~Chapter Eighteen- The Old Equality Zone~
There is a stirring of people in the region of Rhy. Large numbers of the military’s forces in Rhy are sent to the ruins of the original Equality Zone, including us. General Lena and a few other members of the Veran Royal Family were taken hostage by the RLA during the Equality Zone Conference.
None of us were manned at the conference as security, per Xander Veran’s wishes. He didn’t want to scare potential visitors off with heightened security. And now the RLA had captured him.
I arrive with Ilyana, donning my Survival suit and the name Nirivo. The original Equality Zone is the size of a small city, with a high perimeter wall around it, meant to separate it from the rest of the country. At one end of the zone, it meets the Eastern coast. Apparently, the zone’s ruins were left intact as a reminder of why the PCC is necessary.
There were only a few entrances, all manned by RLA soldiers meant to keep us out. RLA soldiers line the wall on all sides. General Felix Falentine orders the military to surround the Equality Zone. General Victor Veran from the northern regions comes to support the situation. It’s dusk when they fully surround the zone, maintaining some distance between the wall.
“Disband the PCC, or we’ll kill the hostages.” Was the RLA’s message. The same as always.
We have no idea how many RLA soldiers lie in wait within the zone, but our numbers are far greater than anything they could muster. With the RLA losing support over the last few months, I’m sure only the most devout followers of the RLA are inside.
We could storm the Equality Zone and overwhelm them completely, but the Emperor’s orders were to do everything in their power to save the hostages. Aside from disbanding the PCC. If we were to attack, they’d probably kill the hostages before any of us could reach them.
Our forces wait outside the perimeter walls of the Equality Zone for now, awaiting a plan that would save Lena and the others. At the very least, our forces are keeping the RLA from escaping.
We wait for some time around the zone until it becomes the dead of night. Spotlights cut through the darkness. We’re not sure what the General’s plans are. They could be planning to starve out the RLA, but who knows how long that will take? They may have had no plan at all, and were hoping to come up with a way to save them.
Each of the entrances of the Zone used to be registration centers, where they would keep track of who entered and left the Equality Zone and for what reasons. Now several RLA soldiers are manned there. At the one nearest to me, we identify at least 5 guarding the entrance from the inside. If they were to stand outside, they’d practically turn themselves into targets.
I notice just on the left inside the entrance is a passage. If someone was to reach the entrance undetected, they could go through the passage. Maybe get into the Equality Zone.
“I think I can find them,” I tell Ilyana confidently.
“Are you sure?” Ilyana asked, peering through my helmet’s visor at me.
“Only if I went alone. It’ll be easier for me to get around undetected then.” I explain. I continue to explain my idea. If I can get past the entrance guards, I can sneak inside the Equality Zone. From there, I can sneak around the zone and figure out where they’re holding General Lena and the others.
While any other person would go to their superior, and have them ask their superior and so on before moving ahead, Ilyana bypassed all those formalities. Ilyana takes me and marches directly to General Felix and General Victor.
“General Falentine! I’m Sergeant Ilyana Ferzo from Uneva!” She makes her presence known.
Victor is Lena’s older brother. He has the same dark tan that she had. He turns to Ilyana with piercing eyes, looking annoyed that he had been intruded on. Felix is a very old man, the oldest I’ve ever seen. The balding general looks at Ilyana with an amused looked.
“Return to your squad, Sergeant. We’ll have orders for you in time.” Victor dismisses her coldly. He notices me, or rather Nirivo, behind her. It seems to pique his interest.
“Have you something to tell us Sergeant?” Felix asks politely, his arms folded behind him.
“My Corporal here believes that using his Survival suit, he may be able to infiltrate the Zone and find the Royal family members being held there,” Ilyana explains.
Victor raised an eyebrow, “Lena mentioned you before. Are you the one they’ve been calling Nirivo?” Victor asks.
“Yes, I am sir.” I answer formally.
“What’s your real name?” Felix asks.
“Juaquin Neruda, sir.”
“You must think highly of yourself if you think you’re capable of that.” Felix notes, “I appreciate the bravado, but that’s too risky. If you’re discovered, they may kill any number of the hostages.”
Victor interjects, “Not necessarily. Nirivo is known around the country now. If he’s discovered, he may just be taken as another hostage.”
