Jade Imperium - Afghanistan, Pt. 3

punkey 2016-06-19 09:44:43
Stepping Out On Our Own
punkey 2016-06-19 09:44:51
The skimmer ride back to the FOB was just long enough to weigh the enormity of the day’s events - the ambush, the apparent temporary coup by Onas and Hug’sh back at the TOC, and the very worrying development of Imperial weapons on Narsai’i soil out of the hands of the GRHDI. Or, you could sleep for the thirty-five minutes that the flight back takes, which is precisely what Arketta and Luis do.

As the skimmer descends into the motor pool, Luis senses a waiting message for him. Arketta checks her vox at the same time - an urgent request to visit the Bashakra’i medicae staff at the FOB. Arketta looks to Luis after she listens to the message and tries to smirk, but she obviously is nervous about whatever this could be. Luis smiles back a bit grimly.
“If they’re asking us for help it must be bad,” he says. “Shall we?”
“Yeah, I guess we don’t have much of a choice,” Arketta says.

Weapon slung over her shoulder, Arketta leads the way into the Bashakra’i medical center - a small portable shelter in the middle of the Bashakra’i quarters area of the base. A young man, seated behind the sole desk in the tent, stands up as both Samals walk in and offers a bow.
“Samal Quis, Samal Stanhill, thank you for coming so quickly,” he says, his carapace displaying his name as “Turai Quaj”.
“Not a problem, Turai,” Luis says. “What’s the situation?”
“Well…” Quaj says, and presses the button to close the entrance behind Luis and Arketta. “If you would like to take a seat?”
“No,” Arketta says. “Just...just tell us, please.”
The Turai nods nervously. “Well, during the standard post-radiation blood panel, we found something. In your results, Samal Quis.” Arketta’s hand crushes Luis’. “You are three weeks pregnant, Samal.”
It takes Luis a moment to process that--half his mind is still caught up wait for the next crisis. His eyebrows raise. “What? That…” His words fail him, and he turns to Arketta with a broad grin - but she’s simply stunned, frozen in place.
“Are...is there any…” Arketta’s hand that isn’t clenching Luis’ drifts towards her midsection. “Damage?”
“Oh!” Quaj says. “No, the estimated exposure was minimal, Samal. You and your child are fine.”
And only then does Arketta relax. She lets go of Luis’ hand as she gasps for breath, then turns to him and wraps her arms around his back, squeezing him so tight she lifts him up off the ground. “We’re going to be a family,” she whispers to him.
“Yeah, we are,” Luis whispers back, and they both kiss.

After a few shared moments, Arketta puts Luis back down, a much bigger smile on her face.
Turai Quaj clears his throat. “Samal, protocol states that a medical absence be filed for you from front-line combat,” he says nervously. “But it is up to you when that starts.”
Arketta’s smile falls again as she turns back to the medicae, and then back to Luis. “Uh…” she starts, and looks back to the medicae. “How long?” she squeaks, and turns once again to Luis. “...a month from now?”
Luis shrugs up at her. “I don’t know. We’re about to go into some pretty hardcore stuff, but when aren’t we?”
“...are you sure?” Arketta asks. “It just doesn’t feel right, leaving everyone right now. But…” She presses her forehead against Luis’. “We’re going to have a baby. I want to fight. I have to. But...” She puts Luis’ hand on the belly of her carapace.
“I know,” Luis says. “Part of me wants to tell you to lie down here and get a full scan, and never come within skimmer distance of the front for the next nine months, and part of me doesn’t want to go into a shootout without knowing you’ve got my back.” He rubs her carapace for a moment, then turns his face up to look her in the eyes. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Okay,” Arketta says. “Okay.” She looks back to the medicae. “A month from now. But I want a full scan now, though, if that’s not too much trouble.” She smiles at Luis. “You’re not wrong about that.”
“One point in the paranoid overprotection column,” Luis says, smiling back.


A half-hour later, Luis is waiting outside the now-opaque dividing wall in the medicae shelter next to Arketta’s carapace and weapon, pacing a clear line back and forth as his vision is dominated by searches for Imperial child care information and a half-dozen Cortex feeds on the topic. With his ward representative informed of the change in population, the wheels of Bashakra’i bureaucracy are turning as they should be for the happy event, and indeed he’s already received an automated congratulatory message from the Bashakra’i personnel department, providing another packet of digital information on how to best take care of mother and child both pre and post-birth.

However, due to the relatively small amount of his perception currently occupied by the world around him, it’s only until it’s practically upon him that Luis notices the ambush.
“Luis!” a woman’s voice shouts.
Luis jerks around, switching back from the virtual information filling his view. Arlana Quis, in full carapace with her helm attached to her back and beamer slung over her shoulder, stands before him, her eyes wide with concern. “Where is Arketta? Why are you at the medicae tent?”
“She’s in getting a more detailed scan,” Luis says, his smile as much dazed good humor as reassurance. “It’s just precautionary. She’s...we’re going to have a baby.”
Never before has Luis seen anyone go from panicked and scared to surprised and delighted so quickly. “Wha - oh, Masters above, Luis, that is wonderful!” Arlana wraps her arms around Luis and treats him to a nearly identical rib-crushing hug, with only their relative parity in height preventing her from lifting him off the ground.
“It is!” Luis says. “I’m sure we’ll be telling everyone soon, it’s just...still sinking in.” He laughs. “They’re just doing a more detailed scan to make sure everything looks normal, and then we’ll have more of a chance to talk about all that together.”
“How far away were you from the sunmines?” Arlana asks.
“When they went off, we were well behind the lines. Minimal exposure.” Luis’ face darkens a bit as that stirs other thoughts back up. “Mixed blessings--it got bad closer to them because nobody there knew what was going on.”
“So I have heard,” Arlana says. “That is what happens when you let idiots push you around, Luis. Never make that mistake.”
“I’ve been trying not to,” Luis says. ‘But there’s a lot going on with that, and I’m a little distracted from it.”
“That’s what I’m here to help with,” Arlana says. “I told Brinai that I will be coming here to work with her forces. Arketta said that the Narsai’i are treating them like children and ordering them around - and Onas is a nice young man, but he is not going to tell the Narsai’i to go fuck themselves, and I will if it will protect my daughter and son-in-law.”
“Thank you, Samal,” Luis says.
“Brinai tried to object, but I convinced her that Mr. Briwama is no Samal,” Arlana says. “He will handle the leaders, but I will handle the Turai.” She smiles. “And Ody says hi.”
“Is he doing well?” Luis asks. “I’m sure we’ll be calling him soon, to officially tell him.”
“He is learning the magnitude of the mistake he has made,” Arlana says. “He accepted the ward administrator position for the village, and is already regretting his decision. Apparently, there are twelve different groups trying to lobby him for the official name for the ward.”
“Are any of them good? Or hilariously bad?” Luis asks.
“A few of both,” Arlana says. “You’ll have to ask Ody which is which.”
“I might have to,” Luis says.
“He’d love to hear from you,” Arlana says, then walks past Luis to open the partition to the exam space.
The medicae looks up in surprise, his hand frozen holding the wand over Arketta’s exposed midsection. “Excuse me, but -”
Arlana doesn’t budge. “That is my daughter, Turai.”
“Uh, hi!” Arketta says, surprised.
Quaj finally clocks Arlana’s rank, and visibly has to stifle the reflex to stand up and bow. “Of course, Samal. Well, she is looking all right, and the embryo is doing well.”
Arlana breathes a big sigh of relief as her hand goes to her chest. “Oh, Vidas Lam, that is good news.”
“What...are you doing here, mother?” Arketta asks.
“I can’t come see my daughter?” Arlana asks with a big smile. “Oh, I’m so happy for you.” She bends over and gives Arketta a big hug.
“Thanks, mother, but Luis did half of the work too,” Arketta replies.
“And so he did!” Arlana says, and gives Luis another motherly hug before turning back to Arketta. “But I came here after I heard what happened on the front. Sunmines, on Narsai?”
“Yes, it was...bad,” Arketta says. “I wasn’t near them when it happened, but…”
“Oh, I know,” Arlana says, and runs a hand along her daughter’s hair. “So, I came here to do what I can. I heard that part of the problem is the Narsai’i are not listening to us - or even letting us fight?”
“Yeah, they just put us in the back and hoped we’d go away,” Luis says. “The same story.”
“Well, that simply won’t do,” Arlana says. “I guess I’ll start there, let them know that this is an alliance, not a First-damned second-year field trip.”
“Mother…” Arketta says.
“Mother nothing,” Arlana says. “Onas is a nice man, but he’s too passive with these Narsai’i.” She straightens the rifle on her shoulder. “If they want to try to push me around, they’ll find out in a hurry how bad an idea that is - especially when my daughter, son-in-law, and their first-born child are on the front lines.”
“Just…don’t do anything you’ll regret,” Arketta says. “Or they will regret.”
“At least not more than you have to,” Luis says.
Arlana wraps an arm around his shoulders and pulls him close - a sudden reminder that Arlana’s matronly build is not from idleness and cakes. “See? Your husband gets it. Sometimes, you just have to show people who’s in charge. Now, which way to the Narsai’i Samals?”
“Out by the command post,” Luis says. “There’s a tent they’re based out of for planning patrols and stuff. Look for the one with the sand table - the map.”
“Right!” Arlana says. “Well, I'm off to introduce myself. You two…” Tears well up in her eyes, and she sighs and hugs her daughter one more time. “You have made me so proud.”
“Getting pregnant isn't that hard, mother,” Arketta says.
“You know what I mean,” Arlana replies.
“Yeah, I do,” Arketta says.
Arlana lets go, only to embrace Luis one more time. “And you too, Luis. You are both fine Samals.”
“Thank you,” Luis says. “Good luck.”
“Oh, the Narsai’i are the ones that will need it,” Arlana says, and walks off.

“Vidas Lam,” Arketta says. “I hope she doesn't get into too much trouble.”
“You and me both,” Luis says, watching after Arlana for a moment. “Maybe she’ll kick their ass enough to actually change something, though.”
“She broke her Samal’s arms once, Luis. He ordered them to raid the wrong hab block and one of her Turai caught a beam,” Arketta says. “Both of them. I am worried she will kick too much ass.”
Luis turns back to Arketta and smiles. “We’ll figure it out,” he says. “You feeling good?”
Arketta reaches out, and Luis steps close enough for her to take his hand. “Better than good.”
Luis takes her hand and pulls himself close. “That’s good.”
punkey 2016-06-19 09:45:10
It’s a cloudy morning over the ‘stan as Hug’sh heaves his several hundred pounds across the FOB, running on about four, maybe four-and-a-half hours of sleep and looking it - he sure doesn’t need to wear his sunglasses for the glare. His color is mostly neutral brown, but the hanging fur and faint blue that still ripples across it give him a bit of a “Just stepped out of the shower without toweling off” look. The distant whine of Onas’ skimmer has grown more powerful by the second, and finally the craft settles into its final approach, pitching its nose up as its impellers arrest its forward motion and bring it down to the ground on a steep course. It’s a subtle but powerful display of the victory of science over aerodynamics, but Hug’sh - even if he had paid attention to aerodynamics in school - is in no mood to appreciate that; he just raises his left arm in front of his face to shield his muzzle from the sand being kicked up. There are, of course, a half dozen Narsai’i soldiers around the landing pad, who would rush to refuel and rearm a Narsai’i helo but here just stand at their assigned positions doing a lot of waiting and not a lot of anything else. Still, SOP for landings has to be followed. Hug’sh is just about done being annoyed by that when the craft finally settles down and opens up to disgorge its passengers. Onas climbs out of the driver’s side door and quickly hustles around to the cargo hatch of his skimmer, opening it before Paul can get out and pulling his husband’s bags out from underneath the craft. Paul says something - probably chastising Onas that he can get his own bags - before giving him a peck on the cheek and carrying his bags off the landing pad. Another man, taller and darker skinned than Onas, closer to Ngawai in tone and build, waits patiently for Onas to either unload his bags or let him do it, and when Onas pulls another set of bags out, he slings his rifle over his back and walks towards Hug’sh.

Hug’sh flashes a subdued green that turns his subsequent grunted greeting into the best equivalent of “Hey, howya doin’?”
”Good, Walks-the-Fire,” the man says, and sets down his bags to bow a proper greeting. ”Iro Briwama. I was told to talk to you about getting settled in here and meeting with the Narsa’i?”
”Indeed,” Hug’sh says, returning the bow. ”There’s a general officer meeting in 35 minutes. I suggest that we go to your hab, lock up your stuff there and take a little tour of the place after the meeting.” Hug’sh looks to both sides. ”A short tour. Not too much to see here, I’m afraid.”
”I need to change into my carapace, anyway,” Iro replies. ”Lead the way.”
”Gladly,” Hug’sh says. He walks over to Onas and Paul to help with carrying Iro’s baggage. ”Hello to you, too,” Hug’sh says. ”Will you be around for lunch?”
”If Paul isn’t taken away by the Narsai’i by then,” Onas says. ”We have word that Russell is on his way here.”
“You worry too much,” Paul replies, wrapping an arm around Onas’ back. “I’ll just sit down with him, we’ll talk, and everything will be all right, trust me.”
“Wait until you talk with Bello, trust will not be what you think of,” Onas replies.
Hug’sh huffs at the mention of Bob Russell. ”Oh, I’d love for that slimebag Russell to try something,” he says, hefting Iro’s bags onto his shoulders. ”I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t enjoy it, though. Anyway, we’ll have some strategic matters to discuss later. I’ll see you then?”
Both men nod. ”See you later, Hug’sh,” Paul says, and they walk off together - Onas subconsciously positioning himself between Paul and the Narsai’i, Hug’sh notices.

Hug’sh stays quiet at the sight, lingering a moment too long on it. Hugh Verrill really made an ass of himself with those two, and another life doesn’t feel nearly far enough away from that terrible moment. Finally, Hug’sh turns back to Iro and tries to push a little more green into his fur.

”I don’t think anybody here knows what you did for their brothers on Botane,” he says to Iro. ”We could change that, if you want to.”
”No, thank you,” Iro says.
”Fair,” Hug’sh says. ”How much do you know about the situation here? They’ll brief you in tedious detail one way or another, but maybe I can answer a few questions while we walk.”
”Do you mind if I speak Imperial? It’s hard for a human to speak Whirr-sign and carry things at the same time,” Iro says.
”Not at all,” Hug’sh says, his fur brightening. ”But thank you for asking.”
“I was given a packet to study, but Onas and Paul both said that things had changed dramatically in the last day or so,” Iro replies. “Sunmines in the mountains and beamers - Imperial ones at that. Those are both serious problems that we’ll have to account for in our plans. What have the Narsai’i been doing?”
”They’re still trying to come to terms with it,” Hug’sh says. ”They’ve locked down this base and are evacuating their casualties within their means, but as of yet no further action has been taken. I hope they will bring some ideas to the meeting, though. Sitting here after such a crushing loss is destroying morale around here.”
“Then they should perhaps be a bit more cautious who they pick a fight with,” Iro says. A moment later, he thinks better of it. “I apologize. They couldn’t have known, this time, and I know you used to be one of them - Onas told me.”
”I wasn’t just one of them,” Hug’sh says. ”I was first through the Gateway. What we did that day...it started all this. We couldn’t have known when we set out. That doesn’t absolve us of dealing with this mess, though.” He shakes his head. ”I wonder how many more such lessons it will take before the Narsai’i learn not to stick their hands in every hollow tree stump. And if there will still be a Narsai to benefit from that wisdom.”
“Let’s hope so,” Iro replies.
punkey 2016-06-19 09:46:05
As Zaef approaches Bello’s quarters in the Bashakra'i hab - marked notably by its second story location and the lack of any windows, although the Turai standing guard outside was new - he hears Bello’s voice, muffled and garbled by the walls, talking, presumably to someone else. As he approaches Bello’s door and therefore the guards outside, Bello’s voice stops and the door opens up as Zaef arrives.
“Please, Zaef, come in, Paul could use your perspective,” Bello says.
Zaef’s stride only falters a little at the readiness of his admittance. “I offer my perspective freely,” he says as he enters, “though I am confused, and frightened, that you are asking for it. Did something happen?”
“Paul is taking over my role with the operation, and you know the Narsai'i covert actions as well as I,” Bello says as he stands aside. Paul is seated at the table, his long hair tied back and slicked with some kind of scented oil, his tanned Narsai'i skin (and honeymoon physique) on display underneath a slick Bashakra'i low cut tunic.
Paul stands up and bows. “I'm going to need to know the shit that the Narsai'i have been up to if we're going to keep them out of our business, and Bello recommended I get your perspective.”

Zaef’s expression hardens and he lets a sigh out of his nose. “Well, I think it’s only a few places we keep them out of. For the most part, we still need to work with the Narsai’i, especially in the near future. Help keep this shit from happening again.” He leans back against the wall and pinches the bridge of his nose. “That said, we need to keep the Narsai’i from pinching the supplies we’re using. They’re trying to reverse-engineer our tech, and that’s fine, but it’s one thing to swipe it out of our trash and another thing entirely to swipe it from our shipments to the front. I also expect higher tensions around here, after...recent events. We haven’t had many incidents of discrimination from the troops yet, but that may change, and we need to make sure the next brasshole coming in here can’t turn a blind eye to it, just as we need to make sure our men don’t do anything stupid either.” Zaef rolls his eyes. “And there’s all the spying on each other crap, but I figure Bello’s got that covered well enough. Point is, there’s a lot of distrust we need to work through on both sides right now, and the recent clusterfuck that was the last battle is going to make more of that.”
“Sounds like we need to focus on securing our own shit before we start looking deeper into what the Narsai’i are doing,” Paul says. “I know you like to know what’s going on, Bello, but if the Narsai’i are taking our shit that’s priority #1. I’ll be tasking most of our agents to focus on counter-intelligence rather than snooping into the Narsai’i business.”
Bello nods. “Fair enough. Their motivations are depressingly shallow, anyway.”

