Jade Imperium - Afghanistan, Pt. 2

punkey 2015-03-26 21:59:16
Into the Mountains
Gatac 2015-03-27 02:02:16
It takes a while to fully extricate the convoy from the ambush, certainly long enough for Hug'sh to reload his fifty and then climb back down to have his grazing wound taken care of. As they rumble further down the dirt road towards their destination, Hug'sh grabs his vox and, after a short how-to from Arketta, starts to review the footage from their helm recordings, looking for unusual gear and non-Afghani opponents. It probably was just local insurgent activity, but it doesn't hurt to make sure.
punkey 2015-03-27 02:18:16
Hug'sh notes a lot - more than a bit of unnecessary risk taking on both Arketta and Ngawai's parts, counterbalanced by a considerable amount of skill and practice on the part of the two women now kicking back in the MRAP as best they can, helms off and chatting about the difficulty of finding good food in their respective neighborhoods. It's only in Ngawai's helm holo that Hug'sh finds something remotely interesting - it seems that the insurgents are raiding a bit further northeast than usual, as Chinese characters are stamped on the sides of the crates of weapons and ammunition. Further enhancement of a frame with a good shot on one of the AKs confirms it - Chinese instead of Russian on the receivers. Technically, they weren't fighting AK-47s and RPG-7s, but Type 56s and 69s. Specificity is very important.
Gatac 2015-03-27 02:33:53
"They use Chinese weapons," Hug'sh rumbles to Arketta. "Probably from raiding in the Northeast. But that just means they're more than a local militia, and that was already obvious from their numbers."
punkey 2015-03-31 12:20:17
"So you're saying they're going to be trouble," Arketta replies.
Gatac 2015-03-31 12:21:57
"I think that much was obvious," Hug'sh says. "This just establishes the caliber of our enemies." He smirks. "Caliber. Get it?"
punkey 2015-03-31 12:22:53
Both Arketta and Ngawai groan. "Why couldn't they have genemodded your sense of humor?" Ngawai shoots back.
punkey 2015-03-31 12:36:31
The nerve center of the GRHDI/Wherren/Bashakra’i/Sheen push through Afghanistan is the Kabul International Joint Tactical Operations Center. Even the structure itself is a representation of that partnership - a Bashakra’i spraycrete dome, identical to the one the Imperium erected on Whiirr, filled with Sheen servers on the second floor, and Narsai’i radio equipment hacked together with Bashakra’i vox repeaters and cogitators providing the computational horsepower. The first push is also a test for this new JTOC - a test that’s been showing mixed results. The Sheen and Bashakra’i managed to integrate the Narsai’i systerms into their own (with some considerable grumbling about bashing such ancient technology into their networks), and the Narsai’i networking personnel were doing their best to keep up with the Wherren asking tons of probing questions and helping out wherever they can. The main disconnect has been at the command level - the Narsai’i command staff have made it clear that this is their turf, and that the other races are welcome to look, but not touch - especially the Wherren. All the Wherren save Rodirr have been quietly shuffled out of the room, and Rodirr only remained after he fluffed up bright red and grunted ”Don’t even think about it,” which apparently required no translation. The Sheen are kept busy - as far as the Narsai’i think - working on technical problems, and it’s only through Onas’ sheer force of will that he’s kept a spot around the command holodisplay. As the 815 convoy trundles closer to their FOB destination, Garrett’s pacing around the middle of the TOC grows more and more intense. Onas is occupied jostling for space with generals at the tactical holodisplay, while Bello stays back to keep a better eye on the Narsai’i in the TOC with them. Garrett’s pacing has occupied more and more of his attention, though.

”Far be it from me to criticize an excess of energy and dedication, Garrett, but I worry for your boots at this rate,” Bello remarks.
“I’m not nervous,” Garrett says.
“Obviously,” Bello replies.
’No! Damn you, stop!’” Onas shouts, batting away a couple hands belonging to Generals and Colonels and drawing attention from Narsai’i and Naranai’i alike. “Vidas Lam, you Narsai’i. Garrett, Bello, come here.”
The two men walk over to the holodisplay. “Making friends, Onas?” Garrett asks, garnering confused stares from the Narsai’i around the holodisplay and amused looks from the Bashakra’i working the cogitators and standing around the TOC, having been displaced.
“Is it obstinance, or are the 815 just that smart?” Onas says. “Because I wouldn’t trust these Narsai’i to work an autochef, let alone the cogitators in this room. You zoom in like this,” his hands quickly performing the haptic, “and you select like this.” Another haptic, another instantaneous command. “It is not hard.”
“This is the first time they’re using anything haptic at all,” Garrett points out. “I’m sure Paul had problems adjusting to Naranai’i tech.”
Onas taps his foot for a second. “He was much sexier. That forgives a lot.”
Garrett smirks, but before he has a chance to reply, one of the Brigadier Generals speaks up. “’Director Davis, I’d remind you and your friends that this is our base, and our operation - whatever goes on here, we need to know about it. That means you speak English here, and so do they, and that when we tell them to take a hike and let the real soldiers take over, that’s what they do.’
Garrett’s smile turns instantly to a frown, and he takes a deep breath. The voice in his head is screaming to just let the Bashakra’i, Wherren and Sheen take their toys and troops and leave - as is the voice in his ear from a suddenly open vox channel with Gunny.
“You want us to say ‘fuck this shit’ and bail, we can be picked up and ready to move in an hour - and right back in place just as quick when they realize how much they fucked up,” Gunny says. “I’m just saying, sometimes you need to teach a hard lesson.”
Garrett looks its way and just shakes his head, and the shell shrugs. “’I’d remind you that three-fourths of the forces out there are Bashakra’i, Sheen or Wherren. They’re stuck in it just as much as our people are - and all the toys that you are all getting hard-ons over are their tech. You know how much Narsai’i tech is being used here?’” He points to a stack of radios left open with cables streaming out of them. “’There’s the Narsai’i contribution. Radios, because it was easier to hack them in than put together a half-dozen software radios to deal with how backwards our technology is. Everything else here is Bashakra’i or Sheen.’
’And we’re grateful for their contribution, but this is what we do,’” the General replies. “’This is our planet and our war. They’re just guests - no one is better at war than we are.’
“We’ll see for how much longer,” Garrett grouses. “’Just remember that we’re partners in this. We’re gonna be fighting on their turf soon enough - and you’d better hope they treat you better than they’re being treated right now.’
The General scoffs. “’Considering it’ll be our manpower? We’ll see whose turf it is.’

The General turns his attention back to the holodisplay while Onas just gives Garrett a look of incredulity and Bello turns his attention to the holodisplay and the advance. “They...do realize we understand Narsai’i, correct?” Onas asks.
“I don’t think that ever occurred to them,” Garrett replies.
punkey 2015-03-31 12:39:06
A few hours later, the convoy rolls to a stop at the waiting construction site. Selling the destination as a lowly FOB definitely undersold the concept - the base is more than two square miles in size. Bashakra’i forces are already making headway on erecting a bunch of spraycrete structures, from habs to workshops to another TOC dome - the destination of the cogitators and delicate equipment, no doubt. With the construction of the forward TOC proceeding and the local insurgency dealt a serious blow, there’s not much left for the 815 to do except to listen over the vox net to the rest of the advance’s updates. Contrary to the 815’s experience, the rest of the advance encounters only scattered local resistance - groups of four or five with assault rifles and some unsophisticated IEDs. Some casualties are sadly taken, but the first push’s goals are easily reached. Under the heat of the afternoon, word comes over the net that the 815 are needed back at Kabul International, and a Black Hawk is sent.

Zaef in particular feels antsy - he’s been singled out to meet with a currently unnamed GRHDI official, by the open helipad, alone. After the clusterfuck of espionage and mind-fuckery that occurred last time he visited Washington D.C., he goes over without changing out of his armor and stowing his weapons. It’s a nervous flight back, but when the helicopter lands (after yet another ride in a flying machine that makes a Manta with two blown subfusors feel like a luxury cruise), his eyes spot the GRHDI official in question immediately - Kitty, waving excitedly to the helicopter as it circles down to land.

