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Asta L'Vasqqa: A Union Divided

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A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER I, PART 3

0932hrs
17th of October, 2018
Vilvau City, The Free State of Vasqqa

 

Everyone in Santiago's SUV heard the single booming report. 

As they rounded the corner of Elissando and Capitol, the crowds of demonstrators clogging the avenue in front of them went from chanting and marching in one moment--to a hurricane of confusion and violence in the next.

The sound had been two notes blurred into one. Santiago recognised it all too well. There was a snap like a snare drum in an empty concert hall, then a single crack like a thunder-clap. It was most definitely high-calibre, probably a .50.

The effect was almost instantaneous.

Screams and shouts, some in the back dispersed and ran, yet Santiago saw some in the fore charge. Bottles were thrown, exploding into inferno where they hit. Shots rang out as police fired rubber rounds. Trails of smoke arced through the air as riot-control gasses were deployed.

 

"Mér! Get us out of here!" shouted Santiago as a few rioters began to take notice of the SUV.

 

The driver didn’t need to be told twice as a brick landed squarely on the SUV's hood, placing a sizeable divot on the thin metal.

They were too late, the Raqqans had made the shot. Subiri was likely dead. Vasqqa was going to shit.

The SUV roared backwards in reverse, sending Santiago, Plover and four members of the SSO kill team rocking in their seats. Santiago heard a dull smack as a rioter was rundown by the driver's reverse drift.

 

"We need to regroup with Shrike!" shouted Plover over the screaming and shouting outside.

 

A stone slammed against Santiago's shotgun seat window. The glass spiderwebbed, but didn't shatter.

 

"That's a hard Neg, birdie-boy", retorted Santiago.

 

The driver slammed on the horn, making a few rioters jumped aside, though one was too late. Santiago felt him go under the wheels.

 

"--we have one shot at this, I'm not leaving until we feather that turncoat f*cker. Shrike can take the handler and our intel back to Intreimor, we stay here and we get this done!"

 

"You don’t mean--"

 

Santiago nodded.

 

"I'm positive those papers had his egress"

 

---

 

0934hrs
17th of October, 2018
Vilvau City, The Free State of Vasqqa

 

2 minutes since the mark.

 

Kingfisher raced down Via Elissondo's back alleys.

He tore down the alley, crashing into haphazardly stacked piles of trash. Close to the exit, he ripped his shooter's jacket off, leaving it crumpled on the pavement behind him.

He slowed as he emerged into the next street, ducking into and down a closed off subway staircase. There was a man in the Guardia Civil's uniform waiting in the stairwell.

They nodded to each other. The guardsman picked up two carbines from the duffel bag at his feet and handed one to Kingfisher. They both continued down the deserted staircase as Kingfisher checked the chamber and flicked the safety off.

 

5 minutes since the mark.

 

Even as they reached the deserted station they could hear the muffled wail of sirens from above. The civil guards were widening their patrol routes already. There's wasn't much time.

Kingfisher signalled to the man and they took off in a sprint down the empty tracks. Kingfisher's companion lit his torch and the beam bounced around the subway tube's walls as they raced down, their heavy footfalls sending rats scattering in the darkness.

The pair ducked into a service passage in the side of the tube and quickly dove through a hole smashed into the wall. They emerged into another tunnel, much older than the first. The guardsman grabbed a spade left lying against the wall and began clogging the hole with rubble.

 

15 minutes since the mark.

 

Suddenly, a light hit the pair of them.

Teresa.

She was followed by two other cell operators, Tuna and Herring. Though Teresa was supposed to have another two in tow.

 

"It was a good shot, I'll congratulate you later."

 

Something was wrong, everyone was tense naturally, but they were short two cellmates and the mood was almost manic.

 

"Is there an issue?", began Kingfisher.

 

Teresa didn't wait, she just signalled the group and they began pulling two motorised carts onto the tracks--old service wagons with a small two-stroke engine used by maintenance crews.

She started one of the engines, pulling the ripcord as the motor sputtered to life.

 

"The guardsmen responded faster than we thought. Sval and Olin didn't meet us, I think--"

 

Suddenly, a clatter of footsteps, followed by shouts came from somewhere down the line.

 

"Mér."

 

They boarded hurriedly and sent the pair of wagons down the tracks.

They were maybe 20 metres down the tunnels when several beams of light hit them from behind.

Kingfisher didn't hesitate, he dove to his belly and into a firing position. The carbine, chambered in .280 roared in the tight confines of the old tube. He sent rapid, tight bursts down the tunnel. The guardsman joined him, firing from a seated position, carbine between his legs. Teresa's PDW spitting 5.7mm rounds down range as she fired from a crouch on the other wagon.

Muttering curses, Tuna reached into his backpack and pulled out a thin black tube. It was an Argic War era grenade launcher. He was pulling 40mm rounds out of the bag when a sudden bump in the tracks sent the case of grenades scattering.

Rifles from the other side were quick to answer, their crashing echoes blurring into one thrum of noise as tracers streaked down the tunnel. Incoming rounds ricocheted and spanked off the gravel base and concrete walls. The fury of noise made everyone's ears ring as the drumroll of gunfire was amplified by the tunnel walls.

The guardsman was sent sprawling, catching a bullet to his shoulder. To his credit, the man didn't scream. Kingfisher shuffled over to his position, continuing to fire the carbine one-handed.

Finally, Tuna slammed the break-barrel launcher closed. Flipping the tall sights up, he lined up his trajectory.

The tube coughed once. A moment passed as the explosive was hurled down the tunnel.

There was a rush of displaced air that passed like a wave before a resounding explosion followed a millisecond later. Every one of the group briefly went deaf as the round ignited. The explosion in such a confined space was devastating and shook the tunnel supports, sending dust raining down.

The hostile fire seemed to stop abruptly, vague sounds of screaming echoing down the tube, barely heard over the ringing in their ears.

 

18 minutes since the mark.

 

Kingfisher exhaled as he treated the guardsman's wounded shoulder.

No more enemy fire bothered them as they reached the end of the line. Quickly dismounting, Kingfisher took stock of his surroundings.

The rail tunnel abruptly broke off, separated by a cyclone-mesh fence and some rail buffers from a wide cavernous expanse of massive pillars and sluice ducts. It was a dark gaping maw of concrete, he figured they could stuff jets and small apartment buildings down here.

Tuna and Herring grabbed a pair of bolt cutters they had left here from before and began wrecking the cyclone fence. Teresa unpacked the rest of their emergency kit and threw one of two ballistic vests the cell possessed at him. It was an exceptionally good piece, light-weight hard fibre laminate, but rated level 4 rifle-resistant. He put it on and slipped a molle rig over it.

The Vilvau storm drains. The city was so prone to flooding that the Vasqqan government poured billions into a massive sprawl of underground ducts, drains and sluices. The whole network ran around and between the city's metropolitan area, built to hold enough water to fill a large lake.

HsLrFqH.jpg

Tuna and Herring were finished. Throwing the cutters aside, they picked up their arms and flicked on the torches duct-taped under the barrels. As the small group advanced through the central aisle, Kingfisher felt a twinge of apprehension.

Something didn't feel right. He couldn't shake the feeling that the air felt... off somehow.

Teresa broke his train of thought as she came up behind him.

 

"Almost there, Joaquin. We'll be heroes when we return to Raqqa. This is exactly the sign the Raqqan people need. We won't put up with spayed Iverican puppets like Subiri. When the loyalists come for Raqqa, they'll find us ready. We'll take the Marches and the Riverlands, we'll forge a border and Raqqa will be free. We'll win this time."

 

He could not bring himself to respond to Teresa as a growing sense of unease built.

Wind.

There was a draft down here when there wasn't before. This was a closed section, bricked off. There should be no draft here.

It was too much of a coincidence, no work was being done in the vicinity, it could not be ignorant maintenance crews.

Someone had been here... Or still was.

 

---

 

Santiago lay prone in the darkness, watching carefully as 5 figures entered the white-hot display of his rifle's optic.

From his vantage atop one of the pillar ledges, he could observe the wide sluice aisle the group was coming down.

The kill team had been positioned around the cavern's pillar ledges, in three pairs triangulating the unsuspecting herd below.

Santiago trained his sight on the lead figure, he couldn't make out Kingfisher from the thermal image, but he knew, as he slowly thumbed the safety off, that he would put one between his traitorous spook-eyes even if it meant having to personally end each and every one of his scummy friends.

 

"Get f*cked, bird boy", Santiago whispered to himself, as he breathed in and lay his fingertip on the trigger,

 

 This one's for Hel-Rus, for three-SOAR.

---

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Previously: When SSO agent "Shrike" offers him a chance to settle an old score with "Kingfisher", now an alleged traitor, Captain Santiago becomes embroiled in a cloak-and-dagger game between the Duchy of Verde and his homeland, the Republic of Iverica. Santiago fails to prevent Kingfisher's assassination of the Vasqqan head of state, Subiri, but manages to confront and defeat Kingfisher in the storm drains of the Vasqqan capital. However, after a watery intervention gives Kingfisher a chance to speak, Santiago quickly learns that his mark, Kingfisher, is no traitor at all, but a double agent still loyal to Iverica. Forging an uneasy alliance with Kingfisher, Santiago must confront Shrike, the real traitor who had masterminded the debacle in hopes of recovering the sensitive documents Shrike has just now gained possession of--but first, there is a small matter of overcoming the suspicions of Vasqqan terrorist leader Teresa. Not to mention the gun she has trained on Santiago's head.

Note: Small error in the previous post (CIII P1), The header says the scene takes place in "Porto Verde". It does not, Porto Verde is in the Duchy of Verde, where the traitor Shrike plans to hand over his captured docs. The real location is Vilvau Storm Drains, where we resume our story...

 

A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER III, PART 2

1410hrs
17th of October, 2018
Vilvau Storm Drains

 

Everyone paused for a moment. Santiago could still feel the sweat and sluice water trickling down his face. 

Santiago considered the she-wolf. The terrorist still had her weapon leveled at both men. Santiago spared Kingfisher a glance. He looked mildly perturbed at best, nursing his likely smarting face, where his sharp Narvic nose was bent at an off angle. 

Despite his decade in SOAR, Santiago knew the situation was precarious enough to warrant a prudent anxiety. It seemed that the lady had gotten them on the back foot. If Kingfisher was playing cool, he better have a plan.

