alia_icon.gif elisabeth_icon.gif richard4_icon.gif

Scene Title Zugzwang
Synopsis A call home.
Date January 16, 2020

Baghdad, Iraq

The interventionism of the United States of America during the early years of the century turned the country of Iraq into a war-torn ruin, with much of their infrastructure and many of their cities littered with rubble and destruction.

There’s some irony in the fact that Richard finds modern-day Baghdad quite reminiscent of what the Safe Zone will look like in a few years. The skyline is full of the silhouettes of construction cranes working on new buildings, as well as skyscrapers that have risen up fairly recently. The greys and sandy hues of war-time Iraq have been replaced just as they were in the eighties by color - parks flooded with flowers, colorful banners everywhere, a million different hues that obliterate the stereotypes that he’d had in his mind about what this part of the world must look like.

Maybe the second civil war was just karma, Richard muses to himself in an idle moment as he looks out over the city from a fifth-floor window, and we deserved it for all that we’d done outside our own borders.

It’s surely a sentiment that the locals would agree with.

The roar of quad-rotors fills the air as a Qingniao soars overhead towards the city, and Richard steps away from the window, letting the faded curtains fall once more to dim the light in the room.

It had been a hotel once upon a time, out on the borders of Baghdad, and it hadn’t survived the fighting very well. On the outskirts as it was, it hadn’t yet been recovered and renovated. Half the building was collapsed, but that hadn’t stopped him from getting in to claim a room as his local base of operations. A bed with dirty sheets. A pack of supplies scavenged and stolen over the past few days, ready to grab in an instant. A toilet that didn’t flush.

It was like old times. It almost made him smile. Almost.

The ashes on his boots had taken that ability from him even as it gave him others.

An antenna cobbled together from parts was duct-taped to the side of the building, thin metal cables running back through the corner of the window to a cell phone he’d stolen that morning. He figured it should help boost the signal enough to reach the towers deeper in town.

Sinking down to the bed, he leans back with the phone in his hand - springs creaking underneath him audibly. The phone is thumbed on, and he taps a number into it, closing his eyes as he brings it up to his ear.

UNKNOWN NUMBER - INTERNATIONAL CALL - BAGHDAD is what Alia’s phone tells her regarding the number that’s calling her.

It's rapidly approaching midnight in the Safe Zone. Alia is packing a bag. If he was present, Richard might even recognize the type of packing as the kind Alia would be doing before going into hostile territory. The phone rings its default ringtone. Which is an oddity to begin with given the list of people who should know the number who aren't programmed into memory is tiny. She raises an eyebrow though seeing the caller ID, and already is reaching with her ability to flag the call for tracing if need be as she hits the talk button. "Bishop Square Holding." She greets, warily. Perhaps suspiciously even.

Thank god, thinks Richard, before drawing in a slow breath. “This is Rosso King,” he replies with his own code words, “This line is anonymous but not secure, burn after use.”

There is a momentary pause… there's a crackle in the line, briefly. "Line scrambled. Good to hear from you." The relief in Alia's voice is downright evident. You can almost hear her sink into a chair. "Tracked outgoing from Interesting person to your town earlier. Packing for a rough flight."

She pauses briefly, then continues. "Also planning on having the cat packed up." Oh dear, you really really did worry Alia.

“Same.” The voice is quiet, terse, but there’s enough relief there that it’s genuine. Richard is just focused at the moment. “Designate MZK leader NB as Black King. Black King put Red King and Wolf Knight into zugzwang. Sacrifice move kept things out of checkmate,” he explains, keeping to code words even though the line should be technopathically scrambled.

The level of OPSEC he’s using speaks to the level of paranoia he’s working under right now.

“We’re working with the opponent’s playbook. Reference private map for details. I need intel and supplies. Recommend going through the black wolf’s ties to southern islands off Africa; American entry unwelcome here.”

Alia considers the words a few moments, This game is not her best, but it's one she can do, with a little thinking. "Who said flying _friendly_ skies?" She grumbles, briefly, but relents shortly there after. "If find phone that won't need immediate burn, can funnel supply line. Otherwise will need some better delivery location for having purchased goods delivered to."

The next pause is a little longer, before she doesn't give the Red King a moment to tell her no. "Please hold, adding Rojo Queen to call."

A few doors down, Liz's phone starts ringing, despite the ridiculously late hour…

“Only if you can change the SIM, eventually the owner’ll cancel….” Richard trails off, “Wait, I— damn it.” Too late.

A deep breath’s taken, exhaled, and he brings one hand up to rub over his face.

