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DECAPITATE THE DRAGON
ACT ONE: WESTERLIES
CHAPTER ONE: THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM

SCENE ONE: DEPARTURE

The port was abuzz with activity—a cacophony of laughter, shouting, distant seagull cries, and the salty tang of the sea mingling with the scent of freshly caught fish and baked bread from nearby market stalls. This symphony of controlled chaos was coupled with excitement and anticipation. Families and couples milled about, their faces alight with the promise of new adventures. Among the crowd, Anna and Marcus stood hand in hand, their eyes gleaming with hope and love. The SS Auriel, a grand, luxurious ocean liner, loomed majestically in the background, its white hull gleaming under the midday sun.

Anna, a housewife with soft auburn curls framing her kind face, squeezed Marcus’s hand tightly. “This is going to be good for us,” she said, her voice filled with optimism. They had been drifting apart since Marcus’s promotion to detective; the long hours and constant stress of the job had begun to strain their once close-knit bond. Add to that the financial slump the United Republic was in, and their relationship was facing its first real test. This vacation to Orioni was their chance to reconnect, away from the pressures of work and family responsibilities. Marcus, a sturdy policeman with a calm demeanor, nodded in agreement. "We need this," he replied, thinking of the sleepless nights and the distance that had grown between them. Their daughter, Lisa, had been left with Anna’s parents, and the couple looked forward to rekindling their bond on this much-needed vacation.

Marcus thought back to their early years of marriage—the laughter, the spontaneous trips, the nights spent talking until dawn. Those moments felt like a lifetime ago, buried under the weight of his demanding job and the financial worries that plagued them. This trip wasn’t just a getaway; it was a lifeline. He looked at Anna, her hopeful eyes mirroring his own silent promise: to find their way back to each other.

As they boarded the SS Auriel, Marcus overheard a dockworker muttering to a colleague about recent sightings of Mitonese warships patrolling nearby waters. “It’s probably nothing,” one said, though his furrowed brow suggested otherwise. The grandeur of the ship’s interior struck them. The polished wood, the opulent dining rooms, and the elegant staterooms all promised a journey of luxury and leisure. They exchanged pleasantries with other passengers—a friendly elderly gentleman, a young family, and a lively couple embarking on their honeymoon.

The ship’s horn blared, signaling departure. The dockside crowd waved goodbye as the massive vessel began to glide away from the port. The cityscape of Grado slowly receded, replaced by the endless expanse of the Oriental Ocean. As the SS Auriel glided away from the port, Marcus couldn’t shake off a feeling of uneasiness. Perhaps it was his training. The comments made by the dockworker stuck in his mind, and he noticed exchanges between officers, some of whom took quick glances over their shoulders as if they were talking about something no one should hear. Marcus brushed it off, thinking his imagination was being overactive. He tried to let go of his training for a couple of months, but the seeds of doubt were planted.

SCENE TWO: HOLIDAY

The first day aboard the ship was a dream. Anna and Marcus explored the ship, strolling along the promenade deck, basking in the sun by the pool, and dancing in the grand ballroom. The air was filled with laughter and music, and the passengers enjoyed the ship's amenities.

On the second day, as the ship neared the Mitonese island of Kitaia, Marcus couldn’t shake a nagging sense of unease. While Anna struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman named Mr. Harding, who regaled them with stories of his travels, Marcus found himself drawn to the ship’s railing, scanning the horizon. He spotted distant plumes of smoke and, on occasion, the silhouettes of warships. His training as a policeman made him alert to out-of-place details, but he kept his concerns to himself, not wanting to spoil the mood.

Marcus’s unease grew as the day progressed. He noticed the ship changing course slightly, a maneuver subtle enough to go unnoticed by most passengers. During lunch, he overheard snippets of conversation between two crew members, their hushed tones and quick glances around suggesting they didn’t want to be overheard. “...but the captain said to keep it quiet. We don’t want to alarm the passengers,” one of them muttered. Marcus’s instincts prickled, but he forced a smile for Anna’s sake.

That afternoon, the couple participated in a shuffleboard game on the deck, laughing and enjoying the camaraderie of fellow passengers. Marcus met James, a young man with dreams of starting anew in Orioni. Their laughter and shared excitement momentarily eased his worries. “You know, I’ve never seen the ocean before this,” James confessed. “It’s... bigger than I imagined.” Marcus smiled, his eyes drifting again to the distant horizon, where smoke plumes occasionally marred the clear blue sky.

