Jade Imperium - Afghanistan, Pt. 2

punkey 2015-11-09 03:10:10
"Well, they are not dead, which is good," Hale says. "In my experience, the ones that got whacked the hardest with rad injuries are already dead by now. But...they are dying. Unless Narsai'i medicaes can fix having all of your cells dying, they will be dead before the sun comes up. I never used a kauka on these injuries - I would have gone to prison if I had. But..." Hale sighs. "It will change them. But it will save them; most of them. Some will change more than others, but I would be lying if I said I didn't wish that I had used the kauka on some of them. Some of them being there is better than none of them."
skullandscythe 2015-11-09 21:29:41
Zaef's face is quite stoic in the light of victory, but he nods his approval. "Good work. Collect all the remaining weapons and inspect them. There's going to be a lot of questions about this equipment; the sooner we get answers, the better. While we're doing that, I'll coordinate with Gator to try and find other teams in need to assistance while I wait for Hunter's call - there's still work to do. Only question is where."
threadbare 2015-11-10 16:05:54
Hunter frowns, and sighs. "We give them the choice. If they're too far gone to opt-in, they're gone. I'm not scrambling any brains without prior consent."
punkey 2015-11-10 20:38:16
The Turai nod and get to work. It takes a bit of work to translate informed consent from Imperial to English, but they get the job done.

(Consent roll: 1d8 = 6; 1d6 = 6)

And it splits pretty much down the line. By Hunter's count, 26 soldiers agree to get healed and 24 either refuse or are too sick to give consent. By the time everyone's ready to move, some of those that refused are already unconscious, and a few of those that consented need translators themselves to talk to their old squadmates.
punkey 2015-12-17 06:36:40
As Hunter brings men out from the cave, his mind is filling with a catalogue of “clusterfucks that didn’t lose wars.” The Raid on Dieppe. Market Garden. Gallipoli. The Battle of Kasserine Pass. At some point a hundred yards out, he stops thinking about “Lessons Learned” documents and starts thinking about letters he’s going to have to write to families of the fallen. Those, at least, I have experience with. How the hell do you tell a family that their father is alive, but might not remember his kids? The litter he’s carrying feels a little heavier.

“Gator 4, reporting in. Things are quiet, enemies are routed, we’re bringing casualties and walking wounded back to the defensive perimeter. Any word on how things are going down the rest of the line?”
“Not so good, Gator 4,” the Bashakra'i at the other end of the vox says. “Let us know when you're dug in and we'll relieve you.”
Well, sheeit, Hunter things, as he keeps moving. It could be worse, though: there’s someone on the other end of the line in position to direct reinforcements. With the paranoid circuits of Hunter’s nervous system running high, it’ll be a little while before he can relax and stop planning for imminent attempts to overrun his position.


It was a good half-hour of carefully but quickly picking your way back down the hill with the un-kauka'd injured in tow before the remains of the company made their way back to the trucks. By that point, nearly half of those that had refused treatment were being carried by Sheen or Wherren backs and unconscious. Still, a defensive line had to be set, and Hunter gave the order to fall back only a few hundred meters, just out of beamer range, and set up a defensive position just over another ridge line.
When the trucks come to a halt, it's the Bashakra'i Samal's hand that helps Zaef out of the back of the truck. "Another fucking Narsai'i mess, right, Mr. Utari?"
"Stow it," Zaef responds sharply. "There's wounded here. Once they're being seen to, then you can say your piece. Now is not the time."
"Yes, sir," the Samal says. "You heard the boss, let's get the wounded off-loaded. If you're not moving Narsai'i, help the Sheen and Wherren get the perimeter up."

And that occupies the next ten minutes, with Zaef helping move the increasingly grim-looking rad-shocked Narsai'i to a safe spot. The medicaes are down to just sedating them into unconsciousness in their treatment options, and it's clear that most of them won't survive long enough to make it back to the FOB, let alone proper care.
"Fucking hate sunmines," the Samal says.
"They are evil weapons," the lead Wherren says.
"Barriers are almost up," a Sheen says as it lumbers up next to Zaef.
Zaef nods his agreement to the Samal and Wherren. "Good," he responds to the Sheen. "I'll prepare a watch rotation. What have we heard from the other teams?" He asks as he pulls up the vox roster.
"Nothing good," the Samal replies. "Channels are buzzing with reports of sunmines up and down the line. Our people are all right, and the Wherren and Sheen are doing fine, but thanks to the First-damn Narsai'i insistence putting those of us that know what we're doing in the back, they got the shit kicked out of them. It's bad, sir. I'm hearing more than fifty percent."
Zaef closes his eyes and lets a sigh out through his nose. After a moment, he opens them again. "Have we made any headway on the equipment we salvaged from the Taliban?"
"It's Imperial," the Sheen replies. "Already got scans back from the science branches."
Zaef looks over, eyebrow arched. "Really?"
"No doubt about it," it replies.

Zaef stares through his duty roster for a few seconds, one hand absently placed on his temple, before he seems to remember everything around him. "All right, I'll pass it along to the rest of 815 when we try to figure out how to un-fuck all this. Tell the science branches good work." He turns to address everyone attending this weird little meeting. "That goes for everyone who fought, as well. We've done well today. Pass it along when you can."
"Yes, I will," the Wherren grunts.
"Already done," the Sheen replies, and they both walk off.
"Imp tech on Narsai," the Samal says. "That's bad fucking news, sir."
"No fucking kidding." Zaef spits at the ground, and takes a quick swig to rehydrate. "Our previous intel is useless. Our opponent has an equipment advantage, and we don't know what they have access to or how much. We're going to need to change that if we want to win."
"Well, sir," the Samal says, "I'm pretty sure that's your job."
Zaef nods tiredly at that, and starts arranging the duty roster into a watch schedule. "Anything else, Samal?"
"Do 'em like you used to back in the Arena, sir," the Samal says, and heads back to the line.

Zaef watches the Samal walk away, brow furrowed, then he blinks, and finishes the watch schedule and sends it out to the troops in a widecast. Then he sends out an 815-only widecast, much shorter - "Confiscated weapons of Imperial make. Need to investigate supply chain(look @ Gate traffic?)"


Hunter hears the crunch of Hale’s carapace boots on the dirt before he sees him. Not that he would have looked anyway; Hunter’s attention is fully occupied with the grim tableau in front of him. With the defensive perimeter set up, the Turai have turned their attention to security and treating the Narsai'i that refused kauka treatment for their radiation exposure. It's not going well - most of them are unconscious, and the few with their faces covered with the green and blue of Bashakra'i hoods are no longer moving at all.

“They didn’t deserve this.” Hunter states, shaking his head.
“One of the worst deaths I've seen,” Hale says. “But I think you mean that no one saw this coming.”
“That’s a phrase I expect to hear a lot in the next few days. ‘No one saw this coming.’ ‘No one could have predicted this.’ It will be repeated over and again, as cold comfort and to cover one’s asses. Likely no one at the top will be held accountable. The commanding officers most culpable are already dead, so at least there’s that. But these men came here with an expectation that if they were going to die, there’d be a reason for it. Some broader purpose. No soldier wants to be brought like a lamb to the slaughter.” Hunter’s faces tenses in bitterness, before sagging. “It didn’t have to be this bad. You have different forces, different training, a more integrated group, better intelligence...anything different, and it’s not as bad as this by half.”
“The Narsai'i didn't listen,” Hale says. “Kesh’s unit put them in the front and they saved a lot of lives.”
“No, they didn’t. Hell, if they’d just been briefed on what to look out for...but they thought they were going to fight exactly they way they knew, not a taste of the war to come.”
“Shit, everyone did, Rav-Samal,” Hale says. “Not even the great Garrett Davis saw this one coming. I meant that the Narsai'i didn't listen to you about putting everyone together. Not a First-damn person saw this coming, and you can't beat yourself up over that.”
Hunter sighs, finally. “You’re right. No one saw this coming. Why we had absolutely zero indications this was coming, I’ll start carving into tomorrow. But today, I’m mostly pissed that good men died for bad reasons.”
“I will tell you what,” Hale says. “I might not know about the 815 yet, but I wouldn't mind following you after all of this, Rav-Samal.” He puts a hand on Hunter's shoulder. “Fuck the Narsai'i, though.” There's a few grunts of assent from the medicaes working nearby.

Hunter holds his tongue. He’s got a lot of different lines of loyalty he’s contending with that are getting increasingly knotted. He knows that the whole of the Marines, and indeed the whole of Narsai’i, are more than a couple dozen sons of bitches, but if he doesn’t do something about them, he’s going to have more days like this one.
punkey 2015-12-17 06:37:10
Twenty minutes later, after getting the injured loaded into vehicles and moved a mile back and the Naranai’i set up a security perimeter to give the Narsai’i a chance to get their bearings. Arketta and Luis each set up half of the perimeter in lieu of official Narsai’i leadership, and with their entire command team dead, the Narsai’i aren’t really arguing. Once the soldiers are in their firing positions with assigned sectors of fire, the two interim company commanders meet back in the middle.

“So, I counted twenty Narsai’i that have been...changed,” Arketta says. “You?”
“I saw fifteen,” Luis says. “That’s...what, about three-quarters?”
“Vidas Lam, Luis,” Arketta says. “Do you know what the Narsai’i will do to them?”
Luis shakes his head. “Yeah, I do. And to us. But I just...couldn’t.”
Arketta sighs, and wraps her gauntlets around him, their helms clanking against each other. “I know, and I love that about you, lahnai. Just...I’m glad they’re, you know, themselves. Mostly.”
“I know,” Luis says. “Me too.”

’Hey, Samal, I’m still feeling a little...weird,’” Evans says as he walks over. “’You got any Naranai’i gizmos that can take a look?’
Arketta looks Luis’ way, and he can tell that she’s raising an eyebrow without her shifting her helm transparent.
Luis shakes his head, and turns. “’Feeling strange how, Evans?’
’Just...off,’” Evans replies. “’And I keep on hearing words...that aren’t the right words? It’s fuckin’ strange, Samal.’
’It’s the regeneration,’” Luis says. “’When it’s working with heavily damaged brain tissue, particularly with radiation, it tends to over-write. You’re getting some of someone else’s brain, and they were Naranai’i. All the kauka templates are.’
Evans looks like he gets it, but doesn’t quite either understand or want to understand. “’So…’
’So you’re not dead, but the price is you’re remembering somebody else’s life and you won’t be yourself all the way anymore,’” Luis says.
’Fuck,’” Evans says. He takes a seat. “’I mean, that’s what you said, but...Vidas fuckin’ Lam. This is fucking with my head. I mean, shit. How much of me is still there?’
A lot,” Luis says. “But it’s hard to say--it varies, and anything more than ‘all’ isn’t a good answer anyway.
’Shit, I guess not.’” Evans rubs his forehead. “’I don’t feel any different.’
’The new memories feel...I dunno, ‘right’ within their own context. It takes when your memories and the overwritten ones conflict to feel wrong, That can take a while to occur unless you’re really trying to think about them,’” Luis says.
Evans rubs his forehead again, and looks back to Luis. “’And...you had no choice?’
’No,’” Luis says. ‘’It was that or watch you all die and know I could have done something. I tried my best to explain but…’” He waves a hand. “’It’s hard to explain under fire. We shouldn’t have sent you in without training on it, we all fucked up on that, but we never imagined we’d run into this kind of radiation to make it a problem.’” He shakes his head. “’You can feel free to hate me if you want--as far as DoD brass is concerned I probably might as well have killed you all myself.’
Evans is silent for a moment. “’Trying to think about my mom. Her name is Helen, and she lives in Kansas City.’
When’d you last see her?’” Luis asks.
’A few months ago,’” Evans says. “’I can picture her, but it’s hard.’
’What about your dad?’
’He’s from...Bashakra?’” Evans shakes his head. “’No, he’s from Chicago. Vidas Lam, that’s a fucking trip.’
’That’s the context clash. Your brain knows two things at once. Believe it or not, the fact that you noticed is at least some good news about how much got overwritten--it means you can tell your own memories.’
’Well, good for me,’” Evans says. “’Some of my guys might not be so lucky?’
Yeah, some might be worse,’” Luis says. “’They might not be able to see the inconsistencies without them being pointed out. Some might be better than you, with very little false memory at all. It depends on how bad they were hit by the radiation before reconstruction.’” He pauses, and switches languages. “How much of what I’m saying in this do you understand?”
“All of it,” Evans replies, then pauses for a second. “Oh, fuck. Okay, now this is fucking weird.”
“Yeah,” Luis says. “You can understand Imperial now. You were lapsing into some small bits earlier, too, but in bits and pieces.”
“Shit,” Evans says.
“Yeah,” Luis says, then switches back to English. “’There’s a guy at Mesas Negras, Dietrich. He went through something like this too, from our first mission before we knew better. I’m going to get him to explain what he’s been through and help.’
“Cool, cool,” Evans says. “I’ll get back on the perimeter now, but...you should tell the guys about this, Samal.”
“I will, Sergeant,” Luis says. “’I just...need to figure out how to say it first. And by the way, you’re still speaking Imperial. You might need to be careful about that when you’re talking.”
“I am?” Evans asks.
“Yeah,” Luis says.
“How about now?” Evans says. “No. How about...now? Fuck.” He takes a deep breath, and thinks for a moment. “Shit, it’s...it’s like it’s just there.”
Luis sighs. “I was worried when you were breaking into it from English.” He switches again. “’Does replying to this help you focus on it?’
“Yes - fuck, no,” Evans says. He laughs nervously. “Well, this is gonna make calling my wife awkward.”
“We’ll get help lined up,” Luis says. “For you, and for everyone else.”
“Just make sure you do, Samal,” Evans says, and heads back to the perimeter.

