, make plans, check your options. You can use anything in this room as a planning tool; Lieutenants Carter and Shen will be available for any questions you have. When you’re done preparing for tomorrow, you’ll have the rest of the evening to yourself. Curfew is at 2300; that means I want everyone back here and checked in with the front desk by then. Questions about this?”
”Where are you going to be, Captain Verrill?” Khodash asks with blue stripes in her fur.
Hugh frowns. ”I have some urgent private matters to take care of,” he says. ”I’ll be back in time for training tomorrow. Sorry. Like I said, Carter and Shen will be happy to help you out in any way you need. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He looks around. ”Goodbye, everyone.”
There’s a few scattered grunts of ”Goodbye” cruising the room, but not loud enough to drown out Kararr harrumphing. The following silence is broken by Rodirr, who affects a pattern of green and yellow with deep orange stripes. ”I need three winners for tomorrow!” he barks, and stomps towards the nearest table; a few of the more adventurous Wherren follow him, and a few looks later, most everyone reassembles into their groups and grabs a table.

Gravitating into their own little corner of the room, the 815 litter (plus hanger-on Hulor) whisper among themselves.
”He’s going to the village,” Kurr says.
”That’s not - he probably has a family emergency!” Khodash half-barks.
”Oh, please, litter-sister,” Tarl says. ”He is a very romantic male.”
”Definitely going to the village,” Kurr reaffirms.
Hulor coughs. ”Should I know what you talk of?” he asks.
”We’re talking about nothing,” Khodash insists. ”Now, the exercise tomorrow.” She holds up her notebooks. ”We will make no mistakes and get all the points - for 815! Agreed?”
”For 815!” Kurr says.
”Yes, for 815!” Tarl says, pumping his fist into the air. Hulor follows the gesture a second later.
”Then let’s get going,” Khodash says, picking up a schematic off the table and flipping through the pages. ”We’re starting with a corner entrance, so the first thing we need to know is where everybody goes after we’re through the door...”
punkey 2013-05-19 03:36:54
CNN - The Situation Room

"Today's top story: President Obama asks Congress for a declaration of war against the Jade Imperium - and demands that the GRHDI be given clear leadership in the planning and execution of the war."

(President in the Rose Garden) "Given recent events, and the vote in Congress to affirm the separation of the Gateway Research and Homeworld Defense Initiative from the Department of Defense, it is time that we fully commit to prosecuting the war against the Imperium, and doing so with the best minds and expertise available."

"However, members of the House and Senate disagree, both about the leadership of GRHDI and the implications of such a move."

(Rep. Skelton on the House floor) "The GRHDI has only proved that they have allowed their sympathies for the Imperial culture to affect their judgement, and their 'slower, more measured' pace is proof. The GRHDI is at best preventing a sure victory through caution and mismanagement - or is guaranteeing a victory for our enemies while securing power for themselves! Their 'caution' is cowardice and sympathy for our enemy, pure and simple! The Pentagon's attack on Botane will cripple the Imperium, but the GRHDI is intentionally fighting that action, and I for one have to ask why!"

"A preliminary proposal from Rep. Skelton's office requires GRHDI recommendations on war strategy to be run through the Department of Defense, and mandates that the plan proposed by General Blake Hamilton before the House Sub-Committee on Off-World Affairs be implimented as soon as reasonably possible. Members of Congress in support of the GRHDI's takeover of the war are calling it a bullying use of Congress' power and quite possibly unconstitutional, while Rep. Skelton's office and others have countered with statements levelling the same charges against the White House and the executive branch over the GRHDI. All this and more, right now, in the Situation Room."


Imperial Cortex - News at 2000

"Speaker of the Court of Worlds Thrax Vikethan stood and delivered an somber half-hour speech just minutes ago, discussing the need to re-evaluate the People's Imperium's progress in the war against the Narsai'i terrorists and their allies."

(Thrax Vikethan, standing at the dais of the Court of Worlds) ”We must stomp them out. There is not a man, not a woman, not a child on Narsai who is not set in their heart against us, and they will not rest until the Thousand Worlds are ashes. And yet, still I hear talk of moderation, of half-measures, of peace. Peace! With those savages that killed our Emperor, that kindled revolution on loyal worlds, that even now plot our ruin with every move they make! We cannot negotiate with them, we cannot pacify them - we can only exterminate them. Once, we stopped at merely burning a world, trusting that the survivors would abandon their madness in the face of our power, but what did our mercy bring us? Even now the Bashakra’i, once thought a broken people, join forces with Narsai in a mad dying gasp for revenge. How do we fight such people? With mercy? With sympathy? There are many in our midst who chant these notions. Some are naive; they do not understand the struggle we face. Some wish to profit off the chaos the Narsai’i bring - they are the lowest of vermin, and we must learn how to find them and bring them to justice! We must root them out as fiercely as we fight any enemy! Because against enemies like this, there is no more room for softness - our actions must be absolute! It is time that we learn from the mistakes we have made. It is time that we choose wiser policies - and wiser men to lead us. It is time that we go to war.”

"Strong words from the Speaker of the Court, but words that have resonance with the body: his speech received a 15 minute standing ovation, and resolutions calling for stiffer punishments and increased powers for Turai hunting for Narsai'i and Bashakra'i sympathizers were put into place immediately afterwards. Industria investment for war products has already increased, and is expected to trend upwards throughout the week. Now for entertainment news: holoserial star Komu Rasanai has reaffirmed his decision to participate in a one-off Arena match to promote his popular serial telling the story of Arena Champion Arlon Heketol, the Silent Blade."

(Komu Ranasai, sweating from training) "Is it a risk? Of course it is. But I have a duty to my craft, and in order to tell Arlon's story, I have to know what he went through every day, and that means participating in the sport he rose to the top in."

"Holoserial industrium executives have stated that they have a replacement lined up in the event Ranasai does not survive, and that passes are still available for the special event."
punkey 2013-05-19 04:58:23
The clack of metal weights on metal bars and blaring music leaks out from under the gym doors and Zaef freezes, his hand inches away from the knob. He had arrived to Mesas Negras early, with most of 815, and long before the Narsai’i troops were scheduled to arrive. He’d gotten used to having the run of the place, and the blessed silence and lack of any flashing cameras - or eyes - after so much noise and attention was the best thing to have happened to him over the past couple weeks.

He knew they’d be coming. But he reaches out towards the door handle again and stops, just short of touching it, and lets his hand fall by his side. His shadow, dark and full in the early morning light, turns to look at him, and he looks back at it, frowning. Then, after a few seconds, he rubs the sleep from his eyes and when he reaches down towards the doorknob he grabs the handle and jerks the door open. For the last few days, the short bank of stationary runners have remained blissfully quiet, but now, three Narsai'i soldiers are pounding away on top. It's still early enough that no one weight station is overloaded, but still, his favorite squat cage is in use, and a half-dozen other Narsai'i are spread out through the exercise room. Some kind of loud, bass-heavy music is blasting through the stereo, in opposition to Zaef's preference for just silence, the sound of weights and the feeling of intense, singular focus. Zaef walks in, takes in the scene, and hunts for a bench press that’s not being used. He weaves and threads his way through the machinery and soldiers, the tang of body sweat choking out the smell of freshly-oiled, unused equipment that Zaef’s come to enjoy over the past few days.

One of the soldiers, his back turned to Zaef, is making a rather rhythm-challenged attempt to accompany the music’s singer. “When cops need backup, that’s swole!” he says, gesturing with his hand. “So afraid to get smacked up ‘cause I’m swole!”
“Dude,” one of his friends says. “Turn around.”
The wannabe rap star cranes his head around, taking in Zaef. And boy, there’s a lot to take in - muscles, bronze skin, not a trace of flab.
That’s swole!” the rapper’s friend says. “Rocking abs, man!” he says to Zaef, holding up his hand for a high five.

Zaef looks at the man and blinks. Then the confusion slides off his face. “Uh, thanks,” he says hesitantly. He gives the man a high-five, and it’s a little more enthusiastic than his stammering.
“You Bashakran, man?” the soldier asks with a big smile.
“Or Imperial?” the wannabe rapper asks.
Zaef manages to hold back a despondent sigh, but only just. “Sort of. 815.”
“For real?” the wannabe asks.
“Nah, he’s the janitor,” his friend answers. “Hey, uh, Sir, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name. I’m Sergeant Cole, this sadsack here is Sergeant Pfeiffer. Just getting some work in when we can manage, you know how it is.”
“Zaef. Not sir, just...Zaef.” He smirks. “Janitor’s just my night job, anyway.”
The two soldiers chuckle uncomfortably. “Well, we’re looking forward to the training, Dsa-eve,” Cole says. “You need a spotter for the weights, let me know, okay?”
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.”
“Hey, yo, man,” the wannabe - Pfeiffer - says. “What’s it like out there? Everybody as cut as you are? ‘cause we’ve seen you, and we’ve seen Quis, and she’s like, damn.”
Zaef shakes his head. “The Turai are in good shape. Most others, not so much. Watch out for Wherren though, especially the Jade Caretakers. They’re strong when they’re mad.”
“Don’t piss off the wookies, got it,” Cole says. “So, real talk: exactly how fucked is Earth? I heard we’re all gonna be glass in like fifty years, but if there’s really a thousand planets that want to fuck us up, I don’t think it’s gonna take that long.”
“Hey, 815’s got it covered,” Pfeiffer says.
“Do you?” Cole asks Zaef.

Zaef sighs. “We’re combing through the data dump from the Cortex, but we haven’t found the code we’re looking for yet. Until we do, our only real option is to overthrow the Imperium and establish a new government that likes us enough that they won’t try invading us.” Zaef takes a quick sip from his water bottle. “We have thirty years ‘til they get here. We need to move quick if we’re going to win before they arrive.”
“And that’s why we’re here,” Cole says with a nod. “No offense, but I hope we get a better welcome when we come back. This shit’s worse than fucking World War Two and the press taking a dump on you, that’s shit. Back in the day, being a hero counted.”
“Yeah,” Pfeiffer says. “I’m in this for my family, man. The hell anyone’s gonna lay a finger on my little sister. Not while I’m still breathing. You just watch me, I’ll break my foot off in the emperor’s ass.”
“Big words from a small man,” Cole smirks.
“I’m wiry, you asshole,” Pfeiffer smirks back. “Like a fucking panther, man!”
“And where’s that put Dsa-eve, smart guy?” Cole says.
“No offense, man,” Pfeiffer says to Zaef, “but you’re not as big as Kim.”
“Kim doesn’t fucking count,” Cole says, “he’s KATUSA, all they fucking do is formation runs and PT. You’re not going to win a war with PT.”
“Why don’t you say that to Kim when you see him next?” Pfeiffer says. “You’re going back to Hialeah after this, right?”
“Don’t fucking remind me,” Cole says. “Hey, what classes do you run, anyway?” he asks Zaef.
“I’m going to teach you how Imperials fight, and how to fight back and win,” Zaef says. “And how to survive on a planet where everyone wants you dead. You’re going to learn about Imperial technology too, and how you can use it against them, but that’s just part of what I’ve already mentioned.” Zaef smirks. “Brushing up on your PT might not be a bad idea either.”
“Cool,” Cole says. “Well, see you around, Dsa-eve. Pfeiffer’s here gotta hit the weights. Don’t worry, little buddy, one of those days you’ll get your rifle off the ground.”
“Oh fuck you,” Pfeiffer says.
“It’s Zaef,” Zaef says. “See you around, Cole, Pfeiffer.”
Zaef waves goodbye to the two soldiers and wanders off to an unused bench-press. He tries not to smile as the two men bicker, even as he tries not to cry as he remembers old students for whom teaching couldn’t save; even as he tries not to glance back at the bags of his soon-to-be pupils and look for possible bugs and spy equipment.

Instead, he slides on about 160 pounds on the bar, lies down on the bench, squares his feet on the floor and lifts.
punkey 2013-05-19 04:59:30
Hugh steps out of the gateway on Whiirr again. The operators must all think by now that he’s either got a case of terminal indecision or is simply trying to run some sort of frequent flyer miles scam. The truth is far simpler: he’s here to see Hiigra and inquire about Wherren bureaucracy. The first training day has left its mark, and Hugh’s too tired to even entertain the notion of being sick from the gate transfer; instead, he trundles on, navigating the small village in search of the chief. Hugh remembers some kind of work on a larger double-wide hab in the center of the rapidly-growing little town, which was to be set aside for more proper government and official functions, and he walks in that direction. Any concerns about being able to find the building are allayed immediately once he puts eyes on it: it's brown. Not the light tan that Imperial habs tend to be, but brown like the soil of Whiirr - and in fact, Hugh could bet that's where the pigment came from. A fur curtain covers the wide and tall entrance, yet another modification seemingly put in place by the Wherren for their own benefit.

Hugh smirks to himself. “Swanky,” he mutters, then steps closer and gingerly parts the fur curtain. The Wherren design influence continues inside: wooden benches and tables occupy the floor and painted wooden carvings hang from the walls, while a few Wherren in a mix of tribal leather goods and Imperial fabrics sit at the various tables, working on voxes and holodisplays (a bit sluggishly, but still). Hugh recognizes a few of the wherren: they were either directing construction, speaking with visiting tribal leaders, and running to and fro the various habs, meeting with humans for one reason or another. It seems like this is some sort of communal work area like the Wherren prefer, but for office work instead of prepping skins or working the harvest. Hugh picks out one who looks unoccupied for the moment, puts his best smile forward and steps up to the table. ”Excuse me, can you tell me where Hiigra is?”
The male turns to Hugh, his fur turning slightly orange at the tips. "He is upstairs, I believe."
”Thank you,” Hugh says. ”Do you know if he is in a meeting or otherwise not to be disturbed? I wanted to talk to him.”
"I do not know his schedule," the male replies, a bit more orange fading in. "I am sorry, but I have to prepare a report on the Val slums for your people. If he is here, he is upstairs."
”I see. Thank you for your help and your time.” Hugh gives the busy Wherren another nod, then turns and finds his way upstairs, where he’s greeted with a hallway of office doors. Bureaucracy really is the same all over, Hugh thinks. He browses along the doors, reading the runes on the paper signs taped to the doors to find Hiigra’s office. Unsurprisingly, it’s the door to the corner office at the end of the hall. And rank hath its privileges, Hugh adds to his previous thought, then knocks on the door. ”Chief Hiigra? It’s Hugh Verrill. Do you have a moment?” Hugh calls.