Zaef’s frown deepens and his jaw clenches for a moment, but he gets out as the ‘chopper’ spins down and walks over briskly. “What are you doing here, Kitty?” In an aversion to his usual demeanor, his voice is calm and even, but his face wears his displeasure. “Why didn’t you call?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise!” Kitty says, and runs up to give Zaef a big hug. “Some of the Mesas Negras science team is here to get data on how the Wherren and the Imperium technology is working in the field, and, well, I wanted to see you!”
Zaef pointedly doesn’t return the embrace. “Why are you really here, Kitty?” There’s some steel in his voice now.
Kitty stops short of Zaef, and lets her arms and head drop. “I...I have to know what it’s like, out here,” she mumbles, only barely audible over the helicopter behind Zaef. “If I’m ready this time.”
Zaef starts walking off the helipad, and places a hand on Kitty’s back, as support and also to guide her off the pad. “‘This time,’ as in different from your previous mission, or different from what you worry will be in the future?”
“Different from the last time,” Kitty replies. “You didn’t know me back then, but...it was...I was...I didn’t handle myself well.”
Zaef lets out a sigh through his nose. “No one does, in their first fight. The next few aren’t much better either. There’s no way to prepare you, really prepare you, for something like that -” and here Zaef turns his head to level a disapproving stare at her, “And trying to get experience firsthand is so much more likely to get yourself killed.”
“More likely than going out into the galaxy on a ship with you?” Kitty asks quietly. “And whatever might happen to us out there?”
Zaef’s expression softens as the seconds slip away. “...I don’t know.” He shakes his head.
Kitty presses her head against Zaef’s. “I’m not them, Zaef. You don’t have to lose me, too.”
“And I don’t want to,” Zaef says, “but you shouldn’t feel like you have to become tougher and stronger for it all. Not everyone is a fighter, Kitty, and I don’t want you to change so you feel you can keep up with me.” Zaef wraps an arm around her - and feels broad shoulders and strong arms where used to just be softness. He can tell right away that Kitty hasn’t just ignored Zaef’s warnings, but kept going. Zaef stops cold, and stares at her in shock. “What the hell, Kitty?”
“I - I was safe!” Kitty says. “I did some reading into the side-effects, and they were simply a build-up of amino acids and lactic acid from the rapid muscle growth! So I knocked together a drug regimen that cleared that out, and it let me finish out the full course in a week! And...and...I - I didn’t do it for you, Zaef! I mean, not just for you, for us. I did it for me.” She looks down again. “I didn’t just have problems on Whiirr that first time. I froze, I panicked, I ran. I freaked out when a grawhl came after us, and when the Turai started shooting, I was...I was useless, I just hid behind some boxes and cried until it was all over! And I can’t be that weak anymore, Zaef. Not if I’m going to go out there like I want to. Like we want to. This, I did all of this to become what I always wanted to be - what I need to be so we can have what we’ve dreamed of.”
“So why hide this?” Zaef asks hotly. “Why hide the regimen if you think it’s safe? What is it? Did you get a second opinion from a medicae?”
"I...asked about it," Kitty replied. "Not exactly directly, but I did ask about what I wanted to do, and they didn't see any reason why it would go wrong. And I hid it from you because I didn't want you to worry. I figured that by the time you got back from here, I would be all done and you'd just guess I did it normally. But, well, this came along, and...I missed you, Zaef."
“That...You…” Zaef opens his mouth and nothing comes out, so he just pulls Kitty into a fierce hug. “I wouldn’t have worried if you had just told me before you did that,” he whispers into her ear. “I know how you feel, and I try to help you out with this when I can because I...I want to show you the woman I met on the rooftop, the Kitty who was so scared and anxious and still reached out to me - something I was too scared to do.”
Kitty smiles. "She's right here with you, Zaef. She'll always be right here." She gives Zaef a peck on the cheek. "And now she's ready to learn what it's like for her fiancé, out there. I'm ready to learn, Zaef."
“I’ll try to help, as I always do,” Zaef whispers, a ghost of a smile on his face as he kisses her full on the lips. “I do want to hear about this drug regimen, too. How does it deal with the build-up?”
Kitty moans softly as Zaef kisses her, and smiles as he asks his question. "You looking to bulk up a bit, too?" she asks as she gives his chest a squeeze.
“Got to deal with stress somehow,” Zaef smirks. “Though I’m open to suggestions.”
“I have a spare couple of hours before the first field collection…” Kitty whispers into Zaef’s ear.
Gatac 2015-03-31 12:40:47
Hug’sh walks up to the Kabul International base medical center - an outgrowth of the airport’s actual medical center - his fur a melange of blue and yellow. The vox message had been pretty short, just a bored Imperial voice asking him to report to the medical center for some sort of evaluation around 1700. As he walks through the door, he sees that a couple dozen other Wherren are crammed into the waiting room as well (crammed by human standards, the Wherren colors are calmer in here all together and indeed Hug’sh feels a wave of comfort wash over him as he rubs shoulders with one of his warriors).

”Hello!” Hug’sh barks, letting some green into his fur as he unconsciously rubs at the throbbing pain in his wound. ”Were you all called here?”
”Yes!” the group barks back.
”It was very sudden,” Khodash adds.
Rodirr half-muscles, half lets the group part to allow him next to Hug’sh. ”Do you know what’s going on, Hug’sh?” he rumbles quietly. ”I do not like this. It is never good when humans get Wherren together so closely - especially under medical pretexts.”
”I know as much as you do,” Hug’sh says, then looks around. ”That said, any human who plans to harm us here must be very stupid indeed. It is far more likely that there truly is some boring routine medical exam they wish to conduct on us. I’ll go first and check it out.”
”That is how it always is,” Rodirr grunts. ”Be careful.”
Hug’sh chuffs at that. ”If you knew me longer, you would be laughing now,” he says, then gets up from his chair and wanders towards the back. ”Hello?” he calls to the humans milling about. ”We’re all here, what’s the occasion?”
One of the humans - an Imperial, by the looks of the dress, hair and skin tone - walks over to him. ”We are not ready,” he grunts in broken Whirr-sign. ”Go sit down, wait.”
”I see,” Hug’sh replies. ”What is the procedure you plan to subject us to?”
”Ah...health test,” the Imperial medicae says. ”Boring tests. Do not worry. Go sit down.”
Hug’sh smiles as he leans down to look the medicae in the eyes. ”Tell us what you are testing, or we will walk out,” he says. ”You don’t want to bother the General with a misunderstanding, do you?”
”Who is this ‘General’?” the human asks. ”And I would appreciate it if you step back, right now.”
Hug’sh straightens up again. ”You seem confused,” he says. ”Let me clarify. I am Walks-The-Fire, and I am in charge of the Wherren -”
“Oh!” His eyes light up. “Shenest wanted to see you. You can go back right now and see her.”
”Hm,” Walks-The-Fire says. ”Thank you, then.” Taking care to step around the tiny humans and their spread-out medical gear, he proceeds to the testing area. ”Shenest?” he calls out.

