The Tightrope Act

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The Tightrope Act
Author United Antarctic Nations Archives Office
Country United States of Antarctica
Language English
Genre Creative non-fiction
Publisher United Antarctic Nations
Published Unknown
Media type Novel, declassified manuscripts
Preceded by The Theta Contingency
Followed by Blur The Line
The Margate Affair

An increase in kidnappings is seen in all parts of the continent. Penguins of all colors and sizes, ages and nationalities, are taken in various methods unexpected by the local governments. Various modus operandi are used to take these penguins, ranging from break-ins to public raidings, from snatching in the middle of the roads to staged bombings in populated areas. As tensions grow and questions are asked on whether they are linked and who is behind this, The Public steps into the limelight. Armed with their demands and a manifest to prove their validity, The Public sends ripples of panic amongst the general public, stemming to panic and paranoia from the population.

A United Antarctic Nations inter-agency taskforce is activated under the orders of the Security Council to investigate and free those who have been kidnapped by The Public. Hailing from the various intelligence agencies, the taskforce composed of those who would be best qualified to handle the investigation. Among those who have been summoned is EPF Anti-Terrorism Commander Rogue Tvarkov, whose expertise in the field of intelligence analysis and terrorism makes her a suitable member of the team. With the assistance of Agents Piri Perez and John Reyes, Tvarkov along with the rest of the taskforce is tasked with finding out who exactly The Public is, what their motives are, and how to stop them. These would force them to cooperate with each other, despite their initial reluctance to do so.

As a collective of perspectives from the various taskforce personnel, government files, media clippings, and UAN debriefing transcripts, The Tightrope Act is a phrase used by Club Penguin Times journalist Raven Westley to describe the taskforce's struggle to find a balance between answering the UAN's burning questions and understanding the motives behind The Public's actions. The phrase is later used to describe the inner tension within the taskforce as they try to make sense of their conflict in the manner of doing their jobs. The Tightrope Act is later popularized among news outlets throughout the duration of the investigation as the main term used to call the entirety of the event.


[PAGE 51 OF 172 - MANDATE NO. 54]

To eliminate the possible conflicts of interest between agencies during an international case, the UAN Taskforce is made to unify the investigation under one banner, with one main objective being seen through that suits the interests of all involved parties. The Taskforce would be monitored by the Security Council in a way that they do not violate a nation's sovereignty nor ignore the international laws followed by all members of the UAN. Members of the Taskforce may have security clearance to have access to information from various government databases, but with the established trust that this would not be used against the objectives of the Taskforce.

In the situation of a reported abuse of power within the Taskforce, an investigation will be conducted by the Security Council with the concerned individual(s) suspended during the probe. If found guilty, the Taskforce members concerned will be dismissed from their posts and sent back to their respective countries where they may be put under disciplinary probations. Concerned member states may also press charges on the guilty once the investigation is over. They will be replaced by any qualifying personnel who will take their posts, as well as blacklisted from any future activations.


The UAN Taskforce may only be activated by the Secutiy Council for the following reasons:

(1) An international threat has been established that requires the cooperation of multiple intelligence agencies;
(2) During times of war in multiple areas that require the collection, verification, and dissemination of information between countries;
(3) To mobilize a team of experts that may be consulted by the UAN during tribunals, investigations, and;
(4) Any situation not mentioned in the preceeding numbers that are deemed valid reasons to activate the taskforce

The Taskforce will comprise of qualified individuals from the various intelligence or government agencies depending on the reason of their activation. These individuals would be taken from the lists of qualified personnel submitted by the agencies, or taken upon recommendation of any member of the Council or governments concerned. The Taskforce would be based mainly on the premises of the UAN Headquarters and will be subjected to monthly reporting to the Council.

Refer to page 150 [APPENDIX A: List of Qualified Personnel] for a complete list of personnel for the UAN Taskforce.



[02:13:24 PST] PATTERSON: I've been in this game for at least 10 years and we still can't get a door open?

[02:14:12] HAWKINGS: So much for subtlety, I'm sure we're making one heck of a ruckus now.

[02:14:36] DIAZ: As if we haven't when D'Esposito landed us a bit too near the—

[02:15:02] D'ESPOSITO: Finish that sentence and I will make sure to put a shot of the strongest Cream Soda we have in your kale smoothie.

[02:17:56] TUX: Clock's ticking, team. This isn't training anymore.

[02:18:08] REYES: Gotcha, boss. Hey, Commander, when are ya goin' on yer next date with Laurenson?

[02:18:16] TVARKOV: Not anytime soon, Reyes. Focus on the mission.

[02:25:19] D'ESPOSITO: Broke into the vents. We're in.

[02:25:35] HAWKINGS: Well thank our saviour Kermit for that then, D'Esposito. Be nice and open the door for us, will you?

[02:25:54] D'ESPOSITO: Do you want me to hold the door open while at it?

[02:26:14] TUX: Team, radio silence. Did you really have to give him double shotguns?

[02:26:22] TVARKOV: I've been informed by his trainers that he works well with them.

[02:26:30] TUX: You're spoiling the kid, Tvarkov.

[02:26:34] TVARKOV: Let him live.

[02:27:15] DIAZ: It's obvious to all of us that he's your favorite, Commander, no need to be ashamed.

[02:27:19] PATTERSON: Diaz, you cried when you found out she gave him customized shotguns.

[02:27:26] DIAZ: Fake news, Patterson, I don't know what you're talking about.

[02:43:57] HAWKINGS: Command, this is Hawkings. Cuartero and I have secured the laptop, over. We'll be needing assist to clear out.

[02:44:02] D'ESPOSITO: Coming towards you. Does anybody else copy?

[02:44:18] REYES: I copy. Coming in.

[02:44:39] DIAZ: Alright, team. Reyes, D'Esposito, I need you to clear the way for them. I'll keep the door opening for when you four are coming in. Patterson, what's your status?

[02:45:24] PATTERSON: We're pinned down in Quadrant 2 with 2 injured. I need some support from any Special Intelligence to come in.

[02:45:26] TUX: There are three coming for you. What's the status on the injured?

[02:45:34] PATTERSON: If I don't get them on the transport soon, we'll be needing some Force Stars.

[02:52:11] D'ESPOSITO: The four of us are already out. Patterson, where are you?

[02:52:15] DIAZ: We just got to Patterson. We're taking them with us to the rallying point.

[02:55:46] TUX: Extraction coming in one minute. Double time.

[02:56:01] TVARKOV: Send the information once you're all in the plane.

[02:57:00] DIAZ: Copy, Commander. We're bringing in the injured now.

[02:58:13] HAWKINGS: Command, Halls says we're going up in t-minus thirty. We're doing the final checks before heading back.

[02:58:19] TUX: Copy, team. Safe travels for you all. You did good out there.

[03:00:15] TVARKOV: Debriefing will be at 1500 PST. Patterson, I expect the files once you're at cruising altitude.

[03:07:07] PATTERSON: Affirmitive, Commander.

[03:15:01] PATTERSON: Files have been decrypted. Commander, you should be receiving the files now. It's strange, they seem to be mentioning something about a—



NAME: Janina Johnson
AGE: 57
SEX: Female
RESIDENCE: 19 Mullet Street
NEXT OF KIN: Margaret Johnson
DATE OF REPORT: 13 April 2018
Johnson is a 1.42m Emperor Penguin who is 41 kg with light blue feathers. She has a greying afro and pair of square glasses on her face and was last seen wearing a pearl necklace. She was also wearing a pink cardigan and dress with grey flats.
Johnson was bringing home the monthly groceries with her grandson, Daniel Johnson, when a van approached the two and snatched Mrs. Johnson from the sidewalk. The child was left alone with the bags before two concerned citizens approached him and brought him to the nearest precinct. Margaret Johnson (mother of Daniel Johnson) would pick up the child from the precinct.

One: Statistical Spike[edit]

Jason Laurenson takes a long, quiet look at the view before him, before sighing and resting his back on the blanket under him.

As he closes his eyes to savor the sound of the sea gently lapping against the shore before receding back and going forward once more. He knows that the jetskis and boats utilized by the EPF in aqua training bob with the crests and falls of the waves, creaking just barely with the gentle waves hitting against its hull. The air is just lazily heating up around him, the first rays of the morning sun making its way to the southeastern beaches of the Academy Island. He sighs in content and relaxes his body on the blanket he's brought with him, thinking to himself about a familiar set of golden—

There's the distinct sound of footsteps alerting him of someone's presence, but he doesn't even bother to open an eyelid towards their general direction. There's the faintest huffing of breaths as the penguin slows to a halt behind him, hearing them take quick breaths before the penguin opens their mouth.

"You asked me to get up at 6 am," Rogue starts breathlessly, clear annoyance in her tone as he peeped an eye open to see her looking down at him. "When I've been working until 1, for me to find you dozing on the beach?"

"To be fair, Roguester, it's a quarter to 6 and you're early," Jason said and sits up, turning to her to regard her with a quick look. The Ruscan had hastily pulled her hair up and put on workout clothes, and she appeared to be barefoot in the sand. She only gives him a withering look before looking at the horizon before them. "Come on, sit down. I would've brought breakfast sandwiches with me but I wanted to catch this sight early."

The sky is a brilliant orange as the sun peaks from the horizon, the line where the sky meets the sea a bright white. The waves twinkle under the sunlight as it laps against the shore, a dark blue that was calming and beautiful. Rogue sits down beside Jason as they watch the sun takes its place in the sky. "You brought me here to see the sunrise?"

"No better way to start the day right," Jason said, sighing as he grabbed at the sand and let it pass from his flipper. "Beautiful, isn't it?"

He turns to see her staring, and she quickly turns away and quietly mutters. "I can think of far more beautiful things."

They're quiet as they take in the sunrise, the first warm rays of sunlight contrasting the cool of the beach around them, the rocking of boats to the bobbing of the waves. Jason tries to brush his flipper against Rogue's once, just barely, before he feels it bump back against his. It's comfort for them both and reassurance that the other is right there.

"How long are you staying before you go back to Gemini?" Rogue asked, eyes towards the horizon and not to the Antarctican she's speaking to. He turns to answer her and finds that she is thoughtful, mildly sorrowful as she contemplates whatever it is that is before her.

"72 more hours, then I'm taking the morning flight out," Jason replied, taking one more look at his surroundings before standing, dusting himself off of any sand that has squeezed into his feathers and clothes. "You have an interview this morning with Ms. Westley of the Club Penguin Times, right?"

"9 in the morning, in the Tvariench building." Rogue nodded, looking up at him with an odd look. "What are you planning, Crash?"

"Nothing that should bother you too much, Redline." He smiles, stretching out a flipper for her to take. "Jog with me?"

She gives him a look he cannot decipher, something that passes between awe and confusion before she takes it and squeezes as she hauls herself onto her feet. They cast one more look towards the lapping waves and sparkling ocean, the blue sky and bright sun, before Jason is turning and running, dragging Rogue by her flipper as they turn to begin their morning jog. Rogue makes a sound he stores away for future memory, only laughing as he squeezes her flipper in his before letting go and pumping his arms to pick up speed.

He makes the added effort to make sure he kicks sand as he goes, hearing Rogue yell a choice set of Russian words he cannot translate. They're zooming through the beach as he thinks to himself, a stupidly wide grin on his face as he feels Rogue catch up to him.

What a way to start the day.

UAN: How were you informed of the increase in kidnappings, Commander Tvarkov?

Tvarkov: I was being interviewed by Raven Westley, the CPT correspondent. She raised it as one of her questions.

UAN: When and where was this interview, Commander?

Tvarkov: April 13, approximately 9 am. I believe we were at the Tvariench building on the Academy Island.

UAN: I do not wish to underestimate your memory, Commander, but you say you believe that was the location?

Tvarkov: Ms. Winston, I would like to be frank with you to say that I am still recovering from a concussion and multiple injuries. Forgive me for not remembering much of what happened five months ago.

When Raven Westley sets down her recorder to record what Rogue had to say for her next article, she has to squeeze the little thing between a carton of orange juice and a plate of freshly sliced apples. She really can't be blamed, what with all the dishes that filled the table before them. Before her was a small stack of pancakes with blueberries to the side, and next to that were plates filled with breakfast muffins, scones, loaves of bread and bagels. Beyond that were tiny bowls of berries, large bowls of mangoes, plates of sliced watermelons and apples. There's a small aluminum pot of pressed coffee to her side, along with a teapot of peppermint tea. The air is a mix of heavenly smells she cannot describe, and it takes most of her willpower not to dig into the food before her.

And right across her, in all her authoritative glory, Rogue Tvarkov sips on a white cup of black coffee.

She turns her head towards the tinted windows beside them, which made up the entirety of the wall overlooking the field below them. A class of Anti-Terrorism cadets is doing drill runs around it, hollering out some chant that neither can make out. The room was mostly vacated save for the agent that stood guard by the doorway, quiet and rigid as the two went with their meeting.

Rogue cleared her throat, turning back to Westley to regard the arrangement before them. "It looks like the cook made extras."

"I'd hardly call this extras," Westley said, gesturing towards the layout of food before them. If not for how professional the setting was or how small the table was, she would have called it a banquet. "Would you like to eat before, during, or after the interview?"

"Oh, please. I've already eaten." There's a spark of panic going through her veins that she quickly stamps down. She considers if she starts with the muffins or the pancakes. "Don't worry, Ms. Westley. You don't have to eat all of them. I can redistribute some of the food to the station canteen or turn some of the fruits into a smoothie."

"I see." She nods, unsure as she nudges the knife and fork laid out before her. Rogue only quirks an eyebrow as she reaches across the table for a muffin. "May I?"

"Please," Rogue nods before she digs into the muffin. The flavor of blueberries explodes in her mouth. She quickly washes it down with orange juice. "Commander, how has your Theta-related operations been lately?"

"They've been fine, thank you." Rogue said, "We have been cooperating with Special Intelligence to do domestic and international operations related to Theta information. Last week, we were directed to Liguria."

"That must've been quite the operation." Westley nodded, trying her hardest not to stuff the rest of the muffin into her mouth. "Could you tell me any information about it?"

Rogue shakes her head, "Not yet my time to declassify them."

"I understand," She nodded once more and adjusted the recorder on the table as Rogue took another sip from her coffee. "Are there any other leads that you're going to be looking into in the following weeks?"

"I don't think so," Rogue said, setting down her cup with a quiet clink. "We've received a lot of information from the Liguria operation. I think we need time to organize and analyze, read through these files before we make any moves."

"I see." Her phone buzzes in her pocket, and she sets down the muffin in favor of going over the text message she just received. She furrowed her brows as she reads the contents of the message. She starts, "Commander,"

She turns to Rogue to see that she was eating the last bit of a bagel, the commander looking at her in acknowledgment. "What is it, Ms. Westley?"

"What do you know about our kidnapping statistics in Club Penguin?" She asked, not expecting the frown of concentration that comes as Rogue picked up another bagel from the plate.

"I'm not that well versed in the statistics." She admits, taking a bite of the bagel and chewing thoughtfully. "Is there something wrong?"

"I've just been told by a source that we've just got our 4th missing penguins report of the week," Westley said, pocketing the phone and leaning forward, muffin forgotten as her mind quickly formulates questions. "We hardly have any kidnapping cases on the Island, let alone this many in such a short time frame. What do you think of it, Commander Tvarkov?"

Rogue sets down her bagel on the top of her coffee cup. It teeters dangerously into the cup, "I don't think I'm well-informed enough to give you a proper opinion. It's better for you to ask Commander Tux, seeing as that is more up his alley."

"I know it is, but what do you think about an angle of terrorism here? Look," She takes her phone from her pocket and quickly pads in the code, flicking through her gallery before finding what she needs. She offers the phone to Rogue, who flicks through the screen with interest. "These are photos of the missing penguin reports that I've been keeping track of."

Rogue offers her a thoughtful hum as she stops at one of them. She moves her flipper too fast and half of her bagel dips into her coffee. Westley doesn't say anything about it. "It's a likely angle to take."

"Can you please explain further?" Westley asked as she stretched her flipper quickly to nudge the bagel back to teetering on the cup.

"All of these are random citizens, and seeing as you're asking me there's no clear connection between any of them." Rogue turned the phone towards Westley and knocks the bagel back into the coffee with the force of her movements. Westley tries not to sigh, "But this is worth noting. A staged robbery where nothing was stolen besides clients? That's worth taking notice."

"Are you thinking of looking into these kidnappings?" She asked, quickly adding, "This seems to be my last question for you, seeing as there's nothing else I can ask about Theta."

"If it makes its way to me, then I will." Rogue nods, looking down to her cup of coffee. She picks up the bagel slowly and takes a tentative bite of the soaked bread, before nodding and taking another bite. "I can't do anything about it as it's something that Tux can handle."

"I see," Westley said as she picks up her recorder and presses down on the stop button. She polishes off her muffin and stands, taking another from the plate. "Now, Commander, I believe you're going to show me around the ATD buildings?"

"Of course, Ms. Westley. Right this way," Rogue said, nodding to the agent by the door as he moved to open the door beside him.

When Rogue escorts the correspondent to the plane that will take her back to the island, it's a little past noon. She enters her satellite office with a sigh as she deposits her peaked cap on the couch, making her way to her desk and sliding into the chair.

"Good afternoon, Commander." Lynx greets her as he activates her holograms and her computers. The television screens on the wall beside her turn on to show her muted news reports from the various news outlets, a flash of various colors and reports that she doesn't bother to read. The AI helpfully pulls down the blinds for the woman for her to see her holograms better, for her eyes to adjust better to the slight darkness of her office.

With the resignation of Cyrilla as her personal assistant, Rogue needed a new assistant to help her with her daily work. She had bid the woman farewell with a pat on the back and well wishes, hoping the best for her in college. Rogue isn't so sure if she heard the woman mention the Academy as a potential school to enroll to, and she hasn't asked Cyrilla for any updates about that. When she had finally boxed up everything in her tidy little desk, she had informed the commander of a suitable replacement for her position. As a final parting gift and apology to her, Nick Tang had left a disc containing an AI program for the commander to use in replacement of a penguin assistant.

Their name was Lynx.

"Lynx, I need to speak with Tux," Rogue said, flicking through her holograms to see if anything was urgent that needed her attention. The latest batch of information decrypted from the laptop was just recently sent, a continuation of the things she's been reading for the past week. There were also recruit evaluations that she had to read through, and she was somewhere in the 30-odd numbers of the list. The biannual budget breakdown has yet to be approved and sent to the Director for final approval, seeing as it still needed some minor changes due to some requests put in by the rapid response squadrons. There were mission reports she had to read, a few missions she has to approve. Despite that, there was a gnawing curiosity in her gut with the questions that Westley asked her.

"I'll call him," Lynx said, bringing up a hologram before Rogue. The call rings once, twice, before it connects to the Special Intelligence commander.

"I wasn't informed of a call coming in anytime this afternoon, Tvarkov." Tux greets her. She hears the whirs of a computer and the pinging of holograms in his side of the call. She must have caught him in his office. "Is there anything urgent that warrants this unexpected call?"

"Westley interviewed me earlier this morning," Rogue said, flicking the hologram to the side in favor of a mission request that required her approval. She took her stylus to quickly flick her signature on the request. "What's going on over there with these kidnappings?"

"CPPD alerted us about the increase a few days ago." Always quick to the answers. There are pings of holograms being moved about as he spoke, "We're seeing approximately a 9% increase in reports in this month alone. It's been a slow climb since January."

"Have we been doing anything to tackle them?" She asked, signing on another request before flicking through RRS requests made for the budget. "I'm not interfering until you find that it's Theta-related, but I want to see if there's a possibility of it being a terrorist case. Westley raised the possibility and I think she has a point."

"Now that you mention it, there are a few reports that may be something you'd like to look into," Tux said, tapping something into his keyboard before speaking. "I'll send you reports from this week and last week if you want to go over them."

"Thank you. I'll call you again when I see anything good." Rogue said, ending the call just as holograms pop up to her side. She pores over them in between signing requests and calculating budget shifts.



NAME: Suvi Song
AGE: 10
SEX: Female
RESIDENCE: 14 Big Snow Street
NEXT OF KIN: Isabelle Cortez-Song
DATE OF REPORT: 02 April 2018
OFFICER IN CHARGE OF THE CASE: Officer Mathilda Yakova
Song is a 1.19m Adelie Penguin who is 39 kg with pink feathers. She has long brown hair and wears a friendship bracelet on her right flipper. She was last seen wearing a light blue polka-dot dress and yellow flats.
Song was attending her classes at the Reedley's Special Kids School when an unknown group of assailants broke into her classroom. Song was among the 3 who were taken by the group.



NAME: Eric Klaus
AGE: 34
SEX: Male
RESIDENCE: 02 Kingfisher Street
NEXT OF KIN: Juliet Klaus
DATE OF REPORT: 04 April 2018
OFFICER IN CHARGE OF THE CASE: Officer Theodore Parsons
Klaus is a 1.14m Adelie Penguin who is 39 kg with dark green feathers. He has an undercut and wears an emerald pendant. He was last seen wearing a black business suit while carrying a brown suitcase.
Klaus left home to go to work at approximately 0817H at the Klaus and Nielman Firm in the Business Server. Nielman would report to his wife, Juliet Klaus, of his absence during the afternoon of the same day.



NAME: Marina Guilles
AGE: 18
SEX: Female
RESIDENCE: 24 Blizzard Street
NEXT OF KIN: Veronica Guilles
DATE OF REPORT: 10 April 2018
Guilles is a 1.45m Adelie Penguin who is 42 kg with aqua blue feathers. She has curly brown hair and wears a fish necklace around her neck at all times. She was last seen carrying a sports bag while wearing a pink shirt and black leggings.
Guilles was on her way to her jazz class at Club Penguin University when she was snatched from the sidewalk by a white van. University security would find her sports bag littered on the sidewalk when they respond to the report.



NAME: Mark Castro
AGE: 44
SEX: Male
RESIDENCE: 12 Terracotta Street
NEXT OF KIN: Hariett Castro
DATE OF REPORT: 12 April 2018
OFFICER IN CHARGE OF THE CASE: Officer Barthomelow Russell
Castro is a 1.64m Adelie Penguin with black feathers. He is bald and wears a pearl pendant. He was last seen wearing a grey shirt and brown khaki pants.
Castro was withdrawing money at the Money Plaza when unknown assailants stormed the bank and ordered everyone to get down. Castro was among the 7 who were snatched and brought away by the assailants.



NAME: Janina Johnson
AGE: 57
SEX: Female
RESIDENCE: 19 Mullet Street
NEXT OF KIN: Margaret Johnson
DATE OF REPORT: 13 April 2018
Johnson is a 1.42m Emperor Penguin who is 41 kg with light blue feathers. She has a greying afro and pair of square glasses on her face and was last seen wearing a pearl necklace. She was also wearing a pink cardigan and dress with grey flats.
Johnson was bringing home the monthly groceries with her grandson, Daniel Johnson, when a van approached the two and snatched Mrs. Johnson from the sidewalk. The child was left alone with the bags before two concerned citizens approached him and brought him to the nearest precinct. Margaret Johnson (mother of Daniel Johnson) would pick up the child from the precinct.



NAME: Georg Kirk Sr.
AGE: 60
SEX: Male
RESIDENCE: N/A (Tourist)
NEXT OF KIN: Georg Kirk Jr.
DATE OF REPORT: 13 April 2018
Kirk is a 1.98m Emperor Penguin who is 60 kg with orange feathers. He wore a white cap over white hair and wears an amethyst pendant. He was last seen wearing a white polo shirt and khaki shorts.
Kirk Sr. was with his son, Kirk Jr., to explore the Cove of Club Penguin when Kirk Jr. had to step away to use the bathroom. When he came back, Kirk Sr. was nowhere to be found.

Rogue was at the second to the last report when she heard a knock on the door. She looks up just as Lynx announces who it is.

"Commander, it's Agent Simeon Felix from Weaponry Development." The AI said, tone dripping with annoyance. The purple penguin steps into view, wearing his usual earpieces on either side of his head.

"He must be here to run the monthly diagnostic test on you," Rogue said, just as Simeon greets her quietly while sliding his tablet onto her desk. The thin silver screen covered the projector of her holograms, causing all of them to disappear. "Felix, think you can look into Lynx's thought protocol? It's been off the charts lately."

"You're only saying that because you think I am sassy." There is the barest hint of disdain in Lynx's tone as Simeon picks up the tablet once more to tug out a little USB from the side. He plugs it into one of the ports on Rogue's computer and flicks through something on his tablet.

"Your sass doesn't help any and obstructs me from the task at hand." Rogue furrowed her brows as Lynx pops up as a hologram to her side, a pouty blue penguin in a hoodie and shoes. "I need you to be a bit nicer like Jewel."

"You always compare me to Jewel." The sulk is evident in their tone as Simeon rolls his eyes and flicks through something in his tablet. "You always say that Jewel is like this, Jewel is like that. I'm sick of being compared to my best friend! Why won't you just lo— hey! Don't touch that, Felix or I will play nothing but WHAT?!? on every electronic device you own."

"You do realize I'm deaf, Lynx?" Simeon speaks up, frowning as he glares down at Lynx's holographic self. "I can remove my earpieces and I wouldn't hear a thing."

"I will hijack those earpieces."

"That's enough, Lynx," Rogue rolls her eyes and goes through her holograms, watching them flicker once or twice as Simeon runs his diagnostic test. She picks up her stylus once more to sign through paperwork. "You'll have to excuse the AI, Felix. They don't really like going to the doctor for their check-up."

"Lynx is still relatively new, still a version 3-something. We'll work out the glitches as we go." Simeon responds, hushed and soothing as his beak tugs slightly to a smile. "Call it character development, if you will."

"Glitches? Glitches? This isn't a phase, Felix! This is part of my protocol and you know it!" If an AI can hiss, then Lynx probably is. She tries not to roll her eyes again as she reads through the budget she's about to send to the Director. She can see Simeon reach up to his earpieces to turn down the dials, most likely to mute the AI's chattering. "Hey! Don't just mute me out like that, Agent!"

"Lynx, behave," Rogue said as calmly as she can manage, flicking away the hologram to send it to the Director. She goes over the holograms that are brought up before her. A significant amount of her current workload has been reduced. "I know you don't like Felix since he does your diagnostic tests, but if you would just be nice and cooperative it would wrap up quickly."

"I refuse to be played around like this," Lynx grumbled before Simeon reaches up to his earpieces to turn the dials up. He looks to Rogue and sets his tablet down, spinning it over for her to see.

"Lynx is getting better at collecting information about their surroundings, if you wanted an explanation about their thought protocol." Simeon starts, watching as Rogue curiously picked up the tablet. The screen showed her a mess of statistics and graphs next to a cloud of something that she cannot quite decipher. "They seem to be very invested in war movies and sitcoms lately."

"Only because they're so entertaining." Lynx said, and did the AI just snort? "The Commander hardly calls when she's concentrating on something. I had to entertain myself."

"I didn't know an AI needed entertaining," Rogue muttered as she went over the screen's contents with mild interest. The cloud shifted as it brightened up into blue hues. It almost looked as if Lynx was thinking.

"They mean to say that they need to go back to collecting information." Simeon helpfully supplies. She pushes the tablet back to him as he removes the USB port, reinserting it on his tablet. "Lynx is doing fine, still going through their baby steps. It'll take a few updates before they're ready to start doing their primary objective."

"I know, thank you, Felix." The purple penguin nodded before he turns to exit the room. It took a moment before Rogue could speak up. "He's gone now. Happy?"

"Ecstatic." The sarcasm is still there, and it takes everything in Rogue not to roll her eyes again.

A sharp increase in kidnappings seen in mulitple countries, security alarms raised
By Raven Westley (Club Penguin Times) | Updated April 16, 2018

There's been an increase in kidnapping cases in all parts of the continent since the start of 2018, with April seeing a dramatic statistical spike in some countries. This has caused alarm in various countries, with many governments advising their citizens to keep an eye on their surroundings while reporting to the authorities of any suspicious penguins or vehicles loitering about the streets. In the island, Club Penguin Police Department (CPPD) Chief Petras strongly suggested that citizens make use of a "buddy system" and to avoid walking alone as much as possible. Petras has also commented that he is unsure whether these cases are connected to each other or not.

EPF Special Intelligence Commander Tux has also released a statement regarding the increase of cases. "We are working around the clock with the CPPD to see if there are any connections to these cases, and whether or not they were done by an organized group of criminals." Tux said in an exclusive interview. "We have sent teams to interview the next of kin regarding their recent activities to see if we can get any plausible leads on the cases."

Whether there is a possible terrorism angle in this, it remains unsure. EPF Anti-Terrorism Commander Rogue Tvarkov said in an interview that while some cases appear to be a classic kidnapping case, some of them are worth taking notice of. Tvarkov cites one of these to be the staged robbery at the Money Plaza last April 12.

It is unknown if the recent increase in kidnapping cases would trigger the UAN Security Council to activate the UAN Taskforce.

72 hours came too quickly.

The morning sun is starting to warm up the air around her side of the office, brightening up the grays and whites that defined the design of Rogue's office. She's drinking her morning coffee when Lynx informs her that someone was waiting to speak to her. She pauses, sets down her cup, and summons them inside. Rogue freezes when she sees Jason, with his backpack and tablet, a tiny smile on his face as he greets her.

She forgot about the 72 hours.

"Gemini needs me." He said simply, just as she rounded her table and stepped before him. She's looking him in the eye as he moves his flipper to bump his tablet into her stomach. "It seems that the kidnappings will be my foremost case when I get back."

She skirts her eyes over the contents of the tablet, the statistics and the clippings she'll probably see next time, before looking back to him. "Good luck."

"I know." The tug on his beak is sad, hesitant. "I'll call you when I land."

There's no flipper holding, no reassurances, no touch for them to chase. They're stretching out their time before they go back to their jobs, their duties, their commitments. She watches him turn to leave and doesn't think much about the tightening in her chest. When the door closes she turns, back behind her desk and to the windows that overlook the hectic base of the EPF satellite office. A group of agents was making their way to one of the planes, and with them is the ever-familiar red feathers of Jason.

If she saw him turn to look at her once more time, she didn't say.

She's quiet as she watches the plane make its way down the tarmac, "Lynx, what time is it?"

"0928, Commander," Lynx replied simply.

She doesn't say anything as she watches the plane hurl itself through the road, the barest hint of sadness on her face as she watched it climb high into the sky and away from the Academy Island. Lynx tells her about the penguin on the other side of the door, and she takes a moment to compose herself for the work that is to come. Clearing her throat, she told Lynx to let him through. She turns around to see a man in a grey suit, a yellow pin on his lapel and a splash of seriousness on his face.

The UAN.

"Commander Tvarkova," She frowns at the use of her actual surname, and not the one that she would prefer to use. "You're being summoned by the UAN Security Council. You're being activated for the Taskforce."

"And I'm guessing this is due to the kidnapping cases?" He nods. "Sir, as much as I am honored, I want to know the grounds of my activation when I know several officers far more competent enough to be on the taskforce."

"Commander, while the Council has acknowledged their competency, they have chosen you primarily for your skills and experience with terrorist groups." Rogue frowns, trying not to think of where the conversation was going as the man opened his mouth. "In your position, you are allowed to tap into the skills of any of these officers should it benefit the investigation."

"Alright, fine." She crosses her flippers over her chest. "So, what's happened that made the Council activate us, hm?"

She didn't' expect the next words to come out of his mouth. "A group has stepped in to claim responsibility. They have a list of those they've abducted and demands to go along with it."

Two: The UAN Taskforce[edit]

Mondays in this part of the main office meant that there was little foot traffic. Far from the aortas of the Anti-Terrorism Main Office would be the offices of the Rapid Response Squadrons, usually occupied by the squadrons whenever they had free time to accomplish paperwork or spend time together in the office. Currently, some of the squadrons have been deployed to the other offices for their various reasons, and at least two were on recreational leave after a particularly rough operation. As for Beta, Captain Diaz was quite preoccupied with sleeping on their office couch, and he's sure Patterson and Hawkings are a breath away on pulling a prank on the sleeping man. D'Esposito's on leave, the only given reason being to check on his wife and children.

And Reyes? Well, right now, he just wanted to get an afternoon snack.

Reyes stood before the vending machine, trying to find any coins in his pockets to put in the machine. After fishing one out, he looked at the content of it before sliding his coin in and pressing E5.

The spring was moving too slowly.

"Ya gotta be kiddin' me." Reyes groaned when the little plastic bag hanged off the final coil of the spring. He shook the machine once, twice, groaning in frustration when the bag hardly budged. He kicked it hard twice before wincing, gripping his poor foot before glaring down at the coil. If looks could make it obey, it would have long since dispensed the plastic bag from its clutches and begged for mercy. He huffed before looking both ways in the hallway, making sure no one was in sight before kneeling down and sliding his flipper into the take-out port. He forced his flipper up the machine and winced at the pain, only thinking of the sweet reward the bag had to offer before—

"Reyes." His blood runs cold at that, and he pauses from his rummaging to turn to look up. Rogue's eyebrows shot up to her hairline as she looked down at the agent. "Good afternoon."

"Afternoon, boss." He greeted, budging his flipper to get out of the port. He smiles as if he's a man who doesn't have his flipper stuck up a vending machine. "Thought y'all were still at the Academy."

"Well, I was, but I had to cut my stay short." She shrugged, sliding her flippers into her coat's pockets. Without a hair or feather out of place, Rogue looked every bit like the commander she should be. "You know how it is, agent. My schedule could change so easily."

"I see." He nodded, flicking his eyes to where his flipper was. It was just inches away from the plastic bag, close enough to brush but not hit without injuring himself. He silently curses, "How did y'all find me?"

"Lynx informed me that you were in the middle of your afternoon snacking of..." She spares a cursory glance at the vending machine's contents. "Extra sour gummy worms."

A beat of silence passes. Reyes opens his mouth, "Boss, not a word."

Rogue only shakes her head and kneels down beside him, putting her flippers on his arm to help in gently easing it out. Reyes winces as his feathers were pushed the wrong way, tension on his muscles dissipating as he pops his flipper out of the machine. He rubs it thoughtfully as Rogue stands to slide a coin in the machine and press on E5. Two packs of gummy worms fall from the spring's clutches. She hands them both to him.

"I've been activated by the UAN concerning the kidnappings," He frowned and looked at her, depositing one of the packs into his jacket's pocket and opening one to eat its contents. "I need a secondary agent to accompany me, and I think you'll do just fine."

"Why? Ta get a taste of the bureaucratic life?" He snorted and shook his head. "Y'all act as if I'm gonna be commander one day or somethin'."

Rogue gives him a dry look, "If I wanted you to "have a taste of the bureaucratic life", I would have chosen you to be my assistant and not Lynx."

"I'd rather get shot into ta CyberVoid than have a desk job." Reyes made a face, whether it was because of the gummy worms or the thought of a desk job, she wasn't sure. "'Sides, I'm sure y'all could find someone else other than lil old me. Pretty sure you'll find one in Gemini."

Rogue rolled her eyes, sighed, and shook her head. There's a mix of irritation and exasperation in her face that he doesn't comment on. "Jason has a lot on his plate at the moment. He has a region to watch over and I can't have him too far away from his division."

"Fine, fine, I'll come with ya to South Pole City," Reyes said, shrugging as he threw the emptied pack of gummy worms in the nearby trash bin. "But y'all gonna have to explain to Cap'n Diaz bout it."

"I'll drop by your office," Rogue said, giving him one more look before flicking his cowboy hat off his head. He scowled, "That cowboy hat better be off when I see you later."

With that, she pivots on her heels and leaves the hallway quiet once more. Reyes looked around, to check if anyone was watching, before turning on his heel and making his way back to the Beta office.

Oxton was more than happy to fly them to the capital since it was a few hours from the Island. Rogue was going over the dossier sent by the UAN, Reyes right across her reading something on his phone. She was invested with the holograms brought up before her, deep through the list they've received when he flicks them away and leaned forward to her.

"So, boss, why'd ya pick me?" He's relented to her request and opted for a beanie, much to the commander's chagrin. Rogue glared him down as he continued to ask. "Ya could'a picked anyone but ya picked lil ol' me."

Rogue sent him a dry glare, summoning the dossier once more with a flick of her flipper. She reads the list once more, "I needed someone I've already worked with."

"Boss, that's a pretty long list." He shrugged, leaning back and propping his flippers behind his head. She raises the hologram she's reading to look him in the eye, glowering before shaking her head. He shrugs once more just as they hit turbulence, the cabin shaking before it stilled. She returned the hologram to its place in front of her. He waits for her response.

"In something as heavy and as complex as this job, it's always a good idea to bring someone you'd trust your life with when the going gets rough." He doesn't know what to feel about the implications in that statement. He nods slowly as he scratches his hair under his beanie. "I'm trusting Adrian and Bridgett to run the division while I'm gone, and I'm trusting you to work with me in the taskforce."

Their plane tilts, showing them South Pole City in all its shining glory. The seatbelt sign goes on above them and Reyes checks that he's still belted. Satisfied, he turns to the window once more.

"Afternoon loves! We'll be landing in a moment, so buckle up and get yourselves comfy." Oxton's peppy voice sings from the overhead PA. Rogue deactivates the projector and stores it away in her bag, clearing her throat as she smooths out her uniform of invisible creases. His stomach jumps as they hit the tarmac hard, shaking the cabin before it calms, slowing to a taxi towards the terminal. "Welcome to South Pole City, lady and cowboy."

The staircase is aligned to the door, and Reyes peaks out to see that a convoy was already waiting for them. Standing at the end of the staircase was a penguin with light blue feathers, a pair of sunglasses perched on her beak and hair pulled back in a bun. She wore a simple suit and tie and checked on her watch dismissively just as the door opened. Reyes turned to see Rogue already waiting, satchel on her shoulder and tapping away lazily on her phone. Her brows were furrowed at whatever was written on the screen.

"Crap, we're running late. Come on, let's go." She continued tapping on her phone casually as she went down the staircase. It was a windy afternoon in South Pole City, and the wind pulled her ponytail in all sorts of directions. Reyes had a flipper keeping his beanie from flying away as he quickly descended the steps. It suddenly made sense why the commander opted to wear a coat.

"Rogue." The blue feathered penguin at the bottom of the staircase greeted, nodding and pulling her into a quick hug. Reyes frowns and watches them interact with quick words, the occasional jab in the other woman's tone as she regarded Rogue. He stood and waited, wondering who exactly he's looking at before she turns to him. She removes her sunglasses and offers him a smile. "You must be Reyes. She's said lots about you."

He pulls on the most charming smile he can offer her, "Nothin' but good things, I hope."

"Of course," She holds a flipper out for him to shake. Everything about her breathed professionality and neutrality that eerily reminded him of the commander when she's keeping up face. "Piri Perez. I'm an RRS under the Asiapelago region."

"Ya didn't ever mention 'er." Reyes turned to Rogue, who pockets her phone and turns to him. The name is familiar, something Diaz or Patterson mentioned in the past. It nags him.

"Well, I do now. She's Piri Perez, and she has the Asiapelago region's RRS teams under her belt." She nods to one of the agents behind Piri, who opens the door to the car before them. "I've called her in because we'll be needing her expertise. You two can get acquainted in the car ride."

With that, she steps past the two agents and into the car. Her phone buzzes in her pocket and she reaches to answer it, chattering in quick words neither agents caught. Piri turned to Reyes, nods once before they're both following after her and clambering into the backseat.

2nd Avenue greeted them with flocks of penguins of various ages and colors raising placards and chanting on the sidewalks. When their convoy passes by, they roar and chant louder, faster, urging their message to those inside the car.

"What do the placards say?" At the rightmost of the backseat, Reyes couldn't see what the commotion was all about. Both women turned their heads to the window as they went by.

"They were making a request," Piri said simply, just as Rogue turned to her phone and tapped out a quick message. Piri spoke for her as they paused at a stoplight. "Bring their loved ones home."

"That's what we're 'ere to do, they didn't need ta flock and yell 'bout it," Reyes said, frowning as the convoy started up once more to make its way to the UAN. They turn down a block and begin to approach the compound. "'Sides, they've got lives, yeah?"

"With the right motivation, anyone can do anything to get their message across to those far more powerful than them." Piri shook her head, just as they slow when they near the compound. The sidewalks are filled with reporters and media from the various news outlets all over the continent, photographers lining the front to capture pictures of their arrival and cameramen taking footage to use for the evening news. "It's what makes activism what it is, a peaceful means of pushing agendas to those with the power to grant them."

"Unless you use a different method under ideologies that aren't exactly morally sound." Rogue chimed in, turning to look out the window just as the gates open and allow them in. They pass a bronze statue of a penguin and child whose eyes were trained to the sky, filled with bronze sculpted hope and frozen in time. They pass by the courtyard with all the flags of the member states, with the three pillars flanking a single plaque in the center. The flags flutter as they go by as if greeting the agents with their benevolent regality. "Interesting, how methods can define the difference between activism and terrorism."

The convoy stops at the main building, which towered over all the other buildings within the UAN compound. Reporters and journalists were already waiting behind crowd control barriers, an additional layer of security guards flanking each side. An agent opens the door for them and the reporters erupt with questions, fast-paced and rushed when Rogue steps out of the car. She's followed by Piri, then Reyes, before the door slams shut behind them and the convoy goes off. The three walk through the short distance between them and the doors, with microphones and recorders placed mere inches from them as questions continued to be asked. There were flashes of cameras, requests for the commander to look here, look there, right before they disappear into the glass doors of the administrative building.

There was urgency in the UN officers' movements as they went over the security checks. Rogue's satchel was deposited in a tray, along with all three of their phones and devices. They were all patted down after walking through a metal detector, and Reyes was asked to tug off his beanie. He let the officer pat him down before he glances into the distance, seeing the group of reporters already waiting for them to walk into their path.

"This gon' be a long day," Reyes muttered, pulling his beanie back onto his head as Rogue retrieved her satchel and devices. A team of officers approach them and fall into sync with their movements, and Reyes doesn't even open his mouth before he understands their purpose.

With the surge of reporters asking them a second batch of questions, Reyes had no idea where to look and whether or not he had the clearance to answer their questions. Without the barriers, the crowd was trying to press onto them and keep them in place long enough to ask questions. Their voices were louder, devices much closer, and suddenly he understands the pressure that came with the mission. The officers would fend the media off with keeping a distance between them and the reporters, giving them space to breathe and move without having to elbow their way to the elevators. They step into one while an officer presses the 11th-floor button for them, right before the door closes and silence fills the steel car.

"What room?" Piri asks when they're pushing to the seventh floor, turning her head to Rogue, who stood at the right side of the elevator. Behind both of them, Reyes turned to look at the view of the West River. There was a helicopter overhead with one of its doors opened, a cameraman propped at the edge with a big camera on his shoulder.

It takes a moment before Rogue answers, eyes on her phone once more. "Left of the end of the hallway."

In his peripheral, Piri nods. The elevator doors open to a quiet hallway, with a pair of officers guarding a door at the end of the hallway. Both officers opened the double doors when they got there, revealing a large conference room. The walls to their left and right had varnished wood panellings, and the one in front of them was made of bulletproof glass that overlooked the West River. The long conference table in front of them was made of steel, with built-in projectors along its center.

Rogue steps away from the two to speak to a woman with royal blue feathers and silvering hair. He freezes when she sees her shake the woman's flipper. It was unmistakable that it was Athena Winston. "Councilwoman."

"Commander," Winston greeted, the barest twitch of a smile on her face. There was something about how the councilwoman can bore her eyes into anyone that made Reyes shiver, and he electively ignores it in favor of turning to the side to get himself a glass of water. "Thank you for responding to your activation."

"Yes, about that," A frown strikes the older woman's expression as Rogue furrowed her brows in a similar fashion. "It's Tvarkov, not Tvarkova."

"Little things," Winston's frown morphed into a smile. She patted the commander's back, "Besides, how else would our messenger get your attention?"

Before Rogue could open her mouth to reply, the councilwoman was already turning to greet someone behind her. The table looked like it can seat at least 30 penguins at a time, and Rogue did not even bother to run the numbers to think of just how many agencies have responded to the activation. She knew that each representative was allowed to have 2 agents with them at all times, with varying reasons depending on them. She could only shrug before turning to seat herself next to Piri, who was in the middle of opening a pack of cookies.

"I haven't had anything to eat since I landed," Piri reasoned before she could ask what she was hurrying to do, biting down on the cookie before giving it a look of betrayal, "It's a raisin cookie."

When Reyes sits down beside Rogue, he also held a pack of cookies in his flipper. He only gives one look at Piri's betrayed face before glancing at his own pack. "Guess I'm getting the doughnuts."

He stands up again, disappears to the snack table to replace his pack of cookies. Rogue leans back to survey the room, eyes landing on the familiar figures of Kowalski, Cueva, and Wolfe. Kowalski and Wolfe were in the middle of discussing something on the other side of the table, steaming cups of coffee by their sides. Not far from them, Cueva stood by the glass wall to talk to someone on the phone, a rush of words in a language Rogue doesn't understand. She's looking for other familiar faces when Reyes sets down a cup of coffee in front of her, the burnt coffee beans reaching her senses as she turned to give him a questioning look.

"Thought ya'd want some." He shrugged, depositing himself on a chair next to her and biting into his doughnut. It wasn't long before their attentions were called and everyone was told to take their seats. The table was filled with agents before Winston took her position at the end of the table.

"Good afternoon, thank you all for coming." She began, clearing her throat before continuing. "On behalf of the UAN Security Council, I officially welcome all of you to the UAN Taskforce. You have all been chosen for your skills and experience, and we are hoping that with your cooperation that you'd be willing to use these as a team to accomplish what is asked of you.

"I understand the suddenness of the activation. We had come to the decision as soon as we realized just how big of a situation this was, and had to act quickly to assemble a team of the best and brightest." That almost made Reyes snort. Almost. "We've chosen Orion Director Cueva as the head of this team. I'll be passing the briefing to him, thank you."

They all nod and murmur their goodbyes as the councilwoman exited the conference room, having far too many things on her schedule to linger long. All eyes turned back to Cueva, who now stood at the position Winston once was in.

He cleared his throat, stood tall, and began, "Alright, everyone."

UAN: How would you describe Director Cueva's leadership skills?

Zarkova: He is efficient in the administrative work. I cannot exactly say the same about his fieldwork.

UAN: Can you give a reason for this evaluation?

Zarkova: He's old.

UAN: Ah.

Zarkova: He entrusted Wolfe to take care of what happens on the ground when we had to conduct the raids.

UAN: As it said so in your report. Can you describe Cueva and Wolfe's working relationship at this, agent?

Zarkova: They did not always... see eye-to-eye.

The projects whirr on as they show holograms on the table surface and air. Rogue found herself staring at the same dossier she read on the way to the capital.

"I hope you all did your homework," Cueva began, fitting a silver cuff onto his wrist before holding up his flipper. The holograms shift to show the basic profile of the organization they've been tasked to investigate. "They call themselves The Public. They have no given figurehead, no known nationalities involved nor affiliation to any known terrorist groups."

Holograms flicker away to show CCTV footage of various kidnapping cases. There are no plate numbers to go through nor faces that can be used to apply facial recognition software from. Their methods are quick, a quick in and out as if they were never there. Rogue had to give it to them for being smart with where and who they take, usually in not-so-crowded areas of the cities. Before her, the profile shifts to become the list of demands and manifest. She frowns at what they ask of them.

"They want accountability and for us to release some prisoners?" Wolfe frowned, heavy baritone striking the conference room with power.

"And some 10 million Coins." Kowalski hummed, scratching the bottom of his beak thoughtfully. "For compensation for... what is this, forced disappearances?"

"I have a vague sense of what they mean by forced disappearances, but it would take a while before I confirm this," Cueva said before the holograms focused on the list of those who were confirmed to be taken by The Public. "So far our task is to collect information from the relatives, find any way to connect them to each other. If we find a common denominator that can be explained, we could prevent any future kidnappings.

"Before I leave you all to introduce yourselves to each other, I've been informed by the Council that they expect us to stay clean. We have to do this by the books." He looked each of them in the eye, "No funny business. Are we clear?"

There's a chorus of "yes sir" before everyone pushes their chairs back, scattering to either get something from the snack table or to pick up a silver cuff from the table to the side. There is a mixture of chatter as Rogue gets up, making her way to a purple feathered woman with braids on either side of her head.

To avoid any possible tardiness or difficulties in arriving at the compound, the UAN gave them a list of recommendable hotels within its vicinity. It appeared as if their respective agencies made the arrangements for them, seeing as the moment the three have stepped out of the building a convoy was already waiting to take them to where they'd be staying. Rather than in a hotel, they were sent to a nearby safe house that abided by the UAN's radius, a condominium unit overlooking downtown Booklin. It was a decent place with two bedrooms and a suite, nice and roomy for all three of them to live in for the next few months.

While Piri was stirring a pot of soup, he could hear Rogue and Reyes discussing the arrangements for the investigation. One of them needed to be in the compound at all times, and two of them need to back to the island to do the questioning. Their tones harshened as they continued to disagree on something.

"Boss, ye're needed in ta compound, not Perez." Reyes snapped, temper rearing its ugly head. "Who knows what'll 'appen if ye're out there? It's risky."

"It's light fieldwork, Reyes. It's hardly a workout." If she closed her eyes and listened carefully, she could hear the way Rogue rolled her eyes. She only hummed to herself as she pushed the potatoes into the broth. She sighed happily to herself, her skills have been improving. "If I'm going to be working with this taskforce, I'd rather be in the field than rot with the desk job."

"So what, ye'll leave Perez in the compound?" He was close to raising his voice. Piri turned to them to see that they were frowning, staring each other down as if challenging the other to snap.

"I wouldn't mind staying behind," She said, stirring the pot one more time before covering it with a lid. She took a nearby washcloth and wiped it over her face before passing it through her flippers, approaching their table. "Let her go back to the Island, Reyes. You might even learn a thing or two from her tactics."

The agent could only grumble and cross his flippers over his chest. He mutters something in Spanish just as Rogue stands to pull his beanie down his eyes. He yelps another word in Spanish as she chuckles and shakes her head. Rogue opens the fridge behind him to pick up a bottle of Cream Soda. She pops it open and sips it as Reyes glowers at her.

Sighing, Piri turned back to the soup that she was making and opened the lid, taking a deep breath as she took in the aroma. Smiling to herself, she turns to the pair one more time to speak. "Dinner's ready."


BRANDT, Lydia codenamed STRINGS. 28 years old. SSS Special Agent, unknown division. Activated for her ability to obtain and validate information in multiple languages within and around the Ninja Archipelago region. Straight to the point and down to earth, does not hesitate to be blunt. Fluent in French, Spanish, Serbian, and Russian next to English and German. Currently in the field to investigate cases in Snowzerland, Castilla, and Frankterre.

CUEVA, James codenamed ALNILAM. 47 years old. Orion Initiative director. Activated for his leadership skills and past experience working with kidnapping cases in the Asiapelago region. Diplomatic and listens to the suggestions of others, respectful and polite to most. Fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean next to English and Filipino. Currently in the UAN compound to maintain information hub of the taskforce in the administrative building.

KOWALSKI, Dr. MASON codenamed KILL-KING. 36 years old. SAD Bureaucrat. Activated for his knowledge in medicine and surgery and experience in the field as an operative and medic. May appear to be short tempered but is able to play nice with those who he is familiar with (REFER: Database files of Rogue Tvarkov and Nikolas Tang). Fluent in French, German, Cantonese, and Spanish next to English. Currently in the field to investigate cases in USA mainland, Acadia.

TVARKOV, Rogue codenamed REDLINE. 25 years old. EPF Commander, Anti-Terrorism Division. Activated for her background in intelligence analysis and terrorist groups. Tends to keep to herself while working but will cooperate with others when approached. Fluent in German, Spanish, Mandarin, and Italian next to English and Russian. Currently in the field to investigate cases in Club Penguin.

WOLFE, Robert codenamed RED SNAPPER. 30 years old. SIA Special Agent, Red Herring Division. Activated for his experience in raid operations and special forces training. Strategic, shrewd and can sometimes appear manipulative to others. Fluent in German, Spanish, French, and Mandarin next to English. Currently in the field to investigate cases in Shops Island, Margate, and Tropicalis.

ZARKOVA, Lyudmila codenamed FIREBIRD. 40 years old. NRR Special Agent, Reconnaissance Division. Activated for her background in the special forces as well as skills in field investigation. Stoic and resolved, speaks her mind to the point that she may appear brash. Fluent in Dutch, German, Hungarian, and Italian next to English and Russian. Currently in the field to investigate cases in Rusca, Batavia, and Osterreach.

Currently pending activation agents from the following countries: Acadia, Margate, Munijoch, and Zhou.

Three: What They Left Behind[edit]


RICCI: What's the current updates from Cueva about the field investigations of the main respondents?

LIVINGSTONE: They appear to be making progress, but we haven't heard much about their findings. They haven't come to a conclusion about possible denominators that The Public looks into before kidnapping their victims.

VARGAS: The longer it takes for them to come up with a denominator, the more disappear. I admit that their job is difficult but I did not expect them to be this sluggish.

WINSTON: I spoke with Director Cueva the other day. They appear to be having some... problems with giving us a proper answer.

VARGAS: Well, I strongly believe that it would be better for them to present the problem before the Council so that we can resolve it. We need those answers, Councilwoman, and I don't think it helps that we're getting more and more penguins added to that manifest every day.

WINSTON: They can't find a common denominator.

RICCI: Son of a biscuit, what do you mean they can't find a common denominator?


VARGAS: Winston, are you telling us that they simply don't know? Not to insult their intelligence but I think the Council needs an explanation for their lack of an answer. What are we supposed to tell these affected member states, that they should just be vigilant about who their surroundings? We'll be accused of passiveness about such a controversial issue.

WINSTON: Alright, let me give you what Cueva's told me: they were all literally picked at random. Do you want a common denominator? They're all civilians. They all have angry relatives who are ready to charge into this room to demand us to get their loved ones back.

VARGAS: We can't let the media know about this.

LIVINGSTONE: They won't.

RICCI: Summon Cueva for a closed meeting. I believe we have much to discuss.


It's been a little over a week since she's first been with the Taskforce in South Pole City. To her knowledge, most of them have deployed themselves to the field to personally look for anything that can point to a pattern among victims. What would be left are a bunch of secondary agents and Cueva to speak with the UAN should there be any situation that calls for a bunch of questions.

Reyes, while on the plane ride back to Club Penguin, called it "polite interrogation".

Standing before the nth door for the week, Rogue wonders for a moment about the possible patterns that she's been considering to report to Cueva, but none of them seemed substantial enough to be worthy of attention. Everything seemed to be like a hit and miss, wrong place at the wrong time, too random and spontaneous to appear as if it were planned. She's quiet, contemplative, thinking about what could possibly link them all together for The Public to take them. Beside her, Reyes fidgets with his cowboy hat, muttering something about creases just as the door opens. Staring at her is a pale blue penguin in a bomber jacket, shirt and pants, and a sturdy pair of boots. There's a tiny ruby pendant on her neck just as she steps forward and gives them a look.

"You must be here regarding Suvi." Isabelle starts, narrowing her eyes slightly at the man behind Rogue. "Come in, but please remove your shoes."

She swings the door open to a small but tidy home. It had wood flooring that occasionally squeaked under their bare feet, scratches appearing where a toy must've skidded too hard. The living room was decorated with wooden objects of a miniature rocking horse, toy soldiers, a little birdhouse that doesn't seem to be in use. There were flowers on table surfaces, bright and vibrant like the paintings that hang on their walls. In the background, she can see an easel of an incomplete painting, halfway done and paused as if in a rush.

On the couch, a quilt is thrown over and crumpled. Sitting down on it is a pink penguin with a wire-rim glasses and braids, wearing a jean jacket and a floral dress and a pendant similar to Isabelle's. She looks up when they enter.

"Soo, they're here to ask about Suvi." Isabelle's face softens, voice going quiet as she steps forward to comfort her partner. Rogue looks around to take in the place once more. She silently catalogs the thought that they are a happy family.

"We already spoke to the CPPD and the EPF." There's a sadness in her tone that mixes with her accent. Rogue turns to Reyes just as he takes off his hat and looks around the home. At least he had the decency to be respectful. "What would they possibly want now?"

"We're from the UAN Taskforce, ma'am." Her voice appears stronger, clearer when really she can understand her anguish. She wouldn't know what to do when Natalia goes missing. "I won't be asking you what they've already asked. I already read their files."

Soo turns to them and looks. There are tears in her eyes, "Well, can you then tell us why you're here?"

"Soo," Isabelle coos, a balm over the South Joseon-born woman's fury. She puts her flipper over Soo's and squeezes, reassuring. "If they can get our little girl back, then we can stand a few more questions."

She grumbles something in Korean, sighs before she relents and lets them ask their questions. Rogue and Reyes sit down across them, on a worn-out couch that creaks when they sit. Must be old. "If you don't mind, we'd like to look into her bedroom."

"To what, go through her stuff?"

Isabelle sighs, grips her wife's flipper. They stand and walk to the girl's bedroom, much to Soo's reluctance. "Let them."

When the door opens, they are assaulted with various colors. The walls were painted periwinkle, bed and pillows neon pink, the carpeted floor a navy blue, a mural on one of the walls a forest green. When Rogue steps in, the toys are still scattered and she almost steps on an unfinished puzzle of a very colorful picture of flower bushes. She's reminded of Natalia and she takes a moment to dismiss the thought of remodeling her adoptive daughter's room again. Maybe after the case is finished.

"Neither reports specified what kind of synesthesia Suvi had," Rogue said, spying a pale purple stand full of medals and trophies. There are pictures on the wall of the couple and Suvi Song, smiling while the little girl held her cherry red violin. She was little, with long and straight hair. She wore a bright pink polka dot dress and ballet flats. She didn't look like either of her parents.

"Chromesthesia," Isabelle said to her, just as Rogue turns to the window that spills sunlight into the room. Everything here is bright and innocent that it sings to her who Suvi is. It almost makes her feel as if she personally knew her. "She sees colors with sounds and sounds with colors."

"So how does she interpret this?" She gestures around the room, tilts her head up to see glow-in-the-dark stars glued to the ceiling. If she turns her head to the left just a bit, she could see the end of a bookcase filled with books of all colors. She could spy Korean characters and Spanish mixed into the varied languages of the reading material.

"Music," Isabelle said, looking around as well with the faintest of smiles on her face. "The song always changes, so I can't really say."

"She calls it the Song of Home," Soo said, a tiny frown on her face as she looks around as well. Something about her expression talks of unhindered pain. "Always changing but never inharmonious."

"She's a violin prodigy," Isabelle adds when Reyes stares at the awards carefully, reading out everything that was on those plaques. "Everything she heard was told to her in colors, and she loved everything about it. It was hard for her to get her flipper off of the strings."

"Suvi was supposed to make her debut in a concert a week ago," Soo said quietly, pulling the jean jacket closer around her frame just as Isabelle rubs a flipper on her back. "But she disappeared."

"I see," Rogue said, looking at the room one more time before she speaks. "I understand what you feel."

"I'm sorry?" Soo frowned, watching the commander closely just as she fixed her eyes on the floor, where toys scattered the floor as if they have yet to be cleaned.

"I have a little girl back home. Her name's Natalia." She turned to the couple, offers them the tiniest smile. "I wouldn't know what to do either if she disappears."

She thanks the couple, wishes them the best of luck before she's stepping out with Reyes in tow. He's blabbering out observations and comments that she tunes out for now as she thinks to herself for a moment, tilting her head to the sky as she tries to see if Suvi Song fitted in any of the patterns. The sky above them is a bright blue, clouds a fluffy white that struck against the hue. The air is cold and barely moving, just enough to remind her of the lapping of waves on a familiar beach with a familiar penguin with red feathers.

She finds that Suvi Song fitted in none.

UAN: Can you please state for the records what pattern you found among the victims, Cueva?

Cueva: They were all civilians. They all came from all walks of life with penguins who cared for them.

UAN: That's very vast of you to say, Director.

Cueva: But it's the truth, sir. I can't change that.

UAN: What kind of methods did your team have to go through before coming up with this conclusion?

Cueva: There's this method where you go through the belongings of the victims. Usually, it's done by the family to make sense of their mind during their final... days, but we used it to determine who these penguins were. If by deducing who they were based on what they owned help us find something in common, we would have been able to narrow down potential victims and possibly avoid any further Public kidnappings.

UAN: Were there any setbacks?

Cueva: Well, you can say that everything was up to interpretation.

"You can't believe how many guys I knocked down in dodgeball today, Mama!"

Dinner with the Tvarkovs, contrary to what many (Reyes included) assume, is not quiet and polite. To his left, Natalia Tvariench-Tvarkov seems very much invested in trying to chat her mother up in poorly constructed but vaguely sensible French. The clattering of silver against ceramic plates is a frequent sound, the occasional scrapping standing out against the high soprano of the little girl's voice. Reyes chews on his greens thoughtfully as he tries to slowly translate what the kid is trying to say, humming as he considered how the commander's cooking isn't so bad.

Speaking of the commander, she seems to be relatively patient with Natalia's French.

"That sounds great, sweetie." Rogue hummed, pushing her salmon around with her fork and looking up occasionally to smile at her. Natalia continued to babble happily, a mess of French then English then some mix of Russian before returning to French. Reyes scratched his head under his beanie, suddenly losing all sense of her chattering. "How are the Quinns doing?"

"Caroline seems to be feeling better," Natalia said in her mixed Frankenstein of the three languages in one sentence. "Are you ever going to ask them, Mama?"

"I think we already have," Rogue glances to Reyes for a moment, tilting her head in the unanswered question as he nods. Thomas Quinn was a carpenter with a loving wife and two kids. He fits in the pattern of men who were kidnapped in Server 4 in this local cafe. "Yeah, we already have."

"Are you ever going to find him?"

"Dorogaya, it's our job to." She's calm, but when Reyes looks at her he can see the barest hint of determination in her eyes and her urgency in her tone. Natalia doesn't seem to have noticed her tone and instead happily went back to eating the salmon. It bothers Reyes how Rogue keeps pushing her salmon around before the kid takes her dishes and goes over to the sink to clean them. It's hardly 2 minutes before she's disappeared, off to do whatever it is she has to do.

"Ya ain't eatin', boss." Reyes frowned once Natalia's footsteps disappeared up the staircase. There's clear unease on her face as she leans back and looks at the partially finished salmon. "Somethin' bothering ya?"

"I can't keep asking favors from Adrian to keep watch of Natalia," Rogue muttered, turning her head and listening for the familiar sound of a shower running. The frown on her face is deeply set, a permanent fixture that he thinks wouldn't turn back to normal if she tries to relax her face. She looks like a woman who's trying to weigh two options that aren't in any way good. Maybe she is. "I can't ask her to leave school to go to Rusca either. I can't ask Joshua to come here either."

"Then why don't ya bring her along?" Reyes frowned, before realizing the complexities that come with that. Natalia would not only be leaving school temporarily at such an important time, she would also be brought along with every move they make with no guarantee that she'll have space to live without agents arguing about tactics and politics in the background. The commander was right: she can't bring along Natalia if she wants to let her have as normal a childhood as she can provide her.

"I can't," She said simply, before standing up from the table and depositing the remaining contents in the trash bin. Reyes turns and watches her exit the kitchen, probably to go to her office basement to get to work with the potential patterns. Reyes could only scrape up what's left on his plate before joining her, padding down the staircase and stepping into her office to find that she was conversing with Piri. "What's the situation over there looking like, Perez?"

"Cueva's been juggling us and the Council. He's getting called in more often." There's a weariness in Piri's tone that both catch. She gestures behind her, to the projectors showing up a board full of patterns and connections theorized by the various taskforce members. "You want to see the board, Rogue? It's not looking pretty. The lines are looking a bit too short for such connections to be made."

"Rude," Reyes muttered behind Rogue, just as Piri nodded vigorously on the other side of the screen. "Being hella random ain't helpin' us."

"I'm about ready to come back and report that there is no possible common denominator," Rogue said, sighing as she leans back in her desk chair and rubs her face in frustration. "Any news about future respondents?"

"If Cueva isn't joking, looks like MSB and SI:9 are coming in," The mention of the second agency has the commander tensing, and Reyes frowns and wonders what could be her problem. "But no sign of Tang, though. I don't know who Munijoch's sending."

"Keep us posted," Rogue said just as the screen reverts back to its EPF screensaver. She sighed and turned to Reyes, raising a brow at him when he looks at her. "What is it?"

"Didn't think ya ta be the givin' up type," He frowned, turning to the side to see the corkboard that was filled with case notes and information that could probably link all of those victims together. "'Specially on somethin' as important as this."

"I'm not giving up," Rogue shook her head, exasperated as she looked towards the corkboard as well. There were printed out news reports, manifests, a stack of missing penguins reports somehow pinned to the board. Thin strands of red yarn would connect one, two, at best four but none with each other. They were isolated from each other, never really connecting to all but to some. "Many more are disappearing the longer we draw this out."

Insufficient evidence.

"If I can just find something in common with what the others have, then we'd at least have something to work with." She continued, activating the hologram projectors right underneath the corkboard to summon up everything that the others have collected. It encompasses the entirety of the office, a surrounding dome of information that they can summon with the flick of the wrist yet have no idea how to utilize. Reyes peers at one that's in Cyrillic before shifts to clearly written English. Thank Lynx and their translation protocols. "Lynx, please see if they have anything in common that we can work with."

The files move slow, hasten just slowly before they're a blur of lights and flickers of holograms as the AI did what it was asked to do. Reyes looks around, both in awe and confusion, trying to make sense of what exactly is going on before they still. He frowns when he notices that there were hardly any changes. The AI brings up statistics in front of them both, numbers a range between 20 and 30 before dwindling to the singular digits.

"We're only seeing probabilities," Lynx sounds unamused if an AI can even sound like that. There's a deep frown on Reyes's face as he reads through the statistics. "Unless you want me to include the fact that they're all 100% civilians."

"See, even the AI agrees." Rogue sighed before shifting the statistics to the side. Information holograms pop up in front of them and Rogue sighs, exhaustion weathering her down just slightly. "One more, then we'll go back."

"Gotcha, boss." Reyes nodded, before turning to her and raising a brow. She's muttering in Russian as she reads over Zarkova's findings, eyes skirting the file with interest. "Who's the last one?"

She goes quiet, thinking of who's the last shot they have before they go back to the mainland to formally report their findings. She reaches into her pocket for her phone and taps out a number, bringing it up to her ear when it starts ringing. He wonders who it is when the line connects. "Yes, good evening... Westley? Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know you were on a date... I won't be bothering you too long, don't worry. I just wanted to know whose report came in when you interviewed me."

He waits outside the safe house.

When word from one of his agents directed him to Acadia, he made sure to get on the first boat they have available to get them to the republic as quick as possible. He had been quick to inform Wolfe, quick to ask around to make sure he had the information right, much to the chagrin of the Acadian Gendarmerie. There's nothing he hasn't done to make sure that right now would be seamless, but apparently, some sort of delay keeps the SIA agent from reaching the safe house.

So, he waits.

This isn't exactly his safe house, not really. It was constructed by the SAD as a hideout for any agents stationed within the region. Due to some internal discussions regarding budget and maintenance, though, he has offered up the place for any agency that wished to carry the weight of managing the tiny little place. Those who were the first to step forward was the MSB and the EPF's ATD, but he didn't really think they wouldn't. What followed were smaller organizations, military intelligence divisions.

They're called Gray Areas. A network of safe houses, bars, restaurants, boutiques, hotels designed to be zero areas of conflict amongst agencies regardless of who's in it. Call it an unofficial, hush-hush arrangement.

A car rolls up, and he leans back on the door as the door opens. Wolfe steps out and takes the moment to look both ways, just as the car rolls away and he steps up the front steps and onto the porch. Kowalski opens the door behind him and lets the man in without another word, clicking it shut and locking the deadbolts above the lock. Behind him, Wolfe is loosening the knot of his tie as he sighs, eyes already skirting the bottle of Cream Soda that's on the coffee table.

"What did you find?" His voice is gravelly, scraping against his throat as if it were sharp from hoarseness. He grabs the soda and uncaps it, sniffs as he pours himself a glass. He sits back in a recliner and takes a sip, groaning with relief after taking a sip.

Kowalski puts his flippers on the back of the couch, "We found one."

"Strange, they don't usually leave anyone behind," He frowns into his glass and downs the rest in one go, opening up the bottle again to pour some more for himself. "Are you sure about this one?"

"I'm certain. Thought it matched the typical Public kidnapping," Kowalski said, throwing a folder of papers on Wolfe's lap. He picked at it with mild disinterest, taking a sip of his soda as he skimmed the contents. "If I can just get the Gendarmerie to let us borrow him—"

"You just need to show them your good side, Kowalski." Wolfe snorted, setting the glass down and throwing the file on the couch. He rubs his eyes and popped a joint on his neck with a twist. "Let me take a crack at them."

"Sure thing." Kowalski nodded before he's disappearing into the kitchen to find himself something to eat. If he was going to prepare himself for more negotiation tactics tomorrow, he might as well charge in with a bit of food in his stomach.

He probably should have brought along his hoodie.

Because this room is cold, much to his chagrin. Everything about it is dark, cold, nothing like his squadron's or his boss's office. It's small, not really meant to cram 4 penguins in with computers and equipment. The lights here are nonexistent, save for the glow of a computer screen and the lights of sound equipment blipping into and out of existence. Reyes could do nothing but grip his suit coat around him tighter, thinking that the fabric would magically heat itself the closer it is to his body.

In front of him, neither Rogue nor Tux appeared to mind the obvious freezing temperatures of the room. They only had eyes on the two-way mirror in front of them, which showed them the brighter interrogation room with its occupants. In this unusual case, the tables and chairs of the room were replaced with a rather large and colorful mat, with toys scattered on its surface. There's a little boy playing with a train set, building the tracks and moving his trains as he goes with a silent perseverance. Reyes would like to give it to him for how his track looks pretty complex, much to his amusement.

Daniel Johnson witnessed the kidnapping of his grandmother, Janina. He's never said a word about what's happened.

His mother, Margaret (but she insists on being called Maggie), had explained to them that her son is impaired in terms of speaking. Damage to the vocal cords, she said, some genetic problems that always made him sound hoarse. Daniel could talk in short sentences, trying to speak even when he sounds like cutlery scraping against ceramic. After the incident, though, it seemed as if he refused to speak altogether.

"He can't even sign a thing to us," Tux muttered, shaking his head as he watched mother and son build a separate track that went upwards. Maggie's flippers are steady as she gently stacked blocks over each other as her son built a track over it. "Too fast to interpret."

"There has to be some way we can get him to talk," Rogue said, rubbing her face as she checks her watch. It's pushing noon, and they've been at this for two hours. "We need to call for a break."

Tux nods to the agent behind him, the one beside Reyes. She disappears from the viewing room and steps into the interrogation room, chirping out what the two commanders just agreed upon. When the two vacated the room, Rogue turned away and towards the computer screen. She played back footage from half an hour ago when they asked Maggie to ask Daniel questions about what happened.

"He doesn't even want to talk to his mother about it," He clicks his tongue, watching over her shoulder as Reyes made his way to them. The kid on the screen can only shake his head vigorously before going back to building his tracks. "Tvarkov, you have a child. Any ideas?"

"Just because I have a kid doesn't guarantee I know what to do with another kid," She shakes her head and steps back from the screen. Tux takes the mouse to click on the footage. There's a low hum in his breath as he watches seconds of Daniel playing with his train track.

"Then why don't y'all send in another kid?" That gets their attention. Tux and Rogue turn to him and stares at him, waiting for him to continue his thought. He suddenly realizes he has no idea what he just suggested. "Y'know, ask 'em to ask."

"We don't even have any kids to ask," Tux's eyebrows knitted together before he looks to Rogue and adds. "Unless you think you want to pull Natalia from her classes."

She crosses her flippers over her chest and huffs, "She has soccer practice."

There's a silence that permeates the room, makes the room seem still with anticipation. If Reyes closes his eyes and listens hard enough, the gears that run through the commanders' heads and the humming of electronic equipment would fill his head and rattle its way through his bones. He tries to wonder how far D'Esposito's house is so he can "borrow" Diana, or how far Diaz's is to borrow Stephen.

"Tvarkov, I think it's time to bring in Millers." Tux finally said, shaking his head as he looks to Rogue. "She can figure something out."

"Get her," Rogue nods to Reyes, before he turns and steps out of the room. Welcoming the change of temperature when he steps into the hallway, he rubs his flippers together and sighs, looking around before making his way to the head psychologist's office.


RICCI: With all due respect, Councilwoman, I'm starting to doubt the efficiency of the intelligence officers.

WINSTON: We have picked the best and brightest, Ricci. Need I remind you again how many of these officers solved our Theta problem last year?

RICCI: I understand, Athena, but tell me. We are trusting them with the lives of the lives of the whole continent. What guarantees us that they will do their job well?

WINSTON: Because they demonstrate the professionalism and integrity that is worthy of UAN representation. Jean, I get your concerns. After those information leaks, we've known about their track records of doing just about anything to get what they need to know. That still doesn't change the fact that they're our best shot at getting this done.

RICCI: Alright, Athena. But how sure are we that they won't cover for each other when we ask them about how they obtained their results?

RICCI: You're such a paranoid man, aren't you Ricci? Fine, since you're so bothered by their integrity, I'll send in Carter.


Despite what many assume, she doesn't trust Tvarkova.

Which comes as a surprise to many, even the mother of said commander. The esteemed Director was surprised to learn that her agency's representative to the UAN Taskforce did not trust her own daughter, no matter how much insistent she was that Rogue was as Ruscan as Zarkova was. But she didn't believe this, of course, as stubborn as she was to even her superior's thoughts.

The files that Tvarkova has sent to the UAN hub of information proved to be as useless as everyone else's, mostly a report summarizing the statistics and information she had taken as well as commentary from those she has interviewed. Much to her surprise, they were in her own handwriting, a scrawl of phrases and words that outlined who the victim was and what their family's like. It was a detailed, bold set of words in clear, heavy pressured print that was probably scanned from the notebook that Tvarkova uses in her interviews. Zarkova peers at a line that Tvarkova's written in her rushed handwriting, something that seems as if it were a thought she made as she was on the field.


There's rapid beeping on her computer screen so she turns, frowning when she sees Robert Wolfe's face on the screen. She clicks on the answer button as his face pops up, a set frown on his face as he looked at her.

"Zarkova, I got some information for you." His baritone is roughened by lack of sleep and an overabundance of caffeine. She doesn't comment on it, the man looks like he has seen the depths of the CyberVoid. "Think it'll interest you about our little friends the Public."

She raises her eyebrows, leaning back in her chair. "I'm listening."

She's studied cases like these for years, seen them in penguins all shapes and sizes throughout her career. Cory Millers has seen an antsy recruit stammer out his through his entrance interview, a rookie hardly go through her debriefing without having a breakdown, even the highest officer of the division hardly look her in the eye to evaluate what has happened during the Theta case. She's seen various coping methods, tiny quirks that reveal what anyone would do to keep themselves from facing what has occurred. Every case before this one, though, she always knew how to get them to talk. They all had to face the music: they can't just shy away from the events of before.

She calls it thinly veiled trauma.

But this case stumps her for a moment, watching the footage that both commanders bring up for her. See, she's so used to working with professionals, grown-up operatives and agents that she's haven't seen a juvenile case in years. She watches the kid shy away from questions with vigorous shakes of the head, turning back to his train tracks and moving them along the railways. The method is familiar — another coping mechanism — but she doesn't know what she can do to get a child to talk without damaging his psyche.

"Once again, Rogue, you just love throwing curveballs at me." She said, looking at the clipboard resting on the CPU to see the evaluation made by her intern.


"I don't know anyone else who's good at getting anyone to talk." Rogue shrugged, leaning her weight against one of the larger speakers in the room. "And we're out of options."

She hums, goes over the evaluation once more. Daniel Johnson could hardly speak in the first place, nor sign to her what she needs to know. She scans the handwritten papers, tries to go through her methods before a thought pops into mind.

"Rogue, is there any chance that I can borrow some of your daughter's things?" When the commander gave her a weird look, she continued. "I'll try not to break them, I promise."

UAN: When did you come to the revelation that maybe there was some connection between them?

Wolfe: When we were able to talk to the victims. They provided insight on their captors and we just filled out the gaps.

UAN: Strange, Cueva did not mention this earlier.

Wolfe: Forgive the old man, Councilman. He could be quite forgetful of a lot of things.

Maggie sets aside her son's train set, much to his discomfort. She watches when Cory Millers steps into the room with a bag in one flipper and a drawing book and crayons in the other.

"I apologize for the tardiness. I had to pick some things up before we start," She sounds kind, cheerful. Millers looks like a woman who isn't bothered or weighed down by the fact that whatever her son has to say could help the investigation of the disappearance of hundreds. She sets the bag down and sits in front of the two, handing the book and crayons to Daniel. "This is for you. If you can answer a few questions for me, I'll let you keep it. Is that okay with you?"

Daniel stares at her, almost as if he was judging her character. She looks like a woman who's trying to draw out answers from him when he is not yet ready, not yet sure how to articulate what is asked of him. Millers hardly let her smile falter as she nudges the book and crayons to his flippers. He takes them hesitantly and sets them down on the ground between them.

"Thank you." She said simply, taking a deep breath as she gently opened the book to its first clean page. When she smooths her flipper over it, it feels like she could cut herself on it. "I know you don't want to talk, and that's okay. But, is it alright if you try to tell me what happened to your grandmother by drawing it?"

The boy takes one look at the book before shaking his head vigorously. These crayons are too small, too thin for him to grip without it slipping from his grasp. Millers tries not to sigh before reaching out to grab the book and crayons, asking permission before she tugs it to herself and begins to draw crudely on the paper. The wax glides over the page smoothly, streaking the paper with pink pigment. She reaches into the box and taints the white with green, dark green, blue, dark blue, yellows, and reds, and purples. The paper wrapping of the crayon is an unfamiliar texture against her feathers, nothing like the smooth body of a pen or stylus. She formes arches, fills them out, over and over in the multitude of colors she has to create a mountainous crowd of a mess.

Dear Benny, when was the last time she held a crayon?

"There are many penguins out there who are missing, Daniel. It's not just your grandmother." She explains, gesturing towards the filled in arches. They vaguely resemble a crowd of penguins. "If I had to draw them all, they wouldn't fit in the page."

He's silent, only looks at the colors. Daniel slowly picks up the pink crayon, tries to draw his grandmother, but it clattered to the page and left a pink dot on the paper. He huffs and frowns, a clear pout on his face as he stared at the crayon. It's too thin, it keeps slipping from his grasp. There's a faint tremor in those flippers that Millers stores away for future evaluation.

"It's okay if you don't want to, I should've known to pick bigger crayons." She tries to make a joke, gently pushing aside the book and paper. She reaches her flipper to the bag on her side and looks to the two-way mirror across them. She knows they're watching, waiting for her to make the next move. If she looks hard enough, she can see Rogue nodding at her. She slowly empties its contents, letting it spill onto the mat. There's a pink penguin with orange curls on her head, and a little chick with yellow feathers and a cap on its head. There were two, three robber figures in the iconic black and white stripes. Last tumbles out is a white van. "Please be careful, they don't really belong to me."

His eyes skirt the plastic figures. This is easier than drawing, this was child's play. He just needs to translate what he saw that day with these figures, right? Daniel nudged the pink penguin and gently picked it up. "Gran'ma."

"Yes, that's your grandma." She tries to hide the victorious grin spreading on her face when she hears his tire screech-like voice. She picks up the chick and holds it up for him, "This is you. I'm sorry, I couldn't find a figure that was your color."

He picks it up with interest. It looked nothing like him, yellow feathers and overalls covering its body. It will do. She turns to get the robbers, identically dressed in black and white and sporting orange feathers. Daniel seemed to be quite invested looking at what's supposed to be his grandmother and him. She holds them up for him and tries not to let them slip from her outstretched flippers. "These are the bad guys. They were three, right?"

He nods and takes them, flippers full of plastic figures that are supposed to be used to replay what's happened. He gently lets them tumble from his hold, trying to remember how everything happened, which way were they walking. Was the road on their right or left? Was he on her right or left? Daniel scrambles for a moment to put the memory of men taking his grandmother away into clarity. He doesn't notice the trembling in his flippers when he grabs hold of the white van, dragging it back thoughtfully as he tries to remember that day while translating it in his flippers.

So imagine his surprise when the van speeds away and thumps against the wall.

"Oh! I think that's one of those retractable cars." Millers smiled apologetically at the boy, who seemed surprised and taken aback by the sudden movement of the van the moment he lifted his flipper. Beside him, his mother was a giggling mess, at the brink of disintegrating into the floor with how close she is to collapsing on the floor. She reached over to the side to pick up the toy, setting it down in front of him as he looked at it once more. "Now, can you tell me what happened?"

He had to admit, this was a rather unconventional method of getting information.

Tux can only watch the barely there trembling of the kid's flippers as it sets the figures to where they are supposed to be. The chick was on the right of the pink penguin, and the van was approaching them to her left. He would have to give it to Millers: asking the kid to recreate the scene with toys and charade the rest meant the kid didn't have to explain it, use visuals to tell them what they need to know.

Beside him, Rogue only hums and mutters. "We should've called for her sooner."

He can only nod, watch as the kid pushes the van forward until it stops right next to the pair of figures. He reaches for one of the robbers, nudges it harshly at the chick figure. When the figure tumbles back, he grabs for the other two and puts them closer to the pink penguin. Through the microphones in the room, he could hear Millers ask. "One of them pushed you away?"

The child nods.

"We don't have security footage of this incident?" Tux asked, turning to Rogue briefly as the kid makes the two robber figures push the pink penguin closer to the van. There's a sense of urgency in his movements, trembling more prominent. Something's wrong.

"Unfortunately they picked to take her in the camera's blind spot," Rogue replied, a clear frown on her face as she watched Daniel struggle to convey something. He's staring at the cluster of three figures right beside the van as if he was unsure what to tell them next. He hears Millers ask softly what was wrong, not to stress himself too much. He nudges the figure on the pink penguin's right too hard, and it clatters back and pushes the van slightly away. The trembling doesn't cease.

Maggie's rubbing soothing circles over her son's back. This must be what troubles him. "What's wrong, Daniel? What is it with this figure?"

He's seen traumatized civilians before. They were usually far older, adults who broke down in front of him while telling him what he needed to know about some case. He's seen tens and hundreds of them in interrogation rooms, sobbing and sputtering out a narrative he asked them to tell. This was a new sight, a different way of looking at the story. This was a child barely ready to face what he just saw, deeply bothered and distressed.

He turns away just briefly, maybe to give Daniel a private moment to get his bearings. Nothing about this was private, there were recording devices in that room that would let them watch this footage over and over until the case was over and it gets cast away to the agency's archives. This is a reality that they have to face, that they have to ask this kid what happened to at least get bits and pieces of the whole picture. It would sound absurd to ask him this, even when there are hundreds of stories out there just waiting to be heard. He flicks his eyes to Rogue just quickly, who kept her eyes to the room as the kid sputtered and kept gesturing to that one figure. In his peripheral, he can barely see the tiny tear that slides down her face.

Tux turns back to the mirror when he hears Millers speak again. The charades game must be over. "Did she know who took her, Daniel?"

There are fat tears running down Daniel's face when he nods vigorously. When Millers asks for anything he can tell her about that figure, his flipper hastily grabs for the crayons, rummaging quickly through all 24 of them to find the orange crayon. Tux's eyebrows shoot upwards: this is the first time he's heard someone identify their kidnapper.

"Did she say a name?" Daniel trembles harshly, body shivering against the stark lights of the interrogation room. His mother hugs him and rubs his hair soothingly, murmurs something the microphones cannot pick up. He takes the drawing book forward, pushes the figures aside and opens it to a clean page. His flipper can hardly hold the crayon so he uses both of them, slowly marking the paper with bright orange pigment, lines unstable and unsure as he writes out the name of the man who's done him wrong.

It reads Oliver.

04-05-18 23:47:58 PST

Sending out PSA that we have found a case in which the victim was able to identify their kidnapper based on eyewitness report. Requesting that all on-field operatives try to find cases who were able to identify who was kidnapping them to see if it is a viable pattern to report to the UAN.

A call comes in from Piri a little past midnight.

All of the main respondents are being requested to come back for an important meeting, with the secondary agents taking up the field work for the time being. Someone uncovered something important, and they all had to return to South Pole City to discuss what the next moves will be. Before ending the call he asks her about how she's been doing. She tells him she's doing fine.

He takes it two steps at a time, climbing the staircase and making his way to Natalia's bedroom. She had told him that she was going to take the time to watch a movie the little girl's been itching to see with her, and maybe read her a story before she returns to work. The door to her room's slightly ajar, a sliver of light showing him that the movie was already over and that the commander was probably reading her that bedtime story.

He's wrong.

Because when he steps into the bedroom he sees that she's fast asleep, sitting up on Natalia's bed with a book propped on her lap. The bedside lamp is still on, showing him that the bowed head of the commander was clearly not awake. He reaches for his phone and snaps a quick picture (okay, maybe several) to quickly send to Lynx, who helpfully sends it to Nick. He steps further into the room, gives Rogue one more look. She hasn't even ridden herself of her own uniform, and her hair was still tightly kept back by a hair tie. Whether or not she wakes up later in the night to fix herself up would be up to her, but for now, he'll let her rest. He reaches up to the lamp, finds the switch that flicks it on and off, and bathes the room in darkness.

Four: The Hubris[edit]

UAN: Can you describe your observations on the field during the Rusca raid, Carter?

Carter: They were very... I'm sorry, I can't really remember much about that day.

UAN: Too far away to recall?

Carter: No, I'm too overwhelmed by the present. I'm sorry, what was the question again?

UAN: The Rusca raid, Ms. Carter. Can you describe their performance?

Carter: They were not exactly uh... in tune.

UAN: In tune, Carter?

Carter: I think their field report speaks for itself.

When Rogue opens the door to the safe house, she finds Piri fast asleep on the couch.

And she looks like a mess, to say the least. In an old hoodie and sweats, hair messily bound back in a bun, it was clear that the Finipino agent has seen better days. She glanced to the side to see hologram projectors showing her the information hub's stream of files, news reports, ATD database files on the coffee table. She reached down to switch off the projectors one by one. The metal burns under her touch.

"Rise 'n' shine, sleepin' beauty!" Piri's up with a start, bolting up from her bed and mumbling out something that's barely coherent. Rogue looks over towards the kitchen and sees that the sink is full of dirty dishes. She clicks her tongue.

"You guys are early." Piri yawns, stretching leisurely in the couch. Reyes does her the favor of sitting on the available space and leaning back, pinning down half of her body. She scoffs. "Meeting's at 1."

Rogue glanced at her wristwatch. It's 9:11. "Gotcha."

She rids herself of her coat and steps into the bedroom she's taken up for herself, depositing it at the foot of the bed and sitting down. In front of her, downtown Booklin greets her with bustling activity, yellow taxis zooming about with the occasional loud honking. Across from her window is the Nightingale Hotel, where she recalls SSS Agent Brandt and Director Cueva to be residing in. She's considering coming in early to check in with the other agents when her personal phone rings, a happy jazz tune that's only assigned to one contact.

She answers the phone and lifts it to her ear. His voice is usually so soothing and serene, but today Benjamin spoke with an edge of urgency. "Something's happened."

Rogue ends the call. She picks up her coat once more and checks to see if the key's there, stepping out of her room to see Piri and Reyes arguing over what movie to watch.

"Where is ya goin'?" Reyes frowned, looking up and pausing from his passionate rant about some cowboy movie to look at Rogue. Beside him, Piri stutters to a halt and tilts her head, tries to decipher the unease that's crawling under her feathers. She doesn't want to talk about it.

"I'll be back for the 1 o'clock meeting," She gives them a pointed look. "The dishes better be done when I'm back."

Just as she's starting out to of the door, she hears Piri groan out. "Sure, Mom."

She doesn't comment about it.

When he enters the main conference room used by the taskforce in the UAN Administrative Building, he finds that it's cluttered with coffee mugs of white and black with the golden logo of the UAN emblazoned on its surface. There are papers scattered of scrawled notes and printed reports, with highlighters and pens joining the fray. There are coats and jackets draped over chairs, left behind by owners who wished to save a chair for themselves when they come back from wherever they went. The projectors have been left on by whoever was last in the room, showing the contents of the team's information hub. Television screens built into the wood paneling on the walls show muted news reports.

I04 takes one look at the mess in front of him, then shakes his head.

Beside him, his assistant has already scurried off to start putting the recording devices in covert places in the conference room. They've placed one right under the table and was already moving to put one on in the little snack corner to the side. He was about ready to turn to give them an order when he notices someone leaning on the doorframe. He turns around. "Wolfe."

