Jade Imperium - Afghanistan, Pt. 3

e of pi 2018-11-17 05:05:50
"Let's," Luis says. He considers the corpses of Wazir and his sons on the floor for a moment and shakes his head to consider the remnants of the cameras. "Anything we need to do to clean up here? Any worries about the feed they were sending? Do we need to remove FTE?"
skullandscythe 2018-11-19 05:19:00
"I'll look over FTE," Zaef replies, "but if you're worried about the feed, maybe you should take a look at it."
Admiral Duck Sauce 2018-11-19 20:31:46
Front Toward Enemy's shell spasms suddenly, then it gets to its feet. "I'm up! I'm up!" It rotates its arms and shakes out its legs, but the damage isn't anything that won't hold together in the short term. "I hit their cameras first, and if anything scandalous got out it's kind of too late now. The Pulp Fiction execution won't have made it to Netflix."
punkey 2018-11-20 15:05:16
"Good," Garrett says, as both husband and wife toss their empty pistols next to Wazir's bleeding corpse. "Luis, FTE, mind checking for any WiFi signals, just in case?"
"The weapons," Ngawai says. "We should sweep the building, make sure there's nothing else from the Akwhela's Eye here and destroy anything that is."
e of pi 2018-11-24 04:21:20
Luis nods to Garrett. "I'll get on that sweep. FTE, you want to double-check me?"
punkey 2018-11-28 02:14:05
"And I'll be the adult in the room and cover our tracks," Angel says.
"Ideas?" Hale asks.
"They had sunmines in the garage," Angel points out. "They should have been more careful."
"Right," Hale says. "So we should...leave somewhat quickly."

FTE and Luis both bring up their "Ass-Backwards Narsai'i Comms" interfaces (gotta love shared Sheen design language) and scan for any open WiFi interfaces.

(Luis Computers: 2d10 vs. 2d8 = 8 vs. 8
FTE Computers: 2d12+1d10 vs. 2d8 = 8 vs. 7)

Luis turns his head from side to side while FTE just spins its head 360 degrees, both scanning for any signals. After a few seconds, Luis flips his system off, and FTE is just about to when a WiFi signal pops into view. FTE shreds the security - WPA2, how cute - and on the other side finds a cheap Dell from 2006 with archived video from a half dozen cameras: the four FTE took out, and then two more mounted outside that they must have missed in the darkness.
punkey 2018-12-02 05:47:46
"Oh, I bet you thought you were clever," FTE says. "Off-site backups sing this song doo-dah, doo-dah, copy backups onto drive, oh dee-doo-dah-day," it sings. "Gonna wipe the drives, gonna wipe the cache, off-site backups now explode, oh dee-doo-dah-day." And with that, a slight bang is heard from downstairs.
e of pi 2018-12-02 05:49:46
Luis grins as the WPA signal instantly drops out. "Nice catch. Angel, let me know if you need any help with sunmines, and then let's get out of here."
punkey 2018-12-07 16:37:12
The whole team heads downstairs, leaving Wazir's corpse to finish leaking and start its journey to room temperature. Luis and Angel break off to dial the yield in for the sunmine, field manual for the device already downloading to Luis' skull, while the rest of the team stands outside in the Afghani night air.
Garrett takes his helm off and looks up at the stars. "It's so quiet," he says. "Stars look great."
"That's because of the EMP and all the shooting," Ngawai says, her helm staying on. "Put your helm back on, lahna."