It’s not very hard to spot the Keeper once Hug’sh enters the testing area - she’s the only one with a shaved head. The only remains of her Keeper uniform is the utility coat, opting instead for a plain black t-shirt and Imperial work pants. Her collection of Narsai’i band buttons has grown to occupy one whole lapel of her coat as well. ”Walks-the-Fire!” she calls, waving him over with a smile that quickly vanishes when she notices his red colors. ”Is everything all right?”
”Yes,” Hug’sh says. ”We just feel a little...ambushed by this exam, and your colleague is not very good at giving straight answers. So, what exactly is going on here?”
”Oh, you know medicae, they couldn’t give a straight answer if it was laser-guided,” Shenest grunts. ”We are here to gather data on native Wherren adaptation to alien environments, and Narsai in particular. You and your warriors are an ideal test group - some native, others born off-world. And then I have something special for you, in particular.”
”Interesting,” Hug’sh says. ”You may test me, and when we’re done I will tell the others about the procedure. But for the record, if you intend to do any further research, I would appreciate it if we are asked first and not just summoned. Many of us do not have good experiences with medicae and are very nervous about this.”
”Very understandable,” Shenest grunts. ”I’m surprised that the Wherren are comfortable in the belly of the beast here, as it were, at all.” She gestures to a Wherren-size folding chair and some kind of medical-looking device. ”Please, sit.”
”That’s why I went in first,” Hug’sh says, taking his place on the chair. ”We’ve trained at Mesas Negras. There’s a certain...understanding between us and the Narsai’i military. We just try not to get in each other’s way too much.”
”Something that large can’t help but crush the individual as it moves around,” Shenest replies, and then maneuvers a needle between Hug’sh’s fur and into his arm. ”All we need is a simple blood draw. But from you, I will need two. The other is for a separate research project of mine. Rhea came to the medicae’s office - you two are with cubs, yes?”
”We are,” Hug’sh says, adding some yellow to his green.
”And one of my research projects for the Keepers Service was study of Wherren biochemistry - specifically how mates become biologically synchronized with each other,” Shenest says as she starts the machine, and a stream of red fills the tube stuck into Hug’sh’s arm. ”Particularly in pregnancy - the female hormonal changes are communicated to the male, and both undergo similar physiological changes. It’s fascinating stuff, lots of applications to medical sciences. I’m just trying to understand the hormones and pheromones involved, the whole chain of events.”
”I see,” Hug’sh says. ”Well, forward me the results when you’ve figured it out. I probably won’t understand them, but I’d still like to see them.”
”Of course,” Shenest replies. ”And I will forward the results of my genetic screens on your cubs as well.”
”Good,” Hug’sh says. ”How long do you think it’ll take to get results?”
”A week,” Shenest replies, replacing one vial for another in the machine. ”I apologize for the additional wait, I took it upon myself to conduct a whole-genome screen rather than the usual chip check.”
”That’s alright,” Hug’sh says, eyeing the second vial. ”If I may ask, how big is this research project of yours? Are you collecting samples from other Wherren to compare ours to?”
”I already have my samples from those on Whiirr,” Shenest replies. She flicks up her wrist holo and ticks off two boxes before noticing an empty third. ”Oh, I apologize. I need one more vial for another test I wish to run on your blood.”
”And what’s that?” Hug’sh asks. It’s not precisely that he doesn’t trust Shenest...but the way he’s had to dig up every scrap of information on those tests when he should have been informed of all this in advance doesn’t sit well with him at all, and it shows in the orange fringes of his fur.
”I wish to run a full genome and chem panel on you, to compare it to your previous baseline,” Shenest replies, somewhat more flatly than usual.
”Fine,” Hug’sh says. ”But you realize that you won’t be able to publish any results, yes?”
”Yes, I figured you would not want either your or my former masters hearing about what you have done until it is the right time,” Shenest says. ”It’s so rare that we have any secrets at all, especially from our governments.”
Hug’sh scoffs at that. ”I’ve learned a few things about sharing secrets with governments,” he says. ”I trust you can keep your colleagues away from my samples? Don’t take this the wrong way, but considering the circumstances, I only want your hands and eyes involved.”
”Of course,” Shenest replies. ”Just so you feel better, I don’t expect any complications from your previous status with your cubs. It looks like a very thorough job - I just want to be sure, for your sake and for your cubs.”
The orange fades from Hug’sh’s fur to be replaced by some blue, and he nods his agreement. ”Are those all the samples you need, then?” he asks.
”Yes,” Shenest grunts. ”If you could spread the word to your fellow Wherren?” she asks, her phrasing and raised eyebrow having greater meaning than normal.
”I will,” Hug’sh says.

Rising from the chair after Shenest removes the needle, Hug’sh makes his way back through the lab and into the waiting room, where he’s met with some green fur and questioning expressions.

”They want blood samples from us to determine how we are adapting to this world,” Hug’sh says. ”Your participation is voluntary. I know the researcher in charge and trust her, but I’ve made it clear that next time we are to be informed in full before being asked to be part of her exams. Does anyone have questions?”
”What do they want the blood for?” Hulor whines, still wrapping a finger around a tusk like a cub.
”They want to see how our bodies respond to Narsai - the food, the climate and such things,” Hug’sh says. ”I imagine their research could help with finding ways to make us more comfortable here, but I am no scientist. The researchers do speak some Whirrsign, so if you have more questions, you should ask them.”
There’s a chorus of rumbling and barks from the Wherren assembled there, but that soon dies down, giving Hug’sh his answer. Hug’sh smiles and chuffs his fur. ”As for me, I’m going to enjoy the sprinklers at the barracks. If you have any problems with the researchers, feel free to fetch me.”
”Yes, Walks-the-Fire,” the Wherren bark, and part to let him leave. Hug’sh walks through them, clapping Hulor on the shoulder as he passes. After the A/C inside the lab, the air outside is hot and dry enough to make him sneeze a bit, but he soon regains his composure and trots off towards the barracks for a nice long spray - after, he notes, telling the others about the exams so they don’t get blindsided by them.
Gatac 2015-03-31 14:33:49
It’s one of the few quiet moments in Hug’sh’s day when he finally gets to lie down in his cot and retrieve his vox. No surprise that there’s a reply from Rhea to his earlier message, but still, the few seconds between seeing the notification and settling in to watch the message fill Hug’sh with a kind of giddy anticipation. He leans back, snuggles his hump into the bedding, then presses play.

The message opens on their bedroom in the top floor of the school, obviously at the end of the day, with Rhea sitting on their bed and the setting sun shining through the window behind her.

”Hello, bondmate,” she purrs. ”I hope you are well. We are well!” That last one was a little too fast, and the nervousness on her face is easy to see even without the violet fringes. ”I...I went to the medicae today. Just for an exam. She confirmed that I am with cubs, and...and everything is okay.” She sniffles, but smiles. ”Everything is okay, bondmate. We are going to have cubs. And I know that they’re still much too small to move, but sometimes I think I already feel them inside me, and...and I miss you, bondmate. I miss you, Hug’sh.”

It takes a few seconds for the blue in her fur to fade out, but then she wipes her eyes and sucks in a deep breath.

”But there’s someone else here to talk to you, too,” she says, then tilts the vox’s camera down to show Torega sitting on her knee, looking up right into the camera with her big brown eyes. ”Say hello to your father, Torega,” Rhea says.
”He...hello,” Torega says.
”Go on,” Rhea says softly. ”He can see and hear you.”
”Hello, father,” Torega says, after one final look up at Rhea. ”Today Mr. Piugash told us about big numbers, and about the sun. He said it is really big, even though it’s very small in the sky. It’s so far away, but it’s still there. Like you.” Torega smiles and grasps onto one of her little tusks, making Hug’sh unsure whether that turn of phrase is hers or something one of the adults said, but that doesn’t make it less true. ”Then we played Pie’re Chase and I was the Pie’re and I was the fastest! Dush almost got me but I ran into one of the new habs, between the workers. It was fun, but Mr. Piugash didn’t like it and he said we needed to stay on the grass in front of the school and play there only and it’s so boring without you, father.”
”And what did you do after recess?” Rhea says from off-camera, trying to guide Torega back on message.
”After recess, Mr. Piugash taught us a song!” Torega says. ”He got Sijet to sing it for us, and then we all sang it!”
”Your father would love to hear you sing it, Torega,” Rhea says. ”Will you sing it for him?”

Torega looks up at Rhea and nods to her, then turns back to the camera and takes a very deep breath, which - together with her fur chuffing in response - puffs her up considerably. It’s so much air, in fact, that she has to breathe out a little, then breathe in a little, and then she starts to sing.

”There's a place in the forest, underneath the fallen tree
There's a place in the forest, where the water's always sweet
There's a place in the forest, where a fire burns for me
There's a place in the forest, made for my whole family

There's a place in the forest, where the Pie're play all night
There's a place in the forest, where the moon is always bright
There's a place in the forest, where the river glints with light
There's a place in the forest, with my family by my side

There's a place in the forest, where…”

And that’s as far as she gets before she chokes and turns a little blue before turning to Rhea again.

”Where the summer days are long,” Rhea whispers. ”Do you want to sing it together for your father?”

Torega nods and turns back to the camera, and then Hug’sh’s two favorite ladies start intoning it together.

”There's a place in the forest, where the summer days are long
There's a place in the forest, that is always filled with song
There's a place in the forest, where our tribe is free and strong…”

And then Rhea cuts out, letting Torega finish it by herself.

”There's a place in the forest, it's the place where I belong!” Torega belts out, flashing green and yellow and earning some grooming from Rhea for her performance.

On the other side of the vox, thousands of light years away, tears are flowing down Hug’sh’s cheeks as he mirrors the pattern. His clawed hand reaches for the projection, as if to gently stroke his daughter's head.

