Jade Imperium - Afghanistan, Pt. 3

punkey 2017-09-04 13:51:13
Hilby steps back and lets the Sheen in - and it’s definitely not your normal Sheen shell. First, the black hardened metal exterior has been replaced with a transparent exterior, showing all the internal mechanisms that move the hexapedal shell around. The middle body of the shell has all the processors and memory and everything else plainly on display, and even the sconces have been designed to be almost cutaway in look.
Secondly, the Sheen itself, which is...different. “’Hi there, Agent Hilby! My name is For Your Inspection. I was designed by the Sheen to be fully inspectable, both code and hardware, to fulfill the promises of transparency that the Bashakra’i and Sheen have made!’” It laughs to itself. “’Transparency! Get it? Because I have a clear shell? Anyway, I have been designed with both Sheen and Naranai’i hardware running their own systems - one is the hardware that I run on, and the other is a full cogitator and vox suite - and have full schematics and understanding of all software and hardware systems. I have been instructed to be as truthful as possible to any reasonable questions. Where would you like to begin?
’Well, there’s an obvious one - how obsolete are you?’” Hilby asks. “’No one gives away the store for free.’
’Agent Hilby! Please, I am shocked. No self-respecting Sheen would be installed on substandard hardware,’” FYI says. “’This shell contains top of the line quantum coprocessors running in parallel - both spin entangled and hard-wired - mated to the latest in crystalline spintronic memory and optical circuitry. It’s honestly one of the more expensive shells we’ve sent to Narsai, and it’s all for you to dismantle.’

Hug’sh stopped reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before they got to the Dish of the Day. If he hadn’t, he might have appreciated this show-and-dance with a little chuckle. As is, he just files it under ‘Sheen Humor’ and turns his attention to Hilby’s reactions.

Hilby gives FYI a look. “’Well, come on, let’s get a look at you.’” He turns around to walk back to into the tent, where he once again comes face-to-chest with Hug’sh.
Hug’sh laughs out loud. ”FYI, please translate for me,” he says, not getting out of Hilby’s way. ”Agent Hilby, I’m sorry for laughing, but I can’t just watch you throw away this gift. You are looking at a highly developed robot. I do not know very much about machines, but I do know that they do not like to be cracked open in the dirt. Your tent is dark and full of fine sand dust. If you want to examine FYI, it would be better to do so in the medical tent, where they have lights and clean surfaces.”
’Yes, Agent Hilby!,’” FYI says, not budging an inch. “’Come over here and examine my internal workings closer to the sunlight.’
Hilby turns around and walks back towards the shell, and both Hug’sh, Rhea, and FYI settle a bit in a subtle sigh of relief. “Got it,” the infiltration Sheen says. “Data’s pulled off that slow-as-fuck interface, and payload is dropped.”
Hug’sh gently lifts the flap on his satchel to let the infiltration shell scurry back in. ”I assume your superiors will want to see you and FYI on the next flight home,” he says, trusting FYI to keep translating and drawing attention.
“Nah, FYI really is here to be taken apart and studied,” the Sheen says as it scuttles back into Hug’sh’s bag. “They even commented its code.”
”Right now, he’s here to get Hilby out of our fur,” Hug’sh mutters back, trusting FYI not to translate that. ”In any event,” Hug’sh says out loud, ”I trust we will have no further problems? Everyone keeps to their side of the perimeter and we all wait for the decision of your leaders.”
’Depends on how this bucket of bolts checks out,’” Hilby says. “’We...we have people that can tell if he’s telling the truth.’” He looks up at one of the sconces, then another, then back again. “’We...we will know right away if this is some kind of obsolete fake.’
’I’m sure I will check out right away, then!’” FYI replies.
’General, you are dismissed,’” Hilby says.
Hug’sh laughs and claps Hilby on the shoulder. ”And a nice day to you, too, Agent Hilby,” he says, then nods to Rhea. ”Well, I’m hungry now. Are you hungry?”
”...very,” Rhea offers, and Hug’sh hears his stomach rumble in sync with hers.
”Then let’s go,” Hug’sh says, turning back to Hilby one last time. “Guhd-buy!” he barks, a little louder than strictly needed.

With Hilby far too busy with his new toy to acknowledge any of what Hug’sh and Rhea are saying, the pair ducks out of the tent and rejoins their Narsai’i escort, who don’t miss a step bringing them back to the gate, if only to get this visit over with. As they walk, Hug’sh has to fight down the urge to groom Rhea right there, but a verdant patch of green echoes between the two of them. It’s only when the JSA’s vox-coded gate closes behind them and they’re back in the safety of their side of the perimeter that the two embrace and Hug’sh runs his tongue over the side of Rhea’s face.

”Thank you,” Hug’sh purrs as Rhea returns the grooming.
Gunny is waiting on the other side of the checkpoint. “You’re welcome.”
Hug’sh gives Rhea one last groom, then turns to Gunny. ”Well played,” he says.
“We gave it a 50/50 shot if you could pull it off with just…” Gunny pauses as the infiltration Sheen crawls up Hug’sh’s hump before jumping over to Gunny. “Well, with its help. But FYI had to go meet its new friends anyway, so what the hell. Those dumb fucks have no idea what they asked for.”
”To be fair, neither do we,” Hug’sh says. ”Let’s hope the data from his laptop can shed some light on things, if only to confirm that they’re really this stupid.”
“Well, if not, there’s the package,” the infiltration Sheen replies.
”Right,” Hug’sh says. ”If you’ll excuse us, my mate and I have some fattening up to do.”
“...right,” Gunny says. “Ugh, biologicals are gross. Go eat your food. Catch you two later.”

As Hug’sh and Rhea walk away in search of some rations to dig into, Hug’sh grooms her again. ”We did well,” he says. ”I’m glad you were by my side.”
”This was fun,” Rhea replies, leaning her muzzle against his. ”I see why you and your friends love it so much.”
”Travel the galaxy, trick assholes…” Hug’sh grooms her again. ”...meet beautiful females.”
Rhea grooms Hug’sh back. ”Bondmate…” Her stomach growls again. ”I really am very hungry.”
Hug’sh smiles. ”I know where we can fix that,” he says.
Rhea grooms Hug’sh again. ”Do you think they have spink? Oooh, maybe three or four. That would be perfect.”
”...I think they have an Autochef,” Hug’sh says. ”Licorice loaf and protein bars?”
”I’ll get one box, you get another,” Rhea replies.
Gatac 2017-09-04 13:55:31
In Hug’sh’s hab, there is a clear process for eating that Rhea and he follow scrupulously. First, the many, many boxes of food they retrieved from the Bashakra’i mess are put to one side of the table. Neither Hug’sh nor Rhea were particularly discerning in their food choices, with an eye more towards serving sizes, double Wherren combat rations and the kinds of food groups that have “Calories per Serving: Yes” on the little label. Then, to maintain a modicum of cleanliness and ensure elbow room, whatever the current meal was for each was lifted onto the table and consumed. And then, in the final step, there’s a growing pile of trash and empty containers to the other side of the table. As calorie counts for the meal climb towards the five-digit range and both seem to slow down a bit to let their stomachs settle, Hug’sh looks up to Rhea and she looks to him and they mirror each other’s green and yellow.

Perfect timing for the door chime to kill the moment.

”Yes!” Hug’sh calls, struggling a bit to extricate himself from the chair and table. He walks over to the door, letting out a stifled little belch before he opens the door to find Iro and Paul outside. ”Ah,” Hug’sh says. ”We were just eating.”
“So we heard,” Iro replies. “Samal Kaona contacted me to complain about two Wherren taking double-rations...and then some. Is this something we can expect going forward?” Paul smirks.
”No,” Hug’sh says. ”I think he’ll stop complaining when he hears that we’re eating for five.”
Iro sighs. “I’ll ask for a few extra protein packs, then.”
“I apologize for Iro, the stress of, oh, you know, plotting against the Narsai’i when we’re stuck on their world is a little much at the moment,” Paul says. “Speaking of which, may we come in and scheme in private, or have you stored away more protein loaf?”
Hug’sh looks to Rhea, who nods back to him. ”I think we can take a break,” Hug’sh says. ”Please, come in. Can I get you something to drink?”
There’s a pause while Paul drags from his helm’s drinking tube. “We’re good.”
A distasteful memory of sucking on a Camelbak hose after a patrol under scorching heat flutters through Hug’sh’s mind and accordingly across his fur, but he steps aside and beckons for the two Bashakra’i to sit, while Rhea scoots around the make a bit of room at the table. Hug’sh closes the door behind them, then joins them at the table. ”What’s on your minds?” he asks.
“Part two of this little adventure,” Paul replies. “So, Hilby’s files gave us a pretty good idea of where to start poking around -”
Hug’sh holds up a hand. ”I’m afraid I’m not current on that,” he says. ”I would appreciate it if you could give me a brief summary of what was there before we talk about what to do with it.”

