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an x-com is you

… … …

—you rouse: another dreamless night.

You lie in bed a while. Eyes taken of nothing; mind perched on nothing. Absent sense; absent bearing.

You sneeze, and notice yourself.

With a token sniffle you rise from your pillow, leveraging neatly into a pair of bunny slippers at the bedside. Pink and white and fuzzy all, they were the first thing you’d bought yourself when you had finally moved out of that glorified basement of an interception base, resolving never again to suffer the indignity of cold floors in the morning. You throw on a bathrobe, too, garishly floral, and stuff your nightstand pistol into the left pocket, suppressor slotting neatly through the hole in the bottom stitching.

Yawning, you trod over to the washroom and, with a single look in the mirror, cede battle against the bird’s-nest tangle claiming to be your hair. You’ve no plans of meeting anybody today, anyway. Still, you go through the rest of your morning motions, letting the cool water wash away the last remnants of drowsiness.

Sunlight peers through sheer curtains, suffusing the cream-walled apartment with a pleasant morning glow. You detour through the kitchen to emerge back into the living room with cheese sandwich in hand—and, already, mouth—and a bottle of tea in the other, pouring some into a mug before settling thoroughly into the flaxen sofa amid laptop and television.

Cold barley tea. Whistler scrolling its start-up. OEF-A; OEF Iraq. Article 5. Article 9.

Same damn morning as ever.

Arbitrarily, you hold up your mug and regard it. You regard its emblazon: a black-and-gold flash, unassuming but for its referent. You remember when you wore that insignia on your shoulders for the first time. You remember the pride—as if all mankind’s will and spirit and hopes and dreams were embroidered into those patches and painstakingly ironed onto the sleeves of your beige rookie coveralls. You remember your first deployment.

You shift your gaze. Underneath the insignia, a date: 7-7-01. July 7th, 2001. The Avenger program’s first—and final—launch. You don’t know what happened there. You doubt anyone does. Only that they must have done something right, because since then—‘All Quiet on the Martian Front’, as it were.

That was ten months ago.

You hum and take a sip, turning your attention to the laptop screen.

1014:39 - You are now in #_ASIAPACCOM_OPSDETS
1014:40 <kkochiya> Good morning sir

1015:01 <lstoddard> heads up cpt
1015:04 <lstoddard> fox 3 inbd eta now

1015:12 <%iris> what
1015:14 <%rosewill> “Fox Three inbound” doesn’t even make sense.
1015:18 <dpetrov> he means cpt yankee

—which is when your door unlocks and slams open, to reveal—

“Yo, Iri!— ohshitwaitwaitwait”

—golden blonde topping a rumpled black-white tracksuit—accented briefly and very unfortunately by three tritium dots at centre mass. You make safe and, er, re-‘holster’, but put up a withering glare all the same. “Fuck’s sake, Ritz, ever heard of knocking?”

Ritz has the decency to look abashed for just the shortest moment—before she holds up a finger and declares: “I arrived precisely—”

“Cut the crap, Ritz, you’re not a wizard.”

“Hmph.” She scans you up and down . . . and brings to bear a low, lidded grin.

You cock an expectant eyebrow. “Yes?”

“ . . . Desert Night pajamas.”

Arms crossed, you stand resolute through the wave of roiling smug, and proclaim: “They were cheap.”

She deflates. “You are shameless.”

Now it’s your turn to smirk. “No hat today?”

“Didn’t feel like it.” She shrugs it off, stepping in and closing the door behind her. “Look—I’m comin’ in, alright?—look, somethin’s goin’ on.”

You slump back into your couch, muting the television. “What’s up?”

“Somethin’.” Your fellow Cpt. looks around, taking in your apartment—the kitchen in particular. “Not sure what. But I feel it.” She looks back over a shoulder. “You feel it?”

“Nmoh.” Your reply comes through a mouthful of sandwich. Psionics don’t work that way, and in any case, you wouldn’t be receptive.

“No, I’m sure of it.” She puts a finger to her temple—no; her temporals. “Hell, I can almost hear it.”

You elect only to take another, deliberate sip of tea. “You sure the sun didn’t get to you? Grab a mug from the kitchen; have some tea and cool down a bit.”

“Oh, don’t be like that. I wouldn’t come all the way out here just to rustle up trouble for ya.” Ritz sits down beside you—and takes a swig out of the bottle instead, holding off your token complaint with a warding finger. “But I do need you with me on this. You trust me, right?”

Your lidded gaze says enough—or would, but you break contact and re-engage, earnestly this time. “As a friend?”

Ritz nods along expectantly.


“Buh,” she starts—but you hold up your own finger.

“As a fellow officer?” Your expression hardens. “You have my full confidence.”

“That’s— well. ’Course.” She recovers quickly, eyes aglint once more with her special mix of mischief and machination. “Then I’ll level with you.”

“’Fuck do you mean, ‘then’?”

She leans in. “I’m gonna need a good bit of time alone with a psi-amp. Off base, of course.”

Right—the mind shield. You hum. “And you can’t go through official channels because . . . ?”

Ritz grins a Cheshire grin. “You of anyone should understand the need for compartmentalisation.”


“Sorry, sorry—couldn’t help it,” she relents. “But I do mean infosec too. And anyway, we are the official channels.”

“Well, I can’t outbrass anyone you can’t.” You cross your arms. “Have you asked Eri?”


“Why not?”

“’Cause you’re the only one who calls Doctor Nonomiya by that name.”

“Right,” you concede. You roll the prospect around, tasting it. “Right. I, uh, need to go get dressed.”

Ritz reclines. “That you do.”

You give her a pointed look.


“Like I said: as an officer, not as a friend.”

With Ritz locked safely out on the entrance landing, duplicate key confiscated for later questioning, you turn your attention to just how exactly you might go about lifting a psi-amp—

[ ] Petition Eri for license
[ ] Cajole Eri for a favour
[ ] Put up a distraction while Ritz works her sticky-fingered magic
[ ] Bully your way through the lab techs
[ ] Write-in

—while you assemble an outfit for the day.
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[X] Cajole Eri for a favour

Hopefully less likely to cause future problems than outright theft.
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[x] Put up a distraction while Ritz works her sticky-fingered magic
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[X] Petition Eri for license
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[x] Cajole Eri for a favour
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yeah you wish you could have an svd
Calling it now for beguiling the good Dr. Eri N. with your honey-mustard words.
. . . that doesn’t quite scan, does it?

… … …

[×] Cajole Eri for a favour

Having settled on your approach, you turn your focus to clothing. Something with impact . . .

Hidden vote activated
[×] Pure and proper red-white

. . . keys, (sat-)phone, ID (all three sets)—and, of course, your ever-present Peltors. Good to go—

—though Ritz seems to think otherwise, double-taking at your exit. “Aw, hell, Iris, of all times— !”

You do a small half-spin, hem taking up an inertial flutter. “Shock and awe, Ritz. Shock and awe.”

“Real Schwarzkopf, ain’tcha?” She shakes her head and turns to leave. “Whatever. Just don’t complain when we make a stopover later on.”

“Stopover— what? Where?” You falter in your steps, but Ritz marches on.

“Runnin’ late enough already!” the damnyankee lilts.

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Only back outside in the parking lot do you break your silence: “I still don’t see why I had to go with you.”

“Now you start gettin’ shy, huh?” Ritz fixes you askance with a damnably smug leer. “What happened to ‘shock and awe’?”

“That wasn’t— I mean— Not in public! It’s a persec vulnerability!” you manage.

“Only if you’re plannin’ on wearin’ that getup to the field. Look, I’m sure they were only starin’ ’cause they thought you were cute. ’Sides—” Ritz shrugs, hands full with her half of the, er, product—“no way I could carry all this myself in a single trip.”

Similarly laden, you grumble and shrug at your own half. “Who the hell eats this many fries?”

“Six hungry Rooskies. Really, only reason I came outside the wire today was to pick this up. Wouldn’t’ve, uh,”—she gestures with her shoulder—“picked up, otherwise.”

“‘Outside the w—’” And with that, your umbrage dissipates. “Make up your mind; are you recce or a go-fer?”

“I am a father to my men!” The Cpt. puffs up her chest imperiously.

“You lost a penalty game, didn’t you.”

“Nah.” She deflates. “Just least likely to spook a cashier and end up gettin’, uh, repatriated.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“Hey, you don’t know the—” She glances over, blinking a moment, before the glance melts into a glare. “Oh, couldn’t even wait ’til we get to the car?”

You mumble a non-apology through the fries.

Settling into the driver’s seat, Ritz pipes up: “Y’know, I could pro’lly just swipe the thing myself, if you back me up with a diversion.”

You shake your head. “It’s better this way. I don’t want INTAF on our asses before we’re even two feet out the door.”

“Point,” she nods, frowning at the prospect. “But— you sure you can get the Doc on board?”

You prop the corners of your mouth up into a smile. “Sure enough to try.”

She shrugs, keying the ignition. “‘Can’t argue with a confident man.’”

Then north you go, snaking off through the hills—and the rest is silent all, till through the green door you tread.

You exit the access lift to the tail end of a heated card game, held in a circle of alloy-armoured blue. One displays a pair of sixes—his last—before standing up and slapping them onto the shoulders of the man beside him: “Дурак с погонами!”—who throws down his own cards with a “Я, блять!”

All the while, Kochiya stands by, watching the game—boots-bloused-sleeves-rolled all squared-away in his coveralls, complete with UN smurf-sticker brassard.

. . . Kochiya. You squint a little, regarding him. The man was propped up as your new assistant team officer, after Iwakasa up and disappeared—or was disappeared; hard ever to tell. Unfortunately, this newly-minted Sgt.—fast-tracked from god-knows-where to fill the billet—arrived only T-minus maybe a month to Avenger, and had yet to find a real place for himself before the Unit wound down to peacetime around him.

Case in point: on approach, he raises you a salute—or tries, but a squaddie catches his arm. Petrov, that one, stubbly as ever—“What do you think you are doing, saluting while in the presence of the enemy?” he barks.

Kochiya blinks, nonplussed. “Enemy?”

“Trooper, are you blind?” Ritz pounces, jabbing a finger at the table—“Red Team’s handin’ out field commissions right under your nose for that intel!”—drawing a bout of snickering from those seated. And Kochiya laughs along, half-understanding, but glances to you for the other half. You open your mouth to explain—but find yourself at as much a loss.

“‘Shithead with shoulderboards’,” Petrov supplies, waving the pair of sixes in a gloved hand before shuffling them into the deck. His grin, erstwhile good-humoured, soon cleaves predatory as Ritz delivers the promised fries—which are set upon the instant they touch the table, as if by wolves upon the fold.

“Universal constant,” shrugs the shepherd, regaining your side. “Hey— you go on ahead; I’ve got somethin’ to show ya later.”

… … …

‘Дурак с погонами’: ‘Fool with epaulets’
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“Come in.” Her voice doesn’t so much waft through as slump against the door.

“Hey, Eri,” you wave, stepping through . . . and just barely make it inside the threshold, slowing with each detail you take in: the sheaves upon sheaves of print-outs; the three monitors—one a laptop—filled dense and full with communiqués; the half-pallet of canned coffee; and, easing her chair round to face you, the Associate Director of Research and Stationed Chief Medical Officer herself—eyes bagged with black; silvered queue near fraying.

“Iris.” She blinks twice at your outfit, before leaning against her armrest, cheek propped against her palm. “You’re here to wheedle something out of me.”

“Um.” You nod, pretenses all run through in an instant. “Yeah.”

“I see.” She reaches under her desk and punches the door closed, before pushing herself up from her seat. You twitch as the door clunks locked behind you, and steel yourself for the manifestation of her ire—whatever it may be—when Eri grabs you by the shoulders and pulls you into a full embrace.

“Ah,” you stammer, but she shushes you, softly but firmly, and paralysing you in an instant. So you stand, for an eternity of seconds—feeling the stress drain from her, muscle by muscle, as she relaxes against you.

“Perfect timing,” she murmurs.

Finally, she releases you, satisfied. You look up at her, quieted from the thought of what volume of work could have built up so much of a reaction—

—only to have the impression shattered, finding Eri staring back down with a vacant grin, as if a schoolgirl staring at a kitten—or perhaps an . . . enthusiast with a favoured figurine. You detect more and more so the latter in her expression.

Thankfully, she reins in her enthusiasm before it colours too crude, and leans back against a filing cabinet. “You are going to turn me rotten if you keep doing this.”

“I resent that accusation.” You cross your arms. “Spoons don’t make people fat.”

“Is that a proposition?”

You choke.

“On your own words, no less.” She steps back as you clear your airway, and finds her seat again, reclining thoroughly into her throne.

And a throne it is, for as far as the spook may bend the rules, the medico proves freer still, and none so licentious. So when the Dr. prompts you for your entreaty, you expel a last few coughs, recover your breath, and then are forced to come straight: “Psi-amp time up topside.”