Rhea then turns the camera back towards her for a moment. ”I hope you like it, bondmate.”
”I hope you like it, too!” Torega shouts, and Rhea hastily focuses the camera back on her. ”I practiced a lot.” For a moment, she seems to almost...blush? ”Temator helped.”
”We look forward to your next message, bondmate,” Rhea says, then bows down so both she and Rhea can be in the frame at the same time. ”Come back soon!”
”Come back soon, father!” Torega adds. ”I miss you a lot. I miss you…” - she breaks out her new signs - ”500 times!”
”All our love, bondmate,” Rhea says. She smacks her lips in what seems like an approximation of a human smooch, and then...then the message ends, and all that’s left is Hug’sh in his cot, staring into open air. After a few seconds - it can’t have been that long - Hug’sh reaches for a pack of paper tissues. The design is annoyingly human-centric in two ways: one, the little adhesive tab that holds it closed is difficult to grasp with his big fingers, and two, the tissue is no match for the sheer force of Hug’sh clearing his sinuses, let alone the volume of snot. Hug’sh has to chuckle despite all as he finds the tissue in his hands disintegrated and his muzzle and hands covered in mucus. To make a long, disgusting story short, a total of eight tissues go into cleaning up the mess, and then the ninth and tenth are double-layered to test a much gentler blow. Hug’sh dumps the whole mess into the nearest trash bin and takes a few breaths, letting the blue roll out of his fur.

That still leaves his hands feeling a bit...grimey, and so Hug’sh climbs out of his cot and makes his way to the bathroom. The sound of running and splashing water tells Hug’sh he won’t be alone inside, but considering his current feels, that’s not a bad thing at all. Inside, he finds Hulor scrunched up under a showerhead, running lukewarm water through his fur in an effort to dislodge some sand.

”Hello, Hug’sh!” Hulor barks, receiving a similar reply from his CO. ”The flying machines kick up a lot of dust.”
”That they do,” Hug’sh says, shrugging out of his clothes and dumping them next to the stack of demounted shower cabin dividers. Given their relative size, even leaving a showerhead between them has him rubbing shoulders with Hulor, a sensation that Hug’sh has utterly forgotten how to be uncomfortable with. The brief thought of all the things he’s utterly forgotten since becoming Hug’sh draws enough color into his fur for Hulor to notice.
”Is something wrong?” Hulor asks.
”Only that I can’t be with my family,” Hug’sh replies as he turns on the shower. ”Do you miss your village, Hulor?”
”Every minute of every hour of every day,” Hulor says. ”Is that longing still...strange to you?”
”No,” Hug’sh says. ”In fact, just...just now I thought about my youth, all the things I did when I was a cub. These memories are of things that...things that didn’t happen.” He ruffles his fur as the first layer of sand washes out. ”But that does not make them less true.”
”I don’t understand what you mean,” Hulor says.
”What happened then happened to someone else,” Hug’sh says. ”I am not Hugh Verrill. Not the small boy, not the good soldier, not the human living with a Wherren family. Those memories were...facts. But now I am Hug’sh Walks-The-Fire. The cub clinging to my mother’s hump, the warrior learning to fight for my tribe, the protector of 815. And the memories are true to that. They belong to me, not another life.” He turns to Hulor. ”Am I making sense?”
”I did not come here by your path,” Hulor replies. ”But I can see that you are who you want to be, Hug’sh. If that is your truth, then that is good.”
”Yes,” Hug’sh says. ”Did you go to the exams the humans are running?”
”No,” Hulor says. ”I do not like them.”
”They did not endear themselves to me, either,” Hug’sh says.
”Do you hate them?” Hulor asks.
”No,” Hug’sh answers. ”No, I don’t...I don’t think I hate them. But they frustrate me. They have much to learn about us.”
punkey 2015-04-05 04:52:57
With all the influx of off-world tech onto Narsai, there’s been a great amount of care taken to avoid upsetting the apple cart too much on the homeworld. Just dumping tech thousands of years more advanced than anything available probably wouldn’t exactly be kind to existing companies dependent on that old tech and lacking in any way to catch up. Angel Kesh could quite easily take over every sector of industry and business just by robbing the Faxom-Io bargain bin and selling obsolete tech at a fair price - which is exactly why he hasn’t done so. Progress is being rolled out slowly, and through Narsai’i companies. Broadcast power is about all that is being pushed out at the moment in even the most cutting-edge test areas, and in Afghanistan, you’d never know that the Imperium was coming through the Gateways at all.

Which is why Garrett, Ngawai and Naloni are crammed in the back of a taxi barreling through the streets of Kabul, instead of taking a skimmer to lunch. “You know that I love you, right?” Ngawai grunts, clutching a grasping Naloni to her chest, even through the sling.
“Yeah,” Garrett replies as he looks out the window at the city blowing past outside. “I don’t know what -”
“Then why are you insisting on testing our marriage with this insane ride?” Ngawai responds, leaning against the window for a very different reason.
“Naloni doesn’t seem to mind,” Garrett says, smiling and giving his daughter a finger to grasp.
“Just because your daughter is just as crazy as you are doesn’t mean I’m -” Ngawai flinches as the cab bounds over a pothole, “- I’m doing all right.”
“Oh, dammit, I’m sorry,” Garrett replies, and scoots back across the cab to wrap his arms around his wife. “Hey, I promised you that one day I’d give you an authentic Afghanistan experience. I’m just trying to keep my promise.”
“Does this tour end with us being blown up?” Ngawai cracks as she leans into the hug. “Because that might be preferable at this point.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” Garrett jokes back, and gives her a squeeze.

Fortunately, the driver chooses this moment to slow down to a halt in front of their destination. Garrett pays the fare - with a significant tip to keep them out of trouble - and leads Ngawai towards a street side cafe. Spices and the scent of grilled meat wafts out of the cafe, and Ngawai smiles as she steps into the stream of good-smelling food and drink.
"Okay, this makes up for it a bit," she says.
"This is one of my favorite places in the city," Garrett says. "The lamb, naan and tea here are amazing. Really can't go wrong with anything they make."
"Then I will just trust you to order for me," Ngawai replies. "After my stomach settles."
"That's what the tea is for," Garrett says with a peck on her cheek.