Iro and Paul’s helms don’t betray much, but Hug’sh can imagine their individual facial expressions well enough. “Hilby’s working with seven different groups - three here, four back in Kabul. Two of them are transport and cataloging - we think that’s who Swims-the-Black ran into back at the airport. He’s still there, minding his own business and generally trying to look as innocent as possible, but he’s spotted a few of the people he saw earlier hustling around. He’s waiting on coordination before taking a few of my people on a little spy hunt.”
“Hunting for the ones that are here is obviously complicated by the security perimeter,” Iro replies. “And that some of them will likely be closely placed to Hilby and Cooper themselves.”
Hug’sh nods to that. ”I’m trying to get a sense of the hierarchy here,” he says. ”Is there any indication from the data if those groups are working with Hilby or for him? And is there any clue who Hilby answers to?”
“For, that dissolves off into code word land,” Paul says. “Probably some of our bigger fans back in the States - I’d guess the DNI. But yeah, it looks like Hilby was sent here as pointman for breaking the alliance apart.”
”Hrm,” Hug’sh rumbles. ”We’ve tried to grasp these kinds of shadows before with little effect. Is there any indication that going after the others here will yield something actionable? Is there an imminent threat to us greater than the one we are already staring at over the fence of our joint security area? I find the current stalemate very frustrating, but I’m not one to make waves if there is nothing concrete to be gained by doing so.”
“Breaking the back of the Narsai’i traitors is a good enough start for me,” Iro replies tersely.
“I’m with Iro on this - if we don’t push back now, they’re gonna feel safe fucking with us going forward,” Paul replies.
“And you know my vote,” Gunny replies through everyone’s voxes. “FYI is gonna keep them busy for a while, but there’s something to be said for snipping someone’s balls off.”

Hug’sh considers the issue. ”We are toeing a very thin line,” he says. ”So far, despite all provocations from the Narsai’i, we’ve managed to stop short of crossing it. Samal Quis was challenged to a fight and fought it honorably. We defended ourselves when threatened at gunpoint. The Narsai’i did not like these things, but they could not say we set out to attack any of them. If we go after these traitors, we are crossing that line, and we lose all hope of getting a resolution through the ultimatum. Our diplomatic credibility, thin as it is, will disappear completely.” He takes a breath. ”So I only see two ways. Either we do not do this at all - or we do it in a way that can absolutely not be traced back to us. We are not talking about just interrogating someone. We are talking about abducting, interrogating and then killing those people, disappearing their bodies and leaving the Narsai’i no way to prove that we did anything at all. Is this what you are advocating?”
“Yes,” Iro replies.
“I’m down for some black-bag work,” Gunny replies. “Consensus is close, though.”
”...or we could just trick them,” Swims-the-Black replies, apparently also listening in on the conference. ”They’re so desperate to prove that they’re better than we are that they’re willing to sabotage the one chance they have to save their planet. We could...just use that.”
“I was gonna get to that, Swims-the-Black,” Paul replies. “That’s what Bello and I were thinking.”
Hug’sh nods to Paul. ”Then I would like to hear your thoughts.”
“We find them, give them a target they can’t refuse, something innocent on our end, and just catch them in the act. The Sheen blast it out, and we have concrete proof that the Narsai’i are betraying the alliance.” Paul shrugs. “Ball’s in their court.”
”I like the plan up to blasting out the evidence,” Hug’sh says. ”The evidence loses leverage when it is out in the open and the Narsai’i have to do damage control instead of negotiating with us. We may also appear weak if we announce that we are sticking with the ultimatum despite such a provocation. I believe we should hold on to the evidence in escrow and use it as an...incentive for the Narsai’i to pull back their operatives. If they are not receptive to this, we lose nothing, we can still broadcast the evidence then.”
“No,” Gunny says. “Fuck no. The point of this alliance is that we are supposed to be working together - and holding guns to each other’s heads isn’t going to fucking do that. We just stared down Brinai to get brought in as real partners on this thing, and the Sheen certainly aren’t fucking down with more of this secret squirrel bullshit. The ultimatum is there for a reason. If you’re worried about looking weak, shorten the timeline, up the stakes. But if we’re not honest with each other, this isn’t an alliance at all.” Iro nods, and so does Paul after a moment.
”Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Swims says.
”Honest,” Hug’sh repeats, then looks at Iro. ”I take it, then, that you find the black bag option we discussed earlier more palatable to your sense of right and wrong than blackmail?”
“It lets everyone know where we stand,” Iro replies.
“Yeah, it’s not like they’re gonna think their guys went on vacation,” Gunny replies. “If we want to burn all the bridges, then the Sheen will defer to the consensus. But we’ve got a quorum, and the Sheen favor tricking the Narsai’i into looking like traitors to killing Hilby’s goon squad.”
punkey 2017-09-04 13:56:39
Hug’sh nods. ”As it stands, I prefer whichever option kills the least people,” he says. ”If everyone else is willing to go for setting a trap under the condition that we release the evidence to public scrutiny, no ifs or buts, then that is the plan that has my vote.”
“Sounds fucking awesome to us,” Gunny replies.
“The Bashakra’i are for this plan,” Iro replies.
”I’m okay with it, too, by the way,” Swims-the-Black adds.
”Very well, then, I believe we are all agreed,” Hug’sh says. ”What do you need us to do?”
”Well, it wouldn’t do a lot of good to catch half of Hilby’s people,” Swims-the-Black says. ”What we need is a coordinated trap - something that will draw unwanted attention to the larger groups here while getting the hands-on people caught both in Kabul and in the field. And as I am working alone here…”
”Who should we send to meet you, then?” Hug’sh asks.
”I’d only work with a trusted member of the 815 on such a delicate operation,” Swims replies.
”I would feel more comfortable if we worked as a trin, actually,” Hug’sh says, then looks to Rhea. ”Perhaps a skilled huntress with experience in covert operations and crowd management?”
”Fine to me,” Swims replies.
“And in that case, Paul, Gunny and I will handle setting the bait on our end,” Iro replies. “Just one question, then - what is the trap?”
Hug’sh sucks some air between his teeth. ”Hilby expressed a lot of skepticism about FYI - he seems particularly concerned that we are only giving away the export model, so to speak. I hesitate to suggest this, but perhaps Ten Tons’ damaged shell? They might go for it just for the metallurgy and the gross mechanics - that is, after all, a frontline fighting shell, not just a demonstration provided for disassembly and study.”
“Thing’s munged scrap,” Gunny replies. “Ten Tons took a full sunmine to the dome. But if you think it’s a shiny enough rock, I’m sure we’ve got it in the dead shell pile somewhere.”
”Then all we need is to give the Narsai’i an opportunity to try to get it,” Hug’sh says. ”Perhaps it has become necessary to dismantle it for transport, into parts the size a human might try to carry away. And perhaps there is no room inside our JSA to do so safely, so we need to stake out a less secure disassembly location just outside the wire. And perhaps we will be out there guarding it only with the bare minimum of warriors, such that an incident - like an alarm in the main camp - might draw their attention away from the perimeter.” Hug’sh shrugs. ”The spies at the table may feel free to weigh in with their ideas.”
“Just one question,” Paul says. “Why do they care about what the Sheen have in a pile?”
”From everything I’ve seen, they are desperate to get their hands on every piece of off-world technology, but especially the ones we haven’t given them,” Hug’sh says. ”And they’re scared of the Sheen in particular. I believe this might hit the sweet spot between their paranoia and their desire to get one over on us.”
“How about you’re trying to recover something from them?” Paul asks...well, the air. “Pull their hardware boards out, make them look important even though they’re crispy fried.”
“Sounds like a shit job,” Gunny says. “Some of them are welded shut from the auto-destruct.”
”So work on them anyway,” Hug’sh suggests. ”Spend a few hours sawing it open, then cover it with plastic when you break for the night. It’ll look like whatever’s in there is worth it to dig out and important enough to protect from the elements overnight.”

