Recent Statuses

7 mos ago
Current I change my status every year.
2 yrs ago
"You went to the Chaplain, who also kicked you out. How do you antagonize a Chaplain?"
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2 yrs ago
Current status: Bumming cigarettes off of a Chilean guy.
3 yrs ago


I'm Evan and I like hard liquor, trashy EDM, and shooting things. On the side, I dabble in strategic analysis and I have a blast working through logistical planning.

I study nuclear engineering: It's basically a sophisticated counting exercise that usually ends up in two ways depending on if your math is right or not: either water boils or people die horribly.

Most Recent Posts

Shahan IVa
Five years ago

A map of a few square kilometers of grassland had been projected by hologram from a device on the ground, red dots pinpointing anti-air artillery systems hidden cleverly in stealthy bunkers in the hills. A semicircle of half a dozen enemy positions surrounded a town: Vaanat. Once an old mining town and spaceport, it was a boom town searching for the minerals that powered computer technologies. Samarium, europium, yttrium, and other rare-earth minerals flowed from extensive tunnel systems mined by robots, humans, and alien workers. Now, the insurgency occupied them. Positions were fortified and bunkers were created from which missile systems emerged, shot their payload, and retreated back inside to be reloaded. It was thought that the enemies were printing new missile components to be assembled in factories far below the moon's surface. The prize of Vaanat was its improvised ship-killer: a gimbal-mounted system built from an old asteroid-cracker's mining laser turned upwards. The RKS Rukshona had orbited over this side of the planet only to be split in half by the beam and lost with all hands. It was time for revenge.

Sadaet's team's communications station was set up inside a portable metal building by their outpost. An antenna honed in on the closest insurgent air defense station, picking up scrambled signals as the photonic communications sped between platforms. But things were sparse, and they needed to kick the hornet's nest. Sadaet leaned over the shoulder of a drone operator, sleeves rolled to his elbows in the sweltering heat, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Nearby, a sturdy robotic strike aircraft fired up its engines and rolled to the edge of its launch pad. Underneath, it carried two hypersonic glide missiles. A partner aircraft carried the same missiles, but with high-yield nuclear warheads. They had to punch their way through the missile shield to get to the ship-cracker.

"Alright, let's get the first one in," Sadaet ordered. Outside the communications post, the first drone lifted off. "Put it on a nuclear attack trajectory."

The drone operator coolly took over the controls, programming it in for what equated to a modern-day dive bombing. The drone would fly until it thought it had distanced itself from the air station before firing off its missiles. This one, however, was designed to be a decoy. Sadaet wanted it to fly in too close, fire its weapons too late. The rebels, figuring that they had made a mistake, would announce that they would be intercepting and destroying this strike craft. All of those communications would be seen by Sadaet.

It took a few minutes of flying before the drone reached the edge of the missile shield. He watched the screen as it banked inwards towards the red dot at the east end of the ring. The rebels popped their launcher of its bunker, revealing itself to the reconnaissance assets positions nearby, and fired. Sadaet's drone launched, not in time. He watched the blips on the map travel towards each other at tremendous speed, right as one of his crewmen shouted: "Got a lock!"

Over the intercom, a rebel's accented voice announced the drone's position and that they were coming under attack. Instantly, Sadaet saw data appear on his commander's screen. The location of the sender and the receiver. What was being said. Telemetry data. It was a poorly-secured system indeed. That's what happened when they used commercial datalink systems that weren't hardened and diversified: everything flowed forth on one channel, encrypted and hidden. The key had been in their pocket the whole time, so Sadaet just needed to find the source. He gave the command to jam it. Instantly, a signal was injected into the stream that scrambled the datalink. A simplistic AI caught a ride from their beam to the enemy data stream, flowing towards the air defense node and its command center. Instantly, the missile on Sadaet's map veered off on a random course and the drone flew away. The friendly missile hit the bunker and wiped the blip from the map.

With an opening, the second drone exploited it. Under control of the strategic nuclear forces and out of Sadaet's hands, he watched as it leisurely headed through the gap. The holographic map displayed, in perfect clarity, as both missiles were let loose. One headed directly towards the ship-killer. The other, for the town. His heart raced, watching the two yellow missiles glide across the hills and over the insurgent battle positions. Less than five minutes later, the ship-killer exploded. The gigantic laser vanished underneath a massive burst of heat and blast, vaporizing. The blast wave carried out a few kilometers over the grassland, its shock going into the ground and tearing up the tunnels. Rebels were buried alive, gasping for air as the fire sucked it all out of their hiding-places. The second one headed to finish them off: the command node was in the town. That one hit a minute later, effortlessly blasting down thousands of people and demolishing the coordination of enemy air defenses.

Sadaet listened over the radio as the nuclear forces announced their successful strikes. He frowned, listening to his commander acknowledge and announce the arrival of a bombardment group from the other side of the planet. "Keep their position surrounded," was the order. They would reach their position within a few hours. Every little blip of life would soon be gone from Vaanat. From the men to the women to the children, from the guilty to the innocent: all life would perish and the ground would turn to glass. It was only a matter of time.

The Revenant
Present day

Sadaet's room aboard the ship was sparse at first, just four bare metal walls with a window he was certain was electronic. A small bathroom with a shower was all his own, which was nice. Already, he had spent some hours setting up his equipment from the hotel. A crew of Helios Station drones had delivered equipment he ordered with the exquisite credit advance given to him by Stryker. His computer station, communications gear, and a table with various electronics and boxes of tools and parts occupied a large section of the wall. A personal drone, his own, sat lifeless on the table waiting to be fixed. On the floor, he had ordered a rug. He liked rugs: if he was walking around barefoot, the metal floor would get cold. He sat down on his bed and ran his hands through his wild hair. He looked up at the corners of his room, wondering where the Alliance had placed the camera. He knew they couldn't be without supervision.

A message on his phone sprang out of the background. He had been linked into the data system by Stryker and had access to the internal comms. It was from the doctor, someone named Varrus. He had been on the ship for hours but had never seen the person. Apparently it was for a medical examination, which Sadaet found a little questionable. Doing physicals? Did the Alliance have medical standards for deniable, black operatives? He laughed it off, before laying down on his bed. His tired eyes closed, feeling the soft warmth embrace of the mattress. He sunk into it, losing himself to sleep. Things went black for him.

Until a flash of light tore through his dreams. A rumble shook him. A fireball rose from pristine grasslands, blowing through buildings and incinerating faceless people. Debris flew through the air, ripping across the fields and swerving right past his head. The man awoke, shooting up from his bed. He felt the heat in the air and smelled... burning. The prairie was on fire. "Fuck!" he shouted. He stopped, hands on his thighs, looking down at the metal floor. He hoped nobody heard him.

"That fuckin' war," he grumbled to himself. "Shithole fuckin' moons." He checked his phone again. The message from Varrus was still marked as unread. He figured that he should probably show up for that. At least making friends with the doctor would yield benefits in the long run.

