So here it is, another chapter. Been a while, but school/training has been a draining experience. It's not so much that I don't technically have the time to write, it's more that the time I could be using to write typically winds up being time to destress lol.
After a month of being out here, I think I've gotten the general flow of things. Admittedly HWGA was supposed to be the one getting a chapter release, but my creative juices weren't exactly flowing for Gate as of lately. Rest assured work has already started though.
S09 BASE, UKRAINE, ROSSART FRINGE TERRITORIES,
Under the pale light of a full moon and huddled within the relatively warm confines of her jacket, a t-doll continued to silently watch the skies above. With but a thought she effortlessly swapped between various optics her retinas zooming in and out as she waited for the telltale signs of an incoming helicopter.
"Still out here bloody waiting are we?"
She unfocused her optics and sighed as another doll broke her concentration, one of the commander's and probably the only one who would ever bother to visit her so late.
"Yes, I am."
"Geez." The other doll brought a gloved hand and adjusted one of her cat ears. "You're really convinced aren't you?"
"Commander Blair told me to pray for a friend and I did. He even let me see the dossier, we never get any new joins, how could it be anyone else?"
The other doll couldn't help but chuckle. "Well, if you say so. It might be a while before the new guy gets here though."
"Then I will continue to wait. I have made it this far, I can manage a little more."
"Well, for your sake I hope he's the friend you think he's going to be." The other doll went to take her leave but not before pausing. "...Just try to get inside and shut down for a bit aye?"
"I will, thank you IDW."
"Aye, just lookin' out for you is all." Without another word, the cat-eared doll left leaving the impatient doll back to her devices. She brought her optics back up and went back to scanning the skies above.
"Please, do hurry."
WEST VIRGINIA, ROSSART CORE TERRITORIES
Hatch solemnly took a knee next to an old wooden cross surrounded by carefully planted sunflowers. Meanwhile, outside of the fenced-off plot, Buddy waited patiently for its master to return. It knew better than to disturb him during times such as this.
Hatch closed his eyes and rested on the cross as he focused, steeled himself, for what was ahead. It was a windy-overcast type of morning, the kind of weather that brought with it a sense of foreboding.
The wind picked up, sending chills over Hatch's freshly shaved face and anything his bomber jacket couldn't cover. "I have to go again." Hatch's voice trembled as he muttered to himself. "For myself, for mama. For our home."
He felt around the cross for a pair of dog tags hanging off one of its corners before clutching them tightly and tying them around his neck. That was when he heard it, the sound of distant thrusters over the wind. That was when he opened his eyes.
"Watch over me and watch over mama. I will bring these back when the job is done."
Hatch let his hand run down the length of the cross and sighed before getting back to his feet. "Bye dad."
The VTOL was slowly hovering over the tops of the trees now, its pilot no doubt looking for a suitable landing spot in the fields. For the sake of appearance, all of its armaments had been deactivated or otherwise stowed. Farm animals scurried for cover within the barn or anywhere else as they tried to get away from the strange foreign thing in the air.
Back at the Hatch household and under the porch, Lilah and Ruslana watched on in silence as the VTOL finally touched down in the same spot it had a week prior. The moment it touched down a large ramp leading to its troop bay descended from the rear and with it came a squad of heavily armed soldiers and their dolls.
+WHEELS-DOWN DAGGERS ESTABLISH PERIMETER+
With military precision, the squad quickly fanned out into a large circle surrounding both the VTOL and the household. A few of them kept their armored heads glued onto Buddy, but otherwise didn't pay the doll much mind. Once the squad was set up another pair of figures descended from the ramp within, Crawford and what looked to be the squad leader. Unlike the others, he kept his pale face semi-exposed from behind a neck gaiter and info visor.
+PERMITER ESTABLISHED, DAGGERS HOLDING POSITION. STANDBY FOR VIP+
Hatch rolled his eyes as he fetched his duffle bags off the ground and made his way to the idling ship, next to him Buddy continued to follow as close as it was allowed.
"Joe….and." Hatch looked at the squad leader. "I believe you and I met at the bar."