There's a pause before the door opens to reveal Hiigra standing there in a color-changing vest - an expensive gift from someone - and a leather loincloth. "Of course, Hugh, please come in." He walks back around his desk and takes a seat in his chair - everything in the room, like everything in this building, including the building, seems to have been designed primarily for Wherren. A few wooden carvings from the old village longhouse hang on his walls, and a large grawhl skin covers one whole wall. Hugh feels like he's Torega's age when he looks at the oversized chairs on his side of the desk. Hugh steps in and finds it hard to resist rubbernecking a little. Somewhere on his “life goals” list, ‘swank office’ slides into position number 14.
”Well, Hiigra, I’ve been considering taking certain...steps...and I realized I wasn’t as aware of the repercussion as I wanted to be,” Hugh begins, settling into one of the big-ass chairs opposite Hiigra’s desk.
"What repercussions would that be?" Hiigra asks as he takes a seat of his own. His fur is completely brown, giving Hugh nothing to work with - although, brown is better than red.
”The repercussions of marrying a member of your tribe,” Hugh says.
Hiigra nods slowly, his finger running along his steel prosthetic tusk. "Are you asking about bonding with Rhea?"
”Yes,” Hugh replies bluntly. ”I see the news are already making the rounds and I’d like to stay ahead of them.”
Hiigra's fur turns a burnt orange and yellow. "Is that your only intention? You have only been Rhea's mate for a little over a week, and I am concerned for her. She has been through a lot of pain and suffering, and it is my duty to protect her from more."
”My intention is to insure Rhea’s safety and happiness,” Hugh says. ”I did not wish to appear as if I was merely interested in the short term, so I came to you first to learn more, that I may make a wise decision about our relationship.”
Hiigra harrumphs. "I would say that you are long past when you should have been learning more." He takes a deep breath, and force his fur from orange to a light yellowish-brown. "But you still came to me, Hugh, and I know you are an honest human. So, ask. I will answer the best I can."
Hugh nods. ”Thank you. My first question is, is it even possible for me to become bonded with Rhea?”
"Bonding is a statement of fidelity and love," Hiigra starts. "It is an agreement between two mates that they are joined together for life. I can approve or disapprove of the bonding, but it is really just between the two mates. If you both want to become bonded, I cannot stop you." He pauses, a wave of blue rolling over him momentarily. "Do you wish to commit to being bonded with Rhea?"
”I will need to speak to Rhea first, I haven’t brought up the topic with her,” Hugh replies, hanging his head a little. ”It is a difficult topic. I can tell that she yearns for closeness, and she makes me very happy, too, but...I am sure you can imagine that we are still in an uncertain relationship, trying to figure out how we fit together.”
Hiigra huffs a small laugh. "No, Hugh, I cannot imagine. One of my tribe that was Chosen and returned has told me that such matings are not unheard of outside of Whiirr, but I must confess that I do not understand it." The humor vanishes from Hiigra's fur. "But you understand that Rhea is my responsibility - and one I take very seriously. She has already suffered enough at the hands of my mistakes, and I will be vigilant to not make her pay for another incident of my carelessness. So. I am not disapproving of your relationship, but know that I am watching you both. What other questions do you have?"
”Well, with the easy question out of the way,” Hugh says, ”I have to ask about something even more precious under your care. Provided that Rhea and I decide to stay together and become bond mates...would it be possible for us to adopt a cub?”
Hiigra shifts in his seat. "That depends on whether or not I approve. Which cub are you considering?"
”Torega,” Hugh answers without hesitation.
"Why her?" Hiigra responds.
”Because I care for her deeply,” Hugh says. ”She is what brought me back here in the first place. I wish to safeguard her future in any way I can.”
Hiigra nods. "And you can't do this from the orphanage?"
”The orphanage is a great place, don’t get me wrong,” Hugh says. ”But the cubs deserve more. They deserve to have families, a home of their own. Have you seen how they yearn for attention, for affection? Rhea and Sijet and Piugash try very hard to make them feel loved and safe, but they are their teachers and caretakers, not their parents. And I know Torega. She is a brave kid, a smart kid, but she needs someone to hold on to. She can hardly tear herself away from me whenever I’m there, and my heart breaks every time I have to leave and she stays behind.” Hugh sighs. ”I know it would probably be better for her to grow up with Wherren parents. Maybe I am just selfish. But I want to be a father to her. More than anything else I’ve wanted in my life.”
Hiigra remains neutral in both expression and color throughout Hugh's response, but at the end, green and yellow burst out from his fur and he smiles. "That is what I have been waiting to see on your expressions. Torega deserves that kind of passion, and if you and Rhea were to become bond mates, I would approve of you adopting Torega as your own - with one request. Since you and Rhea would not be able to have cubs of your own, keep her at the orphanage. Cubs need others like them to grow up healthy; a lone cub can simply waste away. Keeping Torega with the others at the orphanage will be what she needs to grow up as happy as you seem to demand she does." Hiigra shifts in his seat again. "But I have yet to hear why I should approve of your bonding with Rhea. Your fur was almost on end when I challenged you on Torega, but not when I did the same for Rhea."
”With all due respect, Hiigra, you said yourself that that was not your decision to make,” Hugh throws in. ”Rhea and I may not have figured out exactly where we stand yet, but when we do say ‘yes’ to each other, it will be on our terms and our schedule. You know me as an honest man, and I will not sit before you pretending to have strong feelings already when my relationship with Rhea is still blossoming just so that I can get your approval for it. But believe me, when we make that choice, you will see my fur rise.”
Hiigra smiles again. "I believe that I already have. Rhea is a strong female, and if she feels strongly enough to have been grooming you in public, then I have no doubt that she feels safe in her mating with you. What I wanted to be sure of is whether or not you were certain this is what you wanted, and I believe that you have just answered that question for me. You and Rhea have my approval, Hugh."
Hugh smiles. ”Thank you, Hiigra. That really means a lot to me. I’d like to apologize in advance, I’m sure I’ll be back with more questions later. It’s just...I want to do this right. Rhea and Torega are very important to me, and I want to make sure that I do right by them. I really still don’t know enough about many things, and so your counsel is a great help to me. You are of course right to be concerned for the well-being of the two; I hope that I have shown you that this is my concern, too.”
"And you have," Hiigra nods. He looks out the window, and then after a moment, back to the holodisplay on his desk. "I am still not used to looking at this device for the time," he grumbles. "But I believe the cubs should be out of lessons for lunch. I will understand if you wish to leave and give Rhea the happy news."
”I will go and speak to her, then,” Hugh says. ”I am afraid there will be other complications from my side of the Gateway before the news will truly be happy, but I feel that this is an important first step.”
Hiigra stands up. "I think that you would do well to learn from Torega - happiness is what you decide to make of it."
”True,” Hugh says. ”Goodbye, Hiigra.”

Hiigra simply bows to that. Hugh returns the bow, then makes haste - last sidelong glance, damn this is a nice office - and exits into the hallway, where his gait assumes a gallop-esque grace and speed. He skips down the stairs, shouts a ”Thank you!” to the bewildered Wherren in the common area below and then hightails it out of there. Next stop: happiness.


Hugh’s huffing and puffing pretty good from his sprinting when he arrives at the school. As expected, the cubs are outside on the grassy field, playing another of their games, while Sijet and Rhea are watching from the sidelines, apparently having given up on officiating when the cubs are having way more fun just running around and climbing all over each other in pursuit of the small leather ball. Hugh also sees Piugash out of the corner of his eye; the Wherren teacher is sitting alone at the nearby benches, studying a stack of little notepads intensely - probably checking classwork of some sort. Hugh slows down to landing speed and jogs up next to Rhea and Sijet.

”Hey,” he squeezes out, then takes a few moments to catch his breath. ”Rhea, do you have a moment?”
Rhea barks with delight as she embraces Hugh, gives him a hello lick or two and her special fur pattern for him. "Yes, always," she says. "Can it be here, the cubs are especially rough today."
Hugh returns the lick. ”Yes, let’s just step over here,” he says, leading Rhea out of Sijet’s immediate earshot but still well in sight of the playing field. ”I’m sorry this is getting so rushed, but ever since yesterday I haven’t stopped thinking about it and I wanted to make sure you’re the first one to know.” He puts his hand on the side of Rhea’s face, meets her gaze and smiles as her fur stands on end and shifts to a bright green and yellow - tinted with a hint of blue. ”Rhea, I have realized that I want to start a family here, because the last week here has been the happiest time of my life. And I know we’ve just started seeing each other, but the more I think about it, the more it becomes obvious that I am madly in love with you. I’ve tried to think of a way to ask you this without putting pressure on you, but I think it is best for both of us if I ask it as simply as possible: Rhea, would you consider becoming my bondmate?”
As Hugh pops the question, even the fur on top of Rhea's head tries to stand on end. Guttural noises escape from her mouth as it hangs open, Hugh's proposal rendering her speechless. Encouragingly, her pattern for her love for Hugh blazes bright on her fur, but discouragingly, it's flashing quickly between that and a fearful blue. "...are you sure?" she finally manages to grunt before composing herself. "I love you, Hugh, so much. But...I do not want you to hurt yourself just because you are caught up in the moment. I know your homeworld has been cruel, but...are you sure this is what you want?" Blue overtakes her for a moment. "Not that I don't..." she reaches up and wipes her eyes, "Not that I don't feel the same. But...I am worried for you. I want this to be what you really want - if you want a family...we cannot have cubs, and what of what the Narsai'i will say?"
Hugh nods as Rhea shares her worries with her. ”Rhea,” he says, ”you are the most wonderful, caring person I know. I was so worried about what you would say, whether you would feel the same...and you only speak of how you wish to be sure that this will make me happy. It will, Rhea. I know this. I never came here to seek my happiness, but now that I have found it, what fool would I be to let it go to waste because of what others would say about me? The Narsai’i will not like me no matter what I do. And it is not their happiness I am after, it is ours. And on the topic of cubs...I have something else I need to ask you.” He meets her eyes again. ”If we become bondmates - would you adopt Torega with me, as our daughter?”

Her fur blazes green and yellow again - this time, Rhea has no doubt. "Yes," she barks. "Yes, I would." She embraces Hugh, lifts him up and holds his face up against the side of her snout. "And I will gladly bond with you - with no regrets."
”No regrets,” Hugh repeats as he gives her face a tender lick. ”I want to live the rest of my life like that, with no regrets. And it would be the greatest privilege to have you two at my side for it.”
Rhea purrs and returns the lick, soft and slow. "Then you should make time soon for the bonding ceremony," she rumbles softly in his ear. "And I think we should tell Torega that we will be her new mother and father." Hugh feels her fur ruffle. "The other cubs. Damn, the other cubs. What will this do to them?" Rhea gasps. "And Torega, where will she stay? She needs other cubs around, what about that?"
”I think we should all live here, in the village,” Hugh says, cutting her off. ”I spoke to Hiigra about this, and he said that Wherren cubs need company. He recommended that Torega grow up with the others, and I do not see a reason to do otherwise. I would not wish to take her away from her friends and the home she knows.”
"And you?" Rhea asks.
”I’m sure we could find a hab or have one built...the village is growing, anyway,” Hugh says. ”And the Gateway is nearby, too. I’ve had worse commutes. It is also considered traditional on my world for a man to have a hand in building his own house - I’ve managed to avoid that so far, but I guess that’s catching up to me now.”
Rhea huffs a laugh at that. "It seems so." She looks over at the cubs playing. "Do you think we should tell her now? Did you receive Hiigra's approval for the adoption?"
”Yes, I went to him first to clear all that up,” Hugh says. ”That’s why I ran here, I had good news to share. As for telling Torega...” Hugh switches to English for a moment. “Fuck it. No regrets, right?” He turns back to Rhea. ”Yes, let’s tell her when they’re done with their game.”
Rhea nods, and returns to holding Hugh up against her chest. "And after that, I think some private time with my bondmate is needed," she murmurs. Her fur stands on end again and she smiles. "Oh, it feels so good to call you that."
”It feels very good to be hearing it, too,” Hugh replies. With his head already in the right position, he begins to slowly groom Rhea’s chest, while his hands wander around the parts of her back and side that he can reach, as Rhea softly scratches the back of Hugh's neck with one hand while grooming his scalp, purring all the while.

Only a minute or so of intense grooming goes by before both Hugh and Rhea hear a small voice, barking loudly as it runs their way. "Hugh! Hugh!" Torega barks, and jumps up to grab at the bottom of his boots. "You're here!" Rhea reluctantly sets Hugh down, her tongue giving Hugh one last lick that Hugh wishes wouldn't end. Hugh isn't without an embrace for long; the instant his boots touch the ground, Torega pounces on him and buries her muzzle in his hip, her fur almost glowing with green and yellow.
Hugh hugs Torega tightly and strokes her head. ”Hey there, little one. Did you have fun today?”
"Uh-huh," Torega replies. "Dush was fast, but I got him." She looks up at Hugh with her bright brown eyes.
”Okay,” Hugh says, then takes a knee and puts his hands on Torega’s shoulder. ”Torega, I need to tell you something important, and then I want to ask you something. Okay?”
Torega nods vigorously, the fur on her head whipping around. "Okay!"
”I’m sure you’ve noticed,” Hugh begins, ”that Rhea and I have been spending a lot of time together lately. We like each other very much. So after thinking about it, I asked her today if she wanted to be my bondmate, and she agreed. So we are going to be living together.”
Torega's fur turns green, then blue. "...will you be living on Whiirr?"
”Yes,” Hugh says. ”In fact, we want to live right here in the village.”
Torega's fur returns to green, and she licks Hugh. "Yay!"
”So, remember that question I wanted to ask you?” Hugh says, then takes a deep breath. ”Torega, Rhea and I love you and care very much about you. And since we won’t be able to have cubs of our own...” Hugh hesitates again, searching for the right words. ”Torega...do you want to be our daughter?”
Torega's fur rolls through a few colors. "What does that mean?"
”It means we would be a family together,” Hugh says. ”We would still live here and you would still go to school and play with all your friends here. But as a family, there are things we can do together that we can’t now. Like go through the Gateway together."
That's all Torega needs to hear. Her fur turns green and yellow again, and she squeezes Hugh tight. "Yes!" she barks. "Yes!"
Hugh hugs Torega back. ”Thank you,” he whispers. Then he gets some dust in his eyes.

Okay, a lot of dust.

Picking Torega up with him, Hugh looks to Rhea, hard as she is to see clearly through the tears. His throat is clenched too tight to say anything, but the relieved smile on his face does a lot of the talking for him. The Rhea-shaped blur takes a seat next to him and puts her arm around Hugh, drawing him up against her and slowly licks his head as Torega's tongue assaults his cheeks. Hugh returns the hug with his free arm and then leans against Rhea, resting his head on her chest. The tears won’t stop, but neither will the smile. Just like that, it’s like he’s cast off a millstone he didn’t even know he was carrying.

Torega finally relents, and rolls over onto her back across Hugh and Rhea's laps, stretching wide with her cotton gown rustling in the breeze blowing out of the forest. "When can I come and see you, Hugh?"
Rhea ruffles Torega's fur. "You can call him father, if you want."
Torega nods, and smiles. "Okay. When can I come and see you, father?"
Hugh thinks. ”I’ll start the paperwork as soon as I’m back on Narsai,” he says. ”But I think they will honor Hiigra’s word, too. I actually don’t know, I didn’t think to ask them before I left.” Hugh sighs. ”The first big challenge of any relationship: bureaucracy.”
Torega looks confused for a moment while Rhea huffs a chuckle, before Torega returns to her gleeful look and stretches again. Moments later, however, Piugash stands up from his table and howls for the cubs. "Cubs! Time for lessons!"
Torega rolls over and licks Rhea and Hugh. "I have to go! We're doing more writing lessons. I will show you later!" She looks at Rhea. "I love you, mother." Then she looks at Hugh, and licks him one more time. "I love you, father."
Hugh licks her back. ”And I love you...daughter.”

Torega dashes off to join with the others, still a beacon of bright yellow and green. Hugh cuddles up to Rhea a little more before rising and looking at her. ”Do you want to...go upstairs?” he asks.
Rhea leans over and licks Hugh again - this time her hand scratching somewhere not his head. "I would love that, bondmate," she murmurs.
”I was hoping you would say that, bondmate,” Hugh replies with a cheeky grin.


Hugh comes to - as the Brits would say - proper knackered, the glorious warmth of exhaustion wrapped around him - oh, wait, that’s Rhea, cuddling him to herself. He repays her grooming with a few tender licks to signal that he’s back in the land of the conscious. A glance at the watch hanging from a handle of the nightstand shows a reading of 10:46 - that’s Mesas Negras time, and that’s PM. Hugh thanks Past!Hugh for settling on starting his training days at 8 AM, because the 5 AM “Rise and shine!” method Garrett and Ngawai are employing with the Bashakra’i and Arketta and her mother are using with the Narsai'i wouldn’t have left him with a lot of room for actually sleeping.

