Jade Imperium - Afghanistan, Pt. 3

CrazyIvan 2017-07-21 01:21:02
Angel pauses for a moment when he enters the room, tapping the rim of his glasses to begin recording - the stream not only going to onboard storage, but a number of servers in a number of countries with a complicated series of data integrity laws that Erika - or more accurately, very expensive lawyers under Erika's supervision - assure him would take years to unravel with subpoenas.

"Someone else is in the import-export business I see..."

He makes sure to get a good view of everything, and several unobstructed images of the Chinese characters in question.

"I had a bad feeling about those ambushes but this...fuck this."

The video shows Angel nodding to Garrett's comment. "Yeah - it's too damned shiny to be scavenged. And a few loose toys I could understand being diversion from the Bashakra'i but one doesn't just misplace a half-dozen sun mines and a cogitator."

Picking up one of the spearbombs, Angel goes through the motions of arming and priming it, stopping when he hits the "High pitched whine and lots of red-runes" stage. "Not a prop..."

Angel spends the rest of their limited window recording as much as he can of the various IDs, serial numbers and other identifying information before picking up one of the spearbombs. "Let's see where you're from..."

Pinging the RFID chip built into the device, he frowned at the results, displayed on both his screen and the recording. "Akwhela's Eye; C Block; Armory".

"Well...either the Imperium is officially backing this and feels no need to hide it, some smuggler has a massive pair on them, or someone's being a little on the nose with their fake ID chips. Not sure which one of those I prefer. But it's time to hoof it - grab some samples and lets go."
punkey 2017-07-27 00:42:26
Garrett already has a chamakana and a quiver full of rods slung over his shoulders, and a spearbomb in his hands. "Way ahead of you."


From their perch on the rooftops across the street - more accurately, on their backs on the rooftop across the street as Angel watches the sconce feed through his ever-useful Imperial shades - Angel sees a caravan pull up outside the still-smoking arms bazaar. Two pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in their beds, one minivan filled with armed men, and one small economy sedan. The van unloads its passengers, who immediately take up a perimeter around the convoy, and then one of them opens a door on the sedan, out of which steps an old, wizened Afghani man in traditional garb.
e of pi 2017-07-27 23:41:04
Luis cocks a head at Hug'sh's message, then turns back towards the village and tunes to the command channel, "Arlana, we should get settled in, that sounds like we might want to make sure we're definitely good for a few hours and maybe for a bit more. Besides, if we're going to have any personnel issues, everyone will be more distracted if they're busy digging in."
Admiral Duck Sauce 2017-07-28 12:13:17
Front Towards Enemy speaks up. "I think I'm sorry your friend got shot. What you have... it's not really consensus, as easy as it is to fall back to that analogy. 'Oh look, the Sheen's talking about consensus again'," FTE sing-songs, its voice coming out autotuned. "Each side just headbutts each other until someone gets tired, embarrassed, or hurt bad enough they can't headbutt. Do you ever wonder about what you'll do if the other side has a tougher forehead this time?"
Gatac 2017-07-29 04:22:36
A deep chuckle reverberates over the vox. "I like your approach, FTE," Hug'sh says. "Have you ever considered a career in diplomacy?"
CrazyIvan 2017-08-11 21:32:52
Angel grunts, half-amused, half-concerned.

"Well, we certainly pissed someone off."

He turns to Garrett. "Alright. We've got the evidence, we've got at least a good image of the local player...what's your play?"
punkey 2017-08-11 21:48:30
Garrett rolls over and peeks over the top of the roofline before sliding back with Angel. "Well, as rewarding as shooting him right here and now would be, I think the two .50 cals might make getting out of here alive difficult - and I think that everyone else needs to get a look at these as soon as possible."
“I’m going to take this as a sign of healthy, personal growth on your part Garrett.” Angel settles down, somehow looking visibly more comfortable despite being on a rooftop. “I say we wait until these guys get bored then head back to the 815, assuming there hasn’t been another international diplomatic incident by then.”
Garrett slides the purloined chamakana under his head. "Time to take a nap, then."
punkey 2017-08-14 00:16:01
"Moving to relieve them now, Samal," Hale says.
Jimmy checks the rod on his beamer, and notices Zaef noticing him doing that. "Always be ready for the worst," he says.


"Please!" Kitty shouts, standing on a chair near the opposite door from Zaef and Jimmy's entrance. "We are here to help!"
Marta, her own beamer in her hands, echoed her words in the local language as the other two Turai flanked her, helms down and beamers held ready.
A older man, in his fifties, shouts something at Marta.
"What did he say?" Kitty asks.
"That we've brought the Taliban to their village, that they will cause trouble for them unless they kick us out," Marta replies.
"But we won, didn't we?" Kitty asks.
"This time," Marta replies, not taking her eyes off the crowd. "There's more of them in the hills, and they're patient. They'll just wait for us to leave, and then come down and start shooting. I was hoping we'd get in and out before they noticed, but with all that's going on..."
"Is there anything we can do?" Kitty asks.
"Yeah," Jimmy shouts over the din. "We can leave." He looks to Zaef. "Samal?"
punkey 2017-08-14 00:34:04
"Cut the chatter," Arlana barks over the vox link. "Let's pull everyone into the village and get set up. And Arketta?"
"Yes, Samal?" Arketta asks.
"If you could be a dear and come set my ribs before we kauka them, that would be very kind of you," Arlana replies.
Arketta shakes her head, and Luis can picture her smile under her helm. "Yes, mother."
skullandscythe 2017-08-21 22:41:33
Zaef doesn't need much time to make a decision here.

"Leaving is the only good option we have here. We can't hold out in a siege, especially not one from the civilians. Kitty, get everything packed and ready to go. Jimmy will help for now, since he's so keen to leave. Marta, please communicate to the people here that we will be leaving calmly and peacefully, and ask them to act the same. When we've dispersed the crowd here, I need to coordinate with Hale, get everyone out of here quick and quiet. And ready for trouble on the road."

punkey 2017-09-01 01:11:38
"But -" Kitty stops herself as Marta relays the message to the villagers in their language. They're not exactly grateful - some of them even start trying to push some of the Turai and Keepers out the door.
"Got it, Samal," Jimmy says, and slings his beamer in favor of grabbing the nearest sealed crate of supplies as Kitty hastily coordinates the Keepers into packing up their remaining equipment.
"Heard the word, Samal," Hale says over the vox link. "We're falling back to the road and setting up a defensive perimeter - both from the Narsai'i attackers and from the people here."