The soldier looked at his superior. "Observant, this one."
"Joe's always been particular about the company he keeps. Can't say the same about his punctuality with dropships though."
"You know how it goes." Crawford shrugged. "Appearances and all that." The old soldier took another look at Hatch's face and whistled. "Speaking of appearances, you cleaned up."
"Appearances my ass Joe!" Ruslana yelled as she made her way down the stairs. "You know better than to scare the livestock Durnyy duren!"
"Ruslana Ruslana! C'mon now, I wasn't gonna make him walk." Crawford outstretched his arms and beckoned the fiery widow in a hug, a gesture she returned in kind as the two embraced.
"Always good to see you, Rus. Sorry I had to make such a violent entrance."
"Pah! Spare me your mock apologies as you come to take my boy away." Ruslana let go of the old officer and shook her head. "Maybe someday you'll drive here like a normal person?"
"Normal, that's a hoot."
Hatch maintained a tight grip on his bags before clearing his throat to get their attention. Seeing Hatch, Crawford raised an eyebrow.
"Guess that means you're ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
"Well, let's not waste time then." The officer looked over toward where Lilah was still standing. She hadn't moved from under the porch."Your friend going to say goodbye?"
"We did that already." Hatch looked at the Lilim, hoping there'd be some sort of forgiveness waiting. For a few moments, her eyes met his and the two stared at one another. In the end, she could only smile weakly as she stifled back some tears.
"You just be sure to come back! Ya, hear me?!"
Hatch nodded solemnly and returned his attention to his mother. "Mama?"
"Don't, just don't." His mother raised a hand in protest. "Go before I change my mind."
Hatch ignored his mother, dropped his bags, and wrapped her in a warm embrace anyways. He wouldn't make the same mistake he did when he went off to war. He lowered his voice as he switched back to their native tongue. "I'll come back."
"You better or I will kill you myself."
Ruslana held her son tightly one last time before letting him go. "Now go, for the both of us."
His path set Hatch fetched his bags off from the ground and walked towards the VTOL's waiting troop bay.
"Your friend coming along? The invitation was for one." Hearing Crawford's inquiry Hatch paused and turned around. Buddy had still been following, the cyber canine eagerly wagging its tail as if it was about to embark on another journey with its master.
"No no, not this time bud." Hatch took a knee and rested a hand on the doll's now drooping head. "I need you to take care of mama, the fight is mine alone to burden this time." Buddy growled a low sorrowful growl, but it knew better than to protest further.
His faithful companion deterred Hatch got back up and snapped his fingers. "Go on now, do what needs doing." Buddy whimpered one last time before turning around and strutting back to Hatch's mother, tail between its legs all the while. Once Hatch was clear of earshot Crawford bent slightly and talked just loud enough for Ruslana to hear.
"I have eyes on the inside. If things get too dicey-"
"-I will hold you accountable. We lost Aleksander, we will not lose Mikhail." Ruslana promptly cut Crawford off before turning around and walking back to the house.
"I understand. That won't happen again, I promise." His warning given Crawford spun a hand around, the squad leader promptly administering the order.
+DAGGGERS, RIPCORD, RIPCORD+
Just as quickly as they had arrived, the Rossart squad formed back up and made their way back up and into the VTOL. In moments the four idling engines shrieked back to life as they quickly propelled the ship up and into the air. Free of any obstructions the ship angled its engines backward before zipping off high and into the sky.
Then, silence once more.
Ruslana watched as the VTOL disappeared before sighing and shaking her head. "And there he goes again, off to do god knows what." Ruslana looked back over her shoulder and at the skies above. "May my son find whatever fulfillment he seeks."
Lilah raised her hands incredulously. "But he'll be with GnK. Communists in World War 3 were one thing, but a robot army? At least he had the backing of Rossart guns last time."
"He will be fine, this I know." Ruslana dismissed the notion with a wave of her hand. "You know how he is."
"I suppose you're right." Lilah leaned back against the side of the house before managing a weak smile. "So, when do I get my first job? I promised Ben I'd help."