Eri freezes. “Iris,” she begins, words treading careful yet firm, “if this is about the dreams—”

You shake your head pre-emptively. “It’s not.”

“Hmm.” She squints, near imperceptibly, gauging your truth. Only once satisfied does she allow her schooled bedside manner to fall away—into a thin smile. “Someone put you up to this, then.”

You cross your arms at that. “I’m not a rookie.”

“No,” she nods, “you’re not—but, if it’s that, I think I can arrange something for you.”

“‘If it’s that’? What, you’d trust anyone as long as it isn’t me?”

“Quite the contrary.” She pushes her glasses up with a finger. “I trust you as far as you can see.”

—leaving unspoken her admonition of just where you can’t.

You exit the medical wing, to find Ritz waving you over—from the armoury, of course. In her hands is a CQBR . . . with a skeletal FN folding stock.

“Uh,” you mutter, not quite understanding, even as she pushes it into your arms. “What exactly have you done, here?”

She shoves you toward the range. “Try it!”

“Okay?” You pick up a magazine and load the rifle, hesitantly pulling the charging handle—to find it chambering the round with no apparent issue.

So you proceed, readying the rifle and taking aim at a paper sectoid pinned to a wooden board. The first round fires with little issue—except perhaps a slightly snappier kick from the reduced mass—as does the second, the third, and the fourth. It is when Ritz bids you fire on automatic that you begin to worry. Still, you press up your eye-pro, curious how the thing cycles at all, and oblige her.

A burst of seven slams out, just a little too quickly for comfort, before the thing jams with a double feed.

“Still got a few quirks needin’ to be hammered out!”—Ritz hands you a screwdriver, the extractor having ripped straight through the rim of the obstructing shell. You work the thing free and toss it just shy of the other ones, which have blown some three stalls to the right.

“The fuck did you do to this thing?” you repeat, returning it to her once cleared.

She hums, self-satisfied, and does . . . something to the handguard, which has apparently had a top strap cut out of it, before unpinning upper from lower receiver, to reveal the rear half of the bolt carrier simply cut off and sanded in order to allow the folding stock. Then she pulls it out . . . and out, and out, to reveal a piston—

“Not a piston! Just a longer gas key!” She rattles the screwdriver down inside the tube to prove it hollow. “Still pushes back here,”—she taps the bolt carrier—“nice’n’steady, but less chamber foulin’ an’ no buffer tube! Just gotta work out the timin’, an’ we’re gold!”

“That’s—” You remove your earmuffs, prompting Ritz to do the same. “That’s pretty cool, actually.”

“Right?” She bumps her fist into your shoulder; then leans in, sotto voce: “So, how’d it go with the Doc’?”

You only point behind you—where Eri stands in the door, duffel bag shouldered.

Now to a staging point, free alike from prying eyes and passers-by—

[ ] Head back to your place
[ ] Head for the woods
[ ] Head for a karaoke joint
[ ] Write-in

—and perhaps a third to pull security: if two falls to one, you’re next to none.

[ ] Bring Kochiya (you’re a real spook now, soldier)
[ ] Bring Petrov (always bet on Red)
[ ] Keep things battened down
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[X] Head back to your place
[X] Bring Kochiya (you’re a real spook now, soldier)

So Touhou x XCOM, interesting crossover. I need to beat Long War sometime before I get into XCOM 2.
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[X] Bring Kochiya (you’re a real spook now, soldier)
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There’s an old transistor standing in the mist~
And like any soldier, I was homesick too, I guess~

… … …

[×] Head back to your place
[×] Bring Kochiya (you’re a real spook now, soldier)

You pause in your steps as you walk past Kochiya, still watching the QRF occupy themselves. Something tickles at your mind: this might be an opportunity to provide a bit of mentoring for the guy—no; for your XO. Iwakasa left large shoes to fill, but failing to acknowledge his successor won’t help.

“Oi, Kochiya.” You wave him over with a finger, holding out a readied rifle bag for him. Ritz blinks at that, and casts you a doubtful glance. She opens her mouth to say something—but you shoot her a look reinforcing your decision, and she shrugs along with it; albeit hesitantly.

“So, ah, what’s the occasion?” Kochiya asks, slinging the bag under his left shoulder.

“Robbin’ a bank,” Ritz drawls, turning away.

“Hmm? Sounds like fun.” He holds up one hand to mask his mouth and shoulders a finger gun with the other. “‘We want to hurt no one! We’re here for the bank’s money, not your money! . . . ’”

. . . you catch a grin quirking Ritz’ lip, though it is suppressed once you step into the lift.
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[x] Your plsce
[x] Keep things...
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… … …

“So, Ritz—care to fill Kochiya here in on our, uh, objective, here?” you ask—now seated beside Kochiya in the rear seat, that you might better brief him on the drive. Though; now that you’ve started, you realise just how much was left unspoken—was left unneeded to be spoken.

Ritz shrugs. “Starin’ at goats.”

“Hah.” You run your tongue behind your teeth. “In, uh, more formal terms?”

“Rogue action and misappropriation of Unit property.”

“ . . . less formal.”

“Bendin’ spoons.” She drums her knuckles against the window. “Look, I’m catchin’ somethin’. That’s all I know. I won’t know just what ’til I get on the ’amp, a’right?”

You purse your lips. “Ritz, I need you to work with me, here. Kochiya—”

“—has been told everythin’ he needs to know in order to do his job,” she says, not turning from the road. “He has his eyes an’ his ears to tell him the rest.”

“Excuse me . . . ?” Kochiya wafts in. “Can you at least mention where we’re going? And, ah, whether this will take very long?”

“Maybe. Why; ya got plans tonight?”

He scratches the back of his head. “Ah, well, I told my fian—”

“Who?” Ritz snaps.

And Kochiya gets as far as the first syllable in repeating himself—before catching on to his CO intently shaking her head and crossing her arms in an ‘X’ beside him. “ . . . my financial advisor,” he amends, garnering a hesitant nod of approval from you, “that I’d meet her for a quarterly review tonight.”

Ritz actually snorts at that. “Not bad. Iris already give you the ‘R. U. Sirius’ routine?”

Kochiya blinks. “‘Am I serious’?”

“Horror story Ritz tells people to get them to stop bringing up their families,” you say; “otherwise she starts worrying for them.”

Ritz chokes. “It’s a PERSEC issue!”

“See, she’s superstitious about stuff like that.” You sniff, reclining. “So, uh, Ritz? Can you work portfolio diversification into our schedule?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll turn you loose before sundown; Iris doesn’t like it when I stay over for supper.”

You blink. “Oi.”

“Hey,” she cocks her head; “not my fault your place has great reception.”

“Eyes up, trooper. We’re here.”

‘Here’ being your apartment block on the outskirts of town: once provided as a compelling benefit for the families of JSDF servicemen, living standards have since moved on in the perhaps thirty–forty years since its construction, and now— well, now, people like you live here.

“Nice place,” Kochiya lies.

“Don’t gawk too much,” you mutter, stepping out of the car. “I’m pretty sure there’s a PMC set up in the other building.”

“You ever gonna get that fixed up?” Ritz points at your own vehicle: a decommissioned police cruiser, ‘borrowed’ from the motor pool just like hers—save for a mild but noticeable dent in the front bumper, which quickly and quietly marked this one as yours after you showed up back to base with it.

Anyway: “No.”

“I gotta warn you,” Ritz says, beckoning Kochiya closer. “Might not look the part right now, but Iris here is a cold-hearted killer. Leaves dents and scratches the way she gets ’em to trap the souls of all the innocent cats and dogs and baby strollers she mashes.”

“What the fuck is that even . . . ? Look, it was a rock,” you clarify—you had swerved into it under circumstances which transiently escape you, save for that it was a rock. “And I painted it over.”

“Painted over the blood!” Ritz waggles her fingers, voice echoing against the concrete of the stairwell.

“Blood from a stone,” Kochiya muses. “Is this the power of Captaincy?”

You snort. “I think you have to be a Colonel to work miracles like that. Or maybe a warrant officer.”

“Warrant officers are miracles just walkin’ around.”

“Do we even have warrant officers?”

“Good question.”

“Stoddard and his ilk?”

“Aviation don’t really count, do they?”

“Who else, then?”

“We just use contractors for everything else.”

“Don’t sit right with me.”

“Why not?”

“The ‘C’ in ‘SCI’ isn’t for ‘contractor’.”

“It’s fine as long as they don’t start talking to each other.”

“If they do?”

“They won’t.”

“But suppose they do?”

“The twin fists of INTAF and COINTEL will box their ears, so they won’t.”

A pause.

“The hell did we end up talkin’ about?”

Kochiya hums. “You know how sometimes you forget what you were doing when you walk through a door?” He raises a finger and spins it twice round. “Might it be that stairwells have a similar effect?”

“Fascinatin’,” Ritz drawls. “Iris—why did you pick the top floor to live on, again?”

“Force of habit,” you shrug, fishing your keys out of your pocket. “Better vantage points and shorter roof access. And, hey—I wouldn’t have such ‘great reception’ otherwise.”

You arrive upon the sixth floor; and here, too, now, the green door stands. So much for decommission.

In short order your apartment is become esoteric ground: Kochiya in the living room, stood against entry, with line of sight here should you fail; Ritz sat here in the unused guest room, poised with the keys to the world; and you beside her, deadened hardened of psionic sense, with the paramount responsibility of ensuring the key-holder neither missteps in her mission nor falls to compromise by external forces.

Your responsibility is terminal.

“Before we begin,” you caution, “I’m going to ask you one more time. I need everything you can give me about what you’re wading into.” You press check the weapon in your hands, giving Ritz a glimmer of live brass—theatrics, of course: it has never been fired in anger; but you would that it stays so, and theatrics have never hurt—

“Not gonna change?”

—“That, uh. Didn’t really have a chance.” You blink, patting a mote off your skirt. “Kind of settled into it, honestly. It’s fine, right?”

“Sure,” Ritz mutters, looking back down. A tarp is laid out beneath her chair; it crinkles with sobering morbidity as she taps her feet upon it. “Anyway, it’s . . . well, I was exaggeratin’, when I said I could almost hear it, but . . . ” She points again to her temporals. “It’s kinda’ like that. Like a fuzzin’ or a ringin’, so soft you couldn’t ever notice it.” Unless you were Ritz, of course; though she would never say as much.

“Sure you didn’t just forget your ear-pro too many times?” You crack open a bottle of tea—but catch her glare and hand it to her instead, waving a hand in surrender. “Alright, alright. Soon as you’re ready.”

She takes a swig, puts on the headset, and turns the key

through so many woven threads

—as if a key could unlock a tapestry. It but parts the threads, that she may examine their weave.

And she does: first taking stock around her—first steps on firm ground. She sees herself—knows the depth of her inurement. She moves on. She sees Kochiya—bearing only mild potential, and further dimmed: lacking the means of actuation. If she might only reach out, she would find it like play simply to seize his sense and movement; to make him dance a puppet’s dance—

Kochiya smiles, waving shortly, and checks that his safety is on.

—though she discards such notions as she would any other errant whimsy, retaining only his location and state to anchor her if need be. She does not notice the thread which binds him to blood Greater than both their own. She has made it practice to spurn knowledge of such matters. It is of no concern to her.

She looks toward Iris—yet cannot see her but with human eyes, where she stands in elegant if rustic red-white dress, uncluttered with psionic spectra. She imagines that an Iwakasa-shaped hole stands over her, obscurant and impenetrable. In doing so she lands not far from the truth; though such conjecture, too, is irrelevant.

“ . . . yeah?”

She stops staring. “Just testin’ the waters.”

“How are they?”


You roll your eyes.

She turns then to the task before her; focusing, searching for the trace of that which earlier pricked her attention, first through bands known to Martian use, and then through those unknown, taking the spoor—

—you take the straw, nodding thanks, and slip it into the tea bottle, holding it to Ritz’ face. She sips from it almost unconsciously, the bulk of her simply tuned elsewhere. Kochiya watches on for a while, no doubt hiding amusement behind that polite smile, before returning to his post.

Four sips later, one goes down the wrong pipe and sends her into a coughing fit; though she recovers quickly with the aid of a few claps on the back. You take the opportunity to ask on her progress.

Ritz wheezes and sniffles, shaking off the reflex. “ . . . more or less continuous. Not much variance in intensity. I don’t think it’s anythin’ . . . directed anywhere; more . . . just here, I guess. I can still barely get a read on it, even through this thing.”

“Need a break?”

She stretches her neck. “Oh, I’m just gettin’ started.”
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… … …

—“Oh, hell—!” You shake Ritz out of her concentration. “The fuck are you doing?”

“I—!” She opens her mouth to complain, but you jerk a finger toward the psi-amp—which has accumulated levels of fouling associated only with sustained psionic assault. Her eyes go wide: “Shit!”

