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Asta L'Vasqqa: A Union Divided


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A UNION DIVIDED | PROLOGUE

 

 

The months after the Ultramares Conference would prove to be the most tumultuous in Iverica's recent history.

 

Somehow catching wind of Iverica's illicit activities to quell dissidents in Vasqqa, the Duke of Verde threatens Primo Franso Deitorr with what is effectively blackmail--either the Primo secedes control of Vasqqa's future economic planning to Verde, or the Duke uses his support to suspend unification under Iverica's mantle.

 

With either option being a potential death sentence for the hard-won Iverican hegemony, Deitorr is forced to commit his last gambit.

 

With two powers struggling for control of Vasqqa, a shadowy play of cloak-and-dagger unravels behind the gilded linens of the political façade.

 

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---

 

2100hrs
15th of August, 2018
Campo V. D'Centrale, Vasqqa D'Oeste, Iverica

 

The prefab room in the wayside of Exersito Base Vasqqa D'Centrale, like many of its sort, had been in use far past its listed service life. It was dank, a pervasive smell of unventilated washroom hung about to stuff the noses of the three occupants. The faulty wiring of the sickly-white fluorescent tubes illuminated the interior poorly and served only to accentuate the brownish stains spreading on thin wood sheet walls.

Around a plastic folding table sat two of the three. One was wearing a dirt-streaked pair of Flecktarn trousers. The room's lighting fell short of his face, illuminating only what was below his neck. His bared chest was matted with thick strands of hair, mottled in some places by thick streaks of scar tissue. He smoked a rumpled looking half-corona while staring lazily at the suited man opposite him, occasionally shifting his glance towards the third figure, similarly suited and standing by the doorway.

Across the table sat what screamed "spook" in possibly ever single tell. Black suit, black tie, bulge around the armpit where a concealed pistol sat, shaven head--likely to hide his receding hairline, reeked of expensive cologne, heavy set--probably cheating half a churro against the SSO fitness standard.

The other was similar in attire but younger, maybe mid-twenties, slick hair-do, clean face--probably a user of feminine skin-care, trying playing cool, silent and dangerous. Trying. Also corded, slim, all muscle, probably a cross-fit hipster.

As the soldier appraised them, he took regular puffs from the cigar. Apparently trying his best to overpower the room's smell with tobacco smoke. It wasn't long before the suited skin head decided to give up on waiting.

Skin head cleared his throat.

 

"We've got a rogue asset. The burn notice is about to go out. Free game. Pays well, 100k plus hazard and silence."

 

Now spoken to, the bare-chested soldier put his cigar out on the bare plastic of the table. The sharp hit of sizzling plastic issued forth before being drowned out by the mildew smell.

The soldier barked a laugh in response.

 

"Why me? Kill team's gone soft?", said the soldier mockingly.

 

"The mark won't go down easy, we need a real killer to helm this one", replied the skin head spook, seemingly unfazed and transactional.

 

"mm'a soldier, not a merc", he replied dismissively. The soldier then straightened to get up, as if the conversation was already dead to him.

 

The spook by the door tensed in turn. Shifting slightly to block the exit.

 

"There's more. You know him."

 

The soldier at the other end of the table paused. Casting an irate glance at the Cross-fit hipster by the door. Relaxing in his seat again, he gave a noncommittal grunt. He was interested, but just barely.

 

"Hel-Rus. Death's Head", said the bald spook, using a tone that reminded the soldier of used-car salesmen throwing in free leather upholstery.

 

The soldier's ears pricked at that. His jaw tensed, the bulge of bunching muscle below his left ear swelling slightly.

Capitan Ector Santiago, Tercera Batallón, SOAR, leaned forward, into the dull cast of the flickering fluorescent. The left side of his face was contorted and covered in scar tissue from where he had taken a round to the face in the gutters of Salonica. The grafted skin was stretched tight over his skull and jaw, giving that one side of his face a sunken, skeletal appearance.

After a short pause, Santiago gravelled a single word in query.

 

"Kingfisher?"

 

The bald spook nodded.

 

"Kingfisher."

 

"He's clever. It's damned risky", grunted Santiago.

 

The spook raised an eyebrow at that.

 

"He killed your men, almost got you killed too."

 

Santiago snorted.

 

"Not keen on giving him a better excuse."

 

The Spook paused, and took some papers out of his pocket, scanning a page briefly. It was a showy effort.

 

"I heard you were with them since selection? They make you write the butcher's bill to the families too? What was it called... a "helicopter accident?".

 

Santiago warned him with a deep, low growl.

 

The bald spook shifted gears, changing his tone to one imploring.

 

"If you don't stop him, he'll get the chance to root out every single one of our loyal assets in Vasqqa. Include number One SOAR all over."

 

Santiago sighed and rubbed his temples.

 

"Fine", said the SOAR capitan.

 

"Fine. I'll kill your rogue bird." 

 

---

 

 

Notes: Potato map is an ORIONI work, just coloured and detailed with Paint. Yes these are recurring characters--SANTIAGO'S BACK BBQ. Suck my fat one of you're reading this ya fakka!!!!1

 

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Mild snogging involved. Like really soft-core. Don't over imagine you sicko.

A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER I, PART 1

0645hrs
16th of October, 2018
#34 Via Elissondo, Vilvau City, The Free State of Vasqqa

 

There was a bird on the windowsill. Strange little thing. It didn't chirp, it just watched the man inside the 8th floor flat with suspicion. The man wore a black long-sleeved T-shirt, loose grey trousers, and black leather boots. The room was still, somewhat chilly by the approaching cold front, though it would likely not get much colder in this city, Vilvau, on the north coast of the Verde Sea.

The bird was a shrike, unusually bold for most small avians. It simply fixed the man inside with a sharp stare as he went about assembling the Varinco SFAW-04-3 anti-materiel rifle.

The man brought his face to inspect the fit of the trigger assembly into the lower receiver. He had long, narrow features, fair-skinned, sharp bone lines, pale platinum blonde. His white-gold scruff probably hadn't been trimmed in a week. A Narvic, probably northern, with few if any Iveric ancestors. The bird saw all this as it continued its silent inspection.

He, in turn, watched it every so often as he fitted the bolt assembly and pinned the lower receiver into place.

Just beyond the bird, about two blocks diagonal to the block the flat was on, was a stretch of road that came to stop at the rear façade of the Commons Assembly building.

The rifle was finished. He inspected the action, cycling the bolt.

Suddenly, the bird thrashed its wings and took off.

The man paused.

 

"I heard you come up the service stairs", he said as he dry-fired, pulling trigger.

 

The punch of the firing pin snapped a sharp report, piercing the stillness of the room.

 

"I wasn't trying to surprise you", replied a soprano female voice from the doorway behind him.

 

She came up behind him and placed a single finger on his right shoulder.

 

"Everything ready on this end?", she asked, whispering into his ear. He could smell her very faint trace of perfume.

 

"You know it has been for days now", he said.

 

"I wager," he continued, turning to face the woman behind him.

 

"--that your inspections are motivated by something other than good leadership."

 

She grinned slightly and breathed a single short chuckle.

 

"If I were a bad leader, Arturo, we wouldn't be this close to saving the Raqqan cause", she closed the already meagre distance between them and placed her hand on his chest. He was taller than her by a good 4-inches, so she had to look up at his unshaven face as she did so.

 

He leaned into her approach and placed a hand to caress her chin.

 

"If you were a better leader, Teresa, you wouldn't be engaging in a sultry dalliance with your XO."

 

She frowned then, pretending to be offended.

 

"Show me where we'll do it."

 

He raised an eyebrow.