"Just want to take a moment," Garrett replies before turning back to the group. "So, next step - the Eye. We have a ring section from the crates, and we have a gatecode for it that...hopefully still works. Hale, Arketta, you know your way around?"
"Somewhat," Arketta says.
"Mostly," Hale replies.
"Great, between the two of you, we should have...most of a map. Luis, FTE, how do you guys feel about being on slicing duty, in case any systems get too curious about our quad? Angel, Zaef, you keep lookout while we move?"
Admiral Duck Sauce 2018-12-07 17:21:32
"Sure," FTE replies. "We'll know pretty quick if they're onto us. Like ripping off a band aid, not that I've ever ripped off a band aid but I understand you're supposed to do it fast."
e of pi 2018-12-11 05:38:06
"I trust them as much as I trust ours on slicing--enough to think it could be enough," Luis says. "Just about done here."
punkey 2018-12-17 20:34:18
"Then let's get clear of the blast radius," Garrett says.
Gatac 2018-12-17 20:37:26
Turns out, there’s not a lot of notes to take - the Narsai’i have basically relegated the rest of the alliance to rear guard and flank duty. A vitally important role against a well-organized and modern military force (even one as low as Narsai’i standards) but less so against disorganized insurgent forces whose best strategy when faced with a real military push is to scatter to the hills and wait for things to quiet down. They’re pretending that being spread out on either side of the main push is some sort of vastly important honor, but none of the four off-worlders are buying it.
“What kind of spinkshit babysitting detail is this?” Arlana asks.
”Exactly what it looks like,” Hug’sh comments. ”But I think we can work with that. Arlana, I’d like your help with the tactical holo, and Gunny, I would be very grateful if you could translate for me.” Hug’sh clears his throat and raises his voice. ”Pardon me, Colonel Matthews,” he says, ”but we have a few notes about this scheme of maneuver.”
The increased volume alone gets the attention of the room, but it’s Gunny’s translation that gets a response. “’Please wait for the end, General,’” Matthews says, the comment alone telling the room how seriously he takes that rank.
”There’ll be time for comm frequencies and ammo dump locations later,” Hug’sh counters, waiting for Gunny’s translation to catch up. ”I just have one question, Colonel: what about grid square MM54IW?”

The question hangs for a moment; with a nod to Arlana, she gets up and throws a tactical holo of the area into the middle of the room. Hug’sh might not be an artist with the haptics, but he’s worked on enough of those to rotate and zoom the view onto the dry riverbed in the middle.

”Your plan includes crossings here and here,” Hug’sh says, poking a claw at two bridges to highlight them. ”According to the area brief, they were last surveyed a full five months ago. Your briefing package includes no current geospatial intelligence on the AO. What is your confidence that those bridges are still in place, and what’s your plan if they aren’t?”
That was not the kind of comment that Matthews seemed to be expecting from that side of the room, especially from Hug’sh. “’Well...General, the rivers should be dry at this time of year -’
”Should be,” Hug’sh says. ”I assume somebody has a current weather report?”
’It’s later on in the briefing -’” Matthews starts, getting his feet under him for a moment.
“Not like it matters, because nothing says ‘soft target for improvised bombs and indirect fire’ like a convoy trying to bumble its way across a dry river bed,” Arlana says, cutting that out from under Matthews. “They could park on the hills here and here -” highlighting them with a swipe of her hand to rotate the holo and two quick gestures, “and just light us up with slugthrower fire and indirect.”
“Sounds like a deathtrap waiting to happen,” Iro adds. “Or the half-hour halt in a village in MN33PS.” The holo zooms again. “Do we have any intelligence on this village, or are you parking our forces in a hostile town?”
Matthews has turned pale - he knows this particular kind of reaming well, and is just letting it wash over him. “’The most recent intel is -’
“Is six months old,” Iro says. “Plenty of time for your enemies to take control.”
Hug’sh lets that hang in the air for a moment. ”I think we might want to prioritize getting fresh eyes on the AO. Especially in light of the ambushes we ran into the last time we tried this.” He lets his eyes sweep the room. ”We can be those eyes,” he says.
’You don’t exactly blend in,’” Matthews says with a smug smile.
”I have the results of several joint training exercises that beg to differ,” Hug’sh replies. ”The territory favors dismounted scouts and medium-altitude aerial recon. Your operation may have two strike packages on call but you’re light on surveillance assets tasked to orbit the AO.” He looks around the room. ”I know you want this victory. So do we. We can provide the scouts you need and leave behind enough troops to secure your flanks. You can roll in your firepower as you planned, but with the assurance that the land has not shifted from underneath your maps. Together...together we will bring to justice the men who killed our sisters and brothers. Together, we will prevail.” He trails off, leaving the alternative unspoken.
’Sounds like a job for Task Force 815,’” Cooper says.
”I agree,” Hug’sh says. ”Unfortunately, they are not available for this mission. But that is more reason to make good use of the troops we have, not less.” He smirks. ”And I don’t see why they should get all the glory.”
That doesn’t seem to settle too well. “’They are one of our assets,’” Matthews says. “’Not available is not an acceptable answer.’
”I understand that you see it that way,” Hug’sh says. ”However, they have engaged in a mission that is vital to Narsai’s overall security. A mission of absolutely critical importance and one that none but the 815 could possibly attempt; General Cooper has been briefed on it alongside the rest of the alliance leadership. Make no mistake, our mission here is also very important, which is why we’re all here to fight at your side.” His eyes narrow at Colonel Matthews. ”Do you believe this mission cannot be completed without the 815, Colonel?”
’I believe that our assets -’” Matthews starts.
”- are there to defend your planet in whatever way is necessary, not sit around to be drawn into missions that do not require them,” Hug’sh cuts in. ”Because we have now listened to two hours of your briefing and we are only speaking of 815 now. So either they are surplus to the actual requirements or the mission which is less than half a day away has been planned in such a way that only the 815 could make it work.” He chuffs. ”Which is it?”
Cooper - and everyone else - looks to Matthews. “’It would be what they are supposedly the best at,’” Matthews offers feebly.