“Yeah, ‘shit’!” You tighten your grip on her shoulder. “Explain!”

She raises her hands, swallowing. “I— Look, it’s— nothin’ like that. I . . . went at it a bit aggressively, and . . . I think I ate a bit of feedback; thought it was somethin’ on the other side. Then . . . you know the ROE; don’t ever give ’em a second chance to shoot. Or— y’know.” She grimaces as Kochiya does a chamber check in the corner.

“The hell—” You inhale sharply—and exhale at length, weighing her truth; finding it adequate, if not perfect. “No; alright, fine. You know the stakes; I know you won’t do anything stupid. On purpose. Just— cool it. Cool your head. It’ll be hell on all of us if you break that thing.”

“Right, right,” she nods, swearing again as she eyes the black build-up in the chamber. Waving her hands one last time, and seeing that your initial worst-case reaction has dissipated, Ritz reaches into the duffel bag and produces a bottle of— er, ‘specific cleaning fluid’.

Kochiya sniffs. “Is that . . . ?”

“Amyl acetate,” you shrug, taking in a breath yourself to appreciate the scent. “’Amp needs to be flushed with it after heavy use.”

He eyes the red ‘9’ on the bottle, nonplussed. “With bore solvent.”

“Don’t ask me; I didn’t design it.” You take a gulp of tea. “And, hey— if it answers questions at our pay-grade and only poses questions above it, well, it’s just one more blessing to count.”

Kochiya only lets out a small hum at that.

“Words of wisdom, man.” Ritz caps off the bottle and holds up the psi-amp. “How long would you say . . . ?”

You eyeball the fluid level. “Twenty minutes?”

“Sounds about right,” she nods. “Food time?"

“Sounds good,” you nod back. “Kochiya?”

“Sure?” He shrugs. “Although,”—he cradles his rifle—“are we going to drive around with this stuff, or . . . ?”

Ritz grunts, frowning at the prospect. “We could order— no; that’s no good either.”

“I have leftover pizza in the fridge,” you offer.


Ritz pauses mid-chew. “Comms,” she mutters. “They’re comms.”

“Hrm—?” you fail to enunciate.

“How can you tell?”—Kochiya perks up, talking over you.

“Yeah,” Ritz blinks. “Active on a few limited bands. Constant traffic. Then— it isn’t faint; it’s just strong enough to pass information over.”

Kochiya leans back into his chair, frowning. “That’s quite the leap. How can you be sure it’s information being passed, and not just noise?”

“There was structure there. Patterns. It was all . . . it felt meaningful.” She grimaces. “Hardly rigorous, yeah.”

“No, well, okay,” Kochiya says. “Let’s assume there is information being transferred. Then— what?” He displays the half-eaten slice in his hand. “Pizza is receptive to microwaves, in its own way, but you can hardly snoop on Soviet relay traffic with it.”

“Mmh, that’s not quite how it is, here,” you say, guessing at his perspective. “It’s easy to conceive of it that way, but psionics aren’t like EMR. They’re . . . fucky.”

“‘Fucky’,” he repeats.

“Technical term for ‘we don’t have a damn clue’,” Ritz very helpfully explains.

“No— look,” you say, grasping for words. “They’re . . . we effect it through active thought, but the . . . totality of the conscious and the unconscious are involved, so substance is . . . should be inherent,” you manage, dredging up what you can remember of Eri’s explanations. “Not that every thought is substantial. I mean— shit.”

“Another technical term?” Kochiya mutters, and you bite your tongue—he’s right.

“Means ‘above my pay-grade’,” Ritz again very helpfully explains.

You open your mouth to object—but produce only a halting lungful of exasperation. Sucking in a breath, you try again: “No; I . . . I think we should be able to obtain something of value, here.”

“ . . . we can work with this,” Kochiya says, after a moment. He glances to Ritz. “You say they’re comms?”—she nods—“Well, then, forget the signal. The signal is going to be unreliable no matter what. Take the signature, and just follow it back home.”

That . . . makes a lot of sense, actually.

“Wait— I tried that,” Ritz says, jerking a thumb toward the guest room. “That’s why the thing shit itself.”

“Because you were interacting with the signal,” you realise. “Because you were trying to identify it, right? But you have the signature. We should be able to get a location from that.” You glance over to Kochiya, who nods in consensus.

“That’s . . . kinda’ ass-backwards,” Ritz says. “I need concrete intel on the location before I can really do anythin’. I mean— I can . . . sort of get a feel of real space, right,”—you nod: you’ve done so yourself, when you were able—“but it’s like fumblin’ around in the dark. I wouldn’t be able to point anythin’ out on a map.”

Kochiya hums. “How about bearing or distance?”

Ritz shakes her head. “Not in terms of useful measurements—”

—you snap your fingers, plan knitting itself together even as you speak. “I can spot for you.”

“ . . . how?”

“It’ll work as long as you can get a decent conscious idea of the area, right?”—She nods, at length. “Then it doesn’t have to be live intel. I could use a map.”

She grimaces. “That’s . . . a stretch.”

“Mm? What about satellite photos?” You clear away the emptied plates and put your laptop on the table. “Langley’s been up to some neat stuff lately.”

“I’m a little hesitant to label anything coming out of Langley as ‘neat’,” Kochiya mutters, though he shifts his chair over to get a better view once you start up the program proper. “Hm. Resolution’s . . . okay, I guess.”

“You wanna rustle up a JSTARS for us, be my guest,” Ritz says. “But if this is the best we got between us, I . . . yeah, I think I can work with this.”

Somewhat an hour follows of increasingly tedious navigation—first along areas of settlement; then along minor prefectural routes; and finally a deep appreciation is instilled in all those involved for this country’s greater areas of hilly forests and forested hills.

“I . . . think we’re good,” you murmur, taking another drink of tea.

Ritz grunts, defocusing. “Where are we?”

You wait till she stops her profuse blinking before pointing out the area out on the screen. “Up from this valley here; then off east between these two ridges. I think it’s along a river.”

“Fuckin’ beautiful,” she mutters. “Eat shit, SETI@home.”

Kochiya shakes his head. “If this pans out, I won’t know whether to laugh or to cry.”

“Well, we’ve got our, uh, dirt patch.” You glance at the corner of the screen: one-thirty in the afternoon, just about. The place is squarely in the middle of the hills, well north of where the base is squirrelled away.

Decision time. You nod to Ritz, and begin weighing risks against resources.

[ ] Hold off on bringing anyone else into this just yet
[ ] Cut a pilot in to cart you there
[ ] Bring your numbers up with some people Ritz can trust
[ ] Bring a full team Ritz will get mad

[ ] Make good time while there’s still daylight
[ ] Reconvene after dark

[ ] You should really change
[ ] It’s fine not to change
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[X] Cut a pilot in to cart you there
[X] Make good time while there’s still daylight
[X] It’s fine not to change
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[X] Cut a pilot in to cart you there
[X] Make good time while there’s still daylight
[X] It’s fine not to change
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Callin’ it right here ’cause it’s about time and I wanna get a move on.

… … …

[×] Cut a pilot in to cart you there
[×] Make good time while there’s still daylight
[×] It’s fine not to change

“Mmh, no problem there.” A grin tugs at Ritz’ lip, reaching only half-way. “Stoddard’s been belly-achin’ for flight hours all damn week.”

You shrug, zip up your rifle case, and stand up to leave. Kochiya glances back at you and pauses. “Are you not going to change? . . . sir?”

“Uh.” You look downward, frowning. At length, you shake your head. “I think it’ll be fine.”

Ritz leans back into the doorway and fixes you with another lidded gaze—absent smirk this time. “You really are gonna wear that to the field.”

“Why not?” You sweep your hand in a grasping motion. “It won’t really matter, if we’re going fast. We’re going fast, right?”

She gets as far as “Yeah, but,” before outright giving up on the sentence and turning to leave.

Kochiya moves to follow—flashing you a thumbs-up as he exits.
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… … …

Ritz prods Stoddard awake.

He snorts, rising gingerly from his bunk. Slowly his faculties return to him, and he catches sight of you—scanning you up and down and up again; staring at the frills. You, in turn, scan Stoddard up and down and up again—staring at the flight suit, facemask, and rotary crew helmet.

Somewhat a non-verbal exchange occurs: each weighing whether to comment; each realising the futility of it; and finally an acknowledgement is given from each of the other as an equal, culminating in a spirited affirmation of camaraderie, hand in Nomex-gloved hand.

Ritz, ever mercenary, remains unmoved by the display. She seizes upon the opportunity to open negotiation:

“I need a driver.”

Stoddard rubs his microphone boom, weighing the proposition.

“Okay,” he nods.

Ritz raises a quieting finger to her lips.

Stoddard puts up a similar one to the corresponding area of his balaclava.

An understanding reached, they march off to tow his bird out of the hangar.

. . . you pat Kochiya on the shoulder, helping him shrug off the suspicious efficiency of the exchange, and together head off to the storage areas to ready your equipment.

You retrieve your flak and webbing from your closet, and Kochiya his; Ritz has hers already—they were with her in the trunk. Kochiya volunteers to take a medi-kit, fixing it to his duty belt; you take a belt of your own and pleat your dress at the waist to bring its hem up to your knees, clipping a radio handset on one side and a smoke pouch on the other to fix it in place.

“That’s . . . certainly one way of doing it,” Kochiya remarks—catching the magazine you lob at his face in response.

“Black tips,” you instruct, waving one in your own hand. “No need to worry about over-pen’.” No need to be stingy, either: while the black budget may look tight when viewed from up at COMOPS, on the scale of small-arms acquisition for field activities it comes close to a blank cheque.

Still, you are with restraint, limiting your ancillary gear to personal protective equipment, or else items with immediate relevance—boiling down to a flashlight, a GPS, and a camera. Kochiya further opts for flex cuffs and a taser held prominent in a chest holster, which you raise an eyebrow at—acknowledging, if not questioning. Though of a different tack yourself, you won’t begrudge such an approach.

Shortly afterwards you are seated in the helicopter, now parked out on the grass, with Stoddard performing his final controls tests.

“ . . . oh, where’s— here, route thirty-eight, so then up and over here . . . ” Ritz points out the destination on a travel map, and Stoddard presses it into his GPS. Satisfied, Ritz claps the co-pilot’s door shut and clambers up by your left into the cabin, taking the rear-facing seat.

You slide the cabin door shut behind her, and fix her with a stare, kicking lightly at the rope sitting coiled at your feet. Though you’ve already a solid suspicion, you ask anyway: “The hell’s this for?”

“You wanted to go fast,” she shrugs. A pair of welder’s gloves flop into your lap. “We’re goin’ fast.”

Kochiya blinks as Ritz tosses him a similar pair. “Er . . must we?”

“Of course!” Ritz crosses her arms. “Don’t complain; we’re fallin’ behind on our quota of cool guy shit!”

“I see,” Kochiya nods, smiling a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I used to do cool guy shit, too,” Stoddard pipes up, now over the engine idle. “Once, I blew up a—”

Ritz swings an expert fist back over her shoulder, knocking square on the top of Stoddard’s helmet. “Shut up and drive!”

He grunts and flips her off as he reaches up for the engine levers; though complies, easing them forth and bringing the rotors to speed. Soon enough, the helicopter lurches forward, skimming over the grass—and then upward: you take to the air.

… … …

Despite Ritz’ earlier admonition, the conversation finds its way back to space-shuttle door gunnery, and you find yourself regaling to Kochiya your well-worn tales of roof-borne EOD.

“I’m serious!” you lie. “A .338 doesn’t feel nearly so big when you have to sever an eight-gauge wire with one through gale-force—!”

—Stoddard swears of a sudden, cutting through the snickers. “That had better not be what the fuck I think it is!”

Ritz twists round to look over the co-pilot’s seat. “The fuck do you think it is?”

“Purple pancake, parked out in clean air!”

‘Purple pancake’—

“Right there; you see it?”

She does, and twitches. “Fuck!”

“Oh, what,” you grumble, looking out the window. You recognise the valley and the river running through it as your AO, but you don’t see anything yet.

“Medium scout,” Ritz calls, presumably for your benefit; “no exclusion field!”

“Ritz,” you murmur, “this had better not be some sort of bad joke.”

Stoddard laughs. “If it is, I’m not laughing!”

Before you have a chance to call him out, the helicopter banks a sharp left, and you finally get a decent view—


Sure enough, along the river-bank lies a Martian scout craft: fifteen metres wide of alloy-purple, promising nothing but headache in its wake. Across from you, Kochiya sees it too, and breaks into a strange grin—as valid a reaction as any, you suppose.

“Down,” Ritz instructs, craning for a better view. “Down!”

“Glad to!”—Stoddard all but plunges downward, dropping as quickly as he can without settling into his own downwash. It’s a survival measure, truly: taking to the relative safety of low altitude, where alien craft can neither maneuver nor thereby bring its weapons to bear; and yet skirting outside the effective range of any dismounted crew. You’re bought some time to—

“Drive me closer!” Ritz continues.