"You damn well better staying over here so often." Ruslana hiked her dress up as she carefully walked up the porch steps. "I have a few ideas yet for you."
"Bring it on."
"10 minutes to drop off point. Grab your gear cinch your shit and get ready."
Hatch paused from fussing with his gear as his team leader came over the radio net. The officer stood in the center of the plane's cargo bay and atop the team's still-deactivated Manticore assault doll. Like the rest of his team, his face was obscured behind a respirator and IVAS helmet. "It's gonna be a dark drop so make sure your HUDs are synched. I don't need any of you winding up a red smear on the fuckin' ground. Wild weasels did their job, now it's time to do ours." The team leader turned his attention to Hatch and cocked his head to the side. "Hey, mech head, what's the status of our tin soldiers? Are they green or what?"
"Da, readouts are good." Hatch could feel a slight buzz against his spine as he forwarded the information to his team leader's HUD. The new suits were nothing short of a technological marvel, but having something interface with one's nervous system still felt uncomfortable at times.
"Solid, wouldn't want you to get lonely out there when the killing starts"
Laughter echoed throughout the troop bay as other soldiers went back to making any last preparations. Up till now, it had been a relatively quiet flight with little in the way of conversation or otherwise. Fine by Hatch and the others, they were Green Berets, theirs was not to question the why or how of things. They'd figure that out on the fly.
Hatch returned his attention to one of the hulking Aegis GA dolls that stood near the cargo bay walls. It watched its handler silently with weapons powered down as it waited for whatever orders would come next. Hatch placed a gloved hand on the stenciled name that stood out against the mass of olive-drab composite armor. Hatch always took care of his dolls as they took care of him, but this one was special. He would need its armor for the fight ahead.
"How's our unkillable friend here?"
"Dozer's ready to go when the team is, you know he's good for it." Hatch removed his hand and turned to look at his team leader. "He won't disappoint."
"Not who I'm talking about." The officer folded his arms and let his rifle hang by its sling. "This mission, are you good?"
Hatch returned his attention to the Aegis and cinched down a few straps. "For the old country? Always."
"Just keep your hate to a minimum, Sergeant. I know what the score is, but I do not need your vendetta getting in the way of the mission." The officer put a hand on his subordinate's shoulder. "I need you and your dolls to be at your best. There's more at stake below than ever before. We're going to need your knowledge of the language and the culture to get anywhere."
Hatch removed his superior's hand before calmly locking his visor with the officer's. "...Yes sir, you have my word."
+DROP ZONE INCOMING, ALL PERSONNEL PREP FOR DROP+
Hatch's team leader shook his head and started spinning his hand.
"Team get to your drop positions! Sergeant Hatch get our friends woken up!"
Men and dolls got into position as they lined up on either side of the plane and around the now-activated Manticore. The massive spiderlike doll beeped and droned as it stomped towards the drop ramp and leveled its weapons.
Time seemed to slow down as the massive ramp slowly opened, revealing a seemingly endless black void beyond. Somewhere down below, a war was being waged, and it was this team's mission to drop right into the heart of it. Wind rushed into the troop bay and engulfed those within in bitter cold. Thankfully the latest in cold weather gear kept both man and doll alike warm.
Then, the red interior was replaced by a vibrant green.
+CLEARD TO JUMP, CLEARED TO JUMP+
"Green light! Go go go!"
Hatch's breathing quickened as he watched each of his teammates run forward and jump into the darkness beyond. With each passing second, the line grew shorter and so too did the distance to the ramp.
Behind Hatch, the dolls closely followed their handler. They could have been given the order to drop into hell itself and still wouldn't have cared. Eventually, Hatch and his dolls reached the ramp. Seeing the dark expanse beyond, the sergeant closed his eyes and felt for the extra pair of dog tags around his neck.
And now I go, not for both of us.
He opened his eyes and took a deep breath before taking off into a sprint and jumping into the dark void below, his arms and legs spread wide. Behind him, the rest of his dolls did the same with the manticore folding its legs and guns inward as it joined in taking the plunge.
But for all of us.
