"The hardest part of any battle sometimes isn't the fight itself- it's picking up the pieces once you're done."- Roman idiom
February 28, 2015,
February 28, 2015,
19:31 local time,
Galla Claudia’s Apartment, Buffalo Waterfront,
Buffalo, Roman New York
The doorbell rang loudly, springing Galla Claudia from her couch. It was a rare weekend at home for the Antivirus Task Force (AVTF) Chief, but Claudia needed it, as the last few months with the whirlwind that was The Virus had been exhausting.
After checking the peephole to see who it was, she smiled and gleefully opened the door and gave her visitor a warm hug. It was Cassandra “Cassie” Celebra, Claudia’s best friend and her long time confidant from their days together in Ostia. The svelte blonde Celebra, with her bright smile and sparkling blue eyes, was Byzantine by birth and started her career in Ostia with the Agentes in Rebus (AR), the intra-state equivalent to the Agentes De Rebus (ADR), Rome’s intelligence-gathering unit, before “retiring” a few years ago to Buffalo to run her own flower shop.
“So glad you could make it,” said Claudia, letting Celebra in. “I can only imagine how busy things must be for you.”
“Oh come on,” said Celebra, smiling as the two of them sat down on Claudia’s couch. “You know I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
“Thanks,” said Claudia, smiling, getting up from the couch. “Let me get the tea going.”
Claudia proceeded to her counter, where there was a kettle of Apulian tea was ready to serve. She poured two cups and brought them back to the couch where she rejoined Celebra.
“So,” said Celebra, taking her tea, “it’s been quite the experience for you so far, this ‘Virus’ thing.”
“I know,” said Claudia with a bit of a laugh, “first we’re hunting this one guy and then he turns out to be a friend and then the next thing I know, we’ve almost got a war on our hands. It’s been nuts.”
“Tell me about it...and it seems like it’ll only get worse.”
“Kind of the way these stories work, don’t they?”
The two of them both laughed before Claudia paused to get pensive.
“Galla,” said Celebra, “what happened?”
Claudia took a deep breath and sighed. “I’m not so sure about my new friend,” she said, downtrodden.
“Oh? How come?”
“I told my team that when I rescued Jasmine Farhar, George Walker turned the gun on himself.”
“Of course, that’s not what actually happened.”
“No...one of Danforth Grayson’s friends came up from behind him and killed him...which I allowed to happen.”
“Well, Walker took Jasmine hostage...held a gun to her head. Goaded me into killing him...I knew he would do that, because he’s a Soldier and Soldiers always choose death over getting arrested...his family would die otherwise as a result. So I told Danny that if he wanted to kill Walker, he could...and he did.”
“Yes, but you would have been completely justified in the homicide...he was threatening Jasmine...that’s reason enough.”
“I know...and I should have done that...but I felt like if I killed him that Walker would get what he wanted...the Soldiers could then make him into a martyr. If Danny did it...then it’s just a criminal ‘settling a score’...which is what this was.”
“Yeah, you told me...Danny actually got usurped of The Virus some time ago, and Walker was one of the guys behind it. So you let Danny and his men ‘handle’ Walker and left it at that.”
“It’s eating me up, though...it’s a murder I allowed to happen...it’s a burden on my conscience. Plus, I hate hiding things from my team...and Lucius.”
“Well, you gotta do what you have to do...and I think you can tell Lucius.”
Claudia’s eyes widened momentarily, after which she leaned forward, intrigued. “Do you think so?”
Celebra didn’t skip a beat, speaking confidently. “Totally...Lucius is a military man...they know all about doing things because they’re ‘right’ not because they’re ‘proper’...he’d accept your maverick ways of doing things.”
“Yeah, I understand that...but where does the line of ‘Lucius my friend’ end and the line of ‘Lucius my boss’ begin? I’m not sure I want to take that bet.”
Celebra sighed, pursing her lips. “You know him better than I do...but if you don’t tell him, you run the risk of him finding out through some other means and he’ll have no choice but to reprimand you. Maybe you don’t need to explain everything but you need to tell him that you’re working with Danny now and that this wasn’t a one-shot deal.”