She rolled her eyes.

 

"The shot, you lupo."

 

Right.

He gestured behind her and started out of the room. Walking around the central stairwell, he entered a room on the opposite end of the building. This one was padded with mattresses, the windows had been bricked shut. From the centre of the room, one could look out through a loophole poked through the door, which went through a wider one put through the floor and looked out a wide window on the floor below, passed between two buildings on the next block and came to a clear picture of the rear reception of the Commons Assembly.

He had ranged and studied the trajectory and coefficients before. He had practised, spending almost half-a-thousand rounds in the Raqqan mountains, at the same elevation, at the same distance and at the same set of target silhouettes.

The Consular Motorcade.

As they crouched side by side, examining the handiwork, she leaned in and stole a kiss.

 

"Soon, Arturo, for Raqqa."

 

He turned towards her and returned the kiss.

 

"You know its more than that for me."

 

"You'll warm to our cause in time. For now revenge is a good enough motivator I think."

 

He reached around her, but she withdrew.

 

"Save it, Kingfisher", she teased, wagging her finger as she stepped back.

 

"Save it for when you pay those púteros back for leaving their best for dead."

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A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER I, PART 2

0930hrs
17th of October, 2018
Vilvau City, The Free State of Vasqqa

 

"What is your favourite colour?", came a voice from the shadowy confines of the townhouse.

 

Standing on the doorstep, the man to whom the question was addressed to paused and pondered for a moment. He seemed more intent on scratching a particularly big itch on his backside.

It wasn't a pleasant street to be on, the peeling townhouses were old, made from poor cement laying and on lots that were so cramped together that hardly any sunlight made it through to illuminate the pot-holed pavement strewn with plastic wrappers and shattered beer bottles.

After a moment the man on the doorstep beamed through his ball cap and shades, as though remembering the punchline to an old joke.

 

"My favourite colour is Blue... No. Wait. Yellow!"

 

There was a silence for a moment, but then, the rattling sound of multiple locks and chains being undone signalled the success of the elaborate passphrase. The door creaked inwards slowly, revealing the dim interior and peeling dry walls. A young looking man wearing a ratty hoodie stood at the doorway.

 

"You have news for the cause brother? Come inside.", said hoodie.

 

"I do, brother. But first, I have a question for you.", the entrant said mysteriously, continuing all the while to scratch his backside.

 

"Oh? What would that be?", said hoodie curiously.

 

"Well it's like this... I was wondering if you had a moment--" said the man as his scratching hand withdrew a Biblia that had been tucked into the waist of his trousers.

 

Hoodie received it curiously.

 

"--a moment to spare for our Lord and Saviour, the Holy Taco.", Capitan Ector Santiago grinned again as he reached for the handle and pulled the door shut in front of him.

 

The front window shattered as flash charge inside the Biblia detonated.

Followed quickly by a louder bang from the rear of the house. The kill team that had been stacking by the backdoor breached the kitchen.

Still on the porch, Santiago pulled a pistol from his waistband and put two rounds through the door.

 

---

 

"Was that thing with the Biblia necessary?", asked the skinheaded SSO man as he sifted through the remnants of the living room with his black leather shoe.

 

Santiago shrugged.

 

"It worked, didn’t it, Shrike?"

 

"We could have gone in hard and fast from just the rear in the first place" said the skinhead, callsign Shrike.

 

"What if we got the wrong house? Besides, we needed a diversion. They would have heard cross-fit over there rattling around with all his new toy kit", said Santiago, gesturing to the younger SSO agent who had kept his rig and plate carrier on.

 

"He goes by Plover", said skinhead.

 

Santiago pretended not to hear him. Silly f*cking convention anyway, SSO and its hard-on for twittering candy-assed birds.

 

"Have fun in your big boy jumper, eh cross-fit?", taunted Santiago, tossing a scrap of the blown apart bannister at him.

 

The shard of wood bounced off of Plover's back. The younger man seemed determined to ignore Santiago as he rifled through a stack of documents by the moth-eaten and now bullet-chewed couch.

 

"Santiago", said Shrike with a warning tone.

 

"What?", Santiago queried feigning hurt. He turned to face Shrike again and gestured lazily to the space behind Shrike.

 

"My plan worked and we got you frothy mouth over there", Santiago waved towards the bound unconscious figure crumpled by the stairwell, a slight trickle of foam poured from his slack jaw. He seemed important, older than most of the young guns cleaned out in the house raid.

 

The bound man had tried to pop a suicide pill--that was reason enough to confirm their suspicions of a high-value target.

If their intel was solid, frothy mouth would be he--Kingfisher's handler.

 

"Sir--", Cross-fit/Plover's voice held a note of urgency. He was holding a pair of papers up to a blacklight.

 

"--you might want to take a look at this".

 

Santiago and Shrike ambled over, stepping over detritus and Hoodie's corpse.

 

"What the hell am I looking at Plover?", asked Shrike, staring at the glowing lines sketched over a rent notice letter.

 

"It looks like--", the younger agent started.

 

"--a damn spider hole", spat Santiago, turning to exit the ruins of the house.

 

"Where are you going?", asked Shrike sharply.

 

"Look at the address. We don't have time."

 

Shrike looked. He cursed.

 

---

 

0930hrs
17th of October, 2018
#34 Via Elissondo, Vilvau City, The Free State of Vasqqa

 

Cold sweat on his nape trickled down. Kingfisher lay still in his prone position, the SFAW-04 anti-materiel rifle was braced against his left shoulder and rested on its bipod. Its muzzle was trained down the hole in the door in front of him, out another hole in the floor, then out a bathroom window on the floor below, and finally between the gap of two buildings a block down.

His breath was slow, he felt comfortable despite the cold hard floor. His pulse was relaxed to near 40 bpm, the tight straps of the shooter's jacket held his chest snuggly and helped regulate a slow, steady cadence. A sweatband was used to patch his inferior right eye over, his dominant left eye seemingly glazed-over behind the lens at the optimal distance for a good sight picture.  Kingfisher's eye stared through the scope, watching a small ribbon that had been tied to a post between him and the Assembly building. Weak wind today. Perfect.

 

"Herring in the market", crackled the radio resting beside him.

 

"Tuna's here too", came another report.

 

Kingfisher let the sound wash over him, keeping his thoughts on the stillness of his arms, braced in exactly the right position--all the weight resting on his bone structure and none on the muscles.

 

"Auntie likes them both", came Teresa's voice on the channel.

 

"Keep our options open boys, never know if we'll be short one fish", she continued.

 

The two prior male voices muttered their acknowledgement, their broadcasts marred by the background thrum of large crowds.

The two, part of Teresa's cell, were embedded in a crowd of pro-Raqqan demonstrators who were out in force to protest the referendum. It had all been arranged by Teresa's contacts months before. Social media efforts had put firebrand ringleaders together and had further incensed Vilvau's Raqqan minority.

The crowds were planted innocently in non-critical locations, so police watchfulness was low. But Kingfisher knew the hive of protesters were moving, creeping their slow mass to the planned position. He also knew that a motley, but large collection of material followed them in the sewers below. Boxes of fuel cocktails, filled with a mixture of melted styrofoam and high-octane gas, were being wheeled in the tunnels below.

Consulo Subiri would have no escape.

At the corner of his vision, the first few motorbikes of the consular procession made their turn into the Assembly's avenue. They were followed in short order by a trio of black SUVs.

Kingfisher slowly flipped his tinted lens cap off. He relaxed again and returned his right arm where it rested, folded against his left breast.

Like fish in a barrel.