“Plenty of time,” Hugh murmurs to himself, then goes back to grooming Rhea.
Rhea whines slightly as Hugh starts in, but after a few minutes of aroused purring, she speaks. "What do we do now, Hugh?"
”Cuddling seems to be a good idea right now,” Hugh says.
Rhea huffs and gently scratches behind Hugh's ear. "You know what I mean."
”Yes,” Hugh says. ”First, we get bonded - so preparations for that. Then we adopt Torega. Then we start planning for a new house. I know it’s all a lot of work in the details, but I think we can divide and conquer, as soon as we have more time to plan.” He gives Rhea another lick. ”We’ll figure it out.”
Rhea slowly licks across the top of Hugh's head; Hugh does a laughably poor impression of a Wherren purr in response. "And what of the Narsai'i? And your training, and the Imperium?"
”I’m committed to the training,” Hugh says, ”but that won’t take up all my time. And we’re not currently on a mission against the Imperium, so if you think about it, now is possibly the best time to do what we’ve planned. As for the Narsa’i...they may glare and complain, but in the end it’s just paperwork.”
”And how many of your friends will be in attendance for the bonding ceremony?” Rhea asks.
”I will invite all of them,” Hugh says. ”I hope they can all make it, but first I need to tell them about us - I...I haven’t told them yet.”
Rhea stops grooming Hugh immediately and sits somewhat upright. ”You haven’t told them about us yet?” Her fur is a wild mix of blue, yellow, and a bit of orange.
”No, I...I haven’t told them,” Hugh says, sounding like a kid who’s afraid to bring his report card home to daddy. ”Part of it is just that...it’s all gone so quickly, and I’m madly in love with you, and it just...it felt so fragile, like it was going to get ripped away from me any day, and I didn’t want to get my hopes up, and...I was afraid they would think it’s just me throwing myself into another wild adventure without thinking. Like I needed this to work out and last for a while before I could claim it.” He looks up at Rhea, but doesn’t meet her eyes. ”I’m not making a lot of sense, am I?”
Hugh can see Rhea’s fur roll through a shifting wave of blue, yellow and orange, but after a few seconds, her green and yellow for him returns. She gingerly lifts Hugh’s chin with one hand and gives him a gentle smile before licking his cheek. ”I have been waiting to say this: you don’t need to apologize this much,” she rumbles, her canine teeth poking through her smile. ”I understand, Hugh. I remember how broken and sad you were when you first came back - and I know that kind of hurt...it does not go away easily.” Stripes of purple briefly invade her fur, but her colors of their love fight them away. ”You have nothing to apologize for, Hugh. I understand.”
Hugh says nothing, but he looks up to meet Rhea’s eyes. How can she say this - how can she do this? It’s one thing to have to apologize for your mistakes and hear the other person say they understand, this blasé dismissal of the whole matter where your apology isn’t even important enough to be accepted - but Rhea means it, and Hugh keeps staring at her, keeps wondering how she can do that. The universe isn’t fair, he thinks, because I sure don’t deserve a woman like her. It’s getting harder to hold it together, but finally, he permits himself a smile. ”Rhea,” he croaks, ”you’re amazing. And everything I can do to make you happy is the least you deserve. You may not want an apology, but please accept this promise: the first thing I’m going to do when I go back to Narsai is to tell everyone I know about us. I don’t care if I have to drag them out of a meeting, a briefing or a bed. Everyone will know that I love you, Rhea. And they had better clear their damn schedules for our bonding ceremony. You and Torega are the most important things in the universe to me, and it’s way past time that I stopped hiding it.”
Rhea’s smile grows to show almost all of her teeth. She sighs, a stuttering sound laden with emotion. ”I wish I could see you like this all the time, bondmate,” she signs, her vocalizations halting. ”I wish you could see yourself like this all the time.”
Hugh’s smile contorts as he tries to laugh it off, but the way he closes his eyes and turns away for a moment shows that that hit dead center. After a few seconds, he abandons the pretense and slumps his shoulders before drawing in a deep breath and building himself back up. ”And I want to be that man,” he says, then opens his eyes and looks back at her. ”I want to be that man, Rhea. I can’t do it without you...I don’t want to do it without you. I’m not a perfect man, but when I’m with you, I feel like I’m a good man, and that’s all I ever wanted to be.” His eyes mist up, and he whispers ”Thank you” just before he lunges at her and embraces her.
Most of Rhea’s words are blunted as they embrace, so instead she rubs Hugh’s back. ”Always, Hugh,” she vocalizes before she simply grooms his head. Hugh gently licks her chest in return, but for the most part, he just clings to her for all it’s worth.
punkey 2013-05-19 05:01:53
The Gate’s eerie yellowish tint fades to normal colors as Luis steps through the connection back to Atea, and he takes a breath as his feet settle into the subtly different gravity. Clearing the Gateport staging area, he starts pulling updates on the transit schedules off of Atea’s network onto his implants. However, he barely has time to note that his tram is running a few minutes late again before an icon pops up in his peripheral vision indicating an incoming call and the pleasing Imperial female voice lets him know Arketta is on the other end of the connection. He smiles and accepts the call.

“Hey,” he says. “My connection just got in, I should be on the tram in a few minutes.”
"Already back on Atea again?" Arketta asks.
Luis nods, leaning against the bulkhead near the Gateport exit. “Yeah, they managed to slot us in, and exercises wrapped up a little early.”
"You asked them to -" Luis can hear Arketta shake her head. "Never mind, we don't have time before the Gate closes. I called to remind you that you need to call your parents about arrangements to transport them to Boranai for the wedding."
Luis’ mouth gapes for a moment, then he turns to the big screen displaying the Gate schedule and notes the time. “Shit, yeah. I forgot. Listen I’ve got...” he finds the data he needs, “8 minutes, I’d better get off the line. Love you.”
"Love you, Luis," Arketta replies, and disconnects.

Luis takes a moment to get his dialing software setup for a connection to cross one Gate link and a vox-to-phone connection, then pulls up his parent’s home number. As it dials, then rings, he tries not to stare too hard at the countdown.
"Hello?" Martha Stanhill asks.
“Hey Mom,” Luis says. “Do you have a few minutes?”
“Luis! It’s so good to hear your voice,” Martha replies. The connection rustles as she covers the mouthpiece. “Don! It’s Luis on the phone!” Another rustle. “How are you doing, Luis? We saw you in front of Congress on TV, we’re so proud of you, son.”
“Thanks,” Luis says. “It was...a lot of effort. I probably owe you an email to catch you up, but I did have one thing I wanted to talk to you about myself.”
“Don! Say hello to your son,” Martha says, and Luis hears the phone rustle again. A few seconds and another rustle later, Luis hears his father come on the phone. “Hello, son. You looked good in front of Congress. Never thought I’d see you sitting in front of a row of Congressmen. You make me proud, son.”
“And tell him his eyes looked good with his suit!” Martha says.
“Your mother wants you to know she thought your new eyes looked good with your suit,” Donovan adds. Luis can tell he’s still not settled over the ocular implants, but he’s willing to put on a good show. “Your mother wants the phone back, one second.”
Before Luis can say anything, another pair of rustles indicates the phone has been passed back to his mom. “And your fiancé looked so nice, and her speech was so lovely. It made both of us tear up.”
“I did no such thing,” Donovan grouses.
“Don’t listen to him, he’s just being a man,” Martha rebuts. “So, where are you off to now? Mars, maybe?”
“I’m on Atea, the Basakara’i worldship,” Luis says. “Actually, I’ve only got about another 6 minutes before the Gate closes and I lose my connection. I was calling to talk about wedding plans.”
“Oh! Already!” Martha says. “Let me put you on speakerphone so Don can hear.” A few seconds later, Martha speaks up again, a little muted. “All right, go ahead, Luis.”
“Well, we’re talking about doing it sometime in a couple weeks, depending on your schedule and the operations GRHDI has planned, so it’s about time to get to it. Obviously, guest lists is something we need to talk about, but I think the best thing is if you email me your suggestions and we can look them over. We’re thinking about a bit of a destination wedding, so that’ll be something to keep in mind.”
“Ooh, Hawaii!” Martha says.
“Actually,” Luis says, “We were thinking of this place up in the Osasas.” He pauses for a moment, they hears the lack of reply and figures out why. “Oh! They’re these mountains north of the city on Boranai, they’re absolutely beautiful this time of year, and there’s a great place up there that’s willing to give us a discount.”
There’s a bit of a silence. “Is that in Europe?” Martha ventures.
“No, Mom, it’s on Boranai,” Luis says. “The planet. With the new Mesas Negras Gate, it's a lot more accessible.”
There’s a much longer silence this time. Luis notes that he’s got three minutes left, and hears his mother whisper, “Is it safe?”
“Of course it’s safe, Luis does it all the time,” Donovan whispers back.
“No, I mean...the alien planet,” Martha whispers in return.
Another silence. “Must be, otherwise he wouldn’t ask us to go there,” Donovan replies.
“Ask him, though,” Martha whispers.
“All right, all right.” Donovan speaks up. “Luis, your mother’s concerned about whether or not it’s safe for us to go there.”
“It’s fine these days--a lot like New York, there’s some places you shouldn’t go without knowing your way around,” Luis says. “But the wedding’ll be well out of town. The venue is pretty remote and very safe.”
“Well, that sounds all right,” Martha says, the worry still evident in her voice. Two minutes to go.
“I can send you some pictures,” Luis says. “It’s really beautiful. Anyway, that’s part of why we’ll need to get the guest list locked down, but we can work that out by email. How are you and Dad doing?”
“Oh, we’re all right,” Martha replies. “We’ve hauled the bikes out of the shed and started riding around the neighborhood. You know, just to stay fit. How is Washington DC?”
“Seemed a bit less impressive than in 8th grade,” Luis says. “The weather out at Mesa Negras is a bit hot, but the sun is nice. Makes me miss the green of Diego Garcia a bit, though.”
“Oh, you’re not living in Washington?” Martha asks.
“It’s a bit too far off the Gate network for all the crossings we’ve been doing,” Luis says. “We’ve got a really nice place here on Atea. Nice neighborhood, a lot of families.”
“And that’s near the base?” Martha asks. One minute.
“It’s about fifteen minutes from the Gateport when the trams are running on time,” Luis says. “Sometimes when they’re late, I’ll walk to the next station and catch the transit there--there’s some nice public spaces between them and it’s a good way to decompress instead of loitering on the platform. Like you said, staying fit.”
“That’s nice of them to run a tram service into town for you,” Martha replies.
“They get Patriots games there?” Don asks. “Maybe we’ll come and visit you and Arketta before we go to Bor...Bor...this alien planet.”
“Yeah, we do,” Luis says. “And I’d love to show you around.” He looks at the clock. “Actually, that it, the Gate window is about to run down. I love you.”
“We love you, Luis, but what do you mean, windo -” And the Gateway closes a few seconds early from the Narsai’i side, cutting Luis’ connection off. He stares at the flashing “Call Lost” icon for a moment and sighs. “That, Mom.” If he’s honest with himself, he knows he was skirting the questions they meant to ask him in favor of answers he prefered to give, but...he’s not sure he’s ready to have that entire talk at once. And not right after a day of dealing with Sheen forces. He shakes his head, and heads to catch his tram home. He’s got a bit to think about while he works on his Interceptor tonight for when he writes that email.

Luis takes his time walking back from the adit to the berth. He’s got a lot on his mind, more than when he started the trip home from Mesa Negras. Trying to tell his parents how much has changed since even the last time he called his parents. It seems like it’s been a very long couple of weeks looking back on it. Finally after what seems tonight like a longer walk than normal, the berth hatch appears along the wall. Triggering it with a familiar command, he steps through. First thing’s first--the ward news feed snaps on with a command, and he steps to the kitchenette to grab a drink from the chiller. When he does, he notices the note hanging on the cabinet door above. Still holding his juice can in one hand, the chill seeping into his fingers, he grabs the note with the other. Remember, call your parents, I’ll be home late - Love you, Arketta Luis grunts. He grabs a pen from a cup on the counter, flips the paper over, and writes his own note back. Called my parents--need to work out guest list. Gone to hangar--Love, Luis He runs a finger across the top, the pressure activating the nanotech “adhesive” on the other side, and leaves it on the cabinet. That done, he pops a package of reheatable noodles into the autochef heater, punches the button he’s come to think of as “nuke it,” and turns to watch the news as the cycle runs. The ward news feed is running a story about some goings on at the Imperial Court of Worlds. Apparently, the Speaker of the Court Thrax Vikethan spoke at some length, drawing attention to the threat posed by the Narsai’i and the growing unrest on some less-populated worlds. The blame, he argues, can be laid entirely at the feet of the Emperor, and he even goes as far as to hint that the selection of the Emperor was unwise, a fact that the female newsreader can’t get out without a grin, the Bashakra’i sigil traced in shifting lines of green and blue on her face growing more animated as she speaks. Luis idly wonders if theres going to be some changes in the Court soon--just saying that should make him a target. Either way, it’s apt to mean memos. Well, no amusement comes for free, Luis think.

As the newsreader switches over into the local primary academy sports news, Luis hears the micro--the autochef ding and goes to grab his tray. The game is something like a cross between dodgeball and paintball, played in scenario fields with squads trying to hunt down and put the other team out of action. Hits are ranked as “kills,” “incapacitation,” or just “injuries.” It’s oddly similar to watching the footage of the training the Sheen are getting, except that Luis has the distinct impression that any one of these teams could score better on their simulations than the trainees. Even the team for the quadrant containing the adit and surrounding berths could, and that’s saying something--the highlights reel has to work hard to find even quick shots of them local 12/13th year team scoring in their most recent matches, preferring to focus less on the shutouts and more on them spending a practice session working with the 2nd and 3rd year students. Given the game the little 6-year-olds seem to have, Luis wonders idly who’s supposed to have been learning from who. The Patriots they aren’t, Dad, Luis thinks, sucking thoughtfully on a forkful of noodle. He’d been watching the feeds taped at Mesa Negras more often than the local dodgeball games, but lately he’s cut back to just when the Pats play. If he’s honest, the problem he had was explaining to his parents how in under a month, Atea’s feeling more like home than Earth, and that he’s feeling more in touch with another culture than the Narsai’i. I want to show you, he thinks. I wish you could see.

At the conclusion of the news feed, Luis busses his tray, silverware, and juice can. A check of his internal clock shows him running later than he’d like for the hangar, so he hurries through changing into the set of clothes set aside for working in the hangar and heads out. Through the walk to the adit and the ride to the hangar, he’s left noticing how normal it all feels--even the transfer of gravity plane between lines halfway through the trip feels more like an hassle in making sure he can make his way to the other platform in time for the connection than as something alien. The normalcy of Atea and the alienness of Narsai is a hard contrast to shake even as he cycles into the hangar and goes to retrieve his tools, nodding to Yisai who’s at work at something administrative on one of the ready room tables as he heads to the hangar. The job for the night is retuning the port lateral gravity buffer, which is supposed to aiding in precision atmospheric maneuvering. So far, Luis hasn’t had a chance to get into any atmosphere yet, but there’s been some talk of doing a demonstration on Narsai for some bigwigs at various aerospace defense contractors, and Luis wants to show to greatest effect if that comes. He grabs his caddy of hand tools and small electric tools, plus one or two more specialized pieces from the communal chest and gets to work, putting thoughts of Earth feeling alien out of his mind as he pulls up various references on his overlay and starts on the job at hand. Or at least, that’s the plan.

