Halwaz is interviewing a veteran of the Papuan "incident". You don't know his name. His slightly graying sandy hair retains a military cut, but he is dressed in casual, unremarkable civilian clothing. His posture, even in a comfortable Gu-chair, is stiff.
"You understand, there's stuff I can't talk about," he says. "Non-disclosure agreements, you know. But I can describe what we did in general. We were never actually in Papua at any time - we were based in the Australian desert, in the left armpit of nowhere. Underground and air-conditioned, fortunately, because it's just hot red dust and dry gray trees out there.
"We were in an operational center, joint international forces, us and the Aussies. We wanted the New Zealanders in on it too but they said no. We were co-located to build better interforce co-operation, or as the Aussies said, so we could get drunk together and bond. Only they put it more colorfully.
"We went in at night - same time zone, so it was night for us as well. Apparently there was intel about a base up in the highlands where all kinds of stuff was run from - spamming, money laundering, kiddie porn, and remote crimes using Gupes, like drug running and holdups and even intergang warfare. There was this big hydro generator and a satellite station and data centre. Sophisticated stuff, they'd shipped it all in by freight helicopter, I think, plunked it down there, shot a few of the locals to scare them off and it was up in the middle of the jungle, inaccessible as all hell. The Papuan government didn't have a hope of shutting something like that down, but they weren't going to admit it, so their official position was it didn't exist. If it had been the Indonesians running it I think the Papuans would have at least tried, because they're still bitter about when they used to be part of Indonesia, but it was some Chinese outfit. Which made it politically sensitive, of course. There was a possibility that China would intervene and take the place over, use it to increase influence in the region, and the Aussies weren't up for that in their back yard. Nor were we, on principle.
"So our mission was to shut it down, take the operators into custody and - what was the term - 'pragmatically extradite' them. Means kidnap them and take them to somewhere they can be charged, like Papua New Guinea or, better yet, Australia.
"We went in using a drop-wing configuration, launched from a Sable SX-3, and glided down - we had full overlays of the target so the darkness was no problem. On a previous pass the SX-3 had dropped about six hundred spyders - that's with a 'y'. Little things, about as big as your hand, basically just a sensor package and some Gu with a little holo generator to run it, look just like a live spider or whatever the appropriate local lifeform is, and they run around and get in everywhere and then uplink back to your mothership, in this case the SX-3, and it rebroadcasts to base and the servers integrate the whole thing. Result is, you can see everything as clear as day - clearer, because you can see inside buildings and things wherever a spyder has got in. Multi-frequency, you see infra-red, radio, the lot. Which showed us exactly where we needed to go to shut down their comms, which was the first priority for team A. Team B, which I was with, went after the generator setup. All our units knew exactly where the mothership was, so all our comms were narrowcast, point-to-point. We set off a staticbomb - that's a jamming device that fluctuates on a schedule that's known to you but not to the enemy, so you can filter it digitally but they can't. Then we went into drider configuration when we hit ground."
"Sorry, I've seen drop-wings, but what's a drider?"
"Like a big four-legged spider with a soldier's torso at the top. Named after something in some novel, someone told me once, some fantasy thing. Sort of a centaur but with a big spider instead of the horse. It's incredibly fast and agile over all kinds of terrain, because the four legs poke out at the corners of an imaginary square centered on the torso, so you can move in any direction. Usually you have two troops to a drider, one facing forwards and controlling the movement, one facing back that just covers that direction. Each with a weapon. All our weapons on that mission were sublethal munitions, but of course you can carry anything.
"The way it worked, we Americans were driving and our Aussie mates were covering our asses, which they joked about, saying that was how it always was, what did you expect? So we went in, and there was the whole complex laid out in front of us, hardly even anyone there, just a couple of caretakers really. I mean, the big bosses weren't going to be there. In the middle of the jungle, when they could be well-fed and well-bedded in Shanghai or wherever? Not them. They had people for that.
"There were Gupe guards, naturally, but they were probably controlled from Shanghai too, and once we set off the staticbomb they were screwed. In, wreck the tech, out with the caretaker guys, it took us about an hour. By the time they had anything in the air headed for the site it was all over. Bar the shouting - the Papuans, the Chinese, other nations that were sheltering similar setups, they weren't best pleased, and they got wind of it somehow - someone in the organization we'd given a bloody nose must have had some media savvy, is my guess. There was a big public blowup that far outlasted the mission itself. But not my problem."
Colonel Nevin lectures in military history at West Point. Apart from his regulation haircut he looks more like an academic than a military officer; he doesn't quite have corduroy patches on the elbows of his uniform jacket, but you get the impression it was a close thing. He is talking to Halwaz in his office.
"Gu," he says, "changes the economics and politics of warfare. What I mean is: early in the century, the economics of US troops vs mujahideen favored the mujahideen. They were easy to recruit, cheap to train and equip, and every time one was killed, support for what they were doing increased. With the US troops, exactly the opposite.
"Gu shifts that equation, makes the playing field more level, simply because what's officially called an MCRATC - multiple-configuration remote asset, troop controlled - a Gupe, to you, or McRatsy or Mickey Rat, to the troops - keeps soldiers from being killed. Which, oddly enough, often means that they don't end up killing other people either, because they often don't need to in order to attain their objectives. And, consequently, those objectives get attained more often."
A visual here of a village in the Afghan-Pakistan border regions. Through clouds of dust come driders - looking bizarre and terrifying with their four jointless, arched, almost tentacular legs supporting a humanoid torso with a nearly featureless head. Shots from an automatic weapon ring out from behind the viewing angle and one drider shudders with the impact, goes stiffly motionless for a second, and then turns and fires a grenade towards the source of the firing. There is a dull "whump", and the shots cease, replaced by the sound of yelling.
"Tear gas grenade," says Nevin's voice, commentating. "Did you see that moment when the shots hit its primary holocontroller and one of the secondaries took over? We have about ten of them per unit now. Makes them damn hard to put down."
Two driders skitter - there's no other word for it - forward and the view angle changes to follow them. They haul a coughing man in traditional dress to his feet and one of them ferries him off through the blowing dust, presumably to a staging area in their rear.
"But by the same token," says Nevin, now back in view, "we aren't winning any hearts and minds by sitting in a bunker in Arizona and deploying scary monsters into people's villages. And we're left with a huge number of prisoners that we don't know what to do with, and that we have to feed and look after and prevent from being rescued. Frankly, it was easier when we shot them." He smiles to show he's joking, but it's hard to be positive that he really is.