 

---

Free cake for those who got the initial reference

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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, Arturo. 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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A UNION DIVIDED | INTERLUDE I

0950hrs
17th of October, 2018
Somewhere South of Vilvau

 

"You're awake. Good."

 

The shack's room was spartan, holding only a small cot, a bedside table jammed with medical machinery, and a cracked plastic chair. A man whose skin was pasty with sweat and whose eyes drooped drunkenly lay on the cot, his breathing steady but rasping. Beside him, the speaker occupied the sole chair, with his hands around a strongbox the size of a microwave oven. The bedridden man's cloudy eyelids jerked slightly as his addled brains registered the speaker. He was a heavy-set man with a shaven head who smelled of expensive cologne mingled with body odour. Shrike.

 

"What? Not happy to see me?", Shrike offered a slight smirk.

"--I shouldn't have expected to gladen you, we were never really on the best of terms, were we, Godwit?", he continued, drumming his fingers on the polycarbonate shell of the strongbox. The bedridden man's eyes flicked towards it, lingering on the box.

 

Shrike's smirk spread as he followed the bedridden handler's focus.

 

"I remember when the both of us were last here, in Vasqqa, '89 that was. You were always a cocky shit, Godwit. You start strong and careful, but you get sloppy quick. That's why you're in that bed with a catheter jammed up your pisser getting 20 milligrams of Selensotoxin pumped out of you. While here I sit, in my tailored Armano, with all your drives and papers in this neat little box, just waiting to be used as evidence. Should have set the safe house up a little safer, no? It took one ugly bastard with a Biblia and four other guys to take down the little rat's nest."

 

The handler just stared mutely.

 

"Your Kingfisher got what he wanted--if that makes you feel better. I doubt Subiri survived, my people tell me the shot was clean", Shrike said almost placatingly.

"--so what now, 'wit? Subiri's dead, the Vasqqans are at each other's throats. Martial Law will be declared soon, the Raqqans will escalate civil violence, the Vasqqans will just make it worse by mobilising and Verde will simply use that to legitimise their stonewalling of the referendum. Is this what you wanted? Narva and Galicia will get cold feet and go stick their heads in the dirt until the mess sorts itself--which will probably take a while, just like it did last time in '91".

 

Shrike hummed, before continuing.

 

"You're probably confused. What's my angle? Why is it me collecting the two of you? Actually, I'm a bit confused too, what is it you want to get out of killing Subiri apart from just making this whole bleeding mess worse?", Shrike said, chuckling to himself.

 

Shrike sighed. Layers and layers of deception. Who wants what?

 

"All I know is that you two are f*cking things up for my employer. We'll soon find out your play and what your bosses are trying to do", Shrike rattled the strongbox a little as he spoke.

 

At those words, the man's hazy eyes seemed to widen a fraction, as though Shrike had said something that confused him.

 

"Not much longer, we'll get a chance to talk this out when we get to our destination", Shrike got up from his seat beside the cot and walked out.

 

---

 

Indeed, within the day, riots erupted wherever there was a Raqqan community, city streets would play host to riot and riot control actions. Government loyalists would engage in pogroms of reprisal killings and Raqqan seditionists would carry out several bombings on Vasqqan government buildings.

 Panicking at their loss of leadership and the escalation of violence among pro-federation and anti-federation groups, Vasqqa mobilises its armed forces. Wary of their national government's intentions and the possibility of an armed pacification, the Autonomous Region of Raqqa mobilises its own forces, all the while encouraging Raqqan communities outside of the Autonomous Region to arm themselves and form ad hoc militia units.

The reaction of the Iberic Federal Coalition is immediate and rash. The Ducal Office of Verde immediately calls for a moratorium on the federalisation process, suspending their own referendum. While Narva and Galicia mobilise troops on their borders with Vasqqa and all but follow the Duke's example as they anxiously anticipate another Vasqqan conflict.

 

---

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A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER II, PART 1

0950hrs
17th of October, 2018
Vilvau Storm Drains

 

"On my mark…", Santiago whispered into the headset.

 

The chevron aim point on his scope already lay straight over the lead figure's centre of mass. The white-hot silhouette moved down the darkened field on the thermal picture.

 

"three"

 

He compensated ever so slightly, slowly panning his aim as the small party below ambled along.

 

"two"

 

His felt the resisting pressure of the trigger as he began a slow deliberate squeeze.

 

"one--"

 

---

 

"Teresa... Quiet."

 

Teresa gave Kingfisher an annoyed look but halted her musings.

 

"Break into flanks. I'll signal."

 

She looked alarmed for just a moment, but then nodded and hissed as she relayed the plan to Tuna and Herring in front.

Kingfisher turned back and likewise repeated the instruction to the guardsman, whose wounded shoulder hung limp.

 

"ready…", he hummed, just loudly enough that everyone in the party could hear.

 

"steady…"

 

"now."

 

---

 

"Púto! Fire-fire-fire!", Santiago roared into his radio.

 

The party below tore into two flanks, each member sprinting for the cover, ducking and weaving through the concrete pillars.

Santiago's shots went wide as he tried to redraw his bead on the running point man.

 

"They're heading for the sump! Move, team by team, go!", Santiago shouted into his headset.

 

"We'll have to climb down, not enough time!" Plover replied through the radio.

 

"Then don't climb down to chase them, jump the gaps to the next pillar ledge!" Santiago spat back.

 

"You're insane!"

 

"You're a pussy!", retorted Santiago as he took a running leap and cleared the gap between the pillars. 

 

He landed on the opposite ledge and didn't break his momentum. There was a column of pillars ahead, he'd have to jump each and every gap.

Reluctantly, Santiago's kill team partner followed. As the pair began to gain on the scattering prey, Santiago slipped a frag from his rig as he ran.

The pin and lever went flying, followed shortly by the grenade as it plummeted below.

The concussion of the blast from behind him was ear-rattling, even from his high. The flare from the explosion left after-images in Santiago's eyes.

Santiago heard screaming. One down, four to go.

 

---

 

The grenade went off just ahead of Kingfisher, the surprise of the blast knocking him down. Herring wasn't so lucky, he had been on point ahead of Kingfisher. 

Herring was screaming as he rolled on the ground, spots of blood blossoming all over his clothes where multiple pieces of shrapnel had peppered him. 

Cursing, Kingfisher stumbled to his feet and took off again, putting a burst of rounds into Herring as he passed the hopelessly injured man.

He slalomed through the pillars, Teresa not far away on a parallel flank. He could see the sluice gate leading out of here, growing larger as he closed the distance, legs pumping furiously.

Teresa shouted a warning and Kingfisher threw himself behind one pillar just as the cement ahead of him exploded into shards of shattering concrete.

 

"Tuna! Forty-mike!", he heard Teresa shout.

 

In the parallel aisle, Kingfisher barely made out Tuna duck out from behind a pillar to brace his 40mm grenade launcher against his shoulder. Tuna had the weapon trained squarely at the shooter standing directly atop their only exit. 

 

---

 

Santiago made his last leap. His carbine swinging from its shoulder strap. He took position just atop the arch that marked the sluice gate exit. Crouching but still panting, he raised his rifle and took aim.

Multiple figures darted through the dark, their forms highlighted as snow white mannequins on his optic. 

He picked the closest one and let loose a burst, cursing as the figure dove behind a pillar just in time.

Exhaling slowly, Santiago relaxed a notch to calm his hammering pulse. Though before he had even a moment to reacquire a target, he heard the unmistakable dry cough of a grenade launcher and felt his pulse spike again.

Out of better options, Santiago leapt from the arch ledge.

He landed on the concrete pavement of the sluice floor as the grenade detonated above him, showering him with concrete shards just as he skinned his palms on the landing roll.