Yisai walks up behind Luis. "Checking the impeller cores?"
Slightly startled, Luis looks up through a haze of overlays. “Huh?”
Yisai stands at ease behind Luis, peering over his shoulder as she leans forward. "You have exposed the impeller cores of the port lateral gravity buffer."
Luis nods. “Yeah. Trying to get a bit of extra atmospheric maneuvering potential out of it.”
She raises an...well, what would be an eyebrow and is now a sculpted and "riveted" ridge. "And you have clamped a optical circuit analyzer to a power feed."
Luis checks his overlay. “That’s not the test point for the line analysis?”
"No, that is a 10 kilowatt feed for the impeller," Yisai replies.
Luis check his overlay again, then clears it and peers at the circuits. After a moment he nods sheepishly. “Uh, yeah, that is.” He grounds the other end of the tester leads on the ceramic non-conducting frame, then goes to move the other end. "Thanks, that could have been bad, right?”
"It would have blown out the analyzer, which is not a polite thing to do to communal tools," Yisai replies. She hesitates for a moment. "Is everything all right, Luis?"
Luis finishes moving the tester, then pauses and takes a breath. “I’m...not really sure.”
Yisai pulls up a wheeled stool and takes a seat. "What are you not sure about?"
“I’m not sure I have a problem,” Luis says, pulling back from the panel and leaning against the skin of the ship. “I’m feeling normal in a strange way, and that seems to be the problem.”
Yisai looks at Luis for a moment, her golden expression fixed but her eyes in motion. "I am not sure what you mean. Tell me more."
Luis sighs. “It’s a bit of a muddle. How did it feel when you came to Atea?”
"Upset and angry about being lied to by the Turai," Yisai replies. "Worried that my presence would bring harm to those that gave me asylum. Relieved that they accepted us with open arms. Eager to prove our worth to the Bashakra'i." She pauses. "I presume you feel differently, and that you are uneasy with exactly how you feel."
Luis nods. “Yeah, I’m feeling...really at home here, like I was run off Earth and glad to have someplace else that’s accepting me, and accepting Arketta, but at the same time...I spend so much time on Earth, and my family’s still there...I was trying to explain even part of this last few weeks to my mom and dad earlier tonight and I felt like I didn’t even know where to start. And...I’m not sure I know how to feel about that. It’s a lot of change in not a lot of time, but I feel better because of it.”
"You feel bad for feeling good about living on Atea?" Yisai asks. "I find that unlikely - it does not sound like you. Perhaps it is more that you feel that you should be uneasy, and so you are?"
Luis nods. “Yeah, that’s a bit more like it. I feel like it should worry me more than it does--I mean, it does worry me that I can’t explain to my parents why this feels so natural, but it’s also getting me to realize that I’m not actually worried as much about the change itself. Not like I’d have thought. It’s like it came up on me sideways and I didn’t see it until it had me entirely.”
"Well, if the root of your problem is your ability to explain it to someone with no context, perhaps it would help to explain it to someone who has that context." Yisai shifts in her seat, keeping her back straight. "Explain to me why your move to Atea feels natural."
Luis shrugs. “Here, no one looks at me funny for my implants, or for trying to say that we’re fighting a war against drastically superior forces and need to think like it, or needs to have it explained to them just what a revolution having Gates and ships and voxes and everything else implies, that the status quo is going to change. Not really so much because it’s more flexible, but because that is the status quo. Nobody thinks I’m suspicious or untrustworthy because I think there’s something good in the fact that there’s more to the universe than Earth, or that we could learn a lot from what all the stuff over here has to offer but still keep enough of what makes us...us to matter. I don’t have to justify that I’m not wrong or bad for even thinking about that sort of thing. And back on Earth...not everywhere, but a lot of places it felt like I did.” The rush of words seems to have surprised him, and he looks down and grabs a socket driver, putting it back into its slot on the caddy to cover a moment to gather himself before turning back to Yisai. “You get what I mean?”
"I understand what you are saying, yes," Yisai replies. "This feels like home because you are accepted here and are not attacked for what you know to be true."
“Yeah,” Luis says. “And I can’t figure how to explain that to someone who doesn’t even get what I’m saying, much less see how it could be true.”
"That seems like a logical reason to feel more at home somewhere," Yisai says, and shrugs. "I do not know what further explanation might be necessary."
Luis looks down at his hands and shrugs. “Because I don’t just want my parents to understand that I’ve changed, I want them to understand why, and who I am, and accept that. I don’t give a crap if Walter Simmons or the Joint Chiefs think I’m going native, but it hurts that I can’t explain it to my mom and dad. I finally felt like they were proud of who I am and what I’m doing, and now...I feel like I can’t explain it to them anymore.”
"Why can't you?" Yisai asks plainly.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Luis says. “I’ve tried and...it’s all linked. I wish I could just show them. So they could see what it’s like, so they could see what I mean.”
"Have you tried?" Yisai replies. "Or have you only thought of why they would not understand?"
Luis takes a breath, then pauses. “Umm. I guess not. It just feels like there’s so much to say and show.”
"I have been told that parents usually listen to their children when they have something to say," Yisai says. "Some of my Interceptors have explained themselves to their parents, and you have not committed treason. I would let them try to understand before you dismiss them."
Luis nods. “Yeah, I guess it’s worth another shot. A real shot.” He looks up at Yisai. “Thanks. For that, and for stopping me from shorting out the analyzer.” He pauses for a moment. “You’re a good friend.”
Yisai smiles bashfully and looks to the side, her golden skin unable to blush but her cheeks certainly warm. "Thank you, Luis, but I am simply doing my job as your superior officer."
Luis sighs with a grin. “I’ve never been a Rav-Odun or anything, but I think after the last few days, trust me when I say I know some of what being a superior officer is about. Telling me I was doing a job wrong and fixing that? That’s certainly in the job description. Hearing me out and telling me to go reconcile with my parents? That’s being a friend.” He grins. “At least, I hope it’s not part of being a superior officer, or this Sheen training is going to give me even more headaches than I was already expecting.”
"...perhaps sometimes the line is harder to see than one expects," Yisai says, and stands up. "I will leave you to work - or vox your parents. Good luck, Luis."
“Thanks,” Luis says, and pulls the caddy towards him as he slides back under the panel. “I think I’ll save the vox call for when I’m not on the other side of a Gate connection.”
Yisai nods out of sight of Luis. "Then if you need help with your gravity buffer balance, let me know." Luis nods absently as he goes back to work, a little bit freer from the weight of his thoughts.
punkey 2013-05-19 05:02:36
Ngawai gently eases herself onto the bathroom floor of their little cabin, carefully listening for any possible disturbance. Garrett is outside, packing Naloni's things into their rented skimmer, giving her the precious cover she needs to retrieve her...clandestine supplies. She shuffles the folded up towel under her knees and rests her belly on the edge of the toilet as she prises back the baseboard and reaches for her stash of stolen explosives and detonators.

Her hand feels a slight puddle of water, and that her detonators are sitting in the middle of it. She shakes her head, and pulls them out before taking a proper seat on the floor. Sensor leads are pulled out of her shawl and pressed against the wire leads of each detonator - no light on the leads means both detonators are dead.
"Shit," Ngawai curses under her breath, then sits back and breathes a sigh as a weight is lifted from her shoulders - but only for a moment.
"What are you gonna do now, sweetness?" Harlon asks. Ngawai looks up and sees him sitting in front of her on the toilet, and he smiles as much as he can through his shredded face. "You're sexy in this position, you know."
Ngawai swallows her bile. "Gotta figure something else out."
"Lahna! We're just about done here!" Garrett shouts from the front of the cabin.
"Better make it fast," Harlon whispers as he vanishes and Ngawai stashes the C4 and junk detonators in her bag.

"Ngawai?" Garrett asks. "Where are you?"
"In here!" Ngawai replies as she slides the baseboard back into place.
Garrett pokes his head in. "You - what are you doing on the floor, lahna?" He offers her his hand, which she accepts with a smile.
"Just checking a few last things," Ngawai replies, and they both pull her to her feet. Garrett picks up her bag - and hands it straight to his wife. Her smile turns up another notch or two at the sign of respect, and she leads him out of the bathroom.

Garrett puts a hand on his wife's shoulder and wraps his arms around her, just underneath her belly. "The last time we'll see home until Naloni is born," he whispers in her ear. "I'm actually gonna miss it."
"Home, huh?" Ngawai says.
"What? It is," Garrett replies, gently rocking Ngawai from behind.
"Well, Luis and Hugh might not agree with you, that's all," Ngawai says. "Strange to hear you say it when they've spent all this time off-world lately."
Garrett shrugs. "I've never had any illusions about how backwards and fucked-up Narsai can be. I'm surprised it's taken the Narsai'i, particularly the US, this long to start fucking with us. Doesn't make this any less my home - our home. There's enough people out there that think we're doing the right thing, and we're not going to get them to stick up for us by giving up on them, and we're not going to change minds by hiding off-world. And you know what? I still love this planet. I've seen a decent piece of it, and I wouldn't give it up for anything shy of a palace on Napai - and I doubt the neighbors will be much better there."
"Especially when it comes to trying to murder us," Ngawai replies, closing her eyes and enjoying Garrett's support and rocking.
Garrett chuckles. "Definitely when it comes to trying to murder us." They stand there, Garrett rocking them both back and forth. "Do you still want to stay? You and Naloni?"
"Well, I haven't taken a formal poll," Ngawai says, putting her hands on her stomach. "But Narsai is too nice to let some First-damned fucking assholes chase me off - and staying here and being ideal citizens is just the kind of 'fuck you' that I love. I say we find a community that appreciates us and stay for the rest of our lives."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Garrett answers, and gently kisses Ngawai on the neck. Ngawai gently moans, and the two of them simply stand there in each other's arms for a good long while.
punkey 2013-05-19 05:03:36
The sharp slam of the door starts Zaef, even though he realizes that he was the one who slammed it as he straightens up. He shakes his head, rubs the bridge of his nose, and steps toward his futon with renewed alertness. He notes that the blanket is piled on the ground the way he left it this morning, and the pocket notebook sitting on the side table is still covered in two weeks’ worth of dust; no one seems to have gone through the room while he was away, after all. He picks up the faded blanket, and stares at the dusty little notebook for a few seconds before taking it as well. The kitchen is small and almost as spotless as when he first moved in, but the cold storage is filled to the brim with beverages and snacks. Zaef barely glances inside before picking out a six pack of A&W, his latest soda of choice, and crossing over to the ladder for accessing the roof of his little hab.

It’s a bit of a job climbing up with his hands full and the blanket trying to tangle itself in a few rungs, but Zaef manages to pop open the hatch and toss up the sheet and the notebook without hurting himself or his cargo. He pulls himself up onto the gravelly roof with a grunt and a swing. The night air is dry but cool, and a faint breeze swirls around him as he looks up. The skies are mostly clear, but even the occasional murky veil bleeds a few pinpricks of light; the night is alive with clouds of twinkling motes, and Zaef can see them, almost imperceptibly, dance slowly from one end of space to the other.

A couple “stars” wink at him and swing over his head faster than any natural cosmic entity should, but Zaef ignores them as he stands with arms open, his tunic rustling with the beat of the wind’s breath, the six pack dangling on his outstretched hand.

After a while, he settles down on the roof, perched cross-legged on the blanket. The telescope is mounted and operational in short order, and he gazes through the mirrored lenses at familiar constellations: Ursa Major, The Bear; Orion, the Hunter; Carcinos, the Leviathan. In one hand, he cradles a open can, fizzing softly. The other hand scratches illegibly into the little notebook.

A soft clack echoes up from downstairs. The pencil stops scratching, and Zaef clenches it as tightly as he would any weapon. He puts down the can slowly and quietly, and starts reaching for a knife tucked in his sock.

Kla-thump-oom! “Aaaaah!”

Zaef leaps up at the ruckus; slipping up like that was either going to scare the assassin off, or force her (and it must be a woman; Zaef has never known grown men hit notes that high) to press the offensive. Zaef doesn’t intend to give her either opportunity. He dashes over to the open hatch, knife ready.
"Oh, hi, Zaef -" Kitty Cavanaugh says with a smile as Zaef’s first swing whips out. He manages to direct it away from anything soft; it bounces off the hatch rim with a pang. Zaef can feel the blade give a little, can hear a slight crack as a chip flies off the blade and into the night. Kitty's smile instantly vanishes, and she freezes in place on the ladder, a terrified expression on her face. “Shit!” Zaef shouts, and points at her, pencil quivering slightly in his hand. “The fuck are you doing?!”
"Ah - ah mah - ah," Kitty stutters. Her eyes are wide open and she's turned completely pale.
Kitty’s obvious surprise and fear mollifies Zaef slightly. He stays crouched and ready, but he brings the knife back and rests the hand on his knee, so it’s not dangling in her face. “Okay,” he says, taking a deep breath, and continues as calmly as he can muster. “Let’s start from the beginning. Why are you here, and why, why didn’t you knock?
Kitty gulps like a fish out of water for a few seconds before speaking up. "...because the hatch was open?" she squeaks.
”...Shit.” Zaef rubs his temples. “I’m, uh, sorry. For...overreacting." Kitty nods slightly. Zaef stands up. “I’ve got some root beer. Not much, but having something to drink helps the shock go away.”
Kitty slowly, unsteadily makes her way up the ladder, and takes Zaef's offered hand at the top. "Thank you," she says, still stunned from the accidental murder attempt. She’s wearing a bulky black Narsai’i jacket - one of the puffy ones filled with synthetic wadding - and synthetic fur pants over Narsai’i running shoes. A slight clinking sound on the way up is revealed to be a six-pack of glass bottles in a plastic carrier - Coca-Cola, in fact. Kitty seems to have forgotten that they're there, despite her left hand keeping a death grip on the handle - that's probably why she slipped in the first place.
Zaef guides the person he nearly killed over to his little spot on the roof, and presses a cool A&W into her open hand. “Here, you can sit if you want,” he says gently. There's a bit of color in her face, but she still just nods and stand there, holding the six-pack in her left and the can Zaef just gave her in her right.
Zaef stands there for a while, shifting his weight from one foot to another. After a minute or so, Kitty finally blinks. "I brought you some soda," she says quietly, finally looking at him. "Mexican Coke."
Zaef’s eyes flicker away from hers, for a moment, and his mouth scrunches up. But he lets out a sigh, and meets her gaze again. “Thank you,” he says. He tries to swallow the lump in his throat, and when that fails, he asks, “What, uh, makes it different? From regular Coke?”
"The sugar," Kitty says, her voice still soft, but her pallor is much better, although still Narsai'i pale. "And the spices, I think? It tastes a bit spicier, not quite as sweet. I thought...I thought you would like it." A bit of color drains back out of her complexion.
“I, uh.” Zaef’s mouth flaps a bit as he aborts his next sentence, several times. “...I see.” He bites his lip, breaks eye contact again, looking up at the starry sky. He looks back at Kitty. “I’m sorry,” he says abruptly.
Kitty manages a very small smile. "It's okay," she whispers. She swings her six-pack of soda towards Zaef. "Do you want one?"
“Oh, uh, yes!” he says quickly. Then he takes a breath, and meets Kitty’s gaze again, a small smile of his own on his face for a moment. “Yeah, I would.”
She reaches for a bottle, and seems surprised when she realizes that she's got a can of root beer in her other hand. "Oh! Here, hold this, please." She hands Zaef the can he just handed her, pulls a bottle out of carrier and sets it down. She pulls a small metal tool out of her pocket, and even though her hands are still shaking furiously after her rather exciting entry to the roof, she manages to dislodge the metal cap and hand him the bottle without dropping it or even spilling the liquid.
Zaef takes the bottle and nods. “Thank you,” he says, and almost takes a sip before instead holding the bottle up. “A, uh, a toast.”
Kitty takes back the can of root beer and cracks it open. "Toast," she says with that same little smile.
Zaef holds his drink up for a moment longer, then he takes a sip of the Mexican Coke. It’s spicier, all right; closer to the spiced fruit liquors he’s used to than a Narsai’i soft drink. There’s some warmth in there, too: not heat, but warmth, like the sands of Hedion in the mid-morning. The sweetness is there, but it isn’t as pronounced as the Coke he’s had before; instead, it serves to enhance the spice in the drink.
Zaef notices that Kitty is watching him rather nervously. He wonders why, even considering the possibility that the drink is poisoned and masked by the exotic spices, before he realizes the answer may be less malicious than he believes. “It’s good,” he says. “It reminds me of drinks from the other side of the Gate.”
Kitty smiles a big, full smile for the first time since she saw Zaef's face pop over the open hatch. "Good!" she says. "I was hoping that..." Her smile drops. "That I could look at the stars with you up here. My telescope isn't as good as yours, and I was hoping that I could look through yours and sit up here with you, but...maybe I should go." She looks down and away from Zaef. "I think I should go."
Zaef takes another sip of the Mexican Coke, wishing it had more booze in it. “I think,” he says slowly, and looks Kitty in the eyes as she glances back his way again, “you should do what you feel is right.”
Kitty's brief glance turns into a stare, as she thinks for a moment, and awkwardly opens and closes her mouth as she tries to think of what to say. "...I think I would like to stay," she says quietly, as she looks into his eyes. "If that's all right."
Zaef keeps the gaze for a moment, then nods. He smooths out the blanket, gingerly swivels the telescope around so it’s closer to her, and gestures for her to sit. The only thing he says is “Please.”
Kitty smiles and takes a sip as she eases herself onto the blanket and looks through the telescope. "There's some great 'Messier objects' - sorry, nebula and star clusters - out this time of year," she says. After she slews the telescope around for a couple minutes, she smiles. "Here. We call this one 'Messier 8' - the Lagoon Nebula."
Zaef looks through the offered lens. “Why is it called the Lagoon Nebula?”
"Because the bright area of the nebula looks like a lagoon surrounded by the dark islands of the more dense star-forming regions around the outside," Kitty says, the familiar enthusiasm edging back into her voice.
Zaef chuckles. “Looks like an oasis in a desert.”
Kitty chuckles as well. He feels her synthetic Narsai'i warm jacket press up against his arm as she leans in to take a look through the spotting scope, her face millimeters from his. She sighs. "I love working out here. The dark nights are beautiful."
“No light pollution to get in the way,” Zaef agrees, as he looks up. “Just the stars, and the turning sky.” He pauses. “The moon, too, I guess.”
Kitty takes another sip of her soda. "Do you know which of them has people living around it?"
“Only the ones I’ve been to.”
She eagerly smiles. "Could you show me? I haven't had time - or a cogitator - so I couldn't look them up myself."
Zaef replies without hesitation. “Sure.” Kitty sits back as Zaef slews the telescope around. After about a minute, he leans back and nods. “Jang-Xur, the Shadowport, orbits that star,” he says as Kitty leans in for a closer look. “The bright one, near the tail end of the nebula. Makes flying there very interesting, because that nebula masks it’s orbit until you get close enough, and the stardust is littered with hulks that didn’t make it and detritus from ships running into them. Or other ships that are still lost.”
"Wow," Kitty replies, then smirks at Zaef. "Is that really true? Sounds like a ghost story to me."
“Okay, you got me,” Zaef cops to it with a grin. “No debris or lost ships. It is hard to navigate through the nebula, but once you Gate in, the nav system updates you with Jang-Xur’s location and a flight path, so as long as your receiving equipment isn’t down and your nav is working you’ll get there just fine.”
Kitty nods. "Makes sense." She smiles. "Show me another one - with a story, if you want."
Zaef obliges her, grinning, and swivels the telescope back towards him. A minute later, he swings it back towards Kitty, and in another couple, the lens swings back towards him. The night melts together in a sea of spinning stars and the mechanical slew of the telescope. Zaef notes Kitty’s close proximity, and his stomach shifts with unease, but he bats it down with a sip of Mexican Coke and tries to focus on the glittering lights above instead of her pallor and stammering earlier. Enough people fear me already. I’ll take some friendship where I can get it.

