“You may be more willing to trust your friends, but your enemies are more likely to tell you the truth.”- Shira Karzai, “Virtue’s Irony” (2010)
17:53 local time,
The Palace of Westminster,
“One man’s selfie has become a trending topic on Chirper today,” said Carl Worthers on his daily podcast, “English Eavesdropping”, one of English Foreign Affairs Minister Jack Kent’s favourites. “The Dutchman posted the picture to show off his brand new pink socks, but that’s not what catches my eye. You can see the picture on my blog, but for those of you who haven’t seen it,” prattled Worthers in his velvety bombast, “we have a rotund man not wearing any pants whose shirt can’t contain his gut, which overhangs so badly over his knickers that you can barely make them out in the photograph. Now, for those of you who haven’t yet lost their lunch, that’s not the worst part of this picture. You see, this man has never heard of the concept of a razor, so the hair all over his face is a scraggily mess while the hair on top of his head is so thick and so long you could probably house a small army in there. His skin- what you can see through his voluminous hair- is pockmarked with all kinds of pimples and sores…I mean, it’s quite clear he hasn’t seen the inside of a shower in months, if he’s ever been inside one. Oh, and those legs...seriously...never seen so many scratches in my life.
“I mean, I guess there’s one good thing...I’ve learned he’s a food blogger (no surprise there) and he makes a ton of money reviewing food, so he contributes to society, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Truth is, I just...look at this guy and I’m repulsed. Badly. I mean, it’s quite obvious that he doesn’t take care of himself at all...but, hey, don’t say a word about it on his page.
“Oh no...see, if you call him out for the dirty a**hole that he is, you’re going to get swamped by fifty people who are going to tell you that you are ‘dirty shaming’ him, or something along those lines. Yeah, I know...I don’t even know what ‘dirty shaming’ is...but whatever. See, his supporters, like a majority of social justice warriors, are so averse to criticism that they can’t respond to it in a rational manner...oh no, they have to resort to name calling and other nasty epithets, because SJWs believe that no credible criticism exists. Worse, SJWs are so enraptured by positivity that they feel they must obsessively shout down any negativity that comes their way, unless that negativity targets those with ‘privilege’...whatever that means.
“Here’s the concept no one seems to understand- if you post something on the Internet, you automatically open yourself up to criticism. That’s the reality of public life, and you have to accept that. So if I think you’re a disgusting slob who should see what a shower looks like, I’m going to say that. It’s not harassment, it’s not ‘shaming’, it’s valid criticism. Now, if you respond by shouting down, name-calling and using general nastiness instead of providing an argument...that is harassment...oh the irony of that.”
People, thought Kent to himself as the podcast ended. I’ll never understand them.
Just then, one of his aides, Frank Gowers, walked in to his office.
“Mr. Kent,” said Gowers, trying his best to stand tall in his suit but winding up standing stiff.
“Yes Frank,” said Kent, calmly but callously. “So nice of you to drop in without so much as knocking on the door...or even saying ‘hello’. Did your mother teach you any manners?”
“I’m...I’m sorry sir,” said Gowers, stuttering badly, a pit entering his stomach since his mother died at childbirth. “I...I, um...just have some important news to share.”
“Well I have things to do,” snarled Kent. “Surely this can wait.”
“Um...uh,” said Gowers, panting heavily. “No it can’t. The riding poll numbers are in.”
“...and?” Kent said, looking at Gowers as if he was some vagabond that had just walked in off the street.
“Uhh...you,” stammered Gowers, “you’re okay. You should easily win your riding in Cole Harbour.”
“Well that’s wonderful,” said Kent with contempt.
“...but, Toby Button,” said Gowers. “He’s behind...far behind. He might lose his seat in Burnley.”
“Oh, will he?” Kent said nonchalantly, which surprised Gowers.
“Yeah,” said Gowers, hyperventilating badly now, “You’re not worried?”
“Of course not,” said Kent curtly.
“...b-but...but,” said Gowers, “he’s the PM!”
Kent leaned forward on his desk and looked Gowers straight in the eye, which frightened him.