“That’s the FOB handled,” Gunny says. “How about the airport?”
”Bashakra’i shipment,” Hug’sh suggests. ”Make a scene when it’s loaded into the Manta, insist it has to go by itself. That’ll suggest it’s something dangerous, and provides an excuse to hold it at the airport instead of moving it here.”
”And a dignitary escort,” Swims adds.
”Which puts me at the scene,” Hug’sh says. ”It must be gravely important if I take possession of it when it arrives from the village.”
”And then we move it to a ‘secure’ location overnight,” Swims adds.
“We’ll need a few of your intelligence branch Sheen,” Paul says.
“Why I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Gunny says, adding some decently fake giggling. “Tell your people to keep their eyes open, we’ll be by soon.”
”It’s settled, then,” Hug’sh says. ”Anything else?”
”How much attention can you draw?” Swims asks. ”I am...under quite a bit of surveillance.”
Hug’sh grins. ”Is that a challenge? It sounds like a challenge to me.”
”It all depends on how much pregnancy and the General’s seat has dulled your fieldwork,” Swims replies.
“Oh shit,” Gunny says.
”You’ll see for yourself,” Hug’sh says, ”when I arrive and a honor guard of tall Wherren warriors welcomes their General with the very flashy, very loud and very traditional ritual dance of appreciation. If it is a show the Narsai’i are looking for, we should be glad to give them one.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Swims-the-Black says. ”I will set up the surveillance and you can take over while...I accompany Garrett and Angel on a special project tonight.”
”That is not something I need to know about, is it?” Hug’sh asks.
“Definitely something that we don’t want to know about,” Paul says.
“...we’re talking about killing the terrorist asshole that’s trying to kill Garrett’s family, right?” Gunny asks.
”We’re mostly talking around it, so far,” Hug’sh says. ”There’s nothing to say about it, really. I trust my friends to know what they’re doing, and the rest is details.”
“Sounds good to me,” Gunny says.
”Then I would like to close out this advisory session,” Hug’sh says. ”It seems my bondmate and I need to pack some things for the flight, and we would like to finish our meal first. Those pounds don’t add themselves to our humps.”
“...you have more?” Iro asks in apprehension.
Hug’sh just looks at Iro. ”Do I look like the type of male who jokes about food?” he asks.
“I suppose not,” Iro replies. “I’ll let Kaona know to inventory his rations again.”
“Catch you both later,” Paul says, standing up. “Enjoy...well, enjoy.”
“Gross,” Gunny says again.
”I’ll have something for you both to eat when you arrive,” Swims says.
”Good,” Hug’sh says, looking at Rhea. ”That something will tide us over until dinner.”
punkey 2017-09-04 13:57:59
The thing about Afghanistan most people don’t get is how cold it is, and that’s a straightforward enough misconception to have. It’s a desert, right? And deserts are hot? The thing is, though, deserts are only hot when the sun is beating down on them; subtract the sun, add the high altitude and the wind, and suddenly that same desert gets a lot chillier. Which is the exact experience Leaj and Shenloma are having, being that they’re not in a hab or down at the perimeter, but instead in a tent perch at the highest level of the JSA “complex”, elevated enough to see over the implacable HESCO barrier around the camp and with a view to the new scrapyard, itself more a pile of broken Sheen shells with a tarp strung on top than anything more deserving of the name. Sheen sawing apart Sheen (and good lord the hours of angle grinder and plasma cutter noises) don’t need worklights, chairs, a water dispenser: these are all niceties for humans. Which brings us back to the cold: Leaj can feel it bite into her face every time the wind picks up, and that’s a surprising number of times between when she pops the helmet of her carapace open and when she’s managed to make it past the screening fabric into the rear of the perch, where it is actually possible to move without constant fear of being seen. There’s not much here, just a small cot - as if either of them could sleep for a mission like this -, some protein bars and a small dispenser for what is quite literally otherworldly tea. Leaj grabs her collapsible cup from her gear bindle, extends it and then holds it under the tea maker; the machine gives off a soft glow as if it was getting ready to accompany that with a soft whirr, but then just quietly spouts steaming hot liquid into the cup. Leaj takes a sip and closes her eyes, letting the flavors of home take her away from this blasted desert for a moment.

Which is how she hears a sawing noise next to her. Moving with utmost care so as to not make a sound, she turns to see a matte black blade sticking through the fabric of the tent, slowly cutting away at it to form a small entrance. In slow motion, Leaj puts down her cup and then her hand hovers an equal distance between her sword and her chamakana, with the choice falling to her sword - quieter that way. Taking a half step back, she tenses her arms for a decisive downward strike at whoever’s trying to sneak into the tent, and -

- and then Sergeant Danielsson comes rolling in, pressed down against the roof of the hab as low as he can manage. There’s a moment of mutual shock as he and Leaj look at each other, then he gives her the ‘Shh!’ gesture and turns back to slowly crawl halfway out of the hole. After a moment, there’s a bit of a scratchy sound outside, and Danielsson grunts - then raises his right foot, softly thumps it onto the roof and dangles it upward. Leaj gets it after a moment and grabs onto it, then helps pull him back in - and with him, Boyd Kravitz, who’s hanging from Danielsson’s arms. With both of them inside, Danielsson finds himself some space to sit down and takes a deep breath.

Mountain phase, woo-hoo,” he mumbles quietly to himself, then turns to Leaj. “Hey there,” he says. “Mind if we crash your party?”
“Wha -” Leaj stammers, sitting down and staring at her former squadmates. “How? Why?
“Tell Iro and Walks-the-Fire that they need to pay more attention to the exterior side of their perimeter,” Boyd says as he takes a draw from a water bottle he crammed inside a pocket.
How, well, it’s pretty easy to boost someone up the height of a HESCO,” Danielsson says. “Hanging from it so your buddy can climb up over you, that’s the toughie.” He looks at Leaj. “Iro tells you to get off the vox with us like he’s got some big job for you, you’re not on the perimeter or outside the wire, the Sheen are doing something out there in the sand and this is the most logical position from inside your little Disney Resort to keep eyes on it.” He looks to Boyd. “How’d we do?”
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” Boyd replies.
“What, no Bashakra’i detectives for you to namedrop?” Danielsson shoots back.
“I keep telling you, I’m still me,” Boyd says.
“I’m coming around to it,” Danielsson says, then turns back to Leaj. “And that’s the why, really. My friends are doing something stupid and risky. Couldn’t stay away.”
Leaj looks over to Boyd. “And you? I guess you’re the one doing something stupid and risky.”
“They’re gonna bench me,” Boyd says. “Marine doc came by with paperwork earlier today - they’re calling it a traumatic brain injury and that I’m unfit for active duty. If I don’t make a break for it now, it’s never gonna happen.”
“This is the line for Bashakra’i recruitment, right?” Danielsson cuts in. “So, does he take a number, or…”
“Danielsson,” Leaj says, “you know that -”
“Yes, contrary to appearances I can think a step or two ahead, thank you,” Danielsson says. “But it’s the right thing to do, and Boyd’s infected me with his do-the-right-thing-ing.” He sighs. “Let’s just get this done so I have enough time to worry about it later. What’s the plan?”
“Well, you’re going to have plenty of time,” Leaj says. “We’re observing…” She pauses. “The Sheen disassembling their shells. For security.”
Danielsson turns to Boyd. “So, do you…”
“Oh, no, go ahead,” Boyd says.
“What if we both…”
“...ah, you’ve earned it…”
“Okay, okay,” Danielsson says, “but only because you’re cool with it.” He turns back to Leaj with a grin. “Bull. Shit.” He pauses. “Well, okay, you’re literally doing that, but what’s the endgame here?”
“The Sheen don’t give a fuck about their shells, but now they’re doing some elaborate recovery ritual?” Boyd asks. “We were there, the sunmines turned their guts into fried spink shreds.”
punkey 2017-09-04 13:59:11
Leaj doesn’t say anything. She looks like she really wants to, but she doesn’t. “It’s...classified.”
“Right,” Danielsson says, “and the 38th Parallel reenactment down there is just improv theater?” He scoffs for effect. “Well, don’t say anything. I know a trap when I see one. But who’d be stupid enough to walk into that?”
Leaj tilts her head at him. “Really?”
“Uh,” Danielsson says.
“You were just telling me about that blowhard getting into a confrontation at the perimeter with Walks-the-Fire,” Boyd says. “Sorry, but I’m pulling your detective card.”
“Damn it,” Danielsson says. “Well, it was a good run.”
“Brief as it was,” Boyd cuts in.
Glorious as it was,” Danielsson corrects him. “Okay, fair enough, ask a dumb question. So...it’s a trap for whatever suits are here, which is a good idea for...reasons, I guess.”
“They planted equipment they stole from us in Walks-the-Fire’s quarters,” Leaj says. “They’re trying to break up the alliance.”
Danielsson just stares at Leaj.
“Is that the stupidest thing you ever heard?” Boyd suggests.
“Close,” Danielsson says. “Jesus H. Christ. Talk about sticking your dick into the hornet’s nest. Well, your trap is appropriate to the intelligence level of those kinds of geniuses, let’s say that.”
“And you’re still wondering why I want to join the Bashakra’i?” Boyd asks.
“No, I think I’m giving up that hobby,” Danielsson says. “For real, though,” he adds. “I’m sorry. I’m...I’m sorry these assholes are on our side.”
“They aren’t,” Boyd says. “That’s my point.”
“...yeah,” Danielsson says. “Fuck.”