Arketta sighs and gives Luis a squeeze. “That sucks.”
“It does, and the worst part is this isn’t even the worst it could have been,” Luis says, and squeezes back. “How the hell did they get sunmines, anyway?”
“That, I have no fucking clue about,” Arketta replies. “But the Narsai’i sure didn’t make them. And that only means one thing.”
“We’ve got a leak through the Gate somehow,” Luis says. “And won’t that be a fun meeting.”
“Good luck with that, lahnai,” Arketta says, and bumps helms with Luis again.
“Thanks,” he says. “I should...probably prepare a briefing.”
“And wear your carapace,” Arketta says. “Couldn’t hurt.”
“Thanks for the advice, Samal,” Luis says with a shadow of a grin. “So, some advice for you? Please don’t do that again.” He pauses. “When you ran back out there...that was amazing out there but I thought you were going to die, and I don’t know how I’d ever deal with that. And there was no way I was leaving you to that alone. It was amazing and brave, but...please let me know before the next time you do that.”
Arketta pauses behind her helm. “Well, it’s not like I had a choice, lahnai.” He can hear the joking in her voice, and the concern as well.
He chuckles, but it’s raw. “I know, if you had one you wouldn’t be...everything you are. But there were forty other people there--at least ask for some supporting fire before you pull that the next time, okay?”
“I thought I did -” Arketta started.
Luis breaks in. “No, you didn’t. You just walked back into enemy fire without telling me what was happening, Iahnai. As soon as you told me, I got you cover, but you scared the hell out of me. It’s a lot easier to have your back when you tell me your plan before you go be a hero.”
“Oh.” Arketta pauses, and he can hear her sniffle a bit behind her helm. “Sorry, then. I guess. I’m sorry.” She leans forward and wraps her arms around him. “I’m sorry.” She sighs a stuttering sigh. “I didn’t get them all, though.”
Luis returns the embrace. “I know, and so you went back for them. I just wasn’t brave enough to watch you go out there by yourself, and when we’ve got support there’s no reason you need to play my one-woman army. As good of one as you make.”
“Okay,” Arketta says, but holds on for a moment longer. When she lets go, her helm plate pops up and she slides it up to reveal her tan face streaked with tears. She wipes her eyes, and Luis reaches up to put a hand on her cheek, and pops his own.
“Just a thought for next time, Samal,” he says, then steals a quick kiss. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Arketta whispers, her eyes closed. She holds close to his face for a moment, enjoying the shared warmth on the chilly mountain night, before she leans back and snaps her faceplate back into position. “So!” she says, her voice still a bit unsteady. “Right flank, right?”
Luis nods. “Yeah, that’s right. Let’s get moving.”
“Yeah,” Arketta says, and jumps up and down a couple times to get her energy back up. “Good luck, Samal.”
“You too, Samal,” Luis says, and heads out himself.
punkey 2015-12-17 06:37:39
The drawbacks of standing outside naked in the Afghan mountains cannot be overstated, and apply to Wherren just as much, if not moreso, than humans. He really should be wearing more than his shorts and warrior’s harness, but that is not How Things Are Done on Whirr, which admittedly has an altogether more agreeable climate. Still, the stars in the sky are getting a very good look at Hug’sh near the FOB’s main gate and the way he paces back and forth, back and forth, a fussy father waiting up for his daughter to come back from her first date.

Except that it’s his Wherren trainees and their first combat engagement and dozens of people are dead, with more injured, a clusterfuck the kind the US Army seems to excel at. But otherwise? Exactly like a first date.

”Anything?” he mumbles, putting the question to the vox link with Rodirr he’s kept open for the last fifteen minutes. His eyes dart from soldier to soldier manning the gate, looking for any sign that they’re getting ready to open up for the incoming troops.
”They should be almost there,” Rodirr replies. ”The first two must go through, they have the most seriously wounded.”
”How did we miss this?” Hug’sh grumbles. ”They had sunmines, Rodirr. That isn’t what we came here to fight...what we trained them for.”
”They fought well, Hug’sh,” Rodirr says. ”They fought like an army. Like soldiers. You should be proud of them.”
”I am proud of them,” Hug’sh says. ”But I’m not letting them go in blind like this again. We need to figure out who we’re actually fighting here before we join another battle.”
”It seems that we are fighting Narsai’i with Imperial weapons,” Rodirr says. ”And that means that your planet has a larger problem than just some humans with some fucked-up ideas.”
My planet?” Hug’sh asks with a nervous chuckle. ”I suppose it still is, kind of. Anyway, keep your eyes and ears open. I doubt they could have smuggled in all this gear by piggybacking off our logistics, but right now Narsai’i don’t feel very trustworthy to me. We should be open to...all possibilities.”
”What are you thinking, Hug’sh?” Rodirr asks.
”One way or another, these weapons had to come to Narsai through a gateway,” Hug’sh reasons. ”Either they passed through Mesas Negras or Diego Garcia...or there’s another gateway in this system. But if there is, why is this the first time we’re encountering these weapons - in the hands of a couple of fanatic insurgents, not the tip of a larger Imperial invasion force?”
”The Imperium Turai is large, but they can’t invade a planet of billions on foot,” Rodirr says. ”There’s just not enough of them.”
”No, but they could lie low and build up their forces here first,” Hug’sh says. ”All this...may not actually be part of their plan. But I admit I have a dangerous habit of assuming my enemies are reasonable people.”
”The Imperium is certainly more reasonable than the Narsai’i,” Rodirr grumbles. ”At least they tell us they’re going to screw us first.”

The last words of Rodirr are almost drowned out by the Narsai’i soldiers shouting to each other and racing to man positions at the gate checkpoint, while the distance rumble of engines finally gets all the way to Hug’sh’s ears. Despite Hug’sh expectations, the large spotlights on the watchtowers stay off, and though he can’t see the convoy from behind the exterior walls, he’s pretty sure they’re running lights-off, too. A claustrophobic little reminder that right here, right now, their position is far from unassailable.

”The convoy’s coming in,” Hug’sh voxes. ”I’ll call you when I know more, Rodirr. In the meantime, like I said, keep your eyes open - and watch your hump.”
”And you do the same,” Rodirr replies, and kills the link.
“Koh-pee,” Hug’sh mutters, a half-decent attempt at a whole new Narsai’i word to pronounce. He brushes his arm against his holstered sidearm, then wanders off the main road - best not to block it, or to be seen too close to the security area when the gate is operated. Might be...taken the wrong way, given recent events. Indeed, some of the Narsai’i are staring at him right now, watching him warily as they stand guard, their weapons in their hands.

And then the first convoy starts to rumble through the gates. The first two don’t even attempt to stop, barreling through towards the hospital in the back of the FOB - and they look overloaded with casualties. At least thirty or more people are on the first truck, and the second looks just as full. More than a whole platoon’s worth of injured, for just the first company to make it back. Hug’sh sees a few Wherren in there, but the overwhelming majority of the injured are human.

A Sheen shell is riding on the back of the first HMMWV to come through, and it jumps off before the vehicle even comes to a stop. “’I want the walking wounded looked at by medics first thing!’” the shell shouts through its speakers. “’Sergeants, headcounts, now! If anyone’s got so much as a papercut, they get looked over, we don’t need any heroes today!’” The shell turns to a Bashakra’i that just climbed out of the vehicle. “Leaj, get a count on your people. Shen, I need you to start organizing volunteers to head back out and secure the line.” Both Bashakra’i nod and head off.

Hug’sh approaches the commotion slowly, raising a hand to get Gray Goo Scenario’s attention before he speaks. ”We followed the whole thing in the TOC,” Hug’sh says. ”What do you need?”
”A fucking explanation would be a good start,” Gray says. ”They had fucking sunbombs, Hug’sh. Ten Tons took the brunt of the blast, saved our whole platoon, but we were the lucky ones. And not all of us were so lucky.” One of its pods nods towards the vehicle, where Danielsson is helping Kravitz out of the vehicle. ”Boyd took the whole blast on one side, and Danielsson hit him with a kauka before we could stop him. Not sure how much of him is there, but he seems to remember who we are, which is good. But...shit is fucked up, Sir.”
”Yes, we’re already on the Imperial weapons angle,” Hug’sh says. ”I’ll be glad to hear any details you can offer at the debrief. Anything I can do to help now?”
”Keep the Narsai’i off our backs,” Gray replies. ”We’re getting ready to head back out and reinforce the line, but Keating is shouting about demanding a full debrief and re-evaluation before anyone goes back out. And all due respect to the general, but fuck that.”
”No respect due to that General, believe me,” Hug’sh says. ”My popularity with the Narsai’i brass has been higher, but I’ll do what I can to give you some breathing room. Just...don’t go out there half-cocked.”
”I’ve got a plan,” Gray says. The golden bar that Hug’sh spray-painted on it once reappears in holo form on its flank. ”Trust me.” It nods behind it. ”The Wherren are a couple vehicles back. They insisted on being together.”
”Alright, I’ll go talk to them,” Hug’sh says. ”Nice planet, huh?”
”Shame about the locals,” Gray replies, and walks off to take care of the next crisis.

Hug’sh can only nod to that; stepping off to the side to give the evacuees and medics room to work, he picks his way to the last trucks of the convoy, where he doesn’t even need to wait for the first Wherren to climb out to know that there’s gonna be some blue fur to deal with. Hug’sh hasten his steps as he sucks in a breath and steels himself for that particular conversation. And in seconds, it’s like he’s faced with the prospect of wading the sea - a big mass of blue and violet fur, with a very blue, very violet Khodash standing up tall at the rear of one of the trucks, trying to bark some orders and keep the gaggle halfway organized and calm. A few wounded are carried out of the group, while others can still walk on their own; Hug’sh flashes each a quick burst of green-yellow and claps as many shoulders in passing as he can before climbing up on the otherwise empty truck bed next to Khodash. There is surpise and hope in her colors, which Hug’sh does his best to mirror with confidence. He puts an arm around Khodash’s shoulders and squeezes her, even giving her head a quick groom before he has to let go and turn to address the troops.

”Brothers and sisters!” he shouts, getting the attention of the assembled Wherren. ”I followed your actions as best I could from here. I will not waste time with grand speeches, but know this: your skill, your determination, your bravery - they have made a difference today. You faced what none of us could foresee without backing down, and fought this terrible battle with honor. Tonight, you have proven yourselves the equal of any soldier - Narsai’i, Naranai’i, Bashakra’i or Sheen.” He sniffles as his fur explodes in a wild mix of green, blue and yellow. ”I could not...not be prouder of you. Now...those of you who are wounded, those who cannot go on - go and get yourselves treated. You have earned your rest. Those of you who can still fight - calm yourselves and take a moment to regain your spirit. This night has need of you still.”
A howl and chorus of barks rise up from the fifty or so Wherren, and the others that are streaming in from other convoys just arriving. Their colors ripple green and yellow through the sea of blue and violet. Hug’sh smiles, then turns to Khodash again.
”You have nothing to prove to me,” he says. ”Stay here or go back out, it’s your decision.”
”They are going back out, Khodash replies, her fur a resolute brown tinged by green and yellow. ”So I am going back out. I need to make sure they are safe.”
”Good,” Hug’sh says. What he doesn’t say is “Hand me a rifle, I’m coming with you”, but it’s plain on his fur. ”You...you stay safe out there. I’m going to handle things here. The Narsai’i...they will want answers. And I need to make sure our wounded are treated right.” He sighs. ”I’ll try to have this straightened out by the time you’re back.”
Khodash gives Hug’sh a groom. ”What you are doing is just as important, Hug’sh,” she purrs.
Hug’sh returns the groom. ”Thank you,” he says. ”I’ll leave you to it, then.” With a final nod, he climbs off the truck, waves once more to the assembled Wherren, then makes his way past the stopped convoy, following the stream of walking wounded and their escorts to the medic station.
punkey 2016-01-17 21:20:21
That damned Afghan desert sand really gets everyone, even in the climatized TOC - at least that’s the convenient excuse for rubbing his eyes that Hug’sh is going with. He’s gone bleary-eyed from following the displays for the entire operation, and getting the All Clear is little cause for cheering. Running away from the fight rarely is. But it was the right thing to do, just like taking over command from Keating, just like leaving his family behind while he went here to fight...who, exactly? They’ve got beamers and sunmines, that’s for sure. Another, more awake Hug’sh will have to puzzle this out, but right now there are things to be done, still, promises to keep and miles to go, etc. Hug’sh claps Gunny and Onas on their shoulders as he squeezes through the TOC on the way out, with Gunny trailing behind to translate and carry the call he knows is coming. Hug’sh takes a couple of deep breaths, working the violet and orange out of his fur, then turns to Gunny.

”Make the call to General Cooper, please,” he says.
“Done,” Gunny says. “You want a headset?”
”If you have one that will fit me,” Hug’sh replies, trying to smile.
Gunny loops an arm next to Hug’sh’s ear and muzzle. “All yours, making the call now.”

The...tentacle/arm/headset rings in Hug’sh’s ear twice. “’This is Walks-the-Fire, I presume,’ General Cooper’s voice says. “’The caller ID says ‘It’s Walks-the-Fire, pick up’.’
”Sheen sense of humor, General,” Hug’sh answers. ”But yes, it’s me. I wanted to inform you that we’ve received the all-clear and that the troops are heading back. Accordingly, we’re standing down. So, I assume you want to know what exactly happened in the TOC before we took over.”
’You assume correct,’” Cooper says, and goes quiet.
”We were observing the operation passively up until the first reports of sunmine detonations,” Hug’sh begins. ”We heard the troops try to reestablish order and retreat from the immediate radiation danger. General Keating’s first reaction was to yell at the TOC for everyone to stop doing whatever they were doing so he could wrap his head around what had just happened. People were doing things without his direct orders and he made it very clear that he didn’t like that one bit. At that point, since we had units calling in, I briefly took comms on the general channel, told everyone that we copied their reports and to stand by for further orders. Then I advised General Keating to give his orders. Which he then did - he ordered the troops back into the caves, right into the ambush zone and the radiological danger, with orders to hunt down and kill all hostiles. At no point did he call for a sitrep or appear to consider asking any of us for advice on how to deal with Imperial weapons tech. I tried to tell him that we were being led into a bigger trap, but he wasn’t having any of it. At that point I backed down as it became clear that he was not going to listen to me. I thought - I hoped that maybe once the initial shock wore off, he would realize his mistake and start to think beyond the red fog of anger, but it was not to be. He kept calling for the troops to charge forward no matter the cost, and appeared to have lost any sense of the actual situation on the ground. I’m sad to say that this is a pattern I was...familiar with, having studied Narsai’i engagements with Imperial forces, including the tragedy of Botane. At that point I knew that he had to be stopped before he could send more troops into certain death. I stepped up again and strongly suggested that he stand down and let us handle the immediate crisis. It...it then rapidly became clear that he was not going to back down on the strength of my words. That is when we resorted to mutiny. And you know the rest.” Hug’sh clears his throat. ”That is, as best as I can tell it, what happened tonight.”

Cooper is quiet for nearly half a minute.

”I realize that this may not mean much, but I truly am sorry for what happened,” Hug’sh continues. ”I would much rather that we work together with the Narsai’i, like we came here to do. It seems difficult to find Narsai’i officers who will admit that they can learn something from us. At every turn we are met with condescension and disregard. I don’t know how familiar you are with the history of the Wherren, General, but this is not how we want to be treated.”
’I understand your frustration,’” Cooper said, in the language common to everyone who doesn’t really understand someone else’s frustration. “’But you have to understand that humans believe that rank and chain of command have to be respected, and you did not respect that.’
”I am familiar with both rank and chain of command, General,” Hug’sh replies. ”But I also believe that both have their limits. They are means to creating an effective fighting force, not ends in themselves, and when blind obedience leads people to their deaths for no appreciable gain, when we excuse ignorance and incompetence with titles and offices...that is when I can no longer sit back and let things unfold. I will act, and own the consequences of that. That is how the Wherren have chosen to be represented in this alliance. I am glad to meet you halfway, General Cooper - I’m sure there is a way for us to work together more effectively. But I cannot abide shutting up and doing as we’re told only on the strength of what a man wears on his shoulders.”
’Well, when you have more experience fighting at these scales, you will see,’” Cooper replies. “’As for now, none of my people were injured?’
”No harm has come to them,” Hug’sh confirms.
’Then an official apology from you, to General Keating, for acting so rashly should be enough to handle the official side of things,’” Cooper replies.