A few minutes later, Ngawai holds the porcelain cup up to her nose and takes a deep breath in, holds it, then lets it back out as she smiles. "Are you sure there's no pain stims in this?"
"Positive," Garrett replies, sipping at his own cup as he balances his daughter on his lap. "They stopped spiking the tea with opium years ago."
"Some kind of pain stim?" Ngawai asks as she takes a careful sip.
"A really addictive one," Garrett replies. Naloni grasps for the saucer in front of him, and Garrett quickly slides it out of reach. "No, no, not for you," he coos, but Naloni starts to fuss anyway. "Oh, shh, shhhh." Garrett reaches out, and Ngawai puts a soft plastic scrofa toy in his hand to pass to Naloni, who promptly shoves it in her mouth.
"'That is a cute baby,'" a man's voice says in cultured English from behind Ngawai. Both parents snap their attention to the owner of the voice - older, probably in his 60's, dressed in the simple white robe with black vest and brown pakol hat common to the Pashtun people. He looks like any other man on the street, except for the hard edge in his steel grey eyes. They are the eyes of someone who's done more than just live alongside his country’s violent history for most of his life, and it's those eyes that send both parents reflexively sliding their hands slowly towards sidearms that aren't there.
"'Thank you,'" Garrett replies, sizing up the man approaching their table.
"'Please, may I sit?'" the man asks, gesturing towards an empty chair.
"'That changes on what you're here to talk about,'" Ngawai says.
The man sits down anyway. "'I am something of a community leader,'" he says. "'I protect the people living in this country, make sure they stay on the path of righteousness, God's path. This puts me at odds with your country's leadership at times.'"
Garrett's eyes narrow as he moves Naloni closer to his chest. "'I know exactly what you are.'"
"'Terrorist is a label your government uses to smear those of true faith and allegiance,'΅ the man replies. "'I could say the same about you, Mr. Davis. I have talked to others that knew of you when you were here previously; you killed a great many good men and drove much of my country towards the devil running around with that whore. And now, you are back - not just with your bigoted countrymen, but with Satan's agents made flesh.'"
Garrett shakes his head while Ngawai just stares daggers at the man. "'And I thought the Pentagon was prone to hyperbole.'" He sighs. "'Do tell.'"
"'You Americans, you come here and tell us how best to live our live according to your customs, you fill our women and children's heads with lies, and you make promise after promise you have no intention of keeping,'" the man says. "'But, at the end, you are harmless. Transient. You will come here, boss us around while all those of us with true faith must do is wait for you to leave. It is your cowardly nature - eventually, you will lose interest in meddling in our ways, and go away. But these things from the stars, they are coming here to destroy our way of life. They have declared themselves the enemy of everyone on this planet - and you bring them here, to my country. The destroyer is knocking at our door and you have just let them in.'"
"'First, defending a culture that treats women like property and murders anyone that dares believe differently than them isn't really going to win me over.'" Garrett explains. "'The Bashakra'i, the Wherren, the Sheen, they are -'"
"'These are distinctions without meaning,'" the man says with a dismissive wave. "'That is what they tell us - and that is if they can be believed, which I do not.'" Garrett and Ngawai both tense their hands. "And that is beside the point. If what you say is true, there are more of them than there are of us, many times over. Even if they are not lying to us about their intentions, and we win over this Imperium, they will assimilate us. All of us, our cultures will be ground into dust under the weight of their trillions. You have thrown open the doors to the destruction of our culture, and our souls. And by you, I mean you specifically, Garrett Davis.'" The man points a finger at Garrett. "'You fought for those cursed portals to our world, to bring them here, to start the demise of our culture. And that, I will fight until my dying breath. You, your wife, and this child that represents the death of everything that matters, you are my enemies.'"
Ngawai's hand goes for the knife that came with the naan - just a butter knife, but at the threat to her child, she's sufficiently motivated to make it work. Garrett tries to wave her off, but Ngawai's glare stares on the man, and he stares back, unafraid. "'Yes, go ahead, prove that you are exactly the monster we think you are. Murder an unarmed man with a knife, stab me to death in front of all of these people.'"
"'Don't think that I won't,'" Ngawai growls.
The man smiles. "'In front of your own daughter, you would brutally murder a man. What kind of a mother are you Imperials, that you would slaughter a man in front of your own infant children.'"
Ngawai's knuckles turn white against the blade. "Lahna, don't listen to him," Garrett says, but Ngawai's hateful glare doesn't budge.
"'I...I am a good mother,'" Ngawai sputters.
"'That irresponsibly brought her child to a war,'" the man replies. "'That holds her daughter after slaughtering dozens of my people just yesterday. It is not your fault - you people send women to war - a task for which they are completely unsuited. That violence, it ruins women, makes them unfit to raise children.'"
"I am a good mother!" Ngawai repeats, either unaware or uncaring that she's no longer speaking English. "You...you're wrong!" The knife starts to waver in her hand as her dark cheeks dampen. Naloni starts to cry at her mother's distress, tearing Ngawai between reaching for her daughter and keeping the stranger at knife point.
The man stands up, and Ngawai's blade follows him. "'I have made my point. Mr. Davis, take your woman, your child, your friends and your alien forces, and leave my country. Let us practice our ways without interference, from the United States or anyone else.'"
Garrett stands up himself, holding Naloni and moving behind Ngawai and her knife. "'You'll understand if I don't take advice from someone like you.'"
"'Then do not be surprised when my country fights back,'" the man says. "'Good day, Mr. Davis.'"

The man turns and leaves at that. Garrett waits and watches, and when he is sufficiently far away, quickly steps in front of Ngawai, one hand reaching for the butter knife while the other supports his daughter. "Okay, lahna, he's gone, you can put the knife down."
Ngawai slowly loosens her grip on the knife, letting Garrett guide it out of her hand. "I...I am..."
Garrett hands Naloni to Ngawai, who holds her close to her chest as he gently wraps his arms around her. "You are," he says. "You are an amazing mother. Don't listen to him."
"But...but...." Ngawai sputters.
"No, lahna," Garrett says. "He's wrong."
"Then what am I doing?" Ngawai whispers.
"What needs to be done," Garrett replies.
"Is it?" Ngawai says. "Is it?"
"Yes," Garrett says as he rocks his crying wife and crying daughter back and forth. "It is." Ngawai, out of words, just leans against Garrett as tears continue to stain her already dark face.
punkey 2015-04-17 01:25:31
Angel cuts a pretty dashing figure as he walks through the airport-cum-military base - with his Imperial-designed desert combat business suit (complete with now-obligatory mandarin collar), shape-shifting boots and black-and-mirrored holoshades, he looks more like a mercenary character from a cyberpunk Middle East future. Which, supposing where the Naranai’i look like they were originally taken from on Narsai, might not be that far off the mark. Still, it’s not the wetware dealer Angel’s looking for (he’s got a whole company of them under Kesh Pharma, anyway), it’s a particular spook.

Which he finds in his hab quarters with his wife and daughter - both Garrett and Ngawai working on cleaning an impressive array of weapons and equipment - XM-10s, SCAR-Hs, .45s, 9mms, and even a few shotguns and a sniper rifle, not to mention armor and gear both Bashakra’i and Narsai’i.

“Ah yes...family armory time.” Angel smirks, nodding to Garrett. “Can I borrow him for a second Ngawai?”
Garrett looks up at Angel as he pulls a wipe out of the shroud of an XM-10, while Ngawai looks his way and nods. “I’ll keep an eye on Naloni, lahna,” she says, and Garrett simply leaves his weapon locked open and stands up.
“Where to?” Garrett asks.
“The hall will do...unless you want a beer?”
Garrett looks nervously back at his wife. “Maybe not the -”
“Go,” Ngawai says simply.
“You sure?” Garrett asks.
Ngawai picks up one of the shotguns, checks the magazine, slides in one last shell and racks the action closed. “We will be fine for now,” she says. “Windows are closed, only one way in.”
Garrett nods and looks back to Angel. “Lead the way.”

Angel winked at Ngawai, inclining his head. “Thanks.” Angel walked with Garrett up to the bar, the two of them something of a study in contrasts. Sitting down at a quiet table in the corner, he motions for two bottles, sitting back while he waits for them.
“So, our little Afghan ambush…”
“I saw the holos, that was quite a hairball,” Garrett replies as he takes a seat.
“Little more than quite a hairball. Honestly, by rights we got off lightly. It was well done - nice, controlled channels, a big ass truck in the way with a booby-trap waiting for the first sucker to try and move it. And the hardware to back it up - all of it rather conspicuously of Chinese make.”
“Yeah, but the bad guys have got to learn sometime,” Garrett says. “Doesn’t make it a conspiracy.” He taps his fingers on the table. “There is something bothering me about it, though.”
“Doesn’t make it not a conspiracy though. What’s been eating you about it?”
“For such a smart ambush...where were the brains?” Garrett asks. “As far as I could tell, they all just ran at you, or fired potshots from that building. Where were the snipers, the IEDs in the main road, the technicals and the rest of it? I mean, if they wanted us dead and that equipment blown up...why didn’t they just do it?”

Angel nodded, smiling as a waitress brought their beers. “Fair point. How do you only get halfway to a decent ambush and then just...well, blow it. Honestly, that’s part of what bothers me about it. It feels like, well like someone told them how to pull it off. Like they had only heard of how to fuck up a convoy by description.”
“Or that they wanted to test us,” Garrett adds. He only taps on the neck of his beer, staring at it in thought. “What does Hug’sh think?”
Angel shrugged slightly. “That the equipment was looted from bases up north. Past that...well, haven’t much asked him. Subtly isn’t currently so much his stock in trade.”
“Implying that mine is,” Garrett replies. “Yeah, I’ll ask around, see if anyone’s heard about a Chinese supply depot getting hit - or anything else. Ngawai and I are staying here with the command teams, gonna play peacekeeper between the factions - mostly trying to keep the Bashakra’i and Narsai’i from going at each other’s throats.”
“No offense Garret, but subtle is your stock in trade. That and overly engineered plans.” He tipped his beer toward the ex-spook. “And you didn’t go for the Chewbacca look, which while badass is more than a little memorable. But I’d appreciate you looking into it. I’d do it myself but, well...my kind of sneaky takes place after we know who needs a reminder about fucking with the wrong people.”