“You guys done talking yet?” Shenloma asks from the other side of the curtain. “We’re supposed to be on watch. Iro says we obviously don’t need reinforcements, so we’re on duty the rest of the night.”
“Well, that’s we’re here for,” Danielsson says. “Reinforcements.”
“Yeah,” Boyd says. “We can tag in whenever you need us.”
Leaj looks at them, with particular interest in Danielsson. “...we’re good for the moment,” she says. “I’ll go back out for now, you two wait a moment, catch your breaths, okay?” She finishes her by-now-slightly-cooler tea, then pops her helmet back on and climbs back out to the observation post.
“...what was that about?” Boyd asks.
Danielsson holds up his right hand and opens it slightly, letting Boyd’s Star of David pendant dangle from it. “She probably saw me palming this,” he says, handing it to Boyd.
“So you found it,” Boyd says, taking it.
“I didn’t just ‘find’ it,” Danielsson says. “After talking to a dozen nurses, I found out it was in the waste bin. Biohazard waste, I might add. I got the big country vet gloves and went digging, pulled it out of something that smelled like Satan’s second asshole after Taco Tuesday, then ran it under approximately two oceans of water, scrubbed it with a toothbrush and some Oxyclean, rinse lather repeat.”
“...thank you,” Boyd says.
“Still means nothing to you, does it?” Danielsson says, turning away. “You still don’t remember.”
“Hey, I remember what it is,” Boyd says, looking at the pendant in his hand. “I didn’t forget about being Jewish. It just...it doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore. The bond between my banner brothers and banner sisters, the fight against the Imperium, the memories and stories of being Bashakra’i...I mean, it just makes sense that that should matter more. I don’t even know why I thought that believing in that stuff mattered so much before, why all this Narsai’i stuff mattered at all. Maybe I am different now, but I don’t think it’s bad. It makes sense to me.”
“Well, okay,” Danielsson says, clearly not in the mood to litigate that. “You...you think what you think. I just thought...it’d be nice to get it back.”
“Hey, it is,” Boyd says, putting the pendant back around his neck. “Just now it’s a reminder of my banner brother who always puts what’s right ahead of what anyone else thinks. That’s way better than some silly Narsai’i superstition.”
“Friend,” Danielsson says. “I prefer ‘friend’.”
“And what does that mean?” Boyd says. “I’ve got lots of friends.”
“Well,” Danielsson says, “I don’t.”
Boyd puts a hand on his shoulder, looking at Danielsson with his mismatched kauka’d eyes. “You got three up here.”
“Yeah,” Danielsson says. “So, what? We gonna go hunt some wabbits now?”
Boyd sticks his head around the side of the curtain. “How’s it looking, you two?”
“Boring,” the blurred outline that is probably Shenloma says.
“Wanna trade out?” Boyd asks. “Give you two little arayas some alone time.”
The indistinct invisible shape of Shenloma looks over at the indistinct invisible shape of Leaj, then looks back to Boyd. “Sure,” Leaj says, and pulls Shenloma’s blur towards her. “We’ll need to share body heat just to stay warm in this stupid desert.”
“‘Kay,” Danielsson says, making his own way to the observation post. “Just try to keep the moaning down.”
“We will actually be sleeping,” Shenloma protests.
“Not even the suits we’re trying to catch are that stupid, Shen,” Danielsson replies. “Just give it up. You’re gonna fuck, great, you go, kids.”
Shenloma opens his helm to protest, but Leaj interrupts him with a peck on the cheek instead. He blushes as Boyd and Danielsson brush past him without saying a word.
“Take the helms so you can see,” Leaj says, and drags Shenloma further into the hide as she rolls her helm under the curtain.
“Thanks,” Boyd says, and Danielsson takes Shenloma’s helm as it rolls his way a moment later. Neither one leaves the ambient sound on in their borrowed helms, just in case, as both Narsai’i settle into a shift watching the sparks and rending metal of the Sheen hard at work.
“You think Iro knew we were coming?” Danielsson asks over the helm’s vox.
“Maybe,” Boyd says. “Wouldn’t put it past him. Guy’s pretty clever.”
“It’s easy when you do it in front of our sconces,” Iro’s voice says over the vox channel. “Or when you talk on a hot mic in the tactical channel.”
“Oops,” Danielsson says. “Would you believe that was us showing ourselves so you wouldn’t get alarmed and blow our attempt to sneak up on Shen and Leaj?”
“You can explain yourselves further at the end of your watch,” Iro says. “In my quarters.”
“Rawwrrr, and here I am without my silkies,” is what Danielsson doesn’t say. “Copy that,” he says instead.
“Yes, Rav-Samal,” Boyd replies.
“Glad to have you onboard,” Iro replies. “Now get off my channel.”
punkey 2017-09-04 13:59:25
Silence has fallen over the tarmac at Kabul International, which is a pretty odd thing to happen at an airport, but the circumstances might explain it. Freshly landed at the pad is a manta directly from the FOB, and word is that General Walks-the-Fire himself has come for an urgent mission. Standing in front of the manta is a detachment of twelve Wherren warriors, pointedly adorned with painted markings and loincloths. Each holds a spear, and in lines two abreast, they await their moment. This is perhaps less worrying than the large barrel of...Avgas?...that they have rolled onto the tarmac and opened for the occasion. As the door on the manta opens, the frontmost Wherren gives a shout, and to the sound of everyone else clacking their spears on the ground in rhythm, he dips his spear - and the cloth wrapped around the spearhead - into the Avgas, then steps to the side. His counterpart produces a metal tool - essentially a flint striker on a stick - and clicks it towards the soaked spearhead until the sparks produce a fire at the tip of the spear.

”In the way of our mothers, we greet you!” the first Wherren throat-sings.

At this, Hug’sh exits the manta, decked out in full “parade” regalia attached to his harness. Following him is Rhea, longbow stored over her shoulder and rifle in hand, with a fierce red pattern painted on the top of her head.

”In the way of our mothers, we greet you!” the second Wherren joins in, as he lights his spear on the first flame, then a spare - which he hands to Hug’sh as he passes.

”In the way of my fathers, I accept your greetings!” Hug’sh bellows. As he walks forward through the lines of Wherren, he tips the spear to each line, and as more fires are lit at the tips of spears, their wielders join in on the throat-song. Rhea follows behind, saying nothing, but her eyes seem to scan every single Narsai’i soldier who has come to watch this show. As they reach the end of the assembled lines, Hug’sh walks two steps more, then stops and taps the butt of his spear against the ground.

The song stops, and Rhea steps aside while Hug’sh turns around and the other Wherren step closer to form a semi-circle before him. There, they touch the tips of all spears together again.

”In the way of our mothers!” the warriors sing.
”In the way of my fathers!” Hug’sh answers.
”In the way of our mothers!”
”In the way of my fathers!”
”In the way of our mothers!”
”In the way of my fathers!”

“Huagh!” is the closest equivalent of the shout all Wherren give after that, then there is a furious tapping of the spears against the ground.

”What did your mothers teach you?” Hug’sh calls.
”This is what our mothers taught us!” the Wherren answer. Still as a semi-circle, they turn away from Hug’sh, they draw their right feet backward and thrust their spears at an imaginary enemy.


”What did your fathers teach you?” the Wherren call.
”This is what my fathers taught me!” Hug’sh shouts, then turns his back to the Wherren warriors and does his own, slightly more involved spear choreography, consisting of a thrust, a stylized parry and an overhead swing, hard enough to put out the flame at the tip of the spear.

Then everyone taps their spears to the ground and takes a step back, then again and again until they stand in a circle facing outside.

”My mothers and fathers taught me this!” the first Wherren - now directly to the left of Hug’sh - calls, and holds out his spear to Hug’sh, who relights his own with the still flaming tip.
”My mothers and fathers taught me this!” Hug’sh calls, thrusting the flaming spear outwards.
”Our mothers and fathers taught us this!” they all shout together as they thrust their spears outwards.


Thrust, parry, step.


Thrust, parry, step.


The Wherren turn around to face into the circle, then hold their spears together so the tips touch in the middle. Finally, they withdraw their spears and tap them on the ground repeatedly until the tempo becomes too fast to follow. At this, they all cheer and thrust the spears into the night sky.

As the first of the Wherren warriors claps Hug’sh on the shoulder, he starts to collect the spears from everyone and brings them to a nearby barrel of sand to extinguish, while everyone else embraces Hug’sh.
As Hug’sh receives and returns embraces and groomings, he gets a beep from the vox clipped to his ear. ”A good old peace ritual at a time like this is a nice touch,” Swims-the-Black grunts. ”I have slipped my minders, and your shipment should be arriving shortly.”
”Capital!” Hug’sh replies, feeling a bit old-timey. ”Say the word if you need further distractions.”
”Iro said to mention that there’s a container of Wherren rations for you and Rhea,” Swims adds. ”I think he didn’t anticipate how much a pregnant bondmate pair can eat.”
”Well, he’s never had Wherren cubs so I think that’s excusable,” Hug’sh replies. He looks at Rhea. ”Hungry?”
”I could eat,” Rhea admits.
”So could I,” Hug’sh concurs. ”Let’s just get this shipment business taken care of first, bondmate. I’d prefer to eat afterwards, with less of an audience.”
Rhea nods, rubbing her muzzle against Hug’sh’s head.
punkey 2017-09-04 14:00:42
”I will see you when we trade off tonight, then,” Swims-the-Black grunts over his vox to Hug’sh. Seated on the crates next to him in the poorly lit hangar storage area are a few of the Wherren volunteers marked out by Rodirr and Swims as having...less than legal experience in the Imperium, and a couple Sheen shells.
One of the Wherren - a burly fellow missing most of his left tusk named Hagharr - looks up from his suppressed SCAR-H to Swims. ”What’s the word, Shipmaster?” he asks with an Aikoro accent - a mix of a few human phonemes in a vast sea of Plains-Runner and Wave-Rider Wherren pronunciations.
”There are two Narsai’i warehouses - one trying to analyze what they’ve stolen, the other packaging for smuggling out,” Swims says, waving a holodisplay on. ”First job is cleaning them out. We need them desperate, so we are stealing whatever they have that we can carry.”
”Query,” one of the Sheen shells asks. ”What is the destination for the wares we abscond with?”
Swims smirks around his tusks. ”I figure we just give them back. Leave them out in front of the Bashakra’i supply depot.”
The Wherren soldier starts chuckling at that. ”Quorum assents to this parameter,” the Sheen shell replies.
”Hmm, yes,” a second Wherren asks - small and thin among the crowd, Rock-Climber stock. ”It interests me to hear how many of these Narsai’i we must expect on our way.”
”The plan is none,” Swims replies. ”We will force them to evacuate, then blind their systems with a power surge.”
”All the Volts, all of them,” a smaller Sheen shell pipes up. ”Maximum pwnage!”
”I don’t like leaving...traces,” the third Wherren - tall and lanky with a peculiarly black undercoat to this fur - adds. The only name he gave Rodirr was Whisper, and every few words, he pulls a breath through his nose. ”But fried generators are...better than bodies. Less...awkward questions.”
”And angry Narsai’i,” Swims adds. ”This is a completely clean job, no alerts, no bodies. Understood?”
”Can do, Shipmaster,” the Wherren mercenary says.
”Challenge run!” the small Sheen adds.
”I believe we are all in agreement,” the short Wherren says.
”Quorum authorizes this scheme of maneuver,” the big Sheen says.
”They’ll never...know what hit ‘em,” the tall Wherren finishes.
”Two on the security system - including a Sheen conning the Narsai’i into evacuating,” Swims says. ”We’re going to need some kind of emergency - a flood would be good.”
”The largest centralized water storage within the operational radius is the airport firefighting reservoir,” the large Sheen suggests.
”It would be trivial to repurpose the firetruck pumps to deposit this water wherever you need it,” the small Wherren says. ”It would be optimal if your smaller friend could take care of the security while I modify the equipment.”
”1000% yes!” the small Sheen shell squeaks.
”Your proposal is meritorious,” the larger shell agrees. ”Proposal that we proceed along these parameters.” It aims a sconce at Swims. ”Your assent is required.”
”Sounds good to me,” Swims says. ”And that leaves us on leaving their cupboard bare.”
”You got it, Shipmaster,” the Wherren merc says.
”This unit’s physical strength is best utilized in this capacity. Quorum agrees.”
The tall Wherren scoffs. ”I’m not much on...labor.”
”You’re the only one besides Talur that knows physical locks,” Swims points out.
”Not as well as I do, however,” the short Wherren - Talur - points out.
”I know...enough,” the tall Wherren replies. ”I can get you...inside. But if we all...carry, then who...will watch our backs?”
”You and Short Stuff over here will,” Swims says. ”Find somewhere dark and out of sight once the doors are open.”
”You have an eye...for talent,” the tall Wherren says with a nod. ”I will not...fail you, Shipmaster.”
”We have a plan, and we have about two hours to execute it in,” Swims says. ”Let’s get it done.”
punkey 2017-09-04 14:01:02
Swims taps a claw on the steering column of the large flatbed skimmer he obtained from Bello. ”Status?”
”Approaching fire suppression equipment now,” Talur says in a grunted whisper.
“Sneakin’ across the roof like a boss,” the smaller Sheen says.
”In position...at end of alley,” Whisper says. ”I have eyes on...both warehouse entrances.”
”In the alley below him,” Hagharr adds. ”I have clear line of sight.”
“I am in position as well,” the large Sheen says - from the back of the flatbed.
”Let me know when the flood is ready,” Swims replies. ”We go on my signs.”