”He will receive it,” Hug’sh replies cooly. ”May I also - unofficially - suggest that he is granted some leave to recover from the stress?”
Cooper pauses. “’How did you know about that?’” he asks.
’That was me, General,’” Gunny says, thinking quickly. “’He’s all sorts of stressed out since we pointed a bunch of accelerators and beamers at his head.’
’Right, that would do that,’” Cooper says. “’I’ll consider it.’
“Dude, watch your cover,” Gunny replies. “Ix-nay on the Arsai’i-nay.”
”I was...remarking on how shaken General Keating looked, yes,” Hug’sh adds. ”I do agree with Gunny’s suggestion. Some time away from this for General Keating would be good to soothe both sides.”
’I’ll just rotate out to the TOC, then,’” Cooper says. “’Put Keating in charge of things back here. That should be relaxing enough for him.’
”I agree,” Hug’sh says. ”I look forward to your arrival here, so that we may continue to deepen our mutual understanding. Do you have any other questions or concerns at this time?”
’Nothing that needs to be addressed at this moment,’” Cooper replies. “’I trust that you and Onas will have left the TOC by my arrival?’
Hug’sh harrumphs. ”We are awaiting your arrival outside, General, along with the rest of our staff. The team you sent is currently manning the TOC.”
’Good,’” Cooper replies. “’Thank you and Onas for understanding the...security concerns at the moment. They are sweeping the TOC for security reasons - and have already found four concealed weapons amongst the Bashakra’i stations.’
”I see,” Hug’sh says, not wishing to delve deeper into this topic - that would lead to having to confront Cooper with the fact that other Narsai’i tried to walk away with Bashakra’i tech, and that’s a rabbit hole altogether too deep to climb back out of. ”How do you wish to address this issue?” he asks instead, trying to sound Cooper’s attitude some more.
’Just stay clear, and there will be an increased MP presence in the TOC going forward,’” Cooper says, matter-of-factly stating that he either would prefer not to be taken hostage himself - or that he just doesn’t trust the off-worlders.
”I understand,” Hug’sh says. ”I think we agree that this is not how any of us wanted this operation to unfold. To put it mildly, there is...room for improvement.”
’Couldn’t have said it better myself,’” Cooper replies. “’We will talk again when I arrive. Goodbye, Walks-the-Fire.’

”Goodbye, General Cooper,” Hug’sh says. As the call disconnects, he gives out a whelp and lets a ripple of red cascade through his fur. The sound that follows is a kind of drawled yip-like bark. Technically, it means “the stench of ten seasons’ rot”, but if you translated it as “Shit!” it would capture the intent quite well.
“Yeah, that didn’t sound...very friendly,” Gunny says. “But hey, at least he’s not having us all shot. Or arrested. We’ll get back in the game soon enough.”
”That’s not what worries me,” Hug’sh replies. ”We seem to have done a good enough job convincing Cooper that stopping Keating was necessary, but if that search of the TOC turns up bugs, we are not getting back in the game, period.”
“Well…” Gunny starts.
”Yes, I know, both sides,” Hug’sh says. ”But that’s exactly it. For everything the Narsai’i screw up, they can point to something we did. We would be in a much stronger position if they don’t find any proof that we went into this in bad faith.”
“Yeah, they won’t,” Gunny says. “Weapons, the Bashakra’i can’t make go away, but…”

Behind Gunny, all the lights suddenly flickered off and on in rapid succession in the TOC.

“Tiny bugs, that we can help with,” Gunny replies.
Hug’sh smirks. ”They really should do something about the power systems at this base,” he says. ”Very unreliable. I assume you have a full video record of the events in the TOC? If we need to prove anything, I think Cooper will have an easier time accepting that than captured telemetry from those listening devices - or our eyewitness statements, for that matter.”
“Already got a media sub-branch to cut together a full holo from all of our perspectives,” Gunny replies.
”Thank you,” Hug’sh says. ”For...everything. If there’s anything I can do for you, just say it.”
“No worries,” Gunny says. “All part of the job dealing with the Narsai’i, right?”
”I’ll get that etched into a brass plate for my desk,” Hug’sh replies with a chuckle.
punkey 2016-01-17 21:26:21
Thanks to the relatively intact status of the unit he and Swims-the-Black are with, they could easily have set up security on the ridge they just captured. However, with most of the rest of the line of advance having taken heavy casualties, that would have left them far ahead of the rest of the line. So, despite a relatively successful attack, the company falls back to reinforce the position near their trucks. Discontent is high, but not as prevalent as concern for the rest of the line and the friends that are in those decimated companies. The chatter from across the radio nets has calmed down as the allied forces settled into their defensive positions and CASEVACs have been dispatched, but from what Angel has heard, it was ugly out there. Most of the companies lost at least a platoon in the initial sunmine strikes, and the another platoon or more in the ambush following. More than three quarters of the casualties are Narsai'i - between putting their allies at the back of the line out of mendacity, paranoia, or simple machismo, and their armor failing to be up to the task of defending against beam rifles, they took far and away the brunt of the attack. Angel can hear the Bashakra'i and Sheen talking amongst themselves: there's a lot of sympathy for the Narsai'i, but the consensus amongst the other races in the fight are that they did this to themselves, and that maybe partnering up with them isn't the smartest move after all.

Swims-the-Black is seated on a rock just behind the ridge, his height letting him peer over the top where Angel has to be prone in the dirt. "I do not like losing," he grunts.

Angel frowns, looking out away from the position, and shakes his head. “No. Losing is never particularly fun.” He nods toward a cluster of Bashakra’i talking amongst themselves.

“The tricky part is how you lose. Whether you make it productive or not. Or whether you just put bodies in the ground.” Sighing, he folds his sunglasses, tucking them away. “This…this is someone’s doing. And if we let it draw lines between us, make this about something other than fighting them…well, we lose. Which means…it’s time to mingle.”

Turning, he heads towards a cluster of Terrans licking their wounds and complaining - as one is apt to do - but not before clapping the shoulder of two of the Bashakra’i. “Come with me."

The two Bashakra'i only hesitate for a moment. "Yes, Samal," they both say, and climb to their feet behind Angel.

Quietly, Angel walks over to the group of Terran soldiers, slumping down beside them in the universal infantryman’s gesture of “Fuck I’m tired”, nodding for the two Bashakra’i to join them.

“Long day.” He reaches into one of his pockets, producing a little plastic pouch that survived the day relatively unscathed, one of the ‘snacks’ that came with an MRE. “Anyone want these? I fucking hate raisins."

The two Bashakra'i give each other a look that is clearly recognizable as "the fuck is going on" in any language, but sit down anyway.
"’Yeah,’" one of the Terrans says. They, on the other hand, have a very different expression, one that those of a select unfortunate like Angel and the Bashakra'i are still party to: the combination of shell shock and rage of losing more than one friend to enemy fire in a single day. "’Yeah, they suck, sir.’"
The Bashakra'i sit very quietly next to each other, letting Angel separate them from the Narsai'i, their complaints suddenly absent in front of others that have lost a good chunk of their contact list today.

Angel nods to the Bashakra’i, motioning them closer, trying to bring the two groups together. “Call me Angel. I’m still a specialist. A really cool pair of sunglasses doesn’t warrant ‘Sir’.”

“It’s a shock, the first time you come up against Imperial tech. We’ve been the kids with the best toys on the block as long as any of us remember - we show up, and bomb your ass back into the stone age. And then all of a sudden…we’re not. They come at us with stealth suits and sun bombs, and shit we can’t even imagine.” He nods to the two ‘foreigners’.

“We’ve got that in common. We’ve all been on the receiving end of an Imperial sucker punch. We’ve seen our friends get killed by some golden light and a loud noise. It’ll take the brass awhile to figure that out. They’re too locked into the way things were. Too invested in their consulting gig at Raytheon when they get out. But everyone here’s felt it. The Bashakra’i, us, the Wherren. Hell, even the Killbots. You should see what happened to their world.”

Angel gives them a grim smile. “But they’re not invincible. We’re all still here. The fuckers who did this today? They’re dead, and we aren’t. They’ve failed, again. And we’re going to find away to put another one of their Emperor’s in the ground, and we’re going to keep doing it until they get the message."
"'Fuck yeah,'" one of the Terrans says. "'Fuck yes we will.'" The others nod somberly.
The Bashakra'i don't understand a bit of English, but they know body language, and one of them puts a hand on the closest one's shoulder.
One of the other Terrans looks Angel's way. "'What are we going to do now though, sir - Angel?'" he asks. "'We just got our asses handed to us, and...I don't think we can win against these weapons.'"

“We’re going to figure out a way to fight back. See if we can’t pick smarter fights. Distributed attacks so the Imperium can’t concentrate their firepower in one place. We can win - we just can’t do it by pretending everything is the same.”

’I’m pretty fucking sure things are different now, Sir,” one of the other Terrans says. “’But good luck getting the generals to admit that.’

“We’re working on that too.” Angel sighs. “But it’ll be a bit longer for that.” He stands, stretching. “But we’ll figure that out too. Even a General can’t be that fucking stupid.” I hope.

’We’ll see, Sir,’” the first Terran says. They all stand at attention response to Angel’s rise, and the Bashakra’i stand up, too.

Before Angel has to deal with the awkward situation of waiting for a series of salutes, his vox tweets in his ear. “Connection to Garrett Davis,” Maria gently says.

“Get some rest boys.” Walking away for a little bit of privacy, he nods to himself. “Put him through Maria.”
“Okay, before you say I told you so, put Swims-the-Black on too so I can get it in concert,” Garrett says.

“I told you so. Not sure what this is about, but I’m almost certain I told you so.” Angel walks over to Swims, motioning him closer before putting his vox on speaker. “We’re both here.”
“So, we’re in lockup at Kabul International - US forces, but the ANP are on their way,” Garrett says.

“And is this an ‘Angel, we need bail’ kind of situation, or an ‘Angel, we need explosives’ kind of situation?” Angel’s tone suggests, in his present mood, either one would be acceptable. Swims just furrows his brow.
“Neither, yet,” Garrett says. “We have a...situation. There’s an old-school Muj that’s decided that we’re here to eliminate Islam with our alien ways, and is going to wage a war against us.”
“So...it’s Tuesday in Afghanistan. How does this land you in lockup?”
“He approached us - Ngawai, me, and Naloni - and said that he’s going to kill us as an example,” Garrett says.
Swims-the-Black growls as his fur ruffles red. ”And you are in prison because you killed him?”
“No, not yet,” Garrett says. “We went to scout his compound out - he’s got a compound and a few dozen men, by the way - and we found beamers and spearbombs. Don’t know how they got there, Chinese lettering on the crates, and we blew them sky high. That is why we’re in lockup, but I don’t think they can prove it was us, we were rolling active camo the whole time.”

“Beamers and spearbombs and Chinese lettering. Ah, now we’re at the part where I say I told you so. Also, that that’s probably got something to do with the sunbombs that just mangled half our force on the ground here.” He shook his head slightly. “Alright Garrett - you didn’t just call me to tell me you were in prison. What is it you’re planning?”
“We didn’t know that he still ran a network here,” Garrett says. “We need your help to take it apart. Intel, weaknesses, routines, all of it. We’re going to kill them all, wipe the slate clean.”

“That sounds like my kind of plan. Any particulars, or should we just be waiting for you when you get out. Since you turned down my terribly generous bail offer.”
“I don’t think they have anything on us, but I do need transport for some of the team - Luis, Arketta, and Hug’sh,” Garrett says. “And you two...Swims-the-Black, go with them, but Angel, I need you to get to work. And be careful - I don’t know how they figured out we were there, but they might know how to detect active camo. Who knows what else they have from the other side of the Gateways.”

“And that, children, is why we don’t use lazy shortcuts like active camo.” Angel grins slightly. “Say hi to Ngawai for me.”

“Will do,” Garrett says. “The MPs have Naloni - if you could -”
”Done,” Swims-the-Black grunts. ”See you soon.”

Angel cuts the vox, turning to Swims. “You get the truck and the baby big guy, I’ll go sneak around a bit and see what there is to see?”
Swims nods. ”Done. It would be nice for Garrett or Ngawai to call us before they end up in prison once.”
“Someday Swims, someday. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Besides, it keeps things interesting.”
punkey 2016-01-17 21:29:04
The Afghan night seems to have an extra chill as Luis takes care of paperwork on his vox, a background program keeping track of his vision for motion while his eyes focus on virtual vision. There's a report to draft, emails to prepare for Barnes, and more to take care of the shitstorm Luis can feel bearing down on him and the people he's lead today. If he's honest with himself, though, working on that is a delaying tactic to avoid reminding himself of the briefing he needs to work up to explain to Evan's troops what happened. What he did to them. Finally, Luis runs out of things easy to justify as important, and he blinks to clear his vision. He calls up his vox and makes a call to Mesa Negras.

"Keeper Dietrich," the voice says on the other line, sounding deep in thought.
Luis clears his throat. "Good evening, Dietrich. It's Luis."
"Oh! Err, one second, Luis," Dietrich says. "Let me, err, just turn all of this off." The loud clacking of very large switches turning off can be heard in Luis' ears.
Dietrich's voice comes back on in a moment. "Back! Just doing some metamaterials testing. Still working away at that cloaking tech, trying to figure it all out. Quantum entanglement at molecular scales is tricky at the best of times, but try doing it at above 280 Kelvin and, well, it's a good thing that we're only doing this for a graphene sheet instead of a tank. Think they'd be mad if I melted one of those. So, what's up? How's Afghanistan? Still a shithole?"
"Yeah, pretty much. They keep finding new ways to make it worse," Luis says. "That's why I'm calling, actually. I think I'd rather be dealing with the general whose tank you melted than what I've got here right now, and I could use your help."
"Allegedly melted. A bit. Look, armor plating is replacable and you heard nothing from me about it," Dietrich says with a laugh. "What's up?"

Luis pauses a moment. "They had sunmines, Dietrich."
"Oh, fuck me," Dietrich says. "How?"
"We don't know yet, and that's going to be a whole shitshow. It gets worse, though. We didn't train on them, and we didn't train how regen work with radiation. Why would we, they don't have nukes?" Luis says. "And...I had a companies worth of people dying in front of me, and I couldn't tell them there wasn't a chance not to die, but I couldn't really explain on the fly what would happen, and they took my option. And now I have to explain what that means for their lives." Luis takes a breath. "I did it again, Dietrich. Like I did to you, but this time I knew what the hell I was doing because I couldn't watch them die. And I need to prepare a briefing so I can explain to them who the hell they are now. And then I'm going to have to take the flack for doing this. The brass I can handle. But the troops...do you think they'll be able to forgive me?"