Hug’sh doesn’t even dignify that with a direct objection. Maybe it’s that he’s extra-crabby from hormones, or maybe he’s just finally out of patience. ”The 815 truly are exceptional,” he says. ”Before meeting them, I never would have thought it possible for a planet of billions to cower behind a half dozen warriors.” He lets his look sweep the room. ”What of it, then? Are we going to stand here and bemoan the absence of our heroes? Why do those men hold you under such sway that you hate and fear them so? Are you not well-taught, skilled warriors?” He drops his voice a step. ”Thousands of years of military knowledge, they told me. And yet I sit in this briefing, listen to your words and speak my mind; who among you can offer a substantial criticism of our suggestions? Where are those of you who ought to know better than me the tactics of your enemies, the capabilities of your own military, the soil on which we fight?” He shakes his head. ”Because I know they are among you. Perhaps you are afraid to speak your minds to me. But I say to you, if you will not face me here, how do you plan to face your enemies? Is this all the fight you have left in you?” He sighs. ”The 815 are not coming. Now, we can either back down from this battle, or we can plot how to win it. The choice, I leave to you.”
Cooper looks to Matthews after Gunny finishes its translation. “’Well, Steve?’” he asks Matthews.
Matthews nods. “’No 815. Understood, sir. Any other comments, sir?’” he asks Cooper.
’Ask Walks-the-Fire, Captain Quis, Iro, and Gunny,’” Cooper says, and Matthews reluctantly turns your way.
Hug’sh nods. ”I’ve picked out a few ridgelines for our scouts to seize and hold,” Hug’sh says. ”To facilitate that and prevent blue-on-blue, I think we should modify killbox Charlie, like so…”
Gatac 2018-12-17 20:40:42
Strangely, it’s much more interesting for the off-worlder contingent when they’re doing the planning. A half-hour later, the whole plan for their part of the push has been substantially reworked - still keeping their forces well out of the way of any face-first charges into enemy fire and with easy escape routes all round (Iro’s #1 concern) - but putting their forces in the key role of scouts and calling in fire support for the push - Gunny in particular emphasized that part - out in front of the main thrust. The Narsai’i look a bit put out to Hug’sh - their plans are looking like quite a lazy mess at this point, and the not-so-subtle racism of the plans hasn’t been touched on directly but all four of them made sure to obliquely poke at it at some point. The other commanders mostly just seem pissed at having their side shown up so very badly, but a few are giving approving nods at the in-depth and on the fly planning.