Hrazdan, Armenia

Jon’s go-to bar was stood up a few blocks away from the school’s student apartments, at the bottom floor of a five-story building with a newspaper printing office right above it. In a row of several bars capped off by a corner store, the Hollywood Hayeren stood out with its obnoxious red, white, and blue neon lighting and an American flag hanging in the window next to an Armenian one. In English, American beer brands like Budweiser and Miller were proudly advertised: “The only place in town for imported American beers!” exclaimed the chalk sign on the sidewalk outside. Inside was dimly lit in red, a speaker playing jazz recordings, and Americana plastered on the walls. A surfboard, a stolen spade-shaped California State Route 110 road sign, and framed photographs of Los Angeles landmarks like the Hollywood sign and the skyline all covered the worn wooden panels. The bar was steel, fashioned almost like a diner’s, with round swiveling stools bolted next to it. Cigarette smoke wafted across the ceiling. The bartender, Mike Sinanian, polished off a glass as Jon came through the door.

“And make sure you close leave that open a little bit, yeah?” asked Mike. Jon stopped to kick the doorstop in, allowing some of the smoke to funnel its way out of the door. “I’m not trying to choke to death in my own bar tonight.”

Jon removed his suitcoat and hung it up on the coatrack next to the door. He loosened his tie, removed it, and threw it haphazardly onto the same rack. Unbuttoning his collar and pushing his sleeves up, he sat down at the counter. Mike slid him a coaster and an ashtray as Jon took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “You got any of those American ones from your guy back home? You know, the ones with the Mexican sounding name and the cowboys?” Jon asked. “Always wondered what those were like.”

“Marlboros?” replied Mike. He chuckled a bit. “Haven’t been able to get any. I’m already struggling to talk to my guy in LA enough as is. Ordered a bit more of my stock just in case. The only reason I get business is curiosity. People wonder what the Amerikahayer live like. You know, LA is pretty busy nowadays. Things are back to normal, I suppose, after the war but it’s getting bigger and better there and he’s forgetting about little old me.”

Without asking, Mike filled a glass of Budweiser from his tap and placed it on top. Like a routine, Jon placed twenty dram in a neat stack in front of him. The beer, light and refreshing, hit his lips and he drank it down like the water it basically was. Jon checked his watch. “We’ve been getting busy at work trying to rush orders for the Amrots landships ever since Parliament started debating the president’s new war plans. There are a few Reserve battalions we are ready to equip with the damn things. I’ve heard they’re not trying to pull the inactive men, though. Thank God.”

“Everyone’s in the Reserve,” Mike reminded him. And he was right: all Armenian men were, on a macro level, organized into five distinct readiness classes of personnel. Status A troops were the volunteer, elite, frontline units given the best training and equipment: they worked the front with new equipment like automatic assault rifles. Status B troops were the rank-and-file members of the Army or Border Service, often conscripts, and were by far the most common sight to see. Jon and Mike belonged to the Status G reservists, serving their mandatory National Service term as a civilian with annual trainings and the occasional set of orders through the mailbox. Status D men were organized loosely into local Fedayeen militias, armed often only with bolt action rifles and an armband to indicate their status as a combatant. The rest belonged to Status F: special forces, irregular combatants, and secret programs that were well out of most of the country’s sight. Mike smiled and chuckled: “That’s a disruption. Shit, what would you do if I got called up and had to shutter the bar for a while?” he asked.

“Well if the Hollywood closed down I’d just take my business elsewhere. Tsaghkadzor pays well for a summer work exposure job.”

“I’m sure it does. Government contracts are very lucrative nowadays,” Mike agreed. He rested his arms down onto the table and adjusted the large, black-rimmed glasses he wore. “You’d think the state would just take control of everything at this point.”

“But then where would the money go?” joked Jon. He took another sip of his beer: “I’m already paying enough in taxes. They take so much of my money already. They tax shit and make it more expensive. My boss is already grumbling about the new fuel tax increase, since it’s getting more expensive to run the tanks through the proving ground. But at least this new guy doesn’t want to like, pay to resettle the Russians… Can you imagine? They’ve already crowded themselves into shitty parts of town. Where was Vadratian going to put them? Camps or some shit? Let ‘em live in their crappy apartments and shoot each other, they’re not shooting me or setting my corner store on fire, so I’ll live with that.”

“But hey, at least rent would be cheaper,” admitted Mike. “That is, if you want to move into the ghettoes. Gyumri used to be way more expensive until the Russians moved in. Which I suppose is a blessing if you just stay out of the east.”

“Last I heard through the rumor mill from one of the tank crews was that the police just found a deserter who stole a ton of guns and gave them to the Mafiya. Another one tried to make a run for Georgia and was arrested by the Border Service.”

“Jesus Christ,” Mike exclaimed. “That’s some Wild West shit if I’ve ever heard it,” he said, even if Jon only vaguely caught his reference to the film genre.

“A bunch of Russians on meth with submachineguns,” commented the student with a knowing nod. “Can you imagine? Shooting a guy four times and he’s still coming at you?”

He finished off his beer, downing it until only a light ring of foam was left at the bottom of the glass. He pushed the coaster and glass to the other side of the bar, which Mike took to the tap. He pulled back on the lever with an ornately advertised red Budweiser logo: only a touch of liquid dribbled its way out of the head. The bartender kicked the keg down below the bar like it would help, but was unsuccessful. He shrugged and turned to his patron: “Want to come to the cellar and help me get another keg up here? It’s a pain in the ass doing it myself.”

Jon agreed, sliding off the stool to follow the bartender around the bar and through a metal door that sat inconspicuously in the corner. Above it, a yellow metal sign featured a white circle with a falling bomb and “shelter” in big capital letters. Most buildings in the country, especially newer ones, were mandated to have a bomb shelter of a certain capacity: one family’s size for your own home, enough for your tenants in an apartment building, or a sizeable one enough for your patrons in an establishment. Ostensibly, they were supposed to be stocked and ready to use at all times, but most people were using them for storage in the absence of a credible threat. Mike had been keeping the spare spirits in his shelter so that he could free up the actual storage room for more seating. The pair descended the creaking wooden stairs, lit dimly by a single lightbulb, and entered through another door. Metal shelves of bottles, boxes, and kegs lined the shelter along with other acquired junk that the bartender owned. Mike and Jon found a keg of the beer and hoisted it up, climbing the stairs again.

The hoses connected and the tap working as intended, Mike poured the first glass of mostly foam out into the sink before offering Jon another beer. He poured himself another glass, claiming that he was thirsty as well, and toasted it with the student. They sipped on the cold brew together, listening to the jazz, as the door creaked open again. A young woman, probably no older than her early twenties, stepped through the door. The first thing Jon noticed was her hair, obviously dyed a light blonde, clashing with her olive brown skin. On her face, a crooked sloped nose betrayed her Persian ethnicity. A Muslim woman drinking in a bar? But Jon was familiar enough with the Persian culture to know that many of them, particularly city-folk, were not avid Muslims. Tehran had wild underground parties, speakeasies where the liquor flowed, and even red light districts tucked away in various alleys and backstreets. A woman with, of all things, dyed hair was definitely not from the countryside. She sat down at one of the seats on the far end of the bar while Mike and Jon exchanged looks.

