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An hour after stepping off the military transport from Java, Stave Gibson was sitting in a Balinese go-go bar sipping thoughtfully on some local beer. It tasted like a good Brasilian ale, which was better than he originally hoped for the first time he came here. He read someplace that in pre-glacial times, countries north of the Mediterranean were famous for excellent beers and ales. He fleetingly wished for those old days, wondering what beer tasted like when it was brewed for billions of people.

He had not cruised the Bali clubs in a long while and there were lots of new faces. As his eyes wandered around the dimly lit room, his radar locked-on to a plain, slender little thing who was standing at the end of a line of five or six girls. The rest of the row was trying to look beautiful, welcoming and earnest, by contrast his radar target stood motionless, lost in thought. Still, she was exactly what he wanted at the moment so he waved down a hostess and pointed at the frail, short one on the end. They immediately summoned the beautiful goddess nearby, who strolled in Gibson’s direction with runway model grace. He waved his hand in the negative and locked eyes with the hostess: “Not her... Her!” he pointed emphatically, motioning again toward the end of the line. The hostess looked at him, momentarily confused and with a querying eye. “Her?” she pointed. “Yes.” he nodded. The hostess waved for the attention of the other girls in line and pointed at the wallflower, who remained lost in thought.

Finally one of the girls closest by tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to the hostess. Catching sight of the hostesses’ arm waving, the wallflower pointed incredulously at herself; “Me?”

“Yes, you, come on…” motioned the hostess with an impatient, irritating wave of her hand. With a slight grin and a sudden sense of animation, the wallflower walked briskly over to the hostess pointing up at Gibson, who watched the scene with minor incredulity.

The girl reached the foot of the shallow steps, looked up and broke into a giant smile. Pounding quickly up to his seating level, she immediately sat down next to Gibson and gave him a powerful hug. The hostess smiled approvingly and walked away, mentally counting her money pile.

‘Strange.’ he thought, ‘but nice.’ For the most part, he was not sure what to think, except for a hesitant sort of curiosity. Most of these girls were there for entertainment – they knew it and he knew it. It was an unspoken understanding, not bad, not good, just the way things were. The plain young thing wrapped around him was obviously a bit different from the rest, but he was damned if he knew what that meant. She kissed him on the cheek and thanked him twice for choosing her, she was almost in tears... well, it was too late now, he pretty much had to buy her a drink. He usually chatted with them first, to better sense whether he was talking to a mercenary or just an everyday person looking for a bit of excitement. He gave in and waved down the hostess, holding up one finger – the lady standing at the foot of the stairs nodded and scurried off to get a drink.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

She smiled and replied, “Nengghi.”

He pointed at himself “My name is Stave.” he said.

“Steve?” she asked, slightly confused.

“No.” he replied, the loud music of the room nearly drowning out his voice, she finally grasped the distinction and recited his name. Instincts began to take over. She still had his waist in a death-grip with her left arm, so he rested his right hand on her leg. Moving forward with his standard icebreaker, he started to lay his hand over the top of her right hand, readying himself to give the canned compliment “You have beautiful hands.”

Her hand pulled away. The smile disappeared and she tucked both hands down between her tightly clenched legs. Smiling awkwardly, as if in fear that it was already over, she pulled her left hand out again and gave him a one-armed hug, the right hand remained tucked away.

Gibson didn’t quite know what to make of this. Becoming curiously suspicious, he gently but firmly withdrew her right hand, wrapping his hand around hers, then he felt it – she only had three fingers on that hand, not even that. Her middle and ring fingers were missing, gone, all the way down to the knuckle. Shocked and embarrassed, he caved in to what the situation demanded; whoever she was, she had suffered some horrible accident and was working in the face of rejection and mockery. He wrapped his hand around hers, smiled, brought her hand up and kissed the back of it. Relieved to a certain degree, she rested her head on his shoulder and they just sat there until her drink arrived.

Over the next 20 minutes he discovered that her left hand was also missing fingers, lots of damage – damn. He didn’t even ask, they just talked about where he was from. He said he worked for the Australian Agriculture Commission, which animated her slightly as she described her family’s farm in the northern highlands of Bali. He made sure to keep a hold on her left hand, or what was left of it. After a while, she had to leave for the obligatory dance that all girls there did twice an hour. Getting up, she pecked him on the cheek, very precisely wrapped a large ponytail holder around her hands and walked down and around backstage. “Ahhh.” he thought. “That’s how she hides it.”

As he sat thinking about this odd situation one of the other dancers walked by, caught his eye, smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. Yes, things just got stranger, now he was being given the thumbs-up by go-go club mercenaries.

After the second grinning girl walked by with her thumb up, he could no longer resist and waved her over. “What happened to Nengghi?” he asked, holding up a hand. The girl looked at him with a complicated mix of uncertainty and friendliness. “Factory accident, her friend – she motioned over to one of the other dancers who was now looking over and rhythmically nodding at them – talked her into coming here for something to do.”