“...and a few accelerator shots could probably bring that down,” Gunny remarks, tapping a particularly steep hillside on the holo.
“A bit of sliding gravel doesn’t sound very impressive to me,” Arlana counters.
”Our enemies are not turai - even if they show up in carapace, they won’t know to trust it to keep them alive,” Hug’sh says. ”And if the hillslide doesn’t bury them outright, it will still cause disruption to their line of battle. Of course, we should make sure to avoid this approach ourselves, but if we can drive them into the riverbed -”
“- they’ll shit their pants when this comes rolling down the mountain,” Gunny finishes.
”Good,” Hug’sh says, then looks at the holo for a few more seconds. ”Okay, that looks good to me. Gunny, can you compile that into a briefing holo?”
“Done and done,” Gunny says. “You think they’ll drop the attitude when we make this work?”
Hug’sh looks around. ”I doubt it,” he says.
“Figured,” Gunny remarks.
”I’ll talk to them,” Hug’sh says. ”Um, if you would be so kind…”
“Maybe next war, we should instance a few more interpreters,” Gunny grumbles, but then walks with Hug’sh as the Wherren general wanders over to rejoin the upper echelons of Narsai’i military leadership in the tent.
”We’ve finished the adjustments,” Hug’sh says to Cooper and Matthews. ”We’ve tried to minimize the alterations to your movements and fields of fire. Gunny here will disseminate our version of the plan to you for review, of course.” He then looks to Matthews. ”...and I’m sorry for hijacking your presentation in this way, Colonel Matthews. I will make sure we sit down and iron out my concerns before the command briefing next time.”
The unspoken “You won’t get away with cutting us out of planning again” is received loud and clear. “’Thank you, General.’” He looks back to Cooper. “’Any other questions, sir?’
’No, and I think we can take a break before sustainment is briefed,’” Cooper says. “’Everyone, be back here in ten minutes.’

The assembled Narsai’i stand up and make their way out of the room, while Cooper walks over to the off-worlders. “’So, where will Task Force 815 be?’” he asks, getting straight to the point.
Hug’sh considers the issue. ”...there is some business in country to take care of before they set out for Akwhela’s Eye,” he says half-committally. ”I realize that answer may not engender much trust, but on the other hand I would also prefer not to lie to you, General Cooper. And this is business I myself was only made privvy to under condition of keeping it in confidence.”
’How much trouble are they planning on getting into?’” Cooper asks. “’And I presume - from their reputation - that they have planned not to put our efforts in danger with what they are doing.’
”No trouble,” Hug’sh says grimly, ”and even less trace. This may actually help your efforts in the area, but I admit my reading of Narsai’i politics in this region is not as sophisticated as I would like it to be.”
’They will be on their own?’” Cooper asks, the question not really a question.
”The alliance neither condones nor sponsors their actions in this regard,” Hug’sh says. ”Not that the 815 needed our help for this.”
’Who do they answer to these days, then?’” Cooper asks.
Hug’sh smiles. ”An excellent question, but one I’m not qualified to answer,” he says. ”They are on our side. I choose to leave it at that.”
’A perfectly disconcerting answer,’” Cooper replies. “’Thank you for your input, Walks-the-Fire, Quis, Iro, Gunny,’” he says to each of the leaders in turn. “’Be sure to grab some coffee before we start back up.’” He walks off.

“I almost wish I was with that insane kill mission right now,” Iro says.
“Certainly more fun than bludgeoning death by Powerpoint,” Gunny adds.
The mention of the mission makes Arlana reach for her vox by instinct. “...excuse me, I have to send a message to Arketta and Luis.”
Iro nods. “Of course.”

Hug’sh watches Arlana leave, a bit of a worried blue for his own family playing through his fur.
”...anyone for second breakfast?” he asks.
“Got another hour of briefing left,” Iro says, clapping a hand on Hug’sh’s shoulder.
”But I already said all the smart things,” Hug’sh protests.
“And that matters very little,” Iro says. “There’s a reason why I’m a insurgent and not a soldier.”
“And why we don’t have them at all,” Gunny adds.
”Well, that’s what I get for becoming General,” Hug’sh muses to himself. ”Let’s get some sandwiches, at least.”


