~Chapter Seventeen- The Conference~
“Come on, you have to come.” Korina pleads with me.
I rub my temples, “Korina, I won’t get in your way, but I really don’t support the Equality zone.”
“That’s why I want you to come. You’ll see why the Equality Zone will work. Xander is sure of it.” She says, “It would mean a lot to me if you came.”
Korina is an older cousin of mine by a few years. When we were little, she would have me try dresses on, along with makeup and other more lady-like things. I never took to it, but Korina adores that sort of thing. She could convince me to do just about anything back then. Even now, she’s hard to say no to.
I sighed breathily, “Fine, I’ll drop in and see.”
Korina gave that wonderfully genuine smile that only she could give.
On the day of the conference, I gather my escorts and leave for the region of Rhy. The conference is taking place at a beautiful building only a few miles from the original Equality Zone.
The southern side of the building has a glass pane windows spanning the entire wall, providing a view of to Mount Rhive in the distance. A bitter memory for me.
The building is owned by Alexander Montoya, who very enthusiastically supports the project. He’s prepared to put forth a great deal in funding.
I can see a crowd around the place of the conference. I expected it would mostly be news outlets, draining as much information out of Xander as possible, but surprisingly there are a large number of civilians there. Outside of the building is a small group protesting the Equality Zone, but only the news outlets pay them any mind.
As I step out with my escorts, a news crew notices and begins to surround me, “General Lena! What do you think of-”
I wave my hand at them, “I’ll be making no statements at this time.” My escorts guard me and I pass through the masses to the building.
There is a small security post at the entrance of the building with metal detectors. When I walked through, the alarm unsurprisingly went off, I was always armed with a pistol, a privilege very few had.
A security guard blocks my way, “Maam, err General. Can we ask that you disarm yourself before entering the conference?”
“That won’t be necessary.” I say flatly.
“Sorry General. Xander Veran has insisted we make the environment inside as welcoming as possible.” Security responds.
I roll my eyes. I’m not going to challenge Xander’s authority so I oblige. I hand my pistol to my escorts and ask them to wait outside for my return.
Inside the building are various booths. There’s a portrait gallery composed of photos taken while the original Equality Zone was still in its infancy. Before the surge of people moving in caused the population density to become too great. The photos chosen make the zone look tranquil, with its resident content and few in number. In one photo, it shows the old Equality Zone’s cafeteria with people being served. Each day in the Equality Zone, the residents would be fed their portions at set points in the day.
Another booth seems to act as an open forum Q&A for the zone on how it would function, allowing people to express their concerns for the Zone and make suggestions. Another was for registration, allowing people to secure their spots in the Zone.
The southern side of the building has a glass pane windows spanning the entire wall, providing a view to Mount Rhive in the distance. A bitter memory for me. People peruse the various booths. I can’t help but notice security is very light. Probably another conscious decision of Xander to make a ‘welcoming atmosphere’.
Standing in a far corner of the room is a man in a long coat. He seems to simply be watching, not engaging with anyone.
“Lena! I’m glad you came!” The instantly recognizable voice of Korina
calls from across the room. As she reaches me she hugs me.
“I’ll only be here for a little while. How is it turning out?”
“So far, we have over a hundred people registered to live in the zone already. I wouldn’t be surprised if we fill up our spots before the day is over.” Korina says triumphantly. She seems to think that’s proof of their success. I won’t trust the Equality Zone until it starts running.
Xander and Belo speak to various people at the conference. I’m not surprised that Belo supports the zone.
A small group of people enters the building wearing tattered and dirty clothes. I recognize the look of them, they’re from a Weaktown. A young girl was holding the hand of who I presume is her mother.
Xander comes forward to welcome the group and greets them most courteously, “Hello, how may I help all of you?”
“We-we wanted to join your Equality Zone.” The mother answers nervously.
Xander gestures to the registration area, “There are still many openings, enough for all of you to enter the Zone. If you don’t mind me prying, where are you all from?”
They’re hesitant to answer, but a man in amidst them says, “We’re from... a Weaktown nearby. Is that okay?”
“Yes, the Zone was conceived for people down on their luck like you,” Xander says.
Down on their luck? Xander has a way with words, I wonder if he actually believes them himself.