“Welcome, miss… Have you been here before?” Mike asked gently as he went over to her side. He stayed standing straight with his arms crossed, careful not to get too close. She looked at him curiously.

“Eh, no,” she said in her soft, girlish Tehrani accent, pausing between words as she searched for the right one. “But I have just moved in the next block over. Can I get one of whatever is cheap?”

The bartender quickly passed her a beer, accepting her cash. She grabbed the glass gingerly with both hands and sipped it from the foam: she looked slightly offended by the taste. Jon observed this and smirked a little into his drink, turning his head to try and hide it. The woman shook her head and asked in disbelief: “How can you drink this? Is this American?”

“Well, yes… but it’s an acquired taste,” Jon answered, looking over her perplexed face. In his best Persian, he tried to ask her about what she usually drank: “Dar Iran, chetor mahmuli shoma mi nushid?

The woman’s eyes shot from her drink to Jon as she smiled broadly. “Farsi sohbat mi koni? Che ali!” she answered rapidly. “Hijkes tu Armanistan zibaan-am nadonan!

Jon shook his head and smiled at Mike, who just crossed his arms. “I don’t know that much,” Jon admitted. “See, I just study it at university. Hrazdan Industrial University. Esm-e shoma chi eh?” he added, asking her name. The girl laughed at his accent.

Farah Kalantari!” she answered excitedly, leaning in closer to Jon. “I am also here at that school for this next term. See, I am one of the first women to study management in Persia. Armenia has a… a… a good reputation for factories! Very efficient, very modern. Like Europe!”

“We learned a lot from the Europeans who came here. We have lots of Armenians in those countries who brought their skills home after the war,” Jon explained, running his hands through his hair. “I’m glad that my school is very famous. It even draws fine women now, plenty like you. My name is Jon, by the way. Korkarian.”

The night went on in the bar as the two students introduced themselves and talked. Drinks were filled and emptied, Mike filling the glasses from his tap until he was ready to close them out. The youths remained the only people in the bar until the lights started to turn off and the record was removed from its needle. Curtains were closed, windows were locked, and Mike had to let them loose on the streets of Hrazdan as the clock struck ten. He thanked them for their business and let them know he was excited to see them whenever they came back. Jon and Farah decided to walk home together to her apartment, crossing the main street by the entrance to the bar’s alley and continuing down a row of identical concrete apartment buildings. Illuminated by the yellow streetlamps, Farah led Jon to the entrance of her building. “I can go home from here,” she said with a smile. In a hopeful tone, she asked: “You said you come there all the time, yes?”

The student put his hands in his pocket: “Of course. I love Mike, he’s my friend. The bar is a good place in town. I’ll see you there sometime soon, right?”

“Of course! Have a good night, Jon.” Farah bounded off to unlock the creaky wooden door of her building and slip inside. Jon turned away, casting one last glance at the address of her building and heading off down the street, alcohol buzzing through his veins and making his feet feel almost like they had weights in them. Luckily, he wasn’t too drunk: he could manage. His apartment was in the complete opposite direction, a few blocks down past the Hollywood. He didn’t mind the walk, the streets of Hrazdan were peaceful after dark. The industrial town operated almost like a factory itself: aside from the obvious like firemen or policemen, nobody was out after nightfall. They all needed their sleep for their job. Jon didn’t even see a stray animal on his way back to the student apartments. He climbed the stairs up to his floor and opened the door quietly so as to not disturb his roommate. They both had work in the morning as well: Jon went right to sleep.

Sochi, Kuban Unorganized Territories

Their seaplane wobbled its wings as it hit a patch of turbulence. Its ungainly body, shaped more like a hull than anything else, shook slightly. The strong propellers cut through the air. It flew in the darkness of night, skimming the water and dipping up to head through a valley once it reached the shore. A red light illuminated the cabin, in which a crew chief looked out through a window. He scanned the dark forests below, looking for his target. The plane passed over what looked to be a large swatch of farmland just on the outskirts of the city, right behind a mountain range. He turned his head to the two figures sitting in the cabin, burdened by green parachute packs and rucksacks. He raised his arms in a “get up” motion, ordering them to clip into a steel wire hanging above the seats. Wordlessly, the yellow static lines were clipped in and the jumpers stood up with their equipment. The crew chief opened up the door, letting the wind whistle through the cabin. He looked out one last time and shouted: “Go!”

Natalia Dadeshvili was the first out the door, snapping straight into a streamlined jump posture as the wind took her and she trailed out behind the aircraft. Her stomach shot straight into her throat and she was terrified before every jump, but the adrenaline kept her fear of heights at bay. In her head, the only thing she could do was count to five. At five seconds, she felt the violent shock of a successful parachute deployment and her free-fall came to an end. The woman looked up at the round nylon canvas now sprawled out against the dark blue sky and checked on her partner: Anton Kapanian. He was falling just behind her, but at a stable speed. Relieved, she checked on the plane as it began to bank away. The pilot waggled his wings at the jumpers before tearing off back to the coast. Natalia pulled on her risers to steer into the center of a field, trying to avoid landing in the nearby vineyards or orchards. Spotting a convenient landing place, she tucked her feet together and prepared for impact.

The ground met her at substantial speed. She impacted with the balls of her feet and fell immediately onto her side. Feet, calves, thigh, hip, and back. Her hands were tucked into her face to protect it and she dropped like a sack of potatoes. Relieved, she waited a few more seconds as the parachute floated down gently behind her. Anton landed a few meters away as Natalia unclipped her harness and reached for her gear. A huge rucksack contained supplies for three days of operation: she struggled to get it on her back and reached for the padded weapon case that contained her carbine. She ripped off her leather jump helmet and goggles, tossed them into the weapon case, and went for her parachute. Anton jogged up to come meet her. “Everything alright?” he asked quietly. “Nothing hurt, broken?”

“I’m fine,” Natalia replied, dragging the parachute across the dry ground of the farmer’s field back to its bag. “Where are we going to toss these?”

“I saw a creek down there,” Anton said as he pointed south. The pair gathered up their equipment and dragged it down a hundred meters or so to the small running creek that meandered its way through the valley. Natalia stepped down the embankment and quickly tossed her parachute bag and weapons case into the bottom of it. She picked a few rocks to bundle up in her parachute canvas and threw that in as well. There would be no signs that they had entered the country: Natalia and Anton were field agents in the Armenian National Security Service, tasked with gathering intelligence on pirate operations in Sochi after a civilian merchant ship was boarded and captured. A reconnaissance plane, sent out the day before to look for landing zones and pirate bases, identified the MV Breadwinner of Rize in dock undergoing repairs by the Sochi bandits. They were going to check the area out for a few days: the Navy had notified the NSS that they were planning a rescue operation and had begun to mobilize forces in the only Armenian foreign base at Poti, Georgia.