“There’s something else,” Zaef continues. “My squad recovered beamers from the Taliban fighters - beamers that were manufactured in the Imperium. Perhaps you’ve already heard about the warehouse full of Imperial munitions that was blown up recently, as well. And I’m fairly certain that we haven’t gated over any equipment that could be used for setting up sunmines, unless either of you cares to correct me. I think we need to consider the possibility of another Gate in operation, and investigate it jointly with our allies - the Sheen, Wherren who show some interest and skill, and, yes, Narsai’i intelligence as well.” Zaef pauses so he can gauge their reactions.
Paul looks over at Bello. “That...might be complicated. I didn’t exactly give two week’s notice when I left the CIA, so they’re out.”
“And all the Narsai’i I can trust are needed at the front to fight,” Bello adds.
“The CIA was never an option,” Zaef responds firmly. “They’ve worked too closely with Blake and Hamilton in the past being one of many, many reasons. There are other intelligence agencies, however. I have spoken to Hunter and Davis about this - both have worked with the intelligence community before - and both have suggested alternate agencies we could work with, though the two names have their own pros and cons. You have your own experience with this field, Paul, and I would appreciate any input you have, as well.” Zaef’s jaw clenches perceptibly. “As for ‘trust,’ Bello, I won’t lie and say that I would be upset if this investigation helped foster some sort of trust between two distrustful groups. But I want to bring the Narsai’i in on this to give our findings some weight here on Narsai - if we are not obstructed, we are instead ignored, and I’m getting [breally fucking tired[/b] of both. I believe it is more likely the Narsai’i will take some action if one of their own agents weighs in. And maybe, just maybe, if they see how seriously we’re taking this, they’ll take it seriously as well. So while I am attempting to pick an agency with care, Bello, I am sure a certain level of distrust will serve us well.”
“From what I’ve heard, stay away from the bosses and field agents and stick with the nerds,” Paul says. “But I’ve been out of the loop for almost a year now, since I, well, ditched Narsai for my husband.”
“But I have arranged for help that will help close that gap,” Bello says. “Which should be arriving soon.”

Almost on cue, the door slides open and admits a trin of Narsai’i, dressed in a rag-tag mix of Narsai’i and Bashakra’i garb and armor and armed with an equally eclectic mix of weapons. Two of them, a man and a woman, are unfamiliar to Zaef, but one isn’t - the loudmouthed man with the weird accent from his demonstration to the Narsai’i top-tier warriors.
‘Ello, sunshine,’” said loudmouth says in English to Zaef with a smirk.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Utari,” the other man says. “My name is Jimmy Woo, this is Marta Jimenez and Caleb Bonham - we’re Trin 2 with 81X.”
“And you as well,” Zaef replies, extending a hand to shake each of them in turn. Yes, even Loudmouth.
’You lot have some gucci gear,’” Caleb “Loudmouth” Bonham says, tapping a fuck-off big knife strapped to his chest rig for a quick draw. “’Pity about the piss you call booze, it is.’
’Imperial, Caleb,’” Marta Jimenez squeezes through her smile as her turn to shake Zaef’s hand comes up. “It is an honor to make your acquaintance, Mr. Utari.”
“It is exceedingly agreeable to myself in addition,” Caleb adds, sounding like he had the dictionary for breakfast with some mash and brown sauce.
Zaef clamps down on the urge to grin as Loudmouth’s Imperial proves to be as coherent as his English. “’English is fine with me, though Bello and Paul might say otherwise.’” A thought strikes him, and he turns to Paul. “Do you want them to brief you first?”

“Why not, only got a few questions,” Paul says, and looks at the trin - but mostly at Jimmy and Marta. “So, I've been out of the loop for a while now - what's shaking in the halls of the intelligence community?”
“Bunch of attack dogs yanking at the chains,” Jimmy begins. “I’ve got a couple of old buddies in the DIA who are basically working 24/7 analyzing anything we send home. I mean anything, I’m pretty sure there’s a study group for spink ecology and its suitability for farming on Narsai. DNI is cockblocking it, CIA director’s cockblocking it, NSA doesn’t want to move until they figure out how to secure their systems against the Sheen, which is - well, you know.”
’Like nailing jelly to the bloody wall,’” Caleb adds. “A most futile effort.”
“Allegedly,” Jimmy continues, “the CIA’s SAD is trying to do 81X, too. Not that anyone would admit it, but they’re gobbling up people who can speak Imperial or have been involved with farside operations. It’s not official because the Director would stop it if it was, but they’re trying. Marta?”
“It is the State Department’s official stance that we need to keep a firm hand on existing commitments and issues on Narsai before we expend too much effort on off-world affairs,” Marta says. “That said, I’m here. And I’ve heard there are actual shouting matches over teleconference time with Director Barnes.” She looks away slightly. “That’s State for you. Always dignified.”
“Brigadier Pritchard has communicated his satisfaction with our current arrangement to us,” Caleb says, smiling a little at getting to be the guy with the good news. “’I quote: Good show, lads.’
“What about the NRO, or Marine Intelligence? Heard anything about them?” Zaef asks.
“The NRO’s staying out of it, mostly,” Jimmy says. “I’m sure they’d love to take a look at a Sheen shell and get specs on the sensors, but they’re too niche to have any say in how things go. Marines, you’d have to ask Hunter Brand, they’re his people, after all.”

“And how about the CIA in particular?” Paul asks. “If you don't know, I didn't exactly give two weeks notice before I left. Bob Russell, if you've ever worked with him, is on his way here to try to throw me in prison for sedition and treason and probably a few other things besides. Any insight to the movers and shakers in the Company would be good.”
Jimmy sighs. “My guys are in SAD,” he says. “Buy their suits at Men’s Wearhouse. They might do regime change outside Langley, but I don’t exactly have any directors friended on Facebook. From what I hear, though…” Jimmy trails off for a moment, while Caleb makes the universal ‘jerk off’ gesture at the mention of Langley. “What?” Jimmy says.
’You’re beating ‘round the bush quite furious-like, mate,’” Caleb says.
’Imperial, Caleb,’” Martha admonishes.
“Russell confabulated with ourselves,” Caleb says slowly. “From this consultation I discerned his prime concern being matters of allegiance, not misgivings about extrinsic combatants per se.”
“Russell interviewed me, too,” Martha says. “Bottom-line, boys: he’s just fine with getting help from the Bashakra’i, but he seems to think everyone who steps through the gate ends up as a brainwashed fifth columnist.” She looks to Paul. “Sorry, but you didn’t help with that.”
“On the bright side,” Jimmy quickly counters, “CIA Tech is on our side. They’re really pushing for better cooperation and access to off-world tech. Pretty sure they’re building a wooden runway in the Langley parking lot and doing some ritual dances to bring back Luis Stanhill.”
“That’s not funny, Jimmy,” Martha.
“Have you been to Vanuatu?” Jimmy counters. “Met an actual bunch of true John Frum believers?”
“And you have?” Martha asks.
“Yep, been there, done that, got the holy relic presents to prove it,” Jimmy says. “But even the guys there would think Tech’s going overboard. They’re really chomping at the bit, but the Director’s firmly on the ‘steal your shit and reverse-engineer it’ track and won’t authorize any requests for consultation or tech exchange meetings. I don’t think he learned how to share and care in Kindergarten.”
“He is a most Oedipal simpleton,” Caleb adds.
“And Russell?” Paul asks, looking a bit nervous.
“Oh, he mad,” Jimmy says.
“Infuriation aside,” Caleb says, “I found him most chary, yet not utterly obstinate. His aptitude for self-aggrandizement was dazzling to behold. A few strokes of prudence upon his substantial cranium would not go amiss. In ultimate consequence he is akin to a -” Caleb looks to Martha. “’Weasel?’
Martha shrugs. “’You’re on your own with that one.’
“A person whose principal ambition is his particular advancement. If cooperation bags him a fanciful gasconade suited to his progress within the hierarchy, an accord may prove forthcoming.”
“Maybe,” Jimmy adds.
“About right, but…” Marta says.
"I feel that this is a most accurate and perspicacious analysis of his current and prospective demeanor towards you,” Caleb says. “Probably.”
“Good to know,” Paul says, and look to Zaef. “All yours.”

Zaef takes a moment to gather his thoughts and leave behind the idle fantasies of killing Simmons and Russell. “So. I was just talking to Bello and Paul about opening an investigation looking into possible Gate activity. I was thinking bringing a Narsai’i intelligence agency in might help give the findings some weight.”
“You're not going to get anything official,” Marta replies. “With DNI Blake still crusading against us, the rest of the intelligence community will have to fall in line.”
“That's if we stick to official channels,” Jimmy adds. “Between the three of us, we know a spook or two. But that only goes so far. Nothing direct, nothing on the ground.”
Zaef grimaces. “In other words, they can help, but they can’t help Narsai take it seriously.”
“More like they can't bring real support to the field,” Jimmy replies.
“So what sort of support would they bring?”
“Whatever they can procure via solicitation, trade, or thievery,” Caleb replies. “Strictly on an anonymous basis, of course.”
“Of course,” Zaef responds, frowning. “Well, that was the only question I had at this time.”
“Well, we have one for you, sir,” Jimmy says. “Where do you want us to start?”
Zaef blinks once, twice, then turns a little to address the 81X. “I think it would be unwise to answer that when I haven’t fully taken advantage of your expertise. You’ve told me what to expect from Narsai’i aid, yes, but you haven’t given me your own suggestions yet.”
“People talk,” Marta says. “Especially about weapons like that. Villages all around the valleys will have heard about them, and probably something about where they came from.”
“Prospective bypasses circumventing international borders are not uncommon in this region, but those that ply them are more rare,” Caleb says. “An application of pressure could cause the malefactors to present themselves.”
“And Mr. Davis said he found some information, running that down seems worth a shot,” Jimmy says. “But we're on your clock, boss. You wanted backup, Bello brought us in to help.”
“I see.” Zaef rubs his temple, grimacing. “You should try to put the squeeze on arms dealers and smugglers. There’s no way to be discreet asking about this stuff, but they might be interested in eliminating the competition. Any questions?”
“When and where will we link up with you?” Jimmy asks.
“I want to get some Wherren and Sheen in on this, first, and you can come with, but after that is prep and personal time,” Zaef says. “We rendezvous at my temporary quarters in about 12 hours. Haven’t gotten much sleep since we picked up those beamers, and it’s catching up with me.”
’Ah, some ‘personal time’ with the old lady, then,’” Caleb says, then clears his throat. “I mean, a most opportune moment for intimacy.”
Zaef’s head slowly turns to stare at Loudmouth. One second. Two seconds. Then he lets out a grin, claps the man on the shoulder and says “Your Imperial is improving greatly, Caleb. Keep it up.” Then he turns to the room at large. “All right, let’s get moving. Bello, Paul, you know how to get a hold of me if you need to.”
Marta looked horrified at Caleb for a moment, while Jimmy silently cleared a path between Zaef and Caleb, and both breathed a silent sigh of relief when Zaef laughed instead of going for his neck.
“Will do, Zaef,” Paul says.
“I am at your disposal,” Bello says with a bow. “Brinai tells you to stay safe.”
Zaef responds to Bello with a nod, and heads out the door, adding a mental note to check up on British idioms and sayings.
While Kitty is out of the room. Just in case.
punkey 2016-06-19 09:46:36
Being a senior leader, Iro’s room in the Bashakra’i habs has a separate bedroom and living area, which comes in handy when the first thing Iro does after dropping his bags (and as Hug’sh tries to negotiate a doorway narrower than he is wide while carrying a couple bags himself) is grab his carapace case and start unsealing his clothes. He’s already got his top off by the time he’s in the bedroom, and it’s between tapping the section of his pants to loosen the waist and dropping them to the floor that he closes the bedroom door.

“What do you think of them?” Iro asks through the door. “The Narsai’i. Onas didn’t speak too highly of them, but what Paul has gone through doesn’t make him a fair judge.”
”They’re people,” Hug’sh opines, looking with some alarm at the amount of loose sand getting dumped on the floor as his fur rustles about in the A/C. ”Generally speaking, the grunts are just fine, a little out of their depth still but well-trained and willing to play ball. It’s the leadership where we’re running into the real problems. Too many people in charge who would rather be right than win, and many don’t trust us. I’m sorry to say that as representative of the Bashakra’i, you’ll have your work cut out for you in this regard.”
Iro opens the door, half in his skinsuit already. “I’m sorry, but my Whirr-sign isn’t that good yet. Mind if I leave the door open?”
”If it helps,” Hug’sh replies. ”For what it’s worth, it’s not just you, I just tend to...make it harder than it needs to be.” Hug’sh chuffs. ”You have no idea how much can be said with the right tone and color and sign. It’s beautiful, and I’m often unable to resist the temptation to run away with it.”
“You wouldn’t know that you’ve been Wherren for less than a year,” Iro says, sliding his arms into his skinsuit. “How does it feel to be working with your former people?”
”It’s a daily reminder of why I left,” Hug’sh says quickly. ”Let’s just say I was not very happy with Narsai before I ever even heard the word ‘Gateway’, and then let’s just say that everything that followed did not elevate my opinion.” Hug’sh sighs. ”I care. I don’t want this place destroyed, or these people killed. But damn it if they don’t make me think about abandoning the hunt every now and then.”
“How do you recommend I deal with the leaders, then?” Iro asks.
”Their biggest concern is what the Bashakra’i are doing behind their backs,” Hug’sh says. ”Be professional, make them feel listened to, tell them what you’re going to do. They’re used to working with other military allies, but they don’t like having their leadership defied. A few words go a long way, I find.” Hug’sh’s look lingers a little too long on Iro. ”Pardon me if this is too forward, but what is your interest in me in particular? Your questions have revolved at least as much around me as they have around the situation here.”
“I need to know what your mental state is,” Iro replies plainly. “I was told your mate is pregnant, and I know that that can affect how clearly Wherren think, and with you working with the people you changed yourself into a Wherren to get away from I doubt that’s helping, either.”
”Hrm,” Hug’sh grunts. ”I don’t like this place, I’m gritting my teeth every time a Narsai’i officer talks down to me, my hands are itching for a fight and the thought of my bondmate alone without me robs me of sleep every night. I’m still out here every day doing my best to keep it together and be the most helpful, professional Wherren general anyone could hope to work with. That’s my mental state. I can go into more detail if you like.”
Iro stays silent for a moment to snap a few of the leg plates of his carapace into place before standing up. “Good,” he says. “At least you are paying attention to it. We’re going to need that when you introduce me to the Narsai’i.”
”Is there anything in particular you’d like me to watch out for when you shake hands?” Hug’sh asks.
“If you ask Onas, a knife in the back,” Iro replies. “But I think more that they’re willing to listen.”
”Well,” Hug’sh says, ”I think after yesterday...they’re ready to hear you out.”


Iro keeps his green-and-blue Bashakra’i hood down as he walks into the TOC, beamer slung back over his shoulder. Hug’sh walks behind him, but given that the building has been since been emptied of Bashakra’i, seeing the gleaming chrome carapace suddenly gathers a lot of attention. Two MPs step in front of Iro.

’Sir, you’re going to need to come with us,’” one of the MPs says.
Hug’sh harrumphs loudly, then scribbles a quick phrase on his notepad and holds it for the MPs to see. Problem?
’No aliens in the TOC,’” the soldier says.
Hug’sh scribbles again. New Bashakra’i general. Get General Cooper.
The two MPs suddenly look very nervous. “’Uhh, sure,’” one of them says. “’Call the staff duty officer, we need General Cooper here.’
Iro looks to Hug’sh. ”What is going on?”
Hug’sh smiles. ”Oh, their only job is to not let people into this tent,” Hug’sh says. ”They enjoy it a bit too much. I’ve just advised them of who’s waiting for us.”
”Good,” Iro says. He watches one of the MPs walk off. ”I will probably need a translator, though.”
”We both will,” Hug’sh says. ”I’ve asked one of your men to meet us here. He is skilled in all three tongues and will assist us.”
”Good,” Iro says.

But before then, General Cooper emerges from one of the offices towards the back and walks through the TOC to Hug’sh and Iro.
’I apologize, my men are just doing their jobs,’” Cooper says. “’It’s been a rough couple of days between us and your people.’
“I understand, Onas is a good man but he can be a bit hasty in his actions,” Iro replies, and waits for Hug’sh to translate it as best he can.
’That’s one way of putting it,’” Cooper says. “’Come with me, we’ll wait for your translator in my office.’
Hug’sh nods to this, and motions for Iro to follow as they walk beside Cooper. On step three, Hug’sh starts scribbling out a new note. Your leaders’ response to ambush?
’Angry, confused, demanding answers,’” Cooper replies. “’Answers that I don’t have.’
Hug’sh pauses for a moment, then writes We will find answers together. After showing that to Cooper, he turns to Iro. ”I assume there have been no news about the source of the Imperial gear on the other side? Anyone talking about establishing a new link to Narsai?”
”Nothing our agents or the Sheen server on Hedion have turned up,” Iro replies.
Hug’sh nods - he knew that answer was coming.

Cooper leads the pair into his office - really more a temporary work space, with a folding table and a decent chair, with a laptop, VoIP phone, and papers on the table. Hug’sh ducks and weaves and finally all but squeezes through the door, almost banging his head on the ceiling when he tries to stand up on the other side. He waits for Cooper to sit down before he starts a new note. Why are we here?
’So we can talk in private,’” Cooper replies. “’I’d rather wait for the translator to come, if that’s all right.’
Agreed. Hug’sh turns to Iro. ”Some things need to be said in private, it appears. This is...not altogether surprising.”
”What are you expecting?” Iro grunts.
”Bad news,” Hug’sh says, keeping it simple.
”Such as?” Iro asks.
”That the Narsai’i have decided to go their own way again instead of listening to us,” Hug’sh says. ”We will see.”