Garrett remains silent at that, and his fidgeting with his bottle goes up a notch.
Angel raises an eyebrow. “All I’m asking is for you to think about it. I know you’ve got other concerns right now - and you know what I think about Ngawai and Naloni.” Angel sounded very much like the much cooler, much richer, and very, very protective uncle.
Garrett nodded, thought for a moment, then nodded again. “Right.” He sighs. “Just some problematic locals. Came by when we were getting lunch. Something about how we - and I mean we as in GRHDI and the Naranai’i - aren’t welcome. You know the kind of threats that they like to give.”
“Hence the small arsenal in the basement, and you checking before going to get a beer with me 50 meters away.”
“Something like that,” Garrett says. “We’ve got it handled, Angel. There’s no need for you to drop out of the mission for us.”
“Garrett...if nothing comes out of this whole Kesh Industries thing, it has taught me to be very, very good at multitasking. And I came to you asking for a favor - tell me what you need.”
“Just your support when - if - we need it,” Garrett says. He smirks. “I don’t think it’s beyond the power of Angel Kesh to schedule his own lift back from a FOB.”
Angel smirked, nodding once. “You got it Garrett. You make the call, I’ll come. Make it rain money, or firepower, as the situation calls for it. You and Ngawai are family.”
“Suspect it’s going to come down to firepower,” Garrett says. “But I have to play it smart. We need to map the network before cutting it into pieces. Ngawai and I are working on a plan.”
Angel smirked. “So it’ll be overly complex, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants, and somehow topple a government half a world away. That should be fun.”
“One thing at a time, Angel,” Garrett says, and takes another drink. “One thing at a time.”
punkey 2015-04-28 20:38:41
After his...personal time with his fiancé is over and Kitty runs off for her own chopper (after being gifted a few kisses for the road), all Zaef has to fall back on is routine maintenance on his weapon and equipment - something that takes all of a half-hour - and the series of text files and holos he’s got stashed on his vox. Kitty’s drug treatment shot to the top of his reading list, but it’s so dense with scientific jargon that half of the words fly so high over his head that he’d need a space elevator to catch them. After being soundly defeated by Kitty’s work, he moves on to the files Garrett circulated about the history and people of Afghanistan. It’s slow but steady work; still, after a while, Zaef pops up a second file on the night sky over Narsai instead. Constellations, nebulae, deep sky objects, all with gorgeous astrophotography. Zaef had never tried his hand at it himself, but it seems the Narsai’i do a damn good job of it. Before long, cultural reports are long forgotten in exchange for massive images of globular clusters and supernovae remnants, soaring bright gaseous clouds in space.

After an indeterminate but all-too-short time in Zaef’s personal quiet space, a tiny icon at the very bottom left corner of his vision starts to pulse silently - someone’s trying to open a live connection.
After a moment, Zaef sighs, and resignedly accepts the call. “Yes?”
“Zaef, it’s me,” Bello’s voice says. “I require your assistance on an urgent matter. Meet me at the maintenance annex behind the dome.”
“If it’s one of your ops, Bello, get a brown-noser to do it for you. I’m not interested.”
“I need someone more familiar with the customs and behaviors of Narsai’i military personnel,” Bello says. “I want to be sure that this is what I suspect it is before I make any further movements.”
Zaef pinches the bridge of his nose. “Fine.” He cuts the connection with a stab and heads out to meet Bello after he’s picked up his knives and stowed them.

Spraycrete domes, like the one in use at Kabul International, all have a service room around the back housing the power, water, and air distribution centers. When Zaef arrives at the rear of the JTOC, the door is locked. Zaef places a hand on his forehead - he feels a headache coming on - but he sends Bello an encrypted ping. Zaef hears the door’s magnetic deadbolt release, and quickly steps inside - to what is quite clearly not just a service room. Amongst the industrial environmental equipment are four cogitators stacked next to each other, hooked up to a data storage node - not quite the same size as the ones they piped the Cortex to, but still more than enough to store a few hundred petabytes of data. Fiber lines run from the cogitators into conduits in every which direction, and a few flat antennae are taped to the walls as well. Bello himself stands behind a makeshift desk - just a slab of compressed wood pulp sat on top of a couple barrels with a vacuum flask of hot tea and a holodisplay on top - waving through what looks to Zaef like the results of data taps.
“Thank you for coming so quickly,” Bello says, not taking his eyes off his work.
Zaef takes a moment to examine the room, his distaste growing more palpable by the second. “What is it, Bello?” he asks sharply.
Bello looks Zaef’s way. “They have no idea what this is, Zaef. Narsai’i military maintenance technicians have -”
“The point, Bello. Now.”
“I have a few suspicious events that I want you to look over with me,” Bello says, his delicate hands moving quickly to queue up the relevant files. “You have more experience with Narsai’i military customs than myself, so you might know if any of these activities are suspicious.” He flicks the first file up and pushes the display so Zaef can see it. The file shows five Narsai’i soldiers sneaking into one of the Bashakra’i habs - all five obviously drunk. Once inside, the five men kick at the walls, relieve themselves on the floor, and write some rather lewd words on the walls in marker. “Your thoughts?” Bello asks.
Zaef frowns. “Assholes, certainly, but hardly conspirators. Have them disciplined by their CO.” He motions for Bello to continue.

Next, a recorded audio file - it sounds like it was intercepted from one of those Narsai’i communicators, a “cell phone”, whatever that is. “How many men do you have on them?” one voice says.
“Two on each of them at all times, Sir,” another man says. “But…”
“Spit it out, son,” the first man says.
“They keep on slipping our tails,” the second says. “The tall one, Bello Honis, is being particularly difficult. Recommend we plant trackers on his clothes, shoes and equipment.”
“Do it,” the first man says. “But be careful - we can’t know what kind of counterintelligence or sweepers they have. Use only burst-mode equipment.”
“Roger, sir,” the second says, and then a beep to indicate the end of the call.

Bello simply looks Zaef’s way.
Zaef returns the look. “If you need my help on this one, you’re losing your touch. As for who and why, I don’t have enough to tell you. Sounds professional, though - I doubt signal traces will turn up anything worthwhile.”
Bello nods. “Unfortunate, I hoped you might recognize at least one of the voices.”

The third file is another feed - two-dimensional, which means it’s another tap from the Narsai’i systems. The shot is obviously from inside the JTOC itself, a series of shots from above and behind the Bashakra’i operators posted inside. In fact, as Bello flicks through the feeds, it’s obvious that every Bashakra’i position in the JTOC has a camera pointed straight at it. Other feeds are freely rotating, following other Bashakra’i as they walk through the large room. Finally, a second window shows an array of dots positioned over a floor plan of the JTOC - Bello motions towards one to move the pointer towards it (another tapped Narsai’i system, apparently), and audio comes up. Two Bashakra’i Turai discuss what to buy for lunch for a few moments before Bello closes the taps.

Zaef arches an eyebrow at Bello. “Why, it looks like we’re almost at a mutual level of trust.”
“So this goes above what the Narsai’i consider typical workplace behavior?” Bello asks.
Zaef just rolls his eyes as he hears the noise his jab makes as it flies over Bello’s head. “It’s my understanding that while cameras are common, few people earn dedicated ones.”
“Well then, I will have to inform our people to watch what they say,” Bello says. “One more.”

The last feed is back to a full holo - this one showing a white clean room, an array of items laid out on the table. A vox, holodisplay, portable fusion generator, grav sled, and a cogitator are all laid out and in various states of disassembly. A dozen men and women - Narsai’i by the hair and skin tones - all are suited up in white and picking over the devices, carefully disassembling them, looking at parts through microscopes and photographing everything. A man in a Narsai’i uniform walks into the room, and another man breaks off to talk to him.
“Need a progress update,” the uniformed man says.
“Progress is...slow,” the suited man says. “We’re able to partially disassemble the items, but further study is proving difficult. We really could use that electron microscope.”
“It’s taking time to break it down and disguise the parts,” the uniformed man replies. He’s got a name tag on his uniform like all the other Narsai’i; Zaef can’t quite make it out but he can tell that it’d be easy work to clean that up. “What’s the hold up?”
“Well…” the suited man says, and leads the uniformed man over to the table with the grav sled on it. “Take a look at this.” He picks up what looks to Zaef like one of the impellers for the sled. “This is one of the anti-gravity repulsor field generators on the device, and there’s no obvious way to break it down any further than that.” Zaef knows that’s because that’s literally the whole unit - when a small impeller like that breaks, you just toss it in the recycling bin and pick up a new one for a few hundred lats. “If we’re going to figure out what makes this work, we need to cut it open, but if we cut it open -”
“Then it won’t work anymore.” The uniformed man sighs. “And that’s true with all of this?”
“Pretty much, Sir,” the suited man says. “We’re working as hard as we can, but this is so far advanced that we’re having problems figuring out how this stuff was even made, let alone how it works.”
“Dammit,” the uniformed man says. “Well, I’ll send word up the chain that the reverse engineering team needs that equipment ASAP. Keep working.”