The rest of the briefing covers the mundanities of large military assaults - comms frequencies, logistics trails, contingencies for contingencies, the kind of stuff that Hug’sh tried hard not to nap through in the back of the room during his human days. About halfway through, the assault on Wazir’s compound started in earnest, and the four off-worlders suddenly found something much more interesting to keep them awake. Iro kept surreptitious notes on the assault for his own purposes, Gunny, being Sheen, might as well have been simulating a thousand possible outcomes, not that Hug’sh could tell. Arlana, on the other hand, looked ready to knock out the guards watching them, steal a skimmer, and crash-land it in the middle of Wazir’s compound and come out beamer blazing. It is for this reason that Hug’sh makes a point to stick with Arlana once the meeting is concluded and everyone heads out to suck on some fresh, sandy air. Iro and Gunny also stick close by.

“Assault sounds like it’s going well, by 815 standards at least,” Iro says.
“Big explosions and gunfire,” Gunny adds. “Predictive computation branches are placing bets on who ends up with the highest body count right now.”
Arlana doesn’t seem particularly interested in any of that. She rubs her hands against the pauldrons of her carapace and stares to the west, towards Kabul.
“Well, I’ve got to brief the Turai,” Iro says. He claps Arlana on the shoulder as he walks past. “They’ll be all right.”
“Yeah, they’re tougher than diamond-plated iridium penetrators,” Gunny says. “Later.”
Hug’sh watches the two leave, then turns to Arlana. ”I will go easy on comforting metaphors,” he says. ”Are you all right, Arlana?”
Arlana nods, but her face says something different. “Hug’sh,” she says. “I need you to hold a bag for me. In the training room.”
”Naturally,” Hug’sh replies. This is not feely-talky time. This is feely-punchy time. Important to recognize the signs and go with it.
Gatac 2018-12-17 20:42:56
Hug’sh is waiting for Arlana in the Turai training room by the time she’s stripped out of her carapace and down to her skinsuit. Getting out of the house and back into action has let her Turai genemods do the work of bringing her back into peak condition, and it doesn’t take much warmup for each of the muscles on her arms and shoulders to look ready to knock someone out on their own.
“Grab the bag, please,” Arlana says, nodding to the one next to Hug’sh.
There’s a tiny violet fringe running down Hug’sh’s back as he picks up the bag and brings it into position. Pissed-off elite Turai working out her anger on the bag? That’s not gonna be easy to keep stable, even with all his bulk. But that’s what you get when you say “yes” - well, say something that heavily implies “yes” - so Hug’sh gets to it and digs his claws into the rough leather of the bag, bracing his feet like an Alef-ka stance to absorb the impacts. ”Ready when you are,” he says.
Arlana takes two steps forward - not cautious steps, momentum-building steps - then plants and delivers a spin kick straight to the middle of the bag with a huff of effort. The force goes straight through the bag and into Hug’sh’s side. He was ready for that one, but somewhat less ready for the hard right hook that sent force straight through the bag and into the side of his head, and the reverse elbow that did the same.
”Have you considered shipping in a proper mount?” Hug’sh asks, blinking his eyes in an effort to clear his vision.
“Too expensive,” Arlana says. “But none of the Narsai’i or even my Turai will hold the bag for me anymore.” Arlana delivers a roundhouse kick that Hug’sh could swear bruised...whatever organs he has under his ribs and knocks some of the wind out of his lungs.
”Are you kicking the bag or me?” Hug’sh asks.
Arlana isn’t hearing him anymore, and lines up one more front kick that Hug’sh feels in his gut.
Hug’sh lets go of the bag and takes a step to the side. ”Stop,” he says.
“Hold the bag,” Arlana says, cheeks wet with more than just sweat.
”You’re coming at this bag with enough force to hurt me, so I can only imagine what this does to humans,” Hug’sh says. ”Let’s talk about this.”
“Hold the First-damned bag,” Arlana says again, turning her fighting stance away from the bag and towards Hug’sh as her words turn from furious to pleading.
”No,” Hug’sh repeats. ”You’re hurting me, Arlana. I don’t think you want that. Please stand down. I think we need to have a talk about this.”
Arlana tries to keep her guard up, but it’s already sagging. “Please,” she begs one more time.
A fringe of blue runs over the fringes of Hug’sh’s face. ”No,” he repeats softly. He spreads his arms a bit, silently offering a hug.
Arlana finally just breaks down completely, stepping forward and returning the hug as she weeps into his chest.
Hug’sh holds her up in his embrace, drawing her closer and letting her sobs get soaked by his chest. Without thinking, he bows his head down and gently licks the side of her face.
It takes a few seconds before Arlana calms down and gets control of herself again. “Thank you, Hug’sh.”
”Anytime,” Hug’sh rumbles softly. ”Tell me when you’re ready for the talk.”