Five minutes later, a packing line of Keepers are heaving crates into the back of the MRAP that carried them here as fast as they can, while Hale's quad are on a knee in a wide circle around the vehicles, with Jimmy, Marta, and Caleb escorting Zaef and Kitty as they help back.
Kitty stops packing up long enough to face the elder that's standing at the head of the villagers anxiously waiting for you all to leave. "I'm sorry we caused so much trouble," Kitty says to him, and Marta translates. The man narrows his eyes at Kitty and says something back. "What did he say?" Kitty asks.
"You Americans always are," Marta replies.

Kitty seems sufficiently cowed, and climbs into the MRAP after the Bashakra'i Keepers do. Jimmy and Zaef climb in with them, and Jimmy returns the slap on the door from Caleb. Zaef can see Hale order his Turai into the other two MRAPs and everyone climb aboard. As the vehicles lumber out of town, there's a sudden burst of assault rifle fire from the buildings to either side of the road!
"What the fuck is going on?" Hale shouts as Kitty lets out a brief shout of terror and grabs onto Zaef's side. "Keep moving, but prepare to return fire!"
"Hold fire!" Jimmy shouts. "Hold fire!"
"Stop! Don't shoot back!" Marta calls out as well.
"Holding fire!" Hale shouts. "Care to explain why, 815?"
"They're just saving face with the Taliban," Jimmy says. "They're not trying to kill us, they're aiming for the armor. It's just for show to let the Taliban know that they kicked us out, we didn't just leave."
"If they didn't shoot at us on our way out, they'd be getting invaded again tonight - and this time we wouldn't be there to help them," Marta says. "Kind of the whole war here in a bottle, really."
"Vidas Lam," Hale curses. "What a fucking mess."
"No argument here," Jimmy replies. "The 'stan's eaten too many years of my life with fuck-all to show for it. The sooner I get off-world and away from this place, the better."

A few minutes later, Kitty still has a death grip on Zaef's side, but her breathing finally starts to slow down. "...I'm sorry," she whispers to him.
skullandscythe 2017-09-02 09:53:06
Kick us out, Zaef replays in his head, a bitter taste in his mouth. He repeats his lieutenant's decision to hold fire to the troops, and as the talk turns to the nasty situation the villagers face, he toggles his vox channel to just speak to Hale and his 81X troops - and muffle his helmet speakers. No need for Kitty to her his morbid thoughts on this.

"Waste of fucking bullets," Zaef sighs. "Taliban might think it a little odd that a small village with nowhere near enough weapons for everyone managed what a force of forty couldn't. I know I would.

"And, Jimmy and Marta, correct me if you don't think this fits the Taliban's actions, but it seems to me the Taliban has more to gain by razing the place and blaming us anyway."

He starts pinging Bello and Onas about getting the troops a little bonus, or maybe some booze - something to bring morale up after that particular show of gratitude.
After the discussion is over, and Kitty starts to open up, he reaches around and squeezes her. "You have nothing to apologize for."
punkey 2017-09-04 13:25:10
"But it was my plan to come out here, and it put you and your people and oh god the Keepers Brinai trusted me to lead and you all got shot at and we put those people in the village in danger and now they're going to die -" Kitty just starts to hyperventilate at this point as she grabs Zaef tighter and tears continue to roll down her cheeks.
Zaef holds her closer, and lets Kitty cry for a while. When she starts to calm down a little, he asks "What sort of help did you give the villagers?"
Kitty sighs. "Vaccinations, anti-viral and antibiotic shots," she says.
"And the data you collected - you'll be able to better help the men stationed here?"
Kitty nods.

"Don't forget the good you've accomplished, even when you're focused on what could've gone wrong - or did go wrong." Zaef shrugs. "It could've been so much worse. Nobody in the village got hurt, and the troops only took minimal casualties."
"I guess," Kitty sniffs. "I just...I didn't think about what might happen. I didn't even know to think about what might happen. And because of that...I need to get better at...at what it is you do. Jimmy knew, Marta knew. You probably knew. Everyone did but me, and if I want to go out there with you?" She takes another deep breath. "I can't make mistakes like that. Because we were lucky."
Zaef nods.

Kitty sits up, straightens her back, and steels herself. "I want you to teach me how to do what you do." Her shoulders drop a little bit. "Or at least, the part that you do that makes you good at what you do. If that makes any sense. If I'm going to go out there with you, I need to be able to keep up with you and people like Jimmy and Marta. I thought getting stronger would be enough, but...it isn't. You see things...I guess, more clearly than I do. And I need to learn how to do that."
"I'll try to help," Zaef says, "but it's tough to teach. It's...perspective and judgment, mostly. Gathering what you know, planning ahead, making calls as you go. And until you get a better grasp of it," he gives Kitty a stern glare, "I don't think you should go back out in the field, not as the head of a team."
Kitty nods. "I agree. I'll talk to Garrett. And Brinai and Onas and Bello. They should be able to help out." She takes Zaef's hand and manages a small smile. "And you too, of course."
"Hey, I think I've got some good judgment in me somewhere," Zaef replies in mock outrage, but he gives Kitty's hand a soft squeeze.
Kitty gives Zaef a peck, then leans as best against him as she can in the MRAP's seats. "Somewhere in there."
punkey 2017-09-04 13:37:59
It only took a few hours to change everything. All sides in “The Incident” quickly stood down when Hug’sh and Cooper came to a terse agreement, but what happened next was on nobody’s agenda for the day. The Bashakra’i - and with them, swiftly, the Wherren and the Sheen - stopped thinking that they were sharing a FOB with the Narsai’i forces. If even the habs of their leaders were not safe from intrusion, then there was only one course of action: redefine the perimeter. It started with a team of Bashakra’i doing a patrol around the habs built for the off-world forces, then two more, until the perimeter was being walked consistently and Sheen shells were perched on top of the habs. The Narsai’i weren’t sure what to make of it, kept watching and waiting and maybe hoping that this clusterfuck would somehow settle back down, but then the Bashakra’i rolled out even more men, and trins of Wherren accompanying them, and they brought with them big rolls of dull metal. It was only when those rolls got rammed into the ground and unspooled that the lightbulb went on: they were erecting a fence.