Natalia sat down on the bank of the creek, leaning up against the metal frame of her rucksack. She wiped the sweat on her hands off on the blotchy camouflaged smock she wore, before fixing the twin braids of hair that rested over the front of her shoulders. Anton dragged his equipment into the creek and slung his sniper rifle across his chest, before laying down with his map and a pen. He took the direction of two mountain peaks with his compass and used the intersecting lines to determine their location, before plotting a route to a hilltop that would be their observation post. “Ready?” he asked, putting his hands in his pockets. As much as he wanted a smoke, the smell would linger and he didn’t want to leave trash like a butt by the water for the farmers to find in the morning. The other spy struggled her way up, clambering onto her feet with the weight of the ruck on her back. The path ahead of them was a rough hike up the forested side of a mountain. They got going without further conversation.

It took them another few hours before they had everything set up. Natalia and Anton were posted on a forested hilltop ten kilometers away from the north of the city: the pirates appeared to live on a base there, ruling over the rest of the city. The Unorganized Territories were a feudal mix of warlords and strongmen, the politics of which were lost on the two NSS agents. Natalia herself was born to a Georgian family in Javakhk, the most northern province of Armenia. She saw what happened just across the border, where her cousins and grandparents were living under the rule of a self-defense militia that carved out their turf from a few small towns. The pirates who ran attacks on shipping routes were most likely sailors pressed into crews by a warlord operating as the governor of the region: he collected tax from the farmers and craftsmen, funded public projects, and restored some semblance of frontier justice against criminals. Others in the former Russian state organized their own nations in miniature from ideology: provinces ruled by communist governments were just as common as libertarian communes or Orthodox theocracies.

Natalia stepped out from underneath her shelter-half, strung up against a tree in the woodline and covered with vegetation to camouflage it. Her pant legs were rolled up to her knees as she walked barefoot in the grass. The spy wore a green woolen sweater in the chilly, dew-drenched Russian late-summer morning. Her sweat-drenched jacket was drying out on a tree branch nearby. In one hand, she slung her rifle across her shoulder: in the other, she carried a pair of binoculars. Anton knelt in the damp grass beside a bush at the top of the hill, scanning through his rifle’s scope down at the city below. Russian towns in the north Caucasus looked almost like any other Ukrainian or European city at the end of the 19th century. Classical architecture, scarred and faded by years of poor care, still remained beside cobblestone streets. The sun peeked its way over the eastern hills, casting its shadows on the figures who began their morning routines. At the northern harbor, Natalia noticed boats starting to go out with the tide.

“There,” Anton said, “look around two-hundred and fifteen degrees on your compass.”

Natalia swiveled to that direction, turning her gaze to a mechanic yard where trucks had just dropped off a shift of workers. Figures with guns walked around on perimeter patrols while others clad in jumpsuits carried toolboxes and bulky equipment towards the dark hull of the Breadwinner. Even at their distance, the bright lights of welding torches could be seen popping on and off across the deck. “It looks like they’re repairing it in drydock,” Anton assessed, adjusting the focus on his sniper scope with a concentrated look about his face. A ship like an Independence-Class could easily act as a mothership. Pirates mostly operated near the shore on small, low-ranged boats. A clever engineer, of which the former wartime Tsarist education system produced many, could outfit the ship with fuel tanks and boat racks to maintain and refuel pirate skiffs. Natalia took turns looking down the binoculars and drawing what she saw in a brown-leather bound notebook.

“Well obviously the ship is their prize. Remember the stories of old pirates?” Natalia asked. “The Americans fought the Barbary pirates because they kept stealing their ships and… sailors.”

“Huh?” Anton asked, lowering his rifle and turning his head to her.

“The Barbary pirates used to be these Ottomans in the 19th century who would capture American merchant ships and crews,” Natalia explained, still drawing the harbor layout with annotated buildings and positions. “They said they were prize vessels, used to grow the Ottoman navy. The crews would become slaves made to work on the vessels or ransomed off to get more money for the Sultan. It really hurts a nation’s pride when pirates steal their shit. Especially new ones… America was barely just past twenty years from writing their constitution. We’re only four decades removed from the Great War.”

“Are you think the Merchant Mariners here are being held hostage as crews for the ship?”

“Look at it, they’re fixing it. Obviously they’re going to use it. If I were a warlord I’d ransom it and the crew as is if I just wanted the money. I’d suspect they’re going to force the crew to man it, too. Wouldn’t you?”

Anton nodded, peering back through his magnified scope. “And if the crew is going to man it, they’re going to be coming and going… supervising repairs. Showing the pirates around. And we can see where they’re coming from.”

The day continued, townspeople moving about the city. Farmers went out to their fields, herders released their cattle, and the fishermen went to sea. Life here was like life anywhere else: a far cry from the disastrous, apocalyptic Russia of famine and death that made Natalia think that Russian-Armenians were perhaps exaggerating their situation. Then she remembered her own Georgia, reading a letter from her aunt about the militias burning down the home of a suspected homosexual only to discover the accuser was simply lying to cover up her own affair. Goosebumps rolled across her skin: she shook the chills away. Her home was in Armenia where the rule of law applied. By noon, another pirate truck had arrived at the drydock: Anton and Natalia focused steadily on it as the back cover was thrown open and a half-dozen sailors, still in their dark blue peacoats and white duty pants, were forced off by more armed men. They walked single-file up the gangway to come aboard their ship, disappearing into the superstructure. “That’s them,” Anton muttered.

The spies waited for hours, at least one of them with eyes on the ship the whole time. The sun began to set again, people started to return home. Natalia first noticed the Armenian sailors leave the ship and get back into the truck. She alerted Anton and, together, they watched the pirates’ vehicle turn back on. Bright lights illuminated the street ahead of it, painting the buildings a white color as it rumbled out of the yard. Anton and Natalia watched it turn out, heading down away from the center of town. Natalia compared it to her notes and the map of Sochi provided as part of the intelligence kit. The truck drove out to the north of town, stopping just shy of the exit sign where fields took over from residential houses. It turned again, heading down a small street until it reached what appeared to be a complex of short, green buildings. Natalia took a look at the buildings and traced the road on her map to the same location: the Mamayka Primary School.

Natalia scribbled a mark on her map and jot down the notes in her book while Anton confirmed that the sailors were being herded into the school’s old gymnasium on the east side. “Well there we have it. Our sailors are in the school,” Anton reported. “I suppose that was a good first day.”

“Yeah,” Natalia answered, closing her book. The sun now was dipping down over the glittering sea, reflecting off of the water. The day was over, nothing else was going to happen that required the both of them she asked if Anton wanted the first watch and went back to her shelter-half. Her ration for the night was a box containing, amongst other things, a simple tin of salted pork. She scarfed down the too-greasy meat, washing it down with warm water from her canteen. Dry, stale biscuits complemented the food, followed by a bag of nuts and raisins and a chocolate bar. The only thing remaining was a gleefully-advertised pack of cigarettes that she put aside for Anton. With a yawn, she looked back at the hilltop. Another few days of reconnaissance. Then exfiltration. Then a ride home. It was all so simple.