Bello ends the feed there. “I think you get the idea.”
Zaef snorts in response.
“Well?” Bello asks.
“Put a better lock on our stores,” Zaef responds. “As far as I can tell, the only wrong they’re committing here is swiping our equipment.”
“Hrmph,” Bello says, closing the feed. “Their espionage is acceptable to you, then?”
“No more than your own,” Zaef replies coolly. “Certainly nothing we need to take action over.”
“I agree,” Bello says. “I’ve tasked my agents to step up their counter-intelligence actions and expand our monitoring efforts, but direct counter-action isn’t required yet.” He looks back to Zaef. “I will be needing your aid again with this, Zaef. No direct threats have been identified yet, but I have twenty-six different groups or individuals that are projected to show hostile intent to our people - five of which have mentioned you by name. Please, Zaef. Be careful.”
Zaef’s scowl deepens. “The warning is appreciated, Bello, but I came here because your tone implied it was something serious.
“And the Narsai’i spying on our people like this isn’t?” Bello replies.
“Oh, it’s troubling and frustrating, Bello,” Zaef growls. “But there’s no action to take with any of this. And until there is, don’t call me. I told you, Bello - I’m not interested in doing any work for you.”
“And when that time comes?” Bello asks.
“Then call me, and the rest of the 815.” Zaef turns to the door. “You mentioned Narsai’i techs earlier? Regarding this room?”
“Yes, they came in to check the water hookups,” Bello says. “We had them on sconces, and I swept the room afterwards. Why do you ask?”
Zaef scans the room again, and sure enough, there’s a hole in the air recycler vent - and it looks like it’s big enough for bulky Narsai’i spy equipment. “Because you should sweep it again. I think you’re underestimating them, or maybe overselling yourself.” He points to the vent. “Good-bye, Bello. Take care of yourself.”
Bello turns around and looks up at the hole. “Hmm,” he says. “Take care of yourself as well, Zaef.” He turns around just in time to see Zaef’s back as he walks out the door. “Please.”
punkey 2015-04-28 20:39:40
All the vox message from Bello said was “Could use your aid at our equipment storage, Samal.” That’s enough to get Luis’ curiosity up, and he sends back a quick message confirming he’s on his way. It’s a few minutes walk across the Kabul International Airport base, the facility buzzing with activity as the equipment that had been staged there for forward deployment is finally being mobilized for said deployment; crates stored inside being carried out by hand truck and forklift and loaded onto trucks and into choppers for transport further into the mountainous interior of the country.

One such locale where this should be going on is the Bashakra’i equipment stores - crate after silver-sealed crate of Bashakra’i weapons, power and transmission equipment ready to be loaded up to support their operations. However, as Luis rounds the last corner, he sees that none of that is in fact happening; instead, a stand-off seems to be in effect between twenty or so Bashakra’i, lead by Bello and Onas, and a Marine Corps officer with what looks like the better part of a company behind him. Luis sharpens his posture as he walks up, trying to angle between the two groups. As he comes up, he makes a precise bow to Bello.
“Reporting as requested, sir. What’s the situation?”
“The Narsai’i insist on loading and transporting our equipment for us,” Bello says.
“Without any of our people guarding it,” Onas adds.
“Was their assistance requested?” Luis asks, giving the officer an eye, trying to judge on a scale between “just doing let me do my job” and “kill all aliens.”
“It was not,” Bello says curtly, giving the officer a glare.
’If you all could speak English, that’d be fine by me,’” the officer - a Captain Hartley - says. Luis can’t really read much on his face - aside from surprise and annoyance at Luis’ presence here. “’What are you doing here anyway, Mr. Stanhill, we didn’t ask for a GRHDI liason.’
’I apologize, Captain,’” Luis says, tossing off the best salute he can manage. “’Bello requested my presence to help resolve things here. We weren’t anticipating being sent assistance, and it seems the arrangements may need to be checked. What were your instructions?’
’That depends on why you’re here, Mr. Stanhill,’” Hartley says. He looks him over, eyes narrowing at Luis’ carapace glistening in the midday sun and his green-and-blue Bashakra’i hood rigid and deployed, shading his face. “’And what you’re doing in this alien getup.’
’I’m in uniform, just back from a patrol where I got to defuse mortar shells pointed at me while under fire,’” Luis says. “’And I’m here to help stop this from being a problem that needs an official GRHDI liaison.’” He puts a little force into his voice. “’So, again, what are you instructions?’
’Sorry, if you’re not read in, I can’t tell you,’” Hartley says.
’Under the equipment sharing agreements in force here, you need to provide information on intended use before the Basahkra’i release materiel. If your instructions prevent you from doing so, and prevent them from sending their own people with it if they want to, then it’s within their right to refuse a request to release it to you.’
’And it’s our right to load it in a way we see as safe,’” Hartley replies. “’And none of them have Loadmaster training, so it’s not safe for them to participate in the loading and transport of heavy equipment.’” He crosses his arms. “’So tell your friends that either we load it, or they can carry it to Kandahar.’
“And tell him I understand his language perfectly well,” Bello says. “Samal, would you care to join me and Bello away from the Narsai’i for a moment?”

’Excuse me,’” Luis says to the captain. He nods to Bello, and they take a few steps away from the Marines.
Once Bello and Onas lead Luis out of earshot of the Marines, Bello leans down to speak directly in Luis’ ear. “I believe that the Narsai’i are not here to transport our equipment, Samal. I have proof of a Narsai’i reverse-engineering effort focused on our equipment, and I am convinced that they are here to steal some of our stores for further study.”
“It doesn’t sound unreasonable,” Luis says. “It’d be easy enough for a few things to...go missing. But accusing them of it here and now publically is counter-productive, I think.”
“Should we allow them to just walk off with our equipment?” Bello asks incredulously.
“They are spying on our people, Samal,” Onas says. “All of us have been under surveillance, Bello has intercepted many of their feeds.” He looks over at the Marines.
Luis interrupts, though quietly. “And Bello’s bugging their barracks, so I’d be careful about getting annoyed about that. I’d say. For the here and now, let’s focus on stopping them from walking off with our gear.”
Bello gestures back towards the Marines. “By all means, Samal.”

