Monday, February 16, 2015

Episode Five: Like Toy Soldiers (Part 2)

(Story continued from "Like Toy Soldiers (Part 1)")


“Of all the qualities a person needs to possess, the most important is honesty. For an honest person needs to never to justify their actions- as they will have nothing to hide.”- Georgina Wulu, Casaran author, at a speech in Tepitilan in 2004

February 16, 2015,
16:49 local time,
Senatorial Conference Room, Roman Senate,
Rome, Roman Republic

“Jana?” said Quaestor Cornelia Bruta Compisia to Praetor Extraterritoralis Jana Woolley, who reacted as a deer in the headlights far more often than usual today. “Jana? Are you okay?”
“Um...well, um,” said Woolley, still trying to collect her thoughts.
“Jana, we understand,” said Consul Legatus Giorgius Aurelius Giormani, “this is the first time on the job that you’ve had to deal with the Nathanites...I’d be a little spooked too if I were you.”
“Yeah, no, um...listen,” said Woolley, still panting heavily, “I knew it would come up...I don’t have any excuses. I can’t let them bother me.”
“At least they’re not the Birean Nathanites,” said Compisia.
“Doesn’t matter much,” said Woolley, “there’s hardly such a thing as a ‘good’ Nathanite.”
“Jana,” said Giormani, “it’s okay...we’ve all got places and things that are personal. It’s okay to be emotional...we just need you to channel it.” Giormani, who had a daughter close to Woolley’s age, flashed a warm smile at Woolley, which caused her to calm down a bit.
“You’re right,” said Woolley, clearing her throat which thus cleared her thoughts, “and if there’s anything I know about the Nathanites, it’s that they really do like to be inside your head.” She took another deep breath before getting to the authoritative tone she was known for.

“Okay,” she said, “what do we know about these guys?”
“They’re from the Soldiers of the Lord,” said Giormani, “at least that’s what their jackets say.”
“Their jackets,” said Magister Militum Gaius Carus Mirus, who led Rome’s Agentes De Rebus (ADR), or Rome’s intelligence unit, “but not them. They have all the efficiency of other Soldier operatives, but something strikes me as a bit off about them. Having said that, I still think it’s wise to treat this as a terrorist operation, and the perpetrators are from Loreto, a nation mostly along the western extreme of the Amazon Rainforest.”
“Makes sense,” said Compisia, “the Rainforest is a great hiding spot for terrorist groups, and don’t the Soldiers already conduct a lot of training exercises there?”
“They do,” said Mirus.
“If it is a cell, then this doesn’t appear to be a cell that we know about though,” said Woolley, examining her notes.
“Not surprising,” said Mirus. “The Soldiers have thousands of cells, all practically independent of each other, with many sprining up each day. We may be looking at one such cell.”
“Never heard of any operatives in Kentucky,” said Woolley, “although it wouldn’t be surprising.”
“They’ll be the first we know of in North America, that’s for sure,” said Mirus.

“That’s the big news,” said Roman Caesar Gnaeus Valerius IV Maderia, walking in to the meeting late.
“Caesar,” said Giormani as Valerius assumed his seat, “glad to see you.”
Valerius held out his hand to say “stop”. “Enough of the pleasantries...I know I’m late but we have important matters to take care of. This ‘Virus’ thing was hard enough to take care of when it was just a few college kids led by a scrawny criminal defence lawyer...it being taken over by the Soldiers is a whole new ball game.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” said Mirus, leaning forward. “We know that the Soldiers are in concert with it, at least, especially after today, which means the threat of it expanding worldwide is real.”
“What else do we know about the situation in Kentucky?” Valerius asked with intent.
“Not much else,” said Mirus. “Some unconfirmed reports about gunshots and deaths, but other than really grainy footage of the assault uploaded by the operatives on to Walker’s website, we don’t have much.”
“Keep digging,” said Valerius, “see if you can ID the terrorists.”

February 16, 2015,
11:09 local time,
Office of Walker’s Rangers blog,
Louisville, Kentucky

“Do we have enough rounds?” said one of Ortiz’s underlings, Hector Ruiz, the Ortizes’ cousin, to Enrique Ortiz. Ruiz was joined by his own cousin, Antonio Lopez, to round out the quartet inside of the building. The four of them had rounded up the blog’s staff and stuffed them inside the boardroom, leaving very little space.
“Of course we do,” said Enrique with a wide smile, as all the office staff- except Walker- cowered in terror. “Do your thing.” Ruiz smiled and nodded in appreciation before taking the floor himself.

“All right,” said Ruiz as he started to command the room. “I will make this short and simple- we need all the women to come with us. No exceptions.”
The women all worked their way to the exit, most trembling with fear worried about what will happen next. A few, though, were expressionless, knowing there was little they could do to fight their fate. In total, of the 26 workers at Walker’s Rangers, 16 were women, four of which were editors.

Ruiz and Lopez gathered the women, zip-tied their hands behind their backs and cleave gagged them all, and marched them down another hall, with Carlos walking behind them to ensure there were no stragglers, one that led to an abandonned office that was right behind the blog’s offices.

Normally, the walk down the hallway would only take a few minutes, but the petrified, nauseous women made the walk an arduous one, turning the floor into a pool of tears and vomit. Ruiz managed to get some of that vomit on his pants, shaking his head because not only did it ruin some good quality threads, he thought to himself that the woman who threw it up just wasted some great lasagna.

When the women got to the abandoned office, they were marched against the office’s front wall, near the door they just came in and the only door back to Walker’s Rangers. The women reacted with horror upon seeing the many torture implements seen in the room, but there was little time for protest. A door leading to the outside was being guarded by a big, burly African-Kentuckian, dressed as a janitor to avoid detection from the outside. The indoor door, retrofitted so it could only be locked from the outside, was kept open. The guard janitor then gave Ruiz a nod.

In the other room, chief editor Robert Walker reacted with horror after hearing the shots go off, with all the screaming and wailing that went with it. Tears overcame him, knowing that all of his female colleagues were dead, tears that turned into anger at his tormentors. Still, he knew there was little he could do, so he thought against any actual lashing out.

When the trio was finished with the women, they rejoined Enrique, who enjoyed seeing the looks of grief on the faces of the men who realized their colleagues were all gunned down. When the four gunmen returned, Walker, visibly shaken by the gunshots, walked up to them, holding out his hands and clasping them together anticipating he’d zip-tied too.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Enrique said, chuckling sarcastically at him.
“Come on...don’t play with me,” Walker said, the sad puppy dog look evident on his face. “You’re going to kill us all next.” Walker then began to cry. “I just ask that you do it quick.”
“Silly Walker,” said Enrique, “what would be the fun in that? No...we have other plans for you.”
“Wha-wha-what are they?” Walker stammered.
“You’ll see,” said Carlos Ortiz, before sending the butt of his shotgun right into Walker’s mouth.

February 16, 2015,
13:08 local time,
Louisville Sheriff’s Office,
Louisville, Kentucky

“We’re here,” said Antivirus Task Force Chief Galla Claudia, brandishing her badge at front reception alongside her team.
“Um, miss,” said Sheriff Paul Wyde, a heavy set man with a handlebar moustache that spoke with a distinct Kentuckian drawl who just happened to be at reception. “No one called you.”
“Well, my agency did...and as far as I know, you have a terrorist attack right here in your city.”
Wyde let out a belly laugh, scoffing at Claudia’s suggestion. “Terrorism? Please...you don’t know Walker...this is all just a publicity stunt. That’s why we also ignored the 911 call.”
Claudia, livid, folded her arms and gave Wyde a steely glare. “I’m sorry, but 16 dead women is not a publicity stunt. You may hate Walker, but it’s your duty as a police officer to protect him...he’s a human being, just like you are.”
Wyde defiantly planted his hands on his hips. “Think I care about your ironic sense of virtue, Ms. Claudia?”
“Oh I don’t care about looking good...I care about doing the right thing, and that means justice for Walker.”
“You can try that...but it’s worthless. You don’t know Walker like we do...he’s nothing but trouble. It’s about time someone taught him a lesson.”
Claudia gave Wyde a knowing look. “That’s why we’re here...because we want to find that ‘teacher’...in fact, given your history, we’re starting right here.”

Wyde put his hands out in front of him in protest. “Woah there!” Wyde said, “Didn’t you notice them Nathanites out there? We got nothing to do with that.”
“Well,” she said with a smirk, “if you didn’t call the Nathanites in, then you better start talking.”

February 16, 2015,
13:59 local time,
Iquitos Snack Store,
Iquitos, Maynas, Loreto

“2 Nuevos Soles,” said Ignacio Zapata, the store’s owner, a pale-skinned man with frazzled white hair and a moustache, to a customer trying to buy a pack of chewing gum.
2 Nuevos Soles?” the customer asked, visibly irate. “¿Qué clase de un ladrón es usted?” (“What kind of a thief are you?”)
“Usted está comprando un paquete especial de goma, señor,” (“You are buying a special pack of gum, sir,”) replied Zapata, pointing to the marque, a luxury brand in Loreto.
“Lo que sea. Esto será mejor que me la niña o estás muerto,” (“Whatever. This better get me the girl or you are dead,”) said the customer, shaking his head but agreeing to the price. He paid, then he left the store, with Zapata enjoying a chuckle at the customer’s expense.

After the customer left the store, Ricardo “Ricky” Melendez walked into the store with two of his friends. Although each appeared to be in nothing but plain clothes, their attire- each wore a blank white T-Shirt with the sleeves torn off along with blue jeans and black work boots- was a signal that the trio were members of the local chapter of the Soldiers. This was not something the Soldiers wanted to hide- they were highly visible around Loreto, owning several businesses that served as fronts for their many criminal activities and never made a point to hide their identities, just so the Loretans would be “reminded” about who really runs their country. For their part, with their muscular arms bulging from their shirts, Ricky and his men looked fearsome, keeping up with appearances by giving everyone that gave them eye contact steely death glares.

Zapata, though, wasn’t troubled by their sight. He knew that as long as he didn’t trouble them that they wouldn’t trouble him, plus he knew that Ricky and his friends were simply minions. The local chapter’s leader, Diego Diaz, was rarely seen in the area, which was by design- he normally only came out to “deal” with someone who gave the Soldiers trouble, so his appearances always provoked fear and anxiety in the community. Zapata, though, knew that sometimes Diaz appeared just to plant that thought in the community, so he learned over time not to fear Diaz as well.

He pulled out a cloth and started to wipe the counter, though every so often he would shift his eyes towards Ricky. The trio weren’t making much of a fuss, appearing to just look around and browse the store’s offerings. Something seemed “off”, though, for Zapata, which he got a hunch for after noticing the sidearm pistols the Soldiers so prominently displayed. After noticing that the Soldiers swiped the equivalent of $100 worth of the sugary “Belem” snack before casually walking out the door, Zapata had it figured out.

After a few minutes to collect himself- he decided against hollering at the Soldiers, knowing he wouldn’t win that fight, though he was still mad at the stolen product- Zapata resumed wiping down the counter. He then walked to the front of the store and locked the door, putting up a sign that he was on his break and will return in 15 minutes. Zapata then went behind the counter and opened a trap door present on the floor, which led to an underground bunker.

The bunker was actually an office, where he kept a laptop computer and a landline phone connected, both to networks secured with the best in Roman encryption. He picked up his phone and spoke in Latin. Though his network was secure, his handlers taught him never to feel too safe, so he spoke in code.

“Hello,” said Zapata, calling the local office of the ADR, “This is the Rainbow Frog. The Inquisitors have sold a longbow and some arrows from the Lion’s mouth. I repeat, the Inquisitors have sold a longbow and some arrows from the Lion’s mouth. Thank you.”

February 16, 2015,
21:17 local time,
Senatorial Conference Room, Roman Senate,
Rome, Roman Republic

“Great,” said Mirus, entering the room after getting off the phone from the ADR in New Rome, “the English are supplying weapons to the Soldiers in Loreto.” He sat down and let out a heavy sigh.
“Wonderful,” said Valerius, sharing the same exasperated expression. “As if this thing in Kentucky can’t get any worse.”
“How does he know?” Woolley asked, leaning forward and listening with interest.
“We got the message from our handlers down there,” said Mirus, “and we reviewed security footage from a store we set up as a front for one of our intelligence offices…we saw three known Soldiers steal about 50 packs of the Belem snack, which is only made in South America.”
“Belem,” said Woolley, a thought appearing her head, “those are carbonated snacks, right? They contain a local acid, one that’s so strong that, unlike Pop Rocks, you actually can’t drink any kind of soft drink with them or else your stomach will explode.”
“Exactly,” said Mirus.
“Okay,” said Valerius, nonplussed, “so they want to have a bunch of suicide bombers who will have their stomachs explode? Aside from it being gross, I can’t see how it could very lethal.”
“That’s because they’re not using them to ingest,” said Giormani, “the Belem snacks provide the kind of propulsion the Soldiers would need to add to their gunpowder in order to propel the rounds of the SA015, the newest small arms assault rifle the English have just brought out, which we think could outclass the AK-47.”
“I don’t get it, though,” said Valerius, “wouldn’t you buy the rifle and the gunpowder all at once? You wouldn’t get the bullets first, right?”
“You’d manufacture the bullets first,” said Compisia, “since this would allow people who purchase the gun to have ammunition ready to go once it is ready- which, as I understand, the SA015 won’t become available until July.”
“That’s correct,” said Mirus, “but it’s still odd. Usually you’d buy a stock of bullets a few weeks before the actual gun comes out…the Soldiers must be on to something where they’d need the bullets right away.”
“We just need to figure out what that is,” said Woolley with a concerned look.