 

"In case you missed the cue", Teresa began.

 

"This is the part where you tell me everything", she said, slowly cycling the charging handle of the carbine halfway back and examining the round chambered within.

 

Kingfisher realigned his nose. A soft click was audible when the ligament reset itself.

 

"Everything? Volumes, really. Which part first?" Kingfisher answered. His voice was low, the tone a touch gentle.

 

Teresa frowned slightly.

 

"The part where this pútero got involved", she jerked the carbine in Santiago's direction, where the SOAR officer was frozen, coldly considering Teresa through his unhandsome squashed features.

 

"Involved?... Involved… No. Not quite. Stumbled, perhaps", Kingfisher replied, slowly, but more seriously now.

 

Teresa looked mildly annoyed. But Kingfisher continued.

 

"Truthfully? He's still supposed to kill us. Probably will. Especially me. Slowly.", Kingfisher said, as though Santiago had at most, owed him a swift kick in the rear rather than a slow death by bisection.

 

Santiago could feel the heat in his temple rising. That skinny dicked little bird-faced bastard!

 

"Then why--", Teresa began.

 

"Though--", Kingfisher interjected.

 

"--he won't. Not now. Not while we have a bigger threat to both Vasqqa and his Iverica. Perhaps you thought he was sent in to retrieve me? That I was somehow a triple agent?"

 

Santiago looked on. Teresa just glared mutely.

 

"It is very reasonable", Kingfisher admitted.

 

"Myself, a traitor SSO agent. In your ranks? Coming to Vasqqan terrorists for a way out--freedom from a life of false-facing and moral ambiguity? Odd, you might think. How many human beings really want that?"

 

Teresa was as still as a mannequin. The sluice water dripped from her soaked amber locks.

 

"I know you'll need to find out for yourself. Nothing I'm going to say is going to make you buy my word. That I truly want out of this life. But perhaps you'll listen to your own judgement instead"

 

Kingfisher paused. Santiago thought he saw Teresa twitch a fraction.

 

"Santiago was duped into getting me and stealing our cell's intel so the Verdense can cuckoo Iverica out of Vasqqa. Right now, there's a rogue SSO handler out there about to defect to the Verdense and turn this situation into a bigger mess than it already is. You saw it yourself, he was quick to turn his gun on them the moment he knew that fact. If the Verdense aren't stopped, it will be like the 80's all over again. Santiago and I both agree that isn't a winning outcome for 2 out of the 3 parties involved. The question now is--what say you, Teresa?" 

 

Teresa responded sharply.

 

"I say I shoot that Iverican rat over there. Or I shoot you both and forget about everything.", she replied, an edge in her voice.

 

"Then what? You saw it yourself. Iverica--", Kingfisher gestured to Santiago.

 

"--and those defectors shooting at us earlier are clearly not friends. Contact our cell, we should be close enough to the surface for a signal. There's been a raid, they've taken our drives. What do you think the defectors are going to do with those? Scan them for nudes?"

 

"It's up to you Teresa. The skin is in your field."

 

Teresa nodded slowly.

Kingfisher huffed blood from his nose.

Santiago tensed.

 

"I think I'll shoot you both."

 

---

Your sister's a mister.

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A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER III, PART 3

1420hrs
17th of October, 2018
Vilvau Storm Drains

 

It had taken more clumsy wrestling than Kingfisher had expected. But when the awkward tussle in the muck had ended, Teresa lay subdued, her back against the slimy sluice wall and her hands double zip-tied.

Santiago stood by Teresa, damp as a dishrag from the brief but fierce one-sided struggle. One carbine was in his hands and the other, freshly captured, slung on his shoulder.

Kingfisher was panting. He took a moment to catch his breath. He sniffled. It seemed as though his nose had once again deviated from its proper alignment.

There was a click and flare of pain as it was once again reset.

 

"Goot yu cot on quigly", said Kingfisher, once his breaths had settled.

 

Santiago stared at him.

 

"What?"

 

"I sehd, Gudh yu cogd on quigly!... Dahmmet…"

 

Kingfisher took a breath and huffed a horrific gobbet of rust brown stuff from his nostril. He kept going until his ears hurt.

 

"It was fortunate that you read my intentions quickly", Kingfisher said.

 

Santiago shrugged.

 

"Opportunity. She didn't take the carbine when I dropped it. Besides, I got the impression your mér wouldn't work this time".

 

"What gave it away?"

 

The question hadn't come from either of them, but from Teresa who had evidently roused herself from the shock of being bludgeoned by a rifle stock from behind.

 

"Was it the smell of horseshit or was it the amateur TV-drama routine?", she jeered.

 

Santiago frowned. He looked at Teresa like one might at an unflushed toilet.

 

"Can I shoot her now?"

 

Teresa glowered defiantly at the both of them.

 

"What? No, no--", said Kingfisher.

 

"We're taking her in for intel".

 

---

 

30 minutes Later

 

The group walked along the final stretch of storm sump tunnel. Sunlight was visible through grates now, sending dappled rays of pale gold down on the greyish puddles left behind in the wake of the deluge. Somewhere in the distance, a ship's horn sounded.

There was an eagerness among the small group to finally be free of the dank and oppressive confines of the Vilvau storm drains. Along the group, Santiago brought up the rear, Kingfisher on point--now armed with the captured carbine, and the captive Teresa was between the two, securely in the middle.

As the group came upon the tunnel opening, Santiago could see the mid-afternoon sun peeking through the gaps in a fast moving blanket of grey cloud. Kingfisher stopped just in front of the opening and unfastened his radio.

 

"This is a dumb f*cking idea", Santiago couldn't help commenting for the umpteenth time.

 

"You've mentioned", Kingfisher noted as he began fiddling with the channels.

 

"Should'a shot her back there, now we're stuck lugging a prisoner around. Risking her escaping and murdering us in our sleep."

 

"Two things, Capitan--", Kingfisher turned to face him as he enumerated.

 

"One, she's valuable intelligence to the SSO--the broken necked Plover was correct about that. And two, you may have thought me a bastard, but I do wish to avoid any more unnecessary deaths."

 

There was a gravid pause.

Wind blew from the drain tunnel's egress. Far up, but not too far, the shrill cry of gulls could be heard.

 

"Un-f*cking-believable", came Santiago's exasperated whisper.


 
Kingfisher didn't respond, yet the silence did nothing to mollify Santiago's quickly mounting anger.

 

"Of all times to grow a conscience. Of all times, you picked the most convenient moment, didn't you? You left me and my boys to die! In a sewer worse-smelling than the one we just f*cked off from! Do you remember that, you bleeding c*nt, or have you f*cked over so many of your own that it hardly made an impression worth remembering?!", Santiago had almost shouted the exhortation, barely containing himself.

 

Kingfisher regarded him. Santiago could tell he was tracing his eyes over the sick bullet-made divot on his face, the taut skin, the tell-tale graft. So he met the look and returned it, though with as much caustic vim as he could muster.

Santiago could tell there was something to be read in the other's face. Though what it was could not be so easily ascertained. Was it distaste? Pity? Or possibly some hint of remorse? The frustration at the other's illegibility only served to wear at Santiago's temper. There was a pressure in his head not unlike an over-stoked boiler--a pressure and heat that bade him continue his tirade. 

 

"What did you call it--unnecessary deaths?! You're a walking contradiction! No sense. None whatsoever. A real f*cking syntax error, you are. Maybe if you spared a thought for the 40 good, loyal men you had under your watch, maybe I'd understand a bit more! But this is a f*cking terrorist, you bird-brained bastard! A. f*cking. She-wolf. Terrorist! Capital T! If you consider her life more important the 40 you threw away on those blasted ditches--I'll--I'll--"

 

He trailed off, suddenly becoming aware that he had been stepping closer and closer towards the other man, who had stood mutely there, observing the tirade with that infuriatingly constant air of cold detachment.

The sudden silence persisted for only a brief instance before Kingfisher replied in a tone that could almost be called sombre. 

 

"Of course. It is still about Salonica. I should have addressed this with you earlier. The lives of your men… If my responsibility for their deaths is the problem, Capitan--then allow me to underline my regret--it was my command. I failed your men. They are dead because of me. I am sorry."

 

Santiago's temple throbbed. He heard the apology, yet for reasons unknown, the heat behind his eyes burned hotter still. 

Regret? A quick apology? No, it was too easy. Santiago couldn't let a bastard like Kingfisher off with a simple word of commiseration--sincere or not. It was perverse. Sick even. Entitled in the extreme. 

Santiago felt his hands drift towards his knife, as if they acted on their own volition--wishing against better judgement to satiate the growing need for vendetta--wanting so badly to skewer the man in front of him.

The slight movement betrayed Santiago's reply for him.

 

"Alright", said Kingfisher. There was an air resignation in that one word. Kingfisher seemed to understand finally that words of reconciliation would not mend anything in Santiago's eyes.

 

"I understand how it has to be", Kingfisher moved forward to meet Santiago. Every instinct in Santiago's well-honed arsenal was ready for the two movements that would bring the confrontation to a brutal end.

 

"Your terms. We'll settle this. But we get Shrike first."

 

A long pause came and went.

Santiago nodded, slowly, and moved away. He passed the bound Teresa without incident and took point.

 

---

 

*Relevant Mom Joke*

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A UNION DIVIDED | INTERLUDE III

1530hrs
17th of October, 2018
Porto Verde

 

The Duke had chosen to shelter at the first signs of the gathering storm. Within the warmer confines of his upper study, he took in the blustering view of the northern horizon from the room's commanding perch above the boulevard. Despite the portents of even more severe winds and rougher seas to follow, the Duke Borbon felt reassured that every advantage was on his side. A matter of time and patience would be little bother now that his plans were nearing fruition.

The Duke had furnished the Iverican traitor, Shrike with a capable vessel, ample intelligence, and the necessary resources for a safe departure from Vasqqa.  With such advantages, Shrike would have little to fear but some freak accident in the storm and so deliver the awaited items with little difficulty.

Turning to his desk, he woke it with a gesture. The flat electronic device centred on the mahogany piece chirped and brightened its display, revealing several choice reports. Iverica of course, had shown no signs of changing their play. It was likely that Deitorr and his staff had no clue that their Vasqqan operation had been compromised. 