The cabin explodes into sputtering. “What are we—?”—“You what—?”—“Wh— I’m not fuckin’ doin’ that!”

She chuckles, and clips a retention lanyard to her belt. “Wasn’t askin’!” Punctuating her words, she shoves your side door open, and nods at you—“Hey, give us some cover!”—before sitting outboard and shouldering her rifle to do just that.

Kochiya laughs along, clipping himself in and pulling his door open as well; the rotor blast now assaults your senses in earnest. You mutter a curse at both of them, and turn to press yourself up against the cabin wall; barking at Ritz to take the rear, and bracing against the doorframe to cover the front. She in turn scoots out onto the skid, leaning forward to keep her head away from your muzzle.

“The fuck—” Stoddard sucks in a breath, ridding himself of hesitation. “Alright; fine! Fine!” He brings you yet lower, into the valley to hide between the peaks; circling counter-clockwise, to present the two rifles on your side and the empty co-pilot’s seat toward anyone within.

You grunt, pressing yourself harder against the wall. “Kind of pushing it, here, Ritz!”

She— snorts. “What; just now? You’re givin’ me the patience of a saint!”—That dissipates your tension the barest bit; you’re forced to stifle a laugh despite yourself. “Real life hasn’t gotten to you yet, eh?” she continues. “How ’bout you, Assistant; how’re you holdin’ up?”

Kochiya hums; his tone wavers oddly, in a way you can’t discern between rueful, strained, or simply on-edge. “I did say it sounded like fun, didn’t I~?”

“‘Fun always, fun forever’,” Stoddard grumbles. “Focus on shooting, yeah?”

“ . . . doesn’t look like there’s anything to shoot,” you say: the river-bank, at least, is clear, and you haven’t been taking any fire.

“Fire anyway!” Ritz calls, and does so; the rest of you follow suit, earmuffs crackling as you dump rounds into the treeline in hopes of spoiling a possible ambush.

. . . nothing.

“Oi,” you say, patting Ritz on the shoulder. “You still ‘feelin’ it’?”

“Pretty well,” she says. “It’s probably comin’ from inside the thing, then!”

“And I suppose you know just what to do next?”

“Yeah—knock!” With that, she fires off a burst . . . which lands squarely in the river. “Uh, help?”

You chuckle, and pull your rifle back to pivot it by the front sight block—“Watch your head!”—holding behind the hull in a reverse lead to bounce three rounds off its top. Ritz hisses as the muzzle blasts, even suppressed, jar her skull.

“A bit of warnin’ woulda’ been nice, maybe!”

“Maybe learn to shoot!”

She harrumphs, not deigning to respond.

“ . . . well, nobody’s answering the door!” Stoddard pipes up. “What now?”

Ritz cocks her head, thinking for how best to piss him off with the next thing out of her mouth: “Put us down on the roof!”

“You want me to do what.”

“We’re gonna clear it; you’ll be safe up there!”

Stoddard groans—but groans “Fine!”, figuring it better than ceding any more time. He dips down and keeps his approach over the river, to keep the craft within your field of fire. Nothing emerges, and so he draws closer; you can make out the gouges you shot into the top, now—what a lousy grouping—and the downwash sprays the side of the hull with water.

Finally he makes a simple pedal turn and glides over the craft, alighting as if on a simple landing pad. You toss a smoke grenade out over the edge, having signalled your intention beforehand; between Stoddard’s rotor blast and this model’s accelerated burn rate, it clouds visibility for just long enough that you’re able to drop down and take positions trained against the door of the craft.

“Payday,” Ritz murmurs, electrified.

You twitch at that. “Sure there isn’t anything you’ve been leaving out?”

“Nah,” she grins, rolling her shoulders. “Just excited, is all.”

You return her grin, minus its mirth. “Outstanding. In that case, why don’t you take point?”

Kochiya perhaps breathes a sigh of relief at that; though his expression is still frozen in that odd rictus. So, together, you grin and grin and grin, perhaps convincing yourselves that you are having fun.

The door does not wait for a point-man. It slams open with that awful ‘clunk–whine’ which sucks a spirit dry.

Your rifle snaps up, sighting in on whatever might lurk behind—


Three pairs of red-glaring eyes; three pairs of rabbit’s ears.

Three weapons clattering to the floor.

Otherwise, three drawn, miserable girls.

Alien—perhaps. Martian—perhaps. Mars has stolen and worn the faces of men before. Somehow, this doesn’t strike you as such.

The smallest one, clad in once-bright orange, speaks first. Her—its—her voice is high, and faint:

“We surrender.”

Your rifle does not lower.

[ ] Take no chances: formally detain them and check them into alien containment
[ ] Take them in, but on easier terms: they could be abandoned Martian experiments
→ [ ] Ask Eri to keep it under the table
[ ] Deal with this independently for now
→ [×] How? (Write-in)
[ ] Other (Write-in)

… … …

Just making sure, but ‘independently’ is not a euphemism for ‘with bullets’, okay?
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[X] Take them in, but on easier terms: they could be abandoned Martian experiments
→ [X] Ask Eri to keep it under the table

So XCOM 2 is out now, I've heard it is pretty good.
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It does look pretty slick.
I'm the sort of lame faggot who prefers Xenonauts, though.
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[X] Take them in, but on easier terms: they could be abandoned Martian experiments
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[x] Take no chances: formally detain them and check them into alien containment

Friendship may come later.
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Gonna leave this open for the New Year's while I revise the entire plot for like the fifth time over.
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[X] Take no chances: formally detain them and check them into alien containment

I don't know if I'm remembering Touhou cannon correctly, but don't Lunar Rabbits have some sort of magic psychic radio or something that allows intel to pass from the moon to the earth and vise versa near instantly?
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Thank God you clarified that "independent" bit.
Considering that the proper response to 'we surrender' is 'We dont' followed by a shower of lead, I think that arresting them is a kindness, regardless of the 'how' of it

[x] No chances
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[X] Take no chances: formally detain them and check them into alien containment
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I tried to rest, but just got sick instead.

Vote is called. Writing soon.
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Hope you learnt your lesson: never rest
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I'm not sure what happened in that last one, but I can't help but feel like doing some friendly fire.
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squirrel shit one
I lied. I went back touched up the pacing a little. I had to. God damn it.

… … …

[×] Take no chances: formally detain them and check them into alien containment

Tired and demoralised and even disarmed though they may be, they are three and you are three—numbers which by no means put you at ease, least of all with psionic elements. Near the only thing which stays your finger from thinning them is that word of ‘surrender’. No small number of ‘implications’ and ‘ramifications’ and other choice COMOPS buzzwords blare in your mind, with that word.

You discard them without second thought. As a detachment officer, and here in the field, yours is foremost to effect control. To that end, you immediately begin issuing instruction in firm voice: “Turn around!—Kick your weapon this way!—Elbows locked; fingers spread!”—building momentum through the procedure.

The one in the middle—dressed in a dusty black blazer—shows little if any understanding, even as you repeat yourself a fifth time. Instead her companions have to guide her along, pulling her inside; kicking the artefacts away with sock-clad feet.

You harry them inside, checking the left corner before crossing into it yourself. Ritz crosses right, and Kochiya follows behind you, jamming the door open with a boot to the stop latch. Pressing down the sides, you shout them down till they lie splayed and prone—“Palms up!—Heels on the ground!”—by the far wall of the craft.

“Move, and I’ll poke ya fulla’ holes,” Ritz drawls, for good measure.

The rabbits adequately subdued, you take the chance to breathe—twitching your nose at a musty-sweet scent inside. Well, if it were gas . . . no, you remember this. Preservative fluid, or whatever.

“Hey; cover.” Ritz waves at you, and unslings her rifle. “I’ll search ’em.” She clears the weapon, pocketing the magazine and palming the round—or, rather, fired casing; a brief frown crosses her face.

You shake your head. “Suggest you— don’t get any closer than that.” Psionics seem to follow an inverse-square—within visual range, at least.

Something blue stirs beside you. “You know, we can’t do that mind control thing—”

“Oh, fuck that,” you snap, raising your weapon and rounding on the offending rabbit. “No talking; no movement. Forehead on the ground. Come on!”

She complies—muttering something you don’t quite catch; but still complies. Ritz shrugs and loads up again, standing guard in front of the rabbits. You unsling your own weapon and clear it—also finding fired brass instead of a live round. Close call, you guess; though now it has you wondering about extractor issues.

You set the rifle by the navigation console, and move to search your new detainees; arbitrarily choosing the blue one to start with. You squat down and set one knee on the lower back, taking the rabbit by both hands and bringing them together while Ritz threads a pair of flex cuffs.



snap snap

—something slams through the side of your waist, and your leg doesn’t seem to work anymore.

You summon up what little strength it has left to keep from falling onto that side, knee driving hard into the rabbit’s back.

Those were rounds flying past, you realise.

And then you’re on the floor, and then the pain starts, and the shouting starts.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

“What the hell!—”

“—accident! I don’t know; it just slipped—”

“—you realise what you’ve just done?—”

“—wait, wait—”

—then the thump of boot meeting midsection, and someone gasping and coughing.

You’re dragged away by your vest, out of the line of fire.

Ritz brings her weapon up. It fails to fire. She curses, and goes through a malfunction drill: tap—rack—


This time, the magazine blows out of its well.

Barely flinching, she pulls out another and slaps it in. It falls back out as she reaches for the charging handle.

“I . . . said . . . wait,” wheezes the blue pajamas.

The one in black tackles Ritz to the floor.

Kochiya rips open a packet of quick-clot and dumps it into your entry wound

“Motherfucker,” you groan, a hand going to your waist. Kochiya bats it away as he finishes up the dressing, pulling on it a few times as if unsure of the tightness.

“Morphine?” he offers, to which you swear some more and flip him off.

You almost checked out when he poured the powder in—must’ve grabbed an old kit; the new stuff shouldn’t make blood steam on contact. Right now, though, you’d like to stay conscious, and you’d like to stay coherent. Thankfully, the burning itself is brief, and by the time the pain of it dulls down, everything seems to hurt a bit less than it did a minute ago.

Ritz is still down, and the blue and orange pajamas are stumbling to their feet.

You reach for Kochiya’s chest holster, weakly batting at it. “Gimme this. Go help.”

He glances behind him, sighs, and unclasps it; handing you the taser, before turning round and raising his weapon on Blue and Orange.

You hold the taser as best you can on the one pinning Ritz, thumb holding the safety down by instinct; swearing, as the trigger refuses to budge.

Kochiya, wary, hasn’t taken up his own trigger; instead first racking the bolt and punching the forward assist—and is promptly shoved aside by Orange, with a strength that shouldn’t have been possible and a shout of “Just bug out!” She and Blue pry their third off of Ritz, and then all three are making a break for the exit.

You flick the god-damned safety up to disengage it, rolling over onto your wounded side as they run past you; sending new spikes of pain shooting through your hip. The shot comes just as they reach the door, and Orange collapses exactly like a sack of limbs that don’t work anymore.

Then a second front opens up—in the form of a Nomex glove wielding a stun-rod, swinging out from the edge of the doorway and catching Blazer in the neck.


The rest of Stoddard jumps out after it, flailing madly and raining electrified baton blows like the best of police medics, until the rabbits finally stop resisting or struggling or moving at all.

“Eat that, you fucks!” he cheers. “Whoo! Holy shit.”

You throw the taser in disgust, and roll back over to cradle your wound. Kochiya, ever conscientious, picks the plastic thing up and disconnects the cartridge, before moving to hoist the rabbits into the recovery position.

Stoddard walks over and looms over you. “What, you alright?”

You grunt. “Yeah, sure.”

“No, really, it’s okay,” he simpers. “You can tell me.”

“’Fuck are you going on about?”

“Like you did the last twenty times,” he continues.


“‘I’m hit!’” he mimics, taking on an idiot falsetto. “‘I’m hit! I’m hit!’”

You clench your teeth—you did not.

“You totally did.”

Et tu, Ritz?

“Well, you’re not bleedin’ out, are ya?” She tries to straighten out her tracksuit underneath the plate carrier, but the lapel seems irreparably scrunched.


“Then it’s okay to laugh at you.” And she does. It’s raspy at first, throat still raw from the earlier scuffle, but soon grows into proper Ritz-type snickering. Ah—with how long it’s been, you’d nearly forgotten how maddening it is on this side of the joke.

“Oh, and one more thing.” Stoddard clears his throat, and reaches into his pocket. “I don’t know if you were trying to get ’em under my pedals, or if you just missed the back of my neck, but . . . ”

Brass sprinkles onto your head.

“ . . . fuck you.”
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'Accident' or not, they did the right thing. I think they'd all be dead with the other option. Or close to, anyway
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My battlestation is drying over a vent.