"Well." Dietrich is quiet for a bit. "I mean, it's worked out all right for me," he said, the joking tone not really taking this time. "But...I mean, it all depends on how much of their brain mass has been regenerated. It sounds like none of them got caught staring at a sunball like I did, so they should probably mostly be themselves. I've read a few articles, mostly case studies from the Imperial Turai, and it seems like it mostly hits kinesthetic memories and language, since memory formation is a deeper process than motor control. So...they won't end up like me. But...I mean, some of them are gonna hate you. This is going to fuck up their lives. The Bashakra'i will be there for them, but...it's gonna be rough. I remember very well how hard they tried to drop me in a psych ward for the rest of my life. I doubt they're going to just enroll them in 'English for kauka-induced neural reprogramming' and call it a day. Vidas Lam, I bet they'd try to drum anyone out that even got kauka'd. But Luis - this isn't your fault. You did what you thought was best for them, and they agreed to do it. If you asked me if I'd let you heal me again, I'd absolutely say yes."

Luis lets that turn over for a long moment. "Thanks, Dietrich. I think it might be useful if you could forward me some of those articles, and help me summarize them. I'm not sure my troops will be the only ones with how much of a CF it was, so I'm going to need to explain this to my troops and we're going to have to explain to the brass." Luis pauses. "It might help if you came out to talk, too. I don't know about the politics--that's Barnes and Davis' job, but it might help some of the troops."
"Yeah, sure, whatever you need," Dietrich says. "Talk to Kitty, she can get Brinai on the case too. The Bashakra'i will probably be interested in whoever the Narsai'i decide are too 'damaged' to fight." He pauses. "How are you, Luis?"
"I'm...wrestling with it," Luis says. "What you said helps, and so did talking to their Sergeant. He was in front, and he got it some of the worst. He didn't want to throttle me right there and then, which was some of the worst cases going around my head."
"It's coming, trust me," Dietrich says. "And remember what happened with me. I mean, I was a fucking idiot before. Now I'm a Keeper. It might just turn out to be one of the best things that's happened to them."
"It might. We're just going to have to tough out this shitstorm, and I'll have to tell myself I'm doing everything I can to help them deal with it."

"That's all you can do," Dietrich says. "Anything else I can help with?”
"That all I've had on my mind," Luis says. He blows out a breath. "People might be asking what of the gear the insurgents have gotten they can reverse engineer like we have, they had beamers too. Might be worth thinking how much of MN's operations you could do in a cave." Luis chuckles. "With a box of scraps."
"Sunmines aren't just something you can reverse-engineer," Dietrich says. "The initiators require nano-fabrication. Unless the Taliban have discovered nano-scale manufacturing, this came from the other side of a gateway."
"Yeah, and I know that, but some general's going to be asking if we're going to see terrorists boiling out of the hills in Needleships, or worse--Turai. Just a heads up that Barnes might be asking for those briefing documents. And...thank you for the help."
"No problem, man," Dietrich says. "I'll make it out there tomorrow. Should I wear Narsai'i garb, or..."
"I'm honestly not sure. It might help," Luis says. "Bring 'em both, and ask Samantha."
"Shit, gotta dig that stuff up then," Dietrich says. "Later."
"Later," Luis says. "Have a good afternoon."

"Did it help?" Arketta's voice says in his ear as soon as he disconnects.
Luis nearly jumps, then relaxes. "Yeah, it did."
"How'd you sneak up?" he asks, and turns to face her as his vision clears.
"I didn't," Arketta says, her voice still in his ear as she waves to him from her side of the line.
Luis takes a moment to get his bearings, then waves back and grins.
"Gotta pay at least a little attention to what's actually in front of your implants," Arketta teases.
"Hey, I had a program!" Luis says, mock-indignantly. "Still quiet out there?"
"I think we did enough damage to each other that everyone's just waiting to see what happens next," Arketta replies.
"I think probably a lot of shouting," Luis says. "We might want to enjoy the quiet while it lasts."

Luis' vox chimes in his ear again. "Shit," Luis says. "Might already have ended," Luis says, and answers. "Stanhill."
"How stable are things on your line?" Garrett asks.
"Relatively stable," Luis says. "We're in place and unengaged, but we've got a lot of cases of bad regen."
"How fast can you and Arketta get things set up to run without you?" Garrett says without missing a beat.
"Half an hour or so." Luis says. "What's up?"
"Kinda in lockup at Kabul at the moment," Garrett replies. "Could use some backup when the ANP come to charge us with some trumped up spinkshit."
"...How?" Luis starts, then stops. "You can explain when we get there. We'll be on our way as soon as we get things settled here and find a chopper."
"What was that?" Arketta asks.
"Angel's got a skimmer on the way," Garrett says. "See you two soon."
"See you," Luis says, and hangs up. "That was Garrett," he says to Arketta. "He's in ANP lockup and needs backup. They're sending a skimmer, so we need to get things settled for you and me to pull out."
"Well, so much for it staying quiet," Arketta jokes.
punkey 2016-01-17 21:34:28
After the third "Sir, please, can you move over?" from the medics - well, okay, *maybe* the seventh, actually - Hug'sh finally bids his "See you tomorrow" to the wounded troops and shambles out of the aid tent. Over the last hour, the whirlwind of thoughts in his head had a chance to settle down a bit, and each steps of his feet adds a new item to his priority list. Inform the homeworld. Talk to General Cooper. Talk to the Bashakra'i. But first...first, Hug'sh needs a better answer to the question of "What the hell happened out there?". A much better answer. And the only way to get it is to get back into the TOC, push his muzzle into some holos and go through the whole damn engagement, from every point of view - every damn radio contact, every report, every sensor platform - until he's figured out where the enemy came from, how they pulled this off and where they disappeared to. The next time...there's not gonna be a next time this happens. They're not walking into another fucking ambush. Not while he's got something to say about it.

That first requires him getting into the TOC, however. Standing around outside of it are a couple dozen Bashakra'i, taking the opportunity of being kicked out to pass around a bottle of something probably strongly alcoholic and shoot the shit - including whatHug'sh knows are some jokes very much at Narsai'i expense.
Hug'sh expression darkens a bit, though he tries to keep his colors neutral. /"Good evening, gentlemen,"[/i] he barks. "Where's Onas?"
The Bashakra'i that see Hug'sh stand up straight. "Over there, Walks-the-Fire," one of them says as the others straighten up. "He's talking to Brinai, giving her a status update."
"I see," Hug'sh replies. "Did the Narsai'i kick everyone out? I need to go over the data from the fight, on the systems in there...or on a backup."
"They kicked all of us out," the Rav-Turai replies.
"They let those of us they arrested go, which was awfully nice of them," a second Rav-Turai pipes up.
"And as for backups, we...might have something," the first Bashakra'i replies. "Wouldn't be as good as the real thing, though. That, you have to get past them for." He points over his shoulder at the four Narsai'i guards at the entrance to the tent.
"Right," Hug'sh says. "I'm going to need a translator, then. Maybe I can convince them to let me in." He smiles. "It might be good for a laugh, at least. And you seem like you enjoy a joke or two."
"Sure, why not?" he says, and passes the bottle off to someone else.

Hug'sh nods to his new terp buddy, then walks him over to the four Narsai'i guards - Cooper's men, it seems, and they have a decidedly less jovial expression on their faces. "Translate for me now, please," Hug'sh tells his terp, then turns to the soldiers. "I am General Walks-the-Fire. I seek permission to enter the command post."
One of the Narsai'i - a Sergeant First Class, by his uniform - looks at the Bashakra'i, who still smells a bit like brandy, and Hug'sh, who just lead a coup in said biulding, and says, "No."
So far, so expected. "I wish to speak to General Cooper, then."
"He's not here," the guard says. "Call him yourself."
Hug'sh turns to the terp. "Vox the General, please, and put him on speaker."
The Rav-Turai chuckles and pulls up a connection on his vox. "Who is this?" Cooper barks after a good ten or fifteen seconds of ringing, which the Bashakra'i also finds hilarious.
"General Cooper, this is Walks-the-Fire," Hug'sh says. "I believe that it is necessary to review the data collected during the engagement to determine everything we can about the enemy forces we engaged. I require access to the command post to do so. Please grant your permission."
"Our men have the situation well in hand," Cooper replies. "We are analyzing the intelligence as we speak."
"I believe the situation warrants a...joint review of the data, General," Hug'sh says. "That would make the best use of available expertise." Hug'sh decides to leave out the "Plus we don't trust your guys not to tamper with the data" part.
"That is...entirely unnecessary," Cooper says. "We have our best people working on the problem right now." The Bashakra'i raises an eyebrow at that.
"General," Hug'sh sighs. "We were all surprised by the events tonight, and we may have been able to deal with them better if we were not working at cross purposes. I admit my part in this and my failures. But right now, the answer to our mutual problem as I see it is more discussion and collaboration, not less. If your answer remains no, I will respect that decision, but I would not be doing my job if I did not at least try to argue our position."
"The issue is not a lack of trust, simply that we have the issue well in hand," Cooper says. "It would be unnecessary for you to get involved."
"We will let you know when we are ready to discuss our findings."
"Very well, General. I look forward to that discussion."

"Good!" Cooper says. "That's very good. I will let you know." He disconnects after a few seconds of fumbling.
"Enough for you?" the MP Sergeant says with a smug smile on his face.
"It will suffice for now" - Hug'sh makes a show of squinting at the man's shoulders, then gives him a bright smile and a flash of green - "Sergeant."
"Fuck that," the Rav-Turai says in Imperial.
"I think you're done translating, Rav-Turai," Hug'sh adds, still smiling at the Sergeant. "I'll make do with the backups. We'll see what the Narsai'i can figure out - and what they're willing to tell us."

2d8.hi = 5 vs. 1d6 = 1
The Rav-Turai pulls the vox off of his ear, and when the Sergeant First Class is looking the other way, flicks it towards the opening of the tent. "Oh shit, my vox!" he says, chasing after it.
2d8.hi = 8 vs. 1d8 = 7
One of the other MPs tries to intercept him, but the Rav-Turai deftly turns what would have been a brutal trip into forcing the young Specialist to bend over, and doing a downright acrobatic body roll over the back of his body armor, not losing a bit of momentum as he rushes into the tent.

The rear two MPs chase after the Bashakra'i solder while the front two put their hands on Hug'sh's shoulders - well, try to put their hands on his shoulders but end up more in the pecs area - to, again, try to hold him back.
"Get him!" the Sergeant barks, and a few seconds later, Hug'sh hears the scuffle end.
"I got it, and -" Hug'sh hears the Bashakra'i burst into hysterical laughter. "Vidas fucking Lam!" the Rav-Turai cackles. "Oh, Masters, that is too fucking -" He's finally dragged back out, absolutely convulsing with laughter. "They...they fucking broke it!" He curls onto his side in the sand. "Can't...breathe..."
Hug'sh makes painfully sure he's not pushing against his new friends or making any aggressive gestures, but he makes sure that their hands feel the rumble in his chest as he barks a question to the Rav-Turai. "Am I to understand that they wrecked the systems in an attempt to disassemble them?"
"No!" the Rav-Turai chokes out in between gasps for breath. "It's so much better." He takes a few breaths and wipes his cheeks as he sits up. "They - they're stuck in the settings screen!" He keels back over onto his back in laughter, and now most of the Bashakra'i Turai that were working the TOC have heard what's going on, and they start laughing.

Hug'sh is a foreign dignitary, so, well, emphasis on the dignity part. Wouldn't be proper for him to bellow out a laugh loud enough to wake the whole FOB. As it is, he gives a quiet chuckle. "That should be an interesting report," he remarks. "Please tell them I am looking forward to it."
The Sergeant might not speak a word of Imperial or Whirr-sign, but he knows when he's being laughed at. "What the fuck is so fucking funny?" he shouts.
"Tell your lead-er if he wants help, ask us," the Bashakra'i replies in his broken English.
Hug'sh chuckles a bit more, but has to stop to try to wrangle his throat into an approximation of Narsai'i tongue. "Kuh," he says. "Kuh arr fah-ney."
"Go fuck yourself, you freak," the Sergeant barks, then catches himself. "Sir."
Hug'sh smiles back at him. "Goh faghk kurr-zilv," he repeats. "Fahney." He turns to the Rav-Turai. "I think I've had my fill of these gentlemen. How about you?"
"Fucking Narsai'i," the Rav-Turai says with a nod, extending a hand to get picked up. "We'll wait a bit and then offer to 'fix' it for them."
"Oh, I think they've made it clear they don't want or need our help. We have plenty to do ourselves. Oh, and please tell these gentlemen that they're welcome to join our huddle in the barracks if they wish, but right now they have three more seconds to remove their hands from me before I do it for them."
"Let the beeg Wher-en go," the Rav-Turai says, as Hug'sh flexes his arms for emphasis - and the soldiers do just that.

Hug'sh makes a show of hunching over until his face is level with the mouthy Sergeant - just emphasizing again how much bigger a Wherren warrior is. "Kuh heff fahn," he snorts, somehow resisting the urge to pat the Narsai'i on the head. His piece said, he steps back and turns to walk away.
"What did you say?" the Bashakra'i asks as they walk back to the other Turai techs, now speculating about what else the Narsai'i are too dumb to figure out in there.
"I told them to have fun," Hug'sh says. "It seemed like they needed to be cheered up a little. I'm always happy to oblige."
"You're a good guy, Walks-the-Fire," the Bashakra'i says, passing the bottle his way.
"I try," Hug'sh replies, taking a little swig from the bottle. "Very fruity," he offers as his assessment of the liquor within.