It’s funny, I thought the same thing. If I failed, it wouldn’t necessarily mean Lena or the others would be harmed.
“The risk is too great,” Felix soundly shuts down Victor’s idea, “Thank you for coming to us Sergeant Ferzo and Corporal Neruda, but that isn’t the best plan. Return your squads and await further orders.”
“What is your plan, General?” Ilyana prods further.
Felix frowns, “Don’t push your luck. Return to your squads and await further orders.”
A disappointed Ilyana nods, “Yes, General.”
The Generals’ forces idle around the zone. Ilyana seems annoyed at how they dismissed her. I am too.
A bustling comes from the west. A single black vehicle approaches, but it isn’t a military vehicle. Ilyana and I draw close enough that we can see it. Spotlights were shone on the vehicle as it drew nearer. On the side of it is an insignia of a White Crescent Moon.
The military demands the vehicle turn around, but it continues until it’s almost directly at the outer perimeter of our forces. A black figure steps out of the passenger’s side of the vehicle. A figure with a black helmet and gray visor similar to my own. It’s Miro, holding a switch in his hand with a wire that leads into the vehicle. Guns are trained on Miro, they begin their approach to apprehend him.
Miro speaks with an unnaturally deep voice, “Take another step and I’ll flip this switch and it’ll kill everyone in the vicinity.” The military’s soldiers stop in their tracks, “I need to speak to the General.”
Generals Victor and Felix come forward to meet Miro, maintaining some distance in case he flips the switch. Soldiers crowd around to hear their exchange.
“What do you want?” Victor asks with clear disgust in his voice.
“I want to save your family, Victor Veran.” Miro says, “If you let me into the Equality Zone, I’ll save them. I’ll have Eduardo Santoro release them.”
“Why would you do that?” Victor asks suspiciously.
“Your Equality Zone is misguided and I won’t support it, but it was made with the intent of peace. The RLA was wrong to attack that conference.” Miro says brazenly.
Victor pauses, “One moment,” Victor and Felix step away for a moment and whisper to one another. Miro patiently waits, finger ready to flip the switch.
Felix and Victor returned together, “We’ll grant you passage into the Equality Zone.”
Our forces created an opening in our perimeter as a path for Miro’s vehicle to pass through. Miro tentatively re-enters his vehicle, and it drives through the military up to the Equality Zone’s entrance without being harmed. Why would they let them through? After just a little thought, it becomes obvious. The RLA is trapped inside the Equality Zone, now so is Miro.
The vehicle stops at the entrance. Miro and his accomplices steps out of the vehicle and speaks with the RLA soldiers manning the entrance, and they allow them into the zone.
Ilyana taps me, “Now’s your chance, Juaquin.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, completely clueless.
“The RLA is distracted by Miro right now. It’s the perfect time to get inside the zone.” Ilyana says. She never ceases to surprise me. I surprised myself when I nod to go along with it. I’m tired of sitting idly while the Generals come up with a plan. If I’m able to find Lena and the others, it would allow the General’s forces to attack and this will all be over. I don’t want Ilyana getting in trouble for this, so I plan to take the blame.
I put a silencer on my pistol; I’m sure at some point it’ll be necessary. As soon as eyes are off me, I head towards the zone and disappear into the dark towards one of the entrances. I reach the perimeter wall, and it doesn’t look like the RLA’s scouts saw me.
I sidle against the wall until I’m close to the entrance. I’m able to see a passage on the left just as you get through the entrance. The RLA’s guards aren’t manned outside, that would turn them into easy targets for the military, so they wait inside. Thanks to Miro entering the zone, I don’t need to engage the RLA guards inside, their attention is on him.
I rush inside and head for the unguarded passage on the left. They’re so fixated on Miro that they don’t notice me pass behind them. The passage leads to an upstairs area.
It looked like it used to be living quarters for the staff that once worked here. There’s a window that looks out into the zone. I see a small town that had seen better days. Complexes meant to house its residents that had caved in, shattered glass outside of every building. In the distance I see an overturned tram car. The final days of this place must’ve been terrible.
I slide the window open and look down. It’s a decent drop, but nothing I haven’t dealt with before. Back when I was a kid, I used the jump off our roof and onto the beach all the time. This is only a little bit higher than that. I look around outside to make sure no one would see me. I take a few steps back and jump out of the window, tucking myself into a roll when I hit the ground. I carry my momentum forward into a run and hide myself in the nearest dilapidated building. No one seems to have any idea I’m here. So far so good.