Valerius got up and packed his briefcase, while issuing commands.

“Jana,” he said, looking at Woolley, “get in touch with the English Foreign Ministry. Get some answers, and remind them that in no uncertain terms will we tolerate their meddling in North American affairs.” He then turned to the others. “Giorgius, I need you to monitor all traffic heading towards Kentucky, especially Louisville- every car, every train, every boat, every airplane, every person and make sure that no one smuggles in any kind of contraband. Cornelia, I need you to allocate extra funding to our operations in Loreto, but don’t compromise our budget to do. Finally, Gaius, work your contacts on the ground…you need to figure out exactly what those Loretans think they’re up to. We will not rest until this threat is destroyed.”

The team, galvanized by Valerius’ impassioned words, nodded in acknowledgment of their duties and went away to fulfill their tasks. Woolley, though, was the last one to leave, noticing Valerius labouring to put away his stuff.

“Sir,” she said, worried. “Are you okay?”
Valerius looked longingly at his papers and sighed before answering. “I’m as okay as I can be,” he said.
“I know,” said Woolley, giving him a warm smile, “it’s tough.”
“I remember days like this, after working long hours…immediately I’d call Margaret, tell her I’m late. Unfortunately,” Valerius paused to let out a heavy sigh, “I’ve got no one to call…it still feels surreal.”
“I don’t know how it feels to lose a loved one, but I know what it’s like to be away from them…I haven’t spoken to my family in months…it’s hard because the Bireans monitor every phone call and my folks are more than halfway across the globe.”
“They still see you as a fugitive, don’t they?”
“Not officially, but the way that government works, I can never tell what tricks they may have up their sleeves.”
“Don’t worry…you’re in a better place. Rome will keep you safe. You have my word.”
“So will I…from now on, you can always call me…I’m always here to help, Caesar.”
Valerius smiled with genuine joy. “Thank you…from the bottom of my heart, thank you.”

February 16, 2015,
14:19 local time,
Louisville Police Headquarters,
Louisville, Kentucky

Claudia sighed. She’d just finished interviewing the police officers, none of which gave her any kind of useful information (and few of which were helpful as people), with Technical Analyst Sophie Mullens running background checks on the officers that also provided nothing of value. She stepped outside and walked to her car, hoping she could collect her thoughts and see what angles for the case at hand she could work. Once inside, she decided to call the rest of her team, which gathered outside of Walker’s office alongside a SWAT unit in the hope that, at some point, the invaders might want to negotiate with the FBII.

“Phineas,” said Claudia, calling AVTF senior agent Phineas Malcolm, here with the rest of the AVTF, junior agents Julia Pearl and Thomas Bartlett and media liaison Samantha Salley. “Tell me you guys have something.”
“Negative,” said Malcolm, downcast. “The Soldiers…all they seem to want to do is sit there and drink some beers…we’re observing them and we’re not observing them doing much…they seem to have wanted to take out all the women and then perhaps bond with the men…that’s all they seem to want to do.”
“Have we tried to make any attempts to communicate with them?”
“Several, but we keep getting rebuffed. The SWAT guys are a little anxious because they want to get in there but we know if we send them in there, we could compromise the safety of the remaining hostages.”
“Have we ID’ed any of the Soldiers in there, at least?”
“That I can say we’ve done…Bartlett did it through facial recognition software. You have brothers Enrique and Carlos Ortiz, and their cousins Hector Ruiz and Antonio Lopez, all of whom hail from Iquitos, Loreto but have a home in Colorado. The two police officers outside of the building are actually just impersonating them- based on cell phone activity, they’re friends of the Ortizes who seem to be the mastermind of the whole operation. Those two are named Nathaniel Ridgeway, of Lexington, Kentucky, and Colin Valerie, of Edmonton, Kentucky. We can’t find any record of them being in the Soldiers prior to today, nor do any of their records indicate anything really untoward until today, so we believe this is a brand new cell.”
“That’s useful. How are the media hordes? Have you figured out where they got their material from?”
“Negative on the material…everything they got, must have been through cash. Media…they’ve trickled in just after we got here but now we’ve got a lot from all over North America…new girl’s doing pretty well handling them, I must say.”
“Okay…let me know if anything else happens. Don’t give out the names of the terrorists...just explain that they’re Loretan and belong to the Soldiers...we risk making them beholden figures for the Soldiers if we release their names. Make sure the SWAT don’t attack unless it won’t risk the lives of any of the other hostages…I know we were too late to save the women but if we go in with a ‘blaze of glory’ that might galvanize the Nathanites and martyr their fallen comrades, as well as kill the remaining hostages…so keep the SWAT guys in check.”

She then ended the call and then made another after noticing a text message.

“Hello, Danny?” said Claudia. “You said there was someone I should meet? Tell me who it is.”

February 16, 2015,
15:31 local time,
Roadhouse Mexican Grill,
Elizabethtown, Kentucky

“Mmmmnnn,” said Max Collins as he took a sip of the drink that he ordered, allowing the sting of the drink to delectably overpower his tastebuds and slowly radiate down his oesophagus. “There’s some definite kick in that one...what do you call it?”
“Your drink,” said the bartender, “is a bar speciality. It’s called ‘El Serpente’ because the bite of the drink is so powerful, it slithers down your throat.” Elizabethtown, over the years, became a haven for migrant Mexican workers, labourers the local factories could hire on the cheap. Thus, the local bar was their popular hangout spot, also conveniently serving as a front for a Jaliscan cartel to funnel medicinal marijuana into Kentucky, with the remoteness and small town quanit of Elizabethtown giving them the perfect cover for their operations.
Collins smiled, impressed with the drink. The tall, well-built Caucasian replied in his usual gruff deadpan. “I like it. I’m not quite sure I’d call this the best drink I’ve ever had, but I think it’s up there.”

“You know,” said a tanned man clad like Collins was in a leather jacket, white T-Shirt and jeans as he sat down at the bar (with Collins’ jacket being blue), “I think I’ll have what he’s having.” The tanned man’s Spanish accent was fragmented, something Collins picked up on immediately.
“Okay,” said the bartender, who turned around to fix the El Serpente. As the bartender did so, Collins couldn’t help but observe his new bar mate.

“So what brings you here to Elizabethtown?” Collins asked, dryly.
“Oh, I’m here on business,” said the tanned man, Hector Ramirez.
Collins nodded in acknowledgement. “Really? What kind of business?”
Ramirez stuttered for a brief moment before regaining his composure. “I’m here to meet a few dealers, expand my empire...you know, that kind of thing.”
“Your empire? Nice. What do you sell?”
“Oh...well, I sell...” Ramirez paused to tilt his head to the left, which revealed a pin whose logo Collins recognized. “I sell sequins. The Textile Fair is going on, so I thought I’d swing by and see what deals I can make. Dealers from all over the world, you know?” Ramirez smiled, though his nervousness showed through. He pulled out a card that had a blue background and thick white lettering that only had his name- the alias “Stafford Smythe”- without any contact info, and gave it to Collins, who was puzzled by what he saw but hid the expression.
“The Textile Fair would be a good place for that.” Right away, Collins knew something wasn’t right about Ramirez, so he moved his glass from his side up the bar table to a spot in front of him, a sign to the bartender.
“So...um...what brings you here?” It was at this time Ramirez got his drink from the bartender, which he started to sip and instantly enjoy.
“Oh, me? I’m on vacation.”
“Really? Nice. Odd spot for a vacation...I guess you’ve got family, eh?” Ramirez smiled hesitantly before lightly punching Collins in the arm.
Collins was unfazed, maintaining his calm, cool demeanour while giving Ramirez a dirty look. “Actually I live here...I’m just taking a break.”
“You live here, eh? Wow, you must be lucky...tell me, what kind of business do you do? You must be very rich.”
Collins responded with a dry smirk. “Don’t think you need to be rich to live here...anyway, I’m in between jobs right now, but I get by.”
“Just taking a break from the grind, eh?”
“You could say that.”
“What kind of job did you do?”
Collins chuckled while shaking his head side to side slightly. “You sure do ask a lot of questions for someone who hasn’t bothered to ask me what my name is.”
Ramirez, redfaced, gave in. “Oh...well, sorry about that...well, what’s your name?”
“Charlie, Charlie Muller.”
“Oh, well, uh, thank you.” Ramirez smiled again nervously but made no other gestures.
“You’re not going to shake my hand?” Collins gave Ramirez a sardonic chuckle while mockingly shaking his head. “That’s okay, you’ll be dead in a few seconds anyway.”

Ramirez was shocked to hear Collins’ words, but there was little he could do because Collins was right, his drink having been drugged. Almost seconds later Ramirez lost feeling all over his body, as he felt his energy was literally being sapped form him. He collapsed to the floor with a thud, and in a few minutes, “paramedics“ would arrive on the scene, pretend to do work on Ramirez’s body before spiriting it away to a dump site no one would notice, where his body would be splattered with bullets to make sure he was really dead.

After Ramirez left, the bartender could only shake his head.

“What an amateur,” said the bartender, Harvey Lewis, an operative for Collins, shaking his head. “He couldn’t telegraph it any more that he was from Toronto, could he?”
Collins laughed before replying. “He was a very poor undercover agent,” said Collins, concurring. “His ‘business card’, if you could call it that, was blue and white, the colours of the Maple Leafs hockey team, with his ‘name’ being the owner of the last Leaf team to win the Stanley Cup, Stafford ‘Conn’ Smythe. He didn’t hide his pin that had the logo for Toronto Police Services, and his attempt at an accent was atrocious. What sealed it, though, was the ‘Textile Fair’ thing...that ended last week, and it’s a clear reference to ‘rug burn’, the drug TPS is trying to eliminate. I wonder how he got here, though- the ingredients can only be found in Kazakhstan.”
“That’s why he’s an amateur,” said Lewis, “because he can’t follow his leads well.”
“I wish identifying all agents was this easy,” said Collins with a dry sigh.
“Don’t worry, you’re still the best in the business,” said Lewis, reassuring Collins.
“You know, Harvey,” said Collins, “people always think criminals are the most dishonest people on the planet. I think we just proved today that those people have never met an LEO.”
Lewis laughed, agreeing with Collins, before tending to the pile of glasses that needed to be cleaned.

It was here that Collins received a phone call.

“Hello?” Collins said, receiving the call. It was Danforth Grayson.
“Max, buddy, what’s up?” Grayson said, jovially.
Collins was nonchalant. “I just took out another undercover officer.”
“Really? Wow...so how many is that this week? 10 now, I think?”
“Robin, that stuff doesn’t matter.”
“Max, man, cut with the codes...it’s Danny. I’m with someone cool...we don’t need to hide our speech.”
“Until I see him, how do I have your same assurances?”
“Come on man, you can trust me.”
“Last time I did that, I nearly got burned. Have you forgotten what happened in Pretoria in 2006?”
Grayson sighed over the phone, forced to admit that Collins was right. “Look, it’s different now...you can trust my friend. If not, you can serve me an El Serpente.”
“I will trust no one until I meet him.”
“Her, actually.”
“Semantics. Bring her in.” Collins then went back to his drink, maintaining his steely demeanour, never straying from being cautious, although the fact that Grayson, a close associate of his, would risk his life said something about the guest he was bringing in, which Collins took into account.

February 16, 2015,
15:23 local time,
Walker’s Rangers Boardroom,
Louisville, Kentucky

“So...so this is all you’re going to do here, right?” Peter Outings, Walker’s receptionist said, doing his best to keep his calm but his nerves always got the better of him. “Drink beer and watch us wither? Right?”
“Oh come on, man!” Carlos said as he took a massive gulp out of his beer. “We’re not going to let you wither! We’re your friends, right?”
“Um,” said a befuddled Outings, “no, no you’re not.”
“Yeah we are,” said Enrique, “once we got rid of all those annoying women, it can be just us- a proud group of men.”
“You didn’t have to kill them though,” said Outings.
“You’re right,” said Ruiz after a pause. “Look at it, though, as a service...think of it this way, you’ll never have to deal with them again.”
“...but I liked Cassie!” Outings stammered, tears beginning to fall from his eyes. “I liked all of those women...they’re...they’re like family...and you took them from us!” It was here that the tears really began to fall, with Outings breaking down into a blubbering mess.
Ruiz rolled his eyes. “Oh gosh,” he said, annoyed with Outings, “I can’t put up with this crap.” He then drew out his gun and was about to fire until Enrique stopped him.
“No,” said Enrique forcefully. “I know he’s blubbering like a girl and shouldn’t, but if we shoot him the guys from outside are going to storm right in and ruin our plan. We need to reveal the truth about Robert first.”
“Th-the...the truth?” Outings stammered, wearing a confused look on his face.
“Oh don’t look so surprised big guy,” snarled Enrique, “You know exactly what it is...and you’re in on it too.”