The carbine's optic was f*cked, Santiago had to cant the carbine at an angle and aim down the iron sights mounted on the tilt-rail.

Santiago squeezed once, carbine kicking as it sent a burst down range.

 

---

 

Tuna went down, as rounds tore through his unarmoured body in three places.

Kingfisher cursed from his place behind cover. He leaned out, carbine at the ready. 

He scanned. But the lone figure was nowhere to be seen. Teresa had moved out of his line of sight too.

Cursing some more, he ducked back and made a dash for the opposite pillar.

There! Something flickered in the dark, a dozen or so metres to his right. Kingfisher dove, landing on his stomach just inside the wide sluice ditch. He fired over the lip of the ditch, saturating in an arc of controlled bursts.

Somewhere to his upper right, he took flanking fire. Where the hell were they all coming from?

Scrambling to his feet, Kingfisher wasted no time abandoning his position, taking off in a sprint for better cover.

Just as he rounded to cover behind another massive pillar, a force picked him off his feet and onto his back. Kingfisher gasped like a landed fish as his lungs struggled to replace the air ripped out from them by the gunshot impact. Luckily, the rifle-resistant level 4 vest beneath his shirt hadn't given way.

He heard footfalls pounding on the concrete somewhere ahead of him. Still sucking in breath, Kingfisher's body responded on pure instinct and adrenaline. The carbine had fallen somewhere, so his right hand dove for his sidearm at his thigh. It was single clean motion, his hand ripped the pistol from its holster, bringing the weapon to a two-handed grip above his belly, his right knee straightening itself on the ground to give way for a line of sight.

Kingfisher fired instinctively, body aligning naturally from years of practice, joints slipping reflexively into accurate form.

The pistol barked twice, sending rounds to the centre of mass of the charging figure less than two metres ahead of him. 

 

---

 

Santiago saw the man go down, his burst had been on target. He had out-manoeuvred the spook, using his head-mounted monocular to guide him through the dark maze of pillars.

His quarry was struggling on the ground as Santiago closed the distance, ready to finish the spook off.

He was almost upon the fallen man when two impacts ripped the carbine out of his hands.

Santiago growled and kicked the pistol out of the fallen man's grip. As the man's face came into view, Santiago could not help but hesitate a fraction--a mix of surprise and satisfaction forestalling his coup de grace.

Kingfisher clenched his abdomen and swept both his legs against the rear of Santiago's knee.

The 185-pound man stumbled to one knee but did not go down. His opponent scrambled to his feet and launched his knee at Santiago's face.

Santiago brought his forearm up in time as the blow connected, but was intercepted, staggering him regardless.

Santiago took a passing step in retreat and pulled out his Ka-Bar from its collar sheath. Holding it outstretched, point threatening while his left arm was raised to cover his neck. Inside lunging range, it was a smarter choice than to risk giving his opponent an opening by fumbling for a pistol.

Kingfisher on the other hand, did not have much of a choice. Lacking a knife on his rig, he lunged for the pistol lying a few paces back--but Santiago was too quick, closing the distance in a blink.

The spook responded with surprising speed as well, blocking Santiago as he attempted a lunging stab. Kingfisher had pivoted his stance just in time, turning on a dime and thrusting one palm out to deflect Santiago's wrist. The palm intercepted the wrist and strong fingers constricted in a hold on the weapon-arm.

In the bind, Kingfisher tried to shove Santiago while in control of his knife wrist. A mistake. Santiago was far heavier than the slim spook and easily held his ground, taking the opportunity to thrust his knee into Kingfisher's abdomen.

The spook doubled-over as the blow connected solidly.

Santiago followed up without hesitation, launching a roundhouse kick that connected with the side of doubled-over man's face.

Kingfisher all but flew to one side, collapsing on the ground, semi-conscious.

The SOAR Capitan took a moment to catch his breath. He wasn't expecting that much of a fight in close quarters.

Footsteps, followed by a voice came up from behind.

 

"Friendlies on your '6... Good work, Santiago. Now kill him and let's get out of here", Plover declared, as he walked over.

 

He was followed by most of his men, two of whom were pulling a prisoner along. Plover had Teresa zip-tied and half-dragged by two of the kill team operators.

 

"We got the last one too, the one in the Guardia uniform--now making 3 dead so far." Plover seemed half-relieved and half-cheery.

 

"Well, what are you waiting for? Kill the bastard, we only need this púta", he continued with a slight note of impatience.

 

Santiago looked at the half-conscious Kingfisher twitching on the ground. 

Picking up Kingfisher's fallen pistol, he levelled it at the crumpled man.
 

---

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A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER II, PART 2

1020hrs
17th of October, 2018
Vilvau Storm Drains

 

Santiago held the pistol level, pointed straight at Kingfisher. The beaten man still lay crumpled on the ground where he had fallen.

There he was, the turn-coat SSO agent that had commanded his men through the rubble of Hellenic-Rus. By his orders, they had fought through hell and high stinking water just to achieve the political victory that desk jockeys and pencil pushers had a hard-on for.

Unbidden, flashes of remembrance came. The stink of the Hellenic capital's backed-up sewers washed over his memory's olfactory. The gripping feeling of desperation toning the thought as he recalled every brutal inch as Three-SOAR fought to escape, being picked off all the while by the crazed remnants of the insurgency. 

This was his opportunity. The SSO boogeyman, Shrike and his pet subaltern, Plover, wanted the turn-coat Kingfisher's brains plastered right here, right now. Shrike would even pay him through the Iverican agency's credit just to take sweet retribution on this traitor that had so spitefully joined a Raqqan insurgency. An insurgency where most of whom, like the cuffed b*tch Teresa Moreno they had now, were raving ultranationalists. The schismatic Vasqqans, natives of the Raqqan enclave, were no better than terrorists who would see the dream of the natal Federation dashed on the birthing room floor if only to preserve the so-called Raqqan Region's Narvic Purity against the strawman of Iveric Imperialism. 

And yet… something did not quite make sense to Santiago.

Santiago, still holding his weapon poised, barked an order at the SSO kill team.

 

"Cuff him."

 

The kill team, long ago brought subordinate to Santiago's natural aura of command, moved to obey.

 

"Belay that!", spat Plover, clearly in some surprise at Santiago's sudden change of disposition. The team hesitated.

 

"Capitan--", continued the SSO subaltern.

 

"--I order you to kill that traitor!".

 

"Why?", Santiago asked the question calmly, but there was a rigidness to his tone that demanded an answer.

 

"We are both under orders from a superior agent of the Special Security Office!", Plover sputtered.

 

"Think about it, boy", Santiago said, his eyes still fixed firmly on the supine Kingfisher. Santiago holstered his pistol and continued.

 

"--this man is a traitor to the Republic, he has worked his way through the ranks of a terrorist cell with vast resources--vast enough that they have successfully assassinated the Vasqqan head of state and would likely have gotten away with it if not for us. This man is a valuable source, just the same as that woman. Why in the Saviour's name should we kill him now?", Santiago's question hung about the air. The aura of doubt was palpable among the members of the kill team.

 

Plover was attempting to formulate a half-baked rebuke when Santiago put the final word down.

 

"No. We exfil with him. Those are my orders."

 

It seemed that the kill team's members needed no further prodding. Two stepped forward, turned the half-conscious Kingfisher over and secured his wrists tightly with thick zip ties.

Plover made as if to reassert his authority--but it seemed that the kill team had decided on command for him.

 


---

 

LATER

 
The trek through the storm drain went on in silence. The group was making for an exit drain that emptied in the city outskirts, far from the most serious Guardia Civil patrols that were surely turning over every favela and every potential lead in Vilvau.

