Jade Imperium - Afghanistan, Pt. 3

punkey 2018-12-29 09:09:08
Swims-the-Black was on the tactical vox connection for the assault, and so had a rough idea of the timeline for the team’s return after they signed off over Kabul. Still, it takes a moment to calm his fur back down when boots thud onto the roof of the hab above him.
”Bad memories,” Swims grumbles as Naloni yawns and wiggles deeper into his fur as she nestles in his arm.

A minute later, the door to the hab slides open. Ngawai peels her helm off and smiles as Naloni fusses and wiggles slightly, carefully picking her up by her nightclothes while her gauntlets are still on. “Hey there,” Ngawai whispers as her daughter slowly rouses.
Garrett, helm already off, steps over to Swims. ”How was she?”
”She took her bottle at her normal time and went right to sleep,” Swims replies. ”And Hug’sh is fine, although tomorrow morning, I can’t speak to.”
”Speaking of tomorrow,” Ngawai says. ”Are you ready?”
Swims nods. ”I am packed, and I see you both have already dropped your gear off with the Bashakra’i. First transport back to the village leaves at 0530 local, Naloni and I will be on it, with Rhea and all of 815’s gear. Iro has confirmed we’ll be taken straight back to the village. It’ll be like we were never here.”
Ngawai nods. ”Good. We should be back from the Eye in three days.” She gives Naloni a peck on the forehead. “We will be back in three days.”
”How did things at Kabul look?” Garrett asks.
”The Bashakra’i were packing up themselves, last I saw. Some very sullen-looking Narsai’i dropped some ‘misplaced’ equipment off - not everything that’s gone missing, but enough that Bello and Paul - mostly Paul - didn’t feel the need to press the issue,” Swims replies. ”It seems that everyone’s aware how much we’ve outstayed what little welcome we had. They should be gone by end of day tomorrow.”
Garrett claps Swims’ shoulder. ”Thanks, Swims-the-Black. I know you’ve been a bit sidelined on this one -”
”Gladly,” Swims replies. ”I think I expressed my skepticism of this whole adventure early and often.”
”Fair enough,” Garrett says, and turns to his wife and daughter. “Hey,” he says to them both as he puts a chrome-plated arm around Ngawai’s shoulder.
“Hey yourself,” Ngawai replies.
“Last one for a while,” Garrett whispers. “And then we’re all hers.”
“I know,” Ngawai replies, and blinks a tear out of her eye. “I can’t wait.” She moves in to kiss Naloni on the cheek, followed by Garrett. That’s enough to rouse Naloni, who opens her eyes just enough to look back at her parents.
“Hey there,” Garrett whispers. “We’ll be right back, okay?”
Ngawai can’t muster anything more than a tearful nod as she hands Naloni back to Swims-the-Black.
”Bye-bye,” Swims rumbles as he waves Naloni’s hand at her parents.
“Bye-bye,” Garrett and Ngawai reply as they back out the door to their hab, cutting them off as it slides shut.

”So, little one,” Swims grunts as he sits back down. ”Are you going back to sleep, or are we staying awake until the transport leaves?”
punkey 2018-12-29 09:41:50
When Luis and Arketta return to their hab to check their gear is ready to go, they find a lone sentinel standing guard outside their quarters. Well, standing is a bit inaccurate - Arlana is slumped against the wall underneath the lock panel, snoring ever-so-quietly in her carapace.
“Oh, mother,” Arketta whispers. She takes a knee next to her and gets a big whiff of firefruit liquor. “Oof, you smell like you bathed in the bottle.”
“Here, let’s get her inside,” Luis says.
“No, you go ahead and make sure we’re ready to go,” Arketta says. “I’ll get her back to her hab.”
“You sure?” Luis asks.
“I got her,” Arketta says, sliding her arms underneath her mother’s knees and behind her back, only grunting a little as she squats back upright. A moment’s bounce to adjust, and Arketta feels stable enough. “I’ll be right back,” she tells Luis with a smile.
Luis smiles back, and ducks into their hab.

Arlana’s quarters are just down the hall, so it’s not long before she’s waving her mother’s arm in front of the lock panel on her room, trying to unlock the door. “First-damned Masters-cursed piece of scrofa shit,” Arketta mutters under her breath, the third swing finally sensing Arlana’s vox and sliding the door open. Arketta carefully sidesteps through the doorway and lays Arlana down on her bunk - where her eyes flutter open. “Arketta,” Arlana whispers as Arketta stands bent over her chest, laying her down.
“Hi, mother,” Arketta says.
“What are you doing?” Arlana asks, only slightly slurring her words.
“You must have been waiting for us and fell asleep,” Arketta replies. “I carried you back here.”
“Yes, I was,” Arlana says. “I was waiting for you.”
Arketta stayed kneeling at her mother’s side. “You don’t have to worry about us,” she says. “We have a good plan, and we’ll be careful. No one should be shooting this time.”
“Yes I do,” Arlana says, and reaches for Arketta’s hand. “Because you’re my little girl.”
Arketta smiles. “And I always will be. But...take it easy on yourself. Okay?”
“Okay,” Arlana says, rolling over on her side to face Arketta. “For you, dear. But no promises.” She squeezes Arketta’s hand. “Soon you’ll have your own little girl. And I’ll be there for you when she goes off to fight. I promise.”
Arketta gives her mother a hug. “You’d better be, because I’ll be just as drunk as you are right now.”
“Yes, you will,” Arlana says, rolling onto her back again.
“Oh no,” Arketta says. “You stay on your side.” She tilts her mother back over and grabs her arm, waving the holo to life. “0630 wake-up should be fine.”
“0530,” Arlana says. “PT.”
“Mother, that’s too early, you’re a mess,” Arketta says.
“And I am a Turai, same as you,” Arlana says. “0530.”
“Fine,” Arketta says, setting the alarm. “Good night,” she says, giving her mother a peck on the cheek.
“Good luck,” Arlana replies, closing her eyes.
punkey 2018-12-29 09:49:25
Does it get easier? Well, depends on what you mean.

Leaving your loved ones behind as you head into danger? No, not really.
Sneaking off a Narsai’i military base in a skimmer? It’d need to have been hard at some point first.
Gateway transfer to Atea? Yeah.
Getting the pre-mission lecture from Brinai? Nope.

“I’ll have you know that Onas, Bello, and myself all think that this is a terrible idea,” Brinai says as the 815 contingent checks their gear and cover codes at the Atea secure gateport. “We know it was the Imperium that gave those weapons to the Narsai’i, we know where they came from, and we know where they’re going to.” She steps around behind Garrett and raps him on the back of his helm. “What do you hope to learn, hm?”
“We can drop a tracer on a shipment that will tell us exactly - down to less than a meter - the Chinese Gateway is,” Garrett replies, checking his carapace’s utility belt. “And we have no idea how big this operation is, or what they’ve sent over and what they’re getting ready to send over. Eyes on the operation will let us know.”
“Hmph,” Brinai grunts, glaring at Garrett for a moment before walking over to Arketta. “And you, you think that these covers as...as a munition effectiveness evaluation team will hold up? Why would they care - hypervelocity killdrone against thin metal tube isn’t much of a contest.”
“Munitions Keepers will want data and documentation of effect on target - even against thin metal tubes, even if it’s to stroke their own egos,” Arketta replies. “I’ve heard about these details even when it’s just animals being shot up. No one will be surprised.”
Brinai now turns to Zaef, having been fended off twice now. “Zaef! You can’t possibly think this is a good idea, this is too much like the things you used to practically lock me in my quarters to keep me from trying.”

(Check OOC for plan discussion!)
skullandscythe 2018-12-29 21:50:13
"It's not a good idea," Zaef replies bluntly, "but it's an even worse idea to let the Gate - or Gates - linger. The sooner we know where, the sooner we can deal with it, and not dealing with it is not an option if you want to live. And you know this is key, or you wouldn't have made Gate security so important to Atea."