A few minutes later, a young Bashakra’i woman - no more than twenty by Hug’sh’s estimation - walks through the door and squeezes around Hug’sh with an apology.
“I am here,” the young Turai - Tonina, according to her carapace holo - says. “Apologies, Odun.”
“No worries, you came as quickly as you could,” Iro replies. “So, let Rav-Odun Cooper know we are ready to talk.”
’We are ready, General,”” Tonina says, her English unsteady but passable.
’Then let me greet him properly,’” Cooper says, and stands up to shake Iro’s hand. “’Welcome to Earth, General. I look forward to working with you - and I do mean with you. I understand that there was friction between our sides in the past, but I hope that we can move past that.’
“Especially now that almost half of the Narsai’i forces here are dead,” Iro says plainly. “It was a tragedy, but one that could have been avoided if my people, or the Sheen, had been integrated into your units. Those that did so lost less than ten percent.”
”These losses weigh heavily on all of us,” Hug’sh adds, giving Iro a ‘Slow your roll’ glance. ”Let us discuss what we can do to prevent another tragedy.”
“Yes, of course,” Iro says. “We don’t want to repeat what happened - both for the war and to avoid another tragedy.”
Cooper narrows his eyes at Iro at his comments, but waits for Turai Tonina to finish translating. “’I agree. So, General, what are your goals here?’
“I want to pick up where Onas left off,” Iro replies. “He is a great leader and a brilliant strategist, but his judgement can be clouded by his husband. I believe that there is a better way to work together - mutual respect. If your people treat my people as they would treat their own, and we do the same, then not only will this mission succeed, but the alliance will as well.”
Tonina’s translation is a bit rocky, but Hug’sh figures Cooper can fill in the blanks. “’I agree completely,’” Cooper replies. “’It’s good to hear that from you, General.’
“But that means that you will need to enforce this with your people,” Iro continues. “I have heard how poorly your soldiers treat my Turai - and it is unacceptable. The first order of business will be you enforcing fair conduct towards my people, or we can go back to Atea tomorrow. I do not like to make such threats, but given how we have been treated so far - marginalized and ignored while your spies steal our equipment - I think it is fair.”
Cooper frowns. “’Yes, I understand,’” he says. “’I’ll put the word out soon.’
“Great,” Iro says. “I will review with my Rav-Samals their current status and look over the terrain we face, and will come back with you tomorrow to determine our next attack. When will you be ready to do the same?”
’Whenever you are, General,’” Cooper says. He still doesn’t look entirely pleased, but it also doesn’t seem to be entirely directed at Iro.
“Good,” Iro says, and bows to Cooper. “Have a good day, Rav-Odun.”

By necessity, Hug’sh leads the way out of Cooper’s office. As Tonina scrambles past them, he turns to Iro. ”That was quite...direct,” he says.
”As opposed to?” Iro asks.
”You were quite interested in how I feel,” Hug’sh says. ”How do you think Cooper feels, dealing with all this? And how do you think he sees you now?”
“Like he is dealing with someone who demands just as much respect as he does,” Iro replies. ”Would he hesitate to demand the same if it was my soldiers mistreating his own? Onas might have overreacted, but only because he took matters into his own hands instead of demanding that the Narsai’i act like Turai should. Rav-Odun Cooper is their leader, and he should have been enforcing the alliance as one of equals this whole time. If that upsets him enough that he can’t work with me, then it is the fault of the Narsai’i for sending someone less mature than my son to lead a war.”
”You’re not wrong,” Hug’sh says. ”He should have been on the ball, and he should now be mature enough to deal with criticism. I just worry that being too forward in this sets you up to either deliver in a big way or be dismissed by him.” He raises his hand. ”I know, he should be reasonable and professional and dispassionate about this. But he’s just found himself in charge of another big mess the Narsai’i can ill afford, and it might be his head on the chopping block of politics. I would advise that we do not push him too hard too fast.”
”If demanding basic decorum is too hard and too fast than it would be better if we returned to Atea and left the Narsai’i alone,” Iro countered. ”I saw what Narsai’i planning looks like. I will not let that happen to my people.”
”I’m not asking you to nod and say yes to every bad idea,” Hug’sh says.
”Then what are you asking?” Iro asks. ”There is no middle ground on being treated with respect, Walks-the-Fire. Something that I thought you would understand as a Wherren.”
Hug’sh fights down a ripple of orange. ”There is more than one notion of respect in play here, Iro,” Hug’sh says. ”You have barely arrived at this place, and you speak as if you would condemn these people to the inevitable destruction of their homeworld because they are still in denial about the threat of doomsday? I will take that as said in jest, but even so it is poor humor. I realize how frustrating this dance is, believe me - I’ve endured it for years, in this life and a past one. But are you here to be right, or are you here to save lives?”

”I am here to save the lives of my people,” Iro says. ”And if the Narsai’i continue to act as they have, they are more a threat to us than the Imperium. And I am not alone in thinking this, Walks-the-Fire.” He looks around - they’re out of the TOC and clear of the Narsai’i, and continues. ”You should know that I am also here to make my recommendation to Brinai, Bello and Onas if we are to continue working with the Narsai’i. Botane has hindered our ability to operate throughout the entire galaxy - and now they mistreat our Turai and steal our equipment? They are already a liability, Walks-the-Fire. I am here to judge whether or not they have any hope of improving before they bring the Imperium to our door.”
”And I’m asking you to judge them with compassion,” Hug’sh replies. ”I’m asking you to give them a chance to show us what they’ve learned from this. I’m asking you to...take it down a notch.”
”We do not have time for compassion,” Iro replies. ”Either the Narsai’i are ready, or they are not. After what they have done, we need to see progress, and we need to see it now. Otherwise, we will work with the 815 and continue discussions with Miss Barnes and Mr. Kesh, but nothing else. We do not have the time or the people to waste on Narsai’i threats and betrayals.”
Hug’sh nods slowly. ”I see,” he says. ”Shall I show you around, then?”
”Please, lead the way,” Iro replies.
punkey 2016-06-19 09:49:24
After showing Iro around the FOB, and getting the idea as to where all the amenities and facilities are located, Iro excuses himself to introduce himself to his Rav-Samals, leaving Hug’sh with a gap of time to fill. This also leaves Hug’sh alone, a fact his pregnancy-boosted hormones all too quickly seize on, pushing a wave of blue and violet through his fur before Hug’sh gets it back together with a deep breath. Then he takes another one, just to be sure. There. Better. His emotional state temporarily shored up, the lonely carebear scrolls through his to-do list and lands upon “Make sure we don’t lose Cooper”, which seems as urgent a task as any other, and so Hug’sh sets off to find the Narsai’i general. The entailing search is short, as Hug’sh is shown to Cooper’s office, where the good general is still brooding over some files. As Hug’sh awkwardly squeezes into the rather limited space, he tries to figure out how to replicate the courtesy of knocking on a door inside a tent, but seeing that his entry has already grabbed Cooper’s attention, Hug’sh postpones the niceties and reaches for his notepad.

Showed Iro around. He is not happy.
“He’s got some stones on him, doesn’t he,” Cooper says. “Do you know if all the aliens are insubordinate, or just his kind?”
Hug’sh smirks. Bashakra’i are more direct than us. He then adds He is not wrong.
Cooper taps on his desk. “Whether or not he is, it isn’t his place. I’ve half a mind to ban him from the TOC as well.”
Do you know who he is? Hug’sh writes.
“Some alien general that thinks we’re a bunch of backwater hicks like the rest,” Cooper says dismissively. “Explains where they get their manners from.”
Hug’sh shakes his head. Narsai’i troops went to Botane. He is the reason why some came back. He risked everything. Hug’sh makes sure to underline “everything”, twice. He does not think you have learned from this. He does not understand why his people should die for Narsai’i mistakes.
Cooper furrows his brow. “What are you talking about?”
He ran Bashakra’i underground on Botane. Hug’sh pauses for a moment, trying to come up with a good analogy that’s just plausibly bad enough to pass for someone who shouldn’t know too much Narsai’i politics. It is as if your FBI had a cell in China. Very dangerous job. He risked capture and death to help your troops.
“Whole lot of help he -” Cooper takes a deep breath, then starts over. “Yes. He helped us in our hour of need. Don’t see how that gives him license to treat us like rubes.”
At this, Hug’sh huffs, rippling his fur. Many bad feelings all around. They are prepared to quit this war. I am not. Are you?
The news that the Bashakra’i are looking for an exit stuns Cooper. “We can’t. And neither can they.”
What is stopping them? Hug’sh writes. You have no power over them. They resent that the Narsai’i act that way. They are here for your benefit. Who has thanked them for it? Who has asked their advice? Who has worried about their situation? Nobody. That is what they hate about Narsai’i.

“It’s not like they’ve been cooperative, either,” Cooper replies. “We have reason to believe they’re keeping tech from us, stopping us from making our own spaceships and Gateways and all the other bullshit they keep on selling us on. It’s a two way street, respect, and they have to give it first.” He doesn’t look like he buys it completely, but he isn’t selling someone else’s line, either.
Hug’sh looks at Cooper for a moment, blue playing through his fur. We have spoken about this. There are better ways to deal with this suspicion than letting this mission fall apart. He flips to a new page. It is not fair. It is war. Think of your people and think of what you must do to save them. The Bashakra’i want a sign that you are ready to listen. Give it to them.
“Well, I’ll take your advice to roll over under advisement,” Cooper says.
How many warnings that come true does it take to convince the Narsai’i? Hug’sh scribbles. Look within yourself. You know I’m right. The fate of this planet is in your hands now.
Cooper thinks for a few moments. “They won’t leave. They can’t. They can’t win this war without us.”
They can win it with us and the Sheen and the Kesh. But we will all suffer for it. Narsai more than anyone else. But it will still be better for us than trying to work with Narsai’i who do not learn from the past. After a moment, he scribbles I know you are smarter than your pride, General Cooper. You may still choose how history remembers you. I hope you choose wisely.
Cooper shakes his head. “It’d be suicide for them. This isn’t about pride, this is about needing an experienced hand at the wheel. I’d like to listen, but they need to learn how to speak our language - in more ways than one.”
Do you speak theirs? Or ours? Hug’sh contorts his throat. “I lurrrrng.” He taps the notepad, then writes more. What experience do you have with sunmines and beam rifles? This is no longer the war you thought it was.
“We’ll adapt, that’s what Marines do,” Cooper says. “We’d have been more ready if they were being more open.”
Hug’sh growls. Adapt FASTER. Stop looking for excuses. You were surprised and beaten. Start figuring out how to WIN. After a moment, he adds Or tell me I am wasting my time here.

Cooper falls silent again. “You’re not wrong. We fucked up, and they saved us. But...dammit, they must be holding something back. All their fancy toys, they’re just computers, we have those. No offense, but I’ve seen footage from your world, and if your people can figure it out, we should be able to. And then they’re just so fucking smug and high and mighty about everything that they’ve done - none of it would have been possible without Task Force 815 - our people, and our support. What about what we’ve done?”
Hug’sh’s fur flashes a brilliant red and orange as he furiously scribbles, in big letters, What HAVE you done? After a moment to calm down, he rips the page right out and starts a new message. Your people have almost abandoned 815. They are the only thing you have that works and you have done nothing but try to silence or destroy them. 815 has earned our respect. WE are the REASON they bear the name 815. Do not claim their victories for the Narsai’i who have tried to tear them down for so long.
“Now, listen here, we’ve done plenty -” Cooper starts.
Hug’sh slams both palms on the table - snapping it clean in half. (Somewhere in Heaven, Pat Morita smiles.) ”All of it wrong!” Hug’sh barks, silencing Cooper. A few heavy breaths later, he slowly fights down the colors in his fur, kneels to pick up the dropped notepad and starts writing again, careful and deliberate. Having no more table to rest it on, he holds it out for Cooper to read. Apologies. I did not mean to frighten you. Or break your table. But we are very angry about the way you speak of the 815. They convinced us to come here. They convinced the Bashakra’i. They convinced the Sheen. All can see that you do not value them, and all have heard of Botane. They question what you will do with them if even Narsai’i soldiers do not matter to the Narsai’i leaders. We know that many of us are alive only because you thought we were not worth it to march in the front with your troops. And yet you call the Bashakra’i smug and high and mighty. Sharpen your own spear before you look at mine.

Cooper is stunned, both at Hug’sh’s strength, and what he just wrote down. “Is this how you really see us? And the Sheen, and the other aliens?”
I try to see soldiers in a war they were not trained for. I try to see officers who do not know what we know. I try to see leaders who are still trying to understand their place in a much larger world. But it is difficult. And I am tired of excusing the Narsai’i to myself and others. We are grateful for our liberty and all the other help Narsai’i have given us. But we are not fools. And we have no intention of repaying our debt to you with the blood of our warriors as long as people above and below you seem content to squander these lives.
“And so you’ll leave with them?” Cooper asks.
My bondmate (wife) waits at home. She is pregnant with our children. My daughter asks every day when I am coming home. How much do you think keeps me here? And how much do you think it would take for me to go home? Hug’sh snorts, rippling just a little green through his fur. I am still here because I believe I can do good here. I was angry with you a moment ago, but we are still talking, you are still listening. That is what keeps me here. That you LISTEN. But I need more. I need you to SEE. If after all this you cannot see what I see, then I should go home and tell our chief that Narsai is lost.
Cooper thinks for a moment. “And this is your official position? And the Sheen and everyone else?”
Our official position will be delivered to your State Department on fine paper with a big, official seal. It will express our deep regret and our fondest wishes for future cooperation. It will not say anything I have not said. I cannot speak for the Sheen or the Bashakra’i, but I expect their official positions to be less polite. Hug’sh murmurs as he continues. Obviously, you should go and speak to the Sheen and the Bashakra’i about this. I hope for you that I am wrong and things are not as dire as I see them.
Cooper is quiet for a good long while. The idea that the Narsai’i would be left to face the Imperium alone seemingly hasn’t occurred to Cooper.

Hug’sh waits for Cooper to say something, but when the General remains silent, Hug’sh writes out a new note. The time to act is now. My next stop is requesting a meeting with Bashakra’i leader Brinai, but I need to know that you’re going to take care of things in your end.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Cooper replies. “And I’ll communicate the...importance of things up and down the chain. Something official will do wonders for that.”
Hug’sh smirks. Do you want us to put you ‘on notice’ with fine paper and a big, official seal?
Cooper isn’t smiling back. “I fucking wish you would have before. Jesus fucking Christ. How long have all you aliens been looking at us like we’re fools?”
We have communicated our concerns to the 815 and the GRHDI, Hug’sh writes. It is my understanding that they have relayed this to your Army leaders and your president. He starts a new page. Have we been talking to the wrong people?
“No, no,” Cooper replies. “It’s just...no one I know believes a word Obama says about...you people.”
Hug’sh shakes his head. We talked to the people you sent out on a mission to explore the galaxy. They talked to your leaders. And still the people who seem to be making the actual decisions do not hear us. This is what we are afraid of. We speak to many earnest and bright Narsai’i, but nothing changes. There is no accountability. There is no credibility. One of you promises and the other goes against it. One of you learns and the other ignores it. What am I to tell my people about the Narsai’i? We want to trust you. We want to deal in good faith. But you have set up a system that makes this very hard. And our patience is wearing thin.

“Well…” Hug’sh hasn’t gotten used to how small humans look to him now, but even still, General Cooper suddenly looks very small indeed. “There are...he’s not....” Cooper sighs. “It is complicated.”
It always is, Hug’sh writes. I am making it as simple as I can. If the Bashakra’i leave, we leave, too. I will help you convince them to stay, if you can convince me that the Narsai’i are at least TRYING. He flips to a new page. Even I am not strong enough to hold this alliance together by myself. Talk to your leaders, talk to your friends, talk to whoever you have to. I will have an official letter delivered to whoever you tell me should receive it for best effect. Another flip. Stronger TOGETHER.
“That would be the President,” Cooper replies.
Then your president will get our letter. Hug’sh waits for a moment, then adds Do we understand each other now?
“Yes,” Cooper replies. Even though Hug’sh has more than eight inches on him standing up, he still looks about six inches tall.
I think this meeting is over, Hug’sh writes. We both have much work to do now.
“Yes, yes, sir,” Cooper says, and stands up over the cracked remains of his desk. “I’ll call the captains in and let them know about the current situation.”
Hug’sh nods and grunts a curt “Guhd!”, extending his hand for Cooper to shake. Cooper accepts the gesture, his smooth white hand vanishing into the rough black-and-fur covered hand that Hug’sh offers, his claws closing around the General’s sleeve. Hug’sh nods one more time before releasing his grip, then turns to duck-climb out through the door. Halfway out, he catches a glimpse of a handful of staffers who might have been listening for further action since the table smashing; they quickly move on at his sight. Hug’sh gives one more sigh, then turns back to Cooper and points at the shattered table, yelping a quiet “Soar-ieeeh” before leaving.
punkey 2016-06-19 10:44:43
On the streets of Kabul, the mid-morning sun starts to transition between “gently warming” to “oppressively heating”. Ngawai adjusts her hijab to account for the star’s bright light, and takes a sip of her tea. In front of her, four Afghan National Police officers step quickly past a three-man crew of Wazir’s irregulars, mounted on a technical parked across the street. One of them watches the ANP patrol walk past from his position behind the RPK mounted in the truck’s bed while another flicks a cigarette butt out the driver’s window.
“That’s the third patrol today,” Ngawai whispers into the vox clipped on her ear. “All moving at a pretty good clip. Looks like someone in charge told them to show face but not get in the way around here.”
“Typical,” Garrett says from his vantage point on a nearby roof. Despite laying full out in the sun, his carapace’s atmosphere control is keeping him cool underneath the active camo. “Wazir’s friends in the ANP probably put the word out. Let the community leader handle his own affairs is a pretty typical attitude.”
“No one looks comfortable enough to hang around, though,” Ngawai replies. “Means that said friends haven’t shown up yet.” She reaches into her clothes for her pantaki. “We could give them a reason to show up.”
“Or we could give it a day, see if they come by, like we said,” Garrett cautions.
“Spoilsport,” Ngawai mutters under her breath.