Shrike knew nothing of the developments, radio communication further than their local area would be risky--if it were even possible. There was more than a dozen of metres concrete and dirt separating the group from the surface. Vasqqan intelligence was likely monitoring the airwaves closely, so even if they could reach Shrike for a report, it would be far too risky.

The kill team had prepared for this eventuality in the ad hoc plan they had cooked up minutes before descending into the drains for the ambush. The plan, presuming success of the operation, was for the team to exfiltrate Vilvau and head for a dirt airstrip some 82 kilometres south-west of the Vasqqan capital. They would take a small propeller aircraft back to Iverica and rendezvous with Shrike, who held Kingfisher's handler, another turncoat SSO agent with the callsign Godwit along with several pieces of evidence. Santiago's mission would be over then, Kingfisher would most likely be tried and executed in a closed Tribunal. Santiago would be payed and could live happy as a wealthy officer with his debt to the fallen fulfilled.

It was a good plan. A little too comfortable and easy for the little voice in the back of the SOAR capitan's mind. He stayed on edge, wary of the dark corners of the storm drain's cavernous sluices and maddening cadence of trickling gutter water. One man hurried the bound and gagged she-terrorist along at gunpoint from behind, two others half-dragged the disoriented Kingfisher at either flank. The rest made a perimeter around the file.

 

"How far?", Santiago finally broke the silence. The group had just exited into a narrower passage, this one only about 2 metres from base to its highest arch. The water volume trickling at their feet was greater here, coming up to their shins now. Perhaps a late autumn shower had started above.

 

"We should be entering a final section of tunnels. There should be a water silo with an access ladder maybe 20 minutes out at our pace", Plover replied, tone cold with a slight edge of sullenness.

 

"--it will take us close to one of the landfills, from there--"

 

"Shh!", Santiago hissed suddenly.

 

The team immediately snapped to alert.

 

"Do you hear that?", Santiago queried.

 

Plover paused, somewhat irate. 

 

"It must be your imagination Capitan. I hear nothing more than the damn drip--", Plover paused, catching himself. The dripping had grown faint.

 

There was a sudden change in the tube's air temperature. It seemed as though a cold breath had enveloped the space.

Then they heard it, first a muffled gurgle from behind several layers of concrete behind them, then a low rumble, quickly rising in volume.

 

"We should hurry--", Santiago did not get to finish his order. The entire team saw what was behind them and broke into a pell-mell sprint--even the prisoners' guards had decided to abandon their burdens and tear-ass down the tube. The rumble was rapidly rising to a deep roar.

 

By some infernal mechanism, one of the floodgates had routed water to their section.

The terrible surge of grey water, far down the rear end of the tube was roaring towards them with the speed of a runaway train and the fury of an ocean tide.

Santiago hadn't stopped to gape--he was sprinting too.
 

---

Note: So there's a sort of recap/exposition in the first few paragraphs of this post that should somewhat explain things. I hope it helps clear up some confusion.

P.S: Ur mom gey.

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A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER II, PART 3

1130hrs
17th of October, 2018
Vilvau Storm Drains

 

Santiago's eyes burst open. His lungs rattled a barking fit as they struggled to expel several quarts of stormwater. Still wracked with spasms, he weakly rolled to his side and attempted to spew out the rest of the unwelcome reservoir.

The coughing continued for a good minute or two. By the time Santiago was finished, his eyes were watery from the prolonged hacking and wheezing.

He lay sprawled on his side, heaving as he laboured to refill his lungs with air. He was lying on the pavement in some part of the storm drains. There was an eerie red glow, probably from some emergency bulb overhead. His vision was still blurry, his eyes stung from their recent waterlogging ordeal. He blinked rapidly, dissipating the occlusion somewhat.

That was when he noticed the gun pointed at his head.

 

---

 

EARLIER

 

Kingfisher knew this would be his best chance. The kill team took off sprinting when the tidal surge of stormwater made its rude entry into the shaft. He and Teresa were all but forgotten as the team ran for their lives. Teresa was ahead of him, sprinting like mad. Kingfisher tailed her, but looking behind him, he knew they couldn't possibly make it.

Though the water was a few hundred metres behind them, it would catch the group in seconds. It was heading towards them with the speed of a runaway train. He quickly took stock…

...and saw one slim chance. 

He called to Teresa. But the roar of the surge was deafening and she appeared intent on running. Kingfisher cursed. He'd have to go this one alone.

Making up his mind, he broke left into an access shaft.

Hoping the torrent of draining water would pass quickly enough, Kingfisher secured his zip-tied hands in a loop around a protruding valve and turned his face away from the approaching water, hoping for the best.

 

---

 

PRESENT

 

Santiago looked up at the silhouette holding the pistol a good few metres away and cursed. The single bulb that bathed the space in a red glow did little to reveal details. The two were alone in some desolate corner of the Vilvau storm drains.

He was still soaked and his head ached something fierce. Taking quick stock of his weapons situation, he noted he had been disarmed.

 

"Sit up, hands on your head", said the silhouette. It was a voice Santiago recognised all too well, having heard it throughout his battalion's gruelling deployment in Hellenic Rus.

 

The man stepped closer, confirming it for Santiago--Kingfisher

The SOAR capitan said nothing and glowered at the man. He slowly complied, rising to a sitting position and resting his palms on his soaked, close-cropped head of hair. Kingfisher kept the pistol relaxed and resting by his right hip.

 

"What did they tell you Santiago? Did they tell you why I did it? Do you know whom you are working for? Whom you are really working for?"

 

Santiago held his glowering gaze. He spat, the glob of saliva and stormwater landing squarely between them. Despite this, he didn't interrupt.

 

Kingfisher took the invitation to continue.

 

"I haven't shot you. I could have easily done you in while you passed out in a puddle, yet here we are--an opportunity for you to use your ample skillset to overpower, disarm, and kill me--", as he spoke, Kingfisher withdrew Santiago's Ka-bar from the waist of his trousers.

 

"--by whatever nasty process of disembowelment you are entertaining in your head right now", the knife was tossed to the ground. It landed with dull clatter just between the two of them.

 

"No, but I risk this because I fear, Capitan Santiago, that you have been lied to.

 

"I'm going to give you a choice in due course, but for now…", Kingfisher trailed of, waggling the pistol muzzle lazily.

 

"...you're going to listen--and listen well."

 

---

MONTHS AGO

17th of May, 2018
Somewhere in Vasqqa

 

The phone trilled. The safe house had been as still as a grave. The sharp trill of the burner phone broke the silence again with its shrill cry.

Godwit was seated at one end of the room. His chin had been resting on his steepled knuckles. He looked to Kingfisher, who had been pacing, but now stared on the phone old cell phone vibrating on the table.

The room was dimly lit, the few rays of dappled light slipping from between crooked blinds folded over grimy windows.

The two men shared a look.

Kingfisher picked up the phone and answered.

There was a long pause.

 

"Do you recognise my voice?", the tone was unnaturally deep, the speaker was using a scrambler. 

 

Kingfisher swallowed.

 

"No", Kingfisher did not, the voice was obfuscated, but the call had been expected and so he knew to whom the voice belonged. He could not help but tense in response.

 

"Do you know who I am?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Then you know what I have sent to your handler is of the utmost concern. I want you to follow the instructions I have sent very carefully. There can be no mistakes."

 

"I understand, sir."

 

"They will come for you--our enemies without and within. There is no recourse, he has left us no alternative. The target must be removed and the chain must be split."

 

Kingfisher knew he meant Subiri and that the chain meant Vasqqa.