UKRAINE, ROSSART FRINGE TERRITORIES
Hatch cried out with eyes bolted open as he was violently jerked around and woken up from his brief nap. Thick straps dug deep into his shoulders and across his plate carrier as they struggled against the intense forces. A bright orange HUD monitoring Hatch's vitals blinked several times as it displayed several warnings in cyrllic. His heart rate had skyrocketed and the system urged its operator to either calm down or otherwise seek some sort of stimulant. Easy enough, his nanomachines were already on it. In seconds he felt the warm soothing sensation as his adrenaline began to wear off and adjust back to normal levels.
Which left another problem. Now thoroughly awake, Hatch's senses were bombarded with the sound of rock music blaring over helicopter rotors as the stench of tobacco smoke filled his nostrils.
"Ah toss sorry bout' that mate, thought I saw a goddamn RPG."
"For fucks sake Doogs I told you it was a bird. We're too close to friendly lines for any of that."
"Oh, I knew that. Hey, maybe we did our friend a favor though. Looked like he was having one hell of a shite dream."
Hatch readjusted in his seat and fixed himself up. Up until now, the journey to Ukraine and his subsequent duty assignment had been unexciting, to say the least. Lots of paperwork and naps in between long periods of travel. The visit to GnK mainside had also been similarly unexciting, gear issue was quick and before Hatch knew it he was whisked onto a Blackhawk and sent away. Now here he was hanging onto dear life because his pilot thought a bird had been an RPG.
The pilot, an eccentric Australian who had made the evasive maneuver, looked back into the troop baby and flashed a grin, the rest of his face was still partially obscured by his helmet. "So, looks like you're the newest member to our merry gang over at S09."
Hatch adjusted his helmet's rebreather and spoke through a mic that was concealed within. The rebreather's speakers gave his voice a slight echo, but otherwise, it came through loud and clear.
"So it would seem."
"Your accent, Slavic?"
"Slavic blood, raised in back in the Rossart core territories," Hatch answered flatly as he took in the familiar sights beyond. "America."
"That blood, front or behind the curtain?"
"Lucky you." The pilot whistled. "Anyways, you fuckin' lucked out mate, ain't shit goin' on in our neck of the woods. We're primarily a sorta uh…..uh."
"Forward observation post?" The female co-pilot chimed in.
"Yeah that's it, cheers Grizz."
Hatch sighed and tried to get comfortable again. "Pilot, how far out are we?."
"Uhhh, bout fifteen mikes out." The pilot paused to concentrate on bringing the helicopter low and fast over some trees. "Name's Doogan by the way, Ted Doogan. The best pilot in GnK and your go-to taxi during your stay at S09. I'm also the base armorer so if you need some shit, you know who to get your gat at."
Next to Doogan, the female co-pilot gave a loud exaggerated cough over the internal comms as she nudged him.
"Oh and this is Grizzly, the best goddamn co-pilot a man could ask for. She can work a bird just as well she can work-"
Doogan laughed as a fist collided with his shoulder.
Hatch ignored the banter and raised an eyebrow. "They let civ model dolls operate equipment in a merc outfit?"
Hatch leaned forward and pointed at the dashboard. "There's an aux cord going from her arm into the instrument panel. She's hardly touched the stick this whole flight."
"Got me all figured out huh?" Grizzly looked back into the troop bay and lowered her aviators revealing two glowing purple eyes. "Aren't you sharp? Gonna tell me my breast size and the serial number next?"
"Should be a barcode near the base of your spine, so unless your man is comfortable with you getting naked in front of other men."
Doogan couldn't help but chuckle at Grizzly's irritated reaction as she went back to work. "And he figured us out too? Goddamn mate, Sig and the others are gonna love you. What'd you say your name was again?"
"Well Hatch, hopefully, we'll soon see if you can drink and fight as good as you talk."
"And that wasn't a request either." Grizzly added. "You're on my shit list bud. I will drink your cocky ass under the table."
"You can try." Hatch shrugged.
Doogan laughed heartily. "Mates got the bants. Need that around these parts, Ukraine can be a pretty cold gray place."