Claudia took a sip of her tea and furrowed her brow, not uttering a response.
“Galla...trust me, it’ll be okay. You and Lucius want the same thing- justice- and you know Lucius, he doesn’t care how it arrives.”
“Yeah, but I do. I get the whole ‘don’t be a slave to the rules’ thing, but you have to have standards and integrity. I’m not Danny...I’m not a criminal. I can let certain things go...but not murder.”
“Then let him know that...set boundaries. You’re in charge...don’t let him forget that. If he’s as much a man of honour as you say he is, then he will respect you. He has to...he has no choice.”
March 2, 2015,
14:18 local time,
Arlynal Facility of Corrections, Building #1326,
“You were right about her being tight,” said Max Collins with his stoic gruff to Arlynali Earl Francis Batch as he emerged from the prison cell holding 26-year-old Miranda Savenka. The pert brunette Savenka was brought in to Arlynal after being found to have raped 15 politicians in her native Sarkel in order to extort them to replace several low-income housing projects with high class resorts that she owned. Savenka’s punishment would be to be chained to a bed naked, spread eagle, with a ball gag affixed to her mouth, where she’d have to endure the rapes she caused. No one would be allowed to maim her- under the threat of execution- with doctors on hand to keep her healthy enough for her torture, with handlers making sure she was fed and “physically capable” of receiving her “guests”. Sex with her was supposed to be by appointment only, but being a friend of Batch, Collins was able to jump the queue.
“Yeah,” said Batch with a wry smile. He was an imposing figure, slender but strong and tall with dark skin, speaking with a calm but commanding baritone that replicated his demeanour. “She’s a tight one. We keep them good around here...we have to, otherwise they don’t learn their ‘lesson’.”
“So how many times have you gone in there?” Collins asked.
Batch scoffed. “Me? Oh I’d never do that...my wife would kill me.”
Collins gave him a disbelieving look.
Batch laughed. “All right, you caught me...I go in there quite a bit. My wife understands...it’s just business. When criminals go out of line you have to teach them lessons...and this is her’s.”
“I see...so how long will you keep her?”
“As long as the boys want her.” Batch then beamed a huge smile before continuing. “As well as any women...we don’t discriminate.” He smiled again before continuing.
“In fact Polly and Danny were here a week ago,” said Batch. “They did some strange thing that not even I understood...it got Polly wild.” Batch then put his hand on Collins’ shoulder before continuing, sounding excited. “He told me you should try it sometime.”
“I’ll be sure to ask him about it,” said Collins, dryly deadpanning. Collins then glanced at Batch’s hand but decided against saying anything.
As Savenka’s next “appointment” showed up, Collins and Batch walked down the hallway, leaving her with the guards.
“So,” said Batch, getting down to business, “what brings you here today?”
“I need a favour,” said Collins curtly.
“Oh?” Batch sensed urgency in Collins’ voice.
“George Walker had an Arlynali bank account before cancelling it, but Omega believes he opened up another one to fulfill a mission against us. We need to figure out who he’s paying.”
Batch let out a heavy sigh.
“I know...they’re just numbers so you can’t easily trace them...but see what you can do...this matter is important.”
“For you...I’ll do it. I’ll make a few calls...might take me a while but I’ll get to the bottom of it.”
March 2, 2015,
14:02 local time,
Gilbert Perrault Park,
Buffalo, Roman New York
Sally Weller sat on the park bench and couldn’t help but contemplate things. It was an unusually warm day in Buffalo, meaning there was many a Buffalonian in the buff seeking to soak up the unexpected sun, even if it was a tad too cold for Weller, wearing a spring jacket and jeans, to do it. If this was Key West, thought Weller to herself, they’d call this ‘freezing’. Oh well, after the winter we’ve had, I guess they’re allowed to get overexcited about the rising mercury.