“I haven’t felt like this since Arketta went off to primary training,” Arlana says. “And her first mission - ooh, I had to give the first formation to my Rav-Turai, I was such a mess.” She sighs and takes a seat on a bench. “I thought I was over this, but...I guess not.” Arlana manages a slight chuckle and looks up at Hug’sh. “How about you, Hug’sh?”
”I’m a fucking mess,” Hug’sh admits. ”Easily 90% of the people I call friends are currently in a firefight with terrorists - a firefight I should be in right alongside them, if I wasn’t stuck unfucking Narsai’i bullshit that will get people killed. Also, we’re pregnant and I told Rhea to go home even though the only thing I want is to be close to her, because our daughter is bawling her eyes out every night without me while I’m in this godforsaken desert and not home where I should be if I had any fucking sense!” Hug’sh pauses after that, realizing just how loud he got and how hard he’s breathing. He doesn’t need a mirror to know there’s a rainbow of colors dripping from his head down all over his fur. ”...so, like that.” he finishes.
“Exactly like me, then,” Arlana says. “With a pregnant daughter in a firefight, and a husband on the other side of the world living with a target on his back from the people on this rock that I can’t protect because I’m here.” She sighs. “What are we doing here, Hug’sh?”
”The right thing, for the greater good,” Hug’sh says. ”That’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? I’m...not 100% familiar with how you joined the Turai, but I imagine there were easier paths available to you. Paths that would have seen you be with the ones you love, left you alone to raise your family and live your life as you please, to pursue your own happiness. Instead, you looked at a career that you knew would consist chiefly of hard work, sacrifice and hard decisions.” He chuffs. ”Looking at you, I do not believe that your choice was in doubt for a heartbeat. I cannot claim to be quite this driven, but ask my friends about all the stupid choices I made because I felt I had to. The right thing, for the greater good.”
“It’s what the Quis women do,” Arlana says. “My mother was Turai, her grandmother was Turai, and her grandmother was Turai. My sister is Kansatai, it’s...what we do. We protect. And we know what that means, but...it’s something else to see your daughter go through it, and not be there to protect her.” She sniffles as her voice starts to break again. “My little girl.”
Hug’sh puts his hand on her shoulder again. ”I won’t pretend I have something smart to say about that,” he says. ”All I know is...sometimes it sucks and the only thing we can do is cry and get a hug.”
Arlana nods, and takes the side hug from Hug’sh. “Just wait until your little ones are grown up. If they’re anything like you, at least one of them will be off to war before you know.”
A thick blue streak runs through Hug’sh’s fur. ”The worst thing about this war is knowing our children will probably still be fighting it,” he says. ”I really hope I’m wrong about this.”
“If not this, then something else,” Arlana says. “My mother told me she hoped I would never see what she saw in the Sheen Wars, and her mother told her other stories about rebellions and terrorists.” She sighs. “I’m sorry, that’s not going to make either of us feel better.”
”Maybe not,” Hug’sh says. ”But letting my fears and insecurities eat at me didn’t work so well, either. Wounds don’t heal without sunlight.”
“Well, here are mine,” Arlana says. She stands up and sighs. “I think it’s time we try another time-honored Turai way of dealing with nerves.”
”Alcohol?” Hug’sh guesses.
“A lot of alcohol,” Arlana confirms with a nod. “I hope you can keep up, fighting isn’t all the Turai H’lapa are good for.”
”I think I’m quite prepared, as there are similar rituals among the Narsai’i and my people,” Hug’sh comments. ”I suppose truth is truth, no matter who speaks it.”
punkey 2018-12-29 08:40:28
Angel’s skimmer is just a vox connection away, and a couple minutes later, it hovers down into the remains of the marketplace and lands. Everyone climbs aboard, and Angel guns it. The sunmine detonation is just a muffled thump as the skimmer orbits Kabul one more time. The lights of the city - save the blacked-out portion from the EMP - glitter down below, largely indifferent to the chaos and death that they had unleashed. That likely wasn’t going to be true elsewhere, and it’s with the knowledge that this is probably the last Narsai’i city the 815 will be visiting for a good while that Angel pilots up and back towards the forward operating base.
Gatac 2018-12-29 08:43:00
There are five people piled into Arlana’s quarters after the briefing. There are Paul and Onas - conspicuously without Iro, who is doing the responsible thing and getting some sleep - and they’re drunk. Then there’s Arlana, and there’s Hug’sh, and they’re drunk. Finally, there’s Rhea, who is stock sober but just kind of going with the vibe. You couldn’t fit a sheet of paper between her and Hug’sh, but him having his other arm around Arlana is keeping things somewhat decent.