“Toby Button is frail...a wimp,” said Kent, whose voice got louder and his baritone more intense as he continued. “He’s a dithering dinosaur who wouldn’t know how to put on his own shoes unless it were pointed out to him. I, on the other hand, am the Lion, I’m the one with teeth, I get things done. When I talk, people listen, and when I do things, people are afraid. Very afraid.” He then lowered the tone of his voice but not its intensity before finishing. “So don’t be afraid of that old hack...as long as I’m around, we’ll be okay.”
February 1, 2016,
09:05 local time,
Rome, Roman Republic
Caesar Gnaeus Valerius Maderia, better known as Valerius IV, listened intently to the news as he loaded the podcasts on his smartphone. Developments in the upcoming English election had him intrigued, especially with the possibility that the Conservative stranglehold could be toppled by the Labour Party, led by a young and energetic man known as Koiji Kawasaki. Kawasaki hadn't yet let known his position on Rome, but Valerius enjoyed hearing his positive and affable demeanour, a stark contrast to the confrontational ways of Kent and Prime Minister Toby Button.
A few minutes later, after listening to the updates and reading a few opinions about the developments, his Foreign Affairs Minister, Jana Woolley, walked in to the building (which served as the Caesar's official “place of business” and his secondary home), as he expected.
“Jana,” said Valerius, happily greeting her and ushering her out of the foyer and into the living room's expansive array of couches. “Glad you could make it. I made some coffee if you'd like some.”
“That's all right, Caesar,” said Woolley, “but thanks anyway. I had mine already.”
Valerius acknowledged her request and took his coffee to join Woolley on the couches.
“I understand you have a concern,” he said, looking at Woolley with interest.
“Yeah,” said Woolley. “I know you're sick about hearing about North America, but I had a thought that I just couldn't shake.””
“Go for it,” said Valerius.
“I know you talked about the cultural phenomenon of 'pedantic idealism',” said Woolley, gaining confidence as she spoke, “and I think it's a valid observation...I mean, it is present to a degree in North America. However, I can't shake the idea that this current wave is a plant created by Virtue.”
“I did come to expect this,” said Valerius. “With the ubiquity of the Internet, more voices were going to get heard...and pedantic idealists, who previously had their voices subdued, now have a chance to let them out.”
“Yeah,” said Woolley, “I know that...but we've had broadband in North America since the '90s...why did it take twenty years for the idealists to come out now?””
“Stuff like this doesn't just happen overnight,” said Valerius, “and I believe a lot of people are looking for answers. I don't blame some for going overboard.””
“That may be true,” said Woolley, “but doesn't it seem a bit odd that an uptick in this stuff happens right as Virtue comes out of the woodwork at Louisville? Yeah...quite a bit of it the North Americans generate themselves, but some stuff, like Marla Kirk, sure sounds like the social engineering we know Virtue for. Plus, it's no secret that pedantic idealism is just as prevelant- if not more so- in Virtue's richer nations, like England, since it helps sidetrack the public from the actual issues.”
Valerius sat and pondered Woolley's statement for a few moments. He then decided to get up and stand in front of a map of North America, still deep in thought.
“Stuff like this is up Virtue's alley,” said Valerius, “but this is a precarious game we're playing. All we've got are rumours and conjecture...there's no firm proof.”
“Morta is pretty firm, I'd say,” said Woolley.
“...and Morta opened up a whole new can of worms for us,” said Valerius, turning his attention back to Woolley. “Since the one arrested was a Byzantine citizen, it allowed Virtue to claim she's a 'political prisoner', despite the proof we have that she's a social terrorist. I'm sure you know Virtue likes to play loose with the truth...I'm not sure there's enough proof out there to make Virtue change their minds.”
“You might be right about that,” said Woolley, “but that shouldn't stop us from pursuing the truth.”
“We still need to be delicate about it,” said Valerius. “Because Maria Castroiti is Byzantine the Byzantines are demanding her release for an 'unjust' arrest. Even though we've wound up doing the right thing, we've created quite the diplomatic issue.”