General Cooper saw that it was time to stop watching, and so he went to talk. The closer he got, the clearer it got that the off-worlders had not, in fact, ever really “stood down”; he felt their eyes on him, their hands on their weapons, and a lot of nervous soldiers behind him trying to not be the ones who shot second. Then Hug’sh came out, and Iro came out, and Gunny came out. And they all told him, with varying levels of politeness, that the fence was gonna go up whether he liked it or not.

Well, he didn’t like it, and the fence did go up. Fast-forward to now: there are now two openings in the perimeter around the Bashakra’i-Wherren-Sheen Joint Security Area, both laid out as checkpoints for anyone trying to leave or enter - and so far, nobody’s leaving or entering. The off-world soldiers who were not allowed to patrol with the Narsai’i now patrol the perimeter behind the fence, while their comrades have broken out the good old personal trenching equipment to dig foxholes and fill sandbags - even a high-tech army like the Bashakra’i is no stranger to low-tech fortifications, even if their bags are less burlap and more near-transparent monofilament mesh, providing a near unobstructed look at the dark soil within them. Wherren craftsmen are now hard at work spreading tarps between the habs and barricading windows facing outside, while the Sheen shells continue their vigil with an animated discussion about likely attack vectors that takes place entirely in the less-monitored areas of the electromagnetic spectrum. They see the Narsai’i and their half-hearted attempts to build a counter-perimeter, an...encirclement? Their human faces under their helmets and armor look alternatively scared, confused and furious, but so far, none have dared to test the JSA’s defenses. Nobody’s quite sure what will happen when they do, but it’s a safe bet that it will not be pretty.

And in the middle of everything, Hug’sh sits in the new JSA “command center”, brooding over the hastily-drawn up defensive schemes for their little bastion, wondering how much more shit will go wrong before the ultimatum is up. Beside him, Rodirr’s hopped on the vox with Paul and the Wherren patrols to get the latest on perimeter movement, while Swims and Iro are quietly completing an assessment of their supplies, how long they could hold out if they were being actively besieged, and what their options to break such a siege would be. None of the answers sound reassuring, though whether they’re not reassuring for the defenders or not reassuring for the Narsai’i that Hug’sh would still, on balance, prefer not to fight with...well. That all gets pushed aside when Hug’sh’s vox chimes - a call from Arlana.

”Yes?” Hug’sh answers the call.
“I hear you have turned our habs into a fortress,” Arlana says. “Iro told me what happened - what is your plan for my patrols making our way back in?”
”For right now, we send out a trin to collect them at the gate and escort them into our area,” Hug’sh says. ”We should have a dedicated exterior gate within two hours, and then crossing Narsai’i territory will no longer be an issue.”
“Good,” Arlana replies. “We will not be back for a few more hours - although that might change if our Narsai’i partners decide to start trouble on our patrols. Word has not reached them yet, but when it does…”
”You will be ready, I’m sure,” Hug’sh says. ”Most of them are not our enemies...but at least one of them is. For the time being, segregating ourselves is the only way to prevent further incidents - or to at least make them...too costly to contemplate. We’ll see where we are tomorrow. With any luck, we’ll be able to treat this as a very realistic field exercise in expedient perimeter security.”
“Hopefully,” Arlana says. “I will make sure the Turai on my end know what is going on. I will connect again when we are fifteen minutes out.”
”Good,” Hug’sh says. ”Stay safe out there, Arlana.”
“And you in there,” Arlana replies, and disconnects.

Hug’sh thinks for a moment. Arlana is...not something to worry about. She can handle it. The other patrols can handle it, too. Are they still going to send out new ones tomorrow? Probably not, they barely got the Narsai’i to agree to those. Just as well; with everyone accounted for inside the cordon, their security situation will be much simpler, and what the hell is all that noise from the Wherren at the skimmer pool, do we really need to talk about noise discipline again?

Then Hug’sh catches a whiff of something. His nostrils flare as he sucks in another, deeper breath, and an involuntary wave of green rolls through his fur as he turns to Swims, completely dumbstruck.

”Do you...do you smell this?” he asks.
”Hmm?” Rodirr grunts. Swims-the-Black is too pre-occupied with his talks with Iro to notice.
”Excuse me,” Hug’sh says, bumping against the table as he rises a bit too quickly from his chair. His gestures become more nervous as he ducks and weaves through the hab and all but bursts through the door, sucking in another deep breath of evening air, heavy with a new musk in the ocean of Wherren smells.


”Hug’sh, we have a...special guest with the medical supplies from Whiirr,” Rodirr says over the vox clipped to Hug’sh’s ear.
”Rhea!” Hug’sh shouts, which is an extremely professional way to respond to his second-in-command’s message. His dead sprint towards the skimmer pool is also extremely professional and just generally a super-dignified way for the General of the Free Wherren forces to be moving in a tense time like this. Wherren, Sheen and Bashakra’i dodge out of his way, and as he rounds the last corner, he sees her - he sees Rhea, his bondmate, the love of his life, the mother of their cubs - running just as fast towards him, a sea of yellow and green all over her. Hug’sh’s eyes crimp closed as the sharp wind - shut up, it’s totally the wind - clouds his vision with tears, and when the two literally do run into each other, it’s not entirely clear whether they’ll be able to keep on their feet. Their arms stretch around each other, trying to embrace as much of their bondmate as Wherrenly possible, and only a few quiet mewls and sobs escape as their tongues get busy grooming each other. It’s enough to even make some of the younger Wherren warriors quote-unquote blush, while the Bashakra’i present can only stare transfixed; it’s not every day you get to watch a reunion this intense.