There's a pause before Zaef follows up, looking Brinai in the eye, eyebrows knit in sympathy. "I know you don't like it, but we're going. End of story."
punkey 2018-12-30 08:47:09
Brinai's actual concern for her friends - and not-quite-children - leaks through for a split second, softening her eyes for just a moment. "Hmph," she grunts, back on form just as fast. "Well, far be it from me to stand in the way of your suicide mission." She waves her hand through her holodisplay. "There, dummy authorization codes, already pushed into the Cortex through the Sheen on Hedion. By the time you're at the first security check, they should be populated. After that, it's on all of you." She reaches up and claps a hand on Zaef's shoulder. "Be careful. If you don't make it back, I'll make you pay for making me tell Kitty."
e of pi 2019-01-03 02:34:42
Luis is pacing around the Atea gateport as the the vox in his head trills, working its way to connecting to his parent's numbers. The nice thing about time differences, he thinks, is that when you come up with something you have to do in the middle of the night, it's a better time for other people. It took most of the trip back for him to set up what had occured to him as they left Afganistan, but the information he needed made its way to his vox by the time they reached Atea's gateport.
"Hello?" Martha Stanhill asks over the connection.
"Hi Mom," Luis says. "How're you and dad?"
"Oh, you know, we're getting by," Martha says. "How are you? How are...how is your work?"
"It's....been making some progress," Luis says, trying not to picture blood spattered on walls and the awful energy wash of sunmines. "We're working on it." He pauses.
"That's actually related a bit to why I called. We had some threats that some of the bad guys might be targeting family, that kind of thing. Since 815 is so visible," he says. "We're going to be going out on another mission soon, and I wanted to make sure you had some options while I was gone to get ahold of help. Samantha Barnes was able to help me set something up--a number you can call if something happens."
"Oh," Martha said. He knows that "oh".
Luis winces. That's the "oh" that means his mom's picked up that this is about more than being unable to pick up a phone--that this is about if he's dead. "Listen, mom. This isn't anything you need to act on today, but it's to give you options. If something comes up and you and dad need to get to safety, just call this number and Sam's people will take care of it. They'll get you, and they'll get you to where you're safe. No matter what." He's hoping he doesn't have to tell his mom that doesn't just mean terrorists--that it also means a place on the evacuations if this mission fails and Earth gets invaded.
Not just because of the security risks, but because he's not sure he can tell his mother that they're the only thing he could think of he needed to make sure made it off Earth.
"Oh, like Fort Drum?" Martha asks.
"Something like that," Luis says. "Wherever they can make sure you're safe. It might be Drum, it might be the Bashakra'i village, it might be someplace else. It depends on the threat. Don't worry too much about gear--they'll be able to provide anything you can't grab quickly other than medication and anything you want to keep ready to go quickly. You'll need to let them know before you go on vacation or anything for them to make arrangements, but...I wanted to make sure you were going to be safe if anything happens."
"I was just thinking how far we'd go to make sure of that," he adds.
"Oh, well, I'm sure that we'll be fine, Luis," Martha replied. "Not a whole lot happens up here."
"I remember Mom," Luis says. "You have to go halfway to Manchester to find anything too exciting. Still, I wanted to make sure. You have the option, and you shouldn't be too worried about using it--if you think it's worth it, it probably is. Better safe than sorry."
"Well, all right, if you think it's necessary, I'll let your father know," Martha said.
"Thanks Mom," Luis says. His voice hitches a little. "Tell dad I love him, too. I've got to go get back to some meetings, but I hope I'll be able to call for a longer talk pretty soon--we've got some good news I want to pass along in a few days."
"Well, I can't wait, then!" Martha says. "And maybe we can talk soon about where you and Arketta are going to settle down - I've been collecting some nice looking listings nearby."
"I'd be happy to look, but we've got a lot going on at Atea, and it's more in the middle of things," Luis says. "Actually, we should have you over to our berth on Atea sometime, too. Dinner or something. You should see their parks, and the transits are something else."
"Oh," Martha says. That's the "I'm a little scared about what you're proposing we do" "oh".
"It'll be fun Mom, like going to Boston or the city for the day," Luis says. "Anyway, like I said, I've got to go. I love you, and we should talk soon."
"I love you too, Luis," Martha says. "Call again soon."
"I will, Mom Give dad my love." Luis hangs up, and then stares into the distance down the concourse for a long moment. He shakes his head. All right, that's done, focus on the mission, he thinks.
Admiral Duck Sauce 2019-01-04 20:43:02
There is no consensus.

Front Toward Enemy's sudden thought shakes it. Was this analogous to "nerves"? The Akwhela's Eye was immense and nigh-impenetrable, and it was only a leg on their journey back to Narsai, or Earth, or... it trails off. Its own inhabitants couldn't even come to consensus on what to call their world. Or - apparently - whether Imperium rule was something to be resisted or welcomed. FTE could understand a rocky road to consensus when it came to how to fight the Imperium, but this second Gateway was balls-out insanity.

The plan was like walking a tightrope in a thunderstorm. Any slip and they'd all be done, no respawns, no backup shells. But that was the thing - it made everything real because of that.
CrazyIvan 2019-01-10 09:58:18
The actual act of leaving wasn't particularly difficult. A quick call to his folks, to tell them the usual - that he wasn't going to be calling for awhile, and not to worry about him. He had been telling them the same thing since he shipped out the first time, and now it felt like a familiar call-and-response. His mother worried. His father quiet and thoughtful. Like a familiar place on the porch of his childhood home that would always be "his spot" even if he hadn't sat there in a decade.

A somewhat longer call to Erika - letting her know he was going to be dropping off the radar once more to do "his real job", discussing a few things that actually needed his outright approval, and making sure she knew what he was thinking enough to step into the familiar role as his proxy.

Relatively free of...other entanglements...and still with a Specialist's pull for housing, packing is trivially easy, and Angel is already waiting outside by the skimmer when the others arrive.

The rest is easy. This war's gotten ugly, and 815 has spent too much time fighting private wars on Earth. He was looking forward to a little...clarity.
punkey 2019-01-13 20:37:36
Brinai huffs and fusses for a bit longer, but once everyone finishes their pre-mission checks, she stands aside and simply wishes them luck as they pile into the Manta that will be their living quarters for the next...day or so. Zaef and Luis flip a lat to see who takes the first shift, while everyone else stows their gear - with the exception of FTE, who simply latches itself into the mounts in the ceiling as gear. There’s not a lot of conversation - the intensity and focus of the mission sucks a lot of the air out of the room, even if the actual danger is more than a day away. It’s still another “suicide mission”, and that’s something that no one here takes lightly.

It’s a good hour or two just to the Gateway out of the dead system that Atea resides in, and so everyone settles down for the long haul. Hale, ever the experienced Turai, finds his favorite seat - a squad leader slot, of course, not that such things matter in the 815 - and leans back to assume the traditional zoned-out position of someone watching a holo on their helm’s display. Garrett and Ngawai huddle together in a corner, presumably to do the same. Everyone’s more than experienced on spending long hours in a Manta, sharing the same small volume of recycled air, passing around holos over vox, and stepping over each other to use the waste dump. Mission parameters mean that everyone's cut off from Atea and Narsai, making it so that for something so dangerous and clandestine, the opening of the raid on the Akwhela’s Eye is more like a lazy weekend away than a surgical military strike.
Gatac 2019-01-13 20:38:42
Hugh Verrill, being something of a shitbag, was no stranger to showing up to duty hungover. Pounding headache - munch some aspirin. Bone dry mouth - bottle of sports drink. Light and sound making all of that worse, well, they give officers offices for a reason. None of Hug’sh’s former human existence gave him instructions on how to deal with his tusks aching - something that shouldn’t be possible - or even the slightest brush feeling like someone shouting in his ear, just through his fur. He’s sucked down two hydration packs’ worth of water and pounded two protein loafs, which helped a bit, but it’s not one of his better mornings.

Still, if there’s one thing Hugh Verrill knew, it was how to show up hungover at work and still get the job done, so Hug’sh holds onto what he’s got left of that bastard and gets to it. The tactical holo in front of him shows the bird’s eye view of the situation, zoomed out all the way to show everyone starting their push back to the mountains - Turai, Wherren and Sheen combined units already pushed out well ahead of the line, dropped by skimmer over the previous 12 hours, all under cloak. Between the impellers and the active camo, none of them have been detected, and already the Bashakra’i in the command center have relayed intelligence that has rerouted two convoys away from ambushes, and seen one particularly nasty one blown up by helicopter fire. Iro, Paul, and even Bello and Onas have shown up for the big show. The latter two are very much keeping to the sidelines to appease the Narsai’i, who seem surprisingly reluctant to forgive and forget the coup they lead in this very building a few days ago. Iro guides the Turai, while Paul keeps track of the dozens of streams coming in. Bello stands over his shoulder, guiding him this way and that on which streams to prioritize and what everything means. If Hug’sh wasn’t so busy (and hungover), it might have seemed less like management and more like training someone to fill Bello’s shoes. The Sheen have peeled their presence back to integration into Iro’s Turai and a half-dozen independent observation shells, all of which are under Hug’sh’s command.