February 16, 2015,
21:14 local time,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office, Palace of Westminster,
London, England

“Will somebody tell me what is taking me away from my wonderful Stronganoff dinner?” Jack Kent, the English Foreign Minister, said to himself, wearily strolling into the Parliament buildings. He was a burly Caucasian man, with wide eyes, a deep, booming baritone of a voice and a proclivity for lavish clothing and the lifestyle, a man whose ego was larger than his own life. Despite being just the Foreign Minister, Kent was the one who really dictated English foreign policy, and wielded considerable influence on matters at home as well. His influence loomed so large that in English political circles, he was viewed as “the real dictator of England”, as England’s actual leader- Prime Minister Toby Button- was weak and ineffective. Still, Kent never envisioned a run for Prime Minister, as the ruling Conservative Party knew that Button and his non-threatening personality was an easier sell to the English people, a knowledge that allowed the Tories to dominate every election since 1979.

Kent’s influence eventually grew to a worldwide scale, as he became a top member of the Virtue Federation in 2005 after Button’s health began to fade. Virtue was founded in 1994, in response to the foundation of the North American Union and the failure of the United Nations during the Third World War, becoming a global advocacy group that campaigned against imperialism, of which the NAU, in Virtue’s mind, was most symbolic of.

Virtue itself featured four subunits of operation:

-Peace (which has the Protectors, Virtue’s peacekeeping wing, and the Guards, Virtue’s crime-fighting ring)
-Love (which has the Saviours, Virtue’s healthcare providers, the Givers, Virtue’s philanthropy wing, and the Providers, which operated Virtue’s “world bank”)
-Unity (the main branch of Virtue where all its members meet and determine policy, with the branch being a bicameral parliament- the lower level were called the Friends and the upper level were called the Family)
-Respect (which featured the Advocates, Virtue’s human rights agency and the Ensurers, Virtue’s election monitoring agency)

The Friends number some 200 members worldwide, providing a mixture of small countries, middle powers and major powers, and, according to Virtue’s constitution, the Friends are meant to work with the Family as Virtue’s decision-making body. In practice, the Family- which featured five nations: England, Mongolia, Bactria, Birea and Byzantium, whose combined economic and military power rivaled Rome’s- became Virtue’s main decision-making body. The Family- who have sweeping powers to uphold Virtue’s Charter- had the power to review any legislation the Friends tabled, but a loophole allowed the Family’s members to use their Foreign Affairs Ministers to serve as Friends and table legislation, of which the Family would review and implement it or discard it (needing only Family votes to determine a decision), regardless of how the lower body voted. Corruption was evident in Virtue circles, with several observers- mostly Roman- accusing Virtue’s many organs from operating against their intended principles and serving as conduits for the criminal activity of its dictators. Virtue’s public relations abilities were so great, however, that the wider world never got to see its corruption, going on to believe that it really was the special federation it set out to be.

Tonight, Kent was out on the town, enjoying his life and not worrying too much about global affairs when he received a notification on his phone. It didn’t say who it was from, however- which could either mean a prank call or someone important needed to call him from a secure line. He didn’t want to take any chances, so he rushed back to his office.

“Hello?” said Kent, snarling into the phone. “This better be good or I’ll cite you for creating a public disturbance.”
“Cite me anyway,” said Woolley with authority. “See if you can force me...I’m a Roman citizen you know.”
Kent responded sarcastically. “Jana! So good to hear from you! Well you were once British...”
“That doesn’t matter right now…what does matter is what business you have with the Nathanites.”
Kent scoffed openly into the phone. “You have some gall, don’t you, to phone me up, skip the pleasantries and accuse the English Empire of having some business with some of the most hated men on Earth…really, Jana, do you guys in Rome have nothing better to do in this hour than to launch baseless accusations?”
Woolley didn’t relent from her steely tone. “Cut the crap, Kent. We have proof…we know you’re working with the Soldiers of the Lord. We know this…and you know it too. Don’t try to deny it.”
“Oh, pray tell, Jana, tell me…what kind of proof do you have? Oh wait, never mind…you’re going to tell me it’s ‘proprietary’, won’t you? Well, how exactly can I challenge a proof I cannot even see? How do I know you Romans aren’t making things up just to stir some trouble? You guys like to think you’re defending the world, but I know better…it’s all a façade. You want the world to think you’re helping them out, when all it is you’re doing is furthering your own interests…I see right through you guys.”
“Funny, we could say the same thing about you, and the rest of your Virtue Federation clowns.”
Kent audibly laughed. “Clowns…you know, at least we at Virtue can point to an unassailable and undeniable long record of successes…Rome, on the other hand, can only point to its many foibles and misadventures, among them the highlight being the crumbling architecture and infrastructure that was once the great continent of North America. Yeah, some help you’ve been.”
This time it was Woolley’s turn for a sardonic chuckle. “Don’t act like you’re a saint…we’ll see how unassailable you think Virtue really is once we tell the world you’ve orchestrated the terrorist attack on Louisville.”
Kent reacted with audible shock. “Woah, woah, woah! You think that we had something to do with that? Oh no, no no…we’ve got nothing to do with that…we have better things to do than to take hostage a few college age slackers that think that by putting words on a screen they’re really impacting the globe…no Jana, you’ve proven to me that you’ve done nothing but waste my time.”
“Suit yourself…just remember that when you disturb the peace of Rome, we make sure you have no more pieces left for anyone else to disturb.”

February 16, 2015,
14:01 local time,
Rocky House Mall,
Denver, Colorado

“You don’t think it’s crazy what’s going on in Louisville?” said Gemma Emerald, 22, a perky, pert blonde who always seemed to wear a sunny disposition on her face, to her best friend, Farhar.
“I don’t know…I guess it is,” said Farhar reservedly. She had mixed emotions about the incident at McNichols Arena- on the one hand, it felt somewhat special that she now knew someone who happened to reach the wider, mainstream news, but on the other hand, it was a big blight on an evening where Farhar hoped to put her troubles behind her for just one night (having received the tickets after winning a fan contest). Forced to inherit her nephew, Matthew Williams, after her sister and her boyfriend were charged with parental neglect following too many marathon gaming sessions, Farhar struggled like so many Coloradans to make ends meet. She rented a room in an old, abandoned office building in Henderson that served as her home, being taken care of by a wonderful landlady. Despite all of her landlady’s good intentions, the old conditions of the building meant things periodically broke down, as maintenance was a Herculean affair.

Emerald read Farhar’s despondence almost instantly, stopping her and her stroller- containing Matthew, just so she could look into Farhar’s eyes.

“Look, I understand,” said Emerald, “that was a bad experience…I wish I hadn’t gone to the bathroom…I should have stayed to protect you.”
“It’s okay Gemma,” said Farhar, flashing a weak smile. “I’m a big girl…I can handle myself. I think what bothers me more is that I had to deal with another lunkhead…reminds me about everything I hate about this country.”
Emerald sighed. “Yeah…too many people trying to ‘parent’ us, telling us how to live and stopping others from interfering with that…all while conveniently forgetting what the real issues are.”
“You can say that again…that’s the thing no one understands. People like to hail that Robert guy like he’s some ‘hero’ when he’s really just some nosey jerk whose ego is too overinflated to understand some problems are just none of his business. I didn’t need his help at the show…in fact, I never wanted it. Those two guys, yeah, they were bothersome…but they were kind of entertaining, so I let them hang around. I could have easily left when I wanted to…I didn’t need ‘Robert’ coming in and ‘saving’ the day for me…if I wanted Batman, I’d send out the signal. Not before.”
“I hear two of the guys holding Robert hostage were those two guys that bothered you at the show.”
“I heard that too…I’d hate to think that this whole terrorist thing was about me…what is this, some poorly written crime drama?”
Emerald chuckled heartily. “You got me.”

It was here that baby Matthew, barely two years old, started to cry.

“Aww,” said Emerald after bending down to get closer to Matthew, talking softly in trying to soothe him. “Don’t worry, Mommy’s got you covered.” She smiled before putting on a silly face, causing Matthew to giggle and calm down, before being contented after Farhar gave him his bottle of milk.
“I think I’m getting the hang of this ‘Mommy’ thing,” said Farhar with a warm smile.
“I think you are,” said Emerald, returning that smile.

February 16, 2015,
22:58 local time,
Senatorial Conference Room, Roman Senate,
Rome, Roman Republic

“So,” said Valerius as Woolley walked back into the Conference Room, “how’d it go with the English Kitten?”
Woolley and the rest of the room laughed. “Oh you know,” she said, “the usual...sabre-rattling, some pompous declarations, a huffy denial, the feeling that no one is more important than Jolly Ol’ Jack Kent,” she continued, adopting a fake English accent for “Jolly Ol’ Jack Kent”.
“Yup,” said Mirus, “the usual.”
“I guess it’s easy to feel self-important when you’re the one who practically runs the country,” said Compisia.
“I know,” said Giormani, “the English court is crazier than Caligula.” The room responded with laughter.

“All right, all right,” said Valerius, who couldn’t help but smile himself. “I think our daily mockery of the English government is out of our system. So, what’s the latest?”
“So far,” said Mirus, “we have no indicators that the English are mobilizing...they’re probably calling our bluff.”
“How fast can we get our troops in Iquitos?” Valerius asked with purpose.
“We can commence air strikes via Manaus in about an hour and a half,” said Giormani, “and we can likely have a Legion there in about seven hours, through our base in Acre.”
“Good,” said Valerius. “Start mobilizing so we can strike at a moment’s notice, but only raise our Readiness Level to the highest level in the Amazon...we don’t want to start an all-out war.”
“Sir,” said Woolley, “if we strike Loreto, the English will likely get involved...I don’t think we can avoid an all-out war.”
“I don’t see it so cut and dry,” said Valerius. “I say we call their bluff...if Loreto really is important to England then they’ll retaliate...if not, then we should have an easy victory.”
“Loreto is a Virtue member,” said Woolley, “We risk their involvement the second we put our feet on Peruvian grounds.”
“Sir,” said Mirus, “I concur...Virtue already believe us to be the aggressors in North America...us striking in Loreto will only look like an act of imperialism...we’re the big guys and they’re the tiny ones. It’ll be very hard to justify this war.”
“Aside from the fact it’s a terrorist act in our sphere of influence?” Valerius said, incredulously. “If Virtue goes against us, then we can easily tell the world they support terrorists.”
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” said Mirus. “Whether you like it or not, our work in North America is far from being well-received worldwide.”
“Regardless,” said Woolley, “we’re still the big guys stomping the little one. Surely a more measured approach is appropriate?”
“That’s immaterial right now,” said Valerius. “From what I see, we have a terrorist act initiated by a country who is now in bed with our longtime enemies...we must make a statement...and make it now.”
Woolley and Mirus continued to wear worried looks on their faces, while Giormani sat and nodded in full agreement with the Emperor.
“All right,” said Valerius, acknowledging the room, “I will give them an hour to respond to our ultimatum. After that, we start mobilizing. That’s the only concession I’ll make. After all this time in North America, now’s not the time for a measured response.”

As Valerius got up to gather his things and formally end the meeting, Woolley and Mirus could only sit there and sigh, worried about the fallout, but they had to go along with it, knowing there was little they could do to sway the Emperor’s resolve. Woolley tried, though, when everyone else had left.

“You don’t really think you’re being a little trigger happy?” Woolley said, concerned.
“Jana,” said Valerius with a sigh, acknowledging her concern. “I understand you’re worried...believe me, I am too. However, I’ve been doing this since you were in high school...the world will only push you around if you appear weak. This is our only course of action.”

February 16, 2015,
15:44 local time,
Roadhouse Mexican Grill,
Elizabethtown, Kentucky

“Why did you feel the need to contact me?” Claudia asked as she walked towards the bar with Grayson. She always had Grayson’s cell phone number from Grayson’s days as an attorney, and judging that Grayson seemed sincere about coming here, Claudia drove him from Louisville after Grayson arrived via plane.
“I told you,” said Grayson, “you’re at war, but you’re fighting the wrong enemy...those vagabonds in Louisville aren’t the ones you’re after, just like I’m not the one you’re after.”
“Okay Danny.” Claudia, frustrated, stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Enough of the rhetoric...you told me this was a lead...in fact, you were quite adamant about it...I don’t have time to hear about some grand mythos you keep spouting. Either you get to the point or I’ll put you back in jail.”
Grayson understood Claudia’s frustration and a serious look overcame his face. “Look, I can’t name this guy, but trust me...he’s more of an expert on criminals than I am. He knows who the guys in Louisville are...information no police database could have. It’s stuff not even I know.” He then urged Claudia forward. “Come on...just believe me. If this turns out to be a waste of time you can throw me back in jail. I promise.” A thought then came to Grayson. “Actually, wait in the car...he’ll come out.”