”You’re here,” Hug’sh huffs into Rhea’s fur, severely out of breath. ”You’re here.”
Rhea can only purr in response at first, but eventually she pulls herself together enough to reply - if not pull her muzzle away from his. ”Rodirr arranged for me to come. I couldn’t stand to be away from you a moment longer.”
”I’m so glad you’re here,” Hug’sh purrs, finally getting his emotions under enough control to roll his own green-yellow pattern for her. Her pattern. Their pattern? Does it really matter anymore? If he could see himself, he would know that it’s no longer possible to tell them apart. ”Come,” he says. ”Let’s get inside.”

Rhea’s reply is to keep purring and rub her muzzle against Hug’sh’s and licking him just behind the ear. How he manages to ever regain enough self-control to steer them into the next hab is an honest-to-God mystery.
Gatac 2017-09-04 13:43:54
For decency’s sake, let us turn our eyes to the situation a half hour...well, more like 45 minutes later. Having gotten past the “reunion” phase of things for the time being, Rhea asked Hug’sh what was going on, so he told her, so she asked what she could do to help, and then Hug’sh told her what she could do to help. Such is (with all due brevity) the chain of events that has led Rhea to muscle herself all the way up to the roof of one of the habs in the Joint Security Area, bonding present rifle slung over her shoulder and Hug’sh right behind her. It never hurts to get more eyes on your opponent, especially when they’re the sharp eyes of a master huntress. As Rhea takes a knee behind some of the roof-mounted hardware and squints her eyes at the perimeter towards the Narsai’i part of the FOB, Hug’sh moves into position across from her.

”They’re waiting for us, and we’re waiting for them,” Hug’sh says, by way of explanation. ”It’s just a question of who’s going to move first. Do you see anything?”
”Nothing that your hunters don’t see, probably,” Rhea says. ”The Narsai’i are building watch positions and putting guards of their own all around - including in windows here, here, and here.” She points at a few windows pointing at the fence and providing basic overlapping fields of fire - where the Bashakra’i had only spotted one before.
Hug’sh squints his eyes as he follows Rhea’s point. Blankets in the windows, blackout inside, only the barest glint of optics - clever bastards. ”That’s two we hadn’t seen yet,” he says. ”Fresh eyes help.” He’s quiet for a moment. ”Are we doing the right thing here?”
”Your defenses look good,” Rhea says, giving Hug’sh a lick.
Hug’sh sighs, then smiles and returns the lick. ”They do, don’t they,” he says. ”We should take some pictures for the textbook.”
Rhea purrs and leans into Hug’sh. ”But that is not what you meant, is it.”
”It is not,” Hug’sh says. ”Every step I’ve taken since we gave the Narsai’i the ultimatum feels like it has been the right choice, the sensible option, the best we could do. I feel...certain in them. But I wish I had had time to talk them through with someone beforehand.” He coughs. ”Someone I trust above everyone else.”
Rhea rubs her muzzle against Hug’sh’s and keeps purring. ”Well, you were here and I was on Whiirr.”
”Indeed,” Hug’sh says, returning the rub. ”I’m glad you’re here now.”
Rhea and Hug’sh rub muzzles and purr for a little while before Rhea speaks up again. ”What else could you have done that would have been better? Given the Narsai’i what they wanted?”
Hug’sh thinks for a moment. ”Absolutely not,” he says. ”I think we came to the right conclusion. It’s still my job to look left and right and consider what else we could have done without just letting the Narsai’i walk all over us.” He exhales sharply. ”Coming up with a plan B or plan C would have been nice for my peace of mind. But what’s done is done.”
”Plan B - ignore the Narsai’i treating us like newborn cubs,” Rhea says. ”Plan C - let them put the blame for the Bashakra’i thefts on you.” She strokes Hug’sh’s hump. ”These sound like good plans.”
Hug’sh chuffs. ”So it seems,” he says, then turns his attention back to the perimeter. ”Do you see anything else?”
Rhea carefully scans the area of the perimeter in front of her. ”I do not know much about any of this,” she admits.
Hug’sh nods. ”With perfect knowledge of each other’s positions, both sides are a grave offensive disadvantage,” he says. ”To act, they need to find a way to break our perimeter. To do so, they will attempt to position their troops in a way that we cannot see and therefore cannot prepare to defend against. The positions you spotted earlier are part of it, but most critical are attempts to move up troops out of our sight. If you see movement, that is of interest.” He pauses. ”If the Narsai’i follow their doctrine, they will not attempt to breach our perimeter without many more troops and supporting weapons. But the difficulty in dealing with the Narsai’i has always been that they disregard their doctrines so readily. So we have to keep an eye out for...stupid things.”
Rhea can’t help but notice the purple and blue shades her bondmate’s fur has shifted to. ”It will be all right, bondmate. The Narsai’i need us, and you said that there was a Narsai’i that was...not stupid?”
”There are quite a few of them,” Hug’sh comments. ”The trick is getting the stupid ones out of their way.” He squints into the distance. ”And just as we mention them…” he mutters.

By the pricking of Hug’sh’s thumbs, something wicked this way comes: General Cooper and Agent (?) “Hilby” are on their way to the perimeter. Well, they and about a platoon of Narsai’i soldiers flanking them as guards. To a cynical mind, it would look like a perfect shooting gallery; to the more symbolically inclined, it might pass as a show of strength; in Hug’sh’s view, Cooper probably sold it to Hilby as the second but is also marching his men up into plain sight to show that they’re not creeping around somewhere else. This...could get interesting.

”I need to go meet them, and you need to -” Hug’sh says, then looks at her - and his chest tightens at the idea of being away from her. He knows, without even looking at Rhea’s expression, that his colors are going crazy, and he takes a breath to focus and compose himself. ”You ought to come along with me. We’ve been apart long enough. Just...be ready for stupid things.”
Rhea nods. ”I will keep my knife in my bag.”
Hug’sh gives her a quick lick. ”If there should be any gunfire, follow Rodirr or Swims. They will keep you safe.”
”They will have to pull me off the Narsai’i that shot at you, because he will have my blade in his chest,” Rhea replies, her fur puffing up into a red cloud.

