“False Flag”

As a freezing fog descended through the city streets, I clutched a tempered glass shield against my right arm, a wave pistol in my left hand. Snow was a rarity in the lowlands of Navaro, but on this December morning I could vaguely make out white crystals falling against the mango sky. My pilot jacket did nothing to protect me from the chill, and I was forced to don biker’s gloves which exposed the bare fingertips.

With the holidays approaching from on high, the shops in this district had all been outfitted with arrangements representing the various walks of life. It would have been nice to stop and admire the diverse scenery, but I had a job to do. Above my left hand, a small watch ticked off the minutes and hours since my trial began. Just a little longer now…

Reserve Class consisted of students, alumni and faculty from the secondary school and the college; unfortunately, we capped out at roughly four thousand members. Marabunta was two thirds our size, while Artemis and Megaera absolutely dwarfed us in magnitude. Megaera had been ambivalent thanks to Raiden’s influence, yet Artemis as a whole seemed to hold a deep-seated grudge against us. They had become our greatest threat in the two months since the war game started.

What they lacked in finesse they made up for in volume. Three days ago, they challenged Reserve Class to an MVP battle. There were eight territories at stake this time around, with a time limit of sixteen hours. We put our best defenders on the front lines, and I happened to be one of them. Since Ganymede’s climate was engineered to be somewhat in line with Earth’s four seasons the challenge couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Thankfully, the first twelve hours were officially behind me, and the attackers I was paired against had been whittled down from fifteen to three. I had no idea if other territories had fallen by now or not; all I could do was focus on me. I pulled my phone from my pocket. “I need a medic.”

I was greeted by Gabriel Snow, a boy whose name was not lost on me amid that frigid climate. Originally the Technologies captain during Seven Stars, his skills had impressed me enough to warrant my selecting him as medic for this operation. He set down his survival backpack and pulled out a bottle of hot water. “Here you go, ma’am.”

“Thanks.” The taste was awful as expected, yet I gulped it down in order to keep myself warm and hydrated amid the elements. Gabriel had bars of chocolate with him as well, and I happily bit into one. “It’ll be a miracle if we don’t freeze to death by the time this is over.”

“Artemis probably expects us to drop morale,” chimed the young medic. “They didn’t even try to open fire as I made my way over to you. I could see them out of the corner of my eye, tracking me in the morning light. I don’t like the feel of this situation, ma’am.”

There was definitely a serious weight to Gabriel’s assertion. By allowing him safe passage, the enemy attackers would have a fix on the best possible routes to and from my location. They would also be able to make use of the time it would take for me to down the supplies I’d been given. The likelihood of a trap or an ambush was extremely high.

More than that, being able to replenish food and water meant I was less likely to go on the offensive. I would be less inclined to swiftly end the game, thus my body would be subjected to the cold even longer, and lack of sleep would continue to dull my senses.

“Gabriel, in a moment I’m going to need you to take my shield.”

“Ma’am?”

“This isn’t like Seven Stars; if we lose medics now, they can’t be called upon in future events. I think that may be the enemy’s real strategy.” Through the fog, the whizzing of a wave pulse could be heard a few feet from us. “Now!” Tossing the shield, I grabbed the medical bag and began a brisk run toward a nearby side street. As I did, a barrage of pulses whizzed past.

One of the assailants shouted, “Take the far alley! Corner that medic!” The commotion continued behind the buildings to my left. It looks like that was their plan all along. Chuckling a bit, I made my way through the next intersection, crisscrossing from one side to the other and hiding behind whatever cover was available.

As a young woman made her way into the street I had only just vacated, I threw myself out from behind a flower box, took aim with my left hand, and fired.

“I’m hit!” As she went down, I rushed past her and started to head back the way I came. There would be no room for mistakes from here on out. Indeed, as soon as the remaining two attackers realized what I had done, they immediately opened fire on Gabriel. I could hear the ricochet of wave pulses against the tempered glass, over and over again.

“GET AWAY FROM MY MEN!” I shouted as I squeezed the trigger repeatedly. I fired and fired without so much as aiming, until the battery in my gun was completely depleted. I only lowered my hands once I felt my phone vibrate in my jacket pocket.

[“MVP has defeated all enemy combatants. Team Reserve Class has successfully defended the territory. Round over.”] Falling to my knees, I let out a deep sigh of relief. We survived thirteen hours of Hell.

A tavern on the edge of the district served as our rendezvous point post-battle. I congratulated the fifteen attackers for their valiant plays, wishing them luck in future endeavors now that they had been removed from the game. As the victor, I was entitled to a sum of money equal to what they had collectively earned since the start of the game two months prior. It wasn’t much, but I made sure to share what little there was with Gabriel, as I would never have succeeded without his help.

Of the eight territories which had been contested, six were still in our control. This was fine in the short term, since the money we gained for eliminating enemy combatants was more prominent when sampled collectively. In the long term, however, we would need to go on the offensive to offset that which we lost. We couldn’t afford to remain small forever, after all.

