The Sport of Nations [Open Char/Nation RP, TG me to join]
Around mid-August a peculiarly humid season of heat seems to begin, sweeping across nations and settling with an oppressive stillness on the land. Not surprisingly, this is the time of year that the fewest number of Czardaians are seen out on the streets, and the hum of air-conditioning can be heard on all streets throughout the cities. Electrical bills soar, not as though anyone ever pays them; more of the Council of 400 stays at home and logs on to the meeting halls via internet than goes to Congress Hall in Czarna to debate.
The stillness seems to have affected everything, including foreign affairs at this time of year. Somewhere, wars are being fought and destinies of nations hang in the balance; that somewhere is far enough that if Czardas could have any hand in the matter, they might not even reach the area in time.
The stillness has permeated even this office on the fourth floor of Congress Hall. The inner room of the Foreign Office has one or two maroon couches around a television, desks for working at -- all unoccupied at this time, and numerous computers, not counting the laptops carried by most of the staff. A voice from the television drones on about international events halfway around the world.
"...trade sanctions. Allies line up on both sides preparing for a conflict of truly epic scale as ViZion and Guffingford prepare for what seems to be an inevitable war. This threatening conflict was caused by..."
Foreign Minister Kari Alhoun yawns slightly and stretches. The third war this week already, and nothing Czardas, or anyone from the Athrian sector at any rate, could possibly do to stop it. He wonders idly if all of the usual culprits in the area have permanently decided to give up genocide, rebellion, and terrorist atacks. It seems increasingly as though Czardas's period of international prominence came to an end with the war with Scellia and its consequences. He sighs slightly and turns to look at his assistant and longtime friend, Lorin Dax, sitting on another couch and working on his laptop.
"...other news, the situation in Allanea is growing rapidly worse as..."
Dax's voice cuts through the indistinct hum of the television. "Listen to this."
Alhoun shuts off the television. "What is it?"
"Some nation called...Gruenberg. It's apparently looking for an evaluation of its intelligence system."
"Gruenberg? Never heard of them. Look up their entry in our intel database." Alhoun opens his own laptop as Dax begins to type.
Dax frowns after a moment. "Funny, they don't have an entry."
"You sure you spelled it right?" Alhoun looks doutful. "We've got entries on everyone from Anagonia to Zatarack, and then some. Try cross-referencing it."
Dax tries another search. "Weird. There's no Gruenberg mentioned in any of our entries—none. It's not affiliated with any of the nations we've got info on."
"Odd," says Alhoun. "It's not like us for a nation to be completely missing from our database. Let's try to reach them, shall we?"
Alhoun sits down at his desk and begins to type.
So they want an evaluation of their intelligence system? We'll see about that, he thinks. Time for some fun.
From: The Libertarian Concordance of Czardas
To: The Sultanate of Gruenberg
Greetings from the Concordance of Czardas!
We are saddened to say that we have never heard of your nation until you sent out this communication. However, we would like to learn more of you, while testing your intelligence system as requested. Therefore, we have decided to send a Czardaian operative to your nation.
This operative may already be a citizen of your nation, or a citizen of another nation. You will not know who this operative will be. If you manage to find out who it is, we will rate your intelligence system very high on the international scale. If after a period of four months you have yet to discover the identity of our operative, we will disclose to your government his/her identity and keep our information gathered during that time.
Whether you succeed or fail, we hope relations between our nations will not be harmed and that we can open diplomatic relations at some point in the future.
~Kari Alhoun, Czardaian Foreign Minister
Shrumm, shrumm, shrumm...
The blades span slowly, each strike tearing the thick, humid air with deep rumbles of protest. They were long and broad, a resolute tone of black to the murky brown setting. Their dense shadows, shattered and sprayed about by the fragments of reflection, sulked behind, dragged along in dull entrapment.
The fan had little effect. Waves of sauna-like heat still smoked up from the heavy carpet, while the nasal hum of chuntering air-conditioning units competed for space with the muffled roar of traffic, seeping in through vastly-torn windows. It was hot in Flurthwel, a heat that reduced all industry to whimpering tremours. Office workers slumped into static daze; the factory workers threatened to dissolve in a way in their own profusions. And through the still lethargy twirled a pink and purple lamp. It exploded against the wall in an eruption of cheap enamel. Someone was angry.
"This is shit, Keth, this is a pile of fucking shit and you know it. Don't try this crap on me."
The words were a rapid blurt of almost primal quality. And Per Lechschan was very, very angry indeed.
"He has his reasons."
"Oh his reasons, oh I see, his fucking reasons." A torrent of phlegm, and another lamp, sailed forth. "No fucking reason on earth justifies this...this...ugh. No."