Miro’s vehicle travels the roads of the Equality Zone, and I follow using the the many buildings as cover. If they’re leading him to Eduardo Santoro, there’s a chance General Lena and the others will be there too. I’d have to figure out how to get them out of harm’s way once I’m there. One step at a time.
Miro’s vehicle stops at a building designated as a cafeteria at its front. The entrance had fallen apart and could be walked directly into. Miro and three others step out of his vehicle, and they’re directed inside by the RLA’s forces.
Most of the RLA soldiers seem to be stationed at the perimeter wall of the Equality Zone, but many were concentrated here as well. It’ll be difficult to get inside. I circle the building for some sort of opening and notice a ladder to the roof of the building, unguarded. I tread carefully to it and climb it hastily.
On the roof is a cracked sky window. I peer down through it and see an assembly of RLA soldiers. A sinister looking man with slicked back hair stands before them all. It’s Eduardo Santoro, the man who had crippled my dad and leads the Rhiveran Liberation Army.
They have no idea I’m up here. If I shot carefully, I could kill him right now. But I know better, I’ll be killed right along with the royal family if I do that. I need to find them first. But I don’t see any sign of them.
Miro is brought into the room.
“Miro! We finally meet!” Santoro bellows bombastically, “I hear you finally intend to join me.”
“That would be correct. Your scheme here today was very impressive.” Miro says calmly. Die he lie?
“Thank you.” Santoro answers proudly. The sight of him disgusts me.
Miro surveys the room, “Where are the royal family members?”
“I’m holding them elsewhere.” Santoro answers.
“They’re still alive?” Miro asks, remaining calm, almost tranquil.
“Yes. For now, they are.” Santoro smirks.
Miro turns his head towards the sky window. I step back quickly for fear of being sighted. When I peer through the window again, his gaze is still in my direction... Damn it, did he see me?
Miro turns back to Santoro and says loudly, “Well, I’d prefer to know where the royal family is, even if it meant having to look around for them myself. But I know not to question the Great Santoro.”
Santoro smirks at the praise Miro had given him, “I’m glad you understand your place now Miro.” Santoro responds.
Miro glances to the sky window again, and back to Santoro. He definitely saw me, but why didn’t he say anything?
“I’d like to discuss a few things with you Santoro, about the future of this country under your rule.”
Santoro seemed surprised, “My rule?”
“Yes, is that not your plan after we’ve destroyed the PCC? To rule all of Rhivera? I have ideas on how to carry that out after today, if you’ll indulge me.” Miro says. From the tone in his voice, I can tell he’s lying.
Is Miro distracting him? I don’t know what his intentions are, but I’m not about to waste the opening he’s giving me. Maybe he’s allowing me the chance to find Lena and the other royal family members.
The royal family isn’t at the cafeteria, and they surely wouldn’t be holding them at the perimeter wall. Wherever they were holding would have to be guarded fairly well. I take a sweeping view of the Equality Zone and looked for any concentration of soldiers. Then I spot a small building close to the coast with an unusual number of soldiers. Not too many, but enough to arouse suspicion. I make my way towards it.
As I approach, I realized it’s an old storage building. I draw as close as I can without being seen. There are two standing at the only entrance. A third comes from inside, “The General just woke up. She’s all pale though.” The soldier says in a cavalier way.
“Do you think she’ll make it?” Another asks.
“Even if she doesn’t, we still have three more hostages. Santoro will be angry though.”
This has to be where they’re being held.
We’re far enough from the rest of the RLA soldiers that I might be able to afford to force my way in. I’m sure there are more soldiers inside though. I quietly put a suppressor on my pistol and take aim. I let Ilyana know over the radio where it looks like they’re being held before I make my move.
I fire twice while sprinting towards them. Two fall lifelessly to the ground and I tackle the third before he can fire his gun. He throws a punch after I tear his gun away from him, but I can hardly feel it thanks to the Survival Suit. I placed the pistol to his head and fired. Fortunately, my gun with the suppressor didn’t make too much noise.
I hastily head inside. There’s a diagram of the building at the entrance, it has several basement floors so I search for the stairwell. Just as I find the stairwell’s door, it opens out towards me. A few RLA soldiers are coming through and I don’t hesitate to fire on them. One falls to the floor and the others fire back, the boom of their guns echoing through the building to outside. Everyone must’ve heard that.