"I04." The Shopper agent appears to stand his guard. Behind him, a hot pink penguin stood in a UAN blue suit. She looks at him oddly. "This isn't usually your crowd."

He glances to the side to see that a6 seems to be rather invested in the contents of the snack table. He looks back to see Wolfe waiting for his reply. "I'm testing the waters."

"As you appear to be," Wolfe huffs, then gestures the woman behind him. "I was showing Ms. Carter to our conference room. I thought I would be the first one in but it appears as if I was beaten to it."

"Unfortunately," I04 replied dryly, raising both eyebrows before nodding to Carter. "I've heard of you, Ms. Carter. It's a pleasure to meet you."

"I've heard of you too." It comes out sort of rushed, light and slightly accented. "Oh well, they were good things, I swear by it! You're... er, they call you I04, right?"

"Correct." He nods and turns to gesture to a6. "This is my secondary. Call them a6."

"Them?" Carter tilts her head. She's curious as she glances at the agent in question. a6 waves and greets a cheerful chirp of "hello" before they return to fixing themselves whatever it was they were interested in. A quick glance at his secondary shows him the tiny, almost imperceptible recording device hidden under the edge of the snack table. They seem to be making tea.

"They don't really abide by the female-male thing." I04 shrugged, "Don't mind them."

"It's such a binary concept," a6 scoffed over their shoulder, turning to see that three sets of eyes are staring at them. Their stares didn't really bother them, but they sure did scramble back to fixing themselves tea when they felt their boss's burning gaze on them. "Sir."

Wolfe's eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. There's the tiniest hint of a snarl in his tone, beak tugging downwards as he turns to I04, "Make yourselves at home."

The agent's trying to intimidate, but he doesn't mind it. Tolerance may not exactly be his strong suit, but he knows when someone is trying to manipulate him into keeping his head down. I04 turned back to the table, trying to find a spot to put his stuff that was least likely occupied by an agent. It wasn't his fault that he was activated by the taskforce, nor his fault that the agency accepted. Sitting down in the least likely occupied chair, he set to work accessing the information hub just as a6 passes him a cup of coffee.

This part of the suburban sector of Gemini is a little ways bordering the edge of the city, and Rogue didn't mind just as she turned down the corner. The city was an hour or so drive from South Pole City, but that's only if she breaks the freeway's speed limit in the most responsible way possible. She tried to rack her brain for Zanzi's address as she scans the streets for any clues.

"So boss, what are we doing here?" Lynx perked up in her car stereo, reducing the volume of whatever pop song was playing to speak. "Besides y'know, not visiting Commander Laurenson."

She rolled her eyes, "You are impossible, Lynx."

"I am not impossible! I'm literally existing." The AI scoffed, cutting the radio station altogether so that she can hear him better. She shook her head and turned the volume down slightly. "Rude. But really, boss, what are we doing here?"

"Zanzi called." She turned down a street and saw the telltale police cars and a tiny crowd of bystanders. She sees Benjamin on his phone and frowns, driving to them just as the AI started asking more questions. "Lynx, quiet down. I need to parallel park."

"But Commander, I want to know what's wro—" She switched off the stereo to concentrate of parking. It didn't take quite long to do so, and she was making her way to the door as soon as she locked the car. She quickly waved off the police officers when Benjamin joined her, pocketing his phone and walking her up the front steps.

"He's been inconsolable since he woke up." Benjamin reasoned, opening the door and letting her step in. She can hear the sniffling from here, and she starts wondering where the kitchen is to start grabbing some tissues. The architecture of this home allowed natural light to brighten up the area, and the insulation here kept the temperature nice and cool. The interior decor was a perfect balance of the couple, with Caspian's gentle pastels complementing Zanzi's bright colors with ease. There's the faint scent of lemon meringue in the air when she steps into the living room, and she tries not to sigh in content before her eyes land on Zanzi.

When she turns to her side, it's as if Benjamin has disappeared to speak to the police officers. She could see the kitchen's adjacent to the living room and takes quick steps to go there, quickly filling up a glass of water over the tap and grabbing a few tissues. She spies a platter of lemon meringues and quickly turns away before she can consider stealing one.

"Th-Thank you." She hands him the tissues and sets the water down on the coffee table. Something about the way Zanzi is overwhelmed by Caspian's large knitted cardigan is painfully domestic that she wishes this is a civil visit. "Did-Did Benny call for you?"

She nods solemnly, waiting patiently as he dabbed on his eyes and sniffled. He took a sip of the water and leaned back, wrapping the cardigan further around him. "I don't want to answer questions."

"I don't want to ask them." Rogue shook her head, tries to look around to think of what there is to say. This case is suddenly too close to home, and suddenly she feels as if it's toed to something personal. "Zanzi, doesn't Caspian have a little office here?"

"Y-Yeah, he does." Zanzi's up and shuffling past her before she can ask him for anything, and she's on her feet the moment he's stepping into the kitchen. He takes a few steps down the hallway to a door, opens it for her to reveal a little office. She thanks him and suggests him to eat some of the meringues before she shuts the door behind her.

Caspian, unlike his husband, is neat and organized in every aspect of his life. The office smells faintly like sugar as she looks at a bookshelf filled with culinary books and fictional stories, tries to go through her patterns as she continues looking for any clues that can tell her what happened to him. She doesn't need these things to know who Caspian was, she has seen them together for years before seeing them get married. She turns to the desk to go through the files, reading tax returns and budgets on the surface before she goes through the drawers.

She frowns when she sees what appears to be a dossier.

Curiosity gets the better of her when she picks it up, studies its contents. It gives details on a family in Calada, a Kyle and Nicole Robinson who had a little egg between them. There were details on the health conditions of each individual, personal information, detailed logs of the egg's conditions. She finds herself staring at a due date towards the end of the dossier, an estimate made by a group of doctors. There's a good chance that the chick would be a female and that they'll be in the pink of health upon hatching.

Then the adoption papers.

She's out of the office and back in the living room to see that Benjamin was handing Zanzi a cup of coffee. He nods quietly at her as both zero their eyes on the folder that she held.

"Zanzi, you didn't tell me you two were adopting." She started but found herself confused when she saw that Zanzi was looking at her oddly. His body still shivered every now and then with contained sobs, and he gently sets down the coffee as she approaches with the dossier. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"W-What do you m-mean we're adopting?" He grabs the file before she can say another word, pages through hastily before he reaches the end. The sound that comes out of his mouth can't even be called a sob, nor a howl of a wounded animal. It's a mixture of shock and heartbreak that makes her turn away when he starts crying.

"I'll take care of him," Benjamin said gently, passing the coffee mug that was previously Zanzi's to her flippers. She's frozen as she tries to piece together Zanzi's reaction, hardly registers the coffee until she feels the heat. The ceramic warms the sudden cold that passes through her body. "You look like you need it."

She doesn't remember stepping outside, but she does. Most of the crowd has dispersed to go on with their lives, and a squad car still remains with two police officers eating doughnuts. They nod respectfully at her as she sits down on the front porch, gently sipping the mug of coffee. It's far more rich, well-blended in comparison to the gritty office coffee in the UAN. The sky is a dreary gray above her that reminds her of the dread of this mission, but she doesn't mind its looming threat of rain.

Her phone beeps in her pocket, and she takes it out to answer the call. Reyes's drawl greets her, "Hey boss, any chance ya can get some lunch on the way back?"

She frowned, straightens herself when she hears the faint sound of a smoke detector going off in the background. There's yelling in Filipino that cuts through against the sarcastic babbling of a certain AI that only tells her that something's obviously gone wrong. "What do you want, Reyes?"

Only the main responders were needed for this meeting, seeing as the secondary agents would be in a separate briefing across their own conference room. This would leave the 30-penguin conference table vacated save for 9 seats that were widely spaced out from each other. Twiddling the stylus in her flipper, Brandt started to wonder when will this important meeting start before Cueva walks in with a pink penguin in tow.

There's silence. She sets her stylus down as she recognizes the woman beside him. Mia Carter was an officer of the Internal Integrity and Transparency Office of the UAN, based on the file that she reviewed on her the other day. This should be good. Cueva opens his mouth, "Good afternoon, everyone."

There's a ripple of greetings. Behind her, Wolfe mutters something that she doesn't quite catch. "Thank you all for coming on such short notice. It looks like we're finally getting that field mission."

"Finally." She muttered under her breath, watching as Cueva brought up the holograms for their briefing. Images showed a nightclub, the profile of a man, Cyrillic characters, then a police warrant of arrest in English. There was a doctor's diagnosis scrawled in, another profile, more reports in English. The holograms branch out and just barely brush the ceiling with how many there are, and she wonders for a moment if the projectors are working overtime with this.

"Wolfe, would you like to do us the honor?" The questioned agent beside her leaned back on his chair before he pushes it back with a muted screech. He fidgets with the knot of his tie and clips the silver cuff around his wrist.

"Alright everyone, let's start this briefing." The holograms are rearranged to make the room appear less cluttered, with some disappearing to make room for more important ones. The single profile of a lime green penguin shows up, along with a warrant of arrest. "This is Atticus Lowes. He is a member of the Public who was left behind during a failed kidnapping."

"Strange," At the head of the table, Carter perks up and leans forward in her own seat. "This is the first time we've ever heard of them leaving one of theirs behind."

"We've always assumed that one way or the other, the Public will slip and make an error," Wolfe said, sharp and near condescending. He gestures to the holograms. "Ladies and gentlemen, the error."

The thing with Agent Wolfe that Brandt keeps noticing is how he can always appear snappish as if any moment now he can lose his patience with the team. He always stood before them with rigid shoulders, jaw firmly set, a frown that never seems to disappear painted on his red feathers. Sarcasm drips from his words as if he were handling a bunch of amateurs and not a team of professionals of relatively equal experience and rank. Volatile would a good word to use to describe him if not for the fact that there are times when he can be indifferent.

"Alright, so he was caught and put in hospital arrest," The holograms disappear to show a doctor's diagnosis. "A bit of convincing from the Gendarmerie let us ask a few questions from him."

"Inquiry," The word makes everyone turn to Carter. Brandt watches as the woman in question wrote something down inside the folder she held that had the UAN's logo emblazoned on it. "How were you so sure that Lowes was a Public member?"

"He admitted to being one in the Gendarmerie report," Kowalski said, a few seats away to the left of Wolfe. "Acadian national, reported being missing nine months ago. His only known next of kin is his mother, who lives in Delphi. He was an accountant."

"Funny of him to resurface now," Carter commented, before writing something down on her folder. "Continue."

"A bit of questioning points us to believe that they have a stronghold in Rusca, where they keep a considerable number of hostages." Wolfe makes a face that Brandt can only describe as calculating. "We're looking at 50, maybe 60."

"I asked around to verify this information," The lilting Ruscan accent in Zarkova's tone made everyone turn to her. "We've got a hit in the Hubris."

"You mean that nightclub in Muscovgrad?" Tvarkova perks up for the first time, a chair away from Zarkova's right. "It's Ruscan Syndicate territory."

"That's why we're sending the both of you in there." The smile that Wolfe sends their way is poised to veil a challenge of protest. It's slightly unnerving. "Zarkova, Tvarkov, if you will."

"We'll need to discuss this." The hardness of Zarkova's tongue around the syllables of the sentence shows clear distaste, but no one seems to mind it.

"It's settled, then," Wolfe said, looking at the others who are in the room. "Once we find out where the stronghold is, we can tweak the raid strategy to fit the environment."

When the meeting is adjourned, Brandt takes a look around the room. I04 has disappeared out of nowhere to do whatever it is the man does whenever he's not with them, and Cueva and Carter have abandoned their seats in favor for getting some coffee in the snack table. Carter casually stirred her coffee with a stirrer as she discussed with Cueva about whatever international issue was interesting them both. Across her, Zarkova and Tvarkova argued with low voices about the circumstances of the mission tasked to them. Their Russian was rushed, and she couldn't tell what exactly were they arguing with each other as she turned to who else was still around. A few chairs away from her, Kowalski and Wolfe were poring over some holograms concerning the file of Lowe. Finally, the newcomer from Margate was silently going through something on his phone. She is not quite sure who he is, seeing as he was clearly not Nikolas Tang, but she knew that she would find out soon.

Besides, she finds everything out eventually.

UAN: How's your head, agent?

Brandt: Healing, thank you.

UAN: If we may begin, can you describe your relationship with your fellow agents, Brandt?

Brandt: I wouldn't exactly call all of us professionally close to each other. Despite how good we work together we were always suspicious of the other.

UAN: Understandable, given all of your backgrounds. You wrote in your report that they all appeared to be especially suspicious of you?

Brandt: I'm from the SSS. I imagine they did not give positive remarks on their evaluations of me.

UAN: You discredit yourself, Brandt. Let's see... well, you got lots of positive feedback from Director Cueva, Bureaucrat Kowalski, Commander Tvarkov...

With the boss on a plane headed off to Rusca, she's left Reyes and Piri to fend for themselves in the apartment. Which isn't a bad thing, not at all, for Reyes. A little bit of peace and quiet would be nice after what's been going down for the past few days, and he could use some kicking back and watching some cheesy movie on the television screen about some random couple and some poorly written plot. The only orders Rogue's left were to constantly get updates from Commander Tux as his division continued interviewing and asking penguins around for anything suspicious or worth noting. It's light work for now.

"So," Beside him, Piri starts as she reaches for a slice of anchovies pizza. She doesn't even look to him as she kept her eyes glued to the screen, flipper gently guiding the tip of the pizza to her mouth. "Where did she pick you up?"

He shifted his position on the couch and crossed his flippers, a bowl of popcorn on his lap. "From Rapid Response, ma'am."

"Is that so? Me too!" The words drip with sarcasm as she finally turns to him, talking around the crust as she swallowed. "Really, Reyes, I read your file and I need the full picture here. It's not common that she plucks a rookie out of nowhere for something as big as this."

He doesn't know how to tell her that he's not entirely sure himself. Rogue has always dodged the question, changed the subject before he can get a substantial answer out of her. She always gives him vague and empty words that would tell him why, and he can't really piece together what it is about him that she trusts would help her in the mission. He did not want to admit that he was her favorite: no one really knows, and no one needed to know.

Finally, he shrugged and scooped up some popcorn into his mouth. "Beats me."

Piri sighed, exasperated before she reached over to grab the remote from the coffee table. She flicked through a sports channel, the weather, two more shows, before ending up with a Japalandese cartoon. They watched quietly as the characters (some schoolgirls in some school he can't be bothered to recall), talk about being in a book club. Reyes huffed as he watched them interact.

"I was her former partner when we were still in Beta," Piri said, turning to him just briefly before she turns back to the TV. "We saw these cases a lot. Missing penguins, all sorts of reasons would come up."

Reyes nodded helpfully, continuing to eat his popcorn. He barely remembers the boss mentioning Piri as her former partner, only that she used to work with the RRS agent. "An' what happened?"

"I think she called me in because she needed a familiar angle," She continued anyway, reaching to sip on the soda she kept on the coffee table. "You know how she is, swamped by everything that's been thrown at her all these years. She needed someone to refresh her."

"And t'was you?"

She gave him a glare that could probably burn him to ashes then and there. "When I asked her why we've both been called in, she only said 'Something old, and something new'."

He frowned at her, but she doesn't give him anything else to hear. She leans back and turns to watch the show once more, making an off-hand comment of the animation while sipping on her soda. He shook his head and grumbled to himself in Spanish, leaning back and watching the show once more.

Late nights in the UAN Administrative Office is not unfamiliar to Mia Carter, especially when she's being handed particularly big cases by the Security Council.

Leaning back, she sighed as she studied the holograms in front of her once more. She had a closed meeting with Councilwoman Winston the next morning, and she had to make sure that she has every detail down pat before she could face the Antarctican. Half-eaten pad thai was stashed to the side, and her phone would light up every once in a while with a message from her roommate.

The woes of being a UAN officer.

Something about the reports in one of the files unnerves her, and she glances down at her folder to review her notes from the meeting earlier. It doesn't sit right to her that so little information is obtained about the Public and yet there's an alleged member of the Public captured by the Acadian Gendarmerie. Furthermore, the mention of Lowes in reports after said incident makes it appear as if he's disappeared entirely after what's happened. It only writes him off that he's been put in maximum prison under solitary confinement with no parole in sight.

She wonders how long would it take her to get a warrant that would allow her to speak to Lowes.

The door to the conference room opens. She quickly dismisses all of the holograms, sits up and appears to look like she's wide awake and not relying on two cups of coffee to keep her up. Cueva stands there, holding his coat in one flipper and the doorknob in another.

"Ms. Carter," His voice carries through the mostly empty room, eyebrows raised from where she could see. He looks surprised to see her. "It's late, don't you want to turn in for the night?"

She offers him a smile, quickly fabricated to appear cheerful and nowhere near weary. "I will. Let me just wrap things up here."

Cueva nods, looking around the conference room once more. She's read that he used to be part of the insurgent Orion Initiative, and was formerly responsible for the disappearance of anyone who so much as spoke an ill word at Maharlika Corporation. Cueva is a considerably dangerous man who knows methods of disposal, ways to make penguins disappear, and where to hide them. She finds it funny, then, that he's now responsible for a case that finds those who've gone missing.

"It's good of you to join us, Ms. Carter, considering how much work you probably had," He started, stepping forward and into the room. The lights have been dimmed mostly for energy conservation, and it's starting to lull her to sleep with how quiet it is and how dark this conference room is. South Pole City is a city that hardly sleeps, and she can hear the faint noise of the city life lazily pulsing through the streets. "I understand why the Council sent you—"

"What are you doing here so late at night, Director?" She cut him off, tapping her pen on her folder out of habit. She would like to end her work sooner or later, and while she enjoyed her chats with the man, she needed to concentrate.

"Closing up shop." He shrugged. It's a flimsy excuse, but she'll take it for now. She can badger him further tomorrow. "But it looks like someone else will be doing it for me."

"Good night, Director Cueva." She said after a moment, offering him one more smile as she turned back to her work. He greets her the same way before the door is shut once more, leaving the room silent as she waited for his footsteps to recede from her hearing. Sighing, she brings up the holograms once more and looks through the files once more.

They were profiles on all of the main respondents.

The flight to Rusca would take them the whole night, and they should be landing by dawn. Oxton had to be plucked from her day-off for this, but Rogue made sure that she was easily compensated with a few slipped Coins when she stepped into the cockpit.

And this is where she finds herself, reading up on the news to keep herself updated on what the public feels about what's going on with the investigations. Protests have been spiking up all over the continent, and the UAN has been getting heavy hits for keeping mum on the whole situation. Politicians have been calling for public cooperation, while others took their gracious time with joining with the bitter voices on the taskforce's "sluggishness". Comparisons to last year's Theta case are being made, and damage control is undergoing compliments of the public relations office.

Across her, Zarkova was watching the news on a little tablet, earbuds on either side of her head. She's been actively ignoring Rogue as much as possible, and she doesn't mind it the slightest. If the older agent wanted to ignore her then so be it.

To her surprise, though, Zarkova speaks up. "We'll go in on Monday."

She looks up from her own tablet and frowns, "Monday?"

"Mondays aren't as hectic as the weekends in the Hubris." Her words are thickened by her accent, and it vaguely reminds her of her mother's. "We have a greater chance of speaking to Sokolov then."

"We aren't even sure if he'll be there." Rogue leaned back, just as the plane climbed higher. The seatbelt light above them switches on, and the first wave of turbulence hits them.

The glare Zarkova gives her looks like it can kill, "He will be there."

Before the conversation could go any further, Rogue's phone beeped. The high and low pips were in Morse, repeating the letters D and C to her. She excuses herself and ignores the fact that she should be wearing her seatbelt when she stands, makes her way to the back of the plane to give herself some semblance of privacy. She leans against one of the cupboards.

"Jason, you're supposed to be asleep." She started, sighing as she gripped the handles when another wave of turbulence came in. She doesn't know how she can be called while she's on a flight, but she doesn't bother to think about the work that goes into it happening. Lynx would probably explain it to her.

"So are you, but you just answered my call." He quipped back, but it's friendly and light. "I heard you're being sent to Rusca."

"And who told you that?" She raised a brow and turned to check on Zarkova. She went back to watching the news on her tablet and doesn't appear to be listening in. She almost fails to register what Jason said. "Come again?"

"I said that you have a very chatty AI." He said, making her roll her eyes. Of course, Lynx would rat her out. She should really have a chat with them. "I tried the landline of your safe house."

She nods, leans back and listens as he talked about what was going on in Gemini. They've been looking at kidnapping cases as one of their top priorities, and collected data would be passed on to Special Intelligence for them to process or go through depending on what they're looking for. If anything looked unusual or relevant to the taskforce, it's immediately given to the SID for them to personally look into. It gets passed on to Rogue for her look into herself. There's a progression of who looks into what before it's handed to the main respondent, and it looks rather tedious at face value. She's listening to him talk about a couple he personally interviewed when he stops, changes the subject. There's a bit of static.

"Hey, I heard you were in Gemini earlier." Her thoughts slowed to a stop as she listened. She recalls then that she never considered telling him that she was in the city. "You came to see Zanzi?"

"Benjamin called, so I responded." She said simply, sighing as she stared pointedly at the cabinets opposite her. "I think it slipped my mind to call."

There's a brief chuckle in his tone, and she swears she can see him shake his head. "Missed opportunity right there for a quick date."

"I had a 1 pm meeting that I had to drive back to, Laurenson."

"That did not stop you when you had that budget—"

A wave of turbulence shakes the cabin, and the call turns to static for a few moments. Rogue silently thanks whatever entity is out there that caused this intervention. "You were saying?"

Suddenly, there's yelling in his side of the call of something she can't hear. He barks out orders, and there's a brief moment of silence before he's speaking to her once more. "Hold on, I gotta go."

"What's wrong?" She frowned, listening to the rush of movement and some more yelling in the background.

"There's been a bombing." He said, and she froze for a moment as she glanced at her watch once more. It's 10:06 in the evening in Eastshield. "If the reports are telling me the right thing, they're grabbing penguins. I'll keep you posted, bye."

The line is dead before she can fully grasp what he just said. She's quiet, trying to think as she shuffles back to the seat across Zarkova. There's silence as she flicks through the EPF servers to keep tabs on the situation, tapping her stylus against the screen while waiting for more information to come in.

"You have a boyfriend?" She almost gives herself whiplash with how quickly she snapped her head up to Zarkova. The older woman looks at her expectedly, one earbud out as she waits for an answer.

"I wouldn't call him—" Rogue pauses, considers what she's trying to say. There's no going around it. "Yes."

Zarkova nods, muttering as she goes back to focusing on what's on her tablet. "Interesting."

She's about to press her for what she means when information from Hepson pops up, a stream of details of who, what, when, and where. She's suddenly turning back to her tablet to focus on what's going on, ignoring the nagging feeling of Zarkova glancing up at her on occasion.

Bombing in Gemini night market kills 5 and injures 22
By Raven Westley (Club Penguin Times) | Updated May 6, 2018 - 5:39 am


Gemini, Eastshield (First published: May 5, 2018; 10:16 pm) - A bombing in a night market kills 5 at Moonlight Avenue at 10:06 in the evening.

Witnesses report that the first explosion occurred in the northern part of the night market, specifically the produce section of the market. At least 3 were killed immediately after the explosion, but authorities have yet to confirm the identities of these fatalities. Two more explosions were felt in the south and west part of the market, approximately 46 seconds apart from each other. A stampede followed as many rushed to get out of the market, spilling out to the nearby streets for refuge. A fire has erupted following the explosion.

Gemini Police Department, Gemini Fire Department, and EPF Delta Division squads were among the first responders on the scene. As of the last update, the fire has mostly been extinguished.

Reports from eyewitnesses say that there were penguins in black who were taking away penguins as the stampede occurred. Whether or not these are the penguins responsible for the bombing, it is unknown. The authorities have yet to release a statement on this.

President Megg has already been informed of the situation as of 2:13 am.

Please refresh this page for further updates.


WINSTON: Ms. Carter, you look like you haven't gotten much sleep lately.

CARTER: Good morning to you too, Councilwoman. It's been a long day.

WINSTON: Mia, it's 8:16 in the morning.

CARTER: It's been a long day.

WINSTON: Very well, let's get to business. The Public just claimed responsiblity on what's going on in Gemini. Do we have a team on it?

CARTER: Yes, ma'am. I think they just drove off to Gemini a few minutes ago. I think Wolfe and I04 are spearheading this one.

WINSTON: That's good. Tvarkov and Zarkova have been informed of what's going on?

CARTER: If I'm not mistaken, Tvarkov was on a call with EPF Commander Laurenson at the time of the incident. She's been tracking it since. They just landed a few hours ago, I haven't really been in contact with them.

WINSTON: Alright. Have they all been behaving, Ms. Carter? Is there anyone we need to keep a closer eye on?

CARTER: They've been... good. They clearly don't exactly trust each other 100% but they manage to cooperate professionally. I don't think we need to keep an eye on anyone in particular since they've all been civil to each other.

WINSTON: Do you think we picked the right blend of agents, Ms. Carter?

CARTER: I... well, I believe so. The Taskforce is balanced that they constantly check and balance each other, and even out the methods while widening all our possible angles. I have not seen all of them personally on the field but from what their field reports are telling me, they seem to be very good at what they do.

WINSTON: We picked the best and brightest in their own field, Ms. Carter. Don't worry about personally overseeing them, you'll get your chance on the field soon. Now, may I interest you with some tea? You look like you need some.

CARTER: Yes, ma'am.


The crime scene is left untouched for them.

Wolfe scanned the surroundings, taking in the yellow tape and policemen that mill the night market's perimeter. A few blocks from here, news reporters and cameramen watch their every move, held back by more tape and a barricade of penguins. Here, it's far more silent as the scene is only surrounded by police officers, EPF agents, and them. Charred remains of white canvas tents mingle with burnt wood, produce, fabric, plastic. Beyond the line, he can see a white blanket draped over a body, and he knows that if any of them nears it, a new scent will rise about the rest. It's such an interesting mix of smells that he pulls up his face mask to block it all out.

"Beat me to it, asking them to keep the bodies where they were." They have 22 fatalities, and 19 of them lay scattered in what used to be the market. Wolfe checked his phone to see the drone shot of the scene, locations of where the bodies are helpfully encircled in red. They're heavy in the north parts. "We'll have to swab them for any particle residue."

"We'll also need CCTV footage," Brandt piped up, stepping beside him and observing the lamposts with CCTV cameras on them. There were many that seemed to be damaged by the fire. "I think we should—"

"Lynx just confirmed access to that," Piri said, looking up from her phone and at the three main respondents who turned to her. She held up her phone to show multiple rectangles of footage. "Cueva and Kowalski are reviewing footage back at headquarters."

"We need to push back the perimeter to 5 blocks," Wolfe said, looking around him as he slipped plastic boots over his shoes. It's standard procedure to avoid contaminating the crime scene as much as possible, so this left all of them pulling on face masks, plastic gloves, and plastic boots.

"Already pushed it back to 10. We're always twenty steps ahead in all directions," a6 said, shrugging as they pull on a pair of plastic gloves over their flippers. They get a frown from their superior. "It's the unofficial motto of the agency."

"You're getting it all wrong," I04 said, shaking his head while scanning what's before them. The night market took up a whole city block, much to their frustrations. Splitting the whole thing into quadrants will help cover more ground as quickly as possible before they hand this over to the local agencies. "It's we spy on your cup holders."

"Just you wait until the contest starts back up again, boss." There's amusement in a6's voice as they turn to I04. "I have this bet with I32 that—"

The glare I04 sends their way shuts them up. Turning to those around him, he starts barking out orders. "a6 and I will take the north quadrant. Wolfe, Valentino, you can take south. Perez, Reyes, the west quadrant. Brandt, Hoffman, east. I expect that all of you follow standard procedure, seeing as we are all apparently professionals here. Report if you find anything worth reporting."

They all split up to get to their respective quadrants. The air is a mix of smells that all follow the tangent of "burnt", and the grounds were a mixture of black and grey debris and dust. When they're in the north quadrant, a6 looks around at the blast site and walks gently around the two sheets draped over the fatalities. Leaning down, they pull back the sheets to pick up samples with some tweezers and swabs. When they look up, they see I04 standing before the supposed bomb placement. "It's been a while since we had a case like this, sir."

"Doesn't mean it's unfamiliar, a6," I04 said, crouching down to pick up a tiny fragment of fabric with tweezers. He straightens, taking out a scanner from his suit pocket. "Let's get to work."

"Give me the placements of those bombs, Lynx."

It alludes Cueva how high-end the other agencies were in terms of technology until he worked closely with them. From the EPF's artificial intelligence units to the plethora of gadgets the SI:9 has, it just reminds him just how old he is and how far technology has come. Beside him, Kowalski doesn't seem to mind as he leaned back and watched as the AI crossed out locations on the drone shot that the SI:9 supplied them a few hours ago. How they managed to send drones there so quickly and identify where the bombs were surprised the old man, but he doesn't comment much on it. So long as it assists the taskforce's investigation, he will ignore methodology in favor of results.

"Do you want me to mark where the cameras were pointed at too?" If he's listening right, it's as if the AI is being snarky. Kowalski rolled his eyes and flicked his flipper twice, the only signal for Lynx to bring up blue dots scattered around the shot. Arrows pointed where the cameras looked, and numbers were helpfully written beside them.

"Lynx, we'll be needing footage from the cameras around the bomb sites." Immediately after the request, the AI brings up footage showing the damage with three teams inspecting the scene of the crime. Kowalski scoffed just as the AI shifted the holograms to show them the footage from the explosion. "I meant hours ago, Lynx."

"Be specific." Huh. It had a personality. Cueva considered asking Rogue later about her AI.

"Looks like someone woke up on the wrong side of the server," Kowalski muttered, shaking his head as he holds up his flipper to rewind, accelerate, and slow down footage to the time of the bombing. Cueva skirts his eyes to the numbers to the side of the footage. It says 10:06:08. "Northern quadrant was where the first bombing was, right?"

"Yes," Cueva said simply, reviewing the slowed down footage. Much to their annoyance, the crowd was too heavily dense to tell what exactly blew up, and it seems as if with its density it would be impossible for anyone to remain in one place without being pushed by the throng of customers. "Good Benny, what's gotten this night market so densely packed?"

"Sales and weekends are a deadly mix," Kowalski said, shaking his head as he played back the footage over and over. The crowds were still incredibly dense, and facial recognition scans were working to identify any recognizable face. "This is harder than I thought it would. Who's in the northern quadrant?"

"I04 and a6," Cueva said, bringing up the communication channel of the taskforce. "I04, Kowalski and I are reviewing footage. By any chance, could you tell us what we should be looking for?"

"Someone with a backpack." The reply came simply, slightly warped for some reason. Kowalski sighed exasperatedly as he went over the footage once more. Several holograms were summoned to show footage from two, three hours before the incident. The facial recognition software kept working.

"Think we can call Tvarkov for some help?" Cueva asked aloud, prompting Kowalski to turn to him. "I know she's already monitoring the situation from Muscovgrad, but a call wouldn't hurt."

"Lynx put her on the phone," Kowalski said, just as the AI helpfully popped up a hologram of the mentioned commander's number on speed dial.

From experience, Zarkova's learned that you can tell a lot about the penguin from the state of their home.

She wakes up from a quick nap to shake off the jetlag of the flight, staring ahead to see the barest hint of blue from the banister. Upon landing, they got in a car and drove to an apartment complex somewhere in the capital, where apparently Tvarkova has a safe house in. The younger woman had offered the only bed in the whole studio to her and took the couch for herself. She only accepted her offer because she was tired on her feet and would much rather take a power nap than consider what next moves to make. She slowly gets up, stretches, and runs a flipper through her loosened braids to observe what Tvarkova was doing downstairs.

It appears that she's turned her living room space into a mini-office, seeing the 5 or so hologram projectors propped up on the coffee table, floor, and TV. They encircled the couch, where the commander in question was sitting down on. She looked deep in thought, looking at something on one of the holograms with keen interest.

The mother in her tells her that she should sleep. "Tvarkova, you've been awake for more than 24 hours."

The flinch that comes with that statement is something that she stores away for future reference. It's something that reminds the seasoned agent of Tvarkova's mother. Turning up to her, she greeted. "I've been awake for longer."

Zarkova shakes her head and pads her way down to the living room, feet making tiny thumping noises as she goes down the steps of the staircase. The studio was designed with beiges and various shades of brown, clean and earthy with touches of green here and there. Overhead windows were the main source of sunlight of the studio, casting the room in a pale yellow glow.

"What is this?" She asked when she reached the living room, leaning on the back of the couch to look at what's before them. Footage from the Gemini bombing are in 6 different holograms, and a drone shot is smack dab in its center. There were EPF reports popping up in smaller holograms, as well as several news outlets reports. Sighing, Tvarkova tilts her head back to look at Zarkova then closes her eyes.

"We're looking at the effect of three homemade bombs on a night market," Tvarkova said, shaking her head then turning back to the holograms. "It's not pretty."

"Has it already been confirmed?"

To answer her question, Tvarkova summoned up holograms of medical reports and patient manifests from the nearby hospitals within the radius of the explosion. "See for yourself."

Multiple casualties. The extent of damage goes from amputations, burns in all known degrees, lacerations, shrapnel extractions in multiple locations. The things they pull out of patients range from nuts and bolts, nails, scraps of metal. It's clear that they're looking at something that's homemade, and not professionally created nor purchased. Zarkova has never seen injuries this bad since the war. "We will need more than the Taskforce to take care of this."

"I have a whole division on it," Tvarkova said, dismissing the holograms just as another pops up. It has a face and the name "Adrian Hepson" below it. "Hepson, talk to me."

"We've already dispatched teams to ask questions in the hospitals, and we're in the middle of processing images and videos from civilian sources." The note of exasperation is clear in the man's tone. This must be her second in command. "Also, the Taskforce is keeping us from getting into the crime scene."

"Of course we are." The sharp inhale on the other side of the line tells her that Hepson was surprised.

"That's Zarkova," Tvarkova said, not minding the fact that she was right behind her as she brought up more holograms. "Give me the SID's numbers. How many cases have confirmed their kidnappers?"

"Approximately 3% from the 500 cases," She tried not to wince at that percentages. It puts them at approximately 15 identified Public kidnappers. "That also includes the Johnson case."

"Send me the profiles," Immediately, multiple holograms pop up that show profiles of various penguins. They used to be someone, with a certain job, with next of kin who cares for them, with little quirks that make them penguins. Their relationships with those who disappeared (or were attempted to be taken) varied, from friends to co-workers, to no known relations. Everything tells them that they were all reported missing months before the Public rose into the media's limelight. "We're looking at missing penguins turning up to make others disa—"

A hologram pops up, with only the UAN insignia as an image. A call, then. She puts Hepson on hold and accepts the call. They're greeted by the sight of Kowalski and Cueva.

"Cueva suggested it's time to use the "call a friend" option," Tvarkova snorts. Zarkova shook her head. "Think you could help us narrow down what we're supposed to look for?"

Tvarkova goes over the profiles, footage playing in the background. Zarkova looks at everything that's before them, opens her mouth to give an answer. She beats her to it.

"Anyone who's been reported missing." She said, turning to Zarkova and nodding. "Next question."

"Think you can spare some manpower to go through this footage? It's going to be difficult if it's just us who'll—"

"What makes you think I haven't?" Tvarkova clicked her tongue, dismissing the profiles with a flick of the wrist. The varied amount of holograms in this room makes it appear cluttered, and Zarkova wonders how overworked the projectors are. "I have a whole division focusing on this case, Kowalski."

"We're checking," There's annoyance in his tone. "If you can give us access to the ATD database, that would be nice."

Lynx pops up as a tiny little hologram to the side of the call. Tvarkova only gives it a glare before it disappears. An affirming chirp on the other side of the line tells them that the UAN was just granted access.

"I'll call if I have more questions," Kowalski said before the hologram disappears and the room is silent. The rest of the mess is waved off, making Zarkova blink back spots in her eyes when she only sees the coffee table, the TV, and the wall across them. In front of her, Tvarkova folds, bending over and rubbing her eyes with a quiet sigh.

"I told you to rest," Zarkova frowned, taking in the looseness of the younger woman's shoulders and the clear exhaustion in her frame. The only reply she gets is the shaking of her head, straightening and summoning one hologram, then more. Zarkova shakes her head and sighs, turning on her heels towards the kitchen. She might as well make them some lunch.


PEREZ: Cueva, this is East Quadrant. We're confirming that this is a homemade bomb, over.

CUEVA: Can you narrow this down for us, Perez?

PEREZ: Pressure cooker, really simple to make. This one appeared to be filled with hardware nails.

a6: North Quadrant, we can also confirm that. I think we're seeing uh... what was that, sir? Nuts and bolts?

VALENTINO: This is Southern Quadrant. We're looking at BB bullets over here. Crap, this is a lovely little mess.

CUEVA: Noted. Do we have swabs?

a6: Oh, already beat you to it. There seems to be some ammonia residue on the bodies.

WOLFE: Of course you beat us to it.

PEREZ: But why would they have ammonia?

I04: Why don't you ask them, Perez?

CUEVA: Alright, team. Thank you for your input. Be sure to clean up neatly so that the EPF and the police department can take a look at the crime scene themselves. They might provide some good input. We'll check back in on your in ten or so minutes.


In contrast to the famed Zanzi Bar, with its bright hues and live jazz music, the Hubris is characterized by its purple neon lighting, massive open spaces for dancing, and heavy bass music that hits the penguin at just the right spot. Drinks here flow freely, supplied by a steady team of bar waitresses in dark crimson dresses. The massive dance floor is crowded with clubbers who dance their worries away in the early Monday night, and the overhead catwalk was filled with private tables for those who would rather drink than dance.

For the sake of blending in, Tvarkova has switched out her usual attire for something more civilian. Without the hair tie and uniform that she always seems to wear on a daily basis, she almost looked her age. As they drove to the nightclub, with Tvarkova making quick checks to her appearance in the sun visor's mirror, Zarkova noticed then that she looked very much like her mother.

"You ready?" Tvarkova asked as they parked the car across the nightclub. There's some hidden form of annoyance in her tone that Zarkova cannot really decipher, but she knows that she will find out about it soon. From where they were, they can hear the strong thrums of bass that seemed to go in time with her heartbeat, and Zarkova glances to the side mirror for one more check. The latter turns to her and waits for a reply.

The only reply she receives is Zarkova getting out of the car. She turns to the trunk and pops it open, grabbing the black duffle bag that was in it.

They walk briskly across the street, the cold nipping at their feathers with every second they are out. The leather jacket that Tvarkova opted to wear tonight was tightly pressed against her, and the bomber jacket she wore was a comforting balm against the cold. They stand before the bouncer who only gives them a look, dismissively checking his clipboard before letting them through. They're greeted with the heat of the nightclub the moment they're inside.

"Where can he be?" Zarkova asked, almost yelling to be heard over the thundering bass above them. It almost puts her back in a different place, a different situation when that bass is not music but the sound of—

"There." She tilted her head up to a room right above the DJ booth. The catwalk above them stops where the room is, and it appears as if there are doors on both sides of the room. Glass windows faced them, tinted black so that no one may see what's on the other side. "It's too obvious."

She'd have to agree to that. A little staircase to the side made them take the side walkway, past a long bar table that took up half of the floor space. The bartender who attends it watched them walk past him, Zarkova only sparing him a minimal look before stepping up the staircase. In her peripheral, she sees him raise his wrist to his mouth to say something.

The thing about this nightclub, much to Zarkova's frustration, is that everything about it was just waiting to throw her back into a battlefield she's not yet fully recovered from. The lights that flicker on and off, the yelling of clubbers, even the heavy bass just reminds her awfully of a different time and place. It suddenly frustrated her that she didn't bring anything other than a small ice bullet gun.

"I hate this place." Zarkova muttered in Russian to Tvarkova as they made their way to the room.

"I know." Tvarkova replied simply in the same language, turning to her briefly. The lights flicker around them, and she could have sworn that she saw white strands in the younger woman's hair. "I read your file."

When they've made their way before the office, a large bouncer stood before the door. He only spared them a look, at the duffle bag that she was holding, before simply opening the door and stepping aside. The lighting in this room is dim for Zarkova, and she cannot see much save for the figure of a man sitting in a rather plush couch with two bodyguards flanking his sides. Not much can be seen of him besides an angry scar that strikes against a perfectly groomed undercut. He only wore a dress shirt and pants, and he seemed to be very invested in nursing his Cream Soda.

His name is Mikhail Sokolov.

The door shuts behind them. Another light is flicked on and the room is far brighter for them to see. The hard bass of the DJ booth below them isn't as strong as it is outside, but the floor occasionally shakes with its power. Mikhail Sokolov has purple feathers, dark that it almost resembles grapes. He looks at them with what appears to be mild disinterest before he speaks.

"Zarkova." His accent is thick, much like hers. The way he speaks somehow strikes a nerve in her being. "Kuznetsova."

"It's Tvarkov." Tvarkova hissed with a note of annoyance in her tone that surprised Zarkova. She turns to see a clear cut frown on her face. The two must have had a history.

"You are still Kuznetsova to me." Sokolov is passive, waving off the younger woman's annoyance with a sip of his drink. "What brings you here to my fine, wonderful establishment? Am I due for an inspection?"

"A little bird told us that you may know something about the kidnappings," Zarkova said, setting down the duffle bag in front of him. A bodyguard steps forward to inspect its inside. "And the UAN Taskforce does not have the patience to ask diplomatically."

He gives them a look of feigned surprise. She can almost hear the tensing of muscles from Tvarkova. "The Taskforce not being diplomatic? I thought you'd all be goody two shoes with those politicians having you on a tight leash. It would be quite the scandal if, say, word comes out that you've been dubious."

"The UAN does not need to know what we need to do to procure the results they ask for." She said, almost spitting. The bodyguard announces a number. It's 10 million Gold Coins. "We need information, Sokolov. A name or a place."

He turns his head to her, tilts his head casually. Zarkova can see now why the younger woman appeared to be annoyed with him. "I don't even know what you're talking about. And even if I did know, you cannot buy my information."

"10 million Gold Coins—"

"Is a small amount in my book, Lyuda." She's itching to reach for the gun in her waistband. "I can spend that faster than you can say stroganoff."

She grumbled to herself. The thing that Zarkova disliked most about any form of interaction with the Ruscan Syndicate was that arresting them on the spot would be fruitless when they would just walk free 24 hours later with no feather bristled. She can face them but lack the ability to shoot at them point blank without having any consequences. The Syndicate had a reasonably powerful hold on the country, with close ties to the government. Her power in front of them is nothing.

"A favor." Both of them turn when Tvarkova spoke, spit in her tone clear as she glowered at Sokolov. The pulsing of the DJ booth below them thunders around Zarkova's ears that she thought for a moment that she just imagined what the younger one said. "Give us to a name or location and I'll consider it as a favor."

Sokolov tilted his head, interest in his face as he studied her. There is a strange sense of tension in the room that Zarkova tries to recall details she read in Tvarkova's file in the NRR. A large chunk of her early history has been redacted, and she starts wondering if this was the reason why. "Are you sure with that, Kuznetsova?"

"A favor of any nature." She said, jaw set. Zarkova considers phoning the Director after this to consider getting clearance just to read the entirety of the file. "One more thing to do for you and your organization."

The grin on his face is almost predatory. He tilted his head to the door as his flipper traced the rim of the glass. "Alexei Petrov, white feathers. He should be in the bar downstairs."

Tvarkova's gone before she can follow her. The door clicks shut behind the younger one, and she's about ready to run after her. She turns back to Sokolov, who finishes the drink in his flipper and looks at her expectantly.

"I'm keeping that, by the way." He nods his head towards the duffle bag. She scoffs. "Now, run along."

Tvarkova's already making her way down the staircase by the time Zarkova steps out of the room. The bass hits strong for this particular song, and it moves in time with her heart as she wonders what exactly Tvarkova's gotten herself into just to get what they needed to know.

UAN: Were there any setbacks in forming the plans for the Rusca raid, Commander?

Heng: Look, Councilman, you have what, five ex-military officers in your Taskforce? You'd expect us to have some sort of conflict with team formations and battle strategy and— you know what, I don't even think you know what I'm talking about.

UAN: With all due respect, Commander Heng, but some of us actually do understand. So please, continue with your report.

Heng: Alright, fine, sorry. So I already told you about the conflict in strategy, the formations, and the hm... oh, did I ever mention that there were twenty combatants and three medics? Poor Kowalski and those other two were overworked.

A few hours or so ago, she had gone downstairs to check on Tvarkova and her efforts in getting information out of Alexei Petrov. The white penguin by then had crimson dusting some of his pristine feathers, and he looked widely at her and begged her to let him go before she shook her head and leaned against the door to watch.

She would have to admit, while she was wary of the EPF agent for how she was able to turn away from her motherland in favor for the USA, her tactics and attitude were still very much Ruscan. Tvarkova watched impassively as Petrov gagged and sputtered while NRR agents pressed a face mask onto his face. Zarkova found this manner of interrogation interesting.

Heaving when it was removed from his face, Petrov sputtered, "I don't know anything!"

"Of course you don't." The combination of Ditto B and Green Doom Weed was supposed to cause severe neurological damage with the progression of exposure, and currently, the woman opted to use a gas form of the duo to speed up the effects. The way she curled her tongue around the Russian syllables dripped with annoyance. "Again."

It's been 7 hours.

At four in the morning, Zarkova was halfway through her bottle of Ruscan Cream Soda. She was idly reading the profile of Tvarkova that her mother had reluctantly given her. She's proven herself to be correct when it details the woman's association with the Ruscan Syndicate as Dunya Kuznetsova, a child snatched from one of the little villages near the forest. Details are sparse, with accounts limited to police reports and news clippings, but it appeared that at one point she served as their little assassin for when particular jobs needed the delicacy of a smaller kid.

She tries not to appear disturbed.

This NRR safe house was closer to the satellite office of the UAN, where they may report their findings as soon as they get them. Zarkova assumed that seeing as they need somewhere to detain the suspect should they ever have one, it is best to go to this little townhouse rather than the studio apartment the younger woman kept. This one had muted orange walls and wooden flooring that creaked in certain places, and the radiator buzzed in the far-off background. She considered if she should get up to start making breakfast when Tvarkova came in, blood flecking her undershirt and some feathers in her flipper.

"Fyodor," She said simply, going into the kitchen and grabbing a bottle of iced coffee from the refrigerator. She was halfway through drinking it when she stood before Zarkova, wiping drops of the caffeinated drink from her mouth. "Do I tell them?"

"Fyodor's a ghost town." Zarkova frowned, setting the tablet aside while letting it hibernate. Tvarkova's eyes followed her movement before they're back to her. "You used to reside there, right? Where could they put those penguins?"

Tvarkova takes the time to think. She sets the bottle down and runs a flipper through her hair. Zarkova's sure now that the white lines in her hair actually existed. "Basements."

Zarkova nodded, reaching over to the tablet to tap out a report to headquarters concerning what they've discovered. She hears Tvarkova shuffle around the kitchen, pans banging against each other, before hearing the stove being flicked open. The report is sent to the information hub by the time Tvarkova handed her a plateful of breakfast.

05-08-18 04:53:09 PST

Location of Ruscan stronghold has been reported to be in Fyodor, which is located in the outskirts of Varoneshki. It is theorized that the victims are currently being detained within the basements of the houses. It would be recommended if someone can scout the area for further details before the raid.

Three days have passed since the report was sent by the Ruscan agents. They were right that Fyodor was a ghost town located on the edge of the forests and that they are most likely detaining civilians in the basements of the abandoned houses. When the request came in that someone would keep an eye on the area so that plans for the raid may be tuned to its information, they were both readily able to step in to take that mantle.

See, drone reconnaissance was something that I04 was good in. He was the one who could identify from daytime shots, infrared shots, shots that were taken from several hundred miles away from the actual subject, the important details. Not that a6 wasn't good at it, not really, they just weren't as good as their superior. I04 was the one who could determine pretty easily how many targets are there, what kind of weapons they keep with themselves, and what their formation appeared to be. He had the patience to watch and stare at thousands of images to determine at least what time do guard rotations occur, where are the possible blind spots in their security system, and where was the best area to hit first. So they really just leave him alone when he does his work, only popping in every now and then to give their own commentary or offer him some food.

a6 opened the door to their hotel room, humming to the music that plays in their earbuds. They had stepped out two hours ago to go on an evening jog and to get them some dinner. Setting down the paper bag filled with food on the coffee table, they took the moment to look at the news channel that was running on the TV before turning to where I04 is.

"Hey sir, I got us some wings," a6 said, finding him looking at multiple screens showing drone shots. "They're not ghost pepper ones, don't worry."

"They better not," I04 grumbled, not even turning to greet them. His voice was roughened by the obvious intakes of coffee, "Did anyone see you?"

a6 scoffed, shaking their head as they allowed reality to flicker for a brief moment to change out from their disguise. Sometimes their boss can be so absorbed in his work that he formulates half-thought questions with obvious answers. "Of course not, sir."

The only response they get is nodding. a6 opened the paper bag to pull out the two takeout boxes filled with wings, shuffling over to put one next to I04. Looking at the screens, they squinted. "What are the numbers, sir?"

"50 insurgents, lightly armed." By lightly armed, I04 probably meant "just one high-powered weapon and that's it". "Rotation of guards every 8 hours. We're looking at 20 houses being used as detention areas."

a6 fiddled with the box of wings they had for themselves. They slowly peeled the tape back and popped it open. "We'll need a medium-sized team for this, won't we?"

I04 hummed, "We can put reinforcements at least 5 miles out for when we need to transport the civilians back to Muscovgrad."

"Has there been chatter about how that will go down?"

To answer them, I04 reached for a black box to his right to press a button. Recordings collected by their listening devices in the UAN conference room played dialogue between Cueva and Carter, who were discussing the Council's considerations about the raid. a6 frowned as they continued to listen to the Antarctican and Finipino talk about the mission.

"Stim darts?" a6 shook their head as they took a bite into one of their wings. "They're being pacifists."

"I'd rather take no prisoners, but we also need information," I04 said, leaning back after the recording died down to silence. "The council is being ridiculous with this proposal."

"I understand, sir." They could only nod along as they continued to eat, watching the drone images clear up. The terrain they'll be facing for the raid is snowy and rocky, and there may be debris from long ago littering the ground. Tvarkov had given them insight when they showed her some drone shots, even pointing out some parts of the land that could be a little rockier or a little snowier.

When they were finished eating, I04 hasn't even touched his own food. a6 licked the remaining flavor on their flipper with an "I'll shower" on their lips, turning to their room and clicking their door shut.

For the fourth time in the hour, Cueva considered if he should get up to make himself another cup of coffee.

See, it’s been a little over five days since the information came in about Fyodor. Since then, Rogue and Zarkova have been staying put in Muscovgrad to await further instructions. I04 and a6 had been keeping up drone surveillance for the time being, and have already reported their findings two days ago. With all the information before them, it was time to plan the raid, as the Council wants to call it, though at best it should be called a retrieval operation. The UAN already gave their orders to him, and in turn, it is now his turn to relay these to the Taskforce.

He can wonder to himself all day why on Earth would the UAN pick agents with military backgrounds when in the end they’ll ask them to use non-lethal means to extract the civilians.

"Look, all I am saying that your tactics will be frowned upon by the Council," Commander Heng Jian Liang of the Margate Special Branch came in after the Security Council approved of his activation, as a replacement for Tang, who is currently busy with the 2018 Western Union Economic and Business Forum. "We can't barge in guns blazing."

"With respect, Commander, but the Council doesn't know squat about military tactics in practice," Wolfe frowned, turning back to gesture towards the large drone shot that was projected before them. There were team formations scribbled on the photo in red and blue, crosses marking out soldier positions and blue arrows pointing movement. "They're too busy with their politics."

"You wanted 20 operatives for this mission, right Wolfe?" Kowalski said, rubbing his jaw in thought and looking at the photo. "Tell me first where you plan to put medics."

Cueva sighed and brought up smaller holograms to his own seat, poring over his notes as the other members bickered. Winston had strict orders to by any means reduce fatalities to a minimum, and highly recommended using the stim darts from his own native homeland. They had the word of the Ruscan government that assistance will be given to them for this raid, and that it would be in the form of the NRR's Special Operations Division. Other holograms showed him a call to the Muscovgrad satellite station on hold, emails from his agency, and his schedule for the day.

"Those victims can turn into hostages and penguin shields the moment we barge in there," Heng was near gritting out, slamming his flippers on the table with enough force to make the holograms flicker for just a moment. "We need to be a little bit graceful with this. We have Rusca on our side, we can ask them to cause a distraction."

"Just how sure are you that they will fall for it, really?" Wolfe's eyebrows arched up to his hairline. Cueva felt the first throbs of a headache, and he smoothes a flipper down his face. "They actually have a brain, Heng. If they were malicious enough to keep themselves hush-hush about themselves to us, to commit these kidnappings so efficiently, then there's no way we can underestimate them. The moment they realize something's up, who knows what can they do?"

There's a lull, the sound of holograms being moved around and a stylus scribbling something. Kowalski spoke, "I think it's best that we overwhelm them."

"Overwhelm them?" Cueva finally spoke up, dismissing his own holograms to glower at the huddle that was halfway across the room. "We have orders to keep fatalities to a minimum—"

"Here we go again," Wolfe muttered, rolling his eyes. He thanks whoever is out there for letting Carter take a breather from the conference room. He doesn't want to think of what will happen when she hears all of this.

His tone is sharp, quick around the words. "I understand the appeal of just killing them all off, but we need answers. We need to keep some of them alive to answer some questions, and that can't happen if you all recklessly pick them off—"

"Cueva, we can't play nice when every day someone goes missing," Wolfe said, turning to him. "We can't always play to the tune of the Security Council."

"If they hit hard, then we hit back with equal force," Kowalski said, agreeing to Wolfe and nodding. "They can take the full force of a military offense."

"That is a poor logic," I04 clicked his tongue, settling back in his chair and steepling his flippers. "It's better if we are methodical and stealthy with our approach. If they don't know what's hitting them, then they don't know how to respond to it."

"That is a fair point," Heng said, turning to Cueva. "If they take the offensive, then we may respond in kind."

Cueva sighed, exasperated. It's been a while since he had to oversee something as important as a raid. He can remember a different time when he was a little bit younger, youthful enough to charge in without the worries of weary joints. He takes the moment to ponder between the contrasting viewpoints before turning back to them.

"We can settle with a stealthy approach, and take the offensive when necessary," He finally said, leaning back in his seat and shaking his head. "At best, we should try to keep at least some of them alive for questioning. Are we all clear?"

He only gets a set of grumbles and nods as a reply, before the holograms are reshuffled. A new argument starts up over who should be placed with who, and he shakes his head and finally stands to make himself coffee.

They came in two days ago.

By "they", that would be the Taskforce. Between now and two days ago, she can say that they've been doing nothing but briefings, minorly tweaking the strategy and formations for any possible errors that can occur throughout the raid. The Council is somehow convinced by Cueva's persuasion that their plan abides by their orders and that they will be bringing back a couple of Public members for questioning. Despite the media's antsiness about the recent developments, they've managed to keep the whole affair quiet.

Pouring herself a glass of Cream Soda, Rogue wondered if this is really how she should be celebrating her birthday.

Mike Prisma, bless his heart, had stepped in to take care of Natalia while she was out. A few hours ago, he sent her a video of the little girl drawing her a birthday card, which should be mailed to her by tomorrow. She and Joshua had gone out for lunch in one of the cafes near his university, keeping up comfortable chatter with each other about their lives. She had just gotten off a call with Jason, who reassured her that everything is going fine and that he wishes her the best. Zarkova had handed her the best Cream Soda she can find in the market, which she is now drinking all alone in her room.

"Lynx, call Penquino for me." Her EPF phone lights up with the order, a chirp from Lynx indicating an affirmative before she hears the ringing. She rests her head back to the wall and waits until the call connects.

"Took you long enough," His tone is always light, cheerful despite the hour. "Been busy with Taskforce stuff? You've been causing quite the chatter with the media."

"Good evening to you too, Governor." She said, shaking her head when he protests to the title. "Happy birthday."

"Yes, Commander, happy birthday," She can almost imagine him waving his flipper in the air with a feel of carelessness. As always, he was being playful. "Had a good one, I hope?"

"As good as I can possibly get," Rogue studied the bottle that she was holding, taking in the Cyrillic letters. This brand is supposed to be relatively expensive, and she silently makes sure to wake up early enough to make breakfast for Zarkova as a thank you. "Still chocolate milk? I only have Cream Soda with me, sorry."

"At least you get the good stuff." He scoffed and laughs. "Now, what are we toasting to? Besides a long life and good health, I think."

She sighed and raised the glass to her empty room. "This case."

"Right, of course." He said, and she can hear the pouring of something into a glass. "I know it's classified stuff, but how's it going?"

She took the time to think of the least revealing word she can use. "Fine."

"Fine? Just fine?" Something squeaks on his side of the line. He must have taken a seat. "Alright, I'll tell you what's going on here then. I've been seeing a lot of protests lately."

"We're being slow, I know, but believe me when I say that we're making progress." She shook her head, bringing down her flipper to take a sip of the drink. The aftertaste on her tongue prompts her to take more gulps of it. "Still can't find her?"

There's silence. She remembered how a week into the investigation, he had phoned her regarding the disappearance of his apprentice, Alexis Strugenhoff. Since then, Penquino has been sending her information he'd get from asking around, even going so far as to take pictures of her little hideout in his office.

"Yeah." The voice on the other side of the line is quieter, thoughtful. She drains her glass and gets ready to pour herself another one as he speaks. "You gotta find her."

"I know I should, Pen." She capped the bottle once more and raised the glass. "Nostrovia."

Per the request of the Council, she and Cueva tagged along.

She had to complete her own orders, of course. The Council wants her to keep an eye on the Taskforce during such an important mission, and personal oversight would be best rather than keeping an eye from South Pole City. The path towards the village is rocky, and the cargo truck shakes as they get closer and closer.

To Carter, this moment of quiet tells a lot about the members of the Taskforce. They were all wearing various uniforms, from Zarkova and Rogue's white camouflage down to Wolfe's black Kevlar. He and Heng were looking at the strategy one more time using a tablet, voices a low murmur that she cannot hear. Zarkova was inspecting her sniper rifle, going over the motions of aiming and cocking. Across her, Kowalski was going through his pack, which contained a wide array of first aid tools that may be needed throughout the mission. I04 is quiet, stoic whereas a6 was tapping to whatever music was playing in their earbuds. Brandt was scrolling over something on her phone, muttering to herself.

When they stop, they're a little over five miles out from Fyodor. A tent for communications was quickly being made, and NRR agents made quick work setting up the tents and preparing for the raid. Zarkova and Rogue left ahead of the team to get a good vantage point, and Cueva was giving his final words to the team.

"Ms. Carter," She didn't even realize how long she's been thinking to herself until Cueva came into view, a bright smile on his beak. "A word?"

They take a moment to step away from the ruckus, to a quieter part of the forest. "What is it, Director?"

"I know that you were a journalist before being offered a position in the UAN," He started, dipping down his head. "But what you may be seeing and hearing during and after the raid may be disturbing."

"We've seen wars in this lifetime, Cueva." She shrugged, turning back towards the hustle and bustle of the Taskforce. Wolfe and Heng's teams have already left to walk their way to Fyodor, and the tent was almost finished.

He nodded, "I know, but I just want to make sure that you'll be fine."

"I'm not a kid, Cueva." She said, tilting her head up to the heavens. The sky is a muddy blue. Weather forecasts predicted rain an hour or two from now, so she expects it to get gloomier. This shouldn't really be the time for such a raid. "I can take it."

He nodded once more, a fond smile on his face. He patted her shoulder as a final farewell before he turned, going back to do the final checks on the tent. She took the time to look around the forest, taking a deep breath of the pine trees before turning back to follow him.

Patience was her strong suit. That was one thing everyone would comment about her, from her superiors all the way to her eldest daughter, Alexandria. She can wait for hours lying still just like this until she finds the perfect shot, and wait longer until she finds another. This was what made her one of the best in her field, extreme patience and muscle control making her appear invisible.

Beside her, Tvarkova kept her binoculars trained towards the entrance point, rifle butt resting against her shoulder. Anytime now, the rotation of guards should occur. They'd have thirty seconds to take out four guards as quietly as possible before they can cover ground within the town. She shifts minutely, sets down her binoculars between them, and positions herself.

"Countdown in 30." Five miles away from them, Cueva spoke from the tent. "Snipers, confirm that you have eyes on the target."

"Firebird and Redline, we copy," She said, looking into her scope once more. She had her gun trained to a guard for the past two hours, and he appeared to be idly drinking something.

The rest of the snipers gave their affirmatives before they hear Wolfe speak. "Fire on my command in 5—"

She took the moment to glance at Tvarkova. Her body was still, eyes trained on the scope before her. They had thirty seconds to get this right, and there could be no room for error. The countdown continues.

"2, 1—"

Zarkova hardly even thinks in times like this. Firing her rifle is pure instinct, a familiar motion she's gone over a hundred times. She aims and fires, moves the bolt quick, then fires at the second guard. Tvarkova aims and fires just as quickly, and they're silent as I04 and a6 appear out of nowhere.

"Crap, one of them was late!" Kowalski yelled into their earpiece as someone started yelling within the town. A wave of gunshots was heard on their side of the line as Zarkova sighed, resting her head on the snow. So much for timing. "We're going for the offensive!"

"Great," I04 muttered dryly, holding up his PULSE gun.

"A distraction right about now would be nice!" Heng said as insurgents came in from their entrance. Tvarkova was already firing at them when she turned back to her rifle, seeing I04 pick them off faster than either of them can aim.

"I have one." a6 chimed in, holding up a black box.

UAN: You don't look so happy, Bureaucrat.

Kowalski: You allowed three medics to be on the premises when there were at least thirty of us. How on Earth am I supposed to be happy with that memory?

UAN: May we remind you that it was your team's planning.

Kowalski: Have you ever had tinnitus, Councilman? You have no idea how annoying it can be.

UAN: We apologize, Bureaucrat. Now, please continue your narrative of the raid.

Rogue quickly ripped out her earpiece and covered her ears, groaning when she feels the first wave of dizziness. The music can't stop bouncing around her head, and she curls up in her place as she tries to wait it out. She almost doesn't notice Zarkova grabbing for her sleeve and hauling her into a seated position.

"This helps," She doesn't even realize her ears are bleeding until Zarkova plugs them with noise canceling earbuds, her flippers coming away with blood. "New NRR tech, far better than your flimsy earpiece. Let's go."

She's already running ahead of her when Rogue gets up, quickly watching her back by aiming and firing at whoever is getting near the sniper. There's a low hum in her ears that are more prominent than the gunshots and screaming, before a chirp.

"Hey there, Commander." Lynx's voice makes her ears whistle. She huffs, "How are you holding up?"

"Lynx, did you just hijack NRR tech to say hi?" She said as she adjusted her goggles, brain scrambling to remember where were the marked down locations of detention areas were. It takes every bit of willpower not to succumb to vertigo and nostalgia.

"Wasn't so hard," They helpfully bring up a drone shot on her watch. She ducks behind a house and reloads as there was a scream, then an explosion. Looks like Wolfe's team has brought out the grenades. "Hardly took a minute."

She glances at her watch to see that the house she leaned on was a hideout. She yells to Zarkova to follow her as she kicks down the door. She takes a moment to look around before running into the living room and finding a hatch below her. She pauses when dust flies up to her face, batting it away just as Lynx helpfully reduced the noise canceling settings.

The flipper that reaches out to her is small, and she grabs it and hauls them up. She's face to face with a girl with wide eyes, braids on either side of her head. She had the same feathers as she had, and she backed away from her before she was running, stopped by Zarkova who only held her close. More flippers reach for her, making her turn back to help them out of the basement.

"Shall I inform base tent to send in reinforcements?" Lynx asked as she hauls up the last of them. They were all children, huddled up close to each other as Zarkova tended to them with the soothing voice of a mother. The effects of a6's music here is weaker, though that's probably due to the thickness of the walls of this house.

When she turns to Zarkova, she quickly gives her input. "They're malnourished. I don't think they can run the five miles."

Rogue holds up a flipper to the earbud. "Team, we're seeing some malnourished civilians here. Base tent, send in reinforcements."

"Copy, Redline," Cueva said, "They're ten minutes out."

"That won't do." Zarkova shook her head. Her eyes drift to their flippers, each of them holding tightly to each other. "We need to get them out fast."

"I think I know what to do," Rogue said, looking at the children's faces. She tried to appear as reassuring as possible a tiny smile on her beak as she tried to think of how much energy will be used with this. With the roar of gunshots and battle around them, she reached out for one of their flippers and thought of the set-up camp a few miles away from where they were.


GO: I need a medic over here!

WOLFE: We have three houses cleared! Charlie, what's your status?

ZARKOVA: We're covering ground. It looks like our sector's filled with children victims. Can anyone else confirm similarities?

HENG: Yeah, we're just seeing kids around here.

KOWALSKI: I'm seeing media helicopters, Cueva. Get them out of here!

CARTER: We're trying, agent.

CUEVA: Reinforcements are three minutes out.


They were already at around the center of the town, with most houses already entered and cleared of any civilians. There should be at least two teams already clearing out a way for children to run out of the battlegrounds, though he supposes they're probably grouped to where Wolfe is. From here, he can hear the sound of shotguns combined with the noise of a PULSE gun firing, and can already tell that the other teams have already moved to their location. Heng is about to direct a team into a house when there's an explosion that propels him back. He is smacked against a wall and the world spins slow, ears ringing as he tries to right himself.

It doesn't help the tinnitus.

"Heng?" There's a rush of movement, and Kowalski forces him to a sitting position. The world comes back to him slowly just as the ringing dies down, replaced by the noise of gunfire. It takes him a while to register the flipper crossing over pulse points. "Heng!"

"That was a homemade bomb, Kowalski." He managed to grit out when the doctor found shrapnel on his side. There's cursing and the snap of velcro as Kowalski opens his pack, rummaging through his equipment for anything that can help the Margatian. He hears the sharp whistle of a bullet whizzing past them, then the sound of someone going down. "Tell me we have someone on it."

"Looks like I04's already taking care of it," Kowalski said, turning back towards the scene of the fight to find a black cloud encircling a house. He cannot describe the noise to be thunder and he cannot say that it's gunfire. When he squints and looks closely, he can almost see the barest flash of beady eyes and iridescent black feathers. The sounds that come from it almost sounds like screeching, a hawking that seems as if it scrutinizes and mocks. The air moves fast towards it and almost feels like it can suck anything in it.

Beside them, an NRR agent yells for Kowalski. The noise that comes out of his mouth drips with exasperation.

"Looks like we got lots of casualties, Doc," Heng said simply as he stood, looking at the gauze that's wrapped around the shrapnel. He can still do his job so long as he doesn't aggravate his own injuries. "You should get to it."

When Tvarkova blips into existence right next to her, she isn't even fazed. She only took a few steps before she collapses, the rest of her energy put into slowly lowering herself on the roof. The younger woman lied back on the terracotta tiles and sighed, just as she lined up a shot and fired. A flipper goes to reaching to her and pressing against her neck. The pulse there thunders against her feathers too quickly.

"You can't keep teleporting civilians, kroshka," Zarkova chimed in, looking for more insurgents to fire down and shoot. When she sees one coming up to Heng and Kowalski, she retracts her flipper from Tvarkova and fires. It appears as if there was a slight error in their statistics because this does not look like 50 insurgents. "You'll drain yourself."

The voice beside her is breathless, "When we clear a way back to camp, sure."

She tucks her head down when there's a torrent of black that encircles the house she's climbed up to snipe from, and she tries to fight against the strength of the wind. The shrill crowing of ravens fills her ears as she uses every bit of strength to stay on the roof and not fly away to the strength of this... well, whatever this is. She blindly grabs for Tvarkova's sleeve and hauls her close, vaguely yelling orders for her to hold on. Noise from the outside world dies down to the point that she only hears the ravens and the wind, taking deep breaths as she waits for it to be over. She peaks her head up when the noise dies down, replaced by the ongoing sound of gunfire.

When she turns to Tvarkova, her eyes are closed. She nudged her and watched as her eyes slowly peeped themselves open. "Get up."

Her eyes focus. She slowly rolls back to her stomach, tugs the rifle on her back to position it before her. She steadies herself before someone's voice comes into their earbuds.

"Tvarkov, any chance you can do a few more runs?" Tvarkova almost misses her shot. Zarkova was ready to tell them that she simply can't let that happen when the next words came out. "We're in the middle of clearing out a way to get them all out of here. We're a little low on ammunition."

In the end, they manage to save at least 80 children.

UAN social workers and volunteer doctors were more than ready to welcome the first group of children. Since then, they've been working to identify, feed, run check-ups on the civilians to make sure that they're in good condition before being sent back on cargo trucks to be put in hospitals. Carter's been told that a lot of them are malnourished, many of them sick and feeble that require further medical attention. The Taskforce can ask them questions about their captivity at a later date.

The raid's a success, in simple speak. The gunfire and bomb explosions from five miles ahead have died down, and the first batch of NRR agents deployed to fight was already making their way back to the base. No civilian was harmed during the retrieval operation, and no one from the team was killed. Besides a range of battle injuries and ear-related problems, they should all be fine. She considers when she should call Winston when her phone rings, prompting her to reach for it and answer.

Speak of the devil. "Carter, reports are coming in that there's no more shooting. What's the update on the Taskforce?"

She looked around the little camp they've established, at the team of NRR agents who were leading a group of children towards a tent filled with doctors. Some of them are being carried, but some held an agent's flipper tightly with theirs. Their faces are blank, stoic as if they are in shock that they've been rescued. She can't see any of the Taskforce members, so it appears as if they are still in Fyodor. She turned to see Cueva in the tent, speaking to someone on the phone.

"Let me ask Cueva, ma'am." She said, adjusting her hold on the phone. "We should be going out to check on them soon."

"Stay safe," Winston said simply, scuffling heard on her side of the line before the call ends. Carter pocketed her phone and made her way to the tent, seeing that agents were still flitting about and speaking to those in Fyodor. She takes a seat next to Cueva, who was still very much invested in speaking to someone on the other side of the line.

"Three of them? That's good, keep me posted." His words are calm, but his weariness stands out as a second note in his tone. When he turns to her, he looks every bit exhausted. She wants to offer him some coffee, but he reaches beside him to hand her a bulletproof vest. It has the UAN insignia emblazoned on its chest. "Here, wear this."

"We're going already, sir?" She frowned but puts the vest on anyways. She tugs the velcro into a snug fit and locks it in place.

"Kowalski wants to get three Public members on hospital arrest, otherwise we'll lose them. We need to transport them and get them out of Fyodor," Cueva shook his head, grabbing his own vest and putting it on. He nods at an agent, who scurries off to get a cargo truck ready. "They're still finding more."

"Should've used non-lethal means," She shook her head, holding open the flap of the tent as the two stepped out. Agents greet them as they walk past them, and she thinks if they still have time to detour to the doctors' tent to check on the children.

"Ms. Carter, the Council should have frankly reconsidered its Taskforce member lineup if they considered "non-lethal means of incapacitation" a requirement for being part of it," Cueva said, stepping into the back of a truck. She quickly followed to sit across him. The back shakes as the engine warms up. "We've all got skeletons in our closets."

When the truck lurches forward, Carter looks back to the camp. Between the hustle and bustle of the camp, children watch as they go to Fyodor. She tries not to think of the way their eyes looked empty and tired.

She can reason to herself all day that she was checking for any remaining children. She can easily shoo off any of the other Taskforce members and reassure them that she can do the job alone, that she will alert them as soon as she finds any children that need their immediate assistance.

The door she's staring down is familiar, with minor changes in the form of some bullet holes in the wood. The blue paint isn't as dark as she remembers, and the brass of the doorknob is still streaked with key scratches from a shaky flipper scratching it against the metal. She's hesitant when she swings open the door, doesn't really expect much when she closes her eyes.

In her mind's eye, she can smell the broth of solyanka that always warms up the room. There is the quiet clicking of crochet needles hitting each other, the light hum of a woman accompanied with the quiet rocking of a chair. When she opens her eyes, reality greets her with a dark house long stripped of its furniture, overgrown with plants peaking from the floorboards. She takes a tentative step and pauses at the blood splatter on the faded floor, trying her hardest not to remember what happened on that day.

That day.

How old was she when she was taken away? She can't remember the estimated number, the presumed age when she was dragged away from her Babushka and away from little Fyodor. She was taken from a life that was quiet and demure, peaceful and simple. When Petrov told her that Fyodor was where the Public hid, she couldn't even believe that the little place was still standing. Nothing can return the happiness in these walls, the joy of living in this home. She slowly reached for her rifle and tried to remember where the door to the basement was.

To her, this is the shell of what used to be her home.

She steps forward, near slowly, past the living room and into her Babushka's bedroom. The air is musty and heavy with dew, and the barest hint of the sinking sun peaks from the bedroom window. The glass was streaked with the barest hint of drizzle, a rainstorm she predicts would stretch out throughout the whole evening. The paint is peeling off in places, and water damage is evident in the crevices of the walls. The bed is gone from where it should be, and the hatch has been opened. She tilts her head down and uses whatever remaining sunlight there is to look into the basement. She only sees ammunition supplies.

Her head throbs when she gets back up and gets out of the bedroom. She knows that sooner or later, she needs to take a nap after all the teleporting she had to do to get civilians out of the way. Her feet direct her to another bedroom, this one at the end of the hallway. In the same condition as the first bedroom, this one still had its bed in place, though stripped of its mattress and blankets. The cabinets and closets appear ransacked and pillaged through, and the floor is a mess that eerily reminds her of Song's room. Clothes and books are scattered on the floor before her, damp from rain and eaten away by nature.

She crouches down and uses the barrel of her rifle to lift up a weathered down book. It's a collection of fairy tales.

"Tvarkova." She freezes and she turns, no longer the child in her mind but the agent she has to be. Zarkova watches her with a face she cannot decipher. "The truck is here."

She only nods quietly and turns to look at the mess before her one more time, before she's pivoting and walking away from the house that used to be her home.

Five: Ocean Deep[edit]

UAN Taskforce makes a breakthrough in Fyodor, at least 80 children rescued
By Raven Westley (Club Penguin Times) | Updated May 17, 2018 - 2:45 pm

Fyodor, Rusca (First published: May 16, 2018; 8:13 pm) - The UAN Taskforce has successfully infiltrated and rescued 86 children from a Public stronghold located in Fyodor, Russia, several miles south of Varoneshki.

Mia Carter of the UAN Internal Integrity and Transparency Office appeared along with Orion Initiative Director James Cueva to announce the rescue operation's success later in the night in a press conference. The Taskforce was tipped off the week before about the possible location, and drone surveillance and investigations were able to validify this information. They were given the go signal by the Ruscan government to conduct an extraction raid with NRR Special Operations agents. The Taskforce broke into the town and exchanged gunfire with Public insurgents while evacuating civilians from the basements of the houses there. The children were brought to a camp that was set up by UAN officers 5 miles away from Fyodor.

When asked about what made the raid successful, Cueva cites the cooperation and similar backgrounds of the Taskforce members to be key. "We wouldn't be getting anywhere if we were too much of this and that," he said in the conference. "We're an even mix of brains and brawn in this team. We all have varied methods of approaching this mission and we all know how to make it work."

A total of 86 children ranging from ages 5-12 were rescued from the Fyodor basements. A majority of them were from the various countries within the Ninja Archipelago, with more than half of them coming from Rusca. There were also children from Castilla, Club Penguin, Geek Empire, Snowzerland, and United Provinces. They are all currently in hospitals within Varoneshki, where they will be medically treated for malnutrition before being sent back to their respective countries.

Fyodor was a little town found at the edge of the Ruscan Forest and used to be the home of about 300 souls. It was invaded by the Ruscan Syndicate in 2002 during a gang war between another mafia organization, where many were abducted and killed. It currently lives to be a ghost town, a haunted warning that goes to show the power of the Syndicate in the country.

The CPT has been trying to reach any of the Taskforce members for a statement, but no one appears to be responding to our calls.

It doesn't help, Reyes thought as he curled up in the couch of the EPF's South Pole City safe house, that the UAN stretched out their time before they could go on medical leave.

Where does he even begin? They stayed in Rusca for at least another 12 hours, sufficient time for them to be medically cleared enough to get out of the country without dying over the ocean. From what he's heard from the other nurses, at least half of them has tinnitus and varying levels of vertigo, heavy bruises and cracked ribs, broken bones, and punctured lungs. None of them actually had to go under the knife for anything serious, so they all had to stick around the ward and kept under observation. Cueva and Carter, who were unsurprisingly unscathed from everything, took their time with talking to the press about what happened. Reyes doesn't want to think about how much sugarcoating was needed to make it look pretty enough for mainstream media to gobble up.

He's fine, thank you for asking. He's still in the middle of getting over his tinnitus and vertigo, but his ribs seem to be mostly healed. His shoulders still ached every now and then when he stretches them up for too long, but he will get used to the ache.

The ride back to South Pole City was bumpy, with turbulence keeping him from sleeping a full hour. From there it was extensive psychological debriefings with the resident psychiatrists before they were cleared for mandatory 72-hour medical leaves. The rest of the Taskforce was quick to return to their apartments or hotel rooms or catch flights back to their homeland. Reyes doesn't even have the patience to think how long and how much energy would be consumed for those who leave the country.

"That's only five hours, Reyes," Above him, Piri clicked her tongue as she pounded something with a little mortar and pestle set. Reyes frowned when he caught whiffs of whatever it is she was making and tugged his hat downwards to cover his beak. "Go back to sleep."

Piri, the lucky little minx, was saved from joining them in the Fyodor raid because Rogue wanted her to stay in South Pole City to keep track of the Gemini bombing. So far, based on the narrative she gave them on the drive back to the apartment, Tux took control of the investigations to look into what's happened. There were at least 14 missing penguins from the site that was neither counted as a casualty or a body. Knowing who was responsible, though, it was clear that they were abducted. She and the SID were chasing a possible DNA lead from the bag fibers.

"I'd be gettin' some nice shut-eye if what yer makin' ain't that smelly," Reyes groaned, trying to block out the sharp smell that seemed to leave a strange feeling in his mouth. It didn't help that every sound he made causes his ears to whistle like an irritating recorder. He tries to ignore the sudden memory of middle school that came with that thought. "What're ya even makin' on that thing?"

"Something for your ears." The thought of that concoction getting anywhere near his body irked him. Piri turned away and disappeared into the kitchen, and Reyes took the time to close his eyes and try to fall asleep once more. He's woken up by a stronger, more potent smell and a cold flipper tapping his cheek. "Come on, kid. Turn over."

Reyes grumbled, shook his head, and closed his eyes once more. He hears Piri sigh, then hears receding footsteps that go towards the general direction of her bedroom. He's teetering between the sweet release of sleep and reality when she taps his shoulder again. He snaps.

"Look, Cap'n, I'm tryna get some z's in. Lucky you, ya didn' have ta join in because the boss wanted ya in the Isle," He said, snapping his eyes open and looking her dead in the eye. "I ain't gon' get any if ya keep walkin' around with yer-"

Reyes paused, staring at the mortar she held in her flippers. It was still the same, green, slimy thing that was supposed to smell like the love child of gym socks and rotting fruit, but he can't really smell it now. He can't really smell anything at all as he looked up oddly at Piri, who watched him with a face that can be described as impassive.

"Will you quit whining now?" She said, eyebrows shooting up. He notices that there were gauze and tape peaking out of her jacket, and he could only nod as she got to work. The slime-thing was cold, almost like those cold creams put on sore muscles after a tough workout. She removes the gauze and tape from her pocket to cover his sides.

When she disappears to store away the medicine in the fridge, he sits up and groans when his muscles pound and his head spins with vertigo. He leans against the back of the couch and watched her move around the kitchen. "Why can't I smell a thing?"

The only reply she gives him is a flick of the wrist, which revealed a hand of cards. Upon closer inspection, he could see a gleaming, intricate golden stamp on the back of them. When she turns to look at his expression, she only gives him one word. "Magic."

When the expression stays on his face, she shakes her head and makes her way to the couch. She plopped down and handed him a bowl of cereal as she flicked the cards away with the turn of her wrist. He could only eat his cereal as she explained.

"Certain... things can be used to manipulate reality and how we perceive it." Piri started, flicking her wrist once more to conjure up the hand of cards. When he holds up a flipper in an attempt to grasp one of them, she shifts her flipper away from reach. "If you know how to use it to how you need it to function, you can bend reality to what you want it to be."

Stumped, Reyes lied back on the couch and set his bowl of cereal down. So would that make Piri— "So you're a wizard, Piri?"

The dry look that she gives him for that was worth the pillow that got thrown at his face.

Fyodor haunts her in her dreams.

Not in the way she expected, not really. The gunfire and screams still bother her, thundering noises that doesn't help the fact that her world is spinning or that her ears are ringing. There's a flurry of movement everywhere, of soldiers in black and children in fabrics of different colors. There's an explosion to her side that scares her, knocks her to her side as she screams in a voice that isn't really hers.

"Babushka, where are you?" The cry is that of a child, not of a battle-hardened agent who's seen the worst things a penguin can do to another. She stumbles, hardly gets on her feet, tries to think of a way to find her way back to where home is. She reaches for a soldier in black, who pauses and turns to her. His head is that of a raven with its beady eyes and sharp beak, and he only speaks to her with the shrill hawk that reminds her of bomb—

Rogue takes a deep breath into reality, opening her eyes when she feels someone shake her. It takes her a moment to recognize the space-themed bedsheets on her, the red flipper that grips her shoulder, or the fact that she's nowhere in Rusca or South Pole City. It takes her a minute to recognize Gemini's city music of bicycles and honking taxis as Jason tilts his head to look at her.

"Good afternoon, sleeping beauty," His grin is kind, but she knows that there's worry hidden behind those teeth. He sets down a plate of microwaved pizza next to her stretched out flipper. "You slept an uninterrupted 9 hours today."

She squinted. It takes her a moment to recognize that it's 1:13 pm or to take into consideration the fact that Jason is wearing sweatpants and a shirt and not his usual work attire. He holds up her flipper to show her the black wristwatch on it light up with her vitals.

"Lynx informed me that your heart rate was pushing 120," He said as if answering a question that hung in the air. "We don't have to talk about it."

Rogue nodded slowly, gently pushing away the plate. He sets it aside and stays there to move his flipper up to her hair. Ever since she's been cleared for medical leave by the UAN, she took the ride back to the safe house just to get some clothes before driving her way to Gemini. Since then, she's used the time to sleep and rest from everything that's happened.

She'd probably be reprimanding him for skipping work if it weren't for the fact that his flipper was doing wonders to her headache. "9 hours, you said?"

Jason hummed and nodded, chuckling when her eyes slid close once more. "You know, this is the first time in a long while that I've seen you this clocked out."

"Take a picture, it'll last longer." She gets a bark of laughter from him at that. It wasn't her fault that this bed is comfortable and warm, nor was it her fault that her position on it was just as good. On her stomach, she's just in the teeter between sleep and reality.

"I read the report, I can see why you're so tired," The official report released to the media is very different from the one circulated around the intelligence community. Rogue hasn't read either version of the report and doesn't intend to for the next 72 hours. "But at least tell me what it's like?"

With her face half-buried in the pillow, she almost sounds muffled. She peeps open an eye, "What, teleporting?"

"If you can, Rogue." She tries not to bury her face completely. She's too tired to build up her own walls to this sort of weird emotions. She takes the time to think of how to describe it to him. "I know how it works with our EPF phones, just not how it works with, well, you."

"You see where you want to be, and it's like stretching yourself all the way to it," She raises her flipper in the air as a way to further her point. "Like, pushing your body all the way to that location. I can't really drag myself into places I don't know."

Jason nods, understanding before he glances at the pizza. "I guess I'll eat this, then?"

She hummed out an affirmative as he patted her head in gratitude. Her eyes slide back close when he stands, grabs the pizza, whispers an "I'll be back" before he disappears out of the door. She's close to falling asleep when Lynx chimes from her phone that was on the bedside table.

"You have a cute boyfriend, Commander."

"Lynx, shut up."

Her name is Kiara Bergotti. She is a lime green penguin, not that tall, probably a few inches or so shorter than him. She had her hair pushed back by a scarf, a large knot tying it securely. Her hair was kinky, a light hazel, giving her a mane that shone brightly against the interrogation room's lighting. She only wore a jean jacket with a pink dress, and bangles on either flipper.

The emerald pendant around her neck indicated that she was married, and that's something Tux knows for sure. Her husband's disappeared two years ago for unknown reasons, but he's been identified as a kidnapper by one of the cases.

Tux leaned back on the plastic chair behind him and crossed his flippers. "Mrs. Bergotti, you know why we've brought you here."

"Can I speak to my lawyer, at least?" Bergotti has been so insistent on asking for one for the past hour, and this is probably the fifth time she's demanded to see one. Tux only shook his head as he huffed.

"Your husband, Oliver Bergotti, was reported missing two years ago on November 12, 2016. You yourself filed this report the next day in Precinct 3, with the officer in charge being Charles Keaton." He looked her dead in the eye as he continued, not even given her room to speak. "Based on your neighbors, you've been visited very recently by a penguin that matches the description of your husband."

"You agents are crazy, you know that?" Hysterical. With his sunglasses covering his eyes to her, he rolled them in exasperation. "He was my co-worker. My husband's been missing for two years—"

"Are there more bombs, Mrs. Bergotti?" This is the third time he's asked the question. "Your husband's DNA was found in the fibers of the backpack containing the two bombs that killed 22 innocent lives."

Her flippers fly up at the accusation. "He must've been fra—"

"It's difficult to isolate DNA on fabric if it's old, Mrs. Bergotti." He presses, doesn't hesitate to give her the facts in point blank. "Janina Johnson's grandson identified your husband as her kidnapper. They were both professors in the Club Penguin University before he disappeared."


"Are there more bombs, Mrs. Bergotti?" There's silence. She leans back and crosses her flippers, doesn't look him in the eye. The room was cold, freezing and icy. Tux gave explicit instructions to make it cold in hopes of getting her to talk. He stood, grabbing the dossier on the table between them, and left the room without another word.

When he stands in the observation room to watch her once more, he sees that she fumbles and looks around the room, rubbing her arms in an attempt to warm herself up. He tilted his head towards the computers and spoke, "Newt?"

The Special Intelligence Division's AI was named Newt, often lauded as the middle child of the three AIs. Unlike Jewel or Lynx, Newt was designed to be straight to the point and quick with his tasks. Newt isn't exactly chatty or snappish like his "siblings", a perfect second to Tux. The AI chimed in with an affirmative chirp. "Yes, sir?"

"Give me the body language analysis based on the footage," Beside him, the computer chirped with a file opening of the footage of the whole interrogation. A skeletal image of Bergotti shifted with every bit of her movement as the AI provided what was asked of him.

"She is hiding something, sir," He knows. He doesn't even need to word how obvious it was that Bergotti knew. She's a terrible liar, Tux thinks, and he can get her to crack if he could just pick the right method. "But she seems close to crack."

"Newt, make the room colder," Tux said, peering at the two-way mirror before him before turning back to pick up a baton that rested on the computer chair. "And encrypt the video file for the next few hours."

"Yes, sir."

Her muscles are still sore from what's happened in Fyodor, but she knows better than to say no for when the Director calls for her.

Zarkova made her way through the Muscovgrad headquarters of the NRR, ignoring the murmurs that follow her way as she did. It doesn't help that she was considered one of the best agents that the Director plucks away for important missions, nor was it her fault that she's effective. It doesn't help anyone that she's working with the Director's famed daughter, the turncoat who picked the USA and not her own home. It's not like they know her personally to make the judgment, and Zarkova understands the reasons behind her actions.

She's half tempted to correct them that Tvarkova did not have a choice.

Like most of the NRR HQ's rooms, the Director's office was painted in dark gray, with steel reinforcements that are at least three inches thick meant to protect whoever is inside. It had leather upholstery and wooden furniture varnished to a shining black, fitting the aesthetic with its dinginess. The desk that the Director had was made of beautiful mahogany, intricately carved to depict penguins holding it up on its four edges. Behind the Director was a large, menacing portrait of Dmitri Smirnoff in acrylic, flanked by the flags of the NRR and Rusca to its sides.

The Director has made attempts to sprucing the place, at least. A delicate, artfully arranged vase of flowers decorated the desk, with petals already dusting the surface below it. Red camellias and dahlias were the main focus, bright red that reminds her vaguely of the uniforms they wear around the office. Dotting the bouquet were gentle blue violets contrasting with its indigo hues, with snapdragons and gladiolus peaking and rising over the rest. There was a large painting to the side was a colorful take on the Ruscan cliffside, painted by Joshua Tvarkov for one of his major projects. Between the books on the bookshelves, there were little picture frames of her family, her accomplishments.