With the challenge over, the adrenaline rush which had carried me soon vanished. I slumped against a nearby chair to avoid fainting. One of the waiters saw this and approached me. “Ma’am, you look like you’re in no condition to drive. Shall we prepare a room?”

“Yeah, that would be good…” My legs were shaky, and I had to lean on Gabriel as I trudged up the stairs to the second floor. Once I hit the mattress, I was out like a light. In that peaceful slumber, I was completely ignorant to the gradual changes taking shape across the city.

“…out before…police…” Voices carried up from below.

“…tell us…Cassia…” Upon hearing my name, I forced myself awake. Is someone looking for me…? Everything was blurry in the darkness of the closed room. Where’d I put my phone…?

The door burst open and the light switch was thrown, causing me to momentarily go blind. Multiple hands forced me from the bed, dragging me into the hall and down to the tavern’s restaurant floor. Armed thugs, dressed in black from head to toe, were waiting at the bottom.

“Miss Cassia,” began the hooded figure, standing in the center of the tavern. “I see you had a good nap. Tell me, how is that arm of yours holding up these days?”

“I should sue you for emotional damages,” was my equally sardonic reply. “Do you know that I haven’t been able to do any real stretching since they put the mesh in my shoulder? Thank you for robbing me of one of my few pleasures; you really are an asshole!”

One of the lesser thugs smacked me across the face. The Marabunta vice-commander chuckled beneath his mask. “When I think of someone like you, that which comes to mind is the visage of a princess.”

“Huh?”

“Your father is well known in this land, and you yourself command a strong authority within the halls of your beloved school. It’s so regal and dignified; hard to believe the reality is more akin to a lowly harlot.”

“You shut your whore mouth!” Try as I might, I couldn’t break free of my captors, and the force sent a jolt of agony through my shoulder. “I refuse to just stand here and give you the satisfaction of thinking you know how I tick!”

“Well, well, someone has a complex about her,” the vice-commander teased. Stepping forward, he ran a gloved hand down my cheek. When I tried to bite at it, he swiftly moved the hand away. “Allow me to tell you what I do know. For starters, I know that the family of your lovey-dovey boyfriend is a bunch of crooks. They plan to poison the people of this land and then create a criminal empire among the stars!”

I lunged forward, baring my teeth. “That’s a lie! The Megaera Estate strictly prohibits drug use in their workers and partners!”

“And what, is that supposed to mean something? A wise man knows never to use his own product.”

“That is nothing more than circumstantial bullshit and you know it! By that logic, who’s to say you aren’t the culprit!?”

I heard a chuckle through his mask. “That is indeed a plausible theory, Miss Cassia. Shall I entertain it and see where it inevitably leads?” I didn’t like the sound of that; nevertheless, he carried on. “If Marabunta really were perpetrators of the Navaro drug trade, what would we gain by coming out of the woodwork? Why announce who we are if it would put our entire logistics system at risk? That just isn’t logical.

“Perhaps there is another justification entirely. Perhaps our true goal was actually a vertical monopoly to distribute what we sell. Perhaps we decided to throw our initial distributors, now our competitors, under the bus. All of this perhapsing is of course one big conjecture, but again, it all comes down to one party in particular.”

“You have nothing to link Raiden’s family to the drugs. Nothing!” I will not be swayed to believe that which is convenient. Rather, I shall believe only that which is unequivocally true!

“Such a foolish young woman,” remarked the vice-commander. “In a way, I pity how your heart will be broken.” I wished, with every fiber of my being, that I could have punched him. Thankfully, something even better was about to happen.

Outside the tavern, a series of yells could be heard until the door was suddenly blown off its track by the sheer force of a body crashing through it. The room fell silent, and that’s when a noble prince charged in with reckless abandon. “I’m here to save you, Jade!”

“Raiden!?” I couldn’t believe my eyes. How had he known that I would still be here? Had he come alone? Come to think of it, why haven’t the police shown up yet? Didn’t someone send for them?

Raiden’s skill was absolutely captivating. Starting at the far end of the room, he moved clockwise with a stun baton in his right hand. One by one the masked figures would fall, until he reached the ones who were holding me. Once they were incapacitated, he grabbed me by the waist and we ducked behind the bar together. “Ye of Marabunta, identify yourself! Tell me why you attacked Jade!”

“Raiden Megaera, you and your kind are guilty of cold-blooded tyranny! If you truly love your girlfriend, you will surrender your life here!” The vice-commander pulled a gun and -using live ammunition – quickly opened fire across the bar. Drinking glasses and beverage containers began to explode all around us, pouring shrapnel down from above. I heard screaming from innocent bystanders who were now caught up in the clamor.