"Harrison." The hour is late, the woman should be sleeping. It doesn't sound like she was. Although her voice holds a tired kind of alertness. As if she's getting calls at all hours. "Go." It's all she ever says at this hour of the night — a terse order for a sitrep.

"Red King from Baghdad on the line." Alia is -economical- of words. "Patching in call." And now it's a three-way call. "Line -should- be secured," She notes to both of them. "Intel and supplies requested. Working on way to get them to him. Short of air drop."

“Black Wolf’s family has access to the area. Recommend utilizing her, since the direct routes are out,” Richard says quietly, “Good evening, love. No names, just in case. Sorry to wake you. Things are shit right now. Are the kids okay?”

She doesn't even have time to process what Alia said before the voice on the line is assuring her of something about the Black Wolf. That's going to take a minute to parse too. "Jesus fucking Christ, Nerfherder." There are sounds on Elisabeth's end of the phone, the rustle of sheets maybe, and then a door sound. And then there is nothing on her end except her voice, and it's strained. "They're fine. They think you're on business. Are you okay?" He's on the line from Baghdad. It's a rude deja vu of a phone call she made from Russia. "You scared the shit out of me. What the hell is going on?"

Alia sighs. "Short version, Wolf Knight sacrifice, Red King no longer in check, but in hostile territory." She pauses in thought. She'll ask Liz later who the _hell_ wolf knight might be later. She's had enough on her plate to have no idea at the moment.

“I’m… alive,” is Richard’s quiet reply, a long pause in the middle there, “Not in immediate danger, in good health. Isolated at the moment, we don’t have any contacts out here that I can rely on, and I’m scavenging supplies and gear aside from the old man’s cane. Bishop, I need a location on that sonuvabitch.”

Wait…. what? Elisabeth is fighting to get up to speed — some of the monikers are not familiar to her. And Richard's using some phrasing that she has to think about. The old man's cane? The one Volken had? Who had that thing last? And what the hell does he mean he needs to know where Volken is? She hasn't had enough sleep or enough time back in the saddle on this shit to even know if she's thinking of the right old man!

And worse, he's hedging. 'Alive,' 'not in danger,' and 'in good health,' are very specific replies to the query about being OKAY that indicate he's NOT okay but … it could just be that he's on the run in a foreign fucking country. "Okay." No names. Can't use names. Who the hell is the Wolf's Kn…. oh God. He can't be talking about Nathalie, can he? Wolf's Knight sacrificed? Please let that not mean what she suddenly thinks it might mean. "Can you tell us anything useful on the why of this bullshit? I've got a suspect in custody who pretty much swears innocence. And we're not convinced she's lying. Who wanted you and why?"

Alia fills in some details. "MZK leader tagged Black King. Probability of me having his general neighborhood, high. Pinning that phone for better detail right now." There's the sound of computers spinning up in the background from Alia. "Can load current phone with some prepaid cards, to get supplies and new phone, before tying it to something more substantial?" Yes, Iran has digital tap and go payments. Though the government likely monitors all of them heavily. She stops and takes a moment longer to digest the pile of information already.

"Cane." She finally says almost as a curse word, before finding the best way to ask. "Wolf King's Cane?" There's a sound of worry.

“I don’t know. Not exactly, there’s a plan, we’re being manipulated— reference the map room off the office,” says Richard with a hint of frustration bleeding into his tone, “I figured it out just before— February. Unsure why she turned like that, was behaving oddly. Drugged me.”

A moment as he tries to think of how best to say things without risking tripping keywords.

“It wasn’t the Brit. He’s too much of a smug asshole, would’ve made himself seen. Black King used a key phrase— one that the guy who spoke Sumerian used, back in the day. The one that set triggers. Maybe his organization went deeper than him, was older than him— he suggested as much.”

Another moment’s silence. “Yes. Black King took credit for the previous owner’s disappearance. No further information.”

The word 'fuck' is not a strong enough epithet. Elisabeth chooses her words slowly. "Uncertain she turned. Could have been triggered — it's been happening to other seasonally named individuals too. Could also be a tourist from last year's stomping grounds. Haven't ruled out anything as yet. The jumper who evacuated you from the building, however, belongs to a pain in the ass blonde, as confirmed by Wolves."

She sighs heavily. "Are the blonde and the Black King working together maybe? That would suck. The language implies yes."

"Chinese Chess Player identified jumper as well. Purposed similar worry." Alia pauses then adds her own thought. "Blondie's pawns rebelion?" Alia frowns. "Will get you location if I can pin it down. No promises." She sighs, it's the most she can really offer on the situation.