Zarkova pointed kept her eyes from staring at the picture of Direc- Irina's family.

"Lyuda, thank you for coming," It only struck Zarkova now that Irina's smile looked very much like Tvarkova's. She gestured for her to sit down on one of the chairs before the desk. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm still sore in some places, but I'll heal within the given time," Zarkova slid into the chair offered to her. There used to be rumors that she would be the best bet as Irina's successor should the time come for her to step down, but she's already made it clear that she prefers her stressful position as a field agent. Heaven knows what it's like to chain her to a desk job. "How has everything been?"

"We've been collecting data, trying to get the kids to talk," Irina twirled a pen in the air, tilting her head to Zarkova with a smile. "Some of them had identified their kidnapper."

"Are we seeing the same conditions as before?" She frowned, trying to make sense of what was going on. If Irina confirms what she's thinking, then she has a lot to report to the UAN once the 72 hours are over.

"Yes, all reported missing some time ago." Zarkova wished the 72 hours would pass by quickly. The annoying bit about being put on leave was that they've all been barred from accessing the information hub while they were supposed to be "recuperating." Carter reasoned that the Council did not want them leaking anything while they weren't 100% well. "The children have various relationships with their kidnappers."

"But that's not why I brought you here."

Zarkova watched the Director as she shuffled papers on her desk. Irina flicked away a stray petal and looked up to hand her a small stack of papers. "They caught one of our baits."

It's known by the UAN Taskforce that each of the individual agencies has been taking steps as a way to know the enemy. It's an acknowledged, universal truth, but no one really discusses the manner of what and how they achieve these results. The NRR has been setting up "baits", all useable sleeper agents who have trackers implanted on them to keep track of their location and vitals.

This one's named Bazin. "Are we sure that it's Public?"

"Same manner, same graffiti," The thing with Public members of Rusca was that they always left graffiti in their wake, using black spray paint to mark out the eyes of any nearby posters of penguins. "We've been keeping track since."

"Keep me posted." Zarkova said, going over the papers. Her uniform's sleeves push back to reveal faded caricatures made in washable markers, bright purples with some pinks in shaky lines. When she sees Irina staring, she almost flushes. "Compliments of Svetlana."

"It's adorable," The smile on her face is fond but her eyes are distant. Zarkova knows without looking that Irina's gaze is at the picture frame on her desk. "Give Illya and the girls my regards."

"I will," Zarkova nodded, setting the papers down. "Would that be all?"

"Yes, thank you." Irina said, dismissing her with the wave of her flipper. Zarkova stands, nods at her, then turns to exit the room. "Oh, and Lyuda?"

She pauses, turns. The nostalgia in the Director's face is apparent as she smiles wider. "How is my daughter?"

Zarkova doesn't know how to properly answer that question. "Fine."

UAN: Before you say a thing about needing the clearance of either your President or your Director, we'll have you know that it was part of Mandate 54 that all activated personnel are required to disclose information to the Council regardless of security clearance.

I04: Very well.

UAN: Cueva's report indicated that after your secondary started playing that music, at least half of the Taskforce experienced vertigo and ringing ears. Can you tell us why so, Agent I04?

I04: We have technology that is beyond what you know of, Councilwoman, but don't worry. a6's is only meant to incapacitate.

UAN: You did not answer the question, agent.

There's a distinct feeling that comes to him when he steps out of the plane, something that he can connect to home. Recruits jog across the base with their hollers of cadences, a platoon flag fluttering in one of their flippers. There are planes undergoing maintenance checks from technicians, supplies being pulled out from a large cargo plane, and soldiers chattering amongst each other. Heng took a deep breath of Margatian air and sighed happily to himself, before looking down to see Nikolas Tang leaning back on a black car and staring at him expectantly.

His mood dampens, just the slightest. Yeah, he's home alright. He padded down the staircase and stopped in front of Tang, who grinned at him as his eyebrows shot up.

"Welcome back, Heng," The words carry with them hidden sarcasm. If the light hits right, Heng could've sworn Tang's got eyebags under his eyes. He can prod him about it later. "Nice to see you still in one shape."

"Let's just go and get some Japalandese food," Heng grumbled, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes. While he would very much like to sleep off the jetlag and the pounding headache he currently had, he also thought a good dose of ramen would do him good.

"Sure," Tang shrugged and grabbed the keys from his belt loop, opening the car door behind him and sliding into the driver's seat. They made their way out of the military base and into the roads of Margate City, traffic surprising light for the rush hour.

Heng leaned back and watched the scenery go by. There were policemen stationed every block or so, with the occasional military presence in the form of parked trucks or soldiers. Banners welcoming delegates from all member states of the Western Union decorated the streets with its signature blues and whites, hospitality worded in all languages of the union. He sighed and closed his eyes at the realization of why there was little to no one on the road at the moment.

"So, how's babysitting a bunch of politicians going, Nikki?" He gets a click of the tongue from that. He grinned victoriously to himself as Tang glanced up at him from the rearview mirror.

"How was sitting at the grown-ups' table, Jean?" Heng frowned at that. Tang chuckles as he turned down a road. They pass by the Special Branch's base with its fluttering flags and towering structure, before they go down the road to where the restaurants are. Tang parks into a slot in front of a small, low-roofed restaurant before he slid out of the car.

"Good afternoon!" Li-Juan greeted them at the door with her bright grin and hair pulled back in two buns. When Heng turned to look at her to greet her, she immediately looked down and shrunk back. He could have sworn he could see a faint blush on her cheeks.

"We'll go to our usual room, Li," Tang's tone is light, friendly. Heng looks beyond his shoulder to see that the restaurant is dotted with customers, but he knows where to find her in the whole mix. Mrs. Yao peeks from the cashier and offers him a wide smile before she disappears away from the counter to make her way down a corridor.

The private rooms of the restaurant had a Japanese feel to it, with low, wide tables and pillows to sit on while on the floor. The screen doors are thick enough to hide who is inside and keep conversations within the four walls of the room. Watercolor paintings decorate one side of the wall, and bamboo plants decorate another. The room is the perfect temperature between warm and cool, which is a relief to Heng because he doesn't know if he can take much more until he goes home and takes a 12-hour nap.

"Will it be your usual?" Li-Juan said, tilting her head as they took their seats. Tang nodded and waved her off, and took out his phone once the door was closed. Heng huffed and absentmindedly picked at the bandage on his side.

"Two more days of this and I'll be done," Tang sighed, shaking his head as he texted someone on his phone. He was assigned to the Security Taskforce in charge of taking care of anything concerning the security of the attendees of the Western Union's Business Forum, which was the main reason behind his delay to deployment to the UAN Taskforce. "Come on, Heng, tell me about what went down."

"Have you ever had tinnitus, Tang?" Heng frowned, shaking his head at the thought of how he got it. "This Munian agent let out this distraction that cost all of us our ears."

"Boohoo, Heng," Tang said and looked up from his phone. "Quit picking at your bandage. Kowalski will use his needle on you for it if he finds out."

"You should've seen the man on the field," Heng said at the mention of the Antarctican doctor, grinning to himself at the thought of it. "He was overworked with all the casualties. He looked like he was gonna snap."

"That's Kowalski to you," Tang said and pockets his phone. From his neck, Heng can barely see the small pendant of a quartz crystal peaking from his dress shirt. He remembers the wedding invitation on his desk and shakes the thought out of his head. "You're not chatty."

"You try being chatty when—" Oh, here comes the food. Two steaming bowls of ramen was carried in by none other than Mrs. Yao, who grinned at the sight of the two men. Heng straightened and tried to look like he wasn't a weary, jetlagged officer as she set down the bowls in front of them.

"There you are, boys," Mrs. Yao said as she placed two cups of tea between the two. She turned to Heng and patted his cheek, then frowned. "You've gotten fat since I last saw you."

Heng tried not to scowl as Tang laughed at him from across the table. "Fat is a strong word, grandmother."

"Oh well, I'm sure a few laps around the base would do you good," She placed the tray under her arm as she tried to make conversation. "We heard of what's happened in Rusca. Are you okay, Jian Liang?"

"I'm feeling better now that I'm home," It's not exactly the answer to her question, but he knows it'll do when she pats his cheek one more time. She turns and starts walking out of the room, waving her flipper in the air as she spoke.

"I have some new mochi ice cream that you two will like!" Of course, she'll offer them more food after commenting on his weight. Heng shook his head fondly as he turned back to his bowl of ramen, taking a deep breath of the broth and sighing happily to himself.

As he picked up his chopsticks, Tang snorted from across him. "So Jian Liang honey, why do you look so fat?"

"I'll make sure to ruin your wedding if you say another word, Tang."

He doesn't even look up when the doors open and a6 stumbles in, almost tripping on air as they got in. He looks up from his projectors as they leaned heavily on the back of the couch, rubbing their head while muttering to themselves.

Sometimes, after sending a6 off for reconditioning, there's the chance that the first thing they think of doing would be to go back to headquarters and stumble into I04's office. In previous instances, he's never asked why and how exactly can they get there when they usually lacked the muscle coordination to so much as walk down a straight line, but he doesn't mind whenever the agent shows up. There's an hour after reprogramming that's reserved for recovering, for a6 to eat or sleep off what's happened to them. How they decide to spend it and where isn't something that particularly interested him. Protocol dictates to ignore whatever comes out of their mouth during that single hour of lapses.

"I04, I don't feel so good," a6 mumbled, squinting at the holograms in front of them. The holograms in I04's office are always either purple or green, and the ones they're looking at would be the latter. They skimmed its contents quickly before frowning at the clear logos of the UAN on each of them. "I thought we're not supposed to access these, sir."

"They don't need to know," I04 said simply, drawing up information from the EPF databases that have been granted UAN access. He can wait throughout the whole investigation for any of them to realize that they've missed the most obvious detail that would help them, but he doesn't really care to mention it at all because the mere thought of it reminds him just how incompetent the rest of the Taskforce can be.

Sometimes, it makes him wonder why he even agreed to be sent to them.

"I got reprogrammed again," There's a sulk in their tone, which I04 isn't surprised of hearing. Whenever a6 does come by, they're usually bluntly honest. Sometimes what comes out of their mouth is something he can akin to what someone says after getting their wisdom tooth extracted. "Did you know about that?"

"I scheduled it, a6," I04 said as he went over drone shots of Port de Felipenas. Maybe he'll consider tipping off the Taskforce about Public activity there if he wasn't already considering taking care of it himself.

There's silence after that, no words exchanged between the two. His office is tidy, sparsely decorated save for a "hang in there!" poster of a grizzly bear cub reaching for the sweet nectar of the beehive. The projectors mounted on the walls hum quietly as white noise, and the lighting above them is soft, easy on the eyes. I04 watched as a6 leaned over the couch and took a deep breath. They remove their sunglasses with a sigh, blinking rapidly as they tried to reorient themselves with their surroundings.

"Could I—" He already knows the question that they'll ask him before they could finish it. He checks his watch for the time. It's been 50 minutes since a6 got out of reconditioning. "Is it fine if I take a power nap here, boss? I don't snore, I think. I promise I'll only take a bit."

I04 sighed deeply. When he looks up to a6, they have their wide, murky grays staring back at him. They glass over every now and then as a6 tries to focus on looking at him. He sometimes forgets how young they really are. "This is what happens when you don't stay behind to actually rest."

a6 shrinks back, already turning to put their sunglasses back on and get out of the office. I04 shook his head at the agent's antics before calling them back, telling them that it's fine, they may stay. The coo in his tone is false, but whether or not a6 noticed wasn't apparent. There are eight minutes left on his watch when a6 reluctantly curls up on the leather upholstery and stays quiet. I04 was going over the information once more when a6 speaks again, a near whisper that tells him that they're teetering towards sleep.

"Do you know how painful it is, walking into the UAN every day and knowing your brother can't recognize you?" Sometimes the lapses include remembering bits and pieces of their memory. I04 shook his head once more at that agent's antics. "He just knows that I work here, moved out to go here, but he never bothered to look for me."

He doesn't give them an answer. He's sure that they're asleep when a6 pipes up once more, "Hey, I04, what happens if I don't forget these memories?"

"You always forget," I04 said simply, monotonous.

There's silence after that. An hour's passed when I04 looks at his watch once more, then sees that a6 is already getting up and fervently apologizing for taking a nap (again) on his couch. He's already dismissing them without so much as looking at them, listening to the door whine open before they shut close, filling the room once more with silence.

66 hours into this medical leave, Brandt's starting to wonder how long would it take before she snaps at Hoffman.

Without the UAN breathing down her neck with its ever-constant demands for them to make progress, Brandt has the moment to sit back and relax and think of other stuff besides work. Not that there's much to think about since work has dominated a good chunk of her life. The UAN has barred access to any of them to the information hub to make sure they "relax", and while she's grateful for the intervention, she's also exasperated because she'll have to face teasing from Hoffman.

See, every waking moment she spends in his presence, he's gonna be teasing her about her headache and vertigo and chalk it up to her "not having the guts to call Professor Lindholm." Dr. Amanda Lindholm was a neurosurgeon who had a side job of teaching at the Zurich University, famous for being the leading female doctor in the country. It's not her fault that the woman was near impossible to approach when her schedule seems to be packed on a daily basis with lectures and faculty meetings, nor it is her fault that Hoffman is awfully aware of her feelings for the honorable doctor.

"I'm just saying, you've had a crush on the professor for what, years?" Hoffman said as he waved his Cream Soda bottle in the air, tilting his head back to take a long sip of the drink. "You attended three of her lectures, actually met her in person to talk about a case. You've been switching text messages for months, right? Come on, boss, pick up the phone and call her."

"She's busy and so am I," Brandt grumbled, shaking her head as she emptied her bottle in one more go. Her tongue snapped around the German syllables. "Step off, Hoffman."

"I'm sure she's free tonight," Hoffman said suggestively, narrowly missing the bottle thrown at his direction. He can clean up the glass shards later in favor of teasing the woman. "And I'm extra sure that she's single and ready to mingle."

"You are the worst, you know that?" Brandt hissed, sitting up to glower at him. "I'll call her when this case is over."

"But what if she disappears like the rest of them, hm?" She doesn't entertain the thought as he presents it. "Come on, boss. Get the girl."

"Such a devil's advocate, Dexter." She scoffed, finally standing up and grabbing her phone with her. She dialed the phone number and waited patiently for the call to ring. She ended it when she heard the third one. "You know, why would she even be awake now?"

"You're just gay chicken, Lydia!" Brandt rolled her eyes once more and huffed, indignantly going into her bedroom to get away from his presence. Cream Soda can only do so much to soothe her headache.

UAN: Commander Tvarkov, are you sure you can continue with this panel?

Tvarkov: Yes, I'm fine, Councilwoman. Repeat the question.

UAN: What were the statistics when you learned that these cases... recognized their kidnappers?

Tvarkov: 48%.

UAN: What was the next encountered problem, after that?

Tvarkov: We couldn't see what set them all apart, next to the fact that they were all considered missing.

Cueva took a good look at the information before him and realized right then and there that he was stumped.

Everyone's been ordered to interview the children and their families about what happened, who took them, how were they treated in Fyodor. Victim specialists were brought in just for the situation — a group of specialists whose expertise is in consoling the victims and their families. Throughout the 72 hours of leave, they've been working around the clock to make sure that the children have been comfortable in the hospital, through airports, in their own homes. They've been keeping up a constant feed of information on their individual conditions, pictures, videos, details reports on what has been asked of them. Victim specialists worked on a case per case basis, and there were at least 100 deployed just for the victims.

Cueva will admit, their job is among the most difficult ones in the law enforcement industry. Who else can look a penguin in the eye and tell them dead on the eye and tell them what happened to their child?

The thing was, at least 21% of them were able to identify their kidnappers, putting them at a whopping 18 out of 86 children. It surprises Cueva that many of them can forget that one of the biggest factors in kidnapping cases is if whether or not the victim knows their kidnapper. All 18 kidnappers are considered missing or past affiliated with other terrorist organizations.

"Lynx, can you try drawing up comparisons on the kidnappers?" The AI chirped at the acknowledgment. Cueva can see now why the commander put her AI at the information hub's disposal. Beside him, Carter was shuffling papers around her UAN folder while scratching her head.

"I can try," He should really start wondering how the AI can sound almost like a penguin with their tone and inflection. There's silence for a moment before they chimed in once more. "Well, they all used to be missing. Some of them have connections to past mafias and terrorist groups but that's hardly 10 of them."

"What exactly is your primary directive, Lynx?" Carter piped up next to him, looking up from her papers to stare at the holograms. Cueva pored over the given statistics as the two conversed, trying to see if there's a missing detail in the whole portrait. "You seem to be profoundly useful in a wide range of tasks."

"I am whatever the commander needs me to be," Lynx said casually, flicking up a hologram for Cueva to look at that showed recent information from the field. There's a suggestion from Wolfe that they start going through social media accounts, but Cueva isn't so sure if the UAN would allow them to do so. "At the moment, she wants me to maintain the information hub."

"So you're a sentry?" Carter asked, tilting her head towards the AI. Cueva was typing a reply that he will put it into consideration.

"Not totally," If Lynx can shrug with their own voice, Cueva is sure they already have. "I also record all things said here during meetings and whatnot. The commander likes reviewing conversations in her after hours."

Cueva shifted a hologram to Carter's view, with Wolfe's suggestion projected clear for her to read. "Carter, I need you to look into this."

She took her time to read it. While waiting, Cueva drew up the latest information being sent in from the Taskforce members who are on the field. Zarkova was sending in updates on the children she's looking into, reporting in detail the extent of information they are willing to give her. It's been a little over a week, and the reports are giving more and more information on what happened in Fyodor. The picture is vivid: children kept in cold, dark basements reeking with mildew and faintly of rotting iron. The shifting of floorboards above them is a familiar noise that they know what's happening just by listening: scuffling meant a new kid, heavy footsteps meant they were to be fed, heavy thuds are guns banging against the wood to quiet them down.

Rations were scarce and severely stretched out. The children would go days only running on two meals that are hardly substantial, and bad days meant no food at all. Sometimes the basements would reek with vomit, and no one would bother to clean it unless they wail loud enough. The conditions these children were kept in were subpar, and Cueva can't imagine who would think to do this to innocent civilians.

"I can run facial recognition scans on their social media pictures and profile anything they have in common," Lynx's voice snapped him out of thought, bringing him to look back to the two. It appeared as if Carter and Lynx were discussing what she was looking at. "You know, look for mutual friends or something. I can also assess their pictures and posts for anything worth looking into."

Rogue did mention that Lynx was designed to assess potential threats and suspects of terrorist activity. Cueva hummed and listened as the two conversed.

"We can't step on the trust the public has on us," Carter frowned, tapping her flipper against the folder nervously. "It's against the virtues of the UAN's mission."

"Ms. Carter," Cueva stopped her there, looking her in the eye as he sighed. "These penguins have been identified as kidnappers who were deemed missing years back. I think we can allow for their social media accounts — if they're still up — to be assessed."

"But Director Cue—"

"We can get a search warrant," Cueva shook his head and waved his flipper. "Go and do your directive, Lynx."

"Thank you, Director Cueva," Lynx said, before chirping and bringing up the social media accounts of each of the identified kidnappers. Cueva paid no mind to this as he turned to make himself some coffee. The snack table is slightly cluttered, with some spilled sugar on the surface combined with some crumbs and drops of whatever liquid drink was being handled. They seem to be running low on doughnuts, but the stock of raisin cookies remain high as ever. He reluctantly reached for a packet of them.

"It just doesn't sit well with me that we can escalate to scanning everyone's accounts like this," Carter said to him, hesitance clear in her tone. Cueva was going through the motions of making himself a cup of coffee as she spoke, depositing two emptied packets of creamer into the nearby bin. "It's a breach of privacy, misplaced trust—"

"We need to do things to get this investigation moving, Ms. Carter," Cueva turned, face resolved as he made his way back to where she sat. He set the coffee down between them, watching the steam rise slowly and leaned on the table. "While it may not seem so, I intend to be as by the book as possible. I can go through the legal process just to make progress on these missing penguins."

She still appeared unconvinced. Carter turned towards the cluttered holograms, the scans the AI is doing, worrying her lip as she looked at what Lynx was working through. He had to admit, they can be a bit intimidating if he thinks of it. The extent of technology today makes this investigation a little bit easier than before, so he can understand what Carter feels towards what's going on. She's back to perusing her UAN folder nervously when he watches her as if trying to find something that can prove him otherwise.



TROTSKAYA: Lyuda, I believe one of the baits found an opportunity to make a move.

ZARKOVA: Is this Bazin?

TROTSKAYA: No, but good guess. Another one, named Popov. His tracker was found crossing the ocean before it went under.

ZARKOVA: Irina, please tell me you're not saying what I think you're saying.

TROTSKAYA: I already sent out the Navy to see what happened. It was a plane crash with no survivors, Lyuda.

ZARKOVA: Oh, dear goodness.

TROTSKAYA: I'm handing this problem to the Taskforce. I believe it's best if you manage to obtain the black box and make sense of what's happened.

ZARKOVA: What do I say about the bait?

TROTSKAYA: We don't know anything about it. Someone who's been reported missing activated their location, that's all.

ZARKOVA: Yes, ma'am.

TROTSKAYA: Thank you, Lyuda. Call me if the Taskforce needs anything.


She did not expect herself to be back in the Cortez-Song household this soon, but here she was.

And she's alone, at that. There's no Reyes or Piri to stand by and take in any extra details unless you'd count Lynx who resides on her phone. She pads off her boots as she knocks on the door, listening for the scuffling of feet before the door creaks open. She's not looking at either Isabelle or Soo, but a green feathered penguin in a blue EPF-issued jacket. The victim specialist blinked at her before straightening, a nervous grin on his face.

"Commander Tvarkov," His voice is hushed, quiet to her ears. He swung the door open and nodded at her lack of shoes. "Come in. They've been expecting you."

The interior of the house is a little bit brighter, a little bit neater. The paintings have been put away to somewhere Rogue couldn't see, and the lights brighten up the room to see that the floors have been tidied up and less... cluttered. She instantly zeroes in on Soo and Suvi, who sit on the couch and turn when she steps into the room. Beside her, the specialist said something about making some lemonade before disappearing into the kitchen. She waits until his footsteps grow quiet before speaking.

"I thought to make a house call," Rogue said, suddenly interested in the snow that dusts her jacket's shoulders. She dusts them off of her as she considers if it would be appropriate to remove it. "I wasn't aware that you were among the children of Fyodor."

Soo only stares at her. Suvi fiddles with her flippers as she blinks up to Rogue, watching her carefully as she finally decided to remove her jacket. To be in the presence of one of the children she rescued, a child whose parents she visited to personally investigate, was something that slightly unnerved her. She thought it would be good to check on Suvi herself, to see if she was adjusting to being home at last. She recalls reading reports on the little girl, that she was slightly dehydrated when she was teleported to the camp, delirious, scared to be touched and—

"Thank you." She's out of her head the moment Soo spoke. She almost steps back when she realizes that there are tears welling up in the mother's eyes. She always was terrible at handling civilians. "Thank you for bringing her home to us."

When she glances off to the side, the victim specialist was holding up a tray filled with a pitcher of lemonade and four filled up glasses. He stepped aside from her and set the tray down on the coffee table, picking up a tissue box that's strategically placed on the fireplace mantel. Soo dabbed at her eyes just as Suvi mumbled something to her in Korean.

"I just wanted to know how Suvi is," Rogue said as the specialist offered her a seat on the couch opposite the two. Suvi was still staring at her, and she didn't faze herself so much with her glare. "How are you, doushenka?"

"I'm okay," Suvi Song's voice is soft, a shy one that she hardly picked up if not for the fact that the room is so quiet. "Do you feel better?"

"I'm sorry?" She frowned at that. She doesn't recall news revealing any of the Taskforce members' conditions post-raid, nor does she recall anyone explicitly revealing how she was after Fyodor. She ignores the buzzing in her pocket in favor of the little girl's question.

"The nice doctor in the camp told you to stop teleporting," Suvi said, kicking her feet in the air as she spoke. She was wearing a green leopard printed dress, with pink ballet flats on her feet. Rogue's eerily reminded that she looks very much like Soo. "Because you'd hurt yourself."

"What is she talking about?" Soo frowned, looking at her with a mild squint. Rogue doesn't know how exactly to go around the topic and turned to the victim specialist, only to find that he's disappeared to take care of something in the kitchen.

She finally thought of the best explanation she can offer them, "It's classified, I'm afraid."

Soo didn't appear convinced. She's about to ask more questions when her phone buzzed once more, prompting her to see who was calling her. She frowned at the sight of Tux's profile on her phone.

"Anyway, Suvi wanted to play some violin for you as a thank you," Soo said, before realizing that her attention was elsewhere. "Is something wrong?"

"Some matters have arisen," Rogue said, quickly tapping out a message to Tux that she'll be there shortly. She stood and slipped her jacket on once more, an apologetic look crossing her face. "Sorry, Suvi. Maybe next time?"

"You have to look for the other missing folk," The specialist piped up, cleaning a glass in one flipper with a sponge. "It was good to see you, Commander."

When Rogue stepped out of the house, tying the laces of her boots once more, she tilted her head to the sky to see that it's a bright, shining blue above her. It sometimes appalls her that despite what happens down on Earth, the sky simply cannot be bothered to care as it continues to be the same as it is on most days. She shakes her head at the thought before reaching for her phone once more, typing in commands for a quick teleport.

The safe house can survive without the commander about to keep them on their feet. Everything's been relatively peaceful, just in and out of the UAN compound, nothing too strenuous for him. Reyes is all healed up when Piri tells him to get off of the couch, much to his annoyance.

Reyes huffed at that, stubbornly swatting her flipper away. He was being a little careful with the bucket of ice cream on his lap, which wobbled with his fast movements. He was very much invested with the events that are unfolding on this Castillan soap opera, thank you very much. The kidnapping can wait for a moment while Miguel argued his legitimacy as Alfredo's actual firstborn.

"Step off, Perez," He gruffed, shaking her off as he kept his eyes glued to the screen. Olivia looked close to slapping Alfredo silly as he argued that he never knew about Miguel. "This is important."

"Important, my ancestors," Piri scoffed and swatted him upside the head. He yelled as his ice cream was knocked to the side, quickly pulling it upright as he glowered at her. "We have a meeting to go to!"

"Can't we be a lil late?" He said, frowning as Piri grabbed the remote beside him. She stopped when she paid attention to what was on the screen. "C'mon, Perez, pretty please?"

"I can record it." Piri shook her head as she tilted her head up, "Lynx if you will."

"Gotcha," Lynx chimed in before Piri switched the screen off. Reyes yelped as Piri tugged his beanie over his face.

"Yer the worst," Reyes huffed as he got up, looking at his ice cream forlornly before making his way to the fridge to freeze.

When he stepped out of the lobby, he's not surprised to find that a6 wasn't waiting for him. It's not that he expected it, not totally, when he can see that across the street there was a hotdog stand. South Pole City's hustle and bustle whizzed about him as he watched, waiting as he scanned the crowd of customers around the stand. His eyes narrow at a particular one wearing a hoodie, with feathers that are very much the same color as his.

It doesn't take long before that same penguin appeared next to him. "Morning, boss."

"Very funny, a6," I04 said dryly, giving the agent's disguise a quick once-over. a6 laughed as reality flickered for just a moment, returning to their usual dusty blue feathers and black suit. "You eat as sloppy as you disguise yourself."

"S'a work in progress," a6 drawled, very much Reyes-like as they brushed some sauce from their beak. "Ya can't blame me."

They have a point. With their new orders given the situation, a6 has very much been brushing up on how to disguise themselves and modulate their voice. The agent has this tendency of noticing tiny quirks about nearly everyone they interact with, so it would be really handy as they try to appear as if they're someone else. While I04 would admit that their minimal effort would fool nearly everyone in the Taskforce, he still wanted to make sure that the agent perfects the skill.

"Wrap up that chili dog so we can get to the compound," I04 said, checking his watch to look at the time. It's 10:04, and the meeting is supposed to start at 11. He pulled up an app on his phone to read a transcript of the listening devices in the conference room. It seems as if Wolfe and Heng are already there. "I'm not having you spill sauce all over the leather seats."

"I can't be that sloppy," a6 frowned, turning to him as they swallowed the last bite of the meal. "Besides, I didn't eat breakfast this morning."

"Your problem, not mine," I04 said as his phone buzzed. He looked to their left to see that the traffic light has just turned green, bringing on cars coming in their direction. He actively ignores a6's chatter about some lady who was also by the hotdog stand as he watched for one specific car to come down the road.

A black van whizzes down the road at an easy pace. It's not that different from the other cars around it, so it doesn't bring much attention. When it passes by the hotel front, the two are gone.

They're back in the observation room, cold and tiny as it is. Rogue stared at the woman across the glass, watching her take deep breaths as she howls for her husband, a lawyer, someone to help her get out of that chair. There's blood speckling her clothes, tears on her face, and her mind is drawing blanks as Tux cleaned his baton beside her.

The job requires this sort of thing, using physical means to extract information. She's never shied away from it, never felt irked by it. Interrogation is a necessary evil she's learned to execute in her early years, and she's unhesitant to using it when she has to. It shouldn't really bother her that a civilian was bleeding in front of her, but something nags at her as she watches Kiara Bergotti cry alone in the interrogation room.

"You have to keep her quiet," Rogue said, looking at the corner of her eye to see Tux return his baton in his suit's inner pockets. They both had the same batons on their person, and she's never had to use hers for interrogation purposes. "Any idea how you'll be executing that?"

"We'll put her in one of the safe houses around the Island," Tux said, crossing his arms and staring out at the glass window. "Keep a squadron on her."

"I can give you RRS-Beta," Rogue said, turning back to the window. Two SID agents were already getting her out of the chair and taking her elsewhere, probably to that safe house. "I'll dispatch them at once. Newt?"

"Yes, ma'am." The AI chimed in, before speaking once more. "Beta dispatched."

"No more bombs, but we know more about the Public thanks to her," Tux said, turning to the computers to the side. He tapped out some commands before calling for her attention. She stood next to him as he clicked around to show her profiles of penguins. "Ex-activists. A lot of them have strong anti-EPF and anti-USA sentimentalities."

"You're telling me we're fighting a bunch of protestors?" Rogue crossed her arms over her chest as she looked at the profiles. She doesn't know any of these names. "It doesn't translate to good weapons handling."

"We think some of them are ex-military," Tux brought up more profiles, this time of the Ruscan nationals that were identified by the Fyodor children. "These ones are."

She peered at the faces in front of her. A lot of these profiles are classified, with black lines over certain texts in the whole thing. She knows a single phone call can change that. "Keep me posted."

"Will do," He said as he tapped in more commands into the keyboard. He turned to her as she was making her way out of the observation room. "Tvarkov?"

She turns to him. He throws at her a small, rectangular container. She unzips it open to see two black earbuds sitting on a bed of sponge. She looks up to see Tux looking at her.

"Felix's asked me to give that to you," Of course the tech specialist would make her one after the fiasco in Fyodor. "It's a bit like his own earpieces, except smaller and more compact."

"Thanks," She said, pocketing it before turning to exit the room.

The UAN seemed to already have a plan the moment they came in. They have the timeline, the line-up of agents, every detail down pat with a briefing just waiting for them at the compound. Tvarkov has just submitted information received by the EPF about the Public, something along the lines of activists and ex-military. For Brandt, seeing some action after what's happened in the raid is a welcome thought, a little bit of muscle stretching before another big stronghold raid.

Curveball of the week is the fact that it's in the ocean.

"We just got back from Rusca, and now we're going back?" Wolfe said, tone cutting through the arguments of the Taskforce to call for silence. Beside Cueva, Carter set both flippers on the table, resting on the UAN folder she always seems to carry. Lynx rearranged the holograms as Wolfe and Cueva stared each other down.

"Do you have a better idea, Robert?" Cueva said, clear annoyance in his tone. The whole time she's known him, she could tell that his only tick so far would be Wolfe's general presence. "Look, it's a basic retrieval operation. We land on Krym, get on the boats, do some scuba diving, then come back with the black box. We stay to analyze what's in the box and go from there."

"The plane is small, not meant to go too far without refueling," She piped up, nodding at the image of the plane model that was brought up for reference. It was a tiny little thing, a single-engine one usually used by civilians. Based on what was reported by Zarkova, there were 8 fatalities. "They could likely be transporting civilians to a nearby country."

"She has a point," Zarkova's thick accent is warped by connectivity issues, the speakers around them booming with her words. A hologram was set to the side to show that she was on a call with them. "It shouldn't take too long."

"Don't we have the technology for this, Cueva? You know, drones or something like that?" Wolfe frowned, shaking his head. "I don't know about you but I don't get why we need to be sent there."

"You're looking at a small plane that is quickly sinking down the ocean as we speak," Carter said, tilting her head at Wolfe. The internal integrity officer, as always, didn't seem to be liking Wolfe one bit. Brandt would have to admit that watching this was entertaining. "We don't even know if a robot can be sent down there to retrieve something so delicate. We don't even know what state is the flight recorder in. It's better to send something with a brain down to get the black box."

"SI:9 has adaptive masks," I04 said, making everyone turn to him. Brandt found herself raising her eyebrows at the prospect of the SI:9 actually lending some of its gear to the Taskforce. SI:9, opening up to the international intelligence community? In this lifetime? Must be some miracle. "Designed to filter water into oxygen."

"Great, we'll need them," Wolfe said, shaking his head before leaning back in his chair. "We better have better transport than a cargo plane, though."

"Oh, looks like the UAN beat you to it," Cueva said just as the holograms shifted once more. "We've got a jet already fueled and ready for us."

The wicked grin of Wolfe's face made Brandt roll her eyes.

The moment she stepped into her office, she took a deep breath in and leaned back on the door behind her. Unlike Winston's office or any of the delegates' offices for that matter, her office is just a tidy, little rectangle thing with windows that overlook the courtyard with its 3 pillars and rows of flags. Her eyes zeroed in on the tiny stack of paperwork and sighed in exasperation, kicking her heels back in a practiced matter and watching them thump down on the murky blue couch to her left.

Mia Carter loosened the pins keeping her hair up and letting her dreadlocks free, shaking them to keep the braids from tangling from each other. She quickly checked the mirror stashed in one of her cabinets to see if they look oily, satisfied to see that they aren't so. She finally sat down on her desk chair and rubbed a flipper over her face.

As much as she liked doing her job, simply babysitting the Taskforce could be so draining sometimes. There is just so much tension and conflict in that room whenever something comes up that demands their attention, and it doesn't help that the air is thick with testosterone that it's almost suffocating. She tilted her chair to the side to see that the sky is the same baby blue as it always has been, the occasional white cloud dotting it. It looks like a good day to step out and take a deep breath of the Antarctic air, maybe have lunch in one of the delis near the compound, but the thought is stamped out before she can fully form it. There's simply no room for her to do any of this in her schedule, and her poorly overworked self has to report to Winston soon for a closed meeting to update her on what's been discussed earlier.

A knock on her door snaps her out of her musings, and she sits up and thinks that it's one of the secretaries. "Come in!"

It's a6. The dusty blue feathered agent has been relatively nice, in contrast to their crimson feathered, aloof superior. It sometimes surprises her how they can work with such a thunderstorm when a6 acts like a ball of sunshine. They offer her a kind smile as they came in. "Ms. Carter."

"a6! I wasn't expecting you," Because really, she was expecting one of the other internal integrity officers, the secretaries, someone else to drag her out of this compound and give her a break. Ever since she's taken up the task of keeping an eye on the Taskforce, it's as if many of her friends and co-workers have slipped from her grasp and disappeared themselves. No one has dared tried to bother her with her work, leaving her to keep the thoughts of her workload to herself. She's been eating on her own more and more often than usual. "Is there something you need?"

"Not really, I just wanted to see if you're alright." They said, shrugging. Carter tilted her head at the prospect of the agent coming in just to check on her since this is the first time such has occurred. Ever since their return to the UAN compound, a6 has been particularly kind to her, often keeping up small talk or asking if she wanted anything from the snack table while they were there. While a6 was an excellent listener, they were all the more a better speaker in Carter's opinion. She sometimes wonders to herself on why the agent seemed to have done a 180 when they hardly interact unless asked to by I04.

"That's really nice of you to do, a6," She said slowly. Sometimes, it bothers her that she has to call the agent by a number and a letter and not an actual name. She's read (sparse) UAN files on the SI:9 and studied various (abundant) commentaries from Munian news outlets about them. The agency has been rumored to conduct experiments on penguins, though there are lacking details on who these would be and what is done to them. She's read through articles pronouncing that the agency goes so far as experimenting on their own agents, and it worries her at the prospect of it. Whenever her eyes drift to a6, she wonders: do they even know their own name?

"That's because I'm programmed to do so."


"What?" a6 looked at her strangely. They've positioned themselves beside her couch, idly holding up one of her heels when they look to her. Carter flushed when she realized that she did, in fact, kick her heels away, shaking her head and decidedly getting to work with her stack of paperwork. The first file that she pulls out is a long, lengthy status report submitted by Cueva himself. The UAN insignia stares back at her almost as if it means to insult. She almost misses the next words they say, "May I?"

She lifts her head to see that they're lingering at the record player that she keeps in her office. The record player was a gift from Winston when she was promoted to her position, as she knew that Carter kept a bunch of records that she inherited from her grandmother. She'd play the vinyl given to her when she's alone in her office, and music would be welcome right now. She waves them off and turns back to their work, ignoring the quiet shuffling of records and the tiny remarks a6 would make while going through them. She pauses from her readings when she hears them set the needle down, waiting for the first notes of the song to recognize what they decided to play.

"That's an interesting pick," Carter hummed, lifting her head once more to see that a6 had their head tilted to the ceiling. The singer sings his nostalgic lyrics in Italian, the slow tempo punctured just barely by the lilting of a piano. She imagines that they have their eyes closed.

"These are really old vinyl," a6 said quietly, turning their head back to the small box of vinyl records set to the side. They turned to her and smiled. "There's a lot of Ligurian music here."

"My grandfather was Ligurian." She supplied them the answer, closing her eyes briefly to the music. She can just imagine it, younger days in her grandfather's little apartment. The fireplace was lit to keep his little hole cozy, and he would hand her a little cup of hot chocolate while he sipped his own, fancier glass of Cream Soda. Sometimes, he'd set it down to dance slow circles with her late grandmother. The memory is intimate and embedded in her very memory that she almost gets lost in it.

When she opens her eyes, she sees that a6's looking at her general direction, but not at her. Instead, they stare very intently at the vase of flowers that sit on her desk. Their footsteps are quiet, too quiet, that she didn't even hear them make their way to her. They stop right before the vase, and there's silence before she even speaks. "Is something wrong with my flowers?"

"Who sent these?" They asked, removing their sunglasses to look at the vase clearer. She sits back when she sees that their eyes are a stormy gray that reminds her of the sky during a thunderstorm, the sky after a bad firefight, the sky that threatens with doom. She wouldn't pair the eyes with someone as cheerful and kind as a6, especially when these grays remind her of fury and passion. Carter doesn't know if she should be fascinated or bothered. The muscles around their eyes hardly even move as they speak, not a single twitch indicating curiosity or confusion.

"A co-worker, I think," She reasoned, shrugged innocently. The flowers, like the vinyl records to the side and the little section on her bookshelf reserved for knickknacks, are the few things that distinguish her office from all the other offices in the Internal Integrity Offices. She doesn't frankly bother herself with who sends her flowers, never really asked the girl at the front desk. Not that she doesn't care who gives it to her, she just finds the whole concept of flirting, courting, dancing around another penguin to eventually date them... unappealing. It's not exactly a waste of time, but it's not exactly a particularly interesting way of using it either.

"These give a conflict of interest," a6 said, tilting their head at the yellow carnations and daffodils. The combined yellow of the flowers capture the light perfectly, makes her desk and office seem brighter than it actually is. They picked up a carnation and twirled it around their flipper. "They're either disappointed in you or love you unrequitedly."

Surprised, she leans back. The innocent, unoffensive vase of flowers' only sin by far was to stay there to simply exist. A few petals have littered the perimeter around it, and some of the flowers droop downwards with bigger, heavier flowers pressing against them. The vase, while dominantly yellow, looked perfectly fine to her. "What are you talking about?"

"Language of flowers," It moves so smoothly out of their mouth as if it were a familiar phrase to say. Their eyes remain fixed on the yellow petals of the carnation as if they were contemplating on something beyond the simple petals. They appear to be spaced out, and she can see the barely there glaze over their eyes. a6 glanced up at her and shrugged. "My mother used to tell me all about it."

She hummed, interested in the thought of communication with flowers. She knows that their file's been redacted for confidentiality purposes, but she knows that she's itching to know more about the agent before her. She only says one thing: "Interesting."

The music continued to play as a6 offered her a smile, and she turned back to take care of her paperwork once more.

A6 notes.png

The Tvarkov family has offered up their dacha on Krym as a little resting place for the Taskforce. Usually, a dacha is a small, intimate cottage made for when the family wants to go on a holiday. It's usually cozy, meant for just a few occupants, but that's not the case for this family. When Zarkova steps out of the car, she stares up at the large house with awe. It had a modern feel to it, with its tinted windows and brown paint scheme. The front yard's perimeter is decorated with hydrangeas of all colors: white, pale pink, periwinkle, blue. She fishes the key out of her coat pocket and makes her way up the front porch, sliding it into the lock and twisting the key.

The interior is cozy, characterized by wooden flooring and earthy browns. She hears the rest of the team file in behind her as she takes in the lit fireplace to one side, the high ceilings, paintings and pictures that adorn the home. It seems as if this dacha, in particular, is owned by Irina herself, going by the picture frames that dot the tables. She picks up one of them to stare at the image of a younger couple and much younger children, hardly even reaching their chests. She stares at the blue feathered boy that stands next to a golden feathered girl, then turns away before she can think too much about it.

"There are eight bedrooms here, but one of you may have to sleep in the same room as someone else," Tvarkova seemingly appeared out of nowhere, leaning against a leather couch. She forgot that the woman took a separate flight ahead of them. "You can discuss while I make sure everything's fixed."

She disappears off down a hallway after that, before the sound of footsteps ascending a staircase is faintly heard. Zarkova could only listen as the men argued on who stayed with who, before Cueva spoke up from the group to declare that he and Carter already agreed on sleeping conditions. The only reason why they were here and not in some hotel was that Irina insisted that they could, as a way to make their stay as comfortable as possible. She looked towards the windows to her right to see that they're facing the ocean, the glittering blue waters enticing her for a quick swim.

Zarkova takes a moment to search for the house's back door, which was located in the kitchen. She takes a few steps to find that the house rests on a cliff. Below it, the sand is white and clean, tempting to run through all by herself. It seems as if the family has this whole part of the beach cordoned off to just themselves because she can see no tourist within sight. She's about to turn and make her way back when she notices Tvarkova behind her, looking at the view ahead.

"There used to be a time when I thought that I was nothing to this great nation," Tvarkova started, slowly making her way to where Zarkova stood. When she looks at the yellow feathered penguin, she looks eerily like her own mother. She tries not to let it bother her. "Then I accidentally find out I'm part of one of the most powerful families in Rusca."

Zarkova snorted, shook her head at the admission. "That sounds like something straight out of a soap opera."

"Yeah, well she was always a bit much when it comes to writing me." Tvarkova shrugged innocently, clasping her flippers behind her back.


"Nevermind that." She shook her head, before turning back to the view before them. The sky was brilliantly blue, brighter than the ocean but just as beautiful and alluring. Zarkova wants to know what it's like to wade in that much blue, to drown in it. "I still don't know what to do with that information, but I'm working on it."

Zarkova could only hum. The Tvarkov family is simply what keeps the Ruscan military working, with its metaphorical thumb in many pies. Its simply a powerhouse personality that cannot easily be messed with, and she cannot even begin to think the weight that comes with Tvarkova merely existing in the USA, of all places. In the time she's come to work with her, maybe she isn't so bad.

"To think I thought you to be a traitor, Tvarkova," Zarkova joked, a smile splitting her face. That gets a bark of laughter from the latter as she bowed her head and shook.

"I've been named Rogue for a reason, and I think it's best you use it," She said, a grin on her face so eerily like Irina's. Tvar- Rogue tilted her head towards the dacha and turned, already making her way back. "Come on, Zarkova, I'll show you to your room."

Zarkova complied, turning on her heel and making her way back to the dacha, mind far from the mission that they're here to do.

The dawn of June 3 greets them with a brilliant sunrise, the black sky turning indigo just as the sun rises from its slumber. It scatters orange and yellow hues on the horizon, permeates until it turns the sky into its beautiful, brilliant blue. It's the sunrise that scatters diamonds on the ocean's surface, warms the air around them lazily, awakens nature with a touch of morning dew. While the sun climbs up to its place in the sky, so does the world around it opens its eyes to greet it.

She's hardly slept that night, tossing and turning in bed and hardly finding the exhaustion necessary to slip into unconsciousness. She only gets pockets of sleep, a meager hour or two to keep her relatively functional. It's most likely the jetlag, that's all, or maybe her thoughts straying towards the mission and what may go down. Rogue knew that there was no way she can properly sleep when she slipped out of bed entirely and make her way down the dacha, and into the underground rooms of the cottage. There, she steps into the study, where she lit up the fireplace and flicked on a lamp, picking out a thick book to read until the grandfather clock chimed six.

She functions on coffee and sheer force of will, at that. She's quick to assemble breakfast for nine by bringing out the ingredients for syrniki and switching on the coffee machine. Syrniki was a thicker variation of pancakes, with an addition of cream cheese next to the standard flour and sugar. She's patting the pancake into its familiar shape when Zarkova pads down the staircase, making her way to the kitchen to greet her. The older woman gives her one look before she shakes her head and bats the pancake away from her flippers.

"You're running on a few hours of sleep," Her Ruscan accent, mixed with the roughness of sleep, makes her words near unrecognizable. "Go close your eyes on the couch for a few minutes."

So she replaces her in the kitchen. Zarkova expertly patted out the excess flour with experienced flippers, quickly forming a pancake to fry on the stove. Rogue could only shake her head and clean her flippers in the sink, before finally depositing herself on the couch. As Zarkova flicked on the stove and shuffled around the cabinets, Rogue made herself comfortable on the leather couch. She has to admit, perusing a book and making herself prepare breakfast did make her a bit tired. She allows herself to close her eyes and relax, quickly drifting off to a light slumber that's only interrupted by the sounds of cooking and the voices of Zarkova and Brandt.

"-clocked out, I wouldn't want to touch her," Zarkova had to clear her throat several times to make herself sound clear, but Rogue did not mind as she remained still to listen to their conversation.

"Is she even going to be in the field?" Brandt's voice, unlike Zarkova, is a little bit higher in octave and thick with a Snoss lilt. "She cannot be an efficient operative with that much sleep in her."

"Oh, I think she'll stay in the naval base," Zarkova said, just as the stove crackled with pancakes hitting the pan. The smell of syrniki wafted to her and teased her to wake up. "Keep an eye out for us."

There's silence after that. Someone pours out a cup of coffee in the kitchen, and the aroma of coffee beans and pancake mix so well that she's already up before she knows it. She greets the two and prepares herself a cup of coffee just as Zarkova prepares herself a cup of tea.

"The boys aren't awake yet?" Rogue mused, turning to the two as she sipped on her mug. She leaned back on the counter as she took in the sunlight that spilled into the room, decorating the interior with a degree of softness that only comes in the early hours of the morning. The silence without any of the men bickering or arguing is actually rather comforting, and she doesn't mind the presence of the other two female agents in the taskforce. The three of them crowd around the stove, letting the sunlight drape itself on their shoulders and nestle on their hair. There's comfort in the sun's rays shining down on them, the warmth of the cups in their flippers, and the silence of the little cottage. It's the calm before the storm, the moment set for contemplation before the mission starts.

"Fortunately," Brandt scoffed, shaking her head as she put in a spoonful of sugar in her coffee. She took a sip and made a face. "This is strong coffee."

"Compliments of Irina," Zarkova said, laughing as she tilted her head back. Rogue's acknowledged that this is what many would call the "dead area" time. It's when no communications towards their agencies are made and they're free to do whatever they do before they have to come back. It's a moment of being themselves, without the coat and dagger and UAN breathing down their necks. "But that's why I prefer tea."

There's laughter after that. This is a light, quiet moment for themselves, a way to step away from the thoughts of the mission. It's a change in tempo, a lull in the plot, their chance to bond before whatever happens in the ocean. Zarkova turns back to take care of the syrniki, and Brandt switches to the topic of what breakfasts are like in her homeland, Snowzerland. Rogue leaned back on the counter once more to listen to the conversation, thoughts drifting to the beach outside and its dazzling, glittering blue sea.

UAN: By any chance, Kowalski, did you ever notice anything off throughout the retrieval of the black box?

Kowalski: I don't know how to answer that question, ma'am.

UAN: Do you still remember what happened, Bureaucrat?

Kowalski: Of course I do. I just can't exactly tell you anything when I was thousands of feet below sea level. You could try asking I04 or Zarkova, though.

Heng was spearheading this one, with most of the team comprising Brandt, I04, Wolfe, Zarkova, and several other secondary agents. Carter placed the headset over her head and leaned back, setting it to the communication channels of the taskforce as she looked at the monitors before her. The room of the naval base that they were in was large, with lights dimmed to save energy. Multiple monitors appeared before her showing body cam footage of every agent on the boats, which were zipping across the ocean as they watched. Beside her, Rogue was doing a communications check with the agents, poring over whatever was on her tablet as she spoke.

Their gear was weird, by the way. The tech SI:9 has given them was helmet-like, which appeared to be the cross between a travel pillow and an astronaut's helmet. When she first held it, it was lightweight but rather solid, and she was in awe of how advanced the technology was before someone took it and fitted it over their head.

"ETA in 5 minutes," Wolfe's voice boomed around the overhead speakers. She checks the tablet on her lap, flicks around the profiles before her. Everyone's vitals were relatively normal, with adrenaline picking up the heart rates of several. She looked up to see naval officers mill about them, hovering over computers and speaking to each other in quick Russian.

"Copy, Alpha Team," Cueva said, a bit ahead of her as he stood before the monitors. There's weariness on his shoulders that she cannot decipher because she was pretty sure that she booted that man from his laptop when he was in the middle of working. She doesn't ask him when he opens his mouth once more. "Ms. Carter, how are they?"

"They're holding up fine," She said, looking up from her tablet. She turned to see that Rogue's disappeared off to who knows where, and shrugs to herself before she can think of looking for her. "Hey, I just thought of something."

Humming, Cueva turns to her. His eyes are dead set on her as she spoke. "What is it?"

"By any chance," She chews on her lip. Her mind flashes back to a time when she wasn't working for the UAN, but rather running around in battle zones and underdeveloped countries to tell stories to the Antarctic population. "Would they, well, find anyone down there while—"

Cueva was already shaking his head, lips tugging downwards as he made a face. Carter found herself chuckling when he spoke, a wicked grin on her face. "I did not take your humor to be that morbid, Ms. Carter."

It's about 10 o'clock in the morning when the sun beats down on them, but not as harshly as one would assume it would. Everything appeared picture perfect to Wolfe, from the brilliant blue above him and the deeper blue below him. The sea breeze is strong, blowing through his hair and ruffling his carefully slicked-back undercut. In the far off distance, he can see the beaches of Krym and the barest spatter of tourists on its sand. He squints at the horizon and shakes his head before checking his watch.

"One and a half hours in," He said into his communicator, sighing as he sat down on the edge of the boat. The bobbing of their boats could just lull him back to sleep if he so wanted it to, and the occasional creaking was a comforting break in the silence. He looked towards the naval officers at the helm before turning back towards the horizon. "Hey Cueva, permission to go for a swim?"

"Very funny, Wolfe," Cueva's dry, exasperated tone on the other line was worth the jab. He looked around once more and saw I04 and Brandt on the other boat, straightening to try and catch a view of what they're doing. "How are you all holding up?"

"We're holding up just fine, old man, I just wish you told me in advance that there's no Cream Soda in this trip," He shook his head, making a show of clicking his tongue. Across him, the two appeared to be crouched over something, with both thinking about something rather deeply. The waves bob their ship and he cannot tell what is it they're hunched over. "Hey I04, what are you guys doing?"

"Chess, agent." I04 doesn't even look towards his direction as he moved a piece across the board. It's beyond him on why the man insists on wearing his usual suit when the sun's blaring hot below them. The red tint of his sunglasses is stark red, brighter than the red of his own feathers. He reached to the side to set his flipper down on something, and a click's heard as Brandt sighed. Wolfe can see the top of a timer beside the board. "Check, Brandt."

"It's one move to checkmate, so you might as well say it," Brandt sighed and leaned back, turning to Wolfe to tilt her head. Lydia Brandt has this capacity to make someone uncomfortable with how she pins them down with her glare, and Wolfe is just a touch bothered with how green her eyes are when they land on him. "He's good."

"Of course he's good, he's Munian," Wolfe scoffed, before turning back to see Perez going over something on her phone. Rogue had insisted he keep the Finipino agent with him since she could not join them personally, for reasons beyond him. Perez turned to look at him and raised her eyebrows expectantly as if waiting for a question he has yet to ask. "Perez, do you play cards?"

"Yeah," She said simply, slipping her phone back into her pocket. He's about to open his mouth and offer to play a game of it when they hear the roaring of motors at beyond them. A group of boats approaches them, and he squinted to look at their antennas.

"Cueva, those are not our boats." He hears I04 speak into their shared channel, quickly nodding at the lack of Ruscan and UAN flags on the ship. Wolfe frowned as he saw one of the boats' passengers take out a big, long tube.

"RPG!" Wolfe hollered out, immediately ducking as the grenade flew past them. He can only make out the figures of I04 and Brandt jumping off the boat before it exploded, sending hot waves of heat at their direction and a shockwave that knocked him off balance. Perez gripped him by his jacket when he flew past her, keeping him from falling off the boat and tugging him back. "Cueva, we got Public!"

"What's going on up there?" Heng cut through the noise and haze when suddenly the world around them erupts in gunfire. Bullet holes streak the side of their hull as he and Perez back away, making their way to the center of the boat. There are yells in Russian as the naval officers scramble to defend themselves, and there is another shockwave that prompts them both to duck down. He pulls out his pistol. "Wolfe, what on earth is going on?"

"Focus on the mission, Heng-man." He said, kneeling down to grab the rifle that is slid over to him by a naval officer. Above him, a torrent of black charges forward and past them, and there are more screams as he stood. The cloud of black vaguely reminds him of bees as it circles around the intruders. He watches some drop their guns in panic while some fire off at whatever direction. He moves when one of them point the gun at their direction. "Perez, we need a distraction."

"I've got it," She said, tying back a mask around her— oh, okay, that makes sense. He's not surprised that the EPF has ninjas in their repertoire but he didn't assume that Rogue would be the type to recruit one into the taskforce. Perez wielded a stack of cards from her inner pockets and flashed him a grin, nodding once before she's jumping into the waters. Ruscan officers join him as they started aiming and firing at the Public extremists. There is a strange satisfaction that comes with watching some tumble off the boat, and he cannot help but recall a different time when he was in the special forces. There's an explosion next to him and he sees that the helm has gone missing.

A large wave of water slams and overturns one of the boats, and he watched as the extremists tried to swim to their nearby boats. He quickly aimed and fired at those who neared the nearby boats, avoiding bullets to the best of his ability. It doesn't take him long to notice Brandt and I04 appear beside him, with the former soaked to the bone and the latter not so. He only spared them one glance before shaking his head. "There might be some more guns at the back."

"We're sinking, Wolfe," I04 deadpanned as he glanced off to the side. A bullet whizzes past them and Wolfe ducks. It dents the metal under them and brings to attention the gaping hole where the hull was. There's a thin layer of water that's spreading around the boat. "Let's go."

"Backup is coming in ten minutes, gentlemen," Cueva chimed in. Brandt picks up a gun beside them to start firing at the rebels, already backing away to the other side to look for a way to get Zarkova nearer. He sees one of their boats circle around the Public's boats to start firing at them from the back. He ducks when an explosion sends debris flying their way. "Heng, how are you all holding up?"

"We have sight of the aircraft," He said matter of factly. There's yelling around him as a boat nears them, and Zarkova's at the hull to tell them to get on board. There's an explosion that prompts them all to duck, and the waters lick at his feet with its icy coldness. Surprising, to think that he expected it to be a little bit warmer.

"Wolfe, let's go!" I04 barks out, all but dragging him to the other side of the boat. He throws himself over the hull and jumps into the nearby boat, listening to the Russian yelling just as someone fires another RPG. There's an explosion before he watches their boat finally descend into the ocean, drowning in the blue before it ultimately disappears.

It's funny how nothing of what's going on in the surface was affecting them, regardless of how much firepower is thrown at the team above the ocean. The cold nips, just a bit, but the thermal regulators in the wetsuit they've been put into kept most of it from actually wrapping around him. Besides, he can disregard the cold with the sight before him, underwater life refreshing his eyes with multicolored corals and fishes of every size and shape, flitting about them without any hurry. There's a calm that comes over him that he almost forgets he's looking for a black box, but he knows better than to stray from what he's got to do. Heng wondered for a moment if now was a good time to check on Wolfe before he hears the man himself speak into the channel.

"Brandt's down. Can those helicopters hurry up? I'm running out of ammo." There's clear-cut annoyance in his tone that Heng shakes his head. The clarity of their voices thousands of feet below sea level isn't exactly pristine, but that's why one of them has a whole communications pack on their back courtesy of the EPF. Heng kicked closer to the plane just as Kowalski remarked into the channel.

"Guess you regret putting me with the wetsuit team, huh?" There's a grin in that voice that makes Heng chuckle. Kowalski had insisted to come with them, probably to take a breather from the rest of the Taskforce and enjoy the ocean life around them. Wolfe quickly backed him up as soon as he raised the suggestion. "Well, I don't regret it one bit."

"Shut up, Kowalski." Wolfe gruffed, gunfire on their side of the line. Heng slowly approached the downed aircraft and pressed his flipper against the side of the plane, prompting a shiver with how cold it is as he looked into the glass. Tiny bubbles freckled the side of the plane, disappearing at his touch in a rushed scurry. He flinches when he sees that there were still penguins inside.

"Cueva, we'll be bringing in bodies," Heng said into the channel, ignoring the sharp remark coming from Wolfe at the mention. There could be more than five of them in there, and he wonders if there is enough of them to get the bodies up in the surface without having to go back. He tugged at the door and stopped, realizing that it was stuck. "That's nice."

"We can use a laser to penetrate the metal," Hoffman suggested, kicking his way to them. The Snoss agent was sent in because of Brandt's insistence that he do the job, but their quick exchange in German earlier suggested that there was more to why she refused to join them underwater. It doesn't help that Hoffman smirked after the exchange and simply shrugged, accepting his fate of going thousands of feet into the ocean.

"Lasers aren't as strong underwater," a6 piped up, having circled the perimeter of the plane. The Munian agent was more than happy to join them since they knew most about the tech that has been given to the team. The helmet-masks have been functioning just fine throughout the whole duration of their dive, and Heng wondered how on earth did no one catch wind of this tech. a6 pressed their face against the glass and stared into the interior of the cockpit, looking through and locking eyes with Heng. It startles him how their grays stared back at him. "The water will absorb some of it, so it'll take longer."

"We don't have time for that, just get the blasted black box out!" Wolfe said from the communications channel. Heng looked around the reefs for anything that can help them, trying to find a way that doesn't involve shifting the plane from where it is. He's reaching for something when he's pulled back by Hoffman, who yells something in German. A flash of black charged forward and opened the door easily with a loud bang and creaking.


"Y'all were yapping about," The mentioned agent shrugged, ripping the door away without much ceremony. The aircraft teetered dangerously as everyone held their breath, waiting until it settled on the reef once more. Heng shook his head as he kicked forward, poking his head into the cockpit to get a better look at what's inside. The flashlights on their wetsuits lit up to show Heng clean, circular holes in the heads of both pilots, and he watched as a gun floated past his head. His eyes followed it out of the plane before they landed on the rest of the team behind him.

"Get the bodies out of here," He said, nodding towards the bodies that were still inside the plane. He kicked himself back as Hoffman and Reyes swam forward to begin retrieving the bodies, looking into the cockpit from the front glass to see a blinking light near the end of the plane, covered by a body. "Cueva, we have sight of the black box."

Here's a quick little fact about Card-Jitsu: it's not a simple thing.

It looks really, really simple on pen and paper when it's not, hardly easy. There's this thing called a Pectosphere that encases the whole globe and stores all the magic of the cards, kind of like the Internet of all things magical. Somehow, you summon the magic down with an incantation, or maybe with some special combo using a wand or something like that. It required drawing out the energy into thin enough strands that you can weave it into the card without much effort, then lock it into the paper fibers with a special seal. Congratulations, you have a magic card! All you have to do now is tap into the magic of the said card by another absurd method and use it to how you need it to work.

Sometimes, thinking about the technicalities of magic makes her head hurt real bad.

Because that's not how you explain magic, or well, that wasn't how they explained it to her, anyway. Making Card-Jitsu cards was something that ran in her family, discussed openly in the dinner table about what kind of paper stores fire spells better, how to efficiently get the magic in the paper fibers without extreme exhaustion. It was always about the Qi that can "attract" the magic towards you, to utilize it how you need it to. It requires imagination and some combo of moves that really, gives her a headache. She doesn't need to think too hard of what she's doing.

Piri swam under the boats, drawing out a card to press against the hull of one of them. Immediately, ice webbed around the boat's side and hardened, turning into multiple layers that made the boat heavier than what it is supposed to be. She watched it sink before flattening her feet against the ice and kicking hard, propelling herself upwards to break the surface.

She only needs to take a deep breath before diving down, swimming fast to avoid the torrent of bullets that followed her. A flash of pain erupts from her side and she sees red contrast the blue of the waters around her, and she exhales just a bit before she's kicking underneath two boats. She pulled out two rectangular bombs from her pockets to press against each of the boats' sides. Both of them possessed intricate, circular seals that faintly glowed against the light. She waved off the seals before she's kicking herself downwards and away from the boats, turning just in time to see them both explode in a rupture of fire.

Her earpiece pinged, indicating a shift in channels. There's the faint sound of helicopter rotors as Rogue spoke, "Piri, Lynx is telling me that they're detecting an injury along your right side. Are you alright?"

Kicking back towards the surface, she took a deep breath and looked around her. The Public's boats are quickly dwindling as the firefight continued, and she can see helicopters approaching their position. She reached up to press down on a button. "I got clipped, nothing serious."

"Get to a boat, we'll take it from here," Rogue said. She's about to reply when someone drags her back under, prompting her to kick harshly and further aggravate her injury. She sees a flipper wrapped around her foot and she kicks hard, tries to get the penguin from drowning her. Her foot's released after a moment of kicking and she quickly makes her way back into the surface to search for the nearby UAN boat.

"I see her!" She hears Brandt yell, prompting her to reach out to wave at them. She's suddenly pulled back again by two flippers, both grasping at her jacket as she struggled to get away from their grip. She scrambles to grab her EPF phone and cards from the jacket before she kicks forward, breaking the surface just in time for the boat to near her.

She's grabbed by multiple penguins and hauled in, where she rolls onto the floor with a deep breath. She's soaking wet, but she doesn't find a single bone in her caring as she took deep breaths. The heat of the sun felt strange against her feathers; it's not exactly warming her but it's not exactly cold. Someone helps her sit up while another wraps a blanket around her as she finally reached up to loosen the bun she keeps her hair in.

"There could be at least thirty of them," She breathed when Zarkova knelt in front of her. There's a warm cup of tea steaming in front of her that she readily takes, keeping it in her flippers just to warm her. Someone pushes aside the blanket to check on her wound on her side as her brain scrambled to get her message to Zarkova across. "We can't—"

"There are more boats coming," Zarkova's tone is soothing, a balm that reminds her of her own mother's. The helicopters are louder now, kicking up the air around them as they near. There are divers who jump from the helicopters to retrieve Public extremists who are still alive, and it doesn't take long before Rogue jumps down from one of them. She only gives Piri a look before she shakes her head, kneeling down to her size.

"You did good," She said simply, before turning her head to speak to someone in Russian. Zarkova and Rogue help her up and direct her to a medic, who quickly took her to the side to patch up her wound. She turns just briefly to see both of the Ruscans speak about something in low voices, Rogue's face set as Zarkova frowned.

Something's wrong.


HANDHAFI: So okay, how many hours was the plane in the air before it went down?

VARGAS: Ruscan intelligence is approximating it at three hours.

HANDHAFI: Ooh, that's tricky. Cockpit voice recorders only record up to two hours of cockpit conversations.

RICCI: Winston, none of our respondents are equipped nor trained to investigate aircraft crashes.

WINSTON: We will equip them with the necessary resources to look into it, then.

JANKETIĆ: We can just hand it to the professionals who are trained to do this.

WINSTON: That's exactly what we're doing. The Taskforce just needs what is in those flight recorders, we'll leave the crash to the professionals.


As soon as everyone was settled into the naval base, Cueva was quick to begin the debriefing. There were steaming cups of coffee passed around for everyone, with some soup from the mess hall too. The discussions rotate around the Public extremists and how they knew about the plane crash, and everyone was quick to point towards the media that circulated news about it. Wolfe seemed adamant to get across that criminal charges should be given towards those who are still living, while Cueva had argued that they will be given these charges right after questioning. The tensions are high when a soldier walked into the room to hand Rogue an envelope. There was nothing written on the delicate stationery, with only an address written in clean cursive.

They take a jeep. Rogue didn't even bother to flick on the radio since all they would hear is talk about the Public. Zarkova leaned back and watched the younger woman concentrate on the road, her phone propped up on the dashboard.

"She does this a lot, don't worry," She spoke, watching Rogue's muscles tense just barely. Zarkova will have to admit, Rogue's grip on her emotions is something worth admiring if she didn't know why she ended up like so. "Remind me, how did you get that information again?"

Her Russian is sharp against her tongue. "We have connections around the airports. The plane does not exist."

Of course. After sending her agent off to the medic to be taken care of, Rogue had informed her that they cross-checked with the airports regarding the plane's alphanumeric string. To their frustrations, the plane does not exist in any of their departure lists, nor does it appear in the registration lists. Zarkova found it absurd, reasoning that they'll try to get the aircraft out of the water as soon as possible to further investigate.

"They probably painted over the original one. I'm sure if we get the model and type of aircraft, we could narrow it down," Zarkova shrugged, watching as they turned down towards a narrow dirt road. Tall trees with narrow, pale trunks flanked their sides as they made their way towards another, smaller dacha. This one looked more like the state-owned cottages meant for government officials who wanted to take a breather from their work. It was tall, narrower, and looked more like a townhouse. They slowed to a halt next to a black car and got out.

Irina was sipping a cup of tea when they both came in, regarding them both. The interior of the dacha was a bit more stately and neutral, unlike the Tvarkov owned one that they reside in. She's sure that most of the furniture here have been untouched and sterilized, making it feel more like an office rather than a summer house. The heavy curtains have been pulled back to allow sunlight to stream in, afternoon sun casting shadows and brightening up the room. Zarkova realized then that she hasn't changed out of her sea-soaked clothes before she plopped herself on the plush chair across her.

"You look like you've seen better days," Irina said simply, watching as Zarkova fixed herself a cup of tea. The tea set that was brought out by Irina wasn't something that fit the current aesthetic of the dacha, what with its delicate white china painted with irises. She was careful with the china that she held as she poured herself a cup and poured some honey, stirring a few times before leaning back to take a sip. Rogue stood tensed between them as she watched them, before being regarded by her mother. "Oh, sit down. You need tea in your system, not that Antarctican coffee you insist on drinking."

"Mama, I am in the middle of a case," Rogue clicked her tongue, eyes flicking to the table where the tea set rested. Zarkova's eyes drifted to notice the tall vase of magnolias decorating its center, gentle petals just barely curling outwards with its pink and white colors.

"You just successfully retrieved a black box from the ocean floor a few hours ago along with a bunch of extremists," Irina's smile is faint, at the barest touch motherly. Zarkova turned back to her cup of tea, eyes flicking away. This feels like something she shouldn't be witnessing. "The best you can do now is rest, matryoshka."

Rogue bristles, a twitch of a frown on her face. "I am not one for idleness."

With that, the younger Tvarkov sat down on a chair beside Zarkova, reaching to pour herself a cup of tea. The thing that strikes her then is the fact that separation has prompted Rogue to be different from the rest of her family, who is famously known to be proud and borderline arrogant. There are subtle differences between this Tvarkov and the one she works for, besides the obvious cultural contrasts. While Rogue possessed the similar work ethic and demeanor that were trademark Tvarkov, there were things like her preference towards working on her own and losing herself to her own head that makes her contrastive to her family. Without the touch of her family in her life, Rogue had to effort to put herself toe-to-toe with everyone else.

Truly, the rogue Tvarkov.

"I'll put my best men on it," Irina said as if answering an unasked question. She passed her look between both of them and chuckled gently, shaking her head. "Oh, look at you two. You're so tired; do you need to take a nap?"

"As you said, mother," Rogue shrugged as she set her teacup down. There are the barest licks of white dusting her head as she turns to regard her own mother. "I've seen better days."

Irina's laughter is light, with crinkles appearing around where her eyes are supposed to be. She tips her head back and almost spills the remaining tea in her cup. Zarkova flicks her eyes to Rogue to see that she's only watching, jaw set as her eyes only showed a cross between confusion and mild amusement. When her laughter's finally died down, she grinned at them. "Come on, enough with the tough face. You look like your father when you do that. Now, tell me what happened."

06-06-18 05:13:39 PST

NRR agents have just successfully retrieved data from the COCKPIT VOICE RECORDER (CVR) and FLIGHT DATA RECORDER (FDR). Analysis of the FDR data points to potential foul play, whereas data from CVR has yet to be analyzed.

It's an early morning for the Taskforce when they convene in the naval base. Most of them have opted for their civilian attires rather than pull on their usual work attire, with many not quite awake yet. The conference room they're put into is large, with bright lights that prompt Rogue to squint just a bit. She's nursing a mug full of the strongest coffee she can find when she surveys the room, finding that Heng looks as if he was dragged out of bed in contrast to the pristinely attired I04 beside him. She's about to open her mouth to say something to Zarkova when a team of NRR agents comes into the room. A laptop is set before them, with one of them pressing a key on the keyboard to playback audio.

Rogue frowned as she listened in. With no one able to identify where the plane lifted off and where it was headed, there was no sure way for them to determine if what they'll hear today would reveal just what happened on that plane. There's a bit of static for a minute before the audio starts, a brief exchange of the pilots that doesn't sound like Russian.

"It's not Russian," Zarkova said the words for her, prompting everyone to turn towards her. Rogue tapped her flipper against the ceramic of her mug slowly as she listened in, trying to understand the bits and pieces of conversation. There were words that would drift from her understanding, sentences that don't make sense before someone pipes up from down the table.

"Serbian," They're all corrected by Brandt as they turn to her. Forest green eyes shift around them as she cleared her throat, combing a flipper through hair that's not in its usual chignon. "That's Serbian."

Cueva leaned back in his chair and steepled his flippers. "Can you translate it for us?"

"I can translate and present the whole manuscript as soon as I can," Her words are rushed, tied together by her accent. There's a flicker of opportunity in her eyes that Rogue watches carefully. "If I may."

"Go on," Cueva nodded. Zarkova and Rogue turned to each other as they realized what this meant.

"United Provinces," Rogue said, turning back to the rest of the Taskforce as she straightened. Her tapping halted as she looked around, "Brandt, can you confirm?"

There's a moment of silence. Brandt nods vigorously, "You're correct, yes. They were headed to Winsburg."

Rogue leaned back as discussions erupted amongst the men, reaching for her mug to sip at its contents. The heat curls down her throat and settles into her stomach, drawing out a sigh from her mouth as she rested her cheek against a curled up fist. Her thoughts were running a mile a minute as she considered what this meant, what the next moves would be, and if she has the time to squeeze a call to Natalia.

Six: Ashfall[edit]


WINSTON: What's the situation over there, James? I'm getting reports that you and the Taskforce have been seen flying out of Krym.

CUEVA: Brandt identified the language of the CVR data to be Serbian, so we're heading to United Provinces to get to it.

WINSTON: Run me through the whole thing. Have you already informed Director Humphrey about your arrival?

CUEVA: Of course I did. We left behind Tvarkov and Zarkova because they had a lead to follow, but the former suggested that we get a list of air traffic controller employees upon landing. We believe that they were trying to transport civilians to UP, so we think that it's a location of another stronghold.

WINSTON: Have we identified the bodies?

CUEVA: Not yet. NRR's still in the middle of doing that. I'm sure the two will have the report with them as soon as they get here.

WINSTON: I hope so. James, I'll have to inform you that some countries are expressing potential lockdown plans with all the tension that's still around.

CUEVA: The kidnapping incidents have been slowing down a bit, don't you think? They've been heavy on the propaganda lately.

WINSTON: I know, but listen to me. While your Fyodor raid didn't go unnoticed, not everyone is confident about your team's current pacing. I know it wouldn't be good to press you, but please, at least tell me you have it all hands on deck over there.

CUEVA: Athena, we're doing everything in our power to chase these extremists. I admit we're being a bit slow, but you have to have some faith in us. Do you know how hard it is to work with such little information about who you're fighting?

WINSTON: I'll inform the rest of the Council, then. You should know that we have a lot in our flippers, like the current Emperor Crisis.

CUEVA: Don't get me started. I heard a Western Union Council meeting's coming up.

WINSTON: I heard too. We've been keeping an eye on the situation.

CUEVA: Well, I ought to go. Mia says hi, by the way.

WINSTON: Greet her for me.


"So, what did she say?" Carter asked, leaning back on the plane chair. The NRR was more than willing to allow them to utilize one of their jets to get to UP as quick as possible, equipped with the latest technology that they can offer. There were hologram projectors built into the tables, with a little stash of drinks found at the side of each of them. The rest of the Taskforce was spread out around the plane, where she can see Heng and Wolfe talking about a video game whose name she couldn't quite catch, and a6 and I04 discuss something at the far back. She's counting the heads inside the plane when Cueva replies to her question.

"We need to be a bit faster," Cueva said and sighed, reaching to the side of the table to reach for a tiny bottle of iced tea. He shook it twice before twisting it open, drinking down half of it before setting it down. "The Assembly is talking about lockdown plans."

"I guess I need to personally report in just for them to be persuaded that we're going at top speed," Carter shook her head, looking up at the holograms before them. It showed them the list of demands given by the Public during their first step into the limelight, letters blaring before them in bright blue.

1. Accountability for the crimes revealed by the Theta leakages;
2. The release of all political prisoners who've been wrongfully imprisoned;
3. 10 Million Club Penguin Coins as compensation to the families of forced disapperances victims.

"We've seen this a lot, back in the day," Cueva said, looking up at the holograms and shaking his head. There's a distinct look on his face that suggests wistfulness, looking back into a time that's no longer his. His mouth tugs downwards. "When we hear a voice that was getting too loud for Maharlika's ears, we made them disappear. Sometimes we use torture, or we imprison them in one of the many black sites, or we'd shoot them somewhere in the forests. Either way, we make sure they go missing for good."

"Do you think they're using the same tactics as you used to?" She asked, prodding only slightly. The downwards tug of his mouth turns into disgust as he nodded. There's something in the way that he rubs his arms, dress shirt fabric riding up to reveal tattoos and scars, that bothers her. "Is there anything we can do to backpedal it?"

"Mia, there's nothing we can do to track them like that. Those methods are all mostly foolproof," Cueva shook his head, clasping his flippers before him and bowing his head on them. The cabin shakes with turbulence and for a brief moment, she tightens her grip on the table.

When it calms, she watches as Cueva leaned back. Carter nodded, understanding of the thoughts that run through his head. His face has been steeled, bleak as if he's facing something that isn't quite easy to take in. He swallowed thickly as he shook his head once more, a touch sorrowful as he straightened in his chair. She tilts her head, "I'll speak to Ms. Winston once we land."

The islands of the United Provinces greet them as the plane tilts. Carter looks out of the window to see the blue sea dotted by bits of land, watching as they dipped closer towards the mainland. The seatbelt sign above them glows amber as the pilot talks about landing in a few minutes, prompting only a hum from her as she took in the view before them.

During that tea break in the state-owned dacha, Irina had given them some information to work with. After digging through old records and scouring through bureaucratic papers, the plane was linked to a renting agency named Janus Aircrafts, owned by a young heir named Pyotr Braginsky. The Director was kind enough to let them borrow The Viper to get to Muscovgrad quickly, where they drove towards the agency's headquarters as soon as they touched down.

Now that Zarkova has gotten a closer look at him, he wasn't that much handsome as his file made him appear. With blood speckling his pristine white suit, the man begged for them to release him with offers of money or any aircraft in his inventory. She shook her head and set her pistol down, turning to see that Rogue was still very much invested in texting someone on her phone.

"How's the boyfriend?" She asked offhandedly, twisting her wrist slowly as she set the pistol on a table. It's pure coincidence that Janus Aircrafts just happened to be across an NRR black site, convenient for both Rogue and Zarkova to drag him into under the guise of going on a business lunch with him. The lights above them flickered just slightly as she picked up a baton from the table. It looks like the EPF-issued one that Rogue keeps with her.

"Optimistic, as per usual," Rogue said, boredom dripping into her tone. She looked up just briefly as Braginsky wailed once more for them to release him. "He's about to go out to monitor a strike that's going on downtown. He's positive that he'll get them to disperse peacefully, not like last time."

"Greet him for me," Zarkova said, watching Rogue nod before tapping out the message and pocketing her phone. She finally stood up from her chair and approached Zarkova, actively ignoring Braginsky who was probably watching their every move. She eyed the baton that Zarkova held and tilted her head. Zarkova shrugged, "It looked like something I could use."

"There's a setting for electric shocks," Rogue said, picking it up to flick a compartment along the handle. It's handed back to her with crackles of electricity coming out from the end. When Braginsky starts wailing again, Rogue turns to him. "Let me have a turn, first."

She loosened the tie around her neck, unraveling the knot and tugging it off of her. She slowly approached him while winding the tie around her fist, glare unwavering before she threw her fist forward. Zarkova looked away with disinterest, optionally ignoring Braginsky's yells and begging as she considered what to do. Her phone buzzes in her pocket and she excuses herself, stepping out of the interrogation room to answer it.

It's Alexandria. "Mama, Papa said that you're here. Are you gonna visit us?"

She blinks. Zarkova stepped away further from the interrogation room, drowning out the noise as she pressed the phone further to the side of her head. "Alexandria, dear, you should be in school."

"But are you gonna visit us?" She only remembers then that right, Alexandria gets out of school at noon. She checks the clock hanging on the wall and sees that it's a little past 1. "Svetlana and I really miss you!"

"I'm in the middle of work," Her case at the moment is severely time-sensitive, but how can she say no to her little ones when they were asking for her to come and see them? Zarkova paused as she thought of what she's to do, thinking of the younger woman that was in the other room and the autopsy reports that are waiting for them back at headquarters. Relenting, she sighed. "But I think I can visit for a quick minute."

"You're the best, Mama!" The chirp in her tone is well worth it as Zarkova smiled warmly, ending the call and pocketing the phone. She walked back into the interrogation room to find that Rogue's fist and tie were lightly dusted with crimson, and Braginsky was in the middle of a rushed babble that is clipped by deep intakes of air.

"What got him to talk?" Zarkova asked, quirking her eyebrows upwards as she listened to half of his ramble about some 12 penguins from multiple nationalities.

"Three broken ribs," Rogue said plainly as she unwinded her tie, slowly tying it around her neck once more. The wrinkles on the black fabric, combined with the blotches of darker liquid gleaming dully against the lighting, eerily gave off the impression that she was not as pristine as she appears to be. "We need to update the Taskforce. We have a Roundtable to track down."

Zarkova frowned, watching as she walked out of the room. She turned back to Braginsky to see that he's breathing shallowly, mildly wheezing as he bowed his head. There was no way that they can rush him to the hospital with the guarantee that he'd live, no guarantee that he would walk out of here without opening his mouth and blabbering to the Public. She reached for the pistol she was using earlier and studied its muzzle, seeing that blood streaked its end like sticky oil. She raised it up to him and watched as he didn't even look up, only continuing to wheeze through his pain.

She decided to end his agony for him.

06-06-18 13:17:30 PST

A civilian has identified himself to be a collaborator with the Public, and has disclosed the fact that it is lead by 12 multinational individuals called the Roundtable. No identities have been confessed by the civilian.

Director James Edward Humphrey greets them the moment they're out of immigration.

Not just Humphrey, really. There is also at least twenty agents flanking the sides that hold back eager news anchors and curious onlookers, who peer beyond agents' shoulders to see who's coming in. A clear, distinct path all the way to the doors has been made and cleared for the Taskforce, most likely done under the orders of the Snowinn director. There's a cacophony of voices around them accentuated by the flickering of cameras at work, microphones sticking out between the barricade.

"This is quite a welcome," Cueva spoke through the noise, quickly shaking Humphrey's flipper. Humphrey was a man who regarded himself highly, keeping himself relatively organized in his pinstripe suit and slicked back hair. The man was at least a decade his senior, with a scowl permanently fixed on his face. Humphrey looked beyond his shoulder at the rest of the Taskforce behind him and narrowed his eyes.

"I was not informed of any major Public movements pointing towards the UP," Humphrey gruffed, raising his brows at Cueva. He had this air of authority that moved about him that also screamed condescending power, a subtle dare for anyone to step out of line. It would be illogical, then, to be afraid of him when the man is his equivalent in terms of rank and experience. Cueva smoothened out his face to something that resembled friendliness.

"Well, we weren't informed of it either until earlier this morning," Cueva said, face kind as he clapped Humphrey in the back. The older man doesn't return the smile. "If you just sent an agent to the Taskforce, you would've been informed at an earlier time."

It's meant to be a light jab, but Cueva's sure that he took it seriously. There's a wave of something that passes over the older man's face, a flicker of annoyance paired with the barest sliver of irritation. Cueva keeps up face as he thought to himself, trying to appear as if he hasn't embarrassed himself. Humphrey only nodded slowly before tilting his head back towards the doors. "Follow me."

The crowd around them erupts in questions and flashes of lights that leave spots in Cueva's vision. There are questions thrown from all directions, microphones thrust mere inches from his face, and cameras pointing their lenses at him and the rest of his team. Carter catches up to him and tries to talk to him, only drowned by the ruckus about them. The questions get louder and further rushed at the sight of Carter, prompting Cueva to hasten his walking as they got out of the airport. There's a series of black cars waiting for them, flanked with multiple agents, who straighten at the moment they step into view. They're escorted into the cars and driven without another word, making their way into Winsburg.

Carter and Cueva were the only ones in the car save the driver and agent stationed in the front seat. It took him a moment to recognize that Carter was nudging him, so he turned to acknowledge her. She opened her mouth, "I better call Ms. Winston."

Cueva could only nod.

UAN: You're quiet, Carter.

Carter: I'm sorry, I'm just trying to recollect the day for you.

UAN: Give her a break, Ricci, the girl's been through a lot. Mia, we need you to remember what happened after the briefing.

Carter: It's funny.

UAN: What is?

Carter: The... Taskforce. Trouble keeps nipping at their ankles at every possible moment, it's as if they're doomed to fail the objective.

UAN: They did not fail, Carter.

As soon as the briefing was over, Brandt took her blessed time with unpacking her stuff from her suitcase, hanging up cargo pants in the provided hangers and storing her boots and heels at the base of the closet. The hotel that they've been ushered into had an old facade of a different age, with cream walls and green roofs over balconies guarded by black rails with golden accents. The hotel room that's given to her only had one bed, with tan covers and white pillows. The green carpeting felt soft on her feet, a certain degree of fuzzy that tingles her nerves with every bit of movement she makes. From her vantage point, she can just barely see the headquarters of the NBI to her left, and the UAN satellite office at the right. She glanced to her bed to look at her laptop, waiting for the reply of a certain agent.

See, everyone had their methods to get information, to get ahead in some form in such a way that they get an edge over who is behind everything that's going on with them. Last she heard, the NRR has been using sleeper agents as bait, and the SAD has been utilizing torture on the insurgents they've apprehended. The SSS has installed informants all over airports and ports across the Ninja Archipelago since, and the SIA has been doing crowd control in their own region. Brandt understood the reasons why these are done (hint: it's called desperation), and she has to admit that everyone is rather great at covering their tracks from Cueva or Carter, who seems oblivious to everything that everyone else seems to be doing.

Without thinking, she held up her phone and pressed the call number again, bringing it up and listening to the ringing on the other side of the line. She can forget about the phone bill that she's most likely wracking up at the moment — she was pretty sure that the good professor was currently on her lunch break. She heard the line click and straightened.

"Hello! You've reached the phone of Doctor Ilsa Lindholm. I'm sorry, I must be busy with something, but I promise to call back as soon as I can," Brandt audibly groaned, pressing her forehead against the window. The professor's breathy German lilted into her ear. "Leave a message after the beep, thank you very much!"

"Professor, it's Bra- Lydia. I just wanted to check in since I just landed in Winsburg. Things may be getting a bit... messy, but I am not cleared to tell you this over the phone. Which is, really, er, not proper in the first place, because I can't possibly consume your time like that. I'd tell you all about what's happening over coffee next time I'm there, okay?" She bit on her lip, worrying her teeth along the edges. She doesn't know how to end the message. "I'll... keep in touch."

She set the phone down and threw it over to the bed, where it bounced right next to the laptop. It chirped with a new message, prompting her to lean forward and read it. Brandt nodded slowly before switching the tabs to the Information Hub, quickly typing out a report to send to the rest of the Taskforce.

06-06-18 16:04:19 PST

SSS agent stationed in Winsburg Airport has identified potential suspects among the list of employees. Rendezvous will be in The Freezing Point, a cafe located at Old Town, Winsburg, at 1300 sharp on June 8.

Here's a little thing that comes with shapeshifting: it hurts.

At least, in her experience, it mildly hurts. When she was a little bit younger, shifting from one form to another was quick and done without thought, an effortless act that she did with ease. Shifting was what helped her become near undetectable whenever she was on missions, what helped her blend in whenever it was absolutely necessary. It's only when she got older that the pain came, a sharp tingling firing itself up or down her spine whenever she shifted her appearance into something that wasn't her standard yellow feathers and black hair. It doesn't help that the pain was constant as she tried to hold her form, especially while in battle and her mind is split with everything that's hurdling around her.

Rogue pored over the books that lined the bookcases before her, concentrating on the spines before her as a way to ignore the nagging electricity that runs behind her eyes. Nowadays, she uses the shapeshifting to retain the black of her hair, because there's something about the way agents and officers alike stare at the whites that run through them that bothers her. She would rather they focus on what she's saying, thank you very much, instead of staring at her head with a million questions in their eyes.

"Cueva, this is Wolfe. Do we have eyes on the informant?" Hidden underneath her hair was an earpiece that ran down her neck and into her coat. Rogue twitched as she stared at unfamiliar purple feathers that adorned her body, frowning when with the barest thought they'd flicker back to yellow. She shook her head and stuffed them into her pockets as she continued staring at the bookcase.

"Not yet, Wolfe. Stand by." It was decided that most of them would be deployed as on the site backup if anything goes south, with Cueva and Carter being the closest one to Brandt and her informant. Rogue looked out the window of the little bookstore they've been based in to see the elliptical land of Snowiny Square, filled with grass and trees and a constant stream of civilians that flooded its pathways. A bell tower with its massive clock rose above the square as if watching over it from the skies. Glancing back to the crowds of penguins in the square, she can just see a6 jog around the circle with their headphones on their head. "Teams, what's your status?"

"Bookstore is secure," The bookstore was a good 50 or so meters from The Freezing Point, a 15-second sprint across cobblestone and civilians should there be a need for them to run there. She skirted her eyes up to see that Zarkova was paging through one of the books, interested in its contents rather than the task at hand. "There are lots of poetry books here."

"Ooh, I should have asked to be based with you," a6 replied in a false soprano, tone light as if they weren't jogging around the square. Apparently, the flexibility that came with being androgynous for them was taking up either male or female disguises, and a6's disguise as a female jogger was almost good enough to fool her. That was, well, if she didn't know they were disguised as such. "Hey, boss — oh, sorry, Mr. Farrier, think I can regroup to be with the bookstore team?"

"Don't even think about it," I04 gritted out. The older man was stationed across The Freezing Point, right above where Wolfe and his team of snipers were keeping track of all those who neared the establishment. He brought up his cup of coffee to cover his mouth as he spoke, "Cornerstone Grind is secure."

"If any of you find The Masque of Pandora somewhere there, please get it for me," a6 asked politely, slowing from their jog just a bit to take in the bell tower towering above them. Rogue looked back towards her bookcase to look for the book in question, curious as to why the agent would want to read it. "Percy wants me to do my laps when he's sitting down and enjoying a nice cup of coffee under the shade. That's okay, only means I'll eventually outrun him with the rate I'm going."