Happy birthday to me.
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Happy birthday!
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cure for cancer

“Assistant, what the fuck was that?”

You turn your head over, and come face-to-knee with Ritz. Turning back, you grouse: “What, you shot me?”

“I didn’t. What was what?”—Kochiya steps over and plants his rifle muzzle-down in front of you. You take a glove off and reach out, closing your fingers on the can: still warm, but nowhere close to just-fired.

Ritz holds up the emptied quick-clot packet with two fingers; then points to the unconscious rabbits with another. “Your priorities?”

. . . right. You pull your glove back on, and try to will your voice steady: “Much as I appreciate the . . . quick, uh, medical . . . nngh.” Can’t. Hurts. “Uh, shoot first.”

Kochiya gives Ritz a questionable look. “They didn’t make any moves. I thought you had it under control, sir.”

“You don’t call that a move?” Ritz raises her eyebrows in turn, and drops a finger toward your waist. You have a sudden and well-overdue realisation which makes you hate yourself just that much more; quietly, you shift your dress back down over yourself.

“I thought that was you.” Kochiya narrows his eyes. “Sir.”

Ritz scoffs. “What?— an’, hey, don’t call me ‘sir’; what kinda’ dorky kid are ya?”

“I didn’t hear any shots,” Stoddard offers.

Huh. Come to think of it—“Neither’d I.” No muzzle reports, anyway; but the cracks

“ . . . you okay?”

Fuck, it hurts. Definitely struck bone. Your legs are kind of cold.

But you can’t quite float away. So you do the next best thing, and pull your phone out of its holster. “Oi. Project manager.”

Ritz blinks, and crosses her arms. “That hasn’t been decided yet.”

“Yeah, an’ aliens aren’t real.” You toss the thing at her feet. “C’mon.”

Ritz calls for the QRF.

… … …

It’s a welcome sight—outboard nacelles swung open to reveal the rows of lift engines inside, buoying it on its descent. From here, the roar of the Rolls-Royces is more of a dull whine: the transport has to land in a clearing at the top of the hill; there’s no space for an LZ closer to the river.

“Alright, we’re coming to you!” Rosewill’s voice buzzes from the radio—you’ve taken off your headset to ease the pressure on your head.

Stoddard’s bird could in theory ride everyone back to base; the thing does seat seven—but, in his words, “Not gonna happen.” Not with half the maximum passenger weight in stunned aliens, and you as dead weight. So, instead, you wait where you are, for the squaddies to arrive and pick up their wayward officers which they so irresponsibly left unattended.

“What’s the doc’ so busy with, anyway? Looks too much like work to be work.”

In the meantime, you’ve been obliging idle chatter so as not to pass out.

“Ah, most of it’s just to ward people off. Rest of it—well.” You hold up the quick-clot packet. “Hassling secrets out of a stone.”

Ritz leans back in her own seat. “Aren’t they sellin’ that in the real world already?”

“Yeah, and this only got the OK ’cause it was in-house. No; she’s pushing for the space magic.” COMOPS will gladly sit on all of that till the end of its days, if nobody notices—especially if it keeps people from noticing.

“You’re sayin’ . . . ” She stops, and chuckles. “Imagine that. I’ll be in the OR when I’m seventy for a routine hip operation and start gettin’ flashbacks to Laos.”

“You’d better not. INTAF’ll have your head for it.”

“Well, I’ll deal with it when it comes around,” she shrugs, glancing outside and pulling herself off the chair. “Right now we’ve got a different doc’ to worry about. Well, you do.”


Right then, Ritz steps over and straddles you, taking you by the hips; you roll your eyes as she bats her lashes at you. Two squaddies take up your shoulders and ankles, and you’re hoisted up in a simple lift while a stretcher is pushed underneath you. The squaddies carry you out the door of the UFO, and into the rear of the Kawasaki.

Then they clear away . . . leaving you at the feet of a certain Chief Medico.

She gazes down from her seat, face stony and impassive, save for the dark eyes seeming to descend upon you like so many layers of pressed carbon; squeezing the hasty explanations and the ‘really, I’m okay’s out of your lungs. Very slowly, very carefully, she holds up her wrist, and presses a finger to the watch face.

She waits as you stare, avert your gaze, and slowly come back to staring; then says simply: “Four hours.”

“Well, fuck!” You make a symbolic attempt at throwing your arms up. “I mean, what do you want from me?”

The Look continues, and in it crystallise the words: “There are such things as stupid questions.”

“It was rhetorical,” you fail to say, instead burying your face in your palms. Really, you’ve nothing you can say. An apology wouldn’t help—

—the corner of a clipboard taps the back of your hand. Exhaling, you take it, and glance over the pages . . .

. . . NDAs.

“God-damned vulture,” you mutter.

She stiffens, and puts a solemn hand over her chest. “I do what I must, for the— oh, no; I can’t act.” She shakes her head. “It is your choice, of course. Ah, wait—” A medic steps aboard, auto-injector in hand; Eri stops him, and turns back to you. “I’d appreciate if you made your decision now. If you’re sedated, it would be considered under duress, you see.”

“I’m under duress right now.”

With a practised motion, the medic withdraws a bottle of Motrin and slaps it into your hand.

[ ] Volunteer to help Eri test the alien surgery
→ [ ] Stay on base and poke your nose into things
→ [ ] Go home and make sure nothing’s caught fire
[ ] You’d rather the space magic stay outside your body, thanks
→ [×] Stay on base and rest
→ [ ] Go home 48-hour delayed primary closure

… … …

I’m back. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
We’re onto part 2 now. Updates inbound at the speed of slow.
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[X] Volunteer to help Eri test the alien surgery
→ [X] Stay on base and poke your nose into things

You're back!
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[X] Volunteer to help Eri test the alien surgery
→ [X] Stay on base and poke your nose into things
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[x] "Volunteer"
-[x] Poke into things
--[x] Punch her in the face when/if you make a full recovery.

The more I meet the teammates, the more I like the aliens. At least you can shoot those.

And, uh welcome back.
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[X] Volunteer to help Eri test the alien surgery
→ [X] Stay on base and poke your nose into things

I'm picking this. I want to see more of the rabbit captives.

Makes me wonder how much the Moon knows about the Ethereals.
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I missed you too.
Vote’s called for continuing your career as both lab- and regular rat.

… … …

[×] Volunteer to help Eri prove the alien surgery
→ [×] Stay on base and poke your nose into things

“ . . . Allergies—none. Medication—” Eri glances over at the nurse—“well, it wouldn’t be relevant. Prior illnesses—none; pregnancy—none . . . ”

It bothers you how few questions she’s actually asked you compared to how quickly she’s moving through the secondary survey.

“Oh?” Eri rotates toward you, arms crossed and eyes half lidded. “You’re pregnant and you haven’t told me?”

In hindsight, perhaps you weren’t so bothered by it after all.

“But that I’d have to give you the bad news if you were. Hydrostatic shock, you know.” She pulls a pair of nitrile gloves out from a box. “When and what was the last thing you ate?”

You tell her.

Eri nods, flexing her fingers as she pulls the gloves on. “Now, tell me.” She steps round to loom over you, shadowed by the ceiling lights. “What happened?”

You tell her.
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“GCS—I’ll call it fifteen.” Your eyelids are pulled open, and a pen-light is shone in them. “Pupils are both three millimetres and reactive. Open your mouth.”

You don’t recall when Eri had ever shown herself qualified for trauma.

“All I’d said was ‘open your mouth’.” Fingers, running over your face and head. “Mid-face is okay; I don’t feel any crepitus. I’ll remove the collar, now.” Your head is held steady while the brace around your neck is unfastened; finally given a chance, you swallow the saliva gathered in the back of your throat.

You suppose you shouldn’t be surprised she’s doing it anyway, considering some of the things you yourself’ve gotten away with here; . . . maybe that was out of line.

Eri taps you on the forehead. “Don’t speak; I need to check for carotid stenosis.” Two kisses of cold metal to your neck: the resonator.

More fingers, pressing and probing for your spine.

“No step-offs; I’d say we’ll be okay to leave the collar off.”

You take your first full breath in almost an hour.

“Moving down.”

The blanket is pulled away, down to your waist. A shiver rushes down your neck, as the subterranean cold hits you bodily; only the sensation, albeit muted, of large-bore saline lines in both arms stays you from reflexively covering yourself.

“I— oh. Ecchymosis by the abdomen.”

You’re felt down for fractures and pneumothorax—gloved hands pressing against your chest; running down your ribs; up again to your shoulders.

“Sternum is okay. . . . I don’t feel any emphysema.”

Then the cold touch of the resonator again, twice on either side.

“Breathing is symmetrical.”

The blanket retreats further; the nurse balls it up and puts it by your feet.

“Abdomen is soft and not distended. Large ecchymosis over the pelvis, around the entry wound. The, ah— I’ll leave the sling in place. Moving down.”

More fingers.

“Genitals and perineum okay; no bleeding or swelling. I don’t detect urethral blood.” Eri has her gloves removed by the nurse, and begins to pull on a new pair. “I’ll put in the catheter, now.”

. . . hands again, running down the length of your leg; testing your knee and ankle along the way.

“I don’t feel any gross deformities. Distal pulses and capillary refill are okay.” She examines your other leg and then your arms, to same effect: “Extremities are . . . okay.”

Concluding the survey, she checks the catheter bag—and frowns.

You tap the side of the table to get her attention. “What is it?”

“Haematuria.” Absently, she displays the bag—one corner filled with murky, dark blood—before noticing your soured expression. “Ah—” She sets it back down, out of your sight. “Well, you’ve seen it anyway. The cavitation likely ruptured your bladder intraperitoneally.”

“I see.”

“We will have to explore, anyway; we’ll just . . . fix that on the way. What I’d like to focus on with the—” she gesticulates—“is the bone-repair mechanism, so anything else that need be done we’ll do conventionally.”


“So that you’ll know.” She pulls off her gloves by the cuffs, exhaling at length; and fishes her watch out of a bin. “When my surgeon arrives, we’ll run one final simulation, based on your precise— ah, circumstances, which should take . . . not more than an hour—”


You don’t quite meet her eyes.

“I’d really like my blanket back.”

… … …
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Rest of the update's coming along; I've just got a question for y'all (can I even say 'y'all'?): How do you feel about pure write-in votes?

Figured I'd rather ask now than make an ass of myself later if/when it doesn't pan out.
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Oh damn, she was really hit hard. Could be worse, but could be a lot better.

As for write ins: they tend to requiere a lot of thought and that, combined with shy voters, tend to put down the number of votes a lot. Use them at your own risk.

I don't particularly mind them, but I prefer less liberty and more consistency. They are always an option, no?
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I think they're more likely to be useful if the readers know just what they have to work with and a reasonable idea of what could succeed. But they do always drive down the number of votes.
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… … …

If nothing else, you suppose the fact that you’re already back on your feet is something you can appreciate.

“Yeah, I suppose it would be,” Ritz’ back humours you. She’s about your size, so is loaning you a set of her clothes for the time being.

“Actually, I think I’ll chalk it up to, um. Good ammo and shot placement,” you joke. Icepick through the iliac wing—fracturing it six ways to Sunday, but leaving most of the load-bearing equipment intact. Still. you wince as you ease the waistband down over the dressing; the temporary cavitation left your waist as one single, spectacular bruise. “Hey, um. I’m done.”

Ritz fairly flops backward onto the mattress, golden hair splayed out like one of her straw sun hats; the combat high ’last you saw her now long drained away. She gazes up, inverted, at you, and breathes for a moment before speaking.

“Say, uh, Iris?” she probes. You nod, and she continues. “Look; I, uh. I’m . . . sorry. About what happened. I really— I wasn’t watchin’ closely enough, and I probably should’ve— mghrph”

She catches the discarded gown with her face.

“Just— drop it, okay?” You slip your arm back into the crutch and step into the slippers. “I don’t want any, um, fingers being pointed when we’ve got— y’know, better things to worry about.”

Ritz pulls the gown aside and sighs, lacing her hands across her chest. “I can’t really do that. It’s— it was my initiative; it’s my responsibility now. Shit; if for nothin’ else, then at least for when INTAF gets their copy of the AAR.”

“Mmh,” you grunt, putting weight on the crutch and testing your balance.

She presses her thumbs together. “I don’t mean to—”

“No; I understand.” You gaze down at the other Cpt., studying her features. Slowly, you break into a smile; then a snort. “ ‘Responsibility’, eh? Whatever happened to just seeing the world and taking pot-shots at aliens?”

She turns away, hiding her own smile behind an arm. “God. How’d we ever find our way up here, anyway?”

You open your mouth—then close it again.

all the names, writ in gold—Morita—Tanikawa—Iwakasa—

“. . . Iris?”

“Oh, um. I’m okay.” You compose yourself. “If you need anything from me, I’ll, um. I mean, feel free to ask.”