For a moment he ceased his stomping march, and dabbed violently at his brow with a grimy handkerchief. He was a thin, lithe man, yet the perspiration still bubbled from him like lava from a young volcano. He turned around again, barely noting his partner's flinch.
"Can you at least understand why he's doing it, though? If you don't follow his logic, or you don't like his methods, so be it. But he's not really doing anything you or I wouldn't."
"What?" Per spat again. "I wouldn't sacrifice my country's honour, my country's dignity, for the sake of -"
"Of our country's security?"
Per didn't bother showing his disdain with a roll of the eyes. He simply plunged a glass paperweight into tinkling oblivion. "Bullshit."
Keth Sannigan had remained seated for the duration of Per's rant, legs firmly crossed, eyes locked in. Now he drew himself up. "Bullshit? I don't think Merer would say that."
This time the eyes twirled a merry loop-the-loop. "Cheap shot." And then, for the first time, he caught himself. Frozen at the point of an imperious turn, the boiling rage drained from him as Keth stepped up.
"Cheap shot? Cheap shot? What they did to her was a cheap shot?"
"I didn't -"
"No, Per, you did. You don't give a damn about it, so long as your precious hierarchy survives. You go on about the Sultan," he continued, gesturing to the destruction with a sweep of his arm, "And yet, really, you love it, you love him. You're not interested in protecting the people, are you? Just protecting what you think the people stand for. And I'm sick of it and, frankly, I'm glad they're doing this. It'll finally be a chance to knock you off your throne and see how do scrapping with the dogs. We have had, ha."
He turned, scratching his head, choking a laugh. "We have had ten attacks in the last month. Over a hundred deaths this year; how many thousand casualties I don't know. And I consider myself a good operative, and I consider myself loyal to this department, and I consider myself a patriot. And I, I above everyone else, no longer trust you to keep us safe. They have evaded every checkpoint, dodged every patrol, crossed every word, missed every trap. We cannot catch them, Per, and either you can't see it, or you really don't give a fuck. And, whichever it is, it can't go on."
Per sank to his seat slowly. "You don't trust me."
"No, I trust you absolutely, beyond question, to look out for me. And I think you'd give your life for this country in a second. But...but I don't think you're doing a good job anymore. And this is as highest as it gets. I can't tell you what to do. But if someone else can, then we at least have to listen, while we still can."
"So let them teach us. Why did he let them trick us like this?"
"Ok, well, that, clearly, I don't know. And I'm not saying I like the way they've done it. But...something had to happen."
Shrumm, shrumm, shrumm. The fan beat on.
Finally, Per stood again. "Ok. Thank you Keth. I spoke in haste, and I apologise."
"So, for better or for worse, we have this...Czardling -"
"Czardaian. But we don't know it'll be a foreign national. Just an agent."
"Ok. Well, this...agent."
"It'll be a valuable exercise. Prestigious too."
"Whatever. Just get a team on it now, please. And find him."
Keth fled, half-chuckling. Beneath it all, of course, was an absolute terror that infused them both. But for the moment chuckles were preferable.
* * * * *
The bar ran thick with the drippings off society's lowest fraction. The pure, unadulterated scum of the earth jostled to swash piss at the bar or hack chunks from each other in the cage. Per shivered, and tucked his coat up. He weaved through the morass, a huge, encrusted boot almost obliterating his shoes at one step, and slid into a booth at the back. Two bottles sat on the table and, after a few minutes of silence - as much silence as could be spun out above the jeers of the bear-baiters - he spoke.
"I have a request."
"You want me to find this foreigner."
Per flexed his fingers. He disliked dealing outside the Agency, especially when it was the Agency itself at question. Nonetheless, there was more at stake.
"He may not be a foreigner. More likely a Gruen, in their pay."
"Ah." Smoke trailed thinly from his pale opponent.
"Will you do it?"
There was a shrug. "I will try. My payment?"
There was a clicky clearing of the throat. "I haven't decided. It will be...substantial."
Per leaned in, and enjoyed seeing the smile flicker dry as the other man felt the steel brush his thigh. "You're good, Nen. Very good. But you're not worth more than one little slip to me. Don't push it. 'Kay?"
There was a throttled nod.
"I'll make sure you get money, guns, girls, boys, whatever it is. Just don't push it."
"As long as it's substantial." Per grimaced, and looked down. The blade was but an inch from ending all hopes of fatherhood.
The bottles were drained, with no further words spoken. Per smoked a fat cigar to the stub, and then stood to leave.
"Oh, and Nen. This is technically very legal, very diplomatic. I don't want war: I want peace. We're trying to find him, nothing more."
He leaned in. "But, if it comes down to it, and you get him alone, and there are no eyes, no ears...make sure the little bastard doesn't scream."