“Yaff-sahmah!” Hug’sh barks, clinking a tin drinking cup against Arlana’s.
“Iavh-zlama!” Arlana replies. Neither of them chugs, though; feeling the heat means they’ve changed to sips. Not that that’s going to save them from the hangover tomorrow.
”I think I” - Hug’sh hiccups - ”I think I got one. I got the berries, in the cup.” He thinks for a moment. “Siggdah.” Before anyone can do anything, he sips the berries from the cup and chews them up.
“Hug’sh, you might not -” Paul starts, but then just winces as he watches Hug’sh chew the little spice bombs.
Hug’sh chews for a good long while, too. He’s really going for it. ”They taste like...flowers,” he finally says. ”Where’s the spice? You said they were spicy.” He pouts a bit. ”I wanted the spice berries!”
“Wherren can’t taste spicy...spiciness? The fire?” Onas says. “Probably why you’re drinking it by the glass and we’re just sipping.”
“I’ve just burnt out my taste on too many deployments,” Arlana adds.
Hug’sh eyes the tin cup suspiciously. ”Is that the hottest one you have?” he adds.
”They’re right, bondmate,” Rhea adds. ”I’ve tried their hot spink on the space station. We can’t taste it like they do.”
”Just...give me...give me the hottest one you have,” Hug’sh says. ”For science.”
Paul looks at Onas, who shrugs and grabs the bottle he and Paul are sharing, pours out the rest of it, and dumps six berries into Hug’sh’s glass. “Have fun,” Onas says.
”Thaaaaank you,” Hug’sh replies, big waves of green rolling down his back fur. Rhea just rolls her eyes. As General Walks-The-Fire starts chewing on the next set of capsaicin bombs to little effect, he draws his arms tighter around both Arlana and Rhea.
For their part, Paul gives Onas a peck on the cheek and they snuggle in closer together as well. “Any word?” Onas asks.
Arlana shakes her head. “No,” she says sorrowfully, and takes another drink. “Comms silent for the last half-hour.”

Almost on cue, everyone’s voxes ping with incoming on the 815 channel. “Target down,” Ngawai says. “On our way back.”
”They made it!” Hug’sh yelps, hugging both Rhea and Arlana closer to him as a big bright green wave rolls over him. ”They made it! That’s great!”
“Status of team?” Onas asks over the line.
“Bit banged up, and the Bringer of Many Miseries is going to need a fistful of painkillers,” Ngawai replies. “But we’re all still upright.”
“Luis?” Arlana asks, and quickly waggles her hand to turn on her own mic. “What happened?”
“Stood a little too close to one of his own explosions,” Ngawai says.
”That sounds like him,” Hug’sh says, then turns his own mic on. ”And congratulations from me!” he says. ”With Wazir out of the way, we’ll...we’ll move on to the next target!”
”Rhea, make sure your bondmate gets some sleep and a couple liters of water,” Ngawai says.
”I’ll make sure,” Rhea replies, stroking Hug’sh’s head.
”It’s not my...first party,” Hug’sh protests weakly. ”And I’m not -”
”Yes you are, bondmate,” Rhea cuts him off. ”We’re big, but not that big.”
”One round of shots when they’re back,” Hug’sh negotiates.
”Promise you’ll walk yourself to our bed,” Rhea counters.
”Of course,” Hug’sh says, turning to groom her. ”I love you.”
”...maybe make that half a shot,” Rhea adds.
Hug’sh gives a little whine, but doesn’t argue the point.
“There will apparently be liquor and a few drunk Turai and Wherren waiting for you,” Onas sends back.
“Copy,” Ngawai replies. “Team out.”