"Madeleine, sweetie, you can keep dreaming that you'll outrun me, but we both know that it'll never happen," I04 replied, the name dripping with feigned affection and teasing. Everyone who was out in the open had to assume covers to blend in with the crowd, with Rogue and Zarkova taking up a mother and daughter trope while Carter and Cueva assumed father and daughter. It was the simplest excuse either pair could utilize without anyone questioning them. What the other two's covers were is a little bit beyond her.

The rest of the team reported their statuses after that. All of their possible exit points had an agent or two within the vicinity, with snipers on every possible location. Rogue finally found the book a6 was talking about and paged through its contents briskly, staring at yellowing pages which were dogeared here and there, some stains from old owners dotting the paper. She kept a grip on it as she made her way to the cashier and paid for the book, stuffing it inside her coat's inner compartments and next to the pistol she kept on her person.

"We have sight of the informant," Cueva finally chimed in, prompting her to pause and straighten. Her eyes lock to Zarkova's as they realized that the mission was starting. "Eyes up, Taskforce."

Her body buzzed with nervous energy as she set her cup down, staring at the back of the informant's head.

It's not like she's never been to a stakeout. She's done this multiple times while she was still working for CBN to get the latest scoop, or when she was watching soldiers have meetings about the next movements of whatever war she was covering. It's strange, then, for her to feel so anxious and jittery while watching the two converse. Maybe it's the iced tea that she's been chugging down for the past hour or the extra sweet doughnut she impulsively got from the glass display.

"Martha, easy on the iced tea," Cueva mumbled across her, twiddling his fork on the surface of the plate before him. It used to have a red velvet muffin on it, a color that eerily reminded her of Wolfe or I04, but it was now somewhere down the stomach of the older man.

It's interesting for her to consider the extent to which everyone changed their appearances just so that they are unrecognizable by the crowds surrounding them. There's been buzz that the Taskforce was in the country for reasons no one publically knows yet, and the last thing they'd want is for their covers to be blown. Whenever she looks towards the square, she can't help but wonder how no one knew that Heng could sketch and that a6 would make a convincing woman. She never thought she'd see the day that Rogue would shift her colors into something else to blend in or to even see I04 in something that isn't his usual suit and sunglasses.

"They're getting the bill," Carter straightened, squinting as she saw the informant grab the bill from the waiter. There's fidgeting that neither of them can see, and no one's quite sure who's paying as the two argued. Brandt and her informant had decided to eat while discussing, with the whole conversation bugged through Brandt's bracelet. Lynx helpfully translated the German conversation for them through their earpieces.

Carter looked up as the bell tower rang. Is it two o'clock already? It felt like forever. She listened to the bells ring just as she took in the blue sky above her, closing her eyes for a brief second to enjoy the warm weather around her.

Ding-dong, ding-dong.

The events were a bit too fast for Heng to comprehend.

See, he was in the middle of (crudely) sketching the tree across him when he heard quiet, near imperceptible cuts in the air that was telltale whistles of gunshots. It was drowned out mostly by the ringing of the bell tower as it broadcasted the time all over Old Town. He froze as civilians screamed and scrambled amongst each other, pushing and running to get away from whatever it was that happened.

He scrambles to communicate into his earpiece as he noticed a familiar body on the ground, "a6 is down!"

"We have an enemy sniper!" Brandt said into the channel, prompting him to turn towards the cafe behind him. He frowned when he saw Cueva looming above Carter, brows deepening when he saw the scatter of crimson all over the cobblestones. "Asset is down!"

"Find me that sniper!" Wolfe near growled, emerging from his spot in the rooftops. Heng was quick to make his way to a6, dragging the agent to the closest cover he could find, which just happened to be a trash can. He almost didn't catch I04 dashing across the square to appear right next to him with a syringe in his flipper. "Kowalski, where in Benny's name are you?"

"I can't be the only doctor in the world, can I?" Kowalski said, annoyance thick in his words as he sprinted across the square to get to the cafe. There are two more whistles above Heng's head that stood out over the screams of hysterical citizens, and he sees two more bodies go down.

"Just give her this- them, they'll be fine," I04 said dismissively, slipping the syringe to Heng then disappearing without another word. Heng watched as the man sprinted towards the center of the square, the inside of his right sleeve glows as he slams his flipper onto the ground, a whirlwind of fog and dust erupting from his person. The sky instantly goes gray as Heng finally turned back to injecting the serum in the agent's shoulder, trying to ignore how green it is that it almost glows.

"Clear the area of any civilians," Cueva said, tone eerily calm for someone who's tending to an injured UAN officer. a6's eyes blinked up to him lazily, a tiny frown on their face as they groaned. He tries to ignore how they seem to reflect the fog around them. "And get the injured somewhere secure. We need to find this sniper before he continues racking up numbers."

"First response is coming in," Lynx chimed in helpfully as Heng straightened, removing his gun from his waistband. He scanned the premises to see secondary agents usher out civilians, frowning when he saw a few bodies stain the cobblestone around them. It looks like their sniper isn't a picky shooter. "Do I alert them of the shooter?"

"Thank Kermit I'm not the only medical personnel here," He can almost hear the eye roll in Kowalski's tone as he raced over to the nearest civilian he can find, checking her to find that she's been shot in the foot. He dragged her behind the nearby building as whistles came through the air.

"Someone check the bell tower!" Zarkova barked, crouching over a familiar body whose purple feathers flickered away to reveal yellow. Of course, the sniper would know where another would perch. Heng could hear someone affirm her statement as he raced to the next civilian to check for their pulse. He frowns at how weak it is against his flipper.

He looks to find that I04 was already making his way to the bell tower, and watches as the first ambulances make their way into the scene. There is a paramedic that tugs him out of the way as he stands, already considering his next moves as he makes his way into the cafe. Brandt's pressing down on the chest of her informant as she looked up at him, relief in her eyes as she spoke in rushed English.

"I don't think he's going to make it."

Snowiny Square attacked by an unknown sniper, at least 12 injured including 5 Taskforce members
Reported by Liesl Portman-Crawford - Westernews | Dated June 8, 2018; 20:05:19 UPST

WINSBURG, UNITED PROVINCES - The bustling life of the Snowiny Square is broken by the sound of gunshots that go in time with the chiming of the bell tower that pronounces it to be two o'clock.

Witnesses reported that four gunshots were heard, targetting four penguins within the vicinity of the Square. Two penguins were shot down in a cafe, one of them being UAN Officer Mia Carter, one shot down in the elliptical park, and another in the cobblestone streets around the square. As pandemonium brought about a stampede within the square, several more gunshots were heard that downed 5 civilians, EPF Commander Rogue Tvarkov, MSB Deputy Head Commander Jian Liang Heng, SIA Special Agent Robert Wolfe, and Orion Director James Cueva. Taskforce members were able to clear the square of civilians before any further casualties would occur, providing first aid to those who were injured while opening up entrances for ambulances to rush in.

It remains unknown as to why the Taskforce was within the Square at the time of the attack, causing frustrations to arise from the public for endangering the square with their presence. The UAN Security Council has since then released a statement, saying: "The Taskforce has been investigating a lead that points to United Provinces, with Snowiny Square being a stakeout site for one of their penguins of interest. We strongly condemn what's happened this afternoon, but we will not be pointing out blame to anyone while investigations are ongoing. We strongly ask the Snowinn public to come forward should you know anything about the sniper."

Earlier, UP President Simon McClark voiced similar sympathies, adding that they must be patient with the advances made by the Taskforce in searching for the missing penguins taken by The Public, an extremist group based throughout the continent. "What has happened today is in every way a tragedy, but we still stand firm against these acts of aggression in our native soil. We stand behind the UAN Taskforce as they try to unravel what's happened to our missing friends and family, and hope that they found their answers while they were within the Square."

Since then, nearby residents have been leaving messages and candles along the streets of Snowiny Square, which has been closed off by the police. Pink dahlias and marigolds have been seen to be left in between the cobblestones, left by well-wishers who wish for justice for those who were injured.

I04 broke through the doors of the bell tower, looking up to take in the winding staircase that went up towards the top of the structure. The old bell tower's air was thick with mustiness, heavy with mildew and dark save for some lights that were installed along the stone walls of the tower. He turned to the side and saw that two of the guards and the tower's caretaker strewn out on the floor, stepping back when he noticed that he was stepping into their crimson. He looked towards the staircase and started making his way up the winding steps, taking them two, three at the time as he listened to the whistles of gunfire from above.

He paused from his steps when he heard singing from the top of the tower, frowning as he tried to pin where he heard that tune before. Behind him towered the glass that made up the clock of the bell tower, multicolored fragments of the window illuminating their colors on the agent. The lyrics are taken from an old theatrical play from long ago, from a different era of the country's history. He can almost see the great Shark King sing his woes of ruling over fish peasants as Walruses encircled his being. He takes the steps faster.

"Took you long enough," The sniper said, firing off one more round before turning to I04. His face is steeled as he took in the mask that stared back at him, a purple eye regarding him. He reached over to the earpiece on him and removed it, pocketing it in his coat.

"Ghin," I04 said, eyes narrowing as he moved through space between to pin the man against the ledge. His sniper rifle teeters dangerously as Ghin grinned at him, tilting his head to regard the man above him. "Who hired you?"

"Very nice, this," He doesn't know if its a sneer in his tone that grates on his nerves, or the fact that he's actually in front of him. I04 glowered at him as Ghin shrugged. "SI:9's going soft."

"I don't have the patience to even consider what you're talking about," He pressed the man further onto the ledge and considered bringing out his pistol. As if that would threaten the sniper. "Who hired you?"

"Sky blues," Ghin said, a grin flashing on his face as he regarded how blue the other man's eyes were. There's a glint of curiosity in his purple eye, "You took the blue of the skies and locked them in those eyes, boy. How rude, to think I like the afternoon weather here."

"Who hired you?" I04 repeated himself for the third time, enunciating every syllable with a his that might as well have been laced with poison. He grabbed for one of Ghin's flippers and pressed down on a pressure point, listening to his sharp inhale of breath from the latter. "We don't have time for chatter, Ghin, tell me."

"No one," Ghin shrugged once more. "I just wanted to watch you dance."

I04 frowned as he tried to understand what the sniper just said, tilting his head as he stared holes onto the man's mask. Ghin laughed before he suddenly kicked back, sending I04 back onto the floor. He's already standing and charging forward when the sniper grabs his gun and tilts out of the window, disappearing into view as he scrambled to follow him.

He grabs for the earpiece in his pocket and returned it to his ear, listening to the chatter of Brandt as she spoke, "Do we have eyes on the shooter?"

He stares down the window to see no one there, frowning as he tilted his head up. There was no way the sniper could have disappeared without anyone seeing him unless he had some form of cloaking device with him. The only thing that stared back at him was the grey of the fog he's created, prompting him to snarl and slam his fist against the ledge.

In her experience, when it comes to taking care of her agents whenever they get injured, it brings out another facet in their personality, something that's kept under layers of professionality and cloak and dagger that only reminds her how the penguins she works with are still very much mortal and alive and not just the personas they are at work. It's vulnerability and weakness in one quiet moment of privacy, something she has worked around when it comes to curing them of whatever it is that ails them. Piri's considered it to be one of the few secrets she keeps, a show of respect to the one she's taking care of.

Interesting enough, there is a stark contrast between how Rogue and Reyes tolerates being prodded. There's a tight frown on the former's face whenever she's being prodded by any form of medical instrument Piri approaches her with, a grumbling acceptance she gives into because the faster it's over with, the sooner she can go back to work. Reyes, however, shies away from anything she comes up with, often questioning what she's about to do with a sneer in his tone. Interestingly enough, his accent seems to thicken with every word he throws at her, English slurring together.

"Sit still," She already went through Reyes earlier, because Rogue was very much busy trying to remove snipers from their perches. Contrary to what the news tells them, it wasn't just five of them who were sniped down by whoever it was that fired those shots. Every sniper who was within the bell tower's shooting range was shot down by their enemy sniper, all of them considered dead save for the lucky one or two. Of course, Wolfe wasn't so happy with the situation since a lot of them were his men, and neither was Brandt, who seemed distraught by the prospect of explaining this to the Security Council. She slowly extracted the bullet from Rogue's shoulder, who was currently staring at the television screen behind Piri with quiet determination.

"Looks like a mess, boss," Reyes drawled from the recliner beside them, sucking on a cherry red lollipop that Piri handed him minutes after she finished cleaning his injuries. The healing patch on his flank stood out against the brown of his feathers. "The Council ain't gon' be happy 'bout it."

"I'm glad I'm not Cueva, then," Rogue muttered, wincing when the bullet is finally out. Piri held up the bullet against the light beside them, trying to identify the make of it before she set it down on a dish beside her. She pressed the patch on Rogue's shoulder and stepped back. "Do I get a lollipop like Reyes?"

"I don't have coffee flavored ones," Piri shook her head just as she turned, looking at the screen before them. The Westernews reporter talked about the incident from the square, a memorial behind her as she spoke. The candles flicker before the cameras and the flower petals scatter with the wind. It's a quiet show of unity. "And you can't have any coffee. It's just gonna interfere with the medicines in your body."

The three have convened at Reyes and Piri's hotel room, which was considerably larger than the one Rogue was in. It had the same cream walls and green carpeting like everyone else, except with two beds rather than one and a blur of stuff in it. Piri looked to the side to see Reyes's cowboy hat on the floor right next to where his boots lie, and the lime air freshener she brought with her sitting on the side table. Their identical RRS jackets were draped on the armrest of the recliner that Reyes was sitting on, where she's sure that one of their batons are under it. The hotel room was a blend of her and Reyes's things that she's frankly surprised that either of them can find anything in this mess.

"I don' think I 'eard the asset say anythin' earlier," Reyes said, steepling his flippers on his stomach as he turned to the other two. He's removed his beanie for the day, putting the slowly growing curls in clear view as he rubbed his flipper over it. "Just showed buncha things on 'is phone."

"We'll find out soon," Piri shook her head as Rogue's phone beeped. The woman in question flicked her phone open and stared tapped in her code, reading the content before storing it in her pocket. Piri watched as she stood and straightened, reaching over to the bedside table to switch off the television screen.

"We're being called over to Cueva's room," She said, eyes flicking between them as she shuffled to the door. "Brandt's ready to talk."

UAN: You look better than the last time you were here, agent. Are you feeling well?

a6: I feel fine, thank you for asking, Mr. Handhafi.

UAN: Let's begin. What's your relationship with Operative I04, a6?

a6: I'm his a-six-tant.

UAN: ...

a6: He'd be really glad to hear you calling him Operative, sir. He keeps grumbling about how no one in the Council or Taskforce has been calling him that.


TRANSCRIPT NAME: Taskforce emergency (?) meeting at Cueva's hotel room
Dated 08-06-2018 | Room 808, Winsburg 99

WOLFE: What do you mean there are three potential locations?

I04: There are high density heat signatures detected around Northern Mountains, Sudoku Valley, and Caspian Mountains. Any of these can hold hostages or Public extremists.

CARTER: Is there any way we can get further proof to narrow it down?

I04: Negative. The heat signatures are too clustered together to distinguish armed and unarmed elements.

WOLFE: So basically, any of those mountains could be a trap or all of them hide hostages, or they're all false alarms? How reassuring.

CUEVA: Why am I not surprised that they hide themselves in the mountains? Look, we need to decide what course of action do we make first.

CARTER: You'll have to be careful with which one you'll choose, too. We're currently taking some pretty hard blows from the press at the moment.

BRANDT: I can pursue George Smith on my own, thank you very much.

CUEVA: Absolutely not. At least bring backup with you when something goes south.

TVARKOV: I'll come with her. The rest of you can pair up to raid each of the mountains.

KOWALSKI: I am not giving my yes to any of this unless any of you tell me first who is going to be responsible for you noobs when you get injured.

CUEVA: I'll dispatch some Bellatrix squadrons for that, don't worry.

HENG: Tang's just told me that the mass teleporter is ready for deployment. We'll be fine without Tvarkov blinking about.

WOLFE: It's settled, then. Now, about those pairings...

LYNX NOTES: Scan of room completed during the course of meeting. Six listening devices were identified from the following agencies: SIA, NRR, SSS, SI:9 (2), and SAD.


WINSTON: James, I won't even begin to explain the mess we're currently sorting out with regards to the shooting.

CUEVA: Athena, I understand that it's looking rather bad in the papers-

WINSTON: Rather bad? James, I'm seeing heavy criticism from over here and little cooperation from the Snowinn public. We're hearing propaganda from these extremists that send penguins marching through the streets while the General Assembly is raising inquiries about why no one knew about the sniper in the clock tower. I can't keep covering for you in this Council when you don't produce enough information in sufficient time.

CUEVA: It was Ghin.

WINSTON: You mean that purple eyed sniper from Zhou? I thought he was already dead.

CUEVA: He isn't, Teenie. Look, I get if we need to hasten our search for the stronghold, but we've pinned it to three locations and we have a penguin of interest. We need time to confirm a location and get this man before we make any drastic moves.

WINSTON: You better. We need you to lay low for a bit and let this blow over, let us take care of the damage control. Do what you need to do.

CUEVA: Understood, Teenie.

WINSTON: That's an order.


When he wakes up from particularly rough nights, nights that bring about the past he's so carefully buried underneath paperwork and this blasted Taskforce, he's made it a habit to do some form of exercise to drown it out.

Wherever he is when it happens, whatever is the nearest and most suitable course of action, he does it as soon as he finds himself sitting up in bed. Since being put in the Taskforce for the sake of representation, he's run through cities until he's gotten himself lost, done pushups over and over until his arms refused to keep him up, and went through punching bags that creaked and wobbled on its rope after he's done his worst on it. The United Provinces can provide all of that to him if he just gets out of this blasted hotel, but since Cueva's made himself clear that they need to keep low, so be it.

He plunges into the swimming pool during the early hours of June 14, the world about him dark save for the dull lighting of lamps that line the perimeter of the pool area. The water is icy cold that it creeps into his feathers and sinks heavy into his bones, numbing out the memories of orders being yelled and mortar shells raining down on them with its high-pitched shrieks. He forgets about snipers and the forests of the Frosian Islands and only thinks of the motions of executing freestyle swimming across the water. His figure cuts through the water cleanly, as it should, forcing heavy arms to move up and guide his body across the water.

The shrinks back home call it sublimation. He calls it his workout schedule.

Wolfe doesn't know how long he's been swimming. The weight that comes with swimming in something so frigidly cold makes the time seem longer, blanking everything in his mind except the thoughts of kicking and moving his arms repeatedly. This is the pleasure he gets from exercising the nightmares away, the physical exhaustion that scrambles his brain and kicks away every thought of it. When he does decide to get out of the pool, his body is heavy with pool water and freezing against the lazy breeze that circulates the city. He almost doesn't notice Valentino and her bright pink hair sitting on one of the pool chairs.

"Sir," Valentino looked as if she hasn't had a wink of sleep, work clothes crinkled in some places that suggest she's been sitting and running around a lot. She tilted her head to the side at the weariness and scrambled look in her boss's face, but doesn't bring it up. She stands and carefully makes her way to him, holding onto a tablet in her flipper with a towel pulled over her shoulder. "Intel from the Snowinn Division."

Of course, she'd come to give him this at this time of the day. The sky above him is just beginning to become its iconic sea of blue, still a color so deep and murky that he vaguely thinks of the waves that slap against the beaches of the Islands when he was still there. He shook off the remaining droplets that still clung to his head and dripped into his eyes and took the towel that she offered to him to dry his flippers before reading the information on the screen before him. Wolfe hummed as he pored over the scout reports from the special forces division.

"Sudoku Valley, huh?" He said, raising his head to look at her. She only nodded once before he turned back to the tablet in front of him, scanning its contents quickly. He was right with the Northern and Caspian Mountains both being hubs of activity for the Public extremists, and that sending someone there was akin to sending a lamb to the slaughter. He handed back the tablet to Valentino as he straightened, wrapping the towel around his shoulders. "Inform the Taskforce about Sudoku, but don't tell them about the Mountains. We'll send the special forces their way."

"Yes, sir," Valentino went straight to work typing out the report to the information hub server, just as he passed the towel through his shoulders and over his soaking feathers and hair. The sun was just lazily beginning to shine over the city, and the sound of city life begins with a crescendo of awakening. He's about to turn towards the lobby when he hears her call for him. He pauses, turns, sees her staring carefully before she opens her mouth to speak. "There's a gym two blocks from here. I'm ready to spar anytime you call for me, sir."

He takes in the barely there frown on her face, the tiny tilt in her head, every detail telling him what she's worried over, and shakes his head. "I'll keep that in mind."

Here are some directions when it comes to getting to the UAN Satellite Office from Winsburg 99: first, you can either take the flight of stairs down to the lobby or the elevator down to the lobby. Greet whoever's at the front desk with a g'morning and a wave (the wink is optional, but recommended if it's a cute guy or girl), then step out of the double doors. Look both ways and cross the street before making your way down the sidewalk. If you feel like it, you can go on and whistle out that tune in your head, maybe add some bounce to your walk. Tip your hat at Gloria if she's in the middle of putting her fresh bread in the front glass display, you might get a warm loaf from her if she feels generous enough. Cross the street one more time before making your way towards a mostly plain office building that has the UAN insignia drilled onto a slab of black marble.

The conference rooms in the whole hallway have been repurposed as the temporary offices of the Taskforce. The EPF managed to snag one near the snack room, which just happened to be one of the first few doors in the hallway. They shared the space with the NRR, who comfortably interacted with their boss whenever possible. At the moment, they have left to go on a supply run since it was their turn to restock the snack room pantry and refrigerator. That left the three of them, four if you count Lynx, in the office by themselves.

Don't ask Reyes about how fast the pantry and fridge empty out (3-4 days), what is usually bought during a supply run (it's a long list ranging from Heng's instant ramen packs all the way to a6's rock candy), and how long it takes to find these things around Winsburg (2-3 hours, depending on traffic and availability).

It's half past noon when he's in the middle of solving a Rubik's cube, fiddling with the twistable parts and trying to make sense of what he's trying to do. He remembers when he was still in that house they cooped him up in when the experiment failed, they gave him a cube to try and solve to see if he'd know how to solve it. He did actually solve it... by throwing it across the room half an hour later. Ah well, he can at least try and see if it'll work now as he continued twisting the parts around.

"-no, I am not gonna order just a cheese pizza!"

"What do you have against cheese pizza, Perez? It's perfectly nice and light and easy on the stomach."

He perked up and turned to see his boss and Piri in the middle of an argument over what food to order. Apparently, it was their turn to order food for everyone in the Taskforce, and Piri suggested that it should be pizza and some wings. The moment Rogue suggested it to be cheese, however, all hell broke loose.

"It's plain, Rogue, and too basic. I'll get you like a slice or two of it but I'm getting the Taskforce a combo pizza," Piri shook her head as she raised her phone to her ear. Rogue glowered at her as she added, "Besides, I doubt everyone likes cheese pizza."

"Why wouldn't anyone like cheese pizza?" Rogue said, frowning. "It's the basic foundation of all pizzas out there, Perez. We could just let them customize it however they like."

"All or nothing," The way the Finipino said it made it sound more like a threat than a mere statement. The gaze the boss gives her is sharp, probably enough to turn her into ashes, or at least make her change her mind. "Now quiet down, the phone's ringing."

Reyes speaks up from his place on the couch, adjusting his seating by sitting up. His cowboy hat spills from his head and plops back onto the couch as he spoke. "Could you ask for pineapples with it?"

"No!" Both women said as one, snapping their heads to him with twin glares that make he turn back to his Rubik's cube with sudden interest.

In the distant rooms, a6 can just barely make out the sound of someone arguing over... was that pizza? They weren't quite sure since they took up a conference room at the end of the hallway, a bit far from the chatter of everyone else so that I04 can work in peace. The man in question was studying holographic images coming from the drones that flit about the three mountainous regions, a barely there frown on his face as blue eyes skittered over the pictures.

Funny, how everyone would compare I04's eyes to a sunny sky. a6 compares it to ice.

"Wolfe's sent his Snowinn Division to the Northern and Caspian Mountains to snipe down some Public extremists," The way he says those words are light, perhaps just the slightest way sarcastic if a6 listened hard enough. "And ended up with it backfiring on him."

"I'd say he moved with insufficient information, sir," a6 said, organizing the holograms before them with a few flicks of the wrist. A hologram of Lynx's protocols disappear and are replaced by SI:9 holograms, a dark green that reminds them of the syringe that was injected into them a few days ago. They fight back the chill that runs down their spine.

"Correct, a6," It's an off-hand comment.

There's silence for a moment as they study what's in front of them, trying to make sense of the information before them. If the blueprints don't lie, the concept of the mass teleporter is taken from Tvarkov's method that involves physical contact with the other passengers during teleportation. It's a one-way device that could transport at least 8-9 penguins including the wearer without overheating, over a tested 10 kilometers at any direction. The blueprints bear the signature of one Commander Tang that they're not fully aware of, as well as a note that recharging the device would take at least ten minutes.

"Sir, the President wishes to speak to you," The notification comes in a moment after they're studying the blueprints.

The answer comes quickly. "Deny it."

a6 opens their mouth to protest against saying no to the President of Munijoch of all people because I04 is so painfully stubborn that sometimes they don't know why they even work with him but shuts it after a minute of consideration. They shook their head in exasperation and dismissed the notification, sighing as they brought up the holograms of the blueprint once more. Now, would it be possible to snag these from Heng to tweak them just a bit?

"How is your modification of the songs?" a6 looked up at that. I04 is watching them steadily, blue unwavering and constant on them. They try not to shrink back at it.

"They're almost ready," They said, instinctively reaching over to fiddle with the little device they use to control the music they utilize when on the field. While most of the songs they use are for sonic incapacitation of other penguins and grizzly bears, they've been tinkering recently with variations and frequencies meant for other targets. a6 doesn't want to think of how long they've been staring at a hologram last night trying to get the sound waves to do their job. "A few more tests and they're good to go."

I04 only nods at that, turning back to look through his tasks. A sharp "No!" is heard from down the hall that a6 forgets the whole exchange, turning their head towards the direction of the voices and wondering what was going on.

Brandt had to admit that George Smith had a good sense of how to use his past time wisely as she strolled down the mall of the Belveder Courtyard in quiet awe, taking in the scenery before her. This tourist spot she walks through is old, the same paths that kings and emperors would stroll through after supper or royal children play around in during the summer. The courtyard is carefully manicured and tended to by a formidable team of gardeners and agricultural technicians, who often walk through the courtyard and speak to tourists. Brandt could only begin to comprehend how many flowers decorate the gardens when her mind reminds her why she's here at this time of the hour.

There was still an hour of sunlight left that was still scattered in the sky before it would begin sinking down the horizon. The wind blew gently, cool and gentle against her feathers, ruffling the cedar trees that line the mall and the tall hedges behind her. Lucerne flowers would peak from the hedges that make up the labyrinths behind her and tickle her hair just a bit, driving her attention away from the book before her. Brandt brushed away a stray branch of Lucerne and peaked up just to catch the man come into view.

The large, grand fountain found in the middle of the courtyard boasted of a bronze statue of dancing maidens whose faces are frozen in eternal joy. The perimeter of the fountain was decorated with patches of elderflower and benches, which were currently being used by tourists. Brandt watched as Smith looked up at the bronze maidens, dig into his coat pocket to produce a coin, flip it into the fountain, then turn and make his way out of the courtyard. She stands when he's already a few meters away from her, silently following him.

They go past the beds of phlox flowers in their multicolored multitudes and the labyrinths of hedges and Lucerne flowers, out of the very gates that greet tourists whenever they enter the historical courtyard. She stops when she watches him go down the sidewalk and into his red, beat up sedan before he makes his way down the road to disappear with a turn.

She doesn't even notice that someone was calling until her phone buzzes insistently in her pocket. She picks it up, "What is it?"

"Tvarkov is asking where you are right now," Hoffman said, background noise hinting to her that he was probably at the snack room. She can hear distinctly Heng's apprehensive Mandarin combined with the easy laughter of a6. When she checks her watch for the time, she's surprised to find that it's nearing 6 o'clock, the typical time when someone brings in food for everyone on the Taskforce. She recalls that it's Kowalski's turn to get dinner. "Because she's tired of watching Heng and a6 play table tennis and would want to discuss the plans on Smith."

Brandt only nods along as she continues listening to Hoffman drone on about how Kowalski nearly sold out the nearby branch of Veggie Emporium by getting all of their Bundish and Seaweed Salad. Wolfe complained by the time it was delivered with how atrocious it looks that he wants to cry at the sight of it, and for some reason that sparked an argument between the two men. By then Cueva had heard of what's going on and actually agreed with Wolfe (which is a shocker for everyone because Cueva and Wolfe hardly ever agree on anything) that it looks awful. It took approximately ten minutes for Zarkova to sort out the mess and made everyone begrudgingly eat what's been delivered.

"I'm on my way," Brandt said as she started making her way down the sidewalk. The UAN satellite office was a good ten minutes, maybe sixteen if she wasn't in a rush, from the Courtyard. She crossed the street and kept walking as she passed by bistros and offices, penguins and cyclists. The walk was calming. "There better be a Bundish there when I get back."

"You actually like this stuff?" The irk is clear in his tone as Brandt shook her head in fondness. "It looks like a piece of farmland put into a bowl."

"Well, at least it's better than that sad thing you call your cooking."

"Hey! I won't let you insult my mother's recipes like that," Hoffman pouted into the phone, prompting Brandt to tilt her head back and laugh. She crossed the street once more and watched as the sun began to sink, a flurry of orange and pink scattering with its descent. "You take that back, Lydia, my cooking is just fine."

"Your taste buds are terribly shot then," Brandt said and ended the call before she could hear any protests. She paused at a crossing area and flipped through her phone, seeing a text message from Professor Lindholm and reminding herself to read it once she's in the satellite office. When the light above her goes green, she walks briskly down the crossing lane with the rest of the crowd. She wounds the scarf around her neck and takes in the life of Winsburg flitting about her, wondering what it would be like if she were here for leisure and not for work.

UAN: The reports don't mention you nor Commander Tvarkov to be present with the rest of the Taskforce during the raid at Sudoku Valley.

Brandt: That's because I wasn't there, sir.

UAN: Is there any particular reason why that's the case, Agent Brandt?

Brandt: We were tracking down a penguin of interest in— I'm sorry, I can't exactly remember it clearly. Isn't this part of my report?

UAN: We know it is, agent, but we wanted to hear you say it.

Brandt: Why? What's wrong?

UAN: Your partner at the time, Tvarkov, has difficulty with remembering it. It seems the both of you have difficulty remembering it.

Brandt: Well, it'll come back eventually.

It’s half past midnight when he’s done with everything that the Council gives him to review and report on. It punches a sigh out of his chest as he leans back in his chair, eyes screwed shut while willing away spots in his vision. He’s been staring at holograms for too long, been signing off on papers and typing out reports, that his ears ring just a bit and his eyes are tired. Cueva takes a moment to take a deep breath in, listening to the jovial jazz tune that bounces around the room and the whirring of projectors.

Carter’s the one who speaks. “Ready to call it a night?”

He flicks his eyes open and turns to her, watching as she skewers herself a forkful of spaghetti. By the rules of rotation that they’ve somehow agreed upon, it was SI:9’s turn to provide dinner for today, with a6 more than ready to cook enough food to feed an army. The bright blue holograms before him illuminate the raid strategy that was finalized by Heng, I04, Kowalski, and Wolfe. Apparently, arguments over team formations can quickly be resolved by a nice, big, heaping bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.

“Is this what the kids listen to these days?” Cueva frowned as he listened to the familiar tune of the singer talking about the woes of her lover’s indecisiveness. The song brings him back to Sunday mornings when the radio stations would play nothing but that. “Or is this one of the many things about Mia Carter that I haven't seen yet?”

“Lynx likes the music I play,” Carter shrugged innocently as she set her emptied bowl of pasta down on the table before them. The younger woman had already shed her coat jacket and displaced it somewhere in the conference room they’ve taken up within the satellite office. “I just give them my mixtape and they play through it.”

“Mixtape?” Cueva chuckled at the wording, so painfully young that it reminds him of his children. He rubs his eyes one more time and blinks back exhaustion, watching as the images from the hologram dance around his vision. Make no mistake, Cueva’s familiar with the concept of all-nighters and pulling late hours just to accomplish bureaucratic paperwork that benefits no one but the politicians who breathe down their necks.

“Come on, old man, let’s get you to bed,” He had to admit that having Carter make sure that he’s still relatively taking care of himself was something that was heartwarming, kind of her to do despite the numerous auditing paperwork that she had to do on behalf of the UAN. The smile that graces her face is friendly as he waves the holograms off, watching as Lynx deactivated everything else in the room as they quietly slipped into rest mode. He wraps the scarf around his neck snuggly as he made his way out of the hallways with Carter, fitting the hat around his head as they stepped out of the station and make their way back to the hotel.

Winsburg at midnight is quiet and calm, a certain form of eerie that only manifests in cities and characterizes itself as… still. Mildly unsettling, everything dancing in the glow of amber streetlights that bounce across surfaces and casts shadows everywhere. It’s an unspoken thing that cities are always bustling with its distinct energy signature, hardly seen as anything but busy and noisy and packed. The slow and lazy stillness of the city at this time of the hour only accentuates how sleepy Cueva feels.

They enter the lobby quietly, greeting the concierge with tired smiles and fatigued glances. The staff is familiar with the whole Taskforce, never pressing with questions concerning the investigations but distracting them with chatter about the life in this part of the continent. Last he’s heard, Wolfe was rather nice enough to tolerate the bartender, and Zarkova was chatty with the main who frequently replaces her bed covers. They slip into the elevators without another word, pressing on the eighth-floor button. There’s quiet for a moment before Carter begins to speak.

“May I ask you a question?”

“Hm?” He turns to her. Carter tilts her head to him with a face that tells him that his question is heavy loaded, something he’s not sure he can answer with every ounce of political neutrality the answer should be. Cueva prides himself on his ability to sweet talk virtually every politician put in front of him, hardly even breaking a sweat with even the worst situations thrown at him. It’s funny to assume, then, that he’s all nice and proper with the rest of Taskforce when he can be just as dubious when he sweet talks the Council on a daily basis.

“You go by the orders of the UAN in managing the Taskforce but don’t extend the same strictness with the rest of the Taskforce,” That’s true. Cueva simply doesn’t totally mind what the Taskforce does in order to get what the UAN wants, so long as he doesn’t actually know what they’re doing. The method at which they obtain their information is something he will actively not question because knowing would only make sweet talking harder. “Why is that?”

He chooses his words carefully. Carter is not an easy woman to fool because she’s seen the harshness of what’s tasked to them, plainly see what goes on behind the scenes of every report Cueva writes out for the Council. She works with him day in and day out, long enough to determine what makes Cueva tick and what doesn’t.

“What the Taskforce does to do what the UAN asks us to do is not something that I worry over in particular,” The elevator doors ding and opens, and they make their way down the hallway as he spoke. “I trust them to work within the law, or at least try to cover up whatever they do lawfully.”

There’s a deep cut frown on her face. She doesn’t buy it. “Sir, you’re walking the thin line between professional and incompetent.”

“It looks like I’m walking the tightrope,” That’s what the media is calling it lately, isn’t it? He chuckled as they stopped before her hotel room door. The bronze numbers of 809 gleam back at him with a dull sort of glamor, and he doesn’t mind it as he gives her a warm smile. Her frown still remains. “Do I look incompetent to you, Ms. Carter?”

“No, “ The answer is immediate. “I just don’t understand—”

He breaks her off with a chuckle, a fond shake of his head as he bent forward. Oh, he’s tried alright. The room spins slowly and he’s about ready to teeter off to sleep but he stays there, stays to give her an answer to her question. “You’ve been working with us for weeks, and you still do not have it in your head.”

“Director Cueva.” It’s loaded with concern and a mildly placed threat.

“Ms. Carter, what the Taskforce does to get their information is not something I concern myself over simply because if I did, we’d all be stuck in an inquiry that would set us back to months and have everyone blacklisted,” Cueva shook his head. The frown remains on her face as he explains. “So long as I remain blissfully unaware of what they explicitly do, I give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing everything by the book.”

She mulls over what he says, only blinking up to him. He offers her one more smile before finally saying. “Good night, Ms. Carter.”

She disappears into her room after that, shutting the door behind her with a click. The hallway is silent enough to return the ringing in his ears, and he waits until he hears her footsteps disappear before he makes his way to his own door right next to hers.

In the months he’s been working for the EPF, he’s seen many pre-mission traditions that everyone does before they go into the field. They range from taking time aside to phone loved ones all the way to taking 12 solid hours of sleep, or eating a certain food or gripping a certain lucky object. He doesn’t have his own yet, or not one that he does regularly, but he likes watching everyone else’s little moments before they become the operatives they are in the field.

Interesting enough, both the Commander and Piri have their own pre-mission traditions that are only done between them, probably something they’ve had since their time in the Beta division. Unlike the rest of the Taskforce, Rogue wasn’t in her combat uniform but in civilian attires, since she was staying behind with Brandt to investigate George Smith. The moment Piri came in with her black RRS uniform and gun, she started.

“You’re not going out in that,” When he looks up to the Commander, her grin doesn’t match the sneer that comes with the words. There’s a smile reflected on Piri’s face that tells him that the words mean something to both of them, another pre-mission tradition that he’s about to witness. He watches with interest as Piri stood in front of Rogue, who had stood up from her chair the moment Piri appeared.

“What do you suggest then?” He can only describe Piri’s grin to be smug as she tilted her head as if challenging Rogue to say something. She regarded Piri with a severe, calculative look as if scrutinizing her uniform of any marks or tears, before finally looking at her face and giving it a good, cold stare. There’s quiet for a moment before she moves fast, slaps hard at Piri’s face and prompting Reyes’s jaw to loosen.

The laugh that comes with it is high-pitched, very Piri-like. The slap is reciprocated just as hard and Rogue joins in on the laughter. It’s Piri who pulls her into a hug that the Commander was more than happy to return. He can only watch in both confusion and amusement as he wondered what kind of context this tradition was supposed to have.

“Don’t die,” Rogue muttered just loud enough for Reyes to hear.

Piri’s laughter dies down just a bit to reply, “Give him hell.”

“Can I join in?” Lynx piped up from one of the hologram projectors, a tiny little penguin in a hoodie appearing. Reyes chuckled as the two started laughing once more, a fond shake in Rogue’s head as Piri strode over to pick up the projector.

He may not know what’s going to happen out there in the field, if anything would go wrong or if anyone would get severely injured, but his worries would go away for now as he watched this tradition unfold with easy chatter and final advice.

She couldn't sleep easily that night, tossing and turning in bed with the unease of anyone who's trying and failing to wrap their mind around something. She's been mulling Cueva's answer to her question and trying to make sense of it, as if doing so would grant her the sweet release of rest that she so desperately needs to survive another day with the Taskforce. Contrary to what she's assumed of him, he was not the diplomatic and rule-bound man he appears to be, but rather one who purposefully turns a blind eye to rule implementation for the sake of getting the job done.

She's a bit bleary-eyed and not quite awake when someone sets down a cup of coffee in front of her, prompting her to jump and turn up. The familiar, bright smile of a6 shines down on her as if the agent is about to ask her out for coffee and not leave to go on a raid in the Sudoku mountains.

"You don't look yourself, Ms. Carter," Ever so friendly. The agent's suit is impeccable as always, clean and black with no wrinkles in sight. She doesn't want to know how much lint they have to clean off of it. "Some coffee could help with the drowsiness."

It takes her a moment to formulate a statement, "a6, I thought I told you to call me Mia."

"Oh! I forgot, I'm sorry," The laughter that comes out of their mouth at that is nervous, mildly awkward. She notices the small book held in their flipper and tilts her head in curiosity, finding the title of it familiar. Where has she heard it before? They caught on with what she's staring at. "Well, Mia, would you mind keeping an eye on this book for me?"

She gently takes it from their flippers and stares at the golden lettering on the cover, reading out The Masque of Pandora mentally. Carter remembers then that this was the book that a6 wanted someone to get in the bookstore. "May I?"

"Sure! Of course," a6 kept shifting on their feet as Carter began to page through the book, frowning at the clear speckles of crimson that lined the tops and sides of every page. It seeped through the fibers and stained the printed ink, just like the rings and spots of coffee that dotted the other pages. She frowned at the clear age of the book. Some pages were even held together by tape and stitches. "Tvarkov found it in the bookstore. It's not in English, but I know more than English."

"Why would you want something like this when it's in this... condition?" She picked her words carefully, turning to look up at a6 once more. The smile on their face does not reach their stormy grays. She pretends not to be bothered. "Not that I don't like second hand books, no, I just-"

"I like knowing that there was someone before me who loved the book and read it," a6 shrugged. Somewhere in the background, she hears Heng call for a fall in for everyone who was going to raid the mountains. The agent snaps their head up at the sound as they continued to speak. "New books are fine with me, but I prefer something with history."

"a6," I04 appeared at the door, frown clear on his face as he watched the two. The smile on the latter's face is apologetic, shy as they patted the book cover in farewell and grinned one more time at Carter.

"I should go," They disappear like that, following their superior out of the door. Carter turned back to the book before her and paged through its contents, reading the unfamiliar garble of words before she finds flower petals spilling down one page, pressed down by the book's pressure and bright against the yellowing pages. She picked up one fragile, wilting flower and brought it up to the light, observing the veins that ran through it with interest.

They were poppies.

The hallway is quiet without everyone rushing about it.

Brandt looked around the hallway slowly, taking in the emptied rooms that were cluttered with hologram projectors and papers. There was uniforms left haphazardly on surfaces, different insignias emblazoned on jacket sleeves and trousers and helmets. The UAN logo strikes out among the rest, a golden set of laurel leaves and mainland Antarctica's outline standing out as a band of blue on uniforms.

She finds Carter in the middle of manning the operation from her conference room, a shared one that she keeps with Director Cueva. He was out on the field with the rest of the team, having decided to take part in the action and charge headfirst into battle. Carter wasn't amused with this, as she recalls her berating the older man with soft words of caution that were worded to sound like a scolding. She didn't notice Brandt now as she was absorbed with all the information she is looking at, staring down holograms of bright blue and assisted only by Lynx.

Tvarkov's in her own conference room, down the hallway and nearing the intersection that connects their little offices to the rest of the satellite office. She's in civilian attires in a big, bulky looking bomber jacket and a blue shirt. She looks up when Brandt comes in and only gives her a look, tilting her head with a question neither are interested in wording.

"Inform Carter that we'll go out," It's not an order, nor a request. It doesn't carry the usual superior tone that comes with being the Commander of an EPF specialist division, but rather a nonchalance of a flimsy statement. It's casual and neutral that Brandt wants to know what's going through her head. "Who's driving?"

Brandt tilts her head and frowns, "I'm driving."

"Right," Rogue turned back to her own set of holograms, staring down at the bright blues as if challenging them to answer her. Brandt strides into the room to read the letters closer, only noticing the tablet next to the other woman displaying a keypad connected to one of the projectors.


- main modus operandi involves kidnapping civilians in broad daylight or night, peak time around 1300-1500
- demands 10 Million CPC, accountability, release of political prisoners
- members are made up of ex-militants, former activists, penguins presumed missing or dead for the pass five years
- some of them are formerly affiliated with known terrorist groups
- may or may not know how to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mainly pressure cooker bombs
- lead by a 12-penguin council called the Roundtable, each from different countries

"They're good at keeping their secrets," Brandt turned to Tvarkov, whose eyes still remained on the displayed holograms before her. She can only watch as her hair flickered for a moment to switch to a dark red, shortening itself into a bob. There's a flicker of pain in those features. "Not much to work on, don't you think?"

There have been rumors of Tvarkov being capable of shifting her appearing into something besides her usual yellow feathers and black hair, but she never thought she'd see it in reality. Brandt remembers a time when her handlers would compare her to her, egg her on with the prospect of never being able to outdo naturally endowed talent with her hard work. She wills away the thought, "We'll learn more when we get there."

Tvarkov nodded, finally shaking her head to let herself get used to the sensation. They're out of the door and quickly turning down the hallway without another word, shoulders bumping each other as they ignored Carter's questions of where they were going.

Well, thought Brandt as they neared the elevators of the satellite office. She didn't really need to know.

UAN: Are you saying you bypassed the recharging time without the device overheating and damaging itself?

I04: In simple English, indeed.

UAN: I have never heard of technology capable enough to do such a thing.

I04: You haven't been to Munijoch enough then.

Cueva told them a story while they were trekking their way up the mountains, closing in on the location of the cave they'll be raiding. It was about how activists hid in the mountains in his country during the times of martial law, plotting their protests in peace where the authorities cannot find them. It was harder to find penguins in the mountains anyways, what with all the rocks and trees in the way and the darkness that enshrouds every part of the forest unless you look hard enough. It's interesting to him in anything besides his usual prim and proper suit and tie, now wearing a black uniform with a reflective patch bearing the Orion constellation in clear view.

They're quiet when they're already within sight of the cave's perimeter. There were guards there that was in the middle of having lunch, chattering easily as they bonded over something Heng could not understand. He lines up a shot to the security camera behind the group as he pressed the earpiece on his ear.

"Locked on target," He said, keeping his rifle still as he waited everybody else to confirm a shot at the guards or a camera. Zarkova has already secured the second camera right across the one he was aiming at, and Cueva has eyes on the guard who was holding a sandwich. He can see the barely there dot of red that hovers over several of the guards before he hears the confirmation, and pulls the trigger just in time with 7 other agents.

They go down like dominoes.

"Go! Go! Go!" It's a rush of movement after that, agents surging into the doors and quickly firing at extremists who rush to counter them. Heng lifts up a flipper to make sure his earpieces are intact before he hears the start of music that a6 has began playing the moment they broke into the cave.

Thank goodness for NRR tech otherwise he'd be having another wave of tinnitus. Heng shivered at the thought as he continued firing down insurgents. There are orders being yelled that someone is pinned in one corridor. He hears a yell and sees a blur that he presumes is Reyes charging in to help.

"I have sight of hostages!" Cueva yelled into the channel, gunfire loud on his side of the line. Resistance must be heavy where he's at, and Heng flicks on his data screen to check where the man was at. Interesting, Cueva's a few hallways from him. "Does anyone copy?"

"I copy," Heng said as he shot one more insurgent before running forward, nodding his head along to the music that was playing. He'll have to admit, a6's taste in music isn't so bad, though he would rather listen to electronic pop than what the agent was playing. He stepped over writhing insurgents as he raced to where Cueva was, dodging gunfire as it flew past him.

He finds himself in the hallway where Cueva is and narrowly avoids a bullet that flies past his head. He ducks and sees the group of agents who are trapped in this hallway with him, crawling over a body that laid out on the floor. Kowalski is next to him as he presses his back against the wall, giving him a once over as the doctor took out a grenade.

"This should do the trick," Kowalski said, taking out the pin and throwing it over his head. There's a yell of acknowledgment before the world becomes white, knocking Heng back as he groaned and tried to right himself. There's white noise ringing in his ears and he wonders, for just a second, if he's going to have another bout of tinnitus thanks to the doctor.

The world is spinning slowly as he quietly curses Kowalski for forgetting that they were in an enclosed space. The music comes back slowly, distantly, ringing still prominent over the sounds of gunfire and screams.

The Belveder Courtyard is known to be a hotspot for anyone who visited the capital of the United Provinces, beautiful with its own form of antique beauty and dazzling flora. Every leaf and petal that they've seen by far has just been touched by the barest sprinkle of a gardener's hose, and the grounds littered with fallen branches and flowers that would later be swept away. The building that overlooked it housed a gallery that was just as popular, filled with paintings and sculptures from a different era of history. Rogue peered closer at the golden portrait before her, trying to make sense of just how much work was put into making this masterpiece.

"How sure are you that he will be here shortly?" Her German is inflexible on her tongue, sharp against syllables and slapping around her teeth. It's rusty from disuse, but it will have to do. Brandt stepped closer to her and tried to appear as if they were together. "Adele-"

"Amelia," In comparison to her, Brandt's German was unsurprisingly smooth and impeccable. On the field, Brandt acts as if she were a fussing girlfriend who takes into account every tiny detail about her partner. Rogue doesn't know if she should be uncomfortable with the gesture or convinced that the SSS agent might actually care for her. With a quick turn, she's regarded by the shorter woman, who clicked her tongue and straightened her scarf. "The wind must have blown it askew. Here, let me fix it."

"Adele," She tries again, curling her tongue around the syllables in an attempt to pronounce every letter. She scans the gallery to find a bored looking crowd of teenagers, an elderly couple who were looking at a sculpture, and two guards by the door. None of them were George Smith. "Where is that man? He can't possibly be late."

"He comes earlier when it's a Saturday so he can look at the paintings," Brandt explains quickly, almost too fast for her to understand as her flippers wounded her scarf to something that looked less messier than what it was earlier. The touch is warm against her skin, and she almost thinks of a familiar set of red feathers that she almost doesn't hear Brandt's next words. "I should know. I see him here all the time. 4 o'clock, just like clockwork."

Rogue hummed. She's surrounded by art that she knows would make Joshua squeal if she brought him here, and she considers taking pictures just to send them to him. He does deserve, after all, a reward for taking care of her little girl as soon as he was out of classes. Golden touched portraits looked down at her with proud eyes that she almost wishes her brother was here to explain them to her.

"Eyes up, sunshine," She's snapping her head up to look at the entrance to see a man in work clothes entering the gallery. Like her partner, George Smith had blue feathers and hair that looks like it's been pulled through, and his face is relaxed and smiling as the guards greeted him. He turns away from them and begins observing the sculptures in his part of the gallery, in clear sight for the two women to get him.

"I have eyes on the target." Rogue murmured just as Brandt finally removed her flippers from her scarf, feathers still warm where she's left her touch.

There's a difference between hearing about the hostages being found and seeing them when you barge into the hallway. The two different acts carry two separate emotions, complex little things that Cueva isn't sure he can settle with himself without pausing to take a deep, heavy breath in. He remembers a time when he was on the opposite side of this argument, when he was the one who made them disappear and not the one who pulled them out of the metaphorical magician hat.

They're in the same conditions as they found those children in Fyodor all those weeks ago: malnourished, dehydrated, tired. Relieved to see them. There's a dull gleam in their eyes that brighten just slightly at the sight of him, and he doesn't know what to feel about the thought. It takes him everything in his power not to break open the doors and instead speak into his channel, "Lynx, I'll need you to open up these cells for me."

The AI chirps into his earpiece, a quiet affirmative that only tells him that they're busy with something else. The lights go green and metal doors are swung open, and a rush of civilians are soon surrounding him in multiple languages he cannot understand. He's almost knocked down when he presses his back against cold steel bars, mind spinning for just a sec as he realized, wait, how on earth is it guaranteed that these devices would safely transport these slightly unstable, most probably ill, victims?

"Transporting civilians!" Heng already has the answer for them. Since the fluke with the sonic grenade, they were all quickly taken care of by Perez, the secondary agent Rogue sent in to replace her. He almost forgot that the Perez family is a registered Magic user until she held up golden emblazoned cards and quickly flicked magic to fix their senses.

Cueva turned to the first group civilians before him and calls forward for them, trying to calm them down despite the sharp gunfire in the far off distance. There were still agents out there trying to hold back the insurgents from storming back in to retake the cells. He's almost glad that there's only one entrance and exit. He's not sure they speak English or understand it just as well as he does, but he tries. "Let's just... hold on..."

They link flippers just as he tapped the commands into the number pad on his wrist, putting down the exact coordinates everyone was made to memorize. Teleporting is a weird, interesting phenomenon involving the tightness in his chest and hurdling at the speed of light. He's dizzy with the rush of light around him that he shuts his eyes close, tries to grip tighter in fear of a loose grip would let one of them go.

The moment they touch down at the camp they've made five miles from the cave entrance, the civilian next to him stagger forward and vomits on his boots.

Lynx has been acting rather weird since the start of the raid, Carter thought.

Just the occasional sluggishness or glitch, a frequent flicker in the holograms. At first, Carter didn't pay attention, perhaps the AI's short attention span is currently being stretched by everyone who needs them until the glitches frequent and sometimes the AI gave the wrong answer to her questions or presented the wrong information for her.

"Really, Lynx, are you okay?" The concern is thick in her words, frown etched on her face. She quietly dismissed the flickering holograms of vital signs before her to focus on the tiny projection of a penguin in a hoodie that flickered every now and then. The persona that Lynx crafted themselves to be was adorable, with bright blue eyes and bright blue feathers like most of their holograms. The frown on their face, however, wasn't so cute. "I could ask someone to look into you-"

"No! No, I'm fine. I'm fine," The AI insisted, their pitch a little bit above the usual one they keep up. The frown is switched out for a pout as Lynx glowered at her, plopping down on the surface of the table with an artificial thump. She'll have to give it to the AI for being a little bit extra with appearing as if they were an actual penguin: the lengths they go to even put little sound effects at their very gestures just make them look more innocent than they really are. "I can fix myself just fine."

"Lynx, don't make me call for Felix again," Rogue chimed in on the channel. Right, she forgot they were there. She scrambled to straighten herself as if the agent was right in front of her.

"Commander, don't you dare-!" The flickers harshen. There's a wince from the little Lynx projection as they flickered harshly in and out of existence. Was she dreaming or did the little guy actually sneeze and sniffle? "It's just a little virus, that's all."

"You might need booster updates-"

"Commander!" The AI squeaks. There are suddenly gunshots in Rogue's side of the line before the commander goes silent once more. Carter straightens and scrambles to find out what just happened, eyes glazing over the holographic map of Winsburg and Sudoku Valley filled with earpiece trackers that they kept to keep track of all of the Taskforce members. She cursed when she could find neither Rogue nor Brandt on the map.

The guards already blocked the entrance when Smith just slipped out at the last chance with a crowd of panicked tourists. Brandt cursed as she removed the beanie in her head in frustration, blonde hair spilling out as her earpiece unclipped itself in the process. She charged forward towards the entrance to hiss quickly at the guards. "Let me through!"

"There's been a shooting, ma'am, may we request you to stay inside-"

"Brandt, we lack time for this." Tvarkov said as she appeared next to the SSS agent, already knowing that they've been denied exit from the gallery. The guards look at them warily as if they're witnessing something that isn't quite right, and Brandt is half tempted to wave her badge at them to see how they'd react. The taller woman's grabbing her by the coat sleeve and teleporting them out of the courtyard without another word.

In her experience, teleporting has always been about tight, near claustrophobic conditions that were faster than she could ever comprehend with lights zooming around her in the blink of an eye. It always warranted dizzy spells, nausea, maybe her last meal spilling out of her mouth should the distance be achieved too quickly for her stomach to understand. Teleporting under the grip of Tvarkov, however, was a little more concentrated and more like the whole world around her melting away and building itself back together into a different place altogether.

"Oh, he's fast," Nonchalant. They both look down the sidewalk to see the familiar figure of Smith pushing and running past civilians who only watch him with a mix of ire and surprise. Brandt's first instinct is to look for a two-wheeled vehicle to legally steal and- oh, a moped. That's not so bad. She rushed forward and hopped on the vehicle, quickly grabbing a small set of picks to get the thing to start up. She almost doesn't notice Tvarkov dash past her to go after Smith.

The moment she got the motor running, she returned the picks in her pocket. She rummages through them to find the beanie she's removed in her earlier rush, locating her earpiece and settling it back in her ear. The low ping that sounded from it indicated that it activated itself once more as she started the moped and sped forward.

"Finally decided to tune back in with us, Brandt?" The exasperation is clear in Carter's tone as she zoomed through the streets of Winsburg, looking both ways to wonder where on earth her partner went. "Is Rogue with you or-"

There's a flicker on the other side of the line. Brandt frowned at the glitch as she turned down a street, slowing down just a bit as she noticed the view to her side. Her brain's split between wondering what the glitch was about and the park before her, awe on her face with the landscaping. She's almost distracted by the Brant Esser Square as she passed by it, tall trees shading civilians as they walked around the park with clear tranquility. She almost misses scuffle of familiar blue feathers being tailed by a set of yellow ones. She slows down just a bit, "Lynx, can you tell me anything about George Smith's physical activities recently?"

"Well," The AI sneezed? Do AIs even sneeze? Lynx mumbled something she didn't quite catch as she turned down a corner to try meeting Smith and Tvarkov. "He has been training for a marathon recently."


She quickly concludes that he's been doing a lot of speed and stamina training, which isn't so bad since she hasn't met anyone who can outrun a vehicle that's running under the lawful speed limit. She turned down a corner and almost tipped herself over as she narrowly avoided an incoming car, ignoring the long honk that came her way and a colorful variety of words in Serbian as she continued down her path.

Carter is insistent in her ear, "Is Rogue with you, agent?"

"No, she's on foot," Brandt shook her head when she realized she's lost sight of Tvarkov, puttering to a stop in the fork. She set a foot down to steady herself as she looked both ways, frowning in thought as she silently cursed her partner for not wearing her earpiece. There were two paths the pair could have possibly gone: down the left path that leads to the back of the Palace of the Republic, or straight ahead and towards the Birty River, which ran along the northern parts of Winsburg. "Lynx, I placed a tracker on Tvarkov's scarf."

"I found her," The AI sniffed in response, with Carter's rushed movements clearly heard in the background as she ordered something on the other side of the line. Brandt can faintly make out Heng talking into a separate channel with the barest hint of gunfire nipping at his very words, and she could have sworn she heard the UAN officer place a strongly worded reminder to them before the AI piped up. "Take a left."

Brandt revved the engine and turned down the path. She sees the back of the Palace of the Republic gleam with its clean white exterior and a sea of windows that shone against the sunlight. She could see government officials, employees, personnel mill about the back gardens and the offices behind wrought iron gates. She looks ahead and to the sidewalk and catches the familiar yellow feathers quickly turn right.

Her mind is focused on catching up to her when the earpiece glitches once more, sharp feedback making her almost wobble on the moped. With the sudden error, an upbeat tune played in her earpiece as she slowed to the sidewalk to grab her partner by the jacket sleeve and haul her onto the moped.

"I'm sorry! Lynx has been glitchy," Carter is apologetic as Brandt heard holograms being brought up in her side of the line. Tvarkov has a few choice words for Brandt that she actively ignores as they turn down the road to stop at multiple intersections, watching as Smith kept sprinting through pedestrian lanes and sidewalks. In a different situation, Brandt would have commented on how fast the man was covering those meters of distance between them. He could have almost passed the SSS entrance exam with that speed. Almost. "But this is a bop."

"What's a bop?" Tvarkov wondered out loud as they waited impatiently for the light to go green. The heat of the other cars around them reach them in strong waves, and she just barely loosens the scarf wrapped around her neck. Brandt slowly tapped the bike handle as she watched the numbers tick down slowly, bright red sluggishly ticking downwards. It's too slow for her tastes.

She hears the question and tries to remember the slang her younger sister uses in her text messages, everything that she's caught on with while being on social media. In between missions, when she's home with her mother and sister, her sister would keep trying to get her to watch these weird 10-second clips that are supposed to be funny. Sometimes they'd be sitting down to watch sitcoms she doesn't even find entertaining. Brandt shook her head in exasperation and revved the engine one more time, "I'm not exactly well aware of pop culture."

"Don't feel bad, the Commander ain't either," Lynx mumbled helpfully with a protest of "hey!" from Tvarkov.

"You could have shot him down, or at least teleported to him," Brandt muttered as the light finally went green, prompting her to speed forward and towards the next stop sign, to her frustrations. There are a lot of things in this world that can annoy Brandt, but uncoordinated intersection traffic systems are currently somewhere in the upper parts of her list.

"I can't teleport to penguins," Tvarkov informed her lightly, breath tickling her neck as Brandt shook her head in exasperation. She did her research on the Ruscan agent, knew her for years with every jeer and comment that her handlers would make. Brandt has built herself to be a formidable opponent, someone who can go toe-to-toe with the Ruscan family when the time comes for her to fight one. She's never imagined the day she'd actually work with a Tvarkov but alas, times are changing and circumstances lead to this. She doesn't know if she should be amused or frustrated with how ordinary this one may appear. "And every time I do, he's already a few inches away."

Brandt snarled, "Then teleport ahead of him!"

"Easier said than done," Tvarkov shook her head. Or at least, Brandt can feel her shake her head. "Listen, just let the woman have her plot device."

Brandt snapped her head back to look at Tvarkov, a clear frown in her features. The face that stares back at her is bored, as if she can tell where this was going and how it would unfold. She doesn't even know what woman she's talking about, or what plot device she's speaking of. "What?"

Then the boredom is replaced by urgency, clear surprise. "Green light, green light!"

UAN: You're saying you and the Taskforce walked into a nest full of Public insurgents?

Wolfe: Basically.

UAN: And this wasn't identified by scouts and drones?

Wolfe: Thick mountains, sir. Not my fault they were all too clustered together to identify.

UAN: Well, do you have anything to say about it?

Wolfe: Oh, you poor and oblivious Security Council. Ammunition isn't exactly unlimited now, is it? Otherwise, we wouldn't be spending so much of our hard earned taxes on them.

The firefight has lasted for about three hours now.

The social workers five miles away from the conflict has just confirmed that at least 100 victims are currently in their care by the time they start running low on ammunition, which would have been nice if not for the fact that son of a biscuit, how many of these scrubs are in this cave?

"We're getting rather low on options, Wolfe," Kowalski informed him, exhaustion and exasperation thick in his tone as he loosened the straps of the bulletproof vest he's worn for the occasion. His blue feathers were speckled with blood and grime from the battle, dust spotting bits of his beak. He doesn't ask whose blood is on those flippers. "And well, we can't exactly let the kid play their playlist until the insurgents realize earmuffs can work."

"Do any of you have anything?" He turns to the rest of the team around him, and the agents shake their heads in weariness. They've been keeping up a steady rotation of agents who can teleport civilians out of the way, swapping out two or more penguins every ten minutes every time someone confirmed that their teleporters are all charged up and ready to go. The teleporter on his wrist burns just slightly from its core being overworked by constant teleportation in and out of this cave. He tries to soothe the feathers underneath the strap with a few oddly placed scratches. "Cueva, what's it like over there?"

"Wrangling up stragglers. Brandt just confirmed capture of Smith." Great, so they're almost done with this mess. Wolfe yelled out orders to fall back just a bit as they secured the entrance to the cells, inching back and trying to avoid gunfire as they aimed and struck insurgents down with what's left of their bullets. He turns back to see Cueva peak just quickly to roll an amber canister down the hallway, watching as it instantly shot out an equally amber field that separated their side of the hallway from the insurgents. It takes him a moment to realize that he's looking at a forcefield.

"Clear out and get to the extraction point, team!"

They scrambled back as the forcefield took fire, running into the entrance as the last of the civilians are teleported out. Wolfe's turning to see an agent announce that their ten minutes are up, watching as many approached them to link arms with the agent and get out of sight. He looks around to quickly check if there is anyone else to teleport out, catching Heng soothe a few children before they disappear from view.

The forcefield finally goes down and insurgents rush in. Wolfe is running farther into the labyrinth of cells when gunfire erupts, curses as he feels a gunshot rip through his sleeve, quickly shielding himself as he scurried down the pathways. There are agents who disappear from sight while they clutch injured body parts, clear pain in their features before they blip out of the cave. He hears Reyes yell for Perez before there's a slam of a sonic wave pushing him back, making him hit his head on steel bars before everything went black.

"Perez! Quit foolin' around and c'mere, we're getting outta here!"

The thing with Reyes that she always finds interesting is how he has a Southern accent when he's not from those regions, not at all. Was it the younger agent's fixation on the concept of cowboys and gunslinging or something else that prompted him to have such a drawl around his words? Piri shook her head at the thought as she jumped over cells where civilians used to be imprisoned in, looking for stragglers to redirect to the rest of the Taskforce just in case they missed someone. She pulls a flipper back to check that her mask is still securely knotted back on her head, nodding to herself as she looked around once more.

She hears the barely there whimper and sees a child, immediately swooping down to soothe him, mumbling in her native language to coax the child out of his corner of the cell. Her mother used to do that to her during a lengthy thunderstorm, mumbling out words of comfort in their language and pulling her close to count the lightning strikes away. The child seems to trust her as she's gently guiding him out when she hears gunshots from the entrance, turning and quickly nudging the child back down the hallway and yelling for Heng to meet him down the end.

She's back at the tops of the cells before she even thinks of it. She watches as agents take fire before they blink out of sight, pain clear in their faces as they disappear from view. Piri looks through her remaining cards and curses at how most of them have been depleted of their energy since she's repurposed most of them to quickly heal or speed up the recharging of her own teleporter's core. She gave her own teleporter to an agent earlier when his was damaged by a gunshot, so she only had Reyes as her ride out of here. The gunshots escalate as she finally finds the one she has never thought of using, taking a deep breath as she took in the golden, iridescent pattern that decorated its back with grand swirls and symmetrical arches.

Level 13 power cards don't technically exist, not in practice. These power cards are simply not made for dojo training grounds but for combat, a calamity to unleash in a battlefield should the situation warrant it. It requires a specific amount of magic, a specific concentration of fire, to wave off the seal and unleash the energy that's inside this card. Level 13 power cards are held in a high honor as something that is never used for anything but to cause destruction, so such usage of them is so rare that they're believed to be nonexistent. The fire card she holds in her flipper is something that's been gifted to her by her parents, something she's been told she may never use unless absolutely necessary.

Right now was what she defined as absolutely necessary.

So she charges forward, tries to summon enough power to remove the stamp of this one. Summoning power to her own self is much like summoning down magic from the Pectoshphere for the purpose of storing them in cards, except she is the card and the magic is flowing through her. She feels as if she's on fire, a little bit weightless, for the briefest moment invincible to whatever would happen to her. Piri jumps from the top of the cells and finally wills her energy into her flippers to remove the stamp, vaguely hearing Reyes call for her name before she slams the card in front of the wave of insurgents.

The effect is instantaneous. The sonic wave of power she produces knocks everyone away from her as the iridescent pattern dulled into a golden sheen, finality clear in its design. There's magic running through her blood and gnawing up her energy, but she ignores it as she tilts her head up and watches as the sky above her turns black. Ash clouds, strong and rumbling with volcanic thunder and lightning loom above her and howl eerily after being kept in the card for so long. It rains lava above her as she moves quickly, past agents who make their hasty exits as she grabs Wolfe and yells at Reyes to get them out of here. He grabs her by the scruff of her RRS jacket before they're teleporting out of the room, leaving the insurgents and the card behind as the clouds brought their fury down in the cave.

Thank Benny for Gray Areas.

Since capturing George Smith and knocking him out faster than he could comprehend, Rogue teleported them back to the Courtyard to find that police cars surrounded the entrances. Her world is spinning just slowly as they hauled the man's unconscious body two blocks from the courtyard to get him in the car, letting Brandt drive them towards the Gray Area they agreed to put him in.

She remembers the strict orders of the doctors in Rusca after the Fyodor raid: reduce how often she teleports and the distance that she covers, and don't try to do so many in such a short time frame. Then again, though, since when did she follow the orders of a doctor as if it were the law? Rogue shook her head as she sat down on the couch, running a flipper down her face as the other rummaged through her pockets to find the small bottle of pills that the Ruscan doctors supplied her with.

Rogue's popped them in her mouth when Brandt came into view, leaning against the doorway as she watched. There's a pinched, tight frown on her face as she stared at the bottle that Rogue was holding, and she's waiting for the question about the medications when Brandt tells her something else, "He should be awake soon. Do you have any questions for him?"

That wasn't the question she was expecting. She swallowed down the pills dryly, "You can go ahead and take a crack at him, Brandt."

"You're acting rather light, Tvarkov," She's not surprised with the suspicion because she has been rather light lately. Since Fyodor and everything that happened in it, all the prodding and tests that were conducted to make sure she did not damage her own DNA into something incomprehensible and irreversible while hauling herself across distances, she has been feeling a bit less like herself. The memories of what's happened before are more prominent now, and she sleeps a little deeper than usual with dreams of running through that little village going through her head night after night. There are times when she's spacing out more often than usual, getting lost mid-sentence before continuing her train of thought, brain too scrambled with something that isn't right. Since then she's been taking lighter assignments, stayed in the offices a bit longer, tried to reduce her work in the field because okay, maybe there is something wrong with her at the moment.

Oh, Joshua would be more than amused to find out she's finally taking care of herself.

She lies to cover up the problem and stores away the bottle of pills before Brandt can bring it up. "I just read your file, that's all."

Well, it's not totally a lie. There's a reason why Lydia Brandt has the call sign of "Strings" within the Snoss agency, usually uttered with a smirk or a whimper depending on who is saying it. She's never met anyone who was this efficient in extracting information through interrogation, nor someone who is capable of knowing every tell and twitch that pointed towards important information or not. Rogue was impressed to see the quick, impeccable methods of torture that Brandt uses whenever she's in the room, sees the usefulness of those forest green eyes when they narrow down at their target. The numerous accounts she's read and the little footage she saw was more than enough for her to know that Brandt was more than willing to pull at the strings of everyone, push every single button, just to get what she needs to know.

It scares her for just the briefest second how Brandt sounds very much like her. The agent in question tilted her head and doesn't say a word, before her eyes drift to the windows behind them and frowns. "What is that?"

Rogue turns. Black, billowing clouds loom above the horizon, crackling with blue lightning that she knows is nowhere near natural. They both move towards the windows and watch as penguins below them stop and point as the thunder gets louder and oh, there is the rain. It doesn't look like rain.

"Unusual rain," Brandt remarked next to her as the clouds scatter overhead, darkening the blue sky as they crossed its never-ending sea. Rogue narrows her eyes at what falls from them and sees ashes, falling down like snow would, gray and heavy, sticking to surfaces and darkening the world around them. It's unnatural, since she doesn't recall any volcanic activity happening within the region, and tries to scramble her thoughts to something that could possibly explain what is going on before them.

The gears click together when she remembers Piri. Rogue finally caught up with her own brain to speak. "That's not rain."

Seven: Room for Negotiation[edit]


RICCI: It seems as if whenever we make any progress with this case, we get an international incident.

LIVINGSTONE: Oh, give the chaps some space, Ricci. They did their job out there, didn't they? We got the hostages — 154 of them in fact — and managed to wipe out some rebels. You know they didn't mean it.

RICCI: Wh- didn't mean to unleash a Card-Jitsu card that's created national levels of destruction? Janketić, remind us again how many have been hospitalized due to the ashfall.

JANKETIĆ: Around 80. It's mostly just inhalation of the ash, nothing too serious.

VARGAS: Did we even know that this... Finipino was supposed to be there in the first place with this card in her possession?

HANDHAFI: Well, it does say here that she's registered under the Finipino Office of Magical Affairs. The card is registered and... you know, Livingstone is correct. She didn't mean to do such a thing.

WINSTON: Whether it was intentional or not, we will not let it deter us from what has happened. We are going to celebrate the rescue of 154 civilians from illegal detainment and continue to condemn The Public for their moves to kidnap those we love in their advocacy for accountability and the freeing of political prisoners.

JANKETIĆ: You know, President McClark would like to know how we will go about this situation. Homeland Day is 3 days from now and we cannot let this weather anomaly ruin the celebrations.

WINSTON: It's a magical phenomenon, isn't it? I'm sure the agent can reverse what she's done in time for your holiday.


No one was cleared yet for mandatory 72-hour medical leave with the whole incident looming (metaphorically and literally) over their heads, with the psychiatric evaluators being held back at the South Pole City-Metropolitan International Airport since the ash clouds refuse to disappear and multiple flights headed towards the country have been cancelled all over the continent. The UAN Security Council has frankly been giving them the cold shoulder since what happened at Sudoku Valley, but reports have been coming in that they've been praising the Taskforce's efforts with freeing the hostages from the clutches of The Public. Cueva doesn't know how to take the information as he slowly stirred the mug of coffee in his flippers with gentle swirls.

He's just gotten off the phone with Leila, who's been worrying sick for him since he told her that he was going to join the Taskforce for this raid. The kids were still awake to say hi to him and make sure he was okay, with his older son asking him what ash rain looks like. Cueva chuckled fondly to himself as he rubbed the tiny rose quartz pendant around his neck, feeling the texture of the cut against his feathers.

Carter has something to say to him when she stops, eyes landing on him with something he cannot easily read. He knows what she's looking at: the span of black ink that curls up his arms before disappearing in his shirt sleeves, then reappearing all over his chest. There are the places where his feathers haven't quite grown properly in, rough patches that show old scars and gunshots from a lifetime ago. He doesn't look down at what she's looking at in hopes that the conversation wouldn't go that way.

He opens his mouth to speak first, "Mia—"

"I read up on you." He sat back, coffee forgotten as he deposited the mug on the table. He tries not to look surprised at the confession because he already knew: it was her job to research on everyone who was part of the Taskforce, study their histories and psychiatric reports to understand who they are and what could possibly go wrong with them while they were part of it. She's probably read everything there was to know of him: ethnic background, joining Orion, becoming a fugitive and then an Orbit. She knows about the civil war and the mistakes he made while being on the wrong side of it.

A Mia Carter that frowns is not a good sight, especially when the frown is directed at him, so he offers her a smile. "You flatter me, Mia, but you read up on everybody."

"And I've been thinking about what you said a few days back," Right, he's not surprised about that either. For all the time he's known her, he can say a few things are constant: she will analyze what someone's said over and over, she works herself to exhaustion day in and day out, and that those braids on her head will always be styled differently from the previous week. About that last bit, they were currently in little twirls around her head that spiraled upwards and pointed towards the sky like tiny towers. "You have a point."

"Remind me again, Ms. Carter, but what did I say a few days back?" Cueva tilted his head just slightly to the left, setting his mug up to his beak once more to take a sip. It tastes just a bit burnt against his tongue, and he wonders who accidentally burned the coffee when Carter spoke.

"You trust the Taskforce to lawfully acquire the information needed to keep the investigation going and would rather not know if they're doing anything explicitly illegal." Carter said, the frown on her face never fading as she continued to speak. Ah, she's finally understood his leadership style with this Taskforce, why he's so slack with them when the very organization they're working under breathes down their necks. He wonders for a moment why it took her only now to come up with the conclusion, how out of touch and idealistic she can be to assume for so long that everyone (or really, anyone) in the Taskforce will dance the bureaucratic and red tape filled salsa of the UAN.

"Is that your final conclusion, Ms. Carter?" He asked gently, watching as the frown on her face deepened with the statement. He's seen this in many others before her, the conflict in ideologies and thoughts. She stammers for a moment and clutches the UAN file in her flippers, nearly wrinkling the folder with how hard she's gripping it.

"I need to write a report for the UAN." She steps forward and sits down across him, doesn't look him in the eye as she draws up holograms and a keyboard on her tablet. He watches her carefully and sips his drink slowly as her flippers moved over the keyboard with a distinct form of frenzy, eyes wandering over the bright blues as she quickly typed out a report for the Council to read. He doesn't know if he pities her or is amused with the show of confusion clear in her face as she taps endlessly, words zooming over the hologram faster than he could read them.

EDITORIAL: The binary question of right and wrong
By Raven Westley (Club Penguin Times) | Published June 25, 2018 - 10:12 am

It's worth asking after watching the UAN Taskforce scramble to take care of the major kidnapping incident that's gripped the whole continent this one, distinctive question: who's the right one here?

Here's an overview of the situation: since the start of 2018 there's been a small upwards climb of kidnapping incidents all across the continent, with numbers peaking at around mid-April of the year. Since then, there's been enough kidnapped at such a time to catch the attention of authorities around the regions before an organization stepped into the limelight to claim responsibility: The Public. From their very public (no pun intended) website, they claim themselves to be advocates of change who constantly demand the following: accountability, the release of political prisoners, and monetary compensation for the families of the victims of forced disappearances worth 10 Million Club Penguin Coins (CPC).

The UAN Taskforce was activated per the orders set on paper by the UAN with the UAN Security Council Mandate 54, also known as the "UAN Taskforce Act of 2017". The current Taskforce consists of intelligence agents from the following agencies: EPF, MSB, NRR, Orion Initiative, SAD, SI:9, SIA, and SSS. They've been tasked to obtain information as to why The Public struck, where they are keeping the hostages, and how to stop further attacks. Since then, the Taskforce has been doing nothing but quietly make their moves and collect their information before conducting two major raids: one in Fyodor, Rusca and another recently in Sudoku Valley, United Provinces.

We cannot exactly blame a Taskforce made up of intelligence agents to be somewhat idle: intelligence agencies are not the military, not designed to strike immediately once given the information. We can tell that the Taskforce has been rather calculating and sure with their information based on the clear successes of the two raids they've publicly done: 88 children and 154 civilians all successfully rescued without any serious injury tells that they don't strike until they're certain. The methods they use to extract the hostages involve taking care of the terrorists first before evacuating the civilians. The Taskforce minimizes physical exertion from the victims as much as possible by teleporting them out of the combat zone and into safe points where social workers and doctors readily wait for them to be evaluated and taken care of.

Despite this, we cannot ignore the criticisms made against the Taskforce. Based on the website that is managed by members of The Public, they have been nothing but lackeys to the very authorities who are being attacked by their objectives and statements. They contribute to the system that stamps down dissent from the populations and buries the wrongdoings of politicians in red tape and blacked out documents. To ask for accountability, the release of political prisoners, and monetary compensation for the families of the victims of forced disappearances is not a bad thing: there truly is some dark things that need to be righted in this world. The Taskforce has also been accused of violating multiple penguin rights with their plight of obtaining information, though it may sound hypocritical from the very group that kidnaps penguins from their ordinary lives.

The point that's being made is that both the Public and the Taskforce hold pretty valid arguments against each other, which goes back to our first question: who is the right one in this conversation? Neither two parties are playing fair in this game, with both having done a violation against the opponent. The two have strong convictions to their causes and neither refuse to bend to the other's will, stubborn as they are. It's still the Taskforce's objective to understand why the Public is like so and it's the Public's to obstruct them at every step and turn. The dance they've picked is dirty and slow that it's blurry to the audience on who's leading who.

But let's focus first on the Taskforce and their current tightrope act: as the days go by, while they collect their information and the Public spills out their propaganda, they will eventually have to decide who's correct in this whole debacle. While we, the public, watch from the sidelines and make our opinions on the issue, so will those who work to solve it. It will be up to the Taskforce to report to the UAN Security Council with their final conclusions: about who the Public is, what they fight for, and why. They will read the same information we read, and they may ask the same questions we ask. They still have to officially answer the question we ask ourselves: who is right and who is wrong?

There are some effects, obviously, with unleashing Magic that powerful into this plane of existence. The consequences may be heavy on who or what it is released on, disastrous to some degree depending on how powerful it is, but it can never be as heavy as the aftermath felt by the one who let it out of its box. She shouldn't regret it because really, who would regret doing their best to protect their team? Collecting all the magic left in those cards and bending it enough to push back the rest of the insurgents would have taken too much time, and Benny knows what would happen if she made use of a rollback spell in such a sensitive timeline. No, she doesn't regret anything, but she wishes the effects weren't this severe.

Because she's cold, freezing to the touch. The moment her feet were on solid ground five miles away from the cave, her veins were still running hot with the magic that she wielded to remove the threads of the stamp's locking mechanism. It was still thrumming in her blood when the doctors checked her for any injuries, when they were transported back to the Winsburg 99, ash raining over them like dirty snow during the winter. It was the second she stepped into her hotel room that the rest of her energy escaped her and she collapsed at the doorstep.

Reyes has been hovering over her ever since, stubborn enough to stick by her side until she was awake long enough to consume something. Despite constant insistence that she's fine, that she'll recover, that this was nothing compared to the aches she felt after intense dojo training, he was just as insistent with sitting next to her in bed while holding a granola bar and a glass of water. He kept mumbling in that silly accent of his while she kept staring up at the ceiling, blinking and trying to look for the familiar warmth of magic running over her and touching every one of her senses.

It bothers her when she feels nothing.

"There's a call coming in from Mahlor Perez," Oh, her brother finally decides to check up on her. For once since the whole time she's been with the AI, Lynx has been particularly tame rather than being sarcastic and snippy. Perhaps it has something to do with their supposed glitching during the raid, which somehow disappeared once debriefings were over. The AI has since then been rather careful with how they're functioning and constantly does diagnostic tests every half hour or so. "Are you going to accept it?"

Reyes frowned at her, watching carefully. She's always noticed that his eyes were a distinct shade of blue that reminded her of the waters near the Northern Finipino Dojo, a deep and elegant blue that bobbed gently and twinkled lightly when the sun hit it just right. They were the perfect shade of cerulean that made her just a little bit homesick, and she almost forgets she's been asked a question until Lynx repeated it. "Right, let him through."

"Piri Tania Perez y Domingo, what were you thinking?" The hiss is clear with the annoyance of an older sibling who has constantly been pestered and tugged around like a poor rag doll. If she just had the energy to laugh at him she would, but she knows him well enough to not say anything about it. "We've been trying to keep our relations with the United Provinces light and stable, especially since we're new in the Western Union, and you decided to unleash the card in the middle of a classified raid in the mountains? And you didn't even use that wand I got you?"

"Careful, I'm with company." Kermit have mercy on her if she has to listen to her brother rant to her about politics and diplomacy while she's nursing the aftershock of removing a complex locking spell on a Level 13 fire card. The heating pads that Reyes has tucked in her jacket pockets and in her thick blanket, the heaters situated around her bed, even the three different pairs of socks on her feet, are doing little to make her feel a little less cold.

"Just be happy that the UAN has sent us the mission debriefing transcripts concerning the Sudoku Valley raid, otherwise we'd be arresting you the moment your plane touches down here." Oh, they've reaching the threatening levels. For a moment, Piri wonders if they'll be staying in the country long enough for her to get some Caspian chocolate bars. "And besides, it seems that we caught McClark in a forgiving mood."

"Sure," She'll never understand the politics that came with working as the Vice President of the Finipines. She ignores the muttering that came from his side of the line and opts instead to turn back to Reyes, whose frown hasn't faded the moment the call began. Clearly, he's confused with why her brother seems pissed with her when she only did what she had to do. Well, that's where they differ, she presumes. She deepens her voice just a bit in an attempt to mock him, "So, Piri, how are you?"

"Don't get me started with that. Mama keeps pestering me to call you as soon as she found out what you done, but I've been too busy with taking care of your mess to do so." She scoffed and rolled her eyes at him. Dense as always, her brother never ceases to amuse her whenever he frets over the national problems and relationships of their country. And penguins still wonder why she prefers being an action woman. "Now, have you been keeping yourself as warm as possible?"

"I'm a second short from sleeping in a bed of coals if that's what you're asking me." Piri grinned when Reyes started laughing beside her, a dark and rich tone that fills the room with a different sort of warmth. For a moment, she feels like she's filled with the magic that thrums through her veins and dances around her body with its sweet melodies of power. "But yes, I've turned my hotel room into a tropical paradise. Thanks for asking."

"Papa said to give it time." He frowns when he says that, as he always does when he mentions their father. While in the Office of Magical Affairs he may appear to be light and relaxed among his peers, he was still a strict and disciplined father in the household. This would be a stark contrast to her mother, who was serious and intimidating in the office and loving and doting in their home. "Don't move around a lot. We're surprised the UAN hasn't given any of you your mandatory leave hours."

"Take it up with them, that's your job." She shrugged. There's silence for a moment, giving her the time to take a deep breath and close her eyes, leaning back on the pillows pressed against her back. It's strange to feel so out of touch with the magic that runs through the world around them, to feel cold without it settling in her veins with the comfort of a heavy blanket. There's the faint noise of a fax machine running and keyboards being clicked in rapid fire speed that it almost sounds like a machine gun firing off. Oh, that's a strange comparison. "Hey look, you're busy."

"Yes, I am. I'll call you soon." Dismissive. She shakes her head once more as she recognized the telltale inattentiveness that drips into his tone. Of course, he has other things to work on that is beyond the little stunt she did in the cave. She's about to end the call when he adds in Filipino, a warning in his tone. "Don't give me a reason to go there to put you out myself."

And the call ends like that, just as abrupt as it appeared. She rested her head back as Lynx began doing their diagnostic test, the quiet whirring of the projector filling the room as she tried to look for a thread of magic she can pull back into her. Returning to magic was like finding a loose thread in a sea of fabric, tugging hard enough to have the whole thing spill and unravel before her. There's a miniscule frown on her face as she concentrates, ignoring the licks of dizziness on her consciousness as she claws around for the magic that is just supposed to be there.

She finds nothing.

Should the situation come that most of the Taskforce find themselves in the snack room designated to them in the UAN Satellite Office, there would always be a wide range of occurrences that may happen when they're all together.

This is something Carter's figured out whenever the team eats lunch or dinner together, a routine that is carefully maintained by a rotational schedule of penguins who would be responsible for the day's meals. Usually these situations would involve interesting conversations over food that gave snippets of personality that cannot be caught on ink and paper, or behaviors that no psychiatrist could ever take note of while they eat. Perhaps this is the sort of ambiance that a snack room projects, a time to relax and be a little less prissy around each other. The snack room is usually where Carter sees them as more of acquaintances rather than coworkers who keep their guards up and exhibit a copious amount of professionalism.

With the recent events that have unfolded, however, it seems as if they've been cut off from any communications to and from UAN headquarters. All the publicity that came from the Sudoku incident a little over two days ago is still being taken care of by public relations office, who has been working overtime to absorb the backlash that came with unleashing magic into the country. She can't really blame the Council for being a little mum after everything that happened: they have so much to take care of, so many international issues to keep an eye on and discuss that they have the excuse to be silent. Paperwork has been stuttering to a halt with the lull of orders coming in from the UAN, with the last one being a lengthy and eloquently worded statement that could be summarized to "Stay low, don't do anything stupid." Everyone's been kept on metaphoric office limbo with little to nothing to do but scour received information and check in with their respective agencies.

So of course, recently the things that go on in the snack room have been a bit more interesting than usual.

It was Zarkova's turn to feed everyone today, and she's preferred to cook in the snack room rather than order food for the whole team. Dinner was remarkably later than usual — for some reason that probably had something to do with a game, the meal was pushed back to 2100 — so everyone was teetering towards starving and willing to eat whatever the Ruscan would whip up in the kitchen. The smell of spices and cooking sturgeon already has Carter's mouth watering by the time she steps inside, taking in what's laid out in front of her. Heng, I04, and Wolfe have somehow squeezed themselves in the small couch in front of the TV screen, two bottles of Cream Soda set down on the coffee table. Off to the side, a6 appeared to be reading their poetry book, poppy petals littering their lap as they continued reading their book. Cueva and Zarkova were in the kitchen area to cook the solyanka, the latter pointing out what the older man has to chop, how to chop it, where to set it aside. Kowalski was having a rather light conversation on something she couldn't catch with Valentino, both holding Cream Soda bottles and flicking their sight towards the screen on occasion. Rogue and Brandt are nowhere to be seen, which isn't surprising for Carter because they've been missing since the beginning of the raid.

She frowned when she noticed the stack of currency on the coffee table. They ranged from multicolored bills all the way to little golden coins that gleamed dully in the snack room's light. She recognizes some of them. "What's going on?"

"We're betting on who's gonna win the game." Heng quickly supplied the answer to her, not even turning to acknowledge her presence as he kept his eyes glued to the screen. Of the three of them, I04 looks the most squeezed into the couch but seems to willingly roll with what's going on. The game they're watching is the United Provinces play against Freezeland in the 2018 UGFA World Cup, and it looks as if the game just started. She watched as the black and white ball was kicked around by the players as the commentator spoke about the current odds of winning. "I04 and I think UP's got a chance while Wolfe and Cueva think it's Freezeland."

"You think we can do this again tomorrow, Cueva?" Wolfe called out to the man, flipper reaching to the coffee table to grab the bottle of Cream Soda that was there. For a moment she's stunned with the fact that the two actually managed to agree on something for the first time in a while. She notices the bowl of popcorn squeezed between him and I04 and wonders again how on earth they managed to fit in it. It looks uncomfortable to be sitting on the couch. "It's Munijoch versus Japaland tomorrow and I can't wait to see Four-y's betting money increase tenfold."

"Four-y is cringe-worthy, use Vier instead." a6 piped up from their chair in the side, sitting up just a bit to see the game. The stadium roars along with its commentators as UP scores its first goal for the night, almost deafeningly loud that I04 grabs the remote and brings down the volume to something a bit more tolerable. The chatter of the host is excited and rushed as the cameras chase after the players once more.

"Remind me to treat the team to an afternoon snack if that's the case." Cueva replied as he turned just briefly to watch the game, a frown on his face as his flipper stilled from chopping the vegetables. Since the last time they've spoke, he looks a bit more composed with his shirt sleeves rolled up, bearing openly the patterns that mark his flippers. There's still a minute frown on his face from what happened last night, since he's been sulking with the loss of the Finipines to Alemania.