And with that last bit of “What do you do if your bondmate gets lit up by a platoon of Narsai’i riflemen” clarification in place, it’s time to climb down and take care of business.
punkey 2017-09-04 13:45:06
Taking care of business involves a bit of getting strapped - not with a Tenner, as Cooper and Hilby made a bit of a show of coming unharmed, but Hug’sh would be damned if he didn’t at least have a sidearm and a good knife on his harness. Iro and Paul are still wearing their armor, and it is safe to assume that any Bashakra’i worthy of that name - nevermind two of their officers - are always sufficiently armed. As for Gunny - well, he can keep the accelerators on his shell powered down and stowed. For now.

Flanked by their own hodgepodge of Wherren warriors, Bashakra’i soldiers and Sheen shells, the three representatives of the allied forces cross the open ground from their tent city to the Joint Security Area’s main gate, where the guards pull aside the movable section of the fencing and let them exit. As both sides come closer to each other, the thin mountain air feels substantially thicker.

”General Cooper, Agent Hilby,” Hug’sh grunts to them, nodding to Cooper - and Cooper only.
“General,” Iro says, notably leaving his helm closed and locked. Paul settles for just glaring at Hilby, while Gunny settles down onto the base of its shell and waits.
’We thought it was time to talk on more neutral ground,’” Cooper says.
Hug’sh nods to that, then takes out his notepad. We’re ready to listen.
“What do you have to say for yourselves?” Iro asks.
“The attempt to frame the Wherren for the thefts was…” Paul starts, “well, honestly, I’m insulted you thought we would believe that.” Gunny remains silent.
’There is no proof that the parts found in General Walks-the-Fire’s quarters were planted there,’” Hilby says. “’You should accept the possibility that he stole them.’
Paul’s helm turns sharply in Hilby’s direction. “You don’t get to talk.”
Hug’sh hastily scribbles a message. Possibilities aside, our internal investigation has not turned up any evidence that I or any of my troops are responsible for the theft, either. What is known is that you are not acting in accordance with what the Bashakra’i want. Your insistence on pushing a specific angle in this investigation, nevermind your reticience in revealing how you even knew where to look for the items, leaves us only a few unflattering conclusions to draw. He flips to a new page. We will not be driven apart, and whatever Agent Hilby wants to say to me he can say to my face right now.
Hilby says nothing - he doesn’t really seem to care to pay all that much attention to Hug’sh in general.
Hug’sh can tell Paul rolls his eyes even through the helm. “Here, I’ll solve this problem now.” He reaches for the dispenser for his gear pack, and the three tubes found in Hug’sh’s quarters slide out. “Here, catch.” He tosses them to Hug’sh one after another. “He doesn’t need to steal them - he can just have them.”
Hilby snorts. “’You just give them away to them, but refuse to give us anything?’
“You have containers of them!” Iro shouts.
’The crippled ones,’” Hilby says.
Iro and Paul both clench their fists. Hug’sh can tell that Hilby is moments away from his first intergalactic ass-kicking, but Iro contains himself, and turns to Cooper. “Rav-Odun Cooper, the idea that the Wherren would need to steal equipment from the Bashakra’i is absurd. They have been given what they need to get started, and Hiigra has requested we let the returning Wherren that know how to run nano-fabs begin working on Whiirr-produced version. They do not need our charity, and I am done talking about it. Are you?”
’Yes,’” Cooper says, and looks Hilby’s way. “’We are. Whoever thought that was a good idea, they were very mistaken.’” Hilby turns bright red, but says nothing. “’What can we do to help bring that fence down?’
“Nothing,” Paul scoffs. “It stays up.”
There have been enough misunderstandings, Hug’sh writes. We will maintain the Joint Security Area and control access. You will receive from us rosters with pre-approved personnel for any joint operations or other reasons for venturing into your side of the base. Likewise, we will require that all visitors from your side be announced to us in advance and identified at the gate. I hope that these elevated security measures will become obsolete once your leaders make their decision in regards to the ultimatum we have given them, but until then, things will have to be as they are. He looks to Hilby and snorts. I think it is in everyone’s best interest if you maintain your own perimeter as you deem it appropriate. Nobody on this base should go unaccounted for.
’No need - this is our base,’” Hilby sneers. “’I’ve requested authorization from Washington to bulldoze your little picket fence.’
Hug’sh’s eyes narrow. In light of the nearing ultimatum, I thought it would not be necessary to erect our own base in a different location, but if you see that as necessary we will vacate these premises with all possible speed. Until we have done so, any attempt to breach the perimeter by force will be met with force. He harrumphs and flips to a new page, writes it out, almost doesn’t show it to Hilby, but then his temper does get the better of him, and he plonks the notepad down on the table. Maybe if you had ever been in a real fight, you might not be so keen to repeat the experience.
Hilby still doesn’t do much more than glance Hug’sh’s way, continuing to address Iro. “’Keep your people on your side of the fence,’” he says.
’We will submit a clearance roster by tonight,’” Cooper replies. “’I hope you do the same.’
Iro nods - to Cooper. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”
I see we all understand each other, Hug’sh writes. If that is all, we have work to do.
Cooper nods. “’You do what you have to do.’” He gives a different, more formal nod to the group. “’Generals.’” Iro and Gunny both nod in return.
’Guhnarawl,’ Hug’sh says, and his eyes fix on Hilby as he sucks in a breath. ’Heel-bee.’
Hilby looks like he smelled something foul as Hug’sh says his name, and follows Cooper away.
Gatac 2017-09-04 13:47:35
Iro flips his off-hand through a haptic, and a beep sounds in Hug’sh’s vox for a private encrypted vox channel. With a swipe, Hug’sh takes the call.
“We have to figure out what is going on here,” Iro says. “I’m tired of being in the dark.”
”Indeed,” Hug’sh says. ”I do not believe Hilby’s outrage over the items. If they could steal them, why use them to try to frame me instead of just keeping them? He must have known that you would not believe this, so what is he trying to accomplish?”
“Unless he did,” Gunny says. “‘Cause he’s a dumbass.”
”He wouldn’t be the first,” Hug’sh says. ”But it seems like he’s a well-connected dumbass. And I want to know who his friends are.”
“My people are watched too closely,” Paul says. “The Bashakra’i aren’t nearly white enough to blend in.”
“We’re on it,” Gunny says. “Just need a place to start. Hug’sh, can you get us a place to start digging through his digital footprint?”
Hug’sh thinks for a moment. ”I assume you’ve already gone through the usual suspects? Walter Simmons and the other names on the 815 enemy list?”
“You mean the guy that tried to blow you all up when you were a lot less hairy?” Gunny asks. “We track all known threats in real-time - fucker’s a ghost. No footprint, dropped off the grid.”
”That’s not very reassuring,” Hug’sh says. ”And the usual suspects off the 815 enemy list? We do have a few unfriends in high places.”
“They’ve started using code words and other bullshit - shit we can’t just crack,” Gunny says. “Intelligence branches have been cranking on it, but the consensus is that they’re trying to divide us, negotiate individually and force us to give them what they want. Chasing some crazy idea that they can be as powerful as the Imperium within ten years.”
Paul nods. “That matches with what Bello and I are tracking. They think we’re working with Angel to slow-play them and keep them dependent on us, turn them into slaves.”
”That’s...idiotic, on both counts,” Hug’sh says. ”The thing is, all of this so far can be explained by them just being stupid, but I have a natural, maybe irrational aversion to dismissing them as ‘just’ stupid. I’d rather overestimate them, but...it just doesn’t make sense unless they really are that foolish.”
“They’re scared,” Iro says. “I saw that same look on the Imperial Turai feeds widecast on Botane - they don’t know what’s going on, and they are looking for any way out. He wants to look strong, but they are desperate.”
“And you know the story here, Hug’sh,” Paul adds. “The Narsai’i in power are always terrified that someone’s going to do to them what they’ve done to someone else.”
”That is the way of every ruler who feels power slip his grasp,” Hug’sh finishes the thought. ”Hrm. Hilby seems unlikely to change what passes for his mind, so the low-risk strategy for now is dig in, watch the perimeter and run out the clock. What do you think?”
“Seems like giving them a pass to do whatever they want,” Iro says. “I’d rather make sure they know that any further attempts will not lead to a result they want.”
”How would you do that?” Hug’sh asks.
“By stopping Hilby,” Paul says. “We’ve been looking for the asshole behind the thefts, and it looks like we found him. If we can prove it’s him, that will get the Narsai’i off our backs and put them on the defensive.”
”There’s no proof to be found on our side of the fence,” Hug’sh says. ”And the other side is enemy territory for the time being. I don’t believe that proving he did it or ordered it will change anyone’s mind, but it ought to be enough for his masters to get nervous and cut their ties to him. And I do believe I would enjoy ruining and exposing him. I assume this outcome would be to everyone’s satisfaction?”
“That’s the idea,” Paul says.
“Agreed,” Iro says.
“Sure,” Gunny says. “As much fun as killing the fucker would be.”
“Then it’s settled,” Iro says. “First step is to find his agents here and at Kabul.”
”Swims happened upon a few of them in Kabul,” Hug’sh says. ”That’s a start, I think.”
“You work on getting an in to Hilby’s systems, Hug’sh?” Paul says. “He seems to think you’re an idiot.”
”I can do that,” Hug’sh says. ”Just give me a thingamajig and draw me a picture of where to stick it. Then it’s just a matter of keeping him busy while it does what it does and retrieving it without him noticing. I think this idiot can handle that.”
“I got something for you,” Gunny says. “I’ll have one of the scout shells run it over.” It nods to Hug’sh, Paul, and Iro. “Catch you guys later.” Then it nods to Rhea. “Good to meet you, Rhea.”
”It is good to meet you as well,” Rhea says, her fur showing she’s only a little weirded out by a big talking machine. ”And you as well, Iro and Paul. Hug’sh has talked about all of you, and said many good things.”
“I’d wait to see for yourself,” Gunny says, and walks off.
“I will talk with Swims-the-Black, follow up on Kabul,” Iro says. “We will conference in two hours?”
”Indeed,” Hug’sh says. ”Paul, I know it’s a lot to ask, but if you have any old intelligence buddies who still pick up the phone…”
Paul nods. “Maybe a few that owe me some favors. I’ll see what I can do.”
”Thank you,” Hug’sh says.