Among the latest entries was news of Deitorr's government calling for a unified response, making it clear to Bourbon that Iverica had every intention of using their surreptitiously-orchestrated troubles to call the diaspora together.

It was clever no doubt, to have used the two-faced Vasqqan Consul Subiri as a sacrificial lamb to hasten the civil struggle. The pro-fed population had naturally felt under threat after their leader was shot in front of parliament. Thereafter, the mounting tensions had led to sprees of retaliatory pogroms escalating to the insurgent skirmishes blossoming all over the Raqqan marches at this very moment.

The fear of repeated history was no doubt scaring the bordering Narva and Galicia quite thoroughly. The situation and building terror had gotten to such a degree that Deitorr now felt safe to make his closing play--to capitalise on the diaspora's anxiety and call for a coalition intervention. Borbon's hope to filibuster the referendum would be overridden by the sheer fear of a repeated Vasqqan civil war. Any hopes the other diaspora states might have had of the situation stabilising itself would be quashed by the evidence of still mounting Vaqqan-Raqqan hostilities. Already, there were reports of mass mobilisation around the Raqqan Cordilleras and the river valley passes.

But.

But, for Deitorr's success thus far, he was about to fail one crucial objective. If--when Shrike arrived and bore his evidence into Verde's parlour, it would be the intelligence leak and political scandal of the century. The world would known that poor Subiri was martyred--any collusion he had with Borbon's own people would likely be a footnote if at all found out. The entire Ibero-sphere would be so disgusted that the Ivericans had indirectly spurred the pogroms that were at this moment, ravishing Vasqqan country, that any hope of an Iverican hegemony would be dashed for another century yet.  Deitorr's government would be ruined and decried for the selfish wolves they were.

Not the best outcome, as Borbon thought, but the one necessitated by Deitorr's stubborn wish to play a one-sided game. Borbon had given Deitorr a choice during that fateful meeting in the Ultramares. Deitorr had feigned acceptance when he actually meant treachery. Whereas Borbon desired an unbloody compromise, Deitorr had pushed for a gory dominance. That was his choice, and the repercussions would be on his head alone.

The Duke once again turned to the window. Outside sleets of grey and intermittent jolts of lightning marked the horizon. The rains, falling heavy already and the winds, whipping as they were, seemed to only grow in din and fury with every passing moment.

 

---
 

1545hrs
17th of October, 2018
Somewhere in the Verde Sea

 

The storm's noon reprieve had not lasted long. For the scant few hours of semi-clouded skies and intermittent rays of pale sunlight had once again given way to the combat between winds from tepid Thalassa and frigid Argis. After that brief calm between the hours of high-noon and mid-afternoon, the grey ceiling of cumuli nimbus had returned and sheets of torrential rain had begun anew, quickly gaining in volume and force.

The Verde Sea, the plane of normally calm shimmering emerald was now quickly transforming into the battle ground upon which two eternal and potent forces of nature were to meet once again in repetition of the perduring clash of seasons.

Most captains, at the sight of such turbulent skies, had prudently chose withdrawal to safe harbours. Ships small and large alike seeking the chance passage had wisely aborted, leaving but scant few reckless, or so-resolute vessels to tread the whipping waters. Among that few was the ivory form of a leisure yacht, its glossy hull of quality synthetics tossing and swaying in one rather lonely stretch of the sea. 

Spanning 110 metres from prow to stern and 16 metres at its beam, the vessel was sturdy and of a displacement to weather most squalls. Despite this, the powerful engines and ballast-assisted gyros laboured. Its turbines were not spared--and while most canny sailors would have dropped speed and ridden out the worst hews of the current, the yacht in question attempted its best speed to make some grievously important destination.

Aboard her at the high pulpit of the observation deck, stood the lone form of a squat, but sturdily built man. He wore a thick peacoat over what appeared to be a well tailored charcoal suit. The leather dress shoes often accompanying the bespoke garment were abandoned in favour of rubber storm boots. He braced himself at the rail with one hand, but kept the other on a pair of range-finding binoculars.

The suited fellow so precariously perched was known by the callsign of Shrike. And at this time, Shrike was wary. Wary for just a moment before, one of the bridge mates had remarked on the sighting of a small fast-craft which bore its course similarly to the white yacht. With a mounting suspicion, Shrike had clambered up to the observation deck. While he had dismissed his fears as improbable, a slight tinge of paranoia had called him to make certain.

Certainty was needed, for his goal was within reach. His special cargo was securely lashed and stored below under guard. His destination was scant hours away. If his suspicions were confirmed, the stakes now, would be at their highest.

---
 

Beginning of the end. In this interlude, I did have to exposite quite a bit. Given the amount of time that's passed since the first entry was published, it seems reasonable that some form of overall recap of the "strategic" side of this story would be needed. Re-reading the whole thing makes Borbon's POV in this episode rather redundant as its been narrated before--this is one problem of episodic writing. In effect, the whole story is less cohesive and readers tend to only retain the most recent ideas because of said format. Oh well.

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A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER IV, PART 1

1615hrs
17th of October, 2018
Somewhere in the Verde Sea

 

A lone Vasqqan Guardia Maritima patrol boat thrashed against the storm, all the while being buffeted by squalls and swells that would have already capsized larger ships. But the boat was sturdy and held fast in the fits of the raging Verde Sea despite being a generation out of date and in dire need of a general refit. 

If there had been any adjacent craft, a lookout might have noticed the peculiar arrangement the boat's crew were negotiating. While one struggled in the pilot compartment, another slipped and skidded on the narrow deck, secured to the tossing craft by a single lifeline fastened to belt and rail with carabiners. 

 

---

 

"Do you even know what you're doing?!", shouted Kingfisher into his headset as he manipulated the ship's helm-by-wire wheel madly.  

 

"Do you?!", retorted Santiago from the outside, though his reply was becoming increasingly hard to discern as the wind and sea spray intensified. 

 

Truthfully, neither he, Kingfisher, nor Santiago were trained in the operation of this particular class of patrol boat. Furthermore, the pair were a few men short of the minimum safe crewing of the boat. The helpful SSO fixer at the Guardia Maritima boat pool had informed them so. But, as needs must, Kingfisher had reassured their Vasqqan fixer contact that his skill with civil fast craft and Santiago's own experience with SO/AR RHIBs would be sufficient to see them through. That reassurance had of course, been given so confidently before the pair had seen the dark grey maw of the monsoon. 

They had gained on Shrike's yacht, relying on shipboard radar and recent sightings from fishing boats as they sped past the patrol boat in the opposite direction—towards safe harbour. But as Santiago and Kingfisher motored further and further out into the storm-swept expanse of the Verde, the certainty of their pursuit became ever greater. The further out they had ventured, the fewer radar contacts they encountered, until at last, only a solitary blip remained on the boat's small jittery radar display. Unmistakable by the ship's bearing and radar cross-section, the sole blip could only be Shrike. 

Kingfisher had all the while been piloting the boat to close with their quarry as best he could, yet the constant swells and towering waves made it impossible to maintain bearing and good visual contact. Worse still, Santiago had found that the remote fire-controls systems of the foredeck 20 millimetre gun inoperable—leading him to his current struggle of crawling the few feet to the weapon's gunner seat outside. 

Kingfisher's maritime expertise were effectively exhausted at this point. He had never had to negotiate a storm of this ferocity before, let alone with an unfamiliar craft. At every turn, he found the small boat's bearings upset by shoving of the swells and the unpredictability of currents left in the wake of yawning waves. 

A bolt of lightning flashed, the surrounding mass of cloud diffusing it evenly around the boat. Not that it afforded Kingfisher any better of a view. All he could see from within his pilot compartment was the roiling sea, with low dark clouds and heaving waves where the horizon would have been. 

"Brace!", yelled Kingfisher as the boat's bow dipped dramatically into a dearth left by the sea's undulations. The fast craft abruptly hit the water with a crash that the SSO operator felt in all 33 vertebrae. The panels of armoured glass were briefly engulfed by the blue-black of infinite stormy water, before the ship's natural buoyancy reasserted itself and lifted the whole craft in an eruption of rising water. 

Santiago's reply came as an unintelligible burst of static as the water vomited his deck-clinging form out of the chilly blackness. 

 

---

 

Santiago did what he did best in a stuck situation—he cursed profusely. Spitting salt water out of his gritted teeth, he ignored the stinging in his eyes and the soakedness of his undergarments. 

He had slipped this way and that on the smooth steel deck of the patrol boat, bruising his ribs and testicles in a multitude of angles and spaces he cared not to remember. He heard Kingfisher say something, but couldn't make out what it was over another crash of thunder, startling close this time. 

As another jilt of the boat sent various parts of his body into intimate contact with various edges, protrusions, and railings of the foredeck, Santiago found himself with only a span of a second to hold his breath. For in that very instant, warned only by the dropping sensation in his gut, the ship had dropped from a swell and plunged pointedly into the black. 

Santiago vaguely recalled Kingfisher garbling something into the ship's closed circuit radio before the crash of water nearly ripped the headset—which he had taken care to securely duct tape around his temple—clear from his head. The force of the dive had made to yank him from his cling-hold and had nearly taken his boots and trousers off as well, such was the pull. The sensation lasted only an instant, before it was replaced by the opposite, a watery mass slamming him face-first on something hard and flat as the waters protested the ascent of the surfacing boat. 

It was only when the ship had stabilised somewhat and when Santiago had recovered from the shock that he managed to put his headset in order and release a sputtering query of, "What?", at Kingfisher. He pushed himself up to his knees, and found that he was resting on the upper panelling of the hump that made up the boat's superstructure. 

 

"For the Saviour's sake man, I can't understand a single damn thing you're--", Kingfisher was returning testily on the set, but just then, something had caught Santiago's attention. 

 

"Hold that thought, birdman", Santiago interrupted as he took in the view from his newfound vantage point.

 

To their south—that was afore them—was a literal ray of sunshine. It illuminated a good span of the sea for some distance, revealing a slight clearing of smoother, less turbulent waters. The eye of the storm and just within its bounds, the samite form of a solitary yacht. 

The brief view was interrupted as the boat dipped, sliding down a hill of water before cresting another. Santiago shifted his gaze, and beheld a sight that was equal parts terror and opportunity. 