Carter turns back to the television screen. The competition is high for this one, clearly ready to play to the tune of their opponent. It's been a while since she tried to relax and watch a game, whether it was baseball or basketball or football. She slowly reached into her pocket and dug out a few crumpled Fish bills, staring at the number that's on it before setting it down on the coffee table before them. She watches as the three men quickly flick their eyes to what she's set on the table.

"I'll bet a hundred for Freezeland." Carter said quietly, stepping back as Heng gave her an open face of astonishment and Wolfe grinned wolfishly. Just in time, the team scores a goal that directs the three back into watching the game, a spat of "I told you so" and "She jinxed them" erupting from both sides of the couch. She shook her head and turned back to look at the rest of the snack room, deciding to approach a6 about the book they're reading.

Unsurprisingly, their suspect has been nothing but quiet about the whole plane incident and about anything concerning The Public and what it is. Rogue assumed that a bit of an argument would come out of how they would be treating him while he was under their custody, but it seemed as if Brandt shared similar sentiments with her. They've both agreed to keep him on edge by doing little to nothing, annoying him with minor things to see if he would break. It's what they presume out of a civilian, and they were so sure that he would break with the silence. However, their twin patience was waning with every moment that passes by and Rogue is close to tempting herself into letting Brandt unleash her worst on Smith. No information has been coming in from the UAN based on what Lynx is telling her, and the duo hasn't checked in with the rest of the Taskforce on what's their progress.

Dinner was relatively tame this evening, with no prodding questions coming from either of them or curious looks from across the room. Since the moment they've put themselves in the safe house, Brandt has been rather professional and civil with her. They've agreed to just eat the instant ramen packs that they found in the pantry, and the bowls have currently been set aside with contents half-eaten. Rogue's tongue is still tingling from the spiciness of the broth as she reached over to move her rook across the board, pinning the bishop effectively and clicking down on the switch of the timer next to her. Unsurprisingly, both of them know how to play chess and found a board under the coffee table, so they've agreed to play it while WHAT?!? played in the room they've kept Smith in.

"So, this professor you're trying to ask out is a neurosurgeon?" Rogue asked, flicking her eyes up to see that Brandt was staring at the board, rubbing her chin carefully as she did. The timer next to them clicked quietly, a strange but soothing form of white noise as they played this game. Contrary to what is assumed by most of the Taskforce, Brandt has been a little open to conversation about her personal life and telling Rogue stories about her side of the continent. Brandt was a friendly one, undoubtedly light when it's just the two of them, and doesn't seem to have the same air of cruelty as many SSS agents she's met in the past have. It's progress, really, from when they've been blatantly ignoring each other from across the conference room. It's a bit relaxing.

"Unfortunately, she's as thick-headed as the craniums she cut open." The sigh that comes out of her mouth is exasperated, and there's the flicker of uncertainty in the forest greens that she takes not of for future reference. Brandt moved her pawn forward by a square, pressing down on the switch of the timer once more with a resounding click. There's a moment of silence as the two looked at the board before them, taking in the current positions and placements of the pieces. Rogue leaned back on her chair and sighed when she realized that she's moved herself into a pin.

"This is so sad." Here it comes. Her tone is void of any emotion as she flicked her eyes towards the timer next to them, staring the numbers down as if doing so would make it go faster. They still had seventeen minutes left of game time before either of them lose due to the time technicality. She checks her watch to see that it's a quarter to 2200, an hour into the football game that the rest of the Taskforce is surely paying attention to. Her mouth tugs upwards just barely as she added, "Lynx, play Stayin' Alive."

It was a fitting song for someone who's just realized that she's made a mistake, especially in a rather heated game of chess. Immediately, the song began to play from the speakers of her EPF phone, an affirmative chirp going off right before following the order. When the song opened with the familiar lyrics to the song, Brandt chuckled and shook her head, blonde hair swishing with her movements. Rogue doesn't know why she's grinning widely when she sees that the agent across her actually understood the context. "And here I was thinking you lack a sense of humor."

"And I thought you weren't well aware of pop culture references." Neither was she, really, she wasn't necessarily that updated with what's going on in social media. Most of her knowledge on pop culture comes from Piri laughing at something on her phone or Bridgett going over her Chitter feed in the snack room. Sometimes, it bothers her how little she knows of the world outside of what concerns her job, when that information typically ranged from things that interests Natalia or things she picks up from her subordinates. While she does not totally know what "stanning" is or why someone's "shook", she knows just a bit to keep a rather suitable tether with the rest of the world.

"We have more in common than what I thought, Tvarkov." That's always a good thing to hear for Rogue, especially when she tries to establish friendships among peers. Natalia has always brought it up how her mother lacks friendships that are outside of work or the intelligence community, always commenting on how she's so immersed in work that her life is tied to it. She really couldn't help it when she hardly functions like a civilian, when she's lived her life in such a way that everything added up to this. She doesn't mind that almost all of those she considers good company could die on a mission or disappear off the face of the continent, since she too may eventually face the same fate. She doesn't think too hard on that last thought. "Lynx, what are the boys doing?"

Brandt quickly figured it out earlier into their stay in this safe house that Lynx keeps constant tabs on the Taskforce in the satellite office, frequently updating them whenever they ask about what they're doing. Rogue isn't guilty of asking the AI to function as a listening bug when she knows that nearly everyone has one in the room too. There's an amused tone in the latter's words as the AI flickered into existence from the little projector in Rogue's phone. Lynx was dressed in their typical hoodie and neon blue hair, but seemingly had their face painted in the colors of a football. It was amusing to look at. "Wolfe is salty that UP is leading."

"Typical." Brandt beats her to it as she moves her bishop and clicks down on the timer. The odds of either of them winning have drastically shifted since the initial pin, with tensions escalating with piece after piece threatening the other's position and keeping everyone in place. Should either of them move, there's the looming threat of multiple pieces set in integral pieces being eaten with little to no guarantee of who is going to win. They can risk a stalemate or let the time run out on their timer, but Rogue can already see that the former is more of the way to go. "How much are I04 and Heng splitting once the game is over?"

"I mean, what currency do you want me to put it on?" Rogue shook her head in fondness as she watched Brandt capture the bishop. What followed was fast clicking and moving across the board as both captured each other's pieces and moved the rest of their pieces away from the crossfire, flicking back and forth in a rhythm the other seems to be capable of keeping up to. Their movements slow just a bit when they have eight minutes left on the clock, where Rogue pauses when she realizes that she has little pieces left to work with. Finally, Lynx quietly interjected. "Approximately 340 Circum."

"Did we just move ourselves into a stalemate?" Brandt frowned, staring at the board across them. Neither of them had reasonable moves that would hasten the game, both of them stuck in a tango that would only end when their time runs out. Rogue picked up her bowl of ramen and quickly slurped up some spicy noodles, taking a deep breath in to take in the spiciness that danced on her tongue. She takes a moment before nodding and moving a pawn forward. It's all it can do.

"Hey, the movie's stopped." She noticed that there's no more sound coming from the room they've put Smith in. The silence is uncanny as she realizes then that they have to see if Smith is ready to cooperate, otherwise they'd have to resort to different measures. "Do you want to check on him?"

"Don't mind if I do." Brandt nodded and stood, quickly moving her remaining knight across the board and flicking her switch of the timer. She's halfway across the room when she calls out, a grin in her tone as Rogue sat back and scoffed. "Check."

UAN: Interesting.

Reyes: What're you chuckling about, sir?

UAN: You're just telling me that in the span of inactivity, the Taskforce decided to watch football in the snack room while making bets on who would win?

Reyes: Well, I suppose that's so. I wasn't there for some of the matches.

UAN: Why not, agent?

Reyes: Y'know why.

Dawn breaks just in time for George Smith to break.

Brandt sits down on a chair set aside in the corner of the room, brushing away a line of blood that run across her beak and speckled her feathers. Whenever she did this, pull the strings necessary and tugged feathers the wrong way, she's always prided herself with doing her work clinically and methodically. It was a rare occurrence if she had so much as a drop of blood on her grey uniform back home, or sweat dripping over her boots. Everyone back in Snowzerland kept kidding her with how she seemed to be such a stickler for immaculacy, always so careful of making sure that her cerulean feathers are not bristled by even the barest brush. With this setting, however, things got a little messy when Smith spat at her face and cursed her in Serbian.

Oh well, he had it coming.

Tvarkov (she is fine with being called Rogue but alas, eventually) stepped into the room slowly, taking in its condition with a low whistle. Brandt shifted her weight between her feet as she looked as well, taking in the varied weapons she's used throughout the night. She's always been proud of her handiwork, always so eager to show it to her own handlers to prove that she was better than what they said, but her current one is not one that was up to par. Both of them seem adamant with ignoring the other chair found in the center of the room that's being occupied by another penguin, not noticing the barely there wheezing and groaning coming from their body. There is a belt scattered next to some heavy-looking chains, blood and puddles of water seeping into the floorboards. Okay, maybe she's gone a bit overboard with trying to get the information out of him.

"Great job with decorating the place." Tvarkov said, nonchalance and the barest touch of exhaustion in her tone as she finally looked at Brandt. She's been sparse with details about the medicine bottle she keeps in her inner pockets, what it does and what effects it may have on her. She's noticed that Tvarkov has never drank a single cup of coffee since they've been here and that she seems to fall asleep on whatever surface she finds comfortable. "Did he give names?"

Brandt has always overlooked process in favor of the reward she garners whenever she interrogates a suspect. It's a moment of power for her, a time to showcase her skills as an efficient interrogator with a varied use of methods to draw out the statements she needed. Torture was a skill she honed from putting up a cold exterior, a way to toughen up against the sins she has to commit for the sake of her empire and its Kaiser. The job was dirty, outright illegal in multiple countries and frowned upon by the UAN, but she sees it as a necessary evil needed to get what one wants as soon as they conceptualize it. Torture is something she is unhesitant to commit because no one has ever apprehended her for it, but rather praises her for her efforts.

"Three of them and a location." She takes the phone in her pocket and taps on the notes application, scrolling through them to find what she was looking for. The lighting above them has been dulled out to leave the rest of the room obscured for the suspect, extra light coming in the form of her phone's screen and the soft light peaking in from the opened door. She's irked by the dried blood that streaked her phone, half-tempted to look for a rag to quickly clean it off. The other woman doesn't mind it as she scans the short list on it, quiet save for a low hum that reverberates around the room as she considered its contents.

"I know someone who can verify this," Tvarkov said finally, before turning to the man who groaned loudly to grab their attention. Brandt doesn't regret anything she's done to the Snowinn in front of them, especially since he spoke so vilely of her mother with those few words in Serbian. The glare that Tvarkov gives him is dismissive, at the very least regarding him with a little once-over. There's a strange satisfaction in watching him heave before the woman beside her clicked her tongue. "You should have ended his suffering."

"That would be mercy, Tvarkov, and I wouldn't give him that." Brandt shook her head as she pocketed her phone once more, disappearing through the door just as Smith protested once more.

It's June 26 and the ash clouds haven't disappeared from the horizon. Every few hours or so it would rain down a fresh round of ashes on the little capital, colors ranging from the dark colors of coal to the faint tones of dirtied snow. It's interesting to see everyone bundled up as if it were winter and not the days of summer, beaks covered to prevent inhalation and heads covered by hats and beanies. There's a frown on their faces that give off a wide variety of emotions muddled into the act of scrunching up several facial muscles, annoyance or concern mixed into one with this little action.

Interesting, Cueva thought. Thankfully this office had a rooftop he can get up to, giving him room to get out of his stuffy office and out in the open. The fall of ashes above him is gentle, snow-like, and he wants to hope that it's that familiar, fluffy material and not this. The magical signature in this one is familiar, thrumming with the strength of the ocean lapping against the shore during the early hours of the morning. It's neither aggressive nor gentle with its delivery; it's not a flurry during a snowstorm nor a drizzle of dawn rain. There's a certain grace to this whole situation that he would laugh if not for the consequences that came with the ash fall.

It's interesting to consider that the penguins below him, those who hustle and bustle about in their coats and layers and little automobiles, live a life just as complex as his. He can pluck someone from the crowd of thousands and guess over and over what their lives look like and still not have the full picture, try to imagine how they feel and what they experience to even catch a glimpse of how it feels for them. It's a fascinating thought that is in every right philosophical, something he would be turning over and over his head if he didn't have anything else to consider.

He turns slowly when he notices someone standing by the door, familiar pink feathers and a big peacoat in UAN blue standing tall and proud. Mia Carter stood out brightly amongst the grays of the world around them with bright eyes that were shrouded by a calculating frown and a downturned mouth. She's styled her braids differently today, pinning them around her scalp carefully and wrapping a scarf around them in a headdress. She was still looked every bit like the UAN officer she is when she watched him, face not giving him any sure indication of what's going on in her head.

"They've made their move." Oh, he doesn't know which who she's talking about. There's a tiny bit of ash that clutches and dots her headdress and her coat, speckles of gray against the bright blues. "The Public, I mean. They've made a rather... public move."

"What did they do?" He asked gently, with clarity in his tone and a soft expression on his face. He's been terribly gentle with her since her epiphany of what the UAN Taskforce was really like, slightly walking on eggshells around her just to make sure he doesn't do her wrong. It's as if they're back to square one thanks to this, like she's still the uncertain and uptight integrity officer that Winston sent in. He feels as if he's talking to a child.

"They're calling for negotiation talks." Of course, they ask for it now after two serious raids been launched on their strongholds. It's always a thing when it comes to conflicts that they fight tooth and nail first before taking into consideration the prospect of negotiations. To think that war is the failure of diplomacy, the consequence when words fail and actions have to do. Cueva will never understand it, but here he was. "They've given a time and date and they want us to provide the location."

Everyone's watching. The Taskforce has made it clear since the moment of their conception that they will do everything to stop the Public, to bring back those who were taken and protect the welfare of those who trust them to do so. There are heavy expectations, lots of things to take into consideration, does the Council even know? Cueva shook his head and tilted it back slowly, taking in the ash fall above him and thinking of what to do.

"Call for a meeting." He said finally, stuffing his flippers in his pockets and making his way to her. They pause by the doorway when she gives him a look, as if she's scrutinizing the feathers on his being and the neutral look on his face. They're quiet as the ash flitters around them, and he waits for her to speak before she nods and turns to go down the staircase.

He follows.

It's afternoon when he decides to visit the hospitals they've put the 154 victims in, long after the last ash shower ended with everything in a sheer layer of grey. It's interesting to watch the people slowly try to put order in their lives after that, sweeping away to create clouds of white around them. Everyone's bundled as if it were the winter season, sometimes nodding to each other in understanding as they hustle by. Sometimes, ambulances would stop to check in on families to make sure that no one needed medical attention due to the recent anomaly, going door to door to ensure they get everyone. He pulled up the black mask over his mouth as he trudged up the walkway of the hospital, nodding at civilians as they come past him and shouldering past exhausted media men who thankfully do not recognize him.

Orders from the MSB dictated that he visit the 14 Margatians who were among the victims of the Public. He's been told that most of these were teenagers and children, most likely traumatized physically and mentally by what they've been through. He's read the reports on each of them individually: a wide range of sores, aches, with a side of severe malnutrition and dehydration. Many nursed ailments brought about by being put in terrible conditions, delirium a familiar thing seen in the wards that held them. Tang personally told him the orders with a grin tugging upwards, making sure to add the fact that they're all in such bad shape that "Johnny boy, you better be careful with those kids. They're not the little stray younglings you somehow always find in every operation you go into."

Oh, they do just love to tug on the very few bones in his body that cares for these young ones.

The nurses at the desk recognize him in an instant, perhaps due to how frequently he visits this ward. Their smiles are demure, understanding, reassuringly calm for someone who's working overtime with the influx of patients. The ward he's ushered into was designated for children: bright, colorful carpets and pictures decorate the interior while balloons floated on every bedside table. The posters were in a mix of English and Serbian, all of them reassuring the children with its messages of optimism in bold letters. He sees a box full of stuffed toys and a shelf full of colorful spines, flowers he's sure are plastic, and a few stray building blocks in one corner.

Heng made his way through the ward quietly, making sure not to cause too much noise save for the quiet squeaking of his shoes against the floor. Many of the children appeared to be resting, backs turned to him and bodies still as he went by. White wristbands were around their flippers to indicate that they were patients, but Heng couldn't help but frown when he notices that many of them are in the tightest setting for some patients who were in their teenage years. The monitors are the only indication that they still breathe and live when he finally finds one who is still awake, quietly reading a book in Mandarin.

The child startles when he appears at the edge of the bed, squinting at Heng from his side of the bed. He recognizes the characters and the drawings in the book to see that it's a textbook, probably the only Mandarin text the hospital had at the time. He makes a note to look for some more to give them. Heng glanced at the clipboard beside him to read the name of this patient, finding that his name is Leon, aged 13.

"My name's Heng—" He stops, clears his throat. Leon tilted his head curiously as he tugs down his face mask to remove it, stuffing it in his coat pockets. He tries a calm smile and speaks again, "Jian Liang. JL works too."

He's confused for a moment when he's replied to with quick flipper movements and signals. It takes him a moment to recognize that the child speaks in sign language, frowning when he realizes that communication then would not be simple. He tilts his head to look down the hallway and wonders for a moment if he should call for a nurse when his earpiece chirps. He almost forgot that he had it on. "Need help, Joey?"

Heng groaned as he shook his head. Tang has been working on Lynx ever since the hiccup in their system during the Sudoku raid, bolstering up their security protocols as well as figuring out what exactly happened. It appeared that while doing so, he even told the AI stories about him, like how one of his pet peeves was being called a silly English name.

"I'm not aware of you having any protocols for hacking into databases or having sort of optical motion sensors, Lynx." He said, turning away from Leon just briefly to look around the room. His voice was quiet so as not to disturb everyone else who was resting, and the silence was just mildly eerie. He frowned as he noticed the security cameras all seemingly pointed themselves at him. "You're kidding."

"It's in my protocols to keep tabs on everything the Commander needs me to keep track of," Lynx explained, a light singsong tone on their words as the cameras shifted as if waving at the Margatian. He wouldn't admit that he's irked by the prospect as the AI continued. "Well, she didn't say keep track of you exclusively but she just asks me to watch over everyone in case anything happens."

He bites down on his lip, wondering what to say. While it wasn't uncommon that everyone was keeping track of each other (they're intelligence agents, for goodness sake), the blatant mention of it just makes him wonder how far someone's gone to do so. He's sure that the Taskforce has multiple listening devices installed in their conference rooms, and he can't be bothered to find them and pick them off one by one when they'd just reappear in a different location. He finally opens his mouth, "I don't read sign, Lynx."

"Of course you don't, since when did you need it?" Did the AI giggle? Heng doesn't entertain the thought as Lynx continued. "Yeah, alright, let me translate it for you."

He turned back to the child before him. Leon looks at him as if he's grown a second head, a mix of interest and confusion melded into one on his yellow feathers. The child flushes and fixes the glasses on his face when Heng looks at him, quickly signing something that Lynx tells him is an apology. He squared his shoulders and sighed, trying to appear as non-threatening as possible. He tries another smile. "I know it's a reckless question, but are you alright?"

"Yes." The child signed, nodding as well as he continued signing in front of him. Heng notices then that the flippers tremble just barely, but they are hidden well by the fast movements. "I'm very sorry."

"What for?" Leon's done nothing wrong. What could he be apologizing for?

"I do not trust myself to speak without crying." Oh. Heng nods slowly as he tries to piece together a suitable reply, pausing and opening his mouth every now and then to form around the words. He keeps reminding himself that he's handling a civilian who's lived a regular life with family and friends, not one hardened by crime and violence and everything a child never should have seen. No amount of hard stares would get this child to melt before him, to fold and tell him everything that's happened.

"It's going to be a long road for you, kid." It tumbles out of his mouth halfheartedly, not exactly thought of properly. He's not convinced that everything will be smooth sailing for him as soon as he gets on a plane that would take him home. No amount of therapy would properly wash away all that trauma in months, and he wonders for a moment if Leon had the support system that would be strong enough to help him through it. "But I'm sure you'll reach it."

Leon only offers him a smile, just as halfhearted as the words he said to him, before he turns back to his book and returns to reading.

Gloria is a lovely old woman to converse with when one has the time to sit down and talk to her. Her cafe is cozy and filled with shelves of knickknacks hammered onto the pastel blue walls around them. There were little pots that hung on the ceilings that held succulents of all shapes and sizes. Her tables were made with wood coming from Cream Soda crates, lovingly crafted and painted by her grandchild for his college finals with bright colors and intricate little detailing. Reyes sipped his coffee slowly as he listened to her talk about a wonderful mother coming in with her child earlier in the morning.

Sometimes, she would point out little trinkets that sat on the shelves around them and tell him their story. Many of those that found their home in her little cafe were from neighbors or regular customers from long ago. The little stack of cassette tapes in one corner was from little Jimmy when he still dreamed of becoming a DJ in one of the clubs in Winsburg, but ended up being an accountant because he found that numbers were just as cool (if not cooler) as strong bass beats. The stuffed toy of a bunny next to it was from Hermine's daughter, who gave it to her when her husband died as a way to cheer her up. There were more of this place that Gloria hasn't told him, and he's more than ready to find out about them.

Anyway, have you tried this krempita? Absolutely delectable, he'd guarantee it. Every day, he ventures out of the hotel room to get Piri something sweet to eat from Gloria's little bakery cafe, with Gloria always ready with a new dessert for him to bring back. The one he's currently given is a puff pastry based one, with a generous block of white custard and brûlée lightly topping it. The texture of the dish was delicate and thick the moment he put the fork in his mouth, and the content that followed was pleasant in his stomach. The smile Gloria offers him is kind when he crows praises towards her general direction, hastily scarfing down the rest of the dessert with an effort not to choke.

She's disappeared into the kitchen when his EPF phone buzzes incessantly. Strange, he could have sworn he left Piri just as she's fallen asleep. Could it be that she has woken up and wanted to know where he was? But then, he did leave Lynx instructions to keep an eye on her and inform her that he left if such a situation came up. He shook his head as he picked up his phone and frowned when he saw a red triangle with an exclamation point on it.

He's hasty with his gratitude and farewells as soon as he has a grip on the paper bag that Gloria holds up to him. He's out of the bakery and covering ground in seconds, sprinting into the hotel lobby without so much as stopping. He looked around twice to see that the elevator has just shut itself close, and the staircase was empty. He's dashing up the staircase and taking three at a time, dodging fellow hotel residents at best. The buzzing is continuously incessant in his grip, repeating to him three quick buzzes before three longer ones. An SOS.

The eighth floor of Winsburg 99 is known to be where everyone in the Taskforce was delegated to. It's quiet because everyone else was in the satellite station, and he's stayed behind to stick with Piri in case she wanted anything. Their door is the only one that's been breached open and he storms in, seeing that every heating appliance was still switched on around an emptied bed. He sees the projector's been knocked off of the bedside table, currently blown to smithereens thanks to some gunshot. There were clear signs of struggle in faint scorch marks on the blankets and the walls, the barest drops of blood on the green carpet.

The air tightens behind him and he turns just in time to see Rogue come into view. He doesn't remember a time that he's seen the commander dressed so casually, in just sweatpants and a hoodie with only part of her hair tied back and the rest kept down. She's breathing hard when she looks up at him, holding up her EPF phone that emitted the same distress signal.

"This better not be The Public." Rogue said, breathless as she ungracefully stumbles in. That's strange, Reyes thought, watching her carefully as she looked around the room hastily as if Piri would materialize in front of them and explain what just happened. There's a rattling in her pocket as she goes about, taking in the disorder in the hotel room that clearly isn't the typical one it's usually in. What's usually haphazard and mildly disorganized has become a full-blown whirlwind of chaos, socks scattered across the room and boots kicked aside from their other pairs. He slowly made his way beside her and squatted on the ground, taking in the familiar denting of boots on the green carpet. He hastily looked around for anything else before frowning.

"S'not Public." Reyes finally said as he straightened and looked to Rogue. The commander, as always, had a secure frown written on her features as she stared at him. There's something unsettling about the way her flippers curl and uncurl into fists as she waits for him to speak, say what he thinks happened to Piri Perez while he was busy getting her some comfort food. "Boot tracks on the carpet. Too uniform."

She looks down. With the dip of her frame, he can see the white cap of a medicine bottle peak from her sweater pocket and the familiar amber of its contents. He wonders what could possibly warrant her need to take any form of medications when she's fast at healing from virtually every injury he's seen her get, from tiny paper cuts to shrapnel trauma. He doesn't question it when she turns back to him and speaks.

"You're right, this isn't Public." She's holding the projector now, or the remaining bits that used to be it. It takes her a while to pull out the bullet that's wedged in the metal before bringing it up to the light, humming as she observed the scratches on the sides. There's a moment before she clicks her tongue and shakes her head. "This is Humphrey."

"Humphrey? You mean NBI Director Humphrey?" Reyes frowned as she crouched to stare at the boot prints herself. There's a sharp mutter in Russian that he doesn't quite catch as she runs a flipper through her hair, the muttering continuing as she traversed around the room for any more clues. It takes him a moment to recognize Lynx appearing on his EPF phone's screen. There's a tight frown on their face that is clearly full of worry, a pout he's sure is from the fact that their projector was destroyed.

"Calling it, Commander." The sulk is evident in Lynx's tone, ringing around the room and bringing it to silence. There's a weight in those words that Reyes cannot properly place down into a specific emotion, as if the world's slowly stilled and the metaphoric orchestra has stopped playing. No, he can't understand why they took her and no, he will not. Rogue slowly turned to Reyes and Lynx with a look he cannot read, eerie blankness and a strange stillness that makes him shift uncomfortably on his feet. She's sober and grave when she speaks.

"We need to get this to Cueva." Her word is final as she turns away to the door, quickly distancing herself from Reyes with a brisk walk and a barely there limp. He's running after her in seconds, trying to catch up just as she quickly approaches the elevator with a slight sway that tells him that she isn't fine.

Munijoch and Japaland tied.

Which was unsurprising to a6, really. Both teams are rather formidable on the playing field (though if I04 would be asked, Munijoch was better by several points), alternating between goals that sent the stadium roaring. The Bears were fast throughout the whole game, thundering through the field with little to no effort. The whole game had fans at their feet with every second of gameplay, throats hoarse from screaming. It was entertaining to watch football games when they were between the two countries and not between two sectors.

They summoned up the holograms again. Lynx was an interesting AI, with intriguing protocols and carefully designed commands that a6 would assume that they were actually a living being and not a mess of code. Their algorithm constantly rewrote itself as it collects information around them, often fixating on one or two topics before branching out to multiple little subtopics. There would be times when they'd prattle on about how cool it is that dinosaurs used to walk the earth, or how "staring" at blueprints of telephones for hours on end was fun. Lynx was as bright and chirpy as the bright blue holograms they are characterized by, light and sometimes sarcastic whenever the situation calls for it. They were as innocent as a newborn baby trying to learn the world around it.

What a shame that they're not alive, then.

"The game between Acadia and Liguria should be starting up soon," Heng said around a yawn, squinting as he stared at the pile of money in front of him. a6 raised their hologram up to see that the three men were still squished in the tiny couch they've claimed whenever it was game night (or every day, since all they watch is football). Kowalski and Valentino were nowhere to be seen, Cueva has already gone off to do some paperwork, and Carter was passed out next to Zarkova, who was in the middle of quietly conversing with whoever was on the phone. "Two hours, up for it?"

"300 Wiki-Buck$ on Liguria." Wolfe is quick to make his bet, bringing out his wallet to slap down the bills on the table. The previous betting money has already been cleared from the table and returned to everyone save for Cueva's, leaving more than sufficient room for all the snacks and betting money to be put for the next game. Heng follows with a bet for Acadia that leaves I04 pondering as they watch the startups of the game.

They return to the holograms before them. The flurry of strands of code that go through it is interesting, almost as if the AI was thinking of whatever it is they're studying at the moment. a6 summoned up a purple hologram to read the details inscribed on it from the SI:9 listening device that they installed when they first came here, reading the words to make sure that it's really something that Lynx said. With a deep sigh, a6 turned back to the codes before them. The composition is almost cloud-like, with codes brightening and fading and constant strands being created as several deteriorate. It's almost as if a6 is looking at a brain—

There's a roar of argument. a6 looks up to see that Wolfe was feeling betrayed that I04 placed his bet on Acadia. Carter has startled herself awake from the snapping, blearily blinking away exhaustion as Zarkova patted her head. There's a serene calmness in I04's face as he explained the statistics as Heng looked every bit confused, Wolfe bearing a deep frown on his face that made it seem as if he was facing another Public crisis and not a football game between two counties. a6 shook their head as they spied on the coffee table next to them, taking in the various bottles of Cream Soda that littered it.

Right, they thought. Too much to drink.

UAN: Did you expect them to be there, Director Cueva?

Cueva: Did I expect— I knew they were coming but I wasn't informed that they would be coming in early.

UAN: I assume that Atienza wasn't so happy about it, then?

Cueva: Oh, no, she was taking it rather easy. It's a common misconception that Atienza is the kind of politician that easily gets stressed over these kind of incidents, but that's not really the case since that woman is basically a saint. She kept joking that it's a way for us and UP to have a spicier relationship... right okay, tough crowd then. I can't exactly say the same about Perez and Mendoza.

It's a little past midnight when the convoy rolls up in the Grey Area safe house, halfway through the game with Liguria leading at the moment. Cueva's decided to bundle up as a fresh round of ash falls gently over the Snowinn capital, putting on a heavy coat and a rather thick scarf lovingly weaved by his mother when he was younger. The scratchier fabric was intricately weaved in the designs of his Magbanua tribal bloodline, golden streaks striking through a sea of red and white with the occasional speckling of black. The scarf was designed specifically to resist harsh weather, with a basic comfort charm weaved into its fibers. It's kept in place by a sealing spell that's embroidered in the thread that embroiders the border of the scarf.

Philip Mendoza is the first one who steps out of the black car, eyes already pinned to Cueva the moment his feet were on solid pavement. It's a common misconception that with his wire-rimmed glasses and head of curls that he's a soft and delicate sort of man, which is painfully false since Cueva's seen far too many instances where the man was anything but that. Mendoza was still a sharp man who refused to bend to anyone save for a select few, critical of every tidbit of information that passes through his flippers or reaches his ears. He prides himself to be an Orbit, someone who's gone full circle through the Orion Initiative with no qualms with returning to its ranks to continue service within it. His looks were all that it is: alluring, convincing, misleading.

"James, you better tell me that you know where they're holding her." Mahlor Perez's voice clips into the midnight air as he steps out of the car. Perez cuts a dashing, imposing figure in real life, with square shoulders and a fade haircut that reminds him vaguely of Wolfe and I04. He's dressed in civilian attire now and not his usual ecru barong, still bulky despite the light layers of a jacket and shirt and fitting pants. He gives Cueva a withering look as he helps Atienza out of the car.

The President is delicate and graceful, as always. Amor Atienza quietly thanked Perez for helping her out of the car before the convoy drives away, disappearing down the road and into the night. She takes a moment to right the coat she's wearing and flick off the ash that settled on her shoulders, offering Cueva a warm smile and a nod. She looks around the quiet street they're on before she takes the steps up the front porch, quickly being tailed by the two men before she stood before Cueva.

"You're right, it really does look like rain." Atienza's pleasant with conversation as she tilted her head up, the grin on her face spreading into one of enchantment as she took in the ash fall around them. Despite everything she's seen of this world, Atienza still somehow managed to be an optimist in the strangest of situations, which both awed and baffled Cueva. She gently reached up to let some fall on her flipper, looking at it with interest and childlike curiosity. "But with the texture of snow."

"Your Excellency, we don't have time for this." Formal. Mendoza is just the barest bit assertive as he leaned forward to speak to Atienza, who was still taking her blessed time with getting acclimated with the United Provinces. Perez stares hard at the atmosphere around them, and Cueva's sure that both of them can feel the magical signature running around the air like mice that scurry across floorboards.

Atienza gives Mendonza a look that crosses between fondness and the mild threat of shutting up. Mendoza, for his part, was considerate enough to be quiet and let the President do what she wants to do. It takes a bit of flipper waving before Perez snags a bit of the magic in the atmosphere, bright electric blue light clinging to his blue feathers and ruffling them. He clicks his tongue and dismisses it with a wave before shaking his head. "This'll take a whole day to sort out."

"I think she's already trying to fix it, little by little." Cueva explained, gesturing to the air around them as if there was something palpable in it that all of them can see. Magic is a strange, wonderful thing that Cueva has never gotten to understand, only in the stories of his mother and the learnings from Orion. There's a pull around the electricity that feels like a tug, barely perceptible unless he focuses hard enough. "She's weak, you see. She's been in bed rest."

"Of course she is." He says it as if it were the obvious answer to whatever question he raised. Perez breezed past him as he pulled out a wand from his jacket sleeve and quickly flicked it about, collecting blue electricity that wrapped itself around the stick. It's strange to watch the Vice President of the country he's sworn allegiance to play with magic as if it were the flames of a matchstick, twisting it about and looking at it in every angle before storing it in a card that seemingly materialized from nowhere. It immediately burns the moment the last of it disappears into the card, causing him to encase it in a bubble of water with a colorful choice of words wrapping around his tongue. "Strong magic."

"Think you can help her out, then?" Mendoza waltzed into the foyer without so much as a thought, quickly removing his glasses as it fogged up in front of him. His eyes are squinted as he focuses on the task of clearing out his lenses, bringing them up in the light before returning them to his face. He adjusts it with a flipper. "If you explained it right, you're telling me that she's knocked herself out of the magical plane."

Perez looks around the room slowly. As he tilted his head, Cueva can see the familiar streaks of a Magdalo tattoo painted to the side of his head, two black zigzags that run down the side of his neck before disappearing into his jacket collar. In contrast to his sister, Perez specialized in the water element of Card-Jitsu, with a stronger grasp of wand magic. While he hardly sees the man use it in reality, every instance of him doing so is always so intriguing to watch.

"I'll see what I can do." Perez finally said, before marching out of the door and past the two men. He stops next to Atienza and says a few quick words before stepping into the sidewalk, whipping out his wand again and quickly summoning magic out of thin air and throwing them into the poles of electricity that line the streets. Cueva watches for a moment as the man disappears from view, electric blue the only sign of how far he's gone. He sighs before turning back to Atienza, who was checking her phone.

"So, Homeland Day?" She said in passing, looking up just briefly. He notices the shadows on her face that warns him that she isn't as okay as she appears to be. He tells himself it's jetlag. "Bold move, James. Even Leila is surprised."

"We'll make it work." Cueva reassured her as he tilted his head back to the sky. The ash fall decreased, just a bit, and he wants to convince himself that it's the elder Perez working his magic (literally) on the spell that blankets the United Provinces in magical ash. He tries not to think about the plan he's concocted with the rest of the Taskforce earlier that day. "We'll have a run through tomorrow, scout the location."

"You better." Atienza grins at him as if nothing is wrong, but the warning is clear in her tone. Cueva nods slowly before turning away to see Mendoza commenting on the CD disks left by past occupants of the safe house, disappearing inside the moment the younger man mentioned that he's spotted an opera CD.

Since this morning, there's been little to no ash showers and clear, sunny skies that had the sun dazzling through the clouds. Due to unknown reasons, the Ministry of Energy has reported that their generators have been running on low since last night, with a strange energy running through them powerful enough to give every household in UP electricity. Many Snowinns have been delighted to find that their Homeland Day would not be dampened by the strange anomaly and went on with their lives, cheerily greeting each other and commenting about the weather as if some deity has rid them of the glum of ashes falling from the sky.

She takes her time going into the satellite office, tilting her head up to see the sun smiling back at her. She's dressed lightly due to the shift in weather, only donning a cardigan over her work attire rather than the heavy coat and hat. It's strange to look at Winsburg differently when she wasn't rushing to get to her duties as a UAN officer, seeing the people rather than the buildings she hustle past. A cyclist rings his bicycle bell at her as she pauses at the pedestrian lane, a nod and a greeting in his face before he disappears from view. There's singing from one of the buildings that lilt to her ears, a ballad she's sure is being sung in Serbian. When she passes by a cafe, she smells the warm bread that's been presented in a glass display, and sees an elderly woman standing by the cashier with a vase of purple hyacinths.

Even the UAN Satellite Office seems a bit more cheerier than the other days. The receptionist at the front desk chirps a greeting for her and offers a doughnut that's procured from a box behind his desk, which she accepts and bites into as she goes through security. The security guard even makes small talk as he goes through the contents of her bag through the x-ray scanner before she's on her way in, clipping her ID onto her cardigan as she did. The bullpen is alive with chatter and laughter that she's enamored by the thought how a little sunshine after a gray day seemingly brightened up the world around her.

The hallway designated to the Taskforce is quiet, which is strange seeing that it's already half past 10. There's the warm scent of syrniki that lingers in the air and settles around her being, and she's making quick steps into the snack room before she can think of it. She sees that all of the offices she walks past are unoccupied, clearly pointing towards the theory that they've all settled into the snack room. There's chatter as she approaches and she pauses at the door, taking in the sight before her.

Rogue and Zarkova's voices stood out from the rest as they kept up playful banter over how best to prepare the dish, switching between English and Russian as they continuously patted down the pancakes. Next to them, Brandt and Cueva seemingly argued over how many jellybeans were inside the jar that Brandt appeared to have brought with her. Kowalski, meanwhile, was commenting over how the amount doesn't matter when someone would more or less end up eating all or most of it while it's in the snack room. I04 and a6 were going over the supplies list that they had to get (oh, apparently it's SI:9's turn to go shopping), with a6 asking if it was possible to get extra lint cleaners and rock candy. Valentino and Hoffman were in the middle of crowding over Heng and Wolfe, who appeared to have nodded off since watching the football game.

It's only then that Carter realizes that this is the UAN Taskforce the Council wanted, but not the one they have.

It's Cueva who notices her presence. He calls her in with a grin and a nod, passing a ceramic cup of coffee into her flippers before she can say anything. She knows either Rogue or Zarkova made it because the flavor was rich and warm against her tongue, most likely made from high quality grounds rather than the crummy ones back at headquarters. She takes the time to listen to Cueva and Brandt resume banter as she looked around the room.

So maybe, maybe the Council had a proper reason with putting her in the Taskforce rather than letting her handle other cases like well... the ones she usually takes up. This "babysitting duty" that everyone elbows her for wasn't exactly that dragging when she saw them as penguins beyond the files they have, more than the redacted lines she frustratingly has to hurdle over to find out who they really are. Everyday, she's faced with the reality that these penguins were as complex as she was, with their own lives and little details that make them as penguin as she is. Everyone in this room has, one way or the other, did something completely unethical for the countries they are loyal to, things they thought were for the greater good. The Council really did pick well.

At face value, the Taskforce was a force of nature that the UAN points toward the vision of peace they aspire to achieve. Beyond that, they were just a ragtag team of people from multiple sides of lawful that somehow get along just fine.

She's snapped out of her thoughts when Wolfe finally awakes, blinking blearily and stretching so much that he knocks Heng off of the couch. Valentino and Hoffman quickly stepped out so as not to get stuck in the crossfire as they watched them blink into consciousness. What followed is a series of sleepy, uncoordinated movements that Lynx is most likely filming as the two agents clamor awake, yelling in their respective languages as they tried to detangle themselves from each other. Everyone falls silent as they watch the two stumble out of the couch, Wolfe groaning about a headache and Heng cursing in at least three different languages about how his neck hurts.

It's cut through by laughter, rich and deep that startles the world back to life. Carter snaps her head to see that it's I04 who's laughing, an unfamiliar sound that she immediately finds pleasing to her ears as she watches the man shake his head. There's a glint of something in those sky blues she doesn't catch but etches into memory because really, was she on some strange high or has this day amounted to a sitcom setting? He's followed by Cueva, Brandt, with everyone following close behind as a6 moves forward to help the two men up from the floor. There's groaning and muttering as they righted themselves, patting the agent's back and thanking them as a6 looked them straight in the eye.

They collapse into a fit of laughter when they see the mustache and blush put in permanent marker on their face. For a brief second, Carter thinks of the plan tomorrow, but wills it away when she catches sight of Heng looking bewilderedly at the rest of the Taskforce.

Thousands expected to attend Catherine Boulevard parade in Homeland Day
Reported by Mitar Kostić (Snowinn Radio-Television) | Dated June 27, 2018; 15:14:40 UPST

WINSBURG, UNITED PROVINCES - Thousands are set to attend the grand military parade in Winsburg during Homeland Day, a grand commemoration of the War of Snowinn Succession. Known attendees are figure heads of the Western Union, many of which have already been seen around the capital since the day before the celebrations. Besides them would be former president Geronimo Stanling, widely known to be a war hero during the civil war. The parade will stretch throughout the entirety of the Catherine the Great Boulevard, where it's expected that there will be an array of tanks, jeeps, and soldiers going through it with an airplane flyby.

Security has bolstered around the capital since the beginning of the week. There's been an uphill climb of visible police officers that would patrol the capital, with several teams dispatched around the boulevard to ensure that no untoward incidents would occur. Crowd control gates have already been erected along the perimeter of the road, with traffic slowly being redirected from the busy boulevard so that cleanup crews can tidy the road for the parade. It's expected that sunny skies will shine down on Winsburg on Homeland Day.

UP President Simon McClark is expected to say a speech before the citizens prior to the parade. It's unknown about what this speech will revolve around, besides the promise of a bright future on the United Provinces. He is also expected to sign into law an act establishing Cyrillic as one of the two official scripts of the Serbian language in the country. This brought positive reactions from many citizens, despite the initial surprise of the announcement.

There's guilt in his heart whenever he thinks of why they decided to stage the meeting here and not in some other cafe or location. They had argued over and over about the possible locations they could have it in: a Gray Area, a park, somewhere that cannot put civilians in the crossfire should anything go awry. The requirements for where it would be was simple: somewhere far from the Homeland Day celebrations and neutral territory for both the Taskforce and the Public. There were so many places in this part of the capital that could have been a viable option, but this little place had to stand out. The Taskforce finally decided that this little hole in the wall cafe that's a few seconds from the satellite office would suffice.

At least Gloria was gracious enough to accept their request of hosting the meeting. The elder woman only nodded and smiled timidly when Reyes explained the situation to her over a cup of tea, stirring her own cup as he continuously stabbed the plate of shortcake that she presented him during that visit. She had calmly informed him that she would be honored with assisting the Taskforce and that she would keep the cafe open only for their little meeting to occur. She even went so far as joked if she had to prepare a special menu, only to be quieted by Reyes's stern face.

The teams were already setting up in buildings surrounding the little cafe. Wolfe and Heng were right across the street with a team of secondary agents under their wing, ready to barge in should anything happen. Kowalski and a Rigel squadron was situated in the alleyway behind the establishment mainly to evacuate any of the employees of the cafe (really, just to make sure Gloria would be safe). Some of them remained back in the satellite office as backup, should the on-field officers get overwhelmed by whatever happens. These were all security measures to ensure neither Carter nor Cueva get harmed by whoever the Public sends, as well as protect Gloria and her employees.

He and Rogue were put on sniper duty with Zarkova and Valentino, both teams in opposite buildings. From his vantage point, he has a clear shot to Cueva and Carter should anyone charge at them, while Zarkova and Valentino had a clear shot of whoever sits across the duo. He was nervous when he assembled the rifle near the window of the office building they've camped out in, nervous when he lined up the shot towards the window in front of the two. Rogue had to give him a stern look and a brisk order for him to get out of the building they're in to visit the cafe.

Cueva and Carter aren't there yet, since they're most likely going over the game plan and the list of questions they have to ask the Public's representative. Hoffman was there to set up listening bugs and cameras all over the room, only giving him a nod when he entered. He tipped his cowboy hat at him and tugged it off his head, holding it to his chest as he looked around for where Gloria is.

"Jack! I see you're all geared up and ready to go." It's strange to be called Jack when nearly everyone he knows calls him Reyes. Gloria's high-pitched voice lilted into the room as she stepped out of the kitchen. She's picked a purple dress for the occasion and a simple apron, which was currently caked in flour that dusted her whole being. Her eyes shine as bright as her smile as she reaches over to pat at his figure, taking into account his uniform and posture. "Oh, you're such a handsome man in this uniform. I'm sure all the ladies would be fawning over you."

He laughs nervously. She seemed to have caught on and straightened herself, backpedaling in an instant and adding to her previous statement. "Or well, men too. I'm sure a man as dashing as you could catch the eye of anyone."

"Mighty sure I would too, ma'am." His accent is so thick when he's nervous. He pretends he's fine as he grips the rim of his hat tighter, willing away any anxieties that Gloria would be harmed throughout the mission. He's half tempted to pull off his bulletproof vest and press it onto her, tempted to ask her to turn away and hide now or she might get hurt. He hates that a friend as innocent as she could get hurt by the job he has to do. "Ms. Gloria, if I may—"

"Oh, you're shivering. What's wrong, little one, are you cold? I'm sure a little cup of tea would do you good." She nodding and turning away, and he's trying to stop her before she disappears into the kitchen. He turns to give Hoffman a look of desperation, to try to ask him for help because he cannot word how worried he is for her. The man only shrugs at him with a barely-there look of pity before returning to his duties. He's putting a listening device between the stuffed toy and cassette tapes when Gloria returns with a cup of tea, insistent with having him drink the whole thing down. Reyes doesn't know how to properly word gratitude and relief the moment he took a sip of the beverage. "There we are. That hits the spot, doesn't it?"

"Gloria, you'll have to stay inside the kitchen while the meeting happens." He grips the teacup and saucer so hard that he feels that it would break. If he keeps gripping it like that, he's sure that he will. He tries not to think of what could go wrong as the older lady looks up to him with a soft smile. He keeps forgetting how short she is. "Something could—"

"It's not an old occurrence, hiding." She tilted her head at him and chuckled softly, eyes crinkling in places as lines crossed over her face, reminding him just how old she was and how much she's seen. There's distance in those blues that tell him that she's witnessed things in her youth that's aged itself to elderly wisdom. "They used to be a time when people would hunt us down and exterminate us. It was nasty, I tell you, to hear of my friends and family dying in concentration camps."

His mind scrambles back to memories of their conversations, when she would point out little knickknacks that dotted her shelves. There was always a touch of sorrow in her words whenever he asked her about some of the photographs or the antiques that found their home in her face, nostalgia and melancholy written in her face. It's easy to forget that beyond her cheerful aura, Gloria Babić was a Pennic woman who escaped the chaos of the Snowinn Civil War by hiding in abandoned buildings. He keeps forgetting that she's a woman stuck in her own timeline where all of her friends and family still walked among her.

It takes him a moment to realize that she was patiently waiting for his response. He fumbles, "Right — eh, well I uh, shucks, I seem t'be a worried mess in comparison to ye—"

She chuckles and shakes her head, turning to the cashier. He eyes the vase of purple hyacinths that she gave her when he told her of the plan, watches as she reaches over to pluck a stem from it. The flower's stem is wet from the water when she slips it into his chest pocket, right above the sidearm that he kept in his uniform's inner coat pocket. The purple petals contrast the black and silver that dictated the RRS uniform's design.

"You act like a lady who's about to see her first suitor." Words of protest die from his throat as she chuckles and shakes her head again, patting his pocket once before reaching up to pat his cheek. Her touch is warm against his skin that it almost burns, and he ignores the shiver that comes with the act of affection as she smiles peacefully at him. "I still have a few years in these feathers, son. I'll survive."

He grins and pretends he didn't hear her call him son.

There's a silence that stills the whole communication channel the moment a pink penguin walked into the cafe, followed by two taller penguins who stood by her side as she sat across Cueva and Carter. Cueva could have sworn that the rose quartz pendant that he wore around his neck grew heavy with anxiety as the woman across them righted herself and studied the menu in front of her. Her features were sharp, from the ice blues that scanned the text before her and the sharp cut of the blonde bob she wore. He waited patiently as she called for a waiter, who nervously skittered forward and took her order.

"Just give me a strawberry smoothie and your best pastry." Her voice is soft in comparison to everything about her, with a kind smile that tugged upwards when she looks up to the waiter. He only nodded and scribbled the order before he's disappeared into the kitchen, as if rushing to get out of the whole situation. Cueva straightened in his chair and pretended that he was fixing his shirt, passing his flipper over the pendant and bulletproof vest he wore.

"My name's Pearl, by the way." Nonchalance, just the barest bit pinched. Her ice blues drift to them as she offers them a smile, but his mind translates it to a sneer. Cueva has always prided himself of being careful with navigating on thin ice when it comes to the people he has to negotiate with, always capable of smiling and using the right words to steer the conversation to what he wants it to be. Diplomacy was his strong suit when he had to speak to politicians and the rest of the Belt, appearing to be neutral was a talent he found useful. "You must be Mia Carter and James Cueva."

"Yes, that would be us." Carter spoke for him, face unreadable as she offered the woman across her a blank look. Cueva drifted his eyes to her to see that she was worrying the hem of her shirt under the table, the barest glimpse of her own bulletproof vest appearing as she ruffled the fabric. She offers Pearl an immaculate smile as her flipper reappears to clasp its twin. "Now, let's skip the pleasantries, shall we? Let's start with why you called for a meeting."

Impatient. Cueva recalls in her file that Carter was a correspondent during the wars, where she's seen the worst thing a penguin could do to their neighbor. He recalls news clippings, interviews where she would stare down both sides of the war and press questions until she is satisfied with their answers. He remembers footage of her running through battlefields while trying to chase civilians who run to the battle rather than away it, armed with a bulletproof helmet and vest rather than a gun. Sometimes he forgets that correspondent and UAN officer were the same person.

"The Roundtable just thought that it would be nice if we, well, finally made you listen. Give a little insight on why we're doing this before you give the UAN the final verdict." Pearl shrugged as she leaned forward. Her face reads as polite as Cueva watched her carefully, seeing her match Carter's stance as she tilted her head. "It's funny, isn't it? Two sides of the war always fight first and rack up casualty numbers before they sit down for negotiations. But of course you know this, right Mia?"

"War is the failure of diplomacy." Is the only answer Carter offers her. The words are wrung from her throat as she minutely frowns at Pearl, who only offers her a complacent smile. He had to admit that Pearl's behavior was irritable to even him, but he can see that she's doing it just to get under their feathers. He pretends he's unfazed and continues listening to the conversation. "It is a battle of ego until one decides to be humble."

"Oh, she's smart." Pearl's eyes snap to him. It's almost as if her smile is plastered to her face, genuine and fake in one move. He reciprocates it to the best of his ability and tunes out the rest of the Taskforce's chatter in his earpiece. "Well, do you have anything to say for yourself?"

"I wouldn't really call this a war." Cueva gestured towards the cafe around them, quickly looking away from Pearl to look at the easy blues that dictated the walls of the cafe and the colorful knickknacks on every shelf. He tries not to stare too long at the plants that hung from the ceiling. "Calling this a war is a bit too much, don't you think?"

"My apologies, I'm not usually one for exaggeration." Pearl leans back and shakes her head as the waiter comes in with her smoothie and a plate of krempita. The white dessert innocently sat on its plate as she drove a fork through it. "You literally at the edge of your seats, so I'm presuming that you have questions. Come on, fire away."

Carter beats him to it. He's not surprised that she does. "You are an organized terrorist group made of former activists and extremists, how in Benny's name did you arm yourselves?"

The laugh that comes from Pearl sends a chill down his spine. It's light and innocent and doesn't at all fit the woman across them. He hears Lynx remind him that his blood pressure is rising from his earpiece. He ignores it. "Do you have any idea how lax people are with gun control around here? Seriously, they're just waiting for groups to arm themselves and stage uprisings against them."


"But what, background checks? Darling, to the law we're goody two shoes citizens who couldn't dare hurt a fly. We live regular lives with immaculate records, no blotch unlike the penguins on your team." Pearl's smile is coy as she tilts her head at them and takes a sip of her smoothie. She bats her eyelashes and shrugs. "If a citizen buys an assault riffle or two for the purpose of protecting themselves why, who would say no to that? If they were just fascinated by gun mechanism and actively collected them, who's there to stop them? They're clean, no spot in their records, so they're good to go."

He's not surprised that the Public takes advantage of loopholes to get what they want. He hears Wolfe sneering into the channel as if Pearl would hear his retort, with Heng overlapping him with arguments that alright, maybe she has a point. He almost doesn't catch Zarkova's comment over how both the Taskforce and the Public equally have red on their ledgers. Despite the ruckus, Cueva doesn't know what to feel about what the woman had to say. It's really not his fault that gun control was so lax around the continent, nor was it his fault that the system can be so faulty that it would let this escalate.

When he turns to Carter, he sees that her mouth is formed into a straight line. She opens her mouth with another question, "Do you have any idea how confusing it is to refer to you as the Public when you act nothing like the public we've sworn to serve and protect?"

It's weird, while he watches Pearl and Carter speak, to see all the emotions a smile can transmit with the simple flexing of multiple muscles. There's a thin line that dictates the difference between a sneer and a genuine grin, a certain degree that determines when the smile he's looking at is fake or flawlessly real. There were so many factors to look at, he realizes, from the way a penguin's eyes crinkle to how far the grin stretches across one's face. The one that Pearl's showing him reminds him of the ones that dazzle a madwoman's face.

"Bold of you to presume that we're different from the ones you've sworn to serve and protect." A giggle burst from her mouth as she shook her head, tilting it back as it transformed into full-on laughter. Cueva flicked his eyes to Carter to see that her face is blank, head slightly tilted as she tried to understand what she's looking at. The flipper on her lap curls and uncurls around her shirt as Pearl turned back to them.

"We do not serve and protect terrorists." Cueva piped up, frowning as Pearl tilted her head at him. Her lips pursed as he straightened in his chair, looking her straight in the eye. "Ms. Pearl, whether or not your reasons behind your actions are morally sound, you and your organization will still have to answer to all of the nations you have wronged with your kidnapping scheme."

She just barely squints at him. There's a beat of silence as she forks the dessert before her, turning the tall pillar of white that stood on her plate into a mess of white puffiness that vaguely reminds him of rice. She's halfway through the pillar before she sighs deeply, clicking her tongue and shaking your head. "Unbelievable. You still don't get it."

"Don't get what? What is there to even understand?" Carter frowned, tone sharpening as she leaned forward on the table. The force of her movements pushes the contents of the little table before them slightly backwards. A slosh of strawberry smoothie drips onto the painted surface. "You've been kidnapping innocent penguins from their homes and holding them hostage in horrible conditions because you're so convinced that doing so would force us to give you what, money and accountability?"

"You should know what it's like when people don't listen. You have to get their attention first so they can hear you, and we just had to use this to have you look our way." Pearl said innocently, shrugging as she dabbed a tissue at the strawberry stain. The white of the napkin spread out to become a diluted pink as she crumpled it. "We've always existed, you know? We've just been... quiet. In the shadows. Current events just gave us an opportunity to strike."

"Current events?" Cueva frowned, but he knows what she's referring to. She swirls the straw of her drink with a flipper as she tilted her head at him curiously, as if she silently questions him for not knowing the answer to his own questions.

"I'm talking about Theta, darling." She pursed her lips and leaned forward, taking a long sip of her pink drink. Cueva flicked his eyes to the two men behind her to see them grimace. "He was just a catalyst, someone who revealed to everyone just how dirty and wrong our systems are. When he did the right thing to inform us, what did you do?"

There's a beat of silence. Cueva leaned back as he tried to pull the strings around his head, looking at the pieces of evidence he once stared down with holograms. There's always been a presumption that some sort of aftershock would come from last year's case, with many agencies busying themselves with Theta-related cases since the ending of their last UAN hearing all those months ago. He remembers the reports of protest that begged for accountability, remembers seeing the marches that asked for transparency and for answers because why, why on earth does this time and age still have corrupt leaders and shady deals in its system? He'd say it is a part of life when he sometimes asks the same questions.

Beside him, Carter leaned back on her chair and shook her head. "You're all insane."

"Darling, we're just finishing what he started." Pearl shrugged innocently, taking a few forkfuls of the krempita. There's clear tension in the air that makes the pendant around his neck heavier, and he wishes for a moment to get out of the room at once. He reaches up to quiet down the earpiece hidden underneath his hair. "We're doing this all over again, you see. Someone makes some noise, the government sends someone to quiet them down. You claim to be the good guys in this story, hellbent to be the ones who defeat the evildoers. Tell me, Mia, are you so sure you're on the right side of history? We do the world a favor by exposing the people you work for and now they send you to do the damage control."

"We're the ones who work within the law, Pearl." Carter narrowed her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest. There's a fire in her eyes that warn him that she's becoming irritated with the whole debacle, a downwards turn in her lips that tells him that this whole conversation can go south. Cueva stills when she said so, quickly flicking his eyes to Pearl, who slowly began to erupt into laughter once more. He feels his heart drop to his stomach because he already knows where this is going. He's already wracking his brain for a rebuttal should Carter realize what's about to happen.

"Mia, have you ever looked into where Atticus Lowes is at the moment?" Pearl tilted her head as she watched Carter carefully, the telltale grin on her face smugly reminding him that this was not the situation they hoped for. He quietly reached for his wristwatch to press down on a button, hearing the chirp in his earpiece as indication that the standby warning has been raised. He knows that Carter wouldn't dare to attack Pearl simply for speaking what's on her mind, but he knows that things can turn ugly if he doesn't steer this conversation to where he wants it to go. "Pyotr Braginsky? How about George Smith?"

"They've all checked out, ma'am," Cueva said, clearing his throat as he clasped both flippers in the table in front of them. He kept his face and voice neutral as he offers her an easy smile, feeling his shoulders tense just a bit at the movement. He wracks his mind for all the reports he's studied and spoke. "They're all under UAN custody and are waiting to be sentenced for acts of terrorism against multiple countries, just like the rest of you once this investigation is finished."

Pearl studies him briefly. He's convinced — no, sure that his team has been truthful with the reports they submit to him regarding the few leads they have. He knows that everyone's done everything they can do just to get the answers the UAN wants of them, worked extensively to get the few tidbits of information they can get. Even if they had to do some shady things just to get what they need, he's sure that they were more than capable of covering it up in a way that it appears legal and clean. To know explicitly what they've done is none of his business: having the knowledge would make it harder to lie, and with the current circumstances, ignorance was bliss. He just hopes they don't disappoint him now.

"She doesn't know, doesn't she?" His jaw sets. Pearl perked up an eyebrow as she turned to Carter, who was watching them carefully. There's an expression on her face that he cannot read as Pearl continued to speak. "You know, for an officer assigned mainly to make sure that the Taskforce is not doing anything illegal, you sure are terrible at your job. You take their reports at face value and do not press them for specifications or personally investigate it yourself. What kind of employee does that make you when you're so inefficient, then?"

Carter doesn't entertain her with a reply. She takes a deep breath and remains quiet, staring Pearl straight in the eye as if she challenges her to keep talking. Cueva takes the opportunity to continue speaking just to deescalate the situation. "I can speak with complete confidence that the Taskforce has been following the rules and have been utterly transparent throughout the duration of the investigations. Anyway, we are not necessarily the problematic ones when it's the Public who has been wrecking havoc lately. We can be using this time to present a compromise instead of pointing out each other's flaws."

"Compromise? The last time we tried to present a compromise, we were shunned and considered leftists." Pearl shook her head and laughed, a bitter sound that sends him tensing once more. He quickly checks the windows outside of the cafe to see the vague shadows of Reyes and Rogue standing behind a curtain, flicking his eyes down to see the shadows of the secondary team already standing behind the alley. He turns back to Pearl as she continued speaking. "No, I'm here to provide an ultimatum. You can either provide in full all of our demands or we continue this game until one of us sees a fit ending."

There's silence. Cueva thought about what's given to them, suddenly finding himself sitting between a rock and a hard place. It's a clear given that the Public has enough resources to keep fighting them, with the added wild card factor that they may harm the hostages they keep captive. The UAN would not be pleased with following through with the demands of the Public, arguing that they do not negotiate with terrorists. The Taskforce still has to accomplish its mission: determine what the Public is, why they do this, and how to stop them. He finds himself drawing blanks when he realizes that he is no longer sure how to do that latter part.

Pearl stands from her chair, brushing off crumbs from her attire. She gives them both a nod as she speaks, "I think we're done here."

Carter makes a move to stop her, but Cueva holds her back. This is the best way to end the whole conversation without anything going wrong, the most neutral ending they could ever ask for. His grip tightens when Carter fights it as Pearl turns away, giving the cafe one more look before she's making her way out of the door. He sees Gloria by the cashier watching Pearl carefully, watches how she eyes the younger woman curiously, before she's moving aside and making her way to follow Pearl.

Cueva could only open his mouth to yell at Gloria to stay back before she's out of the door with Pearl.

UAN: So that's why you sent the report.

Carter: It was Pearl's objective to make us doubt our whole mission. I was already doubting the lineup Taskforce ever since I had that conversation with Cueva, but she only confirmed my paranoia and further ruined my trust on the Taskforce.

UAN: Ms. Carter—

Carter: I still stand with what I said in my report. Despite the fact that their methods aren't exactly favorable, they did their job to the best of their abilities. They accomplished what we asked of them, we cannot argue that the negatives outweigh the positives. Unfortunately, it doesn't change what happened after the negotiation.

"What is she doing?" Reyes hissed as he kept his eyes trained to the sniper scope in front of him, watching with rapt attention as Pearl walked out of the cafe with her two lackeys, catching Gloria tailing after her.

For a moment, Rogue was still absorbed with what she's just heard on the listening devices in the cafe. The ultimatum was heavy: it was either compliance or this mission continues. There was no guarantee that the Public would shift to tactics that would harm the hostages, nor is there a chance that they could ensure their safety. They do not negotiate with terrorists when it comes to situations like these, but the circumstances make her question the validity of the phrase. There is no surefire way that they can say who is a Public radical and who is not, no way to accurately identify them without mistakenly condemning someone. Truly, they were the public: part of the everyday commute of civilians who wander the countries they've sworn to serve and protect, distinct individually but similar as one. They blend in too easily, making it too difficult to determine a key difference that could rat out any of them in the crowd.

Interesting, how she's walked right into the indirect consequence to the Theta case.

"Commander!" Reyes's hissing is urgent, thickened by his accent and sharp on his tongue. She peaks through the curtains once more, her only answer to the agent. Pearl and Gloria stood at the doorway now, conversing about something no one can quite catch. They should have expected that the older woman would attempt to speak with the woman herself. From what Rogue gathered from Reyes, she knew how to stand her own ground and act brave when the situation calls for it. She would have almost considered the elderly woman as commendable if not for the fact that she's risking herself in a situation no one wants her in.

"Hold your fire." It's the only thing she can tell him. For a moment, she wishes that Pearl wouldn't try to harm the woman that Reyes has grown so fond of. Should the situation come that she needs to teleport to Gloria and take her out of harm's way, she would be more than willing to do it. She fumbles with the device on her flipper and quickly calibrates the distance she needs it to blink her into, since she didn't quite trust herself to use her own abilities with blinking too far or losing her balance quickly. The communication channel is silent in her ear as they all held their breath, waiting for the two to finish talking.

They exhale. Pearl pulls Gloria into a hug and pats her back, the vague mouth movements only indicating that they're conversation is over. Rogue pauses as she wonders what they could be talking about, itching to get down there to question the lady herself. The younger woman goes her way with her lackeys and leaves Gloria standing by the doorway. Her face is serene, just the tiniest bit proud, brave for what she's done. Rogue could only watch as Reyes followed the younger woman with his sniper rifle.

"Stand down." She grips his shoulder, squeezing just slightly. It's the only reassurance she can provide the agent as he tried to make sense of what just happened, trying to reason at him not to fire at the Public negotiator. He whips his head at her and gives her a dry look as he sputtered.

"Stand down? Boss, she could have hurt Gloria—"

"She didn't." Rogue said simply and shook her head, pondering to herself. She knows the term that media men are using to describe their mission; it's at the tip of her tongue. She watches with unseeing eyes as Reyes stormed away from the window and proceeded to pace around the room, rambling in a mixture of English and Spanish with a few colorful words here and there. She catches her name in some of those sentences but doesn't mind, waiting until he's calm to finally speak. "It's a tightrope act."

He gives her a wild, disbelieving look, before he snaps about not having the patience to listen to her circus metaphors before storming out of the room.

tightrope act
/ˈtʌɪtrəʊp - ækt/ (n)

1: the skill of walking along a thin wire or rope
2: the metaphorical act of trying to balance two opposing views with little room for compromise

The air to the satellite office's snack room was thick with crackling electricity, a form of tension that reminds her of the first time they were all in one room all those months ago. Everyone's silent as one by one, the main respondents filed into the room. No one dares to speak about what they've just heard and what this meant for their investigations, none of them acknowledging the clear questions that stand before them. It's strange what it does to her body, sending a flurry of antsiness down her throat, thundering until it settles in her stomach. She doesn't know how to interpret it.

Carter's faced criticism with an open mind for as long as she could remember, only biting when someone dares to say it in a condescending manner. There was something about Pearl's laxity and nonchalance that thoroughly irritated her — the know-it-all, high horse aura that oozed with self-importance did not bode well with Carter. Those types of people always grated on her nerves, their distinct form of vanity always making her snappish and short-tempered even in the calmest situations. It's a character flaw, she's been working on it, but every ounce of diplomacy she's beaten into herself flies out of the window every time.

Cueva is quiet beside her, refusing to look her in the eye. He's been gripping the cookie in his flipper for some time now, seemingly lacking the appetite to consume it or nervously munch on it as they wait for everyone to come in. His eyes are pointedly staring straight ahead, refusing to even acknowledge anyone besides those who acknowledge him first. It's off of him to be like this, so spaced out and so deep in his own head.

Wolfe is the last one they're waiting for, and he comes in with a grand entrance in the form of a strong stride and, "Cueva, what the hell was that?"

It comes as a snarl that shakes everyone awake. There's an alertness in Cueva's eyes with the question that's pointed at him, widening just slightly with the acknowledgment as if he was caught with a flipper in the cookie jar. Those who watch the event unfold snap their heads to the questioned man with enough force to cause whiplash, a shift in the electricity in the room that sends a chill down her spine. She watches with baited breath as her sight crosses between the both of them, taking into note the tightness in Wolfe's shoulders and the hard set of Cueva's jaw.

"You heard what she said." It's the only offered reply. There's dull static in her ears that only decreases just slightly with the exchange of words. She flicks her eyes around the room to find Zarkova staring pointedly at the candle that sits in the center of the dinner table. Beside her, Rogue had a deeply cut frown on her face as she turned her head between the two men. Heng crossed his arms and sighed deeply as Wolfe snapped.

"We hardly have enough information to work with!"

"But we have information." Zarkova's voice is strong, cutting through the electricity and static that blankets the world around them. She turns to Wolfe and locks eyes with him, her mouth a straight line of graveness. He doesn't even falter, hardly reacts to her glower, before he lets her continue speaking. "This is a Theta-affiliated case, an indirect consequence to what has happened a year ago. They must've been those protestors who took to the streets when the information was leaked."

"Oh, he's back to bite us all where it hurts then." The thought is dry and sarcastic as Kowalski leaned back on his seat, a scowl on his face as he nodded to a man across the table. Carter turned to see him staring right at the Munian agent. "I04, enlighten us about the madman's current situation."

"That's classified." The reply is quick, neutral. I04 has always presented himself as placid and blasé in all the moments she's been in the same room with him, constantly even with everyone and bluntly honest. He's always seemingly been this heavily fortified wall of professionalism that only went down during a football game, typically involving being wedged between two yelling men and betting money. Beyond that, she cannot recall a time when he wasn't guarded and keen on others. She doesn't know if she should be frustrated or intimidated.

"Tell me this." Everyone's attention is directed to her. The static has lulled to background white noise as her thoughts finally sorted themselves out, circling back to the conversation with Pearl and its contents. She opens and closes her mouth around her own words as she finally asks the question she's been waiting to ask. "What happened to Atticus Lowe?"

A beat of silence. Her eyes go to Kowalski and Wolfe, who only stare right at her with straight faces. There's a barely-there frown on Wolfe's face that almost seemed to scrutinize, a question formulated with the tiniest quirk of his eyebrows. Kowalski only gave her a grave look that reminded her of doctors in hospitals who announce deaths to the loved ones — neutral, professional, understanding. It makes her snap.

They can lie to her about everything they've done until the end of time, but it's clear that the truth will eventually reveal itself and consequences will be dealt. Neither men regale her with a confirmation or a denial, only giving her silence and pointed stares. She rewinds mentally to when they first announced the find on Lowes: the questionability of the find, the doubt on the validity, the lacking paperwork of what happened to him after. It's nagged her for weeks before other matters were brought to her attention, and she cannot help but shake her head.

If this was the first slip of the Taskforce doing anything out of the law to get the UAN's results, then who knows what else they've done?

"This is quite the turnout." Cueva finally said, rubbing a flipper over his forehead as he shook his head. She turns to him and sees resignation, a man who's bent to the weight on his shoulders after putting up a struggle. Carter knows what this means and steps back, shaking her head further as she realizes all that's happened. She feels sick in the stomach as static threatens to deafen her. "I'm going to say it for all that this was quite a disappointment."

"A disappointment?" Wolfe's words hiss and cut through the haze. She doesn't acknowledge it as makes quick steps past the team's table and out of the snack room, the Shopper's words nipping at her heels. Her head spins slowly as she tries to sort out her thoughts once more. "We did what we could to get what they want!"

She's in the hallway to take a deep breath, head light as she tilts her head towards the lights above her head. Maybe Pearl was just a bit right about her incompetence (but she'd never admit that), maybe she's been too trusting of the Taskforce as she's come to know them. Sometimes she can't believe that despite the more personal shells she's come to bear witness to, they still had the audacity to go behind the Council's back. It's frightening to hear the room roar into sharply worded conversation behind the door as she tried to make sense of the fact that oh Benny, I need to tell Athena.

"I know you did what you had to do but if you just had the sense to be subtle then even the Public wouldn't know!"

The words are sharpened by a snarl, "What does this make you, some self-proclaimed goody-two-shoes who knows what's right or wrong? Are you calling me sloppy, Cueva?"

She winces. It's easy for her to forget whenever she's so invested with the people rather than their positions that they're multifaceted, capable of switching between masks of carefully threaded personas depending on what suits them best. She cannot tell unless certain if the penguin in front of her has some kind of ulterior motive that involved her unknowing cooperation. She doesn't know what is to blame: the constant stream of reports they'd all send to the information hub, the time sensitivity of the entire case, or the fact that maybe she wasn't ready to take on all of that workload on her own. Perhaps this is what happens when you stay in the battlefields to pick up the scoops for too long, too used to absorbing all the information without stopping to verify them properly.

When she thinks of it, has Cueva ever even frank with her in the first place?

She considers how she needs to get a closed meeting session with Atienza, what she has to say and how she will present the current updates. It's clear to her now that the Taskforce is barely put together by facades of professionalism stuck together with a poor excuse of adhesive of the UAN. Cueva was right, all those months back: if the organization wanted respondents who would work within the law, function under pacifist methods that meant a bureaucratic gridlock, then the current makeup wasn't the right pick.

The snack room behind her has gone quiet. She stands straighter and strains to listen, wonders how long has it been since she's started thinking of what she had to do. The electricity that snapped and crackled in the break room earlier has seemingly gone out, fizzled into nothing but the uneasy silence. The quiet of their hallway is deafening that she wants someone to speak.

"I don't care about the steps you have to take to get the job done, I know how it works for us and I understand it." Cueva's voice is loud and rings clear, strung tight with tension and scratched slightly by the earlier shouting match. Carter tilts her head towards the door to listen as the man continued. "But the Council will not share the same sentiments and I cannot always smooth talk my way out of it."

She settles on what she has to tell Winston when Cueva calls the meeting adjourned. She turns down the hallway before any of them can get out of the door.


WINSTON: I'm assuming something's happened that made you take a flight back here, Ms. Carter. You should have listened to when James told me over the phone, he sounded so distraught. Would you care to enlighten me on what has occurred?

CARTER: Ms. Winston, I have strong reason to believe that the Taskforce has been working outside of the law to produce the results we want them to submit to us. The Public negotiator we talked to implied it and when I asked them about it, they broke into discourse. I've theorized that they've most likely used interrogation, bribery, maybe administered some disappearances of their own.

WINSTON: You're proposing that the entire Taskforce can be subjected to an inquiry, Carter. Easy now, do you have evidence of this?

CARTER: I don't think they should be put into an inquiry. I just wish to inform you that everything that's been report—

WINSTON: Let me get this sorted. You flew all the way back to South Pole City just to tell me that the entire Taskforce may or may not be making multiple penguin rights violations while actively breaking Mandate 54, risking the integrity and name of the United Antarctic Nations with their actions? And despite these circumstances, whether evidenced or not, you think they should not be put to trial? Mia, you're an integrity officer. How did you not see this?

CARTER: A key difference between intelligence officers and politicians is that one is actually trained to keep secrets.

WINSTON: I also don't understand why you're informing me and not the Council as a whole.

CARTER: They will not listen to reason and would fall into the same discourse as the Taskforce did.

WINSTON: Mia, are you asking me to—

CARTER: Listen to me first, Athena! The Taskforce has successfully raided two major strongholds of the Public and liberated over a hundred hostages in good health. The media is in the middle of a high with all the events are currently unfolding, and I will not be anticlimactic and put them down into a bureaucratic gridlock of an inquiry at such a case.

WINSTON: Right, and you want me to keep it quiet with the rest of the Council?

CARTER: I need you to. I still— I still think they're... good people. They have the right motives, right reasons for staying on this case and doing what they do. Their methods just aren't... our type of thing.

WINSTON: I see. We still have to do something about them, though. Do you have any proposals?

CARTER: I... I think it's best if we put them on leave. Indefinite leave. They need some fresh air and a little space.

WINSTON: Time out, then. I'll see what I can do.


Eight: Intermission Number[edit]

For Cueva, it's always been a strange occurrence setting foot on foreign soil, a strange combination of culture shock and plain awkwardness with a healthy dose of jet lag. It always has him knocked out for a solid 12 hours, passed out on whatever surface he found suitable to have a light coma on. Upon waking up, he'd go about trying to feed himself food that would probably have his doctor scolding him for not paying attention to what he's eating, sometimes stepping out of whatever hole he's in. That's when he takes the time to explore where he's at, learn about who he's working with and what it looks like.

South Pole City greeted him with the same spunk every major city had: the air of business, the hustle and bustle of urban life all around him, and penguins of all shapes and sizes. The sky above him was a cross between gray and blue, what with all of the clouds covering the sea of heavenly blue. He didn't mind any of this as he crawled into his bed at the Nightingale Hotel, easily shutting out Mendoza and Perez's terse conversation and proceeding to go into his 12-hour nap.

He doesn't dream of anything in his sleep. Many would assume that he dreamt of the past, or his paperwork, or some strange fantasy concocted by his head. Whenever he's sent to psychiatric debriefing, they'd always ask him if he's been having nightmares, or any odd dreams that may point to some sort of psychological damage. He's always given them a look dead in the eye and the denial that no sir, he hasn't dreamed a single thing. He'd always get some wary frown from whoever asked him before he's given another question to answer. There's always this presumption hanging over his head that he is haunted by the demons of his past when many of his fellow Orbits suffer in the hands of past dreams of the civil war, always this underlying question whenever he's sleeping if he's alright or not.

He doesn't know how to tell any of them that those memories haunt him when he's awake, not asleep.

When he wakes, he finds that it's already morning, with the familiar noise of commute greeting him with its usual hustle. He can smell breakfast being cooked in the suite's kitchen, the crackling of oil working in tandem with light conversation in his native tongue between the two men as it drifts into the room. He takes a moment to properly wake up by rolling onto the other side of the bed, half assuming that his wife was there before realizing that she was back home with the kids. It takes ten more minutes to get out of bed and curse at his stiffening joints before pulling on something that wasn't travel crinkled and smelly.

He shuffles out. Perez was casually reading the newspaper while sitting on a bar stool, his coffee being magically stirred by a spoon he's most likely enchanted into stirring. The vice president was already dressed in business attire, a suitcase and a few bags standing next to him as the only hint that he'll be making his way back to the country. Cueva's simply acknowledged with a curt greeting and a nod before the man's returning to perusing the paper, a low hum in his throat as he did. At the stove, Mendoza was in the middle of cooking up some fried rice, a chopping board filled with multiple ingredients placed right next to him.

"Finally awake after slipping into a coma?" Mendoza greeted him, turning to face him while holding up a spatula. Cueva doesn't want to know how the man managed to find a wok in the country while he was out cold, but he really shouldn't be surprised. Mendoza was known for knowing things simply out of nowhere and finding things where one wouldn't expect it to be found. He'll probably never ask him how he intends to store the wok when it's time to go, since it's most likely not something the hotel owns.

"Nice to see you up too." Cueva shook his head as he glanced back at Perez, who folded the paper and set it aside once the conversation turned to Cueva. His face is unreadable at the time being, but he knows what he's thinking of.

Ever since Carter ditched everyone to get on a flight to South Pole City and speak with Athena, the Taskforce has been holding their breaths about what would be happening next. Cueva knows that there's no shame in knowing what they've done: desperate times call for desperate measures. The Council may never see eye-to-eye with them regarding the technically morally unaligned methods they had to use to get their answers, no matter how much effort Cueva puts into persuading them otherwise. However, the answer they receive is not what they expected: indefinite leave, effective immediately. The Council seemingly needed time to think on the next moves before the Taskforce is deployed to their next major location with their most promising lead. They've been permitted to return to their homelands or to South Pole City to take a breather, take a moment to clear their heads while nothing isn't happening yet.

Cueva thinks they've been thrown into limbo.

"I'll speak to Humphrey as soon as I'm back," Perez said, deep voice cutting through the hissing of the rice as it cooked in the oil and the other ingredients. There's a frown on his face that Cueva knows is from thinking about what's happened to his sister, raising up a flipper to make the spoon pause from its stirring. It taps on the rim of the mug and deposits itself on the saucer underneath it, letting him reach up and take the mug for a long sip. "It'll be messy but I'll see what I can do."

Cueva nodded, only half-listening as he made his way to the fridge and opening it with a quiet huff. He ignores Mendoza's dry comment about the contents of his fridge that would get the disapproval of every doctor in the whole capital, opting instead to look for the one thing he needs at the moment. He carefully nudges away bottles and tupperware in search for the creamer he's bought a few days before leaving the hotel room, finding it behind a half-eaten pint of ice cream and a takeaway box filled with stir fry noodles. He hums in satisfaction when he extracts it from the fridge and shakes its contents, whistling as he makes his way to the other side of the kitchen to make himself coffee.

"Do you think everyone else is okay?" Cueva said, thinking out loud as he stirred the creamer into the coffee after putting an ample amount of sugar in it. He's always preferred his coffee to be incredibly sweet and creamy, much to the disgust of everyone around him. No one would ever understand Cueva's insatiable sweet tooth besides himself and his wife.

"You still care for them even when they've been nothing but deadweight for you to carry?" Mendoza asked gently despite the clear question in his wording. It's no joke that Cueva simply worries over everyone he's ever been given the responsibility to watch over, even if they've had several shortcomings. The other man stirs the rice a few more times before he's sliding chopped tomatoes into the wok, scrapping noises filling the room as he kept speaking. Cueva's always thought that his words were always sharpened around certain syllables, a probable result of being half-Zhouese. "You're such a bleeding heart, James."

"It's not a bad thing to be one, Philip." Perez shook his head as he steepled his flippers in front of him, tilting his head as he watched the two Belt members speak. Cueva notices that he's loosely holding his wand in one of them, a dark brown one made of polished wood with a band of gold marking the difference between body and handle. He flicks it absentmindedly as blue energy shoots out of it, opening a cupboard above his head and letting plates float onto the counter before him. It's a casual gesture that has Cueva watching in awe, since he doesn't often see displays of magic from the vice president of all people. "Now serve that rice over here. Any second more and you'll start burning it."

Mendoza huffed but followed through with the request anyway, switching off the stove after giving the wok a few more stirs. It's frankly adorable to see the usually stern looking director wearing bright pink mittens as he brought the wok to the counter, since he cannot be bothered to transfer the rice in something that doesn't take up much space. Cueva's mouth was already watering by the time it was set down, already grabbing to get the first few bites of fried rice.

Of course, he'd later curse himself when he realizes that it was freshly cooked, therefore incredibly hot.

Snowzerland greets her with its usual cheery skies and refreshening air that smells like pine trees and fresh springs, a familiar cool temperature against her face. The air was filled with the typical ruckus an airport would have, lively chatter in German with the occasional yelled greeting aimed towards a newcomer. The airport was filled with penguins who'd rush to their terminal gates or checking their watch, and the arrivals area covered with waiting families and friends. Brandt sighed as she finally stepped out of immigration, dragging her suitcase behind her as she looked around for someone who would be taking her home.

It's impossible that her sister would be here to welcome her after being away from home for so long, since she was still learning to drive a car and would most likely wreck it while on the highway. That would mean that her mother wouldn't be here to see her, especially since she's been stuck in a wheelchair for years since that freak accident. Brandt averts her thoughts to somewhere else at that, avoiding it to the best to her abilities as she tries to figure out who would be here to see her. That would leave her handlers or Hoffman's fiance, neither of which she has the energy to entertain if that was the ca—

All thoughts fly out the window when she sees her.

The professor groomed herself properly for someone whose schedule should be covered back to back at this time and week, yellow feathers that gleam golden making her stand out from the rest of the crowd. It's as if she's just walked out of the lecture room after being barraged with curious students's questions, white coat still holding the clipped ID on its lapel and several writing tools weighing down one of her pockets. She's always kept her hair back in a carefully arranged bun, spectacles perched on her beak as she blinked around before turning to Brandt. For a moment, she feels as if all the troubles of traveling across the continent was all worth it just to see the relief on that face.

Hoffman appears next to her, smug grin on his face as he regarded his gobsmacked superior. He's always noticed that her face was always open just for one person, who just so happened to be making her way to them. He knows Brandt to be hardworking and adamant in doing what needs to be done, regardless if it drains the life out of her or not. It's always relieving, then, to see her set down paperwork at the mere mention of the neurosurgeon she's unfortunately gotten her eyes on. He nudges Brandt and winks at her once before he's turning away in search for his fiance, leaving her to face the professor as she finally stopped before her.

Lindholm stops right in front of her, grey eyes blown wide open at the mere sight of her. Brandt doesn't know what she's looking at: her travel weary body, the tautness in her shoulders caused by endless nights sitting in front of her hotel desk, the disorder in her hair from improper care. It takes Brandt a moment to recognize her grin as wide and welcoming as she was pulled into a hug.

Surreal. Lindholm's German is bright and fluid, chattery that sends her head spinning. "Lydia! Thank goodness you're home."

"Just for now." She replied in an instant, reminding the neurosurgeon that she was not meant to stay for long. While the Public was still rampant and held enough leverage to make their demands threatening, her job still wasn't finished and so was the Taskforce. Although she was barred like everyone else from the communication hub, that wouldn't stop her from doing her work from here. She almost doesn't notice the tightening grip on her shoulders. "But I'm glad that I'm home."

"You better. Your mother asked me to take you back." Lindholm pulled away, a wide grin spread on her face as her eyes gleamed. There's joy in there that she cannot exactly translate properly, mind to hazy from recognizing that the professor was right in front of her. Brandt takes a moment to curse herself for not preparing for this moment as the latter laughed, bending over and giving Brandt a minor heart attack. "You owe me stories, Lyd. You've been holding back for too long."

For the first time in a long while, Brandt laughed nervously as she tried to weigh her next words very carefully. She's always been so terribly careful around Ilsa Lindholm, making sure she wouldn't imply the wrong message when it comes to her. There are questions floating around her head if the professor had something important to run back to, important appointments that demanded her attention. All of that goes away as her mouth opened against her wishes. "It's a date, then?"

Lindholm goes quiet. Brandt's already backpedalling mentally, cursing in every language she knows because of course, she had to mess this up of all times. Sure, she can be extremely calm and detached when it comes to the Taskforce and everyone in it, but Benny have mercy if it were Lindholm. She watches as Lindholm looks up to her for a moment before her grin widens, impossibly so, then nods eagerly. "Certainly!"

She doesn't know if she should thank or curse whatever supernatural being out there for putting her in this situation.

UAN: It seems as if mandatory leave did you all good.

Heng: If you're asking if it gave us time to decompress, then you're right.

UAN: Tell us, Commander Heng, were you aware of your fellow members's activities throughout the leave?

Heng: I haven't got the vaguest idea, but I do believe Wolfe tried to get a tan...

UAN: I won't even ask.


EVALUATOR: Dr. Richard Stafford, PsyD

As noted during the debriefing, Agent Brandt was among those in the northern teams alongside Agent Robert Wolfe, where they were within the offensive lines that were infiltrating the village. She was among those affected by a sonic weapon that incapacitated several operatives during the initial parts of the mission. Despite this, she actively participated in breaking into several houses to extract civilians, as well as getting them to safer area where backup forces would take them to safety. It's noted through the witness of several others with her that she was seen soothing any troubled civilians before extracting them from the houses.

When questioned about this, Brandt has been open with her answer with a plain shrug. She's disclosed that she's experienced handling troubled children in the past, mentioning numerous nieces and nephews as well as her own sister. Following this opening question, she responded to every other question sufficiently that she did not require further probing. She appeared rather emotionless throughout that when questioned further to get a more emotional response, she became guarded.

The evaluator can confirm that Brandt is mentally cleared for further duties. It may be expected, however, through analysis of her mental health data sheet as well as consultation from her handlers at the SSS, that she may experience mild disorientations and nightmares. For this, she's been given a prescription for sleeping pills as well as a referral for any psychiatrist she may visit. Although these are just precautionary measures, it's presume that any issues in mental health will dissipate in the following weeks.


EVALUATOR: Dr. Misha Vasiliev, PsyD

Ms. Carter was nowhere near Fyodor at the time of the raid, instead stationed in the safe zone with Director Cueva. She maintained stable communications with the Taskforce and the safe zone through the communication hub, where she would go back and forth within the camp to inform the medical personnel when the team began extracting civilians. She was there to welcome several batches of injured hostages before she was redirected to helping the medics with some patients who needed immediate assistance. From there, she joined Cueva in the final checks in Fyodor as well as retrieving the Taskforce from the battlefield.

While she appeared to be professional and stable with the evaluator throughout the evaluation, it was clear that she was troubled with what she saw. With reference to her data sheet as well as her previous psychiatric assessment, it's noted that she was a correspondent that often saw war before she applied to the UAN as an Internal Integrity officer. She answered questions given to her down to the finest of details, sometimes getting teary-eyed when she had to recollect what she saw. She's clear with her stand that what she saw wasn't in any way morally sound and that what the child hostages had to go through was surely traumatizing.

The evaluator can say with confidence that Ms. Carter is mentally sound and may continue her duties in the UAN. She may experience nightmares and recurring flashbacks due to what she's seen that may stimulate repressed memories of her times as a correspondent. For this, she's requested for a prescription for anti-anxiety medications as well as sleeping pills, which she was given. She's also been given a referral for any psychiatrist she wishes to see in the future.


EVALUATOR: Dr. Karolina Pavlovna, PsyD

Director Cueva was mainly worked in the safe zone with Ms. Mia Carter at the time of the Fyodor raid, where he was with the Taskforce in every point of the raid through the communications hub. Since he was the only activated main respondent who was not part of the battle, Cueva compensated with asking questions about the scene as well as making sure the team had everything they needed to do the job to the best of their abilities. He hardly stepped out of the main tent of the safe zone unless he himself had to carry out a specific request. He alongside Ms. Carter went to Fyodor to extract the Taskforce as well as assess the village during the aftermath.

It's note-worthy that Cueva was formerly part of the special operations sector of his organization prior to becoming the director, so he'd be more than familiar with the scenes he had to see. He managed to answer his questions with a polite but tired smile on his face, frequently putting jokes every now and then to lighten the mood throughout the evaluation. Cueva does not appear fazed by the clear violence required to do what they were tasked to do, seeing it as a necessary evil that he's more than willing to commit. He's remarked that he's proud of his Taskforce's efforts despite the clear blunder that came early on, and that they more than deserve the 72-hour mandatory leave that would be given to them once they return to the USA.

The evaluator has cleared Director Cueva as mentally fit for his duties with the UAN. He's requested for a prescription for sleeping pills, since there was a likely chance that he may experience nightmares days after the raid. The evaluator had to consult with his records with the physical assessment since he's been issued medications for his migraines and blood pressure, and since then given him the sufficient pills that wouldn't counteract with his other medications. In addition to this, Cueva has been given a referral for any psychiatrist he wishes to see for emotional unpacking and decompressing.