Acting quickly, Raiden reached for a nearby hose and sprayed it in the vice-commander’s direction. It was just enough for the man to lower his gun, and Raiden used that moment to throw his stun baton. It made contact, and with the liquids saturating the man, there was a flash of blue light as a full-body shock assaulted him. When the baton fell into a puddle which had formed around the man, the shocks continued unabated. His screams of terror were truly cringe-worthy.

After nearly a full minute, the vice-commander fell backward onto the hard floor. A smell of charred hair and skin filled the open air. A raspy whistling emanated from his nose, indicating that he was still alive albeit barely. Nobody moved.

“Police! Hands on your head!” The voice came from none other than my father, Lieutenant Johnathan Cassia. His men charged in and began to detain the incapacitated members of Marabunta. A pair of officers carried the vice-commander out to a waiting medical drone, while those with minor injuries were treated on the spot. My father approached Raiden and I. “Please tell me that you’re alright, Jade!”

“Father, I’m fine; Raiden saved me from my attackers!” I watched my father turn his gaze to my boyfriend, sizing him up and internally critiquing him. With a sigh, my father extended a hand to the Megaera heir.

“While I may not harbor the best sentiments toward your family, I am grateful for what you did today.”

“The honor is mine,” Raiden replied as he shook my father’s hand. He and I told my father everything that transpired, and it was all corroborated by testimony from others in the tavern. Satisfied that I was safe, my father completed his investigation and the two of us were free to go.

I clutched my boyfriend’s arm tightly as he walked me to where my motortrike had been parked. Thankfully, Marabunta hadn’t tampered with it. Raiden and I kissed one more time, and I made my way home to await the end of my father’s shift. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I was in for a very long and very agonizing lecture.

It was publicly announced the next day that Marabunta would officially join forces with Artemis. The territories would be updated to reflect the combined population and resources of this new alliance. I was disappointed, but in no way shocked.

Like me, Bradley Petersen grew up in a bourgeois lifestyle. His mother was a public defender and his father a public prosecutor. They worked extensively alongside my father, and I became friends with Bradley at an early age. There was an arrogant side to him, but I had always trusted him to be grounded in reason, kind of like my father was.

“YOU SON OF A BITCH!” My right palm made contact with Bradley’s face hard enough to leave marks. Doing so may have sent spasms of intense pain through my own body, but I was too filled with anger to care at this point.

“I already said I was sorry.”

“Like hell! Your subordinate nearly sent me and Raiden home in body bags! It was never supposed to go this far and it’ll only get worse if you don’t get off your ass and take control of the shit you created!”

“I know, dammit! It’s just…” We were currently alone in the woods north of the city. He hesitated, and I felt my irritation reaching a fever pitch. Pushing him against the side of a tree, I dug my fingernails into the skin of his shoulder.

“It’s just what, Bradley? Did you suddenly make the executive decision to be the judge, jury and executioner? Do you honestly think that is what justice is!?”

He shook his head, staring into my eyes. “Jade, I… I just don’t think you should see Raiden anymore.”

“What was that!?”

“You’re getting caught up in his charm and I’m worried. If he were to cause you pain, I… I don’t know what I’d be capable of. Jade, the truth is I…”

Immediately I loosened my grip on him and stepped back. So that’s what this is about. I put my trust in your reason and in return you… My hands balled into fists and I felt tears in my eyes. “Get the hell out of here right now.”

“Jade…”

“I SAID GET THE HELL OUT! DO WHATEVER WITH MARABUNTA! I WANT NO PART OF IT ANYMORE! I WILL FIND THE TRUTH ON MY OWN!” My screams caused a nearby flock of birds to fly deeper into the forest. Without saying another word, Bradley Petersen returned to his car and drove back toward the highway. I was alone, perhaps in more ways than one.

No, I’m not alone at all. I have Raiden and that’s the only thing that matters from here on out. I know what I need to do, and I will be as selfish as I need to in order to get it. It didn’t take long to get home, and the first thing I did is I sent Raiden a text message to meet me at my house. I told him that if I didn’t answer the door, he could walk in and wait in my room. With that done, I made my way into my bathroom to take a shower.

Taking my time, I allowed the hot water to cleanse me of my murky emotions, fortifying my resolve for whatever may lay ahead in the future. I was no longer some naïve, lost girl searching for a purpose. I desired to love, cherish and encourage those closest to me. I would be the cultivator of their ambitions. To me, that purpose was more than satisfactory.

I turned off the water just as Raiden entered my home. Meticulously drying off, I waited for him to pass the bathroom on his way to my bedroom. A moment later, I made my way to the bedroom door and knocked once. “I’m coming in, Raiden.”

His face as I approached in nothing but a towel was rather priceless. At first I smiled, wishing that I had set up a hidden camera to capture the moment. Then I remembered what I had initially set out for, and I took a breath. “Raiden… I called you here because there are things we need to talk about in depth. I want you to know the truth – my sins, my plans, and the life that I ultimately want to share with you.”

With that, I let the bath towel fall to the ground.

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