He left with a swish of his cape. The night air was still warm, but a cool swim compared to the tacky molasses wafting in the bar. He looked up to the stars, and the Holy Constellation. The game, not quite in Mighty Wena's words, was very much on.
It came through on Shrike's secured messenging system, two days before. The comm never came through directly from whomever had come up with the idea, of course. It was fairly pointless to imagine that direct orders would arrive from the head of all intelligence in Czardas and the hundreds of countries its "ops" patrolled. The individual known as "The Czar" was too careful, and diplomatic, for that. In many ways at least, no-one would ever tell he was behind the largest intelligence network around.
The summons had come instead from a subordinate of Airya Wong's, Wong the vice-director of the CNIA. One who called himself Weasel. Mid-ranking officer who knew his operatives.
Weasel has picked Shrike for several reasons. For one thing, Shrike knows about Gruenberg: its government and customs, its level of technological advancement, even some information about its intelligence department. Although, really, the rest would be up to her to find out. For another, she is one of the most experienced ops. Shrike's missions are innumerable. She has single-handedly found all the info on nations like SkyCapt and Jenrak, sometimes without even entering the nation itself. And, of course, it helps that she has been trained in the 14th Special Operative Division of Czardas's military and is an expert with her weapon of choice, a custom-made multibarreled automatic pistol.
Shrike is of indeterminate appearance. Like all ops, it takes little time to alter her appearance completely: a few small changes can make her look completely different. At the moment she has short and dark reddish hair and green eyes, and is fairly short -- approximately 5'4". Shrike is, by nationality, half Gruen and half Dionican, having been born in Dionica but brought up in Gruenberg.
She remembers the message word-for-word, even though she deleted it and erased all memory on her computer after receiving it. It had read: "Sigma-7 to Monteverdi, veritate Code Alpha, in accordance with ACS." The likelihood of anyone from Gruenberg intercepting, let alone understanding this secret message were infinitesmally small. Her instructions had also been forwarded to her, and she sits now, going over them again.
Her first step is an obvious one. Sitting down at the computer, she opens her usual programs and begins to type. It's only a few brief minutes before she has found what she is looking for. She smiles to herself. Opening the window, she drags a file from her desktop into the window and makes sure she has all the options correct.
Program CNIAO.exe (14.1MB)
Access Administrative only (Set Administrator...)
Setting her own IP as the administrator, she installs the program. Somewhere in Gruenberg's security network, a computer springs into life. The program hacked into the network will automatically report back all actions directly to The Czar himself, whose own IP is hidden. First stage completed.
She knows what the next step will be, too.
When she steps out of her house next, it is as a very different person. Her hair is much longer, her eyes brown, her nose somewhat thicker, and she appears taller, nearly two and a half inches taller. She is no longer Shrike of the Czardaian National Intelligence Agency. She is the woman who teaches fifth-graders mathematics and science at the local primary school. She is headed for the capital, of course. Simply because it will be easier to find information there.
Shrike gets most of her information from talking to people. She looks a great deal like the schoolteacher she relies on half of her income from, and people naturally tend to trust teachers. However, with her powers of altering her appearance, she could become anything she liked, and people tended to be more partial to talking to beautiful women than other types.
Of course, Czardaian ops are known for this. Weasel for instance is a policeman. Others have served as maids, milkmen, or even officials in the other nation's government. One Czardaian op had once been elected to leader of his country after a career as a diplomat and member of the civil service, before being found out and quietly removed from office.
The histories of all these people are quiet, respectable, and unassuming. Shrike for instance had graduated from a university in Mauvasia with a degree in physics, and moved to Gruenberg twelve years ago. She had been teaching since then. Nothing out of the ordinary. Everything carefully concealed.
One really had to look beneath the surface.
Shrike gets on the train. Trains are safer, than airplanes anyway. They don't check you for metallic objects, and her wireless deactivator, knife, mini time bomb, and other objects are definitely metallic. Fortunately, she knows how to hide those well. The deactivator, for instance, is disguised as an auxiliary cell phone, and the time bomb is encased in a bottle formerly holding wine in one suitcase.
Several hours later, the train arrives at the station. She checks the map of Czardaian contacts in the city, and smiles to herself.
Then she gets off and wanders into the crowd.
"Morning." Keth twirled into the office, skipping an elegant dance for a moment so as to avoid lashing coffee over the ducking secretary. The team were seated around the large table, fiddling with pens and rubbing sleepy eyes. He put his case down, and drew out a chair. There was a early-morning, fiddling silence of drawn breath. Finally,
"So, what are we doing?" Reela, a small, young woman, and one of the very few females in the intelligence service, had spoken.
Keth sipped the dark drink, eyes narrowing as the steam rose, tickling his nose wetly. There were glances.
"What are we doing?"
"I assume you've read the briefing notes?"