“I . . . okay. Okay, I’ll do that.” She rolls over and pushes herself up. “’Preciate it.”

You depart the med-bay together.

“So, uh. Mind confirmin’ a few things for me?”

You glance over at your colleague—already with notepad and golf pencil in hand. “Um, right now?”

“Kinda’ extremely fuckin’ yeah.” She wrinkles her nose. “The other shoe’s hangin’ this high over my head, and I can hear the damn laces frayin’ through.”

You pause in your steps. “Okay, what—”

—someone is in the hallway who wasn’t there a moment ago.

“You,” he rasps, raising one twitching finger on one trembling arm. “Yo—u!”

The pencil clatters on the floor, Ritz’ hand heading straight to her waist before she realises who it is.

“You fucking go-fevered morons!” Rosewill explodes. “What is wrong with you; what the hell have you done?

Ritz is the first to come around, clenching her hands and grinding her teeth. “Okay, who told?”

“Yo,” waves Kochiya, rounding the corner behind Rosewill. “Hm? Where’s Iris; why are there two of you?”

You gather enough of yourself together to flip him off with your free hand.

“Oh, you wormy son of a—” Ritz starts—

“Cool it,” snaps Rosewill, eyes aglint with crystallised hate for the Cpt. “It’s not like he could have been too subtle about accessing the alien containment.”

That clams her up in an instant.

“Oh, yeah. Yeah. Rings a bell, does it? We’ve got lights blinking on in there, eh?” He taps at his head. “Gears starting to turn?”

You bite your lip, calculating whether to speak; but Kochiya shakes his head at you, and mouths something you can’t make out.

“What; you think that, just because Marner’s not here to babysit you, you can do whatever you want?” Rosewill continues. “No; I know what you’re thinking. ‘It’s just Rosewill, isn’t it? He’s just an executive assistant! He’ll let anything slide, won’t he?’ ”

He pauses for breath, swallowing and running a hand over his mouth. Kochiya cuts in, taking the opportunity to head him off:

“Marner will be returning from COMOPS tonight.”

Colonel Marner, to be precise—Commandant, Operations in the Asia–Pacific.

With that, Rosewill deflates, the wind snatched from his sail.

“Look, I’ll level with you. They’ve really put him in a bad way up there. When he comes down that lift, he’s not going to be smiling.

“If you think you’ve really found something here, you’d better get to work proving it. You’ve got— oh, let’s see . . .”

And then you’re left to your own devices—three detachment officers, three rabbit detainees, and fourteen hours to convert them into useful intel.

[×] Approach? (write-in)
[×] Line(s) of questioning? (write-in)

[ ] “. . . I’m going home.” Sure—if by ‘home’ you mean ‘to Strawberry fucking Fields’

… … …

Fuck it; I’ll stick my neck out. Have some fun with it. Ask questions, if you need.
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I'm sorry, I'm really stupid but.. Didn't they went beyond the call of duty to detect alien invaders? Shouldn't they have a official rubbing everything under the rug as soon as someone with authority saw the fluffy ears?
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[X] Approach: Try to act understanding and reasonable, but don't be afraid to get forceful.
[X] Questioning: Start with the basics: Who they are, what they were doing, why they were there. If that pans out well ask about current alien activity, and if they know what happened after the date of the avenger program.

I'm not the best at write-ins so I'll jump to someone else's if I see a better one, but I'll get the train moving. So my logic with the approach is that they were pretty quick to surrender, and overall didn't show too much hostility outside of the whole "being held at gunpoint" thing. Still, they're probably not too happy about being captured.

I'm glad you're updating again. It's fun reading your story.
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I don't see how it could be a problem to prove them aliens. If their illusion can't fool trained agents, then it's mind-altering, not actually changing the light reflecting from them, so a video feed to someone far away will let them see right through it.
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Um, you kinda' lost me. If I'm interpreting what you're saying correctly, I can only tell you it's a lot less cut-and-dry than you think.
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Feeling guilty, eh? Good.

I meant, you did the right thing, but still: a rat is rat.
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“I thought I had more time,” Ritz mumbles, steepling both hands over her mouth. “Shit. Shit!” Her eyes dart about the hallway, cataloguing her options; for now, they zero in on Kochiya. “You!”

He holds his hands up: “Hey; I’m sorry. It was—”

“No. No, you’re not,” you mutter—and his eyes snap over to you; eyes like a puppy being punted into the path of a truck—but you shake your head and continue. “Nobody’s sorry. Blame Stoddard for playing it safe; blame me for getting shot—it doesn’t matter.”

“I—” Ritz tries, but you round on her; staring her down.

“We blew it wide open, then and there, and it would’ve gotten to Marner, one way or another. Only thing that’s changed is now we know when it’s coming—”

“I know that, for fuck’s sake!” she snaps, voice straining just below a shout. “I know that! I was askin’—” she swallows, and lowers her voice—“look, Assistant, I get it; you did what ya had to do. Hell—pull the marriage card an’ go home, if you like.”

Kochiya opens his mouth to respond, but Ritz continues:

“I just— I need to know when we can air-lift the damn pancake they rode in on,” she breathes. “Can you ask Rosewagon about that?”

“. . . ah. Point of fact, I did.” He glances up; squinting as the light fluorescent fills his eyes. “The Halo’s overdue for a B-check, and we can’t lift during the day, so it’ll have to be tomorrow night at the soonest.”

Ritz swears; running her tongue between pursed lips. “Thanks, anyway. Go . . . enjoy your dinner. Promised you that, at least.” She gives him a small pat on the arm. “Go home; eat your food—don’t look back.”

Your XO shifts unsteadily, and tucks his hands beneath his arms. “I think I should stay on, if it’s all the same to you. I was thinking of— I’d be thinking about work all night, either way.”

“Oh.” Ritz grimaces, turning away. “Sorry. Well, I won’t ask.”

“Hey, uh,” you murmur to Kochiya, as the three of you move to leave. “. . . thanks.”

He declines to respond.

You file up the stairs, the usual office-beige giving way to the ocean blue of the alien containment. The man on watch—Chukarin; one of Ritz’—swivels round in his seat, frowning blandly. He points a thumb toward the monitor, wheeling away from it: “Они полностью твой.”

The three of you crowd around before it, studying the surveillance feeds.

The rabbits are awake, by now. Two of them sit huddled in a corner—the one in black curled up tightly, pale eyes fixed on the one camera; the rabbit in blue silently trying to provide comfort. Beside them stands the one in orange, hands in pockets and leant against the wall; occasionally glancing between the cameras, but elsewise watching over her compatriots. Visible in one frame is a puddle of what you hope to be vomit.

“Надеюсь, ты знаете, что делаете,” mutters Chukarin.

“’Course I do.” Ritz stiffens, crossing her arms at the slight. She blinks twice or thrice more at the feed; then starts into action: “Alright. Assistant, Sanych, break room; come an’ help me move some shit around. Wait; get somethin’ to clean that puke up, too.”

Chukarin ducks down the stairs and shouts for a “хуевина”, a “пиздюлина воды”, and some “поебе́нь”, before following Ritz into containment unit 3—designated the break room, by virtue of being one of the only places on base well-ventilated enough to smoke in. Kochiya follows along, leaving you alone at the terminal.

You lean over the seat back and continue observing the feed, hand clenching and unclenching as you debate what to make of the rabbits.

. . . you find your focus returning toward the one staring into the camera. Your disquiet grows, watching it; writing itself across your face. The others may well pass for human, but that one—in that one all you see is that stillness, that alien stillness which was always characteristic of a Martian psionic—

—but for it breaks off the stare and buries her face in her knees; her companion moving closer and pulling her into a hug.

You purse your lips. Something tastes terrible, here.

Your attention is diverted by Kochiya rolling a trio of chairs out of the break room and into the adjacent unit, carting a potted fern on one and an ashtray stand on another. Chukarin jogs downstairs to receive the requested mop, bucket, and bleach. That leaves Ritz, standing in the doorway and beckoning you inside.

You let go of the chair. “I take it you have a plan?”

“Uh-huh,” she nods simply.

“And . . . what is it?” you prompt, once it becomes apparent further explanation is not forthcoming. “Sirius? Sumiyoshi? Khabarovsk?”

She gives you a tired glance. “We don’t have time for any of that crap. You know that. Just— get in here.”—she slips back inside, leaving you no choice but to follow.

Inside, the table’s been pushed into the near corner, with a swivel chair beside it; another swivel chair in the middle of the room faces a standard four-legged chair further in. You’ve an inkling of what precisely Ritz means by this arrangement, but you ask anyway: “Explain.”

She gestures toward the chairs with a flourish. “We ask ’em nicely.”

Face falling at your less-than-amused expression, she puts her hands back in her pockets.

“I mean, it’s all we really have to go off of. Or, uh, have time for.”

“Right.” You run your hand down your chin. “Right; and. How nicely are we talking, here?”

“Well, that’ll be up to you. You’re running this.”


“I need you to run the debriefing,” she repeats.

“No; I know what you said. I mean— why?”

“There’s somethin’ fucky about those bunnies.” She taps at her temple again. “Better safe than sorry.”

“No; look; hold on.” You run your fingers through your hair. Alien ‘interrogation’ was one thing, but what she’s asking of you—“I’ve . . . never done this, you know? I mean, I’ve sat in on it once or twice, but it wasn’t part of my job; I was a—”

“—the angel on the rooftop, yeah; I know,” she nods; fishing out a hair tie. “’s not ’cause of that. Don’t worry. I’ll help you.”

Hesitating a moment, you reach out and accept the thing; leaning against the wall and pulling your hair back into its usual ponytail.

“Like I said: I know what I’m doin’.” Ritz steps out the door: “Sanych, get a couple more guys up here. Assistant, get on the cameras.” She turns to you. “For now, uh. Step in there; get their names, get a first impression of ’em. Then we can get on with planning.”

“. . . sure.”

You step into the viewing area, schooling your features to the best of your ability, and tap on the glass; then signal Kochiya to open the door. As you enter the cell, both the blue and orange PJs shift their attention to you immediately. That one ignores you entirely; though you can’t say you mind much.

“Evening.” You channel your best ‘do-you-know-why-I-pulled-you-over’ voice. “I suppose this isn’t the first time we’ve met, but, uh—” you waver on your crutch—“you mind identifying yourselves?”

The rabbits hesitate, looking between each other and yourself; recognition clicking in their heads.

“You, in the orange.” You point to her. “What’s your name? You have a name?”

“Name’s Ringo,” she tells you, meeting your eyes level.

“ ‘Ringo’. O-kay.” You move to put your hand on your waist; then catch yourself. “You two?”

“Seiran,” the one in blue says simply.

“That’s Reisen,” offers ‘Ringo’, shrugging at the final rabbit. “Pardon her; she’s a bit US for now.”

“ ‘US’?”

She blinks. “Ah; just out of it, an’ all.”

“I see. ‘Seiran’, ‘Reisen’, and ‘Ringo’. Okay.” You sniff—face twitching just a moment at the same sweet smell from the UFO. Putting it aside for now, you press on: “Now, this is what’s gonna happen. We’ll be interviewing you in a little while, and—”

“I’ll go,” Ringo volunteers; pausing as if to apologise for the interruption. “It’s just we can’t really leave Reisen by her own right now, is what I’m saying.”

“Mmh.” You glance toward Seiran—who quickly turns back toward the subject of her ministrations; though you notice the occasional, possibly involuntary glance from her. “That’s fine; we’ll have one of you come in and then you can switch out. In the meantime, if you need anything—water, or the like,”—you trail off, gesticulating. “And we’ll get, uh, that cleaned up.”

“Be nice, yeah,” nods Ringo; “some water.”

Ritz swivels round in her chair, laptop set up behind her. “Any thoughts?”

“Well, they’re certainly taking it in stride,” you shrug. You think—

[ ] ‘Ringo’ seems more composed and amenable to questioning; she may be able to give more coherent answers
[ ] ‘Seiran’ seems vulnerable right now; it may be easier to goad answers out of her—or catch her in a lie, if need be

You’ll need to formulate an approach, too; a way to get them talking—through rapport, or otherwise.