Yerevan, Armenia

“So, the issue of Foreign Policy Number Nineteen has formally been introduced by the office of President Hasmik Assanian. This will require a majority of two-thirds to enact in accordance with Article Seven of the Constitution.”

Prime Minister Antabian spoke from the carved wooden lectern at the front of the Armenian National Assembly’s main hall. It featured a bold coat of arms, eloquently carved into the podium and surrounded by ornate bordering with arevakhach wheels at the base of each side. A massive flag hung behind the Prime Minister. A microphone carried the old man’s voice throughout the hall, where one hundred and one leather-bound seats were arranged in a semicircle in front of him. Alphabetically, the parties were arranged from his left to right with each position inside the parties determined by seniority. Marble columns on each side of the hall supported a curved roof from which an ornate chandelier hung. Carvings of Armenian folk stories had been cut into each section of the hall. Gold from the West tastefully lined the walls and ceiling: it was a hall of power modeled after the finest European tastes. Many years of work and more money than anyone was comfortable admitting had gone into its construction. It also served as President Serovian’s defiant symbol of resistance to the Turks.

President Assanian and his advisors sat in their specially designated section at the rear. While dignitaries were free to join, the National Assembly had the parliamentary delegates sit in the front while their business was assigned to them. They had spent hours debating over the finer points of the Georgia Plan, about troop numbers and revenue. About what parts of the border troops were called in from. Timelines, allied forces in the country, logistics, and anything else that even Assanian and Moysisian hadn’t thought of were talked about my old men in suits for the better part of that day. Vice-President Idratian had nudged Assanian awake a few times during some of the longer-winded speeches by Revolutionary Party veterans about their vehement opposition to a “great breach of the Fedayeen’s philosophy.” A few minor changes had been agreed on by members of the Liberal Democratic Party, mostly involving the timeline for troop rotations: deployments of troops in country after the setup of initial government had been shortened from twelve to nine months. It was a compromise: a faction of rather dovish Independence Party wanted six months.

A short recess was called so that the party leaders could gather votes from their members. Each one would tally their yes or no on a piece of paper turned into the party leader, which would then be announced at the request of Prime Minister Antabian. Assanian and Idratian talked amongst themselves during the half-hour break. The Prime Minister patrolled the hallways, monitoring for discussion: the final voting was done in silence, and any conversation would render the speaker and the listener’s vote as invalid abstains. The time for discussion and debate had passed. Each party leader duly received the paper and did the math on their own, writing down the final yes-no vote before waiting out the remainder of the recess period. It was an eerie quietness that Assanian so rarely heard in the halls of democratic action. The Prime Minister finished his walk and hobbled his way up the stairs to the podium, where he called to order the assembly: “The voting period has finished and we shall now hear the results. We start with the Communist Party.”

The leader of the Communist Party loudly cleared his throat and stood. The bearded man’s neatly-combed hair was flecked with grey. His bright red tie and pocketsquare clashed against the muted black of his double-breasted suit. “It is the stated position of the Communist Party to never involve itself in political actions that do not benefit the workers and proletariat of this country. An action in a foreign land exploits the labor of not only our conscripted soldiers but the workers of the industry that support them. It also leads to, what we fear, will become the exploitation of native Georgians by your administration if it grows in power and authority. This sets a dangerous precedent. Both of our votes are no: there are no agreements.”

“Thank you,” said Antabian, marking down the number on his own notepad. The speaker for the Communist Party sat back in his seat, looking at his partner. Their vote didn’t count for much besides their voice, but that was all they needed. “Now we look to the Enforcement Party for their results.”

The Enforcement Party’s younger, huskier leader stood from his seat. He looked down to the sheet of paper in his hand. “The spread of refugees into this country,” he began, “has created security and crime issues unforeseen by our original Fedayeen predecessors. Internally, we are becoming divided. There are attacks on policemen in Gyumri, street crime in Sevan, and ambushes on border troops to the north. After the Artsakh, we have become complacent with our position in the region and have had to rely on Persia to secure our eastern and southern flanks. While we strongly caution the decision to remove troops from the border to carry out this plan, we believe that it is necessary to show that we as Armenians can project power from beyond our own borders. We share a strong historical, cultural, and religious bond with our brothers to the north in the Georgian mountains. We must rid them of the bandits and criminals that plague their society while providing an answer for the ills that plague our own. All of our votes are in the affirmative: ten to zero.”

Assanian turned to Moysisian and gave him a knowing look. Antabian had been correct in his assumption that the Enforcement Party would vote on this, despite the cuts to reservist activations. The President mentally chalked up the victory before the next block of voters came to stand and present their closing vote. The notorious Independence Party took the stand, their leader visibly anxious. It appears that he, too, had done the math on this bill when it was being introduced and debated upon over the last few sessions of parliament. “The Independence Party recognizes the threat that emerging changes in the Armenian demographics present. We concur with Enforcement Party members in saying that Russian communities are often sources of crime in our own cities. During the administration of President Vadratian, we sought to minimize the impact that this would have on our own sovereignty.”

He looked back at his party, his eyes darting to the strongmen in a way that told Assanian they were defectors. “Our party, here, for this policy proposal, has voted twenty to fifteen in favor of ‘yes.’”

A wave of murmurs crossed the parliament, prompting the Prime Minister to order them to quiet down. The politicians being represented sat in their seats uncomfortably. The leader of the Independence Party had once been a proud man, a leader in traditional values by the name of Armen Tsaghzian. Now, he looked like a shadow of his former self: he looked hungover, like he hadn’t slept the last few nights. Stubble shaded his chin and his shirt and pants appeared rumpled, like he only threw a new jacket and tie on to appear well-kept after a rough night. Assanian, not usually partisan by nature, felt a sort of humor watching him stumble through a statement so obviously trying to downplay his party breaking loyalty and voting on a Liberal Democratic proposal. A thin smile broke through his lips as Tsaghzian continued to save face: “Traditionally, we believe that internal threats should remain internal and there is a clear distinction between foreign and domestic policy. The new decade has turned and we are facing a variety of unconventional threats. This requires… an unconventional response. As such, the Independence Party will support this initiative.”

Prime Minister Antabian and Assanian exchanged looks from across the hall, albeit just briefly. He looked down emotionlessly at his sheet and scratched in the new numbers. Thirty to seventeen. The old man thanked Tsaghzian for his remarks and moved to the next speaker: the Armenian Liberal Democratic Party. This man, Philip Babovian, was once Antabian’s second in command when the ALDP was on the minority end. The right-hand-man of Assanian and Antabian’s party, Babovian nodded knowingly at his old boss. “I believe everyone wants to get out of here early, I think?” he asked rhetorically, eliciting low, forced chuckles from the politicians in attendance. “We stand by President Assanian’s foreign relations policy. In the legislative party’s opinion, we think that it represents a mix of internal and external policy to deal with societal change. Obviously, as time marches on, our society will experience new chapters. While before we avoided extermination, now we must prosper. But we must prosper as a land that others in the shadow of the Ottoman Empire can turn to. Noah landed his ark at Mount Ararat as the world flooded. He landed right here, in the Fatherland.”