"Yes," answered Davec, his mantis-like arms wafting the thin file. "But I don't really see what we can do. After all, we don't know who this person is."
"No. So what we do is find them."
The silence was again crunching.
"Ok. Jarth and Davec, I want you to start checking all the Customs and Immigrations records. Everything in the database, everything in the files. Penn and Reogg, same, for phone records, anything from the telecom companies. Let's even get a list of anyone who's ever looked at a website from Czardas."
The four shuffled off. It was grunt work. After the mess last month...they couldn't have expected any better. That left Quinn, Chalen and Reela. He sighed. This wasn't going to be popular.
"What about Merlefurt sir? They're more likely to start there."
He shook his head. "We have no way of knowing they weren't already here. They're...they're not wild invaders. They're a speck of sand in our eye. And if we scratch too hard, we'll go blind. I've got teams in Merlefurt, Moroschwegen too. But they'll be here, whether now or later, they'll be here. And that's when we'll have our best chance."
"Yes. Quinn, I want you to act as liaison with the military. A man named Major Matthas. Chalen and Reela, you'll be heading things here. Organize searches, door-to-door, random interrogations. If we can start narrowing the field as soon as possible, then we can start getting a little trickier," he grinned.
They dragged themselves off, and the smile faded. Reela remained at the table, nervously dabbing lipstick. She snapped her mirror shut.
"Do you really think we'll find him?"
Shrike has an excuse.
It is difficult to expect that she would not have one; after all, Shrike is meticulous, almost to a fault. Her arrangements have been as carefully placed as always, that combination of timing and order which have led to so many successful missions in the past.
She has called one of her "contacts", ordering a new shipment of Algebra II textbooks. This supplier, whom she buys from regularly, is a small bookstore in Gruenberg's capital. The city she has now arrived in. She decides she will go there first. Simply because it'll be easier.
Shrike walks briskly through the train station, her plan of action forming in her mind. It is—fortunately—air-conditioned. As she opens the door, a wave of sweltering heat hits her. The oppressive humidity weighs down on her, and she makes her way towards the bus stop, where several other people are waiting. She stands beside the pole, looking out at the streets, full of honking cars, with a few people walking on the streets, although not too many. The heat prevents that. A periwinkle-blue and white bus pulls into the station with a growl and an electronic beep announcing the doors, which slide open.
Shrike climbs into the bus. The door shuts behind her, and she looks over the bus map detailing her route. Outside the streets of the city flash by; the still heat permeates even the bus as it heads into the heart of the city, amid towering skyscrapers, lower buildings, white apartment houses... She gets off in one of the city's seedier neighborhoods near the city center. Run-down buildings rise above the dirty streets; people argue loudly in a small grocery store. She walks towards a large brick building with a bookstore on the ground floor: her "contact".
The man at the desk glances at her over his spectacles. "Good day, ma'am, what can I do for you?"
She looks him over. "I'm here for the algebra textbooks. My name is Wardemir, Helena Wardemir."
The man's eyes widen below the spectacles, which just happen to be false. "He told you where it is?"
"Yes." She walks into the dusty bookshop. Shelves stacked with hundreds of books line the walls on all sides and form aisles; from a high window a shaft of sunlight streams down, capturing the floating dust mites as they descend and swirl gracefully from the top of the bookshelves. Shrike walks to the back of the store, into a small and empty side room marked Employees Only, reaching a bookshelf where one book appears slightly askew—plain black. She pushes it in. The whole bookshelf turns 90º, opening a passageway in the back. She walks in and presses an appropriate button, closing the bookcase. She grimaces. A bit clichéd, but security was all-important. She climbs a set of stairs, reaches a door with no handle, and inserts her ID card into a slot; the machine spits it out after a minute with a beep and a panel above it opens, displaying a keypad. She enters the security code for Gruenberg, 1186, and the panel shuts. The door slides open and Shrike walks in.
A room unused by any operatives before her. Small and simple: a computer connected to Czardas's database, hidden and encrypted. There was very little furniture, and only enough equipment for her to change her appearance completely if necessary. She logs onto the computer and begins to type.
Retrieve all data vCNIAO.exe FLD-X1186.
Information flashes back to her: all the plans the Gruen intel network had made and then typed up on their computers; all the e-mails sent between members; all the temp files saved on the computers. Most of it is encrypted, but there is, as always, a way to change that.
She saves the encrypted files to the hard drive, closes the Czardaian network and logs on to the Gruenberg network. The computer is automatically connected to the other part of FLD-X1186—the original network the program has taken over. Selecting the files, she right-clicks and selects "Remove Encryption".
Some minutes later, the files open, shed of their top-end coding. She reads them through carefully.
Then she straightens back up, reopens the Czardas network, forwards the files to The Czar, deletes them, and empties her trash, before logging off.
Now comes the interesting part.