For ‘Ringo’—
[ ] Start questioning directly with no pretenses
[ ] Offer incentives in exchange for co-operation
[ ] Try to empathise and connect emotionally
[ ] Play on fears and doubts from a position of power
[ ] Build an illusion of omniscience from existing intel
[ ] Apply psychological pressure techniques

For ‘Seiran’—
[ ] Start questioning directly with no pretenses
[ ] Offer incentives in exchange for co-operation
[ ] Try to empathise and connect emotionally
[ ] Play on fears and doubts from a position of power
[ ] Build an illusion of omniscience from existing intel
[ ] Apply psychological pressure techniques

[ ] Apply enhanced interrogation techniques

… … …

Please vote for at least one and up to three approaches for each rabbit, regardless of which one you choose to go first. (Caveat: EIT overrides every other approach.)
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horse before the cart before the i dunno
Explanation time. I sat down and went over my notes again and it occurred to me that, while I was wondering how to formulate the vote, I'd gotten ahead of myself in the timing of the vote at all. Also, I felt kind of weird calling it for just one vote (no hard feelings, that anon), so here's another, more granular chance for input. Treat this as the belated tail-end of update 5 if you like; it's what I'll be doing internally.
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[X] ‘Ringo’ seems more composed and amenable to questioning; she may be able to give more coherent answers
[X] Start questioning directly with no pretenses
[X] Try to empathise and connect emotionally

That anon here. I was hoping that making a write-in would encourage someone else to try and make one as well.
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I'm going to assume that's one approach each for the respective bunnies. Please correct me if I'm wrong.
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Oh whoops, misread that line at the bottom. They're for both of the bunnies.
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selene s-2 has eyes on you
… … …

[×] ‘Ringo’ seems more composed and amenable to questioning; she may be able to give more coherent answers
[×] Start questioning directly with no pretenses
[×] Try to empathise and connect emotionally

The door shuts behind you with a drawn-out pneumatic hiss—rebuilt fail-safe, rather than the fail-secure of the other units. Ritz falls into role, taking your crutch and easing you down into your seat, before taking her own seat at the laptop; silent all the while. You purse your lips, not bothering to hide the pain of the movement.

If the rabbit bears any trepidation in her heart, she displays none, placing herself in the hot seat without prompting.

You run through the intelligence objectives once more in your mind, opening with an easy question:

“Those two. Seiran and, uh, Reisen. Are they your friends?”

Ringo opens her mouth; then closes it, seeming to reconsider. “Yeah. I s’pose you could say so, yeah.”

You nod, making a guess: “Seen a lot of shit together?”

“Oh, yeah; yeah.” She breaks into a wan smile. “Gettin’ picked up by you folks is the best luck we’ve caught in weeks, true as fact.”

“I see.”—as does Ritz, judging by the tapping of keys. You decide to begin probing here: “The site where we picked you up—how long had you been there?”

Ringo pauses, just perceptibly. “Two days?”

“Do you know?”

“One night two days is right, I scheme. Counting today.” She flicks her armrest. “Was a blerry helluva ride.”

“I’ll bet it would’ve been.” And here you bend the truth, just a little: “No; that sounds about right, then. We caught you on the ’126 coming down. That low, that fast—damn near stopped our hearts.”

“Is it?” She takes the bait. “I’ll bet it did. Nearly stopped mine, too; don’t much fancy bein’ slain by gravity.”

You put up a slight smile. “Call it even on that front, then, eh?”

The rabbit returns it halfway. “Think I will.”

“Look, uh . . . I’ll get straight to the point.” You lean back, idly wobbling your chair. “What were you doing with that scout boat?”

Her lip quivers at that. She opens her mouth experimentally, eyelids fluttering like a camera shutter.

“I need you to answer the question.”

The rabbit averts your gaze, reaching up and brushing a hair aside. “Running away, is all.”

“Running away?”

The rabbit clasps her hands together. “Is it a problem? For you?”

“No, no; uh.” You try to soften your expression a little. “What from?”

“ ‘What from’; ‘what from’?” she murmurs, a small smile growing on her lips.

“Can you tell me?”

The smile doesn’t quite make it to her eyes. “Is this really necessary?”

“. . . come again?”

“Is this really fucking necessary?” she repeats, head lolling back as she casts her eyes about the room. “I mean, what do you want to hear, hey?”

Your countenance flickers, just a touch. “Don’t think of it as ‘what I want to hear’; that’s of no use to either of us—”

“The war.” The words slip out quietly, but smoothly. “Your fucking war.”

You fold your hands, just barely reining in your satisfaction. There it is: the unknown unknown. That third quadrant most pernicious, which is your mission; your tasking; your bread and butter—and, if all goes to plan tonight, your salvation. Unbidden, your mind rushes through the breach in a dozen sprawling paths—

—but no. Focus. Now comes the thorny task of drawing it into the realm of the known unknown.

“The war,” you repeat; playing by ear, now.

You’ve not a clue what she means by that, but you’re willing to let her believe whatever she may for the time being.

Stalling for time, you reach into a pocket, producing a pack of Ritz’ cigarettes, and offer one to the rabbit. She casts a sceptic glare at you—but comes around in the end, taking it and leaning forward. It takes a few tries before it lights; you’ve not made a habit of it; but you light one for yourself, anyway, partly for the act.

While you take the opportunity to savour the feeling, Ringo is less circumspect, launching straight into her own. Her expression morphs through a few different states, ultimately settling on a resigned sort of quiescence.

“. . . paint me a picture.” You borrow one of Eri’s turns of phrase; turning back to the rabbit. “Who you are; why you’re here. Where you were before, and how you got here.”

Ringo chuffs, smoke streaming from her nostrils. “What; you want a life story, is it?”

“You know what I mean. Past few weeks, you said.”

“Fair enough,” she nods. “I’d like my hat back first, though, hey?”

“Your hat?”—that’s right; she had one.

“What; you want me to spill my blerry heart out parked here in nothin’ but my bleddy PJs?”

“Fair enough.” You wave at Ritz, who relays it to Kochiya over the text chat. She takes off her reading glasses and meets the squaddie at the door; decoupling the capture tag before handing the hat to Ringo.

The rabbit frowns, lightly dusting it off, before placing the short-brimmed number on her head and adjusting it to her comfort.

Satisfied, smiling, she glances up; meeting your gaze with pale eyes shone red.

… … …

’126: AN/FPS-126
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I like to think she got possessed and shot by that glare. Sure, anticlimactic, but at least it is a proper end
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I know that you didn't have many votes for the last few updates, but I was wondering do you have any plans to continue this or write something else?
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I've enjoyed your story, but I'm only one person, I can't speak for everyone. Lots of stories update at slow paces, so I'm not really bothered by that.
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growing rapport
“Repulse ’01—didn’t. Tangent ’01—wishful thinking. Grapple ’02—that’s us; that's now. We park our tails down and we scrap it out with Mars over the ocean.” Ringo lifts one leg, lean and pale, to cross it over the other. It’s smooth; practised, almost. “Well. Frankly, we were drowning.”

Something smoulders, forgotten, in your hand. Mars, again—

A snort rises from behind you. “Am I typin’ out your memoirs for ya?”

The rabbit’s smile grows wry. “Do me the honour would you?”

“Maybe later,” you pre-empt, caring little for a guess at Ritz’ thoughts. Shifting gingerly in your chair, you mete out the words for a response: “I suspect we have somewhat more to learn about each other than expected.”

There’s a flicker, barely caught, in Ringo’s eyes. It’s another moment before her rejoinder: “More about us than you expected.”

You keep silent.

She drops her leg down and hunches with her arms on her knees, smoke drifting up beneath her face. “Mars,” she enunciates finally, voice dripping with no great sentiment. “I scheme we’re all of us bloody well-acquainted on that front, hey?”

It’s barely a question. “Put mildly.”

“Murdering bastards,” she hisses.

Less mildly, then.

“ ‘Egregiously Belligerent Entities’,” you quote. You shake your head lightly, in reply to the unasked question worn on Ringo’s face. “Some COMOPS staff guy snuck it into a debrief, early on. I think he was hoping for it to catch on. Most of that shit just got really old really fast.” You pause. “ ‘Redsand’ stuck around the longest, I think.”

“Why ‘redsand’?” Ritz mutters. “Never got that.”

“It was ‘redsand November’ before INTAF put their foot down on the ‘November’ part.”


“So, well.” You wave a hand off to the side. “The feeling is shared.”

“Is it,” says Ringo, at the end of a pause long enough perhaps to imply otherwise.

A longer one follows.

[ ] The ocean
[ ] Grapple
[ ] Our war?
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[X] Our war?

Happy to see this back~
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[X] Our war?
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Called, by the way.
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(not this one)
[×] Our war?

You’ll pull at the thread you’ve already got in hand. The rest will follow in due time.

“You called it . . . exclusive-our war,” you begin. “Why’s—”

“Whose else’s?” Ringo says blandly.

“—mmh.” You take a moment to reassemble the question into a more useful shape. “So, as to— with that in mind, how would you describe the nature of your own involvement?”

The rabbit regards you strangely, ashing her cigarette before lacing her unoccupied fingers. “That . . . is a bit of a black box, look. And I am the one telling it.”

“Well, do your best.”

She frowns, and gives a yawn, long and wide and toothy, and the sight of it is enough to put any image of rabbits far and away out of your mind, for as long as never be it seen a terrestrial rabbit wearing the teeth and tongue of sapiens sapiens.

Then she sits up straight again, and you swat away the errant thought as she starts to explain.

“On this end it’s ’97, an’ that’s when the whole blerry thing starts. But we, for our bit—we’re watching, to be sure, but elsewise we keep out of it in ’97. And we are out of it in ’98, and we are out of it in ’99 and out of it in 2000.” She runs her tongue between her lips. “Come the ’99 close-approach is the first big wave, when you all catch a wake-up an’ the shooting starts in earnest, all correct? So that . . . is where the border-line of my knowledge, of my access, sits on this end.

“Then the year is 2001, and . . . I’ll say first that I’ve seen the film and it is not the black box I’m speaking about, hey?” Ringo and yourself exchange faint smiles, though hers is first to fade away. “But this is the other end of it, halfway through ’01.”

And with that, yours is gone too.

She continues. “Because in ’01, they forget all about you. Just so; right in the middle of the bloody close-approach.” She stubs out the spent filter. “And wouldn’t you know it: the squids are at our throats, in lieu. We—are—involved. But the nature of our involvement?”

There’s a lingering accusation somewhere—in her glare, or in the undertow of her voice, or in the spaces of her pauses.

“That’s the fucking black box.”
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triage at dusk
Her words barely have time to sink in before Ritz is by your side, fresh with another interruption. She glances between you and your interviewee, running the mental calculus of security versus urgency—settling for a faint whisper: “Medical situation in containment.”

Ringo catches it loud and clear, of course, as was the expectation. “What,” she hisses.

You hold up a hand, at once to placate her and to acknowledge her in the development. “Details?”

“Looks like the one in the blue’s havin’ trouble breathin’,” Ritz explains, tacking on a belated “uh, Seiran is” as she glances over at Ringo. “Other one’s bangin’ up a storm against the door.”

“Shit. Okay— agh—” You wince at the motion of the catheter as Ritz helps you to your feet. It occurs to you that you’d never seen any Martian in a similar predicament: for all the feats of physicality they could display in battle, the Martian constitution always made stark division between them of the healthy—and the dead.

In short, you’re caught entirely flat-footed.

Options flit through your head. First and foremost is—

Help her!” snarls Ringo, eyes wild. She’s taken the seat of her chair in a vice-grip on either side, arms seemingly straining to keep herself from launching out of it. “Fucking—”

“No shit!” Ritz snaps—“No fuckin’ shit, okay? So sit down! Fuck!”

And Ringo does: sits, stunned, in the residuum of her own outburst, quietly regathering her lost composure.

“Update,” Ritz calls, back at her laptop and tapping intermittently at the keyboard. She keeps her eyes locked on the screen as she talks: “Alright, they got, uh, Reisen to chill out, an’ she’s sayin’ . . . sayin’ it’s a broken rib?”

“Is it—” no; not like they’d be able to tell. “You think the, uh, med-bay?”

“Fuck if I know.” She brass checks her pistol, and then hammers out one final message on the machine before pressing it closed and taking it under her arm. The door hisses open a moment later. “Bet the Doc’ could, though.”

“Great.” You lean against your crutch and draw your own pistol to check it, pushing the rear sight against the edge of the table for lack of a third arm.

. . . the action makes an uncomfortable realisation bubble up in the back of your mind: that the weight in your hand is more safety blanket—liability, even—than actual tool of last resort, had your interviewee proved less co-operative than she did.

You re-holster and do your best to ignore it.

“Wait,” says Ringo.

Two Cpts. spin round on her.

“Look, look; listen.” She manages a measured tone, though barely. “Don’t bring a weapon in there.”

You gaze dully at her. “What.”

“Don’t bring a weapon in there,” she repeats. “I’m tellin’ this for free, so believe me, hey? It’s for her good; it’s for your good; look. She can—” she hastily wets her lips—“Seiran—she can fuck with your weapons, alright?”

Again: “What.”

“With the bullets; she can— look, it’s— just now, earlier, she had an AD, yeah?” She gestures to—you, around your waist. “Accidental discharge; she’s not had one in forever; giving her unreal fucking stress right now.” She pauses, edge of her lip pressing thin; not wavering under your intensifying glare, but meeting it steady. “If you bring a weapon in there, you’ll be worse off than without.”

A negligent discharge. It’s certainly given you more than just stress. Your knuckles pale around the grip of your crutch for a moment as your wound throbs from the attention.