There’s no more time for covertness; I sheath my pistol and switch to my assault rifle. When they realize their gunfire isn’t phasing me, they retreat into the stairwell and close the door behind them.
I kick the stairwell door open, step through, and am met with a volley of bullets at close range. When I step in further, someone grabs me from behind. Another grabbed my gun and tears it from me. I slash my dagger at one of them, causing them to reel back before trying to grapple and subdue me. Two of them grab me and began to lift me off the ground, bringing me towards the stair rail.
I struggle to get out of their grip but they have me. They force me over the stair’s rail and push. I’m unable to grab anything and I fall. For a few seconds, I’m freefalling, completely helpless. I strike the basement’s final floor, feeling a tremor through my whole body.
I can’t feel my arm, and it feels like something is broken. Everything hurts. I can barely move.
From above, I can hear one of them ask, “Is he dead?”
The RLA soldiers make their way down the stairwell, contacting someone over their radio, telling them that they had killed Nirivo. I kept my body as motionless as possible. It wasn’t hard to do; the last thing I want to do right now is move. I leave my hand resting over my pistol’s sheath.
They circle my body. one of them kneels down and reaches for my helmet. I unsheath my pistol and fire incessantly at them. I don’t stop until I’m sure every single one of them is dead. The gun is emptied of ammunition, and their bodies lay on the ground around me.
I just lie there for awhile; I’m not sure for how long. But I still have a mission. As much as I’d like to stop now, I can’t.
I roll myself over, get my arms under me, and push up with everything I have. One arm ends up doing most of the work as the other hurts to strain. I realize my hip and shoulder hurt pretty badly too. I crawl to the nearest wall and use it as support to get to my feet. Cautiously, I distance myself from the wall and stand on my own.
I look up at the top of the stairwell. Looks like I fell three stories down. The Survival Suit protected me from some of the impact, I might have died if I wasn’t wearing it. I limp to one of the dead RLA soldiers and pick one of their rifles off of them.
Suddenly, I hear gunfire coming from above ground, and it doesn’t cease. Did the military finally make its move? I trudge through the bottom floor of the building. More RLA soldiers come forth, and I gun them down before any can reach me.
I find a room with storage boxes scattered all across the floor. An RLA soldier comes out holding a woman in front of them, Korina Veran. She looks absolutely terrified. I drop my rifle and instead grab my pistol.
“Take another step forward and I’ll kill her!” The soldier shouts, unintentionally exposing their face. That’s all I need. I fire a single bullet at the face of the soldier and they drop to the floor. Korina screams and falls to the floor.
“It’s okay, I’m here to save you.” I say weakly, “Is everyone else here?”
“Yes, yes we’re here,” Korina says. They were all tied up in a small storage cabinet. Xander, Belo, Korina and Lena are all accounted for. General Lena looks pale and has a bloody bandage over one of her thighs.
As I cut their ties I ask, “What happened to you, General?”
“Santoro,” She replies softly, “He shot me in the leg.”
He tried to cripple her, just like with my dad. I pull out my radio, “Ilyana, I’ve found them. We’re in a storage building near the coast.”
There’s no response. I repeat my message several times, but there’s still no response. Maybe something about being this deep underground interfered with the signal. I don’t have the strength in me to climb all those stairs and call her, and even if I did, it’d be unwise to leave the royal family alone. Gunfire continues to rage above.
“I’ll guard all of you until reinforcements arrive.” I say weakly. I pick guns off of the dead RLA soldiers and hand them to Xander, Belo, and Korina. They stare at them as if they’re truly alien. None of them ever used a rifle before, and Lena was in no condition to help.
There are storage cabinets around the room. They could serve well as a barrier. But I’m not sure if I can move them around in my condition.
“Can some of you push some cabinets near the door? I want to create a barricade.” I ask them. As I say it, I realize how strange it is that I’m giving orders to members to the royal family. Despite that, they obliged. Xander and Belo start to build up a barricade to the room we’re in.
“Thank you so much for what you’ve done today.” Xander says sincerely.
“You can thank me once we’ve gotten out of here.” I say with a smile. As I smile, I realize with my helmet on there’s no way he’d see it. It’s a little funny.