Claudia sighed, frustrated, but figured that if Grayson was so eager to give her this lead, she might as well go along with it. She took her seat in the driver’s seat and started the car, just to be on the safe side.

After a few moments, Grayson emerged with Collins, Grayson’s big hearty laugh on full display managing to get Collins to let out a few wry smiles himself.

“So,” said Collins, getting into the passenger seat with Grayson, “you’re the contact.”
“Yes I am,” said Claudia, who gave Collins a wry smile of her own.
Collins scanned her a bit as he continued to converse with her, though Claudia didn’t give him much by being as calm as possible. “I hear you and Danforth have quite the history.”
“You could say that.”
“Danny and I go way back.”
“Oh, do you?”
“I was the one who gave him his empire.”
“That’s cool.”
“...and you...you’re fighting him, yet you two should really be on the same page.”
“Okay...”
“Agent...I just know.”

Claudia turned to him and looked at him with a sense of shock.

“Danny told me about you,” said Claudia, “said you are ‘The Arranger’, able to spot a cop among millions...how’d you know I’m a LEO?”
“It’s pretty easy, actually,” said Collins. “The one defining trait of any LEO is detachment...you need it to do your job. Considering that anyone, even your closest friends and your family, could one day be a potential criminal you can never let your guard down. Furthermore, I couldn’t help but notice you’re in the driver’s seat and you’ve started the car, despite the fact that it isn’t cold enough outside to warrant you doing so.

“That’s another thing- cops always like having the upper hand. A criminal, at least, can acquiesce. A LEO can’t.”
“Even undercover?” Claudia asked, bemused.
“Even undercover,” said Collins assuredly. “Because even then the cop is constantly thinking about what will allow him to get ahead in the investigation, and sometimes it helps spotting an undercover operative this way since you can see people who are a little too eager to get on with things.”
“See?” Grayson said with a huge grin, “I told you he’s good.”

Collins gave Grayson a steely look but ignored him.

“My name is Max Collins,” said Collins, extending his hand for Claudia.
“Dude?” Grayson said, shocked. “That quick?”
“She may be a LEO but I trust her,” said Collins curtly.
“You don’t give your name out a lot do you?” Claudia said, intrigued.
“I’d say only four people in the world know it,” said Collins. “Five now.”
“How do I know it’s real?” Claudia asked, with a disbelieving look.

Collins pulled out an ID card with his name on it, signifying the group he and Grayson were a part of- Omega- with a logo Claudia recognized.

“That’s the mark on Julia Pearl’s breast,” said Claudia, shocked. Her look then became one of horror. “Wait a minute...”
“No,” said Collins, “we didn’t send her to infiltrate the FBII...she left the organization on her own accord. Her father, Blue, is still a member, as is Danforth. You’re given two things upon membership- an ID card and a tattoo. The card is to access any number of our secret bases, the tattoo is done to ensure loyalty, and as a way of screening against people who may have stolen someone else’s card. The tattoos were never discussed in the open, and they’re always placed in a sensitive area of the body.”
“So what do you do when some defects?” Claudia asked.
“We never had one before Julia,” said Grayson. “We’re a very small group...not much chance for defection. Usually we’d kill any defectors, but Blue urged us to spare Julia. We thought about it and realized she wouldn’t be much of a threat...she wouldn’t be the type to spread our secrets...and she hasn’t, not that she knew much anyway due to her youth.”
“Why’d she leave?” Claudia asked.
“We haven’t the time to discuss that in full,” said Collins, “but I assure you it’s a sad, sad story. That’s why she jumped at the chance to join your Task Force, even though she doesn’t realize her enemies have changed.”
“I founded The Virus in 1990,” said Grayson, seeing Claudia’s confused face, “with the help of Blue, at the height of the Third World War. Since so many things were happening, with war crimes being committed all over the place, we created the group to help spread vigilantism all over the world. The police were doing a poor job protecting the people, so we gave people the tools to protect themselves.

“This worked for a while, even though we knew as we got bigger we’d get on the radar screens of police stations everywhere. Still, we were committed, and through Blue, Max came in and helped us out, in 1994, and the three of us created Omega. We made a base in North America, because try as the Romans might, they weren’t going to restore the peace themselves- it is too hard, given how far down the continent collapsed.

“Then something happened a few years ago...someone decided to use tools we gave The Virus for purposes we never intended...many atrocities were committed in our name, many innocents felled for no reason. I suspected I was being pushed out, but I didn’t know who did it. That time in Toronto...that was the first time I knew my suspicions were correct. Once I realized that Julia- whose appearance changed so much I didn’t recognize her until that fateful moment- had joined your team I realized I couldn’t do this alone, that I needed your help. That’s why I never tried to leave jail- it was the only way that I could talk to you. Unfortunately, Lucius Black wouldn’t understand that and released me early. So when this Louisville thing happened, I called Max, because I realized this is getting more serious than I thought it was- and beyond the scope of just a simple website.”

“...and you expect me to help you out, ‘just like that’?” said Claudia, saying the last part with a snap of her fingers. “Especially considering you tried to bribe me to be able to leave amicably with Jeff Briar.”
“Briar tricked me,” said Grayson, “I only learned that later, though, and it inspired me to figure out who pushed me out of The Virus even more.”
Listen, we’re in no position to negotiate anything,” said Collins. “At any point you can drive the car and maximize the power of your situation. We have everything to lose in this situation...so please, I hope you can trust us now.”
“Well,” said Claudia after a deep breath. “Okay...I’ll trust you. Now, what can you tell me about the Lousiville terrorists.”
“They’re not the terrorists,” said Grayson assuredly. “At least, the ones with the guns aren’t.”

February 16,
16:19 local time,
Brian Doyle’s room,
Lexington, Kentucky

“Hey,” said Brian Doyle, sitting on his bed as his best friend, Charles Estuary, walked in to their shared accomodations- a small bedroom in a five-bedroom house- from a long day at work at Bert’s, a retail store.
“Hey Bry,” said Estuary, sitting down on his bed, visibly exhausted.
“Long day, I guess?”
“ ‘Long’ is an understatement...more like ‘unending’. I come in at 4AM, like I normally do, and I get ready to leave at 12PM. Then the boss tells me that he needs me for an extra hour...so I stay. Then the hour passes...and he needs me for another hour. That hour turns into another hour, which then turns into another hour before I finally get to go home because the boss is finally gone.”
“Darn...that sucks...and they’ll likely deny the overtime took place, right?”
“Oh yeah...I fully expect it.”
“Something needs to get done here...us workers, we have rights.”
“We had them...we just need them back.”
“Oh don’t go on some screed about how we need the unions again...outlawing them was one of Kentucky’s best moves. They were getting too expensive.”
“Chuck, seriously...you equate the actions of the few with the actions of many...some unions were abusive, I grant, but many were dignified institutions that fought for the rights of the workers. Unions gave us things like overtime control, workplace safety and minimum wages, all things that made the United States of America the great country that it was.”
“Brian, man, seriously? You believe what those websites say about the USA? They’re all propaganda...the USA was built on greed and excess...it was far from the model country you make it out to be.”
“You keep saying that and swallow the propaganda they feed us in school...I’m going to stick with reality. Nothing beats good scholarly articles.”

Estuary was going to respond until an article appeared on his smartphone- he decided to buy a phone instead of a laptop since it was more versatile, even though this one did little more than display pictures and text, unable to play videos- stopped him in his tracks.

“Get a load of this,” he said, motioning Doyle over. It was an article about what was happening in Louisville.

It was Salley, being interviewed by The Lexington Herald-Leader.

“The situation in Louisville,” said the reporter, Alex Hemingway, “it’s quite unusual, isn’t it?”
“It is,” said Salley, “usually we expect hostage takers to make some kind of demand but these kidnappers have not done so.”
“Why is that?”
“At this stage, we don’t know...but until we do, we can’t act. We could go in with guns blazing but we’d risk the lives of the hostages. So far, from what we’re seeing, the hostages are in good health.”
“How do you know that?”
“The webcam footage...plus we see food get delivered there quite regularly, so we know they’re being fed. Unfortunately, the terrorists seem to be paying in cash so we can’t as of yet use money to trace their identities, but we’re working on it.”
“You bring up terrorism...are ths FBII prepared to call this a terrorist act?”
“Without a doubt since the hostage takers quite clearly are using the logos of the Soldiers of the Lord...but, we caution, that this is still an isolated act of terror. We have no reason to believe in extended operations by the Soldiers here in North America...we believe this is a low-level Soldiers cell, which do pop up from time to time to promote Soldier causes, though- and we can’t stress this enough- each time we deal with these low-level cells, they’re one-off affairs dealt with easily. We are keeping an eye out for other infiltrations and we will do everything we can to stop them at the source, but for now, this does not look like the start of a major operation.”
“You can’t deny, though, the ubiquity that The Virus has taken on in our culture though.”
“We aren’t too concerned about The Virus...the hashtag appears to be nothing more than a manifestation of peaceful political protest, just like the website was.”
“How come the local police are not involved in the operation?”
“We didn’t require their assistance...we have enough troops for the operation.” (Salley wanted to tell the truth and explain that the Louisville Police declined participation due to their grudge with Walker but decided against it, since she didn’t want unnecessary enemies or make the public worry about their police officers)
“It’s their territory, though.”
“This is a very special operation needing special operatives beyond what the Louisville Police could provide, so they were more than happy to let us take the lead on things.”

By this point, the two brothers had enough of the interview.

“The Romans,” scoffed Doyle. “They always seem to want to do ‘the right thing’ but they never get it right...maybe if they learned to stop sticking their noses in things, then things would work out more.”
“Ever thought of living in Birea?” Estuary mused. “Man, we’d be kings...we could do whatever we wanted with the girls and no one would complain...better than living in this junk of a state where you have to walk on eggshells just to talk to girls.”
“That was random,” said Doyle, “and all kinds of wrong. Chuck, we’re not savages...you forget that in Birea, the strongest really are the only ones who survive (and it's only the strongest that really get the girls, by the way). It’s a real dog eat dog world...sure, we in Kentucky don’t have much and our politicians suck at helping us, but at least the people come around and help each other.” He then looked fondly at his smartphone, given to him by a kind restuarant owner at Doyle’s first job because the owner was proud of Doyle’s hard work. “Nathanite culture? No one helps anyone...they claim they do but they really don’t. Plus they eschew almost every kind of pleasure you could think of...video games, TV, board games, movies, gambling, drinking, even playing cards...it’s all about ‘work’ for Nathanites. Is that the kind of society you want to live in?”
“I don’t know...if they make more money than we do, it’s hard not to think about it.”

February 16, 2014,
22:49 local time,
The Palace of Westminster,
London, England

“Don’t worry,” said Kent, on one of his many cell phones, “I assure you that this is nothing more than a power play...we need to draw the Romans out, call their bluff. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but a Legion is getting ready outside of Rio to invade Argentina at a moment’s notice and I’m not about to let the Romans become the good guys in all of this.” Kent paused to hear the reply. “Loreto is the pawn in the big game...we can recover it quickly if need be, it is not important now and as for the other problem, well, do what you can now and we’ll figure out the rest of the solution, but later...I have more urgent concerns to deal with. Right now, what is important is leverage and that, my friend, is what we’re gaining.” The two then said their goodbyes before Kent walked down the hall and entered the press room to deliver a statement.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the press,” said Kent, approaching the microphone, smiling smugly but warmly. “Glad we could convene on such short notice but the world never sleeps and neither do we. This is why we are gathered here today so that we, in the name of Richard IV, the great monarch of the English Empire, so hereby declare that we are denouncing the act of terrorism propagated by the Loretans that is occurring right now, as we speak, in Louisville, Kentucky. We are asking that the gunmen stand down from their positions and release the remaining hostages, and take responsibility for the callous loss of life they have inflicted on the newspaper office they have taken over.

“We are also standing here to reiterate our stance that Rome end its one-sided influence in North American affairs and end its needless ‘parenting’ of countries that are fully independent, for we believe this heinous act of terrorism is a direct result of their prodding, one that we fear will only destabilize the situation if Rome’s meddling is allowed to continue. We are thus calling for a more measured approach, as well as an open North America available to all, not just to the whims of the Imperialist.” He then put the palm of his hand out in front of the crowd as he continued. “Thank you...no questions.” He then left as a chorus of questions came out from the ignorant reporters and many camera lights flashed, but Kent, a veteran of these gatherings, deftly ducked out of the room and away from the prying minds of the press to the safety of his office.