“Since when should we care about what Virtue thinks?” Woolley said. “We're Rome everyone should be afraid of us...in fact, one of the benefits of our Empire is that we're self sufficient, so we should be able to do whatever we like without consequence. Especially when it comes to justice.”
“You're right about that,” said Valerius, letting out a heavy sigh. “However, that stuff is easier to do in theory than in practice...we might be able to push everyone around but if we do it too much, we'll create more enemies than we can handle. I took up the mantle of Caesar to continue what Keylusus did, to remake the Roman Empire into 'the good guys'...and, with Virtue around spreading lies about us being 'the bad guys' that gives that task new currency. There are still some pretty influential and powerful nations that aren't aligned to either us or Virtue- Ethiopia, Casara and Oman, to name but a few- and our own alliances are as precarious as ever, especially with Aram. If we're not careful, we could create a bloc we can't handle- and that's why we need to be delicate with these things.
“Jana, I know what you're thinking...Castroiti is a drop in the bucket compared to the other things we need and can do to fix our image, including repairing North America. However, in politics- as you already know- little things have a way of mushrooming beyond what anyone could expect, and things like not having consulted Virtue over Castroiti has a much bigger effect than you think. North America's economic difficulties are so big few try to grasp it, but us essentially being vigilantes, disregarding others' rights and protocols and arresting Virtual citizens at will? That's pretty easy to grasp and the public will be all over it. I grant we'll probably mitigate it...but it's going to be rough sailing for a while, and it could have been avoided.”
Valerius let out another deep breath and smiled, albeit restrained.
“There is some hope,” he said. “England might be electing a new leader, someone who seems more rational and easier to deal with than the confrontational guys we had before. Plus, as Lucius tells me, this Morta thing may just be a one-off...I have to trust him on that, and you should too. I know we might believe we know better but our jobs aren't in Lucius' area, and he can't do his job if we keep looking over his shoulder. Furthermore, he's been at this gig for almost nine years...who am I to question his competence?”
February 5, 2016,
16:19 local time,
Sandra Rupke's Apartment,
Columbus, Ontarian Ohio
The moment always came without warning, but when it did, it always hit Sandra Rupke like a hammer had struck her knees.
She fell to the ground, collapsing to her knees with her head buried in her hands. In doing so, her glasses fell off of her face, flying forward before coming to a rest after striking her couch. At first, she just sobbed as tears began to stream along her face, but soon her torment would consume her and cause her to plunge in to a full on fit of crying. After a few more minutes, she would bend further down and begin pounding the floor, mouthing “why? Why? Why?” because she lacked the emotional energy to scream.
Eventually she regained her composure, causing her to look up and notice her glasses. It looked so simple, getting up and walking a few steps to retrieve them, but doing so would break a mental wall she constructed, for her glasses would force her to walk past her own kitchen, the same kitchen where only a few long days ago, Maria Castroiti chained Rupke against her will and violated her with a vibrator.
Sandra, come on…Maria’s not here anymore. She’s in jail, thought Rupke to herself as she tried valiantly to keep her wits to herself. Anyway, Cassie will be over in a few hours and besides your glasses are only a few feet in front on you.
“A few feet, eh?”
Maria’s maniacal cackling soon popped back into her head, taunting Rupke and reducing her willpower even more to take those few feet that separated her from her glasses. Soon, she could hear Maria’s cackling get louder and her taunts get bolder, heaping more and more mental anguish on someone who was already mentally exhausted. Rupke tried her best to ignore the thoughts, but Maria only got stronger. As Rupke got closer to her glasses, she again felt the shackles that had bound her wrists to her kitchen walls, and soon the hallucination got stronger, as she felt herself being whisked away, again trapped in her hallway, spread eagle and naked as Maria had her way with her.
“How do you like it?” Maria crowed as she tugged at Rupke’s nipples so hard, it felt like they were being ripped from her body. By this point, Rupke’s crying became a full on wail, as the pain Maria was causing her became unbearable. “How do you like it now, b**h? Huh? How do you like it?” Rupke let out another howl as Maria’s hands went into her buttocks, her hands stuck so deep that she managed to start grabbing at Rupke’s stomach. “I’m going to make you throw up your food again, you whore!” Rupke’s stomach began to churn with her food starting to rumble in her stomach, but she barely had a chance to deal with the buildup of the bile before her eyes recoiled in horror.