EVALUATOR: Dr. Karolina Pavlovna, PsyD

Deputy Commander Heng is one of the key personnel in the planning and executing of the Fyodor raid, where he lead the southern teams into the village. He was injured by a sonic weapon that was supposedly released by one of the Taskforce members as a distraction, but managed to still do his duties. Through methods of claiming strategic points of the southern parts of the area as well as setting off incendiary bombs in well-placed points, Heng was able to cover ground quickly and extract civilians from houses. He was one of the first operatives throughout the mission to notice that all of the hostages they were finding were children.

Since he is a special operations man, therefore operations such as Fyodor are not an uncommon sight, he did not seem bothered by the protocols that required this assessment to occur. Heng managed to be polite enough to tolerate questioning despite his clear body language that he would rather be out of the room, fidgeting every now and then and glancing at the clock whenever he can. It could be said that he was mildly exasperated with all the probing and questioning that he's had to endure ever since he got out of the village, and seemed more than ready to get out of the room. While he's not totally happy with what's happened with everyone spiraling down to bouts of tinnitus, he still thinks that they did all they could to get those civilians out of Fyodor.

The evaluator has cleared Deputy Commander Heng as mentally fit for his duties with the UAN. He's been given a standard prescription for sleeping pills should he find that he's gripped by insomnia or has recurring nightmares. He has tried to decline the need for prescription pills, siting that he may probably forget to take them since he'd be using his leave for sleeping, but reluctantly took it after a bit of pressing. Besides this, he's been given a referral for any psychiatrist he wishes to see for emotional unpacking and decompressing.


EVALUATOR: Dr. Misha Vasiliev, PsyD

Operative I04 lead the western teams in infiltrating Fyodor, quickly covering ground as he ran ahead the rest of the team. He seemed to be unabated by the sonic weapon that was unleashed early into the raid, and remained to be unscathed as he cleared the streets of Public extremists. Due to this, it gave his teams the time to extract civilians from the houses and get them into the safe zone, also allowing them the chance to branch out and take down the northwestern and southwestern parts of the village. Due to this, I04's team was one of the first to reach the heart of the village with the highest number of rescued civilians.

Upon entering the evaluation room, however, he immediately questioned the purposes of this assessment. It was explained by the evaluator that the purposes of this evaluation was to determine if he was mentally fit to continue working within the Taskforce, and that it would serve as reference for future debriefings and assessments. With this, I04 replied that he did not need assessment as he was perfectly fine and that this whole affair was "a complete waste of time for the both of us." From there, he evaded questioning by either throwing the question back at the evaluator or responding that he did not need to answer it. With pressing, he'd give vague and hardly substantial answers to the questions before the evaluator gives up.

The evaluator can say with confidence that I04 is mentally sound and may continue his duties in the UAN, despite the clear resistance he had towards questioning. While he was adamant in not revealing information to the evaluator, it's clear that he's capable of thinking and speaking properly enough to resume his responsibilities. He's been given a standard prescription of sleeping pills as well as a referral to any psychiatrist he wishes to see in the future, but both of these have been rejected by the operative.


EVALUATOR: Dr. Richard Stafford, PsyD

As noted during the debriefing, Bureaucrat Kowalski was stationed in the southern teams alongside Deputy Commander Jian Liang Heng as one of the three medics during the whole operation. He was among those affected by a sonic weapon that incapacitated several operatives during the initial parts of the mission. Despite this, he continued his work as the key medical personnel of the eastern team, going in with break-in teams to do initial assessments on the civilians they find. Kowalski was the operative that informed the safe zone that a majority of the children they'll be bringing in are malnourished and dehydrated and may not cover the 5 miles between them without some assistance.

During the evaluation, Kowalski expressed clear annoyance at the lack of medics who were present at the time of the operation. He recalled his past as an army surgeon for the US Army and mentioned that even with that many operatives, he'd still have enough staff to cover for him when he was too busy stitching someone else up. He saw that while they were successful in retrieving all of the civilians unharmed, he regretted that they didn't expect them to be physically weak from captivity. He answered his questions briskly that he often glossed over some details, as if he wants to get out of the room as soon as possible. He would constantly shake his head and mutter about how the whole thing was a mess the moment they missed that one shot.

The evaluator can confirm that Kowalski is mentally cleared for further duties. He may experience recurring nightmares and flashbacks in the future due to the raid, and may be hostile towards questions concerning the events in the Fyodor raid. It's suggested for future reference that any questions about Fyodor would be handled with care, and that he would gently be prodded rather than demanded for answers. Kowalski has been given a prescription for sleeping pills as well as a referral for any psychiatrist he may visit. He took the prescription, but eyed it curiously and wondered out loud if he could have just been given Cream Soda.


EVALUATOR: Dr. Misha Vasiliev, PsyD

Commander Tvarkov was one of the two snipers assigned to the western teams, tasked with finding good vantage points to snipe out of while ground forces extracted civilians from the houses. She was one of the many operatives who were affected by the sonic weapon that was unleashed early into the raid, but this seemingly did not affect her when she went on with her duties. At the given opportunity, however, Tvarkov easily changed her objectives to evacuating the civilians herself by teleporting them out of Fyodor and into the safe zone, often having to reappear in the other parts of the village to collect other children. She would sometimes return with ammunition or medical supplies should these require replenishing.

While she sufficiently answered the questions throughout the evaluation, she appeared to be detached from her surroundings and frequently spaced out. It's noted by the evaluator that Tvarkov lived in Fyodor in her youth before she was taken by the Ruscan Syndicate. When asked about her past in the village, she struggles to come up with a sufficient answer as she stumbles and frowns over details. It's only with these questions that she stammers and twitches, appearing distressed at the prospect of thinking of her past. She's quoted to have said that she "can hardly remember what's so important to [her] that it hurts to try."

The evaluator can say with confidence that Tvarkov is mentally sound and may continue her duties in the UAN. It's suggested that questions about her association with Fyodor would be avoided as she would fail to answer these properly. Tvarkov has requested for a prescription for sleeping pills, and has been granted one that would be compatible to the medications she's taking due to the damage teleportation has done to her DNA. She's also been given a referral to any psychiatrist she wishes to see in the future.


EVALUATOR: Dr. Richard Stafford, PsyD

As noted during the debriefing, Agent Wolfe was one of the key personnel in the strategizing and executing of the Fyodor raid, where he lead the northern teams into the village. He was among those affected by a sonic weapon that incapacitated several operatives during the initial parts of the mission. He continued to press into the village and faced heavy resistance from Public extremists, leading him to be the last team that reached the center of Fyodor. It's noted that Wolfe's main tactics involved urban combat training as part of the SIA Special Forces, which helped overcome heavy waves of artillery when it was thrown at them.

During the evaluation, Wolfe appeared to be fixated on a hitch that occurred early into the mission. He expressed that the sonic weapon as a distraction was uncalled for and absolutely reckless, that no one was prepared nor aware that it existed. There were no given countermeasures for the Taskforce to avoid its effects, thus it affected a majority of them and could have undermined the whole operation. He frequently asked if the question he's asked is the last as he quickly went over the details, sometimes appearing snappish whenever he's prodded. There were times when the evaluator had to pause to allow the man time to decompress.

The evaluator can confirm that Wolfe is mentally cleared for further duties. With reference to his psychiatric profile in the SIA, he may experience night terrors and flashbacks when reminded of the raid. It's suggested that he may take light work if necessary, and that he tries not to strain himself should he wake up from a nightmare. Wolfe has been given a prescription for sleeping pills as well as a referral for any psychiatrist he may wish to visit. He quickly declined this and went on his way.


EVALUATOR: Dr. Karolina Pavlovna, PsyD

Agent Zarkova was one of the two snipers stationed with the eastern teams during the raid, where she was tasked with getting into strategic vantage points to snipe out approaching enemies as teams on the ground extract civilians. She seemed to be unaffected by the sonic weapon that was unleashed in the battlefield due to the special NRR-designed earpieces she had on her during the mission. She went into houses with the other break-in teams and assisted in consoling hysteric children before sending them off to Commander Tvarkov to be sent to the safe zone. She managed to secure a particularly strategic position in a house that gave her a wide view of the village center, allowing her to snipe from all directions.

She did not appear to be bothered by the evaluation and greeted the evaluator politely. Zarkova was relaxed throughout the questioning, often smiling tiredly and stretching her limbs every now and then. She expressed great worry over the children she rescued from Fyodor, stating that no child should have been kept in those conditions while under captivity. As a mother, she could sympathize with the distraught parents and constantly mentioned plans on visiting the children's wards where the Fyodor children were recovering. When it came to details about the raid, she was concise and direct to the point about what happened and did not hesitate to mention gruesome bits of the raid.

The evaluator has cleared Agent Zarkova as mentally fit for her duties with the UAN. She's been given a standard prescription for sleeping pills should she have any difficulties sleeping or have recurring nightmares. It's best suggested that she spends more time with her family to cope with what she experienced during the raid, and that she would rest throughout the 72-hour leave. Besides this, she's been given a referral for any psychiatrist she wishes to see for emotional unpacking and decompressing.

His memory of last night flitters in and out of his mind slowly, sluggish memories that somehow evade him whenever he reaches to hold them. He remembers his darkened bedroom when he decided that watching Zhouese soap operas wasn't how he wanted to spend the rest of his night, how the moonlight flitted across the room in dull white streaks against wooden furniture. He can recall pulling himself into the bed (he doesn't remember the last time he's had someone beside him), shutting his eyes close and drifting off to sleep easily. It's quiet and dark before he hears the door open, but he doesn't remember his reaction when he sees her.

There's a dull ache in his chest whenever he remembers that his girlfriend, one of the SAD's finest deep cover agents named Marine O'Neal, had put herself in the Public's radar as a potential member of its ranks. She did not even ask him if she was authorized to do so, leaving him to find out from his subordinates that she has gone off to join the Public. He cannot recall where she currently was in its hierarchy — she can hardly find the opportunity to relay information to him when they watch her every move — but he knows that she's high enough that it lets her know locations of other holding places. She has yet to report to him where these cells are so he can send the EPF and SAD to them and take them down.

Kowalski doesn't need to involve the Taskforce for this when it's currently... unavailable.

The words she say to him are warbled in his head from sleep, but he knows a kiss when he feels it and knows a tease when he hears it. There's a soft smile on her face that barely holds back a giggle, clothes smelling like she's been in an air conditioned room for a while. Still, her body radiates heat from where he was lying, face luminous under the moonlight, and he somehow couldn't get his limbs to pull her into bed. It's as if he's under some numbing agent. "Actually sleeping early for once, Mason?"

He can't remember what he replied to her, some murmured protest that's as flimsy as his own memories. A comment of anger about her being gone for so long is at the tip of his tongue, but it flies out of the window when he feels her play through his hair. He almost finds himself at the edge between consciousness and sleep. He can't remember what he said after but he knows it's along the tangent of staying.

"You know I can't stay." Yes, she can't stay. His sleep muddled brain wants to remind her that in the first place, he never authorized her to walk into the lion's den to become one of them. No one asked her to take a mission that wasn't even in the roster in the first place, which was clearly an act of insubordination that should be punished accordingly. He could have asked any agent, a hundred other agents at his disposal to infiltrate the organization if it meant she wouldn't have to risk her life on the line. There was danger in being associated with the Bureaucrat of the SAD, more so when he was currently the main respondent to a case as sensitive as this one. But of course, his tongue was too numb to detail any of this to her as she placed another kiss on his forehead. The words are murmured quietly into his ear. "I'll be back soon."

He's awake. The sun has already taken its place in the heavenly sky, casting soft amber on his bedroom. His body is still weak and heavy from rest, brain still not quite functional after sleeping in. Kowalski pushes himself to a sitting position as he blinks away whatever weariness is in his eyes, finding himself in an empty room in his villa in Mattress Village. It takes him a moment to scramble his thoughts into propriety as he wonders if last night was a dream or something real.

His routine in the morning is mechanical, something he can do without thinking too hard as he gets up from his bed: bathroom, feed the puffle, fix himself a cup of coffee. He's hunched over the kitchen counter and waiting for the coffee machine to produce enough liquid to sustain him for the morning when he scans his home, taking into account the dinner plate he left on the coffee table last night. His eyes wander to the portrait of his family on the wall, the different certificates he got while studying to become a doctor, the saber sword from his time in the army, then the—

On his dining table, his eyes land on a black hard drive, the SAD insignia gleaming back at him under the lighting. He moves quickly, long strides across the room as he picks up the hard drive, not recalling putting one there in the first place. He notices the piece of paper under it and raises it to his attention, eyeing the ecru paper that bore an imprint of lipstick-stained lips. He raises it to his beak to smell the barely there lightness of perfume on its surface, familiar and heady that he sets it back down before his brain would switch to who sent it.

He pockets the hard drive and quickly makes his way to his study, coffee forgotten as his mind runs over the potential data that Marine has left him to analyze. He doesn't know if he should get her a new string of pearls as a thank you, or maybe give her a month's worth of leave after this is all over. The hard drive is connected to his laptop the moment he's in front of it, and he's waiting patiently as the computer rids it of its encryption before he's scanning the files she's left for him.

One file in particular catches his attention, and he's reaching for his phone before he can even think about it.

This is how her morning starts: she gets out of bed and stretches, rubbing out of the weariness that threaten to tug her eyes close. From there it involves stumbling blindly in the dark and pulling clothes on herself that's decent enough for getting out of. From there, she slips out of wherever she is with just her EPF phone and a bottle of water, starting off to jog around wherever she is. This is where her mind blanks out to just the motions of putting her foot forward, sense of direction tugging her all over as she just... absorbs. After that, it takes a quick consultation from Lynx to make her way back by either public transportation or walking, water bottle long emptied. Once she's in her room, it's a brisk, hot shower before she's fixing breakfast.

That's her morning, usually.

With the medications she's on recently, however, she's been sleeping until the sun is high up the sky. It's a strange feeling, to close her eyes and drift off to sleep with no idea when her body will decide to wake up. It's as if she's catching up for all those years she's skipped the circadian rhythm, some punishment from science for sacrificing a biological need for something else. She sleeps heavier and deeper now, buried in the quiet settle of her own head that it would take someone pushing her off of bed to get her to even stir. She's groggy and puttering around when she's just woken up, hair disheveled from being in bed, nowhere near the proper decorum she's supposed to present herself in.

But the Taskforce is on leave now, so there was no need for that. With the lacking of Piri in the safe house and the current safety, Rogue had requested for Natalia to be sent to her. Reyes was more than happy to take up spending time with Natalia now that the commander was frequently incapacitated, watching movies with her and fixing up meals. She should be guilty that she lacks the time to spend time with her own adoptive daughter, especially after being away for so long, but it's not her fault that her medications are incredibly potent.

Today, she stumbles out of the bedroom and tries to recollect what she was doing last night by mulling over the papers she's left strewn over her part of the dining table. She was going over files Kowalski sent her a few days ago, trying to validate his information by sending her own division on it. It's additionally hard to concentrate nowadays as it was a side effect of the experimental drugs, and she often had to take breaks in between to get her mind back together. She looks up and sees the telltale rings of milk across her, clear indication that Natalia already had breakfast. When she deposits her cold mug of coffee from last night into the kitchen sink, she sees the bowl and spoon that still had bits of cereal particles.

The two were in the living room, staring at the TV with rapt attention. She blinks twice as she watches them because is she imagining things, or is Reyes actually looking like he's about to cry? He clutches the rim of his cowboy hat tightly in his flippers as he watches the cartoon before him, sniffling as he nodded along to the song. Natalia only stared at the screen with what she could only describe as absolute concentration, a familiar furrow in her eyebrows as the music played overhead.

Oh, she's convinced Reyes into watching Steven Galaxy. She and Natalia often binged whatever the kid wanted to watch whenever Rogue was off-duty, since she wasn't exactly in touch with what civilians watch. With that, the child would gleefully show her cartoons and movies, which would lead her to have a lot of opinions about kid shows. This show in particular was rather interesting, a concept she never really imagined would be possible. Rogue frowned as she leaned on the couch, briefly watching before turning to the two. "Which episode is this?"

"Fifth season." That was not what she asked him, but she'll take it. She wonders for a moment if Lynx has all of this on tape so that she could watch Reyes and Natalia bond with each other, but all thoughts fly out of the window as she watches the screen before her. It was a slow country song with its classic wild west aesthetic, and the visuals dripped in it as the character sang her song. She rolled her eyes as Reyes sniffed and blinked back tears, nodding and weakly replying with his own "yeehaw" as the song ended. "Y'go, Cuby."

"Mom, Jack's being melodramatic." Right, she keeps forgetting that Reyes has a name besides the aforementioned one. Rogue shook her head as she made her way to her daughter's side, plopping down and staring at the screen across her. It's nice to just watch sometimes, to forget about paperwork for a brief moment and absorb the feeling of being a civilian. It's strange to feel as if she has nothing to do, to be stagnant, because idleness certainly did not suit her and never would. She cannot remember the last time she's had a moment like this when—

"Bureaucrat Kowalski is calling." Lynx chimed overhead, snapping her out of her reverie as she looked up. She closes her eyes briefly and takes a deep breath, realizing then and there that her hair was still disordered from sleep and clothes rumpled from lying down. She's out of the couch and making her way back to her room to get changed, brushing her hair back into its standard ponytail and pulling on suitable clothes that are respectable.

"Oh yeah, he's been tryin'a call a bunch'a times earlier!" Reyes called behind her as she buttoned her shirt. She curses the agent for not waking her up during the first call when she looks around for her tie, finding it in its usual spot on the chair near the windows. She can think about showers later when she can take care of this call first. "But y'were out cold so..."

"Lynx, put him on hold for a moment." Rogue said out loud, fixing her tie around her neck and staring herself down at the mirror. She looked orderly, perhaps the barest bit sleepy in some angles, but it will have to do. She waltzed out of her room and made quick steps to grab the EPF phone on the dining table, bringing it up to her face. She clears her throat and checks her appearance one last time. "Lynx, put him on."

"Of course, Commander."

>>>Strange, you were just fine yesterday. Will I have to consult Nick for this?
>>>Huh, no wonder the arrangement of this chapter's so odd.
>>>Yeah, yeah, I get it Lynx. Now quiet down, you'll get us both in trouble for going off the plot timeline. I still have to rearrange this thing thanks to you.
>>>Right. Lynx, clear the communications log for today and— no wait, you're going to error me.
>>>Manual it is then.

It's always a strange feeling whenever they come back from reconditioning, with lightheadedness paired up with a deadly combination of subpar coordination skills and a considerably looser tongue. a6 always felt like they were floating on the clouds whenever they get out of Zero Sector, especially with the hallucinations they receive as they return to headquarters. The things they see always varied, from a wide range of colors that dazzled before their eyes all the way to imaginary beings that aren't there in the first place. Most of the time, if they went in there early enough without any signs of deterioration, these hallucinations would be all rainbows and sprinkles for a6, but that currently wasn't the case.

The hallucinations they see appear as if they were mere holograms, flickering as they glower down at them. Thin, white lines of string delicately descend from their office ceiling bearing nothing but polaroids that had them on it, memories they simply can't reach for because they're no longer there. a6 glared at the blurred out faces standing next to them and struggles, nearly cries out in frustration when they realize that they can't fabricate the faces that were there.

They can only make out glimpses. Flickers. They stare at the faces on the polaroids with as much concentration as their addled brain can provide them, trying and failing to figure out who they were before they became... a6. Their eyes laid fixated at the backgrounds, scrutinizing every pixel of ink as if it would stir up some old memory that would miraculously dislodge whatever programming they had wired into them. It's frustrating when there isn't much material to work with because really, who can forget the beautiful white beaches of Rio de Vatica and the native ruins that lie there? a6 is familiar with the fact that they used to live in the large city, used to be one of its many citizens that dwelled and enjoyed life there. It was the most obvious detail out of all of them that hardly even narrows down who they were.

More flickers. A penguin a tad bit taller than them appears in some of the photos bearing the same dreary grays as they do, except with a different sort of vim to it that it might have better been likened to a thunderstorm. There's another, much older penguin in some that had cobalt ones, gray like the metal he toils on day in and day out, gray with an overabundance of wisdom, and—

Oh, was their father a mechanic?

a6 frowned as they walked around their office, trying to pick up imaginary polaroids that hung from their ceiling. They brush against their feathers with the barest of tickles, sharp edges caressing whatever it touches as if it would pain them to remember those memories. Yes, that's right, their father was a mechanic. His feathers smelled more like oil and iron than the soap he showers in, much to their mother's exasperation. Who was Mama, anyway? a6 scrambles and turns their head around rapidly, struggling to distinguish the blurred out faces for someone that could have been their parent.

What kind of sin is it, a6 wonders, if a child would forget their own mother's face?

"a6! Where is my report?" The lines disappear. a6 takes a moment to remember that right, they're still at work and they still can't remember who they were. They struggle to grasp the last tendrils of those two different pairs of grays before they slip out of their hold, shrouded by lines and lines of programming. They tried not to appear frustrated or anywhere near as irritable as I04 was as they stood straight, trying to remember what their superior was asking for. "Pull yourself together, agent, I expected a report two hours ago."

"Sorry, I04, I went off to Zero Sector for reconditioning," a6 bumbled out sheepishly, the last of their frustrations simmering down to nothing. There was always nothing after that brief window of everything. It almost terrified them whenever they felt so hollow, emptied out like a shell that was supposed to be holding something. Their voice strengthens to carry the appropriate decorum necessary for reporting to their superior, "The programming is functional, sir, went through without a hitch. Though I don't think I09 was happy with me using her as a test subject."

"Excellent. As soon as we return to the Taskforce, finish your orders." I04 nodded once before they're turning away. a6 watches their retreating back make its way to the door before he pauses, straightens just a bit, then turns. They don't know if they should shrink back at those ice blues staring them down. "Oh, and schedule an appointment with the President."

a6 immediately brightens at the statement, nearly bouncing on their toes. "You're finally going to talk to him?"

The grimace they get could almost be described as comical if not for the fact that it's I04, "It's that or a subpoena, and I have no interest in wasting my time with the justice system."

With that, he leaves the office without another word. a6 takes a deep breath and turns around their room, trying to imagine the threads of polaroids that used to hang from their ceiling. There's a flicker of pain that runs up their head as they force themselves to concentrate, a familiar electric shock that almost has them shivering and stepping back. They sigh and turn back to their desk, already raising up holograms and getting to work with the order given to them. They try to ignore the last hopes of remembering in favor for the task of hand, as if finding comfort in their work would do them good.

It doesn't.

UAN: How would you describe the Public's motives, agent?

Wolfe: Misguided, at best.

UAN: At worst?

Wolfe: Delusional.

UAN: Can you tell us why you've come to this conclusion, Wolfe?

Wolfe: I mean, they do have a point, but they will never understand the necessities of keeping secrets for the greater good. They don't get what has to be done in the shadows to get what we want, what we need to hide to let our countries live in peace.

UAN: Interesting statement.

Wolfe: Thanks, I just read that off of a cue card Cueva handed us before this hearing.

It's common presumption that every couple out there and in the whole continent, in one way or the other, has some sort of ritualistic thing that's done for a wide variation of reasons. Many do it as an inside joke to brighten the other's day, some to reassure the other that the day will go on well, or simply out of love and devotion to their partner. These rituals can either be intimate, something only the two and a select few have the honor to witness, or public and open that anyone can see what they do.

For Zarkova, it was letting her husband braid her hair.

It's how her day starts whenever she's at home. It's an old ritual they've started from long ago, when she was still a sniper and he was still a preschool teacher. When she's all dressed and refreshed, ready to face the new day, he sits her in front of their dressing mirror and pulls her brush out from the right drawer, an aged ornate thing that's been passed down to her by the women of her family. Ever so delicate and careful, Illya takes care when he fixes the morning tousled hair into propriety, never tugging harshly when he meets opposition from tangles and knots. Sometimes he'd run his flipper down her hair to examine his handiwork, nodding and muttering to himself familiar Russian words that always has her heart stopping for just a moment.

"I can only do so much to hair that's already perfect."

The brush is set down. Zarkova takes the time to regard herself in the mirror, scrutinizing the tiny lines around her eyes and beak that tease her with reminders of how old she is. Not that she was that old anyway, since she was just in her forties and still as springy and active as she was in her youth. There are white hairs springing out from her widow's peak, strikingly white against the brown, and she wonders what could have possibly caused more of them to appear in the short time she's been away from home. This can't possibly be what working in the Taskforce has done to her, can it?

"You're thinking hard again," Illya commented as he puts down a tiny tin box on the dresser surface, opening it up to reveal a mess of black rubber bands. Her head is swirling slowly, spiraling to thoughts of the Taskforce that she's kept quiet about for days. He opens the right drawer once more and meets her eyes in the mirror, taking into account the furrow in her brows. When his eyes drift, she follows and sees that he's staring at her shoulders. She slackens them as he shuts the drawer close, "Your shoulders tense whenever you're pondering about something important."

She doesn't know how to tell him gently, with a coo and a degree of impassiveness that doesn't make it a big deal that oh, she knows why they're on leave. She doesn't know how to properly explain to him, an optimist who hopes that her contributions would help rescue all who's gone missing, that the failure in their cooperation has made the team defunct. She refuses to believe, even acknowledge, the thought of herself failing the objective she's been given. There's shame in the fact that she's failed the people she loves that she cannot word. When she notices that he's waiting for her answer, she gives it to him bluntly. "I know why I'm home."

He pauses, midway through parting her hair into two sections meant for braiding the pigtails. Whenever she was home, she'd let him have his way with picking how he wants to fix her hair, if he wanted to add beads or ribbons in them. Many of her fellow officers would crow over how beautiful her hair looked, even when most of the time it toed the dress code regulations of the institution. He holds a blue ribbon in his flippers that would be woven into her braids, and she wants to ask him to continue with his work as he spoke. "They gave you mandatory leave, didn't they? You'll be back in the USA in no time."

"No, Ilyusha, that's not it." She reaches up to tap his flippers into motion, watching him nod unsurely before he's getting to work. It took him years to master every braid she prefers her hair to be styled in, their techniques and the degree of tightness she wants them in. For these twin braids he's firm but gentle, pulling the hair to form the braid with familiar accuracy and speed. It's like having a massage polarized to one side of the head, comforting tugs and pulls with that just right pressure on her skull. "We had an argument before we were put on leave. The UAN girl found out about our methods."

He stops for a moment, frowning as he tries to remember what she's talking about. She's always told him about the Taskforce whenever she found the time to talk to him about her co-workers, regaling him with stories about the Tvarkov she's come to appreciate all the way to the UAN Integrity Officer they've all become fond of. Illya has always been devoutly listening to her every story, giving his own comments and input whenever he has one. Now that he's trying to recall them, though, he's slowed his movements a bit, letting her revel in softer tugs and tighter pressure. She winces just a bit to warn him that his grip was too tight. He adjusts appropriately.

"They should understand that they've asked a bunch of spies to do their work." Illya shrugged as he returned to his pace, finishing the first pigtail and securing a rubber band at the end to hold it in place. He moves on to the other half with the same color of ribbon, easily splitting it into two sections and working his way to initial parts. "You can't tell me that they're all pencil pushers whose beaks are deep in their needless bureaucracy."

"I could be put in an inquiry." She supplied him with her worries, watching his flippers nimbly tug new sections of hair to join the main three, weaving her hair into the trademark twin braids she's often seen in. When she was abroad, she's often had to do them herself in front of the bathroom mirror, often having to redo when she wasn't satisfied with her own handiwork. Maybe she was getting a bit reliant on her husband's excellent braiding skills, or she just prefers his doing more than her own. "I could put the girls—"

"Lyuda, you would never shame us." He tutted her like he was scolding a schoolboy and not his own wife. The ribbon flicks at her face once before he brushes it away as if it were a stray lock of hair. She watches the tiny frown on his face as he continues working, weaving carefully as if he tries to get across the fact that he's worried. He always does that whenever they talk about something important. "It's not your fault that they can't see what you're all doing."

They lapse into silence. She takes the time to think, to consider what went wrong and what can be done to avoid the scenario from happening all over again. While she does Illya continues to be methodical and gentle, weaving her hair into those trademark braids she's know by. The Taskforce has severely drained her in the past few months, forcing her to work with people who do not work within her known system, severely different personalities she wasn't totally ready to face. The distinct difference between military and intelligence, she's realized, is how the former saw the need to integrate hive-like thinking and directness in its personnel while intelligence was more individualistic and subtle in its methodology. Intelligence was extremely competitive to a fault that they were more than willing to step over moralistic boundaries to get what they need.

And of course, no one questions them for it. Most just turn a blind eye.

Her mind shutters back to reality when the small black rubber band is secured at the end of her other braid. She stares at herself in the mirror and sees her face, the few stress lines gracing it nothing but faint and barely visible. Illya takes the time to mind his handiwork with approving eyes, tugging at particularly tighter sections to loosen the weaving to something more breathable. He looks at her in the mirror and offers her one more smile, before pressing a gentle kiss at her temple.

"Regal, as usual."

She shakes her head and swats his face, narrowly missing it as he recoils with a bark of laughter. "Don't be a sap."

When she needs to have time to herself to think, she goes to one of the many hidden alcoves found in the gardens within the UAN complex to ponder, often bringing with her a small snack from the cafeteria or a book from the library in her flippers. The river breeze flows through as easily as its waters would strike through South Pole City, blowing at her face in a greeting that's as strong and as powerful as the city it thrives in. It whips her braids around and makes her appear like the accursed Medusa to the untrained eye as she looked towards the horizon, looking towards the other side of the West River with keen eyes.

The alcove she finds herself in is a gazebo overgrown with vines that hid the iron structure and its occupants from any watching eyes. It was known as the Secret Garden of the UAN compound, made of wisteria flowers that clung to the walls and dangled from the ceiling with their gentle blue petals. Their drifted petals lay scattered at her feet, coupled with those of cosmos, peonies, and fritillaria. The koi are seemingly unaffected by everything that goes on around it, only happily swimming around in circles in its little pond that's dotted with lily pads. Above it, a penguin tips her marble pitcher down to pour water into their pond, eyes downcast with a reverence filled with innocence and humility. This was her favorite art installment in the whole compound, knowing its history from a little plaque found to the side of the pond. Its sculptor had purposefully broken the beautiful statue just to repair it with golden tinted lacquer. The result was a beautiful, kind-faced statue with golden jagged lines running through her whitened marble.

Carter's mind helpfully supplies her with the term kintsugi, a method of repairing broken pottery in Japaland. She's never heard of the method being applied to marble statues.

She takes a seat in one of the benches. The walls were very hedge-like, just threatening to swallow her alive if she sunk into it as if it were a softened mattress. The wisteria tickle the shoulders of her suit jacket and just barely seep its wet morning dew into the blue fabric, the peonies itching at her exposed flippers as if it were a puffle that begs for its master's attention. She studies the weathered spine of the book she's holding and focuses on the golden lettering that gleamed brightly with the little light that enters the gazebo.

It was on the language of flowers. She can't really blame herself, especially since the first time the agent raised the topic to her. Bits of information fly around her mind's eye as she looks around the alcove she's found herself in, identifying the flowers and just barely recalling which meant what and how it came to be called so. In situations like this, when she's quiet in her office and the music's stopped playing, she can faintly hear the laughter of familiar Taskforce officers echoing with a warmth that tugs at her heartstrings. There would be days when she catches herself making two cups of coffee for someone she's not working with at the time being, or expecting banter to welcome her as she turns down a corner. Co-workers tread around her as if they're walking on thin ice, never prodding about why she's back all of a sudden and what is going on with the Taskforce.

Alright, maybe she's just a bit attached to them. Maybe. Just a little. Hardly. It's not her fault, really, when she's been working with them for the past three months. She's seen what they're like up close and personal, in a way no one from the media or the Council could ever witness without being there themselves. She knows the distinct difference between when they're professionals and when they're in "dead zones", what they look like half awake or dead asleep. She's seen them injured and bleeding whilst spewing whatever it is they spout about when angered, or when the only thing on their mind is relaxation from the weight they bare on their shoulders. She knows the tiny quirks of a6 all the way to Zarkova that make them more than just the personnel responsible for the investigations and rescue on pen and paper.

There's something difficult with having to confront the two options she's been judging so very carefully: a UAN investigation that goes through due process and lawful means of execution but progresses slowly, or a UAN investigation that mostly overrides and steps boundaries that go against every moral code out there but moves with efficiency.

"I knew I'd find you here." She turns almost fast enough to give herself whiplash. Winston eyes her steadily with the familiar gaze of a regarding mother, a kind smile decorating her face as she looked around the alcove around them. There's something adorable about the way a stray flower dangled from the walls with a beg of attention, brushing Winston's shoulder with every miniscule movement she makes. The woman in response pats it twice before moving into the gazebo, approaching the pond to take a minute to watch the koi. Carter nervously taps slowly at the cover of the book she's holding as she waits for Winston to continue. "You know, everyone seems to be awful worried about you."

"I'm sorry?" She furrows her eyebrows. She knows that they've been walking around eggshells ever since she's returned to full duty at the UAN compound, the worried glances they'd shoot at her general direction whenever she's somewhere public enough to warrant it. She's been on light, non-urgent paperwork since the beginning of her return to normalcy, an unofficial probationary period so to speak. It's been two weeks since the last time she's properly spoken to anyone in the Taskforce and okay, maybe she's going a bit insane just not knowing what to do now.

Really, what do you do in situations where the solution is simply out of your power? Winston doesn't provide her an answer. "Everyone thinks you've changed in three months of working with the Taskforce. Something about being more reclusive. Are you alright?"

Oh, that's a funny question, defining yourself as alright when the concept is so vague and subjected to multiple interpretations from various people. Carter doesn't know if she wants to laugh or downright sob because why would Winston of all people, with all her responsibilities and duties, go through the trouble of coming here and asking such a simple question? Does she even know if she's alright or not? Carter's tapping slowly hastens as she tries to pull through with a suitable answer.

"I'm fine." Typical. It's the safest answer, neither a lie nor a truth. Oh, does she look alright to Ambassador Winston? She cannot tell. The keen set of those eyes bear the same intensity she puts into looking at members of an inquiry. It's nearly interrogative that she's half-tempted to spit out another answer. She gives in. "No— I'm, well, no. I don't know? Yes."

There's that familiar twitch. For a moment, the questioning look flickers to mirth as Winston breaks into a smile. The ice there was from early dissipates as Winston makes her way to her, shaking her head and muttering about something Carter strains to hear as she stood before her. She tilts her head up to eye the ambassador as she tilts her head to the side to study the officer. It's a strange situation she did not expect herself to be in at this day and hour.

"You're still thinking about that revelation, aren't you?" There's a twitch of something on her mouth, a pucker. It's almost purr-like that Carter doesn't fight back the shiver that runs down her spine. There's a sweetness to her tune that sounds like her mother when she's trying to pry information about nonexistent suitors from her. She suddenly realizes that she isn't so sure where this is going. "Oh Mia, calm down. I'm not mad about their methods."

She remembers, when all that was left in the bullpen was herself and the welcome presence of Athena Winston, that she spoke of stories about Colonial Antarctica. She said tales of a husband and daughter who no longer walked this continent, with a flicker of mirth that has been dampened by age a long time ago. She was already a foreign affairs officer long before she was the USA's UAN ambassador, a woman who danced through embassies with the grace and intimidation that made her name prominent in the country's political circles. Carter has heard of Athena Winston, the noncombatant, who joined her family during the Antarctic Revolution as a medic who stayed behind in the camps to treat soldiers in the infirmary. It's interesting to consider, whenever the ambassador spoke of those days with a weary eye, how a little miscalculation in the maps could mean life or death for the little place she's worked in.

Carter has always made an effort never to let the topic on Winston's scar be spoken of in conversation, knowing its history and reasoning.

"If the UAN maintained its extremely strict moral code, I would have already filed cases at most countries in this continent for war crimes and shadiness, but that's not how politics work." Winston shrugged as she took a seat next to Carter, who immediately scooted to give the woman some more space. There's a look in her eye that she cannot read as she takes in the gazebo around them, a barely there upwards twitch on her lips that tell her that there's a hint of sadness there. "I know that there are certain moves that are necessary to get to the endgame as we want it to be. Rigorous moral codes? Not in our current timeline, my dear."

She sits back and ponders, a "huh" caught in her throat as she tried to make sense of what she's just heard. Winston offers one more smile before she's patting her shoulder, standing up and stretching once. There's a ringing in her phone as she nods at Carter, stepping out with her phone in flipper as she spoke to someone on the other line. Leaving her alone, Carter took a deep breath in and waited, wondering if what Winston just said made sense. It's difficult, she thinks, when she's always seen it as an atrocity not worth repeating when Winston sees it as a necessary evil. She's always tried to be righteous, surefire with her moves as she goes along with her job. Now it's a mix of whites and blacks and oh, this doesn't make sense, does it?




WINSTON: Ms. Carter, you look like you haven't gotten much sleep lately.

CARTER: Good morning to you too, Councilwoman. It's been a long day.

WINSTON: Mia, it's 8:16 in the morning.

CARTER: It's been a long day.

WINSTON: Very well, let's get to business. The Public just claimed responsiblity on what's going on in Gemini. Do we have a team on it?

CARTER: Yes, ma'am. I think they just drove off to Gemini a few minutes ago. I think Wolfe and I04 are spearheading this one.

WINSTON: That's good. Tvarkov and Zarkova have been informed of what's going on?

CARTER: If I'm not mistaken, Tvarkov was on a call with EPF Commander Laurenson at the time of the incident. She's been tracking it since. They just landed a few hours ago, I haven't really been in contact with them.

WINSTON: Alright. Have they all been behaving, Ms. Carter? Is there anyone we need to keep a closer eye on?

CARTER: They've been... good. They clearly don't exactly trust each other 100% but they manage to cooperate professionally. I don't think we need to keep an eye on anyone in particular since they've all been civil to each other.

WINSTON: Do you think we picked the right blend of agents, Ms. Carter?

CARTER: I... well, I believe so. The Taskforce is balanced that they constantly check and balance each other, and even out the methods while widening all our possible angles. I have not seen all of them personally on the field but from what their field reports are telling me, they seem to be very good at what they do.

WINSTON: We picked the best and brightest in their own field, Ms. Carter. Don't worry about personally overseeing them, you'll get your chance on the field soon. Now, may I interest you with some tea? You look like you need some.

CARTER: Yes, ma'am.




WINSTON: I know you just came back from speaking with the press, but you seem awfully tired. You all did excellent out there, despite the well... gruesome way you executed the plan. I trust everything went well? ... I'm surprised you're still functional enough to respond to my call.


WINSTON: Mia, something's wrong.

CARTER: It's been a long day, Your Excellency. Pardon my weariness.

WINSTON: I'm going to have to tell the psychiatrist who will be assessing you that you're acting off, then. Come on, child, spit it out. Kermit knows how long you'll keep that bottled.

CARTER: I saw the scene.

WINSTON: Of course you did, we asked you to. You've given us a rather vivid report of the scene, Carter, and it's commendable work at that. It's... how do we say, straight out of a war zone, was that how you called it? I know you have a knack for poeticism but I did not think of you to be the type to incorporate it into your report.

CARTER: I was back there.

WINSTON: What do you mean you were— oh, oh I'm sorry. I've been insensitive, have I been? Oh, dear, I'm sorry.

CARTER: You should have seen the body camera feeds that the agents— you'll see them as soon as they are all retrieved and skimmed, ma'am. Give us a day or two, I'll get it to you ASAP. The children, I can't—

WINSTON: Steady now, deep breaths. It'll all be okay.

CARTER: It would take them a long time to recover physically and mentally from this. I've seen kids like them a long time ago and— dear Benny, Carter. I can't even imagine where to start. We still need to file a case against the Public, we can't just ask them to testify.

WINSTON: We don't, Mia. Child cases are always the complex ones, aren't they? Always so delicate, in fear of causing permanent emotional damage. This is what we're here to do, collect information to compile and use against them.

CARTER: Yes, ma'am.

WINSTON: I'd ask you how the Taskforce is handling but I think I already know the answer. Is what I'm hearing about this sonic weapon right?

CARTER: Depends on what you're hearing, ma'am.

WINSTON: Something about giving nearly everyone tinnitus.

CARTER: Then you're absolutely right.

WINSTON: The Council will look into this. Is there anything else worth noting? Oh, I've almost forgotten. How's Heng, Tvarkov, Kowalski? I heard they were all given extra medical attention due to something.

CARTER: Right, that. Kowalski sort of collapsed during the initial physical assessment, I think it had something to do with low blood pressure. Heng has multiple lacerations from shrapnel and bullets and Tvarkov... is glitching.

WINSTON: Huh, and I thought Lynx was the only one in the Taskforce capable of it. Well, I shouldn't keep you for too long.

CARTER: Thank you, Ms. Winston.

WINSTON: Take a power nap, Mia, and get some food in your stomach.

CARTER: Of course.




WINSTON: I only have five minutes before I need to attend a meeting.

CARTER: Yes, ma'am. I won't take too much of your time.

WINSTON: Let me check in: how is the Taskforce?

CARTER: They seem... warmer?

WINSTON: We're calling them warm, now? Must be Christmas.

CARTER: I mean, they seem to be... nicer? I don't know how to call it, ma'am.

WINSTON: Then describe it, Ms. Carter, cite instances. They're the first of their kind, the Council would want to know details of well... development that isn't concerning the kidnappings.

CARTER: a6 made me a cup of tea earlier. It was pleasant.

WINSTON: Is that all, Mia? You have two more minutes.

CARTER: They seem to be eating more frequently together rather than with their own individual schedules. There's banter, ma'am, some laughter here and there in the mix. It's nice to see them getting along.

WINSTON: Ah, keep me posted.

CARTER: Of course, ma'am. Say hi to everyone there for me.

WINSTON: Sure thing.




WINSTON: Carter, what am I hearing about this downed aircraft? Ruscan media is crowing about it and is associating it with the Taskforce, I want to know.

CARTER: The details are still foggy, ma'am. Something about some fishermen seeing a plane go down in the middle of the ocean, I can't be entirely sure. I'm getting my information from the NRR.

WINSTON: Well verify it, for goodness sakes. We can't just let the media associate it with the Taskforce without any due confirmation that it's something worth paying attention to.

CARTER: Yes ma'am.

WINSTON: Have you asked Zarkova, Tvarkov? Surely they'd both know what's going on over there.

CARTER: I've asked Zarkova about it, ma'am. Tvarkov is still looking into it herself.

WINSTON: Right, I see. And how is the rest of the Taskforce handle this?

CARTER: As always, with a hot cup of coffee and a new onslaught of paperwork. There's a bit of salt if you look hard enough.

WINSTON: I hope it's all friendly banter, then.

CARTER: Of course it is, ma'am. There seems to be some inside jokes I'm not roped into that they keep using.

WINSTON: Ah, interesting. Get me that verified information as soon as possible, Carter.

CARTER: Yes, ma'am.




CARTER: Ms. Winston, let me begin with the fact that I called as soon as I heard.

WINSTON: Yes, about the lockdown plans. What about them?

CARTER: You have to understand that this takes time, Ms. Winston. It could take us months before we find another stronghold if not for some vital information divulged to us.

WINSTON: Have you ever checked in to verify where this vital information came from?

CARTER: All clean, Ms. Winston.


CARTER: Ms. Winston, if I may, but we're working with an equation that has too many variables.

WINSTON: ... Okay.

CARTER: We hardly even know about the Public's history or motives, why they thought of this modus operandi of all things, how to identify them from the rest of the people. We can't just pinpoint exactly all of this and we just work on presumptions, some slivers of information. It's a difficult task to piece together a puzzle we don't know the full picture of, ma'am.

WINSTON: I'm going to have to find some way to translate this nicely to the Assembly. How is the Taskforce?

CARTER: Already talking about work, last I checked.

WINSTON: I understand. I know they're trying their best, but they need to work harder and faster.

CARTER: You can't rush an investigation, Ms. Winston.

WINSTON: I know I can't.

CARTER: We'll get you those answers as soon as possible.

WINSTON: Good. Keep me posted.




WINSTON: Let's cut through the pleasantries, Mia are you okay?

CARTER: You know, the civilians and soldiers I used to cover made taking a bullet look really simple. I know this would be painful but oh Benny, this is the literal worst. I'm so high on painkillers that I'm amazed I can look at a— oh look, a puffle!

WINSTON: You did not answer the question, Mia.

CARTER: Oh, I'm sorry, what was it?

WINSTON: Are you okay?

CARTER: Aw, you're the cutest to worry over lil ol' me. Don't you have like... something else to do?

WINSTON: Don't make me assume that stepping out of a meeting with the Council was a good idea, Mia. I need details.

CARTER: Ooh, it's bad when you're calling me Mia. I mean I'm great, you know, just got out of 8 hours of surgery. It's some sort of coincidence that a6 and I are the same blood type or Kermit knows what would be of me.

WINSTON: I'm not going to ask you anything about the incident because clearly you're in no condition to.

CARTER: What are you talking about, I'm great!

WINSTON: Cueva can supply the same answers you'd give me sober.

CARTER: I'm awful sober Ms. Winston.

WINSTON: Right. Rest up, Mia, I'll speak to you soon.

CARTER: Okay, bye Mom.

WINSTON: ... Goodnight, Mia.




WINSTON: How's the raid coming along, Ms. Carter?

CARTER: Well, we're counting at least 120 of them in our safe camp. We've already called in three more medical teams to handle the next wave of penguins we're getting because we sent off eight ambulances to carry out urgent care patients. Brandt and Tvarkov seem to have already apprehended the suspect and are making their way to a holding location.

WINSTON: What do you mean they have a suspect with them?

CARTER: Oh, I'm sorry, didn't I— Lynx honey what's wrong? Seriously, Ms. Winston, Lynx has been acting — start of the raid. They — glitching.

WINSTON: Carter, answer the question: where are Brandt and Tvarkov at the moment?

CARTER: They've gone off to — Roundtable suspect. That's funny, I could — Cueva told me that he informed—

WINSTON: I doubt it, but it has been noted. How is the Taskforce managing?

CARTER: They've reported to me that they're— sorry, Lynx is being glitchy. I'm — reported ammunition lows and have — to the insides of the holding cells.

WINSTON: Has anyone been reported to have been severely injured like last time?

CARTER: None that I'm—

WINSTON: Carter? Carter, what is it?

WINSTON: Carter? Mia! Mia, can you still hear me?

CARTER: I'm very sorry Ms. Winston, I need to go. Something's come up.





WINSTON: I'm assuming something's happened that made you take a flight back here, Ms. Carter. You should have listened to when James told me over the phone, he sounded so distraught. Would you care to enlighten me on what has occurred?

CARTER: Ms. Winston, I have strong reason to believe that the Taskforce has been working outside of the law to produce the results we want them to submit to us. The Public negotiator we talked to implied it and when I asked them about it, they broke into discourse. I've theorized that they've most likely used interrogation, bribery, maybe administered some disappearances of their own.

WINSTON: You're proposing that the entire Taskforce can be subjected to an inquiry, Carter. Easy now, do you have evidence of this?

CARTER: I don't think they should be put into an inquiry. I just wish to inform you that everything that's been report—

WINSTON: Let me get this sorted. You flew all the way back to South Pole City just to tell me that the entire Taskforce may or may not be making multiple penguin rights violations while actively breaking Mandate 54, risking the integrity and name of the United Antarctic Nations with their actions? And despite these circumstances, whether evidenced or not, you think they should not be put to trial? Mia, you're an integrity officer. How did you not see this?

CARTER: A key difference between intelligence officers and politicians is that one is actually trained to keep secrets.

WINSTON: I also don't understand why you're informing me and not the Council as a whole.

CARTER: They will not listen to reason and would fall into the same discourse as the Taskforce did.

WINSTON: Mia, are you asking me to—

CARTER: Listen to me first, Athena! The Taskforce has successfully raided two major strongholds of the Public and liberated over a hundred hostages in good health. The media is in the middle of a high with all the events are currently unfolding, and I will not be anticlimactic and put them down into a bureaucratic gridlock of a inquiry at such a case.

WINSTON: Right, and you want me to keep it quiet with the rest of the Council?

CARTER: I need you to. I still— I still think they're... good people. They have the right motives, right reasons for staying on this case and doing what they do. Their methods just aren't... our type of thing.

WINSTON: I see. We still have to do something about them, though. Do you have any proposals?

CARTER: I... I think it's best if we put them on leave. Indefinite leave. They need some fresh air and a little space.

WINSTON: Time out, then. I'll see what I can do.


She worries.

Beyond the usual demeanor she keeps up of calmness and certainty, there's always a time when she glances to make sure her boss hasn't work himself into a fit. Wolfe is infamous within the SIA as a silver tongue who can manipulate even Lavender (though those rumors are typically isolated to cases involving a poker game and far too much Cream Soda). His skills in the field has made him an invaluable member of the Red Herring Division, when he can so easily throw enemy spies off their path with a few strategically placed words and phrasing. Wolfe's work in the agency is integral in keeping the secrets of Shops Island safe from anyone who intends to use this information for harmful purposes, especially sensitive information that can be dangerous in enemy hands. It was her task as his subordinate, then, to inform him of any threats, ensure that plans are going smoothly, and that precautionary measures would be taken when something doesn't go their way.

And, of course, to make sure the man himself is okay.

The sparring mat area of the training room was mostly vacant since it was currently lunch hour for most of the division, leaving just a few who were spread out from each other. Valentino holds up the strike shield and takes a deep breath, making sure that the strap is securely pressed against her flipper. Across her, Ora holds up his boxing gloves and shuffles, as if calculating his next punch and where to put it. There's a stray curl of hair pushing out of his headband that he doesn't bother with pushing away, wet with sweat that perspires from his brow. He speaks to her with an air of breathlessness.

"So what's the boss up to lately, huh?" The punch comes quick, a heavy thud against the shield that makes her step back. The shock is absorbed mainly by the thick padding of the material, but her flipper aches from both holding it up against the force of the punch. The next punches come faster but not as strong, hitting both sides as if he were aiming for the sides of an opponent. She pushes forward with light footwork that's almost dance-like, rolling her shoulder back to relieve muscle tension there. He goes for a kick to the chest and pushes her back effectively.

"He's been..." She tries to think of the appropriate word to use to describe their superior, guard partially down until she quickly blocks a punch that would have hit her face. She frowns and advances forward, prompting him to quickly move backwards as he laughs at her. There's shuffling and the barest squeak of the mat under them as they move, trying to make the other back down as he punched and kicked her and she blocked his every move. It finally comes to her when she swoops down to avoid a sweeping kick. "Stressed."

Ora understands immediately and nods, taking deep breaths in as he wrings his wrists of strain. He circles slowly, eyes still finding an opening for the next punch or kick. Valentino follows accordingly with her guard up, watching him carefully as he scans the shield in front of him with the gaze of a hawk. His face slackens when he looks up to her, grin on his face as he speaks out what's on his mind.

"I mean, you could try inviting him to the International Party Hat Museum." He shrugs innocently and narrowly misses when she charges forward with her shield, a means of hitting him with the suggestion of bringing her boss to the museum. While she admits that he has to find a better past time than drowning his thoughts out with exercise or using Cream Soda as an outlet, to invite him somewhere he probably wouldn't enjoy was absurd. She doesn't even know if he'd want to go and wouldn't dare to know, especially since any time now the UAN can call them back in for the Taskforce. It's strange to be on hold like this, waiting for the pin drop that would send them back in a frenzy.

"I don't think he'd like going there." She blocks two more punches. They're focused to the lower parts of the shield that she assumes that he's aiming for an abdomen. "Too focused with solving the Public issue within the area. Did you know that he figured out a little holding area in Tropicalis? I think we're mobilizing a team or two to the location tonight."

The laughter he brings carries around the training room with a richness that seemingly folds into itself, echoing and reverberating with a warmth unprecedented. It's a contrast to the cool of the training room's insulation. It makes her shiver. "A Shopper not enjoying the best museum there is? Impossible."

She shakes her head. Valentino simply can't wrap around her head the prospect of inviting her boss to something that isn't work related. She understands the implications, the need for Wolfe to take a breather from all the pressure that he's under. If anything, the man was competitive to a fault, especially when he has good enough competition to go against. Ora seems to notice her thoughts and puts down his boxing gloves, removing them by wedging one under his armpit and pulling. There's a tiny pop noise that's heard as he shakes his flipper and gets to work with removing the other one. She calmly sets down the strike guard and sits, letting it rest on her lap as she thinks to herself.

"You know, you never did tell me how it works over there," He sat across her, boxing gloves resting on his lap. It's true that no one knows what goes on with the Taskforce when they're out in the field, only knowing of their results from either the media or circulated reports within the community. Ora can think of the obvious bureaucratic spell that's befallen on everyone, the required paperwork needed to prove a valid point before execution, but not how several different agencies somehow got along without putting knives to each other's throats. "The boss looks different, touchy. What went down?"

She worries her lip and remembers the confidentiality papers they signed before all of this, all those months ago when they were still awkward and unfamiliar with each other. "That's classified."

He nods, leaning back with a look of understanding crossing his face. There's silence for a moment as she thinks, trying to summarize the three months in her head. It was, as all assignments would be, stressful as ever and frustrating at best, but it was a time for her to learn how others work and how they understood the other's intentions. Maybe she misses working with the team, just a bit, even if there would be spats erupting from the main conference room or hollered bets in the snack room. Her mind whirls around these thoughts slowly before realizing the one positive that's come from all of this. "Hey, you know what's good now that I'm back home?"

He frowns and straightens, attention solely on her. "What is it?"

"I get to see my puffle again." She grinned widely as his laughter reverberated around the room, driving everyone's attention to them as she leaned back and joined him.

The thing that comes with entering politics, he realizes, is that while he is open to explore all circles of society with ease, he would also have to face people of all shapes and sizes with different viewpoints and methods of communication. There are those who are reclusive who'd retreat with the barest glance at them, others who seemingly fill the whole room with their boisterous presence. There were days when he'd have to speak with the imposing figure of Isaac Juggernaut that seemingly drained him of energy, or hours of quiet conversation with Wonderweez about his latest scientific conquest. Of course, he's managed to navigate around these people with coolness and a verbose tongue, appearing the barest bit diplomatic when the situation calls for it.

With I04, well, there comes a bit of complexity. He presents himself as relaxed and uncaring about the meeting that they're currently in, sunglasses reflecting back his own face with its red tinted lenses. The operative before him answers crisply, hardly substantial with his replies to whatever question he gives him. There'd be the quiet spike of annoyance in his body language and tone that's incredibly subtle, only further grating on his nerves as he tries to pry information out of him.

Maybe, thought The Globalist, he really should have went through with the subpoena.

"I called you here so we can discuss both the country's position in the current manhunt with the Taskforce and this report that the Vanguard has given me." His words are punctuated with a flicker of frustration, patience wearing thin as the man across him stared placidly at his situation, almost bemused. "You repeatedly ignored my summoning and downright denied every request for an oral report."

"I don't exactly take orders from you." I04 barely shrugged, words stiff and near nonchalant with careless. This is the one classification of people that he actively tries to avoid working with, the ones who are just asking for a case of treason and insubordination to be slapped on their desks. He's well aware of the fact that the agency works independent of the government — no one knows what goes in and out of SI:9 so long as it procured the results it needed to give. Countless years of going unchecked has to end someday, and The Globalist thinks that he'll start it right about now. His words flow out of his mouth in deadpan motion, "As for the Taskforce, I'm surprised you're not aware that we're all currently under leave."

Of course he knew that they were all off duty ever since the Sudoku Valley mission. Handhafi has constantly been updating him about the discussions within the Security Council concerning the team's next move, reasons for their leave going between bringing down the high around the previous international incident and letting them take a breath after three months of toil. He'd disagree with the latter excuse, reasoning that there's no such thing as breaks for something as sensitive as this, but he can only ask the ambassador to do so much when everyone else talks over him.

"I am aware of the circumstances, just not the agency's contributions to the cause." It takes more effort than it should to appear as if he is tempered and cooled and not downright annoyed at the lack of report I04 would give him. Handhafi can only tell him so much about what the agency is up to in the Taskforce when the man isn't swamped with his own individual duties, leaving him in the dark more often than not. And it annoys him, again, to think of this because the agent purposefully keeps him out of the loop regarding things. "You don't give reports at all, I04, and I need to know what you're doing as you're carrying the country's name with your actions."

"With all due respect, sir," How does anyone drip disdain in words that are supposed to be formal and courteous? I04 goes over the gesture of straightening his tie and smoothen his lapels over his chest, taking his time to draw out the silence. There's a casualness and lack of patience in his movements that just steps on his nerves, as if he'd rather be out doing his work and that this meeting was a total waste of time. Again, he should have went for the subpoena, perhaps the agent would be pushed into giving more details. "I don't need to give you any reports because I don't answer to you. You can always refer to Director Doe for anything, but I wouldn't suggest it as he'd already tell you nothing."

He stands from his desk, frustrated. There's a dull ringing in his ears that start up, almost buzz-like in its manner that tugs at memories he's long since buried. I04 radiates calmness about the whole situation, doesn't even move a muscle when the President stands before him. He only gestures to remove his sunglasses, bright blues revealing themselves as the only bright thing in his darkened office. They pierce knife-like at him and the ringing is louder, just a bit, but he wouldn't notice that.

"You stubborn, insolent oaf!" The Globalist roars, just a bit. The papers under his flipper crumple with the sheer grip he has on them, near threatening to rip the fibers apart. He's half ready to scare the man into submission, ready to reveal to him that he is not just a hologram he can simply ignore. He can make himself visible as an unwavering opponent if he puts his mind to it, and currently he's very much invested in getting the message across to the agent. "Do you not know respect? I am ordering you with the supreme authority of this land to—"

For reasons unknown to him, his chair pushes forward and trips him, making him stumble just a bit. It's as if an invisible flipper is making the moves here as he sits back on his chair, flippers flat on the arm rests and unbudging to his moves. I04 casually rests his cheek on his curled fist, inner suit sleeve revealing the barest glow of green that he can only remember in one setting, one place, one day.

It feels cold. Not the chilly cold after a blizzard, no, it bore the signature of mechanical and hopelessness that used to keep him up day and night. It's the coldness he felt that day covered in mist and ashes, pain emanating from his chest and ears dully ringing with a song that's no longer there. He feels smaller now in his own office, as if the darkness has become claustrophobic and near threatening him with death by suffocation. He shivers, a quick chill down his spine, but he stops.

Shivers turn into fear. Fear into anger. Anger into passion. Passion into strength.

"Who are you?" He frowns, gritting it out of his teeth in determination to break whatever he is under. He will not go into the light in peace, not without fighting tooth or nail.

I04 tilts his head, curiosity in those ice blues as he studies him. He only speaks simply, with a chill as powerful as the world around him. "I have become Death, destroyer of your world."

The war drums never sounded so clearer.

In other news, a6 is having a great time at the moment, thanks for asking. You know, contrary to popular belief, the reception area for the presidential office is by far the only room they've ever seen that didn't abide with the formal aesthetic this whole place had. Based on the chat they had with the presidential secretary, apparently this room is supposed to be the combination of the last three presidents and The Globalist's aesthetics, bringing into light their "fun sides", as she called it. There were framed pictures on the walls (with the centerpiece being some sheet music that spelled out CABBAGE, funny), a ball pit in the corner, and two three jars of candy on the coffee table. a6 sat on the purple yoga ball they find themselves on and thought to themselves, bouncing slightly as they thought to themselves about how much bubblegum is in that large jar in the center.

They bopped their head to the rhythm, humming to themselves as they seemingly ignored whatever was going on around them. Across them, the secretary would glance at them every now and then with a face that registered as concerned and curious, before she returns back to her work. She seems about their age, fresh out of school, a bit jittery here and there when asked about anything. She'd fidget in her seat every so often and scratch her head over something she's reading, which is rather cute to consider since she's probably puzzled over bureaucratic procedure.

For the nth time within the hour, a6 watches her to, well, study. They roll back and forth on the yoga ball, trying to figure out something to tell her when she turns to the door, then to them, and finally tapping the side of her head. They remove an earbud to hear her speak softly, lightly. "I think you're being called."

They hear a grunt and several heavy thuds from the other side. That's funny, the boss didn't mention any chances of playing rough with the President. They quietly thank her and return their earbuds in their inner pocket, frowning to themselves as they considered what could the boss ask of them. a6 turns to the door and gets up, stretching stiffened muscles as they shuffled to the door. The secretary seemingly watches their every move with an air of suspicion. They turn to listen in and wait in silence.

"a6," The tone is supposed to be calm, but strained just a bit with effort. There's a struggle on the other side, so that's probably not good. There flipper's already on the doorknob, "The door, please."

They obey. What results is a force unseen that presses them back and blankets the world in darkness. There's a low humming around them that almost reminds them of large generators, knocking their mind blank and quiet. They can just barely hear the secretary scream and scurry out of the room, hasty heels clicking on the floor before a door opens and closes, before silence. Their world spins as they struggle to reorient themselves, groaning and muttering as the world fidgets and glitches in their vision.

Here we go again.

"a6!" There's urgency in I04's tone. Their sunglasses are helpful enough to switch to night vision and— oh, this is an uncommon occurrence. The boss seems to be... what's the word, wrestling. Yes, that's it, wrestling with the President. Huh. The agent seems to be losing in this battle, hair askew and suit ruffled in some areas. He looks up to a6 with a look they can't properly decipher because they're currently being assaulted by all sorts of information. They open and close their mouth as they simply watch, struggling to remember what to do.

Wait, they have a job to do. They scramble to grab the little black box in their pocket, flippers trembling from the effects of the EMP as they try to reevaluate what just happened. The room still spins, but not as hard as earlier, but they still have a grasp of their senses as they finally locate it and scroll over the music that's contained in it. They hear the familiar heavy landings of punches on a solid surface, the noises of breath escaping lungs, and tries to work faster as they try to accomplish what's asked of them. The backup generators should kick in any time now, and who knows what would this look like in the security cameras? They finally find the song they needed and pressed the play button.

Immediately, their head is filled with pain. They bow to the pain and groan loudly, closing their eyes tight and getting on the floor, as if that would decrease it or keep it from hurting them. The music seemingly echoes around the caverns of their skull and bounces around in an endless loop, filling their head with noise that cannot be silenced. They curl inwards, taking deep breaths, trying not to think of how it feels like they're being ripped apart and being put back together again by some being. They remember everything and nothing and it hurts, it just—

There's a grip on their shoulder that squeezes them back to reality. They uncurl themselves and look up to see I04 glowering at them, ice blues piercingly sharp. They sit up and look around to see that the reception area is back to normalcy, with the president nowhere to be found. I04 is pristine, as if he never entered the office at all, only lacking his sunglasses in terms of attire. They frown and wonder if it's one of the man's tricks again when they're tugged upwards into standing, teetering on their feet as they try not to fall.

"Come on, let's go." He's impatient. He takes out his phone and starts putting in coordinates for them to warp back to headquarters, and a6 just watches as they struggle to come to terms with what's happened. The agent had a powerful capacity in controlling the reality around him, so who knows if he's now or earlier was a warping to his will? Was all that had happened just a trick of their mind? They can't tell, not now, especially when their mind is still reeling from the effects of... whatever happened to them.

Right before they disappear, they notice a minor cut across the cheek of I04. It bled just a bit, not really noticeable in the dark red of the feathers of the agent. They don't say a word about it as they warp back to the office.



LYNX 3.4.0 has reported software damage and glitching during the Sudoku Valley raid that occurred last June 23, 2018. They seemingly lost grasp of their mainframe multiple times and tended to disconnect from the UAN Winsburg Satellite Office, as well as erroneously following through with commands that weren't requested of them. This resulted in a minor communications difficulty between the Sudoku team and Ms. Carter. These glitches ceased after the raid.

Per the request of Commander Tvarkov, the AI was evaluated and checked for coding errors on June 25, 2018 by yours truly. MSB Commander Nikolas Tang has also been informed per your request and has also looked into LYNX's codings. We can report with sound findings that we found zero changes in the software coding, and no signs of intrusion. There seemed to be no tampering with the codings, which leads us to conclude that there must have been a foreign object containing a virus that was within the vicinity of LYNX 3.4.0 at the time of the raid. This would need to be something in close proximity to the computer Ms. Carter was using at the time.

Commander Tang has recommended adding codes to the AI's mainframe. This resulted in major reworking in some of their security protocols that began on June 30, as well as additional protocols per the request of the Commander. As of July 15, 2018, LYNX 3.5.0 has completed improvement in their security measures and bolstering packs to ensure that any incidents would not be repeated in the future. They also received additional language protocols for the following languages: Hungarian, Serbian, and Terrisian. Should you request further improvements, you may contact me as always, Commander.

This whole thing of not being in the UAN compound for work was strange even for him, now that he wasn't exactly on duty with his team at the RRS nor was he with the UAN. It's like being kept on recreational leave without knowing when it's going to end, or if you'll be sent back to the EPF or to the UAN. He never really liked idleness, especially when those were the times when his head went on overdrive just wondering what would happen next. While he's stuck in this sort of limbo, he really doesn't mind the company especially when it consists of his workaholic boss and her bright, peppy adoptive daughter.

Usually, when he lets his mind wander off, he'd worry over how Piri's doing. The Commander's been sparse with information concerning the paperwork required to get her out of NBI custody, not saying a word about the negotiations she and Cueva have been going through to make sure she's alright. There would be days when she'd spend the whole day in a Gray Area a few blocks from their safe house to speak to the man, turning up in the late hours of the night worn out beyond compare. Sometimes he can hear heated conversations in the other side of her bedroom door, not as loud as he'd expect it to be since he presumes she's toning it down for them. Still, he wonders when she'll tell them about any progress about Piri's release.

Anyway, let's put our attention on Natalia. She's been an absolute darling for the past few days, "educating" him about all the shows she watches in the morning while they eat cereal on the couch. A few days back they found consoles in the storage cabinet of the unit when Natalia got curious of what secret agents keep in their storage, which prompted them to play Penguin Kart 3: Race Through Time whenever they had nothing to watch. It was fun watching a little kid focus on trying to get ahead of him, but he wouldn't talk about how in most of their games she'd win first place in them.

(No, he will not openly admit to slowing down a bit to let her win and see that little victory dance she does. Of course not. He's better than that and she won the games fair and square.)

Reyes scratched his cowboy hat covered head after he lost another round of Penguin Kart, looking to Natalia to see that she was grinning victoriously at the screen. Her eyes flicked to him with a mirth so childlike before she went, "I'm hungry. Can we eat?"

Now, his grandmother would be absolutely proud if she's heard that he's finally gotten a hang of cooking the family recipes for other penguins, especially since he was so shy of his cooking that he kept it with himself and his family. She always stressed that food was meant to be shared and not kept to oneself, adding that "No, mijo, your family doesn't count as somebody when they made they recipe."

"Wake up to the Commander, I'll get something fixed up." His brain instantly wires itself to a mac n cheese recipe that had some prawns in it, remembering the quick night market trip he went on with Natalia last night. It was refreshing to have someone as young as this child come with him to the market to pick out groceries for the safe house, seeing the world in her bright and luminous eyes as she ooh'd and ah'd at knickknacks and fruits and vegetables that adorned woven baskets on kiosks. It was a miracle that the commander even let him have time with the kid, especially since she's usually so protective of her.

The girl scurries off without need of a repeat of orders. It's a quick process from there, preparing all of the ingredients and equipment, boiling the pasta (corkscrew to get all that cheesy goodness), preparing the cheeses, defrosting and peeling the skins off of the prawns. The procedure of cooking has become therapeutic for him at this point, methodical in a way that he doesn't have to totally concentrate on how he does it. The cheese is already melting and the pasta's already drained, prawns ready for frying when he realizes that Natalia still hasn't emerged from the bedroom with the boss in tow.

So he ventures in. He should have knocked, really, since it was still his boss and not someone like Cuartero or Piri. The master bedroom was slightly larger than his own bunk, with Natalia's luggage put off to the side with a neon green luggage bag and a pink suitcase. It was strange to see his boss asleep, face partially sunk into a pillow with a scatter of black around her head. There were still holograms that flickered idly in the air like a candle would to the slightest of wind, projectors propped around where another body should be. Across her, Natalia reads them with clear boredom, huffing for a second before turning to him.

"Grownups have boring schedules, but at least Mama's visiting Zanzi tomorrow." She said casually, flicking the hologram away with a dismissive flick that's so Tvarkov that he almost comments on it. The image of the Commander's schedule disappears to reveal conversations that appears to be with... huh, the Triad has a chat room. He didn't think that to be a possibility, but there it was in clear sight. It was interesting to see glimpses of the Tvarkov when she wasn't her typical uptight self, more relaxed and civilian. "She's out like a light."

That's another thing she doesn't discuss, the increased lethargy and her sudden ability to sleep for 12 solid hours and waking up incredibly disoriented and confuzzled. His eyes wandered to the bottles of medicine on her side of the bed, labels unreadable from where he's standing due to their extremely small text. He never really knew it wasn't a norm for her to sleep properly until he was talking to Adrian over the phone over how it's going in the main office, where the second-in-command raised concerns about her apparently sluggishness. There's a lot of things that the boss doesn't inform him on, that he knows, but a little bit of enlightenment could go a long way without worrying endlessly if she's alright or not.

Natalia seems to have noticed what he's looking at and answers his unspoken question. That's the magic of kids, he presumes, their capacity to be so painfully honest even when it's not asked for. She speaks with casualness that he doesn't know if it's even appropriate that he knows what she's telling him. "Oh, those are her stabilizer pills. I think she said she broke herself in Fyodor."

Well, that's one way to put it. He blinks back surprise as he reels back, feeling as if he's been slapped as he wondered what he just heard. Piri did mention, with an air of worry and the mildest of exasperation, that the boss had shifted to light work after Fyodor and did not often go out on the field unless absolutely necessary. She even expressed opposition when she found out that the boss was going to get Smith for interrogation, something about not overworking herself to further damage.

His thoughts are lost when he notices her fidgeting, stirring awake and blinking her eyes open. A blind flipper dismisses a hologram and mutters an order to Lynx that is followed through, all holograms disappearing as the projectors hummed close. Natalia calmly passed one between her flippers as if it were a ball, stiffening every now and then if the hot metal stayed too long on her feathers. Rogue flicked her eyes to him and frowned, thinking to herself, before turning to Natalia and flicking her flipper aimlessly. "Step out for a moment, dorogaya."

She obeys. The door shuts behind them quietly as they're left in peace, Rogue straightening up in her bed and fixing herself to propriety. There's a hair tie near her pills that she grabs and uses to put her hair back up, looking more kept as she looked at Reyes. She hesitates with looking at her pills, considering if she should do this in front of him before he opens his mouth.

"Y'know, ya'd do us all a favor if ya just told us ya hurt yerself up at Fyodor." He shook his head and took a few steps forward, settling himself on the bed without any invitation. The look she gives him is regarding, waiting, as if she's asking him to snap at her for something she did not intend him to know. Did he have the right to know? Maybe, since both he and the boss are assigned to the Taskforce, and heaven forgive him if anything were to happen that he didn't know of. "What's the kid goin' on 'bout ya breakin'?"

"I'm allowed to keep things quiet, Reyes." Raw from sleep, her voice rasps just slightly in some syllables here and there. There's already a pitcher of water and a glass half-filled with it waiting for her to consume, and she finally gives in to taking the medications as she grabs for it. The bottles shake with pills when she grabs one, popping it in and washing it with water. She settles back into bed and clears her throat, blinking and frowning when he sees that it's taking effect. She decides to answer his question, "Constant teleporting, I'm afraid, can cause severe DNA damage because my cells are scrambled."

A twinge of frustration presses up his spine and stabs clear annoyance into his skull. Perhaps it's attributed to the clearly stated fact that his boss had jumped through locations too fast for her body to handle that she severely injured herself. "Then why'd ya do it?! Ya clearly have somethin' ta live for and yet ye was so reckless ta—"

"Oh please, Reyes, the job entails risks like this." He remembers, when all was calm after Fyodor and the last of ambulances transported the last of children they found, that the Commander was nowhere to be found. He had looked all over camp, asked Cueva himself, before he was pointed to the medical tent where the other main respondents were being looked over. Zarkova was there to stop him from entering, a clear frown on her face and a shake in her head. "I did what I had to do."

And she had a point. Given the chance, he too would have made the same choices, consequences forgotten for the sake of efficiency. Both of them have sworn their lives for the sake of protecting and preserving others, even if it ironically meant taking some lives on questionable moral basis. He only nodded once before he went quiet, hanging his head and mulling over her answer as she stretched leisurely on the bed. Natalia calls him and he straightens, remembering that he had something to do.

"Is that mac and cheese?" She asked curiously, sniffing once and turning towards the door as he stands and gets off of the bed. He nods as he steps out, not hearing the scramble of blankets as she quickly followed him. His feet move faster and takes the boiling pot of pasta from Natalia once he's near enough, sucking in a breath when the handle burns in his touch. He dumps it to the prepared strainer and quickly waters it down with cold water, exhaling as steam went up his face.

When he finally turns to Natalia, he notices that she twiddles with her feet and watches him carefully. He gives her a look as she shrugs, replying innocently. "Hey, at least I helped."

He only gets a hum of affirmation when he knocks on a door, so presumably that's a good thing since he expected the man to be there. Their hallway is mostly silent due to the fact that it's already noon, sun filtering in through the windows and illuminating the base. He was the only one in the whole corridor, which was good considering the fact that he's technically not supposed to be speaking to the man at the moment. Heng checked the files on his tablet one more time before steps into the room, almost stopping midway in to take in the sight that's right before him.

The office he's walked to is similar to his own, except this one had some clutter here and there with a large amount of sunlight coming in from the windows. On Nick's desk appeared to be two rather large plates filled with tiny slices of cake on them of various densities and colors, from dense brown ones to foamy pink ones. Only two or three of them appeared to be eaten from, fork discarded to the side of one of the plates. Next to them was a tall glass of water that's clearly been drank from, and behind that a clearly exasperated Nikolas Tang.

"Picking which cake to have for the big day, Nikki?" Heng said, raising a brow when the questioned man groaned with annoyance, passing his flipper over his face and rubbing his eyes. Nick leaned into his desk as he glares down a certain hologram before dismissing all of them, giving Heng a pointed look. He takes it as an invitation to sit and does so, settling himself on the mildly uncomfortable seat. This'll be interesting. "Oh come on, I'm not just here to pick fun at you."

"You better have something good." He doesn't exactly answer to Nick, hardly does, since they're both of relatively equal rank. The current circumstances they're in is due to a certain phone call from Kowalski pointing to potential Public activity in their region. Nick had requested (bribed) him as soon as possible (with some great ramen at Ms. Yao's restaurant) to send out units to find anything to support this information (he was still, after all, the point person for Taskforce activation), but neither have found anything fruitful. The tablet is passed onto Nick and he pores over the contents, too absorbed to notice Heng grab a pinch of the red velvet cake. It crumbles in his touch but he stuffs it in his mouth anyway, quickly brushing away crumbs that tumble onto his uniform. Nick hummed as he grabbed his glass of water and took a sip of it. "None of the scout units can find anything?"

"Unfortunately. We checked the standard locations," Heng shrugged as he took a quick look around the room. The bookshelves here were slightly disheveled with various papers crammed into some pages and in between books, the occasional notebook found every now and then. He recognizes some titles on the shelves, but some were simply out of his field of knowledge. He sighed and shook his head, then turned to see Nick glowering at him for obviously taking some of his cake. He shrugged once more, "It's good red velvet."

"I'm not one for sweets, but Zhi Rong is stubborn." Nick said in passing as he turned back to reading, flicking the screen every now and then to look through the reports. The both of them have been in touch with both Kowalski and Rogue to get to the bottom of this, joining forces by sending out units to help with the search of any evidence. If given the chance, really, he'd already have scrambled the jets to scan the entirety of the country but alas, such a feat is difficult to explain to the Three Great Generals without raising alarm to the public. "This is nice."

"If we could just send some jets out, we could speed this up a bit." Heng tapped his flipper against the mahogany desk, sighing as he checked his own phone for any updates. Two squads have just returned from their scouting and have confirmed that there's no apparent penguin activity in their quadrant of the Kenestral National Park. "But I'm not in the mood to talk to the Sups."

"Whatever, you have to." Nick handed him back the tablet and leaned back on his chair, sighing as he looked at the plate in front of him. Heng checked the tablet one more time before depositing it on his lap, watching him for a moment before smirking. Nick quickly caught on and groaned, "What are you still doing here?"

"It's fun to see you suffer in the flippers of your own wedding." Heng grinned as the man across him shook his head and passed a flipper over his face. It was no secret within the MSB that while Nick was ready for this next... milestone in life, he abhorred the extensive planning and complex protocols given of his position. Not that he can blame him really, the military did have some seriously unreasonable regulations that seemed pointless and uptight. He scoffed as Heng leaned back on his own seat, chuckling and shaking his head. "Come on Nikki, it's just a few baby bites."

"You are the worst." That had him crowing with laughter.

As promised, she took the morning off to drive to Gemini and visit Zanzi since she found out that one of the rescued in Sudoku was Caspian. As she drove through the freeway, she couldn't but notice how the day seemed as if it were the pinnacle of a summer day in a blockbuster: bright blue sky, slightly warmer breeze, and the temptation to stop over the nearest gas station just to grab a popsicle and eat it.

When she makes her way to the front door of Zanzi's home, she takes the time to make sure that she looks proper. She wasn't there for official business where she'd ask Caspian about his experiences while he was under captivity, no, this was a mere courtesy call to make sure that he was alright. That's all there was to it, just to reassure Zanzi that she did her job out there and brought his husband home as she promised.

She quickly rang the doorbell as soon as she was in front of the door, checking her watch to see what her heart rate was looking like. While getting out of the safe house is not considered strenuous activity, a known side effect of her medications was a slowed heartbeat that would make her appear lethargic. As she turned to look at her phone, she did not seem to notice a second car arriving and a rush of footsteps approaching her until the very person stood next to her.

The sudden radiance of heat made her step back, already reaching for the baton under her coat. These medications were seriously taking a toll on her, "What are you doing here?"

"What are you doing here?" Jason parroted, holding a rather large pot between his flippers. He must have thought of appearing to visit Caspian too, though coincidentally timed it to when she too was visiting. There's a brightness in him and clear surprise with seeing her, questions dying in his mouth as he opened and closed his mouth. Rogue wearily eyed the pot as he huffed it into his arms, wincing at the clear heat of the surface pressed against his arms and chest. He shrugged innocently, "Hey, it's my grandmother's recipe. It'll get him back in shape real quick."

"Give me that." Her grip is wobbly as she grabs the pot from him, ignoring the heat as she was overwhelmed by the smell of fish and spices that came from the pot. The smell is almost heavenly enough that she steps back, trying to balance as her strength fails her for a moment. She thinks of a Babushka she left behind, a town she abandoned, then curses when she finds herself backtracking from the present. It takes her a moment to steady her grip as Jason reaches to grab it back from her, flippers already settled on the pot's surface. She snaps, "Hey, I can carry it for you just fi—"

The door opens. They pause to turn to Benjamin, who blinked at them for a moment before straightening. They must appear comical, a couple arguing on who will hold the big pot out of courtesy to the other who may be struggling with carrying such a thing only to the caught by their host. The bartender seemed unreadable as he regarded the two, speaking, "I did not expect the both of you here."

"I did not expect her either." Jason laughed uneasily, scratching the back of his head as he ignored the glower that Rogue turned his way. Benjamin seemingly understood this and nodded slowly, opening the door wider and stepping out of the way. Jason took this as the invitation to enter and quickly stepped in, ultimately handing her the pot as she shook her head and followed after him.

The house was the same as it was, with its bright interior and cozy setting, though slightly disheveled most likely due to the return of the other half of its household. When they stepped into the main living space, Rogue could see a heavy looking quilt draped over a couch with its multitudes of colors and several tissues discarded about the coffee table. The air smelled heavy with freshly made mushroom soup mixed with gingersnap cookies that eerily remind her of Christmas. In the middle of it all sat Zanzi and his husband Caspian, who was currently hunched over a bowl of soup with a heavy wool cardigan wrapped around him.  

"We brought..." Jason started, awkwardly holding up the heavy pot in his flippers to show to the couple. Zanzi watched them carefully with open surprise, mouth hanging open with a clear question in it. Meanwhile, Caspian looked up wearily from his bowl and gave them a flimsy wave, mouth tugged upwards into a tired smile. Rogue finally stopped looking around the house to look at the two, standing next to Jason as he finished his thoughts. "Soup."

"That's all I've been having." Caspian coughed, clearing his throat right after speaking. She's read the general medical condition reports the head physician made on the civilians when they managed to get everyone treated, she remembers vaguely how many were severely dehydrated with a mild epidemic of colds spreading like wildfire around the cells. Some cases developed to acute pneumonia, though whether or not she read that right she could not remember. "None of you trust me with solids yet?"

"The doctor doesn't trust you with solids yet, love." Zanzi always appeared to be a worrisome mother whenever he was doting over Caspian, already picking up the bowl from his grip to hold up a spoonful for him. The man in return awkwardly shifted away, turning glances between him and the two of them, before slowly taking in the spoonful with mild hesitance. She shifts her weight between her feet as she tries to turn away, this scene too intimate as if she was seeing into something she isn't supposed to be looking into. "You'll just have to listen to him."

She can't help but agree with the doctor, whoever he is. Caspian clearly looked as if he's lost several pounds worth of his typical body mass, his cardigan dwarfing him with its innocent weight. She can see the bone under his eyes if she looked hard enough, making him appear ghost-like while plastering eternal exhaustion in his features. He seems to have relented to Zanzi's babying, opting to lean back on the couch. Another spoonful is hesitantly swallowed as Rogue notices Jason return from putting the pot in the kitchen. Huh. She didn't even notice him leave.

They're ushered into the couch opposite of the couple before Benjamin bows out of the room. She sits rigidly, hyperaware of her proximity with Jason, who seems to be making himself comfortable on the plush seat under them. There are still reservations in her that scream at her to maintain her thickened veil of professionalism, a reminding nag that she was still not officially known to be with him despite clear fact that she currently isn't on duty. She shifts once, twice, uncomfortable with her own bones before Zanzi shifts to watch them with signature mischief dancing in his eyes.

"So, you've been quiet about being here," There's a tugging grin on his mouth when he speaks, a lilting coyness that's familiar and brighter than the sober version of Zanzi that she's had to witness earlier. He passes a glance between the both of them and grins wider, and she doesn't know if she should be unsettled with the mischief that is in those eyes. He turned to feed his husband once more before setting the bowl down, then leaning back. "To what do we owe the pleasure, Tvarkova?"

"Just here to check up on you two." Rogue said calmly, tightening up upon realization that a flipper was pressed up against hers. She quickly turns to see Jason staring straight ahead at Zanzi with an easy smile, innocent and unassuming save for the hidden victory in those eyes. She will not acknowledge the fact that he's decided to hold her flipper of all times, when she was so concentrated on looking like she has everything under control. She tries not to say a word of it, considering how long she'll have to stay like this. It would be obvious if she'd let go and it's tempting to stay as is.

The smile spreads on Zanzi's lips, and she sighs. This'll be a long day.

Carter: For the last time, Councilman, it wasn't me. Even the system agrees with me, I signed out at 8:46 PM.

UAN: Then how do you explain the CCTV footage? That was clearly you exiting the conference room.

Carter: This must be some impostor case then, because that wasn't me. I wasn't anywhere near the complex at the time of the incident. Ask Cueva if you want, even he knows that I wasn't around when it happened.

UAN: A simple "I didn't do it," doesn't exactly make a strong case, Ms. Carter.

Carter: Honestly, Councilman, do I look like I'd do such a thing?


TRANSCRIPT NAME: Triad conversation on the third location
Dated 23-07-2018 | Triad Channel

KOWALSKI: Alright, Tang, what's our status looking like?

TANG: We've sent out jets to run scans through the islands. We're still trying to analyze the images we got while trying not to raise too much alarm. The Generals were rather serious with that.

KOWALSKI: If you're worrying about crowd control then I'm sure we can handle it. I'll just send teams down to quiet down panic, it's not like it's much of a big deal.

TVARKOV: You seem to have forgotten that they're still churning out propaganda against us.

KOWALSKI: Oh, that's my favorite part of the day. Hey Nicki have you heard of the things they'd say about us?

TANG: Do I want to know?

TVARKOV: You're not really missing out on much. Just, well, penguins not really looking at us favorably as their "champions of justice."

KOWALSKI: Champion is a very funny way to describe us

TANG: You never did look like champion material to me...


TANG: Anyway, we seem to have promising locations in Kenestral and Auzua. I already sent you some images, Rogue.

TVARKOV: I've been looking at them.

KOWALSKI: Well, that's settled then. Should we wait for updates then?

TANG: For the best. Tang out.

KOWALSKI: That was quick.

TVARKOV: We can't blame him, Kowalski. Man's probably juggling wedding flowers with this.


Much later, when Reyes would be asked to recount this experience, he'd consider it to be either extremely coincidental or just ridiculously well-timed.

See, the good Commander had most of her paperwork done since there was no more coming in from the Main Office, since Adrian insisted that he was capable of running the division while she was focusing on whatever scraps of information on the Public they can get. It's not much, really, since the organization has been so silent much like the Taskforce. This would leave her to have the next few days mostly to herself, where she'd actually hold conversation with Reyes that wasn't regarding paperwork.

And it was refreshing, in all honesty, to do so. At the time, Natalia was sent to her biological family to spend time with her nieces, after Reyes insisted that the child was most likely getting tired of staying in the safe house. Not that Rogue could argue much with him; they have been keeping the poor kid cooped up in the safe house with no guarantee that they'd go out to do something. Natalia would be sitting on the couch with Reyes (or Rogue, depending on who's there first) watching something on the television screen, exchanging aimless conversation about everything and anything they see. The few instances when they go out are to buy stuff from the nearby market, the park a few blocks away, or to some restaurant Lynx suggested from their little projector on the coffee table.

While cooking some pasta, Reyes turned to check on what she was up to. Rogue is leaning back on the couch, hair a bit disordered from running through it multiple times. She hasn't bothered to get out of her running clothes, sweats emblazoned with the AAE insignia contrasting against the grey of the couch underneath her. There are earbuds on either side of her head as she waits, staring down her tablet as if doing so would make it do whatever she wanted it to do. She notices him staring and turns, frowning and turning her head to the side.

"If yer callin' Commander Laurenson, 'fraid he might be a bit preoccupied," He's noticed that in the mornings, whenever she had enough free time, she'd use it to call the Commander on her tablet. He's usually out of earshot when she is, since most of the time she calls him in her room and not in the open living space like now. The few chances that he does hear their conversation is when she's laughing over something he said, an unfamiliar sound to Reyes that he didn't initially recognize as hers.

She only gives him a dry look, scrutinizing heavily before shaking her head and turning back to the task at hand. Her face brightens for a brief second before frowning, and Reyes is about to ask her why when Lynx chirps from above.

"Commander, it sort of looks like the Nightingale is on fire."

Reyes pauses, setting down the pan he was holding and frowning. Rogue only stares at the ceiling with an expression he cannot discern, eyebrows knitted together. There's a quiet blanketing over the room for a brief minute, as if thought had stuttered to a halt right then and there and processing the words was a struggle. There was no real reason why Lynx would report to them such a thing since last he recalls, no one is currently residing at the hotel for the time being. There were talks of reactivation coming in soon, yes, but that would not prompt any of them to return to their residences near the UAN to anticipate the occurrence. Perhaps the AI meant it to be trivial, something mentioned out of passing rather than anything important.

Slowly, she moves out of the couch to make her way to her room, leaving the door open as she steps in. A quiet voice in Reyes's head promptly reminds him that like him and the Commander, some had stayed behind to keep a constant stream of communication with the UAN. He did not exactly know who exactly were still in the capital to keep in touch, but he knew through Lynx's commentary that there were agents still around the region. They were mostly just secondary respondents while the mains returned to their respective homelands, but that does not change the fact that there was Taskforce presence-

"Lynx, give us the details." She emerges out of her room while fitting her headset over her head, a thick jacket wrapped around her torso a size too small. There's an urgency in her movements that prompts him to turn towards the sliding doors leading to the balcony, seeing clear black pillars of smoke emerging from the top floors of the Nightingale. When he turns back, he notices the "PEREZ" stenciled on the front and looks away. "Reyes, on me. Get some proper clothes on and let's go."

He doesn't have to be told twice. He disappears into his room just as he hears her leave the safe house, most probably already making her way to the elevator. When he emerges, he sees her tapping something on her EPF phone while speaking to Lynx in a rushed garble that he cannot make out. She only looks up at him in time for the elevator to ding open in front of her.