February 16, 2015
23:56 local time,
Senatorial Conference Room, Roman Senate,
Rome, Roman Republic

With Kent’s statement, the situation became even more stressful. It was the first time the wider world was made publicly aware of the sabre-rattling, and Rome was behind the eight-ball. Valerius saw the supposed double-cross of Loreto for what it was, but he knew the world wouldn’t see things that way. Since sentiment was against Rome in North America, they would side with England and believe that Rome’s attempts to revive North America are causing an insurgency, with Loreto’s act being the first act, further compounded by the fact that Walker was a progressive, making him easier to paint as a global enemy since progressivism was very much a Roman trait. A few might point out the oddity of a small Peruvian nation so openly working in North America but most would not notice- all they saw were the terrorists- or, as they would come to be called, “freedom fighters”- one whose goals at least agreed with the wider world.

Still, Valerius wouldn’t be fazed, pressing on with his decisions, and there wasn’t a soul that could convince him otherwise.

“So now what?” Mirus asked as the Primary Ministers convened.
“Now we look like the aggressors,” said Compisia, a frustrated look overcoming her face.
“It’s not like we weren’t before,” said Giormani curtly.

Woolley, looking at her phone, winced before mouthing a few curse words.

“What is it Jana?” Mirus asked, concerned.

Woolley took a few deep breaths before she spoke.

“Virtue just announced the same thing that Kent did,” said Woolley. “They concur that we are the aggressors and they believe our role in North America is at fault. Furthermore, they’re claiming that we’ve placed the newspaper hostages under siege and that we’re denying them food and water, so Virtue is telling us that if we don’t stand down our aggression and- their words, I emphasize- ‘feed the starving hostages’, they’ll be forced to commence hostilities with us in North America. They didn’t tell us where, though I suspect it’d be near Boston since that’s where England has the most accessible troops.”
“Feed the starving hostages?” Compisia said, perplexed. “We clearly know they’re getting food and water- you can see it on the webcam, and the people on the street know we’re not blocking any relief efforts. Besides, doesn’t the world hate the hostages? I don’t understand any of this.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Woolley, “the webcam footage is grainy, so no one outside of the locals can tell that the hostages are being fed. Plus the world already has sided with Virtue...they’ll believe anything they spew, and it’s easier to hate us if the world believes we’re committing a human rights violation by starving people.”
“Plus they already view Walker as ‘one of us’,” said Mirus, “so, in this twisted sense, we look even more evil because we’re starving our own people.”
“So Walker’s Rangers is a symbol of our work in North America,” said Compisia, “and Loreto struck against that…and when we went to confront the Loretans, the world didn’t see it as us merely engaging the terrorists the world sees it as us barricading them in so we can deny them and the hostages the essentials, essentially painting us as a people who’d use our own as pawns, if it helps getting rid of our enemies.”
“Making us look like barbarians who would stop at nothing to achieve their own ends,” said Woolley. “It’s twisted, but Virtue is twisted…thus our latest conundrum.”

“We stay the course,” said Valerius assuredly, to shocks around the room. He got up just so he could address the room better.

“Yes, we stay the course,” repeated Valerius, his tone getting louder and more forceful as he spoke. “Virtue are nothing but rhetoric and lies...we have something tangible. We know at the very least the Soldiers are behind the latest assault on North America. We know the English are in cahoots with our enemies. We know that external forces are attacking us from inside North America. What does Virtue know? Nothing. At this stage I don’t care if we appear to be the enemies...we have a chance to defeat our own enemies and we shouldn’t waste it.” He then paused and delivered his most impassioned statement for his last words of the meeting, words that resonated with the room.

“Virtue wants a war,” he said. “So we’re going to give it to them.”

February 16, 2015,
18:01 local time,
Outside of Walker’s Rangers Office,
Louisville, Kentucky

“Let them eat! Let them eat! Stop the siege! Stop the siege!”

“What the…?” said Malcolm, his attention moving away from the building towards a crowd that was forming along the FBII’s southern perimeter, their voices getting louder as they got closer. The crowd seemed peaceful but Malcolm was worried that would be a façade- in his experience, it didn’t take much for a supposedly gentle crowd to start becoming violent. To greet the crowd, he sent over Salley, hoping her words- which helped keep most of the day calm in Louisville- would be enough to placate their new buddies.

“Hello,” said Salley as she greeted the crowd with her warm smile, “I’m Samantha Salley, I’m with the FBII. How can we help you guys today?”
“You need to let us in and let us feed the starving hostages,” said a middle-aged Kentuckian, Hannah Rodney, a blonde, slender Caucasian with dreadlocks for hair, stepping up to confront Salley.
“…and you are?” Salley kept up her smile, but she couldn’t hide her confusion over who the crowd were.
Rodney began to intone her speech. “We come representing Love.” Rodney finished with a warm smile, albeit one that struck Salley as weird.
“Uh...the Virtue Federation?”
“Well, not officially, because you silly Romans refuse to let us join, but yes, unofficially, we represent Love, and we want to feed these starving hostages, ones you have so callously kidnapped.”
Salley smiled, hiding her sigh. She wanted to explain to Rodney that Virtue itself prohibited the North American nations from joining, fearing that they’d be conduits for Roman influence, and that Rome played no part in that decision, but Salley figured Rodney was as brainwashed as the rest of the Virtue people, so there was no use trying to argue with her.

Salley did, however, have to keep the crowd at bay, since the Loretans’ refusal to even speak with the FBII meant they could not predict their behaviour, and introducing new people into the fray could only upset the situation even more.

“Listen, Love,” said Salley, trying to be as nice as possible, “if you have anything to give to the hostages, we will gladly take it and deliver it to them.”
“I’m sorry,” intoned Rodney, sounding almost ominous at this point, “but we cannot accept that. We must be able to go inside the facility and deliver our gifts to the hostages themselves. It is the only way we can be sure that you will not so callously steal their spoils.”
Salley sighed, frustrated. Steal their spoils? Seriously? “I understand where you are coming from, but this is a delicate situation…the Soldiers are not talking to anyone right now, and thus it’s difficult for us to know exactly what they want and how they will deal with people…I’m sorry there are just too many variables.”
“Then let us make a statement, tell them that we bring gifts and that we mean no harm.”
“Knock yourself out.”

Salley then motioned over a megaphone and handed it to Rodney, who directed it at the building and began to speak.

“Hello, Soldiers,” she intoned, her voice booming around the block. “We are Love, and we come, only bearing a simple statement. While we hope that you will stand down your actions and let the hostages go, we understand if you are unable to do so at this stage. However, we know the hostages are malnourished and scared, and we wish to come inside so that we may personally deliver them gifts that we have crafted for them and food and drink that we have procured for them, as well as provide personal comfort so they may be less scared. Please, at least, allow us this opportunity, so that the world knows that you have a heart.”

The locals, who had gathered around the block to watch the action unfold all day, were moved by Rodney’s impassioned words, but the Soldiers themselves remained silent. Rodney then implored them to show the hostages so that she could see that they were indeed safe, but not even that request went heeded.

At this point, Salley departed, knowing she had to prepare a statement to counteract whatever Rodney was going to tell the world, her presence in front of Rodney replaced by Pearl and Bartlett, along with a few SWAT officers. Along the way, Pearl and Bartlett instructed their troops not to engage with the Louisvillian Love at all costs, even if they started throwing stones, knowing that if the SWAT engaged the world would truly believe Rome were the aggressors in this situation. Their actions could only be defensive in nature, and that was it.

Malcolm spoke to her when she returned to the FBII’s main station.

“What happened?” he asked, concerned, “what do they want?”
“I think they just want to stir up trouble,” said Salley, upset. “That was a pure stunt…they just wanted to confront us so they could create a situation where it looks like the lies they’re spreading toward the world are true…and I’m not convinced that they’re done causing trouble.”
“It’s a knife-edge right now, I know that.” Malcolm put his hands on hips and sighed. “Do you know if they’re really from Love or are they just making stuff up?”
“Kentucky isn’t part of Virtue and they can’t be…we know that…but I won’t put it past Virtue that the woman is some kind of operative or spy for them…it wouldn’t be beneath them, that’s for sure.”
“We have to treat her like she is an operative…I know spies are not usually this obvious but this whole thing fits Virtue’s plan…we can’t let them succeed.”

Just then, a stone was launched at a SWAT team member from someone within the Louisvillian Love, and the SWAT member lost his head, brandishing his baton and going after the assailant, beating him with his stick. It soon didn’t take long for the rest of the crowd to converge on the SWAT member, forcing the other teammates to come to his aid and pull off the other attackers. Malcolm heard the commotion and could only wipe his face with his hands, stressed.

Fortunately, Bartlett and Pearl acted quickly, and with their combined strength, they were able to outmuscle the crowd to get to the attackers and peel them off the recalcitrant SWAT member, whom Bartlett pulled away as Pearl established a blockade. Seeing the SWAT man get dragged away and the rest of the SWAT retreat calmed the crowd, who cheered as they saw Bartlett visibly dress down the SWAT team member that started the fracas, though the FBII were afraid things were only going to get worse.

As Malcolm was struggling trying to figure out his next step, Pearl got a call on her tactical satellite phone, handed to the agents since the offices were still being deprived of cell service. It was Enrique, calling from a satellite phone of his own.

“This the FBII?” he asked, ominously.
“Yes, Agent Pearl, why?” she said, sensing the caller had something important.
“We knew Virtue would show up.”
“What?”
“That’s what this is about…this is about the truth. The truth about Virtue.”
“So you did this to draw them out…I don’t understand.”
“There’s not a lot I can explain right now, but now that Virtue have come out, it is your job to find the truth.”
“If we do that, you’ll release the hostages?”
“Yes, but put it to you this way- you won’t consider them hostages when you finally get to deal with them.”
“What?” Pearl was bemused, but Enrique ended the call- and refused to answer any of her call-backs- before she could receive any explanation for what he just said. Still, it was enough to give Claudia a call and see how much progress she made with her investigation.

February 17, 2015,
02:01 local time,
Unity Headquarters,
Constantinople, Byzantium

“I called their bluff,” said a downtrodden Kent, speaking via conference call to the other Family members- Mongol Khan Ogedei XII, Birean Emperor James Carroll, Bactrian Baselios Basil Patel and Byzantine Empress Alexia Comnenus- through a secure line. Each member was in their own countries in a secure location themselves, which for Alexia was a secret corridor of Unity only the most trusted of Byzantine officials were aware of.
“I know Valerius is headstrong,” said Alexia, a svelte, blonde woman wise beyond her years at just 24 years old, having gained the throne following the assassination of her father, John, two years ago, “but I knew we couldn’t play him for the fool. It was worth the effort, though.”
“Now we don’t know who his source is, the one that could expose us,” said Carroll. “That’s what’s most troubling. We need to deal with whoever they are or it risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization.”
“I wouldn’t worry so much Emperor Carroll,” said Ogedei. “Nobody believes the Romans anyway…they can spout all they want but our PR struck first…they’re the enemies now.”
“Besides,” said Patel, “whoever the source is has likely left Loreto altogether…Rome wouldn’t be so stupid as to leave their operatives in danger.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” said Kent. “If the operative is gone then why hasn’t Rome released its evidence?”
“Because, Mr. Kent,” said Alexia, “they’re calling our bluff. They know that if we strike against their operative we’re killing a Roman citizen…at that point, we will be in a state of war with them and the public will definitely not be on our side…Rome will not tell the world they’re ADR, they will state that they’re just a normal citizen who was so brazenly executed, and we’ll have no justification for our actions. We just need to remind the Loretans to be a little more careful…how the Soldiers were unaware there are spies everywhere is beyond me.”
“Alexia,” said Carroll, “they’re going to go to war with us anyway…why don’t we bury the Hydra’s head?”
“Gosh,” said Alexia, getting visibly agitated, “how many times do I have to tell you guys that if we attack first, it’s exactly what the Romans want. We are built upon the principle that we are not the aggressors…if we strike first without cause, then all that goes out the window. Right now the world believes the Romans are starving their own people in an inhumane way to get rid of a terrorist act on their soil…how can we keep up the charade if we appear to be the savages?”
“We’ve already given them the ultimatum, though,” said Carroll, audibly frustrated. “I think we have reason enough.”
“I think he’s right,” said Ogedei. “We already have cause.”
“If we make the first move though,” said Kent, “then the Romans can justify their aggression and their own people will side with them. If they make the first move, it further reinforces the idea that they’re the bad guys.”
“...and,” interjected Alexia, “it just may make any number of those protest groups- especially in North America- come out of the woodwork and put pressure on them to back down. We may win this battle without having to shed any blood. In short, we can’t make the first move.”
“We need patience,” said Patel.
“Well,” said Kent with a knowing smirk after receiving a notification on his phone, “Virtue shouldn’t make the first move…but something came up giving us another card we can play.”
“Right,” said Alexia, cluing in. “I think it’s time we play it.”