"Better gray than red." Hatch looked out his window and at familiar the countryside below. Modern as the inner cities had become, the rural areas still looked just the same as they ever did. Here and there a small village would appear separated by dense forests and golden plains as far as the eye could see.
"Tell me, is that village by the river still there?"
"Yeah, yeah it is. They don't talk to us much though." Doogan answered before looking back into the troop bay. "How'd you know about that?"
"Fought here years ago, back when it was trying to break free of the Curtain."
Grizzly looked back with mouth agape. "Wait hold up, you prior military?"
Hatch silently reached under his GnK-issued carrier and pulled out two pairs of dog tags.
"Answers that then." Grizzly gave a thumbs up. "I can respect that, there's so few of you left though."
Hatch returned the dog tags as the painful memories threatened to flood his mind. "I'm aware."
"Well shit." Doogan gave another whistle and returned his attention to flying. "So uh, this all seem familiar to you?"
Hatch's eyes caught a glimpse of a couple of old gray rusting hulks sitting in a neat line near the edge of a forest. Soviet tanks and a few trucks. The crimson skies, the constant chatter of weapons fire. How the skies did thunder, a small reprieve to drown out the screams of the dead and dying everywhere. So many bodies.
Hatch broke free of his trance and sighed. "Yeah, too familiar."
"Must make for some stories. Anyways, we're coming up onto the base, you can wow and mystify the others all you want here soon."
"A yup, home sweet home. Boring as she may be." Grizzly added.
Hatch craned his head to get a better look just as the front of the helicopter tilted up and over some trees. Once the aircraft crested the tops a small opening appeared in the center of the forests below. At the center of this clearing sat a small military base.
"Welcome to S09, our little slice of heaven in the middle of nowhere."
"S09, is that what you call it now?" Hatch shook his head. "This place used to have a real name."
"It still does mate just helps GnK with coordination is all." Doogan lowered his visor. "Bringing her around slow, get a good look at the place while you can. It seems larger than it is up here."
Hatch craned his head further and looked at what would be his new home down below.
The base itself was nothing impressive, but then again, nothing could ever be when compared to actual military installations. Tall concrete walls separated the facilities within from the forests beyond. Guard towers with automated turrets jutted up along the wall and at key locations. The base interior was heavily crowded with administrative buildings rubbing shoulders with barracks and maintenance bays.
Doogan pointed towards the center of the base and at the largest of the buildings covered in solar panels and radar arrays. "Those are the admin buildings. All the planning and work goes on there. Commander Blair practically lives there. Pretty nice bar too, you know, when you're allowed to drink."
Hatch breathed a silent prayer, there would be much of that to come. One thing that caught his eye was number of wildlife that seemed to have made the base home.
"Is there a particular reason why the base has a zoo?"
"Well we typically clear em out, but the girls keep feeding the damn critters. Especially her."
"Her?" Hatch raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, our resident loon-yikes!" Doogan recoiled as Grizzly reached over and smacked his helmet.
"She's not a loon, just….misunderstood."
"Speaking of loon." Doogan looked over the instrument panel as he started to lower the helicopter into the base. "Is that her down at the helipad?"
"Good god, she's still standing there?" Grizzly did the same before shaking her head. "Yup that's her alright."
Hatch started to unbuckle himself and get his gear in check. He hadn't packed much before leaving home, only the essentials and anything that would bring with it a taste of home. Such as the flask of homemade moonshine in one of his mag pouches. Hatch quickly fished it out of the pouch and sipped away at the contents within, it would be enough to keep his nerves in check.
Soon the maze of buildings and the walls that surrounded them began to block out the horizon signaling that the helicopter was well and truly within the confines of the base.
"Alright new blood, welcome home."
No sooner did the helicopter's wheels impact with the tarmac below, Hatch swung open the troop bay door grabbed his kit, and made his way out into the chilly air outside. Despite the violent downwash of the helicopter Hatch couldn't help but feel a pang of nostalgia as the familiar smells filled his nostrils. The smell of pine and untouched countryside beyond the walls.