Hug’sh runs his tongue over one of his achy tusks and stabs a finger at the holo. ”Orphan Grinder, I’ve just marked a depression for you. Can you get eyes on? Looks like it’d have a good field of fire on our exfil route.”
“Rollin’, ETA 5 mikes, Ghost Rider,” Orphan Grinder replies. “Boss man. Wherren. Man. Shutting up now.”
”You’re sounding bored,” Hug’sh says. ”Do you need more to do?”
“I mean, not getting shot at is cool, I guess,” Orphan Grinder replies. “Just, you know, you can only play so much Call of Duty before it gets boring.”
”I got a ‘yes, please give me more to do’ from that,” Hug’sh replies, then taps a few more times on the holo. ”Cave entrances. Check the ground there for thermals. I don’t want a repeat of last time.”
“But daaaaad,” Orphan Grinder whines. “On it.”
”Ping me if you find something,” Hug’sh says, then taps another glowing rune on the map. ”Khodash, I’m not getting any reports of contacts. Have you encountered anything on the ground?”
”All clear,” Khodash replies. ”All my scouts in this area haven’t found anything yet. Maybe they all went home.”
”Unlikely,” Hug’sh says. ”Probably trying to sucker us into another ambush. Slow the pace, increase dispersion and keep your eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary.” Hug’sh glances at Cooper and sees him scowl. He quickly reaches for his notepad and scrawls out Don’t like this. Where are they?
’No idea,’” Cooper says. “’I don’t like it either. It feels like the first time, and we both know how that ended.’” He turns to Colonel Matthews, still attached to his side. “’I want them eyes-up. If they’ve got half a brain in their skulls, they’re on the lookout for an ambush, but just in case.’” He looks back at his tactical display, a Narsai’i monitor in an ugly box on a table. “’Where the fuck are they…’
”We’re picking up nothing whatsoever,” Hug’sh replies by reflex before writing it out. There’s one possibility. Enemy forces have withdrawn from AO to beyond the border.
’That wouldn't make any sense,’” Cooper replied. “’They’ve fought tooth and nail for every inch of this damn country.’
If this was about territory control, there would be a front, Hug’sh writes. But this is not the last fight, either. Something has changed and I don’t know what. He thinks for a moment. We should minimize exposure of your troops. My scouts can range ahead a bit further.
’Sounds like a plan,’” Cooper replies. “’Your people are on recon, anyway. First contact, pull them back in that sector and let my boys clean up.’

Hug’sh nods to that with a wave of subdued green and gets on the vox. ”Walks-the-Fire to all Alliance troops, continue the advance ahead of the Narsai’i. Report and withdraw on contact.”
“You mean we’re not wandering into this ambush face-first?” Orphan Grinder replies.
”Thank goodness,” Khodash replies.
“All Turai, report any positive contact and fall back,” Iro echoes.
“Understood,” a Samal replies.
“Copy, Control,” a familiar voice to Hug’sh replies - Grey Goo Scenario, apparently given its own quad. Hug’sh nods reflexively to the deserved promotion.

Routine chatter continues as a heck of a lot of people push through the Hinterlands, turning up a heck of a lot of nothing. Hug’sh tries to read the mood between the words, from the growing uncertainty in Khodash’s transmissions to the professional tone of the Bashakra’i, who are prosecuting this just like another grindingly long recon mission. It’s the Sheen that have Hug’sh worried; two times he hears Grey Goo Scenario remind them about vox discipline, but the undercurrent of sheer boredom is hard to miss. They’re getting frustrated again, just like in the village, and -

“CONTACT!” comes the cry of Too Late To Say You’re Sorry, one of the ground-pounder fire support shells running with the recce team. The vox transmission cuts out quickly as it tries to rattle off details of the incoming fire - obviously some enemy troops were set up in a cave, disguised under IR-deadened blankets, and they laid an alpha strike on the biggest shell in their sights before anyone could react. The roar of BONESAW’s accelerators and the whap-whap of rifles is heard in the background before the transmission fully cuts out.
”Orphan Grinder!” Hug’sh calls into the vox, but before the flying Sheen can answer, Grey Goo comes onto the line.
”Contact pacified,” it notes somberly. ”The heavy shell is totaled, mobility kills on three scout shells. Two Bashakra’i with serious injuries, they’re getting kauka’d. And one Wherren scout who insists she’s fine as soon as she’s got her arm bandaged.” Grey Goo Scenario pauses for what would be a deep breath in an organic. “No fatalities. We don’t know what else is in the cave. If I don’t hear a good reason why we should search it, we’re gonna flush it with thermobarics and continue.”
”Flush it and fall back,” Hug’sh orders. ”You’ve found the enemy, now let the Narsai’i do their job.”
Iro relays the commands. “Copy,” Grey Goo Scenario says. “We’ll get moving in about three minutes, then it’s all yours.”
Cooper is already on the...the plastic comms device - doesn’t even have video - to his people. “’- at 3-7-Niner-1, 3-2-Zero-4.’
’Understood,’” some Narsai’i Odun replies.
“It’s lighting up pretty good down there,” Orphan Grinder reports. “Got some beam rifles laying into the ridge, Narsai’i are replying with the autocannons on their AFVs. You were looking for a fight, Chief, I think we found it.”
”I killed one!” Hulor cuts in. ”My team is breaking contact.”
”Watch your flanks, Third Claw,” Hug’sh admonishes as his eyes dart over the tactical holo.
“Back in action,” BONESAW reports from a spare shell coming online behind friendly lines. “Moving to cover Third Claw.”
”Killed another one!” Hulor reports. ”They were hiding under blankets.”
”Vox discipline,” Hug’sh calls, zooming a section of the tactical holo to get a better look at the situation around Hulor’s position. ”Third Claw, you’re getting stuck in, disengage now.”

The tactical holo lights up as BONESAW lays down accelerator fire from the west; spearbombs from the Bashakra’i fighters next to Hulor briefly light up their IFF before detonating against enemy positions. And finally, as the enemy seems to break, the whole team falls back while the Narsai’i teams advance to cover the sector. Hug’sh’s happiness at this is short-lived as he chances a look to the side and allows himself to listen to the increasingly hectic Narsai’i comms. He zooms out the tactical holo to regain a view of the whole engagement, and it is an engagement now: the whole line of Narsai’i units is in contact with enemy forces, and though lacking electronics integration makes it look a bit unspectacular on the holo, Hug’sh can read the firepower being volleyed back and forth from how the icons dance forward and sidewards as they jockey for the best positions in their drive forwards. They seem to be beating back the enemy, but how are there so many enemy fighters all concentrated here still, especially after the lack of trace of them during the advance? It’s a question for another minute as Hug’sh spools off orders. He’s got his own troops to draw back and little time to spare for deeper strategic implications.
Gatac 2019-01-13 20:40:43
Watching the lines - alliance troops in yellow, Narsai’i in blue - diverge for the last couple of minutes has been the screensaver running in the back of Hug’sh’s mind whenever he didn’t have to vector units, listen to sitreps or tally up casualty lists. All told, that went about as well as anyone might have bet, a few careless slip-ups and some bad habits still on display, but well enough. With the yellow line slowly losing tactical importance, Hug’sh takes a break to scroll the holo further Northeast, where the blue line is now almost to the bright red border. That’d be the cherry on top, to have Cooper’s guys cause an international incident by pushing into Chinese territory...but they’ve got the same maps in their computers, and he’ll just have to hope that the Narsai’i don’t get a little too chase-happy in their roll-up.