“Or if you let me help you, I could help her catch a grip.”


Ringo inhales, still steady. “Moral support. I— we— we go way back.”

You breathe; blink once, twice; stare with heavy eyelids. Plainly—you don’t like this. No reason you should, so you don’t bother hiding the fact.

However hesitant you are, though, Ritz doesn’t seem to share the half of it: “Well, sure, if that—”

“For fuck’s sake,” you growl.

The two of you stare each other down, before turning as one to Kochiya, who’s watching quietly from the terminal.

He waves, pushes a button, and disappears behind the door again.

You turn back to Ritz. “Why—”

“I want them— We’ll need them alive. And happy.”

—risk it. No shit. Ringo’s been civil enough, and regardless of her intentions, it was only because of whatever considerations you’ve afforded them so far. But even letting go of the issue of trust, just this interview—“It’ll spoil what we got just now, if they talk.”

“ ’s fine; I’ll get what I want.” No explanation, of course.

You rub your face and breathe another curse into your hand, glaring at the other two from between your fingers.

[ ] Bring Seiran to the med-bay
→ [ ] Under armed escort
→ [ ] Ask Eri to help
[ ] Have rudimentary treatment performed in containment
→ [ ] Under armed supervision
→ [ ] Ask Eri to advise
[ ] Deny treatment

[ ] Let Ringo help
→ [ ] With Seiran
→ [ ] With Reisen
[ ] Keep Ringo isolated

… … …

First two pairs of sub-options are yes/no for each; third pair is one or the other.
I had most of this already sitting on my hard drive which is why it was fast.
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[X] Bring Seiran to the med-bay
→ [X] Under armed escort
→ [X] Ask Eri to help

[X] Let Ringo help
→ [X] With Seiran
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[X] Bring Seiran to the med-bay
→ [X] Under armed escort
→ [X] Ask Eri to help

[X] Let Ringo help
→ [X] With Seiran

I didn't notice this started up again. What a pleasant surprise, I figured it was dead.
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[X] Bring Seiran to the med-bay
→ [X] Under armed escort
→→[X] Stun rods/Arc throwers
→ [X] Ask Eri to help

[X] Let Ringo help
→ [X] With Reisen
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Ain’t no wonder that your belly gets sore~
They’re grazin’ the boxes from the Second World War~

… … …

[×] Bring Seiran to the med-bay
→ [×] Under armed escort
→ [×] Ask Eri to help

[×] Let Ringo help
→ [×] With Seiran

Ritz sets her laptop down. “Look, Iris, the, uh— I’ll— uh.” She purses her lips: she’s run up to the end of her chain, and she knows it. Not that it’s any favour to you—if you want to avoid an implosion of everything that’s happened today, your only choice remains to move forward.

But you walked into this of your own will. Eri didn’t.

You draw in breath and release it in turn, focusing on the familiar comfort of the emptiness between cycles.

“. . . how about this.” You take out your pistol and drop the magazine onto the table, before again putting the rear irons against the edge of it and racking out the chamber—hiding a scowl as it slips once and then twice before you manage to get it right. Capturing the ejected round underfoot for now, you then hit the decocker and re-holster the pistol, loading the magazine back in before drawing it again.

Ritz catches on, clearing and reloading hers to condition 3.

“Is that good?” you offer.

Ringo sighs tiredly. “It’s . . . better.”
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… … …

Sitting at the terminal, you listen in as Ringo outlines the situation to the others, going over the transfer procedure in your own head parallel with her explanation. Your brow furrows, as one particular hang-up refuses to smooth itself over; you’re about to get on the intercom, when Ritz leans in beside you.

“Pink noise still runnin’?” she asks.

“Hm? Oh.” The psionic ‘noise’ emitter. “Yeah.”

“So they’re talkin’ in there, right?” A pair of sock puppet hands dance about your peripheral vision. “Vocal communication goin’ on? Verbiage happenin’? Sound waves?—”


“Okay.” She pulls back, nodding. “That’s, uh, that’s good.”

You wave her off, adjusting your headset, and key the mic twice to get Ringo’s attention. She looks up, eyes bouncing between the speaker and the camera for a moment, not sure which one to address; ultimately deciding neither to be worth the effort.

“Send it,” she calls out.

“I just want to confirm—Reisen is gonna be alright on her own?” you ask.

Ringo seems to consider the question for a moment, pulling a glance sidelong at the rabbit in question; watching her sip mechanically from a plastic bottle. Shrugging, she takes a swig of her own water. “She, well— the old girl is talking now. That’s a start.”

Seiran cranes her head up from her position on the floor. “Hey; what?”

“She’s,” starts Ringo—“what?”

“Talking. Since— when?”

You inch up the feed volume and turn on loudness equalisation so you can hear them better.

“She told us—told them you were having trouble, wasn’t it? With your rib?”

“Fucking,” Seiran grunts, “I told ’em.” She brings her hand up to her abdomen, leaving it to rest just shy of the injury. “I don’t know, but it blerry well hurts like it’s broken.”

“Then— Reisen, she’s . . .” Ringo rests her chin on her fist, looking back up at the camera.

Seiran follows her gaze upwards, easing her head down and staring dully at you through the feed. She tries—grimaces—then speaks, voice brought to a low rasp. “Reisen? She’ll be fine. If she’ll hurt anyone—” she scrunches her eyes shut—“it’ll only be herself.”

You’re about to key the mic again, when Ringo more-or-less raises the question for you: “Bloody hell, Seina’?”

“That’s all they’re asking after, isn’t it?” Seiran waves up at you, lolling over to face Ringo. “What?”

. . . all you’re able to see is the back of Ringo’s head.

“Fuck’s sakes.” Seiran runs both hands over her face. “Catch a wake-up, hey? Reisen is not going— to hurt herself. Come on.”

There’s a crinkle of plastic in Ringo’s hand, words building in her chest; words abandoned, as Seiran breaks into a hacking cough, curling up reflexively onto her wounded side before sprawling back down flat so she can breathe again. The feed falls into silence, save for pained, shallow breathing.

Ringo glares acidly at you, waving an exaggerated send-off, before moving to help her friend.

You key the mic twice in acknowledgement.

“What’s takin’ ’em so long?” Ritz mutters, off in the corner. Your XO is over in the break room, availing himself of a cigarette, Chukarin’s gone to fetch his squadmates, and for your part—you’re still at the terminal, if for nothing else than a lack of want for to get back up.

Out of curiosity, or else simple restlessness, you pull up the TC window—#_ADHOC_UFO127_INTEL_COORD.

1849:37 <kkochiya_alt> I asked, says it's a broken rib
1849:38 <kkochiya_alt> Might be my fault
1849:38 <~ritz> c
1849:38 <kkochiya_alt> When I kicked her off Iris

. . . Kochiya’s access card is still inside the reader.

1857:52 - kkochiya_alt is now known as マサキのパソコン_trm
1857:52 - Disconnected

“Oi,” you call, waving the card. “Kochiya.”

“Yeah?” He stubs out his cigarette and jogs over, face falling as he finds the tiny portrait of himself smiling back at him. “Ah, shit. I—”

“No, don’t apologise.” You pass the card to him without fanfare. You’d forgotten, too—left your own access card to burn a hole in your pocket, the whole time you were on the terminal. “Just . . . police it.”

“Will do; yes.” He accepts it hesitantly, concern furrowing his brow. “If . . . I might ask . . .”

You head him off, pulling one ear of your headset aside. “I think they’re here.”

Not a second later, the sound of a door opening downstairs and at least half a dozen pairs of boots filing through it announce the arrival of Ritz’ detachment. You spin your chair gently round, counting them as they come up one by one: Chukarin, Belov, Andianov, Ragulin, Kolotov, Zhdanovich, Romanov, and Voronin, the last one hefting a cardboard box in addition to the rifle slung across his back.

Ritz herself snaps back to life, pointing Voronin toward the break room. “Just stick that in there for now. Hey—where’s Dima?”

Chukarin shrugs. “Сегодня день спагетти.”

“Ah, yeah; forgot.” She turns to you. “Petrov’s fixin’ pasta tonight. You want any?”

“Nah. Not hungry.” Not strictly true, but your appetite is roundly shot, and the thought of Russian spaghetti does little to revive it at the moment.


“Ah, no, thanks.”

“Suit yourselves.” She turns back to her guys. “Alright, get those weapons in condition three.”

. . . the instruction is met with little response, aside from mild confusion. Romanov—you think it’s Romanov—is the one to speak up. “Кондишен три?”

“Патронник пуст, в оружии магазин,” Chukarin supplies.

There’s a general mumble of ‘всё уже’.

“Well, check ’em again.” Ritz taps her holster. “If you got a sidearm on ya, that too. This is important.” She waits for the cavalcade of slides and rifle bolts to pass, before continuing. “Did you get the stretcher?”

“Она внизу.” Ragulin waves down the stairs. “Мы её не можем поднять.”

Ritz crosses her arms. “Yeah, shit; that’s tricky. Assistant, how’d you get them up here?”

“Fireman carry.” Kochiya grimaces. “Yeah.”

“Yeah,” she says, turning over to you now. “So, uh, ’nless little bunny blue’s feelin’ fit to walk?”

You glance at the feed, where Seiran’s still lying flat on the cell floor, head resting in Ringo’s lap. “Uh. No.” You rub your eyes. “Just do a chair lift.”

“Hnh. Yeah, that’ll work.” She picks out two squaddies at random. “Palych; Tolyan?”

Kolotov and Voronin step forward, slinging their rifles behind them. Not at random, then, if what you remember of their psionic screening results is anything to go by.

Ritz is about to start giving further orders, when she stops herself and glances over at you.

“Eh, you know what, Iris? You go on ahead; give the Doc’ some advance warnin’. We’ll catch up.”

You’ve put it off for long enough, you suppose.
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I apologize for bumping this but is there supposed to be a vote or anything?
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Not yet, but it's coming. I post snippets early to try and keep at least a little bit of forward momentum.
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bad at apologies
… … …

You find Eri commandeering the chairs outside the examination room, laptop balanced on her knees. A sheet of paper marked with arcane surgeon’s scrawl rests over the right half of the screen, bearing a crease mark down the middle to keep it from curling over. She collates it with a stack of others as you approach, closing her laptop and sandwiching the papers inside.

“Yo.” You wave as you make your way over. “Not in your office?” you remark. It’s not a question; you’re long familiar with her habit of turning up here and there around the base, using physical shifts in perspective to break out of mental holding patterns—so she explained it.

Eri gathers her hands together, resting them atop the machine, and looks up at you with a quiet resignation.

You muster up a friendly smile, holding it out as an olive branch. “Did it work out? I mean— worked out for my end, but for you?” you chatter. “Get any useful data, or? What’d the surgeon say?—”

“Iris,” she says, finally.

You give her the time she needs to put her words in order.

She continues. “I . . . more than anything else, I’m relieved there were no complications. And I should thank you for having endured under— such extemporised preparations.” She pauses, voice dwindling near to a whisper. “If . . . you feel that I—if I have—crossed any boundaries, I’m prepared—”

“No; uh, hey.” You hold up a hand. “Slow down a sec’?”

Eri stares at you, dark eyes laid bare.

“I— look— I don’t mind,” you say.

“Iris,” she murmurs. “You—”

“I really don’t. Not when the alternative is, what, half a dozen screws—”

“Iris.” It’s a more familiar tone, now: the one she takes when she thinks you might end up getting hurt. “That is not the issue at hand, here.”

“I know, but— look, there’s . . . something bigger on the radar right now, so— just take it,” you blurt, closing your eyes as the immediate wave of regret washes over you.

She’s silent again, now, impassive, taking in the admission by inches; reading it over in excruciating detail. And you stand, waiting, for what feels like the onset of an eternity—but for it ends, then, and she relaxes, having made her conclusions.

“And what is it that I might help you with?” she asks.

“The rabbits,” you begin, pausing as Eri looks at you blankly. You rewind a bit, explaining: “We, uh, took in some detainees, earlier—” and stop again, hurriedly putting together an explanation for that

“Yes, I’m aware.”

“Oh.” You blink. “Uh.”

“Has something happened?” she asks, plainly.

“No— well, yeah,” you fumble; “one of them has—a broken rib, or something—and we wanted to get it looked at. I figured you might know what to do.”

“That’s . . . rather generous,” she says, tilting her head fractionally. Still, she moves to stow her workstation, zipping it away in its carrier.

You waver on your feet. “Is it?”

“Xenobiology is—” she stands—“not my field.”

“Mmh.” That’s what she meant. You purse your lips, inhaling at length; realising just how tired you are. “That . . . may not be a concern at this particular juncture,” you admit.

Eri says nothing to that, an unreadable expression taking over her face—admonishing, somehow, but not for the obvious reasons. She turns, instead, to the sound of boots on linoleum and the blonde-haired detachment officer leading the van.

“. . . I’ll see what I can do.”
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