‘Okay.’ he thought. ‘Makes sense.’

Since questions were being answered he asked another “Does she get many customers?” he inquired bluntly. “No.” the girl replied. “She has been here two months and no customers.” The dancer looked directly into Gibson’s eyes to make sure he understood. He did. A typical girl at these places could easily round up several ‘customers’ a week even when things were slow. Nengghi had been coming for two months with no results, alone except for one or two girlfriends for support. “Damn.” Gibson muttered to himself. “Is that determination or something else?” He could not be sure, by the way she acted she was not desperate for money.  ‘Probably boredom, it's common.’ he thought. He ran out of time to wonder further when Nengghi returned from her dance and sat back down next to him.

Now he understood, or at least he could pretend he did.

“Want to go get something to eat?” he suddenly blurted out to her, feeling as if he were watching himself speak from outside his body, he couldn’t believe he was doing this. He had come here only for a drink and some visual entertainment. She beamed broadly, jumped up into his lap and gave him another death-grip hug. Gibson felt like he was in free-fall.


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It was the middle of the night. Stave Gibson lay idly pondering the light of a full moon as it shone through the skylights of his room. The place was nothing special, just temporary quarters. If it had been peacetime he would have stayed in town or over by the beach. Not tonight. He turned and looked down at Nengghi; she was sleeping deeply next to him – clear conscience. Her high pitched breathing gave away her small size even in the dark. He looked for the hundredth time at her hands and still could not understand. Was it money? Maybe, but the Balinese government got a lot of funding from Australia. Their health programs were good and should pay for things like reconstruction; or at least it should were it not for the corruption.

While he lay there thinking, her breathing shallowed and her eyes flickered open. Turning to look up she smiled sleepily, stretched and edged up next to him. She almost went back to sleep and then opened her eyes again, looking back at Gibson. As if reading his mind, she reached up, caressed his ear and then openly held up one of her hands – the very act showed how much she had decided to trust him.

With an inquisitive look, she asked “You want to know?”

He nodded.

“I worked for the umm, factory.” she noted, working to manually remember her English. “We were sent to Java to help work on Australian machines. Another technician, she powered-up something I was working on, my fingers were in the way and...” Nengghi’s eyes welled up slightly and she hesitated, looking at her hands as if to remember her lost fingers.”

“It hurt a lot, and there was almost nobody around at the time. The other technician thought she would get in trouble, so she ran away and left me. She thought I would die. So I walked several kilometers to the nearest unit, nobody was there, but the army vehicles called for help – someone came out to get me. The factory owner got in a lot of trouble for leaving us in the field without communications, but too late ya?”

“The factory didn’t pay for reconstruction?” Stave asked.

“The factory people had already spent their government money, they had nothing left. There is no system here to making people pay for things. Their service closed, it was small anyway.” She frowned and shrugged, then turned to look up at Stave to see if he understood.

“I left my family to work, it was – how do you say – not allowed. My father told me that I got what I deserved for playing around with things I did not understand.” Her face carried a blank thoughtfulness, tinged with anger and stubbornness.

So it was a lot of things. It was money, but it was personal. She was determined not to ask her family for the favor, reconstruction would be expensive by Balinese standards. She was going to do it herself or not at all. Unfortunately, in this small place she was unlikely to get anywhere. But she had too much pride to ask for help. Stave knew human behavior, even if he offered her the money right now, she would not accept, to insist would only undermine her opinion of him.

“I’m sorry.” he said, knowing at the moment that he could at least get away with that. He kissed the palm of her hand.

“That’s okay.” She said with a tip of her head, “It’s not your fault.”

Her voice lowered “But you’re not an agriculture person, I don’t think.”

Years of training kicked out an immediate answer “Yes, I am.”

Behind that answer he admired her presence of mind, using the vulnerable moment to answer her own question – about him. She looked up at the skylight and then back at him. “You act like a military man. I saw Australian agricultural people where I worked before, they are soft, they have an easy life. You are not soft.”

Gibson got the uncanny feeling she somehow was reading him, he suddenly wanted to be inside the security of a full uniform, where external sensors could not track your brain activity. If this had not been Bali and a known safe location, his paranoia would have risen to greater heights. Instead, he had to accept that this was wartime, and that standard cover stories were essentially useless.

“I do work for the Australian government, you understand?” he asked, looking directly into her eyes. She nodded slowly, accepting that this was as much explanation as she was going to get.

She spoke again. “I want to work for Australia again.” She looked at him rather directly, with that blank expression again – the natural poker face.

“Maybe.” he responded, with some hesitation. She smiled wanly at him, unsure of his sincerity.

That was okay with Gibson, he was even less sure.

Next: 10. Intelligence

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