“Oh, hey, heads up, south fifty meters,” Garrett says. “Got a familiar face.”
Ngawai looks - sure enough, silver bars glistening on the collar of his blue-gray ANP uniform, strides one of the ANP officers that escorted Wazir into the MP station a day previously. Contrary to the previous patrols, the ANP captain looks positively relaxed, stopping to look into storefronts and stalls. “Looks like he’s not in any particular hurry,” Ngawai says. “Think we have a winner.” She reaches into her shawl and pulls a matte black clip about the size of a fingernail off, and slides on her sunglasses. “Guide me in.”
“Walk towards him,” Garrett replies, shifting his aim down the chamakana to the side of the road in front of her. “You’ll have cover from him on the other side of that van, wait until I call to cross.”
Ngawai steps briskly through the bustle along the road, pausing next to the light blue van’s peeling paint.
“And...go,” Garrett says.

Ngawai turned around the corner on her heel, stepping quickly across the road and turning back to walk the other direction on the other side of the road - now just a few steps behind the ANP captain.
“Careful,” Garrett cautioned. “Grey shirt, then approach.”
Ngawai’s eyes flicked ahead - a young man in a grey button-up shirt walking the other way catches her eye before she turned her attention back to her quarry. The young man brushed past her, and sure enough, a clear lane down to the target’s left opens up. Ngawai strides out the last ten feet to the target, and catches up to him.

2d10.hi = 10; 1d8 = 4

Her hand snakes out and slides along the base of his uniform, and she feels the bug snap into place at the bottom of his uniform. The ANP captain doesn’t notice a thing, and Ngawai quickly turns back across the street. “Sound check.”
Garret’s hand briefly flutters, and the sound of the Kabul city street comes in loud and clear in his right ear. “We’re live.”
“Good,” Ngawai says, now off the street and running down a side alley, hijab already torn off her head. “Get inside and let’s find out who’s about to have a really bad day.”
punkey 2016-06-21 11:35:42
Ngawai’s already stripped down to her skinsuit by the time Garrett lowers himself down through an exterior window into their miniature base of operations - a disused storage room for the fabric store downstairs. Holodisplay glowing on top of a pile of purple fabric, matching her interface color, she taps her vox and flicks the feed to the holo for them both to hear.

'Ah, Omar, you come to us early today,'” a man says.
'I have a meeting later on that I cannot be late to,'” the ANP officer replies. “'Tell Wazir that I need our agreed upon rate a little sooner today.'
'That should not be a problem,'” the first man says.

Garrett flicks open his own holodisplay and enlarges a pane showing a live feed from a sconce he left on the roof - the listening device shows up as a nice bright icon in the feed, making his target a snap to follow. The officer walks into the market, following behind what is probably the first man, judging by how he carries himself, as well as the AK-47 he also carries.

'Are your men keeping the aliens and collaborators under observation?'” the first man asks.
'As much as we can,'” the ANP captain replies. “'We aren’t being paid enough to risk being arrested by the Americans, but whenever they leave their base, we know.'
'Good,'” the first man replies.

“Okay, now they definitely have to die,” Garrett says. A few seconds later, they turn out of visual range, but the bright spark of the listening device remains visible as the sconce pivots to keep the tracker ping on the pane. Eventually, the ping stops.

'Apologies, Wazir, but there was a schedule change and the distribution must occur earlier than expected,'” the captain says.
'Of course, I understand,'” Wazir says.
'Got you, fucker,'” Ngawai interjects.
There’s some shuffling on the other end. “'And there you go,'” Wazir says. “'Give my regards to your...well, your men, I presume.'
'Best not to,'” the captain replies. “'Anonymity and all that.'
'Of course,'” Wazir says. “'Good day.'

“Sounds like he’s on his way out,” Garrett says, flicking his holo closed again and grabbing his helm. “I’ll grab the sconce, you pack up here?”
Ngawai’s already got her helm snapped into place, the overlay showing the same icon where the bug is in her vision. “Done. Hurry up, if you would, lahna.”
“Smartass,” Garrett replies with a smirk.
punkey 2016-06-30 10:36:56
Following the ANP captain was easy - for about another block or so, until the officer got into a car. Fortunately, Garrett and Ngawai didn’t travel to the market in their shining uncovered carapaces, and threw on local garb over top of their armor and followed their quarry through Kabul traffic for a good half-hour. Having a constant bright visual marker of your target’s location made tailing a breeze, with two vehicles between the target and their beater Mercedes, he never had a chance to make visual contact.

The driving route leads them to a smaller residence on the outskirts of the city, where the line between city and village start to blur. Ngawai lets their follow distance increase to the very edge of the range of the bug’s tracking, and when the officer finally stops, Garrett and Ngawai have a good quarter mile to cover on foot. They shuck their disguises and activate their camo, and only a couple children notice the car that opens and closes its doors all on its own.

Disappointingly, no further voices can be heard over the feed as they approach the building the ANP captain is in, just some shuffling of items and a cup being filled with liquid of some type. Slipping through the alleyway between the rows of buildings, Garrett tests the door while Ngawai keeps watch - the door is unlocked, and the two of them slip inside, with the ping showing its presence upstairs. Garrett carefully eases the door shut again, and nods to Ngawai as she stands at the base of the stairs, scrambler out.
“Where did you get that?” Garrett asks.
“Brinai,” Ngawai replies. “Talked her out of it, since we’re friends with the Sheen now. It’ll put you on your ass for at least ten minutes.”
“Or stop your heart,” Garrett adds.
“A bonus,” Ngawai replies. “Are you ready yet?”
“So pushy today,” Garrett replies, and takes his spot behind her.

He taps Ngawai’s shoulder, and the two of them start up the steps; slowly at first, but by the time they’re near the top they’re at a flat-out run. The ANP captain, seated at a table with piles of cash in front of him, only has time to look up and reach for his pistol before Ngawai turns, scrambler shouldered, and pulls the trigger. A loud crack sounds as the scrambler sends a blinding arc of electricity leaping straight into the man’s chest. Every muscle in his body goes taut at once, shooting him straight to his feet and then onto his back.
“Easy,” Ngawai says, as Garrett hustles over to the unconscious man’s body and slips a pair of zip-cuffs onto him.
'Hello?'” a voice calls from downstairs. “'Naim?'
Ngawai looks over to Garrett, eyes wide behind her helm. “'He’s up here!'” Garrett calls out in Pashtu. “'We’re waiting for you.'
Ngawai hustles over to his side and pumps the charging handle on the scrambler. A few seconds later, another man in an ANP uniform - also present last night - starts to emerge from the stairs. “'Do you have our payment -'
That’s as far as he gets before Ngawai nails him with a scrambler burst of his own, this time the electrical bolt sending the target tumbling down the stairs, twitching and rigid the whole way down.
“Fuck me,” Garrett says, and runs after him. “Help me get his ass upstairs, lahna,” he says as the cuffs go on.
“Yes, yes,” Ngawai replies, following down behind him. “One more mouth to talk is a pretty good thing.” She grunts as she grabs under the unconscious man’s shoulders and lifts him. “Don’t you think?”
“Yeah, but it would have been nice to -” Garrett starts, but the door opens behind him as he speaks - and another uniformed ANP officer, another member of the Afghan National Police present with Wazir, walks through the door at the base of the stairs - and looks up to see two chrome-clad forms carrying one of his friends, unconscious and bound, up the stairs.
Fuck!” Ngawai shouts, dropping the man’s shoulders and flinging her scrambler from its sling into her hands.
Shit!” the man says, and reaches for his pistol. Ngawai pumps the handle on the scrambler and fires from the hip with another snap - nailing the man in the shoulder, and sending him twitching to the floor, pistol in hand.

“You all right, lahna?” Ngawai asks, racking the charging handle on her scrambler once more.
Garrett raises a hand - from the bottom of the stairs, underneath the stiff form of the man they were attempting to carry before. “Could use some help, please.”
“What am I going to do with you,” Ngawai replies, shaking her head.
A burst of static sounds from the belts of the two unconscious ANP officers. “'Naim, I am two minutes away, with our new friend, too. He might need something extra to show him the benefits of working with our community leaders.'
Garrett shoves the unconscious man off of him and rolls over. “You don’t happen to have another one of those, do you?”
Ngawai shrugs. “Sorry.”
“Guess we need to be creative,” Garrett says.


Outside, the two late-est arrivals walk down the alley towards the building. “'I am telling you, Yakub, Mr. Wazir will see your family set up for life,'” the elder officer says. “'He is very generous with those that aid him.'
'The Americans say -'” Yakub starts.
'Pah! The Americans,'” the elder officer says. “'They do not understand how things work here, how things really work. Wazir protects his people, keeps them safe. That is what matters.'
'I’m not sure, those Americans last night were very certain he was a murderer,'” Yakub continues.
'You mean the one that lies with the alien woman?'” the older officer says. “'I thought you knew better than to believe someone willing to betray his people like that, having a child with an unholy abomination.'” He holds the door open for the young man. “'Now, let us head inside and have some -'


The older officer drops to the ground, twitching - and Yakub feels a bag slip over his head and be pulled tight.
(something shouted)!” a man says in some strange language, and then a loud k-CHACK, and then -


Garrett lets the bag - and the young ANP officer’s head contained within, drop to the floor, and shakes his gauntleted hands. “First-dammit, that stings.”
“Got zapped a little, lahna?” Ngawai asks as she starts cuffing the most recent two victims.
“Yeah, a bit,” Garrett replies, rubbing his hands together.
“I’ll give them a rub in a bit,” Ngawai replies. “But first we...have more than just one.”
“The more the merrier,” Garrett replies. “More information, and hopefully we wrap the whole mole network up. But I think that we might want to, well, leave this guy alone. As an example.”
“Going soft on me?” Ngawai asks, cinching the zip-cuffs tight on him.
“He didn’t look like he was all that clued in last night,” Garrett replies. “And this asshole -” he gives the ANP officer that the younger man was walking in with a kick with his boot, “- said he was bringing a new guy. I’m down for cutting off the heads of Wazir’s organization, but I think collateral damage should be avoided if we can, yeah?”
“I suppose,” Ngawai replies. “But you get to carry him, then.”
Garrett looks at her, then at the young man. “You’re trying to tempt me.”
“Is it working?” Ngawai asks with a smirk.
“Sadly, no,” Garrett sighs. “I’ll load him up.”
punkey 2016-06-30 10:37:20
The crush of sand sounds different under metallic carapace tread than rubber boot soles as Arlana, flanked by two Rav-Turai, approach where her Narsai’i counterparts are planning the next phase of the operation against the Imperial-armed insurgents - a large desert tan tent erected next to the TOC hab structure. Not exactly the most glamorous of structures, but it’s got everything the Marine officers need: computers, whiteboards, and a three-dimensional map crafted in the middle of it all made out of sand, yarn, and the sweat of many privates. Arlana sees a few officers milling around outside, and a dozen more inside. All of them stop and stare at her as she approaches, her polished carapace reflecting bright sunlight back at them and causing a few of them to squint as she cruises past the officers at the entrance and inside without breaking stride.

Inside the tent, the captains are working on coordinating patrols and reinforcements to push back out and reinforce the front lines for a second crack at the mountain line that held them back the previous night, but all that stops when Arlana and her two escorts walk into the middle of the room, stopping right before the sand table.
‘I know you are all Narsai’i Turai Samals, yes?’” Arlana asks in her heavily accented English. “’I am Samal Arlana Quis. I speak for Bashakra’i Turai.’
All the officers in the room turn her way, more than a few with an exasperated “oh God, another one” look. “’Well, then in that case you can just wait over there while we figure out what we’re doing next, ma’am,’ one of the captains standing in the middle of the whiteboards and tables covered in maps says as a few of the others look his way. “’We’ll let you know when we’ve got your next tasking.’
’No,’” Arlana says, and walks up to the whiteboard and maps. “’I am Samal, like you. I will help plan the patrols.’” She looks at his name tape. “’Samal Rae-dlar.’
’Excuse you, ma’am,’” Radler says. “’I’m no Samal, I’m a captain in the United States Marine Corps. And all due respect, but this is our operation and you all are just along for the ride. You don’t know how we patrol or how we operate. Now, take a seat, please.’
Arlana fixes him with a dispassionate glare. “’Samal -’” She clears her throat as Radler is about to correct her again. “’Sorry. Kah-ptan. What will you have Bashakra’i do in the patrols?’
’Oh, well, your people can secure the FOB perimeter, man the guard towers, things like that,’” Radler replies.
“Oh, fuck you, asshole,” Arlana says in Imperial. None of the Captains speak the language, but everyone picks up that she’s not complimenting his plans. “’No. We will be on patrol. I will be on first patrol. We will be on all patrols.’
’Now, that’s just not going to happen,’” Radler replies.
’Talk to Coop-er,’” Arlana replies with a smirk.
’General Cooper has empowered me with planning the patrols as I see fit,’” Radler replies, walking up to Arlana. He obviously intended that move to be more intimidating that it turns out to be, as he finds out that she is, in fact, slightly taller than he is. “’And I think your people are good at taking potshots at patrols, not walking them. You want to help, let me do my job and jump when I say so.’
Arlana closes the remaining distance and crosses her arms in front of her chest, her carapace disguising her build as simply “plus-sized”. “’No. We walk patrols together. Bashakra’i are good Turai, good soldiers. You will see, and you will let us patrol together.’
Radler rolls his eyes. “’Okay, I’ve had enough. If this is how your people work with us, then I’m just going to have to ask you to leave. Rudy, Eric, help the lady outside.’
’Come with us, ma’am,’” two younger captains say as they step next to Arlana.

’Or what?’” Arlana says with a smirk. “’You will not remove me with your hands.’” She flips up the carapace holo, as do her two escorts, and before any of the Marines can respond, they’ve snapped images of all the plans and maps between them. Arlana flicks her hand over the image of the map hovering over her wrist, and casts a rapidly-developing 3D image over the sand table - an Imperial tech version of what lies below it. “’Here,’” she says, and points to a route leading out from the FOB and towards the front line through a narrow pass. “’This is where I will patrol.’
’No, you won’t,’” Radler says. “’I’ll be leading that one, that’s a dangerous route for a lady like yourself.’
Arlana looks stunned for a moment, but then laughs. “’Then why do you patrol it? No, I will lead patrol.’
That finally gets Radler mad, and the tone in the tent shifts from “annoyed but waiting patiently for her to get the hint” to “about to throw her out”. “’Listen here, little lady -’
“Who is taller than you,” Arlana says.
’- I don’t know who the fuck you think you are, but this is my operation now, so sit your fat ass down and let the Marines do what we do best,’” Radler finishes.
’All I see is talk while Bashakra’i save your lives,’” Arlana replies, her eyes narrowing.
The room - well, tent - erupts in grumbles and hostility at that. The primary expression of that hostility is Radler, who steps up to Arlana, and on rage alone, shoves her back into the terrain model. Her Turai escorts take a step towards her, but she waves them off. “’Get the fuck out,’” he growls.
Arlana does no such thing. “’Are you done?’
’No, but you are, you fat bitch,’” Radler says, and shoves her again.
Arlana’s backwards stumble this time knocks over a pile of sand masquerading as a mountain. “’You all have only got your soldiers killed,’” Arlana says, her arms crossing again, “’and you think only about that and not the war. We fight and win, you do not listen.’
The room grumbles again, but not as loud this time. “’So fucking what?’” Radler shoots back.
’That is why your soldiers are dead,’” Arlana replies. “’You, me, we can not have time for you to stop being stupid. So you and me should fight.’
Radler was following up until the last part. “’Wait, what?’
’Fight, with our hands,’” Arlana says. Her Turai nod in agreement. “’I take my armor off, you take yours off, and we fight. I beat you and you see I know how to win, you beat me and feel better and maybe listen. Both way we get things done. This is how Turai of same rank settle problems - we are same rank, yes?’
’Yeah,’” Radler says, and thinks about it. “’Yeah. Fuck it. I don’t like to fight women, it’s not fair, but if you’re asking, I’m game.’
Arlana smirks. “’Good. Where is your arena?’
punkey 2016-06-30 10:38:08
As it turns out, much to Arlana’s surprise, that the Marine Corps does not have a dedicated Arena for settling personal and professional beefs between its soldiers at every base. Instead, a temporary circle is scratched out behind one of the barracks, and with the captains telling the MPs to take a hike, all that’s left is Radler and Arlana’s preparations. Radler, already in just his uniform, watches while Arlana strips her carapace off.
Arlana’s a fairly stocky six-feet-tall, and so with the plates of her carapace flattening any detail out of her form, it’s understandable that Radler would assume that Arlana wasn’t exactly on the right part of the BMI chart. However, as her carapace comes off and she strips down to her skinsuit, not much is left hidden. Her shoulders really are as wide as the carapace made them look, and the skinsuit stretches taut over her biceps and triceps as her muscles stretch the material with every movement she makes. Taken together with the broad base of her neck and the anything-but-waspy waist over broad hips, Arlana’s lines would seem more at home with someone who lives her life by the hammer, whether as a blacksmith or a hammer-toss athlete. Radler’s reservoir of comparison draws a complete blank when his gaze reaches Arlana’s rear and continues to her legs - it’s not too often that you could use the phrase “thunder thighs” in unironic praise, but the twin tree trunks Arlana stands on would seem to be the right fit for it. There’s nothing hard about her outline, both her skinsuit and her build still give an overall impression of matronly softness, but there’s still more than enough there to make Radler look more than a little concerned about what he’s just committed to.

