NATION

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Contagion (IC | TWI ONLY)

A staging-point for declarations of war and other major diplomatic events. [In character]

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Atnaia
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Posts: 1907
Founded: Dec 08, 2015
Ex-Nation

Postby Atnaia » Wed Oct 19, 2016 3:43 am

The sound of pulsing music thumped across the twilight street. The Midnight was a monument to black excess and glowing debauchery. It's obsidian-coloured edifice reflected the streetlights like a black mirror. Silver letters above the smooth steel doors announced the nightclub's name in block letters. A pair of spotlights lit up the clouds above it in streams of bright white fresnel fire. Each time the bouncer opened the front door to a group of people, or someone stepped out onto the curb from within, purple neon shone from within and the techno-house bumped up a marked percentage until the door swung shut behind them. The line-up of clubbers were dressed to the nines, more Hugo Boss and Dolce & Gabbana than Ed Hardy and H&M. Young, hip, rich trendsetters lined up to be declined by black-clad bouncers. Holden wondered for a moment about how they were all about to feel when he, a man creeping towards middle-age and dressed in an off-the-rack suit, skipped the line and walked through the front doors.

As he approached, the bouncers folded their arms. Holden reached into his pocket and pulled out his badge and donned a lopsided grin.

"Hey boys," he said, showing the badge. "Need to talk with Armanov? He around?"

The bouncers looked at one another. One put a finger to his ear and mumbled into a mic clipped to his lapel, like a Secret Service agent or a member of the Ducal Police. The other glared down at Holden. Both had a good head-and-a-half on Holden. Holden shoved his badge back in his pocket. A few seconds later, the guy with the earpiece turned back.

"Armanov is in the VIP lounge," he said, his voice a rumbling baritone. "He knows you're coming."

There was something oddly threatening about that last statement, but Holden ignored it and slipped into the Midnight, King hot on his heels. A wave of techno music and strobing light washed over Holden. Holden sighed inaudibly against the music and pushed through the crowd of beautiful young people within. The VIP Lounge was on the far side of the club, not particularly far away, but against the swirling tide of human bodies it might as well have been the peak of Everest. When Holden and King arrived, the cop felt out of breath and more than a bit pissed off. Sure enough, another muscle-bound guy squeezed into a black suit blocked the way. Holden noted that this one had a lump under his jacket that could have been a pistol or a taser. Didn't really matter. As he watched Holden and King approach, he frowned, sniffed and stepped aside. Holden didn't glance at him as he passed into the VIP lounge beyond.

Compared to the pulsing music of the club, the VIP lounge was practically silent. The thuds of the bassline seemed distant here. Low, leather seats sat around steel-and-glass tables. The floor and the walls were black and mirrored at intervals, so that the room seemed to fractalize into an eternity. Dim fairy lights cast the room into starlight. More calming, classical music flitted over invisible speakers. Guards, barely visible in the deep shadows, occupied the corners of the room, secreted ad private alcoves blocked from sight by innovative architectural angles. Seated at one of the couches, glasses perched upon his nose as he read from a tablet held in one hand and sipped from a tumbler of whiskey in the other, was Aleksei Armanov.

Aleksei was a middle-aged man, a few years older than Holden, but somehow came across as infinitely younger and hipper. His hair was perfectly cut and groomed into some modern reflection of a pompadour. His beard was the stylish fullness of hipster dreams, his moustache slightly waxed at the tips. He wore a stylish, salmon colored button-up with pale, silky patterns that were only visible at the most acute angles. His sleeves were rolled up to reveal arms covered in decades worth of tattoos that edged between nuevo-stylish and prison-chic. His hair was brown but flaked with gray and white that he took no efforts to cover, which somehow made him seem more in control, like the slowly encroaching ravages of aging were beneath his concern. As Holden and King entered, he glanced up at them. His voice was smooth as silk, with the barest tinge of an Aproasian accent.

"Officers," he said. "How can I help you this evening?"

Holden shifted. He was suddenly very aware that the guards around him probably had guns. This was Silver Branch, after all.

"Mr. Armanov," King said. "I am Agent King and this is..."

"I know who you are," Armanov interrupted, but he smiled affably. He set down his tablet and carefully folded his glasses up and slid them into a breast pocket. "What I don't know is why you are here. Thankfully, I am not particularly busy. The benefits of hiring managers you can trust is that your workload decreases drastically..."

"I don't have that luxury," Holden said. He glanced around. "We're here regarding Warm Currents Exports."

Armanov's cheeks twitched, but the smile did not fall from his face. "Warm Currents is a company which I have a hand in, but I couldn't give you much more information than the fact that my trust owns it."

"So you are going to deny you have any hand in its operations?" Holden asked.

"Do you mean me as in Aleksei Armanov, or me as in Silver Branch Club?" Armanov leaned forward. "I promise you that those two things are very different."

"Either. Both," Holden shifted uncomfortably.

Armanov leaned back. "I have nothing to do with Warm Currents, but Silver Branch does...something with them. I can't be assumed to know everything about the organizations dealings."

King frowned. "You run them."

Armanov chuckled. "Yes. I am the head of a criminal enterprise, and everyone knows that. And because everyone knows that, I am the man they come running to when they want to strong arm someone for information. I've taken it upon myself to maintain a certain distance from the ground operations of my troops, so to speak. I'm certain that the Hegemon isn't aware of the ins and outs of every tactical decision made by every lieutenant in the army. It would drive a man mad."

Holden bit his tongue. He didn't trust Armanov at his word. "We have reason to believe Warm Currents is involved in SOAR operations. Would you know anything about that?"

Armanov frowned for the first time. "No. I try not to associate myself with terrorists. There's bad people, and then there are bad people. SOAR is the second option."

"By which you mean...what?"

"There's a difference between a man who kills for business and a man who kills for ideology," Armanov replied. "A man who kills for business can go home and set down the guns and have a nice dinner and forget about it all. Work can stay at work. A man who kills for ideology...well, he carries the ideology with him. He can go home, but the killing is in him. There's no leaving it at the doorstep. I try not to associate my business with people who can't differentiate work from play."

"You sound like you don't like SOAR very much," King said.

"Of course I don't," Armanov replied. "I am a proud Atnaian citizen. I love my country. I don't like men who would try and threaten it...or my business. I appreciate the status quo. There is no status quo with Asorism or Anarchy. Business booms when things are stable. Chaos serves nothing."

"You're a criminal," Holden said flatly. He regretted it almost immediately. Armanov levelled a heavy gaze on him.

"Yes," he said. "A criminal you let operate because you know that if there is going to be crime, it should be at least be organized. There's no organization with SOAR. They fight for decentralization. That doesn't work for me."

Armanov waved a hand. "I'm sorry I couldn't help you more. I'll make sure you are seen safely out."

"No need," Holden said, and turned. He went to leave when someone pushed into the lounge. is eyes went wide. Her eyes went wide.

"Oh shit," Jazz said.

"Goddamnit," Holden said.

Armanov smiled. "I suppose you know each other then..."
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Atnaia
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Ex-Nation

Postby Atnaia » Fri Oct 21, 2016 3:34 am

"Ms. Mashinka," Holden said between grinding teeth.

"Agent Holden," Jazz shifted uncomfortably.

Armanov grinned and snapped his fingers. A big guard materialized from the shadows and casually made his way around the room to place himself between the occupants of the room and the door.

Holden began reaching for his cell phone. "Thrace and Levi..."

"Touch that phone, Agent Holden, and we are going to have a real problem," Armanov said. He glanced at the guard near the door. The man was a mountain of flesh and tattoos with an angle to his eyes and jaw that suggested some Magarati descent. "Taro's papa was a Gurkha. A very good one too. At least fifty confirmed kills in melee."

Holden glanced over his shoulder at Armanov. "Why should I give a shit about his dad?"

Taro growled. "Because I killed him."

Holden glanced at the big man. "Big guy like you killing an old war vet? Real impressive..."

"I was ten," Taro said, and adjusted his suit. A tattoo of a vine that climbed up the side of his neck had the gray leaves that Silver Branch members used to track kills. Holden could count at least six. There may have been more under the man's shirt. The adjustment made it clear that the lump under his jacket wasn't a gun, but a curved Gurkha kukri. Holden put the phone back in his pocket.

"Good boy," Armanov said. "Now, see, this little dynamic is of interest to me. I knew that the Adirondack had gotten got, so to speak, but Miss Mashinka's survival...now that's a fun little detail I didn't know."

Jazz glanced over at the mobster. "I didn't say anything."

"No, I expect you didn't," Armanov said. "Not with the way you two are interacting...see, Agent Holden, this is part of why I know that my organization had nothing to do with the attack. The Adirindack was a reliable courier. Jazz can attest to the business we have engaged in..."

"I..." Jazz started, but Holden interrupted.

"Drugs and guns, I know, he said. "Just means you would have had a lock on their location when shit hit the fan."

"But where is the money in it?" Armanov asked. "I mean really, Agent Holden. Think about it. How does Silver Branch benefit from SOAR holding major cities hostage? Most of our clientele are of the...let's call it bourgeoisie persuasion. Do you honestly think we make our money selling street-corner methamphetamines to indents? That's what we call a side market. No, the real money lies in setting up indenturements to rich assholes who aren't willing to get themselves into a government database to set themselves up with a little trim..."

"Are you admitting to human trafficking, unlicensed prostitution, illegal identity rewrites and post-agency indenturement?"

"You already knew all that, Agent," Armanov said. "What I'm saying is is that if SOAR has their way, my clientele fades away like the morning breeze. No one will be able to afford my product if we do stupid shit like eliminate inheritance. I mean, Jesus Christ, half the damn nobility have at least one servant wandering through their halls whose contract has a name that Silver Branch put there."