“When can we move in?” Another asks much more enthusiastically.
“It will be a few months until the Zone is operational. Until then, I’d ask you to return to your homes until the time comes.”
“What if the military finds our Weaktown before the Zone opens?” A scared man asked.
“If a weaktown is found, they’ll give all of its residents the opportunity to register with the Equality Zone. If they decide to join the Zone, they’ll be detained until the Zone opens in full. I can’t speak to what will happen if residents decide not to join.” Xander says, having memorized the information for such an occasion.
The group goes ahead to the registration booth, but the mother continues to speak with Xander, “Will my daughter be able to join your zone? I thought you said there will be an age restriction of 30 years old.”
Xander glances down at the little girl, “Is your daughter in good health? Is anything particularly wrong with her?”
“No, nothing at all.”
“Then unfortunately, she won’t be able to join the zone. I don’t believe it’d be fair to her. You can try to rejoin society at large with your daughter and leave your Weaktown. Alternatively, we can try to find a good home for your daughter. Give her a chance for a life as a contributing citizen, one she won’t find in a Weaktown or the Equality Zone. ” Xander says eloquently. The mother was filled with uncertainty. “For her sake, I ask that you leave your current weaktown either way.”
I wonder what Weaktown that group is from. There’s a possibility they were with Miro. I approach the mother and Xander.
“Where was your Weaktown located pray tell?” I pointedly ask the woman. Xander grimaces at me.
“I-I can’t tell you that.” The mother’s eyes dart back and forth, and she grips her daughter’s hand.
“Were you staying with Miro?” I pried.
The mother seems frightened. Xander steps in the way of me and the mother, “It doesn’t matter where she’s from, General. We don’t want to scare this woman off.” Xander looks at me with a dissatisfied look, “Take some time to look around our booths, then you can make your decision on what you want to do.”
Xander directs the woman to one of the informational booths and turns his attention back to me, “What was that about Lena?” He scolds me, dropping his charismatic persona.
“If I can gain intel in our fight against terrorism, why wouldn’t I?” I ask coyly.
“This is not the time or place for that.” He puts his arm around my shoulder, “Let’s play the long game. They may willingly give us that information in time.”
I chuckle, “You always know what to say to sway people don’t you, cousin? Alright, I’ll behave. For now.”
As Xander had his arm around me, I look to another corner of the room. There’s another man in a long coat. At that moment he appears to have been speaking into his coat. As I looked around the room, I notice two others just like him, standing at opposite sides of the room.
“Are those your people?” I ask Xander, motioning to the men in long coats.
“No... They aren’t. Odd folks, aren’t they?” Xander says nonchalantly.
Those in long coats stayed at the edges of the building, simply watching. Could they be the RLA or Miro’s soldiers? Even if they are, they’d be unarmed. They couldn’t have gotten past security with weapons. They couldn’t do any harm. ...But they could be scouting out the building. I see one of them speak into their coat again. Whoever they are, they’re contacting someone from outside.
Everyone here is in danger. It’s obvious that security here is light, “Xander, you need to end things, now. We’re not safe.”
“What’re you talking about?” Xander asks in a hushed tone, still concerned with the presentation of his conference.
One of the men in a long coat makes eye contact with me. He turns his mouth to his coat collar and speaks into it. I hear footsteps approaching quickly from behind, one of the men in long coats approaches us. He throws an arcing fist at Xander and knocks him out cold.
The crowd around us gasps, and gunshots ring out from outside the building. I instinctively reach for the pistol that I don’t have. When the man comes for me, I direct a pointed kick at the man’s shin and watch him kneel to his knee.
Another man grabs me from behind. Before he can get a firm grip on me, I threw my elbow into his stomach several times.
More gunshots ring out, this time inside the building. Glass windows shatter. I can see soldiers wearing the green of RLA entering the building, with security lying dead around them. They advance towards Xander and I, guns raised.
They have us. I lift my arms up in surrender. The people around us panic and rush for the exits.
They promptly bind Xander and I with ropes and blindfold us. The ropes bore tightly into my arms and legs. I knew better to resist under the threat of guns, at least for now. One of them throws me over their shoulder and carries me off.