The sky turns. The chipped blade lies on the gravel a few feet away. Zaef makes no move to pick it up.The laughter flows from him as the private jokes and weird tales bat back and forth with the swing of the telescope.
punkey 2013-05-19 05:04:24
The rigorous training schedule has forced the members of Task Force 815 to adapt and change their personal schedules around, and this has created some opportunities for bonding and personal time that might not have happened otherwise. Case in point, Hunter Brand and Hugh Verrill, working out together in the Narsai’i weight room at nearly 2100, trying to squeeze in some serious exercise before it’s time to pass out and get back to it. Hugh’s been slacking with his workout routine through the excitement in D.C., and his current set of deadlifts has to be cancelled at five with a very noticeable huff and puff routine. Suitably chastened by his own frailty, Hugh takes a moment to catch his breath, then turns to Hunter, who’s currently between sets.

“Damn, I’m getting old,” Hugh says. “How’s the family, Hunter?”
“You’re telling me,” Hunter says as he takes a drag of water. “My daughter ran me half to death trying to keep up with a 6-minute pace. But the family’s good. My son Hal’s going off to college this fall, Katelin’s doing OCS this summer. The only problem is my ex thinking I’m totally insane for throwing in with you all.”
“Then she’s going to love this piece of news,” Hugh says. He takes another breath before he continues. “Hunter, I’m getting married. Her name is Rhea.” Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “She’s Wherren.”
Hunter blinks for a second, calibrating his response. “Congratulations. There’s got to be a pretty amazing story behind that.”
“Not that amazing,” Hugh says. “I don’t make a big secret of it, I used to sleep around a lot, lots of cheap and not so cheap sex for pay. Looking for something that it seems just wasn’t here on Earth to find. Never found the right woman - until I met Rhea. And it was like making up for lost time. I mean, I fell for her and I fell for her hard. She’s amazing. And it’s all moved crazy fast, but it feels right. First thing in a long time that’s felt so right.” Hugh shrugs. “I guess when it’s true love, you really do know.”
“Hot and sudden like a summer thunderstorm,” Hunter muses. “I’m happy for you. The life of a bachelor in the september of his life can be lonely.”
“Hey, I’m still July,” Hugh says. “August if you push it. And that goes for you, too. Mid-life is what you make of it.”

The door opens at that, and into the mostly-empty gym walk the two training leads for the Narsai’i - Arketta and Arlana Quis. They’re clad just in their Turai skinsuits - what Hugh knows to be common Turai workout wear, but Hunter hasn’t gotten a chance to see this particular side of Turai life, and it’s a bit of a shock to see the two women walking around in what essentially looks like a dark grey Lycra body suit, but even more form fitting. Sweat marks their shoulders and back, but the dark spots seem to evaporate away before your eyes. The two women are chatting about training regimens, both Turai and Narsai’i, as they walk across the room to the squat rack next to where Hugh and Hunter are lifting. Arketta’s strong physique is fully on display, her calves pumping as she does a few quick warm-up squats next to the squat cage, but in what is quite a surprise, Arlana is just as jacked as her daughter, her trunk firm and her arms thick and strong as she loads a pretty hefty weight onto the barbell. As far as Hugh and Hunter recall, she’s in her late 50’s.
Arketta nods to Hugh and Hunter with a smile. “Good evening, Hugh, good evening, Hunter,” she says in English.
“Good...evening, ma’am,” Hunter replies, somehow more taken aback by Arlana’s stunning physical prowess than the fact Hugh is marrying outside of his species. Given what he knows about the standard Imperial diet, it can’t be that alone. Maybe a factor of early training and continuous exercise, he thinks. He moves over to the body-weight tower to do some dips, but tries to keep a subtle eye on their exercise routine.
“Evening,” Hugh says. “Oh, that reminds me - Mrs. Quis, I don’t know if your daughter has already told you, but I’m getting married soon and I’d just like to say that you’re invited - with Ody, of course. I mean, if you can make it, we haven’t set a date yet.”
Arlana smiles as Arketta moves into position for a set of back squats - by Hugh and Hunter’s mental math, there’s something north of 270 pounds loaded up. “Of course, we’d love to go!” Arlana says in Imperial as she wipes sweat from her brow, her matronly tone not quite matching the visual of a just-under 6’ She-Ra soldier, even with her greying hair. “Who is the lucky woman?”
Hugh smiles. “Her name is Rhea, she’s from Whiirr.”
Arlana is surprised - surprised, not disturbed - for about a half-second. “Then I shall have to brush up on my Whirr-sign,” she says as Arketta cranks through her set.

“Seven, eight!” Arketta grunts out as she steps back to rack the bar. She takes one slightly wobbly step forwards and claps her mother on the shoulder. “Your turn, mother.”
“Thank you, dear,” Arlana says with a smile, and steps back into the rack herself without removing a single pound. Hugh follows her routine, taking a swig from his water bottle but keeping his eyes glued to the spectacle unfolding before him. Damn. Officially running out of excuses here. Hunter shoots him a look, as if to say, Is this *normal?*
“Um,” Hugh stammers, as Arlana starts her set. Her skinsuit very clearly shows the exploding definition in her thighs and core as she guides the weight down, each muscle standing taut. “Not to distract from my upcoming matrimonial bliss, but...it’s good to see you’re keeping fit, Mrs. Quis. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s more than I’ve ever gotten off the rack.”
Arlana smiles at Hugh for a moment at the top of her fourth rep, but then goes back to concentrating on her form. It’s Arketta that answers, a smile beaming on her face. “I am happy to say that I got my mother’s physique,” she says. “Ever since I was a little girl, she and I would run and lift weight together. It wasn’t until my fourth year as a Turai that was able to keep up with Samal Quis.”
Hunter pauses his dips for a second, and asks, “I don’t mean to be rude, but, ah, is fitness like this typical for Turai?”
That makes Arketta’s proud smile grow an extra notch. “No, I am also proud to say that I was the strongest Turai under my Rav-Samal, and that my mother can still out-lift nearly any Turai.”
Arlana finishes her eighth squat strong, and easily steps back to rack the weight. “My daughter’s boasts aside, the Turai-H’lapa certainly help, though,” she says with a smile, her hands resting on her thighs, even larger now that she’s pumped up.
“What’s that?” Hugh asks.
“The suite of genemods that all Turai get upon passing primary training,” Arlana answers as Arketta steps back into the rack for her second set. Arlana takes a swig of water. “One of them - the Pillar of Service - prolongs physical conditioning much later than most would be able to maintain otherwise.” Hunter’s eyes light up.
“Genemods, huh,” Hugh says.
“That’s fascinating. Are there any side effects?” Hunter asks.
Arlana shakes her head. “Not as far as I have heard. Turai have been receiving the the Turai-H’lapa for a thousand years or so, and I was never told of any side-effects.” Arlana smirks. ”But then again, I doubt the Turai would allow the Ravilars to say such things. All I know is that I have never personally heard or seen one. I am not a pharma Keeper, so I don’t know how, but I do know that they work.”
Hunter raises an eyebrow. “It certainly seems that way.”
“Well, we’re stuck with what the good Lord provided us,” Hugh throws in. “Not that we’re making too much of it. I’ve picked up some politics flab, that has got to go.”
“Pillar of Vigilance,” Arketta grunts as she finishes her set. Arlana smiles and nods to her daughter.
“Um, anybody hook me up with a Pillar of Understanding?” Hugh says.
“The Pillar of Vigilance ensures that all Turai maintain physical fitness, independent of physical activity,” Arketta says as she wipes her brow. “You could work a desk job and as long as you eat well and do a little exercise, you will keep your primary training conditioning until the day you retire.”

Hugh turns to Hunter. “Ever feel like you picked the wrong team?” he says.
“I don’t think I ever got to pick,” Hunter rejoins, feigning despair. “Any chance we can put together our own knock-off versions?”
Arlana and Arketta both shrug. “You would have to ask a Keeper,” Arketta says.
Hugh grins. “Or have a Kesh on the team.”
Arketta claps her hands. “Yes! Most of the major pharma industriums make the Turai-H’lapa for their local systems. I will ask Angel if he can get ahold of all three Pillars for the team.”
“And we shall see if your team has what it takes to truly be a Turai,” Arlana says as she puts an arm around Arketta’s shoulder and smiles.
“That’s ominous,” Hugh says and turns to Hunter. “Did that sound ominous to you? It did to me.”
Arketta’s smile turns awkward. “Ah, well, yes. The infusion itself is relatively painless, although it does take four days. But the genetic alteration process is...well, each Turai is given a button that will trigger the infusion device to put you into a coma for the rest of the process when the pain becomes too great.”
“My daughter made it two days, three hours,” Arlana beams.
“Is that a contest?” Hugh says.
“Not officially,” Arketta says. She also looks more than a little proud of her ‘accomplishment’. “But every quad is competitive, and it is a mark of pride to have lasted the longest before triggering the coma.”
Hugh nods. “In that case, congratulations, that sounds...wow, two days? In what your tone of voice suggests is a considerable amount of pain?” He looks to Hunter again. “Do you have something left to prove, Marine?”
“Now, normally I’d say I’m getting too old to be that dumb. But if I’m not going to be that old anymore, I reckon I have a few dumb decisions left in me. I’ll see what they’ve got.”
Arketta nods. “I will ask Angel if he can get us a full set of all three Pillars for the team.” She slaps her mother on the back. “And it is your set, mother.”
Arlana bows to Hugh and Hunter. “Excuse me,” she says, and lifts the bar onto her muscled shoulders and back with a quick puff of breath.
“So wait, this is just maintenance exercise?” Hunter asks Arketta, looking at Arlana’s perfect-form sets with another layer of amazement.
Arketta and Arlana both smile. “No,” Arketta says. “But this -” she flexes her arms, and her triceps practically explode out of her skinsuit, followed by her legs, and it looks like they could stop a bullet, “- does not happen if that is the only exercise you do.”
Hunter is reminded of his adolescent fascination with Grace Jones, before shaking off the thought and continuing. “That...makes sense.” Bowing out half-gracefully, he heads toward the open area of crossfit-style ’caveman’ gear. “I think I’m going to go hit that truck tire with a sledgehammer for a while.”

Arketta bows to Hunter as he walks off to continue his workout, then looks to Hugh. “I can’t believe I didn’t think about the Turai-H’lapa before,” she says, embarrassed. “Are you really interested in them, Hugh?”
“Yeah, sure,” Hugh says. “Cubs aren’t getting any lighter.”
Arketta laughs. “No, they are not.”
punkey 2013-05-19 05:05:29
There's rarely a convenient time for the instructor leads for a major training program to go away for four days, but the Narsai'i members of Task Force 815 have done what they could. All of them - Hugh, Garrett, Luis, Hunter and Angel - have volunteered to undergo the Turai genemod treatment, and that means four uninterrupted days of laying strapped to a infusion device in the Mesas Negras research facility. The infusion is starting on Friday night, which leaves most of the weekend for the process to begin, but it's still leaving the training out of their hands for a couple of days, so training plans have already been disseminated, and fortunately, the Narsai'i training can continue uninterrupted, as Arketta, Arlana and Zaef aren't in need of the genemods. Being part-owner of Kesh Pharmaceuticals has come in handy - Angel's simply pulled a round of quality control samples off the line and had them delivered, along with the infusion equipment and two industrium medicae that Gorlan hand-picked, to Mesas Negras and the special medical lab that has been cleared for the occasion. Cameras and outside observers are in the room to watch the infusion, Narsai'i science and research more than a little interested in the technology that allows the alteration of DNA directly.