’Are you ready?’” Arlana asks.
’Uh…’” Radler looks around, and realizes how deep he’s in it now. He shrugs, and returns Arlana’s smile. “’Sure. Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s settle this shit right here.’” He looks back to a couple other captains.
’Yeah, come on, man!’” one of them shouts. “’You gon’ let that fat lesbo bitch talk shit like that?’
’Show that Wook who’s boss!’” another adds.
’Yeah!’” Radler shouts, bumping his closed fists together and turning back to face Arlana. “’Last chance to back down!’” he barks.
The crowd keeps shouting as both fighters begin to circle each other. “’HOOAH!’” goes a single cry, then a couple Marines pick it up and repeat it until half the crowd is all but chanting it. Arlana glances to the two Turai who came with her, making out that their fists are balled up, too - but then decide to show the Narsai’i what good sportsmanship looks like. “Your victory is certain, Samal!” one shouts; the other adds “Honor our banner!”, but they’re both quickly drowned out by more “’HOOAH HOOAH HOOAH!’” and fall silent, choosing to focus more on making sure nobody tries to interfere with the actual fight.
’Suck it, bitch!’” one of Radler’s friends shouts over the din of the crowd. “’She’s asking for it, man! Kick her steroid ass!’
’Come on!’” Radler shouts at Arlana, still keeping his defense up. “’Whatcha got, bitch?’
Arlana tightens her guard as she sizes up her opponent one last time. “’Come and see,’” she snarls.

Arlana stands back and waits for Radler to close and make the first move. Radler dances at her, his footwork more like a Muhammed Ali fever dream than any real lightness, then launches a quick jab at her face that he intends to follow up with a more substantial blow to her nose. Intends being the operative word - that first strike was announced by semaphore telegraph and is easily brushed aside by Arlana, who replies with a lightning blow to the middle of Radler’s chest. The Marine Captain bends over and has just enough wits about him to take a step back as pain spreads through his whole torso, forcing the wind out of him, but he stays on his feet and resumes circling her, breathing hard through clenched teeth. Arlana follows it up with a quick cross to his jaw, not even near full strength, but more than enough to snap his head to one side long enough for her to take a step back.

’What are you doing?’” “’Kick her ass!’” “’HOOAH HOOAH HOOAH!’

’HOOAH!’” Radler shouts for his own benefit, getting some cheers from the crowd. He comes dancing at Arlana again, keeping his guard tight in front of his chest even as she gets in some blows to his arms while ceding ground. Radler weathers the storm and closes in, launching his own series of punches at her centerline that yield only a few bruises on her forearms. When his latest punch overextends, her hands shoot forward and grab his collar, pulling him in for a fast headbutt and then pushing him off. He tumbles onto his ass, but quickly rolls away and gets back onto his feet, vainly trying to wipe the blood flowing from his nostrils with the back of his sleeve. “’Come on!’” he screams at her, as much as his half-breaths allow, then raises his fists again.
’You have lost,’” Arlana says. She drops her guard slightly. “’Stop, and we will plan patrols.’
’Fight me, bitch!’” Radler growls.
’There is no reason to -’” Arlana starts.
Radler comes at her again, a sloppy blow that she easily catches and uses as leverage to yank his guts into the way of her knee. She lets him go as he stands doubled-over in pain, taking a step back from him.
’You have lost,’” she repeats.
Radler doesn’t reply. Well, he does reply, in the form of snapping up and whipping around even faster than Arlana anticipated, clearly driven more by spite than physical endurance. If he’d used that moment of surprise for a real attack, well, he would have a decision-making process that wouldn’t have seen him all the way into this fight to begin with, so that one opening in Arlana’s defense is only just big enough for one strike - a backhand slap across her face that pushes her back more from surprise than pain. Radler, however, takes a step back and raises his fists again, as high as he can still manage, anyway. “’Still standing, bitch!’
Arlana narrows her eyes. “’Stop.’
’That’s what you people call a fight?’” Radler coughs. “’Fuck your space-fu bullshit. Put ‘em up and do this right!’
Arlana pauses, then looks to her two Turai for a moment. “’You want to real fight?’

Radler’s answer comes in the form of incoherent shouting and charging at her, clearly fantasizing about tackling her off her feet and winning this bout on the ground. Arlana braces for his charge, and when he hits her, she’s ready. Radler is easily redirected to her side - but she holds onto his left arm. His momentum snaps it straight, and from there, it’s over: a leg sweep knocks him to the ground, both hands hold the arm, and with a quick twist and a wet pop, Arlana feels the joint dislocate. The crowd falls silent, and in what observers would later describe as “pretty f’ed up”, there’s actually relief when Radler starts howling in pain and trying to wriggle out of Arlana’s lock. The rapidly closing sound of MP whistles makes clear that, no matter what Radler’s ego might have to say about it, this fight is well and truly over.
’Stop,’” Arlana says, holding onto Radler’s arm even as the MPs start to surround the arena. Radler does eventually stop struggling as the pain drives out the last of his energy. The MPs make their way through the crowd, and upon seeing Arlana’s hold on the captain, start shouting for her to let him go.
’This will hurt,’” Arlana says, ignoring the MPs. “’Ready?’
Radler isn’t ready. He still nods. Arlana braces his shoulder with her foot, and twists his arm back the other way, and down - popping the shoulder back into joint.
’AAAAAAAAAAAAAARGHHHHH!’ Radler shouts, which is only saved from complete incoherence as a statement when he eventually manages to append a “’FFFFFFUCK!’”.

’Get down!’” an MP shouts.
’Let him go or we will shoot you!’” another calls out.
’No!’” Radler gasps, drawing a series of rasping breaths as he gathers enough air to continue. “’Back...off!’” With another gasp, he rolls onto his side with the good arm and pushes off the ground, climbing to his knees. “’Back...the fuck...off!’
The MPs look at each other. “’Yes...yes sir,’” one of the MPs says, and all of them back off out of the arena.
Radler painfully staggers to his feet, and a couple of his fellow Captains finally rush into the arena to help him up and steady him. He gets a couple claps on the good side of his back, which seems to grant him enough of a second wind to raise his head and look at Arlana briefly before spitting a wad of snot and blood into the dust. “’Hope you’re happy,’” he coughs.
’No,’” Arlana says. “’I wanted you to listen. But do you now?’
’Fuck you,’” Radler says. “’You can...have your...fucking...patrol.’
’Come on, man,’” one of his friends goes. “’Come on. She’s not worth it, man.’
They help Radler stagger away, but he turns to look over his shoulder, glaring at Arlana one last time before his head slumps forward onto his chest. Arlana, for her part, bows in respect his way before looking to the other captains. “’You want to plan now? Are we done?’
’...y-eah,’” one of them stammers. Was it the ‘fat lesbo bitch’ one? Or the ‘steroid ass’ one? Hard to tell their pale, scared faces apart after such a short time knowing them. “’Yeah, we’re done. Ma’am. Samal.’
’Good,’” Arlana says. “’We need to start now to win.’
punkey 2016-06-30 10:44:11
“Hey!” Kitty says, jumping up from the housing unit’s built-in sofa even before Zaef walks through the front door. “My team got sent back here once the shooting started, but there's no transportation back to Kabul right now, and I have all this equipment to look after -” and indeed, there are more than a few hardened transport cases stacked in the middle of the room, “- and I just figured that I would wait here and say hi just in case you come back and see all the mess and might be mad, so please don't be mad, okay?” Kitty smiles awkwardly at Zaef.
Zaef responds to Kitty’s greeting with a tight embrace. He pays little, if any, attention to the new pile decorating the quarters.
“Oh!” Kitty exclaims, then wraps her arms around him in return, burying her face into his shoulder. “I'm glad you're safe.”
Zaef gives her a squeeze. “When’s the next transport heading out?”
“Well, they're not letting us back towards where the fighting is yet, but Shenest talked to someone in operations that agreed for us to continue our study in the local villages,” Kitty replies. “Minutes away, easy reach for the QRF.”
Zaef frowns. “You’ll be performing tests on the troops in Afghani villages?”
“Well, that's where they are,” Kitty says. “Their job doesn't stop, so I have to go to them.”
“How do the villagers react?”
“They don't care, really,” Kitty says. “The kids are curious, but kids are always curious. They leave us alone for the most part - we do vaccinations and other tests while we're there, so they get something out of it too while we're testing the soldiers.”
Zaef sits down on the couch and stretches. “That’s good.”
Kitty takes a seat next to Zaef, wraps an arm around him and pulls him close. “Maybe you could come with us. Provide security.”
Zaef’s arm comes around and presses her against him. “We can do that. I’ve got a mission, we’ll need to talk to some of the locals. We could provide escort en route, and some security on arrival.” He gives her a squeeze. “You...don’t feel safe?”
“Well, things are...dangerous right now,” Kitty replies. She gives him a squeeze. “But it's also an excuse to spend time with you.”
“Hmm.” He smiles a little at Kitty’s addendum. “I’m happy to help with that.”
“So, it'll be Arketta and Luis coming with you, or someone else?” Kitty asks. “Hopefully they'll be able to help gather samples, too.”
“Someone else. Members of one of the 81X teams will be coming along. They might be able to help, I think, though I can think of one who will likely need, um, adult supervision.”
“That isn’t you?” Kitty teases with a poke to Zaef’s ribs.
Zaef grins. “Scary part is, I’d probably be the one stuck watching him,” he returns with a poke of his own.
“That’ll end well,” Kitty replies.

They sit in silence for a minute or two, just enjoying each other’s company. It’s Kitty that finally breaks the silence. “How long do you have until your next thing?”
“About half a day.”
“Well then,” Kitty says, rolling over and straddling him, Zaef’s hands settling on her quads, their new bulk filling his hands and locking her to him. “We can take our time,” she says with a smirk.
Zaef grins mischievously. “Among other things,” he replies, picking her up as he stands, hands cupping her ass - albeit with more effort than before - and strolls off to the bedroom.
punkey 2016-06-30 10:45:50
It has been three minutes, twenty-seven seconds of Hug’sh staring at the holographic interface of his vox. It’s easy to tell, with the timer in the display and all. Throughout these three minutes and twenty-seven seconds, Hug’sh has been alternatively sinking into his chair and trying to straighten up, rolling his thoughts one way or another, but finally he has waited long enough. With a heaving sigh, he raises his right arm and taps at the interface to initiate a connection with the Sheen Ambassador. The connection flicks open immediately, with the Ambassador still being on this side of the Gateway, and displays the animated graphic of its face on the holo.

”Greetings, Hug’sh Walks-the-Fire,” the Ambassador says, its signs flashing over its face, the images shifting colors to match the intended tone.
”Greetings, Ambassador,” Hug’sh replies, a careful mix of green on his face. ”I apologize for the unannounced call, but recent events have made it necessary that we discuss the matter of our alliance with Narsai. If it is acceptable to you, I would like to conduct this conversation as a conference between us and Brinai.”
”We have become concerned with the progress and mentality of the Narsai’i as well,” the Ambassador replies. ”A quorum agrees that a summit between our races is in order. Contacting Brinai Onolois now.” A third window opens, showing “Connecting with Brinai Onolois” in Wherren glyphs.
”Thank you,” Hug’sh barks, unsure if this is already going really well or really poorly. Depends on your perspective, really, but he is stirred out of that moment by Brinai’s answer.
Brinai appears in her designated window after a few rings, wearing a shawl with a shifting green-and-blue pattern in her bedroom/office. “Ambassador - and Hug’sh,” she says, a bit surprised but still keeping her composure. “I trust that this is about the Narsai’i and their inability to conduct a war.”

”Your intuition is correct, Brinai,” Hug’sh says. ”I’ve had some very trying conversations with both Iro and the local Narsai’i general Cooper. I’ve tried to talk some sense into Cooper in particular, but I’m afraid it’s going to end like every other time we thought we were making headway with convincing the Narsai’i of anything. So, with Cooper’s reluctant agreement, I’ve spoken to Hiigra. The Wherren are going to fire a shot across Narsai’s bow, so to speak. An official communique laying out our grievances and concerns, addressed to anyone conceivably in a position of power to address them. Contained within will be an ultimatum with a deadline of one Narsai solar week: either an answer with a detailed plan to address these shortcomings, or we will withdraw our forces from the joint mission in Afghanistan. I obviously cannot speak for either the Sheen or the Bashakra’i, but it is my understanding that your patience with the Narsai’i is similarly at its end and that you will most likely follow our maneuver with something similar. Is my understanding of the situation correct or do you have different intentions with regards to this operation?”
“You’re First-damned right,” Brinai says. “Our people put their lives in Narsai’i hands, and not only do they throw them away, but they treat them like spink-shit before they do. I already told Iro that this is the last chance for the Narsai’i, and that if he wasn’t satisfied that they were learning how to be partners, not think that they are our betters while they very much behave like inferior members of this alliance, then we will be withdrawing all military support from the Narsai’i.”
“Our interest in this alliance is primarily with the Bashakra’i and the Wherren,” the Ambassador says. “We have learned most of what we are interested in with the Narsai’i from their networks; the rest can be simulated. If the Bashakra’i and Wherren withdraw, a quorum agrees that a show of solidarity is more valuable than any further studies of the Narsai’i.”

”Yes, this is what I suspected,” Hug’sh says. ”I want to stress to you two that we are fully committed to this maneuver. Whatever my personal feelings are, things cannot continue as they are now. And Whirr is fortunately now in a position that it is no longer critically dependent on the largesse of the Narsai’i governments’ support. In this light, I hope that our ultimatum will be seen with the necessary...credibility by the right Narsai’i. In the same breath, I would like to propose that you follow a similar course of action - a clear communication of grievances and expectations with an attached ultimatum. Talking to General Cooper, he professed a degree of...internal division with the Narsai’i leadership about our feelings and how close we already are to walking away from this alliance. The 815, the GRDHI and the president of the United States are well-aware, of course, but this does not help us when much of the military leadership is unwilling to believe it. They are, plainly, still denying the truth. I propose we present them with the truth in a form that they cannot deny. If there is truly any sincerity to Narsai’i involvement in our alliance, they will be given a chance to use this wake-up call as a chance to reform their inadequacies. If this again comes to nothing...then we will depart this alliance with a clear conscience.” Hug’sh takes a deep breath and waits for responses.
“A quorum agrees,” the Ambassador says.

“Vidas Lam, finally this alliance is feeling like an alliance,” Brinai says. “I will draft something right away. I trust I put your cover name as the Wherren ambassador, not Hug’sh?”
”Correct,” Hug’sh says. ”If my suspicions are right, a communique with such wide distribution may well find its way into Imperial hands. And I’m not ready to surrender this tactical advantage of my secret identity quite yet. Besides, I am...quite certain that mentions of Hugh Verrill will not gain us anything with the Narsai’i leadership. That bridge, as they say, has been well and truly burnt.”
“I will send a draft to you both in an hour,” Brinai says. “Once we have our words chosen, we should send them all together, to the Narsai’i government, the military, maybe even to the ravilars.”
”A well-targeted distribution to their government and military will find its way to the press by itself, but I see no need to hinder that migration,” Hug’sh says. ”Considering the past, I would certainly like to see them sweat under the weight of public opinion. Not exactly gentleman’s diplomacy, but I think we’re past that point anyway.”
“Then we should make it absolutely clear - this is unacceptable, and if things do not improve, Narsai will not have our Turai to kick around,” Brinai says. “Our people, our leaders, our operations.”

”Clarity is absolutely the goal,” Hug’sh says, a bit of red entering his fur. ”Let nobody say they weren’t warned if we walk away.” He takes another breath. ”That said, I would also like clarity on this side of the issue. What will you consider a success? If we are not all satisfied with the outcome, the alliance is still doomed. Yet it seems clear to me that whatever the Narsai’i do, the issues will not be fixed in one week. How much movement in the right direction, in the eventuality that there is movement in the right direction, will satisfy you?”
“An equal seat at the table,” the Ambassador says. “Our combat Sheen have much to say and to offer about the current operations, but are being ignored. Miss Onolois’ Turai count many accomplished and talented military leaders amongst their ranks, and their exclusion is harming the operation’s chance for success. Your own Wherren could teach the Narsai’i many things about covert action, but are looked at like children. None of this is acceptable, and it should be changed immediately.”
“And they stop sneaking around behind our fucking backs,” Brinai spits. “We’ve got as many Turai standing guard against the Narsai’i as we do the enemy we’re supposed to be fighting. These thefts must stop, and our equipment must be returned.”
“We have recently reached a consensus about how to proceed with this issue,” the Ambassador says. “The Sheen will be interceding on the side of the Bashakra’i in this.”
Brinai looks taken aback. “...well then. We should talk after this so we can work together.”
“Agreed,” the Ambassador says.

”I agree with these demands,” Hug’sh says. ”We will also petition that the Narsai’i name one point of contact for our grievances and requests, suitably empowered to carry out that mandate effectively. It is time that we have someone we can hold accountable for these issues who has the power to work on them effectively. Further stonewalling and diffusion of responsibility is unacceptable. To this end, I would like it if we could reconvene towards the end of the ultimatum and discuss what progress, if any, has been made by the Narsai’i before we decide whether to continue the alliance or not. Should it continue, I would further like to propose that we make time for regular conferences, on - shall we say, a weekly basis? Hopefully with the Narsai’i point of contact in attendance, too. As much as possible, I would like this alliance to become more...predictable in how we act towards each other. Is this agreeable to you?”
“Miss Barnes is working towards something similar with the Narsai’i United Nations,” the Ambassador replies. “Her effort to bring Gateway and off-world affairs under her purview for all of Narsai would accomplish this very effectively, and she is both a firm Narsai’i advocate and willing and able to work with others.”
Hug’sh nods. “Miss Barnes is a more than acceptable choice for such a role. The Wherren will gladly endorse such a move and include it in our demands, if that is agreeable to all of us. Brinai, are you in favor of this, too?”
“Samantha will make a fine Steward,” Brinai replies. “I’ll include it in ours as well.”