Assanian nodded along, Idratian crossing his arms and listening intently beside him. “Just as it was then, the world now is on the brink of catastrophe and the precipice of war. Our war with the Ottomans has continued to be deterred to this day. Going to Georgia, using our treasure and power to stabilize our northern neighbors, is our next stepping stone. We take risk with the troop deployments. We take risk on our military and economy. We take risk on our political affiliations. But we believe that this is worth it to establish a positive environment in the Caucasus. It is better for us. We cannot live surrounded by enemies: the Artsakh War proved that enough. But instead of relying on the Shah’s deus ex machina, we are taking matters into our own hands in a way that supports the continued development of a liberal democracy at home and across our borders. We vote thirty-nine in favor, with four dissents from the party opinion.”

Thirty-nine was one off from Antabian’s supposed expectation of forty, but it passed the threshold nonetheless. Idratian patted his president on the back and muttered a light congratulations as Babovian took his seat. Before they had more time to react, the leader of the Revolutionary Party shot up to give his speech: “The Councilmen wrote very little into the Constitution about this sort of action,” said the spokesman in a low-rumbling gruffness that betrayed his deep frustrations. “And as such we cannot stand with it. We recognize that, despite our vote of eleven to ‘no’, the decision still stands. But we will take our platform to speak our continued defense of conforming to values outlined in the Constitution. We fought a revolution, a war against foreign oppression, to create our own Fatherland. And now, we risk becoming the oppressors of someone else. Another Ottoman Empire. This is not what the Fedayeen wanted. This is not what the Armenian Separatist Front wanted. This is what we continue to be the vanguard of. The policy represents a dangerously slope to go down on: I hope that, when this vote appears in the history books, we all realize with hindsight the consequences of our decisions.”

Prime Minister Antabian tallied up the votes. He scribbled in some numbers with his pencil and wiped the lead away before leaning into the microphone: “As it stands, the voting from our National Assembly’s parties has closed. In total, Foreign Policy Number Nineteen, known informally here as the ‘Georgia Plan’, passes the two-thirds threshold: sixty-nine to thirty-two. It is narrow, but it passes. You are dismissed.”

The National Assembly rose simultaneously, the individual parliamentarians turning to each other to give congratulatory handshakes or shake their heads. Assanian and his cabinet congratulated each other and offered words of encouragement as Antabian came off the podium with his folder of documents from the hearing. The masses of politicians streamed out of the wooden double doors at the end of the walkway, flanked by policemen in dress uniform, while Assanian smiled at the Prime Minister and shook his hand. “We won!” he announced in a rare burst of excitement. “How quickly can we get this published and sent out in a statement?”

The Prime Minister looked down at the document. “It’s all marked up, so we’ll have to retype it. By tomorrow the official release should be out. But it is law. The Georgia Plan is slated to begin on schedule, like we thought.” He smiled as well, watching the last of the stragglers leave the hall. Some mingled outside, others went to the balcony watching over Republic Square to smoke cigarettes. Others just left straight to go to their homes. The President, hands in his pockets, stood by the Prime Minister. Armenia, for the first time since antiquity, was going beyond self-defense. The mountains to the north held the next chapter for his country’s story. Assanian watched as Antabian delivered his folder to the staff courier, who departed hastily along with a policeman escorting him. That order, already written by Moysisian’s NSS, was to be distributed to the Ministry of War. The chains began turning on the largest mobilization of men in the region since the Artsakh War almost a decade ago. And for Assanian, it was his first victory in parliament.

“Well I don’t know about you gents,” he said, straightening out his purple tie, “but I’ll be back home celebrating. I hope that you’ll join me as well if you don’t have anything else to do tonight.”
A rogue AI? Countersurveillance? Sadaet mulled the proposition while we sipped his drink. Messing around with Alliance equipment was messy at best: they usually hardened their equipment with all sorts of capabilities. Sadaet didn't even know what he didn't know: he never worked for the Alliance, he never held a security clearance. He'd have to figure out all this out before he ever started to tamper with a system. But the money Stryker was offering was good and he figured that this would be the best opportunity he had. Otherwise it's back to running electronic warfare ops with various mercenary groups, some of whom may or may not want to let him go after his services are complete. That's usually how it went in the rogue mercenary market, especially among the more criminal elements.

He sighed: "Okay, well that sounds like a good plan. Ballsy, but at least it's reasonably thought about. The technical aspects of it are going to need some working on. I'm sure if the surveillance goes out they're going to ask questions, and that will just unravel the whole thing. So we can't go around smashing cameras and shit. So we've got to do it carefully, holding it off until you finally can break free and run for it."

He whipped a pen out of the pen pocket on his jacket sleeve and scribbled a quick diagram on a nearby napkin. "Don't worry, I'll destroy this," he said. He scratched out a ship and drew a few arrows to different components. As he wrote, he talked: "We have a hardware problem, which is obviously the systems consisting of sensors and shit. And the software problem, which, I don't know because I haven't seen it, but I can assume everything's all layered together into some sort of intermeshed fuck fuck game. So we're dealing with coordinate systems, because we're going to want to spoof our location and our routes. Communications, making sure those are set up to match our coordinates. Other stuff too like checking us into ports when we 'say' we land there. Making sure the AI gets 'fixed.' All this stuff."

He leaned back and scratched at his beard. "I'm down though," he said with a nod. "I can go back, check out of my hotel, and bring my shit over to your vessel. Which is where, by the way?"

Actual: USA! USA! USA!
Secret: Ethiopian
Helios Station

Sadaet saw the two men out of the corner of his eye as they sidled up to him at the bar. They were punctual, at least. One of them was older, with a jarring scar across his face. The other one was younger, messier, with wild black hair: he smelled like explosive residue, which only mildly concerned Sadaet. He extended his hand out to the older one, who was in front. He introduced himself in an odd mix of British colonial accents: "Sadaet, I presume? I'm Stryker. Let me grab a drink and we can talk business."

He turned to the bartender, the human closest to the counter, and asked for two of Sadaet's lagers. He ordered them over to a booth, which he cocked his head towards. Sadaet let them lead the way, keeping them a few footsteps in front of him as he subtly touched the handle of his revolver one last time under his jacket. It was a characteristic tell: he scolded himself internally to stop doing that so much. The two men sat down at the table. Sadaet kept his back to the door, something he was uncomfortable with but did as a gesture of respect anyways.

The mercenary took a sip out of his beer and leaned back into the table. "So I read this contract that you sent me and the job sounds all well and good... even if it doesn't sound like much at all. I feel like there's some super secret squirrel shit you've got, which I can deal with. I haven't been able to find out much about you or whatever crew you flew into the station with."

Sadaet gestured to the women in the next booth over. "Those girls have some pretty phony signal signatures, I feel like they belong with you as well. Am I right? Or are there two groups of secret squirrels on this station. It's a pretty big posse you have rounded up. What's my role in it?"