“I don’t care what you have to do. I’m going to obliterate that sonuvabitch,” is Richard’s sharp reply, “Whatever you have to do. They’re a public goddamn group now, he’s got to have a speech scheduled or something.”

He draws in a tight breath, then exhales it in a sigh, “I don’t know. If blondie were behind it, he would’ve been gloating himself. He’s a gloater. I think he’s being manipulated too. We all are.”

"The dream would back up that idea," Elisabeth replies quietly. "The lady with the exotic eyes seems to want to encourage everyone to violence." She shakes her head. "We need to get you back home." She'll dig into how he escaped another time. They're all being too careful about giving out information right now. "I'll check in with … the Wolves. See if we can get an extraction." Whether by official means or by Huruma's contacts, there has to be something.

"… I'll try to keep that phone unburnt as long as I can." Depending on how good the carriers in Iraq have been, this might be a looooong time indeed before it actually gets filed as 'missing'. "Will find intel on him. Supplies and you home first priorities." She agrees.

This is where they’re going to get pissed, Richard thinks, closing his eyes. “Negative. Supplies but not extraction yet. We’re being manipulated, extraction is… logical. We need to act illogically. Break the pattern. What they did to me had a purpose and I will not let them take advantage of that. Find me that bald sonuvabitch.”

The hiss of indrawn breath tells him he's right. At least one person on the line is pissed. "We'll set a team in motion. Business is running as usual, but reports of the CEO being kidnapped have made some waves." Elisabeth's voice is tight. "I'm sending the Black Wolf to you, armored and backed up." She's figured out who he meant — and Huruma will be more than happy to get out there in the field and rip some people a new ass.

"Well then." Alia grins. "Guess it's time to pack the cat up after all." Alia adds. She leaves off what comes -with- the cat. That should be obvious enough.

“Do not all rush out here,” Richard says firmly, “We need things to stay solid stateside as well, and I got a feeling things aren’t going to be quiet for much longer. Whatever they’ve got planned… they must be planning on it soon.”

He exhales a breath, “And try not to get the international community pissed at us over shipping an autonomous war machine overseas, please.”

The silence on the end of the phone drags out. For all he knows, his wife could literally be screaming the place down around everyone's ears and he'd never have a clue. But she isn't. Instead, she's going over her own thoughts on this matter. "Exactly how long are you planning on dragging this out, lover?" The question has a dangerous edge, but not because she wants to yell. She is worried about the fact that there was a definite purpose and no matter which way everyone jumps, they may be playing into it.

"I'll hold back the cat and the cavalry. The Wolf and whoever Sunglasses opts to send with will have to do for now." Because holding down the fort does need to be done. "I don't like this," she tells him softly.

Alia is not going to argue the 'war machine' status again. She twitches though. "… Are we sure they don't know we know that they are trying to play us?" She inquires, but trusts, for now, Liz's judgement. "… Oh, and Mr. King?" Alia offers in an almost sing-song voice.

"Forget about the cat showing up, worry about Mama Bird."

“I don’t know. Don’t act predictable, act… ah, hell. Show her the map room, she’ll understand,” Richard says in rueful tones, “And try and stop her from destroying the universe, if you could? Just— find me that bald asshole. I need answers.”

"I'm already on that," Elisabeth retorts wryly. "The exotic-eyed bitch has an agenda and Mama Bird commented that the map of my travels looks like a cross stitch in a shirt that has a hole in it. It makes me nervous that a collapse of the threads may actually be possible." More on that later, when they're not on the phone.

She pauses and then sighs heavily. "Be careful. Make your play and come home soon." Whatever the reason they took him, it can't be good. "I love you." Just in case.

Alia politely doesn't point out that her being unpredictable, would be showing up with Huruma. She's not a frontline type most of the time. "Give me two hours. Will set up new account for that phone. And fake data on old account."

"And… come home safe." Alia sighs.

“Yeah. Yeah, that follows, it— it’s all in the map,” Richard breathes out, shifting to sit up - the creak of cheap springs audible, “Get back to me when you have something. I’ll be here. And— let me tell the wolves about her. They deserve that much.”

He pauses a beat, then adds, “…and love? I know.” Click, goes the line.

Nerfherder indeed.

The phone’s stared at for a long moment, that brief almost-smile that had awoken at the sound of his wife’s voice gone again as the reality of everything comes crashing back down again. His thumb slides to the email app, and he sends off one more message - into the void, as far as he knows, but he’s desperate for help right now.

Malice — Marvin Ray Tangent debt — you owe me. Calling it in.

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