Hug'sh's vox buzzes on his ear.
"Pardon me," Hug'sh says, handing the bottle back as he taps his vox. "Go for Walks-the-Fire," he says.
"Hey, Hug'sh," Garrett grunts on the other end. "How quickly can you get to Kabul International?"
"I'm pretty sure there's a truck somewhere around here with my name on it," Hug'sh says. "Or is this one of these situations where I look up and the Kesh Industries private chopper is on final approach?"
"Angel's got a skimmer on the way," Garrett says. "Ngawai and I...might be in lockup when you get here."
"I see your night is going as well as mine," Hug'sh says. "I've got some things to take care of here, but I'll be ready when the skimmer arrives." He pauses for a moment. "...is this a jailbreak? Because if we're going rogue, I just wasted a whole lot of nerves trying to play nice."
"Not yet," Garrett grunts. "Not even sure how they found out, I know we didn't got spotted."
"You always know how to reassure me, Garrett," Hug'sh says. "Hang in there."
After a moment, Hug'sh reconsiders. "How secure is this line?"
"Sheen encrypted," Garrett grunts.
"Because we've got a big fucking problem," Hug'sh says. "Insurgents are using Imperial gear. We ran into beam rifles and sunmines out there. Nothing heavier - yet - but this? This isn't good."
"Matches what Ngawai and I found - terrorist group with Imperial gear stockpiled up," Garrett replies. "Well, had stockpiled up."
Hug'sh grunts. "That sounds like a story I want to hear in person," he says.
"Exactly," Garrett says. "See you in an hour or so."
"Indeed," Hug'sh says.
punkey 2016-01-17 21:35:26
The lockup at Kabul International Airport isn’t the destination for most terrorists and enemy combatants - rather, it sees more use as a drunk tank and containment for rowdy soldiers. As such, the room that Garrett and Ngawai are currently sitting in, still in their full carapace but handcuffed to a bench, is that Pepto-Bismol pink that drunk tanks the world over are painted in.
Luis and Arketta enter, still in their carapaces and fresh off the helicopter from the front. The long flight at least gave time to handle cleaning up the worst of battle dirt and dust, and to start on the paperwork that will no doubt become a mountain about everything that went wrong today. Fortunately, worrying about the details has largely allowed Luis to avoid worrying about the things he can’t control. Such as, for instance…
“So, what’s this I hear about you attacking half the city?” Luis asks Garrett and Ngawai.
Garrett and Ngawai turn their helms transparent and both smile sheepishly. “Well, it wasn’t half the city,” Garrett says.
“Just part of it,” Ngawai says. “Where is Swims-the-Black? He’s bringing Naloni with him.”
"That’s not all he’s bringing with him,” Hug’sh barks from outside. He ducks into the room, making an effort to keep his fur brown but not quite getting both the green and orange fringes out. Swims follows behind, cradling a sleeping Naloni in his left arm and looking ready to use his right to punch anyone who would disturb that sleeping child through the next wall. Hug’sh, for his part, can’t quite keep up the serious demeanour as he takes in the vision of Garrett and Ngawai sharing a cell again. "I’ll skip the incredulous moralizing and just ask this,” he says. "How did you get caught?”
"That,” Garrett grunts, his signs greatly restricted by having one of his hands bound to the bench he’s sitting on, "is a very good question.”


(Garrett/Ngawai Sneak: 2d8.hi = 7; 1d10 = 1; 1d6 = 4 / 1d8 = 1; 2d10.hi = 8; 1d6 = 1)

Garrett waits patiently for the guard to pass, the harsh shadows cast by the lone streetlight making it fairly easy to blend in with the carapace’s adaptive camouflage. Still, it looks as though he could have chosen a better hiding place, as the bearded man with the AK-47 seems to be walking straight for him.
“Lahna…” Ngawai hisses over the vox as she watches from the rooftops above.
“I see him, I see him,” Garrett whispers back, helm muting the noise. He quickly shuffles his feet and crams himself into a crack in the wall, leaving himself sticking half-out of the masonry and looking utterly ridiculous in Ngawai’s helm-enhanced vision. Still, the active camo is doing its job, and to the rest of the world, Garrett remains completely invisible and just out of the way enough that when the guard walks past, he misses Garrett by a hair.

“Phew,” Ngawai sighs. Garrett almost does the same, but the crevice is tight enough that such deep breaths are impossible.
“This is dignified,” Garrett grunts as he slides himself back out of the crevice. “Maybe we’ll leave this one out of the team’s report.”
“On the contrary, I’ve recorded the whole thing,” Ngawai teases him. “I’m thinking I’ll put it on your next birthday holo, and maybe the one after that.”
“Love you too, lahna,” Garrett grumbles as he slides across the road. “Past the first guard patrol.”


“...Well, that was a close shave,” Luis says. “But if you made it past that, how’d you end up getting caught?”
"Well, probably because of what we were allegedly there to do," Ngawai says.


(Garrett/Ngawai Sneak: 2d8.hi = 5; 1d10 = 10; 1d6 = 2 / 1d8 = 7; 2d10.hi = 7; 1d6 = 4)

“Glad it’s you with the detcord and not me,” Garrett says. “What next?”
“Okay, see the gate?” Ngawai says.
“You mean the one with two guards outside of it?” Garrett replies. “Not moving?”
“That’s the one,” Ngawai says. “That’s what you have to go through.”
“Fun,” Garrett grouses. “Wait, there’s a truck coming.” A beaten old pickup rumbles down the road, driver and gunner in the cab, and a teenager with a wispy beard, flashlight and an AKS-74 in the back.
Up on her rooftop perch, Ngawai sees light suddenly stream out of an opened door on a rooftop nearby. “Fuck!” Ngawai presses herself against the side of a similar doorway and stands still.

Garrett, for his part, hustles up next to an empty street-side stall, and simply waits for the truck to pass. The teen swipes his flashlight across the darkness, but aside from a brief moment of complaint from his helm about the active camo having to produce so much light at once, the truck rumbles past without incident.

Ngawai, on the other hand, has to get more creative. The three guards’ voices grow louder as they come her way, and she knows she has just a few seconds to get moving before they’re standing right next to her. With the edge of the roof at her back, all she can do is jump up, grab the top of the rooftop exit, and haul herself up on top. Pressing herself flat, she waits for the guards to walk past - but they don’t, instead dragging a chair to the very vantage point she was just standing in.
“Shit,” Ngawai whispers.
“Need help?” Garrett replies.
“No, just...need to be careful,” Ngawai whispers back, and ever so slowly starts to rotate herself around. Her feet eventually orient the correct way, and she gently lowers herself back down to the roof. Garrett, watching from the ground, can see the vox overlay of Ngawai’s carapace on his helm, and takes careful aim with his chamakana at the three guards right by her from the ground. He won’t be able to kill more than one or two of them, but if need be, that should be enough to buy Ngawai time to react.
“Careful…” Garrett whispers.

A few seconds later, Ngawai’s outline stands up and goes from crouched back to standing. “I think I’m clear,” she whispers. “Heading down to street level now.”
punkey 2016-01-17 21:35:52
"You were carrying detcord?” Swims rumbles.
"And some thermite grenades,” Ngawai adds.
"And C4?” Hug’sh asks.
"Just a half-pound,” Garrett replies.
"Well then, that hardly counts,” Hug’sh says. "So you dodge through the perimeter. Did all these close calls tell you anything about the quality of your plan, or is that only becoming obvious in hindsight?”
"I’d hardly call what happened close,” Ngawai says.
"And it was for a good reason,” Garrett adds. "We had heard about a cache of some powerful new weapon they had, and decided to take it out before they could use it on us. I’d call that a worthy mission, yes?”
“Maybe,” Arketta says.
"Hey, I’m not saying it wasn’t a worthy cause,” Hug’sh says. "Just saying your infiltration route could have used some work. Anyway, don’t mind me, continue.”

(Garrett Wits: 1d10 = 10; 1d8 = 5)

Ngawai creeps up next to Garrett. “What’s the hold up?”
“Those,” Garrett says, and motions with an invisible hand. The outline of his arm in Ngawai’s helm reveals what he’s pointing at - a camcorder taped to a balcony next to a guard smoking a cigarette. The camera is pointed at the entrance, with a bright overhead light pointed down at the area. Even with their active camo, the recording and bright light would reveal their outlines clear as day. Even Imperial camo has its limits.

“These people are serious,” Ngawai replies. “What’s the plan?”
“Go through a building,” Garrett replies. “Bet you a lat that that building over there -” Garrett points to the only building on the block with lights on, “has a way through.”
“You mean the one with the terrorists coming in and out of it,” Ngawai replied.
Garrett holds up his vibro-shiv. “Darkness is our friend, lahna.”


“The main gate is blocked, so let’s just use their main building as an entrance?” Luis says. “I’m starting to agree with Hug’sh about the quality of this plan being apparent in retrospect.”
"If the mission is important enough, you make it work," Arketta says. "That's kind of what we do."
"And it was," Garrett adds.


(Garrett/Ngawa Sneak: 2d8.hi = 2; 1d10 = 9; 2d6.hi = 5 / 1d8 = 5; 2d10.hi = 8; 2d6.hi = 5)

Ngawai waits carefully behind the bumper of a parked pickup truck, listening to the idle conversation around the Narsai’i display inside.
“Cutting the power…” Garrett says in her ear, “now.”
The lights in the building go out a moment after a crack of arcing power sounds from the alley next door and Garrett curses over the vox. Ngawai has just a moment to dive under the truck as a half-dozen terrorists rush out of the building, shouting in their language as they rush past. She looks behind her to see Garrett hustling across the street to get out of their way, and dashing her way as he clears the sight lines of the hostiles. He’s moving quickly enough that the active camo is straining to keep up, even in the darkness, but he still gets there undetected as Ngawai rolls back out from under the truck.

“Ready?” Garrett asks, beamer raised and ready.
Ngawai grabs her beamer from her side and raises it as well, a tap on Garrett’s shoulder her only response.

Garrett leads through the door, sweeping left as Ngawai hooks around the door to the right, both of them seeing their half of the room as clear. The building is a disaster - food cartons and discarded cans litter the floor and tables.
“Gross,” Ngawai says.
“Listen, upstairs,” Garrett says. Ngawai tilts her head, and the helm magnifies the sound coming from above them - footsteps on the floor, hustling their way.
“We have to move,” Ngawai replies, and the two hustle towards the other end of the building. Beamers point up the stairs in turn as they pass, and as Ngawai turns around to cover their rear, the first man down the stairs, still in his underwear but AK in hand, stops and turns their way. Ngawai stops dead cold immediately, grabbing onto Garrett’s utility belt to hold him up, too. There’s a heart-stopping moment where he’s staring straight towards the two of them as Ngawai sights in on his forehead, dead center, and she whispers a quiet prayer to the Masters that the active camo does its job. A couple of tense seconds later, it seems that it has, as the man gets a slap on the shoulder from the next man behind him, and follows him out the front door.

Ngawai lets out her breath. “Good to move,” she says, and the two go out the back door and into the empty night time market.
punkey 2016-01-17 21:36:34
As the tale unfolds, Hug’sh harrumphs and chuckles seem difficult to tell apart. "Luck seemed to be on your side, then,” he says. "Though the camouflage certainly helped.”
"Seems like it’s more luck than camouflage,” Swims grumbles, shifting Naloni in his arms.
Arketta just smiled rolls her eyes. “So, what crazy thing did you do next.”


(Ngawai Think: 1d8 = 8; 1d10 = 3; 2d6.hi = 5)

Garrett and Ngawai both take a knee in the center of the market. The stalls are all dark, their wares taken home or put away. In the darkness, Ngawai waves her hands, summoning the internal display on their helm displays.
“Okay, where to, lahna?” Garrett asks.
Ngawai stays silent, flipping through the holo she made earlier today, forwarding and reversing it.
“Ngawai?” Garrett asks. “You…do know where they’re hiding these weapons, right?”
“Vidas Lam, this place looks different at night…” Ngawai mutters to herself.
“Okay, maybe we should abort,” Garrett says.
“No, I’ve got it -” Ngawai starts.
“We don’t have the margin to play around, lahna,” Garrett says.
“We have to make it back home,” Ngawai replies, and looks Garrett in the eyes through their helms. “I know.”

Ngawai flips her hand one more time. “There, got it. Some kind of garage…” She looks around. “That way.” She stands up and reshoulders her rifle, stepping off towards a particularly dark corner of the market, even the light amplification in the helms struggles to properly light it up.
punkey 2016-01-17 21:47:21
“What’d you know about these weapons going in?” Luis asks. “If they were what I think, I’m wondering if they might not have even been there anymore. Or did they finally turn up?”
“Oh, they were there,” Garrett says.


Garrett carefully slides an optic probe under the door next to the vertical slider securing the garage. After a moment of blur, both of them see two men standing guard - well, sitting and watching TV on guard - at a table inside in their helms.
“Time to get a little messy,” Garrett says with a smirk. “Stunners.”
“Ugh, can’t we just shoot them?” Ngawai asks.
“Trying to piss them off, not send them into a rage, lahna,” Garrett replies.
Ngawai pulls her stunner stick out of its mount on her carapace. “You’ll feel better if you kill them.”
“Probably,” Garrett says, and grabs ahold of the doorknob. “On three.”
“One, two, three,” Ngawai counts down, and stands up just as Garrett turns the knob.

(Garrett Attack: 1d8 = 4; 1d4 = 1 / Out Cold
Ngawai Attack: 3d10.hi = 10; 1d4 = 1 / Out Cold)

Ngawai bursts up and through the doorway. One, two, three steps later she brings her baton crashing down on the head of the closest man to the door, both the electrical shock and the physical shock knocking him out cold. Garrett, right behind her, weaves to her left and slaps the other man in the face with his baton as he tries to stand up. The blow doesn’t knock him out, but the shock jerks all of his muscles rigid, and he falls forward, hitting his head on the table which knocks him out cold.

“Lucky hit,” Ngawai says as her baton retracts with the flick of a switch.
“I’ll take it,” Garrett replies. “So, let’s see what’s behind this door.”

It’s Ngawai’s turn to grab the knob, and on a silent count, she opens the door and Garrett steps through - and stops dead cold in the doorway. “Oh, fuck me.”
Ngawai tries to elbow her way past her husband. “Get out of the -” She stops too. “Oh, fuck.”
“That’s what I said,” Garrett replied.

The room is filled with old Soviet weapons racks - and every rack is filled up with chamakanas. At least a dozen racks, with twenty rifles each sit in the middle of the floor. Crates stand up against the wall, probably containing more beamers and the ammo rods to go with them.

“Okay, this is…” Garrett flips through the haptic to start recording his helm’s feed to vox. “This is very bad. Lahna, we’ve got to -”
“Blow this shit sky high, got it,” Ngawai said, already reach into her pack for thermite grenades and detcord.
“I was going to say record as much of this as we can first, but yeah, then blow it all up,” Garrett says, pacing around the room and carefully looking at every rack. When he gets to the crates, he stops again. “That is also not very good. These crates are labeled in ’Chinese’.”
“What is that - oh,” Ngawai said, taking a moment to remember what that word meant. “That is the language of that one country that wanted to go off on their own?”
“And I think we can see what they did with that,” Garrett replies, and turns back to his wife. “Figured they were up to something shady - but I didn’t guess that they were looking to take Imperial tech and sell it off. Toss me a few grenades, lahna.”
“That’s an awful lot of trouble they’d be getting into just to make a quick buck,” Ngawai replies, tossing three thermite grenades his way one by one, followed by the loose end of the detcord she’s tying everything together with. “And they’d get caught almost immediately. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, I think.”
“Maybe, but maybe they’re just looking to knock us down a peg,” Garrett replies as he crams the grenades into a few strategic places. “And besides, we weren’t supposed to see this.” He loops the detcord through the pull rings of the grenades. “Ready over here.”
“I’m good,” Ngawai replies.
“Then let’s bail.”