@Crossfire @Rultaos
Helios Station

From the dingy hotel room complete with a slightly dark stain in the carpet that he was fairly sure was someone's blood to the row of sketchy-looking bars on the outer wing of the station, Saedet felt a sort of humor about the station. He wandered through the dimly-lit passageways with a courier bag slung over his shoulder, until a hologram from his wristwatch alerted him to the reason why he had come. Someone had wanted to meet with him on this station: news of a job had drawn him here, where he had been waiting for a week trying to get a handle of the situation. For him, however, things had proven difficult. The guy had no aliases in civilian or military records, no social media presence, no tax records... It was like he was a ghost. Sadaet appreciated as much. It also made him feel better: his potential employer was careful and professional, and those people usually didn't scam and murder their hires.

A pathway in vibrant blue traced through the halls on his eyelens display, towards a seedy red sign that read "The Wasted Wormhole." Some brands of beer in neon were advertised on the window, along with a quaint "OPEN" sign. The soft beat of a chillwave vibe pounded gently to the hallway. Sadaet checked his corners and ran his hand across the grip of his revolver before pushing in. His eyes scanned the sparse crowd, his eyelens bringing up whatever information on them it found. Two by the corner, a dark-skinned woman with white hair and some other woman that Sadaet couldn't quite place, caught his attention. His eyelens drew up more data on them: certain things appeared fishy to the trained eye. Most people their age had things like pictures on social media, publically available apartment rental contracts, or other minute facets of daily life. To Sadaet, theirs looked... Fabricated. He put some tabs on them and ordered a house lager at the bar.

He pulled out his phone, scrolling through an AI-generated feed. He knew none of the people that showed up on his media accounts, but he did it to generate network traffic that his him amongst the general population. He tapped past pictures of couples he's never seen having babies he never would meet, simultaneously knowing everything about them but not anything at all. He liked a few, thanking the bartender as a glass of beer was placed on a dingy coaster by his hand. More news stories popped up from around the system. A break-in on Helios Station. A mining accident on a moon. Solar panel malfunctions causing brownouts for certain sections. All equally meaningless to him. He sat in the upholstered seat and checked his watch: if this guy was as professional as he seemed, hopefully he'd be on time for the meeting.
Alright, all good with this? Trying not to be the typical criminal setup and break the whole hardened vet trope, since the dude is supposed to be a commo officer in hiding after his regime was toppled by the Alliance.

Is there any sort of TLDR I'd be better knowing if I'd like to take a spin at this? Went through the intro, not sure if I need a "previously on" or whatever. Looks interesting (and paced my style for a busyboi.)
Aygestan, Armenia

The office of the Aygestan Logging Company wasn’t too far from the house: a short twenty minute walk led her to the iron gates of what used to be a military warehouse. The facility was liquidated to the public alongside two of their cargo-carrying halftracks after the Artsakh War: an entrepreneur by the name of Nikol Calrissian bought them at an auction and used investment capital from Stepanakert to purchase land rights to a sizeable tract of forest outside of the village of Aygestan. He entered into some contracts to supply the Artsakh’s biggest city with lumber for its construction boom and quickly turned into the village’s largest employer aside from the brandy company. Gor worked there for a few years before the accident and was well-known amongst the company staff. Mary hoped that the boss would be in that day, not working down at the camp. She never really knew where he went most of the time. The gate was unguarded: the widow pushed the creaky iron bars open gently, slipping inside and saying hello to the pair of mechanics who were busy fixing a halftrack’s wheel.

Of the two warehouse structures inside the dull, grey concrete walls, the one closest to the road had the company office in the back. Mary navigated her way through the maze of neatly stacked logs in the open warehouse, passing by crates of industrial equipment and tools. The smell of freshly-cut wood, the musty smell of the forest, permeated the air. She pushed through towards a featureless metal door in the back with a small painted sign reading “manager.” Mary paused and steadied herself, unsure of what she was going to say. She knocked on the door. A moment passed, the sound of the metal echoing off the walls of the warehouse. Footsteps were heard inside the office, then the jiggle of the doorknob. The door swung open and a tall man with a swarthy mustache and dark eyes greeted her. “Misses Kandarian?” he said, somewhat startled. “I don’t think… well, I didn’t expect you here. How have you been?”

Mary looked Mister Calrissian up and down and bowed her head. “I know my visit is a little bit of a surprise, but I have urgent matters I want to talk about.”

Calrissian stepped aside and waved her into the office. He went to his desk and pushed aside the papers that he had been working on. The smell of smoke replaced the smell of forest, a handrolled cigarette was still burning in a blue, ceramic ashtray. Calrissian sat back down in his creaky wooden chair and folded his hands across his chest. His brow furrowed: “I hope your family is doing well. I know Gor’s accident is hard on you. Hard on anyone. But he talked about how strong and stubborn you are.”

“Mister Calrissian,” started Mary. In her mind, she didn’t want to be coddled as a widow. Widows were helpless, mourning and dejected. While she mourned and missed her husband dearly, she also had children and ageing parents to take care of. She couldn’t afford to be complacent with pity. She couldn’t afford to let people tell her about how tragic of an accident Gor suffered. She didn’t need them to tell her what a strong woman she was. She needed security, not pity. “I… I don’t want to talk about what happened. I’ve talked about it a lot, I just don’t want to relive it anymore. I just know that he died in your employment and you were the one who paid him.”

Calrissian cocked an eyebrow, leaning back. He was silent for a minute, twirling the end of his mustache in thought. Mary stared him down, resolved to be stoic in the face of his response. After a few moments that felt longer than they were, the boss answered: “When Gor died, he died. I know this is going to sound cruel but… he can’t work for me anymore. I pay for work. I can’t pay dead men. That’s just not how this works.”

“I have a family. Gor had a family,” Mary answered flatly, still staring straight ahead at the boss as he took a drag off of his cigarette. “You yourself have a family, I know. I’ve seen you at the market and at church. You have to understand. What would they do without you?”

Calrissian shrugged, running a hand through his balding hair. “I… Well, I’m not sure. But I can’t help you with this, I’m sorry. I need to pay my own workers. This is my own livelihood. I am not a charity. This company is everything. I started it myself, I manage it myself. If I paid out money to everyone who was injured I’d just be a doctor, not a logger.”

“How much money do you make?” asked Mary, a hint of frustration creeping into her otherwise calm voice. “Surely Stepanakert pays well for your lumber. Surely you can afford that nice automobile you bought. I have bills that I have to pay. My sons are too young to work!”

“What I make isn’t of concern to you, Mary,” defended Calrissian. He posture changed: he leaned forward from inviting to intimidating. “I just need you to understand that this company can’t be giving handouts. If you want handouts, there are other options. We have no insurance for you. I’m sorry. That’s just the way it is.”

“But-“ Mary started again.