”Excellent,” Hug’sh says, genuine green and yellow rippling through his fur as he breathes a big sigh of relief. ”Thank you both for your time and your...cooperation. With regards to your earlier comment, Brinai...I, too, wish that we had done this earlier. That said, I hope that we can cooperate more closely in the future. I look forward to it, in any event. If either of you has anything to add…”
“We too look forward to working with you in the future, Ambassador Hug’sh Walks-the-Fire,” the Ambassador replies.
Brinai smirks at that. “Never thought I’d hear you called that, Hug’sh,” she says.
Hug’sh grins. ”I knew I should have checked the ‘Interstellar Diplomacy’ box when I went to the Army recruiter,” he says. ”Anyway, thank you, again. Until next time.”
”Until next time, Ambassador,” the Sheen Ambassador replies, and its screen goes blank.
“Good to see you stepping up,” Brinai says. “And you making good on your promise to learn.”
”Now or never,” Hug’sh replies. ”A sudden attack of perspective. I’ve been having them more frequently.”
“Good,” Brinai says. “I’m proud of you, Hug’sh.” She nods to him. “Talk to you soon.”
”Until then, Brinai,” Hug’sh says, closing the connection. As he settles back into his chair, a soft chuckle escapes him.

”Brinai is proud of me,” he mutters. ”That’s something I thought I’d never hear.”
punkey 2016-06-30 10:46:14
It isn’t until late the next day that Hunter is able to return to the FOB, and by then changes are already afoot. A new round of Bashakra’i leaders have come in - Iro Briwama, who Hunter only knows through reputation and is there to manage the strategic efforts of the Bashakra’i, Arlana Quis, there to work with the Captains and lead the Turai, and, surprisingly, Paul Sturgis. The last one is nowhere to be seen, but a vox message from Bello says that he is here to work towards improving relations with Narsai’i intelligence.

Well, a change makes sense, but let’s see which way that wind blows, he thinks. For his part, Hunter’s prepared a confidential but blistering assessment on what went wrong. As best as he can estimate it, the Marines on the ground will approve, the Pentagon will be taken aback, and the Bashakra’i will find it respectable but perhaps a little tentative. And here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

The former (and presently, acting) commander realizes that the administrative structure is still struggling to figure out what to do next, so he takes lunch while the staff he'd shanghaied who’ve read the advance drafts try to figure out what to do with it. Creamed chipped beef, again. Looks like some things never change.
Hale sits down across from him. “For an 815, you do a shitload of administrative work,” he says.
“This is the problem when you try to systematize the behaviors of a bunch of swashbucklers,” Hunter says. “They’re all too good for writing memos, so unless I want the story to be told by a bunch of rear-echelon motherfuckers, it comes down to me.”
“Doesn't seem fair to me,” Hale replies. He taps his fork a few times. “What happened out there...I've been thinking about it. Why did the Narsai'i not listen to you? In the Turai, the 815 are almost myths, this impossible to predict threat that strikes where you're most vulnerable and how you least expect - but the Narsai'i seemingly only have one tactic, just throw Turai at the problem until it goes away. It doesn't make sense.”
“Well, this is the problem between being small and being large,” Hunter says. “815 can do what works for them, and not worry about if it scales up. When you’re large, you can’t be so opportunistic. You have to set patterns and create predictability, at least among your own forces, because the risk of confusion and friendly fire is too high. The Narsai’i forces seem small in your mind, but they’re coming from a perspective of being very big.”
Hale nods. “I was only Rav-Turai, so I didn't have to think that big. Just the trin or quad I was leading. Still.” He takes a bite of his salad. “What are you going to do about it?”
“I have to figure out who can understand, and light a fire under their ass,” Hunter replies with a frown. “We can’t keep doing this. I’ve got an after-action report here that sums up what happened, but paper isn’t everything. Changing a culture is stupidly slow work; even when they were committing to work with us, they still screwed it up.”
“From what I’ve seen, the problem isn’t finding people that understand,” Hale says. “It’s that the people that understand and the people the Narsai’i make us work with are not the same people. And that is a very different problem.”
Hunter smiles ruefully. “They still think of soldiers as numbers on a ledger. Move this many beamers here, that many kaukas there, and X many platoons over there. No matter how many talks they get about ‘people first, then ideas, then hardware,’ too many in the leadership want to reduce it to math problems. If I asked them, they'd probably puff up about how every soldier can do this job, and then throw the term “politically correct” in for good measure. Bottom line is, the system is set up so that very few of the trigger pullers think that cultural understanding is their job.”
“Something that your soldiers could learn from the Turai, then,” Hale says. “We walked with the people, patrolled regular routes and got to know the people we saw every day. They weren't just faces to us, we were a part of their lives.” He sighs. “Of course, we were still expected to open fire on them if ordered to. So not all of it.”

There’s a bit of silence between them for a moment. “So -” Hale starts, but then sees something odd on the TV in front of him - a Wherren, in particular, one Hug’sh Walks-the-Fire. “What is Walks-the-Fire doing on TV?”
punkey 2016-06-30 10:46:30
Hug’sh’s hands clasp nervously at the stack of paper on his desk. In another life, he talked smack in front of US Congress and held his own, but right now, in the back of his tent with just the vox’s camera for an audience, he’s more nervous than at the congressional hearing.

Might be because he’s actually gonna be talking to a hastily-called press conference that is sure to be top priority on live TV just for the sheer novelty of hearing a live speech by a Wherren and the Sheen Ambassador and Brinai Onlois. Might be because he’s about to explain to the whole of Narsai’i why they suck. Might be because right now he’s talking with his counterparts over the vox and hoping to high heavens that his ballsy joint ultimatum move doesn’t fall apart with the finish line in sight.

“Are you all right, Hug’sh?” Brinai asks. “You look nervous, boy.”
”I am nervous,” Hug’sh replies, flipping through the pages again. Not that he’s gonna be reading from them - vox teleprompter is far better for that and will keep his speech synched with the hastily translated subtitles - but they’re a little bit comforting. ”There are a lot of firsts we’re dealing with here.”
“For your species, or for you?” Brinai asks, raising an eyebrow.
”Both,” Hug’sh adds, adding a little yellow to his fur. ”For all of us, I would think, unless you two have been on Good Morning America without telling me.”
“No, but I am used to talking to people this way,” Brinai replies.
“My instance was randomly generated with the right attributes to find this appealing,” the Ambassador adds. “But you seem like you will do well at this, Hug’sh.”
”Here’s hoping,” Hug’sh says. ”Any last-minute adjustments you want to make?”
“My people have gone over it, and I’ve read it and made my own changes,” Brinai replies. “I’m happy with it.”
“The diplomacy and human relations branches have reached quorums of approval,” the Ambassador says.
”Good,” Hug’sh says, nodding to the camera and letting the yellow drain out of his fur a little. Absentmindedly, he flicks his tongue over his tusks as he flips through the papers again. ”Well, I’m as ready as I’m going to get.” He glances at the clock hovering in the upper right of the vox holodisplay. Probably should have gone to the bathroom again before this, but there’s no more time for that...all he can do is stare at the clock as it ticks towards destiny.

Then, it is destiny o’clock.

The vox does a larger countdown in soft colors as Hug’sh clears his throat and rearranges his posture. He can now see a mirror of himself in the holodisplay - with the dingy tent behind him thoughtfully replaced by a neutral, soft gray by the vox’s conference software - and while that Wherren in the mirror doesn’t look entirely comfortable, he looks ready to say what needs to be said. Hug’sh swishes a little saliva in his mouth as the clock goes down to five seconds, gulps one last time, then breathes out.

And then he’s live.

”Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” he begins. Welp, five words in, hasn’t fucked it up yet. ”As you are no doubt aware, the governments of Narsai are currently engaged in a military cooperation with several off-world powers. Speaking for these powers tonight are Brinai Onlois, leader of the Bashakra’i, the Ambassador for the Sheen, and myself, General Walks-The-Fire, on behalf of the Free Wherren.” Brinai and the Ambassador both nod - or bob, as the case may be. ”We are currently engaged in a joint taskforce with the United States Army dedicated to peace support operations in the country of Afghanistan. The goal of this joint taskforce was, of course, to support efforts to stabilize the region and oppose terrorist organizations that threaten not only Afghanistan, but the lives of many people all over Narsai. However, it was also supposed to be a trial to see how well our militaries could cooperate in the pursuit of a common goal, an objective we still consider vital in the face of the grave threat posed to your planet by the Jade Imperium.”

“We have decided - together - to address you, the Narsai’i, directly for two reasons,” Brinai says. “One, this is a problem that affects all of you, and we believe that you should have a say in what is done. Two, we have talked to your leaders, both in your government and your military, and while some have listened and treated us with respect, too many have treated us like disobedient children, ignored our advice, attacked our honor, and now they are stealing and casting the lives of our people aside out of sheer stubbornness. This is an unacceptable state of affairs, and it must stop.”

“What is more, your leaders are not telling you the truth about what is happening to your own people,” the Sheen Ambassador says. “Last night on your planet, five-hundred, sixty-four Narsai’i soldiers were killed in a coordinated ambush during this operation. After concealing the failure of the invasion of Botane for fifteen days, we had hoped that the Narsai’i would learn to be more open with their military progress - or setbacks - but they have done neither. This is worrying to us, as they wish to be seen as allies but then lie about their own progress and capabilities, but it should be insulting to you, the people they are asking to fight on their behalf.”

”The challenges we face, none of us can overcome by themselves,” Hug’sh chimes in. ”We agreed to this alliance because it was the right choice then, and we are speaking to you now in the hopes that it can still continue. But we are all agreed that things need to change. You will see that we do not ask the impossible or even the unreasonable. What we want is for this alliance to work. In order to achieve this, we have identified a few key issues that we believe can be resolved quickly if there is sufficient will to find a solution.”

“First, and by far foremost - the Narsai’i must stop stealing our equipment and belittling our people, our efforts, and our contributions,” Brinai says. Her image vanishes, replaced by video surveillance of obviously Earth-born soldiers loading cogitators and other equipment into the back of vans and trucks, followed by similar footage, this time with audio, of a veritable litany of slurs against the Bashakra’i, Sheen, and Wherren. “I think this speaks for itself. The behavior of the Narsai’i military, let alone how the Narsai’i ravilars treat us, is beyond insulting. We have laid down our lives for Narsai’i plans, but if those efforts are not valued, if our sacrifice only earns more scorn, lies, threats, derision and betrayal? Then we do not see any reason to continue to sacrifice the lives of good people, our people, for you.”

“Our second request is related to the first,” the Sheen Ambassador says. It’s making an extra effort to appear, well, like a person, its usual minimalistic reproduction of human emotional states replaced with a fully-rendered face projected in front of its spherical shell. Ironically, its chosen appearance looks a fair bit more “middle/southern Eurasian” than Generic White Guy - obviously the result of taking the mean of the human population. “We demand an equal position for planning, management, and execution of future operations. The Narsai’i have much experience, but you overvalue yourselves at our expense - the Sheen fought and won a fifty-six year war against the Imperium, the Wherren have generations of combat and hunting experience, and the Bashakra’i rebellion has come further than any other in organizing a resistance to the Imperium’s control, all prior to Narsai’i influence. Furthermore, the rejection of your most talented and experienced unit to be fielded, Task Force 815, is not only a worrying indicator, but has lead to one great tragedy and very well might be the cause of another. We value Task Force 815’s input, and are committed to seeing this alliance as an actual alliance, rather than an opportunity to steal technology and purport to be the experts at war while sending thousands of your own soldiers to certain death.”

Hug’sh has an empathetic look on his face as his fur shifts into neutral brown with a tinge of green. ”During the existence of this alliance, we have been privileged to meet many smart, brave Narsai’i soldiers, who have done their best to both learn from us and teach us that we might all emerge stronger. But throughout all this time, we have observed much division between your troops and your leaders, between your diplomats and generals. It has become clear to us that the people who are willing to work with us have no power, and the people who have the power are not willing to work with us. As long as you cannot speak with one voice on even the most basic tenets of our cooperation, this alliance is doomed. Our third request therefore is that you need to choose someone who will speak for you to us, someone with the power to back up the promises made, someone who is as dedicated to facing our common enemy as we are. Who that will be, we cannot dictate to you, but our previous work with the GRHDI under the leadership of Samantha Barnes has been agreeable to all of us, and we would be glad to see her current position imbued with the necessary powers to carry out this function in an effective manner.”

Hug’sh takes another breath, and his colors shift to a more serious flat brown. ”We will wait for your official response for one Narsai’i solar week - precisely 1200 Zulu time next Sunday. If no agreement can be made within this time, we will be exercising our option to dissolve this alliance and withdraw our forces from all joint operations.” He takes another breath. ”We hope that this drastic step will not be necessary. This concludes our announcement. We will not be taking any questions at this time. Thank you.”
punkey 2016-06-30 10:46:54
Hale's eyes are wide when he turns back around. “Vidas Lam. Good for them, but...shit must be really bad if they're going to do that.”
Hunter is wordlessly rehearsing curse words in most of the languages and dialects he knows. “This is going to get complicated.”
punkey 2016-06-30 10:47:14
Hug’sh’s vox goes off before he even gets up out of the seat from his tele-press conference. He doesn’t have to look at it to guess who it is.

”Hello Samantha,” Hug’sh grunts apologetically, a slight mewl to his voice. ”I’m...well, I suppose you’ve got some choice words for me right now, so I’ll let you get them off your chest first.”
“No, Hug’sh,” Samantha says. Her tone is...surprisingly even. “I’m just calling to see what GRHDI can do to get things back on track with the Wherren. Obviously, there are issues that need settling.”
Hug’sh’s color immediately shifts to a more-yellow-than-green mixture that slowly mellows out. ”There are indeed some issues, but nothing that can’t be worked out - and they’re not the reason we went public.” Hug’sh sighs. ”I realize that we’re in a pretty good spot, considering, because we’re apparently not worth fucking with, but the real dealbreaker issues are what the Narsai’i military is doing to the Bashakra’i. However, if they walk, the Sheen walk, and there’s no sense in us sticking around then. So I made my move first, and now I hope we’ll have both the time and the leverage to fix things. With all respect, but...if you want to help, maybe you should be calling someone else right now. There are bigger fires to put out than Wherren gripes right now.”
“The Sheen have said largely the same thing,” Samantha replies. Hug’sh still can’t put his finger on where he’s heard this tone before, but it’s definitely familiar. “I will be calling Brinai shortly to discuss our options there. But hopefully you remember the position the GRHDI are in as well - we’re at the whims of the Narsai’i too. I hope the Wherren keep that in mind.”

You are an interstellar diplomat now, Hug’sh, and this is not a social call. Hug’sh clears his throat. ”We are aware of that situation,” he says. ”The Wherren are still enthusiastic about cooperation with the GRHDI, and it is precisely your position in the middle between us and the people in charge on Narsai that has led me to take this step. This is not a condemnation of your work, but a recognition of the limits of your current position - and an attempt to change it, for mutual benefit. It was very important to me that you and your agency were not involved in this step, which might be viewed as a conflict of interest. 815 was not involved, either. This initiative started with me and encompasses only the leadership of the Bashakra’i, the Sheen and the Free Wherren, and it was put forward to represent our interests, not those of any other party. Is this understood by the Narsai’i?”
“It is by the GRHDI - but that is not a hair that the rest of the Narsai’i governments will split,” Barnes replies. “And, while I have been keeping this a secret...I know that Luis and Arketta have moved to Atea, but I think they might have done more. They’re not on the roster from GRHDI for the Afghanistan op, but they’re still there. Under whose authority are they present?”
”Are you aware that they have both accepted positions with the Bashakra’i?” Hug’sh asks. Speaking of “conflict of interest”… he mentally adds.
“I suspected,” Barnes replies. “I haven’t said anything, because, well, it’s inconvenient for a high-ranking GRHDI member and an active duty US Army soldier to accept citizenship in a foreign nation. But tell them to be careful.”
”I will when I see them,” Hug’sh says. ”Any other issues I should raise with the others before they become problems?”
“No,” Barnes replies. “And as for the...Free Wherren, you called it?”
”Something I’m working on,” Hug’sh says. ”It’s catchier than ‘The diplomatic entity consisting almost solely of Wherren from Village 815 and volunteers from Whirr and around the Imperium organized to provide military and infrastructure support in service of Wherren homeworld independence’. I assume you have a better name than that for your files?”
“Simpler, but ‘Free Wherren’ will be substituted immediately,” Barnes says. “Please communicate to the others in your government that the GRHDI remains at their disposal.”
”We’ll keep that in mind when we get to the part where we go from ‘a couple of people shaking hands’ to an actual government,” Hug’sh replies. ”When we do, we’ll of course be providing you with official channels of communication and diplomatic personnel.”