 

"He has already sold himself to our friend from across the straits--", of course, realised Kingfisher. Borbon. The Duke of Verde had gotten to Subiri. The Consulo of Vasqqa, supposedly Iverica's loyal ally, was trying to play both sides of the federal power struggle.

 

"--he has made his decision and is no longer our friend. There will be clamour when he is removed, the chain will be torn down the middle--and we will be left to put it back together, this time, on our own terms with all the chaff removed from the sheaves. He will try to stop you, our mutual friend, and he will have connections, even within your organisation."

 

It was clear to Kingfisher. He understood what it had come to. Verde had forced Iverica's hand, Verde had made a turn-coat out of the Vasqqan leader. Verde also likely knew what the SSO was up to, suppressing the Vasqqan nationalists. Verde could not move more drastically without evidence, but they could move pieces from the shadows. 

The only recourse was to remove Subiri and in doing so, start a civil war. But that would allow a singular opportunity, a chance for the Federation to unite in an intervention. Borbon--Verde, would all but lose its bargaining chip of filibustering the political process. If Kingfisher succeeded, lives would be sacrificed, Vasqqan lives. But if they failed here…

 

"They will do everything they can to stop you, you must not fail and you must not be caught. The union--and all hopes of future peace--depend on it.", the scrambled voice of Primo Franso Deitorr was foreboding and conveyed the tone of sobering finality with a hard edge.

 

There was a click, the Primo had ended the call. 

 

---

 

PRESENT

 

Kingfisher lapsed into silence.

Santiago digested the story.

 

"You mean to say…"

"Yes, Capitan, they manipulated you. Why did they want me dead instead of bringing me back to Intreimor? Why did they pick you, the most heated with airs of vengeance, to come after me? Did you ever confirm any burn-notice they might have forged? And more importantly… where is your handler going with my files?"

 

Santiago felt a pit open up in his stomach. Kingfisher had of course overhead the details during his captivity. Things fell into place.

 

"Shrike.…" began Santiago.

 

"Is the real traitor.", finished Kingfisher.
 

---

 

😮 NANI?!!

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A UNION DIVIDED | INTERLUDE II

1330hrs
17th of October, 2018
Porto Verde

 

There was a storm coming.

It was gathering force in the middle of the Verde Sea. Already, a growing swirl of ominous grey began to fill the horizon, visible clearly from the shores of the Verde Isle as a monstrous cordillera of dull blue-black.

There was static in the air, felt through the thick humidity that had been hanging about the marinas, quays, and boulevards of the Port of Verde.

From the perch afforded by the Ducal Palace's veranda, the picturesque shore-side quarter of the old port city, dotted with low, old, lime and shell buildings, appeared empty of its usual throngs of tourists and absent of the couples and families that meandered about the well-gardened walkways of the boulevard.

Gian Iago Vivar dei Borbon ét Carlos--Duke of the Verde Isle, Marquis of the Indic Marches, and Lord-Protector of Isla Custo D'Oeste observed his capital from the veranda's railing.

The warm, heavy humidity had seen him abandon the coat and waistcoat he normally wore. His dress-shirt, normally pressed crisp and creaseless, had its sleeves neatly rolled up to his elbows. He stared into the waters of the Verde, its surface already beginning to stir with white-caps usually absent from its calm, emerald splendour.

That was the way his Secretary found him. The man emerged from the study the veranda was connected to, he was carrying a satellite phone.

Borbon took the phone and held it to his ear.

 

"Everything went well I trust?", spoke the Duke.

 

"Like clockwork", replied the voice on the other side.

 

"Do you have the necessary evidence?"

 

"Yes, we have the handler as well."

 

 

The handler. An unexpected gift, thought Borbon. If they had him, things would be quite damning for the Primo. The double agent, Shrike, had done well. Iverica's fall from hegemonic power might now be closer to catastrophe than calamity. Borbon imagined the headlines, "Iverican Agents Behind Subiri Assassination", "Iverica Engineers Civil War", "Iverica Ejected From Federation".

Franso Deitorr had played a risky game, going back on the acquiescence he had plied him with during that last evening of the Ultramares Conference.

 

"Very good, how soon until your delivery here?"

 

"We have secured a craft. A flight appears far too risky at this juncture. We depart for your position in four hours", replied Shrike.

 

"And the loose end? The assassin?", Bordon asked, referring to the Primo's last piece on the Vasqqan board.

 

"I have one of my men on it, we have their egress plans, I expect a report of their success soon enough."

 

"Excellent. Your reward is within your grasp. All you must do now, is arrive."

 

Borbon ended the call.

The events that had just played out, over the previous few hours, had Borbon as close to excited has had ever been since the First Vasqqan War. Primo Franso Deitorr had played an exciting last hand--Borbon would give him that.

The desperate ploy by the Ivericans had become clear to Borbon the moment news of Subiri's felling by sniper had reached his ears. Borbon had been quick to respond, his office immediately suspended the federal referendum in the Duchy, putting the much needed Verdense vote to join the federation into a state of limbo. The moment his declaration had hit the media, Narva and Galicia, equally nervous of the reputably volatile Vasqqa, had been quick to parrot his sentiments and suspend their own referenda. Borbon was making good on his threat to Franso--give me helmsmanship of Vasqqa, or there will be no Iverican hegemony.

But that wasn't enough, Borbon knew that Franso had something up his sleeve the moment Shrike had reported new activity in Vasqqa. Shrike, who had first brought Iverican plans to Borbon's notice earlier in the year, had then informed him that assets were being activated in Vilvau--to which Borbon had ordered Shrike to investigate and take necessary action. It could only mean that Iverica was trying to break out of Verde's bind--as to why, that had fallen into place the moment the bullet struck the Vasqqan head of state.

Borbon permitted himself a slight grin as he thought it through. With no other option, Iverica would attempt to engineer a crisis, something grave and pervasive enough to warrant some heroic calling to arms of the Iberic Diaspora. Subiri had been the sacrificial lamb--with tensions already high between the Narvic "Raqqan State" in Vasqqa--it would only take one small tip to send their natural enemies, the pro-federation Vasqqans into a fit of bloody retribution. If it had looked like a Narvic nationalist cell had killed Subiri, then the Vasqqan loyalist majority would riot. Another civil war would brew up and the Narvics of the Raqqan river valley would once again take up arms against the Iberics of the coast. Fearing an escalation, the pro-federation Vasqqan government, Narva, and Galicia would only be too relieved when Iverica would call for an intervention. The coalition would unite, sweep in to to quell the unrest, eject the Raqqan region as an independent entity, and reign the rest of Vasqqa in--leaving Primo Deitorr the hero of the moment. Then, Verde wouldn't have a reason to suspend the referendum any longer and would have no choice but to play along, or be left out.

All that, of course, was assuming that Borbon didn't leak the filthy details first. Assassinating Subiri, even if the Vasqqan leader was also courting Verde on the sly, would turn the Vasqqan loyalties sour. Engineering a civil bloodbath would, in turn, absolutely horrify the Iberic coalition. Iverica's reputation as stalwart and generous hegemon would be in tatters. This latter possibility was quickly becoming a probability, with a captured SSO agent and a case full of evidence about to fall into Verde's hands.

If only Franso had just stayed down after Borbon made the initial offer. The Duke may have been cunning, cold, and determined, but he was not a monster. He had not expected Franso to resort to these means--measures that would cost thousands of lives if permitted. Borbon supposed he was partly to blame for that, perhaps he had pushed the Primo into a corner during the Conference talks. 