There’s a corner where Bello is debriefing Paul and where Paul is Onas isn’t far away, especially here with all the Narsai’i around, making Onas look more bodyguard than husband as he nervously scans the scene. A measure of nervosity is also on Iro’s face; with Hug’sh releasing the reins, Iro’s doing more scrolling and zooming of the big picture, trying to recognize the exact moment the Narsai’i are going to fuck this up and being ready for it. One background channel on Hug’sh’s vox has Khodash patiently listening to Hulor regaling her with the tale of his two kills. The hunter seems to be clear now on the idea that he and Khodash are not going to end up as mates, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to not try to impress her with his prowess on the battlefield, so that’s a work in progress still playing out. As for the Sheen, there’s no more reason for them to be chatting away on the vox when they can do their debriefs and planning far more efficiently in the dataspace; the last message on their channel was Grey Goo accepting Hug’sh’s praise for the good job, gracious but short. Since then, quiet.

Until his vox lights up with a call from Arlana. There’s that ‘something bad is happening why isn’t she on the general channel oh god has there been a betrayal’ flash of yellow through Hug’sh’s fur as he takes the call. ”Hello?” he asks cautiously.
“Do you think they are on the Eye yet?” Arlana asks.
Hug’sh checks the mission clock. If they’re on schedule - and why wouldn’t they be, oh stop worrying you don’t need to worry about that now on top of everything else - they’re still on the first hop, a good 12 hours away from anything exciting. ”No, they’re still in transit,” Hug’sh replies. ”I know Garrett. Slow infil, quick exfil. He’s not going to skimp on the safety factor here. They’re going to come in right on schedule beneath notice.”
“Good,” Arlana says. “That's good.”
Hug’sh’s fur ruffles as he listens to Arlana. If anything, she sounds even more worried than the night before. He pulls up the injury list for her team - nothing serious. Nothing to distract her. Hug’sh sighs. ”I’m worried about them, too,” he says. ”But I know they can do this and I know I’ve done - we have done - everything we could to help them.” He sighs again. ”Cheap talk, I know. Do you want to meet when you get back from the field?”
Arlana doesn't reply for a moment. “Yes, that would be nice.” Another pause. “Should I be out there? With her? Or instead of her?”
”She earned her place out there, just as you earned your place here,” Hug’sh says. ”We are where we are. We do what we do, as best we can. Everything else…” He pauses. ”Everything else is bullshit. We rolled the dice, now we have to see where they land.”
Another pause. “How...how is it on one of Garrett's missions?”
”I don’t know if I would describe it as smooth,” Hug’sh opines. ”The planning is good, don’t get me wrong, we just got into some messes that nobody could have foreseen. The important part is that he works overtime to succeed despite that. People with plans, they swarm the roots like aru. I say that as someone who has plans. Garrett gets it done when the plan falls apart. That’s how we made it out there long enough to become the 815 and not just another Narsai’i strike team way in over their heads.”
“So...the Eye...it should be all right,” Arlana says, more to herself than Hug'sh. “He - they made it into the Emperor's Chambers, for First's sake. They went through the First-damned Black Gate. I'm being silly. They'll be fine.”
”You’re worried, there’s nothing silly about that,” Hug’sh says. ”But yes, they will be fine. I am sure of it. I can be sure of that and still worry about my friends. That’s just how it is.” He pauses. ”Let’s focus on what we’re doing right now, okay?”
“Right,” Arlana says. “Fuck, you're right. Samal Quis, out.” She disconnects.

”Right,” Hug’sh echoes to the closed connection, worry rippling through his own fur now that he’s had a moment to not think about the offensive. The cure, obviously, is to get back in the game. He turns his attention back to Iro and the holo before them.
“Fifteen kilometers,” Iro says.
”They will probably retreat across the border,” Hug’sh says. ”From there, it is a problem for the diplomats.”
“They're quite good at this part,” Iro says. “The Narsai'i. The...soldiering part of being Turai.” He shakes his head. “If only they would listen on how war really works.”
”Even a walking cub climbs back on its parents,” Hug’sh says. ”I think that after three, four centuries at most, they should be quite comfortable with how the universe works.”
Iro chuckles and shakes his head. “I am afraid you're right.”
punkey 2019-01-13 20:40:57
Captain Tom Radler shifts in his seat. They’ve been chasing the damn hajis over the fucking mountains for an hour now - they’d set up, fire a few shots, and retreat, then do it all over again. Half of him is happy they’re finally pushing the damn camel-fuckers out of the country, the other half is bored out of his mind. A few bursts from the lead .50 was enough to chase them off.
“So nice of the aliens to fuck off for the real work,” he mutters to himself.
“I hear that, Sir,” the Lance Corporal at the wheel says.
Radler looks over at the BFT unit crowding him against the door, and it shows the Chinese border even on the tactical-level zoom he has it set at. Pretty soon it’ll be time to put it in park and call it a day.

“Hey, sir, what’s that?” the Lance - Hansen, or something - asks.
Radler looks back through the windshield, and sees some kind of guard tower with a big searchlight thing on top. “Looks like the Chinese built some kind of guard tower to keep the Muj out,” he says. “Maybe they’ve done our jobs for us.”

The searchlight turns their way. “Hey, dumbasses, searchlights only work at night,” Radler grumbles.
“Sir, that doesn’t look like a searchlight,” the Lance says. “Looks like it has a barrel on it.”
Gatac 2019-01-13 20:42:32
Hug’sh hears the Narsai’i comms traffic suddenly burst into life - units under fire, vehicles exploding, casualties. His eyes flick to the holo, which is just as information-sparse as ever around the Narsai’i units. Time for the Hail Mary vox call.
”Orphan Grinder, do you still have a shell in orbit over the AO?” he voxes. ”I need eyes on what the fuck just happened.”
“On my way back,” Orphan Grinder replies. “But I can swing back around - holy fuck that’s accelerator signature. Uh, I’m not going anywhere near that unless you got the spare change for a new shell.” A sconce points in the rough direction of the border and zooms in far enough to show an image partially blurred by the atmosphere between it and the hot zone - but Hug’sh has seen enough blurry Narsai’i drone footage in his time to know what to look for. There’s a swivel on the screen, and that change defines the shape enough for Hug’sh to make it out - a projector-looking device on a pivot, mounted on a concrete-looking tower. It fires, and the barrel assembly stands out, and Hug’sh can just about make out the white coolant puff from the firing. The sconce pivots again - another puff and blue false-color EM signature 4 klicks down the line, and another further beyond that. Someone really doesn’t want anyone coming through this border.

A cold chill - and a deep violet/yellow splash - runs down Hug’sh’s hump. He might not know how to set the cruise control on the BMW he used to lease, but the Imperial equivalent of ACHTUNG PANZER is burned in deep and that’s a goddamn Perch - or Rah’pah if you want to be Naranai’i about it. All-aspect heavy accelerator as a primary effector, 2 kg hypervelocity homing killdrone payload - and “hypervelocity” was putting it mildly, get it onto suborbital defense mode and shit got relativistic, Point Zero Zero Five c which sounds small but Luis has told him is still extremely fucking fast, like Portland to L.A. in a second fast. In-atmo autonomous target discrimination out to 80 klicks, and easily fast enough to act as its own CIWS against cruise missiles and artillery. If that thing gets line of sight on you, you better be current on your life insurance payments because there ain’t gonna be enough left of you to bury. Up until now, Hug’sh had not had occasion to deal with one - those were the kind of semi-autonomous defensive emplacements you put on frontier worlds to discourage planetary invasions from deep space.

In short, the Narsai’i are not dressed for this dance.

”Cooper!” he calls, hastily scribbling a message on his notepad. Withdraw at best speed as far as possible. Anything with line of sight to the towers will be killed.
’Not now!’” Cooper shouts, not looking at Hug’sh. “’Apologies, General, but I have a situation.’
Well, if he won’t look over...Hug’sh leaves the coordination of alliance forces to Iro and walks over to Cooper, notepad held in front of him. All he has to do is get Cooper to look up...and then tap wildly on the notepad when he does.
Cooper takes the bait for a moment. “’No shit,’” he says. “’Any other insights, or can I get back to saving my men?’” He looks over at Iro. “’How about you? Anything smart to say?’” he shouts.
Iro’s look at Cooper is a new one - genuine regret and deference. “’Run,’” he says in a thick Imperial accent.

Okay, message received. Hug’sh lowers his head a bit and backs up, giving Cooper some space. The notepad comes out again, though, as Hug’sh scribbles down as much of the technical data on the Rah’pah as he can recall. Not that it’s gonna do the Narsai’i forces much good out there right now, but it will - he hopes - at least put a label on their nightmare. Onas, Paul and Bello have come out of their corner - Onas and Bello have noticed from the shouting and Hug’sh’s colors that something has gone terribly wrong, and Paul, of course, knows exactly what the panicking Narsai’i are saying.
“Holy fucking shit,” Paul says, running over behind Cooper and watching his screen update. “They’re getting slaughtered.”