“There’s nothing I can do,” repeated Calrissian sternly. He stood up from his desk and walked to open the door. He cocked his head slightly. Mary knew that she wasn’t welcome anymore. Dejected, she stood up from the chair and thanked the manager for his time. She left the warehouse and began the long walk back to her house. The sun beat down on the road but the hot air was beginning to cool: signs that autumn was not far off from the black forests of the Artsakh. Soon it would be winter: she had to have a plan before then, or else her and her family would suffer through the infamous cold snows of the mountains. On the hill back to the house, she thought of the one place left she could go. It was in town, however, some distance away. Mary decided to stop in at her neighbor’s house to ask if she could be driven into Aygestan. She met with them, her husband was called out, and they graciously offered her a ride into town. Mary soon found herself on the way to see the pastor.

Father Deradoorian’s house sat down the hill from the church, in a small neighborhood with half a dozen other similar residences not far from the town center. In typical Artsakh fashion, the rustic country house was painted a modest blue color with a wood trim along the roof, its glass windows framed in pleasant white. A sole balcony faced out to the gravel road, a freshly-cleaned carpet drying in the sun on its railing. Below that, one of the pastor’s three daughters tended to a bright flower garden, watering the vibrant summer flowers with a metal water can. Mary rode to the house in the back of her neighbor’s car, staying silent with her hands clasped in her lap while her neighbor talked with her husband in the front. She nervously smoothed out the wrinkles in her mute, dark dress, sighing deeply. The door to Father Deradoorian’s house was already open by the time the car pulled up beside the lawn, airing out the house in the summer breeze. The daughter, whose name Mary did not know, greeted the widow. “Are you looking for my father?” she asked in her singsong accent.

“Yes, please,” Mary replied, looking back to the door. “I want to talk about some things with him. Is he, perhaps, free this afternoon?”

The Deradoorian daughter put down her watering can and brushed her wavy brown hair behind her shoulder. She called out for the pastor, who appeared on the balcony of the house. “You have a visitor!” she announced cheerily. The pastor looked to Mary, offering a smile to her.

“Mary, welcome,” he said to her. “Please, come in and take a left to the sitting room. Let me get the kettle going.”

He withdrew back into his house as Mary thanked the Deradoorian daughter and climbed up the steps. She took her shoes off at the doormat and entered through the entranceway. A portrait of Jesus, sitting barefooted on a bench and holding the cross, hung above a small altar with unlit candles. Like Mary expected, the house had a somber, respectful air to it. The church was never her favorite place to be, but she respected it nonetheless. Father Deradoorian could be heard calling for his wife to make a pot of tea before he entered the room with Mary and ushered her to his sofa. Father Deradoorian took a seat beside his coffee table while Mary got comfortable. He leaned slightly towards her with a priest’s look of kind concern on his face. “What’s on your mind today, Misses Kandarian?”

Mary sighed, looking towards her lap. “It’s been a few weeks since Gor died and… well, to be straight with you, Father, we’re running out of money.”

“Who’s going to work for you?” asked Father Deradoorian. Mary looked up at him and shrugged softly.

“My sons are too young to work. My parents are too old to work. My brother in law is on the Turkish border. My own brother is with the Air Force in Nakhchivan. He barely has enough wages to support his own apartment and remissions are… I don’t want to ask for remittance.”

Father Deradoorian leaned back into his seat and sighed. “It’s embarrassing, I know. There was once a point in time where I was penniless. You know, one of those street kids in Stepanakert. Long before I was a servant of the Church like I am today, I was actually involved in all those vices that you’d associate with them. Drinking, smoking hashish, small time crimes, all that. I used to scam people out of their money with phony card games. I spent many years like that. My cousins were all fairly successful, but they left to head west where the money is. The richest one, Ivan, is still a land developer in Yerevan. He could have cut me a deal with one of his apartments if I had asked. But I was too proud to. I didn’t want to be the little kid pulled out of poverty by my cousin Ivan, something for him to show off to girls at parties to show his sweet side. I knew he’d do that: Ivan has a thing for theatrics and the temptations of the flesh.”

Mary kneaded her hands in her lap and sighed. The clock continued to tick the seconds away while she thought about her family. Gor’s family wasn’t much better: they hadn’t even reached out to her after the funeral. For all intents and purposes, she seemed alone in the little village. They had a savings, of course, but that wasn’t going to work for them for much longer. Her pride, unfortunately for her, would have to yield before her finances did. “I was turned down by the logging company,” she said. “They said they had no insurance for injury or death. What happens… well, it just happens. It’s unfair, Father.”

Father Deradoorian nodded slowly. “You know that the Church will offer alms for those in need. I suspect that’s why you’re here today.”

Mary bit her lip and mumbled an affirmative. Father Deradoorian looked out at the window. “We can provide alms for a certain period of time to cover basic necessities. Outside of that, we cannot support you forever. As generous as we would like to be in the provision of worldly things, our resources are not unlimited. There must be some other option you should consider but… for now, we can provide you with a basic allowance.”

Mary was too crushed to feel happy that she was staying afloat. Everything in her, from her upbringing to her personality, fought against others supporting her family. Even the Church’s alms were almost embarrassing to her. “I just…” she began. “I would prefer it if nobody knew about this arrangement. I don’t need anyone knowing that I am taking money.”

Father Deradoorian nodded again and said: “We can provide that. I can send one of the church assistants discreetly every few weeks with the money. They have done this before, trust me. There are many who suffer in the community: most of them do not want to be known either. Expect the first of these payments to be delivered at the end of the week. One of my assistants will be at your house.”

“Thank you, Father,” Mary replied. The pastor smiled and asked if there was anything else that Mary needed. She said no and thanked the priest again for his time. Father Deradoorian escorted Mary out of the house and towards the car waiting outside. The neighbors greeted Mary and the pastor, making small talk about the weather for a few minutes before the pastor saw her off. The car ride again was quiet, Mary staying silent in the backseat while she thought. Choking down the shame, she returned to her house where her kids were listening to the radio in the sitting room. She greeted them, but quickly returned to her room where she stripped her heavy dress and sat in her undergarments. She scratched at an itch on her neck, looking over at a photograph of her and Gor on the counter. Who would have thought that she would be here right now, living off of the Church and hoping for a better way out? Frustration washed over her and she wanted to succumb to the feelings, but ultimately she decided to take a bath instead. Those usually relaxed her.

Mary turned on the water, heated by the wood-furnace water heater outside, and slipped into her tub. The warmth washed over her as she purged the thoughts of money and loss from her mind. Inside, she felt almost weightless. She closed her eyes and thought of far off fields. Outside, the sun set over the mountains. Dusk cast long shadows from the peaks that engulfed the village, before the stars rose over. A dog barked in the distance. The chickens in their coops relaxed and stopped clucking, the mooing of the cows ceased, and the rumble of the occasional car driving through the gravel mountain roads stopped. The Artsakh went to sleep.
Posted! Hooooly fuuuuck am I rustier than I thought I'd be, so as always, critique is welcome.

I wanted to have a second part to it, about the same length, to introduce some characters back at the monastery. But, I have to start getting ready for a 19-day field op coming up on Thursday, so I don't think I can get it done before then. I'll bring a notebook or something with me so I can work on it while I'm gone.

My boy what're you doing there in the 'ole field? Did a three week FTX last month myself.

Obviously not anything too intense that precludes writing PoW posts in the field *thinking emoji*
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