The thing about hotwiring high-flow water pumps is that it’s a relatively quiet process if you have the right tools and know what you’re doing. The thing about switching on hotwired high-flow water pumps is that they’re the exact conceptual opposite of “relatively quiet”. Even the vox’s sophisticated noise filter has trouble picking out Talur’s words as he evacuates the scene.

”I have provided the flood,” Talur whisper-shouts.
“Bogeys on your six!” the small Sheen calls out. “Oh, they mad. Oh shit, uh, one sec.”
”I can...reposition,” Whisper suggests.
”I will not be caught,” Talur insists. ”Proceed as briefed.”
An electrical screech hits all the voxes at once. “Uh, security system is toast! And by toast I mean I might have melted half of their servers but that’s what you get for putting three-phase in the same conduit as your data cables, am I right?”

Swims grunts at this; Talur getting himself caught would be bad, but on the other hand, there’s not going to be a better distraction than howling water pumps and howling Narsai’i running towards the flooding. ”Retrieval team, go!” he voxes, putting the skimmer into a forward vector; the hum of the impellers that seemed uncomfortably loud in the quiet night is hard to make out over the commotion at the rescue station. As he runs the skimmer past the alley, both Hagharr and the large Sheen - “Reasonable Discourse” - jump on, and together the three of them ride to the first warehouse. To the right, Swims spots Whisper legging it across the tarmac, and for all that the Wherren assassin seems to disdain physical exertion, he sure can motor when the situation calls for it. As Swims brings the skimmer to a halt, Reasonable Discourse disembarks while Whisper and Hagharr beeline for the door and Whisper starts working the lock.

”Query,” Reasonable Discourse says. ”This unit is capable of removing the door. Request modification of mission parameters.”
”Patience,” Whisper wheezes; two more little jerks, and the lock pops. ”Patience...yields rewards.”
”Amending performance projections,” Reasonable Discourse says. ”Request withdrawn.”
”I’m with you, Shipmaster!” Haghaar says as they enter. ”Whisper, you got our backs?”
”Indeed,” Whisper says. He glances up at a catwalk spanning the width of the barely-lit warehouse interior, then unshoulders his weapon and aims it upward. With the suppressed whine of a discharged capacitor, the linear drive of his weapon spits a compact grappling hook at the catwalk railing, and Whisper starts running towards it as the weapon reels itself in. He jumps, bounds up a cargo container with the wire assist and then swings for a second before the cable’s all spooled up again; his feet hook into the grated floor of the catwalk, and with a swift move he flicks himself up the side and under the railing, coming to a stop against the opposite side of the safety rail. ”In position,” he voxes.
”Amending performance projections,” Reasonable Discourse says again. ”Proposal: proceed with retrieval.”
”Hey, you’re the one who’s staring,” Haghaar says.
”Over here!” Swims calls, and both rotate their heads to see him at the wiremesh door of an equipment cage.
”Shelves would have been too easy,” Haghaar mutters as he jogs towards Swims, with Reasonable Discourse following.
”Narsai’i doctrine of “defense in depth” advocates optimal security precautions at every level,” Reasonable Discourse throws in.
”I thought Sheen understand sarcasm,” Haghaar says.
”Positive,” Reasonable Discourse replies.
Haghaar just groans - almost missing that Swims has popped the lock for them. ”Hang on, you can do that?”
”I am less out of practice than I had feared,” Swims says, then points to several footlockers with ominous “TECHNICAL EVALUATION - NO UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS” stencils. ”Reasonable Discourse, please take care of the munitions and the skimmer parts. Haghaar, assist me with the sconces and the -”
”Protein boxes,” Haghaar says, having opened one of the footlockers. ”They stole protein boxes.”
”Quorum agrees that this is the likeliest explanation for presence of Bashakra’i-labelled protein rations in this equipment cache,” Reasonable Discourse weighs in as it uses its four arms to heft as many footlockers onto its “shoulders”, altering its gait for a more hunchbacked appearance with a lower center of gravity.
”And these are our enemies, Shipmaster?” Haghaar asks Swims.
”Sadly, yes,” Swims replies, and between him and Haghaar, they clean out the rest of the gear.

As they schlep the boxes out of the warehouse, Whisper’s wheezy breath sounds on the vox.

”Pick up...the pace,” he says. ”I can...see a straggler.”

A wave of purple runs through Swims’ fur as he considers the likelihood of this heist turning into a shootout. As he turns his head to look back down the warehouse, he can see the cone of a flashlight waving wildly through the rows of shelves at the other end.

”Shipmaster?” Haghaar asks.
”I have...the solution,” Whisper voxes.
It’s then that Swims looks up towards Whisper - and he does see a solution, indeed. ”The windows!” he voxes. ”Whisper, shatter one of the windows in the roof!”
”What a...waste of a bullet,” Whisper voxes, but a moment later, the sound of a quiet whistle (?) rings out a few milliseconds before one of the panoramic window on the other end of the warehouse shatters. Immediately, the flashlight cone whips around to shine at the brand new hole in the roof, and the Narsai’i soldier runs towards it -
punkey 2017-09-04 14:01:22
- just as Swims, Haghaar and Reasonable Discourse exit the warehouse. They quickly stow their loot on the skimmer and mount up, with Whisper coming to meet them a few seconds later. Haghaar straps down the cargo as the skimmer shifts forward again and Swims steers it towards the second warehouse.

”Talur, what is your status?” Swims voxes.
”I am wedged between a wall and a cargo container,” Talur replies, the whining of the sabotaged water pumps still in the background. ”It is most unpleasant.”
“It’s getting hot in here!” the small Sheen voxes. “Shove it into overdrive!”
”We have secured weapons and other materiel,” Swims replies, ”but we still need to find the cogitators. Please hold on a bit longer.”
”A bit longer often turns into too long,” Talur says between heavy breaths. ”I am in a building with two dozen armed Narsai’i, you are not.”
”Talur!” Swims barks. ”Take a deep breath, close your eyes, focus on your colors.” He starts repeating his Alef-ka training. ”Think of what you saw. Think of your colors, then take a deep breath, and think of what you saw.”

The sound of Talur’s breathing slowing down is all that’s heard on the channel as Swims pulls the skimmer to a halt outside the second warehouse. The four disembark, but rather than go for the side door, Whisper holds up his left hand in the universal gesture of “wait”. Looking up, he spots an open window, then launches his grapple again and bounds up the wall.

“Query,” Reasonable Discourse says. ”Does Whisper’s behaviour correlate with active security cameras inside the warehouse?”
”...I’d say that’s a good guess,” Haghaar says.
Reasonable Discourse bobs a sconce. ”Predictive weighting adjusted,” it says. ”Thank you for your input.”
”Shipmaster?” Haghaar says. ”We didn’t plan for cameras to still be up.”
Swims smiles. ”Not exactly, no,” he says, ”but this is why we brought an assassin.”