I'm home father.
Near the edge of the landing pad, a small girl with gray hair stood with her hands clasped together. She had been staring at Hatch the moment he got off the helicopter, her crimson eyes boring into him. T-doll, had to be.
Hatch picked up his pace and got out of the downwash towards where it was relatively quieter. When he finally reached the girl he dropped one of his duffel bags and tried to maintain some semblance of military bearing.
"Security Team lead Sergeant Hatch. Miss Morridow?"
The girl cocked her head to the side and maintained her deadpan expression as she looked back up at Hatch's orange visor. She was a small dainty thing, most of her physical features were hidden behind a dark thick jacket with a feather-lined collar.
Unsure of whether or not she heard him, Hatch repeated the question. "Are you my liaison?"
Finally, the girl answered, her soft voice difficult to hear over the distant sound of the helicopter's engine idling to a halt. "You're here. You're finally here just as I knew you would be."
"Yes, that's me." Hatch raised an eyebrow. "And you are?"
The girl's eyes grew wider with curiosity. "So it really is you?"
"Who else could it be?"
"A friend who needs a friend of her own, but you're here now Ben and now all is right in the world." The girl answered solemnly.
Now Hatch was getting visibly weirded out. "So…are you not the liason or what?"
"Oi Thunder, quit that nonsense would ya!?"
Before Hatch could ask the strange girl any more questions another voice called out and with it the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps. A middle-aged female with pink hair and a military physique. A tricked-out carbine dangled and thudded against her barely fitting plate carrier as she ran up to the mismatched pair. Another doll no doubt, one that someone thought would be real interesting to give a large chest and ill-fitting gray tactical gear.
"Sorry bout' that, Thunder's a bit of an odd one always wandering about." She stopped and examined Hatch from head to toe before smirking. "Fuck me the bloody photo didn't do you any justice did it? Hiding behind all that gear are we?"
"I guess not, so are you the liason or another doll who can't answer my question?" Hatch grimaced.
"Mean too, but I can work with that." The doll grinned. "As for your question I'm bloody not, model designation's Sig MCX. Miss Morridow's over at the admin buildin'. Commander Blair sent me to get ya, but it looks like Thunder beat me to it." Sig adjusted her ponytail from behind her blaze orange combat goggles. "Not that I still ain't escortin' ya there n' whatnot."
Thunder, so that was the other doll's name. Hatch hadn't even been in service with GnK long and he was already doubting the neural cloud capacity of the dolls they employed.
"Well then best not keep the commander waiting."
Sig pointed back over her shoulder towards the largest of the buildings beyond. "Yup command center ain't far, we can stop by the bricks and drop your kit off."
Hatch went to pick up his bag only to find that Thunder had already hefted it up, effortlessly putting it up and over her right shoulder. She stared back at him and patted the bag.
"Okay, Ben time to go."
"Yeah yeah friends, whatever. Let's hurry this shit up so we can get on to the bloody pub. Onward!" Sig fixed her plate carrier before leading the wayward group off deeper into the confines of the base.
Any hope Hatch had of the other dolls being any less odd had been dashed the further he was led around base. One thing he immediately noticed was that, except for Grizzly and Thunder, all of them were stereotypically British and all of them were female. Hatch had no doubt they could fight at the most basic of levels, most T-dolls could with proper reprogramming, but they would never hold a candle to the rank and file the military deployed.
Which was what Hatch was wishing for now more than ever. Worse yet, he had found out that his "Security Team" was vacant. Evidently, S09 was bottom of the barrel in priority for manpower, so now Hatch would have to wait for members to trickle in. Whether or not they'd be human remained to be seen.
Now he stood outside of Blair's office, alone, still in full kit. Thunder had long been led away to parts unknown and Sig had been called off to take care of some security matter.
Hatch gave the two wooden doors in front of him a series of knocks with his non-firing hand, his other still resting on the pistol grip of his rifle.