Later, as the sun dipped below the horizon, Marcus noticed a brief, tense interaction among the ship’s officers. Curiosity piqued, he wandered closer and overheard snippets of a conversation. The captain and his officers were huddled in the telegraph room, reading a poorly written warning from a Mitonese vessel that mistakenly identified the SS Auriel as a warship. The captain dismissed it as an error, and the officers returned to their duties. Marcus shrugged off the encounter and rejoined Anna for dinner, deciding to let go of his worries.

SCENE THREE: HIT

The dining room was alive with the chatter of diners and the clinking of cutlery as dessert was served. A big band played smooth jazz tunes, and the overall mood was calm and happy. Anna and Marcus, seated near a window, laughed and shared a moment of intimacy, enjoying their final course.

Without warning, the ship rocked violently, throwing diners and dishes to the floor. Marcus sprang up, instinctively pulling Anna close. “Stay with me,” he whispered in her ear. The lights flickered, and an orange glow pierced the dining room, followed by a deafening roar. “Marcus, what’s happening?” Anna’s voice trembled. Panic rippled through the dining room as smoke began to billow from below decks.

Officers rushed into the dining room, whispering urgently to the captain. His face turned grim, and he swiftly left, leaving the passengers in growing confusion. Staff members attempted to calm the crowd, instructing everyone to remain seated and await further instructions. But as the ship began to list to one side and the acrid smell of smoke filled the air, other officers rushed in, trying to maintain order. Panic spread like wildfire. Alarms blared, piercing skin and bone. “Everyone, return to your cabins!” one officer barked. Marcus scanned the room, assessing the quickest route to safety. He squeezed Anna’s hand. “We need to move, now.”

As Marcus guided Anna through the already flooding corridor, his mind raced. Every step was a battle against the rising water and surging crowd. “Go, Anna! Keep moving!” he urged, his voice cracking.

SCENE FOUR: CHAOS

They reached their cabin. “Marcus, I’m scared,” Anna whispered. “I know, love. But we’ll get through this,” he replied, his voice steady despite his own fear. “Grab what you can!” Marcus shouted, though he knew their belongings were the least of their worries. They managed to retrieve a few essential items before the water reached their ankles, then their knees. Anna, following a group of women led by a ship's officer, looked back at Marcus, her face etched with worry.

“Go!” Marcus urged. “I’ll catch up!”

Anna hesitated but then followed the group, disappearing into the crowded hallway. Marcus turned his attention to helping others, his sense of duty taking over. He encountered a child separated from his parents and a young boiler room worker, both terrified and struggling.

The ship continued to tilt, the water rising more rapidly. Marcus guided the child, hoping to bring him to safety. He couldn’t help but think of Lisa, hoping she would never have to face such terror. He led the worker through the labyrinthine passages, but in the chaos, the boiler room worker slipped and got sucked into a hole formed by the buckling ship. Marcus tried to reach out and pull the man back but lost his grip. The young worker vanished from view.

Determined to save the child, Marcus pressed on, worming himself through the crowds of terrified people. He reached the main deck at the front of the ship, where he found the captain and his officers assisting passengers into lifeboats. The ship groaned and began to tilt more vertically as the back started to disappear into the Oriental Ocean. Marcus and the captain knew they didn’t have much time.

“Take the child!” Marcus shouted to the captain, his voice cracking with fear. The captain quickly grabbed the child and hurried him onto the nearest lifeboat, just in time, as it was being lowered into the water. Marcus felt a moment of relief, but it was short-lived.

As the ship tilted further, it became harder for those on deck to stand. Several people lost their footing and slipped into the ocean. Just as Marcus was about to board a lifeboat himself, he too lost his footing as a tremor rocked the ship. The SS Auriel snapped in half with a terrifying crack. The back, now detached from the ship, sank rapidly, pulling the front with it, dragging everything and everyone down. Marcus slid into the ocean, hitting his head. As he was thrown into the cold water, he lost consciousness, the darkness enveloping him.

SCENE FIVE: HOME

Marcus awoke to the sensation of cold water splashing against his face. He was lying with his head on a piece of luggage that miraculously kept him afloat. As his vision cleared, he saw the sky dotted with red flares and the remains of the SS Auriel still burning and sinking. A large section of the ship was still slowly sinking, leaving behind a trail of debris and lifeless bodies in its wake.