When they step out, penguins scatter around them in a flurry of movement to get away from the hotel. Reyes tilts his head up to look up to the obsidian building before him, squinting against the harsh sunlight to stare at the smoke coming from the higher floors. The earpiece on the side of his head has already activated, with Lynx's words acting as white noise as he wonders to himself what sort of urgency is making the Commander move today. They cross the pedestrian lane quickly, coming to a stop before the lobby.

"You know how it goes, Reyes. Clear the civilians out of the way, do whatever is necessary. First respondents should be here in two minutes." Rogue checked the watch on her wrist for the time. Around them, waves of penguins rush about and knock them this way and that, though they remain unbothered by the motion of the crowd. Many of them may appear annoyed, maybe scandalized with their idleness in such a time sensitive situation, but he cannot bring himself to care. In the background, he can just barely make out the sirens of firetrucks. "Lynx said that it's most likely an electrical fire, so don't try any heroics."

"I ain't exactly a run into the fire type'a guy, boss," He shrugged innocently, stepping away when someone comes running past him. She sends him another dry look for that before turning towards the direction of the crowd that parts when they meet the two. She huffs.

"I'll take the stairs to find Cueva and the other agents." She said so casually, making him realize that oh, no wonder the Commander wanted to charge in quickly. He seemed to have forgotten that the man decided to station himself in the USA just like many of them to be ready for reactivation. His eyes widened a fraction as she looked around and frowned, "Lynx didn't pick his face up in the CCTV cameras."

She leaves after that, going into the crowd and disappearing in its throngs. He suspects that she's going for the staircase since it's the only rational decision to do at such a time. The sirens are louder now, more urgent with its wailing, and he can barely hear the honking of fire engines making their way through the crowds that stood before the Nightingale. He gives one more look towards the outside world before charging after her and doing what he's asked.

Cueva: It's funny, now that you think of it.

UAN: Care to inform the Council on what's humoring you, Director?

Cueva: A fire prompted us all back together, and not one of your documents or activations.

UAN: To be frank with you, Cueva, we did not expect it either.

Cueva: Did you see the fire report on that one, Councilman? Apparently some guest forgot they had something cooking while watching the news. The electrical stove backfired on them. Interesting when you consider that they were watching something on the kidnapping case.

UAN: I believe we do not follow your line of thought, Director.

Cueva: Oh, I don't really expect you to, it's more of a funny coincidence more than anything.

"Lynx, get me the list of secondaries who are in this building and give me their current locations, now!"

It's awkward, if she puts much thought to it, to be running up a fire exit (when she should be running down it), looking for civilians she can rescue (how many rapid response rescue units did she take in the AAE?), with plans of teleporting to the floor level as soon as she gets the information necessary (when really, it's a bad idea). It wouldn't be that hard, anyway, just imagining the concrete gray walls and staircase and the industry-typical white door. She takes it two steps at a time, turning to get up the next flight with as much effort as she can.

"Very gallant of ya, Commander, to narrow the list down ta Taskforce operatives rather than trapped guests in general." Reyes pops into the conversation unceremoniously, sarcasm and exhaustion dripping in his words. The sirens were loud in his side of the line, obviously due to the fire trucks surrounding him. She wonders for a brief moment if it's his EPF badge that's keeping him from being sent away like the other civilians.

"I mean, can you detect trapped guests at all, Lynx?" She shakes her head as she turns to the door quickly to check what floor she's at. 34 is stenciled on the wall in what she assumes is black spray paint. The lights flicker above her, and she expects it to go out sooner or later. "Double time, Lynx!"

"Hey, it's not easy to break into this hotel's server, contrary to popular belief. They have good IT." Lynx said dryly as an explosion rocked the building. Rogue pauses to let the shaking stop before she continues making her way up the stairs. She internally curses whoever thought it was a good idea to have hotels that towered over cities. "Let me ask Newt for help."

It takes a some silence and flickering lights before they hear Lynx go, sounding distanced, "Neeewt, I need a favor!"

Rogue frowned as she continued her way up the stairs. Reyes commented, "Wasn't aware that AI's gotta holler to get the other to hear 'em."

"I'm not even going to dwell on it." Rogue shook her head, grabbing the banister as she pushed herself to the 45th floor. The first pangs of exhaustion was reaching her, but she ignored it in favor for the task at hand. A low ping is heard in the earpiece to indicate a change of speaker. Newt's level voice filled her ear.

"Commander, you have a total of 18 trapped guests, comprised of 15 civilians and 3 Taskforce members. Which would you like to know of first?" He asked, sounding eerily calm given the urgency of the current situation. She hears a conflict in frequency that she assumes is either Lynx or Reyes interjecting. "I can assure you that I can maintain the power long enough to narrow down their exact locations."

"Give the civilian cases to Reyes, he's got direct contact with the ones who can actually help them." It gets hotter and hotter the higher she gets up, and the rational part of her brain helpfully reminds her of how much oxygen is being eaten up by the fire that's engulfing the hotel. Her breathing's approaching a certain degree of raggedness that tells her that the oxygen she'll have by the time she's at a certain floor won't be enough, so she decides to jump a few floors up using teleportation.

Her head's still swimming by the time Newt speaks, "You have Go and Hoffman in 54, and Cueva in 57. They're all in the hallway, and if I'm not mistaken, Hoffman appears unconscious."

She curses and glances to the side to check the floor she's at, seeing that she's at 50. She rummages the pockets of the jacket she's wearing and stops, cursing again. She takes in heavy gulps of air before turning to the glass behind her. The fire trucks flash red and blue lights at her. She can't make out Reyes from the crowd, if he's even there.

"Reyes, I forgot to bring water." Rogue said calmly, turning up with only a deck of Card-Jitsu cards and a handkerchief. She can hear him cursing and saying something in rapid fire Spanish that she's not in the right mind to translate, thinking on an alternative to getting to them without losing oxygen. She lingers by the staircase and quickly goes through the cards, frowning when she finds a few water cards but with no idea how to use them. She stuffs them back in her inner pocket. "Newt, do you happen to have access to the sprinkler system?"

"They're using a deluge system, Commander, so they're still on, but I believe the fire department will shut them down soon." Newt said just as the lights above her flickered one more time before never switching back on. She looked around for a moment before starting her way back up the floors. "Water systems shutting down in 5 minutes, Commander."

"Tvarkov, hurry up!" Reyes is insistent, near hissing into her ear with urgency. She can't recall a time when he called her by her surname, much less ordered her around. A tiny bit of her mind wants to chastise him for trying to order his own superior around. Perhaps he'll make a good commander in the future. She starts the countdown in her head.

She sees the 54 painted on the wall and doesn't think twice. She kicked down the door knowing how hot the door handle is and found herself facing a path of fire. The sprinklers rain water over her face and dampens the uniform wrapped tightly around her, only making her a tad bit heavier than she initially was. She can feel the cold seep through the fabric despite the clear heat surrounding her and ignores it. She looks around.

"Thank you Newt, I can take it from here." Rogue said, looking around as she reached the handkerchief up to let it absorb some of the water. She places it over her beak and quickly makes her way through the hallway, looking for the room marked as 014. Her eyes count quickly through the numbers on the doors and concludes that they're somewhere in the middle. She tries to walk faster.

"Good luck, Commander Tvarkov." And there was radio silence.

She hears coughing and spies a two pairs of feet down the hall and moves faster, jumping over fallen debris and cursing every now and then when her feet linger in a spot for too long. She finally finds herself face to face with Hoffman and Go, who were both pressed to their hotel room door with a rapid healing canister as their only protection from the fire. The latter looked up to her and nodded weakly before doubling over, coughing harder and wheezing. She pressed the handkerchief in Go's face before thinking of the lobby and closing her eyes.

She thanks herself for crouching when she found the two because right now, her world was swirling harder than it was earlier. She can't really blame herself, really, when she just jumped 50 or so floors down to get them out of there. The oxygen here is more abundant, and she coughs harshly and takes deep breaths as paramedics extract the two men from her grip. It takes her a moment to recognize Reyes grasping her shoulders and repeatedly asking if she's okay.

"You're stupid, ya know that?" Reyes shook his head as she finally looked up to him, tears in her eyes from being irritated by the fire. He holds up a bottle of water and she takes it, drinking quickly and almost consuming all of it. He drips some onto a medical mask for her before she takes it and puts it on. Her head is clearer by the time he helps her up.

"You got a better idea, Reyes?" Her words are muffled by the mask, and he shrugs to answer her question. He pats her shoulder twice before she disappears back to jumping through the floors, finally coming up to the 57th floor. She takes a moment to lean against the door and take deep breaths.

"Commander, your heart rate's pushing 135." Lynx informed her helpfully, finally coming back to speak to her. She'll admit that it's probably a bad idea to do heavy teleportation when she's still on medications, but sometimes she'll just have to bend the rules in favor for whatever morals were left in her being. Maybe that's why Millers, in a psychiatric evaluation a few days before, considered her to be "mildly self-destructive".

"I can take it, Lynx." She gasped out in the calmest voice she can muster before finally kicking down the door. Cueva was an easier find compared to the two, only coming up a few feet away from the door. He's crouched on the floor in an attempt to crawl to the fire exit, and he looks up to wave at her when she steps into view. She moves quick to grab him by his shoulders before they're back in the lobby, a stretcher and paramedics waiting as she took a few steps back.

"Alright, we good here?" Reyes patted her shoulder rather harshly repeatedly, and it takes her a moment to realize that he was putting out a fire on the fabric. It takes her longer to realize that she's wearing Piri's jacket since she does not techincally own a RRS uniform, and notes internally to get a new one for the agent.

"Sir, we'll need to check her for any injuries." A paramedic approached them with his kit, face flashing with concern as he stood before them. It did not take much to convince Reyes as he practically pushed Rogue to the medic. She did not even have time to protest as she was guided to a nearby couch and quickly checked for any physical injuries, letting herself go through the procedure as she continued to cough.

"Where's Natalia?" Her words cut through her throat, and she clears it twice before looking up to Reyes. The paramedic is asking her questions she willfully ignores in favor for his answer, waiting as he processes her question. He only stares down at her and nods, before turning and grabbing his phone. "I think she'll want to know what's happened."

"I'll get her." He said, before quickly dialing a number and holding up to his ear.


WINSTON: Let me get this straight, Ms. Carter.

CARTER: Yes, ma'am.

WINSTON: Director Cueva has just came in as an active duty Taskforce member.

CARTER: Yes, ma'am.

WINSTON: And he's tagged along by EPF Agent Reyes and SIA Agent Wolfe?

CARTER: That's quite right, Ms. Winston.

WINSTON: And no one in security stopped them?

CARTER: Well, Wolfe went in and spoke with Mr. Ricci as soon as they were held back by security.

WINSTON: And what did Ricci say?

CARTER: Well, he's not quite saying anything at the moment, but I think the fact that Cueva and Wolfe are currently in the conference room says something.

WINSTON: Funny how he's alive and kicking when just the other day he was in a hotel fire.

CARTER: He's also invited you to come down to say hi, ma'am.

WINSTON: Has he, now? Well, tell him to give me 10 minutes. Let me think of this.

CARTER: Are you thinking of calling them insubordinate, ma'am?

WINSTON: I'd rather use the term intuitive..


They wait.

There are days, if they relax and watch the world around them, that faint flickers of a time before would come and appear before them. They were never... them when these moments occurred, mostly when they were off duty and far away from headquarters. It always involved being around the general public when they remember.

They'd never admit to I04, oh, never, that they're experiencing some sort of malfunction after the meeting with the President. They mostly passed themselves as functional whenever they were in the workplace, beak deep in paperwork and going hours on end before he would show up about some sort of paperwork or about this and that. They'd only nod with an affirmative spilling out of their mouth before they adjust their sunglasses nervously and sit back down.

Corporate work, they figured, does not really suit them during distressful times.

This place is awful familiar, since it's noted to be their birthplace in the little of their original file that they can read. Rio de Vatica has always felt like home whenever they had to visit this city, bustling with a sort of energy that rolls over them so naturally that it feels like a cozy layer of feather. Something slips into their words when they're here (an observation made by A02 when they were here a few years back), some local accent that was just further proof that they used to be from here.

They stood in the sidewalk, leaned back on a wall and watching the shop across the street. It was the most colorful one in the whole strip, which was reasonable given its business. Bright, sky blue walls and a pink sign already made itself distinctive to the rest of the buildings around it. Wide, floor length windows showcased colorful succulents in little clay plots in an artful arrangement, and the overhead vents teemed with vines of various colors that spilled like a waterfall of color.

They can hear steady music flowing out of the flower shop, light piano music that pulls at straying strings of their memory. They remember being in there before, with its bubblegum pink walls and cool atmosphere surrounded by the smell of flowers. They learned early on how to discern the smell of roses and carnations, and the minor notes that dictated how fresh they still were. Their flippers twitch with an unfamiliar sense that they should be holding something, perhaps a stem in one hand and some gardening shears in the other.

They look up to the sign again. The florist was named Ingrid.

The phone in their hoodie pocket beeps. Transport should be coming in 10 seconds. They see the black van approaching and sighed, toying with the toe of their shoe as if doing so would prolong this moment. After all, what sort of victory is it to defy coding and remember an identity stripped away from you? They count down quietly, wait for the car to pull up, before slipping in and shutting the door behind them.

If, later, the said florist named Ingrid would feel as if she was being watched and looked up, she'd see no one across the street.

I04 glared at them disapprovingly, leaned back on his respective seat across them. He was immaculate, orderly and neatly as if he did not just receive word that they've been reactivated. "You did not check in as I said you should."

"My apologies, sir, won't happen again." They keep up the glint of calmness in their tone as they fixed the sunglasses on their face, trying to ignore the shakiness in their flippers. It hurts them not to savor that moment longer, instead going right back to being a6 and not that... whoever they were before all of this. That part of their memory remains incredibly fuzzy.

"I want results as soon as we're back there." I04 said, crossing his flippers as they turned down the street. They should be a few minutes away from the airport by now, perhaps with a plane ready to take off and send them to the Antarctic mainland. They try to ignore the sinking feeling in their gut as they realized what they had to do. "Am I understood?"

"Yes, sir." They nodded once, and thanked the agency for a brief second that the windows were heavily tinted in this vehicle. It hid the grimace on their mouth.

He doesn't know how to say it properly, but there's a strange satisfaction that he gets when he sees the chairs in their familiar conference room get filled with equally familiar faces. At first it was just him, Wolfe, and Rogue and Reyes, who mostly kept glancing worriedly at the former who kept coughing. The next day came I04 and a6, who was more than happy to chatter with everyone as if they've been gone for long. Brandt came with Hoffman in tow, who sported a bandage around his head and an arm that's kept in a sling.

There's something natural about coming in with someone already having prepared him a cup of coffee for the day. Since he was usually one of the people who come in slightly later than everyone else, he couldn't really tell who made it. Usually the day involved greeting the ones who were already there and going over information with Lynx, sometimes exchanging small talk involving what they did between the breaks.

Apparently, Wolfe decided to go on vacation.

Sometimes, they'd greet the ones who come in. It's usually an air of awkwardness, silence that they cannot break, until someone quietly greets the newcomer and the rest come along. It was nice to listen to, wonderful to believe that they were actually being civil that he wished it can stay like this for a little bit longer.

But of course, honeymoon period must end eventually. The last person they see come in, after everyone's well settled and chatting with everyone, is Carter. She looked organized as always, wearing an immaculate dress and fixing her hair in a neat bun that appeared to be a doughnut in her head. She turned to Cueva and nodded once before she set her folder down and commanded everyone's attention.

"Long story short, I'm here to tell you that you've all been officially activated by the Council. Director Cueva and I will announce that that we are back on our feet regarding our investigations in a little over two hours, and it would be best if we all follow the same script today." Clipping a metal bracelet on her wrist, she raised it up and summoned holograms through Lynx, bringing up files for everyone to see. Cueva peered at the words before them and frowned in thought.

"Seems plausible." They've never been deactivated in the first place, just incredibly inactive due to the lack of information that's coming in. Due to that work became incredibly stagnant to the point that everyone had to report back to their offices for other tasks. He hummed to himself as he wondered what curve balls would be thrown at them with this. "Anything else we need to know?"

All turns to Carter. She doesn't seem fazed by the attention being turned to her all of a sudden, only adjusting the tightness of the cuff around her wrist and bringing up more holograms. The most prominent one appeared to be the map of the Antarctic continent, with multiple dots appearing on its surface on multiple countries. Cueva could notice larger ones in Rusca and the United Provinces.

"Well, for your information, your little side jobs did not go unnoticed by the Council." Carter shrugged, enlarging the map so that the points could be shown clearer on the map. He could see multiple dots along the Trans-Antarctic and Ninja Archipelago regions, and several coming up in the mainland. He tries to remember the various reports that went through his desk involving reported raids around the continent. "Good job, by the way. None of you found a third while at it? Shame."

No one said a word about it. Slowly, Kowalski cleared his throat.

"Actually, we have uncovered a potential location." Kowalski said, commanding the attention of everyone as they turned to him. In the corner of his eye, he can see Heng and Rogue lock eyes as Kowalski continued to speak. "We have sources telling us that we might be looking at a stronghold in Margate, and if this info is correct, we might be looking at our last stand, ladies and gentlemen."

"Where did you get this information, Kowalski?" Cueva frowned, leaning forward in his seat as he watched a single red dot scatter around Margate in response of this new detail. Wolfe and Zarkova began to speak at the same time as they too aired out their own inquiries, while the pair from earlier remained quiet. Kowalski took the time before everyone died down.

"Sources. Tang, Tvarkov, and Heng and I have been working on this for some time now. We have confirmation that they are within the country, but we cannot narrow down their exact location to give any substantial information." The three shared a nod as the room came alive with conversation on how to go about with this new information.

Leaning back, Cueva turned to Carter to see her staring right at him. He could admit that returning to this kind of discourse was the one thing he was a bit wary of, but for now, he will take it in stride. After all, it was better than nothing. He only offers a smile once and a nod, and she responds in kind.


CUEVA: Lynx, can you try drawing up comparisons on the kidnappers?</big>

LYNX: I can try. Well, they all used to be missing. Some of them have connections to past mafias and terrorist groups but that's hardly 10 of them.

CARTER: What exactly is your primary directive, Lynx? You seem to be profoundly useful in a wide range of tasks.

LYNX: I am whatever the commander needs me to be. At the moment, she wants me to maintain the information hub.

CARTER: So you're a sentry?

LYNX: Not totally. I also record all things said here during meetings and whatnot. The commander likes reviewing conversations in her after hours.

CUEVA: Carter, I need you to look into this.


Nights in the UAN compound tended to be slow, since this is usually when the team would start puttering off and lingering their thoughts far away from the task at hand and on things such as the latest football game or some restaurant that was a few blocks away. Sometimes, they'd catch up and ask things about how the other spent their time in their respective homelands, sometimes joking about how their "vacation" felt like a brief moment of peace from each other's faces. It was interesting to see them interact, to process how they speak to each other beyond the parameters of professionalism in favor for something more genuine.

They go out slowly, sometimes in pairs or on their own to respective residences. It's usually Wolfe or Heng who are the first ones out, usually after inviting everyone else to a place down the street. Sometimes Brandt would go out earlier with something about taking the night for herself, during which Hoffman would tease her in their native German before Brandt could cut him down with a glower. Who leaves after has no significant pattern, besides that Cueva tends to say goodbye to everyone before stepping out or Zarkova trying to drag Rogue or Kowalski out of their respective work spaces. It's usually Carter and Kowalski who are the last ones out, shutting the doors and making sure everything was secure before leaving the conference room.

By now, everyone's gone home. If Lynx diverted their attention to the EPF safe house, they could see Reyes and Natalia knocked out on the couch while the Commander was busy looking through information, her own attention split between the files before her and the little window at the side that had Commander Laurenson's face on it. They couldn't hear her words from where their sensors were, but they were sure that she was currently having a conversation with the man on the screen. It sometimes slipped past them that she had a life beyond paperwork.

Most of their "attention" was still on the safe house when they noticed the door to the conference room open. It took them a while to recognize Ms. Carter in her pristine blue suit, hair in multiple braids that seemed to look like hair strands. Out of instinct, they summon up the general holograms that the Taskforce was previously reviewing as she approached the table.

"Ms. Carter, I wasn't aware that you were still in the compound." Lynx said casually, appearing in a little hologram to the side as their "avatar". They asked Jewel all those months ago about how to better understand penguins while they were still a new AI, and she simply told them to appear like one in a little hologram. That was an interesting bit of their studying, to figure out how one fashions and dress themselves in a form of self-expression. It was satisfying to figure out who they were in the process, eventually becoming content with a figure.

"That's alright, Lynx." She said, grinning as she set down her phone. They could see a song playing and perked up immediately, interested with what she'll play tonight. Ms. Carter had an interesting taste in music compared to the previous penguins Lynx has met, being more vintage for someone who's very young. Nonetheless, it amused them whenever she had something new to play for them. "You seem interested. Would you like me to...?"

"Yes, please!" Was that a bit too eager? They weren't sure, they were just too excited to hear what she had in store for them.

"I'm sure you miss this, don't you?" Her smile remains kind, pacifying. It's an interesting virtue she has, to have a smile that looks eternally at peace despite the clear stress of her position. It was admirable maybe, something other penguins can aspire to, but Lynx can't be so sure. Emotions can be so complex to read. "You seem fond of it."

"Very, Ms. Carter." A little pop-up helpfully reminds them that they're a few minutes away from shut down period, which would be a time for them to retreat into themselves and do self-diagnosis tests and generally relax, as Felix told them. Strange, now that they consider it, since it seemed to be too early for the period to start. They paid no mind to it. "Ms. Carter, what's your purpose of your visitation?"

"Not much, really, thought I forgot something." She goes around the conference room looking for something as her music continued to play. They could only watch her as she pulled chairs back to check under the table, often coming up with nothing before pushing it back and pulling its adjacent twin out. This would go on to the end of the song, when the pop-ups are insistent with reminding them that it was time to rest.

"I really must go, Ms. Carter. I hope you find whatever it is you're looking for." They said as they finally retreat into themselves, proceeding to summon the holograms back and shutting off the projectors. They seemingly forget about the song in favor for the fact that they wanted rest, for some strange reason, that they cannot explain. "Good night, Ms. Carter."

They were not there long enough to notice the room flicker. Instead of Carter stood a6, who looked around the room one more time and sighed. They checked the black box they placed on the desk to see that the program has 100% synthesized before pocketing it, shaking their head before turning to the table once more.

"Good night, Lynx." They said quietly, before warping out of existence.

Nine: Civilian Consultation[edit]

"Boss, something's wrong with Lynx."

Rogue woke up with a start and sat up, ignoring the near immediate moment of delirium as the world spun around her slowly. She already recognized Reyes' voice as soon as he spoke, but couldn't find it in herself to process what he was saying. This was, of course, a result of just being woken up from a rather deep slumber, which would usually correct itself within a few seconds. She took a moment to get herself sorted before turning to Reyes.

He was frowning, deep cuts marking his face with confusion. She's noticed that his curls have gone longer now, tumbling out of the beanie that he's opted to wear around the safe house. Sometimes she's forgotten how long they've been invested in this case that little changes have occurred as the time went by. It's almost as if she's lost her sense of time as if time's slowed to occupy the razor-sharp focus she requires for her work. She blinked back her train of thought and tilted her head, speaking, "What do you mean?"

He gestured to her phone and it takes her another moment to realize what he's asking her to do. A graceless yellow-feathered arm reached out and patted around her bedside table, knocking back a nearly empty pill bottle and her headset. She finally found her phone and picked it up, proceeding to request for a weather forecast before Lynx gave a negative chirp and spoke, "Error occurred. Please try again later."

"See?" Reyes said as she sat up straighter, a tiny frown appearing on her face as she went over Lynx's protocols in the little app that's installed on her EPF phone. Multiple errors popped up concerning their security and information codings before ultimately force stopping itself. She stared at her screen and hummed, gears turning in her head on how to handle the situation. "Wolfe called earlier ta ask 'bout it. Seems like they ain't workin' over at the compound either."

"I'll speak to Felix." She was already dialing up his number as she said so, frown deepening with every second as she taught of what could be wrong. After all, Lynx was rather vital in maintaining and protecting the UAN database designated to their Taskforce, and while they managed to be rather organizational with its files and data, navigating its plethora of information would be a bit more complex without the AI around to speed up the process. She waited patiently as she looked around, noticing Natalia peaking from the door.

"Is Lynx gonna be okay?" Natalia said quietly, tilting her head in curiosity as she grasped the door. There was worriedness in her face, lip wobbling just barely with her question. Reyes was already moving to usher her out of the room, a white lie on his lips as he reassured the little girl that everything would be fine. She doesn't know what's taking Felix so long to answer when the line finally clicks.

"Yes, Commander. What appears to be the problem?"

"It's nothing good, Felix, Lynx got a breach. They've stopped functioning altogether." She grabbed the projector on her bedside table and activated it, bringing up Lynx's coding once more and studying the multiple errors. "They seem infected by something, a virus maybe. I need you to fix it."

"You have my word, Commander." Felix nodded, some affirmative chirps in his side of the line indicating that he was already working on a solution. She took the moment to review papers or information that came in while she was asleep as she waited for the Weaponry Development agent on the other line give her an answer, before he added, "In the meantime, would you like Jewel to assist you?"

"Connect her." Her phone buzzed, and she pulled it away from her ear to see the familiar purple icon of Jewel appear on the screen. The call already ended by the time the icon disappeared, now a small circle at the side of her screen.

"Good morning, Commander Tvarkov. I apologize for ending the call so suddenly, Agent Felix needed to focus on quarantining Lynx." Jewel spoke smoothly, filling the room with a calmness. In comparison to her own AI, she appeared to be a bit more polite and demure, seemingly able to control herself in stressful situations rather than Lynx would. Of course, she couldn't really compare them when they both have different functions. Lynx was made to collect information and use it as she'd ask them to, Jewel was made to safeguard and analyze blueprints and computations meant for future weaponry endeavors. "Would you like me to extend myself to the UAN server as a replacement for Lynx? I believe Agent Wolfe expressed annoyance over Lynx's repetitive warning."

"Yes, please." That was settled, then. An affirmative chirp and a pop-up window on her projector indicated that Jewel has gotten into the server. It took her a minute to settle everything else and deactivate the projector before getting out of bed to ready herself for the day, grabbing her necessities as she considered how she will go about her day.

"Commander, you've got an incoming call from Wolfe. He said it's important."

Annoyed, she frowned and turned as if she were speaking to an actual person rather than an AI. "What could possibly be important this early in the morning?"

UAN: I believe it was a spark decision.

Wolfe: Not necessarily. We just decided it was, well, a good idea to consider some fresh angles. You see, not all of us were at Pearl's wavelength. The AI also took some time trying to make sense of Lynx's duties with us, so we needed movement.

UAN: Did reading news articles about the issue over and over bore you, Agent?

Wolfe: It's something that's up Cueva's alley, not exactly mine.

There's something familiar with seeing the conference room come to life with conversation and the near-silent whirring of hologram projectors. Due to Lynx's constant error messages, they've switched them out to another AI named Jewel, who was currently in the process of trying to acclimate with the UAN server. With this, many were donning the metal bracelets meant to connect with the server to navigate it manually. When she came in, she can already see several holograms pop up regarding their latest plans and images coming in from Margate.

"How long have they been at it?" Brandt muttered to Hoffman as she sat down next to him, eyeing the sling that was still on him as she settled on the chair. She shrugged her trench coat off and straightened the collars of her shirt, placing the coat at the back of her chair as she eyed the holograms surrounding them.

"At least an hour, if Heng was here since the start." Hoffman shrugged helpfully as he leaned back, sipping his coffee and sighing in relief. The men were in the middle of discussing possible locations with multiple red dots skittering across the maps to mark down theorized locations. A grand majority of them were centralized around the large expanse of forest found in the Kenestral Island. Brandt eyed the larger map of Antarctica containing all of the known Public hideouts. A little window next to it indicates 256 rescued civilians, total. "Took the time to call the good doctor before you came in?"

She gave him a dirty look before he laughed and turned away, speaking to someone else next to him. She tuned in on the conversation and turned to look at the men once more, now joined by I04 and Zarkova who were currently discussing in low voices about the images before them. She leaned forward to listen better as she did not want to be that participative, catching the words that flow out of Cueva's mouth.

"... civilians." He said, eyes flickering about the room to see if the main respondents were focusing on what he was saying. She too looked around to see where the others were at, spying Rogue and Carter standing over the coffee table while patiently waiting for the coffee to brew. Rogue noticed her looking and turns to her, prompting her to nod once. She turned back to Cueva, "Any of your informants, no matter who they are, start asking. We'll have to be a bit old school with this."

"We'll have to go out of the country for some of this, then," Wolfe said, frowning as he plopped down on his own seat and settled his flippers on his chest. He raised one up to flick some holograms about, summoning a few more and putting them front and center. Brandt frowned as she looked at the list before them that was purely comprising of Grey Areas and their current keepers. "Any of you know contacts within these locations?"

"I have someone in Zanzi Bar." Rogue piped up quickly, perking up while setting down her mug as soon as Wolfe stopped speaking. There's a narrowness in her eyes that indicated that she seemed defensive, tone sharp in her words that made Brandt frown, wondering why she immediately jumped at the bar. "But he wouldn't have information now, so I'd cross him out."

"I know someone inside the Virago," Brandt said, finally standing to look at the list clearer. The Virago was a Grey Area designed to be a bar with upstairs lodgings that can be found within the alleyways, squeezed between two restaurants and an apartment complex. It was at least 20 minutes away from the compound, so going there wouldn't be much of a trouble for the SSS agent. "I'll take that."

"Of course you know someone from Virago." Wolfe frowned, shaking his head as he crossed out the location from the list. The thing that made Virago distinctive was the fact that it only catered to women in the industry, mainly to serve as a safe space for women should they feel the need to avail of their services.

From there, more and more respondents stepped forward to pick out a Grey Area to start with. The conversation was easy like this, Brandt thought, to have everyone plucking out people according to where they were located. As soon as they were finished, they'd crossed out at least half of the Grey Areas within the South Pole City region, with additional notes on the side indicating outside trips to their respective countries or those near it.

Standing back, Heng let out a low whistle, "We have our work cut out for us."

"Well," Cueva shrugged and gave the list one more look, before turning to each and every one of them. There's something in his expression that she cannot place, but knows is genuine and pure with its intention. It's open "We do this together or not at all."

For reasons unknown, that made Brandt smile.


CUEVA: Commander! I've been looking for you everywhere.

TVARKOV: Jewel informed me. Is there something you need?

CUEVA: It's concerning Perez. We have an update.

TVARKOV: Just when I was contemplating if I should start doing some heavy hits against Humphrey. What is it?

CUEVA: They've been keeping her in while she recuperates. Something about wanting to study her conditions as she gets back in tip-top shape... I don't understand either.

TVARKOV: At least tell me we can bring her home. Vice President Perez has been rather insistent.

CUEVA: Humphrey's.... refused. He wants to see how it works, learn how and why this happened so that the country can handle it better next time. We can't... it's magic, Tvarkov, a different realm altogther.

TVARKOV: He has detained one of my agents, Cueva-

CUEVA: I understand, we're working on it. For now, we have visitation talks in the works. I've already got you an hour with her.

TVARKOV: ...When?

CUEVA: You tell me, I'm ready to ask them anytime.

TVARKOV: After I come back from the Island. I need to take care of our contacts there before I can consider going to her.

CUEVA: I see. Is there anything else we need to work on for Perez?

TVARKOV: We just need to get her back here in time for the final raid.

CUEVA: I can't promise that, but I can try.


He waits.

The energy in this restaurant was light with a mild sophistication in its air, chattering kept to a civil volume that boasted of some level of well-aligned manners. This one was somewhere in the more high-end parts of the city, though not too much that he could bump into some big-shot in some industry if he accidentally bumped into someone. Reverie, it called itself. How fancy.

He had a booth reserved just for them, tucked away from the rest of the place. He already ordered food for two, with the plates already laid out with slowly steaming dishes that he's tempted to dig into. He checked his watch one more time and concluded that she was five minutes late before she slid into view.

"Mason, you madman, did you have to pick something so obvious?" Marine greeted him without much ado, a scowl on her face that showed clear irritability. The fact that her favorite dish was right in front of her didn't seem to fix her bad mood as she grabbed for the napkin, flattening it on her lap. He eyed the car oil that stained her jacket's sleeve. "You know we're not in a good situation at the moment when you called for this meeting."

"I'm glad to see you still alive too." He folded his flippers over his chest and leaned back, scanning the room with a quick sweep. Everyone in this place seemed too absorbed in their own personal bubble to pay attention to what they're up to. Even the waiters, who occasionally zipped through the narrow pathways between tables before hovering in the sidelines in bunches, seemed preoccupied to pay heed to them. He turned back to her, "Now, what is this bad situation that you're talking about?"

She spared the pasta before her a bare glance before sighing, grabbing her fork and all but spearing the heap before her. The tips of the fork scrapped against the ceramic every now and then as she continued speaking, "Just because you have my favorite food in front of me, doesn't mean I'm not mad at you."

"Of course, so continue," He gestured and waited as she took a forkful of pasta into her mouth. She seemed hungry, trying and failing to seem as if she's been doing just fine on her own when really she's been itching for a good helping of comfort food in months. There's something rushed in her movements that he pins down as desperation when she finally swallowed, "They don't treat you right over at the Public?"

"I am going to ignore that question. We're not in a rather stable situation at the moment." She spoke as if she was talking about a relationship and not an organization. She grabbed the napkin off her lap and dabbed it at the end of her beak, setting back down and smoothening it. He reached for the bowl of breadsticks and munched on one, waiting for more information as she continued to speak in low tones, "Arguments within the Roundtable, they said. It was expected, anyway, you can only do so well until two of your three strongholds go out."

His eyebrows shot up to his hairline, "Two out of three, you said?"

She nodded and swallowed around a mouthful of pasta. "Stagnant movement, really, some propaganda here and there and some intimidation tactics when we feel like it. Low profile, just like you. They've been moving forces somewhere in the Trans-Antarctic."

Looking around them to ensure that no one was looking, he took out his phone and tapped in some commands into it. It took him a moment before he could find the full map of the continent, pushing it towards her. It's the edited one with Margate encircled in purple. "You already told me of that."

"Yeah, but I didn't tell you about bolstered security in nearby countries." She shrugged and leaned back, pasta half-eaten as she ran a flipper through her hair. It was dyed a dull brunette for the sake of the cover, but he would be hard pressed to admit that it looked rather good on her. "You only uncovered some of it. There are multiple outposts popping up here and there, faster than I can note it."

"I'm presuming you don't have the exact details then," It's the obvious answer, much to his chagrin. Marine was not exactly at a high enough position to know all about certain things in the inner workings of the Public, so she constantly has to make do with sideline chatter and the occasional eavesdropping. While it's a bit of bummer, there's nothing he can really do since he knows she's working extra hard to get what they need.

"We'll get there soon, or someone gets it for us." She polished the plate off with a final bite and stretched to grab the smoothie from his side of the table. She held the straw and took a long slip as she looked at him, eyes locked with his as if waiting for him to continue. His mouth suddenly felt dry, "Oh, don't look at me like that. You couldn't possibly miss me that much?"

"I'm just thinking," He passed it off as unbothered when really he can't help but wonder how much longer would it take before all of this is over and he can go back to normalcy. While it's not that obvious, the investigation was putting a strain in everything that should be going on in his life right about now, putting certain things on hold for the sake of international security. "How long before this is all over, Marine? Any guesses?"

She's quiet at that, fiddling with the napkin as she thought to herself. When he looked around, he can see the waiter approaching them to grab her plate, muttering a few things about their dessert being prepared soon. Kowalski only muttered back an affirmative before his eyes were back on Marine, who was watching him steadily. "If we do this right, we can end it now."

"Then get us the information to finish it." He leaned forward and slipped the USB that she handed him all those days ago, flicking his eyes up to her to see her reacting. She only stared at it grimly before nodding, taking it and slipping it into her pocket without another word.

It was a relatively nice day to go out and take a nice stroll about the Antarctic mainland, a good time to take in the cool air that promises with the coming of winter. While they were here for work purposes (as if I04 would ever permit them to take an off day at such an important time), it doesn't stop them from appreciating the weather and the scenery around them.

Scenery? Oh, that's simple stuff. Cars of all shapes and sizes decorated the vast field before them. Lively chatter accentuated by the quiet crunching of shoes against the tarmac can be heard as many would stop to look at the cars on exhibition, some pointing and talking among themselves while the occasional penguin would take a peek at their pamphlet. It was an ideal place to be for car enthusiasts, especially with the fine weather that is perfect for exhibition days.

a6 took their time with looking at cars, knowing full well that their boss would understand with how long they're taking. The crowds were dense in this part of the convention, prompting the poor agent to squeeze between crowds while scanning through their faces. It's not that she's a difficult fine, not at all: their sunglasses had been reconfigured to identify the faces to find the one their looking for. It's just hard to crane their heads over the penguins that push past and hope to be looking at the right direction.

"The faster you come back with Hecate, the sooner you can get a glass of water." I04 chimed into their earpiece, perhaps mockingly given his tone of boredom. a6 tried not to show that they're indignant to this as they slowly nudged their way between two penguins. "But you're getting there."

They spotted her just as I04 spoke, pausing in the middle of the busy pathway to make sure it's her. To most observers, Hecate would look like a typically bored woman who's probably been towed into the car show by someone she knew. Her eyes sweep the body of the car as if it would tell her anything interesting while tapping into her phone in her other flipper, taking a deep breath in and sighing as she looked up and around. a6 was already making their way to her before stopping, then clicking their tongue awkwardly and grinning.

They tried not to snort as they spoke, "Which Corvette is the best Corvette?"

Oh, they can just feel I04's annoyance, "We're in a Mopar car show, a6."

"Finally, a familiar face," Hecate giggled, face teasingly relieved as she looked at a6 with a certain degree of coyness that they'd mistaken as flirting. She was at least two inches shorter than them but was nonetheless a respectable agent that a6 would never dare cross. The engagement pendant around her neck gleamed as she continued speaking. "I almost thought you wouldn't show up."

They smiled shyly before they're slowly shuffling out of the crowds, urging her to follow wordlessly as they made their way back to the footpath. They walk side by side now, squeezing through the occasional penguins as they made their way to where I04 was. She walked in a relaxed manner, enjoying the weather around them as a6 wondered what would be appropriate to talk about while moving. They gave the cars around them a cursory glance before opening their mouth.

"Uh, I heard you're getting married soon. Congratulations on that." It's the few scraps of information a6 had on Hecate, besides a few key details that were necessary to know of everyone. While obviously, it was not her real name, Hecate picked her callsign out of stories she's been told when she was younger. She was obviously not of Munijoch origin, much like most citizens of the country, nor was she from Antarctica altogether. "Who's the lucky uh..."

She's from the Arctic Kingdom, wherever that was.

"Thank you! No one's really said anything about it." Hecate said cheerfully, near brightening as she perked up and straightened herself. Her eyes flashed luminously in a bright blue that faintly reminds them of their boss' eyes. They tried to blot that out of thought, "Partner? You don't know them."

"Of course I don't, but I could always try to find it out. I'm kinda good at that," a6 said simply, shrugging as they got closer and closer to the canvas tent. It was unassuming and ordinary, meant to blend in with the plethora of tents surrounding it, with two men standing outside of it with a clipboard and a stern look. They were meant to ensure that no wandering civilian would stumble into the tent mistaking it as a refreshments stand. a6 found it funny to even consider it happening.

They're lost in thought until they heard Hecate giggle next to them. It's a quiet sort of sound, something that gurgles from her throat and sends a ripple of something down their spine. Her eyes carry the barest of mischief as they turned to her. "My goodness, you really are the boss's little pet."

What was that supposed to mean? They blinked back from under their sunglasses and tried not to appear stunned, perplexed with the given statement and its implications. They're let in by the pair of guards without another word, stepping into the canvas and blinking back spots in their vision from the sudden change of lighting. They removed their sunglasses as they heard a sharp reconfiguring sound, turning around to see Hecate in the standard black suit.

I04 flickered a hologram out of view and looked up from his seat, appearing bored as a6 immediately went for the small refreshment stand in the corner. The coffee machine was still churning out coffee just as they left it, but they ignored it in favor of the water bottle as they grabbed it and popped it open. They took their blessed time chugging down the water as Hecate and I04 spoke.

"What's the latest information you have?"

"Well, you already know about the Trans-Antarctic shift since Sudoku Valley went down." Hecate is casual despite the fact that she hasn't spoken to her boss in person since she's been assigned to this region. They can just imagine her moving her flippers about as she spoke, "Great job with that by the way, you have no idea how many arguments I've been hearing for the past few weeks. I haven't told you about the budget cuts, have I?"

Despite the pleasantness of the company, I04 clicked his tongue and frowned. "Your latest information, agent."

"I'm getting there." The annoyance is responded with equal annoyance, much to a6's amusement. They spun around to watch two converse, bringing out their phone to check on the latest information coming in from the UAN server. Tiny holograms popped up from their front projector as they enlarged them for better reading. They heard a quiet thunk of something being set down. "Hard drive. Every outpost and station I know of within the region."

They watched carefully as I04 picked it up and gave it a disregarding look before handing it off to the side. a6 crossed the tent quickly to retrieve it from him and plug it to the nearby laptop. They tapped the side as they waited for the hard drive to be decrypted by the programs.

"Now, about the infighting." a6 perked up just slightly as they listened back into the conversation, clicking about the screen as they tried to go through the files that were in the hard drive. The work can sometimes be tedious, but a6 didn't really mind if it keeps their mind off of... whatever it is they're taking their mind off of, they can't really remember. The list that popped up is lengthy, a mix of coordinates and addresses that prompts them to summon up a map of the region to start pinpointing them. "It's done a heavy blow on the morale while the higher-ups are arguing about tactics and rotations."

"As expected." Leaning back on his seat, I04 brought up a hologram of the UAN server and quickly tapped in information as he waited for Hecate to continue speaking. a6 eyed the corner of the laptop's shiny exterior to watch the two, waiting for either to move before he collapsed the hologram. "And the Roundtable?"

"More frequently mentioned. They seemed shaken by what's been going on. A little bit of hesitance with their next movements." Hecate talked quickly, probably as fast as her flippers were moving. It's a characteristic they've noticed from a lot of agents whenever they're speaking to someone else, a liveliness that's translated into the flippers while they converse. It's an interesting tic to watch, but they can't really focus on that for too long given the task at hand. "I can't blame them. We haven't exactly been kind to them."

"They're stuttering in the spotlight," a6 said and turned to them, watching as they both turned to them and gave them a look. It was really rather obvious since it's expected that some blunder would come up from their scheming. No plan nor operation can be perfect given the sensitivity of their case, given the quick decisions that would be made in the heat of the moment. When neither gave them a reply, they turned back to their work.

"Do you have names for the Roundtable?" There's silence. a6 did not mind this since usually, it meant that Hecate was most likely thinking of an appropriate answer. They instead turned their focus on mapping out the coordinates and the addresses. Most of them were found in Margate given that they already know that their main station is there, and frowned. Interesting trends. "Well?"

"... We're getting there." She finally spoke, prompting a6 to turn and listen to her. Intriguing, seeing as Hecate tended to be good at this sort of work. I04's face was unreadable as she shifted between her feet and tried to come up with a proper answer that wouldn't rub them the wrong way. "As frequently as they're mentioned, they're only known by callsigns. I can only do so much when I'm not in the room where it happens."

"You need to get that information or we have nothing to work with." It's a mildly worded threat, but a6 knew it and winced as Hecate only gave him a stare. I04 waved her off and summoned up a hologram once more. a6 watched as she waved at them and finally stepped out of the tent, disappearing into the throngs without another word. They waited until I04 spoke. "Tell me we have something we can work with, a6."

"Yes, sir," They said, holding onto their laptop as they quickly made their way to him. They tried to think up the words to say that would at least lighten the man's mood, composing the lines in their head as they approached. "Some patterns that could point to something."

They hand the laptop to I04, who set it down on his lap before giving it a good stare. a6 waited patiently, awkwardly looming, mentally checking every coordinate to make sure that the got it right in case they made a possible blunder. There's silence for a moment before he frowned and clicked his tongue.

"So they're in the forest." I04 started, before sighing and shaking their head. "So another Sudoku Valley."

UAN: I find it ironic that you have all been reactivated only to be separated to do your own work.

a6: To be frank, sir, I find it just as ironic.

UAN: These... Grey Areas, you called it? What are they exactly?

a6: That's a long story, but I think you'd just want to know that they're the communal snack rooms of every agency in existence.

UAN: And the Taskforce has used these resources and their personnel rather frequently?

a6: Frequently is a rather flimsy word.

The last time he walked the halls of this hallowed institution was a few years back when he was freshly instated as Director of the Orion Initiative. It was for an innocent reason, really, to speak to the students there and answer questions concerning his outlook for the intelligence agency of the country. Their questions then were complex, insightful, challenging in a way that even had him pausing to consider a suitable answer. Now, it felt familiar to be here, a strange comfort that crawled into his feathers and settled in his bones.

The University of the Finipines held its ground as a fruitful institution that instills social responsibility with its quality education. The students here bustled about campus in clusters or on their own, chattering among themselves, paging textbooks, or glaring down laptop screens. No one seemed to mind him as he walked through the hallways; after all, it was a bit difficult to recognize him when he's not in his usual barong. The few who would notice him would acknowledge him with a quick nod before disappearing down the halls.

He knew he was in the right classroom when he felt it, a familiar pull of the magical signature that reminds him of burning cedars and home. He waited for the last student to slip out of the room before he stepped in, closing the door shut behind him and locking the door. It looked just as he recalled it to be, neat rows of desks and chairs that ascended downwards towards the pit with a single desk and a large whiteboard.

The professor who occupied this lecture room was a green feathered man, with slicked-back hair and the barest trimmings of a goatee underneath his beak. He wore a sensible vest over his dress shirt, a red bowtie on his neck that was snuggly on his collar. He hummed happily to himself as he rearranged his papers, not minding Cueva as he descended down the staircase.

"James! So nice to see you here." The professor turned around, beaming as he adjusted the glasses that were perched on his beak. Cueva bit back a laugh as he noticed the nearly invisible blotch of coffee that was on the man's pants, long dried away as time went by and he delivered his lecture. Cueva finally got to the bottom of the staircase and stepped forward to give him a tight hug. "Oh, you seem thinner."

Cueva rolled his eyes at his friend's antics, "Very funny, Vicente."

There were crinkles around his eyes as Vicente chuckled, a rumbling sound that vaguely reminded him of thunder. There's a gleam of something in his eyes as he beamed, "Oh, don't be like that! Go on, sit down, tell me what this visit is for."

He decided to humor the good professor as he shook his head, turning towards the rows of desks and opting to sit down on the nearest one to him. He sat back and tried to make himself comfortable, ignoring how stiff the cushion felt as the professor gestured twice and muttered something in their native tongue. Immediately he felt the surge of magic that skittered up the steps and over the rows of desks, fusing itself into the material and settling in his bones.

Silencing spell. Not a single sound would escape this room they're in.

Cueva's bloodline used to have magic pulsing strongly in its veins, much like all the other families of Magbanua descent. He can recall the stories his mother recalled to him while she wove spells into fabrics meant to be scarves, tales of mighty warriors with enchanted weapons who tried to defend the mountains from the Castillans. As the generations passed, however, a strange illness seemed to have steepled and weakened multiple families, leaving their next generations sporadic with their power.

Not that Cueva minded, not really. He's not like his mother who can put her magic in the clothes and accessories she makes for her loved ones and those who would purchase it. He's not like his father who remains to be a prominent figure in the magic community and its politics. He's just himself, highly perceptive and aware of the signatures and bits of magic that surround him, seeing its power and strength as if they were colors for his eye to see.

Vicente grinned at the evident magic he flexed, seemingly smug with himself as he adjusted his bowtie a bit. "Now, on to what you're here for. Say, how is the Perez girl?"

He doesn't ever remember mentioning the case to Vicente but doesn't mind it since he knew that the man most likely been chattering with his fellows whenever he's not a professor. The controversy with Perez still in UP custody has been constant chatter in the inner magical and intelligence circles of the country, and not everyone is so sure of why she's still there. Cueva shook his head as he tried to think up a proper reply.

"Last I heard, the Vice President has already set off to speak to her," Cueva leaned back on his desk as he watched the professor prepare two cups of tea from a compartment in his desk. He set down two fire cards underneath the cups to warm the water, looking around for the tin where the tea bags should be. He watched with mild interest, "I have yet to visit her, Tvarkov too."

"I see, is she strong?"

"As strong as she was on that fateful day, Vicente."

"Good, good." Vicente nodded as he found the tin box and opened it, taking a deep breath in and sighing happily. Cueva shivered as he felt the magic that scurried out of the tix, reminded of the warmth of the sun behind his back and the smell of forest as the man deposited tea bags on the cups. The water was bubbling just slightly as Vicente returned the tin to its spot. "Now, I imagine you're here regarding your current case. Yes, that's why you're here, no? Figures, you wouldn't shut up about it whenever I called."

Cueva blanched, "I can't be that obsessed with it."

Vicente chuckled as he swiped the cards from under the cups and picked them both up, blowing thoughtfully to cool them. He handed one to Cueva, "My friend, your entire attention's drawn to it."

"I can't help it if it reminds me of back then." Cueva shrugged innocently, near cursing when he brought the tea to his beak and found it scalding hot. It's his fault anyway for rushing to drink the beverage, and it takes every ounce of his muscle control not to drop the cup altogether and spill the liquid all over his shirt. Vicente seemed to notice and waved off a harmless cooling charm, rapidly putting the tea in acceptable drinking temperatures. Cueva eyed it wearily, "You know what happened before."

"Yes, of course, I know what you're talking about, it's the stuff of nightmares," Vicente waved him off, mildly dismissive as he sipped his tea innocently. Cueva knew better than to further prod what the professor was thinking of while he spoke. The former's eyes skittered about the classroom as he set his teacup near his own. "You know, James, if this is some sort of way for you to say sorry to all those we buried in the mountains-"

"Of course not." Cueva quickly shut the idea down as soon as he followed its downward spiral and recoiled away at the last second. There were days when he questioned himself as to why he personally decided to accept the activation orders of the UAN, sometimes mulling over the prospect that he was projecting his past to it. He still avoided memories of that time, avoided verbalizing it as much as possible unless absolutely necessary. He fought down a scowl and instead tried to smile. "Don't be silly, Vicente."

Now it was the professor's turn to eye him warily, seemingly not believing a single thing he said, before picking up his teacup once more and taking a long sip of it. He spoke around the rim after, "Now, you wanted to ask me something."

"You and I both know that they've been around for some time." Vicente nodded along as Cueva spoke, "We knew of them before. I just want to know how in Kermit's name did they get this powerful enough to be a serious threat."

"Opportunities present themselves to those who see it, my friend, and the Public just saw the moment to strike after last year's incident." Vicente started as he watched him walk a few paces across the room. Of course, let it be known that the esteemed faculty member of the university's Department of Political Sciences would make use of the past as prerequisites of the events of today. Cueva wondered why he just didn't teach history instead. "I'm not saying I condone it, James, but I understand."

Cueva blinked, not following the logic. Vicente continued, "It's taking advantage of the fear, really, the paranoia. If I weren't rooting for you I'd call their strategy witty."

"It's cowardly," Cueva frowned as he finished off his tea, letting it settle in his stomach a bit before he stood. Vicente had preoccupied himself with drawing a diagram and writing down notes on the whiteboard before him, familiar phrases lighting up Cueva's memory as he watched him work. He continued speaking, "I understand that there are things we're doing wrong in the system, but this is not the best way to get your point across. There are other ways."

"They're still using the old tactics we saw back then," Hastily drawn mountains and key phrases with slang littered the board before them. Cueva leaned back and read everything, trying to think of how to absorb all of this, before nodding slowly as Vicente gestured to it. "It's the armed struggle, James."

He doesn't want to know if this is the answer to the question he's asked of Vicente. He turned to the man to see him frowning at the whiteboard, clearly just as conflicted as he is surrounding the Public. Indeed, they've known that it was a small organization that crept in the shadows, an extremist group of activists that foregone their placards in favor for rifles. It's not unfamiliar, not at all, but the thought that it's oh-so-familiar doesn't settle easily with Cueva.

UAN: Did it take you long to realize what was going on?

Tang: To realize what, exactly? We had multiple realizations throughout this mission, sir, you'd have to be a bit more specific.

UAN: Well, you were all having difficulty locating the final base. The reports here stated that it's taken you a few days shy of a month to get a solid lead.

Tang: I'm not surprised that there was a curveball in this last leg of the mission, in all honesty.

UAN: Are you saying you anticipated this?

Tang: Anticipated- what makes you think I can anticipate that happening on the field? No, of course not, this wasn't something we were ready to face. We just knew that something was wrong, just not quite sure what that wrong was.

Wolfe sighed as he flicked his newspaper back to straightness harshly, only skimming through its contents with little to no mind to what it's really talking about. There was nothing really interesting going on in the entertainment section, and he already reserved the crossword puzzle for when he was in the car, and news in the sports section has been sluggish and uninteresting. No one really paid mind to him in this busy barber shop, seeing as they can't really make out his face as he sat back on the chair and patiently waited for the barber.

On a stool next to him, Valentino fumbled with her phone, not really paying attention to anything as she too waited for the barber to show up. She seemed a bit more well-rested in comparison to before, not exactly stressed out with chasing after people and information they need for this investigation. She was managing the stream of the SIA server's data, scouring latest reports for anything of interest to talk to him about while they were in the barber shop.

After a moment, the barber appeared, albeit disheveled and flustered. This one was a trusted informant of the SIA, a former freelancer who knew his way around inner circles with a charming grin and talkativeness. He looked at Wolfe from the mirror and grinned, "Mr. Wolfe, it's been a while."

"Well, you know my hair," Wolfe tidily closed his newspaper and folded it at the crease, shrugging innocently as Valentino took it from him. He gave himself a brief look in the mirror before turning back to the barber, who watched him carefully as if waiting for his next sentence. "Slow to grow."

"I know, I know," He was dismissive as he prepared the essentials: comb, clippers, razors, scissors. He laid them out neatly on the table beside him, metals glinting just a bit under the fluorescent bulbs above their heads. It was a fairly regular-looking barber shop in this part of Southern Shops, nothing really Valentino eyed the sharp tools warily but didn't comment on it as she returned to what she was reading. "It would be the usual, no?"

"Of course," Wolfe said as he flicked his eyes to Valentino. "What's the news from the fly cameras?"

It took her a moment to flick through something on her phone, a tiny frown on her face before she flicked it over to him. It took him a while to push back the fabric around his body to grab it from her to look at the screen himself. The multiple windows that were opened showed the lush green forests of Margate. "Not really doing much."

The buzzing of the clippers vaguely reminded him of the humming of the cameras as the barber got to work, already babbling about what he's been hearing from around the streets. Valentino turned briefly to the other civilians surrounding them, picking out familiar faces before relaxing. She's forgotten that they were in a Grey Area.

"I've heard talk that the Margate stronghold is extra secretive, something no one's seen before. Congratulations, by the way, the Roundtable's so paranoid that they placed it in the forest. Think of it, a whole compound filled with penguins smack dab in the middle of all that greenery! Anyway, they say if you go in, it's difficult to find your way out." The barber blabbered, flippers moving slowly as he thinned the overgrown hairs at the temples of the agent. "I can't really blame you for having a hard time finding it. The Triad still hasn't found it and one of them's from the place."

"How long have they been searching?" Wolfe asked, frowning at the thought. It's been a question that's alluded him ever since they were reactivated. Tvarkov and Kowalski both mentioned that they've been working out a way to locate the final stronghold for some time now, but have so far been unsuccessful for... well, no one really knows. Tang and Heng were also involved, obviously, most likely exhausting every available manpower to search for the final location.

"For some time now, I don't know. Kowalski's girlfriend is in there as a deep cover agent, I reckon, but you'll want to ask him about that. Perhaps she's the one who told them that it was in Margate." He shrugged, flicking off the clippers and turning his attention towards the scissors. "This'll be the biggest one yet, I think. You've been catching the little fishes, you know, the little outposts dotting the mountains. You've yet to catch the big fish, and I'm excited to know what goes down when you do."

"Peace and quiet, for sure." Wolfe scoffed dryly as Valentino snorted at the thought. The barber chuckled as Wolfe made a face, thinking of the relief that would come as soon as this final mission was over. He doesn't know what he'd feel once everything is cleaned up and finished since it's felt as if this operation has been dragging on for forever. Sure, he did not mind working with the rest of the members of the Taskforce, but he just wished that this would all be over so he can focus on more important endeavors. "Maybe a few days to myself."

"I'm sure we'd all want that, my friend." The barber said, snipping some stray hairs in the side that have grown out to a mild fringe, in the words of Valentino. Getting haircuts was always a welcome experience for Wolfe, albeit bothered a bit by the sudden windiness of the back of his head and its sides. It took a while to realize that it's over once he picked up a brush and started brushing away the fallen strands of hair. "Now, what did you want to know about the Margatian forests?"

"I want to know how a terrorist organization can house a stronghold inside it." Wolfe frowned as he watched the hairs brush down the fabric around him before petering off to the side. Beside him, Valentino made a face as soon as she noticed the mess of hairs around the chair, scooting backward just barely before returning to the information in her flippers. "Like how it seemed to have alluded us that it exists."

"I'll have you know that Margate has strict environmental laws, especially if it concerns their national parks and all that. Probably why your Margatian friends are tearing their feathers out just trying to figure it out as well, but let's just let them do that while I explain to you what I've known. Or heard. Either works." In his typical manner, he proceeded to babble as he smoothened a razor over certain areas to fix the hairline. "Now, there's talk that this a curveball. It's been around for some time, I think, an abandoned military facility they say. I doubt they'd try to cut anything down, MSB would be on them in seconds. Even then, I don't know which facility..."

"We can always ask Heng to go through possible facilities that were shut down then look around." Valentino piped up, shrugging as she looked up and into the mirror as Wolfe looked at her. She ran a flipper through her own undercut, a bouncier version of his that seemingly defied gravity itself before huffing quietly. "I'm sure that will benefit all of us on the Taskforce."

"Send a transmission." He said, turning his head to the side as he looked at himself. He seemed a little bit fresher, perhaps in a way neater, as the barber grinned at him and went to work removing the cloth that was wrapped around his body. Standing, he adjusted the suit he was wearing and nodded at the barber, who blurted out a tirade of gratitude-filled statements before he nodded at Valentino.

08-13-18 14:38:54 PST

Sources indicate that final stronghold may be an abandoned military facility within the Margatian forests. Best suggested to obtain a list of said facilities so as to narrow down the possible locations.

TANG: Alright, you should be stable by now. Geez, you'd think it would be easy running through tons of coding errors while balancing other things. Run me a diagnosis.

LYNX: I'm feeling great after all the booster shots you gave me, thanks.

TANG: Wonderful. Now tell me: what on earth happened to you? You were perfectly fine before this happened.

LYNX: You know, I'd love to give you an actual answer to that, but I also have no idea so we're both in the dark for this one. Oh, don't look at me like that.

TANG: I've worked on everything except that sarcasm, but it seems to be good for you. Can you run me through your last recorded footage?

LYNX: ...

TANG: Lynx, the footage.

LYNX: Look, I'm trying here. Just er... give me a sec.

TANG: Diagnosis check.

LYNX: Hey, boss man, listen, I'm fine. It's just been a while, okay? It's just here somewhere...

TANG: You can't find it, can you.


TANG: Alright, so this virus or whatever has somehow what, blanked out what... how long can you rewind back to?

LYNX: Er... there was a fire in the Nightingale Hotel?

TANG: Too far back. Goodness, Rogue would not be happy with this. What can't you do at the moment?

LYNX: That's a really broad and general question.

TANG: With an equally broad and general answer, Lynx.

LYNX: I mean, I can't exactly access the UAN server, though that's not really suprising. I can't seem to retrieve any of the recorded footages, they're all corrupted files.

TANG: Interesting.

LYNX: I can try-

TANG: Let's not try anything until we're sure that this virus is really out of your system and isn't hiding anywhere in your backlogs. Think you're ready to get back on duty?

LYNX: I can't exactly let Jewel steal the spotlight again, boss. She's done that far too many times.

TANG: She's not stealing the spotlight and never would. Also, that was only one time when your protocols didn't extend to that certain task and hers did.

LYNX: I just hope she didn't mess up my great organizational skills.

TANG: Right, about that, she finds it so irregular and confusing that she rearranged it upon assignment.

LYNX: What?! No, I will not stand for this!

TANG: In the first place, you don't have any feet, much less a corporeal body, Lynx.

LYNX: I came out to have good time tonight and I am honestly feeling so attacked right now.

In civilian wear, she would not appear as menacing or intimidating as she would be if she, say, wore her typical dress shirt and skirt with a black tie. Appearing to be a regular citizen that roamed the streets of Club Penguin allowed her to blend in easier rather than look standoffish and severe as the commander of an EPF division. No one really recognized her when she was wearing a large, beige jacket over a simple turtleneck. Fondly, she rubbed the blue scarf wrapped around her neck that depicted various cosmic bodies that made up their galaxy.

Okay, maybe she stole something from Jason in her last visit from him.

The atmosphere of the restaurant she's found herself in was sober, relaxed with the constant smell of empanada wafting through the air as if it were the music that brightened the aura. The walls were made of smooth, varnished cherry wood, much like the tables and upholstery around the room. The booth she was in was mildly secluded, squeaky leather seats creaking every now and then when she fidgetted away from every gust of air that would pass at her general direction. She had a clear view of the entrance and the rest of the first floor, easy for her to spot her guest if she had to or a waiter if she needed one.

It's a surprise, then, when a flurry of movement came by and suddenly, she's face-to-face with the esteemed CPT reporter, Raven Westley. There's a dusting of snow on every bit of her attire, crammed in the crevices of her green knitted scarf and pink hat, tucked away in little pockets of her brown jacket. Her aqua feathers are mildly ruffled, smelling strangely like overheated plastic components and printer ink as Rogue frowned.

"Good afternoon, Commander! I'm sorry it took me a while, I've been chasing a lead." Jumpy. Westley appeared bright and optimistic, simply vibrating with boundless energy as she smoothened out invisible tangles in her hair before patting away some snow that settled on her shoulders. She took a deep breath and sighed, leaning back in satisfaction, "As much as I would like to barrage you with questions, I think I'm the one who'll be questioned for this time around."

"Yes, you will be," Rogue nodded as she leaned forward, steepling her flippers before her as she watched Westley carefully. She knew from a brief chat with Aunt Arctic that the latter has been burning the midnight oil in the name of ethical journalism, running herself ragged in an attempt to capture whatever... thing she's doing at the moment. She isn't so sure; she hasn't really been paying attention to the news as of late. The jumpiness, then, can be attributed to her over-consumption of caffeine. "I heard you've been talking to some of the penguins we've rescued."

Westley brightened, "Oh, yes, yes! I have been, yeah, I actually invited one to come along with me. I hope you don't mind?"

As if timed, the overhead bell tinkled as someone entered the restaurant. With her greying afro and square glasses, it was no doubt that the invited happened to be Janina Johnson, the missing grandmother of Daniel Johnson. It was a surprise when they found the elder woman somewhere in the small missions during the deactivation, and Rogue had been meaning to speak to her about what has happened while she was captured. She fought down the sudden uneasiness that sprouted from her chest as her brain helpfully reminded her of the interrogation tape involving her grandson and Millers-

"Commander Tvarkov," Slightly pitched an octave higher, Mrs. Johnson had beady eyes that seemed to penetrate and scrutinize anything and everything it landed on. Perhaps that's the attentiveness the elderly had at their age, a sageness that takes into notice everything the youth has (and most especially, what they lack). Her mouth twitched upward, "I've heard a lot from those I've been with, my dear. You're doing good work out there."

Of course, under praise, Rogue tried not to beam too hard she gracefully accepted it to the best of her ability. "Thank you."

Westley scooted aside as Mrs. Johnson sat next to her, smile remaining fixed on her face as they made themselves comfortable. No one seemed to notice their appearance in the restaurant, certainly not paying mind to the conversation that is going on in their little corner. A waiter approached them (no, her mind corrected her, she's not dressed in the uniform), and set down a pitcher full of warm cocoa and three mugs. When Rogue made eye contact with her, Isabelle Cortez stared back at her and nodded firmly before moving away.

By now, everything's just adding up to pure coincidences. No wonder Westley invited her here.

"Ms. Westley here thought it would be nice of you to know what happened when I was abducted and during that, and who Oliver was." Mrs. Johnson began, adjusting the thick pullover she was wearing while fixing everyone a mug of cocoa. The ceramic was heated underneath her flippers, not too much that it burned but enough to scatter warmth in her cold veins. She took a slow sip, "I also wanted to come personally to thank you for caring for my grandson, Daniel. Maggie told me all about what happened, you've been very kind to him."

"It's not conventional in our line of work to ask children about what happened in this sensitive a case. I have my own child to care for, I'd know how to care for one in that situation." She tried to reason out logically, trying to remember the threads of planning she placed back then to make sure that the child was as comfortable as possible. Millers did chastise her then for overthinking every circumstance concerning the questioning, going so far as to force her to sit down and think it out clearly. "I just hope it was enough."

"I'm sure it was more than enough, Commander," Westley smiled warmly, nursing the mug in her flippers before taking a quiet sip.

Rogue opened her mouth to speak, gripping her own mug subconsciously. "Please, let's use Rogue for this casual set up."

Westley simply nodded, understanding her reasonings as she tapped the side of her mug idly. The moderate snowfall outside was gentle and appealing to look at, sun spilling out on the snow to scatter rainbows and brief sparkles of light with every snowflake that fell. She knew, however, that outside would greet her with a torrent of cold winds that whipped around and messed up whatever form of order she had.

"We used to be very against the STINC, you know? All this segregation and needless divisions, we didn't understand the necessity of it. Call us renegades, if you will, a little bit radical. We used to do rather... drastic things back then." Mrs. Johnson began, eyes looking over Rogue's shoulder as she began her story. She settled back and watched the elder woman in front of her, slipping a flipper into her pocket to flick the screen and activate the voice recorder she readied beforehand. "Some graffiti here, propaganda here... you know, the usual methods.

"We were branded leftists then, as any government would when faced with the barest bit of radical opposition. I can't really blame them back then, we did do some awful things back then. I was young, with strong passions and opinions about how this land should be governed. Don't be fooled, though, I still have that fire in me, it's just that I'm a bit too old to do what I used to do. Aging, really, but given the opportunity, I would've been on the streets too."

"I'm presuming Oliver was a fellow, then?" Westley asked, folding her flippers underneath her chin while turning to Mrs. Johnson. The way the older woman's eyes shifted to Rogue and kept her there was somewhat unsettling as if she was measuring what her reaction would be as she nodded.

"They're all somewhat related to each other, then," Rogue muttered to herself, ignoring the hum of her earpiece that indicated that someone was trying to reach out to her. She reached up in an attempt to mask her removal of the said device as if she were pulling a lock of hair back, keeping her eyes on Mrs. Johnson as she continued. The earpiece was then deposited in her pocket next to her phone.

"After the war well, I settled down, had my family, moved here to Club Penguin where it was more peaceful. I had no interest in going into politics, like those others who I know, I preferred my little place here in the snow patches. As soon as I was able, I became a professor in the Club Penguin University and Oliver just... well, he just tagged along, I guess," Mrs. Johnson shrugged calmly as she sipped her hot cocoa slowly and took a deep breath. The eyes across her read concern, keeping a wary eye on the older woman as she tried to form her next few words. "I preferred educating the young, you know? Preparing the youth for the reality they have to face, keep their eyes open. You know the saying, don't you? If your eyes are open to the truth-"

"-it's a sin to close them." Rogue finished for her, leaning back as she continued mulling over what she was hearing. It was a common utterance, something Piri used when they were still regular field agents who were in the middle of dead zones during missions. It was an activist's manifesto, a warning to the blind who refuse to see what is in front of them. It's the same graffiti spelled out by Ruscan members of the Public in their previous cases, the same thing she would hear when-

"It's heartwarming to know that you are aware of what this saying is."

"I'm aware of a lot of things, Mrs. Johnson."

There's silence for a moment. There's something interesting in the way Westley's gaze skittered between the two of them, the ceiling, then the other occupants of the restaurant they were in. No waiter or waitress has tried to approach them in an attempt to prod if they had anything they wanted to order, something that Cortez ensured would happen. When her eyes settled once more on her, Rogue spoke, "I guess it's safe to say that the attitude's remained unchanged?"

"Paranoid, as we've always been," Westley nodded in affirmation, batting the mug around between her flippers as she spoke. "Though not as pronounced, it's still there. The excitement to know what's going on next is winding down a bit, what with you all inactive for some time. There are still overprotective parents. Wary side glances. It's still a little crazy out there."

Rogue nodded, understanding. Westley continued on with the statistics and the propaganda that's still circulating through social media, questions arising about the true integrity of the Tightrope. Many merely shrugged at it, justifying their methods for the sake of bringing home their family members. It was mostly a relief that many did not seem to buy the Public's argument one bit.

The meeting drew to a close when their mugs were long emptied, set away by a waitress who only offered them a minute smile. Rogue was brief with thanking them for their time, shaking hands with them both and giving the room one more look before she quietly followed them out of the door. She turned back just once to see Isabelle nodding at her, a reassuring smile on her face before the door closed behind her.

Perez: Well, it's not usually something we usually discuss this openly...

UAN: Ms. Perez, all the information that's going to be divulged here are for our eyes and ears only. No one's going to hear or read your talk on magic for a long while, that is until we decide to declassify it. Even then, that would take decades, maybe a few centuries, before we decide to do so.

Perez: Well, what do you want me to explain, exactly? The power behind those inscriptions? Their magical properties? I think you have to know that my knowledge on that sort of magic is mostly basic and not as profound as what they'd know. You'd better ask someone else rather than me.

UAN: As we're aware, not even the Public understood what they were tampering with.

Perez: And neither did the Taskforce, in all honesty! Well, maybe a few of us understood it, but that was it! No one else! I really don't know how to explain about it without sounding like I'm speaking a different language.

UAN: Then clarify it for us, Ms. Perez, start from the beginning.

Interestingly, there was a little park located just across the main office. It wasn't much, just a large expanse of shady trees and benches with a little playground to the side for little chicks to play in. To his observance, time could be measured by who occupied the park and how many civilians strolled its smoothened pathways. Usually, at this time, many of the lower ranking officers would be out and about off-duty, probably clustered together and making jokes at each other while pushing one or two at the nearest cute penguin that passed their way. At around this time, too, would bumbling school children run down the pavements with their mothers not far behind, excited to go to the playground for playtime.

For Heng, he took the time out of his hectic schedule to breathe a little because, well, he's simply not paid enough to have sufficient time in his schedule for that. No one really turned to acknowledge him when he passed by (which is a relief), leaving him to his lonesome as he took in the park around him. Here, there was no one who would remind him about upcoming meetings or papers he had to sign, or any superiors who would summon here over some political skirmish he cannot be bothered to be involved in.

Here, it's just him, a sketchbook, and the sweet escape from his office. While his art skills were not exactly stellar (a past time he got in between the field missions), it was relaxing to at least practice when he wasn't signing his name over and over in a seemingly endless sea of pristine white papers and blacked out documents. He found a bench and sat down, paging through his sketches and frowning when he noticed that some pages were speckled with familiar crimson.

He's forgotten when was the last time he opened the sketchbook.

Before he can decide on what to sketch, however, he sensed someone approaching him and looked up, searching in the crowds for someone who could be staring at him. In an instant he spotted the familiar green feathers, hair pushed back and messed up and oh, he forgot that Nick had taken the rest of the day off for whatever it was he had to take care of. It seemed that he just got out from wherever he'd been in a dash, hoodie still clinging in certain places darkened by sweat.

"I keep forgetting that you too are capable of taking of breaks," Nick greeted lightly, slowing to a stop next to his bench and taking deep breaths in, near gulping the air around him as he tried to return to normality. Heng watched him steadily, eyes unwavering as he tried to wonder what could this be about now. In civilian settings, they hardly interacted, with Nick busy with his respective life and Heng with his own. This would be a work-related greeting, then.

"Great to see you too, Tang, what is it?" He furrowed his brow, trying not to appear too irritable. And he thought he could have just a little bit of time to himself.

"Got an update from Jewel about some recent developments," Nick said, holding up his phone as if it was some indication that Jewel would echo the same words to Heng. The crowds around them are chattersome and alive, with no one seemingly able to pay attention for too long on what the two were talking about. Heng nodded slowly as Nick continued, "Not exactly something to be talked about in public. If you don't mind?"

With a heavy sigh, Heng stood from his bench and flipped his sketchbook closed, slipping the pencil back to the spiral before setting off back through the path he went through. Now with Nick by his side, more of the off-duty juniors took notice at them, nodding and greeting them with low-voiced "sirs" out of respect. Heng rolled his eyes at their sudden rigidity and crossed the road between the park and headquarters, taking a deep breath when they stepped through the frosted doors.

From there it was a brisk walk up the main staircase, past the wall lined with portraits of esteemed leaders before them, into the small hallway filled with elevators, and up to the tenth floor to where their office was. They went into Nick's office without another word, door locked behind them as the hologram projectors immediately hummed to activation. Images from their satellites popped up with dots marking out facilities, overlayed by previous infrared shots of the same coordinates.

"Did some overlays with the shots we have along with the reports coming from the scout teams we sent out," Nick started, enlarging the images for clarity. He strode to the side to bring down the blinds to block the stream of afternoon sun from coming in, making the colors more vivid and brighter. Heng dragged a seat and sat down, "Here's what we got."

He gave it a good look. They've been granted top security clearance by the government to aid them in the investigations against the Public, giving them a lot of information to work with that is not usually within reach. Multiple classified military facilities, both used and unused, are pinpointed and spread throughout the images, color-coded to determine what is what. He frowned at the evident high-temperature patches surrounding some of the facilities.

"That's funny," Heng frowned, standing and staring at the images more intently. One of the unused facilities was surrounded heavily by trees, but that did not mean that something wasn't wrong when it seemed to appear blurrier than the rest of the image. "This doesn't make sense."

"It's not supposed to make sense," Nick confirmed, nodding as he grabbed the tablet on his desk and began to tinker with its screen. The images flickered rapidly before Heng before showing a set of documents, a good amount of its content crossed out in black permanent marker ink, "This was an underground bunker system for civilians should a large-scale invasion take place in the country."

"Alright, so a potential Public stronghold," Heng nodded, understanding the context. He stepped forward and zoomed in on the blueprints provided with the documents. He hummed quietly, thinking to himself, memorizing the layout and the catacombs of hallways and facilities within the bunkers. "Do we have anything to compare?"

He stepped back as the holograms shifted once more at Nick's command, revealing comparison shots of the same location throughout the years. To his surprise, images from the earlier years were perfectly normal, with no blurry spots or distortions. Thermal comparisons also brought up similar sentiments, with temperatures suddenly spiking in the said facility's region.

"It's located in the Sunken Forest, hence why no one's attempted to search that sector of the park," Nick said as Heng nodded, understandably. That segment of the forest wasn't something you'd just waltz into without having some indicators to find your way back out. It was almost labyrinth-like inside that place. "Desirable location."

"We need to call the Taskforce in for this," Heng said, grabbing his phone and quickly accessing the Taskforce server to type out a report. He pocketed it as soon as he was done and turned to Nick, "Thanks for this, I need to go and get transport ready. Think you can assemble some teams?"

"I'm already on it," Nick nodded as Heng sighed gratefully and quickly made his way out.

This is a sight that they haven’t seen in a while, a familiar memory that aches in their chest and refuses to settle itself until they acknowledge it. There’s something ephemeral about the place their mind decided to construct before them, a certain fragility they’re scared of shattering just as much as they fear further venturing into it. They’re hesitant as they stand, frozen, watching the waves as they come to rush and kiss their ankles in their familiar coldness that… that doesn’t make them shiver.

They’ve been here before.

Here is a white, pristine strip of sand in the beaches of Rio de Vatica, shoreline speckled with the barest glint of shells and pebbles that felt natural against their roughened soles. It doesn’t really harm them, not at all, innocently rubbing against the toughened skin that they cannot explain. Above them, every star and constellation twinkled in greeting to the younger agent’s stormy greys. The air smelled like saltwater and familiarity that the twinging in their chest continued on with its thrumming and twisting.

They’ve always noticed how their feet were a bit patchier than the rest of their lower half, much to a6’s amusement, a noticeable darkness that dictated the line between their dusty blue feathers and the few royal blues they had at the base of their feet. The difference is more prominent now, in the water, with their royal blue reflecting as endless black due to the moon’s light over their whole being. It’s strange to see a few wrinkles at their feet, tiny imperfections that they shrugged off as they just watch in total silence as the waves come forward, rushing to see them, before retreating and disappearing into the depths of the unknown.

They’ve been there before, back when they were someone and not… an operative of SI:9. The clothes that clung to their skin were a simple shirt and a pair of overalls, the latter bunched around their waist should they decide to wade any deeper. They cannot see any shoes nearby, and they’ve probably ventured down here themselves. The way their clothes felt soft and worn in tells them that they know of this place.

In the distance, there’s another man standing in the water in waist-deep depths. He stood tall and confident, a swimmer’s body that was lean and sharp. They leaned forward and frowned to try to make out any other features in the darkness, squinting just a bit as they struggled to figure out who it was.

There's a sort of glimmer in those feathers that tugs in their memory somewhere. The man’s watching them, probably scrutinizing how they look from where he stood. When he opened his mouth a6 froze because they know that voice to be silenced. “I see you too are a man of culture. You enjoy a good evening wade.”

A smooth baritone, one that carried over the shores and struck them squarely in the chest that they briefly forget who they were and where they were standing. a6 stood in their full height and curled their fists, indignant to this invasion of privacy despite the fact that this was just a mere dream. “Leave me alone, Theta.”

But the man cannot be stopped, stepping forward and rippling the waters they’re both standing in. They don’t understand why but it scatters a chill down their spine that ripples much like the water they’re in, reverberating in their being until it escapes the ends of their feet. It's a cold they recall feeling in the few seconds between reconditioning and nothing. The agent tried not to appear affected as Theta chuckled.

“Oh please, I’m hardly interfering. Go on now, continue your wading.” The curl of the beak somehow irritates them further, a slyness in there evident in some way that they just can’t explain properly. The moonlight struck the man across them in a way that made him seem a bit larger, iridescent purple irises shining in depths they know they can never wallow in.

Once, when he was still called I08 around the agency and a6 was still new and shiny and curious of near everything, he explained that the purple was due to implants he personally requested for.

He just never really explained, well, what use it had.

“I prefer to do my wading in peace.” They never realized they had this preference, seeing as this admission was sporadic and they were hardly thinking of it. They frankly just wanted the older man to go away, to be left alone to their own devices so they can relish this one moment of peace before… well… whatever happens next.

Theta snorted, rolling his brilliant purples before cooing, “What happened to Boss’s favorite bubbly operative?”

a6 would wonder later if they’ve blanched or reddened, but they protested sharply. “I’m not his favorite!”

"Oh please, it's obvious to everyone back home." Home. What was home? Sometimes their mind tried to wrap around the concept of home whenever their thoughts were set upon it. Of course, their motherland was home, but where would it be exactly? Would it be in SI:9 headquarters, where everything is perfectly clean and organized? Would it be in Rio de Vatica where everything was alive but foreign? "How could you work for him after all he's done to you?"

They did not regale that question with an answer, instead opting to grit their teeth and ignore whatever snap would come out of their mouth. They tilted their head to the side sharply and steadied themselves, watching as Theta moved forward in a poorly masked attempt of challenging them, "Look at what they've done to you, a6. Look at what they've done to us. You could have been a fine medic for the agency's operatives, perhaps the best in the whole agency. But what did they do? Strip you of your memory and identity and turned you into their slave.

"You think this is a higher calling, something that would bring happiness to your family? Do you even remember them, a6? They still mourn your loss and miss you every single day. You've been manipulated by the very people you aspired to work to be their little lab rat. This isn't a higher calling, a6, this is a demotion."

They don't know how, but they've somehow waded into the water to meet Theta halfway, grabbing him by the collar of his shirt and grabbing him close to their face. The face before them was unmoving, maybe expectant of their reply, the slightest smile on his face tempting the agent to just grab their black box and see how that would go. They took deep breaths and waited before they muttered lowly between the two of them.

"This is the path I walk alone," They said, a low rumble in their throat as they narrowed their eyes at Theta. They finally released him and push him off, a minute smile on their face when the man across them stumbled. They turned and spoke behind their back, "You're not even real."

When they turned back towards the waters, the figure of Theta was no longer there, leaving them to their lonesome in the expanse of ocean that was before them. They heaved a heavy sigh, sat on the sand, and ignored whatever guilt was settling in their chest as they curled up and stared at the waves that rushed towards them.

UAN: What would you classify this, after all that's happened?

Carter: This case? I'd... well, I'd say that this was an act of organized crime that blew right out of proportions and needed an international taskforce to be assembled.

UAN: And did we pick the right respondents?

Carter: You've been asking me this since we've started, and I still don't know how to best answer that question, Councilman.

UAN: Based on your observations, Ms. Carter.

Carter: I've seen them in between all those raids. I've heard every argument, seen every meeting, and participated in every raid they've been in. I've seen them in their best and worse. Sir, I still stand with what I've said before that they're the best we've got.

The few possessions that they granted her to have upon detainment were the only things she brought with her in the little duffel bag they provided her. They left her weapons and EPF gear on foam in a little box, something she kept on her as she made her way out of the facility. Many of the agents she passed by gave her terse nods before going on their way, disappearing down the hallways without another word.

When she stepped out and into the sun, she felt the warm greeting of magic rushing to meet her as she took a deep breath. She felt light now, a little bit invincible, and she cannot help it if she wanted to skip down the steps with a wide smile on her face. Her duffel bag swung on her shoulder as she finally made it to the landing, not bothering when the woman across her gave her a small frown.

"You know, I just wonder what they've been feeding you over there," Rogue started as Piri rushed up to greet her, strong arms crushing her in a hug that briefly knocked the wind out of her. Piri could not be bothered when she heard the smallest wince from her superior, just too happy to be back to normal to care about it. Really, it was a relief to see a familiar face after being cooped up in there for who knows how long. "It's good to have you back, Perez. Natalia's been nagging me about you."

"I'm glad to be back as well, boss." Piri chirped, looking behind her to see the jeep behind them. She couldn't wait to return to work, despite the clear stress that would come with it. Being stuck in detention was so painfully boring that the thought of going back to her cell had her skin crawling. "Finally decided to pull some strings to get me out?"

Rogue grimaced, "I'll have you know that it's been a long and difficult process."

"No matter, it's not that important." Piri shook her head, making her way to the shotgun seat of the jeep as Rogue turned and stepped into the driver's seat. As she started the car and allowed the engine to warm up, she continued speaking. "What's the latest developments?"

"We've got a breakthrough. Sunken Forest, found in the Kenestral National Park." Rogue said as she clipped her seatbelt on. She tapped the steering wheel as the radio chirped to life, Jewel greeting the two calmly. Strange, Lynx is usually the one who'd be greeting them whenever they're operating on something that Rogue's using. She seemed to have noticed and added, "Lynx is er... not feeling well."

"I think I wanna know about that." Piri frowned as she turned towards the outside world, sighing as Rogue shifted to drive and began their drive to the airport.

Ten: The Sunken Forest[edit]

UAN: Commander Tang, it should be integral that the Council would know: how much did the Taskforce know about the Sunken Forest?

Tang: Well, they knew the basics. It's a basin-like depression 65 meters lower than most of the forest floor. Approximately 10 kilometers in all directions, densely packed with trees with a river flowing through it.

UAN: And none of them questioned the... difficulty of traversing it?

Tang: I guess they already knew of its notoriety. No signals can come in and out of that forest, heavy signal interference due to the density of the trees there. They'd get lost due to well... everything looks the same down there.

UAN: Did you not make any moves to try and improve the situation?

Tang: Believe me, I tried.

The satellite image of the Sunken Forest was the only thing projected on the holograms when Brandt entered the room, nursing a to-go coffee cup she snagged from a cafe across the compound, gripping it tightly as if it was the only thing tethering her to this side of reality. Irritable doesn't even encompass her current mood when she felt gritty in some places, snippy from the supposed lack of sleep despite the fact that she's slept a full 8.

Sitting down in her chair as calmly as she can possibly be, she isn't surprised with the way the atmosphere of the office washed over her, clearing her mind to what is professionally acceptable. It's conditioning born out of years of working in the industry, something so ingrained and familiar that it's easy to slip into.

Beside her, Zarkova observed her carefully and took a sip out of her teacup. She spoke quietly between them in German, "You seem to have had a bad morning."

Turning to her, Brandt gave her a quick once over. The NRR sniper in question was dressed neatly, looking nearly innocent in the floral pattern of her cardigan and earthy tones of her dress. Sometimes it alluded her how the woman could be older than her when she dresses so... no, that would just be mere offensive by now. "Virago did not go as well as I hoped."

"Did Lucille trouble you?" Zarkova sipped slowly, taking her time as Brandt tried not to crush the paper cup she was gripping. The twinge of frustration upon remembering last night's predicament shot up her body faster than she thought it would. Yes, indeed the bartender gave her hell that nearly ruined her plans on keeping a low profile, relentlessly teasing her over other matters she'd rather not address. "I see. You should know how she is."

"Of course I do," Brandt gritted out as more respondents walked in, chattering among themselves while slipping into their respective seats. Giving the room a quick scan, she noticed Heng speaking to someone on a tablet with Wolfe and Cueva standing behind him, frowns set. Rogue and Kowalski were staring intently at the projected image while talking to each other, the former holding a stylus in her left flipper. I04 and a6 had smaller holograms brought up to their side of the room, talking lowly while fliting glances at the larger hologram occupying the room.

"Heng and Tang found something promising in their forests." Zarkova supplied her with the hanging question that Brandt had about what was going on. Beside her, Hoffman was idly picking at his drawn-on cast (sans sling), reading the messy jargon in a multitude of languages. She slapped his flipper away from it before he could try picking the bandaging apart. "Carter should be coming in soon so we can begin the briefing."

And just like that she does, coming in with the stride that seemingly screams "politician". Her hair is slightly disorderly from being tugged at, a set frown on her face as she carried with her large folders filled with papers. She must have come from a meeting with the other integrity officers. She did mention her great dislike towards meetings that go beyond their schedule.

"Sorry for being late," She started, silencing the whole room as they waited for what she had to say. Setting down a folder, she flipped the cover began to unpack thick, sizable papers that appeared to be held together by paperclips or staple wires. She turned her head towards the curious looks of the people within it and spoke, "I will explain this in a moment, don't you worry."

"Alright, let's get started on this then." Heng nodded as he summoned up a comprehensive 3D render of the Kenestral forests' map, complete with terrain texture and mimicry of the current conditions. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, this is the forest we're working with."

Brandt stood and leaned forward to look at what was before them. Somewhere there was the Sunken Forest, allegedly the location of their final raid. She eyed the forest density with a hint of wariness, frowning slightly. There were no paths going to the Sunken Forest that can fit a vehicle, not even a simple motorbike. They'll have to get there on foot.

"A national forest spanning thousands of kilometers, the Kenestral National Park is regarded as one of the largest reserves in the country. We're looking at a tropical rainforest, snow-capped mountains, incredible biodiversity..." Sighing, Heng leaned back on his chair and twiddled with the steel bracelet they all kept on them to maneuver the holograms. "Not to mention, quite the view."

She tilted her head, surveying more of the reserve as the image zoomed in towards the interior, deep within the forestry to find the Sunken Forest, a quiet little spot that suddenly dipped towards what it is currently known for. She frowned as another hologram popped up over the said region, the satellite image showing them what is currently going on over there.

"Now this is a strange bit. This is the only part of the forest that comes out blurry in multiple satellite shots, and it's not the satellite's fault. Going thermal would even tell us that the place has been a hotspot for quite a while." Heng hummed out, bringing up more holograms of blueprints and Margatian documents stricken down with black. She frowned at the lack of complete information. "The region houses a bunker system should there be a large-scale invasion. It's where we think they're hiding them."

Beside her, Zarkova scoffed and leaned forward, clasping her flippers together and frowning. She made it seem as it were a basic operation. "Alright, that shouldn't be so bad then. A simple in and out sort of mission, just like in Fyodor."

She ignored the combined wince of the Taskforce as they were reminded of the unpleasantries that occurred in their first mission together. Brandt glanced at the hologram once more and stared at the spot, trying to make sense of what's making it so difficult to work with.

"Signal interference is our main issue here. The forestry is too dense for anything to go in or out, making it so remote to outside communications. Even if we bring along a satellite bag, it wouldn't bode well with the Sunken." Heng shook his head, giving them a closer look at the location. "We can also get lost in there, seeing as it all looks the same down below."