As the delegation crosses back into the JSA and splits up, Hug’sh takes Rhea’s hand and gives her a lick. He was...he was almost okay without her, thanks to Rodirr, but now that she’s here, the thought of leaving her side is painful. That’s going to become...interesting if he’s to get to Hilby’s computer and futz with it. The back of his mind wonders if this is what Hilby wants - play on Bashakra’i and Sheen instincts to compromise systems and get more intel, get them to try something and have a trap ready to catch them in the act - but that’s a risk they’re just going to have to live with.

”Bondmate,” he tells Rhea, ”we’re about to do something very risky on dangerous ground. If all goes well, the Narsai’i will never know, but if things do go wrong...we may need to fight our way out. Are you willing to come with me?”
“Anywhere,” Rhea replies with a purr and muzzle rub.
”Good,” Hug’sh says, returning the muzzle rub and squeezing her hand a bit more. ”I’m going to put us on the visitor roster - I will tell them I really regret how acrimonious this whole situation has gotten and that I truly believe that talking to Agent Hilby in a more relaxed setting might clear things up. They know me as a sap, they’ll believe it.” He smiles at Rhea. ”Of course, I’m going to need one of my soldiers to escort me.”
Rhea bows. ”I am at your service, Chief.”
”Let’s make some calls and get you geared up, then,” Hug’sh says. ”...and...thank you for being here, Rhea.”
She gives him a slow and loving groom at that. ”I could no more stay away from you than you could from me, Hug’sh.”
”I know,” Hug’sh says. ”It would be suspicious to declare our visit so quickly, and we will need to wait on the equipment in any event, so…” He grows a mischievous grin. Rhea grooms behind Hug'sh's ear - and gives him a little nip - in reply. Hug’sh purrs at that as his eyes scan the JSA. ”...where did we make our bed?”
punkey 2017-09-04 13:48:10
There is no authoritative source on how long Wherren reunions are supposed to last; Gunny has given it a half hour since the last strategy meeting, which seems decent enough, but he has to admit that Hug’sh was rather more available for quick questions before his bondmate showed up. And instigating a plan to expose “Agent Hilby” (or whoever he really was) just before sneaking off to bed - well, Gunny’s pretty sure that’s bad form for any species. Best to check in now and see how things are going, and whether General “Just figured out how to set a profile picture on his vox and it’s out of focus” Walks-The-Fire needs any help with how to handle that spy-tech.