What struck her wasn’t the sight of people deciding to frolick in various stages of undress, nor was it the sight of people not caring about how they or others looked in the buff, even if that meant that there were some sights that, well, weren’t easy on the eyes. No, what struck Weller was how happy everyone was, and how much they wanted to share their happiness with others. Everyone is just so...content, she thought to herself. No matter how many times I see it, I just can’t shake it. It didn’t matter if you were a scruffy guy with long hair and a longer beard, a factory worker whose filthy coveralls indicated how tireless she worked, a businessman in a sharply dressed suit or a blonde bombshell in the tiniest bikini- everyone was just so happy and content to be with each other and interact.
Weller thought maybe she shouldn’t be surprised. Across the Roman Empire- not just here in Buffalo- almost everyone was the picture of pure bliss. The Empire, long a self-sufficient entity, provided its many subjects with plenty of resources and plenty of luxuries to boot, luxuries the people were only so willing to work for given how much the State gave back to them. The State also gave them innumerable freedoms to pursue their dreams and their pleasures, with the people trusted not to go “too far” because, as far as the State was concerned, they earned it. Furthermore, with the tribulations of Commodus and Nero well entrenched in the Roman psyche, everyone knew about the perils of excess and dared not to demand too much. Sure, the average Roman didn’t want to be in squalor and liked having nice things, but the average Roman didn’t insist on having every luxury imagineable like other cultures did- they just wanted what they would use.
Weller thought people could learn from them, because Rome just seemed so wonderful, but, deep down, there was something contemptable about it. She could never put her finger down on it, but she knew it was there. At its core, she thought, was unbridled arrogance- many a Roman thought their situation was so wonderful that everyone else in the world ought to live like they do, acting surprised when the world bristled at that notion. Plus, who were the Romans to think that they could just enter North America, impose their institutions, and act like everything would be okay? It doesn’t matter if they’re here to help- if the people don’t ask for your help, then you don’t give it to them. Somehow this easy concept escaped the craniums of the brightest Roman leaders.
Then there came the idealism that went along with the arrogance. No Roman had ever lived in complete squalor, wondering where their next meal would come from or if their house could survive the next time it rained. No Roman had ever really seen the brutality of witnessing the police inflict harm on the very people they’re supposed to protect, all because the police need to suppress government opposition or arrest undesirables to fill factories built by the government. No Roman had ever had the experience where the government so wantonly abused the rights each citizen was supposed to have, with an abject disregard for the needs of its people as it so selfishly only cares about its own.
She could go on and on about the many things the Romans are sheltered from, but a man in the distance gave her a welcome pause.
“Hey,” said Weller getting up as she saw her boyfriend, AVTF junior member Thomas Bartlett, walking up to her. “How’s it...going?”
Before she had a chance to finish the burly Bartlett had already wrapped his arms around the svelte blonde in a tight embrace, which startled Weller but she understood immediately what was wrong.
“It’s okay sweetie,” she said, kissing his cheek and reciprocating the hug. “You’ve had a long week...let it all out.” She stood there, holding Bartlett and rubbing his back while Bartlett did nothing except let out several deep breaths, as if he was winded after a long run and Weller was his relief.
After a few minutes, Bartlett released his grip on Weller and kissed her lips.
“Thanks,” he said to her, relieved. “I needed that.”
“Hey,” she said, a twinkle coming to her eye, “no problem.” After giving Bartlett another kiss, Weller rubbed his arm. “What’s wrong?”
“Just stress,” said Bartlett, sitting down on a bench. “Maybe it’s just me, but I never realized how much work the FBII would be...and not just that, but the amount of time I get pushed to do things...I mean...it’s like this never ends.”
“I know,” said Weller, smiling warmly. “It’s a tough life...but that’s what you expect coming out of college.”
“College...that was easy. Life was regimented, yes, but you don’t have 50 people breathing down your neck...plus this job gets so random sometimes. Some days, I never know when my days off are.”
“Yeah, but look at it this way...if you didn’t do your job, then someone’s life or their livelihood is at stake...you wouldn’t want that on your conscience, would you?”
“What are you working on right now?”
“I’m not really supposed to discuss that out in the open.”
“Come on...maybe a fresh set of eyes can help you out.”