All that the Narsai'i members of 815 know at the moment, though, is that the infusion devices are rather comfortable - nicely cushioned seats, filled with a warmed gel and covered in a supple perforated white leather - probably to compensate for the array of needles sticking into your chest.
"The centrally located lines are the most efficient method of infusion, Master Kesh," Medicae Ramano nervously tells Angel as he positions the first needle above his aorta.
Angel gives the man a reassuring smile, knowing that unlike most of the Army docs, who still view him as ‘Specialist Riviera’ when it comes to needles, this man is currently sliding a needle into his boss - an insanely wealthy and rather powerful Imperial nobleman.
“You’re the expert Medicae, I have faith you know what you’re doing.”
Ramano nods and takes a deep breath. The infusion device needle array projects a target over Angel's chest, and Ramano's hands steady just moments before he plunges the array into Angel's chest. It fucking hurts, but after a few seconds, the infusion device beeps and Ramano's face relaxes. "Insertion successful, Master Kesh. Your friends are already prepped and ready. Do you have any questions?"
“No, but do answer any questions the observers have once we’re done here please - in general terms if it gets overly technical. If they want more specific details, refer them to my office.” He winks, still trying to reassure the man, and ignore the forest of needles in his chest.
Ramano nods vigorously, still obviously nervous. He presses a small white disk with a red button in the center into Angel's hand - and tapes it down. "This is your emergency button. Press it, and the infusion device will administer the coma." He looks around, then leans in. "Master Kesh - your brother, I mean - asked me to ask you to not participate in the silly Turai endurance ritual, and I would agree. The stress...it is not ideal for the infusion."
He nods, looking down at the button. “Don’t worry Medicae. I’ve participated in enough initiation rituals that I see little need to indulge in this one. I’ll press it when the time comes.” Of course, if that time happened to come a little after the others, that wouldn’t be so bad.
Ramano nods. "Thank you, Master Kesh. Good luck." He bows, and waits for Angel to dismiss him.
Angel gives him a nod, waving his hand slightly to indicate the man was free to go about whatever he needed to do.

Ramano walks about, checking the last few details on the five men's infusion devices, while the other medicae, a man named Tanroo, briefs 815 as well as the observers.
"Gentlemen, ladies, what we are doing here is a simple genemod infusion," Medicae Tanroo explains, his vox set up to display a slideshow illustrating his points - or at this moment, a Kesh Pharma production facility. "Viruses, designed by Kesh Pharmaceuticals Keepers, are produced and replicated in our production facilities." Slide. "These viruses carry single-stranded genetic material, which is converted into double-stranded genetic material with long single-stranded tails. The genetic material to be rewritten is encoded in the double-stranded sections, while the long single-stranded tails are the targeting genetic code to ensure that the correct section of the genetic code is replaced. Then, our Kesh Pharma-engineered enzymes and nanomachines open, adhere, then cut and splice the new genetic code in, and the genemod is complete." Slide. "Obviously, this technique only allows for the modification of cellular-level traits and does not allow for the wholesale editing of physical attributes - that is the domain of our Cyllan partners. Still, we at Kesh Pharmaceuticals feel confident that we are on the cutting edge of genemod technology, and the trust that the 815 are showing in our genemods and infusion equipment today is further proof of that."

With everyone barechested, Hunter was a bit more conscious of his lack of Imperial-toned patches from kaukas. Not that he doesn’t have scars; they’re just healed over the old-fashioned way. For these other men in 815, their bodies mark their acculturation and transformation. And perhaps, in my way, so will I, he thought. The philosophical musing was cut short by the technician jamming the needles into his chest, somewhat by surprise. The tech apologized profusely, while Hunter barked out, “Jesus fuck, you could have told me it was coming,” before he breathed the pain out and realized how nervous the tech is. “It’s fine, whatever, you’re just doing your job, and I wasn’t paying attention.” Because of course we have to have the idiotic tough-guy ritual, and of course it’d be terrible to seem like the least idiotic.
The tech apologized again, and taped the emergency button in place before double-checking the straps securing his wrists, ankles and chest in place and moving on to the next patient and left Hunter there, strapped in as he realized that shallow breathing is key with an array of five needles sticking out of his sternum. The needles are in a common carrier attached to an arm suspended above his body and attached to the infusion device, the whole array designed to circulate the proper fluids without causing too much disturbance to Hunter's delicate internal organs. Oddly enough, he also feels less naked with them stuck into him.

Hunter watches the presentation, curious that Imperial presentation technology isn’t particularly far more advanced when it comes to the presentation of complex information. Then again, maybe he’d have a different opinion if he were a molecular biologist or a gene therapy specialist. What impressed him the most is how blasé this is to the medicae. To him, this is just like a tetanus shot or a teeth cleaning. It also leaves Hunter wondering just how far out there the more exotic genemods really are. Judging by what he’s seen just from official sources, it’s remarkably crazy, and from what he’s heard anecdotally, it’s even crazier out beyond the reach of Imperial law. Hunter wonders how genemods big and small will come to Narsai, how fast, and under what regulations. Because one way or another, they’re coming, he thinks. It’s going to be the whispered remedy for every old-timer like me who can’t hit the corners anymore. Just like steroids a generation ago, except with no side effects...add one more societal firecracker waiting to go off.

While Hunter is musing to himself, the nervous medicae - Ramano, by his black-and-orange Kesh Pharma Imperial semi-lab-coat - appears in front of Hunter. "Hello? I said, do you have any questions before I start your infusion?"
Hunter purses his lips. “How long does the average Turai keep up with the tough-guy act before hitting the button?”
"I...I've heard most make it about 20 hours," Ramano replies. "That's usually when the adrenaline wears off, they pass out and the device engages the coma."
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Hunter says. “When I wake up, will everything be up and running, or is there a ramp-up period?”
"When you wake up from the coma, the genemods will be complete," Ramano answers. "No waiting needed. The rest is up to you and your physical training."
“Well, alright. Let’s get this show on the road.”
"Yes. Uh, let's," Ramano replies, and moves to the console on Hunter's infusion device. A few "taps" on the device's holo, and a few things happen at once: a slight humming from the device, a...sucking feeling from inside his chest, a flow of blood up one tube into the device, and a few seconds later, blood returning through another tube into his chest.

"The infusion is started, Mr. Brand," Ramano says. "You should start to feel a burn in a half hour. I would advise you to activate your coma around the two hour mark, or whenever the pain becomes acute."
“Thanks. I’ll take that under advisement.” Hunter says, idly watching the blood flowing. If I’m going to understand the Turai, I have to understand what makes them who they are, Hunter thinks, trying to tell himself it’s not *just* a tough-guy thing. The sting begins to flow in, though its proximity to central arteries means that it’s more distributed rather than starting in his chest. At this stage, though, it’s little more than pins-and-needles. I wonder if they have clocks when they do it, he muses, thinking about the articles he’s read on childbirth and time, and eyeing the clock on the wall. It’s a different thing to suffer pain as part of a spectacle than it is to suffer anonymously. Judicial ordeals, the Lakota sun dances, even the 2000-meter ERG test on elite rowing teams. Not sure my heart’s in this one, though.
Gatac 2013-05-19 05:31:52
Mind's Eye Theater presents: a glimpse into the thoughts of Captain Hugh Verrill.

T+0: Brr, somebody needs to invent body-temperature needles.

T+3: Booooooring.

T+7: Your cruel device, your blood, like ice...one look, could kill...my pain, your thrill!

T+9: Piece of cake.

T+11: We're not gonna take it, no! We ain't gonna take it! We're not gonna take it...anymore!

T+12: Hah, Hunter punched it! Wuss!

T+13: Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck

T+14: Say...goodnight...gracie...
e of pi 2013-05-28 18:31:28
Luis is used to the soul-deep ache and weakness of climbing out of an Interceptor cockpit by now, or at least all to familiar. Compared against that....well, for the first few hours, the worst part is the interference of his restricted motion with his haptic controls as he surfs through reviews of the Sheen training data, and some of the playbacks from the Bashakra'i and Narsai'i training. By about 9 hours, his browsing slows, as it becomes uncomfortable to make even some of the gestures he can with his restricted motion. Luis switches to movies that only require movement to adjust playback every 200 minutes or so. For a while, the progress of the clock is marked in cheesy one-liners and chase scenes. However, by about 20 hours in, the pain of moving-even a finger twitch or an eye raise to adjust playback--starts fogging at the edges of the interface, and Luis has to call it quits on the movies. Still, it's nothing worse that the first climb to his knees on his second time out of an Interceptor. By 24 hours, it's more like on his fourth flight, the first painful unassisted step. Luis grimaces, and looks around. Hunter's punched out. Looks like--yeah, so has Hugh. Soon, Angel goes as well--24hr2m15s his vox helpfully notes in a corner of his mind. Luis grunts at it. As the pain continues to mount, Luis focuses on reviewing his mental map of an interceptor's circuits. Not the one on his vox he could call up with his finger if he felt like suffering the stab of pain it'd take to move it a width to trigger search, but the one in his head.

Primary precooler connects to fuel sump one, aft side, and is modulated with control valves V112 and V113 and... Luis takes a deep breath and continues. Six hours later, he's still at it. He's exhausted the main engines, the primary structural members, the weapons, and now he's into the fiddly wiring harnesses that bind the ship together. The fact that he keeps forgetting half of them isn't helping the *ahh!* stabs of pain and finally he grits himself for one last exertion, steels himself, feels the stab of pain as he punches the button, then the blackness closes in from the edges and there's nothing more.
punkey 2013-06-03 13:47:14
Garrett hears the fourth ba-deep-hisssss come from Luis' infusion device - well, he guesses it's from Luis' device, he's been more or less as slack as he could be for the last...ten hours, according to the clock. He knew he could count on his counter-interrogation training to keep him sane and awake, but the feeling of every cell in his body being twisted into a fucking pretzel was decidedly not covered in training. Not moving helped, and going limp helped even more. It's the opposite of what he needs to do to keep himself awake, though, and so Garrett finds himself using his alertness drills to inflict just enough additional pain over the top of the agony of the genemods doing their work to keep himself conscious.

He knows that somewhere behind him is Ngawai. He can't see her directly, but he knows her, he knows what she would be doing right now, and he can feel her back there, cheering him on. She had the Turai-h'lapa treatment shortly after she was bonded as a Apprehender, and she gave him the low-down: It's going to hurt like a motherfucker, but that she knew that he had the guts to pull it out. Garrett's now three hours past Ngawai's result, and is chasing down Arketta's. Not that he's doing it to be the Top #1 Dog in the Badass Class. Garrett doesn't feel any - well, too much of a need to participate in that kind of dick-measuring (besides, he'll fully admit that Arketta is twice as tough as he is, even on his better days). It's to push his own limits, see how far he can take this, and to prove himself to the woman that really matters to him. His cowardice against the black clouds Garrett can see gathering behind Ngawai's eyes has haunted him for the last few weeks, and maybe if he can beat this, he can take on the thing that really matters.


Garrett doesn't remember punching out - he might have done it himself, or he might have passed out and one of the medicae did it for him - but when he comes to, Garrett instantly feels better for a myriad of reasons. The lack of needles protruding from his chest, the distinct and thankful lack of full-body agony, and the sudden lack of an annoying tightness in his right knee are all contributors, but the number one reason is rubbing his hand.
"Hey there, sexy," Ngawai says with a smile.
Garrett smiles - and is relieved to find that it doesn't hurt to do so. "How did I do?" he asks.
"Forty-nine hours, just one shy of Arketta," Ngawai replies. She squeezes his hand. "You'll have to do better next time."
"Yeah, I don't know about a next time," Garrett replies as he simply enjoys the feeling of not being twisted up from the inside out. "This has given me serious concerns about having our sigils modded-on."
"Yes, but with all this?" Ngawai says, stroking Garrett's Imperal Avatar-inflicted kauka scar running clear across his chest, "it might be a good idea."
"Fair," Garrett replies. He takes Ngawai's hand. "I hope I didn't scare you with this."
Ngawai laughs. "It's kinda too late to ask me how I feel about you torturing yourself." She shakes her head. "But no. I did the same thing once, remember? And you did beat me. Apparently, there's a Turai sigil you could get for lasting as long as you did."
"Something to consider," Garrett replies. He rubs Ngawai's hand, and takes a deep breath. Fuck it. Time to do this. "I want to talk about something, lahna. About what's been bothering you. I'm worried for you."
Ngawai tries to keep her smile. "What do you mean?"
Terror grabs at Garrett's heart, but he's already in too deep to stop now. "Ngawai, you know what I mean."
A few tears show up at the corners of her eyes. "Yes. Just...not right now."
"Soon," Garrett insists.
Ngawai nods. "Soon. Before Naloni comes, I promise."
Garrett smiles. "That's good enough for me."
CrazyIvan 2013-06-15 01:44:29
Wow that hurts.

First, a nap. No sense in letting a mild burning sensation in one's chest get in the way of a perfectly good nap. That lasted for a good four hours, up until the point when pretending to still be asleep was more work than actually being asleep. Now it definitely hurt, but Angel Kesh was still a busy man. There were things to ponder, open questions about Kesh Holdings that Erika was being kind enough to let him resolve at his own pace. Like the balance between For-profit tech transfer, Feel good venture to keep Earth in the running, and unofficial propaganda arm to make sure Joe Sixpack in Kansas City understood just what was going on - hell, if you're going to be accused of trying to influence people, you might as well actually do it.

There was a time, right before shipping out, that he got about six shots, three in each arm, to bring his vaccinations up to speed. The nurse was pretty. Then she stabbed his arm with a half-dozen needles, and later that night he really could move his arms more than an inch or two. This felt like that, but, you know, your whole body.

Coherent thoughts failed a little bit after Hunter punched out. Marines.

Still this wasn't as bad as the time the only workable vantage point was on his stomach in an inch of stagnant water cuddled up next to a fern in...location classified. There's something about laying still, feeling insects the size of an Abrams tank eat you that is...uniquely painful. The damned chair hurt, but not quite that...maddeningly irritating.

A full audio rendition of every part from Boondock Saints gave out when Hugh did. Officers.

Twenty hours in, Angel Kesh forgot the lyrics to Blood on the Risers. And the National Anthem. And any song more complicated than Happy Birthday.

No, this was definitely worse than the bugs.

Two hours later, he was having trouble remembering English.

Alright, this has gone on a full day. Seen the sights. Mom always took us for hot fudge sundaes after the doctor's office. Wonder if I can get the canteen do to one...fuck this, press the button Kesh.

Angel's hand twitched slightly, and he started to slip away.

Tora? What are you...
e of pi 2013-06-17 18:22:03
Luis’ eyes flicker open, then he blinks slowly. His whole body feels just the tiniest bit stiff, like he’s slept too long. His head is a bit cloudy, but clearing, and he can already see enough to make him break out in a slightly woozy smile--Arketta sitting by his side, holding his hand and giving him a grin that is filled with pride. He squeezes her hand. “Hey,” he says weakly, then coughs a bit to clear his throat.
Arketta laughs, scoops Luis up off of the infusion device and gives him the biggest, strongest hug he's ever gotten from her, or anyone else. "I'm so proud of you," she gushes. "We'll have to get your sigil modded on as soon as we can."
Luis grins slightly, then winces as she puts her weight right on the bandage over the infusion needle points. “Ah!” Arketta backs off slightly and he grins, “I dunno, 24 hours of that was a good argument for just going with a tattoo.”
"Oh, it'll be fine," Arketta says as she lets him go. "You're a Twice Over, like me! You can't not have the sigil! It's a very rare honor."
Luis smiles at her enthusiasm. “What’s that mean? You mentioned it before this.”
"You doubled the average Turai's time!" Arketta slugs Luis in the shoulder - a real pound, not just a light tap. "I can't wait to tell Mother."
“How about you call from here, and we can both tell her?” Luis suggests.
Arketta's smile drops a bit. "Oh. I was hoping to...it's not the same, you know?"
Luis rolls his eyes with a grin. “All right, then. You can tell her by yourself.”
"Oh, no, you're coming with me," Arketta says, stands up and pulls Luis to his feet too, even as the others are still woozily waking up. "Come on, I know exactly where she is," she says, looking over her shoulder with a big grin as she leads-slash-drags Luis out of the room.
"Ah! Wait!" one of the medicae call out after them.
"He doesn't need the check-up, trust me!" Arketta calls over her shoulder, her shout stirring Hunter from his rest.
Luis waves awkwardly in support as his legs work through remembering that they’re not made of mashed potatoes. Ah, there they go. “You know, I might not need the checkup,” he says, “but I think I could do with the complimentary souvenir T-shirt.”
Arketta turns around as she backs into the panic bar on the door and swings it open, giving Luis' naked chest a very deliberate look. "Believe me, you don't need it," she says, running a finger along a pectoral before looking him in the eyes.
Luis grins dopily. “Okay, then.”