It’s a positive surprise, then, to walk into Hug’sh’s tent and find him and Rhea out of bed, dressed even, around a piece of flipchart paper with lots of scribbled notes and diagrams. His sconces take in the image and break down the dense arrangement of terse bullet points and linking arrows into a digest of their infiltration plan. Which is, well...Hug’sh’s no spy, let’s leave it at that. And Rhea, bless her heart, is a talented female, but pretty new to magic tricks like palming a bug and plugging it into a laptop without being noticed. They did whittle a nice little piece of wood to stand in for the bug, though, so credit for that.

“I find that clandestine attacks tend to fall apart after the fifth layer of deception,” Gunny says as it strolls in, wearing its bipedal shell.
Hug’sh looks at Gunny, then at Rhea, then at the plan. It’s a short way from there to just hanging his head, so that’s efficient, at least. ”It’s...more difficult than I thought it would be,” Hug’sh admits. ”We’re fairly sure we can get your bug past a pat-down and that Hilby will close his laptop when we come in, so it could do its job while we draw Hilby’s attention, but…”
”There’s no way he’ll let either of us linger close enough to the computer to plug it in,” Rhea says.
Hug’sh nods to that. ”So, we...don’t really have a plan, yet.”
“Which is why I told you that I have something to help you instead of just tossing you a bug,” Gunny says. Another shell detaches from its back and crawls over onto the table, sending Rhea’s fur bursting into a flare of alarm and a bit of creeped-out-ness. “No offense, but your Army files actually contain bits about how you need to develop your technical skills, and rah-rah Wherren can do whatever they set their minds to, but considering your hands are literally as big as Hilby’s laptop, sneaking a tap into one of the ports on his desk is probably a reach too far for the Wherren cause.”
”You should meet some of our hunters, but your point is taken,” Hug’sh says, his fur echoing some of Rhea’s colors as he inspects the shell on the table, which folds up its legs and shifts a few parts to form a decent facsimile of a Narsai’i laptop’s shape, with obvious Narana’i styling touches. ”Michael Bay must feel so smug right now,” he murmurs, then cranes his head to view the shell from different angles. ”And this can infiltrate his computer without being noticed?” he asks.
The flat slab shell turns to Hug’sh and extends a sconce from its front to look at Hug’sh. “Yes, I can,” it says, uncharacteristically terse for a Sheen.
That creeps out even Hug’sh a bit, and his colors show it. ”...nice to meet you,” he says. ”How close do we need to get you?”
“A meter would be best,” the Sheen replies.
Hug’sh looks up to Rhea and rolls a confident wave of green through his fur. ”We can do that,” he says. He turns to Gunny, who’s looking rather...pleased with itself. ”Anything else we should know before we track the beast to its nest?”
“Well, just in case Hilby isn’t quite as much of a lobotomized shaved ape as he appears to be, this particular shell has some special features,” Gunny says. “Go on, show them.”

The Sheen on the desk sighs - actually bothers making a sighing sound - and retracts the sconce tendril and opens up its back to reveal...a really nice looking screen and keys in Imperial glyphs. Even Hug’sh knows that this is a completely ridiculous object - Imperials putting keys and a screen on a device would be like Narsai’i fitting a heads-up display to a pedal bike - but it looks legitimate enough if, well, if you’re Narsai’i.
“We brought a few of these shells and a handful of infiltration branch Sheen with us,” Gunny says. “Not that we were going to hand them out to Narsai’i leaders, but…”
”Um,” Hug’sh says, trying to find something smart to say. ”It should have Narsai’i letters on the keys.”
“We thought that would be too suspicious, even for trying to fool the Narsai’i,” Gunny replies.
”I see,” Hug’sh says. He looks to Rhea. ”I think we should make ready to leave, bondmate, before Hilby has a chance to change the situation in his favor...and before I lose my nerve.”
Rhea nods, but still glances nervously at the laptop-shell.
The laptop shell snaps shut. “About time show and tell is over. Just get me close and I’ll take care of the rest.” It certainly sounds more terse and businesslike than most Sheen - but still just flippant enough that you know it’s a Sheen.

Hug’sh sighs. Now that the plan is settled, all he has to do is play the sap in front of a jingoist, paranoid blowhard. How hard can it be?
Gatac 2017-09-04 13:50:47
The first difficulty Hug’sh and Rhea face is at the checkpoint - but not the one Hug’sh was expecting. Iro is waiting at the gate, now an actual gate with a door removed from one of the habs and secured with what looks like a jerry-rigged auth system made out of a gutted chamakana.
”You don’t have to go,” Iro says. ”I can handle this.”
”That’s all right,” Hug’sh says. ”Hilby wants me, he gets me. We’ll be fine.”
”It would not be the first meeting I replaced someone in at the last minute,” Iro replies, obviously having to reach the limits of his Whirr-sign. ”You do not have to put yourself or your mate at risk.” His eyes flick to Rhea. “Let me step in your place. Please.”
Hug’sh slowly turns red, in the way an iron rod held into a furnace slowly turns red. ”Iro,” he says, slowly and carefully, ”unless you have a better reason for wanting to go in our stead than that, I would like you to step out of our way now. The security of our Joint Security Area depends on your vigilance.”
“And our alliance as a whole on yours,” Iro replies, but after a moment, steps aside. “Just...be careful. If it looks like a trap...make some noise and we will come for you.”
Hug’sh pushes the color out of his fur and takes a breath. He’s not trying to come between you and your mate...he’s not. He’s just worried. That is an okay thing for Iro to be. Hug’sh nods. ”Stay vigilant,” Hug’sh says. ”If it is a trap...we’ll make more than a little noise.” He looks to Rhea, who grabs her weapon a bit tighter.
Iro nods. ”The gate opens for vox addresses. Just push it open.”