February 16, 2015,
19:36 local time,
Undergound bunker, Roadhouse Mexican Grill,
Elizabethtown, Kentucky

“Agent Claudia,” said Claudia, answering her phone, sitting alone in the bunker. “Julia...hey...yeah I heard...glad Bartlett gave him an earful but that won’t be the end of it...try to keep the peace out there...what’s that? The truth about Virtue? If that’s what they need then that’s what we’ll give them...Malcolm? Don’t worry about him...he knows I’m here and he knows I’m working with your father, whose bottling company logo was the one he found. I know it’s all sorts of weird for you and it is for me too, but I’m on to something...those aren’t real Soldiers...the real Soldiers would have never contacted you, and they did. We’ve also uncovered some stuff about Walker.” She then saw Collins emerge from the bar, with a ponytailed, redheaded, athletic ivory-skinned woman in a black sleeveless catsuit walking beside him. “Listen, Julia, I gotta go.” She then abruptly hung up the phone to greet the pair.

“Max,” said Claudia, smiling at Collins before turning to his partner. “I see we have a visitor.”
“I’m Polina Nikoalevna,” said the woman in the catsuit, whose Muscovite accent was thick. “I run this organization...when I heard you were here I tried to get here as soon as I could.”
“I’m Agent Claudia.” The two smiled as Claudia and Nikoalevna heartily shook hands. Nikoalevna was the great granddaughter of the late Duchess Anastasia Nikoalevna Romanov, the only surviving member of the immediate Romanov family, as she barely escaped her captors after they brutally murdered the final Russian Imperial family in Yekaterinburg in 1917. Anastasia used her escape as an opportunity to start a charitable organization that smuggled important essentials into Soviet Russia, essentials the Soviets had denied their own people. Polina Nikolaevna’s grandmother was the one who expanded its reach globally into a global smuggling ring for essentials, which turned it into a global empire. After hearing of Grayson’s troubles through Collins, Nikalevna herself agreed to take over Omega and merge it with the family’s existing operations, which she took over upon her mother’s death in 2012.

“So, Ms. Nikoaleva,” said Claudia before Nikoalevna interjected.
“Polina, or Polly if you prefer,” said Nikoalevna. “I don’t believe in formalities...they only get in the way.”
“All right,” said Claudia with a smile, “I’m Galla then. Moving on...what can you tell me about the situation in Louisville?”
“That’s the thing...we know little more than you do. The stuff about the Soldiers, every criminal knows that, but the rest of the stuff...we don’t know much.”
“You said you had something on Walker...what is it?”
“If you notice the blog.” Nikoalevna said, taking a seat next to Claudia and showing her an image on her laptop, “Walker blogs about an incident at McNichols Arena, dated January 12, 2015 but it really happened during the night of January 11, when Lindsey Stirling played in Denver.”
“Walker talks about a girl, Jasmine Farhar, whom he says was being harassed by two men, men who wouldn’t leave Jasmine alone until he intervened.”
“Except...” Nikolaevna paused to show Claudia security camera footage of the patio where Walker claimed the incident happened. “You see Walker approaching Jasmine, but as soon as he gets there, Jasmine leaves. He never had the time to learn her name.”
“Yes, but...he could have still learned her name via other ways.”
“We’re combing through his records and Jasmine’s records as we speak, but we haven’t yet found any evidence the two ever interacted. Jasmine has no social media account, her cell phone, her apartment, her E-Mail address and her only online forum account- a Lindsey Stirling fansite- is registered in her mother’s name. It’s possible the two met at a place where it couldn’t be documented, like a park, but given Jasmine’s financial woes, she likely has never left Colorado. So we need to know if Walker visited the Republic.”
“Judging by the footage, they’re not likely close friends, so it’s doubtful that Walker knows her last name, yet it’s clearly visible in the post. He likely got it via looking it up illicitly on a database.”
“Is that so?”
“Jasmine’s body language clearly does not indicate that she likes Walker in any capacity, so she’d never willingly give up her last name. The only thing we need to know is if they have something like a working relationship where Walker would learn about Farhar in other ways.”
“Our database guys are going through that.”
“Let me contact mine...maybe she can shed some light.”

February 16, 2015,
19:29 local time,
Outside of Walker’s Rangers Office,
Louisville, Kentucky

“So if they’re not Soldiers,” said Pearl, talking over the case with Malcolm at their makeshift command centre, “then all this silliness about wars and this being a terrorist act can be nullified, right?”
“We’ve got no physical proof,” said Malcolm, “just your phone call, which isn’t much. Out of character for a normal Soldier, but that can happen to anyone.”
“I’m worried, though,” said Pearl, “the situation seems to be getting unstable on the political front...I don’t know how much longer we can keep the charade up.”

A few moments later Bartlett radioed the rest of the team.

“Guys,” said Bartlett, “I just saw one of their guards come back with a shopping bag.”
“Okay,” said Malcolm, nonplussed.
“I know...shopping bag, no big deal, right?” Bartlett said excitedly.
“Is it dangerous?” Pearl asked, worried about Bartlett’s find.
“No,” said Bartlett assuredly. “It’s just shocking...inside the bag are five packs of tampons and one huge bottle of moisturizer.”
“Tampons and moisturizer?” Malcolm said, perplexed at the find. “What would a group of men want with tampons and moisturizer?”
“That’s the thing,” said Pearl, “it’s not for the men...the women might still be alive.”
“Exactly,” said Bartlett, who was smiling.
“I think we’ve got enough to go in there,” said Pearl with urgency before Malcolm motioned her to stop.
“We don’t have proof yet,” he said, cautiously. “Besides, if they’re receiving supplies then the women might be safe too. We can’t compromise the mission.”
“Why don’t we at least dare them to show us proof the women are really dead?” Pearl said, challenging Malcolm. “We could leave them with a mighty big amount of egg on their faces.”
“I don’t know,” said Malcolm, “it’s too risky. Considering we don’t know their demands nor have they made any kinds of moves until now we can’t tell how they’d react to that request. Let me call Claudia though.”

Malcolm stepped away to give Claudia a call. He explained the situation and waited for Claudia to respond.

“Doesn’t sound like they’re trying to hide the shipment,” said Claudia, “yet it’s only a clue that we in law enforcement would understand. They’re trying to tell us something...I think they want us to investigate the women of Walker’s Rangers. So, stay the course and let me dig some stuff up...if we go in there or ask them to show us that the women are alive then they may think we’re not on their side and that could lead to violence. So hang tight and wait for my signal.”

February 16, 2015,
19:32 local time,
Inside Walker’s Rangers Office,
Louisville, Kentucky

“Robert,” said Davis between many short but deep breaths, “what is it that these guys want? What are they hiding? What are you hiding?”
“Me?” Walker said, nonchalantly. “Me, oh I’m hiding nothing.”
Davis was apoplectic. “You’re hiding nothing? How can you say that when we have a terrorist cell holding us captive in our own offices?”
“Because...I know their game. I know what they want...and I won’t give it to them. The thing about any conflict is that you can’t make the first move...you have to let them come to you.”
Davis gave Walker a look, not impressed with Walker’s explanation.
“They want to break us down...make us come to them. They thought they could shake us by first murdering Cassie and then the rest of the girls, but they were wrong. So now we get the silent treatment, in the hopes that we’ll break down eventually.”
“So it’s one big game of ‘chicken’ now?”
“Exactly. This is a staredown...but don’t worry...I’m sure one of them will crack. It’s almost nightfall...eventually they’ll get tired and that may make one of them snap...and we can then make our move.”
“You’re not worried about what they can find out, do you?”
“Davis, Davis, Davis...you and your constant worries...me, I’m beyond that. I know that no matter what, they won’t find a single thing about me...and besides, I’ve faced countless storms and gotten through them. Why would this be any different?”

February 16, 2015,
20:06 local time,
Underground bunker, Roadhouse Mexican Grill,
Elizabethtown, Kentucky

“Sophie?” Claudia said, calling her Technical Analyst, Sophie Mullens.
“Yeah?” Mullens said, the sounds of grunts being heard in the background.
“I need you to find everything you can on Jasmie Farhar and Robert Walker, even the most minute of detail.
“Uh...ow...ooh...okay...it’s take a while.”
“That’s fine...I just need you to print the records and scan them to me, and cross-reference any data that may suggest that they’ve been to the same state, such as credit card transactions, flight records, phone records, employment or volunteer records, Internet usage...anything that could tell me if the two of them had a chance to meet.”
“Okay...ow...ooh...ow...ouch! After I figure out how to master the printer with my foot while tapping my phone with my nose.”
Claudia wore a bemused look. “That sounds...complicated.”
“Tell me about it.”
“What are you doing?”
“Yoga. Hot yoga to be exact. Bartlett would lose his mind if he saw what I was wearing right now.”
“Which is?”
“Nothing.”
Claudia was unsettled by the thought, but thought against making a big deal of things, given Mullens’ abilities. “Oh...I see. Anyway, just get me those-”
“Sent you the records right now.”
Claudia was awestruck. “I don’t know how you do it. Thank you.”

Okay, thought Claudia, looking over the records. So here’s Jasmine’s records…then there’s Robert’s right there…well, the cross-reference doesn’t suggest that the Farhars and Walker ever came into contact...in fact, the Farhars have never left Colorado, while Walker has never left Kentucky. Wait…who’s this? Peter MacPherson? Who’s he? She continued pondering when Collins came to see her.

“So, how’d it go?” Collins asked briskly.
“Well,” said Claudia, who began wondering why Collins seemed to always be upset, “Sophie dug up some rather interesting information…she just gave it to me. I do have one question for you, since I figure you might know the answer.”
“Go ahead.”
“Who’s Peter MacPherson?”
“Peter MacPherson?” The name seemed to click with Collins but he wasn’t sure why. Grayson would fill him in, overhearing the conversation and walking over.

“Peter MacPherson is Peter Outings,” said Grayson. “Mr. Outings is the receptionist for Walker’s Rangers…I was asked to defend him as a kid…when he was MacPherson.”
“What did he do?” said Claudia, intrigued.
“He was accused of molesting a nine-year-old girl, a girl by the name of Gemma Emerald. She used to live in Frankfort until the trial, when she left for Colorado…in 2003, I think.”
“MacPherson would be 26, so that’s 12 years ago, making him 14 at the time.”
“Yeah, it was a pretty big scandal…MacPherson claimed there was a misunderstanding and won an acquittal because of that- Emerald’s story was your typical sexual assault story where the judge ruled ‘he said-she said’ and thought Emerald’s story was ‘all over the place’…forgetting that the judge was dealing with a nine year-old girl and the holes in MacPherson’s story were so big you could fit Texas inside of them.”
“So wait…you didn’t take the case?” Claudia was still intrigued but perplexed to hear Grayson insinuate that.
“I couldn’t…not in good conscience. I believe in honour…MacPherson was not an honourable man. He went beyond your typical 14-year-old ‘macho’ teen personality…he had no qualms bragging about his fantasies, involving sick, twisted ideas of sexualizing young girls and dreaming of mutilating them.” Grayson stopped to give his head a shake before continuing. “It’s so revolting that I can hardly talk about it, so it shouldn’t surprise you that even though they offered me millions, I just could not take this case. I still followed the case and visited the proceedings when I could, but there was no way I could justify defending that twisted young boy.”
“How do you know Outings is MacPherson?”
“I don’t know for sure, until now I guess…I remember seeing Outings on the webcam and noticed how similar he looked to MacPherson…too similar, I think. I suspect Sophie has proof.”
“She does.”

Claudia then pulled out a group of pictures and documents, which, upon examining them, Collins and Grayson reacted with shock.

“Outings’ birth certificate was forged,” said Grayson. “Well, it’s printed on official documents…but the Kentucky birth certificate was substantially different when Outings would have actually been born, and Outings’ ‘new’ certificate does not indicate at all that it is a reprint…Outings has a contact within the Kentuckian government.
“…and the elder Walker, George, paid for the new certificate,” said Collins, “via a rather ‘timely’ donation to the Kentuckian government. A few weeks later, as Outings, Robert gives him a job with Walker’s Rangers, then as a distributor, in Louisville.”
“So MacPherson gets his name cleared,” said Claudia, analyzing, “and the elder Walker decides to help him out and restart his life- because even though he was cleared, MacPherson would likely still be vilified by the locals. As Outings, he works with Walker, going along with Walker’s blog as a means to clean up his image, though I doubt Outings has changed much at all.”
“Guy like him,” said Grayson, “he’d likely strike against another girl…and, given his size, Walker would likely have no choice but to follow along with whatever Outings does.”
“I don’t know,” said Collins. “Walker has all the power in their relationship…at any point he could have outed Outings but didn’t…he’s not so blameless himself.”

February 16, 2015,
20:45 local time,
Inside Walker’s Rangers Office,
Louisville, Kentucky

“Where is that guy?” Carlos Ortiz said, wandering down the hall after delivering another shipment of pizza to the hostages. “Ricky...seriously...”

After a few moments checking behind doors and hallways, eventually Carlos found his brother, Enrique Ortiz, in the bathroom, bent over the sink crying his eyes out.