No matter, he thought. It had been done, there was no deviating from this path now. Already, pogroms would be killing droves of Vasqqans. In light of that, Borbon felt a little justified in ruining Iverica. If the handler and evidence reached him and was then revealed to the world, the civil war might be halted yet.

Franso had chosen his gambit, Borbon thought as he stared out into the gathering storm. Thus, the Primo had to face the consequences of his failure.

Iverica would topple… so who would be the next hegemon?

Borbon felt invigorated as he glanced at his small but wealthy realm. It was time Iverica stepped aside. It was time the helm returned to the nobility.

 

---

 

Recap:

On the trail of the apparently rogue SSO agent Kingfisher, another agent called Shrike approaches Capitan Santiago with a contract to find and kill the rogue agent. Santiago, a special forces officer bears a deep grudge against Kingfisher--who had caused the deaths of most of Santiago's unit in a previous action. Santiago accepts, and is put in charge of a kill team headed for Vilvau, where Kingfisher is suspected to be operating in.

Kingfisher, apparently loyal to a Narvic nationalist cell that opposes the federation and demands an independent Narvic state, prepares for an operation to assassinate the pro-federation Vasqqan leader, Subiri. He and the cell leader, Teresa successfully shoot Subiri from a vantage point. Santiago and Shrike are too late to stop Kingfisher, but have already rooted out his base of operations, capturing vital evidence of the plot and apprehending Kingfisher's handler, Godwit. Using the plans found at Kingfisher's hideout, Santiago decides to take the kill team to ambush the assassins in their escape route--the Vilvau storm drains. Shrike decides to separate and claims the priority of escorting both the evidence and the captured Godwit to Intreimor for examination.

Kingfisher, Teresa, and their cellmates narrowly escape the Vilvau Guardia Civil and are about to successfully escape. However, they are ambushed by Santiago and the SSO kill team. One by one, the cell is picked apart, forcing Santiago and Kingfisher into a brutal hand-to-hand confrontation. Ultimately, Kingfisher is overpowered by Santiago and Teresa, the last surviving member of the cell is captured as well. Santiago has orders to kill Kingfisher immediately, but acting on a gut-feel, decides to spare him for interrogation.

Now with their prisoners in tow, the kill team attempts to escape the storm drains and escape to the safety if Iverica. However, they choose a bad route and are hit with a surge of stormwater passing through the shafts. Swept away, Santiago wakes to find that Kingfisher has disarmed him. The "rogue" SSO agent explains that Santiago was manipulated. Kingfisher explains that he was licensed to conduct a black op, Iverica's last hope at overcoming Verde's stonewalling of the federal referendum was to engineer a civil war grave enough to unite all of the diaspora states. Shrike had been the real traitor all along, and as of this time, possesses all the damning evidence Verde would need to sink Iverica's dreams of federation once and for all.

 

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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. Now, Santiago must confront Shrike, the real traitor who had masterminded the debacle in hopes of recovering the sensitive documents Shrike has gained possession of.

 

A UNION DIVIDED | CHAPTER III, PART 1

1330hrs
17th of October, 2018
Porto Verde

 

They were hopelessly lost. Wandering in the labyrinthian storm drains without a map, Santiago and Kingfisher could only hope to pick path after path of dark, dripping pipeline. This space was a far cry from the cavernous expanse of the main ducts they had battled in just a few hours ago.

Between the two, there had been an unspoken agreement of sorts--forged somewhere between the principles of a mutually sought retribution against Shrike and a kind of enemy of my enemy pact. At the moment, the only evidence of trust in their new partnership was the carbine Kingfisher had returned to Santiago's hands. It was clear that the spook did not trust the jaded SOAR officer, but the gesture seemed necessary to cement their partnership--at least until the mission ended with the death of their mutual enemy.

Still, the pair had been slogging through the ankle-deep slurry in wary silence of one another, sharing few words but never letting the other out of sight.

At least, that was the case until Kingfisher, who had taken the fore, froze and signalled with an upheld fist.

 

"Mér!", he muttered.

 

"What?", Santiago had his carbine raised, sweeping the rear.

 

"Footsteps, still some ways off", whispered Kingfisher in reply.

 

Then they heard the voices. It could only be the SSO kill team, as the Guardia Civil were unlikely to wander the storm drains during a deluge. Kingfisher tensed. Perhaps sensing that the spook was preparing to bolt, Santiago interjected.

 

"Wait--this could be a good thing. If they think you're still my prisoner, we could tag along, use Plover's map, and make a break for it. This place is a maze, we could lose them easily"

 

"Puté, that's bleeding mad", but Kingfisher sounded uncertain. 

 

He knew as Santiago did, that all the other options would likely lead to them in Vasqqan cuffs.

 

"It's our best shot", Santiago insisted.

 

---

 

Not long after, the kill team had found, more like crashed into them at an intersection. There had been a brief exchange of raised rifles and shouting, but once it was clear that it was Santiago--with a freshly zip-tied Kingfisher in tow, the situation settled.

Santiago noted the kill team was two members short, casualties of the flood no doubt. Though despite that, they had managed to retain Teresa in their custody, who was now glaring at Santiago through her soaked red locks.

 

"Plover."

 

"Capitan."

 

The greeting was cold, but there was still some relief in Plover's voice--owing more to confirmation of Kingfisher's state of capture than the sight of Santiago's botched face.

 

"Start talking, what's our plan for getting out of this damp hell?", Santiago resumed his usual tone of easy swaggering, masking the tension tightening in his calves.

 

"I've ascertained our position. The airstrip is a no-go, we're too far. SSO has a contact inside the Guardia Maritima boat pool, we should be able to secure a skiff back to friendly waters."

 

Santiago's mind raced. It was almost too perfect. He knew Shrike would be taking a ship, he said as much. If Kingfisher's new intel was true, he'd be making for Verde instead of Manille. There was only a matter of cutting Plover loose somehow.

 

"Perfect. Lead the way."

 

Plover turned to take point, consulting his plastic-sleeved map. Kingfisher and Santiago exchanged glances.

Teresa, watching all the while, did not miss their gestures.

 


---

 


The group marched along. In between the minutes of the march, Santiago and Kingfisher held a hurried conversation of hand signalled messages. They were bringing up the rear of the formation, so no one had caught on to their plotting. No one, except for Teresa, who cast furtive glances back at the pair, frowning all the while. Kingfisher caught her eye and nodded to her. If anything, Teresa's frown deepened even more.

Plover had shared landmarks and map information with Santiago earlier, who in turn, signed the information to Kingfisher. It was decided that they would make a break for it at one of the cisterns they would pass--a tower-sized silo used to hold excess water in case the tubes were overwhelmed. The plan was simple--on the mark, Santiago would cause a distraction and they would bolt down the planned route to the boat pool, using the floodgate marked on the map to cut off the rest of the bewildered team. 

The opening to the cistern was coming into view, ahead its cylindrical base lay illuminated by the red glow of service lamps. Kingfisher looked to Santiago, who returned a minute nod and flipped his safety off. As the group emerged from one of the capillary tubes into the hollow tower that was the cistern, Kingfisher quickly scanned the interior. 

He found his mark. The floodgate. His calves tensed and he took a deep breath.

The signal came when Santiago shouted, calling out phantom contacts behind them while firing his carbine at the dark nothingness of the tube they had just emerged from. The alarm was enough to distract the kill team, all of whom wheeled around and opened fire down the tube as well. Santiago began edging backwards, letting the kill team form a firing line in front of him. He slipped a flash grenade and a smoke grenade from his rig.

At the first sign of the team's distraction, Kingfisher began his wild sprint, dashing towards the sluice gate. There was a shout of alarm, and one of the men turned his weapon towards the darting Kingfisher.