Not the vibrator…not the vibrator! No! No! NO!
“Yes, yes, yes!”
Maria excitedly thrust the vibrator into her vagina, not hesitating to put it on its maximum setting. As she felt the scorching spin of the torturous machine, Rupke screamed as her vaginal muscles began to constrict and contort, as their senses got sent into overdrive. Eventually the excruciating pulsation of the vibrator reached its crescendo, causing her muscles to tighten so hard that the pain shot all the way up to her head, causing a terrible, blinding migraine. She screamed and screamed again some more, begging for Maria to stop, but again the vibrator churned on, making Rupke feel like her head was going to explode as an intense ray of white blanketed her stricken eyes.
She howled and howled some more before a voice awoke her from her stupor, as suddenly her pain had stopped.
“What the heck is all this?” said Mike Briar, the superintendant for Rupke’s apartment complex, as he examined the floor. As Rupke lay practically lifeless strewn all over the floor, Briar looked in horror as Rupke’s stomach contents were all over the floor, her vomit flung across the apartment. The only thing Briar could think of was how many hours it would take to disinfect the walls and remove the filth that covered it.
“I can’t even believe you,” said Briar with fierce indignation. “This is your last straw.”
“Oh gosh,” said Rupke, under her breath, her voice a thin rasp having been weakened from her catatonic state. “I’m so sorry,” she quivered as she began to shiver on the cold floor.
“Oh, by Jove Sandra!” said Briar as he threw up his hands. “I’m tired of your nonsense. I’m tired of your excuses. Your apology rings hollow- do you know how long it’ll take for me to clean up this thing? For the love of Hades, you really need to control yourself and get your act together!”
“Seriously?” quivered Rupke weakly, so exhausted from her episode that she could barely muster the words to counter Briar’s indignant riposte. Briar was nonplussed.
“Look at you! Look at you!” he hollered, his voice getting more menacing as he continued to speak. “You’re a pathetic husk of a woman! Too weak to even get up! See what you do to yourself? You’re such a baby that you can’t do anything unless someone else is there to help you out! Well, guess what- life isn’t like that. Life expects you to take care of yourself. Life expects you to help yourself- not wait for others to pick up the slack! Can’t believe I wasted this beautiful apartment on you…all the services I give you, and this wretched…filth is the thanks I get?”
“Do you think I’m destroying myself on purpose?” said Rupke with a thin rasp, her voice still barely a whisper. “Do you really think that? Do you think I meant for anything in the past week to have happened?”
“Why quite frankly I think you did,” said Briar, folding his arms and looking at Rupke sternly. “You’re an activist- you’re always up to some trouble. This is a fine example of it.”
“Really?” said Rupke in disbelief, again starting to cry.
“Yes, really,” said Briar. “I was willing to let all of it go- but you just had to bring the cops over!”
“What?” said an exasperated Rupke, audibly under her breath. “You…you didn’t go there did you?”
“Of course I did!” said Briar without skipping a beat.
“Have you no sympathy for what I went through?” said Rupke, again through tears. “Do you really think I wanted Maria to come over and…v-v-violate me?” She collapsed her head to the floor and wailed uncontrollably, her tears streaming down her face and on to the floor in front of her.
“Oh by Jove, this again!” said Briar, rolling his eyes and giving his head a shake. “Again, acting like a baby…I’m done with you. You have 24 hours to leave this apartment or I’ll kick you out myself!”
Rupke looked up in horror, her mouth agape with disbelief at what she just heard, but couldn’t proffer a response as Briar stormed out of the apartment. As she continued to cry, her racing mind went into overdrive, as now she had to rack her brain trying to figure out how she could possibly move out on such short notice. Eventually, though, her emotional state left her with little energy, as, soon enough, her tears led to her falling well asleep on the floor.