“Okay...well, we’ve got nothing pressing at the moment...just some localized stuff we’re monitoring. I’ve been on the phone with the people in Paterson, New Jersey for the past few days in particular...some jewelery store robber that always carves his initials into the glass cases he robs...the guy is good because he leaves no fingerprints or anything at the site...I mean he’s even found a way to shut off the store’s security camera before his heist, without leaving any track of it on the security camera’s computer. It’s a real stumper.”
“So when the security company reviews the footage, it’s as if the camera was running the whole time?”
“Maybe it’s a firmware virus.”
Bartlett reacted as if a light went off in his brain. “Firmware...yeah...how come I didn’t think of that? That would explain why the cameras have footage inserted into them without any trace of it happening.”
“...and they’re older cameras too...much easier to hack the firmware.”
Bartlett responded with an intense, passionate deep kiss with Weller, which she thoroughly enjoyed.
“I take it I helped out quite a bit.” Weller smiled, happily dazed about what happened.
“Oh yeah...you’re such a great help...I’m glad you’re in my life. I’d never know what to do without you.”
They both smiled before launching into another deep, passionate kiss.
June 5, 2015,
15:13 local time,
Press Room, London Times,
“Caesar,” said London Times reporter Matt Calvin greeting Roman Emperor Gnaeus Valerius IV Maderia as he began filming an interview whose video would be posted on the Times’ website later that night. “It is a pleasure and an honour that you would take time out of your day and bless us with your presence.”
Valerius chuckled, hesitantly. “Mr. Calvin, I appreciate your warm welcome,” he said with a smile, “but, please, let us dispense with the formalities…we have a lot to discuss.”
“There’s always something about you Romans with those formalities.” Calvin gave his head a shake before leaning back in his chair.
Valerius took a sip of his glass of water sitting on the table beside him before responding. “You know how we’re like…we don’t want to waste time on the trivial matters…respect is earned, not granted.” He wanted to add “something you guys in England would be well to learn” but he quickly thought better, opting to shift himself slightly on his plushy couch.
Calvin chuckled. “I guess that’s fair.”
Valerius simply smiled, leaning forward in his seat.
“I think we need to begin with this ‘Virus’ business that seems to be taking over North America,” said Calvin, “because we read about that here in England and we don’t seem to understand what’s going on.”
“I’d be lying if I said we knew as well,” said Valerius. “It’s a strange phenomenon…starting off as a simple website before morphing into…well, I’m not sure what it is, but it’s no longer just a website.”
“I think it’s better to call it what it is- a message of political protest.”
“Not really…many people use it as a form of political protest, but some just use it as some kind of excuse to commit crimes. It gets pretty unpredictable.”
“I don’t know, Caesar…seems to me that it’s a message of political protest…the last crime was definitely about politics, as was the case in Carolina.”
“Those are the ones you do know…there are many you don’t, and many we don’t. I would also say that the case in Kentucky only turned political because Jack Kent decided to make it a political issue.”
“You put Louisville under siege…how is that not a political issue?”
Valerius’ eyes widened, deadpanning his response. “I don’t know…because we had to make sure the terrorists didn’t get help? You seem to forget that the Soldiers of the Lord were involved in this.”
“It didn’t have to get this far…all this political protest…all these freedom fighters…isn’t this a clue that maybe your North American approach isn’t working?”
Valerius took a deep breath and let out a heavy sigh, pausing to think.
“When we took up the challenge in North America,” he said, “we did so knowing that it wouldn’t be a quick fix. The Third World War gutted the United States of America and the Canadian Republic, almost overnight…this wasn’t going to be easy. So we, and our friends in Aram, stepped in, offering as much help as we could. Ourselves, we drew upon what happened in Europe after we lost almost all of our territory in the 5th century…we knew that it took Europe almost a millennium to recover and prosper again…North America collapsing was on the same scale, and in such a smaller timeframe. We had to step in…millions of people became impoverished overnight, all for things outside of their control, and we didn’t want them to suffer for thousands of years before they got their footing back.”
“Why North America?” said Calvin, leaning forward, cupping his chin and looking Valerius right in the eye. “There are many other places that are in trouble.”