The flash grenade that Santiago primed went off, blinding everyone else. Kingfisher hadn't been careful enough as he ran with his forearm across his eyes. He slipped on the muck and went sprawling into the ankle-deep dregs.

Then, Santiago's smoke grenade went off, smoke billowing around the enclosed space. There was shouting now, the kill team was verily confused, coughing and milling about.

Just as Kingfisher regained his footing he felt his collar yanked upwards. He turned to face his assailant, meeting the descending carbine stock face-first. The weapon butt slammed into the bridge of his nose. Plover had somehow caught up to him. The young agent now stood triumphantly over him, his weapon's muzzle aimed squarely at Kingfisher's forehead

The carbine let loose two rounds.

No kaleidoscope of memories came. There was only pure, naked shock as the muzzle flash enveloped his vision.

A moment passed before he realised he wasn't dead. Coming out of the wince he was holding, he realised that Plover was convulsing at an odd angle, bent backwards, head tipped backed with the carbine pointing wayside. Teresa was behind Plover, her zip ties constricting his windpipe as he tried to shake her off like a wounded tiger would if it had a monkey around its neck. 

Not wasting another moment, Kingfisher cocked his right leg back and sent it lashing out. The boot heel connected with Plover's crotch, ending his struggle and allowing Teresa to gain control. There was a crack, audible through the shouting and shooting. Plover fell, his head lolling at an odd angle.

Teresa scooped up the carbine and kicked Kingfisher in the ribs.

 

"Move it!", she shrieked at him.

 

Kingfisher didn't need to be told twice, he scrambled to his feet and half-staggered, half-sprinted for the flood gate.

 

 

---

 


Santiago had already been waiting at the gate entrance, firing at the scattered kill team returning wildly inaccurate fire. The smoke had flooded the constricted space, with no formation and muzzle flashes lighting up all around, the operators' resistance was of little effect.

Only as Kingfisher and Teresa slid into the tube did they finally respond in good order. Though it was too late, for Santiago had already flipped the gate's manual trigger, sending the heavy 3-ton slab of steel into a whining descent.

As the gate squealed shut, the noise of firing and shouting was abruptly muffled, punctuated only by the dull tolling of rounds thrumming off the thick metal.

Santiago was panting heavily. As was Kingfisher, blood streaming through his nose. And as was Teresa who had Plover's carbine levelled at the both of them.

 

---

Your granny a tranny.

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  • 3 months later...

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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  • 2 weeks later...

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 surrounding 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 gouged 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 was right behind him, carbine levelled as the two cleared the corner synchronously.
 
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 she 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 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 wurld. 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...."

 

There was a long pause as Kingfisher's words faded to mumbles.


 
"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, 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 another 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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      "It is almost time", said Bastien, the personal aide who was well into his mid-life years. A soft chin and a receding hairline made up his most notable features, strikingly apparent as he held a set of items--a pressed coat, vest, and tie--by a hanger.
      From his position, reclined on a comfortable Restoración Imperiale style couch, the man unclasped his hands and came slowly to his feet, straightening his cotton Ossoforto dress shirt.
      He stretched his back, twisting it right and left, looking about the holding room. It was tastefully decorated in the same style as the armchair, echoing the theme of scrolled woodwork and tall imposing forms that was to be found throughout the entirety of the building they were within, the Cámra Nasional--better known as the Republic's Parliament building.
      Flexing his legs and feet, planted firmly on the swirling patterns of the red and tan Savonnerie carpet, he made for the grooming table and mirror mounted on the pinkish-hued walls of polished white limestone.
      His aide wordlessly followed, handing him the tie, one that was a silken Iverican blue with diagonal streaks of dull gold trimmed in faint borders of flat white. Bastien knew from long years of experience that his employer preferred silence when preparing, as he was occupied with the sorting of thoughts before an event. The aide thus waited at a polite distance, on hand but not intruding within the man's space.
      Tying the silken garment into a stiff triangular knot, he swept a small comb from the grooming table across his thin, head of silvery hair.
      The dull grey of his eyes stared back at him from the reflected face of lined and pulled skin, some very faint scars remained from his more exciting days, but nothing so horribly disfiguring. He had instructed his makeup team to allow some of the more seemly ones to remain visible, a little affectation that he was told improved his impression as a veteran amongst the public.
      Taking his coat and vest from the aide, he carefully slipped each on, buttoning and straightening the tailored, navy blue cashmere pieces equally. For a finishing touch, he picked up his lapel pin from the table and fixed it to his left. The blue diamond and golden star on a field of white was bordered in a blue ring that seemed to blend with the colour of his garment.
      Ensuring it wasn't smudged and that his shirt cuffs were the mandatory half-inch from the jacket sleeves, the man turned to face Bastien.
      "Alright", said Primo of the Republic, Franso E. Deitorr.
      "Best not to keep the gorrión waiting."

      The Cámra Nasional
       
      ---
       
      A knock came from inside the walnut double doors of the waiting room.
      Two guards awaited flanking the doors. They wore peaked hats and high-collared midnight-blue jackets adorned with the golden epaulettes and aiguillette representing of the Primeal Tercio Guardsmen. At the signal, they both snapped their jackbooted heels on the marble floor.
      The crisp crack of hardened leather on tile reverberated across the high-ceiling arched hall like a pair of gunshots fired in unison. Immediately, the press, kept at a respectable distance by roped barriers and Primeal Guardsmen in plain suits struggled to look over each other and over the towering height of the guardsmen.
      As the doors were opened in a single swift motion by the guardsmen, the ignition of flashbulbs and buzz of voices replaced the quiet intermezzo of anticipation left by the report of the guard's heel.
      The Primo stepped out onto the marble and once again upon the central carpet of the hall. The guards snapped a quick salute and fell into measured step flanking their First Citizen, left hands rested casually on the pommels of the ceremonial spada's dei lato hanging on the left hip, their right arms stayed still in position just behind the chestnut leather pistol holsters secured opposite the sword.
      Bastien stayed just behind the line-abreast of Primo and escort. They left the holding room behind them, walking down the hall and into another gallery, headed for the ante-room just before the Grand Assembly Chamber.
      The wood panelled walls and arches gave way to the slightly wider space of the ante-room, where more mediamen snapped photos, the clicks and whirrs of their devices resonating around the stony interior of the limestone and marble vaulted ceiling.
      Ahead of them, flanking the tall double doors to the chamber were a pair of similarly dressed guardsmen. Unlike the Primeal Guard, these men wore the grey livery of the Capitoline Guardsmen, the foremost unit of the Guardia Civil Regulars.
      The doors were opened in a similar fashion, revealing the cavernous space of Grand Chamber.

      The Grand Assembly Chamber
       
      Deitorr stepped through to a low rumble of applause. All eyes belonging to privileged spectators and Members of the Chamber bore down on him. From upper balcony galleries, mezzanines, and the circular benches tiered towards the chamber floor, their heads all followed his path down the low incline of the descending stairs.
      The applause died as Deitorr reached the raised dais and podium at the centre of the floor.
      The Primo paused. He regarded the assembly with a slow pan, eyes sweeping slowly the collection of legislators and journalists before him.
      Maintaining his gaze and not dropping his eyes to the script discreetly hidden in the cloister of the podium surface, he opened his mouth.
      "Companiers, civios dei L'República, aures preistete..." 

       
      ---
      OOC: Got tired of putting off my economic, political, and integration RPs, so I'm tying them together in this 4-5 Part RP. This should explain what I'm up to this year while also building upon some stuff established last year.
      I'm also taking this opportunity to showcase how Iverica looks like from within, albeit just from a single point of view.
       
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