Jazz cracked the knuckle of her right forefinger nervously. "We never moved people."

Armanov nodded. "No, you didn't, because the Adirondack was small potatoes and likely to be raided every time it hit dock. And now it is a household name. Interesting how time changes things. Anyways, what I can say is that Warm Currents didn't have anything to do with the attack. However..."

Holden's eyebrows knit together. "However what?"

"See, your connection to Jazz has me thinking," Armanov said. "Perhaps we can be useful to one another. See, while Warm Currents may not be involved, I can't be certain that its independent contractors weren't. Ships captains tend to have this whole 'live free or die' mentality that is just impossible to beat out of them. Take my love, take my land..."

"Your point?" Holden asked.

"My point, Agent Holden," Armanov continued, "is that if Jazz survived and wandered in here, there's a useful piece still on the board. That woman knows people with connections to SOAR."

Holden glanced at the Adirondack's XO and filed that info away. "Really?"

"People with connections to Warm Currents, at least," Armanov shrugged. "Now, I am willing to let you walk out of here and continue your investigation with Ms. Mashinka, but you need to do something for me. Quid pro quo."

Holden frowned. "What is it?"

"The person screwing with my business, this Hohenberger," Armanov leans forward. "He dies before he faces trial. He is made an example of. No one fucks with Silver Branch and gets away with it."

Holden thought about it. "Doable," he mused.

"I need your word, Agent," Armanov said.

"You have it," Holden said after a moment of silence.

"Good," Armanov grinned. "Taro, escort them out."

As the big man stood aside and gestured for the door, Armanov picked his tablet back up. "Oh, and Agent Holden," he said as they began to leave. "Enjoy Lovsk."
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Ostehaar
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Founded: Jul 08, 2015
Democratic Socialists

Postby Ostehaar » Fri Oct 21, 2016 4:25 am

Richard held his glass of beer firmly, slowly lifting it up from the counter and bringing it towards his mouth, as he gazed outside at the group of Oster soldiers crossing the street. It was late afternoon, and the last rays of sunshine illuminated through the huge dirty glass windows of the pub.

"Damn Osts," he spat and turned back to face the bartender. He sipped some of his drink and kept holding it above the counter. "Thought we're going to get some rest now. It's been almost a year since the takeover."

The bartender sighed. He poured himself a bit of wine into a tall glass and leaned against the side of the counter, looking outside. "What can you do, you know," he said, "must be something serious."

The group of soldiers stopped in the middle of the street and called out to some other soldiers down the street. A military jeep then moved towards the group and was positioned perpendicularly to the sidewalk, practically blocking a lane and leaving just a small gap for vehicles to cross. The soldiers signaled the incoming civilian vehicles to slowdown and get in line for inspection, and began stopping every car that approached the roadblock.

"Well fuck me," Richard said in amazement, "they're actually doing these now."

"We're a year back in time, my friend," replied the bartender. Both took another sip of their drinks and looked at the activity outside. About a minute later, a young man entered the pub.

Richard glanced at the bartender and gestured towards the new guest. "Hey, you," he called, "what's this outside?"

"This roadblock?" The man pointed outside, "haven't you heard? We're all under curfew again."

"In Rovka?" The bartender asked.

"Nah, man, all over the island. They flew in two battalions or something, and probably some special forces... and I'm pretty sure I've heard about a helicopter squadron. The entire island is under DFO control right now. Something about a national security threat."

The bartender and Richard looked at each-other in shock for a moment.

"Yeah," the young man affirmed. "Don't be surprised if they come in here in an hour or two when it's dark, and demand you leave and go home. Word is that they're going on a house-to-house search for something."

The two at the counter kept quiet, pondering over their drinks and looking at the roadblock outside.

"Anyway, I actually wanted a drink," the man said, "so can y-"

"No," the bartender interrupted, "we're closed."

Out in the street, another car approached cautiously to an Oster soldiers, its driver's side window open. The civilian listened to the soldier and then presented an I.D., which was taken into the jeep for confirmation. It took almost a minute for every car to go through, and a traffic jam amassed behind.

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Polar Svalbard
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Founded: Mar 28, 2015
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Polar Svalbard » Fri Oct 21, 2016 8:54 pm

The Director tapped on the door to a dimly lit room, opening the door and inviting himself in. The attendants in the room looked like the devil had just walked in. The Director looked around, the room was about the size of a medium room, on one wall were a bunch of monitors, the center held a table with the same amount of folders as there were tools that would freak out most humans. Across from the monitors a one way mirror looked out on a room where a man sat in a chair, slumped down, pis staining his right leg. To his left stood an SMI-2 agent holding in his hands what amounted to jumper cables connected to a high power battery. At that moment the agent clamped them onto the man, giving him a horrible shock.

The Director's face grew even more stern than what he had walked in with, the leader of this room rushed forward to meet the Director, stumbling on his words as he almost pissed himself, "Sir, sir..." The Director snapped him a look that shut him up immediately, "Do you know how disappointed I am? Do not answer, you know. Firstly we are on a schedule, we needed this done yesterday, who knows how long it is until the real weapon makes its way to Polar Svalbard. Secondly I thought I specifically said not to torture this man."

"Sir, I...I,"

"Call back your man, I will do it myself." When he said that the room leader looked to one of his assistants who quickly got the agent out of there. The Director shook his head slowly, "Mr. Shalz I like results not excuses, don't make me have to come back here another time in the future without there being results on the table." With that the Director went into the room and took the hood off of the prisoner. "Mr. Taylor is it?" The man tried to spit but just ended up coughing in pain, "Yeah... who are you?" The Director looked into his eyes, the Director's being as cold and hard as stone. "I am the Director. Now onto business," The director showed the man a picture, the picture showed one woman of around fourty-five years of age, and a young girl of about sixteen, bound and gagged to a chair. "Is this your wife and daughter Mr. Taylor? I already know so you don't need to answer that. Now you may be wondering what's going on. Well I like results, you have yet to tell us what we need to know so I am speeding this along. If you do not tell me what I want to know, I am going to switch this to a live feed where some of my men are going to use your wife and child and then kill them, in front of your very eyes."

Mr. Taylor swelled with rage and fear, "YOU SICK FUCK! YOU CAN'T DO THIS, LET THEM GO!! FUCK YOU!" The Director shook his head slowly, "Your daughter is very lovely, it would be a tragedy for her first time, to be non-consentual, and for it to be her only time in her short life, all the while knowing you could have saved her. Tick, Tock." The man felt conflicted, the Director could see an internal battle raging inside him. Finally the man slumped even more, "Fi... Fine, I'll... I'll tell you." With that he explained everything he knew, the Director could tell. When your family is on the line, more likely than not you are going to do everything you can to save them. The Director nodded, "Thank you. Now I know you expected that you and your family would be let go and live a happily ever after, but it isn't that kind of movie." The man's face just deadpanned and a tear started to well up in his eyes, he knew he was defeated. The Director looked him in the eyes, "Now, I'm not a monster, this is just buisiness, its nothing personal. Although I will make this easier on you, I will not allow my men to violate your wife or daughter, they will join you in Heaven peacefully." With that tears started flowing freely down the man's face. The director reached down into his coat and pulled out his side arm, placing it against the man's forehead, "Thank you, again, for telling us everything. You have probably saved a great many lives." With that he pulled the trigger, the round entering the man's skull, cleanly passing through, the life extinguishing from his eyes.

As the director walked back into the room he looked to the room leader, "That is how you achieve results, make sure you dispose of the bodies in a proper and timely manner, you wouldn't want me to have to come back down here."
Last edited by Polar Svalbard on Fri Oct 21, 2016 8:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Atnaia
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Founded: Dec 08, 2015
Ex-Nation

Postby Atnaia » Thu Oct 27, 2016 4:40 am

Holden kept a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. Jazz could see a tendon in his neck throb, bulging against his collar. In the rearview, his jaw pulsed. She swallowed. There was something strange about the man's anger. Something out of place and deep and absolute. It was like someone had pulled back loose floorboards to reveal a bottomless pit in their living room. It wasn't meant to be there, and the fact that it was was beyond dangerous.

They rounded a corner towards the hotel in silence. Holden's partner, King or whatever his name was, glanced nervously at his phone. Jazz didn't even have that escape. She shifted in her seat. This wasn't exactly how she had pictured her escape going.

King coughed, and it seemed to release some unspoken block in the car. Holden turned his head. "You are so fucking stupid I don't even know where to begin," he growled.

Jazz wanted to be offended, but couldn't. In hindsight, she had been very shortsighted. Escaping from protective custody to go visit a dangerous mob boss wasn't the best decision she had ever made. The fact that she had stumbled on Holden was only the cherry on the deliciously dumb sundae. Still, she made to argue the point.

"I..." she started, but Holden interrupted.

"You know," he said, "I had to fight to let you out of headquarters. You really think anyone wanted you to be moved? You should have been in quarantine. But I am a nice guy. 'Let her eat chocolate mousse and rent rich people porn on LISA's dime', I told them. Jesus, woman. After this, we'll have to bury you."

Bury me? she thought. Oh god.

"Come on, man," King said, "don't scare the kid."

"Fuck off, King," Holden said. "Where were you when the fucking crimelord was threatening us, eh?"

"I didn't hear any threats," King mumbled. The light turned green and they rolled forward. King checked his phone again.

They pulled up outside the Pallsiades. "I mean really..." Holden continued, but was interrupted by a sudden flashing light and loud noises from inside. Fire alarms were going off inside the building. Holden swore again and slammed his fist on the dashboard. "Fucking really? What else could go wrong?"

That's when the first person stumbled from within. Jazz's eyes went wide. The woman was middle-aged, dressed in a pant suit, and was coated in a damp green slime. A faint glow suffused her, like someone had spilled the contents of a glow stick.