In seconds one of the doors opened revealing a young girl in a well-pressed business suit clutching a data slate. Unlike most of the others he had met so far, this was certainly not a doll. At least, she didn't feel like one. She was still relatively normal looking save for her stylized hair shaped into a bun and pale skin. The girl brushed one of her blue highlighted jet-black bangs out from across her face and smiled. "Ah, Sergeant Hatch right on time. I-"
The girl looked around as if expecting someone. "Did Kalina not escort you?"
"No? Sig and Thunder did." Hatch responded half assuredly.
"For god's sake that girl." She shook her head and composed herself. "Right anyways, my name is Agent Votg Morridow, but you can call me Miss Morridow. I am the acting liaison for the security team here on base. Kalina answers directly to Commander Blair and was supposed to handle your arrival, but I see she's probably busy trying to scalp prices at the commissary or otherwise."
"Seems to be the case."
"Commander Blair is inside waiting for you." Morridow pushed out from the entrance of the office and past Hatch before giving him a quick examination. "Do you always go around ready for war?"
"Last I checked we're in a warzone. You never leave gear behind, not in the old country." Hatch answered matter of factly.
"So we are, but nothing ever happens around here."
"And that's when something bad will happen. When you least expect it."
Morridow smirked. "Fair enough, in you go. When you are done do forward a message to me, I can handle the rest of your in processing."
"Alright then." Hatch made his way into the dimly lit office beyond, taking care to close the door behind him. Like the entrance, the office stood in stark contrast to the rest of the base. It's owner was nothing if not a stickler for classic architecture. Old maps and priceless artwork sat in neat display cases and stretched everywhere security monitors didn't occupy. At the end of the room sat a polished wooden desk. Paperwork and computer monitors atop it were neatly arranged in such a way as to allow the occupant maximum efficiency as well as something to duck behind should privacy be needed. Behind all this tidiness sat an older man with blonde hair and an equally blonde beard. The well-pressed GnK maroon greatcoat he wore and the data slate in his hand could only mean one thing.
"Ah Sergeant Hatch, welcome welcome!"
Commander Blair, just as British as the rest of the dolls under his charge.
"Sir." Hatch nodded and walked towards the desk, passing the blonde female who had been observing him from a leather couch. Unlike the commander she had forgone formal attire, choosing instead to don a more practical BDU with rolled sleeves. Her emerald green eyes felt as if they were piercing Hatch's very being. Another doll? But who had placed the ring on one of her exposed fingers?
"Finally here in the flesh are we, I trust your trip was a pleasant one?" Blair interlocked his fingers and let his arms rest on the table.
Upon halting in place Hatch went ramrod straight. "Security Team leader Sergeant Hatch reporting for duty, sir."
"And formal too! I like it, even if such formality isn't needed around here." Blair waved a hand. "At ease Sergeant, you're not in the military anymore I assure you."
"No, but he certainly dresses the part." The female chimed in with folded arms and a stern expression. "Or do you always keep your face hidden when meeting your boss?"
Blair scowled and pointed at her. "Now Wells, easy. The good sergeant is merely demonstrating proper readiness. Don't mind the Missus, Welrod always gets this way with new joins." Blair cocked his head to the side. "Though I wouldn't mind meeting you face to face if that's alright."
"Sir." Hatch reached up and unhooked a few clips securing his helmet and rebreather in place. Upon breaking the seal his rebreather hissed as gloved hands removed both it and the helmet. Exposed to the stagnant air Hatch took a deep breath before securing his helmet to the front of his vest.
"Well, I, huh." Blair squinted and leaned forward slightly. Unsure whether or not to be surprised or intimidated by the mean-looking face with dead eyes staring back at him. "I thought you were…."
"Younger sir? I still am, the gray hair is just something I've come to live with."
"Years of stress and Rossart combat drugs dear. I'm more surprised he isn't bald." Welrod added before returning her attention to a magazine."
"Quite quite. Anyways, good to finally meet you." Blair extended a hand, a gesture Hatch was quick to return as the two shook hands. "Welcome to S09."
"It's good to be back in Ukraine sir." Hatch nodded suddenly feeling almost naked without his helmet on.
"Ah yes I did read that you fought here once before. I assure you there are no Soviets here this time, Ukraine remains just as free as it was when you left."