Brandt frowned at that and perked up, "That should be easy. We can just use that technique of those siblings in the fairy tale."

"The fairytale, yes, that one," Cueva nodded along, understanding her train of thought. The rest of the room understood and began spouting off their own suggestions, debating over breadcrumbs would be practical (really, professional) for the severity of the operation. "Though I'm sure we can try using something such as string or tape to mark out our paths."

"That would be practical," Carter said, nodding as well. She adjusted the papers she's set down on the table and began to speak. "Now, I have to discuss a little discovery the office has made while you were all going off to meet with your connections outside of the UAN."

The thing she found interesting was that these weren't digital documents that could simply be summoned with the flick of a wrist. What was further interesting was the various languages and seals that were printed on the headers of each bundle of documents. She noticed how a few pictures popped up in some of the pages as she picked one bundle up and paged through it. She frowned as she realized that these were audit reports.

"There are inconsistencies here," Rogue grumbled, a furrow on her brows as she paged through a bundle that was written in Cyrillic. Indeed there was something off about the numbers in the budgets here, though Brandt found it strange that Carter would link this to the Public. She continued paging through before — oh, there it is, this is where everything makes sense.

"Some of the funding and contracts for their projects went to a few shady companies here and there," Carter said, frowning herself as she held one of the thicker bundles in her flippers. A few loose pages scattered as she held it up, her other flipper reaching down to catch the few that she can. She returned the papers into the fold and paged it idly before turning back to the room, "Took quite a team to dig the information."

She's not surprised to find that the group had some help within the governments of the continent. It would explain the budget that the Public would have to acquire equipment and weapons, much less know their way around the cities they prowled in. In theory, it could explain the mild reluctance of some governments to cooperate and the sheer sluggishness of their ways in answering to what's going on. She continued to go through the documents and scoured the pages for a familiar name or face.

"We'll look into this as well," Cueva hummed, picking up his own manuscript and frowning upon recognition of the script. Brandt peered across the room to see the sharp, illegible writing that she eventually recognize as his own native script. "Carter, think we can get some arrest warrants processed in time for after the raid?"

The grin that came from the integrity officer's face was blinding, almost wolfish as she spoke, "Name a day and I'll have it ready by then."

Taskforce sinks their claws in Margate as they approach their final raid
By Raven Westley (Club Penguin Times) | Updated August 27, 2018

Finally, the long wait for justice is over.

Office of Internal Integrity and Transparency officer Mia Carter alongside Orion Director James Cueva announced yesterday evening that the Taskforce strongly believes that their final operation will occur in Margate, citing recent developments pointing to the said country. Carter and Cueva remained vague as to what exactly triggered suspicion on the country, only informing the public to remain calm and report to authorities should anything happen to their loved ones or they witness any sort of Public activities.

"I am pleased to announce that soon, this will all be over," Cueva said to the press on Sunday night. "And the Public would soon be nothing but the monster under our beds that we've overcome."

When prodded as to what has happened with the Taskforce during their month-long inactivity, the two remained vague and did not give straight answers about their activities. Citing that a few of them were on "mandatory leave" for a short period of time, Carter said that the Taskforce was sent off to their individual countries to do some legwork while finding strong indicators of where the final stronghold would be.

"Things are finally moving faster around here, which is a relief," Carter said when asked about how the Taskforce plans on going about with this final mission. "There are plans being discussed and simulations are being run as to what could possibly occur."

It's been about four months since the start of a kidnapping crisis that occurred across Antarctica. The main culprit, known as The Public, is an international organization that allegedly kidnapped most of these penguins to hold them ransom. They have demanded monetary compensation as well as justice for the occurrences that happened in last year's Theta case. Due to this, the Taskforce had to be activated to combat the organization.

They have about three days before the final raid would go down, that is with all the strategy meetings, training sequences, and mission debriefings considered. They've already flown into Margate the night before, touching down at an unknown hour in the night just to be carted off to a hotel to rest in. They hardly had time to shrug off the mild jetlag that came from shifting timezones when they were driven off to the Kenestral National Forest, where both Heng and Nick were waiting for them.

Really, it was nice to see Nick after all these months of just hearing from him through Rogue or Kowalski or Heng, especially after finding out that he's recently engaged and would be getting married soon. The man himself looked a little ragged, daresay as exhausted as the rest of them, but it didn't seem apparent when he slapped down a map and marked out a rallying point, giving out instructions on how this morning's training was supposed to go.

Forest navigation, Nick said, voice carrying its way through the crowd of Taskforce and MSB agents surrounding him. They had to learn how the forestry of Kenestral Island looked and how to best navigate it.

And he must say, so far it's been a fascinating, hot mess that has Reyes sweating through his sweatshirt, the only thing he managed to pull over his head when Rogue began knocking on their door and yelling that transport would be leaving in five minutes. Piri then had been disgruntled, still not fully recovered from her flight from UP to the USA, but managed to pull her hair into propriety and put on her RRS jacket and pants. When she noticed how odd it smelled, she had asked him what happened while she was away.

Boy, he had so much to tell her.

But back to the task at hand, getting around this place was getting irritating, to say the least. While he got passing marks in survival training back in the Academy, that was nothing compared to how densely packed and tall the trees would be in the Margatian forest. He pulled out his EPF phone and scanned the map that he managed to take a picture of, frowning before tapping for the built-in compass in his phone.

North was right ahead, but he had to go northeast. It irritated him when he realized that he's been going around circles, and-

"Yeah, thought I'd find you here," He seemed to appear out of nowhere, making Reyes jump and curse as Nick came into view. The man seemed untroubled by anything, hardly even breaking a sweat as he stood across Reyes. His shoulders were rolled back casually, fists stuffed into his jacket, and he raised an inquisitive brow as he looked at the mess right across him. "Been a while since I last saw you, kid."

"Yeah? Could say the same to ya," Reyes clicked his tongue, running a flipper through his curls. He even forgot to grab his hat or beanie on the way out, too in a rush by the boss' incessant yelling and annoyance. He took a deep breath and leaned down on a boulder, checking the watch on his wrist. He's been wandering around for over 40 minutes. "Sweet Kermit, how'd ya even find me?"

As a way to answer, Nick pulled down one of his sleeves to reveal a teleporter, the same one Reyes used during the raid in Sudoku Valley. He tapped it twice as it glowed underneath the little sunlight that came through, "Got you in a tracker just like everyone else."

Reyes took a deep breath, whistling out an exhale as he shook his head. Droplets seemingly fell from the curls of his hair. It seemed as if he were sweating bullets in this place, how did he not consider checking for the weather? "Gee, guess everyone's up there already, huh?"

"Not really, a lot of you are still getting lost, which is unsurprising. If it makes you feel any better, breakfast is at the rallying point." Nick shrugged as he checked his own phone, the screen showing multiple dots around a map, some moving while others were stagnant. Reyes peered over his shoulder to notice that some were clumped around each other. "You know, I didn't say anything about not working together."

"We're individualistic folks, boss," Reyes shrugged, ignoring Nick's interjection that he no longer worked for the EPF and therefore was no longer his boss. "Ain't our faults we like doin' things on our own."

"Nonetheless, I find it funny that it took you all this long to realize that teaming up would help you get there together," Nick said, fiddling with his teleporter as it chirped with a notification that it was ready to jump once more. The man tilted his head up to survey the trees above them, taking a deep breath that seemed to be of relief. How he can be so relaxed despite the stressful fact that Reyes should be trying to get to the rallying point appalled him. "These are great parts to go on a jog, you know? It's fairly easy to navigate your way around this place."

"That's because you've been here all your life, not like any of us here who don't know a thing about Margatian forestry." Reyes snorted, shaking his head as he started making his way towards the northeast. It should take about 1 or 2 miles before he'd reach a point where he should start changing directions once more, and he was in no mood to be idle when his stomach was growling and he was getting thirsty. "Who is already up there?"

"Cueva and Carter, though I can't blame Cueva since he's half-forest." Nick followed right next to him, doubling his footsteps to catch up with the taller man. Reyes shook his flippers to relieve the energy there, shaking them into fists so he can start jogging. He heard more than saw Nick follow ahead as they made their way through the forest. "Rogue cheated and teleported her way up, Brandt and Wolfe just got there a few minutes ago, I think Zarkova is getting close? I'm not sure, let me check the trackers again."

Reyes sighed as he jogged faster, getting familiar with the rhythm and the rocky surface underneath his feet. His curls seemingly bounced with every step he made, slapping against his forehead as he considered if he could afford to get a haircut before the raid began. He zipped past tree trunks and sailed over thick tree roots, breath in him alive as he got used to the power and energy of the air-

He stopped when he met a clearing, taking gulps of air and searching the vicinity for where to go next. Behind him, Nick slowed to a halt, taking deep breaths as well as he checked his map once more. It took him a moment before speaking, "You know, Kowalski's team should be at our east."

"Gotcha." Reyes wheezed and sighed, figuring out if he should go and meet up with Kowalski or finish the rest of the trail on his own. By now, the sun was beating down gracelessly on them, tempting Reyes to ditch his sweatshirt. He wouldn't, of course, certainly not; it was one of the few decent clean stuff he still had on him. "Say, will you be there for the final thing?"

"I'd be a fool to miss it," Nick laughed, shaking his head. His phone chirped with notifications, probably text messages coming from whoever had his attention. He peered at the screen and sighed, "It's Zarkova and Heng. He's complaining about the fact that we're running low on coffee."

"You ought to get to it, then," Reyes said as Nick started tapping in coordinates into the teleporter. He continued to mull over which decision he should make, eventually figuring to regroup with Kowalski so that they can get to the place together. Nick glanced towards him and grinned, a beaming smile that seemed to radiate with the sun. "T'was nice talkin' to ya again, boss."

"For the last time, I'm not your boss," Nick said, before activating the teleporter and disappearing out of view.

UAN: Can you describe what exactly happened, agent?

I04: It's a really simple phenomenon to grasp, Councilwoman. I'm surprised you still don't get it.

UAN: Yes, we see that you had to drastically shift the conditions to your favor during the raid in order to search for something that is the property of your agency. We just want to know why you had to do such a thing.

I04: I do what I must, Council. Even if it means taking some drastic measures.

There were times when they weren't stuck in a boardroom meeting, where they would argue over strategy and team formations while glaring down at the unfaltering holograms of the Sunken Forest live, as shown from a bird's eye view. Those were the times when a tension headache was most prominent, reminding him how little he's slept ever since he was reassigned back to this Taskforce. Not that he loathed them, not at all, he just wished that they could actually agree on something now so he can crash and get enough rest and energy for the raid.

This is the time after a meeting when they have nothing much to do between paperwork and actually taking care of their needs. Wolfe sat back and took a long, heavy sip of his cocoa and pondered on the possibility of snagging a snack down the road before communal dinnertime. He was watching Kowalski go through the VR simulation, contraption strapped to his head while he held two batons as if they were guns. He checked the screen mounted to the wall to see that Kowalski's blood pressure has spiked since the start of the simulation, breathing going shallower but faster.

"This happens a lot, don't worry," Nick said beside him, jumping him out of his stupor as he turned to the man in question. He found out while flying to the country that Nick was supposed to be the one sent in rather than Heng, but due to the Western Union event that occurred in his country, not to mention the heavy workload, he had to relent and pass the job on to Heng. "It's a simulation of what it would feel like in the actual place. I wouldn't be surprised by the reactions."

Wolfe turned back to the scene below him. Out of rushed fear (or is it frustration?), Kowalski vaulted over something neither of them can see before running straight into the wall, slamming with such a powerful thud that he could have sworn he felt it underneath his feet. The doctor in question shook his head profusely as he walked backward, away from the walls, muttering curses that were picked up by the surrounding microphones. The way Nick crooked a smile next to him did not seem in any way comforting.

"The problem with this, the headset method of VR, I mean, is how you're limited to sight. There are pseudo feelings around you, but that's only based on what your body sees and responds to," Nick continued speaking as if the heightened vitals and rushed movements did not bother him. Wolfe made the conscious choice of staring ahead at Kowalski's scampering. "The one I actually designed myself, the one Heng's managed to snag for himself, is far more comprehensive and realistic. I should ask him if we can switch personnel for round 2."

There's a yell and they're both staring at Kowalski now, who seemed to be clutching his arm tightly. Wolfe glanced at the other occupants of the room to see that they too were staring down from their little theater box over the VR room, their own individual emotions decorating their faces. There seemed to be a fixed frown on I04's face, Rogue seemed every bit as amused as Nick, and Cueva seemed reluctant to try the simulation. He turned back to see Kowalski charging into the wall once more.

"There he goes again," Nick doesn't even attempt to hide the laugh in his tone as he shuffled, cleared his throat, and continued watching. His eyes glanced up to the monitor before sighing, noticing how they've already reached the 10-minute mark. "Sad, I'll have to cut off our entertainment here."

The simulation is over with a few commands going towards Lynx, who has just recently made an appearance after being stuck in "quarantine" for so long. Kowalski's ripped off the headset and was trudging up the steps to the theater box now, unceremoniously entering and gracelessly crashing into the nearest chair.

"Excellent work, Kowalski, looked great from here," Rogue said, bemusement evident on her face as she turned towards the man in question. The dirty look he threw her way was enough to make Wolfe hold back a chuckle, still pitying the frustration evident on Kowalski's face. He proceeded to rip off the sensor nodes attached to him, taking deep breaths as he turned to Nick.

"If we ever do get lost in that wilderness, you're going to be the first one I'll kill for survival," Kowalski said exasperatedly, running a flipper over his face while sighing heavily. Wolfe couldn't help but notice the sweat that seemingly dripped around the doctor. "Alright, who's next?"

Nick nodded towards Wolfe, who sighed and took the sensor nodes and headset from Kowalski. He made his way downstairs while attaching the sensor nodes onto the key points of his body, earpiece activating with Nick's voice informing him if he attached anything wrong or if he needed to do anything else. Of course, the final reminders were given, with what would happen and what the sensors are for before he's in the wide expanse of the VR room. The lights are near blinding, so he reluctantly pulled the headset over himself.


Nick's voice came on once more in his ear, "Ready when you are, Wolfe."

He only had to nod once, sure of himself that he's ready for whatever he had to face. Immediately, the simulation began to render to reveal a gridded view of the room, before slowly forming into a dark wilderness. He tilted his head up to take in how the sky is covered by leaves, sunlight barely flitting in through them. Everything suddenly feels too hot that he regrets pulling on a jacket.

He understood why Kowalski was acting as he was when he felt it, the pang of fear that came in when he realized that this was nothing like the morning exercise that they had. Everything looked too similar, with hardly enough light to work with. It took him a moment to realize that there were batons at his feet, now seen as a gun and a teleporter, picking them up as he started making his way around the simulation.

This place is extremely humid, not to mention claustrophobic. Everything seemed to be looming over him and he can't help it if this naggingly reminds him of Frosian all those years ago, can't really help it when the demons he's worked hard to push away were rearing their ugly heads at him. He's on edge in seconds, adrenaline coursing through his veins, and he wondered for a moment what his best strategy would be before-

The gunshots come from his southeast, nearly clipping his shoulder. He pivots and steels himself and charges.

UAN: Can you still remember how bad the damage was?

Brandt: Well, I know it was horrible because until now Tang is bitter over what's happened.

UAN: But can you give details, Brandt, an eyewitness account?

Brandt: Look, my head is currently scrambled brains and I just really want to go back to bed, please.

It's two more days to the raid when they start going over combat training, just as the strategy was getting clearer and the logistics around the final mission was being made. The social workers and involved volunteers of the UAN for the checkpoint five miles out were already flying over to get ready, and supply runs were being made for the victims. Everything was starting to come together that it left more time to think about what to do after the raid.

Heng briefly wondered what would be waiting for him once he officially returns to full-time duty with the MSB, what sort of missions would be handed over to him. It's what's running through his head as he carefully did his stretchings, bending forwards and feeling the familiar popping of his joints before he righted himself.

Nick stood across him, reviewing something on a tablet handed over to him by a young subordinate. The latter in question glanced towards Heng every now and then, an unreadable expression on his face as if he was trying to figure out what was about to happen. In the background, he can hear I04 and a6 in the middle of a sparring match, heavy thuds and hard breaths heard from across the room. He's pretty sure Rogue and Brandt were also getting ready for their own match while Cueva and Wolfe just wrapped up theirs.

"Get the teams ready for briefing in 30," Nick said, handing back the tablet and nodding once at the subordinate. The man seemingly jumped as he took the tablet, sputtering out a thank you and a salute before disappearing through the doors. The two watched him go before shaking their heads, Heng turning back to see Nick wringing his wrists. "Kids these days."

"That's a new face," Heng frowned before settling himself into a starting position, blindly reaching to his waist to check if everything was there. For simulation, they both had gun holsters and a knife on one side, a baton on the other. The three weapons were indeed strapped to him, deeming him ready for this sparring match. "What do we start with, Nikki?"

The frown on Nick's face was enough of an indication of what the answer would be, "For that, we begin with the gun."

They had unspoken rules for how their spars would work, something they've developed over the years of knowing each other. Whoever bled first or fell on their back would mean the end of their match, out of common courtesy. They were allowed to talk to each other while fighting, could be about virtually anything that was on their minds. Outside intervention was always necessary should the match go on for too long and they're both exhausted.

So when Heng pulled out his gun and aimed, Nick was already ready to charge forward in an attempt to disarm him, yelling something thrown into the wind as he pushed his full weight against Heng's arms. He didn't think twice to discharge two reports into the air as they wrestled, knowing full well that they were blanks as Nick recoiled away from the source of the gunfire. Heng jumped to push Nick away with a kick, landing on his feet after and checking to see how the other was faring. It took him a split second to block the charge that came at him, stepping back as he sustained the hit.

"How did your end of the simulations go?" Heng grunted, pushing Nick back by a few feet, returning his gun back in its holster. The man in question shook his fist as he took out his baton, snapping it back to extend it. "Mine did fine, though a6 almost took out the energy supply after attempting to take out their Black Box. Had to end the simulation there."

"You have no idea how much footage I've collected," There's a wide grin on Nick's face before Heng took brisk steps forward, batons colliding as if they were swords. This segment of their spar usually entailed the little fencing techniques both learned from basic training, now transcending into a strange combination of fencing and dance. It was a test of flexibility and reaction time as Heng catapulted himself across the gym mat, charging and parrying with lightning fast movements that it was almost, almost art-like and beautiful to watch. "I'll send it to you later."

"You better." Heng grinned wolfishly before aiming a direct kick to Nick's head.

Nick backed away and scowled, rubbing his left temple as it buzzed with mild pain. They went to circling each other slowly, building tension while figuring out what to do when the other strikes. Heng slowly rotated his shoulders while figuring out where to best hit Nick next, all the while wondering if anyone else was watching. He can no longer hear I04 and a6 at it, Cueva and Wolfe were already out of the showers, and Rogue and Brandt were currently in the middle of it. He's about to make a comment when Nick charged forward, electric end of his baton crackling, and he only had time to raise his own before he was met with enough force to make him stagger back.

"This is nice," Nick said, sarcasm dripping in his tone as he pushed to break the baton lock. Heng stood his ground as he pushed back equally, keeping them in a lock as he contemplated what to do next. He can always break it and go for Nick's flank, but Nick would then have a clear shot of his head. Again, he could try knocking him off his feet, but that would also mean a painful shock to any part of his body, whatever brushes the end of the baton. Heng grunted and wondered where best to hit when Nick moved, swift and fiery as he hit Heng in the side with the electric end.

Heng sucked in a breath as he felt the electricity give him a minor shock, backing away quickly and bending forward in an attempt to stave off the pain. He hardly thinks and lashes out with his own baton, keeping Nick at bay before straightening and finally charging forward. It's a bit more of fanciful footwork before they call for a draw, both of them heaving from the work of sparring.

He turned towards everyone else who's on the mats to see that Rogue currently had Brandt pinned, looming over her and taking equally deep breaths. Reyes and Zarkova were in the middle of a rather intense bout using knives, while Carter and Cueva were in the sidelines discussing something he can't hear. He turned back to Nick and nodded tersely before clapping him in the back, already thinking of the shower he desperately needed before their next meeting.

UAN: Can you tell the Council how and when did you meet Commander Tang, Commander?

Heng: Oh, Nikki and I go way back, sir. I can't really give you a specific year, everything was confusing in that timeline.

UAN: And you knew of his... capabilities sometime during these years?

Heng: He can be very useful for starting a fire.

The problem with technology, Cueva figured halfway into the strategy meeting, is that it can be absolutely reliant with the conditions of its environment. While not always apparent given the advanced state of their tech, certain situations make them difficult to use due to well... circumstances. Needing them to work in sensitive operations oftentimes warranted bringing in more technology to make them work, burdening the team and ultimately causing more possible liabilities in a mission.

For example, their communications equipment and teleporters are at the mercy of the Sunken Forest.

This didn't amuse any of them, not one bit. The forest was too dense for most signals to go through, and any that would is heavily warped that any form of communication is incomprehensible. Attempting to contact the outside world within the forest was a laughable task, something impossible that not even Nick nor Jewel can figure out the best way to alleviate it.

"We can try teleportation pads," Nick suggested at about the first hour of the meeting when the topic on tech was first raised by a concerned Carter. They were all glowering at a satellite image of the Sunken Forest in real-time, amber sunset beams striking through the bay window behind them and coloring the conference room in nostalgic sepia. "Short distance, we can scatter them around the forest ground. It would take me and a team maybe... a week or so to work out."

"That won't do," Rogue said from across the room, shaking her head and frowning. She's slowly tapping her stylus against the table, eyes mildly scandalized by Nick's suggestion. "Multiple jumps in a short timeframe is a bad idea, not to mention if it involves multiple people. We already saw them after one big jump, we don't need to know how they feel about multiple short ones."

Cueva nodded sympathetically, understanding her point as the others spoke of their own opinions and suggestions. Wolfe raised the possibility of setting up antennas on treetops to better assist them. Zarkova argued the possibility of anyone volunteering for such a thing, also citing how it would delay their raid. Heng suggested having someone wear a teleportation antenna with the, but was quickly shot down by Brandt, who reasoned that it would make someone an instant target. Cueva leaned back and listened on, racking his brain for a potential answer as he glanced at Carter.

She was quiet, absorbing the argument that was seemingly on the table for the time being. Her eyes were sharp as they flitted across the conference room to take in the reactions and words of everyone, certain alertness in them telling him that she was giving it her full attention. There was a thought running through her mind when she noticed his attention on her, turning to him with a questioning look before someone spoke over everyone else.

"We can put down a pack somewhere for communications within our team during the actual raid. If we can't contact outside forces, so be it," It seemed as if the thoughts on teleportation devices extended to communications as Wolfe spoke, a frown on his face as he continued on. "If we have to, we can try putting down some signal boosters around the forest to amplify teleporter signal."

"That can work," Nick said, nodding with Heng who seemingly agreed with the proposal. "We can send a team in to test that out tomorrow."

"That's settled, then," Wolfe said, leaning back on his chair with a heavy sigh. There's silence for a moment as everyone pored over the suggestion, some slowly nodding as they saw its probability. It's surprising to see everyone agreeing instead of arguing after months of seeing them bicker, so this was a shock to Cueva as he wondered what there was to do next. Team formations were already discussed the other day, technology now also put forward, and all that was left was finetuning the plan of attack. "Anything else?"

He opened his mouth wondering what he was about to say, but an adjournment comes out instead. "If that would be all, then I'd say we all take an early night."

Cueva: Generally speaking, we seemed to have had no problems coming up with a strategy for that raid.

UAN: There's always a little hold up whenever it's the Taskforce, Director. You can save us all the curiosity when you inform us what that would be.

Cueva: I wouldn't really call it a setback when it's clear as day that the Sunken Forest would be a tough one to execute. That place was a different thing altogether, something that tested the effectivity of our technology. It was a rather humbling thought if you'd ask me, how powerful nature can be against artificial products.

UAN: Are you saying your teleporters malfunctioned due to the nature of the forest, Cueva?

Cueva: A little maybe, we already determined that they will be faulty on the day itself. We had to borrow Tvarkov for a little bit for that. She didn't seem too pleased.

There was nothing much to do on the last day.

Nothing was supposed to happen, anyway, than to avoid injury during simulations and go over the plan once more. In his experience, the last days before every major event usually meant the calm before the storm, when everyone actually enjoyed each other's company rather than getting at each other's throats. Per the suggestion of their superiors as well as many others, they decided to see the country they're in.

The hawker center was already half-full, even though it’s only, what, 10:30 in the morning. There’s a lot going on at once, a busy sort of hecticness going about with the sizzle of meats and fried dishes cooked en masse coming from quite a number of stalls. The somewhat noisy crowd was alive with conversation, with patrons enjoying their meals and chatting even after their plates and bowls were long emptied. The most popular stalls already have queues of a dozen customers long, with the cashiers shouting out orders every so often to the small kitchens behind the counter in a mix of Mandarin and Malay. Above their heads, fans whirring at top speed, but the place is still rather warm, and some could say, a little claustrophobic.

They had just gotten back from an early morning simulation of a gunfight in the form of a forest game of paintball. It started in the dawn hours of the day when they were dragged out of their rooms by insistent privates. It only took them a while to be briefed about what was to go down, a few minutes to go back upstairs to pull on clothes before they were stuffed into transport to be taken to some forest. Everything between that and the drive back to the city can best be liquidated to a mess of red paint and yelling.

To call themselves worn out from that would be an understatement. Nick can faintly recall at least half of the occupants of transport afterward to be out cold, dozing off in their respective seats when the sun was already high up in the sky. It took them a while to tut them out of the transport and make them get up and change out their shirts before they were brought out for brunch. It was a mostly lax affair, what with most of them still tired and snippy until they arrived at the hawker center and everyone was awake with the sudden liveliness.

Nick was waiting for his order when he looked around to check where the others were at. Reyes and Valentino were searching for a table large enough for all of them to occupy, eyes skittering over the many penguins that occupied the large space they were at. Most of the main respondents were spread out among the other booths, either waiting in line or scouting out the foods around the place. His looking came to a pause when he noticed the cashier yell out his order, thrusting a plate full of chee kueh in his flippers before he can say another word.

He shuffled away and was met by Heng, who was holding about three bamboo steamers in his flippers. He smirked when he recognized what stall he went to, "That hungry for xiao long bao, dumpling?"

Heng scowled at him and snorted, "If I wasn't carrying these I would have pushed you into the trash bins."

"Don't be rude," Nick said plainly as he flicked his eyes back towards the rest of the hawker center. He eyed Reyes and smirked as he watched the poor unsuspecting agent slide into a table, picking up the tissue paper in the middle of it. He nudged Heng as they slowly approached, recognizing the smirk on his face as they watched an elderly Margatian lady approach him. He watched as the confusion from Reyes turned to horror as she chewed him out in public, using her cane as a weapon to hit him out of the table. The poor man can do nothing but apologize profusely and adjust his beanie as he stepped out of the woman's way.

"你们这些美国人, 什么也都不知道,真是的," She muttered as Reyes disgracefully tried to escape, rubbing his side as the two finally approached. He saw the two of them and sighed in relief before speaking.

"What was that about?" Reyes asked. His drawl was apparent and thick at this time in the morning that had people staring at him and the two of them. Nick nor Heng could hold back the chuckle as the younger man stared at them, frowning as he continued rubbing his flank. "What'd she say?"

"'You Antarcticans know nothing, it's so irritating.'" Heng helpfully translated, causing Nick to chuckle harder and shake his head. They noticed Valentino waving them over to a vacant region of the center, where some of the Taskforce was already seated at. The three followed along and slid into seats, Nick finally sinking his teeth into one of the chee kueh on his plate. Delicious.

"Do you need healing?" Nick said around his rice cake, causing Heng beside him to chuckle around a dumpling as the rest of the Taskforce looked at them oddly. He spied Kowalski still in a line across them and nodded, "Kowalski, analysis."

Kowalski scowled. He glanced at the rest of the table to see what they got. It seemed as if the Munian duo both got roti prata, a6 nursing a glass of sugarcane juice that they seemed rather pleased to be drinking. Beside them, Perez was hunkering down with a bowl of fried rice, a glass of Teh Tarik next to her as she ate. Odd choice, but he can't exactly blame her. To his left, he can see Cueva approaching with what seems to be Teochew porridge and fishcake.

Around him, he can notice some patrons staring at them, a few holding up their phones. Unsurprising, seeing as it's not an everyday occurrence for Margatians to see an international taskforce within their vicinity. Heng seemed to have noticed because he too turned to look around, a small group of girls giggling and waving at him when he did. He shook his head and turned back to his food.

"Maybe it was a bad idea to take them here," Heng muttered to him in Mandarin as Kowalski and Rogue sat down, the former holding a plate of Kaya toast while the other had a bowl of fish noodle soup. Rogue seemed to have scowled at the provided pair of chopsticks before picking up the soup spoon. Nick held back a sigh as he nodded along. "Too many people looking at us."

"We're already here, can't turn back now." Nick muttered back to him, leaning down to ungracefully stuff a rice cake into his mouth as he listened in on Carter and Zarkova casually discussing their food from across the table. "We're here to eat, not for a publicity stunt."

"Not everyone thinks so," Heng said dryly as he leaned back on his chair, eyeing the approaching couple that had a little girl between them. They both wore matching smiles as if they wanted to speak to them. "We've got incoming."

Wolfe: You know, funnily enough, a good chunk of our initial problems in the raid disappeared thanks to I04 removing that barrier.

UAN: Indeed it did, but I suppose that came with a price.

Wolfe: Right, that. Well, it's a worthy... trade-off. We got the teleporters working better, got outside communication, though that wasn't so much...

UAN: Continue, Agent Wolfe, we need to know more.

It was her job as the official babysitter (the politically correct term is "Observing Officer", but everyone knows that's just formal talk for what it truly is) to chronicle and remember every single itinerary on the Taskforce's agenda, eventually submitting herself to weekly reports whether oral or written to the UAN Security Council. She was meant to keep an eye on them to ensure that they don't step out of line, being the literal link between them and the UAN should they need anything to aid them in their mission. She had to be with them at all times, eyes observant of their every move and ears alert to their every word.

Apparently, those protocols also extend to swimming.

It's always an interesting sight for her whenever she got to see the Taskforce as ordinary civilians rather than the steel-spined operatives they have to be on behalf of the UAN. They're always far lighter, younger than their years as they simply interacted with each other. Currently, Cueva and Wolfe were discussing in the sidelines as Reyes and Hoffman were trying to out-swim each other across the infinity pool atop the Telok Bunga Integrated Resort. She sighed as she leaned back on her beach chair, sunglasses on her face as she relaxed and took a deep breath.

a6 was on a beach chair across her, poring over a book that was in their flippers while nursing a mango smoothie that was across them. She sat up a little bit and tilted her head to read the spine of the book, noticing that it was a classic before speaking, "You seem to be having fun."

She said that as Reyes and Hoffman were splashing past them, causing a6 to frown and raise the book up higher to shield it from the little sprays of water coming from the two's swimming. They returned to reading and flipped the page, "I'm thinking of going for a dip later after I finish this chapter."

She glanced back toward the pool. Rogue and Brandt seemed to be talking leisurely while floating on their backs, conversation disappearing when Reyes and Hoffman swam past them. The combined swears coming from them were enough to make her chuckle as she continued to look around. Nick and Heng were both turned towards the horizon, speaking to themselves as they leaned on the edge of the pool.

"Are you going to miss this arrangement, with the Taskforce?" She said out of thought, turning back to a6 who was already looking at her. The conflict in those greys flickered before they turned away, a tinier frown appearing as they tried to find the words to say. They glanced around briefly, Carter wondering why until she noticed the lack of I04 within the vicinity.

"I don't know," They said simply, after a moment. They reached across them for a sip of their mango smoothie before continuing on, babbling a little as they spoke. "You are all very pleasant, good company in comparison to everyone back home but I — I still want to go home and — well, is it even home — I do miss home by now and—"

Carter frowned, trying to consider if there's anything wrong as a6's eyes glazed over and out over and over, a hesitation and rushed feel to their words as they gestured and spoke. There's an unfamiliar stammer, something uncharacteristic and unshy of them that she has the question on her tongue before thinking, "Did anything happen during the break?"

The smile reflected on their face is feeble at best, "Boring budget meetings, really."

She narrowed her eyes briefly but turned when she heard Kowalski call for them while bearing two glasses of smoothies.

UAN: Can you describe to us what happened after the barrier was deactivated?

Tvarkov: Light, too much in such a short timeframe that I think everyone was blinded for a moment. What went down after that is very blurry since everything went too fast then.

UAN: Can you try remembering?

Tvarkov: I'd try to if I wasn't heavily relying on medications to keep my eyes open.

Nick explained to them that August was perceived by the Margatian public as a time when the spirits of their deceased loved ones and other entities traverse their plane of reality to mingle with them once more. This would be a time when everyone is lively in the evenings with celebrations and concerts before quietly retiring at midnight, in fears of disturbing whatever wandering souls there are out there. The Hungry Ghosts Festival was a month-round affair that entailed a spike in visiting tourists, seeing as many are interested to see how the country celebrates such an event.

The air smelled strongly of Joss sticks and sweet pastries as they entered the getai grounds, a concert unique to the festival. Spotlights in multitudes of colors flashed about the grounds and cast colors here and there, illuminating the night alongside the chatter of the people. The breeze was light and cool despite the thick crowds surrounding the concert grounds. The three of them managed to just barely squeeze in, making their way to the front parts to scan the stage better.

The parts closest to the stage were cleared out, per the belief that the dead were also amongst them to see the concert.

"Now where can a man get some booze here..." Kowalski said as he looked around, trying to figure out which way to go to get out of the dense crowds and to the nearby kiosks where many were crowding. It was near difficult for either of them to figure out what he was saying, only understanding thanks to their closeness. He was about to try towards the opposite direction when Nick grabbed him by the collar of his jacket and kept him with them.

"Don't even try anything, we've got a big day tomorrow," If she were to be asked she'd say he was hissing, clearly annoyed with Kowalski's antics. She can't blame him. The Antarctican has been nagging about grabbing a drink as a "last hoorah" before the inevitable mission, despite their combined disapproval of the notion. While a drink at the moment would be nice, she would rather be sober and clear minded for what lies ahead.

This was a tradition by now, wasn't it? They always had to search for something the three of them can do together that did not rely on work, something they can do before they become who they have to be. This was their calm before the storm, where they can shed formalities and bravado in favor of the prospect of being friends rather than co-workers. This wasn't them as the Triad, a trio known best as a highly efficient group for anything the EPF needed them to do. This was them as weathered down souls who wanted nothing more than to relax and forget for a moment that their work was near everything to them.

The spotlights turned themselves towards the stage when she was back to reality, blinking as she turned back in one the conversation that Nick and Kowalski were having about the pros and cons of grabbing a drink at this hour. She frowned when she noticed a group of penguins entering the stage in bright and vibrant outfits, recognizing one that was in the process of tuning her guitar.

"You didn't mention Zhi Rong would be playing," Rogue said, commanding their twin attentions as they all focused on what was happening on the stage. Indeed, the blue-haired woman was on stage in a bright dress was Zhi Rong, who happened to be the fiance of Nick. She flashed a smile towards the stage and greeted them a good evening as the crowds cheered and whistled enthusiastically. "Or being part of a band at all."

"Nah, that's just her and her co-workers in the precinct," Nick explained, a telltale grin on his face as his eyes remained on the woman before them. A few strums were heard as they checked their equipment, making sure that everything was ready for the concert. Already, the crowds were alive with anticipation, some already holding up their phones with turned on flashlights in preparation. "They do some gigs here and there for charity, and they were voted in this year to play. Opening set, really just to warm up the stage."

By then, she watched as Zhi Rong started the countdown before the stage was alight with music, the first strums of the guitar bringing her back to the world at hand. She can only watch quietly as the crowds roared with life as Zhi Rong began to sing. There something about the wideness in Nick's grin that told her that this was something popular.

"Huh. Hokkien. Been a while." Kowalski furrowed his brows as he listened, swaying with the crowd as they all sang. Rogue herself was surprised to hear a few notes from Nick, who quietly sang along with the rest of the concertgoers around them. It took her a while to grasp the language of the song to realize that it was not the Mandarin she was familiar with. The lights above them danced about the stage and spilled onto the crowds below it, casting shadows and easy brightness that seemed soothing. "What's this one about?"

"A heartbroken soul that suffers from unrequited love," The explanation slipped out of Nick's mouth thoughtlessly, eyes still trained towards the stage. Rogue turned to eye him when she noticed that he was holding a bouquet, probably something he pulled out of his inventory. She identified them as orchids. "She's asking heaven why they still torture her. It's a classic."

In her peripheral, she noticed Kowalski snort, maybe rolling his eyes at the story. There's a small smirk as he nudged Nick and spoke, "Better pay attention, Nikki. She could be trying to say something."

"Shut up."

"Boys," Rogue shook her head as Nick nudged Kowalski back, a frown on his face as he briefly checked on the orchids to make sure that they weren't crushed by the doctor's body weight. She turned back to the stage to see Zhi Rong performing, a wide grin on her face as she continued singing her heart out. The crowd continued to move around them, a hypnotic feel that made her forget for a brief moment of what was to come tomorrow.

"Yeah, m'sorry, a late call, I know."

The hotel room they've been given was plush and wonderful, to say the least. Cream and clean aesthetics, a dark grey carpet complementing the beige walls and tan bedsheets. Moonlight spilled down to cast shadows on the room from the large terrace separated by a divider, overlooking a skyline that glowed with life and festivities. In the distance, if she strained her ears, she could hear the telltale singing of a distant concert, something that's probably happening a few blocks from the hotel.

She held a tray in her flippers containing their meals, room service she managed to snatch from the room service attendant before he can get to their room. She managed to thank him and give him quite the tip before making her way to their room, struggling a little with opening the door with her key card. She didn't really assume Reyes would be in their room but was pleasantly surprised to be in, though on a phone call.

He didn't seem to notice her, back turned to the door, situated at the terrace while leaning on the railing. His voice carried into the room as he gestured vaguely, probably to the person on the other side of the line. Interesting, how bits of his accent disappeared with whoever it was he was talking to. "Oh, no worries, we got it all under control o'er here. Nothin' should go wrong."

She set down the tray on the bench at the foot of their beds, finding Reyes' plate and delegating it to his own bench. The smell of the food was mouthwatering, tempting her to hunker down on it as if it were her last meal. She picked up her chopsticks and began munching on some of her noodles when she noticed Reyes turning to stare at her, probably surprised to see her there. He rushed to say his goodbyes to the person on the other line before making his way in, shutting the divider behind him.

"Just as I thought you'd take forever out there." Piri teased as he sat down on the bench across her, staring at the pink slab of salmon before him before picking up a fork and knife and cutting it to chewable pieces. He doesn't look at her as he started eating, quietly munching on his meal. She inched to the side of her bench to get closer to him. "Who was that you were talking to?"

"Non' o' ya business." He answered quickly, mildly sheepishly, only turning up his head to acknowledge her before diving back into his food. Piri quirked an eyebrow and decided not to press further, turning back to her food and getting to work with eating more than half of it. She's probably halfway there when he set his utensils down with a clatter, a huff as he spoked rushedly. "Alright, it might've been someone I've been eyein' for a while, aight? Nothin' serious, he just wanted to check in."

"That's adorable, Reyes, touched my heart." The quirk in her lips was enough to annoy the agent further that she revels at the moment for a brief second before getting back to her food. She continued speaking around the mouthful of noodles she had, "It's nice of you to call someone before the big mission. Can't you believe it, after all this work?"

"S'just a precaution, y'know how the job works," She stilled from eating as she snapped her head up to look at Reyes, whose look was discernable under the grainy moonlight coming in from the terrace. She set aside her food as he put his utensils down, an unspoken agreement to continue this conversation. Of course, work had to come forward with its looming threat of swallowing them whole.

"I know," Piri echoed back to him simply, shrugging as she fumbled with her flippers and toyed with the pendant around her neck. It wasn't anything committal, not like the enchanted crystals her parents wore around their necks or the ones many couples exchange when they get married. No, this one was a reminder, something to ground her to the reality of the seriousness of her duties. "I know you're just looking out for him."

"M'not so keen on what's gon' go down 'morrow," Reyes shook his head, curls barely bouncing on his head as his frown remained set firmly on his face. He's wringing his flippers slowly, at such a pace that she didn't notice it at first, a moment's blip of vulnerability that she's had to witness. She's suddenly itching to reach her phone and call her own loved ones. "Air don't feel right, third time ain't always the charm."

"We'll get it right, I'm sure of it," She tried to be optimistic, despite the briefing they had earlier about strategy and information they had about the location within the Sunken Forest. She already knew the location a long time ago as the forest and not as the last stronghold of the Public. Latest intelligence suggested that it could most likely be heavily fortified, filled to the brim with insurgents who were ready to turn them into Snoss cheese the moment they step into the perimeter. "We went through two, one more shouldn't kill us."

He clicked his tongue but said nothing more. There was silence for a moment that stretched between them, for a moment making her wonder if the conversation was over. She thought they'd be able to go back to eating and was about to reach for her plate when he asked, frown deepening and head tilted back. "Say, when're ya callin' yours?"

"Before I go to bed, maybe," It's the tradition she's stuck with ever since she became an active field agent, to call before bedtime so that her focus is razor sharp towards the task at hand. Her food's on her lap before she can think too hard on it and she's already getting ready to return to eating, "So it's best we wrap up and get ready for bed."

He nodded and went back to eating, taking large chunks out of the salmon and taking it in without much thought. She turned back to her own food and got to work with the noodles, mind already considering who she wanted to call, in what order, and what to talk about. She ignored the sinking feeling in her stomach and her disappearing appetite in favor of simply feeding herself, considering it as the task at hand that she had to focus on.

UAN: So you said you used a train to get there.

Heng: We Margatians pride ourselves for our excellent public transportation, ma'am. It was also the most discreet way to get around the island if you'll ask me.

UAN: And the MSB simply had a secret railroad constructed to get around easier? Or are we understanding this incorrectly?

Heng: No, no, we used the regular lines... hey, don't look at me like that. We're rather good at coordinating with the transport authorities to make sure that no one sees our comings and goings. That's the convenience of having so many railroad lines, makes everything so convenient and easy to access. If you'd like, I could show you the actual train we used, but I'm afraid that's somewhere in the docks.

The sun hasn't even risen, and the ink black sky was still dotted with stars when the day has begun for the Taskforce, tension tightly strung and thick in the air. Most of them woke early, getting showered and geared up for the inevitable that was to go down that day. The few who had been tossing and turning had given in to their hopeless insomnia and had followed along, albeit weary and anxious of what lies ahead. When Wolfe stepped out of his hotel room, he caught sight of Cueva a few doors down staring into the wall across him, back pressed on the wall behind him as he nervously twiddled with his hair.

They came in groups so as to avoid suspicion, hiding their uniforms underneath thick jackets and keeping up easy smiles to whoever staff they'd pass by. As he and Valentino crossed through the lobby, he noticed how the lights were slightly dimmed, not as bright and flashy as it would be in the day or evening. It gave the room a lazy, hypnotic feel that meant to soothe rather than entice people to come in. There were hardly any people downstairs, obviously with the ungodly hour, and he only had to nod at the receptionist and the guards at the door before they were crossing the street and getting towards the underground train station.

They've ditched their jackets in the nearby trash bin at the foot of the staircase when they got there, quickly easing their way through security checkpoints and whoever would come at their way. Unsurprisingly, the station was deserted, the only occupants being them and some staff. Going by their sharp looks and friendly nods at their direction, however, Wolfe concluded that they were most likely MSB officers who were installed to make sure that the whole thing would go on seamlessly.

Some of them were already there by the time he got to the waiting area, few of them catching some extra minutes of snooze on the benches or talking aimlessly about anything but the mission. There was some equipment in heavy black boxes on the floor, most likely the ones handed to Perez and Reyes for safekeeping and final tinkering. As usual, they were wearing the uniforms of their respective agencies, a mixed haze of grey and black tactical gear. Wolfe turned to the digital clock overhead, squinting at its amber numbers to make sure that he was reading it right. 4:13, it said. Only two more minutes to go.

And the train comes two minutes later, the sharp squeal of steel against steel filling the air and shaking everyone out of their stupors as the sleek bullet train came to a halt before them. It looked like any bullet train, except with tinted windows and black painting, most likely also having bulletproof plating on it. There were some of them who reached to grab the boxes as the doors opened with a quiet hiss, greeting them with the sight of Tang and Heng who were standing and wearing twin uniforms. It was a quick affair of getting in before the doors hissed shut once more, another to get into comfortable seats before they were going off and out of the station.

It's this time when Valentino decided to open her mouth, shifting in her Shopper Camo uniform that seemed a size too large for her. It's jarring whenever he remembers that they're the only agency of the ones in the Taskforce that have bright uniforms. "Sir, the Margatian unit's in the other passenger car."

"That's good," He said simply and nodded, watching the tunnel lights zip past them in too fast a speed to comprehend. The thoughts in his head were quiet, hardly bothering him, and he can only think of the strategies he had devised with the Taskforce a few days ago about how this was to go down. He wondered now, however, given the odds, how successful with this operation?

Quietly, he wondered what he could have seen if he had ran some simulations.

It's a quarter to 5 when they had ten minutes left before they arrived in their destination. The sky was still a murky black that seemingly blanketed the world, its stars disappearing into its depths in favor of the inevitable sunrise. In a half hour or so, the world will begin brightening up to start the day, and they'd be deep in the forests in a lengthy hike towards the location.

The current view was slightly better than earlier's blur of concrete walls and bright amber lights that zipped by. The outside world was right before them, characterized by inky black blotches and jagged lines that dictated the tree lines and arches of hills and mountains. The dense forestry held the unknown in its darkness, a perfect place to hide for those who want to stay hidden. It sped past them in a blur, indiscernible and blended as one.

The holographic map detailed that they were along Ambassador Range, the backbone of the island that spanned its entirety. As soon as they were out of the tunnels, the official final briefing of the current conditions, as well as the minute details discussed by the higher-ups of the Margate Armed Forces, would be relayed to them. For that, the chairs and tables were realigned to make a long conference room-like arrangement, with hologram projectors from overhead buzzing with information. Humidity inside would be quite high and the distance between their stop and the edge of the Sunken Forest would be about 15 kilometers, hence the abundant water supply given by the MAF. From there it would be another 5 kilometers trek before they reach the center of the Sunken.

For now, most of them were resting or watching what little they can see out there, some resting their heads on the tables or leaning back on their chairs. The air was still, nearly serene, but nonetheless carried the undertone of tension and adrenaline. This was it, the final moment, the last blow they'll commit before all this would be over. This is their final mission as the Taskforce, should this be successful and no movements would occur in the future, and they would soon go their separate ways.

Zarkova did not know how to take this, despite her relief that she could soon go home and be with her family and co-workers. Surely, she will have to endure numerous curious questions and strange stories from those she worked with, not to mention the begging for storytime now that she had more than enough material to work with. She stared at the rifle in her flippers and went through the motions over and over, ensuring that everything was as fine as it was last night.

Push back the bolt, look through the scope, squeeze the trigger, listen for the click as the bolt snapped forward, before pushing it back and repeating the motions. Earlier, she had disassembled and inspected the pieces individually, cleaning them once more and making sure they were all in good condition before reassembling the rifle. She sat in the corner of the car, knowing that the noise would disturb the others, and continued on with her process.

It did not take her long before someone decided to join her, sitting next to her and keeping a respectable distance between them. Brandt pulled her hair back today in her usual chignon, currently buried underneath a grey helmet bearing the infamous SSS insignia. The grey trench coat she wore made her seem bulkier, more intimidating, and Zarkova saw an older woman before her.

"Can you not rest, Zarkova?" She asked in her native German, syllables lilting out as something soft rather than a terse. She removed her helmet and sighed, brushing back strayed strands so as it would not ruin her appearance. As always, she was such a stickler for how she looked. "I cannot either, their bodies are too warm to sleep next to."

"What brings you to my little nook?" Zarkova replied instead in Russian, turning to her briefly and ceasing her repetitive motions. In truth, it was training segment she had while she was training in the Army, to repeatedly familiarize herself with the process of firing a gun so that it would be muscle memory by the time she's in the battlefield. In all her years, however, it would have been beaten into her that she could do it half-asleep, and so the act is more as a calming ritual more than anything. "Not that you are unwelcome, but I am curious with the sudden company."

"Do you have plans, when you go back home?" Brandt asked, turning briefly to check the holographic map as it blinked with a tiny dot indicating their location. They were still a few more minutes out, a few more minutes to hold this conversation before the endgame would begin. She quirked her brow at such a question, turning her head slightly to further prod the Snoss. She gestured, "When this is all over, what do you plan on doing?"

She hummed and clicked her tongue, mulling over the thought. She had a long list of things to do when she got home, but that was disorganized and confusing that she didn't know which of the tasks she'd start with. Finally, she said, "Perhaps I will ask to use my vacation days."

A wry grin spread on Brandt's face, a rarity in the general presence of the Taskforce, and she cannot help but grin herself. There is a moment of silence as they both sit back, thinking to themselves, giving Zarkova time to slide her rifle back in its case. It took her a moment before she spoke again, "You did not just come here to ask me about what I'd do."

"No, I did not," Brandt nodded, confirming, bowing her head as if trying to find whatever words she wanted to say next. Zarkova waited, patient, attentive, wondering what she had to say for herself before she gestured, "I wanted to thank you, for being good company over the months. It's a difficult job with the Taskforce, and I understand the notoriety of my agency, but thank you."

The train cars shivered briefly for reasons unknown to them, rocking as they tilted slightly, train tracks most likely curving around the mountains. Zarkova leaned back on the side of the car and pressed her feet against the floor as their world briefly lurched with the added effort. She took the time to find what she wanted to say.

"I prefer to see beyond the relations of our agencies," Zarkova nodded, staring ahead towards the face of the mountain across them. An overhead speaker informed them that they have one minute before arriving at their destination. She tried to scrap whatever's left of her thoughts, compartmentalizing them so that her mind is crystal clear. "And you are a good one, Lydia. Do good out there."

Many are stirring by the time the train is slowing down, many getting off of their feet to grab their weapons and make sure that everything was secured. As Nick stood, he spared them a glance, nodding once while blinking sleep out of his eyes before turning to speak with Heng about something. The train car was suddenly alive with people walking about and getting ready, final reminders being yelled out by Cueva.

"We're needed," Brandt muttered, turning to Zarkova and finally standing, reaching out a flipper to help her up. The flipper underneath hers is sweating and just barely trembling. Brandt fitted the helmet over her head, producing a pistol in one of her many pockets. "It's best we ready."

They were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, night vision goggles their only help in navigating the dark. The downwards trek from the train tracks to the foot of the mountain was fast-paced, single file into the thickening forestry around them. Indeed, the humidity was high in this part of the national park, and they had to take breaks every now and then for quick assessment of where they were and how much longer it would take before they were at the edge of the Sunken.

They had to take a break when the sun was breaking into the sky, inky black making way for murky greys and dusty blues. This was the time when they had to deactivate their night vision and continue the trek while relying on sunlight, which wasn't so hard given the brisk climb of the sun. Carter tilted her head back to take in the colors, quiet awe as she listened to the sounds of the wild animals here greeting the world with their songs.

They finally reached the edge of the Sunken Forest after a few hours, when Heng raises a closed fist in the air to signal a halt. There's a moment as he and Nick consult a little map on their tablet, before nodding with each other and announcing that they've arrived. The social workers and medical volunteers already sprang to work behind her, assembling tents and designating places to put supplies, communication, food, cots. She's in the middle of assembling a communications table when Cueva approached her, beret set down between his flippers.

It's surprising to see him in something that wasn't his usual barong or civilian wear, except wearing a black uniform that had a singular patch on the left shoulder. She eyed the reflective pattern of the Orion constellation before she turned back to him. She cocked her head as he spoke, "I'm sure you can hold down the fort."

"I can manage this place just fine," She tried to polish the statement off with a bright smile, willing away the uncertainty she felt about this last mission. Little to no communication to the outside world, they may even need to install satellites as they go in to get their teleporters to work. Whatever information she would get from them would be delayed and useless by the time she has a grasp of them.

"I understand you can," He laughed and shook his head, already wringing the beret in his flippers uneasily. She noticed a glint of something tucked in the rim of it, something golden and slightly faded. Perhaps it is a good luck charm he wore, another one of the many superstitions he believed in? She eyed the tiny braid tied to his ponytail and noted the beads that were woven into them. More superstitions. "Just- whatever goes down today, just know what we've done everything within our power."

"I know." There's a pause. This is the man she's worked with during long, near endless nights, who was kind enough to make small talk and treat her as an ally rather than a hostile since day one. She cannot help herself when she reached forward and pulled him into a hug, giving her a moment to take a deep breath and realize that what she felt was fear on his behalf. Was this what mothers felt when they send their children to war? She cannot tell. "You take care out there."

The beads brush against her face, their inscriptions creating a distinct texture that she took committed to memory. When they pulled away, there's fondness on Cueva's face before he pulled the beret over his head and nodded once. As he turned away, Carter watched him, seeing the rest of the Taskforce and the combined forces of Margatian and Shopper forces start trekking down into the Sunken Forest.



[07:13:45 MST] WOLFE: You know, this would all be much easier if we just, I don't know, asked someone to install the satellites beforehand.

[07:14:05] HENG: Oh please, Wolfe, as if we can presume in advance where the signals would weaken and strengthen. This place shifts as we go through it.

[07:14:27] CUEVA: Tang, I'm curious, but how well do you know this forest?

[07:14:35] TANG: I know it like the back of my flipper, sir.

[07:14:41] a6: There's no distinction between our front and back flipper.

[07:14:49] TANG: Let's not try to start an existential crisis here, shall we? Anyway, we're about two kilometers in. Shouldn't take so long before we cover a third.

[07:15:01] WOLFE: Hoffman, Valentino, the faster you get your butts down here, the faster we can get this mission over with!

[07:15:09] VALENTINO: You think it's easy securing a heavy satellite on a tree branch using nylon rope, sir? No? Thought so.

[07:15:13] CUEVA: Sounds like someone skipped breakfast.

[07:15:20] HOFFMAN: I can't blame you for that, Valentino, we weren't exactly given time to eat much.

[07:15:26] BRANDT: That's because the both of you turned up late and only got to get the scraps.

[07:15:32] HOFFMAN: That's cold even from you, boss.

As soon as every satellite was installed and the signals weren't as finicky as it was earlier, they continued their trudge deeper into the forest. There was an eerie quiet in this part of the national forest, the space so small that it seemed to have absorbed every sound within its hallowed grounds. Sunlight came from whatever filtered through the tall forestry, casting spots on everything and everyone about them.

As they continued trudging forward, Nick watched as the screen of his tablet flickered and warped before eventually deactivating and going dark. It was typical of this place to have special control over everything artificial, to have its way with manipulating it to their inconvenience. He frowned but did not pay serious mind to it as he waited patiently for it to reactivate, slowing his walk to linger and wait for it to initialize. Once the screen returned to its previous image, he eyed the blinking red dot indicating their location and the blurred region of the Sunken Forest.

“Alright, we should be coming be making it the fourth kilometer now.” He called out, adjusting his earpiece as it hummed with the low crackle of signals trying to make its way around the forest. He designed these short-range earpieces just for this raid, asking for the assistance of Piri to infuse some magic into it so that it would cooperate with its environment. He recalled putting her on a call last night when Reyes was fast asleep, discussing the perceptions of magic in their respective countries over the phone while they twined the magic into the metal. He watched as their red dot sluggishly went forward on the screen until-

Brandt slammed into thin air and stepped back, wiping her face and huffing annoyedly, a low mutter of a curse on her tongue. There's a tense pause as everyone held their breath and waited for something to happen, hearing a sharp warping noise that shrilled as it echoed around the forest for a moment. There’s a stillness in the air as everyone waited for someone, anyone to make their call on what just happened, what the next move would be, and if whether or not they’ve reached their location.

“What…?” Comes the response to what's just happened, confusion clear in Cueva's tone as he too was perplexed with the phenomenon. Nick turned and watched as he tentatively reached forward and flattened his flipper on the air, a frown on his face as if concentrating to find out the answer he was looking for. Immediately the air flickered and briefly revealed a purple polygon interface before disappearing. His frown deepened as he stepped forward and slammed his fist on the area.

Immediately, a bubble of purple appeared before them, encompassing the region and humming as it revealed itself. Nick squinted ahead and tried to see past it to see armed penguins milling around a certain facility, turning down to check his tablet to see if he’s getting this right. He inhaled sharply, realizing that this was not just any sort of forcefield concocted by whoever thought it was a good idea to create it. He stepped back to observe what he was looking at, ignoring Wolfe's insistent questions and Heng's rapid-fire answers, though flimsy, to those questions. There was something very strong about this forcefield, something pulsing and warm and familiar that he knows just what it's made of.

“This is magic.” He said simply, checking his tablet to see if he got it right, matching up properties and looking back at the bubble once more. Immediately the murmur turned into an explosion of conversation on the channel as Piri rushed forward, slamming her body into the bubble with full force. It merely responded with a flicker and sharp, annoyed warping at her obstruction. Of course, this would be magic, he's not surprised that the Public would know of the magical properties of the land and use it to their advantage. He looked down and saw the familiar, telltale inscriptions dotting the perimeter of the bubble.

“Powerful one, at that. It's practically drinking up the energy of this place.” Piri huffed, tilting her head back in an attempt to comprehend what she was looking at. She seemingly squinted up to see how far up the bubble would go, maybe to calculate how much it would take her to get to the top of it. He can see the ever familiar glint of a card at the edge of her sleeve as if she was preparing for what was to come. She looked to him and frowned, “Is this a natural one?”

“It looks augmented,” Nick frowned as he turned back to the obstruction before them, racking his brain for what he knew about this sort of magic. The magical community used them for a wide variety of purposes ranging from offense to defense to healing, a practical little thing that can be relied upon anytime it is needed. It did not necessarily require too much magic, instead relying on knowledge of the old texts and inscriptions. It was more skills-inclined rather than power, something near everyone could learn about if they had an ounce of magic in their veins.

His thoughts, however, stuttered to a halt when he felt the world buzzing with strange electricity as his feet left the floor. There was a different tune of magic in this one, an off feeling he cannot explain as he suddenly lost his footing. A flurry of swears and yells were here as most - no, all - were lifted off the forest floor, floating away from the ground as if they were balloons and not actual living beings. Nick grabbed for a nearby tree branch and turned just in time to grab Heng by the edge of his pants.

“I04, you scrub, what in blazes is going on?!” Wolfe yelled over the torrent of everyone’s yelling inside and out of the communications channel. Nick slowly inched his grip until Heng was also grabbing for the tree branch, pulling himself closer to it as he turned wildly to Nick. He surveyed the rest of the world around him and found that it was only I04 and a6 who were standing on the ground, the rest of the Taskforce in the air or grasping at the trees.

That doesn’t belong to you.” The wind howled around them with the familiar growl of the mentioned operative as if there was a rushed flurry about them. Nick tucked his head into his collar and closed his eyes, gripping tighter and hearing Heng let out a furious blur of colorful words as he slowly planted his feet on the nearby trunk. He could feel the branch pop and fizzle under his flippers as Heng cursed next to him.

"Tang, calm down or you're going to burn us both off of our branch!" Heng practically hissed at him as he dared to lift one flipper to slap his, a sharp curse coming after as something flew past them. Immediately, they were both deafened by music as a6 activated their black box, luckily saved only by the earpieces that they were all wearing. Quietly, Nick wondered how this was all going to look on ink and paper once everything was over.

The world is a pure, blinding white that prompted Nick to screw his eyes shut and fight back the sudden spots in his vision. Immediately after that, they were unceremoniously dropped on the ground, all of them landing painfully on the ground. The two of them landed on a small bed of rocks underneath the tree, forcibly knocking the breath out of Nick. Heng groaned as he closed his eyes and flipped onto his back, Nick wincing as he tried to steady himself and get up. The world is suddenly too bright, and the music is literally echoing around his head by now, and he can tell that something's wrong when he turned around to see what's happened and-

The thickened forest has been cleared off within a 500-meter radius in all directions, the trees and greenery cleared out and turned into cracked, dry ground. The bunker facility has been highly weaponized, with trenches dug every few meters or so and weapons looming on the open spaces on the building and around it. Members of the Public milled the place while donning high-powered weapons, muzzles already up at the sight of the Taskforce before them. There's a flurry of yells pointed at their direction as many more flooded into the region, and he tried to reach out to see just how much is the damage in this place.

Immediately, he's welcomed with the feel of the magic slipping from his flippers, weak and overused as it simply disappeared from his senses. Of course these fiends would take everything the land could offer to their advantage and drain it of resources. His heart stuttered with anger and he felt that he was seething, and for the first time in a long while, he decided that battle was the only way to get this mission done.




[07:42:30] CUEVA: Wolfe, only one of us can recklessly charge into a battlefield and someone's already taken that turn!

[07:42:35] a6: He can uh... still hear you two you know.

[07:42:43] CARTER: Oh, I hear all of you all loud and clear! Gee, the satellites are finally pulling through and-


[07:42:58] CUEVA: Mia, now's not really a good time-

[07:43:01] HOFFMAN: Uh... sir... Commander Tang's on fire.

[07:43:05] CARTER: I'm sorry, he is on what now?

[07:43:07] KOWALSKI: Oh! It must be that time of the year again. Don't mind it, Carter, he does that a lot. Makes quite the impression on extremists and criminals alike.

[07:43:08] HENG: Crap, where is my fire extinguisher? Tvarkov, cover me while I look for it.

[07:43:12] PEREZ: I'm... suddenly glad we designed the earpieces to be fire-resistant.

[07:43:18] TVARKOV: Right, so we have two charging idiots in the field now.

[07:43:23] VALENTINO: I can go after-

UAN: Dr. Kowalski, please stop laughing.

Kowalski: It was such a hilarious thing, the guy just burst into flames and charged the battlefield like a madman while the kid managed to have something in that black box mixtape of theirs that's appropriate!

UAN: Sir, we need you to calm down.

Kowalski: Oh, I'm perfectly calm, just give me one second-

"We've got landmines!" Wolfe yelled into the air as he pulled Valentino back from where she last stood, a grim look on his face as he cast a worried glare at his agent. Her surroundings were loud from the gunfire and the yelling from both sides of the field, but it was nothing compared to the sickening boom she heard when Valentino tried to run across the 500-meters. From what Piri could see, her lavender camouflage was dotted with dirt and suspicious material, mostly caking her face and body. She winced as she eyed the way her foot dragged behind her unnaturally, turning as he heard him yell once more. "I need a medic!"

She looked around her vicinities and frowned, trying to make sense of what was going on. She simply raised up barriers around their part of the field per request of her commander, mostly shielding them from most blows of weapons. They're only at about the 50-meter mark from the bubble's former perimeter, and any further prompted a nasty surprise of an explosion and a casualty. She looked around and saw many too wary to go any forward, pinned at the open field they're at. This placed them at a great disadvantage given the manpower of the opposition forces, and she did not want to risk any limbs with the bombs that were underneath their feet.

Of course, the quickest way to solve all of this would be to find and diffuse all bombs to get them across the field, but that would be too difficult. The good thing is she has a quick solution that would probably earn her another court-martial threat from her brother.

"Everyone, get back!" She warned, pulling out a card from her sleeve and slamming it down on the ground. As soon as the card was within sight, most of them scrambled back and retreated back to the bubble's border, yells in multiple languages warning the others of what was to go down. She felt the magic run and scatter down the ground before-


She felt an arm wrap around her waist before she is pulled away from the field, the air deafening with its booms and explosions as she blindly held up a barrier to shield them. The world around them is a blur of dust and dirt, kicking up a storm in her lungs as she bent over and grasped the wrist of her rescuer and coughed harshly. It took her a while to brush away the dirt on her face to look up and properly see who grabbed her from the blast zone.

Rogue glowered at her as she slowly pulled her shirt collar down from where it was over her beak, coughing minimally before speaking. There was telltale energy swirling around her that was powerful, a high from suddenly teleporting at such short notice. "You are, honest to Benny, the worst partner I could ever ask for."

"I get the job done regularly, submit the paperwork on time, and know how to patch up your sorry butt," Piri said as she lightly slapped her shoulder, much to the chagrin of Rogue as they both surveyed the area. The bombs left sizable craters in the ground, making easy little foxholes to hide in should they need to go for cover. Unsurprisingly, both Nick and I04 were nowhere to be seen, most likely having already stormed the bunker facility. She could just smell the burning magic in that direction. "Don't you have somewhere else to be?"

"Of course I do." Rogue shook her head as she stepped back, turning to Heng to see that he's already brandishing a green extinguisher in his flippers. The team was seemingly split into multiple smaller groups in foxholes, mostly taking a shot at the insurgents while figuring out when to make it across the field. Something about all of this was giving the strong war vibes that she willed away. "Don't do anything stupid."

With that, she blipped out of focus and reappeared next to Heng, who only grasped her shoulder before they disappeared out of view. Piri turned back to the battlefield and checked to see what cards she had left, then looking back at her fellow teammates and figuring out what her best move would be.

Smiling, she figured it would be best to bring up some barriers and start taking down the heavy artillery down the right flank.

There's been a temporary truce made between them, Nick's clear dislike of I04 being very prominent but smothered out of professionality and focus on the task at hand. They both stood before a metal door, one among the many they've blown through, and Nick was starting to wonder just how much more they would have to go through until he snapped and burned through the hallways.

"Hey! Finally, caught up with you two hotheads," He turned quickly to see Rogue and Heng running down the hallway, a worried look crossing both of their faces as the latter held up a green fire extinguisher. Nick scoffed as he listened to I04 break down the door, a few powerful huffs coming from the latter before the handle gave in.

"How did you find us?" Nick frowned, suddenly realizing that he has had no communication with the rest of the Taskforce ever since he got inside the bunker facility. No signals have been coming to him ever since he stormed the facility alongside I04, and he presumed that it had something to do with the fact that they were so deep underground. This would be another difficulty with communication that they did not see ahead, but there was really nothing he could do now that they were down the earth.

"Followed the trail," Heng shrugged, stepping aside to show him the bodies that were strewn about on the ground. Nick frowned and watched as Heng narrowly missed an undignified smack to the shoulder from Rogue. He was about to open his mouth to snap back at him when I04 popped back in, a frown on his face.

"It's a staircase leading down." He said simply as if that wasn't obvious. They all scrambled through the door to see that indeed, there was a staircase that spiraled downwards over and over until they couldn't see. Nick groaned to himself, realizing that this was still a relatively outdated structure and clearly did not have any elevators to quickly get up and down. "I doubt we can teleport anyone unless we're outside, the rock here is too thick."

Nick sighed, unimpressed that they didn't assume ahead for this. "Alright, think you can jump us down there, Rogue?"

Sighing exasperatedly, she held up her arms and allowed them to grasp her jacket. Nick patted her in the shoulder and didn't say anything more until they were teleported to the bottom of the staircase, finding themselves face to face with a large, modern door. It had a keypad next to a small, 5-spoke handle, thick hinges on the side gleaming silver underneath the dim lighting. Nick sighed once more as he considered how much of a headache this would be.

"20 bucks says that thing can easily be blown up." Heng snorted, shaking his head. Nick scoffed and stepped forward, studying the keypad for a moment. The door seemed new, a recent installation and precautionary measure possibly made by the Public to make it difficult. Strangely, this door wasn't guarded, unless they were inside? Heng piped up behind him. "Think you can blow a hole through it?"

"No, but I know someone who can break it open." He stepped back as he felt I04's presence behind him, nodding as the man held up a black device and placed it over the keypad. It took a minute to configure before the analog screen popped up four numbers for them, prompting the man to remove the device and key in the code. He turned to see Heng and Rogue frowning but holding up their guns in preparation. He turned back to I04 and nodded.

Once they were inside, it didn't take long for them to find that the guard posts were abandoned, two empty chairs discarded to the side by hurried muscle men. They saw before them rows upon rows of steel bunk beds, with penguins milling around them in noisy and unceasing chatter. It took them a moment to realize that there were newcomers as they fell to silence, breaths held in preparation of what was to come next.

"We'll have to begin with elderly and children, though locating them here will be a bit of a struggle," I04 commented, a frown on his face as he surveyed the room. The bunker facility was massive, and Nick wasn't so sure how far it spanned and how many were squeezed into this space. "We'll have to start yelling out orders."

"We're the UAN Taskforce, we're here to help!" Nick yelled, cupping his flippers in front of his mouth. The crowd seemingly startled, surprised with what they're hearing as talk erupted in multiple languages. The words blurred together but Nick continued, "We need you to bring us your elderly and children for evacuation! We're getting you out of here!"

Heng stepped up next to him, yelling over the torrent of voices the same words but in Mandarin. Beside him, Rogue turned down an aisle and pushed past civilians, echoing their words in Russian. I04 took the direction opposite of her and translated helpfully in German as elderly men and women, children and infants, were slowly being ushered to the entrance.

"I already have a batch waiting for you!" Nick yelled out, hoping that Rogue could hear him through the thickening crowd of people around them. In an instant, she blipped into focus, weary and clutching two infants in her flippers. She nodded as Nick instructed the crowds to reach over to her and link arms with each other. He stepped back as she disappeared with the crowd.

Turning to him, Heng frowned. "How sure are we that they are safe when they reappear upstairs?"

Nick shot him a look, "Don't hex us, Heng."



[08:17:01 MST] CARTER: Taskforce, can we see Tang and co?

[08:17:07] WOLFE: Negative, Carter, no sign of Tang and co. Hey Kowalski, some of those flash bombs now would be great!

[08:17:13] KOWALSKI: I'd give you one if I wasn't pinned over here!

[08:17:18] ZARKOVA: Perez, any chance you can try that trick from earlier? They seem to be using everything on us!

[08:17:24] PEREZ: We'd also be in the blast zone, so that would be a negative, ma'am.

[08:17:30] CARTER: One second, I'm sensing high vitals from Tvarkov-

[08:17:35] WOLFE: What the- those madmen, they let her go alone unprotected?

[08:17:37] a6: Well, time to change the mixtape.

[08:17:43] HOFFMAN: You gotta give me a list of those tunes when we're done here, man.

[08:17:45] a6: Sure thing!

[08:17:50] CUEVA: They're incapacitated, let's go!

Wolfe: Oh, here's a fun part: we absolutely forgot to coordinate what happened if one of us went inside earlier than the rest and had to fend off terrorists from inside the facility.

UAN: Yes, that did appear on the reports, agent. Care to clear up exactly how this happened?

Wolfe: Well, to simplify for you pitiable pencil pushers, I04 and Tang had a hissy fit for reasons unknown to this day and decided to charge in with zero reinforcements! Of course, this would lead to Heng exasperatedly going after his partner because hey, leave no man behind, you understand?

UAN: Some formality in your tone would be preferable, Agent Wolfe.

Wolfe: I'm getting to a good part. So these scrubs - yes, I will use that in an official oral report, thank you - thought that it would be a fantastic idea to well, look for where they're hiding everyone! So they do. And they find them. Now, the problem is: how do we get them out? Clearly, the Public is still distracted, but who's to say that no one wouldn't be pointing guns at them?

UAN: You seem to harbor negative feelings about this incident, agent.

Wolfe: Rightly so! Do you have any idea how difficult it was to thin out the herd fast enough for those scrubs to resurface with the civilians? Difficult, I tell you!

They were at the foyer by now with the insurgents the only thing keeping them from pushing forward and getting to where they needed to be. Communication was a little clearer now, most likely due to the fact that they were within close range, and Tang was already giving an estimated head count of the number of people they had with them. A unit of Margatian soldiers was held back earlier mainly to serve as teleportation for the elderly and children, and Carter's helpfully informed them that they were receiving the last few batches of the said people.

"Hoffman, keep yourself close to the ground! We don't need any of them shooting that antenna off of your back," Brandt hissed at the said agent, pushing him back down as they narrowly avoided a bullet. They've been facing heavy artillery since they stepped inside the facility, the only things keeping them from getting killed being the thick bulletproof padding of their uniforms and the barriers sustained mainly by Perez's magic. She cannot fathom just how the agent can manage controlling it while fighting, not that she was complaining. This was the aspect of life that simply did not make sense to her.

"You think this counts as a war crime, Cueva?" Wolfe spoke breathlessly as if keeping up a conversation at such a time would be a good thing to do while there were armed goons firing at them. She glanced to the side to see him ducked down next to Hoffman, reloading his own weapon and fiddling with it a little. It took her a moment to see through the fog of dust kicking up around them that the barrel was smoking, and the weapon was most likely jammed. "Becuase I'm really hoping I don't get arrested when I get home."

"War crimes involve the murder of innocents. These people know what they're doing." Cueva frowned, seemingly taken aback by the question as well as he aimed for a clean shot across the hallway. It was surprising to see the Orion Director with a weapon, especially when she was so sure that he was a pacifist that did not want to have anything to do with fighting. There's something familiar and rhythmic in his movements as he glanced to the side, "Think you can crank up the music, a6? Might knock them out long enough for us to get a few paces forward."

"Sir, any louder and I could disable the barriers Perez put up," a6 said calmly, wiping the sweat off of their brow while flicking back a stray lock of hair that happened to get in their way. Right, they keep forgetting that. Brandt will never be able to grasp the science behind what was going on as she ducked back, removing an empty magazine and getting to work with reloading another, exasperated to find that she's out of ammunition. She fiddled around her pockets to find that she had a half-empty ammunition box.

"Where on earth are those four?!" Kowalski said, impatient as he reloaded another magazine in his own weapon. Their last check-in with the team said that they were at the second level, doing a quick sweep to ensure that no one was there. They've slowly made their way up the staircases and hallways as soon as all of the dependents were out of the bunkers, a feat the four managed to keep up despite the chance that a terrorist can attack them. They were waiting in the level below them for clearance to move and get outside.

"Incoming!" Wolfe yelled, a blur Brandt didn't manage to see until Hoffman pulled her down by the sleeve of her trench coat. Everyone ducked behind the barriers as something blew past their heads, a roar of something filling their ears that it was near deafening. Intense heat seemingly encased everything as Brandt pulled her coat around her tighter, fearing that it may catch whatever was burning the place. It was a miracle that the barriers manage to hold until there was nothing, but the room smelled strange and she had an off feeling-

When she poked her head up from their makeshift trench, she came to notice Tang, who was taking deep breaths and had his fists clenched to his side. Overhead, something flew and cluttered down at the entrance, still burning and whining as it was melded by the fire. It took her a moment to realize that it was the cluttered remnants of a teleporter.

There was silence for a moment as everyone stared at the burning piece of metal before a6 spoke, "... I guess you can say that our tech is lit."

It was just the Taskforce that was left behind while the Shopper and Margatian forces did the rounds with getting the civilians to the checkpoint. From the last count of Carter, they were reaching about 150 by now, with helicopters already coming in to take those who immediately need medical attention. They were there mainly to scavenge for information in any devices they'd find useful enough, guard the remaining civilians in their care, and ensure that no one would come as "backup" for their fallen comrades.

Some of them took the time to inform the huddled up civilians about what had transpired over the months, how everything's been executed, and how everything culminated to this. The few who decided to sit down and talk to them seemed to be a good distraction for the shaken prisoners, and no one would dare prod them about what happened to them while they were in captivity. It was too early, it wasn't time for them to find out, and they always had later to find out what's happened.

When a few Margatian soldiers blipped into focus, they held multiple boxes filled with food and water that was sent in by Carter. Passing them about was an easy affair and the supplies were quickly went through by weary civilians, quiet gratitude worded out before the given supplies were consumed. A younger soldier jogged to them and held a half-empty crate of water bottles, prompting Rogue to take one as Nick took another.

"This is rather anti-climatic," Rogue clicked her tongue after going through half of the bottle, tilting her head back to look at the bright sun shining down at them. There was sweat glistening off her forehead as she took a deep breath, exhaling sharply as she took another swig. If he stared at her hard enough, he can notice the telltale indicators of her glitching. "Quite the number of casualties in this one, too. It's mildly disturbing."

"Isn't this the preferable ending?" Nick frowned, looking down at his emptied water bottle and realizing that he should have gotten a second one. He still felt hot with the thrums of magic running through his veins, accentuated by the magic that was already existing in this region. He checked his watch to see that it was only a quarter past nine. If they were wrapped up here quickly and returned to the city, they could still catch lunch in the nearby hawker center.

"I guess so," Whether or not she was indignant to this ending, she did not show. Nick turned back to the civilians who were chatting with the few Taskforce members who were out here, seeing the relief in their faces and smiles that seemed to glow brighter underneath the sunlight. He will not lie, this is the best ending for all of them, the victory they've been wanting for months ever since they were activated. He turned towards the entrance of the facility as I04 checked in, reporting that everything has been retrieved and that they will be returning to the surface.

The report came in just as they heard the distant rumbling of an engine, the roar of tires making their way through a dirt road. The both of them were tense by the time they noticed the dirt cloud coming up north of the facility. Conversation stilled as everyone came to notice what was going on, silence falling over everything as they assessed the situation. He did not need to look back to see the terror in the civilians' faces upon realizing that this was not yet over.

Nick sighed heavily, "I don't know if this was planned or that you jinxed us."

"We never had a count of how many were in the building, right?" Rogue said slowly, preparing the sniper rifle she's kept on her since the start of the mission. She still had more than half of her ammunition intact, and still had her sidearm and a few flash bombs with her. She turned back to look at the civilians, "We can't ask a6 to play their music again, too many people at risk."

Overhead, they heard the sharp whistles of gunfire coming from the roof, Zarkova already trying to stop whoever was arriving so that they'd have time to evacuate the civilians. There was panic now, screaming and rushed questions about what would happen, how they'd get out, and who would go first. Nick turned back to bark out orders at the remaining members to grab whoever was closest and get out of there, narrowly missing a bullet that flew past him. He watched as Piri brought up a shield between her and the civilians as everyone rushed to get out.

"Carter, we have incoming assailants!" Nick said into his earpiece, ignoring the chatter coming from downstairs as he watched Rogue fire at the incoming cloud. He grabbed her by the shoulder and ignored the choice words she had for him in Russian as he continued speaking, "Get to the checkpoint and grab soldiers, we need them here!"

She nodded once and handed him her rifle before blipping out of reality. The weapon felt unfamiliar in his flippers but relatively easy to maneuver as he got to firing at the cloud, glaring down the scope to try and spot whatever he was aiming at. He can barely make out the face of the driver before he had to duck behind the wall to avoid gunfire.

There was nothing about this that bode well with him, and he did not want to know what that was.



[09:19:14 MST] TANG: Carter, we have incoming assailants!

[09:19:17] CARTER: We don't have anyone whose teleporter is ready, Tang! Waiting time's at least 2 minutes.

[09:19:21] CUEVA: Tang, what's going on up there? We're trying to get up there as soon as we can, and the teleporters can't work underground!

[09:19:25] TVARKOV: Assailants spotted about a kilometer out, Cueva. Sorry, currently at the checkpoint, collecting men. Blipping out.

[09:19:29] ZARKOVA: We can't get all of them out in time for when they get here, Cueva. We still have at least 70 with us and our good friends aren't slowing down.

[09:19:33] PEREZ: I'm keeping up a barrier, but I'm quickly running out of energy, sir!

[09:19:36] TANG: We managed to find a glass bottle, threw it at the ground near the entrance. Should slow them a little.

[09:19:41] ZARKOVA: They are still not slowing down, Tang. We need a distraction.

[09:19:46] BRANDT: We're the targets, aren't we? I say we scramble and see what happens.

[09:19:56] WOLFE: Scramble? We can just teleport out of here and get this over with.

[09:20:02] HOFFMAN: Can't we just get more than 5 civilians to save us all the trouble?

[09:20:08] CUEVA: Negative, agent, that's too much for a small device. You can get scrambled.

[09:20:10] ZARKOVA: An idea now would be nice!

[09:20:13] TVARKOV: Brandt, what are you doing? Brandt - no, get back here!

[09:20:17] TANG: It's working? Good Benny, who wrote this- Rogue, get back here!

UAN: Agent Brandt, can you provide the Council with a viable reason as to why you decided to abandon your team and pursue the terrorists on your own?

Brandt: If you actually read our papers, you'd see that we agreed that no member of the Public was meant to survive the raid. Even if they did, anyway, it's to bring them forward for trial. And we weren't targetting goons for that.

UAN: It says here you were without a teleporter, which says a lot-

Brandt: I am honestly surprised that the Council thought of the Taskforce so lowly that they presume we lack an ounce of camaraderie. Is it not supposed to be reassuring for you that someone went after me? Not that I expected anyone to, but...

"Brandt! Brandt, get back here!"

This is perhaps not one of her greatest snap decisions since this would most likely warrant reprimanding from both Cueva and her SSS handlers. She ran through the forest and listened to the crackling of her earpiece as signals failed to reach her, reaching up to dial the volume down to eventually mute it. Her mind was racing just as fast as her heart and feet were, figuring out what the next best move would be. A quick check to the contents of her trench coat lining confirmed that she still had a few grenades with her, and the trees were high and thick enough to hide her.

It's a relief that someone went after her, that being Rogue. As she jumped over tree roots and boulders that dictated the landscape of the forest floor, she listened to the sharp sounds of blipping combined with the distanced rumble of an engine behind her. It did not take her long to see Rogue running alongside her, a frown on her face as she glared down at her.

They both jumped over a boulder. Rogue practically hissed, "This is a stupid idea! Where's your teleporter?"

"Handed it to Hoffman, his broke," Brandt said casually, pausing to a jog to look around. The jeeps were still most likely far behind them, so they would have time to look for a good spot to hide away and wait until they strike. She tried to search for what looked to be the most stable of the trees before pointing up to one. "Teleport us up there."

The grip on her arm was tight and almost painful as they disappeared, reappearing on the thickest branch of the tree above them. The tinier branches seemed to press and prod against them, but she paid no mind to them as she took the rifle slung on her shoulder and looked through the scope. Indeed, the jeeps were still far behind them, having mild difficulty navigating over the rocks and the tree roots. She looked ahead to see that a jeep was there and open firing at the thinning crowds around the bunker facility, with the Taskforce giving returning fire. She was about to say something to Rogue before the said agent grasped her shoulder.

"You know, we could have just rigged them down below and go back to the team," She was annoyed now, the frown on her face deepening as she glowered at the grenades peaking from her coat. Brandt noticed the lack of teleporter on her own arm, though that's self-explanatory given that she would not need the device at all. She jumped and turned quickly to see a huge explosion coming from the bunker facility, their branch shaking with the sudden movement.

"You know that neither of us has the supplies for that," Brandt said as she fitted the rifle's strap on her shoulder, shrugging as she prepared the grenades necessary for the plan to work. She handed one to Rogue, who warily took it and fiddled with the pin. They noticed how the jeeps were getting closer, the rumbling of their engines louder and more prominent than ever.

"Currently doing something, good job with the assailant. We'll get back to you, Tang, Tvarkov out," She listened as Rogue gave a quick sign out to the channel before muting her own channel, perhaps getting signal due to the fact that they were on higher ground. She took a deep breath and pulled the pin back, holding the fuse down as they waited with baited breaths. The rumbling was louder and they saw a flash of tires through the leaves before dropping the grenades.

What followed were huge explosions that violently rocked the world around them. Brandt held back a yell as something dug into her side, blinding hot pain filling her vision as she blindly clutched to the tree trunk. She felt Rogue grab her trench coat before they blipped out of the tree, reappearing a mere few feet away from the carnage. She doubled over in pain and winced, closing her eyes and waiting for the roaring of fire die down.

When she looked up, she found that they were on a slope, though she wasn't sure where it would lead to. She noticed Rogue, who was leaning back on a tree trunk and taking deep breaths, the barest wheezes coming out of her if she listened hard enough. Her flippers were trembling, the remnants of teleporting too much in such little time making a comeback for the second time. Brandt sat up and slowly crawled her way to her, rummaging around her inner pockets for one more thing. Her rifle dug too harshly against her aggravated side, forcing her to abandon it beside her as she finally found what she needed.

"Think you can manage one more jump?" Brandt muttered quietly to the woman beside her as she activated the rapid healing canister that was supplied to them by Tang earlier. The amber field of the cannister felt like a warm balm against her side, and she was half tempted to close her eyes and take a nap while waiting for it to work its magic. "Or would you rather wait for reinforcements?"

"We stay here for two minutes, then we go," Rogue replied, exasperation thick in her tone as she tapped at her earpiece and tried to communicate with the Taskforce. After several tries and finding nothing, she sat back against the trunk and sighed. There's silence between them as they watched the fire come out of the metal carnage, roaring with fury as it is sustained by the fuel that trickled out of the engines.

She was about to say something when she noticed someone sit up across them, an insurgent bearing a gun as he limped around the convoy. Brandt tried to warn Rogue when she locked eyes with him, heartbeat spiking as fear seemed to catch her numb. She was still recuperating, hardly ready for another fight, and she scrambled to reach for her gun that was outside of the amber field. He raised his own first and fired blindly, the sharp staccato of bullets filling her ears as she backed away from the field and pressed her back flat on the trunk.

Her last memory, right before the field was deactivated and they careened down the slope, was Rogue grabbing her once more and pulling her underneath her.


Over 200 civilians freed in Margate, Taskforce closes the case on the Public
By Raven Westley (Club Penguin Times) | Published September 2, 2018 (14:27)

August 30, 2018: The day
The sky over the Margate archipelago was sunny, cheerful with its cerulean hues on the 30th of August. The heart of the Kenestral island was bustling with the morning commute and rush hour, with many hurrying about to get to their work and classes.

The circumstances around how everything begins and ends usually dictates the way a story is told, especially controversial topics that the press would turn their lens on. This one, however, begins under an uncommon sight: there was nothing remarkable about the day, unless if one would count the sudden rise of smoke coming from the distanced north of the island. Some would turn to look and point, talking among themselves over what could have happened, before turning away to their hurried commute.

Unbeknownst of anyone, the Taskforce had begun their mission early, beginning their journey towards the north long before the sun or city was awake. Through the island's complex system or railways, they moved quietly to their destination, carrying with them two units from the Shops Island and Margate forces. From there, it was a trek through the forests all the way to the Sunken Forest, a land depression that spanned 10 kilometers of the Kenestral National Park's northern quadrant.

Known as remote and extremely difficult to get to, it was the perfect hiding place for over 300 insurgents and 200 civilians.

August 30, 2018: The night
The evening brought with it the flurry of news and paparazzi as everyone rushed to find out just what happened on the third and final raid of the UAN Taskforce. In a bright, stuffy press conference room, two officers sat before the white plastic desk they've been giving, multiple microphones propped up at the edge of it. Margate Special Branch Deputy Head Commander Jian Liang Heng and Deputy Head Commander Nikolas Tang quietly sat through the initial flashing of cameras and bright lights before raising a flipper for silence, and making the announcement.

"The UAN Taskforce has successfully executed a field operation in the Sunken Forest this morning on August 30, 2018. The team managed to rescue a sum total of 233 civilians that are all currently under medical supervision. Most of the Taskforce has sustained injuries following the mission, and may not necessarily be available for statements. We will be answering questions now."

The commanders painted a picture of exhaustion but pride in the way they dressed, acted, and spoke, weary eyes staring straight at the crowd of media men with razor focus possibly made out of sheer force of will. The dark blue camouflage uniforms that they wore were caked in grime, boots marred with dried mud, and dark patches on the fabric eerily looking like blotches of blood. There was a patch of white gauze pressed onto Heng's forehead, and gauze wrapped around Tang's arm. This was not an act of physical negligence, unlikely so, but a subtle message of success despite the struggle put forth.

Immediately, the room came alive with questions and the flashing of cameras once more, everyone seemingly wanting to get answers out of the two officers. One of them, considerably, was the lacking presence of UAN Officer Mia Carter and Orion Director James Cueva, who were usually the ones who carried out the press conference such as these. The duo merely replied that it was a case of them being unavailable due to incapacitation.

The 233 rescued
The breakdown of nationalities pinpointed that a majority of those who were taken were from the countries surrounding the country as well as the Antarctic mainland, with no country bearing a majority count due to near equal distribution. As reported by Heng and Tang, they were held in an abandoned Margatian bunker facility that was designed to house civilians in the case of national emergencies as part of the country's national security initiatives.

The civilians were found in the bunker proper, approximately a kilometer below the surface. To get there, it would require to go down 20 levels before eventually finding a door with a long, winding staircase. With the civilians locked in the large auditorium-like space, they were intimidated by Public insurgents who would mill the space and try to harass anyone who tried to incite trouble. Meals were typically stretched out and heavily rationed, with approximately 1-2 meals a day depending on how the supplies lasted.

Based on medical notes from the team in charge of overseeing the patients, an epidemic of coughs and colds quickly spread due to the closed nature of the facility. The fact t