Cooper ignores Hug’sh - not out of rudeness, but because he’s flipping through tactical channels as fast as he can, coordinating new lanes of retreat for the battalion commanders underneath him. Once he unfucks the situation in front of him, he finally looks up at Hug’sh and takes the piece of paper. “’Thank you, General,’” Cooper says, looking it over, his hands shaking as he raises a pair of reading glasses to his face. He looks it over, hands pulling the paper taut. “’This is all well and good, but there’s really only one question, gentlemen - how. How the fuck did this end up on my planet? This is alien tech, so there shouldn’t be four of them tearing a third of a division apart in less than five fucking minutes!’” Cooper slams the paper down on the table in front of him. “’General Briwama, General Walks-the-Fire - how did this get here?’
Hug’sh grumbles as he writes out a new message. Remember briefing about rogue gateway. This is confirmation, components too big to smuggle through Bashakra’i facility. Gateway must exist inside China. No idea how they installed them.
Iro nods. “This is the work of the Imperium. They must have made a deal with these Narsai’i.”

Cooper listens to the the translation with his head bowed. “’So you’re telling me the Imperium is here, on Earth, that we don’t know about, and they’ve installed four of these things across the Afghanistan border without us noticing.’
“They can be constructed in a day,” Iro says. “Put up the forms, spraycrete the forms, drop the system into the mount and hook everything up. They’re designed to be erected quickly in remote areas. If you wanted to put up a secure perimeter in a hurry without being seen...that’s what I would do. Usually there’s some kind of energy barrier that goes with it.”
“Hey, hey guys,” Orphan Grinder says in Naranai’i ears. It’s now the last eyes over the AO, with the Narsai’i beating as fast as a retreat as their battered vehicles will let them. “I’m reading a energy barrier in front of the border, about ten meters tall?”
“There it is,” Onas says.
“Uh, it’s not stopping. And -” Orphan Grinder’s voice cuts off, and then returns a moment later. “Okay, well, RIP that shell.”
”Thank you, Orphan Grinder,” Hug’sh says. ”If you could send us a dump of whatever you got -”
“Imma let you finish, Chief, but there’s a big fucking problem,” Orphan Grinder says. “Last thing I saw was more Rah’pah coming online - outside of the Narsai’i AO. At least five or six, both directions. And that energy barrier didn’t stop, either.”
Hug’sh considers the implications, then scribbles furiously on the notepad. We have to assume complete coverage of the border around China until we know otherwise. Clear anything within 80 klicks in the air or within horizon on ground. I hope they don’t shoot down civilian flights leaving now. You will need them as witnesses. Inform your leaders.
Cooper turns to the ubiquitous CNN feed running in any proper TOC, and turns pale. “’My god.’

They shot down planes. Didn’t even deny takeoff clearances or turn around inbound flights - it looks to Hug’sh like the moment the guns turned on here, the ones over Shanghai, Beijing, and the rest of the PRC just straight shot down any planes crossing the invisible line, inbound or outbound. The really creepy part was that, after that happened and about a dozen planes got splashed without warning, the ones still in the air did get told to turn back and land or were ordered to divert after they announced that civilian ATC was now under the control of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. CNN is broadcasting smoking wreckage, panicking people, and a sober-looking-but-obviously-terrified newscaster right up until all the feeds from inside China cut off, leaving just the newscaster stunned into horrified silence.

A cold red runs down Hug’sh’s fur. ”I think they just declared war,” he says.
punkey 2019-01-16 22:25:24
“Move the desks!” Barnes shouts over the din. “We need that holodisplay up now!” Barnes stands in the door to her office, overlooking the bullpen of cubes that made up the bulk of GRHDI staff - now being disassembled by Sheen shells scuttling over the top of them with screwdrivers as fast as they can to clear space in the middle of the floor. “Bresha! Updates on the window to Atea! Stan, tell the chief of staff to pull his head out of his ass and get me a connection to the President! Brand, why am I not seeing tactical on my holo yet?”
“Pushing to you now!” Katelin Brand shouts from Barnes’ waiting room.
Atea window in three minutes!” Bresha replies from her desk in the bullpen.
“Brand, you were issued that wrist holo for a reason!” Barnes shouts back into her office. “You’re supposed to be following up on this shit, not me! I need you running and chewing gum, right now!
“Yes, Ma’am!” Katelin shouts, sprinting out of her office and starting a frantic orbit of the room, checking on how the GRHDI’s thrown-together war room is progressing while Barnes steps back into her office.

With the Sheen unlocking the cubicle walls announcing that the walls were freed, the reconfiguration of the main floor started in earnest. Boxes of papers are carried with desktop holos balanced on top as desks were carted into conference rooms and hallways, with a folding table erected in the cleared space and topped with a holoprojector from one of the now-full conference rooms. Katelin quickly hooked her vox into it, waving her hands through the haptics to maximize the size (and then very quickly turn it down to half-size after the projection clipped into the cubicles still left standing) and hook it into the cogitator for the office.
“Tactical is up!” Katelin called out.
“And I have a connection with General Kroger,” Stanley Macklin, Barnes’ head of Narsai’i relations, added.
“I’ll take it on the main display,” Barnes said, stepping out of her office. “Show him we’re up and running, folks.”

In seconds, the holographic main display sprung to life, only marginally slowed down by bridging in the Narsai’i teleconference system - one millisecond of a Cisco logo, then the face of General Kroger from his own “action” office adjacent to the Situation Room. The tie on his Class A uniform sits just a bit looser than usual, but he still looks mostly composed, even if Barnes does have to note that he seems to have less hair every time she sees him.

’Director Barnes,’” he says, and as he does so, his microphone catches the muffled din of the Situation Room. “’Tell me you know what’s going on. We’re getting reports from the joint task force in the ‘stan that sound like the aliens are co-writing them, because I’m pretty sure we don’t have anyone in the field who knows a damn thing about Imperial perimeter defense systems. But I need some corroboration and - for lack of a better term - someone who can tell me what this means, strategically. ‘Cause from what I’m getting here, it sounds real bad.’
’That’s because it is, General,’” Barnes replies. “’What you see on the news confirms what we’re getting from our allies on the ground - Rah’pah systems encircling the Chinese border, with additional units deployed near major cities. We haven’t seen any Turai presence on the ground yet, but the Bashakra’i in my office assure me the Imperium doesn’t give those things out for free. It seems like the degree of Imperial support for China goes deeper than just arms shipments.’
’So, what are we looking at with China?’” Kroger asks. “’Alien invasion, internal coup, some sort of alliance? It sounded like at least some elements of the military were still giving orders.’
’The NSA would know better than we would, but a partnership seems most likely,” Barnes says. “’Cooperation in return for a promise of being the first ones in line to take over once the Needleships show up.’
’Which neatly brings us to my next question,’” Kroger says, wiping a bit of sweat from his brow. “’So they’ve got a bridgehead in China and it looks like they’re planning to keep it, judging from the hardware. What can they do now? Does this move your doomsday clock for the alien fleet? Can they just switch gears to a ground invasion?’
One of the Bashakra’i - Rav-Samal Niro - pushes a document to the holo covering that very issue. “’We’re projecting that they do absolutely nothing,’” Barnes says with the practiced tone of a lifetime intelligence officer. “’They already have their trump card on the way, so a ground invasion would be a needless waste of life on their end. They’ll most likely consolidate their control over China and use it as a base to harass defense forces to tie up alliance resources, and try to get an orbital put up however they can. Speaking of which, our number one priority has to be orbital defense -’
’Orbital defense?’ Kroger cuts in. ’Director, let me be frank: with what? We can’t even keep the ISS running without the damn Russians. We have literally dozens of high-value strategic assets up there and nothing to defend them with. We can’t let them get that far in their planning. We have to seize their airspace before they can get ASATs into position. I’ve got some...platforms we can deploy for strategic recon. We’ll follow up with deep penetration strikes by our F-35s. Just tell us what to look for, we’ll find it and kill it from the air.’
’Due respect, General, but what part of eighty-kilometer effective engagement altitude was hard to understand?’” Barnes says. “’These platforms were designed to pluck incoming ships from the edge of space - spotting a SR-71 at operating altitude isn’t going to be hard, and F-35s won’t stand a chance.’
’What would?’” Kroger asks.
’Inside the range, nothing in the air,’” Barnes replies. “’We’re purely space-based for observation on China now. I’m working on securing assets to guarantee orbital superiority for the time being.’
’Alien craft, I take it? You know that’s going to cost us, right? They’ve already put the gun to our head with that deadline of theirs, and now this…’” He looks away briefly. “’I’m going to run it past the boss. If they call you...if they call you, tell them we’re going to have to figure it out, but for now we won’t contest Alliance craft in orbit over the AO until we have our own defense system up and running.’” He chuckles. “’So they don’t need to worry about us trying to ram a satellite into their rides. I mean, who are we kidding? They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. The way I see it, best not to get between them and China right now. So, anything else I should take with me to the CIC?’
’That’s all for now, General. I’ll keep you updated,’” Barnes replies.
’Understood,’” Kroger says. “’One more thing, Director. I don’t know where 815 is or what they’re doing right now, but...would you tell them ‘good luck’ from me?’
’I will at first opportunity, General,’” Barnes replies.
’Appreciate it,’” Kroger says. “’I’ll check in with you later, Director. Goodbye for now.’
’Goodbye, General,’” Barnes says, and waves the connection closed.