"Oh god," Jazz said as the woman clutched at her chest, coughing and hacking up gobs of glowing mucous. She fell to the curb. Holden stared in shocked confusion.

"What the fuck?" he said. Suddenly, several more people came from within. Holden reached for the car door, but there was a click. Jazz saw it before Holden did: King's arm came up, his service pistol cocked and loaded and aimed at Holden's head.

"Uh uh, boss," King said. "We're staying right here in this car until that plays out."

Holden turned, his eyes bulging. "What the fuck, King?"

King held up his cell phone. "Just got the heads up. Whole sprinkler system was rigged. Of course, I already knew that. But with the way that Armanov was talking, seems to me that the organization has a weak link somewhere in Lovsk. And, frankly, I'd rather not lose my bargaining chips to the GIS Weapon before I get a chance to figure out what that weak link is."

Holden blinked. "What?"

"Do I have to spell it out for you, genius?" King sighed. "Actually, let's. S. O. A. R. I work for them. Miss Mashinka here was supposed to be in that building when the device went off, but to our good luck she actually wasn't. Seems she might have a connection to our weak link. So you are going to start the car and start driving."

Jazz opened and shut her mouth. There was a thin sheet of plexiglass between the front and back seats, to prevent perps from strangling an agent to death or something, and there was no way for her to open the doors from the inside. She was trapped.

Holden blinked, frowned, and came to a decision. He started the car and slowly pulled away from the doomed hotel. As he did, King held out his hand. "Phone," he said, and Holden handed over his phone. King tossed it out the window.

"What the fuck, King?" Holden said as they pulled away. "What in God's name..."

"Look man, it's nothing personal," King said. "But honestly, the system is fucked up. I mean, you shot a guy earlier today and no one is going to say shit about it because it got you a lead. How fucked up is that? The really fucked up part is that I'm pretty sure that Wessich orchestrated the whole fucking Crisis, just to get to this point..."

"Goddamn it," Holden frowned, glancing at the barrel of the gun. "You're one of those conspiracy whackjobs? I thought we rooted you fuckers out in training!"

"Who better to know about the Men in Black than one of the guys wearing the suits?" King shrugged. "You remember the night when all the rioters went out and started pulling Asorists into the streets and beating them to death and shit? That Asorist leader, Flannery, got lynched on the bridge? You know we started all that, right? Well, Stone Wall did, but might as well have been us. I realized how bad shit had gotten back then and decided to throw my lot in with the only people who seemed to give a shit about the people and not the game. If it meant helping SOAR..."

"You just helped use a bioweapon on a hotel filled with people..."

"Rich people," King said. "Leeching off the real powerhouses. Those fuckers manipulate every rule and person they can to steal power from the common folks. Bunch of foreign ass businesspeople controlling Atnaian destinies. No, fuck that. The Pallisades is a symbol of corruption, it deserves to go down, and all the people inside with it. Funny thing is that no one even realized we were in there, placing devices along the fire lines. Put a few guys in hard hats and break an elevator, and suddenly you are invisible..."

"Or wear a suit and carry a badge," Jazz mumbled.

"You can shut up," King said, glancing at her. "I got nothing against you, but Hohenberger is real pissed you survived. It means there's a way to beat the weapon. That ain't a good thing."

"It was good for me," Jazz said.

"Good for one doesn't mean good for all," King said, holding up a finger like a condescending teacher. "This whole situation proves it. Wessich likes playing to what is good for one...power, money, prestige, legacy. He wants us to build statues to him and bow down at the feet and render unto him that which is Caesar's. No. For the greater good, I'll gas every asshole in the upper tax brackets if it spreads the power."

"Fuck your greater good," Jazz said.

King's gun shifted, pointing through the plexiglass at Jazz. "You watch yourself, missy," he said, "I mean, I don't really need you...it's just a convenience."

Holden glanced over. Jazz could see his eyes in the rearview. Suddenly, he slammed his foot down on the gas and swung the steering wheel left. The car jolted forward and slammed into a parked car, bounced sideways across two lanes and slammed into a streetlight. King, twisted around in his seat, was slammed backwards against his seat belt with a sickening crack, and the gun was sent spinning across the cabin into the windshield. There was a sound of screeching metal and Jazz felt herself tossed forward against her seatbelt. The airbags engaged, but Jazz wasn't covered, and her head banged against the plexiglass. A trickle of blood ran down the plastic-like material and into Jazz's eyes. She could smell gas. Her eyesight blurred. She began to black out.

She could hear the door open and felt the seat-belt popped off. "Come on," Holden's voice reached her ears, and she felt herself lifted like a child from the car. There was cold air on her face and the black feeling of her equilibrium being shifted through jerky motions. A moment later, there was a dull boom. The car, she guessed. Jesus, she thought. Jesus.

It was her last thought before she passed out.
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Ostehaar
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Founded: Jul 08, 2015
Democratic Socialists

Postby Ostehaar » Wed Nov 02, 2016 8:39 am

Rumosk Street,
Rovka, Lovsk

It was an impressively made Molotov cocktail. The quantity of flammable fluid was just right, the thickness of the glass bottle - perfect, the cloth wick was soaked in the ideal amount of alcohol and lit at the correct distance from the top of the bottle. It was really a masterpiece - one of the finest seen around Lovsk in years - and it beautifully cut through the air like a cheetah sprinting to capture an ill-fated prey.

Eventually it smashed against the side window of an Oster military jeep, firing a cloud of petrol droplets and vapour at the soldiers inside, igniting an immediate fireball followed by spreading flames. Screaming, the soldiers pushed open the jeep doors and threw themselves out to the ground, hoping that their friends around would act quickly and save them from the pain.

Another firebomb was thrown. It shattered a few meters away from the jeep, injuring another group of soldiers. Two of them dropped to the ground, calling for a medic - the others took cover behind the flaming jeep and began firing at the crowd from which the bottles were thrown.

Tak, tak, tak. Taktak, tak, taktaktak. Tak tak.

Few of the rioters fell, while people around them instantly dove to prone position. Others rushed to the wounded, shouting for help, and carried them to the back, away from the 'front line' on Rumosk Street. The soldiers used this short break to evacuate their own wounded - at least two of them already with severe burns.

Moments later the rioters continued their chanting and marching, carefully 'capturing' more of the street, gradually pushing the troops backwards. The DFO had limited resources to put in Lovsk and couldn't allocate many units to the island, while the rioters always had reinforcements. When a couple of them were shot down - at least the same number of people took their place, angrier and more violent.

This is what SOAR wanted, thought one of the soldiers who was lying on his back, carried by his friends to get treatment. They got us to shoot civilians again...



A rented apartment,
Krikvein, Lovsk

Frank "Rex" Veksler was still sleeping in his armchair when his brother Sean opened the door. Rex woke up in a jolt, his hands jerking upwards as if to catch something mid-air.

"Bad dreams?" Sean asked.

Rex shoved his head between his palms and moved them over his face, forcefully opening eyes wide for a moment and then yawning. "I have no idea. How's outside?"

"It's the right time."

Rex lifted his head up and caught his brother's gaze. He stared back, thinking about the significance of Sean's announcement.

"The streets are full of them, all over the east," Sean added, "especially in Rovka."

"Of course," Rex sighed, "it's always especially in Rovka."

"That's the place to be, man." Sean replied with a deranged smirk.

Rex checked the time. "Not tonight, apparently. Come on," he got up from his seat and stood in front of his brother in arms, "we should gear up if you want to do this today. I'll go and get the device."



Offices of the 13th field intelligence battalion,
Rovka, Lovsk

"Sir, we've got movement."

Lieutenant Tomas Grihnfeld approached the operator, waiting for him to continue.

"The number we got from Johan," the operator said, "the Veksler brothers' van."

Tomas nodded in agreement. "Yes, I know, what's it doing?"

"It hasn't moved since last Sunday, and it's moving now."

"Excellent. Let's put some eyes in the sky, but quietly. I don't want to scare them away or make them do something... rash."

"Yes, sir," the operator replied and reached for the phone.

Tomas patted on his shoulder. "Good man. Let's get them."

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Postby Atnaia » Thu Nov 03, 2016 3:26 am

Jazz shifted into consciousness with the slow slide of morphine, the difference between sleep and wakefulness less of an "on-off" state than a steady gradient. Her awareness was came in small chunks of sensory input, until she suddenly realized she was awake and lying in a hospital bed. She was vaguely aware that her head hurt, that her arm hurt, that her neck hurt, but the actual pain seemed disassociated with the actual part of her brain that was identifiably active.

She shifted and tried to turn her head, but something was stopping her. She groaned and tried to lift her body, but before she could, a hand clamped down on her shoulder.

"Careful there, you've got a neck brace on," Holden's voice said. "Plus you are hopped up on morphine. Take it slow."

He's here? she thought, but didn't fight his help as he got her into a sitting position. She looked around the hospital room, at least as much as the neck brace would allow. She turned her body to see the IV drip, the heart rate monitor, the end of the bed, the TV, the bedside table with a glass of water and, finally, Holden.

He looked awful. His hair was messy, his suit was messy, he had stitches on his face and his forehead, a bandage over his nose, a black eye. Two of his fingers on his right hand were splinted. His face was coated in a thin layer of stubble. He looked like he had gotten in a fight with a boxing champ, which was to say he looked like he had been hit by a truck. He reached over, grabbed the glass of water and helped her take a sip. Jazz took a moment to clear her senses and then spoke.

"What happened?"

"I crashed the car," Holden said. "Rather, I performed a controlled but sudden deceleration so as to eliminate or deter a hostile presence. According to the paperwork. In reality, I drove the car into a light post. We're both real lucky to be conscious."