Down the street, one of her friends, Candice Morris, received Rupke’s alarming text and stopped herself as she was walking over, which she did every day to help Rupke deal with her trauma. A name popped into her head and Morris didn’t hesitate to call her.
“Yes,” said Galla Claudia answering her phone. “This is Galla Claudia, who’s calling?”
“Hi,” said Morris assuredly. “I’m Candice Morris…I was told that if I or Sandra ever needed anything, I could call you.”
“Yeah, Sandra Rupke.”
“Oh…okay. Yes you can. Is she all right?”
“Oh…okay. Yes you can. Is she all right?”
“No…her landlord evicted her today. Says she’s only got 24 hours to get out.”
“That’s…not a lot of time.”
“Yeah…I was wondering if you could help with the move.”
“Of course…I know a few people…she can even stay with me if she’d like.”
“Oh…wow…thank you. I know this is quite a bit to take in all at once but that’s such a great help.”
“Anything I can do to help.”
February 5, 2016,
09:02 local time,
Aramean Imperial Palace,
“I’ve got good news for you,” said Pope Sixtus VI, sitting in the office of Aramean Chancellor Aris Pomas. “I’m satisfied, through my investigation, that the Bardstown Knights were a rogue group.”
“That’s good,” said Pomas, smiling as he breathed a sigh of relief.
“Yeah,” said Sixtus, “they appeared to get funding through an English account.”
“English?” Pomas said, intrigued. “That’s pretty interesting. I’m wondering why it wasn’t Arlynali.”
“I found that interesting too,” said Sixtus. “Although not at all surprising...England is our rival, they’re not 4going to hide their meddling in our affairs.”
“Yeah, but that’s an act of war,” said Pomas. “Sticking your nose in someone else’s business, let alone their elite group of soldiers, is provoking a response.”
“Which is what intrigued me,” said Sixtus, “because you didn’t offer a response.”
“I- I didn’t know the Knights were compromised before you brought it up,” said Pomas, surprised at the allegation.
“Did you?” Sixtus said quizzically. “I know that a one Jack Kent paid you a visit a few months ago...in fact, it was his name attached to that account. He wanted me to find out about the treachery...in fact, by visiting you, it looks like he wanted me to think you were up to something...since I have no record of what was said, I can’t confirm that you’re still not planning some kind of a coup against me.”
“Woah, now, wait,” interjected Pomas, his nerves beginning to show. “Don’t excommunicate me, Father...I can explain!”
“Really?” Sixtus said, leaning back in his chair with his arms folded and his eyes staring intently at Pomas.
“Kent came to me last August,” said Pomas, eventually regaining his composure after a deep breath. “It was a dark and stormy night...he surprised me. I remember turning on my lights and there he was, sitting in my study. I had my gun at the ready but Kent made me realize there’d be an even bigger diplomatic incident if I shot him. So I didn’t. What he did do, though, is ask me if I would consider turning Aram into a republic. I know this isn’t easy to do, since it would require the approval of our populace, but that didn’t seem to stop him. He kept going on about how it would be nice if I didn’t have to deal with you all the time, and I entertained it because...well, it would be nice.”
“I admire your honesty,” said Sixtus dismissively, “but that doesn’t answer my question.”
“Well, it’s all I got,” said Pomas, letting out a stressful sigh.
“I don’t believe you,” said Sixtus, curtly. “Do you want to know why?”
“Okay,” said Pomas, annoyed with the question but thinking it good to play along. “Why?”
“I found a correspondance between you and a one ‘Persephone’,” said Sixtus assuredly. “I’m sure you are aware of the symbolism of that.”
“Persephone is the daughter of Demeter,” said Pomas, “who was kidnapped, raped and later married by Hades after Demeter reluctantly agrees to the exchange.”
“That is all relevant,” said Sixtus, “but the important part is that Persephone is a part of Greek mythology...and it’s no secret that England and Byzantium are intertwined. In fact...Alexia was installed on the throne with the help of a one Jack Kent if I have my info correctly. So, Aris, considering that...why should I believe that Aram, ethnically similar to the Byzantines, isn’t also conspiring with England?”