Not far to their north—that was astern them—was a hulking mass of dark water capped with a crown of furious white foam. This one would have been no different from the other thousand or so waves they had passed, except that it was easily twice as high but not at all steep. 

The mass of dark water was a nascent rogue wave, still gathering force as a bulbous hump of a swell. 

As the boat hit a smoother patch of water between waves, Santiago found himself able to shamble into the seat of the deck gun. Quickly securing himself with the four-point harness, he glanced again at the wave, now quickly coming up on their heels. 

He had a plan. 

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A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER IV, PART 2

1615hrs
17th of October, 2018
Aboard the Patrol Boat

 

"Are you sure about this?", queried Kingfisher into the headset. 

 

Situated in the cramped confines of the patrol boat's piloting compartment, he had to trust completely Santiago's judgement of the sea outside. From within, looking through the stout screens of droplet-speckled armoured glass, he could see little apart from the furious lapping of the tumultuous waters outside and the bleakness of the storm-ridden skies. 

 

"No, not really--", returned Santiago, now securing himself to the deck armament's gunner seat. 

 

"--but unless you have armada-air on station for a gun run and sealift, I don't see how else we're going to manage this fool's errand", Santiago finished with a tone that brokered no argument. 

 

Kingfisher sighed and coaxed the boat against the rough waters into a bearing dictated by Santiago. 

The rogue wave, which Santiago had theorised would take them into closer quarters with their quarry would no doubt be closing in rapidly now. If they positioned themselves just right, they might just be able to mount the white water wash after its collapse. While Kingfisher held grudging admiration to the man's cavalier dedication and focus, he could not help but also feel the slight tingle of apprehension as it skittered down his spine. The wave was a force of nature, terrible, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. The apprehension towards the plan brought back the unpleasant memory of their wash down the storm drains. They were at the mercy of nature once again and a stroke of fortune like his reunion with Santiago was not something that could be counted on to repeat. 

Kingfisher spared a glance at the compartment's only other occupant. There, to the rear of the compartment, double zip tied to a sturdy handhold, was the supine form of Teresa. The woman had been eerily silent since her capture, offering little complaint as they hauled her along. Every so often, she could be enticed to offer a glare in response to their commands, but even that was quickly eclipsed by her unsettling ease of complaiance. 

 

"You might want to brace yourself", cautioned Kingfisher sheepishly. 

 

The woman payed no heed. Her eyes were closed and the expression on her face was almost serene though Kingfisher was sure she was awake. 

 

Kingfisher turned back to his instruments. Somehow, he could almost feel the monster wave as it swelled from behind. 

 

---

 

1617hrs
17th of October, 2018
Aboard the Yacht

 

"What the jalapeño are they playing at?", the man called Shrike questioned aloud. 

 

He was once again situated on the yacht's observation deck, a high platform atop the bridge surrounded on all sides by the rails. Here, at the eye of the storm, the winds and waters gave brief reprieve—enough to allow the stocky man a safe perch. 

Once they had cleared the barrier of storm known as the eye wall and found themselves in the marginally more manageable plane that was the eye itself, Shrike had calmbered again on to the observation platform of his yacht. From atop the sea-washed platform, he observed the patrol boat as it nestled itself just obliquely before a rising rogue wave. 

The crew, already aware of the oncoming threat, had altered their bearing to evade it. Though the new heading took the yacht back into the tumult of the eyewall, it would mean being safer from both the doggedly pursuing fast craft and the rogue wave. The yacht may not be as swift as its pursuer's craft, but it certainly had the hull to fare better in the squalls. With ample warning, the yacht would make it to where the smaller craft would have great difficulty pursuing well in advance... 

 

...Unless. 

 

"No--", whispered Shrike. 

 

"They can't possibly--". 

 

"More speed, damnit!", he shouted into his radio. 

 

---

 

1618hrs
17th of October, 2018
Aboard the Patrol Boat
 

 

Santiago peered through the viewing block, a look of grim satisfaction spreading across his sea-splattered and scarred features as his eyes found the target.

 

The sea spat at him from all directions. The storm winds, frigid and lash-like, cut at him from every direction. Yet he was steady and steeled, secured to the seat of an Arx Arms 25 millimetre chain-driven automatic deck cannon. The gunner seat, mounted at the gun's right, was protected only by a thin steel shield, yet the gun's size and length—easily as long as he was tall—was reassuring enough.  

He operated a small panel to his lower right, flipping a toggle and punching a stiff button. In response, machinery whirred and clanged. The 25 millimetre's autoloader came to life, making all manner of crisp metallic noises from below—the clatter audible even above the din of the storm. From the cylindrical magazine silo beneath him, a parade of dagger-sized rounds emerged into the tape-like feed chute which ran from the deck floor to the gun's receiver. The clattering procession of rounds was then greeted with a cackle as the motorised carousel scooped them on to its teeth at the mouth of the feedway. 

Santiago heard a final slam as chaingun locked a round in place--just he felt the boat pitch backwards with a jerk. It was almost upon them now, the pull of the mighty wave announcing its grasp on the small patrol boat as the titan prepared to lash itself upon the face of the sea.

Under different circumstances, he would have felt very small—like a fry fish caught in the wake of a whale. But now, as he put his hand on the fire control stick and travered the turret, he felt reassured that God and Arx Arms had come together this day and put him at the trigger of a very big, very dangerous gun—storm be damned. 

 

---

 

OOC: Some part of me really hates this part of the chapter. After a few days of trying to re-write it so it would be less puke-worthy, I've just decided to post it with these two dead memes anyway.

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A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER IV, PART 3

1619hrs
17th of October, 2018
Aboard the Patrol Boat

 

With all the prayer and skill Kingfisher could summon up, he piloted his craft to approach the rogue wave just as it was beginning its penultimate act. 

Kingfisher had kicked the patrol boat's throttle into its furthest setting. Still obliquely ahead of the rising wave, he coaxed the boat into a steady bank towards the predicted path. Both the wave and the boat were now on the same heading, the boat leading the hellish mass of water by two or three score metres. Quickly, the boat's bank brought it at an angle square centre and ahead of the wave. 

As the wave loomed into place behind them, it cast its tall shadow far ahead of their small craft. What little light that had made it through the worst of the storm was now snuffed out so that it was as though they had been enveloped by a vast tunnel. In that moment, Kingfisher could feel his blood spike in apprehension—like it wished to jump straight out of his skin and slither as far from the wave as it could possible go. Thoughts screamed, unbidden but irrepresible. 

Might he have timed it wrongly?  

Would the beast swallow them?  

Why couldn’t the damn boat go any faster?!

Without warning, the thousands of tons of water accumulating into the mountain that was the wave dropped suddenly. The entire mass fell as the force that drove them bled into nothing. Like some leviathan sea-snake, the water had risen into its pinnacle and before diving into the waters once again. The crash that followed was so thunderously evil that the compartment was thrown into immediate chaos—a panel of armoured glass facing the aft was blown inwards, allowing the sea to spill inside. Tools, first aid boxes, part containers, and other odds and ends were thrown about from where they had been securely fastened. Something tore from above him, it sounded as though a moutning on the compartment's roof had been ripped and cast into the sea. All the displays on the console went black. Some returned but showed only blue screens and bios text. Others, like the radar display ceased to project at all.  It was as though a great explosive detonated in the water behind and beneath them, the mere shockwaves spreading disarray and destruction. 

Yet, despite the fearsome chaos, the boat was pitching forwards. The wash of white water propelled the small craft as though a great and invisible hand of some sea god had flung them like a dart. The wave's many smaller, yet still furious children bore the boat on their wings—sending it rocketing towards their quarry at an alarming rate. 

The panels were all awash with blurring sea water. But through the sickening motion of the convulsing boat, he could make out the gun on the fore deck as it moved. It was traversing to point its pike of a barrel some 25 degrees starboard. Without warning, a boom that rattled the remaining glass panels rattled the boat. Santiago had opened fire. 

The burning white muzzle flash left after-images in Kingfisher's eyes. The panels threw droplets of water off and shivered as the first beat of the weapon shook the compartment. Kingfisher felt the air shake as a round and two more were fired in quick succession. It must have worked. They must be in range. 

 

"Hey! You still alive in there? Correct our heading, bear 30 degrees starboard!", Santiago's voice came crackling from the headset. It appeared the closed-circuit had survived. 

 

"Hurry up! Or did you ride that f*cking wave just for fun? 30 degrees starboard! Now! 30 degrees starboard!". 

 

"C-copy. 30 degrees starboard", Kingfisher sputtered.  

 

He manipulated the rudder and cycled the engine's quick starter toggle, it seemed to have stalled during the wave's crescendo. He felt the engine shudder and cough through the deck plating. He tried the yoke, and the boat turned—but the response wasn't good and the sluggish rudder almost sent them into a hard turn starboard. It took some correction before they were on the right heading. 

Toggling fuel and engine battery off and on, he punched the quick starter button. Nothing, the old diesel refused to wake

 

"No joy! I've got to try the manual starter!", shouted Kingfisher into the headset. 

 

--- 

 

Santiago muttered the hundredth oath of day as he tried to compensate for the pitching and tilting craft. The chaingun was fighting him, its elevation and traverse servos still worked, but its automatic laying had been shot since the wave ripped the radar module off of the roof—the spinning bar almost taking his head off as it had whirled mere inches from his head. 

The yacht was just there, sitting on the horizon, no more than 2 clicks ahead. The swaying form of the fat shitbird of a vessel almost appeared teasing. In this brief calm lent by the storm, at this range, there was no way the yacht could outrun them. 

Frustrated, he squeezed the trigger on the joy stick twice and sent two more rounds streaking above the sea's roiling surface. The burning bolts of autocannon tracer leapt into the grey miasma of the storm, arcing and fading from sight somewhere above and beyond the bulky whitish silhouette of the yacht about 1800 metres away. Evidently, the sea was too rough for a decent shot. 

He was about to hassle Kingfisher over the headset when he both heard and felt the rumble of the engine's successful restart. The boat leapt forward again but it over-bore, swaying this way and that, drifting slightly as it tried to correct its course. 

The headset crackled.

 

"Rudder's damaged, I'll take us on parallel approach, but I don't trust these sticks for multiple runs. We'll only have one shot at strafing them and it's going to be rough until we get very close", Kingfisher warned. 