“You’re thinking about her again, aren’t you?” Carlos asked, getting saddened by his brother’s pain. “Ricky,” Carlos continued, putting his hand on Enrique’s shoulder and starting to cry himself, “it’s okay...we knew her memory would come back.”

“You know,” said Enrique, taking deep breaths in an effort to keep some kind of composure, “I should have killed the mother f***er right there...he was in my sights, I had my gun drawn...”
“I know,” said Carlos sighing, “but if you’d killed him it would have thrown the entire thing out of whack.”
“I guess so...” Enrique sniffled and wiped some tears from his eyes.
”Look at it this way.” Carlos let out a heavy sigh before continuing. “You got Cassie, who lured her to this piece of junk, and the rest of the world thinks we killed the rest of the women, whom the Soldiers would have actually kidnapped...besides, we still get to see the shock on those losers’ faces once we finally expose them for who they are...there are a lot of positives.”
“We’ll go to jail...”
“Minor inconvenience...we can’t think about it now.”

Just then, Enrique received a phone call from his phone.

“Hi Enrique?” The caller asked. “This is Julia Pearl...I’m with the FBII.”
“Hi Julia,” said Enrique, wondering how Pearl found out his name. “What’s up?”
“I know about Maria...I know that’s why you undertook this whole operation.”
“How’d you know about Maria?”
“Well, I know who you are...just through the webcam footage...and we dug into the employment records and found your cousin worked for Robert...and...we’re sorry about your loss.”
Enrique smiled, widely, relieved to know that someone else seemed to care about his cousin. “No, thank you...it feels nice knowing that you cared about her...Robert’s such a rock star around here that we could never bring the case up to the police. Never understood why they didn’t care...and it felt it went on for so long...I mean, it was only last May...but the image of her hanging in her closet has haunted me since that day...I’m glad that we’re close to closure.”
“I’m glad too. As for the police, they’re in cahoots with the elder Walker...all the ‘persecutions’ Robert had to go through were staged just so his blog could get more press.”
“Oh that I knew, but glad you found that out.”
“Listen, I need to go over a few things with my boss, but sometime later tonight I’d like to go in there and make a more formal announcement, maybe put this thing to rest. I just want to know...why all this?”
“Hey...go big or go home. Plus no one listened to Maria so we figured this was the best way for the world to listen. The world never listened when others protested Robert before…so we figured if we put him in peril that he’d have to get more thoroughly examined, and eventually exposed. We also know Peter Outings seemed to be going after someone when he registered for an account at Lindsey Stirling’s fansite, where Maria interacted...he never used his name but his words and style gave him away...and we think he used the fansite for trafficking.”
“Trafficking?” A sense of urgency overcame Pearl. “Listen, I’ll call you back.”

February 16, 2015,
21:26 local time,
Underground bunker, Roadhouse Mexican Grill,
Elizabethtown, Kentucky

“So George Walker, then,” said Claudia, still reviewing documents with Grayson, Collins and Nikoalevna, “is the one who is trying to undermine Omega.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Nikoalevna. “We wouldn’t give them the resources just to call out Walker- we needed to find out our enemies.”
“Wait,” said Claudia, “you recruited them to do this?”
“They contacted me,” said Grayson, “and provided me all these suspicions, so we set them up. We figured if we told them to pull off a hostage standoff it’d get the world’s attention and maybe then we can expose who our real enemies are, since the Ortizes seemed to be hunting our enemies. We knew about George but he didn’t work alone- and we figured by exposing Robert we’d expose his partners.”
“So Walker is in bed with the Soldiers,” said Claudia.
“...and the Kentuckian government,” said Collins. “That’s how he could get away with the charade for so long.”
“We just need to know what kind of charade he’s pulling,” said Claudia. She then looked at her notes again and sighed. “I should caution that we don’t have any actual proof that the Walkers had any interactions with the Soldiers…I see no offshore transactions that are made to Birea, and those transactions are made to accounts with only numbers on them.”
“That’s true,” said Collins, “Because they’re Arlynali accounts.”
“Oh Arlynal,” said Claudia shaking her head, “the other former Scottish colony, in Western Africa, that has the world’s largest number of front corporations…only that they leave no evidence of such.”
“Arlynal is a ‘middleman’ for Soldier dealings,” said Collins. “Conjecture will reveal that.”
“One account, though,” said Grayson, looking at the documents, “that George dealt with did belong to a Soldier (and I know this did), who died a few years ago. So George did deal with the Soldiers before and thus dipped into the well again- we just need to figure out who the new Soldier is. At least now we’ve got a starting point.”
“What businesses are in George’s empire?” asked Claudia
“He has all kinds,” said Collins, “that’s how he covers his tracks. I do know a few of his underlings run strip clubs.”
“Plus Frank MacPherson, Peter’s father,” said Grayson, “runs an international retailer, ‘Bert’s’, set up for him by George and named after you know who.”
“Just so he remembers who’s actually in charge,” said Collins.
“Wait,” said Claudia, a thought and a sense of urgency hitting her, “Frank has an international retailer, which requires international shipping, and George’s associates run strip clubs...do you know what that means?”
“Oh great,” said Grayson, shaking his head.

Moments later, Pearl would call Claudia and confirm her suspicions. It was here that she realized the plot- Outings used the Stirling fansite to find another woman to “replace” Maria, only to find Farhar- and eventually Emerald- with the records showing that he communicated with Farhar via his real name. He then recruited, via George Walker, the Soldiers to kidnap Farhar and Emerald for him, with Soldiers wanting the rest of the blog’s women as payment for their services. This is what drew out the Ortizes- they wanted to protect the women from being shipped. The Ortizes thought by faking the women’s deaths and having the AVTF confirm their suspicions would be the end of their problems- they would soon learn they still had another challenge to deal with.

February 16, 2015,
22:15 local time,
Louisville Metropolitan Border Checkpoint,
Shepherdsville, Kentucky

Even at this late hour at night, there was a long line of traffic, backed up for miles due to the improvised Roman Military checkpoints instituted just two hours ago, as Rome decided to take no chances with Virtue now publicly involved with the proceedings. With still no public word from the captors of Walker’s Rangers’ offices, the least the Romans figured they could do was grind Louisville to a halt and force the captors’ hands by stopping their supply chain into the city itself. The border with Indiana was closed, with the Classis patrolling the Ohio River and the aerial Avii forces turning back fights to Louisville’s airports, effectively closing them. The Kentuckian government, meanwhile, thought the Romans’ moves were heavy-handed, but decided against formally protesting- they believed Virtue was trying to upset their stability by getting involved, so they figured the best way to maintain control over their territory was to maintain the Roman siege.

The siege was maintained on the ground by the Roman Kentuckian Legion, who used the quickest available resources at their disposal. The makeshift checkpoints along the main expressway- the road once marked as Interstate 65- featured two lines, with each line flanked by two vans equipped with backscatter X-Ray technology- branded as “Videte”- which were capable of scanning thoroughly and quickly every content inside the vehicle, but were safe enough so that the people sitting inside the car did not need to get out.

This made the lines quicker than the conventional line at airport screeners, but the motorists were still not pleased that they had to stop for a few minutes just to get into Louisville. A loud chorus of honks could be heard down the line before the checkpoint, turning what should have been a peaceful night into one loud din of frustrated motorists.

Down the road, 27 miles away in Bardstown, Kyros Pastos was gathering his troops. He received a phone call and readied his regiment of the Knights of St. Peter, a division of the Aramean Army that contained hundreds of small groups of elite military forces who could be deployed easily and quickly for any purpose needed. Aram agreed to provide military forces as part of its partnership with Rome in founding the NAU, though the amount of bases they had were vastly outnumbered by the Roman ones. Still, they had a few- mostly in Carolina- including one near Bardstown.

The Knights moved swiftly, using the power of darkness to gain cover for their activities. They stole a transport truck from a cabinet factory (which was after hours), put Pastos in the front seat and the rest of the Knights and their needed supplies in the transport trailer.

After stealing the truck, the Knights proceeded to make their way to Shepherdsville. As soon as they saw the checkpoints, Pastos got frustrated.

“Crap,” said Pastos to himself in the driver’s seat. “They’ve got their scanners operating.” He then radioed his troops and ordered them to move stuff around in the trailer, arranging their cargo in such a way that their weapons would be hidden. They also had with them many of the trailer’s contents, which included a few cabinets and vanities, contents the Knights were going to contend were going to disadvantaged families inside Louisville. Pastos had a few other cards up his sleeve.

When they got to the checkpoint, they were greeted by the attendant, Imaginifer Rufina Gamberina of the Shepherdsville Century, an ivory-skinned, physically fit redhead who wore her hair in a ponytail and her face with a stoic expression.

“Hi,” said Pastos as he pulled up to the checkpoint, stopping just shy of the Videte, which Gamberina found odd.
“Hello sir,” she said, trying to act normally. “Where are you from?”
“Bardstown, ma’am.”
“Are you all Kentuckian citizens?”
“No…we’re Aramean.”
“Please hand me your identifications.”

Pastos, though, didn’t have the patience to sit through all of her requests, so he decided to get right to the point.

“Listen, ma’am,” he said, exasperated. “How long will this take?”
“As long as it needs to,” said Gamberina, curtly. “We have a special security situation in Louisville, we can’t afford any risks…I’m sorry for the inconvenience but there is little I can do.”
“I understand…but I’ve got film in the back. Photographs, negatives, that kind of thing…I can’t risk going through your scanners.”
“I don’t believe you for one second.”
Pastos was apoplectic. “Come on…you don’t believe me?”
“Well, you still haven’t shown me your ID yet.”
“Fine.” Pastos was frustrated but he figured an argument wouldn’t help him at this stage. He handed her his ID, a government-issued ID that gave him a different name and was marked as that of a civilian’s- standard practice for Aram’s elite forces, so that border missions like this one could work better. Once Gamberina was done scanning the ID, she handed him his ID back.
“Okay…well, if you have film in the back, open the trailer and pull it out so we can examine it manually.”

Pastos agreed, getting out of his seat and out of the truck. He walked behind Gamberina the entire time, banging the frame of the trailer as he did so, before stopping Gamberina once both her and Pastos were positioned directly behind the trailer.

“Hold it right there,” said Pastos, drawing his military pistol and sticking it right into Gamberina’s back, with the trailer opening as he did so. Gamberina was about to make a move before she saw a few other Knights with their guns drawn, forcing Gamberina to comply with her captors.

“Down on your knees,” said Pastos as Gamberina did so, following all of his instructions. “Hands on your head.” Pastos then pulled out some handcuffs and applied them to Gamberina’s wrists, binding them behind her back. “Stay still.” He then affixed a cloth cleave gag around her mouth, just so her moans couldn’t be audible as Pastos felt his way up her clothes and extracting every weapon that she had, while copping a few feels that he could get in. All of her weapons were then given to the other Knights.

“Now,” said Pastos, “I’m going to give you your radio, and you’re going to radio your fellow troops that they are to let us through and that you need to join us for some ‘further investigating’. Understand.”

Gamberina closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, pondering that request.

“No,” she said, defiantly. “That’s not going to happen.”

Pastos responded by taking his pistol and slapping the barrel of his gun forcefully across her face, knocking her down and opening a gash on her cheek. She was helped back up by Pastos, where she could be seen hunched over, panting heavily, with bruising forming underneath her eye and blood occasionally falling from her mouth.

“Okay,” said Pastos, visibly upset. “Let’s try this-”

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” barked Aquilifer Licinus Survus as he got to the scene, his gun drawn. He was asleep at his post and hadn’t realized that Gamberina had left the station alone, being woken up by the pistol whipping. He radioed for backup and, soon enough, two attack helicopters and a tank had their cannons trained on the trailer.

Pastos instinctively grabbed Gamberina, clutched her against him and put his pistol towards her head.

“Come on now,” said Survus, “let’s not do anything stupid…you do realize that by shooting Rufina you’re committing an act of war, right?”
“At this stage,” said Pastos maniacally, “we’re already at war…that’s what the world believes. Everybody else already sees Rome as the enemy…it’s high time you accept that and stop trying convince us otherwise.
Survus was unrelenting in his gaze. “Enemies don’t backstab their friends…for all the ‘bad things’ that we may have done, not once have we turned our backs on those who needed it…you, on the other hand, are only motivated by your own interests…that is why Aram has turned on their allies.”
“Well, when our allies are scum like you, we have hardly a reason to stay loyal.”
“You can keep on thinking that way.”
“I think I will.”

Survus, though, wasn’t in any mood for a standoff. Though he knew what the wider implications of shooting Pastos would be, all he saw was a Roman soldier in peril and there was no way that he was going to allow Pastos to keep putting her in peril. Pastos, though, had a thought when he saw Survus’ uniform, speaking out when he heard Survus cock his gun.

“Look at you,” said Pastos, “all noble and honourable…and for what? You left your own comrade in peril, and you know what that will mean. Officer Survus, do you not realize that you are an Aquilifer and this pretty little thing in my arms is only an Imagnifier? You’re one rank ahead of her, and she’ll take your job after you shoot me and arrest the rest of my friends. That’s how it works in the Roman military…you screw up, you get demoted…and you, Survus, screwed up mightily. So why defend your honour when you know it will only burn you…shoot her, not me, and join us…trust me, you’ll be a king.”