The whole of the GRHDI staff had gathered on the main floor while Barnes talked to General Kroger. They had stayed silent while Barnes talked on the holo, and now that the connection was closed, they turned their attention from the holodisplay to Barnes. Sheen, Bashakra’i, Narsai’i, and Wherren, all eyes turned towards Samantha Barnes.
“I know that this is scary,” Barnes says. “None of us expected the Imperium to make a move on Narsai this quickly. But they’re here now, and we have to decide what we’re going to do about that - and I mean we as in the people in this office. We all know that the Narsai’i aren’t equipped for this fight, and the Bashakra’i, Sheen, and Wherren have their own problems to deal with - which means that we will have to fill in the gap. This means that for the Narsai’i here, we might have to...step on some toes and cross some lines. I am not here to be worse than the Imperium would be. Narsai’i freedom is my number one priority - I am asking you to consider the difference between the Narsai’i and the way we govern ourselves. If this makes you uncomfortable, you can step out now and there will be no hard feelings. But in this office, we will do what it takes to keep this planet safe - even if it’s from ourselves. We can halt the Imperium’s gains - they have no orbital control, and we can get Interceptors faster than they can. After that, we turn their toe-hold into a resource drain, and buy ourselves time to continue the fight elsewhere. All I ask is for your support in getting the job done.”
No one moves.
“Good,” Barnes replies. “Now, get back to work.”

Everyone breaks off, and the bustle and noise of the GRHDI office on war footing resumes as Barnes walks back into her office. She hasn’t even sat down before Katelin closes the door behind them.
’Ma’am, can I ask a question in private?’” Katelin asks.
’Apparently you can,’” Barnes replies.
’Are you...are you saying you’re going to ignore the President’s orders?’” Katelin asks.
’If I have to, yes,’” Barnes says, the bluntness stunning Katelin. “’Narsai - Earth can’t afford to wait for our leaders to figure out that the world’s changed any longer. I was fine with gently leading them down the primrose path before, but we don’t have time for that anymore. The Imperium is here, Katelin. We don’t have 30 years - we don’t even have 30 days. While the Joint Chiefs and the UN and all the presidents and prime ministers talk about how best to fling our little rockets up to put a satellite or two in place a month from now, the Imperium is reassembling Interceptors and freighters and will have a gatekeg in place before you know it. By the time they’ve settled on a launch vehicle, there will be a Needleship in orbit to turn the launchpad into glass. We’re doing what we need to do, and will do so as long as we need to. If that means acting independently of any country, with our own forces, then that’s how it’s going to be.’
Katelin shifts uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “’It’s just...it sounds like treason.’
’Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason,’” Barnes replies. “’We’re taking the fight to the Imperium - because the Narsai’i can’t. Sounds like the opposite of treason to me.’” She sighs and leans back into her chair. “’I’m not comfortable with this. I didn’t want it. I wanted GRHDI to be what it says on our charter - an advisory office to the President. But we’re not being listened to, and the lives of every American - every Narsai’i - are at stake. And after Botane...I’m done watching Narsai’i die because our leaders can’t figure it out. And if that means doing what they can’t, then that’s what we’re going to do - we’re going to take the ‘Homeworld Defense’ part of our name literally. As soon as the Narsai’i figure their shit out, we’ll hand over.’
’And what if it’s not...soon?’” Katelin asks.
Barnes is quiet for a moment, and her gaze dropped down to her desk. “’We’ll worry about that when it happens. Right now, we’re the only ones that can save billions of people. We don’t have a choice.’” She looked up at Katelin. “’Right?’
Katelin also paused in thought. “’Right.’” She stood up. “’I’ll get back to you with the Atea connection in a few minutes, Ma’am.’
Barnes nodded - but without as much fire in her eyes as she had in the bullpen. “’Thanks, Katelin,’” she said, and went back to her holodisplay as Katelin walked out the door.
punkey 2019-01-17 00:18:14
Being a military man, Hunter’s moved more than a few times in his life. So, when he decided to move in with Honima on the Atea, the whole process fell into place in his head. Clean the apartment, organize belongings and give away anything not needed, buy boxes from Home Depot, pack everything up, load a truck and drive off. And that was exactly what happened - up until he arrived at the Bashakra’i village in central Virginia and was directed not to the Gateport as he was expecting, but to a warehouse nearby. There, some very polite and efficient Bashakra’i...porters, is the closest term Hunter could come up with for them, unpacked his boxes from the truck, sealed them in other boxes, shrink-wrapped and vacuum-sealed them in some silver-foiled-plastic, and loaded them into a skimmer which was then sent through what looked like a super-sized version of the millimeter wave scanners at Dulles. From there, the skimmer drove off towards the Gateport, leaving Hunter bereft of his belongings.

Whelp, thought Hunter, It’s not as though you’re ambling down to Norfolk. Still, the irregularity tugged at him, and various scenarios of customs-based shakedowns and fuckups rattled around his head as he boarded a similar skimmer for the gateport. They could have at least given me a claim ticket, he thought, until his vox pinged with a confirmation number and live tracking information.

Worries at least somewhat allayed for the moment, Hunter rides along the transport to the Gateport. The red wood and concrete structures are now augmented with planters very carefully trimmed to look as natural as possible, holo-ad kiosks, Gateport personnel, and to Hunter’s eye, elevated positions for Kansatai carrying beamers all around the Gateport, complete with two fortified emplacements flanking the entrance. All is normal today, though, and the Gateport is busy enough with a few dozen Bashakra’i waiting to travel back to the worldship and a few Narsai’i and Wherren along for the ride. After a ten minute wait, the klaxon sounds to warn of the potential of gate-flash, and the Gateway opens behind its shield. Handshakes ensue, and the blocks slide aside. Hunter follows the crowd through, and spots Honima in a simple seafoam green dress right up front. A beaming smile lights up his face, as he strides towards her.

“Hey stranger,” she says, smirking at him, “got a place for the night?”
“With an offer like that,” he replies, “how could a friendly neighborhood concrete man say no?”

They embrace, they nuzzle nose, they smile at each other for just a beat longer than necessary, fully aware that they’re being uncharacteristically warm and public with their affection, fully aware that such gestures might be seen as foolish when practiced by people of their age. They are fully aware, and fully in agreement about not giving a shit. Today is a day worth feeling a little giddy about, and springtimes of the soul are meant to be observed. Small talk and pleasantries are unnecessary, and Honima leads Hunter off towards the transit hub.
“How does it feel, being out of the field?” Honima asks as the tube gets underway and settles them both into their restraints.
“Honestly, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. Past times when I’ve rotated out, it’s usually felt like everything was so much less urgent, and everyone was so much less serious about what they were doing. Not like they didn’t care, but more like, no one would notice if I didn’t, like it wouldn’t matter if I floated for a while.” He shrugs. “I’m not feeling that right now. Everyone knows the stakes. If anything, the issue is getting people to take breaks so they don’t burn themselves out.”
“And now, you work for Miss Barnes?” Honima asks.
“It sounds a little too grandiose to tell anyone, but the way I think about it is, I report to Miss Barnes, but I work for the galaxy. Too much is at stake to let basic mistrust and misunderstanding get in the way. People have to know that they can go to someone who can hear them out. For a lot of people, that’s ended up being me.”
“Okay, mister-works-for-the-galaxy, does that mean I can put in an order for you to stop leaving cups by the bedside?”
“I can’t promise you anything,” Hunter intones solemnly, “but I’ll relay your request through the proper channels, make sure you get a fair hearing.”
“I’ll make sure Brinai hears your counter-offer,” Honima replies, and gives Hunter’s hand a squeeze.