 

"Aye. One run, copy. I'll make it count", Santiago replied. 

 

He had some 500 rounds in the silo magazine below. He'd have to dump as much of those as he could in a few minutes, carefully hitting the upper decks and super structures without killing the yacht for good—the intel, where ever it was stored, would still need to be recovered. 

There was a change of pitch as the boat's single diesel engine went from a growl to a humming whine. At the engine's prompting, the stern tilted back into the water and the prow rose slightly. Santiago felt himself being pressed back into the seat as the speed climbed and the blocky shape of the yacht on the horizon grew ever nearer. Also becoming more visible in the distance was a very low sandbar, likely the high-point of a small atoll. It seemed that the yacht was attempting to manoeuvre around it, though escape for them was unlikely—the patrol boat was now screaming at its full power, easily skipping 15 metres every second and gaining more speed by the moment. 

Santiago tapped send on his headset. 

 

"Be advised, I see an atoll, same range as the yacht but some 100 metres off its port-side bow. Make sure you account for it when we peel off. Now speed up, man! More speed at a straight heading. I need this tub to stay still!" 

 

"Let me focus. Your whinging won't fix the rudder", came the sarcastic crackle in response. 

 

At the 40 knot mark, the craft gained a little stability from the swells as it powered through the water. Santiago had already lined up the gunsight, its elevation indicator zeroed on the horizon at the shortest mark of range. He waited, their damaged boat clumsy in its attempt to match the yacht's heading. 

They were coming up frightfully close, just astern of the target now, yet Santiago had to hold patiently until their heading was as stable as it would get. In the sight picture, the target swayed this way and that, until in one golden moment, the yacht was right in his sights at 500 metres, 10 degrees starboard, and +8 degrees above the bow. Santiago didn't think, his finger just squeezed the stick's trigger. The chain gun roared—a series of ear-splitting barks making up his initial 3-round burst. Spent brass the size of altar candles clanged like a din of bells as they were ejected onto the deck. The rounds flew, a single tracer in the trio missing the yacht by a mere span of metres. Santiago corrected, waited for the sights to line up and squeezed again. 

Blooms of smoke erupted from the port aft section of the superstructure. He squeezed again and again, raking as much of the exposed decks as he could. The barrel was now sizzling as sea spray turned to mist on its barrel, the air shimmering around its length. As the yacht closed, edging to move alongside their quarry, the yacht's bulky silhouette grew so that he could make out small figures milling about the deck. Santiago knew he would have one last go at the yacht before they'd have to peel off to avoid the atoll. He thumbed a toggle on the gun's joystick, switching to full-auto. 

Now inside 100 metres, they were parallel the ponderous white craft. With the target so prominent in his sights, Santiago merely traversed and held the trigger down, sweeping the gun across the upper deck in a hail of fire. Presumably trying to mount a defence with whatever handheld weapons they might have had, the topside crew vanished in a cloud of smoke and debris. The gun hammered out shot after shot of lethal lightning bolt, the percussive thunder reverberating in synchronous beat with the brass accompaniment of singing spent casing. Up close, the blooms of smoke were now detailed with flying debris and ember sparks as the lethal enfilade tore through aluminium, carbon fibre, and wood panel. Within moments, small fires had started as the 25mm rounds left searing holes to mingle with more flammable carpet and drappery. 

When there were no more indications of movement or resistance on the mangled wreck that was once the yacht's visible decks, Santiago eased off the trigger and made to signal for Kingfisher to wave off for now—the atoll had grown to encompass the field of sea afore them. But just as he tapped his headset, he felt the boat lurch to the starboard. They were now edging dangerously close to the yacht's flank. If this continued, they would hit the yacht at their full flank speed—and if they didn’t, they would surely collide with the atoll's sandbar. 

 

"Rudder's stuck!", crackled an alarmed Kingfisher on the headset. 

 

"Mér! Get out, we need to bail now!", shouted Santiago in response. He was already unstrapping himself from the gunner's seat. Glancing to gauge their time to imminent impact, Santiago saw that the formidable port-side of the yacht's hull was so close that it was now a looming wall of white carbon fibre, almost filling his entire field of view. 

 

Dashing a short distance to the superstructure that was the pilot's compartment, Santiago plunged the hatch's access lever and yanked the metal portal wide. 

 

"Bird, what the f*ck? Now!", Santiago roared. The spray of salt water the bow had thrown up was occluding his vision slightly through smarting eyes, so it took him a moment to see that he was struggling to help a half-conscious Teresa free from her binding to a safety rail. 

 

"Leave her! We have to--", his words were cut short as the two speeding hulls met with violence. 

 

--- 

 

With a terrible shriek of scrapping metal and twisting carbon fibre, the patrol boat rammed into the side of the larger yacht. The yacht pivoted clockwise as the patrol boat struck it close to its forward deck—its great bow turning its pointed arrow-like prow acutely by some 30 odd degrees. The accidental ram had shifted its alignment in the way that from above, must have resembled the spiking arrow of a pressure guage.  

The patrol boat, on the other hand recoiled from the force of the impact, but the momentum had simply glanced its bearing to a position parallel and alongside the swinging and swaying yacht. Salty waves crashed over the grappling pair as they convulsed in the aftershocks of their meeting, washing over the decks as the momentum carried the locked vessels hard into a sandbar of the nearby atoll.  

At first thrown to the deck as he tried untying the half-conscious Teresa, Kingfisher had quickly managed to grab onto the same metal rail to which his prisoner was secured. He clung there as the second jarring impact nearly took the old boat apart and sent several hard and point-edged items into his crown and shins. 

Briefly airborne as the sloped bow ski-jumped on the acute angle of the sandy shore, the boat arced inelegantly a few metres before its keel crumpled on impact with the beach proper, the full weight of boat falling and sending already stressed rivets into disjunction. The gun's feedway was torn from the hull silo magazine, 25mm rounds spilled like brass treasures in all directions. What remained of the armoured glass was either knocked free from the compartment mountings or cracked into uselessness. Equipment was further strewn about in the pilot's compartment, displays and emergency material joined the tools and ship's essentials previously knocked about when the wave thrust them forward. The pungent odour of diesel overpowered the freshness of the sea breeze indicating that somewhere in the lower aft compartment, the engine and its fuel lines were far from serviceable. 

Kingfisher stirred from his stupor, his breaths quick and hitching. He was on the deck, at the foot of the rail he had clung to earlier. The boat was tilted at a slight slope so that the water had pooled to the fore of the compartment. Looking around blearily, he noted that he had been unsuccessful in completely freeing Teresa—who was now passed out, a small trickle of blood dripping from a minor laceration at the base of her scarlet hair. He also spied Santiago, who was groggily slipping in the puddles of seawater that had invaded the compartment long before. The scarred SOAR officer had managed to grab a handhold by the hatch, but had not managed to dodged a heavy box of tools, thrown by the collision into his gut—which had been protected only by a foam life vest. 

The yacht. Shrike. The intel—the present thoughts echoed about in his mind again as Kingfisher struggled to rise from the slippery deck.

 

"Capitan--", began Kingfisher, half murmuring the words between his still slowing breaths. 

 

Santiago spat. 

 

"Yeah, I'm—I'm going. Kit up", Santiago wheezed. 

 

Still in some state of fugue, Kingfisher groped around and somehow found his carbine, knocked free from the bin he had stowed it in. His plate carrier, the same that had stopped Santiago's lethally-aimed burst in the sewers, miraculously hung on the hook he had left it on. 

Santiago had pulled his own vest on and was checking his carbine—robotically going through the motions. Checking his magazine load, chamber, and then magazine rig. He then made for the hatch. 

 

"S'the two of us. Be sharp, watch our six and all the right-hand corners and doors, I have point and left. Don’t—Do not—f*ck me over this time", said the Capitan, as he positioned himself before the hatch portal. 

 

Having checked his own equipment, Kingfisher nodded and moved to take his place behind Santiago. 

Santiago stared at Kingfisher searchingly for a few moments, his expression unreadable, before the bulkier man slowly leaned and cleared the hatch corners.

 

---

In case its been so long that you forgot what was happening: Santiago (who was initially hired to find and kill the supposed traitor Kingfisher), finds out that he had been tricked--Kingfisher is not a traitor. The real traitor, Shrike (whom is on the yacht in this story), used Santiago to neutralise Kingfisher. Shrike wishes to defect to Iverica's rival, the Duchy of Verde, offering Kingfisher's captured intel and handler as his entry bribe to the Verdense (doing this would reveal Iverica's shadey dealings and destroy their reputation, allowing Verde to assume power). So Kingfisher and Santiiago make sense of this and resolve to track down Shrike and recapture the sensitive intel before Shrike can deliver it to Verde. The pair get a gunboat from a coast guard contact and pursue Shrike's yacht into a storm--where both become beached on an atoll for the final confrontation. 

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A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER IV, PART 4

1649hrs
17th of October, 2018
Shipwrecked on the Atoll

 

Two distinct mounds of sand had piled against the beached yacht. The two tall powdery white hills lay against either side of the yacht's wedge-like prow, leaning against the dead vessel as though they were still bracing against its intrusion. Santiago and Kingfisher advanced slowly at the base of the twin mounds, intent on using one as a ramp from which to board the ruined vessel.
 
Around the pair, a strange mortuary silence hung about, broken only by the sighing of the near-constant wind and the gentle rasping of the tides that lapped the shores of their desolated strip of beach—itself only a narrow part of the greater ring of sand that was the atoll. The calm lay lightly on the scene. The modest winds and peacable waters made for a stark contrast in comparison to their prior ordeal. Further out in the horizon that surrounded them, the pair could still see the surround grey-white of the storm, though it was far enough to ignore for now.
 
Sand crunched underfoot as they drew closer to their target, the looming carcass of the yacht's hull. The scored, sand-caked, and patch-blackened thing resembling a recently killed whale, its ravaged white corpse lying on the beach at a slight slope, bow-raised. Though against this likeness was the added punctuation of a few small fires that still smouldered atop its upper decks, marked by soft yet menacing glows that emanated from a multitude of gaping wounds. The heated tones of firelight and wisps of sickly black smoke were reminders of its artificiality, contrasting the paleness of nature here in the middle of the sea.
 