Sure, but I'm the only one in a neck brace, Jazz thought. "King?"

"Very solidly comatose," Holden said. "His gun met his head with dangerous force. He won't be waking up anytime soon. Hopefully."

That's a relief, I guess, Jazz thought. She leaned back. Holden frowned.

"Don't get too comfortable," he said. "Now that you're awake we're getting out of here."

Jazz glared at him. "What? I am in no position to be moving around..."

"Look," Holden said. "King was on SOAR's side. I can't be certain that he was the only asshole fox in the chicken coop. There's a good chance that someone tries to nab you and that the much-more-qualified-than-Thrace-and-Levi guards you'll have will be just a short obstacle on their way. All we know right now is that there is a weak link in Lovsk, and that you have some sort of connection."

Jazz sighed and rolled her eyes. "I have no earthly clue what that means..."

"Neither do I, but our best hope of figuring it out is going to Lovsk and poking things," Holden said. "It's also a good way of getting you the hell out of harm's way."

"You think the best way to get me out of harm's way is to bring me to an island to investigate a terror cell I may or may not have a connection to while that terror cell wants to grab me for...some reason? I don't think you have thought this through."

Holden groaned. "Look, this isn't a discussion. I have a pilot buddy, trustworthy, definitely not SOAR. I've already paid him to fly us to Lovsk. But we have to get going now. In like twenty minutes, my boss will show up and he's not going to offer you an out. Shooting a guy he can live with, but I probably paralyzed an active field agent. I'm not in trouble yet, but this is obviously a one time offer. A good reprimand is right around the corner, and that means a cozy desk for me and a cozy hole for you."

"A cozy hole?"

"The best way to keep you safe from their perspective is to put you somewhere no one will ever find you," Holden said, and left it at that.

Jazz bit her lip. She wasn't sure. She wanted to find out what had happened to her crew, to cut a little swath of vengeance but...the morphine wasn't helping her think. She reached to her left hand and tugged out the IV and tried to clear her head. "I think...I think you have a point," she said.

Holden nodded. "I usually do. Come on."

Holden wheeled over a wheelchair, helped Jazz from bed and she sat down. Then, as quickly as they dared, they walked out of the hospital room and down the hall to an elevator. The hospital was a madhouse. Jazz wondered how many people had been caught in the SOAR attack at the Pallisades. She wondered if they were quarantined here or if they had been rushed off to some blacksite somewhere.

They were outside and hailing a cab by the time the alarms started. She hadn't realized that it was going to be such a big deal. Holden glanced over his shoulder and swore. "Fuck. Thought we'd have longer."

"What do you mean?" Jazz asked.

"You were pegged as a flight risk, I was supposed to be your protective custody," Holden said. "Last strings I had to pull. Come on."

They climbed into the cab and Holden tossed the driver a wad of cash. "Go. Fast," he said, and the driver sped away.
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Postby Atnaia » Fri Nov 18, 2016 4:12 am

Theodore Noonan held the phone receiver a few inches from his ear and grimaced. How in the good gosh darn has it come to this? he thought with a twist of ennui. In twenty-four hours, they'd had a second terror attack, a traitor had tried to hijack an agent and an asset, those same individuals had been in a car wreck, and now that agent and that asset had gone rogue. And, as if things couldn't get worse, the coffee machine had broken and there wouldn't be a repairman in until Monday. Oh, and he was getting shouted at by the Hegemon, which was not a particularly pleasant experience. The Hegemon was usually cold as ice and had the patience of a saint (or the foresight of a prophet, Noonan had never decided which), so when something got his hackles raised, you knew you had really screwed up. Noonan knew what happened to people who screwed up under the Hegemon's gaze. He'd overseen a couple of the Zersetzung ops himself, in the early days of the Hegemon's reign, although of course they used the much neater term "recomposition operations" to avoid comparison with the Stasi if their files were ever opened up fifty years down the line. The Hegemon liked playing the long game.

"So," the Hegemon finished the end of his rant on failures of command, gross incompetence of oversight and possibility of termination (the dual meaning of the last one was not lost on Noonan), "what do you have to offer me as a solution?"

Noonan had been prepared for this. When he'd called the Hegemon's office to report, he'd already scrawled the answers to several likely questions at the top of a notepad. He glanced down.

"I've been fielding calls from our counterparts in other organizations about the SOAR operations in their own nations," Noonan said. "I think our best option here is sort of two branched. We can't go around purging our own forces of possible dissidents without shooting ourselves in the foot, so to speak, so we need to buttress ourselves while we perform a more thorough internal sweep..."

"An internal sweep that should have been completed during the organization-wide shift months ago," Wessich replied. "I know Blythe himself oversaw that, and Blythe is very, very competent. So how your office managed to screw it up I will never know."

"Yes sir," Noonan coughed. "Uh. Well, as I was saying, I think our best bet is to...well, outsource, for lack of a better term?"

Noonan could almost hear Wessich raise an eyebrow. "Outsource?"

"I recommend that we form an international taskforce organization to deal with SOAR," Noonan said. "Pool our resources with our sister agencies and begin piecing together information from more datasets. We're all currently running investigations with one-third of the available picture, and everyone's third is a different third that overlaps with the other thirds in strange ways. It's like a jigsaw puzzle where everyone only has six pieces and one part of the image showing what to build. We would do better working together."

Wessich was silent. After a few moments, he spoke. "Have you discussed this with Blythe?"

"I put a call out to his office."

Noonan could hear typing on the far side and muted conversation. Finally, Wessich spoke again. "We will do so. Your suggestion shows some foresight. Congratulations."

"Thank you, sir," Noonan replied.

"Unfortunately, you are still too incompetent to be allowed to continue in your position," Wessich said. "Blythe will be expecting your retirement paperwork on his desk by tomorrow morning. Have a good evening, Mr. Noonan."

The line went dead. Noonan blinked, his breath caught in his throat. Then he smiled. Well, he thought, I'm not dead or being used for experiments. Let's call it a win.

There was a knock on his door and the analyst named Aria cracked it open. "Sir?" she said.

"Come in," Noonan said, hanging up the receiver.

She stepped in, looking down at the floor like she was uncomfortable. Noonan smiled in what he hoped was a paternal way.

"No need to be worried," he said. "What can I do for you?"

Her good arm snapped up and Noonan saw the momentary flash of the stun gun as it fired. He fell to the floor and heard the door slam open and several sets of feet swoop in. Moments later, he felt the bag go over his head, the prick of the needle in his throat, and then he lost consciousness. The last thing he heard before he slipped away was Aria speaking to whoever else was in the room.

"Make sure SPD gets him without too many bruises," she said. "The Hegemon hates failure."
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Postby Atnaia » Fri Nov 18, 2016 5:49 am

The seaplane skimmed across the waves off the shores of Lovsk. Over the headset, the pilot, an old friend of Holden's, spoke. "Alright, folks, you got a couple minutes to get ashore before I have to start worrying about coast guards and whatnot. It's now or never."

Holden clapped the man's shoulder. "Thanks, Fred."

"We're even for the thing in Black Hill now," the pilot said. Holden chuckled and grabbed the duffel at his feet. Jazz, hopped up on painkillers, was opening the side of the plane and tossing out an auto-inflatable dinghie, which expanded with a dull whumpf before settling on the water. Holden hopped in and helped Jazz in, before reaching back into the plane and grabbing a paddle. He gave one last wave to Fred and then paddled towards shore. As they pulled away, the props on the plane began to spin up again and it skimmed away, before picking up speed and rising away from the surf.

"Alright," Holden said as he stroked. "Let's go over it one last time."

Jazz rolled her eyes. Her neckbrace kept her from looking away from his face, but she made a point of turning her body to aim towards shore. The flight had not been kind on her and she was taking it out on Holden. "You're George Gilmore, you work for Mobanco and are in Lovsk to scout out possible expansions. I'm your assistant, Charlotte Jones, here to assist, obviously."

"Passport?" Holden asked.

Jazz tapped the zip-up breast pocket of her orange windbreaker. "Here. How'd you get one made so fast?"

"Fred and I have friends," Holden said. "How'd you hurt your neck?"

"Car accident," she said. Holden had said that a good cover story always conformed as close to the truth as you could get without actually saying it. "Couldn't afford to take the time off because we're from Merrit and we don't have Atdent there yet."

Holden nodded. "Good."

They fell silent and the sound of the waves and seabirds was the only thing to break it. A few minutes later, they scraped up onto the gravel beach and Holden helped her out. He pulled out a pocket knife from the pocket of his water-resistant cargo pants and popped the dinghie, then sent it floating out onto the water again.

"Okay," he said. "There's a road about a klick north of here. We can hitch a ride or something to town from there. What do we tell people?"

"We decided to go on a hike and got a bit lost," Jazz said.

"Second rule of being undercover," Holden said. "Always make everyone feel like they are smarter than you. If they think you are foolish, they won't think you are pulling the wool over their eyes."

They hiked north, and Jazz began to feel the soreness in her neck and limbs. She hadn't broken anything, and the brace was more annoying than anything, but it did still hurt. She was tempted to pop a painkiller, but was rapidly swooping in on critical dosage and it was barely noon. They hitched a ride with a local in a shitty old pick-up truck, and soon a few houses began to roll by. When they finally disembarked, they were in Rovka.

"Isn't this place like, really shit?" Jazz said. "If I've seen it on the news, I probably don't want to go there."

"It's a center of sedition," Holden said. "If SOAR is anywhere, they are here."
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Postby Ostehaar » Fri Nov 18, 2016 7:25 am

The Vekslers' van slowly approached the entrance to one of the parking lots in the center of Rovka. There was a long traffic jam near it, preventing the van from getting to its destination.