He scanned the chaotic scene, seeing overcrowded lifeboats and makeshift rafts filled with shocked and shivering survivors. His mind darted. Where was his love? Where was Anna? Was she safe? Did she make it? Personal belongings floated by, a haunting reminder of the lives disrupted by this incident.

“Marcus? Marcus!” a familiar voice yelled out, piercing through his thoughts. He turned and saw Anna on a nearby lifeboat, reaching out to him. Strangers helped him aboard, their faces etched with the same shock and disbelief he felt.

In the distance, a ship’s horn sounded. He vaguely made out the name "Blaues Auge" and the Rhodellian flag. The Rhodellian fishing boat had come to their rescue, answering the SS Auriel’s distress signals. Over what felt like hours, more ships arrived, pulling survivors out of the water and gathering them onto their decks. The plan was to take the survivors to the nearest island, Kitaia, but for some reason, the Mitonese Empire thwarted that plan, forcing the rescue ships to make the long journey back to the United Republic.

As dawn broke, Marcus and Anna found themselves back in Grado, their home. The port was filled with worried families waiting for their loved ones. Among them was Lisa, running toward her parents with tears in her eyes, as Anna’s grandparents watched on, shocked but relieved that their own daughter was safe. Marcus and Anna clung to each other and Lisa, the reality of their survival setting in. The relief was overwhelming, but so was the trauma of what they had endured. They were alive, but they were forever changed. That night, as they lay in bed, Marcus held Anna close. “We’ll get through this, together,” he whispered, though he wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince her or himself.

SCENE SIX: SMOKE AND MIRRORS

The President slammed his fist on the desk. A top-secret report had been delivered to him by the Minister of Justice. “This is outrageous!” he yelled. “A civilian ship, it was a f*cking civilian ship, Arnold!” Reed yelled. Arnold’s face looked as if all the blood had left his head. He hadn’t seen the president like this before. He cleared his throat. “It’s still preliminary. We’re working off what other ships in the area saw. There was indeed an increase in naval warships, and some ships were also warned, apparently flagged as warships themselves,” he said. “I’ve spoken with the State Department, and they’ve asked the ambassador, Nakama, to head this way and give a proper response.”

An assistant knocked on the door of the stately presidential office. “He’s here,” the young woman said. A small, slender man in his early 50s walked into the office and bowed to the president. He had a folder under his arm. The ambassador took a seat on the couch. The president looked at Arnold, then at Nakama. A few seconds later, the Secretary of State, Holland, also joined the group. “Excuse me, Mr. President, there was a last-second briefing,” he said, looking annoyedly toward Nakama.

The president sighed and began to speak. “Ambas—” but as he tried to finish his word, the ambassador interrupted him. “Mr. Reed, please accept my and the Empire’s condolences. With that said, the Empire asked me to convey a message of utmost importance.” Nakama put a folder on the President’s desk. “You have a week to respond,” he said. And with that, the ambassador left.

The minister and secretary were baffled and stunned. The President’s face turned redder. “Who the hell does he think he is?” Reed blurted out. “Hundreds of our citizens, dead. Not just ours, but from over the ocean too. The Orinese called. They want to know what happened.” He fumed. “This is anything but diplomatic. ‘Sorry that we killed your innocent people.’”

“Mr. President, may I look at that folder?” the Secretary said. The president nodded. Secretary Holland opened the folder and began to read. The air in the president’s office was tense and thick with anticipation. As Secretary Holland read the ultimatum, the weight of the situation settled over them like a suffocating blanket. His eyes widened, and his face turned to anger as well. “Mr. President, the Mitonese have sent an ultimatum: cut off all trade involving strategically important resources, and instead deliver those resources to the Mitonese Empire. We have a week to comply, or else,” he said.

“Or else?” the president asked.

“Or else, it’s our necks on the line,” the secretary said. “This is outrageous,” he proclaimed.

“Christ, who are these people?” the President muttered. “We need to be prepared for everything,” his voice low and measured. “Get me the Defense Secretary, get me the Chiefs, call our allies, anything. We need to be ready.” The room was silent, the gravity of the situation sinking in.

Edited by United Republic (see edit history)
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