“Because Persephone is different,” said Pomas defiantly. “She came to me for help...I heard her story...she too was raped and she killed her rapist in self-defense. She figured that since she embraced her dark side, she’d married Hades and there was no turning back. She also knew that she never knew her mother, and all that she knew because of it was rain and darkness...so she came to me for help. I told her we’d have to make it rain a bit longer before we can get to Demeter...because her actions would trigger a storm. I offered to navigate it...she accepted it...and you rose up because of it.”
“Me?” Sixtus said, surprised.
“Yeah,” said Pomas. “Adrian VII was a staunch opponent of President Joseph Reddick, whom we needed to recruit. So we arranged for Adrian’s demise...which led for you, one of Reddick’s best friends, to rise to the Papacy, since you were Adrian’s deputy. Isn’t that right, Jesse?”
Sixtus, swallowed heavily in response, stunned by Pomas’ use of his birth name, Jesse Newman.
“You...did...all...that?” Sixtus said, still stunned by the revelation.
“Yeah,” said Pomas, starting to regain his confidence. “I did. I had to.”
“So why leave me in the dark?” Sixtus asked, curious of Pomas’ intentions.
“You’d worked so hard,” said Pomas, “you were much more capable as a Pope than Adrian ever was...and I didn’t want you to think you didn’t earn your job...because I believe you did. Even if I had to pull some strings for you to do it.”
“Well,” said Sixtus, clenching his lips, “there’s no going back on it now...I benefitted from the plot so we’re wedded together whether we like it or not...and it looks like Kent found out too...or wants to figure out where we stand in North America. However...why the storm? What does that achieve?”
“Sol Invictus had shined over North America for too long,” said Pomas, “I had to show him that a few clouds would get in the way. Maybe then he’d notice the storm he helped create...and only once he notices can we find a way to Demeter.”
“Very well then,” said Sixtus, happy with Pomas’ response. “This leads to the next question- who’s Persephone?”
March 13, 2016,
08:14 local time,
The Church of the Hagia Sophia,
Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
“So glad you could meet with me today, Your Highness,” said Milton Roberts, who had just flown in from Toronto to meet with the Byzantine Empress, Alexia Comnenus.
“Mass starts in an hour’s time,” said Alexia, sitting behind the altar flanked by her guards as Roberts stood behind the steps leading up to it. “You had better make good use of your time.”
“Noted,” said Roberts in his deep baritone before unleashing a wide smile.
“I hear you’ve come to make peace,” said Alexia, her eyebrows furrowed and her nose raised while she stood tall and trained her gaze squarely at Roberts.
“I need to apologize for what’s happened in North America,” said Roberts. “I come representing Randy Joe, who, with the help of the Global Anarchists’ League, have taken control of The Virus. We did so with Virtue’s blessing, but, as you already know, some of our members have made things hard on things…so I have come to apologize.”
Alexia guffawed and shook her head. “If you think mere words will be enough to mend our differences, you are gravely mistaken, Mr. Roberts,” she said in reply.
“Your Highness,” said Roberts unfazed, “I completely understand. So I have come to offer you the mole who sent Maria out on her path of destruction.”
“Persephone?” said Alexia, quizzically.
“No,” said Roberts. “She just gives orders. I’m telling you about the one who makes them- her name is Cindy Monroe. She is the one who arranged for Maria Castroiti to become Morta.”
“Cindy?” said Alexia with an intrigued look on her face.
“Yes,” said Roberts. “She came to you when we had to deal with Reddick.”
“…and why isn’t she here?” said Alexia, folding her arms.
“That’s why I’m here,” said Roberts. “She’s deserted her post with GAL…and we cannot find her. So I have come to ask for your help.”
“I doubt she would have fled here,” said Alexia.
“She may have,” said Roberts, “however, I know the Soldiers have operatives all over the world…surely I could enlist them to help bring in our mutual traitor.”
“All right,” said Alexia, still guarded in her expressions. “You can have Virtue’s help…but remember this kindness.”
“Will do,” said Roberts with a smirk, “will do.”