Then came the whisper - go, go, go - four fire teams of Oster troops ran stealthily towards the van from all directions, their rifles raised and pointing at those in the van. At the exact same second, as the front teams opened the two front doors and neutralized the driver, the rear teams burst through the back and into the van.

...But there was nothing there. Smiling and untroubled, the driver - apparently the only man in the van - raised his hands slowly. He wasn't one of the Veksler brothers, and not even a high-profile SOAR operative. He was merely a pawn activist who agreed to be the red herring.

"Where is Frank Veksler?!" A soldier shouted at him while another pulled him out of the van. "Where is Sean Veksler? Where did they go?!"

The man just kept smiling, as if he was dreaming about being on a beach somewhere across the ocean, with the sun and breeze on his pleased face. "I don't know," he finally said, "and I don't care."



Offices of the 13th field intelligence battalion,
Rovka, Lovsk

"What?!" Lieutenant Grihnfeld's face turned pale, and he dropped backwards into his chair, stupefied. "Lost them? How?"

"I'm not sure, sir," the operator replied. "They must have used a decoy van and took another one which we didn't know of. Maybe they knew we were following their van... or maybe they did it just in case we were."

"My god..."

"We can try to re-"

The door was suddenly pushed open as a frantic "sir!" call came from behind the Lieutenant's back. Both Osters turned around to see the tearing face of another soldier.

"Rumosk Street," he said, shuddering with horror, "something happened to the teams there. They're dead! They're all dead!" He then gently collapsed down. Grihnfeld buried his head between his hands, and the operator got up to make sure the soldier was alright. The Lieutenant's cellphone started ringing, but he couldn't muster the willpower to pick it up.
Last edited by Ostehaar on Fri Nov 18, 2016 7:28 am, edited 3 times in total.

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Postby Ostehaar » Thu Dec 01, 2016 1:16 pm

It's been over a week since ten Oster soldiers and six Lovskian civilians died in what might be considered the first act of terrorism against Ostehaar in many years... and it wasn't even made public. Ten now mourning Oster families were told about a horrific field accident, and that the bodies were nearly impossible to identify. Lieutenant Grihnfeld himself visited each and every one of the quiet homes - comforting every father whose son will remain in his twenties forever.

The Veksler brothers vanished. Johan's theory was that they have gone deep underground where no grid-oriented device or technology would track them down. "They know Lovsk a whole lot better than us," he said to Tomas Grihnfeld when the young Lieutenant returned to monitor his battalion's activity in Lovsk. "There are probably hundreds of locations and hide-outs we have no idea about." It's been a week, and every analytic method, advanced SIGINT capability, and valuable human source have failed to uncover their tracks. "Like the name of the bio-weapon they've used," he added, "they're now ghosts."

Ghosts in Sea... Ghosts on land. Floating through the island like dream kings, returning to Grihnfeld's nightmares over and over again, along with the creeping voice of that frantic soldier who informed him of the attack. They're dead! They're all dead! What was his name again? Ben? Behl? It doesn't matter. They're all dead! He gets out of bed every night and looks out the window to the dark and empty street under his residence in Rovka, before moving back to the bed and lying down, exhausted and sleepless.

His request for a leave was denied by his superiors. His year of service in Lovsk has turned him into a valuable asset for the military. He and the other commanders in the 13th field intelligence battalion were the only Oster commanders to ever come in direct contact with the local population and insurgency for so long. Sure, he had taken leaves of absence in the past, but times were too critical now, and the army needed him out there, supervising the patrols and recon missions, writing reports and managing collection efforts.

But his mind took a leave of absence nonetheless. One of his deputies was the de-facto commander of the battalion in the past two days, while Tomas Grihnfeld was falling apart in his room. "How are you feeling, sir?" The question fell as expected after lunch time, accompanied by that pitiful look. The Lieutenant nodded silently with a polite smile and walked away, leaving his troops worried and confused.

His hand began shivering again. They're dead! They're all dead! His heart rate gradually maxed and his sweat filled his uniform with a disgustingly sticky sensation. After about a minute, he found himself standing in his room again. He wanted to fall down into his bed and sleep, but was too afraid to dirty it. He felt like there was no place he could sit or lie on, and was repulsed by the mere thought of touching anything else... even his clothes. Trembling, he removed his uniform, stopping once in a few moments to let the images of the degenerated faces of his soldiers to fade. His own skin felt nauseating to him. Ghost in mind.

Suddenly he felt the cold and heavy form of his pistol. He completely forgot that it was on him at all times.

They're all dead!

A single shot echoed the offices of the 13th field intelligence battalion in Rovka. Tomas Grihnfeld didn't waste too many bullets.

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Postby Atnaia » Sat Dec 03, 2016 7:17 am

"Subject 01-17 shows standard adverse affects to exposure. Moving on to Subject 01-18."

Doctor Sarah Klein waited for the plexiglass container to cycle, then opened the small hatch in its side. Lifting out the dead rat with extreme care, she laid it's slightly-glowing corpse into a sterile plastic container, shifted the container into a small airlock in the side of the research cube, cycled that one, and then retrieved a different plastic container from a wall. The rat inside moved about with standard curious motions, sniffing at the point where Klein's gloves met the hard plastic side of the portable terrarium. Klein connected the container to a port on the side of the plexiglass container and urged it out with a tap. She sealed the plexiglass cube, discarded the rat's old terrarium and began the process of pumping captured GIS strains into the test cube. The aerosol hiss of the test reached her ears even through the hazmat suit. The rat slowly scratched at the sides of the plexiglass, coughed up a bluish glob of mucous mixed with blood, then toppled over, wheezed for several moments, and died.

"Subject 01-18 shows standard adverse affects to exposure. Moving on to Subject 01-19."

A knuckle rapped at the side of the clean room. Klein looked up. "Process interrupted. Subject 01-19 to be tested after a brief break."

Klein cleaned up the results of Subject 01-18's test as quickly as she could afford to, then stepped into the man-sized airlock and waited. After a few minutes, she stepped out into the lab room. Before anyone had a chance to approach, she stripped off his hazmat suit and tossed it in a blue plastic garbage bag, which she discarded into a locking container to be incinerated. They weren't taking any chances with the GIS Weapon leaking out. It's contagious properties were limited, and thus far it had only been able to be contracted through direct inhalation, but it wasn't worth the risk.

The lab was filled with the standard array of researchers and scientists, operatives and agents, suits and labcoats. LISA's research teams weren't as big and well-funded as ANIA's, but the Stone Wall-Bastion SPD's teams were larger than either, and SPD had swept in with their practically supernatural haste as soon as the weapons had begun going off to offer their resources and facilities for research. Klein knew she should be suspicious of that, but frankly she was just happy to have 24-7 access to their clean room and a seemingly unlimtied array of rats. Also their genetic sequencers, which she had always had to fight over back in the government labs. The seemingly unlimited private resources of Stone Wall-Bastion had no such limitations, and they'd been able to start developing some interesting concepts for anti-biotic agents to fight the Ghost-in-Sea Weapons.

The person who had tapped on the glass approached. Dr. Kong was a middle aged Chinese immigrant, with a slight paunch and the early hint of the jowls of old age. He was the head of the GSRP research facilities working on algae-based biofuels, such as the Hart Island Facility, and so he was also the man directly responsible for the development of the genetically-altered Ghost-in-Sea that had been stolen and turned into the GIS Weapon. To hear it from him, his teams had never even considered the military applications of the algae, that shoving them into overblown sprinkler systems had never even been a blip on the radar. Klein was less sure. SOAR didn't seem capable of producing something like this from nothing, and to hear tell of it from a few researchers who had worked with the Atnaian end of the GSRP, not everything in that agency was on the up-and-up. The rumours that had been spreading suggested that there had been a containment breach at the Hart Island Facility months ago that had been buried, and since then the government had had its sticky fingers deep inside the development. What SOAR had stolen may have been more than just algae, given the quality of the worksmanship on the retrieved devices. Not that anyone would say that to any of the men-in-black.

Kong smiled paternally. "Dr. Klein," he said.

"Dr. Kong," Klein said. She walked over to a sink and carefully scrubbed her hands. "Is the interruption to testing a requirement, or just an annoyance?"

Dr. Kong's smile fell away. "Requirement. We have a visitor..."

A young woman stepped forward. She was dressed in a severe black suit jacket and skirt. Her crisp white shirt and practical shoes screamed G-Man, as did the stoic set of her high-held jaw and cold eyes. Her dark hair fell o her shoulders. She might have been impressive, if she weren't so short. She barely broke five feet tall, if Klein were to guess. She held out her hand.

"Dr. Klein," she spoke. Her accent was vaguely Middle Eastern, in the sort of third-generation immigrant sort of way that didn't really suggest any particular culture. Her hand shot up and Klein shook it after taking a moment to dry her own. "I am Agent Allayid."

Having G-Men wandering the labs wasn't anything new, but this was strange. She had never been interrupted in an experiment by one. Everyone from the letter agencies, from ANIA to ZOE, seemed to have somebody on staff. Why the Zoological Oversight Extension of the Department of the Environment needed people around, Klein had still yet to figure out.

"What can I do for you, Agent Allayid?"

"I'm sorry to interrupt you at work," Allayid said, as if reading Klein's mind. She cast her glance at the clean room. "I am told that, as of right now, you are the nearest thing Atnaia has to an expert of counter-agents to biological contaminants related to the GIS Weapon?"

Klein frowned. "Yes. As near as we can have, when such a thing doesn't really exist yet."

Allayid raised an eyebrow. "If you don't mind playing in hypotheticals for a moment, why do you think that is?"