(Garrett Wits: 1d10 = 1; 2d12.hi = 12
Ngawai Wits: 2d10.hi = 10; 2d12.hi = 12)

On the way out the door, there’s a flash of light outside that drives Ngawai back inside the door for just a moment - until she realizes it’s just a mirror reflecting the light from inside the garage back towards her. “False alarm,” she says. “Stupid fucking place for a mirror.”
“Didn’t notice,” Garrett replies. “We’ve got three minutes, let’s beat it.”

A half-hour later, the only evidence of the destroyed weapons cache from their Green Zone housing is a plume of smoke rising over the darkened city. Garrett cracks his helm and sets it on the living room table, while Ngawai finishes her post-op checks. “I’ll go pick up Naloni as soon as I’m out of the carapace,” Ngawai volunteers. “You gonna keep an eye on the local traffic?”
“Sounds like a plan to me -” Garrett starts, but is interrupted by a knock on the door. “’Who is it?’
’MPs, Mr. Davis,’” an American voice says from the other side of the door. “’We’re coming in. Are you armed?’
’We have weapons out, but we’ll stand away from them,’” Garrett replies, motioning for Ngawai to join him. “’We’re clear,’” he says. He can tell from Ngawai’s hunched shoulders and tensed arms that she’s not happy with the current situation - and is more than willing to punch her way out of it if need be.

The door opens up, and not one but four MPs walk inside, trying to look nonchalant as they take up tactical positions in the apartment. “’What’s the problem?’” Garrett asks.
’Afghan National Police are saying that you and your wife bombed a local market tonight,’” the sergeant in charge of the group of MPs says. “’Care to explain why you look like you’re just back from a raid?’
’Equipment checks,’” Ngawai replies. “’Simple enough.’
’Well, we’ll see about that,’” the sergeant says. “’We’ve been requested to hold you both so you can be questioned by the ANP.’
’But our daughter -’” Garrett starts.
’We will have someone pick her up,’” the sergeant says - and puts his hand on his pistol. “’You need to come with us, sir, ma’am.’
Garrett raises his hands. “’As long as she’s safe - and you’re not turning us over to the ANP.’
’Won’t need to if you haven’t done anything,’” the sergeant replies. “’Now, move.’
punkey 2016-01-17 21:47:47
“And there we are,” Garrett says.
Hug’sh hrrrrms at that. "Hold on, don’t tell me,” he says. "The Army’s coming after your asses for killing the wrong terrorists, but nobody gives a damn that China’s supplying Imperial arms to the insurgency. After all, the physical evidence is now spread across several blocks and recordings made on your armor are literally witchcraft or fakes or otherwise not credible intel.” He looks to Garrett. "How’d I do?”
Garrett shrugs.
"They haven’t told us why we’re being held yet,” Ngawai replies. "It’s only been a few hours. We figured they were making us sweat.” Naloni finally finishes sucking on Swims-the-Black’s fur, and reaches for her mother with a quiet fuss. Swims hands her over and resumes his quiet vigil next to the door, ready to deck anyone that walks in.
"I would make an official inquiry,” Hug’sh says. "However, I’m fresh out of leeway myself. Though still walking free, so maybe this General thing does have its perks.”
“How much longer can they hold you?” Arketta asks.
“Not long,” Ngawai replies.

There’s a knock at the detention cell door behind the group, and the sergeant in charge of the station opens the door. “’All right, clear out. ANP are here to question the suspects.’
"We will be allowed to observe,” Swims-the-Black grunts. His words and Garrett’s translation would normally be counted as a question, but that’s very much not how it sounds.
"Your interactions with the local law enforcement are of great interest to the Wherren,” Hug’sh adds.
"I just want to make sure if they try to kill them, I am in position to kill them first,” Swims-the-Black adds, which Garrett leaves untranslated.
’GRDHI is also interested in this, given the situation,’” Luis adds.
The sergeant gives the people in the room a glare. “’Don’t try anything,’ he says.
’Wouldn’t dream of it,’” Arketta lies.

The sergeant leads the assembled members of 815 not currently cuffed to a bench out after Ngawai hands Naloni back to Swims-the-Black. Not happy with her sudden removal from her mother’s arms, Naloni starts to fuss, and then on the way out, to cry, while Swims desperately tries to soothe her and Ngawai clenches Garrett’s hand and looks at the floor. They are lead off to an observation room with a couple camera feeds into the detention cell, and the sergeant leaves them there to bring in the ANP officials.

Ngawai and Garrett both look at the door as it opens again, and admits two men in the slate gray uniforms of the Afghan National Police, but it’s the third, older man and his son that make them both strain against their handcuffs.
’What the fuck is going on?’” Ngawai shouts.
’See how they are already attacking me again?’” the old man says - the same old man that threatened their lives the day before and whose stockpile of Imperial weapons they just destroyed.
’Mr and Mrs. Davis, calm down,’” one of the ANP officials says. “’You are not helping the charges against you. This is Faqir Khan Wazir, an honored member of our city. He claims that you attacked his marketplace last night and caused a considerable amount of damage.’
Garrett, after his initial gut reaction to try to choke the life out of the old man, has settled back into a more neutral posture. “’And what proof does he have?’” he asks.
’He claims that you used alien technology to sneak into his marketplace,’” the ANP officer replies. “’He showed us this video.’” The officer hands the sergeant a camcorder, and he presses play. The video shows a blindingly bright reflection off of a mirror, like a bright flashlight is being pointed at a polished metal surface - and then a moment later, two unmistakably human-shaped ripples walk in front of it. “’That is your alien invisibility, I think,’” the officer says as the sergeant shows the observation room the same footage.
Garrett works very hard to keep his expression under control. “’I have no idea what you are talking about,’” he says as he glares at the old man.
punkey 2016-01-17 21:48:07
Inside the observation room, Hug’sh follows the interview - no, scratch that, this barely qualifies as an interrogation - with obvious disgust from behind the shield of the one-way mirror. His eyes linger on the old man as he turns to Swims. "He’s showing off,” Hug’sh concludes. "I don’t like the confidence with which he rolls out his accusations and the evidence he has. He cares more about getting Ngawai and Garrett into trouble than what we might conclude from what he presents us. Such a man will be difficult to intimidate...but perhaps easy to goad into going too far. What do you think, Swims-the-Black?”
"I think that trying to goad someone that has already threatened our friends’ lives into going too far might be a mistake,” Swims grunts back, as he cradles Naloni with his other arm.
“I want to know what he gets from this, though,” Arketta says. “He is just showing off that he knows about Imperial tech, which we already know.”
"He’s showing that he has the means to counter the tech,” Hug’sh says. "Weapons alone do not make his troops dangerous, but the ability to detect stealthed Turai armor, the willingness to install it...that is a clear sign that he recognizes the threat we pose and seeks to neutralize it with a show of indirect force. Make our activities here so costly in political capital that we retreat rather than fight. The first circle of guerilla warfare.”
“But...why here? Like this? Why bring the Narsai’i into it and get them upset?” Arketta asks. As soon as she finishes her sentence, her eyes light up. “Unless that is the point. To get the Narsai’i to see them as a threat. To get them to ignore Garrett and Ngawai.”
Hug’sh nods. "And right now, it looks like the Army is about ready to kick us out this operation,” he muses. "We made the wrong kind of noise. It’s easier to send us packing than to tell the ANP to get bent. Not if the Army wants to keep basing Special Ops here.” Hug’sh sighs. "But we’re not done yet. And if Wazir thinks this is going to get him what he wants, he is sorely mistaken.”
“It sounds like he wants Garrett and Ngawai dead,” Arketta says, crossing her arms to match the worry in her voice.
"Then he will have to get used to disappointment,” Hug’sh says, saving the effort in his low voice that he puts into the cascading waves of (mostly) orange and (some) red that roll over his fur.
punkey 2016-01-17 21:48:23
The next five minutes are simply variations on Garrett and Ngawai denying any knowledge of what happened, and Faqir remaining cryptic about how he came to know how to detect Turai carapace active camo. After both sides are sufficiently frustrated, the ANP officers demand that they both be held for further questioning. Garrett pipes up with the utter lack of any proof that they actually did anything, and the sergeant reluctantly rebuffs the officials and states that he has to let them both go. The ANP officers leave in a huff, while the old man and his son simply look smugly pleased with themselves.

The sergeant unlocks Garrett and Ngawai, and leaves the room after telling them to stay out of trouble - which they don’t even bother insulting him with a response about. Hug’sh stands aside as Swims hands a fussing Naloni back to her grateful mother, but clears his throat to get Garrett’s attention.
"Who is that man,” Hug’sh asks, "and what’s your plan to deal with him?”
"He is, apparently, Faqir Khan Wazir,” Garrett says, rubbing his wrist. "He’s probably an old-school Muj from the 1980s. He approached us yesterday, and threatened our lives. We were dealing with him -”
"Your lives?” Hug’sh interrupts, looking over to Ngawai, who seems to be holding on to Naloni a little tighter than the last time he saw the two of them.
"Yes,” Ngawai said. "When I scouted the market, I saw that they were talking about some new weapons and that there were guards around a garage, so we went in to knock them off balance and make an opening for a strike.”
"We heard that part of the story,” Hug’sh says. "I’m interested in the threat he made.”
"We leave, or he kills us,” Garrett says. "All three of us.”
The red in Hug’sh’s fur pops more vividly. "That simplifies things considerably,” he snarls. "I vote for a short, sharp lesson. A permanent one.”
Arketta’s eyes narrow. “Agreed.”
Luis nods. “How do we do it that avoids more complications?”
"Depends on what complications you mean,” Hug’sh goes. "I have a feeling that whatever Garrett is planning will take care of the Afghan side, but where the Army is concerned, I’m not sure we can get away with anything without someone taking note. It would be good for that someone to see things our way.”
“Do we have anyone we can rely on for that?” Luis asks. “We don’t seem to have many friends around here right now.”

There’s a bit of quiet, as Ngawai and Arketta share a look. “How much do we care about that?” Arketta asks.
Hug’sh harrumphs. "It would be nice not to get in trouble with the Army for once, all things considered,” he says. "But if mailing a box full of smelly shit to General Keating’s office will help end the threat, I will gladly pay for the Mexican food. Let them think what they want to think; I am not here to cuddle them.”
"It would probably be best not to get caught, though,” Garrett says. "If we hit hard, hit fast, and remain unseen, they might suspect we did it, but they couldn’t prove anything.”
“I suppose,” Ngawai says.
"Two things,” Hug’sh says. "One, no video recordings. Every camera we find gets shot, every computer or recording device gets fragged - or confiscated. Two, alibis. I have a feeling they’ll be taking note of when we’re not on base, and checking up on us when we are. We need to circumvent that.”
"I think we can get some help for those, Angel should be able to help with the second one, especially,” Garrett replies.
"And it’d need to be a clean sweep,” Ngawai says. "Everyone there dies. I’m okay with that.”
“These people? I’m fine with that,” Luis says.
Hug’sh grunts his assent. "No objections here,” he says.
“We need to get the others in on it,” Garrett says. “I’ll work on it.” Ngawai gives him a look. “We’ll work on it. You guys just keep doing what you’re doing, and we’ll let you know when it’s time.”
Hug’sh nods. "We’ll be ready,” he says. For a moment, it looks like there’s something he needs to get off his chest, but he swallows it down. "Take it easy until then. If you need help, call me.”
“And us,” Luis says, nodding to include Arketta.
“Will do,” Ngawai replies. She looks at Swims. "And you, friend?”

Swims-the-Black is quiet for a moment, his fur a riot of every emotion. "You are my closest friends. I want you to be safe.” He looks at Naloni. "But this is something else. And both of you are very smart and very dangerous, but this is something else. He doesn’t care about anything other than killing all three of you. And I know you think you can handle it, but I want you both to promise me that you will come back.”
Garrett smirks. "I promise.” He reaches out for Ngawai’s shoulder, and looks at his daughter before looking back to Swims. "Pinky swear.”
Swims-the-Black harrumphs. "Pinky swear.”
"Good enough for me,” Hug’sh adds. Luis just nods, and Arketta rolls her eyes.
punkey 2016-01-17 21:51:18
(And now, for a different story, in a different place. To continue in Afghanistan, go to the next page.)

There’s something sick in Alonzo Moralez and it just won’t come out. It’s not the sight of the shallow cut on his deltoid that’s dripping tired blood onto the stretcher and from there to the floor. It’s not the jostle of being carried on that stretcher through that gateway that links his half hours of raw terror to the countless hours of dread, the only connection between the arena and the holding area...holding. Yeah, right. It’s a prison, and coming back in, Moralez’s head moves just enough to check out all the corners. Northeast is Grunts, the remains of two infantry squads who are still using their ranks, doing PT, having formations, going mad by keeping it together, somehow. Northwest are Warfighters, cav and Rangers and whatever, but they’re recent - used to be just cav, until the Rangers lost five in a Battle Royale and the survivors threw in with the only gang they hadn’t been matched up against yet. Southeast are the Losers, and that’s basically everyone who’s not a Grunt or a Warfighter.

Except Alonzo Moralez. He’s not a Grunt or a Warfighter or a Loser. He’s the Southwest corner.

The Naranai’i kauka his wounds. He didn’t used to know these words, or even understand what they were ordering him to do. He knows that he didn’t used to know that. But he knows now, and it feels like he’s known it forever, and forever is how long it feels like he’s been here. Resting, going out, hurting and being hurt, brought back here, healed, then more resting. And waiting. Alonzo Moralez has not waited this much the entire rest of his life. They carry him to his bunk, and as soon as he’s there, he starts to clink his fingernails against the frame of the bunk. It’s how he tells the time, how he knows time is passing, and it’s the only thing that still matters to Alonzo Moralez. Time is moving. Time is passing. There’s nothing he can do but let it pass and wait until he goes through the arena gateway again.

There’s a shadow over him. Moralez doesn’t flinch. Used to be they let him rest between fights, but if they’re going to drag him off to another one, what use is it to resist? He just clinks his fingernails again. Time passes.

“I’m talking to you, asshole!” a voice calls. Not Naranai’i. Moralez turns his head to see another Narsai’i soldier standing next to his bunk. “Stand up so I can beat your ass,” the soldier adds.
Moralez has trouble sometimes, trouble with remembering, but there are two words he won’t forget soon. “Fuck off,” he replies.

He shouldn’t have said that. It upsets the soldier, upsets him so much that he grabs the frame of Moralez’s bunk and brings up his leg to kick the prone man. Reflex takes over and Moralez rolls off the bunk on the other side, while the soldier’s foot comes down on his bedding. Moralez slowly stands up, eyes fixed on the soldier, while the soldier seems to grow even angrier, almost toppling the bunk before extracting himself and walking around it.