The pair advanced up and over the hill of sand cautiously, sweeping their muzzles on the lookout for any survivors. There wasn't much left of the forward bridge, its glass had been blown out and a large part of its forward face had been torn off—likely by a burst of 25mm rounds that had penetrated it perpendicularly. The gauged out face of the bridge was empty, no sniper waiting in the ashen ruin to pick them off.
 
Vaulting the bent rail at the prow, Santiago trained his weapon on the nearest hatch along the port-side of the mangled superstructure. Kingfisher covered him, crouched from the railing as he trained his own weapon down the debris-strewn avenue that was the yacht's once elegant port promenade.
 
There came a muffled clamour from within the hatch.
 
Santiago halted, his stealthy step stopping abruptly as he stationed himself behind the corner vertex of the superstructure. The stout clunking of a locking lever being pulled was followed by the opening groan of the hatch directly ahead of Santiago.
 
Before the figure was even fully out, two crisp shots rang out. Joined by two sprays of reddish-pink, splattering the white of the interior hatch.
 
Silence followed.
 
With his muzzle gently smoking in the cool sea air, Santiago, still focused on the open hatch portal raised his left hand and motioned Kingfisher forward.
 
Kingfisher vaulted the rail and advanced at double pace to Santiago's rear. The upper torso and limbs of the figure were visible, a swarthy-skinned neck was visible on the prone corpse—which was itself clad in a black balaclava and matching chest rig. An Indio-Verdense merc perhaps?
 
Santiago signalled again, getting ready to clear the corner.
 
He moved slowly and deliberately, his weapon braced at his shoulder, the muzzle trained directly ahead as he approached and leaned the corner fraction by fraction until his muzzle just barely peeked through the hatch edge.
 
Clear, was the hand signal.
 
Kingfisher quickly slipped inside after him, shouldering the right corner while Santiago covered him and then shouldered the left side.

 

---


 
The interior was dim, some lights flickered but enough still cast a warm amber light—enough to see and move by. There was a strong smell of burnt plastics mixed with wet carpet. Fixtures like frames and wall-mounted lights hung in disarray. A few cans, shards of broken glass, and torn ceiling panelling littered the passage decking. At the far end was an intersection, its bulkhead perforated with two sizeable 25mm exit holes.
 
The two advanced slowly and noiselessly down the passage, on the lookout for hatches, floor vents or other openings from where they might be ambushed.
 
Reaching the corner, Santiago's ears pricked at a whisper of noise. Kingfisher heard it too. Both paused, still hidden on their side of the corner.
 
Their earlier shots were very likely heard and if any guards—or if Shrike himself—were still alive, they could have a firefight on their hands. Between just two men, even against injured and shocked security forces, odds were still against them.
 
A crunch of glass and a hiss from around the corner were all it took to confirm a potential hostile in Santiago's mind. He signalled Kingfisher and slipped his remaining flash grenade from his rig.
 
On Santiago's mark, the flash grenade was flung. There was the thump of the grenade landing on the carpet, follwed then by a crack that echoed across the breadth of the passage. A sudden flash of bright incandescence, like the burst of a hundred flashbulbs, shot from around the corner's bend. A chorus of shouts and curses follwed the flash.
 
Quickly, but steadily, Kingfisher cleared the corner at a crouch, using the edge of the bulkhead as cover. Santiago slowly emerged behind him, carbine levelled similarly.
 
Both rifles barked. Santiago advanced, Kingfisher covered the passage from his crouch.
 
The two men that had been advancing slowly down the passage towards them were down. One lay motionless, the other burbled blood from where he lay supine.
 
Santiago's rifle barked once more. The burbling man jerked and then lay still.
 
Then—movement.
 
Kingfisher spotted it first, one of the double doors at the end of the passage swinging just as the shadow of a limb withdrew behind it.

 

---


 
They moved, quickly now, down the length of the passage, passing a few empty cabins, each cleared quickly as they advanced towards the double doors at the far end. A laminated compartment plan mounted on the walls telling them that through the doors lay a large function room.
 
The two doors were made of polished mahogany, each with a curved brass lever handle. The right-hand door was hanging ajar, revealing a ray of amber light which emanated from within. Kingfisher and Santiago stayed well clear of the funnel of death, hugging the side bulkheads as tightly as they could on approach.
 
On the right flank, Kingfisher sidled up to the gently creaking door. Santiago opposite to him, holding his carbine at the high-ready position.
 
Kingfisher held up a trio of fingers. On three.
 
Two.
 
One.
 
Kingfisher yanked the door open. Santiago pivoted into a half-crouch, advancing as he prepared to take a shot.
 

"Hold!", the shout had come from Kingfisher, covering the room from behind Santiago.


 
Santiago had been about to squeeze the trigger but hesitated at Kingfisher's shout.
 
Illuminated by pale sunlight streaming in from where large glass observation panels had once been mounted, was not one, but a pair of figures. Centred in the middle of the room's overturned finery of scattered cushions, splintered tables and sea-dampened polished wood decking, stood Shrike. And positioned just in front of Shrike, at the point of his pistol was the agent Santiago and the kill-team had arrested in the Vilvau slums—Godwit, Kingfisher's handler.

It appeared the Godwit had survived his attempted suicide by poisoning, though the traces of sickness were all over his haggard features. Shrike, on the other hand, appeared to be soaked, but relatively unhurt. Standing as he did now, clutching his machine pistol to Godwit's nape with a vice-like resolve, leant the traitorous agent an appearance of menace contrary to his otherwise stocky and unwieldy physique. Shrike still wore his soaked charcoal-grey suit, whereas Godwit still wore the sports jacket and trousers he had been in since the house raid.


 
"Capitan. Agente. Lay down your arms", said Shrike from behind the SSO handler-turned-shield. His rasping baritone echoed across the large room and carried a tone of calm indignation.


 
Both men did not comply, instead, they advanced into the room with carbines levelled and the hostage-assailant pair well within their sights. Neither said a word but both were conscious of how well Shrike had positioned himself. Had the traitor stood several metres closer to the door, or if he had stupidly exposed his own head from behind his hostage's, either of the two men would have dropped Shrike the moment they cleared the doorway.
 
The large open sections where wide panes of glass had once been mounted as observation windows allowed a salty howling gust inside. Every now and again, the light sea breeze would flood the hall, chilling through the damp of everyone's soaked apparel. The deck seemed to groan as the beached yacht shifted its dead weight in the sands by a fraction.
 
There was a long pause of silence as the two men stalked inside slowly, wary also of the slippery wooden deck panelling. There was a weighing between the parties. Kingfisher and Santiago defied Shrike's demand but kept their wary distance nonetheless. Shrike alternated his furrowed gaze between either two, now flanking him on both sides halfway down the long function hall. For a long moment, there was a stillness between both parties, the only hint at movement being the slight judders the yacht would betray every now and then.
 
Shrike was perceptive and likely knew that his gambit was at least partially successful—they had not tried to shoot after all. As both Santiago and Kingfisher took positions at the right and left of the room, Shrike stiffened his posture and jammed the machine pistol all the more tightly at the sickly hostage's nape.


 
"Not a step further", Shrike had raised his voice, but somehow retained his calm. Godwit, on the other hand, said nothing and seemed to be staring off into space, barely conscious of his state as a human shield. Every now and then, Godwit's head lolled as if he was dozing off, a thin string of clear drool trickled from one corner of his mouth.


 
The two halted at the threat, but neither had any intention of dropping their weapons. Shrike backed away slowly, bringing a little bit of distance back between the two parties. He made sure that Godwit's head still covered most of his own.


 
"It looks to me like you really wanted out, Shrike. Go this far for an early retirement ticket and a nice pension" Kingfisher started, his voice low and calm. He was guessing, of course, going on his gut feel for Shrike's motivations.


 
Shrike didn't reply and remained as he stood with Godwit. Whether he recognised the attempt at tactical empathy, he gave no indication. But it was safe to assume that Shrike was weary of whatever ploy Kingfisher was trying.
 
Kingfisher pressed him.


 
"I wanted out too. But the only difference between you and I is that you went to Verde to get yours. I can understand that. I might have too if they were the only ones offering the bait", Kingfisher maintained his calm and measured tone and very slowly lowered his carbine's muzzle.


 
Santiago glanced worriedly at him but said nothing. Kingfisher knew how risky it was to attempt a psychological exploit. They were running out of options—Godwit, while important, was secondary to finding and removing all intelligence. Furthermore, the beached yacht wasn't so stable, showing signs of near-collapse with every slight shift and groan. The wrecked tub could list any moment. But nevertheless, Kingfisher saw Santiago reluctantly lower his own muzzle by just a fraction, enough that Shrike saw that the weapon wasn't trained at his head exactly. Shrike scoffed.
 

"You might have? You played the prostitute too, Kingfisher—you just chose a different customer. I know all about your deal with that terror cell. They offer you a fake identity on the other side of Argis? I also know your conscience can't stand the label of traitor—so you thought finishing the SSO's dirty work before doing a runner was the honourable thing to do, didn't you? The patriotic thing to do. In the process you were willing to put the Vasqqans and Raqqans to each other's throats, you were willing to attempt a gambit that would leave thousands of them dead just to satisfy your selfish morality—a morality of convenience that’s there when you want it but not when it disagrees with you."


 
Shrike sounded as though he had been waiting to express that. He sounded almost defensive, even though Kingfisher's introduction had attempted to put both their actions of the same level. Shrike loquaciousness was a good sign though. It meant that Shrike could either be convinced—or could be goaded to ending this. The only concerning detail was that when he spoke, there was still a layer of reserve and prevailing calm that permeated his short speech. He was talking, but he was neither baited nor calmed by Kingfisher's words yet.
 

"What's your point Shrike, really? There's a way to end this with you out and the SSO having its way. If we're both whoring it out, why don't we just make a new deal—we aren't so different like you said", Kingfisher kept his piece short but made sure it invited a response. He steered the conversation but left that hanging question to keep Shrike talking. Maybe, just maybe, Shrike would reveal something that could make him cave, or get him angry enough to make a mistake.

He didn't have to wait long before Shrike retorted.
 
"I'll tell you the difference between you and I. We're different because you chose to f*ck Vasqqa over and I chose to f*ck Iverica over—the kicker being that your way ends up with more people dead than the Verdense alternative would have ever. If you had it your way, you'd have your nationalist conscience clean—never mind the dead Vasqqans—just as long as you keep your stinking oaths and have your beachside highball come sunset."