"It's not a hypothetical, there's a reason," Klein said. "You know those disgusting adverts printed on the side of cigarette packages showing the tar build up on someone's brachial tubes after years of smoking? What GIS does is essentially that, except in a matter of minutes. Combined with the fact that it sucks all the moisture off the lungs and mucous membranes, we can't exactly develop an effective response agent to it. It's not viral or bacterial, so we can't make a vaccine. We have to treat it like a parasite, but it is really fast acting. The best we can tell people right now is just 'don't get infected'. But you can't just tell people to go around wearing gas masks..."

Klein was rambling. She saw it in Allayid's face. She bit her tongue. Allayid clasped her hands behind her back. Kong nodded. "Dr. Klein is right. If I had know that our tampering would cause this..."

Allayid shrugged. "You're right, of course. The best we can tell people is to not get infected. The best we can do is prevent more attacks. Due to recent events and the dissemination of the weapon across the region, the government of Atnaia has approved the creation of an international joint task-force to combat SOAR and other terrorist organizations attempting to use the GIS Weapon. It is our hope, Dr. Klein, that you would join that task force."

Klein's eyebrows knit together. "I'm sorry? I'm a research scientist, not an agent."

"The purpose of this task force is to pool resources to combat the weapon, and one of our greatest weapons in this fight are the quality of Atnaian minds. We want you to use your knowledge to help us in that fight."

Klein sighed. It wasn't the first time someone had tried to poach her from LISA. "I'm of a lot more use here, Agent Allayid."

"I don't think you are," Allayid replied. "You've been performing experiments on algae and rats for weeks. What progress have you made?"

Klein thought about that. Progress might have been a strong term for anything they had done thus far. They'd made breakthroughs, but a breakthrough wasn't exactly forward movement. They had discovered quite a lot about the Ghost-in-Shell algae, and algae in general, but not many ways of combating it. She shrugged.

"Not like I can do more working for a taskforce," she said. "In fact, I'd be doing substantially less."

"You'd be helping people in the field, instead of people on paper," Allayid responded. That caught Klein off-guard. She supposed that the agent was right. Their research wasn't really helping if it wasn't doing anything. "We need an advisor, Dr. Klein, and we want you."

Klein chewed on that for a moment. "Give me twenty-four hours to consider it."
Last edited by Atnaia on Sat Dec 10, 2016 5:12 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Atnaia » Wed Dec 14, 2016 6:24 am

A clatter of gunfire somewhere to the west swam through the city streets to Jazz's ears. She instinctively flinched. We were really, really stupid to come here, she thought. Ahead of her, Holden crept low, the muscles in his face and jaw taut and twitching.

"This was a bad plan," Jazz whispered. Holden grunted, but she wasn't sure if it was an argument or an agreement.

The gunfire ceased and quiet reigned in the streets. Holden stood back up. He looked over at Jazz. "Bad plan or not, it's where we are, sweetheart."

"We don't even know who or what we are looking for," Jazz replied.

Holden tugged on the zipper of his jacket, tightening it a bit against the cold breeze. "Sure we do."

He nodded his head across the street. A small building, the same as all the others around them, stood where he had gestured. An old red truck sat in an alley next to it and a simple cardboard placard sat in the front window. Warm Currents Shipping, it read in orange letters, the white of the cardboard faded to sun-stained yellow.

"What's that supposed to do for us?" Jazz asked.

"You're the one who is supposed to know the weak link," Holden said. "I just got us here."

They walked up to the front door and tried it, but the door was locked. Holden leaned in and tried to look through the glass door, but it was papered over with six-month old newspapers. A sound like a bear growling rumbled in Holden's chest. He rapped on the glass with a knuckle, but no response came.

Jazz looked through the wide front window. "Lights are off."

Holden rubbed his temples with his fingertips, sighed, and pulled out his knife. Jazz frowned and watched as he dug the blade into the edge of the door and tore out chunks of rubber seal before twisting, lifting, and popping the lock with the blade. He opened the door as he closed the blade.

"So we're just breaking into places now?"

"We're fugitives anyways," Holden said. "Besides, it's Lovsk."

Jazz swallowed and followed the erstwhile LISA agent into the dark of the office. The room had a single desk with an old CRT computer monitor upon it. The carpet was rough and coffee-stained, the waiting area filled with outdated furniture with peeling yellow paint. A half-dead potted plant stood in the blind-covered window. The only light streamed in from the thin slashes of the blinds as the door thumped shut behind them. A door and a steel filing cabinet sat behind the desk, but its chair was missing.

"What the hell are we looking for?" Jazz asked. Her neck was aching.

"Something," Holden said. He moved to a door behind the solitary desk and opened it to a darkened hallway. "You check in that cabinet. I'm checking down here.

Jazz opened the cabinet and flipped through the box-bottom files. The contents were familiar to her: old shipping manifests, most done by hand and ordered chronologically, albeit not well. Edges of the paper manifests were torn, half seemed incomplete. Jazz's XO side got a little sick.

She did notice one thing that stood out. The files were all for the same few boats, which wasn't completely strange. Warm Currents likely only operated a few tubs around here. But there was something strange. She grabbed a few of the more recent files and followed behind Holden. The man was rooting roughly through an office at the end of the hall. The only other doors led to a linoleum tiled bathroom and a small kitchen with a relatively new coffee machine and an ancient microwave. Priorities.

The office was relatively large, but felt confined by the bank of filing cabinets on the left wall. "Do these people not know the word 'digital'?" Holden asked as Jazz entered. He gestured at the CRT that sat on the steel desk. "Not including ancient pieces of crap like that. It's not even Heron, so I don't have backdoor codes."

"You have backdoor codes to Heron computers?"

Holden tapped his head. "Memorized. All the LISA agents do. Number one OS in Atnaia. We can walk into three out of four houses and get every speck off a hard drive without ever questioning passwords."

"Terrifying," Jazz mumbled. She held up the files she had grabbed. "I found something."

"What is it?" Holden asked.

Jazz grimaced. "Manifests."

Holden frowned and waved a hand at the drawers. "Congratulations, Sherlock. You cracked it."

Jazz hissed between her teeth. "No, smartass. I found a connection between manifests. You know how Armanov said I know some people in SOAR?"

"I vaguely recall," Holden deadpanned.

Jazz tossed the files on the desk. "Only six ships have been reporting manifests here in the fresh files up front."

"Hohenberger?"

"His tub is one," Jazz said. "The other five...their current captains all have one thing in common. They were running for the Asorists during the Crisis...I know them."

Holden gazed at the ceiling. "I get it. You think they may have been compromised, and might be running for SOAR, using Warm Currents as a front since...well, it is a front anyways."

"So long as they kept shipping for Silver Branch, they could undersign a little on the weight, slip an extra crate or two in their holds and use Silver Branch's pre-existing bribes and connections as a way of slipping deliveries for SOAR under the radar."

"Armanov will not like hearing that someone has been taking advantage of his methods to get their own goods moved around without his say so. But why Lovsk?"

Jazz shrugged at the cabinets. "Because they have never heard of digital at this office. Easier to screw with numbers in writing than in a system that will catch the errors."

Holden nodded. "That's one part of it, sure, but...we're missing something."

Suddenly, a voice rose from down the hallway. "What the fuck?"

Holden and Jazz looked at each other wide-eyed as feet stomped around the front. Holden darted behind the desk and slammed open a window. Jazz followed, hearing someone coming down the hall behind her. She tugged herself through the window, boosted by Holden, and slammed into the alley next to the truck with a thud. She groaned as her injured neck jolted and a few of her broken ribs shifted. Holden followed her a moment later and darted to the truck.

"Come on!" he shouted. Jazz stood in time to see a face appear in the window, wide-eyed with rage. She limped to the truck. Holden lifted a brick from the ground and slammed it through the driver-side window. Jazz saw the man in the window reflected in the rearview of the passenger side. He struggled for something and raised a pistol. She screamed and dropped just as a bullet whizzed over her head and shattered the passenger window, passed into the speedometer and lodged itself somewhere in the dashboard. Holden swore, but Jazz also heard a jangle of keys. She opened the passenger door in time for another bullet to explode off the steel next to her head and dove into the truck. The engine started and two bullets burst into the cab.

"This guy is a shit shot," Holden said, and slammed his foot down without waiting for Jazz to close the door. It clipped the edge of the alley as Holden wheeled onto the road, slammed shut and clipped Jazz's elbow. She groaned, knowing that it would be another bruise. Bullets trailed after them. One passed through the rear window between their heads. Jazz screamed again, but that was the last shot. She glanced over at Holden.

"Keys?" she asked nonsensically.

Holden pointed to the sunvisor. "He did that stupid movie thing and left the keys in the car."

Jazz chuckled, and suddenly guffawed as they sped away.
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Pozlacenslavia
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Postby Pozlacenslavia » Fri Dec 16, 2016 8:43 pm

Somewhere in the Warehouse District, Montegrad, Pozlacenslavia

Senior Police Inspector Dominik Romanovic swore as he hopped out of the truck in his blue uniform, approaching a nondescript brick warehouse nestled in the emptier parts of the Warehouse District. The old, crumbling, graffiti-covered building looked almost venerable as it sat, flush against the sidewalk.

He kicked down the wooden side door, warrant in one hand and Glock in the other. "POLICIJA!" He bellowed as he switched on the gun's flashlight and swept the dark loading area.

A crew of black armor-laden Intervention and Special Police forces followed him in. He repeated the shout of "Policija!", echoed by the dispersing subordinates like a distressed family's calling of a lost child's name.

If it wasn't for his training, he would've missed the faint rattle of something rolling along the floor amidst the shouts and shuffling feet. "GRENADE!" He screamed as he dove behind a shipping container.

Seconds later, instead of a dull explosion like Dominik expected from a fragmentation grenade, or the hiss of a tear gas grenade, there was a sudden and brief "pop."

Dominik peaked around the corner and saw a patch of concrete covered in green. No, blue. Is it changing color? he thought. The substance appeared to be glowing.