Luis turns, and leads the way back to the Marines. “Captain, we appreciate the assistance with the safe loading process, and we’d be onboard with your team performing the actual loading and transport operations. However, this equipment has its own requirements for safe loading, and the Bashakra’i need to observe the loading and transport operations to ensure that those are followed, even if your men carry out the actual legwork. That’d mean observing from a safe distance during loading and transport, and double-checking loading procedures during the process. They’d hate to see one of your guys get hurt because Imperium gear is designed to be moved a bit different than Earth gear but they’ll keep clear of your guys so this is all done safely. That’s the best they can offer without more information.’
Hartley looks at Luis for a second. “’That so?’
We just want to make sure this is done right and safely, unless there’s a good reason not to,” Luis says. “Your guys know the base loading procedures, but they know this gear. We’d hate to see anyone get hurt.’
Hartley pauses again. “’And if I said that wasn’t going to happen?’
’Then this becomes an incident--you’d be saying we’d be handling gear in an unsafe manner, and asking to violate the equipment sharing agreements, and without disclosing a specific reason for that violation. We’d have to hold the work, and run it up the official chain to handle resolving it.’
Hartley smirks - and any doubt that Luis had that he was just being annoying vanishes in a heartbeat. “’And how do you think that would go?’
’I’d imagine there’d be a very official, very slow series of discussions on why Earth is intent on violating those agreements to get ahold of off-world equipment without specific reasons. And in the meantime, you’re not touching this gear in violation of those agreements.’
Hartley’s smirt vanishes. “’And I suppose I will be telling my superiors which side you’re really on,’” he says. “’You sure those robot eyes aren’t changing your mind for you?’
’I’m sure,” Luis says. “And as for sides...I’ve already had people shooting at me and trying to blow me up today, and I know we’ve both got people who need these supplies to help stop those guys from killing them. If it were me, I’d find myself questioning whose side I was on when I was starting a pissing match and trying to see those supplies not necessarily getting to the people who need them for the fight. We’re here to fight a war, and I’m hoping I’ve already killed enough people for today.’
’Is that a threat?’” Hartley asks, his eyes narrowing. “’You willing to kill your own for these aliens?’
It’s a threat if you want to make it one,’” Luis says. “But in the end, I think that Earth and the whole fucking galaxy need their help a lot more against an army hundreds of millions strong than you need to follow you oh-so-secret orders to throw your weight around and search some damn boxes. So I don’t intend to let you do anything to jeopardize that alliance, and if that means stopping you…” Luis shrugs. “’I’d hate to have to.’
’What Earth needs is to know how this alien technology works, so we can use it,’” Hartley shoots back. “’Something you are stopping.’
Earth needs to know how it works? Ask the tenner development team, where we’re both working together to build our own version of the beamers, or Kesh, who’re bringing the technology here to build all this stuff here on Earth.’
’Kesh,’” Hartley scoffs. “’No one buys that line he’s pushing for his Imperial bosses.’
’Which, the one where Boeing’ll be building skimmers, or the one where we’re bringing in better guns, armor, and computers than Earth could build by itself, and the plants to build them? You have a shopping list in those instructions you can’t let me know about? Ask, and I’ll write you a damn requisition form for it. But you’re not looting it out of the stocks going to the guys in the field, and perhaps you shouldn’t be trying to steal from the people like me out there bleeding in your war so we can get you ready for the real one.’
’The first taste is free, huh?’” Hartley says. “’Forget it.’” He waves to his men. “’We’ll let them figure their own logistics out, then.’” And with that, he turns as his men pick up their gear and start to walk away.
“Samal?” Onas asks. Luis holds a glare at the retreating Marine’s backs for a few moments, then turns and sighs.
“Are we moving our own gear?” Onas asks.
“Yeah,” Luis says, and nods a bit tiredly. “It might be worth getting on the phone with the real logistics people and finding out if they were supposed to be here officially at all. That might help the next time if they try again, and it might be worth seeing about setting up some cross-training for the logistics people on both sides, so you’ll have some of them you can trust and you’ll be rated to have all the certifications to move your own if you don’t trust the ones around.”
“Sounds good,” Onas says. “Make the call, Samal.”
“Willingly calling the quartermasters?” Luis says, and grins a bit tightly. “Maybe I should have just shot the bastard.” He shakes his head, then nods. “I’ll make some calls about that Captain Hartley. Send me the contact for your head of logistics, and I’ll get some talks set up while I’m at it.”
“Did you receive Narsai’i load training when you were in their service?” Onas asks with a smirk.
Luis grins and nods. “Yeah, for my sins. been there, done that, seen the PowerPoints and taken the tests. Some decent processes for getting things done right and the same ways under a lot of stuff invented by standards people with too much time on their hands. I’m sure your guys could handle it.”
“And so can you, head of logistics,” Onas replies. “I will transfer the permissions to you immediately.”
Luis chuckles. “Great. Now I know I should have shot him. If there’s nothing else, I guess I’ve got some calls to make?”
“That you do, Samal,” Onas says with a bow. “Good day.”
“Good day,” Luis says, and bows to Bello and Onas before leaving.
punkey 2015-04-28 22:56:31
A few “minor hiccups” aside (similar attempts to “transfer” Sheen technology to Narsai’i hands were met with decidedly cold stares from a few dozen sensor pods while the servers simply stood up and walked themselves onto the transport chopper), loading up for forward deployment went without much of a hitch once the real loadmasters showed up. Tons of Bashakra’i, Sheen and Narsai’i equipment is strapped onto the back of trucks, ready to travel the route that the 815 had cleared earlier that day to that massive forward operating base at the end of the line.

The next morning, a set of trucks and two MRAPs await to transport the 815 (minus Garrett and Ngawai, staying back at Kabul International with General Cooper, Bello and - much to his consternation - Rodirr once the Wherren are settled down) to the new FOB - and it’s clear upon arrival that this base is seriously stretching the concept and scope of what the Narsai’i on the team know as a forward operating base. Dozens of spraycrete habs have sprung up over the last twenty-four hours, along with hangars, workshops, and the requisite TOC dome - an entire brigade-sized post, erected overnight. The spraycrete is still warm to the touch as the 815 tosses their bags and rolls their vacuum-sealed equipment crates into their designated work area, and just enough time is allotted to set up cots and pretend to get comfortable before yet another young Lieutenant shows up with a summons to the TOC dome to meet with the leadership team.

The new forward TOC looks like an under-construction mirror image of the one back at Kabul International. Plastic folding tables instead of cogitator stations, and the tactical holodisplay simply set down on the floor with a circle of caution tape marking out its cogitator and its own footprint to keep unwary feet from damaging the equipment. One familiar scent shows that at least some of the priorities are being taken care of, as a coffee pot burbles away on one of the folding tables, attended by both Narsai’i and Bashakra’i soldiers working the TOC.

General Keating paces around next to the strategic holodisplay, opposite Onas, Gunny and Hug’sh. He hasn’t said much so far, but with Cooper staying back to manage the whole country, he’s put Keating in charge of the push in particular. He gives you all a rather impatient look. “’If you would care to join us?’” he asks the team. “’GRHDI may dictate that you get the red carpet treatment, but I have a front to run and not enough time to hold the hands of a special forces team with delusions of grandeur.’” He swipes a few times to get the holodisplay to obey his desire to display the broader front. “’We’re repositioning you to cover the whole front, two member teams embedded with companies on the front lines as advisors.’
Onas clears his throat. “’This is...not a good use of them,’” he says. “’General Cooper agreed that they are best used -’
’And that was before,’” Keating says. “’This is how I want them allocated - they are too valuable a resource to be wasted on one point when we are pushing across a broader front. We do not need a strike force - we need people who understand how the Sheen, Wherren and off-world human forces all fight and think so that this can run smoothly. Something I think we need after the Bashakra’i and Sheen refused to cooperate with our logistics teams.’
Gunny made a scoffing sound through its speakers. “’You meant the intel teams you sent to steal our shit.’
’See? It’s conspiratorial bullshit like that that makes things difficult working with you, and I’d appreciate it if you keep comments like that to yourself,’” Keating replies as he looks at Onas and Gunny. “’You want to know why we’re so slow to bring you in? It’s accusations like that and all the secrets you’re hiding from us.’” Onas in particular gets a glare there.

’But that’s not important right now,’” Keating continues, turning back to the map. “’I need you with the 51st, 66th, and 102nd.’” He points to the three divided zones on the main front as it sweeps up and over a ridge of mountains. “’Day after tomorrow, we push up and over this range - it’s a major obstacle between us and the Pakistani border, and the Taliban know it. They’ve set up dozens of caves in these mountains as strong points and have the cuts prepped to hold us off - but we’re going to roll straight over them.’” He looks to Hug’sh, Onas and Gunny. “’If your people are as good as you say they are, then this is the big test. We need your people to keep up with ours - we’ll be moving fast as a cohesive front and hitting hard.’” He looks across both the 815 members present and the three other members of the FOB command team. “’Think you all can handle that?’
Gatac 2015-04-29 10:49:26
Hug'sh grunts and flips to a new page of his notepad, letting a bit of orange into the fur on his shoulders.

"'Wherren troops are ready'," he writes. "'Caves are difficult to attack. Use fire weapons?'"

The urge to write "Drone strike with AGM-114N missiles" is strong, as is the temptation to let one of the team take over for Rodirr as interpreter, but Hug'sh has two things to show off: one, that he can understand and use English, even if only in writing, and two, that the Wherren contingent is its own thing and not just following 815 around like a herd of lovesick sabertoothed rainbow bears. (Though "lovesick sabertoothed rainbow bear" is a pretty good description of Hug'sh these days.)

He tears the page from the notepad and hands it to General Keating.
punkey 2015-04-29 11:45:25
"'We can't guarantee that thermobarics - fire weapons - can get the job done,'" Keating replies. "'That's why we're sending the infantry in to do the job.'"
Gatac 2015-04-29 11:52:38
Hug'sh nods and writes out a new page.

"'Bring thermobarics'" - Hug'sh takes his time with this word and flashes a little green, as if he'd just learned it - "'follow with Sheen. Enemy cannot fight Sheen in caves without killing themselves in explosion. Flying machines watch over us outside.'" He almost rips the page off, but then adds another note to the end. "'We will not fail.'"
punkey 2015-04-29 11:57:08
"'And let the Sheen take all the credit,'" Keating said. "'Don't forget, this is our planet, our show.'"
"'Hey, no one's stealing anyone's credit,'" Gunny says. "'Walks-the-Fire's plan just makes more sense. Keep the servers up with us -'"
"'Thank you,'" Keating says. "'But that is not how we do things on Earth. We will be leading the way, not anyone else.'"