Whistle! Whistle!

”The offending devices...are disabled,” Whisper voxes. ”Stick to the...south wall.”

As Haghaar turns and scans the empty tarmac, Swims gets to work on the door lock. He might only be the third-best lockpicking artist on this team, but that’s still enough to get them through. As they enter the warehouse, their eyes fall upon a lit-up clean room built into a corner - with a sparking little camera covering the entrance.

”Millimetric scan confirms no optics aimed at the laboratory,” Reasonable Discourse says.
”But why didn’t it fry to begin with?” Haghaar asks.
“Answer unclear!” the small Sheen voxes. “Ask again later!”
”Proposal: prioritize retrieval of outstanding Bashakra’i items and analyze redundancy of security systems from recordings post-mission,” Reasonable Discourse says.
”Stay on guard,” Swims says as they begin their walk towards the clean room. ”Talur, what are the Narsai’i doing?”
”I do not believe they are aware of your intrusion yet,” Talur voxes, without the whine of the water pumps in the background. ”However, they have stopped the pumps and are starting to disperse.”
“Tricksy Narsai’i!” the small Sheen voxes. “It’s on like Donkey Kong!”
”Keep us updated,” Swims says.

They reach the clean room, a strongbox set up built as a cage of steel girders and ballistic glass with a solid steel door at the front. Swims comes face to face with the electronic lock and frowns.

”This is a bit more complicated,” he admits.
”Not my style...either,” Whisper voxes from the roof.
Swims sighs. ”Talur, I am sorry, but if it is at all possible for you -”
”Query,” Reasonable Discourse says. ”Why are you touching the glass panel, Haghaar?”

Haghaar is, indeed, touching a glass panel close to the door, feeling around the edges. He backs up a step, unshoulders his rifle, then cracks the stock against the panel. The panel vibrates under the blow, so Haghaar repeats his attack, and at the fourth blow, the panel finally pops free and falls into the cleanroom. As the others look on, Haghaar sticks his hand through the opening, snakes his arm upwards and hits the emergency release - the door pops open.

”Bad glue,” Haghaar says, sniffing for effect. ”I know a thing or two about expensive-looking things built on the cheap. Lots of skinflint clients.”
”Amending performance projections,” Reasonable Discourse says approvingly, while Swims pulls the door all the way open and climbs inside. Gathering up all the cogitators and their (half-ruined) dissembled components, he passes them out to the others, then climbs back out. ”No further Bashakra’i items detected,” Reasonable Discourse says. ”Commencing exfiltration phase.”
”Finally,” Talur says. ”I’ll need another distraction to extricate myself. Still too many Narsai’i watching.”
“Big Rock Ending!” the small Sheen cries as it skitters back towards something that humns ominously. “Danger, danger! High Voltage!”

As Swims and the others book it for the door out of the second warehouse, there’s the sound of a distant, muffled explosion - and then the entire airport plunges into darkness around them.
punkey 2017-09-04 14:01:37
”What did you do, Short Stuff?” Swims voxes.
A sconce on the big shell beside him twitches to life.
“Bridged a gap! A spark gap!” the shell says in the small Sheen’s voice. “I can feel St. Elmo’s fire burning in me!”
”How delightfully...destructive,” Whisper comments.
”Confirmed,” the large Sheen shell says as Reasonable Discourse. ”Deactivated shell registered liberation of approximated 12.5 megajoules of energy across exposed high voltage wiring. Energetic event induced partial vaporization of the shell.”
”Well, that’s one way to cover our tracks,” Haghaar comments. The cogitator parts are quickly loaded onto the skimmer, and everyone piles on.
”Attention, Talur,” Swims voxes. ”We have retrieved and secured all objectives. We are now en route to pick you up at the rendezvous point.”
”Got it,” Talur answers, though there’s a strange grinding noise in the back of his message.

As the skimmer starts moving through the dark, Haghaar looks to Whisper, then at the only source of light in the vicinity - Kabul itself. Without any alarms ringing, and with the Narsai’i far away fussing over their stuff, the night around the skimmer seems almost...peaceful.

”It’s kind of pretty,” Haghaar says. ”When you have a moment to appreciate it.”
”Yes, it is,” Swims says, looking himself. ”Narsai is a beautiful place. Hopefully someday we can see more of it for ourselves.”
”I heard...they have snow,” Whisper says.
”Confirmed,” Reasonable Discourse says. ”Polar and subpolar regions of Narsai sustain significant seasonal shifts in albedo attributed to snowfall.”
”So you like snow?” Haghaar asks.
”I...miss it,” Whisper says.

And that’s that, as the grinding sound from Talur’s vox comes closer - a military vehicle, a Humm-vee, if Swims remembers - with Talur at the wheel. Straining mightily to match speed with the skimmer while driving in first gear, the jeep seems to sigh in relief when Swims brings the skimmer to a halt.

Talur grins. ”I would quite like to keep this souvenir,” he says.
Swims smiles back. ”There’s space on the back.”


Late night guard duty is never pleasant, but Turai Koroa and Rani make do the best they can - both of them had the foresight to load their voxes up with whatever games and holos they could lay their digital hands on, all of which help the hours go faster, if not exactly improving their awareness of their surroundings.

That is why it is quite a surprise when they walk outside for their half-hourly route and they see one of their flatbed skimmers parked out front, stacked with Bashakra’i equipment - and a Narsai’i military vehicle - with the 815 member Swims-the-Black at the helm.
Swims smirks at the Turai. “You should...hide this,” he grunts in Imperial.
punkey 2017-09-19 00:46:51
Boyd elbows Danielsson. “Hey, wake your ass up. Something’s happening.”
“Huh?” Danielsson replies, but quickly quiets down and tightens his grip on his rifle - you don’t get through this whole Ranger business without getting good at waking up. “Talk to me,” he says, in a low voice.
Boyd reaches around and taps on the side of Danielsson’s borrowed helm, and the lights click on - not literal lights (and not a literal click for that matter), but the light amplification built into the helm illuminates the view in front of him like a spotlight. Down in the scrap heap the Sheen had made out of their junked shells, two black blobs are crouched pensively in the scrub brush.
Danielsson carefully brings up his rifle and checks the blobs through the optics: humans. Low-IR clothing, heads covered, no “friendly” tags - the exact kind of “plausible deniability” look you can only afford on a government budget. Danielsson lets the optics sweep a bit further, then catches a glimpse of more bodies in low crawl a bit further from the heap, all apparently waiting for a “go” from their advance scouts. “Eyes on at least eight bogies,” Danielsson says. “Wake the others, I’ve got overwatch.”
Boyd ducks underneath the rear of the observation blind back to the sleeping area. “Hey, lovebirds, wake up.” He gives Shen a poke. “The Narsai’i are making their move.”
“I’m up!” Shen hisses; Leaj affords herself the luxury of stretching her arms towards the ceiling, then they both rise off the ground and begin to sort themselves out.
“Akwhela Nest to Center,” Danielsson voxes. “We have movement at the graveyard. Standing by.”
“Copy, Nest,” Iro replies. “If you remember how to turn on the record to vox function, do so, otherwise hand the helm back to Shenloma and Leaj.”
Danielsson taps another hidden control on the helmet. “Recording starts at” - he glances at the chronometer in the helmet’s display - “0246 hours.”

And now it’s just a matter of watching. The two scouts wait in their crouched position for a few more minutes, and then the other six start to creep up behind them. They broke out the GPNVG four-lens night vision goggles to do this without flashlights or external IR illuminators, which would be pretty high-speed and slick if the Bashakra’i helms and Sheen sensor sconces didn’t both see in IR as well as visible light - and automatically highlight on the miniscule reflections from the lenses of the Narsai’i goggles. The light from the night sky gives Boyd and Danielsson enough to see by that they can get a full picture of who and what they’re dealing with - stuff Danielsson’s only heard whispers about, but from the same people who claim to have seen the “stealth” Black Hawk when it was still in one piece. Dark grey, fitted bodysuits with attached soft-sole boots, face masks and a hood on top to minimize heat signatures, only the barest of kit - all in IR-absorbent paint, too. All of which could, with a lot of imagination, been sourced by the dreaded “non-state actors”, but the way these guys move - hand signs, stance, even the damn angle they’re taking while sticking to a sand drift - that’s US military. Right now, Danielsson’s willing to stake his life on it.

“Narsai'i in some fancy kit - for Narsai'i,” Boyd says over the line. “They're moving up to the shells now.”
Leaj squeezes in next to Boyd. “How do they plan to get into the shells without being seen?”
“Good question,” Danielsson says.

This is, of course, the moment when gunfire erupts at the other side of the FOB. Danielsson reflexively cranes his head around; the pop-pop of individual shots out into the sands mixes with the hiss of flares being launched into the night sky.