There’s a pause on the line. “May I speak personally for a moment?”
”Go ahead, Samantha,” Hug’sh says.
“You already are, Hug’sh,” Barnes says. “Whether or not you know it, you’re...there’s not a direct analogue, but you are one of the highest-ranking government officials in your Free Wherren. I know you don’t have a lot of experience with this, but I’m telling you now - what we are doing? This is a diplomatic channel, and you should expect calls from the US government, EU, and a whole bunch of other governments very shortly, all of them with demands and asking for what you want in return. If you don’t have a staff? Get one, and in a hurry. And if you need help with being...well, Secretary of State? My vox is always on.”
Hug’sh’s fur undergoes a fascinating transition from vaguely diplomatic green to wild flashes of yellow and blue, and he yelps a quick ”Thank you!” before he slams his palm on the vox to hold the call. A few seconds pass as the initial shock makes way for a sweat attack as his heart revs up the momentum needed to leap from his chest. Holy fucking shit. This is no longer about being the fancy General of a banana republic-sized army, or even Ambassador. This is...this is up there. Like, Secret Service codename up there.

You either die a soldier...or live long enough to see yourself become The Brass. Or Secretary of State. Or El fucking Presidente.


After a moment - well, okay, a minute - of heavy breaths and roiling throughout the entire color spectrum while dedicating roughly 90% of his mental faculties to not (literally) losing his shit, Hug’sh has finally gathered enough control to be able to move his hand again, and so he shifts it just a bit to bring the still-connected call back, even though a small part of him knows he still looks like Jackson Pollack animal cruelty with splotches of wild colors chasing each other through his fur.

”Sorry,” he yelps, still breathing heavily. ”That was...intense. And...and I think...I’ll get back to you. On the help thing.” He forces a smirk. ”Know any good government consultants?”
Barnes smiles, and for a moment looks like the woman that used to be his boss. “A few. But take care of yourself, Hug’sh. You’re hyperventilating.”
”I’ve noticed!” Hug’sh barks between breaths. ”Bye!”

That palm slam gets the “end call” button. With shivering hands, Hug’sh tries to muscle the vox into calling Rhea, all thoughts of time differential and gateway schedules swept from his mind.

The holo flips on after a few chimes, revealing Rhea standing outside, her fingers half-curled around the sconce on her holodisplay. ”Hug’sh!” she exclaims, but then her fur puffs right out and erupts in color. ”What is wrong?”
An immense wave of relief just washes over Hug’sh as he looks at his bondmate, driving tears to his eyes even as he smiles. ”I’m...I...I miss you,” he blurts out.
”I miss you too, bondmate,” Rhea says with a smile of her own. Her fur ripples more and more as her colors accelerate with her breathing. ”I...I...I...I wish you were here…” She reaches for his image. Hug’sh mirrors the motion, mewling like a lost cub for a moment before breathing overrides whining.
”I’m...I’m so sorry…” Hug’sh whispers.
”When will you come home?” Rhea whines.

Do it, Hug’sh thinks, as Good Ol’ Capt. Verrill takes a seat on his left shoulder and whispers into his ear. Blow this taco stand. You love her, she loves you, since when the fuck are you a politician? You left all this shit behind, now you want to stick your dick even deeper into the hornet’s nest? How stupid can you be? Let those assholes handle their own shit, you’ve got a family that needs you. You’re missing everything you ever wanted, even the stuff you didn’t know you wanted, for this bullshit? Wake the fuck up and follow your heart.
Don’t do it, Hug’sh thinks, with General Walks-The-Fire on his right shoulder. You’re better than this now, Hug’sh. All that running away from your potential, but you were really running away from yourself. Can’t you see that these people need you? Can’t you see that this is where you belong? What will Rhea think if you abandon the fight for freedom, if you abandon your friends and your soldiers, if you leave behind everyone that’s depending on you just so you can lie in a hammock and pretend this war has nothing to do with you? You’re better than this. You have to be better than this. Get your act together. Stand your ground and be the man Rhea loves. She will understand.

Hug’sh sobs as he tries to squeeze his heart, his feelings, his love into the straightjacket of words. Trying to hold back the frenzy of colors in his fur is about as practical as trying to bail out the Titanic with a single bucket.

”Soon,” Hug’sh mewls. ”I will...I will come home...soon.” His tearful eyes meet Rhea’s. ”I love you, bondmate.”
”With all I am,” Rhea replies, purring through her own tears.
”With all...I am…” Hug’sh echoes. The only thing he is still capable of is pushing the “end call” button.

Rhea’s image being gone from one moment to the next is like...it’s like that moment where Hugh Verrill’s truck rolled over an IED that blew it to pieces, throwing Hugh through the air - that hollow, queasy feeling of everything spinning around him, the helplessness, frozen in amber and hurtling down the highway to pain and broken bones with nothing to do but take it. Still shivering, Hug’sh rises from his desk and half-ducks, half-pushes through to the tent’s exit. Everything around him feels miles away as he stumbles, punch-drunk, toward the quarters, desperately hoping to find Rodirr there.

Because Hug’sh...Hug’sh needs help. Fortunately, he finds Rodirr in their shared quarters, unpacking his bags. He turns when he hears the door open. ”I saw that you might need my -” Hug’sh’s appearance stops Rodirr dead cold, and the big male steps over and wraps his arms around Hug’sh. ”Take deep breaths, Hug’sh. The first one, it’s always the hardest.” He starts grooming Hug’sh, his tongue gently running over the sides of Hug’sh’s muzzle. Hug’sh just sinks against Rodirr and takes several heaving breaths, trying to get himself at least on the same planet as “calm”.
”What am I doing here,” Hug’sh whispers.
”What you need to, Chief,” Rodirr replies between licks. ”Just...sit down, take deep breaths, and let me help you.”
Hug’sh lets Rodirr guide him to their conjoined beds, where he sits down on the edge and collapses in on himself with a mighty sob. The numbness is going, and it’s starting to hurt again, but...it feels like he can breathe again, and he leans towards Rodirr. ”I hate...I hate feeling like this,” he says. ”I have to...I have to control it somehow.”
”You need closeness,” Rodirr says, the matter-of-fact tone of his voice at odds with the gentle attention he’s paying Hug’sh. ”Your body needs to be with your bondmate. I’m not her, but...well, I had a friend help me through my first pregnancy away from my mate.”
Hug’sh can feel his body relaxing even as his mind starts to unpack what Rodirr is saying. ”I...I don’t know,” he says. ”But I trust you.”
”We can keep it...friendly,” Rodirr replies. ”But you need this, or otherwise you’ll probably tear some poor Narsai’i apart.”
Hug’sh just nods and slides back onto the bed before lowering himself down. As he looks up at Rodirr, he repeats, ”I trust you.”
Rodirr pulls Hug’sh’s head up onto his lap and continues grooming him. ”Then just close your eyes and relax, Chief. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
punkey 2016-07-24 05:47:22
It was the work of a few hours, loading their planned captive - and four uninvited guests - into a waiting van and driving them well outside of what’s commonly thought of as Kabul. Of course, it wasn’t more than a quarter of an hour before they started waking up. Tied up and gagged in the back of some dirty van, the first one awake started squirming and screaming and doing other inconvenient things like trying to escape, and then that woke the others up, and before long all five of them were bouncing around and making a lot of racket. It took Ngawai stepping into the back, grabbing the closest one by the collar - also the one bringing in the new guy, who was less freaking out than he was trying to vanish into the wheel well - punching him square in the nose, and then jabbing him in the neck with something she had held onto from her Grand Apprehender days: a handheld knockout autoinjector. The device fit between her fingers like a pair of brass knuckles, instantly measured a target’s biology, and delivered a dose of a powerful sedative sufficient to render the recipient unconscious for a few hours but not cause any truly inconvenient side effects such as death. Once all of them were properly rendered “compliant” for the journey, it was a matter of driving out into the sticks to start the question and answer session of Garrett and Ngawai’s plan for their new friends. The exact details required a bit of changing, but by the time they reached their destination, it was just a matter of arranging the details before all the players were ready.

“There,” Garrett says, and pulls the last knot on the silk bindings tight before standing up. Before him, four men are seated, tied to chairs with lengths of silk taken from the couple’s previous observation post. “Ready to start.”
Ngawai nods, and slaps the first man in line - the second one to be incapacitated - across the face. “’Wake up.’
The man’s eyes snap open, and he screams as he looks wildly around the room - so Ngawai slaps him again. “’No. Stop.’” Strangely, being gruffly ordered to stop screaming doesn’t make him less panicked. What does finally shut him up is Ngawai pressing a chrome-and-plastic Narsai’i pistol against his head. “’Stop. Do you understand?’
The man’s eyes, still wild and panicked, are suddenly extremely focused on Ngawai. He gives the tiniest of nods in response.
’Good.’” She looks to her husband. “Garrett? You have questions?”

“Thank you, lahna,” Garrett says, and steps up next to Ngawai. He clears his throat and switches to Pashtu. “’I know you work with Wazir. You will tell me what you know about him and his people.’
’I will tell you nothing!’” he spits. “’I am a police officer! You will be killed for what you have done!’
Garrett nods to the next one in line - the older one that was captured outside. “Wake him up, please, and hand me that pistol.”
Ngawai turns over the firearm before slapping the next man in line in the face as well. He also wakes up with a start as Garrett checks for a round in the pistol’s chamber. “’You will not intimidate me!’” the first man shouts as the second rouses enough to start screaming for help himself. “’No matter what you do, I will not -’

Garrett interrupts the first officer with a single gunshot to the head. The second man’s screams grow louder and higher in pitch as Garrett carefully takes a knee, and fires three more times into the now-dead man’s chest, and tosses the pistol at the second man’s feet. “’Your friend was not very helpful,’” Garrett says. “’Will you be helpful?’
The second officer in line ummed and aaahed a few times, his eyes doing a similar panicked dance between Ngawai and Garrett as his now deceased friend did a minute previously as the ringing cleared from his ears. “’Yes! Yes, I will tell you all I know.’
’Wazir,’” Garrett said.
’He pays us to ignore his men!’” the officer says. To his right, the other two ANP officers are slowly waking up. “’Sometimes, we fix things for him! Remove evidence, blame rivals! But that is all I did! Naim was closest with him!’
’That is your friend next to you?’” Garrett asks, indicating the first man they followed, the ANP officer from the market.
’Yes! Yes, that is him!’” the second officer says.
’Thank you,’” Garrett says. The second officer gets halfway through a sigh of relief when Ngawai opens up with another silver-and-black pistol taken from the officers, perforating his chest with six quick shots from the hip. The look of surprise stays frozen on his face as he slumps in his chair, deflating as the blood pours out of him.

The other two men are roused immediately by the second round of gunshots, Ngawai’s drugging finally wearing off. The last one in line, the third one to be captured, starts screaming immediately upon seeing his two dead colleagues, while the apparent ringleader, Naim, simply remains quiet and stares daggers at Ngawai and Garrett as he walks around behind the two dead men, checks for a lack of pulse, and cuts their bonds.
’So,’” Garrett says as he walks back around, “’there is a deal to be had. Your two friends did not accept the deal. I only need to hear from one of you what I need to know about Wazir and his plans. Tell me what I need to know.’
’We will never talk, traitor!’” the last man spits. “’I have heard what you have done with this alien whore, and we will never help you and your alien allies! The faithful will defeat you, for we have God on our side!’
Garrett simply looks at Naim, who has barely moved. “’Well?’
Naim nods to his ANP co-conspirator. “’Make it fast.’
Garrett nods, and picks another pistol up off the table. “’Naim!’” the last man shouts. “’What are you -’

Garrett cuts the man’s surprise short with a bullet to the head, and repeats the ritual of crouching and firing a few more shots into his chest and legs. “’I take it you want to talk.’
’Leave me the money, I will take it and leave Kabul,’” Naim says.
’Fine,’” Garrett says. “’Talk.’
’We protected Wazir and his men from ANP scrutiny,’” Naim says. “’He has lived in that market for more than thirty years, nearly everything about his group is inside there. He keeps his main cache of weapons in there - but you destroyed that already. I have heard he keeps a larger warehouse outside of the city, but that is outside our jurisdiction. He bribes many of those in Kabul government to keep eyes off of him, but he does very little. Mostly, he defends his market and waits, and the four of us keep the Americans from finding out what he is doing.’” Naim chuckles. “’Until now, of course. I guess you and your alien friends are the war he has been waiting for. Now, he has purchased many weapons, including some from some foreign supplier I have not heard of. Supposedly weapons of immense power. I suppose this is what you are questioning me about?’
’Partly,’” Garrett says. “’Anything you know about an attempt to attack US or off-world personnel?’
’He has usually had others handle such attacks when they suit him,’” Naim says. “’Usually, an assault on a US-protected convoy to steal what is on it, or keep others from getting it. I relayed many of the messages and payments myself. But now, yes, he has asked us for aid in attacking the US compound. I have refused - it is too dangerous. But he is coming for you and your alien friends.’
Garrett nods. “’And anything else? You have talked a lot, but said very little.’
Naim shrugs. “’I am a messenger and I clean up his messes. I do not help start them.’
Garrett leans in. “’And last night? And my family?’
’I made the call that had the Americans arrest you and the alien,’” Naim says. “’I brought Wazir there, yes. I think that she is an abomination, and you are disgusting for lying with her - but I do not care enough to have you killed.’
’Just enough to stand by and let other people do it,’” Garrett snarls.
’It is the way it is,’” Naim replies. “’Now, if that is all, I will take my money and leave.’

’Very well,’” Garrett says. He drops the box containing Wazir’s money on Naim’s lap. “’Here is your money.’” And from Naim’s vest, he pulls off a hand grenade and shows it to Naim. “’And here is your payment.’
Naim looks at the grenade, confused. “’What?’
Garrett flicks his knife out and cuts one of Naim’s hands free, before putting the knife back in a pocket and retrieving a tube of cyanoacrylate super-glue. He’s already applying a good layer of it to the grenade before Naim realizes what is going on.
’No!’” Naim shouts. Garrett grabs the man’s hand, forces it against the chair’s arm, and shoves the glue-covered grenade into his hand before curling Naim’s fingers around it, the glue setting almost instantly. “’No, we had a deal!’
’I do not make deals with men who threaten my family,’” Garrett replied, both he and Ngawai glaring daggers of pure hate at Naim’s eyes. He slips the pin ring out of its holder, and ties a string around one end.
’Wait! No! Stop!’” Naim cries.

Garrett and Ngawai both pick up their equipment. Garrett picks up the last pistol from the table, and shoots Naim in the shoulder and hip. The man screams in pain, but still can’t drop the grenade. He tosses the pistol at his feet as Ngawai steps outside.
’No! Please!’” Naim begs, his voice hoarse as blood flows down his shoulder.
Garrett doesn’t say a word in reply. His only response is to shut the door tight, grasp the string with both hands, and give it a solid yank until he feels the give of the pin popping loose from the grenade. A metallic ping sounds from inside as the spoon flings free, and then the only sound from inside is Naim screaming in terror for precisely five seconds - and then the whole structure rattles with the detonation of the grenade.

Outside, there is very little to notice the sudden explosion - just a few goats and a stray dog. The fields of the abandoned farm are long dead and dried up, and off in the distance, Kabul waves back and forth under the oppressive heat of the afternoon. Garrett focuses on loading their equipment into the back of the van, while Ngawai plucks her knockout injector from the last ANP officer’s shoulder. The young man, the one caught as he was being brought in to be inducted to the now-deceased cabal, slowly starts to rouse from his sleep. Ngawai gives him a look as she climbs into the driver’s seat.
“I still think you are getting soft,” Ngawai says.
“He hasn’t done anything,” Garrett points out as he takes his seat next to her. “Maybe he’ll take this as a sign to straighten up and fly right.”
“Perhaps,” Ngawai says. She takes Garrett’s hand and smirks. “I didn’t say you going soft is a bad thing, after all.”
Garrett returns the smile, and guides their hands onto the shifter. Ngawai sticks the van into drive, and the two of them start the journey back to Kabul.
punkey 2016-07-24 05:48:13
As it turns out, piss-poor planning prepares you to face about one-hundred and fifty US Marines where were hit with severe radiation poisoning and then kauka’d, either through ignorance or against strenuous Bashakra’i objection. The Narsai’i medical tent has a whole separate area for them inside one of the storage habs, where several medics are wandering around, wondering what the fuck to do with so many patients with absolutely nothing wrong with them - but so very much wrong with them at the same time.