"So I've heard." Hatch shifted his body into parade rest. "We sacrificed a lot to make that happen, which is why I'm back."
"Ah yes, Sangvis Ferri, a nasty bit of business that." Blair leaned back in his chair and pulled up a few holo screens on his desk. "Were it not for Ukraine still rebuilding and integrating into Rossart I've no doubt our coalition would've handled it long ago, but alas I suppose GnK has mouths to feed too eh?"
Blair scrolled through some more screens. "Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on who you'd ask, our slice of the proverbial pie remains firmly rooted as is."
"What my husband means to say is, things are quiet here Sergeant Hatch." Welrod got up from her seat and went to stand by Blair's side. "And we'd very much like to keep it so, your bravado will not be necessary so do try not to attract attention here."
A doll-human marriage, not the first time Hatch had seen that. At least it answered who put the ring on Welrod's finger.
"Wells please, Hatch's experience will be nothing short of a boon to our efforts, do try to be nice." Blair sighed and held his wife's hand, a gesture that seemed to calm the doll down. "But she is right, I'm afraid not much goes on around here much as we would like to make a difference."
Hatch ignored the obvious and kept his attention focused. Welrod's banter was nothing new to him and he wouldn't let it get under his skin. "The village. Have you talked to them?"
"Oh, right down to business, I like that. I'm afraid not which would probably be why things are going so slow."
"Have you tried to?"
"Yes, but they want nothing to do with us it seems. Most of my girls can speak the language but the locals seem untrusting-"
"My people-" Hatch paused. "The villagers have every right to be, out here your actions prove your word and that word has to be from someone they feel they can trust."
Blair put a hand up incredulously. "Well, what more can I do? I've tried everything, supplies, increased patrols to build rapport."
"There's nothing you have that you can give them, not yet anyways." Hatch focused his gaze on Blair. "Request permission to make contact with them."
"Which is nothing short of mind-boggling, you'd think they'd have found the missing dolls-wait what?" Blair was just about to go off on a tangent when his wife tapped his shoulder.
"Request permission to make contact with the village sir. I'll get them to talk."
"But you just got here, there are briefings to do, admin work to do-"
"Respectfully sir, that can wait. The longer we wait the longer those missing dolls stay missing."
"But I didn't even-"
"Read the reports on the way here, sir, among other things. I'll check a vehicle out with Doogan." Hatch answered matter of factly.
Blair exchanged confused looks with Welrod. "Well, I suppose there's no harm in it."
"Thank you, sir, I'll be back by sundown."
"I can get the others to-"
Before Blair could finish his sentence Hatch had already redonned his helmet, spun on his heels, and exited the office, leaving the bewildered couple to sit in stunned silence.
"Well, that was…."
"Rude? I see respect is not in his skill set." Welrod grimaced. "When he gets back I'll be sure to give him a stern talking to."
"No need, I've seen his type before. They're men of action, initiative." Blair held his wife's hand once more and gave it a firm squeeze. "I have a feeling the good sergeant will deliver us good results."
"If you say so." Welrod sighed and squeezed her husband's hand back. "Now then, tea?"
"But of course." Blair put a finger under his chin and leaned back in his chair. "His name though, Hatch's, it sounds, familiar. I swore I've heard it somewhere before."
"Perhaps you have him confused for someone else dear. You are getting older after all." Welrod teased as she started setting out silverware. "One thing is for certain, Thunder seems to have taken a liking to him."
"Is that so?" Blair sat back upright.
Welrod paused and looked over her shoulder with a smile. "Quite, Sig contacted me on the Zener. It seems our lost doll is convinced that he's the friend she's been looking for. I wonder who filled her head with that idea?"
"Guilty as charged." Blair put his hands up as if he had been caught stealing.
Welrod couldn't help but shake her head as she started setting out teacups. "Ever the idealist, my husband. "
"But of course. Now then, enough about work, my head hurts and I'd like to take a break if you don't mind." Blair spun his chair around and took a look outside. "I have a feeling things are going to start looking up."