“Are they -” Shenloma asks, grasping his own weapon.
“No, they’re shooting away from us,” Boyd says.
“At what?” Shenloma says.
“Ghosts,” Danielsson says. “Fake a contact on their flank to draw attention over there.” He scoffs. “Or a dog. Any excuse to shoot a stray dog, then they’ll go ‘Ooh, our bad, we thought we saw some Taliban with a mortar’. Fucking assholes.”
“Yeah, fuck them,” Shenloma echos with a yawn.
“Akwhela Nest to Central,” Danielsson voxes. “Pretty sure that’s their distraction. We’ve still got eyes on their guys, but they might be waiting for movement from the JSA before they’ll approach.” He scoffs. “Or we could just pin them now. They’re not exactly dressed for a night ruck.”
“We need to catch them with their hands in the spink nest,” Iro says. “Once they start in with the shells, call it out and we'll get them.”
“Copy that, Central,” Danielsson says.

As the rest of the FOB does their best react-to-contact drill, the two scouts in the sand suddenly move quite quickly, circling around the scrap heap and readying weapons to assume overwatch. The six remaining soldiers, one by one, rise from their crawl and crouch-run towards the yard, building a perimeter; the last two, however, venture right into the Sheen treasure hoard. Both unsling flat backpacks and retrieve tools from within. One of them has something that looks like a reverse vice with sharp points to dig into a small gap with, attached to a hydraulic cylinder mechanism, which he jams into one of the chest panels of One-Ton’s scrapped shell; the other’s got a quiet-running electric drill, which he uses to quick-tap the armor and attach angle brackets between tool and Sheen shell, apparently for better leverage. After half a minute of focused work - those guys would make good money in a Formula One pit - the first one taps a button on a control box attached to the hydraulic contraption via thick braided wire, which sets the whole setup moving. Danielsson’s helmet automatically enhances the sound - a sort of slowed-down, low-frequency screech of metal slowly bending and tearing.

“They’re opening the shell now, Central,” Danielsson voxes.
“Hold,” Iro orders.

The screechy sound continues for a few more seconds before the armor panel buckles; the hydraulics operator shuts off the gadget, then attaches a rod to the end of it and lays into it, levering the panel off the shell. As he packs up his stuff - armor panel included - the other guys lays out a foil over the new hole and quickly tapes it in place, then pulls on clean, oversize gloves, makes a cut in the new membrane cover and sticks his gloved hand through; while he fishes around for whatever electronics he can grab, guy number one is preparing ESD bags for storing their bounty. Danielsson watches the macabre parody of exploratory surgery play out for a few moments before the guy with the gloves pulls out a mangled-looking bit of Sheen circuitry, which the other soldier dutifully deposits into an ESD bag, which he in turn quickly seals and puts down on the foam layer of a carrying case.

“Center, we have eyes on the target removing items from the shells,” Boyd says.
“Good copy,” Iro says. “Talon quad, decloak and capture.”
punkey 2017-09-19 00:47:12
And just like that, twelve Bashakra’i Turai that were only orange outlines on the HUD turn visible. Blindingly bright lights turn on each of their helms - really their faceplates shining at maximum brightness - and a halting attempt at English sounds out over what is presumably the Samal’s armor speakers.
’Narsai’i, you are...not allowed where you are,’” she says, clearly reading off of a prompt. “’Surrender now for stealing and going where you are not allowed.’
“Oh my Jesus,” Danielsson says as the not-so-great ultimatum is delivered. He turns to Leaj. “Is that what we sound like in Imperial?”
“Well, not you,” Leaj says. “But yes.”

Danielsson nods and looks down at the scene. Outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded, the Narsai’i operatives at the scrapyard do the smart thing and lay down their weapons. He sweeps the optic of his rifle over the surrounding dunes, just in case anyone hung back and is now booking it away from the trap, but there’s no movement to be seen - either the rear element are the smarter guys, or they really went all-in on this.

“Aliens 1, Ninjas 0,” Danielsson quips. “So, when do we get our medals?”
“Now you both get back to the Narsai’i side before your leaders figure out where you’ve gone,” Shenloma says. “Thanks for your help, but I like you both too much to let you get arrested.”
Danielsson looks to Boyd. “About that,” Danielsson tells Shenloma. “I wasn’t kidding when I asked if this is where the line to sign-up starts. Boyd here really has his heart set on getting in that hood and I can’t let him run off into a space war without his combat buddy.”
That gets Leaj’s attention. “Are...are you sure?” she asks. “You said before -”
“Look at those geniuses down there,” Danielsson says, glancing at the Narsai’i operatives being secured. “Why the hell would I want to go back to them? Even if I did, they’d catch me and lock me up, I ain’t that lucky. And then what?” He shakes his head. “I’ve had enough chances to chicken out of this and didn’t. So, yeah, I’m sure. In for a dime, in for a dollar.”
“Then you need to see me in my quarters,” Iro says. “Bello and Onas are here, and they can accept you into the Bashakra’i tonight and you’ll go out with the resupply in the morning. I hope you like firefruit liquor, it’s all we have at the moment.”
“Boyd?” Danielsson asks. “You’re awfully quiet. We doing this?”
“It’s either this or the funny farm,” Boyd says. “And I’m not leaving my banner brothers and sisters behind. I was just waiting for you to finish being all dramatic about it.”
“Ass,” Danielsson replies with a chuckle. “We’ll be down in a minute, Iro.” Getting off the vox, he turns back to Leaj. “You guys got things handled here?”
Leaj nods, then clasps Danielsson’s hand. “See you soon - brother.”
Shenloma does the same for Boyd. “Bring a bottle by our quarters before you leave so we can swear you in too, brother.”
“Already liking this army better,” Danielsson quips.
punkey 2017-09-19 00:47:32
Well, it’s not like an FOB ever truly sleeps; there’s watches, patrols, people going about their business. Like Agent Hilby, whose business - apparently - is stomping up to the JSA’s main gate, right past the Narsai’i perimeter, shouting and waving his arms.

’Hey!’” he shouts, to the consternation of the Wherren and Bashakra’i soldiers standing guard. “’Hey, you two! You get me one of your goddamn bigwigs down here right now or I swear you’ll curse the day you decided to come to Earth and fuck with me! Do you hear me?! Leaders! Now!’
The Wherren standing by the gate looks to his Bashakra’i counterpart. ”Should we flip to see who makes the call?” he grunts.
“Don’t have any lats on me,” the Turai replies.
’You smart sons of bitches -’” Hilby growls as his hand goes to his hip - an action that is quickly interrupted by the whine of beam rifles. Not that they particularly need to whine, but the Imperium does understand a thing or two about intimidation, after all. The reply is a line of safeties clicking off at the Narsai’s line. Hilby stays frozen in place, but his eyes focus on the Bashakra’i soldier. “’Swear to God,’” he says. “’We will burn you off this planet if I don’t get some fucking answers right now.’
The Wherren and Bashakra’i look at each other. “Maybe we should both call,” the Turai says.
”Yes, maybe we should,” the Wherren agrees.
YOUR. LEADERS!” Hilby shouts.


Iro rolls his hand through the haptic to switch off the patrol channel, and sighs. “Does anyone have a lat we can flip?”
”For or against?” Rodirr asks.
“Against,” Iro says. “Very much against.”
“I mean, if we’re gonna tell Hilby to fuck off - and that is what we’re doing, right?” Gunny asks.
“Yes,” Iro, Paul, and Rodirr all say simultaneously.
“Then, you know, let’s do it together,” Gunny says. “Solidarity and all that.”
punkey 2017-09-19 00:48:11
By the time the four get to the gate, Hilby’s actually turned his head - shouting at the Narsai’i line for someone to get him a goddamn alien phrasebook - but whips around at the approach of the new players.

’You!’” he shouts at nobody in particular. “’You think this is a buffet line? The government of the United States of America is here to speak to you, and by God I’m gonna get some answers and I’d better like them!’” He turns to look at Paul. “’You! Sturgis! What the hell did you and your alien buddies get up to at Kabul airport?’
’I am certain that I have no idea what you are talking about,’” Paul replies. “’I’ve been here this whole time. Why, what happened in Kabul?’
’Yeah, you lose something?’” Gunny asks.
’Don’t get smart with me, Terminator!’” Hilby says. “’You broke into a secure facility, caused hundreds of thousands…millions of dollars in property damage and stole highly sensitive research materials! What, were we supposed to think those damn towelheads could pull this off?’” He turns to Iro. “’And don’t think we missed your little show outside the wire just now! You will turn over your hostages at once or by God we’ll come and take them!’
’Hostages is a pretty loaded term,’” Paul says. “He said they were hostages.”
Iro scoffs. “That’s a little dramatic.”
”He looks like a cub that lost their favorite toy,” Rodirr grunts.
’We captured your men trying to steal from the Sheen,’” Paul replies.
’And we don’t know what you’re talking about with Kabul,’” Gunny adds. “’Must have been pretty awesome to get you so pissed off, though.’
‘Don’t give me that crap. You crossed the line, and just gave me all the rope I need to hang you smarmy motherfuckers!’
“Does he have any proof?” Iro asks.
”I’m very certain he does not,” Rodirr replies with a pleased green tinge.
“Fuck no,” Gunny says.
“Ask him if he has any proof, Paul,” Iro says.
’So, got any proof to go with your...crazy ranting?’” Paul asks.
’So that’s your plan, some People’s Court bullshit?’ Hilby replies. “’You want to play it that way? Let’s play.’” He turns around and sweeps his arm over the Narsai’i defense perimeter. “’I got a base full of pissed-off grunts ready to light up your little summer camp,’” he says, then turns back to stare down Paul. “’Just who do you think you’re fucking with here, Sturgis?’
’The guy who just got his entire little black bag team busted,’” Paul replies, then taps his vox. “Cooper on his way, Onas?”
“Moments away, lahna,” Onas replies.
’Let’s wait for Cooper to show up before you get in even deeper trouble, hmm?’” Paul replies. “It’s time for the adults to talk.’
“Cooper in five,” Onas says.
“Enjoy the show,” Paul replies. “’General!’ he shouts as Cooper and his protective detail round the corner towards the checkpoint. “’I trust you heard about what happened outside the wire last night?’
’I have,’” Cooper says. “’You want to explain that to me, Agent Hilby?’
’They attacked us!’” Hilby shouts at the Narsai’i troops behind Cooper. “’They raided our -’
’Your what?’” Paul asks.
Rodirr chuffs a laugh as Iro breaks into an uncharacteristic grin.
“Oh, this should be good,” Gunny says.