Boyd Kravitz, for his part, is mostly annoyed at all the attention, but he’s temporarily distracted by something he’d had to harangue his quadmates for until he was changing the subject to it every single sentence, and when he spots Leaj jogging back with it in her hand, he whistles for her to toss it his way, catches it one-handed, and opens it up.
“Shit, it’s not that bad,” Boyd says, checking himself out in Leaj’s pocket mirror. “The two-colored eyes thing is actually kind of cool.”
”You look like a half-baked loaf of bread,” Hulor grunts. ”With your face two colors like that.”
“Yeah, there’s a cookie like that on Narsai,” Boyd says. “Shit, now I want cookies.” He looks over to Danielsson. “You think they’ll let me have them if we bribe them?”
“Uh, yeah,” Danielsson says, trying and failing several times to get a smirk on his face. “Cookies are the perfect bribe. Perfect plan. Flawless. I’m...heh...just gonna step out to the next Cinnabon, yeah?” He looks to Leaj. “Yeah?”
Leaj shrugs, but smiles for Boyd’s benefit. “Maybe. I’ll ask around, see if anyone -”
“No, no charity,” Boyd says. “I want my cookies the good, old-fashioned dishonest way. I don’t want to be moaning around like a stuck scrofa.”
“Pigs,” Danielsson jumps in, quickly correcting his buddy. “I thought you good old boys were all about pigs.”
“What about them?” Boyd asks. There’s a silent pause while Danielsson stares back at Boyd. “Shit, you mean - look, it’s just a few turns of phrase. ’See, I can still speak English and everything.’ It’s not like I -”
“It’s not like what, Boyd?” Danielsson says, dropping all pretense of joking around. “Not like alien tech even the Imperium doesn’t really understand just rewrote your brain? Because, you know...it is like that.”
“Yeah, but...it’s not that bad,” Boyd protests.
“That we know about,” Shenloma says.
“Vidas Lam, Shen,” Leaj says.
“Yeah, what a First-damned downer,” Boyd adds.
“Well, it’s true,” Shenloma says. “It’s only been a few hours, and you’ve been here with us. So, good, you remember who we are and how to walk and how being in the field works, but...I mean, what about your family? What about everything else?”
“Mom and Dad were born in Charleston, South Carolina, just like I was,” Boyd replies. “I joined the Marines five years ago, and signed up to hang out with you depressives almost a year ago. You and Leaj are both from Atea, and Danielsson here is from Minnesota. See? Nothing wrong.”
Danielsson sighs. “Fine, whatever -” he says, but stops. “Hey, where’s your...your Jewish necklace thing?”
“My what?” Boyd asks.
“You had a stupid little necklace thing with the Jewish symbol on it,” Danielsson says. “Where is it?”
“Oh, you mean the Star of David,” Boyd says. “I tossed it.”
“Pretty sure you’re not supposed to ‘toss it’, Mr. Matzo,” Danielsson says. “Look, I don’t know passover from yarmulke but I’m pretty sure you do. Or used to. So, you know, this sounds like a problem.” He sighs. “Please tell me you didn’t ‘toss it’ outside the wire.”
Boyd shrugs. “Don’t remember. Look, it doesn’t matter, I’m fine.”
“Yeah, you’re just super,” Danielsson says. “I’m gonna go bother a nurse, see if they found your stupid necklace. So I can put it around your stupid neck.” He looks to Leaj. “Keep an eye on him, please?”
“Danielsson, I don’t think that -” Shenloma starts.
“Don’t think it’s a big deal?” Danielsson cuts in. “Well, this ain’t a democracy. And Boyd’s gonna want it back when he comes to his senses. So, yeah, I’d really rather be digging through the trash right now than talk about this any more.”
“That’s not what I -” Shenloma says.
Leaj puts a hand on Shenloma’s shoulder. “Shen, just let him go.” She turns to Danielsson and nods. “Good luck, stay safe.”
Danielsson nods to her, then wanders off.

Fucking Boyd, he thinks. Just ‘tossing’ his necklace. Danielsson never really asked about it, but you don’t carry a religious symbol into battle if it means nothing to you - and for all he knows, this was a present from Boyd’s dad or auntie or rabbi or whatever, not that Danielsson would know because he never asked, but it meant something to Boyd and fucking hell that means it’s important to Danielsson, too. Just ‘toss’ it. Right. Like he’s just gonna toss Narsai - Earth! - like he’s just gonna toss Earth and get with the program in outer space because the fighting is cooler out there? Fucking Boyd.

Danielsson’s not the most tactful fella, which is just another way of saying that he wasn’t having much of a good time back home in Minnesota, but he’s got enough manners to not interrupt nurses and doctors that are fighting to keep the 150 injured and quote-unquote healed soldiers alive and safe in here. That does make it considerably harder to find somebody he can interrupt with his stupid quest for the stupid fucking necklace, and that leads to wandering through the tent, raising his hand a few times but never getting to the part where he raises his voice. Danielsson’s head starts swiveling as he tries to spot someone, anyone who he can talk to without a pang of bad conscience, but he doesn’t stop walking. That kind of thing ends, rather predictably, with Danielsson walking right into a tree. A fuzzy-furred, rainbow-colored tree.

“Excuse me,” Danielsson mutters, taking a step back and gathering his wits as he looks up and spots General Walks-The-Fire - Danielsson’s not that great at telling individual Wherren apart, but you don’t forget these gleaming tusks. “Oh! Excuse me, Sir!” Danielsson manages to say. “Sorry, I’m looking for something for a friend and I wasn’t, well, I was distracted, Sir. I apologize.”
The General’s fur sheds the last vestiges of yellow and slowly, slowly turns to green - Wherren for a grudgingly accepted apology, Danielsson figures. Then the General reaches into his satchel and withdraws a notepad, on which he starts writing - in English. No harm. What are you looking for?
“A Jewish - a necklace with a -” Danielsson digs through his pockets for a notepad of his own, and draws a six-pointed star on it. “A necklace with that on the end of it.”
The General nods - Danielsson can never quite get used to how it looks like when a hunched-over sabertooth bear nods - and writes more on his notepad. I have not seen it. I will look for it. After a moment, he flips to a new page. You were with Hulor and Tarl?
“Yes, Sir,” Danielsson says. “They’re all right, Ten Tons...he took the blast. Saved our lives.”
Hulor told me. The General thinks for a moment. You know Sheen are not men or women? Like it better. After another moment, he changes the last sentence to read Like “it” better.
“Right, sorry, Sir,” Danielsson says. “It saved our lives.” He stands at attention a bit longer. “Uh...sir? Do you need anything else from me?”
The General smiles, and looks like he’s about to pat Danielsson on the head. No, Sergeant Danielsson. Go find the necklace for your friend.
“Thank you, Sir,” Danielsson says, and hustles off.

“How do you -” Shenloma asks as Danielsson walks off.
“I swear to the fucking Masters, if you ask how I am feeling I will fucking snap and kill someone,” Boyd says, watching Danielsson himself.
“Okay, fine,” Shenloma says.
There’s a moment of silence before Leaj speaks up. “How do you feel?”
Boyd grimaces. “Fine, Leaj. I’m going to get checked out in a few days, and when I’m not drooling on myself like everyone seems to think I am, I’m gonna get cleared and go back to the fight.”
“Is that what you really want?” Shenloma asks.
“Yeah,” Boyd says. “Fuckers gotta pay, and I’m in a lat-dealing mood.”
“What if they don’t let you?” Leaj asks. “Seen some of the Narsai’i leaders talking about that.”
“Then where’s the nearest Bashakra’i recruiter?” Boyd asks.
Shenloma and Leaj chuckle at that.
“I’m serious,” Boyd says. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my entire life. The fight against the Imperium is where I belong, where all of us do. They burned Bashakra to the fucking bedrock because we had the tenacity to stand on our own two feet and demand that we not be drained dry. If the Narsai’i are going to be so fucking short-sighted and keep me from getting in the fight because of a little fucking radiation, then fuck them. I’m in this to win it.”
“Uh,” Shenloma says. “I’m glad to hear you’re...enthusiastic, but…”
“You should probably sleep on that,” Leaj adds.
“Have for a while,” Boyd says. “Have for my whole life. I’m just finally ready to say it out loud. ‘There is no greater tyranny than that of -’”
“‘A docile people,’” both Shenloma and Leaj finish.
“Damn fucking straight,” Boyd says.
“Where did you hear that?” Shenloma asks.
“Don’t know, just somewhere,” Boyd replies.
“Because that...that’s from the Bashakra’i Turai banner book,” Leaj says. “Like, the first chapter.”
Boyd shrugs. “So? It’s true.”
“It’s just…” Shen says. “Look, don’t...don’t rush into anything. See what your...your military says first.”
Boyd scoffs. “Narsai’i, wouldn’t know there were any other planets in the galaxy if you talk to them. I’ll listen, but...the struggle is what matters.”
Leaj smiles softly and puts a hand on Boyd’s shoulder. “I think what Shen is trying to say is that we’d be glad to have you,” she says. “But right now you should rest, and let Danielsson do...whatever he’s doing for you.”
“He’s such a stubborn asshole,” Boyd says. “But a good friend. He’s just freaked out about what happened, but he’ll see I’m just fine soon enough.” He fishes through his bag, and comes up with a deck of cards. “Now, I recall schooling you both at poker?”
Leaj grins. “Anybody can win a game once,” she says. “I demand a rematch.”
punkey 2016-07-24 05:48:27
It’s a testament to exactly how hard the surgical unit’s job is that 150 humans cross-infiltrated by alien tissue and unpredictable memory and personality changes counts as “the easy part”. The hard part is trying to run an intensive care station at a forward operating base in the mountains of Afghanistan with alien patients. Say what you will about the kaukas that are changing the game for the human combatants, it’s still easier to deal with than actually having to stabilize and treat serious wounds on Wherren, whose equivalent of medical texts is basically one half “How to keep your slaves alive” adapted from the less than well-meaning Imperial knowledge base, and one half “The tribal ways of our people” that is a wild mixture of unsourceable medical plants and undecipherable shamanism. Kararr’s gotten kind of the worst of the human doctors’ good intentions - large-bore IV for blood expanders and hydration, while a much smaller drip with an experimental wild-ass guess at a safe dose of painkillers is checked on every five minutes for signs of allergies or other adverse reactions, which doesn’t make for a very restful night. Kararr would probably be trying to flip them off, if his right arm wasn’t tied down and his left hand not missing several fingers. His mood brightens - just a bit, but every bit counts - when the privacy curtains part and Hug’sh squeezes his way through.

”Hello, Clawbreaker,” Hug’sh greets him. ”How do you feel?”
”These Narsai’i drugs don’t help with the pain at all,” Kararr grunts. ”I had some rhur roots in my bag, those are helping.”
”I’ve asked Shenest to check her computer models against Narsai’i drugs so we can try to predict what would help better,” Hug’sh says. ”They’re just scared of making things worse.” He looks down. ”The homeworld is sending kaukas on the next supply manta. It should be here in three hours.”
”More false gods technology.” Kararr rolls yellow, red and orange. ”I’d rather lose those two fingers than use it.”
Hug’sh nods. ”Even if we did use it, you would be the first with serious injuries, and we have no way of knowing how it would turn out.” His fur rolls blue. ”I’m sorry, Clawbreaker. Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”
”More rhur would help with the pain,” Kararr says.
Hug’sh nods. ”There’s some coming on that same flight,” Hug’sh says. ”I’ll ask around, see if anyone else brought some.” He pauses for a moment as the blue gets stronger. ”Clawbreaker, I...I don’t want to put this on you right now, but I don’t think it would be good for either of us to avoid the topic. The fact of the matter is that, with your injuries, you cannot keep fighting. We would be glad to have you with us as a staff officer, or tactics instructor, or any other non-combat role - or if you don’t want that, you are of course entitled to a medical retirement with benefits. But you will not lead the fight like this. Is that understood?”
”No, I can still fight,” Kararr says, and tries to force himself upright with just his elbows. ”I can hold a spear or a rifle or whatever I need to. I will go back out there and fight for our people.”
”You cannot reload a rifle, or render first aid, or adjust your gear,” Hug’sh replies. ”And that’s just with the injuries as they are. This isn’t just about you, Kararr. Think of your brothers and sisters fighting beside you. Would you have them split their attention between the enemy and you?” Hug’sh shakes his head. ”I am sorry for speaking harshly, and it pains me to say this because you are one of our best warriors - but I cannot in good conscience let you fight again.”
Kararr is quiet for a moment, even if his fur is not. ”So I have to use the false gods’ rings if I want to fight.”
”It is not a choice I wanted you to face,” Hug’sh says. ”But it is the one I must put to you. Think carefully on it; there is time enough to consider. I will accept your decision, whatever it is.”
”If it is the only way I will be able to fight, I will do it,” Kararr says, his fur flat and brown. ”That’s not a question that needs asking.”
Hug’sh nods to that. ”Very well,” he says. ”May I tell the others of your decision? Many of our warriors are worried for you, I think it would do them good to hear that you will be back in the fight before too long.”
”Of course, Chief,” Kararr says.
A stab of yellow rolls through Hug’sh’s fur at being called “chief”, but he quickly tries to flatten his colors and project a muted green of reassurance. ”I will go tell them of your bravery,” Hug’sh says. ”Try to get some rest now, Clawbreaker. I will be back as soon as I get my hands on some rhur for you.”
”Good, maybe I will get enough to fall asleep,” Kararr grunts, and rolls over to his less-injured side. ”Thank you, Chief Walks-the-Fire.”
”You’re welcome, Clawbreaker,” Hug’sh says, just as the nurse squeezes past him to check on the drips. ”Until then!” he barks, picking his way through the curtain again.

As Hug’sh makes his way out of the intensive care station, he lays eyes on Sergeant Danielsson again, who is in the process of receiving a suspiciously familiar necklace from a ticked-off looking nurse. Danielsson doesn’t seem to care at all about her foul mood, and after a celebratory fistpump, he pulls her in for a quick peck on the cheek far quicker than she can react. And just like that, he rushes off to return to the side of his friend’s bed, leaving a stunned-looking nurse in his dust.

Hug’sh smiles a bit. Maybe there are a few more victories to be won tonight, even if it’s not on the battlefield.
punkey 2016-08-07 06:57:12
”Are you making it back tonight?” Swims-the-Black grunts into his vox, as he wanders around the Kabul Airport joint base, Naloni strapped to his chest in a very oversized Bashakra’i papoose, its sunshade lowered to protect her little face from the afternoon sun as she naps.
”We have a few leads for Wazir’s backers in the local government, and we’re watching his home for contacts tonight after we broke up his ANP support,” Ngawai replies. ”So…”
”No need to say more,” Swims-the-Black replies. ”I have plenty of formula and milk for her still, and I will never begrudge more time to spend with my niece. Stay safe, Ngawai.”
Ngawai sighs over the vox channel. ”Give her a kiss for me,” she says.
”I can take this tonight,” Garrett says in the background.
”Shift change is at midnight,” Ngawai replies. ”I can’t -”
“I have a few energy drinks from the PX, and some stim packs from the Bashakra’i,” Garrett replies. “I’ll make it until the morning. Go.” Swims-the-Black hears a shuffling. ”She’ll be there in a few hours, Swims-the-Black. No arguments. I can tell you need it, and I don’t mind.”
“You’re going back as soon as I return,” Ngawai says. “Or I’ll knock you out, tie you up, and have Swims-the-Black carry you.”
“Deal,” Garrett says. Swims sees Garrett lean into frame and give Ngawai a kiss. “Love you.”
Ngawai returns the kiss with a smile. “Love you, too.” The vox moves as Ngawai stands up and picks up her holodisplay. ”I’m on my way. See you in a few hours.”
”Naloni should be awake just in time to see her mother,” Swims replies. ”Travel safe, take your time. And Garrett, I will check in from time to time, keep you awake.”
”Thanks, buddy,” Garrett replies. ”Catch you later.”

And with a wave over his wrist, Swims-the-Black closes the connection. He looks around the base with a huff and a ruffle of his fur. ”Looks like we have a few hours to occupy before your mother gets here,” he mutters to the sleeping Naloni. ”Let’s go for a walk over there, we haven’t been there before.” The word he had been passed from Bello about strange Narsai’i activity also piques his interest, but Naloni doesn’t need to know that.

Swims-the-Black saunters down the row of buildings - what was once upon a time a series of private hangars, anonymous and empty, now has been repurposed as a row of storage warehouses, equally anonymous but apparently not quite so empty. Padlocks on the doors and a few guards walking around provide just the right degree of “keep out” and “nothing to see here” vibes simultaneously - immediately enough for a wave of curious yellow to wash over Swims as his smuggler instincts kick in.
”What do you say we take a walk where it’s a bit more comfortable, hmm?” Swims murmurs, and strolls down the aisle.
Two of the guards - notably the ones not in uniform, but in generic athletic clothes and high-end commercial tactical gear - break off and head Swims-the-Black’s way. “’Turn around,’” one of them calls out.
”What?” Swims whines innocently. ”Me?”
’You heard me, Chewie, turn around and keep walking,’” the man says. His friend’s hand goes to the trigger on his weapon.
Swims puts his hands up - Naloni fully visible on his chest - and carefully waves his hand over his holodisplay to open it up. A few wiggles of his fingers opens the text editor, and a wave spins the display around. “’What seems to be the problem?’” he asks via his vox.
’Area is off limits, keep walking, Sasquatch,’” the rude guard says.
’My name is Swims-the-Black, I am one of your 815, so I have been approved by the Narsai’i,’” Swims writes. “’This is just some warehouses, surely there is no reason I cannot walk here with my niece.’
’This is all the reason I need,’” the man says, patting his rifle with his off-hand. “’Keep walking.’
Swims’ fur ruffles bright red and orange for just a moment. “’There is no need to threaten me or my niece,’” he hastily taps out. “’But know that Brinai, Chief Walks-the-Fire, and the Sheen will hear about this. They will have questions, and will not be convinced by your reasons.’” He gives one last huff, waves his holodisplay closed, and turns around. ”Come on, Naloni. Time to watch the fun.”


After walking around to a disused lounge on the other side of the tarmac from the old hangars, Swims-the-Black puts his sandaled feet up on a chair in front of him and holds a pair of binoculars up to his eyes while Naloni sucks on the fur on the back of his other hand. Three large black trucks are pulled up to the alley, and Swims can see men running around from building to building, pushing carts loaded with equipment towards the trucks. Others are standing around, directing people around or carrying other items that look like papers and computers.
”They are emptying the buildings now,” Swims grunts into his vox.
“Good,” Paul says. “Orphan Grinder is overhead now. He’ll track the trucks. Hopefully it will lead us to their main depot.”
”It should,” Swims replies. ”I think I scared them enough that they’ll bring everything they have into a secure location, maybe even start moving some of it back to their country.”
“Thanks for the assist, Swims-the-Black,” Paul says. “I knew we could count on you.”
”Glad to still be in the fight,” Swims replies. Naloni squeals in his lap. ”And Naloni is happy to help, too.”
“She’s already a big help,” Paul replies with a laugh. “I’ll let you know if we need anything else.”

Paul closes the vox connection, and Swims sets the binoculars down on the seat next to him to devote his full attention to the human baby in his lap. ”Mommy and daddy will be so proud,” Swims grunts with a wave of green and yellow. ”Naloni’s first field mission.”
Naloni coos and looks up at Swims-the-Black’s big brown eyes and jade-capped tusks, her own green eyes wide, and she smiles.