The nature of military training means Honima’s hab by the Turai academy is a fair distance to go, and a skimmer with what Hunter hopes are his boxes loaded on the back is already waiting out front. Honima thanks them and opens the hab door for them, stepping through to her own collection of silver-sealed boxes, some of which are already opened.
Hunter thanks the movers and helps out by grabbing a box. “This isn’t so bad at all,” he calls out as Honima joins in. “It’s not like we need to pick out much furniture.”
“Sure, but people have opinions about the three pieces of decor you do pick. Didn’t you say that everyone you know bought their furniture from the same store?” Honima asked. “I-key-yah?”
“Unless you have something coming down through the family...yeah, by and large Americans are all wasteful hypocrites. It’s probably different in other parts of Narsai.”

The rest of the unloading of Hunter’s…”worldly possessions” seems inappropriate, but it’s the closest term he can reach for-- goes without a hitch. Paperwork (not on paper) is signed (digitally), and the movers are on their way, leaving Hunter and Honima the opportunity to start sorting through the unlabeled boxes to find his essentials. Hunter thoughtfully packed them in a box clearly labeled as such, which was then covered up by the vacuum-sealed foil - which included his knife. So, after a few minutes of cutting seals open and unpacking boxes from boxes, Hunter and Honima’s new hab together already has an impressive stack of detritus piled up.
“I think it might be best for us to burn it all and start over together,” Honima sighs in exasperation from the stack of boxes-for-boxes.
Hunter’s vox goes off. “Urgent connection from Samantha Barnes,” it whispers in his ear.
“Hang on, I’ve got an urgent call coming through.” Hunter says, a little worried. “Let me take this as I drag these boxes to the disposal.” A second later, “This is Brand.”
“Are you still on Narsai?” Barnes asks, her voice disturbingly “calm-but-not”.
“Just started unpacking on the worldship. What’s happened?”
“Turn on the holo, I’m sending you my feed,” Barnes said.

Hunter leaned over and waved in the airspace of the holodisplay, and with a couple more waves, slid the connection from his vox onto the holo - and Honima gasped at what she saw. News feeds from all over Narsai, showing video of burning planes, accelerator turrets, PRC troops rounding civilians into containment areas.
“The Chinese must have made a deal with the Imperium,” Barnes says. “Smuggled in a gatekeg. They’ve got automated accelerators surrounding their whole border, the push in Afghanistan ran right into one and got annihilated. They’ve cut the whole country off, are shooting down any air traffic that crosses their border, and last we saw, were rounding civilians up before PRC took the satellite dishes and Internet links down. Sat phones are still working for now, but nothing new yet. Russians are talking a nuclear strike in retaliation already.”
“Vidas fucking Lam,” Honima mutters.
“Any anti-satellite weapons deployed?” Hunter asks, thinking about the centrality of GPS and connected systems to most Narsai armies.
“Their accelerators are limited to eighty klicks up in range, and we haven’t observed any orbital activity - yet,” Barnes says. “But it’s a race now to see who gets forces into orbit first, and they have a head start.”
“We need the high ground if we’re doing to have a chance.” Hunter breathes out the tightness in his gut. “So, it’s a good old fashioned clusterfuck, and I figure you’re making a lot of calls today. What do you need from me?”
“Get up Brinai’s ass about putting Mantas and Interceptors on Narsai yesterday,” Barnes says. “Unless we want to throw a ’Falcon 9’ at them, we don’t have shit that can make it to orbit and defend right this second, and she’s been too busy trying to evacuate her forces from Afghanistan to think about containing this shitshow before it spreads. Tell her I need Interceptor wings patrolling space above China right the fuck now.”
“Copy that. Anything else before I get going?”
“If anyone asks whose authority this is under...tell them it’s mine,” Barnes says. “I want those Interceptors under my command. Tell Brinai the Narsai’i governments won’t have them. I will.”
“That’ll make it easier to get the birds in the air. The politics on the other side are gonna be thorny, but it’s not like they’ll have an alternative. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
“They can complain about it after I save them from a First-damned orbital shot,” Barnes says. “Contact me in two hours.”

Hunter nods, disconnects the channel, and sets down the boxes he was handling. They share meaningful eye contact, and she nods to start it in.
“I have to go.”
“I know you do,” she says, unfazed. They’ve both been here before.
“I’ll be back.”
“I know you will.”
He’s moving quickly, but stops for a second pulls in Honima for a deep embrace, one or two more moments than strictly necessary. They exhale together, and then he’s off and running.
punkey 2019-01-18 00:31:38
The sun is shining through the bulletproof glass of the White House hallway that forms the last twenty meters of General Kroger’s route to the Oval Office. He hardly notices it, though; his mind is churning with the details of the current strategic situation. Only a few seconds left to figure out something smart - or admit to a room of the most powerful people in the US that they are out of options.

“It’s confirmed, Sir,” Lt. Col. Elizabeth Trembley, Joint Staff officer and aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, says to him. The heels of her Oxfords click on the wood floor as she walks beside him. “Carrier Strike Group 5 is steaming for the ECS at best speed. They expect to be on station within 15 hours.”
“Group 11?” Kroger asks, taking the file with the report off her waiting hands.
“Still at fifteen knots,” Trembley says. “The Halsey’s down a turbine.”
“God damn it,” Kroger says. “Grab a coffee, Liz. You look like you could use one.”
“Sir,” Trembley says, then peels off just as Kroger steps up to the Secret Service detail at the door. Credentials are checked, a nod is given, the door opens.

Really good soundproofing on these. The discussion inside is already at full swing.

“Now Paul,” POTUS says, his jacket hung over the back of his chair while he sits with the others around the table. “I appreciate what you’re telling me here. We do need to present a clear message to the world and the people. But we can’t do that if we don’t know what is going on.”
“I understand that, sir,” Paul Russo, Secretary of State, says. “But we’re getting calls from everyone wanting to know what our position is, and we need to tell them something.”
“I suggest we hear the latest, then,” Frank R. Burnett, Secretary of the Army, says, looking over to Kroger.
“Agreed,” POTUS says. “Do you have any updates for us, General?”
“Good morning, Mr. President - Mr. Secretary,” Kroger says, holding on to the file in his hands. “We expect to have two CSGs in theater before 0000. Group 11 has been slowed by an escort with a mechanical failure.”
“Well, that won’t do,” Sam Sharpe, Secretary of the Navy comments. “I’ll tell Bill to figure it out.”
“You do that,” POTUS says.
“Mr. President,” Dennis Blake, Director of National Intelligence says. “China’s all well and good, but I think we need to focus on the aliens inside our borders right now. A couple of those ray guns inside CONUS could potentially shut down air traffic all across the Eastern Seaboard. Now, I think we need to deploy the National Guard, occupy the settlement, and do a top-to-bottom search for weapons of any kind, and start detentions and interrogations to find out how these fuckers smuggled this shit though.”
“Language, son!” Sharpe cuts in. “You’re talking to the President here. Show some darn respect.”
“Now, Sam, Dennis, let’s just calm down - these are our allies,” POTUS says.
“They were, until they betrayed us,” Blake replies. “We have got to move quickly here, Mr. President. We cannot allow them to pull the wool over our eyes any longer.”
“Okay, I think that’s enough of the conspiracy theories here,” Russo says. “The Bashakrans have been steadfast allies through all of this - they lost dozens of their own people in the Afghanistan effort. We all know very well how Director Blake feels about them, and I think it’s clouding his judgement here. What he is doing is advocating attacking our only allies capable of addressing this threat with us when we are at our most vulnerable - which is insane, sir.”
“Sir,” Blake says to POTUS, “an attack is what the aliens inflicted on innocent civilians in Chinese airspace. I think it rises to murder, even. I admit I don’t have Secretary Russo’s law degree but then I also don’t get my talking points from Director Barnes. What I am saying is that we need to assert our sovereignty and act quickly to protect American lives. If the aliens cooperate, then nobody has to get hurt. If they turn this into a fight, it’ll be their choice, not ours.”
“There’s no evidence of Bashakran involvement in China,” Russo says. “And both our military, our allies, and the 815 have solid evidence that the Chinese are being supplied directly from the Imperium, sir. It’s not the Bashakrans pulling the wool over our eyes, it’s the Chinese.”
“Supplied how?” Blake asks. “Last I heard there are two of those ‘gateways’ on Earth. Frank’s got one, it’s on lockdown. The other way is in the ‘village’ of our ‘allies’. It’s time you put it together.”
“The Chinese must have smuggled one of those Gateway-making devices back home -” Russo replies.
“- while our so-called ‘allies’ turned a blind eye to it!” Blake growls. “Come on now! They act so smart, they’ve got all this fancy sci-fi shit -”
“Son, you better -” Sharpe begins.
Gentlemen,” POTUS cuts through, and everybody shuts up. His eyes scan everyone in the room for a moment. “Let me be clear: we are here to find a way forward, not to point fingers. You’ve more than made your point, Director Blake. Let’s move on to -”