“I’ll kill you, motherfucker,” the soldier growls. “I’ll fucking kill you.”
“Fuck off,” Moralez replies as he draws his strong-side foot back and raises his hands to his waist. Reflex. Moralez understands why the soldier is angry at him, he does, but what he doesn’t understand is why he’s picking this particular fight. He’s seen Moralez fight. He knows why he’s in his own corner.

He knows this can’t end well for him. But still he swings for Moralez. And the rest is reflex.

Sidestep strike, catch wrist, twist arm. Trip unbalanced opponent. Opponent falls to his knees, increase pressure to overextend captive arm at the shoulder joint.

“Fuck off,” Moralez growls, then lets go. He’s fighting in the rest area. Five demerits. Wasn’t hungry, anyway. Fight is over now. He turns around and tries to walk away.

But the soldier hasn’t gotten the message. He’s too dumb to realize what Moralez has done for him, which means he can’t help but run right into what Moralez will do to him. Moralez doesn’t hate him for that, either. He knows the others hate him. But out here, there’s only one way to make sense of it all. And that is to trust your reflexes.

Heel pivot, snap kick to side of the liver. Momentum carries the soldier onto Moralez. Seize flailing arm, duck and execute hip toss. Soldier hits the ground neck first. Moralez has gotten good at listening; he can almost count the number of cracked bones by the sound an impact makes. It was a big noisy crack - probably the clavicle and the shoulder blade on that side. Painful. Probably not as bad as the soldier not crying out in response. He hits the ground and barely even twitches even as blood pours from his busted nose. Moralez watches his chest heave. Still breathing. Good. Twenty demerits.

On your knees!” they shout; they, the Turai that rush out to surround him. They don’t need to shout, he knows what to do. Moralez interlaces his fingers behind his head and sinks to his knees. “On your knees, prisoner!” they repeat.
“Fuck off,” Moralez mutters quietly.

Five more demerits. The Turai make sure he pays them off on the spot.
“That is enough!” a voice calls out - in English.
Moralez doesn’t budge. Not a good idea to abandon submission posture before you’re ordered to. That’s ten demerits. He should know, better than most anyone still here.
Another Turai walks down the steps from the guard post, and judging by the way all the others clear out of the way, this one must be in charge. He says something Imperial, and the guards back up, dragging the other soldier away as he walks up to Moralez. “Moralez - Ser-geant. I am sorry, I have learned some Narsai’i. Do you under-stand me?”
Yes, Turai!” Moralez replies. Reflex.
“You can speak Narsai’i, Moralez,” the Turai says, coming to a stop in front of him. “You fought well today.”
“...yes,” Moralez says. Fingers still interlaced, staring somewhere beyond the Turai’s kneecaps.
“All of you have fought well,” the Turai says. “Which is why I am here. I have good news.”
Moralez waits. He’s waited a long time. He can wait a little longer.
“The Narsai’i events are finished - the Emperor has ordered it,” the Turai continues. “Now, you all have a chance for freedom. You will fight in the Arena as warriors, not as prisoners. If you do well, you will become a Champion, and be freed.”
Moralez neither budges nor speaks. There’s a murmur in the other corners of the room, but he doesn’t join it. LaRouche would have. He and McKinsey. Sometimes Moralez wonders what would happen if they were still alive.
“Soon,” the Turai says, and it’s only now that Moralez notices that the Turai’s voice is being amplified throughout the holding area, “you will be moved to general population. But first, you must be chosen for sponsorship. Fortunately, there are people that are...that are good enough to help warriors win, to pay the best to be better, be strong enough to survive.”
Strong enough to survive. Moralez turns that around in his head. Strong enough to survive. Well, he’s still here and all those other fuckers aren’t, yeah? He survived. He’s strong. He looks up at the Turai, now convinced that this guy is talking directly to him, about him. One demerit for eye contact. Fuck it, he’ll take it if he’s wrong.
The Turai looks back. “That would make it thirty-one. Yes, Moralez?”
Yes, Turai!” Moralez answers, lowering his head again.
“Do not avert your eyes, Warrior!” the Turai barks.
Moralez snaps up again. “Yes, Turai!” he barks.
“You are a Warrior! Not a prisoner,” the Turai bellows, this time unmistakably right at him. “You may be Narsai’i, a criminal, a terrorist, but here, you are proud, you are strong. I do not respect a Warrior that is afraid of looking those stronger than him in the eye. You will not be afraid. You will respect me because I am stronger, but if you are afraid?”

The Turai’s hand shoots to his hip, where his pistol instantly detaches itself from his armor into his hand. The next moment, he points his sidearm at the moaning face of the soldier Moralez just wiped the floor with, and with a screeching ZZIIP splatters his head on the concrete floor.
“I will do the same to you, Moralez.” The Turai gets right up in Moralez’s face. “Do you understand?”
Moralez doesn’t flinch. He’s forgotten how that works. “”Yes, Turai!” he shouts.
“Good,” the Turai says. “There are people that want to meet you, Moralez. Come with me.”


The instant Moralez steps off the holding area, the whole look of the Arena changes. Blank concrete changes to steel and bronze, and the grit and scent of human bodies vanishes instantly. Flanked by four Turai, he’s walked down the hallway while other Turai halt what little foot traffic there is - they look at him as too dangerous to let anyone near. He keeps his head forward as he’s escorted, but his eyes stay on the move for threats. Even with all this protection around him, he can’t shake the feeling of a knife coming for the back of his neck.

It’s a short walk to the destination, though - a white room, tables and chairs, and an elevated stage up front. Moralez is walked up onto the stage to a specific spot, and with a “Stand here” in Imperial, he’s left alone with two guards at either end of the stage. Moralez just stands there, eyes locked forward and arms at his side. If it weren’t for his breathing and sweating, you could mistake him for a realistic wax statue. After a while, the lead Turai from the holding area comes back, but not alone. A train of people, dressed in insane clothes that are a swirl of colors, motion, and even holos, follow after. He’s talking to the men and women in Imperial, and he can only catch a few words.

“And here is our most promising warrior from the Narsai’i bouts,” Odun Khaa says, gesturing with both arms towards the Narsai’i up on the stage. “’Moralez’ is his name, although presumably you all have a list of better names to run past him in the event that you win the bidding.” The nobles file in behind Khaa, and he steps up onto the stage next to the Narsai’i. “’Turn around, Warrior,’,” he orders the Narsai’i in his own language, and the man slowly steps in a circle. “I presume you are all familiar with his talents as a warrior. In my assessment, he has the skills, talent and mindset of a Champion. All he needs from you is the training and assistance to reach his full potential.” He looks over the floor as the man finishes his silent rotation. “Now, we have many warriors that need sponsorship today, so we must keep things moving. I will now entertain questions before we proceed straight to bidding.”
“Yes, yes,” one woman pipes up - her dress consists of a dull gold bodysuit topped with four enormous red-brown ribbons that fan out from her hips like a hoop skirt, run up her chest almost meeting and then fan out again from her neck. “He’s not too shabby, but I wonder how well he bottles up that fury. What’s his demerit ratio?”
“Less than five per day on average,” Odun Khaa replies. “And that is in the prisoner blocks. But…” Khaa smiles. “When the other Narsai’i provoke him? Thirty or more per incident.”
That produces a wave of “Ooooh”s and some quick chatter among the assembled nobles. “Capital!” one exclaims - he’s covered in a shimmering green-blue full-body suit that only exposes his face and ears. “I declare, Odun, that is most agreeable.”
“Eh,” the woman crows. “He’s too efficient. No showmanship. I want to buy a gladiator, not an executioner.”
“Oh, do have a little faith,” the man says. “I’ve taught slave-beasts to sing and dance. He’ll learn. He does take education well, does he not, Odun?”
“He’s already learned a bit of Imperial on his own, and he took to the Arena rules among the quickest,” Khaa replies. “We haven’t bothered with mental profiling yet, but I’d say that he’s trainable, if that’s what you want.”
Others in the room scoff and shake their heads. “I’d prefer my investment to survive long enough to be profitable,” a man in a shifting semi-transparent hard-edged crystal suit, more resembling a see-through suit of armor than anything else.
“And he responds very well to non-kauka-based treatments as well,” Khaa replies. “Very hardy and strong.” He claps his hands together. “All right, time for the auction. You are bidding on the right to sponsor and manage the Narsai’i known as Moralez. Please submit your initial bids now.”

Holos and haptics flutter about for a few seconds, and then Odun Khaa checks the results in his ocular implants. “Impressive,” he says. “First round high bid is 200,000 lats.” A rumble moves through the assembled nobles - some of them looking smug, while others are distressed with how expensive things are already getting. “Round two begins...now,” Khaa says, and a few seconds later the result appears hovering in his vision. “425,000 lats,” Khaa announces, and with that several nobles turn off their holos, and a couple get up in disgust. “Third and final round begins now,” Khaa says, and when the result flashes in a few seconds later, even the Odun is surprised. “750,000 lats.” That gets an outright shout of dismay from a couple of the nobles. “Any bidders willing to exceed 750,000?” Khaa looks over the group. “No? Then he is sold. Once he is cleaned and given his issue, he will be moved to a training room for initial review.”

Moralez doesn’t need to understand many of the words to know what just happened; he heard numbers that got bigger, he saw the glee on some faces, disappointment on others, yet all with a disdain for him that made it clear where they see themselves relative to him. Still, he stays silent, stands still. He’s just been sold to fight for someone else. But that doesn’t matter. The time to kill again is coming.
“Warrior,” the Turai says in English as he turns to Moralez. “You will follow my Turai back down the hall. There, you will get a shower and be given clothes and items for a Warrior. Understood?”
”Yes, Turai!” Moralez shouts.
The Turai shouts something in Imperial, then grabs him by the chin. “Stop that right now, Warrior. How many times do I have to tell you. You are not a prisoner. So stop acting like one. Have some...have some respect for you. Understood?”
Moralez’s eyes meet the Turai’s. He’s touching him. Reflex tells Moralez exactly what to do. Moralez doesn’t do it. “Yes...yes, Sir,” Moralez says.
“Good,” the Turai says, and lets Moralez go. “Very good. And you did not break my arm, either - even though you could have. I think you will do well here, Moralez.” He nods towards the Turai. “Go, get cleaned up, you smell like scrofa shit.”
“...thank you,” Moralez says. Somehow, he wants to...do something for those people, show them that he realizes what they did to him - for him? - but in the end he just trots off to follow the Turai. The two Turai chat through their armor as they walk behind him, and when they lead him into the open showers, one gives him a thumbs up and a chrome-faced nod as the other tosses him a bar of soap.

Moralez catches the bar of soap, looks at it for a moment. It feels like - he doesn’t know what it feels like, but it feels like something he hasn’t felt in a while. He ignores it, and quickly strips down before turning on the shower. Hot water, real soap. He suds up and starts scrubbing. Try as he might, the off-color splotches on his skin still won’t come off.


After the shower, Moralez is lead by his two Turai escorts down another hall and into something that actually looks vaguely familiar. Weights with handles sit on a rack in one corner next to a large mat, and in the opposite corner is an examination table and a bunch of cabinets. The Turai lead him over to the exam table before stepping off over by the door to wait in silence. Moralez stands there for a moment, trying to figure out his next step, then decides to just sit down on the edge of the exam table, fold his hands and wait.

A few minutes later, a small crowd of Imperials walk in, lead by two women, who both bow slightly to Moralez and say something in Imperial. One of the men with them turns to Moralez and speaks up in English. “Mistresses Duni and Tansa are pleased to meet you in person, Moralez.”
“Uh,” Moralez replies eloquently. He stands up again, looks at the interpreter, then at the two women, then at their feet.
Both women quickly speak up at the same time, the interpreter waving them off. “Please, Moralez, you do not need to look away. They like that proud dignity, it was part of what drew them to bid for you in the first place.”
Moralez quickly looks up, taking in their faces for a moment, then turns to the interpreter again. “What do they want me to do?” he asks.
“Please, sit down,” the interpreter says on his own, gesturing at the table. “I will introduce you to your care team.”
And so Moralez sits down again, scanning faces as their names are introduced to him. His fingers tap the edge of the table, slowly - ever so slowly - picking up speed.
“This is Shennosa, your trainer,” a scarred and balding man nods to him, “Hageni, your stim specialist,” a woman about as thin as Shennosa is thick nods next to him, “Aben, your publicist,” this time a well-dressed man nods, “and I am Kaoket, your language coach. The Mistresses have hired us to work with you to become the next great Arena Champion. It will be a lot of hard work, but they - we believe you are up to the challenge.”
“...stims?” Moralez asks. “You mean - drugs?”
“Of course,” Kaoket replies. “We brought what we need for this first meeting with us. When you learn Imperial, you can talk with Hageni about requesting something more. If the Mistresses agree, then we will make sure you get it. This first set will keep you from being sick and make sure you stay strong.” He gestures the stim woman towards him, and the Turai move from their spot on the wall closer to the table.

“But first,” the translator says as he steps to Moralez’ side, “I have to give you something.” A large injector appears in his hand. Moralez looks at it, then back to the translator, and although he doesn’t move, the implication is clear - that injector could end up shoved down Kaoket’s throat if Moralez wanted it to. Kaoket hesitates for a moment, but then sticks the needle in Moralez’s neck. A hiss of pressure later, and the needle comes back out. “Say something in Imperial.”
What do you want me to say?” Moralez asks.
“That will be fine,” Kaoket replies. “Now say something in Narsai’i.”
“In Eng-” Moralez begins, then winces. “The f-” is all he gets out before the next wince, then he takes a breath. “Why?” he asks.
“You have a holo interview in a month and a half, and you need to be fluent in Imperial by then,” Kaoket says. “The best way to learn a language is to use it constantly - and this will make sure of that. I will be reachable by vox for any words you are not sure about, and when others need to speak to you and do not know Narsai’i, I will be present to translate until you learn the language.”
Will it kill me?” Moralez asks.
“Of course not,” Kaoket replies, visibly offended. “You’re not just very valuable to my employers, but that would defeat the purpose. Everyone here wants you to succeed, to win, Moralez. We are on your side.”
One of the women, either Duni or Tansa, produces a plastic bottle with what looks like juice in it, and offers it to Moralez. “For you,” she says in very broken English.
“Thank y-” Moralez says without thinking. “Thank you.” He opens the bottle and takes a whiff. Smells like a bottle of Jarritos Manzana with a dash of ginger and sharp cinnamon, though the deep red artificial color looks more like something that came out of Mr. E. “Thank you,” he repeats, then takes a swig from the bottle.
Kaoket waits for Moralez to finish the bottle, then takes the empty from him. “Now, if you would lie down, we need to start the infusion for your stims.”
Moralez lies down, arms at his side and eyes fixed on the ceiling. His right hand twitches a bit, like it knows it belongs around a throat. The stim woman, Hageni, steps up and brings some white medical-looking rig with a crazy-looking device on a flexible neck. At the end of it is at least four or five needles, and when she reaches over to start to swab his chest, it’s clear where she intends to stick it. Moralez scans her, thin neck, delicate fingers - she wouldn’t last a second. When she notices him looking, a smile creeps onto his face. She hesitates for a moment - but only for a moment.
“Please, Moralez, have some manners,” Kaoket says.
I’m sorry,” Moralez says. He doesn’t stop smiling.
Hageni says nothing in response and just finishes swabbing Moralez’s chest. She grabs that crazy-looking needle head, and after a moment of positioning it, shoves it into his chest. Moralez grunts in discomfort and his right hand curls into a fist, but he doesn’t say anything. The stim woman then turns to the machine and works the holodisplay for a few seconds before Moralez feels something spreading into his chest. Hageni says something to Kaoket about it starting before Kaoket speaks up himself.
“And the stims have started,” Kaoket says. “The process is very painful, so we will put you to sleep while it proceeds.”
It’s not too bad, Moralez thinks. Vision’s going quickly, the pressure in his chest feels miles away, he can barely hear anything when it all goes black.