Arlana relaxes - just a little bit, but still relaxes, looking less like a Turai that nearly kicked Hug’sh’s ass by proxy tonight and more like a worried mother/grandmother soon-to-be as she takes another drink from her glass, and stares down into it. Paul puts a hand on Arlana’s shoulder and gives her a squeeze.
“I’m fine,” Arlana protests. “Really, I am. It’s just...different when you’re on the comms with it. I knew she could do it, it’s just...different hearing it for the first time.”
Hug’sh gives the side of Arlana’s head a gentle grooming. ”Your daughter is fine,” he says. ”You will embrace her soon enough. There is no need to explain how you feel.”
“Masters, that talk,” Arlana said, and shook her head. “I was going to have that talk with her once she got back from Whirr - when the Turai sent her there, because she was selected for the Emperor’s First.”
Onas whistles at that. “The First, huh?”
Arlana nodded. “Early admission for being a legacy.”
That got Onas’ attention even more. “Legacy? You served in the First?”
Arlana nodded. “For most of my career. Made Rav-Turai and Samal in the First.”
Hug’sh can’t help but turn a little red upon hearing about the Whirr deployment - and he doesn’t need to see the blue in Rhea’s fur, either. But this isn’t the time for that talk. ”And you fought hard for it,” Hug’sh says. ”As did your daughter, to claim her place in the 815.”
“And for the better, believe me,” Arlana says, finishing her glass and going for more.
”The First is a ligiun of elite Turai infantry,” Hug’sh narrates to Rhea. ”There are only a few ten-thousand of them. They are deployed when combat experience is needed, but they fight as Turai, not like the Khiraba.”
Purple settles over Rhea’s fur. ”I was content calling them ‘enemy’,” she says quietly.
Hug’sh hugs her tighter. ”General Walks-The-Fire must know,” he says, and sighs. ”I’m sorry. Please, continue.”
“I was just grateful she was not going to be on patrol ever again,” Arlana says. “She wouldn’t have to do...what most Turai have to do. But still, the thought of her in real danger...I was a mess for a week. Ody took care of me and my Rav-Turai took care of the unit and...well, held the bag for me.”
”Was there any trouble before Narsai entered the picture?” Hug’sh asks. ”I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I never thought to ask her these questions in much detail.”
“Well, there were the Bashakra’i, of course,” Arlana says, her brown skin blushing. “Sorry.”
Onas raises a glass. “I’d be angrier if you had managed to catch many of us.”
“But there’s all sorts of trouble out there,” Arlana continued. “Other, less organized and...patient rebels, crime organizations and warlords, rogue industriums. I usually was six months on, year off.”
”So, when she went to Narsai…” Hug’sh begins, trailing off as he figures that’s close enough to actually asking a question.
“They told us she was killed in action on Whirr,” Arlana says. “Until they told us she was a traitor.” She takes another drink and leaves it at that.
Hug’sh doesn’t have anything to add to that. He just grooms her again as Arlana finishes her glass yet again.
“I think maybe we’re doing all right for alcohol,” Paul says, one eye on Arlana, who’s now just sunken into herself as much as someone of her stature can.
“Agreed,” Onas says, working himself to his feet to put the bottle away and outside of Arlana’s reach.
“One more,” Arlana says, her voice dropped down to just above a whisper.
“Enuff,” Hug’sh whines. ”The wait won’t be much longer.”
Arlana just sighs. It’s hard to remember that woman worried for her daughter in the long dress that Hug’sh first met back on Hedion, but that’s the Arlana he seems to have his arm around right now.
”You will see your daughter soon,” Hug’sh whispers. It’s not entirely sure if he’s talking to Arlana or himself. What matters is that he’s still got his arm around her, and that her head has settled against him, leaning into the grooming.

So they wait.