Arketta leads Luis out towards the exit of the underground complex, and after a few minutes of navigating the hallways - and more than a few curious looks as to why Luis is walking around shirtless with a big transparent bandage stuck over his chest - Arketta commandeers a cart at the base entrance and blasts off down the road with Luis in the passenger seat. A few further minutes more, and they hear Arlana barking instructions on what sounds like field-stripping a Turai-issue chamakana. As they come around the corner into the Narsai'i instruction area, they see the 50-odd Narsai'i soldiers, each with their own chamakana, seated at benches, while Arlana stalks amongst them, followed by a GRHDI translator. She's clad in her Turai armor, which reflects the sun brightly off its impeccably polished surface in contrast to her dark olive skin and greying brown hair left uncovered by her lack of helm.

"'What part of your chamakana is this, Private Aa-rons?'" Arlana barks, pointing at the long shroud at the business end of the weapon.
The private gawks for a moment, then looks helplessly at the translator. "'Wha-at-t...di-id Sa-mal Quis sa-y, Sir?'" he asks in his very, very broken Imperial.
"Samal Quis asked you to name that part of the chamakana, Private," the translator replies.
"The...shroud, Samal Quis!" Aarons replies.
"'In Imperial, Private!'" Arlana barks, and gets right up in Aaron's face. "'In the Turai, you'd be flogged for not addressing your superior officers properly! Again, in Imperial!'"
Aarons sputters for a moment, but can't come up with the answer.
"'It is the ' lu'la pahoaso!" Arlana barks to the group. "'Repeat it! Accelerator shroud!'"
"Lu'la pahoaso!" the soldiers echo.
"'Good! Now, I will give you ten minutes to tear down and reassemble your chamakanas! A true soldier can do it in two!'" Arlana waves the armor's holodisplay open. "'And...go!'"

The soldiers get to work immediately - apparently that's a construction they're used to hearing. Arlana turns on her heel and walks briskly towards Arketta and Luis, waiting and watching Arlana's instruction.
"And how did Luis fare?" Arlana asks, her Imperial a bit hoarse after all the shouting, but she takes a swig of water from a bladder slung over her shoulder as Arketta and Luis climb out of the cart, the sun warm on Luis' bare skin.
"I think Luis should be the one to report," Arketta replies, and gives Luis an expectant smile.
Luis comes to attention smartly--his limbs having mostly recovered on the ride over. “39 hours, 12 minutes, 15.25 seconds, Samal,” he says, saluting.
Arlana gasps and her hands fly to her mouth, her tented fingers inadequate to cover the big smile on her lips as her eyes glisten a bit in the desert sun. "Oh, come here, Luis," she says, her matronly tone seriously clashing with the hard-edged athletic bulk of Arlana in her Turai carapace as she opens her arms wide.
Luis grins and steps forward. The hug is as bone-crushing as Arketta’s was when he first woke up, but standing it’s less weight on the bandage--instead of pain, there’s just the shock of the cool carapace cover against the bandage.
"Ody and I felt that you were right for our daughter, but now I know," Arlana whispers in Luis' ear.
Luis smiles, and whispers back, “Thank you, Samal, it’s an honor to be found worthy of it.”
"You keep her safe," Arlana whispers, tightening her embrace even more.
“As long as I’ve got length on my rod and an edge on my sword,” he says.
Arlana pounds a fist against Luis' back. "Spoken like a true Turai," she whispers back and lets Luis go. "So, when will he get the sigil?" Arlana asks Luis and Arketta.
Luis shrugs. “I don’t know. Perhaps with the marriage ones.”
"Ah! Perfect!" Arlana returns to her resting stance and looks at her daughter. "I trust you can obtain the proper...materials?"
Arketta smirks. "I will need one more, Garrett also beat the Twice Over mark."
Arlana laughs at that. "Of course the 815 have two Twice Over."
Luis nods, “How long did he hold out? I saw everyone else had gone before I did.”
"Forty-nine hours and...twenty-three minutes, I think," Arketta replies. Her smile grows. "Just shy of my time."
Luis grins. “He couldn’t touch you.”
"Agreed," Arlana says, her beaming somehow managing to go up yet another notch. If she puffs out her chest any more, she might bust through her armor, but a chime goes off from her wrist. "If you excuse me, I have to return to my instruction." She bows to Luis and Arketta, making the sign of the akwhela on her chest. "I am so proud of you both."
Luis bows back. “Give ‘em hell, Samal.”
"I fully intend to," Arlana replies with a smirk, then turns around. "All right! My extremely generous time of ten minutes is up, and I see that some of you don't have spinkshit for brains!"

Arketta smiles as her mother walks off, barking at the Narsai'i, then turns to Luis. "You're staying on Narsai tonight, Luis," she says, "because there is one more part of crossing the Twice Over mark that has to happen tonight."
“All right,” Luis says. “What does that involve?”
"A bottle of rhipon liquor," Arketta replies with a smile. "Distilled from a very spicy red fruit from Kamda, and you get one bottle all to yourself and four hours to drink it in."
“Lovely,” Luis says. “I begin to wonder how the Turai haven’t offed themselves for us like this. Sounds like a plan, anyway.”
"After what you accomplished, this will be nothing," Arketta says as slugs Luis in the shoulder again, then follows it up with a kiss. "I'll be right next to you, a bottle of my own," she whispers to him as she holds her mouth close to his ear. "Like always."
“Like always,” Luis says, and steals a kiss of his own.
punkey 2013-07-01 14:58:20
Thrax Vikethan walks briskly through the halls of the Court of Worlds, his long deep maroon ceremonial gown hovering a centimeter off the ground behind him, kept aloft by its own impellers. This, by itself, is not an unusual occurrence; as the Speaker of the Court, Thrax often finds himself flat-out running through the massive stadium’s halls on important business to cajole one member or threaten another. Even the flanking presences of two Alef-ka, with their golden armor and jade tusks, marching in step alongside him is no cause for alarm - he is the most powerful member of the greatest deliberative body in the galaxy, and when performing duties for the Emperor, that affords him a certain degree of protection.

What makes today an auspicious day is the intent with which Thrax Vikethan is walking to carry through: with the Alef-ka on his side, this will be the last time his plan to unseat the ridiculously-named People’s Emperor will be theoretical in nature. Thrax sees himself standing before the Court of Wisdom, Avatars to either side, the whole galaxy under his command and protection, and he smiles.

Indentured servants dressed in whites hold the door to his meeting chambers open before him, and Thrax glides into the meeting room, where the handful of Court members he has entrusted with the full details of his plan are waiting for him to deliver what he promised to be the most exciting news.

“We were promised most exciting news in your message,” Inai Mualim says, his arms crossed as much as they could be - the Speaker for the Opposition’s love for expansively designed clothes is only matched by his expansive waistline.
“And indeed, most exciting news I have,” Thrax replies, and waves his hand in the air to activate the masking filters. Their words protected, he speaks again with great import. “The Alef-ka are on our side.”
A twitter and buzz rises from the others in the room. The two Alef-ka stand dispassionately at Thrax’s sides, their colors muted by training, with only a slight glow of orange on display.
“How did you convince them?” Topai Kaopani, Imperial Exchequer, inquires, curling a sculpted black marble finger.
“Simple,” Thrax replies with a flourish. “I - well, let me have him explain in his own words.”
“Master Thrax offer freedom and ships to Whiirr for Alef-ka,” the slightly smaller of the two Wherren replies in her gutteral, deep Imperial.
Another stir from the small group. “And that’s all?” Kaopani asks.
“I said it was simple,” Thrax smugly replies.
“And in return?” Mualim asks.
“They will not interfere with our plans,” Thrax replies. “They will leave the real work to us, naturally.”
“And when will this work begin?” Hoa Vaethketis, the senior member of the Trade Committee, asks.
“After today’s session,” Thrax replies. “Inai and I have a very well-planned bit of theater that will provide public justification for our actions,” he says with a smile, “and then you all simply have to follow the angry mob.”


The massive stadium for the Court of Worlds never fails to give Thrax a slight frisson upon entering it. Every world, from frontier backwaters like Yoma to the founding jewels of the Imperium like Sambasan, Napai, and Thalapai has a desk, and each desk seats two representatives, filling the enormous open space with more than two thousand elected representatives during a full session. And today is that full session - Thrax, using his powers as Speaker of the Court, has recalled all representatives for “a discussion of matters vital to the survival of the Imperium”, the highest degree of urgency his station allows. The chamber is full; aides and servants hustle through the aisles, carrying food and drink to their masters’ desks, and the stadium air buzzes and roars with the sound of two thousand of the most powerful men and women in the galaxy preparing their own remarks for whatever the debate might bring.

Thrax steps up to the dais, and his presence in the space activates the massive 40 meter holodisplay in the center of the space, instantly quieting the assembly. He straightens his collars, clears his throat and begins his part of the show.
“Honored representatives of the Court of Worlds,” Thrax begins, “I have recalled you to this great stadium to discuss a matter of grave importance to the Imperium.” He takes a dramatic sigh. “I wish to call into question the fitness of the People’s Emperor, Sun Shenmai.”
A chorus of groans erupts from a good quarter of the assembly.
“I know that this has not been an uncommon topic of discussion, but it deserves further debate!” Thrax continues. “Under his brief and glorious rule, we have already suffered two great setbacks - the occupation of Whiirr has caused the Wherren race to become insubordinate and disobedient in their duties, disrupting our economy and spreading dissent and disorder in our cities. Already, the terrorists use the Wherren to spread their lies and heresy amongst the lower classes, and the Wherren misguidedly provide safe haven for their spies and saboteurs, believing their lies of liberation and freedom.”
That merits almost as large a grumble of agreement - many had heard second-hand stories matching Thrax’s lurid tales.
“And let us turn to Hedion!” Thrax shouts. “Hedion, one of the wealthiest and most important planets in the Imperium, brought low by a small band of terrorists! Quon Quorona, the Iyuzo clan, and most of all, their leader, Haralin Arakuna! How many died in the blackout is hard to know!” A bald-faced lie, but a seductive one. “Unlike the disruption to business and trade, which was in the trillions of lats! These terrorists have destroyed our trade, attacked our way of life, and seek to tear apart our Imperium and cast us back to the slow death that Vidas Lam delivered us from thousands of years ago! And what has Sun Shenmai done to prevent this? Nothing! His cosseting of the terrorists and their allies allows them to move in our midst and strike at will! Honored representatives, how much longer will we let his incompetence stand?”

A powerful finish, but one that the chamber had heard a few times before, so the reaction was less than enthusiastic. Thrax had expected this, which is why he had saved his key player for now. Inai Mualim trundles up to the dais placed near his desk and reserved for the Speaker for the Opposition, and the giant holodisplay shifts to display both men at once, speaking to each other.
“Great and honored Speaker, I must protest at your continued attacks directed towards the People’s Emperor, Sun Shenmai,” Mualim begins. “I, and many others, believe that he has performed as well as any of us could, given these trying times. The Imperium of a Thousand Worlds has never faced such an existential threat as these terrorists, who have proven themselves willing to sink to any depths required to undermine the structure that holds our planets together and ensures our survival. It is not his fault that we have underestimated their determination to drive us to starvation.”
Thrax nods. “Perhaps, honored Speaker. But given the greatness of the threat the Imperium faces, perhaps we should re-evaluate what is required of our Emperor?”
Mualim nods back, and pretends to think about what his long-time ally has said. It is an act he has perfected over his years as Speaker for the Opposition. “What do you mean by re-evaluating, great and honored Speaker?”
“For example, consider how he came to be the People’s Emperor - even the concept!” Thrax looks across the body before him. “Can the people of the Imperium, so far removed from the realities of leadership, honestly select an Emperor that has the wherewithal and ability to continue to lead us away from oblivion? All that the people’s choice proves is that the Emperor is capable of telling the lies the people wish to hear! A true leader should not need the people to lift him up - he or she should ascend to the throne by force of their own will! That is how we can be sure that they will have the fortitude to make the correct decisions for the Imperium as a whole, not simply the most popular ones!”
Mualim adds in the appropriate expressions of thoughtfulness and surprise when needed, and every raised eyebrow or feigned revelation gains a larger matching murmur of consideration from the Court as a whole. “The Imperium does require a strong leader with a powerful will,” he adds thoughtfully.
“And if the Opposition believes that the Emperor has performed as well as he is able, then under Sun Shenmai, we will be lost!” Thrax continues. “His ‘best’ has allowed the terrorists control of Whiirr, the ears of the Wherren, free and unfettered passage through our planets, and the ability to strike at will wherever and whenever they please! Greater security is required, more scrutiny and restrictions on those suspected of collusion with the terrorists, but because of his flawed beginnings in a popularity contest, he is unwilling to make the hard choices the Imperium needs to survive! It might be the best an Emperor chosen by election might perform, but it falls far short of what is required to save us all.”

That is a new argument, and with the Court already tilting his way from his previous exchange with Mualim, Thrax hears the welcome cries for change and shouts against Shenmai echo throughout the chamber - especially the ones from desks of his allies that Thrax had the voxes activated on.
Mualim feigns surprise and shock at the calls from the chamber ring out around him. “Well, it seems that there is strong support for your calls, great and honored Speaker. What do you propose?”
“If it is the will of this Court, a body chosen to truly represent the people through their wisdom and leadership, then we should march through these halls and to the Court of Heavenly Purity and demand that Sun Shenmai retire from his throne!” Thrax shouts.
“But what of the Alef-ka?” Mualim asks. “Surely they will -”
“The Alef-ka are the honor guard of the Imperium! They know of the true Emperor, and will not harm him - and I believe that no one here can truly say that Sun Shenmai is the true Emperor of the Imperium of a Thousand Worlds!” Thrax bellows.

At that moment, two Alef-ka emerge from behind Thrax, their golden swords drawn - the same two Alef-ka that had accompanied Thrax earlier.
“Behind you, great and honored Speaker!” Mualim cries, and the entire chamber gasps - but none of them look away from what the vast majority are assuming is about the be the very messy public execution of Thrax Vikethan.
Thrax turned about and faced the Alef-ka. “What have you to say, honored People’s Caretakers?”
“We have orders to kill you,” the lead Alef-ka grumbles out, spitting out the Imperial words she was told to say. “But we hear your words, and agree. We will not stop you.”
Thrax immediately spins around, his gown billowing behind him. “See? Even the Alef-ka are on our side! Who is with me?” he shouts, and the whole Court erupts in shouts of support, and even some weapons fire.
Mualim waits for the ruckus to calm slightly so he can be heard for this next key part. “But great and honored Speaker, who shall take Shenmai’s place?”
“Someone strong, someone with the will and the ability to make the choices that our Imperium requires, honored Speaker!” Thrax replies, and his heart soars waiting for Mualim to speak his next part.
“Then it should be you, great and honored Speaker!” Mualim cries. “You, who have already been chosen by the people to represent them in this august Court! You, who have proven through your words to be wise and in possession of the will to save us from the terrorist threat! You are the true People’s Emperor!”
The Court roars again in approval, completely caught up in the excitement and drive of the moment.
Thrax smiles. “Thank you, thank you for the honor, honorable Speaker, but in order to truly be the People’s Emperor, I must have the approval of the Court!” On cue, the voting suites on every desk activate, and the central holodisplay is replaced with a live voting tally. “What say you, honorable representatives?” Thrax calls. “The motion at hand - should I, Thrax Vikethan, supplant the weak and incompetent Sun Shenmai as the People’s Emperor?”

The “Up” count immediately explodes in number, quickly passing the 1,000 vote margin. Within a minute, all have voted, and the motion to overthrow the People’s Emperor, Sun Shenmai, passes with 83% of the body’s approval.
“Then it is decided!” Thrax shouts. “Let us march on the Court of Heavenly Purity and deliver the people’s judgement!”