Survus started to pant, breathing heavily with each breath. A number of thoughts went through his head as he wrestled over the best course of action. On one hand, he had a duty to the Empire, and that duty was to protect his own at all costs. Sure, his life would be turned upside down but what would his peers think if he only acted selfishly? Then again, he thought, what life could he lead if he was taken from the only life that he knew, the one of being in the Roman Army. Even a low-level soldier like him was the envy of every citizen in the Empire, many of whom could only dream of being in the position he was in. If he did the honourable thing, he’d leave the Army a disgrace, into a situation where only his closest friends could ever consider helping him out- everyone else would shun him.

No, I can’t have that, Survus thought to himself, that girl is going to ruin me! He gave his head a shake and moved his gun towards Gamberina, who reacted with shock when she saw what happened. Survus took a few deep breaths, trying valiantly to calm himself down in order to take the shot, before one of Pastos’ men interjected from the trailer.

“Sir,” shouted the Knight at Pastos. “I’ve just received notice from command…we need to stand down.”

Pastos could only react with stunned silence. He stood, still clutching Gamberina though the gun started to tremble in his hand, forcing him to reapply the safety. He took several deep breaths before pushing Gamberina to the ground, a turn of events that caused tears to begin to flow from his eyes. He tried hard to think about a way out of his predicament, but no thought he could come up with would satisfy his needs. Through his tears, he threw away his gun and dropped to the ground, getting on to his knees and putting his hands on his head. His fellow Knights would soon follow, and after several minutes, all would be shorn of their weapons and formally arrested by the Romans.

Survus, though, tended to Gamberina, undoing her handcuffs, lowering her gag and helping her to her feet, which she responded to by wrapping her arms around Survus in a hearty embrace and kissing him on the cheek.

Survus was confused and didn’t reciprocate the actions until Gamberina whispered in his ear.

“I’ve got your back,” said Gamberina, her emotions getting the better of her allowing tears to flow from her eyes. “You’ve been a good, dear friend to me Licinus…there’s no way I’m going to tell them that you were asleep on the job. Plus, those were the Knights of St. Peter…they know how to manipulate…I know that really wasn’t you pointing that gun at me, it was the Aramean, after he goaded you into it.”
“I still should have been better,” said Survus, beginning to cry himself. “I should have never left you out there, alone.”
“Licinus, how many times have I done it alone without issue? This was a special case…don’t beat yourself up about it.”
“You’re right.” He then began caressing her cheek when he got to her gash. “Oh…I’m sorry…Rufina, we need to stitch that up.”
“Licinus…that can wait.” Rufina then flashed a warm smile before moving in for the kiss on his lips, as the two of them proceeded to kiss romantically and passionately for quite some time, both relieved their stresses were finally over.

February 17, 2015,
03:49 local time,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office, Palace of Westminster,
London, England

“I apologize for calling off the attack,” said Kent, calling Diaz. Walker attempted to attack his captors which prompted a response from the AVTF, who stormed his office buildings and arrested Walker and Outings, as well as placed the rest of the staff- including the women, who were hidden in the abandoned office behind Walker’s offices. In the coming days, evidence collected by Ortiz’s men via interviews with the women would reveal Walker’s true practices, bringing on a slew of North American charges, including ones for multiple sexual assaults.
“It’s okay,” said Diaz, “I understand…Walker’s arrest meant the FBII got the girls, so there’s no point to the attack. I worry more about George.”
Kent scoffed at the notion. “Don’t worry about that hack…no one has any proof of his involvement with you, plus you can write off the innocuous twit- and the Arameans- by claiming they’re just ‘rogue agents’. You might have to change a few things and get rid of a few people, but trust me, the FBII are not going to be ‘hot on your trail’- they still have a lot of work to do…and that allows you, my friend, to stay two steps ahead of them.”
Diaz chuckled, relieved at what he heard.
“Listen, are you still going to go after the girl? She’s a mighty fine piece of you know what.” Kent finished with a chuckle.
“No…well, we’ll see if George will still go after her. If he does, and he gets arrested, then we can write him off as ‘dead weight’ and deny he was ever involved with us. Sure, I’d love the pretty steam punk girl- she’s a virgin but she’s very sexual, I mean, that’s top dollar right there- but sometimes you need to learn to cut your losses, and this just may be one of them.”
Kent responded with a chuckle, impressed at what he heard. “See, you’re learning- don’t sell yourself short kiddo, you’re on the rise.”
“Thanks Mr. Kent. I just wished our operations went better today.”
“You win some and you lose some…the good news is, at least our operations can still continue.”

February 17, 2015,
05:10 local time,
Chancellor’s Quarters, Aramean Imperial Palace,
Nicosia, Cyrpus Province

“Hello?” said Pomas, frustrated to be receiving a phone call as he was readying himself for bed. “Who’s calling?”
“You know exactly who this is,” said the caller, Petrine Catholic Pope Sixtus VI. He was in charge of the original Catholic Church, the largest in the world, the one the Nathanites rebelled against and the one colloquially called as the “Roman Catholic Church” because of its home in Rome itself. Sixtus was a man who spoke with a distinctive, soothing baritone and someone who, despite being 70, was in better shape than many of his younger peers. He was also the constitutional monarch for Aram, only possessing the power to excommunicate the Aramean Chancellor, which had never happened before but, due to this extenuating circumstance, Sixtus was prepared to do it.
Pomas stammered, worried about what the conversation would be about. “Father…”
Sixtus was unrelenting, not even attempting to hide his anger. “Don’t you ‘Father’ me…you know exactly what you did.”
“Um…no I don’t.”
“Don’t play dumb…you sent your Bardstown Knights against Louisville for some purpose that I’ve been tasked to find out about. You realize that, in of itself, is an act of war against Rome, and that’s not something I can tolerate.”
“Woah now, buddy…we had nothing to do with that. I heard about that operation too and I tried to get a hold of the commander but I couldn’t…someone paid them off to go rogue.”
“…and you expect me to believe that story? I should excommunicate you right now.”
“You wouldn’t.” Pomas tried to be defiant, but he knew he had no leverage.
“Just watch me.”
“Okay, okay okay…” Pomas took several deep breaths trying to calm himself down, eventually regaining his composure. “Just come to Aram…do whatever investigation you need. You’ll have access to anything you want.”
Sixtus spoke ominously, satisfied with the answer. “Fair enough…I’ll be there Wednesday morning. Don’t be late.”

February 17, 2015,
03:00 local time,
Jasmine Farhar’s makeshift apartment building,
Henderson, Colorado

“Okay,” said George Walker, on his cell phone waiting inside his car outside of the abandoned office building that many Coloradans- including Farhar- rented as makeshift apartments. “You’re lowballing me man…she’s a treasure…very sexual girl and also a virgin…how do I know? My son talked to her online, she revealed it…plus that bikini pic she sent to him confirmed it…come on, you’ve seen the pics…her virginity is indisputable.” Walker let out a frustrated sigh as he heard the response. “Please…we’ve been going for hours on this…give me something reasonable.” He smiled when he heard the next response. “Good. Consider it done.” Walker got out of his car, checked his coat to ensure he had his things, and proceeded toward the building.

When he got to the door, he fumbled through his pockets looking for his lock pick, his hands trembling because the cold weather was doing a number on his bare hands. He searched valiantly for a few minutes before looking up and realizing that the door was damaged, meaning he could open it easily without needing to pick the lock.

Inside, Farhar was awake, roused from the comfort of her bed by Matthew. His loud crying rattled the little space that she had, giving her a few headaches, but Farhar wouldn’t let her own inconveniences get in the way of caring for her nephew. She sorted through his many toys, offering them to him but he kept rejecting them, much to Farhar’s chagrin. She then took out Matthew’s favourite toy, a plush frog that made noises whenever it was squeezed, squeezing it a few times to see if it would placate Matthew. The only thing it did was make Matthew continue crying, which caused the neighbours to her left to bang on the wall imploring Farhar to quiet her baby.

Farhar wasn’t fazed. She picked up Matthew and held him, rubbing his back. It soothed the baby a little bit, but not enough to stop his crying. She then thought that maybe he wanted his milk, so she asked him if that is what he wanted. When Matthew responded with a toothy grin, Farhar knew what she needed to do. She grabbed her keys and lifted up her nightgown to put on a belt that would fit underneath it- a belt that contained her sidearm- and left the room to go to the common kitchen, where Matthew’s milk was stored in the fridge.

When she got to the fridge, she started to look for Matthew’s milk bottle before a voice stopped her in her tracks.

“Hello Jasmine,” said Walker, sneering with glee at finding his prize.
“Back off!” shouted Farhar, drawing her gun. “I am trained…I know how to use this.”
Walker could only laugh at her display of aggression. “I seem to have hit the jackpot…not only are you a very, very supple virgin with a strong libido, you’re also adept with a firearm. Tell me, Jasmine, what other skills do you possess?”
Farhar continued giving Walker a steely glare, although her hands began to shake. “Once again…get out of the kitchen and leave me alone. I’m not going to say it again.”
“Oh I think you will.” Walker snickered, before starting to move towards her.
“Stop or I will shoot!”
Walker proceeded to ignore her, which caused her to fire her gun. Unfortunately, her aim was poor and she wound up spraying bullets into the roof. Meanwhile, Walker managed to get to her and tackle her. Farhar struggled against her attacker, but Walker was much stronger. He gave her a strong punch to her mouth that sent her into a daze, allowing him to pull out his zip ties and bind her hands (behind her back), knees and feet together and apply a ball gag to her mouth, with the ball looking like an apple. His last act before carrying her out would be to take off her nightgown, so that he could carry her out, naked, underscoring how much he wanted to humiliate her.

As he entered the hallway, he looked to his right before a look to his left stopped him in his tracks.

“FBII!” shouted Claudia, stopping Walker with her gun drawn. “Put down the girl and no one gets hurt.”
“Oh come on now,” said Walker, “Like you expect me to believe that.” He then drew out his gun and shoved it into Farhar’s gut.
It was Claudia’s turn to scoff. “Seriously? That’s your prize possession…like I’m supposed to believe that you’ll put her in peril. I know what you want to do…you want us to kill you, don’t you?”
“Why would I want to do that?”
Claudia then saw the Soldiers tattoo on his neck, the proper one, with a “777” on the bottom, which confirmed her suspicions. “Because I know how you Soldiers are like…if you get arrested, the Soldiers kill your family…death is your only option.”

“Drop it Galla,” said Nikoalevna, pointing her gun at Claudia. “George…we still have our deal, right?”
Walker was perplexed, but once he recognized Nikoalevna, he figured it was safe to proceed. “Yes, we still have a deal,” he said.
“Good,” replied Nikoalevna as Claudia lowered her gun. “We’ll take her from here.”

Walker then proceeded over to Nikoalevna, handing over the still dazed Farhar, whom Nikoalevna proceeded to sling over her shoulder and walk down the hall. Coming up from behind Walker was Collins, who slung a belt over Walker’s neck and strangled him to death.

“You know I’m not comfortable with this,” said Claudia, sighing as she watched what unfolded.
“I know,” said Collins, carrying Walker’s lifeless body. “Look at it this way…if we didn’t kill him, then the Soldiers will surely kill his family, innocent people who don’t deserve that fate. Besides, there are no security cameras here and it’s blood on our hands, not yours…you can maintain plausible deniability.”

Claudia sighed. “Yeah, I guess so,” she said, still lamenting what happened. Collins proceeded to give her a pat on the back before carrying Walker’s body out to his car, where he would dispose of it in one of his “safe” locations.

Nikoalevna, seeing Collins leaving, decided to call the paramedics to tend to Farhar, whom she gave back her nightgown and affixed her with a towel. As Farhar was tended to, Claudia was still very guilt stricken over what happened, causing Nikoalevna to come over and put her arm around Claudia’s shoulders.

“I could say something snide, telling you ‘this is what you get for getting criminals to help you out’,” said Nikoalevna, which elicited a laugh from Claudia, making her feel a little bit better. “I won’t though…I’ll leave the sarcasm to Danny.”
“Yeah,” said Claudia wistfully, “he’s good at that.”

Nikoalevna smiled before looking right into Claudia’s eyes.

“I like that you are honourable and that you always would want to do the right thing,” said Nikoalevna, smiling but sighing at the same time, sensing Claudia’s guilt. “You just need to understand something about this world- ‘keeping to the straight and narrow’, the only thing that will do is get you buried six feet under. Only once you understand that can you begin to start making the changes this world so desperately needs.”

“He said, This one's for Becky/As he watched the last one fall/N' I heard him say/I promised you, Dad/Not to do the things you've done...Papa, I should hope you understand/Sometimes you gotta fight/When you're a man”- Kenny Rogers, “Coward of the County” (1980)