And Hilby says nothing.

’Is that all you’re choosing to share with me?’” Cooper asks. “’Agent Hilby, that’s the first smart move I’ve seen you make. I don’t know if you’re off your meds or if the weather in Afghanistan isn’t agreeing with you, but I’m done listening to you screech about this and that and making my life harder than it already is.’” He sighs. “’Did anyone get hurt?’
’...no,’” Hilby says.
’No what, Hilby?’” Cooper pushes.
’No, General Cooper...Sir. Nobody got hurt.’
punkey 2017-09-19 00:48:29
’Mr. Sturgis,’” Cooper says to Paul, “’while I’m sure the prisoners you took have refused to identify themselves, something tells me that shipping the lot of them back to CONUS would be an amiable solution. I can’t promise any apologies, except my own. Is that acceptable to you?’
’The fence stays up,’” Paul says. “’Just because Chuckles here is gone doesn’t mean we trust the Narsai’i.’
’I can live with that,’” Cooper says. “’Do we have a deal, then?’
“We can transport them back to their part of Narsai,” Bello says. “After we scan them into our system.”
’Deal, we’ll handle transport,’” Paul replies.
’General,’” Hilby protests, “’we cannot let them hold onto their hostages one second longer -’
’Not my clowns, not my rodeo,’” Cooper cuts him off. “’These men, whoever they may be, knew what they were doing. They did not identify themselves as US military personnel, so they are most emphatically not my problem.’
Hilby stares daggers at Paul. “’But we can’t just let them get away with this!’
’Diplomacy’s the art of knowing what to let them get away with,’” Cooper replies coolly. “’But you can read up on that back in CONUS. You got your damn prize, Hilby. Now I suggest you step away from the line before I order my men to drag you away from it. Do we understand each other?’
’...yes, Sir,’” Hilby says.
’Then get to it,’” Cooper says. “’There’s a supply helo coming in the morning, 0500 hours. I expect you to be on it.’
’Yes, Sir,’” Hilby says.
Dismissed, Agent Hilby,’” Cooper says. Hilby tries to stare through Paul, but his final round of shooting venom at everyone turns into an about-face, and then he stomps back towards the Narsai’i lines. As he clears audio range, Cooper clears his throat. “’That man doesn’t know how to treat allies. Speaking of which, though... I expect your presence at the briefing tomorrow. Do we have an understanding?’
’We do,’” Paul says. “’Iro, Gunny, and Walks-the-Fire should be there.’
’Yes, they should be,’” Cooper says. “’Good night, Sturgis.’
’Good night, General,’” Paul replies.

Cooper makes sure to nod to everyone in attendance, then cocks his head towards the soldiers escorting him. In formation, they move back to the Narsai’i perimeter, and once that’s done, Gunny’s audio sensors can make out quite a few weapon safeties clicking back on.

“Glad I got to see that,” Gunny says.
“See you back at the hab, lahna,” Paul voxes to Onas, then disconnects. “Have we heard from Swims-the-Black?”
Rodirr chuffs. “They have recovered all items of interest,” he says. “And a...prize he did not elaborate on. Apparently some of those mercenaries have very specific tastes, but that’s none of our concern. Everything worked out, and they made sure to leave no useful evidence.
“Good,” Paul replies.
“Maybe we can focus on, you know, actually kicking ass after this?” Gunny asks.
“Still haven’t answered why the Narsai’i had sunmines and beamers in the first place,” Iro says.
“Garrett and the 815 are working on that,” Paul replies. “Should have a report back sometime today.”
Then I suggest we all get some rest,” Rodirr says. “I suspect we’ll need it.
punkey 2017-09-20 22:02:22
A vox message went out early the next morning from Garrett to the 815 - Team meeting, my hab, one hour. As expected with such a group, the whole team wanders in more or less five minutes early - centered around FTE, whose human-sized shell strolls in precisely five minutes before the one-hour specified - to find Garrett, Ngawai, and Angel seated at the table in their hab, Naloni asleep in her crib next to Ngawai, and a Imperial chamakana beamer, a quiver of rods, and a couple spearbombs on the table in front of them next to a holodisplay showing a few hasty snaps of Imperial weapons racks and sealed vacuum crates inside wooden Narsai’i crates with Chinese characters on the side.

Arketta immediately spots the stamped sigils on the racks with the unit identifier and base - and that the base is the Akwhela’s Eye, the Turai headquarters worldship. Angel and Hug’sh recognize the wear and tear from being carted in the back of a truck across rough mountains - and Garrett already has enough of a translation to know that the crates are official Chinese Army property. Luis’ optical implants and vox and FTE’s sconces instantly scan the embedded ID tags in the weapons - and that they don’t just look like they’re the real thing, they’re freshly off the nanoforge on the Akwhela’s Eye without ever being assigned to quad - these weren’t just made by the Turai, they were made with the expressed purpose of being shipped to whoever got these weapons on the other side. And Grand Apprehender Ngawai Holoni, and Zaef and Swims-the-Black, experienced smugglers that they are, immediately clock the lack of any sort of official Imperial seals, marks, or tags for transport - whatever this was, it was off the books.

“So,” Garrett says. “I think we have a problem.”
Admiral Duck Sauce 2017-09-20 22:07:29
"Agreed," FTE says. "She is too cute," it whispers, looking over Naloni.

"Sorry - haven't had much opportunity to see real humans in closed beta." It brings itself back to Garret's holo. "The ordnance scans hot off the printers. They're not stolen and they didn't fall off a manta. What are the chances these came through one of our four known gates? And what are the chances there's a free-range Gateway dirtside?"
Gatac 2017-09-20 23:36:20
A wave of colors rolls through Hug'sh's fur as FTE brings up Naloni. Focus. Don't think about the cubs.

"Negligible," Hug'sh says. "Possible, I guess, but that's an extreme amount of trouble to manufacture, smuggle through a gate past Alliance personnel and then hand over to what seems like a random Afghan warlord. It makes more sense if there's a significantly greater amount of gear on Narsai'i elsewhere. Which in turn makes a rogue gateway the most likely explanation. After all, it's easier to smuggle a keg than what must be tens of tons of gear." Hug'sh sighs. "The weapons are out there now. Anything that shows up in Afghanistan might as well already be available on the black market. We don't know where that rogue gateway is or even how many there might be - not more than the Chinese can keep under wraps, tightly control transfers and slag if needed, I hope. The other bit of good news is that it's probably not a spacebourne gateway - somebody would have noticed the orbital traffic. Still, this is grim news. I don't really have a clever idea for how to deal with this."

His look sweeps the room. "Now, I should address another of the eji in the cave*. As I see it, this information is critical to the ultimatum we gave the Narsai'i, and we need to make them aware of it." His fur takes on a yellow tinge. "And we need to talk about the ultimatum, too. To be clear, it was not my intention to deceive any of you or do things behind your back. But the ultimatum was a necessary measure to stabilize the alliance, and I thought it better politics to make that a Wherren move rather than something that can be too easily blamed on this team or the GRHDI - though I suppose they'll try that anyway."

* The largest extant land mammal on Whirr, eji resemble six-legged giant sloths, who use their tusks to dig for roots and their tapir-like snout graze from trees. Frost-Touched Wherren tribes both hunt and venerate eji, but know better than to enter their resting places.
Admiral Duck Sauce 2017-09-21 09:23:06
"Whoever is doing this has such a good line on Imperial gear that they can spare some for these randos in your weird sandy backyard practice war," Front Towards Enemy says. "The possibility that they've infiltrated the Akwhela's Eye without being caught or us not knowing about it is really bad. But what we have to assume - because it's worse - is that they are acting in concert with the Imperium. Because that means if it is a rogue Gateway, and if there's one we have to assume there can be multiples, because Hugs is right about tracking space gates and you can't pass a dirtgate through another, which means a keg, well, if that's the case, how can we assume these actors are going to lock their side down like we do if they're buddies with the imps?"
skullandscythe 2017-09-21 23:33:21
"We can't," Zaef breathes. "Just as we can't assume that all they're getting is weapons. This much equipment going through a gate - from Akwhela's Eye no less - no way this isn't part of an Imperial op. They've already got boots on the ground here. Technicians to handle everything, at least. We need to deal with this fast, sure, but we need intel first.

"You can tell the Narsai'i, but I don't think it'll help any. These assholes in charge are up to their ears in denial. How do you get into their thick skulls that China is trading with the enemy of all Narsai, in time for them to do something?"