With that, Thrax turns and leaves his dais, smiling like a tarantek digging up a spink nest. He sobers up his expression in time to take his place at the front of the angry mob of planetary representatives - which is much more threatening than it sounds to Narsai’i ears - as they flood out of the stadium and into the halls. A great covered walkway connects the Court of Worlds to the Court of Heavenly Purity, but today the functionaries and servants are pushed aside by the two-thousand-strong mob surging towards the Emperor’s palace. Shouts for a stronger leadership and in support of the Imperium echo through the halls as the crowd pushes through the halls, with Thrax, Mualim - and the two Alef-ka - leading them all. The Turai mostly stand mute - the word of the vote and angry mob has already gone out over vox, and either tacit support or the conflict between defending their Emperor, the embodiment of the Imperium, or supporting the word of the Court of Worlds, the ostensibly direct representatives of the people of the Imperium keep most of them silent. The few that do move to stop the mob halt when they see the Alef-ka leading the charge - if those sworn to protect the Emperor have changed sides, then who knows what has gone on behind the scenes, and it’s no good to stand in the way of that.

The Halls of Tranquility surrender their namesake as the Court surges in, their shouts and cries echoing off of the pillars as the space fills with representatives. Between the twin pillars of Napai and Narsai, Thrax stops and faces the mob he created.
“Great and honored representatives of the Court of Worlds!” he calls out. The mob takes a few seconds to lower its volume enough for him to be heard, but Thrax waits patiently. “If I am to be truly worthy of becoming your Emperor, I must face the failed Sun Shenmai by myself! Wait here, and I will give word when the change of power is complete!”

And then to the roar of the mob, Thrax turns, pushes the massive golden doors open with a single hand, and strides through into the Court of Heavenly Purity itself. The doors slam shut behind him, but even through their bulk, the mob outside still echoes off the walls. Ahead of him, seated on the throne, sits Sun Shenmai - not one of the enormous Avatars, but the man himself.
“I have to confess, I didn’t have much of a plan for if you changed your mind and decided to resist,” Thrax calls out.
“I don’t see why I would,” Shenmai replies. “Come on forward and let’s get this over with.”
“There has to be something said for being the one in that chair,” Thrax says as he strides forward. “Command of a galaxy’s population, thousands of worlds, the lives of trillions, all yours to protect and shepherd. It’s an awesome responsibility.”
Shenmai chuckles as Thrax’s sandaled feet step past the pillars and their Cortex tapestries, only recently repaired from the ravages of the Narsai’i incursion. “And one that many before us have killed to attain.” Shenmai sighs. “Of course, I did so by being the least objectionable of five. Not exactly an auspicious start to my reign.” He fixes Thrax with a contemplative look. “Do you think history will blame me, or the process that put me here, for my failures?”
“I believe that you will be viewed sympathetically,” Thrax replies. “The Narsai’i outmaneuvered us all, you simply happened to be on the throne at the wrong time. Short of shutting down the Imperium, there was nothing you could have done.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” Shenmai smirks at Thrax. “I heard you are keeping the title the People’s Emperor.”
Thrax shrugs. “It is a useful prop to cement my legitimacy.”
“It’s just the irony, is all,” Shenmai continues as Thrax begins to ascend the steps to the throne. “You and I both know that the Court of Worlds represents the people about as well an akwhela can sympathize with a hui’u, and yet here we are.” He shakes his head and sighs once more. “Perhaps we could stand to learn a little from the Narsai’i, after all.”
“Perhaps,” Thrax replies. “But the people also would gladly vote themselves into oblivion if it’s sold to them right. For the Imperium to survive, people like you or I must be on the throne - those willing to put the survival of the Imperium over all. Those like Kao, with the strength to burn worlds if need be, to ensure that we all stay together, and thus guarantee our survival.”
Shenmai nods. “And thus, why you are here. To make those choices.”
“The Narsai’i cannot possibly understand the dangers the Imperium shields them from,” Thrax says as he slides a pantaki from his gown. “Their ideas might improve the lives of our people, but they would doom the Imperium, and so they must be eradicated, like the Bashakra’i were. It is that simple.”
“Perhaps,” Shenmai says once more. He looks over his shoulder at the Black Gate and sighs. “I suppose I wouldn’t be found worthy by the Masters of their palaces and glory, surrendering like this. And my body would be the final piece of your little play.” He turns back to Thrax. “Do it.”

Thrax raises the pistol, and points it at Shenmai’s head, the edges of his golden implants still red from the implantation. “Your Emperor thanks you for your service,” Thrax says, and pulls the trigger. The weapon yelps for an instant, more than long enough to blow a wet sneeze of red and grey out the back of the head of the People’s Emperor, Sun Shenmai.

The pantaki shot must have been heard clear through the doors to the Court of Heavenly Purity, as they burst open moments later, allowing the mob outside to behold Thrax Vikethan standing over the crumpled body of Sun Shenmai, both splattered with blood and gore as Thrax raises the pantaki that took the Emperor’s life high. “It is done!” he shouts.
“Hail the People’s Emperor, Thrax Vikethan!” Mualim cries.
“Hail! Hail!” the mass of wealthy barons and ladies cries in response. “Hail the People’s Emperor!”
punkey 2013-07-01 14:58:41
Imperial Cortex - News at 1700

“Earlier this morning, the People’s Emperor Sun Shenmai was deposed by then-Speaker of the Court of Worlds Thrax Vikethan. Leading the representatives of the Court of Worlds, Emperor Thrax Vikethan executed Emperor Sun Shenmai and assumed his throne. He has promised a swift end to the terrorist threat posed by the Narsai’i, Bashakra’i and their allies, and increased Gateway security and Turai patrols to protect the people of the Imperium from harm.”

(Emperor Thrax Vikethan, standing before the throne in the Court of Heavenly Purity)
“The mistakes of my predecessor will not be repaired overnight, but I promise you, with increased vigilance and security, we will crush the Narsai’i terrorists and return to normalcy - if the people of the Imperium are willing to stand with their Emperor, these temporary impositions will be removed before you know it.”


Atea News Widecast, 1700

“And after an hour-and-a-half self-congratulating speech, the increasingly inaptly-named People’s Emperor Thrax Vikethan announced an array of onerous restrictions on public transit, including mandatory DNA matches for Gateway transit, routine Turai patrols in every Gateport, pre-authorization requirements from local Kansat offices for more than one Gate per day, and other pointless bits of security theater that our spies and agents have already deduced how to circumvent. However, we here at the Atea Widecast studios eagerly await to see how the Imperial public at large responds to massive waits, huge inconvenience, and watching Turai splatter the brains of their loved ones all over the wall for sneezing at the wrong moment.”
punkey 2013-07-01 15:00:27
(The night Hugh returns from proposing to Rhea)

Hugh arrives back at Mesas Negras at 2320 - too damn late, really, but Hugh promised his Wherren students he’d check up on them, so his first destination are the barracks. And lord, they’ve been busy - Hugh’s “quick check” of their homework turns into more than a half hour of discussion of various plans and tactics. But not everybody has their mind on the job - there’s a different look on the faces of many Wherren that are clearly picking up the musk that follows Hugh. Hugh’s too tired to make much of it, though. He’s got one more stop to make, and so he bids the students good night and saunters out, grabbing a can of coke from a vending machine outside. Beer would be more appropriate, but a) he needs to remain awake a little while longer and b) he suspects that he’ll be getting a lot of beers in the foreseeable future. With a bit of caffeine to reinforce what’s left of him, Hugh picks his way over to the next section of the accommodations - specifically, Garrett and Ngawai’s quarters. Flashbacks of a not-so-distant past crawl through Hugh’s head as he closes in on the door to their mini-apartment, and it’s only after he hears the muffled grunting of Swims-the-Black inside that he dares to knock on the door.

A few seconds later, the door cracks open with Garrett peeking through. "Hey, Hugh, come on in," he says, and opens the door the rest of the way.
"What brings you here so late?" Swims asks from the sofa in the small living room/dining room/kitchenette of Garrett and Ngawai's temporary housing.
”Hey, guys,” Hugh says as he walks in. Then, he carefully positions himself in front of the sofa, just off the center of the room, like he’s preparing to do a sales pitch in a hotel room. Garrett obligingly takes a seat next to Swims on the couch and looks up at Hugh. ”So,” Hugh says, looks up, takes a deep breath, then looks back down - and grins. ”Oh, screw the drama. I’m in a relationship with Rhea. We love each other and I asked her to be my bondmate and she said yes!”
Both Swims-the-Black and Garrett have the same reaction: raised eyebrows and silence. Swims adds a blaze of colors, some happy, most confused. "Uhh..." Garrett starts. "Was this...this started a couple weeks ago? When you went to Whiirr after the farm?" His eyes go wide. "Oh, shit, of course we're both happy for you, Hugh."
Swims has regained his own composure by now, and his colors and body language are broadcasting a good degree of apprehension. "Are you sure about this, Hugh?" he asks point blank.
”Dead certain,” Hugh replies almost instantly. ”I waited, I held my breath, I reconsidered, I spent as much time with Rhea as I could manage, but we both knew very early that we wanted this - and now we’re sure.”
Garrett nods, but Swims doesn't seem so convinced. "Hugh, this is me as your friend asking you this: Are you sure you're not getting in over your head?" Garrett asks. "I mean, I don't want to be an asshole about this, but you just got through dealing with making hasty decisions because of personal problems."
Hugh nods. ”Yeah, I get that,” he says. ”That was a big part of what kept me worried and withdrawn when we started out. But, having gone through through this...personal utter fucking low...well, I’ve realized a few things besides the fact that I was an asshole to all of you. It made me realize how empty my life was, how afraid I was to open myself up to other people, and not least of all how stuck I was on Narsai. And so I came at this from a completely new perspective, so when Rhea felt me out at the start about it, I decided to be open to it. And it’s made me so happy. See, that’s how I know it’s different. When I was setting myself up against you guys? It never felt good, it just felt like something I had to do. But this? This finally feels right. Finally feels like a way forward. Finally feels like a future I’m not afraid of. Do you know what I mean?”
Garrett nods. "I do. But...and I think Swims-the-Black will back me up on this, we're both just concerned if you're following your heart over a cliff."
"Did you speak to Hiigra? What did he have to say?" Swims asks.
Hugh nods. ”I spoke to Hiigra today, before I spoke to Rhea about getting bonded. I had many questions and he patiently walked me through the answers. He was...skeptical, at the beginning, because it’s his task to take care of Rhea and make sure she’s not hurt - so he had to know how serious I was about the commitment of becoming her bondmate. In the end, he explained that the bond was between Rhea and me and that if the two of us wanted it, nobody could stop us, but he did give us his blessing. It was not an easy conversation, but frankly I share many of his concerns and I want to be sure that I do this right. I’ll be relying on his guidance in setting this up and following through with it, too.”
The news of Hiigra's approval calms most of Swims-the-Black's colors, and he nods. "Hiigra is a good chief. If he approves of your bonding, then so do I."
"And everything else?" Garrett asks. "Speaking for the establishment here, you thought about what you're gonna tell Samantha, or if - when, really - this comes out?"
”I’ll tell Director Barnes the facts tomorrow,” Hugh says. ”I don’t know what the spin will be. Honestly, I’d prefer if it doesn’t make any big waves at all, but I don’t think I’m gonna get my wish in the current media landscape.” Hugh shrugs. ”Wherren are people. Narsai needs to get used to the idea. That’s all there is to it, that’s the message. In the meantime, all we can do is be better than the bigots and live our lives. We’ll see how that looks after it filters through our PR consultants.”
"Couldn't put it better myself," Garrett says, and stands up with a smile on his face. "Can't wait for the ceremony," he says, extending a professional hand.
Hugh shakes Garrett’s hand. “Thank you, Garrett, that means a lot to me,” he says. Then, he turns and walks over to Swims. ”And I hope to see you there, too, Shipmaster,” he says, offering his hand.
Swims gladly takes Hugh's hand. "Of course, Hugh, I wouldn't miss it," he says with a smile.
Hugh gives Swims a big smile. ”And this time all my friends will be around for the barbecue, too,” Hugh says. ”I should have invited you guys last time, but I had the whole village after me and only a few hours to pull it off.”
"What do you plan to do once you and Rhea are bonded?" Swims asks.
Hugh keeps smiling. ”You might want to sit back down for this one,” he says. ”Rhea and I want to adopt Torega as our daughter. And because we don’t want to take her away from the other cubs - well, I’m looking to build a home in the village for us, and that’s where we’re going to live, as a family.”
"That is actually less surprising than the first surprise," Garrett replies.
Swims nods in approval. "Cubs need to be with other cubs. I am glad you are making the sacrifice to move to Whiirr and keep her with her social group."
"Actually, that's the last thing I wanted to ask you, Hugh," Garrett says. "Have you and Rhea talked about...well...about the realities of your relationship?" he asks awkwardly.
”The reality being that we can’t have cubs of our own?” Hugh says. ”That’s one of the reasons we are adopting Torega, and with the other cubs from the school, I am sort of becoming part of an already big family. But yes, we’ve talked about that, and we’re okay with that for now, but who knows what the future will bring?” His smile turns into a grin. ”If however you mean our physical compatibility beyond that, let me assure you that we harmonize very well.”

Both Garrett and Hugh chuckle a bit at that before Garrett continues. "Not quite. I meant more socially. Speaking as someone who's done a fair bit of integrating into other cultures, it's not as simple as just buying a round for the house. You're trying to slide into something that has a completely different worldview than what you're used to - and that's putting the species divide aside. I trust you when you say that you and Rhea fit - but what I'm concerned with is you knowing that there's a big difference between you and Rhea getting along, and you and the culture at Village 815 getting along, or you and the whole Wherren culture getting along. We've just seen the surface of it, and you're going to try to dive in head first, and it's not that easy to do."
Hugh nods. ”It’s a very unique challenge,” he says. ”I’ll just have to stick to the old universal method: say less, listen more and leave your baggage behind. I’m not going to become a Wherren just by becoming Rhea’s bondmate or Torega’s father. I’ll always be different. But communities absorb outsiders and different people all the time, and all I can do is try it, put my best foot forward. I don’t want to end up like one of those sad Expats who only know enough Thai to order whiskey.”
Garrett laughs at that. "Yeah, or the poor gringos in Central America who hardly habla Espanol," he adds, the Imperial, English and Spanish sounding uniquely odd smashed together.
"Well, I think you have the right perspective on this, Hugh," Swims adds. "I look forward to seeing you and Rhea bound together, but now, it is late, and Garrett and I have an early morning to look forward to."
"Shit, yeah, it's past midnight," Garrett says as he looks at his wrist-holo. "We should probably all head to sleep, and I have a very beautiful woman of my own waiting for me in bed, probably snoring just for me." He bows to Hugh and Swims. "Good night, gentlemen," Garrett says, and walks down the hall to his bedroom.

"Good night, Garrett," Swims signs.
“Good night,” Hugh softly calls after Garrett, then turns back to Swims. ”Thank you for your support, Swims,” he says. ”Really, for everything you’ve done for us. I think I don’t say that enough.”
Swims' fur ruffles and turns a mint green at the compliment. "You are welcome, Hugh, but I am simply supporting my friends and teammates in what I think is the right thing to do."
”And that’s why you’re the man, Swims,” Hugh says with a grin. ”I guess I should get going, too, before I fall asleep walking and march right into a flagpost or something. You have a good night, Swims.”
Swims nods. "You as well, Hugh."

Hugh nods to that, and the two of them make their way outside. Maybe it’s the late hour, but the silence between them is comfortable in the way it can only be between real friends. They split off to head toward their respective quarters. After a couple of steps, Hugh looks over his shoulder to watch Swims slink off into the night. He can’t quite read the pattern, but eventually turns back to his own path and starts walking toward his bed.