It only took two seconds for Dominik to realize what was happening. Months of intense training came to a head as he pulled out a gas mask from its side canister and slipped it over his chiseled face. He then barked out orders to the other officers to don their masks. There was no doubt they were dealing with SOAR operatives. Whether they were homegrown or foreign sleeper agents was another story.

He crept out from behind the box, walking carefully. Now that he knew the building was inhabited, he could assume the hostages were in here somewhere- and the grenade showed the hostages would be well-protected.

He slowly advanced to the stairs leading to the office and second floor storage. He grabbed hold of a ledge, and, while standing on the metal stair-railing, tested its strength. Worth a shot, his crazy but focused mind thought.

With a little push, Dominik and some lightly-armed officers shimmied along the ledge to the window. He peered inside and scanned the darkened room.
Inside, there were four masked men surrounding ten or so badly wounded men and women laying on the ground. Another masked man held a sniper rifle, seemingly searching for a target.

The sniper squeezed off a shot, almost scaring Dominik off of the railing, but he held fast.

He made an almost indistinguishable series of hand gestures as a glock was being held in his mouth, pirate style.

He then thrust himself through the open pane, falling in and kicking the sniper to the ground, knocking him out due to force and shock. As the other officers followed, Dominik switched his gun to his hands, aiming at the ringleader.

"Alright, Mr. Pavelic, the gig is up. Drop the weapon," he said as 'Mr. Pavelic' raised his Kalashnikov to the officer.

Before 'Pavelic' had a chance to respond with words or lead, Dominik lodged three quick, successive bullets into him. His body shuddered and stumbled backwards, crumpling into a pile on the dusty wooden floor. He had a surprised look on his face as he tumbled.

The hostages cheered, and the three remaining SOAR operatives dropped their weapons in shock.

The other officers, somewhat stunned themselves by the daring act they took part in, methodically clamped the handcuffs they thought they would never use onto the terrorists and led them out.

The hostages, perhaps the most stunned group of them all, gladly took the extra gas masks from the officers and gleefully bounced to freedom like children to recess.

Dominik smiled as he wandered into the pouring rain. He had reason to, as well: He had saved ten innocent people, survived a bio-weapon attack, and finished before nightfall. He looked up joyfully into the pouring sub-tropical sheets as they doused his face, highlighted with police and ambulance lights, making it seem like the end of a crime drama.

I showed him, he thought as he wandered back to the truck.
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Atnaia
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Postby Atnaia » Sat Dec 17, 2016 6:09 am

Agent Amani Allayid stood at the end of the conference table. Her dark suit and navy blouse seemed oil-slick black in the light cast by the projector. Her eyes were in deep shadow, only the center of her pupils reflecting pinprick lights in the darkness of the room. Her hair framed her face like a silken hood, like some conspirator of an ancient order. Her gaze flicked around the occupants of the table. Behind her, projected on the wall, was a severe black seal or logo.

TF-76. Task Force 76. The new organization that the intelligence agencies of several nations had sent their representatives to, all in an effort to combat the growing threat of SOAR's bioweapon. The other occupants of the table were those representatives, as well as a few familiar faces from Atnaia's intelligence agencies. Allayid's face was impassive as she scanned the group.

"Good afternoon," she said after several moments. "Thank you for coming. As you all know, Task Force 76 is an international joint-project commissioned by the Hegemonic Quorum under the advisement of the Hegemon to combat increasingly disturbing terrorist attacks, at this time primarily focused on SOAR and their Ghost-in-Sea Weapon. While the task force was suggested by the Quorum, it is not under their direct command, but is instead designed as a multilateral organization to operate independent from any specific government's control. It is our hope to swiftly quell the danger of the Ghost-in-Sea Weapon, particularly the threat of its dissemination across other groups. In other words, we don't want SOAR to have it, but we especially don't want SOAR to sell it.

"I am Agent Allayid. I am acting as liaison for the Atnaian intelligence community. Officially speaking, my role is titled Joint Operations Advisor. The heads of our respective governments are currently discussing the appointment of a permanent director of operations. I am not in command, I am simply acting as chief connection to the foremost experts in the weapon and SOAR at this time. I have made it my business to know everything we have on the threat at this time.

"At the end of the table, you will see Dr. Sarah Klein of the GSRP, at this time the foremost scientific expert on efforts being made to develop counteragents to the weapon. Next to her is Agent Aria Wagner, who up until recently was working for LISA Internal Affairs, specifically in the first response unit to the initial attacks, although at the time she was on undercover within that unit on an undercover IA assignment. She is both a capable analyst and, as a result of her close work in the first response unit, a veritable expert on SOAR and the weapon."

The pair of women waved as their names were called.

"We will all be working closely together. I would recommend taking this opportunity to introduce yourselves."
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Postby Ostehaar » Sat Dec 17, 2016 7:58 am

Behl awkwardly raised his hand. He didn't enjoy speaking up, especially among people he didn't know, and was much more eager to begin the real work, but he decided to put this uncomfortable scene behind him and introduce himself.

He stood up straight, his hands clasped behind his back. and his eyes slightly downcast.

"Good day," he said with a gravelly voice, "I am Behl Si Hehst, and I currently represent the Oster portion of the task force. We are three representatives altogether, but the other two couldn't be here today, so I speak for them as well."

"I'm an OVAST analyst, expert on northern SOAR cells and other armed factions in the Eterna and Argean areas. In my team we also have a bio-weapon specialist from our Unit 1095, and a field operative with a lot of experience in working with SOAR informants and general ties to relevant people."

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Pozlacenslavia
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Postby Pozlacenslavia » Sat Dec 17, 2016 10:08 am

Dominik fidgeted in his chair after listening to the Oster representative. He rubbed his scarred chin and sat forward in his chair. It was a long flight he had endured.

Without raising his hand, he abruptly stood in his military-esque fashion, pushing the uncomfortable chair back.

"Good morning, esteemed officers," he began in a smooth, baritone voice not all that unlike that of a nature documentary narrator. "I am Senior Police Inspector Dominik Romanovic, and I represent- and head- the Pozlacen part of the force. I come here with my partner, the honored and respected Doctor Nazmija Juric, who has studied bioweapons- and suffered their effects- during many recent wars."

At the mention of her name, a woman in a lab coat and babushka-style headdress stood, bowed, and sat again.

"I have just recently come from Montegrad, where, as I'm sure you've seen, a SOAR contingent captured a bus of tourists and began threatening to execute them one by one. We liberated the hostages before they could even start. At my disposal, I have emergency resources of the Intervention and Special Police, granted to me by the Glorious Dictator himself, as well as express permission to share all of our intel on SOAR with all of you here."

"I look forward to working with you to stop this international menace. Thank you." Dominik sat down and stretched again in the chair.
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Postby Noronica » Sun Dec 18, 2016 7:30 am

Mike Harwin glanced around the room carefully, when he noticed the third voice dim down, he took this opportunity to stand up.

"Agent Mike Harwin, at your service. For the purposes of this meeting and task-force, I will be working as a delegate from the Noronnican Military Intelligence Agency. Officially, I am a Senior Overseer for both FAR and LOCAL."
Pausing, he grasped hold of his water bottle and took a quick swig,
"Behind me, I have a bio-warfare expert from the United Noronnican Armed Forces. His name is Florence Crysk."
A short man in his middle ages abruptly stood up. He looked nervous being rather intimidated by the amount of people in the room.
Mike turned towards his left and directed his hand to a woman in her thirties,
"And Agent Ygrin. She shall work as a supervisor to Agents on the ground." Nodding, Ygrin stood up and gave a small bow. She was a crisp woman, observing everyone in the room with a calm demeanour.

Once both representatives had sat down, Mike smiled easily and spoke again,
"I hope that we can provide as much as we can towards this cause."

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Atnaia
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Postby Atnaia » Fri Dec 23, 2016 4:16 am

Agent Allayid folded her arms over her chest. "Good. We're all acquainted then. Let's get down to brass tacks. Here's what we know for certain.

"Several months ago, SOAR operatives took advantage of a containment breach at the Green Science Research Pact laboratories on Hart Isle in southern Atnaia to capture samples of the biologically altered Ghost-in-Sea algae that was being developed there. This was followed some time later by an attack on the private shipping vessel Adirondack by an individual named Claudio 'Inferno' Hohenberger, who we also know goes by the alias Dante Alighieri. Whether Hohenberger was directly involved in the original capture of the GIS is unknown. Apparently, the weapon has been disseminated across several cells of SOAR in an unprecedented move of unity for that organization. Follow-up attacks have been carried out, most dramatically at the Palisades Hotel in Ambress. We also know now that SOAR may have deep-cover operatives inside several international intelligence and law enforcement agencies, or at least sympathizers.

"The primary and immediate concern of TF-76 is, of course, the capture of Claudio Hohenberger. Unfortunately, that effort has stalled. As such, we must make broader moves against SOAR as a whole. To that end, we must now discuss first moves for this organization."
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Postby Ostehaar » Fri Dec 23, 2016 7:31 am

Behl leaned forward and rested has arms on the table. "I would like to add a few more facts," he said, "regarding SOAR's activity in Lovsk."

"We've uncovered a large SOAR cell on the island, that indeed was contacted by Hohenberger. The core of this cell, as far as we can tell at the moment, is a small team led by two related SOAR operatives, the Veksler brothers. About a week ago, they've orchestrated a GIS attack against a group of our soldiers on the island. We're currently still trying to find them, both to arrest them for the attack and to see if we can extract more information about Hohenberger from them."

"As for Agent Allayid's question," Behl continued, "I think the best course of action at the moment would be to start researching in depth the attack which already too place. People must have been there to put the device, others must have instructed them by phone, some others must have taken them by car and extracted them in time, and more others must have contacted them in the daysprior to the attack. These things are all documented in billing data and cellular databases which we should have access to."