Hug’sh works his vox to open the gate. Second try! Not too shabby. He doesn’t need to glance at Rhea to know she’s right behind him as they walk out into the Narsai’i part of the base. Hug’sh immediately feels at least a half-dozen crosshairs on him and Rhea, but plays it cool, just letting his look sweep the vista while they wait for their Narsai’i ‘escort’. The Narsai’i side of the checkpoint isn’t nearly as...well, good. It’s just a pile of sandbags and a plastic barricade with a bunch of young humans with guns.
’State...your....name,’” the Narsai’i guard says in painfully slow and over-enunciated words.
Hug’sh suppresses a chuckle. Let’s give it a try, then. ”I am General Walks-The-Fire,” he says, with his best tusk-gleaming smile. ”And my bodyguard,” he adds, nodding towards Rhea.
The six or so Narsai’i standing guard all look at each other. Another one, somewhat older, steps forward. “’You speak English?’
Hug’sh sighs. It’s a good sigh, the kind you remember. “’No turb?’” he says, charmingly butchering ‘terp’. “Waughs-Keh-Fayer. Guh-nuh-ral..”
It takes a second for the older Narsai’i guard to figure out what Hug’sh said, and then another second to compare what they think his name is to the list. “’General Walks-the-Fire. And who is he?’
”Keltash,” Rhea rumbles, the pre-arranged fake name.
They check the list again, and find that same fake name. “’He’s good, wave them through,’” the human says. The plastic barricade is slid aside, and two Narsai’i fall in behind Hug’sh and Rhea. “’Agent Hilby is expecting you. Go straight to his quarters, do not deviate. Obey all orders given to you. Do not approach any humans or otherwise threaten anyone, or we will be forced to use...force. Do you understand?’
’Yaz,’” Hug’sh barks. More than these soldiers, anyway.

As they walk through the camp, Hug’sh can see Narsai’i soldiers dodging them and getting off the path, staring at them from the back once they’re past. Seeing them scared like that is a bit weird, but also...gratifying? This is usually what the Marines do to other, lesser militaries, but these guys have just realized that any notion of trying to push around the aliens was based on those aliens playing nice. And Hug’sh, well, he’s playing less nice now. As they get to Hilby’s tent, Hug’sh makes no attempt to quote-unquote knock, like he’d do for Cooper; instead, he lets the Narsai’i escort do his announcing for him and just waits to be called inside. Then they don’t do any of that, just stare at him, and Hug’sh figures he’s gonna have to take the initiative and show some leadership.

’Whill-bee!’” Hug’sh calls out.
’What the fuck was -’” Hilby shouts from inside his tent. He opens the flap and ends up staring right at Hug’sh’s chest. “’Fuck!’” he shouts, recoiling. “’Get the fuck back, you stupid -’” He contains himself just before the slur comes out. “’General,’” he growls, his face red with embarrassment. “’Come in.’

Hug’sh nods and lowers his head under the tent opening as he follows Hilby inside. This is either going to be much easier or much harder than he thought. Knowing his luck, probably both. The tent interior is so Expeditionary Warfare it hurts; raised plastic pallets for random stuff and personal gear, folding tables valiantly attempting to understudy for a proper office desk, the works - all it needs is a runny printout of a Presidential portrait duct-taped to the rear. Between Hug’sh and Rhea, it seems like the cramped tent picks up a degree or two of temperature nigh-instantly. Hug’sh doesn’t have to feign his bemusement very hard, he just grabs one of the flimsy-looking folding chairs and, after the briefest inspection, decides to remain standing, if bent over. If he breaks any more of that Narsai’i furniture, they might start billing him. As Hilby attempts to recover from putting both feet in his mouth, Hug’sh retrieves his notepad and starts writing.

Greetings, Agent Hilby. I asked to meet with you to discuss recent events. I believe we are both not satisfied. This is a better moment to discuss our issues.
’What about?’” Hilby asks, already having recovered his usual smug demeanor.
Hug’sh merely taps his chest and the four fresh splotches of kauka flesh on it.
’That is what you get when you disobey an order,’” Hilby replies with a smirk. “’Obviously, it didn’t slow you down that much.’
You seem to think this is funny, Hug’sh writes. We prefer to speak earnestly. Your presence upsets an already tense situation. We are prepared to offer you items you may want to procure, in exchange for your departure from this base. However, we do not know what it is you want. It makes us nervous that we do not know your intentions. I want you to tell me what it will take to make you leave.
’The truth,’” Hilby says. “’I just want to know the truth about your scheme to keep us in the Stone Age.’
Such a scheme does not exist, Hug’sh writes. An investigation that starts with a false premise must fail to find the truth. I cannot help you fight the phantoms of your imagination. New page. How did the Bashakra’i items enter my quarters?
’Probably when one of your furry friends put them there after stealing them,’” Hilby replies flatly.
What use is a lie that nobody believes? Hug’sh writes, a bit of orange in his fur.
Hilby says nothing, just leans back in his chair and looks up at Hug’sh.

“This is going well,” a voice says in Hug’sh’s vox - the Sheen in the laptop shell, it sounds like. “Tell him you came here to let him know that the Sheen and Bashakra’i have decided to put together a package for him.”

New page. If you will not answer my questions, then I will simply deliver the message. The Sheen and Bashakra’i are preparing a gift for you, of items and technology they believe you desire. I offered to come here and ask for your wishes, but as you refuse to state them, you will receive what they deem appropriate. I urge you to accept this gift and leave us be.
Hilby sits up at that. “’What? What are you talking about? What gift?’
Hug’sh underlines the “items and technology” part. I did not ask about the contents. I assume it contains things that will interest your masters. If you have more questions, I can arrange for you to meet with them.
“Tell him that won’t be necessary,” the Sheen in his bag voxes to Hug’sh. “It’s right outside.”
’Hi! I was sent here to talk to a Mr. Hilby!’” a chipper voice says outside. “’I’m a Sheen! My name is For Your Inspection!’
Hug’sh smirks. Or you could ask the gift. It’s waiting outside.
Hilby stands up and walks to the door to the tent, pushing past Hug’sh and Rhea. “’What the fuck is this?’” he asks, his back to Hug’sh and Rhea.
“Pretty sure that’s my cue,” the robot in disguise says, and Hug’sh feels it start to climb out of his bag. Hug’sh lets it climb out, then positions himself behind Hilby as if to gawk at the Sheen outside - and putting himself between Hilby and the infiltrator shell.