With the blindfold on, I focus on the sounds around me. I can tell as they get outside that they’re being met with resistance. Probably nearby reinforcements. But not enough it seems. They throw me onto some metal surface and leave me there. I hear an engine start up and the surface I’m on rumbles as it moves. I’m in a vehicle.
In the back of the vehicle, I can hear the labored breathing of a woman. Only after listening for a moment, I can tell who it is.
“Korina? Is that you?” I ask.
“Lena? Yes, it’s me!” Korina answers in relief.
I can hear rustling around us, “Who else is in here?”
“It’s me, Belo.” My brother answers.
“I’m here too,” Xander responds as well, sounding defeated.
They only took members of the Veran Royal Family before making their escape. I wriggle my way to Lena, “Help me get this blindfold off,” I say as I make contact with her.
“Yeah, sure.” She puts her hands over my face until finding the back of the blindfold and undoing it. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. I looked around and saw we’re in the back compartment of a military vehicle. No doubt stolen.
“Now get me.” Korina anxiously requests.
One by one, we undid each other’s blindfolds. We try untying each other, but the rope is too tight. Xander has a cut on his lip from the punch he took. He’s a peacekeeper, not a fighter.
There’s a window at the back of the vehicle and I force myself upright so I can look outside. Based on where the sun is in the sky, we must be heading east. In the distance, I can see other vehicles following us. The RLA is being pursued.
“What’re we going to do?” Korina is practically sobbing, devoid of hope.
“We’re going to stay calm. We’ll get out of this.” I tell her.
In time, the car stops. The terrorists circle around to the back of the car. If it was just me, I’d try to do some damage as soon as they get here, but it isn’t just my life at stake. I can’t risk the others.
They open the back compartment, “Damn it, they got their blindfolds off.”
“Put new ones on them.”
Once again, we’re blindfolded, Korina panics as they put hers back on. I’m thrown over someone’s shoulder and carried. In the distance, there are sirens approaching. Help is coming for us.
I’m carried for a while before finally being set down. They pull me to my knees by my hair and tear off my blindfold. I see dozens of RLA soldiers around us, and a sinister looking thin-faced man standing before us, leading them all. It’s Eduardo Santoro.
“Hello, General.” He says in a low voice, paying little mind to the rest of my family. I stare scornfully back at him; this man has caused this country no small amount of grief over the years. He’s responsible for Eugenio’s death, and so many others.
“Are you proud of yourself?” Xander brazenly breaks the silence, “Taking us hostage after we tried to offer peace.”
Santoro slowly turns his attention to Xander. He takes slow, deliberate steps towards him. Korina is shaking as he passes by her. Santoro kicks Xander square in the jaw him and he drops to the ground, “We don’t want the peace you’re offering.”
As I look around the room, we’re in some sort of run-down cafeteria. One I actually recognize. At the conference there was a photo of the Old Equality Zone with a cafeteria just like this one. We’re in the ruins of the original Equality Zone. The previous Emperor at the time decided to leave the ruins of the Zone untouched as a reminder to the country of what happens when the population is left unchecked.
Santoro begins to ramble, “For so long, we thought taking civilian lives might force your government to disband the Population Control Council. But I began to realize that you don’t truly value your civilians. But your Royal family... That’s different. That conference was the perfect opening for us to take you. We even managed to get a hold of the Southern General thanks to it.”
“It won’t make a difference,” I smirk, ” Population Control will persist because it must. The military will come soon and kill every last one of you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Eduardo kneels and looks me in the eyes, “Then you’ll die too.”
I spit in his eye and he reels back. Eduardo pulls his pistol and points it at me, and I chuckle. Our livelihood was his only bargaining chip, it was a bluff. Angry and feeling emasculated, he grabs my head and placed the pistol under my chin.
“Please don’t!” Korina cries out.
“He won’t.” I say calmly.
Eduardo breathed hard through his nostrils before pulling his gun away His breathing calms down and he smiles sinisterly. That smile is creeping me out.
He places the gun against my thigh. There is a loud bang and a puff of smoke erupts from the gun. It feels like my thigh had split in half. I start to scream. I fall over. If my arms weren’t bound behind me, I would be frantically putting pressure on my leg. Korina begins to sob.
“Soldiers, do what you can to stop the bleeding. We want to keep her alive for a while yet.” Santoro commands. “This ends tonight.”