With a decent barricade built, all we can do is wait. We all line up with the barricade in sight, ready to fire if the RLA returns. The fighting above ground starts to calm down. Hopefully that’s a good sign.
“Are you hurt?” Xander asks.
“A little bit,” I downplay it. My arm still aches terribly. I let that arm hang limp to the ground.
We hear footsteps coming down the stairwell. I steady my rifle arm at the barricade, and the others nervously aim theirs.
Then a black-cloaked figure with an ebony helmet comes into view through the barricade. It’s Miro, followed by several others. They began to push the barricade out of the way.
“Fire now!” I yell, and at my command we all fire through the barricade at Miro. Korina nearly drops her rifle as the first of the bullets emerge from the gun.
“Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” Miro’s unnaturally deep voice hollers, motioning those behind him away. We stop firing as they pull away, “We’re not here to fight. I’d like to speak with the royal family.”
“What for?” Xander asks, surprisingly trustingly.
“There is something I’d like to present you.” Miro answers cryptically.
Xander looks at me, seeming to hope I’d know what to do.
I summon all the strength in my voice that I can, “You won’t hurt any of us?”
“No.” Miro answers simply.
Miro let me go earlier. He let me save everyone. For some reason, I trust his word right now.
“Do you want to let them in?” I ask Xander.
“I want to hear what they have to say.” Xander nods. Belo and Korina look nervously at him, “Come in Miro!”
Miro and several other soldiers in black push aside the barricade and enter. There are far more than he came into the zone with. One of Miro’s soldiers has a body in an RLA uniform slumped over their shoulder. That soldier casts the body to the floor in front of us. The body’s face is disfigured from a bullet that passed through its skull, but it’s still clear who it is. It’s Eduardo Santoro’s lifeless body.
“You killed him.” I ask in disbelief as I look at his corpse, “Why?”
“My revolution never supported the RLA’s methods. Their tactic of killing innocent civilians is disgusting. As was their attack on the Equality Zone Conference. Though, we will not support the Equality Zone. Miro’s revolution will not rest until Population Control is destroyed completely. We want what’s best for this country.” Miro explains, conviction in his voice.
Xander nods but says, “I understand, but Population Control is what is best for this country.”
“Then we’ll continue to struggle against each other in the future.” Miro says solemnly. Miro turns his attention to General Lena and sees her terrible condition, “What happened to her?”
“Santoro crippled her.” I tell them.
Miro stands in silence for a moment, “Population Control will take her life in a few days if you bring her back. But I can save her. She can live with my people.” Miro offers.
“Not a chance.” Lena answers without hesitation.
“Don’t you understand? You’ll be killed!” Miro tries to convince her.
“Yes. And that’s for the best. I won’t be able to carry on my work like this and if I lived, I’d need someone to care for me for the rest of my life. I don’t want to live like that.” Lena says with conviction in her voice. She has the same look of acceptance on her face that dad did leading up to his death.
Miro stares at Lena and sighs, “Very well.” Miro turns his back to us and his forces began to exit the room.
“You saw me back at the cafeteria? You were trying to tell me to look the royal family, weren’t you?” I ask before he can leave the room.
Miro chuckles, “I’m glad you caught that, Nirivo. I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again soon.”
With that, Miro leaves us.
Within the Equality Zone, a single underground tunnel was discovered. After I found the royal family members, Miro ordered his forces to enter the Equality Zone through that tunnel and they engaged the RLA’s forces, overwhelming them and eliminating them entirely. It seemed that Miro planned to attack as soon as the royal family members were safe. By the time the Military entered the Equality Zone, all of Miro’s forces escaped through that underground tunnel and collapsed it behind them.
After the country heard of Miro’s exploits on that day, support for Miro grew immensely, and support of the Equality Zone diminished. Xander canceled all plans for the new Equality Zone. With Eduardo Santoro dead, the Rhiveran Liberation Army was all but defeated.
I was told that my injuries would heal up, I just needed some time to heal. Lena was treated by doctors who did all they could to help her, but it wasn’t enough. She could live, but she wouldn’t be able to properly walk ever again. The Population Control Council waited for the Emperor’s decision.
A few days later, Population Control took General Lena Veran’s life. A large funeral was held for her on that day. Raul Rios took her place as General of the Southern regions of Uneva, Sotra, and Joldair.