Moralez falls down into a nice dream. And maybe, he hopes, he won’t wake up again.
punkey 2016-01-17 21:51:58
He does, though, and with two Turai standing there next to Kaoket - who’s wearing different clothes. The first thing Moralez does is flex his muscles and work his joints best as he can, trying to work out some stiffness and get a better idea of whether he’s still complete. Kaoket’s change of wardrobe is only met with a silent, stone-faced expression.
“How are you, Moralez?” Kaoket asks. He motions for the Turai to come forward, and one of them has a plastic bin in her hands.
...fine,” Moralez answers, having taken a second to remember the consequences of answering Kaoket’s (actually pretty good) English in kind.
“Your initial genemods are complete,” Kaoket says, notably avoiding helping him sit up. “You will no longer get sick, aging is much slower, and you will maintain your strength and conditioning without much effort. Anything further, you will have to talk to Hageni.”
Moralez slowly sits up, then cocks his head to either side, audibly working out some crepitus. “What’s next?” he asks.
“Next, you receive your standard Arena issue,” Kaoket says, and stands aside while the Turai brings the box forward and sets it down next to him. He can’t see her eyes, but he imagines she’s giving him a “I dare you to try anything” glare. The box seems to be the first thing in a while that Moralez is actually interested in; he glides off the table, crouches down and opens the box. Pushing aside neatly folded bedsheets and a sealed plastic (?) bag of what seems to be some sort of officially-mandated toiletry set, he pulls out a two-piece bodysuit: the material is black and textured in a hexagonal pattern, and holding the shirt (?) by the collar (?) opening, Moralez can feel the fabric almost suck the sweat off his fingers and wick it away. The black is contrasted by matte silver piping running down the long sleeves and sides of the shirt, meeting a similar stripe on the side of the leggings - which, Moralez notes with the first thing resembling amusement he’s felt since getting here - seems to mount an inbuilt cup, probably both a safety measure and a means to not show off that particular bit of physique in a suit that otherwise looks like it’d be tight enough to count his muscles through it. Moralez decides to give the shirt a go, easily pulling it over his shoulders and sticking his neck through the collar, but once he pulls it down over his chest, it starts to come alive, pulling itself into position, working out crinkles and air pockets and finally almost suctioning itself to his skin. The mandarin collar - outlined in silver, with a stylized logo that looks like a thin triangle with the lines extending past the points - is a bit too tight, maybe, but as he moves around it, it moves with him, adjusting and stretching to eliminate any feeling of chafing, and if he didn’t know better he could swear it’s actually helping him breathe by gently applying pressure and counterpressure to his chest.

In short, Moralez feels like a million bucks, and it shows in his smile.

Thank you,” he says.
Kaoket smiles back - this being the first actual emotion the Narsai’i has given, he wants to reinforce it. “You are very welcome, Moralez. The Mistresses want you to have every opportunity - they own a sportswear industrium, and the additional clothes in there are from their top-end line of competition-grade sportswear. Arena warriors have saved for years to buy what you are wearing right now, Moralez - and they purchased the best Turai-H’lapa genemods for you, as well.” Kaoket smirks. “Vidas Lam, even I am not cheap. The Mistresses have invested a lot of money in you already, Moralez - they see a lot of potential in you. They think that you will be very famous and successful, both here and as a Champion.”
A champion?” Moralez asks, in the same tone of voice as one might say “All you can eat steak?”
Kaoket nods. “You could be famous across the galaxy, with parties and events in your honor. The life of an Arena Champion is quite exciting, Moralez. And the Mistresses want that for you.”

Something burrows into Moralez’s heart, a deadly poison called hope. Maybe, he starts to think, there’s more to this than just surviving and being left alone. Maybe, after everything he’s lost, there’s something to be gained. All he has to do is what he’s good at.

That’s good,” Moralez says, still smiling. “That’s very good.
“Glad to be working with you, Moralez,” Kaoket says, and stands aside. “These Turai will show you to your quarters now.”


Moralez’s quarters are not, as he assumed, a prison cell - well, then again, they are, but not the Alcatraz-vintage image that might conjure, and also not the bare concrete and bold primary colors snatched from a TV documentary on that new maximum security federal penitentiary built in the assend of nowhere. Instead, heavy door and thick walls aside, it looks - actually, it doesn’t much look like barracks either, mostly because it’s nicer. There are two bunk beds, half-sunk into the walls, making for a total of four bunks, each with a small wrap-around curtain for a certain amount of privacy. In a corner is a small washroom niche, featuring a sink and a walled-off toilet area, though no shower. The walls are covered with some posters - not paper, but precisely applied paint, presumably removable if tastes change - while the center of the room is taken up by a table with four barstool-like seats. Against the wall with the windows, there’s something like a plastic end table with what Moralez recognizes as a very basic autochef, probably only designed to dispense some basic beverages. There’s no cleaning supply closet, so they’re either not burdened or trusted with cleaning the room, depending on your read of the situation. Still, the two other gladiators sitting at the table don’t seem to be having too bad of a time of it, playing a game with some small, shiny pieces of the table surface, which Moralez now realizes is a basic display unit.

“Moralez, this is Toth and Vani,” Kaoket says, motioning to each in turn.
Both of them look his way, in that particular way that Moralez has also learned how to do - sizing someone up to see what they can take from him. “What did you say?” Vani says, standing up from the table.
Moralez could step up and try to smooth this over, maybe score some points, but on the other hand...on the other hand, he enjoys watching Kaoket squirm a bit. So he says nothing, leaving it to his “interpreter” to explain to these hardened gladiator types why he’s speaking Narsai’i.
Kaoket takes a nervous step back. “I was just introducing you to your new roommate, Moralez - he’s a Narsai’i.
Moralez nods to Kaoket, then turns to the gladiators. “And this is Kaoket, my translator. I’m sure he meant no offense.
They both turn their aggression towards Moralez. “Narsai’i,” Toth sneers.
Hold on,” Vani says, holding Toth back out of Moralez’s reach. “I think I saw this one fight. He’s all right.” Vani nods. “You’re the one that slit four Narsai’i throats in that four-on-one, right? Yeah, he is.” He gives an appreciative nod. “The other Narsai’i in those things were just stupid, throwing themselves at them, didn’t bother trying to split them up. It was almost like they were trying to get killed.” He nods towards an empty mattress. “That one’s yours.

Moralez nods. “Good,” he says. He gives Toth another quick threat assessment scan, but then walks over to his bunk and starts to put away his stuff. They won’t attack him here with Kaoket watching, but Kaoket’s not done with him, and making him wait those precious few minutes...that feels really good. Still, there’s something clawing at Moralez - that this is too easy, that there has to be another catch, and he knows prison rules well enough to understand that he’s a target, someone to be exploited and broken first, then brought in line.
Kaoket stands nervously by the door as Moralez’s vacating for his bunk has left him alone with Toth and Vani. “So, if there is nothing else -” Toth furrows his brow at more Narsai’i, and Kaoket quickly switches to Imperial. “If there is nothing else, I or any of your team can be contacted via the holodisplay,” he says, motioning towards the table. “We will respond as soon as we are able.
Shit, already got a care team and everything,” Vani mutters.
And the Mistresses have one more thing for you,” Kaoket says. “Your privileges here are tracked by simulated intelligences, and they have paid for you to have full-time access to the specialized training room, pre-order and delivery privileges from the cafeteria, and full menu and self-administration stim access.
Daamn,” Vani says. “Narsai’i gets all the toys.
You have an appointment with Shennosa in nine hours,” Kaoket says. “I recommend you familiarize yourself with your housing block and get some rest. Shennosa will likely have his way with you all day, and you will need the energy.
Toth chuckles at that, drawing another glance from Moralez. “Good,” Moralez says. “I have a question.”
Yes?” Kaoket says, already bracing for Moralez’s next little stunt. Instead, he finds Moralez still looking at Toth and Vani.
What do you do with thieves?” he asks.
There are demerits, punishments,” Kaoket replies. “But there are other things that can be done. The Mistresses anticipated this, and want you to contact them directly in that event. They will make sure that things are...handled.” Kaoket’s tone implies exactly what kind of handling would be done.
Good,” Moralez says, smiling a bit. It’s tempting to try to get the jump on Toth - he seems like he’s already rearing up to have a go at Moralez himself - but that would mean bad blood in this room, or getting reassigned / punished on his first day. No. Moralez knows he has to play this smarter. Playing smart has gotten him this far. Find someone outside, someone who drifts with no group affiliation, a loudmouth, an opportunist - someone the others won’t mind seeing hurt. And then hurt him.

Prison rules.

Thank you,” Moralez tells Kaoket. “I will go and explore. Toth, Vani, I will see you later.


Later turns out to be about an hour into the future, which sees Moralez reenter the room. All things considered, Moralez has been cleaned up well, and you have to look to see the evidence of the little fight he got in; there’s almost no swelling on the shallow cut over his left eyebrow, though there’s still a little blood on his chin where it dripped over his face and wasn’t quite completely wiped off. The split skin on his knuckles is a bit more obvious, but as he enters, he flexes his fingers, showing off the lack of serious damage to his fists.

You should see the other guy. Well, if you have the Premium Inside subscription on your Arena package, you have seen him, at least until they cut away for decency’s sake. One benefit of being an Arena warrior-slave in good standing is a free Premium Inside subscription, so by the time Moralez opens his mouth, there’s not a lot he has to tell Toth and Vani.

Showoff,” Toth grumbles, though not in an entirely unfriendly manner; it’s exquisitely counterbalanced by the broad grin on Vani’s face.
You might be worth all the sugar they’re blowing up your ass, Narsai’i,” Vani says. “More than that spinkshit Bal-El.

Moralez didn’t catch the name, though the “spinkshit” part was obvious. Strength without control. A big mouth without control. And a sloppy guard, which - given the obvious training in his stance - he really should be better than.

He attacked me,” Moralez says, and that assertion dampens Vani’s smile a little. An understanding passes between them. Vani knows who - what he’s dealing with here.
Yeah, he did,” Vani says. “The fight didn’t have to happen, though. You got hurt. You’re losing his sponsor money while he’s getting fixed up. And even spinkshits have friends.
Moralez pulls up a stool, noting that it only slides along the floor and can’t be lifted up. Then he sits down, noting how both Toth and Vani scoot back just a little to clear some elbow room on the table. “I don’t know how things work here,” Moralez says. “I’m grateful for any help you can offer.
Hey, no problem,” Vani says, slapping Moralez on the back.
Yeah, no problem,” Toth says, a little less enthusiastically.
The table beeps. “And first lesson - this is a ‘vox’, Narsai’i,” Vani says. “I don’t know how you communicate back on Narsai, but here, we use voxes. They’re in all sorts of shit.” He swipes a finger across the table. “And this message is from - whoa.” Vani stops cold. “You got sponsored by the Haakmai?
Moralez shrugs. “Never got their last names.
Both Toth and Vani stand up. “We’ll give you your privacy,” Vani says.
Say something nice about us,” Toth adds.

Once Toth and Vani move to their respective bunks, Moralez - well, he still can’t read Imperial for shit, but he figures he should poke the green button. A hologram pops up of the two women, seated on some kind of fancy space-sofa, holding hands.
We saw you introducing yourself to your housing block,” one of them - again, Moralez never got their names specifically - says. “And even though you will probably be restricted to your quarters for it, we just wanted to say - good job.” She smiles at him, and Moralez feels something stir inside him that makes him smile back.
Yes, great job making a first impression - you’ve already gone up into the top quarter of the new warrior rankings,” the other says.
There’s a pause, then the first woman speaks. “You can talk, Moralez. We can see and hear you.
Er, thank you. Uh, Mistresses,” Moralez says.
You are very welcome, Moralez,” the first one says. “Bal-El will be well compensated, so don’t worry about any retaliation. And as a reward, we will give you any one reward that the Arena can offer for tonight.
I thought of something you might want very much,” the second woman says. “A room to yourself, just for tonight.
Moralez’s heart jumps in his chest. “...thank you, Mistress.

They exchange more pleasantries before the call ends. Toth shows him how to order his dinner on this...vox...thing. He orders the berry scrofa filets. They look good, in the pictures, but that’s how it always is, right? He talks to Toth some more. Toth doesn’t like it here. Vani does, or at least he doesn’t mind so much, not anymore. More talk. Moralez files it all away. They could show him some moves? He agrees. Time for dinner. The cafeteria has a long line and a short line, and they wave him over to the short line. He gets his own tablet, with the meal already arranged. Smells great. Plastic (?) cup to get a drink at the autochef. He sits down at Toth and Vani’s table. More introductions. Moralez files them all away, faces, names, histories. Doesn’t talk much. He’s the Narsai’i, that seems to suffice for now. Eats his filets. They’re good. Better than anything he can remember eating, really. He gets seconds and wolfs them down, too. More drinks. His knuckles have stopped hurting. Good. He begs off further conversation. Says he’s tired. He is tired. Gets in line to put away his tablet, with the two plates and the plastic cup and the dirty cutlery. Asks a Turai where the private rooms are, just like that. Gets an answer, even. Thanks the Turai and means it.

Private room. A bed, not a bunk. Bigger window, which Moralez now sees isn’t a window, but another vox screen with a soothing image. He laughs a bit. It is soothing. He strips off the suit - the seal seems to loosen as soon as he pulls at the waistband, easily sliding off him. He holds it up to his nose, smelling the armpits. Faintly sweet, but fresh, too. Good stuff. He lies down in the bed, which is already made. The mattress takes a few seconds to decide how hard it wants to be, but when it does it makes a good decision. Moralez pulls the comforter to his chest, hears the soft whirring of the temperature controls adjusting to his preferred sleeping style. Sleep. Sleep sounds good. He looks around for the lightswitch, but the lights dim by themselves. Not all the way, though, like a faint moonlight still shining in from the window. Moralez closes his eyes and sucks in a breath through his nose. Smells good. He feels like a leaf floating on top of a still lake.
He sleeps like a baby.