 
Maybe Shrike was weary, or in shock from the bombardment, because his carefully constructed cool slipped a fraction then. Not by much, but that he allowed that much personality into his rebuke was indication enough for Kingfisher that Shrike was wary, but his mind was shaken enough to spew too much information now and again.
 
Kingfisher said nothing, instead, allowing Shrike the initiative to elaborate.


 
"Think about your own lot, if the Capitan over there hadn't caught you, I wager that you'd be halfway to Thalassa by now. A new deal? I might be a prostitute Kingfisher, but I don't have a c*nt as friendly as yours. Your sentiments bend from Iverican, to Vasqqan, to your twisted personal code, and then back to Iverican again whenever you feel like it. One mister is enough for me, thanks. A double agent might have his reasons—but a triple agent like you? I'm damned for sure, but there's a special place in the inferno for you that I'd rather stay out of."


 
There was real venom in Shrike's words now. He had gone on moralising, nearing a rant. His words revealed a little bit more about his motives. There was no serious loyalty to the Verdense after all—his motives were a mix of guilt and disillusionment with the SSO.
 
Shrike's continued speech had also given Santiago a small opening. Just a moment before, he had kept a careful watch on the pair, but now seemed to linger more on Kingfisher than on Santiago. His using of Godwit as a human shield also had its drawbacks—his field of view was severely limited. So Santiago now moved forward millimetre by millimetre, each increment revealing a little more of Shrike's head to him.
 

"You're right, I'm the prostitute of Babylon, I can see that. But if you really can't accept my offer—then what do you propose we should do? I'm all ears", Kingfisher's tone was conversational, as if the parties were just sorting through a small sale issue.
 
"Guns down. Now", Shrike said. His voice was firm, but there were layers of uncertainty now, barely detectable, but present and coaxed out by stress
 
"We can do that...", Kingfisher allowed a pause for the agreement to sink in. Kingfisher followed up, continuing.
 
"We can do that as soon as you get on a lifeboat and release Godwit. You can leave, we don't need to kill you".
 
"That's bullshit. If you think I'm going to buy that ruse—", Shrike barked.
 
"You want to be out of here and we want you gone. I assume this is why you positioned yourself the way you did? The stairs to the aft section are right behind you. Its an easy backpedal there with Godwit as a shield. Just let him go when you're behind cover. Easy."


 
Shrike was beginning to think hard, the Kingfisher could make out one of his eyes from behind Godwit, it was shifting about in consideration.


 
---


 
The wind from outside howled, louder this time. Papers and scraps of singed cloth fluttered, then were blown out of the pane-less window-walls.
 
Santiago readied himself, if Shrike made even one slight move of his head, the window for a clean shot might be open. All Shrike would have to do was spare a single glance back there—at the stairs—then it would be all over. Santiago's arms stiffened and Kingfisher made to lower his carbine.
 
Shrike's head twitched.
 
Then, a single odd voice cut through the room.


 
"Not a move from any of you". The voice was feminine. Kingfisher didn't turn, but he knew that voice.


 
Teresa emerged from the double doors. She held a pistol, probably looted from one of the dead mercs, and aimed it squarely at Kingfisher. Her wrists shone raw red from where the zipties had chaffed. Her temple was cut in several places from the violence inside the patrol boat cabin. Her amber hair whipped in the sea breeze and her piercing eyes glowered with anger.
 
Santiago, distracted, twitched his head towards the disturbance but kept his rifle pointed at Shrike. He would have immediately dropped Teresa if he had been able to. But he had positioned himself to cover Shrike, not a second combatant by the door. He inwardly cursed Kingfisher's stalling.
 
Shrike had taken the opportunity to reposition his hostage. His head was once again protected by Godwit's own and out of view. Santiago's narrow window was lost.


 
---


 
Kingfisher had turned his face half towards her, his body still oriented towards Shrike.
 

"Put it down", she spoke. The tone was icy and dangerously low.


 
Kingfisher cradled his carbine still. It was at rest in his arms, but he made no move to drop it. Instead, he spoke.
 

"What about Shrike? He's armed and can probably draw a bead on any one of us".
 
"I'm counting on your brute to keep him covered. I'll deal with you first—you've been my real problem all along", Teresa spoke with a low growl of spite. There was an underlying note of scorn that chilled her voice.


 
Teresa stepped closer now, the pistol a scant few inches from Kingfisher's head.


 
"What I've done—", Kingfisher began slowly.
 
"—will secure Raqqan independence. That's what you wanted, what you said you wanted. Nothing I've done betrays that purpose", Kingfisher continued, now turning to face Teresa fully. Her pistol's muzzle stared him pointedly in the face.


 
There was a pause.
 
The wind howled through the shattered glass panels. The hull creaked and swayed again.


 
"Explain. They'll be your last words", Teresa said as he thumbed the pistol's action back.


 
Kingfisher gave no discernible reaction. Slowly, he responded.
 

"Think about it, the Federation knows it can't control that part of Vasqqa. Today's skirmish will simply be the last straw that proves it. The new government won't be able to deal with another decade of the insurgency while trying to unite itself. After this bloodbath, they'll eject Raqqa from the Iberosphere—there's no other way to play it", Kingfisher explained. Coolly, slowly.
 
"But you knew!", Teresa spat, barely allowing Kingfisher to finish his words.
 
"You knew our cell's moves would cause the pogroms. You're gambling with the lives of an entire population, you idiot bastard!", Teresa was shouting now, the harshness of her words bouncing down the large room's remaining wall panels.
 
"And that makes me a monster to you?", Kingfisher asked, a light note of mockery permeating the rhetorical question.


 
Teresa looked incredulous, her face contorted in anger, her finger curling over the trigger.
 

"You were already willing to kill Subiri. Willing to push the first chip that would set this topple in motion. You were already gambling with lives before all this. The only reason you and your cell hadn't done it yet was because you lacked an instrument. Me.", Kingfisher had stepped closer so that the pistol was now jammed against the bridge of his nose. Teresa had to raise her aim as the tall agent stepped up to her.
 
"Don't", she hissed. A quaver coming to her voice.
 
"Don't pretend you were just a tool in all this. You used us. You preyed on our insecurities about Raqqa's future in the Federation, you fearmongered, volunteered the right information, made us all act on fear. I should have shot you the moment we had you. If you hadn't come along—", Teresa choked in scarcely suppressed anger.


 
Kingfisher interrupted, finishing the sentence for her.
 

"—you'd still be where you are now. Running from the Vasqqans. I'm not pretending to be anything. You don't see it yet, Teresa? You're the one pretending. Pretending that my deception put you on this path when truly, it was really hurt feelings and a sense of betrayal. You're not angry that Vasqqa is teetering on the edge of a second bloodbath—you're angry because I'm not what you expected me to be", Kingfisher had punctuated his last words in the way of a sharp rebuke.


 
---


 
Santiago, glancing at the exchange while still trying to keep Shrike and Godwit in his sights had not noticed Shrike's sudden change in posture.
 

"HOLD IT!" Roared Santiago. But it was too late.


 
Shrike pushed Godwit forward and to the deck. Snapping his pistol towards the trio of figures in front of him, he held down the trigger of his machine pistol.
 
Santiago dropped to a crouch as rounds sprayed the room. He didn't think, he just fired.
 
The exchange peppered both sides of the room. Santiago heard Kingfisher shout, but retained focus on his target. Shrike was hit. Though in the chaos, Santiago couldn't make out where or how many times.
 
Santiago didn't stop to confirm the kill, he had to get his weapon on Teresa as quickly as possible. He rose to a standing position, pivoting and snapping his weapon to his right. Through the iron sights, Santiago saw two figures locked in a desperate melee. Kingfisher had managed to deflect Teresa's pistol, the agent now held it away from him by the terrorist's wrist.
 
The two were tangling, Teresa desperately driving her knee at Kingfisher's abdomen. Kingfisher was almost stumbling, struggling to retain his balance. A round from Shrike's machine pistol had hit him square in the thigh, which was now bleeding profusely onto the wooden deck.
 
They were silhouetted against the pale white of the sky outside, their two forms often blurring into one in the melee. Santiago tried for a shot but missed. The round almost hitting Kingfisher and flying out of the open windowless gap the two grappling forms were now fighting precariously close to.
 
Santiago made to move closer, but then slipped and crashed onto the wooden deck. Briefly confused, Santiago had scarcely realised what was happening when he saw broken furniture around the room start to shift. The yacht was listing in the sand.
 
He didn't see the ruined piano sliding towards him until it was millimetres from his face.
 
The shattered wooden mass hit him like a truck might blindside a family sedan on the highway. It had slid from the centre of the room as the yacht listed to its starboard. He felt a rib break as the piano punched him to his left side. His fingers slammed against the keys in a din of chords as he tried to get up and out of underneath the keyboard. His carbine had fallen, clattering noisily down towards the opposite aft end of the room.
 
Santiago stood, dazed and winded, searching for his carbine. As he rose, he spied it, spinning and sliding towards the bleeding, crawling Shrike.
 
The yacht was now resting obliquely, its deck canted starboard but was pitched at a low angle so that it sloped aft-down like a slide. Santiago took off in a sprint and dove into a power slide like a Real Madrí football player. Squealing down the wooden deck, his heel hit the wounded Shrike full in the nose before the other could raise the carbine.
 
In an instant, Santiago was atop the thicker man, pouncing astride him like an MMA fighter. Shrike flailed back, spitting blood and whaling on him with thick meaty fists. Santiago almost doubled over as one of Shrike's punches landed on his broken rib.
 
Running out of breath, Santiago shifted his stance, planting his knees above Shrike's elbows, grounding them. Santiago's hands were now free. In two motions, his Ka-bar was unsheathed from its collar holster and re-sheathed into Shrike's neck. A third motion severed the stocky agent's carotid, slicing the fat neck from ear-to-ear.
 
Santiago rolled off the twitching form of Shrike and onto his back, breathing heavily. He saw the unconscious Godwit not far ahead, breathing but passed out completely. Over by the gaping side of the room, Kingfisher fought a losing battle, trying to keep Teresa's pistol away from him. He could see the blood all over the deck now, Kingfisher was weakening from blood loss, Teresa was gaining the upper hand in the attrition.
 