“Well.” Valerius smirked before continuing. “We would have helped them out- in fact, we still will- if Virtue would only allow us to…I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until they realize the folly of their ways: this refusal of theirs is not just silly, but inhumane. People are dying because they don’t have the food they need to eat…and we have millions in Rome that would be more than willing to help them out, but they can’t…all because of politics.”
“I’m not sure your ‘help’ counts for much…at least Virtue can point to successes.”
“As much as an assortment of rock concerts, staged pictures of happy children and fake fundraisers can qualify as success.” Valerius smiled as he waited for Calvin’s reply.
Calvin cleared his throat and paused to think, looking at his notes.
“A report from Oxford University says that,” said Calvin, “in terms of purchasing power parity, North America is, as a whole, down $3,000 from where it was before the Third World War. Your nation has more than doubled theirs in the same span. You’ve prospered from the fall of America while they are poorer, despite all the ‘help’ you’ve provided.”
“Oxford,” said Valerius without missing a beat, “simply took the raw data and didn’t even attempt to understand the underlying issues. They didn’t take into account that the American debt grew by several orders of magnitude in the 1980s, all because of the fiscal policies of its government. They didn’t take into account the many billions the American government spent fighting its own protestors, many of whom wanted to get back to their lives and have their silly war end. The U.S. thought that if they went to war with the Soviet Union they’d get themselves back out of their rut like they did during the Great Depression, but they didn’t realize that only works if the people are sold on the war, which they weren’t. Instead, they wound up with a war on two fronts, in Europe and at home…with the predictable results. I don’t have exact numbers, but many quintillion dollars of damage was done to the infrastructure, and there wasn’t a viable government- nationally or provincially- for over a year until we stepped in.” Valerius threw up his hands and waved them forcefully at Calvin. “How can you expect us to fix that in twenty years? You can’t. However, we are helping, and our data shows that we are making improvements.”
Calvin simply smiled and nodded, before looking at his notes, as Valerius flashed a knowing smile.
“Well, Caesar, how do you explain all the military forces you have in North America,” said Calvin, “as well as the fact you guys run the policing through the FBII. The continent sure doesn’t look like anything than your own personal fiefdom.”
“Believe that if you want,” said Valerius, leaning back in his seat and relaxing with a smile. “However, such a belief forgets that North America’s own forces are practically depleted, and if the continent is ever to defend itself properly- from threats within or outside- they needed our help. We were able to provide it, so we did, and we only have a fraction of the forces we have, proportion-wise, in areas we actually control. Also, people seem to forget that we only act if needed.”
“The Kentuckians didn’t seem to need you and you acted.”
“Again…that was a special situation.”
“Is it? Or is it part of something bigger? Because what I see is a continent that’s still upset and still wants answers…why else would the Ortizes stage a hostage situation to resolve a sexual assault allegation? It seems extreme.”
“That was a situation brought upon by the Republic of Kentucky’s actions…they did not handle it well, and they’d be the first ones to admit that.”
“Yes, but if Kentucky were really as ‘helped’ as you seem to think it is, then why wouldn’t the Ortizes come to the helpers? Surely if they thought you could help them they would come to you first…not take a newspaper company hostage.”
Calvin leaned forward again and looked Valerius right in the eye, speaking sternly.
“Admit it,” he said, not relenting his gaze, “you are losing your grip Valerius. That’s why you needed to make an extreme show of force in Louisville. You are afraid of losing your ‘golden goose’ so you’re doing everything you can to protect it. That’s why you’re sending your forces in, and that’s why the people are fighting…because they’re fed up with you and they know you’re not as powerful as you think…and it will only get worse.”
“Believe that all you want,” said Valerius icily, staring right back at Calvin, “Tell all the tall tales about the people rebelling against ‘the Empire’ and how they’re ready to finally strike against their ‘oppressors’. However, we are interested in the truth, and once we find it, it will give the world a realization so uncomfortable that it will wish the fantasy it had lived in wasn’t so cruelly crushed. Mark my words, Mr. Calvin…Virtue may think that people are suddenly ‘seeing the light’ when they don’t realize Virtue’s the one controlling the switch…once we uncover that, the people will realize it wasn’t us who were blinded from reality.”