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Postby Atnaia » Fri Dec 30, 2016 5:06 am

Agent Allayid nodded. "We do. And we can track a very sizable amount of information, due to the nature of certain Atnaian systems that we have in place for just such a situation. However, this is where certain elements of SOAR play against us."

Allayid pressed a button on the table and the projector flipped images to a series of points on the Ambress attack. "When it comes to the Ambress attack, we know the following for certain: SOAR operatives infiltrated the hotel in the guise of construction workers repairing an elevator system. They used this cover to access the hotel's fire protection system, linking a GIS weapon to the piping that attached to the sprinkler system. Once the GIS spread through he system, they set off the system, which spread GIS as a form of improvised aerosol throughout the hotel.

"Payments were made by the hotel to a standard contracting company with whom they have worked before. Initial contact seems to have been standard. We have shut down said company until we can complete the investigation. They will not be working on any other facilities. However, we have no proof that the company itself is a SOAR cell or a SOAR shell. It is just as likely that SOAR operatives had themselves hired for the job in question simply for the purposes of an attack."

Allayid clicked the button again. The image was a list of employees for the hotel and the contractors. "The elevator was certainly damaged in some way before the company was hired, but whether this damage was intentional or simply used as a convenient method of infiltration is also unknown. It is quite possible SOAR has someone embedded in the hotel staff. This is where we run into problems. Staff. Due to the nature of said contracting firm, they frequently make use of temporary workers, either through agencies, short term indents, or through illegal cash payments to undocumented workers. As such, we can't be certain we have a full list of workers for the company, or that such a list is accurate. It is an unfortunate reality of agency indenturement that identity issues can sometimes be muddled. People don't always ask the right questions. Plus, we have no lists of anyone who might have been employed under the table. That being said, such payments can't always be invisible. Even cash has to be tracked in their accounting somewhere. And we have access to that. We also have access to the phone record metadata for the hotel and the contractors, plus their employees, for our estimated window of infiltration. By the by, said window is assumed to be the two weeks before the attack. Obviously, combing all of this data is going to be slow. We have our standard algorithms trying to pull pertinent pieces, but as I said, elements of SOAR's operations work against us. Their decentralized nature causes trends in their operations to sometimes be hard to work out."

Alayid coughed, sipped some water, and pressed the button again. The projector showed an image of a device, attached to some plumbing in a dark, concrete hallway. "This is the device attached to the sprinkler network in the hotel. It's our best current clue. It seems to be made mostly out of things that could be purchased at most construction supply stores, but a few of the components can be tracked due to their relatively niche purposes, and a few are specialized pieces of equipment used for the actual purposes of containing the GIS, and aren't available over the counter. They'd have to be purchased from medical or scientific supply companies. That's our best start."
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Postby Pozlacenslavia » Mon Jan 02, 2017 5:52 pm

Dominik raised his hand and leaned forwards.

"Our first step should definitely be tracking the device parts, yes." He not-quite-bellowed.

"However, do we have anyone inside this contracting company? I feel like part of what we should be doing is finding out previous jobs of the company and linking them to other SOAR jobs. They may be more involved."

"And who knows, maybe establishing trust with the workers might get us more information on the potential men on the inside more than poring over documents- most of which seem to be nonexistent."

He sympathy-coughed with Allayid and leaned back into his chair.
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Postby Atnaia » Sun Jan 08, 2017 2:41 pm

"As I said, we are currently conducting an investigation," Allayid said. She frowned. "I mean, LISA is conducting an investigation, which we will have jurisdiction over...well, once this meeting lets out."
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Postby Atnaia » Sat Jan 14, 2017 6:12 am

The truck idled as Holden checked the map on its hood, the light drizzle making the paper a sticky shade of gray. Jazz tried her best to stretch out her sore limbs on the shoulder of the dirt road. Rolling hills of scrub and brush pressed around them, the nearest building or tree at least a mile away.

"Okay," Holden murmured, "okay. Help me out here."

Jazz groaned as her spine popped and some twisted knot of muscle loosened. She walked over and looked at the map over Holden's shoulder. He made space.

"We are assuming that these guys have been offloading shit for SOAR under the front of Silver Branch, themselves under the front of Warm Currents," Holden said. "But we can't assume every Silver Branch knucklehead on this island is involved. It's hard to keep secrets...so, where were they loading the extra goods. Was it at the docks?"

Jazz wanted to make a short-tempered quip, but bit her tongue and shrugged. "Dunno. I'd guess they were probably intentionally screwing with their manifests, then meeting SOAR somewhere else to either load or offload the goods, whatever they were."

"Do you have the manifests?"

"They won't be helpful," Jazz shrugged, but jerked a thumb at the glove box. "If they're faking the weights, and smuggling besides, nothing on them is going to be accurate, other than ship names and destinations and that sort of thing."

Holden frowned. It set lines in his face. It was funny, Jazz thought. He should have looked older, but this sort of work suited him. Even his inching-towards-gray hair looked a bit darker, although that might have been the rain plastering it to his scalp. "But they were on their way between here and Atnaia," he mumbled, the gears in his brain working as he scanned the map. "Six ships, all cargo vessels able to carry a fair amount of weight...all already carrying a fair amount of weight...what in Baln's name were they carrying? And where were they landing?"

Jazz let her eyes slip across the map and let her hindbrain take over, the part of her that had spent years on ships, doing exactly the sort of smuggling work they were investigating. If she were thinking like these people, where would she go?

"What's that?" she asked, pointing to a mark on the map near the southern coast.

"Old village," Holden said. "There's a couple of them, abandoned up and down the coast. Sometimes a big storm takes a place out, and its easier to just move on. Used to be worse like a hundred years ago than now."

"How do you know that?" Jazz asked.

"Used to happen on Merritt too," Holden said. He tapped his chest and his accent slipped into the lilting tones of a Merritt drawl. "Prout Merritt mama, me." The 'D' in proud was a hard snap like a T. It was a good accent. Jazz wondered if it was real.

She studied the map. "An abandoned village," she mused.

"There wouldn't be big docks," Holden pointed out.

"They may not need to dock," Jazz said. "We don't know what they're carrying..."

They stood in silence. Holden sighed and tucked his hands in his pocket. He glanced skyward. "I don't know about you, but I'm not searching an abandoned fishing town at night with no back-up."

Jazz thought that was reasonable. She said as much, and then Holden grabbed a burner phone and started making some calls to find a motel. Jazz interrupted him.

"We're just gonna park our stolen, shot-up truck at a hotel," she asked.

"It's Lovsk," Holden said, as if that was any explanation. Jazz blinked at him. He sighed. "We'll ditch it somewhere and walk to whatever dive we find."

Jazz let the quip come. "Hiking. Just what a woman in a neckbrace needs."

Holden shrugged. "We're already in it, sweetheart," he said. "Hikings the least of our problems. If SOAR finds us, I'm pretty sure that neckbrace will be the least of yours."
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Postby Ostehaar » Tue Jan 17, 2017 3:51 pm

Behl listened carefully and wrote down in his notebook almost everything that Allayid said, occasionally nodding unmindfully in agreement.

"I agree as well," he said, regarding the idea of tracking specialized equipment. "I'm sure your agency has full access to the data and will be able to get the information quickly. Unfortunately, my service is in a bit of a pickle since we have no way of tracking the equipment used to produce the device from the Lovsk attack. Not an easy way, at least."

"So while you work this meta-data magic, we will keep sweeping our backyard, with boots on the ground. We've already scanned about half of the island with UAVs and ground units, so I don't think it'll take us long to locate the local cell members. Once we get to them or to any of their accomplices, we'll have a direct link to the Mesder cell. If our theories are correct, that is."



A suburb of Haalban, north Ostehaar

Martin Langer was a vigorous forty-two year-old Oster with a short dark and slightly gray hair. He had piercing blue eyes and a vacation-tanned face, and the trim, toned frame of a seasoned mountaineer - the by-product of ski excursions in the Khaabarist Mountains and rugged hikes in the hills.

Langer's appearance set him apart from the pack he was walking with, down a street close to a workshop he owned in a suburb of Haalban. Rikard and Dihn were two frumpy and pale engineers, one with a black ponytail and the other with a close-cropped blond hair and a lean boyish face. In sharp contrast to their obviously relaxed approach to dress and fitness, Langer stood out with his sported crisp business suit and crafted leather shoes.

The workshop was in fact a large open yard with a small tin cabin in its corner, in the middle of a wooded area. Access to it was through a short dirt road which branched off from the street, close to the edge of the neighborhood.

"Alright," Langer announced as the three arrived within a short walk from the workshop. He gestured at a black Ford parked neatly along the sidewalk on the other side of the street. "That's me. It's been good today. Do try to smile for future meetings," he said, smiling briefly as if to show them how it's done. "We're not quite there yet, but we'll get there soon enough."

The two nodded in understanding and glanced at each other. Langer made sure to get their attention again immediately. "But we should stay focused. There's a lot at risk here and there are plenty of potential problems."

"We know, mate," Dihn replied, "you can count on us."

Langer looked at him in silence for a moment, and then diverted his eyes to Rikard. "Right. So we'll talk in a few days. The money should get to you tomorrow, and if it isn't there by the evening, give me a call and I'll sort things out."

"Sure," Dihn acknowledged casually.

Langer turned his back to the engineers and marched towards his car.

"I'm fucking scared of this guy," Rikard said as they watched Langer drive away. "I mean, it's not that haven't heard about him before, but shit, I wasn't expecting that."

Dihn sniggered and began walking down the dirt road towards the workshop. "Relax, man. Let's just finish the device and get this over with."

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