A loud buzz from the intercom.

“Mr. President, sorry to disturb you,” comes the voice from the security team commander outside. “But we have the Russian delegation at the front gate. It’s Ambassador Alexandrejew himself, and he insists on speaking to you in person. Says it can’t wait.”
POTUS looks around the room once again, then turns to tap the intercom’s send button. “Would you please have the ambassador escorted directly to my office, Bryce,” he says.
“Yes Sir,” the intercom says, then switches off.
“Holy hannah,” Sharpe mutters.
“Gentlemen, I’m sorry to cut this short,” POTUS says to the room. “Please keep yourselves available to continue our conversation. I’ll send for you when I’ve wrapped this up.” He walks around to his chair and reaches for his jacket, pulling it over his shoulders.
“Mr. President -” Blake starts one more time as everybody else stands up.
“That means ‘get out of my office’, Director Blake,” POTUS says, not looking at him.
“...yes, Mr. President,” Blake says. Before he can add anything, Sam Sharpe comes up beside him and hooks him by the arm, all but dragging him along on the way to the exit.
“Mr. President,” the intercom buzzes again as everyone else filters out. “Mr. Alexandrejew here to see you now.”
“Yes, thank you, would you please send him in,” POTUS says.

The Russian Ambassador steps in, looking like not only was he roused from bed early, but had also aged a decade in the last few hours. “Mr. President, I am here to inform you that the Russian Federation will be launching twenty R-36M intercontinental ballistic missiles against the People’s Republic of China in…” He checks his watch. “Ten minutes. I was instructed to deliver this news over the phone, but I felt it necessary to demonstrate that these missiles are strictly targeted at military targets in China by appearing here personally.”
POTUS stares for a full five seconds before he answers. All diplomatic niceties are forgotten. “Is that everything you were instructed to tell me, Sergei?”
“That is all, Mr. President,” Alexandrejew replies.
“...God help us all,” POTUS says, checking his watch. “That’s 2030 Zulu?” Noting Alexandrejew’s nod, POTUS nods back to him. “Thank you, Sergei. Now I’m going to have to ask you to go outside and follow instructions. I’m going to order this building locked down and everybody sheltered, then I have some calls to make. Just to be sure everybody is safe. You understand.”
“Of course, Mr. President,” Alexandrejew replies, and with a nod walks out of the Oval Office.

POTUS stares at the door for a few more seconds. Then he keys the intercom. “Bryce?”
“Mr. President?”
“Set contingency delta,” POTUS says. “Would you make sure my family is sheltered?”
“Set contingency delta, understood,” the voice answers. “I’ll see to your family personally, Sir.”
“Yes, thank you,” POTUS says. Finger off the intercom, he reaches for the phone on his desk and hits the quickdial for the switchboard.

“This is the CIC,” he says. “I need CINCNORAD and the duty officer at USINDOPACOM right away. We’re going to DEFCON 2.”
punkey 2019-01-18 20:47:17
The phone in the corner rings. There is only one line that phone connects to, and it never calls - at least, the two men in the blockhouse hoped they never would. They stare at each other a moment, then the one closest to it picks up the phone while the other fumbles with the keys to unlock the code binders. No greeting, just a code demanding a countersign. It takes a few repetitions and hurried apologies for the binder to be retrieved, but the proper countersign is eventually given. Orders are given - coordinates for retasking the ten 1 megaton warheads inside the missile, then a designated time for launch. After relaying the information back, the line goes dead. One man looks to the other, and it takes a moment for them both to accept that this really is what they are going to do - and then they get to work.

----

It’s one hour past Zero Dark Thirty near the Kazahk border. It’s dark and cold, but to make up for it, it’s also windy. Just close enough to the nearest town that the lights on the horizon ruin the night sky for stargazing. Doesn’t really matter, though, because it’s about to get bright over here. First, a siren blares; mounted on a little concrete post and half-embedded in it, its only purpose is to tell everyone who can hear it to seek shelter. The wild goats scattered in the fields around it crane their heads to look at it but don’t run away. After all, it’s not getting closer to them, is it? The siren keeps going as underground hydraulics come to life and lift several dozen tons of steel-reinforced concrete off its resting position atop the missile silo. Immediately, puffs of vaporized coolant escape; it’s all supposed to get sucked up by the venting system, sure, but this is good enough. Nobody’s in the main silo, anyway; the crew is safely locked in the launch bunker, encased in at least as many dozens tons of steel-reinforced concrete.
Seconds later, the missile’s first stage ignites. This is the part where it gets bright, and also loud, with a pressure wave that’ll liquify your internals before you get to appreciate the immense heat of the launch plume licking over the ground as the missile hefts itself skywards. It’s out so quickly you could barely see it leave, streaking upwards with a bright fire on its tail. In its wake, only soot covering all surfaces of the launch base and the heady chemical smells of two hypergolic liquid fuels post-encounter. By the time you’ve finished reading this paragraph, the missile is already twenty kilometers up. It’s not wasting time. It’s got places to be, warheads and penetration aids to dispense. Nearly a dozen other missiles spear skywards, an expression of the most devastating weaponry Narsai can bring to bear.

Then there’s a rolling series of flashes and fireballs in mid-air, but you don’t hear the fireballs because even if you survived being close enough to the launch area despite the very insistent siren, you just got hit by the hypersonic shockwave created by a relativistic kinetic mass moving through atmo to intercept the missile. There’s not a piece of glass along the firing trajectories left unshattered - the shots just woke up people in Nizhny Novgorod a thousand miles away - well after what was left of its payload had already ablated away into hot plasma due to friction, but even that still carried the shockwave with it until the curvature of the planet forced the straight line to depart atmo. Dozens of straight lines of incandescent white light shatter the sky, each with a massive explosion strung along it where it intercepts the missile raining debris - including ten nuclear warheads each. Burning pools of toxic chemicals rain down, but the physics packages are safed. Safe, but not immune to thousands of degree fires. A few minutes later, they start to cook off one by one, ten massive dirty bombs ensuring that the locals have to buy their food elsewhere for the next few thousand years. Narsai gave it all it had, but its best didn’t even clear the boost phase.
punkey 2019-01-18 20:47:30
Long-haul space travel and long-haul Narsai’i travel have a lot in common - waiting in secured areas, flashing paperwork (or auth codes, in this case), and trying not to go stir-crazy in a small metal can. Just replace “bored airport security” with “bored Turai”, and you get the general idea. For covering thousands of lightyears, it’s still a remarkably tedious process. Eight to twelve hours to travel between gateways, and of course after all of that you’re gonna want to dock at the orbital stations and stretch your legs and/or actuators...it gets hard to remember you’re doing this to break into one of the most secure and important Imperial Turai worldships.

The last jump, though, that brings it into focus - Napai. The checks on the other side are a bit more stringent - everyone has to get out while the Manta gets a scan - and while you’re waiting in line, that nervous pressure starts to set back in. The gateway opens with a flash, and the Manta files through it with everyone else. A few minutes later, the ship passes through the other side, and you’re back to the Imperial capital system. It’s game time.