Panting, Santiago rose to a knee and fumbled for the carbine beside the gurgling Shrike. It lay in a pool of arterial blood which slicked his hands as he picked it up and braced it against his shoulder.
 
As Santiago levelled it towards the pair still locked in melee, memories of the botched operation at Salonica came unbidden to the fore of his mind. There, just in front of him, was a murderous she-beast, no different than the Helleno-Russian terrorist that had committed vile atrocities to their countrymen. Locked in a struggle with her was a treacherous merchant of lies--trained to decieve, trained to destroy lives without a thought of guilt spared. The latter, responsible for wasting nearly 40 men he had raised from boyhood to manhood.
 
Despite the burning in his sides, the ache in his head, and the emptiness in his lungs, Santiago felt lucid, felt clear.
 
Raising the carbine and tightening his finger against the trigger, Santiago placed the tangled figures, silhouetted into one against the white of the cloud-laden sky, square in the weapon's sights.
 
Squeezing the trigger, he ended his fight.

 

---

 

Well, only an epilogue left

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A UNION DIVIDED | EPILOGUE

17:30hrs
17th of October, 2018
Shipwrecked on the Atoll

 
It took a while for Santiago to exit the ruined yacht. After making sure the unconscious Godwit was still breathing, he had clumsily clambered through the canted passages of the boat and out the hatch from whence he and Kingfisher had entered. His broken rib ached. His head was throbbing a jazz drummer's tempo.
 
Once he was out, white sand crunching at the soles of his boots, the first thing he felt was the relief brought by the bracing sea breeze. The tang of ozone and the weight of humidity were gone from the air, replaced by the scent of salt and the coolness of gentle gales.
 
The storm had passed and so, the horizon began to clear. The pale white of cloud-diffused afternoon light had transformed rapidly in the past hour. The sky now carried the pink and orange hues of the sunset—not unlike the sunset he witnessed over the ruins of the Helleno-Russian capital of Salonica, almost a year prior.
 
The hue of the light coloured the sand also, the surface like a canvas for the brush of sunset. The whole scene was almost surreal. The ruined yacht to his left as he faced the open setting sun, the glittering waters, graciously calm now, were glinting a path of light from shore to shining orb. The canvas of the sand in his foreground vision, reflecting the gentle light almost as well as snow might. The only thing that broke the scene, calling his mind back to stark reality, were two prone forms that lay over the sands.
 
Santiago approached one, the male of the two and crouched down beside it.
 
The sand was soft as Santiago took a knee Kingfisher's head was to still on its side, facing away from Santiago. He was about to reach in to take a pulse but the prone Kingfisher spoke first.

 
"You shot me, Capitan."

 
Kingfisher's voice was a mumble. Groggy, as though recently roused from a deep slumber.
 

"I did."

 
Santiago's reply was terse. He withdrew his hand from where it was about to reach for Kingfisher's pulse.
 

"And I could have died in the proceeding fall", Kingfisher continued.

 
Santiago recalled the shot. It impacted square on the back of Kingfisher's plate-carrier, spun the man so he fell front-first, knocking Teresa with him and freefalling off the side of the yacht. They had both lain were they fell. Kingfisher had apparently only come-to at the sound of Santiago's footsteps. Teresa lay passed out--she had unfortunately for her, landed on her back. She would not be getting up anytime soon.
 

"It solved the problem. Quit the b*tching."

 
Santiago's words were crass but contained no note of harshness.
 
Kingfisher hummed. Slightly delirious from the ebbing surge of adrenaline that was now quickly draining from his blood.
 
Santiago clumsily shuffled closer to where Kingfisher lay. He took some field dressing, swabs and disinfectant from his medical pouch, and reached over to apply it to Kingfisher's still bleeding leg.
 
Kingfisher stifled a hiss as the dressing was applied. He had lost a lot of blood, but the injury did not look like it required a tourniquet.
 
Swallowing a curse, Kingfisher changed the subject.
 

"What will you do now Capitan? You're a hero. Not that they'll hold a triumph mind you, but you'll get a hefty pension nonetheless".

 
 Kingfisher's tone was conversational as if they were making small talk at a diner over coffee and churros. Santiago's reply took its time, the Capitan was more focused on dressing the bleeding flesh wound on Kingfisher's thigh. Eventually, he replied, the mental shrug almost audible.
 

"Go home... drink. Get some damn sleep" Santiago grunted as he secured the dressing snugly.

 
Finished, Santiago sighed and collapsed into a tired sitting position, facing the sunset view.
 
Kingfisher hummed again.
 

"Sounds excellent."

 
There was a pause as Santiago considered saying something about the consequences of Kingfisher's actions in Vasqqa. Deciding against it, he turned the earlier question back to Kingfisher.
 

"And you?", Santiago asked.

 
Another pause. Kingfisher sighed. He raised one arm and flopped it in Teresa's direction. The arm flopped and then languidly landed on the sand again.
 
Santiago shot a wary glance at the prone Teresa. She was breathing shallowly but seemed dead to the world. Her red locks fanned out onto the sand.
 

"Shrike. Teresa. They weren't wrong. I've done some vile things", Kingfisher mumbled. Sounding wearier than before.

 
Kingfisher exhaled audibly before continuing.
 

"Thalassa maybe. Get her some help. I saw a pair of RHIBs back there, maybe I can take one. Land in Alharu first."

 
Santiago said nothing and just stared at the prone form of Kingfisher, who's eyes were half shut and now facing the setting sun.
 

"She'll try to kill you", Santiago said, warningly.
 
"I know. But I owe her."


 
Santiago nodded, more to himself than to Kingfisher who was lost in a state of fatigue-induced delirium.
 

"At the very least, I'll be free. I meant it, you know. I'm tired... just quite tired...."
 
"Oh--", Kingfisher added, sounding like he had simply forgotten an item on his shopping list.
 
"How did you know my plate was intact? Or did you just... wing it, like you're wont to?", Kingfisher asked. Remembering that the Capitan had shot him once in the sewer already.
 

Santiago shrugged.
 

"I guess we're even", was his curt response.
 
"You promised me a fight Capitan. Not going to settle your score then?"
 
"I already did", Santiago said.


 
There was a pause. Santiago spared a glance at the prone Kingfisher, who had turned his head, now with its other side in the sand, to face Santiago. The Capitan continued.
 

"Besides, you couldn't stand a hot fart from me, let alone another tussle."
 

A low rumble arose from Kingfisher, still prone. It quickly became a chuckle. The prone man's chest juddered in the sand in response.
 

"Don't push it", warned Santiago.
 

The Capitan didn't have to say it—also didn't want to say it. There had been a burden before. A need for disproportionate retribution. But now, Santiago understood. He decided that he probably—almost certainly, cost Kingfisher just as much as the operative had cost him that long night in Salonica.
 
The two made no further conversation and let the silence wash over them. 

In the distance, the sun sank sleepily.
 
 
---

 
The official after-action report was sequestered by the SSO, despite protests by Iverican Special Operations brass. The contents were sealed and available at only the highest authority.
 
Confirmed on a need-to-know basis were these facts:
 
On the night of the 17th of October, 2019—an extraction flight of one SUR-17 with attack rotor escort was dispatched to the coordinates decrypted from an encrypted code burst on the military band. SSO signal operators had received and decrypted the transmission and thereafter requisitioned and ordered the extraction mission.
 
The transmission used an SSO one-time encryption pattern that had belonged to an asset by the callsign of "Kingfisher". One of two individuals retrieved from the signal source was identified as a SO/AR operator. The other was SSO callsign "Godwit" was in an incapacitated condition. Along with them was exactly one sealed crate containing classified intelligence. Kingfisher was not present at the extraction site.
 
The SO/AR operator was returned to Iverica for immediate debrief at a black site, upon which the status of Kingfisher was confirmed to be lost at sea—further details have been sequestered. Conversely, callsign "Shrike", for whom a burn-notice had been issued just hours before, was found on-site and immediately identified by security forces as deceased. Wanted Vasqqan terrorist leader, Teresa Moreno, taken prisoner by Kingfisher, was also missing. Ms Moreno was last seen by the unnamed SO/AR operator and given the sequestered details, is presumed to be also lost at sea.
 
Several bodies belonging to security personnel of a PMC registered in the Duchy of Verde were also found on-site—purportedly neutralised by the lone SO/AR operative. Inquirers are referred to a similar report regarding burn-status callsign "Plover" and a section of kill-team operators reported AWOL on the 16th of October.
 
The SSO charged callsign "Shrike" posthumously with desertion, dereliction of duty, conspiracy, and high-treason. "Plover" was likewise charged with dereliction of duty and conspiracy. Under the Disavowal Clause of the SSO, both tribunals were held in secret and within the closed doors of the SSO headquarters building in Intreimor. Little evidence exists to the public that such trails, allegations, or even that such individuals existed.
 
The site of the extraction, upon which two instrumental vessels were deserted upon, was quickly purged of material within 80 minutes of the extraction's completion. Similarly, the intelligence contents of the crate were audited, some were sequestered, most were purged.
 
Under the circumstances and the impossibility of a thorough investigation, the SO/AR operator's account was accepted by the SSO. Cited by the Directorate of the SSO as "being of a critical role in securing the safety of the Iverican state", callsign Kingfisher was posthumously awarded with a Foreign Service decoration, a Gold Lozenge for inconspicuous valour in an operation of national security, and was recommended for the Order of Saint James of the Sword (Orden Sant'Iago) with laurel branches, though this recommendation was dropped for concerns over publicity.
 
The charges against the SO/AR operator for desertion of his then-posting, were dropped. He was awarded in secret by his own superiors of the Special Operations Command with a Gold Lozenge for the citation of "inconspicuous valour critical to national security beyond the call of duty". Despite the latitude of the citation, the SOC brass was denied the honour of further decorating the individual. Instead, his half-pay was raised In Perpetua with the promise of a lump-sum retirement bonus.

---

 

END

 

Note: A follow-up "Asta L'Vasqqa: A Federation United" will be added shortly. It will only contain a timeline of events pertinent to the expansion as a whole and perhaps one or two anecdotes about how the Vasqqan crisis was solved. For all intents and purposes, the expansion RP that I originally started in ALV: State of the Republic is complete. Thank you for reading.

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